From there to here…


The Vaucluse is the most beautiful place on earth. Well, perhaps not THE most beautiful. Cappodocia, Turkey probably is….then there’s Holy Island. Well, alright, there are quite a few beautiful place on earth and the Vaucluse is one of them. In fact, on our recent holiday,  I found it so beautiful, that it actually hurt in a Look-God-you-know-I-need-beauty-why-am-I-in suburbia? sort of way. (But God, who is used to my moaning, just chuckled and did a thing, which is what this post is about really.)

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The old house – shuttered and sprawling, with honey coloured stone – was run by a wonderful couple called Olivier and Christele. When translated, their website said things like, “We are a small family who love to receive and share the living environment so privileged,” and “We will guide you through our discoveries and our hot heart”. The living environment was indeed privileged with its vine covered terraces, inviting pool and shady corners. And their hot hearts provided us with ample breakfasts of lush fruit, home-made yoghurt and melt-in-the-mouth croissants. To say nothing of the cheese, and wine to die for (the latter not for breakfast obviously). The first night we ate outside as guests at their Table d’Hote along with five Belgians and a French couple (few English make it to these parts).  Olivier regaled us with stories of his visit to Brighton where he’d been required to put coins in a meter to make the lights work. We politely asked when this was. It turned out to be forty years ago.

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During the day we read by the pool or drove to tiny villages balanced so precariously on the edge of hills, that they seemed to float in a shimmer of heat and silence. We explored caves. We followed the River Sorgue to its source above Fontaine de Vaucluse and wandered in covered markets. We ate in brasseries in squares of sunshine or in the flower filled courtyard outside our room. We slept behind shutters which made the room so dark, you blundered into cupboards trying to go to the loo. We pushed them aside when we woke, blinking in bold sunshine. It was,  let me tell you, a slice of heaven.

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But here’s the thing. As I went through the various stages that we all go through on holiday – 1) This place is incredible. We are so blessed 2) I want to live here forever. It’s not fair 3) Nothing lasts forever, even life itself. Just enjoy it, you fool – I went on Facebook. That, in itself, is of course not particularly interesting. It happens all the time, rather too often in fact, and it was good for me not to have it available 24/7 for a week or so. But when I went on it one day I recognised, with a beat, some photos of my local area – Richmond, the River Thames, the lock at Teddington.  It seems that a friend, a beautiful and talented musician we knew in Turkey, was visiting our area. She had posted some photos of it on Facebook, excited about her visit.

My immediate reactions were, somewhat paradoxically, both surprise that she thought they were worth posting (after all this was Richmond Upon Thames, not Cappadocia or Istanbul or the Vaucluse), along with a beat of recognition and love for the place. How strange! Here was I, bemoaning my incipient return to “suburbia” and here was she, posting photos of her holiday there with excitement and pleasure. It opened my eyes. I actually live in a very pretty part of London. I should be grateful.

We’ve been back for three days now. We keep saying things like, “They’ll be having aperitifs on the terrace now,” or “I wonder if Olivier is raking up leaves”. The fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people – the cycle of guests arriving and departing (How can they remain so welcoming, so interested?) – is still with us. In an attempt to keep the spirit of our holiday alive, tonight we had aperitifs on the patio – a Peroni and a Pimm’s. We sat in the garden enjoying the environment so privileged. And then I served my husband a Saturday supper with my hot heart – pizza in front of the TV.

Come back Olivier – all is forgiven. I quite enjoyed the Brighton story really…

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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

The eye (and ear) of the beholder


“…If you listen carefully, the earth is singing.” I swung round sharply. The two girls nearly crashed into me, their hands cradling petri-dishes filled with wood lice, ants and  a fat snail with a shell crisis. I had one of those rare moments of tenderness.

“That’s beautiful,” I said, “Really beautiful!” They looked up at me round eyed, then at each other with one of those she-can’t-it-help-it looks.

“No, it really is!” But they weren’t listening (not unusual). One of them was pulling the blonde locks of the other away from her petri-dish. “She’s lost her lid!” she announced to no one in particular.

