Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Things That Go Bump In The Night

I was such a baby before I moved to the country. Terrified by anything remotely ‘supernatural’, unable to watch horror films (I can jump when watching Scooby Doo, to which my children will attest) and secretly still scared of the dark, my worst nightmare was to be on my own at night in an old house, with creaking floorboards, strange rustlings, and owls hooting. Well, guess what? I was obviously meant to overcome those fears, since from day one of moving to the country and living in the old, creaking house with the owls on sentry duty outside, my husband started his mad job involving lots of travelling, which he has only just given up. But because of this, the dark, the owls, the creaking floorboards and me have all slowly, gradually, become friends. Part of my new robust attitude to the middle of the night comes from the mere fact of having young children; as every parent knows to their cost, 2.00 am becomes shockingly familiar once you have a baby. After the first few weeks, when the sense of outrage at actually being expected to get up again and again and DO something at some ungodly hour wears off, the house at night starts to become an old friend. Not one you particularly want to see, admittedly, and one you greet with little enthusiasm, but comfortable and familiar nonetheless. The furniture doesn’t loom out at you in such a menacing way, the mutterings of the house become like the chattering of your family, instead of something vaguely malevolent. Tripping over the cat on a pitch black winter night no longer gives me heart failure (although stepping on something small and squidgy that she invariably brings in still does, but that’s another story). I can wrap the dark around me like a velvet cloak now, and greet my old friend the silvery moon with pleased recognition as her beautiful, spherical face peeps in through the window.

I was surprised, when I first moved here, at the endurance of local legends and superstitions. I’ve lost track of the number of haunted houses that have been pointed out to me in the village. It’s not only old places that can apparently be haunted, of course, but the sense of the past that lingers in these quiet villages, the thatched cottages, the old wool churches, certainly helps to build the atmosphere. As does history itself; Suffolk was prime ‘witch’ country, after all, and has its fair share of trials and burnings. As with many rural areas, there’s something secretive about the hedgerows and fields, too, a sense of something slightly hidden and reluctant to come out into the light. Fanciful imaginings, probably; like most people, I’m quick to disassociate myself from accusations of gullibility, and I always look for the rational explanation first, as when a close friend rented a cottage for a few months while their house was being renovated. The cottage, a picturesque pink-washed dream of a rural retreat, is ‘known’ for being haunted, and my friend was terrified for the four months that she was there. She was the only one who ever felt or saw the presence of a shadowy man, however, and she had very recently lost her baby son, and was obviously in a state of acute emotional distress. Did this distress attract the supernatural, or was the supernatural just a projection of her distress? Who can say, although I’ve always tended towards the latter view.

Yet despite my proclivity for psychological explanations, I think we have a guest in the house – or more probably, it’s us who are the guests. We get a fleeting glance of something in the dining room, a sudden impression on of something flitting past, a change in the texture of the light. It doesn’t always happen, and it’s not in the least scary, yet we’ve both noticed it. We’ve reassured one another that it’s a tick of the light, it’s to do with something passing the window, it’s all reflections and refractions. Maybe. What’s strange is that I really don’t mind - and I never thought I’d hear myself say that. Whatever it is doesn’t bother me at all. This house is my best friend, I love its energy, its 300 year old history, its cheerful shabbiness. Maybe we’re just dreaming – or maybe it’s just the house, not us, that’s dreaming.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Daydreams and Ruby Slippers

