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Saturday, 25 April 2015

An average day in my life – Part two

Now freshly showered, I’m ready to attack the second part of my day which, on a non-shopping day, involves desk work. But the animals can’t/won’t be ignored, and there’s plenty to be done. Downstairs the dogs have become animated – they’re ready for breakfast and keen as mustard. As the moment approaches their behaviours change markedly. Max gambols around in circles stuffing as many gifts as he can in his mouth to offer the provider, while Aby flaps about arranging her toys in a nice tidy heap on her bed. Hunter may have lost many of his senses, but timing is not one of them and he gradually forms a canine barricade at the bottom of the stairs. Presumably this is his way of attracting attention to the meal-giver, although I’m uncertain as to whether falling over an ancient dog really does improve progress.

One might think that supplying a basic meal to dogs is a simple one – but not in our case. In our house tinctures and tablets play a vital, if bitter, role in the first repas of the day. And it has to be dealt with by an expert because the calculation of who gets what, and when, is no simple task, especially in Hunter’s case. To explain this I need to remind you of the state we found him in.

One day, on our way to the local auberge, we found Hunter flat out in the middle of a road. He’d been abandoned and was lying, too weak to move, slowly baking in the hot afternoon sun. He was horribly emaciated, covered in cuts, crawling with bugs and I’m afraid to say that his body odour was powerful enough to repel a skunk. Since Jack, my husband, isn’t a skunk, I asked him to carefully carry the poor dog to the side of the road and guard him whilst I drove back to the house to get some food and water. Of course we ended up taking him home.

Hunter lived through the night and we took him to our vet the next day for examination. In addition to the ‘superficials’, it emerged that he was suffering from several diseases, and playing host to a number of interestingly-named parasites which we rather lamely grouped under the global term of ‘worms’. But we all knew what they were. This had three significant outcomes. We parted with, (or “donated” as Jack puts it) a great deal of money. Our vet has always been very happy to see us but, now that Hunter is part of the process, he’s absolutely overjoyed. We have a huge great list of expensive potions and pills (including a rather pleasant smelling antiseptic shampoo) that must variously be administered to our amiable old hunting dog. Jack maintains he’s more expensive to keep going than a 30-year-old BMW 7 series, and he’s thinking about asking the vet to start running an air miles scheme.

Then there’s Max. Our loving little Australian Shepherd dog is still recovering from a serious leg injury, and he needs medication, together with natural products, to eliminate the inflammation in his knee, and help protect his joints from future damage.

Finally Aby, not to be outdone, enjoys a perfectly pink vitamin pill every morning, so much so that she looks decidedly put out when her regular dosage runs out. So with this complex set of prescriptions that would test even the brightest algorithm specialist, a mathematician is required. Jack, being an unsettlingly hyper-intelligent engineer, is just the man for the job. And he manages magnificently – up to a point.

Dog food storage and dining takes place in our utility room. It now resembles a chemist’s dispensary, and has recently benefitted from Jack’s additions of bar charts, spreadsheets, and I’m sure I saw a flowchart in there the other day. These regularly updated masterpieces list the name and purpose of drug, quantity and day of dosage (because different ones are given on different days) for each animal. The levels of precision are meticulous. Absolutely nothing can go wrong. Can it?

Usually I leave him to get on with preparing the canine breakfast. Aby and Max very quickly reach fever pitch and whine frantically, while Hunter stands, legs braced against his two fellow dodgems, swaying slightly and (for some extraordinary reason) his teeth start chattering. The first time I heard this I thought something awful had happened to one of the machines in the kitchen. But no – it was him. It’s quite a tremendous noise, which is emitted with the skill of a ventriloquist, because he retains his perfectly still hangdog expression with absolutely no lip movement whatsoever. The other point to note is that he only has a few teeth left in his mouth so quite how he manages to connect them and drum up such a din is a mystery. But he does. Unfortunately none of these animal antics do anything for my husband’s nerves, and things are apt to go downhill at the point of administration. Just as I’m about to settle down at my desk upstairs, my sense of purpose is often interrupted by a roar from Jack. Evidently there’s been a mixed reaction to the meal and I know exactly what’s just happened.

Hunter is fine, and stoically munches his way through mountains of tablets laced with dog food. Aby is too. She nibbles delicately at her meal, savouring the morsels with appropriate femininity and, upon completion, dabs her mouth elegantly with her imaginary napkin. Max on the other hand isn’t like that at all. Despite reassurances from our vet that his medication tastes like dog treats, Max doesn’t like them. He inhales the dog food, but has developed a unique knack of swirling the pill around his mouth, and surreptitiously spitting it out the ‘side door’ when he thinks Jack isn’t looking. But we’re on to him now, and close post-meal scrutiny of the floor tiles is required to check for incriminating evidence, and is often the cause of Jack losing his patience when he attempts to re-post the tablet in Max’s mouth.

I now know that I can ignore one human shout of rage, but when a second or even a third bellow follows, it’s clear that Max isn’t playing ball. I’ll rush down to the utility room and typically find Jack on his hands and knees wearing two or three pairs of reading glasses, searching for the half-sucked offender which has now cemented itself to a tile somewhere. His incandescent rage doesn’t seem to help his close vision at all, so I’ll take over, find the pill, peel it off the floor, and spend the next five minutes coaxing Max to swallow it. All this with Jack in the background muttering about Max being clearly defective and therefore ought to be sent back under warranty.

Eventually I succeed in re-administering Max’s tablet which, by now, is the size of a pinhead. Meanwhile, the time wasted has created some tension surrounding Hunter. Once he has finished eating and then drunk a vast quantity of water (courtesy of another of his diseases), he needs to go out immediately. And since his top speed is a slow shuffle, there’s a pressing need to avoid an embarrassing leakage from the waterworks department before he reaches the door. Thus far we’ve avoided an accident, but Max’s stubborn attitude towards his medicine is not helping at all.

If it’s Jack’s turn to take the dogs for their early morning walk, I’ll then leave him to it and can often hear him grumbling his way towards the field, moaning to the trees about the trials of living with idiot animals. On the whole, though, I’m fairly certain that this early breath of fresh air does him the world of good.

Retracing my steps to our study I sit down to open my emails. I’ll glance wistfully at my pile of notes for Fat Dogs… Part 3, but I haven’t got time to start writing at the moment. I put them aside and attend to business correspondence. Once complete, I turn to Facebook, and WLM (We Love Memoirs). This is done with a mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm because, being the least technically-minded person I know, things often go terribly wrong from this point on.

