Friday, 31 December 2010

Learning to know

At sixteen there was so much you didn't yet know, so little you could face with confidence.

You were still learning how to watch the others, picking up the right words to say, the right things to talk about. You were beginning to understand their reactions, starting to see when it would be better to laugh off a clumsy comment as a failed joke. You almost knew when you shouldn't say what you really thought, or felt.

You already understood that it was better if you looked ok. So, as you got ready that New Year's Eve, you applied the lilac shimmer eyeshadow, oh so carefully. You stroked the black mascara over and over your lashes, eyes staring, mouth wide open, glancing every now and then at the dress hanging on the cupboard door. You still weren't quite sure about the dress, even though you'd saved for weeks, setting aside the money earned from your Saturday job in Woolworths; even though you'd taken the number 3 bus up to Oxford Circus and spent almost a whole day browsing through the racks downstairs at Top Shop. You'd practised how to use the hair tongs, how much hair to slip between the metal jaws, how long to hold it before your hair would singe.

You'd told your Dad you were going out, but not where you were going. He hadn't asked, hadn't really paid attention, seemed quite relieved. You were too wrapped up in your own plans to wonder what Mum was doing, who she'd be spending New Year's Eve with. You didn't even think about your sisters.

There was no need to hesitate at the door of the Railway Tavern, you knew the others would already be in there, that someone would offer you a gin and bitter lemon as soon as you arrived, so you didn't have to go to the bar yourself. You had no cause to worry about being under age, this was already your regular pub, where the landlord valued his 'young crowd' and didn't ask any questions.

Before long it would be time to leave the pub, pile into the orange Hillman Imp that waited outside and head off to Streatham. To the Cat's Whiskers, the one-time Locarno Ballroom, the only place in South London to spend New Year's Eve. You'd never met the boy squashed in next to you, though you'd heard his name at school. He didn't try to talk to you, but shared a friendly smile that reached his eyes, that made you feel ok.

You didn't know then that he'd stay by your side all evening, that he'd be the one who'd kiss you when the clock struck twelve, the one who'd ask for the last slow dance at the end of the night, the one who'd walk you three miles home and the one who'd take you to the pictures the following week.

And you didn't know then, that it wouldn't get any better than that. That for the next year you'd try so hard. That you'd turn up at the Railway Tavern every Friday and Saturday, knowing he would walk you home; even though he hadn't bothered to take you there himself, or call to see if you were coming.  You'd be so ridiculously pleased, so grateful, on those Thursday afternoons when he'd telephone, just after you'd both finished watching Little House on the Prairie, when he knew you'd be at home, that you'd pick up the phone, that he wouldn't have to explain himself to your sister or your Dad.

You didn't know that you'd spend fifty-two weeks putting a circle round the days in your diary, the days when you saw him or spoke to him. Marking the days to show this was something, each circle a proof that he must really like you. Not wanting to ask any questions of him and not brave enough to talk to your friends. Telling yourself this was how things should be.


At seventeen there are still so many things you don't understand, but you know a little more.

You know that there will be another New Year's Eve and another night at the Cat's Whiskers. You know that there will still be a quiet boy. By the time the clock strikes twelve, you will also know that however carefully you get ready, however hard you try, his friendly smile will be for another girl, not you.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Bookcase

In every book there are two stories waiting to be told; one emerges from the print on the pages, the other comes along with the perceptions and experiences of its reader. So it is then, that the shelves of a bookcase can hold a whole world of stories and a whole lifetime of meaning.

When I was a child we had only a couple of small bookcases - most of my books came from the library and had to go back, they didn't need their own home at ours. But before very long, I grew up and got married. I started to create our family home, to fill the second-hand teak units with an ever increasing collection of paperbacks supplemented by our favourite picture books for the children's bedtime stories.

In my mid-thirties, when I found myself starting all over, with a new life in a new home, I bought a bookcase. It was the first piece of furniture I'd ever bought with my own money, just for me.

I took my time filling its six shelves. The top shelf was for poetry books. Each one with corners turned down where I'd found a poem that expressed the anger and loneliness I felt. Below that, the penguin classics - a whole shelf of black spines with white lettering; nineteenth century novels, complete sets of George Eliot and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Turgenev, cheek by jowl with Hardy and Dickens. Me trying to convince my few visitors I was well-read, intelligent.

Then came three shelves of the books I'd actually read, arranged not by author or genre, but by the colour of their spine. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News sat next to the faintly intellectual blue spine of Simone de Beauvoir; below that a group of old orange Penguin books including Thackeray's Vanity Fair that I'd won as a prize at school. At the bottom was the white shelf. It's surprising how many books have white spines, how few are yellow or purple. Of course not all the books were single-colour, and not all the same shade, but I spent hours arranging and rearranging the shades, finding the right tones that could sit together. When I was a kid I loved those wide flat tins of colouring pencils, 40 shades from white, through the rainbow, to the special gold and silver at the end. I'd spend nearly as much time sorting out their order in the tin as I did colouring, some days it was like that with the books.

If you picked up any of these books and turned the pages, the chances are a ticket would fall to the floor. A train pass or a boarding card, sometimes a theatre or concert ticket, each a symbol of things I'd been doing at the time I read the book, each a reminder of escape or perhaps truancy from expectation. If you looked to the back of Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, you'd see the edges of a page roughly torn out, used to write a love letter on a beach.

When Philip and I first got together, I loved that he'd read more widely than me, that I could talk to him about poetry, that he'd be able not only to name a poem, but also to quote it and identify the author.  I welcomed the books he brought with him, that I might get to read myself someday. At first I resisted their entry to my bookcase, but over time, things changed. Suddenly the top shelf contained travel guides as well as poetry, the third was filled with cookery books. Colour-arranging went out the window, I began to relax into myself, the odd Agatha Christie story snuck in next to an allotment guide, I added my collection of Rowan knitting patterns, the pile of programmes from Bromley football matches began to grow.

Ten years later, the bookcase continues to change. The edges of the shelves have filled with the relics of daily life. As I sit here now I can see the incense burner, an empty perfume bottle, a set of drill-bits and a knife sharpener, some mints, a pair of sunglasses and an empty camera film holder.  We continue to accumulate books, read them, love them, then give them away when we run out of room. I was horrified when Philip first suggested a book-give-away - even if I was never going to read them again, it felt like my books were part of me, defined how I felt about myself. But once I'd tried it, seen the pleasure on people's faces as they browsed through the boxes we put outside on the bench, I began to see the appeal - and it's becoming a regular event.

The bookcase does still tell a story about my life, but it's become a story of change and possibility, of mixing and sharing.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Saying the wrong thing

There's a certain irony to this post, given that writing a blog is all about choosing the right words, but I guess in real life we've all done it - said the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time.

Sometimes it's just plain funny. Like the time when my Mother, sitting under the hazelnut tree in the garden, turned to my beloved and exclaimed loudly, "Oh Philip, what lovely nuts you've got"

But at other times it’s more complicated. 

It was probably my twelfth birthday when my parents' gift to me was a hairdryer and some money. I've never really been a hairdryer person; I'm vain but lazy, so the effort of standing there for hours with aching arms to achieve a perfect hair-do was never my thing, but they meant well. And the money was brilliant - ten pounds was a lot in those days, I remember my friends at school being really envious and I was genuinely grateful for it at the time. Until... until my youngest sister's birthday six months, later when they bought her a Chopper bike.

