Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Today I had a great run with my school run chums. As I mentioned in my last post, we're taking part in Race for Life on Sunday. For the past couple of months some of us have been meeting up regularly to go running. I still regard myself as a bit of a novice when it comes to running - I've been at it three years and I am still slow, slow, slow.... But apart from one other super fast runner, I seem to know more about it then the others - which isn't saying much, but hey, who cares. For once I haven't been at the back of the pack, where by rights I belong. And on occasion I have even come in first (mainly when superfast mum isn't running).
Today, though, today was great. We ran 4.4 miles and thanks to SFM setting a blistering pace, we all posted pretty good times. I found myself struggling to keep up with them at times, and hats off to the mum who's organised us all, for being the best improver of the lot of us.
So in honour of our run. And to inspire everyone for Sunday, I thought I'd post a roll of honour here...
Coming in at no 1 is Super Fast Mum in a staggering 42 mins (9.5 min miles)
At no 2 we have the Fastest Teacher on the block with 43 mins (9.7 min miles)
In third place (just) is your very own Maniac Mum with 45.30 on the clock (10.29 min miles)
At no 4 we have our Best Improver at 46.30 (10.52 min miles)
In fifth place is Super Sprinter who raced in at 49.20 (11.18 min miles)
And last but definitely not least is Running Girl at 49.49 (11.24 min miles).
Congratulations one and all, and hope we all post PBs on Sunday (I won't actually, unless the children really really surprise me....)
And thanks to you all for the inspiration, and reminding me just why it is I love to run...
Friday, June 22, 2007
I have also teamed up with some other mums who are running in it too, and we have a webpage at JustGiving
I promised I would publicise it.
I appreciate there are lots of demands on people's purses all the time, and I am crap at asking for money, so this is not a hard sell. I am going to donate the amount I promised them anyway.
As many of us have, though, I have lost people to this dreadful disease, and I shall be thinking of two of them on the day.
Apart from anything else, it is an intensely moving experience seeing the names on peoples' backs and the runners taking part who are also ill.
And I'm really looking forward to doing it with the girls. No 1 was really pleased with her achievement in finishing last year, and I think it's great for them to have the opportunity to take part in something like this.
Am taking a bit of a break from blogging otherwise, as I am waaaaay behind on everything, but thanks to everyone who has passed on nice comments about the posts I've done about my dad. There may yet be more to come.
But not just yet...
Monday, June 18, 2007
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I like patterns, they form the ebb and flow of life somehow.
Another pattern is that in a few weeks I'll be forty two - twenty one years ago my father first fell ill.
He died shortly before another big birthday, my thirtieth.
This year isn't a big birthday year. It isn't even a big anniversary year - his tenth came and went without my feeling the need to talk about him.
Perhaps it is because the ebbs and flows of my life have taken me first into a career in publishing, during the period when he recovered from his heart bypass and lived a happy retirement in Shropshire, while his death propelled me into my next (and most important) career of motherhood. Now, as my children grow old enough for me to look at the world, I am starting a new career as a writer.
Patterns. Ebbs and flows.
Or maybe just so much baloney... (I do know I get carried away).
Maybe the reason this has come out now is that he isn't here to see my first book published. But without him, it never would have been.I spent so long searching for him, wishing I could find him. And now, I think I realise, he has been with me all along.
My favourite character in Pastures New has echoes of him, and my current heroine is about to launch an a life change after losing her dad. The experience of losing my own seems to be part of my writing. The experience of knowing him, is what makes me do it.
And always, always, when I see gold roses, or look at the stars, I think of him.
To end on a funny note.
My dad was spontaneous and often rather barking. He had a habit of putting a notion in your head and then wandering off, leaving it festering for a while.
The house we lived in was full of creaks and whispers. He had a huge imagination, and so do I.
I think this story sums up what connects us, in the end...
Did you hear that noise? My father says poking his head round the door.
I am sitting in the dining room of our house, studying for some exams. I hate this room. Being as the house faces north, it is always cold. But more then that, it is the room where both my grandmother and aunt died. I always imagine ghosts. Don't be silly, says my mother, if there were such a thing as ghosts, they'd be friendly ones.
Even now, though at seventeen, I am spooked by this room. But it is the only room where homework gets done, so here I sit.
Father and I are alone in the house, but he is just about to go out.
I could have sworn I heard a noise, is his parting shot, as he bangs the door shut.
I am completely alone now, and the house creaks more then ever. I have the dining room door shut, but I can hear every single shift of a floorboard.
At the top of the stairs is a step which creaks.
It creaks very loudly now.
I am the only one in.The top step is creaking....
No. It isn't. Don't BE stupid.
I try to concentrate on my work.
I hear another creak. And another. It sounds as though someone is coming down the stairs.
Don't be silly. It's just this house. It always rattles.
But the creaks don't go away. They come more frequently and more loudly then ever. There is someone in the house with me. AND I AM ON MY OWN...
I am feeling sick with terror, no amount of concentration is going to cram any more knowledge into my head about Martin Luther.
There is someone coming down the stairs.
They are coming towards the door. The only way out of the house is through it. What am I going to do?
Then it comes to me. In a moment of quite mad insane glory. There is a shillelagh hanging in the kitchen. If I climb out of the window, and run round the back of the house and grab it, at least I will have a weapon.
So feeling only faintly idiotic, I throw myself through the window, and in panicky haste, go and grab the shillelagh. I walk through the house holding it aloft.There is no one there.
Now I feel truly idiotic.
I go back to my books and sit with the shillelagh on my lap.
Some time later, Father returns.
Everything all right while I was out? he asks.
Fine, I say.Sometime later I secrete the shillelagh back into the kitchen.
Did he know?I have no idea.
But I never breathe a word.
The shillelagh also has a guest spot in Pastures New. Now I know why...
Some moments later, I walk away from his grave, having deposited the rose. And yet, I have no memory to this day of having thrown it in. I couldn't remember the next day, even. I wonder whether it's because I am not yet ready to accept the finality of this.
You don't lose people all at once, you lose them in bits and pieces. So speaks the narrator of John Irving's fine novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think that's very true.
Over the next few months I try to get used to a world without my father in it. I have been blessed with a solid happy family background. My parents are the bedrock and centre of my life. To lose my father feels as though the foundations of my world have been rocked for ever. Can I, will I, ever survive the storm?
The one thing that sustains me through the early weeks is the sure knowledge that, had my father have come round from that final heart attack, his quality of life would have been unbearable. I couldn't stand losing him, but I wouldn't have wanted him back under such circumstances.
It also felt as though it was the right time for him to go. I thought back to the conversation we had had about his heart bypass. In the end he didn't get the chance to have it, but fate rolled the dice one way, and I don't think he'd have been that unhappy with the result. He had seen us all grow safely into adulthood. Some of us were married, some of us not. A few of us had children (my only regret is he never saw mine). We were all pretty settled. I think he breathed a sigh of relief, and thought he could let go.
However we rationalise these things, though, grief is an odd and unpredictable emotion. I know he is better off. I feel glad he is no longer suffering. But the sense of loss is incalcuable. It hits me unawares, and at unexpected moments. I think I am fine, and then a great wave of sadness will overtake me, and I reel from the shock of it. Each wave seems higher and more painful then the last, and I feel battered and bruised in their aftershock.
Although I have odd moments when I cry (to my astonishment and slight frustration I find myself completely unable to cry at the funeral), I find I cannot really give into the emotion. The block of ice remains firmly wedged in my chest, and sometimes I think I am cold and heartless. I should be feeling this more. And yet, I seem to be unable too.
I go to bed at night and long to dream of him. If I can't have him in the real world, maybe he'll be waiting in the wings somewhere in my subconscious. But most nights, I awake disappointed. And on the rare occasions he strays into my sleep, I cannot see his face, or his back is turned to me.
One night, though, I dream that I am in the house where I grew up. It is dark outside, and from the top of the stairs, I can see a shadow in the door, which I know is my father. I go gladly to greet him. He flings the door open. It is not my father as he was at the end, but my father from fifteen years ago - wearing a battered old raincoat he liked to wear and a stupid hat. It's been a hideous nightmare, this misery I've been living in, my father isn't dead at all. How stupid I've been. But then before my eyes he starts to disintegrate and turns to straw. I wake up in a cold sweat. My father is gone. My psyche is playing tricks on me. All that is left is a man of straw.
The sun continues to shine throughout that summer, but I feel lost in a dark tunnel. Lost and incredibly alone. Once I go to buy flowers for a friend. I walk into the shop not thinking about my father. But all the flowers I see around me are in gold and red and yellow. I cannot breathe and walk away. I bring back blue flowers instead.
