How do you age?


I know this sounds a bit  barmy but I think ageing has little to do with age. When you look in the mirror, who are you expecting to see? A child, a teenager, a young person making your way in the world? In other words, how old are you on the inside? I know children who are older than me. I once said to an eight year old, “Do you think trees can talk?” He regarded me with disdain , and replied, “I don’t think that’s a sensible question, do you Mrs Jenkins?” My lips twitched. Eight on the outside, fifty-eight inside. Actually I was reading an article recently,  documenting some research from Canada which shows that trees do communicate. So there you go, now-not-so-young William Double-Barrelled-Surname! Hope you are reading this…

I am finding the whole process of ageing faintly terrifying but also interesting. Some people give you the impression of eternal youth, not by the way they look, but by the way they laugh or hug trees or twinkle at you. Others are earth-wise and sceptical at the age of six. Is age a personality-thing as well as a years-thing? How to embrace the inside-age when it’s at odds with the outside one? Is ‘growing old gracefully’ even worth doing?

When I look in the mirror, I obviously don’t expect to see this: –wp-1469377186241.jpg

Or this: –wp-1471625046490.jpg

Or this: –wp-1469377242783.jpg

But I do expect to see something like this: –wp-1469377261705.jpg

What I actually see is this: –wp-1469392036387.jpg

And that’s on a good day. It’s usually more like this :-

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Who is this version of me? She has my mother’s eyes, my father’s smile and hands like my grandmother. She uses an electric toothbrush, and wears sensible shoes. She no longer has much interest in partying  or shopping. She says to herself, like a character in a Barbara Pym novel, “The old blue velvet will have to do.” Except for old blue velvet, read ‘print frock with red wine on hem’. A Friday night treat is a book and a glass of Chardonnay. She reads obituaries. And yet…and yet. She spends all day with children. Many of her friends are younger than her. She still laughs at pooh and wee jokes.  People who take themselves too seriously bore her. She sniffs books. No, she inhales them…this explains why her nostrils are so large.
When I’m in someone else’s classroom and the teacher roars, “SIT DOWN!” to this day, I’m scrambling for a chair before a last-minute recovery and a self-conscious , “Ahem…yes! Sit down!” to the children in the room. I’ve been teaching for over 30 years but Miss Ainscoe with her mean little eyes and roary voice “Deborah! SIT DOWN!” is forever etched on my eight year old inside self. While my fifty-something outside self tries to remember that the things I say and the atmosphere I create in my classroom can, for some children, last a lifetime.

Does life, or our response to it, age us? I’ve had my share of ups and downs but I know people who have lived through unimaginable tragedy or cruelty at the hands of others and still have a hopeful, trusting view of things. They have not soured, they do not hate. They are ageing well. wp-1469387964249.jpg

Hopefully you and I will be a bit like our garden gate – a bit battered, a bit lurching but still standing, still hopeful we can offer something unique to the world.  And in our own way, perhaps, still beautiful (on a good day).

Forgive me if this post is a bit odd. It’s just that I want to explore the ageing thing, but no one will talk about it! (Is this the new taboo?) My mates say, ‘Stop it! You’ve nothing to moan about.’ Older friends say ‘Oh for goodness sake – just you wait!’ As for the young ones, they mumble things like, ‘You still  look great!’ while glancing with thinly disguised horror at my bat – wing arms. But this all misses the point. It’s not how others see you. It’s how you see yourself. And how you come to terms with the growing chasm between your inside and outside self.

So please tell me, how do you age?

Postscript – There are some insightful comments from readers below.  Please do read, and add your own thoughts if you wish. And thank you 🙂

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

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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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hills and giving thanks on All Hallows Eve


We’re climbing the Malvern Hills,  and I’m wheezing like a catfish. I briefly consider whether dropping dead on a narrow path between trees in sight of the summit, is a good way to go. An action exit, so to speak, in pursuit of something beautiful. But decide against it. There are few walkers up here and we might be left for days. Or eaten by foxes.

