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.