The Dreaded Christmas Newsletter

The Christmas cards are fluttering in through the letter box, and so are the round robin letters, lovingly composed to bring you up to date with all the people you no longer remember. This may be my favourite so far.

holly garland

Dear friends

 

 

 

My, doesn’t time fly! I supposed that’s what happens when you’re our age. 2015 has been a very special year for us although, as John likes to points out, it hasn’t quite ended yet.

Our exciting year kicked off with damp-proof treatment to our lounge. The builders got plaster dust literally everywhere, including in my beloved knitting basket. After the re-plastering, we re-decorated. We spent many an evening debating the relative merits of Magnolia versus Almond White. John got the Almond White he wanted. Well, he is the Man of the House.

Here is where I usually include some of the best photos of our year. Our 2014 Christmas letter featured an xray of my new hip, so this one, taken in our garden, is rather different.

tree

Not, alas, the much anticipated bumper crop of berries on our pyracanthus, because John had a bit of a go with the pruning shears right after his latest parking ticket.  At least this time he didn’t punch the traffic warden, which you will agree is a good thing if you recall our Christmas letter 2013.

Since John and I have long retired, the most interesting career developments are the children’s. I am excited to tell you that daughter Tabitha has finally decided what she wants to do, and is now a tattoo artist’s model.

FreeImages.com/Rokla

Our son Graham, who takes more after me, has found his knitting business has really taken off. To complement his range of egg-cosies, he now offers knitted ties, and he has sold three of them in just four months!

In March I had another bout of shingles, and John had an attack of gout. However this did not stop us from enjoying foreign travel. John and I went to Scotland in April. The weather was not as sunny as we had hoped, but we got to play a lot of gin rummy.

FreeImages.com/liensca

Six months ago, I joined a book club which seems quite fun. We do not yet have a Book of the Month. There are however a number of wine labels that are required reading.

The rest of our year was taken up with the replacement of my hip replacement. Here I must thank all our medical friends who got in touch just after receiving our 2014 Christmas letter and pointed out that the stem of the prosthesis was incorrectly positioned. 

FreeImages.com/Ali Taylor

Wishing you and yours all the blessings of the Christmas season, and a wonderful new year to come with peace and prosperity to all (with the exception of ISIL, as John wants me to point out).

Love from

Judy and John

 

 

 

holly garland

An Englishman in New Jersey: Part Two

New Yorkers think of New Jersey as their outside toilet, especially if, like the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, they came from there originally.

Actually, New Jersey is my favourite state, but it takes a bit of getting used to. How did my thoroughly English husband manage his week-long venture into the unknown?

NJ causeway

He couldn’t get what the natives were saying. We had just passed through the toll on the turnpike where I was relieved of about three bucks. “What’s that she said?” he wanted to know.

“She asked me how I was today, and whether we were from England.”

He rested his head back and closed his eyes. It was too puzzling. A little lady who sits sweating all day in a tiny metal booth gives enough of a shit to ask you how you are and whether you’re from England? 

“Welcome to New Jersey,” I said.

By en:User:Mr._Matté [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’d packed way too much stuff.  All we needed for the week was Bermuda shorts and flip flops. And swimsuits, obviously, because between the beach and the pool, we practically lived in them.

One afternoon, two guys were splashing about in the motel pool, alternately hugging and trying to drown each other. I was worried. “He trying to kill you?” I called out.

He surfaced to reply, “Nah. He ain’t gonna hurt me. We’re brothers.”

If you’ve ever heard of Cain and Abel, that’s no consolation.

My husband remarked later, “They didn’t look much like brothers.”

“Perhaps one of them’s adopted,” I suggested.

Just when you think you’ve got the hang of the language, someone breaks into Spanish.

Yep, Spanish is an American language too. However, a sign saying PISO MOJADO is neither an instruction to empty your bladder, nor an explanation of how the floor got wet.

It’s obligatory to visit the legend that is Conte’s Pizza

inside Conte's Pizza, Witherspoon St, Princeton NJ

It has the longest bar in Princeton and ranks as one of the top 33 pizzerias in the nation.  I always have everything on my pizza. Saves a lot of hassle trying to decide.

Also I stop by the drug store on the way there. Saves a lot of hassle later.

