Women’s rights are all our rights

I, like many, stand horrified at the overturning of Roe versus Wade in America last week, seeing abortion made illegal in many US States. This appalling act sees the rights of women everywhere undermined, and their lives made second best.

I don’t care why a woman needs an abortion.

For me, this is not about the horror of becoming pregnant after sexual violence. This is not about the tragedy of a foetus too sick to survive. This is not about an ectopic pregnancy or needing a D & C after an incomplete miscarriage. (All now illegal.)

This is about a woman’s right to choose.

I don’t need to know your story to know that it is your right to choose.

I don’t need to know your history to know that it is your right to have control over your own body.

This is not an argument about the lack of exisiting welfare for women who have children, the lack of affordable maternity care, the lack of maternity leave, the lack of support to raise a child, the loss of opportunities, the loss of education, the forcing women and children into poverty, no matter how they got pregnant.

This is not about all the books that won’t get written, all the careers that won’t happen, all the relationships women will feel trapped in, all the lifes that won’t be lived because women are forced to carry a child they did not or could not want.

This is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body.

To her life.

And if you think it will never happen here, just take note of the Tory MP’s cheering along.

Take note of the UK government’s abolition of the Human Rights Act and the curtailing of the European Court of Human rights.

“From the Hillsborough disaster, to the right to a proper Covid inquiry, to the right to challenge the way police investigate endemic violence against women, the Human Rights Act is the cornerstone of people power in this country. It’s no coincidence that the very politicians it holds to account want to see it fatally weakened.” argues Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive in The Guardian this week.

Removing the rights of people to challenge unfair or prejudicial laws and rulings will affect us all.  You can see it in America. First an attack on women’s reproductive freedom, then an attack on contraceptive provision, then LGBTQA+ rights and equal marriage.

And before you say that would never happen here, did you ever think you would live to see women’s rights to bodily autonomy, their right to choose, being made illegal in America?

Did you ever think that Britain, would be sending vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution to Rwanda to be processed? Did you ever think that Britain would lock up people seeking asylum in camps and prisons? Did you ever think that children, vulnerable, frightened, exploited children, arriving in Britain alone, seeking asylum would be sent, not first to foster carers and social services but to be processed at a police station?

My American sisters, I stand with you because with you we stand for all.

No 10 to set out sweeping plans to override power of human rights court | Human Rights Act | The Guardian

An early rising.

Sunrise over Treown

The cool grey light of 4 am seeps beneath bedroom curtains. No matter how I straighten them the night before – battening down the hatches, blocking out the light – by morning cracks have appeared and sunlight pierces the room, refracting into rainbows.

This morning I rise before the sun, before even the birds. Swimming through the soft silky silence of the morning, the light pulls shadows from my skin. Even if I weren’t still longing for sleep I would look haggard. The call of bed is strong but the tug of ritual stronger, so I slip from sheets, soft and crumpled and steal downstairs before I wake the dog.

Stillness is broken by the pulling on of clothes.  Bra forgotten on the bedroom chair, I risk sneaking back up to find the dog startled by my upright presence. Confused, she jumps at bare legs in her excitement – early breakfast? A sneaky walk?

Scratches blossom on my skin and I shush her down the stairs. Her joy at seeing me, as if we didn’t spend much of the night listening to each other snore, is in equal parts endearing and annoying. I’d hoped to steal away unnoticed, greeting my gift with only myself to please.

She waits expectantly at the kitchen door. I finish dressing under her critical gaze, avoiding the glare of what she must see. The sag and swing of a body that has repeated this yearly ritual 30 times gone.

Trainers shuffled into, lead in hand, we slip the latch on the back gate and head, free, for the hills.

Some years this day has been meticulously planned. Travelling to favourite spots or camping out the night before. One year a party of strangers appeared around my tent and I, less than graceful, hollered that they could all shut up and bugger off. Other years I’ve been alone, well except for the dog.

Even when I’ve known the clouds would be low, the ritual of it all pulled me from my dreams and demanded at least a cup of tea on the doorstep of a damp drenched garden.

Some years the sheer beauty of the landscape blinded me. The light, so memorable, sat behind my eyes, imprinted like a photo. The smokiness of the hills, the iridescence of the golden dawn light as birds rose, ignoring my intrusion into their early morning world.

This year, still struggling to regain the essence of myself, I steal up the hill behind my house skirted by factories on one side, the school and houses laid out on another. This is more my kind of magic anyway. The ordinary, the banal, the places where people do all their living and dreaming and dying.

I sit here, amongst sleeping daisies, eyes turned towards the east, the crows caw a rough serenade and I offer up my prayers, accept my blessings. Giving thanks for the sunrise and its presence in my day, a man on a bike squeaks by.

Fires will be lit and late-night whispers will pass into flames. Today we honour all that is light, all that is lush and plenty and growing. Too soon, we will welcome the soft embrace of gently lengthening shadows into our life.

All is in balance, our hearts beats following the spiral dance.

Happy solstice.

Bright blessings.

Writing lists

an image of a desk with laptop, glasses, pen and To do List

I am a writer of lists

My life could be measured in my to-do lists, their contents varying depending on the stage of my life. Early lists might have included

Do Homework

Try not to argue with sister

STOP BITING NAILS

Find missing library books

Early motherhood saw lists as the only way to function as baby-brain drained every last thought as fast as my breasts drained of milk.

Get nappies

Call health visitor

Find grown-ups to talk to

Lose weight

Missing library books

Raising a family is one unending list. Morphing over time, though stalwarts still persisted, my lists were endless – a procession of jobs, needling doing but somehow never completed, added to the top (or bottom) of the next new list.

At times I felt my value as a mother seemed measured with the swish of a tick. The house hummed with the scent of failure both at the length of the list – too long – and the very few things I managed to tick off. Oh, and the hordes of smelly children, with unwashed P.E kits,  hamster cages spilling sawdust,  mouldering lunchboxes stashed under beds and the unmistakable whiff of long-dead trainers.

Years ago, when illness prevented me from doing many of the chores we all take for granted, writing lists was akin to torture. With little control over much else, certainly my body and its refusal to get well, I obsessed over lists.

List of things that needed doing urgently.

Lists for medium-term jobs.

Lists of jobs that, if we won the lottery or housecleaning aliens arrived from space keen to have a proper whip-round, might get done.

In the end, the lists swallowed me up. All my thoughts were of what I could see but couldn’t do.

Something had to change.

This was no way to live.

So, lists saved me again.

This time my list read like a 1950’s housewife’s manual

Monday – living room

Tuesday – kitchen

Wednesday – bathrooms

Thursday  – bedroom

Friday – anything missed.

This list didn’t mean do everything that needed doing, it just meant do something in that room. Writing it down like this got it out of my head. Suddenly I had room to think again.

When I noticed that it looked like a small dog might be living under the sofa, such was the collection of dog hair, I didn’t worry knowing that I could get to it next Monday.  Kitchen cupboard with a funky smell – fine I can do that on Tuesday.

Not much more got done, but it was out of my head. And once it was out I realised how much room it took. My brain was literally being swallowed by housework and chaos.

This new approach was enhanced by my much loved six-month rule.  It goes like this;

In six months’ time will you remember that you did not do ( insert job here).

To be honest this takes care of most of life’s daily graft. Some things obviously need doing now – putting off feeding the kids for 6 months will not work out in the long run. But for most things it works – in 6 months’ time you won’t remember you didn’t do the hoovering but in 6 months’ time, you might remember the afternoon spent sewing or writing or playing with the kids instead

For me, in all that space that was left, after I got it out of my head and down on a list, I found I could write. And not just lists.  Actual writing!  Well, I call it writing, I guess you can be the judge.

Today all I do is write, often in bed, sometimes on the sofa. My lists today are full of the important things.

Order biscuits

Eat chocolate

Read a book

Check what day it is

Find library books.

Some things will never change.

And in love with a good list – here is my gift to you.

Not because I am a fan of the Queen but because who doesnt love a book list?

Big Jubilee Read | RGfE (readinggroups.org)

‘The list of 70 books – 10 for each decade of Elizabeth II’s reign – is a real opportunity to discover stories from across continents and taking us through the decades, books that we might never have otherwise read, and reading authors whose work deserves a spotlight to be shone on it.”— Suzy Klein, Head of Arts and Classical Music TV at the BBC

You’re welcome xx

News Flash; Tomatoes are growing

Well, the tomatoes are out! Phew, I hear you gasp – I know you’ve been worried about their progress.

Covid is still lingering like a teenager hoping to cadge a tenner when they already owe you twenty. We cannot seem to shift it.

The tomatoes slipped way down the list of things to do. Barely watered for the first few weeks of April, they nonetheless survived.  I even managed to pot them on, though by the look of some of them, possibly with my eyes closed.

The last few weeks I’ve begun the daily shuffle – on warm days I carry the tray of plants out into the garden to soak up some heat, only to frantically drag them back in when I remember, too late, that they are out there.

I’ve not grown as much this year – what with the covid. ( I have grown significantly – living off reduced Lindt easter bunnies, but I have not grown as many plants.)

The bedding plants I sowed, were slug food -a veritable feast of Zinnia’s, Calendula, and Cosmos.  The courgettes and pumpkins, sown with the tomatoes have survived, as have some Morning glory on the windowsill in the kitchen.

The bedding is sorely missed. Now I am waiting for a sunny day, or maybe a day with a W in it, to find the energy for the drive to the nursery.

The garden is a mess. Husband being laid low has at least made NO MOW MAY a little easier – he’d normally be out there like a shot. The garden looks wilder, the cooch grass settling in for the summer.

The tomatoes, however, are looking grand. The stuttering dance of bringing them in and out is over, the night-time temperatures now reaching the magic 10 degrees Celsius ( the minimum overnight temperature for tomatoes and most bedding.) With their feet in the warming soil, they are shooting up.

There is such hope in sowing seeds, in growing your own food. And now with food prices rising it seems a necessity rather than a bit of fun. For the price of a bag of spinach, I could sow a whole field.

I don’t.

I sow a small patch next to the Rocket and cut-and-come-again lettuce. Herbs are next. Coriander and Parsley. Last year I grew Chamomile for tea. We’ll never be self-sufficient but there is something quite magical in wandering around out there, a bowl in hand, picking a few leaves for a salad for tea.

My garden’s not big. I grow food in pots and containers, old washing up bowls, and a few raised beds. It’s amazing what you can fit in. Even a couple of supermarket Basil plants popped in a big pot with some compost will grow, giving you fresh basil for the whole summer.

And that’s the thing about seeds and plants and gardening. Despite everything that is going on in the world, seeds just want to grow. You can’t really do it wrong, even surviving neglect, they will just bloom.

Everything wants to get stronger and flower, turning itself to the light. Maybe it’s that hope, that optimism, that makes gardening so addictive.

You don’t have to go full tomato, crazy ( though I recommend you do) but a few herbs on a windowsill will brighten your day and bring you the taste of summer, even when the sun isn’t shining.

And let’s face it Britain we could all do with a reminder of sunny days.

