Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Foot and mouth

Glendale. Some people wait all year for the right agriculture show to come around. Ok, they may flirt a little with another agriculture show but when you know you have found the agriculture show for you, a strange peace steals over you, that hard coiled part of you relaxes, thinks: "Perhaps this is how life is, should be, will be forever."

Alternatively, we have just lived here too long. We arrived early, as we settled by the main ring to eat bacon sandwiches and watch the horse jumping, I thought: "Oh good, horses to watch". Events here are a little like wallpaper; you glance up and there is a horse. I have never looked that closely, maybe it is wallpaper. But it moves; maybe that is the water though. Anyway, they had the moving wallpaper trick going while we ate the bacon sandwiches and I gasped when a stray hoof knocked off a pole. My husband said: "I think you are going native." I said: "I don't think so. Make sure we are back in time for the hounds. They are on at three." He muttered something. I did not ask him to repeat it.

Courtesy of foot and mouth, there were no cattle, sheep or goats. I missed them. I hope they missed me. Sign of the times there was a "chief livestock and biosecurity steward". Presumably he has links with the United Nations.

Without beasts, I had to find comfort in the horticultural and industrial tent. In the vast marquee were baked products, flowers and the fruit and veg of entrants striving for unnatural glory. Some onions the size of a three-year-old's head; cabbages the size of a 10-year-old's. Some leeks were as long as an arm; some spilled over the table and reached for the floor. When I was a trainee reporter, I covered a leek show. A man who was languishing in a coma won first prize. He was in the local hospital after being knocked down by a car late one night. As he lay ill and all unknowing, never likely to recover, his twin brother carefully tended his leeks, watering them, feeding them, talking to them. The mother was old and frail. She visited her lost son every day, sat by him, held his hand. She was there when they announced he had won first place with his leeks. Tribute to a brother's tender love. I remember she cried.

One of my favorites yesterday were the competitive potatoes. Without wishing to malign the potatoes, I could see very little difference between them. Perhaps the winner had a little more muscle tone. It was also a very slow race, I stood there for some considerable period of time and I could hardly see them moving. It must have been a relay though because they were in teams of four. No team dropped a baton.

The competitive ethic was everywhere. Potatoes, cabbage growers, horses in fancy dress. I was slightly disappointed because there had been talk of me judging the horse fancy dress competition but when I arrived, someone else was down to judge it. I had been practising shaking the children's hands for the past fortnight, looking them straight in the eye and saying: "Well done. Jolly good effort," which was slightly confusing for them at tea time or indeed when they got up on a morning. But in a way, I was relieved because I was not sure which hoof I should shake when it came to the horse. Did you perhaps shake all of them? Or more if it was a male horse?

The fact that I once thought that I might judge the fancy dress meant I sat and watched it with a particular interest. Two horses came as walls. That is to say they were covered in brick painted sheets. On one wall a little humpty dumpty sat with two King's Men in bearskins riding behind him. A woman next to me muttered: "I'm sure Humpty Dumpty comes out every year." I thought that harsh but as I say, they are very competitive up here. Even the potatoes. The other wall came as Hadrian's Wall complete with a Roman soldier in a red tunic and helmet. Other Roman soldiers followed on horseback and two little Romans in togas tried to keep up behind them. Needless to say the Roman "man" had to pull a reluctant Roman woman behind him. She was probably saying: "But Gluteus, I like Londinium." The audience liked the little Romans and their horses. They love Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. I have found when there is a pause in the conversation, if you say: "So, that's a hell of a wall, you've got up here," it gets you quite a long way. That and: "So, do you ride?" If all else fails: "So, do you farm around here?" Aside from Hadrian's Wall, there was a Teddy Bear's picnic, lots of children dressed as teddy bears, some poor bear girl pushing a bear baby in a buggy round and round the main ring that will probably put her off motherhood for life. The horse was dressed as a picnic blanket.

Hadrian's Wall won which was a safe choice but you had to give full marks to the parents who blacked up their children. Blacked up their children. Just one more time. Blacked up their children. I watched the cavalcade across the field as they walked on. A rider in a black hooded cloak, another with a Arabian scarf wrapped around part of his face. Each rider pulled along a blacked up child; one wearing a large black Afro wig, the other a black Mohican with a ponytail. I said: "Oh my God," as they came by. "Are those children pretending to be black?" At that moment, one of the children raised a placard with the words: "The Abolition of Slavery, 1807." So that was a "Yes" then. Full marks to parents who attempt to be political at an agricultural show. I would have made them my winners for sheer effrontery. On the other hand, cor blimey. Cor blimey. I did see one black person at the show. Black black. I presume. (Unless he was their dad and had blacked himself up for the occasion.) I wondered whether he was watching and how he would feel. If he would think: "Well, it's a good cause. They've got their hearts in the right place." Or: "I think we should go now." I nudged my husband as the slave trade came by. I said: "What you said earlier...I don't think that's true."

