Friday, 30 December 2011

Packing up

And then, almost before we knew it, there was nothing left but a half-full tub of pistachio nuts and the unclaimed contents of a Christmas cracker.

The empty bottles had been rinsed and put out for recycling, the left-over cheeses packed into a cool-bag for the journey home, the still gift-wrapped panettone was stowed in a box alongside a half-full pack of lentils, and an unused Christmas pudding generously offered up to the ones most likely to eat it.

The dishwasher was emptied for the very last time, and the neat white crockery lined up once again on the kitchen shelves. One of us unplugged the twinkling white lights, while someone else crammed the carefully ironed tablecloth and napkins back into a bag, making a safe nest for the still-new candlesticks and their half-burnt candles.

As I gave the lounge one last tidy-round, plumped up the cushions on the striped grey and white armchairs, straightened the back of the cosy sofa, I realised just how quickly we'd each claimed our own seat, and stuck to it for the whole week. I thought about how many times we'd sat there and chinked together our glasses of sherry, how we'd sipped at gaudy yellow snowballs, and relished our fruit-filled gin and tonics. I remembered how we'd tried to find new words to describe the deep red wines and smooth dark chocolates, and how we'd sat there watching our favourite Christmas films; sobbing for tiny Tim Cratchit in the Muppets' Christmas Carol, smiling at the recovery of Zuzu's petals in It's a Wonderful Life.

Upstairs, the wardrobes and chests were clear, and the clean white bed-linen looked as good as new. Our individual shampoos and gels were removed from their corners of the shower, our toothbrushes and wash-bags packed away for another trip. The huge white bath remained unused, but the enormous towel rail and industrial strength radiator continued to pump out enough heat to warm a castle.

Back in the kitchen, the dining table was wiped clean, and the chairs arranged neatly around it. There was no sign now of the shared meals, or the cups of tea we'd learned to make, just how we each liked it - sweet and milky for some, strong and dark for others. Who would have known that we'd sit here for hours, playing at being despotic dictators in a board game, or scrabbling for letter tiles to form interlocking words? Who could have foreseen the unexpected pleasure, or predicted the level of ferocious competitiveness, that came with learning to play Canasta?

The last of the boxes and bags was carried out to the car, then we pulled the door closed tight behind us and stowed the key away in its wall-safe. We tried to leave it just as we'd found it, and on the surface, you'd never know we'd been there. But, as I started the car, then turned to take one last look, I felt pretty sure that when the next guests arrived, they might still catch the faint echo of an often-told joke and a fading ripple of laughter.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cutting it close

If I'd walked through a different door that day, we might never have met. If we hadn't hit it off straight away, I might never have seen him again. It was 1996 and he arrived just a few months before I left. He's one of the few people I still know from those days, the only one I still know from the town I lived in then, the only reason I go back there now.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, but as I sit in the black leather chair, sipping on a mug of too hot, too strong coffee, it's as though no time at all has passed, though everything and nothing has changed.

He still remembers the day I dropped by on my way to a night out, wearing a sixties-style black and white dress. Every now and then he reminds me of how I looked and just for a moment we both stop and remember; and I feel as good as I ever did.

My hair was long in those days, and I could have played for Britain in the hair-flicking world championships. I'd got it down to a fine art, but that never impressed him - he never liked my hair long, never missed a chance to suggest it would look better short. And strangely, after a while I began to realise that he was right.

It was a huge leap of faith to trust him enough to go from long and girly, to short and sleek; but that's the thing about friends, you trust them. And so I did. I might have felt like crying as I watched my hair falling to the floor, but his confident assurance kept me from running out the door.

Last year, I tried growing it again; it got long enough to tie back and put up, but I knew he wouldn't approve, so I avoided him for months, until I'd got tired of it and knew it needed some drastic action. And like any proper friend, he didn't tell me I was stupid, moan about my neglect, or try to persuade me to do something I didn't want to. He just took control, as he always has and always will, and turned me back into the person I'd rather be.

I may only see him every six weeks or so, but I always feel better when I do, and that's not just because he tells the worst jokes in the world. He'll talk to me about my family, ask if Philip is still playing the banjo, tell me how my daughter has turned out a fine young lady and a credit to her mother; he'll let me know how protective he felt when one of his colleagues showed too keen an interest in her.

He'll untangle the knots in my neck and the tension in my brain with the most skilful of head massages, then he'll switch his attention to considering how my hair should be cut. It doesn't matter what I think, or want, he'll simply decide what I should look like next - and whatever he decides, I know I'll feel more able to face the world, more confident in who I am. And who could ask for more - from a hairdresser or a friend?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Hedera Helix - a story

It was a beautiful garden. 

The deep borders were filled with scented bushes and tall arching roses, each carefully placed by the old couple who’d lived there before; people who knew about soil types and seasonal planting. 

When Jack and Pamela had first moved in, they’d been happy to leave the garden alone, waiting to see the succession of flowers bringing new shades and shapes to the borders as the seasons passed. They’d welcomed the dark green foliage of the ivy snaking its way up the fence panels, pleased that it softened the long straight lines, noting how its dark leaves made a fine contrast to the emerald-green brightness of the curving lawn.

But it had grown so quickly. And now it covered the fences, its pointed leaves intermingling to block out any colour, any sign of what was beneath; the stems stretching and snaking up the wood, with their tiny, hairy shoots clinging and grasping onto anything and everything.

Last night Pam had dreamt of it, pictured the ivy spreading and creeping towards the house, reaching out for the kitchen wall. She’d seen herself standing at the kitchen sink, watching the tendrils snake in under the window sill, pulling the window open, crawling towards her. The images had frightened her and disturbed her sleep, perhaps that’s why Jack had left her dozing in bed this morning, why he’d gone off to visit his brother without saying goodbye.

And now she stood on the back door step, wishing there was a little more warmth in the wintery sun. As her fingers curled tightly round a mug of tea, she shuddered at the memory of her dream, the thought of those dark green leaves sliding over the bright red and orange tiles that gave such brightness to the kitchen.

Jack had promised to make a start on trimming the ivy before he went out, but she could see no sign of his efforts. True, the wheelbarrow was parked halfway up the garden, where the ivy grew thickest, but the fence post was still leaning precariously, covered by leaves. She wasn’t sure whether the ivy’s tendrils were pulling it down, or holding it back from falling; she’d warned Jack to be careful when he cleared it, sure that the wood underneath would be splintered and cracked.

Pam looked up at the tall elm trees. At this time of year they should be bare skeletal structures, clear against the pale grey sky. But the ivy had taken them over too, so their trunks were now a dark bushy mass. Their branches had been wrapped round and round, until only a few twigs remained uncovered at the ends, reaching out like beseeching fingers from a swamp, begging to be freed from the enveloping greenness.

She knew Jack wouldn’t be back for hours, perhaps she could surprise him; let him see how much she could get done without him. He’d been moaning about the ivy for weeks now, railing against its gradual encroachment. He’d seemed almost threatened by it, offended by this greenery that had arrived unwelcome and uninvited into the garden, his garden.

Decision made, Pam started to look for the garden tools. She found the thick gloves quickly, knew she’d be glad of their protection from the damp glossiness of the leaves. Then she searched for the shears and secateurs, but there was no sign of them anywhere. She couldn’t find them in the garden shed, they weren’t in the cupboard under the stairs either, nor hastily thrown in with all the bags and rubbish under the kitchen sink.

She’d really need something sharp to cut through the snaking tendrils, to ease them away from their anchor points, but perhaps she could just begin by clearing a way through the outermost leaves, pulling away the looser sections of growth. She wasn’t sure how hard to tug, worried that the fence would sway and topple, but gradually she made progress. She tried to ignore the rustling and creaking sounds that seemed to increase as she worked, focusing on the other sounds of the garden, the hum of motorway traffic a couple of miles away, the cawing of a crow from the top of the elms.

She could hear none of the usual Sunday garden sounds, no shrieking children, no droning lawnmowers, but it was late in the year; perhaps her neighbours were all inside their warm houses, preparing a weekly roast lunch while she worked out here alone.

Pam wished she’d found the shears; their long sharp blades would have given her a much longer reach through the tangled growth. The secateurs would have been great for those thick trunk-like stems at the bottom; cutting through them would ensure the ivy didn’t grow back. Instead, she pulled and pulled, grabbing at handfuls of leaves, throwing them over her shoulder towards the wheelbarrow. As the light slowly began to penetrate through the green gloom, she saw something glinting on the ground just ahead, something long and metallic.

“Oh for goodness sake Jack” she muttered “you always make such a fuss when I leave the tools outside. All that moaning about bluntness and rust, and you go and leave our new shears here in the bushes; just wait ‘til you get home, I’m gonna love teasing you about this one.”