Tums assorted berries

Jet lag gets worse with age. Even the modest time difference of five hours left us dazed, drowsy, disorientated, and puffy from fluid retention.

Luckily you can buy melatonin pills at CVS or Rite-Aid at the same time as Tums. Do they work? I have no idea. Some people swear that drinking urine is just as good. Tell you the truth, I had no idea we were that confused.

You may see flashing lights in front of your eyes.

I swear they weren’t there in Norfolk. That’s because they’re fireflies.

You need a permit like this to go onto the beach.

Barnegat Light beach badge 2015

And then you have to show it when asked.

The same goes for your driver’s license. None of this English namby-pamby seven days to produce your documents. Which makes it just like the beach badge, only you can’t get out of trouble by paying five dollars to the Highway Patrolman.

NJ is a highly dangerous place.

We took our lives into our hands and set out for a walk by the Delaware and Raritan canal, though not its whole length as I couldn’t manage 70 miles. We certainly needed the big stick my husband had brought along to protect us. There were nettles galore, even the odd dandelion. Couple of people cycled past and said Hi. A bit further on, a family of turtles sunned themselves on a log. It was bloody terrifying.

old tree by Delaware and Raritan Canal, NJ

Restaurants are family joints. Although it’s probably best not to ask on arrival, as my son once did, “Is this the restaurant owned by the Mafia?”

Here’s what we found parked outside one of them. We had to wait for our table, so we hung around watching people leave. 

Corvette Stingray

The trashy trophies on the sugar daddies’ arms. The Mercs and the Stingrays. The guy putting the hood up on his convertible before driving off, so the wind doesn’t blow his toupee off. The scene could have come straight out of The Sopranos.

Yep, all the stereotypes about NJ are true, and then some. But I would say that. You won’t hear a thing from me about the art, culture, or history because I don’t want the world discovering how good it is.  

 

An Englishman in New Jersey

It always irks me to hear Newark’s Liberty Airport described as being one of New York’s airports.  New Jersey, as any fule kno, is not New York. True, it’s only a short train ride to Penn Station. But it’s equally just a short ride to the heart of the most underrated state of them all.

Rand McNally map NJ

The chemical stench that hits you on the New Jersey Turnpike is enough to put most people off, but I know different. It’s my favourite state.

Admittedly the favourite bit doesn’t begin till some hours after landing. It also relies on my taking the right route onto the NJ Turnpike first time, not ending up in Elizabeth, NJ, where I always have to do a U-turn at the Gulf station. The petrol pump attendant – there’s no self-service gas in the state – is used to me now. “You again, eh? Have a nice day.” But after that you need to step on it. If you hang around in Elizabeth, you get offered crack.

A Christmas pudding can delay all this, as it did when I last brought one in my carry-on. Americans don’t have Christmas puddings, so I was bringing one over for a friend. On arrival, the screening contraption did not like it one bit. Two Homeland Security officers approached. “Ma’am, is this your bag?” They gave me a stern look. Actually I don’t know if they do other kinds of look.

“Yes, it is. And I know what the problem is,” I said, reaching towards the bag to extract the pudding.

“Step away from the bag!” one of them bellowed.

Sainsbury's Christmas pudding

“But it’s only a Christmas pudding.” Idiotically I added, “Here, I’ll show you.”

“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!  I’m not sayin’ it again.”  Her partner reached for his holster.

I got the message. They didn’t want me to blow up the pudding. And I didn’t want a bullet through my chest.

As carefully if it were a landmine, the two officers extracted it from my carry-on.

I finally got a chance to explain.

They were sceptical. “You mean you all eat this in England?”

I confirmed that we did, every Christmas day, though we generally got it out of the plastic first. 

They said it was mighty heavy, ma’am. Yes, I agreed. Indigestion was usual, especially when you’ve already stuffed yourself on the main course.

They let both pudding and me through, all the while shaking their heads and averring that you learn something new every day, ma’am. Ain’t that the truth?

wedding day 2013

This year I brought no pudding, but I did take my husband.  It was high summer, and the flight was full of Camp America kids, except for the seat the other side of us, where there was a walrus, snoring and taking up two arm rests.  

