Monday, 9 July 2018

Last week of my 40's.

I am in the last few days of my 40's and from what I have heard, read and witnessed, many people begin to reflect on how their life has turned out as they are about to turn 50. It raises a lot of questions; Have I spent the last 30 years in the right job? Am I with the right partner? Do I like where I live? Have I traveled enough? Have I loved enough? Am I happy? It seems to trigger something that can propel some into making rather drastic life changes.

I think it is quite natural to look in the mirror when you reach middle age (for 50 is becoming middle age for more and more of our healthier ageing population) and look in horror at the expanding map of lines on your face, notice more and more grey hairs, pinch bigger rolls of flesh around your expanding waistline and realise that much of your wardrobe simply isn't suitable anymore. You begin to rub aching joints and make noises of effort when you get up from a chair. You realise you could do more exercise and eat better, you could change careers and seek out more adventures... that maybe this is the last chance to really change things for the better.

You only have to google "My life changed at 50" to see just how many thousands of people have done just that. It could simply be a new hobby, a new car or a new haircut, but others out there have done way more drastic things at 50. A growing number of people on the internet vow to become fitter at 50, and sign up for marathons and triathlons, get personal trainers and take up yoga. Others decide to go on adventures of a lifetime and take year-long sabbaticals and travel to far flung places that would normally never be on their radar. Millions decide to volunteer or become more involved in their communities, realising it's time to give something back after half a decade. For many of my friends, their own children have now reached an age where they have either left home, are at university, or are very much independent beings that no longer need their parents as much, and with that comes the question of what their spare time can be filled with. Other friends who had children in their forties realise how bloody knackered they are!!

For me, of course, many of these questions I have tackled already or been forced to face by early on-set illnesses. At 21, I had life-saving surgery when a tumour was discovered in my throat. By my late 30's I knew I wasn't able to have children so I was already in a position where my life would be different from most of my peers. I had time on my hands that others wouldn't have so I knew I should make the most of it. Major surgeries on both my knees forced me to leave London and make considerable changes to how I was living and how much I could work. And being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis last year made me slow things down even more and really take a good look at my life and what made me happy.

So turning 50 is not worrying me at all because the last 2 years have already been the toughest of my life so far. The titanium knee implants meant I could no longer do the sports I enjoyed... playing tennis, skiing, or doing any yoga poses that involved kneeling or twisting. I even had to teach myself how to swim again as breaststroke (the only stroke I have done for the last 30 years) was strictly forbidden by my orthopaedic surgeon, who calls the frog-like kick the "devil's stroke"! And just when things seemed to begetting back to normal, and my knee recovery was almost complete, I was diagnosed with RA. The RA floored me completely and left me physically unable to do so many of the other things I enjoyed. I couldn't use my hands for 4 months and I was knocked down by a chronic fatigue I didn't think possible. And all this whilst being in a new Somerset town with very few friends, no place to live and unable to work.

Turning 50 is a bloody breeze compared to all that. I have no regrets at all and nothing that I would really want to change. Of course, I would rather have not gone through all the pain and obstacles but I think that I have come out the other side of it ok, possibly stronger because of it. I am now on the right drugs and have such great physio that I can work 2-3 days a week again. My hands are feeling quite strong so I can type and write again, and I am starting to discover this wonderful town that I have moved to. My house is at a point of renovation where I can invite friends to stay (even if there is no upstairs floor or shower in the bathroom), my garden is all planted and I have bees and butterflies and friendly robins and blackbirds eyeing my daily progress. But the most important thing about turning 50 is that I have no list of things I wish I'd done.

Twenty or so years ago, when I was still living in America, I had to make the decision to return to England to pursue my acting career or remain in the States and carry on doing freelance design. To pursue acting was risky having just spent 3 years at a very prestigious and expensive art college, and I would be throwing that all away (and my parent's tuition money to boot) to pursue a dream! I remember being at a party, thrown by my Uncle and Aunt, and I began asking their friends if they had any regrets or if they wish they'd taken a different path in their lives if the opportunity had arisen. Had they chosen the safest path? Many said yes. I decided I didn't want to regret not having tried. I also knew that even if I did fail, I would still have a career in design so I had nothing to lose. Long story short, I went for the dream but I didn't get in to the drama school I really wanted, I couldn't get enough acting work doing small plays and the occasional advert, so I had to do freelance design work to survive. But I tried.