She reached forward for the shears. At first she thought they’d just fallen into the ivy, but then she saw how the leaves seemed to have twisted and entwined round the handles, just like the tree branches, curling and wrapping. She moved closer, treading carelessly on the ivy tendrils that reached out towards the lawn, brushing away the pointed leaves that grazed her face.

As she tugged at the shears they seemed to move slightly, but when she pulled again, she realised there was something else holding them back. It was funny how it almost looked like an ivy-covered hand, with an ivy-covered, arm-shaped branch behind it. It was strange how, in the gloomy depths of the bushes, the ivy-arm looked like it was wearing a checked shirt, one of those brushed-cotton ones Jack was so fond of. Just like the one she’d washed and dried yesterday for him to wear to his brother’s today.

As she crept closer, Pam realised that the shears were indeed being held by an ivy-covered hand, on the end of a checked-shirted, ivy-twisted arm. As she turned to run, the tendrils from the grass crept over her shoes and curled around her ankles. Slowly, slowly, as she tried to scream, the leaves that had brushed her face and hair slithered into her mouth and silenced her.

It was a beautiful garden.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Tale of Two Villages

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light..." 

So wrote Charles Dickens more than a hundred and fifty years ago in A Tale of Two Cities. His words have been echoing in my mind this weekend.

This time last year, as long-time readers of this blog will know, we lived in the best street in the best village in the world. And as the last Saturday in November dawned, we were up early, donning our warmest clothing for the best weekend of the year, the weekend when the residents of Crown Road put up the Christmas lights.

But six months ago, knowing that we couldn't go on renting for ever, and having given up hope of ever being able to afford to buy a house in Shoreham, we moved along the valley to Otford. This year, there was no slip of paper through the letter box confirming the date or time to assemble, there was no bustle and noise outside as the boxes of light-bulbs and wheels of cable were placed at strategic points along the street.

Instead, a few days ago, Philip received a text from Keith, our old landlord and ex-next door neighbour, inviting us to go along and join the annual ritual. Philip knew straight away that he wanted to go, I took a little longer to set aside my grudging sense of disappointment that our new village has not yet entwined itself into our hearts, and finally agree that it would be a good thing to go back and join in.

So yesterday, instead of just opening the front door and stepping outside, we jumped in the car and drove along the valley. And when we arrived, all was just as it should be. We slotted straight back into the roles we'd been assigned last year. Philip in charge of the Christmas tree at the end of the road, me the queen of the WD40, making sure all the bulb sockets were liberally squirted.

Nobody was surprised that we were there, though many asserted their pleasure that we were. Some things had changed - different window frames on one house, a new car outside another, but so many things were still the same. We chatted and worked, exclaimed with gratitude at the coffee and flapjacks as they appeared and praised the choc-chip biscuits made by Imogen, who wasn't even born the first year we were there to put up the lights.

There were some new neighbours, joining in for the very first time, and about to find out the wonder of those bright lights in the darkest month of the year. There were others who, like us, have moved away and were spoken of and remembered fondly.

At the end of the morning, as always, we made our way to The Crown, the pub at the top of the road, the pub that had been our very first visiting place in the village and the venue for our wedding reception. There we all squashed into the small front bar, recently decorated by the new landlords who are slowly and quietly working their way into the affections of the village.

And it was only then, as we all raised a cheer to Crown Road and its lights, that it really hit me. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We've moved along the valley, but my heart is still living at no 13.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Soundtrack stories - Trouble

I've never owned a song by Coldplay and until recently I didn't even know what this one was called, but if I hear the first three notes, wherever I am  and  whatever I'm doing, I'll stop for just a moment and think "Oh, it's Ged."

And suddenly I'm back in the house in Bickley.

It was always a strange house; an old lodge that had once marked the entrance to a much grander building. A bungalow, built in the shape of a cross; it had a series of rooms leading off each other, each of them tiny, and each of them impossible to keep warm.

In my memory, I'm always sitting at the table in the dining room, looking out on the ivy-covered wall that separates the house from a busy road. The table is covered in a red and white checked cloth that doesn't quite match the raspberry-painted walls. The ironing board stands in one corner because there's nowhere else to keep it, and just behind where I sit is the bookcase with its shelves of books arranged by the colour of their spines.

And all the children still live with me.

Claire and Megan are in their bedroom, tucked behind one of the doors leading from the lounge. The eight year gap in their ages brings a strange mix of cuddly toys and sparkly make-up to the mess that surrounds them. Charlie is sprawled on the sofa watching tv. In one corner of the lounge there's a huge open fireplace, piled up with the pine cones we've collected from the garden. In the opposite corner there's a small wooden staircase that leads to the boys' attic bedroom, and up there sits Ged playing on his Yamaha keyboard.

As I sit at the table, gazing out of the window, I don't notice the sound of the traffic outside, or the shouts from the tv in the next room, because all I can hear, flowing down that small wooden staircase, are those three notes.

Back then, I didn't know what the song was called, but I looked it up on Google recently and read the lyrics. And now, as I sit at the dining table in another house and time, I'd really love for the girls to be here squabbling over make-up, for Charlie to be glued to Match of the Day, and for Ged to be somewhere upstairs playing those first three notes, so that I could sing back to him, in the words of the song.

Oh I never meant to cause you trouble; Oh I never meant to do you wrong.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Irrational numbers - a story

Some people have voices in their head, Sophia had numbers.

At school, she’d always been the best at arithmetic, at work she was the first to turn a string of digits into a solution. There was something that compelled her to play with figures, to build meaning from those markers of time and scale. She’d always known that numbers were more than just unrelated symbols; they were parts of patterns and shapes, and if she played with them for long enough, she’d always find an answer.

Each morning at her desk when she logged into e-mail, the numbers glared out at her; the total in her in-box, the boldness of the messages still unread. At the end of each day, she stared at the figures and compared the results; the achievements of her working life measured, not in terms of matters dealt with, but by the balances remaining. She notched up the completion of hours passed, counted the days to the weekend, the weeks until payday, the months and years to retirement.

When the money hit her bank account each month, there was no room in her thoughts for the anticipated pleasures of purchase; the new numbers in her online account trapped her, caught her imagination, kept her looking, counting and calculating. A mortgage payment meant the outstanding total was lower; if she paid a little extra there’d be less interest due. Pounds and percentages, totals and timescales, whirled through her brain.

Driving home, she looked at her milometer, at the gauge that told her how much petrol she had left. In her mind, she turned the fuel in the tank to a number of miles, the miles into minutes, the distance from home into a time of arrival. When she got home she turned the evening into the seconds before sleep, the hours before waking again.

When her 51st birthday arrived, she felt the stabbing pain of the single digit sticking out on its own from her strong half-century. “Only half-way to a hundred and two” Sophia consoled herself “only three times seventeen.” But it still felt wrong. Its unevenness unsettled her; it wasn’t a prime number and she felt beyond her own prime. She added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, but the numbers kept jumping; they wouldn’t settle, her life wouldn’t balance.

She started doing puzzles, writing numbers in squares, trying to bring order to the increasing chaos, if she could find the right home for the 1s to 9s, then surely the rest would find its place? But then she found she couldn’t bear to form the lines of a numeral. It felt as though each digit she wrote was a subtraction from the total.

She switched off the glowing red lights around the house, the timer on the cooker panel and the flashing digits of the bed-side alarm. She stopped winding the old wooden clock on the sideboard. She searched for ways to add back the numbers. She favoured clothes with no buttons or fasteners, elasticated waists, slip on shoes. She gave up going to the hairdressers, grabbed back the minutes spent on plucking her eyebrows, painting her nails. She began to eat meals that needed no cooking, then food that needed no chewing. Her sentences got shorter, her words monosyllabic. She forced herself to stay up all night, snatching at the moments that had previously passed unnoticed in sleep, counting and reckoning all that had been, totting up all that might be left.

As her weight dropped and her energy dissipated, her friends began to slip away. She couldn’t understand how the subtractions were adding up. She tried to crack the code and decipher the equations, but the patterns felt disrupted; she couldn’t solve the multiplying divisions in her life.

Then she began to wish for zero; the only figure that could add nothing and take nothing away. She lay on her bed, curled up in a tight round ball and dreamed of the glorious round nought without a beginning or end.
Finally, as she longed for and dreamed of her solution, Sophia slipped into oblivion.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Soundtrack stories - Finlandia

I wonder how many of you listen to, or have at least heard of, Desert Island Discs? For anyone who hasn't, it's a radio show where famous guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and they choose the eight pieces of music they'd like to take with them.

