Thursday, 28 April 2011

Parallel lives

21st June 1982, London, England.

Two maternity wards, two young women; each of them putting aside the pain and exhaustion of the preceding hours as they reach out to hold a new-born child.

Two boys.

Families and friends, school and work-mates, loosely connected by-standers, all influenced them as they grew, shaping their actions and recording their histories in photographs and memory.

Each boy was a first born son, growing up with the hope and expectation that brings, knowing that one day, in  a different century, they would be expected to learn the family trade, take it on, build and nurture it to support another family.

Each of them thrived in the early years, spontaneously talkative and affectionate, confident in their parents' love.

Each struggled to make sense of the bitterness and struggle of the separation and divorce that came later.

Somewhere along the way, each defined a role for himself as guardian and protector, the man of the family; taking care of his mother whatever his disappointment in her; accepting the role of elder sibling, whatever the annoyances and embarrassments of a younger brother who was more than reasonably prone to seeking out trouble.

Both grew up tall and handsome.


Tomorrow, one will stand in Westminster Abbey, with the eyes of the world on him, as he pledges his love to the future queen of England.

I will be among the millions watching that boy on TV, but my hopes and my love will be with the other one. The boy relaxing with his friends over a pint or several, somewhere in south London. The one that the world will never know, but the one who makes me as proud as any mother of a king.

My son Gerard.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Egg count

So many ways to mark the passage of time; the years slip by in a cycle of celebrations and anniversaries.  The old shoe-boxes under the bed fill up with hoarded birthday cards and folded wallets of photos; you build a treasure trove of loving wishes and embarrassing haircuts.

And there, tucked into a corner next to the boxes, still in its supermarket carrier bag, is the Easter egg you bought a couple of days ago. You’d been queuing up to buy your lunch when you’d seen the coloured boxes stacked high at the checkouts, when you realised how the passing decades have also been marked by the rise and fall of the Easter egg count.

When you were young there’d been an Easter egg every year.  Three identical eggs lined up on the sideboard, one for each of you and your sisters. On Easter Sunday morning you’d take yours from its box and run your finger over the shiny purple foil, smoothing it out until the cracked pattern of the chocolate showed through from underneath. Then you’d unwrap and gently prise it apart, trying to keep the halves intact while you sought out the chocolates hidden inside. You could make it last for three days; eating the chocolates first, then one egg-half at a time, breaking off small pieces along the pattern lines.

There might have been two eggs each in the years after your parents split, but you don’t really remember, already by then your head was full of ideas for building another home and a new family. The first years of married life brought extravagant Easter gifts wrapped in crisp cellophane, tied with satin ribbons. Thrilled by the romantic gestures you saw no forbidding portents in the over-sized packaging and disappointing content.

Then came the years when the children were small. For weeks before Easter you’d push the buggy around Woolworths, walking slowly past the floor to ceiling displays, while they pointed out the ones they liked the look of, the eggs they hoped they’d get. And you chose with such care, each had to be just right for its recipient. A grown-up egg with proper chocolates for a girl so nearly a young lady; a Yorkie bar for a strong quiet lad; a black-and-white covered round ball of chocolate, for your football-loving boy; and a small pink-wrapped oval nestling in a ballerina-decorated cup for your singing, dancing baby girl. You’d keep them all under the bed, hidden away from sticky fingers until Easter morning.

In those days there were so many eggs; gifts from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone wanting to mark the occasion, shower attention with a sweet treat, mindless of harm to teeth and tummies. It would be days before the boys’ appetites weren’t ruined by eating chocolate between every meal; weeks and months before the girls would get through the eggs that, just like you, they insisted on saving for eating slowly, bit by bit.

After a few years the number of eggs began to dwindle. Your father died, aunts and uncles had children of their own to buy for, money was tight. There was still an egg for each of them, every year, but none for you and not quite as much excitement. 

Then before you knew it they were grown and you were all living in different houses. The eggs you bought, and kept in the cupboard just in case, went unclaimed when they were too busy to visit. You found them some time later, the boxes covered in a thin layer of dust, the chocolate inside mottled white. You'd ended up just throwing them away. Last year you decided not to bother at all.

But a few days ago, as you stood in the queue to pay, you’d looked over at the shiny boxes. Something about the sickly looking white chocolate egg with its gaudy pink icing had made you smile, and now it’s sitting under the bed waiting to be handed over with a kiss and a hug.

Just one egg this year, but maybe it’s marking a change. Perhaps, before you know it, there’ll be dozens again.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


It will come as no surprise to those who know me, if I write that housekeeping is not my forte. It's not that I can't do it; I know all that could possibly ever need to be known about cleaning fluids and polish, dusters and mops. I have rubbed and scrubbed, vacuumed and swept with the best of them. I've experienced the self-righteous glow of turning a pigsty into a palace, but frankly it just doesn't interest me. I resent the time spent washing things down and tidying stuff up; I'd rather be doing almost anything else.

