Wednesday, 16 December 2015


‘Juliet, I would like you to leave your crutches by the chair, get up and pretend you are walking down a long catwalk, one foot in front of the other.’ My physiotherapist smiled at me as I stared back at her open-mouthed. I hadn’t walked without crutches before, apart from a few stumbling steps going from the bedroom to the bathroom, so the thought of walking unaided and channeling my inner model at the same time, was challenging. I put my crutches down and attempted a few steps. I looked at her and raised my eyebrows. ‘You look like you’ve just come off a boat,’ she said, ‘You’re swaying a bit side to side, and you need to bend your legs,’ she added. Then I said something very inappropriate. ‘Do I look like Oscar Pistorius?’ I laughed. My mother and my physiotherapist did not laugh. Okay then.

I have found that blaming hardcore painkillers for inappropriate remarks usually works. It did in hospital when I repeatedly said how attractive one of my surgeons was... to his face. I have said some pretty bizarre things over the last few weeks and told people things I probably shouldn’t have, but there is a freedom to it that is quite refreshing. Only when you come down from the drugs a few hours later and remember what you have said, does the embarrassment and humiliation soar through you. Also, as I am now 5 weeks post surgery and am down to only 2 horse-strength painkillers a day, I can hardly blame the drugs for everything that comes out of my mouth can I? Shame.

So, it is week 5 and I am doing 2 hours of physio a day plus one intense physio session a week with the therapist. I have gone from having no muscle memory at all, to a fairly functioning leg. But my God, the first few weeks were tough. My delightful surgeon had to cut through all the muscles and nerves in my thigh to insert the titanium and plastic implants, so for almost 3 weeks I couldn’t make my leg move. My spine was actually blocking the messages from my brain to my quadriceps, in order to protect it from the agony it knew moving it would cause. Clever spine. But staring at your temporarily paralysed leg, day after day, willing it to do something, is completely weird, intensely frustrating but also quite fascinating. Then one morning, having done nothing different from the day before, I woke up and managed to lift my foot off the bed. It was amazing. 5 weeks later, I can lift my leg, bend it, and I can put weight on it. After today’s physio session I can also, sort of, walk unaided. Kate Moss I am not but I’m getting there.

The most difficult thing to deal with, after any surgery or long term rehabilitation, is how to fill your day. Luckily I’ve been able to stay with my parent’s for the 8 weeks necessary, so I have a lovely house to stay in, with my very generous if not slightly eccentric mother and father. They fascinate me and have kept me amused and bemused in equal measure. You might not be aware of your parent’s peculiarities because you may only see them occasionally, over a weekend or on holidays or birthdays, but let me tell you, living with your parents for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and unable to escape the house because you physically can’t walk, that is when you see your parents and all their strange ways, clearly and in technicolour!

Actually, my father isn’t really eccentric, he is more just a man of habit. It’s his habits, however, that are slightly odd. Things in the house are run on a fairly tight schedule. When I had knee surgery last year, breakfast was served between 8:15 and 8:30am. If you missed the time slot... tough! This year, everything is far more relaxed and breakfast is now between 8:45 and 9:15! As I haven’t been able to walk or indeed move very much at all, I have been getting breakfast brought to me in bed, something that I have already got very used to and must wean myself off rather smartish, in order to return to the real world and not have to resort to getting myself a maid! But if I’m being really honest, breakfast in bed is something that I do when I’m on my own anyway... I get up, I shower, I make breakfast and then I take it back to bed and eat it. It is something that people find very very odd indeed, so much so, that an old boyfriend rang in to a morning radio show entitled, “What does your partner do that’s strange?” and told them about me having breakfast in bed. ‘You mean on special occasions?’ they asked. ‘Nope, she has breakfast in bed, on her own, every single day,’ he replied. ‘Ooooooh,’ they chorused, as if I was suddenly the Queen of Sheba!

Anyway, I digress. So my father likes things to be the way he wants them to be when I am living in his house. Lunch is a proper sit down affair and is always two courses. Usually a cooked main with pudding or cheese and biscuits to follow. Very civilised, very delicious. But with this in mind, I quickly realised that if I wasn’t careful, lying or sitting in bed for hours on end with no exercise would result in me putting on ridiculous amounts of weight and I would have to be airlifted from the house by the fire brigade in a fairly short amount of time, so I needed to reduce my calorie intake sharpish. I made my mother promise to give me nothing too fattening or too starchy and to pile my plate with vegetables and protein rather than anything bad, and I have refused every pudding offered to me. I have subsequently lost half a stone in 4 weeks and am thinking of setting up a weight loss clinic here, with mum in charge, because she’s done wonders! I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in 6 weeks, have had no sneaky puffs of cigarettes, and am doing such hardcore core-strengthening exercises that I am stronger than I’ve ever been. I even thought I caught sight of an abdominal muscle the other day and nearly fell off the bed in shock!

With my new nun-like status and bionic limb I’m feeling rather good and wonder just how long I can keep up my abstaining ways, once I get off crutches, go back to work and start socialising properly again. A friend visited from London last weekend and I decided to order half a pint of bitter with my Sunday Roast to see what would happen... would I keel over, would my body go into shock, would I suddenly start misbehaving and humiliate myself in the local hostelry?? No. I got a bit giggly but nothing more. I was quite disappointed. I think he was too!

So back to my father... as well as mealtimes being to schedule, so are the rest of the day’s events. He goes shopping or pays a visit to the library (yes they still have libraries in this part of the country!) almost every single day. This flummoxed me to start with. Why not just do a big weekly shop and get enough books to last you the week?? It’s all to do with keeping busy I have deduced. While my mother is involved with more activities in a day than most people do in a year, my father has fewer hobbies. He does the Telegraph cryptic crossword every morning (very difficult), loves to build and mend things in his workshop, enjoys meeting his old boys for lunch, likes to chop things down and dig things up in the garden, is an expert at loading the dishwasher (god forbid you decide to put something in yourself and his military exactness is disrupted), he likes to play solitaire on his computer (while pretending to check emails) and he likes to watch rugby, Australian Masterchef, crime dramas, and good films (not too much sex, not too much violence, and definitely no sci-fi) on television. He loves pub lunches, his family, the coast, cars and driving. He tells a good joke, better stories, likes an argument and is never wrong (remember he reads this blog and I’m still staying here)!!! But when you have spent your whole life working, until the age of 72 I hasten to add, some days must have a way of stretching ahead, so going into town with a list of errands every day, makes total sense to me now. Afternoons are spent on yet more errands, looking at and replying to emails (playing solitaire), the occasional doctor’s appointment and then possibly a repeat episode of Midsummer Murders (the good thing about ageing and watching old murder mysteries is that you can’t remember who did it!). Supper is at 7pm sharp. A spot of television follows, news headlines at 10, then bed.

My mother on the other hand makes my (normal) social life look dull. She belongs to 2 book groups (one high-brow, one not so), the WI (Women’s Institute), the Romsey Quilters, the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society... phew!), she goes on group outings to the cinema and theatre, arranges the church flowers and the occasional wedding, hosts coffee mornings, takes classes at the U3A (University of the third age... which sounds very new age-y but is actually just Uni for oldies), practises yoga twice a week, practises pilates once a week, and does more for charity than anyone else I know. It exhausts me just writing it down. It’s more exhausting for my father and I to watch her go hither and thither, disappearing for hours, without us really having the first clue as to which club or organisation she has popped off to. Also, due to her infuriating disinterest in her mobile phone – or rather trying to explain that she did have it with her but she’d turned it off in case it rang at an inopportune time – it is impossible to find out where she has got to. But as well as being out all the time she also has friends that drop in constantly for a chat and a cup of tea. I have had to get used to the friends dropping in, for they literally burst through the front door without waiting for an invitation. I have been in several states of undress, having either finished physio or flopping out of the bath, when I hear the front door open and someone stride down the hall towards my bedroom with a ‘coo-ee, it’s just me!’ I only found out, on my second immobile week, that she had instructed several neighbours to keep an eye on me while she and my father were out of the house. God knows what they thought I was about to get up to with them gone, but the neighbours came. They came, they walked in to my bedroom, they ignored my red cheeks and protestations and they made themselves comfortable in the bedroom armchair, ready for a spot of village gossip (of which there is loads!).

