This boy

29 Sep

With a precision unexpected for someone his age, the little boy gently positions the bashed-about pink Cadillac into his line of traffic, placing it just close enough that it seems to nudge the green pick-up truck in front, but actually not quite. He squats back on his heels to assess his work, anxious to ensure that not one car, bus or ambulance has been knocked out of place by his final action. Even the various wobbly motorbikes, and the tractor missing one large tyre, have been put to use in creating a snake of vehicles which now curves around the legs of the glass topped dining table, along the skirting board behind the leather sofa, and back towards the French windows. The entire garage is used up – the boy stopped counting at twenty-one-forty and thinks there must be amazing millions of awesome cars now out on his road. He takes a chomp out of the Smartie cookie given to him by the growed-ups, along with the request to go and play nicely in the back room. It’s been hours,  and nobody’s been to check on him. Where is everyone?

“I dun it!” the boy calls out. “Come and see… look at this. Come on, oh come on…” He clambers to his feet, clumsy and rushed but still remembering to tread with caution so as not to disturb his work, and sets off to seek out his missing adult audience. They must be in the bedrooms as the kitchen is empty, and the living room, too.

Starting up the stairs, one hand trailing the wall to keep him on the wide part of the steps and avoid the narrow bit by the bannisters, he traces the fishy shapes carved into the wooden dado rail as he goes. Before reaching the midway turn and the first-floor landing, the ring of the doorbell diverts him. Urgently the boys twists round to head back to the front door – keen to be the first to get there. He has recently discovered he’s grown tall enough to reach up and turn the latch without using a chair. He’d always believed that being 5-years-old makes you important, and now he is. Ignoring all requests not to do so, he believes that opening the front door is something he must now be allowed to do.

“Are you here because my Dad’s dead?”

The man on the doorstep is not wearing a police uniform. No badge, no car with a flashing light. He’s not a postman either although he is in possession of a large box, which looks really interesting, and he’s got a beard which is squiggly, as if it’s been scribbled on his face. The boy likes the way the man’s eyebrows have shot up in response to his question, like a cartoon person. It’s funny. And the man’s mouth has dropped open as if the jaw suddenly became unhinged. He doesn’t answer the question though.

The boy tries another: “Is that for me, what is it?” He waves his chubby hand at the box.

“I’m so sorry.” A tall woman with tired shoulders comes up behind the boy and puts a restraining hand on his shoulder to draw him back into the hallway. “Can I help you?” She smiles in an oh-dear-I-can-see-that greeting-is-not-what-you-expected kind of way.

The boy shakes free, anxious to reaffirm his right to quiz the visitor: “Granny, I got here first.”

Now the man speaks, jump-started by the presence of the woman, and ready to deliver his much-rehearsed lines: “I’m sorry to bother you at this time. I’m sure you’re busy. It’s just my wife and I wanted to say, … well that we are thinking… well, hoping it might, sort of ….” The man tails off as he makes to transfer his cargo over to the older lady. Despite practicing, his prepared speech has evaporated leaving him dry and script-less.

“But Mister Person, what is it in the box?” persists the boy, not ready to be shushed. “Is it for me?”

“Food. Treats, nice things I hope.” For the first time the man addresses the boy directly. “For your mum. There’s a card inside.”

“I hope it’s chocolate. Is it chocolate? You should bring chocolate, and for me too.”

“Now darling, that’s enough. Let him go.” The grandmother accepts the box and moves backwards away from the door, and which her grandson is now starting to close. “And thank you, she’ll be very touched.”

As he retreats down the garden path to what now feels like the sanctuary of the pavement, the visitor is relieved to have run his errand. He can still hear the boy protesting loudly that the box should be for him.

“Nobody is being sad to me, I get nothing.” he shouts. “And it is my Dad what is dead.”



