step i wi' my cromak tae the isles

Monday, 15 September 2014

C'moan ya ba'as.  See they feart folk wi' bag's ay plooms? 
Oo'll batter th' soor bastard English or oo'll git a beamer.*

By Friday morning, it will all be over.  I've been listening to this with equal joy and melancholy. Its utterly incomprehensible lyrics perfectly reflect the tangle in my heart.

I was born in Edinburgh and went back to Scotland most summers as I was growing up.  My year there at school was by far the happiest of my silly education and I still see the friends I made there.

I see most of them because they, too, no longer live in Scotland.

It's rather interesting that my extensive weeks of questioning have revealed two distinct camps:

1. Expat Scots who say 'No'
They feel that leaving the union would be hasty, imprudent, bad-mannered and economic suicide.

2. English Folk who live in Scotland and say 'YES! YES! YES!'
They are full of wind and whisky and feel it's time the Scots had charge of their own affairs. It is beyond annoying to the expat Scots that this camp get a vote and the first do not.

There are also some Scots who live in Scotland who have always referred to me as 'that forrin lassie' and who hate the English with a breathtaking vociferousness that Camp 2 must surely be aware of.  They have not responded to my questions, but are posting lots of misty photos of heather-coated wilderness and themselves skirling about in tartan.

I am blaming my advancing years. but the impending vote has reduced me to hot-eyed lumpy throatedness.  Today, I bought a huge expensive armful of grey-blue thistles that reflect my current spiky fragile mood of fierce nostalgia.

I want us to stay together.  Nobody north of the border gives a stuff what I think.

*Look, there are our neighbours.  Let us give chase, for they have fruit.  Our honour is at stake.

No friend as loyal

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

As well as indulging in the annual shout-and-sew-athon that heralds la rentrée,  I am in such a sunlit-and-lazy-buzz end of summer, wafting about ancient hedgerows with bowls of brambles, that I have no desire to escape to any other paper life.  Had I not misplaced my reading mojo, it is usually around this time of year that I re-read, for the hundredth time, these fabulous books.

Because the bots need to transmogrify from feral teenbeasts to shod and shiny schoolchildren, I also, very sadly, missed the annual Gathering of the Friends of Tilling, a gloriously eccentric day in Rye for those of us obsessed by EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia series.  This is what they promised, the teases.
The day will start with a walk to Benson's grave followed by a ploughman's lunch and a dinner in the evening. After lunch will be a reading of a brand new Tilling story "Humble Soup" by Tom Holt. This new story, written especially for us will be read by Nickolas Grace. During dinner Gyles Brandreth will host our annual Tilling Quiz and it will be followed by Un Po-di-Mu.
I was fleetingly tempted to throw nametapes to the wind and hunt out some appropriate scrub and hitum, but Tilling, as someone should have said by now, will always be there.

There's a new series, too, with Anna Duckface Chancellor (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Miranda Richardson (Blackadder) about which I am thoroughly overexcited.  On the BBC this Christmas, as if there weren't enough gifts already.

For the Luciaphiles, further moments of happiness here and here.

an aching kind of growing

Saturday, 6 September 2014

We rented a Devon longhouse this summer, along with the Pretty One's family, some too-scarcely-seen cousins and a few friends for Rose to dilute the testosterone.

The ridiculous tropical weather burst the night before we drove down, so we panic-packed board games and all manner of wet-weather gear. We had planned a fortnight of sunshine and outdoor sports, and I envisaged gruesome, twisted teenage plots fermented under the dripping straw and tiny, leaf-blocked windows.

The weather was kind, though.  There was an ancient pitted tennis court set in a pewter-trunked apple orchard.  Those on ball-duty ate ruby-colored juicy apples and swatted wasps with the old rackets.  We knocked up for hours on end, trying to remember alternative tennis games we'd invented as children.  The husbands told of glory days jumping triumphantly over nets.  We thought about the distance to the nearest A&E and stuck to manly hand-shakes of congratulation.

Three of the children were awaiting major exam results and grew greyer and more dish-washing as the results day grew close.  They played table-tennis and swam and as soon as we took the dogs out, watched all sorts of unsuitable DVDs found in a cupboard.  We busted them spectacularly returning unexpectedly for a forgotten phone.  There were tidy rooms and laundry done all week.

The exam results came out at dawn on the second-to-last day. Proud parents, we bought local fizz and fish and feasted outside on a long, humid evening full of overexcited relief, texts to friends and the surreal talk of college and universities; sixth form choices and who would pass the first driving test.