“Don’t worry! It’ll turn up.” This is my stock response to losses of any kind – sweatshirts, pens, teeth. I once famously wrapped a tooth in a tissue, then blew my nose during PSHE and threw it in the bin, watched by 30 horrified children. But (after the furore subsided) I did actually find it, proving that one way or another,  it’ll- turn- up -theory usually works.)

In the classroom we examined our findings with magnifying glasses, discussed common features and drew them in science books. Bent over a range of garden insects, bright eyes rising and dipping, they looked liked excited birds. I heard them using words like thorax and coiled shell and felt proud. They drew ants with antennae the size of strip lights and centipedes with lost legs, “It’s hard to draw a hundred,” a boy told me, confidentially. I could see his point. Some of them had put daisies and bits of grass in the dishes  – to make them feel at home – and there was a fair amount of soil, dead leaves and pieces of bark.

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All this fascinated them – old leaves, insects – many with missing body parts – and earth from under the hedge in the playground.

“It’s a miracle!” said a child, pink with pleasure (We’re doing the miracles of Jesus in RE), “One of my ants was dead and and it came back to life!”

“It could have just been sleeping,” I suggested. Her face fell, “Though when you think about it, sleep’s pretty miraculous too,” I added quickly. She smiled.

The world is a source of wonder when you’re seeing things for the first time. I don’t think about insects much unless they’re threatening our bedding plants in which case we dole out killer glares and slug pellets. But I have a new respect for snails after cracked -shell-boy tried bravely to escape and try his chances on the end of a ruler. At the end of the lesson, we tipped them gently back into the nature area, near a pile of logs or under the hedge in a frill of shade.

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To an observer of earth, like God, we are ants. Tiny, obsessive creatures rushing around, our heads full of dreams and deadlines. Yet he filled this place with beauty  – trees and sleep and centipedes, even those with missing legs – to make us feel at home. And one day you’ll wake up and realise you haven’t got long to enjoy it. Don’t forget to listen to the child, the one inside, who sees small miracles. The one who looks beyond the soil and leaves and pieces of bark our lives are littered with, and remembers that if you listen carefully, the earth is singing.

Only it turns out she said, “(You might die)…if you mess your hair it in, that earth is minging…”

Ah well, beauty they say is in the ear of the beholder. They don’t? Well, they should do…

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sleep mode


Sleep mode – the pc stays on but uses low power. Apps stay open so when the pc wakes up, you’re instantly back to where you left off.

When I was younger, I could sleep anywhere. I’ve spent nights on floors, coaches, trains and under stars on the side of mountains. Once, memorably, I slept in an abandoned house in a tiny French village, with nothing but a febrile breeze and a band of crickets for company. In those days sleep was an irritating if necessary interruption to all the things I wanted to do, to experience. From living in student digs in a castle to racing friends up the down escalator of the Pompidou Centre to hitching across Europe in the summer (sorry Mum).

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My friend and I shared the top bedroom in the front left-hand tower. We used to do Hamlet impressions on the roof.

How times have changed. Now it has to be in my bed with the linen sheets and the 100% cotton jacquard duvet cover. And most important of all, the thin cushion (for lying on my back) and the thicker cushion (for lying on my side). I remember once lumbering into my mother-in-law’s room years ago and helpfully flinging the pillows onto the bed as she made it. To my surprise she wrung her hands. “You haven’t muddled up the pillows, have you?” she demanded. I was dumbfounded. What did it matter if I had? (Those were the “If-we- have- two- pillow- cases- that- match -we’re – doing- well days) Now, I  understand.

Sleep, these days, is precious, particularly at weekends. On school nights, it’s different – though much better than it used to be – lying coiled like a spring, dreaming of recalcitrant children and OFSTED inspectors with daleks for heads. I once dreamed that my entire class had turned into adult versions of themselves and were sitting with their knees scrunched under the tables, with car-keys and mobiles where their pencil cases ought to be. To say nothing of the odd I-forgot-to-get-dressed dream and the Whoops-no-teeth dream. I can honestly say I love my job. But do I ever have these dreams on non-work days? Never.

