On The Leaning Tower of Pisa – 14th June 2013

All of my life I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and now I shall.

We’re in Italy, in June, all four of us, and we’ve found our funny flea-pit of a hotel. The first thing we did this morning, when we landed, was to pile in the hire car (the Mighty Bling), and head to the beach between Pisa and Livorno.

Consequently, we’re now all covered in sand and shards of that translucent spreckly-brown seaweed. Stevie keeps pulling flakes from his pocket, and the children and I have it tangled in our hair.

We’re here in Pisa’s Old Quarter for just one night, and the four of us are sharing a room with an en-suite loo, shower and bidet. The bidet enthrals the children, and they desperately want to try it out. Our room is

Piazza Del Duomo Pisatiny,and the children can jump from bed-to-bed, yodelling and scattering contents of bags. Briefly, Stevie and I join in, but then one of us squashes the television controls, and the set blinks to life, throwing forth bursts of frenetic Italian and shots of some sort of gameshow.

The children are entranced, and Stevie and I keel over on the lumpy double bed to sleep.

We wake just before five, and the sun has slid a slanting finger through the gap between the shutters. I can feel it hitting my bare hip, pressing like the flat of a warm blade, and I’m smiling even before I’ve opened my eyes.

We’re in Italy. In Pisa. And we’re going to see The Tower. I think about being sixteen, and learning about the Piazza del Duomo in History of Art lessons from a fat, glossy grey textbook. I remember staring from the window in the stuffy classroom, out over the Warwickshire fields, and promising myself that one day I’d go to Pisa. I’d sit in a bar, smoking Camels and wearing sunglasses and a silk scarf in my hair. I would observe the campanile through half-closed eyes, and I would laugh at the tourists with their silly photo-poses. I wouldn’t be seen dead being so uncool.

The children don’t wake easily, a night of travelling and a day of beach and sea has exhausted them. We kiss their shoulders and blow raspberries on their necks, and when tenderness doesn’t work, we propel them into the shower.

‘Why do we have to have a shower,’ they say. ‘Why can’t we have a bidet?’

We leave at six, armed with a map of Pisa’s old quarter, and directions from the handsome but sad-faced concierge.

‘Ees two-minute walk,’ he tells us. ‘No more.’

We thank him, and cautiously mention the lack of bed, and the mouldy sandwich in our fridge, and the absence of drinking water.

‘I feex,’ he says, mournfully.

The hotel is on an ancient narrow road, paved with stone and with room for just one car to pass. The pavements are barely a foot across, and we ignore them, meandering up the road instead. People keep floating by on bicycles, their bells tring-tring around every corner. The city smells exactly how I imagined it might – sun-warmed oregano and thyme; jasmine and honeysuckle and the base city-notes of drains and exhaust and cigarette smoke.

We catch glimpses of deeply lush gardens through tall, wrought-iron gates – rhododendrons and clematis beneath orange and lemon trees in vast stone planters. The old city wall slips in and out of view, and the despite the cars, the city feels timeless.

We’re ravenously hungry, and keep spotting lovely-looking ristorantes and trattorias, but it’s too early to eat. We follow our instructions, and round a corner into a beautiful square. Two white-clad nuns carrying armfuls of dark-green fabric scuttle by, nodding at our smiles, and winking at the children.

‘Were they real nuns,’ asks Ellie, staring after them.

‘Yes,’ I say, but break off and stop, staring.

Jess tries to pull me onwards, but I point. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘There it is.’

We can see the top two tiers of The Tower, like an improbable cake above the houses of the square, and we all start hurrying, as if it might disappear.

‘Quick,’ says Stevie. ‘This way.’

We burst onto the Piazza del Duomo, our sandals slapping, and we slither to a stop at the sudden sense of space. The Tower – Torre di Pisa – is in front of us, its stacked marble loggias gleaming white-gold in the evening sun.

‘Wow,’ we say. ‘Wow. It’s beautiful.’

