Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Bloodhounds and Lost Horses

(Or should I say, lost causes!)

Most people would assume that a visit to their parents house in the countryside would be little more than lovely food, great conversation, long walks and peace and quiet. It is never quite guaranteed at my parents for the simple reason that my Mother always seems to have a surprise in store or a plan hatched.

I was aware that I was going down for my nephews 18th birthday lunch and then a trip, en famille, to see the new James Bond film, Skyfall. The birthday lunch was wonderful and the film was superb (best Bond film ever? Just possibly. Best villain ever? Most definitely. Javier Bardem is fabulous!) but I digress, the day was lovely and without dramatics. 
On Sunday, however, it began with a rotten egg, quite literally. My Father very kindly offered to bring me breakfast in bed (princess moi?) of boiled eggs and toast. Lovely... until I whipped the top off the egg and was greeted by a green gunge and an odour I can only describe as pungently vile, filling the room in a matter of seconds. My Mother then announced the plan for the day... going to watch a pack of bloodhounds chase someone across a field, for fun...  but that we would be back in time for lunch. Well thats okay then! I didn't ask too many details but gathered from scant information that it was a hunt with human instead of a fox. Crikey, sounds perfectly medieval!

Since fox hunting was banned in 2004, the county hunts have carried on the sport without killing anything at the end. Which is nice. It began with drag hunting, where a trail would be laid using a scent laden cloth, across several miles of fields, woods and streams. The riders and hounds would gather, sherry would be drunk, hunting horn blown and off they would all go. Such fun. Of course, there was nothing at the end apart from more sherry, a packed lunch and some Pedigree Chum for the dogs. Much better than a poor little fox but hardly thrilling. Now it seems, the hunts have come up with something a bit more exciting. 
We turned up to the start location, not really sure what to expect. There were two dozen horses, a dozen or so bloodhounds, the master of the hunt in his smart red coat... and a slightly nervous looking woman in shorts, a neon vest and running shoes. Most peculiar. I started talking to a man standing next to me and asked about the runner. "This is her first time" he said nonchalantly. He then explained that he had been the runner a few times too and how it really got the adrenalin pumping. I'm not surprised... being chased by a pack of dogs across the countryside would make my heart beat a little faster too. This man had become involved in the sport when he had been cornered at a drinks party. He had been talking about his hobby of cross country and fell running and his host suddenly looked delighted and sped off to fetch another guest. The other guest asked him if he was fit enough to run across country for 16 miles. He would, of course, be given a 20 minute head start before a pack of bloodhounds would be released. "Oh my God" I said, "it must be terrifying". He laughed and said "well it certainly makes you run a little faster, especially when you hear the baying of the hounds getting louder and louder as they gain on you." I was aghast. "So what happens when they catch you?" Imagining the poor man beset upon by drooling, blood-thirsty beasts, wanting to rip him to shreds. "It's a bit disappointing really. Most of them ignore you, the rest of them try and lick you to death." Aaah, how sweet... and just as I was thinking how adorable the bloodhounds were, one of them tried to mount me. I pushed it down and it made do with thrusting against my arm. Not so cute after all.

A few minutes later the hounds and riders took off. We followed in the car for a few miles and as they disappeared over another hill we went home for lunch, knowing that an hour or so later they would be coming through my parents village. We had lunch and were just settling down to read the papers when I heard the sound of hooves outside. I leapt up and cried out "horse"! My mother followed and we both shot out into the road. This is where things turned a little odd.

