Inside stories

It’s six-thirty in the morning of another indeterminate day. I stumble to the kitchen, down a glass of water and fill the kettle. Now to feed Frederica, the sourdough culture, who’s been relegated from the airing cupboard to the fridge, in an attempt to curb her bubbly personality. She’s the closest I’m likely to get to owning a pet at this stage in my life, and I find myself chatting to her as I spoon a little of the precious flour supply into her jar.

Back in 1976, my then husband and I hitch hiked from Wiltshire to Ireland. An old school friend of his had bought a smallholding near Sligo. The farm had no phone line, and mobiles were a distant dream, so we filled a couple of backpacks, hit the road and hoped there’d be someone home when we arrived. I’ve never forgotten the journey. The summer had been intense. There was barely a blade of grass that hadn’t been burned brown. We were picked up near Ross-on-Wye by the driver of an empty coach on his way to Holyhead. My husband loved to talk, so I settled back to enjoy the scenery. Nothing I’d read about the drought had prepared me for the skeletons. Gaunt and grey, the charred remains of hundreds of acres of Forestry Commission trees lined the roads through Snowdonia like hungry ghosts, occasional wisps of smoke still rising from the barely-extinguished forest fires.

There are so many tales I could tell of that summer living the hippie dream. There was the village shop that sold crisps with pre-decimal prices on the packets, more than five years after decimalisation, there was the stream where we washed because the farm had no mains water, and there were the endless tales Martin brought back from the local market. He grew vegetables not commonly cultivated in rural Ireland in the seventies, including Brussels sprouts. These had caught the eye of an elderly farmer
So, what are they exactly?
They’re like tiny cabbages
And why would I want tiny cabbages when I can grow great big ones of my own?
Forty-four years on, and it’s the tiny things that matter most. Our larger aspirations have been laid waste by a virus so small it can’t be seen with a conventional microscope. Our lives have shrunk to the size of our living rooms, and to admit I talk to a sourdough culture called Frederica sounds nowhere near as crazy as it would’ve done way back last year.

When my brothers were born, the NHS was not ten years old. I’d be lying if I said I could remember which afternoon it was every week that Mum bundled them into the twin pram for the walk to the clinic, but I know it wasn’t Monday. Monday was divvy day at Williams Brothers, so we shopped on Monday. That was a much longer walk. The clinic building was makeshift, and I have a vague recollection of corrugated iron, but the staff were brisk and efficient. I remember my brothers, stripped to their terry nappies, wailing as they were placed in the scales that took pride of place. We’d come home with purple tins of National Dried Milk in the basket under the pram, and bottles of cod liver oil and rose hip syrup, whose tastes I love to this day.

Chocolate buttons were a rare luxury in the late 1950s, but in my mind they are forever associated with the sting of a needle in the upper arm. The small room behind the scales was where all the immunisations took place. The room had two doors. A queue of anxious mums and fearful children would form at the left-hand door, and a steady procession of tearful children would emerge on the right. I think the chocolate button one of the nurses popped into your mouth as the other popped the needle into your arm was supposed to distract you from the pain.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have been born in post-war Britain. Uncomfortable though my memories of the clinic may be, I’m truly thankful I never had to face the slow suffocation of diphtheria, the agony of tetanus, or life in an iron lung. My mind often chafes at the way my world has shrunk of late, and it’s easy to forget I’ve had a lifetime of comfort and safety, and experiences beyond the wildest dreams of half the world. Whatever the future holds, I’ve already seen and done far more than most people, past, present or future, ever will.

With Frederica back in the fridge, it’s time for the morning walk. Alert as meerkats on sentry duty, my companion and I venture into the sunlight. I take photographs of the ever-changing minutiae of the world around me. Today the seed pods of the buttercups are swelling, the fern fronds continue to unfurl in an infinite range of patterns, and there are tiny, white flowers on the holly tree. In sixty-six years on this beautiful earth, I’ve never noticed those before. The meadow grasses dance higher than yesterday, the bluebells are fading to reveal their green hearts, and a lace of cow parsley spreads alongside the path.

It’s almost eight weeks since lockdown drove us all inside, although in truth, it’s been rather longer for those of us who realised early on our lives were at risk if we didn’t act. COVID-19 has broadsided everyone. Nobody knows who’s got it, who’s had it, or what effect it might have on anyone who catches it. In comfortable Britain, we’ve enjoyed two generations of antibiotics and immunisations, and we’re not used to illnesses we can’t control. This time no-one’s immune, there’s no cure, no defence except isolation, and nobody seems to be in control.

