Thursday 31 December 2009

Return to Scratterville

15st 4lb, 4.0 units. I ordered some train tickets from the Bearded Git’s marvellous online service on Sunday. Sadly having the ones required for 8/9 January posted to me simply wasn’t an option, apparently because there wasn’t enough time for the ever-reliable Virgin Trains to be sure of those half-witted, strike-prone incompetents at Royal Mail getting them to me. So we needed to go into Chester station to pick them up from one of the inappropriately named “FastTicket” machines. Collecting them immediately before boarding the train is not an option because (a) Mrs H and I are travelling on different days, and one has to be in possession of the credit card used to make the purchase when picking them up, and (b) even if we weren’t, experience suggests that there is every chance of turning up at the station shortly before departure to find little notices taped onto the FastTicket machines regretting that they are out of order, but advising that tickets purchased in advance can be collected from the travel centre, the queue for which resembles that outside a new branch of Primark or IKEA on a day when they are giving away free little black dresses or meatballs.

So we had to drive into Chester to pick them up.

I also ordered some tickets for early February at the same time. They turned up in the post yesterday morning. On the one hand, this is an illustration that the vendor’s delivery policy is mildly tiresome. On the other hand … there is no other hand.

We duly drove into Chester and parked my new car outside the attractive, unoccupied house in Scratterville where Mrs H lived when I met her, and which her estate agent is doing a strikingly unsuccessful job of selling. They seem to have stopped showing people around “for the festive season”, which at least spares us the regular “viewing feedback”.

“They really liked the house, but they thought the rooms were a bit small.”

“Er, couldn’t they have worked that out from the measurements in the particulars, rather than traipsing around there?”

“They really liked the house, but were disappointed that the second bathroom doesn’t have a window.”

“Er, couldn’t they have worked that out from the floor plan in the particulars, rather than …”

You get the picture.

I am convinced that most house viewings are arranged by nosy people who simply have nothing better to do. I have never in my life asked to see a property without first (a) studying the particulars, and (b) doing a preliminary external recce, because there is no point troubling the owner, occupier or agent if the place turns out to be immediately downwind of a sewage farm, to take the most extreme example. Or a chipper, in the case of Mrs H’s attractive bijou cottage, but best keep shtoom about that, eh?

The neighbourhood had deteriorated in terms of convenience, in that the Local shop on the corner, where I bought my daily paper, milk and bags of ice, had become one of the many casualties of the administration of the First Quench retail chain. On the plus side, this meant that the ginger-headed King of the Scratters and his little supporting gang of baseball-capped morons were no longer to be found standing in a little knot outside, sneering at passers-by and gobbing energetically onto the pavement. I wondered where they had regrouped, without actually wanting to find out the answer.

We pushed the buggy to the excellent local butcher and greengrocer to collect the ingredients for the very special New Year’s Eve supper Mrs H had promised to make me, following a recipe in The Times that had caught my eye. Then we had a late lunch in the sort of old-fashioned tea shop(pe) where the waitresses still wear black frocks and white pinafores, and the beverage comes in metal pots with matching hot water jugs and tea strainers. As I sat awaiting the delivery of my baked potato, watching The Baby gurgle happily at his bottle on his mother’s knee, I marvelled at the change that has occurred in my lifestyle over the past 12 months. This time last year I would not have been seen dead in such an establishment, particularly when there were several fine pubs serving real ale within a stone’s throw. I felt strangely calm about it, though I dare say I might have developed a bad attack of the shakes if someone at a neighbouring table had ripped open a packet of pork scratchings or taken an opener to a bottle of foreign Guinness.

It proved to be a classic slow food experience, but at least we were able to pass some of the time opening Christmas cards from the half dozen people who had ignored our “new home” notifications, and indeed the correct address that is printed at the end of all my e-mails.

We then puffed up the hill to a supposedly well-stocked off licence to procure the bottle of sweet Marsala that was the one remaining ingredient required for this evening’s feast. Naturally they did not have one, or indeed anything that looked like an acceptable substitute. So we wheeled the buggy back to Scratterville and piled into the car, aiming to go to the station and collect the tickets that were the original object of our journey. Until I remembered that I had not brought a print-out of the e-mail containing the reference numbers required for that purpose. Great.

At least I managed to pick up a bottle of Marsala at Sainsbury’s on the way home, immediately before the road rage incident in the car park as I attempted to make my way to the filling station against the flow of traffic heading for the exit. When we finally got home, Mrs H duly slaved over a hot stove for hours, preparing the fillet of pork stuffed with black pudding, baked in a greaseproof paper bag with a fresh fig and Marsala sauce. And it tasted … well, of nothing at all, really, except possibly greaseproof paper. I tried to think of ways of expressing this mild disappointment diplomatically, and failed. So in at least one respect, the year finished exactly as it had begun.

On the plus side, I was reminded that I very much liked sweet Marsala (which, ironically, seemed indistinguishable from the sweet sherry we had anyway) and that, if you drink enough of it, all disappointments (culinary and otherwise) are swiftly forgotten.

Time to turn the page to 2010, I think.

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