Spouse is hugely supportive, but I am unwilling to overload him with my grief. And even though I share it with my siblings my own experience of it is peculiar to me, and a burden only I can carry as they must carry theirs. I am also horribly conscious of not boring my friends with my troubles, so I eke out my confidences sparingly, telling one friend one thing, someone else another. It is only when we are on holiday some months later, that I realise, that in doing so, I've barely confided in Spouse at all. Unwittingly I've locked him out of the worst thing that's ever happened to me. I have two nights when I sob uncontrollably in his arms, but even then, I don't do so for long. What I really want to do is stand on a mountainside somewhere, completely alone and howl like an animal. Grief at its base is a primeval and raw emotion. I don't want anyone, not even Spouse, to witness me like that.
I work with people who are mainly younger then me, and just as I did all those years ago at university, I feel somewhat out of kilter with them. This is outside most of their experience, and I feel I have taken a vast step into the unknown. A book I read over and over again is Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? He at least understands what I'm going through. And I think I agree with him that losing a parent is liking entering the grown up club. My life is now mine to take charge of. My father has left me with the tools, it is up to me to complete the job.
Around the time of my 30th birthday, Spouse and I go away for a weekend in Cornwall. It is a magical sunny weekend, and I feel like I am finally emerging from the dark. He gives me an eternity ring. I suggest tentatively we might think about having a family.
Life really does go on.
The people that go before us light our path and show us the way. My father was the best of guides, and I miss his wisdom still. He taught me to think, to stand up for myself, to fight my corner but never to put someone down, to care for and protect the people around me. He taught me the importance of poetry and books, I wouldn't be doing what I do without him. Words are my business, and his greatest legacy to me. For the longest time I couldn't see or feel his presence in my life. I felt cheated that just as I got to know him, I lost him. I wish more then anything he could see my children. I know how much he would have loved them and they him. I tell them about him constantly, so they will know him the way I know my grandmother. But more and more now I recall his wisdom, his kindness, his strong sense of fair play, and I realise that the lessons he taught me will remain with me always.
He left me far too soon, and I will never stop missing him.
But the light he left burns very bright, and guides my way still.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
My heart still skips several beats when I see him, being away from him is torture, I can't imagine life without him.
Not too fond, I say.
I know what lies behind this. My father sees his clever daughter is in danger of getting sidetracked by a man. All around him, the world is changing and even in our slightly old fashioned circles, teenage girls are getting pregnant. He doesn't want to be a grandad, just yet.
Luckily for him, I don't want to be a mum, either. And though I am in love, I am not about to let that stop me from pursuing a career. If I can only work out what that will be...
It is around this time he tells me the story of my grandmother. I wonder, now, if that was deliberate. Look, he is saying, you've got opportunities. Don't waste them.
After hearing that story, I have no intention of doing so.
He paces nervously around me that summer, like a lion at the head of his pack, protecting his female. Every time we are alone, he delves further and further down a road down which I really really don't want to go.
Young men are full of passion, he'll begin.
Are they? I answer. I've never noticed.
They aren't to be trusted, you know, he'll persist.
Some of them are, I'll reply, butt out, leave me alone, he's my choice.
When I'm feeling really mischievous, though, sometimes I tease him. Ok. You want to pursue this line of enquiry (knowing full well that the answer to the unspoken question isn't going to be one he likes), the next time he starts on about young men having desires, I boldly reply so, what's new? He probes no further and retreats for now.
But it continues all summer. A bit of him wants to know how far I've gone. A bit of me wants to tell him. But I never quite have the courage to go there. The truth would upset him. Sometimes things are best left unsaid.
To his credit, although he is anxious about where this relationship will take me, he also gets on very well with Spouse. I think he's pleased with my choice, but worried I've made it too soon. Maybe he's right. But what do you do when you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with at nineteen? My dreams had always factored in marriage at thirty. Was I meant to say, go away and come back when I'm ready?
Time, of course, is the test of these things. And when it was the right time, my father couldn't have been more pleased for us.
We came up to Shropshire to announce our engagement.
Our first attempt ended disastrously. Father went to bed early, leaving Spouse no time to get him alone. We were off early in the morning, and left without the deed being done.
A month later we came back and he suddenly announced he was going away for the rest of the weekend.
In the morning I haul Spouse out of bed and chuck him downstairs to go and do the necessary. My father seems either oblivious to what is happening, or is as nervous as Spouse. Everytime he walks into a room, Father walks out of it. Time is ticking away and his train is in half an hour.
In the end, in desperation, I just yell, PARENTS!!! We have something to tell you.
So we dispense with tradition and tell them together.
Father is delighted and sends out for champagne. He can't drink it with us, as he is off out any minute, but champagne we must have.
Spouse is no longer a rival, but the person charged with my care.
And my father has another son.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
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The last two months have been very tough. I am back at work with a young baby,which is hard enough but on top of that Fil has had a stroke and is still in hospital. He was taken ill the same week as my mother was rushed to hospital for a gall stone operation. I was torn in two. But we thought fil was dying and Spouse needed me, my mother is being looked after by the rest of the family. I couldn't be in two places at once. My father's strictures about my first duty of care being to Spouse have never seemed more apposite, or more difficult to adhere to.
But now I am here. At my twin sister's wedding. A beacon of light to which I've been looking forward for many many months. A moment of joy amidst much misery. Mad Twin being the independent soul she is, insists that she doesn't want anyone to give her away, though our brother drives us to the church.
It is only as the first hymn sounds that I am overcome with the most immense feelings of loss and desolation. The last time I stood waiting to go down the aisle was at my wedding, with Father by my side. It is not quite two years since he has died and for the first time it hits me he really really isn't coming back. The shock of that realisation is totally unexpected.
I sniff my way down the aisle behind Mad Twin, and sit down at the end of a pew. Pull yourself together, I admonish myself. This is HER day, you're meant to be happy. And I am really, I am.
Two years ago Spouse had all our parents and in an incredibly short space of time we've lost one, and nearly lost another two. How can life change so utterly and brutally?
I manage to get myself under control eventually, but at some point in the service I am aware that my mother is crying. My mother NEVER cries. It is enough to set me off again. Tears stream down my cheeks, and in the end I give up trying to stop them coming. Mother passes me a tissue and we sniffle our way through the ceremony. By the time we get to sign the register I am bawling my eyes out. A floodgate has opened, and I cannot shut it.
What's the matter with your sister? The best man asks, perplexed. Long story, says Mad Twin. The priest has a box of tissues, I get through dozens while I wait to sign my name. The tears keep spilling out of me - the way the words I am having to write about my father are spilling out of me now. All those months when I couldn't cry, and I wanted to. All that time, when I could have done it privately, and here I am - me, who abhors public displays of emotion - bawling my eyes out for the world to see.
I manage to get it together for the photos, though I look suspiciously red rimmed in most of them, and I'm finding it incredibly hard to raise a smile.
Spouse comes and gives me a hug, which sets me off again. My sisters take it in turns to look after me, but I am a mess. I've gone into meltdown and the block of ice which has lodged in my chest since my father died has finally been swept away by a torrent of emotion I can't control.
Blimey, says my new lovely bil, I always thought you were such a hard nut.
So did I. So did I.
Since fil has been ill I have been like stone. Unflinching and hard, because my job right now is to support Spouse, mil and look after no 1. I cannot afford the luxury of breaking down, until I am here, with my family, and it is permissible.
Grief is an uncontainable unknowable thing. It hits you when you least expect it. and takes your breath away with its intensity.
I am grieving not just for my father now, but for the loss of my other dad. Fil, who quietly stepped into the breach when Father died, and took over his mantle, eventually recovers from his stroke, but he is never the same. And at the point when most young couples with babies are struggling to deal with their change in circumstances, we get hit with the double whammy of having to care for Spouse's parents. The carefree happy life I was fortunate to lead in my twenties has gone for good. I am thirty and feel weighed down with responsibilty and care.
I am also rather cross that this has happened right now, at the moment when I wanted to share my sister's joy at finding her soul mate.
Eventually, after a series of dashes into the ladies when it all gets too much again, I meet my godmother there after another paroxysm of weeping. Are you all right? she asks with concern. I have just pulled myself together and this sets me off again. By now my constant howling is actually becoming rather funny. Seeing that concern is the last thing I need, my godmother changes tack and says, Read any good books lately? I roar with laughter. It is just what I need to snap me out of it.
I go back into the fray, slightly worn out, and feeling like a limp rag, but able to at least enjoy the rest of the evening.
The highlight is dancing with my sisters to We are Family.
We are together. And that's what counts.
My father's best legacy is us.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
My father joined the navy in 1941, aged 17.
As a child growing up I loved to hear stories about snow on the bows of his boat (he was on the Arctic Convoys), or the time when he was in Sri Lanka and met a tarantula on the loo. His stories were invariably light hearted and funny, and he poked fun at himself for having been such a poor seaman he never made it to officer level (in fact he took his officer's exams just before VE Day).
He kept his medals in a drawer and made light of them. Oh I only got the ones, everyone gets, he used to say. The ones for just being there. He always made light of it all. And shrugged off any suggestion of bravery. As far as he was concerned he had never had any beef with the Germans, but Hitler had to be stopped. And that was that.
