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Monday, August 1, 2011


For the last few months I have been trapped within a kind of vindictive textile and haberdashery hell while trying to make some loose furnishings. These have been my lost months. And while foreign governments have fallen and re-assembled, royal family members have married and footballers divorced, and luridly shocking phone-hacking newspaper headlines unfolded around the world, my life has been an almost constant flurry of measuring, cutting, stitching, machining...and crying. And then unpicking, re-machining, more unpicking and more stitching. And more crying. I have made so many mistakes and become so certifiably confused that I have been close to being strapped into a white jacket and permanently sedated. I have taken more time over sewing four medium sized box cushions, with zips, plus another small round one, also with a zip, than I ever have, over any other project in my entire life.

It actually all started over a year ago when a friend, who has helped me countless times, asked me to make some covers for some old sofa cushions of hers. She'd had them since the 1960's and now wanted an update. They were a couple of pretty basic big square box cushions with some matching rather odd curved sort of semi-moon shaped upper pouches which were kind of like head rests. And she wanted two of everything so she could chuck them into the washing machine when needed and never be cover-less.

The fact that I am not a professional seamstress seemed to slip both our minds. She believed in me and I...well...I wouldn't say I was ever untruthful, only more that I thought I could rise to the challenge because it was for her. It was a massive mistake for me to think that. Massive.

Those first original cushions took way longer to make than I told her. Instead of the 3 hours per cushion I charged it was more like 12. And the strange saggy upper bit was a complete nightmare to try to assemble. I didn't have the inner sponge pieces to work from, only the old covers, which I unpicked and then used as a pattern. This was fine for the box cushions, only they took so long that by the time I came to make the upper ones, I could no-longer remember which way round they went and had to guess. I'm still not sure why I didn't just ask but I think the further away I got from sanity the deeper entrenched I became in a war between all the constituent parts. It was me and them. And they fucking did my head in.

From the start though, the fabric was difficult. This was casement fabric and it was truly evil. It unravelled with the slightest provocation. Fine I thought, you can't handle provocation? then I'll zig-zag your edges. This turned into a mammoth task even before any proper sewing could begin and I was soon immersed in the first of many afternoons, foot on the peddle and my sewing machine whirling away for all its worth, as I first measured and then cut and zig-zagged the 11 separate parts which made up each cushion.

It also turns out that casement fabric stretches like mad - but only in one direction - so machining became a minefield. I am also well aware that professionals will probably have known loads of short cuts but by this stage I was in way  too deep. I did actually go to my local sewing supply shop and solicit their advice on several occasions. I would buy a reel of cotton, wait my turn in the queue quietly and meekly, and then, once up at the till, rapid-fire a series of cushion and zip-related questions and drain the staff of as much free advice as possible. And each time an unflappable and patient member of staff would slowly explain the various techniques, kindly draw simple diagrams and make all sorts of calculations while I stood there with a wild-eyed and frantic expression on my face pretending to understand what they were trying to explain to me. I would lean over the diagrams and nod in agreement to their suggestions while they calmly showed me exactly what to do but I seemed unable to retain any useful information. It was like trying to teach a particularly vacant chimp the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony.

I would arrive back home and step into the eye of the storm and any of the straight forward instruction I had accidently retained would go straight out of the window. After the third visit I felt I had bled them dry. I could also tell from the exchanged looks on their faces that I had become 'that woman is back' as I entered the shop and I didn't feel I could darken their door again - at least not in this lifetime.

And I was also making silly time-consuming mistakes, forgetting to switch the zig-zag button before machining a seam or using the bright turquoise zig-zag cotton on a seam instead of the off-white. And then I found that the old plasticy tape measure that I found at the bottom of step-mothers old sewing box and which I had confidently been using for the first half of the work was in fact inaccurate having been over-stretched over the years and never returned to its original size. More unpicking. More machining. More tears.

Finally though the cushions were made and my friend paid me well though I hide from her the sweat, tears, anxiety and actual input it took making them. I was sleepless for some weeks after wondering if I had actually attached the upper cushion covers upside down but nothing was ever said. I put it all down to experience. I would never put myself, or indeed any other unsuspecting cushion-covers through such tormented scenes again. And for nearly a year all  remained quiet on the cushion front.

And then one afternoon I happened to be visiting the friend again.

'Oh!' she exclaimed 'I've got another little job for you! These cushions', and she picked up a big fat feather filled square, 'I've just ordered more of that fabric...could you make another set of covers for me?'

And for some reason, probably because I really like her and I didn't want to let her down, all of the previous years misery vanished into that place where all bad past experiences get sucked and forgotten when a positive outlook decides to take charge. Why does one never see that that particular black hole is guarded by a fool?  And so I found myself turning to her, smiling and saying 'yes of course I'll do them!'

Back at home, with the new roll of fabric and measurements, (these newer cushions were already out of reach and on their way to London in a van) I started to descend, once more into my own personal pit of hell and damnation.  What ever had possessed me?

If I thought I had measured it correctly the first time it would turn out I hadn't so I would have to measure again.  The fabric was a cream colour so dressmakers chalk was useless and I resorted to pencil. Soon, though, because I never seemed to manage to measure a simple straight line with much precision, as the pencil would slip haphazardly into the grooves of the weave, the inside of the fabric ended up being scored with multiple silver grey pencil strokes, like endless tramlines, all converging at the corners and all at slightly different angles. I would lick the end of the pencil and make a big star shape to signal a corner. Then, because of the endless handling, I'd notice that pencil lines were wearing off and soon I couldn't figure out which were the ones that were the ones to follow so I began to mark them in biro, scoring lightly in dashes across the grain. Then I'd get cocky and score it more heavily. It looked a mess but at least it was on the inside where no-one could see.

The pre zig-zagged edges were also unravelling with the constant handling and had to be re-done and they stretched and curled and buckled with every pin and stitch and movement. And towards the end of each day, if my eyes weren't already crossed with the strain my eye-sight itself seemed to be fading fast as well and as the stitches swooned in front of my watery vision I could only actually work, owl-like, with the strongest of reading glasses and a row of my brightest of table lamps in place. And because I knew that the fabric was liable to shrink in the wash, and not just when washed, this fabric will also change size due to atmospheric conditions, I had to guess by how much and add a couple of inches all over. With so much guess-work they were never going to be perfect.

Perhaps there was a sense of proving to myself that I could do it, that I could turn this whole sorry episode into something wonderful and creative...even when I knew it just wasn't working. I remember one of my grandmothers would regularly scare small children by producing a ghastly line of garish knitted finger puppets with a sinister and starey-eyed Father Christmas and his elves that looked like toy-towns version of a group meeting of psychopaths at Broadmoor. My grandmother knew that they upset children but she still kept making them, ever hopeful that she'd one day get the eyes right.

Hours bled painful into days and days wept unceasingly into weeks. My friend would phone me from time to time to ask how I was getting on.