Such is the trustworthiness of my parent’s village that even the postman lets himself in and puts the letters on the chair inside the door rather than through the letterbox! This would be fine if I remembered that this happened. A few days ago, with my parent’s out of the house, I decided to try and get on the exercise bike in the dining room. I was pink as a lobster having just left a steamy bathroom, and was wrapped only in a towel. I hauled myself up onto the bike, caught my towel on the saddle and was half falling off, half saving myself from nudity, when the postman walked through the front door, casually said, ‘Morning,’ in my direction, and was off again. As my mother pointed out later, after a bout of hysterics, he’s probably seen much much worse. Thanks mama!

As well as all of this, my folks have looked after me for the last 5 weeks, fetching and carrying without complaint or question. They have taken me to hospital appointments in London, taken me to physio appointments in Hampshire, taken me to the doctors, the chemists, the cinema, day trips to the sea, out to lunch, and all the while dealing with my very changeable moods (again I blame the painkillers!). They have had to put up with tears (pain and physio), frustration (pain and physio), joy (breakthrough pain and physio) and laughter (mostly at them). I have only two more weeks to go before I am thrust out, like a newborn foal into the equine world, wobbly and unsure of my new life. I’m scared and excited for I know not what to expect. What I do know is that I would not have got to where I am today – healthy, happy and mobile – without the help and encouragement of my amazing friends and family.

My parents are one of a kind. Their oddities make great fodder for my writing but what I hope I have inherited, as well as the eccentricity, is their boundless energy, their huge generosity and their unconditional love. I thank them from the bottom of my heart, or is it the heart of my bottom... I’m not sure, for I still am taking two Tramadol a day and one of them was just now!!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 3 - Hospital.

I suddenly found myself with no fixed abode. My tenants had moved into my London flat and it was pointless renting something in Bath straight away because I was spending the next 8 weeks at my parents’ house post surgery. But the last few months had been so stressful – the sleepless nights, the decorating disasters, the endless lists of things to do – that when it all just stopped, I felt amazingly carefree. The last of my belongings were packed into my car Gigi (aka The Golden Goddess) and I was looking forward to spending time with old friends and having nothing else whatsoever to do. My Kiwi friends had planned a brilliant leaving party, combined with an equally fantastic Rugby World Cup Final (hurrah for the All Blacks!), and so I was not only able to say a huge farewell to them but also see a lot of my other friends. My last three nights were spent with my Godmother and family, a perfect ending to my time in London.

My Godmother also took me into hospital for my 7am check-in a few days later. There were two other people waiting for surgery and just my luck, I was third on the list... 6 hours to wait, nil by mouth! By 1pm I was a bit giddy from lack of food and water but prepped and ready to go, and had been visited by my surgeon, numerous nurses and finally the anaesthesiologist. I asked him if I was eligible for a spinal block and local anaesthetic instead of a full general, which means you are numbed from the waist down and heavily sedated rather than being unconscious, and results in a much speedier recovery and less side effects. The downside is you are only sedated so it is still possible to feel sensation and pressure as they work on you, plus you might be able to hear certain things during surgery. The anaesthesiologist looked at me with horror and said, “Believe me, you do not want to hear this operation, I’m putting you out!”. And when I saw the trays of tools laid out in the operating theatre before I went in, I am definitely glad I didn’t have a choice. There were drills, electric saws, hammers, chisels, honestly it looked more like my father’s workshop than an operating theatre.

There must be a checklist for people training to be anaesthesiologists; easy on the eye, great at small talk and hilariously funny. Maybe it’s because they are the last ones you see before you fall asleep, they want you to be left with nice thoughts and nice images. I’ve been lucky, every single time I have had surgery I’ve gone to sleep laughing, and had the most brilliant dreams. My 3 anaesthesiologists this time did not disappoint either. One blonde and blue-eyed irishman, one dark and blue-eyed englishman and one bearded redheaded green-eyed Welshman. I kid you not, it was the best start to a joke ever! And I swooned. Maybe it was the injection to relax me or the oxygen, but I found myself giggling and twirling my hair as if I was on a blind date or something... ridiculous behaviour. Suddenly one of their beepers went off and he looked at the pager, turned a bit white and ran out of the room. The other two just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, he’s on call for emergencies. He’ll be back in minute, unless they peg it.” Oh joy, gallows humour! He did come back 5 minutes later, apologised and carried on prepping the equipment. The welsh chap told me a joke, while the englishman asked me what my favourite tipple was. I laughed, said Pinot Noir, and that was the last thing I remember.

Just under 4 hours later, I woke up. My surgeon came over, pinched my toe and grinned. He was over the moon because the surgery had been one of his best he said (good to hear), the titanium implants had fit perfectly almost first time round, so there was no lengthy process of cutting and shaping my thigh bone over and over again, the plastic knee cap was also a great fit and he could go home early because it all went rather swimmingly. Spiffing! I was wheeled out of recovery and along to the ward, where I just had time to drowsily look around at my neighbours – who all gave a little wave hello – before I passed out from the effects of the morphine. I woke again a few hours later and was introduced to my fellow patients; Trudy, Irene, Susan, Pat and Nicolette, five wondrous women who made my stay in hospital an absolute joy.

Trudy, Irene and Susan were in their 60’s, Pat was 85, and they all had had full knee replacements. Nicolette was the odd one out, having had some mystery surgery that seemed to have no effect whatsoever on her spirits or mobility. She was about 75, incredibly elegant and was a Chelsea aristocrat. She was the most brilliant name-dropper I’ve ever known and told the most outrageous stories. She had an opinion on everything and everyone, was very demanding of the nurses but also incredibly kind, taking it upon herself to be our legs for the next 5 days. She bustled around the ward in a floor-length purple velvet dressing gown, endlessly asking for cups of tea and biscuits for us, filling ice packs, making sure we did our exercises, filling our water jugs and generally being a good stick! She was also the person responsible for butter-gate!

Zita was in charge of catering. She was a tiny plump Sri Lankan woman with a huge smile and warm hands, always clasping yours in hers, while saying, “Are you all right my darling?” before asking what you would like to eat. The first morning after surgery we were all ravenous and were excitedly talking about scrambled eggs, the possibility of bacon, and lots of tea, toast and marmalade. Zita burst into the room at 7am and asked Irene (who was in the first bed) what she would like to eat? “Bacon and eggs?” Irene ventured. Zita rolled her eyes and said in a very slow, loud and heavily accented voice, “I have the cereal and I have the toast! None of this bacon, none of this eggs... we’re not in the bloody Savoy ladies, and you aren’t being private, so you can have what I bloody well give you. Cereal. Toast. No more!” And she wiped her hands in front of her dramatically. I hooted with laughter and Irene just nodded demurely before a tray was slapped down in front of her, milk slopping over the edge of the cereal bowl. Zita came to my bed next and took my hands in hers, “And you my lovely, what do you want, you hungry?” I couldn’t help myself. “Bacon and eggs please.” Zita threw up her hands and let out a stream of swear words, in both English and Sinhalese, while tugging at her hair net and scowling at me. “I’m only joking Zita,” I said, “I will have whatever you’ve got.’ “Oh you so funny yes?” she said, her smile returning. “Ok what cereal you want?” she asked, bending over her trolley. I then listed all the cereals I could think of, my memory slightly compromised by morphine; Bran Flakes, Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, All Bran? Zita shouted, “No!”. Finally I shrugged and said, “I can’t think of any others, what have you got?” “Only the Weetabix,” she replied straight-faced.

The same thing happened every single morning. Instead of telling us what she had, she would ask what we wanted and the fiasco would begin again. “What toast you want?” “Brown please.” “No, I have only white!” It happened with the spreads too. “What you want on toast?” “Marmite please?” “No!” “ Marmalade?” “No!” “Well what do you have Zita?” “I have only jam!” and some insipid sugary nonsense would be thrown onto your plate. We rebelled one morning when we had been given this heinous oily sunflower spread. We all groaned at the sight of it but Nicolette went one further. She gasped in horror, threw the packets in her bin and chased Zita down the corridor, shouting, “We cannot be expected to eat this dis-gusting slime! We want butter Zita. The ladies want butter!” It was hilarious. Thank goodness the nurses found Nicolette as amusing as us, rather than a pain in the backside. Even Zita came in the next morning with pockets full of contraband foil-wrapped butter, a cheeky grin on her face, making us promise not to tell anyone. “All the patients will be wanting the bloody butter now. Zita spoil you.” And she did. Any extra biscuits or slices of cake would come our way. She even smuggled marmalade down from the private ward! Bless her.

