All posts by Bevatgreencliff

The Old Man Who Shouted

old-man-cryingShe found a seat at the top of the ramp leading up from the beach, looking out to sea and across the bay back across the three miles of sands they’d just walked. Slipping Bodie’s lead through the arm of the bench, she stretched her legs, lifted her face to the warm sunshine and smiled. Phil was seeing Filey now in all its full late-summer glory and he’d remember it like this and not wet, windy and cold as it had been for the last three days. So he couldn’t go on about the ‘grim, grotty Northern seaside’ as he was wont to do.

“You’re looking very smug, missy”, he said, returning with ice-creams.

“Just enjoying the sun. Bodie, don’t get any ideas, mate!”

“How can you resist those eyes?” he laughed and tousled the spaniel’s long ears.

“Quite easily when it’s stuff that’s bad for him”.

“See the fat lady over there?”

“Phil!” she reprimanded him, “that isn’t kind”.

“Whatever. Anyway, she’s feeding that bloody poodle chips, for heaven’s sake! It can hardly waddle along as it is”.

“People treat their dogs like kids. It’s not fair on them”. She sat up to enjoy the cornet better. Somehow, just like fish and chips, these things tasted better eaten in the open air by the sea.

“Have you noticed how some people get to look their dogs?” He mused, as he licked away.

“I don’t have long ears, do I?”

“Not you. Although you both like your belly tickled’ he winked at her, “But take the fat woman and her fat poodle. They both have similar hairstyles. The shaggy mop look. And that guy”, he nodded over at a young man with tattoos holding the chain lead of a Boxer dog, “see the facial features?”

Laughing, she had to agree. “Oh and how about him? The little old fellow with the Jack Russell?”

“Exactly! Both small, wiry with spindly legs and the grumpiest of faces”

“I think they’re both just hot.” She felt mean now for drawing attention to him. He was clearly exhausted; leaning on the railings while the little dog drank thirstily. She’d seen him yesterday, this tiny ancient, when she’d walked here in the pouring rain. He’d been huddled into his coat, the same one he was wearing today. Why, when it was so warm? He’d come down the hill, past the glen, the old terrier trundling alongside him, and had stood in the same place, at the far end of the walkway, looking out to sea, gripping the railings. Maybe it was his daily constitutional? He looked so weary and, not so much grumpy, as Phil had said, but addled (she loved that word!), as if he had lots on his mind and couldn’t clear it. Maybe he stood here in this spot every day to try and blow the clutter that crowded his thinking space away and out to sea?

“Yummy, eh? Don’t tell your mother” Phil had finished his ice-cream and was feeding the end of the cone to Bodie, while she’d been distractedly musing. He grinned and gave her that ‘What am I doing so wrong?’ expression that he did so well. Shaking her head, she brushed crumbs from her shorts and stood to stretch. Bodie was on his feet, ready to go and as she turned to her dog, she heard the old man shout out,

“You can’t take dogs on that side of the beach!”

A young man, twenty-something, blond, good-looking, with naked, bronzed upper torso, was about to walk down the ramp at the other end of the walkway from where they were sitting, with his black Labrador. He halted for a second and looked back at the old man.

“Says who?” he demanded, in a mocking tone.

The man pointed at the notice ‘Dogs must not be exercised on this part of the beach’. “You can walk on that side of the beach” and he pointed to the bay, where they had walked from the holiday village.

“Huh! I’ll walk where I damned well like!”  he fired back, laughed, swore again and proceeded to stride down the ramp.

There were a few people who heard the exchange, of course, it being a warm Sunday in late September. There were tuts of disapproval but no-one made a move to stop him or say more. Except for the little old man. He sprang into action, finding a sprightliness that Sarah couldn’t quite believe, let go of his own dog, and ran after the fellow, catching him and tapping him on the shoulder (which actually took some reaching up on his part, given that the younger guy was around six foot and the older barely five).

“I said, you can’t walk your dog here! It’s prohibited!”

Sarah found herself taking a sharp intake of breath and stepping forward.

“And I said I’ll walk where I like. Now piss off, you old tosser!” and he shook the older man off him and walked off down the ramp laughing to himself. “Silly old sod” He called back when he’d reached the beach and laughed again.

“Don’t you dare laugh at me! Do you hear me? I say! Don’t you laugh at me!”

Sarah was afraid the old man would give chase and she realised that she was still holding her breath, but instead he stayed at the top of the ramp, glaring down as the young fellow strode out, in all his vigorous vitality, laughing as he went. His dog now off the lead and frolicking happily on the forbidden part of the beach. The families down there were packing up their deck-chairs, wind-screens and blankets and, apart from a few who glanced disapprovingly at that rule-breaker, no-one took much notice of him and his dog. Their nonchalance seemed to enrage the old man still more.

“Stop that blighter! Stop him! Wretched devil! I tell you, he’s a demon. A devil, I say!” he roared.

“Oh Lord” muttered Phil, “come on, let’s get out of here. Nutters out in force today”.

Sarah didn’t move. She went on watching the old man who continued to shout down the beach. The couples at the tables stopped eating their burgers and chips, laughing with each other, at him. Children ran up to where he was, giggling and pointing, nudging each other The little dog sat faithfully by the railings, not at all disturbed by this odd behaviour, as if he had seen it all before. Still the man went on shouting; much the same things, in that strange, old-fashioned language:

“Come back, you terrible demon! You should be whipped! Whipped, I tell you. Wretch! Devil!”

Sarah could just about see the black Labrador, jumping around in the incoming waves, but the young man was almost out of sight. He hadn’t looked back once. For him, the whole hilarious episode was done with. So trivial he probably wouldn’t even mention it to his friends. Still the old man went on shouting.

“Swine! Devil! Come back here! How dare you laugh at me! I tell you, how dare you!”

Quite a crowd had gathered on the walkway now. The laughter had faded and most were simply watching. Phil had hold of Bodie’s lead, seeing as how it looked as if Sarah wasn’t going to untie him, and was urging her to go.

“I can’t just leave him”

“Sarah, for crying out loud! You don’t even know him! I hate this sort of thing. Come on, please”

The old man’s face was crimson and tears were coursing down his cheeks.

“He’s crying” Sarah pulled her arm away from Phil.

“It’s nothing to do with us. There’s nothing we can do”

The old man had stopped shouting now. He fell down on to his knees and was sobbing. Really sobbing. Great big sobs that shook his body. Head in his hands. No one in the small crowd was laughing any more, but neither did anyone move.

“‘There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. No one can stop him’” She whispered the words and turned and repeated them to Phil, looking at him, longing him to understand.

“What?” he was mystified and aghast that she wouldn’t just come with him.

“A poem. Les Murray, I think. No one could stop him crying. But it wasn’t like this.” She turned back and looked at the old man.  “I can’t do nothing. He could be…someone’s” Without looking at Phil again, she gives him the lead “Hold on to Bodie.”

She pushes through those staring at the old man, watching as his dignity lay in tatters on the concrete around him. Kneeling by him, she gently touches his sleeve. She smells that musty odour; of clothes that’ve been soaked and then dried out too slowly in airless conditions. But they’re good clothes; he’ll have been a smart man once, she thinks. She hasn’t thought what to say or do, she acts on her instincts, what feels right.

Putting her mouth close to his ear, she murmurs, “Come on, now. There’s nothing more to do.”

He turns his tear-streaked face to her; eyes glazed and uncomprehending.

“We need to go now” Her right arm around his shoulders now

She touches his face with her free hand; strokes his cheek; realises then, she too, is crying, but quietly, softly. He peers into her face, beginning to focus now, as his sobs subside. He lifts his hand and his thumb traces a tear from her cheek to her chin. He has snot on his upper lip. They look at each other, saying nothing. She tries a smile. Then a woman touches her shoulder, as she kneels there on the concrete beside the old man, and gives her a handkerchief. It’s a man’s, blue-striped, fresh and pressed. Sarah looks at it and feels she may cry more, but she takes it, wipes his face and gives it to him and he blows his nose noisily, crumples it in a ball and wipes his eyes. A man has appeared on his other side and he takes his arm, helping him into a standing position. Sarah has her arm linked through his and she and the other man lead him to a bench.  Another woman (from the café perhaps? She’s wearing an apron anyway) appears and places a cup of tea on the wooden table in front of him. He takes it, drinks it greedily. A boy brings his dog to him and smilingly holds out the lead. The old man pours some of his tea into the saucer, bends to his dog, strokes him and gives him the tea, which is lapped up.

