Sunday, 6 November 2016

Just like Beatrix Potter

We leave the house and turn together to walk up Crown Road. The forecast warns of rain and another drop in temperature this afternoon, but for now the sun is bright with just enough warmth to melt the frost and warm our backs.

'Up and along?' one of us says, knowing the other will understand, and we do, crossing the High Street to take the Millenium footpath up to the woods. Halfway up we clamber over a stile that seems to grow in height each time we cross it, as the earth around it gradually wears away. 

 'Or how about along then up? We'll be able to stay in the sunshine a little bit longer.'

It's a less-used route, at least by humans, but tractor tyres have flattened a pathway and either side the telltale signs of recently dug holes and small round droppings tell us there were rabbits here not long ago.

'They'll be in their burrows now, sitting by the fire with a nice cup of tea and a slice of bramble pie, wondering what those thundering footsteps are doing overhead' I suggest.

I've never quite moved on from believing that the world under our feet is just as Beatrix Potter might have painted it.

'Along then up' turns out to be a much steeper route, so we pause frequently, each time turning to look back at the valley behind us, never failing to absorb its simple beauty. At the top of the hill we turn into the woods. Dry fallen leaves cover the path. Thick under foot, their crunch is a delightful reminder of all our childhoods.This is what we've come for. We scuff and trample, shattering leaves into clouds of dust that will filter down into the soil and feed the trees that dropped them.

I'm the first to spot the chestnuts shining between the leaves. We're never usually in time to see any more than the prickly open cases, their soft white insides turning slowly brown, but today it seems we've got to them before the squirrels. Perhaps the wind last night has shaken down a new crop, or maybe, just like the rabbits, the squirrels are sitting cosy by their firesides, their cupboards already stocked for winter. Either way the chestnuts are there for the picking. We shuffle through the leaves, spotting more and more until our pockets are full, our legs misshapen and lumpy.

As we turn for home, I start humming a Christmas song, imagining chestnuts roasting on the open fire we'll light a little later. Philip is already musing about collecting sprouts from the allotment to cook with them. 

Halfway down the hill I stop and look again at our street, nestled in the valley below. I know I'll never tire of the sight. And as we get nearer to our own burrow, I can't help thinking that down there too is just as Beatrix Potter might have painted it.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

27th February

27th February 2015. A Friday, which automatically makes it better than the preceding four days. One day before the end of the month, four days after pay day, not quite winter, not quite spring. A something and nothing sort of date. 

When I was young, there were only a handful of special days each year; Christmas and my birthday stood proud at the top of the list, with the months in between punctuated by other family birthdays. Holidays were special, but never on the same days and never certain. Bonfire night had its own rhyme to help us - remember, remember the 5th of November, but the dates for Easter, and for Mothers' day and Fathers' day danced around each year, so you could never be sure when they'd fall. 

As I got older, friends' birthdays were circled on the calendar and each time I started a new relationship, the date became significant for a while. Eventually there was a wedding date and then each year its anniversary, a husband's birthday, then all his family's, and in no time at all, four special days for the children. 

As they grew up, it seemed like the calendar was always full; birthday parties, dancing lessons, football matches, school terms starting and ending. Then when I met Philip there came a whole new set of dates to remember, a walk in the snow, a wedding in the sun, the day we came to Shoreham and the day we left. The day, just eight weeks ago, that we came back again.

As our lives have unfolded, the dates have kept coming, people have got older, grandchildren have arrived, but amongst all those dates, all those circles on the calendar, the reminders, the anniversaries, the significant events, February 27th has never been a special day. 

Until yesterday. 

Annie Elizabeth Longworth. A daughter for my handsome son Ged and his lovely partner Natalie, a baby sister to Oliver, a new granddaughter for me. February 27th will never be a something and nothing date again.

Monday, 9 February 2015


It's the final performance of Robin Hood, and I'm backstage in the village hall. At any other time, this would be the play group's storage area, but this week the plastic boxes of toys and the child-size tables and chairs have been stacked to one side. With the introduction of a clothes rail, it's suddenly a dressing room for the Shoreham Village Players.

Around me, other members of the cast are waiting for their next scene. There are never enough chairs for us all, but it's no big deal; when someone gets up to go on-stage, someone else sits down. When someone needs to reach their costume on the rail we all bunch up a bit, when someone gets cold and wants a seat by the only radiator, we all shift round.

There's a speaker on the wall, for us to hear the action on the stage, but it only seems to be picking up the music from the piano, so every now and then one of us checks where we are in the script, making sure that the youngest players don't miss their entrances. Kenny brings round my stick for the auld crones scene and we go through our lines once again, too caught up in the comfort of the ritual now to dare going on stage without another practice. Next to us, Emily and Hatty quietly sing their shared song, reassuring each other that they really do know the words. Kate, our director wanders through; she knows it's too late for her to say anything now, but we all sense her unspoken determination for us all to do the very best we can.

Patsy and Janet check costumes, helping to fasten the out-of-reach buttons, pinning up an over-long skirt. Michelle is in charge of make-up; transforming Luke into a talking frog, Josh into a bat. Beth flutters her glitter-lined cats eyes, while the Shoreham Witches show off their sparkling painted nails and the Scottish Widows adjust their tartan skirts. Our Dame bemoans the discomfort of a false bust, and I'm dressed as a man, but nobody seems to find anything strange.

Every few minutes someone passes round a bag of sweets.  While we're still discussing the relative merits of jelly babies and wine gums, a tin of Quality Street appears, quickly followed by a tube of Pringles, then a pack of chocolate biscuits. At the interval, just when it's most needed, a tray of tea and coffee arrives as if by magic.

We've a wide range of ages between us, but that doesn't seem to matter. People pose together for group selfies, they share games on their i-pads and mobiles. We all sit and listen as Ellie tells us about the time they staged Oliver, when it was so cold backstage that everyone sat in sleeping bags to keep warm. People share memories of other favourite shows, talk about the characters they'd most like to play, put forward suggestions for the next production. While we chat, we keep an ear open for what's going on on-stage. When we get to the point where the audience is supposed to join in with a song, everyone backstage sings loudly as well, realising for once that we don't need to keep our voices down.

Before we know it, we're all on stage for the curtain call, smiling out at the audience, standing in line to take a single bow. All that's left is one last chorus of the final song and as the applause fades away, I realise how just how aptly the words describe what it's been like to sit backstage with the Shoreham Village Players.

'If there's a moral to this tale,
It's do not shut the door.
In Shoreham Forest, there is room,
For all types rich and poor'

Tuesday, 3 February 2015


When I was young, and there was something I really really wanted, I'd find a million reasons why I wouldn't get it, why I didn't deserve it, why it wasn't worth the wanting. And just the same last year, when I thought we might be able to come back to Shoreham, I tried to convince myself, and anyone who'd listen, that it didn't really matter.

I made myself think about the darkness in winter, the frequency of power cuts, the scarcity of parking, as though all those things might somehow be a charm against disappointment.

I tried not to think about the kindness of neighbours who offer you a home, and make you feel like it's yours. I stopped walking through the village in my mind.

I almost forgot the views from the house in Crown Road; looking out the front bedroom window, past the Chapel and across to the allotments; standing on the doorstep to see the street tipping down towards the river; feeling how the hills hold the village in on either side. 

I somehow let slip the sounds of sparrows in the tree across the road, the roar of the oil-fired boiler as it starts up in the morning, the click of wood on wood as the front door closes shut. 

I steeled myself against revisiting too often the other memories; of putting up the Christmas lights; of Philip chopping wood, lighting fires, clearing snow; of the day he proposed and the day we got married. 

Then I found out that sometimes, the things you really really want, are the things you might deserve, and the things you end up getting. 

On 6th January 2015, we moved back to our house in Shoreham. 

Today, I remembered the poem we shared on our wedding day.

Sometimes - Sheenagh Pugh
Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The end of the holiday

When I was a child, holidays were magical. Every year, for the week or two that we spent away from home, I was another me; living a different life in a different world, spending time in a place that was filled with new things to do, friends to make and places to visit. Of course it was a totally artificial creation, but for the length of the holiday it was real to me. I belonged in that world and I never wanted to leave.

A couple of days ago, as I read the last few pages of a book that had completely captured me, I recognised that old feeling; a familiar sense of loss, a wistful wishing it could all carry on for just a little bit longer.

Just like arriving on holiday, whenever I begin a new book, it takes a day or two to get into it. I start off feeling a bit unsure, finding my way around, wondering how it might unfold. Bit by bit, I start to feel comfortable in my new surroundings, I see who all the people are and where they've come from, I begin to work out what they're like and what their contribution might be. As I read on, those characters stay with me, I find myself thinking about them, even when they're not right in front of me.

About three quarters of the way through, my reading slows down. I've been caught out before, thinking that there were dozens of pages left to read, only to find that they were filled with promotions for other books, guidance pages for book club readings, or an extract from the author's next novel. Now, as soon as I realise that the unread section is getting thinner, I flick to the back to find out how many pages are really left. If I have to reach the end of a book, I need to prepare for it, and if possible, put it off just a little bit longer.