One stich at a time.

Sewing Bee is back! Do you watch it?  Not just a program for sewers, it is one of those comfort programs you can watch nestled up on the sofa with a cuppa and a biscuit.

I sew.

I’ve sewn for years. When ill health trapped me at home on the sofa I needed something to do with my hands instead of eating the biscuits.

Always in love with crafts, I watched with admiration and envy as others were artists, knitters, quilters, creating beautiful items, unique just to them. I wanted to play too.

As ever the library saved me.

Armed with my little ticket I borrowed all the books – quite literally. First on knitting and then on dressmaking, embroidery and lastly quilting. I did not have a grannie at whose knee I could learn these skills, so I turned instead to YouTube, nascent sewing forums and online communities.

Those early garments I sewed were not terribly good.

My first skirt – A-line brown corduroy, lined with a Doctor Who Tardis fabric for contrast – was barely wearable. The zip was wonky, the hem all over the place, and the overall fit a bit dodgy. I did not care. I’d made a skirt, a frigging skirt! I wore it endlessly.

I made many mistakes sewing – the first major one – a rookie error all sewers make – was cutting a dress pattern in my dress size, not my real size.

We’ve all grown larger, I don’t just mean rounder but taller as well. As we’ve grown larger many major clothing brands have engaged in a little vanity sizing. After all, who wouldn’t buy jeans in the shop that says we’re a couple of sizes smaller.

Dress patterns are not like this.  Tending to be if anything the other way,  as a rule, you will be two or three dress sizes bigger on a dress pattern compared to your ready to wear. The key is to measure yourself.

For a woman who has been on a diet for most of her adult life, dress sizes and buying clothes have always been an issue.  It was not so long ago when shop assistants looked askance if you asked for a size 16, let alone anything bigger.

With all this in mind, it was hard to see the numbers on the back of the sewing patterns swim before my eyes and discover I was bigger than I thought.

But then something happened.

Clothes, measured in inches not sizes, fitted me in all the right places.  My clothes were unique to me, cut to fit my body shape, big boobs, giant hips, long legs, a not-pregnant belly.

All the things that had been a ‘problem’ when I was shopping for clothes were now, well, nothing.  I don’t mean they didn’t exist, I mean they were no longer an issue.

Sewing for my body gave me a greater surge of confidence than any diet ever did. I looked and felt fabulous, and the numbers just became the tools to help me get the fit I wanted.

I struggle to sew now, though I still predominately wear clothes I’ve made myself. The clothes I make last, there’s no fast fashion here.  I’ve made pants and vests, swimming costumes and tops, summer dresses, coats, pyjamas and even bras.

I no longer know my dress size.

Freed from the tyranny of numbers, sewing gave me my body back, and I found I looked just fine.

I will be sitting, watching Sewing Bee in a particularly fetching two-piece lounge set, made from the softest jersey silk.

Are you joining me?

Just make sure you bring your own biscuits.

P.S

Ooh this is telling – in searching for images of a measuring tape. All the images with women were of them measuring their waists or thighs or apples and bizarrely, forks – are we meant to be measuring our fruit as well as our cutlery?

All the images of men were measuring shelves.

Reclaim our bodies and ourselves from the tyranny of measuring ourselves against a false ideal! and forks!

Walking with grief.

Warning: This post is about grief and child-loss.

It is the anniversary of my lads’ death, the scent of May blossom lingering in the air.

I lost two of my children, within five years of each other – one age16 and the other 24. They were both adopted, which doesn’t make any difference, though a well-wisher at the death of my lad, said at least it wasn’t one of my real children, meaning the four I’d given birth to.

It was a long time ago,  but anniversaries have a funny way of concertinaing time, then and now pressed against each other, shoulder to shoulder.  

For me, grief was like walking along the road, and everything is fine, well not fine. Everything is grey and wintery and washed out, but you try to be fine.

You are walking along and suddenly you are in the puddle of emotion, up to your neck -Vicar of Dibley-style, only not so much smiling and not nearly as funny.

The grief soaks you, standing there in your puddle.  It is cold and wet. It blots out the sun and demands to be the centre of your attention.  You can’t breathe. You can’t think. The taste of it is in your skin.  

Somehow you drag yourself out of the puddle, shaking yourself down like a dog, only to take a few steps and fall, neck-deep into another one.

This is how it goes.

Normal life, with a sequence of puddles that threaten to overwhelm. Trying to wash the dishes, get the tea on, find some socks.

After a time, the puddles get further away, more spaced out. You can be walking along for ages,  years even, without falling in a puddle.

And maybe the puddle isn’t so deep, or maybe your clothes are a little more waterproof.  Instead of having to go home and curl up in bed to dry out, you can give yourself a shake and you’re good. Carry on walking with slightly damp feet.

I don’t think I handled grief well.  Looking back, I wanted to protect my kids from puddles, be strong for them, hold their space safe. But all that seemed to swallow up the words.  My silence on the subject of our lost kids, on our complicated familial arrangements, on these two bright and beautiful young people who were with us for a while, and then were not, was the best I could do at the time.

But the silence felt like a betrayal.

For years I dodged the puddles, scared of disappearing once I was in them.  They would lurk and hide, appearing in places when I would least expect them or was least prepared.

Remembering was hard, fraught with dampness and a fear.

Time doesn’t so much heal as give you better waterproofs. Some anniversaries are easier. Some years I still get wet through.

This year I have an umbrella.

This year, nearly a lifetime later, I can tell you I lost two children, talk about how funny and clever and annoying they were.  I can offer you my arm in case you fall into a puddle of your own, hold and share your sorrow.

I no longer live with the fear of drowning.

In the dead of the night dark deeds are planned.

a cartoon of a couple in bed. One of them is snoring, the other is sat up swearing.

3.48 am.

I am incandescent with rage. No that’s not right. I’m too tired for incandescent, more a dark glowing ember, burning slowly, threatening to set fire to the bedsheets. What is going on, I hear you ask?  Are you ok?  

Well, no! I’m not ok!

My husband, the gentle, chilled out man who has shared my bed for nearly 30 years, is bloody snoring again.

I have groggily asked him to turn over.  I have gently nudged him to lift up his chin. I’ve elbowed him through covers, grumbling that he is snoring. I have physically turned him on his side, turning my back and resettling just for a second, only for him to start again as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Now I am sat up in bed clutching that pillow ready to smother him, snarling through gritted to, ‘please, for the love of God, just fucking turn over.’

I don’t know where this nocturnal rage comes from, but it comes. I could literally lie kicking and screaming, punching the bed and him like a tantruming toddler as he lies next to me snuffling and snorting. I’m not normally this irate.

I am a light sleeper. I also have insomnia, a menopausal side-effect – not side-effect, what’s the word? See I’m so sleep-deprived and full of bile I can’t even find the right words anymore.  Well, I don’t sleep well anyway and when I finally do, to be woken by the slumbering megaphone that was once my husband is, quite frankly, insufferable.

I lie for ten, the twenty then thirty minutes, getting crosser and crosser. On one particularly sleep-deprived night, I actually woke my husband up as I flounced, yanking pillows from the bed, yelling at him that he was so impossibly unreasonable it was grounds for divorce. He farted, and turned on his side, snoring again in seconds.

What is it about being awake at 4 am?

I woke with babies in the night and didn’t try to throttle anyone. Well, not them at least.  I do remember wanting to kill my husband when he slept through crying little ones, a glimmer of revenge in my heart as I kicked him out of the bed so I could feed them and sleep in peace.

I woke with restless kids and stayed awake waiting for young adults to return safely from their revelries. No violence occurred. No murders were planned. I didn’t need a cup of tea to calm my nerves.

I tiptoe back upstairs, not wanting to wake my husband – see I am considerate. All is quiet. No sound escapes. Not even the dog.

A cartoon of a couple in bed. One of them is snoring the other is sat up swearing.

I once spent a night elbowing my husband to turn over and stop snoring until I realised guilty that it was the dog but that’s not the point.

Now, all is quiet. I slide beneath the sheets, careful not to wake him. My head just skimming the pillow when he turns on his back and starts snoring.

I harumph, tossing and turning dramatically but the new mattress that we bought to help with the snoring means he can’t feel me moving about.

I consider jumping on the bed, waking him with a not-so-playful pillow-fight, pillows splitting, feathers flying everywhere,  his last breaths silently taken in a shimmer of white, but I’m not sure my bladder is up to all that jumping about – another menopause-thingy that has come to stay.

I should say that I do quite like my husband. He is a clever, funny, weirdo who came for Christmas and never went home – even after years of me asking.

He brings me a cup of tea in bed in the morning, asking nervously how I slept? Forgetting himself, he tells me he slept really well, this new mattress has really helped, he hardly heard me snoring at all.

‘That’s nice dear,’ I manage through gritted teeth.

 He really is a nice husband. I really wouldn’t want another one.

 But I swear to god if he doesn’t shut the fuck up at 3.30 in the morning, I seriously might not have a choice.

Lost in books

I am looking for a book, I wonder if you can help?

It was my favourite read as a kid, repeatedly borrowed from the library, and read cover to cover.

I’ve been searching for this book for years. On the cover was a black cat, possibly a girl, by some water with a dark Victorian mansion looming menacingly in the distance. And that’s it. That’s all I remember. Not the title or the author. I know it was about a girl trapped in time or maybe talking to the ghost of a girl trapped in time but that describes so many children’s novels of that era.

Do you know it?

Do you recognise the cover? 

I borrowed it from Bromley library if that helps.

A troubled kid, I would run away from high school, hop a train or two, hide in the library, some twenty miles from home, before hopping trains back again for the long walk across the fields to be back in time,  at least looking like I’d staggered off the school bus.

There was something about the peace of the library, the silence and the not being bothered that I had ‘another bloody book’ in my hands when I should have been off out to play.

What did you read as a kid?

I read everything, from cereal boxes to children’s classics. Once I learned to decipher those strange powerful squiggles I couldn’t stop. Never mind they danced upon the page, words sliding up to meet friends on the line above, over time I mostly got the gist.

Escaping into books saved me from a world that I struggled to make sense of. Being an odd sort of kid, in books, I found friends who did not judge. Friends who were lonely, talking to trees or ghosts, alienated from their own worlds. Friends who were brave, or silly or even weirder than me.

Searching Internet lists for my long-lost book in case I recognise the cover, I’ve rediscovered these long lost friends. Reading them now, I recognise elements of my own writing style – the long meandering sentences of Penelope Lively, the immersive description of Alan Garner. Not that I’m comparing, but I can feel their presence, a hand on my shoulder, their words whispered long ago, in my own.

My book choices were heavily influenced by my local librarian. Arriving unaccompanied, age seven, at the little scout hut that housed the local library, the librarian was suspicious of my lurking.  Once she realised the scruffy, grubby, kid clutching buff-yellow cardboard tickets in hot little hands was not going to damage or steal the books, she took me under her wing, saving for me like some secret treasure, books she would bring from behind the counter.  You can see her presence in my list.  Though I never knew her name, I am eternally grateful for the worlds she showed me.

