READING AND TIME TRAVEL

It’s book character dress-up day in school today. My sons haven’t entered into the spirit of it. I am quite sure that son no.2 didn’t mention it deliberately. The last few years I suggested that he should wear one of grandma’s home knits, sew an ‘R’ on the front and go as Ron Weasley. I even offered to buy an orange wig from a dollar shop. He wasn’t keen.

Son no.1 mentioned this morning that one of his more clever friends was going as Arthur Dent. Pyjamas and a dressing gown. Wearing slippers and I hope, not forgetting his towel. It helps with hitchhiking onto to alien space craft’s.

Oh how I wish I could go to school and play book character dress-ups. A young (but over-sized) Hermione. I have her hair in the first year down to a tee. And it’s naturally like that. Or or or. I could go as Aunt Fanny in the Famous Five series. Kind, stoic and always patient with Uncle Quentin. What about Mrs Twit? I could have lots of fun with that. And I wouldn’t need to brush my hair. There’s always Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine. I sometimes sound like her in the mornings, trying to get two teenage boys into my very small car.

I have been an obsessed reader since the age of six when I found my mum’s Famous Five collection on the bookshelf. I went from Blyton to Lewis Carrol. Alice in Wonderland, through the looking glass. Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Through the Glass Elevator. Judy Blume, until I finally fell completely bonkers in love with Douglas Adams.

I’ve taken my children on a similar journey. I read to son no.1 when he was in his cot. Alice.  Later to both my sons. The Famous Five. About children who escape their parents and have adventures. Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents were shadowy figures in the background. We don’t know much of Alice’s – although her sister gets a mention.

The first Dahl I read them was The Twits. Apparently written by Dahl to do something about beards. He hated them. Mr Twit had a terrible beard, full of food eaten and hardened in its ghastliness. The awful couple were paid-back when their mistreated monkeys and a roly-poly bird used Mr Twits own glue to stick the Twit’s furniture to the ceiling. Making the dreadful couple think that they were living in an upside down world. Brilliant. I was fifteen when this book came out and didn’t actually read it until I read it to my eager sons. As a child I often wished the world was upside down and spent hours staring at ceilings and imagining it. That’s perfectly normal, isn’t it?

Then came Harry Potter. And the last series I read to them: The trilogy (there were in fact four books) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some people have a blanket as a comforter when times are confusing and upsetting. Some a soft toy. The first book in the series – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy –  was my comfort book. I have been known to wander around clutching it.

Sometimes when someone says ‘I don’t read’, I visibly shudder.

We can read fiction set in time and place. We can travel there and immerse ourselves in the culture and history of anywhere, in any time. Just by reading. It’s a kind of magic.

PS I apologise for any typos. My proof-reader (husband) is out.

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WHEN SHE WAS BAD SHE WAS HORRID

I am the eldest of four. I think I am a nice older sister. Kind and patient. Of course it does help that I live a very long way from my siblings. Perhaps if I lived nearer I would be bossy and controlling. Wanting things my own way.  The eldest is supposed to be nurturing of the youngest, perhaps copying the parent when they are told what to do.

Nurturing, ha! Try telling that to the four year old sister I left at school. I was supposed to walk her home from school for lunch. I completely forgot. My head stuck up in a cloud where I imagined I was an only child, bouncing on a sparkly space-hopper. A cross mum and a very tearful little girl stuck a pin in my fantasy. Still, they went on to trust me. I wouldn’t have.

I remember her being born (I’m not naming names to protect the innocent). An aunt turned up with a present for the baby, but not for me. What was she thinking? I was two and half at the time and I still remember the indignation. Perhaps I should have had therapy.

The next few years I spent passive-aggressively getting my own back. Mostly with a crude punch, followed by her screams, then my punishment. Not subtle enough hey? I can remember breaking tiles in the bathroom and leaving a note saying my sister had done it. Complete with her signature. I was five, she two and half. Do you see the flaw in my plan? Yep. She couldn’t write.

I could be very cunning too. I once dragged my sister, who annoyingly had gleaming blonde hair (mine was mousey and unmanageable – still is), into our parents’ bedroom, a space we weren’t allowed in. I took out one of mum’s lipsticks and spread it all over her face. ‘Hold this’, I said offering her the tube with a wicked grin. She complied trustingly, albeit with watery eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. I ran from the room at speed, shouting at the top of my voice. “Muuuuum!! You’ll never guess what she’s done now?”

I didn’t get away with that either. I almost despaired.

My sister got the brunt of my horribleness. I started to think there might be something wrong with me.