When it became clear COVID-19 was rampant, there was talk of herd immunity. The government denied they’d said that faster than Tim Martin could dismiss his staff. Apparently, allowing half a million and more people to die isn’t a popular strategy. Who knew? Nevertheless, the idea wasn’t far from the mark. For most of human history, our sole defence has been our own immune systems. During the last couple of hundred years, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, antiseptics and immunisation have joined our armoury. Antiseptics, bleach and soap are highly effective against COVID-19, but despite what Donald Trump tells you, they only work outside the human body. Once the virus gets inside, nothing works at all. Scientists are searching round the clock for a cure, or better still, a vaccine, but they haven’t found it yet.

Research on COVID-19 is in its infancy. Nobody understands the long-term effects of the virus, or why it does so much more damage to some people than to others. It seems to me that until these things are understood, any return to ‘normal’ is likely to be at the cost of many lives. All the conspiracy theories, anti-lockdown rallies, burning of 5G masts, denial, point-scoring, statistical manipulation and fake news in the world can’t change the facts. We’re in the grip of a pandemic. Nobody knows where it came from, nobody is immune, and until we have a vaccine or a reliable treatment, soap and social distance will be our only real defences.

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Raw carrots, woollen horses and rose-tinted spectacles

One of the more unexpected consequences of lockdown has been the rediscovery of my fondness for raw carrots. It’s not that I ever actually forgot that I liked raw carrots. I suppose what I mean is, I’ve reacquainted myself with the simple pleasure of eating them.

When I was a child, supper was an important part of the daily routine. It wasn’t a meal as such, more a bedtime snack. Supper took many forms. It might be leftover gravy from the Sunday roast, heated and eaten as soup. Sometimes it was toast and dripping, or bread and milk. It might be a home-grown apple. I can even remember a brief phase when it consisted primarily of ice cubes.

One of my supper favourites was a raw carrot. Unlike formal meals, supper was only lightly supervised, so I had freedom to experiment in ways that would have been considered ‘playing with my food’ at any other time of day. A carrot, I soon discovered, is a vegetable of two parts. There’s a deeper orange outer layer, which becomes darker and harder on the teeth as the carrot grows bigger. There’s also an inner core. This is lighter, juicier and often sweeter than the outer layer, although it can become woody if the carrot grows very large. It’s fairly easy to remove the outer layer carefully with one’s teeth and eat it, I found, without damaging the inner core. By this means, I was able to save my favourite part of the carrot until last. With practice, the same technique can be applied to a bourbon biscuit, although the cream’s inclined to disintegrate rather more easily than the centre of a carrot.

I have no idea where I first came upon the idea that a person who saves their favourite part of a meal until last is a natural optimist. The theory, if I recall correctly, is that a pessimist will eat the best first, for fear someone will steal it, whereas an optimist has a more positive view of human nature. To be honest, to steal food from someone else’s plate would have been so far beyond the pale when I was a child I’m not sure the possibility of it happening entered my head. I saved the best for the sheer delight of enjoying of it. On the other hand, I suppose delight is a crucial part of optimism, and I’ve spent much of my life being taken to task for seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, so perhaps the theory holds good. These days, sadly, my spectacles are untinted, and absolutely necessary if I’m to see anything at all.

My self-sufficiency must’ve made me an undemanding child, but I sometimes I wonder whether my parents noticed my childhood was lived pretty much wholly in my imagination. The stories in my head seemed to me vastly superior to a world of which I could make little sense. What was the point of sitting at a desk all day? How was it my best friend could turn on me without warning? Why was a stuffed sock on a garden cane the closest I could get to a pony?

On wet days, I’d beg my mother to let me go through the family photographs, kept in the end drawer of the sideboard. This seemed a world full of magic. I’d leaf through worn envelopes, where women in full length skirts stood arm-in-arm with men in dark suits and stiff collars. I handled the photographs as if they might crumble to dust at any moment. If Mum wasn’t too busy, she’d stop by from time to time to tell me a little about one or other of these strangers. The naked baby on the bearskin rug was her own mother, my grandmother. The girl on the gate was Granny, my father’s mother, taken long before my father was even thought of. The curly-headed boy in the Scout uniform was Dad. There was a photo of a stern woman in black, with a new-born baby on her knee. Granny and Mum stood either side of her. Here, four generations had been photographed together for the only time in history, just weeks before my great-grandmother died. The baby, of course, was me.

Magical though my excursions to the past were, there seemed always something lacking. I loved my visits to a world long gone, but what I was really searching for was an answer. I wanted to know why I felt at home with dragons and princesses, ponies and pirate ships, flowing gowns and flying machines, yet so out of step with the world of scraped knees, inkwells and playground bullies. Could these grainy photos hold the key to the mystery? Was I a changeling, perhaps? Or a fairy princess? Maybe I’d been smuggled, at great peril, out of a distant land, and would discover my magical powers when I came of age.