We both looked up and down the lane and saw nothing. I had definitely heard hooves but there were no horses, no dogs and definitely no runner. My mother started walking towards the end of the lane saying "I'm just going to see if they went down here." She turned the corner and disappeared. A moment later, I heard her voice along with another persons. I waited about 5 minutes but it was freezing - we had both hurried out of the house so fast we had forgotten our coats - so I went back inside, thinking my Mother would be right behind me. I said to Dad, "It's really weird, there were no horses and Mums gone missing but don't worry, I think she is talking to one of the neighbours." Being the kind of thing she does, we weren't worried. But ten minutes later and still no sign of her, my Father and I were thinking it was a bit peculiar. My Father then said, "I saw something a bit strange when you were outside... a big white flash went past the hedge in the back garden." Oh dear. "What do you mean? What was it?" I said. My father leaned back in his chair and frowned, "I think it was a big white horse." Oh dear. Senility really is upon us.  "Daddy, are you sure? A horse, running behind the hedge?" He laughed. "Well, it was either a big white horse or a very tall large person wearing white flowing robes and running really fast." Okay, I know Halloween is almost upon us but this is getting ridiculous. Ignoring his weird sighting, we decided I should go and find Mother, taking her coat with me. I donned my coat and boots again and went out into the cold, dark autumnal afternoon. Shouting "Mummy" every few seconds, I wandered off around the village. I came across a man with a leaf blower. "Have you seen my Mother? She came this way about 15 minutes ago wearing a hat?" (I forgot to mention that. She didn't have her coat but she had remembered her stupid 'outback' hat!) He nodded and pointed back in the direction of my parents house. "Are you sure she went that way?" I asked perplexed. "Yup" he said and turned the leaf blower back on. I went to the end of our long lane and looked up. Nothing, totally deserted. I saw another neighbour in his garden. I'm not sure he recognised me because when I shouted, "Have you seen my Mother... she's gone walkabout... she's wearing a hat." He looked a bit scared and sort of nodded at me, not making eye contact. On reflection, saying that to a stranger must have sounded odd, as if my Mother had recently escaped, wearing only a hat! I carried on up the lane and spotted three women coming in my direction. They shouted out "Are you looking for a loose horse?" What? "No" I shouted back, "I'm looking for a loose woman." And laughed a bit manically. "Ok, that sounds a bit weird. I mean I'm looking for my Mother. She's around here somewhere. She's wearing a hat." They looked at each other. "Oh you mean Anne?" Now I have to add another little aside here. My Mother has a habit of  introducing herself to everyone. We will be anywhere where there are other people and she will break away from our family group like a silent ninja and we will hear the words, "Hello, I'm Anne." So for three complete strangers to know my Mothers' name was not unusual in the slightest. "I think she's in someone's garden looking for the bloodhounds." The taller woman said. "She's also looking for our horse." The smaller one said. The middle one remained silent, staring at me without blinking. They were like the female rural Marx brothers. I thanked them and carried on walking, holding on to Mothers coat like Frodo with his ring. I was determined to find her. I shouted her name a bit more, peering into neighbours gardens and walked to the end of the lane and back. Nothing. No horses, no hounds, no runner and even more annoyingly, no Mother! I was getting cold and a bit fed up so I started to walk home.

I passed 'Toms Wood' which backs onto our house and then had a brainwave. Dad could very possibly have seen the escaped white horse everyone was looking for and it may very well have galloped into the wood behind our house. So I ventured in. Windy and dark it dawned on me how ironic it would be if I went out looking for my Mother and then I went missing myself. I laughed as I imagined falling down a badger hole and lying there as everyone came looking for me. Just as that thought formed in my head as a vivid picture, I got my foot tangled in an old fence and went flying head first into the leafy floor. Ouch. I lay there trying to figure out if I had twisted or broken anything and then I heard a distant cry. Not a bird, not a animal, my Mother. I got the complete giggles as I heard my Mother calling "Oooohweeee, Darling?", "Oooowooo, Doodles?". I got up, brushed the leaves off and limped out of the woods. My Mother didn't look at all surprised to see me limping or coming out of the woods but was totally incredulous as I explained it was all her fault for going missing in the first place.

Of course, her explanation for her movements was perfectly normal. She had gone to find the hounds and bumped into a neighbour who had seen the hounds but only heard the missing horse. They then met two other neighbours who had both seen and heard the missing horse but not seen the hounds. Three horsey women then approached and my Mother introduced herself. The horsey women knew the missing horse and were also looking for it. None of the above had seen the poor runner. My Mother and the neighbours decided to track the missing horse. They followed the hoof prints (yes, she is now officially Tonto), with the help of some local children (Famous Five), climbed through woods and muddy fields and with no luck and no horse, they came home. All with no coat. Perfectly normal.

