Wednesday, 29 December 2010


As a woman of a certain age, I like to think that I’m vaguely aware of the various health-related issues which occasionally need addressing, and I also like to think that I’m generally on top of such matters. However, during a particularly luxuriously indulgent bubble bath one evening, it suddenly came to my attention that all was not entirely as it should be in the boob department. My relaxing bathing ritual instantly turned into a soapy worry-fest as I discovered a new, and very much unwanted, lump.

As my discovery was made fairly late in the evening, way past my local GP surgery opening hours, I spent an anxious night obsessing over all manner of things until 9am the next day, when I could finally ring up and book a doctor’s appointment. As soon as the words “breast lump” escaped my mouth, the receptionist turned into Mrs super-serious. “Dr Malone can see you at 10am!” she announced almost instantly. Stunned by the immediacy of the appointment I automatically agreed, bolted down some corn flakes then fetched my coat. It was then when it dawned on me that I hadn’t actually heard of this particular GP and began to fret that I’d be intimately examined by a man. I know it SHOULDN’T make any difference whatsoever, and now was definitely not the time to turn all bashful. I needed to be checked out as soon as possible and all GPs have done this type of thing hundreds of times before, but I managed to work myself into a right panic all the same.

On arrival at the surgery I was informed that Dr Malone is a female, and the look of relief on my face must’ve said it all. The two minutes I sat in the waiting room seemed an eternity, but in all honesty it was the briefest spell I’ve ever spent in there. I was called to an examination room and, after explaining my bath time findings to the nice lady doctor, she made small-talk with me while groping my upper body, all legal and above board. She agreed that there was, indeed, a lump and she duly filled out a note for me to take to reception, where they would book a hospital referral for me. I was a tad alarmed to see the words “rapid response” written down and immediately went into panic-mode once again.

Within minutes the super-efficient receptionist had accessed my NHS ‘healthspace’ on her computer and I’d been booked to see a specialist at the local hospital two days later. The lightening speed of the process literally stunned me. No matter what we all say about the National Health Service, and I’ve had more than my fair share of reasons for vocalising my extremely negative opinions regarding NHS treatment in the past, they DO seem to take things of this nature very seriously indeed. Astonishing efficiency between the NHS and the post office meant that my hospital paperwork arrived the following morning. I was to wear a t-shirt for ease of removal rather than a shirt with complicated buttons and I was to avoid antiperspirant.

By the time my appointment had arrived I was sweating like a proverbial pig, no small thanks to the instruction regarding the non-usage of underarm sprays, and I’d convinced myself that the news would not be good. My other half was gravely concerned that his ‘fun bags’ had become poorly and was uncharacteristically quiet as we sat waiting to be called up. Eventually, I was requested to step into a tiny side room by a rotund and overly-chirpy breast care nurse who quipped “Just take your top off – don’t be shy!” Now, 20 years ago, with about a gallon of Bacardi inside me, wild horses wouldn’t have been able to keep my top ON. As I sat there feeling rather exposed, I spotted the inter-connecting door. So, there I sat, topless and vulnerable, unaware as to exactly who was going to come in, and through which door. Make mine a double!!

A minute or two later a female doctor entered the room and I faced an encore of the whole legal groping episode. The diagnosis was “probably fatty tissue” however; a mammogram was now required by way of a second opinion.

My visibly-concerned other half, who’d been patiently waiting in the corridor while I endured the preliminaries, escorted me to the x-ray department, which wasn’t entirely as straightforward as you might think in a re-vamped but distinctly Victorian building. At one point I felt rather like a contestant on The Crystal Maze, only without the shell-suit or the eccentric bald man. On arrival at yet another reception desk, the paperwork was swiftly dealt with and we sat down in yet another waiting area, which was actually a small stretch of corridor with half a dozen plastic seats along the wall, and a slightly wobbly table displaying a couple of well-thumbed copies of Women’s Own and a Practical Caravanning Magazine. As a 100 percent heterosexual female I found it deeply disturbing that I seem to have become obsessed with looking at other ladies chests! How can something so normal-looking be so potentially deadly? Unwelcome thoughts began to enter my mind as I stared at my feet trying to avoid any socially inappropriate behaviour. I was relieved to be rescued from myself as I was eventually called in for my mammogram.

The petite young radiologist assured me that even the most flat-chested ladies manage to fit into the monstrous contraption which stood before me. I wasn’t entirely convinced; however, she quickly loaded what looked like a videotape, but was some sort of x-ray cartridge, into her computer and began to position me. “Put your right hand on your head, lean into the machine, grab the handle with your left hand…….try not to crack your head on the apparatus….” It had to be the most unnatural pose ever! Within seconds a vice had grabbed my right boob and turned it into what looked like road-kill. Flat as a pancake it was. There were four x-rays to be taken in all, two with the left and two with the right, all requiring the kind of balancing act that would not seem out of place in a circus. I wouldn’t say it was painful, but it was definitely uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.

While I struggled to regain a shred of dignity, wishing that my skimpy t-shirt was actually a huge woolly jumper, with a polo neck which I could yank right up over my crimson face, my photographer explained that a consultant would now assess my x-rays and he’d decide on what the next step would be, and so back to the plastic chairs I went. About five excruciatingly long minutes later a nurse arrived and unexpectedly announced that I was to be taken away for an ultrasound scan. As someone who has faced the joys of pregnancy in the past I’m fully aware of what ultrasound is, but I wasn’t expecting to have it done to my top half. Paranoia set in once again.

As I lay down half naked in yet another small room, the humourless, elderly, male consultant asked if I’d ever had this done before. Not wishing to elaborate on whatever alcohol-fuelled party games I may, or may not have, indulged in during my hedonistic youth I simply muttered something along the lines that I’d had children and was therefore familiar with the process. The obligatory cold gel was unceremoniously squirted onto me, making me flinch, and I was poked and prodded some more before finally hearing the words I’d been longing to hear for the past few hellish days; “There’s nothing to worry about”. Phew! If the consultant had been slightly more user-friendly I’d have hugged him, and I admit to being more than a little tearful at my healthy verdict. My previously gloomy other half suddenly looked as if all of his Christmases had come at once on receiving the good news, and at last, it was back to the tiny side-room with two doors for the final word from the breast care nurse that my lump, or, as the ultrasound showed, lumps in the plural, were nothing sinister.

