Friday, 26 September 2008

Stuff Happens. The End.

Shellfish Tale

Reflections on a Normandy Beach
By A Plumber

Who would be a little cockle
Hiding on a beach,
Where furtive fingers hunt you down
And pluck you like a peach?

Perhaps you’d be a razor clam
Waiting for the tide?
‘Til someone tugs you from your hole
and takes you for a ride!

They rake the sands
They dig with forks
They rip the mussels off their stalks
And when you think you’re safe – oh f*ck it!
You’re rudely flung into a bucket.

Monday 15 September
I insist that we visit the Cathedrale Notre Dame at Coutances and very fine it is too. Beautiful slender stone towers and spires, gorgeous medieval stained glass and the most amazing and awe-inspiring lantern. We have a wander round Coutances and enjoy the window boxes and floral displays before following the coast road back. A stop to enjoy the view proves that not only is the sun shining but it’s hot as well so we go home, change and spend the rest of the day on the beach. Lovely.

Tuesday 16 September
Another run – really enjoyable with some good sightings of the coypu things. Pleasure enhanced when a large male jogger appears some 200 yards in front of me and I burn him off. Shallow? Moi?

Mainly cloudy and cold but during a brief sunny spell we visit Villedieu de Poeles which is a right old catch-penny. Ma strikes up a conversation about the holiday house hideous loo with a man she claims she thought was Tom. Trust her.

Wednesday 17 September
We are supposed to be going for fruits de mer at a restaurant but the prices, coupled with the poor exchange rate, make us think again. Since the shellfish at the supermarkets here are so good we buy all the ingredients for our own slap-up fruits de mer plus two bottles of good white wine for the price of a restaurant meal for one. Eat too much and have a roller-coaster of a night of wild and crazy dreams.

Thursday 18 September
Now longing to go home; there is a distinct feel of autumn in the air that reminds me of new terms and I feel that I’ve had my holiday and want to start doing things. The car has started making ominous noises. Boats? Cars? What else is going to break down? Me, probably. Just don’t let us be marooned here.

Nobody feels like doing much. I go for a run. An old man in a large van coming towards me removes both hands from the steering wheel to applaud me. Despite this I get back to the accommodation in one piece. I suggest a visit to L’Abbaye Sainte-Trinite at Lucerne-D’Outremer which is in a beautiful valley. We drive up and admire the Anglo-Norman tower but no one else feels like going inside. Have lunch and go to the beach where we watch a man making tender conversation with his dog whilst lavishly washing its bottom. They really do aime their chiens here.

On our way to the car Ma and I are accosted by an elderly Frenchman who asks in French whether we have been indulging in a spot of la peche a pied. Can he tell by looking at us? No, we assure him. We are English and we have been sunbathing. ‘Curled up comme a leetle cockle?’ he suggests. ‘I speak a leetle English,’ he tells us, making crafty eyes at Ma, ‘I love you!’ he announces, to Ma’s amusement. Really, she is not safe anywhere.

Saturday 20 September
It’s the best day we’ve had weather-wise – well it would be, wouldn’t it? We’re going home! Closer examination of the car has revealed the source of the ominous noise to be a dodgy wheel bearing. And it’s right where I sit – bloody great! Tom and I elect not to say anything to Ma but decide to allow plenty of time to get to Cherbourg. The wheel, fortunately, does not come off and the day pans out quite well, a leisurely lunch, a walk, some last minute shopping and off to the port.

We find a lovely quiet spot on the boat only to have our peace rudely shattered by a family with young children who attract yet more families with young children. It’s late, the children are tetchy, the parents more so. We could get up but I can’t be arsed so I drink my Scotch to cries of ‘Joshua! Share nicely!’ ‘Jo-Jo! Give Percy back to the little boy!’ and, worse, ‘Freddie! Do you need a POO?’ Ah, the perfect end to a perfect holiday. What else would I expect?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Stuff Happens 2/3

Wednesday 10 September
Begin with a local and very small market at Hayes Pesnel. ‘Rubbish!’ sniffs Ma. An open church is more rewarding with wonderful contrasts between huge mosaics of biblical scenes and amazing modern abstract stained glass. The long roll of honour to the war dead shows the loss to this small town made even more poignant by a stained glass window dedicated to some of the deceased, their faces forever young.

In Avranches Ma buys postcards but the tabac doesn’t have enough stamps so I queue in the post office along with half of Avranches. My schoolgirl French is pushed to the limit when my neighbour in the queue strikes up a rather one-sided conversation with me. From there to the Scriptorial D’Avranches, home of the Mont St-Michel manuscripts and, more importantly so far as I’m concerned, an exhibition of work by Marc Chagall.