I'm glad to say I wasn't around when it first aired in 1942, but I've listened to it hundreds of times and played the game in my head almost as often. My choice of favourite tracks changes almost as often as the seasons and slightly less often than my moods, but there's one piece of music that has been in my top eight for at least the last ten years.

On the radio, people almost always choose, or perhaps feel obliged to select, at least one piece of classical music; apparently, the most popular is Beethoven's ninth symphony. I'm no different, except for me, there's not the tiniest sense of obligation, and it's not Beethoven I'd pick; the track I'd go for is Sibelius' Finlandia. I'd choose it because every time I listened to it I know I'd be taken away from the isolation and desperation of my desert island, and back to the astonishment and wonder of the first time I heard it performed.

Many years ago, I had a pretty dull job in a pretty fine organisation. There was nothing glamorous about my daily tasks - I filed, I typed, I managed databases and dealt with insurance claims, but my employers had a strong sense of history and a long presence in London. They owned a box at the Royal Albert Hall and for every single concert, any tickets that weren't wanted by the Governors, were made available to staff in a raffle. Once a month it was my job to organise that raffle and distribute the tickets amongst my colleagues. It was by far and away the most enjoyable task I've ever been employed to do. I loved the sense of anticipation as staff waited to see the list of winners posted up, and I loved the look of delight as I handed over the tickets to the lucky winners.

Some concerts were very popular and completely oversubscribed, but there were others, usually during the Proms season, when there was not enough interest to fill the box. One night there were several spare seats for a Proms programme that included Finlandia; I'd heard my Mum say it was one of her favourites so I decided to go along, but if I'm honest I wasn't expecting much. The last time I'd been to a classical concert had been with the school, when I'd yawned and fidgeted my way through the orchestra's best efforts in typical teenage boredom.

I don't remember now what else was on the programme that night, but I do remember looking down from my gilt-framed seat in the box, and wondering at the scale of it all - the number of musicians, the range of instruments, the row upon row of people listening intently as the music played and erupting into loud and enthusiastic applause when it ended. I couldn't pick out each of the instruments that leant its individual voice to the marvellous whole, but I remember sitting there as the music built and built, moving from bold, through calm, to triumphant.  And I can picture, even now, the huge kettle drums that pounded out the rhythm and emotion, that matched and lifted the beating of my heart.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


As I emerge blinking from the tunnel under the Thames, I realise I've allowed too much time for my journey. I've over-compensated for the usual slow crawl, that sees hundreds of cars filter through the toll booths into the tunnel like grains of sand through an egg-timer, and now I know I'll get there much too early.

Just as I'm thinking that I really don't want to hang around on my own at the training venue waiting for my colleagues to turn up, I see the sign for a service station just ahead. With a quick flick of the indicator and a twist of the wheel, I pull off the motorway and follow the road as it winds round and under the fast-flowing traffic.

It's further away than I'd expected, past the signs for the shopping centre, beyond a billboard boldly announcing the'ultimate karting experience'. As I turn in, the slip-road winds on and on until I'm almost convinced I've missed the car-park and I'll be spat back out onto the motorway, but then I see it, looming up out of the last remaining wisps of the early-morning mist.

The huge, white concrete slabs are incongruous against the wasteland and scrub. It's almost as though I'm reliving my childhood games in the garden and I've shrunk down to the size of my lego set. And, as I struggle to find the entrance, I wonder if, just like some of my lego creations, they've forgotten to put in a door.

Inside, it's almost empty, the only other customers are men. So many of them seem to be wearing the unofficial working-man's uniform of an over-sized navy sweatshirt and loose-bottomed jeans. I wonder how many of them actually have any connection with the logos emblazoned on their chests.

The high-pitched welcome of the girl behind the coffee counter is a strange sing-song contrast to the hum of deep male voices all around me. She works slowly and methodically, completing each order with care before starting the next. Even at this time, with so few people about, a queue starts to form. I take my coffee over to a table by the window. Everyone else is dotted around the edges of the room, as though in some sort of hidden code, they've all agreed they won't take the tables in the middle.

I look up across the room at the harsh flashing lights of the 'Lucky Coin' concession, where an array of slot machines and computer games shout silently across the space. I'm always surprised to see these machines, I can't quite fathom the mindset that makes people simply give away their money to a shiny metal monster; even now there's a navy-sweat-shirted man there, pressing the buttons, in desperation or unbridled optimism; either strikes me as sad.

In one corner is an old man, well past the age for the working-men's clothing, he's wearing a cord jacket and a tweed cap. 'A proper old man' I think, as I look across. At first I think he's asleep, then I see him turn the page of the huge large-print book propped up on the table in front of him. I quickly dismiss the unbidden thought and sense of relief that he's neither asleep nor dead. At this time of the day it's hard to think of a worse fate than dying alone and unnoticed in a motorway service station.

To my right is floor to ceiling glass. The clear panes are dotted with transfer images of coffee beans and costa cups; they look like a skein of geese flying across the sky. Outside the mist has cleared, and I realise that time is passing and I need to get on my way. As I pick up my coat and bag I glance out of the window, and I'm surprised to see a huge lake spread out behind the Lego, surrounded by trees and shrubs, with real birds flying across it. I'd had no idea it was there.

As I head back to my car and continue my journey, I'm glad to be reminded that there's so often another view, another world, just waiting to be seen.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


To reconcile, resolve or mend
To calm down, slow down, face the end
To straighten out, to come to rest
To aim for only second best

To sink, or drop, descend or fall
To find the bottom of it all
To never float, or rise again
To dumb the hope and numb the pain

To pay what’s due and clear the debt
To spread the price of terms not set
To clear what’s owed, discharge the cost
And settle for a lifetime lost.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Irene - a story

She’d seen the others watching her in meetings, noticed them looking up mid-sentence to gauge her expression. A firm rebuff would bring the most confident proposal to a stuttering halt. Sometimes just a look was enough; a disdainfully raised eyebrow, a contemptuous frown. They all knew she could control the silence, that she could impose it on others, force a meek, wordless, acceptance. They’d felt the force of nature that swept away the opposition and moved relentlessly on.

As evening fell, Irene sped home; taking the route through the park only because it was quicker, more direct. The relentless drumroll of her heels kept time with the pounding in her head, only faltering when she kicked at stones, swiped at debris on the path. She didn’t hear the shouts of children in the playground, didn’t see the boy pedalling towards her, or the McDonald’s takeaway bag swinging from his handlebar. She barely registered his anguished cry, or the sound of metal scraping on tarmac, didn’t connect it at all with the small pebble she’d viciously struck out of the way.

Irene didn’t turn to see the boy on his knees, desperately trying to reassemble pieces of burger and place them back in their polystyrene trays. It was another person’s kindness that brought the hot embarrassed tears to his eyes as he finally sat back, acknowledging that he’d never be able to brush the dirt and grit from the fries lying scattered across the path.

At the other side of the park, there were crowds of people leaving the cricket ground. Old men shuffled past, trying to bring life and movement back to arthritic legs that had sat still for too long. Irene increased her pace; she didn’t want to get caught up amongst them. As she whirled past she didn’t see the couple trying to move out of her way; the grey-haired lady juggling a picnic blanket and a cushion, the elderly man leaning heavily on a walking-stick. Irene didn’t hear the woman’s sharp intake of breath as her husband’s stick caught in a small pot-hole, didn’t see the panic cross that frail lady’s face at the thought of another fractured hip, more weeks in hospital, slow, painful healing and the struggle to walk again.

It wasn’t Irene who rushed to check if the old man was alright. She didn’t hear his faltering insistence that he was still in one piece, that he should have looked where he was going. She didn’t see the gentle care with which two equally aged men helped him back to his feet, nor the kind arm of reassurance one of them offered to the trembling wife.

As Irene headed away from the centre of town, it became quieter. She came to a place where there were no people, no birds in the trees, only dead leaves and litter blowing along the street. As she neared the house her pace slowed; ahead of her was the one silence she couldn’t control. In the now-empty rooms, only the walls would echo her strident views, and only the mirrors would see her frown.

The key in her hand felt cold and heavy, the door resisted her tired push. Irene sank down on the step. Her storm was spent.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Soundtrack stories - Fast Love

October 1996, Gran Canaria.

There are many reasons for me to remember 1996; not many of them are good. It was the year my dad died, a year after my marriage had ended. I was at University as a mature student, halfway through training to be a primary school teacher,and slowly realising that my childish aspirations were indeed just that. Most of me spent most of that year questioning the actions and decisions that preceded and accompanied it. Most of me spent most of that year not knowing that there'd be a week in October, which would begin to change everything.

