Monday, December 24, 2007

Once more into the breeks

Walked into the pub where "the guns" that is to say the men doing the shooting were meeting. There were about a dozen guns along with a gamekeeper and deputy gamekeeper, "beaters" (who flush out the game) and "pickers up" with dogs (who find the birds which have been brought down). Walking into a pub full of men when you are wearing tweed breeks that make you look like you ate a rhino is daunting - the daylight equivalent of that dream where you realise you are naked in the office. The shoot starts with coffee and bacon and sausage sandwiches and there was much shaking of hands and making of introductions before the alcohol came out at around 9.30 am. It is my belief that country folk have larger livers than townsfolk due to the inordinate amount of alcohol they consume while still remaining sober. Ideally the more dangerous the past time, the more alcohol is consumed.
Riding a horse? "Pass the hip flask."
Zipping along on the quad bike - without a helmet? "The bar is in that cardboard box on the back of the bike over there."
Firing a loaded weapon? "Would you like whipped cream on your Tia Maria coffee?"
There was at least an administrative reason for this first round of alcohol - the local Percy special of cherry brandy and whisky. Thinking about it, there often is a reason for a drink in the country; reasons which include "I'm here" and "Well, if you're offering."

The pewter cups extracted by the captain of the shooting syndicate from a tan leather "field bar" were all engraved with numbers on their bottoms. The idea is the chap knocks back the drink and turns the cup over to read its number which tells him where he is standing in the line of guns. Anyone impatient to know his number raises the cup high in front of him as if to make an extravagant toast and peers underneath it. (If it were not the first drink of the day, I imagine a lot of them might get rather wet.)

After the number draw and the safety lecture from the gamekeeper which included strict advice to "keep plenty of blue sky under the target", we all piled outside into the 4x4s and headed off into the cold and misty morning. I was extraordinarily glad of the extraordinary number of layers I had on although I wished I had a balaclava as the only part of me exposed was my face which felt as if the skin was being carved off my skull by a pick axe. There were to be four "drives". A drive is where the chaps with the guns stand in their line across a field. The beaters have flags (made of metal poles and plastic feed sacks) as well as dogs and very loud voices. They walk along making a terrible racket and chase the birds out from the coppices or game plots where they feed. The captain explained that the "sport" is to shoot the bird high in the sky - about 30 yards up. I would have thought there was more sport if the bird had its own gun but I did not like to make the point in case he shot me.

It is considered not the done thing to shoot your neighbour's birds, his dog or indeed the neighbour himself although these things happen. A guest of one of the regular members of the syndicate shot the gamekeeper's black Labrador in the belief it was a fox in the grass. (You are not supposed to shoot something you cannot see.) The gamekeeper said: "The dog had a hundred pellets in his face. They had to shave his head to get them all out - he looked like a dartboard." I said: "What was he called?" He said: Bracken." I thought: "Well it wasn't going to be Lucky."

The captain and I headed out into a barley field to our allotted spot towards the end of the line. He nodded towards the strip of grass growing wild at the edge of the field. Farmers no longer plough right to the hedges, they leave a border of uncultivated land which has encouraged the English grey partridge as well as wild pheasant. As we stood on our spot, I tried to time my conversation so it was not a distraction but every time I started to talk a bird would fly overhead and he would shoot at it and miss. I kept saying: "Sorry, I'll shut up" and he kept saying: "That's fine". I thought: "I really don' t want to irritate this man." After the drive, there was a pause for a chat and bramble whisky, made from sugar, whisky and brambles you gather from the hedges. (I am never making jam again.)

The next drive we were in a better position and I tried to let my host concentrate on his shooting. We were next to a thicket and on a slight incline but the shooting was complicated by telegraph wires that striped the sky. Four years ago, someone shot through them and more than 103 phones were off in the village for a week. It allegedly cost "The Man Who Shot The Phone" £20,000 to repair the lines. I looked across to the gun next to us - a local dentist. My own dentist is an hour's drive away. I watched him fire into the sky and a pheasant cartwheel down to land close to his feet. It fluttered up from the ground, collapsed back, attempted to fly again and fell back in a flurry of beating wings. He stepped across, leaned down and broke its neck. I thought: "I am so not having you for my dentist."

Leaving to one side the slightly messy fact that birds are being shot and killed, the captain explained that the guns are keen to avoid unnecessary suffering. Soft-mouthed golden retrievers find the Chinese ring-necked pheasant, French red-legged partridge and woodcock which have been shot and if they are still alive, the picker up holds them by both wings, they stretch out their neck and are knocked on the back of the neck, just below the head, with a big stick. If I was a bird and someone shot me and I then plummeted to the ground from a great height, was found and carried along in a wet doggy mouth, I would definitely figure my number was up about the time I saw the guy lean over me with the big knobbly stick.

We broke again after the second drive this time for a Tia Maria coffee. I needed it. An overloaded picker up handed me a pheasant to take back to the cars. I tried to behave as if there was nothing unusual in walking along holding a dead pheasant by the neck. I was slightly less casual when the damn thing twitched. Eeeeeeuuuuuuow. I needed a drink to wash away my complicity. I was told that it was indeed dead but sometimes nerve impulses or tics made the birds twitch for some while after. I think I too would acquire a nervous tic if someone shot at me with a 12 bore.

During the third drive in scrub land by a wood my host let me hold his gun. I did not know how my husband would feel about me holding another man's gun but he was not there so I did it anyway. The captain stood close behind me to stop the recoil knocking me to the ground. My arms trembled slightly with the weight of the barrel. I contemplated saying. "You have a very big gun" but I thought my husband really would not like that. I fired his Beretta twice. I missed. To fire a gun, you stand with it tucked tightly into your shoulder. You slide off the safety catch, look along the barrel for the brass bead at the end of it, sweep the gun around, aiming ahead of the target and pull the trigger, still following the direction in which the bird is flying. It makes a boom noise. I did not hit a bird; I did get a Percy special as a consolation prize.

I spent the fourth drive with a picker up and her three golden retrievers. We were some way behind the guns in a field behind a wood. As we walked towards the wood following one of the dogs who had bounded in after a free fall pheasant, there was a pitter pattering sound. I thought: "Is that rain?" It was not rain. It was the sound of shot falling through leaves. I said to the picker up I was with: "Why is there shot falling through the woods when we are behind the guns?" She said: "They turn round to shoot at the birds sometimes." If there had not been so much mulch on the ground, I would have walked back on my knees. Fortunately I could revive myself with the damson gin.

Shooting of course costs money. A decent gun costs around £1,000. A very good gun can cost £7,000. The men I went out with included farmers, a solicitor, the dentist, a chef and a couple of financial advisers from the local market town as well as the captain who runs his own game farm selling 80,000 game birds to estates. They band together to buy six to seven days shooting of around 150 birds through the autumn and into the winter. Another bigger syndicate of bankers fly in from Monaco, Guernsey and London, one of them in a private jet. These men shoot for around 14 days.

The cock pheasant is a riot of colour, a blue and green head, red circle drawn around his eyes, white neck, bronze and copper brown body with a duck egg blue close to the wings. Partridge are a more discrete grey and buff while woodcock are a small bird with a long beak. The dead birds are brought back noosed and attached to a strap called a bird carrier, or in a bag if they are a bit mushy, or held by the neck between the fingers of your hand with the head tucked into your palm. Back at the cars, a hen and a cock pheasant are lashed together on green string then dangled from the cross hatched iron bars of a trailer. Their heads knock together in consolation.

The guns brought down 196 birds. The gamekeeper extracted four small pin feathers from the wings of a pair of woodcock - traditionally you get them when you shoot your first woodcock and stick them in your hat - hence the expression "feather in your cap". He gave them to me and I shall treasure them - it is some time since I have had a feather in my cap. I can see the attraction of shooting. It is sociable and outdoors, there is free booze and bang bang toys. Of course, I am not a bird. As a bird, I would be less keen. They do occasionally get their revenge. The gamekeeper was once knocked out by a cock pheasant falling from the sky. The gamekeeper who did not have a dog called Lucky that is.

Poop Poop

Am singularly lacking in festive cheer. Thought: "I know. I'll go shooting." I have never been shooting before unless you count a couple of times at school and at fairs at those irritating ducks that paddle by regardless of the popping corks around them.

A friend set me up with a local shoot. I knew I needed some gear; I have a rough idea of what people who go shooting wear because I see them on a morning as I drive by on the school run - a lot of tweed, strange knickerbockers and cartridge belts. I tried to borrow what I needed but all I could muster was a waterproof coat the size of a tent and a pair of hunting socks. This particular combination might have made me quite popular on the shoot but I thought I might catch a chill. I went into a nearby country shop. The very charming man who owns it is a keen fan of shooting. He obviously approved of my decision to give it a go - I do not think he was influenced by the fact he was about to earn a walloping amount of money.

