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Friday, 24 November 2017

DINNER WITH FRIENDS


I am about to write a scene for my current book in which six people are gathered around a dinner table in extraordinary circumstances. The reader will by now be very familiar with each one of the six, and of course others are missing from the table. The story is building to a climax and these characters have recently undergone experiences which have tested them to their limits. In such circumstances the ‘calm before the storm’ will prompt a diversity of reactions.
How hard is it to enjoy yourself in heartbreaking, difficult or frightening situations? As someone recently bereaved and in a year of losing many members of our close and extended family, and friends too, I find myself comparing my situation to living through a war. My parents’ generation did just this, and my grandmother had three sons caught up in the war overseas. I cannot imagine everyday life for those left at home to worry – or to mourn – and to try living out that worn-out motto: ‘keep calm and carry on’.
Human beings have a wonderful capacity for coping with grief and worry, but I believe they are helped by finding others in similar situations. Moving back to my ‘dinner table’, the six have been drawn into a web of sinister events without choice. This dining experience will be unexpected and tranquil with candlelight and spectacular food. But can two people who disliked each other on sight become reconciled? Will two troubled and fearful souls be fortified enough to draw strength for the forthcoming hiatus? Might one couple passionately in love find a solution to their enforced separation? I’m beginning to sound like the back cover of a trashy novel!

As I begin to plan our annual Christmas lunch, the elephant in the room is the missing person from the gathering this year. Then I begin to consider how much the table has shrunk over the years as other late lamented guests have departed too soon, and a list begins to form.

Enough gloom. I leave you with a question: in Fantasyland, you may host a dinner table for six. Around the table will be you and five others who you would rather dine with than anyone else. They may be living or dead, real or imaginary (fiction). They must be people who will make you laugh, who will stimulate you or simply add quiet support. Who would they be? I know who mine are… but then again, maybe I need to host more than one of these fantasy meals. Enjoy!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

LISTEN WITH MOTHER



One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood is of my mother singing. She would sing while doing the housework, songs her mother had sung, or current songs from musicals. When her infant daughter (me) sat listening to the daily ritual of the ‘wireless’ voice of Daphne Oxenford broadcasting ‘Listen With Mother’*, my mother would sing along with the nursery rhymes and hum the closing excerpt from Faure's ‘Dolly Suite’.  

We are talking about the nineteen fifties, a time which would seem like an alien world to any young visitor from today. Put into context: Britain was dragging itself out of post-war depression, broadcasting patriotic and cheerful music on its BBC ‘Light Programme’ which was conveyed to factory workers as ‘Music While You Work’. We didn’t have supermarkets then, and the idea of music as a background to shopping would have been considered frivolous. Remember: many people were still suffering a reaction to appalling experiences during the war, while others conformed to a hard and rigorous code of living out of a kind of terror of losing everything for which the country had been fighting. Disapproval was the order of the day! Yet people sang. They whistled on the way to work, sang readily and easily when encouraged, and sang at home.

My mother’s life had been filled with music. She came from a musical family where playing the piano was a basic requirement; singing was in her genes. My father, to whom all this was novelty having been brought up as the son of a clergyman, and having served in Burma during the war where he lost many friends, delighted in her joy. We were never without a piano, which she played in her spare time, heedless of  sheet music: she had that rare talent – the ability to play by ear. 

As the years passed and her children grew up she sang less, preferring to listen to music, until even that pleasure turned to sadness as familiar tunes became tainted with sad memories. People died and she withdrew from the emotion such associations induced. Which to my mind is a greater sadness in itself, but I understand. If I listen now to the ‘Dolly Suite’ – which many years later I played on the piano with a great friend – it shouts out nostalgia and I am momentarily transported back in time…

Today as I write this I realise how much more difficult it will be from now on to listen to some of the music from my childhood. I am incredibly fortunate to have been brought up in a secure and – usually – happy household, and to have memories of songs and laughter as a background to my own stability. I want to thank my mother. I wish I had done, but I think she knew. 

Tomorrow, on her birthday, I won’t be able to listen to any music, because she won’t be there. Last month she slipped away...

Pauline 1929 – 2017 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

FIASCO



‘FIASCO!’ read the header on my brother’s email, just as my husband walked in and announced our strimmer was no longer working. In fact I had already guessed as much by the sounds of it dying and failing to restart, and a lot of groans emanating from the garage. I approached the garage with the same trepidation as I felt when opening the email. The strimmer’s instruction leaflet lay disgarded on the floor, its absurdly complicated diagrams and multilingual commands abandoned. After a quick discussion the machine itself was loaded carefully into the car and promptly disappeared, along with said husband, to the garden machinery repair shop on Dartmoor.