'Oh!' I'd say faking surprise, 'I've been so tied up with other stuff I haven't even looked at the cushion covers...I'll see what I can do next week!'

And then I would guiltily put the phone down and hope some dreadful accident would happen which would give me an excuse.

'Oh I'm so so sorry, but you know that bus that went off the bridge and sank in the river just up the road from me last week? You'll never guess what I left on it...'

Every day I would start with re-newed confidence and a strong positive outlook. Today I will finish a cushion I would tell myself. Just one. But for some reason every day would turn into more of a horrendous mess. I measured and marked and pinned and  machined. And something always went wrong and rapidly reduced me to frustrated anger and hair-pulling misery. Having started one morning at 7am, I finally downed tools at 10pm, my worktable a war zone, no cushions in sight, and looked for a way to kill myself.  And the crux of the matter was now clear. I needed to produce a thing of beauty and perfection and nothing else would do. Failing that I'd rather die.

And having finally stepped back from the situation for a moment I realised I was just going to have to accept that I just wasn't capable of this but neither was I about to top myself over existential angst of the needlecraft kind. I just had to make the damn things and move on.

So I got on with it and I made them. And they ended up fitting but only because my fear of them being too small meant they were now vast great cavernous sacks. And the zips, which I'm afraid never went as smoothly as I'd wished, will always face the backs of their framework buckled and too shamefaced to ever be exposed publicly.

And though, when working out the cost, I much reduced the time I spent on them (by weeks rather than hours) they still seemed to be murderously over-priced. And I think they look dreadful. But of course my friend wouldn't ever dream of accepting them for nothing. Or indeed even comment on their very wretchedness.

(And if you ever read this - and you'll know who you are - Mea Culpa, and I'm sorry!)

Sunday, July 31, 2011


I'm going to Heathrow Airport to collect my son. He's been in Canada for a couple of weeks, staying with family. Lavender comes with me and we find a cafe and have bacon and eggs for breakfast while we wait for the flight to land.

I feel a little dislocated.  Mostly I rub along with life and take its wavering path on the chin, but sometimes it throws me that blunt sense of desolation, and a part of me pulls away from the whole and starts drifting towards someplace bleak. Luckily I'm a strong swimmer.

Considering that Heathrow is London's primary airport the arrivals lounge it is a pretty drab experience. After we have eaten we wander around visiting the loos, viewing the handful of outlets and weaving in and out of the rather maudlin rows of bus terminal molded-plastic bucket-seating.  The whole place has about as much charm as a crematorium. Or an inner-city housing estate blessed with the very meagrest parade of shops. The only thing missing is a pound store. Or a mental asylum. But maybe its just my frame of mind.

Lavender is teetering in and out of Boots the Chemist and W.H.Smiths in florescent pink strappy high-heels, a green lurex mini dress and a mink-coloured feather and diamante headpiece. Her clothes are a mix of heirloom and charity shop with an occasional incongruous oddity. Like the small furry childrens hat which perched on top of her head one long winter. Lavender's ways warm the heart and enrich the space around her.

Meanwhile different women and men are rushing about with wheeled suitcases and disconnected faces, everyone is on their own agenda and seem to be going in opposing directions. There is no time for meandering chatter, only stern and non-committal glances for the serious traveller and then they must quickly move on.

We go and stand next to a selection of taxi drivers holding up cardboard signs with the names of their expected and prospective customers. There is a tangled energy in the air, of people going somewhere and being busy but I'm also aware of an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I can almost taste it, it is nearly there on the tip of my tongue before it rushes off and into the undergrowth of my mind, like a snake slithering away at speed, before I can see the markings on its skin.

We stand and watch the arrivals. For a while I am lost in the joyousness of fragile elderly Greek ladies being tenderly swept into the strong arms of younger family members or of lovers hurriedly embracing as the sudden rush of familiarity quickly dilutes any previous shyness or distance. All is under the watchful eye of an impassive audience of strangers.

Lavender and I couldn't be happier and agree that its better than any trip to the cinema. Its real.

And then I see him, my handsome, grumpy-looking teenage son. He is trudging down the concourse towards me, dark eyes covered by thick dark fringe, shoulders slouched and half-moon smile fighting and losing against a more insouciant teenage detachment.

I have to restrain every nerve and muscle in my body, as he comes up to me, knowing that these days I'm not allowed to hug him. I notice the hem of his jeans scuffing the ground and collecting all the international dirt and detritus Heathrow has to offer.

I reach up and rub the side of his arm briefly and smile. And from his slight smile back I know that he is pleased to see me.

We three make our way back to the multi-storey, a heavy suitcase bumping and dragging on its wheels behind us and the sound of Lavender's click-clacking heels ringing along the walkway. We chat easily and each of us, in our own way, is happy enough.

I push the creeping grey abyss as far away from me as possible, and start the car.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I go outside to mow the grass. It's an easier task now that the dog is no-longer around using the garden as an open-sewer. Not that I minded particularly, it goes with the territory, you have a dog - you have to clear up its mess. And then they die and you're surprised by the odd perk that is thrown up.  I've no-one to share this little gem with as I was the only one that ever cleaned it up anyway but I can't help but feel a few small throbs of pleasure at this sudden 'petit cadeau' of serendipity.

I carry the mower out from the garage and lug it up to the grassy area. The grass maybe clear of dog shit but its been replaced by a scattered and disorderly congregation of dandelions.  Affrays of dandelions who lurch, drunken and provocative, across the grass in careless clusters like stumbling C-list WAGS on a Saturday night out. I plan to annihilate them with the Flymo. Who likes dandelions?

Well actually the old man next door used to.

My elderly Norwegian neighbour Frankel, who died a few months ago, used to plead with me, with a pressing delicacy, to leave the dandelions alone, as he could never understand what they had done to deserve such brutish and unified hatred.

'But they're weeds Frankel and if you don't get rid of them they'll just take over!'

'Well, would that be so bad? they are such harmless and happy little things!'

'But they're weeds!'

'But they are beautiful!'

Frankel, with his long straggly white beard, who spoke softly through his Norwegian accent, ate a clove of fresh garlic every morning and daily performed a series of unique and somewhat haphazard 'stick' exercises. The 'stick' exercises were devised to keep himself supple when younger and he continued them until well into his 80's.

These mainly consisted of him twirling and weaving any available stick or large leafless branch in and out of his legs and arms in ever-increasingly dangerous and wildly enthusiastic circles. Sometimes he would suddenly start stick hurling and whirling in the middle of a conversation, his lithe elderly body bobbing and dipping with ease. The stick would swoop within an inch of your nose so you always had to be ready to jerk your head back with speed to avoid a good-natured collision. He always smiled when performing the exercise and he always made me smile too. And if a stick didn't get you in the face then you could be more or less knocked sideways by the air-vaporising pungency of his powerful Allium-infused breath.

Frankel was a Quaker, a gentle man and very sweet. He always spoke up for the misunderstood, the voiceless under-dog. Even the dandelions. His accent caused him at times to be unwittingly amusing as well.

