Monday, 30 April 2007

30 April

I love the word Jumble. It makes me think of the dog in the ‘Just William’ books, of huge piles of clothes, of a rush of thoughts all vying to tumble out of our mouths as speech. It’s such an onomatopoeic word. I do love a good jumble sale too, but I’m not so keen on manning a stall, which is what I found myself doing on Saturday. I’d grudgingly agreed to help out (it was run by the school PTA, I somehow managed to end up being both on the committee and a parent governor, very surprising since I’m usually so adept at lurking in the background when jobs are handed out). Anyway I turned up with a bad grace (I know, I know, but it’s only a few weeks since the Easter Fair, and it’s always the same old crowd helping out), and was stuck there for the best part of the day. We were due to open at 2.00, and by 1.00 a crowd was milling at the gates. By 1.50 there was a long queue snaking down the lane. There was a stampede when the gate opened; a jostle of bulky canvas bags, a heaving of flesh and a stretching of seams as people lunged towards the tables. I’ve never seen anything like it. We are a tiny village and this was just a few stalls. I know shopping rage is very 2007, but it’s more the kind of thing you associate with Kate Moss’s collection hitting Topshop, or Stella McCartney at Hennes. I didn’t really think we had quite the same cachet, but it seems I was wrong. I’d positioned myself on books, a cunning ruse, I’d thought, since I hadn’t expected it to be terribly busy and had envisaged a peaceful afternoon browsing and reading. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Towards the end of the afternoon, my hair sticking to my face, my eyes hollow, my throat hoarse, I asked one lady who had bought 36 (!) paperbacks, why she had been so desperate to get here. “There’s money in this village”, she confided. “Word gets out”. There is? News to me. Not round my gaffe, I felt like telling her, and frankly I couldn’t see much evidence around me, either, among the polyester blouses and elasticated-waist trousers, the chipped mugs and grimy tea towels.

Still, everyone seemed satisfied by the end of the day, some clearly thrilled with their new grimy tea-towels and sweat-stained shirts (sorry, but they were), and the school is now richer by several hundred pounds, so who’s complaining? Only me, of course. I did get a good haul in myself – 8 books, some toys for the children and a pretty hand-made wooden photo frame with painted roses, all for about £5.00, and I like a bargain as much as the next person - but I was yet again reminded of why customer service really isn’t my forte. The grim determination of some of the jumble Queens was astonishing. R, a connoisseur of car-boot sales, had warned me in advance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of people who would haggle over an item marked as 10p. Some were lovely and polite, others rude and surly, tipping things onto the floor in their haste. Annoyance was catching in my throat after about ten minutes; it was seeping from my every pore by the end. I staggered out, my feet screaming to be released from their shoe prisons, to be confronted by an argument in front of the school. All of the left-over clothes and linens were being stored in the school, to be collected by a charity. We were still left with several boxes of toys and books, however, and since everyone was exhausted and clearly keen to get home, no-one was volunteering to take them to a charity shop or store them in their sheds. One of the Dads turned up; the sort of man who dresses head-to-toe in camouflage gear each day, and has a burning desire to have the biggest of everything - jeep, wood-pile, tool-kit – (clearly insecure about something, I wonder what?!) and he offered to take all the books and burn them. His eyes filled with a revolutionary zeal as he told us how he could build the biggest bonfire. Everyone else recoiled at the horrible idea of books being burned, and in the end there was a tussle between several of us trying to load up the books, and the burning zealot Dad. Luckily, we won, but the boot of my car is now several boxes heavier.

Sunday was much more relaxing, filled as it was by repetitive, back-breaking but soothing tasks in the garden. I’ve never been one for over neat and manicured gardens, but that slightly wild, blowsy look that I aim for is hard to get just right. If you’re not careful it slides very quickly into seedy and weedy, even in April. Couch grass, nettles and dandelions are everywhere; on a nicer note, welsh poppies and forget-me nots have self-seeded all over the place. Early roses are breaking out, alongside the hellebores which are only just starting to fade. The tulips and the cherry blossom have been ravaged by the wind, but I have a pot azalea that is showing an early flourish, and the lavender is starting to flower. It’ll be autumn by June, at this rate.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

26 April

Had a shouty phone conversation with my Grandmother yesterday. Not shouty in an aggressive sense, I hasten to add, but because she’s a little hard of hearing, which is only to be expected, I guess, at the age of 94. Still full of vigour, her days still filled with living, she is missing having her family around her.

To me, her life has been a series of triumphs; hugely bright, but limited by being born into a large family of few means in the North-East, she has lived a full and enterprising life. She set up her own dressmaking business while raising a family, taught herself to both swim and drive in her fifties, travelled alone to Australia in her sixties. I worry that sometimes, in what must be the last slow years of her life, a life now constricted and narrowed by age, that she may see her life as series of losses – she has after all outlived three husbands, three younger siblings, and one son. Such an influential and dominant figure in my life, in recent years I think she has secretly dwelt with the long departed, despite her mental acuity. Her memories quite naturally grope back towards those people in their sepia tints and strange hats, posing unsmilingly for the camera. Those people who flitted vaguely in and out of my childhood, shadowy forms called Bobby and Billy and Jackie, Doris and Evie and Elsie, are more real to her now perhaps than me. How ironic it is, that we have such little interest in family history when we’re growing up; I could never think what to say to these people at the edge of my family circle when I was growing up, teenage awkwardness and constraint robbing me of my voice – now I yearn for the chance to sit them down and chat.

My parents and I tend to laugh when she says she’s lonely – it’s a family joke that she still has a better social life than any of us, a constant stream of people in and out of the house where she still lives independently – but of course she is. Our extended family has been fractured, like so many families, by distance and opportunity. I read some chatroom comments recently (you know where) about second homes, and, without wishing to relive the whole debate, there was one comment which really stood out for me. You have no birthright to live in the place you were brought up, said this commentator (a second home owner, natch), you have to earn the right to live there. I instinctively disagreed with that, as soon as I read it. No, perhaps you don’t have a right over and above anyone else; but you should at least expect a level playing field, the opportunity to stay put, if you so wish. Family disintegration doesn’t do society much good. My own family is no different to millions of others, our history a tale of small-scale emigration and disruption. My parents left the north-east for the south-east and better opportunities, which they found. Much further back, my ancestors came over from Ireland to Newcastle as a result of the potato famine. R and I, whilst suffering no deprivation and thinking that we had the world at our feet, were still priced out of the south-east where we’d grown up (admittedly, we moved for other reasons too, but who knows, if the large family house in Hampstead had been affordable ….!). No doubt my children will have to leave Suffolk, if house prices – from which we’ve benefited, perhaps to the detriment of some local family - continue to rise. Always moving on, in search of the promised land; sometimes we find it, sometimes we don’t. But how we still mourn for our roots, for that sense of belonging, for our history, for our local land. My grandmother is proud of all her family, those still close to home and those scattered across the globe. But I bet there are days when she wishes we were all living 100 years ago, all in the same street.

I just had a thought; my Grandad wore a flat cap and had a funny accent. How marvellous – I could dash off an amusing little piece about a quaint country character like him; I’m sure he even knew what to do about moles. I might even win something! (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
24 April

I am marooned of Suffolk today. I have hardly ventured out of the house in two days, since youngest has been quite poorly, and I’m starting to get the wild-eyed, unkempt look of a recluse. I always quite fancied the idea of spending my latter years in splendid isolation somewhere, the madwoman on the hill instead of in the attic, perhaps, but actually I now feel I may be better suited to being in the centre of the action somewhere. I’ve been jumping on the phone, and gazing longingly at delivery vans passing by – you never know, even if they’re not for me, someone might want directions. At least the weather is nice (we finally had rain in the early morning, hurrah!) and I keep popping out into the garden with such regularity that the birds have perfected their alarm calls at my approach – you can hear the rooks teaming up with the blue tits in defiance at my continued presence. I hear the call of housework to be done, bills to be paid, Things To Do all over the place, but reason that I can’t really start anything, because I’m bound to be interrupted as soon as I do. My daughter has perfected both the pleading, little, tug-on- the- heartstrings voice and the imperious and relentless commands and she’ll switch between them according to which she believes will get the best effect. Since my housework avoidance techniques are second to none, (I will truly never be the sort of person who co-ordinates their underwear drawers), I call happily delude myself that a quick flick here, a wipe there, constitutes a good spring clean, and, since I am also bone-tired, sitting in front of the computer once again appears to be the best use of my time. Funny how I am always trying to pull the children away from screens, whilst hunched over the laptop myself. I did promise myself that I would restrict blogging to once or twice a week, so it’s not looking good already.

My mother is coming over for a couple of hours this afternoon, so I can get to the supermarket (oops - hope Chickenix isn’t stalking us). The very idea feels dangerously liberating, I may have a sensory overload (lights! Noise! People!) and start manically filling the trolley with chocolate, ice-cream and wine. Or talk for slightly too long to the cashier, or start up random and pointless conversations in the car park – something that will mark me out as a little mad, no doubt.
23 April

Saturday night was a blast; dinner with lovely friends, who I always want to describe as old friends, because it seems like we’ve known each other for years, although in fact it’s nothing like that long. We talked for too long, laughed too loudly and drank too much; in fact at one point I noticed that we were all talking at the same time, babbling away to our wine glasses. Ever since I first had children I have known that I cannot do hangovers any more; on Sunday morning I really truly knew it. So by Sunday evening, having spent a gentle pottering day, accompanied by the furies flying around in my head, I felt I deserved to have a long bath. So I had the longest, deepest, hottest bath ever. Alone. (If anyone else has read the Jill Murphy books about the Large family, my attempts to get in the bath without the children are broadly similar). The bathroom right at the top of our narrow cottage is perfect for a solitary soak, having a bath but no shower, the shower room downstairs being the hub of morning activity. Upstairs is more of an evening place, and I certainly turned I my ‘quick bath – can you make sure the children are occupied/asleep/not bothering me’ – into a whole evening. If you twist yourself around at a bizarre angle, head at the uncomfortable tap end (I go for the mermaid look, but fear I’m more of a flounder), you can gaze through the uppermost window, to the treetops and beyond. I watched the birds swooping and diving in the vaulted sky until twilight slowly fell and the stars began to shine. My mind could take in nothing but sky and water, clouds and bubbles. If you keep your eyes trained heavenwards, your thoughts don’t get snagged by the sharp edges of earthly mess; the neighbour’s abandoned caravan, the pile of rubble from his extension; the neglected bit of our garden, all thorns and nettles, the pile of towels and clothes on the bathroom floor.

