Friday, 23 October 2015

The Private Dining Club

Augustus, known to his parents as Colin, was an aspiring chef dedicated to reviving obscure and somewhat scary recipes sourced from ancient, grease-spattered cookery books. This passion was somewhat at odds with his day-job as a retail assistant in a high street book shop.  When not grappling with heavy boxes or assisting customers who could only recall vague details about the book they simply had to have,  he would be found tucked away in the Food and Drink section.  Not for him the populist writings of Nigella, Gordon and Jamie - his tastes were far more refined and esoteric. But a quick look at some food porn helped him cope with the boredom of recommending the latest Dan Brown novel.

Gus's friends loved his cooking - largely because they were mostly too lazy to cook themselves and good old Gus always over-catered.  The downside of "just passing by and we thought we would drop in" was having to try his various food experiments involving fiery spices, arcane hard-to-source herbs, ragged looking foraged flora and unyielding cuts of meat and clumps of offal.  Augustus (nee Colin) was taking his art to a wider audience through the medium of his Private Dining Club.  Having managed to persuade the local wine shop that it would be a huge benefit to their business to have eight strangers eat dinner in the rather austere surrounds of the "tasting room", his plans were accelerated.  Elaborate menus were planned and rejected; seasonal ingredients to be sourced within 5 miles were bought or foraged from secret copses or tracts of railway embankment.  The hedonistic lure of the Private Dining Club, the first of its kind in Bogborough, worked a charm on those bored with their regular haunt, The Lamb to Slaughter's, pie-based menu.  Extensive use of social media, screeds of florid prose about the menu and the promise of a "gourmet experience" was sufficient to dun eight victims into parting with "£30 per head including a drink on arrival."

Gus had promised a stylishly themed and decorated venue to complement his Blummenthalesque feast.  Thus he needed to call upon the services of Jasper, his friend and general dogsbody, to supply suitable props. Luckily, Jasper dabbled in antiques and dwelt in a converted gardener's bothy crammed with eclectic furnishings.  His haul of copper cookware, enamel pots, crazed Georgian plates, heavy crystal glasses and exquisite French napery was piled into his ancient Land Rover.  Additional props such as leather suitcases, calfskin bound books, sporting paraphenalia, old parlour games, apothecary bottles and taxidermy were added to the mix.  The desired effect was a mash-up of Old Gentlemen's Club and A Night at the Museum.

Come the night and Gus found that he had bitten off rather more than he could chew.  The very small kitchen at the venue was not conducive to producing a meal for 8 guests all at the same time.  The first course, a foraged medley of wild mushrooms served in a puff pasty Pithivier was burnt on top and rather undercooked elsewhere.  The horseradish cream proved bitter - possibly the foraged horseradish was not as fresh as it might have been.  As the food was at least 30 minutes late, the guests had staved off their hunger pangs on the delicious bread obtained at vast expense from the local deli "The Ravenous Radish".  Drink, purchased from the wine shop below, flowed freely and by the time the main course appeared, most of the eight guinea pigs were rather well-oiled.  By now Gus was sweating profusely, his hipster beard glistening with moisture as he battled to bring his meal to "The Pass".  Jasper who had been co-opted to wait tables hovered uselessly as he watched the guests become progressively drunker.

Finally, the main course was ready to serve.  Ambitiously, Gus had decided to serve orange-glazed suckling pig complete with an orange stuffed into its gaping mouth.  Vast pewter platters of wild leaf salad and gargantuan tureens of slow roasted root vegetables fought for space, whilst the perma-tanned porker took up most of the table. Carving was a dangerous experience, as the knive slipped off the glossy crackling, baked to conker-hardness.  Eventually, large slabs of pork were hewn and guests were able to begin the feast.  The saltiness of the crackling exacerbated the need for large gulps of wine - by now, all pretence of "tasting" the wine had vanished.  Bottle after bottle was ordered to sate the thirst of the diners.  Gus and Jasper had also imbibed freely, somewhat undermining their capacity to bring the meal to its expected Grand Finale.