I once spent a very puzzled few minutes, suppressing nervous laughter, and pondering on what on earth he was talking about when he sprang out of his back door with exuberance, a few years ago, to cheerfully greet me one early April morning.

'Oh at last Spring is here and I shall get new frocks!'


'Frocks! Soon I shall have lots of new frocks!!' 


He looked at me with the patient tolerance of one who was explaining a simple fact to a simple-ton.

'First comes the frock-spawn...and then come the frocks!'

I plug the mower into the extension cable and then feed it back along the garden to the sun-room and into a socket. As I walk back I become aware of voices and people moving around next door, I can just catch glimpses through the apple blossom but I don't recognise any of them. The gardens are close together and I never feel polite mowing if someone else is sitting outside.

Soon though, my naturally questing characteristics take over and I'm straining to catch any snippets of conversation which might float over the fence while trying to look interested in the mower. Maybe the house has been sold by Frankel's children and I wonder if these are my new neighbours?

I begin to mow, annihilating plenty of dandelions and the springy bright flower heads spew up into the air in a satisfyingly shredded and destructive manner.  I start to move the trampoline which is a cumbersome dead weight to haul but I have a well-developed manoeuvre for that and in a few short twists, drags and tugs it is repositioned into one of its two spaces so that I can now mow the upper part of the garden. Then I see a man looking at me. I give him a friendly neighbourly smile.

'I won't be long! I'm just giving it a quick trim and then I'll leave you in peace!'

It's a youngish man with a flat empty smirk. Humour is written all over his face but I don't find him funny. I heave the trampoline the last few inches into the deeply embedded grooves on the ground.

'You're strong'

'Yes. I am'

'You must be stronger than you look'

'Oh yes. I'm much stronger than I look'

And you, my friend, look like an oaf.

I mentally swallow back my sullen disappointment and try not to make any sweeping assumptions.

I look down at the remaining dandelions and remember Frankel's raw garlicky breath and 'stick' exercises. I decide to leave a few clumps of them where they are around the edges. They stand out in bunched gatherings like gossipy girls in cheap loud dresses. They stretch out their long necks, eager to be noticed. I'm trying to see the beauty in them. Like Frankel would have.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


My brother Jeremy phones me.

'Erm....I just want to say how sorry I am to hear about Midge'

'Thanks Jeremy'

'...and have you thought about getting another pet?'

'No. Last thing on my mind at the moment'

I'm surprised at how many people have asked me this question. I'm surprised as well at how deeply it shocks me. How can I even think of replacing Midge? Surely it's much too soon? I feel alone and in a thick foggy cloud of mourning, like I am wandering around in heavy 'widow's weeds' but nobody else can see them. Jeremy is particularly insensitive to my feelings.

'Well its about a cat next time round?'

It takes me a couple of seconds to realize that he is trying to fob me off with Grub. Grub is Jeremy's needy little cat, a clingy feline version of an energy-draining friend you can never get rid of. Grub, who abides in a lean-to opposite the front door of Jeremy's cottage and who has been banned from the place because she kept peeing on the bathroom floor.

Jeremy in full salesman swing, continues his pitch before I have a chance to cut in.

'A cat is far easier to have than a dog, they almost look after themselves, in fact you'd hardly know you have one. I could put a cat flap in for you, and she could live mostly in the garage'

Since she acquired the trick of peeing indoors Grub has become the cat that no-one wants. Originally she was my sister's cat who was then passed on to my brother and for years she lived happily within his home, intense and love-demanding but fairly bearable. If you stayed the night, you would sometimes wake up, with a fright, to find her sitting on your chest sphinx-like, purring loudly and staring at you like a deranged ex-girlfriend.

But somewhere along the line she started to follow Jeremy into the bathroom and watched him aiming at the lavatory bowl. She soon became convinced, and then obsessed, that this was the thing to do. Clever cat. But not quite clever enough and even hygiene-relaxed Jeremy soon tired of mopping up the urine splashed floor. Grub was unwilling to give up this trick though and eventually found herself locked out of the cottage.

I find her situation heart-breaking and I make a point of giving her lots of attention whenever I am there.

And now every time I visit Jeremy, Grub will appear from under some sheets of tarpaulin and race towards me like a hungry lover. She thuds into the side of my leg, elongates her frame and leans in as heavily as she can. She is small and desperate. She hero-worships Jeremy but clearly anyone would do, anyone who shows her any tenderness could easily be transferred in her affections. It's unlikely that she will ever stop her internal ablutions though and who would ever take on a cat with those sorts of ingrained habits?

But I have quite strong feelings over pets who aren't wanted, particularly ones that appear to be suffering. I think Jeremy should have her put down and I have told him this many times. I think she is lonely, once an indoor cat and now banished to the outside, she looks miserable and depressed whenever I see her. She hangs around the outside of doors and windows yowling into the night. She is Cathy, wanting to come in and haunt Heathcliff (or Jeremy) with her love.  Jeremy disagrees with me, has always said that animals are not like humans and that she enjoys life well enough and all that matters to her, as a cat, is that she is fed.

I tell Jeremy that I'm not interested in having her but over the next few days I start to think about Grub and how easy it would be to move her into our life. I am in the garage clearing a space for the delivery of some of  my partner's things that are being sent over from America.

Over the next few weeks I will unpack and find space for them inside, re-home suits and jackets and somehow find space in cramped wardrobes, integrate socks and t-shirts and jeans into drawers, move stuff around, probably throw out a great deal to make room.  And where on earth am I going to put my boyfriends guitars? How precious are guitars to guitarists? Do they need to be locked into a cupboard like shotguns, should they stand sentry in the corner of a room or can they be slid, amicably, under a bed?  Suddenly there are so many other things to think about and it's hard enough dovetailing another person into ones life, let alone a deprived, lovelorn and cloakroom-obsessed cat.

But I ponder still over the cat flap and where it could go. I start to imagine a sunny summers day a few months down the line and I'm sitting in the garden chatting with my boyfriend, my son is bouncing happily on his trampoline, Grub is sleepily lounging in the warmth, under the shade of the plum tree.

Or peeing on the bathroom floor. Or inside a guitar under the bed.

Friday, April 1, 2011


The dog had been putting on weight for about a month and I foolishly imagined, because her appetite was unchanged, that she was fine. But she didn't really look fine, she had developed a strange way of standing with her front legs at an odd angle. Her stomach had begun to bloat and bulge, her chest to swell and her back-bone felt sharp to the touch where before it had been smooth and padded. And, usually an avid outdoor dog, it was actually weeks since she'd wanted to go for a walk.

I even went online and found her symptoms and a common cause of death amongst her breed, but as she still kept looking up at me and wagging her tail with continued vigor I sort of ignored everything else.

I just didn't want to see the truth. In the end my son kept badgering me to take her to the vet.