Meal times with Zita were always fun and broke up the day, as did visiting hours, but I was dreading the rest of it... endless hours of mind-numbing boredom with nothing to do! It was not the case. From 7am until 11pm it did not stop. After breakfast was physio... the most hideous thing I have ever experienced. Telling someone to get out of bed and walk a few steps the day after having all the muscles in their leg completely severed and alien implants embedded into their bones, did not go down well. “You want me to do what?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t even move my leg let alone get out of bed so they grabbed hold of the toe of my compression sock, supported the back of my knee and my heel, swung my leg out at right angles and lowered it to the floor, all in a matter of seconds. Oh. My. God. When someone hurts you that much you really want to hurt them back. I wiped the tears away and looked at her with such venom that she stared back at me and said, “I know you want to throttle me right now but if I don’t get you up on your feet, you will seize up completely!” Grrr. Safe to say I disliked her visits, especially when she would wake me out of a particularly pleasant morphine dream to torture me, but by the second day I had been taught a genius way to get my leg off the bed with a loop of stretchy bandage (and without screaming), and was also able to stand and walk a few paces with a zimmer frame. Hurrah. What I couldn’t do was go to the loo. I wasn’t able to walk as far as the bathroom (10 metres away), so I had to use a bedpan. And let me tell you, the indignity of perching on a cardboard bedpan in full view of your neighbours is something I will never recover from. During the day the humiliating act was bad enough knowing everyone could hear your ablutions, but at least we could draw the curtains. At night, however, the hospital was so short staffed that they didn’t really have time for protocol or privacy and would leave the curtains open. We were so hydrated from the saline drips that we would have to go at least 4 times a night, so the whole ward resembled a peeing conveyer belt. Once one of us rang the nurse’s call bell, the others would wake up and realise they needed to relieve themselves as well. There was no time for decorum so the nurse would fling back the bedsheets and we would heave ourselves onto these contraptions, one after the other, perched high on the bed like brooding chickens, desperately trying not to make eye contact with each other, and thus laugh. Of course giggling was inevitable but doing so whilst doing the other is not recommended. Seeing the squatting silhouettes of my (usually so dignified) neighbours, whilst all sorts of natural and unnatural noises escaped them, will be ingrained in my memory forever.

The chaos of hospitals means there is never a hope in hell of getting any actual sleep either. If it’s not nurses checking vital signs every 4 hours or doctors and surgeons checking up on you, it’s the peeps and pings of machines, alarms going off, mobile phones ringing, patients shouting, patients snoring, TV’s turned up too loud, the racket of tea trolleys, cleaners, vacuums... enough hubbub to wake even the most exhausted. And if none of that keeps you from sleeping, there is always the pain.After surgery you have two cannulas inserted into you, one in the forearm, one in the hand. The arm cannula is for your morphine while the other is for saline, antibiotics, anti-clotting drugs and anything else you need. The morphine machine is brilliant... a giant glass vial, inside a large glass case (locked), connected to you. You are given a clicker and are allowed to administer the drug yourself whenever the light goes on, and whenever the pain is bad enough. This, on average, is every 7 minutes. It feels like an arcade game... you stare at the clicker until it illuminates, press it frantically and are rewarded with momentary euphoria. You are an absolute slave to the morphine for 48 hours because it works, but as soon as it wears off it feels as if someone has ripped your leg in half. So when my surgeon told me that he was removing the the drip on the night of the second day, I cried. The pain was only just bearable with morphine, but without, my God, it was going to be a real test of endurance. They removed my cannula and said they would return in 4 hours with some oral morphine. By the end of the second hour, around 10pm, I was almost hysterical. The pain was like nothing I have ever experienced, and I honestly have a high pain threshold. No one can really comfort you either. During the day you have family and friends there but at night you rely on other patients and the nurses. The nurses have to be practical and get on with it... to go around hugging every patient in pain would be a waste of resources, and none of my fellow patients could get out of bed. Pat held her arms out to me and mouthed “hug”, while the others looked on helplessly. Nicolette was listening to opera in her headphones and only realised what was going on when Susan threw a sock at her. She immediately got up and sat on the edge of my bed, but being so incredibly old school, the best she could do was give me a quick pat pat on the arm and utter the sympathetic words, “Now come on Juliet, buck up”. Ha.

The only other comfort I had was from my hot water bottle Bruno. Yes I have named my hot water bottle for he has been with me for over 20 years and travels with me everywhere. Morocco, India, and Alaska are just a few of the places he’s visited, as well as most of my friends’ houses, but it took a ward in London’s finest hospital for Bruno to cause the most commotion. Most people know what a hot water bottle is. Even in Morocco, they thought he was just a stuffed toy – and gave me slightly odd looks for sleeping with something like that at my age – until they picked it up and realised it should be filled with water. On my first night in hospital, everything was warm apart from my feet, so remembering I had brought Bruno with me, I took him out of my overnight bag asked one of the night nurses to fill it for me. She was an agency nurse from Nigeria called Patience and she took Bruno from me and held him up by his ears in front of her. “You want me to fill this dog?” she asked frowning. “Yes please. Boiling water if possible,” I said. Patience turned Bruno upside down and back to front and looked at me as if I had a screw loose. “It’s a hot water bottle,” I added helpfully. “A what?” she said. I took Bruno back off her, opened the flap of fur at the back and showed her the bottle inside. I then unscrewed the top. “See?” She peered down into the opening and shrugged. “Ok, I fill it.” She retuned with Bruno, concave. He was the largest I have ever seen him, filled to the brim with boiling water, the rubber straining. Oh shit. She handed it to me and it weighed an absolute ton. I was terrified. It was like an unexploded bomb! “I have never see such a thing, it is most strange,” she said. “Me neither,” I said. Safe to say, I left Bruno in the bin that night, scared that I would roll over, explode the hot water bottle and end up with third degree burns. The next night a similar thing happened with a nurse from the Philippines, except she filled it with ice cold water thinking I was going to drink out of it!! Hilarious!

Once the pain was under control, my last few days in hospital were actually quite fun. I had lots of family and friends visit, bringing cards, flowers, yummy treats, pressies and conversation, so my afternoons went by in a blur. I was on the top floor of the hospital and had the most incredible view of central London, and as my stay was over November 5th, I was also lucky enough to see the numerous spectacular firework displays going on across the city. The ladies and I would chat for hours, asking the nurses to pull back our curtains so we could see each other properly. We offered each other biscuits and chocolates and magazines, or whatever was brought in by relatives and friends and once we were up on our feet, would sit on each others bed for a good old gossip about certain nurses and doctors. The only time we would ever shut up is when a certain resident consultant would enter the ward. His name was Alex. He was an Australian ex-rugby player and had one of the finest posteriors I have ever seen in my life. I don’t mean to objectify him but the sight of his derriere made six women fall silent. That is truly a superpower!Now that I’m home at my parents, the hard work really starts. Physio 6-8 times a day, learning to walk again and keeping my sanity. It will be 2 months before I’m really allowed to do anything on my own, to really get back on my feet, so until then it’s my mother and father (and indeed my sister and family when they visit), that are my nursemaids, my cooks, my cleaners, my drivers, my financial advisers, my laundry service, my postal service, my encouragement, my friends, my loves and my laughter. I’m so lucky to have you both. Thank you. X

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 2.

Choosing to leave London was a very difficult one, because as I said before, I loved everything about London except working there and the soul-destroying commute. When two of my closest friends announced they were also leaving London in November to return home to New Zealand, I realised moving was the only option I had – my London life would simply never be the same without them. The majority of my social life was spent with them, I was very familiar with their spare room, we had the same taste in weird foreign films, thought about food every second of our waking life, drank red wine like it was going out of fashion, partied till dawn, adored traveling and loved loved loved the theatre. So suddenly the decision to leave the city seemed a whole lot easier.

