We have two broken toasters in the house, both of which have been dud for years.  Actually I never knew one of them when it worked, it having been brought here from his father’s mending pile to join ours, many years ago. The other toaster, given to me over 30 years ago, has done me well before packing up in about 2018.  Since then both have been waiting for the practical man to … I don’t really know … source parts, take them apart, put them back together again? I believe that’s what is meant to happen. 

Friends who come to stay look very confused and a little downcast at breakfast where there is therefore a poor toasting game.  Bread is put on the right hand plate of the aga and if you time it right might be turned before burning/sticking to it.  Most days I open the hot plate to find a charred piece of bread that Zam has forgotten before heading to work.  When I found this again last week I took a unilateral decision to invest in a new toaster. 

I paid a visit to a well known department store in order to see for myself, feel their sturdiness and so on.

I googled and I couldn’t decide so I paid a visit to a well known department store in order to see for myself, feel their sturdiness and so on.   There were several models, all of which were for display with an accompanying notice that read “available online” which defeated the object obviously of coming home with a goddam toaster.  This failed mission gave Zam the chance to beg me for another week before I condemned him to useless consumption with built in obsolescence.

I think is how he termed it.

Yesterday Zam locked his keys in the boot of his car as he was heading out with wine deliveries.  I found two spare sets in the drawer and drove them over but neither worked so I went to Halfords and bought new batteries and bleep bleep, all was good.  This reminds me of the one and only time I have been a sensible parent:  One of our children, then aged about 4, stuck a bead up his nose and every time I said “blow” he sucked in his nostrils with intensity.  Luckily my godson had put a frozen pea up his nostril some weeks earlier and at A&E the medic sucked it out with a straw.  Which is what I did with the bead.  This was a very proud moment for an impractical woman.

I have also solved the toaster issue.  I have oatcakes for breakfast.

I have just left Olive at a train station where we missed her train by a minute which means waiting an hour.   She is heading to Wales for 3 days holiday.   She is wearing walking boots found last minute in the cupboard, (owner unknown) with which she is rather pleased while asking “do you think it’s okay that they’re a bit small?”  We sit in the car watching the rain and I offer her an old waterproof that I happen to know is buried in the boot but she says she has already got too much luggage and when, after about 15 minutes, I tell her I’ve got to get on and therefore abandon her, I think she’s right.

There is palpable relief from the team at a respite from venison burgers and pigeon breasts.

We unload three large bags, one of which holds a pasta maker.  She’s got an unusual view on walking holiday essentials. 

 

Last night she asked Zam for the weather forecast which would, for most of the year, be a sure bet for a detailed answer.  “I don’t know” he says, “Because I don’t care.”   That is a man basking in the post-harvest liberation of it not mattering in the slightest and it is in this mood that he will remain.  Until the frost panic starts again. 

With the grapes safely gathered, the juices safely tanked, he has also hung up his barbecuing tools.  There is palpable relief from the team at a respite from venison burgers and pigeon breasts.  Perhaps the meat feasts even got to him because he spent last weekend making soup from a pumpkin the size and shape of a canoe.   “What are the chewy bits?” I ask nervously (he never cooks anything normal and we all remember the pork and marshmallow with sauerkraut that appeared during lockdown).  “The Parmesan rind I found at the back of the fridge” he announced happily.  This would be the Parmesan I bought on impulse at Costco a couple of years ago, also the size of a canoe.  I remember telling him that Nigella (I think) puts dried out Parmesan lumps in soup to add umami.  I thought I told him she then removes it.

When I ask Zam what’s happening in the vineyard this week he tells me it’s all about waiting as he stares at his weather app looking for sunshine… prolonged sunshine, ideally until October.  There was no sign of any last week on a day in which the whole concept of waiting got thrown.

Our ticket for the Isle of Wight ferry said we must arrive an hour before departure. We arrive at 4.50.   The man in the booth checks our vehicle details, hands us a “6 o’clock” sign that we’re told to dangle from the mirror and directs us to lane 8 where we wait for our friends who are parking their car and then joining ours.  Within minutes another man directs us aboard.  We climb upstairs to the deck and wave at our friends sauntering towards us.

“Is that cruiser moving?” I ask, gawping at the size of the liner next door. “No.” Zam replies, “We’re moving.” 

“Is that cruiser moving?” I ask, gawping at the size of the liner next door. “No.” Zam replies, “We’re moving.”  To our astonishment our 6 o’clock ferry is leaving at 5 o’clock.  Our friends stop waving as they watch us depart.