Peace is so fleeting; today youngest is poorly – pale and wan, she needs my full attention. Nothing like a conflict between my maternal instincts and my irritation at my child-free morning vanishing before my eyes. Back to reality.
21 April

Sun and serenity in Suffolk this afternoon. What a contrast to yesterday's choppy waters - anger all day, followed by sulks and whining at being left out of the party. I made it in the end though, and now I feel like I'm stationed at the door, welcoming everyone in with a gracious wave and thrusting a glass of red at them, as if I've been here all along. The children have been ignored again, although they don't seem to care; I've been fiddling with my new page, proud as a new Mum, and R, never content to let the day pass by in a relaxing fashion, has decided to create a window seat in the kitchen. Very much pro the window seat - I've always missed the one we had in our last house - but slightly startled to see one wall of the kitchen demolished and gaping. We're going out tonight, and I feel quite sorry for the babysitter who will no doubt be taken aback by spending her evening in half a house - the tarpaulin flapping, the owls hooting, and the chill winds blowing ..... it's spooky in Suffolk, you know. I'll leave the fridge well stocked as penance.
19 April

I had a friend visiting today, who had driven up from Hertfordshire with her 8 week old baby, and who has only just left. What a surreal day; a very old friend with a brand new baby, and bubbling emotion amongst my new cyber friends. I couldn’t properly give my attention to either, vacillating between talks of broken sleep and routines, and thoughts of competitions and blogs. The moment my poor friend disappeared to change a nappy, there I was, clicking away to see what was going on, rushing red-faced and breathless from the study as soon as she reappeared. God alone knows what she thought I was up to. The baby was soft and downy and fitted snugly into the space between my shoulder and neck, the way they are designed to, her mouth like a rose petal rooting for milk, her eyelids still transparent and veiny, her tiny hands fluttering like a bird. That sweet milky scent, that soft heaviness, the little sighs, that other worldly gaze. I want another one, I thought, I feel cheated. Then I looked properly at my friend. Huge dark circles under her eyes, her face pale and waxy. Her total inability to concentrate or finish a sentence, her thoughts slow, her speech thick and sleepy. Her body still aching and leaky, she still groping blindly back towards adult life, her emotions all jumbled up with the baby. Oh, now I remember. It is her first baby, and I know from my own experience of a mere two that it does get easier. I also know with absolute certainty that she will come through the fog, that she and her daughter will partake in a dance for the rest of their lives, separating and merging, and it will all seem quite normal. At the moment, though, like so many women (myself included), who have their children late in life, compared to previous generations, she feels like she has been in a train wreck. Upside down doesn’t quite manage it; more like spinning frantically in a vortex. She was always the calm one, when we worked together, me the nervy, manic one. Today was different, of course, I was another adult, one who knew, moreover, what to do with a baby, and who could make cups of tea and offer reassuring pats and soothing noises. She sat under the unfurling lilac tree, looking like a weary Madonna, and I felt like her Grandmother. Strange for me, since those days of panic when faced with the fragile limbs and milk-seeking iron will of a new baby aren’t that far behind me. Funny how these markers in our lives change us, transform us into people apparently capable and confident, when inside we still feel ten years old.

She’s only just left, driving off to visit her ill mother in law in Ipswich (which is why she came here, otherwise I would have course driven to visit her, before you all think I’m callous and lazy!). Now I can ignore my own children who are happily engaged in the garden and get back on the site, back to what is increasingly – and worryingly – beginning to seem like Real Life!
18 April

Yesterday turned out to be a peaceful, mellow kind of day, not at all the insane, hurried, tired sort of time I usually associate with going back to school. K and I picked up J from school as normal, and half the school seemed to gravitate to the village green, where they raced around with a final burst of energy, while the Mums sat lazily in the perky April sunshine. We meandered home and packed up the bag with costumes and towels; Tuesday means swimming lessons, something that I actually enjoy, despite the hot and overcrowded changing rooms, the shrieking mothers (“Arabella! Do hurry – it’s violin and clarinet before dinner”) and swarming wet children. I love sitting in the slightly grotty caff afterwards, watching the children gulping hot chocolate, hair plastered to their faces, and becoming insanely overexcited at the thought of the toxic tea that they are allowed on Tuesdays. (It has to be said that I hover greedily over their plates, hoovering up the chips with alacrity).

We drove to the pool with the windows down, the air humming with activity around us. Blossom everywhere, the fields thrusting up their crops from the ground, apparently overnight. Swathes of vivid yellow rape, which I confess to hating from an aesthetic point of view, let alone the fact that it is such a potent allergen. Too bright, too in-your-face for England, I think, and turn with relief to the cowslips already crowding on the verges. How I love those flowers, so much promise in a simple pale plant. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I lie”. Perfect. It’s ten miles to the pool, on the other side of town from our village, a distance I would have thought completely mad before I moved out to the sticks, but which now seems positively local. As we park the car, J watches other children on their bikes, and suddenly announces he wished he lived in the town and could walk or cycle to the pool. K instantly agrees, although she would no doubt agree if he said he wanted to live in Outer Mongolia. They start up a list of things they could do if they lived in the town – walk to the park, visit the toyshops every day, have dinner at Pizza Express every night (? It is apparently free to all urban-dwellers), walk on pavements to school (how deprived they are, walking across the Green!) and so on. I let them carry on, smug in the knowledge that I can stop them in their tracks. “What about the Pub?” I ask casually, playing my trump card. Both fall silent. They adore the pub, scene of towering orange bonfires and golden summer days. “And our house? And all your friends? And the horses in the field at the bottom of the garden? And the wood and the stream?”

Seems I’ve won the argument, although J still wants to cycle to the pool one day. Ten miles, mostly uphill? Fine by me. He’ll be going alone though.
16th April

A neighbour called round yesterday evening to show R his new telescope. Inevitably we all ended up out in the garden, crowding round, moongazing like eager hares. The children were once again up late; term hasn’t started yet for us, we have an extra day’s grace for some reason, although R starts his new job today – bizarre for us not be waving him off somewhere. K is still under the misapprehension that “bedtime doesn’t happen until it’s dark, silly Mummy”, so of course she deemed it right and proper that she should be bidding goodnight to the stars. And what stars there were. We are so lucky to live out here, where there are no streetlights, no hazy orange glow from a city. Just sky, huge and arching, and endless stars, holes in the floor of heaven. I am hopeless at spotting constellations, mesmerised by individual stars and planets, missing patterns (although my favourites, the pleiades, lurked slyly at the edge of my vision). The boys, young and old, squawked excitedly (in a gruff, manly fashion, of course) as they ticked them off. J has always been starstuck – when he was tiny, one of his greatest compliments was to tell me that he “loved me more than space”. His head is always filled with comets and constellations, stars and supernovas, his dream to boldly go where no man has gone before, (splitting infinitives all the way). I looked at his absorbed, enraptured face and wished I could bottle the memory and use it like perfume.

K and I just gazed and gazed, the sky wheeling above us, the earth beneath or feet giving the old illusion of being stable and stationary, while the galaxies dance. There’s a lullaby that I used to sing to both of them when they were babies, asking if they wanted the moon to play with, or the stars to run away with. As they grew older, neither could ever decide. The moon, the moon, I’d think silently, don’t leave me for the stars. Not yet.

“Are the stars looking at us?” K asks sleepily. Maybe they are, I answer. I wonder what they’d see on our pretty blue planet; oceans and forests, mountains and valleys? Or the haze of pollution and urban sprawls? “They’d like our house, I think”, says K. Hope so.
15 April

Well yesterday, was as promised, gloriously and unseasonably hot. And where was I? In bed for most of the day. I managed to get through the entire autumn and winter without so much as a sniffle, only to be felled by something or other on a perfect day in spring. I felt sick, weary and sorry for myself, but these things rarely last and here I am, tottering about again. And at least it’s another lovely day. There’s a blue and white tablecloth on the garden table, under bubblegum pink cherry blossom, all surrounded by frothy creamy-white hawthorn and fat purple tulips. No great swathes of colour, yet, just bright and clashing spots to draw the eye, resplendent against the greenery. For it’s not summer; that heavy languid torpor has not descended yet. The birds sound urgent, chivvying, the sap’s still rising. We’re slowly unfurling, though, both the buds and our winter-weary bones, shyly presenting ourselves to the sun. The bare limbs of the trees are covering up; ours are peeping out. Or maybe I’m wrong and it is summer after all – a big fat bumblebee has just drowsily alighted on my chair as I write this. The children think it’s summer, too, and await in thrilled anticipation for the ice-cream van which appeared, miraculously, once and only once, in our village last year. “I do believe in ice-cream vans, I do I do I do believe in ice-cream vans:” you can almost hear their unspoken thoughts. Maybe the ice-cream seller will think it’s summer too, and appear as if by magic. Who knows.
13 April

The last couple of days have seen a convergence of East and West. Close friends of ours, who moved a few years ago to Cornwall, came to stay with their two children. I was excited about seeing them, given that they live a looong way from us and the opportunities to visit one another are rare, but I always get so caught up in preparations for visitors, so task-oriented, that I almost forget how nice it is when they actually arrive. Officially the Nicest People in the World, they are impecunious and irrepressibly cheerful, happy as proverbial sandboys in their seaside world.

J and I met at university, too many moons ago, and subsequently shared various grotty flats together. We talk about those days now and our speech is heavy with nostalgia, dripping with allusions to fun, to times of opportunity and lack of responsibility. In truth, it was more of a haze of red wine and tears, but we enjoy colluding in false memory syndrome. Since then, marriage, children and relocation for us both have limited the time we get to spend together, and have added lines to our faces and care to our hearts. It’s so nice to giggle and be irresponsible again, carelessly leaving the childcare to the husbands, the cooking as well in my case. The bigger children are of an age to make dens together, disappear from sight and supervision for a while, immediately picking up their casual acquaintance where they left off, ooh a year or so ago now, without the need for niceties. The little ones are a bit more suspicious, a bit guarded; Cinderella or Thunderbirds? Jammie Dodgers or chocolate fingers? A shared passion for Balamory and Smarties saved the day and they bonded, pressed up close, expressing their emotions through their bodies in true toddler style.

