I used to laugh at retired people who said that they didn't know how they had found time to work. Surely retirement was nothing but long days to spend pleasing yourself? Well, except for my dear grandmother, with whom we lived, who stirred the dust up with a stiff broom every morning, and cooked for us all, and ... But I wouldn't be like that.
Only now it's happened to me. Before I retired I thought I might spend my time cooking my way happily through the six-foot tall bookcase of cookbooks (plus overflow) which now sits in the corner of my kitchen. Or I'd get to grips with the knitting machines - yes, plural - in what is supposed to be my craft room. Sew myself some clothes that fit my five-foot frame properly. Do a bit of gentle tourism round the National Trust's properties. Spend time in the French house soaking up French culture, food, and wine.
But at my retirement do I was presented, amongst other little gifts, with a thick notepad and a pack of biros and told to go and write that book I'd been talking about for ages.
As it turned out, it was a symbolic sort of gift, as I write at the computer most of the time, not longhand. But the idea already lived at the back of my mind. Then we moved to Wales to live near my daughter, and she met someone who was interested, as she was, in setting up a creative writing group, and things snowballed. I was instructed to attend, in case nobody else turned up. Her co-founder wanted to attend a weekend course on writing a novel, and wanted someone to go with her, and I had nothing better to do, and it did sound interesting. (Thank you Helen Carey). The other person dropped out. I carried on.
Fast forward to now. I do have four first drafts, one of which I've been editing recently. But those long empty days to be spent exactly as I pleased, well they have proved elusive.
My daughter? She has self-published two books of a trilogy. She also has two children now. Writing? Two hours on Sunday if she's lucky.
I admit that a great deal of the blame for my lack of progress is mine. I find it difficult to resist anything marked "Free!", such as webinars, newsletters, and, well, books. So the TBR shelf on my Kindle is around 16 pages long, and it's just as well I have unlimited download gigabytes at home. The cooking is done by my husband for the most part. I watch little television. I'm still taking those creative writing courses, and should get enough credits by the summer to get my certificate from Aberystwyth University, which takes up a day a week at the moment, and next term will take two. But apart from that, where does the time go?
Well it's now 11:26 am. We don't get up early, as the old man takes his retirement very seriously, and is not fond of getting up early now he doesn't have to. I'm thinking perhaps I should steel myself and leave him to snore while I make an earlier start, though it doesn't seem fair.
So far this morning I've done all the routine things like eating and showering. I've looked at and deleted about thirty emails (an average count for the last twenty four hours). I've downloaded two manuscripts from my online critique group, which I'll have to read and comment on by the weekend. I've still not sent them my selection for this week. I've fiddled about with chapter headings and summaries for the work in editing. This last at least is productive, because my first drafts are very tight and need expanding; consequently I'm forever moving scenes around and setting up new chapters, and the old headings and summaries are way out of date. When I get an idea for something that absolutely must be included in that chapter where ... it sometimes takes me a lot of clicking around before I can find the place. But it's not actually writing, is it?
And this afternoon we are going to the gym, which will take a couple of hours and leave me feeling quite drained. I'm not exactly a natural exerciser. Then more food, "Pointless" on the tv so I can tut over the educational standards nowadays, more computer time, and bed. That's it.
They say don't look at your emails first thing, or you'll spend all your time fitting into somebody else's agenda. And keep off Facebook. But when we went to France for a month I came back to 500 unread emails, and the thought of that level of backlog is horrific. I've unsubscribed from some newsletters (if they actually take any notice) but that hardly makes a dent.
I did write a blog, though. That counts, doesn't it?
Going to the cupboard recently I made a discovery. Or at least, it was when I picked up a packet of porridge to make breakfast and ended up with little sprinklings of porridge everywhere that I realised. We have a mouse in our cupboard again.
Living in the countryside means that this is not an unknown thing. My first encounter with the rodent problem was many years ago, when I actually had three cats living with me. I think one of them must have brought it in as a little playfellow. The mouse naturally did not appreciate its role in this, and promptly set up housekeeping in the cupboard under my stairs, where I had stored the excess Christmas puddings I had made. As everyone knows, Christmas puddings improve over time, and I intended to eat one the next year. Picking it up from the back of the cupboard, I did think it was suspiciously light. When I turned it round in the light of day, I found a neat little hole eaten through the outer wrapping of aluminium foil, then through the inner wrapping of greaseproof paper, and then into the centre of the pudding itself. Apparently the mouse had actually been living for a while in the middle of my Christmas pudding, before crawling away, no doubt rotund and with clogged arteries from the sugar and suet it had consumed. The second pudding, I can record, was excellent, proof of the good taste of the mouse.
