Entertain A Clown, Become Part of the Circus

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you feel as if you’ve walked in half way through a conversation and have no clue what’s going on? This seems to happen frequently to me. Honestly, there’s times when I’m sure that drama is following me around! There’s a whole plethora of incidents that I could tell you about, but the one which immediately springs to mind happened about a year ago, and involved one of my neighbours.

On the day in question, Kitty, one of my cats was seriously ill. I had had to take her to the vets that morning to have a tumour removed from her abdomen. She came through the operation just fine and by that afternoon, she was OK to come home. Having been worried about my poor little fur baby, I hadn’t managed to sleep a lot the previous night, and this, combined with the stress of worrying how she would be throughout the operation, meant that by around three in the afternoon, I was really flagging. I saw that Kitty was comfortable and settled in her basket in the bedroom, and so I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes.

No sooner had I done so than the doorbell rang. Reluctantly, I hauled myself up off the bed and went to answer the door. There stood a man I had never seen before. He looked to be in his sixties, around 5’6”, balding and with eyes that seemed a little too closely set together. My first thought was, “OK, what are you selling?” and it was at that precise moment that things got weird.

You would imagine that if someone came to your door, their first word would be “Hello”, or perhaps they might introduce themselves. Not this guy. His first words to me were aggressive in tone and consisted of, “Come with me, I want to show you something.”

Living as I do in Belgium, you must remember that this conversation took place in Flemish. As this is my second language, I kind of thought that maybe I had misheard, so I said (in Flemish), “Sorry, but what did you say?”

He repeated, just as aggressively, “Come with me, I want to show you something.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said the first time” I thought. I’m still wondering who the hell this guy is, as I say, “Who are you?”

“Ha, who am I?” he scoffed, sarcastically.

“I’m being serious,” I said, getting slightly scared and pissed off in equal measure, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”

“Come with me!” was his reply.

By now I’m thinking that perhaps something is getting lost in translation. Maybe it’s not him. Maybe I’m misunderstanding something. So I ask, “Excuse me, but do you speak English?”

“I don’t have to speak English!” he said (in English), and then looking me up and down added, “How long have you lived here?”

By now I’m more annoyed than scared, so I said, “What the f**k is your problem?”

If I thought the conversation was weird now, it was about to get weirder, as he said, “My problem is there’s shit on my table!”

At this point, my husband came home from work. Before the guy had a chance to speak, I told my husband what had happened and how the conversation had gone. My husband looked at the guy very calmly and said “Who are you and why do you think it’s OK to speak to my wife like that?”

It turned out that the guy was called René and he was our neighbour. The fact that we had lived in our house for four years and never seen him, shows how sociable he is. As to his problem…well, it transpired that a cat had thrown up a fur ball on his patio table, he thought it was cat poo, and, more to the point, was convinced that it was one of my cats that was responsible. My husband explained to him that (A) we aren’t the only people in the street who have cats and (B) there are numerous stray cats in the area, one of which “is in your garden right now!”

Eventually, René’s wife came out of their house and seemed more than a little embarrassed at the conduct of her husband. She apologised profusely and led him away.

Fast forward a few days and after speaking to several of my other neighbours, I discovered that René is disliked by everyone in the street, primarily because he struts around and speaks to people as if he owns the damned place. So when, a few days later, he had the temerity to wave and smile at me, I looked him up and down, but refused to smile or otherwise acknowledge him.

After all, if you entertain a clown you become part of the circus!

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Lisa Simpson and My Blank Expression

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons when Homer says, “This is a very, very proud day for us, especially me! Your father, ME, beat city hall! It’s just like David and Golius, only this time, David won!” As Lisa hears this, her brain says, “I know, I heard it too. Here’s some music…” at which point, some calming classical music begins to play in her head.