Choppers were all the rage at the time. I'd never had my own bike, and never learned to ride one, I was horribly jealous. 

I didn't stop to think about the reasons behind the gift, or the tight finances that might have stopped them buying me one when I was her age. To me it was proof that they didn't care enough to think about what I wanted and that they loved her more. Complete nonsense, but it rankled. It rankled so much that next time I lost my temper I shouted "Ten pounds and a hairdryer! That's how much you care about me!"

Cruel, horrible words. Since then I've tried to erase the embarrassment that came to me too late, by attempting to make a joke of it, encouraging people to laugh at my mean-spiritedness and over time, my generous family have let it become just that - a family joke.

As an adult I've haven't eliminated my ability to be insensitive or stupid, but I've learned to recognise the tell-tale signs - the raised eyebrow, the polite smile and embarrassed laugh, or the fleeting expression of pain that comes in response to a thoughtless remark. And that's a kindness because it gives me a chance to redeem the situation.

But it only works when you're face-to-face with people. The advent of e-mail brought with it a whole range of opportunities for misunderstandings from hastily sent missives. And since starting this blog, I've uncovered another potential bear-pit - the comments form.

I love to receive comments; at their best, they make me feel proud of what I've written, at their most useful they help me to see how I could write better. So it seems only fair, when I read other people's work, that I should say something in return. And that's where the trouble arises - because it does feel like 'saying' rather than writing. For me, that sometimes means I'll fall into the trap of trying to make myself sound clever, without really thinking through or understanding how it will be interpreted at the other end and I'll press the publish button just a little too soon.

A few days ago I left a comment on a blog I admire very much. When I went back to look at later comments I re-read what I'd said. I winced at the horrible combination of patronising and glib, at words which say more about my character faults than anything about the person they were written to. There's been no response, so I've no notion of how it was received. The simplest thing would be to go back and delete it, but that might also seem odd and spark another load of misunderstanding. So I'm writing this with that slightly sick feeling of knowing I said the wrong thing at the wrong time and not quite knowing what to do about it. 

If you're reading this as the recipient of the comment, then I'm genuinely sorry. Given the chance, I will try and make a joke or a tradition of it. In the meantime, I shall just sit here and feel like my twelve-year-old self.

Friday, 17 December 2010

I love the PRS cheques that you bring

Those who know and love me, know my fondness for a Beautiful South song. Those who are forced to share my singing-in-the-car routines know my very particular fondness for a specific line in Song for Whoever - 'I love the PRS cheques that you bring' - I sing it loudly, with a certain 'yes I know what a PRS cheque is'  conceit and a smug-and-somewhat-self-satisfied smile.

Let me take you on a journey back in time. It was 1997, and I'd had a tough year. My Dad had died, I was struggling to work out how to live post-divorce, with four kids and no job. I was part-way through a teacher-training degree which seemed more and more distant from my idea of what teaching should be, when my very best friend Francesca Ferrari (yes that is her real name and worthy of another blog post all of its own) suggested that we nick off college for a week and take a holiday to Gran Canaria.

I'm easily led. It seemed a sensible option to spend my student loan on a child-free week in the sun. So we hatched our plot, packed our bags and set off. On the very first evening, just before retiring to our hotel beds, we happened across a couple of polite young gentlemen with strangely-accented English. And there it all began.

For the next few years I conducted a long-distance liaison with an Austrian music producer. Time was spent between London and Vienna. I didn't get to see the usual tourist attractions, Schonbrunn Palace, the coffee houses, the art galleries, but I did become quite familiar with a basement studio, with its blue-plastic-lined ceiling and bewildering range of mixing desks.

Though it might be somewhat difficult to appreciate the difference, Austrian Euro-pop in those days was trying hard to maintain a distinction from German Euro-pop. To do that it really needed English lyrics - and that was where I came in. Words and music were exchanged across the miles, until eventually there was a whole album full of songs.

Of course, I'd made no efforts to protect my interests (they were largely of a personal nature) so there were no formal contracts, but my Austrian musician had suggested that I join the Performing Rights Society, just in case the album sold. And to my amazement, it did. It even found its way into the Austrian charts, and for the next few years a small sum made its way into my bank account each year in recognition of our efforts.

After a while the distance between London and Vienna proved too much and the Anglo-Austrian relationship foundered. I grew ever-so-slightly ashamed of my links to the under-valued genre of Euro-pop, and my time as a published lyricist came to an end.

It's been a long time since I had anything to do with UniqueII, they don't exist any more as a production team and my days in Austria are a fond but faded memory. Imagine then, my surprise and delight when I checked my bank statement earlier today to find the sum of £2.76 credited to my account from PRS. It's certainly not the early retirement sum I might have wished for, but I can't help but be pleased that, somewhere in the world, my words are still being listened to every now and then. 

And I hope that whoever is still listening is having a lovely time, maybe even dancing.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Nobody does vincible half as well as us*

Our vincible band of writers
marched unseeingly on,
as the clichés flowed like hydrants
to extinguish wintry sun.

The images donned their armbands
for the struggle to the shore,
crawled through the sands of thens and ands;
the flotsam of the jaw.

The adjectives drowned the pronouns,
yet the adverbs missed their cue,
while the metaphors fought with similes
to outwit the plain and true.

Our vincible band of wordsmiths
described, unknowingly, on,
deconstructed by our verbiage.
The war of words not won.

*my thanks to @MrLondonStreet  for the tweet that prompted this poem 
(and brightened an otherwise gloomy day).

Sunday, 12 December 2010


When I was 18 my best friend went off to the other side of the world for a year. She left quite a gap in my life which I tried to fill by writing long, long letters to her. Over time, in my letters, I became the interesting, entertaining, confident young woman I really wasn't. She got the edited highlights without the embarrassing faux-pas, the witty comments without the dull silences.

When eventually she returned, I realised that while she had gained maturity through experience, I had only achieved lyricism through letters; it was almost inevitable that we'd struggle to connect in person. I couldn't help but feel I'd disappointed her and that feeling has come back to visit me more than once since then.

So, when my beloved mentioned the idea of a few bloggers getting together for a pre-christmas meet, my outwardly positive response was tinged with more than a little trepidation.

As the plans for #yuleblog began to take shape, and a date and venue were agreed, the guest-list waxed and waned. I wondered if others were like me, intrigued by the prospect of meeting the very finest of bloggers, but scared of the reality.

Finally the day dawned. I'd spent a whole week planning what to wear, but that didn't stop the last minute faffing - which boots? Hair up or down? One bracelet or three? Philip stoically calmed my rising anxiety with a bacon sandwich and then we set off for the trip into town.

As we sat sipping cider and waiting for them to arrive, I looked around at the old black-and-white photographs lining the walls of the French House bar. Pictures of people who'd been known and loved in the 1930s and 40s, their confident smiles and knowing eyes gazing down as we sat there in nervous anticipation.
We both looked up expectantly each time the door opened - but we'd barely been there five minutes when they arrived and then, almost immediately, I knew it would be alright.

Many of you will already know Bag Lady  and Mr London Street from their blogs and admire their writing. It would be impossible for me to describe them in a way that does more justice than their own words - if you haven't come across them before, please go and read their blogs and soak up the mixture of reflection and memory, of acute observation and life-affirming love, all underlined by a mix of caustic wit and smut, then you might get an idea of what I'd want to write. All I can say here is that they were all the good bits of all their best posts only better.

They were simply just lovely.

