Wednesday, 21 November 2007

It's high time I wrote another blog

It's high time I wrote another blog.

The spirit has been willing for months. As ever, time has been my enemy. Saving schools aside, I've embarked on Christmas Shopping with a vengeance. As if the Big Day were tomorrow. God help me.

N at Governors' Meeting till some ridiculous hour. Drank too much white wine on empty (rumbling) stomach. Roast stuffed squash finally ingested way beyond a sensible hour to the accompaniment of Spooks (BBC 3 10.30 for those who can't wait till next week on terrestial). Followed by ghastly programme on teenage fatties in Borneo jungle. Big Brother meets Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

Hell, I'm outta here too.

Till soon.


Friday, 7 September 2007


There are things that I have felt unable to say – until now.

May I be damned if I am wrong. May I apologise ahead if I am wrong. But, but, but…..

There were things that just didn’t quite add up for me in the case of Madeleine McCann. Now that, finally, the investigation has moved in a different direction, I feel I can utter my doubts with, hopefully, less recrimination than I feared had I done so, publicly as it were, earlier.

Although as horrified as everyone else at the idea that one’s young child could be abducted from a hotel room in the middle of a normal family holiday, there were nevertheless aspects of the story which troubled me.

I have holidayed in the Algarve since a child younger than Madeleine. I know that part of the western Algarve particularly well. I have been there with my parents, my husband and my own children for over 20 years. My parents owned a holiday apartment in a fishing village a few bays further west. I had a friend who worked in the Ocean Club and ran the sports club on the beach at Luz. Just three years ago I walked through the streets of Luz with my own young family, L - aged 2 – straggling along behind us one evening, pulling a little wooden dog that clattered over the cobbles. It made me laugh. How it would have made me cry if I’d looked round and she wasn’t there anymore. This was the first thought that came into my head when I heard of the abduction and the suggestion that this peaceful holiday backwater was in fact the centre of a massive paedophile ring. It made me shudder. All those happy holiday memories potentially shattered with the idea that there was this abhorrent undercurrent to the children playing with their buckets and spades on the beach. It chilled me.

Then I looked at the faces of the parents of the missing little girl. Now, I know we are all different, but if it had been me, and I’d come back to my apartment to find my child missing while I’d been out eating, I think I would have been so filled with remorse, so utterly horrified and torn apart at the consequences of my actions and the fact that it could have even happened in this benign holiday place, that I would have cried solidly, constantly, for days. If I cry even for 10 minutes, my eyes swell up like golf balls. It is very obvious to anyone that I have been crying. Forgive my suggestion, but the parents did not actually look emotionally exhausted, completely distraught. They were controlled. There was tension, sure, but I questioned whether there was - what would have been for me, at least - utter and total disbelief and grief at the loss of a precious little thing, who I’d given birth to and whose well-being was totally in my hands and, as a result of my not being with her, was now undergoing / had undergone unknown horrors at the hands of a perverted stranger or strangers. Yet there was not a trace of puffiness under the eyes. They were actually looking rather well, I thought. I couldn’t help comparing the face of the mother who tragically lost her two children in a villa in Greece due to carbon monoxide poisoning. She really WAS distraught. The trial was televised about the same time in May – the mother, even all this time after the loss of her children, looked ravaged. Her eyes were swollen and misshapen from tears, her face white and exhausted.

My next concern was the publicity machine which swung into action. I put myself in their shoes and thought, ‘Would I really have the presence of mind, let alone the energy, in the circumstances, of orchestrating all that?’ Even our campaign to save the school – nothing compared to the media campaign they were launching – was exhausting. To my mind, it just wasn’t the natural reaction to the situation. But is was a very good way of distracting any attention from themselves…Indeed, for me, it was not only an unnatural reaction, but also rather a vulgar one. It was like something from the pages of Hello magazine – pictures of Kate going to church, holding hands with her husband as they took evening strolls along the beach. Just think about it. Would YOU really react like this? For me, such scenarios would be unthinkable. I wouldn’t FEEL like walking along the beach in the place where my child had been taken from me. I wouldn’t WANT to grin at the world through the playground furniture where my little girl had been skipping around days before with my two remaining children. I would want to hide with my grief and my fears, out of the surreal ghastliness of the public glare. I would hate the place with a passion. I would stay just long enough to do the essentials with regard to the police investigation, but once all the appeals were over, the initial hunt done, I would want to go home and be among my friends and family and the REAL memories of Madeleine. Her room, her clothes, her toys, her friends. I would not want to be hobnobbing with the Prime Minister, the Pope and David Beckham. I would want to cosset and protect my two other babies and be there for them at all times and have them back in their familiar surroundings, being cared for by myself and my family. Call me old-fashioned…

Another point that troubles me is the fact that despite such worldwide coverage and appeals for her return, and despite the huge financial rewards being offered, nothing came of it. Just silence. If she had been taken and was still alive, she would have been dropped off on the outskirts of some village somewhere in the dead of night, left to wander until found. It is a very tight-knit community down there. People know other people. They know their movements. It is extraordinary that nothing of any real significance was spotted by anybody at the supposed time of the abduction beyond the slightly flakey ‘man carrying bundle which looked like a child’ report. Also, I know those Portuguese blinds well. They make a hell of a racket when opening them and they lock down very securely. I find it very strange that anyone could have been tampering with them, in such a public space, and not have been heard or noticed. And why, as an intelligent middle-class couple, would you NOT use the Mark Warner baby listening service? I’m hardly precious with my children, but it seems obvious to me, rather than having to get up and down from dinner every 20 minutes and walk a few hundred metres or more back to the apartment, to have someone keep an eye on them for me. There were, after all, mere babies in that room with her too and was there not a risk that they would wake up and start crying?

In May I spoke to a policeman who trains and works with sniffer dogs. I asked him what he thought and he agreed that there was something about the whole thing that didn’t quite add up. Ditto a friend in France. Just gut feelings and observations regarding basic human psychology. Nothing more solid.

I was very interested to hear the opinion of a Portuguese journalist on the Jeremy Vine show today. She had the balls to come out and say what everyone has found impossible to think, let alone say. We have been so quick to criticise the Portuguese police – something else I found myself very uncomfortable with. Our media circus was in full swing, our ‘Diana’ emotions rushing to the surface. Only when some of that ‘noise’ had died down, did the police manage to get closer to the parents and, perhaps, start asking a few more searching questions…

I am not pointing the finger and saying ‘told you so, told you so’. Again, I apologise if this is how it appears. I am, merely, in light of the above thoughts and observations, very interested in the latest developments with the case and am watching and listening closely. It could have enormous repercussions and offers a fascinating insight into the current cultural-intellectual state of our society.

However, it doesn’t make it any less tragic - at many levels.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Au Revoir

I am slowly, slowly and rather painfully dragging my corpse over the finishing line. I was last in France in the May half term, shortly after the Open Meeting regarding the closure of the school. I returned to England with heavy heart knowing the next couple of months were going to be intense and hard. It is quarter to one in the morning, my father's birthday now - Happy Birthday dearest Pa, 79 today, seeming 10 years younger. I have packing still to do, admin to finish off, piles of crap to put in order before departure tomorrow lunchtime. Dramas involving lost mobile phones, cars and garages, and the wrong contact lenses delivered put pay to my two 'clear' days for packing and organising. At least my Tatton Park plants are planted and the cat feeder organised. Card made and flowers picked for new baby at the pub. Not just any old new baby, mind - one that happened to be popping by for a pint. No,no, the publicans are new parents for the first time. Lily Jackson (old family name - not a hermaphrodite). New life, old life. 0 years, 79 years. Both just as precious.

My friend called from France and told me the weather's just come good. Thank God. Any more rain and I would be swinging by my neck from one of the many pine trees on offer in Les Landes. I truly believe this 'summer' is actually worse than winter. But I must be thankful for small mercies - we live on a hill, at least. And in Derbyshire, not Gloucestershire. Which reminds me, I should have phoned my friend who lives there just to check she's not drowning...

So off to France it is. It will be a stressful morning. Much shouting no doubt. But, come supper time, we will be bobbing on the briny (in a force 10 gale and torrential rain, according to the forecast). At least, though, we will be away. Off. On our hols. We will put the children to bed and enjoy our supper (as long as not too many people are throwing up around us, of course).

In France we shall celebrate some more birthdays - my Godson's 10th, G's 7th, my mother's 71st and my brother's 46th. We will raise glasses and open presents and light candles across the generations. Hopefully the sun will shine, we shall surf and sunbathe, we shall eat, drink and be merry. God willing.
So, au revoir, my friends, for now. I shall return before I know it, with another raft of summer memories for my 44th year of life. Another month older, my experiences subtly changing me. Refreshed, renewed. Ready to start again.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

'Daddy! It's my birthday!'

Thursday, 12th July 2007

‘Daddy! It’s my birthday! I’m five! I’m not a shrimp any more!’ The excitement in her voice was palpable. Louisa Mary Lucia comes of age. There is only one child left in her class now who is still only four years old. She is officially no longer a Shrimp. It could not have been a nicer way to have been woken up on my youngest’s fifth birthday.

Her older siblings had not shown similar emotion at this rite of passage. I could not let her down by feeling sad at her growing up. She will always be my youngest, after all. In my mind, at least. I lay in bed, smiling to myself, listening to the exchange between father and daughter. ‘I hear you had a birthday treat last night?’ says N (who had been away). ‘Yes. It was really borwing.’ (She’s never been one to mince her words.) Indeed, it was a mistake. A friend who was appearing in the Buxton Festival (a summer season of special one-off performances, speakers, operas and fringe shows) told me enthusiastically ‘Oh, you MUST come and see me. It’s a musical, based on a bible story [Joseph sprang to mind]. There are lots of children. The girls will LOVE it.’ So, suitably enthused, and thinking this would be a lovely birthday treat for Louisa, I book tickets. We invite another 5 year old. A new friend. The excitement mounts. They skip along the pavement and into the Church where the performance is being staged. We are too late, all the seats are taken downstairs. We go up to the gallery. Again, all front row seats taken. At three foot tall, they cannot see a thing. We ask a kindly couple if they could squeeze in next to them at the front. I sit on a different row. The ‘show’ starts. Oh dear. All discordance and symbolism. Oh look, there’s our friend. Wearing the orange skirt. Dressed as a peasant. What’s going on? Who’s he? Is that Tobias? Is that the Angel? And who’s the scary man in red caressing a young lady’s bosom. I glance nervously across at the little heads. Backs straight as rods, they do not flinch. The show goes on. It gets no clearer. I notice the girls shifting. L gets up, squeezes past knees, up the aisle, past more knees and across to me. ‘I’m borwed!’ Her little friend follows, sniffing noisily. ‘I’m thirsty!’