St Aga-tha

I am no longer an Aga virgin. I know this for a fact. Firstly, I burnt my chic black and cream Aga oven mits; scorched, singed, crisped at the tip of the right hand. I laid it down on the top to reach over to a pot. I peered into the broccolli and thought: "Mmm, that doesn't smell good." Only to realise the oven glove was smoking. On the upside, I did not have to eat it and the burn does make it look as if I occasionally cook. The Aga, however, I have discovered is a tell-tale. My husband was the one who wanted it. I did not. The cost made me feel bad. More than bad. The cost made me feel sick. I gave in though and I was warming to it up to the moment I put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. Friends came round for supper; I had fed six children then four grown-ups. I had cooked sausages and baked potatoes and beans alongside a vegetarian option. We had eaten in the garden which entailed a fair amount of scurrying backwards and forwards carrying things. The pink kitchen table was on the grass since we do not have any garden furniture. This meant I had one surface too few in the kitchen. Things got moved about. My guests left. I thought: "Before I put the kids to bed, I really want a cup of tea." As I say, I put the kettle on. Now this was not my fault. I told my husband when the Aga arrived that we would have to use it for warmth (tick), for cooking (tick), for drying clothes (tick), for ironing(tick-ish), for making toast (slices of bread pinned in a mesh bat contraption then pressed to death much as a Catholic martyr might have been between the hot plate and the chrome lid: tick) and for boiling the kettle. Well that is what I do. He, however, got the electric kettle out of a packing case and put it on the side. I put it away again. I said: "We have an Aga. Use the Aga kettle. Fill it up and put in on the hot plate. We are wasting enough power as it is without plugging in a kettle." He got it out again. On Saturday, I put it on the Aga. What can I say? It had been a long day. The Aga kettle was not where it normally was. I wanted the tea badly. I looked at the electric kettle as the black plastic started to wrinkle as it sat on the hot plate. I looked at the red switch you use to turn it on. I thought: "That is so not supposed to be there and it is so not supposed to be melting." I wrenched the kettle off a little late for the black toffee bottom and my hot plate which now has the face of a clown imprinted on it. Unless, of course, it is the face of a Catholic martyr.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Let them drink coffee

I took the boys to a coffee morning in a beautiful farmhouse. Was not entirely sure of the etiquette. I took off my wellies at the door. Technically, you do not need to wear wellies at the moment but they are the only shoes I can find. I thought you just needed to pay for entry. In reality, you need change for the raffle, sweet peas, cake stall and marmalade. It was more of a small fair. Funds went to the hunt. (God better not be a fox or Northumberland is doomed to hell’s flames and back again.)

I knew a smattering of women there but the vast majority were strangers. I find it difficult to keep walking into rooms full of people I do not know. As if a large, flattened stone is perched at the back of my throat, rocking slightly, waiting to slide down it. Children ran around scavenging luxury chocolate biscuits while smart, silvering women talked about bridge and said things like: “Where is the lemon curd?” and “I don’t think I’ll be riding a horse much longer. I’ll have to take up golf.” I met a judge at Crufts dog show and a lady whose husband used to work in a castle. Plates of buttered girdle scones littered coffee tables. Years ago, the tradition was to put sixpenny and threepenny bits in the girdle scones for children’s birthday teas. I felt I had to keep eating them in case I found one. Builders are expensive to keep; sixpence here, sixpence there and I can pay for them to put up a length of new guttering.

