Book One: Chapter 27

Tuesday 9th March

Day off...well in terms of vocation only...there is no such thing as a day off with a perpetually demanding baby. Today we have lunch with my mate Pip's fiancee Naoko who lives in Japan. Alas, she arrives at the wrong station and I have to pick her up from the Calcutta of South London a.k.a. South Norwood (not to beconfused with West Norwood, where yours truly lives.)

We have lunch in the "Greyhound" pub in the heart of Dulwich Village. Lily grizzles throughout, so we leave straight after I have demolished my paving-slab sized burger.

Wednesday 9th March

California tasting in Pimlico. I taste around 50 or so wines including Stag's Leap, Littorai and Shafer. Thank God there is no jazz band like last year. Instead we have Matthew Jukes picking of affordable wines from the "Sunshine State". I taste two or three but decide that he should not have bothered. Sorry Matthew.

Friday 11th March

Comic Relief night. I cannot cope with the roller-coaster emotional ride of pantomime slapstick interjected by images of starving children, so keep flicking the channel every time something upsetting comes along. I am a fairweather philanthropist.

Saturday 12th March

Wake up early in my hunter/gatherer gear for the weekly shop at Morrisons, who seem hell-bent upon irking their customers by refusing to man more the half the tills at any one time. In a cunning plan that surprised even myself, I time my shop to conclude just after ten o'clock, just as the hungover Saturday staff are being prodded to their designated tills. I hover like a hawk around aisle seven, observing the hand gestures of the cashier manageress that indicates the direction the till-hands will be taking. I sincerely hope that no other customers of the Crystal Palace branchof Morrisons are reading this, lest my cunning plan be hijacked by 300 pensioners.

I return home in time to meet my youngest brother John who is due to meet Lily for the first time at 11.00a.m. Now given that he is stoodent, I allow him an hour tardiness but by 1.00pm, I have left innumerable messages for him on his comatose mobile...Lily has been ceremoniously stood up. We assume student poverty left him hitch-hiking up the M23 and that a murderous trucker is currently heading to a remote copse to dispose of his body. But no, he calls during the afternoon with a lame excuse for his no-show and I breathe wrath down the phone. The fact that his irresponsible behaviour is being plastered across in the interweb is to teach him a vital lesson in later life: struggling parents who endure negligible sleep for weeks on end dislike being stood up. He is lucky I am not printing his mobile number here:xxxxx xxx xxx.

Sunday 13th March

A pivotal day: Lily's first trip to Essex, her inaugural visit to Leigh-on-Sea. She is quiet in the car, but as soon as she arrives at my parents house she starts bawling, which does not cease until the late evening. We take her to see my nan, looking frail from Alzeimer's disease but still well enough to enjoy meeting her great-grand-daughter. (Apropos Alzeimers...if I discovered a truly hideous, incurable disease I would name it after my enemy rather than myself. Wouldn't you?)

Eight week old Lily, with porcelain skin, a wispy flame of hair and screw-on button nose, whose life is but the opening sentence compared to nan's, is entranced and I take a few photos while the two become acquainted. Later on, Lily's whirlwind tour of Leigh-on-Sea takes her to Vik's, where Carolyn and Justin are patiently waiting our arrival. They take it in turns to play mummy or daddy (Carolyn a natural, Vik calm until she starts wailing, whereupon Vik starts panicking.) Hairdresser boyfriend Martyn saunters into the kitchen amidst a hangover from hell like a rudely awakened grizzly bear and notices Lily's unkempt hair. I am sure he would love to whip out his scissors and give her a trendy existential cut, but I think we should wait until the modelling offers come flooding in.

Monday 14th March

This morning I receive an outrageous bid for my "Burgerking With Neal" auction in aid of Wine Relief, a charitable fellow by the name of Christian, whose epic lunch will be documented in these very pages, along with post-prandial conversation that will sashay between the virtues of a BK Whopper to the prospects of the Bordeaux 2004 vintage. I cannot wait. I e-mail HRH Jancis, whose dinner chez lui is set to raise a four figure sum, but first I check out Christian's details with Interpol, just in case he has just escaped from a mental asylum. Murder is bad enough, but if the end to one's mortal coil should taper off in the mock American diner in your local Burgerking, it would make a mockery of my obituary (in the "Leigh Times", not "The Times".) Anyway, well done Christian, someone in the world will be benefitting from your generosity.

