Monday, 26 September 2011

Aunt Sally and the Entente Cordiale

For those who don't know, Aunt Sally is a bit like a coconut shy: there's a ball balancing on a spike and you throw sticks at it in an effort to knock it off.  People play this competitively.  I'm sure you can see the point.  (If you do, please let me tell me what it is!)

So, last night there was a fundraiser for the local am-dram group, although other than the raffle, I'm not sure they raised much money and it struck me more as an excuse to go to the pub.  The focal point of the evening, for those not actively propping up the bar, was the Aunt Sally.  The village has a team that competes with other pubs in the area so 'professional' players either weren't allowed to play or had to play with their wrong hands.  In addition to a couple of those, there were around 20 people who wanted to try their luck at throwing a stick.  I'm sure a dog would provide the same sort of fun with more exercise, but perhaps that was the point.   The OH has got in rather with a number of the members of the am-dram group, so our Sunday consisted of world cup rugby in the morning, the football that had been recorded in the afternoon and then the trip to the pub 'to support the Village Players' in the evening.   I'm beginning to know a few of them too, so I agreed to join him.  I nearly had to use my first aid skills.

Initially, it was mostly enjoyable.  Basil, our Front of House coordinator extraordinaire, and Celia from the post office, were referees.  This involved standing either side of the spike so that they could tell whether the ball had been knocked off by the stick itself, or by the stick making the spike wobble, which doesn't count.  It struck me even before we started that they were both in rather a dangerous position but by the time we got there, several pints of beer had already been consumed and no-one seemed terribly worried.   The first four couples threw their six sticks each and scored a massive three between them.  This was quite a surprise unless you knew, as I did, that the first four people had been to some sort of local beer festival for lunch and, cycling back, had returned only just in time for the setting up of the Aunt Sally.  They had done well to throw their sticks in the right direction at all, egged on by an amused audience.

Next up was Annie, playing opposite 'Farmer Bob', who lives the other side of the pub.  He's not really a farmer, but he has some ducks and can regularly be heard complaining about the lack of government support for 'us small farmers'.  Other than that, he's a lovely chap, always buys lots of raffle tickets at village events and probably provides half the prizes too.  I think he used to work in the city because I can't see how half a dozen ducks can support his raffle habit! 

Anyway, Annie went first and her first stick fell rather short of the mark.  Bob was just stepping up to the Sally equivalent of the oche when a mock-sympathetic voice could be heard from near the bar.  "Oh, bad luck, Annie.  Perhaps you'll do better with the next one."

Annie flushed and hunched over her sticks, turning her back on the speaker, who turned out to be none other than Fiona.  However, it seemed that no-one else realised she was being spiteful; they all thought it was a genuinely sympathetic comment.  Anyway, Annie was clearly fuming about the comment as her next stick was thrown with considerably more force - she was probably imagining Fiona's head on the spike in front of her.  Celia dodged slightly, which was just as well, but Annie wasn't bothered.  Away went the next stick, thrown underarm as per the rules and sailing over the fence into Bob's garden, at which point there was a sound of breaking glass.

"My greenhouse!" Bob was aghast.  "You stupid bloody woman, that's my greenhouse you've hit!"

Normally, Annie would probably have cowered and apologised, but the combination of a glass or two of beer and the antagonism of Fiona had created a village version of Tank Girl.  "You shouldn't keep your greenhouse so close to the Aunt Sally then, should you?!" she retorted.

"It's not near the fence, it's the other side of my pond!  You're only supposed to be aiming at the dolly, not sending the bloody sticks into orbit!"

I know, I know, an excessive use of exclamation marks, but really, both of them were definitely exclaiming.  Before things got completely out of hand, however, Basil dispatched someone round to check on Bob's greenhouse and Celia had a quiet word with Annie and Bob, trying to restore order.  The report back said that only one pane had been broken and it was quite a small one.  Bob still fumed quietly but since it was obviously an accident (despite being provoked by Fiona) there wasn't much he could do about it.  He and Annie finished their round (Bob won) and the game moved on.

