Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Golden Girl

What better present could you give a child about to have their 11th birthday than have their best friend join them for a beach holiday?

G has known M since infant school. They moved to a new school for Juniors, made other friends together and now they are about to start Seniors. It is sometimes hard to believe how quickly the time has passed from sitting chubbily cross-legged learning their A,B,Cs to becoming long-limbed beauties with golden hair and sparkling eyes striding confidently towards their teenage years.

G, though, is still a child despite her quiet confidence and her insouciance. She still loves playing imaginary games with her younger sister and building in the sand. It may be her younger sister who still physically skips, but G is still skipping in her mind.

I look sometimes at her long jaw, her full mouth, her wide smile, her flaxen hair and her large soft blue eyes framed by dark giraffe lashes and think of the day she was born - the day I nearly lost her before her life had barely begun. This bundle of positive life-force who brings sunshine and strength to all she does - the smile only collapsing when the batteries finally run out - could so easily have been lost to us. It is impossible to imagine her not in the heart of our family, yet sometimes life hangs on a thread, doesn't it? Or an umbilical cord.

I will never forget that hot August day in London: bright blue skies, a morning appointment at the hospital, a new home (moved into just days before her due date), a new garden by the river, a 19 month old toddler to think of too. I nearly went to do some shopping in Habitat (ah yes, when they were still in their heyday), but decided that, actually, since it was such a beautiful day and I now had a lovely garden, that I would do better to go home and rest on a lounger by the willow tree.

I could not have made a better decision.

It must have been about 4pm and I had been resting on my lounger for half an hour or so, with E tucked up in her cot having her afternoon nap, when the first pains came. I thought they might go away for a while, but half an hour later they suddenly hit hard and fast. I just about managed to bring a freshly woken E down from upstairs, and change her wet nappy, but that was where the attention to others stopped. Suddenly I could barely speak, nor certainly walk, the contractions were so intense. With great difficulty I tried to phone N, who was pleased to tell me he was in an important meeting and could I ring him back in half an hour? I meekly obliged until five minutes later I called him again and just about managed to get out the words that, no, it could not wait. The baby was on its way and could he please come home QUICKLY!

E had, with perfect timing, pooped in her nappy, but there was no way I could go back upstairs to change it, so the poor little mite had to live with it. I was alone with my toddler, in a new part of town, miles from my appointed hospital with a baby about to drop. I phoned the midwife who had been newly assigned to me just that morning (the other having gone on holiday) who I didn't even know: again, I could barely speak, yet she suggested I get in a taxi (with my toddler) and travel to the hospital (that whole process would have taken a good hour in rush hour traffic on a Friday from Isleworth to Ravenscourt Park). I dismissed this as an option and then, through E's crying and my own agony, decided to try and call the local doctors' surgery where, mercifully, I had signed up just a few days before.

By now every breath was an effort but I just managed to get out the words that I was alone with a toddler, I was having a baby any minute and that I was scared. They told me they would send an ambulance immediately to take me to the hospital around the corner. Meanwhile the phone was going every five minutes with my midwife from Ravenscourt Park asking me for directions of how to get to me which I was physically incapable of articulating even if I had understood where the hell she was (somewhere on the A40). Didn't she have an A-Z for crying out loud?

And so the doorbell goes at about 5.30pm and a nice ambulance man is there saying he's come to take me to hospital. I reach down for my (previously prepared) overnight bag and, with that, my waters break. I could feel the baby coming. He says he'll get a wheelchair but I know I can't possibly sit down, so I lie down right where I am, on the sitting room floor, my head pretty much under the grand piano, and get on with the job. He realises there is no going back, and brings me gas and air instead of the wheelchair. E is still crying. N is on his motorbike hurtling from central London, not knowing whether I am in Ravenscourt Park or home or somewhere else completely. My right arm goes numb from the gas and air. A kindly faced young doctor arrives from the local surgery, concerned by my phonecall. The two ambulancemen have contacted the local hospital and told them they need a midwife here urgently (they are clearly phased by childbirth in action). There are two ambulancemen, a doctor and a toddler now in the room. N arrives with a throaty roar at 5.55pm having decided to try home first before trawling hospitals for me. He scoops up the smelly, distressed toddler, and comforts her, instantly removing a huge area of distress for me too.

