Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bless you

Yesterday was the anniversary of my Dad's death.  15 years.  Marking anniversaries of deaths is dismal and I pay more attention to the birthdays of people I love, dead or alive.  But Dad's deathday never leaves my mind.  Perhaps because it was the first great loss. 

Early yesterday morning there was a glinting frost and burst of silver apricot sky, very like the morning he died.  15 years ago we were at home, where I still lived, in London.  My nearly godfather who had been a nurse had come to sit through the nights with Dad.  From 10 at night to 6 in the morning he kept him company through the quiet hours, while we (mum, my brother and I) slept or lay listening.  When Dad was first diagnosed with lung cancer I made a little deal with Life that I would keep on a silver ring he'd given me until we knew if he could have surgery.  Princess Margaret seemed to be living on half a lung and a 40 Rothmans and was doing well until she took a flying leap into the bath and boiled her feet.  Anyway, Dad's cancer had been busy too long and the blast of radiation he was given was only a token gesture.  So I kept the ring on anyway, a futile little circle of hope on a hand that still fitted completely into Dad's.

The night before he died we were all there in the warm dark, one lamp glowing and waiting for the shipping forecast. 

'Who's that at the end of the bed?' asked Dad waving at shadows.

'It's me, Dad' I said.

'No, standing next to you.  Oh, it's my mother.'  He was pleased.

'Maybe she's come to meet you,' said Mum, who as a child, was taken to seances like other kids are taken to the zoo.  'Do you think your father will be there too?'

'Christ,' said Dad, 'I hope not.'

We talked openly about death by then.  It had moved in and Dad dealt with it as with any new acquaintance by joking and making friends.  Dad fancied being buried at sea.  He had seen a funeral on his troop ship on the way to Korea in the 50s and thought it was peaceful, beautiful.  And the coffin was greeted by leaping dolphins.  I found out that to be buried at sea you need permission from the Admiralty. 

'When I've gone, you could just prop me up in the passenger seat of the car,' suggested Dad.  'Then drive onto a cross-Channel ferry, take me on deck and shove me off.'  Calais here we come.

Later, on his last night, Mum asked him how was was feeling.  'I feel amazed and excited,' he said looking as though he meant it.  He had stopped needing morphine two days before.  'It's not unheard of,' the nurse at the hospice told us. 'Sometimes the dying enter a state of euphoria and the body takes care of itself.'  Lucky old Dad.  Hours passed and his eyes were closed.  Mum sneezed in the chair in the corner, the one where she nursed us as babies and which is now in the corner of my kitchen.

'Bless you,' murmured Dad, his last words. 

Mum thought perhaps it had religious significance.  But I don't think so.  It was just normal Dad, gentle-mannered to the last.  It moves me more than a moment of divine revelation, a whispered human blessing in the dark.

We were sent to try and sleep for a couple of hours.  I'm still astonished that I slept then.  My dreams were of dancing light, meadows and singing summer air.  Fresher fields and pastures new.  'Get up now.  The pulses in his feet have gone.' said R.

We lay with him on the bed, me, mum and my brother.  We stroked his hair and his face and told him over and over 'You can go now.  We're safe.  It's OK for you to go now Dad.'  That rasping breathing stopped and started.  Three or four times.  No more breaths came.  His eyelids squeezed tight and a tear came from each eye.  We kissed them away.  Morning came and he was gone.

We made tea.  We are English, after all.  I ironed the silk pyjamas I had given him for Christmas.  We had been told he wouldn't live much into the new year so I gave him silk and cashmere and a bottle of Dom Perignon.  The special occasion should always be now.

My brother and R washed my Dad's body in lavender water, which he'd taken to having in his bath to help him rest.  My brother shaved Dad, what tenderness that morning.  We dressed him in his new pyjamas.  He was ready to receive guests.  His three sisters and younger brother arrived, all hopeful faces crowding up the path.  My mother stood on the steps slowing shaking her head.  Too late. 