One of the outcomes of marrying too young, and then making being married all that matters, is that you miss a lot of other things; I had a whole long list of them. When I met Fran in an English class halfway through our first term at university, when we both pulled a grimacing face at something particularly pointless offered up by one of our fellow students, I realised I'd stumbled across the biggest missing-out of all. 

It seems crazy now, to think that I'd so willingly dropped all my school friends, that I'd given up on going anywhere with anyone who wasn't family, that I'd so easily become a caricature of who I'd thought I should be; but that's what I'd done. And then suddenly, there was Fran. Intelligent, funny, cynical, beautiful, with her dark Italian eyes that always had a glint of wry amusement and a hint of something more. Francesca Ferrari, my new best friend.

I don't know now which of us suggested the holiday - neither of us had any money and it was just another one of those things I should really have known better than to do. But when you've taken so much time and trouble to mess up almost everything, the idea of running away is very beguiling, so we looked on the Teletext listings anyway. And as we scrolled through screen after screen of bargain-priced offers for a week in the sun, the idea took hold. I'd never been on a holiday with a girl friend before, and we didn't even know each other very well, but a quick phone call to a bored-sounding holiday operator, a reckless charge to my credit card, and without even knowing where we'd be staying, we were booked for a week in the Canary Islands.

There are so many things I could write about that week. I could try to describe the way we spent day after day, lying by the pool, talking almost non-stop, the words and the laughter tripping over themselves to be heard. I could conjure up the people we met; the funny Essex boys who tried so hard to impress, the two quiet Austrians who we'd come to know much better.

But this is a soundtrack story, so let me take you instead to a dark nightclub, hidden underground beneath the gaudy shopping centres of Playa del Ingles. The music is loud, its beat echoing around the huge room, pulsating through the dancing crowd. Leaning against the bar at one side, are two dark-haired women. You can tell by their sun-tanned faces and relaxed smiles that they're having a great holiday. They've been dancing for hours, and now they're sipping on vodka and lemon, watching the others, chatting away, though it's too loud to hear. When the music stops they'll pause and listen for what comes next, hoping it will be the song they've danced to all week. And when it is, they'll both leave their drinks and stand up, a quick glance from one to the other, a wide, shared smile, as they make their way through the crowd to the very middle of the dance floor.

George Michael will start to sing "Looking for some education, made my way into the night" 

They will dance. 

And nothing else matters.


This week, it will be exactly fifteen years since that trip to Gran Canaria. My life has changed so much since then, that I'd barely recognise the woman I once was. Throughout that time, Francesca Ferrari has been my friend and for every one of those years, Fast Love has been the soundtrack to the continuing wonder of her friendship.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The hour before

I don't need to get up so early. I could stay in bed for another hour, rush into the shower, pull on the clothes I laid out the night before and be out the door in thirty minutes.

But I don't.

Instead, I slip out of the dark bedroom and head downstairs, groping for the light-switch on the landing as I pass. I tread carefully, trying to avoid knocking down the wall of books we've been building there, volume by volume until the day we get round to fitting bookshelves.

When I get downstairs, I realise it's cold. For the first time since we've lived here, the lounge has a distinct chill, and in the darkness of the early morning, the rawness of the air emphasises the emptiness of the room.

I sit for a while in the chair by the window, and watch the sky lighten. Every now and then a car purrs quietly past. The only other sound is the repetitive call of the wood pigeons, I see them balancing on the telephone wires that string across the street; dark black cables marking out their territory in the brightening sky.

When I look over at the sofa, I see where Philip sat last night. His shoes lie slightly askew, just where he slipped them from his feet.  The cushions are just as he left them - stacked up in the corner, the imprint of his body clearly there. For a moment I wonder if that will be how it is when he's gone, a memory, an impression of him being here; his possessions left behind, but  no more him.

It might be that, or the chill in the room that makes me shiver. Either way, it's enough to make me realise it's time to move, to get ready for the day ahead. I make two cups of tea and take them back upstairs to the  warmth of the bedroom; where the impression on the pillows is caused by him still being there; where he's waiting to say good morning.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Soundtrack stories - pressing play

As I drove to work a few days ago, a song came on the radio. Unbidden and unexpected, it caught me, whirled me up in its notes, and threw me back down in 1994.

It doesn't have any association with a remarkable incident; it doesn't remind me of a long-lost love, or life-changing moment. It's not in my top ten favourite songs and it wouldn't even feature in my Desert Island Discs, but when it came on the radio, it had the power to take me back in an instant, to a particular time and place.

The song was Deacon Blue's 'A Ship called Dignity', it was the opening track on their greatest hits album 'Our Town' and I played it on a plastic radio-cassette player, while I decorated our sons' bedroom. As I slapped on blue paint - dark blue at the bottom, light blue at the top, with the colours separated by a brightly patterned sea-side border, I sang my heart out to the opening song and the following 18 tracks. I played it again and again, moving the player around the room with me as I worked. I listened to one side then downed the paint-brushes to swap the cassette over and play the other. Before long, I knew the order of the songs so well I was singing the next one before the opening bars had even sounded.

I was happy. I was decorating the house we'd worked and saved for. It was the house that the children were meant to grow up in, go off to the rest of their lives from, bring back our grandchildren to. I didn't know then that we'd leave that house the following year, that the room I was decorating would all too soon end up being slept in by someone else's children. I certainly didn't know then how guilty I'd feel in all the years in-between; for not trying hard enough to keep us all together in the house that we all loved.

For that week, while I painted and sang, I was happy. It was a time when I didn't know just how miserable I'd feel for a long time afterwards. When the song came on the radio, it took me straight back to that happiness and I'm so glad it had the power to do that.


All of which has left me thinking.  I've never tried giving this blog a 'theme' before, and I'm not about to turn it into a music blog now. You would see only too soon, just how mundane and unambitious my musical tastes can be. But I know there are dozens of other songs that have a similar effect on me - bringing me instantly to a moment in my life, pricking at my memories, prompting my reflections. I think I'd like to try and capture some of those memories here, maybe once a week, under the heading Soundtrack Stories.

I've been so delighted by all the new (and continuing) readers who've visited this blog since the Blog-of-Note excitement last week, and it occurred to me that this might also be a way of getting to know you all a bit better. So I'd also love to hear if any of you have your own striking memories associated with songs. If you've written about them, feel free to e-mail me, or please put a link in the Comments box and I'll come and take a look. I may even share the very best of them here if people are ok with that.

Let me know what you think.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Well Dippers

If you squint at the map, so you can still read the place names, but can't quite make out the distances between them, then Tunbridge Wells is our nearest town. At least that's what we tell ourselves. But whenever we visit, it feels more like slipping into someone else's world.

At one time it was a fashionable spa, a place to see and be seen. As we stroll through the Pantiles, I become a Jane Austen heroine, lifting the hem of my ribbon-trimmed dress to step out daintily over the muddy pavement. As I twirl my parasol, I peek out from under my bonnet,and smile innocently at the dashing, handsome, soldiers passing by.

We dip in and out of shops - boutiques and emporiums for people who live a different life. We covet furniture made for high-ceilinged living rooms in three-storey houses, and sneer at clothes for slim blonde ladies who work in publishing and have more than one winter coat.

When Philip suggests a visit to the second-hand bookshop, I encourage him to go on ahead; I know he'll be gone a while. Last time I trailed silently after him as he tiptoed round books stacked in piles on the floor and browsed through worn-looking volumes on faded wooden shelves. When we finally emerged, I had the taste of books and dust, of other people's lives in my mouth. This time I opt for coffee instead.

The unexpectedly warm weather has sent people scurrying for their summer clothes again. As I sit outside the coffee shop I see a stream of bare legs pass by. Pale-skinned, fake-tanned, bulging calf muscles, thick ankles, all accompanied by the slap-slap of flip-flops on the brick-laid path. There are no cars in this pedestrianised end of town, so people meander by, crossing from one side to the other to peer at the window displays that capture their attention.

A woman sits at the table next to me; she's probably in her early seventies, immaculately made up. She sips at her coffee without leaving the slightest trace of lipstick on her cup - I envy her that skill. She draws deeply on a cigarette, relishing every inch of its journey into her lungs. When I ask her to pass me the sugar bowl, she does so willingly, but seems compelled to apologise. I don't mind other people smoking, I never have, but she hurriedly finishes the cigarette and stubs it out. She leaves almost straight away and I'm left feeling bad for her ruined pleasure.

A man pauses to rest, taking a chair just in front of me. His brightly checked shorts and blue baseball cap are a striking contrast to his middle-aged belly and stubbly chin. I listen to him as he keeps up a constant flow of chatter - with himself and to himself. He recites all the train stations between here and the sea, the route clearly etched into his memory, but several times I see him shake his head and say "I don't know" in answer to a question only he can hear.

