Thursday, 25 February 2010

Tap, tap, tap at the window.....

Sunday night. The weather outside is bitter and so I was very happily sitting doing a jigsaw in front of the fire. The Loyal Hound lay curled in his basket, dreaming of rabbits and twitching with the thrill of the chase. Outside the temperature was dropping to an icy -5 and the compacted snow on the road meant that there would be no going anywhere for me that night. The weekend had been pleasing though. A dinner party on the Friday night, DIY and long walks on Saturday followed by tea with friends and then Sunday had been spent stripping yet more woodchip and making a hideous mess of everything I had tidied the day before. I had waited for the sun to soften the snow on the road and had slid my car to the end of the road so that I could get out for work the next day. All was well in my little Welsh world.

So, you have the scene in your head? Isolated from the world there is me, doing my jigsaw. The television murmuring away in the background. The hound snoring and twitching in the corner. The fire crackling quietly away to itself. Into this idyll comes a gentle 'tap, tap, tap' at the window.

Not expecting this, I almost wondered if I had imagined the sound but glancing up I saw a pale face at the window. My heart leapt. The face moved back from the window. I resisted the urge to shut the curtains and pretend I hadn't seen anything and, assuming it was my neighbour (it was only a brief glimpse that I got of the face so I wasn't sure), I went to the front door to see what he wanted.

Round the side of the house came a man. Small and unthreatening he looked exhausted by life. Dressed in what you might call 'office' trousers, ordinary shoes and just an anorak to keep out the cold he might have been dropped in by Martians he was so unsuitably clothed for deepest, rural wales. He was pale and his hair stuck out from his head as though it had never seen a brush. His general shabby air made him ideal to be typecast as the worn out and unglamorous PI.

Without so much as an apology for frightening the living daylights out of me, or an introduction, he said baldly. 'My car is stuck'. Not 'Could you help me' I noted.

"Where is it stuck?" I asked. Though I was pretty sure I knew where. There is a car park for walkers down the track from me. The access to it is down a short slope and only that afternoon it had taken four of us half an hour to get a car up the hill. No great surprise then when he said 'at the car park'.

I enquired if he had tried to get my neighbour. In a low voice that I could scarcely catch, he said that he couldn't get him to answer the door. Pulling on a coat, hat, gloves and boots and grabbing a torch I locked up and followed him out into the night. Well, I couldn't leave him there to freeze could I?

The neighbour was at home so leaving him to get straw (for grip on the icy road) and other handy bits and bobs I went to look at the car with the PI. I wasn't feeling hopeful about the whole thing. Unless he had a four wheel drive there was little hope we could get him up the icy track.

It's about a five minute walk to the car park. The air was biting at any exposed skin and I wondered how he wasn't shivering convulsively. I asked his name. Asked again. 'Roy' he finally answered. Then I asked him what he was doing up here. I mean he wasn't dressed for a walk or for fishing which are the two main reasons people come here. 'Where had he come from' I added.

'From Rhyl. I came down at about five o'clock'. I was dumbfounded. I've always wondered if people can be dumbfounded and now I can tell you with conviction that they can. This shrimp of a man had come down a track covered in several inches of snow, snow that was compacted to a lethal icy sheen on the road. Even coming down in daytime would have been risky but to come down as it was getting dark and the frost was setting in was ridiculous. 'Did he have a towbar' I asked. He didn't know. 'What about a snow shovel. Better shoes. Gloves?' Frankly, anything that would be sensible to have with him if he was going to risk a road like that. Unapologetically he said no. He seemed to feel no sense of responsibility for getting himself into the situation he was in. As a result, I was feeling very little sympathy, and what little I did have was chilling with every whispered word he uttered.

I mean. No-one in a four wheel drive would have tried that road at 5pm on a freezing night. Certainly not on their own. Would you drive down a forest track thick with snow and ice, with no certainty that anybody lived there (you are unlikely to find houses down these roads)? Nobody would. I do live here and I wouldn't drive down it in that state and I get a lot of practice driving on snow and ice.

Getting crosser and crosser with him by the minute I stop talking to him and in silence we reach his car. It had slid off the road into a ditch in his efforts to get it out of the car park and nobody in their right mind would think that it could be pushed off the sloping ditch without the help of a towrope (which he didn't have) and another vehicle. Why didn't he just say that? Why make me (and my neighbour who was following us down) walk down there to view the car with him?

I thought longingly of my fire, the jigsaw, my Sunday evening and shivered under the starlight. Curtly I said to him 'we can't push this out of the ditch with just three of us and even if we could, we'd never get you up the hill'. I wished I could be kinder about it but he seemed to expect me to work miracles for him as a matter of course and it made me angry. Anyway, I knew what I was talking about after the efforts of the afternoon when the snow was softer and not hardened by the frost. He was going nowhere until morning. This left another dilemma. What to do with him.

