The Colour of Snow


“What colour is snow?” The child had topaz coloured eyes and dimpled cheeks like punched dough.

“Well,” I looked down at him, puzzled, wondering if the cold had turned his head. Building snowmen on the field with thirty nine and ten year olds had pretty much turned mine, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“It’s white, isn’t it?” I replied, panting at the effort of rolling ‘snow arms’.

He threw his head back and laughed like a drain, “That’s what everyone says!” he crowed delightedly, “But it’s not, is it?”

I glanced around quickly, as if to check, and threw my arm out, narrowly missing some upturned children patiently rolling a ‘head’  “It is though, isn’t it?”

“No, no, it’s not!” He gestured around at the path , the field and the road beyond the trees, “Everyone says that ‘cos it looks it from the window. But, soon as you step on it, to check, like, it changes, ‘dunnit?”

I considered. The field stretched away, grey and slushy, covered with the footprints of children in snow-wear and shivering teachers. In the distance, a few trees netted the sky and a dog walker trudged, head-down, across the park dragging a recumbent hound (there ought to be a Winter Olympics for dogs, a kind of freestyle skidding).

“See!” he said. I realised he was standing next to me, hands on hips, following my gaze.

“What colour is it then?”

Sometimes white,” he insisted, “But sometimes dirty or brown or grey…but it’s still snow,” he added, with satisfaction, “And that’s all that counts.” With that, he emitted a fearsome yell and plunged into the ‘head-rolling group’ with such vigour that I had to intervene.

I remembered this when I was out walking yesterday. The area behind our house is a nature reserve and covered with winding paths, fences and trees. Further on, there’s a lake. We moved five weeks ago from London to Sussex so this is still exciting for us.

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In some ways, country snow is like city snow – at night, lamp-eyed and quiet, a slab of silver on black. But, in daylight, there are things sticking up in it, mostly buildings and people. Here, there are more fences or bits of wood, or sheep.  There is slush too, and footprints and bottom prints of reluctant dogs. But the sky is different, somehow – wider and filled with movement as if the clouds have more space to dance.

When I go into the small town where we live, I always think, Where is everyone? The street is empty but when you go into the coffee shops they’re buzzing. It has everything you need really on the little high street – shops and cafes and a tiny independent cinema (one of the oldest in England). There’s a library and a bookshop and a fourteenth century church (with big nineteenth century bits) and a road called Pudding Cake Lane. When you get into your car and go somewhere else, there’s an actual place where the town stops, with fields or hills before you get to the next one. Amazing.

I wanted to move here to the country for lots of reasons. We had planned for it and hoped for it and prayed it would all work out, and it did. But strangely, this didn’t make it any easier when the big day came. I find it fascinating how we both long for and resist change, as if our arms reach out for the new while our legs brace themselves against each tiny hint of loss. But change brings loss, though it’s never quite as it seems. The friends I feared losing come down and stay so I get more quality time with them. The gorgeous children I worked with, or rather their generous teacher sends me photos to keep me connected. And there are children at our new church (who try not to look panicked when I bear down on them brightly). The house we rebuilt and treasured is lived in by friends, and our new one is light and spacious.There are no corner shops to buy emergency chocolate, but Tesco is walkable and open ’til midnight.

Also, although there aren’t many people sticking out of the snow, they are all friendly and they say things to you (while dragging their dogs – there are a lot of dogs) like “Morning!” or, “The weather!” or just roll their eyes (about the dogs). I would like a dog but my husband says, “Over my dead body” and I quite like my husband, so that’s the end of that.

I think God – or life, whatever you believe in. I choose God – has good plans for us. Sometimes they are drowned out by noise or pain or change that can cloak all colour in a blizzard of white, leaving us breathless and scared – an upturned palette. But there’ll be people sticking out of the snow to cheer us, messages in bibles and books to urge us on, and children to make us smile and remind us that things aren’t what they seem. And as those tiny steps tiptoe, hesitant, into the future, everything changes.

Like the colour of snow.

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“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.”
― C. Joy Bell

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls” The Bible , Jeremiah 6:16

 

 

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Fearfully and wonderfully made


If I’ve said anything random to you lately, I apologise. There’s only a certain number of times you can acceptably say, “Sorry?” or “Pardon?” without being written off as decrepit or deaf. Though I am, it seems, the latter, for weeks and weeks after a cold. It’s not that I can’t hear anything. I can hear lots – myriad creatures inside my ear buzzing and squealing and thundering around like a herd of elephants. I’ve made my peace with them. You have to. I even refer to them affectionately as my inner zoo. Exercise helps the animals sleep and so does wine. But just occasionally they get so noisy that I want to put a bullet in their heads, or in my own. Whichever’s quicker. Thankfully I do not possess a gun.

Anyway, last week I took my ears to a big London hospital to see a woman in a white coat and a man in a suit. The first one shut me in a room with various implements clamped to my head, along with some headphones. Through the headphones they played a series of bleeps, and every time there was a bleep, I had to squeeze this Wii controller thingy to signify I’d heard it. After a while I sort of nodded off. The animals were hungry or something and there was so much screaming and humming and whooshing (the seals perhaps?) that I couldn’t hear anything at all. The lady in white came back in after a while and repeated the instructions. I tried to explain about the zoo but she didn’t seem that interested. She didn’t even smile, which was pretty mean since I think I’ve invented quite a creative coping mechanism. Because of her dead pan face, I became irrationally desperate to impress her. We had one more try during which I worked out that every time there was a bleep in my right ear (this one contains fewer animals), 3 seconds afterwards, there’d be a bleep in the left ear. I was quite proud of my predictive bleeping to be honest. But when I bounced proudly out of the sound room, she just gave me a brown envelope to give to my consultant. And she was wearing her I’m-not-angry-I’m just-disappointed face.