The house in France also is in a country situation, with the added problem that the drain behind the old basin and shower was an open gully. We have on occasion been struck by the feeling of being watched and looked up to see a large grey rat sitting in the doorway watching us with its beady little black eyes. After the first such occasion the old man filled the gap up which it must have come with chicken wire and concrete, but we did occasionally have a visit from it or its brethren until the new plumbing was installed recently. These though are gourmet French rats and have never deigned to touch any of the food in the house.
But in Wales the story is different. Oh, the same feeling of being watched, looking up and spotting a mouse sitting in the doorway looking at us; but these are pragmatic Welsh mice, and they seem to have a great liking for cream crackers, as well as the porridge. They open the packet neatly around the end and then abscond with whole crackers, leaving not even crumbs. They also like walnuts, and no wonder with the health benefits being touted. I was though particularly annoyed when they attacked the Christmas Cake Kit, and then decided they didn’t like their dried fruit soaked in brandy, thank you. The porridge they sampled. Three times. At different corners of the packet, so whichever way you turned it, you were showered with the oats. And I have a suspicion that the failure of the last two dishwashers might have something to do with attacks on the wiring, a well-known rodent delicacy.
The trouble is that we are both rather soft-hearted, and furthermore are all out of cats. How can you foully murder a creature with those little hands and whiskers? What we usually do is borrow a humane mousetrap from the daughter’s in-laws and remove the problem a couple of miles up the road, near the vet’s surgery. It seems kinder.
But now we have gone and got our own trap, a neat affair in smoked plastic, very humane, very hygienic. Watch out, mousey, you little ****, pack your bags. You are in for a change of residence.
I’ll even give you a cream cracker to eat on the journey.
We left our heroine ... back in England waiting for the electrician to be ready. We had already planned on a trip to France in September, when the cost of the ferry crossing drops from its summer high, and by luck this year I had no Creative Writing classes in the autumn term to work around.
Our electrician had actually started work on the house before we got there. Behold! a new distribution board with trip switches instead of fuses, marked "Do not change the position of any of these switches!". No more fuse wire for us. And no more wondering if the whole place would explode when we turned the mains electricity on.
Of course in one week he hadn't got far with the rest of the rewiring, so we had no light in our lovely new cabinet de toilette, and no window either. Daytime was no big problem, there was a window in the adjoining bathroom. At night we could either rely on the street light outside, filtered through the overgrown hazelnut tree, or we could use a battery operated emergency light sat on top of the spin dryer ("we'll keep it just in case"). Still, an inside toilet! We still hadn't got used to the novelty.
Rod the Electric had however given priority to some electrical sockets in the upstairs sitting room. The previous visit had seen me totally failing to connect to the internet on my phone or on the dongle I had bought. I came home afterwards to five hundred unread e-mail messages; even deleting the junk mail had taken me several weeks. I know that's a lot, but you have to realise that I'm fatally attracted to anything marked "Free!", such as webinars and how-to books. So I had taken the plunge and ordered satellite broadband on Pay-As-You-Go, and satellite television, to be installed a couple of days after our arrival, as long as we could get a clear run at the satellite over the slight hill behind the house.
Came the day and two more nice Brits arrived with a van full of long ladders, meters, coils of cable and two large satellite dishes which they installed on the back wall of the house. We look as if we could communicate with the Space Station through them, but now we can get the BBC again and keep up with the skateboarding ducks and the questions on "Pointless". And delete the junk mail before it takes over the world. I even managed to watch some of the webinars I signed up to, until I realised my month's worth of air time was disappearing rapidly. It's not cheap, you understand, but cheaper than a subscription which would not be used for nine months of the year. All we have to do is make sure the hazelnut tree doesn't grow even higher and block the signal.
So what could be better? We have indoor plumbing, electrical sockets and switches that don't give us shocks, and can communicate with the outside world? Life is good in France. Just the last few details to deal with, eh? What could possibly go wrong?
Not this year, I hasten to add. This year was fine, spending time with family and all. We're lucky to creep in at the edge of my son-in-law's extended family for Christmas Day, and we then went to spend New Year with our two sons and cook them a belated Christmas dinner. And frankly we've got to the age where Christmas presents are more appreciated as tokens that we've not been forgotten than as material objects. And the old man was very happy with his Christmas sweater, and spent Boxing Day jingling all the way with the little bells sewn onto it.
