Other Mothers and the Kindness of Spring – Short Fiction for Mothers Day


The narrow blades knifing through earth showed no hint of bloom. Carly watched them, remembering the promise on the pack, Plant now, blooms for  Mothers Day. She watered the pot before school,  all anxious-eyed and pajama-ed, curtain of hair swinging onto cheeks sharp with cold . What if they weren’t ready in time?

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On the way to school, she told Dad about the mothers day cards.
“Miss Parsons said we don’t have to make one, ” she said, stepping over the cracks with pointed toes , ” But I think I’d better, just in case…” Dad said nothing. They walked on for a while in silence. Across the road, Bruce from Number 7 was punching his football against a gate. A flurry of birds rose screaming from a tree. Somewhere, was the smell of toast.

Dad ran fingers through his hair.
” You know, lots of people won’t have a mum to celebrate with,” he said carefully,  “But there are those other mothers, you know, someone who is like a mother to them – warm, supportive, kind…” Dad stopped. Carly couldn’t bear it when his voice broke. She shouted across the road to Bruce,
“Can I be in goal at Break then? ”
Bruce kicked the ball towards her, narrowly missing a toddler on a trike.
” BRUCIE! ” his mum shouted, “Get over here! ”

The mothers day cards in 6P would sport vase shaped cones filled with paper flowers. The greeting, and a photo of the child, was planned for the central flower. Miss Parsons had taken the photos the day before and printed them off specially.
“Be careful! ” she warned them,” It took me ages to work out how to print them. If you cut your hair off, too bad! I’m not reprinting. Carly, did you hear me? ”
She was always shouting in her direction, thought Carly, wishing her teacher liked her. Since Mum  left, she’d found it so much harder to concentrate. Sometimes when Miss Parsons was having a go at the class, she would say with glittering eyes, as if aware she’d gone too far,
“Of course I don’t mean everybody! There are some people who I never need to remind about behaviour. Because they’re always listening, always sitting up, always paying attention… And I’m looking at them right now! ” And she’d swivel her eyes around exaggeratedly, nodding at certain children like a demented bird. The Emilys and Olivers of this world, backs like ramrods, would gaze back smugly. She never looked at Carly.

At break, when the others were gone, and she was making last minute adjustments to her pile of tissue paper – perfectly straight, with no  overlaps, Miss Parsons called her over. Carly  shuffled across on wary feet. Her teacher looked stressed, she thought, her hair even crazier than usual and there were two bright spots in the middle of her cheeks. “You know, Carly,” she said, “You don’t have to make a card if you don’t want to. I know your mum is…well, anyway, I’m not making one, My mother isn’t around any more either.” The bright spots seemed to spread a bit while she was speaking. Carly didn’t know what to say. She opened her mouth.

“Lots of people don’t have mums to celebrate with, but there are those other mothers, people who are like mums – warm, supportive, kind…” (Dad had meant Mrs Jenner who came to fetch her from school, and taught her how to knit and bake if she finished her homework. Her card would go to her.) She tailed off, rather incredulous at Dad’s words bursting out of her like that, on reflex. To her alarm, Miss Parson’s eyes filled with tears. Black eye liner began to snake down her cheeks,  and her eyes became red and puffy like someone from Vampire Diaries. When  she reached out and grasped her hand, Carly began to panic. Surely Miss Parsons didn’t think she meant her? She couldn’t think of anyone less motherly. Mums were soft and warm and wore pearl coloured frocks, like Mrs Jenner. Miss Parsons was hard-edged and brittle with too-bright lipstick, a sort of painted brick in trousers.

“Carly, you don’t know how much that means to me!” her teacher whispered, “I’ve lost my mum, and I’ve not a mother myself. Thank you for that!” When she let go of her hand to trumpet into a mascara-ridden tissue, Carly turned and fled to the playground.  She kept out of Miss Parsons’s way after that. But. later in the day, when her teacher did a, “Of course I don’t mean everybody…and I’m looking at them right now” speeches,  she smiled straight at her.

The mothers day cards adorned the classroom for a week, and every day someone asked if they could take them home. Miss Parsons had replied so often that now the whole class would chorus, “No! On the Friday before Mothers Day!” Only Carly didn’t ask. Although she was pleased to see a few buds on the daffodils, there was no point pretending. There would be no mum to give them to.

