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Learning

Early Learning

I have never liked having my photograph taken – still don’t – but do make an effort to keep existing pictures (well, ones I approve). Early, black and white, ones were taken of me when I was sent to Oxford House School, Lexden Road, Colchester at the age of three. A Montessori preparatory school, it was (and still is) a parents’ dream. There I am, standing gauche and skinny in my summer school uniform in the garden of Number 47 – a child of the 1960s, with sixteenth century gargoyles behind me and the remains of a Roman villa underfoot.

I’d long wanted to learn to read and write – I grew up surrounded by books and with parents who read daily; to me, to each other and to themselves. My books had pictures, why didn’t theirs? What were those patterns on the page and how could they hold attention for hour after hour? My father patiently wrote out words for me to copy. Early attempts at writing my name onto items around the house led to indelible accidents with biro ink – my father’s brown leather wallet had my blue name writ large. Forever.

I copied beautifully and clearly and through the looking glass. A left-hander, I automatically and instinctively wrote from right to left with reverse lettering. My writing made perfect sense to me; and to others when held up for scrutiny in a mirror. In an attempt to convince me to conform (my parents had failed to persuade me to write ‘the right way round’) and to channel my constant questioning, it was decided that school would be ‘a good thing’. A short search provided the name of a suitable institution which was also walking distance from Number 47.

The pink and white gingham dress, the white ankle socks, the regulation shoes, the boater, the beret and the grey blazer were all purchased. My photographs were duly taken and I was sent to school. I did not like it. Not at all. This through no fault of the school or its teachers. I just didn’t like school. In fact, this continued for the next thirteen years – until it was post-compulsory. At best, I learned to tolerate it; at worst, I learned how to write my own sick notes.

Every morning, while attending Oxford House, I went through my rapidly-established ritual. I had the same breakfast, or would eat nothing. I had to be walked, hand-in-hand, by my father from front door to school gate, or would not move. Measles were a cause for celebration. My godmother came to pick me up from school in her pink bubble car and deposited me in front of my exasperated mother in the garden at Number 47. She shook her head, I smiled; confident of a categorical argument won without a fight.

The school uniform remains almost identical at Oxford House today. After some years away from Colchester, and in a neatly ironic way, I returned to Lexden Road as a teacher. Every morning I watched the little children in their ever-so-slightly-large-to-grow-into uniforms, hand-in-hand with parents or nannies, walking into the school building. And I knew that if I’d had children of my own, that’s exactly where they’d have been and that’s exactly the uniform they’d have been wearing and I’d have been as sure as were my parents that I was doing it the right way round.

Categories
Living

Plain Sailing

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Categories
Living

CSI: The Morning After

You wake up smiling, a really broad grin on your face. Why? You have no recollection of any dreams. You have no recollection of last night from about the time you turned down another drink and said you really had to be going home. Yup, right there. For a while, you lie on your back; grinning, glowing and relaxed. You tentatively allow daylight between your eyelids. You focus with increasing clarity on the ceiling. You’re still smiling. The rationed daylight starts your mind working. The CSI: About Last Night checklist kicks in.

Where are you? Check. Calmly, you move your eyes from the ceiling and, with your head perfectly still, look left to right. Yes, you made it home. You made it into your own bed. You’re even covered with one of your own sheets. Whether or not you did that all on your own leads us to the second point.

Are you alone? Check. For this, you need to wake up a little bit more. You don’t feel touched by the presence of another. Now you have to move. Just a little. Ready? Good. You shift slightly to your side and glance at the floor next to the bed. Nobody. No bodies. Relief, maybe regret. You return to the warm patch you just left and listen up. No, not a sound. Not even from the bathroom. You sniff the air, detect no unfamiliar odours but do notice you smell different. And so, to point number three.

Are you hurt? Check. You’re still grinning inanely, so we’re talking superficial-physical-ok. You move your toes, then your feet and finally stretch your legs. You flex your fingers, hands and arms. So far, so good. You make the decision to sit up…one, two, three, up. That’s it. Head swims slightly: speed of sit up; residual booze; excess (psych) baggage. Who knows? You don’t. Nothing hurts. Good. Though sitting does feel a bit, well, uncomfortable. Not bad, just odd. You stand up. You’re a bit unsteady, but it’s time for point four. Let’s look in the mirror.

