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Life Can Be Dead Funny !
It has become a kind of family bonding ritual.
Whenever my sisters and I go to visit with my parents down in
Brixham or as is more often the case because of our neglect when
they come to see us in Bristol we will all go out to eat. The
phrase eating out seems a little too matter of fact and doesn't
really seem to do the importance of the ritual justice. We go out
for 'a meal'. I think it goes back to when we were children and
things in the family were pretty tight money wise. On top of her
thankless full time job of housewife my mum developed all the
skills of an executive accountant as she eeked out my dad's
meager Post Office wage. There was no such luxury as double entry
book keeping for her. I don't know how it was done but I do know
it had something to do with an old green savings tin. It was
about a foot long and had lots of slots cut in the top
presumably, through which one was supposed to put coins into the
separate compartments each of which had a label. My mum had
marked the labels with electric, coal, savings, that type of
thing but it very rarely seemed to actually have any money in it.
As a child it seemed quite normal to me that all the little slips
of paper that said I.O.U. this and I.O.U. that referring to other
compartments in the tin, would in some effortless way balance out
and that Saturday there would be enough for us to be able to have
fish and chips for dinner.
I can remember on rare occasions waiting for my dad to come hurriedly 'roaring' back to the house on his, economical, little seventy cc motorbike with a duffle bag tied around his neck with a piece of recycled washing line, containing the oh so precious cargo of fish and chips. Always a hectic rush to get the right 'lots' onto the right pre warmed plates on the table in front of us excited and by then allegedly starving children, before they got cold.
Through my parents efforts we weren't at all hard done by but we couldn't afford many luxuries and it was only on special occasions that we would all go out to some sit down restaurant and have a meal. Like a birthday or a 'congratulations you've passed your exams', or 'at last I've been promoted', that type of thing.
So it was that we grew to regard eating out as something quite special and that seems to have stuck with us even though it is now a far more common thing for everyone to do with multiple cheap fast food restaurants in every high street vying for your trade. I wonder if perhaps the younger people of today brought up on cheeseburgers and the like will look back in the future and think fondly of the special occasion meals that they stayed at home for.
The occasion this time was my eldest sisters birthday although it was actually on the following Saturday, December the eleventh. Born again single with a very full life with her own grown children and even a grandchild, although her youthful looks wouldn't suggest it, she is always running around busy with this or that. My parents had been lucky to be able to pre book an empty slot in her diary for the Monday before so on that day up they drove from Brixham. They stopped off at my home to pick me up in the early afternoon and we all drove to my sister's place in Hambrook.
We arrived and spent the next few hours chatting and drinking coffee while Dad put his hand to some of the odd jobs that my sister always has a list of for him to do. Not so much because she couldn't find someone else to do them or perhaps couldn't do them herself for that matter, but because she knows that he will do them best. Strangely one long ago transgression involving a small electrical explosion has convinced my mum otherwise and it seems now a sadly rare event that at home his tool collection is brought out to play.
Eventually despite my Dads enthusiastic running around which my Mum seemed to view with resigned concern, we ran out of time and were encouraged to clean up and get ready to go and to leave the PIR light for some other time. The PIR light? My sister explained she had had a PIR activated light mounted on the side wall of the house above the garden gate for security. A crazy neighbor who had already caused no end of trouble in my sister's life had complained about the light shining directly into one of their rooms where their baby slept. There was no point in making relations any worse than the awful that they already were so we thought we'd have a go at it since obviously all it needed was for the angle of the beam to be simply lowered. It turned out there was nothing simple about any of it. The main trouble was that we had no ladder and the light was a good twenty feet above the path at that point. It was also by now blowing a gale and quite dark and any movement near the light triggered it to go on with a blinding glare but only for the preset time and then it would go off again plunging you into darkness. Eventually I figured out that if we put the small stepladder that we had, on top of the garden seat and leaned it all against the wall, I being the tallest and undoubtedly the stupidest should be able to climb up and reach the light. In the stroboscopic light effect we must have looked to any passer by like some mad traveling circus troop as I climbed my wobbling tower wearing one of my sisters hats to stop my hair from blowing in my eyes, holding onto the corner of the house with the wind tearing mercilessly at me. It worked but it was scary and I could only just reach the light with my fingertips by standing on tiptoe and stretching out as far as I could. Once I could touch it it became obvious that it was not possible to adjust in the way it needed to be because of the way the mounting bracket had been fixed to the wall by the electrician who had put it up. Typical! We must have spent a good quarter of an hour trying to alter the angle of the beam before we realised that there was more trouble with it than 'just' that. It seemed to have a mind of its own and was going on and off, as and when it pleased. We now must have looked like a scene from an old black and white Keystone Cops movie as one minute I was up the ladder with people holding on to its base and the next we were all running away around the corner and hiding, peering through the glass of the conservatory out of range of the PIR detector. Nothing seemed to make any difference including obscuring part of the detector with PVC insulating tape. Eventually although my sister couldn't find the instructions for the light we were working on in desperation we read the small print in the instructions for a different type of light. It revealed that strong winds could affect operation of the light! We gave up, cleared up and as the light continued to flash on and off, retreated indoors to warm up a little before leaving for our meal.