I'm glad they weren't all there.  I'm glad it was just us with Dad that morning, with R to help us.  'I have seen hundreds of deaths,' he said as we pulled back the curtains to let in the sunrise, 'and I have never been in a room where the feeling of love was so tangible.'

Nothing's changed, Dad.  I miss you.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Things that have happened

I went off the boil with this but am simmering away again.  After July momentous things happened.  Here are some of them:

- My gentle, valiant sister in law died surrounded by love. She would be enormously proud of her husband and sons who are staying true to her brave spirit and are planning a boys' road trip in America this summer.  And I am of my own husband, her younger brother, who found the courage to speak at her funeral because he loves her.
- My jack the lad brother in law went off the rails with someone too close to home.  And back on them again.
- My sensible rational brother in law is marrying someone he just met.  It's turning out to be a whole family of wild cards.
- My other sister in law gave birth to a daughter with a name like a pagan celebration and chubby cheeks that have to be tweaked all the time.  She has a binary birthday - a numerical palindrome.  Her big brother has taken to his new role with solemn love and many soft kisses.

Other things happened too...

- Nice Guy Eddie gave us two pheasants shot by Prince William - he's getting married next year too.  Prince William, not Nice Guy Eddie who has been married for a couple of hundred years.
- Lucy the sheep might or might not be pregnant by one of her sons.  Normal for Norfolk isn't a joke.
- Father Christmas fitted down the flue of the woodburner.
- My son started wearing glasses because he really needs them.
- My daughter started wearing glasses but doesn't really need them.
- People have been on holiday in our cottages and loved them.  Even the people who had no heating or hot water.  They left me a jar of duck rillettes for Christmas.
- Mr P saw John Major mooching along.  I can't imagine Edwina Currie would ever have set foot in rural Norfolk.
- We have become friends with Jim, who thought of being a lawyer but spent 10 years surfing instead and with Heather who believes in fairies and loathes The Sound of Music.
- The pumpkins we carved for Hallowe'en are still sinking into mouldering heaps along the path.
- The villagers' protest about fat traffic and skinny little lanes has temporarily halted plans to build a biogas plant.
- We had a harvest of walnuts and skirmishes with squirrels.
- We made no resolutions for 2011.

Things that might happen...

Chickens, pigs, ducks, a peacock, vegetable garden, a third cottage finished, a fourth cottage bought, and more time in London to retain sanity amid all this Good Life.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Heat has turned the fields of sharp green to biscuit brown.  The sweet air smells like a bowl of Shredded Wheat.  Driving near Bayfield we saw the first combine harvester this year.  A rabbit was running across its path, living dangerously. No need for a demonic dwarf to spin straw to gold, the sun glinting off the sliced stalks made gleaming treasure of the dry grass.

In the field with two trees and the one behind the red brick cottage, they are harvesting the wheat tonight.  I love the noise and the dust.  It's a live performance of Mad Max.  The brutal power of the machines is exhilarating and disturbing.

We live in the building that used to be the barn for these fields.  I stood and watched the relentless combines go back and forth across the horizon.  Once at this time of year the field would have been full of people.  These empty acres were alive with humour and hard graft.  The whole village would have been out there, bringing home the harvest.  Who were they, my ghost neighbours, the people whose barn we live in now, as cattle did once?  I imagine them, strong hands, rough jokes, dreadful skin, singing to keep the monotonous work in time.  Women and children too.  Schooling gave way to rural rhythms, picking stones, reaping corn.

The wildwoods in Norfolk began to be cleared for farming 11,000 years ago.  For all that time people here were fed by the land they lived on.  But even in cities the call of the season was heard.  Victorian men tramped out of the London to follow seasonal work.  Off-duty soliders helped in the fields.  My family were Eastenders.  In the 1920s Nan went hop-picking in Kent every autumn.  Train-loads of Eastenders did it.  It wasn't mechanised until the 1960s.  In May people cycled 'out to Chingford' and down Bethnal Green Road on spring evenings they came back with their baskets full of bluebells.  Waiting on the pavement, Mum had her happy evidence of the season beyond the streets.

