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Monday, May 7, 2012

OLD BOTTLES AND OLD FEELINGS



After waiting ages I have finally got a camera again. I start to take some pictures of the different layout at home, now we have re-arranged things downstairs.

I really enjoy taking these pictures and am soon swinging the camera around and finding perfect images framed on the view-screen. I love the ease - simply point and click and with a single tap the images are uploaded and ready to view. It really is all too easy these days.

An hour or so later and Robbie has uploaded my efforts onto his laptop which is already compatible. For a moment we stare at the screen in silence.

'They're blurred' I say, dismayed at my own spectacular lack of talent. I hadn't even bothered to check the review button such was my utter belief that I would effortlessly capture all the beauty I see around me. Somehow I thought...never mind.

'They are still really nice darling', Robbie always makes kindly comments about my attempts, gently encouraging me even when faced with something of dull mediocrity.

Then he says that he thinks it's a shame that the sewing tin was left open on the sofa in the last one.

I'd left the tin there deliberately, thinking it looked more real and would show life as it really was. But first I'd artfully arranged the lid to look as if it was just spilling off whereas life as it really was had sent it half-way across the sofa, mostly hidden under a cushion.

An hour later I'm in the car and heading off to my father's new house in the centre of Cirencester. It's Sunday and the streets are virtually vehicle free and I speed smoothly along like soft honey. I'm in the old part of town where the streets cover the remains of the original Roman pipework and above are solidly inhabited by glorious 17th and 18th century houses. Everything is the colour of warm sand, its fingernails are manicured and it exudes the calm quiet balm of wealth. I park up and walk across to my fathers house. I push open the front door calling out and he comes through, back bent, his grubby cream cable-knit jumper displaying a few more holes than last time. His back is now painfully doubled over so that he always moves with a deep stoop and slow caution.


He is in the process of moving in, his first house move since my step-mother died 5 or so years ago. He is bringing one chair a week, until the official removal date, along with his elderly collection of alcoholic beverages which he seems to be shifting bottle by bottle. A lot of these bottles haven't been opened since the 1960's or even earlier. Long lost fragments of my parents early drinks tray, split in half when the lawyers moved in and never again drunk from. They are undrinkable anyway. I've already checked online and even though most of the sites agree that the alcohol in them will protect one from stomach upset, the floating crystals and grainy thickening of the liquid are off-putting enough. But my father keeps giving them to me. One at a time.


'Got something for you'  he says.

Sitting on the stairs is a bottle with a Christmas wrapping and home printed label bearing the legend ' Raspberry Gin - fermented at Hillies Cottage Christmas 2000'.  Christ. I remember these and I'm surprised my father still has one. It was produced at home, by my brother Jeremy and my friend Lavender when they used to live together. It had looked dodgy when they first created it and now it looks positively lethal. The liqueur is a vivid and soupy looking vermilion and three-quarters of the bottle is filled with putrid looking raspberries the colour of bloated and gangrenous toes.


Jeremy and Lavender were always doing stuff like that, virulent tasting herb-infused oils or the children's marmalade made from unwashed hands and tangerine pulp. The unforgettable home-crafted toothpaste roughly pessel and mortared into a gravelly existence, all produced at the decrepit Hillies Cottage kitchen and wearing the unmistakable whiff of botulism.
I suggest to my father that none of this alcohol he keeps passing on to me is actually drinkable any longer and he looks at me like one would a petulant and spoilt chihuahua. 'There's absolutely nothing wrong with it, its perfectly drinkable' he says, making me feel as if I'm being precious. I end up taking the bottle anyway. It can sit on my drinks trolley with the 1950's Tia Maria that he gave me last week. That one has a crumbly well-wedged cork and a brownish frog-spawn-like swill that appears when you shake the base.

Then he tells me that he is getting closer to his latest woman friend. I smile and say how pleased I am for him but inside there is a Greek chorus of voices commenting without harmony. I keep this to myself. I feel as if I'm still processing his marriage to my step-mother 40 odd years ago. He has a sense of urgency about him these days, at 83 his time left is limited.

