Sunday, 30 December 2012

Seeing the light

In the sudden switch from sleep to wakefulness, I can't work out what's woken me or why. It's as though someone has come into the room and thoughtlessly turned on the light. Philip is still there beside me, and there's no sign of recent movement, but across his face and pillow there is indeed a light; a clear bright beam, falling on him like a spotlight from the sky.

A strange and unexpected alignment of cloudless sky, leaf-bared trees and the lunar cycle, has brought the full moon through our open curtains and into the bedroom. Drawn to it, I stand at the window looking out, thinking of all the clich├ęs that have ever been penned about moonlight, my sleep-dulled brain unable to come up with any new words to describe the silver glow lighting up our room, shining magically outside.

It's bright enough to see along the row of gardens that back the houses of our street; to pick out the sheds and greenhouses, washing lines and compost bins. It's the same garden furniture I see every time I look out, but tonight it's lost some of its ugly practicality, swept by a glistening shimmer. For a moment I wonder if this is what it would be like if giant slugs had crept across the land while we slept.

I stand and gaze, and as I do, the view in front of me is replaced by a series of other gardens, looked at from other windows. I'm back leaning on the tiled window-sill of my childhood bedroom in Croxted Road, peering through the net curtains and the steel-framed windows that were covered in condensation every morning of the year. I remember the story that I used to tell my friends to explain the small scar on my forehead; the story where I fell out of the window and somehow miraculously survived, not the real one where I climbed up to watch my Dad in the garden, slipped and caught my head on the corner of a cupboard. Or at least that's the story I think is real.

Then I'm looking out over the flat pitched roof of the dining room extension in Manor Way, past the spot in the flower bed where Megan would sit chatting to Ruth next door, as they swapped mud pies through  holes in the fence; past the hedges and the shrubs that I clipped and pruned year after year, down to the bottom of the garden, where the green swing sits, just as it should for every child.

I'm whisked forward in time to the bedroom window in Crown Road, to see Martin, our overweight cat, teetering along the top of the garden fence, making his way to our neighbours' bird table to sit hunched up like a fat furry turkey on a plate. Beyond the fence is the old orchard, where the overgrown grass and ancient trees strain to face another year, hoping once again to defy the latest in a long list of planning applications to fill their space with a row of houses.

I stand remembering, until I realise that the light is getting brighter, no longer from the moon but the start of a new day. I think about the hours I've spent staring out of bedroom windows at a series of gardens and neighbourhoods and I realise I've almost always slept at the back of the house. Hardly ever has my view been of street lights and front doors, of passing cars, or concrete paths. My first glimpse and last look at the outside world each day has been the world of grass and trees, of home and family.

I take one last look at the sky before going to make my first cup of tea of the day. Sometimes we try so hard to reach the moon, when all we really need to do is stop and see.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The address book



It's just a small address book, and I have to rifle through a pile of old bills, used train-tickets and Indian take-away menus before I find it, tucked away behind some tissue-paper at the back of the green wooden cupboard. On the outside it still looks new, the smooth red leather is barely scratched and the band of black elastic holds it tightly closed.

I hardly ever use it now.  New contacts are so much easier to store in the phone that's always with me, and a number for texting serves better than the full address and post code for a letter that never quite gets written. But once a year, after I've lined up the cards on the table, set out the different designs in separate piles, with the right-sized envelopes stacked beside them, I search for a pen that's nice to hold and has smooth-flowing ink, and then I reach for the old address book.

I write the cards in alphabetical order, filling in the names as I go through the book, and as I do, I find myself slowing down, pausing to think about the people who sit behind these names on a page. The aunt in Bristol, who's lived at the same address as long as I can remember, and who I've always called Auntie Tupp, although her name is Beryl. My ex mother-in-law, who used to play such a large part in my life, but who now lives in a flat I've never seen.

There are the friends I used to work with, whose company I valued so much "it would be great to see you in the New Year" I scribble in the corner of their cards; all the people I used to see every day, but never quite found time to see last year. I hesitate as I turn the page to a work-colleague from many years ago. Her husband is very much older than her, and for the last few years I've waited to receive her card, and the long round-robin letter that always comes with it, dreading the year when it will be just her name at the bottom.

As I leaf through the book, I see names crossed out; a sad reminder of relationships and marriages that didn't last. Other names remain, the friends and family I couldn't delete, the ones I thought would always be around.

On several pages there are old addresses scribbled through, with new ones added underneath. I remember all the excitement of friends and family as they moved to new homes and I think about the places I once visited, the houses that felt so familiar then, but that I'll never set foot in again. Suddenly I picture another address book from long ago, where Claire had added our own address and the bold claim "The Longworths - that's us!" with each of our names listed separately. Today, I still can't quite get over the feeling of surprise when I find my children's names next to houses that aren't mine.

The very last entry in the book is my Mum's, her surname for more than thirty-odd years is that of my step-father Albert, who'll be eighty years old this week. I'll see them both on Christmas day, at my daughter's house, with two of my other children and my two delightful grandchildren. No doubt when I see them all, I'll stop to reflect on how some things have changed and moved on, how others have stayed just the same, I'll smile at the people who are there, and think for a moment of those who are not.

It's odd that I hadn't realised until today, how much of all that change is caught in the pages of my small red address book.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Caught*





Through wind-bared trees, I stare across the valley
Tangled branches frame the distant view
Here, the darkness gathers strength to hold me
There, the lights shine bright, of home, and you.

I stay here, on the wrong side of the valley,
Where sharp-thorned scraping bushes hold me in.
No reaching out across the hill to softness
Of fingertip on lip, of skin on skin.

The path beside that leads to other stories
Is littered now, with leaves that didn't tell,
Relinquishing the grip that held and nourished,
Knowing they were dying as they fell.

A misty silence seeps along the valley
The muffled, dampened hillside makes no sound
I stand and gaze out from the growing greyness
Crying out, but rooted to the ground.



*the title for this poem and the beautiful photo above it of the Darenth Valley, were both taken from The Domesticated Bohemian. If you haven't already done so, please go and read the poem that inspired mine.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Small things

And so, the days move on. A week, then a month, passes without words. Finally, I return to the blank page, with a compulsion, much like being called before the Headteacher, to account for my behaviour.

How have I spent the last four weeks? Can I describe what I've achieved, justify the hours gone by, explain the difference I have made?

I stare at the page and a white blankness stares back.

There are so many things I want to be able to say, so many things I know I can't write here.

How do you describe an almost overwhelming sadness,  how do you portray an immense sense of disappointment, without upsetting everyone you know and care about? How do you grasp a life that's slipping by too quickly and turn a list of not-quites into a catalogue of success?

How do you come to terms with all the things you'll never be, all the things you'll never do, all the things you'll never see?

-------

I stare at the page. Slowly, gradually, there's something more than a blank whiteness in front of me. It's not the novel I always thought I'd write, nor yet a sonnet for my love. It's just some marks on a page; some letters in a sort of order, reaching out, trying to make a claim.

So this is me, playing with letters, dabbling in words. Hoping, one day there might be more.

Monday, 5 November 2012

November Monday

There's something almost illicit about a day off work with no plans. The hours stretch out ahead, with none of the normal markers of the day, no early alarm clock, no rushed commute to the office. It's almost as though we've bunked off school, and don't know what to do without a timetable.

I spend an hour in the garden raking up leaves. The sun is shining and the exercise soon warms me, I take pleasure in the rhythmic sweeping, the rustling sound of the leaves as I pull through them and flick them onto a growing pile. I look back to where I've cleared, glad to see the green of grass where I've reclaimed it from the wet brown leaves. It's a bit like a game of colouring-in.

We eat a late breakfast, pain au raisin warmed through in the oven, a pot of coffee, milk in a jug instead of straight from the bottle. I look around the kitchen, thinking what it would be like if I painted the walls a different colour. For a while I think about the difference it would make if we knocked out a bigger doorway to the garden, but I can't work out where we'd put the fridge-freezer, so I add that to the ever-growing list in my mind of things to think about one day.

Some time later we drive into Tunbridge Wells. The road itself is much quieter than our normal Saturday visits to town, but the pavement on each side is full of teenagers. They walk in groups of two and three, munching on chips, biting at sandwiches straight from the wrapper. When I was at school we were never allowed out at lunchtime; dinner ladies patrolled the gates with eagle eyes, waiting to pounce on any miscreant who stepped too near the outside world. All these years later, in the midst of all these school kids, it's as though I've finally made my escape.

It's an unhurried shopping trip. Philip needs a new phone, and though he knows just the one he wants, he takes his time to talk through the relative benefits of a dozen different tariffs. I want a lamp for my new writing desk and though we find one really quickly we spend a while comparing the colours; trying to pick one that will go with the room as it is now, but still match it in some distant future once we've redecorated.

Today, even shopping for vegetables feels different; Philip exalts over fresh turmeric, while I smile at the strangeness of yellow beetroot and the pink-striped beauty of graffiti-aubergines. When we're finally done, we trudge back up the hill to the car, shifting bags from hand to hand, chatting all the way.