Somehow, we got through it. I didn’t understand a thing. Not much hope, then, for a 5 year old. I worried they’d have nightmares with the scary man and the discordant notes. Remarkably, they seemed unbothered. It was an excellent performance, fantastic vocals. But can anyone tell me what ‘Tobias and the Angel’ is actually all about?! I need to try and explain it to a couple of 5 year olds I know…

We went to the park and played on the swings. They enjoyed that. And so did I.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Now, where was I?

Ok, so where was I? BC (Before Campaign) I mean. Hmm, [much drumming of fingers]. Ah yes, I remember. Warbling on about my rather dull life, if memory serves me correctly! Was is summer back then? I think perhaps it was. Soft evenings, a sense of hope and things to come. But we've had the longest day now so it will be Christmas before we know it. Mmm, I can almost smell the mince pies...

Oh, hang on. We're actually still in July, aren't we? Despite it being 10 degrees with a sharp wind whipping grey sheets of rain off the moors. 11th July in fact. The night before my 3rd daughter's birth, 4 years and 364 days ago. I remember waddling down the landing as dawn was breaking, 2 weeks overdue, having relieved my bursting bladder. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and recoiled in horror at the hephalump that loomed out at me. No, this wasn't fun anymore. I wanted it out. Nor could I bear the lonely little beige bunny, 'Welcome to the World' embroidered on it's cream T-shirt, lying patiently in the empty crib beside me. It was starting to haunt me. Making me think that perhaps this baby would never come. Something awful was going to happen before it saw the light of day.

I'd taken a swig of castor oil at bedtime to help move things along. As I climbed back between the sheets, reassuring N that no, this was not 'it' - just a pee break, I contemplated the horrors of being induced at the hospital in just a few hours time. The bag was packed, the parents were in the spare room, ready to hold the fort. I lay my head back down on the pillow and shut my eyes. In the old apple tree beyond the open window the birds were tuning up for the first notes of the dawn chorus. The air was soft, the scents of summer wafting into the room. Then, oooh, what was that. Ouch. OUCH!!! Oh my God, here we go (when they come, they come fast with me). N grabs the phone. Can you get the midwife round - my wife's in labour (planned home birth). What do you mean, there's no-one available? Been a busy night? Told you so, says I between gritted teeth and the odd expletive. The trouble is, when they come so quick, your body can go into shock. So there I was, trying to dress myself at 4.45 in the morning, shaking so hard that I could barely stand. 'This is RIDICULOUS!!' I'd asked them what would happen if the baby came in the middle of the night and there was no-one around to come over. 'Oh, that won't happen - there's always someone.' Oh, yeah, right. So I staggered down stairs and into the car. Could barely sit, let alone walk. I'll spare you the rest of the details - many a woman has done childbirth. Suffice to say that, after a longer than anticipated spell in the hospital loo - since contractions prevented my from raising myself from the seat - this little black haired creature finally made it to the outside world, 45 minutes after the birds started singing. I looked at her and instantly fell in love. I hadn't done that with the other two girls before her. Both other births had been so very different, but I won't talk about them right now. No, this is little Louisa's day. Louisa Mary Lucia - born at first light on 12th July 2002. She is upstairs in her little bed right now, cuddling Bunny. Very special Bunny.

I am going to retire to bed too. No castor oil tonight. No exploding bladders. Just the thoughts of a middle aged mother who has to accept that her littlest one is growing bigger every day...

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Italy 1 - England 0

Hurrah! AC Milan won the football. In the city where I used to live, I can imagine the scene. The thronging piazzas and bars, the hugging, the kissing, the jumping up and down, the beeping of the car horns, the grid-locked traffic now filling what, a few short hours ago, would have been empty streets - everyone glued to their TV screen. In my head that's where I want to be right now. In my sixth floor apartment in my handsome brownstone Rinascimento building, peering down on the rooves of cars, the tops of heads, seeing the lights, hearing the voices, feeling the energy and smelling the air. This is Italy. A land of optimism, passion and football mania. In England the same passions are more devisive, less endearing. I'll never forget when friends of ours visited. He was a dyed in the wool Chelsea fan. I took them to lunch on the Navigli (canals) - a little bar, some football memorabilia. We sat outside in a weak sun, me enjoying sharing with them these lesser known spots. Paul went to get another drink. He came back, a little giggle in his voice: 'I think I've just seen Cesare Maldini'. He was Italy's national coach at the time. I felt good that I’d provided, unwittingly, a little football high-point in the weekend for our friend. When we finally dragged ourselves away from an idle lunch, I showed them round a few more places, then we went home. That evening we decided to pop over to a restaurant just a stone’s throw from our flat. A simple pizzeria restaurant, full of buzz and chatter and the smells of a wood oven. We sat ourselves down. Ordered our bottle of red. There was a big party of people celebrating a birthday. A classic Italian family gathering. Paul started chuckling. It was Maldini again, this time with his famous football playing son, Paolo – star of the AC Milan squad and captain of Italy. Twice in one day. Of all the bars and restaurants in Milan, both places at opposite sides of the city. And both times without pretence or celebrity. Just getting on with their lives. It made Paul’s weekend. It made me think, ‘God, I love this place’. It’s hard to be unhappy in Italy. There’s always something to put a smile on your face.

I’m tired of England right now, you see. This fight to save our school has, to date, been all-consuming and exhausting. And ultimately so senseless. I’m tired of talking about it, thinking about it, worrying about it. The children have become feral, feeding themselves, taking themselves to bed, practically driving themselves to school. After the ‘big meeting’ last night with the Idiots in Suits where the parents and Village Hall Trust gave a presentation in front of 200 people, followed by questions, we went to the pub. Drained, still reeling from the surreality of it all. From the short notice, from the short-sightedness. The children got to bed at 11pm. One had to do SATS this morning, unbeknownst to me. Amidst all this chaos and uncertainty, their tiredness, the children still performed exceptionally well. Their performance a direct reflection on their teachers and their environment. The very environment the Suits are trying to destroy. I could weep. But I won’t. Instead I will fight. I needed a day off today though. A day to sort the laundry. Make sure the children have socks again and I have pants. To put a little order back into our dismantled domestic life.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Village Schools - Superb or Superfluous?

I despair sometimes, I really do. Does excellence stand for nothing in this country? Is it really all about ‘the bottom line’? I have just received devastating news - for our little community at least. Our village infant school has been earmarked for closure.

This school is one of the key reasons I was prepared to unpick my life once again and move from the south to the north of the country. It is one of my strongest and most positive memories from when we first came to look at the house and the village. In the Autumn it was awarded the highest possible Ofsted inspection result and, as such, was put into the top 10 per cent of primary schools in the WHOLE country. This is a remarkable achievement for a school of 25 pupils. And it is all down to the dedication, vision and plain hard work of its Head and equally dedicated staff – one teacher, one assistant, one secretary – not to mention the strong parental input and board of governors. It featured in an article in the Primary Review just a month or two back about the quality and value to the community of our village schools. Its pupils leave in Year 2 with the abilities of most Year 4s. Thanks to the drive of the Head Teacher and her understanding that to remain open she has to achieve excellence and go for every financial subsidiary being offered, the school offers an incredible range, for such a small school, of ‘add-on activities’ and extra-curricular activities – swimming, ball skills, basketball, gym club, ICT both within the school and at the local secondary school, French club, card club…indeed, when we first visited the school it had more interactive white boards and computers than the private school our eldest daughter had been forced to attend in London (such was the impossibility of getting her into a decent state school in the over-crowded area of the city that we lived in). It was impressive. Put that together with a magnificent setting – clean air, startling views, quiet lane, sheep and cows and a very full programme of school trips and nature activities - and moving up here, rather than my husband weekly commuting, was an obvious decision. And you know what? – it really made me HAPPY that my children could be educated by the State, as they should be able to be, to a very high standard, in an inspiring environment.

But it seems that all that counts for nothing. Irrelevant the fact that they continue to build new housing without increasing the schools and doctors and dentists so that many of the local schools (again, in just the four years since we’ve been here) now have classes of 30 or more. Irrelevant that the village school brings a heartbeat to the ageing community, already stripped of its youth by lack of job prospects and the ever-widening horizons of the modern world. The farming community has virtually been squeezed out of existence, it is now the turn of the young things who, with the tools provided by the excellence of their early education, setting them up for life, are to suffer. Instead of being able to walk to school, we will now have to drive to another, far bigger one, to sit at the back of a huge class and lose all that careful nurturing and attention that creates confident, capable young children, allowing them to make the very best of the next stages in their education. Am I being too idealistic? Or is the local government just being too short-sighted? When money is the issue – they claim the cost of educating each of our children is just too high – it is a hard battle to win. But in the end, you get what you pay for don’t you? Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Is that really what this country needs? Wouldn’t it be nice, just for once, to celebrate success, to celebrate excellence and turn a blind eye to the bottom line? When I think how much taxpayers’ money has been thrown away over the years – don’t get me on Iraq, don’t get me on the Greenwich Dome or the London Olympics. All very different areas of expenditure, to be sure, but I can’t help feeling the domestic coffers could be better prioritised.

I am not a political person. I am simply a person who has paid a lot of money to the government over the years and has, frankly, taken very little back out. I am someone who believes in investing in people, in giving everyone the best start possible in life. I just think it is time someone sat up and took a look at the balance and quality of the education in this country and the importance of the village school in maintaining the heart and spirit of the rural communities. Everything is so weighted towards urban environments that in trying to improve the inner city situation while centralising rural education, leading to the sort of overcrowding that is reminiscent of the urban scenario, there is a real danger of chucking the baby out with the bathwater.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The Day the Circus Came to Town

I have posted the above picture just to remind us all what the weather HAS been like…it was taken on the way home last Thursday after a day out at Chatsworth (the school having been shut for polling day). Already, as I walked round a bedraggled, damp garden this afternoon, it seems a lifetime ago…

My better half is away at the moment and missing the fun. He has been on a short wind-swept and drizzly golf tour with the boys in the south-east of England and, after a swift change of clothes and a meal out with us on Saturday, jetted off to New York on Sunday morning. I received a text from him on Monday: he had enjoyed coffee in warm sunshine overlooking the Hudson river and the Statue of Liberty, lunch with a mate, a stroll in central park (with time to send me a pic), before heading off for drinks with other friends and supper and a baseball game. I was struggling to see where the work was being fitted in on this ‘work trip’. I, meanwhile, was sat in Wickes car park in the rain with five children while my friends looked for a hose. I reel sometimes at the very glamour of my life.

