OI!

I’ve coined a new phrase, or perhaps identified a character trait, or at least christened a well -known characteristic. I call it the the OI factor. Reader, you will know someone with the OI factor. In fact you may, like me know several persons with this unfortunate and debilitating feature of their personality.

OI stands for opinionated ignorance. Myself, I know a number of people with this affliction. One is a near neighbour. I am safe to mention it since the person is unlikely to read this blog, but were he to dip into ‘Anecdotage’ and read this post he would not recognise himself. He indulges almost daily in a selfless mission to help all of us, his neighbours, with advice on how to improve our gardens, enhance our houses and live our lives. He is a deep well of ignorance about what we should drink and which supermarket we patronise. Apparently we don’t have enough pictures on our walls. He has even been known to provide me with top tips regarding doing our laundry. [I should wash everything on a thirty five minute cycle and must not ever iron items.]

Another of the afflicted can be found at the local pub. Rather than holding forth on a broad range of advice subjects, however he tends towards labouring his point whilst increasing the volume of his voice; many of his views [in an uncanny similarity to Neighbour] concern the upgrading of our home.

There are also members of our family who have the OI factor. On the increasingly rare occasions when we meet, one of my own siblings [again there is no danger of his reading this] likes to pass his opinion on the subject of camper vans, a topic which regular visitors to Anecdotage will know is not only dear to Husband and my hearts but is one that, after six or seven years we may know a little about ourselves. But Brother considers himself to be an expert, despite having never in his entire [seventy year] life experiencing a single journey in a camper or a motorhome. He is a devotee of cruising, the mechanics of which I confess to knowing nothing at all about apart from having watched the antics of a ‘tender’ coming and going in a fjord to take the passengers into a gift shop and return to the eyesore that was their ship, and having undertaken a few lengthy ferry crossings [and very tedious they were, too].

Here in the UK we are experiencing an explosion of OI factor all over the media as the dastardly election approaches. There is a veritable glut of OIks blabbing about how we should all live our lives and pretending to know how other’s lives are lived. It all reminds me of Margaret Thatcher earnestly telling a reporter she knew how the other half lived because she ‘didn’t even have living-in help any more’…

I’m ready for a quiet, soothing blanket of self-deprecation; a refreshing confession of ignorance, some heart-warming humility but feel this is unlikely to occur any time soon.

 

 

 

 

There are members of my family [distant geographically].

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Fiction Month: The Courtyard Pest

             A new, two-part  story  begins today. Nancy has moved to be near her daughter but has left her old life behind. How will she adjust? A neighbour is offering support; or is he?

The Courtyard Pest

                  Nancy wakes again. The grey glow of an autumn dawn is seeping between the curtains. This room is still new, shadows in strange places. She pushes the quilt back, eases pale legs over the bedside then pads across the carpet to the en-suite, shaking her head at the incongruity of it. An ‘en-suite’! Imagine!

On the way back she pauses by the window to peer out at her tiny patch of yard, bare except for the wooden bench, a flat-warming gift from Sarah. “What will you do with this courtyard?” her daughter had asked her as they sat on it, only three days ago. Nancy shrugged. “Not sure yet. A few pots. A bird feeder.”

Sarah laughed. “You and your birds!”

But they were company; bird company was easier to come by in a strange town than the human sort.

There is a movement, a flicker in the passageway outside the yard gate, caught in the corner of her eye as she stares. But it is nothing; a moving branch across the faint light. She sighs. It is still only six. She must try to get back to sleep. The days are already too long to fill.

She is washing up her breakfast bowl when the doorbell rings, a shrill unaccustomed sound above the murmur of the radio news programme. A silhouette fills the door’s frosted glass as she fumbles with the key. “Won’t be a minute!” she calls and at last the door yields, revealing Jeffery, from number five. He leans down towards her, eyes protuberant in his florid complexion. “Is the door a bit stiff? I can fix it, if you like.”

She knows her smile is weak. “It’s just new, that’s all; new to me.”

Clad in a beige waistcoat with pockets, he is grasping a canvas shopping bag. “I’m off down the road. Can I get anything for you? Hexton’s bread is marvellous. Shall I get you a loaf? And I’m going to D0-IT-ALL for a few bits this afternoon if you need anything”.