There was a secret garden next door filled with bursting yellow wasp-flecked plums.  I went in with a bag to scrump some for a spontaneous addition to pudding and listened to the buzz and laughter from the terrace.  It was a moment filled, like my mouth, with the bittersweetness of endings and beginnings and the certain inevitability of change.

much more serious than that

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Chocolate, waffles + beer = brave + forward-thinking talent

My grandfather was a professional football player; interest in the game skipped directly from the Northern Socialist to Freddie.  Though too many cold Saturday touchlines being excluded from the fun ("football's not a game for lasses") and being made to hang out the sodden mismatched team strips understandably turned me right off the game.

Notwithstanding my anathema, Freddie insisted we all chose eight teams each to support through the cup.  His were chosen based on years of studying form, following transfer and performance at various levels; Rose chose the teams with the most beautifully groomed players; I chose countries I had lived in; Edward was at work and sportingly accepted the rag, tag and bobtail dross he was given.

There is a chart filling a wall of the kitchen which we have all raced to fill in after each match. The boys wrote a list of rules, including no door slamming or blaming the ref if your team lose (years of observing Edward).   You were encouraged to wear your team's colours and serve drinks and snacks from that country.

I had no idea football was such bloody good fun.  I'm completely hooked, and I have watched more matches in three weeks than in almost fifty years. I found myself all alone up at midnight watching the Belgium/USA match, into extra time, three nail-biting goals and the best-natured managers I've ever observed.  I've been watching while they are all out, or after I've sent everyone to bed, shouting at my laptop like a yob and killing myself laughing at the Suarez Bite.

Rose's teams are all out.  I have one left, Edward one and Freddie the two most likely to win.  (There is money involved too.  I've just read the extra rules that appeared yesterday.)

Freddie has plans to fill the house on Sunday with long, awkward boys, order several huge pizzas ("Delivered, mum, not home-made, this is important") and settle in for a marathon.  He's asked Edward to take me out to supper.  Apparently football's not a game for mums either.

Run even faster

Monday, 16 June 2014

This is still, frequently, the view inside my head

When I was small, Sunday mornings were the most heavenly part of the week.  We kids were dropped off at a stable to go riding on the beach while my parents read the papers in the dunes.

I always had to ride Topper.  He was wiry and malevolent and his toes turned in alarmingly. He had a snappy mouthful of yellow teeth and stubbornly trotted until his legs blurred before he finally gave in and leapt into a canter that felt just like a ride on a rocking horse.

The pony I truly loved was a beautiful Palomino called Stardust.  He belonged to the stable owner, Val, a tiny, toothless woman whose hands and mouth were equally filthy.  She was brusque, and tough as nails, but she spoke to Stardust with a tenderness never wasted on any humans.

She never let anyone else ride him, though I begged every single Sunday.  I brought him carrots and whispered streams of love into his toffee-coloured ears.  I still have notebooks filled with stories of Stardust and I riding off alone on wonderful trips where we slept curled together under the stars and took turns to save each other from hideous danger.  He was my first love.

The ride was an eclectic mix of local regulars and tourists who'd tired of the majesty of the Lakes. The tourists were easy to spot by their bright kagouls and mouthfuls of Kendal mint cake.  We locals had grubby hand-me-down jodhpurs and gave our Polo mints to the horses. The tourists were always seen as the Enemy, and we would circle them at speed as they wobbled along on the older, slower horses.

One Sunday, we local kids took off, as we always did, at a gallop.  To my excitement, I fell off in the sea, grabbed the reins and leapt straight back on.  I heard Val calling me back.  I know she would tear a strip off me in front of the clean Southern riders, so I affected not to hear and used my crop on Topper, charging miles ahead and staying far from her scary orbit.

I was first back to the yard and dismounted, flushed with victory.  Val came in last, riding one of the ancient horses and there, on a leading rein was a tourist, a grown man, for the love of God, on my beloved Stardust.

She told me that she'd tried to call me back because the tourist couldn't handle his horse and she wanted me to ride Stardust all the way home. But apparently, I hadn't heard her.  She fixed me with her small eyes and said what a shame that was because she could guarantee it would never happen again.

I pleaded, shamelessly, I may even have cried.  She left me to untack and refused to discuss it ever again.

In January this year, the Pretty One and I walked out dogs up that beach and met an old man who told us that Val's business partner had swindled her not long after and she had been forced to sell the stables and all the horses and go and work in a jewellery shop in Workington.

She hadn't lived much longer.  I wasn't surprised to hear it.

we shall hear angels, we shall see the sky

Saturday, 7 June 2014

There's a beach near the bots' school where we have gone since they were small enough for me to see the tops of their heads or be in a room with them for more than eight seconds without their lips curling involuntarily and the klaxon in their brains shriek 'NOT LISTENING.'