As we drive home, back along the way we came, the streets are filling with school kids again. This time they're queuing outside the sweet shop, lining up to wait for their buses home. I realise the whole afternoon has slipped away while we've been shopping; I hope their lessons have sped by as quickly. 

We pull up at some traffic lights and I watch a young couple walking towards us, their arms wrapped around each other tightly.  Just as they get to the car, he begins to laugh and she joins in, when they stop, they look at each other and smile, the biggest broadest sunniest smiles, straight at each other, only for each other. 

And just when I'd been beginning to think that a November Monday couldn't get much better, I suddenly realise that it has.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gatwick South

Without even thinking to check my phone, I set off early for the forty minute drive to the airport, anxious to be there before they land. It's not until I park the car and walk into the terminal building, that I see the message saying they're delayed.

I sit and watch the arrivals board, seeing the details of their flight slowly inching to the top as the minutes tick by. Other planes land and there's a constant trail of people emerging from the baggage reclaim hall; you can tell straight away who's expecting to be met, they pause for a moment, looking around for a friendly face or a familiar name on a sign. You can tell who's pretending they fly all the time and don't need to be met - they determinedly don't look around, just march through, quickly heading to the car parks and onward transport. The unlucky few look lost and lonely, standing there hoping that someone will show them where to go.

Time passes.

When we were young, and air travel was still something of a novelty, my Dad would sometimes take us to watch the planes. I've never quite forgotten my surprise at how huge the planes were when you got up close; I've never got past wondering what strange sort of magic could lift a gigantic metal beast into the air then bring it safely back to ground again without smashing it to smithereens.

I was twelve when I got on a plane for the first time; heading for a holiday in Bulgaria with my family. It was the last time my sisters and I would go on holiday with both parents, though I didn't know that then.  I don't remember anything of the flight; my memories of the holiday are little more than snapshots, captured quickly without much thought, momentary images that have somehow stayed.

In one, I'm wearing a cotton sun-dress, small bright flowers on a white background, a ruched elastic bodice, thin straps tied on my shoulders. The photo, taken from behind, catches me at the moment when the wind lifted the skirt of my dress, revealing nothing but the skinniest legs imaginable. I hated that picture so much, squirmed with embarrassment every time someone looked at it. In another, I'm wearing blue and yellow sandals with cork wedge heels. I'd insisted on buying them for our big holiday, never mind that they were impossible to walk in and went with nothing else. I wonder now at the defiance in those shoes and my pride in the looks they elicited from other holiday makers; so at odds with my shyness over the picture of my legs. Perhaps that's what it's like when you're twelve; nothing is consistent.

There's a picture of us all on a balcony, dark wooden balustrades marking out the area where we ate breakfast every day; yoghurt and berries, cheeses and hams, so different from the Rice Krispies and Weetabix I was used to at home, so exotic as it seemed to me then. I think there was an abundance of water melons, like huge green bowling balls, or split into slices that we'd spit the pips from. I think I remember ice-cream, chocolate and strawberry flavoured, cold watery crystals. But that couldn't have been breakfast, could it? Another memory from another holiday perhaps.

I think of all the other times I've been here at Gatwick, waiting for my children to return; from trips to their Dad in Ireland, from their first grown-up holidays abroad, from the summers spent working in Greece. I think about how I'm always so determined to see them first, as if not noticing their arrival, looking the wrong way, reading a book, would somehow be a betrayal, a sign I hadn't missed them. Today my determination pays off and I spot them before they see me. I don't know which of them to kiss or hug first, I resist the urge to throw my arms round both of them at once, careful not to over-react, or embarrass them too much.

As we turn and head for the short-stay car park, I think about how I've always loved airports; the huge shiny planes, the lure of far-off places, the excited faces of people setting off on new adventures. Today  though, I realise that what I particularly love about airports is not the idea of going away, it's the certainty of people coming home.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Just a coffee

For once, the traffic flows smoothly, and I get there far earlier than I’d expected.

So, with half an hour to kill, I park the car and head for the canal, taking the path past the gasometer and along by the hut where the sea cadets meet. I'm not sure I know what a sea cadet is, nor why they'd want to meet in a hut by the gasometer; it seems an awfully long way from the sea.

I side-step a cyclist, who’s pedalling head-down fast towards me, just before I shout out indignantly, I realise that I've strayed onto his designated half of the path. With a quick “sorry” I step back to my side of the lines and follow the route into the centre of town. Then, just like all the other people who find themselves too early for a meeting, I head for the nearest coffee shop.

I hadn't expected it to be quite this busy – it's not just time-whittlers like me, or workers grabbing a take-away on their journey into the office, there are people sitting down with breakfast and the papers, reading a book, glaring at the hard surface of a kindle while they sip at their coffee, or bite into jam-spread croissants. I wonder whether these people have jobs to get to, whether this is a regular stop on their way, or if this is the start of a different sort of day altogether – a prelude maybe to strolling round the shops, a pause to gather their thoughts before a big interview or a dreaded appointment, maybe even a venue for a secret assignation.

As I sit with my coffee, a woman comes in with a young child in a pushchair. What brings them out this early when they could be snuggled up at home? Perhaps this is a regular ritual before nursery, some time together before Mum goes to work. I think back, to when Megan was still at play-school;  I'd just started working in a Chartered Accountants' office, four mornings a week, five minutes from home. The time would fly past as I typed and filed, added up time-sheets and made cups of tea. I'd finish a few minutes before lunch and dash across the square to collect her. Even now, I can almost feel her small hand in mine, tugging at my arm as we’d head for home, saying “hot sossidge roll Mummy?” Then I’d nod and smile and we’d go to the bakers; it was never the healthiest lunch, but always the loveliest ritual.

Now, sitting in Starbucks, I wonder what it would be like to go somewhere for breakfast on a weekday. I know there’s nothing at all to stop me, I could do it any day if I really wanted to. But I don't. Instead, when I set off for work, my only thought is to get there as fast as I can. Everything else is just a distraction - the motorway congestion, the stop-start jams caused by school drop-offs,  I mark the journey in miles and minutes, calculating and re-calculating what time I'll arrive, what I'll do first when I get there. 

Thoughts of work send me reaching instinctively for my phone, and when I flip open the cover I realise it's almost time for my meeting, so I pull on my coat, tighten my scarf and sling my bag over my shoulder. I know that the day will still fly past; lost in a blur of meetings and decisions, e-mails and reports, I know it won't seem any time at all until I'm back in the car and heading for home. But as I manoeuvre my way past the pushchair and out of the coffee shop, I think I'd give almost anything to know my working day would end with a little girl holding my hand asking for a "hot sossidge roll." 

Monday, 8 October 2012

A writing table

“This….” he says, stabbing the smooth oak surface with a firm forefinger, “…is a writing table.”

I shift a little uncomfortably on my rickety wooden chair, the chair that didn't come with the table but was moved here from the kitchen a few days ago, to sit alongside our newest piece of furniture.

Then I look down at the table top. Already it’s cluttered with the sort of things that conspire to fill any empty surface in our house. To my right, there’s a spiral bound notepad, the page half-covered with barely-legible writing. In the middle of it a wine stain forms a small but perfect ring of red fading to brown, the imprint of one of the tiny wineglasses that Philip loves so much. Beside that there’s another brown ring, this one made of Murano glass; bought years ago in Venice, worn to work today, but discarded now for irritating me as it tapped against the table.

Further back, half hidden by a plastic folder of papers from work, there’s a blue drinks coaster, the bright yellow sunflowers on its surface shine out at me, unblemished by red wine, usurped by a notepad, unused.

To my left there’s another open notebook, the pen lying on top of it is cracked and broken, placed there this morning after I’d trodden on it in the half-dark. Behind it there’s a pile of unread books, a DVD I haven’t yet watched, a CD of fairy tales that came free with the weekend papers. On top of all those, a pink satin make-up bag, whose zip won’t quite close, another pen (not broken), and my car keys.

The centre of the table is just big enough for my laptop, the laptop I should be using, on my new writing table, to write.

Instead, for the last hour or so, I've been browsing through Facebook,  laughing at twitter, basking in the warmth of some very kind blog comments and worst of all, playing game after game of solitaire.

It’s dark outside and when I look up at the window, I see my reflection glaring back. I've always wanted a writing table, not the dining table with a different hat on, but a proper place to write; somewhere to sit and capture the thoughts and words that pile up throughout the day. 

As I stare at my reflection, I can almost see it mouthing Philip’s words…

“This…. Is A Writing Table.”

So I nod back at it, sit a little straighter in my chair and begin to type.


Friday, 5 October 2012

The orchestra plays on - a poem

I wake to hear the orchestra is tuning,

The notes ring disconnected through my mind,

Fragments of a tune I can’t remember,

A melody I knew, but left behind.



A double bass begins between my shoulders;

The rage of age, that surges up my spine,

plucks and pulls at sinews, twists and ties them.