But it hasn't always been thus, of course. From the time when, as a child, all I wanted was a tricycle with wire wheels and a boot to put toys in, and received instead a scooter, presents have been problematic. Nobody had explained to me that we were hard-up and couldn't afford the tricycle, which is why, when we were in a similar position, I always let our children know our financial situation. Yes, they did occasionally get second-hand presents, though always something they wanted, not just random. I'm thinking of the My Little Pony house here, complete with a whole stable-full of ponies. And sometimes the present had to cover both boys, and birthday as well as Christmas, like the X-Box they got one year.
But bad Christmas presents are in a whole different league. It takes a certain amount of effort to give a really bad present.
I know, as I just said, we weren't a well-off family. But really, my twenty-first birthday present from my mother could have been better. She gave me a second-hand nightie she had been given, but she always wore pyjamas so had no use for it.
But there was one person who had raised bad present giving to an art form, without even the excuse of being hard up, and that was the woman my father-in-law lived with towards the end of his life. He was a lovely man, generous and loving to his family. She on the other hand was the sort of person who always told you you'd put on weight, or asked my daughter, a student at university at the time, when she was going to get married, as time was passing and she didn't want to be left on the shelf, did she?
This person could not, of course, be seen not to give any presents at all. Her speciality was the present that looked reasonable but had hidden flaws. Like the bars of chocolate given to my children which proved to be past their sell-by date. (They ate them anyway.) Or the (actually quite nice) warm padded gloves she gave my husband which turned out to have come second-hand from the Oxfam Shop in town. Or the bunch of flowers she gave me one year. Plastic.
In fact we never bothered to save her presents for Christmas day:; to spare ourselves the disappointment we would stop off at my sister-in-law's on the way back home and open them there, where we could at least get a laugh out of them.
But the very worst present of all was one given to my daughter. She had been very fond of her Nana, who had died several years before. So she wasn't too upset to be given, one Christmas, her Nana's old address book. Until she looked inside it.
Some of the entries were in pencil, and had been rubbed out, as best the donor could. Other entries had been in biro, and these had simply been crossed out.
We left the house in France last time with the plumbing sorted out, and the luxury of indoor facilities. Hot water, and even the washing machine and dishwasher plumbed in.
Unfortunately our first priority had been the electrical system, not the plumbing, and we were no closer to getting that sorted out. Our builder knew a man who did electricity. In fact it was the same person who did the plumbing. But he had grown tired of the new, strict building regulations and didn’t do it any more. Fear not, there was somebody else, but he couldn’t start with us till September (it was January then). But then electrician number two decided to return to England, as the financial situation in France was not good at that time. This was March, and he hadn’t got to us by then. The lights flickered ominously. Turning on the mains each time we arrived to stay for a while was always an adventure.
I always prefer to go by personal recommendation, which is why we had ended up with English workmen in France, and not because I was avoiding dealing with the French: I had asked our next door neighbor, the English one. Now I was stumped, but Brian and John put their heads together and in the English language newspaper they found an advertisement for an electrician who, from his telephone number, they thought must live not too far away. We phoned. He would be happy to come round and take a look, give us a quote.
Enter Rod the electrician, a very pleasant person, and what is better, someone who is prepared to work with French bureaucracy. Rewiring? No problem. Lots of sockets? No problem. Electric radiators? No problem. An earth? You mean we don’t have one already? We didn’t have an earth. We had owned the house and spent time there for sixteen years without an earth. But no problem.
He looked over the existing wiring, and turned a little pale. It’s seventy years old, he said. From the nineteen seventies? we suggested. No, he really meant seventy years old. Dating back to the initial renovation just after WWII. Probably the first time they had electricity in the house. No wonder the insulation was coming off in crumbs. And the fuse box still used actual fuse wire. He talked of two-phase and three-phase. Whichever we had (don’t ask me) it was the wrong one. And don’t touch that switch! He talked a little with the locals and discovered that the factory which had been demolished in the village had contained large numbers of these switches and the locals, never ones to waste things that were going free, had installed them in every house in the place. And every one gave the householders an electric shock.
I have to say I did get a little over-excited at the thought of all the electrical appliances I needed. I’ll have a double socket here, and a double socket there, here, there, here, there, sockets everywhere. In the bathroom? No problem. In the shed? No problem.
Can’t do it till September, he said.
Doreen lives in the empty bit in the middle of Wales, where since her retirement she has taken up writing. She says it's better than working any day.
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