So here is my list, in no particular order, of some of the books I loved as a child.

What did you read?

The worst witch series – Jill Tomlinson

My naughty little sister  series Dorothy Edwards

Topsy and Tim  Jean & Gareth Anderson

Otherwise known as Shelia the great – Judy Blume

SuperFudge – Judy Blume

(In fact every single book  by Judy Blume)

The weirdstone of Brisingamen  – Alan Garner

The owl service – Alun Garner

Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White

Charly – Joan G. Robinson

When Marnie was there –  Joan G Robinson

Kes – a kestrel for a knave – Barry Hines

Chocky  – John Wyndham

Ballet shoes -Noel Streatfield

The Ghost of Thomas Kemp – Penelope Lively

Five children and it series – E. Nesbitt

The railway children – E. Nesbitt

The water babies  – Charles Kingsley

Thursday’s child – Noel Streatfield

Carries war – Nina Baldwin

Little women – Louise. M Alcott

The machine Gunners – Robert Westall

Heidi – Joanna Spyri

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

The borrowers’ – Mary Norton

A stitch in time – Penelope lively

The family from one end street- Eve Garnett

Then and now I see my passion for women writers.

So tell me, what was your favourite book as a kid?

And have you seen my book ?

The one where we get the lurgy.

Seasonal Illness Stickers by Michele Bruttomesso is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

I came home from London with covid.  It has not been the one where people say it was just like a bad cold and didn’t stop them doing much – a weird combination of bragging about the strength of their immune system, combined with a tinge of disbelief that it could really be that bad.

On day eleven I am still in bed struggling to stay upright for the whole of the day – my disco naps turning into full symphony slumbers.

My husband gets sick two days behind me.  He too, fails to get the fluffy kind of covid, staggering from his bed to the bathroom and back again before collapsing in a heap. The dog is not impressed.  Bribed with spray cheese in an empty Lemsip box, she destroys this in the garden in lieu of a walk.

I order the supermarket delivery, off my head with a temperature. Unpacking the ingredients to make trifle but not tissues, or loo roll or tins of soup that might make the painful shuffle to the kitchen for dinner more bearable. I did remember beans but not enough bread.

We do, however, have four aubergines and a tin of jackfruit so when I am back to cooking I can spend an entire day trying to think what to make with them.

I crave custard, jelly, the blob of thick whipped cream on the top of a trifle, studded with bleeding hundreds and thousands. It’s funny what we think of as comfort food. Peanut butter toast becomes a staple. Even in the throes of covid my husband struggles with me buttering the toast the wrong way up, or in the wrong direction, with the moon rising in Aries – don’t ask!

I long for soup and silky pasta bakes, he craves the comfort of curry. We always were an odd couple.

I have a passion for old cookbooks. A 1930s favourite, Economical cookery –  is a glimpse into history, with costings and menus and  dishes long out of flavour.

My favourite section is the Cooking for Invalids. Between the sections on Buns, Scones and Biscuits and Homemade preserves for the Larder, are fifteen pages to fortify your recovery from illness.

Here we are informed that ‘the appetite of an invalid is often jaded, and every effort has to be made to induce them to take sufficient nourishment to prevent undue wasting’ . And to always use a white cloth and dainty dishes to entice the appitite. Fine sentiments and very wise. Who isn’t tempted by fresh Banana’s and custard or a coddled egg?

The recipe for Invalid Jelly is less appetizing – boiled pearly barley with a dash of beef essence, served cooled to a set jelly. Or a recipe for gruel, served plain for the poorly? Calf’s foot jelly, perhaps ?

 Jelly is definitely a thing – just not the kind I was craving.

How about some Raw beef tea! – this involves 4oz of ‘juicy beef’ bashed and soaked in ¼ pint of cold water for an hour, making sure that the particles are pressed against the side of the bowl to wring out all the goodness.  Then strain. And serve. Yum!

The recipe does suggest straining into a coloured glass as  ‘it would be most unpalatable if served in a cup or plain beaker.’ !!!!!!! – Oh, a coloured glass is really gonna make all the difference.

My absolute favourite recipe, though one I’ve never been sick enough to try, is toast water.

Now everyone knows that toast is the perfect staple poorly food ( as long as you remember to order bread) but toast water takes it to whole other level.

The instructions demand stale bread, toasted slowly until very dark. This is then placed in jar and covered in boiling water. Allowed to stand until cold, it’s then strained, discarding the bread and the ‘water’ served with a little sugar or dash of beef tea for flavour.

Even in the mists of covid coughing, addled with fever dreams, I cannot imagine longing for toast water. How sick would you have to be to?

They were clearly made of sterner stuff in the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure I have the stomach for being an invalid.

Instead, my husband and I,  zombie like, wait for the Tesco delivery of bread and milk, comforting fishfingers and the essential Lemsip topped strawberry trifle.

I’d ask you to come in for tea but we’re still positive.  Otherwise, we’ve some pretty coloured  glasses, so you’ll be grand.

Every day is a chance to celebrate.

Star Trek Communicator Badge (badge) by Unknown maker is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

Today is National Caramel Day. – I don’t know where? Everywhere, I guess? Are you prepared? Do you have a box of caramels, robed in chocolate, soft and sticky enough to rip a filling out? Are you planning on making caramel sauce for your lunch? Salted Caramel ice cream for your tea? A sneaky Curly Wurly?

Who decides what day is what?  I mean, is it someone’s job? Can you pick anything? I think this might be the job for me.

Could we have National Pyjama day – I’d be really good at that. No, damn – I Googled it and that ones on the 13th May. How about National drink tea day ?  I personally choose to celebrate this every day, but a quick Google and that one’s taken as well – Thursday 21st April.  It seems I might not be very good at this job after all, what with the lack of originality of my Day suggestions

Today is also First Contact day – when in 2063 Vulcans first make contact with Earth. For Trekkies it’s a chance to get your Star Fleet Uniform out of the wardrobe, practice your Vulcan neck pinch and instruct the woman at the shop to Live long and prosper.

Potentially combining the two days, you could do this with a caramel in you mouth. To be honest she already thinks you’re weird – sputtering over a toffee while you try to pull your fingers into a Vulcan salute is not gonna make much a difference at this point.

And while we are at it, Today is also National Read a Road map day (as opposed to what, wear it ?)  I have to admit, I do love a map. In another life I used to lead kids up the local hills and mountains for their Duke of Edinburgh training – this was my job; I didn’t just drag kids up hills like some weirdo.

Admittedly they were using OS maps, but it was always fascinating to watch the pecking order in the group change. The big hard lad, local bully struggling with the cardio, would suddenly plummet in status next to the wee wiry kid who could read the map and get them all home again – even if it only lasted while they were up the hill.

Recently travelling through central London was certainly easier with Sat-Nav but I admit to a flurry of nostalgia for the anxious flicking of the A to Z and the ensuing argument that I definitely said turn right!

There’s something about the nostalgia of old maps, isn’t there, especially if its somewhere you know. Seeing the roads shift, the markers that you recognise swim in and out of time. It’s the same with photos of your hometown from a time long ago – a nostalgia for a place you cannot remember but recognise now.

I’m resting in bed today, (though National stay in bed day was March 28th and national Reading in bed day is not until 31st July.)

Today I will be celebrating, sat in my Star Trek uniform, sucking on toffees and planning my route to the shops for when I am up and at ‘em again.

Live long and prosper, sweeties.

Saving the day, one pudding at a time

I’ve been thinking about school dinners today. I think we’re divided into those who loved school dinners and those who did not.

I loved my school dinners. A hungry child, I loved the smell of cooking wafting up the hallways after break. The scent of puddings baking, dinners roasting, was almost too much to bear as I tried to concentrate on numbers and grammar.

There wasn’t anything I didn’t like, though seeing a girl, forced to finish her pudding, vomiting in her semolina was a bit much to swallow. But other than semolina I loved it all. The liver and onions, oh, the pie and mash, the peas, and carrots, even the cabbage. It was all proper food. Cooked from scratch by fierce-looking women in the school canteen, it would have been local too. Shepherds’ pies, cheese pies, fish on Fridays this was the stuff I dreamed of.

But my real dreams, my true obsessions were the puddings.

With the exception of semolina – for obvious reasons – I adored the puddings. Tall and skinny with hollow legs, I always had room for pudding, even after seconds of dinner. Jam sponge, coconut sponge, jam roly-poly, jelly and fruit with a blob of tinned cream on the top. Oh, the trifles and fruit tarts and exotic French horns, rock buns hard enough to stun a school bully if thrown from the right distance.

 But my favourite pudding, my most absolutely best day ever – and I did judge the quality of the day on the standard of pudding – my most fabulous day in the world was when Gypsy Tart was on the menu.

In Kent, where I went to school, Gypsy tart was regularly on the menu but as a regional dish dating back over 100 years, not many have heard of it, let alone tried its delights as a child.

A pastry case, filled to the brim with whipped evaporated milk and dark brown sugar, it was baked to quivering perfection. Silky on the tongue with the crumb of buttery pastry beneath, the sugars caramelised to soft toffee goodness, it was without a doubt the queen of all puddings, knocking the so-called Queen of puddings into a custard-filled hat.

With fondest memories of Gypsy Tart – the name is said to come from a time when Kentish wives would make it for the children of the Travellers who came to work on the farms picking hops and apples – I searched for a recipe and reproduced the stuff of my childhood dreams. One bite and I was back to 8 years old, scabby kneed, legs swinging on my chair at the sheer joy of each bite.

Grown-up me winced at the impossible sweetness of the tart, saving half my portion for later when the sugar rush had eased, the tremors in my hands had stopped and my vision had returned.

It’s no wonder we ran around the playground screaming at the top of our voices, ramming into each other and any immovable objects. We were all smashed out of our heads on sugar. God only knows what we were like to teach after that.

I am tempted, in these days of added worry and stress,  to bake a Gypsy tart again, if only to recreate the joy it used to bring me. Never mind the low sugar, gluten-free trends of today, maybe I could recreate my absolute bestest most fabulous day one pudding at a time? Bananas and custard next?

I’d love to hear what your favourite school dinners were? Did you love them? Did you hate them? Drop me a line in the comments. Xxx

In need of a sugar rush?

Gypsy Tart – don’t worry about servings you won’t want to share it!

300g plain flour

150g butter

1 tbls caster sugar

Pinch of salt

Cold water

1 egg beaten

410g can of Evaporated milk

300g Dark brown sugar

Pinch of salt

Method

Make pastry.

Line a pie dish and prick, brush with egg and bake blind for 20 min @ 160’c. (I have a fan oven, adjust temp if yours is not)

Remove from oven and cool, turning down oven temp to 100’c

Put evap and brown sugar in a food processor or electric hand held whisk and whip for 15 min until pale, fluffy and doubled in size.

Pour into the pastry case and pop into oven for 20.

Remove and let cool before serving.