cupboard loves

28 Sep

There’s something pleasing about a line-up of closed cupboard doors – whether kitchen, bedroom, hallway. It’s not simply about efficient storage, but also the thrill of imagining what lies behind! The doors are authority, a formal closure which can be a hiding to all or nothing.
Google tells me the first recorded use of the word ‘cuppebord’ in Middle English denoted a sideboard or table for storing the daily kitchenware, but today we’re centuries on from a description of somewhere to stash the daily crockery. The intervening years have supplied the addition of a door on our cupboard, to conceal the contents of a recessed space or free-standing unit, still usually with shelves. And herein lies the intrigue. Whether you picture a wardrobe or closet, cabinet or armoire, I propose that to most of us a neatly tethered door (latch, knob or push-open mechanism – what’s your favourite?) is the sign of a promise to come. I give you a hiding place, the holder of secrets and guardian of potentials.
An encounter with my open wardrobe for example, will talk to you of all my incarnations whether you knew them already or not. Here’s the larger me, now the trim one, my party-essentials, my one-day-maybe gowns, my smarter, working clobber, and the can’t-bear-to-throw-out threadbares, too. In an effort to remain discreet, hanging garments are racked sideways on making them slower to spill the whole story; shoes below are stacked in boxes to further the air of mystery.
Conversely, the two, floor-to-ceiling hall closets reveal an entirely different treasure. Throwing open the doors with a silent tah dah! showcases a ‘mad professor’ array of boxes, answerphones, wireless receivers, transmitters and modems, each flashing and winking at each other in electronic knowingness. It’s the hub of the house, keeping us online and contactable. Only qualified personnel can rummage in here – you must be schooled by our handy-gadget guy, signed off as someone ‘who can’ before flicking switches and pulling plugs. Otherwise, back off quick.
My über-personal cupboard is the one under the stairs. Not easy to reach into, deep and oddly-shaped, it safeguards a 3-D jigsaw puzzle of boxes and crates. It’s my work of art – all items neatly packed and labeled with love. It’s proper stuff (no nonsense) that I believe just might become re-useful. Sentimentality be praised, all is valuable here. There are practicalities such as Christmas decorations, of course. Collected over years from family and on my travels. A blow-up bed (never used, but you never know), and a hoard of every type of phone charger I will not require again but a guest might? From my hobby years, a stock of knitting wool and used-once dress patterns, indeed a heavy old sewing-machine bequeathed by Granny – idle for 17+ years but too valuable to ditch. A carton of ‘work-papers 2000-04’ records my first essay into running a business and warns of a whole other story for a different telling. Can’t bear to read it, can’t bring myself to rubbish it. Sweetly, my school satchel has become nostalgia-packed, these days the smell of teenage years is wrapped around a carefully selected, representative sample of text books and a copy of my university dissertation. Unpublished.
I wonder what my cupboarded possessions will divulge to a future discoverer? On my demise, someone will go through them all and I hope not simply wonder at all this hoarding, but also smile at me perhaps, and share my thrill of cupboard searching.



The lovebomber

26 Aug

Dear Son
So you’ve gone! Off with friends to a festival somewhere down the M4. Reading is a spot I associate more with a large train station, and long-established motorway services than a mecca for 90,000 music fans gathering in a field to celebrate grime, indie, rock and soul. But that’s my education lacking.
I’m pleased we parted on good terms – I have accepted that you didn’t need to pack wellie boots to wade through the muddy fields, a second sweater just in case of cold nights, or a pillow for your darling head. I do now understand that you prefer not to be weighed down by supplies of Paracetamol, sun cream or sticking plasters – I thank heavens you saw the wisdom of taking your Asthma inhaler. And I consider it a victory you have added a clutch of cereal bars, a toilet roll, 2 plastic bags for damp clothes, and wet wipes to your bag. Would deodorant have been too much to ask, and I wonder if you found the banana and Berocca I hid in the side pocket of the holdall? It was funny that you insisted on a taking a fold-up camping chair to save your butt from the hard ground. In my day we would’ve called you a sissy but I guess I’m out of touch.
So, my boy… have fun. Be safe. Eat something green or fresh occasionally. Keep in touch. Text often. Play nicely. These are my wishes for you and your crew. I hope you’ve heeded my attempts to teach you how to place someone in the recovery position should it be required. I hope you’ve not been searched and caught smuggling in alcohol or worse. And if you have, maybe don’t tell me? I confess I secretly hope you didn’t arrive in time to camp in the infamous ‘under-18s’ purple camp zone, and have had to join the family white camp with shower facilities and adults to watch over you. So much nicer.
In the next few days, I will try and get over my envy at the exuberance and ‘don’t fuss’ attitude of your teenage years – they make me nostalgic for own long gone youth. I will not succumb to the desire to call you 10 times a day to check you’re conscious and hydrated (wearing clean pants and brushing your teeth?). I will be impressed if you could drop me the odd message, and love it if you share the news of which acts you’ve seen and the best musicians you’ve discovered. I will not allow your younger brother to play your Xbox games, take up residence in your bedroom and ransack your belongings – much less report to me any of his findings. I will not be interested. Promise. When you come home on Monday, cranky, smelly and sleep-deprived, I will lovebomb you. I intend to be patient, not mind that you’ve left the tent, chair and sleeping bag behind, or if it takes a week to encourage you to unpack, much less wash, your kit.
Hmmm, and I won’t make a big deal out of the fact that, as I write, I’ve received a message delivered via a friend on an unknown mobile number, that you’ve lost your new iPhone 7 and will not be contactable. My imagination has upgraded the party it was having to a full-on rave in my head… it’s going to be a long, exhausting weekend.
Much love, Mum x