They say daughters eventually turn into their Mothers... God help me!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tough Times

There are times in our lives when everything terrible seems to happen at once. When you are afraid to check your emails or answer the phone in case there is more bad news. The last few months and weeks have proved to be just that and my heart goes out to all my friends and family who are going through really tough times. Life changing accidents, debilitating illness, losing a family member or going through a break up can all be utterly devastating and I hope this period of sadness can be over soon and we can all find strength from those around us and find some brightness for the future. 

Stress from upset manifests in different ways for each of us. My emotions, thankfully, usually come out in tears and conversation but they sometimes bypass my brain and heart and lock solid in my body. It's a way of coping I suppose... pushing the tears below the surface and putting on a brave face until you can privately grieve or let bad news gradually sink in. When it does happen physically, each piece of bad news seems to form a giant knot in my back or send a muscle into spasm. I end up walking around rigid with pain, hot water bottle stuffed down the back of my trousers and pain killers administered on tap. It's not a great way to deal with it but sometimes there is no other way. 

After three quite horrendous weeks, each part of my body seemed to have a problem... my lower back spasmed in sympathy for my stiff shoulder, my neck locked up in compensation for my sciatica, and my knees and ankles cracked in bereavement for my hips. I started to resemble a limping hunchback, walking around with cries of 'oohs' and 'aahs' with every step. I realised that if I didn't sort it out soon, I might cause permanent damage! A hasty call to my osteopath proved a quite unusual visit. 

Torben, my wonderful Danish osteopath came to this country about 12 years ago with only a handful of clients and a dingy treatment room in east London. I found him simply by walking past his practice one day and spotting a terribly designed, badly spelt poster outside the door, advertising his services. I had been having awful neck pain for some weeks so I ignored the diabolical typography (I'm a designer!) and walked in. Torben looked thrilled to have a new client. He had been very successful in Copenhagen for his skills over the years but starting again in a new country was proving quite challenging. He promised me, on the spot, that as long as I was a client, I would pay the same price for each visit. 12 years later and he has stuck to his word, even though his waiting room now resembles an actors 'green room' combined with an athletes gym. His office displays photos of himself with Usain Bolt and members of team GB. In another, he is beaming at the camera with his arms around Dustin Hoffman and other esteemed actors. But to this day, he still only charges me £35 and will fit me in to his busy schedule whenever I ring. That is loyalty for you. 

Torben truly has magic hands and a very physically robust approach, thinking nothing of clambering onto your half-naked body and putting you in a series of headlocks and leg holds the WWF would be envious of. He also has a very off-putting room... in the middle, a treatment table. Normal. A wall covered in charts and diagrams depicting the human body, bones and muscles. Again, normal. A mass of paperwork and books on a messy desk. Normal. A giant floor to ceiling window made of one-way glass. Not normal. Passersby see a mirror, often stopping to readjust their hair or straighten their jacket whilst you cringe with embarrassment in your bra and knickers, thinking they can see you. It's been 12 years and I still want to leap off the table and hide when someone stops. Torben, with his crazy Danish ways, thinks it's hilarious of course.

So this particular visit was unusual because Torben literally didn't know where to start. The neck, the shoulder, the upper back, the lower back, the sciatic pain running from my buttocks to my knees, the excruciating headache... he shook his head and said "You are a mess". No kidding Sherlock. He then leapt on me, pulling and twisting, cracking and massaging until I could bear it no more. He looked at me, eyes wincing with pain, patted me and grinned, rubbing his hands together like some manic inventor. "Do you trust me?" he asked, "I want to experiment on you." Now just as an aside, the last time he said this to me, a few years ago, he did some weird gymnastic manoeuvre and I passed out cold. "Torben, I'm not sure... what are you going to do to me?". I frowned. "Juliet, trust me, you are my human guinea pig. It's good. I will get rid of your headache". Oh God. He disappeared from the room and came back with a big metal suitcase which he lay gently on the floor and opened it with a look of awe, as if it contained 100 gold bars. 

