Sunday, 31 July 2011

Running for the fun of it and other stories

‘Who would have thought,’ said my brother-in-law Buzz, ‘that the Hawthorne family would be pounding around the countryside in an organised road race!’

His scepticism arises from having had close contact for many years with a family better known for knees-upping to Neil Diamond and our ability to raise our drinking arms often and keenly than running for profit or pleasure.

We – my two sisters, my brother and I – were actually all pretty athletic at school and broke various running and jumping records, but later in life we’ve all become somewhat sedentary. Then my sister Bev suddenly became a half-marathoner. Quite where this madness originates is hard to say, but her enthusiasm inspired us, so yesterday saw us up at dawn’s crack, preparing to go to various lengths out on the road. Bev did the PPC Bergmarathon 21km, Buzz and his son did the 10km (here they are, above, heading off into the pre-dawn chill), and my kids and I did the 5km.

The 5km was completely undemanding and unwound across gorgeous countryside bathed in early-morning winter sun. There were lots of little kids and older people and mums and dads pushing baby-strollers. Even the start was low-key: the starter tried to get some competitive spirit going by doing an animated count-down – ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, on your marks, get set, GO!’ – but on the word ‘GO!’ everyone just sort of ambled away from the start line. It was terrific.

We had lunch later at the incomparable Bar Bar Black Sheep restaurant here in Riebeek Kasteel. Honestly, how often do six people order different things off the menu, and all six absolutely rave about their food? And it wasn’t post-race hunger that made everything so delicious, because we’d all snacked at home after the runs. (And also had cold showers – which was a little embarrassing for me, because I’d boasted long and loudly about my new solar geyser, not taking into account that two days of rain and cold temperatures had sapped the solar cells. And, annoyingly, this morning, after a full day of sunshine yesterday, the water was wonderfully piping-hot again – just when it wasn’t needed by six grimy, sweaty people.) Anyway, if you’re in this neck of the woods, I can personally highly recommend BBBS's lamb burger or any of the pies (I had chicken and leek; my sister had pork and apple; both were scrumptious), and the onion soup has also had rave reviews.

While we were having lunch, Bev told us about relating the post below to Buzz – with unfortunate timing, as she told him the story while they were driving here from Cape Town, with Buzz at the wheel. Buzz, who does that male ‘tuning out’ thing whenever female nattering becomes too much to bear, did indeed tune out. So when Bev related the ‘Brake! Brake! Fuck! Fuck!’ part, Buzz suddenly tuned back in, slammed on anchors, stared wildly around, saw no reason for her apparent panic, and turned on her in fury. ‘Why the hell must I brake??!’ he snarled. (Backseat drivers – you gotta love them, otherwise you’d fling them from the car.)

My daughter was so inspired by the 5km amble that she immediately decided to do the 21km next year. I don’t think she’s entirely thought this through – she doesn’t realise, for instance, that ‘doing the 21km’ requires actually running for 21km – so I’m encouraging her to aim for the 10km first.

But one thing’s for sure: we’ll all do some distance in next year’s PPC road races. It was such fun!

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Friday, 22 July 2011

Learning to drive #2*

* Parental advisory: there is swearing in this post.

If there’s anything that will turn your kids against you (and in some cases actually kill you), it’s trying to teach them to drive.

Having seen one learner-driver – my daughter – through to legal status, and aged a good 10 years in the process, I did everything possible to wriggle out of going through the same with my son. But one thing all learner-drivers need is practice, so it becomes practically a parental duty to allow them to drive your car, with you as the accompanying licensed driver, at some stage.

This morning my son accompanied my dogs and me up the mountain for our morning walk – something that necessitates a 10km round-trip drive. He hates walking but the opportunity for a practice drive proved marginally stronger than his loathing for good, healthy exercise in the outdoors (he’s doing his driver’s test on Tuesday).

My son said little. I said much:

‘Give it a bit more petrol.’

‘Look. Did you look? Look! Oh god.’

‘Okay, ease off the … take your foot off the … stop. Stop! STOP!

‘That’s okay, ignore him.’ (Referring to a driver tailgating us.) ‘No, don’t go onto the hard shoulder, there’s a cyclist… The cyclist! The cyclist! Oh Jesus! Christ. I think I just wet myself.’

‘Next left.’

‘Left. Left here! Here! Here! Turn! TURN!

‘Listen, don’t leave it until so late to turn. If you… okay, slow down. Slower. Slower. Slower.’ (I had to put my head between my knees to draw breath at this stage so I didn’t see how he got across the intersection.)