My brothers weren’t spared. I remember tricking one to climb into a blanket box (hide and seek don’t you know?), coercing the other two to sit on the lid with me. Pretending we couldn’t hear the poor love’s screams. Or the time I pretended to phone a man to take away the younger child as he was not doing what I told him. I curdle with shame. This brother has a good memory – I’m sure he could come up many other awful things I did.

I grew out of this behaviour. Honestly. But not before one summer evening when I decided that the television should be turned off while I directed them all in a play. Out of the goodness of my heart. They were crap and I began shouting at them. My sister had received a tape recorder as a Christmas present that year. She waited until I’d run of our steam and played it back. What was this terrible screaming? A witch, a banshee, experimental music?

I’d like to say that I was overcome with horror, that I apologised to my nearest and dearest, took them in my arms and hugged them tightly. But that would have been completely out of character. It went something like this. ‘Get out you ungrateful urchins! I will never direct you in a play again, not even when I’m famous!’

They filed from the room, giggling behind their little hands.

As for me, I was cured. I became the best sister in the known world. Not really. There was a fair amount of teenage screaming when my youngest brother broke into my four hour session in the bathroom with a screwdriver.

Did I imagine their gleeful faces as I waved goodbye to live on the other side of the planet? Of course I’m a changed person now. I’m really quite nice.

I went on a playwriting course recently. I wonder…? Do you think they would?

HIDING THE FOLDS

A part of this story was published on-line for an anthology of Queensland writers. It was also awarded a Highly Commended by the Perilous Adventure competition a few years ago.

Ellen’s footsteps echoed along the corridor overlooking the courtyard which wasn’t bathed in Italian sunlight but the distant lukewarm glow of a London afternoon. The town planners had thought to call it ‘Lincoln Fields’ There were no fields and Lincoln was a good three hours drive away. Trees were planted in tiny soil circles and imprisoned by concrete, much the same as her mother who had been imprisoned here since she was a young vibrant woman. Ellen had escaped. Unemployment, drug abuse, spotty teenage mothers with ugly howling babies at their hips, soiled nappies smells and rough tobacco. Ellen’s hair looked different to her old friends on the estate. She had acquired a sheen to it, whereas the estate girl’s hair clumped and matted.

“Or-right, Elle?”

She nodded at Chantelle or Jazmyne, she could never tell one estate girl from another. Ellen’s expensively tailored suit and French perfume a world away from the girl’s sweat shop acrylics. She didn’t feel proud here, she felt embarrassed. If her mother hadn’t raised her to appreciate beauty she would be trolling up and down the corridors of doom in flip-flops and fake designer-wear herself.

The key caught in the lock. She must get that seen to, one day it would refuse to budge and her mother would be trapped forever..

“Haven’t seen your mum for a few days, Elle.”

Chantelle was still there, breathing instant coffee fumes in her face. Her unwashed hair hung in strips like flypaper. Ellen felt guilt tapping on her bones, a light tapping, a tiny hammer like the one that broke the toffee at Christmas. She should come more often. Chantelle slinked away and cold lack blew from her childhood home as Ellen crouched over the letterbox. “Mum? It’s me, I’ll use my key. Don’t get up.” A couple of visits ago Ellen had waited at the door while her mum shuffled up the hallway. A broken ankle, swollen three times its normal size.

“I did it dancing.” Her mother had laughed. It was a lie of course, it had been years since her mum had gone dancing. More likely she had fallen on the wet linoleum in the bathroom. Those horrible woolly mats she had down didn’t have a non-slip rubber underside, what with a leaky shower and the lack of damp proofing it wasn’t just the floors that sweated, it was the walls too. There had been a time when her mum loved to dance. She’d go up West to the clubs with Queenie. Like most of her mum’s friends they didn’t stick around for long. It didn’t help that Linda constantly talked about a more beautiful life, packing it all up in one of those fancy suitcases and pushing the key through the letterbox on her way out. Moving to somewhere on the continent where she would work hard and enjoy the sun. Meet a rich man with a yacht big enough to do the Tango on. Linda had dark exotic looks, no one was quite sure where they came from.

When Linda went dancing up West she forgot she even had a child. She would tell Ellen of her dreams but the girl had worked out early on that her mother hadn’t included her in her plans. “Of course you’d be around, Elle but men don’t like snotty children hanging about now do they?” Even Queenie had one of the girls on the estate to watch her Jason. Linda’s babysitting money was taken up with jazz club entry fees and a taxi home. Drinks were provided by shady men. “I can’t do it all, love.” When it got dark, seven year old Ellen would turn all the lights on, the telly up loud for company and squeeze under her bed, clutching a bear won at the fairground, when her mother had had a relationship which went beyond sex and dancing.  A tall man with a strange accent had shot a couple plastic ducks and won it for her.