It is only eight. Early, Nancy thinks, to be setting off for the shops. What time does he get up, this neighbour? She has a sense that he must have been waiting until it was an acceptable time to call on her. She shakes her head. “It’s kind of you but I’m going out myself later.”

“Like a lift?” He breaks in. Too fast. She maintains the narrow opening, lifting her chin. “I shall walk. I like to walk. It does me good.”

He takes a step back and she lets out a breath.

“OK. By the way-watch out for rats, won’t you? Some have been seen in the alley at the back. They’re probably from the social housing in the close. Vermin, that’s what they are.” Nancy nods, unsure whether he means the rats or the residents of the housing association development opposite their flats.

He turns with a wave and withdraws, swinging the canvas shopping bag as he plods around the corner.

Later, as she drifts along the unfamiliar High Street Nancy wonders if she should have asked Jeffery to fetch her some compost for her courtyard pots. Has she been a little hard on him? He is only being neighbourly. She did ask Sarah if Danny might be able to take her to the garden centre but they are so busy all the time.

It had been Sarah’s idea for her to move here, to be nearer the family. Nancy was reluctant at first, then attracted by the notion that she might be of some help now that Sarah and Danny were both working full time. She’d thought she might be able to collect the boys from school, help with homework, even make some meals when the parents had to work late. But Sarah pointed out that the boys had little need of childcare and either went to clubs and after school activities or messed about with their friends.

Nancy stops to study a display in the window of ‘Chic Shack’, a small shop selling household items, many of which appear to have been made from driftwood, or been painted and subsequently had patches worn off. She snorts. These are things that wouldn’t have got into a jumble sale in her day.

Since she moved to be near Sarah she’s had no more contact with her and the boys than she did when she was seventy eight miles away. At least then they’d talked on the phone every evening.

Later, when she’s finished clearing up her supper things and is settled in front of the TV the phone rings.

“Will you be in tomorrow evening, Mum? Danny can drop your compost off then. He’ll pick it up on the way home from work”.

Nancy had been looking forward to a morning at the garden centre and had been going to suggest she treat them all to lunch. “It’s very kind, when he’s so busy.”

“It’s nothing. How are you settling in? How are the neighbours?”

“Oh-the couple in the flat above are very nice. They say Good Morning”. She hesitates. Jaqui and David are polite but self-contained and disinterested.

“Anyone else?”

“There’s Jeffery.”

“Is that the man with the wild, grey hair and the county accent?” Sarah met Jeffery when Nancy was moving in. He’d been on the forecourt sweeping up and had introduced himself, shaking their hands and offering assistance. “Has he been a nuisance?”

“No. He’s friendly enough. I’ll see you later.”

“Not me, I’m afraid Mum. Just Danny. I’ve got to collect Lewis from football training.”

Danny arrives with the compost, leaving the engine running while he heaves the bags into the small yard outside her living room and waving a cheerful goodbye as he drives off. Nancy surveys the three bags stacked against the fence. At least she’ll have something to be getting on with tomorrow. She can’t get to the garden centre for spring bulbs but the ‘Supercuts’ shop had some mixed bags on offer outside in a basket. She is about to close the curtains when a face appears above the fence, prompting her to cry out in alarm, hand over her mouth. An arm waves at her. She opens the patio door. Jeffery.

“You’ve got your compost then? Want a hand with the planters tomorrow? I can bring a trowel.”

She sighs. “Alright. Just not too early.”

Nancy’s sleep is restless. In her dreams giant rats stream over the gate, flooding her tiny yard, squeaking at her, hectoring, chastising, although she can’t catch the words. She wakes many times, hears scraping sounds, feels disorientated and sleeps on to an unaccustomed eight o’clock.

She is on the phone when the doorbell rings, chatting to Meg. When she’d heard her friend’s voice she’d visualised her unruly hair and bright lipstick and felt tears pricking her eyes. ‘Yes’ she tells Meg, ‘the move was fine. The flat is perfect. Just what I wanted.’ She doesn’t say it was what Sarah wanted.

“And how have you been, dear? Any more falls?”