I began picking up on other signs pointing me in the direction of the West Country. Work was better than ever with new studios wanting to get me in for freelance work; some close friends had upped sticks and moved to Wales (only 50 minutes from Bristol); and some other dear friends and my gorgeous goddaughter were moving to Poole (only 50 minutes from Bath). I would be closer to my parents; on the doorstep of my sister and family; and much much closer to the divine beaches of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire. And most importantly, all my London friends were incredibly supportive with most of them saying, “You will wish you had made the move years ago... when can we come and visit?”

Now of course came the painful stuff... no, not the knee, but the sorting out my flat, finding someone to rent my flat, and moving out of my flat. It sounds simple enough but if you have ever tried to find decent and reliable decorators, tenants and removal men in London, you will understand my angst. Tradesmen were referred to me and were busy, other quotes made my eyes water, and on top of everything I soon came to realise from numerous painters and builders sucking their teeth and stroking their chins, that a coat of paint was just not going to cut it... I needed to completely gut my ancient and dated bathroom and put in a new one; strip off all the peeling and cracked wallpaper hidden underneath several coats of paint; replace all the white goods in my kitchen; and only then could I re-decorate. I had to get electrical checks, gas checks, energy checks and landlord certificates, and I needed to find someone to do it all in six weeks. Ugh. Then, when I least expected it, my dreams were answered (or so I thought at the time) in the form of a man, working at my neighbours flat. Let’s call him Ralph, for that is the buggers name and I don’t care who knows it! Ahem.

Knocking and banging noises had roused my curiosity and I had ventured next door to see what was going on. And there he was... in tight shorts and a vest, bent over the bathtub. Promising. I coughed and he straightened up. “Awright?” he said, with a cheeky Essex accent, grinning from ear to ear. I immediately asked if he could come and look at my bathroom and possibly give me a quote. I was in luck... not only could he do my bathroom but he could do everything else in the flat AND he could start the following week! Amazing, a proper one-man-band, or as the workmen that came to fix all his mistakes a month later called him... jack of all trades, master of none, plus some other rather more colourful names that I couldn’t possibly mention here! I really thought I was the luckiest girl in the world finding Ralph. I trusted him to be in my flat on his own all week while I worked in Bristol, his quote had been reasonable, and he could do it all himself. Brilliant! Um, not so brilliant.

My gut instinct is usually spot on but maybe I’d eaten something funny that day because I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes he was a nice guy but he also treated me like an idiot. He was used to decorating empty rental flats, with landlords leaving him to make all the decisions himself, from wall colour to style of taps to the model of fridge. And here I was with very clear views of what I wanted him to do, and a mood-board!!! Yup, a mood-board. I’m not sure he’d actually seen one of those before, because he shook his head at me and said, “Listen luv, forget the fancy victorian style taps and the nice white ceramic kitchen sink... Let me do what I do best. I’ll get something fairly close within your budget. Trust me.” I now realise anyone that says, “Trust me”, don’t. But of course I did. I left him on his own for the first week and then came back at the weekend. Every single thing in my flat was covered in dust, even though he said he would protect it all with plastic sheets; the bathroom tiles were put on vertically rather than horizontally (his response to that was that it makes the room look taller!!!); the bathroom taps, kitchen taps, in fact all of the appliances were nothing like the ones I had chosen; he refused to answer emails so the only time I could go through things with him was on the phone on a monday morning or write a detailed note... AND he didn’t start work till 10:30 because he said the traffic was a “roight mare!” any earlier! Warning bells you ask?? Nope, I was still deaf.

By the second and third weeks I was a complete wreck. I felt bullied and intimidated every time I spoke to Ralph. He sighed, he tutted and he rolled his eyes whenever I questioned anything he’d done, and would just raise his voice and talk over the top of me when he wanted the conversation to end. He wouldn’t admit anything he had done was substandard and refused to redo things that I knew weren’t right. I cried every single time I ended a conversation with him because I felt utterly helpless. Then, on the fourth week, I rang him to talk about painting over all my plug sockets (idiot) and he said he was on holiday. He had decided to take a week off to go sailing because the weather forecast was good and he didn’t think I’d mind. Oh my god. By now everyone was telling me to sack him but I couldn’t. I just wanted everything finished and knew it would be impossible to find anyone else with only 2 weeks to go. He came back from sailing, promising to have everything finished by the end of the week. I felt I had no choice but to let him carry on but I also didn’t trust him, so I came home early from Bristol on the Friday and discovered something he’d done that was unforgivable.

My sitting room had been finished for some weeks. My neighbour had already been kind enough to move all my furniture etc. down to my parents’ summer house, so all that was left were a few lamps, clothes and bedding. These were under a plastic sheet on my sofa with a big sign on it that read, “Ralph, please leave covered and don’t move. Thanks.” As I walked into my flat, early that Friday afternoon, Ralph was nowhere to be seen. I rang his mobile to see where he was and it went to voicemail. I texted him and heard nothing back. I stood in my sitting room and I just knew something was wrong. My sofa had been moved and there was a big dust sheet spread over the floor, taped down, which was odd because there would have been no reason to protect the floor as the room had already been painted. I began pulling up the dust sheet and noticed scraps of my bathroom linoleum also taped to the floor. I lifted these up and gasped in horror (well it was dramatic!). My beautiful wooden floor had an 8 x 2 foot stain right across the middle. It looked as if someone had spilled some sort of solvent on it and then desperately tried to clean it up, without success. I was livid. It was Ralph down to a T… mess up, cover it up and then not tell me. I rang him again and left a very calm, controlled but on the verge of losing it message (always the scariest). I heard nothing back.

By Saturday morning I had already found a wooden floor expert to assess the damage. He was a passionate Bulgarian man that took one look at my floor, fell to his knees, and caressed the stain with his hand saying in a small choked voice, “What have they done to you??” over and over again. I managed to get him off the floor and console him enough – with a few cups of coffee, some chocolate biscuits and some soothing words – for him to tell me the worst. The floor was ruined. The stain had been covered for too long, the attempt to remove the stain was a disaster and the attempt to re-varnish it was even worse. Ralph had done this to my floor and then gone awol. It was beyond cowardly. And it could only be fixed by stripping the whole floor, re-sanding it and re-finishing it. It would cost hundreds and it would take time. But I had no bloody time... my tenants (who I found through a friend of a friend) were due to move some of their things in the following weekend and I had 6 days to fire Ralph, fix the floor, find new decorators, carpenters, electricians and plumbers (for it became very obvious at that point in time that Ralph was nowhere near finished) and clean the place from top to bottom. I burst into tears, put a desperate plea on Facebook for help, and waited.

I love and loathe Facebook in equal measures but when it comes to asking for help from a large group of friends, it really is invaluable. Within minutes I had received a text from a old panto friend who gave me the number of a man who could help, let’s call him Mr Fix. I rang Mr Fix and he said he would come over the next day (Tuesday) and assess the situation. He had a team of workmen and he was sure they would be able to get things done in time. Phew. I had also left another message for Ralph asking him to come and collect all his things because his contract was terminated. Gulp. I then began the laborious task of packing up his equipment... I wanted him in my flat for the least amount of time and knew if I packed his stuff up myself he would have no reason to linger. I was dreading it. Even Mr Fix, a big burly man who would scare most humans, said he would come round if there was trouble because there was nothing he hated more than bullies, cowards and men who took the piss when it came to work! I loved Mr Fix. Meanwhile, my Bulgarian floor man was still almost weeping over the state of my floor but was doing his best to sand out the stain and re-varnish the wood without having to do the whole floor. I knew the stain would remain but I just didn’t have the time or the money to fix it. I would have to tell my new tenants what had happened and hoped they would still want the flat. I also hoped they had a big rug!