Like me he watches the passers-by, commenting on everything he sees. For me, it's written down in my notebook, for him it's spoken aloud.  In many ways we're just the same - remarking on what we see, to audiences real or imagined. We speak to everyone and no-one; each of us dipping into the Wells, sharing what we find.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Holding on - a story

Halfway up the high street, Dominic decided to let go of his Dad’s hand. Usually he liked walking here, where the pavement and the street were at the same level. There weren’t any cars, but there were so many people, you had to duck in and out of them. He liked that, even when it meant you had to watch out for shopping bags bumping.

But Dad seemed to want to go faster than everyone else today. Dom heard him tutting when the old people stopped just in front of them, he knew that Mum would have slowed down, given them a chance to get going again, but Dad mumbled something cross and just kept going, pushing his way past. Dominic saw the old lady shake her head; he wanted to stop and smile, make it alright, but Dad just kept marching on. It wasn’t easy to keep up, even when he half-and-half walked and ran.

Sometimes when he was out with Mum, they did the matching footsteps thing, but not today; every time he’d hopped to the other foot to try and keep step, Dad had changed his stride. Maybe Mum just hadn’t told him how it was supposed to go. Dom tried getting him to slow down instead, tugging at his sleeve. He scuffed his shoes on the brick path, but Dad didn’t notice that either. Halfway up the high street, just by the big shop with the window full of fishing rods and lanterns and wellington boots, Dom slipped his fingers from the big curled up fist and let go.

It wasn’t far to the bridge from here. When he was out with Mum, they’d usually stop for a bit when they got there, and he’d stand on tiptoe with her arms tight round him to look down the river. There were tall, tall buildings along the edge of the water. Some of them looked like giant garden sheds, made from planks of dark brown wood. He knew there were people who lived in them, but he couldn’t imagine the insides, he couldn’t think what it would be like to have stairs in a garden shed. There might be cobwebs and spiders too.

Mum had painted the shed in their garden, bright stripes of green and yellow. “Like daffodils” she’d said, laughing at Daddy when he’d pulled a face and screwed up his eyes. Dom had worried then, he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to like it or not; but he could still remember his mum standing in front of it with spots of yellow paint in her hair and on her hands.

He got to the bridge and leaned against the big grey bricks. The one in the middle had writing on, sometimes when he stood there he’d trace round the letters with his finger, but not today. He peered over, into the water, to watch it passing underneath. There weren’t many boats; just a small blue one with a pointed white sail, and a long black and red barge. Mum had told him about barges, he knew that some people went for their holidays in them, travelling around, up and down canals. She’d told him some people even lived in them, people who went to bed every night with the water rocking them gently to sleep. This one had boxes of flowers on the top, she’d like that.

He wanted her to come back and tell him other things.

The barge moved slowly up the river, away from the bridge. There was a man standing at the back, holding onto a long stick, making sure the boat stayed in the middle and didn’t hit the sides. Just in front of him were two small wooden doors. As Dom watched, one of the doors opened and a lady came out. She looked at the man and smiled as she handed him a big mug of tea. Then she looked up at the bridge, saw Dom and waved. It was a big wave, not just her hand, like the Queen, but her whole arm.

The lady was wearing a big red jumper; she matched the paint on the boat. He thought she looked a bit like his mum, her hair was the same colour, but his mum didn’t have a red jumper. Dom waved back. A small wave at first and then just like her, a big whole-arm stretching wave.

As the boat moved away, the man leaned towards her and said something, maybe he was telling her to go back inside, but she didn’t. She stayed there, looking at Dominic, smiling and waving. Dom’s arm was starting to ache a bit, but he couldn’t stop yet. With the hand that wasn’t waving, he pushed himself up as high as he could, he stretched and leaned forward a bit more against the side of the bridge, he watched, as she got further and further away.

He didn’t know what was happening at first, as the big arms grabbed and held him, and he felt the sharp sting of his knee scraping against the bricks. He couldn’t see much, with his face pushed into the rough front of a jacket, but then he thought that the jacket felt a bit like the sleeve he’d tugged earlier. And after a while, he knew the voice that whispered in his ear.

Not you. Not you too.”

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A new perspective

There's a point, halfway across the bridge, where I leave one county and move into another, where I cross from the world of work into the land of living.

The traffic is almost always heavy at this point, so we crawl across, nose to tail; a long line of blinking brake lights, like a Christmas garland draped across a mantelpiece. Below me, instead of a fire place, is the river. On my right it stretches into the magical distance of London town; where the tall towers of Canary Wharf compete with the bullet shaped Gherkin to grab the skyline and my attention. I can't see Millbank Tower  but I know it's there, just a bit further along; reminding me of the days when I worked on the 17th floor and looked out every day on this same river.

This is the last bridge before the sea; below me, the slow muddy water makes its way to the ocean. It meanders on past Tilbury docks; where passengers wait patiently for the cruise ships to pick them up and transport them to other ports of call in settings more sublime.

As I creep into Kent. I peer at the warehouses and factories laid out on the riverside. I see a line of lorries, decorated in their bright corporate orange-ness, waiting to be filled from the depths of a distribution depot, and I realise I've never actually seen anyone entering or leaving the vast shed. I look at the grey factories and smoking chimneys, wondering what goes on behind the brickwork.  Are there people in there working the evening shift, looking up at all those cars on the bridge above, envious that for some of us, the day's work is already over?

Usually, this is the point where I leave the worries and frustrations of my working day behind. I start to relax as the car crawls slowly towards the toll booths that mark my return to the south of England, the place I know best.

Today though, I barely notice the bridge or my journey over it. Today, just as I reach the halfway point, my phone rings, and the voice in my headset tells me excitedly that Blogger has made me today's Blog of Note.

And now, there are no thoughts of work to exorcise from my brain, no weary anticipation of dinner and sleep. My mind is whirling, I'm thrilled to bits by the thought that people might come to read my blog for the very first time, that some of them will come back again. I know already that I'll get to read some great new writers that I just haven't known about before. I can't wait to see who they are.

Today, halfway across the bridge doesn't seem like the escape point from where I'd rather not be; it feels like an entry to a whole new world.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


I saw him again today; the man with the turquoise tie.

There's always a bit of a bottleneck outside the station; the school coach waits to mop up its quota of reluctant scholars and simpletons; the "I'm late for the train" last-minute drivers tut and fume, trying to push their way through to the car park; the stay-at-home wives manoeuvre round the narrow entrance lane in their four-by-fours, dropping off their breadwinners before heading off for a day of all the things I say I'd like to do, but probably wouldn't really.

He stands patiently at the side of the road, waiting for a break in the traffic, unwilling to step out into the unpredictable stop-start line of vehicles. The gently swaying briefcase in his hand is the only sign of movement as I drive past.

Without his tie he'd be Mr Monochrome, dressed in a pale grey suit and white shirt, with an ashen face and silver white hair; without his neck-wear, I know I wouldn't notice him. But today, as I continue my journey to work, I find myself thinking and wondering about the man with the turquoise tie.

I picture him arriving at his office. Taking his sandwich bag and papers from the briefcase, tucking his lunch in a drawer and neatly lining up the pile of reports on his desktop. He doesn't invite conversation with the others; he still hasn't quite got used to the open-plan arrangements they introduced last year. His desk is in the corner, but he preferred it when there was a small room, with a door to shut, a door to be politely knocked on before entering. Some of his colleagues throw out a loud good morning as they pass his desk, but they don't stop to talk and they've already gone past before his mumbled response is half out.

He switches on the computer, wondering what instant responses his inbox will demand today. While he waits for the cursor to point its accusing finger, he reflects on the days when memos and internal mail envelopes gave at least two days grace, the days when a thoughtful measured approach, steeped in experience and expertise were things to be admired, not impatiently tolerated or worse, derided.

Then he shifts in his chair, pulls himself upright. Today will be alright, because today he is wearing his turquoise tie. The one Christine gave him for his birthday three years ago; the one she suggested he put on this morning. He is already smiling when he thinks of the way she came up and draped it over his shoulder as he stood indecisively in front of the wardrobe mirror. She didn't need to say anything, just a nod and a smile, and he knew that she was right. Today will be fine because in just twelve hours there will be another nod and a smile as she slowly and carefully unties the knot and slips the tie from round his neck.

And today will be good, because without even knowing it, the man with the turquoise tie has reminded me that there are kind quiet people, who live and love, and make the world a better place simply by being.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Falling leaves

Since we came to this house, the first thing I've done each day is look out of the bedroom window.  From where I sit in bed, I can't see down into the garden, and there are no houses looking back at me; all I can see through the square window, is a patch of sky, framed by tall sycamore and elm trees. Whenever I've woken on a sunny morning, I've watched the branches waving and the leaves dancing in the sunlight like a happy, hippy crowd at a music festival.