 *********Under no circumstances must you be fooled into serving it with slices of apple or lemon cream – this is just a ploy by weirdos on the internet to make this obviously ridiculously unhealthy pudding into one of your five a day. Save the apple for another day and just enjoy the sugary goodness.

Sowing the seeds of love

Here in Wales, with weeks to go before the clocks spring forward, Spring is beginning those first tentative stretches towards the growing light. It is time to sort through the seed box

My seed box is really a bag, with a perfectly nice shoebox-sized box at the bottom filled with seeds I’m never going to use. Balanced precariously on the top are a couple of plastic grape boxes and plant pots crammed full of the seeds I do use or did last year.  I should sort it out, I know I should.  Once, I even made little dividers, the month scrawled across the top so I could find things -I never used them.

I know a proper gardener would have their seeds stacked in order, labels clearly legible – not the mad guesswork I undertake, trying to identify seeds by shape or mystical divination. A proper garden would keep a log of everything they’d grown- their success and failures- not sit playing Russian roulette with courgette seeds trying to remember which ones were amazing and which were the duds.

 Saturday afternoon with a cup of tea is the perfect time to go through the seed box. By ‘go through the seed box’ obviously I don’t mean tidy it, or sort things into piles. I don’t even mean taking out the empty seed packets – what is this madness?  Instead, I take a quick gander at what seeds I have, that I might want to use this year, before heading over to the Interweb to go seed shopping.

There is something eternally optimistic about seed shopping in early spring.  All that potential, all those possibilities for the year to come. And there are pretty pictures and wonderful names – Ruffles red, Angel’s blush, Perfumed promise.  I sit, with a rough idea of what I might want to sow this year but that flies out of the window when I spy the multitude of different cucumbers, the teeny-tiny aubergines and of course the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are my obsession.  I don’t know why? I mean I like to eat them, who doesn’t, but there is something about the images of glistening vine-ripened fruits that I seem unable to resist.  

 I promised myself I would not repeat the tomatoes in lockdown fiasco.  I was going to be disciplined. There is only my husband and me here now – oh and the dog who is partial to a daily carrot but not, as far as I know, Solanum Lycopersicum, those perfect little Love apples (tomato to you and me, I was just showing off)  

Still, I find my online shopping basket full of such delights as Honey delight, Cherry rosella, Burlesque, Crimson crush, Ola Polka, Sweet Casaday and the lovely Shirley. I narrow my selection down to 5 varieties that I can grow in pots in the sunnier parts of the garden and press send, confident in my restraint.

 But then I decided to write about seeds and went back to the website to check tomato names… Last time I did not notice the Artisan golden bumblebee, or the Cream sausage, or the Cuore Di Bue and now I’m entranced by the Dwarf Rotkappchen, my fingers hovering over Add to Basket.

There are worse obsessions I convince myself. Think of all the lovely tomatoes, I justify the dog. Could a few more do any harm?

 I’d like to tell you I resisted. I’d like to stay and write more … really, I would… but there’s a tomato calling my name.

International Women’s Day

Why I celebrate international women’s day.

I’ve always celebrated International women’s day – today 8th March. I worked in a women’s refuge in my late teens, and it taught me the solidarity of women and the difficulties many of us face.

International women’s day has always been a time to celebrate, always been a time to honour the women who came before us, the women in our lives, the sisters who will follow. About this time, we also see the same worn arguments begin to surface,

‘Why do you need international women’s day, anyway?

I remember going to see the late Maya Angelou giving a reading in the late ’80s in Lewisham, a minibus of women travelling down to see her, cackling and singing all the way there and back. The energy in the hall was electric, the women of the audience standing, hips swaying, hands held high as Maya Angelou read her ubiquitous poem And still I rise.

I thought at that moment, buoyed up by the energy of women, that we could do anything. The power in that hall, as we clapped and cried, held in the words of this great woman, seemed without end. Young as I was, I thought we were invincible. I thought we would make such changes, tearing down all of the constraints that came before, that things would change, that it would be better.

And it is, better I mean, but then.

 I am writing this late at night, waiting for my daughter to text me that she has gotten home safely from a night out with friends. I sit here now, over 30 years since I watched, as Maya Angelou mesmerised us with her words and her energy and I’m wondering how far we’ve really come?

We still live in a world where women are twice as likely to be a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse than men. Where 1 in 3 women globally is beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime.

Where the police are complicit in the sexual/racial abuse and murder of women.

Where rape is not punished – in 2020 there were 52,210 rapes recorded to the police in Wales and England – 843 resulted in a charge or summons. 1.6%

Where globally 30,000 underage girls are married off each day. Each day!!!! 250 million women alive today were married before their 15th birthday.

 Where less than 40% of countries provide girls and boys with equal education.

Where the impact of Climate change,  global warming, floods, droughts, storms and forced migrations will kill more women than men, due to unequal access to power and resources.

We still don’t have equal pay, we still can’t walk the streets safely, or stay in our homes safely and with the global pandemic, women are doing even more of the work within the home- 3 times as many hours than the men we share our homes with. 

Our access to the world is limited by the constant threat of danger, so ingrained that we think it’s normal, or worse still think it’s just us- that we are oversensitive, or over cautious or just too scared.

I really wanted to be able to present all the gains that we’ve made as women, to celebrate our achievements. That’s what International Women’s Day has always been for me – a chance to celebrate.

I know women are making gains, in education, in industry, in having a voice and having a visible presence in the world. I know with #metoo we are challenging male violence, challenging the stories told about us. I know we are kicking and screaming for change, for an equal share for an equal chance, but this evening, all I can think is,

‘Why in the 21st century am I sitting here, praying my girl gets home safe from a night out with friends?’

This is why we need International women’s day.

***

 Every day is a chance to celebrate the women in your life – but especially today we need to celebrate each other – the women who are teaching our children, the women working in our shops, the women working in STEM industries, the women caring for their families, the women working in our hospitals, driving our lorries and our buses, the women going into space. The women in other countries, in other parts of the world. To all of the women and girls.

 Against all these odds, against all this shit. We all still show up, hold each other up, pull each other up.

So, to my sisters, I say thank you. I honour your strength and your courage, your grace and your beauty. Together we are strong. Together we are invincible. Together we rise.  

‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

 I rise

 Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

 I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

 I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

 I rise

 I rise

 I rise.’

 Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Ange

If you are able, please donate to a women’s charity today.

Donate to Refuge | Help Stop Domestic Violence

Make a donation – Womankind Worldwide

Donate – Womens Aid

Becoming an astronaut.

I once said to Michael Sheen – you don’t get to say that very often, do you? I once said to Michael Sheen that saying you wanted to be a writer when I was growing up was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.

For a girl, growing up in the relentless poverty of the ’80s, the dole not stretching to heat and food, the Provi-man’s knocking at the door for repayment of loans my parents could never afford, saying you wanted to be a writer was mad, like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.

I didn’t know any writers. Writers were posh, went to posh school that I’d go to with my mum to clean after school.  What did a writer do anyway?  Sit in their special writing room, sharpening their pencils before having cocktails on the lawn as the sun went down. (I watched a lot of old movies so my references may have been Noel Coward and Agatha Christie????)

Never mind that my school had written me off already. Never mind that I didn’t attend school for the lack of school shoes.  Never mind if I didn’t go to school, I didn’t get my free school dinner, with that shameful little token that, some days, was my only meal.

In all of this I still wrote stories, still made them up on my long walks across the fields, feet wet, trying to keep out of everyone’s way.

Trust me, where I came from people didn’t become writers and the knowledge, knowing that I could never be an astronaut, ground down deep into my bones, staining the very marrow. A childish dream from a hungry girl.

We all have to grow up and get proper jobs, feed our kids, struggle to make sure they never go hungry.

Well, last night I was launched into space.

Along with 10 other fabulously talented writers taking part in A Writing Chance with New Writing North, Michael ‘bleeding’ Sheen – I think he could change his name to that, I’ve said it like that enough. Michael ‘bleeding’ Sheen performed our work on stage in Cardiff.

When I was chatting to Michael, trying to explain what a difference being part of this programme had made to me, how it had shifted my whole feeling about myself, about who I was, about how I had become a writer, Michael Sheen asked me what it was like to become an astronaut?

Then he went on stage and performed my words

The section he performed is from the beginning of my novel in progress about a woman who has forgotten she is the goddess of the River Severn. It begins with the myth of how the rivers of Wales got their goddesses. A reinvention of a tiny three-line myth I found in my research, Michael made it sound like a story of old.

I cannot tell you how amazing it was to hear words I’d written in the dark of early morning come to light on the stage.

Well, I don’t need to tell you as you can listen to those words being performed in ‘Margins to Mainstream’ on St David’s Day, Tuesday 1st March 2022 at 6.30 pm on BBC Radio Wales. (If you are outside Wales, go to the BBC Sounds App and type in ‘Margins to Mainstream’.)

BBC Radio Wales – Margins to Mainstream: St David’s Day Special

Watching the news

I am writing this in bed today, not well enough to get up and like everyone else I am watching the news showing the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

My heart breaks for the people of Ukraine, who are now living through a reality many of us can’t imagine. Last weekend, they were making plans for this weekend coming, they were arranging to meet up with friends, have dinner with family, maybe take the kids to the park, and now there are tanks on their streets.

Like everyone else, I feel helpless, powerless in the face of such brutality, to be able to offer real help.

All I can think about is what about the people like me? What about the people who are disabled or housebound or too sick to travel, to evacuate, to leave their homes?

What about the people having treatment for cancer, or surgery or have dementia or are dying?

 What about the people sick with Covid or Long Covid?

What about the women who are heavily pregnant or in labour?

What about the families with new-borns?

Or those that just don’t have cars?

Or don’t have any money?

Or don’t have family to flee to?

If it was you, sitting there watching the Russian army getting closer to your hometown, hearing bombing in your city, what would you pack? What would you leave? How would you know when you’d be able to get home again? What about the cat? Or the dog? Or the goldfish?  What about the groceries you’d bought for dinner tomorrow night?

What about those precious things, the little things we all have, that wouldn’t mean much to anyone else but mean something to us – the grubby yellow fluffy duck that has sat in the crib of each of my babies, the picture of my husband when we first met, my favourite book. How would you decide what to take and what to leave?

And what about the people like me?

In all the terrible images of the invasion, of all conflicts, sometimes it is the images we don’t see that are the most poignant.  The people we don’t see, people making ridiculous decisions just like we’d do, wondering if they should leave their homes or wait, wrapping their kids up warm, phoning to reassure their mum.  

And what about the ones that know they can’t leave?

That’s all I can think of today.

Oooh this is me!

Remember me going on about winning A Writing Chance Award with New Writing North and the very lovely Michael Sheen ? No? Well you cant have been listening!

Back in the summer I won a place on a writing program for underrepresented writers and this weekend we are all heading off to the BBC in Cardiff where Michael Sheen is going to be performing an extract from the novel I am currently adding the finishing touches to.

Full link here

https://www.bbc.com/mediacentre/2022/bbc-cyrmu-wales-st-davids-day

Art for art’s sake?

picture of a mid 20th century typewriter

Do you write? Are you a writer?

