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.

Birthday Suit

Woke to cockerel – real not girls’ alarm one. Far too early. Head filled with what to put in jam jars for Brownie sale. Scary recognition that I have become my mother. In younger days would be waking, turning to handsome stud next to me and saying ‘take me now!’. Instead there’s some bloke stinking of stale alcohol, twitching and snoring heavily. Took a wrong turn somewhere. Try to get back to sleep in yoga corpse position with much exaggerated deep breathing. Fail dismally. Will get up and make tea. Rip open curtains in birthday suit just as walker passing by, thankfully does not look up. Must remember not to do that. Day is soft, milky. Sheep gathered artistically in high corner of field framed by dry stone walls. Go downstairs to kitchen, cat sits up on chair, blinks, jumps down and stretches – one of those paws-out-haunches-up-stretchy-spine ones. Maybe cats do yoga too…

To think that on Saturdays I used to go to the White Company Sale on the Kings Road, SW3. Now it’s the Brownies Easter Sale, Market Street, SK23. Must dash, jam jars to fill and decorate, chocolate tombola to run. Mum would be proud of me.


Footnote to previous blog:

Just remembered that as a little girl I would eat the crusts Mum threw out for the birds having first dipped them in the soapy drain water coming out from the kitchen sink. Suggests I have the foraging instincts in me too….or that Mum’s cooking wasn’t up to much.

Crayfish and Cribbage

You get all your best stories down the pub. I was there on Wednesday, the dreaded Brownies night. Non-Brownie daughters and I head for the solace of the tap room while E learns to skip, make strange things and generally be a Helpful Person. Anyway, it quickly became clear I have barely scratched the surface of local goings on in the four years I’ve been here. I was there with another friend from school and his daughter. While the girls did things that three girls under 8 do, he and I swopped stories over wine and beer.

I have learnt that there is a whole world of wild men and wild food out in them there ‘ills. There is Mark the Master Mushroom Picker, for a start. According to this stalwart of the local food underworld there are hundreds of different varieties to be found. He won’t disclose all his hunting grounds, of course. But if you buy him a pint or two he might let a few secrets out, slowly, like sap oozing from a lopped branch. I have to say I hadn’t associated the High Peak with mushrooms. I think more of woodlands for mushrooms. Of course, we all know mushrooms are big in Europe – especially France and Italy where that magical misty autumnal hunt for Cepes/Porcini and all their lesser relatives is such an evocative ritual. I haven’t dared try it myself – God forbid the results. Children in spasms, hallucinations, green vomit, dash to A&E for stomach pumping. Terrifies me. But it seems that, with the right books, and if you start by just concentrating on a few of the more obvious ones then this nice little activity isn’t necessarily a sure route to death. My companion looked at his daughter and said, ‘Do you remember those mushrooms we picked M?’ She looked up, briefly confused having been engrossed in Girls Play, then broke into a wide smile and nodded furiously making yum-yum noises. She obviously lived to tell the tale.

She was equally enthusiastic about the crayfish. It seems there’s a river not far from here which is heaving with them. Big ugly blighters, all grey-green and pre-historic looking with huge snappy claws – sometimes one bigger than the other if it’s been broken in battle and is re-growing. Enough to give you nightmares. Anyway, apparently, at early doors one night when all these characters tend to gather at another local hostelry, some bloke comes in and goes ‘There, what d’ya think of THAT then?’ throwing a particularly huge and angry crayfish onto a table of men quietly engaged in a game of cribbage. Apparently they all recoiled in horror as this thing skidded across the table, scattering cards, pegs and beer, and snapping furiously in their horror-struck faces. Undaunted, my friend had taken his long-suffering daughter to the river of origin, laid nets (badly) but somehow managed to come back with a couple of decent ones. They chucked them into a pot of boiling water on the Aga and watched them writhe in snappy agony. I stupidly asked, ‘I wonder why they go pink?’ to which the inevitable reply – ‘wouldn’t you if you were chucked into a pot of boiling water!’ Fair point. Whatever, it's a whole new angle on 'gone fishing'.

I'm told, too, that there’s a whole load of bartering attached to these activities. Mark the MMP often swops a punnet or two of mushrooms for a couple of someone else’s illegal pork chops. And if you haven’t been to the cashpoint but fancy a pint and happen to have a leek or two about your person then that will do nicely. I always knew the old ways were the best ways...

In the meantime, I’m starving and need to make some lunch for me and the girl – think I might just pop out into the garden and scrape a bit of old fungus off the wall and fry it up with an egg and a twist of black pepper. Mmm, delicious.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Get Me to the Church on Time

I went to my eldest daughter’s Easter Service this morning. I was late, of course. I was meant to have been accompanying the children from school to church adorned in yellow fluourescent top (me, not the church). I arrived five minutes late, the school was eerily empty, silence hanging heavily where normally cacophony rules. The school secretary visibly sighed as I buzzed the door to find out where the church was – I fear my reputation already runs before me (after only two terms) as The One Who Offers Help Then Is Always Late (aka Useless To Us). Ho hum. Leopards, spots and all that. So I run to the church, unaccompanied and minus the workman’s jacket. I am greeted at the door by Teacher in smart black robe and crying daughter. ‘Oh good, you’re here, she was SO upset’. Rucksack of guilt just got heavier. I accompany daughter back to her pew and sit uncomfortably nearby feeling flushed and rather tearful myself. As a non-working mother you feel your choices have been around being there for the kids. Then if you can’t even manage that with the rather feeble excuse that you were ‘held up at home’ (aka blogging – don’t tell Teacher!), then God Save You. Well, I suppose I was in the right place for that, at least.

So, after a bizarre five minute speech by the vicar explaining how we should all exit the church in an emergency, I sat listening to my daughter sing her heart out with all her classmates, giving her encouraging smiles (when I’d moved from behind the pillar), and felt choked every time her little tear-stained face lit up in response. While attempting to pay full attention to the Easter Story as told by an assortment of eager 9 year olds, I couldn’t help my mind wandering off into a discussion with itself on this whole business of ‘disappointment’ and ‘let down’. It was the fact that I’d told my daughter I was accompanying her from school and then that I didn’t show which was so agonising for me. I remember how years of similar promises not kept had worn me down and contributed hugely to the hurt and anger I had internalised. But to do that to a child is perhaps the greatest sin and I felt completely wretched. I think, too, it brought back memories of the earlier years of my daughters’ lives when I was not doing my ‘job’ properly. I was suffering from severe depression and, at its worst, even the idea of making breakfast for them was this enormous mountain I had to climb. In a sane mind this seems, frankly, unbelievable, but that’s how it was. I still feel sad at how I was ‘there but not there’ in those precious early years.

