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


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.