I can’t begin to explain what a heavy weight this had been on my shoulders over the comparatively brief period of time between that less-than-relaxing evening bath and getting the all-clear, and how lucky I feel that I can go off and enjoy my life, unlike so many unfortunate women, and a tiny but equally important proportion of men, who aren’t as privileged as me. So, until I get the age-related call-up for my routine mammogram once I hit my half-century, I shall endeavour to enjoy my baths and be utterly grateful that while I can’t exactly give Jordan a run for her money, and my boobs may indeed follow the adage that ‘more than a handful’s a waste’, they’re perfectly fit and healthy, which is plenty good enough for me. 

Saturday, 25 December 2010

G.P. Appointment...

Sods law dictates that whenever you are en route to a doctor’s appointment, your ailment seems to completely vanish. So much so, that the act of making an appointment to see your GP should be published in The Lancet as a drug-free cure for all disorders. In my case, it was not so much disappear completely, but it was a far cry from the hideous pain I had been suffering with my bad neck over the past week and a half.

My local doctor’s surgery has recently become all new-fangled. When I rang up to book an appointment I was treated to a brand new automated selection; press 1 for a medical emergency (although, in my opinion, 999 is a far easier number to remember than my 6 digit surgery number when faced with a dire medical situation), press 2 for appointments, which is what I should’ve done, had curiosity not got the better of me, wondering how many options they were going to give me before they ran out, press 3 to speak to a nurse, press 4 if you are in need of a repeat prescription, press 5…..oh well, I’d had enough of that now and pressed 2 (assuming that there was an almost infinite amount of options, the final one being press 999 if you have now lost the will to live).

Not only had I been automated with regards to the landline, my local surgery now sends appointment reminders by text exactly 24 hours before your allotted time, which is hard luck for those who have yet to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and do not possess a smart new Nokia. Luddites will simply have to rely on the old fashioned methods of using a diary.

I arrived at the surgery five minutes early, to avoid an encore of a previous encounter with a receptionist, who scolded be for turning up a whole two minutes late and therefore putting their entire system out of kilter. I was met my a lady wearing a rather smart navy blue cardigan, who was leaning over the reception desk, frantically pointing at a big white screen on the wall in front of me. This peculiar mime act was my introduction to the new computerised, touch screen, booking in system, a.k.a. the DIY receptionist.

There was an exciting selection of languages to choose from, and, despite the temptation to test them all, I opted to select English. I was rewarded with “Welcome” displayed on the screen, swiftly followed by the choice of male or female. Well, the last time I checked I was a lady, so female it is. Next I had to use a number pad to tap out my year of birth, then I had to select my month of birth, and, you guessed it, I was then asked for my day of birth! Hoorah, it finally recognised who I am and I was instructed to take a seat alongside all the other automated patients in the waiting room. Good job I had arrived early as I was now only moments away from being late. Isn’t technology a wonderful thing?

As I plonked my backside on the only available chair, stuck right next to the giant triffid in the corner, I couldn’t fail to notice the massive tv screen located at the far end of the room. Rather hoping for something cheery to watch while I waited, I was highly disappointed to discover that for my viewing pleasure was an endless stream of medical-related adverts. Have I thought about my holiday jabs? Am I depressed? Have I got diabetes? Do I need help to quit smoking? Am I pregnant? Did I book my flu jab? The list seemed endless.

Suddenly, the entire screen turned canary yellow, accompanied by a very loud doorbell sound, and someone’s name flashed up in huge black letters! It appears that you are no longer called to your appointment by a kindly nurse or by a red light and buzzer combination. Your full name, along with the name of your GP and your allocated room number are displayed for all to see, thus ending any quaint notions of anonymity. Thank goodness you are spared the excruciating humiliation of seeing your medical woe announced to all and sundry.  I must admit to being a tad shocked at such a blatant lack of privacy, and now sat in dread of the moment that my own name would be emblazoned on a big yellow screen for one and all to see. Although I am not a fugitive from the law, and have nothing to fear from others being aware of my presence, I do not seek fame and fortune and therefore do not require my name to appear on a huge public television screen.

While I pondered upon this annoyance, wondering if this would put me at risk of credit card cloning or spam emails, and whatever happened to patient confidentiality, my attention became focussed on the fact that I was the only person in the room not hacking up a lung. On every available seat was all manner of individuals, apparently stricken with the recently reported flu epidemic. Despite warnings on tv and radio along with notices in the local and national press to remain quarantined at home, unless it became a medical emergency, the world and its wife had turned up to my local surgery this morning, and were now filling the room in which I sat with highly contagious germs. The flu virus had obviously rendered them illiterate, as the walls of the waiting room were practically smothered in huge posters telling people to stay away if they had caught this particular annual affliction.

The thought then crossed my mind that each and every one of these sickly individuals had touched that big white screen before I arrived, and now the forefinger on my right hand was undoubtedly contaminated with millions of little bugs, just waiting for me to succumb to their evil. I frantically rummaged about in my handbag and, as luck would have it, I discovered a travel pack of wet wipes that had been sitting in there since a summer holiday in Cyprus 6 months earlier. See, women should never clear out their handbags as you never know when you might need something that’s stashed in there. My germ phobia, induced by crowds of ill people in the vicinity, usually forbids me to thumb through previously owned, and sneezed on, copies of Women’s Own or Angling News, and the last thing I need is a new bacterial woe to concern myself with.

As I anxiously continued to disinfect my spotlessly clean finger another thought crossed my mind. What about all the airborne germs? I had no choice, I just had to zip up my fleece as far as it would go and yank it up over my face. I must’ve looked a real sight for sore eyes, a mad woman buried up to her eyelashes in a thick jumper, frantically rubbing her finger with a baby wipe. No wonder the small child, who until now had simply been a minor, snotty-nosed irritation, as it read out loud to its flu-ridden mother “A is for apple, B is for box…C is presumably for cough” was now grabbing onto her ailing parent’s leggings screaming like a demon. I must’ve been a terrifying sight, however, I wasn’t going to allow the guilt of traumatising a pre-schooler to come between me and my germ blockade, so I simply ignored her wails and stared intently at the adverts for factor 50 sun lotion, which were now appearing on the huge screen in front of me.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see a tiny little old lady, who was barely able to push her zimmer frame through the heavy double doors, struggling with understanding the concept of futuristic touch-screen technology. Clearly confused, and in obvious need of assistance, the becardiganed woman finally abandoned her Marcelle Marceau impression, and reluctantly wandered over to help the poor dear out.