The pudding was an interesting creation, involving wild berries marinated in a homemade rosehip liquer.  This intoxicating mixture was then cooked in a batter like substance, to create a clafoutis.  By now the diners' stomachs had exceeded their natural limit and the prospect of further carb-loading was somewhat of a challenge.  Nonetheless, they manfully forced down Gus's leaden creation, topped up with a glass of Austrian dessert wine and then a bucketful of coffee.

Somewhat exhausted by his Herculean efforts, Gus was confronted by an enormous pile of washing up.  The tiny sink in the kitchen was unequal to the task of cleansing the over-sized tableware and the dishwasher too harsh an environment for the antique plates and silver.  All the dishes were bundled back into the Land Rover to travel to the capacious butler's sink in Jasper's kitchen.  Tempers were frayed as the clearing up and packing dragged into the night.  The guests refused to leave, making their last cups of coffee and dregs of wine spin into the small hours.  Finally, Jasper persuaded them to go and the last items were stowed. 

In the cold light of the next day, Gus added up the costs of the event including buying a very expensive bottle of port as a thank you for Jasper.  And compensating the wine merchant for some missing bottles of wine that had not been accounted for on the night.  With all of that taken into consideration, Gus had made a profit of £12.50.   Guest reviews were lukewarm at best, as the party nursed heavy hangovers and rather queasy stomachs unused to such rich provender.  The dream of a Michelin Star seemed distant.  Good news, though - Gus had applied to be on The Great British Dinner Party Challenge and had just heard that he had got selected.  A perfect way to launch his career as a master chef.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The chicken ladies....

Amongst the vintage and decorative living fair cognoscenti, chicken keeping was a great passion.  Like any epidemic, it started with one carrier and then the virus spread particularly affecting those wearing linen and visiting country vintage fairs.  Suddenly, small talk was all about hen houses and where to obtain the best-looking  hens and the procurement of various galvanised containers for feed and water.

Much like the hens themselves, there was a pecking order amongst the ladies.  The Chief Henkeeper was a countrywoman of standing who bred hens from her picturesque but tumbledown cottage and gardens.  Hens roamed freely in her wildflower meadow, housed in a variety of ramshackle timber buildings.  Her word was law on the merits of different sorts and sizes of bird, types of hen house, feeding regimes and hen health.  As Chief Henkeeper, she supplied her avid disciples with their livestock, having inducted them into the Dark Arts of hen husbandry at one of her jolly Hen Parties aka chicken keeping courses.

At a slightly lower ranking than the CH, Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was another reliable source of handy hen hints.  Not for her the fancy Frizzle or the pretty Pekin; her poultry de jour were rescue hens obtained from the Happy Hen Foundation.  The HHF regularly liberated battery hens and then sought loving homes for their scraggy ex-captives. Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was not deterred by the balding appearance of these unlovely creatures.  A few weeks in her tender care and the little darlings would be sporting glossy feathers and beginning to enjoy their freedom.  Mrs SH had a massive flock, being a soft touch for a sad story.  This was alongside her motley menagerie of rescued dogs, stray cats, a one-legged parrot and two ancient sheep that occupied her very untidy garden.  Neighbours had long given up complaining about the farmyard noises and smells, bought off with copious trays of free eggs.

The Young Pretender was desperate to achieve the heady heights of knowledge of the Chief Henkeeper.  Not for her the shabby secondhand-on-Freecycle henhouse or the converted garden shed.  She had been lured into buying an Heirloom Henhouse, as advertised in "Country Cottage and House" magazine.  The pretty Gothic style structure, softly painted in eggshell Barrow and Fall Liberty Bodice pink created a perfect bucolic vision in her well tended gardens.

Mrs YP could not countenance anything less than "divine" or "pretty" in her line of vision and thus, rescued hens were not on her agenda.  Poring over "Henkeeping Style  - the magazine for the country home henkeeper"  she was torn between Bantams,Silkies or even Pekins.  The dainty bantam with its tiny eggs would be a fitting occupant of her chicken Doll House.  But the Silkies were just so very lovely and as for the Lavender Pekins, she positively drooled over their pin-up portraits in Hen of the Month. Her husband, Jonty, sarcastically referred to these magazines as Chicken Porn.  In the end, the Chief Henkeeper had graciously supplied her with 6 bantams and her 7-year apprenticeship had began.  The CH's Hen Hotline was constantly engaged with lengthy calls about why one chicken was pecking another, or why no eggs had yet been laid.