He was the closest she’d come to a father but her memories of even him were sketchy and hard to pin down. Linda had never told her real father that she existed which seemed harsh in the world she lived now. “How can he not know?” Daniel, her boyfriend had asked. Linda had moved out of her violent family home and been given a small council flat on account of her pregnancy. The first space all of her own before she gave birth to Ellen who was by all accounts a small, sickly infant. Linda had been embarrassed that her child’s screams could be heard through paper-thin walls but she was too proud to apologise. She had painted those walls in bright colours that were looked upon with distrust by the few friends she brought home. There was something too vibrant about her, as if she belonged somewhere else, somewhere foreign. Ellen was fair but had good bone structure and she was tall. Linda held a stray memory of the good looking stranger who wore a smart grey suit. Pressing up against him in a doorway in Kings Cross.

“There you are Mum.” Ellen leaned down and slid her Channel covered lips across her mother’s papery cheek. She tried not to recoil. Her mother’s wrinkles were deepening and the layers of skin seemed to separate, taking air between them like shrunken pillows. Linda was dressed in a shapeless, grey dress and a sad blue cardigan into which she seemed to be shrinking, shrinking from life. How long would it take her to disappear and then Ellen wouldn’t have to visit this sink estate, the stain on her life? Shocked at her unkind thoughts she fussed over her mother, straightened her clothes so she looked more human, less like Mrs Pepperpot before she shrank.

“I’ll make coffee, Mum. I’ve bought that exotic blend you like.” As Ellen moved briskly about the kitchen she told herself it wasn’t her job to save her mum. She could rent a two-bed flat of for the two of them, a garden flat with somewhere green for her mother to sit, instead of sharing with Nicola from the bank and Matt the male nurse. But she didn’t. Ellen used her surplus salary to dress herself smartly in designer suits and heels. Everyone in London knew if your clothes weren’t the real thing. They’d look down on you, pass you over for promotion. Her dear old mum still thought Marks & Spencer was posh.

“Where’s the cafetière I bought you?” Ellen leaned her head through the door, hair manicured like a well kept garden. Linda looked up, as if she’d only just noticed her daughter. Her eyes betrayed fear and bewilderment then recovered.

“They’ll nick anything round here you know. Thieving wotsits.”

Ellen came through and sat on the edge of the couch. “No one comes round here except me. Do they?” Her mother shrugged. “Well. We’ll just have to have tea then. I bought you that new one from Harrods’s. You said you liked it last time.”

Ellen opened the cupboards. That desolate wind of lack blew through them too. “Mum. Where the hell is all your food?” She’d shopped herself only a few days ago. Jars of preserves and tea drunk by the Queen herself. Those tiny sponge fingers her mother had always loved. Jars of pickled walnuts and sophisticated pots of honey with pictures of bees on them.

Linda smiled at her as she walked through. “Hello, love. When did you get here?” Ellen’s insides lurched and rolled.

It had started a few months ago. Small things, easy for Ellen to ignore. She was busy with a new project at work, late nights and the odd morning waking up smelling of Chianti at Daniel’s flat in town. Her mum hadn’t been answering the phone. Ellen called every evening at 8.00pm, sometimes from meetings in the bar and once, before Daniel, from the bathroom of a man whose name she’d never asked. She rang to check Linda had eaten, quizzed her in case she was lying. Then the problem had been the reverse, the food wasn’t disappearing. Ellen made the arrangements on the office phone where she worked in PR. Words like meals on wheels lurked distastefully in the glass and steel constructed building where image was everything. Both colleagues who shared her space, they didn’t call them offices anymore, raised their heads as Ellen’s other life lifted its corner to show its dirty underwear.

She’d found her mothers phone in the kitchen bin, under an unopened batch of the magazine Ellen had subscribed to on her mother’s behalf. ‘Good Housekeeping’. Ellen plugged the phone back in and cancelled the subscription. Another time she’d found shampoo in the fridge and biscuits in the bathroom where the toilet brush had once lived. The toilet brush never did turn up. “I’m telling you, love. They’ll nick anything. Ugh. Something as unhygienic as that.”

They’d both laughed and Ellen had allowed herself an out breath. Anyone would go a bit mad living on their own, talking to yourself and putting out jars of coffee instead of empty milk bottles on the doorstep. Not that Ellen had ever lived on her own, didn’t think she’d like it.

Before Linda had got pregnant she’d had a dream of becoming an air hostess. Dressing in a uniform of a clean white blouse and navy pencil skirt, a job where her make-up skills would be valued. She’d travel to regal Europe, exotic Asia, maybe even darkest Africa. Faraway from her parents crumbling council house where the garden was littered with old sinks and toilet bowls her dad had picked up cheap but was too bloody lazy to fit.