The crowd has more or less dispersed. The warmth of a full day’s sunshine can still be felt, but the shadows are lengthening as people drift away, back to campsites or to pack up their cars. The shutters on the café are closed and young girls are clearing away rubbish and collecting up cups. Sarah stands, places a hand on the old man’s shoulder; he squeezes it, looks up and nods. She bends to the dog, ruffles its fur and walks down the ramp to where Phil is waiting on the beach. Her own dog greets her as if she has been away for months, as dogs always do and there is no recriminations or questions, just that joy at seeing his mistress return. They walk back along the sands to the holiday village and there are no words. Later, they will pack their bags and she will drive them home. They will chat about all sorts of things on the journey but not the things that really matter. But she will know, as he must surely know now, that they will go their separate ways from this point, because, even though he appreciates that the sun does shine in the North, this, whatever this was, just will not do.

 

Desperately Seeking Wellingtons

child-in-welliesThere’s always a story tucked away behind those little Ads you see in magazines or newspapers, and, more commonly nowadays, on social media pages. Here’s my story based on one I saw recently:

“Can you help? Looking for child’s size 9 in these wellingtons (see photo). Daughter has grown out of her size 7’s and really want to replace them for her”

 

She was still sitting on the window-ledge. Watching the road. Two hours it had been now. Julia waved up to her from the garden, smiling, but knowing she looked falsely cheerful. Emily wasn’t fooled. She didn’t even lift her hand; just stared back at her; thumb firmly in mouth.

Back inside she checked her phone again – no text, no voicemail.

“Bloody hell”

“You shouldn’t say that. It’s swearing”

There was something about being told off by her 10-year-old that always made her blush.

“I know that. Sorry. I’m cross, but you’re right, I shouldn’t swear”

She hadn’t seen him at the table (and why was he eating cornflakes at 11am anyway?) He’d been in his room on the wretched X-box when she last checked.

“Are you hungry? You had bacon for breakfast, didn’t you?” A cooked breakfast for all of them this morning: a rare treat, thinking they’d need the ‘fuel’ for the long journey down to Rugby.

“Just fancied them. I wanted a glass of milk, but it actually tastes nicer in a dish with something crunchy” and he filled his mouth again, clearly relishing his mini-feast. Matt didn’t look at all upset. He seemed to be able to cope with these disappointments better than Emily. James was notorious for being late and they’d both grown used to that, but he hadn’t even turned up at all for the last three arranged weekends. Of course, there was always a good reason, according to James.

“I’ll text him again”

“No point. Anyway, I’m going round to Sam’s in a minute.”

“Why did you arrange to go to Sam’s when you knew your dad was picking you up?”

“Or not!” he dropped his bowl in the sink. She hadn’t the heart to make a fuss about soggy cereal that would be floating in the dishwater. He was out the door anyway.

He was back a few minutes later. Placing a hand on her shoulder as she composed yet another text to James.

“Em was crying you know. I’m not bothered, but he shouldn’t let her down. She’s only little”

She grabbed his hand. Such wisdom! Underneath his calm façade though, she thought he probably did mind.

“You’re a lovely big brother”

“I didn’t do anything. I helped her find her wellies though”

“Matt! They’re too small!”

“Well she really likes them, Mum.  She stopped crying anyway”

“Has she got them on now?”

“Yep” He was gone again before she could say more.

“Be back at 5 please! No later”

Her phone buzzed and she swore again as she read the text. Good thing Matt had rushed off.

 

Upstairs, in the doorway of Emily’s room, she watched her as she clutched the little orange rucksack they had packed together last night, ready for what should have been a Saturday night sleep-over at Daddy and Claire’s. Seeing that sad, little face now, she’d happily have punched him but, putting that thought aside, she braced herself to relay the message. There was never a good way to share the bad news, but there was a way to not make it any worse than it already was.

“Hey sweetie”, she knew it was lame, starting with that, but surely your child had to know she was still treasured, that mummy still felt the same; that hadn’t changed.

“Daddy just sent me a text” Emily’s face turned to her. Oh God, don’t show me that hope in your eyes, baby!

“He is so, so sorry, but he can’t come and get you today. Claire has been very poorly in the night”. Bogging poorly, my foot! Claire just wasn’t doing pregnancy very well. In fact, Claire was making a humongous fuss about every aspect of this pregnancy and James was being let off his lead even less than he had been since they’d married two years ago.

He hadn’t left her for Claire, or for anyone else, and in fact he’d been single again for well over a year when he met Claire. No, there had not been anyone else involved for either of them; just a growing realization that they’d fallen out of love. She would look at him and wonder who he was. How did we get here? It was mutual and he’d moved out a week after Emily’s first birthday. Sad, but in a way it was all so much easier doing the parent stuff on her own. James could do all the fooling around, the funny voices, running about in a park, teaching them to climb trees with great panache and flair. It was the up-in-the-night business, the not-being-able-to-reason-with-them stuff and the endless round of washing, cleaning, feeding, fetching and carrying that he found wearing. They’d never tied the knot themselves, her knowing always deep down that he really wasn’t the commitment type. The kids had been her idea to be fair and she’d always accepted they wouldn’t tie him to her. Weird that now he was married to a woman ten years older than him, who’d been so desperate for a baby that they’d paid for three rounds of IVF. He’d proudly shown them all the scan pictures the last time he’d collected the children. (Three months ago!) Oh the irony of it!

“Has the baby come?”

“No, no, he’s still in her tummy. It’s just, well, sometimes when you’re having a baby it can make you feel not very well”.

“Well, can’t daddy take her to hospital and then come and get us?”

Julia could see the tears threatening to spill. She scooped Emily up into a hug.

“It doesn’t work like that. Daddy needs to stay with her”. I have to move this conversation on, she was thinking, because I can feel myself getting angry again. “Em, these wellies. They don’t fit any more. Didn’t we talk about this? They’re going to hurt your feet.”

“Daddy’s going to buy me some more. Just like these” She pulled at them fiercely, with the little handles, especially made for little hands to pull up over little feet.

“Yes, he did say that, but he can’t. The people don’t make them anymore. He did try”. Bother! This was not a good diversion subject!

True, he had tried. Well, when she’d told him three months ago that Emily had grown out of them he’d had a think about where he’d got them. That was as good as trying hard really, for James.

“A street market in Leamington Spa. One of these fancy ones. They’re designer, you know”

They were lovely. Deep purple, with a repeating pattern of three stripes of pink, green and a gorgeous sparkly gold. What child wouldn’t be delighted? Not much caused as much joy as splashing in deep puddles with your crazy, beloved daddy in beautiful wellington boots that you could even pull on yourself and that he, prince of all fathers, had bought specially for her. Trouble was, it was a make she had never come across and couldn’t find anywhere in Manchester. After tramping around some of the independent shoe shops she’d turned to social media. Surely someone, somewhere would have a pair in the next size up? Please!! If she could just prolong this wellie-joy for a few more months….

Later, over tea, Emily was smearing chocolate spread over her potato waffles. (There are times when the option of an argument about sweet and savoury mix and healthy eating is not worth having!) While she watched her, feeling a mixture of disgust in herself for allowing this concoction and awe that it could help the healing process, she listened as Matt told them about Sam’s brother falling in the canal that afternoon.

“He didn’t even cry, even though he was full of slime and gunk all over! He just started wiping it all off with some leaves and he was laughing about it”

Julia was horrified. “He’s only six! Where was their dad when he fell in?”

“Honestly mum, he hasn’t got eyes in the back of his head” Now where had she heard that before? “He was on the boat. They fished him out with the pole really quickly”.

Sam and Dominic’s parents were narrow boat enthusiasts and their house had its own mooring. It was a great adventure for the boys learning how to steer the boat, help with the locks and generally get messy.

I shouldn’t make a big deal, she thought. David and Jess know what they’re doing and he would have had a life-jacket on.

“I want to come on the boat please”.

Matt looked at Emily “Your face is covered in chocolate. That is really gross, Em. You can come tomorrow if you like. Seeing as how we’re not going to dad’s now”

“Don’t tell her that, Matt. She won’t be allowed”

“No, it’s okay really. David and Jess said she can.”