The "outfitter" held up a pair of the aforementioned knickerbockers or breeks as they are technically termed. They are supposed to finish just under the knee. This pair finished at my ankles. I think I must be shorter than the average "gun". He found me a smaller pair. When I say smaller - I mean leg length. Silk lined, tweed knickerbockers feel fabulous on, warm and roomy but they do nothing to minimise your backside. He handed me a checked shirt. I hated it immediately but it was in brushed cotton and I decided I could live with it if it kept me warm. I baulked at both the green and the orange lambswool jumpers on the grounds you had to draw a line somewhere but I decided I needed the fitted Barbour jacket because my only outdoor alternative is my fabuous floor length coat or a very scruffy tan suede jacket which is falling apart at the seams. The Barbour belts at the waist. I did not think this would be a brilliant idea bearing in mind the knickerbockers underneath but amazingly it worked very well. It was slightly World War Two ( - the Nazis not the good guys). I thought I was done until he handed me a tweed Gainsborough cap (same tweed as the knickerbockers). I looked a picture. I said to the outfitter: "I don't want to look like I'm cross-dressing you know." He laughed. He said: "Not at all." I am not sure if he realised what I meant by "cross-dressing". I think it is possible he thought I meant it made me look slightly mean rather than entirely fragrant. I bought the lot and the next morning climbed into my gear not forgetting the borrowed green hunting socks which are long and which you tie under the knee and over the cuff of the knickerbocker with a tasselled yellow gaiter. You then bend the sock back over the gaiter but allow the tassel to fall outside your wellington boots. I thought there was a chance I looked like a Principal Boy (absurd, cute, sexually ambiguous) and there was a chance I looked like Mr Toad (tweedy, green and fat). I came down to the kitchen. My six-year-old said: "Mummy - you look stupid." My four-year-old could not speak for laughing; the baby girl said "Where's Mummy?" and began to wail. My husband looked me up and down. He said: "Exactly how much did that lot cost?"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Home is where the heart is

When we got the car to a garage and the tree home, it turned out it was 12 feet high. It did not look that big in the forest. As my husband manhandled it into a stand and screwed it into place, he said: "I'm so glad you chose this tree and not me." Luckily we could squeeze it into the lounge in the arches where we have a vaulted ceiling. It is so large it reminds me a little of the one they have in Trafalgar Square. I keep expecting to walk in and find the Salvation Army gathered round it singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

It is just as well it is so big, it may take my mother and father's minds off how cold it is in there. Their own house is so warm you could grow orchids in it. They have roaring artificial fires and central heating which they like to use at the same time. They are careful to close doors after themselves and have double glazed windows which are sealed so tight that I believe in the event of a nuclear war, they would be entirely safe from radiation sickness and hold out just as long as their tinned products. I wanted them to be equally as warm here but the underfloor heating is a disaster. The plumber has been back, the electrician has been back, the builder has been back but it is still not right. There is nothing more we can do before Christmas. Meanwhile we have shipped in four heaters to take the worst of the chill off the air.

The "arches" consists of a cold and tree-filled lounge, an even colder bedroom and a showerroom off the bedroom. The idea is everything is at ground level for my mother and father and they can stay with us for longer periods but still have their own space when they need it. I am irritated that it is not perfect for them. They arrived yesterday and last night my husband lit a fire in there. They sat together on the new sofa; the lights glowing on the Biggest Christmas Tree in the World; my mother sipping her tea. I said: "I'm sorry the heating doesn't work properly." She said: "Actually, it's just right."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"How lovely are your branches"

In London, we used to go to a flower market , buy bagels, drink coffee and pay a nice coster man for a 6 foot tree "guaranteed not to drop its needles eva." Last year, we drove out to a farm and looked round a barn where dozens of trees dangled from the rafters and all I could think of were hanged men swaying gently in the breeze. Quite took the edge of the festive jollity. This year, my husband went in the Saab with the four-year-old and I went in the Volvo with the six-year-old, baby girl and a neighbour; we drove alongside hoar frosted fields to a forest where we stumbled around avoiding wolves and looking for the perfect tree. I was slightly worried we might all freeze to death or get eaten while my husband decided which one he was willing to take home with him. (Chosing a tree is one of those things he takes an inordinate amount of time over. Rapt, he will burble endlessly about size and symmetry and the straightness of the trunk - I think it must be a male thing.) With a whole forest to chose between, I thought that if the weather and animals did not kill us first, we risked being there till Easter. Time for decisiveness.

"That one looks lovely," I said pointing to a tree. (It was a tree - how different can one be from the next?) My husband eyed it with some scepticism but it was straight and true and did not run away. We took turns to saw it down with a handy jagged toothed hacksaw and, in between, sang carols. I could not hear other families singing carols but I want my children to have memories of Christmas to last them a lifetime. Memories like "Do you remember how you always used to embarass us by singing carols when we chopped down the Christmas tree? By the way, why couldn't we just buy a tree like normal people?" We dragged it back to the car, paid £15 to a chilly looking man in a metal container who bagged it up for us in a large net before strapping it to the car with twine. It was dark by the time we had done.

My husband pulled off first and I followed closely behind. We went on back roads for a while to avoid drawing attention to the tree. We pulled out on to the A1. (This road is the main route along the East Coast of England between London and Scotland. Long sections in Northumberland are single carriageway. Juggernauts use it. Tractors and caravans use it. Everyone who lives up here and wants to go anywhere uses it. No one from the Department for Transport has ever used it or it would all be dual carriageway. To turn off it, you have to cross high speed traffic coming in the opposite direction. Depending on the junction, you put the brakes on thinking something like: "Dear God let the car behind notice I have stopped in the middle of the road and don't let the car behind him try to overtake right now."

We were about two thirds of the way home when my husband started signalling right, slowed down then came to a halt in a narrow shadow island in the middle of the road. I drew up behind him. He put his hazard lights on and sat there. Lorries and cars hurtled by. I thought: "He must be turning right because the tree is about to fall off and has put his hazards on to warn everyone." But he did not turn right. We waited to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. He did not move off. My friend cautiously opened her door and got out of our car. She went up to his. More lorries hurtled by. I thought: "I have two children in this car. If a lorry piles into the back of me, we will all die." She sidled back. She said: "He's broken down." She went back to my husband and together they extracted my four-year-old from the passenger side of the Saab and ran across the road with him. I thought: "OK, that is one of them safe." I pulled my car across and drove a little way down the farm track. My husband said: "The engine is dead. I will have to push the car across the carriageway." I thought: "The children are alright and now he's going to get himself killed and we're going to be right here to see it. The car has a Christmas tree on top; the story is going to be "Tragic Dad in Christmas Tree Pile-Up Horror." At that moment, a 4X4 drew up and a farmer got out to see if he could help. He drove back onto the A1 and swung his car round so its full beam headlights lit up our stranded Saab. He got out and crossed into the middle of the road; he pushed our car off the A1 while my husband steered. I thought: "Next year, I'm going fibre optic."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Some kinda dame

Apparently the Savoy sale is upon us. Staying there last week felt slightly strange. Perhaps it was the fact I should by rights, have been at the Travelodge or perhaps it was the sales tags that hung from the furniture in the room. We stayed in Room 662. It felt entirely authentic as if you had ratchetted back in time. I looked out of the window, half expecting London to be in black and white. I thought: "Any minute now a man in a fedora is going to come in with a gun in his hand and a crooked smile. He is going to make me hate him. Then he is going to make me love him. Finally, he is going to walk away into the shadows and never look back even though his heart is breaking." I threw myself on the bed (Lot 2117, a pollard oak and ebonised bedroom suite in the Art Deco style, comprising of a double bed with headboard, a bedside cabinet and a dressing table 196cm wide:£800- £1,200) to wait for him. I got up again and went across to Lot 2119 - a pollard oak circular occasional table in the Art Deco style, 60cm diameter and 65cm high (£100 - £150). I slid a cigarette from a silver case, pursed lips any man would be happy to call home, and sat down in Lot 2120 ( a grey upholstered tub chair: £100 - £150). I crossed my long slim legs, the silk making the kind of noise silk makes, thought "Daiquiri" and got up again. I sashayed across to Lot 2118 (a pollard oak and ebonised cabinet in the Art Deco style, 80cm wide x 60cm deep x 171cm high: £300 - £500). I opened the lacquered door and a fat man's body toppled out. I screamed. My husband came in from the bathroom, tousled and slightly damp. He was not wearing a fedora. He did not notice the bullet-ridden body on the floor or the writhing cigarette smoke between us. He said: "Happy darling? "

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Postcard from London

Dear Wifey,
For work connected reasons, I have been down in London three times in as many weeks. I had originally planned to fly from Frankfurt to Edinburgh but decided instead to fly into London's City Airport and go to a Xmas party.

My husband met me at the airport. We were to do a very daring thing - have a night away from the children. This was the first night we have spent together and away from the children for three and a half years. (When we went away then, it was for a weekend in a Brighton hotel and we missed them so much we came back early. Even so, we had spent the entire time mooching round toy shops saying "Oooh, let's buy that. They'd love it.") On Wednesday night, my husband said: "We don't need a cab. We'll walk." I did not think that boded well. He took my laptop and I pulled my little case on wheels along the narrow pavements, past the parked cars captive behind metal railings with the Docklands Light Railway track louring above us. My husband pointed to a neon lit sign some way ahead - "City Airport Travelodge". I stopped to consider our journey's destination. I said: "So we are staying at the Travelodge?" He said: "Yes, you said you wanted somewhere convenient and it's only £70." I tugged my wheely case off the pavement and towards the brightly lit entrance. I said: "We've been together for 19 years and sometimes I don't think you know me at all." He said: "Well, this is what I do when I come to London." I said: "And whose fault is that?"

He checked us in; I walked across to the vending machine in the foyer, put in a pound coin and a diet coke slammed into the drawer. I thought: "I think I need more than a diet coke." We took the lift up to the room and pushed open the door as a plane taxied past the window. I heard a roaring noise. I think it was a plane. There is a chance it was the blood in my ears. I put down the case on the floor beside the wardrobe and my handbag on the table in front of the mirror and cracked open the diet coke. It did not make me feel better. I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea. It did not make me feel better. I pulled the pillow length ways so that I could lean against it and sank into the bed. My husband lay down next to me. The weight of his body tipping me into him. I thought: "Could the bed be made of sponge I wonder?" I thought: "It is not so much the wallow in the mattress or the sound of planes or the fact its location seems so desolate - it is more that he thinks that this is what I am worth, what I deserve." I said: "This - is our first night away together in three and a half years and you have brought me to City Airport's Travelodge. The thing I want to do most of all right now, is cry."