It’s made me think about ears – as you think about any part of your body that isn’t working properly – and how useful they are. One ear works reasonably well but you really do need bi-focal audition (I just invented that term. Good isn’t it?). With one ear, I can’t figure our where sounds are coming from. Since my ears have been dodgy, I’ve – nearly got run over crossing a road, answered questions nobody asked, let a pan of potatoes over-boil, left the gas on, laughed in all the wrong places. And my brain has invented a lot of conversations that I wasn’t actually having. Even with myself.

When the steroid ear-drops start working, and my sinuses have sorted themselves out, I expect I’ll be grateful for those appendages either side of my head. Hopefully for a long time, but more likely for about 10 minutes. We’re fickle like that, aren’t we? Once one thing in our lives get sorted, we soon move on to something else. We always want more.

Note to self – Get up every morning and thank God for a different body part. Particularly those that are still working. Whatever we think about our bodies, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Can I just say, in case you’re wondering, that my ears are actually very small. But it’s surprisingly difficult to take a photo of your own ear with a mobile phone. In case you ever need to, put your face really close to the phone, hover over the button with your finger and turn violently away at the last minute, before clicking. This was my seventh attempt. 

 

 

Time-hingeing and the end of summer


We are having a bad day, the cat and I.  There are several reasons for this: the state of the world – Syrian children and the lunacy of politics (me); foxes in the garden (him); the blight on the runner beans and the infuriating speed of pigeons. Also, we’re both coming down off steroids. That may be a thing.

Today’s one of those time-hinge days. Summer’s at the wane.  Sunflowers nod to a listless breeze of dust and memory. In the bathroom, I’m humming that Joni Mitchell song. I do not like the slide into winter – the rain, the dark, the colds and asthma. They are not the worst things in the world to suffer but somehow a time-hinge day like today -fleeting sun, bronze light and shadows – fills me with dread and longing. To have summer over again, just this once.

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Yesterday I read about the world’s oldest man who lives in Indonesia and is 145. 145!! Apparently he just wants to die. All of his children are dead as well as his 10 siblings and he now has great-great grandchildren. He’s had his own grave ready since he was a spring chicken,  of 121. Imagine having gone to all that effort and to still be here 24 years later. You could have travelled the world, studied for a degree or two, read the complete works of William Shakespeare and still have a few years left to put your feet up and do the crossword. (Note to self: Do not waste money on a grave until you know you’re dead.) He attributed his long life to one thing alone – patience. Imagine seeing 145 winters, 145 Christmasses, 145 New Year’s sales – you’d need patience…

We went to the coast to squeeze the juice out of the last day of summer.

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The beach was half empty. The sun was steady, the water glistened. We sat above a tide mark of salt-crust seaweed, determined to store up gold for winter. Lying down, we literally sucked sunshine from the sky until we were plump and gasping. Then we had a cup of tea.

What is it about ‘the big, blue wet thing’? Why are we compelled to sit by it, stare at it, bathe in it, walk by it for hours on end? Watching the people around me, sleepy in that late afternoon echo-beach way, I decide it’s because it satisfies all of our senses. We love its colour, its texture, its smell and the curious rhythm of the waves. Of course we don’t taste it, but there’s a range of man-made add-ons here – chips, cups of tea, ice cream. wp-1472575870436.jpg

But there’s something else, something infinitely appealing about standing on the edge of an island looking out. Behind is land,  safety. Ahead is water, then a new place. When you get to the end of the land, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else. And you can’t just drift into that. You have to get on a boat, or a plane or a train through a tunnel. You have to move.  I look out across the strip of water and I remember the old excitement I used to feel in my teens, hitching round Europe – the scent of adventure, the pull of the new. I hope I still have that when I’m 145.

Joni Mitchell is still singing*. The cat and I ignore her. We give one last sigh at the state of the world, and look down the moment at our lives. We say a polite goodbye to summer. Because when you get to the end, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else.

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*And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

 

Waiting for Dad


The old man leans on the gate at the edge of the park. It is heavier than he remembers but then so are most things. Like his own stomach and the bag of weekly shopping. He sighs. If only he had taken better care of himself when the whole damn thing had started – the ageing, weakening, sagging thing. He could be like Malcolm next door, still running at the age of 75 despite the inconvenience of bow legs, and piles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe gate swings open and they amble in. Tilda runs ahead, pigtails bobbing.

“Look, Grandad! Look!” She’s crouching by a clump of bluebells, strokes velvet leaves with fat fingers.

He and Renee look at each other, smile. She leans on him slightly as they walk. He feels the weight of her, fragile and bird-light. Tilda looks up and grins at them, a scatter of freckles and missing teeth.

“They’re beautiful! Be careful not to damage them now!” calls Renee.

“I won’t!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.

