Saturday 27 June 2009

The stripper, the seer and the witches

14st 12lb, 4.4 units. Yesterday I went to see a professional stripper. Always an exciting treat for me, but even more so for the dog, who has clearly been much troubled by his thick coat in the recent heatwave. He has always been stripped in Northumberland before, passing through the hands of a succession of enthusiastic amateurs and allegedly qualified groomers. The low point was perhaps allowing my ex, with whom I then shared his care, to have a go at it herself. She lost interest halfway through, and for a week or two the poor little chap was wandering around with the hair on the upper part of his body short, and the lower part long. He looked like a two-tone car re-sprayed by a blind man with Parkinson’s disease. With hindsight I wish that I had taken a photograph to corroborate this claim, but at the time it seemed too much like an intrusion into serious private grief.

We had chosen the Cheshire establishment on the recommendation of one of Mrs H’s colleagues, who raved about their treatment of her own dog, their huge experience and the many awards that they had won. The impression that they might be quite good was reinforced by the six weeks it took to secure an appointment. I was a bit surprised that the girl who took him off my hands looked about 18, rather than the hugely experienced Border terrier specialist I had been expecting. But perhaps, I reasoned, she was Debbie McGee to the Paul Daniels of some wizened old coat stripper, whose nimble fingers were already hard at work in some back room.

I returned to what passes for home at present and sat on the sofa grumpily writing stuff, interrupted only by eating the delicious lunch prepared for me by my beautiful young wife. Then things took a decided turn for the worse when she announced that it was time for us to Take The Baby Out. Even worse than that, she had set her sights on taking him out in the car, with a view to collecting the dog and looking for the chest of drawers we desperately need in the nursery, to replace the current sub-IKEA model in which all the drawers collapse whenever one opens them and endeavours to store a really heavy item like a handkerchief or a pair of socks.

It was the first time I had had to face up to the full horror of what getting a baby out of the house and into the car involves. First his carefully chosen buggy proved hellishly difficult to fold, even after we had worked out that the dangling mobile thing we had attached to the front of it for his entertainment is going to need to be dismantled every time we want to do so. This lifted this particular plaything straight into the top five of my Worst Buys of All Time (against some very stiff competition, I can tell you). Thank you, Early Learning Centre.

It then requires the strength of an Olympics weightlifter to clip the buggy shut, in the way that the tiny shop assistant in John Lewis in Newcastle had somehow managed to demonstrate with such practised ease when we were being conned into buying it. After that, it should have been no surprise that it proved surprisingly heavy and difficult to stow it even into a rather large car, despite my removal of a load of stuff from the boot to make room for it. It ended up shoved behind the front passenger seat. The car seat that came as part of our “travel system” package proved difficult to unclip from the buggy, while we already knew that it required a minimum of two people heaving and straining to secure it by the seat belt in the car. Though we have got better at this since our first practice run, which took a good quarter of an hour, at the end of which Mrs H pointed out that, if there had been a baby in the seat at the time, he would have had her elbow shoved hard into his face throughout the procedure and would almost certainly have been dead by the end of it.

All in all, it is no surprise that the whole process made me very tetchy, particularly as I was feeling more than a little tetchy before it even started.

We had been planning to go and collect the dog first, and the inevitable phone call just as we were going out of the door duly sanctioned this by saying that he would be ready for us around 4 o’clock. He looked very smart, and the bill of £31.20 was about £7 less than I last paid in Northumberland, so far as I could recall when the proprietrix herself (younger than I am, though not 18) presented me with the invoice and enquired how her prices compared with those “in Devon”. Despite my best efforts she continued to insist on calling the dog “Cruster”, which sounded vaguely disgusting.

From there we drove through a series of twisting lanes to the “Lady [Name Removed on Anticipated Legal Advice] Crafts and Antiques Centre”, which sounded rather grand on the web but proved to be the Cheshire equivalent of that Dorset Lapland which attracted so much opprobrium last Christmas. It was a sort of cross between a very run-down farmstead and a prisoner-of-war camp, with a car park surfaced in what appeared to be unclaimed ashes from the local crematorium, and a series of tatty old sheds implausibly given names like “Tudor” and “Elizabethan” (the underlying assumption that they are different in itself showing a dangerously weak grasp of early modern British history). But first we paid a call on the site’s pine furniture specialist, refusing to give up as I suggested when I first spotted the big “CLOSED” sign on his door. Mrs H, as ever more determined than I am, insisted on following the accompanying instructions to seek entry, in these circumstances, through the workshop at the rear, and even on ignoring such supplementary warning signs as a man in a van with “Pine Furniture Specialist” clearly written on the sides driving off at speed. Mrs H did finally admit that we would have been unable to get the buggy up the steps to the dangerous-looking workshop even if it had been open, which amazingly it wasn’t.

We then pushed the buggy to the first of the tat sheds. These were sub-divided into a series of rooms, each occupied by a different dodgy dealer in second-hand bric-a-brac. A surprising number of them sold golliwogs, suggesting that the whole place could well be a front for the BNP.

The dog had a huge drink from the bowl placed outside the door, and the presiding elderly, female waxwork greeted him effusively and announced (correctly) that he was aged between seven and eight. She explained that she could communicate with dogs and would also be able to tell whether there was anything wrong with him. She ran her hands over his back but remained tight-lipped, strongly suggesting that whatever she found was so awful that she did not like to share it with us. This experience was repeated, in a mercifully dilute form, in every other shed we entered. Mrs H remarked afterwards that it was a bit strange that everyone made such a huge fuss of the dog and did not even mention the baby.

But perhaps they are interested in human infants only as potential sacrifices, to judge from the row of old witches holding court on a bench outside the ice cream parlour. Mrs H ventured in there about ten minutes before closing time to be greeted with a heavy sigh and the news that the woman in charge had “just put the ice creams away”. A very English attitude to service, though at least she did reluctantly get them out again and graciously allow us to purchase a couple of cones filled with honeycomb and chocolate ice cream, which were very good indeed – even though admitting this does detract from my present theme of an all-round shit afternoon in the finest British traditions of fifth-rate rubbish being flogged in deeply depressing surroundings. Not for the first time, I wondered what exactly Woolworths did so wrong? Surely they always had their finger on the pulse of our national taste? Overall, it was the sort of place calculated to make you aspire that one day you might be able to trade up to a car boot sale.

As for the chest of drawers we were seeking, fairness compels me to record that we did, by some miracle, stumble upon a pretty well-made and not unreasonably priced example that would have served our purposes admirably, if only it had not been 2½ inches wider than the piece of crap we have already got, which is itself rather bigger than is strictly desirable. A lucky escape there, then, from having friends around and being forced to admit “Oh yes, we bought it from a little place we know …”

We drove home to repeat the rigmarole with the car seat and baby impedimenta all over again, so that I could reflect that the day was going to be typical of the high points of my life for the foreseeable future.

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