But when Friday arrived, all the flowers were budding. Before school, she bent over the lemon coloured fists plunged tightly aloft, and breathed in the scent of Spring’s kindness. She had waited long for this. On the way to school, she celebrated by stepping on the cracks as well as the spaces, unless there were tiny plants pushing up between the stones. When they arrived in class, the mothers day cards had been taken down and arranged on the side ready for Hometime. Everyone was excited. “Is today the day?” they kept asking. Even Carly asked.

At home, Miss Parsons arranges daffodils in a  jug. Who would have thought it? The child said she’d grown them from seed, and cut them specially. Lifting the card from its position near the flowers, she rereads Carly’s greeting.

To the Other Mothers,

On Mothers Day I am saying Thank You because you were kind.

Love, Carly x

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This is after all the heart of Mothers Day, she thinks. Thanks for kindness, to those who have loved. She moves them onto the dresser, next to the photo of her mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tea and Other Transforming Things


I refuse to believe you get fussier as you get older  more experienced (we’ve banned the “o” word in our house due to occasional bouts of melancholy). I mean it’s true that answering the question, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” is slightly long-winded these days  – “Yes please, quite strong, but not too strong. If you pour water over the teabag, go in search of milk and spoon, then squeeze the bag hard, adding about 50 ml of milk, that should be fine!” And in response to bewildered looks from colleagues, “Er, thanks!” But…this only signifies a developed appreciation for the little things in life, having accepted long ago that the bigger things, however promising, are unlikely to bring the transformational delight once anticipated.

It’s the same with mugs. At school, while younger colleagues are grabbing any receptacle likely to restrain a few mouthfuls of caffeine from lolloping unpleasantly down their leggings, I’m usually scrutinising the cupboard for just the right mug. It has to be large, of pleasant appearance – none of this World’s Best Teacher with picture of a fat teddy  for me – and preferably with gently sloping sides so you don’t surprise yourself with scalding tea across the face while swigging wildly during playtime arbitrations. (It’s so much better if you can squint down the length of your nose while delivering a lecture, to see what’s coming.)

I'm actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they'd run out of Best Teacher ones. I said "What is they'd had Second Best Teacher ones? He said that would've been fine as actually his Reception teacher had been the favourite

I’m actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they’d run out of Best Teacher mugs. I said “What if they’d had Second Best Teacher ones?” He said that would’ve been fine because actually the Reception teacher had been his favourite.

At home it’s different. I have three mugs, one for each part of the day. In the morning, I use the pale blue with the flowers on. It’s just the right size, shape and soothing colour for groggy-eyed school days. On non-school, it’s not really big enough so  I have a second one. For the afternoon, the most important cuppa of the day, I use the robin mug. Now this mug has a special place in my heart as it was given me by a child after we’d completed a topic on birds. I told the class about our robin and how he visits us every year and sits on the washing line or the log pile, his bright eyes and slab of red somehow comforting against grey skies and sadness. (I loved that class as they were gripped by my stories.) At Christmas I received the mug from a child who said it would remind me of my robin. Maybe his mother is a serious tea drinker for it’s actually the perfect mug for a 4 o’clock-ish cup of tea. Shortly after, I have to start on the decaff but this mug is great for the final cup of hard stuff – not too big, dainty, made of fine china, the handle just the right size for a fattening finger, and a tiny lip at the top for the occasional slurper.

Morning mug

Morning mug

My evening mug was demoted that Christmas from the afternoon. It’s a pleasant shape for tired fingers and has a pretty apple design. What I like most are the tiny apple leaves on the inside of the lip. Very tasteful.

So you don’t get fussier as you get ol more experienced, you just care differently. Gone are the days when you wanted fame and fortune, or a day with George Clooney, or a body like Mrs Clooney. You’re not particularly interested in status or exotic holidays or expensive jewellery. These things may have mattered once but they don’t now. The fact that you are healthy-ish and alive, and can (mostly) remember what you went into rooms for, you have a life-work balance and your children are independent and sane and able to run their lives without you – these things give great pleasure. As do sunsets and trees and a square or two of Green and Black’s chocolate.