Obviously, I do because I never stop bloody going on about it.

It’s a weird thing writing, a weird passion. And that’s what it is for most of us – a passion, an obsession. Not an anguished struggle – well it’s that’s as well. It’s certainly not something we make millions from – though we may wish.

For most of us writing is the thing we do, often in secret, because it makes us feel like ourselves. It’s a thing we do because it fires us up and makes us cry and when it is works there is nothing else like it – creating worlds that we can become lost in, falling in love with characters who seem, to us, as real as you are.

It’s a weird ‘hobby’ I guess, but no weirder than train spotting – do people still do that? Or knitting, or painting or baking or running?

But there’s a weird thing with writing.

See if you are a knitter and you are happily telling everyone you know about the fabulous scarf you’ve knitted, no one asks you when you will be setting up a professional scarf knitting service, selling your scarves internationally.

The same with running – no one says you, when you bravely say you are doing the couch to 5k ‘So, when are you becoming a professional runner then?’

I mean that would be weird, right.

But if you tell anyone you are a writer and if you write the you ARE a writer – did I mention I was writing a novel?

If you tell people, you write they immediately ask you what you’ve had published? When are you going to be published?  Did you win The Booker Prize yet?

It’s as if, with writing, our only measure of value, our only measure of success, is publication.

Our art is not enough in itself. It is only in the commodification of our art, of our writing, that it has value.

Somehow, it’s not ‘real writing’ if we do it just for us. But isn’t that missing the point of art, of creating?

If the measure of success in writing is seen in terms of selling our work, we miss out on all of the joy.

What about the grandparents, writing down their memories to pass onto their grandkids, the parents creating bedtime stories to settle little ones or keep them quiet in the back of the car, the teens writing new worlds to escape the ones they inhabit? All of these are fabulous, all of these are joyful, all of these deserve recognition as writing.

Somewhere, we’ve been told the only reason to have a passion, the only value to having an obsession is to sell you work. To sell your scarfs, to sell your painting, to sell your words.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you work, your words are valuable and fabulous because you created them and that creative spark, that flare, brings you joy. And that is enough.

Art for art’s sake – isn’t that what they say?

If you write you are a writer. Shout it loud and proud.

Now, let me tell you about this scarf I’m knitting!

An escalation of hostilities

picture of a cat lying atop of a bird house, looking menacing

There is a silent but deadly war occurring in my garden.  Provisions have been procured, barricades have been built and blockades are at the ready. What is this new global terror I hear you ask? What is the unending conflict?

 I am at war with the neighbourhood cats.

I should point out here that I am a cat lover, having had several live with me in the past. I am not averse to the soft purring of a small bundle of fur curled up my feet, though the dribbling is a step too far for me. So, I want it to be clear that I didn’t start this war, nor have I sought out these unwarranted attacks.

 The cats started it all.

It began not long after the death of my sweet and gentle Welsh collie, Annie. To say that she was sweet, and gentle is not to tell the whole truth – sweet and gentle to me, but a fierce enemy of the cats. They played out the eternal conflict of dogs chasing cats and cats outsmarting dogs but on the whole, Annie won, and the cats stayed out of our yard.

But nature hates a vacuum and once they were secure that she was not coming back, the cats moved in.

 Now, if they were coming to chill, lay around in the sun, play amongst the daisies then all would have been well in our little corner of Eden, but no.

The cats came here to shit.

They shit everywhere. In the roses, on the grass, in the salad boxes, in the raised beds, in the gravel, on the patio and in one particularly audacious move, on the front doormat. In the summer the stench of cat piss spills through the windows, the smell of shit wafting on the breeze.

The cats are doing just what cats do, I understand that. I just wish they would do it somewhere else.

We have tried everything.

The vegetable beds are full of cutlery – knives and forks stood up on end like some strange crop. I have tried, garlic granules, special sprays. A green gel that smelt of citronella. Holly leaves and other spikes litter the raised beds.  I even tried ground eggshells – though I think I might have been confusing cats with slugs over that one.

My neighbour, whose cats they are, is mortified. She is lovely and kind even if her cats are evil spawn. In good neighbourly fashion, she gave me a cat scarer, the type that flashes with a motion detector and lets out a high-pitched squeak.

 I am, it seems, too old to hear the sounds it makes, though my daughter complained incessantly about the noise until I remembered what it was and moved it from beneath her bedroom window.

It has been a great success in getting the local drug dealers to move from selling their wares in the ally behind my back garden – that high pitched noise I suspect.

 It has done nothing to deter the cats.

We’ve had Luna, our current dog for nearly 18 months now, a fierce and savage beast. She loves the cats.

‘Come into our garden,’ she yaps. – I speak dog, I know! ‘Come in,’ she says. ‘Make yourself at home, crap anywhere you like. I will just sit here and watch you. Here, piss on the parsley. Hey, don’t forget to shit on the peas.’

I’m not sure she has fully understood her role. We are watching Tom and Jerry cartoons to educate her but so far all she’s done is whine for cheese.

Everything is escalating. One cat pee-ed up the cat scarer this week. They are clearly taking the piss.

 I don’t want to hurt the cats and I didn’t start this war.

I just need them to stop.

Suggestions on the back of a postcard for what to do next.

What I didn’t know.

I didn’t know about menopause. I mean I knew it existed, but if the women I knew spoke about it at all, we spoke about the ‘the change’ like we were Les Dawson characters, elbowing our bosoms, mouthing the words in silence.

 I don’t know why we didn’t talk about it. We talked about everything else, my women friends and me.  We called our vagina’s ‘VAGINA’S,’ loud and proud. We raised babies, talked cracked nipples, postnatal sex, leaking bits. We’ve been through all the screenings and a few close shaves together, so it wasn’t as if we were uncomfortable talking about our bodies.

I don’t know why we didn’t know – I mean, I’m a well-informed woman. I read stuff. I Google. I’m 51 bloody years old for god’s sake, and all I really knew about menopause was hot flushes? Bit of dryness down below?

Holy shit, we did not know about the rest! The brain fog, the exhaustion combined with insomnia, the sore boobs, the dry skin, the spots, the weight gain, the mood swings, the rage, the flooding, the feeling utterly, miserably, not like ourselves. Did I mention the hot flashes, night sweats, and lack of sex drive?

We didn’t know. Each of us struggling with odd little things from our early 40’s and in my case, late ’30s and we didn’t know how to put it all together and say ‘Oh, is this the start of the C-H-A-N-G-E?’

              We didn’t know about women facing discrimination at work as they struggled to manage increasingly difficult symptoms – irregular bleeding, anxiety. We didn’t know that even though there are effective ways to help manage the symptoms, many women are dismissed by their doctors or worst still treated for things like depression instead of being offered hormone therapies. Hormone therapies which are now safer than ever, hormone therapies that some reports say as few as 30% of women experiencing symptoms actually have access to.

And before you start, don’t try telling me this is a natural process that we need to just endure, do some yoga maybe, avoid sugar, pop a couple of Black Cohosh? Appendicitis is a natural process, but no one tells you to get through that with a bit of downward dog and some wheatgrass juice.

HRT saved me. HRT gave me back parts of myself that I didn’t know I’d lost. I know it’s not for everyone and I can feel the judgement that I am allowing my body to be medicalised but popping a couple of Black Cohosh up ya bum when you’re crazed with hormone-fueled rage, insomnia and sitting on your sofa in a puddle of your own menstrual blood is, quite frankly, bollocks.

 At first, I struggled to find the right dose as my hormone’s levels swung back and forth like a u-turning Tory minister, but eventually, I found a way back to myself. No that’s not right. Not back to myself.  Forward, to a new myself, with patches and sticky black circles on my legs like some weird abstract tattoo.   

 In all this not talking about menopause, why are we not talking about how powerful we’ll become, once this bleeding thing has all settled?

How freed from our empty nests, and moon-cups we might have the energy to discover more about ourselves, about the world. I know for many there are caring responsibilities for ageing parents, and young adults to settle out in the world, all the while our hormones dancing us a bloody tango – hot flashes and cramps at the same time, such fun? But there is a freedom waiting for us, one this bleeding thing is over. Joy at being who we are. Who have we become after all these years?

Now we talk of nothing else, me and my women friends.

We are louder now, stronger, more confident, more likely to say Fuck off! And No!

Maybe that’s why we didn’t know about menopause.

Maybe that’s what they don’t tell you?

Maybe loads of newly middle-aged women being bolshy and uncooperative and wanting everyone else to piss off is too much for society to bear.

Maybe the big secret is that, instead of crying in the loo for no reason, we are going to become powerful, sexy, utterly fabulous, and not going take any shit anymore.

 In all this change, after all this drama has settled, maybe we will realise that now is our time.  Our time to come out to play. Our time to take centre stage.

 And maybe for those women following us, we should shout it out a bit louder.

 The future is bright, baby, because now we’ve changed.

Social care.

I meet her down the bottom of the alley. Litter needs picking again. She’s off to get her paper, leaning on her stick, dodging curled lottery tickets and discarded masks.

She’s a bit Daily Mail, if you know what I mean but she’s always out in her garden. Her roses are stunning, not a black spot on them. A proper gardener, she is, so I always stop and chat.

I ask her how she’d been doing.

              ‘He’s back in Shrewsbury,’ she says all weary. ‘Aspirational pneumonia. Went in two weeks ago.’ Her husband of 60 years has Parkinson’s. He had a mobility scooter for a while, ran everyone off the path with it.

‘He was a devil with it, thought it funny. Well, funny till he tipped the thing,’ she says straight-faced. ‘I never knew where he was. I reckon he fell asleep in it, that’s why it tipped. Lucky it was by the post office. The postman bought his scooter back. Said he was ever so sorry, he wasn’t allowed to bring passengers in his van, but he’d called a taxi.

He didn’t use it much after that. He was meant to be coming home.’

He’s at the Royal Shrewsbury. Our nearest hospital, 30 miles over the border.

‘They phoned on Monday to say they were sending him back to the care home. They’d moved him now.’

He’d been in a care home another 30 miles in the opposite direction, and she’d had no car.

‘He’s in the new one now, round the corner. Means I can go and see him, but they’re not allowing visitors.

Only he couldn’t come home because they didn’t have an ambulance to bring him.’

She worries at the mask in her hand, leaning on her stick, sighing.

‘Then he had to have another covid test because he’d been there another few days, then he had to wait another few days for the results. I’ve been ringing them and ringing them and it’s never the same person.

They were asking me what his hobbies were. What he did for a job? What are they doing that for? He can’t move, he can’t talk. Never mind asking daft questions just send him home.’

Her voice is weary with rage worn thin to nothing. I try to smile sympathetically. I don’t know what I can say.

‘Then they call,’ she continues ‘and they say they’ve got an ambulance at last and, they’ll send him back to the care home this morning.’

She tilts her head to one side. ‘So, I call the care home and tell them he’s coming back, and they say they don’t take admissions on a weekend.