The minefield that is the discussion about where we should go was thankfully brief. Mum and Dad can get a little particular about where they go for a meal but I don't blame them. I guess you could say the place has to feel right and most especially so in terms of the attitude of the staff. I think we are very down to earth family and have no desire whatsoever to 'lord it' over anyone but when we go out for a meal that could cost to us, no small sum, we expect a certain level of 'service' and respect. It seems however all too easy for a small incident to ruin a meal for them and even make it necessary to exclude that venue from future use. The infamous carrot incident springs to mind. I wasn't there but apparently they went in to have a birthday or anniversary meal at a regular local eating-house but found that it had changed hands and no longer felt right. Apparently some sullen, miserable young girl just out of school who seemed unable to string a sentence together served them. After a long wait they were eventually brought their none too warm meals and as she handed them over she accidentally dropped some of the carrots on to the floor next to the table. The incident in all this was that she didn't bother trying to clear them up but just left them there on the floor so my parents were forced to sit and eat 'in' their food. I found this tale amusing when it was recounted but they were not at all amused, felt insulted and were adamant, that place had lost their custom. It was only my losing my temper over the indecision about where we should eat which brought us back there when I next visited them. Everything seemed to be going ok as we sat at a table waiting for our order to be brought by the schoolgirl waitress. It was even delivered, piping hot without incident. It was then with a slip of a knife that my dad accidentally propelled some of his carrots from his plate to the carpeted floor. Despite his embarrassment the whole thing seemed so amusing to us all that I think that place has been returned to the list of acceptable places.
It was readily agreed that we would head for the Harvester at Frenchay and see if it had re-opened so leaving what was now embarrassingly resembling a lighthouse behind, we all set off in Dads car.
The previous time we had been there we had found to our great distress that the car park had been barricaded off and signs had been put up announcing that it was shut for a refurbishment. This time all seemed open and back to normal so we parked in a vacant spot in the car park and went straight in although because it was just a little too early for the 'early bird' reduced prices we wasted a little time by having a drink in the bar. We sat and chatted until we were summoned by the waiting staff and shown to a pleasant table in the corner. "Hello I'm Jackie and I'll be your waitress" and off she went with her well rehearsed patter asking if we'd been before and knew how to abuse the eat all you want salad cart. We made some small talk about how we had found the place shut when we had come last time and were told all about how they had just re opened after having had the decorators in and a brand new plush carpet put down throughout. We all agreed that it looked very nice and took our seats at the table hungrily examining the menus. I say hungrily because another family tradition is that of starving yourself before going out for a meal. I'm sure it is a terribly unhealthy thing to do but if we know we are going to be going out for a meal we will starve ourselves for some time beforehand missing at least one meal and most likely not eating at all during the day beforehand. The theory is I suppose, that the meal will as a result be all the more enjoyable. I think somehow lurking in the background is also the fact that this also makes the whole thing more cost effective and there is definitely no likelihood of anything being left on the plate and going to waste which would of course be an awful crime and noticed by the bill payer! I think my eldest sister may be part way to overcoming this childhood programming since I have seen her on a couple of occasions stealing away to secretly stuff a couple of bags of Maltesers into her mouth a couple of hours before the meal allegedly just to keep her going and to stop her legs from shaking. I occasionally also benefit from her sometimes leaving the odd potato or pile of chips which my growling empty stomach does have room to enjoy, so I have no complaints with how things are.