Of course, I never found what I was looking for. The stories have become faded as the photos. I don’t remember the names of the imaginary princesses, what happened to the pirate ships, or the colours of the ponies that galloped the prairies of the back garden. What I do remember is the garden itself. If I close my eyes I can still see the concrete patio where the pirate ship stood, the coal bunker that housed a horse made from a stuffed sock, the apple trees that screened the vegetable patch where I ate the world’s most delicious raspberries, and the track where the grass was worn away by the tyres of my brothers’ bicycles. It’s not the fantasies I dream of a night, when my mind is free to roam, but the place I loved. It’s the smell of orange blossom, the tart bite of a windfall apple, head-bowed peonies, crimson by the path, and the pop of purple-hearted fuschia buds. These are the memories that remain. And now I understand that to love little things was the magic all along. An imagination powerful enough to create a wild horse from a woollen sock, a travelling companion from a stone, or a pirate ship from two logs and a broomstick can find beauty one way or another, no matter how dark the days. Turns out those rose-tinted spectacles are a magical power after all.

Me child

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Everyday heroes

I was born less than ten years after VE Day. A sobering thought, especially as I’ve always considered World War II a distant historical event. But looking back, I realise The War has impacted my life in ways I’ve only begun to understand during these strange times.

My mother was less than a month short of her tenth birthday when war was declared. Within weeks, she was sent away from her London home to live with a family of strangers in a small town in Northamptonshire. No checks back then, to make sure the people who took in the thousands of evacuees were safe. My father was just fourteen. He was briefly evacuated from London to a village in Essex. I have the impression his experience was happier than Mum’s, but he was never one for talking about his feelings.

Like his father before him, Dad started work with the Electricity Board at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in evening classes, to study electrical engineering, and thus, when the time came for him to be called up, he was in a unique position. His employers agreed to consider his job a reserve occupation, so long as he passed all his exams. One failed exam, and he’d be called up without a second chance. As a result, my father spent his war in North London. He worked full time, studied in the evenings, and took turns at fire watch as the bombs rained down by night. Despite the stress and lack of sleep, he passed every last exam, otherwise I suppose I might never have come into being.

I sometimes wonder whether our collective imagination has erased much of the trauma of war. The London of my childhood was peppered with derelict buildings, demolished not by property developers, but by the bombs that had fallen night after night, as terrified people hid under stairs or kitchen tables, or ran for the nearest air raid shelter. People like my father, scarcely more than a boy himself, risked their lives to keep watch for the fires that broke out after the bombs had fallen, and to fight them, often using only rudimentary equipment.

Food and clothing were in short supply throughout the war, and were strictly rationed. Vegetable growing was a necessity, not a hobby. In the main, clothes were hand-made, and mending was a crucial skill. Socks and stockings were darned, tears stitched meticulously, and elbows patched. Hems were let down as children grew, then turned up again for the next child. I remember my mother describing how people would save their sugar and butter rations for weeks ahead, so as to be able to bake a real cake for Christmas or a family birthday. Expensive presents were out of the question of course, as was any kind of waste. My grandfather still kept his wartime bees and bantams in his North London garden when I was a child. I remember the tiny eggs, and the near-black honey on Granny’s home-baked bread for tea.

I’ve learned too much about the consequences of war ever to glorify it, but equally I’ll never belittle the sacrifices of those who’ve lived it. Those who survive carry trauma all their lives, those who die take a part of every one of us with them, and the heroes of war are not always the ones who carry guns. In the war of my parents’ experience, life was held by the thread of darning needles, the taste of cakes baked from shared rations, the smell of fresh-dug earth and the sting of the bees on my grandfather’s arthritic hands. These were the stuff of every day, the hope that heroes would come home, and the promise that the future would be better. In lockdown, small things take on significance again – the daily walk, the sourdough culture in the airing cupboard, an old knitting pattern, a new book – and perhaps it’s no accident that the lens most often on my camera now is best suited to shots of bees, buttercups and bluebells.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves locked down in the face of an invisible enemy, as dangerous as the Luftwaffe and far less predictable. The Luftwaffe took out less than 45.000 civilians in six years. In just four months, more than 30,000 plucky Brits have lost their lives to COVID-19. Nevertheless, several newspapers have heralded the predicted easing of ‘draconian’ lockdown measures next week as cause for celebration. ‘Happy Monday’, The Sun headline blared yesterday. There are also rumours that the Prime Minister faces opposition within his own party for being over-cautious about easing restrictions.

