Learn, unlearn and relearn

Thursday, 29 November 2012

It's exams at school this week, which means that Rose comes home and consults her beautifully-coloured revision timetable, inhales supper, watches exactly one episode of America's Next Top Brain Surgeon and settles down for the evening with books and charts all over the kitchen table.  She appears with metronomic regularity when the cooker clock goes off, to give me scary bits of paper decorated with hieroglyphical formulae on which to test her.  I frequently mispronounce things or hold it upside down.  This makes her impatient and snappy.

Freddie trails in wearing the face of Dame Maggie Smith, throws off an experimental sneeze and cough or two and picks sadly at his supper, shoulders defeated.  I attempt amusing and memorable ways to remember the principles of refraction and Henry VIII's reasons for trashing the monasteries but no amount of winsome mnemonics or 5-minute bursts of Match of the Day will lift his morbid shroud of gloom.

Edward, sensibly, has buggered off to London for a few days work, his own tragic pall exacerbated by the dog being violently sick all over her basket at 4am the day he left; necessitating a trip down three flights of dark, chilly stairs to let her out into the freezing night, a shivering wait in the cellar while she retched theatrically, followed by a hijus clean-up operation.

I made a lemon and poppy seed cake for Edward's return.  I think, on reflection, there's very little more romantic than letting your wife sleep through the explosive effects of a rotting badger on the digestion system of a Weimeraner.  Except, perhaps, clearing up every last trace, in the frosty black morning, in your pyjamas and t-shirt.  Because you have wrapped the dog in your dressing gown, tucked her in beside your unconscious wife and left them to sleep a few hours more before waking the slatternly pair with strong coffee and and porridge.

That's how much Edward hates revision.

And occasionally, cake.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

What the f@*%? The kid lost a @!%$^ passport,
for Christ's sake.
 If I say this looks like the #&^!* mother,
this is what the %(%&!@ looks like.

Edward woke me up recently in the middle of the night, hissing furiously that we'd been burgled.  Apparently he couldn't find Rose's passport. I found it in her backpack. She went to France on a school trip.  In July.

Old friends will remember that the words 'Rose's passport' can turn me instantly into a pillar of salt.

It turned out that my throwaway comment at supper that night 'well, if you want to go to New York, it should be at Christmas time when it's all lit up and beautiful' had hit home.  Edward was mid-online-flight-booking when they demanded passport details.   Thus turning the lovely surprise into a midnight marital heart-stop.

However, daylight, a few days' distance and an appreciation of the most fantastic family surprise Christmas present in the world have restored my sunny nature.  NYC is probably my favourite winter place in the world, and we've got a whole week to walk ourselves ragged and revel in its icy sparkle.

The bots are beyond excited and can't wait to nip over to Hoeboken to Carlos Bakery to make sure Buddy survived the flooding, buy a box of enormous day-glo cupcakes and hopefully hear some of the world-class swearing that the big guy did when they crushed his sugar dinosaur.

Anyone got any more mainstream suggestions for entertaining them?

Songs that voices never share

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Some of the girls at school wore silk abayahs; the elegant rippling garment sliding off their shoulders as they came into the high-walled school yard balancing armfuls of books, boxes of cake and headscarf, past the unseen, unseeing male guard in his box at the gate.

Mine was cheap black nylon, picked up quickly for opacity and expedience; it never occurred to me that it could be a fashion statement.  It was, after many years of running barefoot, barelegged and light-hearted, an unfathomable garment on almost every level.

My headscarf was black net, with black roses embroidered on it.  Vaguely Spanish, wholly alien.  I never mastered the art of tying it tightly about my head so that only my eyes showed, nor did I want to. It often slipped off my fine, slithery hair and would be handed back to me with varying degrees of exasperation and affection by my teachers.

We went one day to the souk; I was fourteen.  There was a local girl a few years my junior.  Her scarf had slipped and her hair was on public show.  I stood and watched as she was cracked soundly on her bare skull by grown men with stout wooden sticks.  The shrouded women accompanying her formed a pathetic, impotent circle.  Their keening voices rose, counterpoint to the staccato, brutish shouts of the men.  She never once made a sound.  She hunched her shoulders and stood in stoic silence. My mother hurried my sister and I away down a narrow alley to wait for my father in his car.

Some time later, we took a trip to the desert. I left the picnic site and climbed with my brother up a pale, stony path in a rubbly, unforgiving landscape.  The top of the escarpment afforded us a huge view that made me feel both tiny and all-seeing.  There was a strange hot wind, and in the distance the rock shards made shapes that looked like German castles.

I sat down in the lee of the rock and the sudden, complete silence was crushing.  My brother had an expensive new camera and wanted me to pose.

I looked at that picture recently.  At my smooth, young face, my eyes crossed and my tongue poking out for laughs.  At my uncovered hair, blowing almost vertically in that burning breeze.

I thought about the nature of silence and I felt grateful that I can make a noise, speak, write.  I must remember not to to take such a gift for granted.

Dancing from within

Friday, 16 November 2012

"Fek's sake, I'll never get a signal up there.  Try your iPad. "
"No buggering way.  She's following me on Twitter as well."
"Nightmare.  And I forgot to put bloody trousers on."
"Revision it is, then."