It's getting darker in the mornings now, but the early gloom is brightened by pale yellow leaves that have started floating down past the window. The path is strewn with them; it's as though the party is ending and the crowds are leaving the festival to make their way home, dropping their litter as they go.

It's been four months since we moved in; we arrived in time for summer, and now we're welcoming autumn for the first time. As the weeks have passed I've seen the colours come and go - from the flowers and shrubs that were here before us and the new ones we've planted since. I've cut the grass and trimmed the hedges and watched them grow again. We've eaten lunches and dinners at at the picnic bench that came with us from Shoreham, and we've sat chatting over breakfast at the new table and chairs we bought in an end of season sale, just a couple of weeks ago.

Already there are dry leaves caught in the stems of the lavender bushes and floating across the surface of the pond; soon the grass will be covered in a russet and golden coat that I'll delight in crunching through as I walk down the garden.

Time is passing, but it doesn't feel as though the days are slipping away, more that we're building new traditions, taking old memories out of the box and examining them in a new light.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Watching - a story

Some people wouldn’t see any point in standing here under the trees, in hanging around this quiet street, watching and waiting. But Tom knew you could learn a lot by just keeping still; and you never knew when that might prove useful.

He’d realised a long time ago that people like their routines. “Creature of habit” he muttered as he watched the man from no. 26 shambling along the road to fetch his paper. Tom knew that the old guy left his house at five to seven every day, to reach the newsagents just as it opened. The shuffling walk was accompanied by the tap of a walking-stick, click-scuff-scuff, click-scuff-scuff; the sounds beat a rhythm as regular as the old man’s routine, he’d know it with his eyes shut.

Of course, it took a while to pick up the patterns, to be really sure. It was easier to spot the regular routines of the older ones, they had less to disrupt the order of their days; but they were all pretty much the same really, sticking to their customs and schedules. Take that couple who’d moved into no. 32; they’d been there just over three months now, 115 days to be precise. Tom liked to be precise; that way you made fewer mistakes.

He knew now that they both went out to work; she was always first, always in a hurry, zooming off with the windscreen only half de-misted. Her husband emerged about an hour later, setting off on foot towards the station, strolling along, looking around, taking notice of the sky, the weather, the geese flying over. Tom thought that, in another place and time, they might have got on quite well. He reckoned they both had that inclination to stand and watch; natural observers. But you had to keep work and pleasure separate, Tom knew that; there couldn’t be any friendly chat with the man from no.32.

He reckoned they were his best option in this street. The old folks might be regular in their habits, but they were also much more restricted; he’d spotted the four o’clock curfew that always had them home in time for tea, he knew there was far less chance of them being out all day. Truth be told, there was probably far less of interest left inside their houses too.

Tom had been in his usual spot the day they’d moved in to no.32. The smart navy blue removal van had perked him up no end, gold lettering and all. None of your cheap man-with-a-van here; they must have stuff worth taking care of. There’d been an awful lot of boxes and some of them had looked right heavy. He’d been there when they’d pulled up in the car and gone into the house for the first time; her carrying two laptop bags, him carefully holding a cat basket. No dog though, that was good.

He’d hung around a bit more over the last couple of weeks, getting to know when they were indoors, working out when his best chance might be. He’d realised she was usually home on a Friday, staying inside where he couldn’t see her until around tea time, then she’d come out and cut the front grass. Must be her way of marking the beginning of the weekend, he’d thought, and if she’s doing the front grass, the chances are she’ll do the back as well. That turned out to be just what she did, the front, then the back, every Friday afternoon.

Tom knew the gardens in this street; they were long and narrow, leading down to an access road. He’d walked round there once, just to check things out, but there was too much open space, too many windows looking out over the gardens, so he hadn’t been back. He knew though, that it took a good while to cut all that grass, she’d be out there for at least an hour. One other thing he’d noticed, after the first couple of times; when she carried the lawn mower through to the back, she sometimes forgot to lock the front door behind her. He stood as near to the gate as he dared and listened very carefully for the metallic clack. Today his luck was in; there was no sound of a turning key.

He walked up and down the road a few times. It was very quiet, no cars, no people, nobody to notice if he just slipped quickly up the path. As he got nearer to the door he heard the gentle hum of the lawn mower round the back. This was his chance; he wasn’t likely to get a better one. Very gently he pressed down on the handle and pushed, and slowly the door opened inwards. Ahead of him, a carpeted flight of stairs, to his left a white painted door.

He pushed the white door open a few inches, poked his head round the gap. The buzz of the mower still droned from the garden. There was a huge furry black cat curled up in an armchair, but it appeared to be fast asleep, didn’t even raise an ear, let alone move, or question his arrival. He glanced around the room, assessing the possibilities; there was a flat-screen TV in the corner, but little else that could be grabbed and carried.

Ahead of him was another white painted door. He guessed there was one more room between where he stood and the garden, but he didn’t know if she could see him from out there. If there were patio doors he’d be sunk, well and truly framed. Perhaps he should turn back, or maybe try upstairs. But once he was up there, it would be really tricky if she came back in, no quick unnoticed escape possible then. He trod softly across the laminate floor, pushed tentatively at the door. It swung back to reveal a big kitchen, a tall fridge-freezer right in front of him, two square windows in the wall to one side, a bog-standard back door to the right. There was no way she’d see him here, not unless she came back indoors.

The mower whirred on.

He stepped into the room, it was sunny and bright, the sort of place he wouldn’t mind living in himself. Wooden chairs placed around a square table, as though waiting for the family to come home and eat dinner together. And right there, in the middle of the table, was an open laptop. Now he knew it wouldn’t be a wasted risk; he could take that and be gone.

As he leant across the table to unplug it, the screen lit up, and he realised it had been sleeping rather than switched off. There was a document still open on the screen; she must have been working on that before she went out to cut the grass. It didn’t look like work though, maybe a story, or a diary entry. Tom started to read.
He stands out there a lot. I’ve seen him, rolling a cigarette, pretending that’s why he’s stopped. But he’s there all the time; I wish I was brave enough to ask him why. He almost seems to melt into the trees, like part of the scenery, but he’s always on his own, just standing and watching, he must get cold. And lonely. I hope he’s ok…
Tom turned away. With four strides he was back at the front door, then outside, pulling it quietly closed behind him. He’d thought they were an unmatched couple, he hadn’t felt any affinity with her, always busy, always rushing around. But, this time, it seemed he had failed to properly see.

He walked down the street, turning up the collars of his coat against a sudden cold chill. You could take from the well-off and the arrogant, it was ok to relieve the smug of their reasons to be haughty; but the natural observers? Well, you just had to let them be.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Out of kilter

The world continues to turn, day becomes night, summer slips inexorably into autumn; all is as it should be. Except it's not, quite. I still recognise the world around me, but it's as though everything has shifted,the world has tilted, my perspective has slipped.

It started in the taxi. I'm used to driving myself everywhere, deciding when to leave, how fast to go; but this time, instead of steering my own course, I sat in the back of the car, watching the scenery pass and the minutes tick by, worrying I'd be late as we tiptoed slowly down quiet country lanes.

Eventually the car turned through a set of gates and drove serenely along a tree-lined drive, finally pulling up outside what looked like a grand country house. As I waited for the driver to retrieve my suitcase from the boot, I felt like I'd stepped onto the set of a Sunday evening period drama; I half expected to see a stiffly-starched nurse pass by, wheeling a wounded soldier across the manicured lawns of a war-time convalescent home

I knew they were expecting me, but I was still surprised by the smiles of welcome when I gave my name at the reception desk, and I was somewhat taken aback when the clerk proffered a hand in greeting before showing me to my room.

I hadn't eaten all day and I was feeling a little light-headed, so I unpacked quickly. I was only staying for one night and it didn't take long to hang my clothes in the wardrobe and put my wash-things in the en-suite bathroom, then I sat in the high-backed chair by the window to wait.

The branches of an elderberry tree grew across the window, behind them I could see an old stable-yard set out in a square behind a high brick wall. As I sat watching the berries sway in the breeze, I wondered when there had last been horses in the stables, I pictured coaches coming and going, proud grooms in immaculate livery, horse-brasses glinting in the sun. I began to think about the others who'd sat in this chair, watching and waiting.