I started getting ready for the party and he slipped out. I thought: "Maybe I'm tired from travelling. Maybe it's alright. I'll just get drunk at the party and when I get back, it won't seem so bad." My husband came back into the bedroom, his phone in his hand. He said: "OK I've booked the Savoy. Shall we go now?"

Friday, December 14, 2007

Postcard from Frankfurt

Dear Wifey,
Went across to Frankfurt to see an old friend who is recovering from an operation. Like me, she moved away aways a couple of years ago because of her husband's job and since her operation has been locked tight into a very Germanic programme of recuperation and rehabilitation. She is very brave about it all - I would winge endlessly: "Meine leg hurtzen lotzen...Ich wolle grossen pillz bitte." While she was at rehab, I went to a Christmas market. Little wooden sheds with carved nativities and an orchard of ribboned baubles, hung about in different colours like so much exotic fruit. They tempted you to lean closer and bite through the glass to taste Christmas sweetness and emptiness. I resisted. I did not think I had the German to explain such behaviour to the police psychiatrist. I caught a cab from the market to the railway station. Is there anything better than a train station in another country? Arching rooves, a station clock at the head of each platform, electronic displays that tell you if only you were to turn up on platform 17 at 16.58pm you could go to Paris Est and then what? Life could begin again. I did not go to Paris Est, instead I got on a train to my friend's house. I was inordinately pleased with myself. I checked on board and a kind fellow traveller told me when to get off. He got off at the same place and walked up the platform ahead of me; I looked around deciding which direction to go and I noticed him hesitate then glance behind him. My friend had said to catch a cab when I got to the station. I remained inordinately pleased with my capacity for independent travelling even though I could not see any taxis at the station. Indeed from what I could see, it was not so much a station as a platform in the heartland of the German suburban night. Luckily, there was a phone box with an advert for a cab company plastered on the back wall. I rang, using my word scraps to say where I was. It was cold and nothing much moved. I stood by the phone box on the street corner. I hummed a few bars of Lilli Marlene. I rang the cab company again - I thought there was an outside chance I had ordered a cup of coffee with milk and no sugar rather than a cab. The taxi controller though seemed quite cross I still had not been picked up. I thought: "I wonder if I am where I think I am?" I began to doubt myself. I really do not want to start doubting myself - God knows where it would end. I walked past the recycling bank, back up to the station. My kind fellow traveller had put me off at the wrong station - instead of Kelkheim, I was in Kelkheim-Muenster. Nothing much happens in Kelkheim-Muenster. I thought: "If I was going to get off at the wrong station, it could at least have been Paris Est."

Friday, December 07, 2007

All is vanity

I got a glimpse of what life may be like for my husband and by golly, it is not all roses. I presumed, since he was married to me, life overall would be pretty good. But this traipsing up and down to London is not easy. Sometimes he stays with friends and sometimes he stays in hotels. I had to go down to London again this week on business and this time, since I was going down for a dinner which probably would not be over till around midnight, I thought I would stay in a hotel rather than fetch up on a friend's doorstep in the early hours or indeed wander the streets. I booked the hotel on-line in a bid to be more organised. It boasted of a gallery of pictures on its walls and an atmosphere which encouraged travellers to return again and again and was central. Sounded perfect. I congratulated myself on my foresight as I climbed on the train.

I was cutting it fine to make it to the dinner so I decided I would do my make-up en route and change into my frock at the hotel. I spread out my bottles, potions, powders and creams on the table in front of me. There were a lot of them. There were so many I put around two-thirds of the ones I did not immediately need back into the bag. There were still a lot of them. I started work. It took quite a long time. The guard passed me twice. The tea trolley lady also passed me twice. She was about 20 years younger than I am and looked at my collection with a fair degree of interest. I think she understood what I was doing. Virtually anyone else who saw me would have considered me entirely vain. It took forever or at least till Peterborough. I felt like explaining: "It is not a question of vanity. It is merely that I have been ravaged by time." Eventually I finished. I considered the power point under the table. I thought about plugging in my ceramic poker with which I planned to curl my hair. I decided against it, not so much on the grounds I would make even more of a show of myself, more because I thought I might set my bag on fire when I put it away again.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was slightly disappointed at the "gallery of pictures" which had the look of prints you pick up in boxed-up batches at auction at a knock down price because no one else wants them. I collected my key. Usually I travel light, but this time I had shoes, a laptop and half a tonne of girly clart with me which I then had to heave up four narrow flights of stairs to the second floor. I pushed open the door to something that was not so much a room as a stopping-off space in front of a window. Twin beds lay end to end along one wall with a sink like a full stop at the foot of one of them. The strip lighting above the sink did not work. I suddenly realised if I could see a sink, the room did not have a bathroom. I did not know there were any hotel rooms in the centre of London without bathrooms. I sighed deeply and threw my bag down on top of one of the beds.

I had decided to wear ridiculous shoes for the occasion. I am not sure why I decided this. It had something to do with the fact, give or take the odd hunt ball, I do not go out a lot these days. They were black satin stilettos with a droopy bow at the back and shiny silver heels. Looked good. Felt bad. I dressed, primped my hair and tottered down the four flights of stairs and into the London night. I stood on my too high heels by the road for a long time without a smell of a cab. At last I caught sight of a lit-up taxi sign and just at that moment, a couple dashed out of a door further up the road and threw themselves into it. If my heels had been slightly lower I would have run up the road and berated them for being so un-British. As it was, I glared into the blackness of the cab's interior as it passed me by. I am sure it made a big impression on them. I had little alternative. I agony-staggered along and round the corner to a busier road and there, I finally caught a taxi of my own, with a driver who was a jazz drummer in his real life.

By the time I arrived at the restaurant, I was half an hour late. I slid into the bar where a group of people were drinking together. I told the maitre d' the party I was with and he gesticulated to the people by the bar. He took my coat which is black boucled wool with a velvet collar and a lush silk lining. It has a vaguely early nineteenth century look to it and is entirely inappropriate to country living. Since I am very short and it is very long, it risks dragging on the floor but since my heels were so very high and I was in town this particular night, I wore it. As I turned my back to him and he shucked it from my shoulders and gathered it into his arms, he said: "Ah....beautiful". He meant the coat though for a brief moment I thought he meant me. Then he went over to get me a drink from the bar. I stood to one side watching the group. I could not see the one person I was certain would be there. I thought it possible she too was late. I looked at them. Quite a few were slightly over weight. One slightly blowsy woman stared at me as if she did not even have to speak to me to know she did not like me. I collected my drink, smiling sweetly at the maitre d' on the off-chance it had indeed been me and not the coat and walked over to the one black guy in the group standing by himself in the middle of the room. I held out my hand and introduced myself. He introduced himself. I nodded as if I might have heard of him. I said: "And who is it you're with again?" "The Metropolitan Police," he said and gesticulated to his colleagues. "Right," I said. "I won't be a minute" and sidled away.

I eventually found the right dining room and dinner was very nice although a part of me thought: "I wonder if I would have been happier with the police?". There were about 17 or so people at the table including the person I knew and another young woman who, years ago, had come into the newsroom I was working in for a couple of weeks work experience. She is very talented, already successful and will doubtless be even more so. I said hello and reminded her she had worked with me when she was a university student. She said something to the effect that the fact I remembered was "amazing" when it was so long ago. I waited for her to say: "I remember you, too - you were great." She did not say it.

When I worked in that newsroom, I was regularly assigned the young work experience folk on the grounds that I would not eat them up and spit them out. I listened to who they were and what they wanted and tried to be very nice to them. I wanted them to be useful, to shine; tried to get their name in print and make it a positive experience for them. Naively and entirely selfishly, I also wanted them to remember me as someone who had been kind, briefly significant even, as I advised them with immense wit and wisdom on how to make their particular dream come true. Sometimes they would come in and be useless. Occasionally, they would be great. This girl came in and was great. Over pear and almond tart with a scoop of chocolate ice-cream, I tried again, a little more desperately, for that elusive validation of my past. I wanted to say: "So do you remember me?" I did not. Instead I said: "So do you remember anything about it all?" She said gosh yes. She mentioned one colleague then struggled for the name of another in arts. Maybe she did remember me - I could not tell. I finished off my ice-cream and licked the spoon. I thought: "I hope this isn't what motherhood turns out to be - you think you're making a difference that'll last them a lifetime and actually, after a while, they can't remember who you are."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The North-South divide

We have to decide whether we stay living here or move back to London at the turn of the year. That is the timetable we set ourselves. Whether we end up staying or go back (I was going to say "home" there - oops), I am feeling increasingly frustrated by the bad news stories coming out of the North-East.