I drive back home and look for something to photograph on the way. I want to take photos of cows and I have plenty of favorites' to look out for.

I pull over and I'm soon standing by the edge of a field snapping away. The cows, some distance off, are trapped on the other side of a fence and I have to squint to see them in the images I've taken. I wanted big fat cow faces with large wet flaring nostrils and inscrutable gobstopper eye balls. But of course I'd forgotten that to take that sort of picture I'd have to get close to the cows and I'm scared of them. I'd no more stand next to a cow than I would a tiger. 
At home Robbie and I upload my latest photos.

'They're lovely darling' he says, 'even if the cows are quite far away you've still nearly got all of that wonderful tree in'.

We eat lunch and talk about my father's news.

Writing later I remember a time in the late 1970's on my birthday living off the Rue Oberkampf near Montmartre in Paris. My father had booked a deluxe suite at the Hotel Crillon with my step-mother. I was living with a Romanian acrobat on the run from his countries securitate in virtual squalor. A grimy flea-ridden boarding house barely held together by a couple of drunken cleaners and a crotchety transvestite receptionist. My father and step-mother had taken me out for supper and given me a large boxed birthday cake decorated with white and blue icing, tiny candles, a butter-cream filling and scattered with little gold discs, a motif designed to resonate amongst 'with-it' teenage girls. The cake seemed over the top, it was a lovely thought but utterly out of place especially considering the daily reality of the life I was living, sometimes only able to afford the cheapest skinny baguettes occasionally padded out with thin pieces of milk chocolate. The cake came from a world that I wasn't a part of.

After supper my father paid a cab to take me back to Monmartre and as I got out at the other end the birthday cake slipped out of its box and hit the pavement, splattering royal icing and scattering the candles. But I didn't ever tell him.

The thing about my relationship with my father is that it is based on image. We communicate under the fine veneer of politesse, never venturing too far off into the woods. The very worst thing would be to confront emotional issues. He will often refer to what he calls the two tragedies in his life, one being my step-mothers death and the other when my mother left him. There is never any mention of how it might have affected anyone else.

With my father you photograph the sewing tin with its lid arranged in a pleasing manner or you don't photograph the tin at all. Maybe I'm just the same.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

MONDAY

I'm at one of my jobs, where I work as a part-time PA. When I get to my boss's home, there is opera streaming loudly out from the open back door and Braid the Deerhound lollops out to greet me. He is a giant of a dog with scrawny gangly limbs and he leans against my newly purchased skirt and runs slobber all the way up from hemline to hip.

The weather is sunny and I'm not wearing tights, it feels lovely to have bare legs again. I'm also wearing brown suede high-heeled slingbacks. I totter into the house with Braid drooling all over my thigh and knee and make my way up to the bedrooms where the office is.

I have to climb through the child gate at the top of the stairs, a challenge in these shoes, I'm not taking them off though and I clamber through and on into the first room. This is an open-plan bedroom and bathroom, the bath and basin and loo at one end with a little half-wall between them and the bed. Then up a few more stairs into another bedroom where the computers and printers are set-up as an office.

My boss is on the phone, he gestures a hello to me. There are piles of paper-work everywhere and cups abandoned on the floor. It looks like he has been up all night so I decide to make us some coffee and picking up a handful of cups I teeter back across the floorboards, down the couple of steps into the bedroom/bathroom, clamber back through the child gate and very slowly click-clack down the wooden stairs. I don't want to slip. In fact I really shouldn't be wearing this sort of heel at all as I don't usually ever seem to be able to take stairs slowly.

When I'm at home I tend to rush from room to room, hitting furniture and open doors at an alarming rate and my legs are covered in bruises.

These stairs feel slippery underfoot and I tread very carefully, my boss fell down them in bare feet a few days ago but that was because he leaped out of the bath to answer the phone and then skidded on his own dripping bathwater and landed with a painful bump at the bottom.

I make coffee. Braid is standing at the bottom of the stairs as I go back up, opera is still blaring out, it's Bizet's Carmen. I wonder what Braid thinks of it. I manoeuvre myself and the coffee cups up through the child gate as focused and dedicated to my task as an equilibrist on a Pilate's ball.