18 May

This week was going to be all about living in the now. You know the kind of thing – recognising the moment, accepting the present, not letting a single moment of life’s rich tapestry pass me by. I was going to really listen when my son speculates – again – on the likely plot of the next Dr Who episode, and not do my own mental time-travelling and wander off into the past. I would really pay attention to my daughter’s games and readily accept the subservient role as patient/café visitor/pupil that is usually assigned to me. I wasn’t going to gaze off into the distance when the small ferocious café lady tells me I can’t have any of my chosen food preferences, but can have cake with an egg on and hot chocolate, except there isn’t any chocolate. I won’t be somewhere else in my mind when the people I love the most are chatting to me, or let my mind form endless associations so that I inevitably leave to long a pause and give too blank a stare before answering a question. But why is it that everything these days reminds me of something else? What will it be like when I’m eighty, when there’s a whole lifetime of connections and memories to assail me, when the dramas of human experience seem to be permanently on rewind? Naturally, my good intentions fell by the wayside this week. There I go again; what lovely imaginings spring to mind as I write the word wayside. Verges rich with scarlet poppies, with campions and cornflowers. Old men with sticks in days gone by, tramping in the moonlight down lanes filled with traveller’s joy. Words of a hymn I thought I’d left behind in early childhood “He paints the wayside flowers, He lights the evening star”.

Yesterday my son told me about his science lesson, and how they’d learnt about oxygen. No helpful discussions about gases, no pouring over the encyclopaedia together for my poor child; just a mother who’d mentally absconded, again, and was trying to remember who’s sung that late seventies hit ‘Love is Like Oxygen’ (got it in the middle of the night – The Sweet). My daughter is currently obsessed with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and is nursing a huge grudge that we didn’t name her either Dorothy or Glinda. She asked me to find her special ruby slippers this morning, and I was gone again, hit by a powerful memory as I searched fruitlessly under her bed. I remembered working in a company which was headed up by a terrifying and all-powerful boss. (Yes, she was a woman, but no, that wasn’t why we had trouble with her – I’ve loved many of my female bosses). A whole crowd of us young 20-somethings worked there, the social life was brilliant, the office banter exceptional. A new man joined one day. He was Asian and hadn’t been in the country long; quiet and shy by nature, he seemed to struggle sometimes with our colloquialisms and humour. I remember him having to attend an appraisal with the terrifying boss, and the rest of us crowding around him in the office kitchen when he reappeared. “What was it like, what did she say?” we all wanted to know. “Oh, I think it was something like: Gimme the ruby slippers!” he replied in his soft shy voice, giving the most perfect imitation of the wicked witch of the west. He broke through his shyness that day and I like to think he liked working with us. He died a month or so later, killed in a road accident while on holiday in Spain. So in memory of a quiet man I barely knew who really made me laugh one day, in homage to Eden (of Under an Eastern Sky blog) and her red mary-jane’s, and for all of us daydreamers who can never get anything done, I’ve enclosed a picture of my girl’s ruby slippers, scuffed and worn, but still magic to her (and found, luckily, before she left for pre-school). Buying them gave a little girl her heart’s desire, and she didn’t even have to click the heels. Who say’s dreaming is a waste of time?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Frayed Mums and Jagged Edges

Sunday was a streaming, sodden day which either caused or reflected my mood, I’m not sure which. We went to a christening; it’s a convoluted story as to how we came to be there, since we don’t really know the parents very well, but it’s enough to say that we were obliged to go. I’m usually seduced by the ritual at such events, charmed by the welcoming of a new life, the family celebrations, the future all bouncing and rosy. This time, I felt uncomfortable and out of place; one of those social events where you don’t really belong, can’t relax with accustomed ease into old friendships and family groups. I’m adept at using my children as a shield on such occasions – babies are the most useful, since you can sit and feed them, change them, gurgle at them in privacy, safe in your charmed circle of two. Older children are a bit more tricky – I had no hopes for my eight year old, who was immediately swept into a crowd of children with no nod to the niceties of small talk, but I’d hoped my three year old and I could have a mutual cling. She who snakes herself around my leg whenever I’m feeling chatty and confident, however, had a sudden and unwelcome taste for independence and ran after her brother with a toss of her head, leaving me trailing pathetically behind. R got involved in one of those male conversations that was all about numbers; "how much? how fast? how many?" He normally hates conversation like that – the jostling, the back-slapping, the one-upmanships, the sly digs. But he’d got drawn in, somewhere along the line, and I was confronted by a sea of broad backs in the kitchen, so I headed off towards the cluster of new babies and their Mums in the sitting room. But this was all sharp edges and bright lipstick, the babies all accessorised beautifully, the Mums somehow managing postnatal power dressing. They all seemed so certain, so confident, so seemingly unfazed by these tiny kicking interlopers into their lives, although I know that can’t really be true. I didn’t have a clue, in those early weeks after my first was born, I remember being almost pathetically pleading towards mothers with older children, sucking up reassurances like a drowning man seeks oxygen. Not so these women, although maybe they were still in denial, still confident that they could return their lives to normal by sheer force of will. They were discussing work, all adamant that a four day week would allow a perfect work-life balance until their children were more independent and they would return full-time – when the kids were, say, 2. It doesn’t work like that, I was silently saying, it’s not so cut and dried, it’s all messy and fluid and your tidy compartments will run into one another with alarming frequency. Children have their own rhythms which won’t always fit into a corporate timetable, their needs will be greater than you can yet know. Maybe that was just my experience, and won’t be theirs, although in my defence I have met scores of women who feel that work gave up on them once they had children, not the other way around. And those friends who have managed to stay firmly on the ladder whilst raising their children have had to grip harder than they could ever have imagined.