After what seemed an eternity, and just before I was about to pass out from heatstroke wrapped in my fleecey cocoon, the ridiculously loud doorbell sound, which accompanied the vast yellow on-screen written announcement, alerted everyone within a mile that my GP was finally requesting my presence in room 3. Now, I wonder what it was I came here for?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Perils of Internet Dating...

Against my better judgement, after yet another long evening spent playing wallflower to two doe-eyed teenage daughters, snuggled up with their latest ‘hug-muffins’, I decided that my efforts of locating Mr Right down at The Dog and Duck were never going to get me anything more than a couple of hours of tedium in the dubious company of a paralytic moron with rather more mouth than trousers. So…. after being warned against it by well-meaning but happily married friends, I threw caution to the wind and joined an online dating website.

Well, to say it was ‘an education’ was an understatement! Who knew there’d be quite so much to learn about what to put on your profile – and what NOT to put? After several weeks of re-writing my biography in a vain attempt at putting off the ever-increasing amount of unsuitable responses I was acquiring on a daily basis, I’d finally got it down to a list of very specific ‘must haves’, or to be more precise,’ must not haves’. Must not have facial hair, must not be under 5 feet 10 inches tall, must not be over 30 years of age, must not smoke…..and so on. You’d be amazed at the sheer volume of apparently elderly, chain-smoking, bearded, dwarfs on internet dating sites!

I do wonder at just how desperate some men are, when they read on a ladies profile that her potential date should live no further than 30 miles away from a specific town, and yet, they still think that 300 miles away is ‘close enough’. And when someone has specifically stated that they wish to date a non-smoker, many blokes seem to assume that they are excluded from that request on the grounds that they are somehow too fabulous to reject on something as trivial as having a disgusting and smelly habit.

Then there’s the thorny issue of what photograph to upload. Any amount of exposed flesh below the chin area apparently gives the impression that you’re some sort of harlot. I like to believe that I am relatively broad minded, however, some of the messages that you receive from men on dating sites are so x-rated that you want to disinfect your computer screen after reading them. The most popular introduction seemed to be “Hello sexy, have you got a webcam?!” Erm…! I also don’t wish to know what you’d like to show me on YOUR webcam! Ewwww.

After deleting numerous begging messages from Nigerian lads wanting to be my new ‘best friend’ with a view to marriage – and presumably a British passport - and several unsolicited requests from various religious cults and swingers, I finally got chatting online to a few potential partners. And that’s where the real ‘fun’ begins.

With my personal safety always at the forefront of my plans, I chose to meet up with a chap in a pub in the centre of town, in full view of cctv cameras. I’d guessed that some men tell little white lies on their profiles, however, when I’d made it crystal clear that I wasn’t interested in dating any men under 5 feet 10 inches tall you can imagine my annoyance when my date turned up – all 5 feet 4 inches of him. The same height as me…..however, HE was the one wearing heels! I couldn’t help but comment, but his response of “I didn’t think it mattered” made me wonder how many more things on my “must not have” list he’d chosen to ignore. Within seconds he was lighting up a cigarette. Ah – so that’s another one. It was clear that there was never going to be a second date, especially after listening to him drone on for an hour about how to reupholster a leather sofa. He seemed oblivious to my yawns and the fact I was checking my watch every five minutes, and seemed genuinely shocked when I tactfully thanked him for the orange juice but informed him that I didn’t think that we were right for each other, and that I wished him every success with finding a ladyfriend.

A week later I’d set up another date, this time with a man who I’d insisted was a tall, non-smoker. I’d had some reservations regarding distance, but he’d assured me that the 50 miles he’d be travelling to see me was never going to be an issue for any potential relationship. Again, I’d ensured the meeting was taking place in public this time just outside a local park. He clearly hadn’t thought it through because he turned up and immediately presented me with a giant teddy bear, which I then had to lug around all afternoon, much to the amusement of onlookers, especially in a nearby museum where I’d hoped to seek sanctuary away from the general public. Unfortunately, his generosity was marred by the fact that it soon became apparent that he expected rather more from me in return for his gift than I was prepared to give him. I was, at times, quite glad to be able to place this huge stuffed toy between us. By the end of the afternoon he was trying to persuade me to allow him to give me a brand new computer! My own pc was on its last legs, but there was no way I was going to lower myself to that level, so I graciously declined and thankfully managed to extract myself from the situation before things got seriously out of hand.

It was a fortnight before I was prepared to meet up with another cyber date. He seemed very sweet online and I certainly hoped that he wasn’t going to be another weirdo. So, it was back to the park. He was punctual, which was a bonus, but again he was much shorter than I’d anticipated, but it was his first words which instantly sealed his fate. Not the actual words, but the voice. He spoke EXACTLY like Joe Pasquale! At first I thought he was just nervous or cracking a joke – but, no. That was the way he naturally speaks. I know I shouldn’t be so hideously shallow as to judge a man by the sound that comes out of his mouth, but I just couldn’t take him seriously. I tried very hard to focus on his positive attributes as I escorted him around the nearby museum, where the staff tactfully ignored the fact that I was plainly road-testing men, as I wandered around the tall glass cabinets and huge oil paintings for the second time that month. My companion was a bit of a hippy, quite spiritual without being religious, which I found quite endearing. Unfortunately, even without the squeaky vocals, we just didn’t seem to connect, so after a pleasant and thankfully uneventful afternoon we agreed to go our separate ways.