Ralph turned up at noon the next day. I had been pacing the flat since 8am waiting for him to arrive, thinking of what to say, how I would work out what money I owed him, terrified of his reaction. I had already paid him half the quote up front and now I was only willing to pay him another £1000 instead of £2000. I was so scared that he was just going to shout at me and deny everything that when he calmly came into my flat, looked at the stain on the floor, sighed and said sorry, I was slightly flummoxed. He had hoped I wouldn’t see it and could fix it himself. He admitted that was naïve. I began going through all the other things wrong with the flat and he just held his hand up for me to stop. He just wanted to be paid and leave and I was so unbelievably relieved that he agreed to the £1000 deduction, that it didn’t enter my head that I should have asked for more for the floor, or to check his builders insurance or anything! I know I know, I’m a complete idiot but I can’t begin to explain how knotted my stomach was and how many sleepless nights I’d had. I just wanted him out of my life and £1000 seemed reasonable at that moment in time. We shook hands at my front door and he said, “No hard feelings Juliet.” I wanted to punch him on the nose but I shook his hand anyway. As he wandered down my walkway he laughed and shouted, “I’ll be working down the road for the next few weeks so I’ll see you around!” What? The little shit! And I tell you, it took all the willpower in the world to not scratch his van or puncture his tire every time I saw it outside. Grrrrrrr.

Mr Fix arrived on the Tuesday with a posse of heavies, to assess what needed to be done. They wandered from room to room, swearing, mumbling and grumbling and then Mr Fix said, “So, the asshole didn’t get much done then did he?”, I felt sick. Half the rooms were supposed to be finished according to Ralph, but according to these guys, they were done so badly they would need to start from scratch. Oh God. I said I had 3 days and a small budget and Mr Fix said “fine”. He would give me two of his men for 3 days, cash in hand, purely as a favour to my panto friend who had recommended him (thank you once again JJ). But I was not to mention to anyone who his company was because, “If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s having to fix other shit’s messes!” O-kay.

Kipper and Wayne turned up the next morning at 8am. Kipper was 60, had one eye, one knee and a heart of gold. He was so adorable and kind that I didn’t worry too much that he couldn’t see much and would have to turn sideways to see what he had just painted. I also didn’t worry too much that he had to hop up my ladder on one leg because, “My bloody knee was replaced 5 years ago and they made a total hash of it!” Oh great, just what I need to hear before knee surgery. But Kipper was brilliant and his paintwork was flawless and the only thing he needed to make him happy was Radio 2, chocolate and 40 cups of tea a day. Wayne was Kipper’s sidekick. 25 years old, 6’6” tall, skinny as a rake, hardly any teeth, and never stopped talking. He was hilarious too and had me in fits most of the day. They were a breath of fresh air. They were talkers but amazingly for men (sorry), brilliant at multi-tasking. By the end of the first day they had finished the bathroom and the sitting room, consumed two packets of chocolate digestives and half a box of teabags. Impressive. On day two, a request for fresh cream chocolate eclairs was made and I happily indulged them, and on Friday, I bought a large double chocolate fudge cake to celebrate the end of the job. And everything was finished, apart from a few carpentry jobs that were being done the next morning and about 20 small jobs that I had to do myself. My tenants were coming on the Sunday to sign the lease so I still had time to get everything done and clean the flat.... eek.

The carpenter arrived and I swooned a little. Maybe it was the combination of lack of sleep, weeks of stress and the fact that I’m a bit old fashioned and find a strong man with a tool-belt very alluring, but I went a bit pathetic and a bit helpless and I asked him to look at my list and see if he could help with anything else apart from the shelves he was being paid for. I know, sorry strong women friends, but needs must! And he did. He stayed for 7 hours and did every single job on my list, from fitting the fire alarm to screwing on door handles to putting up my blinds. He even carried my old fridge down 3 flights of stairs... one of the funniest things I have ever seen. I had forgotten to tell him that the fridge had been defrosting overnight but he picked it up with the door angled upwards, so it was fine. It was only when he got to the bottom of the stairs and began losing his grip, that he gave a loud groan and tipped the fridge the other way. The door flew open and a gallon of ice cold water and several frozen peas poured out onto his nether regions and down between his legs. It looked as if his waters had just broken. I collapsed on the stairs and almost wet my own pants I was laughing so much. And did the lovely carpenter ask for any extra payment for all these extra jobs?? Nope... just a date!!! Did I comply? Well that’s another story!

I spent the next 12 hours cleaning the floors and all the paint-splattered woodwork on my hands and knees. I say hands and knees but as I wasn’t allowed to put weight on my left knee, I had to sort of shuffle around my flat on my posterior. FYI, your bottom produces a much better shine than cloths and polishes! My tenants came round, ooh-ed and aah-ed in all the right places, were very sweet and understanding about the floor and the keys were handed over. Hurrah.

The only thing left for me to do was have my knee re-constructed. Something I was actually looking forward to more and more each day, even if it was purely so I could be put to sleep, not think about anything, and lie on a bed for a while!

To be continued…

Friday, 13 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 1.

It’s strange how one little thing can have a knock-on effect and send your life snowballing. My one little thing was knee pain.

I’ve been having problems with my knees since I was about 35. According to the experts – who offered the only logical explanation for their deterioration – being knock-kneed and pigeon-toed as a child with a love of ballet and gymnastics may have been the start... inwardly turning toes being forced into duck-footed turn-outs for 12 years was probably not ideal. Add to that the years of desperately trying to correct the way I walked (teasing was merciless), endless twisty-turny sports like hockey, trampolining, tennis and skiing, plus early onset arthritis, and you have massive wear and tear, displaced kneecaps and no cartilage. I sometimes wonder if I had been forewarned as a teenager – that my knees would be buggered by the time I was 45 if I carried on doing what I was doing – would I have done anything different?? Well, I’m not one to be told what I can and can’t do (family and friends would concur strongly with this!) so I’m not sure it would have made a difference. I suppose everyone does things that might be risky or lead to injury down the line... but would you change your life and lead a safe and sedate one because of what may possibly happen years later? I doubt it.

I do, however, remain incredibly humble and grateful for all the treatment I have had over the years and have never ever taken that for granted. I’ve had several surgeries over the past 12 years but the ‘big one’ was always imminent. They wanted to catch my knees at the perfect time, when the tissue was still healthy, the lower part of my knee could still be used, I was young enough and strong enough for the physio, but when my pain was no longer tolerable. So with the date set for November 4th 2015, I knew I had to put my life in order. I had 6 months to do it.

I was told that I would need to take 2 months off work, post surgery. Then I would be on crutches for up to 6 months and at 12 months I would hopefully be walking and doing everything else normally, well as normally as you can with a titanium lower thigh and a plastic knee. My original idea was to work my bum off until surgery, save enough money to be off work for 2 months and still be able to pay my mortgage and bills. I would stay in my London flat surrounded by flowers, welcoming visitors from my luxuriously adorned bed as I lay in state in a pink silk kimono. I would have my groceries and everything else I needed delivered, and I needn’t leave the flat. My surgeon smiled as I told him my plan and said one word. “No!”. Under no circumstances would he let me return to my third floor London flat alone. I needed to be somewhere that preferably had no stairs and I needed someone to look after me for at least the first 8 weeks. I would have to come up with a plan B.

Plan B was to stay with my mother and father down in Hampshire. I had had a trial run of staying with them post-surgery after a knee operation in September last year, when I was with them for a month. You may remember the blog!! House rules and my parents quirks were quite something, so the thought of doing the same thing for 2 months, and being totally incapacitated this time, filled me with a wee bit of anxiety. Would I go stir crazy in the quiet of the countryside? Would I get used to the volume of their TV, the numerous night-time loo excursions, the early evening meals, the obsession with Australian Masterchef and the unbelievable cheeriness in the mornings? Would I drive them mad asking for ice-packs, painkillers, glasses of water, cups of tea and hot water bottles all day and all night? There was no way of knowing of course, until I was actually there, but they selflessly said they wouldn’t hear of me convalescing anywhere else but with them, and that was that.