My neighbour and I decided to take him back to his house. I had already decided he wasn't coming anywhere near mine. I would go back to mine and see if I could find anyone prepared to come down and pull him out. It was a fruitless effort. Not even a tractor was going to risk getting stuck. I headed back over to my neighbour's house to break the news to them.

The shrimp was sitting in a chair by the gas fire. He wasn't speaking or even getting involved in the conversation about how to rescue him. I wanted to hit him. There we were, doing our best to help and he couldn't have been less interested. Even when we asked him what he wanted to do, he would just shrug. He obviously felt it was our responsibility to rescue him.

Vexed beyond belief by this stage I said the only thing possible was that he walked to the top of the road to meet a taxi we could book for him. They could take him to a pub and he could sort out his own rescue in the morning. No comment on this plan from the PI. Exasperated, I then said that another option was that he could try the RAC. Was he a member? 'Yes' came the answer but not with any enthusiasm for actually ringing them. I wasn't hopeful they could help anyway. How would they get down the hill, and back up it again anyway? We'd end up with more stuck people. My neighbour said he was welcome to stay the night with him if he wanted to - an offer above and beyond the call of duty. Not a word of thanks for that offer. Just a shrug of the shoulders.

Normally, I would have offered to walk anyone in that situation up to the road to make sure they got to the top safely, but I was sick of him. Having curtly pointed out that he couldn't expect anyone to risk their vehicle coming down a road he had no business coming down himself, or words to that effect, I left him with my neighbour and returned to my jigsaw.

A couple of days later I saw my neighbour who said that the drip had got a taxi and disappeared into the night without a word of thanks.

The whole thing was extraordinary in the extreme. It seems like a dream now, or perhaps a film seen a long time ago and not quite remembered. The tap, tap, tap at the window. The silent, translucent man in his city clothes, the frozen night and the icy lake. Everything else aside it gives me a greater appreciation of The Good Samaritan. I felt extremely uncharitable and resentful about the whole thing and by the end was set against being helpful.

It does go to show though. If the PI had been friendly and appreciative, I would have felt totally differently about the whole thing. You get what you give seems to be the lesson in all this.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Sobbing with rage

I met with the builder one evening last week. I had some queries about the bill for the work he had done and wanted to run through them before I paid him. He gave me 20minutes notice that he was coming round so I scarcely had time to find my paperwork before he was there.

My queries were simple. 'Why is the bill nearly double the estimate'. I had done my maths and my homework. I knew exactly what I had asked for as extras and I figured it would be a 20% increase on the original quote. You can imagine my horror when it was more like 70%.

I had tried to bring this up before but to no avail. My builder does not like to talk about money. Not at all. He likes to be given money without complaint. End of story.

Now, essentially, the builders did a good job, and at a good price. Even the inflated price was still a good price. But I resent being told something will cost X and then, once the work is completed, being told that actually is was Y + a few zeros.... I think that an estimate should be accurate within about 20%. I'm naive like that it seems.

Not a fan of paperwork, the invoice was a simple one sided page. On it was the original cost plus the extras which were lumped into two categories. Plastering and Joinery. I had already asked how the plastering had trebled in price when we had not done triple the amount of work. The builder produced his time sheet for 'time spent plastering'. Just one glance and I knew it wasn't accurate but what was I to do? he is the only builder for miles, also a neighbour, and I couldn't call him a liar to his face (quite happy to do so here though). I showed him the spreadsheet I had done which showed what was allowed for and what was extra. He went red and he went on the attack.

'Nobody else would have done this work for the price we did it' he spluttered.
'That's not the point' I replied 'you estimated for the work at the price you chose and that's why I went with you, not someone else'.
There was more spluttering and more along the same lines of what a bargain they were, how hard they worked, and that the cost is what it was. All this underlined with a sort of accusatory note that I was to blame for this and shouldn't be questioning him.

The thing is that in my line of work I run a lot of building jobs and I have never had this problem before. Then again I haven't had to deal with welsh builders before either.

The builder's son, who was there too, tried to calm him down and let me speak my piece, but to no avail. 'I've got men to pay, mortgage payments, children to feed' were all thrown into the mix. I felt myself flushing under the onslaught. I knew I was being steamrollered. I also knew that if I were a man I would not be in this position. If I were a man, or had rented a man for the evening, he would have a sane conversation about it and we would come to a compromise. I know this because other couples I know have used him and that is what has happened. 'He's very reasonable' the husbands say. Not this night he wasn't. My builder hates dealing with women and I was suffering because of it. I simply couldn't get him to listen.

To my intense rage and humiliation I felt my eyes well up and my throat tighten. These were tears of frustration and rage and though I could stop them welling over it was going to be obvious that they were there. I was fulfilling all his stereotypes and I was also being bullied into paying a bill that I didn't fully understand.