Ms Urban Chick had a completely different style.  Her longing for an aesthetic yet functionally  designed hen house for her pocket-sized town garden had been assuaged by a trendy Egloo.  A funky purple dome now stood on her tiny lawn complete with two brown hens.  Whilst not the fanciest birds, there was something pleasing about their utilitarian shape and their willingness to produce regular brown eggs. Ms Urban Chick's reading matter "The Urban Hen" mixed helpful advice with fuzzy focus shots of pet hens and the poetic hen-inspired offerings of 9-year old girls.

Aspiring hen keepers could apply to join the ranks of the established Chicken Ladies, but would have to undergo a lengthy initiation first.  Attendance at a Hen Party was the entry point; the purchase of a hen house painted a romantic pastel shade and almost the cost of a second home in France was also obligatory; a selection of hens chosen only for their pretty feathers and picturesque appearance was usually a requirement unless a special case could be made for rescue hens.  Having passed through this process, piles of unread "Henkeeper's Weekly", regular visits to the country store and an ongoing battles against foxes, rats and red mite would become part and parcel of the newly sworn-in henkeeper's life.  But the eggs looked so sweet for sale in their specially-sourced pink egg boxes.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The friendly doorman - a tribute

Visitors to the popular Brocante-on-the-Green were notorious for their eagerness and even downright craftiness in trying to enter the sacred portals of the village hall before the official opening time.  Some would pass themselves off as "helpers" - "oh, I'm just popping in to give Jacinta a hand".  Others would wait until the side door was unguarded before slipping in and merging into the rail of pre-loved clothes.  This somewhat compromised the efforts of the fair organiser to set a time for the Grand Opening as well as missing out on collecting the modest entry fee.  A Solution. Had. To. Be. Found.

Enter Richard, a gentleman perfectly created for the role of Official Doorman.  Originally, his function was to chaffeur Jill, his sweet-natured wife, plus a carload of pretty china, softly painted furniture and lovingly embroidered cushions and bags to the fair.  The overland trek to reach Sussex from the outpost of Devon in which they resided was somewhat of a legend amongst the vintage family of regular traders.  No journey would be complete without at least one visit to a stately home, beautiful garden, delightful country pub or exquisite rural bed and breakfast.  A whole book of Places to Visit from Devon to Sussex and Back Again could have been based on their voyages to and from the fair.  Always good-humoured, Richard would draw into the car park ready to unload his precious cargo under Jill's firm but fair direction.

At the start, Richard's friendly chit-chat and willingness to hang out with the vintage ladies was perhaps unusual, some would even say a little odd.  Most men could not get away fast enough from the piles of pink fabric, chipped and distressed furniture and piles of dusty bric-a-brac.  But Richard was made of sterner stuff.  Not for him the escape to the pub or hiding behind a newspaper in the tea room.  Spotting his potential, the somewhat stressed fair organiser offered him the honorary role of Official Doorman, furnished with the Ceremonial Money Collection Box.

The front desk was set up with military precision - the Ceremonial Money Collection Box given due prominence, nestled amongst pamphlets promoting vintage fairs far and wide.  All styled beautifully on a rustic table with a pretty bunch of wildflowers in an old French jam jar.  As Doorkeeper, Richard's first duty of the day was to chivvy the ladies to move their cars and vans from the car park.  Herding cats would have been easier, but with charm and humour the first objective was achieved.  Then, he would take up his station at the front desk, ready to repel invaders until the given signal by the Lady in Charge.

His jolly patter was legend amongst the customers - "lots of lovely things to buy inside" "I don't know where they find it all" and lots of cheery banter with his regular ladies.  The half hour wait to enter the hall went in a trice.  Money duly handed over and reverently placed in the Collection Box, the vintage-hungry ladies would race into the hall or clothes room.

