Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Du Pain, Du Vin, Du Allergic Reaction To The Sun.

We are on our annual holiday in France. I can call it our annual holiday now because this is the third consecutive year. It is our yearly pilgrimage to visit the mother of the Angry French Chef.
She lives in a picturesque village in Provence called Fontaine Du Vaucluse. There's rivers, trees, little bundles of lavender tied up with string, young virgins on old bicycles in cotton summer dresses with baguettes in baskets and a soon to be crushed Joie de vivre. It's that bit of France you've seen in every film concerning coming of age, long summer holidays and innocence lost to strange plinky plinky music.
It's also fucking hot.
The first week was just the three of us drinking cold beer and cheap rose, taking dips in the pool, reading throw away thrillers and having little bbq's. For the most part a very relaxing endeavour. Until I foolishly suggest we play some cards one night after dinner. They both shrug casually. Deceptively casually. It's Gin Rummy, what could possibly go wrong? Twenty minutes later I notice my hands are shaking as I deal another hand and pray that I lose. Neither of them have smiled since the first cards were dealt. I'm not sure either of them have blinked. La Mamon, who is normally a warm, affectionate and loving woman now looks like a professional card sharp and the Angry French Chef is squinting at her, looking for any tells, any crack in her stony facade. We play in utter silence. Years pass. I go to bed and stare at the ceiling.
The following morning we eat fresh croissant from the local bakery and chat about the food we're going to cook that day. It's casually suggested that perhaps, maybe, if anyone can be bothered, we might pick up the card game again after dinner. I keep my head down and bargain with any passing deity that might be listening. Let them forget. LET THEM FORGET.
By day three I have developed an allergy to the sun. I have a lovely tan and a bubbling blistering rash up both my arms that is hotter than hell and itchier than a bath of ants.
La Mamon lets me experiment with over the counter medication for about a week until she insists I let her take me to the doctor.
The doctors in France don't wear uniforms. They wear jeans. And converse. And trendy t-shirts. They have cool wire rimmed glasses and their office walls are covered in framed photographs of them on exotic holidays. He takes a brief look at my arms, nods and prescribes very strong antihistamines. He tells me to wear a hat, long sleeved clothing and avoid the sun for about two weeks. It's 36 fucking degrees in the shade. He says it's okay to swim as long as I remain at least a foot under the water. So presumably I need to grow gills.
I decide to take the pills and mostly ignore the advice but every time I lounge in the sun with a book La Mamon appears out of thin air and throws a damp towel over me.
In addition to this we are both the new hot spot in town for mosquitoes who arrive in large groups with tiny napkins wrapped around their evil necks. Or whatever passes for a neck in the form of pure hatred. We're sort of used to that though and pass the cortisone back and forth with minimal griping.
Two of our friends, Mr and Mrs S, join us for the second week of the holiday and within ten minutes we're enjoying cocktails by the pool. We're excited to have them here and I secretly hope the mosquitoes will enjoy a new source of food and leave me and Angry alone for one sweet minute.
Mr S is in his absolute element. Two of his favourite things in life are fine wines and cheese and of course both are abundant here. Mrs S has a dip in the pool and gurgles with laughter as she tries to teach Mr S an exercise involving a noodle. She then lies in the garden as the sun dries her un-blistered skin. I sit in the shadows smoking a cigarette and slap away another mosquito that has settled on my neck.
Sunday brings the World Cup Final and there is an air of nervous anticipation from the moment we wake up. La Mamon has arranged a party for the viewing. The first to arrive is her neighbour, Nicole, who is around seventy and sporting a France T-Shirt, a comedy hat, red white and blue sunglasses and the French flag. She is beyond excited and shouting “Allez les Bleus!” before she's even through the door. Within half an hour there's thirteen of us. Everyone is facing the TV except me. I'm facing a bottle of prosecco and liberally adding limoncello. When they all stood for the national anthem I knew they had to win. The alternative was unthinkable and terrifying.
Two hours later a giant speaker has appeared from somewhere and people are dancing in the garden, arms linked, heads thrown back with joy. Raymond (a man built like a brick shit house) is naked in the pool swinging his pants around his head. Homemade liquor appears, cherries soaked in something toxic also and before long it's riotous. The last thing I see as I drag myself up the stairs is La Mamon wrapped in a yellow sarong, hands in the air shimmying across the garden, her glass of rose spilling in to the grass.
The next day is a quiet one. Everyone moves slowly with muttered groans. Mr S has maybe the worst of it. The last to bed and the recipient of many whiskey top ups he stares in to space and I can hear him blink.
My niece La Dude joins us the following morning from Toulouse where she now lives. Knowing she likes the rougher booze I ply her with Papa Doble's that contain large measures of a terrible white rum we've bought called 'Old Nick'. And rightly so. Only Satan and my niece could enjoy that immediate and unceasing burn.
The evening is spent peeling gallons of prawns cooked by The French on the plancha in the garden. All of the women are in bed by midnight (La Dude face down on the sofa with a mirror by her mouth) and the boys stay up till 4am talking about whatever it is men talk about in the early hours and drinking anything cold.
Since then I've cooked a giant Paella in the garden with the help of La Dude and Mrs S and afterwards we played a ridiculous mime game called Heads Up. During one memorable round Mrs S had to guess the word we were all frantically miming. The word was 'Tourist' and so we all kept pointing at ourselves. She called out 'FRIENDS!' and everyone paused and collectively sighed at the loveliness of it.
Today we kayaked down a gorgeous river and marvelled at indigo coloured dragonflies all around us. Afterwards we walked through a stream to get to a bar that served icy cold Vedett.