Welcome to the United States of America, they say at Liberty Airport. We had ample time to savour the warmth of the welcome during an hour and a half waiting in line to exhibit our passports, in a hall without air con.  

What did my very English husband find most disorientating in New Jersey?

1 The language.  As half my family is American, conversations with them were a challenge.  Americans do use many of the same words as the English. But then they do and pronounce them all wrong and use them to mean different things. ‘Chips,’ for instance, are not fries. They are crisps. And ‘being sick’ only means you’re ill.

Most puzzling of all, ‘breaking up’ has nothing to do with the end of term. This may explain why, when OH asked if they’d broken up, my 15-year old niece flushed bright red, and said Mommy didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.

2 Then there was the food.

He’d never had grits before. They tasted, he discovered, a bit like semolina.

Smuckers strawberry jam

You can use Smuckers preserve or maple syrup to make ‘em sweet.

Old Barney's Hot Sauce

Or you can smother them in Old Barney’s Hot Sauce if you like your tongue on fire.

A short stack is just two pancakes. But they make them pretty big at Mustache Bill’s Diner.

Mustache Bill's diner, Barnegat Light

Either you take them back in a box if you don’t eat them all. Or, if you do, you go back in a box.

So taken were we with Mustache Bill’s that we queued up (translation: waited in line) for up to an hour to get in. And the OH was desperate to emulate him.

seaweed to look like a moustache

3 The beaches, contrary to popular belief, are not covered in medical waste.

Though there may be sharks. Nobody’s been killed by a shark here for nearly 100 years, but they’re around, or rather one in particular is.

FreeImages.com/ChatrinORockerz

Mary Lee is a thoroughly modern shark with her own Twitter account @MaryLeeShark and over 87k followers. We think she’s pregnant. Hard to tell as she’s a tubby lady, weighing in at over 4 tons, hence, people say, a real Jersey girl. She’s been tagged by OCEARCH so we know she gets around. The East Coast is Mary Lee’s usual hunting ground, though she has been as far afield as Bermuda. Well, a gal needs a decent holiday now and again. 

Did we encounter any sharks? Did The Mob get us by the canal? And was my husband brave enough to uncork the hot sauce? Find out in my next post.

Easy tweet: NJ is underrated, as @D‘s partner discovers An Englishman in New Jersey

Payback Time for Fat Cats

Mishmish went into the basket happily enough, probably anticipating a drive to her weekend retreat.

cat in the basket

She wasn’t purring when half a mile later we parked outside the vet’s.

The waiting-room was full of red setter. Yep, just one of him, but he was bouncing around as if he’d eaten springs for breakfast.  

red setter

We installed ourselves in the corner next to a pooch with a rhinestone collar. An elderly dachshund waddled in, rolling from side to side like a cross-channel ferry. His owner had turned-out feet and a similar gait. She heaved herself onto the bench.

I know. I look like my cat too. For a start, I’m covered in orange fur. Unlike Mishmish, however, I had a streaming cold. People recoiled visibly from me and my tissues, or would have done had there been any room.

Last time we were here, it had been for a check-up with the vet nurse, an enormously fat woman who pronounced my cat to be overweight. She calculated her BMI and promptly recommended dietary modification.  I wanted to lock the nurse into a room and give her nothing but a lettuce leaf alternate days. Preferably an expensive lettuce leaf.

lettuce leaf

Today it was for annual jabs. The vet had a Littmann stethoscope. This is the king of stethoscopes, but it didn’t impress Mishmish. We had the obligatory chat about female ginger cats being unusual, seeing as they need two x chromosomes with the relevant gene to be ginger. It’s just like haemophilia, only more desirable.

The vet looked Mishmish over and said she was a big girl.

I blew my nose and pointed out that she was big-boned.

“Are you OK?” asked the vet, his syringe poised. I didn’t tell him about my raging sore throat for fear of getting penicillin, gentamicin and a £200 bill.

Mishmish duly immunised, I paid at the desk, but the visit wasn’t over yet. I still had to pick up the prescription cat food I’d ordered.

We waited by the reception desk behind a huge slab of a man, stubbled and tattooed, with an award-winning builder’s cleavage. He’d come to collect his dog after surgery, so I heard.