We live in an age of grand plans and sky’s-the-limit. We’re accustomed to instant answers, to what-we-want-when-we-want, so it’s hard to believe something we can’t hear, see, smell, taste or touch can change all that. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen the effects of COVID-19, or lost someone they loved, can perhaps be forgiven for questioning the need for caution, especially as the government continues to drag its feet over support for those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened. But, there’s too much at stake to risk a headlong rush back to ‘normal’. The Luftwaffe had been roundly defeated by the time VE Day arrived. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc. There’s no cure, no effective protection apart from isolation, no vaccine and people are losing their lives every day. 626 of us have died in the past 24 hours according to the latest figures, including a six-week-old baby. Tonight, 626 heartbroken families are learning the gut-wrenching realities of grief. Thousands of people are facing life without a mother, father, sister, son, daughter, brother, aunty, granny, uncle, grandad or best friend. Of course, the tabloids and their wealthy owners are free to celebrate if that’s what they want, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out

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On playing the victim

Rwanda. Radio Four has conducted me through a range of emotional challenges this morning. Woman’s Hour opened with domestic abuse and moved on to stillbirth, taking me on a whistle stop tour of 1973 to 2009, with an enforced stopover at 1992, in a matter of fifteen minutes. Now I’m listening to a programme about Rwandan artists and I’ve settled in 1994. I’m watching a bouncy castle expand slowly across a church lawn, whilst choosing a name for a knitted bear.

I sometimes feel I’ve lived more lives than I ever expected. Today’s memory trip had its roots in the longest and toughest of them. The bouncy castle itself came from a fundraising fete, organised by my children and their friends, after they’d watched news of the genocide in Rwanda. It’s no good doing it in August. Everyone’s on holiday, we were told. We raised £495, which was probably more than any previous fundraiser on the same premises. Now I’m listening to Rwandan artists talking about how you make sense of a bloodbath and move on, and wondering whether this once-united kingdom I live in might need to take a leaf from their book before much longer.

Another life, and I cower as Charlie towers, anger throbbing through that vein on his forehead. He’s stalking like a drill sergeant in front of an insubordinate parade, turning on his heel every time he reaches the limit of the room.
And stop playing the fucking victim. It’s always the same with you
It takes one to know one isn’t the wisest reply, but it escapes before I can stop it, and oddly it silences him. Charlie may be all kinds of control freak, but he knows when he’s beat and he doesn’t want a fight over his favourite security blanket. In a few weeks he’ll tell me he really is a victim, whereas I only think I am, but for today he pulls the plug.

Everyone loves a victim. And ain’t it so much nicer to be one than to take responsibility? Helplessness entitles me to sympathy, and to demand from others privileges I’d never dream of giving them. Politicians thrive this way too. Was ever a President so persecuted as Donald? How on earth is poor Nigel to survive on the pittance from the European Parliament? And look at those nasty MPs, thwarting Boris and Dominic as they battle to Get Brexit Done. It’s enough to bring tears to any eye. And it works. These men have money, prestige and privilege in spades, yet they cast themselves as victims-against-the-odds and their followers lap it up. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is neither a victim, nor ‘anti-establishment’. Eton educated, Balliol College, he’s the establishment on steroids. Born with silver cutlery in his orifice, he’s played wives and sired children with abandon that would’ve got him booed off the Jeremy Kyle Show. As a young journalist in Brussels, he fed Telegraph readers a diet of ‘alternative facts’ between 1989 and 1994 that set the foundations for Brexit. Nonetheless, he’s feted as a hapless victim, a hero pitted for ‘the people’ against overwhelming odds.

Another day, another demo. I swore I’d never do it again, after a million and more of us trudged through London in freezing February weather, only to be ignored by Tony Blair. Nonetheless, here I am, one of seven thousand or so tree-hugging soap dodgers of all ages, gathered in support of the Student Strike for Climate. It’s an idea whose time has come around forty years later than I’d hoped. Here we are on the brink of irreversible climate collapse, and it’s taken the initiative of an autistic teenager from Sweden to get the young people whose lives are going to be irreversibly damaged out on the streets.

With 97% of climate scientists agreeing that we need to change our lives radically, you’d think Greta Thunberg would be everyone’s hero, so at first I was baffled by the antagonism she seems to inspire. I get why Jeremy Clarkson calls her a ‘spoilt brat‘. After all, a man who’ll punch someone for getting his lunch order wrong isn’t likely to take kindly to being asked to clean up his act. Likewise, Donald Trump has mocked her and retweeted accusations that she is an actress. No surprise there. However, I’m more disturbed by reactions such as those of some older male intellectuals in France who think she’s not ‘sexy’ enough. She’s barely sixteen, for God’s sake.

The truth is, we only love a victim when they play the game our way, and Greta doesn’t do that. Donald, Boris and Nigel tell their followers they can have cake and eat it. Greta tells the United Nations
You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late
None of us wants is to be told the polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, rainforests are burning, mountains are crumbling, the oceans are full of plastic, and it’s all because of us. That’s not playing nicely.