We are all now so relaxed we can barely acknowledge each other. Some are lazing in the pool, some napping, some reading and I'm doing this though I can hardly be bothered to finish this  damn sente...

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Shell

Sometimes it's like a family dinner that just won't end. At the time you just wish everyone would piss off but if they actually did it wouldn't be long before you missed them terribly and spent your time remembering the good old days when everyone was together bickering and breaking bread.
I always hoped I'd live to be very old. Not 'piss the bed, who the fuck am I?' old, but old and able. And then I'd die in my sleep, content after a long life and unaware that I wouldn't wake up again.
But I didn't really think it would happen. I smoked for fifty seven years. I drank, though not problematically. I ate whatever I liked and exercise was an infrequent habit. And yet. Here I am. Ninety Two years of age, sound of mind and achy of limb. And finally slim! My appetite like my sex drive has finally sacked it in when it no longer matters much.
Things I hadn't anticipated include thinking that everyone from Doctors to Prime Ministers seem so young. Barely qualified. The strange truth that inside I still feel exactly as I did at thirty, forty. The mirror is shocking. But I still see myself in there. Same eyebrows, same crooked tooth. I have my mothers skin, still surprisingly smooth with that elasticity unique to the mediterranean.
But the most unexpected thing of all, the one possibility that I never gave any credence to, was that I would be the only one remaining.
I never had or wanted children of my own but I had a nephew, Ben, oh christ I love him. I love him as though he were my own. And I outlived even him. He married a nice man called Oliver and they had a good long life together but Ben died, two years ago, a heart attack at the age of seventy one. And Oliver decided to move back to America so I lost both of them.
I never believed I'd be alone in the world at the end.
And as fate would have it, I'm not.
And I'm pretty sure I'm not losing my mind. I still do cryptic crosswords and my online scrabble score is through the fucking roof.
But here they are. Ben, my sister Rosie, mum and Dad, my uncle Walt who was always the great mind of the family. He could have done wonderful things if only he hadn't been destroyed by booze.
'Walt, I was just thinking – you could have been something extraordinary if it weren't for the drink.'
Walt looks up from his game of chess with Dad.
'I know Terri, I know. But that wasn't what life had in store for me. Maybe next time round eh.'
They all chuckle.
'Are you warm enough Auntie?'
Ben is fussing around me as usual.
'Tuck the blanket around your legs.'
He's frustrated that he can't touch it himself. None of them can touch me or anything around me, not now. But the chess board they brought with them. And some jigsaws. And my old and dear dear friend Claire somehow managed to get a keyboard set up, she plays old hits from the 90's on it and reminds me of the good old days when life was a wonderful adventure yet to be seized.
It's funny to see them occupied with such old fashioned past times. We gave up all that shit years ago. Decades of Mac books and Pc's, everything fast and easy, and it turns out you can't take them with you. The afterlife is terribly old fashioned. I have no idea why.
I got a shitty bout of flu last year. It was a game changer. Up til then I'd been able to get out and about. Do my shopping, have a coffee on the way home at Luke's Latte's. The young ones today. It's hilarious. At some point, I guess thirty five years or so ago, ink went out of fashion again. My peers are wandering around, bent of back with faces like a sack of arseholes covered in tattoos and the ghosts of piercings. Jen, who works at Latte's tells me 'clean is the new cool'. They all look like adverts for good christian living. I suppose there was always going to be a backlash. But they are fascinated by my ink. Jen is always asking to read bits of me which is fine. Some are illegible now but that doesn't stop them trying.
'We learned about this phase at college,' she tells me. 'You're like living history. So excellent.'
It's in those details that I see how ancient I am. Not the shit about 'living history' – who gives a fuck right? But the fact that I'm delighted by their attention. That's where I'm old. The young seem like miracles to us now. All that life coursing through them, all that energy. Same stupid ideas and bad choices but now those things seem glorious. They have so much time.
Life isn't short. It's long. Really fucking long. And you lose so much along the way. By the last twenty years or so it feels like losing things is all you do. Glasses, keys, purse, friends, interests, agility.
Mum comes over and crouches down in front of me.
'It's cold in here darling. Put the heating on.'
'I can't be bothered.'
'Don't be lazy. I don't want you dying in a cold flat. It's such a sad ending.'
'Who gives a shit! I'll be dead!'
Ben clears his throat.
'About that...'
Everyone bursts out laughing.
They've been here, waiting, for a week. I should have died by now. It's ridiculous. I'm ready. I'm done. It's been great thanks very much I'd like to toddle the fuck off now please.
But it just hasn't happened.
Ben arrived first. I hadn't gotten out of bed in two days and I thought I was good to go. So did he. And then, I don't know, I was just so surprised to see him and we got to chatting and before you know it I'm up, shuffling to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
We spent the afternoon on the mac flicking through old photos.
The next day mum and dad showed up wanting to know what was taking Ben so long.
Then Walt came. Then Claire. A few others have popped in and out, just to say hi and tell me to hurry the fuck up. They're all waiting for me.
The door bell goes and I check the window on my mac. It's Sophie, the neighbour.
I sigh and pull myself up. Bloody hell! Every bit of me is slow and sore and just ready to fucking well shut down. But I hobble to the door.
'Hello Miss Caster!'
Sophie is very peppy.
'Hi Sophie.'
'How are you today?'
I want to tell her I'm fucking fine and please fuck the fuck off and stop talking at me like I'm old.
But that's just me being a bit of a cunt isn't it. She's just being kind. In that weird christian way the youth of today have.
'Can't complain love. Haven't got the energy.'
I'm joking. Obvs. But she looks so sad and concerned. I grin at her.
'Honestly I'm fine. Nothing to see here. Shouldn't you be out doing something? It's Friday night isn't it?'
'I'm staying in tonight. Just wanted to make you need anything?'
Fuck. She's so kind. I think it's fashionable to be community spirited again. It had died a death when I was her age but like all things it's come around again.
'I need for nothing darling. I'm all good in the hood.'
She looks momentarily confused by the expression.
'Okay, well, I'm just next door. Just bang on the wall. Or IM me. It's cold tonight isn't it.'
'It is a bit, don't worry about me. I have a blanket and a bottle of gin.'
'You know that stuff will kill you. I have some great infusions of - '
'Don't you dare!'
She bursts out laughing.
'Okay, well, I'll let you get back in. Sleep well.'
'I will. Thanks.'
I shut the door and shuffle back in to the living room.
'She's sweet,' Ben says.
I nod, suddenly exhausted, and inch myself back in to my chair.
Something shifts in the room. A subtle change in atmosphere as I close my eyes and lean my head back in to the cushion.
I listen as my family and friends crowd around me and talk in hushed tones about the good old days.
'Hey, remember that christmas when you got pissed and served us raw turkey?'
'...Ben was only six and wanted a glittery unicorn and you said...'
'...that walk, you know, the one by the river wit that huge old tree was before...'
They talk and laugh and remember and I feel their warmth spread through my limbs. The stiffness, the aches, the weakness recedes and I feel light. Light and utterly present as I slip away. Away and back.
I stand up and look down at the shell I've been wearing all these years. Much loved and no longer needed. All that time. Worrying about lumps that were nothing, filling it with food and thought. Fussing over hair and hairs. Warm, cold, full, empty. All mine. And so loyal. I want to brush the hair from my forehead. Give that armour a cuddle and thank it for keeping me safe.
I feel Ben kiss my cheek. I feel it. I turn and see him looking at me with such love, such relief.