Several days later I am still bitter about it. I feel I have somehow failed myself. It is not the money (though now my emergency 'rainy day' savings have been horribly depleted which I hadn't wanted). It is the failure to communicate. That night, I felt that being single was not a good thing. I felt lonely.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Anyone for Marmalade?

So, like a good bear, come the end of January I wriggled my nose, curled my toes and then stretched languourously before deciding it might be time to get up. This was such an exhausting decision that I had to go back to bed to ponder it more thoroughly.

Of course I did also have to get out of bed in order to do some work, eat a great deal of food, very little of which was my five a day rations, and to watch rubbish on television.

By last weekend I emerged tousle headed and determined to stay awake for the whole weekend. As I had someone staying it seemed like a good hostess type thing to do. Be awake. It is now some months since I have had a free weekend so I was rather grumpy about the whole thing, particularly since my guest is renowned for waking very early. No lazy mornings for me then.

It was therefore ironic that when I dragged myself from my bed at 8.30 on Sunday morning there was not a peep to be heard from the spare bedroom. Admittedly vast quantities of wine had been shipped the night before, and I had some left a very tantalising quantity of books by the bed for midnight and dawn reading material but still... I cleared up from the night before, and laid breakfast. The Loyal Hound and I went for a long walk. We read the remnants of the Saturday paper. We tried not to feel bitter about the fact that we could have still been asleep. Then, like a vision on the road to Damascus, my eye fell upon a plastic bag that one of the supper guests from the night before had brought me. Marmalade oranges. Aaaha. My mission was clear. I must use this time to make marmalade.

I would generally consider myself to be an accomplished cook. I will try most things and have recently merrily made puff pastry, cooked fillet steak for 17 and made a tart that would have been put in pride of place in the window of Patisserie Valerie. How tricky could marmalade possibly be?

Four days later, as I clean up the last of the chaos that one batch of marmalade caused I realise the error of my ways. Making Marmalade it seems, is like travelling to the arctic. You should not set about it unprepared.

Several hours (well, it felt like hours) of squeezing, chopping and weighing later I had the contents in a pan simmering away. The kitchen was a sticky mess of juice, escaped pips and fruit pulp. At this moment my houseguest emerged from her room. Turned out she had woken at four and picked up one of the books I had left for her. unable to put it down she had read it until she finished it then collapsed in a state of exhaustion and slept until 10.30... Sorry. I digress.

So, lucky her comes down for breakfast to find me covered in bits of orange, the kitchen covered in bits of orange and the marmalade simmering on the stove. No sign of any breakfast for her or anything like that. She took it well.

We decided a walk was the way forwards so I put the pan in the oven to carry on doing it's thing and off we went. Upon our return I found that the muslin bag of pulp and pips had gently floated to the top of the pan, like a corpse in a crime drama, and had then scorched itself. MMm. Nice added flavour. I carried on regardless.

My guest, who had a long journey ahead of her and was probably afraid of becoming covered in marmalade, left after an early lunch and I decided to finish making said marmalade. At this point I discover that I didn't have quite as much sugar as I had assumed. What I had was thrown in, along with the coffee sugar that was welded to the bottom of the pot. The marmalade came to the boil and I dumped in the thermometer. Glancing at it, it did seem strange that it was already at a temperature that was nearing the top of the marker. Naturally I did not investigate any further for a good few minutes at which point I discover that the bulb on the thermometer had smashed.

The question is, did it smash in the marmalade, or in the drawer??? What the hell. It was probably in the drawer and as it wasn't a mercury thermometer I was unlikely to have poisoned the batch too badly.

At this point I start hunting for jars to discover that I have been ruthlessly throwing empty jars away and have scarcely any left. A quick sweep around the kitchen turned up a few 'nearly empties' which were ruthlessly scraped clean and washed. It was then time to decant the wretched stuff.

Using a handy plastic jug I then proceeded to spread marmalade all over the kitchen. It dripped on the oven, it slimed down the side of the boiler. It splatted on the floor where I promptly trod on it and spread it all over the kitchen. As I discovered later that day it also dripped on the chair, where I then proceeded to sit on it. Very little of it seemed to actually make it into the jars.

The end result was chaos. The marmalade that made it into the pots looks good but I am too nervous to try it in case I get a bit of glass bulb or thermometer liquid flavour. Then there is the nice undertone of schorched muslin to watch out for. It looks good. But as we know, looks aren't everything. See, here it is:

It wasn't worth it. I'm sticking to jams, jellies and puff pastry as the easier option. Shop marmalade will be just fine thank you. It's not worth risking life and limb for this. The only question left is this: Who wants a pot of marmalade? I have several looking for good homes......

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