Jarring sounds I cannot quite define.



Joining in, the beat of the percussion,

Insistent tapping just behind my knee,

The rhythmic knock that hides a quieter clicking;

A hip that is no longer dancing free



The choir is getting louder, asking questions,

Shouting down the soothing call of sleep,

Insistent, as it builds to a crescendo;

Roaring past, the years I cannot keep.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Five

I wake up before the alarm goes off; five am and it's properly dark outside. Downstairs, I push open the lounge door, hoping it hasn't started sticking again after yesterday's rain. The light switch is on the furthest wall and I mutter for the umpteenth time about the stupidity of whoever wired this house, as I grope my way across the room towards the kitchen. Martin the cat adds that extra level of challenge to my half-awake clumsiness as he weaves his way in and out around my ankles; he knows that, before I even reach for the kettle, my first job of the day will be to re-fill his bowl.

A few minutes later I'm on the sofa, fingers curled round the bright lime-green bowl of my favourite cup, drinking the first, the best, tea of the day. As I look at the window, the blackness outside throws back a reflection of the room, just as though someone had sneaked down in the night and placed all our furniture in the garden.

An early morning delivery van rushes by, heading towards the image of the mirror on the wall. For the tiniest moment I wait for the crash of glass when it hits, but of course it glides smoothly past and I smile as I look across at the real mirror on the other side of the room.

From the kitchen I hear the sound of the fridge-freezer. It came with the house, a tall white appliance, meant for a family bigger than ours, something we almost never fill. Every now and then it makes the strangest sound, half mechanical, half animal. I remember the first morning I lived here, listening to the strange growling noises, I was half intrigued, half afraid. Nowadays it seems much friendlier, a more familiar, less threatening sound, a bit like a mother cow calling its young. Perhaps it's wondering what happened to the milk, butter and cheese it used to hold.

I don't need to be up yet, I could stay in bed for another hour, but lately I've found myself wanting to snatch at time, more and more afraid to waste the minutes and hours.  And right now, the day stretches out ahead of me, full of possibility, not yet chipped away by the things I'm supposed to do, the things I haven't done. I'll go and have a shower soon, head off for work and another day of choices, decisions and consequences, but just for a few minutes, as I sip at my tea and gaze out at the darkness, I'm at ease with the world. And myself.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Green

Slowly, quietly, autumn creeps towards us. I see it in the spider webs that hang like garlands from the hedge, in the sycamore leaves that lie scattered on the grass. It's still light in the evenings when I get home from work and it's warm enough to sit with the back door open as we eat our dinner, but by the end of the meal I'm reaching for a cardigan, and outside, the sky has grown dark.

As the season turns, something is also changing in me. A year ago, just a few months after we'd moved to Otford, I still looked around our strange new house, wondering how we'd ended up here, hoping we'd grow into it soon. I looked out at the long long garden, imagining how it might change over time, not really knowing where to start.

I had wanted then to make a mark, to somehow claim the land. I wanted, every time I stood at the bedroom window or the kitchen sink, for something to shout back at me, confirming it was really ours. So I set about making that mark with a tin of white paint and a tin of blue. I turned the garden shed into a beach hut, with a striped picnic bench beside it. It was a bold statement, a stark contrast to the wood-stained finish of all the other sheds in our street. "We're here!" it cried.

My brave paintwork didn't hide the cracked perspex windows or the ugly masking tape that the previous owners had used to hold them together. It didn't stop the felt roof flying away in the first real storm of winter. But it made me feel good, with its reminder of happy times past and still to come.

In the months that followed we started to make our mark in other ways; we tested the furniture in different positions, we decorated the bathroom, bought curtains for the bedroom. We planted a climbing rose to grow up the front of the house and watched the pale pink blooms gradually spreading up the wall. We replaced the broken fence in the garden, built a new flower bed from railway sleepers, planted a cherry tree, a lilac, a mock orange.

This weekend, with the promise of fine weather, Philip finally decided to tackle the cracked shed windows. In no time at all the old, stained perspex was removed and clear new windows were in place. As I stood at the kitchen sink and looked down the garden, I saw him standing inside the shed; I saw the man he is now and the man he'll be in twenty years - his back slightly more bent, his beard turned white. I thought of myself in twenty years, walking slowly up the garden to take him a cup of tea, telling him not to overdo it. And then I knew it was time to paint the shed again.

This evening, I stand here again looking out of the window. In its new muted green, caught between the grass and the trees, the shed no longer shouts out to me. As the sun goes down, it fades back into the garden.

But if I listen carefully, it's still calling out; this time it's whispering "welcome home" and I know that I am.

Friday, 14 September 2012

100 words - bottle tops

When you live with someone for a long time, you get used to their ways; their habits and oddities; the minor irritations, the things that endear.

Some things though are beyond explanation. Why, when I open the cutlery drawer, is it full of corks and bottle tops? How is it he can never manage to put the corkscrew back in the drawer, but always stows away the stopper it removed?

He’s done it for as long as I’ve known him. I could ask why, but I never have, never will. It’s just one of those things, the things that endear.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Across the fields

Lately, I’ve become quite good at sitting.

Every day, I take my place behind the steering wheel to drive the forty miles to work; travelling along winding country lanes; down the soulless straight lines of the M25 and through the streets of a town that’s still trying to remember it’s a city. I raise and lower my foot and every so often turn my head or the steering wheel, but for every second of the journey, I sit.

For most of the day I'm stationary at a desk, occasionally getting up to move to a meeting room, where I’ll sit down to speak to my colleagues. If I find the time to step outside, it will often be a quick dash to grab a sandwich and take it back to my desk.

When I get home, I sink far too quickly into my end of the sofa; where everything I want is just within reach. My half-read book lies open on the armrest, a notebook and pen are tucked down the side of the cushion, my latest knitting project lies crumpled in the corner, yarns trailing, twining round the wires of the laptop that hides just beneath my feet.

On a Sunday morning, it’s a real treat to sit in bed; my hands curled around a cup of tea, as I gaze out the window at the tops of the trees, and beyond them to all the options of the day ahead. From where I sit, the possibilities are as endless as the day, but as I dream and doze, Philip says, in that irrepressibly insistent tone he sometimes has, “so… do you fancy a quick early walk round the fields?”

To be honest, there are so many things I fancy more. Like adjusting the pillow behind my back and staying exactly where I am, or persuading him to re-fill the tea-cup I’ve just emptied, but when I look at him he’s got that “come on, you know I always know what’s good for you” gleam in his eyes and I find myself not even hesitating as I say “yes, that would be lovely.”

In no time at all, our feet are crunching on the stubble of recently cut wheat, the early morning dew is dampening my trousers, and I’m waving my arms above my head as I try to avoid the nettles that grow with such enthusiasm either side of the footpath.

We cross a barren-looking field littered with flint-stones and I think for just a moment of cave-men and flint-tipped arrows. Then we pass a pile of timber, huge chunks of tree, roughly cut and slung in a heap. Suddenly I’m my childhood self, working out how to build a den amongst the logs, knowing instinctively which ones I could shift to make a secret hide-out, which would make the best table or chair. I imagine building a fire, watching the twigs sparkle and burn while I munch through the blackberries I’ve gathered from the hedges all around. My mind begins to invent the story of a lonely child, slipping away from home on a big adventure, hiding here for days, making friends of the wood-lice and the spiders.

We move on and round a corner, passing under a railway bridge. I marvel at the roundness of its arch, at the hundreds and thousands of bricks so carefully placed one upon another. I’ll never know why such effort went into building this tunnel in the middle of nowhere, I wonder if the path we’re treading today led somewhere more important once. I try to imagine who might have passed here, on foot or horseback, in days gone by.

Ahead of us, the hills are green and the trees are still in full leaf, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun is gradually warming us through on this unexpectedly lovely September day. We walk on and on, until the call of breakfast is too strong to resist, then we turn towards home.

A short while later I’m sitting again, my hands curled round another cup of tea as I gaze out into the garden. In front of me lie all the options of the day ahead, but I smile as I think instead of the world of possibilities just a short walk away.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Match day

Some days, there was no order to the words, no controlling them.

They danced around, jostling for position, tripping over each other to escape. They pushed and shoved, like a crowd trying to leave a football stadium through a single turnstile.

She had no way of knowing the order they'd appear, which would be spat out first and what might follow stumbling after. It didn't matter that, just before, they’d all stood inside together, singing an anthem in loud harmony, now they were disjointed, dispirited, disruptive. And once they had escaped there was no way to capture them and push them back. 

When the stewards saw them, they believed the worst - that they'd come out to cause mayhem and destruction. She couldn't persuade them otherwise, she couldn't prove their harmlessness. Nothing she could do to turn them in a different direction. 

Some days, there was no order to the words, no controlling them.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Yellow

Yellow, the brightest yellow.

I sink into my seat, so glad that on a late Sunday afternoon, the tube is almost empty. The shining, pointed shoes of the man sitting opposite me are the yellow of a new daffodil.