But now it was the vicar’s turn to utter words of wisdom. He chose three children and gave them each a large chocolate egg to unwrap. The first had broken biscuits inside it, the second nothing, the third a spring lamb (not real, I hasten to add – that would, indeed, add a whole new dimension to Kinder Surprise!). I couldn’t help noticing how the first boy kept wiping his hands on his blazer to get rid of the rapidly melting chocolate and I felt for his mother, imagining her later, hunched, cursing, over the wash-board and mangle. At first I wasn’t sure where the vicar was going with all this but I was impressed with his ingenuity. Then all became clear: when Jesus was betrayed and killed, his friends felt crushed and broken; when they saw his tomb empty, they felt empty too; but when they walked with him once more they understood the joy and permanence of renewed life. When we lose someone or something dear we may go to pieces, we may feel empty and alone but we must always remember that we are not alone, and that there is always the promise of renewal ahead, even if we can’t quite see it yet.

Pulling on my coat, lost in thought, my fingers found a small piece of paper in my pocket. I pulled it out and read my shopping list: red wine, bread. I couldn’t help smiling at its aptness. I gave daughter a hug and made sure I stuck by her side as we walked back to school and the waiting car. The Easter holidays had begun and with them the promise of Spring.

Nowhere to Hide

I’ve just had an interesting one! Have been driving on air since about yesterday lunchtime but kept quite not being able to fit in quick dash to petrol station. Knew I was pushing my luck and was getting a bit sweaty palmed about it. Coasted downhill to deliver children to school but then forced to engage gears to get out of village. Safety net of petrol can for lawnmower in back (actually had some in it for once). Sit at temporary traffic lights in town, cursing the hold up, as engine ticks over – manage to pull away ok and just reach brow of hill in town before engine starts juddering. *****r! Have hit town at ‘rush hour’ so irritating people wanting to turn left and right and buses and lorries fighting for space through the traffic calming scheme, thus impeding my freewheeling all the way down the hill to Morrison’s and the now rather urgently required petrol! Engine finally gives out just before pelican crossing, 50 yards from target. Too irritating to stop and get mower can out now, so engage hazard warnings and attempt to negotiate mini-roundabout and juggernaut making deliveries. Instantly becomes scary as power steering and (more alarmingly) brakes now disabled! Much heaving on unresponsive wheel and stamping for dear life on brakes as somehow squeeze my way between vehicles and people on station forecourt to only free pump. Get out of strangely positioned car with certain amount of relief and feigned nonchalance to be greeted with ‘Hi C!’ by a friend from school. Oh yes, there is truly nowhere to hide when you live in a small town community! You have been warned…

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Milky Mornings and Italian Markets


A peach-coloured sun hanging above a dusty mauve hillside peeped through my bathroom window this morning. Not so long ago it would have been pitch black at this hour making getting up so much more arduous. The late afternoons are no longer a time to snuggle up indoors with a cup of tea and Ready Steady Cook. At 4 o’clock in winter it always feels that there is nothing left of the day. Yet almost overnight we found ourselves on Monday playing with the children in the garden till past 7 o’clock. Suddenly bedtime becomes less urgent, the day still feels full of possibilities. Despite the fact this happens twice a year, in both directions – dark to light, light to dark – I still always marvel at how quickly we adjust to the new rhythms, forgetting almost instantly how it was just a few weeks earlier.

For me that is the great joy of seasons. I would hate to live in a part of the world where it gets dark at the same time 365 days of the year, where the only seasons are winter and summer and not much difference between them beyond a few degrees of temperature. It would be so dull to have to wear the same type of clothes all year. I love putting away the heavy wintry things and bringing out the light summer linens. And I’m always amazed at how tight and restrictive my winter shoes feel after a summer of sandals and flip-flops. It’s all about contrast. The seasons give the picture of life tone and depth, as sunshine and shadow brings a photograph alive.

I took advantage of the milky morning and walked the children to school again. The woodpeckers are out in force now, echoing around the wide valley, and it’s hard not to smile when jaunty daffodils are decorating the roadsides with their gaudy yellow display. Sheep scattered guiltily to the side of the lane as we approached, trying frantically to find the hole through which they’d escaped. The streams played a happy tune and we nodded our good mornings to assorted dog-walkers and neighbours. The beauty of the day was only briefly shattered as my smallest screeched ‘Phwaw, what’s that stinky smell – the cows are eating rotten fish in their big gobs’. This was an interesting image and one I can safely say I’d not thought of before. I suggested it was unlikely then left it at that. Imagination is all and I hate to quash it.

On the return I was left to my own peaceful thoughts. They meandered from acknowledging the contentment of the moment - in the air I was breathing, the sounds I was hearing, the sights I was seeing – to the relative horrors of the school ‘run’ in London, where how to avoid the rush hour congestion was the only serious consideration. No regrets there then. As I fell to contemplating the seasons again, I couldn’t help my mind recalling the images I’d received on my recent return to northern Italy. There is nowhere better to appreciate seasonal bounty than in an Italian market and I love the way they still celebrate the individuality of each month by the products you see on the market stalls. At the moment it’s all artichokes and asparagus. Soon it will be peas, then tomatoes, basil, aubergines and courgettes; then mushrooms, squash, pumpkins and clementines. And so it goes on. Year after year, a culinary ritual, a celebration of the best that the season has to offer. To think that this used to be my daily shopping experience. Now I am back to angrily ripping plastic off individually wrapped peppers in Morrisons, having the same boring choice of boring tasteless fruit and veg all year round and searching in vain for radicchio. I admit I am guilty of buying strawberries in January and asparagus and tomatoes from Israel. But it is so much harder when you have to go further afield to find the best of the seasonal produce available. I know I should find more time to go to Farmer’s Markets and I have often considered an organic box – but most of the people I know say they frantically end up making soup with the glut of shrivelled vegetables that seem an inevitable by-product of the good intention. Ultimately, for me, the pleasure is seeing and choosing for myself. Being inspired by what is in front of me, feeling excited and enthusiastic about the next meal I am going to cook. That is the joy of a colourful, chaotic Italian market place. Somehow the English version just doesn’t quite match up.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Waving Goodbye to the Grandparents

I’m looking out at my view, the sheep grazing lazily in a hazy sun-drenched landscape, their fat bellies full of spring lamb. It would be a lovely day for a walk or pottering around in the garden but I feel strangely listless. I have just waved goodbye to the parents, watching the silver car meander down the lane, red brake lights illuminating for the corners, until it passed out of sight. It is always a difficult moment. The house suddenly feels very empty and I become a little maudlin over the fact that they live four hours’ drive from here and that we miss so much of each other’s day to day lives. The harsh facts are that none of us are getting any younger and the girls are growing so fast.