Are you marked? Check. No (new) tattoos? What about bruises or cuts? You look, you turn slowly in front of the mirror, alarmed by smudged make up in unexpected places (yours?). Everything seems to be where and how it was 24 hours before. Good. No need to wear unseasonal clothing to cover embarrassing and inexplicable markings. Now, talking of clothing, on to point five.

Where are your clothes from last night? Check. A cursory glance reveals they are folded neatly by your bed/ dropped shabbily on the floor (delete as applicable) as they always are. Relief. You scoop them up and perch on the edge of the bed, instantly reminded of that odd feeling when you sit down. Item by item you examine, hoping at least one will provide a (pleasant) clue as to what happened the night before. You discover where your different smell is coming from and that a motorbike was involved at some point (oil and tyre tread marks). And that’s it.

So, what next? Well, life goes on and so do we. You have to face the world at some point. The sooner the better. You resolve to be low-key for a couple of days. There may be phone calls or awkward encounters with those who were (fully) there. You play it cool. Days pass; there is no comeback, you don’t need the GUM clinic, and you are still none the wiser. From time to time, you reflect wistfully that that might have been the last time you had ‘Good Sex’ and you can’t even remember it. It’s a cold case. You’re still smiling. Move along now, nothing more to see.

Categories
Living

The Number 10 (Number 47.1)

My name is Jane. I was born in Lexden Road Maternity Home on the tenth day of the tenth month at five in the morning. I cherish the hope that the bottle of Guinness my mother received that day on the NHS went some way to giving her feelings of joy at my arrival. In any case, my parents had been told to expect a boy. Blue it was. A name was chosen. Then a girl arrived. Me. Blue suited me. The name didn’t. A cool, calm chat was had. My father knew a good Jane. I was named for her.

They wanted a name beginning with J, the tenth letter of the alphabet. They wanted ten letters to my name. Choice was, as you can imagine, quite limited. (Remember, these were the happy days before makey-uppy names and the celebrity cult). Middle names were out of the question (deemed unnecessary in, what would become, an increasingly rare consensus of parental opinion). My father went down to the Registrar’s Office on 11 October and I officially came into existence and came home.

Subsequently, my baptism was a straightforward affair – decisions were taken with ease. My mother had fallen out with the vicar of St Peter’s Church at the top of North Hill. He’d refused to marry my parents there four years earlier as my mother was not of that parish. For her, that church and that vicar simply ceased to exist. We went back to my mother’s parish, where Gran and Grandad still lived and ran the grocery store. We went to West Bergholt on the fifteenth day of the first month of the following year where I was baptised by the Rev Colin Douglas, assisted by my three godparents (two women and one man, as tradition then dictated).

My father, 42 at the time of my birth, declared that one child was enough. I spent the first three years of my life thinking so, too. I was the first girl born into the family and the first blonde and was the centre of attention. Where my older, male, cousins would be told off; I could do no wrong. We had all, foolishly, reckoned without my mother; 25 at the time of my birth. She decided that a second child was a good thing and, after a decent interval, promptly fell pregnant.

On the tenth day of the eleventh month, three years and one month after my arrival, the midwife came to Number 47 and set out her stall in the front bedroom overlooking North Hill. My mother had taken herself in there when the labour pains started, while my father called the doctor. Once the midwife was there, my father and I were sent off to do our thing, while my mother did hers. We returned in time for my sister’s delivery. When Alys came into the world my father and I were perched side-by-side, holding hands, on the edge of the bed in the adjoining room.

From that day to this, I have believed that midwives are special. This is where it started. The midwife checked all was well with mother and baby, wiped my sister off, wrapped her up, came into the bedroom next door and put my baby sister into my arms. My father reported that, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless – until I came out with the word ‘wonderful’. The midwife then involved me, as far as was safe, in preparing my sister for this world. She thought she could encourage me to become a nurse. I thought for a while that I might do this if I had to grow up (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were my earliest role models), but I was already sold on being a cowboy.

This time, my parents knew they were having a girl and my mother had chosen her name based on a medieval French history book she was reading whilst pregnant. By then, my father knew better than to have his own opinions on the matter. In any case, the name suited us all very well and my sister most of all. It begins with the first letter of the alphabet and gives ten letters to the full name. What’s not to like?