 'Finally,' he says.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Round Robin


Well another year has rolled around and we haven't managed to catch up face to face. But be assured I miss you terribly (INSERT NAME HERE)!
I talk about you often dear (INSERT NAME HERE) and have such fond memories of our time in (INSERT PLACE/RESTAURANT/CULT/ DEPROGRAMMING UNIT/ CULT SUPPORT GROUP HERE).
If we'd had kids I'm sure little (INSERT NAME HERE) would be doing marvellously at his Montessori school and looking forward to all the gifts Satan will be bringing him for christmas.
And had I finished 'that' novel I've been tiredly working on for two decades then I imagine this letter would be a lot shorter and considerably less humble.
But life being what it is – a long inexorable march toward death, the terror thereof ameliorated by alcohol, shiny bargains and life hacking TED talks that convince us we matter – 2017 was sadly not the year that I became a success. Or in many ways, a grown up.
The tree is up! Imagine our delight when we woke in the morning to find it potted and bedecked with baubles. We almost believed in Father Christmas for a moment until we followed the trail of our visa receipts and realised that we had in fact put the damn thing up ourselves. Who knew that off licenses sold decorations? Not I. And once we'd wiped the blood off the ornaments they certainly did glitter with all the promise of a turd wrapped in tinsel.
I suppose a small re-cap of the year is in order so I'll do my best to lift something from the addled fog of sleep deprivation that was the past 11 months.
January brought an all inclusive trip to Mexico and the mere sight of a lime can evoke the heartburn and indigestion that prevailed.
We returned just in time to catch the beginning of a new sitcom in which a narcissist with the IQ of a spoon became president of the United States. We laughed and laughed until the tears ran down our faces. They haven't stopped.
By March everyone in the UK with an accent was proposing to their English partners and quicker than you could say 'Brexit' the invites were pouring through the door. Of course a lot of people had quite a difficult time finding venues that could host their big day what with all the staff being either on the guest list or getting hitched.
I have absolutely no recollection of April or May but judging from the tattoo on my back I can only assume that this is a blessing.
June fluttered in with all the promise of a summer that would never come but we removed three layers anyway huddled around the aga.
That's a lie. I should have an aga by now but I don't. I refer you to the unfinished novel.
We skipped through July aided by industrial strength ibuprofen and a can do attitude and skidded to a halt in August for a long conversation about all the BBQ's and picnics we were going to have. And never did.
In September I went to the gym, enjoyed their power shower and a pep talk before leaving and never returning.
With October came the rustle of fallen leaves, fallen loved ones and fallen standards.
With a new found determination I opened the fridge, pushed aside the weight watchers 1 point loaf and reached for the cheese. I wrapped it in chocolate and enjoyed it with eight pouches of Virginia Bright and a vitamin C tablet dissolved in gin.
In November I wrote half a book, deleted it and played scrabble online with a woman in New Delhi who had a broader vocabulary than I. Me. I.
Which brings us to today.
As I sit here, a metaphorical pizza in a gluten free dairy intolerant world, and think of you dear dear (INSERT NAME HERE). I wonder what lessons I can take from this last year and what if any wisdom I can impart.
The answer at first glance appears to be 'fuck all.' But I'm going to just keep typing and see what emerges.
If your 2017 has been good to you then pay it forward it 2018 and make someone else's next year one to celebrate.
If your 2017 has been shit don't come moaning to me about it, I've got enough on my plate.
If you're full of fear and trepidation about what's to come, don't panic, we all are.
If you're confident that everything is going to be okay, you're probably ill informed or haven't read the small print.
If I can wish anything for you in the coming year then it's what I wish for myself: Good health, good love and good times. Moments of real happiness that cannot be expressed on social media because they rest in your heart and not in your humble brags. A sense of truly moving forward, always striving to attain the things you want without forgetting to be present because as the cliché goes, it's the road that counts and not the perceived Eden at the end, the chasing of which will always be more than the attainment.
We too often take a picture of a tree or a sunset and post it because we want the world to think we find it beautiful and be validated as the sort of person who appreciates the gorgeous vicissitudes of nature. Don't take a picture. Just look at the fucking tree. It'll be boring at first but with practise and time we might all become the people we'd much rather be.
Always tip your server, and do so in cash. Try to be kind even when you want to rip someone's lungs out for being a complete mouth breather.
Unless you have a genuine life threatening food intolerance, shut the fuck up and eat what is put in front of you.
Take dance lessons.
Learn an instrument too late in life.
Use the words 'Omnishambles', 'Clusterfuck' and 'Brouhaha' (It's time they made a come back)
Write a letter.
Write a book.
Kill your darlings when you do.
Have a wonderful time of it all because we're not here for all that long and we are terribly lucky to be here at all.
Try not to be a cunt.
And take comfort dear, dear (INSERT NAME HERE) that you are nothing. You are barely an idea in a huge canvas of much more important things than you and the universe doesn't give a toss about you. There's a freedom in really knowing that. It makes you feel special.