I told myself every single morning for years, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day. I wasn't sensible like many of my friends who had full time jobs, pensions and property (probably to the angst of my lovely parents). I didn't settle down and have a family not because I didn't want to but purely because I didn't meet the right man. And probably because of that I have led a very different life to most of my friends. I now think that having that major surgery at such a young age maybe did trigger something in me, push me to a way of living and thinking that life really is too short to put off things til later because anything might happen. I have traveled the world and done some amazing things and if I had waited until now, I doubt very much I would have been able to do them.

So to all my friends who are turning 50, have no regrets and don't put off those dreams. We are old enough to know what we want, and young enough to make them happen. xx

Monday, 12 February 2018

A week of firsts.

It's been a good week. And when I have a good week, these days, it's often worth writing about. I have, after 6 months of agonising Rhuematic pain in my hands and wrists, finally been able to use them to some degree, to be productive, to get things done. So it has been a week of firsts.

I have been able to paint my kitchen cupboards (yawningly slowly with my left hand mostly) a pale blue grey, or Paris Grey as the colour is called. I'm not sure what it looks like in Paris but in my kitchen it looks rather lovely, certainly better than the 1980's magnolia that was there before! In fact, the magnolia cupboards weren't the worst design fail in my cottage. The previous owners last decorated in 1981 (bravely admitting that on my second viewing) and was a hotch-potch of hideousness... in the sitting room, one wall was a light pink terracotta, the opposite wall peach, and the two end walls pale yellow. The ceiling was white, the floor was covered with a dusky pink threadbare carpet and the curtains were navy blue. In the kitchen, magnolia loomed large, from the cupboards to the walls, with faux brick linoleum on the floor and wall tiles in a confused palette of dark brown, beige and tan. The hallway was bright yellow and the downstairs bathroom a sky blue with pale avocado sink and loo. Luckily, I was able to see through this nausea-inducing decor and imagine what it could be.

The first thing I did was to knock down the wall between the sitting room and the kitchen, which opened up the space and allowed the gorgeous morning and midday light to flood both rooms. The carpet and linoleum were replaced with oak wood floors throughout, I got a lovely decorator to come in and whitewash the whole of the downstairs, replace the skirting boards and paint the tan mdf doors. The boiler was moved upstairs and suddenly, after 2 months of chaos, the downstairs resembled something quite beautiful. White wooden blinds hang in the front window and gorgeous vintage curtains of soft blue and oatmeal are in the kitchen. This week, I finished the cupboards and I have finally been able to unpack some boxes and start living in the space.

I used my oven for the first time this week and cooked myself a fried egg on toast. That may sound rather disappointing for a first meal but you cannot imagine how vile microwave-cooked eggs are, so it was divine. I had my washing machine delivered and washed my clothes for the first time rather than taking them to the local laundrette which is a complete pain the arse, not only because you always lose sock and knickers in the dryer but almost always end up with someone else's pants as a bonus! I have a fridge for the first time too, having used an old ice box outside for the last 3 months to store everything... fine in the winter when everything is cold enough, not so pleasant when it's pouring with rain and everything in the ice box gets waterlogged. I painted the kitchen tiles myself and for the first time, I have been able to unpack and display all my kitchen things, from toaster and kettle to vintage cake tins and cook books. For the first time, my cottage is beginning to look like a home.

Being a home for the first time also means that I want friends and family to come and see it. My parents and sister all came round for tea last week and were able to all sit in the sitting room, in relative comfort, while we chatted. I was able to have my first dinner party a few days ago. It was only three of us, not a grand affair, but I cooked a chicken casserole and some fluffy baked potatoes, we had chilled prosecco from the fridge and we sat on chairs, like normal people, around the kitchen table for supper. It was divine and it was the first time I felt truly settled.

