Category Archives: Living Between the Lines

A wry look at family life

Who are we to judge?

‘Follow me, through these doors – I think it’s already started but you’ll be fine…’ beams the enthusiastic woman who has just met us. Thrusting a sheaf of papers into Zoe’s hand, she ushers us away from the brightly lit foyer, through two sets of double doors, into the extraordinarily loud, darkness, leaving us without further instruction.
The three of us stand there for a moment, taking in our unknown surroundings. Students are already striding along the catwalk to the vibrant blast of a well chosen House instrumental. (I am not an expert but it is loud).
Spectators sit in rows on both sides of the catwalk, their attention on the garments being displayed, our entrance barely registering (we hope). We stand, a little uncertainly in the wings, jostled from side to side by an officious marshal.
‘Excuse me, can you move over there…you are in the way I am afraid…’
‘They need chairs!’ someone else hisses.
‘Oh, just a minute, chairs needed here!’ asserts a woman to our left, having conferred with someone and realising we are ‘official’.
Two chairs are set down in the front row. This time, heads do turn as we are ushered into them. Well, two of us sit. Lisa is somehow side lined and that’s the last we see of her for a while, apart from a brief reappearance when she creeps up behind us and hands Zoe the free glass of Prosecco that the latter accepted in the Foyer before we were abducted.
Zoe puts the glass on the floor between us and leafs through the score sheets she has been given.
I keep an eye on the Prosecco, lest it be knocked over.

The invitation to attend the end of year show at a local design college, was sent to Zoe, she of the Fashion/textile/design world. The invitation asked her to bring as many people from the design industry with her as she liked. Hence, Lisa and I are there. (Bona fide, design business owners).
It is a warm evening, the event is scheduled to take place between 6 and 8pm. Lisa and I looked forward to a leisurely browse through the students’ artwork. Zoe expected to have a quick chat with her contact about design in business.
We arrived at about 6.45pm.
We had walked the length of a corridor, admiring the displays, before Zoe found her contact. The excitable woman, clutching a clipboard, was clearly delighted to see we had made it and immediately handed us over to her enthusiastic colleague in the foyer. Enthusiastic colleague beamed at Zoe,
‘Ah, of course, I recognise you, the one with the lovely designs! You will need a Judge’s pack… I’ll get one, I think they’ve started but you’ll be fine…’ and she hurries off.
‘Judging?’ we all said it at the same time, who has started?
The woman returned and thrust the papers into Zoe’s hand,
‘Oh, she didn’t tell you, about the judging? Not to worry, I’ll take you there,’ she beamed.
We felt bound to follow as she ushered all three of us through the series of swing doors.

So, here we are, seated in the front row of the catwalk – I am not officially judging but while Zoe tries to make sense of the paperwork she has been given to mark, I watch as the surreal and wonderful march down the catwalk.
Together, we nod and agree the most talented, the most relevant, the most creative and marks are duly awarded. Zoe uses the short interval to frantically scan her notes and score each person appropriately. I don’t know how she manages to do it. Luckily, we did catch up and have seen all the entrants, despite our initial confusion.
As the show prepares to close, we exchange glances, nod, and make our escape.
We find Lisa outside, only a little peeved to have been left standing.
The excitable woman is engaged in conversation with someone else, clipboard clutched to her bosom. Seeing us, she pauses long enough to take the score sheets from Zoe and thank her profusely. Job done.
We take our leave before we can be asked to present the prizes – or make a closing speech – or wash up.
Everyone was a winner in my eyes.
As I said, who are we to judge?

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A very different battle…

In the town of Battle, Sussex – April 2018

Thanks to the hand-held electronic guide that I carried that day, I now know far more about the Battle of Hastings than I did previously. Despite having learnt about it in history lessons (the very act of learning about it now confined to history itself, of course) my knowledge was scant. i.e. On 14th October 1066 – William, Duke of Normandy, beat the English Saxon King, Harold who took an arrow in the eye. That was the sum of my knowledge on the subject.
Now, thanks to the excited commentary that accompanied my walk around the ancient battlefield, I have a better feel for the entire event.
As we walked, Dave was listening to his own device and indifferent to my gasps as my guide set off on her moment by moment account of one of the bloodiest and longest battles in English history. While the lady in my ear, reported and described everything in detail, as though she was commentating a football match, (a Cup Final at that) growing ever more excited by the second, Dave remained calm and contemplative.
After one particularly grizzly and breathless description, I commented that, well, whew! That was a bit over the top wasn’t it? Dave failed to respond. The sound track was a little too realistic for my liking. Well, hey ho, here I was.
The weather was very warm and sunny. We walked for an hour and a half, passing landmarks where soldiers stood, sculpted from wood, caught in the act of combat, looking oddly vulnerable in the now empty fields.
Soldiers in the Battle 1066
My guide grew breathless with excitement,
“The battle is beginning, no, yes, it is, it must be, this must be it…”
(Well was it or wasn’t it? It is now 2018, surely they have established when the battle started by now?)
We trod along boarded pathways and made our way across open grass between the strategically placed information plaques. Wooden figures, Norman and Saxon soldiers, stood mid pose, amongst the bluebells, one on his horse, another poised with shield and sword to face his foe.