I don’t agree with my husband’s opinion that I suffer from “Technoplaegia” (implying massive technical incompetence), but I do accept that my ‘poke and hope’ computer strategy doesn’t always achieve the desired results. His unfair accusations were originally made during my early failed attempts at intricate moves like cutting and pasting documents, and also on occasions when I have managed to prod the button at an inopportune moment and accidentally sent a message to a complete stranger. Filing documents to this day remains a mystery, and I can spend hours ferreting around for a vital piece of information that isn’t where I thought it was.
Imagine my fear and apprehension, then, when it was suggested that I needed to become acquainted with Facebook. Jack was probably even more concerned, but his main anxiety was related to the health of my computer and his nerves in his capacity as local ‘help-desk’ rather than any altruistic thoughts about my plight.

My main reason for using Facebook is to access WLM. My learning curve with this new-fangled system has been desperately long, but, with the help of innumerable kind and forgiving people in this wonderful group, I’m finally getting the hang of the basics. Whilst I’m probably best described as a plodder, this hasn’t prevented me from enjoying the camaraderie of fellow members. To that end I can easily lose track of time as I follow the activities and news from others. But an even greater challenge has now presented itself.

Just a couple of weeks ago it was suggested, by an eternal optimist, that I should also set up a Twitter account. This sadly misguided person was someone who had assumed a level of computer savvy that simply does not exist. However, in a moment of rash confidence I decided that my new-found skills in social networking were entirely up to the task. It turns out they aren’t!

As a friend put it, “When you first start working with Twitter it’s very odd – it’s a bit like a weird parallel universe.” I couldn’t agree with her more. My early forays into this heady world have been nothing short of devastatingly bad. I am that person who thought a # lived exclusively on a music score sheet, and the @ was related to price lists, or email addresses.

As experienced users will know, messages posted on Twitter are not only liberally littered with these symbols, they are also often two-tone, blue and black. I’m certain that this is desperately significant, but to assume that I might have got the hang of it all would be woefully incorrect. If there really is a sentence intended in a Tweet, I frequently struggle to work out what it means, only to be regularly thwarted by techno-speak. As luck would have it yet another group of tremendously patient people have come to my aid. They have taken me by the avatar hand, and are currently guiding me through the basics of this high-tech maze. Their help is priceless. But the fact remains – I am still largely clueless. I have managed to construct a line or two, randomly decorating my messages with the odd symbol here and there, but the decision whether or not to ‘Tweet’, ‘Retweet’, ‘Favourite’ or ‘Follow’ is still largely lost on me. I know I can count on the cyber-experts to help, but do feel that their endless levels of goodwill must eventually come to an end.

Jack’s tolerance of electronic social interactions expired with e-mail. In fact he still glowers with intense hatred at his smart-phone, whenever it makes a noise of any kind. And he absolutely refuses to take any interest in the various social networking innovations. This has left me spending hours making, and attempting to ‘un-make’ mistakes with a learning-curve that shows no sign at all of evening out.

All of this takes time and before I know it – it’s lunchtime. I’m usually alerted to this by the dogs. Their internal clocks are remarkably accurate, and they are hungry. I get up from my desk, glance wistfully at my untouched notes for book three, and go down to prepare our meal.

Progression to the kitchen is different to breakfast, and the pattern is always the same. Aby, dish cloth in paw, bounds enthusiastically up the stairs to meet me. Max is usually dragging my wellie around the house, which he bashes against the walls in his attempts to present it to me in exchange for a snack. And Hunter is standing in the middle of the kitchen waiting patiently for something, although he can’t quite remember what it is. There’s absolutely no point in me doing anything about cooking our lunch until they are dealt with. So off I go to the dispensary and produce their favourite pigs’ ears, which are received with distracted delight.

Cooking on my lovely range is a joy, but can also end up as a crowded affair. After a few minutes I am gradually re-joined by the dogs and sometimes Brutus the cat (on chicken or fish-recipe days), and we jointly produce something that is fit for humans. Happily, so long as meat is involved, Jack is very easy to please – which is just as well because he is more often than not served ‘speed-food’. It may be nutritious, but does lack the finesse of a dedicated home-maker. However, on those days where he has had to deal with acute animal problems, or another of my computer crashes, I’ll pacify him with one of his favourites. After all, what red-blooded Englishman doesn’t enjoy a healthy portion of Toad in the Hole?

 With the meal served, I sit down to eat, and reflect on my morning which has resulted in a mixture of abject technical failures and the odd tentative success. Amazingly, half the day has gone already. There’s something I desperately want to do, but will my afternoon activities allow this? I’m really not sure.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

An average day in my life – Part one

In spite of living in the middle of nowhere, we do seem to lead very busy lives. Not in the:

 “Arrrgh I’m late for work, where are the kids? Noooo… Look at the time – now we’re late for school too. Oh damn, I’ve forgotten to put the cat… Did I say cat? No, rubbish out for the bin men!”  

Sort of a way. Ours is different altogether, and actually the reasons aren’t usually associated with humans at all. With a notable absence of cities, schools and office buildings, it might therefore be hard to guess why our days zip past so quickly. So what really happens during an average 24 hour period here?

Our nights are usually quite active, but not for reasons that one might imagine, and it involves one of our animals. Brutus, our lovable moggy, alternates between clandestine stalkings,
and sharing my pillow when an emergency nap is required. Generally once, and sometimes twice each night, despite being sound asleep, we’re rudely jerked into consciousness by the sound of a not-so-stealthy pounding up the stairs. We instantly know who it is. But just to confirm our worst fears, the velvety thuds are followed by a succession of mews that rapidly turn into downright meows. This tells us that Brutus has re-entered the building, and requires immediate attention. Jack, knowing what is about to happen, finds the whole process entirely unsatisfactory. It was only the other night when he groaned that it was like trying to sleep in a cat-ridden Thai Buddhist temple (which I’m sure it isn’t), before rolling over and dropping back off to sleep. Then again I can’t say I blame him for this attitude, cat-visits aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

You might now be thinking, ‘Why on earth don’t they close the bedroom door? Simple – job done!’ I promise you that we have tried that already, but our attempts were quickly foiled. Brutus took an extremely dim view of our clumsy tactic, and developed a masterful and dastardly plan to deal with the situation. On arriving at the closed door in the middle of the night, he proceeded to scratch violently at the paintwork. This was accompanied by a prolonged session of wailing like a distressed baby until, close to hysteria ourselves, we finally let him in. A lengthy session of water-boarding might have been kinder on our nerves during those witching hours. So, being effectively powerless to withstand such successful feline counter-measures, and having some concerns for our door, we have no other option but to give him free rein.

Somewhere between 2 and 4am Brutus usually strolls in, lumbers on the bed and takes his time to find the most suitable spot on the duvet. He is, of course, awake because he’s normally in charge of the night-shift, but these duties can tire even the fittest cat. Eventually satisfied with position one, and being admirably fastidious about personal hygiene, the next job is to see to his ablutions. This is quite a noisy affair involving a mixture of throaty purrs, licks, ‘scrunchels’ and stretches. Not the stuff of human sweet dreams at all. Once that’s dealt with, and the nocturnal detritus has been scattered all over the bed, he’s ready to settle down. A new, cosier position is needed for this. In the winter it’s usually on top of my head which seems to be warm and, up to a point, provides a constant warm air-flow. But during the summer months he’ll switch to a position between Jack and I, where he’ll extend his significant bulk across all available pillows. Several grumbles, grunts and a short pillow-duel later, I inevitably find myself with my head suspended between a tiny corner of the pillow and the mattress.