Now that downstairs is almost finished, I look at upstairs in horror. Upstairs has soooo many more problems than downstairs. Rotten windows, bare chipboard floors, massive holes in the walls, a mouldy bathroom with no shower, dodgy stairs and a loo that sometimes regurgitates its belongings up the bowl!!! I need to make a sign saying "Please be modest with your 3 P's", warning people not to put too much pee, poo or paper down the loo. It's terrifying. I am sleeping on a mattress on the floor even though I have a new bed leaning against the bedroom wall because it seems redundant to construct the bed when I will have to deconstruct it again when the floors are done. I can't unpack anything either because I will simply have to pack up again when the painting starts and that seems ridiculous.

But my week of firsts has been very very rewarding and it still continues. I have gardeners here today for the first time, cutting back my first ever wisteria, a job that needed professionals as it had been left for 15 years to grow wild and resembles an intricate 8 foot high web of 5 inch thick branches that span the length of the cottage and the 20 feet of wall beyond. There is beautiful old stone behind it apparently, which I can't wait to see. Later, the gardener Sophie has promised to show me how to prune the roses, another first for me. And later still, I will be going to my first ever Owl life-drawing class. Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds but that's Frome for you, a town I'm discovering is full of the wild and wonderful, the beautiful and the bizarre!

I am turning 50 this year, and as exhausting and challenging as the last 2 years have been, mentally and physically, I also know that I might never have had the chance to do certain things the way I have, had I not been ill. It's forced me to slow down and appreciate things. It has shown me that a little can mean much more than a lot, and that the smallest act of kindness from a friend, new or old, can mean the world. I am never too old to do things for the first time and I hope to have a lot more firsts for years to come.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

My home... the money pit.

Yes it's official, my new cottage is a money pit. I was aware of many of the problems when I had my survey done. They were duly pointed out to the (then) owner of the property and the price was reduced accordingly. However, no one ever prepares you for the hidden problems. The ones that show their faces only when you have already spent a fortune fixing a previous problem. I call this the chain of crappy events, if you will.

When I first moved into the property at the beginning of November, the first thing my plumber suggested was that I buy a Carbon Monoxide Alarm so I wouldn't, "Pop my clogs the first night!". He had basically condemned the current 30 year old boiler and unless I wanted to, "Freeze my tits off," with the heating off, then it was a good idea to monitor the toxic fumes it was emitting. Great. Instead of just buying a replacement boiler, I decided to spend a bit more money, free up the space on my kitchen wall where the old boiler was sticking out like a sore ugly bulbous thumb, and move it upstairs and into the cupboard where the old water tank had been. Before they could move the boiler, the electrician was summoned to check the wiring in the bathroom cupboard to make sure it would work, and there he discovered that the electric shower and lights were arcing and smoking every time they were turned on. All the wiring was burnt out in the cavity wall and up into the attic, a blackened mess of melted plastic, wires and wood. He was amazed it hadn't started a fire! Upon further investigation, he explained that the whole house was a bit "dodgy" and basically cut off my supply until he could return! So what started as a simple process of moving the boiler, resulted in a complete re-wiring of the kitchen, hall, bathroom and upstairs cupboard, the shower was thrown into the tip and now I have a gigantic hole through the bathroom wall and in the ceiling. And no shower. Hurrah.

What the plumber also failed to mention was that he'd re-directed the external gas pipe from the kitchen up to the bathroom, so where I had been excited to get a gas cooker re-connected, I now have to have an electric one. He's also, very kindly, left the gas pipe in the kitchen as an annoying reminder of what could have been, sitting there, completely useless, giving me the V-sign, and I now have to find someone to cut it off the wall! The plumber has also left a bloody great hole in the kitchen wall through to the external wall, where the boiler was, and has only filled it with a few bricks and some rough cement, so "I don't get the rain coming in" which means I now have to get a builder to re-plaster the wall. 