Knight on horseback

Knight on Horseback


In our ears, well, in mine at least, the battle began to heat up. I almost flinched as my guide screeched that there were soldiers with axes to my right and blood all around. She was sure now that the battle was on.
“The stench of torn flesh and fear envelops us. Horses rear up and riders fall…the English lunge with their weapons – it is mayhem!”
The battle had been raging for half an hour apparently, (that was a quick half hour although I was quite exhausted with the woman’s exclamations and gory descriptions it must be said). William’s army were outnumbered if not outwitted.
“There must be thousands of soldiers on either side…the noise is deafening as horse and armies converge, I can barely see through the dust.”
I felt and heard the battle raging around me as I walked.
“They are saying the English King is dead!” my guide shrieked at one point, “Harold has fallen! But wait, no, they are wrong, he is not dead, he’s alive, the King is alive!” Whew! Well, thank goodness for that.
We trudged on to the next plaque.
“The English are being joined by their countrymen from far and wide, wielding their terrible two handed axes, their most feared weapon. The French have only the men they came with…but they have arrows, the English do not. The English stand fast. Can William get his archers within bowshot of the English? There are soldiers all around no – oh no! It is impossible to see who is who. It’s carnage…here on this hill, surely the French cannot win, Just listen to that noise!”
Yes, I could hear the noise, in fact it almost deafened me.
“They cannot go on much longer…”
(A done deal presumably?)
“But the French are moving back – what’s happening? William, William is dead, they are saying the French leader is dead – there is confusion!”
As she continued to describe troops in disarray I trudged on, following Dave who was listening to goodness knows what. Shouts of agony echoed in my head. Blood curdling screams rent the air. All around me the bloody battle raged, raucous and quite frightening to be honest.
“Look, look! William is alive – he has had to take off his visor to show his troops it is him…” cue William shouting above the tumult, “It is I, I am alive, fight on!” (Didn’t sound very French to me).
Things really began to get going now. As we rounded the bend and started moving up the hill, we were accompanied by a thousand knights on horseback and a random Frenchman who had been thrown off his horse and having no other had decided to leave the battle and join my roving reporter/football commentator. I now had his version of events to contend with too.
On we go...

On we go…


Behind me, the English were roaring, fierce and bloodied, sure of victory. Ahead, William was preparing for the final assault. He had lost hundreds of men and appeared to be in retreat.
“The French are on the run! They are retreating, yes, it is won! It must be won!” shrieked my guide, her voice heavy with emotion. Around us the sun almost blazed down, a warm Spring day in a Sussex Field. The Battle raged in October – with the vagaries of the English weather, it could have been just such a day as this.
I waited for the inevitable.
“It is a trick! The English are surging forward but the French are not retreating at all, they are now surrounding the English…it is carnage…Ooh, the blood, the screams…where is Harold? Where is the English King? Three men are upon him, now a fourth, arrows are flying…” Crucially, the guide went quiet at this point, leaving us to trudge up the hill to the next information point. We pressed the corresponding button on our respective machines.
“Harold is dead…it is true…the English are retreating, bloodied and cowed. William is victorious. After nine hours, the Battle is finally won. The hill runs with the blood of the English. Our country will never be the same again, everything will change…”
I am exhausted. I blink up at Dave who is looking quite chilled.
“She was a bit excitable,” I comment.
“Who? Oh, I didn’t have the same commentary as you then…I had a man speaking, telling me what happened.”
What had I been listening to for the last hour and a half – or was it 9 hours?
As we handed in our electronic guides at the tourist desk, I wondered who would get mine next. I still didn’t know what Dave heard as he walked round the battle field. I only knew that I had just witnessed the bloodiest of battles and been dragged through the proverbial wringer, emotionally.
Good luck to the next person to pick up my guide…or was it just meant for me?

Long live England!

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There is hope…

When my younger brother, John, was three years old, I remember our grandfather bending down to kiss him goodbye.
Three-year-old John took a step back and frowned,
“Mens don’t kiss mens,” he informed Grandfather.

