Friday, 27 May 2011

The Pygmy Giant

I'm thrilled to bits that The Pygmy Giant has published one of my stories today.

The Pygmy Giant is an on-line home for a great range of British writing and I feel very proud to be included.  It would be rather lovely if you go there and read my story and maybe even leave a comment, but while you're there, I'd really recommend you to read some of the other great pieces too.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Winging it

It's just one of those days. A diary full of back-to-back meetings, that I haven't found time to read the papers or prepare for; a seat-of-the-pants day, when I'll try to sound like I know what I'm talking about, when I'll try to add value to the discussion, or at least get away without announcing my complete idiocy to a room full of people.

I get up early, deciding I can get to the office and speed-read through the agendas and reports, scribble a pertinent comment or two in the margins. In a cavalier moment of over-optimism, I throw my gym bag into the car, thinking I might even go for a quick swim on the way in.

90 minutes later, I'm tapping my nails impatiently on the steering wheel, inching the car forward a few yards at a time, cursing the lorries that have blocked the slip road and brought the roundabout ahead to a standstill.

There's an etiquette between the drivers as we each push our way onward, nobody must look at anyone else; if you make eye contact you're doomed to a catalogue of exasperated head-shaking, unnecessary hand gestures and mouthed obscenities. So I feign nonchalance and gaze out of the side window at the banks that line the motorway, the un-cut grass intermingled with dandelions. Weeds grow strong and green, but there are other plants, stunted and black, that have proved less adaptable to the exhaust fumes and incessant vibrations of passing traffic. Dented cones lie on their sides, abandoned from some long-ago traffic scheme; nobody likely to come back for them now. Rubbish has piled in drifts, thrown from car windows by thoughtless drivers, but looking almost as though it's grown up through the ground, meant to be there.

I try not to think about being late, no point in getting stressed about what might happen, even less point in berating myself now for not preparing for my meetings in advance. Instead, I do mental calculations; 22 miles down, 18 miles to go; if we start moving now, I'll be there in 30 minutes. I watch the minutes click round on the dashboard clock, count the street-lamps as I pass them; 4 lamps to every tenth of a mile. It's a slow-shoe-shuffle I'm unhappily familiar with, the price I pay for swapping cold platforms and delayed trains for the warmth and solitude of an 80 mile round trip to work each day. I wonder about the drivers around me, where they're going, what the day might hold. I'm stupidly pleased by a van just ahead, with "Lynn Shellfish - our quality is catching" emblazoned on its side.

Then suddenly we're moving again and I'm passing freely around the roundabout like a ball thrown into a roulette wheel. I've been lucky, I'll make it in time for my first meeting. And yet I know the danger of winning once, that it might just encourage me to try my luck and leave everything too late again. As I speed along the motorway for the final stretch of my journey, I hear Kenny Rogers in my head, singing the Gambler's song out loud:
And the night got deathly quiet
And his faced lost all expression
He said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right"

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Memories and mementoes

I unlock the small square door and reach up to pull down the aluminium ladder. Above me, in the dark, dusty, cob-webbed space is the task I've been dreading most since we started packing up the house to move.

I'm not scared of spiders and I don't mind a bit of dirt, but nevertheless, the task of clearing the loft fills me with trepidation. Though there's no picture of Dorian Gray hiding up there, I know that, stacked up in a corner and hidden behind the suitcases and bags of old clothes, are the boxes that represent another life. They've sat there unopened since we moved to this house. Treasured keepsakes, each with a meaning of its own, each telling a story about a different me, as daughter, wife or mother; these are the possessions that sum up my life before Philip; the stories of my family.

It should be a simple task to lift these boxes down and pile them up with all the other boxes for the removal men to transfer to our new house in just over a week's time. And it would be, if I could resist the temptation to open them and sift through the contents.

The first box holds medals and trophies from when the boys played football for the cub-scouts and school teams. The trophies are wrapped snuggly in the shiny fabrics of a dozen replica football shirts. I remember the freezing hours I spent, standing on the touchline, shouting and willing my lads to run and score and win, until they were too old and too embarrassed to want me watching them any more.

Next is a container of all the kitchen things I bought for Megan when she first went away to university. The saucepans and colander for all the beans and pasta I thought she'd be eating; the tea caddy for her unquenchable thirst for a nice cup of tea. She only stayed in Leeds for one term, hating every minute of her time there. I remember driving up to collect her and bringing her home; the box has been in the loft ever since.

There's another one from Charlie's slightly longer, but no more successful, time at Manchester University. It holds his study materials; a collection of pens and papers, a calculator and his student ID card; all evidence of the good intent to study that he took with him, but which evaporated as quickly as his student loan. I'm suddenly hit by the recognition of how lost he must have felt, away from home for the first time, his money all gone and a slowly growing panic as he fell behind in his studies.  At the bottom of the box I'm surprised to find a fountain pen. It's mine, and I'd assumed it was long-since lost. I've no idea how it came to be in the box; I'd like to think he chose to take it up to Manchester with him.