I came back from my little break in Italy to hear excited accounts of all those wonderful things that grandparents find time to do: they’d played cards, curled up on the sofa with books, played endless games in the garden and, best of all, had a treasure hunt. Each granddaughter had been given a list of things to find. G (our 6 year old) had carefully born her list up to her bedside to lie alongside all her other ‘special things’ and it read: An ivy leaf, a piece of moss, a feather, a snowdrop, a primrose, a fern leaf, a pebble, a twig, a strawberry leaf. There would be 10p for each one found. These precious items were residing in a small plastic sandwich bag, the money safely stored in her hand-painted pink piggy bank. How do they find the time to do this AND get through a ton of ironing? But that’s the wonder of grandparents.

There are a number of women in the village whose parents live here too – or in neighbouring towns and villages. I cannot say I have not envied them at times. One of them sees her mother almost every morning for coffee having dropped her daughter off at school; another I often see wandering through the village with her little brood to go and spend time with her parents at their house. The children’s great aunts and uncles and great grandmother are in the village too. I am well aware that, at times, this might all get a bit claustrophobic, but I think there would probably be more ups than downs.

When we lived in London things were a little better. Though still hardly round the corner, our parents were at least only an hour’s drive away. This meant that they were close enough to help out in an emergency, I could pop down there for lunch if the mood took me and it suited them, or sometimes my mother would come up and we’d meet in central London for some shopping and chat. If my father had some business in town, he could spend the night with us, and if my mother-in-law was visiting her relatives in Sunbury, then she would often pop by and see us too. These days we have to plan everything in advance, wrestling with dates in busy diaries. I frantically make-up beds, fill the fridge with good food and chuck out the rancid stuff; make sure I have Dad’s favourite cereal, Mum’s favourite coffee and a pot of cream; put flowers in their rooms, polish the floor, plump up the cushions and try to hide the teetering pile of ironing (they always find it - like the one biology experiment that’s escaped me in the fridge). Arguably we have more ‘quality’ time, but as I watch that silver car disappear out of view, I can’t help feeling how nice it would be to pop by later for a cup of tea.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Arrivederci

The phone rang its extended continental beep. ‘Pronto!’ said a slightly bored sounding Italian teenage girl.
‘Chi parla?’
‘Sono Elena’
‘Ciao Elena! Come stai?’
So beganneth the conversation I had last night with the girl for whom I babysat when she was just a few months old. Sadly sixteen years have slipped by and she is no longer the chubby cheeked little creature she once was. I haven’t seen her since she was about six, so it will be quite a shock. After a long time without contact, it is hard to believe that tomorrow night we will be having dinner in Padova (Padua) with the wonderful family I once worked for. We left in 1992 after two glorious years in this ancient seat of learning in north-east Italy, a stone’s throw from Venice. We used to return frequently until another stint in Italy (Milan this time), new baby, a return to England, house renovation, house move, new baby, house re-build, new baby, house move – all in quick succession - took their toll on our time.

Padova is where my husband proposed to me (over the washing line – you can tell he’s no passionate Italian) and where we mutually fell in love with the land, its culture and its people as so many have done before us. That old cliché, la dolce vita, is as true today as it ever was. I don’t think there is a nation who knows how to live life quite as well as they do in Italy. Whatever the situation, the Italian ‘spirito’, their ‘brio’, always wins through. It is hard to be sad for long.

I will never forget the evening we first drove into Padova – my Fiat Panda, my (not yet) husband’s Golf, both packed to the gunnels after a two day drive through France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and down into Italy. With each sign on the autostrada counting down the kilometres till our exit, I grew more excited, and nervous, about what I was going to find. As we passed through the city walls and drove through the narrow porticoed streets in search of our new home, I stopped my car, rolled down the window and said to my husband-in-waiting, ‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?’

Forgive me if I seem to be straying a little from the theme of English Country Living. The truth is that when we first visited the village where we now live in the Peak District, my husband and I both agreed that we sensed a set of rhythms which were not dissimilar to those we had experienced, and so loved, during our time in Italy. The passage of the cows to milking, the movements of the farmers checking their flocks and herds round the hills and dales were as regular and predictable as the flood of people into Padova’s central piazzas for ‘passagiata’ and their reciprocal emptying when the time came to eat.. I just thought it would be interesting to draw a few comparisons, shed a soft Italian light on things. Added to which, my best friend here is Italian, blown like me into a life that neither of us would ever have imagined. She lives in a lost valley: I’m on my hill. She is in Staffordshire: I am in Derbyshire. Her husband is a pilot and they have an alpaca farm: my husband’s an accountant and we have a cat. She has two young boys: I have three young girls. She gives me the bursts of Mediterranean sunshine that I crave with her laughter, her passion and with prosciutto, parmesan and olives smuggled in from her homeland: I temper her occasional homesickness as the winds and rain lash our respective homes with reminiscences in her native tongue about la bell’Italia. Most of all we laugh together at the strange twists of fate that brought us both to this part of the world. You see, 10 years ago, our paths crossed once before – but maybe I’ll tell you about that some other time.

Till then, my friends, arrivederci.

Teeth and Tittle-Tattle

This week is National Dental Week. Well, in our family at least. I went to the dentist on Monday. I went there on Tuesday. I went there again today. All thanks to a receptionist who, three months ago, seemed incapable of understanding that I would actually like to try and rescue a little time from my diary and go with the children all together rather than on three separate sojourns. Still, it made each girl feel special I suppose. They all sat there, swamped by the dentist’s chair, furry toys dangling above, spindly little legs stuck out. They all were cleaned and sealed. They all rinsed and spat. They all got their sticker and their balloon, variously inscribed with ‘I’ve had a whale of a time’, ‘Plaque Buster’ and ‘Don’t you dare put that drill anywhere near my mouth’….hours of pleasure. For them at least. I was less convinced: there’s always a shocking smell of old tramp in that place. I cast my eyes round the waiting room. Occasionally the culprit is obvious, at other times it is a mystery. It’s hard to concentrate on the mags while you’re wretching, but I do my best. Today I picked up an old copy of a local publication and there, on page 30, was a face that looked highly familiar. Yes indeedy, it’s one of the mum’s at school – her whole home laid before me in glorious nosey technicolour. Passed the time quite wonderfully.

But I digress. My point was that the dentist whose premises I have been frequenting this week is actually an NHS dentist. A rare breed indeed these days. In London I had left behind a good dentist, albeit private and expensive, and had been looking for a replacement up here for a year or so. To my consternation, all the dentists in a sensible radius from us had no room on their books. When a friend happened to mention in the playground one morning that a new NHS practice had arrived at our local Health Centre you couldn’t see me for dust. Indeed, such is the demand now that they hang an aggressive note at reception saying ‘Any patient who fails to attend their dental appointment will automatically be removed from our practice list’. Perhaps this is the one thing I will NOT be late for.

