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...)

wpid-20150813_132802.jpg

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.

navigation

Advertisements

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“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?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

Moles and Glimpses of Things


What do you do on a thin day in winter when you’re not at work, your To Do List is vile and the air outside beckons with cut glass finger? You go out of course, with your husband or your friend, to Richmond Park. You worry you’ll regret this later because there are decisions and emails and appointments to sort, and school work hissing at you from a pile in the corner. Also the carpets look like a scene from Armageddon, on Day Two. But it’s your day off…so you leave them. After the week you’ve had, you know what you need. This takes enormous will power and, as you settle in the car with your new camera and the prospect of a walk and a latte, you congratulate yourself on your mental strength.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When you get to the park, there are birds, and trees and wide spaces filled with pastel coloured light. You remember with relief that there’s this whole world outside home, school and church that exists quietly without your input and has a different rhythm, a kind of slow-time which fills you with breath, like a yawn. In the silence you walk on wet leaves and down pathways which pull you irresistibly towards the views from Pembroke Lodge. If someone asked you at this point what was on your To Do List, you wouldn’t even remember. The Great Outdoors has worked its magic again and you’ve emerged from tight spaces, a crumpled paper smoothed out for re-use.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What you love most, apart from the trees and the silence and the views across the city, are the glimpses of things; windows, smoky trees, the gracious rise of houses; threads of gold on a winter’s day. There are steps and pathways and an old gate with a glimpse of meadows on the other side, which you can’t walk in today, but you’re happy that they’re there. Best of all there’s a viewing point on top of King Henry’s Mound where you can see a keyhole glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral, ten miles away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You go into Pembroke Lodge and are amused to read about its history before you tuck into lunch and a latte, which is extravagant for you, but delays the moment when you take up that other life, at least for a bit. As you eat, you marvel at the fact that this lodge began life as a cottage occupied by a mole catcher. It’s hard to imagine that mole catching was once a full-time job, but there we are. This was around 1754. It seems that “his sole duty was to prevent the peril to huntsmen presented by molehills”. This you find fascinating. You know that Richmond Park was one of the Kings’ hunting grounds but who’d have thought that moles could be dangerous? So dangerous, in fact, that their activities caused extreme peril to huntsmen who could not take to their horses without fear of mole related plots, to dismount them and kill their steeds. Your husband, or friend, wonders what happened to the moles. You briefly discuss the virtues of Mole Pie or Fillet of Mole with Mushrooms. How would you catch a mole in the 1700s? One imagines it would be fairly basic, the mole catcher coming home to his house on the hill, with mole juice on his hand, to ask his family, “What shall we do with the moles today? Anyone need a sponge?” It makes you laugh, but inside you do feel sorry, for the moles.

Mole

Over the years the lodge was expanded and became a grand home owned by countesses and lords. It was visited by Queen Victoria, Gladstone, Dickens, Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Bertrand Russell grew up there. Then it became a regimental head-quarters during the war. Finally it was converted into flats for park staff with a cafeteria on the ground floor for the public. It’s also hired out for occasions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1378707_10152554120666091_1012711064_n

As you drive home, the lodge breaking up like a dream in the wing mirror, you wonder about the mole catcher and what he would think of it now: the wide sweep of stone, the cafe, the famous people who have lived there or visited. Before you know it you are whisking between shops, stopping at lights, staring at women with shopping or children. And you’re back in that other world again.

But when you get home, you feel different, lighter. Your To Do List won’t kill you and your school work is snoozing beneath a pile of newspapers. You tidy, hoover. And when you’ve finished, you yawn and stretch and put the kettle on. You notice things like patterned light on the desk, the view from the window. You’re still in slow-time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And on Monday, when you tunnel to work through streets laced with rain, and your mind skitters like a mole along the unlived rat-runs of your day, think of this; the space and the silence and the pastel light. And look for patterns on the pavement and the way the sky’s getting lighter; glimpses of gold on a dark day. And remind yourself – there will be other days. Like an old gate with a glimpse of meadows that you can’t walk in, it’s enough to know they’re there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA