Heart-ache

chickenpox
chickenpox (Photo credit: hopeandmegan)

Saturday started off as it should have. We’d had breakfast and my daughters were watching Jake and the Neverland Pirates on TV whilst I washed and cleared the dishes away. When I’d finished, I took my hot water and lemon (this is not some health kick I’m on. I can’t stand tea or coffee) into the living room to drink and catch the end of the show.

“Mummy, my tummy feels tickley,” announced on of my daughters. “I’ve scratched it and it’s left red marks on it.” I reached across, lifted her pyjama top and…”No, No, NO! I thought you’d already had this!” There, staring me in the face, were the tell-tale signs of Chicken Pox.

I lifted her gently onto the carpet and carefully undressed her. Yep, it was Chicken Pox alright. “I think you have Chicken Pox,” I told her. This news didn’t get the response I was expecting – she burst into tears and started howling. “It’s ok, it’s ok,” I said trying desperately to calm her down. Her twin, sensitive soul that she is, took this as her cue to strut around the living-room doing chicken impressions. “That’s really not helpful,” I said. But, apparently, it was. My daughter stopped sobbing hysterically and started to laugh hysterically instead. Five year olds, eh?

I checked the strutting daughter for spots but, thankfully, she was pox-free, and then headed off to the Chemist’s. “I think my daughter has Chicken Pox,” I said to the Pharmacist. “But I thought she’d already had them. Could you check, please?” The Pharmacist had a quick look, confirmed my fears, and suggested that I bought a bottle of Chamomile Lotion. I guess if it ain’t broke… She also said it was possible to catch Chicken Pox twice, although it was more likely to have been mis-diagnosed the first time. As I’d diagnosed it, this was more than likely.

We headed home, a little wiser and a little poorer.  “As I’m ill with the Chicken Pox, can I go to the toy shop and get a toy?” asked my daughter. She’s never one to miss a trick.  “How about a comic?” I replied. Two comics and two gingerbread men later we arrived back home with my purse considerably lighter. Have you seen the price of children’s comics?

My daughter was well, apart from the spots, until mid-afternoon. Then she developed the tell-tale signs of a virus that all parents dread. She sat on the sofa with her little checks a brilliant shade of pink, her blue eyes red-rimmed and watery, and her nose glistening with snot. She also had a temperature. She also insisted that I sit with her and must not under any circumstances leave her side. Need to the toilet? Tough, cross you’re legs Mummy.

Eventually, she fell asleep with her head in my lap. We let my other daughter stay-up later than usual. This was partly as my husband and I were exhausted from looking after a sick child. It was also because we were exhausted from dealing with my well child’s constant whingeing about not getting any attention. “Why does she get to have someone sitting with her all the time? Why doesn’t anyone sit with me?” she constantly sulked.

Finally, it came to the time when the well -child really needed to go to bed. My sick daughter woke briefly and the pair hugged and embraced as if they were parting to opposite sides of the world for a year. Then, to ram home the fact that we were terrible parents in insisting they go to bed separately for once, they stretched their arms out to each other and stared at me and my husband with tear-filled eyes.

My husband took our well daughter to bed, tucked her in and read her a story, As he switched the bedroom light out she told him, “I don’t like going to bed on my own. It makes my heart hurt.” Her words made ours heart too.

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Why write?

Noisy class during first day of Creative Writi...
Noisy class during first day of Creative Writing Lab about “Writing and Silence” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My writing group has started again, after a break, and we have quite a few new members. In true new group style, we had to introduce ourselves and say a little about our past experiences of writing. I was one of the first to go. I decided to keep it short and sweet as I didn’t think everyone would want to know all about the numerous attempts of writing I have had over the years. Nearly everyone else did the same. There is something about blowing our own trumpets that sits very uncomfortably with us Brits.  There was even one lady who ‘omitted’ to tell us about the play she had just had on as she felt too embarrassed to talk about it.

On the bus on the way home, I mulled over what we had all said and wondered why it is that some of us feel compelled to write? Where does this compulsion come from? Why do I have it and not the rest of my family? Maybe they do. Perhaps I’m the only way brave enough to talk about it because when you tell people you are a writer you get one of two reactions. People either look at you aghast and say, “Really! Wow, that’s amazing!” Or they look at you aghast and say, “Really! A writer, you say? Who’d have thought you could write!” There’s no wonder we keep it to ourselves.