Both families moved out to the country at around the same time, yet our experiences are so different. We have fertile plains, they have windswept beaches. We get grass in our picnics, they get sand. We cycle and recycle, they sail and freecycle (well, we do too). We do cricket on the green, they surf the rollers. Our countryside is gentle and accessible, theirs wild and rocky. Our life is often north-easterly winds and mud, theirs south-westerly gales and salt. But we’re united in our love for our adopted lands, enthusing with all the zeal of the converted. United, too, in our fundamental quest to raise children who can tell a beech tree from an oak, who know that potatoes are dug from the ground, and who will grow up with some understanding of our rich pastoral heritage.

Perhaps the biggest difference is in attitude. Both our families have struggled, sometimes, with the pressures of life in a new environment, the need for a better work/life balance contrasting with the equally pressing need of keeping roofs over our eight heads. Yet they take worry and blow it out to sea, lost to the thundering waves, whereas our cares seem to ferment in this rich and heavy earth. There was a lesson there for us, and I hope we absorbed it.

They left late yesterday afternoon, and the children and I, all equally exhausted from late nights and constant chatter, settled down to my favourite double DVD offering; The Railway Children followed by Swallows and Amazons. Retro bliss. Now all I have to do is catch up with all the blogs.
11 April

Once upon a time, a couple moved to a small Suffolk village, in search of a better quality of life and a small rural community in which to raise their children. The couple – let’s call them Tom and Mary – quickly became respected and liked, and in due course pillars of their new community; lay figures of the church, active in the village school, dispensing benevolent charity and wisdom wherever they went. He is tall and patrician, kindly with a hint of severity, she is elegant and eternally pleasant; the kind of people who make you feel clumsy and gauche. (Whenever I used to meet them in the village I would morph into a sort of Waynetta Slob figure, screeching at my children, who would invariably lose all hint of charm and become whiny and sullen). Tom and Mary became close friends with another village couple, the same age, the same lifestyle – we’ll call them John and Clare. There was always something a little more louche, a little more cavalier, about John, but with his wife he made the perfect foil for John and Mary, who glowed with sweetness and virtue. Tom and Mary’s son grew up, in the fullness of time, and married John and Clare’s daughter, their lives now bound together irrevocably, quiet and respectable middle-class lives played out against a backdrop of timeless English countryside. Then one day the village – and Clare – reeled with the news of John’s long standing infidelity with another woman in their circle (I’ve forgotten her name, but she doesn’t come into the story much). The people who seemed to take it worst of all were Tom and Mary, particularly Tom. Distraught on behalf of Clare and his daughter in law, he railed against John, publicly and privately, and seemed to feel personally betrayed by this slipping of standards and descent into brutal personal chaos. John eventually left the village with his new woman, but not before the one-time friendship with Tom and Mary had descended into war. It seemed to involve everyone; the vicar, parishioners, neighbours; apparently the Bishop was appealed to at one point, since neither Tom nor John would enter the church if the other was in it. They didn’t have adjoining houses, luckily, but their not inconsiderable gardens were separated only by a shallow stream, the foxgloves in one garden close enough to sneer at the dahlias in the other. When John left, the village sighed with relief; now the whole sorry mess could be a nine-day wonder, and slip back into the annals of local lore. And no-one wanted to make things hard for Clare, either; despite the gossip at the shop, the whisperings behind the prayer-sheets, the raised eyebrows at the font, anyone with a shred of empathy could understand the horror of a fractured life.

Tom and Mary, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, also seemed strangely diminished by the affair. Perhaps it was the shock of the break-up of their little set, or some vague realisation in Tom’s mind that the whole saga had got out of hand, but they seemed suddenly older, more querulous, less glowing with an aura of sanctity. They sold their big house and settled into a cottage nearer the heart of the village. They sold their house to a young couple, Rose and Charles, who had moved here with their toddler son and baby girl. They seemed set, in the fullness of time, to take over the role, vacated by Tom and Mary, of village elders, so perfectly did they reflect the youth of the older couple. Head to toe Boden, confident and genial, they adapted with ease to creeping middle age in the shires. But hubris was lurking just around the corner, beckoning in glee. Tom, at the point of slipping gently into old age, had a very public affair. With Rose, some twenty years his junior. Two more broken families. More shock and gossip for everyone else. Tom, Rose and Charles all, at varying points, moved away. And what of Mary and Clare, the abandoned wives, brought up to smile rigidly in the face of disaster? They sold their respective houses and moved in together (platonically, as far as anyone is aware), in glorious defiance of fate, to this day still pillars of the local community. And they say nothing ever happens in the country.
10 April

“Excellent herbs had our Fathers of old -
Excellent herbs to ease their pain”

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard that poem, but I was still a young child, and it captivated me. I wasn’t old enough then to spot the irony in Kipling’s words, it was the names of the herbs that stayed with me; eyebright, elecampane, valerian, rose-of-the-sun. They weren’t the lupins or the pansies that I could identify – what were they then? As I grew older I read about Culpeper and the medieval herbalists, about Tudor knot gardens and apothecaries’ herb plots. Long before I’d developed any interest in gardening, I found herbs and their products fascinating; loved the way that my grandmother would called the hedge her chemist and her patch of cultivated herbs her first-aid box. Even at a young age, I recognised that something had been lost, there was some knowledge there that hadn’t been passed down to me, and I wanted to find it. Herbs are steeped in magic and myth, and I love their poetic and historical associations.

My grandmother died before I could learn her lore, but books helped, as did the re-awakening of interest in the “flowers and sweet scented things,” as the ancient Greeks called them. I used herbal beauty products, bought herbal medicines, and grew my own on windowsills in cramped city flats. I wasn’t a cook, any more than I was a gardener, so although of course I knew about their many culinary uses, my diet was all restaurant dinners interspersed with beans on toast. It was only fairly recently, however, that I gained the gardening confidence to start my own herb garden. If you are thinking elaborate box hedges and monastic-style cloisters, think again. My garden unfortunately isn’t large, and I cleared a smallish patch, about 12 foot square, in a tangled and overgrown patch to the side of the kitchen, overlooking the stream some 12 feet below. It turned out to be fortuitous, though I didn’t know it at the time, since an elder tree overlooks the site, potent magic for our forefathers who believed that the presence of elders would increase the beneficial properties of herbs. Herbs are such beautiful and generous plants to grow organically; they attract bees, birds and butterflies, achieving a high level of pollination and increasing the productivity and health of all the plants. I’ve packed so many into this space; parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, of course, but also lemon balm, borage and hyssop, feverfew and comfrey, chamomile and lovage, and many more.

I’ve become far more adept, if not yet an expert, at using the plants, as well. As well as storing the flowers for herbal teas, I use aloe vera, comfrey and marigold as ointments, tansy to ward off summer flies, southernwood to deter moths, lavender for pillows, linen and room sprays. I’m no practitioner, but have used feverfew tisanes for headaches, peppermint for digestion, elderflower for colds. I’m a better cook, now too, born out of the necessity to feed my family well, and I can’t imagine cooking without herbs. I feel as if I’m slowly reconnecting to that lost knowledge; when I use herbs, there’s a little pull on the string that connects us to the past.
I’d heard all the sayings about finding God in a garden. I expected to become absorbed, to find peace, but I hadn’t expected to find my family there too, shades among the plants. Without planning it at all, my little herb garden has become a memorial garden. There is a lilac tree next to the elder, leaning protectively over the space, and I stood under the blossom last year, thinking of my grandmother, who loved lilac so much, and wishing ferociously that she were sitting beneath it. I’d planted some rose bushes in amongst the herbs, partly as companion plants to the garlic, partly as a nod to the old monastic tradition of planting apothercaries roses in their herb gardens. One of my grandfathers adored roses, and I felt his presence strongly one day, when I caught their scent drifting over to me where I worked. From then on, the idea snowballed; for my other Grandad, I planted deep red wallflowers along the low bordering wall; mixed with self-seeding forget-me-nots, they make a brilliant splash of colour in the spring. Sweet Williams for my Uncle Billy, my mother’s twin, who died at sea at the age of twenty. Irises edge the path, for my mother-in-law of the same name, who I never know, and Madonna lilies grow by the roses, for her and my unknown father-in-law. I didn’t plant them, but the delicate pink buds that will become fat luscious peonies, remind me of the babies I lost. I think I’ve written before about burying our beloved family cat, Henry, here, under the sundial, with Good King Henry all around. All this bordered by rosemary, for remembrance.

You wouldn’t think it by reading this, but I look forwards more than I look back, and don’t always long to reclaim the past. But I love the little drifts of memories that come to me on the breeze when I’m gathering herbs, the little nudges from familiar figures. “Wonderful tales had our Fathers of old, Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars.” Starlight and moonshine are the ideal background to my little herb garden; you feel part of a bigger whole, standing at night among the healing plants, listening to the water rushing past below. A life is a cycle, as is a garden; no wonder I never feel alone, out in the herbs.
7 April

Oh what a day was yesterday. The garden seemed to shimmer in a dream of sunlit ease. We had lunch outside, in a shower of blossom, other buds breaking out around us. The children played happily for once, all loose-limbed and free without the encumbrance of scratchy jumpers or snaggy tights. I even fell asleep in the garden, stretched out like a cat in the sun. Bliss in April, filled with the promise of summertime still to come.

Today is R’s birthday, Easter weekend to boot, so hot cross buns mixed with birthday cake for us. We’re all babies about birthdays in this house, adoring the celebrations, the rituals. The children love to help form family traditions, the best-loved being the winning idea (I take all the credit) of bringing the cake with its halo of candles to the bed of the birthday child/adult, and everyone allowed a slither before breakfast. I am always envious of R for having his birthday at this time of year, all primroses and bleating lambs, (though we have spent plenty years sheltering from hail and sleet). Mine is in the beginning of February, a dank and dreary time of year, when the loss of another year can seem crushing. His, to me at least, are all promise and re-birth.