‘Okay, treat this as a stop street. Wait until you can see what’s coming. No, really, stop. Stop! STOP! Fucking hell! Oh Christ, the bollards. Watch out for the… Fuck!

‘The car’s going to stall. Okay, hand brake and restart. No, out of gear. Clutch. CLUTCH! Okay. Now take it forward slowly. SLOWLY!! Fucking hell!’

There was a 40-minute break here while I stormed up the mountain with the dogs. My son brought up the rear and I could feel the lasers of his eyes penetrating the back of my skull.

Back in the car for the return journey.

‘Okay, remember, treat this as a stop street. AS A STOP STREET! Jesus Christ.’

‘Edge forward. EDGE forward. You can’t go unless you can see the street is clear. Can you…? Aaaargghghgh!’ (And head between knees again, this time to quell imminent upchuck.)

‘Okay. Cool. It’s clear, you can go. You can go. Go. GO! Go, for god’s sake! What? It’s a million fucking miles away! Go! Oh god, more petrol, more petrol, more… Jesus. Quick, into neutral and restart. Don’t panic. DON’T PANIC!!

‘Turn. Turn! TURN!’ (Out the window) ‘Sorry! Learner driver!’

‘Good. You’re doing well. Don’t accelerate down the hill. No, seriously. Brake a bit. Brake! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

‘Okay, turn. Slooowly. Slowly. SLOWLY! Ow.’ (Head hits dashboard.) ‘Okay, get out, let me park it.’

‘Not bad at all. You just need a bit more practice.’

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Saying goodbye to an old friend

Before I ‘semigrated’ from the city to the country, I saw in my last Cape Town New Year morning – the year 2000 – on the slopes of Lion’s Head with lots of other partying people, including my boyfriend, Marc.

Lion’s Head was special to Marc and me – we often went up there (in the days before you were regularly mugged) to have picnics, and on one particularly memorable occasion, we took magic mushrooms and had an astonishing sunset, then spent what turned out to be an entire night watching the grass grow and being utterly entranced by it.

That was Marc: ask him if he was game for something, and he’d always say, ‘You can’t scare me.’ And, really, you couldn’t. Nothing could.

I met him at a mutual friend’s birthday party. My date for the evening was an old and understanding friend – fortunately, as it turned out, because Marc moved in on me as if chum had been thrown in the water and he was a feeding shark. (He wouldn’t mind me using this analogy since it’s one he himself came up with.) My date gracefully bowed out, and Marc ended up driving me home, after the party, from Hout Bay to Observatory, where I lived at the time, in a raging Cape winter storm, in his soft-top Beetle.
Above: Marc and me at Burns’ Night at Kelvin Grove. The necklace I’m wearing was a gift from him. It won first prize in an art competition. We went to see the exhibition and I loved it, and Marc bought it for me as a surprise. (It was later stolen, a loss I still grind my teeth about.)

It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship and six years of mayhem. Marc, a twice-married, reformed bachelor who at the time had just (along with his partner, Gary) sold the very successful MG’s Coffee Shop franchise and opened The Blue Plate restaurant in Kloof Street, lived a largely nocturnal existence (as restaurateurs do). I was – as I still am – an early riser, with two small school-going children and a daytime freelance career. As a result, finding time to spend together (even when we lived together, as we did for several years) was a constant battle – and as a result of that, when we did both have an evening off, we tended to go a bit wild.
Above: About to go horse-riding in Paarl. Marc was a cowboy at heart, so this is one thing he didn't mind doing with me.

Marc was a very friendly, sociable creature – there was nothing he loved more than hosting a party, along with good food, great wine and plenty of ’70s metal hippie music (he adored Clapton and Hendrix). I was – and again, still am – much keener to spend time one-on-one and often got freaked out by too many people; and, of course, I love Abba and Neil. And his friends didn’t like me, and mine didn’t like him. So it was always a somewhat difficult match.
Left: Marc often did things I liked but he didn’t. (But, hey, and vice versa!) Here, we’re finishing the Cape Times Big Walk. You can see how much he’s enjoying it.