Prior to that we had been to the circus. No, not the Cirque du Soleil, or even the Chinese State Circus. No, just plain old Circus Mondao. Big top, big ladies in sparkly tops, unfunny clowns, horses, miniature ponies, recalcitrant goats, jugglers, sawdust, empty seats – oh, and a couple of zebras. This was the most exotic bit about it, I can assure you. Still, the kids loved it and we adults laughed like drains when the goat refused to jump the fences and ploughed doggedly through the whole lot like a bad day at Hickstead. We paid for the tickets, we paid for the popcorn: we refused to pay for the flashing light toys and the candy floss and the pony rides and the raffle and the photo with the miniature pony and Shrek. Actually, I found this a bit painful – poor Shrek had to stand in the middle of the ring with this weird looking pony by his side, shifting uncomfortably from big green foot to big green foot (and probably blowing raspberries at us all behind the mask) while not a single person thought a photo of their little darlings with this freak show duo would be nice to have on their mantelpiece. If the interval had gone on one more minute you would have probably found me rushing out there clutching all five children and a fistful of notes just to put him out of his agony…he’s probably having counselling as we speak. We did, however, cough up for them to pat the animals outside in their pens (50p a child). No ‘Now Please Wash Your Hands’ signs here. I’m not prissy about these things, but did wince just a little as L patted a particularly grubby looking goat on its backside. (Needless to say the one time I really could have done with the antiseptic hand gel, some useful little person had removed it from the car…)

I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with this and the circus we visit every August in the village in France for G’s birthday. No concerns about animal rights there – plenty of lions in cages and the odd elephant. Their equivalent of the goats are domestic cats – not renowned for their compliance – and I sniggered last year when one clearly thought ‘bugger this’ as it was manhandled into a swinging contraption and shot off through a gap in the tent, never to be seen again no doubt (except on a plate somewhere). That said, the French clowns were funnier and the jugglers better – but the glittery suits tattier and grubbier. No, safe to say, I won’t be running off to join the circus anytime soon…any lingering illusions now securely shattered!

Thence to Wickes, B&Q (still searching for hosepipes) and finally to Pizza Express (wash hands children!) – no Hudson River here, just a river of rainwater running down the middle of the street. It would have been an agreeable meal without the children. And I ended up with a dreadful stomach ache to boot. Roll on the next Bank Holiday! Let’s pray it’s not wet…

Yet, wet can be good. As we drove back into our village an evening sun burst through from under a bank of black cloud, throwing slanting golden rays and shadows across the landscape and a magnificent rainbow up into the sky. We gasped, it was beautiful, I wish I'd had the camera.

Friday, 4 May 2007

An Italian Sort of Day

Wednesday 2nd May 2007

If this weather carries on I’m going to have to change the blurb under my blog title! Everything’s on its head. It’s usually us poor folk up here in the north west hills that have to watch the sun streaming down all over the country while we wallow in mud and mist and rain, whatever the month. I’ll always remember my days in Milan where I would snigger smugly at the Sky News weather reports which had this constant pulsating symbol over the UK which represented rain, storms and every other ghastly metereological happening while I wafted around in linens, gently fanning myself and improving my tan. Yet tonight, sweet revenge! As I watched the Big Football Match over in Milan between Manchester United and AC Milan I could barely see the players for the curtain of rain that was falling, or hear the commentary for the thunder and lightning going off in the background. I looked out of my window here onto a scene of bucolic perfection. Fields bathed in a soft evening light, the bright blue sky that had spent the day with us just beginning to fade at the edges. Marvellous.

The game was a wash-out in all senses of the word. It had been hyped on the North-West news since there was a chance that the final (in a couple of weeks’ time in Athens, strikes allowing), for the first time ever (or in Lord knows how many years) was possibly going to be between two English clubs and, moreover, the two big red rivals of the region – Man U and Liverpool. It was eye-opening how much of a frenzy everyone was in about it all – it was the lead story, bumping off into second place that of some poor young innocent girl who had been shot dead through the head this morning outside her house. I was intrigued by the editor’s priorities (not for the first time in recent weeks, eh!). So, all revved up (I love a good game of footie – my father has been a sports’ journalist all his life and, when I was young, used to go off every Saturday to report on matches, returning home always with a rattly box of Maltesers for us – it’s his treat now to our girls when they visit), I sat down to watch the match. After endless speculation from the commentary team and pictures of boorish Brits shouting at the camera with the obligatory beer in their hands, cluttering up the magnificent Piazza Duomo in central Milan, the match finally started. Within minutes you could tell it was going to be dull, even before the first Milan goal. I switched channels to check out another programme which sounded interesting and was. I shall talk about that another day. I flicked back to the footie, saw it was 3-0 and blew a raspberry at the TV screen. I couldn’t help thinking of the family of the poor girl shot in the head who had been relegated to the bottom division by the BBC. Imagine if it was your child? I think I’d feel hurt.

So, throwing the football to the winds and rain, what else did the day hold? Well, actually, a rather pleasant lunch with my dear Italian friend on her alpaca farm deep in a valley below a village which goes by the dubious name of Flash. And if that wasn’t enough, there is also a Flash Bottom. You couldn’t make it up if you tried! Flash also basks in the fame of being the highest village in England at 1518ft. Actually, I think it featured once in Country Living (aagh, quick - garlic, crucifixes!). It formerly had a reputation for being a centre for illegal activities such as cock fighting and counterfeiting (hence 'Flash money'). According to some sources the counterfeit money used to be exchanged at the nearby Three Shires Head (where Staffordshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire meet) on Axe Edge Moor. Hah, bet you didn’t know that did ya! Well, now you do. So, a lunch with a dear friend who keeps me sane and a little insane and reminds me of my other lives, was enjoyed outside in the sunshine with a foreground of white male alpaca’s (separated from the pregnant females) clinging to a steep hill and trying desperately not to look like sheep. Since I have known Gemma, their numbers have increased year on year and they are now looking to sell some (any offers?). But back to lunch. Chilled white wine, dry cured ham, cheese, mushrooms and artichokes, and the spiciest rocket from her father’s vegetable garden just outside Milan (she’d been over there just last weekend, flogging English pottery to eager Italians at the monthly antiques market in her home town). Once sated, Guilt pulled us to our feet and took us for a delightful little potter along the banks of a stony, tree-filled stream. We chatted endlessly, took photos of butterflies and bluebells, paddled in the stream and returned happy and fully digested to her wonderful farm. I looked at my watch and realised I was about to be late to collect the children from school (what’s new! I hear you cry), compounded by the fact that I suddenly realised that the petrol tank was empty – again. Not just a bit empty. Really empty. With great trepidation I set off up her very steep drive and upwards, upwards to the heady heights of Flash village. A little bit more uphill on the Leek to Buxton road, then, finally, a downhill coast to the petrol station. £52 pounds in the tank. Yep, very empty.

The only other element in my day was Brownies. The days are now longer and I no longer have to collect in the dark. When I turned up this evening all I could hear was a cacophany of bleating lambs, filling the air as the buzz of insects. The sun was golden, the mood mellow. A friend’s father had come to pick up his granddaughter in a shiny maroon MG, soft top decidedly down. We chatted for half an hour about MGs (my second ‘serious’ boyfriend’s mother used to have a green one and I loved it when he picked me up in it), convertibles (we had one till I wrote it off on the lane – sad, sad, day – the origin of ‘Mummy’s Corner’) and this sublime weather. He informed me, having lived here all his life, that he didn’t reckon we’d had such a good Spring since 1947 – following one of the coldest winters on record last century too. I’ve certainly never had one like this in the four years since we’ve been here. The days are truly beautiful, I feel totally content. But I am aware that the ground is rock hard and the run-off streams have dried up - and it’s only the beginning of May.

Growing Up, Reaching Out

Tuesday 1st May

I helped out at school this morning as I often do on Tuesdays. Now I don’t have little L at home to stick and make with and do jigsaws and get messy with paint, I have been reduced to ‘volunteering’ to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in with her and her little friends in Reception. Our village school is an Infants School and currently has 25 pupils in it. It is a lovely place in which to pass the time. I pottered about filling paint pots and setting out number games. Today we were reinforcing their numeracy skills – counting in tens and units, more than, less than and all that jazz. I just love watching them all cross-legged and attentive on the mat, mainly drinking up the information but from time to time fiddling with shoes, taking their eyes off the teacher at their peril and being hastily and firmly drawn back to the matter in hand. I have flashbacks to myself at that age – just starting out on the long educational road, strewn with potholes and rusty nails on which it is all too easy to come a cropper. I remember the smell of the ‘copier’ – the heady fumes of methylated spirits reeking from the purple prints. I used to put my little nose in it and sniff deeply. What would Health and Safety have to say about that then?! I remember going up to the teacher’s big wooden desk at the front of the class and reading Janet and John. I almost remember that special moment when suddenly the words on the page become meaningful, readable. All the confusion collapses. Suddenly you can read! L reached that milestone in January and she now utters the words of her simple books with great fluency and expression. She has been given some of the most important tools of her life. I watch her mouth the phonetics when she hits an unfamiliar set of letters, then out comes the result. Part of me is nostalgic for the days when she couldn’t read, when she would lay a book on her lap like her sisters, something way beyond her years, and ‘pretend’ to read. It would always make me smile. Now a whole new world of independence has been opened up to her and there’s no stopping her. The moment she is settled in her car seat she demands her school bag so she can do her reading. The journey home is but two minutes, but she will not be dissuaded. She’s a stubborn little miss and her world grows bigger every day.

About 11 o’clock I was back at the house, catching up on the domestics – clearing away breakfast, emptying the dishwasher, putting a load in the washing machine, bringing in the sheets from the line. One of my great pleasures in life is hanging out the washing on a sunny day. Somehow it’s the combination of being engrossed in a job, out in the fresh air together with the sheer simplicity of sun and wind drying my laundry. No machines. No noise. No electricity. Just the movement of the air and the warmth of that omnipresent golden fireball. Not to mention that indescribable smell that only air-dried laundry has - sweet, full of negative ions, that’s the best I can say. I ironed while watching the lunchtime news. It was then I noticed the acidic brown stains of bird poo spattered about my lovely white sheets. I ironed over them. Country living and all that. No pretences here! Does Cath Kidston do a bird shit pattern? If she doesn’t, she should. Very authentic. Could be the next big thing.

