Categories
Loving

Fare Well

St Mylor Church c.1100 A.D.

I will be saying goodbye to the year at the end of this decade in Mylor Harbour, Cornwall. I’m here for a well-earned holiday in the fresh sea air, and to spend time with loved ones.

In such beautiful surroundings, looking over the English Channel and the sweeping moorland, marked with farms and villages which twinkle in the midwinter dark, I am reminded of the simple joys and freedom I felt holidaying here, in Cornwall, as a child.

Tonight, I am happy and grateful to be with my sister and her family to say fare well 2019 and welcome 2020 . Wherever you are, whoever you are with and however you pass your time this New Year’s Eve, I wish you joy and I wish you well.

Categories
Living

Hands Up! 

As soon as I could go, I was off. Grandma called me Dot, as that’s what I was – in the distance. A favourite place to run, was to the sea from the beach hut at West Mersea – responsible adult eyes straining and scouring the mud and waterline for my shock of white hair. My first place to run, though, was underneath Dad’s drawing board. This is my earliest memory. We lived over the shop and I’d made it downstairs and into the office and under the drafting table before my mother knew I’d gone. I sat there, wishing myself invisible, and watched legs. Tuppence’s nylon-seamed and Mary Janes, Mr Bridge’s unironed linen and desert boots, and Dad’s pressed dark wool and polished brown leather. Too quickly, legs became faces. But what I really wanted to see were hands.

My parents were good with their hands. Exceptionally. Both of them were creative, practical people raised to make and do. And they did. My father used his to play piano, draw and make shadow creatures on the wall. My mother used hers to cook, sew and write. As a child, that’s how I saw it. If I promised to sit quietly, I was allowed to watch in the drawing office. And the hands had it. Paper, pens, pencils, charcoal, watercolours, all used for magic. On those days when I was not allowed downstairs, I was to be found in the kitchen with my mother and ‘Floury Fingers’ (my first cookbook) or in my very own artist’s studio with pencils, papers and paint (the marble table in the middle of the living room – covered in tarpaulin and newspaper. My mother leaving little to chance).

When we visited grandparents, the hands still had it. It seemed there was little Grandad couldn’t make – from his carpentry workshop came dollhouses, from his pottery shed came ornaments, from his garden came the vegetables for the Sunday roast. Grandma’s hands made the lemon meringue pie we shared with her sister and mine, the food that wasn’t (it was tasty, it was simply misnamed and you had to suspend disbelief) and wrote wondrous letters. Great-aunt Ruby was a talented tailor and pie-maker. How blessed was I?

I learned to read and write from my parents and when I was 3 was sent to Oxford House Preparatory School for Boys and Girls – a Montessori school where they cared not that I was left-handed, only that I wrote. The same was not true when I entered the state education system. My father took a new job and I started a new school just shy of my fifth birthday. At Bedford Road County Primary School, the headteacher was hands-on and, as soon as he discovered I was left-handed, decided that he would teach me the right way to write. At the age of 5 I learned the word ambidextrous as he sat me down and told me his daughter was so I could be, too. Surrounded by my classmates, he forced a pencil into my right hand and commanded me Write!. Of course I couldn’t, I couldn’t see the page through tears. He laughed and told me to practice.

The next day, having heard this story (but not from me), my mother visited the school. She didn’t say a word to me about her visit, but my handedness was never mentioned at school again and the headteacher thereafter kept a safe distance. My father was naturally left-handed, but had had this educated out of him at school in the 1920s. As far as my mother was concerned, this was not going to happen in the 1960s. A while on, my sister learned to write from copying me and so became another left-hander. Except that she wasn’t or isn’t naturally, and is truly a right-hander.

When I went out with Dad, it was often to cycle or swim. When we walked, though, we held hands, always – however old we were. Frequently, in childhood, my hands were sticky with paint, sweets or dirt from playing outside. No matter, we simply linked little fingers – sometimes playing a game to see just how far we could extend them but still touch. The contact mattered. Many years later, when my grandmother lay seriously ill in hospital I walked in to visit her and had to turn around and walk straight back out again. I’d seen my grandfather at her bedside holding her hand – I’d never seen them do this before (to be fair, I think Gran wouldn’t have let him had she had the strength to resist) –  and choked up. I composed myself and went back in, smiling. Afterwards, I spoke up: I’ve never seen you holding hands before, ever. He replied: I have to hold on. She’s my best friend. She’s dying. I’m going to lose her. This exchange brought us closer – I understood better and forgave more. Holding hands will do that for me. Even seeing strangers hand in hand – that’ll do it, too.

To this day, in all my personal relationships, hands are important. When I first meet someone, I look straight at their hands. I have to understand them. And that’s as important for saying goodbye as it is for saying hello.

Categories
Loving

My Sister (With Me).

47 North Hill, Colchester, Essex. 1964
Falmouth, Cornwall. 2004

From Essex to Cornwall. And beyond!

Categories
Loving

Good Night Irene

In the first week of August, 2011, my father died after a long illness. He’d just made 93 when he was declared out. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time; my mother acted as ‘gatekeeper’ to that relationship and to describe her as a difficult person is polite. Once he’d died, she made short work of disappearing him physically. She removed him almost without trace; if you’d wanted to believe he hadn’t existed, you’d not have had to try too hard.