Twenty to 25 years ago, it was all pit closures and heavy industry closing with a constant stream of job losses in shipbuilding and engineering. No one rolled over and no one gave up - unions fought for jobs, "management" pulled together buy-outs and there was a fierce struggle for American and Japanese investment in car building and the high tech sector. There is still a skills issue in the labour market courtesy of the heritage of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. But more people are in employment in the region than ever before. The implication behind the stories on Northern Rock, the child benefit debacle and this latest political fandango over David Abrahams is that something is "not quite right" about the North-East. Perhaps they are not as sharp as they are down South; the financiers oblivious to risk, the underpaid poor bloody infantryman following orders - oblivious to the need for security and rigor? As for the eccentric property developer, the conspiracy theories whisper that it might be the Israelis or it might just be that the Labour party of the 1970s is alive and well and living on Tyneside. Cor blimey. I do not think I knew what "community" was till I moved to the North-East. I have found the people to be sharp, funny, immensely decent and infinitely generous. I thought it might be the right time to say so. Perhaps I will open up an account with Northern Rock, pay in my next child benefit cheque and use the interest to send a donation to the Labour Party - in my own name naturally. I wonder if that would help my Northern credentials?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Still in La la land

Went to the doctor's yesterday I still felt so poxy after the fall downstairs. Nauseous, headachey and zip brain activity. He peered into my eyes with a torch which always makes me want to shriek with terror, then made me walk in a straight line which I can never do anyway - drunk, sober, concussed or entirely sane. As a finale, he peered down the back of my pants. Usually I would quite like that but I knew it was not a pretty sight down there. At least, it was a locum. One of the problems living in the country is doctors see you at your very worst and then you get invited out and find yourself sitting down for Sunday lunch with them. You are nibbling your sausage thinking: "Last time we met you were looking up my nose." The doctor said it was not surprising I still felt so bad because the body needed time to recover and to rest after traumatising it. (What is this thing doctors have with "rest". It must save them a fortune on their GP budgets. "I prescribe Rest and a lot of it.") On the way out of the surgery I picked up some leaflets including "Avoiding slips, trips and broken hips - How to avoid falls in the home". The leaflets are aimed at the elderly but then who would pick them up if they said "For klutzes of all ages." Apparently you spend 40 years trying to minimise your cellulite then you hit 65 and have to climb into a "hip protector" which is a giant pair of knickers with concrete pads along each side . According to the leaflet: "Hip protector underwear cuts down the risk of a fracture if you fall" and "You should wear it day and night". I am not sure how my husband will feel if I started wearing hip protector underwear at night although I quite like the idea. It also says to consider a "personal fall alarm system" and if you have a pet "fit a brightly coloured collar so that you can see it more easily and are less likely to trip over it." I do not have a pet anymore but I could make the children wear collars. I got home and said to the girl who helps me with the children: "I am thinking of getting hip protector underwear to save me breaking my hip next time I fall over." She said: "Why don't you just wear a cycle helmet whenever you're at home." One pratfall and suddenly everyone's a comedian.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

La la land

I keep having to go lie down in a darkened room. Every now and then my husband says: "I think you need to get your head examined." Mind you he quite often says that. I rang the doctor and he told me you are fine providing you do not vomit twice in the first 24 hours which means you might have a bleed but to get lots of rest, not to work at the computer, drink lots of water and avoid caffeine. I put the phone down and thought: "I can't "not work". I'm on deadline" and then collapsed in a heap on the sofa. My brain has been a wide open, echoey sort of place. I could have stood in it and yelled "Halloooooooo" if I could only have thought what to say. Sometimes words went missing from my sentences and I discovered you can live without them. Sometimes the entire sentence went which is more difficult. Every now and then my husband would ask me a question and I would say "Gobbledi-blah-blah-meeeeurgh" and he would say in a worried sort of voice: "Should I take you to the hospital do you think?" and I would shake my head and say "I can't go to hospital - I'd have to shave my legs." Which proves reason had not entirely deserted me. I have had so much sleep I woke up at 4am this morning and decided I might as well get up and have a bath. I caught a glimpse of my arse in the mirror (usually I try to avoid this view). If the inside of my head looks anything like my backside I am going to be living in La La land for some weeks because it is black and blue. I am also slightly worried that a bang on the head can bring on a personality change. Maybe I will get nicer. That would be a terrible thing to happen.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Heads or tails?

Think I'm concussed. Actually pretty sure I'm concussed. I keep. I keep repeating myself. Did the silliest thing yesterday morning - fell from the top of the stairs to the bottom. I believe my lambskin slippers to be haunted. I had just started to walk down the stairs and suddenly my feet flew up in the air, I crashed down onto my arse, thought "Bugger" then continued to travel bump, bump, bump down the entire length of the stairs. My head slamming onto every stair as I careered down. I think I may have screamed the whole way and was fit for nothing by the time I reached the bottom; just lay there sobbing. Luckily my husband was in the kitchen so he was there to pick me up. Think I may have traumatised the children. I was left with the most terrible headache and a throbbing noggin yesterday and this morning when I woke up, my head still hurt. I am bruised to blazes, jarred and generally jangly with aches and pains. I also feel periodically nauseous. Forget the concussion - what is wrong with me? Can you get late onset dyspraxia? I have turned into a klutz. In the past three weeks, I have sprained my ankle jumping off a fence, walked into a door and now fallen down the stairs. It is also the second time this year I have taken a tumble down stairs although my trip was shorter last time. Perhaps I need to try doing one thing at a time. When I jumped off the fence, I was thinking about history: when I walked into the door, I was thinking about the screaming baby and when I was coming down stairs, I was thinking about my six-year-old's reluctance to do homework and whether he would opt out of university in 12 years time.

I would not mind but I have one of those phone interviews with insurance companies later this afternoon where they try to figure out if you are a safe bet to insure. I have had one before and aside from asking you a variety of highly personal medical questions which immediately make you feel like you are about to die from some horrible disease, they have a whole section on dangerous pursuits - Do you rock climb...scuba-dive...rally drive?" I hope they do not ask "Can you walk and chew gum?"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Down and Out 2

I was sent down to London on the strict understanding I did not spend any money. The house still is not finished and we have not paid our last set of bills to the builders. It is a very middle-class sort of broke - big house no money sort of thing. Despite that, after my Northumberland mate disappears into the London sunlight, I contemplate checking into a good hotel in the centre of town. I only have a handbag with me. This is because I travel light when I do not have the children. The handbag has everything I need in it - purse, toothbrush, change of underwear, change of dress, lipstick, powder, mascara, novel, newspaper, notebook, pen, tube map and mobile phone (which works.) I wonder whether hotel staff would think I was a prostitute if I check in for the night with only a handbag. Would they ask themselves where my luggage was? Would they presume the handbag also contained baby oil and handcuffs? I decide I am prepared to be considered a prostitute for the sake of knowing where I will sleep that night. I use the mobile phone to ring a good hotel. The receptionist tells me it will cost £250 to stay the night. £250? I would have to take up prostitution to be able to afford £250 for a night in a hotel. Prostitution seems like too much trouble. I ring the London Diva. I say: "Hi, it's me. I'm homeless." She listens to my story of scruples and inhibition. She laughs. She says: "That's fine. Come stay with the 'B' team."

I spend the night with them and then go to my business meeting over breakfast. The woman I am breakfasting with wants bacon and mushrooms. She is not allowed bacon and mushrooms. She is forced to order "The Traditional Breakfast" for £10.95 and say "No eggs and no sausage." Oh and she wants toast and not a bagel. As the waiter moves away, she leans back in her chair to ask for bacon that is "crispy". I order scrambled eggs and smoked salmon which I do not eat because it tastes like plastic and when my tea comes I send it back after I taste salt from the breakfaster who used the cup before me. We spend three hours over the meeting and by the end of it, the white-aproned waiter hates both of us equally.

On the train back North, still hungry, I decide it is OK to have lunch in the restaurant car. It is a nice lunch. I have a table. I do some work. I drink some wine. I sit there till Durham then move back to my original seat in the buffet car. When I get back, I find a man sitting there who looks vaguely bemused as I ransack his coat and go through his newspapers searching for the Waterstone’s bag I left behind to mark my place. The bag has vanished. I search the floor and the overhead compartment and the luggage storage behind the seat but it has disappeared. It has my favorite brown hat in it which I bought in Germany a year ago and nine new notebooks. I curse. I had been searching for exactly these notebooks for three months and was wildly excited when I found them in the Piccadilly bookstore earlier that morning. Despite my husband's strictures about money, I had bought them.

I go back down the carriage to look for the guard. The guard is not there. I tell the steward who is leaning against the bar chatting to his colleague that my bag has disappeared and he asks me when I checked on it last. I tell him about three hours ago. He is not impressed with such a cavalier approach to my belongings. He says: “Things get stolen every day on the train.” I say: “Right.” He says: “There are 400 people on a train. Would you trust these 400 people with your stuff?” He asks me whether I still want to talk to the guard. I say: “No. Not if that’s GNER’s reaction to something getting stolen – there’s not a lot of point is there?” His buffet car colleague tucked behind the bar is silent throughout this exchange. The steward says: “Well, if you tell me what I can do about it, I’ll do it.” My opinion of him by this point is not a lot higher than my opinion of whoever took the bag. I start walking up and down the train trying to spot it. I even check the toilets. I see a Waterstone’s bag on an overhead shelf of a luggage compartment and immediately rifle it. A mildly irate middle-aged man tells me: “That’s not yours.” He obviously thinks I am trying to steal it. I tell him my bag has gone missing but I am not convinced he believes me. I do indeed look as if I am reconnoitering things to steal as I walk slowly past everybody’s tables, my eye snagging on their mobile phones and shiny laptops. I am thinking: “Why would anyone want my notebooks and hat when they could have your stuff?” The unsympathetic steward pushes his tea trolley past me and as he sees what I am doing he says he will keep a look out for me. I think: “It's a shame you didn’t volunteer to do that in the first place.”