Sharon and Matthew went next.  They're a lovely couple but a bit earnest about Doing Good Things in the village, quite apart from the fact that despite being married for over five years, they are somewhat soppy about each other in public.  Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful that they still clearly love each other, but it can become a little nauseating.  It's not quite as bad as Lavender Brown's 'Won-Won' in the Harry Potter movie, but it's not far short.  Matthew was most apologetic for beating Sharon and went on to compliment her throwing style, but Basil told them to move out of the way for the next couple or we'd be here until Doomsday.

There were a few more pairs until the final one, largely on account of their late arrival, which was Delyth and a friend who is staying with her from Belgium.  You may find this hard to believe, but his name is Hercule and he is the spitting image of David Suchet's Poirot.  Maybe not quite as portly, but the moustache is identical and he has even mastered the art of walking as though he is clenching a 1 euro coin between his buttocks.  Having said that, he seemed a very pleasant chap and clearly had an eye for sticks, dollies and spikes, because when he wasn't buying rounds for the rest of us and chatting sociably if with a strong accent, he was winning each further level of the Aunt Sally.  Delyth's husband Nigel looked mildly green at the bar while Hercule continued to wow us with his anecdotes and generosity.  Eventually, he reached the final, to be played against Matthew.

Hercule took his throws very seriously.  The crowd had to be quiet as he allowed the stick to settle in his hand, dropped his arm back in a practice throw a couple of times and then launched the missile at the dolly.  Six throws scored him four points.  "Not bad for a foreigner," Basil commented.  He didn't mean it like that, he meant someone from outside the village. 

But Hercule didn't realise that.  "We're all in the EU now," he told Basil, most severely, and continued to lecture him on EU equal rights as Matthew stood at the oche and started to get ready to throw.  Basil tried to move Hercule out of the way so that he could referee properly but just as Matthew was about to throw his first stick, Hercule shoved Basil back again to carry on making his point.  Matthew tried to pull his throw back but all he succeeded in doing was changing its trajectory.  His stick sailed up into the air and then straight down onto Sharon's head, since she wasn't really aware of what was going on and didn't duck quite as quickly as those around her.

Matthew was mortified, Basil was furious and Hercule was self-righteous.  "It wasn't me who threw the stick!" was his sole retort when criticised by the assembled group.  Fortunately, Sharon made a good recovery after being administered to with an ice-pack and a large gin, but she sat down a long way from Matthew and was rather quiet for the final, which started again once everyone had calmed down.  Matthew is normally quite good at this, but clobbering his wife with his stick had clearly unnerved him and Hercule beat him easily.  There was some muttering about a re-match but then Hercule made it better by buying everyone in the pub a drink in celebration of his win, a gesture that cheered a lot of people up.

I see in the news that  Winkleigh Village has received a top family-friendly rating.  The report doesn't mention our village.  I can't think why not.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

At Home with some Poets

   There will have been two note-worthy events this week: the poetry group meeting, and tonight there is an Aunt Sally.  Obviously, without developing unforetold psychic abilities, I am going to have to wait until tomorrow to write about the Aunt Sally.  I'm just trying to whet your appetite...

I was a tad annoyed about the poetry evening, truth be told.  It had been planned for Tuesday evening, and then on Monday, I got a phone call from Jennifer, one of the group, telling me that because there was some meeting to discuss to funding for volunteer groups on the Tuesday, they had decided to move the meeting to Thursday.  As it happened, I wasn't busy on Thursday evening, although it meant I would have to suggest the OH find somewhere else to be for the evening (he had been going to a football match on the Tuesday, so that wasn't a problem) but I was rather put out by the suggestion that I as host could switch evenings at the drop of a hat.  I hummed and haahed a bit on the phone.

"That's not a problem, is it?" Jennifer said, rather sharply, I thought, a bit like the hockey teacher at school who still frequents my nightmares.

"Umm, I suppose not."

"Well, are you busy that evening?"  It was said quite aggressively, the suggestion being, obviously, that I couldn't possibly be busy,.

"No, that's fine."  I swallowed back the rest of the retort that was springing into my mind, along the lines of presumptuous arty types and changed the calendar to reflect the new date.