As lunchtime wore on into evening, we drank, we shared food, we chatted without awkwardness or embarrassment. We admired the tiny wine glasses, waxed lyrical over the soft-shelled crab and guffawed at the presentation of the spicy pork and fennel polpette. We talked about our writing, filled in some of the gaps in our individual life histories, and got to know each other a little better. When lunch was done, we made our way to an overcrowded Soho bar and carried on. Eventually, some nine hours later, when Philip could tell that I was flagging, we agreed to call it a day and set off home, but even then it felt like we should have gone on for longer.

This morning, I realised that if I'd given in to all my egotistical worrying about what I wore, how I looked, and what they might think of me, I might have ducked out of meeting them. I wouldn't only have missed a lovely day out in London, I'd have passed up the chance of more days like that in the years ahead - and that would have been a big mistake.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas past, Christmas present

Once upon a time, there was a young mother who believed in the magic and wonder of Christmas. Each year she set about the tasks of shopping and cooking, making and decorating; convinced that if she only tried hard enough she could create the perfect day.

As the glitter frosted windows of the advent calendar were opened, she spent the days of December assembling the chocolate coins, tubes of sweets, pencils and socks; all those long thin objects that would fit in a Christmas stocking. She helped the children write their letters to Santa, lifted them up to reach the letter box, made sure they didn't find the shiny-wrapped gifts hidden under her bed.

As the big day drew nearer, she went in search of the tree, just the right height and width, non-dropping needles and a tall spike at the top for the fairy. She tested the lights, replaced the fuse-bulbs where necessary, then carefully, one by one, placed the fragile glass baubles and home-made paper lanterns. She searched out the pine cones they'd collected in summer, then tied them with scarlet ribbon to the green garlands draped around the fireplace. Her evenings slipped past in writing cards, shaping and painting marzipan fruits, finishing hand-knitted jumpers.

Almost before she realised, it was Christmas Eve, with its own special schedule. A carol service at church; walking there in the cold with excited children pulling her along. Coming home to baths and hair-washes; there'd be no time for those on Christmas Day. Putting the girls' hair in rags to curl them, keeping an eye on the boys to stop them eating all the chocolates on the tree.

And then it was bedtime. There were no difficulties in getting any of them to bed on Christmas Eve - the sooner they went, the sooner Santa would come. But before they could go up the stairs there was the sherry and mince pie to put out for Father Christmas, the saucer of milk and carrots for the reindeers. Then the song they'd all sing -

Christmas time is here
so we go to bed.
As we climb the stairs
nodding sleepy heads.
Take our stockings off
hang them in a row
then jump quickly into bed
and off to sleep we go...

But then came the years when the Christmas sparkle faded, when they didn't live in the lovely house any more, when the choices had to include decisions about spending the day with Mummy or Daddy. Two sets of presents didn't make up for the things that were missing. Pleasure offset by guilt and regret.

Year after year of not-quite-right Christmases followed.

Last weekend, the not-so-young mother went shopping with her best friend and her youngest daughter. They chose jumpers for the boys, looked at boots and leather jackets, checked out different types of make-up, bought new fairy lights for the tree.

At the bookshop they spent ages looking through the children's section. She found the books she'd loved as a child, Pippi Longstocking and the Chronicles of Narnia. She re-lived the times she'd shared stories with her own children, their laughter over Peepo and Each-Peach-Pear-Plum. She carefully selected the first books she would read to her grandson on his first ever Christmas.

When lunchtime came, they stopped at a new restaurant. They sat on soft leather seats while they waited for their steaming mugs of chocolate. They looked around at the light fittings made of tea-cups, at the velvet patchwork sofas, the cake-stands piled high with dainty treats. She noticed the excited, smiling  faces of children and adults alike;  she couldn't help but smile back.

It was still early in December, but it felt almost as though they were finding a new tradition.

Maybe a perfect Christmas wasn't quite so far away.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Home and away

I've been on a training course this week - cloistered in a hotel near Colchester. Seventy-two hours away from family and friends, seventy-five miles from Shoreham.

While the minutes ticked by in north Essex, the world changed around me. Snow fell constantly; it accumulated in piles and drifts; it bent the tree branches with its weight; it slowly transformed the cars outside into indistinguishable white mounds. The flakes swirled and floated past the windows of the conference room.

I watched the news and weather reports on TV in between seminars and 'case-plays'. I listened to the stories of stranded train travellers, of lorries abandoned at the sides of motorways, of schools and offices closed, and of farmers transporting midwives by tractor to the bedsides of women in labour. The whole country seemed to be sliding to a halt.

As time passed, I began to feel less and less connected to reality. I wasn't sure if it was just the wintry blizzard outside that made me feel so cut off.  Perhaps it was the faded '70s decor of the hotel, or the Christmas menu complete with crackers and paper hats, that greeted us in the restaurant.

I don't know if it was the experience of spending so much time with people I barely know, or the strange jargon-filled language that peppered our earnest discussions, but gradually I felt as though I'd lost my centre of gravity.

I've never experienced homesickness before, I haven't known that gut-wrenching pull. In the years since we came to Shoreham, I haven't realised just how much the rolling green hills of the valley and the messy cosiness of our house, have taken me up and enfolded me.

More than that, I haven't noticed how the comforting arms of my big kindly northerner, and the non-stop singing chatter of my dancing daughter have given me a sense of belonging.

Without them I am lost.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Im Keller der Hölle

The neon sign above the entrance had only a feeble glow in the daylight. Marie barely noticed it as she rushed through the opening and down the steps. She pushed past the silent, staring men and picked her way round and over the bodies entwined at the edges of the steep stairwell. Descending lower and lower into what seemed like the very core of the earth, she came to the underground cellar room.

Marie was sure she’d seen him come in here, but she couldn’t spot him now in the groups of people clustered around the bar. She elbowed her way through, and mouthed ‘vodka – tonik’ to the barman, hoping to be understood over the music. She needed a drink, but not another confusing exchange in English-Austro-German.

Taking the tall clear glass, she headed for an empty table in the corner and sank down on the scratched leather-covered bench beside it. She leaned back against the brick wall, its black emulsion shiny from the sweat and grease of a hundred other heads, then closed her eyes and exhaled slowly.

This was her first visit to Vienna. The first time she’d flown out to see Evan since he’d taken up the offer of a European placement. There’d been no rows or recriminations before he left, just resentful grudging silences of disappointment. And now, although she’d travelled eight hundred miles to see him, she didn’t feel any closer.

Vienna. She’d thought perhaps the mixture of culture and history would provide a distraction; that her visit could build some shared memories, things to look back on when he finally came home. So she’d agreed to spend the day exploring the city.

As they’d criss-crossed the narrow streets, Marie and Evan had found themselves caught up in the route of a protest march. She didn’t understand all the words on the photo-shopped placards, but she could imagine the demonstrators were dissenting students, griping about cuts in funding.

Marie remembered the huge marches she’d joined in London, naively thinking they could somehow stop the invasion of Iraq. She and Evan both knew that sense of hopeless frustration. They understood that a demo could turn, suddenly and without warning, from a peaceful protest to a brawling scene of destruction. This time though, they were just bystanders, bemused foreigners.

Though the shouts of the protesters had got louder they hadn’t sensed the change in tone. Then they’d turned the corner at Stephansplatz and seen the Bundespolizei, the Federal Police, lined up across the road, machine guns held across their chests. She’d been shocked to see the armed security guards at the airport when she’d arrived, she hadn’t realised it was routine practice here for the police to carry weapons. Now their silent menacing presence on the city streets was enough to make Marie and Evan turn in their tracks, persuade them to find a quiet route away from the marchers.