One way we did connect was in hedonism – we both loved getting out of it. We’d go, just the two of us, to The Corner House or some other Cape Town club and drink tequila and dance our feet off. And sometimes we did the same at home – putting on CD after CD and drinking wine and smoking endless cigarettes and dancing and chatting until morning. (Those were, I think, my favourite times.) We loved the Red Herring in Hout Bay for long Sunday lunches. And occasionally I’d go and meet him after The Blue Plate had closed for the evening, and we’d join the other night-owls at the Kloof Street restaurants that catered for that stay-awake-all-night, sleep-all-day community.

Marc had two children from his first marriage whom he adored – they lived with their mother in Joburg, and he never really got his head around life away from them. Once a year they would arrive for the holidays, and that was Marc’s real Christmas. Even though his kids were considerably older than mine (so, another mismatch), we somehow muddled through – Carols by Candlelight at Kirstenbosch, climbing Lion’s Head (of course!), picnics on the beach, playing boules (with tennis, one of Marc’s all-time favourite games) in Cecilia Forest, going to movies at the Waterfront. By then Marc had a left-hand-drive Alpha Spider (a totally unsuitable car for a South African 6-foot-6 man with a family!) so we’d have to travel in convoy (I had a little red Golf). It was always disorganised but mainly fun, and Marc would takes weeks to get happy again after his kids had left.

It’s probably fair to say that Marc and I went at it too hard and too fast, and when our relationship ended, we needed several years (yes, years) to both process what we’d gone through and appreciate what we’d had. To Marc’s endless credit, he achieved this both more quickly and more graciously than me, and was much more willing to let bygones be bygones.

But I’m happy to say that we never completely lost contact, and that the last email I got from him, last Saturday, told me that he was listening to one of our favourite songs from that time, ‘How Bizarre’. ‘How fabulous,’ he wrote. Both his children are grown-ups and he was so proud of them – and he had a grandchild. I think he was happy.

Marc died on Monday 18 July – not incidentally (I like to think) the birthday of one of his heroes, Nelson Mandela.

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Thursday, 14 July 2011

A vote of confidence in the sun

I’ve just had a solar geyser installed. In July. In the western Cape.

It’s hard to get more optimistic than that – but what else can you do when the weather is so determinedly bloody glorious? The surrounding mountains have even tried to have snow on them, as usual for this time of year, but it’s hopeless. It’s just way too damned sunny.

The whole having-a-solar-geyser-installed exercise is fraught with niggles and worries. The technology is new and relatively expensive – so, will it work, and will it be worthwhile? Sure, it should pay for itself within a few years – but what if a piano falls on me and kills me next month? And the stats are all so iffy – will it really save up to a third on my power bill or is that just so much hot air (so to speak)?

One way to find out is to get in some quotes. I had two vastly differing experiences of this, and it’s worth relating them because it shows how new this industry is and how easy it is to be bamboozled.

The first quote was provided by a rather yummy man with the most luvverly gravelly voice and steely-blue eyes – in fact, I kept him talking, telling me a lot more than I really wanted to know about solar power, just so I could have the pleasure of basking in the charismatic warmth of his presence. Let’s call him Guy Blue.

The second was provided by two young, keen, chatterbox brothers, eager as anything to tell you that they’re complete newbies to the scene, but keen to do whatever it takes to get a foot in the door. Let’s call them Guys Bright&Shiny.

Guy Blue warned me right at the outset that I’d have to pay him to quote: R250. Not a vast sum, to be sure, but enough to make you aware of his presence (as if his eyes weren’t enough).

Guys Bright&Shiny said they’d be there lickety-split, and they were. I suspect, if I’d pushed, that they would have paid me to quote. I liked them right away.

Guy Blue told me repeatedly that a 150-litre tank was too small for a household in which there are usually two people, sometimes three, and occasionally up to 10 (although not all of us showering at once, or, sometimes, several people showering together). The 200-litre tank (his suggestion) was considerably more expensive.

Guys Bright&Shiny said, ‘One hundred and fifty litres? Well, that’s what you’ve got now. Is it working for you?’ I said yes. They said, ‘Well, that answers that question, then.’

Guy Blue told me that his company would pay my Eskom rebate upfront and thereby ‘act as your bank’. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a bank - I’d rather my plumber just act as my plumber. And I dislike this ‘added extra’ sales-talk that makes it clear that a ‘favour’ is being done for you, the customer, when anyone who isn’t using a new brain for the first time knows that you get nothing for nothing.

Guys Bright&Shiny told me, in sad tones, and with frequent use of the word ‘unfortunately’, that there was a lot of paperwork to be filled in to get the Eskom rebate – but then they cheered up and said that as soon as it was all done, the rebate request would go into the system and four weeks later I’d be several thousand rands richer (or less poor, depending on how you look at it).