And yet, when the seven of them arrived on Thursday evening, there was no mention of the changed date, no thanks to me for agreeing at such short notice to change the date, and in addition they didn't even mention the funding meeting.  Perhaps I'm expecting too much of them.  However, the poetry was again of mixed type and quality and I don't feel able to share my offering with you, roundly patronised as it was.  Jennifer is the founder of the group since she once had a poem published in a magazine, though I think it was back in the last century, and after she has commented, most of the rest of the group follow her lead.  My poem was 'lovely' and had 'a good sense of rhyme' but not much more, until the end, when a young man called David, who's only in the group temporarily while he's home from university, offered to help clear up the mugs and nibbles and told me in the kitchen that he thought my ideas were good but that I needed to work on the structure of my poem.  Which was a much more useful comment.  Our next meeting is at Jennifer's, as it happens, and I'm toying with the idea of trying to organise a really important event at the last minute that will necessitate another change of evening, but I know that's childish.  Our theme, since our meeting will be in October, is Light and Dark - fireworks and all that sort of thing - and the suggestion is that we select one of the poems to be sent to the village newsletter for publication.  I don't know how that will go down with Annie, but there have been a few poems published in recent months, usually by children, so perhaps she'll go for an adult one.

And speaking of Annie, I have barely seen her this week.  I did see her out in the village once, but she had her children with her, so whether she really didn't see me wave or was pointedly ignoring me, I don't know.   Perhaps she'll calm down after a while, especially once she remembers it was Verity who was rude to her rather than me.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Stubborn Friends

The most exciting thing I've done this week is buy a new hairdryer and even that was last weekend.  Once I'd unpacked it, I was quite annoyed with my choice as the box included another sheet of cardboard, two plastic bags, two plastic-coated wires, a plastic plug protector, a sheet of thermo-plastic-padding and an instruction booklet, in addition to the hairdryer.  Puts the environmental damage caused by bagging a plastic-wrapped cucumber in the shade! No matter, a new hairdryer was essential as my old one was making a sound similar to a World War II plane about to crash, and when I raided Celeste's room for her ancient dryer, I discovered it delivered about as much heat as an eskimo with a cold.  And Verity did ask if I'd done something different with my hair so maybe there is something to the ionic tuning or whatever it was the box was advertising.  (I would check, but that part at least I was able to put in the blue bin for recycling.)

Meanwhile, you might be wondering why I've had such a tedious week.  I can give you the answer in one word: Annie.  That might seem a little harsh, but she has been a bit out of control this week.  She has turned up here every morning and stayed long past her welcome.  On Thursday, I happened to see her heading in this direction from the window as I was trying to get some cleaning done, so I did what I had always promised myself I would never do - I pretended I wasn't in.  I hid in the corner of the kitchen and ignored the doorbell.  I have terrible memories of being forced to hide behind the sofa by my mother when some Jehovah's Witnesses were in the area and despite being only seven at the time, I found it distinctly undignified.  So you can understand how frustrated I was beginning to feel.  Especially since Annie then came round to the back door on the grounds that Joe was here so she knew the door would be open and she could wait for me.  It was a tad embarrassing.  I had to pretend I'd been in the bathroom and hadn't heard the bell.  Then she got back to bemoaning her current position, her boredom, her love for the children who had abandoned her...  I'd heard it all before, on Monday, and on Tuesday, and on Wednesday.  Joe popped down for some coffee and biscuits and, on seeing Annie here again, decided to take them back up to 'his' room, muttering something about being in the zone.  I don't think Annie really took it in. 

Verity phoned that evening and listened to me for a while before interrupting.  "It's your own fault," she told me.  "You'll have to tell her you're busy and she'll have to go and whine on someone else's shoulder."  Easy enough for Verity to say, and I told her as much.  However, she did come to the rescue eventually.

Yesterday, just as I was setting up the ironing board, trying to catch up on the ironing I hadn't been able to do all week, Annie turned up again.  She'd brought a bottle of vodka with her 'for later' which made my heart sink, indicating that yet again she was planning to stay all day.  I'd just put the kettle on when the phone rang.

It was Verity.  "She's there again, isn't she," she said. "You don't need to answer, I saw her as I was driving back from the newsagent's. I'll be there in a couple of minutes."  And she put the phone down before I could even say 'okay'.

True to her word, she blew in within the promised two minutes.  "You must be Annie," she said before I could make introductions.  "I doubt we've met, I've got a life."