You needed exams before the airlines would take you, maybe even a language or two. Linda’s dad made her leave school early so she could get a proper job. No daughter of his was going to become a glorified air-bound prostitute. Linda’s ears rang and her cheeks turned deep crimson when he’d bellowed at her.

“Anyway, I don’t want you moving somewhere else. Who’s gonna look after yer mum and me? Eh?”

They were sitting at the card table in the kitchenette where they ate their meals. Linda was drawing circles in the dust. “What about Billy or Ray? They’re working local.”

Her father looked down at his only girl and a bitter laugh escaped from his lips, where a clump of shepherd’s pie still lingered. “You can’t expect a lad to look after his folks. It’s woman’s work.”

Linda looked over at her mother, who rarely said two words. Her eyes were blank and the only time she parted her lips was to insert the unlit end of a cigarette.

Linda’s friend Margie worked for the council. Single mothers could put their names down for a flat in one of those new tenement buildings, the ones that had been built after the council knocked down the old twenties and thirties jerry-built houses. They weren’t anything flash but she craved new things. Everything she had ever owned had belonged to someone else first. The only space she’d had was the box room bedroom at her mum and dad’s place. She’d tried to make it her own by putting glitter on the walls and knitting a pretty throw for the bed, using her favourite colours of orange, pink and mauve. It gave her something to do while she sat around the telly with her mum and dad, watching endless game shows. Her brothers went to the pub and sometimes her dad joined them. Only then would her mother speak, softly as if she thought her husband could hear her, two blocks away. Sometimes she would cry silently, Linda didn’t know what to say. There was no making it better. But sometimes she’d switch over to the BBC, to one of those costume dramas. All bonnets and bosoms but a place to escape to. Rome on an aeroplane or Regency England on the telly. It all amounted to the same thing. Linda got a job at a haberdashery store, a bus ride into town. She went back to it after Ellen was born. Linda’s mother would look after the baby secretly while her dad was at work. Until the cheap gin and Embassy Royals ended her miserable life.

When Linda became agitated Ellen would calm her down by going through the biscuit tin where she kept her photos. The glaring flash and faded colours of the seventies looked sad to Ellen but her mum loved them. Most photos were of Ellen, smiling and dressed in tutus and strings of fake pearls. Her mother had put together a fantastic dressing up box, sourced from her job in the haberdashery. Fun fur in rainbow colours, glitzy plastic tiaras.

Linda picked up a photo from the box, held it in her trembling hand.

“What is it, Mum?”

Ellen leaned over to have a look. An old photo, handled many times, blurry as if the photographer’s hand had shaken. There was a fairground carousel in the background. She recognised her mothers face before time and sickness had sketched their story on her bones. She was smiling down into the camera and next to her stood a tall man with a moustache. He looked young and happy and Ellen felt a spark of recognition. Linda stroked the blurred face of the man on the photograph. “He never minded you being around. He was the only one.” She shook her head, dropping the picture, letting her box of memories fall to the ground.

“I think I’ll have nap now.” Her mother didn’t move, she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Ellen picked up the photos and put them back in the biscuit tin. All except for the one her mother had been holding. She turned it over, scrawled on the back, ‘Jack, Great Yarmouth 78’.

‘Baker Street’ by Jerry Rafferty, the saxophone floating on a light evening breeze which smelt of fish and chips. Her mum and Jack laughing like music. “Come on, Chipmunk. Take a picture of me and your Mum.” He showed her what button to press on her mum’s instamatic camera. She remembered trying to keep it straight. It was long and thin with one of those flash cubes on the top. The camera slipped slightly as Ellen pressed the button, a bright light blinked different colours. The memory was real, and she wondered why she hadn’t recalled it before. She heard the music, a sad song for a happy occasion. She was excited by the smell of fish and chips Jack had promised for their supper. Nothing else. No memory of a fish and chip supper on the front under the coloured lights strung from lampposts or the drab guest house they were inevitably staying in. The dips she must have taken in the sea during the day.

Ellen looked over at her mum who was dead to the world, her jaw slack, mouth opened slightly, gently snoring. Her hair was coarse and grey, no longer raven and neatly plaited, like the young woman in the photo. She wanted to ask her mum about Jack. Why hadn’t she remembered him? The date on the back of the picture, she must have been five. It’s not like they took a lot of holidays. Sometimes one of mum’s men friends would drive them to Margate or Broadstairs for the day. A couple of times Linda had saved her money to get the train down there and back. They’d stay for a couple of hours, ride the dodgems and eat candy floss. Laugh as the wind blew the spun sugar into their hair. Racing to the end of the pier, first one chose the treat. Vinegar chips in newspaper or iced doughnuts. All too soon it would be time to walk to the train station, holding their skirts wet from daring each other to go in too deep, their fingers entwined round their sandal straps. They’d sit waiting for their train, the platforms crowded by then, after teatime. Linda would point out the latest fashion.  Things had started to get ugly, her mum said. Women with footballer’s perms and youths wearing tartan jeans with chains.