Guy Blue quoted me about R12 000 for a 200-litre lightweight fibreglass solar system that ‘might make your water smell funny for a while’. (I thought about making a joke about asparagus wee but lost courage.)

Guys Bright&Shiny quoted me R9 000 for a 150-litre standard cylinder that will probably stand up to an air-to-ground missile strike. I asked them about the fibreglass cylinder. They said, ‘It makes your water smell funny.’ I said, ‘But only straight after you eat asparagus?’ Not really, I actually said, 'But only for a while, apparently?' And they both kind of kicked their feet and said, ‘Um, ja…’ (So, no, then.)

Guy Blue quoted me R2 500 for ‘pipe and fittings plus hot-water mixer’ (solar-heated water can become so hot that it literally melts your tap’s washers; a hot/cold-water mixer has to be included in the installation to prevent this – I didn’t know that, did you?).

Guys Bright&Shiny quoted me about R2 000 for all the bits and pieces that go with the solar system. I asked them why the hot-water mixer wasn’t included in their quote and they looked puzzled and said, ‘Because it comes with the system – it’s not a separate item.’

It was at this stage that my misgivings about Guy Blue started turning into serious doubt.

Guy Blue quoted me R2 400 for ‘water mains and lagging’. Guys Bright&Shiny quoted R340 for ‘lagging’ but didn’t mention water mains. I asked them why not. They looked surprised and said, ‘Because we don’t have to do anything to your water mains – you’ve already got an existing geyser, so it’s all there, ready to use.’

Right.

Guy Blue quoted me R450 for ‘plumbing CoC’ (certificate of compliance). Guys Bright&Shiny again looked surprised when I asked why this wasn’t in their quote: ‘Because it costs us only R48 to buy the document itself, and we don’t feel it necessary to pass on that cost to the customer,’ they said.

Okay, then.

Guy Blue quoted me R3 800 for labour and installation. Guys Bright&Shiny would cost me R2 800.

And Guy Blue’s quote included this unwelcome proviso: ‘Your electrician is to do all electrical connections and issue an electrical CoC.’ (Guys Bright&Shiny’s quote cited a R750 electrician fee – for the installation of an Eskom-approved timer, basically – which included the electrical CoC.) Now, I ask you, who wants to go to all the trouble and expense of employing a contractor to install a solar geyser, only to have to go to yet more trouble and expense to get an electrician to do the extra fiddly bits?

Guy Blue also sent me, via email, a vast document including five pages of legalese which absolved him of all responsibility for everything, up to and including the coming of the End of Days, which I would be required to sign before he deigned to start work.

Guys Bright&Shiny asked, ‘When can we start?’

In a nutshell, Guy Blue quoted me R24 000, excluding the electrician’s fee (and I would have to employ the electrician separately) – which would take over five years to pay for itself. Guys Bright&Shiny quoted me R15 000, all in – a three-year investment.

I was, to be honest, very worried about this huge disparity in the quoted sums. Why would Guy Blue so unashamedly quote so incredibly high? I kept telling myself, ‘But it’s only a geyser, for god’s sake – why should it cost the same as a small yacht?’ Was I missing something?

Then I read an article in last week’s Sunday Times that told me that a solar geyser shouldn’t cost more than R9 000 plus installation, and it all came clear: Guy Blue was visiting from a parallel universe, and there’s nothing worse than running into trouble with a recent plumbing installation when your plumber is contactable only through the ingestion of generous quantities of magic mushrooms.

So I went with Guys Bright&Shiny and now I have free hot water – or will have, in three years’ time.

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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Hello Lucy, may I shag you?

Our next-door-neighbour-dog Maxi (right) has a new sister. Girlfriend. Sister-girlfriend. It’s confusing.

For the first 10 days or so, while 8-month-old golden retriever Lucy (left) was getting used to her new environment (standing on the coffee table, gnawing the floor, that kind of thing), Maxi watched her with a somewhat bemused expression. You could almost see him thinking, ‘Vegetable, animal or mineral?’

Then she came on heat and that was one question well and truly answered.

So pervasive and public was the pooch pornography that at one stage Sara, who is generally completely fine as long as she’s with me (whether that be rappelling down the inside of a volcano - something I don’t, admittedly, do very often – or lolling about watching movies), performed satyagraha one evening when we were visiting next door: she sat down at the back door, on full alert and nose pointed unswervingly homeward, and refused to budge until I’d given in and removed her from the salacious environment.