When the first screams rang out Evan had started to run, yelling at her to follow. She’d tried to keep up with him, stay close, as the panicked crowds behind them sought an escape. She’d lost sight of him for a while when the crowd surged past. She thought perhaps she’d heard shots.

Then, with relief, she’d seen his ridiculous hat up ahead. A baker-boy cap he’d called it. She hadn’t wanted him to wear it, thought the misshapen black suede made him look like an old singer from the eighties; someone her mother had liked. But now she was glad he’d ignored her and worn it anyway. Moving faster, she pushed through the crowd to get closer, near enough to see him enter the bar.

Marie opened her eyes. There was a single spotlight hanging from the centre of the ceiling, she watched it spinning slowly around the cellar, casting a harsh white light, then moving on. No wonder this seat had been empty, it was in just the right place to be caught by the spotlight beam. There’d be no private moments here; whoever sat at this table would be lit up like a tableau for the rest of the bar. Marie looked down to avoid the light’s painful imprint on her eyes.

In front of her was a scarred and battered table. Ludicrously, it reminded her of the old science lab at school. The benches, with their thick varnish had always been irresistible – a place to leave your mark, your autograph if you were brave, an anonymous insult if you weren’t. They’d all carved their names, using the tip of an ink-pen or the sharp point of a protractor, seeing the edges of the varnish turn from clear to opaque as it was cut.

This table looked as if it had been collecting names for years; jumbled up, scratched at different angles, some newer ones across the letters of the older names, like words on a scrabble board. Just names; no political statements, no arrow-broken hearts, not even an insult. It was more like a visitors’ book, a record of all the men and women who’d visited this bar, sat at this table and left their mark. Always in capital letters, as though to make a firmer statement. Someone called CHRIS had really wanted his name to endure, the letters had been deeply gouged into the wood and coloured in with black ink.

She leaned forward, her fingers tracing the indentation of the letters, the curves of the ‘C’ and the ‘S’. Then she saw it. No soft curves to this name, but the straight parallel lines of an ‘E’ and the sharp points on each of the other letters. She didn’t think it was the sort of name you’d often find in Austria. The white edges gave it away as one of the newer engravings: EVAN. So he had been there. She looked up, hoping he might still be in the room, watching her.

If he wasn’t here she needed to get out and look for him. She didn’t know where to start. She wasn’t even sure what street this was. Would he go back to the apartment, assume she’d made her way there? Would he retrace their steps back to the Cathedral Square? Relief turning to irritation, she wondered why he’d been so quick to run away. Why hadn’t he taken her hand, tried harder to stay with her? Why had he let her fall so far behind? He knew this city far better than she did, he should have stuck close, made sure she was alright. She wrapped the long grey edges of her cardigan tightly around her. She thought of all the steps she’d walked down to the cellar. It seemed a long way back up to the street.

The music pulsed. The chanting English lyrics, clumsily translated and repetitive, echoed around the black walls, bounced off the vaulted ceiling.

This wasn’t the Vienna she’d pictured. The city of palaces and opera houses, art galleries and Lipizzaner horses. This underground bar couldn’t be more different to the cafés they’d passed today, with their high white ceilings and sparkling glass chandeliers, their great gold-framed mirrors, with carved cherubs peeping round horns of plenty. She’d read about these coffee houses; their history as the meeting places of philosophers, writers and politicians. Today they’d been full of grey-haired, fur-coated Viennese ladies and elderly men in camel-hair coats, who’d made her think of Hercules Poirot. Old couples barely speaking, carefully picking at the sickly sweet gateaux served on thin china plates. Marie and Evan had stood together outside, peering in through the steamed-up windows, watching the immaculately dressed waiters manoeuvring round the tables, their trays balanced high on one hand. They’d seen the sparkle and glint of gold and glass, listened to the sound of spoons and pastry forks clinking on china. They hadn’t wanted to go in.

Despite the music, and its constant rhythmic beat, nobody here in the bar was dancing. She watched the people around her. Some stood alone, staring at the flaking posters that were pasted one over another around the walls. Others sat grouped around tables, heads bent together. In the coffee houses it had been white fur coats and blue-rinsed hair. Here in the cellar, everyone was dressed in black: oversized T-shirts, tight skinny jeans, long pointed shoes, all in shades from charcoal to jet. Even on bare arms, the patterns of black-inked tattoos snaked their way around and up, covering the skin. How odd she must look, sitting on her own, in the grey cardigan and linen trousers that had seemed so right for walking round the city.

As the spotlight continued to rotate, she saw the pallor of the men’s faces, made more striking by the smudged kohl lines round their eyes, their dark hair flopping forward. So many men, looking so similar, but none of them Evan.

She hadn’t tried to listen to the conversations around her, the music was too loud for that and she wouldn’t have understood anyway. But as she sat there, mulling over what to do next, she suddenly realised that the sound of voices had stopped. No-one was speaking. One by one the people of the cellar bar turned to look at her. Under the spotlight, their pinched white faces were expressionless, their dark eyes unblinking.

She needed to leave. She wanted to find Evan. Now.

Marie grabbed at her bag. To her right, she saw a girl stand up and step towards her. She was petite, almost waif-like, but Marie felt somehow intimidated by her bony-ness, and her hesitating, awkward movements. She didn’t need this; she just wanted to get out, to find her way back to the apartment.

The music faded as the girl stopped in front of her. There was nothing to distinguish her from the others, to mark her out as their spokesperson, but that was what she appeared to be.

‘You are the English woman – is that so?’ she enunciated the words in a slow monotone.

‘Yes, but how…’

‘You should not be here. This is not the right time for you.’

‘I’m sorry… I was looking for… I made a mistake …’

‘Yes, there has been a mistake. You must leave now. Go back up the stairs. I cannot come with you, but when you get to the top you will be shown the way.’

Something wasn’t quite right in the words; Marie didn’t understand what the girl meant about time, or how she knew about the mistake.

It didn’t matter, she’d be fine when she got outside, and she’d get back to the apartment somehow. As she headed for the stairs, people stepped away, making room for her to pass. She didn’t look back at the girl, a mixture of confusion, embarrassment and fear hurrying her on her way.

She was surprised to find it was still light outside. Looking up Marie could see the sharp point of the Cathedral spire above the top of the buildings opposite. If she could just get back to the square, she was sure she’d find her way from there to the apartment.

Turning left, she saw a large crowd gathered on the pavement at the end of the street. Were the demonstrators still around? Surely they should be gone by now, scattered back to the student halls and bars across the city. She pushed her way through to the roadside, just in time to see a man closing the doors of an ambulance. There was no urgency about his movements as he climbed into the driver’s seat, shaking his head. The vehicle pulled away - no lights flashing, no sirens or claxons ringing.

Inside the Hölle Keller, the music got louder. The regular beat pulsed and the white spotlight rotated. As its light fell on the leather-covered bench, a slim dark figure slipped out of the shadows and sat down. He carefully placed a black suede hat on the table, then took a pen from his pocket. Leaning forward over the carved letters, the man slowly and methodically filled in the parallel lines and sharp pointed characters with dark black ink.

Friday, 26 November 2010

A measure of wellbeing?

Sometimes the idiocy of those in power outweighs my intent to keep my politics to myself.
Either that, or it would be a shame to waste a good prompt for a poem...