So with my recovery sorted out, I then began to organise my work. I needed as much design and copywriting as possible to cover the two months I would be out of action. It was approaching May and my bookings were looking good. I had 3 weeks at one company with the promise of a 3-month booking over the summer period. Brilliant. But the day before I was supposed to start, the project collapsed and I was told I wasn’t needed. Oh. So I phoned and emailed all my contacts and waited. Dribs and drabs came in, a few days here, a week there, but not enough to sustain me. It was weird. Summer is usually my busiest time because of holiday cover but for some reason, studios were keeping their work in-house and freelancers weren't getting the projects. I decided to contact some design studios I knew down in Bath and Bristol and suddenly I had a months work in a gorgeous studio in Bath. My sister said I could stay with her while I worked there, as she only lives 20 minutes from Bath, and so I breathed a sigh of relief. I absolutely loved working there, and I loved being with my family. Long beautiful summer days in Somerset, driving through the Mendip Hills to work, and coming back to lazy evenings and cooked meals courtesy of my sis. It was quite heavenly. I was going back to London at weekends but I wasn’t missing it as much as I thought I would. I then got more work in Bath, followed by a few weeks in Bristol. I was staying in B&B’s and lodging with a family in Bristol while working there, and staying with my sister or a friend of hers, when working in Bath. June and July went by in a whirl... new faces, new studios, new places to stay. I suddenly found myself looking at Somerset property websites during my lunch hour and going on drives with my nephew at weekends, through all the pretty villages around Bath. I began contacting old friends and family in the area and visiting them. I got on the books of more studios in Bath and Bristol and went on numerous interviews... and I suddenly realised that I wanted to live there and not London any longer!! What?? It came as a shock to me too. All my friends were in London, all my passions... so why did I suddenly want to leave? I thought of Samuel Johnson and his famous saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life!” But I wasn’t tired of London. I was tired of working in London.

Coming to the conclusion that if I never had to work in London again I would happily stay for the rest of my days, made me sad, because I adore everything about London but working. When I have days off I can potter for England. I can spend hours in bookshops, walk around Soho finding the perfect expresso, pop into the Curzon for a foreign film, see the latest exhibition, grab a bite to eat from any world cuisine, shop until I drop and still have time to see the cream of the acting world on stage. My flat is surrounded by beautiful green parks and the largest open-air freshwater swimming pool in Europe is only minutes from my doorstep. I know all my neighbours and am on first name terms with most of my local shopkeepers. I have great friends and a really really good life in London, I just don’t want to work there any more. Many of the studios have become too big. And as they’ve expanded, their personalties have shrunk... the personal touch diminishes. Freelancers rarely get the thanks they used to or are made to feel part of a team. And more often than not, studio managers think it’s ok to cancel you at a moments notice and seldom give you a reason or a heartfelt apology. It’s stressful and unstable. There are too many designers and not enough work and it suddenly feels like a giant hamster wheel, with everyone chasing the same jobs, nipping at each others ankles. I have also come to despise the tube and the necessary crushed commute every morning, seeing a sea of bland unsmiling faces. I get claustrophobic and clammy, and I wake up with a sense of dread every single morning at having to do that journey into town. It sounds silly but it’s the little things that get you down. Combine all the little things and you suddenly have more reasons than not for making a change.

I love London. But I want to keep on loving London, and I realised the only way I could do this was to leave.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

West Country House-sitting.

As my last blog testifies, I am very much enjoying my jaunts to Somerset. Unbelievably – in what is usually a busy period in London, with holiday cover and so on – the phone is still fairly quiet, so I have been taking more and more jobs in Bath and Bristol. But I was beginning to get a little worried that being a houseguest at my sister’s for a long period of time might be a little wearing on a great relationship. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have been having the most amazing time staying with my family. My sister and I, especially, have exactly the same sense of humour and a tiny wheeze or giggle can send the other one into complete fits. Building an Ikea bed with my sister and nephew (and then my brother-in-law when things got too difficult) was one of the most hysterical evenings I’ve had in a long time (Note to Ikea: putting together a 200-piece double bed is not a one man job!). As I had a badly sprained wrist and a crap knee, my job was to read out the instructions. My sister and nephew (and B-in-L later) were the construction team. It really was a case of potty humour and being over-tired I think, because the littlest thing would set us off. For instance, ‘Oh noooo, the end has just slipped out again’ or ‘Don’t play with it Lucas, screw it in properly!’ or ‘No, that goes in hole A, not B’, had us rolling around on the floor, crying with laughter. It took almost 3 hours to make the damn bed but we had the best time doing it. As the weeks have gone by, however, no matter how much we enjoy each others company, it was time to think about a Plan B. My sister was obviously thinking the same thing when she pointed out that no matter how much she loved having me to stay, there were certain things they couldn’t do while I was there! The mind boggles!

A solution suddenly appeared in the form of a great friend of my sister’s, offering me her house for two weeks, while she was on holiday. She rents out the top floor to lodgers and was in between guests so it seemed the perfect solution. Wow. I was trying to get my head around such generosity (every day I am blown away by West Country kindness) and asked my sister how much it was? ‘£35,’ she replied. ‘Oh my God,’ I said, ‘that’s amazing, £35 a night is brilliant.’ My sister looked bewildered and said, ‘no sweetie, £35 a week!’ Haha. All her friend wanted was enough to cover the utilities etc. and said I was actually doing her a favour by being in the house while she was away. So… I have the most beautiful 3-bedroom house to stay in, just down the road from my sisters, an hour from my parents, and half an hour to Bath. All for a measly £35 a week. Ridiculous.

There are, of course, challenges with house-sitting. You have to work out where everything is for a start, and for someone who isn’t very technically minded, even turning on the TV becomes the most frustrating and bewildering thing I have had to deal with in quite some time. My television in London blew up a few years ago and I never replaced it. Instead I have a lovely Mahjong box where it used to be and if I do want to watch something particular, I just watch it on my laptop. So when faced with a huge flatscreen TV and multiple controls, I took a deep sigh and hoped for the best. I pressed all the on buttons and waited. The first thing that happened was a sudden blast of music but the screen remained black. I tried pressing the controls of one and nothing happened. I tried the controls of the other and the screen changed, but only with numbers flashing in the top left… still no picture. I realised I was going slowly up through the more obscure channels and gulped loudly when the remote control seemed to freeze on something called Gay Rabbit. Shit. Imagine if my sister’s friend came back, turned on her TV and thought I’d been watching some weird porno station (for I assume that is what Gay Rabbit is, unless my mind is depraved and it is in fact some frolicking happy cartoon!). Sweating furiously, I managed to turn the TV off, then on again a few seconds later, hoping Gay Rabbit had disappeared. But no, there it was. I pressed the up arrows furiously until, thank God, it came to a stop on Al Jazeera. Better a middle eastern news channel than porn anytime eh? After that I gave up and read a book. A real book, mind, not one with a screen, I was too traumatised for anything else electric.

The kitchen is always interesting in other people’s houses too. You think you are the most rational person alive when you put things in certain places in your own kitchen, but when you try and find them in others, it’s a bloomin’ treasure hunt. But as I opened every drawer and cupboard in my new abode, I kept murmuring things like… ‘ooh, well that makes sense putting that there,’ and, ‘hmm, that’s handy’, and something has finally dawned on me. I think I might be the strange one (don’t all shout at once!). I must now admit that my kitchen is a little oddly arranged. I can’t count the amount of times guests have cried out in frustration because they can’t find a bloody knife or a teaspoon!! So I keep them in a little wicker basket on the kitchen counter, not in a drawer, it’s not that odd. My cereal is kept next to my glass vases in a small cupboard above the cooker; candles and napkins are kept where most people would put their cutlery; salt is in an old Moroccan ashtray; sugar is in a flour jar; wooden spoon are in a biscuit tin; and you will find a hammer, balloons and a can of spray mount where most people keep their kitchen foil. Is this or is this not true… most people keep their cling film and kitchen foil in the third drawer down. Fact!

I have also had to get accustomed to being on the ground floor and having people see me. My flat in London, and in fact, all my flats for the last 20 years, have been on the first or second floor. I have never lived anywhere where people can walk past and spot me through a window. So you can imagine my surprise, on my first evening in the house, when two grinning faces appeared at the window. I had casually draped myself over the sofa in the sitting room whilst on the phone, the sun was setting and the curtains and window were open, letting in a beautiful summer breeze, when the heads of two little girls popped up below the window sill, blew a raspberry (I didn’t know kids still did that!) and disappeared. Moments later they were standing there waving at me as if it was perfectly normal. I really have been in London too long if I think being waved at by kids is extraordinary! My first reaction (and that of a Londoner) is to tut and get up to draw the curtains… but I had to remember, people are nice here, people live in a community and if I drew my curtains on two cheeky children, that would be plain rude. So I smiled and waved back, waited til they had walked off a few feet… and then drew the curtains!!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Let me introduce myself.