Mum was evacuated to Suffolk from Bethnal Green.  She told me about the landgirls scything round the edge of the field and the horsedrawn binders coming to gather the corn.  That rabbit would have run from its shrinking patch of uncut field to shouting boys waiting with sticks and dogs.  Not long ago this time was the pinnacle of the rural year.  Not long ago, when my parents were young.  Rituals with roots deep in medieval times were woven through their lives.  Pagan Celts dancing at Lughnasa bonfires, the Saxons baking Lammas loaves and blessing the harvest (it means loaf-mass) in churches decked with apples and corn.  The seed and the fruit, symbols of life and death, promise and fulfillment.

Now the people to whom this harvest will matter, who still rely on this field, are not here.  They don't measure their year in rain and sun and the ripening of grass.  The communities that shared ancient knowledge and carried the meaning of the land in their hearts and under their nails, are fractured and gone.  When this wheat is eaten, in a quick sandwich at a desk or a bowl of pasta in front of the telly, who will imagine how, when it was growing in waves rippling like the sea, it gladdened the heart of a woman in Norfolk?

Progress is understood as the improvement of the human condition.  I understand about growing populations and efficient food production.  And I also know that we don't live by bread alone, that there are needs of the spirit as well as the flesh.  These fields still feed the flesh but the rituals of welcome and farewell, regret and resolution are lost.  Apart from the roaring engines, with invisible drivers, these are empty fields.  Tonight I watched the harvest alone, just me and the swallows diving for evening insects.  This crop will feed people I'll never see.  Tonight they are bringing the harvest home.  But there is no laughter, no triumphant song in the air.  Nothing but dust.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Up the spout

We have had a difficult conversation with the plumber.  His invoice was over twice his quote and despite constant requests for a financial status report, this bill is the first we heard of the overspend.  The project is hardly a Grand Design.  We bought a house with a cartshed that the previous owners had converted into B&B rooms.  Romantic French style with a swag of netting over the beds.  The B&B was a big success - we have the visitor book and visitors LOVED it.  Fresh flowers, home-made chocolate brownies, who wouldn't love it?  Two guests got engaged here, perhaps whilst reclining on the brownie crumbs under the bridal netting, but I hope at dawn on a beach with a luminous horizon.

The previous owner made enormous breakfasts.  I have seen pictures.  Bacon, sausages, eggs, pancakes, waffles, huge vats of fruit salad.  We have a neighbour who used to help with the clearing up. 'To much, too much.  Let's just say those pigs were very well fed.'  She was referring to the late livestock I believe, not the guests.  A pig is a great recycler.  The guests who'd hadn't cleared their plates had their left-overs donated to the trough.  Those who rebooked for the following year were effectively served the stuff they'd left last year, transformed into bacon.  A win double, as my brother-in-law says.  My other brother-in-law is a vegetarian.

We had a lot of debate about whether to continue the B&B or turn it into a self-catering place.  We never intended to buy a commercial property, just a home.  But a little business all ready to run...foolish not to.  The argument against is that my husband is sometimes away in London. Sometimes I am.  We have three small children, a school run for two of them and merry dance with the third.  I am not a morning person unless I am still up from the night before.  It boiled down to eggs.  I don't give a rat's arse how people want their eggs done.

The four bedrooms are now two apartments.  Which sounds too urban.  The builder calls them 'units' which sounds like an Australian town planning department.  They aren't exactly cottages but 'shed conversion' isn't right either.  Any ideas?  Anyway, they're not finished.  Stopping work feels like halting a radical haircut half way through because you realise you've forgotten your purse.  But we can't finish them yet.  One, however, is nearly ready.  We wanted to let the plumber know he needs to communicate more efficiently.  'I kept starting things out of sequence,' he said, 'and it just all sort of snowballed.'  We have agreed a schedule of payments to melt the snowball and he's going to finish the first place in time for its first guests - already booked for August.