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Will there be tea and bone china in heaven? My daughter tells me I once promised her there’d be ball-pools in heaven and if she finds there aren’t, she’ll never forgive me. Well, I think God, who invented tea and ball-pools, would not set eternity in our hearts for no reason. It must be a pretty great place to be. And I believe that, for Sheila and Norita and my grand-parents, and maybe David Bowie and Alan Rickman (who knows?) and for others I have loved, unlike life’s big things, this thing did in fact bring the transformational delight they were anticipating. The biggest adventure of all.

Of course one still wants adventure here. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m settling for a dull life without the excitement of new things. Which is why I’m making a momentous decision: I’m chucking the morning and evening mugs. I want the robin mug all the time really.

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Happy Old Year and the Little Painted House


At what point do you stop saying Happy Christmas and start saying Happy New Year? I’m never quite sure. After all, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day so perhaps we shouldn’t say Happy New Year until 5th January, when incidentally, you’re  supposed to take down your decorations and NOT BEFORE (but who does that? Honestly. We’re practically feeding them to the cat by the 2nd.) I was thinking this on the way out today when I saw someone I know, and ended up shouting “Happy Chr-ew Year!” which sounded impressively nautical to me. Except that this person is not in the sea-going profession. I pulled my hat down and scuttled into an alleyway, pretending I was a confused person ( which I sort of am half the time).20151204_214653.jpgWhen people ask about my Christmas, I never quite know what to say, because there can be a kind of code to these things, can’t there? Apart from the obligatory “Lovely thank you…”, you could basically select from the following: – Nice and quiet (a bit boring ), Lots of fun and games (Never got to read my book), Wonderful to see the grand-kids (But thank goodness they don’t live with us). The other question I always love is, “So what did you do?” One day I swear I’m going to say, “Marked my Science books, skinny dipped in the Thames, then painted the back bedroom.” Of course it’s still worth asking because there’s always a mild frisson of excitement when someone says, “Went swimming” or “Climbed Snowdon” or  “Had roast halibut”. But let’s be honest, the real question is, “I know you opened presents, had or didn’t have stockings, did or didn’t go to church and ate turkey, but WHICH ORDER DID YOU DO THEM IN??” Why are we bothered? What does it matter? Is it merely the desire for a fascinating glimpse into others’ lives?  Or are we trying to measure up to some Christmas ideal we’re actually not sure about. As if the peace and quiet/fun and games/grand-children will at some point become a perfect experience, without the tiniest hitch, as long as we do it all in the right order.

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Bucks Fizz while cooking – the only way to do it…

And now for the New Year, full of things that have never been. Always a mixed blessing, with some stuff from the past year I’d rather forget, plenty I should have dealt with better, and a few I’d love to live again. But they’re gone, finit, bitirdi…How to welcome the new while making peace with the old?

My favourite present this Christmas so far, is a little painted house bought by my daughter. It’s tall and narrow and covered with tiny windows. I’ve put it half way along the passage that leads from the front to the back of our house and I keep walking past, and loving it. An odd choice for a favourite perhaps, when compared to money and perfume and books, which I also love by the way. But the house is special, because at the back, there’s space for a candle and when you light it and turn it round, it looks magical. With the blind up and the night behind. Like a beacon. A strip of stone leaking light into darkness.

If we’re not careful we spend so much time feeling afraid. The past reproaches, the future threatens. The present can be ruined by both. If you have faith (and you probably do if you’ve visited the blog before), you’ll believe there’s a heartbeat at the core of the universe,  a Light punching holes in darkness and, in the distance, a city on a hill. There’s something comforting about pinpricks of light – the 2015 memories you cherish, the moments that lifted you at Christmas, the things you’re looking forward to. They are more precious when viewed alongside the darker things. I could turn the light on, put the blind down – I would see better if there was no darkness at all. But this way, the light from the little house makes my way unique, and beautiful.

So Happy Old Year. Peace and strength to you as you look back, and look forward, and look up. Towards the Light.