Let me introduce myself… these 4 words have been typed into the subject box of approximately 45 emails I have sent to prospective clients over the past few weeks. The design world has been unusually and unbearably quiet since Easter and although I have 22 years experience and have worked with some of the most admired and award winning design studios in London since 1996, it is never a guarantee of work. Such is the life of freelancing. Forever chasing work, forever updating your portfolio and forever competing against others. 

It has its ups and it has its downs. When it’s good, you have to turn away work, and can pick the cream of the jobs on offer. You can choose the most fun people to work with and the studios that are the handiest to get to. When things are busy it really is brilliant, but when it’s bad and London gets hit with a mini recession, you take what you can no matter what the job, who the people are and where the studio is. So in recent weeks, as I wait for London to pull its socks up, I have been working down in Bath. Oh poor me, to be forced to go to the West Country and work in the one of the most beautiful parts of the world. I know… things could be worse!! 

You might assume there isn’t much difference between a studio in Bath and one in London but you would be incorrect. Firstly let me tell you about the commute. In London, most studios I work in are in Clerkenwell, the City. As the crow flies, Clerkenwell is a mere 6 miles from my house, however, in order to get to work for a 9:30 start, I must leave my house at 8:10am. Yes, that’s right, door to door it takes about an hour and a quarter. It is one tube and only one station change but the carriages are so overcrowded these days, that you have to force yourself to the front of the platform and precariously teeter on the edge as you watch four of five tubes go by, until finally you spot a teeny cavity of space as the doors open and you jam your body into it, albeit under an armpit or wedged against someones front or back bottom! 

In Bath, the commute from my sister’s house in Frome to the studio (overlooking Bath Abbey no less) is 35 minutes. It is 15 miles door to door, and involves a drive, a bus and a walk. But let me tell you… instead of seeing the back of someone’s head in excruciating detail, or being smashed into a sweaty back or having someone’s handbag digging into your ribs, I am driving through green rolling hills, narrow hedge-lined lanes, beautiful bath-stone villages and having conversations with strangers. I don’t mean conversations like I would have in London, like, ‘Yes that is my foot you’re standing on, you moron’ or ‘Can I get out please, I’m going to faint or throw-up’… I mean people actually talking to you as they sit on the bus. People saying hello to the bus driver and thanking them as they leave. The first two mornings I was in such shock at this amiable situation that I could hardly utter a word when spoken to, and probably looked a little simple as I noiselessly opened and shut my mouth like a bobbing fish. By the end of week one though, I was on first name terms with the bus driver and knew most of the other passengers well enough to give them a friendly nod. Bizarre.

As well as the commute being utterly stress free, I have also been lucky enough to stay with my sister. I love spending time with her and luckily neither my nephews or my brother-in-law seem to mind this temporary living situation either. What is so strange is going from living on my own in a one-bedroom flat in South London to a household of 2 adults, 2 teenagers, 2 elderly cats and an excitable labrador. I thought it would drive me up the wall coming home to noise and chaos, but I love it. Not only do I get greeted with hugs and kisses when I come through the front door (from the humans as well as the pets) but I get dinner and endless cups of tea! My sister cooks proper meals every single night, and when you live on your own, this is an extraordinary luxury I assure you. Sometimes I come home from work in London and am so knackered I just have a bowl of cereal and a banana! So, good company, affection AND evening meals?? What am I giving back in return I hear you ask? Well I try and be a good kitchen fairy… stacking the dishwasher, doing the washing up and cleaning whenever I can. I buy my sister flowers and my brother-in-law wine, and I try and have scintillating conversations and amuse the house with anecdotes (this last one could wear a bit thin I think!) I already know I am doing certain annoying things… walking into a teenagers room unannounced is never a good idea, talking during a gripping moment in a film warrants irritable sighs from my brother-in-law and trying to chat to my sister while she is in a rush in the morning is something I should keep to a minimum. 

The major thing I have had to adjust to is the incredibly bizarre morning schedule of my family. My brother-in-law usually wakes up at 4:45 and leaves the house at 5:30. There are human noises, kitchen noises, dog noises and car noises during this time. Miraculously I have managed to sleep through most of these hideously early awakenings, but as the house returns to quiet, then it is the turn of my sister, who gets up between 6 and 6:30, for a cup of tea and a pee. Footsteps, creaking floorboards, and dog noises begin again. At 7:15 she walks the dog. This is my cue to wake up if I haven’t already been staring at the ceiling since 5:30, wanting the world to end. There is something about drifting in and out of sleep that is utterly exhausting so with earplugs firmly in place, that issue has now been resolved-ish.

I have been back in London this week with a spot of copywriting and a couple of days in a studio and the commute is already hideous. When it’s hot in London the tube is the next step to hell, and I can’t wait to be back in the beautiful lush countryside. Just as I was daydreaming about a freshwater swimming hole my nephew has recently discovered, I got a phone call from Bath asking me if I’m free for work next week. How can I say no??

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Premonition Dreams.

I woke up this morning, remembered my boyfriend had broken up with me, and burst into tears. Then I realised it was only a dream. But it was so real and so vivid that I felt all the emotions I had felt in the dream and was completely devastated.

It is not unusual for dreams to seep into our physical reality. Friends have told me about waking up crying, kicking a partner, shouting or falling out of bed. You only have to watch a dog sleeping to see it occasionally start running or snap at invisible butterflies as they go through the post-REM stages of sleep, so there is a fairly blurred line between conscious and subconscious. 

What is quite unusual is that I remember my dreams. A massive 95% of us don’t. I think I have been programmed to remember them since I had to keep a dream diary years ago, on instruction from a keen Freudian therapist I saw called Mrs. Kind. I kid you not. She was called Mrs. Kind and she lived on Daisy Lane. I went to see her because I was struggling to get over a horrible break-up and thought she could help. I realised she was little more than useless when all she wanted to hear about were my dreams from the previous week and would then spend the following 50 minutes of the session analysing them. I do not underestimate the power of understanding your dreams… I think they are a fascinating look into our unconscious thinking, but at the time, all I wanted was a solution to my endless crying. I needed someone to fix it, rather than tell me why I was so miserable. I knew why for goodness sake!! I found the diary a couple of years ago and spent the next few hours pouring over the entries, completely fascinated. I could see, quite clearly, my fears and insecurities coming out in my dreams, so I thought I might start keeping a dream diary again. The trick is to write them down as soon as you open your eyes… the few seconds between sleep and really being awake. Keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table and grab it as soon as the alarm goes off. Honestly, it usually works.

But there is something else that happens to me sometimes and I can only call them premonition dreams. They are scarily real and always involve people I know. Sometimes I dream of things that haven’t happened yet, other times I dream of things that have happened, but I have had no possible way of knowing about them. I don’t want to completely freak you out but when these dreams happen (which is only three of four times a year, thank god), I wake up sweating and know I have to contact the person immediately. Friends and family reading this, will know of the times this has happened. The last time I had such a dream was a few months ago… I woke up and emailed my parents and sister, telling them to be careful about walking down flights of stairs. I know it sounds bonkers but I knew someone was going to fall down the stairs. Ironically, it was me, later that day. My parents and sister had kindly informed me that they had survived the day without any accidents (with a roll of the eyes, I’m sure) and so I relaxed. I went to go and put the rubbish out and fell down the stairs outside my flat! Over the years, I have emailed friends about driving particular routes when I see traffic jams or crashes in my dreams; I have phoned friends when I have dreamt they are ill; I have texted people about work problems, traveling issues, to avoid certain foods and so it goes on. 

There is one occasion, however, that will never ever leave me. The premonition dream that changed my life. I had been having a few problems with my then boyfriend and we had decided to live apart for 6 months to give us both a bit of space. We continued the relationship but encouraged each other to do more things with friends and not be in each others pockets 24 hours a day. It seemed to work and we were both incredibly happy. Then one night I woke up at 3am with the most gut-wrenching feeling that he was being unfaithful. Without thinking, I got dressed and walked the 20 minutes to his flat. He wasn’t home. He wasn’t answering his phone. So I sat on his doorstep and waited. An hour later he came home, bleary-eyed from drink and lack of sleep. His face said it all. I calmly asked if he had just slept with someone else and his response was… ‘Who told you?’ 