I have what I call a “Lisa Simpson Switch” in my head. It is activated when I hear something mind-numbingly stupid, ridiculous, banal, arrogant, etc. When activated, whoever has been unfortunate enough to trip the switch is blissfully unaware of what they’ve done, for nothing outwardly happens, save for the fact that my face adopts a blank expression as I listen to the music that my brain is kindly playing for me.

One such occasion when my “Lisa Simpson Switch” was tripped, was while I was waiting for my flight at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport. Two Liverpudlian women were seated behind me. If you’d read my previous post, you’ll know that as a writer I keep my eyes and ears open while I’m out and about, constantly scanning for those golden little nuggets of action and conversation which are the lifeblood of literary creativity. So it was that I couldn’t help but listen in to their conversation concerning Duty Free.

Woman 1: Did you get that perfume you wanted from Duty Free?

Woman 2: Yeah! It was 68 pounds, or 96 euros. So I got it in pounds cause it was cheaper.

Another occasion was while I was on the train, going to see my sister for her birthday. I happened to overhear two students discussing why they had chosen to go to Durham University. One of them happened to say, “I chose it because I thought it was called Durian, and Durian is my favourite kind of cake.” Only the “Lisa Simpson Switch” prevented me from telling them that A. Durian is a particular kind of fruit, not cake, and B. I chose to go to the University of Coffee and Walnut for the exact same reason.

By far the ultimate “Lisa Simpson Switch” moment, however, was:

Man A: What does Caucasian mean?

Man B: It’s the race that you are.

Man A: Oh, I thought it was when you were too white and had red eyes.

But, stupid though this is, what makes this the ultimate? I hear you ask. Well, I’ll tell you. Man A was a second year biology student!

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Ladies, Form An Orderly Queue!

I truly wish that I could say that the man who forms the subject of this rhyming missive, is nothing more than a colourful character from my imagination. He isn’t. This man lives and breathes, and really does have all the characteristics I describe (OK, I exaggerated the wart), including the belief that all women are attracted to him. Despite my being heterosexual and married, I am apparently a lesbian, due to the fact that when, one Christmas, he asked if I would kiss him under the mistletoe, one too many glasses of prosecco caused me to honestly, but tactlessly respond, “I wouldn’t even kiss you under anaesthetic.” My bad!

Here’s a tale of a man I once knew,

A real God’s gift to women, through and through.

With a rotund beer belly the size of a keg,

Gout in his foot and a gammy leg,

And a wart on his chin the size of an egg,

Ladies, form an orderly queue!

He’d pick his nose when talking to you,

And claimed he’d sexually pleased more than a woman or two.

Fifty years old, still lives with his Mum,

Deodorant’s for wusses is his rule of thumb,

Yet believes to his charms all will succumb.

Ladies, form an orderly queue!

Don’t give him a smile, for he’ll just misconstrue,

And before you know it, he’ll be coming on to you.

With toast in his teeth and beer on his breath,

He tried to kiss my best friend, Beth,

Who told him she’d rather be put to death.

So ladies, form an orderly queue!

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Doctor Who and the Epitome of Exaggeration

People watching and overheard conversations can often be like gold dust to a writer. I am now in the habit of writing things that I have heard and seen on my phone, for both future reference and writing material. Some are funny, some sad, some so ridiculous that I am forced to make a record of it for no other reason than to remind myself that it did actually happen and was not merely a figment of my somewhat overactive imagination.

Recently, I was visiting my parents in the UK. I was with them for five days, and on one of the days, my Mum and I went shopping at Sainsbury’s. My Mum has not been well (she had a stroke last year and has had numerous setbacks since then), and so after we’d done a little shopping, Mum needed to rest, so we decided to go to the supermarket café for a spot of lunch. I got Mum seated at a nearby table while I got in the queue to order our food. Behind me in the queue was a middle-aged couple, debating the merits of the “Mega Brunch”.

Him: What about the Mega Brunch?

Her: What’s that?

Him: Two eggs, two sausages, two rashers of bacon, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and chips.

Her: Oh yeah, that sounds good, but it’s too much. I can’t eat two eggs.