Photo of John

My baby brother 1961


John and Eric

John (left) and Eric (right) relaxing in their garden, 1989


Everyone laughed and Grandfather dutifully gave him his hand to shake, which John did with some aplomb.
I was reminded of John’s innocent statement recently, when reading an article in The Times by Alice Thomson, about the ongoing struggle for gay equality. It beggars belief that we should still have a need for this discussion but we do.
As readers of, “The Boy in the Cowboy Hat,” may remember, my brother John, was gay and died of AIDs in 1993 aged 31. Even he laughed at the irony of the words spoken by his three-year-old self in later years. However, he had merely been putting into words, the presumptions and beliefs of the time, back in 1964. I had thought we had come a long way from that time but perhaps not.
When my own children were young, it was considered ok to be gay but gay marriage was still not possible. My brother would have liked to marry his partner had it been allowed and he never did rule out having children. Sadly, Fate decreed he and his partner die young, long before the law changed to allow either ambition. They were always accepted by family and friends but they still faced religious disapproval and social prejudice from the wider world.
That things have improved legally, cannot be argued. That more change is needed in attitudes and retained prejudice, is certain.
Tom Daley has been in the news recently for wanting a family with his husband and for arranging for a surrogate mother to bear their child. He has received some very hurtful and unwarranted criticism it seems. More horrifying, is the fact that there are so many places in the world where homosexuality is still illegal. It seems that religion and power have much to answer for.
Despite the long road still to be travelled and the prejudices and misconceptions still to be overcome, there is a beacon burning at the end of the tunnel. I see this in the children of today, In particular, I see it in my grandchildren.
My grandchildren are the ones who will grow up wondering what all the fuss was about, much as we grew up wondering why women hadn’t always had the vote. This was brought home to me last year, when one of my grandsons came home from infant school and during a conversation with his equally young cousin, was heard to declare,
“Boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls…” it was said in such a matter of fact way that my heart almost burst. They will grow up without prejudice given the chance.
Although we still have a way to go, that statement alone, shows just how far we have come from that, not so long-ago time, when John declared,
“Mens don’t kiss mens.”
We’ll get there!

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Misplaced Guilt…

Do you suffer from misplaced guilt?

The smallest thing can cause this condition to appear, such as wondering if you have said the right thing or if your actions have been misunderstood—the latter is a big one for me. I am working on it though. I give myself a good talking to if unwarranted guilt threatens. That said, it is always there, biding its time, ready to pounce at any given moment. It can seem as though someone is standing at my side demanding, “Explain yourself!”
Today there were two occasions when misplaced guilt raised its ugly head.
The first was as I left the supermarket and headed back to my car with a full trolley. The Car Wash folk were out in the rain. (I had felt guilty ignoring them so had asked for a ten pound car wash). I could see they had finished mine so fished in my bag for a ten pound note.
Proffering it with a smile I was astonished when it was handed back to me by the East European car washer, with an apologetic smile. (Sorry Lady, this is not legal tender,)
I was taken aback, not legal tender?
‘It isn’t plastic,’ he showed me a note he already had in his possession. I immediately realised my mistake.
Let’s be fair here. I obtained the ten pound note in question, from my elderly mother who had been saving it for me, with several others, in payment for her shopping. I did not think to check the notes she handed me. I doubt she is aware that she may have a stash of obsolete notes now. Still, as the Car Washer sadly declined the ten pounds, I felt extremely guilty for having offered it to him in the first place. I did not of course, explain why I was in possession of an obsolete paper note (they went out of circulation on March 1st) even though I wanted to. I took back the illegal tender and offered him a twenty pound note which he exchanged for the ‘good’ plastic ten pounds. My feelings of guilt were misplaced by anyone’s standard. Funnily enough, he looked as though he felt guilty too, at having to tell me he couldn’t accept it.
Having sorted that out, I threw my shopping into the car boot and pushed my trolley into the nearest bay.

Still smarting from that first bout of misplaced guilt I little knew another lay in store.
Checking the aisle behind me, into which I needed to reverse to exit the car park, I saw that to my right, the car wash men and their trolleys and some pedestrians, were blocking the way. I would have to reverse in the opposite direction. This I did, with due care and attention.
As I prepared to drive on, I saw another driver heading towards me, a frown on his face. As he drew level, he fixed me with a steely eyed stare. It clicked, this was a one-way aisle and I was now facing the wrong way. I affected the surprise that I genuinely felt and with an exaggerated “oops!” clapped my hand to my mouth. He grinned and nodded before driving on. I was forgiven.
I had not given in to the urge to explain my actions, I preferred to make him smile instead. This is the basis of my “banish the guilt” strategy.
I should also say that I then turned the car round and drove the correct way out of the aisle. Even though the exit onto the main route out was a mere twenty yards away and clear, I could not bring myself to drive out of here, the wrong way, once I had realised my mistake.

Now, couple this with the ‘basket only’ escapade of the other week and I really will begin to think I should not be let loose in a supermarket ever again. Ironically, when I pushed my full trolley towards the nearest checkout today, three people ahead of me were unloading their baskets onto the conveyor belt. Naturally, I checked for any signs telling me that this was a basket only checkout. Not seeing a sign, but not fully trusting myself to have noticed any either, I asked the chap ahead of me,
“Is this a basket only aisle?”
“No, that isn’t open yet,” he explained, a tad defensively, I thought.
I nodded. It only occurred to me afterwards that maybe he thought I was accusing him of being in the wrong aisle. We won’t go into that, I have had quite enough feelings of misplaced guilt for one day.

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Mother’s Day Mayhem

“Aha! You are the ones who are in the Gods!”
The lady who met us at the hotel reception seemed triumphant. We were bemused. The last time I recall being, “in the Gods,” was the time I went to Her Majesty’s Theatre, to see Phantom of the Opera, starring Michael Crawford. Our seats were so high up on the vertical incline of seats, that one had to hang onto the rail in front to avoid being sucked down into the abyss below us.