“You wouldn’t catch Catherine Deneuve dressing like that. Now there’s a lady with style.”

Ellen looked at her watch. Did she have time to wait for her mother to wake up? To ask her about Jack. She’d always thought her memories of her childhood had been clear and strong but they were shifting. It would have to keep until next time. Daniel had booked dinner at Nobu, the waiting list was long. He was an efficient man, practical, worked as a financial adviser. He didn’t like to be kept waiting. There was always another time to ask her mum. As she wound her silk scarf round her neck she looked back. It felt wrong to stare at her, off her guard but she hadn’t noticed her mum’s sense of style starting to drop along with her face. Linda’s neck looked fragile and exposed, gathering in folds. As Ellen cleared away the tea things and rinsed the cups in the tiny kitchen where once she’d eaten Shredded Wheat and spaghetti hoops, she promised herself she would bring her mum something beautiful on her next visit. A new blouse in a bright shade of red, an orange beret to cover her hair. Maybe a silk scarf like her own.

It was a warmer day when Ellen walked along the corridor again. Her feet hardly made a sound. She was wearing her gym shoes, her Saturday shoes. She’d parked her car five miles away and jogged there and back. Daniel played golf on Saturday mornings. He’d never met her mum, after eighteen months, he’d never asked. Ellen had never offered. Daniel knew more or less where her mother lived, he’d given her a rape alarm.

It wasn’t until Ellen reached the front door that she realised the key was in her handbag on the back seat of the car. Usually she would put it in her backpack, along with her mum’s shopping. Today she was empty handed and in a hurry except for the gift in her tracksuit pocket. She was going to the country with Daniel, he’d booked a hotel. Ellen was suspicious of the countryside, she didn’t understand it, didn’t know the names of trees or plants being a sink estate girl. Daniel thought her funny.

Ellen leant down opening the letterbox. “Mum! I’ve forgotten my key!” Footsteps on the carpet tiles, they sounded light and quick.

“Oi right, Ellen.” There stood Chantelle. Her body stretching her polyester track suit in odd places, a cheaper brand than her own. It wasn’t that the girl was fat, Ellen mused, just out of shape. Ellen got a whiff of old cigarette smoke and stale body odour.

The door creaked open and the girl made a space for Ellen to enter. She hesitated and the younger woman laughed. “You never can remember my name”

Ellen walked through to the lounge room her mother had spent a weekend in the mid-nineties painting jade green. “It’s relaxing, Ellen. Do you like it?” she’d said. Ellen hadn’t then and didn’t now. Its brightness had faded and was chipped at the skirting boards. Her mum sat on the couch, her leg stretched out in front of her. There was a tray with two dirty cups, a cigarette butt spent in one of the saucers. Ellen shot the girl a look. Her mother spoke.

“Don’t you worry about that, Ellen. Lauren helps me out, it’s the least I could do to let her relax with a tea and a fag.”

Ellen said nothing, she picked up the tray and took it through to the kitchen. Her hands trembled with anger. What was this girl doing with her mum? Ellen was her mum’s only visitor. Lauren appeared at the door, smiling.

“What are you doing here? I look after mum as best I can.”

“I know you do, Ellen, but she gets lonely and sometimes she needs help. Her legs are bad, she fell in the bathroom again. Don’t worry, they’re only bruised. Not sprained like last time.”

“You know about last time?”

Lauren nodded. “I’ve been coming here for a while. Sorry. She wanted to keep it secret, thought you might get upset.”

“I expect you have the time, not working and everything. I do appreciate what you’re doing but…”

Lauren laughed, not unkindly. “I don’t do it for you. Linda’s a friend. Anyway, I work evenings.”

Ellen’s eyebrows raised and Lauren grinned. “I’m not a prostitute, Ellen. I’m a nurse at Guys. We’re not all in gangs and doing crack cocaine on the estate, you know.”

Ellen’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. But I don’t understand. Why did mum want to keep your visits a secret? It’s not as if I couldn’t do with the extra help, I can’t do it on my own.”

Lauren looked down at her cheap trainers, quiet for a moment. When she looked up her gentle eyes met Ellen’s. “She’s ashamed of you. The way you talk to people. You’ve forgotten where you come from.”