Thus recent weeks have seen a tide of criticism on social media that’s risen far faster than the sea. These young people and their climate marches. They’re monsters. Hypocrites of the first order. They wear shoes and clothes for heaven’s sake. They watch TV and use mobile phones, Xboxes and iPads. They travel in cars and go on family holidays abroad. Some of them even wear make-up. How dare they tell the rest of us what to do?

The truth is they’re simply not playing the game we’re used to. They won’t march to the populist drum that says we can have jam tomorrow, because they know there won’t be any jam. Yes, they can’t imagine a world without cars and mobile phones yet, and it’s going to take a while for them to grasp the extent of the battle they’ve taken on. But they’re young and strong, and their cause is just. My generation has plundered our Earth like no other. I’ve lived sixty-five years in luxury my ancestors never dreamed would exist, yet there are those of my peers willing to attack their own children and grandchildren for wanting no more than a planet fit to live on. It’s time for us to stop playing victim, accept responsibility, rise up and rebel in solidarity with our children’s children, who will be the real victims of the coming catastrophe.

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Pink Pyjamas – a short story

For the last eleven years, eleven months and twenty-eight days I’ve washed my hair every morning. Today will be different. I wipe the tap. Two, three. Turn it on and watch the water swirl. A shred of potato peel dances like a dervish in the plughole. I pour the cold dregs from the kettle onto the plant and hold my hand in the flow from the tap. As the water limbers past two floors of overheated flats, its body-warmth ebbs. I fill the kettle before it’s completely cold, then the glass, and gulp it down. Ten, eleven, drain at twelve. Never the number after. The water’s icy now, like the scuds of snow flecking past the window. I switch the kettle on. I never get the routine quite right. The devil’s in the detail.

 
The sky’s bruised pink-purple. A naked birch shivers, black and exposed above the moss-grey rooftops. A white van pulls into the car park. It slides into the space alongside the anonymous silver car, not quite straight. I wash my hands. Marmalade? Eggs? I never was a breakfast person. I have to make myself. Porridge is good comfort food for a day like this. Half a cup of oats. The stream pours creamy into the pan. A cup of milk and half a cup of water. A twist of salt. It’s rubbish without salt. The men in the van are opening flasks and tupperware. The driver’s wearing a black hat. He bites into whatever’s in his hand and shakes out a newspaper. The silver car has tinted windows. The porridge erupts. I pull it off the heat and beat it into submission with a wooden spoon. A splash sizzles on the stove, the smoke curling away as it blackens. I can’t even get this right. I wipe up the charred remains and replace the pan. It simmers sullenly, waiting for me to turn my back. Revenge is sweet. I never had much of a sweet tooth.

 
I balance the tea on the bathroom sink. It’s in the pink cup today. I wash my hands. The face looking out of the mirror is old, and seems wearier than usual. It can’t be long now. My hair’s growing through. I stopped colouring it in August. It had been six months and I’d heard nothing. I called it ash blonde in another life, but the roots are nothing more nor less than white.

 
The men have got out of the van by the time I get back to the kitchen. Their toolboxes and reels of cable are stacked on the wall and they’re taking down ladders. They’ve come to fix something. The boiler perhaps, or the dodgy entry phone. The porridge is thick and steamy. It glurps into the bowl and waits for the butter and cream. I scrub the pan, gouging at the oatmeal skin with my nails. Porridge isn’t best served cold, but I can’t leave the pot dirty. The first time I left I washed the dishes. I dried them and stacked them in the cupboard, everything in its right place, then I wrapped Molly in a blanket and caught the bus across town. He pretended not to understand why I did the dishes. I’m still pretending not to understand why I went back. The butter melts. The van door bangs. I pour on the cream. It’s the top of the milk, and safe as childhood. The oats combat the cholesterol. Porridge is good and bad. Yin and Yang. A perfect balance. I stir slowly, leaving a rim of cream around the porridge. The Sudoku book’s ready on the table, but the pencil’s blunt. I twist the sharpener. Six, seven, never the next one. If I can only get it right, I won’t need to wash my hair. I can’t see the van from here, but I can hear their banter. Not the words, but the sound of voices. It feels reassuring.

 
Today is the twenty-ninth of February, and Molly’s birthday. I let myself think about it now. She didn’t have many birthdays, not proper ones, and the thought’s been there, like a butterfly at a locked window for weeks. I close my eyes and she’s here in front of me. Pink T-shirt, pink jeans, pink trainers and strawberry blonde hair. Her blue-green eyes reflect the eight candles on a pink cake. She pushes back a curl and leans on tiptoe to blow them out.
Make a wish, Molly
I know what she wishes for.
So pure
He breathes thickly behind me.
So pure
I can smell the alcohol oozing from every pore. He hasn’t been home for three days. He vanishes when the singing starts.
Happy birthday, dear Molly …

 

I barely noticed the porridge. It’s all wrong. I should have finished the sudoku first. I run hot water in the kitchen. Outside, a ladder clangs. The driver’s taken off his hat, and I suddenly don’t know who’s who any more. One of the men approaches the car and knocks on the driver’s window. I plunge my hands into the scalding water. It’s cleansing, but it’s not enough. I’m going to have to wash my hair.