I decide to risk the guard’s scorn and report the bag missing. The guard is called Terry and does not pour scorn on me. He says things do get stolen but not every day. He is genuinely concerned. He is sorry that my bag has been swiped. He tells me Darlington to Durham and the Durham to Newcastle stretches of the journey are particular hotspots because they are such short journeys. He says a thief can come on, steal something and be off again with his swag within minutes. Sometimes they stand on the platform, duck in, take the nearest item and are off again without even the price of a ticket. I say pathetically: “I know you can’t do anything.” He says: “I’ll have a good look for you” and he takes my number and says whatever happens he will call when the train gets to Edinburgh. When his first call comes in later that night, he has found nothing. About an hour later, he finds the bag as the train starts its journey down the line again. I do not know who is more pleased him or me. He tells me the bag was near the kitchen. We wonder if someone has picked it mistakenly thinking it was theirs though this seems unlikely. Or whether a thief had hoped for a bag of expensive hardback autobiographies for Xmas and got a bagful of blank notebooks and a funny hat and dumped them. Terry asks me which station I want the bag left at. We decide Berwick and he even rings me a third time to say he handed the bag over to station staff and they will keep it for me. I decide my adventures in London have a happy ending: I do not slide into prostitution, I get my bag back; the thief, as yet, has to buy his Xmas presents and Terry ratchetted back down the line knowing he made a difference.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Down and out

Had to go back down to London. Bumped into my nearest Northumberland neighbour while I was there who was also down for a couple of days work. How about that for a coincidence? To celebrate we had coffee and pastries in a chic pavement cafe. I rang my husband. I said: "You'll never guess what?" and explained I had just run into my friend. I figured I had better call in case someone else we knew walked by and presumed we were having breakfast together after a night of illicit passion.

So on the down side there was no passion in my trip to London but I did fit in a haircut which is always a good thing. I think I have been "letting myself go" a little for the past while. I wash obviously. But in the past year I have gone up a dress size and now my only question when I look at clothes is: "Will it keep me warm?". My lacksadaisical approach to my appearance got so bad about a month ago I cut my own hair. Not just my fringe. All of my hair. Not entirely off. Not like Britney but a pretty thorough scissoring trim down both sides. Not long ago I would have cut off my own hand rather than do such a thing to myself. Anyway, I got the haircut which is a start at least and I have made a resolution to make more of an effort.

Despite the haircut, the trip was a vaguely uneasy one all told. I was supposed to spend both nights with a friend. When I arrived on Tuesday, she was hideously stressed by a work deadline, a poorly child and the fact she was due to go away on holiday a couple of days later. She was so stressed it became blazingly apparent I could not stay there two nights or I would pitch her over into insanity. There was nothing I could do about the first night so we had a nice dinner and I said I would stay somewhere else on Wednesday. Of course Wednesday comes around and I kiss her goodbye and I think: "That's it. I'm homeless in London." I cannot go home early because my business meeting is not till Thursday. I am now caught between ringing someone else who will feel like she is my second choice or staying in a Travelodge. I seriously contemplate the Travelodge option but decide it would be so miserable I might throw first the executive trouserpress out of the window and then myself. It is at this exact moment I run into my Northumberland neighbour. I know people who would think this was the work of Jesus. There I am homeless in the Big City and I run into my best friend from home. Do I tell him my problem? Of course I do not. I cannot possibly tell him I am homeless in London and do not know where I am going to sleep. It sounds as if I am so dull my friend has decided she has asked me to leave. It would also sound as if I am inviting him to that night of illicit passion. Instead, we drink our coffee, discuss the relative merits of city and country, and I say "See ya" and wave merrily as we part.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Call for help

My baby daughter was sick for five days. Ear infection - "My ear hurts"; eye infection - "My eye hurts". Every little while: "I feel sick." Every wake-up time: "I want medsun". She wanted so much medicine I began to worry I had made her a Kalpol addict. The good thing about it was my husband was home for four of the five days and caught two of the cough-induced vomits. This is what you call a result. A messy one but a result. He is hardly ever home when the children are sick. Ever. And they used to be sick a lot courtesy of the younger one's stomach migraine. Like clockwork. Daddy would pull out of the road to go catch a train and the four-year-old would start vomiting.

One night she called out and I staggered out of bed and grabbed my dressing gown. My husband had only got to bed in the early hours because he was mired in a work crisis and was dead to the world. I had carefully left the bedroom door open because I figured she would wake up and by golly I was right. She did wake up and it was indeed much easier to hear her with the door open. Only problem was I forgot it was there and walked straight into it. This gave me a large lump on my eyebrow and cut my lip which immediately swelled up so that I looked like Marge Simpson, only without the blue hair. Naturally enough, as soon as I had whacked myself nearly insensible on the door she stopped crying. I crawled back into bed having inspected the damage and I lay there whimpering, thinking: "I am going to wake up in the morning and look like I have been walloped. People are going to say: "What on earth did you do? And I am going to say: "I walked into a door" and they are going to think "Yeah right"." But by the morning it had gone down. Now all I have left to show for it is a sore eyebrow and an ulcer on the inside of my lip from the cut.

Meanwhile, I decided I could not keep wandering around without a mobile phone. I do not have a good history with mobile phones. I have come to the conclusion, cars would rather I did not drive them and phones think I do not deserve them.

I have two mobile phones. I gave up using them because they were either flat or I could never get a signal. The reason they were often flat is that there is no incentive to charge them if you do not think you will get a signal. It can be a bit of a vicious circle and you fall out of the mobile habit. On Wednesday, I thought: "Enough. Call yourself a modern woman. You need a mobile phone so that when you run into trouble you can ring a man to get you out of it." Every now and then I try to sort out the chaos in which I live; one decision I made recently was to change banks. This worked very well but paying the mobile phone bill fell down the crack and when I picked up my old phone I discovered that the company had cancelled my service and I could not even use it if I wanted to. I paid my bill and the girl said to reconnect the service would be £35. I thought: "I am not paying £35 for a phone that never works" so I said: "It's been great but no thanks."

I picked up my pay-as-you-go. Pay-as-you-go is great till you discover you have run out of credits and cannot figure out how to top it up. There is no signal where I live. Unless you count the pigeons I occasionally snare and send back to London with coded messages like: "Send more coffee beans." I took the pay-as-go outside. I came back in because it was too wet. I took off my lambskin slippers (I feel guilty about them but not that guilty) and put on my wellies. I went out again. I walked along the access road waving the phone about as if I had poured gin and vermouth into it and was looking for a glass with an olive. No signal. I swore then went down on to the drying green where we dry our clothes in the North wind (whenever the tumble drier breaks down). Still no signal. I stood on one of the 44 molehills. Success - a signal. I tried to ring a number and a message came through with a three digit number to press. I called it and kept pressing "1" as you do till you talk to a real person. The real person was charming. I explained I wanted to top up the phone and he said: "No problem. What is your mobile number?" I said: "I have no idea." He said I had to ring off and get my sim card out and get the sim card number. I swore - but not at him. I went back in, trailing muddy footprints across the kitchen floor. I opened up the phone, swept away the sand which had inveigled itself into it and eventually extracted the sim card with my teeth. I wrote down the number and went back outside. I stepped back on to the mole hill, realised I had inserted the sim card in the wrong way round, swore and went back in. I unclipped the back of the phone, extracted the sim card, turned it around, clipped it up and went back out. I breathed deeply. I did the three digit thing, the pressing the "1" thing, and got another real and equally charming person. The signal was not as good this time, I think because I was slightly lower courtesy of having flattened the molehill from the earlier call. I explained I did not have the phone number but I did have the sim card number and gave it to him. He said: Great, thank you. May I have the first two digits of your four digit personal security number?" I said: "No, I have no idea what they are. Is that a problem?" He said: "Give me a minute please" and went to talk to his supervisor. I imagine the conversation went something like: "I have an idiot on the other end of the line. I am not sure she has any idea what a mobile phone is for, should I let her keep it?" Luckily the superviser had sex the night before and decided it was OK I could register myself, my debit card and get myself a new security code. We did all this, then the nice man in the call centre said: "I am afraid we are having problems topping up. You will need to ring back and do it yourself automatically." I contemplated burying the mobile phone in one of the molehills and telling the children they could have it if they could find it. I said: "OK, thank you for your help." I meant it, he was lovely. I called back and topped up the phone. It is simple when you know how. Yesterday, I go to use it and it tells me my sim card is not working. My friend who is with me when I realise this says: "I never have any problem with my mobile phone." I swear.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bang bang bang

Had three bang bang bang nice things happen on one day. I dropped the car off at the garage in the village to get the new tyre put on and went round to have tea with the little old lady who used to live along this row. She moved because she does not drive and she was on her own up here and wanted more independence. "Didn't want to be a burden" - (I am so being a burden when I get old. A big one. I am looking forward to it.) I go down occasionally for tea and cherry cake with occasional cherries. I had only been a couple of days before but she lives near the garage so I walked across and rang the bell. She came to the door and she looked so pleased to see me standing there on her mat. That is it. That was the first nice thing. The tea and cake and chat were all good too but it was her smile when she saw me. I put it in my pocket and I am keeping it. When I went back to the garage to pick up the car and pay, the garage owner who is a strong silent type told me I had done for the tyre "good and proper" driving it home after I realised I had a flat. I shrugged. I said: "What can you do? I was in the middle of nowhere. I had the baby. I didn't have my phone. My husband was away in London so he couldn't have done anything. I had exactly the same thing a couple of weeks ago and it took forever until someone passed by who could help." As I say, this man is the quiet type. With oily fingers, he rifled through some paperwork and pulled out a couple of business cards and said: "Keep them in the car. You can always call us and we'll come and get you sorted." I mean how good is that? Last time the RAC would not even come out to me and the AA could not find me. I am tempted to have a microchip embedded in my ear and let him track me with satellite technology 24/7. Then I got home and had to ring the farmer who owns the fields hereabouts because I wanted to know whether he used names for the fields and if he did whether they were the historic ones. As it turns out some of the names are the same and some of them have changed a little in the past 240 years: what was Dinner Flatts is Dundee Flatts; Garner Flatts, Gardiners and Wheat Riggs, Wheat Ridge. He told me this and then said: "We're away for a couple of days but when we get back, we'll ring you and come round for supper." I think I live here.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


This morning, the sky was bruised blue yet the light was gold and true. I had dropped the boys at school,was driving home and saw an arc of splintered light as bright as I have ever seen. In London, years ago, I saw a prism, a stripe - no more, when someone I once loved, died and thought: "That gleam in this gritty dirty sky, that gleam is meant for me." Today, between the hedged gaps, we glimpsed the rainbow's fall to earth, scattering its colours in the grass. I said: "Look, look, there are two" as the other, shadowing, pastel bow appeared. The baby and I gazed content. I looked back to the road, a car approaching. I braked, swerved slightly, hit the only curb on the country lane and my tyre blew. Again. I thought: "Bloody hell. Bugger the tyre. I'm getting home this time" and drove back slowly, my road ahead, ribboned through the coloured "Welcome to Northumberland" arch.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mapping out the past

It is a cold, gold, old time of year as autumn readies itself for winter. Trees which flared like brands plunged into the earth, have lost their claim to flame; embered leaves, dead and dusty now, tumbling over their roots while grey hawthorn hedges twist and turn in the low slung sunshine thrown splendid across the fields. I thought: "I live in the country. I'll go for a walk."