The next date was another long-distance effort. He’d practically begged me to meet him, then tried to back out of it by saying he had no clean clothes to wear! I replied saying that I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere posh with him, so if he genuinely wanted to see me then his clothing didn’t matter. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. My very lanky, long haired date (think of Neil from The Young Ones) climbed out of his ford fiesta in the long-stay car park wearing hugely stained and torn jeans, with a brown Starsky and Hutch wrap around cardigan, so full of holes that looked like it’d been crocheted by his nan. Trying to wipe the horrified look off my face, as he’d driven about 90 miles just to meet me, I quickly ushered him into the darkest pub I could find - one where I’d never been to before and where none of my friends were known to drink. I’d assumed that as he had very long hair he’d be into loud music, but I was wrong. After five minutes he started complaining about the juke box giving him a headache, and so it was onto Plan B - a pub that I rarely visit. It was en route to the second watering hole that he decided to be all brave and ask me for a kiss. I assumed he meant a peck and as there was nobody about I nodded cautiously.

I’d completely misjudged the situation, and before I knew it his mouth was on mine and about a gallon of his saliva was dripping down my chin. Lucky he had that big woolly cardigan for me to wipe my face on. As I pulled myself away from him he became all emotional, thanking me for agreeing to meet him as it was his birthday the next day (by this time just two hours away) and he’d had a recent family bereavement and had been deeply depressed until now. At this point I was checking the shrubbery for signs of Jeremy Beadle. As we arrived at the second pub it was clear he was going to hate it. I could hear the music from several yards away; however I hadn’t got a Plan C, so in we went. It was a challenging evening. I was trying to cheer him up while at the same time trying to avoid leading him on. I felt obliged to keep up the charade until after midnight so that I could wish him Happy Birthday before sending him back home 90 miles away. As we parted in the car park he attempted to snog me. Luckily I managed to avoid drowning in saliva and only got slightly wet. I cited unrealistic distance for my main reason for believing the relationship could never work out.

My sanity was slowly ebbing away, so it was a month before I managed to motivate myself to meet up with the next idiot. Unmistakably, substantially older than he’d been when his profile picture had been taken, he admitted that it was a good 20 years ago when he’d faced the camera for that particular shot. My “must be under 30 years old” had been deliberately misinterpreted as “must be under 30 years old when the photograph was taken”. He then spent 3 long hours ranting and raving about how his ex wife wouldn’t allow him as much access to his children as he’d like. This seemed irrelevant considering his children were by now all grown up with children of their own. I didn’t stick around long enough to discover whether he felt that he had enough access to his grandkids.

I’d almost completely given up on internet dating, and was considering deleting my account and joining a convent, when I received a message from a guy who I’d first chatted to online the previous year. He’d been off the dating circuit for several months as he’d been in a relationship, however, that was now all done and dusted and he was back on the website searching for his Miss Right. He was a musician, but wasn’t interested in dating the groupies at gigs, so was using the internet to look for a proper girlfriend. He ticked all the right boxes, non-smoker, five feet 10 inches tall, clean shaven, not drawing his pension, lived locally, so after chatting online for a couple of weeks we arranged to meet up at a nearby pub. I admit to having my fingers firmly crossed as I left home, unsure of just how many more times I could muster the strength to kiss yet another frog in the seemingly endless quest for my prince.

That relationship actually lasted 7 and a half years before it finally fizzled out, so there is hope for something 'long term' rather than endless one-offs. Yes, internet dating is fraught with potential dangers, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but with sensible precautions in place, and an open minded approach, the world wide web can offer you an awful lot more than just Facebook and Ebay. 

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Catching up...

A meeting with an old chum was something that I’d been eagerly anticipating ever since we’d finally synchronised our full-to-bursting diaries, and we’d managed to select a time and date which suited us both.

The last time I’d seen Louise was as a student at University a couple of years ago. Since those heady days of Marxism lectures and debates on globalization, she’d gained a new title, and alongside the award of BA Honours, she’s now proudly sporting the accolade of mother.

We’d selected a time slot to coincide with her little darling’s morning at nursery, to enable us to be reacquainted over girlie chat and a cappuccino, to be followed by a leisurely stroll around Debenhams’ ladies fashions department.

On the day itself, I’d arrived unfashionably early in order to welcome my pal at the pre-arranged meeting point…. just yards from a coffee shop and within arms reach of Debenhams. Unfortunately, something had evidently gone horribly wrong with our plans, as I suddenly caught sight of my friend, looking terribly flummoxed, pushing what appeared to be a jumble sale on wheels. On closer inspection, it was her gigantic Mamas and Papas pushchair, laden with child-related paraphernalia. It transpired that the nursery had closed due to a water leak, and Louise had no choice but to bring her offspring along to our reunion. Say hello to Tyler.

This morning was never going to end well. Doomed from the very beginning, I was unable to start, let alone finish, a sentence, without Tyler’s fraught mother apologising profusely, while clearly lying through gritted teeth that “He’s not normally like this!”

For those of you blissfully unaware of the joys of rearing children, when a toddler does not wish to co-operate, no amount of gentle coaxing, empty threats or outrageous bribery will make his little cast-iron body bend, and so any quaint notions of strapping him securely into his buggy fly swiftly out of the nearest open window.

Louise had clearly treated the Costa Coffee staff to Tyler’s presence on at least one previous occasion, as the polite, pony-tailed girl behind the counter appeared to be particularly adept at lip reading our order, despite the ear-splitting screams coming from the nappy-clad thug, now clinging onto his mother’s leg so tightly she had no choice but to propel her mobile rummage sale to the nearest available table, wearing her ridiculous new child-shaped boot.

I appear to have turned into a Victorian, now firmly believing that little children should be seen and not heard, although in Tyler’s case, seeing him burying his podgy little finger deep into his nostril cavity, and then watch him happily munching on the contents, was like witnessing car-crash. You instinctively know what’s coming, but you simply can’t avert your gaze. That’s something nobody ever needs to see.

It’s been many years since my own brood were small, however, in all honesty I can’t ever remember them being quite so rambunctious. Maybe I was simply immune to it at the time, overflowing with post-natal hormones, rendering me oblivious to my immediate surroundings. Unfortunately I no longer impervious to the earache acquired after five minutes of Tyler’s tonsil-trembling episodes, and I can feel my nerves beginning to fray.

The pocket-sized noise-machine would clearly have preferred to be at his beloved nursery, rather than stuck with two boring old farts who were unlikely to provide him with the full-on entertainment schedule that he had been expecting when he first woke up this morning……. but unfortunately we can’t always have what we want, can we? I would also have preferred it if he had been safely locked up in his play dough prison, but neither of us was getting what we wanted, and therefore, as a compromise was looking highly unlikely, it was up to me to simply tolerate his insufferable behaviour for the sake of his frazzled mother.