I thought about when my compulsion had started. It was whilst I was at primary school. Every week, we were given a topic, theme or idea and we would have to go home and write our own story based on it. I loved doing this. The chance to express yourself freely,and create your own worlds, characters and plots was something that I got well and truly lost in. I would write pages and pages and pages, whilst many of my peers would dash out one; perhaps two at a push. My stories were sometime read out to the rest of the class and this filled me with enormous sense of pride and achievement. I loved the fact that I had written something that an adult had deemed worthy enough to share with the class.

This love affair with creative writing continued until I hit my teens. Then the game changed. No longer was I asked to go away and create my own worlds, instead I was asked to go away and write about someone else’s. Poems, plays and novels were all dissected page by page, line by line, word by word, and then discussed, critiqued and written about. There was no time in the syllabus to write our own pieces. Not once was I asked to take something we had read as inspiration and go create. But we had exams to pass so that was my teacher’s focus. I sat my ‘O’ levels and went into the sixth form. I was given book after book to read, dissect, discuss, critique and write about. Then, one day, one of my teacher’s said, “I think it would be a good idea if we did some creative writing. Go away and write about whatever you want to. It can be a poem or a short story. Just go away and have some fun with it!”

Now you think this would be music to my ears. That I would be ecstatic at being able to write creatively again. That I would once again lose myself completely in a world I had created and write page after page. But I didn’t. Instead I went into a blind panic. After spending three years being told what to write, I didn’t know how to write for myself anymore and had lost all confidence in my abilities. So I did what all teenagers do when faced with a problem they don’t know how to tackle – I ignored it. In the end, I dashed off some ineffectual crap the night before. I wasn’t please with it or myself. I was cross and deeply disappointed that I could no longer write.

In my late teens, writing was a source of comfort to me. I had a pretty tough time and writing really helped me get through it. There maybe people reading this who knew me then that are surprised at my revelation. “We never knew,” they’d say. Of course not, I’m very good at keeping things to myself, and I’m terrible at verbal communication. My writing at this period of my life was not creative at all. It was purely a means to get out all the teenage aghast and crap that I was going through but not able to say to anyone. I poured my heart and soul out onto page after page. When I’d finished, I would rip it all up it tiny little pieces and throw them all into the bin. Then, I would feel a little better – for a short while at least. Nobody told me to do this. I never read the tip in a book or magazine. It just seemed to me the ideal way of dealing with it all.

My twenties and thirties were a hectic time of work, university and socialising (which is a polite way of saying I went out too much and drank too much). I thought many, many times about writing. I had all sorts of ideas that came to me, but the most I ever did was jot them down into a notebook for another day. And this is where writing differs from ever other aspect of my life. I constantly throw myself into new challenges. If I had a motto, it would be “It’s better to try and fail then to never try at all.” But with writing, it’s different. It means so much to me that, sometimes, I would rather not try at all than risk failure. And this is something that I am desperately trying to change.

Attention to detail, please

English: Open book icon
English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There seems to me to be two types of people in this world. There are those who love attention to detail. They believe that if a job is worth doing it is not only worth doing well, but carefully and precisely following a pre-agreed checklist. They like to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. They like things to be done in a sensible, ordered manner. These people do not like it if others deviate from the checklist or abandon it all together. They do not like it if others point in the wrong direction when describing somewhere they have visited. They do not like it if others dismiss their approach to work and life as pernickety.

Then there is the other type – the type that has a cavalier attitude to life. They fail to see the point of a checklist when they feel they can do the job standing on their head. They don’t see the point in looking for all the “i”s and “t”s to dot and cross. They make snap decisions which they feel are considered judgements. They cannot understand how anyone can take ten minutes procrastinating over a simple “yes or no” question. These people are the work-place mavericks.

These two types of people may be friends. They may hang-out together, go for a beer or even date but, when it gets down to it they really don’t understand one another. “I fail to see why it is so important to you that I point in the right direction when I’m telling you about the new restaurant I went to last week,” I said to a friend of mine. “I fail to see why you fail to see it is important,” was his reply. However, despite our complete lack of understanding of one another, we need each other. How would anything get done on time without the work-place maverick? How would anything get done thoroughly without the attention-to-detailer? We definitely have a symbiotic relationship.