“I think you should go now.”

“I will but I won’t stop coming here. Linda needs more care, soon she will need more than the two of us, round the clock care. She’s getting worse.”

Lauren closed the door gently behind her. Ellen put the kettle on and went through to see her mum. She sat down in the chair next to her. The flat was silent now and she wondered if her mum had heard her conversation with Lauren. Ellen wondered why a stranger wanted to spend more time with her mother than she did. Blood collected in her cheeks.

“How did she find you? If you were on the bathroom floor again”

Linda’s eyes were defiant. “She has a key.”

Ellen looked down at her bitten down nails, the only piece of her that wasn’t perfect. She would think about Lauren later, at home with a glass of something strong. Another question burned her mind. “Mum, who’s Jack?”

Linda’s face seemed to fold but her eyes were dry. “Mr Almost-Right.”

“Did you stop seeing him, like the others? Wasn’t he good enough for you?”

A weak smile. “He was married, love. I thought I could deal with it, he was so good with you. He made me see that I couldn’t compromise, that I had to find a man who could turn the two of us into a family.”

“But you never did.”

“I never stopped trying.” Linda’s voice echoed in the room, indignant.

Ellen thought back to the long line of men who had sat on the couch her mother was lying on now, hogging the remote, waiting for Linda to make them their tea.

“None of them were good enough for you, Ellen.”

Ellen took Linda’s hand, stroked it lightly. “Mum, we have to talk about you moving somewhere else.”

“Not quite ready yet. Make me that cup of tea and bugger off and see that man of yours.”

Ellen washed both cups in the sink, made a telephone call and went to sit with her mum. Linda looked askance. Ellen said, “If he’s worth it he’ll understand. I can’t think of the last time I spent Saturday night with you.”

“Baked beans and Miss Marple? You sure you’re up for it?”

Ellen smiled and remembered the bulge in her pocket. A silk scarf, hand painted in red, orange and mauve. She tied it loosely round her mother’s neck. The colours were kind and hid the folds of skin. Ellen sat with her for a moment before going through to the kitchen to search for the tin opener.

DEAREST MOTHER 

I have finally begun to see my Mum as the multi-faceted person she is, rather than the person I conjured from my childhood. From my own shortcomings.  After all, my Mum is the reason I became a feminist.

I watched her clean the house to a shine, prepare special meals for my Dad, showered and scented before he arrived home. Wearing a fresh dress and a satisfied smile. While I sat and cowered beneath neatly placed cushions, in a dust free zone. That wasn’t going to happen to me.

My house doesn’t’ gleam. There’s no gleam in it. Clean and clear surfaces are rare. I didn’t use a vacuum cleaner until I was 33. I have lived with two different men. I made them do it. My sons have taken up the task now. I can delegate. Except the toilet. I could never get anyone else to clean the toilet.

As I age I realise that the mother I saw – the nifty-70’s housewife – was Queen of our house. While my Dad disappeared on the train to the mystery called ‘the office’ – Mum cooked, cleaned, hung curtains, changed plugs, mowed the lawn and raised 4 children. And she loved it. You hardly ever saw her work, it was done before we got home from school. I didn’t even see dust until I left home. I thought you had to shut up houses for years to get dust and cob webs – like in Scooby Doo.

Mum rose to the challenge of surviving on a tight budget. Never complained when we moved to a house miles from the shops or the train station – she never did take her driving test. At Christmas she dragged an enormous real Christmas tree a couple of miles, then on to a train, ending up with another hike home.

I undervalued her tireless work. I always wanted to be like daddy; dressed smartly, disappearing on the train to the ‘office of mystery’. And I did that until I nearly turned grey. I’m quite the homely one these days. After having kids and living in an idyllic tumbledown cottage on acreage. My house doesn’t look anything like my mum’s but when she visits she is kind. She doesn’t mention smeared windows and clutter. Although I have seen my Dad wince once or twice.

It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday in the southern hemisphere. I’m a bad daughter as I always miss the northern hemisphere one. My excuse is that the cards aren’t in the shops yet. But I know I could make her one. I don’t.

They say that women understand their mothers once they have children. Well for me it took a little longer. I can be slow on the uptake at times. Finally I understand that housework wasn’t a distraction from me, or my siblings. That she preferred to spend time polishing and bleaching. It was how she showed her love. Now I’ve finally worked that out my wish is that my mum stays on this earth for many years to come. On the other side of the planet but all the same I want her feet in gardening shoes and low heels far far into the future. I’m lucky, she visits every year. And she probably won’t ever read this post but all the same, she might develop a craving for technology. You never know. She must be into her second childhood by now.