The hotel we now found ourselves in, bore no true resemblance to her Majesty’s Theatre although it was Olde Worlde with a plentiful supply of oak beams and old-fashioned furnishings.
We were not in London now, we were in Burnham On Crouch.
The lady standing before us noticed our puzzled looks and waved her hands dismissively,
“If you need to speak to the boss she will be in at 6.30pm,” she informed us, adding, as though we were going to be thrilled by the news,
“All your rooms have a river view,”
Dave had specifically requested a river view when booking three ‘Superior’ double rooms as shown on the website. Lisa and her mother had accompanied us to Essex for this Mother’s Day get together. It was Jane’s first trip to Essex.

I suppose we should have been forewarned of what was to come when the hotel manager phoned us the previous night and asked if we were on our way.
“No, we are booked in for tomorrow night,” corrected Dave.
The line fell silent for a bit. Dave flicked through his emails and uncovered the one confirming our booking made some time ago.
“Ah, my mother must have taken that booking, there’s been a mix up but don’t worry, we will sort,” the manager said brightly, “leave it with me,” if there was panic in her voice, she hid it well.
We had no option really.
A phone call made later that evening confirmed that we did have three rooms booked, we were not to worry.
A subsequent phone call from my mother, told us that her toilet was not flushing properly, maybe Dave could fix it. Dave assured her he would bring his tool box though he is not a plumber.
I wondered if someone was trying to tell us we should not go. Our rooms had been double booked and now mother’s only toilet was broken and we were eating lunch there both days. We laughed it off. What else could go wrong?

The following day, we headed to my mother’s house to have lunch with her. In case the toilet was not in use, we had stopped at the local supermarket first to make use of their facilities. After a two and a half hour drive, we were all in need of a comfort break.
The toilet seemed to be working, just. Dave could not fix it. We phoned a plumber. Monday would be the soonest he could pop round.
It was a very pleasant afternoon, it has to be said, consisting of a light lunch followed by Six Nations Rugby on television, a good catch up with my sister and the promise of a leisurely drive back to the hotel, stopping off to say hello to Dave’s Mum and sister on the way before meeting up with them at our hotel, for dinner in the evening. It was a good plan and so far, double booking and broken toilet not withstanding, was going well.

Six Nations – (Ireland v Scotland) “Go Scotland!”

Now, standing in the hotel reception, we watched as the receptionist produced a set of keys.
“One room is on the first floor and the other two are on the second,” she told us, daring us to comment.
We followed her up the first staircase.
The first room was one of three we had booked. It boasted a good-sized en suite bathroom, with a bath, and the bedroom overlooked the River Crouch. We agreed that Jane should have this one, being our guest and the oldest of us all. We trekked onwards and upwards.
The next flight of stairs was very steep and split at the top as you can see in the photograph.

Lethal staircase

One side had no landing, the bedroom door opened onto the step. There was a landing on the other side leading to the bedroom Lisa was given. It had a small square bay window with a window seat, from which there was a bird’s eye view of the river.
Dave and I left her there and looked across at the dubious room on the step. Yep, that was to be our room.
The receptionist trod nimbly along the narrow ledge above the stairs. We took the safer path, down two steps and up two and unlocked the door to our room. Our hostess mumbled her excuses before making a speedy departure. To say the room was interesting would be kind. It did have a river view, if you could get to the small, single dormer window in the corner of the room to see out. We opened the door to the en-suite, set in the eaves. I should call it a cupboard really.
I have seen small bathrooms but the nearest to this would be found in a caravan.
Beyond the door was a small space, maybe two foot square, with a toilet and basin either side and a small shower in front. The best I can say about it is that the water was hot and the toilet flushed. It was neither comfortable nor appealing in any way.
At 6.30pm, the hotel manager spoke to us. She was lovely. She was most apologetic. They had had to give us different rooms after an error made by her mother who took the booking it seems. Apparently, they had had to move people around to get us these rooms. (We wondered who had resided in them before and where they were now.)
“My mother isn’t here now, I have sent her to Malta,” she explained.
Was this a punishment? It seemed not, it was a Mother’s Day gift. It made the box of chocolates and bunch of flowers I was giving my mum, look very mean.
“We understand but we are very disappointed…” we told her.
“But your rooms do all have river views,” she pointed out. I couldn’t argue with that but I’d rather have had a proper bathroom.
“A 5% discount on the rooms and a bottle of wine,” comprised her goodwill offer. I had to remark that I don’t drink but we accepted her apology and her offer of a conciliatory discount. There was nothing else to be done.
Glossing over the other drawbacks of the room, the lack of a duvet, the ancient blankets and the lethal stairway, we met Dave’s family for dinner in the restaurant.
The evening passed in a haze of good food and wine (no wine for me) although it was wise to keep sober in any case so we could negotiate the lethal staircase when we retired for the night.
Here is a photo of Dave negotiating the stairs the next morning as we crossed the landing to Lisa’s room which boasted the same tiny cupboard for a bathroom as ours but lacked the sloping ceilings.

