Sunday 30 December 2007

The power of prayer - and of ballads

Reading yesterday’s post reminds me that I actually had relationships with two secretaries who were former air hostesses. At least I didn’t actually recruit the first one myself. She joined the firm as a temp, and was quite the hardest worker we’d ever taken on. After she had been furiously typing for the best part of a week, I tentatively enquired when she might have a window to produce a letter for me. Looking over her shoulder at this point, I realized that we had been unwittingly paying her to type up a collection of sermons for a South London monastic community.

She was a woman of strong religious convictions and outstanding good looks. When love blossomed between us (at least on my side), the experience of sleeping with her was marred only by the fact that she invariably burst into floods of tears immediately afterwards. Catholic guilt, you see.

Over the years this phenomenon has recurred with depressing frequency. “Oh” I’d say between puffs of my post-coital cigarette, “I didn’t know you were a Catholic.” This attracted a number of dispiriting responses, though the most memorable was perhaps “I’m not. I’m just staring into a bottomless void of almost unbearable disappointment.”

Three other memories stand out about my first ex-air hostess. For a kick-off, she was the world’s worst cook. I’ll never forgot being invited back to her South London council flat to meet her mother (who was lovely, unlike so many mothers I have known). My new girlfriend proudly presented me with a main course comprising some white fish in a cheesy sauce (probably a Bird’s Eye boil-in-the-bag) with boiled potatoes. I was trying to work out what the black bits in the sauce were, thinking that they looked a bit big to be cracked pepper, when her mother gently pointed out that it was usually a good idea to scrub or at any rate wash potatoes before boiling them. Evidently her daughter had skipped the home economics classes at school in favour of double Religious Education.

The second was the time that she sent the chairman of my company to an important meeting with a potential new client. This being in pre-mobile phone days, he rang her from a public call box across the street and described in some detail how a crane with a gigantic wrecking ball was just bringing down the last bits of the building she had sent him to. She had failed to ask for the company’s address when making the appointment, but had used her initiative and looked up their HQ in a two-year-old telephone directory.

The third memory, and my personal favourite, was her claim to have been sacked from Gulf Air over an unfortunate misunderstanding when she had climbed on top of a sheikh and given him the kiss of life after she had spotted that he was suffering a potentially fatal heart attack. It turned out that he was actually only enjoying a refreshing nap. This story always seemed to me to be a touch implausible, but she swore that it was the Gospel truth. And, let’s face it, if she had made it up to distract attention from something even more embarrassing, just what the hell could that have been?

You’ll find that you have plenty of time to ponder that sort of question if you become a Recluse like me. Other advantages include the ability to eat and sleep whenever you like, and having exclusive rights over the TV remote control. What’s more, you don’t need to bother about cleaning the house all that often. Unless, of course, people insist on visiting you. I do my best to deter this by such expedients as never answering the telephone or front door bell, and saying things like, “Oh yes, that would be lovely. Only I’m a Recluse, you see, so I can’t.”

It takes particular determination to break through this, but a trio managed it last night. They said they were going to come for dinner, and overcame the obvious objections by bringing all the food with them, and then cooking it. They even brought their own potato peeler. God knows what they thought conditions in my kitchen were going to be like.

Maybe it was a trial for a new guerrilla Meals on Wheels service. Anyway, I have to concede that it was absolutely delicious and most enjoyable even though I don’t, in principle, eat dinner, as it invariably results in chronic indigestion throughout the following night. I did provide the drink, and proceeded to consume far more of it than anyone else. I knew I’d overdone it when I stopped playing them Handel and Corelli, and put on Benny Hill’s Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West. Followed by Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker’s epic cover version of You’re the One that I Want and Bernard Cribbins’s Right Said Fred. Then there was a series of patriotic songs, up to and including the National Anthem (all three verses). Finally, I moved on to my 45s of 1980s Power Ballads. It was Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart that finally stimulated one of them to look at her watch and say, “Good heavens, is that the time?”

Just as well, as I had nothing left in reserve before the Llandaff & Treorchy Massed Male Voice Choir’s classic 1974 recording of Go home, you bums, go home.

Doing the ironing with a massive hangover this morning, I found myself listening to Desert Island Discs with one Karren Brady, managing director of Birmingham FC and a woman of such overpowering self-confidence that she made Nicola Horlick seem like a shrinking violet. And her choice for the one record she would run through the waves to save if they came crashing onto the shore? None other than Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. I think she might be alone on that island for quite some time.

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