Luckily, the middle-aged gentleman on the opposite table, who had until now been attempting to read his Daily Telegraph by trying to ignore the racket coming from our side of the room, ducked just in time to avoid being viciously assaulted by a flying saucer, courtesy of Tyler’s apparently recently-acquired frisbee skills.

Louise, in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to put a positive slant on the whole fiasco, commented “He never actually hits anyone”. Well, I’m sure the man with the angry face will be cheered up no end by that fact.

I can’t imagine why, but I suddenly lost all interest in my scone once the little hooligan began to spit chewed up bits of sausage roll all over the floor. Maybe they’re not as tasty as bogeys.

When Louise announced that she needed to go off and change her son, for one fleeting moment I rather hoped that she meant she was about to trade him in for a quieter model, however, in reality she simply needed to deal with a toileting issue.

I took full advantage of the fact that I was now all alone at the table, and rummaged about in my bag for my Nokia 3210. I acknowledge it wasn’t a particularly nice trick to play on my very dear friend, however, needs must, and I set the alarm to beep in ten minutes time. The alarm on my phone is conveniently identical to the text alert, and so my escape plan was now in place.

Call me callous, but I simply couldn’t stomach the idea of browsing the clothing department in Debenhams with an out of control toddler in tow.

My buddy duly returned, along with her mini ASBO, and peace was shattered once again as Tyler made his presence felt once more. As if by magic, ahem, my mobile beeped me. Wearing my best disappointed face, I sadly announced to my friend that I’d just received a text from my other half, telling me that he was already parked up in town and was waiting to take me back home. Oh what a terrible shame. That’s typical of a man to turn up early, just when I was enjoying myself so much!

I must admit to a few pangs of guilt when my coffee companion seemed genuinely disappointed at my premature departure, however, I thanked her for the lovely time I’d had, and we made a pact to keep in touch.

I would’ve said ‘bye bye’ to half-pint, but he was a tad pre-occupied, spread eagled on the café floor, wailing like a banshee, so I decided that it was best to simply let him to get on with it. 

And with that, I walked out of the door towards the nearest bus stop, safe in the knowledge that the next time I chat to Louise my ears won’t bleed and my nerves will remain intact. Don’t you just love email?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The MRI Scan...

Modern technology is a truly wonderful thing, especially any medical gadgetry which can assist in receiving a swift diagnosis and subsequently rapid treatment of a painful medical condition. Which is why I was ever-so slightly excited at the prospect of going for an MRI scan at my local hospital, in the hope that it would somehow fast-track me towards the effective pain relief I’d been seeking for the ever-worsening neck pain which had afflicted me for the past 9 months.

On arrival, a cheery receptionist was more than happy to take my paperwork and immediately asked me to take a seat in the small but perfectly formed waiting area. I’d arrived unfashionably early and was therefore mentally prepared for the wait. Somewhat disconcertingly, I could hear rather a lot of banging and clanking coming from a room nearby, and I could only assume it was the scanner rather than a group of over-zealous builders. I’d been warned, by various friends in-the-know, that the machinery “is a bit loud” but had been assured that “this was quite normal”.

My hospital letter had informed me that my appointment time was actually 15 minutes before my allotted scan time, to allow for preparation, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was called into an adjoining room just 10 minutes after the time written down on my paperwork. I’d only had enough time to work myself into a minor panic, and not a full-blown cardiac situation.

A nice lady radiographer took me into a tiny corridor and sat me down while all of the questions I had already answered on my admission form were verbally repeated. Have I got any metal pins in my head? Erm – no. Have I got a pacemaker? No. Have I ever had metal fragments in either or both of my eyes? Ouch – no! Was I pregnant or breastfeeding? As a rather mature person I found the question amusing, however I remained sensible and replied, no.

I’d efficiently removed all of my jewellery beforehand, and was wearing a top with plastic rather than metal buttons; however, it hadn’t occurred to me that my bra had metal hooks. I was directed to a small changing room to remove the offending undergarment and to stash it away in one of the lockers provided. I replaced my shirt, for the sake of modesty, and was now ready to face the machinery.

I appeared to have entered the NASA Space Station, with a vast window at the far end of the room where the radiographer sat in mission control. Once I’d removed my trainers I was helped onto a terribly high and narrow table. I was now beginning to worry. The radiographer told me that the noise would be very loud, and I was to insert funky orange foam ear protectors into my lugholes. She assured me I’d still be able to hear her via the internal speaker system, which was a relief.

After shuffling up the bed so that my head fitted snugly into a vice-like contraption, large pads were placed between my foam-filled ears and the metal plates either side of my head, and a squashy green ball was placed, rather unexpectedly, into my left hand. Apparently if I squeezed it at any point during the procedure, the radiographer would instantly stop everything and come and rescue me. I was instructed to close my eyes, and to keep them closed, and to remain perfectly still for the duration. A white metal frame was positioned just above my face and this was now the point of no return. Well, unless I squeezed that little green ball at any rate.

Left alone in the room, linked to the outside world only by the voice of the lady at mission control, I admit to being a tad nervous as I sensed the table moving into position, inside the scanner. For reasons probably best left unexamined, for a split second felt as if I was inside a coffin going into a crematorium. A voice in my head, the radiographer – not some schizophrenic other ‘me’ – reminded me to remain still, and warned me that I’d hear lots of noises, but I mustn’t be alarmed. Curiosity got the better of me, and I briefly opened my eyes, however, on seeing how close the bright lights were to my face I quickly closed them again. It’s a good job I’m not acutely claustrophobic.

The first sensation that I experienced was the vibrations, a bit like a mobile phone, only it was around my head. This was nothing compared to the bizarre noises the scanner was now making. It was as if I’d been put inside a video arcade game, and some gamers were shooting aliens. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Thankfully it was soon over; however it transpired I was to have 4 scans in all, at progressively longer stints.

I soon became very aware of my own breathing, and of just how much my chest and shoulders moved with every breath. Trying to remain still was becoming a real challenge, and I have absolutely no idea how they manage to get small children to co-operate in one of those things. I expect it was purely psychological, but I seemed to itch all over and was desperate to scratch my nose, arm, leg…. I deluded myself that I was Lara Croft chasing the bad guys in her quest for the golden lollipop, by way of a distraction.