Footnote on dental health in the North West:-
Zero fluoride in the water means shocking state of population’s teeth. Dire warning from drill-wielding dentist: do not snack, do not eat sweet things between meals as build up of acid, with no fat to counteract it, will destroy teeth in weeks. Proof: I have never had a filling in 43 years but last week (yes, I was there again) even I was treated to my first tooth seal as there were signs softening enamel. Alternatively, it could just be my age - my teeth, I fear, are beginning to lengthen a little…
Note to Severn Trent Water:-
Put fluoride back in the water – it would save a fortune in preventative dental care.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Watch Out, Watch Out, Toads About!

20th March 2007

Ah yes, it’s that special time of year again. The moment when the humble toad decides to risk the very survival of its species by recklessly attempting to cross the road. This is a particularly foolish act in a number of ways: 1) a toad is not the fastest creature on earth so a quick dash to the other side is not an option, 2) this perilous activity is undertaken in the gloaming on wet murky nights when bolt-eyed drivers with their windows fugged up have a cat’s chance in hell of actually spotting them.

Now, this seasonal problem is currently very much in the minds of those of us in the village who spend most of our lives hurtling up and down the lanes in our four-wheeled killing machines. The Buxton Advertiser has already put out a plea for some Toad Traffic Wardens to help our misguided little warty friends make it back to their breeding sites. In our case this is the reservoir and the raised pond I talked of yesterday, as it is in deep, still water that they like to procreate. Each to their own. Some weeks ago scary Brown Owl (an RSPCA volunteer and lay preacher as well as Leader of the Pack) had cocked her squat head and fixed us earnestly with her beady little eyes, warning us of the risks ahead. At the time, I’m afraid I had not treated the situation with the gravity it clearly deserves. I had imagined the odd one or two might be pottering across from field to reservoir, at which point I would, of course, swerve violently to avoid it, risking nothing more than a head-on collision with oncoming traffic while at least saving the future of Toad.

Then, at a party on Saturday, I found myself in conversation with a woman who had, indeed, been a member of the Toad Crossing Patrol. It seems the little blighters come out in their droves. I instantly had visions of her in a fluorescent jacket with a lollipop stick marching fearlessly out into the middle of the road as cars screeched to a halt all around her. ‘Come on boys, chop along now, that’s the ticket, fast as you can!’ She described the bucketfuls of bemused amphibians rescued from the tarmac - so many, in fact, that the ones at the bottom came out not much flatter than if they’d had an encounter with an Audi. It crossed my mind that this did seem to be defeating the object. The other conundrum was trying to decide which way they were actually heading – TO or FROM the reservoir. You can imagine – Toady has just spent a fair wee while getting to the middle of the road, pauses for breath, when some interfering old busybody grabs him, swings him round and dumps him back where he’d just come from. “Put me down, put me down, you silly old fool!”, but his cries are carried away unheard on the mists and winds of the damp March night.

Monday, 19 March 2007

The Early Bird gets the Worm




It may be a well-worn phrase but how true it is. Not that I would know much about that sort of thing as the words ‘early’ and ‘me’ have never been knowingly put together. However, this morning I can enjoy the rare experience of feeling suitably smug and replete on my fat worm having just returned from a wonderful early morning walk.

I drew back the curtains to find a snowy vista laid before me lit brightly by a rising easterly sun. Sometime during the night the marble-sized hailstones of the previous evening (so big they’d crashed down the chimney into the grate, scattering ash everywhere and leaving a sludgy mess for us all to admire) had turned to flakes and left a thin white blanket over the hillsides. Aha, I thought, we shall walk to school. Well, we didn’t manage that as time, of course, ran out somewhere over the Coco Pops. Instead, I parked in the centre of the village and walked the girls the last few hundred yards. A little fresh air is better than none. We negotiated the wedding marquee that had been attached to the building on Friday (the perils of having a school in the village hall), said our goodbyes, and off I went. I took a left and walked a little way along the lane, slithering a bit in my Wellingtons on the icy surface. I clambered over a gate, traversed a field with, surprisingly, no sheep in it, climbed another gate and set off up the hillside. I looked back at my footsteps in the thin layer of snow. Simple pleasures.

Half way up I suddenly spotted a movement in the middle distance. It was hard to tell whether it was a hare or a large rabbit, but it hopped into its hole as it saw me coming. Briefly there was just the dark silhouette of its long ears poking over the line of the slope, then, whoosh, they’d disappeared. I walked on and saw there was a large warren here. I imagined them all down below in those myriad tunnels, crouched, ears back, noses twitching as my footsteps boomed above them. The giant cometh. I paused at a distance to see if any little heads would pop out again once they thought the danger had passed. But no, they’re not stupid.

I walked on, noting how some of the trees still had brown seed keys clinging to them against all windy odds and that all of them had snow blown up against just one side of their trunks and branches. It had been a north-westerly wind, the one that normally brings all the moisture off the Atlantic, dumping it merrily as rain (or in this case snow) as it first hits this western edge of the Pennines. Having reached the top of the hill and the end of the field I opened the gate onto the track. Turn right and it takes you to a group of isolated farm houses. I turned left, passing through a farmyard where dogs barked and familiar farmyardy smells filled my nostrils as I breathed the cold air. I joined the lane that snakes up to the ridge and headed left again towards the village. It is one of my favourite little corners where a busy stream gushes off the hillside and past the pretty stone cottages. Henri lives here but I’ll tell you about her another day. I looked at the poor daffodils lining the drystone walls. They had been encouraged by the mild weather of last week to raise their yellow trumpets from the warming earth - now they lay bowed and beaten. Thankfully there are many more that had not been so hasty in their blooming which we will still be able to enjoy. I took a photo of a small red-leaved plant which was growing between the stones of the walls and looked so pretty with the dusting of snow. I was told that the air is so pure in this valley that a rare lichen grows on the walls up our lane. Some botanists came collecting it once for the purposes of research and apparently there is only one other place in the country that it grows – somewhere in Wales if my memory serves me well.