So it was something of a surprise one Christmas, to be sitting round the table only for my father to stand up, his voice cracking with emotion, raising his glass to the memory of the Scharnhorst. My knowledge of naval history is hazy, to say the least, but I had vaguely heard of the Scharnhorst, and Spouse who is keen on such things knew it was the flagship of the German navy, sunk off the Cape on 26 December 1943, 5o years to the day before my father's toast. My father's ship HMS Scourge was one of the destroyers present at the sinking of the Scharnhorst, and he described in vivid detail how the ship went down, and how so many brave men died.
He was clearly shaken by this memory, but I was, I am ashamed to say, slightly embarrassed by this revelation. I didn't quite know how to react to my father's emotion, nor to the realisation of the deep sense of horror which clearly remained with him, even after the passage of so much time. I wish now, of course, I had asked him more. (I do have one regret actually - it is that I never thought to ask those questions).
I wonder now if that's what he saw in those nightmares that plagued him his whole life. He frequently fell asleep in his chair (having endured very little sleep throughout his navy career, he resolved that whenever he got a moment he would always sleep), and I can remember him asking me to wake him if he seemed to be dreaming. I used to be frightened watching him twitch and shout out. He never once said what he dreamt about.
In June 1994, my father and his naval pals decamped to Normandy for the 50th anniversary celebrations of DDay. Spouse and I couldn't stay for the day itself, but we did stop by and see him pick up his medal at Caen Cathedral. It was a proud moment. He laughed it off as getting another one for just being there.
My father might not have told me much, but talking to other veterans, who like him, were only 20 then, I realised for the first time quite what a big deal just being there was. Here were these ordinary lads, taken away from their families for months on end, pounding the shores of Normandy for a whole month (I doubt I hit anything, my father, the gunner, quipped), sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe.
In fact, my father was lucky to make it back in one piece. Apart from the fact he went on the Arctic convoys eleven times, which was extremely hazardous, one of his stories involved the blackout before DDay began. A German plane flew overhead and they heard it dropping bombs in the water. One, two, three, my dad was counting in his head. The plane flew past, four, five six, he breathed out in relief as the plane flew away. From the base of the ship, someone shouted, Cor, I f***ing prayed. My dad, who was devoutly religious always laughed at that. If I'd gone to meet my Maker, he used to say, I'd have been saying three...
They were so brave. And so unassuming. All just doing their bit.
With the advent of the internet (how he would have loved the internet!), I can of course, now find out much more. I have come across maps which pinpoint the Scourge's position. But it is so frustrating not knowing exactly how or why he came to be there.
I do wish I has asked the right questions.
But I think perhaps he wasn't quite ready to tell.
Whose Dad is it?
Wow it's mine...
Thus went the legend of no 3's Father's Day card last year.
Given that Spouse has brainwashed them with comic book heroes since they were tiny, it's no wonder that that's how they view him.
My dad was equally keen on comic book heroes, and maybe that's how we all view our dads when we're young - a cross between Superman and Dr Who. We know he'll always be there for us. The hero in our home.
Some time when I was probably around 13, I stopped looking at my parents through the starry eyes of a child, and fixed them instead with the coldly unforgiving stare of a teenager. (No 1 is beginning to eye us up in similar fashion - oh dear.) Though I never stopped loving him, I began to realise my hero had feet of clay.
Yet Gentle Lamb.
Was how I summed it up in a haiku poem I had to write at school.
My father had an unpredictable temper, and his mood swings were swift and sudden. When in a good mood, he was the life and soul of the party, but there was always a tension - would I do something to set off that rage?
Actually. I didn't, or not very often. I hated confrontation, so I always took the no response, head down, don't argue back approach. Not so Mad Twin. But that's her story, not mine.
But during my teens, I can remember being very critical of him. Particularly when he vented his anger on my mother. It seemed so unfair, generally. And I used to get cross with her for just apparently taking it. It wasn't until I got married myself, that I understood their dynamic better. She was used to his storms, and would just let them blow over. Nine times out of ten he was terribly apologetic. And on the tenth time she would keep up silent pressure until he eventually capitulated. I thought back then, that he always got his own way. Now I think it was probably the other way round.
For women, our first experience of loving a man is our father. Depending on the kind of man he is, we get a template to either reject or embrace for life.
At nineteen, when I left home, I was quite deliberately rejecting my father's template. I didn't want to be with someone as unpredictable and angry as he was. Within weeks of leaving I had (did I but know it then) encountered the hero who would take me away from all that (I am not going to go into that here,though, as I know he wouldn't like it).
When it came to the choice, I thought I was making a very different one. And in many ways I have. Spouse isn't particularly literary, though he likes books; he's into cars, my father wasn't; and most importantly, he's very even tempered.
My childhood memories are peppered with pictures of my father taking care of me. If I had a sore throat, he made the best hot toddies with honey lemon and brandy. Once, I remember coming home soaking and frozen having walked three miles in the snow, and he was waiting with hot soup and sandwiches. He did looking after incredibly well.
He always stood up for me if he thought someone had treated me unfairly. I can remember once how outraged he was that I only got a B+ for a story I'd written instead, of the mark he would have given it (A-). My teacher had marked me down for my bad handwriting. I didn't mind. But he did.
Another time I clashed very badly with a thoroughly useless and nasty Maths teacher. He was threatening to put me in the CSE class. I wasn't that good at maths, but probably not that bad either. I had to beg Father not to go into school all guns blazing. NO teacher was going to behave like that to a daughter of his. I was of course, mortified, at the time, but I look back now in grateful awe. It's quite something to inspire that righteous anger, I can tell you.
And though he could be immensely dense about the way the mind of a teenage girl worked, wondering why we dissolved into floods when he innocently inquired about the spot we'd been trying to cover up, he was just fantastic when the chips were down. The first time I ever got ditched, I walked home and obeying my mother's strictures that I wasn't to be melodramatic (and god forbid, cry), I kept my lip firmly stiff and up, until my father asked if I was allright. My hurt pride took solace in his open arms, as my father told me firmly that it was my boyfriend's loss.
Several years after I was married, I had one summer where I was taken very ill. I felt low and miserable, and went to speak to my mother on the phone. Father usually took the, you want to talk to your mother approach to phone conversations, but that day she was out. He had a well developed emotional antenna and stripped through my defences to the distress underneath.Within hours a bunch of flowers had arrived. Gold roses. Of course.
I see Spouse doing all these things with my kids and it makes me smile. He is very much the hero of their lives, and no 4 has already declared her intention to marry him when she grows up. I hope they all hold out for a hero. And get the ones they deserve, just like I was lucky enough to.
I was holding out for a hero.
And they were both there. All the time.
No wonder I write romantic fiction.
My father stands in disbelief as I ready myself to get on my bike and cycle it to Euston Station. The weather is abysmal and it's seven miles away.
Tomorrow I'm going to Liverpool. The only way to get my bike there is to send it by train. The only way to get it on the train is to cycle it to Euston. The rain is streaming down. I don't really fancy cycling down the North Circular in it, but I don't tell him that, of course. Besides. What other choice is there?
The tension that has been simmering all summer between us spills out into a furious row.
Don't go, he says, but I do. Slamming the door shut. Certain, with all the arrogance of youth, that I am right and he is wrong.
The bike and I make it to Euston in one piece, I am absolutely sodden when I get home. I know I should make up with him. I am leaving home tomorrow. Never go to bed on a row, is his motto, and normally mine. But I am still too angry.
All summer long he's been needling me about my reading list. That'll teach me to take a degree in his subject. Have you read The Faerie Queene? Lucky you, you're going to study Anglo Saxon. You'd better get on with that list you know, otherwise you'll be behind from the beginning... On and on he goes. It's getting on my nerves. I wish he'd just leave me alone.
My twin gets none of this of course. Lucky her, she's not even here. Besides. He knows nothing of Biology.
I love my father dearly. But I hate it when he forgets to be my dad and tries to teach me instead. I don't like the two roles muddled, and I am defensive and snappy. He just wants to help and is hurt and angry back. Usually we tiptoe round each other and avoid confrontation. For my father when roused is unpredictable. I hate rows and am a past master at evading them. But, that last day he pushes too far, and I let fly. Why then? Why couldn't I wait one more day? It is the only time I ever let him goad me into a fight. And I am too proud to say sorry. So I don't.
We have a tense drive to Liverpool the next day. I am map reading for the first time and accidentally take us off the M62 a junction early, and he bites my head off. But eventually we get there in one piece. My mother and twin wait in my room while Father drives me to Lime Street to pick up my bike. I am taut and anxious. Will he start another row?
That bloody bike, is all he says, but then laughs his way through a Liverpool traffic jam. He's so unpredictable. I want him to apologise first, but this is as far as he can go. I meet him halfway, but I still can't bring myself to be the one to make peace, and it's an uneasy truce.
We get my bike back to my hall, have a quick cup of tea, and then they say goodbye.
Lucky you, says my father as he climbs in the car. I wish I was on the brink of a whole new life. Lucky you.
I don't feel lucky as I wave them goodbye, and walk back down my dark forbidding corridor, where all doors are shut to me. I feel miserable, heartsick that our argument is unresolved and terrified of the new life that awaits me.