My daughters’ school has introduced a new way of banding reading books. I went to the parents’ information evening a few weeks ago that explained this to us. “It no longer matters that a child reads books in a strict order,” proudly declared the deputy-head. “Instead, they can choose any book they like out of a large selection.” Now, this seemed to make perfect sense to me. There is no point turning kids off reading by making them read books that they are not really interested in. Also, we’ve all read a book series in not quite the right chronological order, haven’t we? I’ve often chosen a book and then discovered that there were another two before it. Has it spoilt my enjoyment of it? Not a bit. But then, perhaps, that’s the maverick in me.

Two weeks ago one of my daughters came home with book five of a six part series. She hadn’t read the other four before it but it mattered not as the story stood on its own. The following week, she came home with book six. Again, it mattered not. On the way home from school on Monday she told me, “I have got books one, two and three this week. Next week I will get book four and books five and six again as they are part of a set.” “But you’ve already read them,” I said. “I know but they are part of a set and because I read them in the wrong order I have to read those two again,” she replied rolling her eyes in a mums-don’t-understand-anything way. “Says who?” I asked. “My teacher,” she replied.

This didn’t make any sense to me. I remembered quite clearly the deputy head saying that books were to be selected by children and the order didn’t matter. “Do you remember what happened in books five and six?” I asked. “Yes,” replied my daughter who then proceeded to explain in great detail the plot of both books. “I don’t see much point in reading those books again,” I said. “Not as you’ve only just read them and remember so much about what happened.” “But my teacher said I have too,” she said her voice quivering in only just held back anger. “I know but…Are you sure she didn’t say you could read them if you wanted to?” “No, she said I HAVE TO READ THEM AS THEY ARE PART OF A SET!” she screamed.

Now, I know my daughter very well. She is an attention-to-detailer in the fullest form. I am sure this is going to cause great clashing and banging of heads in years to come. In fact, it causes great clashing and banging of heads now. I decided that she must have got upset about reading the books in the ‘incorrect’ order and her teacher had said she could read them again in the interests of world peace. However, when I got home and took out my daughter’s reading record, I saw that she was indeed right. Her teacher has decreed that she must reread books five and six as they are ‘part of a set.’ She had even written me a message about it.

And I wonder how this fits in with a school which has an ethos of fostering independent and free-thinking. Surely, insisting children read books in a certain order doesn’t match this at all. They are not being allowed to make their own personal choices, which is an important part of growing-up. And, what’s the worst that can happen if they read a book ‘out of order.’ I guess my daughter’s teacher is an attention-to-detailer too.

“Must do before death…”

Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems, these days, everyone has a ‘To Do Before I Die’ list (or bucket lists, I believe they’re called). Magazines are full of them; even TV programmers have got in on the act. These lists are supposed to inspire us to visit new and exotic places, or to try crazy new pursuits that some demented man has thought up whilst off his head on Acid. Have you noticed, that’s it’s always men who think up these lunatic sports. I mean, can you imagine a group of women meeting-up and one of them saying, “I’ve had this really great idea! Let’s get a giant plastic ball, strap people in and push it down a hill. Yeah, I know it will make people want to throw-up but that’s part of the fun. They’ll love it and I’ll make a shed load of money from it!” Mm… perhaps he’s not so demented after all.

These lists seem to have to come in multiples of five or ten. Mine doesn’t. In fact mine is really short. I have no desire to visit some far-flung spot of the globe where I will eat some authentic food which will give me the runs, or sleep in some run-down shack. I also do not want to risk life or limb jumping off some bridge in New Zealand attached to a giant elastic band. I know there are many that would condemn me for this. They would accuse me of having a very narrow and restrictive view of life. They would tell me how much I am missing out on by being this way. They would say I cannot truly understand and appreciate the world without experiencing all it has to offer. And they would be perfectly right. But I would say to them, I know my limitations and there is no way on earth you would want me as a travelling companion. Seriously, after forty-eight hours with me you would be personally be putting me on the next flight back to the UK because you wouldn’t be able to stand my whining and complaining any longer.