“What’s the animal’s name?” asked the receptionist.

“Twinkle.”

Twinkle, it turned out, was a bichon frisé with a bandaged paw.   If you’re not familiar with the breed, it makes toy poodles look impossibly butch.

Twinkle and Macho Man left, the receptionist took a few calls, and there we still were. “I’m waiting for my prescription cat food,” I told her again, not quite as patiently as the first time. My baby could starve!

empty cat bowl

She went to look but it hadn’t been delivered, apparently. “What kind is it?”

“It’s the metabolic diet,” I said.  

The waiting room nodded collectively. Pet owners know what metabolic diet means. It screams “SLAG! YOU LET YOUR PET GET FAT.”

The woman with the dachshund fixed me with a rheumy eye. 

I felt like blaming my husband. He gives her high calorie treats, I wanted to say. But then I’d have been castigated for not controlling him as well. There’s really no excuse now that there are special diets for flabby felines and activity centre toys to exercise lazy cats, not to mention various harnesses and contraptions to stop spouses dishing out treats.

leads, harnesses and restraints

They still couldn’t find the metabolic diet. Only ordinary cat food. We’d been here about 45 minutes by then. In her basket Mishmish was getting stressed, and I had distributed viruses evenly across the waiting room.

“We’re going away for a few days and I need the food. I did order it in plenty of time, you know.” But it was no good. The other owners had already judged me. I was the kind of idiot who feeds her kid burgers through the school fence.

Didn’t they know that junk food is much cheaper than the healthy stuff? I felt a twinge of sympathy for parents of tubby children.

The receptionist gave up and a vet nurse was summoned. She couldn’t find our order either.

Eventually the fat nurse from last time was called in and she quickly found what we needed, our 4kg bag of Advanced Weight Solution.  

Hill's Prescription Diet Feline Metabolic Diet advanced weight solution

I’m far better disposed towards her now. She can even have a lettuce leaf every day.

***

If you have space for a cat or dog in your life, please consider getting one from a charity like the Mayhew Animal Home in NW London.

Is Researching a Book Better than Sex?

Some authors say that research is the best bit about writing. I’ve never believed that. What’s so great about spending long hours in the stacks at the library, or ages trawling the internet to find out what people had for dinner in 17th century Crete?

reference library

But now that I write fiction, research has taken on a whole new hue. I wouldn’t say it’s better than sex, even if in some cases it IS sex. Here’s a rundown of some recent endeavours.

1 Intel gathering for a steamy bathroom scene.

steamy bathroom scene

Is it possible for the earth to move while scrubbing lime-scale off the taps?  Everything had to be just so: a non-slip bathmat, a filthy dirty bathtub (this takes months), and of course the right bathroom cleaner.

Cillit Bang

2 The front seat of the Mini scene. If a couple feel inclined to bonk in their Mini near a lighthouse in Norfolk, can they do so without tearing an Armani suit or a ligament? We may never know for sure. Thanks, man who rapped on the window to say, “Ere, lost me mobile. Can I borrow yours?”

Mini Cooper S

3 The Gents at the hospital. There’s a scene in my work-in-progress where a character has to rinse his tackle in the loo at Watford General Hospital. I couldn’t do this one on my own, but the great thing about being married is all those vows. My other half is an honest guy, so he takes such things seriously.

However, it proved not to be so simple. The water was either freezing cold or boiling hot, and the hand dryers were at the wrong height. Besides, who’d actually dip his bits into a Dyson Airblade?

Dyson Airblade hand dryer

4 Undercover underwear work. Hopefully this quiet day would keep me on the right side of the law. St Michael may be the patron saint of underwear. They’ve even made briefs with the word Gentleman woven into the elastic, just like the Diesel ones say Diesel. But John Lewis has the range of men’s kecks I needed for my research. So there I was, checking out the feel and, more important, the scent of the fabrics used in boxers, briefs, budgie-smugglers, front-loaders, posing pouches and thongs.

Pierre Cardin knitted briefs

As I crumpled the waistbands and studied the gussets, I managed to side-step six shop assistants, or, as John Lewis calls them, partners. Unfortunately I didn’t spot one of my patients who was shopping for Y-fronts. He caught me with my nose up a pair of Calvin Klein trunks (low-rise, if you want to know). It’s funny, but he hasn’t made an appointment to see me since.