He thinks my terror was indifference. He has yet to tell me the story of his mother, so I don't understand that he is jealous of my chances.
The rain falls solidly those first few weeks. Every time I get on my bike it seems to rain. I am perpetually drenched.
Slowly though I make friends, and begin to enjoy my freedom. But my course is hard. Much harder then I'd anticipated. And there are bits I really hate.
How's the Anglo Saxon going? He asks when I ring home. I can't face telling him, knowing how it is his favourite subject, I've barely attended a lecture. Education is wasted on the young.
I am often homesick, but pride prevents me from taking a trip back home. Pride and a determination to punish him.
I'm appalled by how cruel I was now. I wonder if he minded.
Eventually I make it home for Christmas. And he is there. Same as ever. Giving me a big bear hug.
Everything is as it was.
We never row like that again.
But I still haven't read The Faerie Queene.
Look. There' s Cassiopeia.
And there. See. Orion's Belt.
I am six, maybe seven.
My father takes my hand and shows me the stars.
There's Ursa Minor.
And see. There. Ursa Major.
Can you see
Later in Greece, the lights go out,
In a cafe by the sea.
The Milky Way flares into view.
Vast and impenetrable in a dark bay.
Is this what he saw, long ago,
On a boat in the Atlantic?
Can you see
After he's gone,
In a valley in Spain
I watch Mars glower large in a clear night sky.
I take my daughter's hand and show her the stars.
Look. There's Cassiopeia.
And there. The Pole Star.
Can you see
Always and forever.
When I look at the stars.
I see you.
My clever poetic big sis will be reading one of her poems at Jodrell Bank tomorrowas winner of the Times Moonbounce Competition. She is so clever. And he would have been so proud.
To follow her progress tomorrow you can go to: http://timesonline.typepad.com/technology
Friday, June 15, 2007
Days is one such song. And when he played it the other week at the Albert Hall it seemed to resonate in a way it hadn't done with me before.
I think that may be what's set me off on this nostalgia fest about my dad. I have no idea of the provenance of that song, or who it's for. Presumably it's a love song. But oh.... how powerfully it taps into the emotions I'm feeling.
Take for example the line about days when you can't see wrong from right. My dad was one of those people who have a clear moral code. He could always see wrong from right, and had a strong sense of natural justice, and a righteous anger about people who did very bad things for selfish or material gain. In that way, he reminds me slightly of David Tennant's portrayal of the Doctor, without the ruthlessness. My dad was never could never have been ruthless, but he shared that steely anger when people have really gone too far. (Maybe that's why I like David Tennant so much.)
I remember him once telling me about going for a medical check up. He was a heavy smoker but at that time had only just resumed smoking after a period of two years. As he was getting changed in the next cubicle, he heard the doctor bullying an elderly Jewish lady calling her Mother, constantly and subjecting her to a series of nasty racist jibes. This so infuriated my father, he wanted to bring the doctor down a peg or two. When it was his turn to be seen, he subjected himself to various tests, including a chest x ray. He was also asked about his general wellbeing, including the inevitable question, Do you smoke? Oh, yes, responded my father. The quack, who by now had my dad's x ray in front of him, looked rather perplexed. How many do you smoke a day? Ooh, about forty. The doctor was left scratching his head as to how my dad's lungs could possibly look so clean when he smoked that number of fags. My dad left laughing, having not admitted to having only started smoking again the day before. Don't get mad. Get even...
But more then that, this song resonates, as I'm sure it does for everyone who likes it, with that line about the days you'll remember all your life. There were so many. So very very many.
Days like the ones we had the summer before I went to university. I, two of my sisters and Father were all knocking about at home kicking our heels for a few weeks. We were getting bored of each other and getting under each other's feet. So periodically, Father would say, let's go out. And off we'd trot. We went to Woburn Abbey and laughed at the monkeys. We went to Frinton and had chips on a sea wall. Another visit with my mother took us to Poole. She had to go off on an errand for work, while we sat on the beach in the sunshine.
Days I remember as a child when he'd suddenly announce a treasure hunt and take us to our local park. Hidden among the foliage in the massive greenhouse would be toffees and other treats. Nobody else's dads did things like that.
Or very early days when he would sit patiently with me at the kitchen table helping me spell out words on a board, or taught me to play gin rummy.
Thanks to him I'm truly not frightened of the world, I do bless the light of every day he gave me. And though he's gone every day was utterly precious. And I am so grateful for each one.
Ray Davies really knows what he's taking about.
Thank you, so much, for the days.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
The nature of my relationship with my father at this stage in my life is somewhat complicated. I love him dearly and know he loves me, but he can be unpredictable and his moods capricious. He also has a habit of delving deep into subjects I would rather keep private. I want to be happy in this moment I have with him, but I am terrified he will start quizzing me about things I'd prefer not to discuss, or give me sermons about how I should live my life. I realise now of course, that this was the way his natural concern for me manifested itself, but then I found it excruciating.
It is only when he has paced the room for the fourth time, that I realise that he is in fact more nervous then I am. We look at each other and laugh. I think we both feel better for that. In fact, he gives me no sermons whatsoever, and instead we practise walking down the aisle together. It is the start of a properly adult relationship with him. One which I later felt cheated that I hadn't had for longer.
I have chosen gold silk for my bridesmaids' dresses, and my bouquet is of gold roses. They're my favourite, my father tells me. And I'm glad it's the colour I've gone for.
We get to the church and have an hilarious few minutes taking the mickey out of the photographer. My father has a keen sense of the ridiculous and can't take the posed shots seriously. The result is some great photos of us laughing - there's one in particular I love. The photographer lines us up with the bridesmaids, turning back to the camera. Father has me in stitches, saying, which way should I look, do you think?, as he turns his head this way and that, in genuine mystification about what the photographer is after.
Eventually the photos are done and we enter the church ready to walk down the aisle together. The door of the church is open, but the priest isn't ready. Father and I look at each other. Neither of us knows quite what to do.
Perhaps we'd better shut the door, he whispers. Perhaps we'd better, I whisper back. It feels like we're in cahoots together. I don't know why.
The door shuts. We stand there dithering. By now, we are both fighting hysterical giggles. In the end, he says, well we'd better do something, and flings the door wide open again.
The church has a very short aisle, so we're down it in no time. Father hands me to Spouse who looks faintly green. I am so happy about my future life, I don't really think about how he must have been feeling. But quietly and without fuss, he has just discharged himself of his duty of care, and given me to the man who will I hope care for me to the end of our days. (Actually cherish - the word I choose instead of obey in my wedding vows is more appropriate.)
In my student days, I used to think, fiery feminist that I was, that the idea of being given away like an object by your father was somewhat degrading. I don't now. I think it is more of a silent contract between two men who love the same woman, to make sure she continues to be loved. My father, very typically felt his job was done, and told me from now on my first duty was always with Spouse. Duty is a bit of a dirty word these days, I think. It makes people uncomfortable. But I know what he means. I love my parents dearly, but Spouse is my future. And my father is incredibly generous about letting me go.
His speech is short and to the point. He simply wishes us well and toasts us with champagne. Knowing how eloquent he is and how, if he chose to, he could make a speech that no one else could match, I am touched that he takes this approach. I've been at weddings where the father gets incredibly sentimental and describes his little girl as a princess or some such other sugary term. This isn't my father's style at all. His way is to stand back and let us have our moment in the sun. And to do so without me feeling the slightest bit bad that I am leaving him behind. I am immensely grateful for that.
All day long he complains about wearing a penguin suit - at least we didn't make you wear a top hat I retort - and by the evening, and after plenty of champagne, he comes downstairs wearing the terrible ratty old jumper he loves best. We all laugh. From the maitre d' to the gardener in one fell swoop.
It is the best day of my life, and my father is there. He so easily might not have been.
Gold roses and champagne.
The most precious memory I have.
I have another reason for remembering it. 16th October 1987 was also the day my father had his heart bypass.
The night before, my mother, my brother and I who were the only ones at home, retired to bed early. Anxiety meant that none of us were sleeping well, but I can remember around midnight being aware that it was becoming rather windy. I slept at the front of the house, facing a suburban street. Nature doesn't tend to feature in such places.
My brother slept in the loft, in a rather creaky conversion which faced downhill towards the bright city lights of London. He reported that night, that it was rather like sleeping on board ship.
I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. I can remember thinking, blimey it's windy. And then a sudden bang woke me out of my anxious doze, and I leapt out of bed, as did the other two. We met on the landing to discover that a window in my parents' room had smashed. Deciding that as none of us were sleeping anyway, we may as well go downstairs, the three of us headed for the kitchen. Just after the kettle boiled, the lights went out. My brother fetched his battery operated radio, Mother made hot chocolate on the grill, we lit candles and sat crouched over the radio, listening to the shipping forecast. As the announcer sonorously sounded, The wind is rising to x number of knots it felt like we were the only ones left on the planet.
