Off to the den of pleasantness

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The Independent Online
People have been pointing out that it is hardly fair that Mrs North should feature in these little scenes of what the vicar calls rural squalor. Or at least that she should do so without the means of public redress for any indiscretions or, God help us, indelicacies that may slip in. These views, kindly meant, I'm sure, miss the enduring point that the best redress enjoyed by most married women is private.

She seems to take so much cheerfully in her elegant stride that I will risk saying how apposite was a remark by the painter from Ledbury with whom I go swimming. We were cleaving the chlorine together in Leominster pool when I said how Mrs North - powering up and down, a couple of lengths to any one of mine - was always on the go. 'A perfect design with one fatal flaw,' he said, gnomically.

Since he is a visual person, I have never been surprised that he is not a word-squanderer. He is attended to all the more, of course. Apparently, the National Geographic, or the Smithsonian magazine, or one of his other sources of information had so described the shark, because that poor fish sinks when it ceases to swim.

The aphorism is certainly true of Mrs North. She has a great soul and certain inner calm. Three times she went into University College Hospital, London, and parturition seemed to trouble her little more than it is troubling the sheep in the furtive spring getting on with its unfussed green shoots. Her bates with the children - as this one strumpets about Hereford, or that one forgets his football boots for the village team practice, or the little one seems interested only in hairdryers - are just reflex reactions. So much of her being is taken up with loving the little beggars that she wouldn't want her angry side to be left out of it.

Still, she simply cannot stop. In the pool the other day we distracted her with the thought that she always swims 20 lengths, then gets straight out to change, with never a thought for a drift or a daydream. She was cross, momentarily: having lost count of her laps, she felt obliged to do another four or five.

She ploughs up and down, up and down, like a water vole with a river to cross, or an ocean liner with celebrities to deliver, or a Cockleshell Hero off on a rendezvous with Jerry in Dieppe harbour. Even the assembled clutch of handsome and plain, plump and lissom ladies of a certain age, gathered at one end of the pool for their Aqua Tone ('Tired of ordinary aerobics?') session, pause sometimes as the stereo pumps out Simply Red, and grin at one another for the sheer absurdity of it all. Their exercise session ended, they are exhorted merely to float, and they do so luxuriously, somehow managing to combine the effect of frog and lily pad. Mrs North does her lengths and gets out.

But there's something else: I find that a man with his feet up in the front room, newspaper or Royal Academy catalogue of watercolours in his hand, can attract her and the whirring vacuum cleaner in an osmotic way. I am lying there, marvelling at those Ruskin wild bowers, or the vandalism of the people who robbed Hereford of its timbered market house that apparently was even more glorious than Leominster's (painted by John Varley in 1801), or at the primordial wildernesses that were Hyde Park or Primrose Hill or Kensington Gardens (as painted by John Linnell in 1811 and 1812). Bliss. But I can hear the inexorable whirring of the AEG. The upstairs landing, the stairs, the hall, then she bursts into the room, silent, determined, armed, like the SAS rescuers who live and train all round here. She roars around, tutting over the immense roar of the machine. She cannot stand indolence.

I, on the other hand, have only just begun my exploration of it. Remember to be, not to do, says the vicar. I realise now: I have not lost my health, I have gained the realisation that one is wasting one's time when one is not still. In the hospital the other day, a young doctor wired me up to a machine and said that I had the perfect beta-blocked heart. I glanced at the line on the screen. It was completely flat. I think a dead man's heartbeat couldn't produce a more boring line than mine did.

I wanted to talk to the doctor, but her bleeper summoned her to fly off and put the jump leads on someone in a ward. The thing is, all these beta-blockers seem to make me jumpy, which I understand is not the idea. Waiting for the specialist to come back, I met a woman who agreed with me that, if you're on these things, you also need dope to replace the quiet they take away.

This new aquaintance has also given up drink and smoking, so we have entered into a ganja pact. I have the feeling that we shall find some good stuff somewhere up the Golden Valley, which runs westish out of Hereford into bandit country; a man there already supplies me with mildly erotic videos, so I think of it as a den of pleasantnesses. It is full of Sixties deadbeats.

If I can lay my hands on dope, I shall offer some to a woman I think of as the improbable saint of this village. She likes a gin and is devoted to showing a good time to the old folks in a home near here. She and Mrs North spin them off to a pub in Hereford and try to make sure the diabetics don't get full-blooded tonics or anything. Anyway, the improbable saint has glaucoma, and I have been able to tell her that Bob Marley points out how useful the herb is to that condition.

She thinks I shall turn her into a drug-fiend (she reads the Express). I do worry, of course, about breaking the law, and the children have made me promise not to go for anything harder than the weed or the resin without serious consultation with them. Of course, the only person whose disapproval has the power to trouble me is Mrs North. I must find the right moment to ask her views.

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