Happy Mother’s Day Mum. I got there in the end.

SWEET 16

I’m feeling strange this week. A mixture of pride and fear is washing over me. My first born is turning 16.
The boy who followed me everywhere, had to be forcedly removed from me in his early primary days. The boy who twirled me round his little finger, I couldn’t see it. He’s still here but there is another person starting to emerge.
This new person can start learning to drive this week. Wants to hang out with his friends at parties, or gatherings (gathos). He can keep quiet and not say a word for an entire 40 minute car journey. Sometimes he’s sulking but sometimes he’s deep in thought. What is he thinking? I ask strategically chosen questions but I’m not MI5. I can’t crack him.
If he’s not in the gym, he’s on the rugby field. He’s taller and weighs more than me. On a Good Friday in Gosford hospital 16 years ago he refused to be born. After 40 hours and surgery he had no choice. He was pulled from me, held up by doctors for me and the husband to see. Later we discussed ‘the look’ our baby had given us. “He looked pissed off,” my husband commented and I agreed. Our baby lay in the hospital crib, legs crossed, and seemingly relaxed. All 9 pounds and 11 and a half ounces of him. His lips pressed together in a pout, a flash of red hair which turned to white blonde in the weeks that followed.
He was the naughtiest child in mothers group. Piling chairs up at 3 to reach a box of matches. Pouring cooking oil on our rental house carpets. Once viewing a big clean empty McMansion he escaped to the toilet. Grabbed the blue-loo thing and wiped his inky hands over surfaces and walls. Threw stones at the colourbond fence until our new neighbour told him off.
At five his favourite song was by Andy Williams – Music to Watch the Girls go by. At seven he knitted himself dreadlocks and sewed them to a cap, wore them with a denim jacket. At nine he was rarely seen without a pork pie hat, Suggs from Madness was his idol. At 10 he started playing rugby. At 13 he left his Steiner school and started at the local state high. Hundreds of kids streamed into the gates wearing their primary school uniform on Transition Day. My son was dressed in a rainbow shirt and boardies. “Where’s your uniform?” they asked. “This is my uniform”. “Cool”, they replied. I still like to think so.
This will be a year of change. Of growth and adventures. Just not mine.
Happy Birthday son.

FINDING THE FILLING

Do you ever feel something is missing? Seemingly you have everything; lovely home, great kids, wonderful husband, all the gadgetry you could need. Despite this there is a small hole in the centre of you that needs filling up.
Back in the UK I plugged that hole (which was sometimes a chasm), with cigarettes, wine, coffee, shopping, sex. I would not leave the house without my fags and if I ever over-estimated how many cancer sticks were in that packet, while simultaneously running out of money; I would search among the fluff and cough sweets beneath my sofa cushions. Check pockets feverously, promising myself tearfully that tomorrow I would manage my habit better. That moment of lighting up, the smell of burning tobacco leaves. The hit from that first deep breath. A few minutes of satisfaction. The end snubbed out in the ashtray. Five minutes later I wanted another one.
Wine was there for bad and good days. To celebrate and commiserate. There’s a quote hitting facebook at the moment. ‘I drink coffee all day until drinking wine is socially acceptable’.
Shopping in the UK, a traditional Saturday past time. Wondering round brightly lit shopping centres, driven crazy with over stimulation. Buying skirts too tight or dresses you would never wear. Sweating in the changing cubicles; filling the trolley. And that wonderful surge of blood post purchase. Having a coffee afterwards to marvel at your selection choice. By the time you got home and tried that pink lycra skirt on, or the button up dress that gaps at the navel, it all vanishes. Until next time. Hopefully you have a job that pays for the habit.
Sex; well I won’t go into too much detail but I remember when I thought sex = love. Yeah right. That old chestnut.
Now of course we have the internet and social media. Praise the God of small things. Very small. Facebook has its upside; being in touch with my friends from the other side of the planet. Instagram is fun until I find I’m viewing my life through the lens of the next possible post. Running off when I think of a funny anecdote or a comment from my children, before I forget it, put it up on facebook for everyone to see instead of living the moment for a bit longer. Open a Twitter account my friends plead. I couldn’t cope with the trolls.
Humans – we’re all craving something. Not many of us escape this modern day phenomena. Tibetan monks maybe. The Pope.
Reality TV (possibly the worst thing to infiltrate our minds). Cheap, instantly gratifying, disposable television. No need for writers or any creativity. Brilliant. I hate it.
Food – of course. Reality TV covers that too. Judgment and belittling of guests, yet they come back for more. Cake baking – who thought anyone one could be more judgmental than the Women’s Institute’s Victoria Sponge Competition. For me it was all over once people started taking photos of their dinner. Keep it to yourself. It’s just not interesting to anyone but you.
Selfies. Say no more. Now it’s not just faces, its other body parts too. Thighs and cleavage. The world has gone mad. I did say more, I promised not to.
We are all guilty one way or another. I love my once a day coffee and was guilty of posting a photo of my son’s café coffee the other day. I hate to shop. I gave up the fags years ago. My wine consumption is pathetically small. But I love social media. And cop shows – UK ones anyway. Call The Midwife too. All those lovely babies – I can’t get enough of them.
I do try to fill the hole in my middle with writing and reading stories. It’s my passion. What’s yours? I bet it isn’t consumerism or a legalised drug of some description. My children too – they fill me up with love and pride.
And sometimes knitting. I like a good knit. Loud music in the car too, my voice sounds great without judgement from others. I don’t need the likes of Simon Cowell. Would it kill him to do up a few buttons on his shirt?
And laughter. Nothing quite like it when that hole is gaping with hurt and reproach. We should all do it more. I mean, look how ridiculous society has become. That’s got to be worth a chuckle.