Trees curve above them, the path winds, dappled and fringed with blossom or water. Memory floats ahead to the bridge, the river, the view of the church. So when they get there, calling for Tilda, his yearning to see it and to be there looking down on pleated water, his wife at his side, is free of pain and he can just enjoy it. He puts his arm round her ignoring the stab of agony through his right shoulder and whispers in her ear. She smiles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe colours in the woodland garden are pastel – white, pink, lemon. The path snakes out of sight beneath trees where they sat with their own children not long ago – picnics and cricket and Hide-and-Seek. There’s even a glimpse of Ellie’s blue jacket between trees and the sound of her counting, while the others run for it when her eyes close.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do you remember those days?”

Renee smiles and squeezes his arm. “As if it was yesterday!” she says, “And it’s lovely to look back. But we have to keep going remember, to look forward.” He nods though he can’t help wondering what on earth there is to look forward to.

Today is a beautiful day though, he thinks, admiring the smell of sun on earth and shadows on grass.  Tilda hides behind bushes, jumps from stumps. He marvels at her speed, her agility. He loves looking after her while her parents work.

“Catch me Grandad!” Her voice echoes, bounces off trees, “Catch me! Quick!”

On the way back there are azaleas and cherry blossom, Renee’s favourite. She points out the house they’d planned to retire in. They laugh. They both know the old brick semi with its white fence and square of lawn was all they ever wanted really. That and her prize-winning angel cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Come on, Tilda!” he calls, as they reach the water again, “Stay near us! Time to take Granny home…”

The clouds have gathered and there’s a chill in the air. As they stroll back, the trees lean in, blocking out the sky. He shivers. At the bridge he hunts for familiar, for safe – the view of the church, railings, folded light on water.

They follow the path, heave at the gate, pass the pub. Soon they near the graveyard with its spring flowers and drift of blossom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Oh! Look! Can we walk through? It’s so beautiful!” cries Renee pulling his arm.

“Alright,” he replies though he’d rather not.

The trees clasp hands in lacy sleeves. On the graves there are bluebells and tulips. It certainly is beautiful here, he thinks. No wonder she loves it…

“Dad. Are you…are you alright?” Ellie’s voice is gentle. Time tumbles. He feels unsteady, looks at her, confused, then down at the hand in his and sees smooth fingers between his knobbly ones.

“Ellie?” he says.

She gives him a squeeze. “You’ve been miles away, haven’t you?” she says, “You’re probably tired after the walk.”

She fills watering cans, tidies the grave. He just stands there, watching. Until he realises that the tennis ball in his throat has swollen and burst and made his face wet. Then he moves away. He does not want his daughter to see him upset.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen she’s finished they make their way home. They pass the church as the bells begin to ring. The door is open and the nave is filled with lemon coloured light. He pauses. There are shadowy people in there, some kneeling, some sitting, all so still. Of course his eyesight is not what it used to be but he fancies he can see her in her usual place at the front, head bowed. Behind her on the pew, a perfect cuboid of greaseproof paper for after-service coffee. He blinks and she disappears. He hopes the God-man whose love she so trusted, is keeping her safe somewhere…

“Dad?” enquires Ellie, “Shall we…? The boys are coming and Tilda will  be home from Jake’s and desperate to see you.”

He nods. They walk slowly, listening to birds and bells across quiet streets.

They arrive at the house at last, Ellie exclaiming at the sight of Tilda’s car in the drive. His son-in-law is in the front garden. His grandsons are on the way. In the hall there’s the smell of tea, and angel cake. And as he hears squeals and a pounding on the stairs, he decides that God has many ways of bringing back life. If we let him, if we listen…

He leans on his stick smiling, allows himself to be engulfed. Then he’s led into the sitting room for tea.IMAG0058

This Ordinary Life


Whenever I arrive home after being out, I can’t sit down ’til I’ve done certain things : –
1. Put my shoes in the shoe place.
2. Put my keys in the key place.
3. Put my bag in the bag place (removing phone and glasses).
4. Taken my rings off.

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I put my rings on whenever I leave the house. I’ve worn them for so long, I don’t feel quite dressed without them. It’s always the same in the morning (after I’m clothed, obviously) – perfume,  handcream, rings. Ready to face the world.

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It’s made me think about routines, how many we have and how they say a lot about us. There are usually reasons for them. For example my job – share likes the whiteboard on the left as it gives the children more space to get into their trays. I don’t like it there; it’s in front of the desk and makes me feel shut-in. So the first thing I do on a Wednesday, and the last thing I do on a Friday is move the  whiteboard. The other day, I noticed the beginnings of a groove in the carpet. The groove tells a story about my claustrophobia. But no  one would ever know that unless I told them about the whiteboard. (Obviously they do now.) I wonder how many times I’ve moved that whiteboard?

When I think about it, life is full of routines.
I take the throw and cushions off the bed before I do my teeth.
I always start the car in first.
I always cross the road if there’s someone behind me. Not somewhere like Oxford Street, obviously, or I’d be zigzagging like a demented crab, but in a quiet street like ours, where it would be rare. I’m careful not to do it obviously. First I stop and  rummage in my bag  or pretend to tie my shoelace, then I cross over. I don’t know why. I just don’t like the feeling of maybe being followed.