It wasn't long before there was a knock on the door, and, as if stepping straight from my earlier daydream, a neatly uniformed nurse came in. After that, there was a procession of visitors, the consultant, an anaesthetist, a catering officer, another nurse. I got undressed, removed my contact lenses and jewellery, and struggled into the open-backed gown they'd left on the bed. An hour or two slipped away with knocks at the door, polite questions, stilted answers; each of them explained carefully why they were there, what would happen next. I tried to concentrate on what they said, but it was almost as though, without my lenses, my thoughts were as unfocussed as my eyesight.

Then it was time to walk along the corridor, with its pale blue carpet, and take the lift down to the theatre. I know that the anaesthetist told me my birthday was the same day as his daughter's and I remember him telling me to think of sunshine and blue skies, of pine trees fringing a warm Greek beach, as he pushed the needle into the back of my hand.  I think I remember him telling me, just before the world tipped away, that the next thing I'd hear would be someone saying

"Leave your nose alone"


My nose. My much-wiped, much-abused, senseless nose. When I wrote about it here many months ago, a number of people suggested that perhaps my long-lost sense of smell wasn't gone forever, simply missing in action. After much reflection and persuasion, I decided to make use of the health insurance provided by my employers and see if there was a medical solution. Last week for the first time ever, I checked into a private hospital and had an operation to clear my nasal passages.

I've always been strongly in favour of our national health service, staunchly against the very idea of anyone getting a better, faster service just because they can afford to pay for it. I want to know that anyone, whoever they are, can access medical support at the right time to keep them safe and well.  But I swallowed the line that my employers funded this because it meant I would be back at work and productive again much sooner, that there was a rational argument for jumping the queue, seeking a better service.

I hadn't realised how easily I would be seduced by the feeling of being taken care of, how much I would appreciate the gentle paid-for solicitousness of the nursing staff, the regularity with which they came to check on my well-being and stayed to make sure I was comfortable. This was a world I partly recognised and wholly liked, one I could get used to, but one that felt, and continues to feel, inherently wrong.

I'm home again now, and trying to make sense of the last few days. The painkillers have left me a little other-worldly, I've got a glorious black eye and a bloody nose. Though I can't yet breath any more easily, and my nostrils haven't yet been tantalized by the aroma of bacon frying or the scent of flowers in bloom, I remain optimistic that things will get better soon.

In the meantime, I'm not allowed out for a while in case I inhale an infection, so I'm sitting here surrounded by tissues and tea-cups. I'm not used to enforced stillness, it leaves too much time for reflection, it leads far too easily to the world feeling distinctly out of kilter.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Whores and heroin

You spend your life accumulating acquaintances, finding friends, building a circle of people to spend your time with. Somewhere along the way, you work out what it is you like about others, what they might find to like about you. You begin to understand and comply with the compromises that friendship requires, you relish the opportunities to try new experiences, build shared histories.

Once in a while, if you're lucky, you get to meet someone outside of your normal social sphere; someone who carelessly crushes all the criteria you've formulated for friendship.

"You'll like him - he's got great hair."

"He doesn't wash much, but he never smells."

"His boots have got more holes than leather and he's got really skinny legs."

"He's very, very talented."

"He talks about whores and heroin. And sex. A lot."

"He's become my sort-of adopted son"

You're not sure how to react to that sort of introduction, but you're each choosing guests for your wedding party and you want to be fair, so you go along with the suggested invitation for someone you've never met.

You barely talk that first time, though you quickly acknowledge he does indeed have great hair. A few months later, you go to see him play and you're bowled over by the power of his voice, the strength of his lyrics. You wake up the next morning singing a song you've only heard a couple of times that already seems implanted in your brain.

Then you begin to see the impact he has on the people you love; they way your husband speaks of him with smiling enthusiasm; the times your daughter is suddenly eager to spend an evening in your company when he's around. You start to like him a little bit more just because of that.

Conversation doesn't come easily or instinctively at first; you notice how polite he is with you and you feel a bit like a venerated grandmother.  But then there comes a time when the three of you get gloriously drunk on peach cider and you spend an evening swapping fish-based puns, juggling Maltesers and falling from bar stools. One day he sends you a message saying he's come up with a great new idea, suggesting you write a space-based musical together. Gradually, you forget to feel old and out of touch when he talks to you.

After a while you realise that he's no longer just your husband's adopted son. The pleasure you get that night in Clapham, when the whole bar is clapping and singing along to Happy Song is something akin to loving pride.

Whenever you meet his girlfriend you're really pleased that she seems so right for him, you're delighted that she takes such an interest in his adopted family, that she's happy to spend time in the village, decorating plastic ducks for the duck race, talking about knitting and sewing, visiting the allotment. You know though, that she's only here on a visa and sooner or later she'll have to leave. That day comes round much too quickly and without understanding how the time has sped so fast, you find yourself saying a hurried goodbye of hugs and tears at a railway station, wishing her good luck as she sets off for another continent.

You worry about him when she's gone, not sure if he's eating or sleeping properly, you're concerned he'll descend into a cycle of drink and despondency. You know they've planned to meet up in Canada in a month or two and you hope he'll stick to the plan, that they'll be back together soon. But you also know there's a downside to that.

Tomorrow you'll make your way to the Windmill bar in Brixton, where he'll be playing his last London gig for a long, long time. It'll be a great night, a proper send-off in a crowded bar; the sort of occasion you'd have tried to avoid before you knew him. In a few days he'll be getting on a plane to Canada. You want him to go, you want them to be together, but you also know how much he'll be missed. You sense it will be a while til anyone in your household wakes up singing their own version of Happy Song with anything like conviction.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Gate

Timber slatted,
flaking paintwork,
round-arched frame in high brick wall.

Clicking latch-key,
creaking hinges,
rusting bolt that slowly draws.

Secret door to unknown garden,
opening to another world,
entrance to a different lifetime,
exit gate from yours. 

After I'd written this, Pat posted a wonderful picture of a gate on her blog - you can see it, along with a whole range of other lovely pictures and writing at Past Imperfect

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Life lines

I'd sit there for hours at the dining room table, the Spirograph set in front of me with everything in its rightful place; the cogs and wheels laid out in their plastic packaging, four pens with different coloured inks, a corrugated card backing-sheet and the small pins with round yellow tops that would hold the wheels in place. The instruction leaflet showed me the countless ways I could produce intricate patterns, just by chasing a cog around a wheel; and I believed it. I was captured by the promise of the swirling patterns, by the idea that I could recreate those pictures from lines.

And sometimes I did. But more often than not, my hand would slip as I changed direction, or the paper would move where I hadn't pinned it down tightly, and my intricate pattern would be scarred by a jagged line of ink cutting through. I'd always been proud of my colouring-in, my skill at keeping the bright pencil shades inside the bold black lines, but this was different. In the Spirograph patterns, the lines haunted and taunted me, marking out my successes and failures for everyone to see.

As I sit here tonight I think of all the other lines. The thickening waistlines and thinning hairlines; the multiplying creases round our eyes, the pillow line that carves my face like a ventriloquist's dummy. I reflect on the times at work when I've tried to cross the line, or encouraged others to toe the line. I smile at the warm feeling of success and relief that comes on opening night, when after months of rehearsals, all the lines come out with the right words in the right order. I remember old relationships where I failed to draw the line or was too stupid to read between the lines. I recognise the thin line between right and wrong, between love and hate.

Then I look outside and see your vests flapping against my t-shirts on the washing line, and I remember the lines I wrote you in that e-mail, back before our beginning. I would never have guessed then of the marriage lines we'd share so many years later.

I think of the lines that mark the beginning and end of life, the umbilical cord, the blinking line on a heart monitor. I'm glad you are my life line.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Running out of role models

It was easy when I was young; I didn't need to work out who to be or how to behave, I just had to read a book.

It started with Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren's fiercely independent nine year old who lived in Villa Villekulla with a horse, a monkey and a suitcase full of gold coins. Who wouldn't want to be the girl with the strength to lift a horse, the imagination and determination to spend her days arranging adventures and telling outrageous stories? Pippi wasn't worried by her long thin legs, she wasn't in the least bothered that her nose was covered in freckles and she was positively proud of her hair in its two tight plaits that stuck straight out; so what could it possibly matter if someone called me skinny dripping, teased me for my freckles, or laughed at the way my carefully braided hair was looped across my head?

In time Pippi was followed by a succession of girls I might have been or could have been; the resourceful and rebellious Arrietty  from The Borrowers, the graceful and talented Posy from Ballet Shoes. As I grew, I found new characters to emulate, I built them into so much more than the typed letters on a page.