Occasional words from their conversation gave me a jolt and reminded me that I was once part of this world – not the milky twilight zone of new babies and night feeds, but a world of business trips and meetings, blackberrys (not the picking kind) and laptops. I can join in, I felt like saying, I’ve got office stories too, I thought I was a player, once. But I’ve become invisible, now, to people who don’t know there’s another world out there, and instead of joining in I could feel myself becoming all fluttery around the babies, like a nervous grandmother. I reminded myself that I gave up social visibility for a softer life of depth and richness. I’ve got to put my toe back in the water again, soon, before the black hole of the overdraft swallows us up. But this time I’m prepared for chaos and mess; straight lines and sharp focus and steely ambition are a thing of the past, now. I’ve never been so happy to get home and sink onto our worn and shabby sofa and shut the door. The world’s still out there, waiting. But it will have to take me as I am, slightly frayed and blurred around the edges.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Ode to Purple
11 May

It’s one of the regrets of my life that I’m rubbish at art. I’ve never been able to draw a thing, and still remember the shame of art lessons at school, still at the stage of drawing stick people while everyone else was producing a still life worthy of Van Gogh. What is particularly irritating is that many people in my family, on my father’s side at least, have the gene. Two cousins went to art school, and both my Dad and Uncle are accomplished amateur painters. Sadly, neither my sister nor I have the eye. It must be about the way you look at things, I guess, as much as the ability to send messages from your eyes to your hand. R is a pretty good draughtsman, and when he looks at things, he sees them in relation to everything else. He sees shapes and forms, structures and geometry. I just see colour, and am often really disappointed when it has to be pointed out to me that an idea I’ve had for the house wouldn’t work, that the dimensions or all wrong, or something similar. Interestingly my passion for gardening is helping with this; I’m starting to see the need for structure, that a swathe of colour needs bare bones behind it. And yet, like most people, it will always be colour that pulls me into the garden. I can’t do minimalist inside, either; our house has lots of strong colours in it, and lots of bright fabrics, and, let’s be honest, lots of mess. I can go into someone else’s house and feel soothed by their off-whites and beiges, but it doesn’t seem to suit me when I try it myself. R is often intrigued by my instinctive preference for dark, masculine colours, and often I have to be reminded to soften things up, to lighten them. I don’t why that should be, since I love dusky pinks, misty blues and sea greens – aquamarine being my favourite colour. But in art I usually find myself drawn to midnight blues and inky violets, and walls of sheer, rich pigments.
I’m constantly amazed by the ingenuity of nature, how with even the most casual planning the colours come together and rarely clash, unless you intrude too much in an effort to stamp your own schemes on the natural world. Being inherently lazy, I’m often happy to just see what happens, and am rarely disappointed. The synchronicity has been a little bit out this year, the hellebores nodding shyly to the roses, the plants startled by the dryness. Yet suddenly, in the flash of an eye, my garden is all about purple. Only a few weeks ago it was all green; so many different shades, so much depth. Then the green was broken up by deep red tulips and early forget-me-nots. But now the alliums have taken over from the tulips, the lavender is out, my lovely deep blue geranium is breaking out beneath the fragrant, heavy lilac, and the sage is about to show off its lovely purple flower heads. Purple brings to my garden its echoes of royalty, nobility and spirituality. All this symbolism makes it important and mysterious – psychedelic purple, deep purple, gracious purple, proud purple (I hope my prose isn’t getting too purple). It seems you can’t explore anything arcane or magical without tripping over purple. I recently learned, (courtesy of an evening out with a telescope which I blogged about a few weeks ago), that one of the pleiades, my favourite constellation, is known as purple pleione, because she has a purple hue. I see her as Queen of her little group of stars, now. My gardening books inform me that purple has both warm and cool properties, which is why, presumably, for a short burst in spring, my garden can look tasteful and decorous, before my love of warm and earthy tones sets in for midsummer. I was gazing out of the window, open mouthed, as usual (never a good look) when my daughter appeared clutching a picture she’d just drawn of me. I tried to ignore the huge gaping mouth she’d given me, the short stumpy legs and enormous feet, and concentrated instead on the wild cloud of hair that she’d taken ages over, blithely disregarding the fact that my hair is straight and blondish. In her picture, it was, of course, purple.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