Our fat cat will be lying next to me in an elevated position, vibrating contentedly as he purrs his way into an uninterrupted sleep. Exhausted and disgruntled, I slip back into a fitful doze.

Living where we do in the countryside, alarm clocks are never needed. At exactly the same time, during the summer months we’re awakened by a clamour of noise coming from outside. Bleary-eyed, with a stiff neck and bags under my eyes the size of tyres, I know it’s dead on 5am. The birds have woken up! Tiny though they may be, our cock quail birds are absolutely full of beans. Their triumphant, shrill calls pack a heck of a punch in the vocals department, and cut through the air like a power drill. Not to be outdone, the cockerels crow to their girls and to everyone else in the area. But that’s not all. Our pheasants are awake too, and decide to join in this disorderly morning chorus. So these signals, together with our decidedly less raucous garden birds, mean the arrival of a new day, and the commencement our first set of animal duties. But getting cracking on these is not always that easy. 

Making it downstairs to the kitchen can be a bit of a job because, on hearing the first foot fall, the steps suddenly transform into an escalator of fur. 

For personal safety reasons I take the precaution of creeping down as silently as I can in an attempt to make it to the bottom before I’m discovered. But my ruse never works. One creak of a step and I’m rumbled. Aby and Max bound towards me, forming a canine welcoming party, and greet me like a long-lost friend. I nearly make it, but such is their level of joy at seeing me after all those hours, that I quickly end up pinned to the bottom half of the staircase, too weak to withstand their affectionate onslaught. I eventually do peel them off, and fight my way towards the kettle. The only thing on my mind now is that essential morning cuppa to help revive my energies. But progress is painfully slow.

At this stage Hunter still hasn’t joined in the greetings. That’s because he’s stone deaf, and luckily hasn’t heard anything at all. Once satisfied with the staircase cuddles session, Aby transforms into a creature manifesting sweetness itself. She’ll twitter coyly around the edges, generally being desperately feminine. I swear that if she was given a mop and duster, she’d know exactly what to do with them. However, she does have one extremely unfortunate way of demonstrating her undying love for everyone which we can’t seem to stop. Aby will run full tilt at the target person, and plunge her head between their legs. We’re used to it now, but it was this ingratiating gesture that nearly upended poor old Madame Benedict one day, and caused her to turn into a human parachute, as her skirt was inflated by a mass of deliriously happy Australian Shepherd dog. To her absolute credit she managed to remain upright, only gasping “Oh là là” a couple of times, while I rummaged around her nether regions in my attempts to recover our recalcitrant animal.

Max manifests his affections quite differently, but these can be equally challenging. For some reason it’s very important for him to have something in his mouth. If he doesn’t have a dog toy, he’ll lovingly grab at whatever’s handy, which at that time of the morning is usually my dressing gown tie. This leads to a tug of war which he thinks is a super fun early game. During these regular tussles I’ve often reflected on how surprisingly strong he is. Ignoring my sleepy pleas of “leave!” he’ll yank a lump of material, and attempt to drag me, sliding, across the floor as I hang on to my modesty. It’s surprising how little friction a slipper can generate in these situations. I try to stop myself from unravelling completely, and finally summon up the energy to issue a curt obedience-related command which gets him to give up the game. But then, still deeply full of love, he’ll swipe me with a great big lick. This is only marginally less dreadful than the dressing gown mêlée, but every time I shout at him to “stoppit” he’ll peel back his lips, give me a huge toothy smile, and start again. In these circumstances it can be difficult to remain firm.

Already a little jaded, and with very damp calves, I finally make it to the kettle. Hunter, somehow alerted by the movement, then wakes up and comes staggering towards me. This causes great tension all round. Hunter is ancient, and we now know to our cost that when he wakes up, he needs to go outside – immediately! Kettle and tea for the time being abandoned, I about turn and direct Hunter (Max once again attached to my dressing gown), and bouncy Aby to the door. Whatever the weather the door is flung open and out pour the dogs to relieve themselves, and join in with the morning chorus. This is my moment. I take a quick peek at the assembled company, and close the door on our canine family members. Bliss!

I’m definitely in need to my first cup of tea now. I take a second to re-wrap myself and head steadfastly towards the kettle, relishing the thought of a light breakfast sans animaux. But life’s not like that here. Just as I’m collecting my mug, there’ll be an imploring meow that comes from behind me. Brutus, wonderfully refreshed from a comfortable sleep is halfway down the stairs, stretching luxuriantly along three steps. I’m pretty sick of him at this stage so continue with the simplest of morning tasks. I’ve just about managed to click the kettle on when he materialises, now winding around my legs. It's no good, I know to my cost that failure to see to his breakfast needs instantly, will end up in a claw-sharpening session on my slippers. I stop what I'm doing, leave the kettle to boil, and dutifully follow the cat to his dish.

Finally, finally I’m ready to sit down. I now have my tea, my yoghurt and my computer tablet which is bursting to share the headlines of the day. I raise my mug wearily to my lips, ready to savour the elixir of life that comes in small perforated bags from Yorkshire, when bang! I should be shocked but I’m not. Max has been working on his door-opening techniques, but hasn’t quite got to grips with them yet. Instead he head-butts it, a practice he apparently hopes might do the trick instead. Everyone loves a trier. I look round to see three dogs peering hopefully at me, intent on joining in with breakfast. I know that there’ll be no peace for the door unless I do something, so up I get again, let them in and they settle down for a millisecond until Jack comes down. Then the welcome party quickly regroups to produce a repeat performance around him.

With breakfast eventually done and dusted, I mildly wonder whether I felt any different when I was on the school run. Those days seemed pretty hectic too. But it’s already getting towards 7.30am now, and I’ve no idea how it got that late so quickly. Partly revived, I rush upstairs, jump in the shower and prepare myself for the next part of the day.

I’ll bring the second part to you next week. In the meantime I reflect on whether I’d change these animal-related antics for a leisurely life in the city? That’s easy – no I would not!  

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A day trip through France

 AS far as my husband Jack is concerned, planning a trip that’s going to last more than one day constitutes both a major project and also a mental trauma. He rants and raves about the irresponsibility of leaving the animals in someone else’s care, and is convinced that they’ll all be dead as doornails by the time we get back. I, on the other hand, just think it’s his way of saying that he’d prefer to stay at home in perfect solitude, to do what he wants, when he wants.