Rather like a friendly uncle, Richard would take it upon himself to make all newcomers trading at the fair welcome.  Nervous first-timers relaxed under the warmth of his sunny charm and old hands enjoyed a joke or quip as they hauled in their treasures.

At the end of the fair, Richard would still be chatting to anyone who would listen, fuelled by cups of tea and the occasional slice of Lemon Drizzle.  And once the car was loaded, Richard and Jill would potter over to the pub to join the other traders for a drink and final analysis of the day's activities. Still laughing, Richard would escort his precious lady to the car, to begin the overland expedition back to Devon.  And the echo of his laugh would linger in the hall and in the memories of the vintage family.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The social media addict

Sara spent most of her days hunched over her computer with her mobile phone readily to hand as back-up.  Social media was the lifeblood of her existence.  On the occasional day when the internet withdrew its mystical powers, Sara's world would seem dull and empty without her beautiful vintage bubble.  Early in the morning or late at night, the computer screen held her ensnared, Siren-like in its strange blue light.  Her husband had given up trying to speak to her and would often stomp off to bed with the plaintive comment "are you coming up soon?".  Her posts indicated that bed-time was rarely before 2 am.

Sara was an avid vintage-fair-goer and knew all the traders by name - not just their own names, but the whimsical, eccentric or downright peculiar names of their small businesses.  Somehow these became co-joined with the name of the owner and their identity merged into one.  There was unspoken competition amongst the traders to accrue the most likes on their Facebook pages.  Some were subtle about acquiring followers, relying purely on chance and a few randomly distributed business cards.  Others set about it with military rigour, scouring the Facebook vintage diaspora to find similar businesses to like, in the hope of reciprocated likes and "loves".  Reaching any round number of likes, be it 20, 2,000 or 20,000 would be the spur for a Facebook page "giveaway".  Sara was rather keen on those, having amassed quite a few wins by being the umpteenth liker, having shared to all and sundry or by posting a clever comment.  She was delighted with her haul of coffee table books, handmade knick knacks and free tickets - she wasn't too sure what to do with the enormous handcrafted dog bed made out of old pallet wood, though.

Opening up her laptop or hearing the ping of an incoming message on her mobile created a frisson of excitement. Whose pictures of the latest vintage find or decorative fair would be posted?  The Church of All Things Vintage thrived on social media and Sara was its most fervent disciple.  Her Facebook approval was given generously as new pictures, comments and updates jumped out of her screen.  Sometimes, the photos were quite indistinct - a blur of pink, somewhat faded material, draped over a bleached wood table or ancient old chair.   Such photos were regarded by the disciples as the pinnacle of "loveliness" and ardent comments would be posted, always followed by many xxxxs.  For it was never enough to say simply that something was nice, the prescribed words might include "lovely" "stunning" "chippy" (only in the case of a painted item) "beautiful" with the occasional "divine".  A simple like was acceptable, but a comment re-inforced that the liker understood the good taste and beautiful styling demonstrated in the picture.

Sara enjoyed vicariously the excitement of visiting boot sales and fairs, as her favourite sellers proclaimed their newest finds and bargains.  Some were illustrated with casual shots of items piled high; others preferred a more stylized approach with carefully staged photos of their treasures.  Certain Facebook sites could send Sara delirious with longing for plainly painted rustic cupboards, fabulous French chandeliers or painstakingly handcrafted fairies and dolls.  In a rush of desire to own beautiful things, she would often impulse buy from such posts filling her home with unwieldy pieces of furniture and sweetly crafted pieces, often left in their boxes and postage envelopes.  The thrill of the purchase was often greater than the enjoyment of the received item.  A lot of Christmas presents were acquired in this haphazard way.