When told “Don’t swallow”, obviously the first thing you want to do is just that. When you’re flat on your back in a noisy vibrating machine, with saliva building up at an alarming rate in your mouth threatening to drown you at any moment, I’d say it’s a physical impossibility to not swallow at some point during the scan. The urge to cough is almost intolerable and it’s a relief to get it out of your system between scans.

By the third session the novelty had truly worn off, my patience was wearing thin, and I just wanted to get out. However, I focussed on the fact that I’d wanted this MRI scan done for ages, and I ought to be jolly grateful I’m finally having it done, and I really should have a tiny bit more tolerance. The radiographer seemed to be noticing my involuntary throat spasms and was quick to remind me “Stay still and don’t swallow”. After what seemed an eternity, the shoot-em-up noises stopped and it was all over and done with, hoorah.

It took a further few minutes for the table to slide out from the space shuttle, with a rather relieved middle aged peroxide blonde on it, and as I was helped back onto the floor I wondered if this was how astronauts felt when stepping foot on terra firma again following a moon mission. After carefully extracting the orange foam ear plugs, everything sounded a little too loud for a while, and the lights seemed a bit too bright, but thankfully, after just a few minutes of disorientation I soon adjusted to normality.

So, I’ve finally had my very first MRI scan, and to be honest I’m not a fanatic. It wasn’t painful and it wasn’t really uncomfortable as such, although I did struggle with having to stay still and it would possibly be a bigger challenge to anyone with severe claustrophobia. However, it’s almost beyond belief how clever these things are and we should feel very privileged that we live in an age which can provide us with such extraordinary diagnostic tools. Now, beam me up Scotty.

Friday, 3 December 2010

My First Term at Uni (University of Essex - autumn 2005)

Well, it's almost Christmas and I've almost completed my first term at University! There’s been many ups and many downs, but I'm now enjoying the ride so much that I don't actually want to get off.

Freshers week was a flurry of activity and panic, ……followed by more activity and more panic as it finally sunk in that I'm now an undergraduate…..a ‘proper’ student!

The daily walk to campus takes me past the kiddies nursery, and all the delightful little grey squirrels that scurry around within sight of the delighted pre-schoolers. I strongly suspect that the fluffy ones have been deliberately placed there to distract people from the rigours of 'cardiac hill'. Walking along the path between the huge accommodation towers takes sure footedness due to near hurricane conditions. Thank goodness I have a truckload of academic books in my bag as ballast or I'd end up doing a Mary Poppins.

On a particularly sunny afternoon I decided to treat myself to a wander around the very beautiful lake, only to realise that my trainers were a magnet for goose poo. Another thing about geese is that they don’t observe library etiquette. Whilst reading a ‘fascinating’ chapter on statistics at a table overlooking the lake one day, I soon discovered that the gaggle of feathered hooligans outside were far more distracting than my fellow scholars inside.

Volunteering to help out in the sociology resource room was an excellent idea of mine, as it gives me access to loads of research material, and I can check my e-mails in peace without dozens of teenagers yakking on mobile phones a few feet away.

I've been to the campus art gallery twice now, once to see some Mexican artwork and then to see some unnervingly familiar photographs of youngsters growing up in the 1970's….labelled “historical!”.
Hmmmm…….a bit too close for comfort.

Through gritted teeth I braved the antiquated paternoster lift in library, and decided that the stairs are not so bad after all. I’ve never been a fan of ski-lifts, and find it unnatural that you should have to judge when to hop on and off an apparatus that never stops…..especially when it’s no bigger than a small wardrobe and appears to vanish before your very eyes…..reappearing seconds later to offload confused-looking people who you never witnessed entering the contraption.

I’ve become addicted to the delicious, fresh-baked, cheese scones from The Blues Café and really must wean myself off them before I break the zip on my jeans. The second-hand bookshop gets rather snug on occasions and just a few more scones will put me in danger of becoming trapped. However, I seem to have lost the ability to request a cappuccino without the words “and scone” tumbling out of my mouth as if I have a weird food-orientated version of tourettes syndrome.

I treated myself to a University t-shirt and a hoodie, so that if any of my long-suffering friends, relatives or neighbours don't already know that I'm at Uni, they can’t fail to see the fact emblazoned on my chest.

Discovering the wonderfully calming aquariums in the lobby of the biological sciences department was a stroke of luck. Who needs prozac when you can spend 10 minutes in the warm, enjoying the aquatic antics of neon tetras?

Mondo's on Wednesday lunchtimes has acoustic musicians performing free of charge, which is a great way to chill out over a cappuccino (minus the scone).

The dark cloud hanging over my head (a.k.a.Beginners Italian) still hovers, but I'm learning to deal with my pessimism (lots of fish-watching). My difficulties with this subject are entirely my own fault. The ability to order a pizza for two during a city break to Turin does not mean that I’m bi-lingual, nor does it mean I’m gifted with languages. The phrase 'It’s better to say nothing and everyone think you a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt' has never seemed so apt.

Computers play a vital role in the running of the university, and obsessive checking of e-mails is actively encouraged (God forbid anyone should actually engage in conversation the old fashioned way). Every so often it’s compulsory to change your on screen password. This should be a simple enough task, but security-gone-mad dictates that you need to use a combination of upper and lower case, numbers and / or funny symbols, and no word that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary may be used as any part of your 8 digit creation! After half an hour of rejected attempts you’ll end up with something that no sane person could ever remember. For someone with a morbid fear of algebra (letters and numbers-induced panic) this was a particularly stressful exercise that I don’t relish repeating every few weeks.

An e-mail, out of the blue, offering me a Dangoor Scholarship was a huge boost to my morale…. and my dwindling bank balance. It's amazing what being offered £1,000 will do once you pick yourself up off the floor. The presentation was all very posh and proper, with nice cakes and party balloons. Group photographs were duly taken and I’m now to be seen grinning like a Cheshire cat on the back of the December issue of the campus glossy magazine. (Proudly displaying the aforementioned hoodie).

I e-mailed the student union with an idea about reflective armbands for students, so that traffic on the nearby A133 stands a sporting chance of spotting them before running them over, and have now been informed that the bands that I suggested will soon be on sale in the student union shop in square three. If there's a new craze involving glow-in-the-dark students in January I shall take full responsibility.