But while I can merrily ignore dust until I trip over it, and live with accumulated papers til they cut me, I simply cannot leave grass that has grown too long, or weeds that need pulling. All week long I've been getting itchier and twitchier as I've practically heard them growing in the garden, calling to me as they stretch their green arms out to the sun. This morning I responded to the call and spent a few lovely hours trimming and digging, and now, with achy fingers and dusty knees I can sit here with a genuine sense of satisfaction from a job done well, that was well worth the doing.

What is it about being outside that makes work feel like play?

When we were kids we spent a lot of time outside, while mum was indoors trying to make our house spotless. I sometimes joke that we were locked out in the garden so we couldn't come in and make a mess, but I'm not entirely sure that isn't true. When I think of my mother back then, she's almost always either cleaning or ironing. I'm probably the only person on the planet for whom the Beatles' album Rubber Soul is inextricably mixed with the sounds of my mum singing along to the backing track of a hissing steam iron.

In my mum's head, anything, and I do mean anything, that required washing, must also demand ironing - socks, pants, towels; nothing was already sufficiently flat that she wouldn't feel the need to bludgeon it into further submission. And given that there were five of us, that always meant a pretty huge ironing pile waiting to be tackled.

It seemed to have a hold on her, as though she couldn't relax until it was conquered for the day. Even on the most glorious sunny days, when you might have thought the heat of an iron was too much to bear, she'd still set up the ironing board. Her only concession would be to open the french windows, and set the board just outside, stretching the iron's lead as far into the garden as she could.

For two weeks of every year though, it was different. Each afternoon of the last week in June, and the first week in July, the housework would be abandoned, as mum sat down to watch Wimbledon. Glued to the TV she'd live through every moment of Roger Taylor's unsuccessful efforts to be the next Fred Perry. And those are my favourite memories of her. In my mind, a whole summer was mixed up in just those two weeks.

I'm sure that was when she'd let us make our own ice-lollies, pouring orange juice into special plastic holders; or when she'd give us a bowl of peas to pod, sitting on the back door-step in the sun. It might have been when we helped her pick gooseberries from the bottom of the garden, or loganberries from the bush behind the shed. I know it was then that she tried to teach us the rules of tennis, when I learnt that a tie at 40 points was called deuce and not juice.

Every now and then, if it really was a perfect summer's day, then mum would abandon the inside of the house and come to sit on a deck chair in the garden, to watch us play our own version of Wimbledon on the lumpy, but regularly-cut back lawn in Croxted Road. I'm sure that was the reason I ached so much to have my own tennis racket, and why I was oh so chuffed to get a perfect white Slazenger. I still have it; although nowadays it's warped beyond playable and the shiny white paint has almost all chipped off.

You can't see any more where I carefully scratched my name into the handle, claiming ownership, exhibiting such pride, but I think it's the only possession that has stayed with me since childhood. Maybe that, and the memories it brings with it is why, even now, at the slightest hint of warmth and sunshine, I feel the need to get out there to cut the grass.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Cherish is the word I use to describe

It's not often that I spend an evening by myself. It's such a rarity that, when I imagine it, I build the idea up as a special treat, a chance to do what I like, an opportunity to pretend that I'm a grown-up independent woman, in charge of my own destiny and decisions.

I hadn't expected to be on my own tonight. It wasn't until Megan called, just as I was leaving work, that I knew both she and Philip had alternative plans.  My day at work had been stupidly busy, so the previously unforeseen promise of a peaceful, solitary evening dangled alluringly in front of me all the way home. A bit like an air freshener on a rear view mirror.

The trouble with car deodorisers though is that the fresh new atmosphere they promise usually turns out to be a false unnatural scent, masking the reality. Even with my appalling sense of smell, I know that's not the right ambience for me.

It's a rare occasion that I come home to a dark and silent house. I'm usually the last one back, the one coming in to shoes parked by the front door, bags dropped somewhere between there and the kitchen, opened mail scattered across the dining table and the radio playing loudly in the background. Minor annoyances, that are easily cancelled out by a cheerful welcome, the offer of a nice cup of tea, and the sight of debris in the kitchen, promising me a lovely dinner already half cooked.

Tonight the only greeting was an insistent one from the cat, wondering why he'd had to wait so long to be fed. After I'd answered his demands and made myself a cuppa, I mooched around the kitchen, hoping for some inspiration on the food front. I've never seen the point of cooking just for me. I'd hoped to finish off last night's rhubarb crumble, but it seems someone had that for breakfast. Luckily there was some cold meat in the fridge, so a lamb sandwich dinner it was.

Half an hour home and I was already feeling a bit sorry for myself. I turned on the TV - not just for the sound of the voices; this was my night in charge, I could watch what I liked. Well, I could within reason. A quick flick through the channels showed me that the value of controlling the remote is in direct proportion to the quality of the programmes on offer.

I was just about to turn off in contempt, when a news-clip from years ago caught my attention. The footage panned across a scene at Heathrow airport where hundreds, perhaps thousands of screaming teenage girls waited to welcome the arrival from the United States of their heart throb David Cassidy. In an instant I was transported back to the early 1970s, to the first time I ever went to a concert, the first time I ever felt completely part of a whole experience, watching, listening, feeling, the beat of the music coming up through the floor, my screams joining the others echoing around Wembley Stadium.