All this Facebook time could have been spent far more usefully on her own business or even simple chores.  But Sara was in thrall and all other concerns fell by the wayside.  Her vast circle of Facebook "friends" made her feel part of something lovely and exciting.  Once upon a time it had been Ebay that had taken hold, but now social media filled the gap.  And with Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter all needing her attention, Sara was unlikely to find space any time soon for mundane necessities of real life.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The stylist

The traders at Vintage Decor Fair just loved a stylist - and the arrival of Lola Black, proclaimed by Vintage Style Interiors Magazine as the "stylists' stylist", was just too thrilling.  Somehow or another, Lola was never out of the media - magazines queued up to feature her eclectically styled homes in fashionable Hoxton and rural Provence, her rock-queen slash vintage wardrobe, her adorable photogenic children and her handsome-to-a-tee husband.  Her blog went viral every time she published a new chapter; her book signings were beseiged by eager fans desperate to catch the style-germ.  In short, Lola was a phenomenon.  And Lola was canny enough to ensure that her profile remained high and her fans loyal.  Her appearance at local fairs was part of her strategy of getting amongst her people.  And a spot of high-end shopping never hurt.

Lola's appearance at the fair was heralded by the sighting of her Range Rover Evoque by a trusty look-out on the front desk who spied her swoosh into the car park.  The  tinted windows ensured her privacy, but her personalised number plate, LOL1 was somewhat of a giveaway.  A sussuration of excitement went around the hall - "Lola's here"......  Stallholders immediately and frantically started to re-style their stalls to show off their finest wares in the best light.  The fair organiser rushed to the door to greet her most favoured guest in a fluster of kisses and shrieks.  Lola would never travel alone - her not-quite equally fabulous friends formed her posse.  All as skinny as whippets, with long well-groomed hair, the pack would strut into the hall ready to spend.  Lola, of course, ensured that she was the skinniest of the group - dressed in her trademark uniform of black with a coolly ethnic neck-piece (necklace is too dainty a word) and her vertiginious heels, she made quite an impression amongst her linen clad worshippers.  As the daughter of an iconic but somewhat wasted rock star, Lola channelled the rock chick vibe effortlessly.

Other customers blocking the aisles would part, as the Red Sea before Moses, to allow their style queen to move amongst the stalls.  Her progress was infuriatingly erratic, as she flitted like a butterfly from stall to stall, her eyes caught, captured and then released from the net of many artfully positioned pieces.  A few stallholders felt the warmth of her glow of fame as she exclaimed over their treasures - "what an adorable little chair, it would look simply divine in my French house".  And their status would rise further should a purchase be made.  Others would feel somewhat neglected, as the edgy butterfly flitted past without resting at their table.  Whatever Lola touched assumed a magical quality as her posse would scrabble to buy her rejects whilst the fairy dust of her touch still lingered.  Stallholders were asked by other customers in whispers, if they had a similar item to that just procured by their guru hoping to replicate an entire style with one standout piece .  The provenance of any item would be ehanced by the fact that Lola had "simply loved it" but had no space.

The pack would then come to rest in the tea room - nothing as vulgar or calorific as a cake would pass their lips, just strong black coffee.  One or two would slip outside to enjoy a cigarette - old rock chick habits die hard.  Purchases would be rounded up and piled into various cars and with a final round of kisses, the posse would depart.  Peace would descend on the hall with those favoured with sales to their style heroine feeling just a tad smug.  One or two would dine out for weeks on stories of Lola buying from their stall, bathing in reflecting glory.

All would eagerly scan the next blog chapter hoping for a photo or at least a mention by name. The blog, however, remained irritatingly vague about location, purchases and stallholders and featured a lot of clever pictures at funny angles unattributable to any one stallholder.  Oh well, at least Lola had been friendly and her friends did spend a lot of money.  The fans were satisfied and sales of her next book, "Lola Loves", were guaranteed.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Is this a cushion I see before me?

It was an unwritten rule that at any vintage fair or decorative interiors event,  the number of cushions should at least be equal to the number of visitors in attendance.  In fact, so consistent was the anecdotal evidence on this matter, that a team of crack mathematicians at the University of East Russetshire were researching the phenomena with a view to publishing a learned paper with full stastical proof.  Visitors to any fair in Southern England pooh-poohed the need for such laborious investigation - they knew that cushion overload was a very real problem and that the evidence was clear to see to anyone with eyes.