A Measure of Wellbeing
Can you legislate for happiness,
performance manage hope,
set a target for wellbeing
to manipulate my soul?

Can you define what makes life worthy
from your Ivory Tory Tower,
with patronising tactics
to maintain your worthless power?

Don’t you see that being happy
isn’t in the hand of state?
That your smug desire to lift our hearts
might burnish them with hate.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Every picture tells a story

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I recently changed the look of my blog. Some of you may even have spotted that I've put a new picture at the top. I'd like to think that one or two of you might even have paused to wonder what the picture was, or where and when it was taken.

Well, hey I can answer all of those questions.

It was taken at precisely 9.55 am on 29th August this year. I know that because I took it, and for those of you who haven't already worked it out, it's a picture of the front room in our house in Shoreham. I took it on the day we decided to move the furniture around and swap our dining room for our living room. I wanted a reminder of how the room had looked before we changed it.

I liked how it looked - a bit old-fashioned, a bit friendly and a bit sunny and bright, so I added it to the blog.  Then I took another, closer, look and I realised why it was so right to have this as my blog picture. There are one or two things pictured here that might seem a little bit familiar, and so with your kind indulgence, I'd like to take you on a walk around our front room.

The table is where we do all our writing. It's where Philip and I sit, laptop to laptop when we're blogging and tweeting and reading and commenting. If you look closely, you'll see a shiny bulldog clip - I manage to leave one lying around every time I work from home. It drives Philip mad. For once we've tidied away the laptops, but the piled up notebooks are a clue to what goes on and the scattered place-mats are my indispensable writing aids - there's very little I can do without regular cups of tea. I have absolutely no idea why there is a wooden clothes peg on the table.

The chairs don't match. We don't have any that do, just a penchant for collecting odd bentwood chairs from other people's houses. Philip's rucksack sits on the nearest one. It's been on a few journeys with us, most recently to Paris. Behind the other chair you can see a grey lever-arched file, stuffed full of papers. That's my mum's letters - I've mentioned them here before.

Just above the file of letters, there's a hook on the wall. It's supposed to hold tie-backs for the curtains. What it's actually holding is a string of red onions from our allotment. It's not easy, in a very small house, to find places to hang your onions...
If you could see out of the window, there's a beautiful white weather-boarded house just across the road, and behind that are the allotments, just a stone's throw away, close enough to nip home and collect a couple of mugs of tea to take back, reward for a hard hour's digging and weeding.

In the corner of the room is a white cupboard. It's where the electricity meter and the fuse box live, the place we go to, groping through the dark, when a light bulb blows and trips the safety switch. It's the 'safe place' where we pile up all our important papers, and it doubles up as the games cupboard - where the scrabble set is piled up with the old jigsaws and my dad's electronic chess game.

There are a number of pictures on top of the cupboard - one of me and Philip sitting on a bench on our wedding day, another of me with my daughters. Hanging on the wall above is a picture of a washing line. It's a photo Philip took in the garden of our last house - It was a strange place to live, an old gatekeepers lodge, which was awkwardly shaped and always freezing cold, but it was the house where Philip and I first lived together, so this photo is a fondly kept reminder. In the corner of the cupboard on the right-hand side is a small picture, taken over 20 years ago when Megan was a baby. It's too small for anyone to make anything out in it - but that's ok - I know how  adorable Megan was and how very long my hair was then...

If you squint a bit you might be able to make out a shiny silver cup - that's the trophy we won last year from the Shoreham Allotments Association for 'most improved plot'. It's the only time in my life that my name has been engraved on a trophy. Behind that there's a small kettle. You might well ask why there's a kettle sitting among the wedding photo's and next to the allotment trophy. Well it's almost a trophy too. We found it while walking through the woods up on the hill. It was more than a bit black and dirty then, but we brought it home like treasure trove and it cleaned up a treat.

To the left of the white cupboard is the fireplace. On top of it you might just be able to make out some small white stones. Whenever we go to a beach I like to bring back a pebble or two - these were from our trip to Cyprus last year.  I love that we can have real fires. The central heating is great when you get up for work in the morning, but the red glowing warmth, and the crackle and hiss of a log fire take some beating. Philip prides himself on the quality of his fire-making, a skill he learned from his Grandda, and I've been grateful for that skill many times.

There's probably not much else to tell you about the picture. We didn't choose the curtains, or the mirror above the fire - they came with the house, which we rent, but they are also very much part of the room and the house that we've grown to love.  And of course, at the top of my blog you can only see half of the room.  Until we swapped the rooms around, the opposite wall was the place for Philip's record cupboard - but that's another story all of its own.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Growing my hair

Some people have a thing about their weight - it's never right and they spend half their lives dieting then giving up. I'm far too undisciplined and self-indulgent to diet. For me, the thing I always want to get right, but never quite manage is my hair.

Of course, I blame my mother.

When I was at primary school, I had long dark brown hair. Mum liked to 'experiment' with it. One day I'd go to school with Heidi plaits across the top of my head. The next day it would be Princess Leia loops around my ears (and this was in the days long before Princess Leia was a twinkle in George Lucas' eye, so I couldn't even pretend it was an intentional choice on my part).

When I decided I'd had enough, Mum took me to the hairdressers, where between them they came up with the idea of a 'pixie cut' - yes, that's right, my own mother agreed with the hairdresser that I should look like a pixie. A pixie!

That left me entering my teenage years with no credibility and a longing to grow my hair. And it's been pretty much the same ever since.

I managed it for a while, when the kids were growing up - it was easy to find an excuse for avoiding the scissors - no money, no time, no self-image.

But once I'd gone back to work, I fell for the notion that I should attempt to look stylish / smart / sexy /sleek;  and so off I went for a cut. As soon as the tresses hit the floor I regretted it, and ever since I've been telling everyone that I'm going to grow it out.

This has largely been just an idle threat - I've been far too scared of my hairdresser to risk offending him by suggesting that a) I could decide how I wanted my hair to look or b) it really didn't need cutting quite so often. But things finally came to a head (sorry - unforgivable pun) last year, when I was asked to play a man in our village production of Much Ado About Nothing. In my imagination I was the beautiful Beatrice; in the eyes of the village I was the evil bastard Don John.

And so, the last great hair-growing adventure began.

I think, perhaps, hair doesn't grow quite as quickly as you get older. It seemed to take forever to grow down past my ears. Many times I tried to scrape a few stray strands into an elastic band, only to be ridiculed by those I thought I loved.

But I've stuck with it. It's gradually crept longer and longer. I can make a little pony tail of it now. I can even sweep it up in a faux-elegant clip.

And I'm generally quite pleased. Except....

When is that you become 'too old' for long hair? Have I already reached and gone past it without realising? Will my final ignominy be when I'm cast as the mad old witch in the next village panto?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Almost a poet...

Ok. I know it's not the Forward Poetry Prize and I know there is absolutely no excuse for blowing my own trumpet, but...

A few weeks ago, for the first time ever, I submitted something to a poetry competition - the inaugural Royal Berkshire Poetry competition, supported by Beat Magazine The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Library Services, and the Firestation Centre for Arts & Culture

I couldn't get to the awards event last night, which was a real shame, and I didn't win first prize, but I'm as pleased as punch that my poem was awarded second place.

For those of you on Facebook who would like to read the winning, third placed and commended entries - there is a page dedicated to the competition here -

For any of you who want to read my entry (I know I've shared it with some of you already) here it is -

These Boots Are Made For Walking

You force yourself inside me
dead weight upon my sole.
Leather stretched by bones and flesh,
sharp nails against my toes.