My brother’s fiasco began in a more orderly manner with an appointment letter from the NHS, that guardian of our health and welfare. Our 87-year-old mother has spent the last ten weeks in and out of hospital, and it’s been awful. She experienced a bad fall – if you’re 7, you fall over, but at 87 you ‘have a fall’ – and you don’t jump back up again. When eventually she was allowed to go home, all kinds of provision had to be made for care, oxygen, carers and machinery to enable her to exist in a rather unforgiving house layout. She needs oxygen most of the time, although she can now go for up to an hour without it. Her bed had to be moved downstairs (cue my husband, brother and me managing to lower it out of a window…), but the only bathroom in the house is upstairs. There is a stair lift, but I think by now you may be beginning to understand a little of the difficulty carers of the chronically sick and disabled experience in providing home care. Not that she wanted to stay in hospital – oh no! The other day I found pages of her notebook covered in ‘countdown’ dates which she had ticked off in her now feeble handwriting. The date of her ‘release’ was written several times by various people and she had underlined it. ‘I want to die at home,’ she informed all of us.

The appointment at the hospital with a urology specialist, therefore, came as a blow to both of them. She hated the idea. My brother telephoned to make scrupulously careful arrangements for her transport, oxygen and return home. He would not be able to accompany her (not allowed!) so his journey would be separate, in his car. We are talking about a 26-mile journey across Devon which according to Google Maps takes 55 minutes – and in practice somewhat longer because of the poor roads. So naturally enough when the day arrived, a carer having come in especially early to prepare my mother for the journey, and the transport did not arrive at the right time, my brother grew worried. A few telephone calls seemed to indicate that the ambulance was not having a good journey. Eventually it arrived, and after getting her into it and safely off to North Devon, my brother phoned the hospital to advise she would be late for the appointment and jumped into his car. He knows the route well by now, and using a shortcut he was able to beat the ambulance to the hospital by about ten minutes, seizing the last available parking slot at the same time.

Eventually my mother arrived, but the problems began to multiply. There was no oxygen available. The nurse who had booked the oxygen was furious and rang all round the hospital to find some. After a while a chronically old-fashioned cylinder appeared which several people were unable to connect up, so when at last a porter appeared with a more recent appliance everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Literally.

The session with the specialist is more curious, because he was so unprepared for it. After looking through my mother’s stack of notes he pronounced himself unable to comprehend the reason for the appointment. He then gave my mother a long look and told her she should still be in hospital. This went down like a ton of bricks. My brother outlined the situation at home and reassured him as to her care, and she was then able to ask a few questions and receive some encouragement about various matters, so we have one plus point to the visit so far.

In the NHS some things are doomed never to join up. When the appointment ended they returned to the waiting area, to wait for the return transport… which never came. They waited for an hour, and eventually my brother went to investigate, only to be told by a red-faced administrator that the return trip had been ‘overlooked’. By this time my brother’s patience had reached an end. Thinking on his feet, he wheeled my mother to the drop-off entrance, went and got the car and managed – with her help – to get her into the front passenger seat. In the absence of an oxygen supply, he opened all the windows and turned on the air conditioning, and proceeded to drive her home where she arrived safe and sound. And she’s fine.

We all discussed it yesterday (two days later) and came to the conclusion that no conclusion could really be drawn from such an illustration of communications failure. The oxygen debacle can clearly be blamed on lack of funding, but the rest of it is incomprehensible.

The strimmer has fared better. The garden machinery repair shop on Dartmoor has been inundated with such items, the main problem being fuel having been left in the machine over the winter, and fuel ‘not being what it was’.
Unfortunately the hedgecutter has now stopped working. Ah well, off we go to Dartmoor again…

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

LARGE DAISIES



I think / hope I am a good gardener. It’s in my genes, so I ought to be, but I have one serious failing, and it is that I simply cannot remember the names of plants. And this week it’s been a bit of a problem…

My neighbour, who has a heart condition, has today gone into hospital for a remedial operation. This procedure is usually very successful, but like any other it has its risks. In her case, it is risky not to have the operation, so she has been in that horrible limbo of ‘do I, don’t I?’ for the past two to three weeks.

This last week has been one of ‘getting everything in order’ and making all kinds of arrangements, including for her garden and plants. Two plants had special needs. One, an exotic-looking daisy-like thing, is a gift I brought her back from France to cheer her up. I had no idea of its identity, only thinking it was bright and cheerful and bound to be easy to look after. I had an inkling I had seen one in her garden in previous years, and it turned out that I was right. ‘It’s a Gazania!’ she commented, delighted. I had already re-potted and watered, and it was doing well in my greenhouse. It continued to thrive in her little summer house, and all was well.

A second friend had a similar idea, and soon my gift was sitting beside another, beautiful deep orange… daisy? But then my neighbour asked me to look after both plants while she is in hospital. She didn’t want to leave them inside the summer house because they need watering, but she was loath to leave them outside where the insects and snails might attack them. ‘In your greenhouse…?’ came the request. ‘Of course!’ I replied.