Do you ever get bored of your routines?
Once,  a long time ago, I got bored with my voice and decided to experiment. I went to school with someone who had an Irish accent. She had a very commanding voice and when she spoke everyone listened, even the teachers. I tried that for a while and pretended not to notice when people looked at me oddly. Then I became friends with a Geordie and found myself speaking like her. But my favourite experiment was the time I spoke with  a dimple. I mean I don’t actually have a dimple, but I knew someone who did and I was fascinated by the way her mouth worked to accommodate the dimple. So I decided to make my mouth move like that. Perhaps I’d develop a dimple of my own? I didn’t. I did however get my top lip caught rather painfully in my brace.

Sometimes we long for change, for a bit of excitement,  and then it happens and we don’t like it. I was seriously ill some years ago. This was not the kind of change I wanted, but we can’t always choose. People were kind, concerned. Every time I saw or spoke to them, they’d ask about my health, make a comment about hospitals or share a time when they or someone they knew had been ill. They were trying to relate, to be kind. But all I wanted them to do was to talk about nothing – the weather,  or work, or knitting . I longed for simple routine conversations, the  stuff  of normality.

Maybe the  routine stuff, the ordinary everyday days when literally nothing much happens – maybe they are, in fact,  the most precious of all…
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But one day I swear I’m going to come into the house, kick off my shoes, throw my  keys on the  table and tip my bag on the floor. Or go out without my rings on.

Just, you know, to live on the edge a bit…

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One Moment One Christmas


It feels like it happened yesterday. Though in fact it’s fifty Christmases since we were in our little house by the sea. Funny how the intense impressions of youth are saved forever on your hard-drive, whereas why you came to the Post Office remains a mystery. The kind Indian man has eyes that twinkle as he runs over possibilities for me: – “Stamps? Letter? Parcel?” He leans forward, for his little joke, “Dri-ving license?” We both giggle inanely. And I point my stick at him as he knows I will.                                                   “Rude!” I shout, causing the rest of the queue to stare in alarm at the unsupported stump of my right leg. I used to wear a prosthesis but these days I hardly bother.  I am who I am.  I see my hand tremble as I sign for the parcel.  E.  Homes.  He puts the small package gently into my hand and closes the fingers around it. He is smiling.                       “Happy Christmas!” he says.                                                                                                                             

Ellie did not know what she’d expected, but she hadn’t expected this; a sea of tents as far as the eye could see, thick ribbons of mud and a sharp wind that made the canvas pitch and tremble like boats at sea; piles of rubbish everywhere and grubby children . Men ambled about, shoulders hunched against the weather, shovelling mud from tent flaps or raising mobiles hopefully to the sky. Worst of all were the sounds of despair – savage coughing and moans of pain from behind canvas, cries for help whipped away in the unforgiving wind. She saw a couple of young doctors, about her age, moving from tent to tent, immediately surrounded by men, women and children, asking in broken English for pain killers, antibiotics, dressings. What struck her most, as she made her way to the makeshift school, was the team spirit  – the sharing of food, drugs, possessions, the kindness.

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“You have it! I can man-age,” she heard a man say, offering an inhaler to a small child. He was wearing jeans and a thin jacket and coughing loudly into wet tissues. She saw women giving their food to other women’s children. She saw a teenager remove his jumper and give it to the coughing man. Craning her neck, she glimpsed the latter’s chip toothed smile as he pulled it over his head. It was thick but tight and the arms were too short. She heard laughter erupting from the group around him. This place, she decided, was misnamed The Jungle, where the each survived at another’s expense. These people had next to nothing, but they shared everything.

The school, with its wooden frame and rows of pallet benches, was full. Weary men sat alongside round eyed children, hugging themselves to keep warm. She took off her rucksack, took our her books, smiled.

The next week was a blur of impressions – days spent teaching English phrases, evenings helping dish out food at the camp kitchen, nights tossing and turning in the tired caravan buffeted by sea winds. In the run up to Christmas the weather worsened – sleety rain battered the camp, the wind was needle-sharp and everywhere the mud deepened and swelled, sliding into everything – shoes, clothes, tents. The students were keen to practise their English but there was one silent child. who always sat on the second bench. He was about eight years old, with thick hair and heavy eyes narrowed by eczema. He sat on the bench and swung his legs and listened. Ellie liked to walk up and down when she was teaching and she felt the boy’s eyes follow her everywhere.  A young man always brought him in, lifted him onto the bench, then returned for him after lessons. Curious, one day she asked one of the refugees about him.

“We no know!” He shrugged, “He no speak. Ahmed, he find him on journey from Syria. Ahmed look after him like brother because he alone. We call him Jack.”

From then on, she made a special effort to smile at him. She gave him a chocolate bar and when Ahmed came for him, she asked if he needed anything for the boy. Ahmed, a sullen teenager, transformed into a tender friend where Jack was concerned, bowed politely as he reached for the boy’s hand.

“Thank you!” he said, “We need only place on lorry to England. Everyone do!” And then he left.

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The days dragged on. Ellie’s train was booked for Christmas Eve. One day, a French volunteer brought a Christmas tree into the school.  It had been roughly cut and shoved into a green bucket that someone had decorated with red paint. A shop had donated it along with decorations and strings of tiny lights. So it was that on the twenty first of December, Ellie found herself up at seven, decorating the school with other volunteers for a surprise party. They made paper snowflakes to stick to the windows, filled plates with tiny Buches de Noel and hung paper chains made from bandage wrappers. Someone had donated a hundred cans of Cola.

