Sunday, 30 December 2007

Christmas Walk

The sun came out briefly as we assembled by the white five-bar gate which separates the farmhouse from the busy B road connecting two villages which, a decade or so ago no doubt was just a quiet country lane. Today there was little traffic on the road and we soon headed off into deep countryside, following the thin trails linking one footpath with another, chatting and admiring the beautiful, unspoilt, wintry scenery, always keeping the Church Tower in view. Our lodestone. After a while we met the road again briefly, beside the old abandoned windmill on top of the rise, before crossing the ancient churchyard shaded by yew trees, and back into open country.

An hour or so later we emerged by a lovely hop-strewn pub, log fire blazing, and a very welcome drink and lunch. One or two people peeled off after lunch, but the die-hards set off back across country, following The Man in the Woolly Jumper who had the map, losing our way occasionally, finding ourselves in someone else's driveway at one point, but always finding a way through in the end.

The light was fading by the time we got back to the house, my sons grumbling by now. Friends rallied round, someone put the kettle on, TMITWJ lit the fire and mince pies were warmed in the oven. After a reviving cup of tea a few more people arrived and bottles of fizz popped as the fire warmed us through, conversation flowed and friends and family relaxed together by the brightly lit Christmas Tree.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to all my blogging friends!
I am looking forward to catching up with you all soon,
but time has wings at the moment and I am a whirling dervish.
I wish you all a very happy and peaceful time. 

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Tears Before Bedtime

Nothing ever goes completely smoothly. The new school year started so well, with such good intentions on all sides, but gradually things have slipped. We are back to the usual early morning routine. 'I'm not going to call you again!' 'If you aren't ready, I shall just go without you and you can find your own way to school!' Six miles across country and no buses unless he catches the 7.45 from the village - fat chance! The letters home - broken bounds, coming home at lunchtime if he doesn't have lessons, work not done or handed in, threatened suspensions, lectures from tutors. All the old familiar themes. How could I ever have thought we had cracked it this time?

Which isn't to say that there hasn't been progress, that things aren't moving in the right direction. I hope. But I fool myself if I think things have resolved. And, to make me feel really bad, apparently it is all my fault. The way he is. That's the hardest thing to take. I look deep inside myself and wonder, and worry. Perhaps he is right. All the times I got it wrong, when I was too tired or emotional or stressed to be the perfect mother I wanted to be and we certainly aren't the perfect family, but in the end, you do the best you can with the cards you are dealt and that is the only positive message I can give my son today.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Bonfires

They do things differently in Sussex. When I was a small child, bonfire night meant a family party in the back garden with silver fountains, Catherine wheels, the occasional rocket and sparklers held tightly in gloved hands. Yorkshire parkin, perhaps, and potatoes wrapped in silver foil, cooked in the embers.

More recently, bonfire nights have been large organised events held at the children's schools, or in the glebe field of the nearby village church. Big bonfires with spectacular fireworks and the chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances, if you can find them in the flickering light.

So when I was invited to a big display in a nearby village the weekend before last, I was expecting the usual jolly but civilised affair. We parked on the far side of the busy A road that bypasses the village and walked through the narrow streets lined with tumbledown houses and cottages, wondering if we could gatecrash the parties that seemed to be happening behind every lighted window and, if so, which one we would most like to join? The high street was a heaving mass of warmly wrapped bodies as people lined the route ten deep. We found a vantage point and minutes later the procession exploded into view.

Scores of people, dressed in bizarre and macabre costumes, with blackened faces, paraded along the street, carrying flares, letting off firecrackers, beating on drums. A primative and tribal ritual that has been carried out annually in this village ever since the gunpowder plot. There was, apparently, strong anti-Catholic feeling in this part of the world and there are a number of bonfire societies which plan this event annually. Secret societies where membership is passed on from generation to generation.

The procession retraced its steps to a large field on the outskirts of the village, the crowd following behind. The bonfire was lit, the largest and fiercest bonfire I have ever seen, forcing the crowd back with the intense heat it generated. Then the fireworks started and the sky exploded with light and colour, at one point a tree set alight by a maverick firework. I snuggled closer to The Man in the Woolly Jumper (previously known as The Man in the Pink Shirt), who has come back into my life, as, somewhat stunned, we retraced our steps to the car and the 21st century.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

We have kittens

It's official. Having fiercely debated names, we have decided to compromise and have one each. We are now the proud and somewhat mad owners of two small ginger kittens, Orlando and Dante. One for each of us and both welcome additions to our family. My older cats, also litter mates, have their noses firmly out of joint, but I hope all will be well in time.

Now I just have to resist doggy delights. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Hallowe'en

It's only 5 o'clock, but it's already dark outside this Hallowe'en. I still cling on to the family traditions from the days when there were three young boys in the house with me every day, along with an assortment of dogs, cats and rabbits. These traditions helped to keep me sane when my world was falling apart and so, today, the pumpkins that rather surprisingly grew in the vegetable patch this year - how? why? - have been carved into macabre faces and lit with tea-lights then placed outside the front and back doors to ward off the spirits that roam tonight.

I have spent a lot of time recently walking alone through the beautiful empty autumnal countryside that surrounds me here, a sure way of calming my turbulent thoughts, longing for a dog to keep me company. We have been dog-free for four years now, and I am trying to resist the temptation to fill the dog-shaped hole in my life. My animal family has gradually reduced to two cats and a rabbit. Very manageable. But just recently the desire to have a new little creature in the house has been overwhelming, so a very small ginger kitten is going to join us on Friday. I won't be able to take him for long walks with me, but I can sit and cuddle him on long winter evenings as I read my book by the fire. My son and I have very different ideas about naming him and negotiations are ongoing. Any suggestions gratefully received...

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Late Autumn Sunshine

I should have been in London on Saturday, visiting some old friends, but the trip was cancelled at the last moment leaving me with an empty day. I pottered around desultorily, doing a few chores, wondering if I would go to the coast and sit on the pebbly Sussex beach, read my book and watch the children play in the waves.