I forgot to mention, last week I helped out Linden Wilkie of www.finewineexperience.com at a tasting on the 40th floor of the "The Gherkin". The top floor is a mezzanine with a 360 degree panaroma over the metropolis and the building lights up like a Xmas Tree upon my arrival. Naturally, for the first hour I stare like a gibbon out of the window at the toy buses in their log-jam home and induce mild vertigo.

The tasting, for 200 solicitors, is organised like a military operation by Linden and they all appear to enjoy the event (well, Linden was facing 200 lawsuits if it had all gone tits up.) My three teams cross-examine me like a pack of rabid dogs during the quiz and I end up strongly hinting most of the answers. As a consequence I make a mental note never to represent myself in court.

(If any PR departments are planning a wine-tasting event, click on Linden's link above, especially if you are planning a 50,000 person Le Pin vertical to be held at the Millenium Stadium.)

Neal Martin Is Unwell

I write from the sanitarium that is my tissue-strewn living room, that has become a haven for rampant parasitic germs and omnipresent woe over the last week. Having struggled valiantly to work on Monday and Tuesday, by Wednesday a brisk walk to the Eurocave outlet left me staggering down Oxford Street like I had spent a month fighting the Vietcong. Henceforth I have been confined to my bed. Well, not bed actually, because we only have one bedroom and since that is where Lily resides, I have nested on the living room futon (the most uncomfortable in the world.) In scenes reminiscent of the Black Plague, Tomoko designated the room a no-go zone and tied small bundles of herbs and spices on her own bedroom door to ward off the disease, as prescribed by "Ring a ring 'o roses" - my favourite nursery rhyme about death.)

The last few days I have suffered a roller-coaster ride of temperatures, boiling like a kettle one minute then trekking through Siberia the next; sweated a reservoir of moisture that seems to have been absorbed by my increasingly Third World dressing gown and had low-grade battery acid drip-fed down my throat. Energy levels are utterly depleted, barely enough to wail and extract a morsel of sympathy from the wife. With spirit and cheer of mind inexorably ebbing and call me fatalistic if you will, but I feel that the end is nigh.

This could not have come at a worse time. Not only did we have to miss our antenatal group's official reunion (which our guru misconstrued as a rebuttal of her NCT naturalistic tenets of childbirth that she instilled in each and every one of us) but more tragically, were forced to cancel a table at a swanky restaurant intended to celebrate Tomoko's birthday.

To paraphrase Tomoko, she suffers her "worst birthday ever", a day spent coping with a moaning 8-week old baby whilst nursing with her moaning husband with the mentality of an 8-year old. Both need to be clothed, fed and placated. Even the expensive bunch of white roses that I purchased the previous day appear infected; wilting en masse, some committing suicide rather than endure a slow agonizing death. For the record, the bunch that cost a couple of quid from Morrissons outlive the posh inhabitants of the neighbouring vase by a few days.

She phones her mum in Japan in the morning, pleading to be air-lifted out of this hospice of doom to the cosy, udon-smelling confines of her family's apartment. I order in an Indian take-away since Tomoko has not had the time to prepare anything. I pick at my food: I lost my appetite around the same time I lost hope for survival. She says that it is all my fault because I do not eat enough vegetables (I am not allowed to include frozen peas.) She is right and I vow that if pull-through this ordeal, green plants will appear on my plate. That will be stage one. Stage two is figuring how to eat them without feeling sick.

Monday 21st March
Lily sleeping

Here is Lily, smiling at the world. Our reference guide for babies is the "Bounty: Your Baby" (2nd Edition 2004), a free week-by-week guide that enlightens the hapless parent about what to expect as your bundle of joy turns from small wailing baby to slightly larger wailing baby. Each week, I am hoping that it will say something positive and beneficial, for example:-
Week 7: your baby will learn to do the washing up
Week 8: your baby will sing and dance to entertain you when there is nothing on TV
Week 9: your baby is now able to work part-time at weekends and contribute towards his or her upkeep.