When the students arrived, they stared. The children pointed. Even the men smiled and touched the paper snowflakes wonderingly.

“You can only come to the party if you speak in English!” announced Ellie.

“O-kay!” the students called, “We spik Eng-leesh!” They passed food, drank the Cola and Ellie told them they would be playing English party games.

“Chrees-mas tree!” The voice, young and clear, rang out from the back of the school room. Everyone fell silent. Ahmed was making his usual late entry with Jack limping at his side, the boy pulling his sleeve and pointing.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said, again. Ahmed was trying to smile, pulling his dirty sleeve across his eyes. Everyone was staring. When they got to the front of the room, Ahmed lifted the boy up and held him so he could see the baubles, the lights, the star on the top.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said again, sighing with delight. The refugees gathered round, smiling, chucking him on the chin. Ellie would never forget that Christmas. There was more laughter, more hope in that room than she had ever experienced. And it came, in true Christmas spirit, from a child. Half way through, someone came in with post for her, a brown padded envelope from her mother. Inside was a note and a gift. “For your little house by the sea,” it said, “To put you in the mood for Christmas!” And inside, wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap, was a decoration from home – one of her favourites : a tiny Christmas tree hung with gold twine. What were the chances of that? She would never forget Jack’s face when she gave it to him. In fact, she would never forget that day. Not ever.

On Christmas Eve, she went early to find Ahmed to say goodbye, but the tent was empty.

“They gone,” said a neighbour sadly, appearing suddenly behind her.

“Gone?” Ellie was shocked, “Gone where?”

The woman pulled her headscarf over her face and readjusted it, pointing towards the tunnel. “There traff-eec jam today. Because of Chris-maas. They go find lorry. Poor Jack. He not want go. But Ahmed, he make him! He need treatment, you know, for leg.”

“What leg?” Ellie was confused.

“jack always limping,” she replied, “In Seey-ria, a soldier, he ask him if he want treat. Then they take him away and they drive over his leg. He need hospital now.”

Distressed, Ellie peered into the tent. The two sleeping bags, pillows and piles of blankets were still there. But clothes, any personal items had gone. She felt heavy as lead. What were the chances of them getting across? Almost nil. Much higher were the chances of injury or arrest. Only last month a pregnant woman had died falling off a lorry. As she backed out of the tent, filled with fear for her friends, her foot fell on something small and knobbly. She bent down and picked  it up.

I am thinking of this today as I chunter home, as I think of it every Christmas. The party with the coloured lights, the food, the kindness of strangers. After fifty Christmases in this, my adopted land, that was still my best ever. Those volunteers and friends particularly Ahmed, who looked out for me after my brother died on the journey, they gave me the most precious gift of all –  my voice. I found the organisation that Ellie worked for and I wrote to her. We corresponded for years. I told her we shared the same name. They called me Jack while I was silent. But my real name was Elias, Elias Homsi, conveniently anglicised to Eli Homes.

I unwrap the parcel in front of the fire and read the Christmas card – Eli, I always meant to give you this. I’ve finally got round to sending it. Happy Christmas! Love Ellie x

I hang the tiny Christmas tree with its gold twine and painted decorations. I will show it to Ahmed when he arrives tomorrow.

 

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Based on eye witness accounts of the appalling situation faced by the refugees at the Calais camp.

If you enjoyed this story, would you consider donating to help with the refugee work in Calais? It doesn’t have to be a lot – only 50p will buy a hot meal for a refugee. Please click on the link if you’d like to help…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blessing of Good Signage


I’ve had a revelation. About signage. It happened the other day at a church in the middle of Derbyshire. Despite the cold, and slicing rain, the approach was beautiful – a thumb of stone, a fist of graves and  beneath the lychgate, crocuses.  Inside did not disappoint either. There was amber light, wood and brass, and slabs of paving as soft as upturned faces. It was one of those places that fills you with stillness.

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But I do not remain still for long. I spend most of the time, as usual, in front of the noticeboard. I see that there is All Age Communion on the first Sunday of the month at 10am. (Regrettably there are no 9.30 or 11.15 services on these days). I wonder briefly if that punches a hole in anyone’s routine. A bit of an upheaval perhaps if you are a creature of habit. I see that there is, “… a fine choir which sings at 9.30 or 10am each Sunday and occasionally in the evening”. that there are regular organ recitals, bible lectures and rambles and that I need to contact Alison for details of the Chattabox group. But best of all, there’s an advert for a talk at a neighbouring town.

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Isn’t it wonderful? These are the things that matter to the people who live there. They would matter to me too; remembering which Sunday the kick-off’s at 10 instead of 9.30 or 11, on which evenings the fine choir sings, and to book my ticket for the Pie and Pea supper. There’s something gloriously togetherish about these things. Who needs the Odeon or the West End? Give me the Pack Horse Routes of Derbyshire any day…

But this is why I love signs and notices. They say more about the person who put them there than anything else. This one, in a well known British supermarket, for example –wpid-20150314_100813.jpg

A snappy piece of signage. The sub text? We’re going to make it impossible for you to make this saving because after reading the terms and conditions, you’ll be brain dead anyway.