Many years have passed since then, and we’ve come through a great deal, but much remains the same. My sister is still wonderful and now has two wonderful daughters of her own. I still have a cowboy thing, I still have a Peter Pan thing and I still believe there’s something special about The Number 10.

Categories
Living

Number 47

My name is Jane. I began at Number 47. It’s where I was conceived and spent the first five years of my life, though I was not born there. I was born at the Lexden Road Maternity Home. That is also where my mother (and some of the best people I know) came into this world. After some nights spent there, where the new mothers were given Guinness to build up their strength, my mother took me home to where she and my father had started their married life four years earlier.

Number 47 is a sixteenth-century house, already divided into a downstairs office with a split-level apartment upstairs by the time I arrived. We lived ‘over the shop’, as downstairs was my father’s drawing office. My earliest memory is of hiding under his drawing board and watching the legs of all the passers-by, until someone rumbled me and then it was all faces, not legs. I started running off at an early age. (There’s a little more about that, here)

When we lived there, no-one wanted older property; everyone wanted new places filled with new stuff. We had gargoyles, wall paintings and mismatched antiques. Others had fitted carpets, three-piece suites and wallpaper. That’s just how it was. Before my parents moved in, another newly-married couple had lived there briefly. They moved out because of the door thing. The woman saw a door that wasn’t there, but had been centuries before. It got to her, she said they had to leave and they did. So, we were there and we co-existed with the door thing quite happily.

The door thing also meant that doors occasionally opened and closed without being visibly touched. My parents were pragmatic about this; if we were happy and the house was happy there was nothing broke to fix. They were right, of course. You can’t live in the centre of ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ without some story or other attaching itself to the property. An added bonus was that you never felt alone in any room in the house, especially the living room where we had the door that wasn’t there.

The only time history got in the way was in the garden. The house had been built on the site of a very large Roman villa (as had most of the top half of North Hill). As a result, my father, a man of few words and very rare expletives (the exact opposite of my mother, but that’s another story) would appear borderline garrulous and profane when digging. Shards of pottery, coins, tiles, and all manner of ancient refuse conspired to make gardening a chore.

I loved it there and felt at home. There was a sense of belonging that went beyond the tangible, the practical and the everyday. On my mother’s side of the family we go back for generations in that town. Number 47 was simply a five-minute walk from where some of my ancestors had arrived and settled as Flemish Protestant refugees in the sixteenth century. That same Dutch Quarter had, three hundred years later, also been home to my great-great-great grandmother. At the age of fifteen she left her family to marry a German soldier at Colchester Garrison and start a new life in South Africa. She came back, we always do. We run off, we come back.

Since we all left Number 47, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to revisit two times. The first was when it was on the market for sale in 2006. I posed as a potential buyer and the estate agent was ecstatic – it was (and still is) a difficult property to market (its design, its location and the fact that it’s Grade II listed mean that there’s very little you can do to the property). I was shown round, while the agent spoke nonsense, and a lot of it. So little had changed in the house that I was quite taken aback. I spent longest in the room where my sister was born, it felt good in there (especially as the agent left me alone while he took a call).

The second time I visited was this year. The front door was open, well actually it was off, so I went in. I met the man who bought it in 2006 – he and his family have only now put together the money to renovate the house. We had a long chat over a cup of tea, as you do. Then he asked me about the door thing, said he found it a bit odd but not troubling. I agreed, but for me it was never odd – I’d known no different growing up there. The door thing is a North Hill thing, too – at least two other buildings, to my knowledge, have it.

That comforts me, a sense of community and continuity in a time of increasingly swift change. Number 47 is still my home.

Categories
Living

Headfuckers: a Precautionary Tale

Headfuckers are people, places or experiences that mess with your mind. That’s it. The name gives the game away – they are bad news. As a one-off (this is invariably the place or experience variety), they can provide you with a ‘WTF?’ moment and a story to tell your friends. Trust me, this is the best case scenario.

For experiences or places, most times the choice is yours – if, in a perverse way, you enjoy a headfuck, well then you can revisit at your leisure/ pleasure. There are, of course, exceptions to this – such as the workplace, where choice is limited by economic necessity. I have worked in these places, I know. After a while, it is easier to accept headfucking as the norm. That is, until it starts to affect your relationships and life outside work.