I bought a painting of it last year at a local art fair; the artist told me how her life had cracked open and she and come here to start afresh.  This was the first view she had of her new home.  The painting shimmers and she told me her jeweller friend had given her a bag of diamond dust that she'd mixed  into the paint she used for the sea.

It's a perfect bowl of changing sky; beige sand and curving banks of navy blue shingle, huge oyster and mussel shells crunching underfoot.  When the tide goes out you can walk for miles on cool watery ridges.

The promenade is Victorian, offering careful pleasure in swan-shaped boats and swathes of stern forest-green bathing huts.  They cost as much as houses in the North.

On this beach, the bots have thrown off little stripy uniforms, free from the exhausting strictures of clapping and finger-painting and shot, chubby-thighed and squealing, into the sparkling sea.

They have played cricket here, had class barbecues, sand-sculpture competitions.  I'm sure they will also come here, furtively and tentatively believing they are the first generation to thrill to booze-fuelled disobedience and all the fun that brings.

They snorted in that teenage way when I told them that there was diamond dust in the painting and said I'd been ripped off and was a mug for a fairy tale.

I drove them in to do huge exams this week and went down to the beach with the dog.  She squealed excitedly, remembering the time before the cool detachment of the school bus when we came down every morning after drop-off and knew all the dogs.

I let her out in the bright early sunshine and she disappeared off across the flats, running up excitedly to friends old and new, sniffing them just to make sure.  I followed with a genteel tea and fistful of poo bags and looked at the spangled, glittering sea.

There's diamond dust there alright.


Sunday, 18 May 2014

When I was about 12, my most treasured possession was my little blow-up dinghy.  A give-away from a mosquito spray company, it transported me across the coral reef of the Caribbean in front of my house to the deep azure waters beyond.  In it, I could avoid the treacherous sharp coral, and more importantly, the black, spiny sea-urchins.  If you were unlucky or clumsy enough to tread on one, the black needles would poison before you could call for help and you would die a hideously painful, though mercifully swift, death.

I would skim across the reef, stiff as a board, with my toes pointed into the front, paddling furiously to keep as much of the bottom flat as possible.  My snorkel and mask were permanently welded to my head.

It was a strange song I heard diving out from the reef; the tuneful froth from my mouth as I dove, the scratching hiss of sand and broken shell moving rhythmically far below me, the squeak and hum in my ears as I sank deep below the water.

I took my little plastic oar with me to poke about and move things - we were not so ecologically careful in those days.  Or perhaps it was the innocent cruelty of childhood that led me to shove my oar, quite literally, into a dark hole.

It stuck and I pulled hard, my flippered feet swelling me urgently back and forth.  My breath blew like thunder.  It came free with a brown thing attached - I thought it seaweed, and brushed at it with annoyance.  It was the rubbery, prehistoric spiral of an octopus that followed angrily out and we hung eye to eye in the turquoise water as I realised what it was.  I had already lost an oar to casual beach thieves so my priority was to keep this one.

Lucky for me, the beast cared more about his privacy and huffily billowed back into the gloom, while I shot, bubbles rattling from my open mouth, back to the surface.

This week, I have written off a car, celebrated a birthday and negotiated a sticky, tricky conversation.

I'm whizzing back up to the sun now.  I think I've still got an oar about me.  And I know the urchins will only sting, not kill.

What is to be seen

Saturday, 10 May 2014

With all the new schools, new countries and new mathematical systems, I am mathematically illiterate.  I thought, fleetingly, that geometry was beautiful and precise and that algebra was essentially solving puzzles, but the majority of it was hieroglyphics to me.  With fingers, I can do any sum under twenty.  Sixty if the bots are at home and I can be arsed to take my wellies off.

I ended up doing Maths Studies for Baccalaureate - it is essentially colouring in tessellations and predicting whether you'll get an ace of hearts.  One of the few things I remember is truth tables - or was it logic?  The two were sadly not always synonymous in my chaotic school life.

Either way, I rather loved the spare, clear elegance of if and then.  If I get 39 points then I can escape to University.  If I hide my lighter up my sleeve, then I can have a sly fag before drama.   If I read Walden to the end without stabbing myself, then I will discover, allegorically, the secret of solitary self-reliance.

Poor Rose is mathematically blessed and will be doing GCSE a year early.  This weekend, as a sensible antidote to teenage hyperbole and contagious hysteria, school has taken her group far away to a forest, in tents, with three tons of pasta each and a squirty bottle of golden syrup.

Last night it threw down buckets and today is blowing wild and sunny; that fabulous, illogical weather that polka-dots the pavements with blossom confetti and induces madness with jangling new leaves and gusts of blinding, sunlit rain.