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The views are incredible. The Malvern Hills rise, sheer and spine-like, from the Severn Valley in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Eight miles long, from the highest summit you can see parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The hills are known for their spring water, made famous by the area’s holy wells and later through the spa town of Great Malvern which clings, crab-like, to the side of the hills. Aldwyn, the monk who originally founded the Benedictine community and priory in 1085 because of its  remoteness, would rend his cassock if he could see the old town grown up around it now. Though he might be pleased that the holy wells originally thought to bring health and healing as early as the twelfth century, developed into a spa town in Victorian times later becoming the first bottled water plant in the world. Today the town is  beautiful, even in the rain.

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It occurs to me that I could do with those healing properties now as I lurch, with bursting lungs up the steep incline towards the summit (not THE summit, I hasten to add, but the nearest one). My husband is positively bounding compared to me. The problem, when you have asthma, is you never know quite what’s going to trigger it. And, unwisely, I’d left my inhaler in the car. I briefly consider the problems the Air Ambulance Service might have landing on the scrubby slopes ahead of us, to say nothing of the headline in the Malvern Gazette- Asthmatic Londoner Loses Lung Function on Lower Levels #ourglorioushills

My husband stops and watches me critically. “Do you want to go back? Perhaps we should…”

I consider his question. I would like very much to go back, to correct those earlier years where I smoked for a while, drank too much and lived in beautiful but freezing, damp old places which did my lungs in. I would like to have lived wisely and well and looked after those vital body parts you need more than ever when you’re older – eyes, skin, lungs. Well, all of it is quite useful really, especially at work or ordering an Indian Takeaway, (JENKINS! cough, cough, J-E-N-K…No, I can’t say it louder! Cough, cough!).    But it’s too late for all that. The eagle has landed, so to speak. What to make of what’s left?

I look longingly at the view which is becoming more impressive by the step. As we rise, the Severn Valley unrolls and the town begins to hunch its shoulders beyond the trees. Having got this far, it would such a shame to miss the big view from  the top. My breathing’s not too bad, I decide. And I never know these days whether I’m being a tiny bit neurotic. I once told my doctor after a particularly bad winter that I was worried I’d forgotten how to breathe. A capable type with a distractingly large bosom, the sort you can’t take your eyes off even when reliably heterosexual, she gave me a long, measured look.

“You may have forgotten, Mrs Jenkins,” she said, “But your lungs won’t have. I would advise you to live your life and let them get on with it.”

Well this is my life, so I figure as long as I rest often, I should be alright. After all it’s not much further. After some persuasion, we continue. And after several breaks, no coughing fits and a near collision with a cyclist (A CYCLIST!! I want his lungs), we arrive at the top of the hill. And it’s breathtaking.

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We sit for a while enjoying our victory. On the way down I reflect that in my younger days it never occurred to me I’d get something like asthma. But then there are lots of good things I never thought I’d get to do either – live abroad, rebuild a house, raise socially acceptable children (this is a miracle in itself – God is good). And so many people live with far, far worse.

So tonight, on All Hallows Eve, I’m celebrating goodness. I don’t celebrate Halloween though I’m happy to give out sweets to the neighbouring kids who do. I didn’t encourage my own kids to dress up etc. (there were sometimes alternative parties at church) though when teenagers, I didn’t stop them if they wanted to. In Turkey, we gave out sweets to children celebrating the Muslim festivals to be friendly and culturally relevant, and I don’t see this as too different. In my opinion it’s just not worth offending and upsetting people over. It doesn’t help with the negative press believers sometimes experience. But this is just my personal view.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day when they pray for the dead in Orthodox churches. Protestants generally regard all Christians as saints and if they keep All Saints Day they use it to remember all Christians past and present. So I’m remembering Aldwyn and the Benedictines for starting a monastery in a beautiful place, my grandparents who started our family long ago in India, my parents. I’m giving thanks for my husband and my children and my cat (who sleeps with his paws crossed so is definitely a believer).  And for all my family and friends, who mean so much to me, whatever they believe about life, God and Halloween.

I’m also thankful for hilltop views and autumn leaves and Ventolin. For holidays and small children and good doctors (whatever the size of their bosoms). For quiet water and sunsets and tiny little cakes with cream in.