So, he’d got to stay there. All weekend. Then it’ll be another covid test. And then waiting again for the results.’ She sighs.

‘We’re old,’ she says. ‘We’ve worked all our lives, you know. It shouldn’t be like this.’

We wait a minute. ‘Am gonna do my roses today,’ she sighs. ‘Get them all sorted, at least.’

A love song to the library

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I learnt to cook in the library. Not literally but the library has been there for all of the major developments in my life and by my late teens, a mum with no money it was natural to learn to cook, borrowing a new book each month. Turkish, French, Chinese, Italian. I slavishly ate what I read. I bought olive oil in tiny glass bottles in the chemist, used the EU mountain butter to make flaky pastry for tinned EU beef pie.

I’d always read, stealing away to the library as often as I could. The librarian in the posh side of town was not welcoming to an unaccompanied child with once-white socks pooling around skinny ankles, the elastic a long distant memory. Once assured of my trustworthiness to bring the books back she would occasionally smile, offering me something she thought I might like. Alan Garner, J.G Robinson, Nesbitt, Wyndham, Barry Hines, and the classics, Little women, Call of the wild, Wind in the willows. I adored Judy Blume, disapproved of by the librarian who thought it too American. 

An awkward child, books saved me from the unfathomable negotiations of other kids. In a book, I always felt safe.

I learnt to parent in the library, borrowing books when as a teen I discovered I was pregnant, trying to hide my shame by burying Miriam Stoppard amongst Terry Pratchett’s.

Later, books of baby names, terrible twos and how to talk to teens paved the way. I read to my babies, snuggled in with toddlers, entered Hogwarts with my tweens. With ten years between the oldest and the youngest, older teens laid sleepily on the ends of beds as they re-listened to picture books told to their siblings. ‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one.’

My kids all joined the library, my youngest at just 4 days old. Pushing her in, still shuffling slightly, her brothers ready to swap their books.

I planned my wedding at the library, borrowing books on alternative ceremonies and how to write your own vows. This was the 90s, we got married in a field and had a rave afterwards. In the library, I leant it was a criminal offence to tell people we were getting married as we didn’t have a licenced registrar. A sign was put up saying, ‘This is not a legal wedding.’ The library saved me from jail time.

I learnt about music too. Though the upstairs lending library, full of classical music and men in macs was a little intimidating, I’d push through to the CDs, at the back.  Before Spotify and streaming, here was the only real chance to hear new music.  CDS were £15 apiece and who could afford that?

The library was a gateway to a world I wasn’t aware existed. Books about things I would never know, never learn. But books about everything you’d need. I learnt to garden, grow veggies, discovered world politics, religions, history, feminism. All these different ways of looking at the world.  Everything you needed to get along as a still awkward, still skint, woman of the world.

I was talking to some woman about the library recently and straight-faced she said ‘Yeah, but libraries are a bit old fashioned, aren’t they? I mean you can get a book for a tenner from Amazon. And if you want to know something you can Google it.’

She couldn’t understand that a tenner was a lot when you didn’t have much. It’s a mountain of money to spend on a book when you were worried about what’s for tea and if you can put the heating on? And what if you didn’t like it? That’s what she couldn’t understand. What if, by some mad scheme you’d found a tenner to spend on a brand-new book and then you didn’t like it.

‘Just give it to the charity shop,’ she said missing the point.

The library gives you the space to try new things, new books, new stories, new hobbies, without worrying about the expense.

I learnt to sew and knit from the library, not all of us can learn from our grandma’s knee.

And that’s the point of the library. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care how much money you have or if you have a granny that sews. The library is there for everyone. The democratisation of culture and information and stories. It doesn’t matter if the book you borrowed was no good because you can take it back. It doesn’t matter if you take a punt on a writer, you’ve never heard of, discovering your new absolute favourite.

Libraries have been there with me in all the stages of my life.  From cradle to grave I will always love the library, will always mark that silent hush as you enter, even if in the kid’s section they are gleefully singing along ‘Going on a bear hunt.’

Libraries are an act of political resistance, a fist raised in the air that says all are welcome here. No conditions, no need to pay. Come on in, even if it is sometimes only to get warm. Use the computers, browse the shelves, borrow a DVD.

The world is always yours in the library.

A Writing Chance

In spring 2021, in an uncharacteristic moment of bravery, I decided to practice getting rejection letters for my writing. hands trembling I hit send and entered my first writing competition. In all honesty, I didn’t read much about the prize, there was a bursary, the chance to work with a mentor to develop your writing, publication of your work in The New Statesman, which I had at least heard of.

None of that mattered because none of that was the point. The point was to enter something so out of my league that it would soften the blow when I didn’t make the cut. Baby steps to rejection, see?

Then the unthinkable happened.  I got shortlisted.  While I babbled inanely, I was told I made it through to the next round. Top tip: Hysterical cackling is never a good look professionally. Still, it was just the shortlist.  I mean, that was cool, but with my eyes on the prize, I was all ready to accept my rejection letter gracefully.

The call came, and I was ready. With my goal accomplished, rejection received, I would move on with my life.

Only I couldn’t even do getting a rejection letter right. The very lovely Claire informed me that, loving my writing, I’d won a place on A writing Chance Award with New Writing North. More cackling ensued. Sworn to secrecy, I could tell no one that the utterly fabulous Michael Sheen was leading the program.

That summer became known as the Summer of Cackling. Neighbours messaged to check I hadn’t come down with some weird variant of covid, the screeching so bad one was worried crows had moved into the house.

My daughter sent memes of Michael Sheen daily. I developed a tick, struggling to smother a cackle every time I saw his face. (Later this proved particularly awkward when meeting him in a Zoom call, the cackle half mutated into a simper, and I looked like I was having a stroke.)

Don’t let any of this make you think I haven’t taken the Award seriously. The program has been amazing. Along with the eleven other fabulous writers I have zoomed in with journalists, playwrights and publishers who were more than generous with their time.

Working with my brilliant mentor Siobhan McNally from The Mirror, I wrote, re-wrote, edited, and wrote again until an article appeared ready for publication.

The eleven other writers are, without exception, brilliantly talented, from all over the country, with different backgrounds and experiences. And the reason this award has been so valuable, not just to us personally as writers, is because you don’t hear from people like us very often.

Think about it, how many writers do you know?

How many writers did you know when you were growing up?

When you think of writers do you think of them living in a council house? Or having a disability?  Or being hairdressers, or tutors or maybe not in work at all?

Does any of that matter?

Well, it did for me.

At school did your careers officer ever say, ‘why you don’t become a writer, or an artist, or a doctor?’ Mine told me to go work in the Co-op. There’s nothing wrong with working in the Co-op, lockdown showed us the people we depend upon, but if we don’t know writing is something we are allowed to do, that being an artist is a job you could do, then we never get to make a choice. Someone decides that choice for us, says it’s not for the likes of us and we should stick to what we know.

That pisses me off. I’m not good at being told what to do.

But more importantly, it means we only get to hear certain types of stories from certain types of writers. We don’t get to see ourselves in stories or tell our stories our own way.

And now here we all are on the New Statesman website. Telling our stories.  Stories about us; internet dating, the foods of our childhood, a misremembered song, re-owning that childhood nickname. And there I am. Picking up litter.

 A writer on a council estate near you.

Picking up litter – New Statesman

A Writing Chance – New Statesman

Now is not the time to diet!

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My gift to myself, on my 50th birthday, was to never go on a diet again. All dieting did was make me feel rubbish.

I’d been on a diet for over 30 years, on and off. I’d counted Points and Syns, done green days and red, blue dots then purple. I’d fasted and cleansed, done GI, keto, low carb, no-carb. I’d done shakes and drank lemon juice before every meal.

I’ve done exercise when I could, swimming, yoga, had an allotment, trained to be a Walking and then Mountain Group Leader, walking 20k a weekend.

I’ve been hypnotised and listened to CD’s and I’ve meditated and mindfully ate until I lost the will to live.

And still, I was never thin. After all that angst and struggle, I’m now two and a half stone heavier than when I started.

I am fat. Even at my lightest, I was a size 18. My genes are all about the curves and now with menopause, my body changing, I’m fatter still. And before you jump in saying,

‘Oh, don’t be harsh about yourself.’

‘You’re lovely.’

‘I never look at you and think fat.’

I need to tell you that I don’t think ‘fat’ is a dirty word. Fat is not an insult or a character assessment or a comment on my weakness or my greed or any of the other things we think about as ‘fat’. Fat is just Fat – a physical state of being.

Increasingly we now understand that being fat is not just about what we eat, it’s about our genes, it’s about our gut bacteria, it’s about poverty, and the food we ate when we were kids. It’s even about our mother’s health when we were in the womb.

Still, I worry about being fat.

A new GP called me to say she was stopping my HRT unless I lost weight. I needed to come in for urgent tests if I could drag myself away from the cake. My bloods all came back perfect. Surprisingly so, she added, the ‘considering I’m so fat’ hanging in the air unsaid. My blood pressure was perfect. My cholesterol, lower than my two slender best friends. My HRT returned with the threat of monthly weigh-ins and 6 monthly blood tests, I stopped going to the Doctors.

Being fat is not a sin, not a weakness, not something that you can shame people out of. For a lot of us, no matter how hard we try, being fat is just part of who we are, like having blue eyes or being able to roll your tongue.

All those years, when the diets stopped working and my weight stubbornly refused to move, I felt like I was a liar. Because I was still following the plan, still being strict and controlled. It just didn’t work.

So, I no longer diet. Or at least I try not to. It’s so ingrained in me though, I still know the points of certain foods, counting the calories without thinking, I know which foods are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’.

I hate it.

It’s especially hard at this time of year when we are encouraged to find the ‘New You.’ There’s nothing wrong with the old me, thank you very much. Except that she couldn’t look in the mirror and see how lovely she was, could only look at herself as something to be worked on, something to improve, something to starve into submission.

Bollocks to that.

Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I say good things. How good my posture is, how beautiful is my smile. It’s not always easy. I still have to resist the urge to pinch more than an inch. But mostly I’m pretty damn good, and even on those days when I look a bit rough, a bit puffy, a BIT FAT, it’s just that. Not a character assassination or a testament to my weakness as a human being. So, I need to go up a size, so what!

I’m not beautiful despite being fat. I am beautiful. Full stop.

I choose being beautiful as a radical act of resistance.

So, if you’re looking at your New Year’s resolutions and thinking this is the year to get thin, can I just remind you that you are fabulous just as you are.

Take up a new hobby, be more active; we’re all better when we walk a bit more. Get out in the fresh air. It’s good for us.

But please, please don’t make it about being fat.

You are beautiful, you are kind, you are special, and you are loved. You are perfect just as you are.

Join the resistance, sweetie!

Happy New Year!

Remembering an old friend no longer here

I have been thinking of her today, here’s how I remember her.

She holds herself upright, a head teacher used to being listened to, though that authority long since diminished by age and circumstance. She is a ‘fat old lady’ now, her words not mine. She doesn’t take ‘fat’ as an insult, more of an accurate description. She is empirically fat. What she objects to is the lecturing and the haranguing,

‘Do they think I don’t know I’m fat?’