They will be soaking and starving when they get back; they have no phones, only maps and notebooks. They have to record fauna and count wild ponies and species of meadow-flower.  Thoreau would approve.

Thank heaven she's good at maths; it would be a nightmare removing those great sodden boots every time she got to eleven.

Five things that make you crazy

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Sit still.  
Ten more minutes of this 
while we pipe in a bit of Clinton Ford 
and you'll be right as rain and 
back running the country in no time.

This month's topic for BIO made me panic a little bit - how to distill those years of lunacy and the subsequent mending into only five things.

I have experienced both depression and mania and while I can't claim the former was any fun, the latter can be helpful. Set up a business in an afternoon, write a dissertation in days, renovate a house single-handedly.

But it's bloody tiring being bonkers, and so, after many many years of talking and reading and crying and rocking in corners and soul-searching and all the tediously predictable things people do in the search for peace of mind, and which, au fond, are only of interest to oneself, here are my top five ways to shred your sanity.

1. Being surrounded by unhealthy people
Especially if you are of a bent to mend and they are of a bent to drag along self-indulgent and self-inflicted drama.  Look closely - is it really such bad, bad luck all the time?  And is it really your problem or do you want to be needed too much?   Either way, when the curtain goes up on another act, politely excuse yourself and find a bathroom to clean.

2. Not getting enough sleep or exercise
Everything looks worse when you're exhausted and unfit.  Get out of your house and walk about; at the very least you can look for interesting new places to be glum in.  I guarantee you will feel marginally less so by the end of a brisk walk.

3. Eating crap processed pretend food
Make yourself soup.  Everyone can manage that.  Nourish yourself, body and soul.  If you eat rubbish, it gives you the absolute mean reds.  And its horribly inelegant.

4. Pleasing everyone else before yourself
I find martyrdom desperately unattractive.  I also find many martyrs want far too much recognition for their sacrifices than real-life saints would ever expect.  They are also often passive aggressive nightmares.  And frequently lack direction and purpose, so use the excuse of putting other needs first to mask this.  As long as you are not unkind or neglectful, following your own path will help keep you off the meths.

5. Spending time in the wrong place - mentally, emotionally, physically
Tough as hell to admit you're not where you should be, and often a nightmare to extricate, but really listen to your instincts.  You won't be the first person to have made a mistake. And anyone who judges you for it should be sent immediately to Coventry for a long long time.

Don't go too far though, there's a little bit of madness in all creative people.

The broad wing of time

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

You look THAT much older 
than fifteen years ago.

Edward turned thirty the night we got our first Labour Government in 18 years.  It kicked off a period of almost-American hugging of strangers, singing in the street and crying in public.*

None of which I realised at the time, as I had got fantastic tickets to a lovely little play and sold my soul for a seat at the most fabulous luvvies restaurant for post-play deliciousness, expensive cocktails and shameless, libellous eavesdropping.

At the interval, having sat with a smacked-arse face through the first half, he announced he wanted to go home.  I had wondered how a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative would deal with grinning Tony and the un-English leaping and whooping, so I was not too surprised.

I suggested we went to the restaurant early and drown his election sorrows.  To my surprise, he declined, and mooched off along the river, glumly and silently ignored the pile of presents, and went to bed.

It turned out that he was gutted at the end of his youth.  Having previously skipped about in a state of Peter-Pan-dom, he could not believe he was a grand old man of thirty.  It took days for him to even realise that Labour were in power.

I will spare you the carnage that was his 40th.

He is 47 tomorrow.  We have a pile of hidden presents, some stashed fizz should he wake up with a smile and some very strong coffee if not.  The children know not to mention numbers and to exclaim hourly at how much younger he looks than last year.  I have planned nothing more elaborate than a walk on the beach with the dog.  We might stop for a piece of cake if the storm clouds keep away.

A new Government is, it seems, totally beyond any of us.

*Of the British public, you understand.  Not Edward.  In a million years.

The just and the unjust

Friday, 25 April 2014

You may laugh, but I've emptied a whole selection box in here, 
plus a couple of eggs I nicked from the bots 
and the left-over cooking chocolate.  
That should do me until Monday.

We had a delicious houseful over Easter - all arrived with chocolate and one with a new game of murder.  As we were to be together for several days, we each picked a name, place and object.  The deadline was 9pm Easter Sunday and before then, you had to get your victim into the place assigned and hand them the object - thus killing them.

There were several false starts - Edward insisted the pub was a viable location, even for the children, and Rose minded dreadfully that boys planned to be in her huge, perfectly-filed wardrobe with handfuls of raspberries and a football boot.

I was so distracted by hiding chocolate and refereeing the church refuseniks and the tradition-at-all-cost-niks that I was murdered within minutes.  'Mum, can you sign this for school, you need this green pen, ha! you're muu-uu-rdered!'

