In praise of literalism


The lad in the chemist was polite. He inclined his head and nodded with understanding, but was clearly bristling away to himself quietly, “Madam, you know you can buy them over the counter,” he remarked, motioning grandly towards the racks of pills and potions behind me.

“Well, yes I know,” I replied, “It’s just…my husband said that, in the past, when he’s been waiting for his batch to be renewed, you’ve given him a few days of his pills, you know, to tide him over. We’re going away you see, and I forgot to put in my repeat prescription request…” I tailed off, buried under the weight of his disapproval. Me a fifty-something woman in new pointy boots, and he young enough to be my son.

“Well!” He inclined his head again, but his expression was severe, “I will have to ask the chemist, of course.”

“Of course,” I murmured, expecting him to disappear into one of the doors at the side or back of the room. Instead of which, he reversed with alarming speed precisely one step back and one step to the side, after which he said to a hair piece on the back counter, “Mrs Jenkins would like to know if she can have some antihistamine to tide her over?” The hair piece wobbled around a bit, then replied that she was afraid they could not oblige, as this medication was available over the counter.

“Hm, just as I thought!” replied the assistant,  returning to eyeball me with satisfaction. “I’m afraid the chemist said we can’t oblige in this instance, Mrs Jenkins, as the medication is available over the counter.” His expression turned to regret.

“That’s fine!” I said, with a Cheshire cat smile, “Where is it?”

“Just behind you, Madam, in the section labelled ‘Antihistamines”

I love going to that chemist because there is a lot to be said for literalism. Who cares if your boss works precisely three feet from your left ear? She is in a separate department and may not be listening while she prints labels to go on other people’s prescriptions which say things like, “Not to be taken at bedtime” or “Swallow, after food, with water.” If she listened in to everything that goes on at the front counter, she might become distracted and print all kinds of drivel on those little brown bottles (“Not to be taken with water” or “Swallow with a bed, after food time”). It only takes one literalist…

I’ve been thinking about literalism lately, ever since my husband, chortling, drew my attention to the instructions on the back of the toilet roll pack: –

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I mean, really, who doesn’t know how to use toilet paper? And isn’t the number of sheets a rather personal thing? As for flushable wipes, well, don’t get me started on our local drainage problems. Suffice to say, flushable and wipes should never be put together in the same sentence.

It made me laugh though. What else could twenty-first century humans really do with instructions for?

How to get up –

  • Open eyes slowly, to prevent temporary blindness
  • Lift upper body from supine position
  • Blow nose  (this for people like me with sinuses)
  • Swing legs slowly over edge of bed, particularly if over 50 or hung over
  • Stand up and limp around, muttering, “Ooh, ah!” until limbered and ready for the day

How to stack a dishwasher –

  • Open dishwasher
  • Throw everything in as quickly as you can
  • Look critically at “Not suitable for dishwasher” china, mutter “Rubbish!” and throw that in too
  • Go to the toilet while your partner re-stacks everything and presses ‘Play’

How to work –

  • Get up, following the advice above (see How to get up)
  • Go to work
  • Enjoy the energy and creativity of your working environment, giving everything your best shot
  • Try not to spill coffee on the keyboard
  • Come home and lie in a dark room

* This may be most applicable to primary school teachers of a certain age

I wonder what God would put on his instructions for Life?

How to live –

  • Be born
  • Obey your parents and try not to judge them (being a parent hurts)
  • Cultivate wonder
  • Be as kind as you can, even to people you dislike
  • Forgive people, to stop your heart crusting like a clam
  • Believe there is goodness at the heart of the universe
  • Don’t give up hope, ever

Oh, and never trust a man with a mini (or was that my mother?)

What other things could we do with instructions for?

 

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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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Bad Wrapping and the Gift of Hope


Sad fact – people have no inclination to open presents I’ve wrapped. This is because, instead of tantalising hints at treasure within, they give off an aura of utter tat, fallen from the back of a lorry or bought at a White Elephant stall. I tell myself it’s because I’m a “rip it off” person. My husband, on the other hand, is brilliant. Sizing the wrapping to be cut with a practised eye,  he can scissor a line through paper straight as an arrow (without cutting the tablecloth) and coax the lumpiest of shapes into  perfect hospital corners. He’s not much good at ribbons and bows. If there are any to be applied (and I can’t promise there will be), I’m quite good at that. But as for the basics, forget it. We have refined the process to factory-like precision. He wraps. I write eccentric labels and do pretty bits (stick on bows) and everyone is happy.

Which would you rather open? This one?

Which would you rather open? This?

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Or this? (I rest my case)

Or this one? (wrapped by an artistic friend)

Or even this? (painted and wrapped by a friend)

This morning we did the Christmas Food Shop. Observing others, it fascinates me how different we are.  Some trolleys were full of alcohol and little else, some with meat. There was one lady with a trolley crammed with just potatoes. I wanted to say, “A-scuse me! Are you having a potato printing party? ” But it seemed a bit nosy to say the least, so I contented myself with imagining a baked potato jamboree at hers, with Santa hats. There was a shaky old lady trying to read labels on jars of pickled onions and a teenager trying to help. “Sulphur dioxide. Are you alright with that? What about onions? You alright with them?” It made her laugh as she thanked him for his trouble.

After we’d stowed our bags in the car, there was an incident. From the queue waiting for spaces, a Mercedes suddenly swerved around the car at the front and roared straight into a just-vacated space. The young lady, whose space it should have been, started tooting furiously. She got out, strode over to the three young men getting out of the car, and shouted, “Oi! You were behind me!”