I have a copy of a map from 200 years ago, the fields named: Wheat Riggs, Bottle Banks, Gin Quarter, Old Cow Pasture, Kings Chambers. Wells and a windmill, limestone quarries where once men gouged out the land, all etched in ink. I like history on the page or on the ground. I thought: "I shall walk around Barley Close to the pool where marsh grasses grow and deer drink and once there was a ford." I walked down the winding lane and over the rough ground edging the new sown crop, the land sliding out to the horizoned Cheviot hills, till I found the blue green pool water, bullrushes and reeds swaying in the picked up hurly burly wind. I walked around the pool, its leaf beach empty of deer, slender grey trees and dead nettles guarding the privacy of a lost and ancient Britain. My way blocked, I scrambled onto a lichen painted fencepost to better clear the strung out barbed wire. I paused, considered, jumped; my ankle turned on the rutted ground and I thought: "You just cannot trust the countryside." I limped slowly back to the cottage and the present. I think I may have sprained my ankle.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Postcard No. 3

Found a postcard at the bottom of my handbag.

Dear Wifey,
I walked through Greenwich Park on my way to the children's playground. The benches at the bottom of the green and tree-splattered hill outside the Queen's House, were full of promises on steel plaques.They dated from the "Year 2000 Year of the Promise" part of an ITV initiative to mark the millenium.

It made me wonder how many of them were kept.

Some focus on the family:
"We will always remember our family - past present and future." (The Mason Family). (I rather like the idea of remembering a future. When it happens, do you think, "Ah yes, I remember now - that is how it should be."?
"We will adopt a child and give it a loving home." (The Cesvette Family).

People are so brim full of good intentions and all the better for it:
"I will give time, comfort and support to anyone who is less fortunate"(Tracey Fuller).
"We will do a good deed every day and more if possible"(The Hare Family).

There are those with simple ambitions:
"I will practice my bass every day so I am good enough to play in church" (Janine-Jacquline St Leger)
"I will wash up the dishes" (Katie Lansdowne Gillespie)
"I will lose three stone" (Teresa Borg)
"We will make each other laugh every day" (The Murley Family)

Those with big ambitions:
"I will try to be a better person" (Suzanne Sutton)

And those with broken hearts
"I will love Lee and Louise as much as I loved their late mother Maria XXX"(Thomas Anthony Tobin)

Ah promises. The most fragile of things. I have promised any number of things in my time. As a child, I promised to be a good girl. As a seven-year-old I promised a judge to look after my stepfather after he had married my mother and legally adopted me. I promised various bosses that I would "give it my all" and "do what I can." (Occasionally I meant it.) As a journalist I promised to keep comments "off the record" which I did and as a bride I promised to "love and honour" which I do when I remember. 2000 was not a good year for me but I made a promise. My husband and I promised each other we would try to be happy and do what it took to get there, to that place called Happiness. should check the small print sometimes.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Through the looking glass

We went to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and on the way in I saw a sign that my favorite patisserie had opened a cafe there. I gasped, bringing the buggy to a stop and making the four-year-old stumble slightly. My six-year-old said: "What is it?" I said: "It's Mummy's favorite cafe darling...We can get hot chocolates. And cake. We can have cake." He looked at me, accusingly. He said: "Are you crying? Mummy, you must love coffee a lot if you cry about it." I pushed the buggy forward. I said: "Mummy's not crying. Mummy is just very pleased."

The whole day went very well till the loud crash. That evening, I was in the kitchen of the house we had borrowed from friends while they were on holiday. My gay best boyfriend had come round for supper to keep me company. I started to make tea and the boys chose just that moment to decide to play with the large silver exercise ball in the basement TV room. They could have rolled it gently between them but that would have been no fun at all.

Luckily when they broke the large dressing table mirror balanced on the cast iron stove, my gay best boyfriend was still with me. He took over cooking tea while I swept up the shards of etched glass and glittering dust that littered the carpetted floor. I said to him: "The baby had already pushed over one of the speaker's for the stereo and broken the front off it. I think she may have peeled off and eaten some of the pink gel hearts on one of the bedroom windows. There is also a suspiciously straight bit in a metal slinky which I don't think was there before. But apart from that, it was all going so well. What am I going to tell them now?" He said: "They've got children. I'm sure they'll understand." I picked out a fragment of glass from the ball of my index finger and watched the tiny globe of blood rise to the surface. I said: "They've got teenagers, not children. They might have forgotten." What really worried me was the fact I thought the husband might have been left it by a dear departed ancient relative. I thought: "He'll have said: 'There's only one thing I want from the house - her mirror. Maybe one day, I'll look into it and see her little wrinkled face smile back at me'." I did not sleep well that night. My friends rang the next morning from South Africa. I said: "I'm so sorry. I'm afraid we broke your mirror in the basement." I explained the how's and why's to the wife. I said: "We're just on our way out to get you another mirror." I said: "It wasn't 'Granny's' mirror was it? He wasn't left it in a will was he?" My friend said: "Don't worry. We got it from a skip."

Since they said they did not want another mirror, I thought I would get them a photograph of London as a thank you for letting us use the house. My husband took the children to a playground and I had an hour to myself in Greenwich market. In retrospect, maybe I should not have been allowed out on my own. Maybe I should just have kept busy. On my own, I wandered into a photographic gallery and felt myself seized again by London in all its black and white beauty. The exile home again; I stood before my past. Each view opening up a wound in my soul: Big Ben spiking the sky, a rainy embankment with a solitary woman, a riverscape at night - the Eye, Parliament, the bridges and pontoon, the magnificence of a city sky. My soul trembled to see London within my grasp again. I thought: "I can buy a photograph. I can buy two. Or I can move back." I bought a photograph. Two. I thought: "Are these photographs enough? I don't think I should feel this way."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Postcard No. 2

Dear Wifey,
This has been the first visit to London for a long time when I have been willing to risk haunting the old neighbourhood and seeing a whole parcel of old friends, all crammed together in a week. On previous visits, I have had to avoid former routines because it just made me feel bad, this strange halfway house between living here and being a visitor. Maybe I am feeling braver or maybe enough time has ticked on by to be more comfortable about it all. Yesterday on a trip to an East End park with my six-year-old's best friend and his artist father; the boys threw up armfuls of dry autumn leaves and showered in them while the baby girl kept saying: "What dat noyuz?" every time she heard a police siren. The only problem is struggling around London with three children and a buggy requires more patience than I have. Yesterday it was counting grey squirrels and talking about art, today it was all more of an effort. I knew it would be because I missed my slot to go out this morning. If you time it right you can go out before the baby has her nap. This means she goes without the nap but the alternative is what happened today which meant she got the nap and we did not get to go out till after lunch (which incidentally was pasta and all three of them hated it) and which is far too late for an expedition any further than the corner shop. The poor behaviour was all pretty low grade stuff but built up to the point where I was not even out the door when I was forced to utter The Mother's Prayer: "Dear Lord, give me patience." I have variations on this prayer. Sometimes I make it: "God give me strength." Occasionally, I just say: "Fucking hell." We went to a movie, they ate their own body weight in popcorn, had a quick tootle round Canary Wharf shops which meant you had to keep finding and then going up and down extraordinarily slow lifts which smell of cheese, my bank card got declined, I realised my two mobile phones did not work and then we went into a pizza restaurant where we were meeting my husband and I ordered a glass of wine and the waiter said: "Would you like a small glass or a large glass?" If you say large glass you sound like an alcoholic. If you say small glass, you sound like an alcoholic when you drink the first one in 30 seconds and then order another. I felt like saying: "I am sitting here with three children, the baby girl is fractious - despite the nap, the two boys are quarrelsome, getting everyone home is going to be a nightmare, I obviously want the large glass."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Postcard No. 1