I love you. Stay golden. Let's not leave it so long this time.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Churros and Adios.

I'm innocently floating around the pool reading a book when I hear an American woman to my right screech;
'Oh my gosh! You're in the water with, like, paper!'
'Oh my GOD!' I screech back. 'You've brought your own drinking tankard to a free bar!'
I then stare mutely at her until she turns away and continue my paddle.
For every ten absolutely delightful people you meet there's always a universe balancing arsehole. The French and I made an agreement early on that whenever we witnessed somebody being shockingly awful we wouldn't get wound up but instead would stop what we were doing and give them a slow applause.
The people who dictate what they want and never say please or thank you. The people who never tip. That's the worst offence really. The logic being that its an all-inclusive and so tips are included in that. Surely! Am I right?! NO you're not fucking right.
Gilberto, one of the waiters who hasn't had a day off since we've been here and is always 100% on the ball, tells us (we ask, he doesn't offer the information freely) that he earns 76 pesos an hour. That's just over three quid. So when you see someone clicking their fingers or kicking up a fuss about something so puerile it makes your eyeballs sweat its hard not to physically attack them. For the most part its the English and the Americans who are guilty of this. The only people that are never ever rude and tip just because someone smiled at them are of course the Canadians.
I have never met a Canadian I didn't like. They learn all the waiters names too.
And my obsession with visiting Canada is just growing and growing. The fact that we flew over Canada to get here makes me feel a bit bilious. I came so close and yet still no cigar. I've spoken to quite a few of them in passing here and pretty much all of them have invited me to stay at theirs. Or recommended a great place where the trees are tall and the lakes wide. We went out to Bucerias for dinner again the other night and met a group of Canadians who were sat at the next table. Over the balcony there were lots of locals dancing away to some live music being played in the square.
Lisa is there with her husband and two other couples. She recommends a restaurant for us and suggests we come back on Saturday afternoon for a live music party on the beach.
'It's kinda the local happy hour between 3 and 6pm, lots of dancing, its fun.'
'Do you live here?' I ask.
'No, we just holiday here in the winter for 4 or 5 months.'
She kisses her husband, gets up and starts shimmying toward the street.
'Hey you wanna come dance?'
'Oh that's so kind but I'm afraid I'm British.'
She sashays off to the rhythm and I wonder once again what it must be like to be rich.
We've met a fair few people here who are on semi permanent holidays.
One elderly Canadian couple at dinner last night told us they were here just for a week on the back of a month in Fiji and before that New Zealand for two months.
'We couldn't face going back to the weather in Canada just yet.'
The French and I are very good at picking up languages and within a week of being anywhere can pretty much communicate with anyone. Where the French excels though is his ability to seemingly soak up the essence of a country. He not only speaks to everyone in Spanish, he does so with his whole body and makes everyone around him feel like he's a local and their long lost friend. He SOUNDS Mexican. I watch men swarm around him, changing his ashtray, making sure his drink is never empty and somehow discussing Arsenal with him. They see him coming and his drink is poured before he gets there. He hugs them all, asks them how that thing went the other day that they were talking about and how are the three kids etc. His achilles heel however is accents. He has a complete tin ear for them and its hilarious. He comes back from the bar and tells me he's just overheard some French Canadians and the way they speak is bizarre. I mooch over to eavesdrop and discover they are in fact from Birmingham.
Another prize winning occasion:
'So where in Scotland are you from?' He asks.

He's been eyeing the jet ski's since we got here.
'I went on one in Acapulco a few years ago. It was awesome.'
'Go on one then.'
'No, no, no. I'd rather spend the money on restaurants.'
A day later I find him watching the jet ski's yearningly.
'It's really cool if you stay on top of the waves...'
'Go on one then.'
'No no no. It'll be super expensive.'
Yet another day later I watch as he smokes a cigar whilst his eyes never leave the jet ski's skimming across the ocean.
'For the love of Christ just go book one!'
He strolls indifferently over to the hombres in charge of the jet ski's and starts chatting. He returns 5 minutes later having made blood brothers of them all.
'I got them down to thirty quid for half an hour. For both of us.'
The following day I get on my jet ski and think 'Yay! I'm saying YES to life!' And almost immediately regret it. Its the turning I found problematic. Anyway, The French satisfied his need for speed and I survived so it's another thing ticked off a bucket list I never wrote.
Body boarding was a lot more fun for me. I felt like I was 8 again, catching the back of a wave and shooting towards the shore.