“No we weren’t!” replied the driver, “We were in FRONT of you. Anyway we’d been waiting f****** ages!”

The young lady, understandably, wasn’t happy. She called them a name, loudly. I won’t repeat it but it begins with a W. And has seven letters (in the plural). The young men strode off, laughing. I do not like this word but you could see her point of view.

What happened next was interesting. Four or five people, including my husband, indicated that they were about to go and she could have their space, even pulling out before they’d taken the trolley back etc. so she could park. She immediately reverted to the pleasant, gentle looking person she had previously seemed, and thanked us all profusely. We were outraged, but nobody wanted to pick a fight with three, er, unpleasant youths. But this was something we could do.

Christmas brings out the best and worst in us – my physical laziness (because that’s what it is. I spend ages thinking of eccentric greetings for labels), the kindness of strangers, impatience, selfishness, solidarity towards the wronged. But random kindness give us hope. It reminds me of the story told on Sunday…

Four candles were burning on the advent wreath. The room was still and ever so quietly they began to talk to each other.  The first candle sighed, “My name is Peace. But people don’t recognise my value and won’t allow me into their lives.” Gradually the candle’s light got smaller and weaker until finally it went out.

The second candle trembled in a draught from the window. “My name is Faith,” she whispered, “But I feel as though I’m not needed. People don’t believe anything any more unless they can touch it and hold it in their hands.” And slowly the candle flickered and died.

The third candle whispered, “My name is Love. I no longer have the strength to keep burning. The world has become so selfish and uncaring.  People only think about what’s best for them.” And with a  sputter and a sigh, its light went out

At that moment, a child came into the room. He stopped and looked at the candles, puzzled. “You should be burning!” he cried, “You should be alight. We need you!”

Then the fourth candle spoke. “Do not be afraid,” she said, “As long as I’m on fire, I will always give the other candles light and life. My name is Hope.”

And with a small piece of wood, the child took the light from the candle of hope and used it to light the way to peace, faith and love again…wpid-20141130_114837.jpg

A big thank you if you have clicked on the link and read a blog post this year.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a hopeful 2016…

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Breath or a Pause? Paris and beyond…


You know that thing when you open the dishwasher, and shove something in mid-cycle? Well, I do it really fast, before the dishwasher actually realises so there’s no pause in the cycle. Just a quick hiss of water, the clunk of the mug or fork as it bumps into its friends, the bang of the door. Then, immediately the soothing whoosh resumes.  And I can relax. You see, if you don’t do that, if you move slowly, precisely, the dishwasher realises and does a sort of, “Mayday! Mayday! I appear to be open! Captain, stop operations! Wait until the items are arranged in the trays in height order. In height order, I say! When the door’s closed, after sixty seconds (so this lousy operator thinks we’ve broken down completely) and not a moment before, you may resume wash cycle.” My way’s better though. There’s no pause at all. Just a breath.

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The appalling events in Paris this weekend have resulted in a wave of outrage and sympathy across the world. Iconic buildings are lit like the tricolore,  people are demonstrating and lighting candles, Facebook is helping you update your profile picture in French colours.  The empathy and support are overwhelming and that’s how it should be. Discussions on the radio include those who want a full-scale war and those who insist violence should not be met with violence, calling for another way. Then there are those who claim it’s the politicians’ fault. If they hadn’t recklessly made war on Iraq, this would never had happened.

It’s interesting how our reactions are so much stronger than they were, say, after the Sharm-el-Sheikh air crash. Of course we were upset, particularly when we found out everyone on the plane died, there were Brits who couldn’t leave the country and an ISIS- affiliated group claimed responsibility. More people died than were killed in Paris but somehow the latter is far, far worse. Did Facebook encourage us to change our profile pictures to a Russian flag? (Which is, after all. not that different from the French one.) Did I even think of it? No.

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Somehow it’s more real when it’s in the west. Russia? Of course it’s sad for them but they’re so far away and anyway, they dope their athletes. France is just a few breast strokes away.  It’s practically Kent, give or take a tsunami around 8,000 years ago. Literally, it could have been me.

1,750 migrants perished in the Mediterranean this year. More than 200, 000  have died in Syria. And our hearts have bled for them. But I confess those situations have not affected me the way the Paris one has. Something about the planning, the co-ordination, the years of preparation that went into such attacks perhaps? Is it also the chilling fact that on the same day, quite a number of individuals chose to destroy so many regardless of the most valuable thing they themselves possess – their lives?

This is not to condemn anyone, except myself perhaps. I’m trying to understand my own reactions. There was something on Facebook this morning about looking in the rubble for those who help. It challenges me to live the way God intended – praying and finding ways to stand alongside – holding the hands of those who mourn, giving money or making food, sending clothes  or packing boxes. This is what is behind the profile pictures, the iconic buildings, the demos. What else can we do?

This one will be in the media for a while, I imagine. But how long will it take me to shrug it off and move on? I don’t want to be the kind of person who cares deeply but briefly. But this will mean thinking things through, stopping the machine, taking time. Then acting. Instead of throwing things in and slamming the door.

A pause not a breath.

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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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The Blessing of Good Signage


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

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

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

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

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

Then there was this one –

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

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

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

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

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

There's beauty in dead places

There’s beauty in dead places

Life returns, even in graveyards

Life returns, even in graveyards

When you see the rainbow, you forget the rain.

Rainbows – my speciality

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

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

 

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

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  https://propheticpostcards.wordpress.com/