Dave on the lethal staircase

Over breakfast, I wondered what Jane was thinking of her first visit to Essex but she said her room was comfortable and she had enjoyed a wonderful view of the river beyond.
The manager apologised once more for the mix up and hoped it would not put us off returning another time.
“Oh no,” we smiled, “Can’t be helped,” so British of us! In truth, I don’t think any of us have the slightest inclination to stay there again but never say never.
We were thankful to climb into the car and make our way to my mother’s house with its dodgy loo, for our official mother’s Day lunch. What else could possible go wrong?

A warning light that says, “Reduced Power,” denotes a problem with a car. When the manual says simply, “Consult your local dealer’s workshop,” one does not know how serious reduced power is. When the car motors along with less oomph than normal, it is worrying, especially with the prospect of a 130 mile journey to be made later in the afternoon.
We made it to my mother’s without mishap but I think we all knew how this was going to end. Dave made some phone calls but what garage would be open on a Sunday – Mother’s Day at that? We resigned ourselves to the inevitable, we cooked the pre-prepared lunch and Dave called the RAC.

Mum with Jane on Mother’s Day


Thus, just after 3pm, we climbed aboard the RAC breakdown Truck, our own car riding on the trailer. A photograph is obligatory.

The first Breakdown truck

Half an hour later we had to abandon this vehicle and transfer to a second, slightly smaller vehicle as the first driver had come to the limit of his day’s driving hours.
Another photo obligatory. Even with the change over at Brentwood Services, we were home by 6pm.
So ended Jane’s first trip to Essex. Not sure she will want to come again!

P.S. The plumber turned up on Monday and said something had become unhooked, easily fixed.
The car is still at the garage waiting for a part.
My mother says she had a lovely weekend and really enjoyed spending time with us all.
Well, it was all worth it then!

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Basket only…

The checkout operator had paused to alert a supervisor of a problem with her till. The lady in front of me had just loaded her shopping onto the conveyor belt and the customer being served was waiting to pay, I presume.
I was happy to wait and was rather enjoying the time to stand and observe those around me. (Those conversational gems might crop up, one never knows).
It was a busy Monday morning. Several tills were unmanned, clearly something the hovering supervisor was not happy with. He signalled for a young lad to man the till next to me. It was of no use to me of course, it displayed a, “baskets only” sign. My trolley was rather full.
No one joined the young lad at the basket checkout.
“Excuse me Madam, would you like to go to that one?” the supervisor appeared before me. I glanced uncertainly at the checkout next to us,
“That’s baskets only,” I reminded him.
“It doesn’t matter, you’ll be ages here, otherwise,” he told me, “go ahead, use that one,”
I was dubious about this instruction but far be it from me to question a supervisor. I trundled my trolley to the basket checkout and grinned at the young lad who stared at me blankly,
“I have been instructed to come here,” I smiled, nodding towards the supervisor who gave me the thumbs up.
The lad looked around. I was the only one near. He shrugged and waited as I began unloading my trolley. I had a lot of shopping.
That’s when the bearded man with the basket of several small items, joined the queue. I was aware that he had plonked the divider half way along the conveyor belt. I was still loading my shopping. How rude. I piled as much as I could into the now limited space and left the rest in the trolley as the lad had not yet begun ringing items through.
“I don’t have room to load it all, you had better start,” I instructed.
Without changing his expression, which was one of complete indifference, he began passing the goods through and I began throwing them into whatever bags I could grab from my half full trolley. It was a slow process as, in my attempt to fit everything I could on the conveyor belt, my normal neatly categorised items had spilled over into the wrong sections. To make matters worse, I am still not meant to carry heavy bags so had to use twice the usual number to make sure they were light enough for me to transport. The boy did not offer to help pack.
A female supervisor caught my attention to my left, as she called out sharply, more sharply than I thought necessary,
“Were you told to use this checkout? Only it is basket only.”
Bearded man looked smug and I thought he glared at me a little.
“Yes, I was told to use this one,” I confirmed.
“Oh, well,” she said, darting an accusing glance at both me and the other supervisor as though we were in cahoots.
By now, others with baskets had joined the queue. I continued to load the conveyor belt with the rest of the items in my trolly, having to slip them in before the bearded chap’s shopping took over.
“Oh dear,” I muttered to the bearded chap as the task became ever more difficult. He had the grace to smile but could not move his shopping back to allow me more room as his fellow basketeers had claimed the space by now.
I could feel several pairs of eyes boring into me and had to fight a sudden urge to laugh. The checkout lad displayed no such problem and continued to scan my mismatched items without so much as a smirk.
As the last items landed in my shopping bags which were now sitting, a little haphazardly, in the empty trolley, I prepared to pay.
As I pushed my bank card into the machine and punched in my pin, I smiled at the young lad serving,
“Now you are going to have to explain to all those people that I was sent here, and that’s why they’ve all been kept waiting,” I told him and you know what? He grinned.
If you were one of those people standing in the Sainsbury’s checkout this morning, with your bag of apples, sandwich and a bottle of milk or whatever else fits into a basket, I can only apologise but it wasn’t my fault – I was sent!

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The mind boggles…

It seems that having launched my debut Christmas novel on an unsuspecting world, sending it into the wide blue yonder – perhaps never to be seen again, I have been slow to rekindle the fire of the written word. It isn’t that I have not wanted to, nor that I have not tried. I have begun editing the final chapters of my next novel and it lies begging for attention.