In the end, having wasted half the day, I decided to join a friend who had mentioned a folk festival in the nearby market town and had invited me to join her in the pub garden overlooking the high street to watch the procession go by, morris dancers, folk singers, witches and warlocks. A pretty, gaudy sight.

I wandered up the high street taking in the spectacle, then back to the pub garden. As I scanned the crowd looking for a familiar face, someone touched my arm and I found myself face to face with the Man in the Pink Shirt. We hadn't seen each other for a couple of weeks. Things had unravelled. He bought me a drink and we stood outside the pub for a while together, watching the crowd, talking, kissing a little sadly, enjoying each other's company and the late autumn sunshine.

Then we kissed a final goodbye. And parted.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Sea Change

He gets himself up in the mornings now without being called, dresses, breakfasts and chivvies me, yawning and still half-dressed, out of the house.

Spending the summer wondering and worrying - had he done enough? Would he lose something that was important to him? Would he be going back to his school or not? All this certainly put everything in context. And then the triumph. He could do it and he could do it by himself!  Somehow in the last few weeks a wall has come down in my son's heart and mind. Whatever was blocking him seems to have melted, I hope for good. He has visibly matured, grown up and become more comfortable in his skin. We went out in September and bought his first suit, navy blue and washable, but very smart. He chose shirts and a tie, shoes that were neither too smart nor too casual.

And all this new positivity is reaping it's rewards. Staff are pleasantly surprised and impressed and respond to the new person he is becoming, friendships are maturing and being sealed. There is even a pretty girl in the picture - long red hair and coltish legs, and a part in the school play.

Which all leads me to question ... what really was the problem? Because there is no doubt there was a very real and quantifiable problem and that it started when he was very young. What particular combination of genes and family circumstances led us down the difficult path we have both travelled?

I suppose, in the end, it doesn't really matter. The important thing is to negotiate that path day by day and somehow find a way through until the moment comes when he is ready to take over his life. And I can let him go.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Autumn Blues

Leaves and fallen apples litter the grass in the orchard now. It has an air of faint neglect and spentness, the hammock stashed away, no more time for lazy afternoons. The bonfire has burnt itself out and the charred remains smoulder gently in the light breeze. A lazy wasp investigates the fallen fruit as I wander through the trees, wondering when I will find the time to cook the apples to a fragrant pulp and mix them with the blackberries that grow so abundantly in the hedgerows as I walk through the quiet lanes.

Jars of plum jam are stored in kitchen cupboards or have been given to friends and family. Pears have been pickled with cinnamon, cloves, juniper berries and peppercorns and glow palely as they marinate in their spicy vinegar, waiting to be opened when winter bites. Logs are stacked in the woodshed and the year begins to unravel slowly towards it's busy end.

Friday, 24 August 2007

The Dreaded GCSEs

It had sat there in the calendar all summer, like a toad brooding under a stone, waiting to trip us up. All plans on hold until the day arrived and we could breathe again, know where we would be next year, whether things would continue as before, or if we needed to scramble around frantically, trying to find a new school/college, or perhaps even a job. Results day had finally arrived.

We had tried not to talk about it or dwell on it, fearful of anticipating or expecting, skirting around the issue. I know my son hardly slept the night before. I don't exaggerate when I say that neither of us had any real idea what to expect.

We got into the car yesterday morning with set faces, not speaking. What could we say? 

'Don't come with me, Mum,' he said, 'I want to do this on my own. Wait for me here.' 

He got out of the car and strode off across the school forecourt. I got out too and walked around anxiously. Ten minutes later he reappeared and I knew from the big grin on his face that it was going to be OK. Against all the odds and all expectations, after all the years of gruelling parents' evenings, complaints from teachers, letters home, unhelpful professional interference, he had pulled it off when it really mattered.

He has 10 good GCSE's and has sailed back into the Sixth Form of his school. The show goes on. I am a good mother. Actually, I am an excellent mother. And he is a star.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Little white, lacy, strappy things

My sons are home! The washing machine and dishwasher rumble incessantly, there is never enough milk, bread, cereal or red wine, casseroles bubble on the stove and the mother in me stirs and purrs contentedly, testosterone drifting through the house as their deep voices mingle and merge.

So why, I wonder, did I take a detour on my way to stock up again at Waitrose, to trawl through the racks of sale price clothes in Fat Face, discarding the sensible sweat shirts and fleecy, warm zippy things and finding my way to the little white, lacy, strappy vest top, to be secreted amongst the carrots and potatoes and meat and cheese? Perhaps my mind had drifted towards the Man in the Pink Shirt, currently battling the wind and tides somewhere off the South Coast, no doubt swathed in utilitarian waterproofs?

I suppose I could always hide it under a sensible fleece if I go sailing again. Only I would know it was there, surely. After all, if he had wanted a sensible woman, what on earth is he doing with me?

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Sailing Lessons

'Down below' was even smaller than I had expected. More intimate. For a six berth yacht, there was surprising little space. Even the two of us had to negotiate the cabin and deck with great care.

We set off down the channel towards the Solent, first under engine then, when the wind got up, the sails went up and things became really interesting as we tipped and rolled in the swell. I kept forgetting that I should push the tiller in the opposite direction to where we were heading, but this didn't really matter until we were approaching Cowes and fell in with the racing yachts during Cowes week. Rather a lot to cope with for a novice but somehow we negotiated the crowded waters and eventually found the river leading to the pub.

We berthed three deep, cut the engine and sat for a while, drinking champagne, eating the olives and goat's cheese and french bread meant for a lunch that never happened, chatting to the friendly men in the next berth as the sun went down, trying to remember who wrote 'Sitting in the Dock of the Bay' and wasn't there a Kink's song about boats and a river? 'Waterloo Sunset' perhaps?