The others strung it out and showed remarkable ingenuity; a chili in the newsagent, reading specs in the shed.  There was an elaborate hoax involving a blocked sink and chisel and some jokes in very poor taste about nails and crosses.

The Pretty One and I went to church by ourselves in the end, pretending religious choice and freedom; in reality, cowards in the face of wrangling sleepy six-footers into chinos and clean shirts.

On the walk there we remembered the time when, as little girls, we got dreadful giggles at a bearded man snoring like a buffalo in our pew.   Our Granny was furious and worse, disappointed, and we walked home with downcast faces and hearts.  Just as we reached our drive, she pulled out a little packet of chocolate buttons and let us share them.

I'd like to think she gave us wisdom too, but neither of us can remember anything she said, only the painful scrubbing we had to subsequently endure with a spat-on tissue to remove the chocolate evidence.

We are many decades on now, and so perfectly capable of removing, from our almost-50-year-old faces and fingers, the traces of praline and dark chocolate that we had stashed in our handbags with the collection fiver and savoured, smugly and secretly, on our walk home after the service.  Full of peace, laughs and Godiva,  the Pretty One was a sitting duck as we passed the bus stop.  "You've got the evidence all over your chops, quick, use this bit of loo roll.'  Murdered. Best bit of Easter.

ale poured out of an ugly hand

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Get an arse on, Mary, before he comes round.  
Seven gins gives us thirty minutes. 
Get the car keys and his wallet and let's scarper.

At University, I had a boyfriend with a family house in Cornwall and an Alfa Romeo.  It was a silly relationship, based on drama and mutual disappointment, the sort you can only indulge in when you are young and have the hours to fritter.  Blinded by my love for Daphne Du Maurier, I accepted an invitation for a few days in Cornwall.

I did not drive and he thought I should.  On the way, we stopped half-way across Bodmin Moor at a deserted airfield, for me to take the wheel of his pride and joy.

More fool him.

After the lesson, which left us both shaking and hissing in inaudible fury, we stopped at Jamaica Inn. It's a low stone building that appears unexpectedly at the side of the road and had, to my imaginative eye, a brooding and ominous air.

It was empty apart from a parrot, a perfect authentic touch. The fog rolled in, the gin glasses emptied, the arguments grew more circular and obtuse and we were forced to stay the night.  I thought it would be an adventure.

More fool me.

I didn't sleep a wink.  The lightbulb in the bedside lamp flickered on and off; everything creaked or moaned or slammed.  I sat up trying to start more debate so I would have company; he snored on. I was probably a fanciful young lady, but I did feel chilled and afraid and was very pleased to leave the next day.  We broke up soon after.  I still miss that car.

The BBC have just done an adaptation of Jamaica Inn.  It has been slated by viewers unable to follow the plot; it is apparently full of indistinct mumbling and bad diction.  Reviews are full of irritated complaint at the way the incoherent muttering ruins the storyline and alienates the characters.  I remember the feeling well.

to hum and buzz

Friday, 18 April 2014

There are, apart from the obvious, certain things which set men wide apart from women.  One is the ability to follow a game of cricket.  Arbitrary rules and indolent play over several languid days, frequent breaks for tea-and-sandwiches, several changes of  all-white clothes, and indeterminate outcome? That pastime could never have been invented by the practical, efficient, gluten-avoiding, answer-demanding sex.

Similarly, the ability to wallow for hours in the bath, listening to commentary on cricket and perfecting the art of tap-turning-with-one-toe is for chaps.  Edward assures me that the addition of a sock, preferably a single gorgeous cashmere Christmas one, stuffed in the overflow to ensure maximum water levels, is sublime.  And invented by males at boarding school where the hot water was seriously rationed. I have pointed out that this is 2014 and he is a grown man with charge of the energy supplies to this house, but I think he still enjoys a quiet British rage against the machine, and who am I to deny him?

He was happily swilling about this morning, reading the Delhi Times online, when I wrecked the day by announcing I was going to cut the grass.  This too is a man's job and he was immediately torn. Relinquish the perfect, dangerously-filled bath or let someone loose on the lawn who may leave it with wobbly stripes? In the end, the bath won and I was allowed the key to The Shed.

I made a complete hash of it, of course.  I swerved round clumps of pretty daisies and went across instead of down and stopped to throw balls for the dog which left alarming bald patches because I forgot to stop the machine.  The MCC groundsman would have fainted.

I did learn, though, why men insist it's their job.  The sun shone, the smell of cut grass is legendarily sublime; the noisy mower meant I could ignore the squabble over who finished the milk that floated out of the open kitchen doors; emptying soft thuds of emerald cuttings into the compost heap was both delicious and satisfying; the smug cup of tea afterwards was heaven.

