Last month, the law of unintended consequences dictated that I should acquire a new car. Dropping in to a local garage to chivvy progress on my dad’s car’s MOT, I found myself wandering around its used car lot and falling in love at first sight with a Fiat Panda. If only actual pandas had the same impact on each other, there’d be a lot more pandas in this world.
For some time, I’d been meaning to replace my aging Ford Ka. It had a lot in common with the proverbial spade that the old man claims was his grandfather’s before him – except the handle and the metal part have each been replaced several times.
Sublime & Ridiculous
Although I loved my Ford Ka, I’d been constantly irritated by its name. I could never decide whether to pronounce it to rhyme with “car” or as the initials K A. The only redeeming feature was the suffix “Sublime”, in honour of its leather seats and air-conditioning.
In the same way that you get “Friday afternoon cars”, haphazardly assembled by demob-happy workers, the Ford Ka brand name must be a Friday afternoon marketing job. It’s about as sensible as Mr Kipling launching a new product called “Kayke”, hard to differentiate from the rest of his exceedingly good cakes. (He hasn’t done this yet, by the way – but, Mr Kipling, if you’re reading this, please don’t go there.)
But what’s not to love about a car named after an iconic and lovable animal? Not to mention its endless potential for jokes.
“There’s a panda in my front garden,” I’m able to say to anyone gullible enough to listen to me speculating as to whether Waitrose stocks bamboo. Or “I’m thinking of taking my panda to the zoo at the weekend.” You get the picture.
Faster than a Speeding Panda
Other cars named after animals are usually associated with speed: Jaguar, Cougar, Impala. Even a beetle moves fast in relation to its size. Pandas are famously inert, as our visit to Edinburgh Zoo two summers ago hammered home: the crowd jumped the first time Tian Tian moved.
Optimistically, the Zoo has installed a “panda cam” so you can watch live action footage around the clock. Most of the time, there’s not much difference between the video and the still photo at the top of the webpage. If it’s action you’re after, click on “penguin cam” or “squirrel monkey cam”. It must have been a close call in Fiat’s marketing department one Friday between the Fiat Panda and the Fiat Sloth.
Still, it could have been worse: I could have opted for a Vauxhall Nova, which may sound fine and shiny-new till you drive to Spain, when it morphs into the Vauxhall Doesn’t Go. Which is where I came in with my Ford Ka.
(As the BBC likes to say, in the interests of fairness, other makes of car and cake are available.)
My column for the February issue of Hawkesbury Parish News (with apologies to T S Eliot for parodying the opening line of “The Waste Land”)
Sorry, February, but you are my least favourite month. You kick in when Christmas starts to feel like a distant memory. At least January has the saving grace of including my birthday. But with longer days not yet with us, and weather too grim to entice us outside, the only thing you’ve got going for you is your brevity.
I was therefore interested to read in the press this week of research suggesting the benefits of hibernation. What a great way to bypass February!
Scientists report that the long winter sleep of squirrels switches off their brains, resting their synapses without deleting any information. When the squirrels wake up in spring, they can still remember where they buried their nuts. With my senior moments increasing, especially since turning a year older last month, there couldn’t be a better time for me to give hibernation a try.
So if you don’t spot me out and about in the village this month, you’ll know what’s keeping me off the streets. Just tiptoe past my house until 1st March. That’s when I’ll be emerging, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And possibly snacking on nuts.
If you need something cheery to read, with a springlike feel to get you through February, check out my collection of ultra-short stories, Quick Change
A post about a curious incident after my daughter’s flute exam
Having long ago given in to the classic parenting trap of bribing one’s child through traumatic events, I agreed that after my eleven-year-old daughter Laura had taken her flute exam, I’d treat her to a trip to the nearest shopping mall, Cabot Circus.
Her flute exam fell at a bad time: the day of the annual school concert at the village school during her final few days there before moving up to secondary school. The exam was to be held at Bristol Music School in Clifton, in the centre of Bristol, 20 miles away from our village. Attending the exam meant she had to miss not only afternoon school but also the first of the two concert performances.
I duly collected Laura and her flute from school, and we drove into town. As we neared the Music School, we passed dozens of smiling new university graduates with proud parents, attending their degree ceremony in the Wills Memorial Building. As I watched them milling about, I did a simultaneous flash back to my own degree day, in my pink dress and grey gown with my parents up in York years ago, and a flash forward to Laura’s in 10 years time. Where did her first 11 years go? I wondered, panicking about finding a parking space with so many extra visitors in town.