As morning came we watched the two silver birch trees that graced our garden and had formed a feature of my childhood, being the perfect place for both a swing and later a tree house, bend with the wind and practically touch the ground. The damage done on that night meant one of them had to be cut down just before my parents moved house. I cried when I came home and saw it had gone.
My father, meanwhile, also wasn't sleeping. He reported later, how at some point in the night a window in his ward had swung open with a bang. He and several other elderly chaps, all due for heart operations, leapt out of bed to shut it. It was probably the most exercise any of them had done in years.
It was touch and go as to whether he should have the operation. Power supplies were down in London, and transport had more or less stopped. I was doing a publishing course at the time, and opted not to go in. I think, but now can't quite remember, that my mother struggled to get to Barts to see him before the op, but later came home.
I do remember a rather tense wait to find out if they were going ahead or not, and eventually the phone call came through that they were.
During the next few hours we distracted ourselves by clearing debris from the garden, and watching reports of the damage wrought across the south east. It was a wierdly surreal experience.
At some point, I can't remember when, we got a call to say the operation was a success. My father was resting, but all was well.
It was several days before I saw him, my mother as a former nurse, adamant that he needed rest and too many visitors would be bad for him.
When I did see him I was shocked. He had a huge scar running down his chest, he was badly bruised and looked as if he had been a victim of a traffic accident. Worse still, he seemed to have aged. My father was a tall man who always held himself erect. He had walked out of our house with a straight back, but he came home bent over, and shuffling like a little old man.
The weeks that followed were impossibly bleak. I was home from university, owed far too much money to the bank, hated the course I had booked myself on, and Spouse who still had a year to go before finishing his dental course, was still in Liverpool. It was by no means clear to me at that stage that we would have a future together, but after two and a half years together, being apart from him was killing me.
We couldn't afford to see each other every week, so we took it in turns to take the coach trip up and down the M6 every other weekend, or when we felt marginally richer, the train. He didn't have a phone, and was a poor correspondent. Sometimes three weeks would go by without us meeting. When I did get up to Liverpool we'd have frantic weekends when we would cram in as much activity in forty eight hours (I remember once going to the cinema twice in a day) before I would leave on the last available train from Lime Street Station.
I would get home around midnight, and the house would be shrouded in silent darkness. In the morning I was always the first up and out of the door. I used to stand at Wood Green station hearing the tramp, tramp of commuter feet and wonder why I hadn't stayed up north. My father's health didn't seem to be getting any better, the home I loved seemed for the first time in my life gloomy and cheerless. I wasn't keen on the Smiths, but heaven knows, as Morrisey liked to put it I was miserable now.
Then one day, Father had a bit of a blip. His heart started beating out of rhythm, so he had to go back to hospital. They stopped his heart, and restarted it (just thinking about that makes me feel slightly sick), and then sent him home telling him he was doing really well. It was as if that was all he needed.
That day he walked back into the house, standing straight and tall , his head held high. From then on, his recovery was smooth, and rapid.
My father was back. And all was very very well.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
I lie in bed, early in the morning, sun streaming through my window, silent tears rolling down my cheeks.
It is twelve years to the day my father died. Often his anniversary passes unnoticed - or I remember then forget the day itself. For some reason, though, this year, he has been much in my mind.
As I lie there, unable to sleep, I remember another sunny morning, literally half my life ago, in Liverpool.
It was the end of my exams, and I think if memory serves, I had made a bit of a night of it with my flatmates in Ye Old Cracke, thanks to John Lennon, one of Liverpool's most famous drinking holes. I awoke with my first ever hangover, brought on by an insane notion that drinking whisky doubles was a really good idea. I've never touched the stuff since.
At some point when I am slightly compos mentis, I decide to ring home and let my parents know how my exams went. They had been up to see me only the previous week, and I am guiltily aware I should probably have rung them by now.
My mother answers. There is a slightly odd tone to her voice, explained by her first words, "There's no need to worry..." I feel a very big but coming on.
The very big but turns out to be that my father has had a heart attack. He's actually been in hospital since Monday, and she hasn't told me. I know it's to protect me. But...
My father has been in hospital for a week and I didn't know.
And the stupid irony is, that he had mentioned having bad indigestion the day before their visit. We had joked about him not having the steak at dinner. In actual fact, he'd had his first heart attack the day before driving two hundred miles to see me. Not content with that, he'd gone on a round trip to see two of my siblings who were also at northern universities. He drove over six hundred miles in just over twenty four hours without realising that in fact, he ought to be in hospital. It's a miracle he didn't crash on the motorway.
But hospital was where he was now.
There's really no need to worry, my mother assures me. It's only a mild one. A bit like a warning, really.
When I suggest coming home, she tries to put me off, but I'm not playing ball. I have a week between exams and getting the results. I don't have to be here, and I'm not going to stay.
I can't remember now why I didn't go straight away, I expect it was money constraints or something. But I remember spending the rest of the weekend in a daze. I wasn't quite twenty one and my father had had a heart attack. I had no idea what that meant. How ill was he? Was he going to die? It seemed melodramatic to even have the thought.
I certainly couldn't articulate any of this to the people around me. We were young and free and living suitably young free and hedonistic lives. Barely anyone I knew had lost a parent at that stage in our lives. It wasn't how life was meant to be. My flatmate's dad had had a heart attack too, but though I mentioned what had happened, I can't really remember confiding in him. I didn't really know how.
I went home on the Monday, and entered a parallel universe, where my father was wierdly missing from the family home, and my mother was behaving as if nothing untoward had happened. Her only acknowledgement of the undoubted anxiety she must have been feeling, was to comment that she was wearing bed socks, as the bed was cold. I knew she was trying to protect me, but I was baffled too. I didn't want to be a drama queen, but this seemed a rather big deal to me. Yet time and time again, when I met people I knew in the street who enquired after my father's well being, I would smile and say, Oh he's fine, joining in the conspiracy. It's just a little setback. All will be well.
And all was well. After a week, and having reassured myself that he really wasn't at death's door, I headed back to Liverpool for the end of term, where I threw myself back into my partying hedonistic life style, and tried to put the unsettling events at home behind me.
Looking back now, after all this time, I am struck now how absent my father is from my memories of that period. I remember so many occasions of that bright, sunshine-filled summer, and for the year afterwards, when he just simply wasn't there.
Arriving in Manchester to cadge a lift home from my mum who was driving a sister back to London, it was a shock to see her alone.
On my 21st birthday, I wanted to see Shakespeare at Regent's Park. Father couldn't make it, and we went without him.
A year later, when I graduated from university, on another bright sunshiny day, my parents came to see me take part in an outdoor performance of the Chester Mystery Plays. I was so excited that they were there, but the evening turned cold - too cold for my father - so he stayed where he was in the car, and my mother watched my performance alone. In the morning, having indulged in his usual practice when in Liverpool of eating black pudding, he felt ill, and therefore missed coming to the sherry reception in my department, and my mother and I went out for lunch without him. I think though we tried very hard, we both felt all at sea. I can remember to my shame, feeling rather cross about this. It was the most important moment of my young adult life. Was he intending to miss everything?
I am happy to relate that he recovered enough to see me graduate, and I have the pictures to prove it. But it was a strange and unsettling period of my life, and I never knew how seriously I should worry about his illness.
Time passed, and eventually Father had a heart bypass, from which he made a full recovery, and then he and my mother moved from our family home in North London and went to live in Shropshire. From there he lived the next eight years in a great deal of happiness, I think. Once more, all was well.
The years passed, and I had semi forgotten my worries about him, although there was always a slight residual angst. Did he seem over fatigued? Was it wise to drink quite so much red wine?
I am good at worrying about things before they happen, so I dismissed my fears as being foolish.
Then the year before he died, he ended up in hospital again for a prostrate operation. His heart was causing concern so they performed an angiogram. It revealed that the bypass was beginning to fail. He was going to need another one.
He recovered from the first operation, and everything again, seemed well.
Until the day I came home from work to a message on the answerphone. My father had had a stroke, and was in hospital. Again, my mother hadn't told me straight away. Trying to protect me (I was nearly thirty, I felt rather cross that she still felt she had to), trying to protect him. When he woke up in hospital he was unable to communicate anything other then the fact he didn't want any of us to see him in the state he was in. I can understand that now, though at the time I felt shut out, and angry.
As it happened I was going up north on the Monday to give a talk in a library in Tamworth. I went a day early and stayed with my mother - if I couldn't see my father, I could at least keep her company. She was upbeat and optimistic about what had happened. The stroke was caused by a blood clot. His heart trouble was at the root of this. The letter for the date of his second bypass, ironically arrived the day he was taken to hospital. When he recovered, he could have the operation. All once more would be well.
I wasn't so sure. I can remember a distinct feeling that our luck was running out. How much longer could my father sustain these assaults on his body? It was a feeling I only articulated once or twice, worrying that I was being overly dramatic. But I had the strongest feeling we would be celebrating the next Christmas without him.