Then there was this one –

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The sub text – I care about Facebook likes and being thought of as adventurous and you must do too, or you wouldn’t be on this plane in the first place  (Wrong. I have to be practically drugged and carried onto planes these days.)

But there are other signs too – the ones that tell you things without saying very much at all.

I brew beer, I'm a Christian and I have a sense of humour

I brew beer, I’m a Christian and I have a sense of humour

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In or out? I’ve done both several times in ten minutes. Not sure I’ve made the right decision though…

There's beauty in dead places

There’s beauty in dead places

Life returns, even in graveyards

Life returns, even in graveyards

When you see the rainbow, you forget the rain.

Rainbows – my speciality

I’m a firm believer in signs. I think life holds more of them than we realise. We have to watch for them. Often we have to wait too.

But I think they say more about the Person who put them there, than anything else…

 

I follow a talented blogger, Ellie, who paints pictures of the signs she sees and writes about them. It’s well worth a look if you’re into signage 😉

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  https://propheticpostcards.wordpress.com/

The Long Road Home


Last week I met a friend in Oxford Street. We try to meet several  times a year for therapeutic purposes – the talking and shopping kind.  It was sunny. Oxford Street was full of the young, looking, well…young. I felt old and hot in my winter coat and boots. Which was probably why I felt at a disadvantage physically (young people don’t wear much, especially in winter) and psychologically (their skin which was on show, was ridiculously smooth and  elastic and surely struggling to keep their organs in). We had a good day but I blame this sense of unease for the fact I was on edge and apologising all the time, once legitimately, to a waiter for forgetting to pay, but mainly to inanimate objects including a lamp post, a bus step and a dummy in Marks and Spencer. And by this I don’t mean an idiotic person. I literally mean a display dummy. It didn’t even have any hair…

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The next day was Saturday. I wore my new jumper (the one you can see in the picture. Nice isn’t it?). With husband and daughter out, I did some cleaning, wrote emails and went for a walk. The park was quiet apart from birds and a few doggie people. I found it hard to enjoy though as my mind kept turning over all the school work I had to do and the busy week ahead.

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Then it was Sunday. We went to the Remembrance Service in Hampton, It was beautiful. Though it was the 100 anniversary it was the usual modest gathering – a clutch of people, sunshine, poppies. The War Memorial was wreathed in flags and flowers. Our MP, Vincent Cable, was there. Despite the fact I once took Year 6 to meet him at the House of Commons, he didn’t seem to recognise me but it was a few years ago when we were both younger and I’ve cut my hair since then. Us and Vince, we raised our voices to the sky – O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come… Some voices were strong, others trembled. The Last Post quavered a bit, the notes bravely bugled by a young Boys Brigader. It probably sounded better in his bedroom. But it was more powerful like this – thin, vulnerable, the notes sweet like a faltering prayer. Beneath us, leaves crisped stiff like dead men’s hands.

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Last week we watched a BBC dramatisation called the Passing Bells – a story of two young men and their families, one British, one German. We followed the characters through separation, fear, shell-shock and desperate hope almost to the end of the war. Their stories filled us with horror and longing, in equal measure. The phrase passing-bells, from the Wilfred Owen poem, apparently means bells tolled to announce that a soul is passing, or has passed, from its body. At the end of the last programme (look away now if you want to watch it), the two men lay dying after stabbing each other. They reach across, hold hands, draw breath. Then they rise, walk away arm in arm, before disappearing between the graves and poppies. It was very moving.

The memorial service ended and we walked home in smoky light past sun-warm brick and berries.

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And I’m thinking, it takes only seconds for me to stop feeling sad and grateful and to think of roast pork and lesson plans and the week ahead. So quick. So soon after thin bugling in quiet air, life is all that it is again, all that it ever was. But then this is what they would have wanted perhaps, what they gave their lives for. When you go home, tell them of us and say, “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”  

Can any of them see us now, standing quiet in their memory, walking through sun to eat pork and mark books, sleeping, driving? Do they stand silent, respectful, watching us grow old or ill?  Or stressing over work and  shopping? What would they think of us, the ones they gave their days for?

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And it was evening and it was morning and we have Monday. Unremarkable mainly, but more remarkable than we realise at the time. And perhaps the gift we are given – old skin and young, calm and troubled, mourning or smiling – is this long road home. We’d do it all better in rehearsal but there is none.

But then, perhaps it’s more beautiful like this – thin, vulnerable, with sweeter notes, like a faltering prayer.

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The Olive Tree


When it was all over, she resigned her job, packed a case and flew to Montpellier. It was strange really. While it was all unravelling – thirty years of careful working life – she knew, at the end of it, she would need to go away for a bit. But where? Night after night, stiff with horror at the accusations levelled against her, her mind taut with McGowan’s sweaty face, she lay awake until birdsong began and the window fringed with light. The only thing that would sometimes help – if not sleep exactly, a kind of drifting wakefulness – was a systematic list of possibilities, each night a little longer like the game she used to play as a child, “I went to the shop and I bought…” Holland, Vienna, Lake Garda; Spain, Tunisia, Venice; The Canaries, Morocco. Money wouldn’t be a problem. She knew that. Whatever happened, they would pay her off; no one wants a scandal, especially in a well-known company like theirs, struggling for survival against other giants.