My life in boxes

17 Aug

storage-box-johnlewisI live with boxes; all shapes and sizes, ranging in decoration and made from varying materials. Shabby cardboard or vulgar plastic ones, hidden under beds or the back of cupboards; others proudly decorative and disguised as hatboxes displayed on shelves; a couple more perhaps wooden, large enough to claim place as pieces of furnishing in their own right. Each is replete with my percieved valuable collections of stuff. Such stuff could be ornaments, trinkets, magazine clippings, old letters, certificates even, some papers, many photographs, souvenir tickets, programmes, t-shirts, a tartan jacket (the shame), a guide beret, and school reports. Together they form the edited patchwork of a life at times mostly ordinary. They are my keepsakes, signature notes of my past carefully selected and tidied into order according to life event. It is satisfying to categorise memories and mementoes I find.
Of course in my living today life, I try to downsize: I computerise financial and work records, aim for a paperless home office, become more ruthless about storing kids out-grown toys and hand-me-downs and avoid brimful cupboards which spill open but won’t close again. I’ve chucked out shoes I’ve coveted but never wear (well most of them), single earrings, too-small-frocks, dubious books with torn covers… BUT, I fully intend to retain my stores of real precious-es and hope the sides of a structured box will save them whole, undamaged, undiminished. But for when and who I ask?
My wedding box I opened recently to show my eldest son. Inside, among the place cards, present lists and thank-you letters, pressed flowers and service sheets, Alfie and me found several boxes of saved wedding cake; the juice seeped through to stain the cream cardboard. We munched a piece of the chewy but remarkably stlll edible contents and I hoped he sensed the importance of my sharing the memory of the day I married his Dad. Wishful thinking. Unimpressed, an unsentimental chap he was bored so we closed it up again.
My younger son exorted me to open a vibrant, flowered box so rammed with hand-written letters from student days you can almost hear the chatter and energy of youth contained within. Excited I showed him VIP concert passes from the 90s to Ramones gigs and Michael Jackson concerts. He’s not heard of either! I blushed at the sight of old lover-letters tied in string – how gorgeous to note the abandon with which we dashed off feelings and posted them out. Why do I keep them, he asked? To know that I was once admired by lanky long-haired lads, and was myself less than 50 years old. They remind me I have lived a life before you came, I say. I feel ancient. We replace the box on the shelf.
There is one box I cannot share. It is too hard to open: a purple slim container was as painful to compile as the story it holds. This is the record of loss. Inside, cards, certificates, poems and prayers, a teddy bear and one photograph are memorial to the baby who died before we could know him truely. Baby James was the first of three souls lost to me and my man, and the only one whose body was delivered whole to be held and wept over before being blessed and committed to the ashes. Friends, sisters, mothers and aunts wrote to share and care at the awfulness of no-life. I was comforted to feel less alone. At the morgue they made me ink-prints of his feet on a tiny piece of card, so that he left us his mark. No need to lift the lid on this box. The contents are etched on my memory.
A song springs into my head. Oh My Darling Clementine – my Dad sang to me of the poor miner’s daughter who had herring boxes without topses for sandals. Thinking of him reminds me also how laughed at the ‘we were so poor’ sketch from Monty Python, claiming “there were 150 of us living in a shoe box in the middle of the road..”
There are 150 Nickys living in my various cartons… I like the hoarder in me who, melded with the organised obsessive, packs up my life into parcels. Like packaged gifts, they are there to be opened and enjoyed, mostly by me. In the future they can be disposed of whole, or browsed over by those who might be amused to find out what I cared to box.

Wordy mojo

2 Jul

mojoClambering free from a hole lot of work, shaking off the extra-clingy stickie notes and kicking mounds of magazines, books and memos to one side, I feel happily lighter again. Phew!
This past month or two was some stretch of work activity, but at last I have room in my head for my thoughts to wander and wonder. It occurs to me that I’m getting my wordy-mojo back and I likey like it.
In 1957 Muddy Waters sang “Got my mojo working…”  a tune subsquently picked up by many great artists including Etta James and Eric Clapton. That’s good enough company for me. Hmm, but then tragic singer Jeff Buckley’s ‘Mojo Pin’ song (featuring on his 1994 album Grace) appears to be a psychedelic drug reference. Not so apt, perhaps. I’m reminded that the addition of Mr Mojo Risin to the Doors song ‘LA Woman’ transpires to be an anagram of Jim Morrison, and comes with a cheeky sexy innuendo. This is getting worse!
Diligently, I look up the dictionary definition of ‘mojo’ to find it originally meant magic, magnetic quality or charm. This works. Wait up. Now I read that seemingly ‘mojo’ has come to mean sex appeal – I’m not working so hard on that one. Ah, read can also mean cool or style essence.  Yep, niiiice. I’ll aspire to this last.