Deciding I hadn’t spent enough time outside on this glorious day, I walked down the lane to school. If I’d taken the car I’d have been on time. As it was I was late. Again. I passed Henri on the way chatting to another neighbour, her dog cooling its heels behind her and looking bored, and gave her a rushed hello.
‘Hi Henri!’
‘Not got the car then?’
‘No, it’s too beautiful a day’
‘The air will do you good’.
‘Yes, and the children too’
They were sitting inside the classroom, waiting patiently as they have become accustomed. I sent them out to play and had a quick meeting with the teacher about arrangements for Year 2s doing an impromptu ‘farewell and bon voyage’ to our esteemed Head. She is off to Rwanda at the beginning of June to train teachers and will miss the Leavers’ Assembly at the end of term. It has fallen, somehow, to me to be the co-ordinator of this and the joint present - as has the task of co-ordinating the fundraising barbecue later in the term. My halo is shining so brightly at the moment that you can see it from Mars.

Meeting over, I scooped up the children and led them back up the hill. L strided out in her green gingham dress, swinging her school bag and telling me how we would always walk to school when it’s sunny and only take the car when it rains. She’s always been the big outdoors girl. She was only six months old when we first saw the house but I will never forget how her eyes brightened and her little pudgy arms started twirling in their sockets the moment we stepped out into the garden to have a walk round. She even managed to sprint up the last little bit of the hill to touch the ‘winning post’ – our house name on the wall at the entrance to the drive. In bucolic mood, we dropped the school bags inside, the girls changed and we came back out to look at the new lambs in the field. Just four bouncy little bundles ragging around with their mothers who, it has to be said, seemed more interested in chewing grass than gambolling. I knew how they felt. I was gasping for a cuppa and a lie down on the sofa. Which is exactly what I went and did. I ignored the huge puff of dust that plumed out as my feet hit the cushions and instead let my gaze rest on the still dazzling light outside illuminating the hundreds of busy insects buzzing about in the atmosphere in this fecund month of May. I think then I might just have dozed off – only for a minute or two, of course…

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Just another Monday morning

Monday 30th April 2007

I stood outside the school gates this morning and chatted to a friend. It was a beautiful blue sky day but with a chilly wind. I noticed the goose bumps on my friend’s throat (as Mrs Gaskill would say – well, chest sounds a little leery in the circumstances!) and it made me feel colder. I was glad I was wearing my vest or I’d have had goose bumps up to my ears. Henri passed with her dog, regular as clockwork. We said a cheery hello. I saw her again, later in the day, on her afternoon walk. She seemed a little depressed. Her friend Mary, whom I am also very fond of and who was the best friend of the woman we bought our house off, is really not well. She had a hip operation but has another mysterious incurable disease, dirkham’s I believe it is called, which means her legs are very swollen and tender and movement is increasingly difficult. In applying a soothing cream – she will not entertain having a live-in nurse – she managed to topple over and dislocate her new hip. She’s back out of hospital, but should not be alone in her big house surrounded by all her cats – which have Aids, I discovered. I was a little alarmed when I heard this as the girls and I had been round visiting and I was desperately trying to remember if any of us had been scratched! I’m told it’s not transferable to humans, but you can’t help worrying, can you? Anyway, poor Mary’s in a bit of a muddle, but I love and admire her spirit. She’s such an interesting person too - has so many tales to tell, so much acquired wisdom. She’s been wanting to move from the village for years, having been widowed long ago, wearying of the inclement weather. We all thought her mad to be trying to move in her mid 80s and with failing health, but that’s the very spirit that I admire in her, albeit a little foolhardy. Anyway, I must go and see her soon.

Henri is also in her mid 80s and has lived in the village even longer than Mary – all her life in fact. She is a good advert for the place. She still walks up hills with a purposeful stride and energy that defies her age. She still does yoga every morning and her brain is as keen as ever. She has so many grandchildren and great grandchildren, I always lose track. Her favourite grandson is in Australia and the first time I saw a crack in her indomitable demeanour was just after Christmas when she had waved him goodbye and wasn’t sure that she would ever see him again in her lifetime. I was lost for words. How can you say something comforting that doesn’t sound trite? I tried, anyway.

The rest of my morning was taken up with housework – trying to sort out the piles of tiny plastic things, papers, treasures and clothes in the girls’ rooms. A daunting task at the best of times – I have to be feeling particularly strong. I turned on the radio to remove the tedium and the silence and ended up with tears pricking my eyes. The discussion was about mothers who leave their families - always a loaded subject. It was heartbreaking to hear how three grown adults – one a lady of 65 – still were so completely full of pain over the sudden departure of their mothers, many years ago. They were so choked and crying that they could hardly get their terrible stories out. There are so many reasons that a relationship can break down – and I speak from experience – but this drove home the devastating results it can have on children, especially, of course, if it is handled badly or all goes sour and the children become pawns. I hasten to add, I’m not making judgements, I’m just observing. It certainly added an extra poignancy to my straightening of the girls’ beds and sorting of their possessions – such mundane motherly tasks but done with the sort of love I cannot describe.

Before I knew it I was back down at school again. The children played in the bright sunshine, now a little warmer. Then it was home for biscuits and a drink before heading back down the lane to meet E off the school bus from Macclesfield. This morning I had found a piece of paper amongst her piles of stuff which had a drawing of the family on it, all of us carefully labelled, including the cat. On the back it said: ‘My Family to remember when I wave good-by to mummy when I go on a big bus to an enormous school far from home.’ How could that not melt a mother’s heart? And I felt the tears pricking the back of my eyes again….

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Let’s Go for a Little Drive

On Thursdays I go to see the Yoga Ogre in Buxton. I had the most amazing drive over there last week. Amazing only in that it was perfect, until I reached the A6 at least. When I compare it to the sort of journeys I used to make in London…. well, there is no comparison. There I had to plan exactly when to leave the house to avoid the worst of the traffic jams. Driving to see a friend five minutes away could commute to 30 minutes of wheel-clenching, teeth-grinding frustration, magnified into urban hell by tired/hungry/irritable/bored babies in the back screaming blue murder. Give me a padded cell any day.

Here, it’s a rather different matter. I have to go, I get in the car and I drive. The only obstacles are horses, tractors, ageing LandRovers driven by stubborn farmers and equally stubborn sheep. Used to be a dairy herd issue too, but sadly, the last one was sold a year or two back. I used to love going in to school and saying ‘Oh, gosh, sorry I’m late, cattle, you know, milking. Got stuck in the lane’. Now I just have to say, ‘Sorry, late again. No reason. Yep, ok, flossing my teeth.’ I get the hard stare back and put myself in the naughty corner.

So last Thursday I flung myself eagerly into my car, slinky black yoga pants by my side, and reversed in one seamless arc out of the drive (thankfully the need for a reverse manoeuvre through narrow gate and walls is what put a lot of people off buying the house and hence left it wide open for us to grab, slightly non-plussed by the extraordinary reasons people do or don’t buy houses). Wow, what a beautiful day it was. One of those that's all shiny and bright, like looking out through newly cleaned windows. The focus is true, the shadows are sharp, the colours deep. The blades of grass were positively sparkling and the chirpy, chatty bluebells were bursting through the green verges on the edge of the road, gossiping away to the fat yellow dandelions about the comings and goings of the village. They were nodding their pretty heads and whispering and giggling and swishing their green skirts in the breeze. Most of the daffodils were now hanging their bedraggled heads having shown up early to the party, just a few late-comers happy still to join the throng and laugh and dance and be merry.

So I waved goodbye to the old house on the hill, lilac wisteria decorating her handsome stone windows like eyeshadow on an old dame. She's crumbling a bit round the edges but still stands firm against the elements, solid as a rock, defying time. As I descended the steep right-hand curve (a bitch in snow), past my neighbours in what was once the farm and some workers’ cottages, down through the 'cutting' of high hedge and stone wall and under the boastful bowers of a cherry tree heavy with pink blossom, I startled blue-tits, sparrows and blackbirds out of the hedges and up from the verges: flashes of blue, yellow, brown and black all swooped in front of the car, drawing me with their frenzied flight further down the lane before darting back into the safety of the hedgerow. Round the S-bend (‘Mummy’s Corner’ – tale for another day) by the track which leads under the railway and down to the reservoir where ducks bob and white sails glide. Little brown bunnies hopped out in front of me and darted into some hidden holes in the hedges, one had a mouthful of grass still clamped between its furry jaws. Lunch interrupted. Then, as I was going over the modest little stream (which swells and floods in the downpours of autumn and winter) I looked to my left and saw a scene straight out of a children’s story book: three perfect white geese with nine perfect brown goslings were standing on the slope of the jewel green pastures which lead to the meandering stream. The light was so strong and sharp it was as if they were etched onto the landscape. They stood motionless, in perfect formation, looking up at the blue sky.

I continued past the farm, scattering cocks and bantams (they don’t always make it, but not guilty I), past the watering hole (pub to you) and on through the village. Another S-bend, another stream and up the green tunnel of trees which leads to the escarpment. I rounded the corner at Florence Nightingale’s old haunt and came face to face with a big bay horse. Atop it, way up high, was a mother from school. I gave her a wave and a smile and was relieved I’d got there just in time not to have to grind up the hill behind her and her noble steed, while feeling a bit of a cad – how much better to have been scaling the hill with real horse power rather than with man-made. But it would have made me terribly late and my thighs would have hurt even before the yoga began. With a mental note to fix up a ride soon, I went round the hairpin bend that once, in ice and dead of night, I famously tobogganed down in a car packed with Christmas gifts and parents. It was not a good moment. ‘Mummy’s Other Corner’. The view is beautiful from here (if you’re not plunging over the escarpment at the time). The yellow gorse has now taken over the chief hill-decorating role from the white hawthorn, soon to be joined by purple rhododendron. I passed the gritstone crags on the right where climbers often cling, and glanced over to Chapel in the wide valley on my left, the brooding outlines of Kinder Scout beyond. Suddenly a bolt-eyed hare bound out into the lane and bounced along in front of me before jumping through a gap in a crumbling dry stone wall. A ewe with her two sturdy lambs bumbled off the tarmac in fright, another escapee from the surrounding fells. Everywhere I looked there were woolly mothers with their little black-faced charges. Further on a farmer was feeding his flock which crowded round him like adolescents at a pop concert, jostling for pole position.