I ambled on, taking the time to listen to the birds. The top note was the crows cawing in the treetops but if you listened carefully the chorus of smaller birds was ever present, subtly enriching the main tune. I came to the raised pond which hides behind the hedge and can best be seen on foot and in winter. There was an excited chirruping which I finally isolated as coming from the top of a severed tree trunk, victim of the gales. Two crows were circling around it, swooping in from time to time to feed what must have been their noisy brood tucked into one of the crevices of the broken tree. Three mallards cruised noiselessly across the glassy surface of the water below. I was about to move on when I suddenly heard a familiar, but rare, sound. Was it really a woodpecker? I paused. Yes, there is was again. I was sure this time. My eyes searched the gnarled branches of the trees on the far side of the pond. Suddenly I saw it, a flash of red. The unmistakeable sharp silhouette of the woodpecker settled on a branch. The drilling began. Another flash of red. It had a companion. More drilling. A grey squirrel scuttled nimbly along precarious-looking outstretches of branch. I have lived here nearly four years and have never taken the time to observe nature in this way. It was hugely rewarding.

I continued on my way, stopping again to watch a little brown sparrow singing his heart out on top of the hedge, his red gullet clearly visible every time he opened his beak to utter his song, his brown chest feathers fluttering in the breeze. Around me I could hear a steady drip, drip, as the thaw was already setting in. The clouds were gathering, the blue backdrop replaced by grey. For once, I had had the best of the morning.

Reaching the centre of the village I read the Parish notices and sat on the stone bench for a moment’s contemplation. I spend so much time rushing up and down the lane in my car, but wasn’t a morning’s walk like this exactly why I’d come to live here in the first place? Now the girls are all at school I can actually begin to enjoy it in ways I haven’t had the time or energy for until now. With that sombre promise to myself, I climbed reluctantly into the car and headed back up my hill.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Mother's Day Musings

Mother’s Day dawned in a whirlwind of sun, hail, sleet, snow, three over-excited little girls and their resigned-looking father. All I really wanted was a quiet lie-in. Instead I had to raise myself from my slumbers to a shrill chorus of Happy Mother’s Day, much jumping on the bed and a barrage of home-made cards and drawings all of which I had to admire and praise; a breakfast tray of cold tea and toast and soggy shreddies and a wonderful bunch of flowers from my husband. This year there was even the added excitement of a handmade photo frame with a picture of Eldest Daughter in her Brownie uniform and a talking toy parrot which repeatedly screeched ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Tah Dah Yeah, Mum’ in my left ear courtesy of my youngest. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When they finally all got bored I was left to read the Travel pages of the Telegraph in relative peace, lie in an oil-scented bath with Gardening Which? and learn that I have made a pig’s ear of pruning my fruit canes. Still, I’m not too despondent. I approach gardening in the same way I approach cooking – with a large dose of natural instinct. I can’t be bothered with fiddle-factor cooking. The key is good ingredients, a good palate and an innate sense of what goes well together – all lessons which were driven home in Italy where I cut my cooking teeth. As for gardening, I read a bit, remember a bit, forget a lot and just go out there and enjoy learning by experience. If the raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries aren’t good this year I’ll know to do it differently next! My approach to sowing seeds is similar. I chuck ‘em in and hope for the best. My new batch of bulbs, though planted three months late, are coming up just fine; the vegetable seeds I sowed in pots last year gave me a humble little crop of carrots, courgettes, tomatoes, runner beans, broad beans and salad. Not enough to make more than a few meals, but rewarding and encouraging nonetheless.

One of the things I would like to do today is pop out to the potting shed, select some seed packets and sow them in little trays with my daughters. Plant the seed, feed it, water it, watch it grow. It seems particularly appropriate for Mother’s Day.

Meanwhile there are good smells coming out of the kitchen, husband at the helm, and Middle Daughter has just come in with another laboriously hand-made card full of hearts, beads and princesses. I feel very blessed.

Oh, hang on, no – quick reality check: there’s screaming in the playroom, sobs and shouting. Time to go and sort it out. Find the culprit, dispense the lessons and wipe away the tears. Just get on with the business, with all its ups and downs, of being a mother. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How the Tumbleweed Blew into Town

16th March 2007


I‘ve just walked to the top of the hill, to admire and sketch the view and to think again about how I came to be here.

It was a damp, misty November afternoon three and a half years ago. We had driven up into the hills from the flatness of the Cheshire plains. Down there the lank grey blanket was soul-crushing while up here, where at every twist of the road sheep loomed murkily out of the grassy bogs, it was mysteriously poetic. Here there was a sense of place my southern eyes thought no longer existed and a timelessness which remained with me long after our return to London. We drove over hill and dale, through attractive villages of grey stone houses – less dark and brooding than Cornwall or Yorkshire – until we reached the one that was to become our home. I will never forget driving down the lane that leads from the main road: golf course on the left, reservoir on the right, small fields with the ubiquitous sheep, then just before the stone railway bridge a small white sign with a rather grand emblem of two prancing stags welcoming us to this particular little village in the High Peak. Even to this day, whenever we pass it, that sign reminds us of that brief, but key, moment when we wondered whether our lives were indeed going to move in this unexpected direction. I wanted to like what we had come to see – and the signs were good so far – but at the same time I feared the implications. All that upheaval. Starting again.

We drove on into the village, past an attractive looking pub, right in the centre where three lanes meet. We took a guess as to which lane we were meant to be taking. Winding our way up the hill, with all the trepidation you have when you’ve come a long way to look at a prospective house, we soon found ourselves swinging into the courtyard of a handsome old stone house. I was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling that I was coming home despite the fact that I was actually so far from everything that was familiar to me. The feeling pervaded throughout that visit. Despite not having a stick of furniture in it, this stern old maiden of a building had a gentle, welcoming spirit which belied its austere facades. It was generous in its proportions yet still embraced you warmly. The garden was beautiful – three soft mossy lawns stretching in tiers up the hillside, narrowing at the top into an area of longer grass and fruit trees. Here too a neglected vegetable patch, a greenhouse and a small wooden gate into the field above. A spring popped out of the ground and babbled and gossiped its watery way down through a wooded dell which edged the more formal garden. I was told there were snowdrops in Winter, bluebells in Spring. There was ivy, holly, elder, oak, sycamore, laurel, copper beech, and tall scots pines – not indigenous, but nonetheless doing a good job of protecting the garden from the prevailing winds. A huge metal bell dating from 1912 (one of my favourite periods) hung on the wall outside the potting shed. A stone trough collected and re-distributed water from another hidden spring. The dry stone walls wore jackets of green moss, over which, in one direction, the reservoir could be glimpsed beyond assorted trees and descending fields where hens pecked amongst the sheep and cows; in the other direction was the drama of the escarpment which encloses the valley in a bear-like hug. I was hooked. It was magical and such was it’s atmosphere that it was no surprise to learn that there had been some form of dwelling on this sight since the 13th century, possibly a hermitage.