 

Several phone calls and a foot passenger ferry later, we are reunited on either side of Cowes, none of us quite sure what just happened.  We head to the pub we’ve booked and eat fish and chips accompanied by a blistering 80’s soundtrack that reaches it’s peak with “I love rock n roll” before an early bed in preparation for an 8 a.m start.

The plan is a long walk, lunch, a return ferry at 5.30pm.  But as we sip coffee and stare out of the window we amend the plan.   We visit “Britain’s Hottest Garden” where we stand in the hothouse listening to rain hit the roof, we admire the countryside through the windscreen wipers, we buy paracetamol for backs that didn’t like the pub beds. We feel very unlike people who were planning to walk for 10 miles and more like people who want to sip from a thermos in their car looking at the view.  Except we don’t have a thermos. 

“Shall we go home earlier?” I’m not sure who first suggests this but it lands to a universal yes.  We head back to the ferry at midday.  “But you’re on the 5.30 ferry” the woman in the booth tells us.  We know, but we also know that yesterday it seemed to be like catching a bus so any chance of an earlier crossing? She shakes her head.  “All fully booked” she says.  We cannot find anywhere to eat because everyone else is already eating so we decide to buy a picnic at the supermarket and eat in the car. Zam approaches the ferry lady again.  Some time later he reappears saying triumphantly “I got us on the 3.30,” waving the thing you dangle on your mirror.

 

We are directed to lane 1 where I begin to butter rolls on my lap and a bottle of Chardonnay is opened. We’ve got crabmeat. Bliss.  A nice long picnic in the car in the rain.

And then it happens again.  Seconds later we’re waved on to the ferry which promptly departs. It is 2.30. 

“How was it?” I’m asked on the family WhatsApp.  “Confusing” I reply. “You sort of never wait for a ferry.”  Either that or the Isle of Wight is an hour ahead. 

I am anxious about the sweet peas (about to hit full throttle) and Zam is anxious about the vines (heatwave followed by rain = potential trouble) but we are committed to a holiday in Spain. The day before we go I wake up deaf in one ear.  This is not unusual.  I ring the ear clinic who tell me the audiologist is also going on holiday tomorrow and there are no appointments.  A text pings in from our daughter: Can you talk?  As she has just arrived in Greece this cannot be good news. In fact I know, as soon as I read it, that she has lost her passport.

The passport has indeed disappeared somewhere between the airport and the B&B.

The clinic call to say they’ve had a cancellation.  Anna rings to say a taxi driver found her passport and Alf eventually secures a third choice bed.

I abandon my online search for an alternative ear clinic and enter “emergency travel documents” but the main focus of the day remains trying to book our son’s university accommodation for which he has a timed slot and not a minute before - we tried.  (Whenever I recount this to anyone they say “like buying tickets for Glastonbury” to which I nod although in truth I’ve no idea.) 

At the appointed hour the accommodation website crashes.  I yell. Alf tells me to calm down.  The clinic call to say they’ve had a cancellation.  Anna rings to say a taxi driver found her passport and Alf eventually secures a third choice bed.  It’s nearly lunchtime. Trouble, everyone knows, comes (and in this case goes) in threes.
The next day I sit next to a very nice woman on the flight to Seville who tells me she broke her jaw when she fell off her daughters bunk bed where she was trying to kill a daddy long legs on the ceiling. The jaw went undiagnosed until she insisted that she could hear her teeth rattling every time she spoke and she then underwent various procedures including pins and pin removals which have left one side of her face paralysed “And it’s been peeled back twice” she explained.  I stare. “I’m a keen runner” she went on “but I broke a shoulder when I tripped.  Then I broke the other one when I slipped in the rain.”  I do not say that this confirms my deep distrust of running.   “And while being introduced to a new member of our running club as Most Accident Prone Member I fell over and broke my foot.”

My own jaw is now pretty much on the floor.  Not least because that puts paid to the three rule.    “Jesus,” I say, “and you’re on my flight.”

We try to warn overnight guests about the crows but the invariable opener at breakfast is “Oh my god, the CROWS” as though the guests didn’t hear/believe us. They’ve been woken by a pair of birds who attack a particular set of windows, pecking at the glass with such ferocity it sounds exactly like someone knocking loudly at the door.  It’s impossible to sleep through and usually begins around dawn.   

Many studies have been made of corvids and their intelligence:  In one, seven birds were captured and then released by researchers. The following year the same birds “scolded and harassed” the researchers – picking them out in a crowd. The study is in its 14th year and the birds still spot the original team, with 30 birds now joining in.  Corvids, in other words,  have long memories, hold a grudge and spread the word. 

This, I think, affects my options.

Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, chaffinch, white throat, garden warbler...