I consider the animal situation quite differently. I do believe that most people are capable of supplying our chickens and game birds with their seed and water, and we take precautions to make sure that the forest animals are provided with ample supplies of maize. Being wild, I'm also confident that they can slum it for a few days by dragging themselves to the nearest stream for water, and substitute their usual luxury diet by nibbling on a couple of acorns or blade of grass or two while we’re away. Poor things. However, Hunter is a different matter altogether.

Hunter is a very old dog whom we found abandoned on the road last year. He has more illnesses than I can list here, including an extremely dicky heart. Nobody knows how old he is, but our vet sagely advised us that he was probably très vieux (very old), and also usée (worn out). Not being a great optimist, he also said that if Hunter travelled with us, he would probably die during our journey which would be inconvenient to deal with when we got to the passport office in Calais. Jack jumped on this and announced it clearly meant we wouldn’t be able to go. But sadly, that was out of the question. We had important appointments in England so, whatever the animal situation, or weather, we had to make tracks. Fortunately my dog-walking pals came to our rescue and immediately offered to take Hunter. For some unknown reason they adore him. Perhaps it’s his lugubrious expression that enchants them. It certainly can’t be his unfortunate penchant for eating turds or his disregard for the proper place to have a wee, i.e. outside. These unsavoury habits may have developed as a result of being kept in a kennel of hunting hounds. I couldn’t say but, judging by the state we found him in, there had clearly been little in the way of food. His traits would be a new revelation for our friends, and might well cause them to modify their opinion of him.

Brutus, our adorable, affectionate, and very sedentary cat, is a different matter altogether. We hate being away from him, but there’s no question that Brutus is not a good traveller. The annual car journey to the vet for his booster injection is about as much as he can cope with. It causes him to emit a constant low mournful yowl the moment he is put in the car, and he trembles all the way there and back. It’s just awful for the poor lad. This means that careful planning and superlative trapping skills are required whenever the dreadful vet date arrives. I’m now convinced that, instead of inserting a microchip with his ID number on it, the vet opened the wrong packet and implanted a Gregorian calendar. Brutus seems to know exactly when we’re about to take him to the vet, and becomes surprisingly elusive in those days running up to his appointment. We eventually do manage to get him into his cat box, but only after a minor scuffle and several indignant meows.

With this knowledge, we couldn’t possibly subject our fat feline to the agonies of travelling in a car for 14 hours, so alternative arrangements had to be made. I called on another friend and organised for him to be fed and watered. However, apart from Jack and me, Brutus hates all humans, even those who are regular visitors. He tolerates the dogs, but only his own terms, and he still energetically hisses at Hunter – a futile exercise since Hunter is deaf and almost blind. Such is my sensitivity about Brutus that I found myself writing out a menu with the precise times when his food should be served. I included the varieties of food he likes, really likes, and LOVES. Not forgetting the special feed dishes he prefers (which must always be clean), failing which he might be put out, and refuse to eat his meal. In spite of his ample girth, I would worry intensely if such a situation arose. Our poor friend charged with the responsibility of dealing with this series of challenges looked quite mystified by the time I’d finished issuing all my instructions. Possibly this level of attention to cat-care is not common in our part of France.

With most of the menagerie sorted out, this just left our other dogs, Aby and Max. Our two young Australian Shepherd dogs are fully chipped and passported, and they would come with us.

Jack made his usual pre-voyage engineer-type preparations by stripping out the car and making it battle-ready. The rear seats were removed, bungees placed strategically on newly discovered hooks and his tool box was placed in the footwell. This immensely large, oily lump is a constant travel companion of ours. I’d prefer to be without it, but it has come in useful on previous occasions, so I decided not to complain about my reduced space allowance. I, in turn, took the dogs to the vet to have their pre-travel check and make sure that their passports passed muster. We’ve had problems with the Eurotunnel Pet Passport officials in the past, and I can tell you that after 12 hours of hard slog at the wheel, it’s no joke being told that we are not allowed to continue because of a mistake in the documentation. With this in mind I, and two vets, scrutinised both passports to make sure that every detail was perfectly correct. As luck would have it, Dr. Puiffe, with a triumphant whoop stabbed an offending open space on a page. He had found a carefully concealed omission. With some level of gravity he announced that we had failed to fill in the box which should have Aby’s name on it. What a lifesaver! This was certainly good practice for our interview with the officials in Calais. I carefully scribed her three-letter name, and left with our dogs covered in anti-bug chemicals and belching gently with the after-effects of their special worming tablet.

We got up nice and early on the day of our departure. We’d packed the night before so all that was needed was to pop in a couple of fresh snacks, load the dogs, and off we’d go. I gave Brutus a last squeeze, a dewy-eyed glance, and left him snuggled up and purring in his usual spot on the bed.

The first unanticipated challenge came from the dogs. They normally associate being in the car with a trip to their doggy pals, so from the moment the engine was switched on, they howled like banshees. Jack tolerated this for about, ooh, 30 seconds before snapping, “For crying out loud sort your bloody dogs out would you? If they carry on like this much longer we’re going back home!”

Strange how at times like this the miscreant animal in question instantly becomes my sole property, but on this occasion I chose not to remind him of the rules concerning joint ownership. Happily all it took was a couple of curt words, and Max settled down to a snooze. Aby, on the other hand was completely confused. The poor girl sat erect, trembling slightly, and looked pensively out of the window for her canine mates.

We commenced our journey and mercifully hadn’t gone far when the most awful thought occurred to me. I realised that I’d forgotten my kindle. There are some situations in life where one must throw all caution to the wind and do the right thing. My dreadful discovery presented one of them.
“Darling we have to go back home.”
“Ah good, you’ve finally seen sense.”
“No! Not to abandon the trip! I’ve forgotten my kindle.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“I know, me neither. I think it was because I was so worried about leaving Brutus and…”
“That wasn’t what I meant. You seriously don’t mean that we have to go all the way back just because you haven’t brought your kindle?”
“Well yes, of course.”
“For crying out loud woman, can’t you read a magazine or something?”
“Oh darling I can’t possibly be without my kindle for five nights. No, sorry, we’ll just have to go back and get it.”

So with many grumps and moans from the driver, about the agonies of being married to a forgetful woman, we drove back to the house. I sprinted in to collect my cherished possession, and took care to give Brutus another squeeze on my way back out.