And it was okay, Jess reassured her later when they spoke. She’d love to have a girl along for company and Dominic would enjoy having someone nearer to his own age. They intended to sail down to Whaley Bridge and back, probably a three-hour round trip. Emily would be quite safe; she’d have her own life-jacket and she was sure she’d love it.

 

Four o’clock the next day, Julia thought the text might be from Matt, updating her when they expected David to drop them off. She’d spoken to them both at lunchtime and clearly Emily was having a wonderful time.

“Dom’s so funny, mummy. He really makes me laugh. He can make Rollo do loads of tricks.” Rollo being the family spaniel. No mention of daddy and the missed weekend. Julia was relieved and thanked God for boats, giddy boys and clever dogs.

The text was from James though. Puzzled, she read it. “Need to be in Liverpool in morning. Staying over. Will stop by to see kids about 7” Maybe her reply yesterday had got to him. “Sorry you can’t make it. Matt cool but Em in tears – yet again:(  Don’t fret though. Can’t be helped” Okay, so she was actually trowelling on the guilt and she’d promised herself never to do that, but sometimes, well he deserved it. You can’t mess about with the hopes and expectations of a five-year old and not expect some backlash.

Matt and Em arrived back just as James was parking his car.

“Daddy!” Her little legs carried her across the gravel drive at full speed into his arms. She was soon up in the air and laughing. I guess it’s all forgiven now, Julia was thinking. He’s got off with it again,

“Look what I’ve got for you” James proudly held up a bag to show his daughter as he placed her down. She opened it and pulled out a dazzling pair of pink wellingtons; sparkly and bright, with stripes of gold and silver. They even more wondrous than the purple ones. Julia smiled wryly and waited for the inevitable squeals of joy. Except … they didn’t happen.

Emily sighed deeply. Her face was very serious as she spoke. “Daddy, these are lovely, but I have some real wellingtons now.” She lifted her foot to show off the dark green, mud-encrusted pair she was wearing.

James looked confused and not a little disconcerted. His adoring daughter was turning down a gift from him? “Real ones?”

“These were Dominic’s” Ah, Julia thought, the ‘very funny Dom’. Sorry, James, you’ve rather been upstaged, old bean! “And his mummy says you need tough boots on the boat so you don’t slip so easy. Sparkly ones are a bit impractical, she says”

Good job, Jess, you and I could be great friends, Julia thought. James stood and watched as his daughter ran back to their host’s car to say her goodbyes. More giggling was heard as ‘funny Dom’ said something to her and Julia couldn’t help but feel sorry for her ex as Emily’s attention was fixed on her new hero. She skipped up the drive in her muddy wellies and it looked as if she had quite forgotten her dad was there for a moment. Then she stopped, turned and gave him her most dazzling smile.

“Come on, daddy. Come and see my new reading book. Can daddy stay and do my bath, mum?” He meekly follows her inside, embarrassedly still clutching the sparkly wellies, happy to settle for these carelessly thrown crumbs, having learned that even five-year-olds can sometimes get themselves better offers.

(©) Beverley Jepson-Playle 12.09.2016

Yearning for Cheerleaders

I could do with some encouraging words right now. For a whole variety of reasons, my writing has almost ground to a halt in the past twelve months. What happens to turn something that brought so much joy, that seemed so easy to do, turn into something you almost fear doing, or at best, use every possible excuse not to do? I’m wondering if, in my case, it’s fear of failure.

I am my own worst enemy.  I don’t need anyone else to offer me criticism. I have perfected the art of doing it for myself, thank you very much. The problem being that my criticism is often rather irrational. Voices in my own head drown out others in the ‘real world’ with cries of “There’s no point, you know, it’s never going to get you anywhere”; “You’re too old to try something new”; “Who’s interested in what you’ve got to say?” Of course, sitting at the computer, hearing these words, when there is important stuff to do like walking the dog, washing, gardening, shopping or even (I must be desperate to escape!) ironing! – it’s easy to take them on and walk away. Just today, I tell myself – then the day become several, then a week, a month and suddenly a year is slipping by. And they do go by faster as you get older, don’t let anyone tell you differently! Time speeds up with age.

I was checked by an invoice for the annual payment on my website. Should I continue with this futile enterprise? Then, I hear another voice of my own – one that has been listening to words of truth. Words from the Big Book, words from the Father:

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me

(Philippians 4:13, NKJV)

You see, I’m not alone and I don’t need to battle on in my own strength. I have my ‘great encourager’ by my side always and he is my source of strength; I don’t have resources of my own, they come from him. I’m still not sure why it took so long for me to tune into that voice and those words, which I know so well, but I’m glad I did. So here I am – back at the computer. Heeding also the helpful words of husband John, “Just go and write”

“But what if I can’t?”

“Then pray”

Oh yes, of course! Silly me! I forgot I could do that. Sarcastic jest apart, and don’t let him know this, but he is right. Talking things over with Jesus is so very necessary. He does understand what it’s like to be in a quandary and knows we often feel useless.

On the way to my study I pick up a book I’ve read over the summer. By Anita Shreve, “A Wedding in December”. Flicking through the pages I read this:

Melissa looked away. There would always be, Bridget knew, a fierce loyalty to the mother that Bridget would not interfere with. A quality one could only admire……..”How are you feeling?” the girl asked.

Bridget thought a minute. She took a sip of coffee. She decided to tell Melissa the truth, unedited.

She worried about the tentacles of the star shape, she told the girl. She had a 50 percent chance of a recurrence, the correct term for the cancer’s return. If it did return, it would show up in the bones or the brain or the liver. She hoped to make it until Matt was Melissa’s age. This was the bargain she had more or less made with God: let Matt get to twenty, and  then you can do whatever you want with me. One could never really use the word “cure. One had to think of oneself as “a work in progress”

All this she told Melissa, who seemed startled at times by some of the revelations, but who appeared to take it in with some concern. She was, Bridget thought, the perfect person in whom to confide. A woman who might want the information but who would remain essentially detached.

“That answer you gave last night at dinner,” Bridget said, “about the Arab men on the plane. I thought it was the best at the table”

Melissa tilted her head. She would know, Bridget thought, that Bridget meant what she said, that she was not pandering, that a woman who had confessed being afraid of a recurrence in the bones might be expected to tell the truth.

We all of us need people in our lives who will speak the truth, but do so kindly and we need those who will listen to our stories, our pains our fears, who show concern but don’t flinch away from what we share, be it irrational or totally credible.Facebook-20150916-024821

We need people to speak words of encouragement to us and to cheer us on. Like our wonderful husbands did for us when we took on 100k across the Yorkshire Dales! For our part, we should desire to be people who use words to edify others. There are enough  in the world  already who will use words to destroy confidence and bring others down, let’s use ours to show grace and and bring joy.

 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Now, where was I up to with that book?

(©) Beverley Jepson-Playle 02/09/2016

Sleep Walking Through Life

IMG_0739“How on earth did I get here?” You know the scary thought I mean, don’t you? You’ll sometimes get it when you’re driving – which is quite possibly the scariest time of all to have it. You’ll be bowling along in your car, thinking you’re taking note of traffic, hazards, places along the way and suddenly you look around and think. “What?!! I’m here! But how?” And you panic , ‘Did I go through lights?’,  ‘Have I been speeding?’ It’s as though a bit of your mind had disengaged from the rest of it – like you’ve been driving on autopilot. Coming to awareness pulls you up so sharply you start to drive in a very precise way, taking note of everything around you and making doubly sure you keep to the limit and stop at every red light. You wipe your palms down and calm your breathing.  Scary!

I can’t think what that process is called, but it’s happened a few times to me, while driving and also while walking – often in busy town centres. But it happens in life too. You get to a point and you have that scary thought, “What brought me to this place” As though you don’t recall the route you took, or you can’t recall the reasons you had for making certain decisions that led you to arrive at this point – this job; this house you live in; this marriage.  As though you have been sleep-walking and suddenly you wake up and find yourself in a place you don’t recognise.  Scarier still, you find you no longer recognise the person you have become. ‘Who is this person standing in this supermarket buying this food?’