'There is something seriously wrong with her Mum. You've got to take her to the vet. Look at her stomach, its hanging down all puffy and spongy!'

Midge has been by my sons side for more than three-quarters of his life. He has raced through fields, played endless games and either accidentally or deliberately spilled countless plates of food near her which she has always gratefully hoovered up. And while I take the cowards route and keep finding other things that are more pressing to deal with he comes straight out and forces me to take control.

'SHERIDAN!' he snaps.

When my son feels I am not giving him my full attention he will use my first name to startling effect. I feel the gravity in his voice immediately. I stop what I am doing and go and carefully rub the dogs tummy again. It's still that strange bloated heaviness. But she doesn't appear to be in any pain, just grateful, like dogs are, for the attention.

I take Midge to the vet the next morning, just after my son leaves for a 10 day trip to Spain with his school. As we sit in the surgery and wait our turn I think about his last words.

'Don't worry Mum. She'll probably be fine. When I get back we'll all go for a walk, like we used to, up to the common at Nymphsfield. She'll love that, racing around with lots of sniffing and meeting other dogs. Just think of all those walks we've got to look forward to now that Spring is here'

I perch without pleasure on a seat in the reception area. Its still early and it looks like we are the only customers. Midge stands alone, her body swollen dramatically, her legs all spindly under the weight. She looks bleakly around her waiting for the next installment. And then she turns and looks up at me. I wonder how I'm going to tell my son. She starts to wag her tail. I hope she can't read my mind.

An elderly man has appeared and starts to make his way across the room. He moves slowly with a large old Labrador on a lead. It's a black Lab, speckled with grey, and like its owner it is focusing single-mindedly on getting one foot, or paw, in front of the other. Midge suddenly perks up, hurriedly throws me a reassuring glance and totters into the dogs pathway where she starts to wag her tail and bat her beautiful eyes. The dog stops to acknowledge her and for a moment they sniff around with tender care, she small and fidgety, he steady and serious. Then the vet calls us in.

And I plead with time to stretch the short stroll to the consulting room into the longest walk on earth.

Within five minutes of the door shutting behind us the diagnosis is made. She has severe congestive heart disease. It has gained a speedy foot-hold and is in the final stages. I am told that it would be kinder to end it now while her tail is still wagging and she is still able to enjoy her food. I know that already. She looks up at me adoringly and in an effort to remain unemotional I bite my inner cheek until it throbs.

While the vet prepares the lethal dose I feed her dog treats from a large glass jar. They are far too big, more suitable for an Alsatian than a King Charles but she gamely attacks them with what few teeth she has left. It has now become like an animal version of an episode from 'Casualty' and I feel myself caught up in a storyline that I already know the ending of and which I can't escape from.

A veterinary nurse has joined us and we three stand around the table, each in our allotted position, the seconds ticking by unchallenged as a dreadful scene is played out. The vet says Midge may struggle but that it will be over quickly. I feel guilty and hollow.

The vet quietly and calmly talks through the procedure . I cup Midge's dear little face in my hands and begin to stroke her brow with one of my thumbs. She allows her head to drop back into my palm, always so trusting, her gaze focuses on mine and I manage to tell her what a wonderful dog she has been and how very much we have loved her. My mind spins back to when she won 2 rosettes at our local dog show.

She was judged as having 'the most beautiful eyes' and the 'waggiest tail'. She looks deeply into mine and lifts her tail up and then down, just once. It is quick but she doesn't struggle.

The most beautiful eyes and the waggiest tail.

And then she is gone.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Little Sister

The phone rings.


It's my little sister. She is talking very loudly. She does this when she is feeling confident.

'Hi', I say, 'where are you?'


I'm used to such calls from my sister. She is in her late 40's, extremely fragile emotionally and has a personality disorder. She has lived, for the last 20 or so years, on the fringes of society, in and out of psychiatric wards and through many frightening psychotic episodes. She has lost all of her friends, most of her family, her looks, her potential, her sense of belonging in this world and her sanity. She is mad. She is the woman who you avoid when you see her raving to herself and walking towards you in the street.

She can be funny, somehow reaching inside and harnessing her deep dark intelligence while recalling amusing anecdotes but mostly she is sad or vicious, irritating or down right rude. She hallucinates, has fairly infrequent washing habits and often sees dead members of our family. Her mind is so addled and ravaged from years of prescribed and recreational drug-use that there will now never be any hope of redeeming fully what was once lost.

The council has just re-housed her after a long stretch in hospital. But she is lonely.


I am immediately suspicious of 'Frank'. My sister is vulnerable and prey to any undesirable with dishonest intentions. Who could possibly want to marry this confused woman with rotten teeth, dirty hair, whose body will sometimes shake violently with the powerful side-effects of her anti-psychotics and who constantly talks of seeing the dead?

But that doesn't stop her yearning for love. And who am I to question the requirements of a partner? Maybe Frank will be the one to give my sister the love that she desperately needs.

A few days later and she calls again.

She is subdued. I ask her about Frank.

'Oh Frank, he dumped me, said I was a head-case, too much to handle. We're still going to be friends though'

I'm not surprised. What ever his motives were, perhaps in the end, like the rest of us, he just couldn't cope with her full-time.

She tells me that she is waiting for her case-worker to visit. She's going to try to do some washing. Or make a sandwich for lunch. I doubt she will do either though. Some days she has so little energy, so little to look forward to, that all she can do is rock from side to side while staring into space.

A few days later and she tells me that Frank has been over with her to her lock-up. This is a small garage where she stores all of her belongings. A damp sofa, bags of smelly clothes, books and childhood trinkets, photos and letters from the past. Reminders that she once had a life.

She also has a small fridge and a TV, a microwave and a few other electrical goods. I ask her what they were doing.


He gave her £40 for the lot.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stripy T-shirts

The day we went to London was also the day we met up with some cousins who had flown over from America. I hadn't seen them in years and I wanted to make a good impression.

The couple have two boys who are 10 and 12 years old. They didn't accompany them on this trip so I hand over a couple of small gifts for the parents to take back for them.

I had read somewhere that one of England's favorite children's writers isn't promoted in America as she is thought to be too subversive. I decide that I'll get my son to root through his box of old CDs and find the one with her stories. The boys will love them. I'll also pick up a couple of new books to go with them.

When my son gets home from school I ask him about the CD.

'You never bought me CDs Mum. It was always cassette tapes from the bargain section'

I vaguely remember this and I doubt if the boys will even have a cassette player.

I go online and find the CD, the price is good but the 1st class postage needed to guarantee delivery is a whopping £8. It seems a bit much when I could drive 5 miles and pick it up from a local bookstore.

It is the next day and I am in the store and have found the CD but am now wondering if the age range is a bit low. It states that it is suitable for children down to the age of 3. I'm quite certain that my own son was still listening to it when he was the same age as the younger one but I think I'll be pushing my luck with the 12 year old. And I'm now not that sure about what sort of books to buy them. I'll have to think of something else.