We were heading towards Calais and the Eurotunnel. Normally we would take the central route which entails using part of the périphérique (beltway) in Paris, but we decided against it this time. This was because the French have introduced a new and intriguing challenge to reduce usage on this busy road system. Although Jack was totally clued-up as usual, I didn’t know what was going on, so read up on it. Normally in situations like this the French bureaucrats are the cause of the complications, but not this time. It seems that noxious smog was to blame. Still confused, I read an article published by the Guardian newspaper. It reported:

“Emergency measures introduced in Paris to halve the number of vehicles on the roads after noxious smog descended on the French capital have been hailed as a success…”

Police said these measures had reduced traffic jams in and around Paris by up to 40% and already 2,800 drivers had been stopped and given on-the-spot fines of €22 (£16) for flouting the regulations. What a brilliant coup for the French exchequer, I thought, but why so many offenders? Were the rules complicated, or were they just being French? I read on to discover it might be a bit of both. It seems that only “clean” cars, or those with the correct number plates (even on even days, odd on others), or vehicles carrying more than three people have been permitted to enter Paris and its 22 surrounding areas. Vehicles were also ordered to travel at a maximum 20kph in the city. To manage all this, the article reported:

“An estimated 750 police officers were dispatched from 5.30am onwards to about 100 busy roads and junctions to hand out fines to those who ignored the measures.”

I was intrigued by this information. To begin with I wasn’t too sure what a ‘clean’ car was. But I feared that with our lake-loving dogs, ours might never qualify. The fact of having an ‘uneven number plate’ also gave cause for concern. I then briefly considered whether two humans and two dogs might count as three occupants. I couldn’t be at all sure about that one. But with the smog problem being so severe that, according to the Guardian:

“It nearly obscured the Eiffel Tower, and caused Paris to be labelled as the most polluted city in the world, even worse than Shanghai.”

Obviously something had to be done. And apparently it worked. With a combined effort from the police fines, and motorists who understood the number plate challenge, the clouds apparently disappeared. The article ended with a happy comment from someone living in the city:

“ ‘Goodness, it’s calm this morning. What a difference.’ said Rosa, a concierge sweeping the front of a building near Boulevard Saint-Martin. ‘I can breathe,’ she added.”  

Always handy to be able to breathe.

The upshot of this was that, even though we would not normally go into the centre, Jack had already declared Paris to be ‘off-limits’ and our route would follow the west side of the country via Bordeaux.

Our first few hours of driving were uneventful. As usual Jack entertained himself by using his mechanical engineering skills and prodding all buttons in reach, checking plastic casings, and slewing the car from side to side on the road to make sure the vehicle tracking was in order. The weather was miserable with dull grey clouds covering the skies, and a mist of fine rain which dampened the lush spring meadows. There was barely a soul about, though, and fewer still on the autoroute. This cheered Jack up immensely, although he took care to remind me on several occasions, that we should savour this period of peaceful motoring, because it would assuredly all go downhill the moment we set tyre on English soil. And it did.

Jack then set the cruise control system to fix our speed and, with no possibility of further conversation in the offing, I decided to try and grab a nap. I reclined my seat (only a little way because the metal cask full of spanners directly behind prevented much movement), and nestled into my beanbag pillow. The next few days in England were going to be action packed, so now was the time to relax and make mental lists of the things that needed to be done. My nap didn’t last long.

It seemed like only seconds had passed when I was jarred awake by much shouting and swearing from Jack.

“Bloody hell! It’s just like being in England.”
“Whatever is the matter?” I asked glancing nervously back at the dogs to make sure they hadn’t been too frightened by the commotion. Aby was still looking out of the window for her friends and Max had now woken up and was looking for someone to lick.
“Can you believe it?” continued Jack. “I’ve been flashed by a blasted speed camera!” he fumed staring accusingly at me, then added “I mean, what’s their point? There isn’t a bloody soul on the road, but now we’re going to contribute even more to the French fiscal deficit with a speeding fine. It all started with the Dutch. That’s where the Gatsometer first appeared. Then, of course, it was us in the UK that seized the opportunity to turn it into a million pound revenue opportunity. But, who would believe that the French would follow suit, and submit themselves to this level of civil indignity. Do you remember the good old days when we’d be driving down the autoroute at 150kph, and get overtaken by one of those little corrugated iron Citroen vans?”
“They haven’t followed suit darling. There are nowhere near as many cameras here.”
“That’s true I suppose. Later today we’ll be on the M25 with all sorts of electronics telling us what the new speed limit is, despite the fact there’s not a hope in hell of achieving anything resembling that speed.”
“And also darling, they normally have massive signs here about 300 metres before the camera.”
“Yes they do. But this time they’ve been sneaky. When the sign says automatique, it means a permanent camera. When it says frequent, it means hand-held cameras in police cars. The sign back then said frequent, so I was looking for a policeman.”

This was in danger of turning into a political rant. We still had a very long way to go – it definitely needed to be nipped in the bud.
“Hang on a minute darling, I thought you’d set the autopilot system. Presumably you set it at a sensible level. Are you sure it was our car that was flashed by the speed camera?” The desired effect was instant.
“Ah, well, yes I did. But there weren’t any other cars on the road, so I thought we’d make up a bit of time by getting a move on. I hadn’t bargained on there being a sneaky and misleading sign to trap me. Anyway, you’ve snored your way past Bordeaux, and we’re well on the way to Poitiers, so how about handing me something to eat.”

The thing about having a big old car with a diesel fuel tank the size of an elephant is that it never seems to need filling up. This is good for economic motoring, but bad for human bladders, well mine anyway. Before long I knew a pit stop was necessary, so I used the dogs as an excuse to stop somewhere convenient. Max was asleep with one eye open, and poor Aby was still sitting bolt upright staring out of the window, trembling every now and again. This supported my theory admirably. Jack moaned at the proposition, but saw the sense in avoiding a water-logged car, and pulled into the next available aire. Unlike the busy service stations, these are more of a rural stopover, particularly favoured by the motorhome community, sleepy truck drivers, and dog owners. Amenities are usually limited, but toilets are always provided. Unfortunately our stop coincided with a deterioration in the weather. It was pouring.

With the dogs’ needs at the forefront of my mind I jumped out, donned my jacket and hat, and splashed to the rear of the car. Luckily they already had their collars on and all I needed to do was to attach the extendable leads. Now, I should have been prepared for what came next, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me. The dogs had apparently decided that the moment had finally arrived – they were going for a country walk! Such was their state of excitement that it took ages to secure the clips. Unfortunately, in the melee, I hadn’t engaged the brake system on the extendable leads so when I opened the door they exploded out of the back and shot off towards the bank. Terrified of letting go, I clung on for dear life as the leads maxed-out to their full length. This caused me to look like an eccentric water-skier as I was towed up the hill by our extremely excited dogs, who were now hell-bent on out-racing one another. This could only end in tears.