I have read and enjoyed a couple of excellent novels and can feel the muse bubbling up inside me. Yet, housework, family demands and life in general, have thwarted any real progress these past few weeks. So, it was with a determined and hopeful heart that I began trawling through those gems I write down occasionally. You will know the sort: An idea, a snippet of overheard conversation…(the latter having already been discussed in ‘The Things People Say…”) all are things that can send the imagination into overdrive.

I found several exciting and interesting snippets as it happens. I found an entire post written on the differences between girls and boys, another about the proliferation of bad news in the media…I must have had a bee in my bonnet when I wrote that. (I said bee and not wasp which I covered in, “Follow that wasp,”) However, there is one snippet that really caught my imagination. I remember writing this, surely-too-good-to-forget gem, in note form, as we sat in the pub garden of the Old Ferry Inn, in Bodinnick, Cornwall, a year or so ago. It has languished, forgotten, on my computer’s hard drive ever since.

I shall give you this snippet of conversation just as I heard it but first, picture the scene if you will. The pub garden is built on several terraces, each terrace is accessed by a flight of stone steps and retained by a low stone wall. Each provides a lovely space in which to sit and take in the beautiful views of the river beyond.

View of river

View across the river from The Old Ferry Inn


A harassed dad has been sitting by the low wall, watching his two young sons play while mum relaxes round the corner, in the shade. As the baby makes yet another attempt to scale the wall, below which lies a steep drop to the stone steps, his dad grabs him and sends him back to his mother.
“I think it’s time to go,” he calls to his other son, we guess to be aged about four, although we cannot see him at this point.
As the father and younger child cross the terrace to where the mother sits, a small disembodied voice exclaims,
“Wow, that’s the nearest to death I have ever come in my life!”

The mind boggles! I may just use it…

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Paperback in town!

Paperback of Once Upon a Christmas Eve

Once Upon a Christmas Eve, a Christmas Mystery

I have jumped through hoops with the formatting, made some mistakes and learnt a lot. Here it is then, the paperback version of my debut novel (debut in the sense it is the first of my novels to be published) Once Upon a Christmas Eve.

Christmas is upon us and tomorrow I will be watching yet another nativity in which my two younger grandsons are starring. One is a King, the other a camel. I say starring because aren’t they all stars?
The first nativity I attended as a grandparent was quite eventful. Child number one was overcome with anxiety and stared out like a frightened rabbit from the makeshift stable where I think he was in the choir. His mouth barely moved during the singing. His cousin, on the other hand, sang with gusto and even had a few lines to say as he tramped through the land to reach Bethlehem. As child number one faltered and whimpered and had to be led from the stage, more confident child number two, led his shepherds to a resting place at the back of the stage. Delivering a faultless line to the watching parents, he then sat down, crossed legged only to miss the stage entirely and be upended so that the last we saw of him was his feet as he plummeted downwards. As we all gasped and wondered what might occur, he pulled himself back onto the stage and hung his head in shame, his bottom lip trembling. It was a little while before he recovered enough to rejoin the singing.
It was my newest granddaughter who stole the show though. She had arrived several weeks earlier than planned and was still tiny at two weeks old. My youngest daughter had wheeled her in and had sat at the back of the room. The headmistress, seeing an opportunity here, asked permission to take the little one to the front of the stage where she explained to all the children, that this is what what baby Jesus would have looked like. The baby’s elder brother, the one who had had to be taken off stage in tears, beamed with pride though could not be persuaded to get back onto the stage himself.
I can only imagine what might happen in tomorrow’s nativity but I am looking forward to it.
Happy Christmas!

Christmas Tree

Happy Christmas

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Once Upon a Christmas Eve

I have been talking about this for long enough it seems so, at long last, I have taken the bull by the horns and uploaded my manuscript to Amazon. I hope I have ironed out all the layout problems that could affect it. For better or worse, there it sits.
Once Upon a Christmas Eve The Kindle version is available for download now, the paperback version coming shortly. I am ready to tweak the file over the next few days if necessary but fingers crossed, it should be fine.
I am quite chuffed to have managed to upload it by the beginning of December.

ebook

ebook

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At the school gate

Forced to rest after having major surgery this month, I have watched every episode of Motherland on television. Have you seen it? This sitcom is so representative of school gate life that I can recognise most of the characters in it as though I were standing next to them yesterday. Yesterday being from 1984-1998 if I have the dates right.
I knew the teachers well, I even took my youngest into the classroom aged eight months, for a study the seven year olds were doing on human development, at their teacher’s request. I helped with crafts and read to the children on special occasions, but only when time permitted. This was not very often. My usual excuse was,
“I’m so sorry, I have the little one you see…”
“Oh, bring him/her,”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly but maybe when he/she is older,”
This was as far as my interaction with school went in truth.
I’d be there with the best of them at after school matches, cheering my boys or girls on. I’d go to every play, every church service (Wednesdays 9-10am) in the term. I’d do my bit.