On Sunday morning, we were jarred out of our lazy breakfast too soon by the French couple tied up alongside us and anxious to leave, but with the wind and tides with us and the sun beating down, I was at last able to change into my pink swimsuit and sit peacefully on deck, soak in the hot sun, watch the boats criss-cross the calm sea, rub sun screen into each other's backs and admire his skill as he brought us home again.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Favourite Restaurants

Debio has nominated me to write about my five favourite restaurants so now I'm wracking my brains for special places to eat that aren't my conservatory!


I love visiting 'Porters' in Covent Garden. It's a good place to treat my sons to a special lunch on the rare occasion that we all manage to meet up in London. Good English food - Wild Boar and Sage Sausages with Mashed Potatoes and Onion and Ale Gravy, Steak, Mushroom and Guinness Pie, Beer Battered Cod, all excellent quality, good value, no pretension, a great buzz and not far from Charing Cross and my escape route to the countryside.


When I go shopping in London, I sometimes head for 'The Bluebird Cafe' in the King's Road. Again good quality ingredients, terrific ambiance and lots of interesting people to watch. A light, simple lunch, a glass of wine and a coffee really make the day special. I love visiting the King's Road and browsing round all the interesting shops and dreaming of living in one of the lovely houses in the side streets that would once have been within reach. I have a passion for Interior Design and there are some wonderful showcase shops in the area to inspire me.


One of the biggest towns in my corner of England is Tunbridge Wells and on special occasions I usually head to either 'Blanc' or 'The Hotel Du Vin'. Blanc is part of Raymond Blanc's empire and the food is simply divine. There is a special deal for lunch on weekdays when you can have two courses for £10. A glass of wine and a coffee on top of that is still an affordable treat. I went there on my last birthday with a good friend whose birthday is the day before mine. We always meet up for lunch in the middle of March.


'The Hotel Du Vin' is a wonderfully luxurious, beautifully renovated building and an oasis in the centre of Tunbridge Wells. Comfortable squashy armchairs, lovely antiques and well chosen accessories make this a special place. The dining room is swathed in white linen, the silver cutlery and glasses reflect light from the French windows that lead onto the Terrace where coffee can be taken on a fine day. I haven't been there for a while, but my ex-husband used to take us there sometimes when he had pulled off a big deal. It was always famine or feast with him, but the feasts were well worth waiting for.


When I was married, holidays were rarely planned in advance but would happen fairly serendipitously. We would sometimes drive down to the Dordogne, hoping that the cottage I had pulled out of a hat - before the days of the Internet- would live up to its promise. They were sometimes surprising. I don't know if it's still there now, but we would always go for a meal at 'Les Glycines' near the caves at Les Eyzies. A simply stunning comfortable small hotel with a lovely garden and a sumptuous restaurant where well behaved children were more than welcome. I remember on our first visit that we took it in turns to wheel our four month old son around the garden when he cried but the staff were so kind and helpful it was more of an opportunity to show off our adorable son. It was there that I discovered white wine Kir and now I always keep a bottle of Cassis in the fridge for summer evenings and remember those long ago summers.

I won't nominate anyone else this time, but if anyone feels like picking this up, I shall look forward to reading your favourites soon.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The Man in the Pink Shirt

Even the sun shone for us. It was a perfect summer evening, snatched from a disappointing summer.

He arrived promptly, wearing his trademark pink shirt and carrying a bottle of red wine. We sat in the orchard for a while, drinking white wine Kirs, enjoying the late sunshine under the plum tree as the Chicken Cacciatora bubbled gently on the stove and we took it in turns to give it a stir from time to time. Somehow new potatoes and green beans cooked themselves and supper was ready.

We moved to the conservatory, lit the candles and opened his bottle of red wine. The food was delicious, we talked and laughed, then later kissed and cuddled, watching the bats flitting in and out of their nest in the eaves above the conservatory. It was a truly magical evening and I just want to hold onto that feeling.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Crushed Thyme

It happened so suddenly as accidents do, out of a clear blue sky. One moment I was quietly going about my chores, at peace with myself, enjoying this brief oasis in my life and looking forward to the end of term and the long summer break.

My ankle went over as I stepped down from the kitchen into the garden. I yelped with the sharp agony and froze, completely unable to move, still upright but with my foot bent at an unnatural angle. The pain washed over me and I felt myself beginning to black out. I managed to lie down before I passed out, half lying on the path, half resting on the cushion of thyme that grows by the kitchen door and I hung on to the scent of the crushed herbs, fighting the faintness and nausea that threatened to overwhelm me. Eventually I dragged myself back into the kitchen, trailing crushed thyme, sobbing with the pain and my own helplessness. I felt very alone.

Slowly, with shaking hands, I started to phone friends, to try and find someone who could come and help me but only answering machines responded to my plight as people went busily about their lives. I hadn't seen my serenading friend, the man in the pink shirt, since the night in the churchyard. An arrangement had fallen through, our answering machines had spoken, things had drifted. Could I call him now? Throwing pride to the winds, I did. He came, drove me to A & E, pushed me in a wheelchair as I looked around for the cameras - surely this merited a slot on 'Casualty'? Afterwards he drove me back to his house, fed me tea and smoked salmon sandwiches, put cold compresses on my poor swollen, bruised ankle, before bringing me home again.

As soon as I am mobile again, I shall cook him a thank you supper. I could hardly do less now, could I?

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Three Beautiful Things

Sitting at the computer over lunch, I browsed a few web pages and found myself in the Three Beautiful Things blog. It's such a lovely idea, to make a note of the little things that give pleasure and distinction to a day, so I thought about what is making today special for me.

1. Having the house to myself for the first time for many difficult weeks as my son struggled through his GCSEs. He's gone to stay with his father for his work experience week and I have the luxury of having only myself to consider. The house is clean, tidy and quiet.

2. Admiring the beautiful tapestry cushion cover that my mother is working on for me. It is a Candace Bahouth design and full of vivid colours and intricate patterns. Something special connected with my mother that I will always have, even when she is no longer here.

3. The sweet flavour of the red pepper I chopped into the Bolognese sauce that I cooked today, along with red wine, garlic and herbs from the garden.