I decide to go into the shop next door and look at T-shirts.

Upstairs I start sorting through the sale rail. There are lots to fit the younger one. But nothing for his brother. Then I start to worry. I have no idea of what they might like. I still have items tucked into drawers that distant relatives kindly bought for my own son over the years. They either didn't fit or were hideously out of step with their choice.

And then I see a row of stripy T-shirts.

I love this look. Particularly on children. I find two of the same design but in the correct sizes, one blue and one green. I'm happy and relieved.

Later that night I show them to my son.

'But I thought you were buying them books and a CD?'

'Well...I thought maybe the CD was a little young for them and I don't really know their taste with books. It seemed like the best option'

'So you buy them stripy T-shirts instead? That's so boring. And you're inflicting your own weird sense of taste on other peoples children. You're sick'

I'm used to my sons scathing breakdown of any personality traits or defects he feels I may have.

'Well, I think they'll look lovely'

'Mum, not only have you got them your own twisted version of what you imagine boys would want to wear but you've also got them exactly the same. They'll hate you'

'They aren't exactly the same, I chose different colours'

'They'll always hate you'

A week or so after our lunch my cousin sends me an email thanking me for the T-shirts - the boys love them, she writes, they've worn them all week!

I'm thrilled and show my son.

'It's all lies Mum. She has to write that'

He looks at me pityingly.

'You've got to stop being so gullible. Even with family'

Friday, February 25, 2011


During the half-term break I take my son up to London for the day. A museum in the morning and then his choice in the afternoon. He has always loved history but his favorite is a trip to the Tate Modern art gallery, mainly to see the latest installation in the Turbine hall. He seems to get real inspiration from them. It's a familiar routine, but he is getting older now and is less willing to fall in with my suggestions.

We start off at the British Museum.

'Oh God!!' he says 'not that again!'

He has a point. We always start off at the British Museum. In fact we never seem to get any further than the marble statues on the ground floor. Or the Egyptians next door.

We push through the heavy double doors and into the vast atrium. It is filled with people all scurrying with purpose in and out of the different rooms. My sons face is cemented within an expression of thunderous gloom. I try to match it with one of perky and uplifting insight.

'Well, we're here now so we'll just have a quick look at the sarcophagi and some of the statuary. You'll probably enjoy it once we're in there '

I look at him warily. He gives me a death stare.

I feel as if we are entering the Dark Ages. After years of him fitting in amenably with any of my plans all of a sudden we are constantly at battle. And yet I know its normal. That knowledge doesn't seem to make it any easier though.

I decide that the best thing to do is to ignore him. I plough on with deep parental disregard for his misery and march ahead with an energetic flounce. I glance behind to see him following, twisted torment written upon his face, nausea and revulsion playing across his pursed lips.

We start to elbow our way into the Egyptian rooms and through the milling masses all circling around the sarcophagi. It's too warm and too crowded and it gradually begins to dawn on me that it's actually a rather unpleasant experience. I remember my own childhood visits to museums with my father.

My father was always an avid museum goer. He loved anything ancient, dusty and trapped behind glass. Add a couple of wretchedly bored children and a queue to get in and he'd have had a highly enjoyable afternoon.

He didn't ever listen to us when we moaned, sulked or even cried our way behind him on endless stifling excursions. The only highlight was the gift shop at the end and the feverish purchasing of postcards featuring exhibits we had studiously avoided for the previous 3 hours.

I treasured those postcards. They were kept for decades. I still have some from a visit to the Tower of London with pictures of the Crown Jewels, the corners now well-thumbed and as soft as rabbit ears.

But it put me off museums for years.

I tell my son that he has twenty minutes to do what he wants while I go and look at the Parthenon Friezes. A look of utter relief floods into his face.

I walk through into the hall next door and stand and gaze in blissful peace and at the overwhelmingly beautiful Roman statue of Aphrodite bathing. I marvel at the exquisiteness of the artistry which has created her smooth voluptuous beauty. I go on inside and view the Sirens, their damp dresses clinging to their thighs, chiseled painstakingly and miraculously out of massive slabs of cold marble. I am enthralled by the centaurs on the Greek friezes, they rear up lustful and vicious, fighting warriors and galloping off with their maidens. I look at each piece, drinking in the tiny details, each breathtakingly crafted feature, each furrowed brow and taut polished muscle. They are magnificent.

My mobile rings. It is my son.

'Hi Mum'

'Where are you?'

'In the gift shop'

I go and find him. He is standing in the queue for the till. He looks happy. He is clutching a set of postcards.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


It's been a very blustery day and I'm standing by the car in Tesco's parking-lot, holding my hat against my head and staring high up into the sky at a huge tree that skyscrapers above me. It is stripped bare of leaves and being bent treacherously by the powerful gales that are still blasting through the area.

Highlighted against the great pale empty sky is a big birds nest perched right in between the very top branches. The branches are being battered and bruised and beaten by the wind but they still manage to hold on, not to tear or break. I stand open-mouthed, transfixed and marvelling at the sight and at how the nest manages to survive this cruel maelstrom of natural violence.

I think of the occupants quivering in fear of sudden eviction, I picture birds with spindly legs and little hooked claws clinging frantically to the nest and trying to keep it intact, feathery bottoms dug in hard against the tiny twigs and dead foliage that they call home.

My son ambles past slumped against an empty trolley he is wheeling back to its station.

'Look!' I say 'Just look at that birds nest, isn't it incredible the way its surviving in all that wind?'

He looks up at the tree and then back at me. He continues wheeling and slumping.

I think about birds and their mothers and harsh environments.

On his way back my son comes and stands next to me. 'It isn't a birds nest', he says, 'it's a clump of Mistletoe'.

'Oh. Yes'.

We share a smile and get back into the car.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I wake my son up at 7am. Its a school day. He groans a little. He moans a little bit more. He flops back the covers and shows me his face which is the palest white and tinged with pink. Its a very subtle change to his normal colouring but there is a change all the same. I lean in closer and feel his forehead. He suddenly seems younger than his 13 yrs.

'What's the matter?'

'It's hard to swallow. My throat hurts. I feel a bit achy'

I tell him to go back to sleep and quietly closing the door I leave him in peace.

I phone the school. There is a history trip the next day, one that he has been looking forward to and has commented on endlessly during the past couple of weeks. I speak to matron, at school, who says there is 'something going around'. He gets crossed off the list. I know he will be disappointed.

I pop out to the shops to get some milk. I also pick up a pack of 4 pains au chocolat. Something nice for him to eat when he wakes up - if he is hungry. He would usually have toast or porridge but porridge seems too heavy for someone unwell and toast too throat-scratchy.

A couple of hours later I go up again and he is awake but subdued. I feel his head - he is a little warm - and tell him he will have to miss the trip tomorrow. He doesn't say anything.

'Are you hungry darling?'

'What for?'

'Pains au chocolat?'

