Thursday, 28 February 2008

Blog Birthday

It’s my birthday today. Well, my blog birthday that is. Happy Birthday Blog! Yes indeed, one year old today. I will never forget how it came about. A good friend from London sent me a card through the post containing two bits of upsetting news: firstly, she and her family were moving to Geneva (mixture of loss and envy); secondly, she enclosed a cutting which made her think of me and thought would make me laugh. Actually, it made me cry. It was the article in The Times on Wife in the North, journalist Judith O’Reilly. Partly as a result of that article she has become a household name in blogland and beyond and already had a considerable following. I was gutted. I'd missed the boat again. Someone always gets there first.

Yet I, too, had been wrenched from my southern homelands (having previously been wrenched from the joys of living in Italy) and dragged, almost screaming, certainly crying (I do a lot of crying – good release!), ‘oop north’. My close friends knew how hard it was for me to make the move at that particular time in my life, which was decidedly not a good moment, and had been following my progress. For some time I had planned to write about it. I’d thought about approaching magazines to offer a regular contribution on the subject of moving from south to north and from city to country, with the added insights of time spent abroad. I’d once been a freelance writer, you see, and I felt I finally had something to write about again. If only I could find the time. Unfortunately, my depression (exhaustion led, but with deeper roots) had set in big time and when I was first up here it was all I could do to get up in the morning let alone be proactive and creative. Hence the years had slipped by and I’d done nothing about it. When my friend sent her card and the cutting, I was just coming to the end of my long journey out of the dark tunnel. I was just thinking once more about approaching some magazines or local newspapers. Country Living magazine was my first target, but before that I wanted to flex my writing muscles again – and a blog seemed just the right way to do that. Quietly, unnoticed.

So I sat down that very afternoon and worked out how to set up a blog. It was all rather nerve-racking. I felt I was entering this whole new world: a world which I’d studiously avoided and didn’t really understand. The hardest part was deciding on usernames and the title of the blog. Rather alarming to have it all set in (oxymoronic) cyberstone. But there it was, finally, an endless white page on which to pen my thoughts, feelings, opinions and experiences. No editor. Just me, for better or worse.

And so View from the High Peak was born. Shortly after, a friend pointed out the competition for a columnist, via blogging, in Country Living. I entered enthusiastically into the game – then came to wish I hadn’t as it soon became clear that it was a hopelessly ill-conceived idea with no proper rules and getting more and more out of hand by the minute. The effort that so many put in was not rewarded. I wished I’d stuck to my original plan and just submitted my ideas in the traditional manner of a freelance. But no matter. It pushed me into writing almost daily for a month or so – and the cyber friendships that came out of it, and the excellent writing to be enjoyed, more than made up for it. PurpleCoo is the result of that fiasco – so every cloud has a silver lining and none more so than this. It is so comforting to be among such talented, kind and funny friends in a space that could otherwise seem very lonely.

Unforseen events, unfortunately, overtook me again in the middle of last year, with all that school nonsense that some of you will know about. I'm still trying to make up all the time that was lost - hence I have not been able to do much writing. As I blow out the candle, my wish is that I find more time. I will, because I wrote a diary for many years when I was younger and have always had an unhealthy need to record moments, hold thoughts, stop the clock, observe, look back, reflect, explore emotions, learn and grow. Is that not what life is all about, after all?

An Ordinary Day

Wednesday, 27th February 2008

The sun was out but my unexplained melancholy from the day before still lingered. I dropped L at school and decided to take ‘due pasi’, as the Italians say, down the lane. No big yomp up any hill, just a bit of fresh air and some connection with the earth and the air. As I reached my turning point I saw a determined little figure in padded jacket and hat with earflaps coming towards me. It was the indefatigable octogenarian Henri, out on one of her daily, or twice daily, walks. I told her I’d walk back with her. Her eyes were streaming as they always do in the cold. Last autumn her dog and faithful walking companion, Kippie, passed away. They were on their way back from their morning walk, almost home, when he suddenly collapsed and couldn’t walk any further (any of Henri’s walks would do that to me, mind). He died later that day. She hasn’t cut quite the right figure ever since. She needs a dog by her side. She tried a rescue dog, but sadly it had been too badly treated in the past and was such a bunch of neuroses that even no-nonsense Henri couldn’t cope. Since then she’s been waiting for a Spaniel puppy. I asked if it was imminent.
‘Yes, next Wednesday. He had to be eight weeks old, you see, before she’d let me have him’.
‘Oh marvellous! What colour is it?’
‘He’s black.
‘Oh lovely, my favourite.’
‘Just like the first dog I ever had. Best dog I’ve ever had.’
‘That’s lovely, life coming full circle.’ I smiled. Dear Henri.
With that, I noticed a dead rabbit in the ditch to our right.
‘Ooh, look. Dead rabbit.’ I observed, chattily.
‘Yes, seen a lot of them’. (Henri always talks in clipped, let’s not waste time with bullshit, sort of sentences – she’s wonderfully old school and I love her for it). ‘Myxomatosis’.
‘Oh, that’s a shame’, say I. ‘We’ve only just got them back after the last epidemic’. Indeed, I remark (boringly) to the girls every time we go down the lane, dodging bunnies which fling themselves out of the hedge at my wheels or headlights, how it’s good to see the furry things back in business after a three year absence. It seems we’re about to lose them again. In fact, thinking about it, I’ve already noticed that there have been many fewer to swerve round in the last couple of weeks. And there was one sitting rather listlessly in the hedge opposite the school gate the other day. I realise now it must have been ill. Sad. Nature’s cull, I guess.