Essay deadlines have been and gone. Zero tolerance became something of a mantra on campus, almost to the point of major irritation.

I didn’t enjoy the statistics test the first time around, so to learn that there was to be an encore, due to the ineptitude of one particular lecturer, didn’t go down very well. There's only so much fish-watching you can do! 

S.H.A.G week was an interesting concept. (Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance week, not some 60’s style love-in).  I must thank the student union for my banana-flavoured condoms!

I’ve recently joined the Italian Society. My academic reasoning is that it will enable me to improve my linguistic skills by chatting to native speakers. My non-academic reasoning has something to do with the words "pasta" and "wine tasting" on their flyers. 

My jacket is looking rather jolly with a variety of coloured ribbons I’ve acquired from a variety of campus campaigns.

Due to navigational ineptitude, I still carry a rather battered map of the campus around with me at all times. Last minute changes of venue render me panic-stricken, as I have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever.

After receiving an e-mail from the student union advertising that volunteers are required for the advice centre, I took myself along to square 3 and filled out an application form. I was duly invited to a meeting and subsequently an interview. I now have to play the very familiar waiting game to discover the outcome.

The tree in square 3 is looking very sparkly. It’d be rather cheery to have a roast chestnuts stand somewhere nearby. Merry Christmas!

The Gig...

When your nearest and dearest is a professional musician, there are certain expectations to be met One of which, is to attend the odd gig (odd being the most appropriate word in most cases, as I have recently discovered).

The chance to earn some much-needed cash on an otherwise dreary Sunday afternoon was too great an opportunity to resist for my rock god, which is why, one chilly day in November, we ended up two hours drive away, at the edge of civilisation, in Lowestoft!

After carefully selecting a suitable space in which to park the car….. near enough to the front door to avoid a hernia while carrying equipment, but far enough away to avoid our shiny new Ford Focus getting in the way of any idiots falling out of the pub after guzzling a tad too much of the local jungle juice…. I acted as door-person, so that him indoors could struggle with an assortment of cases.

Lucky we weren’t at Stansted, heading off for sunnier climes, or I fear the excess baggage charge would’ve rendered us bankrupt. As the rather animated landlady greeted us with open arms, I suspected that it was going to be an interesting afternoon. I wasn’t wrong.

Now, there is a certain etiquette involved in being the partner of he who is being paid to entertain the masses. No excessively foul language and no picking fights is a given, however it will do nothing to aid potential re-bookings if you park yourself in a dark, dank corner and scowl at anyone who dares to glance in your general direction. And so my Public Relations role began.

While my musical mate was busying himself with all manner of fancy electrical gubbins, I was being introduced to the ‘regulars’. Boy, was I in for a treat!

Well, there was Syd, a folically challenged, elderly gentleman, already so drunk at 1pm he was unable to stand without assistance. Bless him, he tried to communicate, but I fear that his strong, possibly Irish, accent, and the fact he was ejecting gallons of saliva each time he opened his mouth, meant that I wasn’t able to answer his question, especially in the absence of a brolly. I wonder what he said?

Then there was the delightful Terry, who’ll never see 60 again, but was hanging onto his youth for grim death. The Levi jacket and Wrangler jeans had apparently left him in a 70’s time warp, from which he had no visible means of escape. Don’t worry what other people say Tel, I loved the Status Quo T-shirt, especially when paired up with those rather fancy cowboy boots.

Terry’s enchanting girlfriend….. another one who’ll never see 60 again……also appeared to be stuck in the same era as her dearly beloved, sporting a tight denim mini skirt and Quo T-shirt combo, despite the fact that Mabel clearly loves a pint, (or seven), along with the occasional pie, and is actually the size of Heybridge.

I was reliably informed that the delicious hot buffet…. which I assumed to be something along the lines of sausage rolls and mini pizzas…..would make an appearance during the break, and that I should help myself to whatever nosh myself and my chap required, before spitty Syd found his way to the table. Erm…..thanks, but I’ve already eaten. No doubt Terry’s bird would get there first in any case.

After what seemed an eternity, but in reality was less than 20 minutes, the live music began. Hurrah. I was rather hoping that the focus would now fall on the man with the guitar, allowing me a few moments respite from all the inane grinning I’d been doing ever since we’d arrived.

The previously hyperactive landlady had seemingly calmed down, and was now propping up the bar chatting to a tall, scruffy-looking woman, sporting a short spiky haircut, and they appeared to be looking in my direction.

I did my dutiful smiley face, which was unfortunately misinterpreted as “Come and get me”, which Ms tall and scruffy instantly did. As she lent towards me I reciprocated, thinking that she wanted to speak to me. The volume of the music, along with the indecipherable bellowing of rent-a-mob, was now at many more decibels than I usually care for, so it seemed an obvious thing to put my ear close to her mouth, to enable communication to commence.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, and I was thinking this as I was trying to surgically remove the stunned look off my face after she’d taken both my ears in her sweaty little palms, pulled me towards her, and kissed me full on the lips!

As a child of the 60s, and a teen of the 70s, I consider myself extremely broad-minded. I have many friends who are gay, and I completely accept and respect their particular lifestyle choices without so much as a raised eyebrow.

However, having a total stranger (emphasis on strange) attempt to snog me….. and a woman at that…. was not, in my opinion, within the boundaries of acceptability where partner of the entertainer etiquette is concerned.

I somehow managed to retain a sliver of composure, goodness knows how, and attempted to explain that I was ‘not that way inclined’ and was here with my man, who’d seen the whole fiasco and was now trying to suppress his obvious amusement at my predicament. Yes dear, very funny.

Unfortunately, this information appeared to fall on deaf ears, as although she did retreat back the bar area, she blatantly kept eyeing me up and winking at me for the entire duration of the gig. I’ve never grabbed onto my other half quite so hard as I did during his 15 minute break.

With the buffet gong reverberating throughout the pub, the bunfight began. To my astonishment, piles of crisp brown Yorkshire puddings had been carefully stacked high, alongside crunchy roasties and huge chunks of beef. What appeared to be a bucket of gravy was slopped over everyone’s plates, as random hands grabbed at giant slices of crusty bread and butter, presumably for mopping up the inevitable gravy spillages. The sight of Syd zig-zagging towards the feast with his chin smothered in drool was thankfully enough to put my other half off the thought of eating, so, for now, I remained safely chaperoned.