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Empty nests and the unnecessary use of signage


I stare at the sign in amusement. Let’s all get home safely? What’s that all about? I know I don’t get out much and I haven’t, thankfully, been on the M1 for a while, but have I missed a sea change in British culture? I mean, it’s a bit pally isn’t it? Surely, Wishing you a safe journey, or even, Have a safe journey home, is more appropriate. We drive on, while Sunday dusk folds around a low moon, and I wonder why I’m irritated. I think it’s something to do with the let’s part, which I used when my children were small, as in, Let’s go and clean our teeth now, and sometimes at school – Let’s use our best joined-up writing. Bearing in mind drivers in the U.K. have to be at least 17, it seems rather patronising. After all, we’re all adults here.

At least the apostrophe’s in the right place but surely there should be some form of punctuation at the end. Exclamation mark? Ellipsis?

But there’s more. A little further on, another sign pushes its way through the dark. Check your fuel level. What? Do you not think I’ve done that already? This is swiftly followed by Be alert, my mum’s at work and Someone loves you. Drive with care.

We decide the Department for Transport are missing a trick here. How about Let’s not overtake on the inside! or Let’s use our mirrors before a manoeuvre. Actually , forget the DoT. There are lots of useful messages that could be relayed in this way. We become vocal in our enthusiasm.

Let’s remember to floss! Be alert, that’s a dreadful shirt. Have you put your pants on? Be aware, of armpit hair!

According to a recent article in The Guardian, some “emotionally intelligent” signage is being trialled on major roads with the conviction that empathetic signs are more effective than authoritarian ones. The writer of the article points out that this is yet another example of the “infuriatingly chummy way” in which organisations increasingly speak to consumers. (“Hi Deborah, are you having a good day?” “I’m sorry, do I know you? I’d just like to book a check-up please.”)

Of course my new found grumpiness  could be a) reluctance to adapt to modern life b) middle age (Alright,  late middle age), c) my youngest leaving home. But I doubt any of these are actually relevant.

We had just dropped our daughter off at uni. I’d missed the signs on the way up as I’d been asleep, recovering from several weeks of what-I-call Restless-Mother-Syndrome (E.g. Me: Must get you Sudocrem. Her: Why? Me: You just never know...)

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It’d gone well. Her digs were lovely, her flatmates friendly, her kitchen large and clean. We’d helped her unpack and get on-line. And as we left, she invited a pleasant looking lad to share beans on toast with her. He was called James. An infinitely comforting and uncrazy name, I remember thinking, with biblical overtones.

I am very glad that I’m not the kind of stalkerish mother who is on Facebook all the time, checking for clues to her well-being. You know the type – clicking on any new friends to see if they’re nice (holiday snaps of pleasant faced parents and pictures of cats or Jesus), examining Freshers photos with eagle eye, comparing things like smile width (Ooh Steve, she looks a bit pale there! Do you think she’s getting enough sleep?) Then there’s the sort who openly fusses on the phone, the verbal equivalent of patronising signage.  (Let’s remember to eat well! Don’t forget fruit and veg! Freshers’Flu’won’t get you. With Vitamin C! Check your chapped skin!) Sudocrem anyone?

I think if God, who’s brought my daughter thus far (from baby to lady including measles and a nasty fall from a very high slide – not recently), were to trial “emotionally intelligent” signage on me, it would be things like: – Let’s try to let go, shall we?  Check your trust levels. You’re overreacting again! Be aware, I’m always there.

But thankfully, God is less patronising than mums and the DoT.  Don’t worry about anything…Do not let your hearts be troubled…Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged. The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go (Phil.4:6, John 14:1, Josh. 1:9)

So go fly, my Lovely! Laugh. Breathe. Watch for signs. And let God walk you through life, learning through trial and error how to be happy. As we did. As we are.                             Until we’re all safely home.

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How to Age and the Joy of Nasal Flushing


I’m trying to decide how to age. Not on the outside – I have little choice about that and am coming to terms with veiny hands and neck wrinkles like the skin of a T Rex – but on the inside, where it counts. After all that’s the only part I can control. Like when you’re going  to an outdoor thing you can’t avoid, and there’s the likelihood of rain (happens a lot in the UK) so you think, “Well, at least I can splash in wellies and wear my new hat…” That.