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Sometimes on school nights, when my brain is addled and active and rolling like a sackful of cats, I pretend I don’t have to get up the next day. It’s magic. I can feel myself melting and spreading like heated honey, stretching across the bed, toes tucked into cool, linen on skin, sleeping like a starfish. Sadly my husband doesn’t really appreciate the starfish thing. But then he doesn’t spend his day hunched over children’s work or wedged into chairs the size of fruit crates.

My favourite way to wake up is, slowly on summer Saturdays. The window’s open and, as I surface, I’m reeled into shore by breeze or birdsong or the lemon lift of curtains. The bed is a criss-cross of light and shade and I stretch, luxurious, into the warm bits for extra snooze. Because I can.

Sleep is really the most curious thing. I can’t think about it too much otherwise I can’t do it, but it’s such an interesting concept, this Let’s- press- the- Off- button- and -shut -ourselves- down- thing, and we do it every night mostly without thinking much. The more active among us may resent it – “Sleep, those little slices of death – how I loathe them!” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. But I prefer Arthur Schopenhauer’s: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed. “

A happy little note to end on. God knew what he was doing when he invented Sleep mode. A breath, a pause, a taste of that other life – where no amount of rushing around will bring you what you yearn for. But there is rest, strength, hope for the new day.

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A Celtic prayer and gift from my dear friend Norita Erickson whose early death left so many of us in shock. But she lives still, I know she does…

Human Sleep mode – the human being is still alive but uses low power. Options stay open so when the human wakes up, you’re not back to where you left off. You’re given another chance.

 

 

 

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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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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A lifetime of holidays and I’m still learning…


So it wasn’t the best weather, and it wasn’t the best place.  The windscreen wipers squeaked double-time all the way there and there was rain on and off all week. It was cold. The upstairs shower didn’t work and the toilets were dodgy. The roof in the conservatory leaked in three places and the smoke alarm bleeped all night, until we took the batteries out, choosing sleep over fumes and crisped skin.

But we got over it. And once we got over it, it was wonderful. There was lying around and reading, and reading, and lying around (for the over 50s).  DVDs and Youtube and Youtube and DVDs for the overs 18s. There were seaside towns to explore,  cafes for getting warm and eating cake,  and  beaches, and sudden bursts of sunshine, the latter two actually coinciding once for twelve whole minutes on a beach in Cromer.  The cottage was pretty, if dysfunctional, and in the evenings we took it in turns to cook, or loaf in evening light spilling gold into the back room.

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And it strikes me how strange it is that we’re always taken aback when holidays, in common with Christmas and new kitchens, aren’t perfect. They should be. After all, we’ve paid for them and we’ve waded through a lot to get to them – all that planning and pontificating, making arrangements (so much of life is making arrangements). To say nothing of the daily grind that has dominated your life since your last holiday – cooking, shopping, keeping clean.  You’ve gone up in the roof and found the cases, though no one’s seen the toiletries bags since Brittany, and as for the automatic cat feeder, didn’t you lend it to someone at Easter? Then there’s the whole, Shall we leave the low-energy lounge/kitchen light on, blinds up or down, curtains open or closed at the back/front, plugs in/out? And by the time you’ve packed the cases, written an essay to the cat feeder and the plant-waterer and the rubbish-putter-outer (you couldn’t possibly impose on the one person to do all of this), you sink into your car feeling you need a holiday. But you’ve got to put up with the long drive/flight before you can even dream of one, let alone the blood-pressure-raising interrogation for the next few miles or so – “Did you turn the coffee machine/iron/hair straighteners off? Did you slam the dodgy freezer door?” (This all before it starts to rain.)

So after all that, and sitting in roadworks and traffic for hours, the place had better be perfect. And if it isn’t. we’re surprised, then irritated, then annoyed. This is our holiday! 