Lady feels like this.  ( “Lady’s Dreaming”. by Tobias Woolff) As the story opens, she fights to stay awake in a hot, airless car, driven by her husband.  ‘Lady’s suffocating”. Seems to me that might be a metaphor for her life – if only she could have stayed awake, she might have noticed where she was going, but she can’t have the window open, “because the air blowing into the car bothers his eyes”. Not that he’d make a fuss, he’s a nice man, “never a mean motive”. It’s an “effort of will” to keep her eyes open now – it’s so hot, it’s almost like having a fever. In this strange place – on the edge of sleep, but skirting consciousness, she begins to see more “things more distinct and familiar”. Is she coming to a place pf greater awareness now?

We learn about Robert, her husband, from her thoughts. “Tells the most boring stories. Just lethal”. Says so much. Maybe it’s the storyteller within me, but those short lines had me – I couldn’t like him from that point on! He’s a man who considers all his words. He’s careful. Orderly. He is considerate. Before the second page I find myself wanting to scream. No wonder Lady wants to stay asleep. Even though he is desperate for her to stay awake. He likes to say her name. “Shut her up in her name”. You can do that with someone. Make them a prisoner to what you say they are. He loves her name – she is what she is called. And he traps her there. Now it seems she can’t move away from it. He has defined her and curtailed her existence. She’s trapped.

He tried to call her to wakefulness but, “Sorry, sir, Lady’s gone”. Where to? “She’s back home”. Lady has escaped down the years back to a place with her mother and sisters. She’s waiting for Robert, the young soldier and her beau then, to come, but also “not waiting”. Why is that? Because the three of them on that porch are actually complete as a unit. They are at ease with other, joking and teasing each other. “Sufficient unto themselves. Nobody has to come”.

Robert is on his way to her though. Now we see him as a thoughtful man, who learns poetry and recites to her, although she laughs at that. He believes he needs to get her away from that family “among sensible people who don’t think everything’s a joke.” Where she can become the very Lady she is named for.  This young woman is so very different to the girl his family would choose for him. This washis rebellion, though it’s a subconscious one. But he doesn’t believe that you just fall in love – that’s something more purposeful, “you master your choices”. He speculates nervously about what his father will think; of her “rawness” and the fact she is “spoiled and willful and half wild”. He is so afraid that he is on his way to end the relationship. It seems he has been sleep-walking and has shocked himself when he wakes up and finds himself in this place.  “He’ll tell Lady anything except the truth, which is that he’s ashamed to have picked her to use against his father”. How could he? Having met him in Lady’s thoughts earlier, I’m now really angry at this guy. So he was going to use her to beat his father over the head with, was he? ‘You can’t make me choose the sort of woman you’d like for me, Dad, I can have anyone I like and if I want trash, as you would say, then I will have trash!’ I don’t like the man and I like his father even less.

But wait, nothing is ever so simple. Maybe choosing him is her own personal act of rebellion? Maybe she wanted out of this place more than she might admit? Or is that she actually does love him? That young girl goes to meet her young man, the one resolved to break her heart now. He sees her and tastes in his mouth the sweetness of her, even as she stands at a distance from her. It dissolves his intention and “he takes the steps as if he means to devour her”.

As she revisits this place of her youth, the girl she was is there before her, but neither of them see that early hesitation of his.  Instead this older self wants to call to the young girl, “This man is not for you. He will patiently school you half to death”. Would our younger selves ever take any notice of our older, wiser selves though? The young girl won’t listen; she is moving towards her beau even as Lady is dreaming. Oh the irony that his earlier resolve to leave her would actually have saved her from being locked in this prison he has made for her! Instead it is her sweet freshness; her rawness and her wildness that melts his heart, lulls him back into his own sleepy state and washes away his previous purpose. He is smitten. But over the years, the very charm that drew in has been smothered and now her only escape is to pretend to sleep.

We fall in love with who we see and their very differences draws us to them. Do they stay appealing? Or do we want them to conform to what we had imagined we really wanted? Do we want to be lifted from our sleepy states and awakened to something richer and wilder? Or will we try to tame the ones we love so that they fit the lives we think we need to fit?

 

 

Books You Might Like to Try Reading

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It’s been suggested that readers might find a list of books that I’ve read in recent times helpful. This might lead you to think of reading the book yourself, or prompt a search for the title and see which other books that might lead you to, on Amazon for example. I don’t know about you, but I love to pore over books in bookshops – I could happily wile away an afternoon in one. That’s how I’ve found most of the books on this list – by choosing them after an hour or so perusing the hundreds on display on the delightful shelves of Waterstone’s or Foyle’s of Charing Cross. Sometimes, though, I find the choice overwhelming. Where to start? What kind of book am I in the mood for? There have been many books that I’ve struggled with at the beginning, but have grown on me as I’ve persevered, but others that start well and flop very quickly. I suppose I’m at an age now where I’ve decided that life is just too short to spend time reading bad books. So occasionally I am happy for a little help or guidance – a recommendation from a friend; an author who is written about in a newspaper; an adaptation of a book I see is on TV; a title I notice on a billboard. These things might not necessarily to choose a particular book, but give me a starting point. ‘Crossing to Safety’, for example, was reviewed in an end-of-year list of books each chosen by other authors as ones they had read that year and which they would warmly recommend to a friend. I liked the tenderness of the review; it seemed to me to a story that had touched the heart of its reader in an extraordinary way. It intrigued me greatly and I ordered it that day. However, there are other books I have been told of that lead me to search for them in the bookshop and when I get there, I have a preview read and my eyes are drawn to a book on the next shelf. I might end up buying the book I went for, but I also come out with at least one other, or sometimes I come out with six books I find and leave the one I went for on the shelf! I am not to be trusted with a credit card in any book shop, or cash in a charity shop. Books to me are friends I haven’t yet met – there for the meeting and the development of a relationship; companions on a lovely, nurturing journey

I trust you find my list helpful, in that it may lead you to find a book that will become your own companion for a while. Do comment on the Blog about any books you found particularly great. It really doesn’t matter what genre they’re in. I never stick to categories anyway – I simply read what appeals to me on the day. Enjoy your reading!

In other posts, over the next few weeks, I’ll be offering a review of each of these books.

Happy Reading!

 

(List is not in any particular order – all of these I read in the past two years. )

 

 