It's so important to keep focusing on the good things, even when life is far less than ideal.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Curdled Milk

'This milk's off,' I said to the Deputy Head, 'in fact the fridge is warm. Feel that bottle of white wine. Is it yours?' 
'Yes,' he said, 'do you fancy a glass?' 
'Oh, no thanks,' I replied, rather ungraciously. It wasn't the best offer I had ever had. It was late afternoon and we were just trying to have a final cup of tea before heading home to children and supper and chores. I suddenly thought of the bottles of fizz sitting in my lovely, cold fridge at home, waiting for a special occasion and decided I could do better than that!

'Why don't you come over to my house and have a glass of wine in the orchard?' I suggested. It was such a lovely, clear, warm late June afternoon and an opportunity simply to let everything go and enjoy the evening. And he came, along with a few other friends who could drop everything at short notice, bringing nuts and crisps and more fizz, and we had an impromptu drinks party in the orchard, moving the wooden table and chairs around to catch the last warmth of the sun as it sank towards the west and the shadows grew longer.


Sometimes, you just have to seize the moment.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Turning Point

'You changed the course of my life,' I said to her as we stood talking in the Marquee beside the white-covered trestle tables, laden with food and drink. She looked shocked. I suppose it is strange to think that a casual decision, taken one busy working day, can shape someone else's life.

I was a fresh pretty young girl, newly arrived in London from Yorkshire when she took a chance on me, offered me a job working for a large international company without checking my shorthand and typing, which weren't all they could have been.

Not that I had thought of her at all, these 30 years or so since that day, but seeing her there now brought it home to me that it was that decision that had changed my world, brought me a marriage that lasted 18 years, our three amazing sons, life-longs friends and the invitation to this party in a Sussex orchard on a fine June day.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Flotsam and Jetsam

How did we come to find each other, all these years on, washed up outside a bistro on the beach in Brighton?

We watched the sunlight glinting and sparkling off the cold, greeny-blue water as a small sailing boat drifted by on the horizon and people swam in the chilly waves, shrieking with the seagulls as we drank a glass of wine and wove our stories; how we came to be here, what had shaped us and brought us to this moment.

Then he headed off to Heathrow, to Hong Kong and, finally, Melbourne, back to his other life.


And I headed back to mine.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Scottish Reels

It was quite simply one of the best parties I had ever been to. The Scottish reels were an inspired choice and the perfect antidote for inhibitions as we all made mistakes and fell over our feet or span into someone else. For a while, we all became children again, laughing and giggling and talking to complete strangers.

I took the floor with a friend but we were immediately whisked away from each other by the dance and I found myself stopping with the music in front of a tall, slim man wearing a pink shirt. I have a weakness for a man in a pink shirt. We chatted for a few minutes and discovered we had friends in common before the music started up again and we whirled away from each other, in opposite directions.

It was much later when I was taking time out at the bar, chatting to people I hadn't seen for a while, that I saw him come across the room towards me. He joined the group and someone introduced us properly, then the group gradually dispersed as people rejoined the dance floor or saw other friends and we were left temporarily alone. We talked for a while and I wondered if he would ever ask me to dance. I was itching to get back on the floor. At last he did and we danced the night away, leaving the party in the small hours.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Serenade

'I used to sing,' he said, as we walked along the road from the lovely country pub garden to the car park, 'folk songs, in the 60's and 70's. I used to sing in pubs and clubs in the North of England when I was a student.'

He had phoned me earlier that day and suggested we go and see a film in the small, intimate cinema in a nearby village. He calls from time to time. Afterwards, we didn't want to end the evening just yet, so ambled along to a nearby pub, sat in the almost deserted, lantern-lit garden, chatting and watching the evening fade gently into night.

'Sing to me,' I asked, smiling. 'Sing something for me now!' 
'What, here?' he said, surprised. We were walking back to the car park, past an abandoned, boarded-up church and I took his hand and drew him into the quiet calm of the overgrown, neglected churchyard.

And he did. He sang for me. Five verses of a sea shanty, a tale of love and loss, in a fine baritone voice, under the new, crescent moon.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Eight Interesting Things

Eight interesting things? Well, most of them are already in my blog or will be - now I shall have no secrets left.

The oldest house I have ever lived in was built in the 1380s. It was very, very difficult to clean. There was a mouse nesting in an ancient sofa in my bedroom when we moved in and it would scuttle about the room at night, but refused to be caught, although we trapped it in the end. The bedroom floor sloped dramatically so you had to get your sea legs upstairs, and the bed had to be propped up at the head to even things out. The house overlooked the marsh and was very atmospheric.

I have moved house more times than I care to remember and now have it down to a fine art. Removal men congratulate me on the quality and efficiency of my packing.

When I turned 50 (am I prepared to admit that?) I decided to grow my hair again, get my ears pierced and buy a bikini. Now I need to lose a few pounds so I can wear the bikini in public and I have a serious earring habit.

Neither of my parents were born in this country, but I consider myself to be quintessentially English. My mother was born on a Prairie Farm in Saskatuan and my father's family came over from Ireland during the troubles in the 1920s, following death threats which they took very seriously indeed.

I have never learned to ride a bike, nor a horse, nor have I ever sailed, but I am hoping to try sailing this summer. I think I will probably give the other two a miss now.

I have used up at least four of my nine lives, but am enjoying the five I have left.

I can speak to babies and small children in French, having worked as an au pair in Brussels when I was very young. I developed a strong attachment to Belgian chocolate while I was there. It was the only thing that kept me sane.

I once drove straight on to the roundabout on the A2, near Blackheath and stopped there. It was entirely my ex-husband's fault. He was supposed to be teaching me to drive and I hadn't done roundabouts yet. I was still on traffic lights. Lots of people were very surprised to see us sitting there as I waited for instructions on how to come off roundabouts and rejoin the busy weekend traffic on the A2.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The Orchard

Summer's here!