I really like my friend's mother-in-law who organised the coffee morning. One of those small dynamos who make the world a better place by being in it. Twenty years ago, she set up her own agriculture museum on the farm. She raised so much money for charity from it, she got an OBE. She bakes, then distributes cakes to her daughters and her one daughter-in-law. A month or so ago, I was visiting my friend. She made me a cup of tea then pulled the lid of an old biscuit tin and pushed it across to me; in it were four girdle scones, four butterfly cakes, four iced buns, four chocolate cornflake cakes. I have never had a mother-in-law. My husband’s mother died when he was just 18. I always wanted a mother-in-law. I looked at the cakes then across to my friend. I said: “Can I have your mother-in-law please?” She said: “No. ” I said: "OK. Maybe she would just bake for me then?” She said: “No. Have a girdle scone."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Let them eat cake

I like the Aga. I feel like a traitor to the working classes when I say it but it is warm and it is the nature of things to cling to what is warm. It disappointed me last night though. I tried to make chocolate eclairs. It might have been ambitious but the Aga stands there like a giant reproach. "Use me," it says. "Call yourself a woman? Bake something, damn it." So you have a glass of wine and think: "I know. I'll make eclairs." I have never made them before but the recipe sounded simple enough. Melt butter and water and slowly bring to the boil, add flour all at once, beat in the eggs a little at a time. Admittedly, I did not think it made the "smooth paste" the book called for which you then piped in rows along a baking tray. More like playdo when it has been left out of its popping cup a while. Ever hopeful, I slid the tray into the roasting oven. Twenty minutes later, I pulled out bread sticks. The recipe had said leave room between them to expand. They did not expand. They shrank in on themselves outside the dark, hot privacy of the Aga. My husband said: "What are they?" I said "Eclairs. But I don't think the cream will fit." I thought about dipping one end in whipped cream and the other in melted chocolate but I did not think they would convince. I wanted to bake because the little ladies who used to live here, one in this house and one along the row, were coming up for coffee this morning. They had shortbread; I bought it.

Before they arrived though when we were still at breakfast, the builder walked in. He had started work cutting tarmac for the farm gates at around 8.30am and the chap renting the cottage next to us who arrived yesterday went out to complain about the noise. He told my builder he had paid "good money" to come away, having been told it was a "really peaceful" spot. Maybe it was, once upon a time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hup two, three, four

Went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at the weekend. Got more profoundly and thoroughly wet than I have ever been in my entire life - including baths. Two hours sat in the pouring rain. Luckily I had bought rainproof suits for the two boys. This is a tip I have picked up from other mothers up here. When I ask them what they do when it rains, they say they put the children in their rainproofs and send them out in it. Spartan really. Anyway, I took a leaf out and picked up the suits at the same time as the farm gates. I quite wished I had one of my own by the end of the evening.

We went to the Tattoo for the sake of the four-year-old who is in love with the idea of soldiery. I hate this. I do not want him dying, brave and beautiful, in a desert; for a dashing photograph to flash up on the evening news, tagged "Dead hero" to be forgotten, buried in the viewer's mind by the time the soaps start. A climbing wall, tree, fast car, pond, sea, war: I hate them all. Is others' motherhood so full of fear or am I just a fright filled soul? My more valiant son pointed to a picture in the programme of a fusilier, all gilt braid and towering bearskin marching at the head of the massed, kilted pipers. He said: "I am going to be him." I said: "Soldiers have two jobs: to kill people and to be killed. Neither of those is a very nice thing to have to do." He said: "I don't care." I thought: "I will take him to the ballet next time."

The soldiers did their stirring stuff with the backdrop of a misty Edinburgh castle, lit by flaming torches. Then the Taipei First Girls' Senior High School Honour Guard and Drums Corps marched in. Teenage girls do not carry the same baggage of bloody death and honour as drumming solider men. But they were young and beautiful and I smiled to see the golden plumes astride their bandsmen hats. Plumes that nodded as they marched in white pleated minis and matching knee high boots. I envied them the plumes, flirting skirts and boots: I envied too the legs to wear such things. But most of all I envied them the fact that they could march in step, first right, then left, then wheel. When I was young, I went away to school for six months. The Canadian college had a compulsory training corps. We drilled, carried guns and wore red and felted tunic coats. We marched; first right, then left, in front of proud and smiling parents. My friend and fellow Brit said he groaned aloud to see my squad parade: every other soldier teen lifted one foot and I the other; then wrong again, first right, then left or was it left then right? I cannot march in step. I have tried before.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Happy holidays

The week has been mad; then again, every week is mad. My clever cousin came to do complicated things to my computers. He was supposed to come on Wednesday and leave Thursday at noon. Every time he fixed something, something else unravelled. He ended up leaving Friday at 6pm. He does not have kids. He has cats. I said: "What do you think?" He said: "It's chaos." I would have asked him why he thought that, but someone screamed, interrupting my thought process. It might have been me.