Still there?

25 Apr

winnie the pooh & piglet

Still there?” boomed BIG in a loud and confident kind of way down the ‘phone earlier today. “Yep!” I whispered, small-like. “But you’re so quiet – where have you gone and what’s up?” challenged BIG. “Well… I’m doing lots of working hard,  and being reflective, and feeling kind of smallish,” I explained, a tad carefully and just a little wary. “Just checking,” said BIG, kindly. “We’re all here when you want company, no worries til then.”  Hanging up, I felt less vanished. It was nice.


26 Feb

images-3Context (as much as definition, tone and volume) gives a word its resonance and poignancy. Or not.  The how and when can make the most ordinary of greetings, formalities or comments rich with significance and sentiment.
Saturday last, the timing of a simple “Please?” made me stop short as I led my sons out of Waterloo station on a freezing afternoon. We were heading towards a warm café tea – the plea-sayer was already seated, tired and grubby on the icy grey pavement. Sad eyes told me desperation and hunger were the order. Suddenly acutely sad for the beggar, I proffered more coins than usual. Touched by the moment, ashamed that it took the inclement weather to incite this generosity, in my mind I questioned whether humility is the dish best served cold?
My teenage son says “Sorry!” while rolling his eyes and sighing, revealing how very unremorseful he feels. Later, as I bend my head to say goodnight, he whispers his real apology unbidden and I hear the meaning loud and clear.
The declaration “We did it” can signal incrimination, affirmation or celebration according to the moment, while double-entendres are innocent or bawdy with either careless or careful placement. The most generic of nouns can be rendered superbly-special: Train has special meaning as the first intelligible word uttered by one of my children, parental friends cite shoe and duck with similar affection. “Bedtime” has numerous possible intentions: a statement, a question a threat… an invitation perhaps!
My Dad has Alzheimers. He lives some distance away – metaphorically and actually. He’s no longer sure who I am, and loses his words by the day. Those he does share with me don’t always enlighten. But, however muddled, I gift the words with imagined meaning drawn from the context. At the end of my latest visit I kissed him goodbye and promised I’d be back soon. “Back soon…” he repeated. I added a question mark and a requestful intonation in my head. Poignant. Back soon?  I wish he would be.


8 Feb

ImageSome words are wonderfully descriptive, even when you’re not sure of what! A run of four syllables is usually a surefire way to get my attention and recently I’ve picked up one gem of a quadsyllablic word that’s new to me: murmuration. Just roll it round your tongue a moment or two before I reveal – if you don’t yet know – what it means. Stare at the spelling, it looks right but wrong somehow (yes, I did spellcheck and crosscheck and the double u-sage is correct). How delightfully mischievous!
The dictionary advises that mur-mur-ation – from the Middle English or Latin murmurare – is the action of murmuring or emitting a low continuous noise, but also it is used as the name for a flock of starlings and this is what I find intriguing. The bird-word derives from the way migrating starlings collect, and try to fly as close together as possible while copying changes in speed or direction, so that the flight of one single bird gets magnified and distorted by all the birds around it and they seem to be creating one big pattern in the sky. It’s mathematical chaos, and a brilliant visual reference for the ‘murmuring noise’ as they flock and wheel and dance in the sky.
More glorious still is the discovery that a murmuration and a susurration (a whispering or rustling noise) are synonyms for each other, AND they each can be used as verbs. Personally I can’t wait for an opportunities to rebuff some child with the command to “stop that murmurating!” or “no susurrating in the cinema please, I’m trying to concentrate on the film”. This word play is seemingly endlessly fun!


26 Dec

twitter-bird-santa-350Retrospection is in the air.  It’s the end of December and time to indulge the pleasure and the pain of reviewing the year in snapshots; the “ouch!” moments and the “ooh remember that” ones, too. Was it a great 2012 for you, or a miserable time for the most part?  I take a poll. My friends’ responses are divided.