The hammock went up in the orchard today, strung between two ancient plum trees, threaded through with the tiny pink scented roses that flower for only two weeks each year, echoing the delicate pink and white blossom that studded the trees earlier in the spring, promising a heavy crop of pears, apples and plums when summer slips away.

The mown grass is a vivid green after the recent heavy rains, and delicious dark pink dog roses glow in the hawthorn hedge. A faded, weather-beaten wooden table and chairs invite me to take time out and let my cares melt away.

I thought of going somewhere else today, but what could be better than this?

Friday, 1 June 2007

The Curse of the Pink Bag

I've just realised, I've done it again.

I went out in my lunch break a couple of weeks ago and, browsing around one of the lovely local accessories shops which thrive in this prosperous small town, I spotted an outrageous hot pink handbag, perfect for summer, I thought, and particularly perfect for Speech Day, a very smart affair held in the local church, with drinks afterwards on the lawn, followed by a barbecue lunch

I had my outfit planned weeks in advance; a black wrap dress with a cream pattern traced delicately over it, a boxy black linen jacket, black high heeled shoes and pale pink jewellery. The bag would certainly finish things off with a flourish. We single mums have to keep our ends up in coupledom.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't go. I found out a couple of days before that my son's year, being on study leave, were not expected to attend. I suppose I could have gone on my own, but that seemed a bit sad. And I had had an exhausting few weeks and was at a pretty low ebb.

Still, I'm sure it will come in useful for something else. The drinks party I'm going to on Sunday, perhaps? I really must stop buying pink bags. The buying of one seems to spell social disaster for me.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Nine Lives

It was a cold clear winter's morning nearly 20 years ago. My then husband rose early as usual and left for the City, leaving me to dress and breakfast our two young sons, then pack them into the Land Rover and head out across country on the school run. I threaded the big car through the narrow single track lanes, occasionally pulling into a passing place to let another vehicle by, slowing carefully to take blind corners, passing farms and eerily silent, misty fields.

I kissed my five year old son goodbye as he ran into school, greeting his friends, exchanging news, rushing headlong into his day, then strapped my three year old into his car seat and turned the car round, back into the quiet lanes, doing a steady 40mph, Radio 4 playing quietly in the background.

The black and white cat came out of nowhere, streaked across our path. I braked hard and swerved to avoid it, just clipping the telegraph pole sitting too close to the edge of the narrow lane. The Land Rover turned through 90 degrees and crashed noisily to a halt on its left side, my son and I suspended by our seat belts, shocked, bruised but unharmed. With shaking hands I switched off the engine, terrified we would explode into flames, undid my seat belt and tried the door handles on the right side, completely disorientated. They were jammed solid. My son cried out, frightened, and I tried not to panic.

It seemed like hours but was probably only minutes before help arrived. Farm workers materialised from the seemingly empty fields, exclaiming, concerned. I managed to open a window, unstrapped my small son and passed him out to them, relieved to have him safe, then somehow extricated myself and crawled through the window after him, eager hands pulling me to safety. They took us to a nearby cottage, called the fire brigade and the police. Someone eventually drove us home.

If the telegraph pole hadn't been so close to the road, we would have avoided the accident. If I had been driving an ordinary car, we wouldn't have turned over. Land Rovers have a high centre of gravity and roll easily. We were lucky. We survived. The cat disappeared into the undergrowth and licked its paws pensively, eight lives left.

The Land Rover was a write-off. My then husband bought a field with the insurance payout and bought me a Volvo instead. Safe, but a little dull. I still miss the Land Rover though, it had bags of character.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Staff Parking

The Registrar swept past me into the staff car par, with a brief wave of her hand. I turned and watched her expertly reversing her 25 year old canvas-topped, long-wheel base Land Rover into a free parking space.

She descended briskly from the battered, mud-splattered vehicle, long blond hair swept into a neat chignon, tailored jacket and knee length skirt, pearl studs and necklace, kitten heels tip-tapping on the tarmac.

We stopped for a moment to admire her new wheels. A present, she said, from her husband, ideal apparently for towing a horse box, and she initiated me into the mysteries of double de-clutching and the necessity of always keeping a waterproof hat in the glove compartment in case it rains inside the cab!

"There is nothing" I said, "more stylish than a beaten up old Land Rover. With heels."

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Japanese

"cool clear water
and fireflies that vanish
that is all there is"
Chiyo - ni

Why Japanese? It all began with computer games and an obsolete games console which the boys all particularly loved. We could only import new games for it from Japan, so we did. Japanese dictionaries were acquired and consulted, games were endlessly pored over, discussed and, finally, played. So I now have a Japanese speaking son. The twists and turns in a life often rest on a sixpence.

He had an interesting and very traumatic time there. He fell in love with a beautiful Japanese girl, broke his wrist in several places and was hospitalised, made some lifelong friends, took up smoking temporarily, saw a man throw himself under a train, and lost two stone. He came back very thin and utterly changed.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Japan

Surprisingly for someone who cannot get to Lille, I did once make it to Japan on my own. Perhaps less surprisingly I arrived at Narita and promptly burst into tears and fled to the Ladies loo to recover my fragile poise. He wasn't there to meet me.

I had come through arrivals with my big, so thrilled to see you again smile spilling over my tired face, quivering with anticipation and nerves after a 12 hour flight and no sleep. We hadn't seen each other for over four months, our longest parting in over 20 years, and he had promised faithfully he would be there to meet me.

My son was studying in Yokohama for a year as part of his university course. Wild horses would not have kept me away and when my ex-husband phoned one cold, dank, wintry evening to say there was a special offer in today's Evening Standard and I had to book a flight by midnight tonight, I just went for it and made it happen.

I composed myself and went back onto the concourse, studying faces, watching the ebb and flow of passengers arriving and dispersing. I had a mobile number for him but as the Japanese have their own system, I couldn't call him from my mobile and the public phones were worse than Latin and Greek, the instructions were all in Japanese characters and impenetrable to me. Two hours and several trips to the Ladies later, I finally composed myself and plucked up the courage to approach the doll-like Japanese ladies sitting at the rather formidable information desk and asked if they could possibly give me some change for the phone. "Ah, change!" they said, and promptly offered me more yen.