I tried to fix up a time when Henri and her equally octogenarian, but decidedly frailer, friend Mary could come up for a cup of tea after lunch. I’d been promising it for months. Thought, foolishly, that it might liven up a dull diary for them. How wrong was that? They’re busier than I am! Mary is currently driving 45 minutes away on a daily basis to see a specialist about her swollen legs condition. Fridays she’s at the hairdressers. Today they were out to lunch together, as they do every week. Henri has a new car and was pleased to have the excuse to drive to show it off to Mary.
‘Have you seen how fast she drives?’
I reflected and realised that Mary had narrowly missed me a number of times on the lane and it had crossed my mind she was going somewhat fast for her age and reactions (dodgy legs aside), fixed manic stare, seemingly oblivious to other road users. I saw Henri’s point.
‘She took me out the other day and when we got back she said, “Henri, you’re looking a bit pale”. I couldn’t tell her it was her driving. She goes so fast, overtaking in really dangerous places, and with her legs…but it gives her independence, you see. I daren’t tell her. Richard’s tried [stepson], but she won’t listen.’
‘I admire her spirit’, I said weakly, but couldn’t help thinking of the poor humans at peril out there, let alone the rabbits. More bodies in the ditch, and not just furry ones.

I left Henri to her fate (in her hands, at least, today), when the recycling lorry came along. As we parted she glanced into the cage at the back, pointing to the cans of Srongbow. ‘They’re mine! Have one every night!’ Girding her loins for her white knuckle rides with Mary no doubt…

Having got home and put my own detritus out to be turned into something else, I felt the need to stay outdoors. The sun was shining after all. One must make the most of it in these parts. So I set about scrubbing outside paintwork – doors and gates. Trouble was, the harder I scrubbed off the green algae, the more paint dropped off. I cast my mind to the names of exterior decorators…From there to the long neglected back door. Once a nice piece of natural wood, it has become blackened and weather-beaten in our persistent rains. Sanding down didn’t improve matters. Cleaning with white spirit neither. I rummaged around in the potting shed and found some wood preserver, bought enthusiastically some years ago, and left gloriously untouched. I dug around some more and found a paintbrush without paint-stiff bristles (chucked two out with) and slapped on a couple of coats. The door looked worse. And really stank. Vile smell, truly vile. The girls held their noses on returning from school with lots of melodramatic ‘POOH! What’s that SMELL?’ noises in little high-pitched incredulous voices. SO predictable. I made no excuses.

A little friend of L’s came to tea. I wanted to bake and see them play games together. They were more interested in rubbish TV. In the end I couldn’t be bothered to fight. At least they were out of my hair and I could get on and watch some rubbish TV myself over a cup of tea and the ironing.

Oh, yes, almost forgot to say that on the way back from school with the children I’d caught site of Mary and Henri returning from their lunch out. Relieved to see them back at least. Mary’s thin auburn hair was being blown by the wind as she leaned into Henri’s new car, presumably thanking her for driving. But she was probably actually thinking, ‘God, why are you so bloody slow, we could have been back HOURS ago if I’d been at the wheel!’ And Henri was no doubt off to down another couple of Strongbows before bedtime.