Many stallholders saw running-up a few cushions as an easy way to utilise their limited sewing skills and to enjoy the creative process involved in machine sewing up four seams and inserting a zip, buttons or other more elaborate fastenings.  And cushions filled up stall space, were nice and easy to pack and transported squashed around less yielding goods such as rusted garden furniture or large woodwormholed cupboards.  Cushions could also be crafted from a limitless selection of otherwise unselleable textiles including old grain sacks; linen sheets too far gone to be repaired; distressed and fraying kelims and rugs; scrappy patchwork quilts; old woollen blankets made obsolescent by duvets and other sundry offerings.  In fact all manner of textiles, old and new, were being re-purposed into cushions to suit every taste and pocket.

The cushion genus took many forms.  In its lowest manifestation, the product would be fashioned from some rather poorly designed, garish and inevitably synthetic "vintage" print.  The envelope fastening indicated the lack of sewing skills of the novice maker - zips and buttonholes were simply a step too far.  Remnants of said fabric would then be turned into bunting - the edges pinked to save sewing and the flags tacked to bias binding.  The cushion pad would be polyester, with not a feather in sight.  However, the lure of the gaudy colours and bargain prices would be irresistible to cushion-hunting virgins, as yet unschooled in the whys and wherefores of prestige cushionery.  And how lovely to be able to buy matching bunting, too!

Further up the ladder of cushion acquisitions, the more savvy buyer would seek out classy numbers featuring a combination of aged linen, patched with a favoured designer fabric.  The mid-range status cushion would be one that boasted old soft linen, adorned with a scrap of Cauliflowers & Posies "Faded Floribunda" range.  The canny cushion crafter would ensure that every leftover scrap of this "Faded Florrie" would be utilised for heart-shaped lavender bags; tiny, unusable pencil cases and miniscule make up bags.  The correct response of the afficianado, on seeing such a cushion, would be a series of small shrieks and moans, "Oh, oh, oh....look at that darling cushion - that gorgeous's sooooo pretty!".  And as the process of making a cushion was not dissimilar to making a shoulder bag, the stall would also proffer a range of bags, similarly decorated with scraps of the desired fabric.  No cushion on this stall would be supplied with anything less than a feather pad.  The cost of such padded perfection was eye-wateringly high, but each buyer would be convinced of its uniqueness and beauty.  Quibbling husbands who were suffering from cushionitis would oft be heard objecting - "Not Another Cushion". Naturally, their wives would ignore such petulant grumbles.

The pinnacle of cushion excellence was rarely to be found amongst the sea of cushion mediocrity or downright ugliness.  However, the hawk-eyed cushion doyenne would be able to spot a glimpse of vintage Sanderson or finest crewel work at a thousand paces.  Like a bloodhound on a human trail, said doyenne would hone in on the stall where such precious bounty was to be found.  Cushions of this calibre involved a series of challenges that would put the labours of Hercules in the shade.  Firstly, the vintage Sanderson, faded Victorian patchwork and ragged samplers would be tracked down at obscure country auctions or specialist and inaccessible textile fairs.  The exquisite antique linen backing material would be sourced from France, via a specialist dealer who was a "dear, dear friend" of the cushion artiste; maker would be too lowly a title for such dedication and creativity.

Each cushion was a work of art, repurposing the fragile and the frayed into an object of loveliness. As the artiste's skill level was on a different plain to the average cushion crafter, further customisation ensued involving monogrammed initials cut from old French smocks and chemises, tiny mother of pearl buttons, hand sewn ruffles and frills and exquisitely embroidered flourishes.  The completed artefact would be worthy of a showcase at the World Heritage Cushion Museum, if such a place existed.  This cushion was the creme de la creme, the piece de resistance, the Cushion Olympics Gold Medallist.