I passed the march of electricity pylons and tumbled off the hillside into man-land. The barren moorland feeds into the first line of houses and parked cars. A ginger and white cat strolled across the lane and hopped onto a wall. I passed the station, on the Buxton to Manchester line, and popped out onto the dreaded A6 to join a stream of cars and lorries, many of them serving the numerous quarries, in the (relatively) tedious trail into Buxton. I passed the spot where a guy from our village, born and bred, killed himself on his motorbike. The flowers to mark the year ago anniversary lay limply by the re-built fence. Past the spot where a new leisure complex has been proposed (oh, the horror of it, ruining the open-viewed approach to the town and causing more congestion problems on this busy main road), past the driving range and the golf course, and down into town. Past Aldi and the new Waitrose which took over from Somerfield (signs that things are changing in Buxton…), past the imposing Palace Hotel, the art-deco splendour of the Opera House, the rejuvenated public gardens and into the Yoga Ogre’s road. I am late. She is not pleased. The karma’s not good. I make my excuses and flee, muttering something about ‘next week’. Well, at least I enjoyed the journey.

Friday, 27 April 2007

BoringLOG – Crashing in Cyberspace – One Week On

27th April 2007

The cows are lowing in the meadow, the sheep are bleating on the moor, and my beautiful mossy green lawn has been laid to waste by rampant moles who gathered round the sonic trap like spaced-out clubbers at an all-night rave…oh, God, sorry, I don’t have to write that c*** any more, do I? Mother Nature on acid.

That said, I am feeling a little despondent today and a drop of LSD could do the trick, I suppose. I have been pottering around Purplecoo dropping in here and there on people and I’m afraid I am now suffering from emotional and mental flatness. The trouble with cyberspace is that I find it totally overwhelming. I am officially classified as A Hyersensitive Person. Which basically means hellish to live with. And frequently exhausted - and exhausting. Maybe my husband’s a saint after all. Saint Nicholas – Patron Saint of? (answers on a postcard please). He’s stuck with me long enough anyway. And I put him through a merry dance for a few years. Hypersensitivity also means that I pick up on vibes that probably aren’t even there. It’s like being some sort of transistor radio. God knows what it would be like to be psychic. You wouldn’t be able to move for other people’s lives and ghosts flooding your own channels. I think I’d just explode. I had an English friend in Italy like this. It was a real burden for her. There are mediums in my family and my maternal grandmother had an uncanny sense of prediction, but I am not one of those. For me it’s more about feeling swamped by the energy of others, positive or negative and positively or negatively – depending.

I wrote a blog during my time on The Dark Side on a similar theme. I hardly dare look at it as I am no doubt repeating myself and would therefore be a useless columnist. But in the same way that I found city life, ultimately, so wearing and in the same way I can’t even look at the weekend papers through the sheer bulk of information they represent, cyberspace is, in reality, my worst nightmare. I love people and am incredibly nosey about them and bombard strangers with bizarrely detailed questions about their cleaner’s great-grandmother’s hamster. So here I am trying to whiz around like Westerwitch on a motorized broomstick trying to get to know you all and read all the details of your lives and your innermost thoughts – and remember it all! Who was the one who decided to go for a walk on the beach rather than pull out the greyhairs spotlighted by the spring sunshine? Who was it who went to Eyam plague village (up the road from me?). Who was it who was writing from Rodmell in West Sussex, which I always used to pass through on my way to the beach in the headier days of my youth? Who was it who posted a picture of a pheasant on their (rather nice looking) lawn? Who had the problem with the couch grass (I know he was male)? etc etc etc. Now, while trawling, I have the added complication of feeling a compulsion to look at everyone’s ‘profiles’. Fascinating, but just more time-consuming and dispiriting. Everyone just seems so talented and well-read and just when you think you’ve had an original thought you realise someone’s already written about it, more beautifully and interestingly than you ever could. And that’s just Purplecoo – there’s a million more other bloggers out there scribbling down their thoughts and sending them elegantly, stylishly, funnily, boringly off into the ether.

Then you have a quick shoofty round the news websites and find another overload of info, even the journos now doing blogs as if writing a column isn’t enough. And why write a blog when you write a column? Oh yes, silly me, they’re two quite different things, aren’t they?

Oh, and now I’m being told that blogging’s passé anyway. So what will be the next big thing, then? Pen and ink? Or maybe chalk and slate? I always did think the old ways were the best ways. And it would help keep the rural post offices open too. Now there’s a good original theme…

Enfin bref, as they say in France, I am feeling flat and bereft of inspiration. Talk about being a tiny fish in a big sea. I have to remind myself now why I came to the countryside – to get away from all the unwelcome ‘noise’. Noise of the planes, noise of the cars, noise of the neighbours - this I can escape: but the noise of incessant advertising and media and promotions and ‘information’ being shoved through my door or attacking me every time I set foot outside (in London) or turn on the telly or the computer or open a magazine and have a load of unsolicited flyers crash to the floor at my feet – this is harder. So much wasted paper, so much wasted ink, so much wasted money, so many wasted words. All meaningless, all not very green. And to think that I used to work in the world of communications….before the world went mad.

So I think I need to take a break, step outside onto my lovely green, mole-free lawn, look at my lovely green hills, take a deep breath of the lovely clean air and listen to the only noise I want to hear right now – the twittering birds, the bleating sheep and the lowing cattle. Ah, peace at last.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Heads or Tails?

18th April 2007

You know Spring has sprung by the pile of dead wildlife on the rug on the landing. In our house anyway. This morning N’s last job before rushing out to the world of work was to swathe the large mouse, head hanging off, in loo paper and take it out with him. I trust not to work. Interesting little desk toy? It was bad enough him coming to kiss me goodbye, bending over the bed, one arm outstretched with dangling headless mouse in hand. He could have put it down first. Ah the romance of it all.

We got back on Saturday night and L comes running into the bathroom, having just washed feet and bottoms in the bidet, and says in her four year old voice, ‘Mummy, there’s a mouse on the mat! I put my foot on it and I thought, in my head, “that feels funny” and I looked down and it was a dead mouse!’ Another headless one. Wash feet again.

Green Thumb turn up at lunchtime to do their thing with the lawn. Young chap asks if there’s anywhere where he can get water. ‘Oh yes, no prob’, says I, taking him round the back of the house to the outside tap on the terrace. ‘Just take…eargh, God, MOLLY!’ [enters stage left with a knowing look on her whiskery face]. Our feline friend has deposited a headless rabbit at the bottom of the steps right under the tap. Red gore and something large and jellyfish-like spewed from the bit where the head should have been. No sign of head. A delicate little meal of sweetbreads and brain washed down, no doubt, with a nice chianti. It paints a charming picture. Even the youth flinched, especially when I suggested that, when he had his gloves on, he might like to chuck it over the wall for me. I haven’t been out to check. He did tut-tut though about the celandine creeping onto the edges of the lawn.

Back to kills. I’m frankly intrigued by the whole business of it. It seems to be either heads or tails. Either eaten or not. ‘Oh YUCK, Mummy look, there’s a mouse head on the mat!’ is a frequent cry at breakfast. One day it was just the tail of Bunny, one foot and the gall bladder that proved unpalatable. Every now and then just a tiny little vole’s tail lies tellingly outside the glass doors. Outside, though, is one thing. Inside, quite another. Many a morning I have laid bare foot to the floor to have something soft and squidgey go up through my toes. No heads, no tails, just guts. Or the rampant rabbit kill that missed the rugs and was instead splattered all over the carpet and up the airing cupboard door. But I think the worst was the one left on the new carpet twixt sofa and coffee table. From a distance I was alarmed enough to think it was a big pooh, but on closer inspection it was pretty much an entire rabbit, furry bits and all, neatly regurgitated in the form of a salami. It clearly never even got as far as the stomach but had been nicely rolled in the oesophagus. It was horrific. Molly had obviously bitten off a little more than she could chew with that one…

The other worry is what lurks under rugs and beds. My mother once commented that there were a few dusty old carcasses under their bed, and another memorable time I threw back a rug to do some uncharacteristically thorough hoovering, only to find a thoroughly flattened small rodent – its eyes like a plaice, legs akimbo. It would have made a very good mat for the doll’s house. I was amazed in a number of ways: 1) How long it must have been there to get so marvellously pressed, 2) How, when peeled away, there weren’t any stains on the carpet, 3) How no-one had noticed it underfoot in the days when it was still 3D and 4) How shoddy my housekeeping skills clearly are – it must have been there for months!

Right, better go and check on that rabbit.

The End of Easter

16th April 2007

Sunday dawned bright and beautiful. The only possible thing to do with the day was enjoy it. My broad bean and baby squash seeds, planted with the girls on Mother’s Day, had shot up into exciting dimensions. I spent a happy hour or two potting them all up, mixing seed compost with my own with an alchemist’s smile on my face. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing new life out of old and knowing that at least the waste from the fridge has been put to good use rather than landfill – and that we shall be eating it again, in a different guise, so to speak, in the not too distant future. The tomato seedlings were coming along nicely too and, in a fit of horticultural abandon, I even imagined selling them at the garden gate…this was country living indeed!

N cooked a fine ‘repas’ of tuna pasta, washed down by a bottle of chilled white Riesling and enjoyed around the newly scrubbed and oiled table and chairs (much needed after three winters of neglect). The girls continued with their endless games of ‘families’ and I wandered round the garden replete and contented. The hyacinths I’d planted late were scenting the air from their burgundy flower-lets , the daffodils, equally late into the earth, were bursting with yellow and orange-headed life around the apple trees and behind my little ‘home-made’ dry stone wall which divides the wilder bit of the garden from the more formal. The other old-timers around the place were nodding their approval. The clematis in the copper beech was showing signs of life, the cornflowers and wild geraniums forming perfect green clumps before their summer wanderings. Ferns were unfurling, foxglove leaves growing dark and strong; early soft nettles for beneficial home brews appearing on the sidelines; purple periwinkle, yellow celandine, orange tulips, acid green euphorbia, magenta honesty and dark green comfrey, pale blue forget-me-knots and giant white snowdrops vied for space together. A single pale purple azalea was in full bloom and smelling sweet, way ahead of its siblings; the little apple tree my brother gave me when L was born was showing off its first green buds and the camellia bought for an unborn child held a few pink flowers tenderly in its glossy dark leaves.

Everywhere I looked there were signs of new life and the vigorous energy of nature. The cream sheep were still fat, and three cows – dun, black and white, and black – drifted artistically into view in a far green field studded with yellow dandelions. The air was warm and still, the village happy in the embrace of the hills. I couldn’t help but be happy too.

