MAKING A CLEAN BREAST OF IT

I think I must be entering my second childhood. I always thought this meant going back to childish ways; dribbling your food, banging cutlery on the table. Wetting your pants. But at the grand old age of 52 (believe me it doesn’t seem like much from where I’m sitting) I’m missing the wild part of me that I spent years trying to forget.

I’m never going to go bra-less under a tight tee-shirt again but I may start wearing clothing with statements emblazoned across my chest. My sister has bought me many over the years and I regret I didn’t have the confidence to wear WONDER WOMAN out and about. I wore it for exercise and knocking around the house. It was my nick-name for a while in my London days.

Today I wore my REVOLUTION a la Russell Brand tee-shirt to pick up a prescription from the chemists. A silver haired man engaged me in conversation. It felt good and safe that he wanted to know all about revolution and not just to stare at my ‘charlies’. I may dig out that PARIS IS A STATE OF MIND I’ve always felt too awkward to wear. Just because I’ve never visited said city, but I do have plans to. So there.

I asked my husband for a leather biker jacket for my birthday. Of course I had one, back in the day. With a leather fringe which went out of fashion too soon. I wore it to the Anti-Heroin festival in Crystal Palace, and on the back of BSA’s, Triumph’s and Suzuki’s. Holding on to long haired boys while my own waist-length mane twirled into knots in the wind.

Thinking about it I used to wear a lot of statement tee-shirts – the one with tyre marks that I wore to Stonehenge Free Festival. And the rather scary graveyard one that I leant to my cousin and never saw again.

I wore stockings of every colour and print, coupled with mini-skirts before they came back in fashion. If I had been born later I would have worn them with shorts but I stopped wearing shorts ten years ago. I donned ripped jeans because I’d climbed mountains in them, gate crashed parties by crawling under fences with an opened bottle of French red in one hand. I’d earned those rips. The store-bought, ready-made torn jeans of today wouldn’t suit me. It’s been a long time since my ‘scotch eggs’ (rhyming slang) were skinny.

A couple of years ago I started buying scarves (which I hadn’t previously got the hang of – what to do with them?). Not just to hide my ageing neck, they suddenly seemed like a good idea. And I love them still but I want to wear them with my Connies and my kick-arse second childhood threads. I’ve discussed dyeing my hair purple (once the grey arrives) with the husband. He’s not sure but I want to be Helena Bonham-Carter not Jackie O. There’s life in the pre-menopausal, temperature-challenged, slightly moody old cow yet.

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Christmastime, oh Christmastime

Christmastime and the past festive times are snugly bedfellows. As parents we try to bring, or avoid, our Dickensian ghosts of Christmas past. The husband lived in a huge house and the family Christmas tree was tall enough to reach two floors – the living area had a galley that ran around the top. High enough for many a childhood accident, and to put the angel on top of the tree I suppose.

Christmas Day involved three trips to church and presents were given out by Pop after the Queen’s Speech by the warmth of the fireside.

Meanwhile in the shires, our new build (updated every year or so) was without a fireplace. Father Christmas was clever enough to dump a Santa sack filled with toys at the end of our beds. Presents from family and friends were neatly wrapped, but for some reason (economics and time probably) my practical Dad decided not to wrap the gifts from him and Mum. There were a lot of them and this decision made access easy, after midnight when the man in red left the house. Shouts and the turning on of lights regularly disturbed the remaining night until dawn arrived and we all gave up.

Our tree was made of plastic, and green and silver tinsel. It was placed on a table to give it stature. Dates and nuts gathered round its red plastic pot.

No Queen’s speech for us. Top of the Pops was king. Waiting to hear who’d made the top slot in the charts before lunch. Slade and Wizard dancing energetically on a tiny stage. Looking back at the disc jockeys who presented it our 70’s childhoods has a dark side now.