Next comes the photo box. I lost hundreds of pictures after a move 4 houses ago when I stupidly left the albums to go mouldy in an outside shed. The pictures in this box are the only ones I managed to save. Rare and precious representations of my children as babies and toddlers, birthdays, weddings and school photos. I'm surprised to see a younger, slimmer me, secretly pleased at how I used to look.

There's a huge box of paper souvenirs; school report letters; theatre programmes and tickets; newspaper cuttings; handmade birthday cards. Among them a letter from Charlie, telling me he's sorry for fighting with his brother, that he didn't mean to upset me, that he loves me lots. Beside that, a small envelope holding 4 notes from Claire, written to Charlie and me just after he was born.

The last box I look through is the one I know will make me cry. It holds everything I still have of my Dad, bank statements and insurance papers; his final will and testament; details of the arrangements I made for his funeral and the condolence cards we received. I know what's in this box, but I haven't looked through it for four years, so the contents come back to me with a shock. I smile when I find the tickets issued over fifty years ago for a trip to Spain for him and my Mum; I swallow hard when I find the picture of him as a young man in the army, confident and smiling, knowing there is still a whole lifetime ahead. I'm struck by the resemblance between him and Charlie.


And then I find the small envelope. Inside it is a typewritten sheet, a story written many years ago by my Dad, for Charlie on his birthday. As I read the story I begin to hear his voice. And then I realise that even though I'll be moving to a new house soon; a house he'll never visit or know; my Dad will be coming along on the journey anyway.


The Day We Won the Cup - written for 'His Majesty Emperor King Charlie':

Once upon a time, on a sunny summer aftermorning, all the people on earth were very happy. They were dressed in their best clothes, with pink ribbons hanging from their toenails and green ice-cream cornets dropping from their noses. They started the day with a special breakfast, starting with scrambled crocodile's eggs,which were followed by Marmitemud on toast.

The reason for all this happiness was that this was the day of the long-awaited final of the Inter-World Cup between the men from the planet Klobbadog and a special team from the planet Earth. The men from Klobbadog were known as excellent footballers, who had won every game that they had played. This may, of course, have been because they each had three legs worked by batteries, and large square heads mounted on rubber stalks, which made it easy to head lots of goals.

The team from Earth that had been chosen to play against Klobbadog were known as the Longshortworth Rovers who, although consisting on only six players, were famous for the special skills each of them possessed, Up front was the Daddyman, whose special skill was running down the pitch tripping everybody up with a golf-club. Joining him up front was the Mummywoman, whose special skill lay in feeding players on the other side with homemade cakes which poisoned them within minutes. In midfield were the Clairegirl, who wasn't really very good at football, but used to wave her feet at anybody that came near her so that they collapsed on the spot. Alongside her was the Gerardboy, who had a special ability to turn himself into a bear-cub, and at the back was the cuddly Meggygirl who used to talk and talk and talk until she sent everybody to sleep.

But the star player of the Earth team was the goalkeeper, Charlieboy Longworth, who had never given away a single goal, because of his ability to make his arms and legs stretch to ginormous lengths by saying the magic words:
"Abracadabra Hazel and Mush, my teacher looks like a scrubbing brush." 
The Earth team were soon two goals ahead, First the Mummy girl ran up the pitch, turning sideways so that she was so thin nobody saw her. Then the Gerardboy ran forward giving a loud bear-cub growl and frightening all the Klobbadog players and banging the ball in the net.

The game was nearly over when disaster struck! One of the Klobbadog players tripped over the Daddyman's golf clubs and was awarded a penalty. He shot the ball hard with two legs, straight at the goal, but the Charlieboy caught the ball with one of his magical long arms, ran straight up the pitch and scored another goal. The Earth people had won! Charlieboy was the hero of the hour! He was given special toys made of ice-cream and toffee that he could eat when he was fed up of playing with them, and they all lived happily ever after!!!!!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Just along the valley

We hadn’t been together all that long when Philip first introduced me to the small green guide book; 28 circular walks in the Kent countryside, ranging from a gentle stroll round a field to a sharp breath-stealing march up a hill. With his usual boundless enthusiasm he overcame my reluctance to accept walking boots as a fashion item, and over the next few years we tested them out - the boots and the walks - working our way across fields and footpaths, stomping through villages and valleys. As we walked, or stopped to admire the view, we scribbled comments in the book's margins; 'bluebells in April,' 'a cheese sandwich under the trees,' 'Badger!' After a while the book became shabby and dog-eared; a cracked spine and turned-down corners the battle scars of our favourite walks.

There was one page in the book that became more worn and tattered than the rest, one walk we returned to again and again, until we really didn't need the book any more. The footpath started out in a small quiet village, then wound its way up and through a wood, across a valley and a hill, past farms and a golf course; before winding back down again, past a viaduct, along a river and back. 