After much pantomiming and consultation amongst each other, finally a phone card was produced in exchange for a yen note and I again approached the incomprehensible telephones. As I stood there puzzling, a porter walked past and instantly seeing my problem, he inserted the card for me, I dialled the number and to my unspeakable relief, my son picked up the phone. He was on the wrong train, heading at great speed in quite the wrong direction.

Apologetic, he finally arrived at the airport over three and a half hours late and the relief of seeing him loping across the concourse towards me wiped away all the trauma in an instant as we kissed and hugged and greeted each other.

Travelling on the wrong train became quite a feature of my stay in Japan. I have never been in a country that is so alien and impenetrable, but with my son at my side I could just relax and enjoy the journey wherever it was taking us.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Strand

A sharp gust of wind blew my hair across my eyes as I crossed the road towards the Royal Courts of Justice. As I brushed it away, suddenly there he was walking towards me.

Smart in his dark blue suit, purple shirt, tie flapping in the stiff breeze, he was over 6' tall, broad shouldered with heart-stoppingly blue eyes, dark flowing locks curling slightly to his shoulders. He saw me and smiled straight into my eyes.

'Hello Mum,' he said, hugging me. 'Lovely to see you. Let's go and have lunch.'

My 25 year old son, on his birthday.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Haiku

"Moonlight
a beautiful woman sits 
all alone
in a large, empty garden"

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Comfortably Numb

 "There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship-shape on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can't hear what you are saying"
Pink Floyd

A friend of mine is a journalist and writer. A wordsmith. Luckily he has private means otherwise he could be destitute! I borrowed his lovely medieval hall house for a month a couple of years ago when I was between houses just at the point when my ex-husband was re-marrying in great state and at enormous expense.

Although I had been dreading leaving the rented house that had been my home for seven years and did not yet have a contract on the house I am now living in, just a promise and a prayer, I found putting everything into storage and travelling light was a curiously liberating experience. My three cats agreed unfortunately and promptly liberated themselves at the first opportunity, to be found after much heart-break and searching, back in the woodshed of my old home a few weeks later. Two are still with me now.

'Do you ever write?' he asked me one day. 'Not really', I replied. 'I dabble. I have written a bit about the break-up of my marriage'. 'Oh', he responded rather dismissively, 'is that what you write about? Female pain?'

When I first started this blog I put the question 'What do you do if it all goes horribly wrong?' As anyone who has been in this situation knows, when you have finished falling apart, you do what you have to do. You survive, you change, you grow. Yes, I can write about female pain, why wouldn't I? But I'm a woman, I can do a whole lot else besides.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Birthdays

He turned 16 the other day, the 10lb baby boy I expelled from my body on a whiff of gas and air after a short, vicious labour all those years ago. We gazed at each other, shocked at where we had just been, surprised finally to see each other. Separate. Different.  Other.

To be cradled in my arms, to kiss his downy new-baked head, to hold him to my breast, wince, relax and whisper "I will keep you safe."

Saturday, 28 April 2007

I have a date

He's flying in from Australia. I have to import my dates now! Not just to meet me of course, but on business.

We met on the Friends Reunited website sometime last year. Apparently we were both stranded on the same windswept Northern campus more years ago than I care to remember. We fell into a virtual correspondence when we started to talk about a book he has written, and have maintained a desultory, sporadic 'friendship' since.

There was absolutely no hint of a more intimate agenda on either side, so I was rather taken aback when he emailed recently about his forthcoming trip and proposed that either we meet in Brighton for lunch on the day he flies back, or that we 'throw caution to the winds' and that I fly over to join him for a week in his tiny apartment in South West France. A beguiling thought indeed and it did bring a smile to my face. Imagine!

Prosaically, I am working that week and my son will be in the throws of his dreaded GCSEs, so it has to be lunch in Brighton this time round. It could be anything or nothing, but that is the intriguing thing about my situation.

You simply never know what will happen next.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Transformation

The kitchen is a whirlwind of activity!

Terracotta pots are turning vanilla, pale ochre, rose madder and chambray blue under my busy fingers. Newspapers are strewn over every surface as they dry in the pale spring sunshine or wait to be stamped with hearts or stars, ready to be planted up for the summer. Tired, jaded wooden chairs have been transformed into Van Goghian subjects as I paint them heavenly blue, the same blue I shall paint the shutters of my house in the French countryside. In my dreams. Only the sunflowers are missing.

The sun is shining and I am consumed with a desire to paint things and there is no shortage of things that need to be painted. Those old 1980's pine chests of drawers and tables look very chic when reinvented as French painted furniture.

Sadly the desire to paint will evaporate as quickly as it arrived and all too soon the paints and brushes will disappear into the far reaches of the cupboard under the stairs which is their home for most of the year. Until the mood seizes me again.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

The Aftermath

Vikram has been banished from the bedroom but we are inseparable during the evenings.

I am now reading about the aftermath of the war when communications are restored and Henny gets back in touch with her old friends in Berlin. Seth uses the letters he found in the attic of Henny's house in Hendon as his source. She and her family were deeply rooted in the community they lived in and had a close-knit circle of friends. She was engaged to her employer's son.

Obviously, Henny is very preoccupied with the way her mother and sister were treated by this group of people during the run-up to their deportation in 1943. Lola, her sister, was among the last Jews to leave Berlin as her work was considered important but eventually the she and her mother were separated and sent to the death camps. The trail of letters gives a great deal of insight into the pressures put upon the German people living under the Nazis and the moral dilemmas they faced as they struggled to keep their integrity and to survive themselves. Some helped Henny's family more than others. Some had more to lose because of their own dubious ancestry. Henny's fiance married an Aryan and betrayed her to preserve himself. He was himself half Jewish. There are also first hand descriptions of the deprivations suffered by the Germans in the years after the was ended.