It has been suggested that I stick a huge picture of an owl in the window to intimidate them so I am googling posters (most of which make owls look cuddly and wise and not at all intimidating) when I hear Zam swearing loudly.  I tend to ignore this having learnt over the years that the violence of his expletive bears no correlation to the subject - could be imminent nuclear war or it could be we’re low on milk.  Often it means he’s lost his phone.  But I know that on this occasion he can’t have because I, very considerately, brought it in from the table near the Corvid window where he had obviously forgotten it.

Turns out he was recording birdsong on his favourite app and I have disturbed it before it could add Eurasian Treecreeper (recorded later) to the impressively long list.  A couple of days later I find myself home alone listening to birdsong and the next thing I know I’m downloading the same app and transfixed by the sounds around me.

We are woken by the crows again and I can’t help wondering if they’re all THAT intelligent given that they seem to be either attacking or trying to mate with their own reflections.  But what do I know.  I sit on a bench watching the app tell me what is singing around me.    Minutes later I can’t tell a blackbird from a wren, having a much shorter memory than a Corvid.

Birds recorded at the winery on 13th June: Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, great tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, magpie, white throat, wren, blackbird, song thrush, collared dove, wood pigeon and garden warbler.

Paul Richardson’s book Hidden Valley is an account of his last decade spent cultivating a small plot in Spain, trying to be self-sufficient and working out what makes a life. He was given two rules by neighbours when he attempted to make wine: the stronger the better and always harvest in the third week in September.  Oh for such certainties.  Here, potential mildew has ousted potential late frosts into the top spot of vineyard worries.  For now.   

“nunca llueve a gusto de todos”

I stare out of the window where stair rods have snapped off the tulips and wonder if I’ll ever get the sweet peas planted.  On the upside it’s been a magnificent year for dandelions and buttercups and our garden, plentiful in both amid the uncut grass is, I tell myself, highly fashionable.

The winery team are busy bottling last year’s harvest - 16,000 bottles today despite a temporary breakdown of the machine.  And 20,000 tomorrow. 

I get home to an email from Paul in Spain. Not a drop of rain this year.  He ends it with:

“nunca llueve a gusto de todos”   (It never rains to everyone’s taste.)

Now that’s someone who’s learnt to roll with the punches.

There is a pool of water in the footwell of the passenger seat and another in the footwell behind that.   They have been there for so long that mould is growing up the back of the seat and when driving it, one has a sense an unhealthy level of spores invading the respiratory system.  The garage diagnosed a leaking windscreen, which is in fact a newish windscreen. I have received this information and done precisely nothing with it although when the sun came out last week I opened the car doors in a vague attempt to dry it out.  I am not, as is often pointed out, a practical person.

...it is not without a little bit of schadenfreude that I witnessed his part in an email debacle.

Nor do I have any understanding or interest in what might loosely be termed IT which includes switching t.v. channels.  Zam on the other hand is both practical and rather proud of his technical skills and whilst I don’t mind the sighs as I pick up the wrong t.v. handset again it is not without a little bit of schadenfreude that I witnessed his part in an email debacle.  I think it would be unwise to revisit this in detail, suffice to say that following his avowed understanding of MailChimp, a lot of people got a lot of emails and some people got none at all.  

Who got what is still a mystery and the last time I said “But I still don’t understand why you sent….” He looked up and said “Please go away.”  I think it’s to do with two-finger scrolling but then I’m not a practical person.

A few days later he gave a talk in our local pub.  Historically, Zam loathes public speaking, partly because of anxiety and partly because he always cries.  His anxiety stems from a traumatic schoolboy event when he had to recite a poem to his peers which he hadn’t learnt.  On drying up somewhere in the second verse of The Wild Swans at Coole, he was hauled off stage and still shudders at the memory.  The crying… well things just set him off.  He can’t watch an ice skater performing a triple axel or The Repair Shop without tears rolling down his cheeks.

But he returned from the pub very buoyed up and jubilant.  “It’s the oddest thing” he said, “but ever since I’ve been talking about the vineyard in public I find I can do it quite easily, without notes or fear… in fact I love it.  I can do it for hours.”

And on this, I can truly say,  we have no disagreement whatsoever.

A friend sends me a WhatsApp that says “Good Luck for tomorrow” which is when we leave for Japan to attend an international trade fair.  The Widow has been promoted to Assistant for the next week.  “It feels like the opposite of Christmas Eve” I message back. 

That evening we go to the launch of The Silo Collective which is packed with friends, most of whom seem to know a lot more about Japan than I do and I find myself practicing bowing and receiving business cards with two hands but my attempts are met by a puzzled “No… not quite like that.”  In the back of my mind I am definitely thinking “I may never see any of you again”.