To our left are rows of tourist-tat shops, and they are shutting up now, testament to the departure of day-trippers. African street-sellers eyed us, but don’t approach – probably exhausted by a day of hustling. We stand and stare, and stare. I never expected the acres of green grass, nor the might of the Duomo and Baptistry and Tower together, each fiercely separate on a page in a text-book, here so vitally and powerfully linked.

I want to tell the children how the square was known as Piazza dei Miracoli, and that Galileo came here to do some thinking, and that it’s all been here for nearly a thousand years and is very important. But I can’t, because the children and Stevie have legged it, and are trying out camera poses against the Tower.

I watch them for a moment, the way they balance on the shiny black-painted railings, freeze-framing improbable poses and laughing, shouting instructions at each other.

‘Move! No! Not that way!’

My stomach gives an enormous hungry gurgle, and a couple next to me look over in surprise. I shrug.

Fame,’ I say.

Si,’ they reply, uncertainly.

Then one of the children call.

‘Mum! Mumm-eeee. Come on, come here. You need to do the thing. The photo thing. Come and do the thing, with all of us.’

‘Wife,’ says Stevie. ‘Hurry up. I look a prat. Come and look a prat with me.’

On Walking: Sunday 9th June

Sometimes, Horley is so beautiful, so enchanted, that I can’t bear to leave it. I’m walking early, and with a thumping post-karaoke head, because today we’re off to Cambridgeshire.

I like Cambridgeshire, but today I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be at home.

The dogs seem to know they’re being abandoned for the day, and they misbehave – Arfa Pants snatching Dora’s lead in his teeth, Dora deliberately tripping him up on his silly gangly legs.

I’m supposed to be going quick, because Stevie wants to get off before the traffic, but my progress is slow, because I keep noticing new things – a clump of yolk-yellow cowslips beneath a cherry tree, a Warwick Rose clematis storming darkly up a telegraph pole.

Down by the stream, there’s a honeysuckle in flower. The delicate, delicate scent is just discernible above the stronger smells of lilac and nettle – it makes me think of being a child, and catching a glimpse of a very beautiful woman in a fabulous ball dress.

Arfa doesn’t think much to my mooniness, and starts talking (which sounds sweet, but is really NOT). Once he starts, I can’t make him stop, so I turn back up Wroxton Lane towards home, floating on a honeysuckle high. Thankfully, Arfa pipes down, and instead tries to chase Dora, who’s not on a lead.

I reach the bottom of Little Lane, and I really know I should go straight home. Stevie will have loaded the car, fed the cat, bawled the children out for roller-blading instead of cleaning their teeth.

I turn left, beneath a small horse chestnut with salmon-coloured blossom. I let Arfa pull me up the steep hill, and we stop half way to inspect some creamy-white rock roses, jaunty above drying aubretia. There are more rock roses further on, red this time, and with two fat, furry bees circling thoughtfully.

Outside the Manor is one of my favourite treats – an old copper beech in its absolute prime. From the outside, its leaves are a glossy aubergine, but inside the leaves are the most glorious gold-green, and as you gaze up, you feel that pulse of awe you get from cathedrals.

My phone beeps a text in my back pocket, and I know without looking it will be Stephen. I quicken my step, and jog the rest of the hill to Ross’ paddock, where I let Arfa off. Dora vanishes. The grass in there is higher than my knees, and in the distance, the rape fields are a soft green, just smudged now with yellow here and there. The Scout Woods are on the opposite hillside, and with its band of evergreens looks like an ironic eyebrow, lifted at the antics of Horley villagers.

Arfa gallops off after a Cabbage White, and I can hear a song thrush: hey Arfa, hey Arfa, hey Arfa. I think of Ted Hughes, and his line about birds having a single-mind sized skull. I wonder if it would be liberating or constricting to only ever have one thought at a time. It might be nice, though, to finish one line of thought, without another barging along, and another, another, until you wish you could lay your head inside a foxglove and go to sleep.