I find all this quite fascinating as it is an extreme version of the moral dilemmas we all face as we go through life. It also shows how difficult it is to condemn another's choices without understanding their situation.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

"Two Lives" by Vikram Seth

I hardly slept last night.

The last thing I do every night before I turn out the light is read my book. Last night I found it hard to put down. I am currently reading Vikram Seth's novel "Two Lives", in which he narrates the unusual story of his Uncle Shanti and Aunt Henny.

They both had fascinating lives and lived through turbulent times. Henny was a German Jew who came over to England in 1939, while it was still possible for Jews to travel. Last night I was riveted by Seth's description of what would have happened to her mother, Ella, and her sister, Lola, both sensitive, cultured women who were caught up in unimaginable horror. Of all the articles and books I have read about the Holocaust, I think this really brought home to me the gruesome reality. Seth does not dwell particularly on the details of their final ordeal, he just gives an outline of what their fate would have been, but the final description of the scene in the gas chamber is harrowing.

I was also reading yesterday the story of Leni Riefenstahl, the actress and film maker who collaborated with the Nazis and made propaganda films for them but who, herself, may have been Jewish. It is anathema to us now that this horror became normalised, yet it happened in Western Europe within living memory.
Also in the Sunday Times was a fascinating article by Bryan Appleyard describing the Stanford Prison Experiment which demonstrates that perfectly ordinary, well-balanced people can be turned into savage tyrants or cowering victims according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. That it is the situation that allows evil to florish.

That really is chilling.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Happy Easter

A glorious Easter weekend and I have two tall, dark, handsome young men in the house, oozing testosterone and amiability. Did I say I also have shingles? Apparently the virus that causes chicken pox lies dormant in the spinal cord and reactivates when the immune system is down - just when you are about to go on a trip!

Luckily it's not man shingles, so I have spent a satisfying weekend in the kitchen. We have had roast chicken with proper red wine gravy and roasted root vegetables, steeped in olive oil, garlic and herbs from the garden. I have even made stock from the bones for vegetable soup. Rhubarb, also from the garden, has been stewed and I have made a chocolate and almond cake.

I have been for short walks in the countryside and have sat in the orchard with our pet rabbit and the cats playing tag, drinking tea and eating too much cake. Today will be spent with the Sunday Times and a roast leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary, potatoes dauphinoise with carrots and broccoli and more red wine gravy, followed by chocolate pudding with whipped cream.

I never said it was all bad!

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Into the Void

I don't think I really expected to be alone for so long. I am, after all, an intelligent, attractive woman. I think I have a lot to offer. Other people seem to manage it quite well, but it just hasn't happened for me. There have been skirmishes. I have scars.

Of course it's not easy, coming from the back of the pack, trailing damage and baggage, and it probably doesn't help that I live in the back of beyond, in established couple territory. The price you pay for being in the catchment area of a good state school. Not that they are all living happily ever after, but with house prices being sky high, and the astronomical cost of divorce for those with good careers, most of them have too much to lose to cut and run. But that's fine. Marriage and family are the glue in society.

I did wonder, when it all fell apart, if I should hot tail back to London and take my chance there and if it had been just me, there would have been no question. So I stayed but time passes, children grow up and leave home, my youngest son will leave school within the next three years. What then? I have made a life for myself here, I have some good friends whom I cherish, a job I enjoy that fits in with my family commitments.

Do I step into the void, older, perhaps wiser. Alone?

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Blog

The blog is taking over my life.

I was lying in the bath last night, relaxing with my tea lights, a nightly ritual, and suddenly the clouds cleared and the full moon shone brightly through the bathroom window. I don't bother with curtains. There's no-one there. And I found myself trying to work out how to blog it.

Is this a medical condition? Should I worry? Does it happen to other bloggers?

It really is that simple

"Have I told you lately that I love you
Have I told you there's no-one above you
Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness
Ease my troubles, that's what you do"
Van Morrison

I dreamt last night that we broke up again, me and the man I had been dating. We spent about four months breaking up last year after a brief, unsatisfactory relationship.  I'm very bad at letting go. In my dream, we were at a party and I was upset about the way he was behaving towards me, so I left, went out into the dark and cold alone. He didn't follow me. He had other priorities.

And when I saw him again, he told me that the problem was me, that when he is networking, he can't think about me at all. So I broke up with him. In my dream. Quite right too.

If you are with someone and you are serious about them, then you put them first.

If you do that everything else falls into place.

If you know you are loved and know you are secure, you can be generous when the pressure is on, because you know he would if he could.

You know there's no-one above you.

It really is that simple.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

In Memoriam

"Time has told me
You came with the dawn
A soul with no footprint
A rose with no thorn"
Nick Drake

To Anthony, who slipped way on this day fourteen years ago
Always loved

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Trailfinders

Trailfinders have found me!  They plopped into my letter box this morning.  Quite uninvited.  Perhaps they have heard that I'm the sort of person who can't get to Lille.

Anyway, I shall spend a happy Saturday evening looking at all the other places I can't get to either. 
Whoopee!

Friday, 30 March 2007

Not visiting Lille

The train to Lille is leaving now. And I am not on it. 

A tiny, insubstantial part of me leapt out of bed at 7 o'clock this morning, washed, dressed, breakfasted and left the house. My long, dark hair is clean and shining, my lips are Afghan Red and I smell deliciously of my new Annick Goutal scent, the one my mother gave me for my recent birthday. I am wearing my dark Gap boot-cut jeans, which make my legs look long and slender, a dusky-turquoise, long-sleeved jersey top, slightly low-cut, with gathered sleeves. Very pretty. And black suede ankle boots. Blue glass dangly ear-rings and a blue, turquoise and metal chain necklace complete the look. At the door, I put on my black jacket and pick up the dark pink weekend bag.

I had planned exactly how I wanted it to be. I had such a strong image of myself doing this. Sitting outside cafes with my book (Suite Francaise, I thought) watching the world go by, drinking coffee, eating a delicious lunch. Then wandering around the old town, dipping into shops, buying gorgeous dark chocolates for my family and friends, spending the night in a hotel room overlooking the Grand Place. Tomorrow, the Art Gallery perhaps, then more browsing, wandering, eating and drinking before catching the evening train back to London, then home.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Does pain have a colour?

