|The 40 In 40 Days Project.|
21. The Incompetencies (1962-2002)
The Au Pairs
something very important which you need to understand about me. In a
large number of life’s most basic practical skills, I am quite
staggeringly, hopelessly incompetent. My relationship with the physical
word is…well, “troubled” is a good word for it. Let’s examine
the evidence, shall we?
My father was a keen boatman, and so a
large proportion of our weekends and holidays were spent afloat –
first on a succession of cabin cruisers, then on the family narrow boat,
and eventually on a small sea-going vessel. You might think, therefore,
that ensuring his two children could swim at the earliest age possible
would have been one of his top priorities.
Well, no. And this despite his son’s
unnerving propensity for falling in the canal at regular intervals –
most spectacularly at a boat rally, in front of a crowd of hundreds. My
father had to jump in to save me. “Solicitor saves drowning son” ran
the headline in the local paper.
Eventually, aged eight years old,
swimming lessons started at school. I wasn’t the only non-swimmer in
our class, of course. Four years later though, and I was the only one
still thrashing around in the shallow end, terrified of getting his head
underwater. The humiliation of not being able to swim was bad, of course
– but the terror of taking my feet off the bottom was far, far worse.
Swimming teachers came and went. At the
start of term, they would be all hearty, strapping confidence
(“We’ll have you swimming by the end of term laddie, or my name’s
not…”) - I broke then all. By the end of term, they would be burnt
out, gibbering wrecks, who had resorted to desperate tricks such as
trying to bribe me with Mars bars.
In four years, there was just the one
breakthrough: the cork mat. If I held onto a cork mat, I could – after
a fashion – just about manage to propel myself along, legs kicking
wildly, water splashing all over the place. But progress was slow (a
width of the pool could take several minutes), and I didn’t like to
move too far away from the end wall of the pool, just in case I felt
like grabbing the handrail at any time.
One morning, my swimming teacher
(actually a rather bored history master who’d been drafted in to help
out), who had been watching me doggedly ploughing along in this manner,
unexpectedly creased up with helpless laughter. I clocked his reaction
and looked up quizzically, thinking I’d actually been doing rather
well that morning. He leaned over the side of the pool, and beckoned me
over. Apparently I had suddenly reminded him of a paddle steamer - and a
rather clapped-out one, at that. “There are two old ladies on your
starboard side who want their money back”, he joshed. “They
haven’t had a view yet!”
I still can’t swim. The idea
terrifies me as much as it ever did, if not more so. As for the smell of
chlorinated water, it chills my blood to the bone. The flashbacks! Oh
God, the flashbacks!
I was bad enough on a bike, not having
cycled on the open road since one disastrous trip in Summer 1975 when I
nearly caused three road accidents in the space of twenty minutes. And
behind the wheel of a car, I was not much better.
On my first ever lesson (1985), having
been driving for less than two minutes in my entire life, I attempted my
first gear change. Only I got the pedals mixed up and braked instead.
Causing the car behind to smash into the back of me. The next ten
minutes of my first driving lesson consisted of swapping names and
addresses. This wasn’t what you might call a confidence booster. To
put it mildly.
I changed instructors soon afterwards.
The second instructor quickly realised what a nice little earner he had
found, and let me drive around for week after week, making all my
decisions for me, with copious use of the dual controls (“Don’t
worry – I’ve got it for you!”). One week, months later, he
didn’t show up. I changed instructors again.
The first time out with instructor #3,
we got onto a dual carriageway. “Look in the mirror, and pull into the
right hand lane when you’re ready.” Look into the mirror?
Huh? I’d never had to do that before. In fact, I’d always wondered
what it was there for – rather an overrated instrument, in my opinion.
Useful for checking your hairdo every now and again, (well, there had
never been much else to do), but not for anything else, surely? Well, I
looked. And could make no sense whatsoever of what I saw. How was I
supposed to know when to change lane? Help!
