End of story

IT'S THAT time of year again: foul weather, flu, final reminders. This morning I got a bill from my solicitor. It said: "Dear Mr Clarke, To seeing you in the street, crossing the road and saying good morning to you - and finding that it wasn't you... pounds 75." And this flu is a terrible thing. I went to the doctor last week to tell him about a skin rash I'd picked up, and the waiting-room looked like a field dressing station during the Battle of the Somme. Weighing it up, I thought I'd stick with the eczema and legged it.

The lady next door, Mrs Pike, was so bad with it, she had to stay in bed for several days. This gave her grown-up son, Gary - a thick-set man with learning difficulties - the chance to stand at the window and look out. Gary is a lovely, simple-hearted bloke who likes nothing better than to look out of the window. But for some reason his mother is sensitive about it. I can sometimes hear her through the wall. "Come away from that window, Gary!" she yells. "You're always looking out of that window. Keep back!"

This gets Gary down. If I see Gary looking inordinately gloomy, it is always because his mum has been getting on to him about the window again.

But with his mother confined to bed, Gary was able to indulge his innocuous habit to the full. Whenever I passed by, there he was standing in the window. When he saw me he'd give me a triumphant grin and do a double thumbs-up.

That's not to say that Gary doesn't love his mum, because he does - passionately. He calls her Darling. "It's Darling's birthday next month, Jel," he told me yesterday. As he was hoping I would, I asked him what he was thinking of getting her. (Apart from standing at the window, Gary spends a good deal of time planning and buying birthday presents.)

"I'm getting her a clothes-horse, Jel," he said decisively.

"It's for her clothes," he added.

To make Januarys worse - just to rub in the fact that we live and die in an awful climate - it is the time of year they put the holiday adverts on the telly. You're sitting there watching daytime television with a hot Lem-Sip and one bar of the electric fire on. The rain is hammering against the window. Although it's early afternoon, it's too dark even to write a will. The adverts come on and you find yourself looking at an attractive, sun-kissed family gambolling in a pellucid lagoon somewhere in a tropical paradise. And in your depressed state you begin to wonder whether the whole project of northern Protestant liberal capitalism is to convince those living under it that everybody else is having a far better time than they are.

Having said that, the palm-fringed tropical paradise that I visited a couple of winters ago was a nightmare. It looked idyllic - white sand, blue sea, coral reef and all that - but it was neither as tranquil nor as sexy as I had been led to believe by the Bounty adverts and such like.

For a start it was much too hot actually to sit on the beach. And if I stayed in the shade of the palm trees, the flies there bit great lumps out of me and I was in danger of being killed by falling coconuts. A walk along the beach was out of the question because the sand was too hot to walk on. A wander in the rainforest was also a bad idea, they told me, because I was likely to be mugged by starving peasants.

I tried gambolling in the pellucid lagoon - hoping and praying I didn't tread on one of those creatures that shoot poisonous spines through the feet of innocent holidaymakers. This soon palled - it is difficult to gambol alone - and I tried swimming. But the water was too shallow. After wading at least 300 yards out to the coral reef, I found the water still only knee-deep. Then I slashed my foot on the coral and bled all over the place. Hobbling back to my beach chalet to clear up, I surprised a goat in the bedroom. It was standing on the bed eating my John Grisham novel.

I suppose if I had to choose I'd prefer a gashed foot, sunburn and a goat on the bed to a cold and rainswept London. But only just.

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