But each week my hopes are dashed. Week 7 says "your baby may laugh when amused".
What is she - the arbiter of good taste around here?
Week 8 suggests that: "your baby may gurgle or coo". Bloody great.
Week 10 says "your baby may be growing out of her 0-3 month clothes". More money down the drain.
The one benefit of having a baby is the 250 quid that Tony Blair now donates for contributing to the UK population. In accounting terms, this means that Lily is already richer than I if one factors in my mortgage, crippling car loan and Third World Country sized overdraft. Knowing me, I will be handing her back the unredeemed voucher on her 18th birthday, but which time it will be worth approximately 20p.

Thursday 25th March

Tonight is our postponed dinner to celebrate Tomoko's birthday, rescheduled after my catastrophic maladies of last week (I am still not fully recovered; now a bruised rather than wounded soldier.) Tomoko has been kept in the dark about our culinary destination and having led her blind through chilly Mayfair I escort her into "The Connaught" for a gastronomic blow-out courtesy of Gordon Ramsey protogee "Angela Hartnett" (Angela helping Gordon launch his celebrity career in Hell's Kitchen last summer.)

The interior is beautiful, that stately grandeur that Mayfair pulls off so well. The dining room is quiet, spacious and salubrious, our table located in a cosy corner of the room. I read through the voluminous wine list/encyclopaedia so that I can snigger at the prices. This ritual has the adverse affect of duping the sommelier into assuming that I am procrastinating over which vintage of Chateau Haut-Brion I am choosing. Therefore it comes as a crushing blow when old skinflint here, opts for the cheapest wine on the list. In this case it is a Soave from Inama, although this 2001 should be swapped immediately for a 2003 (I would have informed the sommelier had I remembered at the end of the meal.)

My dishes of confit of fois gras followed by pigeon are excellent but although Tomoko's scallops with pancetta are delicious, her main course of halibut is a bit ordinary and her highness indoors declares that she could have whipped it up herself (probably true.) But my main complaint, and this is inexcusable in a restaurant of such repute, is that they serve the main course literally ten seconds after the starters have been cleared from the table, whilst I had absconded to the restroom (trapped wind - let it out without delay, never sit there and suffer.) I mean, the waiter may as well have knocked on the cubicle door and served me there and then. Do they want to get rid of us? Is it because of that cheapo Soave (still thirty quid a go.)? Is it because we are from the wrong side of the river?

Anyway, a pre-pudding serving of assorted miniature sorbets is cute and my apricot souffle is to die for. Tomoko opts for the chocolate "opera" that must contain one calorie per atom. All in all, we had an enjoyable time: the service was excellent, the interior sumptuous and the food delicious for the most part. I enquire whether Ms. Hartnett was in the kitchen? As expected she is absent, no doubt manicuring Gordon's nails for his next television show.

Would I go back there? Probably not...and that is something that I would never consider after a KFC.
Go figure.

Friday 26th March

The sun has got his hat on, hip hip hip hooray. We make the most of the burning ball of gas, 93 million miles away, by driving to Richmond so that we can pretend to be an affluent nuclear family. As we drive through Richmond Park, Tomoko and I become very animated when a herd of Bambis rear into view. Lily snoozes and dribbles in the backseat. We take a walk down Richmond Hill (my brother used to rent a flat there, a road famous for its panoramic views over the Thames...his abode was a basement flat with a view of a brick wall.)

Having been rejected by a creperie for having the audacity to enter with a baby, we end up in a godawful cafe with pretentions above its station. We order the worst panini in the world (not advertised as such) and suffer the ignominy of walking through the kitchen to visit the loo. I will not mention its name, but its opposite the creperie.

Saturday 27th March

Lily has suddenly grown, so much so that her crib is looking decidedly unspacious when we plonk her down to bed. Consequently, I cajole my brother to make good on his promise to buy Lily a cot-bed, a promise he is regretting since he has just blown most of his salary on a skiing trip to France. However, poor Lily cannot sleep on the floor for the sake of his salopettes, so we cruise down to Toys 'r Us to purchase the deluxe "Milano" cot-bed, which to the chagrin of my brother is the most expensive in their range.

Like all warehouse retail outlets down Purley Way (Croydon), as soon as you seek some assistance, the staff vanish into thin air and you end making endless circuits of the store in the vain hope of finding someone, anyone resembling a member of the "Toys 'r Us" Saturday workforce. Eventually we find someone willing to help and Lily seems satisfied with her "Milano" when we plonk her inside and she cordially blows bubbles that we interpret as a positive response. We queue for aeons along with families buying slides that kids will slide down once before being overwhelmed with ennui and climbing frames designed to satisfy the monkey in every child. I have all this to come.

