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.