A few hours go past and then I want to pee.

I knew I shouldn't have had that coffee as it always causes a dilemma. Both the bathrooms here lack privacy, the one in the bedroom has a couple of large floor to ceiling windows which, though on an upper floor, still feel rather public, as every now and then someone will walk past glance up and wave.  And the one downstairs is worse, the loo sits right next to large curtain-less window which looks out onto a working courtyard. The property is part of a privately owned complex, a beautiful house and parkland, a sprawling habitat of artistic creative souls - almost a commune in some respects - and private lavatorial needs don't appear to be an issue for them. But I'm made of weaker stuff.

When I first started to work here my boss threw up his hands in horror at my delicate middle-class sensibilities.

'But someone might see me!' I said in a small anally-retentive voice when shown the arrangements.

'Oh for heavens sake' said my boss 'from the outside you just look as if you are sitting in a chair!'

So I tend to use the one in the upstairs bedroom. I have honed my technique finely and I can now quickly strip, dart and squat without being seen. It's all in the method.

When I have finished I find that Braid is again waiting at the bottom of the stairs, he looks up at me with a curious furrowed brow and then looks away and into the middle distance vacantly. I adore Braid though there doesn't seem to be much of a brain in a Deerhound. But I know what he is thinking. He is waiting, with trepidation, for the return of Creit, the other Deerhound, a puppy who caused chaos and who has been sent away to a dog training camp in Wales to learn some manners. Creit managed to practically decimate the place before he was sent to dog boarding school. Nowhere was safe, that's why we have the child gate at the top of the stairs. Every chair downstairs has puppy tooth marks etched  into its legs.

It's awfully quiet without Creit but I know my boss misses him and will celebrate his return at the end of the week. I'm not so sure whether Braid will though.

We go off to visit a local artist, my boss has bought a piece of work from him and he wants to discuss the framing. The studio is in the attic eves at the top of an old mill, we have to walk up four flights of stairs. My clattering on the concrete treads resonates all the way to the top.

While the artist and my boss talk about the new work I get the chance to browse around the studio. There is a large print of a close-up of  an ancient rusting bedstead. Its covered in bubble-wrap but I still get a clear enough view and its wonderful. I love the twisted rusty frame and wonder who once slept under its covers? Who's head once laid on its fat feathered pillows? I want to stay and stare but we have to go. We make our way back down the concrete stairwell and out to the car.

It's a relief to sit back in the car and be driven around. I can take my shoes off for a bit and relax. Wearing heels takes effort, sometimes they hurt and my legs get tired. I love wearing them, I enjoy the extra height which gives me confidence, but this love has ruined my feet, at the end of the day they get red and are painful and look battered and ugly.

Maybe I should take a close-up of my feet, photograph them. Maybe, like the rusty old mattress frame, someone might find some sort of beauty in them.

Later, when I've finished work, I go and meet Lavender and Anabelle for a cup of tea in the cafe at Waitrose. There are nice loos there. All the way down in the basement.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

BABYSITTING

Last night my son was off at a neighbours house on his first baby-sitting job and I caught myself glancing at the clock and wondering what was happening and how he would cope. He can barely make himself a sandwich let alone look after a child I thought with a panic. What had I been doing all these years?

My worry that I had failed as a parent, that I had failed him laid heavily across my conscience. Had I over-indulged my only child and this had left him lacking? Somewhere along the line I had missed the stop that said 'get off and just let him get on with it'. And I couldn't seem to help myself.

'You can ring me at any point if you have any concerns' I had said as he left ' and I can be there in seconds!'

He pushed his hands further into the pockets of his hoodie, hunched his shoulders against the snowfall. Momentarily distracted from his secret inner world he stared out at the frosted night before catching my eye briefly and then he turned away.

'Nah - you're alright Mum'.

He threw his words out into the atmosphere, as if the answer to my question was hardly worth directing back towards me and then he shuffled off into the early evening darkness, in shoes which have the heels sloppily trodden down.

