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.
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