Given our somewhat pressing need to economise at the moment, today will be frugal compared to some of the birthday extravaganzas we held long ago. Yet bizarrely I have never been better pleased with the presents I bought him (I think he’d agree)., despite their ludicrous cheapness. Good for the venal offspring, as well, to see that it’s the thought that counts, though I’m not sure they’d agree if it were applied to their own festivities. Anyway, what more could he want – home with the family, home-made birthday cake in bed, streaming sun, waited on hand and foot all day?
5 March
I was thinking about the ipod generation this morning, looking out of my window at a group of teenagers mooching about on the green. They have the usual hunched shoulder, head down appearance of fifteen year olds, the give-away tribe mentality. They also seem to be kicking at the earth (the boys) and shrieking loudly at each other (the girls) in a manner which reminds me of my own teenage years. What do they find to do here, in this sleepy hamlet, I wonder? What will I do when my own children are no longer content to send every waking hour with Mum and Dad? Is it true that country life for teenagers is a nightmare, full of longings for the big city, life as a parent not much better, reduced to acting as a permanent chauffeur and worrying about 17 year old drivers and twisting country lanes? I spent my own teenage years in the London suburbs and seem to recall passing most of my time on the tube. We joked when we moved here that J would be running away to Ipswich when he’s older, and R gloomily prophesises an adolescence filled with drinking special brew and hanging around the phone box on the green for him. Will we give up, as some of our neighbours have done, and decamp to the local market town with our surly offspring?
There is a sizeable population of teenagers here, which always surprises me as I tend to think of our village as being mainly filled with the over 70’s and parents with primary-school age children. It must be because I don’t see the older children so much, given that they don’t wander hand in hand with their Mums picking daisies any more, or go the pub en famille so much. They do appear, under cover of darkness usually, lurking slyly on the corners of the lanes, texting madly, or I sometimes glimpse them early on misty mornings, bent double under the weight of groaning backpacks, waiting for the bus to take them to college or school. Will they get out as soon as possible, I wonder, and groan to their friends about their dreary rural lives, or will they always long to return to their homes, as some of you on this site have done, memories of their little patch of native land always tugging at their hearts, wherever they are? Leave they surely will, for there are no jobs and little, if any, affordable housing here. Staying would mean making a permanent home with Mum and Dad, as some have done, not really having any choice in the matter.

I see the children of the very wealthy even less, given that they would appear to have their own social lives in place, revolving around their not-very-local schools, and they are often more city-savvy too, used to staying alone in their parent’s London crash-pads. Life will offer more opportunities, more possibility of eventually owning a place back home, too. The children I watch this morning are ordinary kids, some smart, some not, some destined for bright lights and yellow brick roads, no doubt, others for a life of bobbing in the water, trying to keep afloat. They always seem younger, shyer, than city kids of a similar age, less confident and self-aware, blushing and backing away like startled fauns when an adult stops to chat. Will community for them mean only an ivillage, packed with cyber relationships (I know, I know, I’m a fine one to talk), rural life the preserve of only the very rich or the very poor? Will the countryside be half manufactured park, half vast agri-business? Or will it still be the place that they will choose to bring up their own children, still a haven for those seeking refuge or an alternative, simpler way of life?

One or two of the girls outside have babysat for us on occasion. (One in particular always answers the phone and says she can’t do it, she has a date that night, only for her mother to ring back half an hour later to say that Lucy WILL be babysitting!). They’re sweet, kind girls, good with my children, and touchingly happy to return, temporarily, to the world of early childhood. Some of the village children, girls and boys, work in the local pub, or serve at the local farmer’s markets. The kids that can look menacing in a group, are polite and self-effacing on their own. The people who run the local youth club speak warmly about them, say they share the same concerns about rural life as the adults do. Much as they may champ at the bit, they’re lucky to be nurtured here, in this small place, and I hope they find a similar community in their future lives, wherever they are.

Our neighbour, a very old man, died recently and I was surprised to see so many teenagers at his funeral. Not seemingly coerced by their parents, they were there of their own volition, because he was a community figure who they’d all known. When one of the old ladies in the village slipped on the ice in the winter and broke her ankle, it was a couple of local youths who were out salting the pavement first, and it was a couple of girls who were first round at her cottage, seeing what they could do. ilike.
4 April

Some places are haunted, and I think we went to one today. No white ladies or headless men in chains, but something in the ether seeped into our bones, an otherworldly, eerie feeling.
Yesterday was a gloomy, freezing cold day. We knew that spring was lurking somewhere behind the clouds, but the skies were too leaden and we were too cold to summon up any energy. It’s often quite relaxing to have a do-nothing day, the adults pottering, no pressure on the children, but somehow yesterday it didn’t work. I think it was because we felt we ought to be outside, that the days of being cooped up in winter were behind us, but the weather wasn’t co-operating. In the end, the day at risk of descending into frayed nerves and fretful wails, we spent part of the afternoon holed up in J’s treehouse, wrapped up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate. It turned out to be a perfect combination of outdoor activity and comforting indulgence, and calmed tempers which were in danger of unravelling.

Today there was a glimpse of sun, flirting coyly behind the cloud cover, and we felt up to going further afield. We went off to Sutton Hoo, on the river Deben, where the Anglo-Saxon burial ship of one of the earliest English kings was discovered. It truly is one of the most magnificent archaeological finds in our history, and although the main treasures are in the British museum, there are reconstructions and plenty of artefacts to see in the museum. The main draw, though, is to walk out to see the burial mounds themselves, especially on a bluff, slightly raw day like today. Overlooking the tidal estuary of the Deben, on a spur of a hill where the wind howls in straight off the North Sea, sit a group of about twenty earthen mounds, dreaming quietly for hundreds of years among the sandy, rabbit-infested soil.

It’s always been seen as a magical place, on the margin between myth, legend and documented history, and the strangeness surrounding the original excavations adds fuel to the fire of mystery. Although there’s evidence that some mounds were partially excavated (and robbed, of course) as far back as the sixteenth century, for generations the mounds had been little more than a curious feature of the local landscape until the 1930’s. The owner of the land in 1939, a Mrs Edith Pretty, widowed and living alone with her small son, had long been intrigued by the grassy mounds she could see from her drawing room window, and started to have strange and vivid dreams where she saw warriors in what appeared to be a funeral procession. By all accounts a slightly fey lady, interested in spiritualism, she invited friends with similar interests to stay with her, one of whom claimed to have a vision of great treasure, along with the same helmeted warriors. To cut a very long story short (and I’m aware many of you, particularly those also from Suffolk, may know all of this), she persuaded an eccentric local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to help her excavate the mounds. The rest, as they say, is history; helped by the gamekeeper and the gardener, Brown unearthed the huge ghost ship of the 6th century Wuffing dynasty, and the burial artefacts of, it is widely agreed, King Raedwald. His iconic and awe-inspiring bronze helmet, staring spookily out at you from eyeless sockets is rightly famous; for me the location itself is imposing and haunting, the ships of the Anglo-Saxon traders sailing up the wide river still visible, you might think, out of the corner of your eye.

Raedwald was apparently the overload of all the English kings of the period, and played a part in the establishment of Christianity. It has also seemed fitting to many that this illuminating find, symbolic in so many ways of the birth of the English nation, should be discovered right on the eve of the second World War (in fact the excavations were severely held up because of it). There’s no new-age spirituality here, though, no Glastonbury-esque crystal shops, no healing or Tarot offered. Instead there is something solemn and quiet about it, as if we are all still absorbing the enormity of the remains that slept there for so long. As we turned and left the mounds, walking away from the lonely heath back to the bustling modernity of the visitors centre, I felt that we were leaving people behind, layer upon layer of them, their lives recorded in the flinty earth. The café, the children’s play area, and of course, the shop, returned my sense of normality, but the past still overtakes you sometimes and trips you up, often when you least expect it. I thought about other locations imbued with a sense of strangeness, of times colliding. A friend, with whom I occasionally run, won’t ever let us run past a certain copse along an ordinary country lane; she doesn’t know why, and nor do I. I’m fairly robust about haunted houses and spooky woods, but something unsettled me today. Maybe it was just the past, tripping me up again.
3 April

We went for an impromptu drink last night with some people we know who have recently moved into the village. It felt quite strange to be going to the pub on a Monday night, but I’m making the most of R being home for a couple of weeks before he starts his new job, our friends were free and suggested a drink, the children were shattered after a hard afternoon’s playing and happy to be early to bed with a babysitter installed, so out we went. Our new friends are both German, new to England as well as this area, and pleasingly delighted with their new life. There’s only one problem; both R and I have this awful habit of slipping into whichever accent is around us at the time. It’s not conscious, and we try so hard not to do it, but in the space of a single conversation we can be Welsh, Glaswegian or Mancunian, depending on who we’re talking to. I used to think it was just me, because I have changed accents myself during my life. I had a Geordie one for the first seven years of my life, then we moved to the London suburbs, where my flat ‘a’s’ were mocked, and apparently overnight I started saying ‘barth’ and ‘clarss’ for bath and class, much to the amusement of my parents. In my teenage years my accent morphed into street-cred norf Lunnon, and has now settled into featureless generic south-eastern. R, however, has no such excuses, as he grew up in rural Kent and has never sounded any different. So there we were, chatting to our new friends, and I could hear ourselves coming out with comments such as “Is that wine not very marvellous?” and “For sure, the weather is being pleasant and mild”. I am always horrified in these situations, thinking that the people we are talking to will pick up on it and think we are mocking their English (which is of course, pretty faultless), but luckily it seemed to go unnoticed.