How I stopped myself laughing, I’ll never know.

A couple of days later and it was the day I was due to fly back home. Not knowing when I would get over to see Mum and Dad again, I suggested we go to a local restaurant for a meal before I had to leave for the airport. We got ourselves seated at a nice table and ordered some drinks. While waiting for the drinks to arrive, my writer’s ears focused themselves on a conversation behind held between four guys seated at a nearby table. Though I didn’t hear where it was one of them had ended up one particular unfortunate evening, it was apparent that he never wanted to go there again, even though his description did seem, to me at least, to be the epitome of exaggeration.

Guy: You should have seen where they dropped us off. It was a den of iniquity, I’m telling you. You know on Doctor Who when the TARDIS lands somewhere and they’re surrounded by monsters and they can’t escape? It was like that only with people. 

Now, I’m a fan of Doctor Who, but no matter how hard I tried, I know in my heart of hearts that I could not come up with such hilarious an analogy.

Gold. Pure gold.

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Spare A Thought For Pricklepants

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Three years ago, I decided that I wanted to try and get a little fitter. I didn’t much care for jogging, for if the looks on the faces of all the joggers I’ve ever seen are anything to go by, jogging makes you thoroughly miserable. The day I see someone jogging with a smile on their face, I might consider it. Neither did I relish the thought of joining a gym. All those egos and judgmental stares…and that’s just the registration!

So I decided to go walking. I live semi-rurally, and as such there are lots of beautiful places to go walking if you care to seek them out. The canal (pictured above) is one such place. You can literally walk for miles following the canal, as it carves its way through the countryside, and alongside hedgerows and farmers’ fields.

On this particular day, I chose to walk a little further than normal along the length of the canal. I passed some impressive bulls in a field, was forced to jog a little as one of them put its head down and looked as if it might charge, said hello to several elderly cyclists (all of whom looked at least seventy-years-old and yet were, to a man, kitted out as if they were taking part in the Tour de France!) and watched a couple of boats negotiating their way through the locks. Eventually, the canal widened a little and I reached some hedgerows that had been practically razed to the ground by some mechanical strimmer. Ahead of me, there was what at first glance appeared to be a leaf, rocking slightly in the breeze. As I got nearer, however, I was horrified to discover that it was a baby hedgehog! It was rocking through dehydration and hypothermia, and was heading towards the canal. I know all the warnings about leaving wild animals where they are and not picking them up etc, but as I looked at the destroyed hedgerow, I realised that this poor little guy’s home must have been caught up in the destruction. I picked him up as gently as I could. The poor thing was freezing! What to do? There was only one thing to do. Stick him under my sweater for warmth and walk home as fast as I could!

On reaching home, I threw a medical heat pad in the microwave (still holding the hedgehog under my sweater), then wrapped the pad in a towel, placed the hedgehog on the pad and covered him with another towel. Then I waited…and prayed.

Slowly but surely, he began to come round. I was overjoyed! Now, what to feed him? I first gave him a bowl of water, and couldn’t believe how thirsty the little guy was. Then I blitzed up some kitten food and offered it to him. He ate the lot! As he drank and ate, and ate and drank (still on his heat pad) he seemed to rally more and more. Once he’d finished eating, I couldn’t resist. I picked him up and held him and he fell asleep in my hand.

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I named him Baby Pricklepants, and he stayed with me until he was old enough and strong enough to be released. I will add at this juncture that I already had three adult pricklepants who came to my garden each evening for cat biscuits and water, so I’d already decided that the garden would be OK for him. Still, the day I set him free in my garden was so emotional. Was I doing the right thing? Would he survive? What about hibernation? All these questions ran amok in my mind. I so wanted to keep him, but I knew that would be cruel. He was born free, and so he should live free. I’d been forced to intervene, but it was up to Mother Nature now. That night, I actually cried myself to sleep with worry for him.