Summer holidays mean that we have neighbours again in the other cottages along our row. Small children play complicated super hero games in the shrubbery. My six-year-old's part demands he spends every waking moment in a John Deere tractorman boilersuit and his cycle helmet. Even when he eats. When the boys and their friends do things I do not like, I throw them out of the garden. If it is good enough for God. Following a bad experience with a room being trashed which would not have shamed a seventies rock band, I also have strict rules about playing inside. On Friday, as I was talking to the builder about the next phase of work in the arches, my six-year-old asked: "Can we go upstairs mummy?" I said: "Yes," noticing too late the tribe of children with him. As soon as I had finished talking to the builder, I ran upstairs to bring everyone back down. There was a young boy I had never seen before in the room. I said: "Who are you?" I suppose I should really have said: "Whose are you and where are you from?" I still do not know. Later, when I asked my sons, they just shrugged.

So here we were: my cousin mired in computer hell, flies a-buzzin', children everywhere, and a builder working in the utility room right next to the study where my cousin is trying to do his stuff. I am vaguely embarrassed about the study; it is not yet unpacked and is crowded out with large cardboard boxes and files. Occasionally, the builder would walk through the study to the front door where he is sawing lumps of wood. (The study unfortunately is a thoroughfare between the kitchen and the utility room. We have four bedrooms upstairs with views across the fields to the sea. The study was supposed to be in one of them but the boys insisted on having their own rooms. Now, we look out on to coal sheds and get to put the washing on.)

At some point in the morning, my riding pal drops by with her friend. They are both on large horses. My friend says: "I'm really hung over. Can I have some water?" I go get her some water. I say to my cousin: "Come and meet my friend." He stands up, eases past the builder, steps round the workbench at the door, and comes outside to meet her. I say: "She is on a horse." I probably did not need to say this. We chat awhile about the fact the other rider is on a horse with a glorious, glamorous name. She says: "But I think she looks like a Matilda." I look at the horse. I think: "What would make you think your horse looks like a Matilda? What would make you think your horse looked like anything but a horse?"

They trot off. A couple of hours later, my evangelical friends arrive with their three children. I say to my cousin: "Come and meet my friends." I realise I cannot even offer them a biscuit because I am completely out of food. I own an Aga and I am completely out of food. They probably take away your Aga if you do not dedicate at least one day a week to baking cheese scones and cherry cake, let alone run out of food.

My cousin finally made a successful break for freedom. Then on Saturday morning, we had to get out early to visit a farm shop to buy wooden gates for the access road outside the cottages. The boys pestered me for two small padlocks. I gave in. Within an hour of getting home, my six-year-old had padlocked one neighbour's boy to a metal clip attached to a knotted rope, tied to a tree which they were using to let themselves down into a nettled strip of field between our garden wall and the barbed wire which keeps the cows out. As the boy dangled from the rope, my son realised, a little late, he had lost the key to the padlock. I had hoped this habit would skip a generation. My husband managed to haul the boy up and unlock him with the spare key I had kept (you live and you learn) but not before the struggling had snapped the branch to the rowan tree. I threw them all out of the garden for that one. But not before the boy had said to me, pointing at a small tear in his trousers: "Look! He did that when he padlocked me to the rope." I thought: "I am so not explaining what happened to your mother." I said: "Well, next time he offers to padlock you to anything, say 'No'."

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lady of the Flies

OK. War. I went into the local market town to arm myself. I paused briefly to admire the window display of the local army surplus store but moved on. I am not sure my knife skills are yet adequate to pin a fly to a chopping board at 10 paces. I am hoping by October. I may have over reacted but this morning was genuinely disgusting. I bought two swaying, beaded, clacking curtains to hang from the two frontdoors. I fear they may give the cottage the air of an Amsterdam bordello but if I get pestered by punters walking slowly up and down on lads' weekends, I will take them down again. Usually, it would take about three years to manage to put the hooks up to hang them from, but since I have a team of highly paid professional builders still in situ, someone should screw a couple of hooks in for me over the next few days. I also bought two plastic fly swatters. I bought two on the off chance I might get to keep one when the boys discover them and take them out to the garden to hit each other with. I am probably wrong. I bought a poison pen to wipe round the windows and doors although it does strike me as slightly Agatha Christie. I also bought pretty transparent sunflowers to stick on the windows and a wasp trap on the off chance that the flies make it past the beads, the swat and the sunflowers and fancy a Carlsberg. The wasp trap may have been overkill since it is technically for the wrong kind of insect but I am guessing that flies do not have a strong sense of self awareness and might not realise we are operating an apartheid system and the drinks are only for the wasps. There is also a blue electronic butcher's light perched on the fridge. Actually, two, as the shop insisted you buy them in pairs. I am slightly worried at the metaphysics of encouraging insects to fly towards the light; perhaps though, blue oblivion beckons to a jammy fly paradise. The shop did not have any electronic bats and had sold out of sticky fly papers but the final weapon in our kitchen Death Zone is a fly trap, basically a large plastic bag which requires powdered "bait" and a litre of luke warm water. I do not think I have the stomach to use it. It says it "catches up to 20,000 flies every trap". 20,000 flies? I think I will retain it as my nuclear option.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Plagues upon houses

