Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A week off work.....

There was a time when a week off work meant going on holiday - lying in the sun and swimming in the sea around a different Greek Island each year.
I don't think I'll ever lose the sense of satisfaction that hits me, with the heat of the midday sun, as I step down from a plane. And I'm sure that nowhere else in the world will ever make me relax quite as completely - I walk differently in Greece and my shoulders slope downwards instead of the usual clutched-up round-my-ears tenseness.
Recently, however, I've discovered the pleasure of taking a week off work for no other reason than to be at home. The first couple of times this simply meant staying around the house, making no plans at all, just seeing what the days would bring. Then I realised this in itself was making me tense. I didn't want to tell people I was at home, in case they made claims on my time - I even pretended to my mother that I was in the office when she rang, lest she started suggesting things for me to do. Then I realised that the days were just drifting away - before I knew it the week was up. I had little to show for it and was cross with myself for wasting the opportunity.
But no more! I have discovered the power of a to-do list.  No more wasted time, a real sense of achievement as I tick things off the list and a lasting record of all that I've done.
There are, of course, a number of rules to be observed - the perfect to-do list is no simple thing:
  1. there is no priority order
  2. there is no sense of scale - small mundane tasks like 'plant courgette seeds' can sit happily alongside aspirational options like 'write a short story''
  3. you can include boring household tasks that you really ought to do every week anyway
  4. it's ok to add tasks to the list after you've actually already done them
  5. every completed to-do must be ticked off with a dramatic flourish
My list for this week has 12 items on it. So far, halfway through the week, I've completed 9 of them. We now have a functioning fridge door and a clean bathroom. The neighbours can stop worrying about our drinking habits as I've collected together all the wine bottles from outside the back door and taken them to the bottle bank. And last night we enjoyed rhubarb crumble - the first made with our own home-grown rhubarb. 
Task number 10 is to dig over another row at the allotment - that's my aim for this afternoon. 
Then tomorrow it gets really exciting. My daughter and I have both celebrated 'big' birthdays this year, so we're treating ourselves to a day out and a posh lunch. I'm sure there won't be many to-do lists with 'go to Paris' on them - I know I'll enjoy ticking that one off.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Amazing grace or loss of face?

The human brain is a remarkable thing. Combine it with the strength and flexibilty of the human body and you have a machine that can climb mountains, run marathons, write poetry or send a rocket to the moon.
Sometimes though, that special combination of grace and intelligence struggles to come together in perfect harmony. Just occasionally we mean to say or do one thing, but end up doing something entirely different and totally unintended.
Yesterday, for my dearly beloved, was one of those days. A day where the defining characteristic was clumsiness. And boy, was he clumsy - let me count the ways...
1) I'd left my mobile in the bathroom. Meaning well; intending to pick it up and bring it to me, he somehow managed to drop it into the toilet bowl.
= broken phone that is emitting a strange blue light rather than a working signal.

2) while trying to help me start the ancient petrol lawn mower at the allotments, he placed his fingers between the handle and the control lever just as I squeezed them together
 = long grass, still uncut and several bruised fingers.
3) still at the allotment - constructing the climbing frame for our runner beans, he inadvertently caught the net covering our cabbages in a button on the back of his trousers
= unprotected cabbages and strangely dressed Philip
4) while eating dinner at our local village pub, holding my hand and gazing into my eyes. All was going well until a lady from the next table leant over and quietly whispered 'excuse me, do you know you're on fire?'. Philip had nudged his napkin into the candle and neither of us had realised it was alight
= slightly singed laminate where he'd dropped the burning tissue; and immediate entry into the landlady's book of troublesome customers.
5) still at The Two Brewers, knocking the salt cellar across the table and onto the singed laminate with a loud crash
= our names underlined in the book of troublesome customers and an early end to our romantic night out.
6) at the very end of the day, when we both thought no more would or could possibly happen, shutting his unharmed hand in the bedroom door
= more bruised fingers and a very tired man.

By comparison, today has been quite uneventful.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

My mother's letters

'Perhaps you could do something with these' said my mum a few weeks ago as she handed over a bulging lever-arch file. The file looks pretty much like the sort you see gathering dust in an old-fashioned solicitors office - grey-marl, with metallic corners. The arches a bit warped through struggling to hold the contents together for many years. Inside are maybe fifty clear plastic wallets, each containing several sheets of yellowing, stiffening paper.
Mum is a genealogist. For as long as I can remember, and way before the days of computer aided internet searching, she has spent hours and days tracking down the roots and branches of our family tree. Some mothers make patchwork quilts, my mum pieces together birth, death and marriage certificates, church registers, and old gravestones to build a picture of who she is and where she came from.
Many years ago she discovered a connection to Australia and since 1987 she has been writing regular letters to these distant cousins. The label on the spine of the file rather formally describes it:

Inside is an absolute treasure. Three letters in I was hooked. I'm still slowly and carefully picking my way through the rest.
For over twenty years, she has saved not only the letters received from Australia and photocopies of those she sent herself, but copies of all the bits and pieces of evidence she's found along the way. Family charts, birth certificates, copies of wills and testaments. Where she couldn't photocopy the evidence, she's reproduced it by hand - my favourite so far is an extract from the shipping list of the 'Jerusalem' - the boat on which my ancestors Joshua and Albert Pointing emigrated to Australia in 1881, with 619 other brave travellers for the price of sixteen pounds and sixteen shillings each.
I am genuinely honoured that mum has chosen to share these letters with me. I am delighted at what they contain and what I am gradually finding out - not only the formal family connections and fading evidence, but all the everyday bits of gossip and family news that my mum has captured and shared, as she and our Australian family have grown closer together over the years.
I'm also a little daunted. Mum wants me to 'do something' with them. She shows enormous faith in my far-from-developed writing abilities and I desperately want to repay that trust with something worthwhile. In time, I may share some of the letters on this blog, I may even try to weave a story around and through them. For now, I'm just reading and wondering.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

120 minutes

Every day I drive to work - no choice really it's 40 miles away and there isn't a train. The journey is mostly on the M25 and includes the special joy of the Dartford tunnel in the morning and the QEII bridge in the evening. Those of you who know the M25 will understand that I'm used to suffering. The journey usually takes about an hour. One morning this week it took three. And for two of those hours I was completely stationary.
I absolutely know how lucky I am that I wasn't in the pile-up that caused the delay, and I know that for some people that day things might never be the same again, nevertheless I can't help but feel that I lost two hours of my life.
And what might I have done in those two hours? I could have.....
...flown to Spain and ended up sitting on a beach rather than at my desk in Chelmsford.
...cheered the mighty Bromley FC as they won the FA cup after extra time (ok, maybe not)
...sat on the edge of my seat, screaming at the TV as Michael Schumacher claimed his first grand prix victory since returning (soon, I hope)
Or perhaps just watched The Railway Children for the twentieth time, dug another trench on the allotment, knitted several more rows of the baby blanket I'm desperately trying to finish by July, read a book, written a poem, or walked up the hill with Philip, sat on the bench in my favourite field and gloried in the view over the valley.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Family favourites?

As I'm sure you'll realise from the non-too-subtle lines below, I'm a middle daughter. Though I love both my sisters dearly, I've often wondered whether our position in the family hierarchy has an impact on who we are and how we live our lives.

Family favourites

Pressed tongue in a sandwich,
cement between bricks.
Flattened and squeezed.

Pig in the middle.
Passed over and tricked,
taunted and teased.

No heir to the future
nor late-blooming bud
on a family tree

Never the only,
the first or the last.
The second of three.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Out to lunch and a game of football

My beloved and I took a trip to Lewes today for a football match (of which more another time). Lewes is one of my favourite places for mooching around. It's the place where we bought our honeymoon coffee table. I love to dawdle around the antique shops muttering 'why would you?' at some of the quirkier collections on display. The prize for ugliest object seen today went to a small china model of a man's head. The head was thrown back with mouth wide open to reveal gums set with stumpy, gappy teeth. It was being used as a match-stick holder.....

We stopped for lunch at a place we'd never been before. I'm deeply suspicious of any restaurant that wants to tell you about its 'philosophy' before offering you its food, but the menu itself sounded ok so we went ahead and ordered. My starter - terrine of locally caught game - was delicious. P had chosen prawns -they arrived smothered in something that was described as 'lemon foam', which had more than a passing resemblance to washing-up liquid - but they too tasted good.

What neither of us had expected was for the food to be served on what could only be described as pieces of broken roof slate. The sight was odd. The sound was truly gut-wrenching. We tried our absolute hardest not to scrape our cutlery against the 'plates'. We picked gingerly at the food, desperately hoping to avoid contact with the slate. I left half my food uneaten, but still we sat there cringeing. The words 'why would you' again crossed my lips. Just think nails and blackboards - totally inexplicable.

Luckily the main courses were served on proper white china - you can imagine the relief. And they were absolutely, totally and utterly delicious, so we left with a good taste in our mouths. If you're ever in Lewes it's worth checking out One9Seven in the High Street. I'd recommend the lamb. But please, please, please - if you're having a starter - ask them to serve it on a real plate.

After lunch, it was on to the football, where our team, Bromley FC were playing against Lewes at their fantastically-named ground - The Dripping Pan. This season, Lewes have been struggling to avoid relegation from the Blue Square South league. They beat us today, and deserved to do so. I hope they stay up.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Small measures

For as long as I can remember I've found pleasure in collecting small things, knowing that by bringing them together I can create something more.....

Small measures

The path of rounded pebbles.
Seaside souvenirs
rubbed smooth beneath our feet.

A jigsaw on the table.
Bright coloured fragments
create a sunlit whole.

The scraps of faded cotton,
cut and pieced and sewn.
My mother’s patchwork quilt.

A box of once-used buttons
saved from thrown-out clothes.
Waiting for new costumes.

The tapestry covered cushion.
Slanted stitches grow
a field of green and gold.

Three hundred tiny stitches
to complete a row
A newborn baby’s shawl.