Find your way by moonlight

Sunday, 13 April 2014



This post has veered between Uriah Heep and Gwyneth-at-the-Oscars, so I'm giving up.  Not my most eloquent hour, but there you go.  It's finished and it's here. Thank you for your patience and all the fabulous comments.

If you want to read it, I will be thrilled to bits.  I hope you like it.  I'm off for a lie down.  And cake.

Trunk call

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


The harsh tring of the bell made Laura jump.  Her first thought was that, after all the months and years and decades of bludgeoning her; the hints, threats, portentous drawing back of the curtain onto the barren desert that her life would be without him, Martin had finally gone.  That the doorbell of the musty, crowded antique shop had rung behind her husband, heralding the end of her life, left behind among the unwanted, the unclaimed, the broken, while he strode away gulping the clean air, free from the atmosphere of disappointment that shrouded her.

Then she heard his voice; viscous like syrup. Pouring flattery and obsequious observation into the ear of the shop lady, whose startled flutterings and chirrups belied her stolid middle age. She was younger than Laura, though, who felt every second of her years in shops like this.  Looking at her childhood, labelled as antiques and curios.  There, an exact copy of the grinning toy monkey she used to wind round her neck, here a box of the soap power her mother used, a mangle, the garish imprint of the comic she would rush to pick up every week.  All the domestic minutia of her growing up now transplanted as objects over which people smiled or exclaimed, coveted and collected, framed on spare brick walls, jumbled ironically on stylised retro kitchen shelves.

This faint but constant misery was a comfortable old cardigan now, like an old friend whose spiky comments have lost their ability to wound over the years, and who now merely irritates; a soft burr in a shoe.

There it came again, tring, tring! Laura looked over to a crowded open dresser; shelves packed with dusty ruby glass, a shell-pink dinner service, dulled with grime, piled unsteadily beside rusting eggbeaters, a flaccid pile of stained doilies.  She took a step towards the shelves, curious.

There was an ancient telephone.  Its thin elegant handle curved round into the emphatic flat perforations of the ear-piece, and at the other end, the pointed arc for speaking.   The squat body bore a sepia paper disc, listen before calling.  In faded ink, she read: Kilbride 23.  The cord was braided and worn. Laura put her index finger in the cold metal dial and listened intently.  In the background, she was aware of Martin extravagantly complementing the poor woman on her magnificent business acumen, such a rare quality in such an attractive lady.

Tring! Laura jumped, then hesitantly picked up the receiver.  The handle was dense and felt warm in her hand.  She put the receiver to her ear and breathed in the immediately familiar camphor smell of Bakelite.  Instead of the deadness she expected to hear, there was a rushing, open sort of sound on the line; a faint, far-away whistle.

Then she heard voices.  It sounded like the little children’s choir she had listened to on the radio when she was very young.  High, tinkling voices, mixed with static and hissing, a sibilant fizz that distorted the voices.  They seemed to sing, over and over again, “Run, run, run.”  The single syllable grew louder, the static cleared.  There was no mistaking the word; it was at once harmonious and commanding.  Then a sudden, shocking silence.

She replaced the receiver in the cradle with a clunk.  In four steps, she had reached the door.  With one hand, she pulled it open, with the other, she checked for the car keys in her pocket.  Two more steps and she was gone, hurrying through the weak April sunshine, where the brave lilac flags of crocuses pushed hopefully through the damp, awakening earth.

lift them up again

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I know a girl who likes to rescue things.  She can see the loveliness in a walloped-out armchair, an orphaned teacup, a badly-folded rumple of musty curtain. Her glowing kitchen has borne witness to the rescue of exotic marble lamp-stands, miscounted tangles of crochet, burning Christmas cakes.

Her hands are soft and always poised for kindness.  They pour tea and pat shoulders.  They pick up and stroke one-eyed hens that reek and fight.  They offer warm biscuits, wordless shrugs of blanket.

Her eyes, soft smiling buttons, are this week raw and aching.  Her little dog, rescued from hell and given twelve unexpected years, has died.

For over a decade, she clicked faithfully behind during night feeds, first steps, full years of growing a family, stoically submitting to being dressed like a character from Beatrix Potter, chased and threatened during uncontrollable barking fits with words as empty and light as swansdown, ridden, kissed to death, ignored in favour of other, more broken creatures.  Her loyalty was legendary.

She was a tiny dog who leaves a hole that all the tea and blankets cannot fill.  Sometimes, love so blurs our lives, that it becomes impossible to see who is rescuing and who is being rescued.

A uniquely portable magic

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


My first school in 1911. 
Not much different 60 years later.


When I started school, I could already read.  Apparently I rustled at the Northern Socialist's Guardian clamouring to know 'what is the letter shaped like a hammer?' and so, for the sake of peace, there began one of the enduring passions of my life.

My first school was in a lofty Victorian building; chilly echoing cloakrooms with ineffectually scalding clanging radiators, wire baskets for outdoor shoes and pitted wooden benches that squeaked alarmingly on bare thighs. The blackboards pulled down from an iron rod and emitted great chalky sighs as they fell.

I was taken to meet the Headmistress.  Her office was up narrow echoing stairs and it took forever to climb up there.  She was absolutely tiny, like me, her legs dangled from her chair. Of all the odd things to happen, we had exactly the same name.  She had a wooden plaque on the desk which had our name on it.  I read it, picked it up and showed my parents, gleefully, that she had made me a block with my name on it. Excellent; I loved presents.