I accept that my handling of the situation may not have constituted a perfect demonstration in dog obedience. Equally, I felt Jack’s comments about controlling the ‘bloody animals before you get impaled on a twig’ from the comfort of the car park, were uncalled for. Fortunately though, there was a soft, dense hedge that subdued our exuberant animals, and provided a nice cushioned bumper for me. They then spent one or two moments scuffling around while I collected myself. Regrettably, Aby then saw a car pull in. Being of an extremely sociable variety, both dogs abruptly stopped what they were doing, and before I could issue a command, whizzed off back down the bank to perform a canine ‘meet and greet’. I’d barely caught my breath let alone connected the blasted brakes on the extendable leads before I was propelled back down after them, ploughing a furrow with my heels as I fought to regain control of the unruly mutts. I finally reeled them in, apologised to the car owners for the possibly unwanted licks, and poured the dogs back into the car. With calm restored, I then scurried off to the dames to use the facilities, and repair my wounded pride. As we set off I had to endure Jack’s usual musings about the ineptitude of my dog-control tactics, and I decided, on this occasion, it would be fruitless to respond with any form of brilliant defence. Largely because there wasn’t one.

With Jack still at the wheel we continued past Poitiers and through Tours, which stands on the lower reaches of the river Loire. This is known as the ‘Garden of France’ (Le Jardin de la France) because of the many parks located within the city. Well worth a visit, that’s for sure, but not for us, and possibly for anyone on that day. The wind was blowing a gale, and rain was now lashing down as we passed over the magnificent river which made this, usually beautiful, view very difficult to see at all.

The fuel indicator eventually hiccupped and dropped a fraction, enough for Jack to decide we needed to fill-up. He fought the buffeting car into a service station and we performed a speedy re-fuel and refreshment stop. It was my turn to take the wheel. We headed towards Le Mans, today most famed for the sports motorcar endurance race, 24 Hours of Le Mans. This area between Tours and Rouen is liberally peppered with wind turbines. Looking like toy windmills for giants. They line the autoroute in garish metallic clumps, providing a visual clue about the prevailing weather conditions. I’m not sure whether I like them or not but I certainly couldn’t spend time deliberating that small point. The weather was getting much worse now. The windscreen wipers swept our screen in vain, and the car was rocked from side to side by vicious gusts. In fact the conditions were so poor that they caused Jack to comment, “Honestly it’s impossible to get even a wink of sleep with you at the wheel, can you try and keep the car on the road please?”  But I think he knew that it was seriously tough going so, instead of dozing, he fiddled with the Satnav controls, pretending to adjust our onward route towards Calais.

For some mysterious reason, much of the autoroute here was reduced to one lane. Plastic cones, mostly in place, others having been blown to non-sensible places, identified the permitted zones for motorists. But there was no other evidence of activity or works. Luckily there were very few other motorists on the road, so our progress wasn’t hampered beyond a reduced speed limit, which I adhered to with great smugness. I was concentrating so hard on missing the chicane of misplaced cones, that I hadn’t realised that Satnav lady was taking us off our normal route through Rouen. Suddenly I was directed onto what can only be described as an elderly ‘B’ road. This took us along the banks of what I suppose must be the river Seine. On my left I could just spot a sad looking river cruise boat valiantly fighting its way through the waves, with windows tightly shut but no sign of passengers. To our left we were both surprised by what we saw. It looked like we had driven into a village in Switzerland. The houses, rather like our road, were tiny and looked just like chalets with sloping roofs and wood cladding. Interesting as this all was, we were on a mission and I was getting concerned that we might be heading in the wrong direction.  Jack occupied himself by stabbing more buttons on the Satnav system, and accidentally shutting it down altogether on one or two occasions. But he decided that actually all was well. We eventually emerged from our mystery tour, and re-connected with our customary route through the outskirts of Rouen. We’ve never visited this city, but the glimpses one gets of the magnificent cathedral from the bypass, cause me to put it on our list of ‘must-visit’ locations.

We’d been on the road for nearly ten hours now, and the signs for the Eurotunnel came as a welcome sight. We drove into the precincts of the pet passport office. Weather conditions had been upgraded to ‘appalling’ and tensions were rising, as they always do, when we arrive here. Jack did nothing to calm my administrative nerves. “Right, let’s hope you and your vet pals haven’t messed up the documents this time. I’ll bring in the dogs while you start conning the officials into letting us on that train – which, by the way, is about to leave.” I fumbled around for the dogs’ passports and assorted papers, and forged through the driving wind and rain that lashed the carpark, hanging on to everything for grim death in case an indispensable sheet of information was whipped from my hand and lost forever.

Luckily we were the only customers in the pet passport office and our documents were taken by a nice efficient-looking officer. As she was thumbing conscientiously through each page the door was thrown open and in burst a dripping wet Jack looking as thunderous as the weather, with our two bouncing beauties. The girl then handed over the microchip scanner, which happily bleeped at the right times on the dogs’ necks, which was a great relief to everyone concerned. Now it could officially be confirmed that we had in fact driven through France with the correct dogs. She replaced her wand in its nice box on the counter. I genuinely thought we were home and dry when she cried, “Aha, a problem with your papers I am afraid madame.” I couldn’t even look at Jack. I was terrified. It really couldn’t be possible, could it? The thought of, once again, being prevented from boarding the train because of a paperwork mistake, was just too much to contemplate. There was an audible groan behind me followed by a bang. Jack had left the building.

“Um what’s the problem?” I quailed.
“I am afraid that you have not written in the date when the microchip was implanted madame. This is against the rules. Do you have the original certificate? This will give you the date. If you do not have it, then I am sorry, but I cannot let you through.”  Thank goodness for my satchel! Fortunately where travel with our pets is concerned I carry around a satchel-full of their documents. I stuffed my hand in and produced a wad of likely looking certificates. “Bravo madame, here it is, now there is no problem” said the angelic officer with a smile, “but the box in the passport must be filled.” I could have fainted with relief.
“Oh lovely, that’s super. Could you fill it in for me please, I don’t have a pen with me.”
“Oh non madame, this is forbidden, you must complete the form yourself. Here, you may use my pen.”  
“It’s just the date, right?”
“Yes, just the date madame.”
Choosing not to question the special nature of my date filling-in capabilities compared to hers, I thanked my lucky stars that this was the only problem. The deed was done and we were waved off by those lovely, lovely, officials and onto the train.

That was it. We had made it unscathed through France. We just had the final leg in England to go, which we reckoned would take a further three hours, or five depending on the traffic, which was an absolute certainty acc
ording to my pessimistic driver.

The dogs were fascinated by the train, but otherwise fine. Even Aby had stopped trembling. Jack settled back in the seat, grabbed a beanbag cushion and announced that he was going to have a well-earned nap. “And remind me” he added, “never to allow you to drive in breezy conditions again. You’re a complete death trap!” With that he was soon snoring.  I sat back, thrilled to have passed the pet passport challenge and was just about to join Jack in a nap when I had a sudden moment of tension. Poor Brutus! What if his food dish hadn’t been washed?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A Day at the Salon

With an imminent trip to the UK that would involve mixing with humans, rather than just our usual animals, I decided to take a proper look at myself in the mirror, to make sure that everything was in order. But it wasn’t. It was all rather desperate and quite a shock. The first point to notice was that I’d applied mascara to one set of eyelashes but not the other. There was little improvement elsewhere.