Instructor #3 was a competent and
patient soul who had Seen It All Before, and I made enough progress to
be put in for the test. Thirty seconds into the test, we arrived at a
roundabout. I did not give way. I drove straight on. There was a car
going round the inside lane. I was heading straight for it. “WATCH OUT
THERE’S A CAR IN THE WAY!” shouted my examiner, and slammed his
brakes on. We came to a halt just inches away. The rest of the test was
something of an irrelevance.
However, I passed on the second
attempt. Thank God for that, I thought, now perhaps everyone will get
off my back – and promptly gave up driving altogether for another
eight years. However, in the Spring of 1995, I decided to give things
another shot – after all, it hardly seemed fair to K that I should be
chauffeured everywhere I went. So we went out for a few spins together
– and actually, I wasn’t too bad. Until, once again, at a large and
busy roundabout, I showed no intention of giving way. “FOR GOD’S
SAKE HIT YOUR BRAKES NOW!”, K shouted – and just in the nick
of time, I did. But it was too much for him, and for me. We never went
out in the car together again.
Bloody horrible things anyway. Just
ugly lumps of metal, basically. And so terrible for the environment, of
course. Well, one tries to do one’s bit for society, whatever the
You would not believe my cooking.
Honestly, it’s pathetic. I can boil an egg, and I can do toast on the
Aga. And I’m a dab hand – nay, a maestro - at following the
instructions on the back of ready meals. But that’s basically it.
An early indicator of this came in
Autumn 1981 – my first term in a shared student house. It was early
days, and we were still attempting to cook for each other. This was my
second attempt (my first being a ludicrously ambitious home made quiche,
whose pastry had crumbled away in the oven, allowing the yellow gloopy
stuff to leak out all over the kitchen floor). This time, I was
attempting spaghetti with cheese sauce.
I went into the larder and grapped the
pack of spaghetti. Unfortunately, it was already open, and I’d grabbed
it by the closed end of the packet. Result: the spaghetti tipped out,
and all over the larder floor. Which was, of course (this being a
student house) absolutely filthy. So I decided to wash the dirt off the
spaghetti before boiling it. Under the hot tap. Meaning that the strands
all melded together into a large lump of solid pasta. Which I then
proceeded to boil.
Meanwhile, I had decided to make the
cheese sauce out of Cheshire cheese – thereby ruling out the
possibility of it having any flavour at all. I took the recipe from
something I had copied down in an exercise book. Unfortunately, I had
mis-transcribed the amount of flour required for the sauce. By a factor
of four. Meaning that I ended up with a flavourless mixture of flour and
water, with a hint of Cheshire cheese. Glue, in other words.
Which I then proceeded to spoon over
the solid pasta lumps, and serve to my incredulous housemates. Who, one
by one, abandoned their meals and went down the chip shop instead.
Leaving me sitting there, angrily insisting that there was nothing
wrong with the meal that a few dollops of tomato ketchup wouldn’t put
right, and that they were wasting perfectly good food, and mmm, I was really
enjoying this, OK?
The communal cooking rota fell apart
forthwith, and I was never, ever allowed to live the incident down by my
housemates, who took great delight in reciting it to everyone who came
round for the rest of the year.
K does the cooking in our household.
He’s bloody brilliant at it, as well (everybody says so). Good job,
under the circumstances.
Team spirit. That’s what they said
football was supposed to teach you at school. Well, phooey to that. In
my experience, “team spirit” meant ten other people (all of whom had
been picked before you) groaning “Oh no, we’ve got Atkinson
In my entire school footballing career,
I scored a grand total of two goals. The first was an own goal (cue more
massed groaning). The second was essentially a fluke – my foot was in
the wrong place at the wrong time (I usually went to great lengths to
keep well out of the way), and the ball simply ricocheted off it, and
into the goal. I was ecstatic. Finally, I had done something useful! I
ran back across the floor of the school gymnasium, to get in position
for the next kick-off.
And tripped, and fell, and fractured my
Just. My. Luck.
I took this as a sign from the Almighty
that I had no business trying to be good at games – and promptly went
back to being crap again.
The highlight of my school cricketing
career: finding a four-leafed clover while fielding. Which, I think,
tells you all you need to know.