Eventually, I gather the dogs and head for home. Arfa strains half-heartedly to chase one of the Cousins’ Buff Orpingtons, the puffed Cheesy-Wotsit of chicken world. But I start to hurry now, suddenly guilty at bunking off for so long. We jog down Hornton Lane, past prim clumps of pink-and-white dianthus. The gutter’s full of creamy blossom blown from St Ethelreda’s horse chestnuts – as if the fairy folk had held an illicit wedding. I nod to the hats of the gnomes beneath the first chestnut. One day I’ll know what the plant is that makes them.

We thunder down our road, my best flat shoes slap, slapping. I can see Jess ahead on roller-blades, Stevie’s stood by our wall, watching the Sunday cricket and chatting to Raymundo, our neighbour. For a tiny, hopeful moment, I imagine he’s going to say we’re staying, and I can potter in the garden and read the Telly. But then he hears me and turns round.

‘Bloody hell,’ he says. ‘Bloody hell have you been? Late! So late!’

And then there was a mad scramble of last-minute loos, locking doors, checking dog water, checking chickarockas, forgetting open windows and car revving.

We finally roll out of Horley, a two-hour drive ahead.

‘Cheer up,’ says Stevie, giving me a mint. ‘Be home soon.’

On Wine Tasting

I love wine, but I like drinking it, or sloshing it into sizzling pans, not talking about it. I don’t like to offer an opinion, when asked if it suits my palate, and I loathe being the taster in a restaurant, even if I’ve been the one to choose the bottle.

So I wasn’t massively keen when I was invited to a ‘Wine Tasting Evening’ at the Old School. It was to be in aid of Horley Cricket Club, and would involve tickets and cheese-boards and local indie wine merchants, SH Jones.

I had dire images of clutching a thimble of  Chateauneuf Du Pape, and being asked if I could identify base notes of leather and tar. I knew I couldn’t. I once did a blind tasting, and confidently called Chablis as a Merlot, definitely.

On the plus side though, I was to go with a gang of Horley Housewives that I adore: Curdie, Jules, Damage (Mrs), and honorary HH, Lulu.

It’s Friday evening, and we all collect each other, like beads on a necklace, tripping up Little Lane in our jewel-bright going-out clothes.

‘Bloody shoes,’ says Jules. ‘Heels make me feel like a transvestite.’ We all snort with laughter and bump shoulders together as we walk. We’re gabbling already, gossiping and pointing, exclaiming and giggling.  The summer air is soft on our shoulders, and our voices are high with escapists’ excitement. We toss our hair, and the click-clack of our heels punctuate our practised social riffs: our children, our animals, our jobs. The ‘Have you heards’ and the ‘Do you know’s.

Horley is beautiful in June, and our progress is slow; we pause to admire tumbles of aubretia topped with rock-roses, and the final hurrah of the blossom in Charlie Cousins’ orchard.  Our eyes slide sideways as we pass Bramshill Manor, with the new people (Have you seen? No, have you? Oh. Perhaps we should…)

Walking beneath the Manor’s mighty copper beech, I tip my head back, admiring the green-gold beauty in the last of the day’s sun.

The Old School is just ahead, beyond the ‘Secret Path’; borage and forget-me-nots brush our ankles and hide lurking dog poo. The School is as familiar to us as our own houses, and is an ‘L’ shape with high ceilings and those glorious long windows particular to Victorian schools. We all brought our children here as babies to Horley Toddlers’, and later birthday parties – later still, discos. It’s where the local  AmDrammers hold their plays, and where rain-soaked village fêtes stash the book stall and serve afternoon tea.

We clatter in, shushing each other, eyeing up the little tables set with jolly blue-checked cloths. At the far end of the room, beneath the window facing St Ethelreda’s, is a table set out with bottles. A dapper-looking man with a sweet chipmunk face stands behind his bottles, next to lady with a dark bob, who keeps beaming smiles out at the audience.