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And that God, wiser and more far seeing than we can ever imagine, somehow uses the random yuck that life flings at us, to make the small things sweeter. Like breathing.

Who and what are you grateful for, this All Hallows Eve?

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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.

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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?

 

 

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.

 

Shoes and Other Taboos


When I was a little girl, my dad used to line up all the family’s shoes on a Sunday night and clean them. So I had never cleaned a shoe in my life. In fact I didn’t even know where the shoe cleaning stuff was kept or where to buy it. My father just produced it, with a flourish, a tiny box crammed with tins and brushes, and having covered the kitchen table with newspaper, he’d lovingly work polish into leather. Then I went off to university and from there to my first teaching job. I was so happy when my husband proposed because, apart from having secured an actual man who liked me, I was really looking forward to having clean shoes again. The problem was, in the house where my husband grew up, a different person cleaned the shoes – him.  And he was really looking forward to having a break from all the shoe cleaning stress of his youth. I was dismayed to find he didn’t even possess a shoe cleaning kit. But it was too late – I’d married him.

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My husband is a very nice man. He is kind to children and animals. He is patient. In nearly thirty years I have never seen him lose his temper. My husband works in an office at the end of the garden built by a company called Green Retreats (Is this product placement?) It’s not green though, it’s brown and it’s certainly not a retreat. Inside that office my husband writes sermons, composes emails, liaises with outside organisations, draws up rotas, plans meetings and does a million other things. He is the hardest worker I know. I have also never met anyone with greater integrity. All this in one slab of manhood. (I am honestly not angling for a jewellery-related anniversary present. Though I’m willing to accept one. Gracious, as always)

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When I married this man, I’d read a book. It was called, “How to have a Perfectly Happy Marriage” or something like that and so I thought, naturally, that we would. Since we’d read the book and everything. So it came as a surprise to me that, although I’d married this near-perfect man, that there were things about our marriage that weren’t perfect. And most of it, unsurprisingly – since this is the basis of most problems in any relationship – boiled down in some way to communication.

According to the University of Kent, effective spoken communication requires being able to express your ideas and views clearly, confidently and concisely in speech, tailoring your content and style to the audience and promoting free-flowing communication. That’s all very well, I’m thinking, until you add in variables like a malfunctioning computer or a long hot day at work or corns. These things tend to influence the way you communicate so that instead of being concise and appropriate you just want to roar at everyone. Of course you can’t, because they wouldn’t like you, so you have to save it all up for when you get home and then you roar at your loved ones instead. Sadly we can do that because although they may not like it, they will usually keep loving us, whatever.

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Then there are those things that you gradually stop talking about – the old chestnuts that come up again and again and send you round in circles until you’re dizzy with frustration and fatigue. Because nothing seems to change, at least not for long. Because human nature cannot be changed, at least by us.  And life, with its tendency to throw things at you out of the blue, if you are not careful, can squeeze the joy out of everything… How is it that sometimes the simple act of talking, the thing that draws two people together in the first place, can be the hardest thing to do? Maybe it’s the shape of what we say conjuring up things from the past, things that the speaker may or may not know about, that pull the familiar triggers of guilt, blame and anger. We are not free to react solely in the present, invaded as we are by past hurts and future fears. And so after a while, if we’re not careful, something inside us curls up and hides. It’s then that the most damage can be done if we remain silent. Because, as my mother used to say, what goes in must come out. One day it will explode. And the fall-out could be huge.

So, even though it’s always painful, we’ll keep talking about the shoes…

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evenness-Things-Deborah-Fiddimore-ebook/dp/B00LJZ7K6C/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1405875937&sr=1-1&keywords=the+evenness+of+things

My story, The Evenness of Things, now for sale as an Amazon Kindle e-book, is about the effects of long term silence on a relationship. In the story, a woman buys a house without telling her husband, a  misguided attempt to deal with a tragedy from the past which now threatens to overwhelm her completely. But Daisy believes that the house will save her…

The story is about the unpredictable impact of grief on faith and relationships, the need for retreat, and how life itself can show us how to cope, “if we let it, if we listen.”

 

Waiting for Grandad


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