The next evening, I heard some rustling among the leaves at the side of the garden. I crept out to take a look and literally cried with joy! There was my Baby Pricklepants…with the other three adults! He was a wild, free hedgehog, and though I was sad that I would never again hold him in my hands, I knew that that was exactly as it should be.

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Baby Pricklepants still comes to the garden each evening. He still knows me (if I let him sniff my hand, he relaxes and continues eating, even allowing me to stroke him spines a little). Each winter, I worry whether he’ll survive his hibernation, but each Spring, there he is again, hungry as ever.

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As many of you will be busy with your gardens at this time of year, I wanted to say that although we tend to like things all neat and tidy, why not spare a thought, not just for pricklepants, but for a multitude of little animals who just want to have a home, and leave a section of your garden to grow wild. And perhaps some of you could ask your councils or municipal authorities to hold off on trimming back their hedgerows until after the breeding seasons have passed. You never know how many lives you might save!

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Fork It!

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There are lots of people who say that swearing is the result of having a poor vocabulary. Personally, I think this is a load of balderdash and piffle! As a writer, I have – or rather, I hope I have – an extensive vocabulary – but I still find myself in situations when nothing but a swear word will do. For example, a couple of years ago when I was riding my motorbike, when the guy in the car in front of me suddenly stopped literally two hundred meters from a set of traffic lights. The lights were on green and yet he stopped. Even though I was riding a reasonable distance behind him, I still had to swerve to avoid him and ended up clipping his back light with my knee. Fortunately, there was no damage, either to his light or my knee, and yet, as he wound his window down he did not inquire whether or not I was OK, but merely berated me for following too closely. I’m no tailgater! Especially not on a bike, and so I was incensed that he was trying to apportion the blame on to me. I asked him why he stopped and he said that he stopped for the lights. “But the lights were green!” I said, growing ever more incensed. Ultimately, he decided to call the police. When they came, they took me aside and were getting my side of the story, but this guy kept coming over and interrupting. I asked him to go away. The police officer asked him to go away. When he came over for the sixth time, I’d had enough. I turned to look him straight in the eye and shouted, “F**k off!” He kept his distance after that and I noticed that the police officer was trying to keep a straight face. So you see, sometimes, only swearing is sufficient to get your point across.

When it comes to my Mum and swearing, that’s a whole other story. My Mum often says things that are absolutely not swearing by any stretch of the imagination, but she says that they are. One of my favourites from when I was younger, was when she would shout, “Blast and set fire to it! And that’s swearing!” Err…I’ll think you’ll find it isn’t, Mum. Another classic was, “Ninny muggins!” Nope, that’s not swearing either, Mum.

The funny thing is that just recently, I’ve found myself combining both my own love of necessary swearing, with my Mum’s faux swearing. This has resulted in some hilarious, and quite possibly, golden nuggets of semi-faux profanity. Some of my favourites are, “Holly Go-forking-lightly!”, “Fiddleshits” and “Shitake mushrooms on a fork!”

Still, I do still sometimes need the real deal swear words. I recently had a fall and tore a muscle in my leg as well as badly bruising my arm (hence the reason I’ve not blogged for a few days). I shan’t repeat here the words that escaped my mouth immediately after I hit the deck! The thing is though, I think we all need swear words at some time or another. After all, I can hardly imagine Andy Garcia’s Gary Starke in “Just the Ticket” saying to Andie MacDowell, “Sometimes, you just gotta say “Fork it.”

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Pensively Wilde

Oscar Wilde was a great believer in knowing thyself. Some people spend a lifetime trying to know and understand themselves. For others, they appear to have it all worked out, with a finite understanding of just what makes them tick. As for me, I suppose I would class myself as someone who is still on the journey of understanding. I don’t know myself completely, but one thing I do know, is that whenever I become pensive, it’s usually about something important, something that means a great deal to me.