Such loveliness would come at a massive price - but the salivating cushion addict would loudly justify her purchase to anyone within earshot.  ""Well, it is my birthday in four months' time and Jasper can give it to me for my house present". Reverently, the artiste would place her masterwork, enveloped in acid-free tisssue paper,  into a large white carrier bag, rope-handled, of course.  With equal reverence, the cushion was borne away by its disciple and driven with great care to its final resting-place.  Once there, the cushion was unveiled and threats issued to anyone who sat, leant, slept or ate anywhere in its vicinity.   After all, you would not go to sleep or eat your supper by the Mona Lisa.  Jasper was none too pleased about the Queen's Ransom that he was expected to stump up for this early birthday present - he knew that this would soon be forgotten and that further gifts would be required for the Big Day. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The painted lady

Annabel was the proud purveyor of painted furniture - Painted Lady was her new enterprise and she had visions of becoming the next Rachel Ashwell.  Her addiction to the painted and distressed was triggered by an overdose of homes and interiors magazines depicting endless rustic boltholes, Georgian rectories and restored chapels.  Not a natural piece of wood or unadorned furniture were to be found in the pages of La Maison Francaise or Vintage Home Interior magazines.  Giles, Annabel's husband, sensing that she could be directed away from her previous interest of breeding Labradors, stumped up for a painted furniture course for her birthday.  Giles figured it would be cheaper in the long run to invest in painted furniture, rather than in  futures of Labrador puppies (go long on Labradors!) and the inevitable destruction that followed in their wake.

The Painted Furniture course was organised by an ardent disciple of the cult of the Lazy Artisan chalky paint range - affectionately known as Lazy A to those in the know.   Annabel was thrilled to learn that rubbing down, sanding and prepping were things of the past.  Lazy A paint would cover a multitude of sins with minimal effort - perfect!   Jilly, the efficient, no-nonsense tutor on the course, took the  ladies through a multitude of paint finishes and techniques, with each daubing and dabbing at their boards to get the desired effects.  At the end of the course, all were released back into the wild, having mastered stippling, stencilling, rag rolling, distressing and crackling.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and Annabel could hardly wait to experiment at home.  No piece of furniture was safe from her ministrations.  All went well until a very lovely Georgian mahogany tallboy, inherited from Giles' grand-parents, fell victim to the curse of the paint effect.  Annabel gave it the full treatment with a Boulevard Grey base coat, topped with Madame Pompadour Lilac.  Artful rubbing down and distressing lent the piece a suitably shabby demeanour, sealed by a thick coat of clear wax.  On discovering his heirloom's fate, Giles retreated to the 19th hole at his golf club for some gin and sympathy.

Having exhausted her home supply of items to decorate, Annabel became a regular visitor at her local car boot sales - a new and alien experience.  Dealers were delighted to offload their lumpen 1930s brown furniture, third-hand flatpack coffee tables and tannic orange Mexican pine blanket boxes.  No piece of furniture was too ugly for Annabel to makeover - upcycling had became her watchword.  The latest batch of Cinderella tables, chairs, bedside cupboards and the odd wardrobe would be squeezed into an already over-full garage awaiting their magical transformation. Giles' Lexus was permanently excluded from its quarters and had to live on the drive.  Annabel would set to work excitedly running through the paint chart to choose the best colours.  Her taste tended to direct her to soft greys and whites, but occasionally she would branch out and experiment with the Lazy A's latest paint colours - Jaundice Yellow, Poison Bottle Blue and Nuclear Orange.

Taking a stand at the Country Vintage Fair was Annabel's first foray into the world of fairs and markets.  Her expectations were high as she unloaded her hired van packed to the gunnels.   As she was the new girl on the block, Annabel was allocated a tucked away spot reached via stairs and heavy self-closing fire doors.  Her nerves were in shreds by the time she had unloaded all her stock and pulled it into some kind of display.  The public proved to be less enthralled by her offerings than she had hoped.  Most rushed past her stand on their way to buy coffee and cake or to the disabled WC; those who lingered opened and closed every door and drawer, perhaps with a friendly comment but no sale.  By the end of the day, her sales amounted to one folding chair and a small coffee table.  Some fairgoers had taken her card, promising to speak to their husbands about specific items - she was pinning her hopes on a rush of sales after the fair.

Back home, Giles' enquiries about sales and the possibility of getting his car back into the garage were met with somewhat sulky responses from Annabel.  And her froideur was further increased when Giles chortled about her paint-splashed arms and called her his very own Painted Lady.  Perhaps Labrador puppies were the easier option after all.