I've also developed a satisfying old-man grunt when I get up, reminding everyone that I've worked hard and I'm feeling a little stiff.  My turn in the bath, I think.

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!
In fact,

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


Friday, 7 March 2014

I recognised that burnished chuckle before I saw Amanda.  It had such a perfect veneer of warmth and authenticity that any fool could hear it was fake.  It echoed roundly against the chilly flat tiles, drowned out the constant roars and shrieks that rose and fell as the door to the swimming pool flapped wetly open.

I had been slumped on the bench for what felt like an eternity, willing my stolid body to get up, undress, pull on a costume, move through the warm foetid puddles of the changing room and out into the huge bright pool area.  I knew that once I was in the water, the muffled roar would soothe rather than scare; I would finally be weightless; the metallic song of bubbles would drown the jangling dissonance of my desperation.

I pulled a huge damp breath into my defeated body.  I willed myself to cling to the tattered rags of decency that flapped, like smoke-blackened pennant after a blitzkrieg.  The battle that had raged in my own body, leaving me bloody, empty and barren. I steeled myself to see her baby. I would never see mine, there would never be a single one, and that knowledge crushed me in a flat, endless pain.  I set my jaw against the howl of anguish that burned at the base of my throat.

She came in with her mother.  I recognised her from the baby group, from another life, when I had been happy; but I would have known their relationship anyway.  Both thoroughbreds, glossy and rippling, heads tossing, nostrils flared arrogantly. The mother's hair was an uncompromisingly crisp white and Amanda's an artful tawny, but the resemblance was startling.  Their laughter was an assault.

"Well, I hope she doesn't jump out of the window once he starts crying for the mid-morning feed.  Josh threatened again to sell him to the gypsies. The horror.  Three til five he was awake.  And we've got the Bishops drinks tonight.  I am exhausted."

"They're a great agency. She'll know what to do. Have a little swim, darling and let's see if you can have a massage.  It won't matter if we're a bit late.  They'll just charge a more, but you do need a break. Babies can be a real pain sometimes.  You go ahead, I'll go and find Suki and sort out a little treat."

I sat, a petrified lump of sorrow, as Amanda changed.  The soft billows of cashmere and silk, the smooth conker-brown boots, Amanda's spare, beautiful leather jacket.  Her bag I recognised from the glossy pages I stared at sometimes in my psychiatrist's waiting room.  It was butter-soft and pale yellow.  Like spring, like a chick, a daffodil, the sun.

She left it on the bench while she went to tie up her hair in front of the mirror.  She was a careless, heartless bitch.  Leaving her bag, leaving her baby.  She didn't deserve any of it.

It took me less than a minute to stand, my body jotled into action by the shot of anger I felt.  I picked up her bag, which hugged my hip with a fluidly sensuos ripple.  I strode through reception, past her mother gesturing elegantly at the receptionists; head down and out into the pale winter sunshine.   The river was just a few steps away and I stood on the towpath, breathing the smell of decay that rose from the dirty water; the putrefaction of plants and small animals, of melancholoy, of death.

I let the pale, soft strap slide down my arm, hoisted the bag upside down and emptied the perfumed, costly contents into the swirling dun water.   With soft splashes, things fell; a blue diary, a black fountain pen, a phone, little leather bags and pouches, a sheaf of polaroids, a single pale blue mitten, as small as a pixie's hat.

I flung the bag out into the middle of the river; the current eddied there, making roiling, confused circles and swells. It swirled in the undertow for a moment then disappeared into the undertow, a brief primrose flash then nothing.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

When she put on her wedding dress, it was clear that the zip hadn't a chance in hell of doing up. The brittle lace dug into her fleshy arms and there were fulvous patches along the hem.  She shrugged the sleeves up as far as they would go and stretched her arms up above her head.  There was a creak as she did so; the stiffened corset moved seismically inside its ancient satin bindings but stayed intact.

An image came to her of her stout old body bursting forth, flesh escaping the unyielding cage, and it made her laugh.  The sound rumbled up from deep under the rolls of ancient silk skirts.

With liver-spotted hands, she lifted the vague cloud-coloured wisps of hair that floated uncertainly about her solid shoulders, and pulled them up on top of her head.  She twisted them loosely and pushed in an ivory comb.  It was missing some teeth, fallen victim to years of dressing up; the veil long since grown brittle, torn and discarded in some long-forgotten childhood game.  In her heart, she heard the echoes of her daughters arguing about who would wear it, her own voice soothing and fluttering, helping them hold their vibrant orange locks.  Jim's hair.  Her granddaughter had the Clarkson red hair too, though hers curled in tiny silken question marks about her ears and she stamped her foot when the worn comb slithered out.