Title Author
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
A beautiful novel about a group of students growing up in a version of contemporary England – it all seems rather strange though, and from the start, we’re wondering what’s behind the story. Theirs is a childhood that’s not quite right, yet seems, conversely at times, idyllic. It tells of deep friendships, dark secrets, coming to terms with one’s destiny and the sense of the fragility of life. A firm favourite of mine
The Pirate’s Daughter Margaret Cezair-Thompson
An unlikely choice of mine on a wet day in a second hand book shop – a musty copy that had appeal because of its setting in Jamaica. The tale of a local girl’s affair with Errol Flynn, the actor and the child they had together. The story covers the period of the rebellion on the island and the ensuing turbulence. It’s a pacy story with good characterisations and fascinating twists and turns in the plot
The Winter Ghosts Kate Mosse
A young man, grieving for his brother lost in the Great War, spins his car off the road in a snowstorm in the Pyrenees. He meets a captivating woman in an isolated village and during the night they talk of love and loss and war. She vanishes in the morning and he begins a search for her and finds himself deep in the mountains, at the centre of a mystery that has been concealed for almost a century. It’s a book that deserves a reading in one sitting – a story that transports the reader down the years to face the heartbreak of loss and the need for closure.
Bring Up The Bodies Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel
Two fabulous books – not to everyone’s taste – and they need a dedicated attention span and some determination. Stories of the times of Henry Tudor, they are written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, and Mantel certainly gets under his skin. I did feel as if I was there and that I finally understood what was going on – it’s a ‘get-down-in-the-dirt-of-the-times’ book and it isn’t pretty. Some of the people you might have previously sympathised with are drawn in greater detail and we see them as the humans, with foibles and failings, they really were. I loved both books, but they need time – however they are well worth the investment.
French Revolutions – Cycling the Tour de France Tim Moore
A witty and brilliant book by this sports writer! What fool, for the sake of his craft, would determine to cycle the whole route of the Tour de France, when they rarely if ever cycled in normal life? Moore does, with some hilarious and painful consequences. It’s a great read for all lovers of real-life story and not just for cycling enthusiasts
The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes
Do you remember all the friends you had at school? How good do you think your memory of relationships is? There are some that might have meant little to you, that possibly had a major impact on another. Tony and Adrian were in a group who swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is retired and divorced and a letter jogs his memory of the past. “We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.” he reflects at the beginning. Life is confusing and just when we think we’ve got it, it slips through our fingers again, like sand. A story that explores friendship, fractured relationships and the putting together of lost pieces.
Fortune’s Rocks Anita Shreve
One of those rare books where you find the end unbearable – because you want to stay in the world of the story for ever. A story of forbidden love, heart-breaking and perplexing; fulfilling yet devastating. Love that finds its loss unbearable and the need for that loved other the very purpose of life. Shreve is really at her most poignant here – the characters are wonderfully multi-dimensional – we love them, yet are angry at them; we see something of ourselves in them, yet are repelled by what they do and who they betray. Heavenly
Eden Close Anita Shreve
Another great Shreve novel. Seems simple enough – boy comes home to clear up house after death of his father and finds himself drawn into the secrets of the past he thought he knew. Eden is the girl next door – and her story – the events of a dreadful night when he was a young boy – draw him in and he stays on to search for meaning in the house down the road. Can friendships be reignited even though there are terrible secrets buried between them? Can love find a way through treachery and heal the wounds that have become deep scars?
Incendiary Chris Cleave
This was a real ‘wow’ for me – a story I didn’t expect. The whole story a letter to a terrorist, it tells of the anguish of a young mother who loses her tiny son and husband in a bomb blast at a football stadium. But it’s never just one story and it’s never that simple – her story begins before the blast and she has to go on after, living with the consequences of her own actions and somehow finding a way to comfort herself amidst that awful loss. Fascinating and compelling
Arthur and George Julian Barnes
Not the easiest of reads, and not the most fascinating of subjects – that of a young man, seemingly wrongfully, imprisoned for a terrible crime in Victorian England. Creator of Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, takes up his case and this is the story of their odd relationship and the impact it has on them both. It also covers Conan-Doyle’s second marriage, a story in itself.
Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner
A book I find myself going back to again and again – there are so many gorgeous passages. This is writing at its most beautiful and soul-searching. “There it was. There it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship has its home and happiness its headquarters” Two young couple become good friends during the Great Depression. Seemingly initially very different, they find they have much in common and both men work at the University. It is the story of their friendship – of the twists and turns that takes – of its complexities – of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict. Larry is the key voice and he is the one wrestling with the meaning behind some of the trials and tragedies each one of them faces over time. The narrative is sometimes so moving I found it necessary to put the book aside and weep. Not many stories make me do that. I quote from it incessantly.

“If we could have foreseen the future during those good days in Madison…., we might not have had the nerve to venture into it.”

The Watcher in the Shadows Carlos Ruiz Zafon
From the author of “The Shadow of the Wind” – a story of a toymaker, living as a recluse in an old mansion, surrounded by strange creatures he has made. Irene’s mother takes her and her brother to work there one magical summer, to Blue Bay, as housekeeper to the secretive and eccentric toymaker. The magic begins immediately and soon the eerie figure watching from a locked room starts to move beyond and lives begin to be claimed….
The Ex-Wives Deborah Moggach
The sort of novel we all need to read from time to time, to allow us to take a break from thinking too hard and from becoming too reflective! Fun and something of a frolic, it’s the tale of an old actor, living alone with a dreadful little dog, when his latest wife leaves him for another, younger, man. Feeling morose, he falls for a young girl who leads him into an adventure he would never have expected!
Apple Tree Yard Louise Doughty
Goodness me, this book had me on the edge of my seat! It excited from the first page – in the most unusual way. Captivating with its candid insight into the mind of an intelligent and professional woman, who finds herself in a relationship she would never have imagined. From the start, we are horrified and tantalised in equal measures and it had me holding my breath as I turned the pages. There are so many twists, it was exhilarating, yet the pace is thrillingly calm and measured – perhaps that is the secret of its appeal. What happens when life gets so out of control that we find we cannot hold it together? This is a story that bruises the soul and leaves you breathless.
Life After Life Kate Atkinson
Just imagine if you could choose to live your life a different way? A choice you make that leads you down one road, supposing you make a different choice, where would you be now? What if you could keep on going back until you got it right? Or will it ever be right? What about the consequences of different choices for others in our lives? A great novel by this wonderful story-teller of how different turns in events make for different lives we end up leading. It tells of a baby born in a snowstorm in 1910, who dies before she took her first breath. And yet, what if the same baby lived to tell the tale? It’s a brilliant story and is positively dazzling in its telling.
The Invention of Wings Sue Monk-Kidd
One of the most moving stories I’ve read – the story of Handful, an eight-year-old slave child, who is presented as a gift to her owner’s daughter, at an eleventh birthday. At turns, it enthralled me, yet repelled and sickened me, before enraging me and stirring me to want to rise to action. Based on the lives of the Grimke sisters, abolitionists and feminists it charts the tales of the sisters, the slaves of the household as well as giving us great insight into the lives of all those, on both sides, involved in slavery. Captivating and wonderfully written. A never to be forgotten book.
The Secret Life of Bees Sue Monk-Kidd
Another engaging and captivating story – the tale of a girl’s tempestuous relationship with her father, and her subsequent running away to make a life of her own. Accompanied by her father’s black servant and finding refuge with three black sisters, she learns about bee-keeping and finds herself closer to the mysterious story of her mother’s life and death than she could have hoped for. Deeply fascinating.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle Kirsty Wark
The first novel from the News night presenter, it isn’t brilliant, but it’s a good, engaging story, if a little clunky at times. It tells the story of a woman who returns to Arran, years after she left it, when her mother is left a house by a mysterious old lady, simply because she had seen her pushing a pram down a road thirty years previously. Behind ordinary lives, there is often a deeper story running, if only we looked for it, or cared to know it. There are many secrets to be found in these lives and at times this story captivates and charms.
And The Mountains Echoed Khaled Hosseini
Author of ‘The Kite-Runner’, Hosseini is fabulous teller of tales and holds the attention from his opening words….”So then, you want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Don’t either of you aske me for more. It’s late and we have a long day ahead of us, Parit, you and I. You will need your sleep tonight. And you too, Abdullah. I am counting on you, boy, whie your sister and I are away.” A father is taking his child away – separating her from her brother – but that brother cannot let her go easily. He is the only one who can make her happy. He trades his shoes for a feather for her collection. When his father sets off on that fateful journey, neither child could possibly know what the future will bring for them…We want to know though, and we keep turning the pages to find out. It’s a well-crafted book, that covers many years and spans continents. It speaks of heartache, betrayal, hope and the unbreakable bonds of love.
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn
I like a good thriller and had great hopes for this book – it didn’t live up to them, despite all the hype. Others however, I know, love it, so I must be fair and include it. You may like it. I found the format predictable and the characters held no charm for me – I simply didn’t care what happened to them. I love a villain and I love a character that has the capacity to be both hero and villain and victim and survivor – I found that none of that characters fascinated me at all.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist Mohsin Hamid
“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened of my beard. I am a lover of America…” I was caught at the back cover. I had to look inside to read more. Unusually, the story is the monologue of one man talking to another and all the action takes place in one place, in one time, although the story covers several years. How do we end up caught up in events that once sickened and alarmed us? How do our sympathies change over time? What makes us lean towards an ideology at odds with the one we have adopted as our own? This story compels as it explores these issues – we grow to love the characters and are drawn into their lives easily.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler
I had no idea what to expect when I read “What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? We read of Rosemary who is now a college student, coming to realise that she needs to go back before she can go forward. Her life no longer makes sense and she needs to know what happened to her brother. Why did he run away? Where is he? And what has that to do with her sister, who was sent away from the family home when she was only five-years old. This is a story of the most unusual, if not unique, sibling love and rivalry that will really get under your skin. Don’t skip ahead and cheat! The surprises are well worth waiting for.

 

 

Call Me by My Pet-Name

sonnets 33A selection of the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ were among the first poems we read at ‘Gather 2 Read’ in Honley.

Number 33 my choice for you for Poem of the Day –

 

 

 

Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear
Fond voices which, being drawn and reconciled
Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,
Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,
While I call God—call God!—So let thy mouth
Be heir to those who are now exanimate.
Gather the north flowers to complete the south,
And catch the early love up in the late.
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.