Balu (no longer the Monster Baby, but certainly keen to teach Lucy a few tricks) was unfazed by the unrelenting shagging but a bit annoyed that it excluded her. And Lucy didn’t help by showing off – swaying past Maxi and driving him into lathers of lust, and then allowing herself to be rogered ragged while Balu looked on and barked frenziedly.

Fortunately I wasn’t there to witness the kinky stuff but Max and Lucy’s mom, T, took this photo to prove that straightforward sex is a gateway drug, and often leads to more extreme sexual behaviour, including fetishism, S&M, domination and being bridled and ridden like a horse.

The heat is off now (so to speak) and Maxi’s behaviour has returned to normal, but it’s going to take me a while to see him again as just our innocent, lollopy dog-child. As for Lucy, I doubt I shall ever be able to look her square in the eye again.

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Monday, 4 July 2011

My best friend went to Mauritius and all he brought me back was this lousy anti-smoking picture

Johann recently visited Mauritius and returned a chastened man. Not only because he had to keep up with The Indestructible Wife and their equally mad friend, A (two women who put the ‘rave’ in ‘depraved’), but also because the anti-smoking warnings on the cigarette boxes there are specifically designed to scare the hedonism clean out of you.

This picture* of a diseased heart in situ appeared on the carton of Dunhill he bought, and the pics on the packets themselves are equally terrifying. (Click here for an interesting story about the USA’s FDA’s decision to follow suit. But if you’re a smoker, you might want to light up first – you’ll need to calm your nerves.)

The recent history of the rise and fall of the cigarette is almost a modern parable about morality, and nowhere is this more obvious than on the endless (and I mean endless) repeats of 1970s, ’80s and ’90s movies we’re subjected to on poor-man’s DStv.**

In the 1970s and early ’80s, as seen on TV, everyone smoked – indeed, it wasn’t unusual to see a movie doctor in a hospital, delivering bad news to a woman (with big hair, shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow) in the waiting room, and offering her a cigarette as solace. Also, the good guys – both men and women – were seldom seen without a fag in hand at some point during the movie, giving added credence to the term ‘smouldering sexuality’.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, smoking started to fall seriously out of fashion. In movies made during this era, only the baddies smoked. In fact, that’s mainly how you could tell, ahead of their dismembering the non-smoking bikini-wearing college sex-kitten with a chainsaw, that they were baddies.

And I’m afraid I can’t comment on what’s happening in TV movies made in the 2000s, because we don’t get those on poor-man’s DStv.

On that subject, I don’t know how DStv station managers (or whatever they’re called) come up with their movie lists, but I assume it’s like this: someone, let’s call him Mr Universal, decides to start up a TV station – one that we who have poor-man’s DStv will get. Along with all the other capital costs, he invests in a modest stock (say, 20) of fifth-rate and/or decades-old and/or Canadian-made-for-TV movies, and these play on endless loops for the entire rest of the lifespan of the TV station, be this one year or one hundred.

Mr Universal also invests in an even smaller stock (say, 10) of ‘fillers’ called ‘Zoom In’ – these are ‘behind-the-scenes’ looks at usually good, mainstream movies that played on the circuit up to 10 years ago (and which, by dint of their very quality, will never, ever be shown on poor-man’s DStv). These are used as time-fillers between scheduled programmes, and it’s not unusual to see the same one several times in one day. This has the markedly double-negative effect of driving you almost out of your mind with boredom, and infuriating you because you know you’ll never actually see the featured movies on poor-man’s DStv.

* Johann didn’t really only bring me this. He also brought me two gorgeous cushion covers.
** Poor-man’s DStv = DStv compact.

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Malmesbury business does it again!

The Agrimark in Malmesburg is gigantic. It has an enormous retail section and, up a ramp, an equally huge warehouse which stocks… well, I’ll come to that.

Agrimark’s website boasts that it ‘aims to meet all agricultural requirements’, and also ‘provide in [sic] the needs of the outdoor and DIY enthusiast’.

Which I find a tad untruthful, as I’ve seldom been to Agrimark with my list of DIY requirements and left with any of them clutched in my hot little hand.

But, given the dearth of hardware outlets in this part of the world, I persevere in visiting Agrimark in the hope that one day I will leave with what I’ve come for.