Before long I was calling the village 'the nice place' and weekend walks were supplemented by visits on a Friday evening. We found a small pub, where the barman always greeted us with a smile, addressing Philip as 'young man'. It was no time at all until he knew our names and started pouring out our drinks before we'd even finished asking for them. Occasional drinks turned to dinner every Friday; the perfect way to mark the beginning of the weekend. We gradually felt more and more at home sitting at 'our' table in the bar, chatting to the other regulars, marvelling at how lucky they were to live in such a lovely place. Our conversation became peppered with phrases like "wouldn't it be nice if..." and "maybe one day..."

So, when one Friday evening we pulled into the pub car park and spotted a 'To Let' board outside a house a few doors down, we knew it was meant to be. Dinner waited while we walked up and down the road, peering through the front windows as we passed, trying to make it look like we weren't being nosy, hoping there wasn't anyone inside looking out. When we finally sat down in the pub to eat, there was no other conversation possible. The very next morning we contacted the letting agent and a few days later everything was in place for us to move.

We both knew it would be temporary; long-term renting really wasn't the wisest move, but we hoped that before long we'd be able to buy a house - if not in the same street, then at least in the same village. In the meantime we just settled in and enjoyed every minute spent living in a street with the friendliest, most community spirited neighbours I've ever known; and next door to the best landlords anyone could hope for.

For months, Philip went round with a big smile on his face, telling anyone who'd listen that it was just like being on a permanent holiday.  We started to put down roots - in the street, at the allotment.  We helped to put up the christmas lights, took part in the duck race, manned a stall at the village fete. Philip chopped wood for our open fires, I trod the boards for our local productions. The village opened its arms and welcomed us, it was only natural that we loved it in return.

After a while, we began to realise our aspirations to buy had been too optimistic. We watched as the For Sale signs came and went; we waited while prices got higher and higher. However hard we saved, even the tiniest most run-down cottage in the village was beyond our purse strings. We talked about it long and hard; renting was fine for now, but we both knew that if we left it too much longer we'd never be able to own our own home.

It's been four years since we moved to the nicest street in the nicest place in the world. This week, we exchanged contracts on a house in another village. 

Our new house is small, but lovely, with a warm friendly feel about it and a wonderfully long garden. It’s only a couple of miles along the valley, so we’ll still be able to carry on doing all the things we've grown to love; and seeing the people we've come to know and admire. I know we are very lucky to have found a place we can afford to buy; I know that it will suit us just fine.

We’re moving in two weeks’ time, so the next few days will fly past in a blur of sorting, packing and cleaning. Before we leave, I will take one last slow walk around the house, smiling to myself as I remember the day when we sat together in the bedroom and Philip asked me to marry him. I’ll think of our wedding day and the wonderful party we had in the Crown pub at the top of the road, made perfect through the hard work and good will of Phil the barman. I’ll stand in the kitchen and think of all the vegetables we’ve proudly carried home from the allotment, the fabulous dinners Philip has cooked here, the gorgeous cakes that Megan has baked. I’ll look at the room, still pictured at the top of my blog, and re-live how I felt when I sat down to write my first ever blog post, marvelling at all the words I’ve written and read at that table ever since.

And then before I know it, and certainly before I’m ready for it, we’ll be closing the door for the last time and handing back the key. The move is, without doubt, a good thing. The tears I know we shouldn’t cry are just a confirmation of the wonderful time we’ve had and the happy memories we’ll be taking with us.

Thank you Shoreham.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Having words

She hated it when they shouted at each other. Cruel sharp words, arrows dripping in saliva and bile. How could they even look at each other the next day. How could either of them accept the other's 'I didn't mean it'.

In her head she joined in the screaming, silently begging them 'Don't say it. Please don't say it. You can't say something like that and not mean it' Once those words were out, they were out - there in the air between them. No matter how hard they'd tried to pretend it didn't matter, it did. She couldn't see how they could act as though things hadn't been said.

She'd dreaded the times at school when the teacher walked around the class as they wrote. Automatically her arm would go up around her work, shielding it from the teacher's eyes. Pencil in one hand, eraser in the other, she'd write and rub out, again and again. The paper turned thin and grey, but she didn't want anyone to read it until she was sure of every word.

At work she agonised in meetings. Confident of her point, but never quite sure when to make it, she dreaded the moment when they'd all turn to look; a raised eyebrow, a barely concealed smirk; her confidence sent plummeting. She lingered over e-mails, knowing how they could be misinterpreted, how jovial could be read as flippant, succinct as terse. On the way home in the car, she'd replay the day's conversations in her head; the things she could have phrased differently, the times she should have kept mum.

At home in the evenings, in front of the laptop, she tapped the keys, watching the thin black lines appear on the screen. Just lines and shapes, meaning so little, revealing too much, concealing more. Type and delete, type and delete. Again and again.

She hit the 'publish' button, sensed the black lines peeling away from her, lifting up from the screen and flying away. She didn't know where they'd land, if they'd be greeted with a friendly welcome or a forbidding stare. Once they were out, they were out. She couldn't pretend they hadn't been said.