I always think of my Dad when I read this, although Barratt-Browning wrote this collection as love poems (and they were quite risqué for the time!). Dads have those pet names for us, don’t they? And faces ‘that proved me dear’. It’s usually a Dad or a Mum who loves in that unconditional and always-delighted way. Don’t we always look for those faces – the ones that tell us we’re okay – we’re valued and loved just as we are?

That phrase “let they mouth/ Be heir…” – isn’t that stunning? The one who loves her now has taken the place, taken on the role of loving her the way she was loved as a child – freely, and with no holding back. You can’t imagine that’s possible when you’re a child, can you? Now she can be truly happy and offer her heart and “not wait”. There is no hesitation as she runs to the one who calls her and fills her heart again, in the way it was filled and how it responded, as a child.

 

Monday’s Child

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Whose Children?

I’ve written before about the reading group I run in a Care Home.  I go monthly, meet with between 4 and 10 elderly residents, mostly women, but there have been 2 or 3 men who have come along. I’ve been visiting for over a year now and they have become dear friends. We share an afternoon together; moments in time where adventures of the mind and soul can be had.  Our reading can take us to wonderful places; we meet characters who delight or intrigue; we laugh; we are puzzled; we feel sad, we cry, we become angry. In short we are, as lovely Doreen said last week “We are stimulated”.

There’s plenty written about what makes us think and what sort of thing galvanises us into action. What I have seen and experienced though, on those Monday afternoons, is something really special. What would I say to a lady of 89 who I have only just met? Who spends her life now surrounded with those whose gait is even slower than her own? Who feels as if life is going on ‘out there’ without her now – while she waits, often in pain or at best discomfort, for the door to open to the next world? What do I have in common to begin a conversation? How do I find out what lies behind those rheumy eyes? Reading is the key that unlocks the mystery; that gently enables us to share a lovely time and a place – like  a little room we can go to. We keep it simple – short is good (listening and concentrating gets harder over the years) – poems work – little stories too – a fairy tale might occasionally enchant – but  Shakespeare, Thackeray, Elliot, Hardy – they are much loved too. Some of my friends know the classics well, some have read little throughout their lives but on those Monday afternoons we share in the delights of a variety of good literature

This week, I decided on the theme of “New Beginnings” – after all, we’d had a summer break and we were starting a new term. When you’re in your nineties, it always seems to be about ‘endings’ (they told me about two deaths there had been over summer) so I thought it would be refreshing to think about beginnings – about new born babies and the way we celebrate them. There were six of us this week. I read something we probably all know:-

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go.

Fridays’ child is loving and giving,

Saturdays’ child works hard for a living,

And the child that is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay. (Anon)

Well, a few of them knew it and were joining in quietly and tentatively, but by the last line everyone had found their voice, were sure of the words and we chorused it together. Then everyone wanted to talk! I heard of an older sister who had been a Wednesday’s child – “Always whining, she was too!” said Mary. Bessie had been a Sabbath baby “A lot to live up to!” “Me too,” I offered, “I try to be perfect, but never quite make it!” Everyone  was laughing and the afternoon was filled with sunshine. And Jean told of being a Saturday’s child, “I was expected to do everything for my brother. He never lifted a finger”. A good time to move on to “For an Unborn Baby” by Janet Shepperson, then:

If she’s a girl,

I hope she’ll stretch her wings

and grow up free, wide ranging

like a seagull, dealing with the winds

competently, swifting on currents of air,

able to live on anything she can find

in the murky sea, or even on rubbish heaps,

adapting with ease when storms drive her inland.

May she choose wisely if in the end

she settles on one name, one piece of ground.

 

May she banish those who’d seek to protect her

from heartbreak, or joy.

– And may he achieve no less

if he’s a boy.

So began a discussion of how our hopes for girls might be different – how we might choose different colours for their clothes even. Emily started to talk about her daughter – she tells all about the dreams she had for her and how they never happened. How she married a man who Emily hadn’t liked and how she watched with sadness when the marriage broke up, yet couldn’t somehow offer comfort to her daughter and how even now, many years later, all that lies still unspoken, between them. “She’s never married again. That’s sad. But she’s happy. She seems content with her own company”. She sits pondering that thought and the rest of us keep a companionable silence with her for a moment. “She comes to see you though”, says Joyce. “Oh yes.” And that’s what matters now – that she comes; that they have that time with each other.

We laughed together at the next tale from “Blue Remembered Hills” by Rosemary Sutcliffe – about babies being brought by a stork. It ends:

“Nor did it occur to me that at age zero, I would have been unlikely to have had teeth to chatter”

That led to lots of sharing about what we believed as we grew up about where babies come from and some wonderful stories about how children ‘fill in the gaps’ when they don’t know the truth.

Our favourite of the afternoon was Kahlil Gibran’s “Your Children”

It begins:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

they come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrows, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

 

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that

His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He knows the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1950) https://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/gibrn.htI

I read the last words and let them rest in the room. I feel it again – the magic of hearing words allowing thoughts to come from within our souls. Emily is the first to speak, “Very deep.” Joyce adds, “Fancy being a bow”, and she says it shyly. “I suppose that’s all parents can wish for, isn’t it?” puts in Doris, who hasn’t any children of her own, but was  a teacher, “To set them off on the right track and hope they get to a good place”. Soon, our thoughts still milling around, we are taking tea together and sharing a platter of fresh fruit, brought to us by the Activities Coordinator. When we are old, we need to have our activities coordinated, you know, we relinquish our ability, so they tell us in care homes, to coordinate our own activities. She is a good person though and loves the people whose activities she is coordinating.

I leave and on the way home I think of all my arrows, and wonder at the joy of how I now have learned “to be like them,” and I pray  to the Archer who I know and love, and thank him that he is guiding them, that he has a purpose for them and that “He loves also the bow that is stable”.

 

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Take Me Back Down the Years

Facebook-20150511-115544This is a picture of me taken when I was probably nine or ten years old. My auntie Janet found it for me and I am fascinated by it. You see, I recognise myself in that picture. I knew it was me, before anyone confirmed it. I see my ‘little self’ there in that chair and although I can’t actually remember the moment it was taken I immediately connect with her – that little me-girl – and the things that were going on in her life back then – down the years.

It was taken in the back garden of my grandmother’s house. I can smell the roses and see the flamboyant bright colours of the dahlias and the chrysanthemums. In later years there would be a fish pond in the spot where I am sitting. Before me, off camera, are two greenhouses and if I get up from that chair I can go in, push open the door (that is quite stiff) and feel the warmth and inhale the sweet scent of tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuces. I can hear my grandma’s voice from the kitchen, just behind me, calling me in and smell the cakes baking. I can taste the sugar on my tongue as I lick the mixture from the wooden spoon that she lets me use to scrape the bowl. I can run down the garden and tell my granddad to come on in for his cup of tea – and I can see him straighten up, put a hand to his back, roll his eyes, take his huge handkerchief from his pocket and blow his nose. “I’m on my way” he says and I run back and tell Gran. “Yes and so is bloody Christmas”, she says.

Then I’m standing on a stool shelling the peas he’s brought in and slipping as many as I can into my mouth – the green freshness of the taste delighting me – before she can see me and catch me round the ears with her damp tea towel.

I am there in the garden and in the kitchen of the place where so much of my childhood was played out. Where I learned to play cribbage at the age of 5, whilst recovering from measles; where I snuggled into the huge bosom of the grandmother who taught me outrageously bawdy songs and told me wonderful stories.

The chair I am sitting on was called by my Uncle Bill ‘the Director’s chair’ – she ruled the roost all right and though many argued with her, she would generally have the last word. I am sitting in that chair and wouldn’t have dared if she’d been around, unless I was ill and I remember then I had been. I’d had my appendix out and had gone, after the operation to stay there, while the rest of my family went on holiday. Clearly the reason for my rather sad little face! Bless my little cotton socks.

I could weep for that girl and all she would face but I could also tell her – “It will be fine; you’ll come through. Life will be good for you.” But today when I look at her, I’d like to simply go back and sit with her for a while; not speaking – just to keep her company and enjoy the scent of the roses and the colours of the dahlias. To taste again those cakes, those peas and feel the warmth of the greenhouse and the soft bosom of my grandmother. I feel a tear slide down my cheek for those moments and want to be there. It won’t last – this feeling – I’ll stay where I am in my present and make a coffee, write some more, hang out the washing or go shopping – just get on with my 57 year old life.