And so it was that we found the High Peak. But now a sharp breeze has whipped itself up and I realise, here on my hilltop, that I am very cold. I take in one last sweep of the green folds and ridges, the spots of sunlight sweeping across a field below, illuminating pockets of creamy white sheep in it path. Chapel-en-le-Frith lies in the distance, beyond the village, its newly built secondary school standing starkly out amongst the older grey stone terraces. The upper moorlands of the Dark Peak lie broodingly behind. Blue skies have turned to grey and there is a hint of rain in the air. Time to get back to the warm embrace of the home I love so much.

'Glitzy' High Peak Swings into Pole Position

15th March 2007


‘GLITZY’ HIGH PEAK SWINGS INTO POLE POSITION

I’ve just turned to page 3 of my local rag. I can’t see Samantha Fox in all her glory but it’s looking a bit racy nonetheless. There’s an unbelievably blurry photo (narrow your eyes and it could be 3D) of what could conceivably pass for a swingers gathering (quite popular round here, so my cleaner tells me). Four scantily clad ladies of a certain age (they love a bit of cleavage up north) are seemingly throwing back their heads in laughter (or ecstasy?) while a man in a dickie bow kneels in front of them, hands outstretched. He’s either a dwarf or the stripper at a hen party about to perform some lewd act or other. A lone man to the left of the picture is clapping, two others to the right are looking at the camera with the sort of rigid smiles that suggest they may have a rather stiff pole up their backsides. And there’s a load of leery people lurking at the back trying to get in on the action. Oh hang on, no, look, I’ve just seem the caption: ‘High Peak Borough Council staff and councillors at the award ceremony’. Reading on, ‘The work of High Peak Borough Council has been recognised nationally after it scooped a top award at the’Oscars’ of the local government sector’. That explains the dresses then. ‘At a glitzy ceremony in London on Monday night, the authority walked off with the Local Government Chronicle Council of the Year Award’. Well, there’s proud, as they say oop ‘ere. Still, I can hardly conceive of anything less ‘glitzy’ than a room full of local councillors – but yet more surprising is that Rory Bremner was hosting this laugh-a-minute ceremony. Must have fallen on hard times poor love. I wonder how much they paid him to say ‘“High Peak Borough Council is a highly ambitious and resourceful district council. The performance management systems and emphasis on efficiency and value for money have enabled them to deliver excellent services with low council taxes. (Are you still awake? – Ed). The judges were particularly impressed by their partnerships.”’ See, told you it was a swingers party.

Elsewhere on the page it's rather less jolly: 'Man charged with GBH'; 'Two killed in weekend accidents'; 'Home search found heroin'. Oh, and 'Close shave over sheep shearer crisis'. Ah yes, life is never dull round these parts.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Bonfires and Brownies

It's been a perfect day for gardening. Having done some essentials in the house I donned my boots and headed outside into the sunshine. I am amazed every year how excited I get about those first shoots of Spring. Having planted, rather belatedly (as with everything in my life!), some tulip, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs that I purchased with gusto in the autumn, it is such a joy to see them pushing through the soil.

I decided to give the place a tidy-up. I started by raking up the last of the autumn leaves from the borders that have been left blanketing the soil over the winter. I think the risk of frost is now minimal. In fact this year has been exceptional for its lack of those magical mornings when the sun slants through the naked branches onto crisp fields of white; frozen droplets bejewel bare twigs, mist floats off the reservoir, and the air is crisp and sweet with negative ions. I feel a little cheated in that respect but am happy to embrace the energy of the new season.

With the collected leaves I started a bonfire. This is usually my husband's domain and he regularly boasts conflagrations which threaten the very existence of England's woods. My own efforts were a little tamer. Three firelighters and about 20 strikes of once-damp-now-dried matches later (I'm frugal at heart!) I had a gently smoking pile which managed to devour, elegantly enough, my generous portions of dry brown leaves and bright green leylandii clippings. I stood there contentedly, imagining myself in a soft focus photo straight off the pages of country living. I contemplated making a cup of tea and drinking it out of my enamel cup to complete the perfect picture but pulled myself together and instead patched up a bit of crumbling drystone wall around the edges of the compost heap. From there I moved seamlessly to do a bit of pruning of the blackcurrant and raspberry canes at the top of the garden before mercilessly attacking an encroachment of rhododendron onto my ill-fated vegetable patch. With that I had to go and get the children.

For my sins, I had an extra one today. Her mother is one of those frightening types who juggles a high-powered job with motherhood. She does presentations left, right and centre and the logistics of her life scares me rigid. Her child scares me fairly rigid too - tiny but packs a punch (just like her mother). I soothed them with lasagne (homemade - ha!) and chocolate mousse (not homemade - ha!) and pretty much left them to it while I attempted to watch Ready Steady Cook and Masterchef out of the corner of one eye. Eldest to Brownies (need that like a hole in the head); discussions with Brown Owl (also diminutive and scary) about the impending EASTER SALE - much hooting and twit-twooing about the chocolate tombola (which foolishly I volunteered to run) and sharp intakes of breath when I produced alcohol for the other tombola. It's a Methodist Church hall you understand. Oh dear, silly me, told off again. I removed it sheepishly like I'd just fallen off the Alchoholic's Anonymous wagon and looked forward to cracking it open the moment I got home.

It's now late, I've finished my wine, my husband's away, four little angels lie sleeping in their beds and I'm going to join them. It's been a happy day.

The times they are a-changing

Something’s not quite right. It’s a lovely day again. Soft air, the scents of spring with a hint of summer to come. No more excuses not to walk the children down the lane to school. So off we set, breathing in the grassy farmyardy smells and merrily swinging our plastic bag containing the two empty birds nests I found in the garden yesterday. The topic this term at school is ‘Materials’and the various things you can do with them. They’ve made lumpy grey recycled paper out of shredded newspapers, been to a local quarry to study stones and now they’re doing weaving. Yesterday a local artist came to the school and helped them weave a living pergola in the playground out of willow twigs. It’s designed to be a little shady retreat from the summer heat (hope springs eternal in these parts). It’s really rather splendid and, as ever, I was in awe of what our little village school manages to achieve. So anyway, I felt particularly chuffed when I found these abandoned nests as they were marvellous examples of weaving. Those little birds had put together something quite remarkable with a load of twigs, mud, horsehair, straw – you name it, it was there – all woven together beautifully. Nature comes to the classroom in all its glory. Of course the first thing that happened when I presented them to the teachers was that I got told off for taking them out of the trees. As if. I did explain, slightly sarcastically, that they had, of course, been lying on the ground, sideways, obviously abandoned. I hardly wrenched them from the grasp of the poor hardworking birdies as they put the finishing touches to their home. And I refrained from saying that Molly probably ate the birds anyway - they’d have had social services onto me in the blink of a disapproving eye.