Despite the heat, Laura was playing it cool: it takes a lot to faze her. She’d been practising hard on her flute for the previous few days, and if she was nervous, she was hiding it better than her mother was. We arrived in plenty of time, the exam was over quickly, and Laura remained calm throughout, focused instead on the promised Krispy Kreme doughnut that awaited her at Cabot Circus.
Parking at Cabot Circus was easier than in Clifton: we simply drove up the spiral ramp to the fourth floor of the multi-storey car park and straight ahead into an empty space. With one eye on the clock, as we had to be back at school for the 5pm concert, we did a quick tour of the toy shop to spend her birthday money, wrapped ourselves around a couple of doughnuts, and returned to the car.
The Missing Car
Or so was our plan. When we arrived back at the top of the ramp on the fourth floor, my car was not there. In its place was an almost-identical one – charcoal grey instead of smoke grey, a couple of years newer, and, I admit it, with fewer dents. But it was in exactly the same place. Laura, whose memory is much better than mine, assured me we had indeed parked on the fourth floor, but we agreed to check the exact same spot on the third and the fifth floors just in case.
My car was not there either. Realising that not only were we now on a tight timescale to get back to school for the concert, but that also locked in the car book were Laura’s flute, music and Heather the rabbit, her favourite and irreplaceable cuddly toy, I began to panic and theorise about this disaster. Perhaps the owner of the darker car had a key which matched ours, had parked next to us and got into the wrong car to depart by mistake?
The Search is On
Thinking as fast as my now pounding heart, I grabbed Laura by the hand and whisked her down to the attendants’ office on the ground floor to explain our plight. The couple of chaps in there were kind and patient. They took down the details of the car and where I’d left it, before running a very clever search by licence plate on their security camera, which played back a recording of us driving in earlier. They then despatched their junior staff member to find it. Moments later, he buzzed through to say he had indeed found our car, and we were instructed to meet him at the lift on the fourth floor.
So we were right, it was the fourth floor! But we were puzzled as to how he could have found it so quickly. Had the driver of the darker car realised his mistake just the minute before and returned ours to swap it back again?
All was revealed when we arrived back on the fourth floor. The waiting attendant patiently pointed us in the direction of our car, which was awaiting at the top of the ramp. But, it emerged, there were TWO spiral ramps on this side of the building: one going up and one going down. We’d looked at the top of the down ramp instead of the up. Well, who knew?
“We’ve never lost a car yet since we opened,” the attendant assured me, smiling proudly as he waved us off.
Relieved to retrieve car, flute and rabbit and to be on our way back to school in time for Laura’s concert performance, I wondered how I’d managed to be so stupid, when we were so geared up for action earlier on. Then it occurred to me: the minute the flute exam was over, our adrenalin surge had stopped, our brains had cranked down a few notches, and we’d relaxed and stopped thinking strategically. We were no longer primed for fight or flight, and in fact were not fit for either. No wonder we couldn’t find the car.
It was only later that I discovered that between leaving the exam centre and getting home that I’d also managed to lose my glasses.
But the good news is: we’ve just heard Laura passed her flute exam. Thank goodness for that! Parental duty done.
For a frivolous Friday, here’s a light-hearted post that has nothing to do with my writing. It’s about a strange prescription that I received from my doctor earlier this week. Do not read if you are squeamish about health issues – you have been warned!
On returning at the end of last week from a residential school trip with 27 nine-to-eleven year olds, my daughter and I needed to catch up on sleep, which I thought would restore my energy levels. But I woke up next day still feeling rather depleted, due to a swelling in the right side of my neck that had come up virtually overnight.
A few days later, because the lump had still not subsided, and Dr Google had failed to make a plausible diagnosis, I called the doctor. I found it hard to talk to the receptionist because the swelling was now so big that it was painful to open my mouth very far (torture for any chatterbox). She fixed an immediate appointment.
After prodding about for a bit, the very nice GP gave me a diagnosis and prescription:
Diagnosis: blocked salivary gland caused by the tiny polishing fragments they put in new-style whitening toothpastes (we’d just switched to a whitening brand)
Prescription: a bag of pear drops, or any other sour sweet likely to make one salivate more than usual
Well, that’s one way of keeping the cost of NHS prescriptions low, I thought to myself, as I headed round the corner to Poundland and invested in one bag of pear drops and another of chewy sour cherries.