Dear Wifey,
Spent yesterday at the dinosaur museum with the children. This was a good idea. It was such a good idea every other mother in London decided to have it too. Utterly heaving. Thought about queuing for dinosaurs, decided the queue was too long; similar decisions regarding Antarctica exhibition, coffee and even the shop. Saw a large number of stuffed birds and a great many backs of heads. The very worst moment was in the picnic area where we were waiting for friends. It too was crowded. I had wrapped four salami sandwiches in a tea towel, popped in three satsumas for the children and a bottle of mineral water between the four of us. I had been entirely happy with this as a lunch until I sat down at a table with a woman, a baby in a pushchair and a little girl. There was a reason this table was the only one with free seats. Every other mother in the place knew that this woman was going to make her look bad. My children ate their baps watching the banquet opposite with wonder. I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I saw the first Tupperware box, but it was too late - we had already sat down on the bench. Sandwiches, hummus, carrot sticks, raisins, yogurt, chocolate soya dessert, sliced melon, green grapes, juice. There was probably more but you can only use your peripheral vision for so long before your eyeballs drop out of your skull. She also made endless "happy chat" with the little girl; the more happy chat she made, the more silent my own children became. Having watched for long enough, my baby daughter decided she had no intention of eating the substandard fare I had provided; she emptied out her salami on to the floor, picked apart the bread and then dropped half her satsuma segments. My six-year-old immediately handed her what was left of his. The Picnic Queen took pity. "She can have some melon if she likes," she said and pushed over the left-over melon. This was so humiliating, I blushed. The boys leapt on the melon as if they had never seen an exotic fruit before in their lives. Obviously, I said "Thankyou; that's very kind" as you do when someone has just shown you up in front of your children as a mother who cuts corners. She then compounded it by telling me: "You worry too much." I "worry too much"? I felt an incredibly "British" locking up of those facial muscles that were not already in spasm from the humiliation of the pity fruit. I wanted to say: "If I worry too much it is because women like you make me feel bad." She was the sister of that irritating stranger who accosts you in the street with "Cheer up! It might never happen." I hate people who tell you to cheer up. I hate mothers who feel sorry for my children. I stopped hating her as they left the table when I heard her say to the little girl: "I told your mummy..." I thought: "Oh, you're a nanny. You should have said. That's alright then. That explains the carrot sticks in their own tupperware box and the expensive fruit and the relentless chat. Right. I'll stop worrying then."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Boxes and blues

Ever since we moved up from London, we have had "stuff" in cardboard boxes hanging about us. First, we kept the boxes in our own house; then, desperate for space, we stored them in the empty cottage next door; when our builders started, we asked the farmer whether we could keep them in a large metal container in the barn behind us. The barn is due to be demolished and this weekend we opened up the container and emptied it. Straight into the bin for the most part - or the brazier, tip, or for recycling. I cannot believe we wrapped it, moved it and kept it all for so long.

One box though was worth the waiting. As I unwrapped the newspaper from the cut glass candlesticks, I thought: "Ah, home." A wooden bowl from a hot and dusty place and a blood red vase with a golden glass stag, fragile and at bay, once my grandmother's. A doll from my childhood, all smile and shiny blue trouser suit, the double of a songbird cousin. Photographs too: my husband, absurdly young, holding a glass of champagne and looking out into his future; my mother in hyacinth blue, more radiant than the bride I think, on my wedding day. Two small and rose strewn hearts capturing the exchange of rings, though not the congregation's laughter when the wedding band would not slide onto my finger. A picture of my eldest the day after he was born and in folding pine, my wrapped up boys fishing and laughing hard. Memories then and my precious and most sparkling things; no hallmarked value, no antiqued glory, important just to me. But I grew sad as I unwrapped my loot which had once sat on the mantelpiece of a black stone hearth against sunshine yellow walls in London. " I do not have a mantelpiece," I thought, "and now my walls are cream." Still, I polished them and scattered them about, sat back and thought: "My memories about me where they belong. Now, am I at home?"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What am I bid?

Thought I might try to save some money by going to an auction in the village. (A hotel was closing down; the owners have plans to develop the site.) I thought about equipping the kitchen with 13 small stainless steel teapots or a double basket electric fryer but decided against it. I toyed with the pair of ornamental stag's antlers and the pool table but I ended up bidding for an old Ordnance Survey map of Northumberland and a print of the wrecks off the Farne Islands. I took a little time to figure out my bidding strategy. A couple of lots had come up, a tent and a blackboard. Tucked away at the back of the bidding, panicked by the auctioneer's song of "DoIhearfiveIhavesixonmyleftsevensirthankyoudoiheareightninetenonmyrightten
tensoldtotheladyonmyright", my nerve failed me and I ducked out of the bidding. I decided on the "I want it" approach for the maps. I stood at the front and nodded decisively at every opportunity. I thought it might psyche out any opposition although I think I may have been bidding against myself at times. I paid £25 for the OS map; tonight I realised it is marked with railway lines which were closed down more than 50 years ago. I paid £50 for the framed print of the wrecks; I suspect you can buy it for £2.50 in the local lifeboat station but it was worth every penny.

It is a work of art, put together by a lifeboatman of 20 years who doubled up as the local funeral director. The map has a little scroll in the bottom left hand corner telling you his name: "For Those in Peril John Hanvey 1976". I rang him. (Life is like that in Northumberland.) I said: "I love your map". He told me he spent seven years researching the wrecks, using information from the logbook of the Longstone lighthouse keeper as well as RNLI records, Lloyd's, a local museum and newspaper. He said: "I carried around a pocketbook. Any old fishermen I met up and down the coast, I would say 'I have the name of a ship I suspect was wrecked, what do you know about it?'." When he had the information together, he drew up around 50 of the maps; each one taking him a week at a time. Later, he had the prints made up.

The names of the ships and the small hand-drawn crosses remind you this is a map that charts bravery, smashed hopes and the graves of drowned men. The earliest wreck: November 2 1462 "Two French caravels" in the area off Bamburgh sands. Another early disaster ("vessels foundered...positions doubtful"): November 1774 six ships and "100 souls perished in one night". Some of the losses are more modern. East of Longstone, January 25 1940 the steamship Everene of Latvia sunk by torpedo with nine drowned. Cobles, sloops, ketches, tankers; the hungry sea will take what it can. Occasionally, it will lose its grim and salty battle and the ship can be refloated. More often though, they are lost and there are deaths like those on October 11 1840, the steam ship Northern Yacht with 22 passengers and crew, or again on July 20 1843, the steamship Pegasus with 54 passengers and crew (both around Goldstone Rock midway between Holy Island and the Farnes). In the worst cases, they are lost with "all hands".

The map of the wrecks is in blue with the rocky islands brown and lapped by a dangerous and broken green. The sober columns of dates and black inked names are broken by the picture of a seagull aloft, a ship in full sail and a lifeboat breasting stormy waves. Underneath the lifeboat are the words of the sailer's prayer: "Oh! Lord the sea is so large and my ship is so small." These lost ships and sailors are not forgotten: their names still sail on a paper sea. John Hanvey made it so.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Show stopper

I think you can go to one country show too many. We went to the border shepherds' show, cutting across the browning moorland and into the Cheviots. Bit of a problem - no sheep, courtesy of Foot and Mouth restrictions. At least we had the terrier racing. I swear to God my palate is jaded, because if the terrier racing could not do it for me what could? They had sixty terriers racing, boxing up five or so terriers at a time before letting them chase what looked like a fur tail on a piece of string, leaping a pipe at one point almost as big as they were. We could see the finishing line but not the start. Only one terrier finished the race in one of the heats; we were told the other dogs had a bit of a scrap at the start. Without jockeys, it was also difficult for them to know which way to face. In another heat, the commentator said: "We won't be starting just yet because I can see one head and four tails." Then there was the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling. This is very popular. A significant number of competitors were members of the local wrestling club. The advantage of being a member of the wrestling club is knowing how to throw your opponent to the grass; the disadvantage is the strip. White long johns, white vest; baggy pants outside of the long johns, sometimes in velveteen burgundy. But who is brave enough to tell a wrestler that the outfit does nothing for him? The men would lock their fingers together, wrapping their arms around their opponent, their cheek against the other fellow's cheek. They would stand apart, legs akimbo and lean into one another. Then they would attempt to toss their opponent to the ground, unbalancing, lifting up, wrapping one of their legs around one of his legs. In one heat between boys, the bigger opponent got hold of the littler boy and was swinging him round and round by the smaller boy's head. I was worried it might come off. It is the best of three falls. Sometimes if both competitors smash to the ground at the same time, it can be difficult to tell who won; sometimes it can be difficult to care. My boys needless to say loved it all: the terriers, the wrestling, the fair, the stalls. My husband loved it almost as much as they did. He said: "What did you think?" I said: "I think I need a few days in London."

Sunday, October 14, 2007


The North East is big on golf. In my previous life, I never saw the attraction; the clothes for one thing. All those pastel colours and slacks. But I like to give things a go and look the part when I am doing it. Move me to the country and I will buy a tweed cloche and wellies; invite me to a golf club and I will buy a pale pink golf shirt, sun visor and one pink leather glove. (You only buy one glove for reasons that defeat me.) And golf shoes of course. They get quite fussy about the shoes you wear. (I had thought I might get away with my lambskin slippers.)

My friend said he would take me golfing about six weeks ago; we tried but it was pouring down so we only made it as far as the clubhouse. I made the mistake in the intervening period of wearing the pink shirt. (What can I say? It was new.)This meant that when we tried to play golf again, I had a lovely stain of pasta sauce just where the baby girl rests her head when you lift her out of the high chair and carry her upstairs after dinner. I did not have time to attempt an industrial strength stain removal. Instead, I tilted my head so that my hair which is shoulder length and frankly, badly in need of a cut, would cover the stain. It worked but I looked as if I was slightly simple or needed a neck brace.