Have been visited by plagues, several and diverse. A plague of boils. Maybe not boils, spots then. It is fair to say I have not had spots like these since I was 16 when I spent a considerable period of time staring at my nose thinking: "How spotty can you get?" Not only spots, a skin rash has reappeared which I have not seen since I was locked in a job in TV which I hated and which hated me back. When I went to a cosmetics counter in the nearest city last week and explained I needed the magic potion I had once used to get rid of the stress rash, oh yes and I had spots. The woman found the magic potion, then said: "Try a pore minimizing serum." A pore minimizing serum? That is to say, I have spots, a rash and enormously large pores. Why don't they train these women to say things like: "Well, I think you are beautiful as you are but perhaps you would like to try this shaving foam?" or "I hardly noticed the adult acne because I was so taken by your enormous blue eyes." Managers are trained to do something similar: "On the one hand, you make a lovely cup of tea; on the other, you have just cost the company £32 million pounds and you're fired." I want to know whether these women look at their sisters and say: "Do you know what? I think you are just too ugly for me to help."

And it is not just the boils, we have so many flies in the cottage, it is difficult to think we are not damned. They are everywhere; they surround my post-ironic chandalier (I have to call it post ironic since one of my closest friends up here said she did not like it).They drop from nowhere into your tea cup or onto a half emptied plate. I have sprayed and closed doors, I have stalked with tea towels, newspapers and heavy books (they jump backwards, did you know that?). I am trying to get hold of one of the blue butcher's lights which will make us look like we are living in a French movie. Either that or an electronic tennis bat you swing at them; hanging, after all, is too good for them and tieing nooses that small can be very time consuming.

We are also a house of pestilence and disease. Not only did my six-year-old, my husband and I all fall to vomiting and bile, but we have had a family staying with four boys and their seven-year-old and nine-year-old also came down with it. Last night, my baby girl caught it. I moved a mattress into her room, right by her cot. She would say: "Feel sick" and we would play catch into a plastic bowl. Say: "Wata" and I would hold a sippy cup. Vomit and I would say: "I'll be right back, OK?" and she would lie there, nod and I would go wash an unlucky panda, or fetch another towel or sheet. We lay together on the mattress and she pressed her perfect apple face into the dark place between my cheek and cotton pillow. I said: "I love you darling one." I do not think there is a word, nor ever can be one, to catch and paint the all at once rush of a mother's love. It is as if you catch a leaky boat to ride the rapids; tip and swirl around the rocks, gasp to see the rainbowed, unmapped waterfall, then plunge - not downwards into the white and foaming water rush but up and up and up.

Friday, August 10, 2007


This is my London diva girl. Beautiful, of course as divas always are and glamorous. Glamour too is the diva's way of going on. But I call her "diva" not because of narrow, selfish ways, buffed nails or rhinestone studded shoes; rather, because she claims her life while others, I include myself, will watch their own pass by. She stands centre stage, not to own the spotlight which is hers by right, but to anchor the performance, give depth and meaning to the words of those who surround her star. Her fellow troubadours seem small from the stalls. She will turn her head an inch to whisper: "Stand tall. Move up to your mark." When they miss their cue and lose their place in fright at life, she will say: "Here, try these words for size." I blame her though, for setting such a high tide mark in friendship, leaving seaweed and stripped and silvered driftwood in its wake so that I cannot forget where she has been. For never failing me when darkness came around and sadness washed right through and over me. For being there when it would have been simpler and far cleaner to give me "space and time" and all those things that mean: "I don't know what to say." For sitting by and listening to, feeding me and all of mine, and pouring red, communion wine into my crystal glass. Which I then drank. I hold her thoroughly responsible for all her wisdom, gentle comfort, the ringing supper laughter and the kitchen bar stool smiles. I love her children as I love my own; if terrible things happened and terrible things do happen, the first to come around and pick up those that had been mine would be my London diva. Cue: applause.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

