The Smiths moved out this week, still under investigation by the Military Police, Mi5 and the Met Police. It’s a total sh*t storm but Teflon-coated Fiona seemed impervious to the seriousness of the charges against her, ie TREASON! She coolly asked me to have Basil, the incontinent Dachshund, whilst she barked orders at the removal men like a rabid Doberman. And General Smith managed to get a knee in Si’s bollocks before being arrested, recommending him for a nine-month tour in Kabul. Bastard. Si’s contesting the posting but we are not holding our breath (and I thought Swindon was bad). The crazy thing is The General is keeping his job as there’s little or no evidence to connect him to selling secrets – all they can do is move him sideways to Catterick which is where they are moving. However, they’ve both had their passports confiscated…
Back in the semi-normal world, I’ve been hard at work for Country Matters doing loads of challenges including flint knapping, fly-fishing and, the other week, glass blowing with Mandy, who took a day off to be my photographer. We bunged the kids in the nursery for the day and Vaselina*, a cleaner in the UK and a property tycoon in Bulgaria (two mansions in Sofia and a holiday home on the Black Sea) came to look after ‘her little Princess’ Vita.
We set off to Totnes the day before – leaving the kids with Si and Buck who were both outraged we were having a night away from the children.
Si: “When do we ever get a night out, mate?”
Buck: “Never, Mate.”
As we drive out of the Married Patch we grab each other’s hands like ‘Thelma and Louise’ – we have actually done it. We have left our children for a whole 24 hours!
When we eventually arrive at the Premier Inn, the plan is to order room service, a glass of wine and watch ‘Greatest Showman’ all cosied up in our kingsized bed. What actually happens is we eat our burger and chips, down two bottles of wine, talk throughout the film and pass out – Mandy managing to get dressed, me fully clothed – the TV flickering all night.
The next morning I am dying of heartburn, with a burning metallic mouth. Mandy says she isn’t coming with me, she’s staying in bed all day. I crawl, still clothed, to the bathroom and somehow manage to brush my teeth. Mandy bangs open the door and vomits into the toilet. “Oh no, it’s the virus!” She says. What virus? “The one me and my sisters get when we get pissed. Oh god, I think I’m allergic to alcohol.”
The site of her heaving over the porcelain cranks up my stomach juices and now I need to puke too. I burp battery acid, spit it into the basin, take my toothbrush and scrub the enamel of my teeth. I look at myself in the mirror. I told myself I wouldn’t do this. I have children now. Yet here I am again preparing for a day of gritting my eroded teeth, ‘pushing on through’ and pretending not to feel like a crushed bail of dung.
Mandy is sitting on the loo now. Her hair is like a scribble. She’s NOT coming, she says almost crying.
-Yes, you are.
-No, I can’t.
-You have to you can do this.
-You can’t make me.
-No, but if you were my friend you would.
-We are in this together.
We manage to swallow a few mouthfuls of Premier breakfast and arrive at the glass blowing centre. I think we are masking our woeful condition well, apart from drinking several pints of water each.
Martin, the ageing blower, with a thin grey ponytail and purple spectacles, shows me the pellets of Swedish silica which are melted at 1100 degrees in the furnace. When the glass is hot enough, using a blowing iron he shows me how to gather the white-hot liquid like honey, turning it all the time with a wooden dipper. I don my heat resistant gauntlets and wield the blowing iron from the furnace towards a steel scaffold on which to rest it. I am sweating like a spit-roasted pig and Mandy has the giggles as I almost take Martin out with the red-hot blowing iron. He grabs hold and places it on the scaffold. I step away from the blistering heat, which is making my head glow red.
It’s now time for me to blow. “The trick is to put a quick burst of air into the pipe and then trap it with the thumb to create the first bubble,” says Martin.
Mandy has now remembered to take photos with my ancient SLR. She crouches down to take some arty shots. Martin turns his pipe and directs me to shape the ‘gathered glass’ with a wet Financial Times (apparently the best owing to tighter grain). He pops his baton back inside the furnace to gather more molten glass and hands his pole to me. I keep turning it slowly and then take it over to a table coloured powders and glass crystals are laid out like a vast palate.
I cover the molten globule in emerald green and a fine white powder like a sugary swizzle stick. He takes his stick back and puts it in the hot ‘glory hole’ – I catch Mandy’s eye and we both snigger, still full of wine. I imagine blowing into Martin’s glory hole and making the fire rage with my ethanol breath.
Instead, he wants me to blow on his pipe. I put my lips to it and blow with all my might and the globule enlarges. A few more goes and it’s triple the size.
Martin transfers the globule from his blowing iron to a solid rod called a ‘punty.’ Using jacks he gets me to cut into the molten glass and then pull out the edges to give my ‘vase’ a quirky design. It is then cut from the baton and put in another furnace to cool slowly over several days.
Mandy and I are much more serious now. She is photographing the scene like Mario Testino and I am Ellie, off Countryfile. It’s going well until it’s Mandy’s turn to have ‘a blow’.
We trade gloves and camera and Mandy gets stuck in melting the glass pellets, whilst I become Tony Richardson (but without the porn and tattoos) capturing the scene for Vogue, no, Vanity Fair. In fact, I’m Annie Lebovitz. Far more salubrious. And Mandy is doing well dipping into Cobalts, vivid yellows and lilacs to give her creation colour. I move back to capture the moment, farther back, farther still… Mandy shrieks, “Nessa!” Just as my hoof makes contact with the display shelves behind, holding Martin’s most important creations over his lifetime of blowing. I turn and watch a vast perpendicular vase totter this way and that. It seems to be settling and then crash! It falls and what follows is a domino effect as piece after piece explodes on the floor in slow motion until his workshop looks like a 2am ram-raid.
I am standing open-mouthed. So is Mandy. Martin has his hand to his mouth and is going a strange shade of purple. FUCK. Oh FUCK.
And then Mandy and I make eye contact and I think ‘please not now’. Please don’t let my nervous reactions take over but I can’t stop them and I start to shake uncontrollably as the giggles take over my body like a disease. This is always what happened when I got into trouble at school or was accused of something I hadn’t done. I would start to giggle and condemn myself to a terrible punishment.
I internally slap my face and get my sh*t together.
But no amount of money, wine or even the offer of Mandy and I taking him to the pub for a proper p*ss up can console Martin. He doesn’t cry but he is devastated. We try to clear everything up, sweeping and salvaging what we can but in the end, he asks us to leave. And that’s when I can’t stop myself asking if he can send our vases in a few weeks time? He looks angry. “Maybe collect?” I venture.
Mandy drags me out, explaining something I already know – that I will never see our vases again as he will be ritually smashing them, whilst drinking neat vodka.
*formerly called Blagorodna