She showed me the two large pins which she had been given to accomplish the task, and with careless trust borne of desperation, she handed them to me.
I went to a Summer Ball recently, and became a Fairy Godmother. If you are sitting comfortably, I shall tell you the story.
The Ball was held at the Crosby Lodge Hotel. Soon after I arrived, I visited the ladies cloakroom to rearrange my hair, which had been blown awry by the breeze during the short trip from the car to the front entrance.
I swung through the double doors and set my bag down in front of a large mirror. The only other occupant of the room was a beautiful young woman. She had long and wavy blonde hair of the sort which would look magnificently tousled after ten minutes in a force ten gale. She wore a very fetching short black dress, and looked altogether the picture of desirable womanhood.
She flashed me an enchanting smile and I returned it as honestly as I could, although I must say, I did not feel myself warming to her particularly. I turned again to the mirror and to my own hair, which looks less magnificent when tousled than terrifying.
The young woman spoke, “Excuse me,” she began, “but I wonder whether you could help me out? I’ve got a bit of a problem here.”
I turned back to look at her. If she had a bit of a problem, I was in big trouble. Nevertheless, I agreed to help. She showed me a spray of flowers, a delicately scented corsage which someone special had given her and which she was determined, but quite unable to pin to the front of her dress. She asked, tentatively, whether I had any experience in the art of pinning a corsage to the bodice of a dress.
As luck would have it, I had none whatsoever. She showed me the two large pins which she had been given to accomplish the task, and with the careless trust borne of desperation, she handed them to me and entreated me to have a go.
I was a little doubtful at first, given the length and thickness of the pins, but at last I decided to have a stab at it.
The main stem of the corsage was woven of quite impenetrable wire, wound tightly with green tape. From this steely stem emerged the very delicate spray of lily of the valley and tiny white rose buds which made up the display. I asked her to show me where on her bodice she would like me to position the spray, and she placed it at a stylish angle across her right breast. I picked up the pin and foresaw an immediate problem.
I would surely pierce this young woman’s bosom unless I could position my hand so that I could feel the whereabouts of the end of the pin. It seemed best not to stand on ceremony, so I got straight to the point and asked whether I could put my hand down the front of her dress.
She agreed readily. Anything, she said, as long as I could get the thing anchored into place. It occurred to me as I set about my task, that there would be many a Gallant on the other side of the cloakroom door who would gladly swap places with me.
No wonder she couldn’t manage to do this herself. The pin was too thick and too large to pierce the stem of the corsage, which was difficult to get hold of without damaging the tiny delicate blooms. I anchored the base as well as I could, and attempted to secure the top. After some minutes of cross-eyed, lip-biting concentration, the corsage was stuck to the front of her dress.
“How’s that?” I stepped back.
“That’ll do,” she said with cheerful fortitude.
But it looked as if she had given up on trying to pin the thing to her dress and had decided instead just to clamp it under her right armpit. I couldn’t let her emerge from the cloakroom like that.
I shook my head. “We’ll have to have another go,” I said, “that’s not right.”
So I made adjustments, and at last, a little bruised and slightly crushed, and perhaps missing one or two of its more vulnerable blooms, the corsage was pinned firmly in the right place.
She was very grateful, bless her, and left before I could do any more damage. I liked her better for her cheerful thanks, nobly offered, and for the rather endearing little spot I noticed just developing on the side of her nose.
17th August 1993
Every autumn the male house spider must gallop about in search of a female.
"It's a great inconvenience," he fretted, "and the devil of it is that when I find her, if she doesn't recognise me, she'll eat me"
You may have noticed that the house spider is more in evidence at this time of year. The other day I came across a particularly large specimen walking briskly across our living room floor. As I watched it, it occurred to me that we know very little about the house spider. I wondered where it went in winter. How many toenails does it have? Do eight legs make up for no arms? All at once, the journalist in me responded to the chance of a scoop. I picked up my notepad and pencil and bent down to ask the spider if he would mind being interviewed for the News and Star.
He said, his legs buckling a little, that this was a very unusual request, but that it beat being stamped out so he would do his best to answer some questions. Naturally I was delighted to have his cooperation for an exclusive which would surely enhance my career, so I began at once by asking him where he was going.
He told me, with some slight embarrassment, that he was looking for a mate. Every autumn, he said, the male house spider must leave the safety of his web and gallop about in search of a female. "It's a great inconvenience," he fretted, "and the devil of it is that when I find her, if she doesn't recognise me, she'll eat me." "Good Lord," I said. "How ghastly." I changed the subject, hoping to take his mind off this awful possibility, and asked him instead what he planned to do after mating with his female.