In the present, no pun intended, we have our traditions on the other side of the globe. Stockings on the mantelpiece after dark on Christmas Eve. Gaudy tinsel blowing in Queensland’s humid breeze. The real tree I insist on, although huge, not as big as the husband’s childhood one, the bigger presents jostle for space under it. It took me and the kids years to talk the husband into opening the presents earlier in the day. Especially since the Queen’s Speech isn’t shown until bedtime.

We have Christmas pop songs playing from late November, our family lunch out, our Boxing Day cinema date. And on Christmas Eve I’m massaging butter under the skin of the turkey, muttering under my breath and listening to shouts of joy coming from the pool.  Even the dog’s in there.

Christmas morning I’m cooking a lunch which really belongs in the Northern Hemisphere. We play board games after lunch but now the boys are almost grown. Son no.1 has a girlfriend and they will make their own traditions. I remember the husband, when he was just the boyfriend, and our Christmas Eve tradition of cheese fondue and Drop Dead Fred on the telly. I implore my kids to spend at least one future Christmas in the colder climes. There’s nothing quite like it.

WOMAN WARMING

This morning, the last day of January, two thirds into summer I looked up and noticed the light streaming through the trees into our home. Why had I not noticed this before? Why had I not visited the beach? (Dot-to-dot patterns of tiny moles and freckles might have had something to do with it.) Why was I smiling again?

The temperature at 9.00am was below mid 20’s. The needle hadn’t pointed to 30 at eight in the morning. I can choose to take a dip in the pool – my life doesn’t depend on it. I won’t have to spend the day in wet soggy swimmers in order to get my chores done. I am free.

Every summer seems to get hotter as I let the flame of menopause lick my boiling head.  We live in the hinterland, miles from sea breezes. Our house is nestled in a small valley. Our cottage is full of holes – all the better for snakes to get in but without basic insulation. “We can’t put in a air-conditioner. It won’t work unless everything is sealed,” the husband says. I’ll seal him if he doesn’t watch it.

Pool dips, cold water splashes. Sitting under fans. Mild heatstroke which had me peering into a bucket expecting a vegetarian panini to resurface.

I have an arsenal of cooling devices for bedtime. Ceiling fan, two pedestal fans strapped to the foot rest of our bed. A very loud machine with an internal fan. We filled it with ice and water and directed its flow to be swept up by the two aforementioned fans. Before bed I had a total immersion shower and headed upstairs with an ice bucket. I soaked a sarong in the water and draped it over my poor hot body. Soaked a small towel and placed it over my middle-aged glow-in-the-dark neck. The whole operation took about half an hour. I laid awake wondering how the husband had talked me into moving to Queensland.

We missed our lovely trip to New Zealand, cool breezes and cold oceans, because the husband broke his leg, had four operations and complications just before Christmas. He asked the doctor if air travel was possible. He mouthed the words DEATH and TRAP.

It’s getting worse for me every year but this year the husband kissed my beetroot coloured head before he went off to sleep, muttering something about research. Air-conditioner. Next year. I think I heard.

February please be kind. And hopefully next summer I’ll drift off to sleep in a polar blast of icy air, and my face will no longer be heart attack purple.

 

 

 

SEASONS END

I’m a rugby mum. I have two strapping teenage boys who charge the field; tackling, going hard, ripping the pill, fending and running fast.

But I’m a nerd, a book worm. Was always last to be picked in sports. I remember the shame as my back prickled with horror as it rubbed against the fence while I made myself as small as possible. Skinny and pale from lack of sun. My two don’t get their sporting genes from me.

From February to September I drive my boys to training. I’m there at the school gates, kit bags packed, snacks at the ready. My youngest and my eldest, a friend or two, pile in. I drive a round trip of an hour and a half to get them there. And back home again. The car less fragrant after training. Rugby socks and sweaty armpits, the scent of them clog my nostrils.

Games on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. The jersey wash. Rep rugby runs simultaneously with the club season. Weekend tournaments on the Gold Coast, driving to Kempsey. Scary motel rooms.