Earlier, we'd pushed our way through the hordes of Sunday shoppers in Columbia Road, ducking the trees that seemed to walk towards us, as their new owners dragged and carried them away from the flower market.  From either side of the road we heard the competing cries of stall-holders urging us to buy "three bunches for a fiver"  And all around us were the people who had; their arms filled with roses, hydrangeas, lilies, chrysanthemums. And sun-flowers. Sun-flowers, carried away to houses all over London; to be arranged in jars and vases, just waiting for another Van Gogh to capture their golden shine.

Later, we'd mingled among the crowds in Brick Lane. We'd paused to gaze at old cameras laid out on a blanket on the ground, wondering how many of them still worked. We'd walked on, speaking in slightly hushed tones of the scary-looking man who'd been trying to sell them. The shops at each side of the road shouted out to us that old was vintage, that second-hand was previously loved. We picked our way through the groups of dark tattooed men in skinny jeans and the blonde fake-tanned girls in tiny shorts. All around us, people were eating and drinking, shouting and laughing, oblivious of the huge yellow signs on the walls above their heads, urging them to 'Please use toilets provided'.

Every now and then we'd got separated. One of us stopped to peer through a window, while the others walked on; one of us crossed the road to admire a painting, while another was distracted by the scents of a perfume shop. It would have been so easy to lose each other, to get caught up in the never-ending flow of browsers and shoppers, residents and tourists. But then we'd look ahead, and there was Kelly, holding the wooden handle of her yellow umbrella, waving it above her head like a wind-blown dandelion.

Yellow, the brightest yellow. The colour of sunshine and laughter on a summer Sunday, the colour of friendship.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A pink peg, a broken mouse

It's after dinner and we sit, side by side, on the sofa. The TV is on in the far corner of the room; its black surround holding in the twenty-two men who are chasing a ball round a bright green pitch.

We sit side by side, each with a laptop carefully placed on our laps; neither of us really watching the football, both of us glancing up every now and then, one of us sighing regularly at the idiotic commentary. I'm trying to write, tapping away at the keyboard, cursing the tiredness that makes me press the wrong keys. I press and delete, type on, backspace, type, delete some more. It's not til the end of a paragraph that I realise there's something wrong.

I want to move up the page, to change an early sentence, but I can't. The small square pad that moves the cursor, is not responding to my touch. I try again, press harder, move my finger faster. Still nothing.

"My mouse has died" I wail. The cat gives me a glare and I'm not really sure if its my wailing he disapproves of, or my usurption of his mouse-killing responsibilities.

"Turn it off and turn it on again" suggests Philip and there's something in his manner that reminds me of a tired IT technician, sick to the gills of his incompetent workmates.

I press the power key and hold it down until all the lights go out, then I press it again to bring the computer back to life. "Turn it off and turn it on again" I mutter, and suddenly I see myself fifteen years ago, sitting in a small office not far from Waterloo station.

The computers were notoriously unreliable back then, it was a common occurrence for them to go down for hours at a time. My office-mate still kept a pile of Memo sheets on the desk, her faith in the power of writing-in-triplicate undiminished by the promise of e-mail.

But I had a better plan; callously and deliberately I befriended the quiet Canadian who worked in the IT suite next door. I made a point of always popping my head round the door to say hello, always finding time to have a chat. I knew, whatever problems the rest of the building was having, my computer would be the first to be fixed.

I never really wondered whether it was fair. He always seemed happy to talk to me, quite content to drop whatever else he was supposed to be doing to follow me back to my desk and make sure all was right with my technology.  For a while, I didn't even notice that he was finding reasons to stop by even when the IT was fine. I smiled when he started turning up with a bag of doughnuts every Friday morning. I teased him about his sense of dress, made fun of his boring shirt; it seemed a clever and witty thing to do.

One day I picked up a small pink peg from my desk and clipped it to the end of his hideous tie, laughingly suggesting that was all he needed to look his best.

Later that week, I came back from lunch to find him in my office, crawling under the desk, running his hand over the carpet. Seeing me, he jumped up quickly and backed towards the door, his face turning a glowing red. "I've lost it" he mumbled "I can't find the pink peg."

I'm not sure I've ever felt so ashamed. I knew what I'd done with the chatting and the teasing; I knew why I'd done it. And I know that when he looked at me, just before he left, he knew it too. A few weeks later I heard he'd got a new job.

I never saw him after that and I haven't thought of him in years. But tonight, I'm reluctant to ask Philip to help me fix the laptop. So I press the power key once more, turning it off and turning it on again. All these years later, there's a small part of me hoping that I might yet cancel out my thoughtlessness, fix more than just a faulty mouse.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Three o'clock in the morning

I should have put the light on.

I should have put the light on, but there's an unspoken rule at 3.00am - keep it as dark as possible, don't wake him, don't wake yourself.

So I leave the switch alone and feel my way around the edge of the bed, safely past the corner of the bedstead that regularly bruises my right knee, across the room and out of the door. Three steps past our wall of books; no reaching out, for fear of bringing the piles of paperbacks crashing to the floor. Then the start of the white wooden bannister and the top of the stairs.

With one hand stretching out for the rail, and the other for the wall, I move a foot forward until it's hovering in mid-air above the step I'm sure is there. I lower it slowly, oh so carefully, until I feel the graze of carpet beneath my toes. Two steps more and I've reached the turn of the stairs. It comes too soon, I was almost certain there were three steps here, but the jarring through my leg tells me I've tried to walk through a space that isn't there.

I should have put the light on.

I should have put the light on when I miscounted the steps; reclaimed my confidence in the house, in myself. But I carry on, arm stretching out for the bannister on my left, the sleeve of my dressing gown lightly brushing the wall to my right, balancing between them and once again reaching out for the fall of the step.

And as I hover at the top, I see it. As clear as day. No falling away of the stairs; just falling. A helpless headlong hurtle down; my elbow finding the hard wood of the bannister, my back scraping against the edge of a step; then another; then another, finally coming to a halt as my foot strikes hard into the glass panel of the front door.

Lying there, my leg turned at an angle I've never seen before, my back feeling like it's been attacked by a cheese-grater, the darkness seems blacker than ever. Somewhere above my head is the light switch, but it's too high, I can't reach it.

I see it all.

Then I put the light on, and continue down the stairs.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

News about your ticket

It's a daily ritual, the last thing I do before I go into the office and turn on my work head for the day. Each morning I reach into the side pocket of my oversized satchel and pull out my phone to check for any messages.

Today there are three small symbols at the top; one telling me I've missed a call from Philip, another saying there's a voice-mail message. I guess that's probably from Philip too, so I make a mental note to listen to it once I'm at my desk.

The third symbol is the small envelope that tells me I've got an e-mail, I click it open as I step into the lift and see that it's from The National Lottery. In the subject heading are just four words:

"News about your ticket!"

When you buy your lottery tickets on line, there's an e-mail announcement each time you win - no matter how small the prize. And it's surprising how often that happens if you buy a ticket every week. So I smile in recognition at the message. I know I can't check the outcome at work, our web administrators would never allow access to a gambling site, but I'm not too bothered, it's never been more than £10 before. I don't expect it to be any more today, so I make a mental note to check when I get home again, then I step out of the lift and head for my desk, calling out a slightly more cheerful than usual "good morning!" to everyone as I pass. After all, you never know...

It's a busy day, and my morning passes in a whirl of e-mails and meetings, checking papers and chatting things through. It barely seems like five minutes later when my phone rings, and I realise it's almost lunchtime.

"Is it five past twelve?" teases one of my colleagues. They all know that a phone call at 12.05 is almost always from Philip. It's another daily ritual and they all know how pleased I am to take the call, even when I'm in the middle of a work conversation; even when all I can do is tell him I'll call him back.

After I put the phone down again, I realise I've forgotten to tell him that we might be millionaires. For the next half hour, while I'm gazing at my computer screen, I think about how I'd tell him. I imagine the excitement, the wild schemes we'd dream up, the plans we'd make for spending our fortune. I look around the office and wonder what I'd say to colleagues here. A small part of me wonders if I'd even come back to tell them.

A while later, my daughter texts me, asking when I'm coming to visit. I can't help but think of all the time I could spend with her and my grandchildren if I were really a millionaire. From there, my mind wanders to gifts for my family, houses for sale, a week in a Paris apartment with friends, and a year travelling the world to watch every Grand Prix. I answer an e-mail and think about the sort of job I'd do if I didn't have to worry about paying the mortgage.

As the day passes, thoughts of riches recede. I crawl home along an M25 already made sticky by Olympics traffic without even imagining the red Ferrari that would make the journey more bearable. I get home and potter about; putting on the washing, hoovering up the cat fur. I carry the empty bottles out to the car for recycling, without a thought for the fleet of staff every millionaire employs. I walk out into the garden and feel the warmth in the late evening sunshine, without even comparing it to the Greek island villa my new wealth might acquire.