One thing and another

I tend to think, if it is not one child, it is the other; if it is not the children, it is my parents I am worrying about. Most recently, it has been my six-year-old. Having clambered up the climbing wall at the agricultural show (did I mention how much I enjoyed it?), he duly climbed a tree and promptly fell out of its branches. No great harm done, I thought. A bumped head, hurt and boyish pride. The next day though as I was shopping in the local market town, he started sobbing, clutching at his side, teeth bared, nose wrinkled in agony. He ratchetted up the hysteria to the point I had broken open the bottle of Nurofen in Boots rather than wait to give it to him outside. Apart from drugs, I could not think of anything but throwing all three children into the car and driving to the hospital in case he had cracked a rib and had only just realised it because he had in fact been concussed for the previous 24 hours.

As soon as we drew up at the hospital, the hysteria subsided and he began to look quite perky again. As is the way with these things, one of the mothers from school is on duty in the hospital. I am wondering as I gabble to this capable health professional of my child's hysteria-inducing pain whether she will think I am making it up (people think that sometimes) or just plain useless in a crisis. The doctor comes and looks at me as if I am the one in need of medical care when I say I did not know whether my boy had perhaps cracked a rib or punctured a lung in falling from the tree. He shakes a head, but says there is tenderness and there could be a gastric problem some time soon. There is. The night after the day after the expedition to the beach (did I mention the expedition to the beach?) I start throwing up, my six-year-old starts throwing up and my husband starts throwing up. I am deeply hacked off when my husband starts throwing up as I wanted him to look after me. We eventually stop throwing up in time for today's outing to the big city hospital to look into my son's nut allergy. They cover his two arms with solutions and prick them through the skin. It turns out he is also allergic to cats, dogs, horses and grasses. I tell my husband if he was allergic to sand and bad coffee, we could all go back to London.

The children's outpatients is busy with intent artists carefully sticking sequins onto cardboard sillhouettes of children who run and jump for joy. Next to them, small boys gaze rapt into virtual reality, only their fingers and eyeballs moving as the game plays out. Pretty girls wear golden princess frocks while others storm a grey and plastic castle with battlements and an orange slide for a quick getaway if small barbarians make it through the gates (did I mention that they have?). As my sons played in and around the castle, I noticed a small engraved and silver plaque, then its shiny brother hung on a different wall, each hardly bigger than a matchbox. They said: "With love from The Family and Friends of Katie Grant Aged 2". I wondered who she was, this lost child, whose parents thought to gift a toy to others. I asked a nurse. Asking, I thought, I hope she is remembered and not just in a plaque. She was. As she cleared away the glitter, the nurse said: "Ah yes, Katie". The nurse said people were so kind, a fire engine, a doll's house. Each toy to mark a missing child. She said: a shame, the slide was broken, the castle, it would have to go. But Katie's silvered name will not lie among plastic and forgotten ruins, the plates will be unscrewed from castle walls and fixed to something else. I thought how right to keep her name; right too, that a toy should break from hard and eager play. That is what toys should do.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Inside out

When my London diva visited with her family, my house was perfect, pretty much, give or take the odd builder or odd box. Houses are one thing, lives are more difficult to primp.

We went to look around the castle and smell its ancient stones. The baby decided she did not want to walk around a castle; she lifted up her arms: "Carry, carry Mama." I picked her up, carried her awhile then put her down. "Carry, carry Mama!" This time mildly outraged I would think that she might walk. I hefted her anew. The six-year-old clung to my side: "I don't want to be here. What about the ghosts?" Suicidal soldiers and a small and long dead little girl, he had heard tell of. "Can we go now?" he pleaded. I put the baby down to rest my back. "No darling," I said, "we've only just arrived." "I feel sick," my four-year-old informed me as the baby began to weep again. I reached across his brother's head to stroke and pat his cheek, said: "Do you darling, never mind," and stooped to pick the baby up. I calculated the distance from the entrance where we stood to the exit. Far too far away. We staggered on past china plates, armour and still and waxy dungeoned gore. "Look children, history, no, don't look there." I put the baby down; she wailed again. She did not like my habit. Maybe it is here, that ghostly stories start: a weeping child, a desperate screaming mother around a corner and out of sight? Climbing down some steps, my six-year-old barked his shin; his face crumpled. I put the baby down to kiss him better. He cried. She cried. The four year old said: "Don't you care that I feel sick?" My London diva, walking ahead with her husband, her pair of beautiful teenage and near teenage girls, turned back. She paused a moment to admire the family snap we made and said: "Is this your life?"