 
One of the van men’s leaning on the roof of the car now, exchanging pleasantries as if it’s any other morning. His mate rattles the ladder against the wall. I can see now he’s no more than a lad. He has no idea what’s going on. I wash the porridge bowl. Round and back. Five times. Inside and out. My hands are red. The tips of my fingers whiten in the heat.
Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
The car door opens. The barrel glints in the winter sun. I straighten and lean towards the window. He mustn’t miss me this time. The spoon splashes into the water and everything unravels backwards.

 
The courtroom’s cold, and I’m left alone. They drag him from the dock.
You can run, but you can’t hide. Slag
It shouldn’t have been that way. I was her mother and I should have protected her.
What kind of a mother are you?
They’ll have to prise her from me now. I failed her. I won’t let her go. There’s nothing anyone can do. The paramedic’s sobbing like a baby. I don’t know who called them, how long they’ve been here, or how they got here. The police are here. The ambulance arrives. How can one fragile life hold so much blood? There’s blood everywhere. Blood in my hair, so much blood. There’s blood on my clothes. She’s limp in my arms. He’s too blind drunk to stop. She launches herself at me.
No, Daddy
She sees the blade before I do. They’re a birthday present from my mother. She’s come down specially to show them off. Molly’s on the stairs in her new pink pyjamas. He erupts into the house.
This time I’m going to kill you. Bitch
The kitchen window implodes. Pain burns through every part of me. The purifying fire I’ve longed for, and everything falls away at last. I won’t need to wash my hair ever again.

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Cheeseburgers and Ikea bags

It’s dark the way only an October night in England can be, and raining a baptism. I’m walking home from Mrs M’s, reflecting on the fragility of life. In truth, I’ve believed Mrs M to be immortal until now, but she’s 92 and so frail it’s taken two of us to get her into bed tonight.  My faith is beginning to waver.  I don’t yet know the day when I’ll hold her hand while she fights her last battle is less than eight weeks away, but there’s a sense of finality.

When I first ducked into the downpour, I hoped it might wash away the stench of mortality.  Now I’m wishing I’d accepted the offer of a taxi. I’m weary, soaked to the bone, and I’m the only living creature on the street.  Even the foxes are in their holes. There are no low-slung shadows sliding between the pools of light around the street lamps tonight.  The avenue stretches unbending before me into endless rain.  Then out of nowhere there’s a car behind me.  It’s moving too fast.  It hurtles along the avenue, flies over a speed hump and throws up a wall of water that hits me full in the small of the back. Howls of laughter trail in its wake as it accelerates away.

If there’s no peculiar corner of hell for people who do things like that, I’m up for the construction job.  They’ll be able to rot there for all eternity, with squelching shoes and knickers full of icy mud, while an infinite quantity of rain flushes out their rage and humiliation.  Come to think of it, they can share their cosy corner with the man who allowed someone I love to pay his rent during his teacher training, then walked out and left her the day the course ended.  But that’s another story.

In a life long gone, I open my eyes on a blur of grey and surgical green.  A voice is telling me something I already know.

She’s gone. There was nothing they could do.

They seem shocked by what’s happened to you.  I try to reassure them it’s just as I knew it would be.  I realised from the start you were too good to be true.  I drift through consciousness, my heart so broken there’s no point in recriminations or tears.  The scene changes and someone brings you to me.  Your mouth’s just a little bruised, and you’re wearing the wrong clothes.  Your head feels cool against my lips as I kiss you goodbye.  Later they’ll tell me there was peace in the room that night, and we’ll take that to have been the presence of God.  Perhaps it was no more than silent despair.  You mustn’t blame God someone says, a week or so after you’ve gone. So who else am I to blame, I ask. Who else was it turned your umbilical cord into a noose? And twenty years later, who else was I to blame for the pointless accident that took your cousin’s life on the road out of Belfast Airport?  

I’m not so magnanimous as my brother. It took him less than five years publicly to forgive the boy whose simple inexperience ended one life and indelibly stamped so many others with sorrow.  It’s almost fifteen before I’m able to forgive you for leaving me, or even to admit that’s what I need to do.  As I’m choking out the words at last, you grow in my mind’s eye from a beautiful, bruise-lipped baby into a lithe-limbed teenager with brown hair and a soft smile, and I know I’ve set you free.

The woman at the bus stop hasn’t set anyone free.  I’m tempted to duck through the Bearpit to the other stop when I see her on the bench, surrounded by bags, but I’m afraid I’ll miss the bus.  She’s on her feet before I’m half across the road.  Her eyes, marbled and grey-green as the sea, search my face for inappropriate responses.