We are very lucky to have our great local pub, just a mere stagger away across the green, and although small children mean we don’t get there in the evenings as often as we might like, it is a great venue for families during the summer. We have been known to while away entire afternoons sitting out on the huge lawn, along with what seems like the rest of the village. It backs onto woods and streams, so is often an essential stop when family walks just happen to take us in that direction, and it has all the requisite inglenooks and beams to make family Sunday lunches mellow and cosy. The children have often startled city-dwelling guests by asking to go over there after tea (it has the best play equipment in the area), and I believe ‘pub’ was one of my daughter’s first words. The annual bonfire night celebrations are held in their field, just behind, and it retains the feel of an old inn at the heart of the community. There are those (my husband included, sometimes) who bemoan the loss of a traditional ‘drinking’ pub, and it’s true that some of the old characters aren’t there any more, although Skinny John (his name’s John, and he’s skinny; we don’t do any of that superfluous verbal badinage round here!) and one or two others still prop up the bar most nights. Me, I never really went for that ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ feeling of all the locals going silent when you go in, and I love to wander in with the children and know I can get nice food if I so wish. They are relaxed about children, and relaxed about people whiling away their afternoons in the garden while nursing a single orange juice and lemonade, as I have occasionally done. I am aware of how packed such a venue would be in a built-up area, and despite its local popularity, I’m still grateful for its ancient, quiet feel.
It felt odd, last night, to be dispensing local wisdom to our friends. Having been incomers here for so long, they were treating us as venerable residents, who could fill them in on village traditions and local history. It felt quite nice, to have people hanging off our every word (doesn’t often happen!) and to feel so settled, so right, so at home.
2 April

Daniel and his dog are both possessed of dark, limpid eyes, devotion and loyalty. In earlier times, Daniel may have been said to be possessed, full stop. The middle child of three boys, he came into this world turning his head away, seemingly horrified by the world in which he found himself, finding no comfort in his mother’s arms or at her breast. Since then, it is as if he has refused to fully enter our world. Nine now, he is distanced, disconnected, often distraught. His parents, like so many others, have never had a clear diagnosis or explanation for their son’s condition. “Somewhere on the autistic spectrum” is as close as they can get. His mother and I met when her youngest and my eldest were babies, and she was slowly recognising that her withdrawn, obsessive toddler would always remain behind a barrier, would never embrace our world, or indeed, embrace her. Seven years on, he still avoids eye contact, is uneasy around others, and meeting anyone new causes him to gallop away like a frightened colt, stamping the ground as he flees.

I have known him for the bulk of his short life, and can sometimes have a glimpse, the tiniest fraction of understanding, of the frustration and sorrow of his parents, of the devastation his condition has wrought on the family. My friend copes admirably on the outside, but inside a part of her is slowly withering away. Not her love for her boy, never that, she loves him with the same fierce pride that she shows for her other sons, but I sometimes think that faith and hope are dying inside her. Even though I’ve changed names, I feel protective of their privacy and shouldn’t document the family breakdown that has sometimes overshadowed them, but it will suffice to say that she has known some dark nights of the soul.

Daniel and his Mum and brothers are coming for tea today. It probably wasn’t the best day I could have chosen, this first day of the Easter holidays, for my children are tired and not at their most robust after a late night driving back from Kent last night, but if their old friends won’t invite them, who will? Close as they are to the rest of the family, my two are often scared of Daniel, who can fly into silent rages, push others away with force, ruin games, frustration leading to destruction. Regular contact with him helps, though; long absences turn a troubled child into a monster, in their memories, whereas frequent visits shrink the spectre back to ‘just Daniel’.
My friends aren’t wealthy, but by most people’s standards they are comfortably off, and lucky enough to have a big garden behind their cottage, running down to water meadows. The natural world has been Daniel’s salvation, the one thing that calms him. He rarely shows emotion beyond rage and frustration, but if he is outside, whatever the weather, he becomes absorbed. He is a child of fields and woods, hedgerows and streams (though interestingly, not the sea; this overwhelms him; his senses overloaded, he screams and screams on seeing it). He turns into a Pan figure, communicating silently with trees and birds, alone but never lonely. He is an awkward, gangly boy, having left the sweetness of early childhood behind, ill at ease with his limbs and uncoordinated. Yet running through the trees, he is full of grace. Sometimes, I think he may have found his niche more readily in an earlier age, had he been accepted in his community. I could see him as a shepherd, or a hermit, perhaps, living deep in the woods. Perhaps I’m just being romantic; but a life outdoors would suit him so much more than an institution which surely beckons.

My friends bought a dog, last year; it was a gamble, with Daniel around, but they had a hunch that a dog might help. It was spectacularly successful. Charlie, their English setter, has provided Daniel with the friend that he has never had. It sounds sentimental, too perfect, and it’s true that he still won’t integrate with other people, but Charlie has brought hope to this family, and an element of relaxation, and, dare I say it, happiness to Daniel. They roam the woods together, curl up on the mat together (and this a child who hates to be touched). Daniel takes care of him, grooming him, feeding him, crooning to him, seeking him out each early morning and disappearing into the garden with him for hours on end. As Charlie’s natural owner, Daniel has gained status amongst other children; they look forward to seeing Charlie, if not Daniel himself, and Daniel basks, shyly, secretively, in the reflected glory, an indication that he may crave human contact, after all.

Even if dogs were a solution for every child like this, it’s hardly a practical answer. So many children like Daniel aren’t lucky enough to live in the country, with a big garden, and to have a dog. What do I know, anyway, about the education and support for autistic children? Nothing, really, but I remember last summer, when Charlie was a new addition to the family, and we were visiting. Daniel and Charlie were among the trees at the edge of the water meadows, boy and dog hazily outlined in the summer light, seeming to merge into the water and the leaves. Daniel, the boy who hates water, who can’t have a bath, got his feet wet, following Charlie into the marshy shallows, and when Charlie turned and shook, droplets of water flying off him like sparks of light, showering him, he laughed and hugged his dog.
31 March

“Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci”. Not very Country Living, admittedly, but very much the theme of the party I went to last night. It was a friend’s 40th, she is lucky enough to have an amazing barn next to her house which is the most perfect party venue, and she threw a 70’s party to celebrate, despite the fact that her experience of the early seventies was limited to tartan pinafores and ‘Rainbow’ on the television. Parties are an infrequent event in my life these days; I’m usually in my pyjamas by 9.00 pm, my social life consisting of mellow dinners with friends or lazy lunches with packs of children racing around. But last night was all about being grown-up, yet paradoxically paying homage to our youthful selves. Think Studio 54, think Bianca Jagger’s iconic white trouser suit, think Marie Helvin in gold lame. Actually, think a rather motley collection of us country dwellers, usually to be found in fleeces and wellies, desperately trying to recreate some imagined glamour from an era that definitely had its sartorial and social catastrophes. No memories of gloomy evenings with no electricity, winters of discontent or unrest on the street, last night; no NF marches, skinheads in Doc Martens, or water shortages; just extravagance, glitter balls, and lots and lots of make-up. Some people had gone down the comedy route; joke wigs, catsuits and Alvin-Stardust like platform boots, whilst others, (myself included), too vain to want to raise a laugh but eager to enter into the party spirit, made good use of the current fashion for floaty smock tops and accessorised madly, no doubt overdoing the blue eye shadow and eyeliner.

We ate chilli con carne and black forest gateau; drank snowballs (remember those), or tried to, then turned with gratitude to the wine. It felt as though people were behaving like teenagers at a disco, too; no improper behaviour or a sneaked cigarette behind the bike sheds, I assure you, but people still fell back into their natural roles. There was the life-and-soul group, hogging the dance floor, drinking a little too much, exuberant and showing off. There were the hardened drinkers, rarely leaving the bar or their tables, watching the dancer floor with a critical eye. There were those who seemed not to notice that they were at a party at all, but who immediately struck up conversations with their friends or neighbours as though they had met walking the dogs in a ploughed field, launching straight away into the price of crops, animal husbandry or the weather forecasts. An incongruous sight, this bunch of men (for all were of course male), since some were in their usual no-nonsense attire, others sporting stick-on moustaches, kipper ties and velvet waistcoats, doubtless coerced by wives and girlfriends into’ making an effort’, but deeply uncomfortable and wriggling nonetheless, like schoolboys forced into starched collars. Then there were the group of women who stood in a gaggle by the door most of the evening, husbands at the bar, huddled together next to the escape route for security, eyes darting anxiously around to see who they recognised. They would have been the ones dancing together around their handbags twenty years ago. And me? Oh, floating elegantly, drinking moderately, smiling graciously, of course.

The music; well, I’ll give you a flavour of the great and the OK and the frankly forgettable, to recreate any dormant memories you may have of school discos, or the music your parents used to play. Chic; Donna Summer; Hot Chocolate; The Jackson Five; The Drifters; Alice Cooper; Sister Sledge; Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel; Elton John; The Small Faces; Roxy Music; Bowie; Sparks; Blondie; Boney M; Steely Dan; Mud; Slade; The Sweet; Showadywaddy; KC and the Sunshine Band; T-Rex; Abba; Wizard; The Average White Band; Earth Wind and Fire; Supertramp; Thin Lizzy.

I have a dull ache in my head today, reminiscent of the thumping disco sounds last night, and loud noises jar. It’ll be an early bath and bed for me as well as the children tonight, to which I am already looking forward. A lovely evening though; we called it pure nostalgia, but really it was fantasy. I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with fairy-tales.
29 March
Gardens are among my earliest memories. We had a tiny one in the first house I lived in, yet the crazy paving was a gateway to another world for me and my sister. I can still see the bricks in the wall under which we buried our hamsters and gerbils; a holocaust of pets, if memory serves me right, since they seemed to give up the fight the moment we got them home. As I got older, the gardens got bigger, yet it some ways that first one was the biggest of them all, because I was so small, and my imagination so huge. I have always loved gardens; dreamed of them, read about them, pined in my flat-dwelling days to have one of own. From my first reading of The Secret Garden, I’ve been aware of the magical and secretive natures of gardens. Big expanses of lawn don’t really do it for me, although I’ve often wished ours was a bit bigger. I like enclosed spaces, walls and hedges, twists and turns and sudden surprises. I like a garden to slowly unveil its delights.
Despite my delight in being in a garden, despite my very definite tastes and preferences, I never actually gardened until very recently. I told myself it was because I didn’t have time, because I was too impatient by nature, because I didn’t enjoy physical hard work. Yet really it was because I had no confidence; I didn’t know where to start, I was daunted by the volumes of information, the terrifying know-how of everyone else. I think I was rebelling against my Father, too, who was and is an obsessive gardener. My teenage years were spent bringing home boyfriends, and having to sulkily submit to a tour of the garden by Dad. We’d both be dying to go to the pub, but would be out there for ages, the boyfriend usually desperate to impress and trying to dredge up something – anything – to say about plants, while I would stamp my kitten heels in the gravel and pout. My sister and I must have been such a disappointment to my Dad in our teenage years; he worked so hard to be able to afford to move us out to a leafy suburb and provide us with a lovely big garden, but all we could do was yearn for the dives of London and stare out moodily at the fields.