And then I found Elizabeth Bennett. My middle name is Elizabeth, I'm a second daughter; that was enough to grab my attention. When I found out she was intelligent, opinionated and favourite of her father's children, that was enough to keep me caught. Through her I defined my role as the sensible one in the family. I recognised my inclination to form an opinion too quickly, saw the implications of a judgement based on first impressions, learned the dangers of pride and prejudice.  I still mostly didn't get it right, but she helped me believe that mistakes could be overcome, that there were always second chances. And that kept me going for a long, long time.

But the trouble with Elizabeth Bennett is that she ceased growing up nearly two hundred years ago. She never got to be middle-aged; she didn't have to worry about what to do with greying hair and increasing girth. She married into a stately home, so what would she know about paying a mortgage into pension age, she never became a working mother or grandmother. I can't turn to her for advice on how to handle a re-structure at work; she can't tell me how to muddle through a long day in the office and still be half-awake and slightly interesting when I get home.

So I need a new role model; someone for this century and today's world; I just don't know where to find her. And for the first time in my life, books have let me down. I don't see any authors creating a positive pitch for the past-her-prime lady. I can't find the novel where it all turns out well for the woman who ought to know better by now; I've yet to read the story of the almost-invisible someone starting their second half-hundred; or the fable of the grown-up girl who is still trying to find out what to think and how to be.

I hope she's out there somewhere. Maybe she's just starting to come together, letter by letter, page by page. I'd love to think that one day I'll pop into a bookshop, pick up something that catches my eye, turn to the first page, and suddenly learn that there's another truth that's universally acknowledged.

Friday, 12 August 2011

No lighthouse

It's been a long day, a long week, and I'm bone-tired as I get into the car to drive home. A small voice tells me it wasn't the best idea to go out tonight, to drive 60 miles for dinner after 12 hours in the office. But the small voice's invincible sidekick tells me a night out was just what I needed. And it has been lovely; relaxed friendly chat, catching up on news of friends, swapping stories of visiting guests, telling tales of office colleagues.

The road is dark and I'm the only one on it. No street-lights out here in the country, no headlights from passing cars.

I feel the waves of sleepiness rise up, feel the heaviness at the back of my eyes, I try to swallow down the weight and the lethargy. I know how quickly I fall asleep at home, how hard I fight to stay awake in front of the tv and how soon I lose consciousness the minute my head hits the pillow. I know how easily I could drop off now.

Bright cats-eyes dance on the road in front of me, then suddenly I feel them under the tyres and realise I've swerved, I pull back sharply to where I ought to be, to my side of the road. For a moment I'm wide-awake, blinking in panicked shock, but then the sense of slipping comes again.

Twenty miles to go, half an hour to home.

I turn up the radio, blast out the air-conditioning, gulp down great mouthfuls of cold air. I'm not really listening to the radio, the voices merge with the thoughts in my head; the conversations of tonight, the confrontations of the day, all mixed together in no clear stream, with no clear sense. I move my head from side to side, feel the muscles in my shoulders stretching, my spine clicks. I imagine someone pulling a string tied to the top of my head, lifting me up tall and straight.

As I pass a lay-by I think of pulling over, but I'm too stubborn to stop, too scared  to sit at the side of the road by myself, so I drive on. I think of speeding up, perhaps if I get there quicker, I'll beat the almost irresistible weariness.

A huge lorry looms up out of the darkness, seemingly out of nowhere. The row of lights across the top of the cab dazzle me, shining out like stage lights on opening night. I blink awake and shrink back like a hidden creature retreating when a stone is overturned.

When I finally get home, the street is dark, our house is asleep; no lights at the windows, no lamp above the door. I'm strangely angry that there's no brightness to greet me; I want a lighthouse beam to recognise how close to the rocks I've been, to guide me safely the last few yards.

I fumble for the key, feel for the lock and guide it in. I feel clumsy and stupid; I know I'm not angry with the dark house but with myself; I know just how easily I might have been slipping, not into the dark comfort of home, but into another kind of darkness altogether.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The orchid

It's not flowering at the moment, but that doesn't matter. I know, like all the best things, it will be worth the wait. I know that when the white buds return they will surprise and please me again, taking me back to the day I first saw it.
The first time we met was the day I took the photo for his ID card. Like all new members of staff, his introduction to the organisation included the humiliating ritual of stepping into my small office and facing the  camera. Like the others, he stood patiently while I struggled to assemble the tripod, while I waited for the laminator to heat up. We made small talk while we waited. At least I did - I think he probably watched in stoic northern bemusement while I went through my standard "oh you'll like it here, everyone's very friendly" routine.

It was probably a year later that I got a promotion and we ended up working in the same office. I finally felt I was moving on - making some progress, from the failed marriage, the unfinished teaching degree, the never-quite-good-enough job as mother and the gratefully accepted but never-quite-aspired-for role in admin. He treated me like a grown up and a proper colleague, listened to what I had to say, argued strongly when he thought I was wrong, but never once patronised me or treated me like an idiot.

He sat at the other end of the office. I couldn't see him from my desk, but I could hear him. Some days he drove me mad, coughing and clearing his throat, until I ended up choking in strange sympathy. Other days he circulated Tommy Cooper jokes that caused a ripple of laughter to circulate round the office, so you'd know each time someone else opened the e-mail.

I remember the summer day when he spilt sugar all over his bare sandalled feet and spent the day with sparkling grains between his toes, I remember how pleased he seemed when I finally managed to make a cup of tea strong enough, how I never told him that I'd cheated and used two teabags. I remember how I felt when he said he liked my new haircut.

Sometimes we'd sit together in the canteen at lunch-time, he the committed vegetarian, moaning about the quality of the fish; me the total carnivore marvelling in the roast pork and crackling. We never really knew much about each other, but he'd stop and talk sometimes when he passed my desk, and I guess that's why he was the first to know that I'd managed to climb another rung on the slippery ladder, that I'd be leaving in a month to work across the river in a bigger taller building.

I hadn't expected him to come to my leaving drinks, I'd never seen him out with the Friday night crowd, I don't think I'd ever seen him outside of work. I was pleased that he joined us as we walked up towards the Windmill pub in The Cut, it felt right when he fell in beside me as we passed the Old Vic. I'd already had my leaving presentation in the office and I'm ashamed to say now that I can't remember what they'd all clubbed together to buy me. But I'll never forget the present he shyly handed to me as we walked up the road.


We bought a new pot for it when we moved into this house, it sits on the windowsill above the sink and it's there every morning when I look out at the garden. It's more than ten years old now, and like him it's become part of my life. It might not be flowering just now, but I know it will be just beautiful for a long time to come.

Friday, 29 July 2011

On the side

I'm not sure exactly when they arrived. One day the sides of the motorway were just plain banks of grass, the next, there was a swathe cut through and a tarmac path running parallel to the road. Suddenly there were three caravans, parked nose to tail on the concrete, traffic cones marking their space like a red and white picket fence.

There are net curtains at the windows; a strange suggestion of homeliness, and once or twice I've seen a man emerge blinking into the early morning sunshine as I pass by on my way to work. He wears the violent lime-green overalls of a construction worker and I wonder if he is actually living at the side of the road.  The transition from my quiet home to the hectic madness of the motorway is always a shock to me; I can't imagine what it must be like to have no transition at all, to spend your working days and sleeping nights on the side of the road. This is one of the busiest motorways in the country, there is no end to the roaring traffic, and as the lorries thunder past rocking the fragile trailers, I think it must be like living in a constantly churning tumble dryer.

I wonder what the workers do once they've finished for the day. I picture a thick-set man in his late forties, ducking his head to step through the small doorway. He takes off the hard-hat he's been wearing all day and tries to rub away the lines it has left on his forehead. Then he eases off the heavy boots and places them together just inside the door. I see him trying to wash the grime of the road off his hands at a small stainless steel sink, before heating a tin of beans on a tiny two-ring stove. What does he do for the rest of the evening? Perhaps he's slumped back against the geometric-patterned fabric of a thin bench, peering at a portable TV; he must be frustrated at the quality of the picture, the poor reception caused by the constant traffic. Does he sit at the small table playing game after game of solitaire,or quietly reading until his eyes get heavy and he realises he's almost asleep and missing half the words? I smile at the thought that one night he might order himself a take-away;  at the image of the bewildered pizza-boy, trying to find the right lay-by.

The roadworks are scheduled to last until the summer of 2012; twelve months of contra-flow systems and traffic cones; a whole year of speed limits that the crawling traffic has no chance of breaking, and speed cameras that threaten us should we dare. As summer turns to autumn, winter, then spring, I'll pass through this way on my journey  to work each day and back again in the evening. I've no doubt I'll complain when the traffic is bad, swear when I get held up. I won't enjoy the journey, but I will be grateful that, unlike the imagined residents of the roadside caravans, I am just passing through.