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

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Happy Valentine’s – Scars in our Eyes


I have scars in my eyes. Particularly the left one. If I were to wink at you with my right eye, you would have no nose. You might argue that this is a good thing in a way, but I assure you however misshapen your nose (I have one nostril higher than the other), it’s better than having no nose at all.  Faces look like donuts , soft, featureless, with a hole. I see your hair,  ear, the pattern on the curtains, the edges of things but not the essence. I open my other eye, and all is normal again. To my relief your nose returns, in all its glory.

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This doesn’t bother me at all now. When it first happened years ago, it was traumatic to say the least. But, after treatment for a very rare condition, my right eye was saved and I can still read the bottom line on the eye chart. People function perfectly well with one eye. After all, my right eye’s near-perfect, my left has peripheral vision, and my brain makes up the rest. The only thing I can’t seem to do is light candles. Apparently, watching this is quite hilarious.

When my nephew was small, apart from being blonde, blue-eyed and very angelic, he had this great party trick. My brother-in-law would say to him, “Now Little One, what do you love?” And he’d put his finger to his cheek, cock his head, think for a bit, and begin.

“I love cars!” His little eyes would brim with excitement, “And I love trains, and clouds, and sunshine and little cakes wiv icing on! I love Nanny, and the seaside, and ducks and chocolate…” Sometimes he’d pause for a minute and my brother-in-law would prompt, “What else do you love?” Then he’d be off again. “I love trees, and tractors and those lorries wiv milk bottles on and big fat rabbits…” It was an absolute joy to watch, because here was a child who was brimful with delight, and in love. And the recipient of his love was simply – Life.

I’ve never forgotten this, and I remembered years later when the treatment for my eyes began slowly to settle the watery curves, gaps and constant feeling of sea-sickness into something resembling normality. I watched the world from my bedroom window as I began to see detail again – faces, stars,  leaves on trees, and think how much I delighted in them, these tiny emblems of God’s love in the world. And as my vision returned, the scars left a reminder – there are gifts everywhere. Don’t forget to look. Past the thumbprint on the lens.

St Valentine was not a lover of women. He was a lover of life, of God, secretly marrying young couples when Emperor Claudius had forbidden it. When imprisoned for his deeds, it is said he helped and prayed for the blind daughter of the Roman who judged him, to such effect that Asterius became a believer himself. In 269, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part death (beating, stoning and decapitation) because of his belief that a Christian marriage should be available for those who wanted it. His last words were supposedly written in a note to Asterius’s daughter, signed “from your Valentine”, inspiring the romantic cards and gifts of today. But St. Valentine’s true gift to the world, was not cards but kindness.

There’s this great psalm that talks of the way God put us together in the womb, planning our days with infinite precision, forming physique and character – a love for trees or tractors (or in my nephew’s case, everything). You may not be serenaded with cards or roses today. There may be someone precious missing – a person, who adores you and is with you. You may not have been loved like this, or you may have loved and lost. In some way you feel you will never recover. It has scarred you and part of you has died inside.

But, you are loved  – by your world, whoever and whatever that may be – your family, your friends, God (who knows death and scars), the way the sun throws patterns on wood. These things are part of God’s Valentine’s to you, to the world. As Valentine the man was. as you are, a bringer not of cards but kindness.  (I have a colleague who is brilliant at this – always sharing helpful stuff, leaving chocolate on our desks.)

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Dare to believe you could still live brimful with delight. Thumbprints on the lens but gifts to be found.

Don’t forget to look.

 

 

 

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer, Advent and Latin Verbs


Call me sad but I loved Latin verbs. At an all-girls school, stuffed with hormones and self-obsession (I levelled out but have recently declined again – for obvious reasons), Latin verbs were immensely comforting. Like the shipping forecast , there was a predictability, a rhythmic quality to the conjugations that soothed you, suspended time and made you acutely aware of the moment. To this day if I start reciting, “amo, amas, amat…” my senses are filled with memory – the smell of wax on polished wood, pink blotting paper. and on the floor, clean squares of sunshine where dust motes dance a late, lazy waltz. Miss Everley, with her pointy shoes and ever-present smell of patchouli, would be proud of me.

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The word advent is Latin for arrival. The verb, advenire, to arrive, is one of my favourites because the -ire verb endings (fourth conjugation) were the friendliest ones. Look, this may sound odd, but try it. Try saying it out loud : – advenio, advenis, advenit, advenimus, advenitis, advenitunt.  See what I mean? Don’t you feel soothed and generally more benevolent towards the world? This is probably because when you got to the second person plural you couldn’t resist saying “advenitits” and this made you giggle inanely. It was, of course, the real reason we favoured it. But I can assure you Miss Everley would have had none of it, striding over to you, eyes like gimlets and breathing close-range patchouli flavoured threats at you. This was so unpleasant that, if you had a compulsion to say “advenitits” you had to whisper it in order to stay alive. Of course, if the rest of your class had noticed this compulsion and hatched a plot to hold their breath at the second person plural, you were stuffed anyway. Sigh.

For me, advent is like Latin verbs. There’s comfort in the routine  – making the cake, decorating the house. When I think of advents past, my senses are filled with cinnamon, snow and the smell of oranges. When the children were small we lived abroad, in a country that didn’t celebrate Christmas, so we used to make biscuits in the shape of holly or angels to hang on the tree. We made crackers  and filled bowls with oranges. It was very cold and there was often snow, which my husband had to shovel off the roof to stop it leaking. We missed family and friends but those makeshift festivities were among my best ever. We sang carols and met up with other ex-pats who taught us their advent routines – gingerbread houses (Norway), sweets in shoes (German), glogg (Sweden).  Of course I romanticise it – there were illnesses, breakdowns in the snow. The apartment never seemed to get warm. But they were happy times.

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This year we can light candles, go to church, sing carols. We’ll put out the Christmas cushions and the nativity scene. We’ll remember, as you will, that there are many celebrating the season with tents for homes and empty stomachs. And we’ll give thanks, as you will, to God or life or both (depending on which combination you believe in) that we have warmth and light and loved ones, to help us through the winter months. Then we’ll turn on the News and remember, as you might, that we could have done more for  others – filled a Christmas box, given money, donated at work. There’s so much need, we can become immune to it.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by the tide of evil sweeping the world – not just the terrorists and the wars and the starving children, but the selfish thoughts, the angry words, the jockeying for position that goes on in my own life, and maybe in yours. All this can drive us to despair. That’s why I’ve started using the Lord’s Prayer. it was brought to my attention recently in the News. Apart from praying it at church, I rarely prayed it. I know there’s been some controversy lately and maybe the cinema isn’t the best place for it. But in the car, or on Break Duty or  cooking, really is. It’s such a great prayer and seems to cover all the bases, all the things that are wrong with the world, and with me. Jesus  thought of it but it could equally be prayed by anyone seeking after truth, after God, whoever they conceive him (or her) to be. There’s a rhythm, a soothing quality to it that’s immensely comforting. Like Advent or Latin verbs.

And I can’t explain it, but when I pray, things happen. Good things.

 

 

 

 

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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