As it turned out, she needed them. Either to sleep through the earthquake or steady her nerves, it doesn’t really matter. I’d only just gone to bed when it happened, and sat bolt upright, shaken from my first 20 minutes of sleep, at 1 o’clock in the morning. Was it a dream? Was it real? ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked N, not bothering to check if he was even awake. The bed had shaken like in a fairground House of Horrors and there was the sound of a train hurtling through a tunnel. ‘What?’ He says sleepily. ‘It was just the cat.’ Well, if it was the cat, it was one hell of a scratch. The landing light was still on. No pictures hanging off walls, the Valentine cards hadn’t even fallen off the chest of drawers. Did I imagine it? Himself helpfully suggested I go and turn on the news to see if it was the earthquake I thought it was. God, I wasn’t THAT bothered! Sleep seemed more important right then, but it was not a peaceful sleep. Rather one imbued with a sense of how all that seems so solid is actually fragile. Our whole world can come falling around us in one blink of Nature’s eye. Thankfully, it didn’t. The children slept on, oblivious. Even the cat, snoring on a cushion in the sitting room, didn’t come mewling for comfort. I couldn’t help thinking of the rabbits. Their little world was currently being shaken by some other act of Nature. Wiping them all out. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.’ (My favourite quote from King Lear - apart from being the only one I can remember). The fact of the matter is, you never quite know what’s round the corner, when it all might end. It’s a sobering thought. And just maybe it was all this build-up of seismic energy which had been affecting my mood. I’d certainly felt in some strange limbo, waiting for something to happen, unable, meanwhile to settle to anything. Strange that just the other day, when E, currently engaged on a project about earthquakes and volcanoes, asked nervously if they ever happen in this country. ‘Good God, no!’ I’d replied cheerily.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Moody Blues

Ho Hum. Don’t know what’s wrong with me today. Could it be the tedium of endless tidying, sorting, washing, ironing, dishwasher emptying, dishwasher loading? Maybe, maybe not. I was ok first thing. Dropped the girls at the bus stop, as usual. Chatted to my friend, as usual. She was rather tight-lipped and sad. Not usual. She’s the one who’s always got her cheery face on, sorted and ready for work while I look pasty pale and tousled and absolutely Not Ready For My Day. It turned out she’s had a big row with her husband. He criticised the way she’d ironed his new shirt and even dared to suggest she’d ruined it. Funny isn’t it, when you don’t actually live with someone. I would never in a million years imagine him saying something like that to her. She says he’s Neanderthal about things like ironing and she always does it - and everything else around the house, despite also doing a paid job four days a week. She reckons he’s obviously not managing his stress levels well and is unleashing frustration on her. She’s probably right, but for now they’re not speaking. N’s always been rather good about ironing his shirts in fact. He doesn’t make too big a fuss if I’ve not got to it by the end of the day – and actively encourages me to take them to the dry cleaners. That was a good arrangement till they put their prices up and suddenly I felt I couldn’t justify it in quite the same way. And anyway, ironing gives me the excuse to watch crap TV and not to have to worry about anything else while still feeling I’m ‘getting on’. At least you see the fruits of your labours all neatly piled up in the laundry basket.
Not so with tidying – I can spend hours sorting through things and trying to re-organise only to stand up, look around and see more mess than I started with. Like a Tracy Emin still life. By which time, of course, I have no energy left to deal with it and have to walk away with another job half done. Ho hum.

Yes, it’s been that sort of day. Also very grey, which hasn’t helped. And cold. And windy. And the first proper day back into the school routine. Last week, you see, L was on half term and I was still in refreshed, rejuvenated, optimistic holiday mood after a great week’s skiing the week before (E and G’s half term). It was lovely cuddling up with L on the sofa like the old pre-school days and watching some old nonsense on the box like Peppa Pig and Big Cook Little Cook. We were inspired to go and make bean salad faces for lunch and I found myself flicking enthusiastically through the Kids’ Cookbook. We bought flour, eggs and Smarties to make cup cakes and concocted Cheat’s Pizzas out of muffins (toasting, not blueberry, I hasten to add). We went to the pottery cafĂ© and painted fairies while slurping hot chocolate, then on to the Ice Cream Farm for lunch, where we engaged in some leering at small cute animals in sheds and did a nature walk. Oh, yes, and, of course, licked home-made ice cream. I even took her to the swimming pool and we had fun in the Jacuzzi and steam room – before I noticed it said no children under 16 allowed. Still, no-one seemed to mind. It was a lovely week and blessed mainly with sunshine to light up our days and lighten our mood.

When I dropped L at school this morning it seemed I hadn’t been there for weeks, not just absent for two. It was almost as if I’d drifted apart, left it all behind. I felt like I was watching the other mothers and fathers from a distance, not connecting with the normal routine, the chat and the children playing. It was dangerously close to how I felt in my dark days of depression. I just wanted to skulk in, smile sweetly, but get away again as quickly as I could. Mood. What a strange thing it is.