After the usual discussions about what everyone was thinking of having and what he or she had had the last time and how there wasn't much of a vegetarian choice we ordered. We then took it in turns to go to the salad cart with at least one of us, as is our custom, remaining behind to sit guard over handbags, wallets and coats. For me it is the salad cart that makes a Harvester. You pretty much know where you are with the main menu and can get that anywhere but not everywhere has a 'as many trips as you like' salad cart. Brilliant idea. Admittedly you may have to turn a blind eye to the small runny nosed children who were there before you who picked up each of the bread rolls in turn one by one before deciding they didn't want any of them and put them all back on the plate, but I think it is worth that price. The mixture of cheese and garlic dips liberally poured over a bowl of salad accompanied by thickly buttered bread rolls is to me all the more delicious when eaten in the knowledge that you can eat exactly the same concoction all over again, and again, and again if you have a sufficiently Malteser free stomach. I love it. I no longer go to a Harvester with any intention of having the heaviest steak on the menu or the gooiest most chocolaty chocolate desert. If it were possible I'd have my chair put at the salad cart and occasionally ask the waitress to refill the dips.
In the middle of at least my second dish of salad my mum drew my immediate attention as she asked my dad if he was all right. Sat next to him I turned to my right to see that he most definitely was not all right. He looked bad. Really bad! I'd never seen him look that bad before but apparently my mum has. He'd had a funny turn before. Actually he's had a few over the years but normally they are connected to having suffered some injury or another. If he cuts himself or hurts himself badly in any way he has the intriguing reaction of becoming almost immediately unconscious. In evolutionary terms this seems to be a very strange characteristic to have been a successful survival mechanism. How going to sleep when faced with an advancing saber toothed tiger is an advantage I cannot say although I can certainly appreciate it may be the preferred response if it's a really sharp, nasty one.
My mum knew the expression on his face and had painful recollection of how heavy he is when he falls asleep standing up and had in the past issued stern instruction that if he should ever feel that way again that he should lie down immediately. I watched in amazement as with a cold sweat visible all over his face he tried to push his chair away from the table and get to the floor before the floor got to him. He made it quite gently down to a sitting position but then kept on going. It was very cramped in that corner but somehow he managed to lie down under the table, facing the wall and become unconscious.
Well! I hadn't expected that!!!
I pushed my chair out of the way behind me and did the same with his and knelt down beside him. It's hard to remember what goes through your mind at such times but I think I very quickly came to the conclusion that my dad was dieing. I know nothing about first aid and having developed a strange fatalistic attitude in the preceding years do remember thinking that there was absolutely nothing I was able to do to affect the outcome in any way whatsoever. If it was going to happen I didn't think that day was any better nor any worse than any other for it to do so. Just being there was all I could offer. I pushed back a briefly overwhelming wave of grief and tearfulness, to be indulged in at a more appropriate time. He was semi conscious now being sick but he was in a good position for breathing so that was ok. He seemed to become anxious about the mess and pulled out his handkerchief as though that could hold his illness back. My priorities had changed in a heartbeat and worrying about the carpet, what we must have looked like to others and who thought what was irrelevant to me although apparently important to my dad so I thought, to the last! He was sick some more and because he seemed to worry about it so much I grabbed a nearby tray and thrust it as best I could beneath his face to attempt to save the carpet further trauma. He was sick some more. When he seemed to become a little more lucid I became a little more aware of that other world outside that little corner. A poor couple on the table behind me was still sat trying to eat their meal almost as though nothing was happening. My sister announced that she had used her mobile to phone an ambulance and it was on its way and she had already settled the bill. I hadn't even thought of that. Thank goodness. Our waitress was nearby offering to help in any way she could although there seemed little to be done other than move a couple of tables out of the way when the green suited ambulance crew arrived with their wheeled stretcher and cardiograph machinery. Just like on Casualty on television it was made very clear who the experts were and who was now in charge and with some relief we all stood aside as they did their job. I got mum who doesn't drive to dig out my dads car keys and assured her that was all taken care of. My dad was by now much more conscious so he was moved onto the stretcher and preparations were made to move him outside to the ambulance and then the two minute drive just up the road to Frenchay Hospital.
Such was my dad's embarrassment about what had happened despite the fact that he was being stretchered out to hospital wearing an oxygen mask he was still able to issue instructions to my mum. That she should apologise profusely to the people on the next table who were still eating and that we should take money from his wallet to tip the waitress and to pay for the unpleasant job of clearing up which someone would have to do. It occurred to me that if they had the stomach for it they would be one handkerchief the richer for it since it seemed easier to leave it behind. So there it was, hemorrhaging £10 note gratuities to the waiting staff my dad was wheeled out to the ambulance followed by his attendant entourage who were apologising profusely to anyone who came near.