'I think I could manage...a couple'

I pop them in the oven and turn it on. Within minutes the house is filled with the sweet smell of chocolate and pastry. I manage to remember to take them out before they burn. I have developed a knack for burning toast and this happens most mornings. Its almost expected of me. I always manage to start another task before the toast is ready, then I forget, and then its too late. No-one even comments when the smoke alarm lets off its familiar shriek and I then hurl myself up the stairs madly flapping with a tea-towel to shift the charcoaly drift.

My son stays in bed for most of the day. He becomes a voice that calls out periodically for water or food or a little conversation. I spend my time running up and down. Sometimes the dog gets into the spirit of things and follows me, cantering back and forth. Or else she hangs around the upper landing and monitors my progress by watching through the banisters. It's a pleasant enough day, and by evening my son is clearly much better.

'Can I have those last two pains au chocolat?'

'No, they're for breakfast'

'I'll have toast for can I have the pains au chocolat now?'

'No, have some toast instead...'

Things start to get tetchy. It always happens when we have been cooped up together all day. He announces that he wants to go on the school trip. I explain that he can't, he has already been crossed off and anyway the school won't want him infecting everyone so he should stay at home another day and return when he is 100%. He says the infectious period has already passed. The argument begins to get heated. No matter which way I try to approach this I seem to be falling short of a valid answer. He does seem better. We decide to get up early, get to the school well before the coach is due and see if he can go.

First thing in the morning and he is fine, sitting up in bed within seconds of waking and eager to get going.

I go downstairs to make breakfast. The pains au chocolat have gone. I start to make toast. My son arrives in the kitchen, dressed for school but his manner is edgy. Outside it is as black as the dead of night.

'Mum, just drop me at school and go, don't hang around chatting to anyone. I'll sort it out'

'I can't darling, I have to get you signed in, we'll have to find a teacher just to check that they actually still want you on the trip. Then I'll go'

I seem to cause my son immense embarrassment. Its either the way I dress or my voice or how I interact with others. I do it all wrong. He says I also manage to smile inanely at his friends or to stare moronically. And apparently I 'creep them out'. He runs his hands through his hair and looks at the ceiling.

'Oh god! just try not to talk to anyone then...and don't call me darling'

The smoke alarm goes off. I scrape the burnt bits off the toast and patch-work together what is left with butter and marmite. I confidently assure him I will be as quick and monosyllabic as possible, I won't communicate with any of his friends, I'll keep my eyes down, I won't call him darling and I'll get off the premises as soon as physically possible. I easily remember how my own mother would some times drive us to school wearing a coat thrown over her nightie. It seems funny now but my sister and I were mortified at the time. And anyway, I'm nothing like as bad as that.

We are at the school by 6.45am and the grounds are shadowy and shrouded in silence. Teenage boys and girls are wandering around in secretive twos and threes, they loom, like the un-dead, in and out of the darkness and go to and from various doors. There is no coach to be seen and certainly no teachers. In fact I can't see any adults at all.

We wait outside one of the main school buildings. I didn't have time to wash and dry my hair earlier and as it was sticking up on one side I stuck on a small black felt hat, pulling it down over my face, but now I discover that it is pulled down so low that in order to see anyone I have to keep throwing my head back and screwing up my eyes as each person passes by just to check to see if they are an adult or a child.

'Look at you!' he hisses 'you're such a weirdo!!'

A large coach then begins to crawl majestically up the school drive and from all areas more children begin to emerge. But its still pitch black and it seems a little odd that there aren't any teachers around. We stand together but apart. The gap hurts.

And then at last, out of the darkness, I see a man approaching. He is coming from the kitchens and is carrying a deep tray filled with apples, bottles of water and packed lunches. I am so relieved to see another adult that I throw back my head, squint under the brow of my hat and give the man a big smile. From 2 feet away I can feel every nerve-ending in my sons body dehydrate, shrivel and permanently dry out.

The man turns out to be the history teacher. He is just the man we want. He seems pleased that my son has made the effort to come in and says that yes, of course, he can still go on the trip.

I notice that my sons fists are clenched into tight balls but I don't think I've done too much wrong.

I turn to say goodbye reminding myself to keep it short and to the point. I'm now thankful I can hand him over safely and that I haven't caused him too much torture. I lean back, peer out from under the rim of my hat, squint, smile and limit myself to two words.

'Bye darling!'

He gives me a look with a total lack of expression and shakes his head negatively from side to side in a very slight slow manner. He starts to walk away with his teacher.

I smile inanely...then, realising my gaff, I stare moronically after him.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Blue Winter

I get ready to go out into the garden. Its cold but there isn't any snow or rain or particularly strong wind. I've got no excuses not to go out there and anyway, I really should.

The sky is grey and the greyness manages to seep out and into everything. I know that sometimes we have to stand still and wait but its just all so bleak at this time of year. Even the colour of the air feels neglected and sad.

The dog stands stands next to me in the inappropriately named sun-room. She watches as I pull on woollen socks, wellingtons, a thick old anorak, gloves and hat. She is unimpressed. She stands firm with resolute and solid determination written into her body language. You won't catch her going out there. And even when she has to its for the quickest possible time span. Perhaps she'll also indulge in a little vigorous barking at the energetic fools who continually taunt her while playing tennis on a Sunday morning, but other than that she too sees only bleakness and no pressing need to venture out. But I have to.

Once I am bundled up I pull back the glass doors and head up the couple of steps to our small plain oblong garden. My son has been hastily pulling on his boots and has followed me out, hands pushed into his tracksuit bottoms, head down, thick fringe of dark hair hiding his eyes.

I survey the garden. It is a typical rather cramped almost uniformly boring outdoor space, one third filled with the now requisite giant trampoline, a tiny pond in the corner and edged with beds which are infrequently dotted with a few still green-leaved shrubs but mostly crackle-branched naked looking and stripped bare bushes. I do try, but really, I'm not much of a gardener. The hydrangeas, virtually the only flowering plant were never cut back in the Autumn and now, drained of colour and life, look like they have been sculpted out of cardboard, the flower heads have turned into great clumps of cobwebby lace, the colour of sand, and as crisp as over-done meringues. I'll regret that I left them like that when Spring finally arrives. But it all looks so miserable now, and I like seeing them there, a giant dried flower-arrangement, and if I cut them away the frost might get into them and then I'll have nothing.

And all about, dotted through-out the grass in varying amounts is the work of the dog and the downside of owning a dog - clearing up the dog shit. A lot has accumulated in the short couple of weeks since I last came out here. I set to work with my collection of various sized plastic bags. My son is leaping around like a fawn, pointed out dog-poo, chattering to himself in between, the air tunneling out of his mouth and nostrils in great gusty clouds like a steam train as he charges around clearly enjoying being outdoors, filling the lethargy with his prancing and energetic two-step.