As I started on my way back, a friend stopped me, impressed that I’d actually walked down rather than my usual screeching in at the last minute, the smell of burning rubber in the air, shouting at the kids to ‘Run, run, run’ to squeak through the door before 9 o’clock tolls. It seems to be an unwritten rule that the closer you are to the school the later you are. It was always a race between me and the friend that lives 200 yards from its gates as to which of us was going to get there last and incur the wrath of the Head. She usually won. I was devastated when she moved her child to a different school (with a view, presumably, to getting there on time) as I suddenly had nowhere to hide. Anyway, it seems they are now selling up and I got into a discussion as to the possible whys and wherefores and how sad it was that two more small children were leaving the village.

The friend I was having this conversation with grew up here and her mother still lives in the house she was brought up in. She still loves the place but we were lamenting how much things have changed. Even four years ago, when I arrived, there was still a herd of dairy cows which chewed the cud in the field opposite our house and would give me very good excuses for being late to school when the farmer was moving them down the lane to new pastures. Having just left the car crush and road rage that is west London, it was wonderful to have a rather different type of road user ambling along the byways of this land. The girls loved it too. It was one of the reasons I moved here – to have them grow up with real country rhythms in their souls, surrounded by nature rather than smoke, grime and crime. Not so long ago there were about five dairy farms in this village and you could set your watch by the passage of cows past the pub on the way to the milking sheds. The last one to go, three years back, was owned by a man in his early thirties whose family have farmed in the valley for generations. He finally gave it up because it was bloody hard work and not enough money in it. He’s now diversified into sheep and hanging baskets. One of his uncles lives next to us, dabbles in property and runs the local milk round. The other farms sheep and lives at the bottom of the lane. His children go to our school. At least he and his wife (also born and brought up here) are doing their best to keep down the average age of the village – they’ve just had their fourth child. It might help keep the school open if nothing else.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Pheasants and things

I looked up from dishwashing and saw a pheasant on the lawn. I decided to go and have a closer inspection, maybe take a photo. It was a beautiful day again after all (diary note - that makes three in a row now). I snuck carefully up the side of the lawn, camera at the ready, to where it was ambling about. Too far away still. Must get closer. Sneak up some more. Bother, sun in eyes. Golly, don't pheasants have good camouflage - can't see the bloody thing at all now he's snuffling about in the shrubs. Ah, hear he comes, just get the camera......Oh God, it's Molly coming to be companionable, with immaculate timing of course. Pssst, Molly, bog off...can't you see I'm trying to take a photo of a pheasant? Molly, MOLLY...crouches low and hurtles into the bushes. Pheasant squawks, flies inelegantly over wall and away. Bloomin cat. Good to have you back. Honest.

Moll likes her wild stuff. In London she frequently came out the wrong side of a scuffle with the fox that left his calling card all over our lawn. With suitable irony, now we're in the country and despite hunting bans, you can't see a fox for love nor money. But there are plenty of rabbits. I went up to the girls' bedroom one spring morning and as I went to get some clothes out of their wardrobe I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Tentatively, I inched the laundry basket away from the wall and two beady black eyes stared up at me. I wasn't sure who was more bemused, me or the rabbit. Molly, of course, was nowhere in sight. She'd obviously got bored with the chase. So there I was, instead of getting the children dressed and ready for school, diving around the room in hot pursuit of Bunny. We were late of course and I think the teachers just thought my excuses were getting wilder and wilder. Well, literally-speaking, I suppose they were. Anyway, then came the knotty problem of what to do with this thing. Dump him, still in shock, back into the field only to be caught by Molly again, or keep him under observation for a while. I decided on the latter and scooped him up into the cat's carrying basket (the one that spells V-E-T and causes her to go all sweaty pawed). He was looking a little the worse for wear and seemed to have lost his appetite. But then, who wouldn't, if presented with a limp old bit of lettuce which had been heading for the compost heap? I imagined hot sweet tea was more than the situation required and settled on a bowl of water. Bunny shuffled to the back of the basket and showed me his back. I decided to leave him to it.

Some hours later I went to check on our furry little friend only, horror of horrors, to find the basket empty, though the buckles still in place. Houdini would have been proud. Baffled, I began frantically searching round the room and soon found him huddled up behind the rubbish bin. A bit of lunging and scurrying followed till I had him safely back in the not-so-foolproof basket. I felt the time had come to re-naturalise so I plopped him into the field opposite and wished him well. What more could I do? We all have to take our chances in life, after all. You just have to keep hoping today's not the day.

Found

Molly is back. The 'miao' at the back door was the sweetest I'd ever heard. She re-appeard just as Eldest Daughter was putting the finishing touches to her Missing Cat notice. She'd chosen a picture of a tabby off the internet. It was a close enough resemblance I suppose - and at least it wasn't orange with eight legs. Which would probably have made it an octopus. That would have looked strange pinned on a telegraph pole in the village. 'Missing Octopus. Washed away in floods. One tearful owner. Please do not pan fry if found.'

But I digress. We opened the door to the little furry face and she poked her nose in a little tentatively before allowing her body to follow. She was unmarked, unscathed and after a purry cuddle headed straight for the cat bowl, oblivious to the distress she'd caused her owner. A little food was digested, a bit of licking afterwards. She did look a tad sheepish. If she hadn't been neutered I'd have guessed she'd been rollicking in the hay with some Tomcat or other. Anyway, she clearly wasn't of a mind to have a chat about it so I let it drop. It's just nice to have our little family complete again.

Shortly before she reappeared, Middle Daughter suggested we pray for her again. I said no, it hadn't helped last time. Now, cuddling Molly, smiles back on our faces, MD said, 'You see Mummy, I told you God was still looking for her'. I looked across at her huge toothy smile and wide blue shiny eyes and hugged her like I never wanted to let her go.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Missing

Molly is missing. However bright the day (and yes, we have another good one - diary note) my heart's gloomy. I know she's only a cat. But she's our cat and she's part of our family. The girls include her in their drawings and in their writings. She's sometimes depicted as orange with 8 legs. She is in fact tabby with four legs, but no matter. Perish the thought that I would ever want to harm their tender creative instincts with harsh criticism. The point is that she is a very sweet cat. In fact the sweetest cat that I have ever known. No bitchy clawing she when being tickled under the chin or being dragged by a three year old in an alarming manner across the kitchen floor in an attempt to pick her up. And if they succeed she will sit there looking, well, merely slightly disturbed, as her fur is stroked the wrong way and her legs left dangling. Now the children are all at school she is my cosy little companion, curled up on the chair by the Aga, pottering about the garden with me, greeting me when I return to the house with upright tail and cheery chatter. When we take a family walk up or down the lane she will follow, faithful, dog-like. It really is very endearing. Not like these grisly cats who give all the others a bad name, swiping out as soon as look at you, huffing fishy breath all over you and who frankly couldn't give a stuff if you were dead or alive as long as they get fed.