One of the attractions of golf up here are the views from the courses; this one has sandy beaches, pounding waves, a castle built on a basalt crag, the Farne islands, lighthouses and Holy Island in the distance. All that beauty and you spend your time looking at or for a small white ball. I would stand, legs slightly apart, hands gripping the club, I would attempt to keep my left arm straight as I swung the club then I would bring it down in a fluid motion, entirely missing the ball. I think the damn things jump. It reminded me so much of playing rounders at school that I almost broke out in acne. Then, I could never decide which I found more traumatic batting or fielding. There I would be in my games skirt and my sports knickers, rounders bat gripped in my sweaty hands. I would stand sideways on. I would look at the girl about to throw the ball. I would grip the bat a little harder. I would think: "This time, I am going to hit it." She would throw it. I would thresh the air with my bat and the ball would sail by into the hands of the backstop. I hated that game. Even now, the thought of it depresses me. That must be why golf courses have those little sandy oases with the rakes: when it gets pressured, the players can unwind with some Japanese gardening. They do make life difficult for themselves though. As we walked the six holes we played, I noticed various gullies and ravines, gorse bushes and hillocks. If they levelled the ground, they would find it so much easier to play although they seem happy enough wandering around with their teddy bears. Or maybe that was just the chap I was playing golf with. All very Brideshead. Apparently, if you have a soft toy covering the head of your club, it shows you have a sense of humour and do not take the game too seriously. Right. That would be why they have so many rules then because they treat the game as a bit of a laugh.

They have rules for everything:
Rule 1-1/4 "Player Discovers Own Ball Is in Hole After Playing Wrong Ball"
Rule 1-2/4 "Player Jumps Close to Hole to Cause Ball to Drop"
or this one
Rule 1-4/3 "Flagstick Stuck into Green Some Distance from Hole by Practical Joker"
or Rule 1-4/10 what you do in the event of a "Dangerous Situation: Rattlesnake or Bees Interfere with Play"
or my personal favorite Rule 2-4/17 "Player in Erroneous Belief Match Is Over Shakes Opponent's Hand and Picks Up Opponent's Ball"

Having trawled the rule book of around 500 pages, I guarantee lawyers like golf. But it is fair to say, despite a chronic inability to hit the ball, I enjoyed my game of golf more than I ever enjoyed a game of rounders. My friend said as we drove away: "If you want to take it up, you'd have to have lessons." I said: "How can I do that? I'm working: I'm supposed to spend any spare time I have with the children." He said: "Well, men do it." I said: "Exactly."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Samaritan city

My friend's husband just broke his hip - he is a dairy farmer and was involved in a fracas with a cow and a large amount of slurry. I always suspected cows were dangerous. I buy walnut whips and pineapple chunks and set off for a visit to the sick.

I pull off the A1 onto a country road. I check I do not have the handbrake on. I check I have enough petrol. I think: "The car is going to break down" and realise I have a flat tyre. Thinking about it, it must have been flat for a good 10 minutes, maybe longer. I climb out of the car to stare at the smoking tyre. It smells bad and it is pouring with rain. I am in the middle of nowhere and have given up on mobile phones as there is never a signal or the battery is flat. I have been happier.

I think: "Right, well it can't be that hard to change a tyre." I open the boot and find a jack, screwdriver, dirty nappy, pushchair, large amount of children's clothing, two teddybears, banana skin, spacegun and underneath it all, a tyre which I cannot lift. I go back to the front of the car with the jack. My husband has always maintained that if you use a jack in the wrong place on a car, your car will break. I slide it next to the wheel. A car goes by in the rain. I leap up and wave at it frantically and a nice man stops. He lends me his mobile phone so that I can call my husband (who is of course in London) and he can call the RAC. I think: "I can't call the RAC direct because it may take too long and I do not want to keep the man waiting for his phone." I have to ask the driver what road I am on. It turns out he is another local farmer and has heard all about the broken hip. He drives off.

I go back to the car and cautiously try turning the screw in the jack while working out whether the car could kill me if it falls off the jack. I decide I am reasonably safe as I am not underneath it on a trolley but kneeling next to it in a muddy puddle. I go back to the boot and pull out a few other pieces of metal that are lying around the spare tyre. I realise that rather than lifting the rear end of the car off the ground in a bid to extract the spare tyre from the boot, it may be easier to unwind the bolt holding it in place. I feel inadequate. A car drives by and I try to attract its attention but the driver does not see me. I contemplate putting on some lipstick and undoing some buttons. I am glad I have not done this when a little red runabout draws up and a white haired old lady peers out. I say: "Hello." I do not want to frighten her. I crouch down. I say: "Do you by any chance have a mobile pohone I could borrow?" I wonder if she knows what a mobile phone is. She says No, she is driving to see her daughter and had not wanted to drive by me. I know she is wishing she had a toffee she could offer me. I say how kind of her to stop and thank you. She drives on.

I go back to the car and look at the wheel. The tyre is still flat and I am getting wetter. I look at the signpost at the junction. I am about four miles from my friends. I wonder if I shout very loudly would they hear me. Another car draws up. I think: "For the back of beyond, you get a fair amount of passing traffic" although the hands on my watch stopped going round some time ago. I say to the elderly man driving the car: "Could I borrow your phone?" He hands it to me. His elderly wife looks at me with deep suspicion. I ring my husband. He tells me the RAC will not come as I am not named on the cover for the car and the AA cannot find me. While I am trying to explain where I am to him despite the fact I have no idea, the elderly man goes over to look at the wheel and says he can fix it. I tell my husband I will ring him back. The elderly man, a caravaner, digs around his own boot. He pulls out a walking stick come zimmer frame and then a wheel brace. I wonder if he is carrying it in case the zimmer ever gets a flat. We spend some time trying to find a place for the jack to go. He is incredibly game but is now wheezing very badly. His breath is so laboured I am seriously worried he is going to have a heart attack while he changes the wheel. I suspect his wife is sitting in the car having a hissy fit. He has to give up when the jack refuses to go any further. I shake him by the hand and thank his wife for lending him to me. I do not think she likes me.

I go back and have another go. I pull the jack out and slide it further along the car and turn the screw, but the wheel remains resolutely on the ground. I am not sure I care by now as I have no idea what to do once the wheel is in the air. Another car draws up. The man (who spends half his year in Australia and used to do something with trucks), cracks on with the job in hand. It takes him about five minutes. My tyre has a lenthy gash in it. He pours scorn on my spare wheel and implies I will die horribly if I go any speed at all. He says I must go straight to a garage and get a new tyre. I have the impression it could abandon the other three wheels and roll away from the car at any moment. He drives away. I open up the walnut whips.

Monday, October 08, 2007

On the right page

Sometimes in the country, you have to order things. Shopkeepers write down your order in an exercise book and when you go in, they greet you by your name and ruffle through the pages. I went to a borders town this weekend to pick up a pair of boots. They had not arrived but it did not matter. Whenever I go to this particular town, good things happen: I stumble across a cafe that doubles up as a church; there is a food market with great olives; the cookware shop gives me a whistle for my Aga kettle (I managed to lose mine) and they had not even sold me the kettle. This weekend, Elvis strutted his leathery stuff in the market square; occasionally, cocking a leg up on a wooden bench to kiss a granny. Elvis is alive and well and appearing this coming Saturday in aid of a village hall restoration fund (tickets available from the local newsagent.)

Once Elvis had "left the building" that is to say strode off through the doors of the tourist information office, we went back to the Christian cafe. A couple of weeks ago, I had to buy eight copies of a book for my book group from a bookshop. I had already bought eight copies of a book for my book group on Amazon but I must have clicked the "Post them when you like, I'm really not that bothered option" because they did not arrive in time. So there I was looking for eight copies of anything that was not a map of Great Britain and noticed that they had a whole section of "Tragic Life Stories." I thought: "Cor Blimey - who reads this?" I can understand why you would write it. Therapy. A reality check for the happy people - you might have had a happy childhood, mine sucked big time and nobody cared. I can understand why you might read one, but are there people out there who work their way through the whole "misery genre"? And do publishers sit round their shiny tables with their Starbucks coffees saying: "You're going to love this. Let's call the book 'Ugly'." Nope. Done that. "OK: `Damaged'." Nope got that too. " 'Abandoned'? 'Unloved'? 'Betrayed'?" They also tend to have the word 'true' on the cover. "Unloved. The True Story of a Stolen Childhood." "Abandoned. The True Story of a Little Girl who Doesn't Belong." "Damaged. The Heartbreaking True Story of a Forgotten Child." "Ugly. The True Story of a Loveless Childhood."

As a natural depressive, I am not brave enough to read such books. In any event, they were not selling them on Saturday. Christan cafes in small border towns sell books called "Lift your Spirits". It had a picture of a flying dog on the front with the words: "Even if you're living a dog's life, you'll find something here to lift your spirits!" You can stand it on your desk and flick the pages over to the right day. For instance, May 15 "Is the glass half empty, half full, or twice as large as it needs to be? ( I am still thinking about that one.) Then underneath a reference to Psalm 23:5 The Message "You revive my drooping head: my cup brims with blessing."

One company looks like they are cornering the inspirational market with their 365 Day Brighteners. They have titles such as "Sunbeams Through My Window" and "Whispered Words of Encouragement."My personal favorite has to be "Words to Warm a Mother's Heart". There is a thought for every day in case you do not have any of your own.

Today then: "It isn't the great big pleasures that count the most; it's making a great deal out of the little ones." (Jean Webster in For a Woman's Heart).
Then again:"When one door closes, another one opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us." (Alexander Graham Bell in Words to Warm a Mother's Heart).
And of course: "Every path He guides us on is fragrant with His loving kindness and His truth." (Psalm 25:10 The Living Bible via The Beauty of Friendship)

I bought six of these books and next time, I go shopping, I am trying this: "It doesn't take monumental feats to make the world a better place. It can be as simple as letting someone go ahead of you in a grocery line" (Barbara Johnson). Or this one: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of becoming" (Goethe) - this one might change my parenting strategy. And I love this one by Augustine "Where your pleasure is, there is your treasure: where your treasure, there your heart: where your heart, there your happiness." And Elvis is not dead. Life does not get better.