Useless And Unacceptable Gifts

I think today’s probably takes the biscuit – a portable mouth-to-mouth resuscitation kit in a tiny green plastic box, on a wire keyring. At the moment I am still trying to think what the heck to do with it, so it is hanging from the knob of one of my kitchen cupboards. The giver (the Illegal Scotsman from over the road) explained to me that new “innards” can be obtained for the tiny green plastic box free of charge from his firm, once I have resuscitated someone. He also explained that it was so that you did not have to ingest any of a person’s highly infectious spittle whilst attempting to save their life. I turn into the proverbial headless chicken the moment there is any sort of medical emergency…

He was rewarding me for allowing him to park his work van in front of my house for the rest of the day. He didn’t want some people who were coming to visit him to discover what sort of work he actually did.  I thought he sold solar panels to go on south-facing rooftops, but the new van proclaims that he is a plumber. Since when? Is he qualified? All sorts of dodges like that happen round here.

This reminded of the comedienne Joyce Grenfell. If you have access to Spotify you will be able to hear her recorded “talk” to some kind of Institute. It’s worth a listen, though not perhaps quite up to the classic George, Don’t Do That. In it she plays a lady earnestly describing some Useful And Acceptable Gifts for you to make. The first is a (gruesomely mispronounced) boutonnière fashioned from “beech nut husk clusters”, a phrase the lady obviously loves the sound of since she repeats it ad nauseam. I had to look up boutonnière; apparently it’s a little spray of flowers to be worn in a gentleman’s buttonhole at a wedding. I haven’t been to a wedding since 1980 or thereabouts.

The second Useful And Acceptable item was an artistic waste paper basket made out of a biscuit tin. You had to persuade someone to give you the biscuits first, and then remove all trace of advertising matter. The third I was having awful trouble working out – maybe you can. Either my hearing’s even worse than I thought or it is a very crackly recording.

That reminded me of my father, whose greatest pride was that he had danced with Joyce Grenfell when she came out to entertain the troops in India during the War, and that he had been the driver trusted to drive her back to the station in his army truck at the end of the evening. It was his Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Actually, if you look at a picture of Joyce Grenfell you are looking at Devon Aunt, my late father’s older sister. It’s uncanny. Maybe that’s why was so taken with her.

joyce grenfell.jpg

Joyce Grenfell, 1910 – 1979

I was trying to recall other gifts I have received, appalling enough to come under the heading Useless And Unacceptable. I do recall a white plastic soap-dish on a stalk, a present from a Great Aunt soon after I was married. It was like a half a clamshell. Perhaps it was intended as a late wedding present. The minute you put a bar of soap on it, it toppled over.

There were the endless manicure kits. I bit my nails from seven onwards, and in fact have only managed to stop in the last few years by the simple expedient of clipping and filing my nails the minute they reach the ends of my fingers so that there is nothing to bite.

Mum presumably informed every single friend or relative that I bit my nails, which resulted in a fresh manicure set from one ancient aunt or another every Christmas and birthday complete with orange stick – I never worked out what that was for – a coarse, unusable metal file with a little mother-of-pearl handle and another, matching item for pushing back the bit at the top of your nail – the quick, my mother called it. My quicks never seemed to actually need pushing back and I couldn’t understand why other people’s did.

There was also a horse’s head key-rack, from a rather strange schoolfriend. Wooden, shaped like a horse’s head and garishly painted. In those days I did not have a single key to hang up. My parents never did let me have the longed-for ‘key of the door’. When I reached twenty-one I got tired of waiting. I got married, and got one, and unfortunately also a husband.

A Lady Wot Lops

Being a married woman did have its advantages. It was a bit like owning a Rottweiler.

My husband was stern, and brave. I am not sure whether he was stern and brave because he was naturally stern and brave or stern and brave because he was always absolutely and entirely sure that he was Right. He was also clear-thinking and decisive. He did not panic. I used to think, if you were to be cast away on a desert island, he’d be the one to be cast away with. He’d know what to do.

I once had a painful, persistent eye problem, serially misdiagnosed by our hopeless local doctor. One afternoon, when I could no longer bear the light from the window even with my eyes tight shut and my hands over them, he bundled me into the car, drove me forty miles to the nearest eye hospital and made a loud and thorough nuisance of himself in demanding that a specialist come and sort it out, immediately. Apparently, if he hadn’t been so bloody-minded I would have lost the sight in one eye.

It was a bit hit-and-miss, though. Like Rottweilers. On one occasion we were recklessly overtaken by a man in a potato-lorry.  My husband caught up with him in a lay-by and addressed a few stern words to him, whereupon the potato man, who turned out to be a lot wider and stockier than anticipated, threatened to cream him. Over the bonnet. I believe the verb ‘to cream is’, or at the time was, a variant on the verb ‘to marmelize’ except that what is left of you afterwards is not so much orange and chunky as white and thinly-smeared.

Husband was also a boon when energetic, practical stuff needed doing. I am not exactly lazy but I can’t get worked up about power-tools and widgets. The other week I recall I was forced to mention rawlplugs in one of my posts. A lady should not need to know what a rawlplug is. They are uninteresting objects and made of red plastic, which makes them unpleasant to behold.

Similarly, a lady should not be required to wield a pair of loppers. Loppers are man-things, a bit like a giant and very sharp beak on a pair of telescopic arms, for cutting off high branches. Normally the very thought of lopping would have sent me to the sofa with an extra-sugary bowl of Weetabix to watch Loose Women or Countdown until the urge to do so had passed over.

Unfortunately the climbing roses down the side of the garage had grown to way above my head. They were the size of small trees and whipping about shamingly in the wind. Worse, the giant rose bushes had become overgrown with passion-flower, including a bumper crop of overripe orange fruits with disgusting blood-red seeds (I marmelized several). Not only that, there were brambles. Every garden on this hillside is infested with brambles, and not just the ordinary kind; these are brambles on steroids – stems as big as your wrist, each thorn the length of a baby’s finger. But sharper, and more painful when they ping back and hit you in the face. As I discovered.

So I invested in a pair of loppers. The only way I could afford them was because I got paid for one of my many abortive attempts at employment. This one had lasted two weeks and generated sufficient funds to justify the purchase of a stout pair of Taiwanese loppers.

They’ll see me out, I told myself comfortingly. This is something you find yourself saying as you get older. “They’ll see me out” means the object is substantial – a good-quality steel kitchen-knife, say – and you are likely to be dead before it wears out, meaning you’ll never ever have to buy another one.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed lopping, though no doubt the exercise was good for me. It was really hard work. Not only do you have to cut through these big thick prickly stems, which you have to find first, tracing them upwards, visually, to the rose-stem or bramble waving defiantly above your head. Not only that, but once cut they won’t come down. No sir, they just stay there, doomed to wither but ensnared in layer upon layer of rotting passion fruit. So you have to get a hook – luckily the previous people had left behind a hook, whose purpose had hitherto been a mystery to me – and engage in an undignified tug of war with all this super-long cut stuff to try to free it.

So, before the mid-day sun made working outside dangerous for a person of my advancing years and pale complexion, I had built up two giant heaps of brambles/roses/passion-flower/birds-nests. This evening or tomorrow morning I have to go out there with the secateurs (another thing a lady should not be required to trouble herself with) cut it all into more manageable bits and stuff it into numerous plastic garden bags and bins. And then, oh joy of joys, I have to drive it all to the tip.

A man-place!