People are tricky headfuckers. If you have a gut reaction to someone that says ‘stay the hell away!’ go with it, it works. Whether you’re attracted to that person for friendship or sex, it won’t end well and the path to the end won’t be that much fun, either. Remember, you will never get back those days of your life that they have wasted. Ever. Sitting around waiting for someone to turn up, to give you a straight answer, to respond to your text or email, to call you when they said they would? Don’t. Life’s too short. There are people out there you could be having a good time with now. Yes, you know them – the ones who’ll not let you down, the ones who’ll not give you mixed messages, the ones who’ll not just lurk on Facebook. They do exist.

Maybe, just maybe, you go back to the headfuck because you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt (‘Everyone else says they’re a good person – must be me, let’s try again’). Seriously, don’t waste your time (that’s the headfucker’s job). Go with your instincts and get out with your self-respect intact, not in tatters. If you doubt your instincts (why?), ask yourself: ‘Would I be ashamed to treat another person this way?’ Chances are (unless you’re a headfucker, too) the answer will be ‘Yes’. Get the fuck away from them. Now.

If you find the headfucker sexually attractive and hold out hope for some action this, too, is a waste of your time. These people are all about themselves. The most you can hope for is that you are helping them to jerk off (in whatever miserable way they see fit) – and surely that’s not the best you can have, even if times are lean. It may even be that they are sexually dysfunctional, given that their mind is such a mess. Certainly, you won’t get any satisfaction from a headfucker (though they may well do so, at your expense).

So, what precautions can you take? Here are some simple ones:
1. Maintain your self-esteem (no-one needs to set the bar this low).
2. Trust your instincts. Bad feeling? Keep a distance physically and online.
3. Keep a supply of good chocolate to hand (not candy bars)
4. Keep good friends close. The ones who tell it like it is and who make you laugh out loud.
5. Take B vitamins and/ or eat Marmite daily.
6. Stay busy.
7. Exercise – mentally and physically.
8. Get enough sleep.

Look after yourself, you’re worth it.

Categories
Living

Being Stalked

I am, this week, marking my second month stalker-free. This, by the way, doesn’t mean there’s a vacancy to fill. It does mean that the space I had for breathing easy has now been returned to me. The stalking itself lasted eight months, but its impact will stick around longer than that.

My stalker was someone I knew, but with whom I never socialised, who suddenly wanted to take on a ‘protective friend’ role as I was going abroad. He had my email and phone contact details from others and added me on Facebook – sending messages to ask how I was. He apologised for not being friendlier when we lived in the same town and said he wished he’d taken the time to get to know me then. I believed he was simply socially inept and accepted his apologies.

I now know I should have kept the distance I’d maintained before. Although I was thousands of miles away – on another continent – it soon became apparent he wanted to get closer and closer. He became more and more demanding. I ceased any contact. He infected my email, my Facebook account, my LinkedIn account, my cell phone, my postal address (to which he sent a photo of me with a note scrawled on the back). In fact, he infected all the ways I had of keeping in touch with friends and family far away.

The first person I told asked what I’d done to encourage him. Wrong. If you’re stalked it is not about what you’ve done, it is about who you are. The second person I told said I was a strong person, so I should get over it. Wrong again. You don’t need to be in tears to be hurting. I waited and waited for it to stop – the contact wasn’t daily or even weekly, but it started to make me fearful when I opened my email, or switched on my phone. I’d blocked him on Facebook, couldn’t do it on LinkedIn. He was using other people’s phone numbers and other people’s email addresses to keep getting through. By February, I’d had enough and came off Facebook and LinkedIn altogether.

The messages always came in pairs – so, I learned to wait for the second one. The first would be almost conciliatory and rational, along the lines of ‘well, if you don’t want to keep in touch that’s your choice’. The second would (put politely) describe me as up myself; asking what was wrong with me and why on earth I didn’t want to be with him. I knew I had to tackle the issue, but still hoped it would just go away. The final straw came one night when I was on my own, and had two phone calls, two messages, two texts. I was physically sick.

I lawyered-up – a great guy in the City of London who told me clearly and concisely that a crime had been committed and advised me of my options. What I decided to do in the end, with the help, support and love of friends, may have worked. I live in hope.

Categories
Loving

A Healthy Relationship

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Thinking

A New Ride

The train for ‘The Benefit of the Doubt’ has reached its destination. We are now at the end of the line. All change. On leaving the train, please make sure to take your common sense with you. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for travelling with us today. Have a safe onward journey to Broad Views.