If I had any shame I would be embarrassed at how long it is since I last posted.  It feels like a couple of days, so I have clearly fallen into a parallel space:time continuum that makes each second stretch to an hour.

I have had my nose gaffer-taped to the grindstone trying to finish what I started; not the most familiar of feelings to a bolter like me, but the rhythm of days you kindly prescribed (you know who you are and I thank you all) has held me fast to both task and chair and perhaps soon you can judge for yourselves if I wouldn't have been better off just defrosting the freezer or learning Swedish.

The seasonal rhythm continues outside my head too - the brown, dank landscape wears a flirty morning negligee of frost; the afternoon walks are muffled by a deliciously rank carpet of lime and scarlet.  The cooling pies and cakes have scented the kitchens of many women before me.  The muffled grumbles as bots are reminded of exam revision is also timeless; the furtive sneaking under bedclothes to broadcast complaint via phone and Facebook perhaps less so.

This afternoon, pea-soup fog permitting, I will break the rhythm with a two-day jaunt to see an old friend in Amsterdam.  There is a gallery opening, an exhibition of impressionism, some snert (ah, the fun we had with that) and that gut-aching laughter that comes from knowing where all the bodies are buried and not giving a fig.

I will be back next week. In more ways than one.

Leave a trail

Monday, 5 November 2012

We have a properly awful chain of shops here in the UK called Iceland. They peddle frozen offal and blandly derivative cack - tikka pizzas, sweet-and-sour samosas and other types of schizophrenic franken-nosh.  To persuade people to actually buy this nonsense, there are ghastly advertisements featuring the national sweetheart putting out plate after platter of aneimic prawn rings and frozen balls of poo with chocolate on, gurning madly amid the madcap antics of unattractive and ill-behaved brats, all with the tagline 'Mum's Gone to Iceland.'

Which makes one of my favourite blogs all the funnier, because that mum really did go to Iceland and wrote a delightful account of the trip and several more European and further-flung destinations since then.

Reading Trish's blog is like having a long-awaited letter from a very witty old mate.  Her travels feature her long-suffering Doctor husband and teenage son, and she manages to combine both irreverence and appreciation for her destinations.  She's a Newcastle girl and one after my own heart; she makes me laugh out loud and is one of the few people I could ever imagine actually travelling with.  I know that she'd see all the quirky, ridiculous and fanny-shaped things first and point them out with glee.

She's also annoyingly well-informed about the places she goes to.

An unexpected treat is her second blog, where she writes up the memoirs of her beloved dad, up to and including his time as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1950s.  These are a complete delight; his intelligence, humour and right-on politics, both as a student and while doing National Service, have clearly gone straight to his daughter.  Which gifts, combined with her mother's old-school North-East tell-it-how-it-is make both blogs such brilliant reads.

And not a frozen prawn ring in sight.

By+Invitation+Only+SMALL+ICON.pngI am blogging today for By Invitation Only - please visit this lovely fellow blogger to learn more and to see links to a group of fabulous international bloggers

Little Annie's greetin' tae

Friday, 2 November 2012

The first year we lived in Barbados was on the wild East coast.   Not many tourists bother going over there; the swimming is dangerous and the tides unpredictable with very fierce currents. There are some beautiful old churches, though, with graveyards full of mossy, skewed stones.  If you trace the shallow, weathered marks with a finger, you can sometimes still decipher the names and dates; improbable centuries have passed since those souls first tried to eke a living from the barren land they'd been allotted.

These Irish and Scots peasants were indentured servants, fleeing famine, hardships or criminal records.  They were shipped out to work on sugar plantations for a set number of years before being granted freedom and land.  Because they were of no real worth long term, the plantation owners made no effort to feed or care for them when sick; the unforgiving sun burned those peely-wally* limbs so badly they became known as the Redlegs.** The stony, hilly terrain they were allotted was nigh impossible to cultivate and many starved to death.

Their descendants peopled our district.  Mr Wilson used to bring us milk every morning from the painfully bony cow he grazed opposite our house.  The milk was warm and delicious and came in an old ice-cream container.  It softened our bowls of cornflakes and sticky clumps of tawny sugar into a comforting mess.

His family also worked for friends of ours further down the bay.  Mr Wilson's great aunt Marie was the nurse to their baby boy.  She was as shrivelled as a forgotten apple, her faded dress flapping about her gaunt bare knees.  So gummy and wheezy and cackling; we were never sure what she was saying.

One day, I was sitting outside waiting for my friend to come and play and I heard Aunt Marie singing to the baby.  "Greetin' for anither bawbee, tae buy mair Coulter's candy." The same Scottish lullaby that my Pa used to sing to us.  It was a moment of utter surreality; the familiar words and tune floating about the breadfruit tree I sat under.

I often remember that moment and think of the centuries of mothers singing to their hungry children and  of that gnarled old crone who brought an unwitting moment of comfort to a homesick little girl.

*hijusly pale and freckled.  Almost blue.
** this is fascinating if you want to read more