Jules procures a bottle of  rosé from the bar to get us going, and we find a side table and gulp gratefully.

‘Thank God for that,’ says Lulu. ‘I’ve had a pig of a day.’ She regales us with stories of her work – Paris, Frankfurt, Monaco. She tells us about her upcoming stint at Glastonbury, and we all try not to be too jealous. ‘Knackering,’ sighs Lulu.

Jules and I get into a fascinating nose-to-nose about broody chickens.

We work our way down the rosé, then find a lovely cheese platter beneath a port-red paper napkin. On our table, there’s a bottle of water, a forest of glassware, and a thick wodge of print-out. It contains notes on what we’re about to drink, and a hideously hard, wine-related quiz.

‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘I’m going to be so crap at this.’

‘Pass me the pen,’ says Mrs Damage. ‘No one can read my writing anyway.’

The room is almost full now, an equal mix of sexes and a wide age-range tucked around the card-tables. I spot my friend Wrightie, and wave like a windmill. There’s the steady roar of a cocktail party, and people are already swaying forwards to hear what their neighbours are saying to them.

None of us can answer a single question in the quiz. ‘Bloody ridiculous,’ we grumble, and I feel slightly ashamed. I hate being ignorant.

Rose, a teenaged cricket-club stalwart (and the evenings’ organiser), steps forward to thank us for coming, and to introduce the team from SH Jones. We all clap, genial and approving. Tables nod at each other, and smile, and then we’reHorley_Crest2 off – a short introduction from Janet (who, it turns out, is the manager from the Banbury SH Jones), whilst the chap with the sweet face whizzes round, filling glasses, patiently answering questions. The first drink turns out to be Prosecco, which smells revolting but tastes lovely. On our ‘To Buy’ sheet, we all give it a resounding tick.

We’re starting on white, swirling, sniffing then slugging, before we’re topped up, again and again. Very soon, we’re shrieking with laughter over un-funny things.

Janet holds the next wine up. She has a very clear way of speaking, and explains all of the terms she uses without being patronising.

‘This one is a ‘frizzante’ she says (pronouncing it ‘friz-ont’, rather than the Italian way), ‘which means sparkling, and less bubbly than champagne.’

‘Good name for a bantam,’ hiccups Julie.

Lulu and Curdie are agreeing they’re not all that keen whilst they drain their glasses and hold out for a top-up. All the bread from our cheeseboard has gone, as we try to mop up the alcohol.

We’re introduced to a Chilean white, and we all pull yak faces. It reminds me instantly of awkward pre-school fund-raisers, when you stand in stilted groups trying to trade your children’s key-workers.

‘Bucket,’ hisses Curdie. We don’t want to be seen as rude, but we definitely can’t drink it. In our notes, it tells us it should be paired with curry.

‘Yes,’ says Jules. ‘A vindaloo.’

Mrs Damage calmly takes our glasses and discreetly disposes of their contents into the bucket. Her cool insouciance makes us laugh even harder. We gasp like fishes, and as Janet moves on to reds, I stagger to my feet to go to refill our water bottle.

The handsome boys from the cricket club are arranged like skittles along the back of the room, behind the long counter of the bar. I cannon into them, heading to the sink, and they put down their red tins of coke to steady my progress.

‘Make way for Mrs Lee,’ I hear. ‘She’s definitely swallowing.’ They all laugh and I try hard not to blush.

Back at the table, the others are getting stuck into Beaujolais and doing Derek Trotter impressions.

Then we all discuss why our mothers loathe the word ‘belly’, and made us say ‘tummy’ as children.

By now, the bridge of my nose is sore from trying to get it into too-small glasses.

‘Tip your head back,’ says Curdie. ‘You’re drinking with a stiff neck.’ We discover that I cannot raise my chin to drink without feeling horribly self-conscious. I choke in the attempt, and the others pat my back.