It's not until after dinner that I remember the e-mail. I log in, and in no time at all know my fate. With a wry smile I acknowledge that £8 won't quite get me a Ferrari. It won't quite change my life.

Then I look over at Philip, sitting on the sofa in his shorts and vest, swearing at the news about the Olympics, typing away madly on his laptop.

He looks across and smiles, "Gin and tonic?" he offers. And then it's only a very small step to realising that my life really doesn't need changing.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Fish

I saw her on our first day at the beach, standing waist-deep in the water just a few yards from the shore. Her skin, a dark mahogany hue, seemed an unnatural shade of brown, at odds with the pale blonde hair she’d tied back beneath a faded denim cap.

Each day after that, I watched her standing there, though I don’t think she ever noticed me, or anyone else; her gaze focused on the water that rippled round her hips. At first I didn’t understand what caught and held her attention; I thought it strange that she never looked up to the horizon, neither out to sea, nor back towards the beach.

Then I noticed the small plastic bag she’d carried with her and I watched as she pulled out a crust of hard Greek bread and held it just below the surface of the sea. In seconds, the water’s gentle lapping became a broiling cauldron and though I couldn’t see them from where I sat, I knew that just below the surface there were dozens of small fish fighting to get close to the dangling crust.

In no time, the bread had all been eaten, but still the water continued to churn. She lifted and flicked her hands; it was almost the gesture of a magician, but I wondered if the fish had reached the end of the crust then kept nibbling, teeth clinging, to the ends of her fingers.

After a while, she returned to the sunbeds at the water’s edge. Each day, she picked her way carefully over the shingle to the same spot, the same two beds, one empty under the bright sun, one occupied by the man who waited. Sheltering beneath an umbrella, protected from the heat, his skin was all shiny-pink and mosquito-bitten. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, the glasses focused on his kindle; I never saw him look towards the sea, or watch her return from the water. I never saw him speak.

When I went for a swim just after her, the water was still full of shimmering, shimmying fish. I stood for a while and watched them circle around me, just as they had around her, weaving and dancing, drawn closer and closer.

Later, as I sat eating a sandwich, in my own spot on the beach, I looked over to where she lay, eyes closed, face to the sun. I saw him, curled on one side, his back towards her, his kindle held close. As my fingers held on to the crust of the hard Greek bread, I had an almost irresistible urge to cross over and give it to her, I wanted to tell her to dangle it just above his mouth. I wanted to see him shimmer and shimmy, dance around for her attention. I wanted her to force life back into her own cold fish.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The shower

I wake up too early for a Sunday. I haven't slept well, my shoulder aches and my back feels stiff. I dreamt in the night of a visit to the doctor; in my dream, as I went through the list of all the things wrong, he just kept cutting bits out of me.

As I sit drinking the tea I've brought back to bed, I'm feeling grumpy and sorry for myself, not helped by the knowledge that I can't sit here for long, that we've got a busy day ahead. I scroll through the Twitter feed on my phone, where everyone seems wittier and happier than me, then I see a Tweet from my friend Nathan. I like him enormously, but today I just can't see anything but smug in the message from his holiday in Greece:

"Today, almost in its entirety, is going to be spent loafing by the pool and reading books. It's the day of rest after all."

"Pah" I think, reluctantly swinging my legs over the side of the bed, turning my head from side to side and pulling my shoulders back in a vain attempt to get rid of the lingering ache.

I head for the bathroom and turn on the shower. It's not one of those with automatic controls, and I've been trying to work out, ever since we moved here, just how many turns of the tap will give the right temperature. Hot tap on full, cold turned twice and a little bit more; I think I've got it. I brush my teeth while I wait for it to warm up. From the bedroom comes the sound of the music that Philip turned up as soon as I'd left the room, but with the sound of the shower and my electric toothbrush going full pelt, it's no more than a faint, indistinct noise. Faint and indistinct, that's a bit how I feel.

In the shower, it's the same, mindless routine as every day, but just for once the water temperature is exactly right. It's warm, melting; I let it run over my shoulders and I start to relax. Then I reach up to rinse the shampoo from my hair, lifting it this way and that to help the water reach the roots, and suddenly I'm reminded of a different shower, a long time ago.

I'm on a beach in Lindos, Rhodes. It's August and the sun is at its very hottest. I've been in the sea, floating on the gently rocking waves, lying on my back looking towards the beach, feeling the sun on my face, with my long, long hair floating out behind me. When I leave the water I make my way to the showers at the top of the beach. The shower is icy cold, but on this bright August day it doesn't matter. Nothing does.

I reach up to rinse the salt and sand from my hair, lifting it this way and that to help the water reach the roots. I'm in my mid-thirties, a mother of four children, but I've slipped away with my very best friend for a week of nothing but sunshine and laughter. My hair is glossy, my skin a golden brown, I'm tall and slim and happy. When I turn off the shower and walk back to our sunbeds I sense that other people are watching me and for a precious moment I don't care at all. I feel good and I know I look good too, and on that day, there's not a single thing I'd change about my life.

And today, just for a moment, as I feel the water trickling down my back warming me through, I feel the aches and the years slip away. Then I turn off the water and step out of the shower, and just for a moment I'm tall and slim and beautiful.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Three times round the world

I look around one more time, just to make sure I've taken everything that's mine. There's an old book behind one of the seats and a boiled sweet that was once hard and shiny but is now softly slimy. I slip both into my handbag and then, satisfied that I've left nothing else behind, I turn the key and start the car for the last time.

I've only got a couple of miles to travel, just to the other side of the village. I've driven this car so many times that I'm almost on auto-pilot and I barely notice the journey. But when I glance at the dashboard I see the mileometer, slowly ticking up the distance - by the time I arrive, it has reached a total of 72,492 miles.

72,492 miles - that's almost the same as driving round the world three times. This car has never left England but in the last three years it's taken me the length and breadth of the country, delivering me to a strange hotel on a dark wet night in Manchester, touring the coastal paths of Dorset last Christmas, travelling to countless football matches on Saturday afternoons. When my grandson was born two years ago it was this car that ignored the speed limits and got me to the hospital safely. When we moved house last year it was this car that carried all the precious things we didn't want to trust to the removal van.  And it's never once broken down.

When I get to the garage I feel hesitant for the first time, not sure where to park, aware that my vehicle looks shabby and unloved next to all the gleaming paintwork. My car carries with it the marks of all the journeys I've made over the last three years. It bears the grime of dead insects from my daily commute on the motorway, the scratches of my return home each evening through narrow country lanes. The sticker from our last visit to the Silverstone Grand Prix is still firmly fixed in one corner of the windscreen.

Before I get out I sit for just a few more minutes, thinking about some of the other journeys and the people who've sat beside me. I think of Philip sitting there in the passenger seat, how he always turns up the volume on the radio for a song he likes, how he never turns it down again. I think of the number of times I've stroked his leg while we wait at the traffic lights - reassuring myself that he's still there at the end of my arm. I think of Megan choosing one of our favourite CDs so we can both sing along at the tops of our voices, knowing she's still the only girl of her age to know all the lyrics to a Beautiful South album.

I look up across the forecourt, through the wide glass doors of the showroom, to where Elliott the salesman is waiting.  I thought I'd be more excited. I hadn't imagined these feelings of regret and I hadn't for one minute expected this sense of betrayal in trading in my slightly ageing car for a different make and model. But it only lasts a moment, then I get out and lock the car, for the very last time, and stride towards the man who will talk me through the reams of paperwork, before he hands me the keys and takes me to my new car.


Monday, 11 June 2012

The other side

It's a year now since we moved to Telston Lane; a year of adjustments and settling, a year of swapping old routines for new rituals, familiar scenery for new sights.

When we lived in Crown Road I could spend hours looking out of the front window at the comings and goings of the street; at neighbours and strangers strolling past, at cars reversing ever-so-carefully down its tight confines. Here in Otford, it's the view from the back of the house that draws me to stand gazing out of the kitchen window into our long, long garden.

We haven't changed much about the garden in the last year - we haven't really needed to; each season has bought a new colour, a new focus, and a new reason to thank our predecessors. The abundant white rose that lit up our first few weeks was followed, as summer drew on, by the lavender that grows so well in this valley, by the honeysuckle trailing over our ramshackle fences and the tall white daisies waving from every corner.

The first winds of autumn brought down the leaves from our neighbours' trees. I'd dreaded the task of clearing them, but the gentle rhythm of sweeping soon became a calming replacement for summer's weekly walk with the lawn mower.

We found just how damp and squelchy the ground could be after heavy rain, then just how pretty it could look after the snow of our very first winter. Spring came and went, with the delight of unexpected daffodils pushing through the cold hard earth, and then the rose bush filled with buds again to herald the start of our second year here.

When we lived in Shoreham, there was a small square table in front of the window. It was there that I'd chat to Philip as we ate our dinner or shared a lazy weekend breakfast, and it was there that I started writing this blog, sitting opposite Philip, with the top edges of our laptops just touching. I spent hours at that table - writing, dreaming, reading of lives all around the world. Every now and then, I'd glance up to my right to look out on the street and all its life.