Several years ago, my husband surprised me on my birthday by taking me to Paris. While the thronging tourists queued for hours to delight in the artistic wonders of the Louvre, he knew that for me, there was only one place I wanted to visit: Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Specifically, I wanted to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde is my all encompassing literary hero. I adore his work, even though I have to admit that there are some poems which make me wonder whether he was in a rush when he wrote them. I was first introduced to Wilde’s work when I read the poem “Quantum Mutata”, which is Latin for “How much has changed”. In the poem, Wilde laments the fact that England is not the superpower it once was, criticizing how the country is now concerned only with luxury and comfort. He is scornful of the materialistic products that England produces, arguing that such items are meaningless when they are not accompanied by moral principles, ideals and deeds.

It is a poem that I find myself coming back to time and again, even more so now, when images of Syrian refugees flash up on our news screens. The fact that Britain can be so xenophobic as to refuse entry to 3000 unaccompanied Syrian children, who have already be registered in Europe, is to me unconscionable. They are children! Who knows what horrors their innocent eyes have already witnessed. What childhood scars, both physical and psychological, they will carry through into adulthood.

Today, a memorial service will be held at London’s Guildhall for Sir Nicholas Winton, the British man who rescued hundreds of children from the Holocaust in the months before WWII. Sir Nicholas organised the “Kindertransport” which rescued 669 mainly Jewish children, who came to Britain by train from Czechoslovakia in 1939. Fast forward to the modern day, and what does Britain do when faced with children who are in need of rescue? It turn its head and pretends that it just doesn’t see.

I am continually so moved by Quantum Mutata, that I took the liberty of penning a response. I am not trying to be compared to Wilde (I couldn’t even dare!); rather I am attempting some form of catharsis of my rage, my disappointment and my sorrow in the only way I know how: through words.

I have copied Wilde’s original “Quantum Mutata” below, for those of you who are not familiar with the poem, followed by my response.

Quantum Mutata

There was a time in Europe long ago

When no man died for freedom anywhere,

But England’s lion leaping from its lair

Laid hands on the oppressor! it was so

While England could a great Republic show.

Witness the men of Piedmont, chiefest care

Of Cromwell, when with impotent despair

The Pontiff in his painted portico

Trembled before our stern ambassadors.

How comes it then that from such high estate

We have thus fallen, save that Luxury

With barren merchandise piles up the gate

Where nobler thoughts and deeds should enter by:

Else might we still be Milton’s heritors.

Oscar Wilde 1854- 1900

Response to Wilde’s Quantum Mutata

The once proud Lion of England

That would leap from its lair without pause

For question, is now maddened, like some wild and rabid beast

Caring not for the broken lives washed up on foreign shores.

The slaughter of the innocents while satyrs and hellhounds feast

Matters not. England averts her gaze, pulls up her drawbridge

And sanctuary to the lost and hopeless deprives.

Dear Oscar, though your heart would ache 

For those whose souls are held in abatement

Your Quantum Mutata is, alas,

A tragically lamenting understatement.

Let your heart rejoice that it does not dwell 

In this, the modern world’s nadir;

For how much has changed?

Very little, I fear. 

Eleanor Parks 2016

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A Violinist I Ain’t

skull_violin-1561883I think I was about 9-years-old when I decided that I wanted to learn the violin. I’m not quite sure why I wanted to play such a difficult instrument. I’ve never been what you would class as musical, and musical instruments seem somehow alien to me. I once tried to play the clarinet that my brother had, an succeeded in sounding like a geriatric asthmatic and making my ears pop!

Undaunted, however, and filled with the precociousness of youth, I toddled off to the school music teacher and asked to play the violin. She was delighted, although I’m sure such delight was short lived after I started to try and play. She taught me how to hold the instrument under my chin, how to hold my arm at a right angle, and what the notes were. She gave me simple pieces of music to learn and told me to practice at home, much to the chagrin of my long suffering parents.

No matter what I did or how much I practiced though, it was clear that the violin and I were never going to get along. Even attempting to play something simple, like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” elicited tortured strains, and an appropriate response would be along the lines of Groundskeeper Willie from “The Simpsons” when he declares that Lisa’s bad saxophone playing “sounds like the gopher I caught in me lawnmower”.

In the end, my violin teacher was forced to admit defeat. One day, she called me aside and asked me if I thought I might be happier trying something else, which was code for “Listen, kid. Your violin playing ain’t never gonna flourish, so quit now before I go deaf!”

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Insult to Injury

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During my time as a journalist, one of the worst apologies I ever came across, was that of the US government to the Native Americans. Now, I know there have been many lame apologies made by the US government over the treatment of its people, with slavery and Japanese internment camps just two examples which spring to mind; but the apology to the Native Americans really took the biscuit.

Back in 2010, a rumour began to circulate that the US government would not only make its first ever admission as to its brutal and barbaric treatment of Native American people, but that they would also issue an apology. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Such an event would have been worldwide news, not something that would easily be missed, right? And there’s no way that anyone could possibly forget such a humble governmental apology. Right again. So, you’re thinking, how come I’ve never heard of it?

The answer is that the apology, such as it was, was tucked quietly away on page 45 of a 67-page Spending Bill. Nestled in between spending cuts and quotas, budget boosts and deficits, was an apology to “all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” No fanfare. No fuss. And no reference to any specific heinous acts perpetrated by the United States upon Native American people.

Nothing was said about The Trail of Tears, in which multiple thousands of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their lands and forced to march to their various destinations by state and local militias. Many died from disease, exposure and starvation en route, with the Cherokee people alone losing between 2000 and 6000 men, women and children.

Nor was anything said about Wounded Knee, in which between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by a detachment of the 7th cavalry regiment. Following the massacre, at least 20 soldiers were given the Medal of Honour.

Yet, to add insult to a litany of injuries, the mealy-mouthed fauxpology was so explicitly designed purely to get the US government’s conscience off the hook, that it contained a clause, stating that nothing in what was said “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” 

At the time, I was all for publicly suggesting that the Native American people should issue a collective response, which would be to say they had taken page 45 of the Spending Bill and rolled it up very tightly, something which would facilitate the US government in shoving it up its arse. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately, I’m still not sure – calmer heads than mine believed that such a statement may inflame matters, and so it was decided that I would go with a simple “Thanks, but no thanks!”

Still, should any Native American people wish to use my initial response, please feel free to do so!

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Auntie Glad and the Gold Coast

Auntie Glad is 95-years-old this year. Originally from Liverpool, she now lives south of Brisbane on Australia’s Gold Coast. She’s an amazing woman, not least because of her no nonsense attitude to getting old. She simply refuses to do it. Oh, she recognises that her biological age is 95, alright, but that doesn’t mean she has to behave like a 95-year-old. Oh no!

On her 80th birthday, when most women of her age would be hoping for a not too exhausting family get together with plenty of tea and cake and and perhaps a little tipple of sherry, Auntie Glad was celebrating her 8th decade by going to a fancy dress party in the guise of a punk rocker. Her outfit was replete with fishnet stockings and leather mini skirt, while her normally grey hair was dyed green. To top it all off, she arrived at the party on the back of a Harley Davidson!

Her 90th birthday was no less energetic. She joined a gym! Why? “Because I’ve never joined a gym before” she said. Later that day, she flew by helicopter to a youth club to help out with a kids’ bingo party, before going on to dinner with her son.

Last year – keep in mind that she was then 94 – she was attending a spa retreat, before flying to the other side of Australia to spend some time with her son and his family. As she slowly slid herself into the pool at the spa, she cut her leg on a jagged tile. It was no ordinary cut; she’d really sliced into her leg and she was bleeding profusely. An ambulance was called and she was taken to hospital, where they told her that it was best that she stayed in for a few days and had a skin graft. Her response? “I haven’t got time for that! Stick some stitches in it and give me some crutches. I’ve got a bloody plane to catch!”

Australians are world renowned for their laid back attitude and living life to the full, but I think Auntie Glad could well teach them a thing or two!

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