the frailty of our human clay

Sunday, 14 November 2010

This morning's two minutes' silence happened at the beginning of Freddie's Sunday League Under 11s football match. It's been hotting up recently; they are unbeaten so far this season, and are through to the semis of the Shire Cup. So there was quite a large crowd of parents and grandparents huddling under huge brollies along the touchline. The promised rain lashed down on us and the car boot sale with which we shared the field.

The goalie for the opposition, who were also unbeaten, was wearing a black armband. His Grandad was just down the muddy touchline from me. "His dad didn't come back from Afghanistan last year," he said quietly. The two teams lined up to observe the silence. The car boot sale was like a frieze - ordinary people in waterproofs and soggy fleeces stood with bowed heads in the rain. Two rows of small boys, napes bared poignantly to the elements, looked solemnly at their boots. The referee and the opposition manager stood protectively behind their goalie, a hands each resting lightly on his skinny damp shoulders.

There were no medals. No hymns, no bands, no wreaths. Just ordinary people respectfully remembering. The most genuinely moving two minutes' silence I have observed in years.

And we're through to the next round,

Prophesy, prediction and puke

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

My lovely friend Markus rang me at the end of August. "We are all very bored of your attention-seeking. I'm having an actual proper crisis and I need you to drop everything and come to London for the weekend. I will feed you and water you and take you to an antiques fair. I've painted the sitting room and it's got a pinky undertone not grey. Doing the woodwork and trim in Pointing simply will not work." Now that's a real emergency, so I dropped the bots and dog with Edward and jumped on the next train. Markus made chocolate martinis and we ate plates of delicate Asian fish stew poring over paint chips and fabric samples and moving furniture about till the small hours. Bliss.

The next day was gorgeous so after the antiques fair, we went for lunch in Chiswick. Next to the restaurant was a chalked sign 'Psychic Readings this afternoon only'. Markus' eyes lit up. "Bloody no." I said. "Bloody yes" said he. "Nooooo," I wailed. "It'll be crap and what if she says I'm going to die?" "They can't say that and anyway, she might forsee some good stuff. Come on."

After losing the sort of unseemly scrap we used to indulge in as students, I presented myself to the psychic, a nicely dressed lady called Clarissa. I felt like the bots at the dentist - resentful, afraid and praying it wouldn't hurt too much.

I think when a fortune-teller is faced with a middle-aged woman wearing no rings other than black ones under her eyes, it is fair to make some pretty obvious assumptions. I sat opposite her in an empty room while she shut her eyes and held my hand. She smelled of wine. She urged me to relax. What she said absolutely blew me away.

"You are thinking about your dog and how much you miss her. She is teaching you the real meaning of love and you must let her have as much of your heart as she needs because the more love you give her, the more will come back to you. She's on her favourite hill right at this moment and she is running and happy." I was stunned and tears ran down my face. It's true, her unconditional waggy glee at everything and her head pushing tenderly into my hand night after night have brought me untold comfort.

I was thinking about this today as I nagged the dog to hurry at the end of a walk. I was in heels and velvet coat and late for a meeting at Rose's school. She ran into the woods. I stood on the path and bellowed. When she finally appeared, there was a plastic bag on her back. She ran up to me and rubbed her head delightedly on my coat and into my hand. I pulled off the bag. It had contained, it would appear, a regurgitated Indian. The dog and I were smeared with magenta-coloured, vomit-smelling rice. I put us both in the shower and missed the meeting.

Didn't foresee that though, did you Clarissa?

Time for a Bath

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

I believe it was Aristotle (though with my half-cocked education, it might also have been Churchill or Buzz Lightyear) who defined happiness as the complete and habitual exercise of all one's functions. Which is fine if you are an Ancient Greek who needs only exercise his need to scamper the hills of Athens in a Dionysian fashion, enjoy the odd orgy, some shotputting and running and heaps of olives and Nana Mouskouri albums.

For a long time, I have felt overwhelmed to the point of mania by the myriad of functions I am expected to exercise. So in the spring, when the Colonel left after several years of false starts, I had the time and space to examine my functions. Like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, I did a lot of beetling about in baggy cords, muttering at the pavement and tilting at priests. It was an improbable acupuncturist, a former Chelsea wine dealer turned shaman healer who countered the Greek with some ancient Chinese wisdom. Something along the lines of "you need to have nothing before you can claim to have anything at all." I may have got that wrong - I was distracted by the copper forest of needles bristling along my Gate of Hope.

However, in the last nine months, I have distilled my roles to one: Mummy. I have baked and walked the dog, read books in the afternoon and stopped trying to make things happen. Just existing has been enough. Emptying my life has been frightening and liberating, but silence, it turns out, has its own sweet music.

Last weekend, Edward and I went to Bath, which glowed in a late autumn Georgian ochre. We walked through damp piles of pungent oak leaves and thawed hands and hearts over hot coffee and hazelnut cake. We are giving our marriage a second chance. Slowly, privately. Just the four of us. And the dog. And bloody Aristotle.