Back to Blighty

14th April 2007

We left France in cool rain and landed in England in glorious hot sunshine. Surely some mistake?! It had been like that all week, we were told. Spring had thrown on her bright green jacket and was taking the countryside by storm. Blossoms were bursting, birds were tweeting like there was no tomorrow, the ground was hard and dry. The sun thought it was July and the sky was wilting in the heat. So was I in my big brown winter boots and woolly socks. We sat out on the grass at a pub on a village green. I threw off my stifling footwear and my long-sleeved shirt and sat there in a too skimpy vest looking rather trailer trashy, but what the heck. I sipped a gin and tonic, crunched cheese and onion crisps and told tales of our travels. Not a bad return to Blighty.

From there to lunch in the garden under a parasol at my parents. It was all summer holiday rather than Easter break, and rather worrying from a global warming point of view given it’s only April. Still, I wasn’t going to ruin the moment. Good food, good wine, the Grand National. We staggered into the blindingly dark interior of the house, blinking, with full bellies and snoozy eyes and turned on the telly. We all cast an ignorant eye at the form (meaningless in the Grand National, we should all know that by now) and picked our favourites. G, the lucky fashionista, spent a millisecond looking at the paper and stabbed her finger at the one whose colours she like the best (blue sleeves, black stars). I, foolishly, looked at the horse and chose the one I liked the look of best. I should have gone with The Lucky One and put a fiver on Silver Birch. We’d have been rich. Well, richer. Tears from E (The Unlucky One – see Big Lady blog!!) at the unfairness of life and how she hated her sister. N asleep. Ho hum.

Back outside for coffee and final fond farewells. Car packed, off we go. Me asleep. Wake from time to time to watch passing landscapes. M25 is choc-a-bloc. Sun mellow yellow. By the M42 the same sun has dropped behind a curtain of grey cloud and reappeared, centre stage, as a full blown brilliant orange orb. Talk about stealing the show. It took a final bow somewhere over Birmingham. The cars thinned as we headed further north. Passing through Ashbourne, the streets were filled with mellowness and be-shorted people as if it were a summer night. Out the other side, the undulating landscape, climbing inconspicuously, had been washed in a translucent indigo blue. Walls, trees, sheep, melded softly into the painting. Incongruous inns still lit by Christmas lights dotted the wayside, confusingly. We picked up a pint of milk in Buxton and fifteen minutes later we pulled into our drive. Three sleepy heads in the back and one in the front. Luckily not the driver’s (thanks to tactical Grand National Snooze). Car doors were opened, Molly miaowed her welcome. The key was in the lock. We were home.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

A Village in France

13th April 2007

My Easter travels have taken me from the peat and gritstone of the High Peak, through the clay and chalk of Sussex to sand and wood in south-west France. I have arrived in the vast flatlands of Les Landes where endless vistas of green pine forests, golden dunes and blue sea define the landscape. Different sounds again wake me from my slumbers – the cuckoos echoing in the woods behind us, the trickle of the spring whose rusty residue coats the twigs and leaves which collect in its path around the house. A chainsaw cuts harshly through tree and air, a car passes in the distance, a child shouts, a weak April sun lights up the sky. It is time to get up and explore the day.

The name of the village on the outskirts of which the house stands derives from the occupation of the Celto-Iberians around 800BC. Being of Celtic origin myself, this serendipitous coincidence appeals to me. It is one of the few villages in the area which remains ‘alive’ all year rather than somewhere that only opens its shutters in the summer months. There is a small supermarket which struggles to keep going in the face of larger, cheaper competition; the obligatory boulangerie; a café-cum-restaurant; a small hotel; a school; a pretty 14th century church; a post office; a couple of dress shops; a bric-a-brac and the ubiquitous Mairie. The mayor is a typically pompous individual who, when I politely asked his name, replied unequivocably and with a gallic flush in his voice, “Monsieur le Maire, c’est tout”. OK then. Monsieur le Maire it is.

So Monsieur le Maire presides with plumped up feathers over this tiny dot in the Landes, the second largest ‘departement’ in France. He has a newsletter. He has introduced a new system for the collection of household waste, and he is building new housing for the local people at the end of our lane where once a piece of forest stood. It will change the atmosphere considerably but I know I must not complain as it all helps to keep the village alive and kicking all year round, which is the right order of things. It’s just that I don’t trust Monsieur le Maire further than I can throw him and his pistaccio green jumper…

The couple on their second marriage, six children between them, who run the café-cum-restaurant, are delightful. They’ve breathed new life into the centre of the village with their chairs and tables spilling onto the broad pavement and a very good line in home-cooked food. In Winter the moustachioed Monsieur cooks the sort of vegetable ‘potage’ which is hard to come by these days. His restaurant has become an ‘endroit’ where the locals celebrate birthdays, marriages and other significant family occasions. It is good to see.

Meanwhile, just along the road, opposite the church, the village hotel was bought last year by an elegant Madame with immaculate taste and gently advancing years. She has brought a large dollop of sophistication to this unassuming community, transforming a classic flock-wallpaper hotel into an alluring place to sit and sip an aperitif under a canopy of plane trees.

We drive past all these places on our way to the beach. We have been blessed with early Spring sunshine and the best place to soak it up is down by the Atlantic breakers. A simple lunch of croque-monsieur and salade landaise washed down by a few glasses of chilled rose is followed by playtime on the beach. We walk over soft golden dunes held together by thistle and marram and settle in the lee of the rocks that edge the river where it flows into the ocean. Two girls run off laughing with buckets and spades and grandma; the other, with enviable skill, silently makes her kite dance in the off-shore winds. With the sun warming my back and the sweet scent of pines wafting from the backdrop of forest, I feel at ease with my world and drift gently off into unfettered, post-digestive sleep…ah, the joy of holidays.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

A Walk Down Memory Lane

On Maundy Thursday we went for a walk, my parents, the girls and I. It was a walk down memory lane, beginning with the house where I was born. The small silver birch, plucked from Ashdown Forest and grown so tall was gone. The house now looked a little stark on its corner plot. I pointed to the front windows and said to the girls, 'Just think, in the sitting room through those windows that's where your Mummy was bounced on your Grandfather's knee, singing Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross.' I remember the green swirly carpet which I recently saw again in a friend's house up north. I remember the dining room where my mother tried unsuccessfully to force feed me rhubarb in my high chair. I remember thinking, why is she doing this when I really don't like it? The simple logic of a child. I looked at the garage and saw the yellow Vauxhall estate with its mustard yellow seats which took us on an epic six week journey through France and Spain to the Algarve in the late 1960s. The orange and yellow nasturtiums by the porch with their mustardy smell and the furry black caterpillars, the sandpit and the swings in the back garden. I have glimpses of birthday parties and cakes, bonfire nights and mice escaping from their cage in the playroom. We talked of the neighbours, some dead, some alive, some still there, some who knows where. With these people in our minds, we continued into the village where mother used to walk us in our prams in the days when the week's shopping cost £1 from the grocers. We passed the church where my brother and I were christened and the lane where we used to pick 'Langton Fuzzies'. I hear Jimmy Hill now has a house down there...

From the village of my birth, forever on my passport, to the country primary school where my education began. It nestles in the corner of a huge expanse of cornfield on the edge of a neighbouring village. The shop where we bought our penny sweets is long gone, but the post box in the wall still marks the spot. We left the car at the top of the school drive and walked down. I peered through the glass doors to the assembly hall. Inevitably it seemed smaller in dimension, but the cream lino floor tiles were the original. I could still smell the disinfectant and the stewed plums. So strange to think of the days I had sat, cross-legged on the floor, or bought my apple at break with a threepenny bit; the concerts played, the 11-plus taken. I peered into the reception and saw the cloakrooms in the corner, remembering the harsh crackly loo paper so useless at its task, and the pegs where my hand-sewn PE bag once hung. And then the playground where we played British bulldog and French skipping, where we made friends and lost them. The playing field, in my mind's eye, had always been huge and it was, even with my adult's perception, still large. The lanes were marked out for running races at Sports Day, my stomach still flipped at the thought. The strangest of memories, and so strong now, was of the fences where the bindweed grew and the concrete posts, embedded with gravel, that held them up. Why was this? Was it the hours spent staring at the free cornfields beyond our kindly enclosure, or simply because too many children had cut their heads on them in boisterous games? I honestly cannot say. We walked the perimeter as I had done on many a nature walk, the plants by the wayside as familiar as the smell in the air and the hard cracked clay earth under my feet. In the distance was the rise of the South Downs. It was to these chalky heights we headed next.

We took the route the school bus used to take to the swimming pool in Hove, all those years ago, but stopped short at the foothills of the Downs. We drove through the pretty 'spring line' villages where the sweet chalky waters running through the hills burst out into gravel floored streams. The girls gathered water, splashed around and got soaked. They ran over little wooden bridges amongst the primroses and the daffodils at a favourite hostelry of old - most frequented after father's Sunday cricket at the local ground, a pristine oval of green with brick and flint clubhouse. With bottles of spring water clutched between knees we drove up to Devil's Dyke to catch a view of the sea and look down on where we'd just been. The water glinted hazily in the distance, holding in its briny expanse the promise of foreign lands. A cool breeze whipped round our ears but the sun was strong. We trod a path on the chalky domes with their short springy grass and scattered flints, climbing a stile and descending a little way down the north-facing slope. The sound of birdsong drifted up from the woods below to meet our ears. A snake was spotted slinking into a hole and before us the expanse of Sussex stretched away to a shimmery horizon. I cast my eyes around. Rabbit holes, dainty wildflowers. Plastic. Small wrappers, large bags, bottles. How can people do this? But do it they do. We have a lot to answer for. A whiff of stale fat caught my nostrils from the Devil's Dyke cafe. We climbed back towards the car park and bought a Mr Whippy. We sat, licking our holiday treats, on a stone bench sheltered by the wind.

There was just time to drop in to the scout camp at Small Dole which my father frequented in the 40s. He would cross the Downs from Hove, rucksack on back, and pitch his tent on the field where they played their wide games. We walked through the hazel woods where the remains of campfires lay in clearings amongst the primroses and bluebells, and sharp blackthorn trees left soft clouds of white blossom round the edges of the field. A bi-plane, with perfect synchronicity, passed overhead. My father looked up, remembering the battles he had witnessed in the skies above the Downs as he was growing up. The girls did summersaults in the field, oblivious to the price of their freedom.

The shadows were growing longer, the sun weaker. It was time to take the fast road home.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

From High Peak to South Downs

I woke this morning to different sounds. Not the usual twittering of the girls, just the banging of the plumbing as someone used the bathroom overhead. There was the harsh cawing of a crow and the softer calls of many wood pigeons. I am in Sussex, at my parents' house, where I grew from young teenager to adult.