In the car park it seemed as though the ambulance staff were quite at ease and were taking their time since my sister and I had plenty of time to get in dads car, work out how to unlock the crook lock, adjust seats and generally get comfortable whilst we waited behind the parked ambulance. Eventually it took to the road with mum and dad inside and we followed it to the accident and emergency department of Fenchay Hospital only minutes up the road. My Dad was whisked away to his fate as my mum was directed to the reception desk where she had to book in his details. I parked the car and joined them in the crowded waiting rooms. It was awful. Small groups of people were standing outside in the gale under whatever cover there was chain smoking. People everywhere inside looking worried and all glancing up at the electronic sign board which announced a two and a half hour waiting time to be seen. Luckily as it turned out, arriving in an ambulance you jump the queue. My mum seemed remarkably calm considering her world had just fallen apart so I took the opportunity of discussing practicalities. Concentrating on practicalities in such circumstances is what the males of our family seem to do best. My dad had once had a similar funny turn whilst eating some fish and chips at his brother's cottage in Brixham. So the often retold story goes, as my dad was being taken away in an ambulance his brother went and sat back down and finished his fish and chips. I can see nothing wrong in that at all. Just clear headed and practical. I was rather sorry to have had to leave my salad cart and glass of red wine behind that evening. We discussed what were the choices and what would be the best courses of action given the different possible outcomes like who would sleep where or if preferred who could drive who home etc, etc.
The sitting around seemed to go on for hours until at last we were all reunited in a ward behind a curtain. My dad was lying on his trolley all linked up to different machines with bleeping monitors and inexplicable alternating flat line, wavy line traces. The machines seemed to be confirming that yes he was quite capable of being dead one minute and ill but alive the next. Eventually a young doctor who I'm sure couldn't have been much more than sixteen assured he was essentially ok and that it looked as though it was just some nasty form of gastric bug and that he was fine to go home and be ill and gradually recover.
Armed with a quantity of what appeared to be cardboard bowler hats for him to be sick in we gathered up my dads shoes and things and all got back into the car. We dropped my sister off at home and then went to my house. There we again debated what mum and dad would prefer to do. The prospect of having to spend the night in my damp and dingy home is probably more than most well people would wish to endure never mind someone so recently returned from the dead so it was decided that I would drive them back home there and then despite the fact that it was near midnight. I threw together a few things and made a mobile warm and comfy place in the back of the car with a sleeping bag and pillows, installed dad and off we set on the boring two-hour drive down to Devon. All of a sudden only just outside Bristol there was no boredom. The motorway was closed and we were suddenly thrown off on some inexplicably torturous detour all around the countryside around Portishead and Clevedon and ended up getting stuck in a completely stationary traffic jam in the middle of nowhere at one o'clock in the morning!
Eventually we found our way back onto the motorway and headed south with all the time mum keeping up a conversation about this that and everything else in an obvious attempt to make sure I stayed awake. In between suffering I think my dad managed to sleep some or maybe most of the way home and only made use of one of the cardboard hats quite near our destination so that was quite easily disposed of.
Tired after the unexpected drive I was soon made up on the guest bed and trying to unwind and fall asleep whilst at the same time thinking of childhood memories and what the days events had meant to me.
I don't know if my sister had any flash backs to her child hood that night but I suppose by the end of the night what with the PIR security light and all she was sick and tired of things flashing and was too tired to think much at all.
Incredibly within forty-eight hours my dad was fully recovered. and absolutely back to normal as though the whole experience hadn't happened. Failing in trying to hide how eagerly I wanted to return to my own nest mum and dad offered to drive me all the way home and not putting up half of my usual fight I accepted since I was feeling a little strange. So on the Wednesday morning we were on our way once again up the motorway. As the journey wore on I began to feel more and more unsure of my stomach and made contingency plans centered around a plastic bag just in case! Within half an hour of being delivered back home it was my turn and I was throwing up in the bathroom. It was very nasty, the sort of illness where you can't even drink water. That always strikes me as the measure of how bad a stomach upset is. If you can't drink you'd better get better soon or you won't get better. Thankfully by Friday although a little fragile I was pretty much back on my feet. Although at different times a little out of sorts, neither my sister nor my mum was particularly unwell so I guess it was a macho male thing!?
All in all it was a funny kind of a week. I feel as though it was perhaps almost a rehearsal for some hopefully distant but unavoidable appointment that we all must face with 'the harvester'.
The last time mum and dad came up to Bristol and we went out for a meal, there was little discussion. We went somewhere new.
Life can be dead funny.
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