The table is still with us; it sits in the kitchen now, against the wall. When we first moved here, we adopted our positions each side of it, and for a while, like any comfortable habit, it felt ok. But then I realised that when I glanced up to my right, it wasn't the world I could see, just a kitchen wall. When I looked ahead, it wasn't into the room, but just to the wall at the end. Gradually it seemed as though my world was closing in rather than moving on and opening up.

It's a big thing, the way we arrange ourselves. When Philip and I walk together I am always to his right; when we sleep together he is always to mine. We've never debated it, that's just how it is, and any other arrangement simply wouldn't be right, so it was with some trepidation that I suggested we might try sitting the other way round.

And tonight I'm sitting at the other side of the table. Ahead of me, when I look up, I see Philip pottering about in the kitchen. I love to watch him cook, it's the time when I see all the patience, love and care that are an inherent part of who he is, no matter how cleverly he disguises it. And when I glance up to my right, I  can see through the clear glass of the kitchen door, straight into the garden, where the rose is about to bloom.

We're settling into Otford now, shedding old habits and learning new routines. When we came here, it felt such a big move, but I've come to understand that it really isn't the other side of the world.

I never would have guessed though that what could really make me feel at home was just the other side of the table.


 


Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sitting down with St James


We're heading into London, the train is full and we're enveloped in the hum of happy talk. An old man sits in front of us, his straw hat on the seat next to him, he watches two girls chatting away, but they are completely oblivious as they giggle and conspire. Across the aisle a small boy stands on the seat, his face pressed against the window as he watches all the buildings go past sideways. All around us there's a sense of relaxed excitement, I wonder if that's because we all know that today, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we'll see our capital city at its very best.

Just past Waterloo station, the London Eye looms large and I shake my head in bemusement at the enormous upturned purple cow that fills the space beside it. Each time I come to London, there's always something I've never seen before, this time it's a strange purple bovine thing; I have no idea what it is or what it's for. I look down at the sunlight sparkling on the Thames as our train crosses the river and heads into Charing Cross,  then the doors open and we spill out into the station.

We've a busy day planned, a leisurely lunch and then a matinee, with some strolling around Covent Garden and theatreland thrown in. Somewhere along the way we both feel the need for some green space and a sit down, so we walk down Pall Mall, past the grand old Duke of York's statue and  into St James park. It's the oldest royal park in London, and my favourite - a small green getaway with Buckingham Palace at one end and Trafalgar Square at the other, it holds some fond childhood memories of feeding ducks with my Dad and being amazed by the pelicans. Today it's crowded, but eventually we find a spot under the trees, with enough shade for Philip and a gap between the branches where bright sunlight shines through, like a spotlight, for me.

My legs are white; I imagine my knees blinking as I pull up my skirt hem and they are exposed to the shiny brightness of the outside world for the first time this year. I spot something else glittering in the sunshine; a one pound coin lying on the grass, half hidden by daisies and fallen leaves. I wonder who dropped it there, whether they know they've lost it. I pick it up, but feel reluctant to put it in my purse, next to money that is really mine, so I slip it into a side pocket of my bag, thinking perhaps it will be ok to use if I really need to.

Just like on the train, we're surrounded by people, it's the centre of London, but their talk and laughter drowns out any noise from traffic. There are couples, like us, who seem to have spontaneously decided to come here, they sit on the jumpers and jackets that they didn't need to bring today. There are whole families as well, with pushchairs standing guard around picnic blankets piled high with food. Behind me there's a clump of bushes where children are playing - I can hear them shouting 'hide, hide'. Then there's a full-throated 'aaarrgh' and as I turn round to look, a boy comes charging out; a proper pirate brandishing his bright red cricket bat.

Everyone has bags. The three girls beside me sit around their handbags like exhausted dancers at a disco. The blue and white stripes of Tesco's plastic is everywhere; I watch a woman delve into hers and pull out a cardboard wrapped sandwich, she looks at it for a very long time before folding back a corner of the box.

It's two o'clock, and I hear the chimes of Big Ben announcing the hour, reminding us that it's time we were making a move, our matinee will soon be starting. We stand slowly, stretching limbs that ache from sitting on the hard ground. As I brush the blades of grass from my skirt, I look around, just to make sure we haven't left anything behind, then I remember the one-pound coin and just before we leave, I drop it back on the ground. I hope whoever finds it next smiles as broadly as I do, as we head out into the rest of our Saturday in London.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

An occasional table

The small round table sits between us, just in front of the sofa. Once upon a time it might have lived in an elegant Georgian house holding a potted plant, or a graceful vase of flowers. Today it sits incongruously in our small home, loved but uncared for, with a crack across the surface veneer, the polish has long since lost its shine and there are white marks where one of us put down a hot cup without thinking.

An almost empty bottle of wine and two small glasses sit on the blue and yellow sunflower mats you bought home a long time ago, between and around them are the signs of our weekend. My sunglasses lie folded, waiting for me to find a screwdriver small enough to tighten the loose screws, waiting hopefully for the day when the sun finally decides to shine. Beside them is the necklace I discarded yesterday evening when its stones had started to irritate.

There's a small jar of handcream - it's called 'The Weary Gardener's Restoring Hand Cream' which seems about right, I know we both needed it when we got home from the allotment today, with our hands all scratched and dirt under our finger-nails. Just beside it there's a corner of the wrapper from a Fry's Peppermint Cream, my treat from the village shop where we went to buy some wine for tonight's risotto. Lastly, there are two pens, left there on our occasional table for occasional use. One I pulled out from the side of the sofa where it had fallen, the other I've been using to mark the rows on a knitting pattern, as I slowly create the purple socks I've been promising you for months.

When I first knew you, when we worked together in an office in Waterloo, you managed a second-hand furniture service that recovered and repaired unwanted cast-offs and found new homes for them.  Somehow, this table went unclaimed, so you rescued it and bought it home and we've had it almost as long as we've been together.

I sometimes think the table's not the only thing you rescued.


Monday, 14 May 2012

A Penny for them

One of the things about being a mother, and particularly a mother to four children, is that it defines who you are to other people. The moment you confess to parenthood you open yourself up to the judgement of others - from the glowing, usually unwarranted, praise at your ability to conceive, through the well-meaning advice of friends and family, to the looks and comments of those who clearly think that you have no right to be a parent at all.

For a long while, that was just fine. I was just as impressed by my ability to conceive, equally condemning of my failures to get mothering right. And why would I ever want to talk about me, when my children were clearly so much more interesting, intelligent, and downright beautiful than I had any reason to expect.

They still are more interesting, intelligent and beautiful than any other people ever born, but somewhere along the way I realised that I couldn't take the credit for that when I'd never had any real idea how to bring them up. I used to joke that each of them was an experiment and that I still hadn't learned how to do it properly, then I realised it wasn't really a joke. And with that came the recognition that, if I couldn't claim the credit, people's judgement of me had no real basis or reality.

But they carried on assessing my value on the presence of my children.

"I wish I'd achieved something more, something that would leave a mark of my time here on earth"

"Oh, but you've got four interesting, intelligent, beautiful children - you should be proud of that"

And I was. I am. Except...there was a part of me that wanted to be just me.

So it got to the stage, when I met new people, that my kids weren't the first thing I mentioned. I waited until people had formed at least a vague impression of me, before I made a slight, casual, reference to their existence. When I started writing this blog, it was a while before I wrote about any of them; I didn't want to be viewed in that particular way, I didn't want to be labelled a 'mummy blogger'.

And two years ago, when my grandson came along, despite being as pleased as possible, and totally overawed by him and the fact that I have a grandchild, I made only a passing reference to his birth, lost in a longer post about Formula 1 and football.

Then two months ago, my first grand-daughter, Penny-Rose, was born. Since then, I've gradually realised that my views have changed. I find myself wanting to talk about her, and the others, more and more often.

Working full time, I don't get to see her nearly enough, but I saw her this weekend. She is already beautiful and I have no doubt she will turn out to be interesting and intelligent too.  So I sat there holding her, singing long-remembered rhymes and talking to her in that high-pitched, over-animated, way. I grinned inanely when she gave me a first real smile, just as I did with her mother so many years ago and as I did so, the years fell away. I was twenty again, excited and petrified that I had a baby to love and care for, knowing nothing about being a mother, but also knowing that it was the best thing I could or would ever do.

I still want to achieve something in my life, I still want to be judged for the mark I leave behind of my time here on earth, I'd love people to think that I'm interesting, intelligent and beautiful. But if that doesn't happen, and there's every chance it won't, then how can I possibly think it's a bad thing for my worth to be assessed for the  presence here of my children - Claire, Gerard, Charlie, Megan, my grand-son Eddie and now my new grand-daughter Penny-Rose?