8th May

Sunday was a mellow day, filled with friends and family, food and drink (too much of both), fires and sunsets. It was the seventh birthday of the daughter of some good friends, and they always manage to combine a child’s party for her with a grown-up party, and like all the occasions which mark their children’s births (they have four), it has become a fixture in our calendar. The girl’s mother, my friend, is one of those really extraordinary cooks who finds it soothing to whip up a dinner for 24 or, as on this occasion, feed about a dozen children and about fourteen adults simultaneously - different menus, moreover. They have a tiny brick and flint Victorian cottage, which looks like something out of Beatrix Potter and has no room to swing a cat, but which does have a large and astonishing garden. The predicted torrents didn’t arrive, so we glued ourselves to garden chairs and just, well, ate. Red lentil and goats cheese puree to start us off, followed by the most gorgeous ham with mango salsa, roast potatoes, salad, fantastic spicy coleslaw. The best apple and almond cake I’ve ever tasted with lashings of jersey cream. The poor children had to make do with hot dogs and pizza, chocolate birthday cake followed by more and more chocolate as the day progressed, but they bore up well. Reading over this, I know it sounds so middle-class country, so perfect, so Cath Kidston, all the things that we know aren’t true about real country living. But sometimes, just sometimes, it really is like that. Only fleetingly, of course, and always punctuated by small irritations - the child who gets stung by one of the first bees of the season (mine), the child who sobs uncontrollably at losing musical statues (mine again), the one who stripped naked and fell into a pile of nettles (at last, not mine). Nothing’s ever really glamorous, is it, when you know the hidden stories; the financial problems, the almost-break-ups, the health worries. There was plenty of baggage, as there is at every social occasion, all safely stacked up somewhere out of sight, but always there to trip you up should you stumble upon it by accident. For once I didn’t stumble, nor did anyone else; we just laughed and ate and lazily watched the children through a haze of wine and cake and sun.

We staggered home, replete and contented, and built a campfire in the garden, down by the stream. The children were up late, but were unusually calm after a frenetic day, and we were all mesmerised by the flames and the quiet, broken only by the evening songs of the birds and the crackle and hiss of the fire. K was particularly tranquil; she has come through a bit of a rough patch, lately. It’s a funny expression, that, it makes me think of the rough patch in the garden, all thorns and spikes, so maybe it’s apt, after all. Storms and dramas have always been meat and drink to my feisty and determined girl at the best of times, without the added complications of being almost four. It’s funny how you know it’s just a phase, how you’ve seen your elder ones come through similar times, and yet when you’re in the thick of it you can’t see the daylight. One of those little developmental milestones swooped down on her, however, and the roses and the sweet-scented things are peeping out now.