Outside, the new leaves of the birches are inked against an ethereal silver-grey sky. Practising head-tipping, I see the last rose-pink streaks of sunset.

Next comes a most amazing wine, that as soon as we smell we all coo in appreciation. It’s American, and called Scotto Old Vine Zinfandel 2009. It tastes like memories of the best sort of dinner parties, with excellent food and attractive men with which to flirt. The sort of wine that makes you feel deliciously grown up and wearing a satin frock.

We’re advised that the wine has a ‘good length,’ and when we ask the sweet-faced chap to explain, he goes bright red and zips off back to his table. We barrack noisily, and make him come back with top-ups.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ we say. ‘We’re being serious, we promise.’

‘It’s to do with mouth-feel,’ he says earnestly, then freezes in horror as we all swoop on the double-entendre. He legs it again as we all howl.

We’re free-wheeling now, utterly out of control and enjoying ourselves enormously.

Janet is telling us about a Grenache grape.

‘Grenache?’ I say, puzzled. ‘Is it chocolately?’

‘That’s Gan-ache, you dope.’

Several people are starting to look similar to the stuffed owl, high on one of the School’s shelves, except they’re all smiling.

Our last drink, and Janet holds up a slim bottle. ‘It’s Trentham Noble Taminga,’ she tells us. ‘From Australia.’

I wrinkle my nose: I loathe dessert wine, and it always seems to smack of pretension, if anyone orders it in a restaurant.

Oh I’m an idiot! It’s a total revelation – utterly gorgeous, like the sweetest nectar with no cloying after-taste. It makes me think of the Illiad, and the stories of gods laying around topping up their ichor.

I raise a silent toast to Dionysus, and fail once again to tip back my head.

The tasting is over now, and there’s speeches, then continued top-ups and people ordering cases. I wave my arms.

‘I’ll take the lot,’ I shout.

‘No you won’t,’ says Curdie, and she confiscates my handbag. ‘Go to the shop with Stevie in the morning.’

We call thank you and goodbye, wincing at the guilt of leaving our chairs unstacked.

‘Too pissed,’ says Julie, briskly.

We try to take Lulu to the pub, but she’s clinging onto Big Steve with her pretty eyes crossing.

Outside, it’s pitch-black, and we follow Julie’s white trousers down the hill. We can smell lilac and new-mown grass, and somewhere there’s music. Our heels skitter on gravel and we’re all holding each other up.

‘What a lovely night,’ we say. ‘Brilliant fun.’

‘First thing tomorrow-‘

‘Very first thing-‘

‘Must get to SH Jones.’

‘I wonder if they’d do a tasting session for other fundraisers?’

‘We’d go.’

‘Yes, we would, most definitely.’

‘Go where?’

‘Wine tasting, cloth ears.’

‘God, yeah. Absolutely. Like a shot.’

SH Jones, Banbury

On Animals – Dora The Jack-Rat

Dora is a Jack Russell Terrier, and belongs to Ellie and Jess. Stevie came home after work one day, soaking wet, absolutely shattered, covered in soot, and said, ‘Oh yeah, by the way. We’re getting a puppy.’

El and Dora
El and Dora on the dead oak

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘When?’

‘Just been born.’

I boggled. It was Octoberish, which meant we’d have the puppy for mid-December. Nightmare. Especially as Stevie added it could be the children’s dog. Exactly what no child should ever have for Christmas.

Worse was to come. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Jack Rat.’

God. I had immediate images of bristly malevolence and snapping teeth and peeing up trouser legs. By now, Stevie had stripped his clothes off in the kitchen. It’s hard to get cross with a tired man in underpants.

The children were ecstatic, and only Archie (our German Shepherd) and I were grumpy.

But when Dora came to live with us, we all fell head-over-heels, probably Archie and I the hardest. She was about the size of a guinea-pig, and was so sweet and merry she enslaved all of us. Her legs were tiny, and on walks Stevie would put her in the pocket of his wax jacket, or she’d demand I carry her under my arm. She once spent the day at a CLA Game Fair carried around in a hessian shopper, and earned the nick-name ‘The Dor-Bag’.