5 Bridge over troubled water. It used to be so easy to climb in and out of King’s College, Cambridge after the back gate was locked.

King's College Cambridge bridge (1819)

But what about now, after they’ve added extra ironwork as a deterrent?  As I found out, there’s a very real risk of losing your footing and falling into a deep and murky ditch, especially if you’re 40 years older than the last time you did this.

I tried to think calming thoughts.

Keep Calm.You're in Cambridge

This is hard when a couple of tourists are standing over you, offering to ring an ambulance. A passing medical student thought an air ambulance would be more appropriate. Perhaps he hoped Prince William might pitch up.  What got me out of the ditch in the end was a snooty college porter, incensed that I was doing my research on his patch.

6 An overnight stay in a bookshop.

bookshop

Luckily I didn’t have to do this myself, or enlist any of my family, as an American tourist did exactly that in late 2014.

Right. That’s it. From now on, I’m doing all my research on Twitter. Though I will miss my husband.

***

I’ll be at the Indie Author Fair at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on April 17, and so will lots of other authors. Why not come in, see their books, and maybe ask them about their research? The event is free.

Indie Author Fair

What’s Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander

I’m all in favour of egalitarian relationships, as I’m sure you are. Last week I blogged about how to annoy the hell out of your husband, so this week it’s only fair to cover the ways in which your other half can drive you round the bend.

If you dished it out, you’ve got to take it – right? So woman up and let your husband (partner, boyfriend, lover, whoever) do his worst. Here are some of his methods.

leaving the loo seat up

1 Battles in the bathroom. And no, leaving the toilet seat up doesn’t count. It’s just too predictable. Blokes can do far more infuriating things in bathrooms. Like locking the door and singing along to the radio at full volume, so he doesn’t hear you bashing with all your might, pleading to be let in before your bladder bursts.

Like leaving the bath-tap in the ‘shower’ position, so you get an impromptu soaking when you next try to run a bath.

Like using up the last of your megabucks-a-bottle sodium-free shampoo on his own barnet – and later refilling the bottle with the ordinary stuff. The kind that works like paint-stripper on your expensively Brazilian-straightened hair. 

sodium chloride free shampoo

2 Reveal that he’s much younger than you. There’s no going back with this one, because it’s the kind of thing people remember. Then, even if he’s barely a year or so younger, he’s forever known as your toy boy. For added impact, he may even tell people you’re older when it isn’t true.

3 Playing dumb. Poor lamb, he does get confused between your hairbrush and the cat’s.

brushes

As you can see, they look nothing like each other. Not to begin with, anyway.

He may also fail to distinguish between coasters and your favourite books. This one’s really challenging, since both are vaguely rectangular and can be found on tables.

coasters

coasters

not coasters

not coasters

Then he makes it tough to get angry because he wears an innocent face that plainly says, “I’m only a man. What do I know?”

4 Cooking fabulous meals. Which means using every single pan in the house, and leaving it in the sink. “I’ll do it later.” Course he will. Three days later.

5 Doing the laundry. This includes washing your cashmere socks in the machine. In case this hasn’t happened to you yet, I’ll tell you that this shrinks them to the size of baby socks and makes them as soft as a kitchen scourer.  There’s no option but to buy another pair. Which your other half will also put in the washing machine. “Just being helpful, darling.”

6 Being a duvet bandit. Like marriage, it all starts off equal, but come morning you’re hypothermic and sleep-deprived. Your side of the bed ends up like this.  

your side of the bed

I tried to photograph the other side, but I tripped over in two acres of duvet and sprained my ankle before I got a decent shot.

7 The final one, the ne plus ultra, without which no programme of annoyance would be complete, and frankly you may as well stick a couple of fingers down your throat.

He does this: totally amazes all your friends. Maybe he cooks them all a fabulous dinner (AND clears up afterwards). Then he sings YOUR praises to the skies, declaring that you’re prettier than Claudia Schiffer, smarter than Stephen Hawking, and funnier than Omid Djalili.

It’s totally sick-making, of course. But it reminds you that, despite the fact that he’s driven you round the twist, he’s a keeper. 

goose

A Holiday Home for the Cat

Moving house is a real performance. Just ask my cat.