There have been lots of highlights but the local fiesta two nights ago was one of the best moments, not least for the fresh churros that were so delicious I gave the woman a rose to thank her (I also paid for the churros...obviously). The reason I had roses in the first place was because a couple sat at the next table to us in a bar bought them for us. Just because. They were, of course, Canadian. And yes, they have invited us to British Columbia for a vacation and some fishing on the lake.
I've promised myself a trip to Canada if I ever get published. The French says 'when' not 'if'.
I find a booze stand offering a cocktail called 'Adios Mother Fucker' and ask the woman what's in it.
'Is Tequila, gin, ron, vodka and just tiny bit pineapple.'
I settle for a margarita.
We eat at a stand and pay less than you would for a pint in the UK. We watch huge fireworks which are set off in the middle of the square by a bloke with a fag dangling out of his mouth. There's no barrier, no health and safety. If you're stupid enough to stand too close you're probably asking for it. 

The holiday is over and we have to vacate the room in about thirty minutes. We haven't even packed yet. But we're ready to go home. We've had a ball, enjoyed it all. We now know we're not all-inclusive kind of people and won't do it again. But it was just what we needed this time round. The French is getting wound up by other holiday makers having the audacity to breathe near him. We're both done. We'll endure the 11 hour flight back, find a train and collapse in to the flat for a few hours kip before dinner at my mum's. I love travelling. I'd love someone to pay me to go places and write this stupid blog. The only thing better than travelling is probably coming home. See you soon Xx

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Pepto-Abysmal And Gyrating Raoul

Every day around noon Raoul, one of the swarthier members of the 'entertainment' staff can be found strutting around the sun loungers charming the ladies in to an aerobics session with him in the pool.
'Come on Signoritas! You's gotta work off the alcohol si!'
Gold rimmed shades, ponytail and snake hipped he sexually insinuates himself through a wall of liver spotted cleavages and plastic sun visors.
Sure enough ten minutes later the pool is a blanket of giggling American housewives staring adoringly at Raoul who stands on the side thrusting his groin in a slow circular motion and telling the ladies to follow suit.
The French looks up from his reading and mutters; 'Fucking Raoul.'
In the evening we're having some cocktails before dinner and discussing the much anticipated performance of the “Mexican Michael Jackson.” I never really understood the appeal of the actual Michael Jackson but I do find the world of imitators weirdly intriguing. The French however is uncharacteristically keen and is practising his moon walk in the middle of the plaza with a drink in one hand and his hat tilted Jackson style. I wave my glass at one of the staff and beg for another drink.
The build up is impressive. There's a big light show and a massive projection of Jackson's (Liz Taylor phase) eyes. Six dancers appear and start throwing shapes and even the table of drunken Scots (same table every day from 10am till 11pm) briefly look up from their drinks and make a collective noise which could be a heckle or some kind of approval. Finally Mexican Michael arrives in Thriller mode. He gyrates wildly, makes that squeaky noise and grabs his groin. The French grins, then frowns and finally squints.
'It's fucking Raoul.'
'Surely not.'
'I'm telling you – That. Is. Fucking. Raoul!'
I take a closer look at the groin rotation. It could definitely be Raoul.
He does all the big numbers, 11 costume changes and finishes with a dramatic 'It's your fault I'm dead' kind of blackout. The crowd goes wild.
A couple of hours later there's a conga line working its way around the fountain and yes, Raoul is leading it. The man's an animal.

When we arrived The French was pretty ill with a bad cold. He has since recovered and passed the baton to me. Our room is littered with half bottles of Vicks 44 expectorant, Tylenol, Ibruprofen and now Pepto-Bismal which I picked up yesterday at a Farmacia in Puerto Vallarta. The constant diet of chilli, lime and Amaretto Sours/Margaritas means heartburn is unavoidable. The woman in the shop gives me a quick appraisal and discreetly hands me a list of under the counter drugs available. Tramadol, Vicodin, HGH...the list is impressive. I start to enquire about the cost of the diet pills but The French grabs me and pushes me firmly out of the door.
I catch my reflection as I walk past the mirror. Cocktail in one hand, Pepto-Abysmal in the other. I pop an ibroprufon and a tylonel and wash them down with swig of pepto.
Admittedly I look like shit and I have a pretty bad cold but I'm on holiday and no one can take that away from me.
It's 30 degrees and the French can't take a step without breaking a sweat. My hair has reacted to the humidity and is eight times its original size. The French occasionally pretends its become sentient and says he can see a pulse. The novelty of constant alcohol has worn off but we're still very much working on the premise that if you're not sure what you fancy there really is no bad time for a Bloody Mary. We have located the one man in the hotel who knows how to make a decent coffee. He works in the 24 hour sports bar and every morning we shuffle in there with the other 6 people who have discovered him, request a hit, and give the obligatory half laugh when he suggests a shot of tequila in it.