And this is where my builder enters the scene. His name is Tim. I can mention his name because I doubt very much I will be sending him this blog, nor will he see it on Facebook as he will never be a Facebook friend! I really like Tim but he seems to bring calamity with him. I first contacted him when I discovered he was the same builder who'd put up a partition wall in the house about 15 years ago, and thought he'd be the perfect person to take it down again. He was very obliging, removed the wall in half a day and only charged me a £100 cash. As he seemed to be the perfect man to do all the other jobs I needed, I hired him on the spot. We agreed he would work for cash and fit my jobs in when he could. That meant turning up willy nilly after he'd finished his normal days work... he even arrived on a Saturday morning at 8am once, which I was slightly less pleased about, as were my neighbours!! 

The first thing Tim did for me was to remove all my skirting boards. I needed this done because I had arranged for beautiful, achingly expensive, oak wood floors to be laid throughout the downstairs. The reason I needed achingly expensive wood floors laid was because I had asked the previous owners to remove all the carpets. I had requested the removal of the carpets because there were signs of carpet moths, and as anyone that's had carpet moths knows, once you've got them, it is very hard to get rid of them. But I was quite happy because I naively thought that even though the cottage was built in the early 80's, there might be some lovely old floorboards lurking underneath which I could buff up or paint. Of course there weren't!! Downstairs were concrete floors and upstairs were chipboard. So my new plan was to put oak flooring in downstairs and replace the carpets (with anti-moth ones) upstairs. If you haven't had oak wood floors installed in your home then you might be surprised to learn how costly they are. Let's just say that I could have bought a secondhand car and gone on holiday for 2 weeks to the Caribbean with that sort of money. 

Tim began removing the skirting boards and it was only when I heard him say, "Oops" a few times that I thought I should have a look. The skirting board was coming off fine but it was also taking half the wall with it. He casually remarked, "Bloody hell, it's like sandstone!" which wasn't helpful. He also said it wouldn't be a problem because he would just fill the holes and re-plaster after the wood floor was laid. If that sounds a bit backwards, it is. The floor should always be the last thing to do when you're renovating so it doesn't get damaged, but I had no choice. The wood floor guys could only fit me in to their hectic schedule because of a cancellation, otherwise I would have had to wait until March! And I couldn't bear another 3 months of concrete floors because it was kicking up horrible dust and was freezing cold to walk on, so needs must. Just as Tim was leaving he looked back at the floor and said, "Hmm, that's weird." Oh no. He had noticed that where the partition wall had been removed – between the kitchen and the living room – the floor seemed to rise up in the middle. He laid his spirit level down and saw that indeed, the floor was not level. You can't lay a wood floor on to uneven flooring so the next day Tim retuned with a jack hammer and a mate of his, and they began digging up the floor in order to re-level it with compound. The noise was so horrific that my neighbour from 3 houses away came round to complain!

With the skirting removed and the concrete floor now level, the wood floor guy came to do his part. Three days later it was finished and looked stunning. Beautiful wide planks of oak with a matte oil finish. Of course, even though I was over the moon with it, paranoia kicked in whenever someone came to visit. Could I ask complete strangers to take their shoes off? Amazingly, I didn't even have to ask... every builder, decorator and carpenter immediately removed their boots and wandered around in their socks. But after about a week, I noticed a strange creaking in the middle of the kitchen floor and one plank in particular seemed to see-saw from one end to the other. I filmed it and sent it to the floor guys. They didn't seem too worried and said, "Oh that's fine, it happens sometimes, we'll come back and fix it in 3 weeks." Three weeks!!! But I knew they were busy, I said it was fine, and spent the next 3 weeks tiptoeing around the area in case I made it worse. They did come back and they did fix it, so the next thing was to put the skirting boards back on. Of course, because of the hold-up fixing the floor, everyone else in the renovation chain was now put back and I had to wait until after Christmas for work to progress again. 