I squint and move closer to my target, struggling to see the difference between dog shit and leaf-fall, spending half my time collecting up handfuls of cleverly disguised leaves and the odd unfortunate slug. My eyesight seems worse than ever, if I wear my reading glasses I have to get really close to the subject matter to make a precise judgment. And I'd rather not, but the leaves, they are everywhere. The garden is covered, it has become a sea of soggy organic debris and it's a relatively new phenomenon.

This started last year when a clutch of similar looking small saplings started to appear along the flowerbeds and around the pond, they filled up space, grew quickly and sheltered the pond from the occasional Heron attack. They seemed like a good idea at the time but now that everywhere is so leaf-strewn the idea seems short-sighted. But I don't suppose I'll do anything about it yet.

My son continues to leap up and down the length of the garden, pointing out patches that I have missed, scooting over the ugly concrete path and up on to the trampoline. He somersaults into the centre, adeptly kicking off his boots with a quick jerk of his ankles. The trampoline is also covered with leaves and they bounce and twitch with him as he hurls himself up and down with leisurely effort.

He doesn't need a jacket and is wearing only a thin half-buttoned cotton shirt. The confident ease with which he throws his body about always makes me feel uncomfortable and on edge. I try to focus on collecting dog-poo and not to look at the way he is bouncing around with such flippancy. He will always tell me he is bouncing in a certain hair-raising fashion 'on purpose', as if that makes it alright. If I don't look away I will start to make too many comments about 'minding the edge' and 'make sure you stay in the middle' and 'careful!! you nearly came off then...'

'Careful!! you nearly came off then...'

' are so stressy...and anyway, I was doing it on purpose'

He rolls off the trampoline, pulls his wellingtons back on and clomps over to the pond with a couple of sticks. This small pond was his birthday present a few years ago. Not only are there fish to view flitting here and there under the water mint and forget-me-knot, but also the thrill of discovering the many frogs (including the permanently frenzied and manic 'Sir Frogsalot') that now come and go through out the year leaving clumps of wobbling spawn and darting tadpoles.

And when the weather is good he will spend a large chunk of time just observing the occupants and is filled with sadness when any of the fish die. We've had quite a few deaths but one, a big fat orange goldfish, has survived since possibly the first batch were introduced and grows heavier and more monstrous by the week. You catch glimpses of his flashy scaly coat as he darts around in the depths or occasionally sucks down an unlucky water-boatman from the pond-surface. He is the king of the pond, flamboyant master of the waves and ruler of the murky depths. He has a reputation of being a bit of a thug. Even the frenetic dervish Sir Frogsalot seems a bit wary of him. And he goes by the name of 'Captain Fishlips'.

'Erm,'d better come and see this'


'It's Captain Fishlips'


'...I think he's dead'

I drop my now heavily laden bag and hurry over to the pond. My son is standing over the edge, his fringe flopping densely over his eyes, he points with his stick to a large orange leaf that is floating on the surface. In fact the whole pond is covered with leaves. But this is the only orange one.

I peer more closely at it and it does seem to be strangely swollen and moving with more weight than the others. Its a sort of...dead weight...but I'm unwilling to view this as Captain Fishlips. Not yet. I still want to inhabit the part of my brain that will find him swimming about, unchallenged, in the inky Stygian murk. And its still possible, I query internally, that this orange leaf has come from a small tree, growing unnoticed by us, in a previously hidden part of the garden. A tiny tree brim-full with bright shiny orange leaves....

'For god sake Mum! It isn't a leaf. You have to face the truth. Captain Fishlips is dead. Now, where are we going to bury him?'

It is true. Captain Fishlips is now just a bloated orange corpse floating on top of the pond. I seem to be the only one saddened by this. I use one of my plastic bags to pull him out by the tail and drop him onto the edge of a flower bed. We both bend over to get a closer look. His eye is glazed and jellied, his whole body no-longer the brightly effervescent and energetic ruler of the watery depths but stagnated in aspic and undeniably reeking of death.

My son is already dragging out a spade and looking around for a suitable spot to start digging.

'What about here?' He gestures to just underneath the meringue-like Hydrangeas. I picture the spade as a flashing blade cutting through the roots and killing the plant quicker than the frost would.

I direct him to an emptier spot.

He begins to dig a hole, recalling previous fish deaths and where they are buried.

I go back to collecting dog shit and wondering what to do about the leaves and how we'll have to somehow drain the pond and clear them all out, buy new fish. When the weather is a little better though.

The dog is still staring at me from behind the glass-doors in the sun room. She turns, finally, and heads back into the main part of the house.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The F word

I pick my son up from school and we immediately get into a verbal confrontation over my refusal to buy him 18 certificate horror films off Amazon.

He retorts in anger. He calls me the f word. I am left feeling wounded and confused.

Yes, my thirteen year old son says that I am a...fascist.

Little Creature

Waking up thirsty in the middle of night, I start to think about a long cold glass of sparkling water. There is a bottle chilling in the drawer at the bottom of my fridge. All I have to do is rouse myself a little, throw back the covers and tip-toe quietly downstairs.

But something stops me, and I quickly get pulled under and into deep slumber again. Many hours or perhaps it is only a single solitary second later I am wide awake and feeling more strongly the overwhelming urge to quench my thirst. I know that I am only a short hop, skip and jump away from the bathroom where I could run off the tepid docility of the tap-water into the basin and manage to slurp enough, in the cup of my hand, to slake this demon thirst but thoughts of ice-cold bubbles smacking the back of my throat and quenching me deeply have now begun to infiltrate my central nervous system. I cannot go back to sleep now that I know that the only way to kill my thirst will be a long hard draught of fridge-residing fizzy.

I creep out of bed as softly as I can, without dressing-gown or slippers, as this sort of fast moving dead of the night operation has no time for such pleasantries. All it requires is speed and stealth. Whatever I do I must be careful not to wake the other inhabitants in the house.

This is my main fear. But there are others too.

I glide swiftly, my way lit only by weak and cloud-diluted moonlight which is of little help and gives the surroundings a romantic cloak of mysterious unfamiliarity. Bugger! I stub my toe against the skirting board in the darkness.

The pain is knife-stabbingly intense but I can't afford to draw attention to this now. All I can do, in the name of self-expression is allow my face full-rein to release the shock through its twisting musculature and a snappily chosen selection of classic Greek mask facial contortions.

I look into the stair-well and see nothing but my own fear. Softly creeping down, I stop for a moment, to listen with relief and to register the prevailing silence, the blanketing silence of an empty night that is both highly reassuring and deeply menacing. I have never been good on my own in the depths of darkness. In fact, my unrestrained nerve-endings and gluttonous imagination often run foolishly, with open arms, towards masked cat-burglars with striped jumpers carrying bags of swag and gangs of ragged bare-footed street urchins headed by a gang-leader wearing a battered top hat and answering to the name of The Artful Dodger. Or else its a more traditional mixed fright-fest potpourri of ghosts, large snakes and that girl who's head turned full circle and vomited green humours in the Exorcist.