So acidic are both of these sweets that It’s hard to believe that technically these “pills” contain any sugar at all.
Apparently the best cure is to force out the blockage with a surge of saliva, before, like a pearl in an oyster, it grows to the size where surgery is needed to remove it. Yuk! The desired effect is to force a miniature volcanic eruption in your mouth. Double yuk!
So this morning finds me sitting at my desk, alert for pre-seismic movement that might herald a cure, as I chomp through sweets that feel like they’re steadily removing every last scrap of enamel from my teeth – pretty ironic when the starting point was a new improved toothpaste that promised to take better care of them.
My other Poundland purchase? A tube of innocuous clear toothpaste gel. Those whiter teeth will just have to go on hold for a while.
What’s the strangest cure you’ve ever been given for an ailment – and did it work? Do tell!
“Some of SilverWood’s many authors have come together to share a variety of articles and items of interest on their blogs for your enjoyment.
“There are some lovely giveaway prizes, and – to stay in keeping with the Spring and rebirth theme at this time of year – some colourful Easter eggs.
“Feel free to collect the eggs, and use them where you like. They were drawn by SilverWood author Peter St John who writes the ‘Gang’ series about a boy who was evacuated to a village near Ipswich during WWII. Meet Peter and his characters on the Blog Hop, along with a host of eggcellent SilverWood authors. 😉
My contribution to the blog hop is a light-hearted very short story that takes as its theme every woman’s love of chocolate. I’ve always loved chocolate, though my relationship with it hasn’t always been easy, especially since my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 3.
But it is a complete myth that diabetics can’t eat chocolate – they can, they just need to give themselves enough insulin to offset it before they eat it. So if you know a diabetic and are wondering what to give them this Easter, don’t hesitate to give them a chocolate Easter egg – and not “diabetic chocolate” either, an evil concoction made with a sugar substitute that spoils the flavour and has no health benefit compared to normal chocolate. (Yes, there IS a health benefit – to dark chocolate, in moderation, and it’s a useful source of slow-release carbs, which is why Paula Radcliffe eats a couple of squares before running.)
This and other myths surrounding life with Type 1 diabetes will be dispelled in my new book, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes,which SilverWood will be publishing in paperback form for World Diabetes Day, 14 November 2014. The ebook edition, for which SilverWood provided this beautiful and appropriate cover (the blue circle being the international symbol of diabetes), was published for World Diabetes Day 2013 to raise awareness of the condition and funds for research into a cure. and has gathered many 5* reviews and has been called by a leading GP “one of the best things I’ve ever read about diabetes”. The paperback will have new bonus material added. To keep informed about the book’s progress, and for an invitation to the launch in Foyles’ Bristol Bookshop on Thursday 13th November, please click here to sign up for my mailing list.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my chocolate-inspired short story below – and if you like it, please leave a comment. As an incentive, one commenter drawn at random on the day my book is launched will receive a free signed copy of the new paperback – plus a slim bar of chocolate to use as a bookmark!
The Alchemy of Chocolate
If you dip a wafer biscuit into a chocolate fountain enough times, eventually it won’t fit in your mouth. Much the same had happened with Jennifer’s body. It was as if every bar of chocolate that she’d ever eaten had been melted down and painted onto her frame.
Oozing into hidden places, the fat encroached so slowly at first that Jennifer was slow to notice her transformation. Then, one summer’s day while sunbathing on her lawn, she realised that she’d no longer pass the fat test she and her friends had used at school: the ability to lay a ruler flat across her hipbones. (That was the best use they’d found for their geometry sets).
By the time she came to squeeze into an old pair of cords for Bonfire Night, Jennifer observed that where her stomach had once been concave, it now billowed out, like a ship in full sail. No wonder sleeping on her tummy had become uncomfortable.
Trying on a party dress for New Year, she spotted that her waistline only curved inwards when elasticated clothing constrainied her flesh.
By the Spring solstice, the fat had found new places to hide. Her eyelids were thicker, and when inserting an earring, she had to push harder before the post emerged on the other side of the lobe.