Even if your heart isn’t set on a pad with an eye-watering price tag, like London’s Princes Gate or the Bishops Avenue aka Billionaires’ Row, it’s a major expense, and that’s before stamp duty. There are also surveys to arrange, solicitors to pay, and a mortgage to sort out. Get ready too for the gazumping, gazundering and chains which make the property game an expensive version of snakes and ladders.

cats have no such worries

Cats have no such worries. All Mishmish had to do was let herself be transported to a weekend retreat.  “We’re going on a mini-break,” I tell Mishmish. She takes this announcement in her stride.

checking the cat basket

The weekend starts well because she loves her basket. This always surprises me, considering it’s only used for transporting her to the vet and back. Maybe it’s the ‘and back’ bit she remembers best.

The journey itself is no trouble, though it’s hard for the humans to squeeze into a car packed to the gunwales. It’s all very reminiscent of trips with my three children when they were young. Only in this case there are two cat trays, a favourite water bowl, the special cat food, her favourite toys, and of course The Blanket.

Not that anyone would call it a blanket now. You can always tell who has cats. Their blankets look like towels and their towels look like knitting mistakes, says the author of How to Live with a Calculating Cat. This little book has been making people laugh since 1962 because it’s so damn true.

Anyway, on arrival Mishmish bolts out of the basket and heads under the IKEA sofa. There she stays, oblivious of efforts to coax her out.

cat under the IKEA sofa

Husband and I put out food, water, toys, The Blanket, even a welcoming sign.

I love my cat

We talk to her in a silly voice. She sits there watching us make idiots of ourselves.

After a few hours our knees hurt and I wonder if she’ll be there until the sofa self-destructs. This could take a while. Many people I know have an Ektorp sofa and it lasts years, sometimes decades. As reliable as a Volvo, though without ABS brakes.

We tell each other that you can’t make a cat do something. You can only make a cat want to do something.

Actually, scratch that. If your cat doesn’t want to do something, it’s never going to happen.

Cats are highly territorial, but my first ginger cat was far more adaptable. Bananas went places. As a student, I’d take her from London to Brighton and back. When I was a junior doctor, I’d often have to spend 80 hours at the hospital, so I’d take her with me to my on call room if nobody else could look after her.

But I have to accept Mishmish is different. She’s a homebody. And now she’s turning a couch potato.

Over the course of the weekend, she doesn’t venture out, not even to use the tray placed about 5 feet away. I get that. If there are predators around, a fresh deposit will give away your presence faster than a big brass plate on the door. But still.

So after 24 hours we go home, with Mishmish having seen no more than the underside of the Ektorp sofa.

Back and seat frame: fibreboard, moisture-resistant particleboard, plywood, solid pine, polyurethane foam 20 kg/cubic metre.
Cover: 100% cotton. Machine wash, warm 40°C.

IKEA Ektorp 2-seater sofa

We try again two weeks later. It begins exactly the same way, with Mishmish heading straight for the sofa to complete her PhD in furniture construction. All I can hope for was that she might graduate to an armchair for her post-doctoral research.

The breakthrough comes on Sunday around 2 a.m. This, I can only assume, is the moment she realises she isn’t going to be mauled by a lion, and the ceiling won’t cave in if she emerges from her shelter.

Her eyes are wide. There are loads of new crannies to investigate and new places to play.

nooks and crannies

“Cupboards! Wow! This one must be mine.”

cupboard

“Ooh, windows!”

window on the world

“And what’s this? Instead of wooden flooring there are carpets! That means the whole house is a scratching pole. “

carpets on the stairs

We’re kind of sleepy but this cat, having conserved her energies, is ready for action.

Pets depend on us, but they’re not children. Still, I get a warm glow now I see Mishmish likes it here. And it thrills me that she’s now eating and drinking.

Over the next few hours she uses both trays, sending the cat litter flying. I’m grinning from ear to ear with pride. Was I this delighted when my kids first used their potties and upturned them over each other? I’m really not sure, because my eyelids are drooping and I’m done in. Must repair to the sofa for a rest.

On top of it, not underneath.

IKEA Ektorp sofa again