Just under a fortnight later, Dad was cremated with minimal notice and no service. I knew where he’d gone, but not where I was, and still have no words to describe my feelings. How to cope? I carried on working and, in fact, worked harder. I took on a six-day week. Insomnia invaded my nights, precious sleep interrupted by vivid dreams of my father. Frequently I saw him standing, holding a little boy with black hair and pale skin in his arms; both of them looking quite calmly at me, sometimes smiling.

So, my sleep was valuable, and Sunday mornings were my only chance to lie-in. Two days after my father’s unceremonious cremation, a Sunday morning, I was furious to be woken up before 7 a.m. by shouting. Of course, becoming furious made going back to sleep impossible. I climbed out of bed and, unable to see what was happening from my window, pulled on a jacket and went down to the garden. The noise was coming from a neighbor’s house, the voice was almost incoherent, the only intelligible word being ‘Help!’ I climbed on the garden bench, but could see nothing over the fence.

I ran round to the house and knocked on the door. The elderly husband answered in a confused state, I’d woken him up. His wife was calling, she’d fallen and couldn’t get up. She sounded as though she’d had a stroke, I called an ambulance and talked to her while her husband got dressed. The paramedics were with us in under five minutes and were fantastic. We watched while they worked tirelessly. Even while she slipped into unconsciousness, they spoke to her and treated her with the utmost dignity. Yet she drifted away, and we all saw her letting go. She was pronounced dead in hospital.

The husband came round to thank me. He sent flowers and chocolates. I was for a while the talk of the street, but I knew nothing of this. I’d had enough. I’d taken off, travelling light. With a sigh of relief (no-one wants to deal with a bereaved colleague) my boss had signed me off work on the compassionate leave I’d not asked for my father’s death. A good friend told me I was meant to see Irene out; it did feel right and it did go some way to helping me see Dad out, too.

Categories
Loving

The Boy

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George William Manley, 1911. A photograph of my grandfather taken at Whitfield Cosser & Co., Colchester.

Categories
Loving

Sisters

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Doris Annie Elizabeth Lambert with her older sister, Elsie. My grandmother and great-aunt c.1920.

Categories
Thinking

Julie

A year ago, I dreamt this with great clarity. When I woke, I wrote it down.

Julie is nine. She’s English. She has long, straight hair which swings long past her shoulders and is cut with a fringe touching her eyebrows. Under the fringe her large, dark round eyes stand out. Her hair is such a dark brown it’s almost black. Her skin is pale, even paler against the darkness of her hair. Julie has an older sister called Laura. She’s still at school, too. Julie and Laura’s parents are middle-aged now, and still together. They are comfortably married and not about to change that. They all live at number 10. It’s a white house just in the countryside, on the edge of conurbation. There is, however, a busy trunk road between number 10 and another (now deserted) house opposite where a female partridge takes up residence in the yard at night. There’s also a child-minder living and working nearby, a young, dark woman with a very calm demeanor.

Julie is there, but not there. She knows it, her family knows it. But they know it differently – she can see them, but they can’t see her. They can feel her. She wants to get back to them very much and is trying very hard, but can’t. She simply can’t. Her parents lie awake in bed at night and talk about her. She hears them. She watches them. Her sister draws pictures for Julie and puts them up in the stairwell of the family home. Simple drawings, using colored pencils, Julie sees them and draws more on them. She wants her sister to know. She’s trying very hard.

This all begins one evening; Julie hears something while she’s holding a potted flowering plant (she likes pink ‘weathered’ anemones). She’s going to give the plant as a gift. There’s a man, he threatens her. He’s in his late thirties, possibly older, with short black hair and black-framed glasses. He’s very angry. That’s when Julie starts being there, but not there.

Categories
Learning

Thinking ahead

On Thursday 22 August, children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results. Usually, these examinations are taken at the age of sixteen and are used as a benchmark for the child’s employability or future study potential. Usually, the national release of the results leads to heavy debate in the press and pubs about the declining standard of children’s attainment, the inability to meet targets, unsustainable pressure on children, inflated/deflated grades.

Here, I’d like to declare a major, personal, vested interest in Thursday’s results (just so’s you know). Firstly, I’ve worked as an examiner (not for GCSEs) and thoroughly enjoyed the work and secondly, and far more importantly, my eldest niece was one of those receiving her results on Thursday. To say that I’m very proud of her would be an immense understatement; she did so well last week, I’m telling anyone prepared to listen and many who I’m sure aren’t (but are too scared to tell me, given the zeal with which I’m delivering the news). Put simply, she’s a star.

Now let’s take a step back from measuring the nation and quantifying its future to take a look at the children themselves. They matter. I love my niece and her sister almost as dearly as I love their mother (my sister). My nieces are great people and it’s a testimony to the way in which they’ve been raised, to believe they can do anything they set their mind to and work towards, so congratulations to their responsible grown-ups. Of course, I’m biased and proud of it. But my faith and happiness in children extends beyond this.

After years of enjoying working with teenagers from around the world (in education), I was fortunate while on holiday last summer to meet and get to know a particularly great group of children. I thought then, how bright the future looks in their hands and how exciting the world looks through their eyes. That cannot be measured or quantified, only enjoyed – not only by them, but by all of us fortunate enough to live on this same planet with them. We should all cherish our children’s futures and give them our love, not our thoughts – they have their own (thanks, JFK and Khalil Gibran). I’m happy and confident that, thinking ahead, this world is theirs.