And the assumption that she is somehow lacking in moral fortitude because of the size of her waist.

She walks slowly, another thing that annoys her. So much annoys her. She worries sometimes, that she’s a curmudgeon.

‘Only that’s only really used to describe men, isn’t it ? What do they call women?’

I say nothing.

There is, however, much to be annoyed about, she explains using her teacher voice.

‘Look at the state of it all,’ she rails, although it has been some time now since she was out in all of it.

Her world is shrinking and this both terrifies her and in some ways is a comfort. No longer compelled to make polite conversation with idiots who know nothing, she has become prickly and uncensored in her remaining conversation. This is funny, she is very funny – until that acerbity is turned on me, where I sting under its backlash. She is quick to anger but even quicker to apologise and as the saying goes,

‘Always a little patience is required with the great and the good.’

Her occasional lack of social niceties was always made up for by her warmth and wit and friendship.

Her hands ache, her knuckles swelling red and hot and tender. More than tender I suspect, her hips and knees too.

‘But no one likes a moaner.’

I see her wince sometimes when she thinks I’m not looking. Only at night, when she is alone, the darkness seeping into the walls do I suspect she gets lost in the pain. The fear of it, of it taking hold, becoming unbearable, swallowing her up.

The next day she sits in her chair, staring out of the window, dozing a while. Embarrassed if I catch her asleep.

‘It’s this damn cat’ she’ll mutter ‘always making itself comfortable on my lap, always refusing to move its old bones. Old boy stinks now too.’

The cat stands and stretches and then circling her lap, settles itself down again to sleep.

On other days she asks me, embarrassed and frightened,

‘You will tell me won’t you if I smell of wee. I couldn’t bear to be one of those old dears dribbling away, not knowing everyone holds their breath every time they come near.’

She used to read, but her hands hurt holding the book. I offer her a book-chair, something to rest the book on, but she shakes a refusal, instead preferring talking books on the iPad.

She fails, even after repeated, patient showing and her increasing grumbling and swearing, to master much but she can just about work listening to talking books if I download them for her first. It’s sociable, flicking through the selections. She loves science fiction and fantasy. She’d always read. Anything to do with aliens and robots, the bloodier the better. She had a go listening to Fifty shade of grey, ‘to see what all the fuss was about.’

‘I was embarrassed having it playing so loud,’ she’d laughed. ‘Imagine if someone had walked in.’

Back in the day, ‘in the 70s when everyone was knitting their own bloody chickpeas’ she used to knit but can’t be bothered towards the end, even if her hands had allowed it. And she’s no one to knit for.

‘Babies in Africa,’ she’s telling me about some woman in the village. ‘She said they were knitting for babies in Africa. Said it was a lovely group and they had tea and gave you a biscuit. I told her, I had plenty of my own bloody biscuits, thank you. And if they were so worried about babies in Africa, why didn’t they send them the biscuits. Or better still cancel their national debt to the bloody IMF and encourage women into education while they’re at it. ‘ she tuts impatiently ‘I told her,’ her face animated, eyes flashing wickedly, that head-teacher tone, ‘Africa wasn’t an actual country – Where in Africa, dear? Be specific.’

 She’s funny, though I daren’t laugh too much. I can see she’s getting tired, so I make more tea and nervously ask her if she wants a biscuit.

I miss her.

Resting in the darkness.

I am writing this sat in the early morning dark, my favourite time to write. The room is lit by just the Christmas tree lights and the ghostly glow of the laptop turned down low. Today is the Solstice, the turning of the year when the reign of darkness is at its peak before the returning of the light.

For many of us, the past few years have been filled with darkness, the endless anxiety, the missing of loved ones, the trying to get back to the ‘new normal, or is it the ‘new, new, normal’ now?

These past few years have been scary and the losses some have had to bear have been unbearable. It is hard not to fear the darkness, to feel as if it will swallow us up,  before we turn our heads looking for the sun, looking for those few extra moments of light, I want to remind us, or maybe myself, of the nurture of the darkness.

Now is the season to rest and recover.  It is in the dark, in our sleep that we repair ourselves. Our bodies wake from the darkness renewed. And in the darkness of mid-winter, we can recharge our souls, and reflect on the things we’d like more of, the things we’d like to let go.

I’m not talking about getting a better job or losing 20lbs. I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions or major lifestyle reboots. I’m talking about the things that nurture you. The things that bring you joy, the things that make you smile. And it’s hard sometimes, to find these things.

For some of us, life is hard. Whether that’s dealing with the current pandemic, our own mental health, or the health of our loved ones.  Maybe it’s struggling to make ends meet, the constant worry if you can feed your family, or if you’ll have electric at the end of the month.  It’s hard in all this, to find joy. Finding that spark of light in the darkness can feel like just another thing on a list that you, and only you, are failing at. You are not alone.

The darkness of the longest night is here to hold us. The darkness is a time of letting us sit, curled up on the sofa with a Christmas movie and a mince pie, reading a book, playing computer games with friends. The darkness is a time just for us, even when it’s hard. Even when life is wearing you down. Even if it’s just for five minutes.  The darkness is a time to rest.

And that is my wish for you on this Winter Solstice.

My wish for you is to know that you are not alone in the darkness, to know that you are loved and cherished, that you are a bright shining star in the inky darkness of the sky.

My wish is that you get a moment to rest, a moment for yourself, to sow the seeds for what it is that nurtures you for your coming summer, even if right now you don’t know what that might be.

The darkness doesn’t last forever and soon, second by second, we will all be turning to the light.

A life shared

I volunteer to phone old ladies. Not randomly, I don’t just dial any old number and ask

 ‘Are you an old lady? Right, off we go?’

I phone, once a week for an hour, and chat to those in our communities who are isolated at home.

It’s a bit weird at first. I’m a bit weird and they need to get used to me. I tell them if they’d rather a ‘Normal’ call them, they can give the office a shout and they’ll find them one. They laugh, nervous at first but the two I have been assigned, both in their 80s seem happy enough.

‘You always make me laugh,’ they say.

I’m not sure if we’d met face to face from the get go we’d have got on. One’s a bit of a Tory, while I wave the ‘red-flag’ as she calls it. And there’s the occasional Daily Mail level of racism to contend with.

Some weeks, I know I’m the only person they speak to.

‘Not that I’m complaining,’ one always says. ‘We’ll get through.’ Her constant refrain.

It’s an honour to be invited into someone’s life like this. To hear the intimacies of not just their past but their day-to-day worries, those little niggles that wear at us all. A stray button pressed on the tv remote and now nothing works. The light bulb on the stairs needing changing but too high now to reach. I phone the care team and they arrange a visit. Not, I reassure, to do anything other than change the bulb.

You hear such stories, such tales of other lives and other worlds, of times I can only ever imagine.

First visit to the cinema?

Being allowed to run to the front to buy cigarettes for mum from the girl with the tray.

‘What did you see?’ I ask, jaw dropping when she replies

‘Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it had just come out. I was allowed to wear my new red coat.’

That was 1938.

I get their histories too, their parents’ lives; travelling overseas as a steward in the merchant navy when there was no jobs and no dole during the depression in the 1920’s, playing with a swing band, a job as a valet to the Earl of what-not.

This week she’s telling me about the lace she found while rummaging in a cupboard and thought of me.

‘It belonged to my great Aunt. She was a nurse in the war.’

‘The First World War ?’

‘No,’ she rasps still on the fags, ‘the Boer war. 1902. We evacuated with her in the war. She was old then, very good with chickens.’

I long to visit. To pop in and say hello. But we’re still not allowed, restrictions and all. One went missing, not answering the phone. It took three days to find distant relatives who called the police in the end. She’d been admitted to hospital after a fall. Scared me half to death.

And that’s the thing. Talking to them has become as much a part of my life as it has of theirs. Twice a week for an hour everything stops, and I get the chance to listen to their stories.

I saw a quote, I don’t know where, that said that elders were like jugs full to the brim with life and experiences and knowledge and the rest of us were like empty cups, just waiting to be filled.

 And that’s it.

 All that life, all that love, and dancing, and work, and grieving, and eating Quality Street. All that life lived, shared, would fill us all up.

I only hope when its my time someone will want to phone me.

Hunting for Treasure

Remembering the summer.

My grandson came to stay. Him, the new baby, my son, and daughter-in-law. They live six hours away. It’s been two and half years since they visited last. Different countries, different lockdown rules. All just trying to do our best. I hold onto my son as he walks through the door like I’ve been holding my breath. I need to take great big gulps of him. Holding his face in my hands, like he’s still my boy, I breathe him in.

 We’ve Zoomed and WhatsApp-ed and all that jazz but holding him for that moment, feeling him in arms, even if he’s now the taller one, turns back time. Then my grandson grabs my arm, and we’re away.

I spent lockdown babysitting my grandson on Zoom. Mum and dad were both working from home and him, only 4, well, there was no containing him. So, for an hour or two, twice a week we’d sit together facing the screen, him in Scotland, me in Wales.

 We played spaceships, read stories. We both had playdough, so we’d create monsters and alarmingly pink hippopotamus, that never seemed to have the right number of legs. Sometimes we watched a movie, me shouting in vain while he wandered off to tell Mum and Dad something important, leaving me face down in the play tent. I could hear Mum and Dad calling to find the phone, but the little fingers had pressed me on mute, so I lay hidden beneath the bottom of a discarded Iron Man figure for much longer than was dignified.

Our favourite activity was treasure boxes. We would sit, each on our own bed and rummage through my jewellery box. All sorts of treasures are hidden in there. There’s a ring that, when I wear it, reduces me to only speaking like a dinosaur, unable to tell the giggling boy at the other end of the line how to release me from the spell. There was the necklace that made my leg fall off, him howling as I hopped around the room trying to find my missing limb. He made so much noise shouting directions Mum and Dad came in and told us to shush.

So, when we meet in person, after all the hugs and granny kisses, the wiping of tears and touching of faces, the first thing we do is go hunting for treasure.

“You can only choose one thing each day,” I tell him as he stands all solemn, making this important choice.

“This one.” He says picking up two matching bangles. “What do they do, Granny?’’

“Let’s each put one on and see.”

For a moment there is nothing. Then we look at each other and we laugh. Then he laughs some more. That sweet, perfect laugh of a child you desperately love. So, I laugh harder which sets him off more. In a flash, we are both rolling around on the bed, every time we catch each other’s eye we laugh more. Tears are streaming. Mum and Dad come to see what all the noise is and soon they are laughing too. All of us. On the bed. Tears, and snot and that hysterical hiccup you get when you are out of control. The relief. The sweet release that we are all here. All together again.

In the end, Dad says it’s time to stop. So, we wipe our eyes and try to soften the giggling.

“Time to take them off,” I say.

“But Granny,” whispers the boy, between giggles. “Laughing with you is what I do best.”

And we’re all off again. More tears. More laughter.