She barked at me to put it down.  I remember her being very angry.  It transpired that she was a big pusher of the loony 1960s ITA 'reading' scheme which consisted of teaching children how to be utterly shit at reading by telling them 'foks' meant 'fox.'  So my being able to read already put rather a spoke in her plans. My teacher used to smuggle proper books in for me that I would hide in corners and devour. While she was mangling the brains of my poor classmates, I travelled far, adventuring in the company of fantastic new friends.

Outside daily assembly, I only met the Headmistress alone again once. I was sent to her because I had come in very late from break and, unrepentant, insisted that I had been playing a game with some other children.  She told me she had been watching from her lofty window, that the playground had been empty and I was a wanton liar. In retrospect, I think we were probably both right.


Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Hurry UU__UU__P
Get over yourself!
Walk?
Today.
In fact,
Now.


A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.
- Carl Sagan


Especially pertinent today, when those voices simultaneously roar incomprehensibly and whisper indistinctly and I can no longer tell if I hear them or if it is the noise of my longing to capture them, to tame the sounds and storms and stories, and I feel mocked.

I'm taking the dog out.  That, without fail, makes everything better.

Mere guests in the sky

Friday, 14 March 2014


Nob off, there's a bit of coffee and walnut cake left 
and at least two date slices. 
I will beat you or die trying. 

Like so many lovely things in my life, I came to running through stubbornness and a drunken bet. Someone snorted rudely when I was invited to do the Great South Run, so I bought shoes, hired a trainer and spent many hours swearing, sweating, sobbing and stuffing myself with porridge.  I won the bet, though.

That was almost seven years ago.  I no longer drink or smoke or hate nylon, and my feet are like something from National Geographic.  I'm not noticeably skinny, either, since I refuse to give up cake.

I try and slog off every morning, wearing huge headphones that make my children shrivel with shame. Titchy ears, rivers of sweat and the need to mouth the words theatrically cause the discrete earbuds to slither out at every step.  So I must wear the comedy ones. I avoid running past the school bus stop at all costs, for very obvious reasons.  I listen to funny stuff, uplifting stuff, surreal stuff and scary stuff and never quite know what's coming.  I sweat spectacularly, and have that fair skin that turns crimson at any effort more than a languid tinkle for the butler; I look a fright.

But I don't care. It's like having a power hose coruscate the brain.  Everything is blasted into perspective; plots and worries iron themselves out; I have all the arguments I need, winning every one with elegant, stiletto-like remarks that leave my imaginary opponents (ancient school enemies, berks on the radio, the electricity board) beaten into shocked awe. I examine my life and give thanks for its imperfect colour and chaos. Very occasionally, the chatter becomes silence, and I feel an almighty peace.

When I heave, gasping, through the door, I turn on the coffee and wait for that glorious tingle to make its euphoric way into my mouth so that I grin like a child on Christmas Eve for a good 20 minutes.  It's the best time of day.  If you ever want me to agree to anything, catch me in that window - I'll sew on buttons, agree to drive a carload of children, meet your unrealistic deadlines.  I'm a maleable, lolling, sweat-soaked pussycat. 20 minutes, that's your lot.

Wasted with Waugh

Sunday, 9 March 2014


Darling Freddie, how too too ghastly.  Make sure Mummy doesn't fob you orf with any non-U drugs.  Get morphine and cocaine and ketamine and a gin fizz and tell the Ritz to send you oysters and plovers eggs.  Put it all on my account.


I had a lump-that-was-nothing removed a long time ago.  It was my first taste of general anaesthetic, and bloody hell, I loved it.  A lugubrious South African, covered in freckles and with an incomprehensible accent, held my hand and recited an incantation.  I floated away, trailing a vapour of disconnected numbers and felt my hand slip from his as I ascended to the heavens.

I had been reading the correspondence of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. For those Nancy-lovers among us, its more fabulously spiteful social commentary; bristling with in-jokes and shot through with her misguided loyalty to the bastard Colonel that would never marry her.

My next memory is of lying in a high-sided bed, through whose slats I could see another patient.  I was aware of a voice berating Nancy and begging her to dump that sod Palewski, to stop giving money to her pointless soak of a husband, and to write at least seven more books set in Paris.

When the nurses in the corner shouted 'Please, be quiet!' for perhaps the tenth time, it dawned finally that it was me talking, that I was not chatting with Nancy Mitford, but lying in a cot with my arse on show, holding hands with the lady next to me.  I whispered "so sorry." She asked me, "Are we alive?"  That stumped me and I drifted happily about between worlds until the South African appeared to take me upstairs for more counting games and to check I knew my own name.

Last week, Freddie hurt his arm in training.  He sat covered in mud, blood and glory as we eavesdropped in horror on the lady in the next cubicle, describing how difficult it was to go to the loo with all those blisters.

I have spent many hours at A&E with various muddy lads over the years, and fully expected them to strap up a nasty sprain and send us home.  Instead, as soon as they saw the X-ray, they talked about operating that night, about allergies and weight and the options of pinning and plates and all sorts of scary stuff. Eventually, they plastered him up and we have to go back every few days for the next few weeks for consultations and more X-rays and time off school, and using special software instead of a pen, and having all the girls argue about carrying his lunch tray.

There's a still a chance they will operate. he told me this afternoon, from under a pile of discarded socks, football magazines and empty cereal bowls, that apparently you can end up quite bonkers after a general anaesthetic, and how brilliant it feels to get so spectacularly wrecked just lying on a bed.  "Nonsense," I said with my poker-faced-hypocrite Mummy face on. "There's nothing wonderful or dangerous about it.  You won't know a thing."

Photograph: Thurston Hopkins/Getty