The next three months were punctuated with trips up and down the M40. One I remember particularly, as it was a rare weekend spent entirely alone with my parents (as I am one of eight, opportunities to be on my own with them didn't come by very often).
My father was an eloquent man: words were what defined him. Words were his bequest to me. And the cruellest part of his last illness was that his words deserted him. He struggled to string a sentence together, and at times I found it unbearable to listen to him try.
During that weekend I sat listening to him painfully trying to explain to someone at Barclays that he had been ill and therefore hadn't made a payment on his account. It was clear from his frustration that the person at the other end thought they had a nutcase on the line. When he finally managed to spit out the words, I could almost feel his interrogator relax. I wanted to weep, but I felt proud too. Father could have asked me to do it, but he was nothing if not determined.Two other important things happened that weekend.
I've mentioned before, on this blog, that Jane Henry, the name I blog under is actually my grandmother's name. She died when I was a baby, but my father talked of her so constantly, I have a very clear picture of her in my head, and I feel an immensely strong connection. He had told me in passing that when she was young she had a place at Liverpool University to read English, but thanks to a father who didn't believe women should be educated, she never took it up. I was twenty when he told me that and it made me hugely sensible of the privilege I had been given, and determined to always make the most of my opportunities. It suddenly occurred to me, that I had never told him how inspired I was by the memory of his mother, and I finally did so. He was touched to the core, and I feel grateful to this day, that I did tell him. It was probably the most important thing I ever said to him.
The second thing, was something he said to me. Which gave me strength and sustained me for the weeks that followed.
Your mother wants me to have another bypass, he began. Then he paused and pointed to his chest. I'd rather take my chances with this old ticker though. I laughed and said, don't be silly or something. But I think he wanted to tell me, so I would tell my mother, who quite rightly was trying to be positive. I think in fact, he was then preparing to leave us. He had had enough of being ill and hospital. He knew there were things he would never do again. I think he was tired out from the effort of keeping going. Knowing he was content, made everything a lot easier.
The last time I saw my father was a bank holiday weekend. We had been up north again, visiting friends, and we called in on the way back. It was a busier time as several of the family were there. So I didn't speak to him alone. We had had our moment of shared confidences. Then I didn't know there would be no more opportunities to talk again. But even if I had, would it have made any difference? We'd both said all that needed saying. There was nothing more to add.
He was sitting in the garden as we left, not saying a good deal. I think the effort of speaking was probably a bit much. I kissed him goodbye, and walked away in the dappling May sunshine. I never saw him again.
A few weeks later, on another sunny day in May, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. It was my mother, and I didn't need to be told that my father was dead.
The shock - though I was expecting it was enormous, and the feeling that the world had shifted on its axis one that I have never quite recovered from.
The sun shone through my office window, as I sat ringing people up, all of them crying when I told them my news. I grew quite impatient in the end. He was my father. And I wasn't crying.
It felt like a block of ice had settled in my chest.
My father was dead, but I didn't think I would ever be able to cry again.
I DID just post up a story about twins by Mad Twin, but we decided to take it down again as she's entered a writing competition and we suddenly realised it might be in breach of competition rules.
If she doesn't win (and how can she not, it's a brilliant story) I'll post it up again later...
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
To date my neuroses (which get worse with every passing year, and have increased in number since having children) include the following:
Flying. It's not natural. If God had intended us to fly he'd have given us wings.
Dogs. I thought by dint of Spouse forcing me into dog therapy, and me forcing myself into patting the things so the kids won't be scared, I'd got over that one. But... then lots of my friends got dogs and now I'm worse then ever...
Water. This, I know is odd for someone who is training for a triathlon. I am fine in water myself. I like swimming. And I love boats. But... put me anywhere near water and my offspring and I am a complete neurot. Even though the two big ones can swim pretty well now, I can't bear watching them do it...
And as for childhood illnesses. Don't get me started.
Every time they have a temperature, I still check for meningitis.
I'd like to keep chickens but I'm afraid of bird flu.
And though it hasn't been a problem for ages, I STILL stress out when nos 2&4 have colds in case they get a full blown asthma attack (with five hospital visits between them, perhaps that isn't so unnatural...).
I can trace EXACTLY the moment I changed from being mad, bad and dangerous to know and not caring an iota for the dangers inherent in this world, and became Ms Neurot Extraordinaire.
I was ten years old, and I used to go swimming every week at the local pool. Amazingly, when I think about it now, one of my chief pleasures was going to the top board (which was very very high) and jumping off in the deep end, which in those days was properly deep (12ft 6 deep, in fact.). My other party trick was to spend hours in the deep end trying to see if I could touch the bottom. I watch no 1 doing the same in a depth of about 3ft and panic like mad. I cannot now imagine what possessed me to do such a thing. I presume it was because, despite lurid urban myths about the person who belly flopped and split their stomach open, I thought I was invincible. Until the day I merrily climbed to the top of the high board and looked down and suddenly thought, YIKES!!! That is a long way down. A long long long way down.... And I couldn't do it anymore.
Just thinking about it makes me feel a combination of longing to have that fearlessness again ( I can still feel the joy of leaping off into space and having that nanosecond of fear and excitement before I hit the water) and a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I have been a cowardy custard ever since. Which is why I have enjoyed reading my bloggy friend Kate Harrison's book The Self Preservation Society immensely, as her heroine is even more of a scaredy cat then me (until she gets a bang on the head and starts to realise that she can take risks in life).
It was also particularly pertinent that I was reading it while were on holiday.
In Wolfsburg where we stayed in Germany, we visited a fine leisure centre called Bade Land. It puts our crap leisure centres to shame. There is a wave machine, an Olympic size swimming pool, a river thing (the kids love it, I hate it as it makes me stress. There's a surprise), and two very high rides.
No 1 and Spouse tried out the rides on our first visit. They were very enthusiastic about the tyre one, but the other ride, which was called The Black Hole induced a peculiar retinence in both of them.
Do you want a go? Spouse asked. I'll look after the kids.
I looked at the high windy tubes that snaked their way outside the building and remembered a prekids trip to a water park in Majorca where I had gone in similar and hated it.
Not a chance, mate, I said. You know me. I'm ever so brave...
However, on our second visit, I suddenly thought. Come on. Your ELEVEN year old did it. How scary can it be?
So as we were gathering everyone up to go, I said, You know, I will have a go at one of the rides. For some absurd, stupid reason known only to my subconscious, I didn't want to go home thinking I hadn't tried.
Ok, said Spouse, we'll be waiting at the bottom for you.
So I set off up the stairs. On my own. It was a Friday and the place was pretty empty. There were a lot of stairs. And it seemed to take a long long time to reach the top. Oh shit. What was I letting myself in for?
I got there and I saw two openings. One was for the tyre ride, but I hadn't brought my tyre. Besides, Spouse and no 1 had assured me that The Black Hole was great fun. I should have known better. I really should.
The Black Hole looked absolutely terrifying. It was a black hole, or rather a tube, with water running down it. When the light went green, I was meant to climb in, holding onto a bar above my head, and then let go.
I was suddenly transported back to that sodding waterpark in Majorca. There was a ride there which was immensely high. Spouse and I laboured to the top, and I watched in awe as ten year olds threw themselves over the side of it. We tentatively sat down to go, and then.... Spouse went and I lost my nerve and didn't. I stood up there feeling like a total plonker, and he (despite having hated it himself), nobly came up again and made me come down with him. I did it, but I was absolutely terrifed.
I can do this.
Of course I can do this.
My ELEVEN year old did this....
Oh sod it.
I am toooo old to prove anything to anyone. I don't have to do this, and I won't.
Feeling like a child who's having a tantrum I make my way pathetically down the stairs again. It would be nice to recapture that sense of fearlessness....
Spouse roars with laughter when he realises I haven't done it. But then he says, Oh go on. It's great fun. Look, no 1 will come after you.
Now I really can't lose face. I totter back up there with no 1. It's brilliant, Mummy, she assures me (the little liar)...
The Black Hole looks even less inviting second time around. But I have a child looking at me questioningly. I'm her mum. She deludedly thinks I am brave. I can't show her I'm not. Amazing how strong the instinct not to show yourself up in front of your offspring is.
I sit in the tunnel and hold onto the bar. It feels horribly claustrophobic, and all I can see is a black black pit. Which I am about to enter. I must be bloody mental.
I let go.
I scream from the minute I get into the tunnel till the minute I get out.
It is horrible....
I am shooting down a dark tunnel at a frantic speed. I am totally out of control. I am screaming like a banshee and wondering where the fuck the lights that no 1 and Spouse have promised me are. The tube thing I went in in Majorca was at least light. And it wasn't this sodding long.
For a moment I am put out of my misery as I flash briefly through a part of the tunnel which has a few miserable sparkly bits. I stop screaming for a minute, but then next thing I'm flying through the dark again and screaming as loudly as ever.
Another brief respite comes in the shape of some coloured lights, which remind me of a kaleidoscope. I pause for breath, maybe I'm at the end...