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Growing older – and this is something everyone does every day of their lives, whatever their age – is a challenge. Yesterday, when viewed from the safer, more considered position of today will seem different from the way it did, and in a few years, even more so; the way I think of it will be coloured by the stuff in-between, like travel or hernias. I watched The Fault in Our Stars with my daughter recently and wondered if growing old is the way Hazel Grace describes falling in love.  A bit like falling asleep; slowly then all at once.  I hope not. I would prefer it to be more like waking up. All at once and then slowly.

Ageing cat, in denial

Ageing cat, in denial

I’ve been ill for a while with colds and asthma which seem to have got worse as I’ve got older. Panting my way through the house, I notice a schoolgirl pacing down our road at speed, probably late for the train. I have a stab of envy. Not for her hair – thick, long – nor her skin – glowing – but for her lungs  Does she even know how lucky she is to have them? Probably not. Not long after the steroids are working and I’m up and on with life, I won’t think much about mine either. We are only grateful in retrospect.

When you’re young you know about the ageing thing but deep down you don’t really think it will happen to you. You study and party and examine the world. You meet someone, have children and bring them up, teach them to be kind and to eat with their mouths closed. They grow up and leave home, and if they can work and cook and keep clean, you are happy. You think – Thank you God, or I didn’t do that bad! There’s a gratitude, an obscure sense of accomplishment. Then, all of a sudden, you notice younger people treating you differently – with respect or contempt or more likely a mixture of both and it hits you. They look at you the way you look at an old house – a certain charm, a solidity. But you wouldn’t trust the roof joists. New ones would be better.

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I do not want to become that older person that responds with defensive irritation; by looking down at you because you are young. I do not want to say when you think of new ways of doing things, “That won’t work” or roll my eyes and make for the door. I don’t want to be that patronising older person who says things like, “Been there, done that!” or “I wouldn’t if I were you!” or “You’ll find as you get older…” I want to give advice humbly and with respect, to treat you the way I would a contemporary, the way I want to be treated. There’ll be days when I’m rubbish at this. There’ll be days when you are.

It’s great being young. You have energy and ideas and a body that works. You have time to make a difference. But being older has its gains – you get pleasure from the small. A bad hair day is funny not shameful. Your heart rate still soars (sometimes alarmingly) at sex, but also at sunsets or a path through trees. (Maybe yours does this already? You are the lucky ones.)

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My consultant recommended nasal flushing. The pack was huge – a long bottle-like thing with a hole at the top and a tube. I baulked,  “Just read the instructions,” he said, “And try it.” I read them, all 31 pages. In very small print. It’s an American product and very effective for reasons I won’t go into, but I suspected it would be, because of the testimonials. They were my favourite part –  “I want to thank you for improving the health and life of my whole family…My wife suffered from horrible allergies, but now finds that doing a nasal rinse stops the reaction and gives her a break…My daughter, who is 5, can’t wait until she can do a nasal rinse too. She actually asks us every day…I just want to thank you for a wonderful product. It has truly changed my life…” And best of all – “I have been using your product on a regular basis for over two years. The improvement in my ability to breathe is just remarkable. Thank you for providing a great product. You have a loyal customer.”

The truth is, life can be scary, with or without blocked sinuses, whatever age you are. It helps if you believe in others, and are grateful and trust that there is Goodness at the heart of the universe. Testimonials are good too – whether in diaries or to friends or on the back of packets advertising nasal flushing. They make you realise how far you’ve come.

So now that you know about the ageing thing, if you think I could help you, ask me, and I’ll encourage and give advice as humbly as I can. Forgive me if I sometimes raise an eyebrow or look at you archly. It’s a mixture of impatience and regret. I am trying to get it right but I have moments. And I know I need you, for the laughs and the hopeless optimism.  To know again that, at any age, anything is possible.

Perhaps after all, we’ll do it well, the ageing thing – A bit like waking up – all at once and then slowly…

And the improvement in our ability to breathe will be remarkable

 

So, how’s the ageing thing for you?

 

 

Advent, sheep and a kiss from a stranger


It’s been a strange week.