Yay! for the Queen’s Jubilee, Obama’s re-election, the Olympics. Personally, my family breathed a sigh of relief as mother sold her house at last and moved closer to my younger sister, and I exhaled deeply as my youngest moved to a new school moderately painlessly. Anyone within earshot couldn’t fail to feel the love as I loudly announced the loss of the 10lbs I gained at Christmas 2011… and became a nicer person again…arguably.

Yet I’m acutely aware also that some friends and colleagues have hit hard times, and the recession continues to bite down with force. The Greeks, the Spaniards, the locals in my rural home county… few escape the fallout of the banking crises (plural). Times they are a-changing, indeed. But while thanks for the sentiment Bob Dylan, what you suggest as swimming doesn’t quite do it for modern time.

So, here I lounge, stuffed with Christmas dinners (plural again) in retrospection – the memories of the past 12 months clinging to the branches of the Christmas tree, puffing up into the atmosphere as I turn the pages of the TV Times, and seeping out on the radio airwaves as Slade, Mud, the Pogues and Greg Lake continue to hold forth (not my choice of song decade after decade but the ‘chef chooses the tunes’ apparently. And I’m not cooking). This ‘looking back’ giving rise to musing, mulling and pondering. What have I learned and what is important in 2012?

Boing! My Twitter account alert sounds out. Hmm, should I have silenced it for today in deference to the family gathering? I should be paying the nearest and dearest full attention. The laptop flashes up a ‘new message’ or two notice… hard to ignore, but I do. Embarrassed, I notice my text message sound is going mad. Is there no peace for someone attempting a bit of contemplative retrospection…? The phone rings.

And there, suddenly I have it. The answer my friends, is written in the ping. This has been a year of connections, of camaraderie. Of not being alone. The joy in being available, reachable and wanted is apparent everywhere. I will embrace it. Happily. And extend my best wishes to you all – real and virtual.

Homework madness

12 Dec

Domestic mental cruelty comes in many guises and to my mind includes the supervision of children’s homework! A word that now sends chills – and pills more often than not – down me. Described as ‘parent assisted learning’ to be done in the home and an invaluable support of the schoolday? Pah! An unnecessary strain on familial relations and a prescription for parental insanity more like.

I recall how naively as a new, inexperienced parent I longed for the day that our young offspring could dress themselves, feed unaided, and climb in and out of the buggy, car, or bed without assistance. Phew, the hard labour was over. We watched beaming with pride as the little ones grew bigger, blissfully unaware that as they lurch from pre-school to infant years and on to junior then senior status, there looms a clear and present terror to be negotiated and one that will last throughout their schooling. Years, many years – sob. [Visualise this author now rocking back and forth and moaning gently at the prospect]

Carers of tender tikes still nursery-bound look away now – try and enjoy what innocence you have left before the madness begins. From reception class forward, no longer will you ferret through the school bag in search of letters of praise, party invitations, ‘playground star’ certificates. Nope. Henceforth you will learn to view with suspicion and fear bags thrown in the hallway spewing papers and exercise books, forms and charts. Oh yes, dear reader, the homework years are upon you – be afraid.

For sure this form of ritual torture for loving parents has been devised by a truly Machiavellian mind. This weekly dishing out of tasks to students of tender to teen ages – verbal, written or mathematical it matters not – is a cunning strategy for slowly but clearly eroding the sanity of any right-minded adult. The torturous process of completing the homework – and remember it is the child who should be fulfilling the paperwork and not you, tempting as it maybe – will involve cajoling, encouraging, bribing then threatening (usually in that order) your reluctant enfant terrible. How quickly the novelty passes of pleasing teacher by knowing the spellings, the times tables, the capital cities of the world… How rapidly they learn that they prefer their energies to spent in more ego-centric activities. Not more work, they cry, its soooo unfair. Let them take responsibility for their actions, or lack of? They’ll suffer their punishments and learn to work willingly at the kitchen table? It’s not that simple, quick or painless. For what your kids don’t do,  you will be charged as guilty. You will face the prospect of missives from the school, summonses perhaps, and uncomfortable parent/teacher interviews.The shame, the indignity, the frustration is awful, and that is the unfairness you wail. But still you bear the brunt. In an era where ‘middle England’ demands that every word, inkspot, calculation is measured and rated in the pursuit of tabling the academic process, homework has taken on an super-importance of its own.

Not that the little treasures themselves care. Tantrums, tears, melt-downs (yours, not theirs most often) will become the norm as you endeavor to follow the timetable. Missed instructions, forgotten books, lost papers… this is what your evenings will be reduced to. Prepare the darkened room and the soothing head compress. Me? I find I get best results when clutching a glass of the coldest white wine available… and ear-plugs so I can’t hear myself shouting!