Nancy shakes her head then realises Meg can’t see. “No. And I don’t need to use the stick Sarah got me. I’m as steady on my feet as I’ve ever been. I’m not sleeping well, but I suppose it’s just the newness of the place.”

There is a pause.

“We all miss you here, Nancy. ‘The Nettlehide Players’ isn’t the same without you.” The tears are threatening again. “We should arrange a meet up. Shall we? A weekend, even! There’s always the coach-why don’t you come to me? Or I’ll come down if you’ve room. What do you say?”

“I’d like that.”  The bell is ringing. “I have to go, Meg. We’ll arrange it.”

Jeffery is wearing overalls and brandishing a trowel. “I’m not quite ready” she tells him. “You’d better come in. Would you like a cup of coffee?” He takes up all the space in her miniature kitchen, scrutinising the tiny room, unabashed.

“You don’t have much…” he sweeps the trowel around at the walls “…stuff, do you? My place is an Aladdin’s Cave! You must come round.” She brushes past him to get to the kettle before reaching into a cupboard for a small jar of Nescafe. “Could I have tea? I’m not a fan of instant. I grind my own beans. Costa Rican. A friend gets them for me. Have you tried Costa Rican? It’s marvellous!” She replaces the jar and pulls out tea bags. “I’ve got a spare tea pot at mine. Do you want it?” he asks, watching her. She takes the two mugs of tea outside and places them on the wooden seat.

“Where are you having the pots?” Jeffery gestures at the tall, terracotta planters which are dotted about on the paving slabs in what Nancy considers a satisfying, random arrangement. She stares at him.

“They’re staying where they are.” Nancy’s chin lifts a little then she stoops to take the bags of bulbs from under the bench. He shrugs. “I prefer a bit of symmetry myself.”

When Nancy can take no more advice about which bulbs to put where she goes in to make more tea. They sit on the bench to drink it.

“So, Nancy, what did your husband used to do?”

She frowns at the paving slabs by her feet, taking a sip of the tea. “I’m sorry?”

“Your husband. What was his line of work?-if you don’t mind me asking. I was a financial adviser myself. Got it all up here still.” He places a finger on his unruly hair. “If you need any help with investments, that kind of thing, you have only to ask!”

She is silent for a moment, placing the mug on her lap between her hands.

“I’ve never been married”.

“Oh I’m so sorry!” he blurts, drops of tea splashing on to his overalls.  “I’ve been married three times. Had five children. Not that I see much of them of course. They’re spread far and wide. One in Singapore, one in America. I expect they’d contact me if they were in trouble. No news is good news, as they say.”

Nancy stands up and holds out her hand for his cup. “Thanks for helping. I’ll have to leave it there for now, though. I have an appointment after lunch and will need to clear up and get changed.”

 

The Crackling Feast [Part 2]

As Alex’s repugnance at the hog roast grows, her sister Chrissie’s appetite for the savoury treat increases. Chrissie and Simon seem to have developed a relationship. What have they been up to? And where has Jacintha gone?

The Crackling Feast concludes today. Part one is in the previous post.

 

Their father had been unusual in leaving express instructions that he didn’t want a funeral. He’d wanted this; a celebration, party, get together-call it what you like. He’d left it to Jacintha to issue invitations so she’d been surprised to have received the card-an elaborate, hand-painted creation on Jacintha’s own, customised, recycled paper. The woman had not been immune to the sisters’ antipathy, since they’d been at best Luke-warm when they’d greeted her at their infrequent meetings with their father. She must have realised she was the reason their visits had dwindled to annually, duty stops while en route somewhere. ‘Just a cup of tea, don’t want to put you to any trouble’. Jacintha would produce some herbal infusion picked from the hedgerows and proffer something inedible like nettle scones with tofu. It occurs to Alex now that these efforts may have been attempts to buy their approval, though in her own unorthodox way. Their father never commented on their lack of warmth towards his new wife, nor did he complain at the sporadic nature of their visits. Perhaps he felt it was the price he’d paid for her, for Jacintha; to lose the affections of his daughters.