Monday, 4 February 2008


The clouds parted and the sun came out. The first time in weeks. My God, quick, get out in the garden and let’s have a bonfire! There was a pile of fir clippings a mile high on the compost heap – two Christmas trees and half a hedge. I got the firelighters and some matches. Bother, damp. Tramp back inside to get dry box from kitchen drawer, carefully stepping on black tiles only since floor just cleaned and couldn’t be bothered to take off muddy boots. Back out. Strike. Success. Two firelighters lit, throw laurel and dry leaves on top. Bob’s your uncle. Why is it that men make such a big deal out of making a bonfire? All seems pretty straightforward to me. Within minutes I had a blazing heart and I set about throwing branch after branch on it. I briefly thought of throwing myself onto it – just to cause a stir in the village – but decided against it. That would be a terrible waste, wouldn’t it? ‘Housewife dies in shock blaze’. Burnt alive with the Christmas trees. It wouldn’t be a good start to the year. So unnecessary.

January’s a funny month. When I lived in Italy I loved it. January meant weekends in the mountains. Loads of skiing, eating, drinking and watching the setting sun turn ragged rock into burnished copper: sharp, crisp air and the smell of wood smoke lingering in the nostrils. It was always a period of great contentment, a hopeful time of year with the promise of good things to come. Over here, it seems so different. Everyone talks of ‘getting through’ January. It’s a hurdle, an obstacle to the rest of the year, rather than a gateway. It’s dark, windy and rains a lot. People make unrealistic New Year resolutions and get depressed when they’ve failed to keep them. There’s no light. Not enough vitamin D. The world seems grim - even snow is a disaster rather than a celebration. We’re never prepared and people die on the roads. Well, now it seems people die in Cyberspace too.

It seems that Bridgend must be a more depressing place than most in dank dark January. Young people are ending their lives there like there’s no tomorrow. Which for them, of course, there isn’t. Seven, was it, I read about? All young, all with their lives ahead of them, but all, clearly, believing there was nothing ahead. Just darkness. So they hang themselves. Their buddies in Cyberspace salute their bravery, their escape from their pain. They write in the disjointed speak and spelling of a generation raised on email and text messaging: ‘ hey tash!! still can’t believe that u r gone!! i will always member thur 17th jan 4eva, the day that u were taken from us, wish u could have spoken to sum1 about what u were feeling!!!!! Jus wish that u were still here wit us!!! its still hard to get round it in my mind that u are gone, it feels like a dream. luv u. xxxxxx’ But perhaps the most worrying thing is that they talk as if the deceased is still there – it’s almost as if even death has become virtual in Cyberspace.

Cyberspace is like a strange black hole in our human universe. It is a bottomless pit, a fathomless void where there are no limits to imagination and possibility. It is a world where strangers become friends, where emotions and ideas whirl around without the normal perameters of our earthly existence. It is almost as if this very real suicide never actually happened: ‘hey tasha u ad a gd send off miss u loads miss ur sense of humor c u soon xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.’ But they won’t see her again, will they? Did Natasha Randall really grasp this fact when she decided to end her life? It was not a virtual black void that she was entering. It was a very real one. She is not coming back.

Anyone who has suffered chronic depression, as I have done, understands the black hole thing. It is a hideous place to be. But when I was trying to self-assess my emotional whereabouts, there was one box I never ticked – and that was the suicide one. Thankfully there was enough of me which was still in touch with the real world to know that, eventually (I didn’t know how, where or when), things would get better. I was able to understand that for every trough there is a peak. That nothing is forever. Except death. Life can be a struggle – far more for some than others. It isn’t fair. It’s just the way it is. Yet every struggle brings some positive. You can always learn from your experiences, good or bad. That’s where faith comes in. You have to believe that you have a future. That it will be all right. That there is always someone who loves you and that there is always something worth living for: ‘i always wanted you to know that i loved you. my eyes are heavy now with the endless tears of a broken heart. i just wished id told you in time, how hard love hit me, every time I saw u. xx …..if i could take her place i would have a thousand times, just so that she could blink, breathe, laugh once more. r.i.p girl who i will never stop loving.’ That was written to Natasha by ‘someone who loved her, but didn’t get to tel her’. Now that’s what I call a waste.

Even when the ground is frozen, the shoots of new life lie below. There is always hope not far away, even on a dark dank January night. The clouds do part eventually and the sun always reappears. You take your chances when you can and run with them. That’s why I went to light my bonfire. Today it’s snowing. No bonfires again for a while, just a peaceful white, very real, landscape. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

31 January 2008
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