Tom and I go flat/house hunting in Peterborough. It’s an eye-opener; quite literally in one downstairs “converted” flat where the reek of damp, mould and something else I can’t quite put my finger on (and wouldn’t want to anyway) sends us both reeling and choking back our gag reflex. The skirting boards are black with mildew, and the walls are bubbling with so much moisture that you could almost believe they’re featuring some sort of eccentric architectural detailing.
The estate agent blithely points out the positive features – built-in wardrobe (hole in wall), shower (dismal cubicle with slither of Imperial Leather stuck to the tiles), windows – and when we ask about the elephant of damp that is loitering in every room, tells us that oh, it should soon clear up once the heating is switched on.
The second house has strips of wallpaper hanging down in flaps in the bedroom. I point these out, saying that presumably all this will be repaired once the flat is let. This estate agent doesn’t even bother to economise with the truth.
“No,” he says.
“Oh,” I say, at a loss for words.
The third house has rooms downstairs and upstairs, which is the best thing I can say about it. The landlord points the newly-fitted kitchen, but Tom – quite understandably, given its ramshackle appearance – clearly mishears this.
“And when will the new kitchen be fitted?” he asks, in a polite but improbable show of interest.
“It has been fitted,” says the landlord, hurt. “It is new.”
“Oh, yes,” says Tom, “I realise that, I just meant…” It’s a valiant attempt, but the awkward silence still hangs around. Much like the row of old lady pants that are flapping from next door’s clothes line. Thanks to the missing slats in the fence, there is a very good view of these from the kitchen window. Or there would be if the grime and cobwebs were removed.
It’s a depressing tour of Peterborough’s rental properties. Tom and I do our best to be positive, pointing out desirable features to each other in the various locations; close proximity to shops, prostitutes on the doorstep, stretches of barren landscape (or gardens, as they are euphemistically called), close proximity to shops (twice, because we run out of desirable features).
Eventually, we do find a flat that seems suspiciously perfect; Tom skypes Julia (who is still in the Seychelles, doing voluntary work for turtle conservation; if I was in the Seychelles, I would do my conserving on a beach, preferably from a sun lounger, with some sort of refreshing cocktail close to hand) and tells her about the flat and she is apparently “delighted”, although may be disappointed about the lack of prostitutes, who would presumably come in handy should an emergency cup of sugar be needed.
My dentist’s receptionist calls to remind me that I have an appointment tomorrow.
“Yes, I know, I’m looking forward to it immensely,” I say. “Don’t worry – I’ve spent the last few days flossing like a mad thing.”
She laughs, so nervously that I wonder if she misheard me and thought I said something other than flossing. Although what, I don’t know. Frosting perhaps? Maybe she now thinks I’ve made a cake which I’m busy icing in order to ingratiate myself with my dentist so that he overlooks all the plaque.
I waste an hour or so thinking up other words that sound a bit like flossing, imagining ever more surreal situations for which she may have mistaken my light-hearted comment.
It beats doing the ironing, anyway. But then, doesn’t everything?
To my disappointment, I am just greeted with routine politeness when I arrive at the dentist, so clearly yesterday’s hour of whimsical theories was completely pointless.
Going to the dentist nowadays is very different from my childhood visits. Back then, the first thing I saw – apart from The Chair of Torture – was a giant syringe all ready for the injection that I was bound to have for the filling I was bound to need. Looking back, I suspect my parents left me in the hands of a sadist for half an hour every six months. Some sort of punishment, no doubt, for neglecting to tidy my bedroom or forgetting to thank an aunty for a birthday present.
Nowadays, The Chair just looks like a comfy recliner, Radio Two is playing in the background, and my dentist smells of mint and aftershave rather than nicotine and beer. I haven’t had a filling for years, either.
Presumably because I do tidy my bedroom regularly these days.
My wardrobe is a disaster. Nothing suits me, fits me, or even remotely resembles anything I would want to wear. If it wasn’t winter, and I had the body of a baby seal rather than an ageing walrus, I would just stick to my underwear. Although I now have an unpleasantly literal, rather than figurative, image of myself doing this which is even more depressing.
But fashion advisers Trinny and Susannah – whose book I discover whilst skulking about in the library – can come to my rescue and bring me out of my walrus cocoon to transform me into a sophisticated butterfly. All I have to do, they reassure me, is work out my body shape.
There are a number of different shapes. I could be a Column, a Lollipop, a Pear or Cello, or a Brick. But I’m an Hourglass. I don’t want to be an Hourglass. As much as T&S try to make the best of it, and tell me it’s a very feminine shape, I know damn well that it just means I have lots of really sticky-out bits, and a couple of less sticky-out bits. There are pictures of clothes I should wear, being an Hourglass. None of them are the sort of clothes I would actually choose to wear. A two-buttoned cinched jacket with cropped sleeves and a pencil skirt, with saucy peep-toe shoes, or a tight dress that ‘clings to my voluptuous curves’, would not be my outfits of choice for emptying the bins or fishing out Tom’s stray socks from behind the sofa cushions.
Even the voluptuous model, after her makeover, looks uncomfortable in her reinforced skin-tight dress; her smile is definitely forced and she looks as if she’s holding her breath.
Nigella is an Hourglass, according to T&S. And she certainly does wear lots of snug cardigans, although I note she’s always craftily behind the worktop so I bet her bottom half is just in jeans and Ugg boots.
I could cope with following the snug cardigan rule if only my top half was on show. I could live my life like a pregnant soap star who’s not supposed to be pregnant in her story line, and just spend all my time standing behind tables, or clutching bags of shopping, or making sure a small child is directly in front of me.
Bricks and Lollipops have it much easier. In fact, I bet all the other shapes get together in their comfortable elasticated waistbands and flowing tops and laugh at the poor old Hourglass tottering about in her body-hugging outfits and peep-toe shoes.
But on the practical side, T&S have some tips on how to transform the outdated clothes in your wardrobe. Sweater with holes in the sleeves? Turn it into a tank top. Washed-out t-shirt? Dye it in a colour that brings out the colour of your eyes. Unflattering jacket? Add some cunning Vivienne Westwood style inverted pleats to the sleeves and a few darts to shape the waist. Designer dress that doesn’t suit your body shape? Take it to your dressmaker and ask her to turn it into a pair of curtains…no, must have drifted off here.
Of course, I know from experience that none of these tips will work for me. Sweater will be lopsided tanktop, frayed round the edges. Washing machine will be stained and turn all my whites into a peculiar pink. Inverted pleats will make me look as if I’m wearing my jacket inside out.
There is one obvious solution, of course. I just have to take out my contact lenses to instantly transform my wardrobe, and my body shape will become an acceptably blurry silhouette.
I might write to T&S and tell them about my new body shape. I’m calling it Amoeba.