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.