He said he planned to die. It was simply too much trouble surviving the winter, no male house spider would attempt it. The females survive until spring, he said, but then they die when their eggs hatch. I was genuinely astonished. "Surely", I asked him, "a spider of your succulence must survive for at least a year?" But he only shook his mouth parts sadly, and so I decided to concentrate my enquiries on his appearance, which I hoped would be less depressing. "I cannot help noticing," I said, "that you have eight eyes. Do you have very good eyesight?" No, he told me his eyesight was very poor, but he was not unhappy about it. He didn't need good eyesight when he was living on his web, and furthermore, he anticipated that poor sight would be a positive blessing during the act of mating. "I'd rather not get a good look at the old girl," he confessed. "I only hope I can find one with a decent memory. If she forgets who I am, she could eat me at any time, whatever I'm doing." I murmured a sympathetic remark. "Tell me," I said, after a respectful pause, "what do you yourself like to eat?” I thought it might cheer him up to reminisce about a particularly tasty meal.
"Well," he said, "I have an entirely liquid diet of course, and I'm happy to drink any sort of insect I can manage to overcome and pierce with my fangs. Although I'm not fond of earwig. It has an aftertaste. Anything particularly tough I digest outside of my body and suck into my stomach in liquid form. I assume you do the same?" He asked me, conversationally.
I told him that we put our food directly into our mouths and chewed it up. He wrestled for some moments with obvious disgust. "I'm sorry," he said at last, shrugging his hips, "it's just that the very idea gives me the willies."
This mention of willies gave me the opportunity to broach a sensitive, but fascinating subject. I put it to him that many people found that spiders, and in particular house spiders, gave them dreadful willies. "People think," I explained, "that you might try to run up their legs. Have you ever felt inclined to do that?"
Unfortunately he took offence, and replied brusquely that he would rather mate with ten, shortsighted, pre-prandial females. What was more, he continued with aggrieved agitation, if there were no house spiders quietly and unobtrusively eating many more times their own weight of domestic insect life, householders would soon have serious problems with both infestations and willies. So saying, he excused himself and left, muttering that he must find his female, before she was more hungry than eager.
Evening News & Star Sept. 14, 1993
Why Gnasher the budgie needed a 'nose' job
I have spoken from time to time in this column about my friend and constant companion, Gnasher, a budgerigar of many talents and considerable intellect. Gnasher accompanies me around the house, observing and commenting upon the everyday routines of domesticity.
He sits on the tap in the kitchen and chats while I peel vegetables. He sits on my shoulder while I make beds. As I bend over and straighten up to tuck in sheets, sometimes he sits right way up, and sometimes he hangs upside down. He makes himself comfortable on a corner of the keyboard while I type articles for this column. Sometimes he walks across the keys and sprinkles my sentences with his own distinctive vocabulary. Many are the times he has tried to communicate with you.
Over the years, Gnasher and I have got to know each other very well. It is only to be expected. If something were to sit on your shoulder every evening, you would consider yourself pretty well acquainted with it after five years. Indeed, I have learnt to interpret Gnasher's thoughts. I can look at Gnashers feathery visage and understand at once by the general lie of his plumage, the angle of his cheek feathers and the slant of his head, whether he is pleased with his lot or wishes it were otherwise. Pet lovers will confirm this emotional affinity between man and beast. I have a friend who claims to know at once when his goldfish is feeling sentimental.
Nevertheless, recently I have noticed a strangely disturbing and altogether alien expression dominating the feathers of Gnasher's face. He began to look pinched, I thought, even predatory. There was a slightly mean cast to his profile which was most unlike him.
The problem was the size of his beak. It had grown. It had become less of a beak, and more of a bill. It was no longer a neat little triangle of beaky material. From the tip of the beak there extended a long and slender hook which altered his demeanour altogether and made him look like a budgerigar with a licence to kill. Often when he closed his beak, the extended point would trawl some feathers from his chest and bunch them together under the tip of his beak in a hastily convened ruff. Truly, the bird looked bizarre. My concern was, however, that if the beak continued to grow and curl inwards it would eventually pierce the throat. Gnasher would become his own kebab.
I hope I am responsible enough not to allow animals in my charge to skewer themselves under my very nose. I rang the vet and explained that my budgie was in danger of performing his own tonsillectomy. and needed urgent attention.