So it was with a breath of surprise that she found herself on a plane to the south of France less than twenty four hours after she’d messaged Annie and bought a ticket. It had all seemed so clear in the end. Walking away from the brick building that held most of her life, determined not to look back, she ran for the 381, sat down in a seat offered by a spotty youth with sideburns, and opened Facebook. And there it was.

Kate – it’s been such a time. Saw you were friends with Ali and added you. Would so love to catch up. Come see us! We are in Almeres, near Montpellier, in France. I’m at a bit of a loose end. P away a lot. Come any time…

As suburbia had jerked past – grey October people and concrete – she’d remembered; photos, some Christmases ago – a stone house, blue shutters, an olive tree. It had struck her at the time as being the kind of place you saw in tourist brochures, not the sort people actually lived in. When she got home, she dug them out of the old tin box that had held special things since her teens. They were a little creased and she’d had to hold them up to the light to see them properly. She messaged Annie.

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Coming in to land, the plane shuddered and creaked in that way that precedes impending death. Kate gripped her seat. God, I’ve been through a lot. Don’t let me die as well. Not til I’ve seen Annie again, and eaten olives…For the tenth time she counted the seats to the nearest door. None. Good. Booking the seat next to the middle exit was the best thing she’d learned from her fear of flying therapy. That and the fact many peaceable people wear rucksacks.

She and Annie examined each other with wonder by the double doors near Arrivals. She supposed she had changed as much as her old friend, a shy dark eyed girl who had somehow chrysalised into an elegant woman entirely at ease with herself.

“Thirty years!”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t remember you being so tall!”

“You’re practically French now!”

They talked all the way to Almeres, spinning past fields, around hills and under leafy archways of filtered light. Kate stared at the space, the sky, tiny villages with their twists of olive trees. It was such a relief to exclaim over things other than work. Other than the latest development on the case. On McGowan and his newest angle. On her certain demise. She had worried for six months that the worst would happen. Well, the worst had happened, and here she was in France, in October, with her old friend.

“Come!”

Annie had negotiated a narrow street, crested a hill and pulled into a driveway edged with pots. Kate, punch drunk with exhaustion, felt herself opening the passenger door and sliding dream-like into this other world; a breath of wind, of lavender; through the gate, fields bathed in amber light. The stone house, perched on a rise above the village, was low with blue shutters. Her heart lifted with pleasure.

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Inside – filled with polished wood and stone – Annie left her to rest while she prepared supper. She drowsed, aware of drifting across a sea of sunlit geraniums, tomatoes and olive oil. Until McGowan’s angry face thrust itself into her dreams in its usual way – large, red, devoid of all feeling, all humanity. Shouting, always shouting.

“Do you honestly say you were unaware of this? That you had no idea? You are the last check, Kate, the last check, before it gets to me! That is your job! How was I to know the risks if you didn’t tell me?”

She jolted into consciousness. Beads of sweat pricked her scalp. A familiar surge of antipathy towards her old boss overwhelmed her. She had never liked him – the hearty laugh, the self-interest – but now she found herself inventing his ruin. He was a hard man. The only time she’d ever seen a glimmer in him, a softness, had been when mentioning his daughter. There were no photos, no clues to the man ever having had a life, a family. But he had mentioned her once, and his whole face had changed. Kate had never forgotten.

The distant clink of china was replaced with Mozart, Kate got up, washed her face, went down.

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“Ah! Bienvenue en France! How was your journey?” Pierre was an English gentleman with a French name. He was solicitous, seating her by the window, pouring wine. She smiled. Annie appeared, carrying olives and a baguette.

“I love olives! Are they from that tree?”

Pierre nodded. “It was a dry, stunted little thing,” he said, “I had to move it. Quite a tricky business. Had to prune it, dig a moat, soak the roots…but look at it now! And just taste these olives!”

They ate, reminisced, filling in the gaps, but still there was no talk of work, of how they’d really spent the years.

“What do you do, Pierre?” A different job, a safe topic.

“I’ve been seconded out actually. An airline.”

A beat. A gust of wind. The patter of rain, olives falling.

She cleared her throat, “Which one?”

He named it. “I have to travel a lot. Not so good!” His eyes shone behind steel rimmed glasses, belying his words, “But it’s mostly trouble shooting. I’m never away for long. Actually, I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Our HQ’s on your doorstep.”

Spearing asparagus, Kate was aware of her heart, pausing, stepping out, staring. Her fingers, slippery, struggled to hold her glass. How could she have travelled so far, to be in this place again?

Pierre poured wine, became expansive, “Sad case really. There’s been a complaint – bullying behaviour, a dismissal. And the gentleman concerned is now fighting for his own job. There’s a disabled daughter apparently. No mother…”

A roaring in her ears, a memory. McGowan in his office, late one night; she, thinking he’d gone, not bothering to knock. He had reacted instantly, pretending to be asleep but she had seen – the look of despair, the head lowered along a length of arm, flung out, palm up, fingers splayed like drowned sausages. She pushed aside a shred of pity. Now, at last, she had a chance. She would tell Pierre everything.

Annie served sizzling meat, gratin dauphinois.

“I was the one he dismissed. Well, I resigned in the end.”

Her voice, quiet, calm, held a steadiness she did not feel. Her hosts did not respond at once. Annie took ratatouille, Pierre a mouthful of wine, they resumed their placid eating. It was only then she realised she had not said it out loud. She had not said it at all.