And you know the worst of it is that, as I let her out into the howling wind and lashing rain (strange decision on her part) late Saturday night, I thought to myself, 'Gosh, how sad if this was the last time I ever saw her, plodding off into this Bronte-esque night'. I even opened the door again, just to watch her mooch away and warn her that there'd be no coming back till the morning cos I was to bed. Earlier in the week, I 'd also been having thoughts as I watched her potter across the lawn at how empty it would be when she departs this world. She's 6 now, the same age as my daughter. She joined us when they were both about 3 months old. I reckoned she's see them grow into adults if all went well. Then I'd not only have to confront empty nest syndrome but the death of the cat too. Still, that was a problem for another day. So when she failed to reappear all of Sunday (howling wind and lashing rain), and now it's Monday afternoon, I'm full of self-flaggelating thoughts along the lines of 'why the hell did I have those thoughts, now I've gone and blooming well made it happen, stupid cow'. I even burst into tears all over my homoeopath when I was meant to be there discussing my daughter. I apologised for being foolish and she said 'No, it's important', which I thank her for. Because it's not really is it? As I searched the edges of the field opposite, peered into marshy streams and down rabbit holes, and poked about in the hedges up and down the lane, needles in haystacks came to mind. She could be bloody anywhere for God's sake. But at least I was trying. If I hadn't tried, I'd have felt wretched. I thought of all the policemen and women who have meticulously searched fields, moors and woods; the people who've suffered losing a family member and not knowing what's happened to them. The kids that run away from home; the wives, husbands or partners that up and leave; kidnaps, hostages...the agony of not knowing what that beloved person is going through, why they did what they did, where they are and what they might be suffering. Helpless, mind-blowingly, frustratingly helpless to find them, save them. Get there before it's too late. I imagine it could send you insane.

I collected Middle Daughter from gym and she asked if Molly was back. I collected Youngest Daughter from school and she asked if Molly was back. I collected Eldest Daughter from the school bus and she asked if Molly was back. I said 'No', three times in a quiet voice tinged with loss. I wanted to believe she'd pop out from behind the bushes when we got home but it was no surprise when she didn't. She'd been away too long. It was very out of character. As the wind and rain set in again with the darkness we sent up another little prayer. I hated to think of her out there and the chair by the Aga looked very empty. Watching the news, I saw the story of the missing tourists in Ethiopia, seemingly now aggressively taken hostage. It was very humbling and I sent up a prayer for them too.

Friday, 2 March 2007

On a day like this

Good grief. It's a sunny day. Reason enough to make a diary note. But as I said, I live in a very beautiful place and on days like this it is hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else. Truly.

The sun is streaming through the window, the veins of the poinsettia in front of me opaque in the translucent ruby of their leaves. The grass in the fields across the lane is a vibrant green broken only by the ragged darkness of the dry stone walls. No sheep today, just the skeletons of the sleeping trees, a trail of woodsmoke from the village below and the heather-clad escarpment in the distance sharply defined by a winter blue sky. A cockerel crows. The light is so shiny and bright that everything glistens. The puddles sparkle, shadows dance. Several walkers pass by, making their way steadily uphill, revelling in the beauty of the day. After the relentless gloom of recent weeks, this is one to cherish. Your spirits soar. It's a good feeling.

However, it is also a very rare feeling. You see, our village lies just to the west of Buxton, a slightly faded spa town on the western edges of the Peak District, famous for its water. Its thermal waters and its rainwater. The thermal waters are bottled, the rainwater just comes down in buckets. Yes, Buxton is officially the wettest place in the country and there's a metereological station on the top of the hill in town just to prove the point. Though you only have to live here to know that this fact is hardly under contention. Yesterday I was standing talking outside school with our very own brand of drizzle-cum-rain falling so persistently that water was pouring down my face behind my glasses. You may wonder why I continued to stand there but if you didn't, you'd never get out, never see anyone. It's a lesson I learned quite early on. And if the sun does happen to shine you have to grab the moment, get out there and walk, revel in it. God knows when it might happen again! The other lesson I learned is to buy a decent hat and coat and wander about the lanes looking a cross between Harrison Ford and Sharon Stone in that western she once did. Difference is, she looked sexy, I just stay dry. Shame I wasn't wearing them yesterday - by the time I got home I'd pretty much dissolved.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

The best laid plans

I live in a very beautiful place. Not exactly where I'd planned on living but, hey, the best laid and all that...

At 15 I knew I wanted to live in France, marry a Frenchman, live happily ever after. England was not for me. I was born and brought up in the south of England, not far from the coast, France always just over the watery horizon. I studied French. It was all in place. So how exactly have I ended up in the rain-soaked North West of this smitten Isle, my Mediterranean spirit caked in mud and mist?

There begs the question. Well, I can well and truly blame my husband. An easy target I know, but true. He comes to me one dark November eve down south and says ' How do you fancy Manchester?' 'Not a lot', says I, up to my neck in builders rubble and baby crap, the cracks in my facade apparent but gone unnoticed. 'Ok' he says.

So how was it that barely 5 months later I found myself driving up the M1, tears streaming down my cheeks, to a whole new world, a counter-intuitive move away from everything I hold dear. My family; my friends; the house where I'd given birth to two of my children and whose expansion and renovation I'd endured with newborn baby at my breast; my beloved Europe receding ever further from my grasp. It was a curious experience and one that many before me have gone through at the mercy of work, the armed forces, the diplomatic service - and in our increasingly fluid society one that will occur with ever greater frequency. It wasn't as if I wasn't used to moving, starting all over - I had done it a number of times before, to France, to Italy. But this was different. I was exhausted. I didn't want to start again. I didn't want to have to find new friends, new schools, new doctors, dentists and candlestickmakers. I had done all that. Several times. I'd had enough. Three children under four and a husband working all hours was difficult enough. And yet, and yet...something was drawing me to this corner of the world. In the end it was me who said I thought we should give it a go. Weekly commuting is death to family life, let alone a marriage, so that wasn't an option. I was tired. Tired of everything. And the hurly burly of London was getting me down, exhausting me further. Everything a struggle, everything a battle - even parking the car. Planes screaming overhead, no room in the schools. Jostling with a pram through the crowds on the pavements. So many people but all so anonymous. I needed space, peace, time to think, breathe, reflect. To regroup. That's why I wanted to give it a go. And, you know what? I don't regret it. Not one bit.
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