I’m reminded of D H Lawrence’s “The Piano”

SOFTLY, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

 

In spite of myself, the insidious mastr’y of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano apassionato.

The glamour of childhood days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

See the beautiful way the poet talks of ‘betrays me back’. As if those memories have stolen into his present and given him away – revealed him to be that one he has denied himself to be. ‘The heart of me weeps to belong’ – that was exactly what I felt as I looked at little me in the picture – I wanted to climb back into that time and just be there. “My manhood is cast down in the flood of remembrance” – I couldn’t have thought of that line but it speaks precisely of what we often want to do. Just lay down who we have become – these grown up selves; these adults who have to be so responsible – and let the memories flow over us and take us back, back to the times we remember as being happy or even just without the cares we have now.

It isn’t that we want to stay there – I don’t think it is that. It’s not escapism – it’s about making connections to strengthen our being now, where we are. I’ve just finished reading “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a compelling but painful story of two women – Sarah, the daughter of a judge and cotton plantation owner in Charleston, and Handful, the slave she was given on her eleventh birthday – and the relationship they forged between them. Sarah Grimke was one of the most famous of America’s abolitionist eventually. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, spends most of her life trying to be free and suffers terribly for it. She is an excellent needle worker and quilter and sews pictures of her life and her daughter’s into a story quilt she bequeaths to Handful, telling her of all the hurt and pain she has endured; the beatings, the brandings, the humiliations. She urges Handful to continue to try and get free but to always remember who she is and where she has come from; all she has experiences. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you come from”, the slaves would sing. The stories of their lives connected them and grounded them so that they could hold on to an identity that was significant and of value.

This is about knowing where we have come from, so we can know our own starting points, tell our own stories and are able to thread those pieces together to join us to where we are now. Of course, we will cry for those times when we feel ourselves overwhelmed with longing – for that was the place we came from – the first chapters of our story and our present will make little sense if we don’t have that place to turn back to. We are richer and stronger when we know our own stories.

 

Hidden Depths

plants_12-21In recent times I have started to really enjoy gardening. I’ve always loved gardens – it must run in my genes – my grandfather spent most of his life in his garden and grew the most amazing chrysanthemums and dahlias, as wells as beautiful rose bushes. His passion was passed on to my mum but it’s not been something any of my siblings has taken much of an active interest in. I started to be interested when I made an effort to make our back yard a bit more colourful with some pots. There was something quite exciting about seeing how plants turned from tiny little leafy things to gorgeous tall and bushy flowering plants. I had around 30 pots eventually in the small, paved gardens of our house in Marple and brought them all with me to Holmfirth.

We have a much larger garden here – with grass! And trees! It all makes me feel rather rich! And now, having more time, it’s a lovely break from sitting at the computer, to wander out into the garden and get my hands dirty in the compost, deadhead some dying flowers, prune back a few shrubs, pull up some weeds or plant something I’ve bought recently in a special little place I’ve chosen for it. I can’t tell you the thrill I get from wandering round seeing what has ‘come up’ over night. I am fascinating watching buds slowly open over days, unfurling to become something really colourfully beautiful. In the garden I can lose myself completely for hours at a time. I can take my stunted thoughts and, whilst pottering around, grubbing in the soil, I can process my thinking and move myself on; make decisions that I didn’t even know I was considering or imagine new possibilities. But gardening is also an end to itself – it’s such a lovely thing to do. And I know this too – it’s the sort of hobby that can also eat away at your budget! There are always such delightful new plants to buy at garden centres – even the supermarket or corner shop sell lovely things to tempt us to try and grow!

As I said I brought all my pots from Marple and have had such an interesting time planning where they will go and preparing a way for them. You should see how some of them have flourished now they are released from the prison of their pots! There’s also something about continuity. I was looking at an Acacia I had in a pot at our last house and seeing it now, in early Spring, rising tall above my garden wall, with its tiny buds ready to burst, just thrills me that once it overlooked a busy, noisy main road – now it is in such a peaceful setting, watching dogwalkers and ramblers make their way to the woods and the hills; smilingly watching our dog go loopy on the lawn. It’s made a journey with me and both of us are enjoying, and making the most of, our new setting.

At the front of our house here is a strip of grassed land that used to get very boggy when it rains. It’s at the bottom of a steep, sloping lawn and persistent rain often turns it into a swamp. People sometimes stepped on it, the dog would run across it and trample mud into the house. It also didn’t look very pretty. The answer was to cut the turf from it, dig it up, enrich the soil with compost and put in bog-loving plants. I had decided on rhododendrons, astilbe and geraniums. My friendly garden-labourer suggested Achtea too. ‘Beautiful shrubs’, he tells me, ‘with dark foliage and gorgeous creamy white flowers and they grow to 5 feet.’ Sounded perfect. It would be lovely to turn in the drive and see the colourful range from this grouping, set in gold and white gravel. He sent me off to a specialist nursery in Halifax, “Dove Cottage”. I rather liked it just for the name, being a Wordsworth fan. So I set off there, very excited. He’d told me that the plants there were so superior to other nurseries and garden centres. The owner could not have been nicer. She was serving when I got there, so I had a wander. All I could see were lines and lines of pots with nothing in though, but clearly there were parts of the nursery that weren’t accessible to the general public. ‘The real plants must be up those glass houses,’ I thought. It came to my turn and she asked me all about what I wanted and what sort of garden I had, where the sun came up, and what the soil was like. She agreed that an Achtea and a couple of Astilbes would be perfect. She also had some Geraniums which would enjoy that sort of ground, she said. Off she went and I expected her to be ages as the greenhouses were up a hill, but instead she went to where I had just been wandering and brought back two large pots (3 litres), filled with compost and set them down at my feet, ‘They’re really lovely Geraniums, with good spread and I know I’ve got an Achtea somewhere’ – she scooted off again and was back in less than a minute with a slightly larger pot, again with nothing in but compost and a white tag, dashed away again and I watched, open-mouthed, as she rotted among identical black pots and came back with 2 more. For a moment I just couldn’t speak. £8.50 for dirt in a pot!!

Now, if you’re an avid gardener you may wonder at my gormless reaction! You see, I’d only ever bought from a garden centre before and was used to choosing from what I could see. Now it seemed, I was being asked to take, in faith, what I could not see! All I had, for ‘proof’ of what lay beneath that compost, was a printed tag – stating the name of the plant in there, a brief description of what it would be, the heights it would grow to and the spread it would make across the garden. When I looked closely, I could see that there was something poking its way out of the compost. In one of them it looked like dead straw, which she promptly snipped off with her secateurs! I had to take it on trust that what she said was growing there, beneath the surface, was actually there and would grow, from this barely visible thing, to something beautiful – as tall as a person and as broad as a pillar-box, looking amazing when I opened my front door. I had to laugh really! Because I had been so naive. Of course, plants start life as seeds or bulbs and nurseries take cuttings, transplant root balls into pots for people like me to take and lovingly plant in their own gardens and nurture them to full life.

Several weeks on each of these plants is looking splendid in that little part of the garden. FullSizeRender (2) FullSizeRender FullSizeRender (1)

Still some way to go, but definitely heading upwards and outwards!! A lot is going on under the surface as the roots take in nutrients from our well-prepared soil and are enjoying all the moisture from what was previously a bog! John was away when I created this little garden and was delighted to see it done when he came home, but did ask me what the ‘patches of soil’ were spread across the gravel area! It made me laugh as he was obviously as ‘convenience-minded’ as me, when it comes to growth! He expected to see a fully flowering shrub growing straight away. Every couple of days I peer at my plants and I can see something more of them appearing – it’s miraculous to me and it heartens me so much.

There’s a lesson for life here, isn’t there? So often we can’t see growth happening. We can become frustrated that nothing is happening – when under the surface so much is going on. To make something lovely there has to be a lot of spade-work, clearing of debris, preparation of land, adding of nutrients, watering of soil – before the plant can take root and grow. And there needs to be plenty of sunshine to coax the thing to make an appearance! In life, we can all too often trample on the dreams of others who are trying to make things happen. It looks as if there is just ‘dirt in a pot’ and nothing much else – but under the surface there is often a lot happening that we can’t see. The thing is, if we could see, it wouldn’t actually happen quite so well, as it needs to take place underneath to be able to happen. It’s out of the way of the busy-ness of life that much work gets done – it’s in back rooms where policies get written; it’s very often in cold church halls where focus groups and listening exercises take place; it’s sometimes in back bedrooms where emails and letters are written and change programmes are planned.