DEAR PEN FRIEND, WITH LOVE

The mail is suffering, once hand written epistles filled those red boxes. The excitement of receiving a letter from a friend, pastel coloured and sometimes perfumed. The satisfying plop from letter box to welcome mat, or the sight of sloping script on an envelope, amid the usual bills, in the mail box.
I think that’s why it cost me nearly three dollars to send a single Christmas card to the old country; predictably arriving late. The post office has to make up the slack somewhere, from our slackness of the handwritten form. It’s all bills and advertising now.
The first letter I received was from my older and much adored cousin. A school project for her (will you be my penfriend?); pure newly discovered joy for me. I hadn’t even heard of the words ‘pen friend’. I was eight.
There followed a girl I’d met in the caravan park pool on holiday. She shared the same name as my cousin. We wrote to each other for years and finally met again. She was two years older and the epitome of cool. I was skinny, still wearing little girl dresses. She stopped writing.
My lovely bestie who moved to another side of Suffolk. Our lives hadn’t really begun so we wrote of television shows we’d seen. She wrote with authority and I lied. My parents didn’t let me stay up to watch much telly.
It was my family’s turn to move. From Suffolk to Cambridgeshire to Bedfordshire. I wrote to old classmates, most dropped off but one didn’t. A much loved friend who creatively wrote entire plays in her letters, using different pens for each voice. Those letters groaned under the strain of inadequate envelopes. I hovered by the letter box waiting for a thud on the porch floor. We’re still in touch and she’s as creative as ever. You know who you are.
As a teen I tried writing to pen pals from foreign lands. Marco from Italy, who was too intense for me. Bridgette from south west France who’s English was so much better than my French. Finally, Tim from America who sent a photo. A small black and white booth shot, fair Californian hair, big teeth and pulling a goofy face. He phoned me one night. Imagine. From America to me, in my parents house in a small Bedfordshire town. He asked if I would send a photo. I did. Never heard from him again. I try not to take it personally.
When I moved to Australia with the husband I wrote to nearly twenty people. Close friends, family, former work colleagues, my brother’s ex-girlfriend. I wrote of glorious skies and ferry trips past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at sunset. Warm weather and sunshine. Homesickness, finding my way in a strange land. I still cannot get over the kangaroo. One often jumps out at me on my drive home at dusk. They are native to nowhere else; they have a strange beauty which never fails to astound me.
Slowly these letters dropped away. People were busy and quite frankly, who wrote letters anymore? Except for one.
We still write long, long letters full of the births of our children, our changing lives. The differences between us; she likes action movies and I prefer something slower. The things we have in common; finding our way as our children grow, trying to let go and keep them safe at the same time. Grief, new loves, illnesses, funny stories, meaningless chat, how ridiculous life can be. Twenty, twenty-five pages long. I like to think we keep the Royal Mail going.
These letters are my closest link with my past. A window into both our futures. The letters have shaped my life and I am forever grateful for them. I sometimes think of us as Edwardian ladies, minus the bonnets and the Empire line dresses, in a time when letter writing was taken seriously.
I can no longer find large, coloured paper on which to write. Only A4 lined pads without covers make themselves available on the newsagent’s shelves. But recently I bought myself pretty, glittery pens in gold, purple, pink and blue. If people only realised the difference between a glib facebook comment, a quick couple of lines of an email and the rewarding pleasure of communicating by pen. From the heart, going into details about the funny thing that happened to you that morning, the stuff your children say; if we did I’m sure my Christmas card stamps would not cost as much. We’d all be at it.