I’ve called the police on the lot of them … I hope you know it wasn’t me …

I don’t know the story, but I can recite the script.  This lady lugs her pain daily in two supermarket carriers and a blue Ikea bag.  It’s tempting to laugh, but I’ve seen myself reflected in her unshed tears once too often, and I’ve tried lifting that Ikea bag.  She’s ten years older than me.  I can barely get it off the ground, yet she carries it with her everywhere she goes.  

I’m not sure what I’d do with pain as vast as that.  Maybe I’d stuff it into bags and drag it with me too, or perhaps I’d drown it, like the man in Old Market on Sunday morning.  I know nothing about him, save that he has an empty White Ace bottle for a pillow and a swarm of flies on his trousers.  I’m not even sure he’s alive.  My companion and I hesitate.  The flies hover.  The scene is cruel and compelling, and neither of us wants to pass by on the other side.  After what seems an age, the buzzing of the flies at his face penetrates his stupor and he twitches to shake them off.

It’s OK, I say, He moved.

Are you sure?

Yes.  Absolutely positive 

All the same, I can’t shake him off so easily.  Something about him puts me in mind of Charlie in the final three-bottles-of-vodka-and-a-sweat-stained-brown-T-shirt-he-wore-for-six-months days.  We’re halfway through our bacon sarnies when I realise I’ll have to go back, just to be sure he really is alive.  We’re still a yard or two off when a young man in glasses squats down by him and holds out a cheeseburger.  Charlie-not-Charlie takes and unwraps it on the urine-stained pavement without sitting up.  The young man draws level with us.  He seems bemused by my half-smile.  After all he has no way to know there’s a world in my head where his cheeseburger kick-started a miracle, just as there is in his.

Pain’s a companion nobody wants and everyone finds hard to let go.  An old friend and I used to argue endlessly about forgiveness.  No, she’d say, it’s too easy.  It’s just letting people off the hook.  Now I’m older and wiser, I have to agree, although it’s too late to tell her.  I’ve seen forgiveness sold like snake oil.  An airy wave of the hand, a no-it’s-all-right-really-it-is, and another item gets stuffed into the Ikea bag.  Out of sight but still in mind, and biding its time.

I don’t understand all this stuff about Jesus being crucifie

I glance at my companion over the rim of my teacup.  I’m not sure I understand as well as I used to think I did. The thought’s forming that a God prepared to take that kind of shit isn’t looking at forgiveness that’s accomplished by a wave of the hand.  Instead, it’s a painful road.  It’s a real and long-drawn-out process of letting go, and oddly this gives me hope.  If I’m right, then there’s still time for the bag ladies and the Charlie-not-Charlies, because it’s never too late. If I’m right, the day may come when I’ll be able forgive even those bastards in the car, then maybe I won’t have to construct my own private corner in hell after all.

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Honesty

The flower bed in the lee of the wall on the beach road has flourished in the year since it was replanted. Amongst the tangle of oxeye daisies and fading thrift, a glimpse of honesty takes me to a time when those papery seed heads grew alongside carrots and sweet peas in the garden of my childish dreams.
“Why is it called honesty?”
“Because you can see right through it,” my mother said, as we patted the earth over the seeds together.
You don’t see it so much these days, my companion and I agree as we cross the road with the dogs. The BBC website declares honesty to be ‘an old-fashioned dual purpose plant’, which seems a good description for a virtue nobody prizes any more. Indeed, in these days of instant gratification and winner-takes-all, it seems to serve no useful purpose at all. Why would it? You can persuade turkeys to vote for your kind of Christmas by painting a bus with three-hundred-and-fifty-million-pound untruths, or become leader of the free world by lying through your teeth. Why bother with honesty?
It’s tempting to become nostalgic for old-fashioned values, but that way lies Brexit, amongst other horrors. I grew up in what seems to have become a golden age for nostalgia – post-war Britain. I was brought up to value honesty above all else by parents whose mantra was ‘what will the neighbours think?’ It was a difficult dance, and for an over-dramatic child such as myself it sometimes brought unexpected consequences.