A white-coated midwife from the local hospital and a male student nurse burst through the door at 6pm. There are now seven people watching me perform but I have other things to worry about. All dignity lost, it is simply about giving life to this baby. The room is silent apart from the midwife who gives a running commentary of what she is doing for the sake of the student nurse. I hear that the baby has the cord around its neck. It has meconium in its respiratory passages. It is not breathing. They have to act quickly and decisively. The baby is delivered, but all is silent. An interminable amount of time seems to pass - a baby cannot surely not breathe for all this time and still be ok? Thoughts flit through my head that, after nine long months and all this effort, the baby is dead or brain damaged. It is an unemotional thought. I am simply hit by the irony. And then, suddenly, there is a cry. The blissful screeches of a newborn baby hitting the outside air from its warm, liquid cocoon. The relief is indescribeable. I lie there with her on my chest (thrown completely that it is a girl when I was convinced it was a boy) and thank God. She is alive.

With that the 'Somewhere on the A40' Midwife bursts through the door, triumphant that she has found me at last, albeit rather after the horse has bolted. She tries to make amends by running me a hot bath. I am pathetically grateful.

But my gratitude lies wholly with the local midwife who, thanks to her skill and experience, gave life to a little lifeless bundle. Had I been in a taxi on the way to Ravenscourt Park, or footling around in Habitat, it could all have been very different....

And so, at 6.05pm on 11th August 2000, my beautiful, feisty, huge-hearted, strong-willed G arrived in this world in a bit of a hurry. She hasn't changed. She does everything at full speed. It took a while to come up with a name, since a boy was expected, but in the end she was christened Georgina Jane Allegra Boden. All the girls have a third name which reflects something about their birth: Allegra represents the 'quick and lively' way in which she popped out under the piano (the stain on the carpet bore testimony) but which, in her haste, nearly went so horribly wrong. And, with true harmony, this lively, light-hearted, positive spirit is what she carries deep within her soul.

Her joyful, sandy, surfy, sun-filled 11th Birthday ended perfectly in colourful Biarritz on the terrace of a favourite restaurant overlooking the sea, her best friend at her side, the setting sun suffusing their soft features with golden light.

My flaxen-haired girl with the wide smile and the big heart, I couldn't imagine life without you.

Monday, 8 August 2011


Sadly the only skies under which we have ever arrived at St Malo have been resolutely grey and usually raining or with a thick fog. This year was no different. I had planned to make the journey down south more interesting by incorporating a little detour through Brittany - one of the few parts of France that I don't really know - but the weather dictated otherwise. We did a quick meander off the motorway to take in some D roads which I had a fancy for, but everything seemed against us. Gone are the days, it seems, when you can potter endlessly through emptiness and quaint sleepy villages - even these now seem victim of the new 'progressive' French thinking on road sytems and town planning: you find yourselves either negotiating myriad chi-chi little roundabouts 'decorated' with scenes which are supposed to evoke the essence of where you are driving through (thus you find yourself suddenly distracted as you watch for any fools still believing in priorite a droit by cunning little montages of rocks and shipwrecks or, down here in the Landes, sand, deckchairs and surfboards). And if not that, then you have to watch your wheels on the enormously high curbs, sleeping policemen and indented trottoir of 'traffic calming' schemes on which it is all too easy to burst tyres or scrape your alloys if you happen to be trying to navigate at the same time (believe me, we've done it - at 1 o'clock in the morning, moreover, with three exhausted small children in the car, let alone the parents).

Your eye will also be caught by the extraordinary banks of street lights, often painted in bright colours in the mistaken belief that this makes them attractive. Au contraire, it merely draws attention to a functional item which should be encouraged to recede into the landscape rather than dominate it. And if you are spared all this, then you are probably being directed on the by-pass road (which even small towns seem to have these days) which are pleased to take you through the ubiquitous zone industriel or zone artisanal which basically means they have ruined the approaches to any nice rural town or village with the most hideous collection of enormous industrial sheds crammed with sofas or lamps or DIY or cars or agricultural equipment or food or any of the endless stuff which modern-day society seems to demand (even if no-one can actually afford to pay for any of it).