Jennifer was glad when spring sunshine came early, because it gave her licence to go bare-legged. Lately, tights had become irksome. Unless she aligned their waistband precisely with that of her knickers, skirt and petticoat, her silhouette resembled the scalloped edge of a doily on a plate of cakes.
At Easter, Jennifer was quick to remove the temptation of her Easter eggs – by eating them. But then, at last, she decided to take action about her surplus fat. Precisely what action, she was not sure. She was unwilling to relinquish chocolate, or indeed any kind of food. Nor did she fancy exercising her way into shape. Poring over a list of how to burn calories, she was horrified by the ridiculous distance she’d have to run to work off a single bar of Dairy Milk. There had to be an easier way. It was just a question of dispersing fat rather than storing it.
Then, lulled to sleep on Midsummer’s Eve by an exceptionally delicious hot chocolate, Jennifer had a remarkable dream. She dreamed of the perfect recipe for weight loss.
Next morning on waking, she knew exactly what to do. She rushed downstairs to her kitchen and assembled in a mixing bowl the ingredients dictated by her dream. Instead of stopping to wonder how this magical formula could require only store-cupboard staples, she got on with beating the mixture, her wooden spoon a biscuit-coloured blur.
Once the batter was blended, she tipped it into a saucepan and set it over a low heat, chanting the mantra that had also come to her in the dream. When the mixture was smooth and warm as the perfect waistline, she decanted it into a jug and popped it in the fridge. She knew instinctively that this was the correct next step.
When she arrived at her office for work, she was so impatient for nightfall – the witching hour, or so her dream had told her – that she could hardly concentrate on her job.
As soon as she arrived home, she slipped on her nightie, took the jug from the fridge and with a medicine spoon measured out the dose prescribed in her dream. She swallowed the quivering spoonful in a rush, before she could change her mind and retired to bed to await the results. The anxious fluttering in her tummy didn’t stop her from tumbling into solid, dreamless sleep.
Waking next morning, she climbed out of bed, slipped off her nightdress and flung it distractedly on the bed. Reaching with her right hand behind the back of her neck, she grasped what the previous night’s dream had told her she would find just above the nubbly bone at the top of her spine: a trapezoidal zip-pull. She grasped the metal.
Bending her head forward to clear her long dark hair out of the way, Jennifer tugged the zip-pull between thumb and forefinger as far as she could. Then she stretched her left hand up behind her back to meet the right one, and continued pulling the zip down, slowly, slowly, till it reached the base of her backbone.
As the zip-pull stopped abruptly at her coccyx, the thick flesh covering Jennifer’s upper back and shoulders started to feel loose. Soon she was easing off the entire outer casing of flesh as instinctively as a snake sheds its skin. Wriggling her hips and thighs to dislodge this pudgy onesie, she sat down on the bed, peeled it off her calves and finally stepped out of it on to the bedside rug.
Only now did she have the courage to glance in the dressing table mirror. There, to her delight, in a flawless casing of fresh skin, was her slender teenage outline. It was like meeting a long-lost, much-missed friend.
Glancing down at the discarded, Jennifer-shaped fat that lay perfectly still on floor, she wondered what on earth to do with it.
But of course! It was recycling day. She could simply put it in the green wheelie bin. After all, it should compost down as readily as bacon rind. Better to throw it in the wheelie bin than put it out in the garden for the birds.
With a new lightness of tread, Jennifer took a few steps around the bedroom. She felt decidedly different. The top of her thighs no longer rubbed together, her arms lay straighter against her sides, and she no longer felt that her stomach had been lagged, like the insulating jacket wrapped round a hot water tank.
Beginning to enjoy the full effect, Jennifer turned this way and that. But it wasn’t the slim reflection in the dressing-table mirror that caused her to smile. It wasn’t the realisation that her low-cost recipe would fetch a fortune on the heaving market for diet products. Nor was it the recognition that she’d achieving every slimmer’s dream of alchemy, turning fat into gold. It was the thought that she could now eat as much chocolate as she liked, without ever having to worry about gaining weight. It was a dream come true.
This story features in “Quick Change”, my first collection of flash fiction, which you can buy from Amazon here: Quick Change.
My post is just one of many interesting articles in the SilverWood Spring Blog Hop. To hop forward to read these, please click on the links below. You’ll also find more colourful Easter eggs to collect and some more giveaway prizes!