Being constantly looked after and having to do absolutely nothing for yourself except wash is very seductive but also creates an inertia that makes you feel like having a nap every twenty minutes. To counteract this we've been making little trips outside of our cottonwool wrapped world, the first of which was to Bucerias.
The taxi dropped us off at the edge of a flea market. It looks like a shanty town and from the moment you step out of the car you're assaulted by dozens of people holding up bits of jewellery, rugs, skull mugs. One stand has gimp style superhero masks. The French points at the Dead Pool one and says he needs it.
'Take it mi amigo,' the man says. 'Make all your fantasies come true.'
Another big guy nods at us, 'Come see my cheap shit.' I don't think his heart is in it.
It's a bit overwhelming. You want to be polite and say “no thanks” to everyone but in the end we just push our way through the crowd and stop responding. We find a restaurant that's been recommended to us. Miguel Angel is a cool little Mexican place with parrots hopping around everywhere and palm leaves for a roof. Miguel himself is charm personified. He looks like Charles Bronson and The French calls him that for the rest of our visit.
'You like football?' Miguel asks.
'Of course.'
'Who's your team?'
'I got a sports bar upstairs, they playing right now.'
There's a small cloud of dust where the French once stood. Born lucky. I follow up the stairs and there it is, a hug sports bar with the game playing and various men staring fixedly at the screen whilst some disenchanted women shovel tortilla.
A smiling man brings a bucket full of ice within which are nestled five bottles of corona and a dish of lime.
'400 pesos amigo.'
The French is about to distractedly hand over the money and then does the math.
'400?! That's more than 20 pounds. For five beers??'
The man smiles nervously.
'Five buckets, amigo.'
'What the fuck do I want with 25 beers?!'
'Okay, 100 pesos for one bucket.'
He's tried it on, not succeeded and there's a slightly tense feeling in the air. Luckily the outraged French is an affable sort and merely gives him a friendly slap on the back which nearly floors the tiny chap.
'That's more like it!'
He watches the game and I watch the room. Everything is so colourful here.
His team wins and we head downstairs to eat. It's shady and lovely and the waiter brings me a bucket of passionfruit Margaritas. We eat fish tacos and giant fried prawns with the obligatory nachos and dip. There's an old boy playing a keyboard and singing in the corner. He starts 'What a wonderful world' and its just perfection. A small boy comes in and tries to sell us handmade bracelets with little dream catchers on them. He wants 100 pesos (about five quid). They're hideous but he's a pro and whilst the French tries to haggle him down to 50 pesos the kid refuses to make eye contact and insists on at least 70. We buy the damn thing and I'm forced to wear it. He's the first of about 60 people trying to sell us stuff. I wonder if there's a kind soul somewhere with a room full of sombrero's, rugs, dolphin wind chimes, marble face ornaments, skull head mugs, grains of rice with their name on it, cuban cigars...actually we did buy a box of cuban cigars but turned down the weed that was offered with it.
The second trip is to Puerto Vallarta where we find a colonial style shack on the beach called The Red Lobster. The food is fantastic and we just sit there for hours eating, drinking, laughing and politely refusing to buy a million things.
The third trip we've been looking forward to all week. We are headed to the 'Rhythms of the night' event at a little cove some miles away. We travel there by boat which takes about an hour and a half and involves a glorious sunset and a lot of rum punch. The team on the boat led by Julio are hilarious. They throw alcohol at you, play music and do little skits to keep you amused. There are about 40 of us and everyone is in high spirits. A man called Tom and his friend recreate the Titanic pose at the front of the boat, people are dancing and laughing. A hush descends as the sun sets and before long we are approaching the Las Caletas cove which is entirely lit by candles and flaming torches. It's a jungle and as we get nearer we spot a mermaid waving from the rocks. A girl dressed as an eagle perched in one of the trees. The water around the boat is clear and thousands of fish are shimmying in the light. We dock and start making our way up a candle lit path. Part of a tree unfolds and smiles at us, something that looks like a cross between a goat and a god plays a lute and a half naked man painted to look like a deer struts around on the rocks and watches us suspiciously. It's completely immersive theatre and not what I'd expected at all. We'd been told the show was influenced by Cirque du Soleil which I liked and not dissimilar to The Lion King which I fucking hate. When we reached the clearing the layout was much like an Ampitheatre with steep wooden stairs at one end leading up to a large skull surrounded by fire.
'It looks like a sacrificial alter,' I whisper.
'I hope it is,' The French says, looking pointedly at a woman just behind us who hasn't stopped narrating every moment since she got off the boat.
The show starts with a very entertaining Master Of Ceremonies who walks through the audience making guttural tribal noises before saying terribly politely “That means, excuse me please, I need to get through”. The performance lasts the perfect amount of time (40 minutes) and there's a giant butterfly in a tree playing a violin, a colourful bird woman on a wire zooming around overhead, giant stilt walking tree men, monkeys doing insane balancing acts using only one arm, fire juggling and dancing. The French keeps staring at the Deer man suspiciously.
“It's fucking Raoul. I'm certain of it.”
I have absolutely no idea what the plot is or why the deer gets killed and comes back as a dancing man but The French assures me its all about the connectedness of everything in nature and everything serving a purpose. I'm fine with that.
Afterwards we are taken to our table for two by the edge of the sea and served booze and food by candlelight whilst a man plays a harp for us. It's all ridiculously romantic and I can't help but think about the level of organisation it takes to make this many people feel so personally cared for. The beach to our left has been hung with dozens of cream hammocks and its an absolute scream watching couples trying to climb in to them gracefully for a kodak moment under the stars. One big chap looks utterly defeated before he's even begun but his girlfriend is bloody determined and so he folds himself on to an edge and braces himself with one foot in the sea for what looks to be ten minutes of absolute terror.
A bell rings and its time to head back. The journey is broken up by the crew dressing up as Kiss and performing for us. No, really. A Liverpudlian chap comes up to me and nods towards The French.
'Is that big lad with the hat your fella?'
'He had me and my girlfriend in bits all the way out on the boat. He was having a dance and rolling a fag at the same time whilst everyone else was holding on to the rails for dear life.'