I’m on my way home from work after what is called a challenging day. It’s a fitting end really; that is to say, there is darkness, traffic, and rain-galloping cats and dogs. And the lower lid of my right eye keeps doing this thing where it moves without my help. Like being flicked with an invisible finger. I sit in a queue, head thrown back listening to Eddie Mair who would actually be a best friend in real life on account of being Scottish and soothing and always finding ways to put things in perspective (well, he is a newsreader.) There’s a tiny scrap of sky on the right that’s still light. I watch it, fascinated – just a narrow shred, but somehow trnasformative. I crane my neck a bit and find myself staring into the eyes of a man in a car alongside (he shouldn’t be there really, there are chevrons). Now I know when my face is in thinking mode, I look a bit glum. When I was young my teachers were always saying, infuriatingly, Cheer up Deborah, it may never happen! I used to walk around smiling – which is the only way they’d leave me alone – but frankly it just scared people and after a while it hurt, so I gave up. Anyway, I quickly look away, like you do, just in case the person thinks you’re staring at them. Then I look back to see it he’s looked away, and, if I’m honest, because he has a nice face even though he’s breaking the law, and he’s still looking at me, And I’m about to look away again but, quick as a flash, he blows me a kiss! Honestly! A man half my age and me, a married woman, with dark roots. And tics.

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Anyway, I can’t help smiling, mainly because it’s so ridiculous but also because of his cheeky grin and the fact that he reminds me of someone I might once have taught. He gives me a thumbs-up and immediately powers off, lurching in front of me. Probably a ruse I think, or a dare, or an alcohol induced joke. But I’m smiling into the darkness and my mood is thinning. I look up. The wedge of light has gone, but although I am a deflated balloon, I lift a little. But then there is commotion behind me on account of the traffic in front having gone and several drivers leaning on horns. I gesture apologetically and they gesture back. One or two are, er, quite negative. Oh well, perhaps they had a bad day…

The next day we deliver sheep for Advent. It works like this. We go round the village shops and ask if they would host a sheep. I have a spiel which I’ve practised in front of the mirror – Hello, I wonder if you can help me. I’m from the Baptist Church and hopefully this.plan will benefit both of us (wave sheep). We were wondering if you would like to host one of our sheep during the run-up to Christmas. This should bring families with young children into your shop to look for them (and hopefully spend some money?) so they can bring their names to our Messy Church Christmas Carols and win a prize. 

The first shop keeper looks sceptical, until the sheep-waving part. Oh my goodness!They’re gorgeous! she says, wanting a cuddle (with the sheep, obviously). The next one was a bit frowny. How much does it cost? Free? You mean there’s no money involved? She looks amazed. One lady runs excitedly around her shop trying a sheep in different positions. What do you think? Here? Or here? No, how about here?! My husband has shop-keepers asking to host one. It’s extraordinary. And I suppose it all goes to show – everyone is a child at heart.

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The next day I get a copy of a letter to my GP from a consultant allergist. Now I’ve had a few of these lately from various consultants and they all start in the same distinctive way –

Dear Dr ______, Thank you for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. She describes a 13 year history of asthma…

Now this is probably some kind of Hippocratic tradition, but I always wonder. Are they really saying – Thank you so much for sending me this 52 years old primary teacher whose nasal polyps are so fascinating and unusual that my medical curiosity is finally satisfied?

Or is it sarcastic? – Well, thanks a bunch for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. Just what I’ve always wanted – an overanxious hypochondriac with so many questions I can’t blow my own nose without her asking how long it will take and if it’ll hurt. 

What irritates me most is I had to nag my doctor endlessly to refer me for my allergies. It should say – Dear Dr. ______, Please pass on my thanks to your patient, a persistent, polyp-ridden primary teacher who looks far younger than her 52 years…

And there’ll be another one soon. He’s referring me to a Nose Specialist. Did you know they even existed? Are there Toe Specialists as well and Armpit ones?

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A surreal week.

And on top of all that it’s advent. The shops are alight and there’s an advent candle at church and we’re planning carol services and nativity plays, and writing cards and buying presents and getting the tree down from the loft….And In the middle of it all, there are these signposts. But sometimes I forget to notice them. I have to be watchful and remember to breathe, and look out of windows at the sky, and forgive people and read things that inspire me to be kind, like the bible and Winnie- the- Pooh.