Your fingers grasp my laces,
tie them, tight, across my tongue.
Double bows to hold me in,
trapped, yet soon undone.

My skin is cracked, unpolished,
worn out by rain and sleet,
broken down by years, and miles,
of service at your feet.

But as we move together
with your light-stepped rhythmic pace
I feel your warmth spread through me
I am moulded by your grace.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Five days in Paris

What is there to say of Paris that hasn't already been written, painted or sung?

If I were a musician I'd recreate the sounds - of the traffic rushing through the Grands Boulevards; the horns blaring as a delivery van blocks a tight corner; the pigeons softly whistling from a zinc-roofed  attic high above the street; the drunken shout at three in the morning; or the joyous mix of saxophone and double-bass that lifts the hearts and heads of the rain-soaked tourists winding their way past the artists' studios of Montmartre.

Were I an artist, I'd sketch the skeletal trees clinging on to their last golden leaves against a blue November sky. With a palette of silver and grey, I'd paint the city skyline seen from the top of the Pompidou Centre, with glistening drops of rain falling all around. I'd draw the lined but knowing eyes of the maitre d' who's seen it all and said so little.

With the skill of a poet, I might scribe a sonnet to the chic and beautiful, or perhaps the dirty and shoeless. I'd type a page on the old red typewriter at Shakespeare and Co., to add to the words upon words that line its walls. I'd find the lines to question why churches that should inspire love and hope are built so fearsome, dark and brooding.

But for five days in Paris we weren't painters, singers or writers. Instead, we walked. We walked and walked. We strolled and marched, rushed and dallied, paused and paced; through the streets, beside the Seine, around the gardens. As we walked and talked, we breathed and sensed the city, and somehow felt we came to know it just a little bit more.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A short story - any old iron

Harry scuffed along the street. He knew he had no business messing about; he should get there as fast as he could. But with shoulders slouched and hands in pockets, he still kicked at imaginary stones as he headed towards his childhood playground.
Coming closer, he lifted his eyes to see the well-known, well-worn, gates to the scrapyard. The once royal blue paint was peeling off in places. The wood was cracked and damaged where wind, rain and the occasional kick or knock had taken their toll. The huge hinges were rusting and one side of the gate was out of kilter, hanging down and leaning on the other. At one time there’d been lettering across the tops of the gates; black, outlined in gold. Not much left of that now. Even the  ‘For Sale or Lease’ sign was starting to fade.
He could see the gates were locked, the great black padlock still firmly in place, but set within one of them was a smaller, man-sized door. ‘The punters’ entrance’ his dad had always called it. Harry swallowed hard, then tried the old iron door handle. It felt smooth but strong in his grasp. Turning it, he pushed at the door with his shoulder. The wood had swollen, but it gave way easily enough. He ducked his head, lifted his foot over the bottom panel and stepped inside.
The battered gates might suggest something different, but this was no scrap heap. Though his dad hadn’t worked for over a year, this was still a well-ordered scrap merchant’s yard. Each pile sorted and stacked professionally. He could almost hear his dad’s proud declaration, ‘there’s no bugger gonna lose a leg to a loose Fiat door – not while I’ve got something to do with it’.
Ahead of him were the car stacks. Whole cars, squashed cars, doors, wings, bonnets and bumpers. To the right of those, the old household goods; washing machines, vacuums, tumble driers. Still and silent now, but created from parts that had once rotated and whirred, throbbed and hummed.
A less orderly pile to his left held all the ‘bits’. A nest of pipes, connectors, belts and wires, snaking in and out of each other. The screws, bolts and nails were held separately; his first after-school job at the yard had been to carefully sort, grade and store them in a multi-drawered cabinet.
Harry stood, rooted to the spot. He breathed in the smell and taste of the yard, felt it seeping into his hair and skin. Dust, rust, oil and rubber; the combination once so familiar but now almost forgotten. Washed away by his teenage years.
He’d loved that smell once. It was his dad and adventure rolled into one. And as he stood there, he could almost hear his father singing the song he’d claimed as his own anthem.
‘Any old iron, any old iron, any, any, any old iron.
You look sweet, talk abaht a treat.
You look dapper from yer napper to yer feet.
Dressed in style, brand new tile and your father’s old green tie on.
But I wouldn’t give you tuppence for yer old watch chain - old iron, old iron.’
He’d never really known what a napper or a tile were, but he’d loved singing the song to his friends. And he’d loved bringing them back to the adventure playground of the yard, where a pile of wooden pallets could be turned into a lion’s cage, and an old tin bath could become a pirate’s ship, setting out on the trail of Spanish gold.
Harry shook himself from his reverie. No point remembering what had been. It was the here and now that mattered and had to be dealt with; the reason he was here at the yard today.
He looked across to the old stables, one-time home for the succession of carthorses who’d pulled and dragged the scrap-cart when his dad first set up the business. The horses had long since been replaced by a flat-bed truck, but the stables remained. Harry approached them; half knowing, half dreading to know what they now held.
There in the deep gloom he could make out a shrunken and crumpled figure, like a puppet whose strings have been cut. His father looked up from his task of repeatedly buckling and un-buckling an old girdle. A worried, confused look crossed his face and halted his tuneless humming.
Harry stepped forward. Cupping his hand gently round his father’s elbow, he helped him to his feet.
‘Come on dad, time to come home.’

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Six Word Saturday

I should be doing other things, cleaning the house, weeding the allotment, but instead I've been blog-browsing.
I stumbled across Show My Face's Six Word Saturday page, so these are my six words, which just about sum it up.
Reading, dreaming, imagining. Trying to write.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Working from home - how do I love thee? Let me count the ways

Whenever possible, I work from home on a Friday.
In every way a working-from-home day is better than a working-in-the-office day.
Let me count the ways
(with thanks to the very fine Bag Lady for suggesting a 10 things post)
1) I can get dressed in the daylight. This might not seem like a big deal, but some of you who perhaps are increasing in years, might recognise and understand my growing inability to differentiate between purple and brown clothes. This has led me to turning up at work in some interesting colour combinations recently.
2)I do not have to go anywhere near the M25 or the Dartford tunnel. I like to think that me not being there will make someone else's journey just a little bit better.
3) Martin the cat has some interesting contributions to make to my otherwise solitary working-from-home meetings.
4) I get to spend the morning with my grumpy student daughter until she recovers from her hangover.
5) My work mobile has no network coverage where I live, but my personal mobile works just fine.
6) I can work, tweet, read blogs, work, tweet, read blogs, work, tweet, read blogs and still get more done than I do in 9 hours in the office.
7) I get to eat a Pot Noodle for lunch without anyone knowing about it... except all of you now.
8) I can have a bath in the middle of the afternoon.
9)I can respond to e-mails and watch Midsomer Murders at the same time.
10) I get to be at home before Philip, which doesn't ever happen on days I'm in the office. I get to be here, when he comes in all smiley from his regular Friday quick beer after work, and then we get to start the weekend.
Properly. Together.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Missing song - found!

Last night I wrote here about a song my father used to sing. I mentioned that I'd never heard anyone else sing it, and that I hadn't been able to find the lyrics or anything else about it. Then I packed up and went to bed.