The plumber's work is excellent.  He has always come to deal with our several emergencies, from the deluge through the ceiling to the freezing bath water.  He's a nice guy.  Also, this is a small community.  Everyone knows of everyone else.  We don't want to be 'The Bad Debtors'. And his wife is our dental nurse.  'We need to be diplomatic' I said, 'remember what happens in Marathon Man.'  He hasn't shafted us, he's just didn't tell us what was going on until too late.  Mr P handled it all very well.  I was impressed.  The plumber asked our kids to his son's birthday party.  We had a beer.  We put the oil of cloves back in the cupboard.

'In future', Mr P said, 'we need you to be more upfront earlier, so we can plan what to do.'

'Planning's always difficult,' said the plumber. 'Especially for the future.'

Friday, 2 July 2010

Pleasant Valley Funday

Last week was Family Fun Day at the school.  There was a World Cup theme, each task completed won a country's flag.  Hook the Duck represented Argentina.  I was on duty.  It was raining.

A freckly boy came up and grabbed a duck out of the water.  'Hey! Put that back.  You have to use the hook.  Look mate, do it properly or you don't get a sticker.'

'I quit' he said.

'Don't be a quitter' I said, like the Marlboro cowboy.  'This sticker is the Argentinian flag.'


'Argentina has cool stuff in it,' I told him.  He looked up.  'Like beef. And really long grass.'

'I don't want a sticker' said Freckles and went to Splat a Rat.

There was a Horticultural Show with thousands of categories.  Our six-year old was keen to enter all of them.   Teacher mum said 'Oh God, let them do it all this year and they'll with luck they'll have grown out of it by next time.'   But another advised 'Make the most of it, my kids aren't interested any more.'   Luckily mine have a mother who still hasn't grown out of it, so for two days the kitchen was a jolly landfill of useful junk.  My mum always had a huge cardboard box under the dresser called The Useful Box, full of old tat.  We have a bag.  From the junk (known now as recycling) they made a Monster Truck and a Fairy Creator with instructions: 'mix 6 drops of rain with the spirits of fairies that have died...'  Roll over, Tinkerbell.

The label for the monster truck was accidentally entered in the drawing competition.   It won first prize.  My son won first prize for all his categories, including cake decorating - red glitter and three sugar lions - and making a Lego church with a congregation of robots and trolls.  My daughter also won prizes, with a well deserved first for the Fairy Creator.  When disbelieving children everywhere are killing off fairies  and Richard Dawkins always on their case asking to see the paperwork, she's taking action.  I never think of Peter shouting 'Do you believe in fairies?  Clap your hands if you believe!' without my eyes full of tears for the ending of childhood.  The applause is growing fainter every day. 

Our new friend the Cartographer said he'd given up on the scarecrow building section. Last year he missed first prize despite spending weeks creating an enormous paper mache head.  The winning scarecrow was made by someone related to the judge.  Or it might have been that the judge was related to the scarecrow.

But he reconsidered.  'I dunno, I might make a tiny Wayne Rooney out of driftwood.'  He and his daughter have already hung a very convincing driftwood Peter Crouch on their sitting room wall.  Wayne Rooney was my inspiration for the 'decorate a potato' section.  Minimal embellishment required.  But I forgot to buy potatoes.

I heard that at a village show last year there was only one entry in the cake section, but the judges didn't think it was good enough to win so they gave it second prize.  'There was a massive outcry.  It was in all the papers.'  Must have been dropped from Newsnight at the last minute. 

The Best in Show was a display of hedgerow treasures found by the school twins.  On a wooden tray they tucked lacey cow mumble, elderflowers and pink herb robert into tiny bottles the colour of sea glass.  Broken egg shells, blue and white shards of pots and 'an unknown feather'.  I was enchanted and so pleased it won.  Our recent hedgerow find was a pigeon, shot and impaled on a blackthorn hedge and a dead mole with blood leaking from its mouth.  Soft little velvet chap with strong shovel hands.  Wildlife, wild-death.