On Monday she brought them round, accompanied by her gardener who was holding one aloft, grinning at me as he followed her towards the greenhouse, almost as if he knew what I’d let myself in for.

Everything was fine until the weather changed. It keeps doing this. One moment it’s raining, gloomy, depressing and November-like; the next we have blazing sun and it’s more like August than June. Which is exactly what happened yesterday! The day dawned like a smile, with no hint of just how hot it might become as the morning sun climbed up in the sky. I opened up the greenhouse, where both plants looked very happy sitting on the bench in the sunshine. I then went out for several hours, returning during the afternoon. 

Calamity! The orange daisies looked terrible, apparently dying of heatstroke. Miraculously the Gazinia was fine – which is lucky, because I can’t possibly replace it with another from France. I whisked the orange daisy out of the greenhouse into some shade and waited for the day to cool down before giving it some water.

Today the temperature is even hotter, but I’ve positioned the orange daisy in a shaded part of the greenhouse and it looks fine. It’s lost a couple of its flowers, but the others have recovered. I decided that I really need to know exactly what the plant is, so that I can investigate its care. A Google ‘image search’ helpfully informed me: ‘best guess for this image: flower’ which is great. But it also showed similar images, so I have managed to identify the plant and now I know that it prefers a shady spot in a greenhouse – which is exactly where I have placed it.

So… fingers crossed for both the plants and more especially for my neighbour. One thing is certain: she will receive far better care than I have so far given the large daisies!

Oh, did you want to know the identity of the orange daisy? Hold on a moment, while I look it up again… 

GERBERA.






Thursday, 20 April 2017

INCOMPLETE



- or ‘… through a glass, darkly’.

Someone in a supermarket coughed a cold over my husband and the result has been a few weeks of ‘life on hold’. I’ll spare you the details, other than to mention that when I inevitably catch any germ which comes into the house, as an asthmatic the results can be very boring. This time the doctor prescribed what amounts to a blast of steroid tablets to clear the asthma. The resulting improvement in my lungs was so fast it almost – quite literally – took my breath away. But the shock to my metabolism has been an episode I would prefer not to repeat.

When you read the ‘leaflet’ which unfolds from the box of tablets like one of those pocket maps, the information is shocking and depressing. You can research these drugs on the internet and there are forums in which people complain about side effects. Nothing can quite prepare you for the sudden, total exhaustion which felled me like a tree the day after I finished the course of steroids. More sinister still was the insidious darkness which penetrated my thoughts and put paid to any writing I had lined up. And it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back on track, although even now I’m not quite ready to continue with my current book.

 I had forgotten how chemicals change one’s way of thinking. Let me try to describe it. The whole world shifts very slightly so that a different facet is presented. It’s a bit like looking through a window at dusk when the view is shadowy and incomplete. Instead of standing directly in front of the window, it feels as though one is positioned far to one side of it, thus foreshortening the frame of vision and blocking most of the outlook.  Colours and scents are falsely displayed. The mind races to exaggerated conclusions, following a path in the wrong direction, from which there is no apparent way back. The effect is stifling and paranoia sets in.

Days pass and I am on the road to recovery, my brain gathering together its severed parts and putting them back in order and my exhaustion less severe. I’m lucky – I have wonderful support in my life and time in which to fester. Others have neither of these vital components and it seems, right now when there is so much talk about being positive in our attitudes towards mental illness, as though there is a huge gap between what we say and what we do. This is not all the result of a chronic lack of resources, as we are so often informed. I am more inclined to consider the way in which our lives race out of control so easily in these pressured times. There is never ‘enough time’, and we cannot find spare hours in the day – let alone a couple of days - for the luxury of ‘recuperation’, a vital part of recovery which used to be taken for granted.

Last week I was looking at photographs of railway stations and happened to remember a wistful little song by Flanders & Swann called ‘The Slow Train’. This highly nostalgic piece dated 1963 laments the loss of many small stations and railway lines due to the so-called ‘Beeching cuts’ in that era. It started me thinking about choices and how they have been slashed from our lives. We no longer have time to take the ‘slow train’ – and even if we did, it no longer runs. If we find time for leisure, we become frantic in our desire not to waste it – which misses the point. How often have you longed to have ‘just one more hour/day/spare moment’? 

But what is the rush all about? Yes, we have deadlines to meet, rules to which we must adhere and expectations to fulfil. Would it be the end of the world if we took a few hours or even a day off to take the slow train, to walk along the beach or simply to sit in the sun and do nothing? Perhaps not. And perhaps such moments in time are what we need, as human beings, to make our lives better.

Well, if I’m rambling on a little, you’ll forgive, I hope, the fact that I haven’t quite got there yet….




If you are interested in listening to 'The Slow Train' - here is a link (be warned - it's a little sad):