We drove down last night towards the close of what had been, as the Padre said, the most perfect day. It was so warm and serene it belied the season. The girls played in the garden all day, an endless set of imaginary games, dotted with bursts of embryonic tennis, skipping and bike riding. It was a joy to see them outside after months of indoor amusement. As we started our journey the light was soft as a summer evening. The ridges and folds of the escarpment were just beginning to be defined by golden light and shadow. We descended our hill, pausing to post letters. Again, this strange serenity, people arriving at the pub for their evening meal. We passed through the village, past the hidden pond and the stone cottages, over the stream and the daffodil-strewn wood and up the other side, beyond the house where Florence Nightingale once lived, climbing steeply. We noticed a new For Sale sign. It is the miserable dog-walking lady with pink face and white hair. She never returns my smiles. She is going to live in Harrogate with the man she met on a cruise. No loss. At the top of the hill, the other side of this horseshoe valley, horses and sheep were silhouetted darkly atop their sweeping hillside backlit by the silver slip of the glassy reservoir. The sky was just beginning its passage towards darkness, a soft golden pink bestowing soft focus beauty on the cove of landscape it illuminated. As we journeyed on, the long straight roman roads and switchback turns cut through breathtaking countryside - not the drama of mountain or sea, but a high vista of peaks and troughs, clusters of bare-branched trees now etched against vermilion red to the west, a sleepy grey to the north and east. The football was on the radio, the girls full of sandwich, now sleeping, their necks - in the awkwardness of the car seats - angled like victims of the hangman's noose. A huge golden globe of harvest moon travelled south with us, past familiar signposts on the motorway - Heathrow, Richmond, Reigate, Gatwick - till we reached our destination.

We arrived at 11.15pm, swift journey indeed. A warm welcome from the parents, children transferred to beds, a glass of wine and supper enjoyed. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Padre, Part 2

The Padre has just taken his leave. As G danced around in pale nightdress and her father’s black shoes, waving him off in the sunshine, the air still, the sheep grazing, the day at peace with itself, his parting words, delivered with a grin were, ‘It’s the most perfect morning, I feel I’m in fairy land!’ It was a stark reminder of where he would soon be heading. When we were in Italy together the Gulf War was rumbling in the background, some of our friends involved. 16 years on and Iraq is again the backdrop, still calling the innocent away from their homelands to do their duty. I waved goodbye and wished him safe journeys. That is all I could do. We turned back inside, leaving those sheep to graze, the birds to sing, and all I knew was that we were very lucky to be here, to be alive, when so much of the world is struggling just to survive.

Taking a leaf out of the Padre’s book, I am going outside to sit on the bench, drink my tea and write my Easter Cards before I finish the packing.

The Padre

We call him The Padre. He’s a chaplain in the army, about to start his second tour to Basra. He’s upstairs now as I write, sleeping the slumber of the just and good. Soon he will come down, make himself a coffee and wander out into the garden to find a bench and drink in the view.

He always rings at the last minute. It’s always inconvenient. We always say yes. You see, the Padre is like our guardian angel – he always seems to pop up at key, sometimes difficult, moments in our lives. And sometimes we are there for him, I like to think.

We shared time in Italy together. He in Milan, us in Padua. He came over to visit one winter weekend and on Saturday night we found ourselves at the working men’s club across the road. It was one of those anachronistic places even then (the start of the ‘90s). The food was simple, the wine was cheap and the only women in the place were me and the girl behind the bar. We were local, we were English, we were accepted. Faces full of years and character sat at square wooden tables playing unknown games of cards. Others played pool. Others just stood talking. The drab walls were enlivened with football and rugby posters, scarves and trophies. Everyone sang at the end of a long evening to the accompaniment of an accordion. It kept us awake at night but it was like being transported back in time. It was a classic and we loved it.

We had befriended a certain Franco, of large belly and red bulbous nose. He liked a drink or two. He talked of the exploits of his youth, his time with the Legion d’Honneur. We were a little sceptical but listened encouragingly. The padre (at that time not yet a man of the cloth), fuelled by the false bonhomie of alcohol, invited Franco back to our flat. I was a little dismayed but went with the flow. So there we were at 2 o’clock in the morning, all a little worse for wear, with this stranger in our midst. The padre sat down at the table and listened. He’s a good listener. Then at a certain point it seems he didn’t like what he was hearing and decided to question Franco on the truth surrounding his purported membership of the Legion d’Honneur. This was not a good move. Then, as Franco was trying to justify his story, the Padre, clearly unable to hang on any longer, farted. This was an even worse move. Franco, highly offended at the apparent lack of respect, suddenly produced a revolver from his pocket. I was alarmed, the mood had changed, could see the headlines in the local paper – Ex Soldier in Bloody Shoot Out with Smelly English. I hastily tried to pour calm on troubled waters and somehow the situation was pulled back from the brink. I think I suggested that perhaps it was time to wind things up and, very respectfully, showed Franco the door. I retired to bed and the boys decided to go out into town, saying they’d be back for breakfast. Seven hours later, they still weren’t. They’d taken the car, there was snow and ice. No phonecall, so unlike N. I assumed the worst. I felt sick, I rang a friend in London not knowing what else to do. I imagined bringing the bodies back in coffins. I realised how important N was in my life, how it wouldn’t be the same without him. And then I heard it. The unmistakable note of our car’s engine. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. N rolls in, drunk as a skunk (and NO he shouldn’t have been driving, I hear you shout). I berate him, tell him I was worried sick, why on earth didn’t he phone. ‘I thought you’d be sleeping.’ Well, I wasn’t. He gets down on one wobbly knee and says, ‘Minnie, will you marry me?’ I burst into tears. This wasn’t how it was meant to be! ‘God,’ I sob, ‘I’ve waited all these years and now you propose when you’re DRUNK! I should have known…! And, no, I don’t want it to be like this. Wait till you’re sober. And anyway, where’s the Padre?’ He was out in the car, head back, lolling tongue, out for the count.

It seems they’d had an emotional morning too. N had been counselling the Padre as to whether he should go into the Church or not and, if so, in what form. The Padre was a sporty, fun, good time boy. Was the Church going to be too restrictive? To help find inspiration, he had wandered through the doors of the magnificent multi-domed church of Sant’Antonio, the great pilgrimage destination in Padua. It was crack of dawn, the place was empty save for the sounds of the litany emerging from the crypt. The padre snuck in at the back and listened. It turned out to be a life-changing moment for him.

And so here we are. The Padre has indeed just come down, made coffee and gone out into the garden. He is on his way to Skye, seat of the clan Macleod, of which he is one. We joined him there one New Year, in the days when you had to take the ferry. I will never forget the brooding shapes of those magnificent mountains, the heather, the moors, the wild cold lochs, the eerie notes of the bagpipes floating on the air as they piped in the new year from a windswept hill. I envied the Macleod’s their bond with nature, of having a place where they truly belonged.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Primrose Walks in Spring

Well, we didn’t find any primroses. Brown Owl had told me in conversation at the plant stall at the Brownies Easter Sale that there is a river valley beyond Buxton where she always goes to see the primroses. I have immense nostalgia for these unassumingly pretty little plants, first heralds of Spring. I’m instantly transported back to the country lanes of Sussex where I grew up. My paternal grandmother loved nothing more than going out with us for a primrose walk. She’d drive up from Brighton with Jack, her long-suffering husband in their dark green Morris. The seats were black leather – not a premium in those days, just the norm – and seat-beltless. The car had that smell that only old cars can have and wherever I am, however old I am, it will always remind me of my grandparents. Jack’s sight was past its best and conceivably his driving skills never were up to much, even in his younger days. I recall many a hair-raising drive washing around in the back seat of grandpa’s car. ‘Jack, Jack! Look out!’ warned Winnie as we were about to hare over a crossroads or bump up the kerb, tyres bursting, citizens scattering. It was great fun.

So up they would come, my brother and I full of excitement, just as I see in my own children now. It is a special bond the grandparent-grandchild one. Fewer reproaches than a parent - but if they come, better tolerated. Obedience follows more easily. There is a strange comfort in a grandparent, a sense of well-being. They bring sweets, colouring books, cuddles and love. There is a sense that nice things are going to happen. And so, after lunch, we would leave Jack to snooze and we would climb in the car and find our primroses. The high-banked lanes and birch woods of Sussex were full of them in those days. We’d amble along, Winnie wittering about the WI, her neighbours, or some such thing, occasionally stretching out a hand to pick a few of the delicate yellow flowers until we had a posy big enough to fill a small vase. We’d never walk too far, it was as much for the ‘nice little drive’ as for the exercise. Returning home, the posies were put in a vase on the kitchen table, or wrapped in damp kitchen paper and tin foil to be taken back to Brighton. The kettle would be put on, the biscuit tin got out and Jack woken for a cup of tea. Oh happy days.

I try to install memories like these into the small heads of my children. To me, they are the bedrock of the person I am today. Having grown up in a rural setting, I wanted so much for my children to do so too. The reason was for the simplicity of the memories, so many of them linked to nature and the natural calendar. White snowdrops preceding pale yellow primroses in early Spring, carpets of bluebells in the woods as Summer approaches, picnics embedded in fresh fronds of bright green bracken on the heaths in June, walking by the side of swaying fields of golden corn in August, filling punnets with juicy roadside blackberries in late September and crisp winter walks along the chalky clay paths of the South Downs in Winter, woodsmoke drifting on the air and filling our nostrils with anticipated warmth. This is why I wanted to take them on a primrose walk. We didn’t find any, but when I asked L what was the best bit of her day, her brown eyes danced and she said ‘The walk, Mummy, and paddling in the river and throwing stones.’ What more could I ask.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Anyone for a Smoothie?

We’ve just had lunch, the girls and I. It was a left-over sort of day as I’m clearing the fridge in preparation for going away. I peered into it’s chilly smelly depths. Aha!
‘How about a smoothie?’
‘Great!’ they chime.
I pull out half a punnet of slightly wrinkly blueberries, a handful of remaining raspberries - a little green in parts, a cholesterol-busting drinky yoghurt and a carton of apple juice. Just the job.
‘Banana anyone?’
‘Yes!’ says E.
‘Yeuck!’ says G.
No banana then. I usually add banana.
I put the ingredients into my handy hand-blender.
‘Stand back’, says I, I’m probably about to make a horrible mess.’
No sooner said than done!
Pinky white liquid with lumpy bits in it all over the worktop, the video, the pen basket…you name it, it was covered. Then some nice dribbles down the side of the cupboard and a whole load splattered on the floor.
‘Oooh, it looks like puke!’ says E.
‘Yeuck!’ says G.
I curtail my curses and continue, taking a step back. Same thing happens again. And a third time. Pavlov’s dogs…? Finally realise it’s because it hasn’t got the banana in it for ballast and I’m holding the whizzer bit too high up the beaker. Yes, success at last. E, in an elder daughter encouraging sort of way, says,
‘I’d like to have some…’
‘….sick’ says G.
Well, at least I tried!