It rained, we drank tea, it rained, children ran around laughing, it rained, people made the best of it.  A scurry of Rat Splatterers and Duck Hookers rushing for cover as rain hisses down is a particularly English sight.  So is the same crowd emerging into a drizzle. 'It's easing off now.  Look there's a patch of blue over there.  It's not too bad.'  And getting back to having fun.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Lost Core

The most compelling evidence for the existence of my stomach muscles is the fact that I am able to stand up.  A rounded tum has never bothered me, it's a good place to prop a book in the bath.  I had a school friend who told me she put salt in her belly button on the beach and dipped chips in it.  Picture her on the sand in Brazil, serenaded by Frank, short and pale and round and peckish, the girl from Chipanema...

Apparently Jennifer Aniston can bounce a coin off her stomach.  Once you've done that a few times I imagine you contemplate the emptiness of your life outside the gym and have a little cry.  I can rest a trio of loving heads and a bowl of popcorn on mine.  Forget apples and pears, bodies are either trampolines or beanbags.  Snuggle up.

Still, what I used to have, giving my tummy an elegant frame, was a waist.  This is what I miss.  Marilyn Monroe was a size 16, one up from me, but her size was poured into an hourglass whereas mine is sloshing about in a bowl.  I am in smock territory.  I do love the '70s, the waft of a kaftan, a shake of beads and a peace sign, but I actually suit the '40s.  I'm not laid back enough for hazy days of dope and tambourines.  I prefer a sentimental song and a stiff upper cocktail.  Swing through today in case we don't have tomorrow.  But I need a nipped in waist.

So I have joined a Pilates class to see if I can find one.  I am the youngest in the class by at least 30 years.  'You're very mobile,' said the teacher. 'You might have problems with that'.  My joints are hyperextended, she says, and I should try to keep them under control.  My breathing is unruly too.  'Pilates breathing is different to Yoga breathing.  It's the other way round.'  I have no idea how to breathe the other way round.

'Forget the breathing,' she said, 'Just do the positions'.  I try to connect with my core.  Don't talk about stomach muscles, it's all about Core Strength.  I need a lot more of it.

The pace is gentle - I'd like to work harder.  I can learn the moves and do them at home.  I miss the banter in my London yoga class.  Laughter is encouraged there.  Here, I'm not sure that interrupting the careful breathing with a joke would be welcome.  Someone might expire.

Still, I am pleased to be there.  I am using lazy muscles, I have to make an effort, despite the slow mood in the class.  The room overlooks the sea.  During the class the waves turn from grey to a kaleidescope of green blues.  A good place to breathe, any way round.  Outside seagulls are riding the north-east wind, bodies fluid in the raw air.  I have a long way to go.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Hair on end

The fizzing yellow of the oil seed rape has gone, all the flowers were knocked about by the heavy rain we had a few days ago.  A glorious storm at night thudding and flashing - no blinds closed.  It was like trying to sleep in a night club.  Little One in with us, as usual.  Hard to sleep anyway with so much electricity in the air - I was expecting to wake up with hair like Ken Dodd.  Not much different to my usual morning hair.

Then a day of thick fog.  Not sure if it was a haar, the sea mist we had at university.  Wonder if a haar is particular to the east coast of Scotland.  Is it the same as a fret?  Are these mists different in essence or just in name?  Anyway, it was a real pea souper and stayed all day and night into the next morning.  I was convinced the house was no longer attached to the world and we were adrift in time.  Then I watched a programme about the queens of country music and the life of Loretta Lynn brought me back.  My son came downstairs, scrubbing his eyes, hair tufty.  He'd had a bad dream and heard scary banging.  He sat with me and looked at Dolly Parton.  We went to bed and he lay in his soft blue gingham pyjamas, eyes wide until I got in next to him.  I watched his long lashes settle on soft flushed cheeks.  Very grubby nails, hands neatly folded and then one reached to hold mine.  How do mothers bear it when their sons leave to sleep beside other women?

The light of the sun setting behind the rape caught in the hairs of the stems and the field glittered like a frosty morning.  There are bright poppies in the field and all along the roadside.  They last for less than a day in a vase.  So don't pick them.