Archie was given new life. He was six when Dora came, but already showing signs of suffering from an illness he was diagnosed with at two. We’re completely convinced that it was Dora that helped Archie on and reach nearly nine.

Dora guarding fire from Merlin
Dora: ‘Ha. I’m closest.’
‘Merlin: ‘Pah. You’re singed.’

As I type this, Dora is curled up on my chair behind my back. She’s still quite tiny (about the size of a rabbit), and  the new puppy, Arfa, keeps trying to pull her down. She rumbles with continuous growls, like an old kettle coming up to the boil.

She doesn’t really behave like a Terrier, and we think it might be because she considers herself a German Shepherd. She’s not at all interested in going down rabbit holes, although she will chase rabbits. Considering she’s of working stock (hence her docked tail), she’s completely rubbish at ratting. We have the odd rat sneak over into our chickarockers, and Dora will just watch from the French windows, with a sort of detached fascination.

Her favourite thing is to be babied by the daughters. When Dora was a puppy and the children younger, they would put her in a tutu and wrap her in a blanket, wheel her around in a pram. Now, aged 9 and 7, if the children are tired or angry or tearful, Dora is the first one there, burrowing into their raised knees, licking their hidden faces until they smile and cuddle her.

Dora has a terribly cavalier attitude towards traffic. She recently shot out of the cricket field and cavorted up the Banbury Lane.  Ellie and I froze in horror, as three cars beeped and screeched behind the hedge. We stood open-mouthed, terrified, me thinking desperately how to stop El seeing Dora’s poor squashed body.

But then a horn beeped again, and Dora nipped through the hedge, unharmed,  full of perky jack-ratty insouciance. Ellie burst into tears and I shouted ‘Come ‘ere you f*ing dog’.

I’d make a crackingly fine fish-wife. Two of the cars had stopped and I could hear the whine of gears meshing to reverse. Please God let none of them be in the ditch.

I jumped the hedge into the next field down, where I could get to the lane, and floundered through the deepest plough ruts known to man. I had to grab Dora before she made a second pass. She ran out of reach, laughing, and I swore again, red in the face, spitting with embarrassment; rage and fear making me shrill. Ellie was sobbing by now, and I shouted to pack it in, it’s not bloody helping.

The next moment I heard a voice. ‘Carlie? Carlie, hullo? Is that you? Is everything all right?’

Shame, shame. One of the cars was a little Audi TT, belonging to Dr. Nicely-Tightly, an attractive local GP. He had his window down and his daughter in the seat next to him, and must have heard everything. He reversed until we faced each other over an open gateway, and I waved weakly. He seemed to double-take, as if stunned by the sight of a mad scarlet-faced woman screeching (and now slightly snivelling) in a field. He always looks so very neatly pressed. He blinks.

I blush. There’s mud up my legs and hawthorn twigs in my hair.

‘Sorry,’ I manage. ‘I’m so…sorry.’

‘As long as you’re okay-‘

Dora, little rat, wriggles back through the hedge and trots briskly home.  Ellie and I wave the doctor off, calling thank you, thank you for not squashing her, sorry, so sorry for you all being nearly ditched.Dora The Bag

‘That bloody dog,’ Ellie says, as we trail up the field. ‘But, Mummy. It’s true. That you only  realise how much you love someone.’

‘When?’ I snarl.

She puts her hand in mine. ‘When they’re very nearly properly dead.’

I scoop her up and give her a kiss.

‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I do love her. And you. Sorry I shouted at you for crying.’

‘That’s okay, Mummy. Anyway. You were crying too.’

I’ve written this for all those people who keep asking me to write more about Dora – my constant walking, writing and driving companion. She’s bugging me for a walk RIGHT NOW!