Let’s hope it’s not so long ’till the next time.

Walking my daughter home.

My daughter calls. Not for a chat. Well, no. We chat. But it’s not like chatting when ‘Strictly’ is on and we like Aj’s dress or how utterly fabulous team JoJo are. It’s not just hanging out on the phone, catching up. This call has an altogether different purpose.

It always starts the same.

 “Hi Mum.”

 “Hey love.”

 “Urgh, work was mental. Non-stop.”

 “Is town busy?”

 “Crazy.”

It’s 9.15 Thursday night. I hear the chatter of groups of lads, half snatched conversations as girls clatter past. I can hear the height of their heels from here.

 “What way are you walking tonight?”

She names the road.

 “Some girl got hassled in the underpass,” she tells me. “Some guys grabbed at her.”

“The homeless guys?” The guys my daughter sometimes drops a sandwich and a coffee for, on her way into work in the dark.

“No,” she says, the roar of lads in the background momentarily drowning her out. My stomach tightens. “No,” she shouts again. “Just some random bloke. Police were called. Think I’m gonna walk the long way.”

My daughter, working for a coffee chain in a Welsh city centre, calls me every time she walks home late. Not late late, she finishes work at 8 pm, 9 sometimes 10. Sometimes she calls her brother if she worries that I’m tired. She always calls someone, never walks home alone. It’s a 20 min walk. 30 if she has to avoid the underpass. Too short, it seems, for a taxi ride. And if even they do pick her up, on minimum wage she can hardly afford the fare.

So, we talk, and she walks. I hear about her day, about the people who come into her coffee shop, the rudeness. What she’s doing at Uni. Her boiler playing up again.

I can tell the places where she’s more scared to walk. By the museum, there are fewer people, the streets are lined with trees. It’s darker here but she can walk down the middle of the road. I hear her footsteps quicken, her breath a little faster. I do the talking, filling her in on the antics of the dog, how annoying her dad is, what we had for tea.

She tells me the places where there are security guards on patrol. She knows the hotel you can go into any time if you don’t feel safe. The government building with armed police outside that she could run to – or maybe not there. Her routes are planned, the walk home tense.

One night, I can hear town is busy, lads and lasses out on the lash. My daughter is quieter, her conversation more stilted. I hear a voice in the background. Muffled. A man. My daughter’s voice tight. Her answers to me clipped. Her headphones in, only one, like they say, so she can still hear what going on.

More lads laughing, a man’s voice closer this time.

“Alright love. You off out then?”

“FUCK OFF!” My daughter yells at the top of her voice. Then sotto voce, “Sorry Mum.”

My heart’s in my mouth. “You ok?”

“Yeah, some arse, thinking he’s funny, showing off for his mates. He grabbed at my arm. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Get an uber, love,” I say. “I’ll pay for it.”

“I’m too close to home,” she says. “They won’t come out. Tell me what you had for your tea, I’m starving.”

 It must be exhausting. It is for me. I slump back into my chair when I hear the beep of her front door, not aware I’d been on the edge of my seat, following her route in my mind, ready to call for help, if it was needed.

“That’s me, Mum.” She breathes at last. “God, I need a wee. I’ll catch you later?”

“Night love,” I say.

“Night Mum, love you.”

I hang up. Angry. Outraged. Relieved.

How the hell did it get that she, we, all of us, couldn’t walk home from our jobs, or visiting friends, or late-night lectures, or meeting a friend at the pub, or whatever it is that we choose to do?

 How can this not be safe?

How can this be right?

 And what the hell are we all doing about it?

 Me?

 I’m going to walk my daughter home from work again tomorrow.

 And pray that she gets home safe.

Powerless in the face of a greeting.

I have offended the local drug dealers. Not in a ‘my house is going to get torched and I’m in hiding, fearing for my life ’kind of way. Or at least I hope not.  More that they don’t say ‘good morning’ to me anymore.

Before, they would all greet me when they saw me out walking the dog.

‘Morning.’ 

They’d wave as we passed in the street barely missing a beat as they’d turn to the man anxiously shifting from one foot to another, waiting beneath the streetlight that marks their spot. The handoff’s not even hidden, the tension in the air only broken by my insane dog running up to see if they have any treats.

The summer was busy. A near-endless stream of mostly lads, sat under the light, checking their phone, the relief palpable when they, the drug dealers, come swinging out their back gate, all swagger and disdain, handoff, and swing home. The young lads started to look a bit worse for wear as the summer rolled on. Their skin a little paler, their clothes a little more grubby. They weren’t here to buy a bit of dope.

It’s seeing the Reynolds boy that breaks me. Transparent grey skin, eyes sunk so deep they were hardly there.  Walking past with my dog, recognising each other, it’s the flash of shame on his face, his clothes unclean, hands jangling in pockets, head shrinking back into his hoodie. He stands eyes down, dancing from foot to foot until the dealer appears.

‘Morning’ she shouts, giving me a little wave but before turning back to the job in hand.

 I can’t look. Memories of the Reynolds boy, a tiny frail dot of a thing sat on the seats in front of me at the school play, him watching his big sisters on stage, singing along with my kids. Those same sisters who would come round for tea, dragging their little brother along, quite as a mouse in the noisy gabble of all those girls.

 I barge through the back gate, silence my only protest to the situation.

But I’m never very good at being silent. In my head, on long walks with the dog, I compose angry rants to the drug dealers.

‘Does your mum know what you do for a living?’

 ‘Is your gran proud’?

‘How would you feel if it was your brother, your sister, your friend?’

I know should feel sorry for the dealers, sure that their life is not going on as they planned. But I can’t. They look so smug, expensive clothes, smiling like it’s all normal. Like they are pulling one over us, with their politeness.

Instead, I say nothing, it all raging up inside me. The powerlessness of it all, the cruelty.

In the end, I snap. Two young lads, fourteen maybe, waiting under the lamp post.

‘They’re just kids,’ I hiss at my husband. He shushes me, always a risky move.

 ‘They’re behind us.’

He means the drug dealers. But I don’t care, I think about that sweet wee Reynolds boy, looking so unwell. That look in his eyes.

‘Bloody drug dealers’ I snap. It’s pathetic really. But I feel I need to out them. To name what it is that’s going on. No longer hiding the pretence of the situation under the niceties of a morning greeting. 

Nothing changes. The deals still go on. The only difference is now my morning walks are greeted with sly indifference.

 No one says good morning now.

Going home

The river is resplendent in the colours of the season. Oak leaves turn biscuit brown, the Gelder Rose a dark lipstick pink, deepens to vermillion. Field Maples litter leaves the colour of sunshine, while Lime, leaves limp like hankies, drip to the floor. The Willow, luxuriating in a great unrobing, scatters its leaves across the floor like discarded clothes. With the passing of the pumpkin’s, the air shimmering with the crush of pine needles, autumn is here. It is still and lush and silent.

It’s a long farewell to the summer, a lover lingering, not wanting to let go and yet ready for sleep. And for me, all the more bittersweet. Summer has seen me zooming off, whizzing across the fields, the ground firm and dry, the path rough and bumpy but navigable. Here I get up close to the water, sitting in clearings to watch the river flow by. There are swans, heron and only once this year a kingfisher. In spring I watched water vole but later only the slinking black mink. In early mornings, the light glittering with dew, crow’s, dark and heavy hooded bobbed to the water’s edge to sip delicately, all eyes cautiously on me.

 I am nourished after the long exile of the winter. Days are spent by the river with the dog, a book, some writing, a sneaky sausage roll. I come back to myself.

There is no path down by the river. There’s a black path that runs across the fields, but it stays away from the water. A cycle lane/footpath of shiny black tarmac that floods each winter. It skirts the edges of the fields as if scared to encroach across the meadows, into the wildness. Clinging instead to the slope that runs below the housing estate. And it’s here I am now trapped, as if on tracks, where I should be. In my wheelchair.

Accessing the world in a wheelchair is a constant negotiation. – even international politicians can find themselves locked out of talks because there is no access. Accessing the countryside even more so.

In a wheelchair we are meant to stick to the paths, stay in our lane, and by lane, I mean stay home. Despite laws about access, wheelchair users still struggle to get into shops, get on a bus or a train or enter public buildings, never mind the great outdoors. And I’m not arguing for tarmac paths across the moors. I want the wild as much as anyone else. And there’s the rub.

 It feels like loss.

 I see it coming. The dew a little heavier, the subtle shift in the light. I risk a ‘walk’ in grass too wet for wheels to grip. Just about getting away with it, just about making it through.

 My heart aches.

 Today I got stuck. Today the wheels spun in the mud leaving deep tyre-tread ruts as I twisted and slid, in the end reversing slowly away. It is tense and tight. Panic filled with grief and the shame of needing rescue.

With the fall of the leaves, I am lost. Trapped now to pavements and tarmac. Instead of molehills and meadows, I now negotiate cars parked on dropped curbs, recycling bins scattered to the winds.

I am undone.

 No longer tethered by the trees.

The river calls to me, it is deep within me somewhere but for now, from the path, it is just out of reach.

What time is it really?

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Pexels.com

‘What time is it really?’ The dog and I stalk around the house trying to work it out, the shifting of the clocks having discombobulated us both. With our precise internal clocks, we are tipped off-kilter for the whole of November, trying to perform mental acrobatics to work out what we should be doing.

Being mostly housebound, clocks and time no longer have the pull they once had. With no kids at home, our days are no longer punctuated by the ringing of bells. We are footloose and fancy-free or at least you’d think so, but actually, in order to endure the timeless expanse of the day spreading before us, we have created our own little routine that is actually fairly predictable. Set times for set things makes us both feel productive. Our days following a familiar routine.

Writing until 10:30.

A carrot for the dog around then.

11:00 volunteering – calling older people isolated in the community

12:30 walking the dog.

3:00 A wee disco nap.

It’s not like we die if we do things at different times, or at least I don’t. The dog paces, barking irritably by 10:38 if no carrot is forthcoming. But we have a nice schedule, our lives trundling along in unison.

Except now everything is wrong. I don’t sleep well, a long-term existence but now instead of waking at 5am to write, I wake at 4, groggily checking the time knowing I will no longer sleep. The dog has breakfast at 7am, but now politely reminds us, barking at  6:15 like we have forgotten her. It’s a good job I didn’t sleep in.

She sleeps while I write, accustomed to the laptop meaning she will be ignored.  Only now she’s barking, and I can’t work out if she’s just being an arse or if it’s carrot o’clock. It’s 10am what time is that in old money?

I have wondered at simply not changing the clocks. Of continuing with my own perpetual summertime but the thought of constant mental arithmetic, of trying to work out if we leapt forward or stepped backwards? Does it matter that it’s Monday? The stress, of never knowing what time it was/is, is really too much.

So, we will slowly adjust, secretly hoping hubby won’t notice the clock on the cooker – his superpower the ability to change the time – but no. I walk into the kitchen and with a second glance, I start all over again.

‘What time is it really?’

 Can I phone a friend?

Maybe the clock in the car will know. I will take a carrot just in case.