The satin slippers lay forlorn in the bent cardboard box, the tissue soft and faded.  She thought they looked like little bodies whose souls had flown. Then she thought that growing old was no excuse for thinking such morbid horseshit and it was well past time for a belt of something strong.  She kicked the box under the carved wooden bed.

On bare, swollen feet, she shuffled down the half-lit passage, holding her skirts under one arm with an unconscious grace, and made her way downstairs.

Jim stood at the bottom, holding a small red glass; her mother's set that only came out at Christmas.  He must have gone all the way up in the outside loft to find it.  It was not the sight of him in his suit, the one that had done service for his own and his daughter's weddings, as well as too many funerals to bear, that made her breath catch and her throat hurt.  It was the thought of him methodically unfolding the ladder and making his careful, unsteady way up it.  She looked away too late, the huge tear spilling down into the soft ravines of her cheek. Above the too-large knot of his tie, she saw him swallow.  His voice was gruff.

"You look beautiful. Now drink the goddam whisky and let's eat.  Happy anniversary."


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

whose blog is worth an entire coffee-sip-filled morning

I’m going to find three pebbles, that will do it.  The gate to the beach is as ancient as I feel and needs a smart nudge with my knee to open; the paint, licked off each summer by a tongue of salty breeze, has worn to a soft sage green.  The wood shows underneath, the pale ash colour of Astrid’s hair. She is everywhere.  I have heard her laugh in the swish of the pine trees as I climbed down through the forest, feet sliding on the loamy, sandy path.  The emerald manes of the needles, swaying in clumps on the trees beside the path, are the exact shade of a pinafore I sewed for her when she was a tiny sprite of a child.

I make my careful way across the little bridge and out onto the ochre sand. At last, I feel my ankles begin to relax; they are petrified by arthritis these days and I struggle to walk where once I raced. There, by the lacy spume of the water’s edge, are the glossy black winks of the pebbles I have gathered here for decades.  I pick up three immediately; there is no luxury of choice today.  I have no time to hoist their heft in my mottled hand, no need to appraise their form, the lines and curves that make the shapes I looked for.

No, today I need three.  Talismanic number. The magic number of fairy tales; three wishes will be granted my pretty; three princes came riding; three nights for Cinderella to dance in an insubstantial blur of frangible shoe and gossamer.  The way that everything feels today, so unreal and delicate today; so fragile and insubstantial.

I will throw the pebbles one by one.  I have my mark.  There is a fire-ravaged trunk, a leftover from some teenage bacchanalia, standing stark and charcoal-black against the dirty yellow of the sand.  If I hit it once, she will be well.  If I hit it twice, she will come home and I will see for myself that she is well.  If I hit it thrice, I may ask for a miracle; that she will come home and bring a talc-scented woollen cocoon, whose heft on my shoulder will put my heart back together.

There must be no option of missing all three shots.  I lift my arm.

Honour buys no meat

Monday, 3 March 2014

Yup, she's coming. 
If she mentions that fucking book again, I'm gonna feed her into the sausage machine. 
And that's not a euphemism. 

Two of my earliest memories are of butchers' shops.

In my first memory the butcher is singing a Beatles song to my little sister who beams fatly in her pram. I am jealous because I don't have a name in a song, and I pinch her when nobody is looking. She cries, and the butcher's boy goes out and comes back with an ice-cream in a waffle cone.  I am forbidden from having a lick, and she holds it, uneaten, and melting down her little arm until it is thrown into a rubbish bin on the way home. 

In my second, my granny is telling the butcher to slice the ham more thickly because she has her granddaughter over for lunch.  I am gently coaxed to go round the side of the huge counter to be cooed over. I refuse to move and afterwards, my little paw in my granny's gloved hand, she explains that sometimes we have to do things to make other people happy, even though we don't want to do them ourselves.  

I think it was the worst piece of advice I was ever given, though my granny followed it religiously and, as a result, was adored by hundreds of people. I am happy to remain unadored and pleasing only myself.

Now I am a doughty lady of a certain age, I have a wonderful relationship with my butcher. He runs a proper sawdust-on-the-floor, blood-smelling shop with tiled walls and metal chains on the door to keep the flies out. He called me 'madam' for five years, and then I was upgraded to 'sweetheart.'  

I have learned to avoid Monday visits because it's when the deliveries come and there is still enough of the experimental teenage vegetarian in me to find the sight alarming.  There are whole carcasses and open-topped boxes of offal. there are little rabbits and braces of partridge, all tied at the neck and slung with casual morbidity, across the table in the front. They lie slumped, awaiting the honed and lethal blade that quietly transforms the bloody, dripping lumps into sanitised and picturesque cuts.