I have goosebumps just writing that. At the time, it was the beginning of the end of our relationship and I was bereft. I may never have found out about him being unfaithful. I’m sure I wouldn’t. So is there a scientific explanation for my dream, or in fact, any basis for pre-recognition in any form, waking or asleep? Well, yes and no. 

If I was to speak to a scientist about it, they may say that I had Unconscious Perception... enough evidence to foresee my boyfriend being unfaithful (infidelity with past girlfriends, late nights, missing in action) but had never consciously processed the information, therefore, I only figured it out in my unconscious state instead, and just happened to act on it. Other neuroscientists who have researched patients with so-called ‘future-sight’ call these sorts of dreams Selection Biased… the dreams seem so real that we choose to believe them and are just lucky if they come true. I’m not sure I would call my dream lucky!! And another explanation is Self-fulfilling Prophecy… making it happen once you have the information. So if that were true, not only would I have purposely thrown myself down the stairs to prove my dream was accurate, but I also would have wanted my boyfriend to be unfaithful to show I was right. Hmmm. I mean I know I like to always be in the right, but that’t taking it a step too far, me thinks.

Whatever the explanation, I apologise in advance if you get a weird text from me saying, ‘Avoid eating peanuts today,’ or ‘Don’t use the Northern line, use the Victoria instead!’ I’m not a doom-mongerer and I don’t mean to alarm you, it’s just a gut feeling is all. If my dream from last night is anything to go by, don’t introduce me to a man in his late 50’s with grey shoulder length hair, pale blue eyes and an earring (God forbid!). He’s going to break up with me so he’s not a nice man!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I’m a Tate ballerina!

I had a most peculiar day last Monday. It started in the morning with two horrendous scans in hospital – one CT, one MRI – and then turned into something quite beautiful by the afternoon.

I left the hospital, in Waterloo, around 8:45 and headed towards the Tate Modern along the river. There is a wonderful window of opportunity in London where places seem to empty a little, and it’s usually the hour between 8:45 and 9:45 (unless you are a night owl of course, and then I would suggest 4-5am!). But at this hour of the morning, most Londoners are either at work or on their way to work, and the tourists are still eating breakfast and planning their fun-packed day. There was hardly anyone around as I meandered along the Southbank. No buskers, no skateboarders, no accordion players and no map-clenching visitors. It was so still and quiet that even the Thames seemed to sigh as it glistened peacefully in the morning sun. I went and sat on the roof of the Southbank Centre, where a wildflower garden has been planted, and watched a mum and her son chase butterflies.

I found a strange installation in one of the tunnels as I walked round the back of the Haywood Gallery.

I then strode purposely towards the gallery and went up to my favourite room on the second floor, which plays host to 8 stunning Mark Rothko paintings. The room is darkened and the paintings are in shades of red and black so the atmosphere should be fairly gloomy. But it’s not. The room almost vibrates. The paintings are huge and awe inspiring and it is the one place in London that I know I can sit and forget everything. 

Rothko is a very popular abstract painter and the room is usually filled with people, but on Monday morning at 9:30, the room was deserted. I had the paintings to myself for at least 25 minutes until I was joined by a tall man with white hair and a tanned face, who mirrored what I was doing – albeit the other end of the room – by reclining on the bench and staring with eyes half closed in ecstasy. 

It was slightly unsettling but maybe he thought the same, and was unsettled by me. I stared for another few minutes, then left the Rothko’s and descended to the vast turbine hall on the lower ground floor. 

Occasionally this space is used for vast installations and performance pieces but today it was playing host to the ballet. The main area had been roped off and several film crews were setting up equipment. I was squinting to read a sign the other side of the ropes, when a young woman approached me. ‘Are you here for the ballet?’ she asked. Um. ‘I didn’t know about it until now actually,’ I said, ‘I was just trying to read the sign over there, about when it starts.’ She looked at the sign, waved her hand, and said, ‘Oh don’t worry about that, I know one of the dancers, it starts at 12. So see you here at 12?’ And she smiled and walked off. Gosh, she’s a bit forward I thought. And foreign. Not that foreigners are forward, but she definitely was. Her accent sounded Russian and as I watched her walk away I realised she must be a dancer too. You can tell immediately by the way they walk. Turned out feet, like a duck. I looked at my phone. 10:20. Blimey, over an hour and a half to kill, but when you are in one of the biggest galleries in the world, filling time isn’t too difficult, so I had a wander and a cup of tea and was back at the ropes at noon.

The Russian girl appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my arm, introducing herself as Dorota. I introduced myself to her in return and she said, ‘I’m so glad you are doing this. You are very brave.’ What? And then she ducked under the ropes, pulling me behind her, said something to a man who had his leg up by his ear, and led me into the middle of the floor. I looked up to the balcony and there were hundreds of people watching us. And then suddenly, the ropes were released and all these random people walked towards us. There were mums with children, a group of school kids, teenagers, and the rest (probably about 100 people) looked like dancers. Dorota explained very quickly that I had volunteered to be in an improvised ballet performance art piece and that it was being filmed for the Tate website. It was only going to be an hour, and wasn’t it exciting? Um. She then added, as an aside, that we were being taught by Boris Charmatz. Oh shite. Now I have heard of Mr Charmatz before and I wanted to leave the floor immediately. Boris Charmatz, you see, is quite famous for choreographing and starring in… nude ballets. You can google it yourselves because I’m certainly not going to post a link on here!! Anyway, I suddenly thought, oh my god, he’s going to make us take all our clothes off and jeté around with everything bobbling about, all in the name of art. Now I’m all for expanding people’s minds, and although I have done a bit of nude modelling in my time, this was something else. And my God, the children too? This Frenchman was sick!

But no… much to my relief, clothes were to be kept on. Boris wanted us to explore the history of dance and ballet, improvising and experimenting, under his guidance. Oh God. We were to use our bodies and express ourselves as he moved around us, giving us instructions over a microphone head set. But first was one of the most awkward moments I have ever witnessed. We went back to the 80’s and we had to pick a partner, and we had to slow dance. My only salvation was my new Russian friend who happened to be standing about ten feet away from me. I made a beeline for her and grabbed her in a tight embrace. It must be kismet for writing about the wonders of hugging because we had to hold each other and dance cheek to cheek for the whole song. We were luckier than most. Strangers were turning red from embarrassment all around us, giggling self-consciously, as they partnered up with seemingly quite unsuitable partners. Two teenage boys had their hands on each others shoulders, looking everywhere but at each other as Boris shouted, ‘Get closer to each other, really hug each other… and dance!’ From there we progressed through the decades, wiggling hips, gyrating groins, running, jumping, rolling around on the floor until we were given a proper ballet routine. Boris leapt beautifully into the air, then pirouetted, then pliéd. He shouted out positions in French and we tried to keep up. It would have looked ridiculous had it not been for the 100 people who actually understood what he was talking about (the proper ballet dancers) and beautifully performed each move.

It was 60 minutes of joy and hysteria. Most of us had big grins on our faces as we forgot about the people watching, ignored the cameras and just let ourselves go. Dancing really is a joyous thing. What is the expression… dance as if nobody’s watching? Well we certainly did that. I found this photo of us on the Tate website. I can’t spot myself (I was never good at Where’s Wally?) but if you can, let me know. So I can now officially say I am part of a work of art at the Tate Modern. Pretty cool.

As well as the ballet, this week has been a very luvvie one all in all… not only am I now preserved in Tate history but I have also seen 4 plays in 7 days!! And I wonder where my money goes! Monday was Everyman at the National, with the incredible Chiewetel Ejiofor in the leading role; Tuesday was Death of a Salesman with Sir Anthony Sher; Wednesday was Hayfever with Felicity Kendal; and Sunday was the supreme genius Ralph Fiennes playing Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. I recommend them all if you happen to be in London. What I do suggest is spreading them out over a few weeks or months though. I am all air-kissed out. I am, sweetie darlings, all played out.