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.