As a grand-mother, I have the chance to experiment all over again, an opportunity to have the slightest influence on the person she'll turn out to be. And who knows? I might even learn something this time.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Lambs and frogs

I turn left at the bottom of the road, along Pilgrims Way West, towards Twitton. It was a quick decision to venture out between rain bursts, and I soon realise I’m not sensibly dressed; the trainers that have lain unused since I gave up my gym membership were never designed for the gloopy mud along the footpath.

Just past the bend in the road I climb up a bank and through a small gap in the hedge. Normally when we take this route, it’s a short cut to the Rising Sun pub, but today I head straight on into the field, walking in the footprints of others. I’m struck by the bright greenness and realise that the long thin leaves of the plants in this field are the same as those on the windowsill at home. There, I have just sixteen small sweetcorn, in orange plastic pots waiting to be planted out at the allotment; here there are hundreds and hundreds stretching out to the distance.

The distant drone of the motorway reminds me of people and work, but there’s nobody around me as I turn along the path and soon the sound of the cars is covered by birdsong. A blue tit rises up from the hawthorn hedge and ahead of me a black-tailed sheep moves slowly away, swinging its wide woollen hips, almost sauntering.

I stop and stand for a while, not thinking, not even really looking until I see three small lambs running towards me; perhaps they’re curious about the still, silent, woman. They have nothing to fear, but as I turn to look at them and try to call them closer, their courage fails and they run, jump and trip away.

I wish I didn’t know so well that moment when confidence turns to doubt, when the urge to be part of something is obliterated by a stronger urge to turn and run.

The last few days have been filled with so much; time spent with friends, exploring new sights, revisiting old haunts. We’ve walked for miles, talked for hours, shared experiences and stories, and built memories to savour. After almost a week together, there’s a shared language; the jokes don’t need explaining and they get funnier with every repetition.

Last night, as we leaned forward to share our food in a small Soho restaurant, it felt like the sort of wedding reception where one table has all the fun while the other guests look on enviously. As the laughter and the chatter got louder and louder, it felt, just for once, that I’d been chosen to sit at that table. But then, as I sat there, watching my friends, I was suddenly worried that they’d realise I was an imposter, that they’d guess I’d managed to gate-crash the party by pretending to be someone else. I didn’t want the evening to end, and I didn’t want to be the one who ended it, but for a short while, the harder I tried to join in and the more they welcomed my every contribution, the more separate I felt.

And then this morning, when I should have joined them again for another day in London, I let the aches and pains of yesterday’s walking become an excuse for staying at home. I let my courage fail me.

I carry on walking, trying not to slip on the mud, past the rough grassy patch where there’s a group of brown rabbits. They don’t seem bothered by my unexpected appearance, they don’t turn and run, they barely glance my way.

Passing the back of Frog Farm, I think of the story Philip always tells our visitors; of the few days each year when the young frogs swarm here. I’ve seen them in their hundreds, pushing forward to cross the road. I know that however quick and brave they are, many of them will end up crushed under cars and feet. Perhaps they know that too. I wonder what it is that keeps them moving on, however high the chances that they won't arrive.

I’m almost home when I come to the kissing gate. On my own today, there’s no reason to stop, as I usually do, to demand a kiss from Philip. So I pass through quickly, but as I do, my telephone rings and he’s there. And when I ask him how his day is going, I hear our friends in the background, shouting hello.

As I walk the last few yards, I begin to think about our plans for tomorrow. I'm sure it will be a very fine day; I just need to work out how to be more of a frog than a lamb.


Sunday, 29 April 2012

A new coat

When we first saw this house, though we loved almost everything, we were bemused by the doors to the upstairs rooms. We couldn't conceive what had prompted the previous owners to put folding, half-glazed doors in the bedrooms. Why would anyone want to be peered on while they slept (or worse)? And who would think to put a folding door in the bathroom, a door that rattled in its frame, while you soaked in the bath?

So when we moved here, almost a year ago now, the first thing we did was replace them, fitting doors that hung snugly in their frames and kept private things private.

Having expended so much enthusiasm on getting new doors, we had no energy left for anything else, so the old doors were stacked against a wall, until Philip got round to finding them a new home, and the new ones just hung there while we tried to decide if we should paint them.

The days and months passed; the old doors stayed stacked against the wall, the new ones hung on unpainted. There was always something else to do. Until today, when it rained, just as it has rained every day this month and I decided that rather than sit around bemoaning the gloomy wetness, I'd tackle the doors.

I've always liked decorating; I love the way a full paintbrush glides across the surface, leaving behind a trail of colour and the faint indentations of the brush.  I'm pleased by the bright whiteness that makes the old paint look yellow and how it fills and flattens the nicks and dents of time. I like how the act of painting makes a room your own.

As often happens when I paint, I started to think about the people who'd lived here before us; the couples and families, growing up and growing old; all the things that might have happened. It was probably around eighty years ago that this house was painted for the very first time. I can imagine the excitement of the young couple who moved into their newly built home, who looked out of the windows at the long muddy strip of land that would one day become a garden. I picture them standing in the doorway of the second bedroom, choosing colours for the nursery. I wonder how many different colours the lounge and kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom have had since then, how many layers of paint have coated the walls. I like the thought that others before me have ended up with paint in their hair, on their elbows, under their fingernails.

Today though, there was something different. I've never painted brand new doors before; I've never been the first person to choose the colour, the first to leave my mark. And as I sit here tonight aching from the unaccustomed exercise, I can't help but smile at the idea that in eighty years time someone else will glide a fully loaded paintbrush across the wood. I wonder what image they might conjure up of the first person who painted them.

Now I just need to get Philip to move those old doors...



Monday, 23 April 2012

Centre Forward - a poem

(As Bromley FC head for their final game of the 2011-12 football season, I thought the time was right to celebrate the difference one player has made to our year - the Supporters' Player of the Season - Hakeem Araba)


On the stand, behind the goal, I found a whole new world;
a different way of talking, of hopes and fears unfurled.

At first I played a solo game, pretending that I saw
the offside moves, the passing game, the point of four-two-four.
My terms of reference didn’t match your language way back then;
I didn’t have the knowledge, or the genes and balls of men.

But, gradually, I came to know that football meant much more
than slip-ups in the goal-mouth, when the favourites failed to score.
And then, it seems, I underwent a wholescale transformation
as slowly, I began to see what gained your admiration.

And now each week I stand with you and others as we roar
our faith and expectation that he will deliver more;
that stunning centre forward who, all thighs, and white-toothed grin,
can turn the game from sure defeat to
unexpected win. 



Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Cherry Orchard

Oh, my childhood, my innocent childhood! This is the nursery where I slept and I used to look out at the orchard from here. When I woke up every morning happiness awoke with me... 
(Chekhov, 1903)


There were no orchards in Croxted Road, but I can still  picture the garden as it looked from my bedroom window more than thirty years ago.

Most of it was just grass, not grand enough to be called a lawn, spotted with daisies and dandelions, it had a round dip halfway down that we sometimes called a fairy ring. There were borders for flowers, with roses for making squashed-petal-perfume, snap-dragons that would open their mouths as we squeezed at the side, and livingstone daisies that closed tight every night as the sun went down and opened again like magic in the morning. There was a bumpy stone path that led alongside the washing line to the bottom of the garden, where the compost heap and  the gooseberry bushes sat either side of the huge green swing.

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still see my big sister peering round the flap of her wigwam; I can hear my little sister riding her pretend horse, making clip-clopping noises as she gallops around and around; in my mind's eye, our cat Oliver winds in and out of my Mum's legs as she pegs washing on the line and my Dad sits on the swing smoking a cigarette.

I loved that garden; a place for laughing and arguing, for fighting and playing. Never mind that it was a small back garden in south London, in my imagination it was part The Secret Garden, part Little House on the Prairie, and it came to represent for me everything that a garden should be. For a long time after I left Croxted Road, I wanted to create another garden just the same. A place for my own children to remember, somewhere they could grow up in, then return to as adults, in time bringing their own children with them.

But of course, it didn't turn out like that.

Sometimes the world changes around us and we aren't able, or simply just fail, to take control and change the course of events.  Chekhov knew that. The Cherry Orchard ends with Mrs Ranevsky losing her childhood home, with the curtain falling to the sound of an axe cutting down the orchard. A hundred years later, I understood it too as my dreams of a long-time family home and garden were replaced by the reality of a series of rented houses and other people's gardens.

I like to think though, that there's more to both our stories. Mrs Ranevsky set out for Paris, we came to Otford.

Last year we bought our house and with it, we took ownership of a long, long, garden. It has room for a swing, for flower beds and a path,  there are long stretches of grass, space for games and picnics. We're making plans for places to sit, for climbing roses and a fragrant lilac. It will take a while, but I think we'll gradually turn it into a garden to remember.

And this week we planted a cherry tree.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Do not go gentle into that good night

I’ve been off work this week. Seven days without the petulant demands of the alarm clock and the regular rhythms of the working day. Seven days where time has stretched and contracted, shortened and lengthened, where my days have been filled with hours of no consequence and moments to savour.