While I slept peacefully, halfway round the world in Canada, Liz got to work.(Liz is one of my earliest and very favourite blogging buddies - check her out here - )

And I woke up this morning to a comment from her which took me to a whole debate on the web about my song! The song I've always known as Three Lonely Prisoners, has been known as Two Convicts and The Prisoner. In the discussion, its origins were attributed to either Mississippi, Ireland or the London Music Hall.

My Dad had always sung about three prisoners, and I think he must have invented and inserted his own lyrics in a few places, but the lyrics printed below are definitely the basis of our song. Underneath I've tried to capture the words we knew and grew up with - I've tried and tried but I can't remember the last verse as he sang it - I'm hoping my sisters will jump in here and help me.

I cannot say how grateful I am to Liz for finding this and telling me about it. It means my new grandson Eddie, who will never get to meet his Great -Grandad, will at least get to grow up knowing something about him, his songs and some of our shared history.


Two convicts one day were seated, in a lonely prison cell -
The story of their past lives to each other did tell.
"I was once young and happy," said the elder of the two,
"I had a loving wife and a little baby too."

"One night as I went home, after working hard all day,
I found the fire had gone out and my wife had run away.
It was then I started drinking - for what else could I do?
I mixed with bad companions and became a burglar too."

"One night as I went out, to rob a mansion grand,
The tools were in my pocket, a revolver in my hand.
As I climbed through that window a gentle voice I heard.
I fired a shot, then cried a lot. By God I've shot my child."

Without a friend in all this wide world, not a friend to speak my name,
Praying to God that I might die, praying all in vain,
For after all that I have suffered, no man could ever tell,
With no place to shelter, but this lonely prison cell.


Three lonely prisoners, in a lonely prison cell -
The story of their lifetimes to each other they did tell.
Now the youngest of the three he said, 
"my tale I'll tell to you,
"I had a wife, a loving wife and a bonny baby too."

"As I came home, from working, after working hard all day,
I found my house without a light, my wife had run away.
So I took up to drinking - what else was I to do?
I mixed with bad companions and became a robber too."

"One night 'twas my intention, to rob a mansion grand,
My tools were in my pocket, my revolver in my hand.
As I climbed through the window I heard a voice cry out.
I turned around and fired a shot "Good God I'd shot my child."

"Not a friend in all this wide wide world, 
not a friend to call my own,
With no place to shelter, but this lonely prison cell".

Monday, 25 October 2010

A golden oldie and a missing song

I realise that this post might elicit a response of despair and a shake of the head, so I'll admit upfront that I will be covering both my questionable taste in music and an over-emotional response to a tune on the radio. Then I'll leave it to you to decide whether to read on.

This morning while driving to work I listened, as I do most mornings, to Chris Evans' breakfast show on Radio 2. He has a daily feature, Golden Oldies, introduced by the marvellous Moira Stewart, for which listeners nominate a favourite song which evokes a special memory. Usually it's a tale of a song which sparked a long-ago romance or a tune that accompanied carefree dancing days. Today's was slightly different.

I didn't catch the name of the man who'd written in - for which I'm sorry - but his special memory was the tale of how, as a child, he'd been known by family and friends as the boy with the shining eyes. His mum told him this was due to his Spanish ancestry and so, whenever he was feeling sad and needed cheering up, she would sing him the Al Martino song Blue Spanish Eyes.

As I drove along, listening to the song I found myself crying. It wasn't Al Martino's fault. It couldn't even be blamed on my normal frustrations with the M25. It was just that I had a really clear image of a little dark-haired boy gazing up adoringly at his mother, a woman who could make things better for him just by singing.

I've often thought that the world would be a much better place if everyone would just sing a bit more. Just look at what it did for the Von Trapp children. I don't think it's a coincidence that almost all of the important events in our lives are accompanied by song.

I've written here before about our family love of musicals and our habit of over-loud singing in the car; this morning's Golden Oldie set me thinking, not about our recent song-book, but about the songs I grew up with.

My Dad had a fine repertoire of Music Hall songs, we all learned to sing along to 'Any Old Iron', 'If you were the only girl in the world', and, a real classic, 'Knock 'em in the Old Kent Road'. But there is one song, which so completely reminds me of him, that you'd only have to say the words and he'd be back in the room. It's not a love song, nor a cheery uplifting tune, but it would be my version of the song-that-always-makes-me-feel-better.
Three lonely prisoners, in a lonely prison cell, the story of their lifetimes to each other they did tell...
He sang it to us hundreds of times, he taught it to all of my children, but I've never, ever, heard anyone else sing it. I've tried googling the lyrics, in the hope that someone, with a passion for songs from the early twentieth century, might have stumbled across it and shared their knowledge - but nothing. I've sometimes wondered if it was a 'proper' song at all, or something that Dad had made up. The tune and lyrics never changed - so if he did make it up, he did a pretty good job of it.

I won't be writing in to Chris Evans and Moira Stewart. I know I won't be driving along to work one day hearing it playing on the radio, but that's ok. I can play it on my own internal juke-box any time I like and it will still always make me feel better.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Three quarters of a century

I don't know what the weather was like that day, I don't even know what time of day it was, but 75 years ago, on the 19th of October 1935, Patricia Payne made her first appearance in the world.
Over the years, I've heard snippets about her childhood - how she was evacuated during the war to a manor house in the country, how she spent long periods of time in hospital or convalescing. But generally, my knowledge of Patricia comes from my own memories of her.

In most of these, I'm a child and she's just my mum - doing all the things I didn't think about twice at the time - working her way through a pile of ironing while singing along to Rubber Soul; telling us we couldn't use the toilet because she'd only just cleaned it; avidly watching Wimbledon every year and teaching us how to keep score in a tennis match; or making me stay in bed when I was ill, but bringing me jigsaws to stave off the boredom.

In some of my memories, she's a glamorous princess, in full evening dress with glossy dark hair piled high, kissing me goodnight before going out with my dad. In others, I'm cringing with embarrassment because she's turned up to a school event wearing a hat and gloves.

I suppose the truth is, for most of my life I've only really thought about her as my mum. I've only looked at her with daughter's eyes and I haven't ever stopped to think about how others see her, about who she is when she's not being mum, grandma, or great-grandma.

A few months ago, when she shared with me a file full of letters, copies of the correspondence she's kept over the last twenty years, I learnt for the first time how well she can write. A couple of weeks ago, when she had me aching with laughter as she described a night out with the ancient and decrepit members of the 'Recorded Vocal Arts Society', I was reminded that she can also tell a story.

On Sunday she arranged a lunch with family and friends to celebrate her birthday. When the meal was over, one of her friends got up to speak. Peter has known my mum for forty years, he's been her friend for all that time - and he wanted to share some of his memories. He told us a tale of a holiday in Portugal; of too much Mateus Rose at two-shillings and sixpence a bottle, and of a moonlit walk along the beach, which ended with my mum crawling along on all fours. Of course she denied the crawling, and claimed that all she could remember was singing 'By the light of the silvery moon' as they strolled on the sand. It doesn't really matter which version of the story is true. For a few moments I had a glimpse of mum as a carefree independent young woman. Peter spoke of how gorgeous she was then and still is now. Mum's husband, my step-dad Albert, sat smiling proudly, nodding his agreement.

All these years I've had such a limited view of who my mum is.

I know I've left it a bit late, but in the months and years ahead I'm hoping to get to know those other sides of her a bit more. In the meantime, I hope you'll join me in saying - Happy 75th Birthday Patricia!