I’ve always loved twilight, and have always been glad that I don’t live in one of those tropical places where the darkness descends in a heartbeat. We sat in the gloaming, wrapped up warm, and watched the moths and heard a frog croak. Yet I still always miss that moment when dusk turns to proper darkness – it still catches me unawares, and surprises me every time. Bed called, along with the owls.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

3 May

“It’s like England was 50 years ago.” This is a phrase often used these days to describe our rural idylls, to justify our life-changes, the relocations and ruptures and new starts and beginning-all-overs. You here it said about all those counties on the margins of being fashionable, and sometimes it’s even said about those chi-chi little places that have in reality changed beyond all recognition. It’s said about France, about Ireland, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand. I have no quarrel with the phrase, I’ve used it myself. There IS something quintessentially 1950’s-ish about East Anglia. The trouble is though is that when someone trots it out, I’m never altogether sure what they mean. It’s one of those phrases open to endless meaning and endless interpretation. I have stood in paralysing discomfiture listening to one person rant about the lack of immigrants fifty years ago, or another nod with satisfaction at the memory of the all-white southern English faces around him. I have raised a quizzical eyebrow or stole a surreptitious glance at R when someone has launched into a diatribe about how the summers were hotter then (are you sure about that?), or a reminiscence about the total lack of crime. To some people, fifty years ago means a perpetual rendition of Knees Up Mother Brown in the pub and communal meals on a crime-free (and ethnically pure) village green. I think the majority of us who use the term, however, speak from a broadly similar place; we look back to a slower, calmer way of life, one where we can live simply but live well, hopefully losing some of frenetic elements of two fast-paced careers that are required just to finance a shoe-cupboard in an urban sprawl. We welcome a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of living more closely with nature. Whether or not that time ever actually existed is immaterial; nostalgia is rarely fuelled by facts, after all, but by feelings.

I am all for nostalgia, and all for a slower pace of life, but I am relentlessly twenty-first century with regard to my food and my clothes. I don’t want ‘gastro’ in my local pub necessarily, any more than I want asian-fusion from the local Chinese; I’m rarely happier than when faced with a simple ploughmans or a plate of ham egg and chips. Neither am I a fashionista any more (if I ever was) – I was still in my bootcuts long after the yummy mummies had progressed to skinny fits and boy jeans. But I am grateful that we don’t have to buy olive oil from the chemists any more, and I like a restaurant to give a passing nod to parmesan that doesn’t come in a plastic container, just as I like to know I can get a linen shirt or a pair of kitten heels within a fifty-mile radius, if the mood takes me. One of our neighbours, a man possessed of a quavering voice and a stooping gait, but possessed also of a steely determination to get his point across, blithely ignoring whether or not you have the time to listen, once advised my husband on where he should buy his clothes. We visited the shop once, on a whim when we were in town, and immediately recognised that it was one of those places that either makes you want to laugh, or depresses you, depending on your mood. It did both to me; I giggled at it’s total lack of style and total lack of any stock that you would want to buy, but something about it’s musty interior, the piles of polyester trousers and grey plastic slip-on shoes made me sad too. I’m not being a snob, far from it – the stuff wasn’t even particularly cheap. It was just redolent of an earlier, shabbier time – no retro finds here. It made the Grace Brothers store in ‘Are You Being Served?’ look like the Conran shop.

Our local town is set for development and we will shortly be the recipients of a brand new retail development. Despite the instinctive flutter of excitement as I think about lovely posh shops, I have no doubt the costs will spiral out of control and we will be left with one of those windswept and soulless malls that sit so uncomfortably in the English countryside. The store I mentioned above is set for closure, no doubt along with many other high street shops. Suddenly, I want it to be fifty years ago.