... or maybe not. The kaleidoscope drops suddenly away as I whoosh straight down, faster then ever into another black hole. My stomach is hitting the floor, I feel sick, dizzy and am utterly hysterical.
And then I land with a thankful splash into a pool. I struggle out of the water, spluttering and helpless. You bastard, I manage to gabble at Spouse, who not unnaturally is struggling to control his hysteria, That was awful....
To my utter shame I collapse in hysterics. The kids are mystified. I've never seen you cry, says no 2 in awe. No 2 is a mum in the making though. Being a champion cryer herself, she knows that thing to do in these circumstances is give the cryer a hug. Which she does. Oh lord. My humiliation is complete. I've shown myself up utterly in front of my children (no 1 cunningly comes down the stairs having opted not to repeat the experience, and is laughing uproariously at my discomfit). This story is going to go down in the annals of our family forever....
Still. At least I've taught them a lesson.
When I've recovered my composure, I tell them what it is...
In life, you should face your fears , I say. And that's what I did. (I'm so brave.)
What they say to everyone they meet is: Mummy went in The Black Hole and cried.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
No 1 thought I was terribly cruel for describing them in such terms. And I know it's horribly black, but quite frankly if I didn't laugh I'd have to cry.
Mil's sister has MS and has been living in the same home for over forty years. She is mentally still all there, but she is surrounded by people like the ones I encounter by the lift. The only reason I think she stays sane is that she is an awkward old bugger (every family should have an Awkward Aunt. With apologies to my nephews and nieces, I fully intend to turn into one in my old age) and makes life difficult for those around her. It's her only weapon in a fight against a world that with every passing year must seem increasingly to shrink and become less accessible to her.
Mil's sister is the main reason we have come to Germany. We are the closest family she has (she has no children), and we're a long long way away. And we can only ever come for the shortest of visits. I can't imagine how bleak her life must often seem. Luckily she and mil have inherited a steely determination for an aunt whose life philosophy was Ich Kann, Ich Will, Ich Muss (I can, I will, I must) - it clearly keeps mil's sister sane and so far has kept mil out of a wheelchair (mil has a condition known as a benign essential tremor - benign only in the sense that it isn't caused by a malignant tumour. The results of it are anything but - she has a dodgy sense of balance, her hands shake uncontrollably and she only walks now with the aid of her pushalong zimmer. Anyone else would have given up the ghost by now. But not mil.)
The trouble with our visits to Germany now is that most of the people we meet tend to meet are elderly and like mil's sister in a poor way. Her home does its best, but sheesh. I think if I ended up like that I'd be tempted to top myself. And while the majority of the staff there certainly look after the residents well, I was really cross with one care worker who bossily broke into a photo session we were having because mil's sister had to have her lunch then and there. It was done with no kindness, or thought, or appreciation that for mil's sister those five minutes were incredibly precious. What did it matter if she was a little late for lunch? I think that attitude sums up the problem with these kinds of places. However hard people try, and however much thought goes into them, in the end the inmates become a part of the system, and lose their individuality for the sake of the bloody system which prevails above all else.
What's the answer? I'm not quite sure really. Because another visit we pay shows up clearly the personal cost of keeping a loved one at home. Mil's best friend and her husband were farmers. Though they have now passed their farm over to a close family member (they too, have no children of their own), they still inhabit part of the huge farmhouse they own. When I first came here they were in their sixties, sprightly, active and running a highly successful farm. Now mil's friend has alzheimers. She doesn't recognise her husband any more, asking him constantly where her husband is. He is saintly beyond belief and shoulders the burden with dignity and courage. But it is sad beyond belief. Though she briefly comes to life when she meets mil, and this year seems to remember me (last year I was constantly asked if Spouse was my husband, despite her having been at our wedding, and my having stayed in their house several times). The overwhelming impression we have is one of two lonely old people, who are eking out their days in a quietly tragic fashion. If anything would make you want to rage against the dying of the light, it's that...
It's not that I think this is a problem specific to Germany - it is simply we get a huge concentrated dose of the problems affliciting the elderly when we come here - but I think it is one that affects the West particularly. We don' t care for our elderly at all well. We give them scant respect, and are often impatient with them. If they end up unable to cope we shove them in homes which in many instances aren't fit for a dog. Ok, that's probably an exaggeration, but I was horrified when fil spent two weeks in a home (highly recommended to us by the social worker who organised it for us) to allow mil some desperately needed respite care. There were members of staff who seemed to care, but for the most part they were indifferent, and far less considerate then their counterparts in Germany. Fil wasn't eating a great deal at that stage, and he was also slightly confused and bewildered. No one made any attempt to bring him out of himself. Or feed him. I came to see him several times and found food sitting congealed on his plate. Sometimes I think they even took it away, completely untouched. He developed an ulcer while he was in there, and despite several requests, he only managed one bath.
Poor fil. It was only a month before he died, and he was very grumpy. So they dismissed him as a diffcult old sod and didn't care. Or worse, patronised him as if he were some petulant little child. I wanted to smack them. The things he had done in his life. The courage he showed under fire. The brave moral decision he and his colleagues took at the end of the war not to repatriate Yugoslavian refugees. And these people treated him like he was an idiot. It made my blood boil and still does.
The old are the advance guard. We walk in their footsteps and if we are wise ourselves, learn their wisdom. To see them reduced to gibbering zombies is maybe inevitable in some cases - we cannot, for example stop a disease like alzheimers - but if only there was a way to motivate people better, to keep them engaged and interested in life, maybe we could manage care of the elderly better.
We couldn't make it any bloody worse.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Give me an A,
Give me an O,
Give me a three in a row.
Tic, tac, toe.
I've never known what this game was before, but Spouse and I are getting a crash course as the kids have played it all the way from Paris to Worms (where we stopped overnight), and are now in full flow en route to Hanover.
It turns out to be a version of Paper, Scissors, Stone, and when someone wins/loses the game continues with the winner tracing a finger up the loser's back with the immortal words:
Spider crawling up my back,
Which finger did that?
The loser then has to guess the offending finger (nos 3&4 cheat all the time and guess all of them).
Whoever loses that time gets punched on the arm with:
I win, you lose,
You will get the biggest bruise,
followed swiftly by:
I win, you're a nickel
You'll get the biggest tickle.
I don't know where my kids get this stuff from. They pick it up in the playground through some kind of weird childhood osmosis. Lots of the rhymes they sing are variations of one that were around in my day, but tic, tac, toe is a new one on me.
Not that I'm complaining mind, because we're driving through the Weser mountains in the pouring rain and I'm immensely grateful for anything keeping them entertained.
We're on the third leg of our journey, and it's no 2's ninth birthday. Poor no 2, being as her birthday falls on bank holiday weekend, we always seem to be away. She hasn't had a birthday at home since she was four. When she was five, we went to Ireland for the weekend; when she was six we went to Germany. And I will forever remain covered in guilt - I'm a catholic, I give good guilt, me - that thanks to Spouse whisking me away to Venice for my fortieth, we weren't actually there AT all on her 7th. (Mind you, she told me the other day that she got three cakes as a result, so perhaps the experience hasn't scarred her for life). Last year we were in Germany again, flying out on her birthday. She must feel very got at.
No 2's birthday is one of the reasons I wasn't keen to make this trip right now. The first reason was the wedding, which I had been invited to over a year before mil decided we had to visit her German family. I don't mind going, in fact, I like it, but... I was very grouchy about a)having my plans interfered with and b) no 2's birthday. (there were two other reasons making me grouchy, of which more later)
No 2 was actually astonishingly good about the fact that she spent most of her birthday in the car. We tried to lighten it up for her by opening some presents in the hotel in Worms before we left. Luckily one of them was an electronic game of twenty questions, which also caused much diversion. I managed to fox it by suggesting toe nails as my object and Spouse confused it by saying hair. Thankfully, it kept the kids entertained for hours...
Our first stop was Hanover, to meet up with mil's cousin who has Parkinsons and lives in a home there. It's all a bit sad really - the first time we went three years ago the cousin who is possibly suffering from something alzheimers related forgot all about us, and went off to her room. Last year when we were there, she was brighter, but the joy with which her fellow residents greeted us suggested that they don't get to see the young very often.
And I don't know, maybe it's me, but... even though this home is very bright, and has a lovely cafe, and lots of facilities, there is just something unutterably sad and hopeless about these places. People are just sitting here, eking out their last few years with very little to look forward to. God's Waiting Room by any other name...
But, despite that, mil's cousins are pleased to see us all, and we are particularly pleased to be reunited with the younger sister, whom we last saw in Berlin in 1991, I think. She has brought little Berlin bears for the children, and we have an interesting chat about how Berlin has changed (we went just after the wall came down, and before they took Check Point Charlie away). Luckily she speaks a fair bit of English, because since my French sojourn, I seem to be utterly incapable of understanding any German whatsoever. I can hear the words, but they're washing over me. Sheesh, I feel like I understand less now then I did on my first trip eighteen years ago...