So I got on with my own work, checking the clock every now and again and wondering what was happening in the house a few doors down from our own. Finally I went up to bed, leaving all the lights on, half expecting him to lose his key on the short walk back, but hoping that he wouldn't. I wanted him just to return safely and relish that wonderful feeling when you realise you don't have to rely on pocket money from your parents or infrequent hand-outs from elderly relatives.

I lay in bed and thought about the times I had baby-sat as a teenager and when once, deciding to be helpful, I scrubbed clean some wine goblets I found sitting in the kitchen on the counter. I used a Brillo-pad. They were silver.

Or when I used to let a boyfriend in through the back door and we would spend the next two hours snogging on the sofa until headlights would appear in the driveway and the boyfriend would quickly sneak out, hop onto his bike, and pedal off into lamp-lit night. Until we got caught. My mother was furious and I lost the baby-sitting job. But I seemed far more independent than my son, I just went out and found another job.

Maybe its just boys. This boy who I now physically look up to, who is stronger than me and can carry heavy objects around the house with ease still giggles helplessly at the app. on his phone that makes burp and fart noises.


At some time after 11pm I hear his key turn in the front door as he lets himself in. I listen. He locks and pulls the upper and lower bolts across and then vanishes into the kitchen where he remains for sometime. Then I hear his heavy footfall coming up the stairs and he knocks on the bedroom door, pokes his head around the corner and smiles.

'Hello Mum'

He is carrying a plate of sausage rolls and tiny Persian gherkins. He seems taller.  He looks more mature. He tells me that everything had been fine and that they had paid him £20. He unfurls his palm to show me his earnings. I am so pleased for him, so relieved for myself.

It feels like we have turned a corner and that a part of his childhood has now ended and that's good. He trundles off to his room with his snack. I turn out my bedside light and go to sleep.

The next morning I am in the kitchen when he comes downstairs with a plastic coat hanger wedged across his forehead and the bodily function app. on his phone belching loudly.

I make him breakfast.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

DEFINITION OF A PERSONALITY DISORDER

It was at least 10 years ago, and probably quite a few more because my mother died 10 years ago, that she was woken up in the middle of the night by the shrill ringing of the phone on her bedside table. She groped around in the dark searching for the cord to switch on her bedside lamp and managed to knock her ancient little illuminated travel clock to the floor in the process. She struggled but found the cord, clicked on the light and picked up the clock. It was 3am and still the phone kept ringing. Downstairs her two little dogs had woken up and they were yapping and clattering around on the tiled kitchen floor.

My mother had more reason than most to ignore that call, especially as she was well into her late sixties, had heart complaints, asthma and had recently come through breast cancer and a mastectomy. Her once feisty and energetic persona and body had been battered to the core. At that point in her life she really was the last person who needed to deal with a middle of the night phone call.

The phone continued to ring as she swung her legs resolutely out of bed and mentally prepared herself. She knew who it was likely to be.

Finally, tentatively, she picked it up.

'Hello?'

There was a frighted voice at the other end. It was a woman who sounded vulnerable, panicked, desperate.

'Oh Mama, Mama, I'm scared...there's a man in the loft...he's trying to get in through the ceiling space, I don't know what to do. Mama, Mama, please help me Mama, please please!'

It was the terrified panic of someone in trauma, my sister, a grown woman with severe mental-heath problems, calling from her flat in a town about 10 miles away.

My mother tried to reason with her, it was unlikely that there was anyone in the roof-space. She also knew she had to be firm yet reassuring or the situation could rapidly escalate.

'Put all the lights on dear and turn up your radio, I'll come over in the morning and we'll get a ladder out and go and have a look. It's the middle of the night and I can't do anything about it now. Try not to worry, it'll be alright'

But it was too late for comforting words - my sister's thought process was already galloping wildly out of control. Who knew how many hours this may have been brewing? She was beside herself with fear. And she started to plead with my mother to come and help her.

'But its a man and I can hear him! and he can hear me! I'm scared Mama, I'm scared, I think he's going to kill me and I don't know what to do, you have to help me Mama! Mama? Mama! please help me PLEASE!!