In the meantime, I launched myself into the January sales and managed to buy a washing machine, cooker, extractor fan and fridge/freezer for under £900, saving myself £350... bargain! Or so I thought. Stupidly, I had to forgotten to take the additional height of the 3cm wood floor into consideration when ordering my washing machine, and realised, with horror, that it would no longer fit under the countertop. Oh God. My builder suggested cutting out a section of wood floor and sitting the washing machine into the hole, which sounded awful. The carpenter suggested raising the height of the kitchen counter by 3cm because I was, "tall for a woman" and it, "might stop you getting back ache when cooking and washing up!" Thanks for that Mr. Carpenter. I am now waiting for the washing machine to be delivered this week and hoping for a miracle. Perhaps the manufacturers measured it wrong and it will fit just fine, if not, then my savings of £350 will be spent on raising my counter tops! And I can't even plug my cooker or fridge in until the other work has been done!

As I am writing this, my builder Tim is downstairs and re-attaching the skirting boards. He is also filling the holes in the wall created by him pulling off the original skirting boards and the plumber removing the boiler. Tim is a good builder but with a short attention span. His love of tea breaks, fag breaks and talking means he frequently forgets what he is doing and it's then my job to go round the house at the end of the day and point out where a nail is missing or a hole hasn't been filled. On careful observation I have noticed that he simply cannot talk and work at the same time. I have always known men to be a little rubbish at multi-tasking but Tim takes it to a whole new level. Even if I ask him if he wants a cup of tea, he has to lay down his tools, scratch his head, and then give me an answer. He cannot just say, "yes please" and keep working. Thank God he charges by the job and not by the hour otherwise I'd be broke.

Tim also loves to tell stories, usually about other workmen or local residents, so is a proper little village gossip. He's a natural performer with a wonderful lilting Somerset accent, a deep tobacco-tinged voice and the ability to keep his audience (me) on the edge on my seat! But as soon as he starts talking I know he won't be able to keep working so I sigh, take a seat and listen. He tells me about things he's witnessed on building sites and in client's homes, from botched jobs to dead bodies to affairs, but the best story (today) was about a Curry's delivery driver he knows. Not the best story to tell me when I'm actually waiting for a Curry's delivery, but it's a good one. According to Tim, it is common practice amongst delivery drivers to damage items themselves, so they don't have to deliver them... especially late in the day. He told me of a guy he knew who was supposed to deliver a big American-style fridge to a large house in the middle of the countryside. It was dark and rainy Friday afternoon. The driver was tired and knew it would take at least another hour to get to the address which meant he wouldn't get to the pub until late, so he tipped the fridge off the back of the lorry, rang the depot telling them the fridge was damaged and that he would have to deliver a replacement the following week, then reloaded the fridge on to his lorry and went to the pub!!

I love Tim and his storytelling but I also can't wait for him, nor all the other workmen, to leave. I'm so sick of cleaning and dusting and generally living in a building site. I have never made so many cups of tea in my life nor bought so many packets of biscuits. I am fed up of putting the toilet seat down and always being cheerful when they show up at all hours of the day. I adore male company but my God they are irritating! I have been camped out in one room upstairs for 2 months, sleeping on a mattress with everything I own still in boxes... and the list of things to do for some strange reason, keeps getting longer not shorter. With very little money left, I might have to try Crowdfunding because I have no idea how I'm going to pay for all this: Decorating the house, carpeting the upstairs, buying new interior doors, replacing the front door, buying new blinds and curtains, putting up shelves, buying a bed, installing a shower, re-tiling the bathroom, replacing 3 velux windows, mending the porch and fitting a downstairs loo. And that's just the inside, don't get me started on the garden! 

I love love love my new home and everyone keeps telling me to be patient, that it will be worth it in the end... but what is a home unless you can have your loved ones round for dinner, to hang out or to stay the night? I'm hoping that by Spring I can at least have a few friends round for a meal, so please form an orderly queue, and maybe bring a paintbrush and some cash with you.