Far from being an appetiser for the main course, the manuscript themselves are dramatically displayed and utterly breathtaking. The sense of connection with the scribe of each work is immediate and moving. The Chagall exhibition is a massive delight, spread over a series of rooms and comprising paintings, ceramics, lithographs, studies and the original copper plates. I amuse myself by trying to pick out what, if given the opportunity, I would take home with me (fat chance!). Decide that if I could not have the warm and erotic ‘Song of Song’ series of paintings then I would be quite happy with a very touching print of David watching Bathesheba bathing. Absolutely beautiful.

Thursday 11 September
My second French run. Pouring down with rain which I quite like – feels rather life-affirming. Return to find it’s Pick Holes In Chris Day, so far as Ma is concerned. Apparently my hair is too dark (yes, Ma, I know that Elvis is alive and well and sitting in a Normandy kitchen but it will wash out!), I drink too much and have a beer gut (I have narrowly exceeded my 14 units a week but I am on holiday! And yes, compared to Victoria Beckham I do have a stomach but I wear size 10 jeans – I’m hardly Jimmy Five Bellies) and I was much too strict with my daughters when they were little (yes, and look how disastrously you turned out, Lily and Rose). Later it transpires that Ma is feeling very distressed about her brother Billy, whose funeral is taking place today in Australia and that’s why she’s taking a pop at me.

Friday 12 September
More rain. Our neighbours in the adjoining holiday house go home. Lucky buggers. We visit the Faiencerie de La Baie Du Mont Saint-Michel where Ma orders a number tile for her house, or rather I do it for her and nearly collapse with the strain.

Our next jaunt is to La Baleine, where they ‘faire l’andouille’, a smoked tripe sausage (yes, I’m desperately finding stuff to amuse everyone). Alas, there are no tours today but we see quite enough of the manufacturing process through the open doors of the Andouillerie to satisfy our curiosity. The reality of seeing women in wellies standing in pools of water pushing armfuls of tripe up miles of intestine is almost too much for my digestive system. Tom, brave soul that he is buys a chunk of sausage and some smoked ham. The car stinks of smoke all the way home.

Saturday 13 September.
I get a surprise on my morning run when I hear loud splashes and, peering over the side of the road to the stream below see three strange animals staring up at me. What are they? They are about the size of a Jack Russell with beaver faces… coypu, perhaps?

The sky remains grey so we set off with a vague plan to drive towards Mont Saint-Michel. It soon becomes apparent the whole of France is also heading to Mont Saint-Michel. Decide that the ethereal beauty of the place might disappear on closer inspection – especially when swarming with tourists so we turn back through the back roads towards Avranches and, through overgrown vegetation, catch glimpses of the most beautiful faded fairy tale chateau adorned with slender round towers. All very ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

At Avranches the clothes and shoe warehouse Ma has been eyeing is open at last. Ma flies into a spending frenzy emerging with one pair of boots, a pair of trainers, slippers and three pairs of socks. Amazingly the sun is still shining when we get home so we sit outside and soak it up for an hour.

Sunday 14 September
Ma and I go off on a beaver/coypu hunt and surprise two of them. In the afternoon we brave the beach at Saint Jean Le Thomas. Whilst it’s not especially warm we have a great time observing the French at play.

Three generations of various families come to the beach equipped with pails to gather shellfish; little girls dressed like children not Britney Spears call to ‘Grandmere’ or ‘Papa’ and instead of being told to ‘F*ck off’ there are sweet responses of ‘Cherie?’. A gaggle of middle-aged walkers of both sexes – thirty to forty of them – arrive, heralded by whoops of laughter to use the two toilettes. By the time the last has been the first want to go again – they bang on the wooden doors, joke at each other and gather for endless group photographs. Six riders make their way along the beach, stopping so the horses can investigate the rock pools and bonjouring us as they pass.

And then there are the dogs, dozens of them. In the main they are small, rough-haired and scruffy but, my, how the French aime them. A tiny, tufty, tawny specimen crouches a few feet from us and craps mightily before bounding off with great leaps into the air. ‘Well that’s put a spring in its step,’ Ma observes reducing me to hysterics. ‘Must be feeling a lot lighter after getting rid of that lot.’

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Stuff Happens. What We Did On Our Hols. 1/3

Friday 5 September
Leaving aside the minor irritation that, due to an overcorrection at the salon, my hair colour is vintage Elvis, the holiday does not get off to a good start. The day before we are due to depart Ma, Tom and I go to visit Auntie Joanie hanging on in there despite being given only days to live. On our way we learn that Uncle Sid (he of the Cutty Sark fame, husband of Auntie Joanie) is himself very ill. Auntie Joanie is not looking too bad in the circumstances and we leave feeling quite reassured about her at least.