'Yup. That's my one.'

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Mexico And The Scooby Snacks

A tiny Mexican woman hands me a pair of paper knickers the size of a tea bag and tells me to pop them on and 'jump' on to the massage table.
There seems to be a recurring theme of holidays and humiliating massage experiences for me.
'Um, I don't think these will fit me. I'm carrying a little extra weight...'
She grins.
'Ah, yes, Navidad – Christmas, si?'
'Yes, exactly. Approximately 42 years worth.'
'Is okay. Put them on. Stretchy.'
They are not stretchy enough. I contort myself in to part of them and hobble towards the table. I try to pull the sheet modestly over myself and roll on to my stomach. She whips it off.
'No, no. Sitting up please on edge.'
I surrender to the horror and haul myself up all the time thinking of that episode of Jerry Springer when they telecast a hugely obese man (basically a blanket of skin with eyes) in to the studio from his trailer - “Help me Jerry, I don't wanna die.” They cut him out of that trailer. My problems are comparatively small. I just need to stop drinking 14 cocktails a day and get back to my running regime and all will be well. As I'm thinking this the tiny Mexican woman rubs my entire body with exfoliating stuff and points at a shower.
'With the pants?'
All of this takes place with one lit candle and an acoustic arrangement of 'I will always love you' serenading us.
After this everything gets a lot better. She's small but she is fierce and the one hour deep tissue massage is painful and relaxing at the same time. Throughout the whole thing I have a towel over my eyes. She whispers 'terminado' and I hear her leave. A few moments later another woman comes in and starts trying to scrape the despair from my face. I assume its another woman, I still can't see a thing, so unless the first one has popped out for a costume change and is now posing next to me in a wetsuit taking selfies with me beached next to her with a fin stuck on my head...I try not to dwell.
The facial is really good. I know this because I am woken several times by my own snoring.
I pay cash, put my sun glasses on and leave with my head bowed.

We've been in Mexico for three days and once I'd managed to unfold the furious French from his economy sized chair after an 11 hour flight we both started having a lot of fun. He's a giant in the UK so over here, where the average hight is about 5 foot 2 he looks like a building.
It's hard to get your head around an all inclusive resort. I keep wanting to say 'I can have this too? For free??' I was worried it would be like some awful package thing with mandatory games and English breakfasts. But as The French pointed out, 'It's a five star resort, shut up.' As someone with absolutely no self control, accompanied by someone with very little self control, the notion of free alcohol 24/7 was a curious one. I found I have been able to avoid a hangover by drinking fairly steadily from breakfast onwards. There are four optics in the bedroom, Champagne and Bloody Mary's with breakfast, cocktails are delivered to your sun lounger, there's a bar in the pool and every time you think 'Steady on there, probably time for a coffee' a nice smiling person appears at your elbow and refills your glass. Horrific.
Some jolly young Canadian girls introduced us to 'Scooby Snacks' last night. A 50ml shot of vodka, melon liquor and something else I can't put my finger on. They are radiation green and it isn't until your sixth that you start to feel a burning in your chest. And as the young Canadians pointed out 'They don't even taste like alcohol! It's awesome.' I spotted them a couple of hours later cavorting maniacally around two waiters who stood there grinning and trying not to recoil as they gyrated and screeched in some tribal mating ritual. I saw them again at breakfast this morning. The French told them they were evil and they grinned.
'Y'all have a good day! Try the Banana Bamba today, it doesn't even taste like alc-'
'Fuck right off!'
There are very few kids here which is nice as we are the sort of awful people who don't enjoy the sound of children's laughter. But there's this one little person. Very small. Almost staggering around on wobbly legs age. What is that age? Anyway, she's beautiful. Mesmerising. She has eyes like black marbles and thick shiny black hair that curls around her cheeks and wherever the music is playing she is struggling towards it on tiny drunken legs like a little dark angel. I don't know if its the last gasp of an unused womb or just that she is the most precious little thing but every time I see her I just stop and stare. Her dad is now on nervous nodding terms with me.
The French has found the hat. The hat that completes him as a person. It's one of those 'man from Del Monte' hats. Makes him look some colonial fellow in an Agatha Christie. The staff call him Papi and he's really just missing the cigar to complete the look. Luckily there is a vast armoury of cuban cigars on offer so its really only a matter of time. I beat him at pool yesterday. He's still raging about it.
It's luxurious here, lots of marble and palms and a golden beach that we've only visited at night when it was empty and we could float on our backs and look at all the stars in the sky. The whole place is in the Art Deco style and amongst the frondy plants there are Tamara de Lempicka copies and walls full of Klimt. It's all very nice and very seductive and apart from the staff and the tacos you'd never know what country you were in. We quite like knowing what country we're in so this afternoon we're breaking out of the compound and visiting Bucerias, a town nearby with a flea market and a highly recommended seafood restaurant on the beach and on Tuesday we're taking a speedboat to a little island for the 'Rhythm of the night' party. The tiny beach lit by 3000 candles and there's fire juggling and music and a meal. I'm really excited about that. Despite the fact that I will unquestionably get eaten alive by mosquitoes. I managed to go two days without getting bitten and the moment I bought the “OFF!” repellant and sprayed it on they found me.
Our rep is from The Wirrall and her name is Julia Roberts. I shit you not. I've started calling her Erin Brokovich which she finds hilarious in a professional can't punch me in the face sort of way.