During the season I see myself as supportive mummy. A woman of integrity and grace. Chatting to parents on the sidelines. Clapping politely when either team score. I am a pacifist. I wear a half-smile. I’m a woman of substance.

Until the Grand Finals.

I turn into a lunatic. I scream, I shout, I bellow. I punch the air aggressively. Blood runs steaming hot through my body. I jump up and catcall while everyone else remains seated. But I can’t stop.

And I cry. Sob even. My youngest, the captain, giving a speech. A speech he is teased for by his mates. The low voice-breaking wobble. Forgetting to thank everyone. To me he’s Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill. Bono.

I bawl my eyes out win or lose. Then comes the realisation that I’m free. I don’t have to live in my car for the next five months. Six layers of clothes in the foot well, three changes of shoes. I can be home before dark. Have time to cook.

But first comes the post-rugby season blues. That rugby shaped hole at my centre. I try to reconcile graceful mummy with the crazy witch from the weekend.

“You’re very aggressive, Mum.” My eldest tells me. My bottom lip wobbles. He smiles. “But in a good way.”

At Seventeen

I’m of a certain age. I’ve started admiring gardens, forgetting vital ingredients in a dish. I’m also more fearless, confident and bold. I only worry for a few hours that I might have offended a person I like. At one time the angst would have ridden me for weeks. Years even.

At 17 I was young and thin. I hardly ate a thing. I lacked energy because of it. I was fearful about the smallest things. I left school in bewilderment. There was a lot of unemployment in 1982 (thanks a bunch Maggie!) and few people secured their first position easily. Jobs were offered where you knew someone.

I wanted to become a writer but sought employment typing out other people’s words. My Dad was a big one for safe. Safe employment; in a bank (no pun intended), an established firm. Start at the bottom and crawl your way up. I begged him to send me to art school but no daughter of his was going to wander around in a duffle coat with a portfolio gripped under one armpit. I should seek a husband who could support me. I’ve never had huge material needs. Scruffy second hand paperbacks and black eyeliner would suffice. Same now as then. Except I wear navy eyeliner – it makes me look less tired.

My politics are the same, leaning as far to the left without falling over. I was a feminist too in a world where if you were pinched on the bum you were supposed to be grateful. But all these yearnings and leanings were kept buried inside. I didn’t speak of them. I hardly spoke at all. I wasn’t equipped to shout out, to give my opinion. Unless it was to complain. Of the cold, of hunger (self-induced) of tiredness and boredom.  I didn’t really know who I was, where I was heading. I got that safe job in local government. Hung round a bunch of long hairs with motorbikes. Married young to a boy even more scared and confused than me. I was dragged along from 17 to 21 in a murky sea, hardly buoyed, with a slow moving current.

All the pieces were there but I didn’t have the courage to believe in them. It all worked out in the end but I didn’t discover true happiness until my thirties. Perhaps it’s the same for everyone. Perhaps not.

My eldest son is about to turn 17 in a matter of days. He wants to play rugby for his country, he has a dream. He doesn’t want to incur a university debt, he’s sensible. He’s strong but I see in him something of the girl with a light footprint, me at his age. He’s a terrible procrastinator. I still am. But he won’t bend to anyone else’s will. He knows he doesn’t want to work in an office. He’ll probably be self-employed as he doesn’t like being told what to do, something his teachers could testify to. His health is important. He eats well, looks after himself.

He says he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend. Between rugby and the gym, his Year 12 work. I used to cling to my boyfriends; channelling myself through their bravery. Or lack of it. My son stands firm. He picks us up on any injustices. He doesn’t like gossiping. He’s a better person.

I can’t call him mine for much longer. He’ll go into the world. And when he visits me I’ll try not to cling, as my mother did with me. Joy and melancholy wrap around each other, threads in a strand. Life moves on. Sometimes quick, sometimes slow. It will go. It frightens me but still I’m glad. It’s the order of things.