Inside the case were a few dozen wires attached to a small box, lots of dials, a few buttons and some small, round, plastic pads. "Okay," he paused, taking out an instruction book and squinting at the pages, "we start with some small electric shocks". WHAT? It doesn't fill you with a huge amount of confidence when the word 'electric' is used and an instruction book is introduced into the picture. Imagine your Doctor examining you and saying "Ooh, not sure what that is, let me just look it up on the internet!" No, not good at all. "Torben... can I ask when you learnt how to use this machine?" He looked up from the book, "About 3 weeks ago, but you are the first person to let me use it!" and he looked at me with such gratitude, I couldn't resist. A few minutes later I was lying on the table with 5 electrodes attached to my face and head. Torben squatted down by the machine fiddling with the dials. I clenched my fists waiting for a jolt of electricity to pass through my brain... I held my breath. 30 seconds later I exhaled loudly and said "For Gods sake Torben, when are you going to do it?". Torben stood up. "I finish now", he said. "But I didn't feel anything" I moaned. Honestly I was quite disappointed. He explained that they were only tiny electric currents that pulsed so quickly it was very doubtful I would feel it. He sat me up and asked me if my headache had gone. I blinked a few times and tried to focus on my head. No pain. Bloody amazing. Gone. I hugged him, paid and left, buyount and headache-less, waving into the mirrored window as I passed, knowing full well the next client would have leapt off the table in fright. 

A week later, my headache had crept back and my bad back was still troubling me. I had a long think about what would make me feel better and decided I need a massage. A good old fashioned full body massage. That would certainly help my aches and pains. I googled 'massage in Balham', and suddenly realised that was not the best thing to do when all sorts of 'ladies' popped up advertising their particular brand of 'special' massage. I then remembered the amazing Ayurvedic massages I had in India and Sri Lanka and so I googled that instead. Up came the website of this Indian girl who had just finished studying Ayurvedic medicine in Kerala, South India. Brilliant. I rang her up and she explained that unfortunately her treatment room was not set up yet. I must have let out the biggest disappointed sigh because she then offered to do the massage in my flat. Even better. Yay.

An hour later Sonal arrived... a tiny little Indian girl with a huge bag of oils, candles, stones and towels. I cleared a space in my sitting room and put a yoga mat and some towels down on my wooden floor. She lit some candles and began asking me questions. "How do you sleep?", "How is your diet?", "Are you stressed?" etc. She then went a bit left-field and asked me what star sign I was. I laughed and said I didn't think horoscopes was particularly Ayurvedic and she looked at me quite seriously and said, "I like to mix it up a bit". Okay. She then heated some oils, lit a few more candles and began pummelling my body. I had asked her for an hours massage and so I drifted off quite blissfully, happy in the knowledge she would just stop when the time was up. I became a little concerned when I noticed it was getting dark outside. Had I drifted off? I tried to rouse myself into consciousness and said "Sonal, what time is it?". "6;30" she said casually. I closed my heavy eyes and then sprang awake as I calculated she had been in my flat for over two and a half hours! Oh my God. "Sonal, you've been here too long. Oh no. Why didn't you stop?" She looked at me quite matter-of-factly. "Because you needed more time. Don't worry, no extra charge. I just wanted to fix you." Wow. I thought of that Coldplay song and nearly burst into tears. 

I sat up and slowly looked around my flat. It looked like a cookery demo gone wrong. My floor was slick with oil. There were sodden towels everywhere and stubs of candles and wax pooled on every surface. Oh dear. Sonal began clearing away her things completely oblivious to the mess. Never mind the chaos, it was amazing. One of the best massages I have ever had. I did pay her extra, how could I not, but as she was leaving she went off on another bizarre tangent. "You are Cancer and another client of mine is Scorpio... both water signs. The perfect match in fact. Can I give him your number?" I laughed. "Are you a matchmaker too Sonal? Do I have to pay extra for that?" She smiled and just nodded. "I know you will like him. He is a carpenter. Very good with his hands. You are the kind of woman who needs a man who knows what to do with his hands." Um... Cough... embarrassing.

So after electric shock treatment and an afternoon of Ayurvedic delight, I may also have a date! Maybe it's not all bad news.