But for this night, at least, the beckoning finger of fateful tempting, into the house, of all things fearful, has dissolved into nothing and as I reach the kitchen door I take a deep breathe, gently pull the handle down and step in.

The kitchen is quietly sleeping, with only the glare of the digital clock on the cooker to witness the proceedings. I pull open the heavily suctioned fridge door and reach down into the deep lower draw and haul up the bottle of water. And then, as I turn, I realise with unutterable terror that I am, in fact, being watched.

She is standing on the very edges of the hemline of refrigerator light and her concentrated stare, with beady eyes that glisten with heavy criminal intent, is dark like the colour of blackmail.

Quick as a flash she seizes her opportunity and races up the stairs and in through the open door of the bedroom. No such fear over stubbing her little toes in the dark, she veritably canters her triumphant little form across the room and onto the bed and immediately burrows into the covers to the seductive warmth underneath, and before I have even closed the fridge door and searched blindly for a glass, she is fast asleep, centrally, with all four tiny legs splayed out in a deliberately threatening display of mattress-ownership. It's the taunting pose of the confident canine supremacist and one which I dare not try to shift when I finally arrive back in the room bowed, cold, tired and with a sore toe. But not thirsty.

Now, having the woken the dog, I already know the deal that for some reason has fallen unspoken into the rule book. I woke her up in the middle of the night - so she gets to sleep in my bed. And now I will have to spend the rest of the night clinging to the outer edges while she snores, open-mouthed and drooling, her near-toothless oral-interior prone to leakages and luxuriates, spreading her special elderly-dog fragrances throughout the bedding where they will cling, like her hair, forever. And both she and I know the pointlessness of trying to remove her. Her fiendish tactics of frantic kitchen door scrabbling saved up and only ever activated during these night-time excursions are all part of her game plan, and she always wins this round (likewise the one when she stands just the other side of the closed kitchen door and releases a staccato stream of strangulated barks - timed to go off at regular intervals, approximately every 90 seconds - which each time jerk you cruelly awake just when you thought she had stopped). Like Don Corleone's grandmother she appears to have hidden depths on which to call on in times of need and I, now feeble and sleepy, feel unable to face her protracted weaponry and just give in.

Miriam, small, hairy and 12 years old, with a face designed to melt the stoniest of hearts, a softness to her body that endears her to children and strangers, but, when she wants her own way, a cold sinister stare and the willpower and innards of a devil.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


My son needs new shoes. He is down to wearing either his school ones or wellingtons and so on my way to collect him from school I swing by a local factory outlet to see if there are any bargains to be had.

I park my car and follow a small swarm of women in to the store. They look like a family group, a couple of grown up sisters with a cousin thrown in and a bunch of shared children. They are all skinny, and all are dressed in a uniform look of Ugg-type boots and tight jeans. The adults have punky dyed hair and hard tight smiles. Their jackets look thin and they walk with hands dug deep down into their pockets. They look cold. The children's hair is cut into similar spiky crops, there is a confidence in their look, a slight edge to their group mentality which means they feel secure. They are a tribe. But they are not my tribe.

We all go through the inner doors together. We all stare unabashedly at each other before parting company and going our separate ways.

I walk onwards and I wonder if they were summing me up the way I was them and whether I have a specific look, belong to a tribe like they do. Like them I am also wearing jeans but with an old shaggy jacket that looks as if it has come straight from a yaks back. Someone once said to me that the jacket had an 'earthy' look to it. I like this jacket but I don't like the signification of 'earthy', it makes me sound like a hippy. I don't want to look like a hippy. It's a look that worries me. But the weather is cold and the jacket is warm.

My son is just beginning to develop his own style. I couldn't tell you what it is and I don't suppose he could either but at the moment it quite naturally veers away from anything his father or I might wear. A few years ago he picked a pair of white trainers emblazoned with black skulls. It was a sort of 'goth plays tennis' look. His father, my former husband, visibly winced when he saw them. This is a man who wanted to have our son, by the age of 3, wearing a nice pair of slacks and a blazer. At 13 he was hoping this might slide comfortably into business wear, you can never go far wrong in life with a pair of highly polished shoes and a dark suit. There was never going to be room for any phrenologically-inspired intimidatory regalia. But his main concern was that they would be impossible to keep clean.

My ex-husband would make someone a very good wife. A man who likes nothing more than to spend his free time spring-cleaning his kitchen cupboards and lining up the contents of his pantry in precise militarian rows. He once suggested to me that I reference all the books on my shelves by the colour of their cover. And file them in a size-lead undulating continuum to create a more harmonious sloping wave effect. I said I'd just prefer to read them. It proved to be one of our sticking points.

He is late with his child maintenance payment again. Another size-lead undulating continuum. And another sticking point.

For my former husband, a day spent bleaching the net curtains, attacking the skirting board with an old toothbrush, and hand-washing his cashmere cardigans - Marigolds and Kath Kidstone pinny in place - is a day well spent.

He has admirable standards but it nearly drove me insane.

And the more my son wore those beastly trainers, the grubbier they became, until the white became grimy and impossible for even his father to clean.

Of course our son simply adored them and the filthier they grew the more joy he took in wearing them. They also had unexpected and rewarding side-effects from which he took deep pleasure. Towards the end of their life not only did they look appalling but they also smelt like death. On a warm day their decaying fragrance would rise into the air unbidden, fouling the formerly pleasant and sunny atmosphere with a heavy and densely overpowering pungency which caught in the throat and then took up permanent residence in the nostrils. Also, by dragging and scuffing his heels in a particular way he could create an almost uniquely shrill and intensely disturbing sound, similar to filed nails on a blackboard. I lived, breathed and heard those trainers, most days, for over a year. At least his father could leave the smell behind every week after his weekend access stays.

Eventually, of course, our son outgrew them and his father tossed them into a bin, happy to see them go. Our son was miserable for a few weeks. And then forgot about them.

I turn the corner. There, half way down an aisle, in the men's shoe section I spot a suitable pair for our son. I check through the sizes and find some that will fit, the price has been marked down not once but twice, they are a bargain. I take them over to the till and stand in the queue and then dig around in my bag for my wallet. The abundant shagginess of my jacket makes it difficult for me to reach where it is at the bottom and I have to keep grasping away at unseen depths. I feel like a big (earthy) potato.

In front of me, at the counter are the punky group of women and offspring. I imagine seeing myself through their eyes : I am in the commune barefoot and smiley and singing loudly with an enthusiastic but thin voice. I accompany myself with a touch of insubstantial tambourine.

One of the children ahead, a girl of about 7, jagged hair and jaded expression, is clutching a fairy dress on a hanger. It is a pink nylon sparkly confection of a dress. She holds it out in front of her to view it proudly. Suddenly I can see inside the cast-iron molding of her exterior. She wouldn't want to be viewed as a hippy either.

I place my sons new shoes on the counter to pay. I smile slowly to myself, a very childish but satisfying flush creeping through my mind. I have bought him a new and gleaming pair of white trainers with black skulls.