Bring him down. said the vet, and we'll clip his beak. Maybe it was my fevered imagination, but I thought I could hear them sharpening tools in the background. I put the cage in the car, and we made haste to the vet's surgery. I announced our presence at the reception desk and we made ourselves comfortable in the waiting room. After a few minutes a white coated lady popped her head around the door and called for Gnasher. I carried the cage into the consulting room.
This lady vet had a way with birds. She buttered Gnasher up shamelessly, telling him he was a very handsome young man, well proportioned and beautifully marked. She admired his stance, the length of his tail and the deep blue of his wattle. Gnasher is a sucker for this kind of talk. He relaxed and turned this way and that so she could admire him from all angles. She grabbed him while he wasn't looking, and took him out of the cage to inspect his beak.
Gnasher gave a series of outraged squawks, but the vet took no notice. She reached for the clippers and placed them around the lower portion of Gnashers beak. Gnashers eyes widened and he looked at me in serious alarm. "He doesn't want too much off." I explained hastily to the vet. "Just a little trim." She squeezed the clippers and I turned away. There was a loud crack.
I took him home. Everyone admired his neat new beak. My mother in law said it took years off him.
News & Star. Jan 5th 1996
I paused awhile to listen, and soon I heard it again more urgently, “Will someone please help me!”
I was in the garden at the weekend pulling out weeds. I had hold of a large dandelion, and was straining to remove it from the soil. As I pulled, I heard a small voice cry, “Help! Help me!”
I stopped and looked around. There was no-one about, just me and a clump of dandelions. I bent down and took hold of the dandelion once more, and pulled. “Help,” cried the little voice again, “Please help.”
I let go of the dandelion and staggered backwards. I looked at the palms of my hands and then again at the dandelion, trying to make sense of this, and to establish whether or not I was pulling up a talking dandelion.
Then I heard the voice again, and recognised it to be a child’s voice, perhaps some fifty yards or so distant, calling out, “Help! Help!”
At first I was relieved. It was probably just some kids larking about somewhere and screaming for help. Nevertheless, I paused awhile to listen, and soon I heard it again more urgently, “Will someone please help me!”
I ran to our garden fence thinking I might vault over it in the direction of the pleading voice. When I reached the fence I remembered that I couldn’t vault over an upturned bucket. Still, the voice cried plaintively for help.
All at once I felt called upon to do something heroic, and considered hurling myself over the fence with complete disregard for my own safety. I took a deep breath and within a fraction of a second, changed my mind. Instead, I ran out of our garden and took a short cut through a neighbour’s garden in the direction of the voice.
My neighbour was planting out seedlings with a dibble stick. She froze with alarm as she heard my footsteps pounding up her garden path behind her. “It’s just me!” I called to reassure her, “I’m taking a short cut. I’ll explain later!” She relaxed and waved her dibble, and on I went around the back of both houses, to arrive on the other side of my garden fence.
The fence borders a path which runs alongside a mill stream. I ran down the path looking for distressed individuals, prepared to administer cardiac massage, or artificial respiration, or artificial massage.
There was a small boy walking towards me, holding a dog on a lead. I stopped him as he approached. I was glad of the rest, my heart was pounding. I had been running for almost twenty seconds. The boy waited patiently while I caught my breath. Eventually I said, “There’s someone shouting for help along here, have you seen anyone in trouble?”
“Oh,” he said, “that could have been me.”
I asked him if he’d been shouting for help, and he said yes. I asked if he had seen anyone else shouting for help, and he said no. I had to agree, it could have been him.
He seemed quite recovered and composed, so I asked him why he had been so distressed. He said he had let go of the dog’s lead while he took a stone out of his shoe, and the dog had gone into the stream. He had shouted and shouted for help to get his dog out of the water, but no-one had come. Then the dog got out of the water by herself, and he put her back on the lead, and now he was going home.
Had this turned out differently, the headline might have read, Housewife In Doomed Vaulting Attempt , or Neighbour In Identity Mix Dibble Stick Horror, or Boy In Nightmare Pet Stroll, or Woman Fails In Bid To Resuscitate Dog, or Dog Fails In Bid To Resuscitate Woman. However, one thing is certain, my story, Woman Rescues Boy Who Didn’t Need Rescuing, will not hit the headlines.
Yet it represents all those times when the axe did not fall, and the characters in the story were able to go home happily for tea. It’s commonplace, and simply not newsworthy.
Thank God for that.
Evening News and Star June 29th 1993