So, let’s catch up a bit on the past fortnight. We went to Cornwall because it’s a lovely part of the country, and it’s been years since we did that long journey kind of family holiday, carting buckets and spades, or at least in our case, fishing nets, overland to the sparkling blue sea (as opposed to the pewter gray North Sea, which is not so far from our door). We rented a teeny cottage in a pretty community called Charlestown, where the television series Hornblower is filmed (for those of you who know it). And I packed lots of books.
There were some truly memorable moments. On the way down we broke the journey by stopping off for a day in Bath, one of my favourite cities. It’s so gloriously elegant and I just love the shopping there. There were several things we needed – my son needed new shorts, my husband needed holiday books and I needed underwear. Now, sensitive male readers may wish to avert their eyes; no need to upset yourselves unnecessarily. I’ve never been that bothered about underwear, preferring to spend my money on the garments that the other 99% of the population sees. I can cheerfully hook my elderly off-white bra out the washing pile which makes my husband sometimes suspect that I am not a Real Woman. But I draw the line when the underwiring starts to stab me in the heart; I mean, what is it with all the scaffolding in bras these days? I have no need to be cantilevered into position. Anyway, I was calmly headed off to Marks and Spencer, as per usual, when my husband began to steer me in a completely new direction, and before I knew it, I was being ushered into one of those small, scary little shops that have three silver-sprayed torsos in the window displaying wispy, frilly numbers that calculate out to an outrageous price per metre of fabric, and have apparently no stock on the inside.
‘My wife,’ said my husband firmly to the lady seated on a little velvet stool behind the cash desk, ‘needs underwear. Nothing fits her. Please help.’
The assistant was a woman of German origin with a business-like platinum bob and steel-rimmed spectacles. She guessed my size through the shirt I was wearing, and when I demurred, said, ‘Na jah, I think ve try something on, and you will see I am right.’
So, I was invited with steely kindness to undress in a tiny but compassionate changing cubicle with low lighting and nice furnishings. There’s an advert on the television here for Bravissimo, which is a firm specializing in underwear for the larger lady. An endless array of well-endowed models present acres of cleavage to the cameras while cooing ‘Bravissimo – how does it make you feel?’ To which I usually respond, to my husband’s amusement: inadequate. I don’t look at myself undressed much; I’m thin as a whippet which was probably okay in the lengthy era of rationing that followed the second world war, but which nowadays makes me look in comparison to most normal folk like a victim of famine. Believe you me, it is no fun being thin; people feel they have the right to insist you are anorexic and make snorting noises when I point out that I eat three meals a day plus snacks. Well, abandoned to my body in this little cubicle, I felt remarkably like Eliza Doolittle, some waif and stray recently picked out of the gutter by a benevolent benefactor and brought to the big city to be spruced up. Whilst that same benevolent benefactor sat up front on a spindly chair having the time of his life, a pig in muck, legitimately achieving his life’s dream of being surrounded by ladies’ lingerie.
My German assistant returned with armfuls of underwear (where did she get it all from?) that turned out to fit me perfectly, which was a shock as I’d given up all hope of that kind of miracle about a decade ago. And I began to quite enjoy myself. Almost everything I tried on was coloured, which was unsettling as I only ever wear white (no issues about matching), but it was all so pretty, and so beautifully made and, biggest surprise of all, so comfortable.
‘I speak viz your husband and tell him you have an expensive body!’ my lovely assistant crowed. At which point the woman in the next door cubicle, also being attended to by another kind and charming assistant piped up, declaring, ‘I wish someone would say that about me! I’m sixty-one and a grandmother and the only way I’m expensive is if I charge for flesh by the pound!’ I tell you, it’s quite a party they have back there in these shops.
So, I left with three new bras; one cream, one black and one pink. I refused the knickers, though, on grounds of rampant impracticality. ‘You really should have ze pink knickers,’ my assistant reproached me. ‘You’ll never get a precise match of colour.’ ‘Oh I know,’ I said, but they are so frilly; they just wouldn’t be comfortable to sit around in all day.’ At these words both assistants, as of one woman, took a step backwards and threw their hands up in despair. Had they taught me nothing in our brief but significant acquaintance? ‘It’s not just about comfort!’ they declared, and my husband shook his head sadly in a you-see-what-I-must-put-up-with kind of way. Still, I’m the one having to sit on my bottom with (most of the time) a hot laptop on my thighs, and I know my limits.
Goodness, that took a long time to tell, didn’t it? Sensitive men may return to the fold now. The other story I must tell while I’m recounting the good bits concerns my son. Ever since he was little, he’s had a genetically untraceable fascination for fishing. My husband is always trying to redirect it towards boats and sailing, thus coinciding with his own cherished interests, but my son stubbornly hangs onto his rod and his net and has quite a surprising degree of success. Charlestown has a tiny working harbour that expands, at low tide, into a shingle cove with good rock pools. Initially my son began with his fishing net in the pools and returned (dodging the heavy showers that plagued the holiday) with a brimming bucket full of crabs and prawns. I would forget the bucket was there and be suddenly freaked in the kitchen when that day’s crab started up chattering its claws. Then he decided to move into sea fishing on the incoming tide, something that happened about nine in the evening at that point. It was getting dark by then, and was raining, and blowing a gale, but he ventured out doggedly with his resigned father. An hour or so later, they returned triumphant. As ever, my son had the luck of the devil and, to the chagrin of the massed fishermen sitting patiently by, had plucked a pollack out of the black waters. It was quite a reasonable sized fish, glossy gray and sinuous, staring up at me out of the bucket with wide, trusting eyes.
‘He wants to eat it,’ said my husband.
‘Must you?’ I asked. ‘It would be so much kinder to throw it back.’
‘I caught it,’ said my son with determination, ‘and I’m going to eat it.’
Not of course, that he had the stomach to gut it. Instead, he wanted a few moments of quality time with his catch, in which he stroked the pollack’s bristly back and pronounced a fond, touching farewell, then went to sit in a different room while his father, thanks to a rural Suffolk childhood full of nature red in tooth and claw, did the necessary. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the combination of compassion, squeamishness and gruesome intent. Still, the pollack fulfilled its destiny and my son had it for lunch the next day. Plain fish isn’t something my son will usually accept on the menu, and it made me wonder about the power of hunting your own food. If only broccoli ran wild and had to be tracked down and overmastered. ‘Broccoli with eyes?’ said my son, aghast, when I suggested it. ‘I don’t think so.’
Well, those were the more entertaining moments of the holiday. I think I will have to make this a two-parter and discuss the rest on another day. So, more later!