When the ending comes, as it inevitably must, and even when it's the very best ending that could have possibly been written, the sense of loss is palpable. I think about what happened in the story, and wonder what might have come next for the characters that have become my companions.  For a while, the thought of starting another book seems almost disloyal.

Eventually though, I remember that the very best way to get over the end of one holiday, has always been to have another one to look forward to. So then I place the finished book with all the other ones I've read, in the book pile that's gradually turning into a book wall. And I look at the stack of those I've yet to start, wondering where the next one might take me.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

I wonder if the Railway misses us...

They seemed to be hardly Railway children at all in those days, and as the days went on each had an uneasy feeling about this which Phyllis expressed one day.

"I wonder if the Railway misses us," she said, plaintively. "We never go to see it now."

"It seems ungrateful," said Bobbie; "we loved it so when we hadn't anyone else to play with."

Edith Nesbit had a way with words. I'm not sure I can find a better way to describe how I've been feeling about this blog.

I used to visit every day, but I rarely do so now, and as the days go on, I have an uneasy feeling about that. It seems ungrateful. 

I used to love it so - the worlds it helped me uncover, the people it helped me meet, the conversations I used to have.  

And so, a little like the Railway Children, I thought I'd come back and wave - wondering if anyone still passes by and hoping that someone out there might wave back. 

Let me know how you are, tell me what you've been up to, and if you're feeling indulgent, help me come back and play. 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Itch - a story

Martin couldn't say for sure when the itching had started. There'd been a warm tingling sensation in his left arm most of the day, but he'd put that down to too many hours sat awkwardly in front of the computer, fingers hovering over the mouse. He remembered feeling more uncomfortable than usual during the Monday afternoon team meeting; he was used to the aches and pains that came with age, but as he'd sat there with the edge of the chair digging into his back, he'd felt an almost irresistible urge to writhe against the hard plastic like a horse on a rubbing post.

By the time he got home he felt hot, and the tingling had intensified to a pricking sensation as though he were being hit with a wire-brush. He took an antihistamine, just in case it had been an allergic reaction, and headed upstairs for a cool shower. In the bathroom, he twisted in front of the mirror and was surprised to see the rash that had formed between his shoulder blades and down his spine, the skin almost raw.

He didn't sleep well that night, couldn't quite get comfortable, and more than once he woke to find himself scratching furiously. In the morning he sat at the foot of the bed, slowly examining different areas of his body. It was no longer just a rash; pink angry circles had appeared on his legs, as though he'd been branded. He washed and dried as gently as he could, scared of either spreading what seemed to be an infection, or worse, rubbing it too hard and taking the skin away.

At work, Martin felt the skin on his arms tightening. Dreading what that might mean, and keen to avoid the judging stares of his colleagues, he kept the long sleeves of his shirt buttoned, and resisted the urge to inspect the skin beneath. As soon as he reached home again, he rushed upstairs and carefully peeled off his clothes. It had got worse; the rash had spread across his chest and up towards his chin, the circular marks had multiplied. He felt that if he stood there long enough, he'd see more and more erupting. And oh, the desire to scratch was so hard to overcome. He searched for some nail scissors in the drawer of the bedside table, and cut his fingernails as low as he could, carefully removing any jagged edges that might snag and tear his skin.

He was miserable. He felt dirty, almost seedy, as though the soreness was his own fault. He hated the idea that people might think he didn't wash properly, that he'd become one of those old men that people moved away from with a look of pity. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sit still. He found a pot of moisturising cream and rubbed handfuls into his arms and legs, reaching as far as he could across his back and chest. It eased the itching but the relief was only momentary, and as Martin lay down on the bed, he promised himself he'd visit the doctor the next day.

When he woke, he was surprised to find the room still dark. He looked towards the window, where the early morning light should have been starting to show through the curtains, but there was nothing; no daylight, only darkness.

He tried to reach out and lift the clock from the bedside table, but he couldn't lift his arm, it felt as though it was somehow tied to his side. Perhaps it was still night, maybe he was dreaming. Martin thought he'd get up and go to the toilet and then try to get some more sleep. He strained to swing his legs over the side of the bed, struggled to manoeuvre into a sitting position, but found he couldn't. His skin had a new tightness that was holding his joints stiff. Like rigor mortis, or maybe like a chrysalis, he thought, perhaps I’ll turn into a butterfly. The idea made him want to smile, but he realised he couldn't.

The constriction of his skin was holding him to the bed and then he realised, that the darkness wasn't the night; it was the skin that had closed over his eyes, blocking the light, holding his eyelids shut. He lay there in the darkness, listening for the birds outside, but nothing. Had his ears closed over as well?