I hasten to add, to anyone supposing I was one of the ‘in crowd’ that I shunned their overtures for the most part. I was more than happy to go my own way with my ‘millions’ of children. (I exaggerate, I had five with the occasional hangers on to pushchair and car.) I was once asked how many of the five were mine and was I a childminder, oh, and did I have any spaces? I said my womb was full, thank you.
Parents accompanied children on numerous school trips to make up the adult numbers– I went on one or two when forced, under protest, with gritted teeth.
Friends of the Primary School, known as FOSPS, did their bit to raise funds. They were stalwart in their endeavours, they canvassed and heckled and beamed at us in the playground as their children, Marcus and Miranda, invariably ran through the flowerbeds and created havoc. They organised events, they tried to rope us bystanders in and we did our best by offering things to sell, sponsoring and dressing our children in outlandish costumes. Now that’s the bit I actually enjoyed, come to think of it. Not the fund raising part of it but the making of the costumes. Whether for a school project, a fund raiser or a disco, I was there with my scraps of fabric and my children.
I have some photos of the result – how about these? The three girls dressed for Victorian day in one and for a fancy dress competition for book day, in which middle daughter wanted to be the BFG and the youngest, Tom Thumb. Not bad from scraps.

Three Victorian Girls

Three Victorian Girls

The birthday parties which grew more competitive every year, I ignored for the most part. My party bag gifts were often home-made (finger puppets were a hit for the 5 year olds). Parties for the under sixes, are the best. The birthday cake was hit and miss but always greeted with amazement, (The treasure chest was my piece de resistance). Sadly, I cannot find a photo of it. See this photo of the Maypole Princess Tree instead…

and this…
Alex's 2nd birthday

My children just had each other on some occasions and on others, they had friends round for tea and games. Traditional parties held true until they were seven when experience had taught me, to invite twelve boys and girls (twelve was the limit) after the age of seven or even at the age of seven, was ‘bloody’ hard work. The girls, being mini teenagers, questioned everything. They didn’t want to play pass the parcel, they were gossiping about whatever it is 7-year-olds gossip about and doing their hair and squealing a lot. Even back then, they wanted Karaoke not the Okey Kokey. The boys ignored all attempts at discipline and preferred to race round the house doing everything one had spent a lot of time teaching one’s own kids not to do, high on ‘e’ numbers that we didn’t know were there.
Fizzy drinks only came out at birthdays in our house.
Beyond the age of seven, things changed. A birthday child was allowed to bring a friend along to the Zoo, Legoland or the Beach. I insisted on one friend rather than two as two would mean there was always the chance two would gang up on one. My strategy was to divide and conquer!
By the time our eldest reached the age of twelve, things had changed again and we were into sleepover and pyjama parties. From then until they grew tired of the idea, we suffered the indignities of hiding upstairs while our one sitting room was given over to a gaggle of girls or boys with sleeping bags who neither slept nor kept quiet all night. The next day, we would be greeted by bleary eyed thirteen-year-olds.
“Tired?” we’d enquire.
“It was great, thank you Mrs Barker,” the teens would say politely while my own would look on in discomfort. Why was I engaging in conversation? How embarrassing! Grumpy with tiredness now, off they’d trot to their beds for a rest.
Some of these children’s parents would have been on the committees and boards and fundraising teams of the school. I knew them by name, I had the odd conversation with them. Individually, they were fine. En masse, I baulked at their efficient, military-like organisation. (But where would we be without them?)
I walked up to the school, on the days when the car was at the garage or it was just a lovely day for a walk. It was a mile and a half away so a three mile walk for me there and back.
The 4x4s were already appearing in the nineties. They’d park on the zig-zag lines outside the school and deposit Tamsin and Tarquin at the gate and we’d all tut tut as we walked by.
“Coming to the wine testing tonight?” they’d trill, tickets on sale now!” as they closed the car door and sped off up the road to their next appointment.
We’d mumble something about being busy or pretend we’d not heard. You learn how to slide under the radar when you are somewhere for fourteen years, (we, being the group of friends I had made over the years who were kind, thoughtful and not at all overbearing.)
I’d walk home in my jeans and T shirt with my offspring trailing behind me, the eldest way behind,
“I don’t want to be seen with you all,” she’d say, mortified that she had so many brothers and sisters. I should have seen it coming. When I had three girls, she turned to me, then three and a half and said,
“Mummy, you are like the old woman in the shoe, you have so many children, you don’t know what to do!”
If driving, I’d jump into my old Peugeot 505 estate with its eight seats, giving a lift to one or maybe two friends on the way. I borrowed the family car a few times. We had an Espace and later, a Previa. It was the Previa that caused consternation in the car park as I pulled out the pram wheels and assembled my second hand, much cherished pram bought for my unexpected but much loved and wanted, youngest child.
“New car?” someone said, “How do you find driving the Previa?”
“Oh, my husband’s, no not new…” I began.
“Don’t you just love it?”
“It’s ok but I find the turning circle nowhere near as tight my Peugeot. It’s ok for a stand-in,” I confessed.
She looked mortally offended. Her smile became a little more fixed, her eyes a little more glittery.
I grabbed bag and baby and deposited all in the pram and summoned my brood.
She did not walk with me to the school.
I pushed the pram back into the car park, now devoid of bags and children but thankfully, still containing baby, (quite a feat given that dad who wanted to throw him up into the air in the playground every day) My heart missed a beat each time J swung my son round and tossed him skyward. I had to watch him sail through the air, baby laughed, baby loved it.
After the second or third incident, I began strapping baby into the pram instead of carrying him. I protested royally if other dad came near,
“He’s tired, he’s sick, he doesn’t like it,” I lied as he made to pick my child up.
This probably wouldn’t happen today.
I prepared to load the pram back into the boot and was just in time to see my earlier inquisitor reverse her brand new Previa out of the parking bay and sail off up the road without looking at me. Oops!
I was a stay-at-home mum so had ample time for the school run, although I wrote and painted and crafted and kept housework to a minimum. I barely had time for a coffee morning, a wine tasting or an afternoon tea.
In the mid-nineties I was being published and I was extraordinarily busy, helping run an online writer’s club as well, preparing for art exhibitions etc.
I would never have had time for FOSPS, nor for trips to the woods. I was happy being with my friends, popping in for a quick coffee, having lunch at the pub at end of term and just doing my own thing.
There were women who worked back then of course. The odd nanny or Grandparent did the school run. Occasionally, the mothers of those children would make it to the school gate. They’d be wearing designer suits, amazing makeup and perfectly coiffured hair. They’d leave a trail of perfume in their wake.
“What are they talking about?” they’d hiss as a FOSP pushed a fund raising pamphlet into their perfectly manicured hands. The earth mothers disapproved and looked askance at them.
“Ignore it,” I’d advise, pushing my own pamphlet into my bag to be binned later (after I had written a cheque for something or other of course)
I must say that I did my own bit for these harassed mothers who I remembered from the days of yore when we stood in the playground together. I collected their children, gave them their tea, and cleaned them up when they messed up. I did this for a friend who ran the playschool.
Now that was a story.
Young D was a timid child. He and my son were best buddies (I think) aged four. It was my job to collect both my own son (the baby) and D on Thursday afternoon from school. That day I diligently waited for the bell and then walked back to the car with children. As we drove into the drive I realised with a sinking feeling that someone was missing. I had left D in the classroom.
“get back in, no don’t all get out, do up your seatbelts…!” I yelled and sped back to the school where the teacher sat smiling, holding D’s hand.
“Oh I knew you’d be back,” she told me, handing him over. I was not so sure. It was pure chance I had realised he wasn’t with me.
D was scared of our Lurcher. D was scared of everything. Steven donned a scary mask (most unsuitable)and frightened him half to death.
I spent those afternoons, placating and cuddling him and telling him it was ok, no one was going to hurt him. Not sure he believed me.
After a particularly traumatic incident in which he fled up the stairs screaming because the dog had stretched and yawned, I decided I had to call it quits.
My friend understood, I think.
We had a fairly relaxed approach to parenting. When my youngest daughter was eleven, she had a couple of friends round for tea. She and the friends went across to the park afterwards. To get there, they had to cross the main road. The road was not very busy in those days and my older children could all cross it comfortably. I checked with the friends that their parents let them cross roads in broad daylight. They both nodded.
When their parents came to collect them, the girls were discussing their trip to the park.
“You crossed the road?” one traumatised father asked.
“It’s fine, it isn’t busy…” I interjected, sensing trouble.
As they left, I clearly heard one say to the other,
“The trouble with this family is no discipline!”
Well, really. How very rude!