When I did finally get my own garden, I dutifully made a few lists of what I wanted, bought a few things, then sat back and watched my husband do the work. He knows his stuff, but his heart isn’t really in it; although he is obsessed by trees and woodland, flower gardening doesn’t do it for him. Several gardens later, I suddenly stopped being a spectator, an appreciator, and found my place in the garden. It really was sudden; a friend bought me a plant, R was away, I had to do something with it. So I planted it, gingerly and full of trepidation. The smell of the wet earth overwhelmed me; it really was a Proust and the madeleines moment – my childhood came flooding back. I was hooked. This was only a couple of years ago, and I have since become as obsessive as my father. R was suspicious at first, knowing my propensity for sudden passions, and knowing also that they often don’t last long. This has me gripped though, and if I’m not outside with the children, I’m searching fervently through books of gardening lore and plant encyclopedias. The garden and I are still shy with one another, however; I’m still learning, still not entirely sure of myself, still making a mistake here, a faux pas there. I’m discovering it’s secrets, what grows best where, what’s beautiful but not very showy, what starts out with a great display but turns out to be all fur coat and no knickers, as my Gran would say. And slowly, slowly, I’m creating a garden. My Dad is with me, of course, occasionally in person, often in spirit. I’m amazed, actually, at how much I already knew, how much I must have absorbed sub-consciously whilst stroppily following my Dad around his garden. It felt like coming home, handling that first patch of wet earth. My Grandad is in my garden too, whispering in my ear at odd moments, reminding me of plants I’d long forgotten. My Grandad’s garden … that stole my heart at the tender age of four or five. I dream of it often, and try to recreate it, although my garden resolutely goes its own way. It wasn’t big, just a typical cottage garden, flowers and produce all jumbled up together, at the back of an ordinary miner’s house in a pit village. Those plants were the sun and air to my Grandad, and I caught fragments of that love as a small child, not understanding devotion, but recognising it nevertheless.

I will probably outgrow this garden, at some point. It’s never been quite big enough for the house, and it already annoys me that there isn’t room for a decent vegetable patch. I grow some garlic and onions, a few carrots, and tomatoes and strawberries all mixed up with the flowers, as my Grandad would have done, but it would be nice to have more. I’ll save my herb garden for another blog; herbs have always been a passion of mine, I always had some in pots, long before I started ‘proper’ gardening, and they come first in this garden too. They’re slightly separate from the main garden, for me, though, bound up as they are with medicinal and culinary uses, and occupying a different place n my heart.

There have been times recently when I’ve stood out in my garden on a summer’s night, under a slither of moon, bathed in fragrance, and thought that maybe I’m creating an earth poem in honour of my Dad and my Grandad, both of whom, oddly, also took suddenly to gardening in their middle years, having shown no interest before. Other times I’ve thought I’m doing it simply for myself, because my life was ready for this passion. I’m still jealous, sometimes, of other people’s knowledge, and shy when talking about successes. I’m too aware of my own inexperience, and get frustrated and impatient with reversals, or lack of progress. But I’m still in the first flush of new love, and I’m already planning our future.
28 March

This blog is about good and bad. I feel in the mood to make severe moral judgements, none of this prizes-for-all political correctness from me today. Yesterday the countryside was pouring forth sweetness and light; cerulean blue skies, sparkling hedgerows, everything washed by that colour peculiar to the time of year that is neither yellow nor green. I felt the energy around me, the sap rising, but I got myself all worked up over the injustices of the world. Nothing on too big a scale, mind you, I wasn’t on a one-woman mission to end global poverty or imprisonment without trial. It just annoys me, for want of a better word at the moment, that even our tiny community, off the scale in terms of even local importance, can have its fair share of winners and losers, and that it should be quite so unjust. I know that even the smallest group of people will contain the usual stereotypes; the gossip, the control freak, the pedant, and that it will also contain those who try to work for the common good, and those only concerned for themselves.
Take Richard, a local small farmer who lives down a tiny lane quite close to me. His parents farmed the same land before him, his grandparents before that. He and his family are permanently poised on the brink of catastrophe, fearing each month for the news that will tip them over the edge. I walk past their farmhouse regularly as one of our favourite walks crosses by their land. It always makes me think of “a little crooked house with a little crooked stile” – it’s small and dilapidated and uneven, looking as if it’s slowly sinking back into the rich earth. The scene reminds me of a child’s drawing; chickens clucking in the yard, ducks on the pond, green fields which are all managed by one man. It’s no longer a sustainable life, although Richard and his wife have diversified. She is artistic and crafty, like so many of you talented souls on this site, and sells what she makes when she can. They have also started an organic vegetable box scheme, that bastion of middle-class rural life. We took his boxes, and as well as the treat of the vegetables, satisfyingly earthy and misshapen, I looked forward to the weekly ritual of the chats I had with Richard or Helen. They always seemed to bring a breath of peace with them, as we stood chatting in the porch, something timeless and relaxing. Such, quiet, gentle, people, old hippies, you might think, if you saw them in the pub one night, not knowing how hard they worked, how the effort to keep afloat is weighing them down. Not that they could afford a pint in the pub, anyway, less still the pottering, artisan life they look as though they might lead, all baggy jumpers and slightly unkempt hair. They play such an active role in the village life; their daughter has left the village school now, but they’re still always there with fundraising ideas, popping in on the elderly, concerned and attentive.

There was a huge problem for me though; their veg wasn’t really up to much. It was reasonably priced, as far as organic boxes go, but there was never anything we wanted to cook with. I know the idea is that you make do with what is in season, and I understand that, and tried hard, but there is a limit to my creativity as a cook. Given that we have young children, our favourite meals tend to be those staples of family cooking, for which I need endless amounts of onions, garlic, carrots, broccoli and leeks, with a couple of interesting additions, according to the season. We would get week after week of turnips and sprouts. We did talk to them about this, but there wasn’t much improvement. A few weeks ago, mindful of our need to economize at the moment, we decided we couldn’t continue. There’s a greengrocer in a neighbouring large village who supplies good quality organic veg and is cheaper. I felt terrible, but the words stumbled out in the end. Richard seemed even more insubstantial than ever, is if he were fading around the edges. I nearly cried. (We were reminded of a time in London, when R used to buy his morning capuccino from a tiny family run Italian café, outside the tube station closest to his work. Unfortunately a Costa coffee opened up even closer to the tube, and he started going in there, as they were quicker. One day he was walking down the road, Costa cup in hand, to see the Italian man coming towards him. “It’s all over, Sir, it’s all over, I’m closing down, not enough business”, he said, pumping R’s hand in grateful thanks for his custom. R has never been able to drink Costa’s coffee since).

The ‘bad’ man in this tale is another neighbour, a man who made his pile of money and came to live the good life in the country. Nothing wrong with that; we’re all buying into the dream, after all, and I’m an incomer too. He bought a large house with a huge garden that adjoins the school field. It’s a tiny school of around eighty pupils, aged 4-9; as a parent I think the behaviour is exemplary. As soon as he moved in, the letters started. Fired off in all directions, they usually included complaints about the ‘students’ littering the paths and being noisy. He complained about noise from the village hall, opposite his house. Large notices appeared on all his boundaries asking for his privacy to be respected (?). Our pre-school (part-time play sessions for two-and-a-half to four year olds) was housed for a while in the village hall while we raised funds to finance purpose-built accommodation on the school site. This was a huge community effort for a small village and we raised all the funds ourselves. This nearly sent him into apoplexy. He held up the planning proposals at every available stage, objecting to the potentially unruly behaviour, and the likelihood of ‘bottles being left lying around’. Bottles of what - milk? His objections were all thrown out, and building is currently underway, hurrah. His house went straight on the market.

What has all this got to do with yesterday? Well ,yesterday I heard he’s moving out, to somewhere more ‘congenial’, with electric gates. It may have its own police force to arrest unruly toddlers for all I know. And Richard? Well, it’s back to the recipe books for me. I popped round yesterday evening and told him I wanted the boxes again. It’ll cost us a bit more, but economics was never my forte; my conscience will be salved.
27 March

I heard about a death in the village this morning. There are two old ladies, twin sisters, who live with their younger brother, the three of them unmarried and crammed in together in their shabby cottage. The brother has mental health issues, which I believe is the right way of putting it these days. He shambles amiably through the village, chatting to anyone he sees, his trousers baggy, his eyes curiously vacant. He is a harmless and genial soul, and I’m often grateful that he lives in this day and age, where he has a roof over his head, and no-one points and calls in the street. Or maybe he would always have been looked after, part of the community, everyone’s responsibility. I would like to think so. His sisters must be in their late seventies, identical only in their papery, powdered faces and faded gentian-blue eyes. Maisie is shorter than her sister, forceful, bullish in figure and attitude. She’s certain of herself, opinionated and bossy; the three of them are scions of the oldest and wealthiest local family (I’m not quite sure what the relationship is, but clearly this branch have fallen on hard times) and she doesn’t want you to forget it. She adjudicates at village shows, shooting stick in place, barking orders and intimidating people with her sheer force of personality. She is the antithesis of everything that I normally warm to in people, yet there’s something curiously touching about her refusal to be cowed by anything or anyone, her spirit indominitable despite the setbacks life has thrown at her. Her sister Barbara, taller and thinner, is gentler, softer, all trailing scarves and wispy hair, something pleading and mournful about her, all fluidity in contrast to her sister’s force. She always longed for marriage and children, yet neither came her way. She carries this regret around with her like an injured baby, holding it out for everyone to see. Maisie would have loved children too, she feels the loss keenly, she says. But you take what life throws at you and you get on with it, she told me once. It’s hard for me, such a product of the late twentieth century, my life abounding with choices, to recognise how circumscribed were the young lives of Maisie and Barbara. So little was expected of them in some ways, yet when the prepared-for life didn’t happen, they felt abandoned by their little world, marooned in isolation. “I was disappointed in love”, says Barbara, making me think of star-crossed lovers, of shotgun-wielding fathers and aborted assignations, or of fiancées who maybe left for war and didn’t return. “We never met anyone, stuck out here and with Robbie to take care of” is the forthright Maisie’s take on it. Maisie stared her loss in the face and put it to one side. Her life is busy, full of committees and societies and causes and people. Barbara’s isn’t. The strange thing is is that Barbara, who makes such a fuss of children, doesn’t connect with them. I’ve watched my own and other children stare unmoved as she clucks and fusses over them, patting their heads and marvelling at their growth. Yet Maisie they like – direct, slightly scary and too busy to take too much notice of them, they respond to her natural authority and rather gruff kindness. My daughter calls her the jewel lady, an oddly exotic name for such an unadorned woman, because the few times we have called at their tiny cottage, Maisie has chucked an old jewel box, complete with garnet necklaces, at her, and told her to play. She did.