Last week my list included:
• 2 L-shaped brackets from which to hang potplants
• an ordinary latch for a cupboard
• a tarpaulin
• a 135x150cm piece of lightweight material with which to cover my pool-pump housing

These four requirements, I’m sure you will agree, are precisely the kinds of things a shop 'providing in the needs of the outdoor and DIY enthusiast' should stock.

But no.

The brackets

I found some L-shaped brackets which were both ugly and expensive; then, after some rooting around, I found one L-shaped bracket that wasn’t too terribly ugly and wouldn’t break the bank. But I needed two.

After some wandering around looking alert and curious, I located an Agri assistant (the shop floor is so huge that these people seem to merge with the merchandise and have to be physically hunted down in order to get some service). I explained that I needed another of the not-too-ghastly and not-too-expensive L-shaped bracket I’d located under a pile of ghastly and expensive ones, and he agreed to go and see if one was in stock.

Allowing an Agri sales assistant to trot off to check the inventory is a somewhat worrisome exercise, because there is no guarantee you’ll ever see him again. In this case, however, he did return, but only to tell me that the cheaper, more attractive version was no longer stocked as ‘it doesn’t sell well’.

Even given that Malmesbury is the town that taste forgot, I found this hard to believe. First, why would anyone choose an expensive, nasty bracket over a cheaper, more attractive one? And, two, surely if stock of the cheaper, more attractive bracket is low, while that of the ugly, expensive one is plentiful, doesn’t that tell its own story?

But we’re dealing with Malmesbury here, so I put a little ‘x’ against ‘2 L-shaped brackets’ on my list.

The cupboard latch

I finally located the stock of cupboard latches but, bizarrely (or perhaps not – this is, after all, Malmesbury), there were about 50 right-hand bits (the piece that goes on one of the doors – let’s call it component A) and zero left-hand bits (the piece that goes on the other door and fits into the first bit, if you see what I mean – let’s call this one component B).

After another search, I tracked down another Agri assistant and pointed out this anomaly to him. He said (I’m not making this up), ‘Oh, yes, well, we assume that people looking for component A already have component B.’

I laughed. I honestly thought he was joking. But he didn’t laugh and I realised that he wasn’t. So I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. What about people who are looking for component A and component B – in other words, a complete latch system?’

He looked at me as if I’d just suggested he eat his own head.

‘And anyway,’ I continued (I am such a sucker for punishment), ‘wouldn’t you say that if your stock of component B is zero, and your stock of component A is plentiful, doesn’t that tell its own… Oh, forget it.’

I put a little ‘x’ against ‘cupboard latch’ on my list.

The tarpaulin

Since I already had an Agri sales assistant at hand, I launched straight into my next request. ‘Do you have tarpaulins?’ I asked.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘A tarpaulin. A groundsheet. Um… a big piece of plastic or canvas or some other study waterproof material,’ I said, somewhat desperately.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘That’s upstairs in the warehouse.’

So I trundled up the ramp to the warehouse, where I found four Agri assistants sitting around having a chat. I had precisely the same conversation as above with one of them, who responded, ‘Ah. That’s downstairs in the retail section.’

So I put a little ‘x’ against ‘tarpaulin’ on my list.

The 150x135cm lightweight cover

This one was going to be a breeze – while I was up in the warehouse section, I spied, nailed to a wall, six samples in six different colours of light plastic that was exactly what I needed for my pool-pump housing. And not only that, but a big sign above them read, ‘Cut to any size and shape.’ My joy knew no bounds.

‘I’ll have a piece of that one,’ I said, pointing to the light-green sample, ‘cut to 150x135cm.’

‘We don’t stock it,’ the assistant said, examining his nails. ‘We have to order it special.’

By this time, I was doing something I often do in Malmesbury – while tamping down incipient hysteria, I was also furtively looking around for the hidden camera and fully expecting someone to jump out and scream, ‘You’ve been punk’d!’

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and I had to put a little ‘x’ against ‘lightweight material’ on my list.

I did manage to let off a bit of steam. As I was leaving the store, I walked past a supposed dog-food display that contained (you’ve guessed it) no dog food. A sign above it read, ‘Are you wondering why there’s no dog food in this display?’ (The answer, in small print below, was, ‘It’s because we’re upgrading our product blah-de-blah…’)

It was too much for me. Like a madwoman, I shouted to the shop at large, ‘No, I’m not wondering why there’s no dog food in this display, because this store doesn’t stock anything that anyone needs, ever!’

Then I drove home and lay down for an hour with a wet flannel over my eyes.

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