Sitting here tonight, in our house in Shoreham, I could see myself back in my bedroom in Croxted Road; playing the Cherish album again and again; singing along to every word and holding onto the album cover as tightly as if it had been him. I loved David Cassidy then, really loved him, and like so many millions of girls the world over, I convinced myself that I only had to meet him to persuade him that he'd love me too. I started saving up. I wasn't yet old enough for a Saturday job, but my pocket money pennies and birthday gifts that year all went into a special box; it had a slit in the top and a label on the front - my 'going to America to marry David Cassidy' fund.

I can remember all that so well, but strangely I can't remember when I stopped poring over the pictures in Jackie magazine, when I discovered other albums to listen to, found another use for my pennies. I don't even know what happened to the going-to-America box. I suspect it happened gradually, as I slowly understood it wasn't a reality and there were other, better, things to spend my time thinking about, wishing and wanting.

Then it came to me, forty years later, sitting here in our house in Shoreham, that's exactly what will happen to my dreams of spending time alone - one day I'll just know that there are other, better, things to spend my time thinking about, wishing and wanting.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A walk in the park

As I walk along the path by the river I hear footsteps; a heavy pounding beat on the tarmac behind me, quickly coming closer and closer. I don't know if I should be afraid. I'm not usually here at this hour, I don't yet have an understanding of the patterns and habits of this part of town.

As he passes me, I can't help but smile. From the shins up he's just a boy, a skinny lad who got tall too quickly. In his grey tracksuit trousers, sweatshirt and baseball cap, with a sportsbag slung over one shoulder, he could be on his way to school. It's only the boots that suggest something different, their heavy reinforced toe-caps, beating out the rhythm of a working man.

Most days, I travel to work by car, from the lovely street where we live, to the multi-storey car park next to my office. When I was young I was intrigued by the idea of a transporter - the sort you'd see on Star Trek, where you'd  step into a capsule and almost instantly end up in a different place on another planet. Now I'm all grown-up, I realise that my journey to work has become a bit like that, although admittedly not as instant.Once I enter the car, it's like I'm in my own bubble. My only interaction with anyone else is vicariously through the airwaves of the radio, or in mimed action through the exchanges with other drivers who surprise, irritate or enrage me. The only engagement with my surroundings is when I wipe a finger across the dusty dashboard, or scrabble about in the detritus I keep in the door-pocket, for a tissue, a tube of hand cream or the one CD I want to listen to most, though I can't remember where I put it.

A week or so ago, crumbling concrete brought a change to my routine, as the multi-storey was declared unsafe for use and we were all forced to make alternative arrangements. For the last week my journey has included a ten-minute walk to the office. The route takes me along a footpath, past the back of the cricket ground into the park, then along by the river, until I emerge from the underpass, just a few yards from my building.

I'm surprised how many people are around; dark-suited office workers march determinedly onwards, heads down as though they daren't risk the slightest distraction. Kids race past on scooters; while their mums try to keep up, propelling baby-buggies forward like miniature chariots. I feel sorry for the babies, pulled from the cosy comfort of their beds, breakfast hurriedly spooned into their still-yawning mouths, arms thrust into the un-cooperative sleeves of tiny coats, in a daily rush to the child-minder.

I pass the children's playground. There's a new climbing frame, resplendent in shades of purple, jade and yellow. Its colours make the old, faded-blue swings look shabby and unloved. I slow down for a while, imagining how my sons would have loved the frame; the chance to hurtle up ladders, fly across bridges and fling themselves down the slides and poles. I think of the times I stood by the side, pleased by their fearless adventures, terrified of impending injury.

I remember the holiday in Devon, when Gerard decided to climb the cliff. One minute he'd been sat by my side, playing in the sand; the next he was halfway up a precipice. The lure of reaching the top had obliterated any consideration of how he'd get down again. I shudder, even now, at the memory of the blind panic that gripped me as I imagined him plunging down into the sea. I know I stood there paralysed with fear, unable to think or move, while he loved every moment of the scramble up and relished every minute of the attention he got from the group of men who so generously climbed up to escort him back down.

But the playground is deserted; everyone is too busy heading somewhere else. There's no time to stop and play, no chance of screaming falls; or even grazed knees and bumped heads at this hour.

I carry on along the path. The walk is still a novelty, so I look around, noticing the clumps of sunny daffodils and the emerald green nettles building their traps by the side of the river. I hear the birds singing from their vantage points high above me. I look up.

The trees are in full  blossom. Their flowers seem bolder and whiter than they ought to be, somehow they remind me of the winter snow that's not long gone. I'm glad that the fall of their flake-like petals will bring warmth and sunshine rather than shivery cold. And it's the thoughts of warmth and sunshine, the promise of future holidays that stays with me as I walk through the graffiti-ed underpass, past the locked empty car park and into my office.