Cells of madness unconfined

Friday, 5 November 2010

George: Ripping Cornwall, hurrah for the hols. I DO hope we have a topping adventure.
Dick:I fancy getting lashed in Rock and pulling a posh tart.
Anne: I wonder if Matalan in Truro is open
Julian: I bloody LOVE the feel of tweed on naked buttocks

Over the summer, Edward rented a mini stately in Cornwall. The owner, Lady Charlotte, had refused to use email or mobile, so several cars’ worth of our guests ended up very confused in the car park of the Jamaica Inn, trying to work out her loopy posh hieroglyphics. It added quite some time to the journey, so the welcoming scones had atrophied in the Aga by the time our covoy rolled up the drive through overgrown rhododendrons.

Lady Charlotte was mad as cheese. Millimetres short of Edward’s 6 foot 5, she was a full-sail galleon of mid-Eighties electric-blue eye make-up, huge stiff crackle of frosted hair and shoulder pads like bungalows. The bots were transfixed. She spoke in a breathy ingenue voice, which, coming from a tight-head prop-sized body swathed in black and fuschia, was completely wonderful. Rather than the traditional "Here’s the airing cupboard, are those children house-trained" traditional spiel, she spied the champagne being unpacked and settled down, sparking up a long More, to share her thoughts on what bastards men are.

Her ire was divided equally between the rental agent and her most recent ex-husbands. The agent had shown remarkable insubordination in asking her to deal with the trailing wires, falling-down beds and mouse-infested pantry. He clearly had no idea how Proper People lived. The two exes had had lucky escapes; one had run off with a trollop from the taxi queue at Paddington and the other had taken the back of his head off via a mouthful of shotgun. I brightly skipped the saucer-eyed bots off for a swim and left my friend Maria to enjoy the show.

The bots were prune-wrinkled by the time we saw her weaving up the hill and I judged it safe to return. The rest of the party were still at the table, shaking with mirth and surrounded by empty bottles of pop. Rather a decent way to start a holiday, I reckon. The house was, au fond, very beautiful, but, like its owner, plastered in decades-old frills and furbellows. The bedrooms were each a trellis-and-tiny-rosebud nighmare of matching Laura Ashley wallpaper, bedspreads, tart-knicker window ruffles and frilly bedside table covers. Even the (empty) tissue boxes and wastepaper bins were covered in matching wallpaper.

Most bonkers of all, though, Lady C had moved into a little caravan for the summer which was parked behind the house up a steep hill. From which vantage point she surveyed her guests from a plastic picnic table surrounded by glass pyramids of empty bottles. Like a Molly Keane heroine via a David Bowie album cover. She popped up from time to time with suggestions for activities. Some were clearly ridiculous (open-air opera?) while some were just fantastic ("I’ll telephone to my great great chums who’ve cleverly opened the most wonderful restaurant in a tiny little bay and they can look after you. They’re from New Zealand. What fun.") They did, and it was. The elusive sun burst suddenly forth to light up the rain-twinkling headland and blind the hardened surfers. We sat on the balcony watching the dog tear up and down the beach, ate plates of seafood tapas, caught up on London gossip and all remembered how special Cornwall can be.

Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Drama and chaos are the perfect accessories for youth; when one's skirts are short and the nights are long, tortured tears and eliptical, unending conflict are absorbing, exciting, vital. Limping into my mid-forties, though, I prefer peace, stability and an impeccably-edited wardrobe.

After a year of brick-wall-head-banging and misery-induced skinniness, I am celebrating the impending arrival of winter with a spare, verging on monastic wardrobe. Bag after bag has gone to charity, on E-Bay, to friends. The walls and wardrobe doors in my room are now a flat violet-grey. Less than a dozen garments hang aesthetically from matching hangers. The resulting closet space has given the rattling skeletons such acres that many of them have fled in fright.

The hard-won lightening of my heart I am enjoying was matched yesterday by Freddie who was off school with a 40-Woodbine cough. After exhausting the surreal offerings of every obscure sporting channel, some God TV and the unmissable opportunity to buy a set of coloured chopping boards, he bounced into my room where I was arranging three t-shirts on an otherwise empty shelf. He sprawled on the bed next to the dog who was perched with elegantly-crossed paws.

"Pliz," I sneered. "Leaf de showroom. We sell clothe only to rich customer. Not peasant in mis-match pyjama suit with sticky-out hair."

"You know clothes?" he interrupted, rolling his eyes. "Well, can I get some nice ones? All my jeans are soooo flared and I hate pants. Now I'm ten, I should be wearing boxers. Cool ones from Top Man."

I segued seamlessly from Snooty Shopnazi to Cricket Mummy. "So is that why you went on a six-day tour with six pairs of pants and came back with five clean pairs and one pair missing?"

"Oh Mummy, he dimpled, shameless. "I love your funny voices. Do it again."

So later, we drove into town and conducted a skinny-jeans-cool-boxers commando raid, creeping about with a lot of scarves on in case any teachers were loitering in the 9-14 Boys department of H&M.

When we got home, he put on enormous headphones and listened to some bloke boasting that the club couldn't handle him. I held up his entire wardrobe item by item and he gave thumbs up or down like a gangsta Roman Emperor between admiring glances down at his lanky denim legs.

I filled a lot of bags with summery Boden checks and Gap pastels, remembering his once-chubby thighs and sartorial malleability. When the car was full, he inspected his own sparse shelves, the jumble of sweet colour replaced by a few neon T-shirts, a lot of nylon sports tops and some reverently-folded Top Man boxers.

"Cool. Please don't do that gay voice again though."

I wish I could grow up in one afternoon.