I didn’t go out to work again until my youngest was seven. (Not counting the years in which I helped my husband set up and expand his business) At long last, I became one of the mothers who rush home to make it in time for the pickup. I no longer wore jeans and T shirts, I was smartly dressed and swanned in and out of the playground for a while at 3.30pm until the youngest could make his own way home, with a friend.
We had our ups and downs, my son once jumped out of the car and raced back home in protest only to tell me, after numerous such events in a fortnight, that he had sorted it all out. He had been used to me being at home and hadn’t liked me not being there but he now realised that even if I didn’t pick him up, I would be home soon afterwards. Guilty? Of course, I felt guilty!

My own daughters now stand at the school gates. They all work, one can choose her hours (the designer and University lecturer) one sends her son to afterschool and breakfast club and the other has a Nanny for her three. They all have Grandma’s day care when needed. I am happy collecting, dropping off etc. I recognise the characters I would have encountered back then, even today. It never changes. I can spot the doers, the organisers, the hangers on and the ones who try to fly below the radar, with ease.
I am greeted by everyone with smiles because I am Grandma, I am doing a great thing here. I am not asked to join the committee for this or that or inundated with letters and pamphlets and emails as my daughters are, so I have time to stand back and watch.
Such a rich fabric to observe as the various groups form and my daughters’ friends, some of whom used to come to their parties, rush in with baby in pram and toddler tagging behind and realise they have forgotten to bring the sunflower pot back, or to dress their child in costume.
I can smile and be thankful that my time at the school gate may not truly be ended, but it is different.
Thank you Motherland* for reminding me what a rich tapestry, school life weaves.

*https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p05j1k3t/motherland-series-1-episode-1

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