Chrissie and Simon have settled at a table with their plates of hog roast. Chrissie appears to have overcome her repugnance and is tucking into a pork roll with gusto in between slugs of wine and peals of laughter at whatever Simon Patterson is saying. She glances at Alex then says something to him before getting up and approaching her, stumbling a little on her spindly heels. She sits down and drapes an arm around her younger sister, close enough for Alex to smell her hot, grease and wine laden breath.

“You should get something to eat, Alex. It’s really very good.”

“In a minute.” Alex stares at her lap. She and Chrissie have grown apart, their mother having been the glue that cemented their closeness as sisters. Now they rarely see each other and on the occasions when they do they’ve only had the one same conversation, one shared dislike of Jacintha. After a few minutes she allows Christina to pull her up and tow her to the table where Simon still sits and accept the glass of wine her gets for her. The plate she is handed is loaded with a pork roll, cole-slaw, apple sauce and a heap of greasy crackling, brown scored skin with a few blackened hairs still clinging. She nibbles at the roll and salad.

“So you’ve left the family at home then, Alex?” Simon Patterson is making an attempt at small talk. She shrugs. “It didn’t seem fair to drag them up here.”

Chrissie makes a face. “I’d have got to see my nephews! You’ve deprived me of the pleasure!” Alex looks sideways at her sister, who has never been shy about expressing her dislike of children.

The solicitor continues “She is quite a character though, Jacintha-a strange choice for your father to have made, don’t you think? All those odd tattoos in Greek letters and the dreadlocks?”

Alex puts her plastic fork down. “I suppose she made him feel younger-and I expect he got lonely. You must know where she is now though, don’t you? You must have been acting for them both-for Jacintha and our father?”

Chrissie is watching them, her small, white teeth nibbling on a piece of pork scratching. There are faint vestiges of blue ink near her fingers, indicating that this must be from the etched area of pig. Alex feels her stomach lurch as she recalls Jacintha’s ample, decorated thighs. Simon laughs. “All will be revealed” he tells her as the distant ringing of a spoon against a glass signals silence among the revellers.

The vicar asks for their indulgence, rising from his seat, paper in hand. He has a message for all of them, from Jacintha:

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all having a wonderful afternoon in the sunshine enjoying the good company, the delicious food and wine and the memories.

Edgar and I were only together for a short time before he was cruelly taken but for me it was the happiest time of my whole life…

Alex glances at her sister, who raises her eyes to heaven.

I ask you to understand that I am not able to be with you today to celebrate Edgar’s life as it is too soon for me to face people who knew us as a couple. In order to grieve I am leaving for pastures new and will be settling in Corfu where I am setting up a studio in order that my emotions can find an outlet in my work.

So it’s ‘Goodbye’. Bless you all and enjoy the remainder of the party.

In Edgar’s memory

Jacintha.

There is a pause before the guests begin to murmur again. Chrissie is still clutching the spear of pig skin marked in blue ink. Alex sees her peer at it, then across at Simon Patterson who returns her look with an almost imperceptible wink.

 

About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.

Journey to the Centre of the Colon-a gastric Odyssey [with apologies to Jules Verne]

I made a promise when I began this blog-the ramblings of an ageing female-that health issues would not be at the forefront of every post. Every now and then, however there is bound to be some blot on the fitness horizon and this particular blot appears to have eclipsed normal life like a blackout curtain.

In an ironic curve the disease I have eventually been diagnosed with is not at all age related, more an unfortunate plague of a far younger demographic. What is it? It is ulcerative colitis; nasty and incurable, yes, life threatening-well no, supposedly not, except that the odds of more sinister complaints are increased.

Whilst Fiction Month was running its [highly satisfactory] course the writer was undergoing many weeks of initial terror followed by exhaustion and desperation as the slow wheels of our UK health service ground along; well-meaning and efficient but over-stretched and ponderous.

During the past two months life has shrunk back within the walls of the house, where access to bathroom facilities provides a secure reassurance-for now, the only factor that matters. This disease, as all inflammatory bowel diseases [Crohn’s is another] is neither romantic nor noble, reducing us, the sufferers to the most basic of needs- a toilet and means of cleaning up. A walk, shopping trip or evening out becomes an activity to be undertaken with trepidation and vast amounts of planning, but mostly not at all.