 

Into the New, Out of the Old

In 1982 I experienced the best year I have had since birth. I have now had even better years, but in 1982 I had no idea this would be so. I fell in love, I finished school, I did a spot of child minding in a time of great unemployment in the UK; thanks Maggie. I started a better job in a very posh building that smelt of beeswax and ended the year with a kiss from the love of my, then, short life.

It is one year that is preserved in aspic. Untouched by the terrible and not so terrible things that would follow. I knew, in 1982, with a clarity and surety that I had never felt, before or after, how my life was going to turn out.

I was going to live in a farmhouse, built in times past, in the green of the English countryside, with my husband and five children. Victoria, Louise, Charlotte, and two boys whose names I wasn’t really that interested in. Something fun and manly at the same time I suppose. I would have a wonderful kitchen in oak and bake Women’s Institute style dishes and cakes. I would pause from this industry on occasion to look upon the green fields, either in the bloom of spring or covered in frost. Nell Gwyn-cum-Martha Stewart. Who knew then the latter would end up in prison.

It all went tits up the following year. I can’t say I’ve ever seen the future so clearly since. I was obviously pretty crap at fortune telling.

My 17 year old self would be surprised that I would marry, divorce, and marry again with a bit more forethought. Move to the other side of the world, have two boys (with actual names), and a mad dog called Bolly. Suffer a mental illness and not discover a talent for cake making. My house is tumbledown – full of half mended appliances and small holes. Spiders and a refusal to stay clean. The kitchen is made of cheap pine I painted in lime green, purple and pillar-box red.

My sons were both born in April, as was the husband. I spend that month – the month of the cursing and butter smears – in my shabby-shabby (it’s not chic at all) kitchen trying to produce light sponge cakes without dips in the middle. It’s intense.

My home is surrounded by 12 acres of green grass and gum trees. I follow my dream of writing. I’ve given up my dreams of perfectionism. I’m happy. As I write, I realise that actually my life does bear a resemblance to the vision of my teenage self. An untidier, less controlled, less perfect version. Perhaps I should dig out that scarf and big earrings.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I know how differently things turn out. We can’t really control the future. Be kind. Be hopelessly optimistic. Don’t give yourself a list of goals you know you cannot hope to achieve. The gym surges with unexpected membership in January, a large proportion of whom will not be hogging the shoulder press by March.

Have an imperfectly messy Happy New Year.

 

Mostly Normal

Where does the line between madness and plain old eccentricity lie? Is it in the lines that mark my smiling mouth? The smouldering coals of my eyes. Where madness sits.

And the rages. Boil and trouble.  Most people cool off after them, mine stay. Seep into my body. Build up over weeks, sometimes months. Gather; in my gut, my steely blood, my nerve endings.

I can stop it, stem the tide if I notice the taste of metal in my mouth. Or a rage that storms from a standing start. I scream like a hag, run to shake it off. To the highest hill or to the bedroom upstairs, where I sit, still boiling, at how other people are wrong. How I’m sane and they’re mad.

I take deep breaths. House, and its people are silent. My family hold their breath. On which half will I land? Once I would have taken the car, or run away. Told strangers about the hell my life is. When it isn’t.  At all. If I swallow it down, keep the madness in my body, I go from mania, slipping into psychosis. No focus. Brain re-arranged and put back wrong. I need chemicals to put it back right. The legal sort.

I know what side my bread is buttered. I breathe and breathe. Grip onto the mattress, or grab handfuls of grass viciously. Until the craziness subsides, until it goes away. Shouts, demands, the whispers. Backing quietly from the space.

My friends know calm me, serene me. Only a few have seen me bouncing off the walls. Like a user of elicit drugs, who doesn’t. Use that is.

There’s little eccentricity in madness. Nor madness in eccentricity. There is no solid black line either. It’s smudgy. Ragged even. The colours don’t quite fit the shapes.

Most of the time I’m normal. I am.