After we return I set about the garden, which has turned into a vast swathe of moss over the winter. With grass neatly trimmed and the wirey rose bush hacked down to a sorry stump, my postage stamp piece of verdure is looking decidedly neat, if bereft of any form of horticultural skill. Still, the only plant that seems to florish is mint. Maybe I should sell it? Maybe mint and not wine is my calling in life? Maybe I will establish a mint farm, a mint ranch, that will make my fortune, maybe mint will enable Lily to attend a top boarding school for girls, where a bouquet of wild mint will waft behind her?

If you want a bunch of mint, please do not hesitate to mail me in the summer.

Sunday 28th March

Easter Sunday. Naturally Tomoko and I would be hatching our Easter eggs this morning, however the eggs hatched prematurely i.e. we scoffed them all in a frenzied chocolate binge some days ago.

This evening, we drive round to Phil's for dinner. Since this is Lily's first proper dinner, we groom her to look her best: comb her strawberry locks, wipe that snot from her upper lip and attire her in a Chinese-style jacket that is half Vivien Westwood, half Mothercare. Whilst it is Lily's most fashionable accoutrement, it is bugger to do up.

Phil has not seen her since she was a couple of days old, so it is quite a shock to see how much she has sprouted, how her senses are becoming fully operational. We give him the baby to hold and following the script to the letter, fills her nappy within seconds. It does not smell too bad, but a quick babygro inspection reveals a fecal decimation on a global scale, with excrement smeared almost up to the nape of her neck. Fortunately Phil, bless him, had bought us a pack of new babygrows and so a quick change in his bedroom and Lily is ready to ruin our dinner. Actually, having moaned for an hour, she settles down on the sofa, fixated by the television (obviously one of her father's traits), gurgling with contentment.

We return around 11 o'clock, whereupon I instigate a massive search for my bank cards which I have lost in a repeat episode of last year's calamity. Yet again, I suffer the prospect of going to Bordeaux unable to hire a car, the ignominy of reporting my lost business card to the bosses. A restless night's sleep ensues.

Monday 29th March

Easter Monday. What did Jesus do on Easter Monday? I mean, he has had a piss poor week being double-crossed by one of his friends and subsequently tortured and crucified. Sunday he exits the tomb, so what do you do the following day? Chill out and open a few Easter eggs? I guess Jesus must have spent the whole down explaining his resurrection to incredulous friends, showing his birthmarks to prove it was him.

In an event of equal magnitude, my bank cards are resurrected early morning, discovered cowering on the back side of a clothes rail having slipped out of my back pocket. I was on the cusp of cancelling all my cards and descending into abject depression. In the afternoon, I find that the weed killer is making my prized rose bushes in the front garden wilt and wither, whilst the weeds seem to have become inured to the chemicals I drowned them in. Bugger.

Wednesday 30th March

The office phone rings. My assistant tells me it is "Michael" on the dog and bone. My stomach lurches for just a couple of days ago I uploaded my interview with him, full of vituperative comments about Parker, Rolland and a tarry Chateau Pavie. Am I a butterfly about to be crushed on a wheel?

"My son tells me an article appeared on a website," he says with that scholarly timbre. "Would you mind faxing it over to me, I don't use the internet, you know."

I print off a hard copy and send it to "Broader Towers". He phones after ten minutes as his fax machine has run out of paper. Either that, or he is checking I am still in his office so that he can despatch his lawyers and issue a writ there and then. I wait nervously all afternoon before he calls back to give me his verdict. Fortunately he seems pleased with it, almost embarrassed by my appreciative vernacular. My germinating career as a wine-writer remains unscathed.

Thursday 31st March

The Pope is slipping away in the Vatican. No doubt the smallest state in the world is full of cardinals panicking, wondering what the hell they do? Doubtless the Chamberlain has been despatched to the Vatican library, whereupon he will search for sacred instructions that reveal the procedures to be enacted upon the death of a pontif i.e. Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons". I have already prepared my CV when the papal vacancy arises. As far as I am aware, I have never blasphemed and attended Sunday School until the age of 14, so I must be in with a chance.