Time to take them to find some primroses. I trust it will be less messy…

If Only Time Stood Still

In the end we didn’t go for a long walk yesterday. We went for a short walk down to the pub. The girls took wheels. E her big bike, G her scooter, L her little bike with stabilisers. It is a ghastly confection of pink and white with shiny bunches of silver, pink and purple tassles bursting from the handles. The girls love it. I remember buying it in London for E’s third birthday. Now here it was, looking incongruous in the country lane. The little person on top of it was not much better. I had foolishly allowed her to dress herself and she appeared at the breakfast table in full party kit (for a day in the garden). Pinky red tartan silk dress (sounds ghastly, but ok really, trust me), red cardigan, dark pink tights, black patent leather shoes. And, the piece de resistance, a fluorescent pink headband which I had when I was a ski rep and has since found itself in the dressing up box. I congratulated her on her choices, wincing. N and I walked behind them as they hurtled down the lane, hair flying, the promise of pink drink and crisps ahead. I watched L’s spindly pink legs with their shiny black shoes flying round on the pedals of her machine, dress bunched up, head bent forward trying to catch her sisters up. I looked at N and said, ‘I wish I’d brought the video’. I didn’t even have the camera. Just an ordinary moment in an ordinary day. But that was the beauty of it, and I wished that time could stand still.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

April Fools

Pinch and a punch, first of the month, white rabbit no returns!

I wake this morning to the strains of ‘Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat’. Giggling drifts down the stairs from the girls’ room as they miss their cues with ‘Go, Go, Go, Joseph…’. N gets up to make tea and say good morning to his daughters. Snatches of conversation reach my ears. There is talk of giant Barbie head, one of the treasures from yesterday’s sale. The word ‘rubbish’ seems to feature. N goes downstairs to put the kettle on. L comes into me and shoves her little face in mine: ‘Mummy, do you think Barbie’s rubbish?’. I can’t remember what I say, but she runs off happily enough crowing ‘Well, I like it!’.

I open the curtains gingerly, mindful of yesterday. Sunshine streams in. The sheep are less static this morning, drifting from the far field towards us, following each other on a well-trodden path through a marshy little stream and a crumbling wall. Still fat, no lambs yet. The farmer has fixed a strip of wire fencing to the bottom of the wooden gate onto the lane, opposite our drive, where errant sheep had barged off its bottom rung, making good their escape. My plants are safe again. Until the lambs come.

N comes in with tea. He puts a leg up on the wide low windowsill, elbow on knee, hand on chin and gazes through the glass and stone at the tableau stretching before him. ‘Marvellous’ he says in the mock tones of his departed father. L rushes in again in her spotty dog pyjamas, hair wild. ‘Mummy, Mummy, Barbie’s in the bathroom and it’s doing it’s nails’. This is a worrying development. We now have a giant Barbie head dragging itself around the house and performing self-manicures. Stephen King, where are you now? I feel a reluctant urge to go and watch. Barbie Head is indeed perched on a stool, her hands draped elegantly in a turquoise plastic heart-shaped bowl of water, nails the same shade of blue. G is engaged in bathing a baby which has half a black coconut shell on its head in lieu of a bathcap, giving it a strangely oriental air. E picks up Barbie Head’s curling tongs. ‘Do these really work, Mummy?’ N lets out a sort of ‘pah!’ noise. More helpfully, I read the back of the box. ‘Hair magically holds curls!’ is the boast. ‘You might find that the dustbin magically holds Barbie’ says N, menacingly. I ignore him and show E how to use the tongs, explaining that they would normally be hot. She beams at me as she holds the nylon strands in a twist. N warns her not to invest too much time in it and that the dustmen come on Tuesday mornings.

I leave them to it. Papers to read, red herrings to find, plants to plant, roast beef to cook, and a long walk in the spring sunshine to be enjoyed. I like Sundays.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Watch Out, Watch Out! Big Lady's About!

Well, I’m back. Can smugly announce that the Chocolate Tombola was the hit number in the show. Raised £70 (sharp intake of breath) to be added to the Brownie pot for more life-improving, character-building experiences for my daughter and her little canary-yellow-and-shit-brown mates (who chose THAT for a uniform?). The good folk of the town were actually a) queuing to get in and b) queuing for the choccie stall. It was almost obscene, this rush for sugary indulgence – or, if nothing else, the chance to pick up a few cheap eggs for the grandchildren. There was one lady, rather oversized in a pink shirt and black tracksuit and unhealthy grey complexion, who handed over two quid, picked 10 tickets and won five of them! I gushingly congratulated her but was seething that my poor little daughter had just handed over her pocket money and got…well, as ever, precisely nothing (she’s not born under the lucky star poor thing, like her father who won’t even play snap because he always gets a bum deal). I pressed another pound into E’s hand and told her to have another go. Meanwhile the Big Lady’s back, sticking her hand into the tombola box, pulling out another five tickets and opening them with pursed lips and hard eyes. She’d gone and done it again – another three winners! I handed over some more particularly-large-eggs-which-were-meant-for-the-children, rather less gushingly this time, at which point she asked for a carrier bag to put them all in. I hand one over, teeth clenched. More punters, more wins, the large eggs are going fast and furiously. I press another pound into E’s hand. Out of the corner of my eye I see the Big Lady back in the queue, looking determined. I quickly tell E to, hurry, pull out your tickets. Hurrah! A winner! At last! We search quickly along the length of the trestle and….’Oh, you don’t like mint chocolates, do you E?’ She looks up at me, the shimmer of excitement in her pale blue eyes suddenly a little dimmed, and shakes her golden head. Now it’s Big Lady’s turn again. Purchases another load of tickets. Wins again. My God, she’s sweeping the board! I have to say, it was staggering. Next thing I know her mate with the scarlet fleece and burgundy hair is pushing in, shoving more winning numbers at me. I splutter, ‘What’s going on?? How on earth do you keep doing it?’ She throws a nod back to Big Friend and says ‘It’s her’. Tell me about it! Wouldn’t want to be up against ‘Her’ in a Las Vegas casino, I can tell you.

Husband arrives late, crabby (he hates things like this, can’t blame him) with other daughters in tow. I encourage them to have a go while there’s still a few things left. G is the lucky one, takes after her father’s brother. Five tickets, one win. Oh God, it’s more chocolate mints. Worse – it’s the ones I donated. One go left for L. Bless the little creature, opening her tickets, malteser eyes, all expectant. A winner! Search with high expectation …Oh surely not, this is getting ridiculous…After Eights! That will be more chocolate mints then…

Meanwhile my team mate is battling to find change in 20ps for a £20 note proffered eagerly by a tall thin guy who’s clearly high as a kite. Obviously got the munchies, saw the sign for the sale as he was walking past and thought he’d pop in on the off chance. Wow! Chocolate stall – scored or what! Sure enough even he walks off with a couple of lovely big Chocolate Button eggs tucked under his arm. There’s no justice I say. Big Lady’s still hovering. I studiously ignore her and encourage the little people to come and have a go, not that there’s much left to get excited about. Unless you like chocolate mints.

So that was it. The Chocolate Tombola was all over in half an hour. Job done! Felt for some poor girl who peered at the sign hanging limply off the empty table cloth and asked for a go. She clearly hadn’t quite spotted that there was actually nothing left to be had. Confusing, I know, when the sale’s only been on half an hour. Still, that’s the way it goes. Plenty of other old crap to be purchased. What do you mean you don’t want a set of cracked dead granny’s tea cups, or how about that chewed up old dog’s toy, or maybe the really nice maroon and pink scarf specially knitted by granny before she died? There’s always the lucky dip. G tried that and managed to pick out the nasty plastic bracelet I’d donated from Tesco. Still, she was happy.

E tried the jam jar stall and successfully managed not to win all the lovely looking ones filled with chocolate eggs and other goodies and got one filled with…bird seed. Her eyes did that dimming thing again. G had a go and won the one jar I’d joked with my friend (donated by my friend) that I said I didn’t want, full of those useless cheap hair thingys which you buy in packets of thousands at the pound shop and which don’t do the one thing they’re meant to which is tie hair: two twists is not enough, three twists and your finger’s irrevocably stuck and bloodless. You get what you pay for. Still they’re good on swimming days when anything decent just gets bleached to buggery.

L spent the whole afternoon in tears for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with until I finally succumbed to purchasing a giant Barbie head (as if a surfeit of the small ones aren’t bad enough) which you can have hours of fun with - brushing her hair, painting her nails, doing her make-up. (The only reason I weakened was because I’d had something similar as a child and had learnt all I know about applying make-up on this thing – I know, I know, it shows…) It even came complete with broken box and, no doubt, missing parts. N was apoplectic at the sight of it and the increasingly teetering pile of plastic and furry things that were edging their way towards our house. He stormed off to the driving range to take his fury out on a large number of small round balls. I felt briefly relieved without the pressure of his glare until my own panic rose as Tawny Owl announced that all Brownies could now go and help themselves for FREE to the things still left on the toy stall. I just knew I wouldn’t be able to resist a final rummage…and so the pile grew. Let me tell you the grand total of our haul:-

- 1 giant Barbie head
- 3 normal size Barbies
- 1 bag of clothes to dress the Barbies
- 1 action man (to keep the Barbies happy)
- 1 pink and purple ‘Friends for Ever’ pull along suitcase
- 11 books
- 1 Mrs TiggyWinkle video
- 2 stupid plastic games (someone swiped Mousetrap from under my nose)
- 5 cuddly toys
- 1 bike (not bad for a fiver)
- 1 battery operated keyboard
- 1 musical merry-go-round
- 6 jam jars (full of rubbish)
- 6 plants (cowslip, scabiosa, alpines, hellebore – nice)
- 2 bags of cheap sweets
- 3 boxes of mint chocolates
- 1 Yorkie Easter Egg
- 1 bag small Cadbury’s eggs (yum)
- 1 slab cheap chocolate (yuk)
- 1 egg cup hand painted by E
- 1 jar ready mix cookie ingredients (just add soft margarine. And bake, of course) complete with handy wooden spoon attached

Not a bad afternoon’s work. Shame about the divorce.
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