Anyway, my list has three things on it. There are (in no particular order): (1) to go back to San   Francisco. I visited San Francisco in 1996 with my husband (who was then my boyfriend). It was our first time in the States and we just fell in love with the city. It was such a great place to visit. It had a laid-back vibe and everyone seemed so friendly. There was so much to see and do – riding on the cable cars, eating in ChinaTown (where somehow or other I managed to take a photo of a deserted street. If you have visited SF’s ChinaTown you will know this is no mean feat), driving across the Golden GateBridge, seeing the stinky sea-lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. The list goes on and on, and we didn’t get to do all we wanted to so another trip is definitely in order. Besides which, there was a rather nice Irish bar that sold Strongbow cider on draught.

(2) To take the girls back to Disneyland. We visited Disneyland Paris in 2011 when my daughters were three years old. I wanted to take them whilst they were young enough to still believe the characters were real; which of course they most definitely are. It was a crazy old three-day break made up of smiles and laughter, tears and tantrums,  in-your-face, saccharin-sweet, over-the-top, glitz and glamour, razzmatazz that Americans do so well. And I……..LOVED IT! It may have given me a headache. I may have been relieved to leave the damn place and get on the plane home, but do I want to go again? You betcha! I may not have abseiled down Big Ben but I do have a picture of me with Pluto and how many people can say that?

(3) To see a live Eddie Izzard gig. For those of you who don’t know, Eddie Izzard is a British comedian who is a bit of a legend. His comedy shouldn’t really work. If you met a man in the pub who talked about how Charles I wore a dog on his head or how Mark-Anthony was a chicken you would walk away shaking your head in disbelief whilst shouting, “Stick to the day job!” But Eddie is funny, I mean really funny and I have wanted to see him for years. And last Friday I, at last, got my wish.

So, that’s one thing I can cross off my list. My list is now down to two, quite frankly, incredibly achievable things. Perhaps, now I should be thinking of adding more things to my list – things that would be much more exciting, daring, challenging and ambitious. But I’m not going to. I quite like the fact that my list is so mundane and boring because, unless I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I know that there is a pretty good chance I’ll do all of mine.

A classic search

"Please, sir, I want some more." Fro...
“Please, sir, I want some more.” From Oliver Twist, illustration by George Cruikshank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promised myself at Christmas that I would read Oliver Twist. Then, in true me fashion, I forgot all about the promise. Today, I remembered and decided to remedy this truly appalling lack of discipline I seem to possess. Quite honestly, it is a wonder I get anything done at all. I start out with good intentions, convince myself that this time I’ll do things differently and actually finish something but, before I know it, I find myself distracted by all the other brilliant, shiny and good things in life and…what was I doing? Was I going to search the internet for a holiday? Look for some new shoes? Was I going to grab a biscuit and make a cup of tea? Oh yes, I remember now – I was writing. See what I mean?

I decided that, instead of taking the easy option and ordering the book from the internet (thus avoiding the temptation to look at anything but the thing I had originally wanted), I would head to the local library and see if they had a copy. I thought they probably would, it’s such a classic, well-know and loved story, but they didn’t. The only Dickens’ book they had was Great Expectations and I have already read this twice. In fact, I own a copy of it. In fact, I rescued the copy I now own from being sent to a charity shop by my brother who was clearing out his things when he left my parents’ home. The recollection of this shameful event reminded me that there was a charity, not too far away, that had a very good selection of books. As it was a nice day (well, it wasn’t raining), I decided to take a stroll and see if I could find a copy of Oliver Twist.

The book section of the charity shop in question is quite large and there is an extensive range of titles, authors, subjects and themes to choose from. I began searching for the book I so desired but couldn’t find it. Nor, could I find anything by Dickens. Feeling very disappointed, I half-heartedly searched the shelves for something else to read. I’d set my heart on buying a book today and I didn’t want to leave without one. But nothing grabbed my attention. Nothing shouted out at me, “Read me!” I pulled random books from the shelves and reluctantly read the blurbs but nothing enticed me to buy it. I was just giving up hope and about to leave, when I saw what I was looking for – the Classics section.