It was Barbara who died yesterday, Barbara who never came to terms with the way her life turned out, who expected so much but got so little.

I’ve been thinking of another old lady today, one who I saw at a children’s party on Saturday. Some of the birthday girl’s extended family was there, and there was a very old lady sitting motionless in the centre of the festivities, presumably someone’s great granny or great aunt. When the children were playing pass the parcel, she suddenly reached out, grabbed the parcel and began to unwrap it greedily. The children were horrified; one or two cried. The adults were taken aback and took a moment or two to respond. Eventually the hostess gently took it off her and gave it back to the children. It wasn’t without its funny side, and my friends and I giggled afterwards, albeit with nervous laughter. But the look on the old lady’s face as the present was taken away from her stayed with me, and I thought of it today when I heard about Barbara. Maybe it is disappointment that does for us, in the end.
26 March

Given that we have an eight year old boy in the house, any conversation seems to turn magically to Doctor Who. After we’d listen to a loooong discussion between J and our friends’ sons on the benefits of time travel yesterday, we started idly discussing where we’d like to go, if we had our own Tardis. The main question we decided upon was, if we could only go either into the future or back to the past, which would you choose? You could travel as often as you wanted, but could only go in the one direction. Obviously everyone wants to do both, but given this choice, I chose to go back. My husband, without a shred of nostalgia in his bones, chose the future. So did our friends. The boys, their lives stretching before them like the Yellow Brick Road, are amazed to even be asked. They want nothing but the future; their brief pasts just a hazy milky memory. I’d love to see what lies in store, but the past wins every time for me. I would hate to be stranded, uncomprehending, in the future, like a 21st century Catweazle (showing my age here!), with no points of reference to cling to. Maybe I’m just unadventurous. I’d love to revisit the past, both the personal and the public. Think of the people I could see again, and think of the questions that could be answered. I’ve always loved history, but often felt dissatisfied with the interpretation of historians. So easy to remake history according to your own standards and culture, and so beyond the realms of the possible to ever know for sure. I’m not sure what my ‘favourite’ history period is; if I had to choose one, I’d probably pick the early medieval period, through Britain around the time of the Roman conquest would come pretty close. And world history – think of where you could go, what you could see.

I’d like to get back close to home, too. See my house as it was when it was first constructed, in the eighteenth century. It was originally two houses, in fact, although dwellings may be a more appropriate word – the smaller half would have been a one-up, one down, tiny rooms at that. I could find out who ‘Bess’ really was (I wrote an earlier blog about the name scratched on a beam in my daughter’s room). I don’t think I have a romantic view of the past; I know how hard life would have been for cottagers in those days; I know about the grinding poverty, the meagre survival rates for infants, the threat of starvation. Great to pop in, though, like the benevolent Doctor, dispensing wisdom and handy survival tips. I look at our sleepy village on this clear blue spring morning, and think what I’d have seen a couple of hundred years ago. More activity, more life, more people, for sure. We don’t do badly for a rural parish of a few hundred souls, well off the beaten track; we have a pub, a school, a doctor’s surgery, a butchers shop. But there used to be so much more here, truly a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. And a rope maker. And a corn chandler, blacksmith, cartmaker, washerwoman, dairy maids. Even as recently as the 1970’s there was a chip shop and a delicatessen, (both ends of the market catered for!) now vanished along with the post office and general stores. So many of the village houses have names telling of their former use; the Old Stores, the Old Bakers, the Old Post Office. I don’t want us to be preserved in aspic, a charming reconstruction. And the village is fighting back, campaigning for more facilities, fewer closures, more affordable housing. But the yearning, nostalgic part of me misses a past I never knew. I think about the noises, too; one of the things we love about living here is the silence. No major roads are near, although traffic does of course pass through the village, so thre’s plenty of birdsong, the nights silent apart from the hooting of the owls. Daily life a hundred years ago must have been far noisier, although lovely not to hear the jets overhead or the background hum of cars. The sound of horses’ hooves must have been a constant (I was surprised to read, once, in a book about 12th century England, that market towns had ‘cart parks’). The strange thing is, is that in our little lane, I often hear the sound of hooves, even when there’s no horse to seen. It’s probably the acoustics of the green, or something; there are certainly a lot of riders about. But maybe the past is all around us, after all.
24 March

A small shallow river encircles our village like a silver necklace. Called the Box, a name I love because it reminds me of box hedges and topiary, it’s a river of absolutely no significance, a stream that is a tributary of another stream, unusual only in that causes our village layout to be circular. This is rare in our part of Suffolk; most of the surrounding villages are long and straggly, with meandering streets which gently peter out into water meadows or farmland. Our village, set in a valley surrounded by rolling hills, is clustered around a traditional green, with the 12th church and Georgian rectory at one end, the Victorian Institute (village hall) at the other, and a couple of small but nonetheless curious standing stones (circular, not menhirs) dotted about. We loved the place when we first saw it, loved the fact that it had a tiny but good school, an excellent pub, a doctor’s surgery and a 1920’s garage. We bemoaned the fact that it had two good butchers, but no shop. Coming from a house that was isolated, I loved the way that the dwellings huddled together, facing inwards, protected by the natural boundary of the river. Most of the houses in the centre of the village have the river at the back; it’s the usual conversation opener here, mentioned even before the weather. It’s at the back of ours, but at the foot of a steep slope, some ten feet below the main garden. The old lady next door told me that in the 1930’s the level had risen so high that our garden was flooded, but that the water course had deviated slightly since then, and it hadn’t happened since. I love our little slice of stream; it rages like a torrent after winter rains, a swift brown rush that silences the children as it sweeps past, a mere paddling trickle in summer, perfect for cooling ankles and catching sticklebacks. Shiny stepping stones are revealed, and a tiny patch of shingly sand, or own four foot square ‘beach’. When the level’s fairly low, it’s possible to walk through the river in an almost perfect circle around the village, apart from a few tricky bits where you need to scramble up the muddy banks, or put the children on your shoulders.

It’s been a dreary drizzle of a day here, and the children, cooped up inside and waiting with mounting excitement for a party that both of them have been invited to later this afternoon, have been fractious and squabbling. In the end we hauled them out, still quarrelling gently, for a river walk, to splash the bad humour away. My son looks for big sticks, seemingly essential for any male, regardless of their age, and unusual stones. I remember him at four looking for pirates; his sister, at almost four, is convinced she can hear the siren songs of mermaids. They make no distinction between sea and river; water is water, after all, and carries their imaginations along with it on it’s bubbling journey. The day is still and cold and grey; I get impatient with spring, on days like this, when we seem to be waiting for that final flourish, the fanfare of birdsong and blooms that is just around the corner. It’s hard to remember doing this same walk in summer, the banks filled with purple loosestrife, the air heavy with midges and the scent of meadowsweet.

As we encircle the village, we pass by the gardens and houses of neighbours, friends, and acquaintances. R and I notice who’s doing what to their garden, what looks good, what doesn’t, who’s extending, who’s going to need to if it’s true that a fourth is on the way – without speaking we can sense each other’s approval or disapproval, a raised eyebrow sufficing as we pass the house of the local ‘Asbo family’, their garden awash with rusty bikes, bright plastic and old cars. I remember when they moved in and the youngest son started at the village school; on his first morning he accidentally blocked the headmistress’s way, and was admonished by his mother to “shift your a*se, you little s*d”. The hands of the yummy mummy contingent flew to their mouths in one graceful, slow-motion movement. The children see different things, though. They notice the clashing pansies planted outside the kitchen window, in defiance of the joyless chaos all around. They’re jealous of the broken down caravan, parked at the side, and wave with excitement to the children inside. We pass the ordered and soulless garden of the village busybody, who with her expressionless voice and officious manner is avoided by us; the children remember her kindness when James fell down outside school and cut his knee, and the sweetie she pressed into his hand. We pass houses where we don’t know the occupants but they do; one elderly man, a retired teacher, apparently listens to the children reading once a week at the school; a teenage occupant of another house is studying childcare at the local college and has helped out at the pre-school, we are informed. We think we know everything there is to know about this place, the feuds and the affairs, the illnesses and broken lives. Turns out the children know a different village, after all.
22 March
I had to go to London today, for a meeting about some potential work from a company I used to work for, many moons ago. I set off early, prising small children off me, lists of instructions tumbling out of my mouth. It must be so nice to just pick up a briefcase and go. My daughter was cross and pouty; having fully recovered from her bout of illness, in that miraculous way that small children do, she sensed my attention wandering from her, along with my physical presence. “Work’s stupid”, she announced, with all the assurance of Paris Hilton. “I won’t do it when I’m a big lady”. “Let’s hope you do a better job of landing a sugar Daddy than I did, honeybunch”, I muttered. I hadn’t particularly wanted to go as it’s a long and expensive trip, just for a brief meeting which may or may not come to anything. See and be seen is a fine motto for office life, but not so convenient when you’re making a round trip of 150 miles. I didn’t have anyone to look after the children for more than part of the day, so couldn’t make a day and night of it. Once I was on the train, though, I let the pleasure of unaccustomed solitude wash over me. I’m one of those people who loves to travel. Arriving in London, my mood changed. I seem to have lost that ability to adapt quickly to my surroundings that I had when I was younger; maybe we all lose, it, at some point. The barrage of noise and the rush and hum all around me seemed too much. Everything too bright, too loud, too brash. Sensory overload; I wanted to hunker down like a toddler and bury my face in my Mother’s skirt. God, I hate London, I thought. Some twenty minutes later, I was walking through the City, passing restaurants and bars I once knew too well, remembering ambition, celebrations, intense friendships with colleagues who have long since pulled up the drawbridges and retreated to their families, like me. I felt the familiar energy return, I walked faster, felt confident, striding out. These boots were sure made for walking. God, I love London.