With Christmas rearing up I fall eagerly on the reassuring presence of the internet while fantasising about strolling around Christmas markets, choosing ‘real’ items, stopping for coffees, enjoying the ambience of the ‘Alpine Bar’ that popped up in our local town [according to Facebook].

Between sojourns enclosed within the shiny, tiled cell of the lavatory I have enjoyed the luxury of unlimited research time, during which I have discovered the unfathomable ocean of misery that is undergone by those who suffer chronic illness. I am castigated by the small but dedicated carers that are my immediate family for doing this, but to me, ignorance can never be a pleasure. The more I know, the better I am prepared.

The GP [local doctor] who was my first port of call has kindly followed up with inquiries regarding diagnosis and progress but clearly is at a loss to know how to provide cheer amid the gloom. ‘You are on a journey’, she tells me and I refrain from advising her that my travel plans have reduced down to the few steps it takes to achieve the safety of the loo. She does mean well.

In all I have not failed to recognise that I am extremely lucky to have Husband-supporting without false cheer, and Offspring-resilient in her newly acquired nurse’s knowledge. Messages, however brief, from some of those who I’ve plucked up the courage to inform are more appreciated than they can know.

So far treatment cannot be described as an unmitigated success, although I recognise it is still ‘early days’ and that there are further options along what the doctor calls the ‘journey’.

I am learning to appreciate home comforts and I am catching up [via the wonder that is ‘Blinkbox’] on TV and film I missed when I was engaged in more worthy activities.

One tragic casualty has been my writing, the pursuit of which has escaped me. This may change-who knows? What a blessing we none of us know what lies ahead!

The B&B Rant

A lot of people swear by B&Bs for their holiday accommodation needs. B&Bs, guest houses, chambers d’hotes-whatever you like to call them-differ from hotels in a variety of ways, but personally I would prefer to eat my own hair than stay in them.
The reasons fans of B&Bs give for loving them are varied, but rely on the principle of the ‘personal touch’. They say things like ‘such nice people’, ‘just like family’, ‘home from home’ and it is just this that provokes me to shudder at the idea of staying in one. This judgement does not come from hearsay, reportage or conversation but from real, empirical research. In other words, my experiences of said places have been entirely negative.
I don’t want to stay in someone’s home. I can manage [just about] to stay with close family members for up to two nights, perhaps but even then I find it hard to manage.
I don’t want to sleep in an overheated, tiny, stuffy room crammed with family photos, ornaments, souvenirs of Brixham, lace doilies and knick-knacks. I don’t want to be suffocated by an enormous cloud of puffy duvet.
We are not the earliest of risers. I want a lovely, exclusive en suite [for night time needs, if nothing else] and at least two cups of tea before I face anyone [Husband excluded of course]. I may want to slob about pre-ablution watching News 24.
When I do surface, I don’t really want to eat anything until at least late morning, and then I am not able to cope with ‘full English’ [in other words: cereal followed by bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding, toast and marmalade].
Most of all though I don’t wish to sit at the breakfast table and make small talk with the ‘friendly, welcoming’ host or hostess. I don’t want their life story, learn what their grandchildren are studying at university or where they have been for their holidays.
If all this makes me sound humbug I don’t care. Give me a plain, simple, anonymous hotel. It doesn’t need a stupendous view, an infinity pool, a Michelin starred restaurant or four posters [although they can be fun…]. I want to be able to use a breakfast buffet-preferably up until eleven or so. I want tea and coffee making facilities [biscuits are always a bonus]. I want a TV I can watch from the bed. I want a firm, clean, comfortable bed with options for temperature control [ie covers to put on or remove]. I want a clean, efficient en suite with a shower that doesn’t need a degree in engineering to operate. Ideally, some beautiful toiletries are provided. I’d really like a late night bar where I can grab a last glass of wine before I turn in. I’d like INTERNET [included in the price!]. I’d like pleasant, non intrusive service.
I don’t mind that it is part of a ‘chain’ and every room is the same. It needn’t have an Alpine or Namibian Desert view.
Otherwise-give me a comfortable, efficient camper van, which does have ensuite, tea & coffee making, glass of wine and TV-and I don’t need to talk to anyone [Husband excluded]…