Everything is lovely and wonderful. Except the coffee. The coffee is fucking awful.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Day 318 Of My Captivity.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. I've been the GM for nearly eleven months now but it feels like I turned around and a few seasons passed. I worked for Mr Morrisons when I was student up north doing night shifts at his slaughterhouse near Wakefield. I was a dinner lady serving breakfast at 11pm to men who'd previously worked on oil rigs. Lunch was around 3am. The other dinner ladies were usually married to the men, or would be, and the sons often came to work there too. We were all locked in together and the shifts would pass in a dreamlike state, as though non of it were real and we only existed at night. I once bumped in to one of the other women in the town centre mid morning and we exchanged shy hellos, feeling exposed outside of our parallel time zone.

Comparatively this job is a breeze. I mean, at no point during a busy night has anyone dragged me in to a staff room, handed me half a pint of cheap wine and a Lambert and Butler and said 'Get that down ye luv, it'll carry you through till finish.' Not that I'd complain. When I started at the slaughterhouse I asked one of the less terrifying women how many sausages, bacon etc I should put for each serving and she said: 'Put it this way, if they can see t'plate there'll be hell to pay.' Oh, okay. So, yeah, comparatively, this job is a breeze. Not easy though. I'm still learning. Every time I think I'm beginning to get my head around it all there's something new to learn, another element of the job that I've been shielded from until deemed ready.

I need Lara, the previous Manager, less, but lord knows I still need her. She's my 'Restaurant Management for Idiots' guide. We're about to head in to our first christmas together and she is bright eyed and bushy tailed whilst I stare at the already heavily booked calendar with a sense of mounting bewilderment. Of the staff who were here when I arrived only Lara and Simon remain. Everyone else I either employed or brought with me from previous jobs. So my safety nets have been slowly disappearing and more often now I find myself turning back to ask an adult what I should do and finding only myself there. My wonderful, utterly capable and profoundly chaotic Ali has moved to our new pub, The King Alfred, and is now quite rightly an assistant manager. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed taking that darling for granted. Apart from her multi tasking genius on the floor, she did a lot of background stuff that I consequently never had to think about. Until now. And Karon. Off she went and gave birth to a Henry. She'll be back though. Mark my words. Every time I get the place ready for an evening shift I think of Karon moving a table one inch to the right, adjusting a candle, all the little things that seem so inconsequential but strangely make such a difference. And then all the bright young things who come back for a month or two before heading off on their next adventure. So, obviously, I have some new staff.

There's Hannah, who in real life is one third of The Spitfire Sisters musical arrangement. She works for us around her gigs and much to all of our delights she'll be performing here during our Prohibition night for Winchester Cocktail week in February. All of the venues taking part will create two cocktails that wristband wearers can purchase for £4 each. I decided to serve ours in tea pots and keep to a prohibition style drink. Our cocktails will be The Mermaid's Tub and Moonshine Honey. It's all very exciting. We're using The Isle Of Wight Distillery and Fabian Chase (real name) is a mixologist who's helping me with my concoctions. Hannah is also a trained barista and makes the best coffees.
There's Dominic, Craig and Joshua who do a couple of shifts a week. Dom and Craig are students and very charming. Dominic in particular has been a hit with women of a certain age. I've had at least four come up to me after a meal and tell me he's 'just excellent'. Joshua does Viking re-enactments at the weekend and has promised I can come along one day. He turned up to work a few weeks ago with his hair carefully covering a fairly impressive battle wound.
'I like your hair like that.'
'I look like Justin Bieber.'
'No, no, no...yes.'
My old timers of the new wave are Sam and Janna, who joined me from my last job shortly after I started and I don't know what I'd do without them. Sam's main response to anything I or a customer says is 'No problem'. Janna comes in and quietly does everything that needs to be done without fuss or difficulty. And then of course there is Benjamin. I worked with him a few years ago at Loch Fyne. He was my supervisor when I was a waitress and now he's my supervisor again. Oh how the tables turn! Well, not really. We don't much do hierarchy here. I write him long rambling lists of things that need doing and he does them and ticks them off as he goes. His girlfriend Rachel has come to work here too. She's a student also and has a good dry sense of humour and like all of them, just cracks on.
So, our first christmas booking is on the 24th of November and then its just a roller coaster ride to New Year's Eve. We're having a Day of The Dead themed party and Lara and I are having a ball sourcing decorations, drinks, Mexican style tapas. Quite a few of our conversations feature Pinata's and skulls. We've hired a close up magician who didn't balk at all when I asked him to dress in top hat and skull face. It's going to be a splendid night and when it finishes I'll crawl in to bed, wake up on New Years day and remember that I will officially have worked here a whole year.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. It passes quickly though the days can be long. Our weekends are often on Mondays and Tuesdays. We stay up late and drink at each others businesses. We see more of each other than we do our non industry friends and family. It's often fun, it can be very satisfying. Sometimes you can get too knotted up about little things you can't control and then you step back and remember its all just a ride. The job ultimately is to feed and water people and make them happy. Hope they come back. Since extending our wine list to impressive proportions, adding cocktails and sourcing even more local beers we've started to see people just popping in for a drink which is hugely pleasing. I light the candles for breakfast, keep the lights low, turn the sign to 'Come in we're open!' and the day rolls on to night, and then again, and again. Each one different, each with its own challenges and rewards.