Wearily, as my mother knew there was no-one else for my sister to turn to, she agreed to go over. She climbed out of bed and pulled on old trousers and a sweater over her pyjamas and gingerly made her way down the steep stairs of her tiny cottage. The dogs stretched their legs and wagged their tails as they saw her when the kitchen lights went on but she soon settled them down again with some biscuits and a pat. She wrapped herself inside her thick winter anorak and her tweed deerstalker and grabbing a torch she opened the back door and went out into the darkness.

The roads to the bleak housing estate where my sister lived were silent and deserted and my mother pulled up outside the 3-storey block and got out, carefully closing her car door behind her so she wouldn't disturb any of the slumbering residents, or their dogs. She flicked on her torch and walked slowly and with caution up the empty concrete stairwell to the top floor. No lift and only short flights to deal with but after months of grueling chemo - on top of an already asthmatic chest - it was a test of endurance. When she made it to the top floor landing and my sisters front door she leaned against the wall for a moment to catch her breath. It was cold and her lungs hurt as the freezing air caught in them.

She knocked on my sisters door.

'Open up dear, it's me'

Nothing. So she knocked a little louder and called through the letter box.

'I'm here dear..let me in'

She then heard some shuffling on the other side, bolts being drawn back and the handle being turned.

The door opened a couple of inches just enough for my mother to see my sister peering out at her.

'Hello dear' said my mother.

'FUCK. OFF.' spat my sister slamming the door shut and bolting it again.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

JANUARY

I'm out having a walk in the freezing wind, in the country lanes, with my friend Donatella and her little black Poodle, Lola. The wind is whipping our hair around our faces. Neither of us are wearing hats and its cold.  Donatella has had her hair cut recently and now it is short and funky and suits her dynamic energy. Mine is still a little long and straggly and I wonder if its time to do the same. But my energy is quieter than Donatella's and I don't think I would carry it off as well.

My partner is in America and hers is in Russia. We talk about work, I am back at college for a few hours a week upgrading my computer skills and I am finding it hard, also my work as a PA which is hardly high-pressured but definitely challenging at the moment. I am really enjoying working with my newest boss, I like him and there is a good vibe between us but everything else is fading away, things that I feel passionate about are sliding, in earning a living I feel I no longer have time for anything else.

But is that really true? Sometimes life is draining if you allow it to be, at other times sheer positive energy pulls you along and you manage to cram all sorts in and still barely touch the edges.

Lola is wrenching on her lead and a car is coming down the track towards us.

'My ears are starting to hurt!' I shout above the noise of wind and the car and Lola's whimpering. We go back to the warmth of Donatella's house and have coffee.

We talk about asking the universe for what we want and for the need for the appropriate action to be taken in order to achieve this. In other words the work involved. We talk about the 7 deadly sins and in particular sloth and a joint friend of ours who seems to epitomise this - or is it depression? Or maybe his ideals are just different to our own. We talk about stretching time to fit in as much as we want or need to do. And we talk about success and failure and the moving forward from dreams that may not have worked out and have become stale.

Donatella was once a pop-star, she had success and fame but then just as quickly she lost it all, as well as her then partner. She didn't imagine she would ever recover from losing either of those two things, but she did.  She found another route to success and happiness and she also met the love of her life. She now buys and runs her own uniquely styled boutique hotels. She is good at it and she has found an outlet for her intense creativity.

She pulls out a Ferrari magazine from the shelf in her library and shows me an article about a hugely successful Chinese artist and his belief that anything we do, no matter what, is using creativity and as long as you pour your soul into your work, your creativity has a suitable outlet. Its that old thing about 'its not what you do but the way that you do it' and that we may not all get what we want or in the form that we think want it. The article is interesting but secretly I am hanging onto my own dreams.

We have coffee and tiny squares of Stollen that are dusted with icing-sugar, left-overs from Christmas. I start thinking about how I can stretch time.

Donatella's partner phones her from Heathrow, as I am leaving, to say she is on her way home and I feel the energy fizz in the air around us. 

I head off into the afternoon, lots on my mind, thoughts pulling me in different directions. As soon as I get into the house I fire up my laptop. I've got work to do.

I'm going to show the universe all about how to stretch time.