We can only spare an hour or so in Hanover before going on to the little town we stay in outside Wolfsburg. We've stayed in the same hotel several times, and they know us. Because there is a bank holiday, though, the whole place is shut up and we've been given a code for the safe to get our keys. To my amazement it works...
I was angsting hugely before we left about how to get no 2 a birthday cake, as the bank holiday would mean no opportunity to buy one. Luckily I was in Waitrose half an hour before school pick up on the day before we went, so it suddenly dawned on me I could get a cake there. I have had it at my feet all the way through Europe. The weather is so rubbish, it has no opportunity to get too hot in the car.
No 2 has sat patiently for hours not opening presents, so we let her rip everything open as soon as we are settled. Then we pop across to the little restaurant across the street, where mil hilariously accuses the proprietor of having put on weight (apparently in Germany this ISN'T an insult, as it indicates you are prosperous. Sounds a bit mediaeval to me...) - in fact it isn't the proprietor at all, but his brother. Whom we meet the following night, and are reassured to find is still very thin.
Along with the cake, I have secreted candles, but now that we've both given up smoking we have no lighters (Spouse in fact has made it a year today) - so we borrow some from the restaurant, and I sneak the two littlies back to our bedroom, where I frantically set about lighting nine candles, which stubbornly refuse to be lit, while Spouse brings mil back, and no 1 distracts no 2.
To me utter amazement it works. The room is in darkness, everyone crowded in the corner, and no 2 hasn't had a clue till she walks in and we start singing her happy birthday. The sight of her face gets rid of (most of ) the guilt about not being at home, as she genuinely thought she wouldn't be getting a cake.
She might not get the best of birthdays, but they're always... well sort of... interesting....
Fur Nummer zwei, mein kleines leibchen....
Herrzliche Gluckwunsche an dein Geburtstagxxxxxx
PS as a rider to this post. Today it is mil's birthday. And no 1 is taking part in a quiz for school. It is also the ONLY day I could arrange a birthday party with no 2's best friend. Soooo....
I have already been round to mil's with flowers and a cake.
I am picking the kids up at 3.30 and whizzing round there with a present.
I have to be at Pizza Express at 4.45.
And someone is picking no 1 up at 5.45 and depositing her with us.
Spouse may even join us at some point.
Think of me....
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Luckily, Ingrid, despite a tendency to go apoplectic when you don't follow instructions (Recalculating, recalculating she fulminates like some kind of in car dalek), does manage to find the way, and the Mairie is right next to McDonalds, so Spouse is able to whizz off there with the sprogs once I've been deposited unceremoniously on the pavement.
The pavement is overflowing with people, chatting, mingling, laughing. I spot my host busy among a group of wedding guests, and hazard a guess that the pretty girl in the rusty satin dress must be his younger daughter - who was a bump last time I saw her. The bride is nowhere to be seen at first, and I can't spot her mother either. I know absolutely no one here apart from the bride's parents and I haven't a clue of the form at a French wedding.
A joyous shout greets me, and my host spots me, flings his arms around me in welcome. Why didn't you come and say hello, he accuses. I was being typically English and hovering about in the background is why. Besides, I can see he's busy. We have a brief chat before he disappears into the crowd again. His place is taken by his lovely wife - oh the laughs we had together when I stayed with them. I owe to her my first excruciating experience of waxing...
I am introduced to the bride - I recognise her from her pictures, but where is the little girl I once knew? It's been twenty two years. It is strange to meet up after all this time. She is charming and bubbly and fizzing with pleasure. The ambiance is one of excitement and fun. I don't mind at all that I am on my own. In fact, as I explain to a fellow guest who kindly takes me under her wing, I am so rarely alone in my normal life, I am positively relishing the experience.
We are soon ushered into the Mairie, where, to my surprise, my host dons a sash and brings the bride and groom together to perform the ceremony. It turns out as a former Mayor of the town he is entitled to perform wedding ceremonies if the actual mayor isn't available. It seemed like a charming and personal way to begin.
Although up until now I have been quite pleased with how well I seem to be communicating in French, I have to fess up here and say I didn't understand a lot of what was going on, but the gist was clear. And the happiness on the faces of the bride and groom said more then any words could.
Once the ceremony is complete, it is on to the next part of the wedding at the church. My friendly French friend kindly offers me a lift, which is just as well. I'd been to the church before, and my memory of how close it was is more then somewhat rusty...
In many ways the whole experience was not so very different from an English wedding. The cars were decked out in ribbons, the bride wore white, we threw rose petals rather then confetti, but the gist was the same.
However, the little differences delighted me.
My French friends are an immensely egalitarian couple, and so they both took their daughter down the aisle. I thought that was brilliant and it's certainly something I'd consider doing. Traditions sometimes are made to be broken.
The service itself was fairly easy to follow, but my next surprise came towards the end when I suddenly realised that both my friends were in the rather lively choir which provided the accompaniment. Talk about a hands on wedding...
We emerged from the church to be given a little posy of almonds (that's happened to me at a English wedding once, too. I think it signifies luck or happiness), and some gold/red petals to chuck at the happy couple.
One thing that strikes me immediately is the brightness of the colours on display. There are reds, and pinks, oranges and yellows. I feel rather dazzled, as if I'm in a crowd of peacocks. My friends explain that the theme of the wedding is flames: to symbolise warmth and life. It certainly makes for a dramatic impression.
In the church I make the acquaintance of an old friend of the bride's mother. She is half English, which is handy, as she kindly fills me in on the bits I don't understand. I am aware that my brain doesn't work fast enough to keep up with my mouth, so a lot of my French is coming out semi garbled, and in places rather more like gobbledegook then sense.
My chauffeur from earlier kindly takes me on to the reception, which takes place in a fabulous old abbey. He's got sat nav too - which is just as well as the abbey is in the middle of nowhere. We arrive to the sight of the bride and groom on the lawn waving us in.
Then follows the photos - just the same as an English wedding. Lots of hanging around while people are dragged in and out of the pictures.
Finally, it's done and we all traipse through to the courtyard for drinks and foie gras (flamed very dramatically over a huge pan). I have to confess, the notion of how foie gras is made really appals me, but on the other hand, when in Rome etc, and I've never had it before, so... Having been assured by my English speaking friend it is quite delicious, I have a taste of some. She's right. It is. And judging by the queue around the pan it is only my English sensibilities that are worried by where it has come from...
The courtyard is stunning. Drinks are served in the corner, underneath a barn like roof, which looks as if it has always been there, and tables are dotted about here and there on the cobblestones. It is a wonderful location to have for a wedding. I feel so thrilled to be here.
Everyone I meet is more then kind to me. No one can quite believe that I've bothered to come all this way after such a long time. But... As I said in my previous post, my hosts are vrai amis de mon coeur, and time and distance is immaterial I think in such relationships. I was only with them for a very short and intense period, but we forged (I think) a very deep bond. I feel both touched and honoured to be here.
The next part of the evening takes us inside where we start the long slow process that is a French celebratory meal. My ESF, who is sitting next to me tells me that we probably won't get up from the table till midnight. It is now around 7.30. I'm not sure I believe her, but in the event, she turns out to be right.
We start off with a fish dish, which is light and tasty. There is a nice combination of formality and informality about this. The food (of utmost importance in France) is the formal bit, but in between courses, there are several informal and impromptu speeches. At one point we are invited to search our tables for two questions about the bride and groom. They're answered in a very funny powerpoint presentation. At another point we're treated to another powerpoint presentation featuring the story of how the two grew up and eventually came to meet. In the bride's baby pictures, I see photos I was shown over twenty years ago...
The bride's aunt gives a very touching speech about the nature of love and commitment - I don't understand it all, but its meaning is touchingly clear.
One of her friends provides each table with a bag of sugar cubes and some paper. We all write messages for the happy couple and wrap them up for them to presumably open in the months to come.
Every little detail has been considered. I don't think I've ever been at a more well thought out event.
It is indeed midnight before the bride and groom cut the cake and the last course is served. The dancing is just getting going as I leave. I long to be dancing too, but - needs must. Spouse is alone in a hotel room, frantically trying to stay awake for me - he has the key, malheureusement.
We are all invited back for the wedding breakfast, though. So we return in the morning for cafe and croissants and French bread. I do love French breakfasts...
My hosts throughout have been incredibly warm and attentive to me. They, their family and friends have made me feel so at home. My little charge, though all grown up, hasn't actually changed all that much. In her joie de vivre and mischievous teasing I see the little girl I once knew. Her sister is equally charming and I am glad that after so long I have finally made her accquaintance. I am rather stumped that so many years have gone by without our having met up, but I suppose that's what happens in life. We get on and we get busy, and before we know it we've lived another couple of decades.
I'm planning to make sure it's not twenty two years before we meet again.
I have never been to a French wedding before, and it exceeded my expectations. It was a wonderfully joyful and lively affair, and I felt privileged to be part of it.
The amis de mon coeur, really did their daughter (and me) proud....
Vive le France, et l'entente tres cordiale!
Pour mes chers amis en France avec toute mes bonne penseesxxxxx