As I get older, passing time is delineated in so many ways; the increasing depth of the lines on my face, the greying strands above my ears, the aching hours it takes to recover from any physical exertion. This morning, while getting dressed, I made a decision. As I hopped around the room on one leg, trying desperately to maintain my balance and not topple into the chest of drawers, I made a solemn vow.

No matter how old I get, however bent and frail, I will resist the urge to sit down to put my knickers on.

It’s no great challenge with socks – that only requires a slight lifting of the lower limb. But it’s a whole different trial with underwear; especially once you’re one leg in. There is a particular level of agility required to raise one foot and shoot it through the hole, without snagging your big toe on the elastic. No matter. I will not let the soft and beguiling edge of the bed tempt me; I will not sit down.

However feeble and wobbly I ultimately become, I will don my underwear while standing. I will dress upright until I am upright no more.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Time

About a month ago the clock on our sideboard stopped. It's the old-fashioned kind, that needs winding once a week; we bought it in an antique shop in Otford, long before we came to live in the village. It felt like bringing it home when we finally moved here.

Every Sunday evening before going to bed, one of us would take off the round brass cover at the back and turn the key carefully, winding it just enough but not too tight; ensuring that the gentle ticking sound was there to see us through the week ahead. Somewhere along the way though, our routines changed, the regular winding became more sporadic, it turned from a soothing ritual to something of a chore.

It had stopped at 11.25, that much was easy to see, though I couldn't say how long it was before either of us noticed. I don't know if the quietly reassuring tick had stuttered and stilled while we slept upstairs, or while we sat watching other clocks in our different offices, hours away from home and each other.

We quickly became accustomed to the shiny brass hands holding their position at not quite the top and not quite the bottom of the round clock-face. After a while we even started making jokes about it. I quite liked that I could turn to Philip, knowing it was really too early to suggest going to bed, and say proudly "but I stayed awake until 11.25" He in turn would say at the end of a long and lazy Sunday "it's been such a great day, and it's still only 11.25"

The clock had stopped, but time kept running on. March came and went, bringing with it reminders of all the events and celebrations that mark our lives. Mothers' Day, quickly followed by the birth of Penny-Rose my beautiful new granddaughter, then my own birthday, and at the end of the month a wedding. As the days passed, the sideboard filled with cards - congratulations and thank-you notes, photographs and invitations. Before long we couldn't see the clock at all.

Two days ago, preparing for the arrival of friends, I decided to clear the cards. Behind them stood the clock, silently reminding me of our neglect. The smooth old wooden case felt good as I picked it up and prised off the round brass cover at the back. I turned the key carefully, winding it just enough but not too tight, and the gentle rhythmic ticking began again, making it feel like home.

Two days ago, Kelly and Nathan arrived, bringing with them the laughter and chatter that always accompanies our time together. We've talked and talked, as we always do, about life and families, about work and food, about reading. About writing.

Yesterday evening, I sat for a while, watching Nathan's fingers dart quickly over the keyboard of my laptop as he wrote another of the pieces that keep us returning again and again to his blog. I sat for a while playing scrabble with Kelly, watching her cleverly crafting interlocking words from the most basic of letters. And as I did, I thought of another ritual that had once felt so comforting then somehow turned into a chore.

This morning, I picked up my laptop. The smooth shiny case felt good as I carefully opened the cover and typed in my password. I started carefully, thinking of the words, just enough, not too many. Before long, the gentle rhythmic tapping of fingers on a keyboard began again, making it feel like home.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Five minutes, more than twenty years

Saturday - Petts Wood

We lived there once.

We moved in just a week before Megan was due, I brought her home from the hospital to the first house she ever knew. As she grew up, we walked through the town almost every day, crossing and re-crossing the foot-bridge over the railway, from east to west, past the library and the church, between school, shops and home. We picked blackberries in Jubilee Park when the weather was good, pick-and-mix in Woolworths when it was bad.

We learned about the Pett family as we played in their woods. I read the faded information boards, green with the moss and damp of the surrounding trees and told my children how the Pett dynasty had built ships for the royal navy. I was busy building my own dynasty then.

In Station Square, there used to be a gentlemen's outfitters. I remember peering into the carefully dressed window as I passed on my way to the bank or the chemist, it was full of tweed jackets, cashmere scarves, woollen socks.  I never bought anything then, and I'm sorry about that now. Today it's a coffee shop.

Sitting in the window where the clothes once were, I stir my coffee and look out across the square. There's a huge pub called the Daylight Inn. It was named for William Willett, a campaigner for daylight saving. I know there's a memorial for him in the woods; a huge sundial.  Just behind the Daylight there used to be a kitchen shop, with a small office above it, where I worked for twelve hours a week while Megan was at nursery. Cornwall Lord Chartered Accountants moved away long ago; but I still remember how I used to dash out of there at lunchtime to pick Megan up, I remember how she loved to cross the road to the bakers on the corner for a hot sausage roll.

Sunday - Sidcup

We lived there once.

I was nineteen when we moved in a month after getting married, and it was the first house I ever owned. In the nine years we lived there, I learnt to cook and clean, knit and sew; I worked out what it meant to be a wife and a mother.

Today, Megan is sitting in the car beside me as we drive into Sidcup. As we go past Queen Mary's hospital, where all my children were born, she chatters on incessantly; but I'm tense and tetchy with her, not really listening to anything she says. As we pass the roundabout, where I once thought she might arrive too soon, she reaches forward and turns up the volume on the CD player and just as we've done so many times before, we both start to sing.

A few minutes later, she points to a house up ahead "there it is - the one with the white fence." I turn into the driveway carefully, trying hard not to hit the gateposts, trying hard to sneak a look at the house.

Megan's friend Lara opens the door. She's smiling as she tells us to mind the wet floor "I've been cleaning for hours" she says proudly. We follow her into the kitchen, and admire the purple accessories - the toaster that matches the washing-up bowl and the cutlery, the purple leather bar-stools and the empty glass fruit bowl. Then she takes us on a tour of the rest of the house; the other rooms are big and bare. Upstairs we look at the bedrooms; I ask questions about where the furniture will go, I smile as she describes a small bedroom as a walk-in wardrobe.

We come to a third room "And this will be my room" says Megan. I picture the room she's left behind this morning, the bed piled high with black plastic sacks full of clothes and rubbish. I try to imagine what this room will look like in a month or two, when she's settled in here and forgotten to be tidy.

I don't stay long. They both come to the door to say goodbye. "come and see us as often as you want" says Lara generously. "Not too often" adds Megan.

I drive away slowly, not really thinking about where I'm going, along streets that were once familiar. It's only five minutes from the street we once lived in. Five minutes, more than twenty years.

I remember the excitement of moving into our first house in Sidcup, the pride of bringing Megan home to her first house in Petts Wood. I know today's a good day.

I just wish it hadn't come so soon.


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Casting on

I was sixteen, tall, skinny and awkward; still trying to work out what clothes suited my gangliness, still wanting a style of my own. I wanted originality, but nothing too scary, something that would make people look, but not comment and never laugh; I wanted something more than Topshop but not quite punk.

Of course, I knew how to knit, I’d made squares for charity blankets at school, ungainly mis-shapen objects that really gave new meaning to the idea of casting off. But I’d never attempted something that was actually meant to be worn, not until I saw a pattern for a sloppy joe jumper in a magazine.

So I took the bus to Brixton, to the old Littlewoods store, where I'd seen shelves of wool stacked up high. The pattern told me how many balls I needed, but I hadn't yet learnt about yarn weights, or plys, needle sizes or tensions, so I simply picked the colour I liked best, a soft flecked grey, and some thick metal needles that felt smooth and cool in my hands.

I started knitting as soon as I got home, no messing about with tension squares, I just launched straight in. The two T-shaped pieces of knitting were thrown together with much more enthusiasm than expertise  and, of course, the yarn was too thin for the needles. My joe was very definitely on the sloppy side, but that didn't matter; I’d experienced the irresistible alchemy of taking a long straight piece of yarn and turning into something else. And since then, there’s never been a time when somewhere in the house I haven’t had a bag of wool, a stack of needles, a pile of patterns and a half finished piece of magic. 

I've often wondered what it is about knitting that captured me all those years ago, and has held me ever since. No doubt there's an element of pride in making something myself, a genuine pleasure in taking months to make a gift for someone else.  There's the way the continuous action relaxes and soothes, even the knowledge that I'm continuing a craft that's been around for hundreds of years.

Recently though, I've realised there's something else.  When I knit, I watch something take shape and grow. I have a picture in my mind of how it will turn out, though I'm never quite sure till it's finished. There are a limited number of stitches, but I can use them in a thousand different ways, and it's up to me which ones I choose and how I put them together.   I can work on it a little at a time, make it shorter or longer, bring together different threads, or try a different style. And if I'm not happy with how it's turning out, I can unpick it all and start again.

It's really just like writing a story.