Martin started to panic. He was finding it harder to breathe, his mouth was already closed, and now it seemed as though his nose was beginning to fill.

All alone in the house, there was no one to call and even if there had been, he didn't seem able to make any sound that could be heard. Like a mummy in a coffin, he could die lying there, unable to move, to eat or drink. He had no idea how long it might be before anyone would come looking for him. He fought back the idea that nobody would.

As he willed himself to move, to break free from the skin, he tried to understand what had happened. He'd never heard of a skin disease like this, something that could spread so quickly, so completely. He went back over the events of the last few days, wondered how and when he'd caught it. No one at work had seemed ill or in discomfort; and he hadn't really been near enough to anyone else to pick up an infection, well unless you counted other passengers on the journey to and from work.

He thought of the woman who'd sat next to him on the tube two days ago, before all the trouble with his skin had begun. She’d been properly beautiful, with long red hair, and clear grey eyes. She'd made her way towards the empty seat next to him with a graceful elegance, that made him feel clumsy and old. But as the tube picked up speed she'd lost her balance, then she'd reached out, gripping his arm until she regained her footing. He remembered that touch on his arm, the warm tingling feeling her fingers had left.

Martin felt a surge of self-pity. He tried to move again, but couldn't. It was pathetic, he was pathetic. And then he began to cry. He wondered what would happen to his tears; he could feel their dampness, caught inside the mask across his face. Perhaps he’d end up drowning in his own salt-water pool. But then, as quickly as the panic had come, it was gone. The tears seemed to be melting the covering on his eyes, he could blink again, he could almost see. Martin began to gather saliva in his mouth. He spat it forward, suddenly knowing there was a way out of the imprisonment of his skin.

He spat and licked, spat and licked, until his face and then an arm were free. There was a glass of water on his bedside table, he reached out and lifted it carefully, anxious not to waste a single drop, then he poured the contents over his legs and body until he had enough freedom of movement to stand.

The journey to the bathroom was difficult, he banged his hip on the doorway, but he’d never been happier to know there was a walk-in shower just a few steps away and soon he was standing under the warm liquid, hearing the sounds of water, sensing everything falling away.

Martin was suddenly keen to be in the world outside. As he pulled on his clothes, he could feel the energy rushing through him. It had been a long time since he’d moved with a spring in his step, now he wanted to hear London coming to life and feel the air on his skin. He set off, looking around, determined to miss nothing.

A group of teenagers stood at the bus-stop, as they did most days. He’d heard the snarling sarcastic way they talked to each other; normally he’d avoid making any eye contact, but today he chose to look. The tallest one stood watching him, then nudged one of the girls, and whispered in her ear. She turned to look at Martin, and then one by one each of the group turned to stare.

On any other day, Martin would have told himself to just keep walking; head down, keep walking, they won’t bother with an old man, you’ll be ok. But today wasn't any other day and so, as he passed the group he looked at them and smiled and the strangest thing happened, they each smiled back. Not a taunting dangerous grin, nor a sly grimace, these were real smiles, broad grins, sparkling eyes. ‘Hey’ said the tallest one. Martin nodded and walked on.

As he took the escalator down into the tube, he looked across at the people riding up. Some seemed to be looking towards him from the very bottom, others turned towards him as they drew near. And as they passed, they too began to smile. Absorbed in wondering why, Martin didn't notice that people made room for him to board the tube, he didn't see how they hung back until they were sure he'd got a seat, as though it was something he deserved. He didn't spot his reflection in the dark window opposite, the mirror image of a beautiful, smiling young man.

As the train pulled into his station, Martin stood to get off. The train was crowded now and in front of him an old lady was struggling to make her way through the other passengers. Her quiet ‘excuse me please’ ignored by the standing commuters. The doors were already open and if she wasn't a bit quicker the train would move off before either of them got there. ‘Lady coming through,’ shouted Martin ‘let the lady off please.’ He expected someone to complain, to moan about pensioners getting in the way of people who needed to get to work, but at the sound of his voice, the passengers stepped back, leaving a clear pathway to the door.

‘Better get going then,’ he said and grasped the old lady’s arm to steer her towards the exit. As he walked through the carriage and looked at the smiling faces of the other travellers, he didn't pause to wonder how he’d suddenly become so effective; there was something else beginning to disturb him. His fingers were touching the thin loose skin of the old lady’s left arm, and he could feel a warm tingling sensation spreading through his hand. As they stepped onto the platform, he let go quickly, wondering if she'd felt it, but hoping she hadn't noticed. ‘Thank you my dear,’ she smiled up at him and turned to walk away. 

As Martin stood and watched her go, he realised that she was scratching her arm, just where his fingers had been.