Doubtless the reason for this avant-garde look was because I’d been interrupted by an emergency mouse situation in our bedroom that morning. Brutus, our portly cat, had arrived triumphant with his latest trophy and dropped it at my feet. Unfortunately this dubious breakfast gift was still extremely alive, and scampered off towards the skirting boards. On hearing the pitter-patter of tiny rodent feet and Brutus lumbering after it, Aby and Max, our two Australian Shepherds thundered upstairs to join in the pursuit. The resulting affray involved Max knocking over three chairs and squashing Brutus, and Aby bashing her nose on a hot radiator. The mouse, on the other hand, had a successful morning and got clean away. So, rather than reducing the home’s rodent population Brutus, once again, had increased it. Not an unusual occurrence, but it did explain my lack of attention to cosmetic detail.

Then I looked at my hair. What a horror! I can usually fix the facial anomalies, but not the hair, so something would have to be done. Normally Jack, my husband, is quite helpful in these situations saying something supportive like, “Darling, I notice you’ve dyed your roots grey again. That must involve a lot of skill.” It’s just his subtle way of saying, “Good Lord your hair looks terrible, go and get it sorted out.” I’ve learnt to cope with his whimsical approach, and those words are my prompt to call Réne, my hairdresser. However, this time Jack had let me down. He hadn’t spotted the gradual decline of my hairstyle and colour. In any event, it was clear that something had to be done; the skill of Réne was required.

Réne used to be a rather famous hairdresser in Nice. Or so he tells me. He spent much of his time in Provence creating coiffure masterpieces for extremely rich Russian ladies who had a penchant for ‘big hair’, which included wigs and extensions. He plied his trade successfully for several years, building enormous bouffant styles, adding a splash of colour where required, and always enveloping the end result in clouds of concrete-hold spray. However, in spite of the high rates, and generous tips from grateful Slavic clients, the cost of living became too challenging, so he decided to move to a more affordable part of the country.

Réne made the right decision by moving to our part of the Midi Pyrénées in terms of the economics, but I have my doubts that his creative artistry will ever be tested in the same way here. For example, the couture ‘beehive’ style, so favoured by the Russian beauties of Provence, would be somewhat incongruous to us country folk. Our version is likely to include real creatures where, fresh from a day’s travail in the orchards and meadows, it’s fair to say that that the odd critter can become accidentally entangled in one’s locks. With a bucolic lifestyle that involves the tending of farm animals and heady trips to the market, we have no need for sophistication. Rather, the demands for one’s hairdo in these situations are short (ideally), neat (if possible) styles that can be trapped by a scarf or cap. Poor Réne. It’s a bit like asking Rachmaninov to play “Chopsticks.”
However there is one area where, as far as I’m concerned, Réne can exercise all of his skills, and that’s on the application of colour.

I’m saddled with a head of unfortunate wispy hair that, at best, can be described as ‘mousey’ in colour. Neither a lustrous brown nor a radiant blonde, it is bleakly uninteresting. To make matters worse, as I have become older several strands of whitish-grey have started to appear, which has resulted in a down-grading of the shade to a somewhat dire ‘salt n’ pepper’. Over the years I have been to numerous hairdressers to have it coloured, but often with decidedly dodgy results. Favouring ‘streaks’ rather than ‘full head’ coverage, I’ve watched the ‘specialists’ at work, slogging away with rolls of bacofoil binding up locks of hair with dubious colours. The outcome has been much expenditure by me, with often highly questionable results.

I have regularly come away with colours that ranged from brassy blonde to purple-black, and once it had a distinctly pink tinge. Although, in that instance the hairdresser told me that it was really red, and that I was getting mixed up because I was colour-blind. But then I hadn't asked for red, or pink. 

So you can imagine my excitement when I came across Réne, who turned out to be an expert ‘colour technician’. For years now he has saved me from my natural shades, transforming them into an acceptable mix of dark-blondish which has given me a nice natural look. So, in need of a quick fix, I reached for the phone to make my appointment at the new salon he had recently moved to. Its name is ‘Paul Lacoste’.

With only a window of one day to get my hair revived and a ton of things still to do, I asked the receptionist for an early appointment to make sure I had Réne’s undivided attention. Her response was not what I wanted to hear.

Receptionist:  “Madame I am sorry but it is not possible to book an appointment. You must come and wait your turn.”

Me:  “Oh dear, but why? I have always been able to make an appointment before.”

Receptionist:  “Not here madame, our clients always have to come and wait their turn. This way we do not waste any time if ladies do not arrive for their appointments.”

The girl did have a point. It was, after all, the first time I’d been to this new salon, and I hadn’t been aware of their irritating system. I tried again.

Me:  “Right, well never mind. Could you please tell me when Réne starts work so I can come in early to see him? I need to have my hair cut and coloured.”

Receptionist:  “Réne madame? I am sorry we do not have a Réne working here.”

Me:  “Yes, actually you do, he started work with you last month.”

There was an abrupt silence on the other end of the phone which was interrupted by a furious ruffling of papers then:

Receptionist:  “Ah yes, but no madame you cannot.”

Me:  “But why not?”

Receptionist:  “Because he is on holiday for two weeks madame.”

Momentary floored by this bombshell, and with no time at all to make other arrangements, I took my heart into my hands.

Me:  “Okay, well can you tell me when Monsieur Lacoste starts work please? I will try to have an appointment with him instead.”

Receptionist:  “We do not have a Monsieur Lacoste working here madame.”

This was becoming tedious.

Me:  “But he is the owner of the salon isn’t he?”

Receptionist:  “Ah no madame, haha! There are many salons with this name. Perhaps you want Michael (which sounded like Mick-I-L). He can help you. He begins work at 9.00am.”

Me: “Right, very good, I’ll be there early.”

And so, with great trepidation, I arrived outside the salon bright and early for my non-appointment. It was with a total unknown, and I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t come out with a head of purple hair.

There was only one man with a pair of scissors in his hand so I concluded that it must be Mick-I-L. First impressions were somewhat disconcerting. It wasn’t the fact that he was dressed top-to-toe in black that worried me; it was his own hairstyle. He was completely shaven either side of his head, leaving a thick band of dark brown hair which ran from front to back. This section was rather long and pointy at the top, and obvious care had been taken to make sure that it lay exactly as intended. I felt it probably needed regular care and attention. As he turned his face towards me, his Mohican strip bouncing gently, my eye was then drawn to his moustache. In any other country I might have ventured to suggest that it was a little on the large side, primarily because it flared out either side of his nose like flippers. But, here in France, it would undoubtedly be considered a magnificent feat of facial hair growth. It was clear that Mick-I-L was extremely proud of it.

Luckily he was nearly ready for me and I watched nervously as he splashed a few more splodges of extra brown hair dye on a lady who had clearly asked for her ears to be coloured with the same tint. I made a mental note to for ask mine to be left out. Mick-I-L then set an egg timer, popped it onto his client’s lap and floated across the room towards me, gesturing at a vacant chair.