“Where do you work these days?”

Kate observed her old friend over the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes, still huge, were warm and wise.

“Oh,” She replaced her glass carefully on the coaster, a slim square of wicker, “I’m between jobs at the moment. That’s why I decided to take up your invitation. How long can I stay?”

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That evening, she sat at the window, looking out. The rooftops, threads of orange and red, dipped and rose into liquid indigo. There was the sound of doves. Below, the olive tree’s silver leaves trembled in twilight. She thought of her job, of the years of early starts and late returns, of the sacrifices, hours and hours of effort, of energy, of giving ‘til there was nothing left to give.

“You and I,” she said softly to the olive tree, “We were the same, really. All washed up, and nowhere to go.” She remembered something she had read in the middle of it all, derided, pushed aside.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. 

“I do not need revenge,” she told the olive tree, “I’m beyond that now. But it will be a long time before I can forgive him!”

But as she lay down and slept a sleep she had not known for years, she knew in a way, she already had.

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The olive branch is usually a symbol of peace or victory. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The early Christians often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.

 

Christmas Hunters of the World, Unite…


A best mate bought me a tea towel. It was red and white and tied with checked ribbon and tinsel. She’d made a card too, which was decorated with a square of material and gold stars. It may end up being my best present. On a day of driving rain and gridlocked roads, she came here to give it to me on a bike festooned with holly and Christmas lights. My mate is one of the busiest people I know. She has three sons, a demanding job, and an aged father. She also volunteers at a prison and always has a houseful of people who need feeding or cheering up. After visiting me she was cycling to Isleworth to buy Christmas pants (underpants for American readers). Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Just know that my mate is a legend.

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I did my present shopping late on Saturday, the shortest day of the year, in Kingston in the rain with 3 or 4 other people who weren’t interested in the Strictly final.  It was a good move. I kept glancing sideways and nodding my bobble hat at them with a conspiratorial “You too, huh?” to cement our unspoken dislike of sequins and tight trousers. We had this bond. We were strong, independent non-glitter-ballers content to live in our own skins. We did not need Anton du Beke. While the country was Strictly-bound, we were going out to buy Christmas so we could wrap it up and put it under the tree. (Of course, really, we’re just less organised than Strictly people.)

It was late in the day and quiet for a pre-Christmas Saturday. The atmosphere was festive. There were lights and the smell of gingerbread and by the churchyard, a leathery man selling chestnuts. There was also a Christmas market, music, stalls strung with tiny lights. People didn’t seem in the kind of manic hurry you’d have expected either. They strolled and looked in windows and sipped lattes in the rain, or shouted into mobiles.

“What size feet yer got?”

“Do figs give Gran the runs?”

“Who’s winning on Strictly?”

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Apart from the Hari Krishna man, who surely could have sung carols, just this once, instead of that humming thing that was distinctly unChristmassy, the place was magical. It made me feel part of this vast throng of world-wide Christmas hunters battling through rain and wind, or drought if in Africa, to find the magic and buy it and get it home as soon as possible, so we can all parcel it up, put it under the tree, pour the bubbly and live the Christmas dream.

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But here’s the thing – quite a few friends and neighbours are having a rubbish Christmas this year and won’t even be trying to buy the magic. There’s no point when you’re alone or someone you love is ill or your hope for the New Year is tired and old before you even get there. I remember such a Christmas – it’s like looking through the window at everyone else, all smart and dancey under the glitter ball while you’re outside in the rain with slippers on. It suddenly hits you – in a nose against the wall kind of way – that you actually don’t need atmosphere with a tree and turkey or even presents. These things are just a distraction from what really matters…

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And God, who did the first Christmas, and knows its secrets, just gives us a baby. Which is, you know nice and all – babies melt the hardest hearts – but I’d well, prefer a miracle for my friends across the road, and for that person at church, and for my mate having chemo again. Which might well happen, I know. But in the meantime he invites us again to take a risk, on a baby…

When I get home, it’s windy and raining hard, there’s no one in and it’s so dark, I can’t even see to put the key in the lock – I am, ahem, a little visually challenged at the best of times. So I’m juggling my bags and stabbing the key at the door and getting wet hair and trying not to say bad words in my head, when a bloke walks past and lights a cigarette. A tiny pinprick of light but that’s all you need when it’s completely dark. It’s enough for me to jab wildly at the lock and feel the satisfying click of an opening door.

And in the house, it’s all panting and quiet, and dry and warm with good words like, “Thank goodness!” and “Home!” and “Put the kettle on” and the wind and the rain are all faint and distant and the bags make puddles on the floor. And when the light is on, through the lounge door, there are the wooden figures of the nativity scene – Mary with her chipped nose and the shepherd with his broken stick and the others, the same every year.

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So I wearily pull the presents out of the bags and wipe them down and tick them off on lists, and I’m thinking of the tea towel and the Christmas pants and that God, who knows we have short memories, meant it to be simple – a promise, a baby, some shepherds and angels.

And every year I’m invited to choose – to hunt for magic or open the hands, to a baby. Chipped and broken, I’ll take a risk again on the baby; that tiny pinprick of light in the depths of winter.

But that’s all you need, when it’s completely dark…

And because of this, I can confidently wish all my kind and faithful blog readers, known and unknown, a Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with pinpricks of hope. And friends with tea towels.

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