I’m just about to get out of the car to follow Ma into her flat when I get a call to say that my Uncle Billy in Australia has died. I rush in after Ma before she can pick up her answer phone messages and break the news to her. Ma folds up with grief but won’t cry and shrugs me off when I try to hug her. It’s her way of coping.

Saturday 6 September
2pm. Arrive Portsmouth in pouring rain. Normandy Express not due to board until 3pm but we are in pole position.
3pm. Normandy Express is delayed by an hour due to bad weather.
4pm. Board Normandy Express and note alarming absence of sick bags and pervasive scent of vomit and disinfectant.
5pm. Depart Portsmouth. Beyond the Solent fast cat meets whopping seas. Unnaturally cheerful steward reassures us that, ‘This is good boat.’ Just as well because the wind speed is now force 7 gusting 9. Feel the need of a medicinal Scotch.
12pm. Arrive at freezing holiday home with only black tea and cake to sustain us since we have missed the shops. Open kitchen drawers looking for instructions to heating/domestic appliances/anything vaguely helpful and it becomes apparent that the last occupants simply put their dirty plates, pots and pans back where they found them. Lovely. In addition the downstairs loo is very grim indeed and there is a liberal coating of dust and cobwebs everywhere else.

Discover that the description in the brochure is far from adequate; there is a warning about the steep stairs to the second floor, where Tom and I plan to sleep but nothing about the perilous ancient steps to the first floor which are open-tread, uneven and present an Everest-like challenge to Ma. The good news is there is an en suite to Ma’s room. The bad news is it doesn’t have a loo – you’d think they would mention a little thing like that, wouldn’t you? Ma puts on a brave face but I’m infuriated about her having to negotiate tricky stairs in the night. We retire to bed shell-shocked and knackered. The beds, thank goodness, are clean and dry but creaky as hell and the floor/ceiling arrangement means I can hear Ma breathing in the bedroom below… not exactly conducive to romance.

Sunday 8 September
Break fast with black tea and cake whilst comparing tales of ancient creaking house. Ma spooked out by enormous old fireplace in her room and fears that something will come down it. Assure her that the only thing likely to come down it is Tom clumping over fragile floor/ceiling. Head off in search of supermarket. All shut. Have to make do with hellishly dear ‘8-8’ shop. Back at the house Ma is wearing three jumpers and a fleece.

Monday 9 September
Replenish at U-Marche. Le soleil is actually brilling so we head off to ‘Jardin des Argences’ which is tres charming. Le soleil still brilles so we sit outside in the sunshine for nearly two hours. Smugness rudely interrupted by guest at the adjoining holiday home. We torture ourselves with thoughts of how much nicer their accommodation probably is than ours. Bastards.

Tuesday 9 September
a.m. My first French run; 5m to Sartilly. Set off feeling nervous as I always do on a new run in a strange area. Road safer than I anticipate and French drivers more considerate. Manage a few bonjours with appreciative cyclists, get heckled by a French wag with a cry of ‘Plus vite!’ and exchange a few words about how chaud it is with an old man and a dog.

p.m. The accommodation is a real bummer and doesn’t help the tension that naturally arises when three people have three different ideas of what makes a holiday. Ma likes to shop, Tom likes to watch the sea and I like to explore. My solution is to study all the tourist information trying to come up with suggestions that all of us can bear.

Set off to Musee D’art Moderne Richard Anacreon at Granville. Have now mastered ‘Y a-til une reduction pour les personnes de plus de soixante-cinq ans?’. Better than jabbing my finger at Ma and saying ‘vieux person’. No wonder the girl behind the desk at the jardin looked amused. Wrong on so many levels!

The walk through the old town is beautiful; tall houses, window boxes, little cafes and exotic bars but Ma is finding it very hard to put one foot in front of the other. She pretends that her back isn’t hurting but it’s obvious that she’s in lots of pain. It makes me sad for her and for myself.

‘What we did on our hols’ continues tomorrow.

Painting is 'Bad Moon Rising' by Tom Tomos

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

En Vacances

The pound is falling faster than you can say ‘Thanks, Chancellor!’ there are early warnings of gales in the Channel this weekend and I’m developing a cold. Yes, it can only mean one thing; we’re off on our hols!

We booked this break earlier in the year when Ma was staying with us. Ma adores France but the last time we were there was just after my dad died and it was a bittersweet time for us as we struggled to find our feet again. Our holiday is tinged with sadness once more as we depart with the knowledge that Ma’s beloved elder sister and now her brother, on the other side of the world, are both desperately ill.

It’s been a very sad and painful time, especially for Ma, but come rain, shine or recession I’m determined that the next couple of weeks will bring some light relief.

And finally…
My Ace Gang are having more than their fair share of woes, too. Here’s to you, my lovely girls, and treasured memories of laughter and sunshine to keep us going until we meet again.