There’s also things going in the lives of individuals that we can’t always see. How many times have we walked around, knowing on the surface we look just fine, but inside we are desperately anxious about something; or someone we know and live is dying and we can’t be with them; or we have to hide an illness for some reason? And there are those who might simply overlook as they seem as if they have little to say, or nothing to offer us. They don’t seem to amuse or have opinions. Who knows what is going on inside their heads? What trauma they might have experienced, or crippling shyness they are trying to overcome. I remember a little girl who never seemed to speak and one day at a party she suddenly started to recite nursery rhymes after an elderly lady had chatted to her for over half an hour without evoking any response. Eloquently and beautifully, for almost an hour, she entertained a group of us who were enchanted and applauded enthusiastically! Seen in a new light, she suddenly blossomed into a confident child and her life changed from that day. Someone saw she had something; nurtured it and warmed it with the sunshine of her smile and watered it with gentleness.

I am drawn to a Hardy poem – aptly title ‘In The Garden’…

 

We waited for the sun

To break its cloudy prison

(For day was not yet done,

And night still unbegun)

Leaning by the dial.

 

After many a trial –

We all silent there –

It burst as new-arisen,

Throwing a shade to where

Time travelled at that minute.

 

Little saw we in it,

But this much I know,

Of lookers on that shade,

Her towards whom it made

Soonest had to go.

 

Just for itself, this is so beautiful – there’s a calmness and stillness in the words – just waiting for the sun to come back again, hoping it will before night closes in, but holding our breath as perhaps the moment will be lost as the day ends. And sometimes it’s like the early morning sun when it does peep out from behind those thick clouds – and with that burst comes that bright hope – as if we can start all over again. Like the little girl – no one thought much of her – a shy wee thing with nothing to say. A bit of sun warming her, coaxing her from the shell she’d found herself hidden under and she was away! A new thing. Like my plants. Hidden under dirt, waiting for the right conditions to make their appearance – to grow into what they were intended to be.

So where will we let our own rays of sunshine fall upon? Who or what can we coax into the light and nurture into becoming that something they have the potential to be?

Glimmers of Hope in Flecks of Lilac

There are glimmers of hope. At last it seems we are moving towards spring! I wonder why it is that winter always seems the longest season. I mean, it isn’t really as if it’s been frightful – it’s just the seemingly endless dark days; days that feel as though they don’t start till midmorning and are shutting down for business by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Days that have been very cold, damp and just don’t stimulate positive thinking. Well, they don’t do much for me anyway.

Not that I hate the cold as such – a clear, blue sky on a frosty morning when you can see your breath and you have to pull your hat over your ears and can’t bear it if you think you’ve dropped your gloves! I love those sorts of days. When the ground is crunchy underfoot and you can hurry back home and drink a hot cup of tea and really revel in its heat and restorative goodness. Yes, they’re good wintery days. Even days when you’re a little bit afraid walking on a steep slope as you see the frost glistening or you have to get up early to scrape the car windscreen and your fingers go numb and you have to blow on them while the car heater is still warming up. Yes, they are great, stimulating, invigorating days.

What I hate are the days that never seem to get going. When you wake, knowing you’ve been in bed a whole night and yet it’s still pitch black outside. And it’s raining, or it’s been raining. It’s not even really cold – at least not frosty. It’s just miserable. And you’re making your tea and looking out the window and all you can see is your own miserable reflection staring back at you in the dark – like it’s your soul that nipped outside and has found it wanting and can hardly bear to give you the bad news. Then you see children going to school and it’s barely light. It’s like things you’re doing slow down but the day itself slips passed you faster, so just when you think you’ve got a grip on it, it grinds down to a halt. And you’re looking at your own reflection in the window again – wearing a ‘so where has that one gone then?’ expression. Short, miserable days. Oh I know they’re not all quite like that – there’s lots to be thankful for too – but they do drop by more frequently – those gloom-filled days.

But they are coming to an end! Ha ha! I want to laugh out loud and shout ‘so there, winter, you didn’t see me off!’

Even before it’s here, I know it’s coming. There are these signs all along the walks – tiny buds appearing on branches. Each one prompting a wee spring in my step and a slight quickening to my heartbeat. In the shade of a tree in the churchyard (oh, don’t ask me what kind of tree it was; I always get them wrong!) there they were, just peeping through the mulch there – tiny flecks of lilac. Crocii making their yearly appearance.Glimmers of hope in lilac

‘Hello, again!’ they seem to whisper, ‘Is it time?’ At first they appear quite shy, as if they’re afraid someone (like a horrid, north-westerly gust of wind or harsh frost) will shout them back down, with a ‘Get back in the ground you fools! It’s not your turn yet!’

Well, it is! There were a few hints last week – sunny intervals (as termed by the weatherfolk) and milder air coaxed them onto the seasonal stage and there they were – as if they were waiting for me to climb over the wall into the cemetery. Like a warm greeting they met my eyes and I had to pause and smile at them in return greeting. I just had to get the Iphone out and take that picture. I wanted to note it – make an imprint of it. All the rest of the day I could revisit that picture – even in my mind – and know that spring was coming – the winter wasn’t going to last forever.

Over the winter months, being someone who is seasonally affected, I really have to work hard not to let myself slip into a reactive depression. I’m not meaning a clinical sort of depression, although it can verge on that by the way it presents. I mean that the darkness seems to push me into a corner of my own life and I can find myself stuck there. It goes like this: because of the darkness I can’t go out walking so early, so I stay in bed a little longer; staying in bed longer makes me feel bad about myself, so I start the day on a low note; I roll out of bed instead of jumping; I stay in my dressing gown, as what’s the point of getting dressed? I find myself wondering it it’s worth opening the curtains or raising the blinds. What’s the point? There’s nothing to see. Just me looking back at me. I sit and think how miserable it is and this makes me feel even more miserable. I end up eating breakfast so late it makes eating lunch not worth it and then I worry that I’ll want dinner too early and the evening will seem shorter! I do shorter walks and when it’s raining they get shorter still. Not being able to be outside makes me feel even more miserable. I have to put the light on to read and before I know it, I’m closing the curtains as the darkness starts to descend – yet again! And it’s only just gone!

Do you know those days? I have to make myself get a grip. Honestly, I have to take myself in hand and give myself a stiff talking to. I find there is a Psalm that often comes to mind when I’m like this:

                        Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

(Psalm 42:11a)

I love that this psalm was probably written by King David and that he, though he was so close to God (being called a ‘man after my own heart’ by God himself! How brilliant must that be!), finds himself in these same dark places that I get myself into.

It seems important to me that I do that chastising of my soul. So when my reflection stares back at me through the dark glass, by an act of will, I make myself say this line. I talk to my own soul – essentially telling it to ‘get a grip’. Of course, as a Christian, I don’t believe that I can do this in my own strength. For that I thank God – as the second half of that verse gently steers me to where strength can be found and where my hope really is, reminding me that I’m never actually alone; God is bigger than my circumstances. They are only temporary.

                        Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

 

It doesn’t happen immediately; it isn’t like there is a blinding light or that in that moment I am lifted to some higher plain. Not at all, I have simply reminded my soul that things are not hopeless. I have a choice. I can stay in the corner of my own mind; I can dwell there in the dark. I can make my life smaller and shrink into myself. Or I can remember what the light looks like – focus on where my hope really is founded – and I can make that my driver. I can hitch my soul on to something worth getting up for. I can find light, joy, laughter, sunshine in the smile of a stranger; the hue of the leaves of a plant in the bathroom; a robin on the birdfeeder; a phone call from a friend; an episode of a ridiculous soap opera; a chapter of a good book; a slice of chocolate cake; a bowl of lentil soup; a visit to a museum.

On a short, dark, cold winter day, in the driving rain, I can curse the mud and wet; sit and watch it batter my windows; or I can go by the tree in the cemetery, shelter under the branches, stand on the mulch there and remember that underneath all this, something is happening; life is stirring; bulbs are being fed; roots are extending – and soon, and very soon, tiny shoots of green will appear, followed by flecks of lilac – glimmers of hope for tired souls.