Annie stuttered something about having seen Verity at one of the village events but she was rather lost for words and her comment petered out before it developed any serious level of coherency.

"Now, you have to leave my poor friend here alone.  Get out of the house, sure, but why not do something useful with your time?  Go and volunteer at the school since you seem to like whiny little children so much. Or work at the village playgroup, they're always short-staffed if the village newsletter is to be believed.  Now, pass one of those cherry chocolate cookies before they're all eaten.  I'm on a no-sugar week in my coffee, but that doesn't mean I can't have biscuits."  And she calmly dunked the proffered cookie in her coffee and sat back, waiting for Annie to respond.

It would have been so easy if Annie had just said, "Gosh, what a good idea, I'll go there now and ask for a job."  Life is never that easy and once Annie had recovered from the shock of Verity's onslaught, she tried to explain, at quite some length and even into a second coffee, why she couldn't do what Verity suggested.  But Verity, for all her faults, is as stubborn as Annie, and she stayed until Annie left to meet up with some of playgroup leaders and ask about possibilities. 

"There, you've got your life back now.  I don't expect gratitude, though those cookies are pretty good.  Can't understand why you stopped selling them in the deli.  Right, got to go, I've got a pilates class this afternoon and things to do before then.  I'll see you at the poetry meeting next week, if not before.  You're hosting it, I gather."  And she was gone.

Well, obviously I took the hint and promptly made some more of the cookies she had liked so much and dropped them round at her house with a little thank-you note.  She was out, unsurprisingly, probably sorting out someone else's life.  It wasn't until the OH got home that I realised Annie had left her vodka behind.  But you know what, I reckon I earned it!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Village Rivalry

I was going to write about the ongoing argument in the village about who is responsible for overhanging branches yesterday, but then my day was effectively consumed by having to console Annie, who arrived at 9.15 and didn't leave until she had to go and cook her husband's dinner.

For those who don't remember (and I had to ask Annie to confirm some of the details as well, so don't feel too bad), I met Annie when I was involved in the village newsletter and discovered that she had a houseful of small sticky children in her co-role of childminder.  So I was a little surprised that she should arrive during school hours sans children.  It transpired that this was the problem.

"It's all the fault of that Fiona Haggerty!" she said bitterly, not quite spraying biscuit crumbs over my now immaculately clean kitchen table.  "Bloody woman! How dare she?!"

Now I'm no fan of Fiona Haggerty so I'm all for other people being annoyed with her too, but I was curious as to how Fiona might have sabotaged Annie's childminding, so I asked what I thought was an innocent question.

"Sorry, I've been ill.  What's Fiona done?"

"What's she done?!  What's she bloody done?!" Apoplexy would be a good word to describe Annie's state.  "Only bloody gone and stolen all my bloody kids!  Bloody woman!  I could fucking kill her!  Pardon my French..."  This latter was added apologetically in response to my obviously shocked face.  If this level of language was standard, than Fiona would not need to do much to remove children from Annie's care.  However, once Annie had calmed down a bit (several chocolate biscuits later), she evolved into a more morose state and told me what had happened more clearly.  Fiona, it seems, has some sort of Norland Nanny type qualification and by finding out and then undercutting Annie's rates, has been able to persuade all but one of her former charges to defect.  Naturally the one remaining is allergy-queen Pippa, but she has just started at school so her mum has organised to collect her herself for the first week.  "It's so unfair.."  Annie muttered, more than once.

Well, it might be unfair, but I'm pretty certain that the kids will be back.  I can't believe that Fiona will be any good as a child-minder, no matter what her qualifications are and no matter how chaotic Annie's house appears to be.  But it does explain what Fiona's been up to since being forced to back away from tormenting me with ridiculous rumours.

Which reminds me, Joe is back and writing upstairs (now that I've recovered from my food-poisoning) even though Alison has now been posted to Berlin and is only here at weekends, and today he showed up with a bunch of flowers for me.  "To say thank you for allowing me to invade your home," he said, somewhat sheepishly I thought, but perhaps he doesn't often buy flowers - he'd forgotten to remove the Tesco price tag from the side.  No matter, it's the thought that counts!