But after we’ve had a cup of tea, talked of complaint letters, unclenched a little, we shake our heads, shrug. We notice the rain has stopped, there’s a view across fields. The lounge is cosy and has a log burner, some pretty brickwork. And for miles and miles there are fields dotted with tiny hamlets, and trees and water. And arching above it all, singing, the wide  Norfolk sky. It’s pure gold.

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And it suddenly hits us, that holidays are a break from  routine, not  life. They still require us to do the things that make life work, most of the time – laugh, ignore rubbish, watch for gold. We remember, with a clunk, this hitting us last year and all the years before…But somehow in the middle of all the toiletry bag hunting and the why-isn’t-this-perfect ranting, we forgot it. Again.

I sometimes think that God, if you believe in him, and I absolutely always do, apart from on planes and once briefly in a kebab shop in Brighton,  must sometimes put his head in his hands and sigh.

 

 

 

 

Things I’ve lost and the art of growing down


I am one of those people who sometimes puts things down and can’t find them again – lesson plans, cheques, small children. I once left my  son in the meat aisle in a supermarket while I popped round the corner for salad, then couldn’t remember which meat aisle (Chicken? Beef? Delicatessen?)  He turned up eventually, in Cold Meats and Pies standing obediently exactly where I’d left him, looking a tiny bit resentful.

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I confiscated a watch from a child in class. It was one of those bleeping ones that goes off randomly every few minutes and has a touch screen that is tempting to play with rather than listen to your very engaging teacher (you could probably go on-line with it too). I put it on my desk and carried on extolling the virtues of fronted adverbials until Break. After Break it had disappeared. Now this kind of thing happens to me from time to time – with money for school trips or offerings for the Tooth Fairy – and things always turn up so I wasn’t unduly worried. Until a week had passed and it had not reappeared. Even after the Robbery talk ( “I’m not accusing anyone of taking it, but if they had, it would of course be stealing”) Or the Accidental Robbery talk (“We all understand how a person could try on a watch, admire it on their wrist and then, on the spur of the moment, almost without meaning to, just…slip it into their pencil case. But it’s still stealing.”) A bit like the difference between manslaughter and murder, I always think. Anyway, I had to go grovelling to the – fortunately very lovely – parents, insisting that I pay for it and to let me know the make/brand etc. Another two or three weeks went by and nothing happened. The child came into school with a new, rather less sophisticated watch, for which I was grateful. When confiscating other things, I made sure to put them safely in the bottom drawer of my desk, behind the defunct stapler. Then it rained one day and the watch turned up! At the bottom of the Wet Play Box between a a piece of Lego and a one armed action man. It must have fallen off my desk into this unexpected place.

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I apologised to the child about the watch. I felt bad about it having been missing so long. It turns out it had been a birthday present.

“I only intended to keep it ’til Home-time,” I told him, “Then it went missing. It must have fallen into the Wet Play Box…” He gazed back at me seriously, “You know…at Wet Play,” I added. He has brown eyes, this child, the size of rolos. They looked straight at me for a while, considering. Then, very slowly, he put out a hand and touched my arm.

“It’s alright, Mrs Jenkins,” he said, “You didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. And you say we learn more from our successes than our failures..” He stared meaningfully at my bottom drawer where I currently held two friction pens and a ball. “Anyway we’ve found it and now I have two watches!” His eyes lit up with the pleasurable realisation, “I never thought that could happen!” And off he went happily, to meet his Dad.

This is why I work with children. Their faith in human nature is remarkable. It drives me to write lists.

Things I often lose during the week

Combs, cardigans, my sense of humour, the art of forgiveness

Things I find at weekends

Baking beans (under the kitchen units), jewellery (in hidden places), a sense of perspective

Things I’ve never lost

Buck teeth, coffee-love, a fascination with children

I went into teaching because I love children – they are the funniest, craziest, wisest little people, who put a smile on my face every day. They are trusting, forgiving and kind. They see the best in things. God made me like that too, but I sometimes wonder whether I’ve allowed life to squeeze it out of me a bit. They say that as you age, your child-like tendencies re-emerge. I’ve seen this in older people who burp loudly and laugh a lot, forgive quickly and are grateful for small things (“Now I have two watches!”). God planned this rather well I think. Forget growing up – been there, done that. Now it’s time to grow down.

Must remind my child inside to live a bit – lie on the floor with the cat, let things go,  laugh inappropriately. I might even join in with a game of Tag on playground duty.

And stay alert, in case some of the things I’ve lost turn up in unexpected places.                             .

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The Humble Transistor – how to shed forty years.


It’s Bank Holiday Monday. As we wander round the shop, alongside people in shorts with trolleys of plants and barbecues, and kids clutching garden toys,  my husband whispers, “The older I get, the more I think we’re not like most other people.” Looking down at our replacement lampshade – I elbowed the old one while hoovering – and the oven thermometer, I tend to agree. We would ride high on these purchases for days. And that was before I saw the radio. I should point out that I am a radio lover, I am the daughter of radio lovers and I listen to the radio pretty much all the time. Not quite as much as my friend who literally has it on day and night (she can’t fall asleep without it – a bit like babies on washing machines) but still, a lot. I will never forget my first radio. I had it for my fourteenth birthday. Of course we had a family radio (and a television – I’m not that old) but it was plugged in and we had to listen to what my parents listened to (Radio 4 etc.) My new birthday radio was battery operated and portable so I could listen to it wherever I wanted to. That first Sunday night I listened to the charts half way up the stairs. Just because I could.

 

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Well, the years passed and somewhere along the line, I stopped listening to the radio. Partly because we lived abroad, I suppose. Then, we came back to the U.K and I thought, Radio! A kind friend bought me a digital one. It was beautiful – all chrome with a wooden surround and shiny buttons. And the great thing about it, everyone said, is that you can listen to it absolutely anywhere. No interference, no balancing on one foot holding it somewhere above your left ear, then placing a step ladder in that position. It would work. Universally.

 

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I was so excited. But the only problem was, in the most important room in the house, the room where listening to the radio is an absolute imperative for mental and moral sanity – the kitchen – it didn’t work! Unless I moved it around, lifted it up and down, got a ladder etc. In the early days I slightly damaged the aerial. So I bought a new one. In time I bought a new digital radio. To no avail. Whether it was the position of our kitchen, the position of our plugs, the position of the actors on The Archers, whatever the reason, I finally had to give in – the digital promise had failed me. So for years and years I’ve been listening to the radio on my laptop. A handy solution, you might say. And it sort of was. This is my preference for radio listening – Radio 4 . If nothing of interest (unlikely), Radio 4 Extra.. If nothing of interest (unlikely), Radio 2. if nothing of interest (likely, though I do have a guilty addiction to Jeremy Vine), Classic FM. It works well in the kitchen, and is a life-saver, especially at Christmas.

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But there were still drawbacks. I mainly use my laptop at my desk in the bedroom so I was always carting it up and down to the kitchen. It takes a while to get going so if I’m thinking, “Oh, the 6 o’clock news!”, by the time I’ve brought it down, it’s time for the weather. Then, last weekend I went to stay with Fran. Now Fran has a little Roberts transistor radio not dissimilar to my first portable one, but a bit bigger. She has it on in the kitchen. She takes it into the bedroom. It accompanies her to the bathroom, the garden. Well, you get the idea.

“You mean, it works everywhere?!” I ask in amazement.

“Yup. It’s brilliant,” she says, “We used to have a digital one but it was rubbish.”

So I had already decided, in a ‘I-need-to-try-this’ sort of way, that I might investigate further, when we see one on the shelf right in front of us. A Roberts New Classic 993, 3 band battery portable radio (with mains option). The strap-line is “Sound for Generations”. It was £16.99. What would you have done?

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It’s small. It’s portable. I can take it everywhere, and it works. I feel fourteen again.

Funny old life isn’t it? You spend a fortune on something you think you want yet, for some reason, it doesn’t bring pleasure. You go on holiday and get sick, you go to a posh restaurant and get indigestion, you buy a trolley load of plants, and get backache putting them in. (We need to do that too actually).

But £16.99 to feel fourteen again. That’s a great deal.