I didn't fancy seeing that today, but the chicken I had bought for the weekend was off, and I knew that I had to go and let them know.  It turns out I am more British than I realised.  I felt shy and guilty at bearing bad news and was tempted to say nothing, ever. But I took a deep breath and went in; I apologised for saying anything; he apologised and I apologised for bringing it up.  He apologised that I'd had to make the journey down the hill and miss my Sunday roast.  He was so mortified he called me 'madam' twice.  He pressed on me an enormous bag of chicken and livers and a couple of chops.  I felt awful for having to tell him, he started another round of heartfelt apologising. He was also sorry for the horrible rain we were having, and what the hell was going on in Ukraine. I felt as though I'd been in there for hours.

He insisted I took an enormous bone for the dog. I hadn't the heart to say she prefers toast and Marmite instead. I should have asked him to buy me ice-cream and sing me a Beatles song instead. 

Like landmarks to a treasure

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Right, that's at least 38 words today. 
Six more and I can lie down with a box of violet creams, a pint of amaretto and an oiled Liam Neeson. 

Like most literate sentient beings, I fell madly into The Secret History.  I adored its quirky characters, deft and mysterious happenings, intelligent, crisp prose and the elliptical, swooping tale which made me long to know Latin and wear dead men's coats in a freezing New England winter.

Also by the stunningly talented Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch has made my year for two reasons.

I have devoured it both on kindle and on audiobook as I have driven our ancient creaking Jeep for many hours this winter.  Through rain so hard that the wipers were a frenzied blur, and wind that walloped the old beast with a sideways, spiteful kick.

The talented David Pittu imbues the wonderful voice of James Hobart with a patina he himself would have stroked. Boris and Theo have stayed in my ear and heart for weeks afterwards.  If you haven't yet immersed yourself in this fabulous wringing mangle of a book, make it your solemn duty to do so soon.

If you regret it, I will come round and clean out the cupboard under your sink and leave flapjacks.

The second reason?  She took 10 years to write it.

Not that I will ever produce anything like that, but I take great heart from her glacial speed. And since Mary Wesley didn't crank anything out until she was 70, I reckon that's plenty of time to keep polishing and honing, singing on mountains and falling into sudden, deep ravines of self-doubt and despair.

Those kind souls still here, I am so grateful.  The short stories are undergoing a final revision and the novel is about a third completed. I went on a course run by a Very Successful Editor and had a comprehensive kick up the arse.

In the meantime, the cars swish by my writing lair, where I need a lamp on all day, spend silly numbers of hours brewing the perfect coffee and contemplating the astonishing number of shoes generated by only eight feet. And eating flapjacks.

Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won't drown.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Fucking hell, it's that pair of sisters and their ill-disciplined dogs. Hide the cake and don't make eye contact. Does the short one ever stop bloody sobbing?

This is the house where we spent our happy childhood. I recently came across this photo of it in a book, dressed up to welcome home a son from the Boer War. The huge iron gates, melted down in World War Two and never replaced, are almost hidden under swags of ivy, and the stout stove-piped pride shines from those frozen Victorian faces.

We left it in 1977 and have been trying to find a way home ever since. It reads 'Welcome Home' and after almost four decades, I thought we should go.

Last week, I stole The Pretty One away from her life and shot away to the Lake District for some undiluted nostalgia. We ate a lot of cake in slate-y grey landscapes, shot through with blazing copper beech and relentless drizzle.

A family have lived in that house for thirty years.  We met their daughter.  She recognised our names from the message we had written in the secret cupboard our dad discovered when re-wiring the attics.

She showed us the a long curved stone with the house's name carved on it and we told her the Northern Socialist had chiseled it in the legendary hot summer of 1976, measuring the letters and tapping carefully for hours. It is still painted, bandbox black-and-white, every five years. That bit made us cry uncontrollably.  I hope we didn't frighten her too much.

I felt my heart break that she had lived a life I still dreamed of. The Pretty One, always less full of shit dramatic then I, pointed out all the adventures we would have missed if we had stayed. I'm still pondering that one.

That night, we saw this fabulous production, which echoed our lost lives of make-believe, of wardrobes as camps, beds as ships and sheets as castles. It was surreal seeing this beloved story, in the dramatic scenery which inspired it, in a bittersweet haze of nostalgia.

We started the seven hour drive home before it was light. I felt wrung out and aching with longing to stay, to creep back into my attic room and stay forever among the dust and memories. But by Birmingham, coffee, the need to let the dogs pee and the Pogues had brought us back into the moment.

I've been determinedly living here ever since. There's no choice.  Sometimes that's what you need.