 

Despite fierce parental disapproval, I lived much of my childhood in a solitary fantasy world, acting out for myself the stories rooted in my fertile imagination. I wore a yellow scarf on my head in lieu of golden ringlets. I rode horses constructed from garden canes stuffed into my father’s old socks. I became the entire crew of Swallows and Amazons, using oars made from old broom handles, and I hid my pet rock in a pile of rubble to stop my parents taking it away after my brother dropped it on his toe. Well, how was I to know the pile was destined to form the base for the hard standing for Dad’s first car? I still remember the day I came home from school to find my imaginary companion had disappeared beneath several inches of rapidly-setting concrete. On another memorable afternoon, I flounced across the patio and buried my head in my arms against the wall of the coal shed. I think I was a distraught princess at the time.
“Whatever’s the matter with you now?”
I hadn’t seen my mother watching at the French window. A split second of pure panic ensued, as I pulled out of my dream world at warp speed. My play acting was so much frowned upon that I knew telling the truth would lead to Consequences. I was obliged to cast round for a hasty excuse, in the hope of minimising the inevitable.
“I’m hungry.”
We’d finished lunch not ten minutes previously. All hell broke loose. What will the neighbours say? Do you want them to think we’re not feeding you properly? I was dragged indoors and forced to eat a banana. All in all it was one of the odder outcomes of dishonesty I’ve experienced.
But don’t we all do it? The tweaked image. The white lie. Compromising a principle to avoid offence. Our myriad minuscule deceptions oil the wheels of social interaction, primarily by ensuring we don’t spend our entire lives at each other’s throats. One of my guilty pleasures is the film Liar, Liar. A hapless father has absolute truthfulness thrust upon him for twenty-hour hours. The social consequences of being unable to lie are excruciating, but any Hollywood morality tale has to have a happy ending, and I’m yet to be convinced things would work out so well in the real world.
Charlie lied as naturally as he breathed. I took that as a given, and always felt a frisson of surprise if anything he told me turned out to be true. He was a fully-formed fantasist, and after a while it became a game for me to catch him and string him along. The Africa fantasy was my favourite. He’d read about a major civil war in a book once, and tried to convince me he’d been a mercenary in the thick of it. His story was so full of holes. He didn’t even know when he’d been there, or which side he’d fought on. The other thing he didn’t know was that his predecessor had lied to me for more than thirty years, even though I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew. I could spot mendacity at twenty paces. In fact I’d grown so adept at living with deception that it had become second nature – a poison that had permeated my psyche so deeply I’d long ceased to be able to trust, or even to expect honesty.
My first conscious encounter with gaslighting was when a friend confided that she thought her husband was changing the clocks in the house in order to confuse her. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting is attempting to alter someone else’s perception of the world in order to manipulate them. My friend was suffering severe postnatal depression and I feared she was delusional, so it wasn’t until some years later that I realised she’d almost certainly been telling the truth.
In a dubious defence of gaslighters I realise everyone’s perception of reality is different. A few years ago a friend and I had taken refuge from a downpour. We were sitting together over a pot of tea and some rather good scones. I was watching a man struggle through the deluge with a broken umbrella when my friend asked whether I thought it might have stopped raining yet. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it hadn’t, but he couldn’t see what I was seeing, despite the fact we were less than two feet apart.
Of course, in that situation neither of us had any vested interest in controlling the other’s perceptions. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is an active attempt to manipulate another’s view for your own ends. Gaslighting is making a three-year-old believe she’s a big girl because you don’t want to deal with her emotional distress. Gaslighting is shutting down an argument you’re losing by telling someone her gender makes her point of view invalid. Gaslighting is changing the clocks to disorientate your already-distressed wife. Gaslighting is telling your partner you’re a trained killer. It’s what an old friend bought into when her husband told her it was normal for men to have affairs, and what a newer friend refused to swallow when her partner called her unreasonable for objecting to his ongoing relationship with his ex wife. Gaslighting is one hundred and one ways to get someone to believe they’re the irrational one, not you. It’s constructing the world to your own specifications, then forcing someone else to live in it. If you ever have to check in with a friend to make sure what you’re feeling is reasonable, chances are someone’s been gaslighting you.
I once knew a man who told me he was one hundred percent honest. What you see is what you get, he used to say. The ultimate in gaslighting. Somehow I always picture him thumping his chest as he said it, although I’m fairly sure it never happened. My ability to see right through him had nothing to do with his honesty though. Far from it. Instead, my time in his company taught me that the least transparent among us are often easiest to see through, because once you’ve caught the first lie, you’ll be ready for the next one … and the next … ad nauseam. And when you’ve once seen through the WYSYWYG lie, it’s going to be that much harder for anyone to gaslight you again, unless you choose to allow them to do so, of course. Truth is, there’s nobody has honesty one hundred percent nailed. My mother was mistaken about those seed heads, you can’t see right through them. They’re no more than translucent, and that’s only after the muddy residue of the flower’s been removed. Ah, have to love a good metaphor … The fact is honesty’s inconvenient, painful and doesn’t often get us what we think we want. My mind games with Charlie and his predecessor were no more honest than their outright lies, but all the same I can’t help longing for honesty, after so many years of deceit. Yes, I know I’m not even honest with myself some of the time, so there’s a good way to go, but I’m kind of looking forward to the journey. And how honest have I been here? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

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