After all pigs had successfully emptied the trough, act two began, leaving me at the mercy of all and sundry once more. Luckily, El Tel decided to regale me with his life story, while Mad Mabel shook her thang to the music, although I couldn’t hear a word he was saying.

I seemed to have got away with it though, politely nodding and frowning in more or less the correct places, interrupted only by a large, ginger-headed, similarly-bearded man, in what looked like a lumberjack shirt, shouting at me “Does he do any Elvis?”, pointing at my long-haired rock-type in full Hendrix mode.

I shook my head, to which he responded “Does he do any Country and Western?!” I shook my head again, and the despondent Honey Monster turned and walked away. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Eventually, the end of the gig was in sight, and I for one was losing the will to live, when a rather large crowd of Nike-clad hobbledehoys tumbled through the doors. They were clearly the worse for wear, and I was concerned for my fella’s safety, however I needn’t have concerned myself as the re-animated landlady simply bellowed at them “Behave or get out!” (I’ve removed the expletives, which, for a very short sentence, were more numerous than you might imagine). They behaved.

The predictable encores meant that my jaw muscles had to endure a further 10 agonizing minutes of fixed grinning, but at least the majority of crowd seemed suitably impressed with their afternoon’s entertainment, which, after all was the main object of the exercise.

I somehow managed to make myself totally unavailable to members of the general public, while all equipment was stashed back into its various bags and boxes, busying myself with trips to and from the car trying to look pre-occupied, followed by much feet-watching with unwavering concentration.

Once that all financial matters had been concluded, and the final goodbyes had been administered, we beat a hasty retreat to the relative sanctuary of the car. Well, I can honestly say I’ve never had a Sunday afternoon quite like that before – and, to be brutally frank, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I ever agree to an encore.

The Joy Of Shopping.....(written in Feb 2009)

It’s probably not a good idea to use retail therapy to cure the blinding headache which was inflicted upon you by a 20 minute phone call from the tax office, however, good ideas are hard to come by ……and I needed to buy some anadins and milk.

Suitably wrapped up against the arctic conditions outside, I grabbed my faithful shopping trolley (sophisticated black, not OAP tartan) and headed off to the nearby tescos.

As I struggled to free myself from my thermal outer-wear, ready to face the sub-tropics of the supermarket foyer, I spied row upon row of Valentines cards. Personally, I’ve never been able to make the mental connection between spuds and romance, but in this consumerist society every whim has to be overly catered for, and tescos is no exception to the rule….. especially when it comes to spotting the potential to make a fast buck from those who easily succumb to emotional blackmail or peer pressure.

As an ardent fan of people-watching, it amused me to witness that in matters of the heart, it really does take all sorts! Directly in front of me stood a very nervous-looking adolescent male, who sheepishly selected three different cards, all announcing “To the ONE I love!”

Beside him, was a frail little old lady, sporting a rather hefty pair of bifocals, carefully reading every word……. she’ll probably still be there at teatime.

I witnessed several ‘drive-thru’ events. Obviously these unsung heroes, who juggle their roles of housewife, worker and mother with the same faultless precision as a full-blown military manoeuvre, had simply added the word ‘card’ to their gigantic shopping list, and grabbed the nearest one they could reach, regardless of price or appropriateness. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I needed milk.

I got the distinct impression that a local infant school must be closed today. ‘Little Linford’ was racing up and down the slippery floors at breakneck speed with all his playmates, terrorising those of us who simply wanted to buy stuff without risking accusations of child abuse from some chav-type when the inevitable happens and the aforementioned small-person nose-dives under the wheels of your stationary trolley…. while the unmistakable wail of bored, tired tots assaulted my ear drums from just about every direction. Hmmm….I had gone shopping to de-stress, however my plans were thwarted and I had no choice but to accept that I was now in Hell.

As a woman with no discernable maternal bones in her body, I’d struggled dutifully to raise all three of my daughters to the best of my limited mothering abilities, however, I have absolutely no tolerance whatsoever of other people’s ‘little dears’, especially now that my babies are now independent young women.

For reasons known only to themselves, I swear that half of the adults in there today were on some sort of a wind-up. Why else would a ‘normal’ human being discard a full shopping trolley sideways, in a narrow aisle, and then take a wander to the far end of the supermarket?

Why would any couple choose to have a loud domestic dispute right next to the milk crates, and then give everyone else the evil eye for trying to reach round them for some semi-skimmed?

What possesses people to panic-buy deodorant? Is there an imminent shortage that nobody told me about?

Why do people use the largest shopping trolley they can possibly find, if they only want a frozen curry meal for one and a bottle of blue stripy plonk?

If it wasn’t for the fact the poor chap is no longer with us, I’d have expected Jeremy Beadle to jump out at me, right by the Andrex.

I’d long since given up on the prospect of any peace and quiet by the time I reached the tills with my bargain-laden trolley. Of course, that’s when you find out that you’ve chosen the checkout with the girl who is serving her long-lost relative, and they simply HAVE to catch up on 10 years worth of family gossip.

Eventually, the penny drops that this is not a social gathering, and that they can talk til the cows come home, if only they’d exchange phone numbers.

Glad that cousin Dawn finally had a healthy baby after such a long and painful labour, and that Grandad’s gout is much better now he is on those new pills, I was finally able to pay for my groceries and get the hell out of there.

Re-wrapped in my multiple layers of cotton and polyester mix, I slowly dragged myself back along the same path I’d practically jogged along an hour earlier. I am, after all, only human, and the temptation of all the BOGOFs and big yellow labels proclaiming “half price” and “1/3 off” were just too hard to resist. Subsequently, not only did I fill my trundle-truck but also 3 rather heavy carrier bags.

By the time I reached my front door my arms were visibly longer and my patience visibly shorter. It was only after I’d unpacked £40 worth of “just a few bits” that I realised that in my haste to avoid being trapped a moment longer than absolutely necessary, in that child-infested, haven for the romantic consumer, and playground for the terminally insane, I’d forgotten to buy any headache pills!