I was plunged back into the abyss a few minutes later. My meeting was with a fairly senior guy in the company, someone who joined long after my time, but to my surprise he was twelve. Or maybe fourteen, at a push. It was a relatively informal chat, but to my horror I could feel myself coming over all bossy and maternal, not at all the smart, confident girl-about-town image I’d expected to snap into. Hell, I thought, maybe I’ve only got two personas now; bossy Mum, or frantic blogger, fingers aching, eyes bulging, making a bee line for the computer at strange times of day, and only able to relate to cyber friends. Thanks the Lord he didn’t ask me about any hobbies; I’d have got him on the site before he could say ‘financial remuneration’; maybe he could have started a London blog to rival Frances’s NY tales, “Life as a teenage mover and shaker”.

Anyway, I came, I saw, I probably failed to conquer, but it was OK. The best part of my day was going for a coffee in Soho, to one of my favourite places in the world (see photo). R and I went for coffee there when we bumped into one another one Saturday, a couple of days after we’d first met, through work; I suppose it was our first date. They made our wedding cake for us. Of course, as soon as I sat down, I started wondering about the children, and what they were up to, and what sticky concoctions they would have chosen, had they been with me. Such are the contradictions of motherhood.

Coming home is always the best bit of a journey. Coming home in the late afternoon, especially, feels naughty, as if I’m playing truant, slipping away from a life as a city ghost, to my real, substantial self. I feel the pull of home while we’re still hurtling through the dreary suburbs, long before the view changes to a spare, watery landscape. As I pull up outside the house, desperate to get out of the boots I’d been striding about in so confidently only hours before, I hear the call of the owls who live in the tree by the house. One screeches and the other instantly replies. It’s not dark yet, and I can see them clearly. They are vividly coloured, all bright russets and ochres, and something in their self-important, enquiring stares reminds me of my children, just on the other side of the door. God, I love home.
21 March

This is a tale of two houses. The first sat well back from the village street, with no near neighbours. It had a wild and tangled garden, with rambling roses everywhere, and a small orchard with fruit trees and a huge walnut tree. Inside were layers of dust, and crumbling plaster, and big reception rooms. Upstairs were eaves bedrooms with creaking floors that made you teeter and skid. It was an impulse view, an impulse buy. We were excited and confident; but something niggled. The house ticked all the boxes, though, and I admit I bought to impress. Not because it had any grandeur or gave us any great status; it was a cottage needing renovation, that’s all. But it summed up the dream so perfectly; our children (one baby, then) could run barefoot through the long grass, while I cooked on the Rayburn and friends sat on the window seat as the scent of the sweet peas wafted in. I’ve learned since then to trust my instincts, not my desires.

The house wasn’t for us. At least, maybe it was, just to show us that we weren’t infallible, for we made every mistake in the book. Some could have been avoided; we took on a huge restoration project, whilst moving to an isolated place where we knew no-one, we had a small baby with all the work and exhaustion that that brings, and I was already mourning the loss of my city life and close friends. We didn’t listen when people said that everyone overspends on their budget; we were already stretched to our financial limits. Some things were just bad luck; work from my husband’s key clients, for whom he could often work from home or in London, dried up, and most new work coming in meant working abroad for weeks on end, leaving me struggling with rural motherhood and a renovation project, and a rapidly dwindling pot of money. For months my kitchen consisted of a microwave in the dining room, and water had to be accessed by going round the outside of the house to the building site of a kitchen. Keeping a one year old out of said building site was fun, too. In my memory it rained all the time, yet logic tells me it can’t have done; we were there for three summers, after all. When I probe my buried memories, or tease them up by looking through the photo albums, other pictures come into view. Lying in a hammock under the oak tree with my son; the ‘Canary Bird’ rosebush which flowered each year on the 1st May; deer crunching on old apples in the front garden; collecting plums and walnuts; the jewel colours of the oriental poppies in the overgrown and blowsy borders. We have a photo of a spectacular snowman we built one year, pipe in his mouth, and of Christmas trees lit up with real candles (placed, high, naturally). There were good times, I think, no real tragedy befell us. My boy spent three years of his life there. Yet my memories are mostly of trying to push water uphill; of trying to coax a country idyll out of something that just wouldn’t yield. However much we put our stamp on it, the house didn’t feel like ours. When we finished a project, we couldn’t seem to rejoice, or relax; we could only see the blood, sweat and tears. And the other babies, the ones that were meant to run, barefoot and long-limbed, among the apple trees, didn’t come. Or they came, but only fleetingly, and wouldn’t stay with me. The more I try to remember, the more my mind hits a blank wall.

In the end, the bulk of the renovation complete but lacking the cash to take it to the next level, we decided to sell. We could have stuck it out for a year or two, got back on our feet financially, seen it through. But we couldn’t love the house – or rather, we felt it didn’t love us. It didn’t seem to want to give an inch. I spent long amounts of time alone there with a baby, and I can’t ever say that I felt scared or that there was any malevolent presence, or anything like that. I’m not sure how much I believe in the supernatural. But if pressed, we would both say we felt – well – jeered at somehow, scorned in some way. How ridiculous it sounds, now I write it down. We sold to a lovely couple who had fallen in love with it and wanted to raise a family there. I was adamant that I wanted a smaller house, with a large garden, on the outskirts of our local town. Something newer, Victoran maybe. I’d had enough, knew my place. I didn’t want to stay in the immediate locality, and we needed to be settled before my son started school. We took a short cut through a neighbouring village one day, and fell in love. Deeply and irrevocably. The house was unsuitable on so many levels. It was the same period, the to-do list too long for our weary hearts. The garden wasn’t really big enough, and was north-facing. There were plenty of spacious rooms upstairs, but the downstairs rooms were small and dark – surely the wrong way round? It was right in the centre of the village and jammed in by neighbours. But it was crazy and quirky and full of surprises, and it felt like falling in love after leaving an arranged marriage.
The day we accepted the offer on the first house, I discovered I was pregnant. By the time we moved in to our new house, the baby was kicking. The lady who’d lived here left us a carved owl and a print of some hares, which she felt belonged here; they have become our talismans. We bumped into the couple we’d sold to from time to time. They seemed content, and loved the house, but we couldn’t fail to notice that they were still only two. No family seemed to be coming along. We then saw the house was on the market, and we ran into them again last week. They’ve had a turbulent time, lately. He was made redundant, and money has been tight. They’ve sold the house. Things are looking up, though, now. He’s got another job, and they’ve found out she’s pregnant. They were both glowing. But they told us something else; they’d done a little research into the history of the house, and for a period in it’s life it was the village poor house. Explains a lot.
20 March

What a night. I should have expected it, of course, since my son brought up the subject of camping yesterday evening. A soon as the evenings get lighter, his thoughts stray to sleeping under canvas, and this despite the Arctic conditions we’ve all been plunged into this week. Me and camping just don’t go. I’m happy for him to sleep out every night under the stars in the garden, if he so chooses, and his dad and his sister can go too – ‘wha’ever’ is my inner response. I camped quite a bit as a teenager, inter-railing my way intrepidly around Europe, sleeping on beaches with my boyfriend … but I was 18 then. I was seduced from my sulks last year by R, who persuaded me that camping was the way forward for family holidays. He was helped by the proliferation of articles last year extolling the virtues of Cath Kidston tents, of Mongolian Yurts, of discovering your inner happy camper. So we booked a couple of nights in North Norfolk, during the June half-term. All anybody seems to remember now about last summer was the often intense heat; but let me remind you, readers, that summer came late last year – June was a wash-out, in East Anglia, at least, and night frosts persisted. We duly froze, along with the grass. I’d booked the campsite on the internet, at the last minute and therefore in a panic – and it was terrible. Truly awful, a windswept, flinty field with no view and the most basic facilities. It’s only for two nights, I thought, in a stoic way, I can do it. That was before R got ill. I diagnosed man flu and left him too it, sulky at having to entertain the children while he lay groaning in the tent. Then on the second night I got it. Clearly not man flu, but a life-threatening disease. We decided we could last the night, as we were heading home in the morning anyway. I managed to get to sleep at about one in the morning, a child wedging me in on each side. Just as I was dozing, James sat up, said “Oh dear Mummy” and threw up all over me, and all over the bedding. Freezing, ill, and soaked in vomit, I gamely carried a carrier bag full of sick across the crunchy white grass to find a bin. We packed up, somehow got the tent down without divorcing, and were home by 4.30 am. Lovely. So my heart froze over when my son brought up camping again last night. I should have known it was an omen.

K woke about 3.00, having been sick in her bed. I got her to the bathroom, waited until I thought she’d finished (ha!), bundled the sheets into a pile and put her into our bed. She was sick again. I changed the sheets. R went of to sleep in the spare room, not unreasonably, since he had to drive to the airport early this morning. I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t put clean sheets back on the bed after guests had left the other weekend, so listened for a while, with as much amusement as I could muster at 4.00 am, to my husband making Basil Fawlty noises from next door. Then K was sick again. I had no more clean sheets that would fit our bed, and it was pretty much everywhere. So, just as he had sunk gratefully into a clean bed, R was turfed out by me and K and banished to the sofa. I spent the next couple of hours grimly praying that she wouldn’t do it again, and she didn’t, but her whimpering, boiling hot little body, pressed right up against me, meant that even the most fitful of dozes was an expectation too far.Apologies to Milla, who has already brought up (excuse the pun) the subject of vomiting children, but my brain is so sleep-deprived that I can’t write about anything else. I feel as if I’m moving underwater.