I always find the conversation with one’s hairdresser about styles and colour an uncomfortable one. Firstly you have to stare at yourself in the mirror, a pastime that I generally prefer to avoid. Then you have to find new and inventive words to describe the impossible. My hair is never ever going to look as I would wish, so I always end up saying things like, “I know it’s not possible to….but…” or, “Could you try to make it look something like….” These tricky considerations are even harder to convey in French. I thought about pulling out a photograph of a beauty with a fabulous hairstyle that I thought would suit me, but I decided not to because of the incident that followed the last time I'd tried. The stylist had barely suppressed a guffaw and then proceeded to give me 16 or so reasons why this couldn’t ever be possible. So, instead, I bumbled away in French attempting to explain what needed to be done with the cut and colour.

The first problem was that while Mick-I-L made a play at being interested in what I was saying, he was actually staring adoringly at himself in the mirror. Part of me was impressed by this because he was able to waft his comb in my general direction without poking me in the eye, as he described the wonderful things he was about to do. He even managed to lift a lock or two of my hair as he talked about colour, but I think we both knew that he was simply killing time before the next moment of his own personal grooming was due.

Luckily for me, Réne had a file for each of his clients, so after several fruitless goes at telling Mick-I-L my name I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote it down for him. Furnished with this information he flounced off to his cabinet and produced a sheet of paper containing a list that looked to me like a chemistry experiment. Apparently colours come in codes these days, and mine was on it. After the swiftest of glances at my hair Mick-I-L sucked his teeth and decided that I must have a ‘full head’ and shot off to a back room to prepare his equipment. This gave me the opportunity to have a quick look around the salon. I was alarmed to see that the lady who was having colour applied when I arrived now had nut-brown ears, and the place was filling up rapidly. With no other stylist in evidence, and a zero tolerance attitude towards the making of appointments, I feared that we may end up with customer chaos.

Mick-I-L eventually trundled back, pushing a trolley laden with paint pots, and a suspiciously stiff-looking Mohican strip. Then, with commendable dexterity, he managed to continue to stare fixedly at himself, whilst simultaneously applying two different chemicals to my hair, one lock at a time.

There were three reasons why this took an inordinately long time to complete. First, every time a new client came in Mick-I-L downed tools and said ‘Bonjour’, as we all did. This is customary in our part of France and one of the things we love about living here, although on this particular occasion it was a nicety I could have done without. The next challenge was that by the time he was halfway through painting my hair, he had racked up three more clients. This meant he had to flip between each of us attempting to attend to each customer’s needs without getting us mixed up. At this stage I still hadn’t seen lady number one at the basins and felt sure her hair must be dreadfully dark by now. But then, I mused, perhaps she liked the roast-chestnut-cum-teak look.
The final problem involved the cotton wool. Mick-I-L’s favoured method of hair colouring was to use rolls of cling film to trap each painted tress, separated by a sausage of cotton wool. Unfortunately his cotton wool sausage-making capacity was rather limited which meant he had to make frequent trips back to the paint room for further supplies. Each time he re-appeared his hair looked extra perky leading me to suspect that it was all an excuse to re-peak his pride and joy.

Nearly two hours later Mick-I-L announced to himself in the mirror that the job was done and would I like to read a magazine. By this stage I was mentally exhausted and would have preferred a nap, but I grabbed a copy of Belle Santé (Good Health) wishing that I felt the same.

Mid-morning came and went and I was still cooking. The salon had now transformed into a mine-field with timers detonating on clients’ laps. This caused Mick-I-L’s Mohican to wobble as he exploded in a flurry of movement, flying between each person, punching the ‘off’ button on their laps. Wary of this manoeuvre, I’d taken the precaution of putting mine on the ledge in front of me, hoping that he wouldn’t head-butt the mirror in his enthusiasm to extinguish the ping. After nearly two hours of this, and several re-timings, I was strongly considering taking the colour off myself when Mick-I-L spun across the room with somebody else’s hairdryer in his hand and announced that I was done. Melanie (the hair washing girl) was instructed to wash my hair and I rose stiffly to join her at the basins.

As one might expect, with so many cotton wool sausages in my hair and enough cling film to cover a double bed, it took a while to remove it all. Melanie then proceeded to shampoo my hair, not once but three times. Nothing if not thorough I thought. Then I heard Mick-I-L shout from across the room. Melanie loomed over my nostrils and said, “Massage madame.” This came out more as an instruction than a question so I nodded with grace, hoping my neck could stand the backward bent position that is favoured in most hair salons, and the Tower of London. I needn’t have worried. For the next ten minutes Melanie proceeded to treat me to the most wonderful massage I have ever had. The clamouring sounds of pings and dings coming from the various timers just faded into the background, and my frustration melted away as I luxuriated in this soporific experience. She finally finished, and I sat there dreamily, ready to accept anything that came my way. I peered lazily across to Mick-I-L who was zipping between even more clients, perhaps a little less dapper now, nevertheless still filled with enthusiasm. Then I saw lady number one at the till and to my happy surprise realised that her hair looked very nice indeed. Even her ears had been restored to their normal colour. But the dings continued to sound relentlessly and I feared that Mick-I-L was beginning to show signs of strain. With scissors still flashing around with commendable speed it seemed, however, that there hadn’t been any recent requests for colour. Mick-I-L’s Mohican was beginning to sag.

I was just recovering from my dopey state when he looked towards me and shrieked, “Massage!” I felt he couldn’t mean me but wasn’t easily able to move my now U-shaped neck to see if I had company at the basins. Mick-I-L bounded up behind me grabbed my head, slapped more slippery stuff on my hair and began another massage. I made a feeble attempt at reminding him that I’d already had one, but ended up mumbling unintelligibly as the relaxing movement of this de-stressing manipulation overcame me.

A further ten minutes later and Mick-I-L announced that it was now time to cut and dry my hair. By this time I was so floppy I could barely move. Incapable of speech, and with all previous thoughts of time wasting completely forgotten, I slithered off the chair and staggered back to my seat.

Time really was getting on now, and even Mick-I-L had finally realised that he needed to crack on with things. With a mastery of multi-tasking genius he managed to say his ‘Bonjours’ and ‘Au revoirs’ to other clients whilst simultaneously cutting my hair, glancing worriedly at his Mohican and checking his moustache. He also found time to give me a lecture on the type of shampoo and conditioner I must use which was parfait for damaged, brittle hair. How kind.

I finally left the salon a little after 4.00pm. Remarkably, my new colour looked great, and I was very pleased with the style he had cut. How he had managed all this whilst mainly looking at his own hair, rather than mine, I’ll never know. But I was very grateful. And after all that time and effort did my husband notice? Not a chance!