This is because aeroplanes are not natural, a 14 hour flight is not natural and I will probably get a blood clot despite two pairs of very unnatural stockings in my bag.  When I get there, I will loom over everyone on account of being over 6ft in the aforementioned stockings and be unable to communicate and therefore possibly starve.     

Back home I find myself looking at the drooping basil plant by the kitchen sink and wondering “Oh, has a plant ever been quite so lovely?”. (I am listening to Mansfield Park and can’t stop thinking in Austen speak).  I am, in other words, already homesick.

...an app that tells us to put on dark glasses and sit in dim light at 3pm, then get up at 5am in bright light...

Zam is obsessed by jet lag and how to avoid it.  He has downloaded an app that tells us to put on dark glasses and sit in dim light at 3pm, then get up at 5am in bright light.  It tells us that we’ll be fine in three days time which seems to me exactly when one would be fine anyway.  When we try to check in we are told “no reservation found” about which Zam is more relaxed than whether he should be doing this in the dark.

24 hours later - it must be more but what with time zones and lost days I can’t be specific.

  1. It is very sunny and pretty warm.
  2. Zam’s jetlag is worse than his Assistant’s.
  3. Only one person has commented on our height and he said it very politely.
  4. I have not yet bowed on account of still being very self conscious about this but it doesn’t seem to matter and I will attempt it tomorrow.
  5. Everybody wears a mask all the time. Which is not compulsory.
  6. There is a card on the table at breakfast with various instructions including “please enjoy your meal silently” which is a card I will be bringing home.
  7. And yes, the loos are clean with many symbols none of which illustrate Flush.  It turns out be the button with 9 dots on it.  I googled it. In desperation.
  8. I spend the day in the Great Britain section surrounded by UK cheese makers.  Estonia is on my left, Italy on my right and Latvia just behind me.   
  9. Team spirit amongst the British is high.  Am very happy with the three stoppers Adrian lent me.  He’s got one of our ice buckets.
  10. Skeins of cormorants fly over a lot.
  11. I have just been told that the Japanese do not on the whole go for sarcasm or irony. So I must stop saying it never rains in England.

Gratifyingly, the panorama I have managed to film on my camera draws an awestruck reaction on the family whatsapp group. JEEEESUS being the general tone.  I am quite proud of this little film, especially as I find the phone button counter-intuitive and tend to find I have filmed the ground.  Actually the ground is, in this case, the point.

We picnicked by the ditch but neither of us said it aloud until a long time later...

When we went to visit the Grand Canyon about thirty years ago Zam suggested we view it “from the other side.”  We drove, for hours, we parked, we walked. And then we peered at a wide-ish ditch.  “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes” he didn’t sound it. “But in the films people fly airplanes through it and this….” I hesitated, thinking someone with a more athletic build could jump across it.  We picnicked by the ditch but neither of us said it aloud until a long time later: we had actually failed to find something you can see from the moon.

the big chalk hole

My panoramic film shows a hole in the ground that is over 100 metres long and about 30 metres wide.  Zam makes sweeping movements with his arms to describe areas for fermenting, bottling, storing, labelling… we nod as he explains entrances and exits and that the winery, on its incredible chalk plateau, has to be finished before this year’s harvest.  JEEESUS we think, all over again.

Amazingly you can hardly see it till you come across it.  But it feels like you could see it from the moon.

Not everybody loves the newly pimped landrover that our old neighbour Robert has transformed from a beaten up lightweight, short-wheelbase, Series III into an idiosyncratic mobile bar.  But Zam does. When his sister Rose asked to borrow it, freshly painted and ready to go he was delighted to share the joy.  She rang 20 minutes later having broken down going up a hill and was now taking shelter at the nearest house. The occupants of this looked amused but not particularly surprised.  “They all have their little ticks” the farmer and Zam agreed fondly.
“They all have their little ticks”
In order to prove that it just takes a bit of this (pump the brakes), and that (change gear at exactly the right moment and lean forward), Zam drove it home. 

He booked himself and it into various Christmas fairs but got Covid and so asked genius winemaker Harry to take it to Wiltshire.  The landrover averages about 35 mph. The tailback on the A303 became considerable.  The wind and cold whistled round Harry’s head.  The brakes were hair-raising.  He didn’t want to drive it back again.  When Zam recovered he went to collect it and arrived home pale and chastened.  The “quirks” were, he now admitted, considerable.  It went into the local garage for remedial attention and now it’s back. As a bar it’s rather wonderful.  As transport… he’s on his own.