And so our little excursions off the tedious autoroute engendered anger and frustration more than pleasure, to such an extent that we nearly turned round on our way to La Rochelle which we thought would be a nice detour for lunch. By the time we finally got there I was pretty much ready to slit my wrists having been forced through the arse end of nowhere on endless ring-roads cutting ugly swathes through what might, once, have been reasonably attractive arable land. An equally frustrating time was had trying to reach the old port and a vista of sea and boats as the town planners had seen fit to create such a set of absurd one-way systems that if you took just one wrong turn you'd be trailing through endless suburbia before being spewed out onto the ring road again. Thus, by the time we finally found the wretched port (let alone a parking space), we were fairly ready for a drink.

Tables and chairs spilled from hotels and hosteleries along the quayside, presenting a tempting array of options. We chose one on the simple basis that they had a table free on the front row in a momentary burst of sunshine. We ordered drinks and food and sat back, finally, to relax and enjoy the passing scene.

And a very busy passing scene it was. Within moments of our arrival, one of those people who think it's a good idea to spray themselves in silver and stand motionless for hours decided to set up shop in front of us. This of course attracted a crowd which then blocked our view of the boats. He was swiftly joined by his rival 'The Clown' who was, indeed, most foolish, yet attracted another enormous crowd who clearly had nothing better to do on a Sunday in La Rochelle.

As people wearied of Mr Statue, we regained a slight vista of boat masts until it was just as swiftly blocked by a large black people-carrier vehicle which decided to come and park on the road (where you weren't meant to park), right in front of our table. There's nothing like a waft of diesel with your moules marinieres. Beats seasalt and seaweed any time. Much more evocative.

Meanwhile a group of three English blokes in their thirties and clearly rather pleased with themselves (and I suspect slightly hung-over) came and sat down on the table next to us and provided me with a good half hour of amusing eavesdropping.

Slightly smug one with tan and short dark hair and sunglasses to slightly twitchy shaggy haired blond one with sunglasses:
'So do you like cooking?'
[Much awkward shifting in chair as Shaggy had to admit to not really having a clue with a short run-down of some uninspiring dishes which he sometimes forced on his long-suffering girlfriend - which basically amounted to steak, chips and salad on the basis that it was easy and quick to do when you come home late from work. Fair point. Oh, and he liked dauphinoise potatoes - M&S ready-prepared, I imagine]

Clearly feeling un-threatened, Smug then enlightened us with a full run-down of his foolproof dinner party turn of, funnily enough, moules marinieres (with a twist, I think it's fair to say). It went like this:

Finely chop an onion and some garlic and fry them in a pan with some olive oil and butter. Add cream and a glass of white wine. Then some curry powder, some sliced red peppers, chopped parsley blah blah blah and - of course - the mussels. Apparently it's a stunner, incredibly quick to do and everyone oohs and aahs and thinks you're marvellous and presumably you get laid. Oh, and as a brief aside, he happened to mention that all his girlfriends of late had very nice names but none of them could bloody cook. Too posh, presumably.

Smug then turns his attention to The Quiet One and asks what he's like on the cooking front to which he gets the reply 'Well, since I haven't got a girlfriend I can't really be bothered to cook'. Short and to the point.

Smug then sat back smugly in his chair as his moules marinieres a la La Rochelle arrived - only to be truly disappointed. There followed a detailed critique, much questioning of the long-suffering waitress as to the exact ingredients of the moules marinieres, to which she was unable to come up with anything more illuminating than: mussels, onion, garlic. She forgot to mention the white wine (possibly because Chef had forgotten to add it) and the dish was then subjected to intense scrutiny from Smug and Shaggy (Quiet clearly couldn't give a shit) as to whether or not they could find any onion in it. They found one piece, sneered, and Smug then followed with a diatribe on how appalling it was to be in the land of moules frites and have such a poor example of the signature dish. I should have suggested he gave Chef his recipe....

Replete with slightly sub-standard food, we wandered back through the stone porticoes and narrow cobbled streets of old La Rochelle, being reminded, somewhat unexpectedly, of many a northern Italian town. It was very pleasant, really, and we came away satisfied enough with our little detour but happy in the knowledge that we might not be troubling its road systems again any time soon.

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