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.