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The signposts are often small. Like a sheep, or a child or a letter that makes you smile, Or a kiss from a stranger They wake you up, the flick of an invisible finger pointing to life, to Christmas, to the ancient magic; we’re never alone…

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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.

 

There are so Many Ways to Die!


The older I get, the more people I meet and the more often I go on London trains and have direct, unintentional access to The London Evening Standard, the more I realise that there are so many ways to die. (Sorry to begin your New Year like this, but it’s just true).  You can get a disease, you can ski off a mountain, you can die in a gas explosion while you sleep in your bed. You can get mauled by a stag while on holiday in Scotland. If none of these get you, then high cholesterol might. Or blood pressure or a stroke. You can die if you don’t drink enough water of if you drink too much. Or if you eat too much red meat. You can die from eating the wrong things or eating too much of the right things. Frankly, it does my head in.

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Then, to cap it all, you hear reports of people “dying peacefully in their beds”. The people who tell you this – newsreaders or relatives or friends – nod their heads and spread their hands with relief, as if it is a good thing. What? You say goodnight to your husband or your dog or valued other, you clean your teeth and fetch water and put your jim-jams on. Then you do all those other routine jobs – feed the cat, put the bins out, make sandwiches – that indicate you fully expect your life to carry on the next day as it always has. And boom! You’re dead. How can that be a good thing? Of course what they really mean, is that compared to all those other nasties, it’s a better way to go. Well, maybe…

Cat

To be honest I know I’m a minster’s wife and all, but I’m a bit iffy about illness and death. It’s not something I like to think about much. In fact when anyone is telling us about a distant relative or friend of theirs who has developed some kind of unpleasant condition, while I am genuinely upset for them, saying things like, “Oh poor thing! How dreadful!” my brain’s going tick, tick, tick and I’m thinking, “How would you know you had that?” It dismays me that there are so many awful things you could get that I’ve never even thought of worrying about.

My husband, cheery little soul that he is, often says that the only certain thing in life is death. He says this quite matter of factly, even with a certain amount of relish, as if his being right about it gives him huge satisfaction. It does nothing for me.

But this does; the other day I met an inspiring woman. She was beautiful, with glossy hair and dark eyes. She talked animatedly about her daughter who is friends with my daughter and about the joint birthday party she wants to host for them. She goes to a local church, she’s excited about the new minister and the Mums and Toddlers group, she invited me round for coffee. Nothing remarkable about any of this, except that this woman has MS. For two years she could hardly talk or swallow. She is much better now but she still can’t sit for long periods of time and finds it challenging to go out. She requires the help of a daily carer. I’m sure she has her moments, but she came across as overwhelmingly positive and kind, and forward-looking about life.

Meeting her was like being given an unexpected gift on a grey post-Christmas day. It gave me a burst of energy even stronger than the one given by all the other wonderful, able bodied family and friends peopling my Christmas. Why? Because she reminded me of something I often forget; we have one life and it’s now…

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One of the dictionary definitions of the word, life, is “vitality, vigour, energy”, the soul of what it is to be alive. The longer I’m here, the more people I meet and the more I read inspiring books like Dr Seuss and the bible, the more I realise there are so many ways to live. And by that, I mean, really live, not just take up space in the world. Here are a few: –

Smile at a stranger, give something away, bake a cake for a mate. Learn to sing in tune. Buy a sad person chocolate, or flowers, or one of those crazy little cup-cakes with eyes on.

cup cake

Say something nice when everyone’s having a moan. Encourage a child. Notice how the rain makes street light kinder. And your house inviting.

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Do something unselfish for the people who love you, more often and more obviously. For Brits this is awkward. But do it anyway. No one knows the size of their L.Q. (longevity quotient). Or anyone else’s. Be nice to an enemy. It will make you feel better about both of you.

Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself. God isn’t, and how would you feel if something you wrote or made entitled itself, “A piece of worthless junk”? God, who put you on this earth for a time such as this, has good that only you can bring to things, in small ways and quiet, because you know about them. Like the woman I met the other day who brought a dead day to life…

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There are so many ways to die. But there are more ways to live.

It’s a New Year. Let’s live…