I think my pain is white. I have never been in this much pain without something having to be removed or expelled. Labour was the last time. The doctor thinks it could be my appendix, but on the other hand it could be a virus. He's given me some strong pain killers with lots of codeine in them, that act like a chemical cosh, and for the first time in days I have had some sleep, but then the drug wears off and the pain kicks right back in again. It's hard to see that this is going anywhere I want to be. Certainly not to Lille. I packed my pink bag this morning in case it's an emergency dash to the hospital.

Life is extraordinarily simple at the moment. I am quite alone here in my rented farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing I can do, no work, no social life, no cooking, driving, cleaning. I'm suspended, waiting for something to happen. For things to resolve.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Tea and Toast

"And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China"
Leonard Cohen

My tummy has a life of its own. It wriggles and squirms. It gurgles and grumbles. It holds conversations with itself. It probably has hobbies that I know nothing about! I'm thinking of putting it down for French lessons. For the last three days I have eaten nothing but toast with Earl Grey tea. It's all I want when I'm not well. Very comforting but not at all substantial. I have hardy slept either and it's not getting any better, so today I have held my ground with the doctor's receptionist and shall be seen at some stage, by someone, later this morning. I expect I will be the only sick person the doctor sees this morning, because you can only see a doctor by prior appointment - at least 48 hours notice, please.

I have phoned Eurostar and the insurers to find out if I can make a claim/change my ticket, should things not be resolved by Friday. Yes to the first, no to the second. I shall be so disappointed if I can't go on my little trip. It seems very hard.



Sunday, 25 March 2007

Pink Bag

I still think I am going to Lille next week - can it really be next week? It seemed so much more appealing when it was next month. This is beginning to seem real. So, I went shopping yesterday in the nearby market town which contains just one shop selling travel bags. Not a lot of choice there then. But choice makes me come out in a cold sweat, so perhaps that's just as well.

I found a lovely dark pink Kipling bag and despite the scary price tag, I had to have it, even though it cost nearly as much as my Eurostar ticket. It's so perfect and just the right size for a weekend away. The alternative would have been my 15 year old son's black school kit bag, complete with visible name tape. Not perhaps quite the image I'm looking for as I try to open my world up a little.

Today was spent washing, ironing and packing - not for me though but for my son. The reason I can get away for a couple of days just before the end of term is that he is going to CCF camp with a group from his school, so I get to holiday, too. Even if I don't go away when he does, and I rarely do, it still feels like a holiday as it's so unusual for me not to do the Mum thing. My oldest son turns 25 soon and I feel as though I've been doing this for ever, although it changes all the time. Now I usually go out and about without any children on me at all, but once I couldn't move without all three boys, often protesting vociferously. Who else was going to look after them? Even when I was married, my husband was in the City and had a mistress and was rarely home. No, I didn't know about the mistress until far, far too late. Silly me.

So being a single mum was always the way it was, I just don't have the illusion that I have a husband and that my sons have a father. My ex-husband came down from London tonight to take our son out for supper, because that is what he thinks being a good Dad is all about, and sporting fundraising posters for his local church in the back windows of his smart new car - good for the caring image. I handed him the leaflet about ASD which the doctor my son and I saw last week gave to me. A sort of potted version of the problems that my son and I face every day.  


He always made me feel that I had failed as a mother, that I just couldn't cope as well as other mothers. That it was all my fault. 

Friday, 2 March 2007

Stranded

"I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us ...."
Leonard Cohen


My indoor shoes are quite enchanting. Black leather pumps with a small heel, peep toe and two bows perched jauntily on top. I love coming home and slipping my feet into them - so much more civilised than slippers.


I need to change my shoes when I get home because every winter I live stranded in a sea of mud in the depths of the country. To get out of the front door, I have to hop gingerly from one baked clay terracotta tile to another (my make- shift path) until I reach what passes for my drive, but is just a slightly harder mud path that leads to my car. I never actually reach the car without acquiring a rind of mud on my shoes. It is not recommended to leave the back door at all without a pair of Wellington boots in which to schlurp and schlock through what, in summer, is my back garden. I live on the water table on poorly drained clay soil.

The last time I needed indoor shoes, I was 11 years old and a new arrival at my Catholic convent school in Yorkshire. They were truly ugly things - the colour of pea soup and shaped like boats, secured to my reluctant feet with a strap. Together with thick national health glasses, bottle green pleated synthetic knee length skirts and bad hair cuts I, and my fellow pupils, were completely and utterly de-feminised. But I suppose that was the point. Perhaps that is why I am so feminine now. A reaction against so much ugliness and suppression.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Fish

A fragment of conversation overheard in the swimming pool this morning; two middle aged ladies, tidily coiffed heads held high above the water, discussing their holiday plans as we ploughed up and down the lengths.

"And then we're going to Lake Garda ... then on to Verona ..."

Middle aged + middle class + married = affluent 

Middle aged + middle class + abandoned = broke


So what do you do when you have been left holding the children (in my case, three of them, all boys) with no husband and no disposable income to speak of?  How do you keep your end up, or should you just sink under the water and quietly disappear, leaving only a small ripple? I don't know quite where I belong anymore, where I fit in.


He left 10 years ago, my husband, although he had been absent for a very long time. We went through the motions. And I am just beginning to resurface and look cautiously around me, watching out for the sharks and the power boats. I'm not a strong swimmer.


So, I'm going to Lille for two days and a night. On my own, by myself, just me.  I'm really looking forward to it.  In fact, making the booking has given me a huge lift and I go around with a big smile on my face and a quiet sense of achievement.  I have a life, I have plans.  Actually, it doesn't really matter whether I get there or not, or even if I enjoy it when I do. What really, really matters to me is having a plan, something to look forward to.  

Small steps.