On Sunday, we went for lunch and a tractor trailer ride on haybales down to the beach. I have occasionally seen such groups sprawled across the sands. They picnic and play cricket, the children like ants, the men in long, flapping shorts bowling out their sons, attractive wives and mothers lounging on blankets with tumblers of wine. I have thought: "I wonder are they dear, good friends or one great, happy family who holiday and play charades together in the evening when their sunny day is done?" The reality is this. The wind is cold and the sky grey when we get down to the beach. We do not blink. We think: "This is the beach and summer. We will be fine." The braver types strip off and plunge on into the sea including my own children. I think: "They must be mad." I wear my wellies though and do a little dragging of boys on boards through salty waves; try not to mind too much when I am drenched by childish play. The men break out their wickets. I break out into a cold sweat. Ball sports can do that to me. As I watch them bowl and field, I think how very bad I was at rounders. How I would stand among the last and most despised in school to be chosen by the girls who could use a bat to hit a ball not just spin round with it like me. I would watch them while they whispered in each other's ear and hope it was my name that they were whispering behind their hand. I was never last. Never quite last. I was never fat enough for that. But I was never all that far away I was so very, very bad at catching.

Instead then of playing "Nice shots Sir" with the boys, I sat around with the babies and the girls in an all together different kind of game. I moved my seat closer to a pair of chums; lobbed in "God" as a topic. (In my defence, it was a Sunday picnic.) Then, tried to break into their chat. It dropped out of the sky and died. I picked it up, threw and tried again. Still dead. No resurrection here. I put on sunglasses; the baby and I filled a bucket with sand while someone filled my plastic cup with wine I would not drink. Does everybody drink as I think they do in the country or do they just pretend? Conversation changed to eyecream, wrinkles, things well within my ken. I tried again, said: "You have lovely skin". As the talk moved on, asked: "Why? How old are you?" No compliment flew back. No question in return. Still zap. The two women sat closer on the rug. I dug another hole and poured the wine into it. From a distance, I think we would have looked a happy band of chums with wine and bikes and blankets spread out upon the sand. You would have said with envy: "Is this your life then? Can it be mine?"

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Brick built

The builders found a brick. Not so unusual; this one has a name written into it "William Lockie, Chathill". They found it in the wall they knocked down which once ran between the two cottages. They found it, then they lost it; piled up the lime covered red and yellow clay kitchen wall bricks to stand on the garden terrace and wait there for another purpose. Once you have been a brick standing in a wall, it must be difficult to consider other options. They found the brick again, read it and rejoiced. We have found the brick with a name, an example to bricks everywhere. In the arches, they are creating a hearth, a home. We have stone jambs and a windowsill which once belonged to a church to be the lintel. The builder carefully winkled out the mortar around one brick in this hearth, pulled out the anonymous and eased William Lockie's in. I hope it will not look as if he is buried there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A stitch in time

You lose things and you find things when you move house. I lost my temper, sleep and two dresses, both new, one of silk pink and red roses, the other, black, jet beaded and gathered at the hem. There are worse things to lose. And I found things too: my home, my mauve snakeskin sandals and a tapestry kit once my mother’s.

I am not a woman with a veil, a distaff and a wheel; have no pet sheep to shear and fleece to spin out yarn, then weave it into cloth. Unlike my mother, I do not sew, knit, pearl or craft in any kind of way. I do not ice tall white cakes for grateful niece brides or snip snap, then glue butterflies on to get well cards. A few years ago, this craft art stopped for my handy, never idle mother who could not knit another pair of eyes when hers gave out. She could not see to find and buy a pattern. She cannot see the faces of her grandchildren, read them tales. Sometimes she might weep, but I have never heard her grumble. Instead of a craft knife and a rubber stamp, my mother holds a white stick and decoupages smiles.

I found a half complete field of sunflowers caught up in a frame. Bundled wool skeins hang from card: lemon, whites, khaki green, dark moss green, pale apple green, dark olive and light tan. You hold up the hole punched card and a meadow of wool falls from it, ready for the harvest. She sorted them and mounted them, then named them for their colours. On a cardboard scene, she spelled out the wools that she should use, this line here at the heart of the sunflower, dark brown, around it medium brown, then tan. The petals, yellow, dark, medium and light, the background off and white. The borders round the flower and falling leaves, medium air force blue. She has sewn, half cross-stitch, four sunflowers to top and tail the bordering, winding leaves, mallow backdrop clouds, trees and grassy slope. Twenty-two sunflowers stand complete and tan hearts for 80 more. But the rest, the rest is empty painted canvas, waiting to be stitched.