It had escaped my attention before as it was tucked away on the bottom three shelves of a bookcase and had the tiniest sign on it. I had to get down onto my knees to look at the authors and the titles, which seemed a fitting tribute. Three shelves of classic tales. Three shelves of the most well-known authors ever. Three shelves of total greatness. There was Gaskell and Collins and Scott Fitzgerald and Orwell and Austin and Steinbeck, and Thackeray. And, of course, there was Dickens. And, of course, there wasn’t a copy of Oliver Twist. Instead, there were two copies of Great Expectations.

I was about to get up with a heavy-heart when something caught my eye. A name I knew very well and loved. And there was a title I hadn’t read before. A book that, going by the author’s previous works, I was bound to love. I reached out my hand and carefully lifted it from the shelf. I reverently carried it to the counter and paid my £3. I left the charity shop feeling very pleased with myself and couldn’t wait to get home to start reading. I impatiently opened the door, threw down my things and kicked off my shoes. I threw myself onto the sofa and opened the first page. I began to read… this was going to be good. If only I can stay focused long enough to finish it.

Economic state

English: Charity Shops, High St
English: Charity Shops, High St (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve lived in my home city all my life. I didn’t mean to do this. I always meant to leave as soon as I possibly could and live an exciting life somewhere else. It’s funny how we think this as we’re growing up; that life will be more exciting somewhere else. Anyway, for one reason and another, this never happened and I’m still here. I don’t mind. I now realise that life is as exciting as you want to make it and it really doesn’t matter where you live.

Yesterday, I was on my way to my writing group. I’d taken the bus which is something I don’t do very often these days. I used to get the bus every day when I worked in the city centre. But that was well over a year ago, and now I very rarely go there.

If I’m honest, I’d rather not go on the bus. The waiting around, the fight for a seat, the heaters churning out hot air when it’s 20 degrees outside, the local crazy-person sitting next to you and talking about cheese are all things I can do without. But, it’s cheaper than the car park and, besides which, I do get a sense of well-being from thinking I’m helping the environment just a little bit.

The bus route I take is more or less the same as the one I’ve been taking since I was eleven years old. My parents moved back to the west of the city when I was a child and still live in the same house. My home is not too far away and my bus journey into the city centre covers a lot of the same route. You may think this is boring as hell – the same bus journey for thirty years. But, actually, I like looking out of the window and seeing all the changes that have happened to the city over time.

For instance, I’ve seen one long parade of shops and community go from being busy and bustling to being neglected and run down to being infused with a vibrant mix of Eastern European and Kurdish immigrants who have reinvigorated the area. I’ve seen the city go from having a few greasy-spoons and a handful of restaurants to adopting a café culture where you’re spoilt for choice of where to eat. I’ve seen big names shops open, where previously you had to travel an hour or so to another city to visit. In short, my home city in 2013 is nothing like my home city in the 1970s.

However, yesterday, I got a bit of a shock and a reality check. Because this is 2013 and the economy is in the doldrums. Many people are out of work or in lower paid jobs or have had their hours reduced and are struggling to make ends meet. We may have a shiny new shopping centre with its upmarket shops, cinema, theatre and plenty of places to eat but not everyone can afford to shop there these days.

The bus did its normal route of driving around the city centre before reaching the terminus. I did my normal thing of looking out the window to see what new shops or cafes I could see. And, on one particular road, I did see a lot of new shops that I don’t remember seeing in such a multitude before. The large chemist shop was still there, and the chocolate shop and the jewellers. But dotted in between where five pawnbrokers, four charity shops and three betting shops.

As a child, I don’t remember ever seeing a pawn-brokers. I’m sure they existed somewhere but as I don’t recall them there can’t have been many. I knew what they were. I’d read about them in books and seen them in dramas on TV but they seemed to be a relict from a previous age. Yet, here they are in 2013 enticing poor people not only to come in and pawn their valuables but to also take out short-term ‘payday loans’ at one squillion percent.

And I found it very sad that the poor and vulnerable of our society where being encouraged and enticed to borrow ridiculously small amounts of money (in the scheme of things) in order to make ends meet. They were being encouraged and enticed to take a little of this borrowed money and take a gamble on a horse or dog or football match because, let’s face it, when you’re desperate any chance to make a bit more money is a chance worth taking. And, when this fails and you have to try and find the money to pay back your loan, you could always visit one of the charity shops to replace your old, worn and threadbare clothes.