Thursday, 14 October 2010


It had already started to get dark as Tess neared home, the colour leaking out of the day, the night closing in around her. Walking through the village, she watched as lights were switched on in front room windows. For a moment or two, as she passed each house, she saw the lives of others lit up as a stage set. A brief moment of illumination, like the brightness when a match is struck. Then the curtains were drawn and she was once again in the dark, on the outside.

It was getting colder too. She wrapped her long knitted jacket more tightly, catching it together under crossed arms. It wouldn't be long before everyone was in coats and scarves, but she didn't want to give in to winter just yet.

Cars were parked up on the pavement all along the narrow street. They had to, or their wing mirrors would end up scattered like confetti by the delivery vans bringing furniture and food to the middle classes. She knew most of the cars, who they belonged to. It wasn't difficult in a village this size, where you got to know most people's business without even trying. But she didn't recognise the black Audi parked outside the bungalows.

There was a man sitting at the steering wheel. She glanced at him as she walked past, trying not to make her curiosity too obvious. She only had time to notice the short dark hair and small round glasses; would she always think of them as John Lennon glasses? He was doing a crossword, a folded up newspaper propped high against the steering wheel to catch the light.

Tess shivered, it was getting cold. She wondered why he was sitting there, it seemed a bit odd, but perhaps he was a taxi driver waiting for his passenger. Maybe he was a guest who'd been invited for supper but arrived too early. She hoped he wasn't some sort of spy, trying to catch out unwitting benefit fraudsters, or a private detective on the trail of an errant spouse.

He'd seemed engrossed in the crossword, hadn't noticed her as she'd walked past. Surely if he was waiting for someone he'd be looking up, checking, every few seconds? She hated it when people kept her waiting.

As she reached the corner, Tess looked back again, for just a little longer than she needed to. As she watched, the man got out. He closed the door gently, almost silently, then leaned forward for a moment against the roof of the car, resting his head on folded arms. It seemed a long while before he lifted his head and slowly straightened up, stretching his shoulders back and down.

Still she stood and watched, as he took off the small round glasses, folded them and put them in the top pocket of his jacket. She was surprisingly annoyed at that, why hadn't he put them in a case? She could almost feel the glass being scratched by the dust and detritus in his pocket. He looked away, down the street, then back at the car. She wasn't close enough to see his lips move, but it was almost as though she could hear him 'Right then...'

With a determined nod of the head he turned towards her. He'd seen her now, there was no point pretending he hadn't, so mirroring the actions she'd watched, she straightened up, nodded her head and walked towards him.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Caretaker

Often, when we arrive back at the village after a trip somewhere, one us will say with a contented sigh, "back in the nice place now".
Shoreham has always been the 'nice place'. It was the village we visited every Friday night for more than a year before we were lucky enough to move here. It's the countryside that we walked through as tourists, glorying in the very best of England's Kentish garden. It's the valley that will break our hearts if we ever have to leave.
Everyone who lives here knows how lucky they are, and that gives us a bond; it makes people talk to each other, it makes us want to join in village events, take part in the things that bring us together.
Before we'd even moved here, we'd seen the posters for the Shoreham Village Players. I've always loved the theatre, the whole idea of people inventing new worlds and new lives, playing their stories out in front of us.  How brilliant to live in a place that actually has its own drama group, and not just any old drama group.
The Players not only have the ambition to stage great productions, they have the talent to deliver.
And that was never clearer than last night when I sat in awe as Harold Pinter's The Caretaker came to life in the village hall.
It's a three act play with only three characters. A tragicomic depiction of working class men, trapped but wanting control; manipulating others while failing to build relationships. For it to work each of the three characters needs to elicit a response of both empathy and dislike from the audience.
Pinter's play is undoubtedly a challenge for its actors. Last night Jim Morse, Mark Hodges and James Wallace more than met that challenge. The small stage of the village hall became a dismal cluttered bedsit, filled with the cast-off objects of others lives - and by the end of the play, that's just what each of the characters seemed to be.
I'm always proud to say I live in Shoreham, today I'm even prouder to say I live in a village where people understand the importance of theatre, where they find and nurture the talent to create an uncommon piece of magic.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Passing the time in Accident & Emergency

Given my haphazard approach to parenting, there are times when I can't help but be amazed, that each of my little treasures has made it all the way to grown-up-hood.

When they were small, it was a relatively common occurrence to find ourselves sitting for hours in the waiting area at A & E. There was the time that Charlie slipped up the stairs and put his teeth through his lip; the day when Ged climbed up and fell off a telephone junction box onto his head, the numerous occasions when Claire had a nose-bleed that simply wouldn't stop.
And there are a few incidents that stay with me more vividly. Like the afternoon when I went into the bedroom to find Charlie tipping back the contents of a Calpol bottle (liquid paracetamol for the uninitiated). My children loved Calpol, particularly in the days when it was still laced with sugar. I loved Calpol, it could reduce a temperature almost immediately. So Calpol was good, but a whole bottle of Calpol, and a potentially damaged liver was definitely not so good.
The nice doctors at A & E took Charlie's bloods and then gave him a hideous thick green liquid to make him sick. Nothing happened. For hours and hours.
'Perhaps you should take him home. Bring him back in another four hours and we'll test his blood again'
I took him home. I waited for him to be sick. Four hours later I took him back to A & E. As I stepped through the door, holding him tight against my shoulder, wondering what on earth I'd do if his blood tests showed something bad, he was gloriously, violently sick - all down my back, down my legs, as far as my shoes. His blood tests showed no worrying signs, his liver was fine, but my self-esteem was seriously damaged.
A few years before that, when Claire was only tiny, we'd been walking together along the road. As we started to cross, a car came careering round the corner. In my panic, I yanked on her hand and tugged her across the road. When we reached the other side, she stood there quietly, her arm hanging limply by her side.
'Oh my god, I've pulled her arm out of its socket'
I picked her up and jumped on a bus (no car in those days) to go to A & E. We waited to be seen. For hours and hours. When eventually it was time for us to see the doctor, my sweet little daughter waved at him. 'It's alright now' she smiled happily. And apparently it was.
The children are all adults now, so I'd assumed, you might think quite reasonably, that my waiting days at A & E were over.
Apparently not.
Last Friday, dearest Megan (that delightful, 21 year old daughter of whom I wrote with such loving pride not so long ago) went out to play with her friends. While out having fun, she decided it would be a good idea to take a piggy-back ride from one of her none-too-sober compatriots.
Philip's got a saying that we're all responsible for the predictable outcomes of our actions. I think it's probably fair to say that Megan could have predicted the outcome of an inebriated piggy-back ride. But even if she'd foreseen that she'd end up in a heap on the floor, I'm not sure she would have pictured the actual damage that  a hard pavement can cause to a soft arm and a gentle face.
A day later, with her face and arm continuing to swell, and her eye getting blacker by the minute, we inevitably found ourselves sitting in A & E. She trying to hide the worst of her injuries behind her hair, me hoping she wasn't about to feature on the front page of the Sunday papers in an article entitled 'Binge-drink Britons'. Several x-rays and some intravenous anti-biotics later, we were all glad to find out that nothing was broken and there'd be no long-term consequences, other than, perhaps some dents to her pride.
And me? Of course I'm glad that there's no lasting damage, and I'm very grateful to the kind, non-judgemental staff who checked her over so carefully at the hospital, but I can't say I've missed the trips to A & E in the last few years, and I can say with no hesitation that I hope it's a long, long time till I'm back there again.