Her sight lost, hope for remedy lost, she stuck the needle tidily in the canvas, swept up the half competed masterpiece in wool and said: “Here, you take this. Finish it for me. I’ve worked so hard on it. I want it finished. Will you finish it instead of me?” I looked at it, the complex graphs with crosses, dots and spots of colour, numbers walking up and down the lines. I thought: “I’ve no idea. I’d never have the patience.” I looked at my mother who hates to leave a job half-done and said: “Yes. OK. I can’t say when.”

I wrapped it in a pillow case, along with daughterly and good intentions and put it in a drawer. This week, when I unpacked, I found it. Took it out and read what I should do. Keep the tension even, the canvas taut, never start or finish with a knot; decent rules by which to live your life. I thought: “I’ll never do this.” Picked up a length of lemon, then threaded it. Sewed a line of sunflowers in the distance underneath the trees, one arm wrapped around the canvas, the needle pushed, then pulled, the stitch complete. I thought: “This will take me till I die. My mother’s work complete.”

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Music boxes

Yesterday as time folded itself down into the twilight, neat and away, a golden wash lay across the sea and half the fields. Beasts grazed in the last of the sun and thought: "You know I am a lucky cow": unlucky cows preferred the grassy gloom of the departing day, said: "My life is skimmed. Soon it will be the knacker's yard for me." Cotton rompered babe in arms, I looked out beyond the glass to the shadows and the light. She looked too, said: "Night, night cows." Then turned away to the rocker and her bedtime books. I sat, rocked once, tipped her in to lie against my chest and said: "Listen, darling child."

I opened up the little leather box. The chiming tinkling rhyme rang out as the tiniest of ducks swam on the round about blue pond, chasing forever the two row, row, row the boats with their little painted trippers. "Shall we take out a row boat Maud and spend our plastic forever in it? It is sunny in this box even when they close the lid, though they do not know it, and somewhere in my pocket I have napkin wrapped sandwiches for lunch." My baby girl likes this song; sings it on my knee. I am teaching her to smile and persevere, though life be but a dream. The baby points at vain and circling Maud, holding a parasol above her head for fear of freckles; she is wishing she was there, small as her finger nail. I, however, am wondering if Maud knows there are crocodiles in the papered water and whether, if the lid came down, we would hear her scream.

Roll up. Roll up

Ran away at the weekend to a local agriculture show. Deperate housewife that I am. I looked for an escape from the chaos all around and thought: "I know, I'll go look at tractors." There was all the paraphenalia of country life today. Small girls in tweed hacking jackets and enormous, hard hatted heads. I wondered how it is for them when they are twenty-something pretties, locked in airless city jobs when they cannot cling knee-tight to a handsome horse's back; cannot clutch the warmth of his sinewy neck or move in for a kiss and smell damp hay breath. I wondered if they fall for unsuitable men for no better reason than teenage habits and memories of Dobbin. Away from the riding competitions, there was a food hall, a catherdral of diversification churning out chutneys and strawberry fruit wines, caramel fudges and blood brown, vaccuum packed meats. Before any farmer marries these days he would want to know whether his bride to be could make a decent red onion marmalade. After all, there is the future of the farm to think about.

There was also a climbing wall, studded with stones. My motherhood is filled with fear: that they might go to sleep and not wake up despite the bedtime prayer; that they might ride a shiny board through salty waves and be taken by a riptide or a lost and toothsome shark; or that the freakish and bizarre might snatch them in a supermarket aisle as I turned to pick up beans. I once had a friend. She said her father was obsessed with safety: if you did not drive on icy roads, you would not die as your car span merrily out of control to smash against a hard, handy tree. I looked at the wall. I thought: "You and your like. You are my enemy."

My six year old, buckled in and harnessed to a rope, set off, in a pilgrim scramble up the stones. I thought: "If you do not climb that wall, you will not fall off it. If you do not climb that wall, you will not climb a mountain when you are 20. You will not climb another and another. You will not die, young and brave and foolish, caught out by the weather on a mountainside." He climbed and climbed; one foot slipped and then the other to leave him hanging by his arms. I caught my breath to see his white face look down at the ground as his body peeled his fingers from the rocks. He fell. He swung ofcourse. He did not plummet then to hit, bang smash, the ground. He reached out once again, caught a rock, clung on, pushed on and scrambled higher, then still higher.