Friday, 19 December 2014


      Email subject header: Put up with mane, you have a new follower on twitter!

     Oh, do I? I wonder who tha… Oh. It’s you. Again.

     Twitter’s a funny old place. I much prefer it to facebook if I’m honest, because of the fact that you can choose who to follow (or not) and you get followers who are funny, clever, thoughtful, kind, silly, interesting, and unbelievably sexy (you know who you are).  But then you also get followers that, well, don’t seem to entirely grasp the concept and possibilities of it.

     Why me? They’re new. Probably still an egg in the profile pic, with no bio either. They’re following thirty-odd accounts, almost all of which are blue ticked news, sport, official celebrity accounts. And me. They never tweet. They never interact with anyone. They’re just there. Why are they following me? Why me? Do I know them in real life? Don’t think so, although obviously it’s hard to tell with no further information to go on.  They make me slightly nervous, as though they know something about me that I don’t.

     Not for longers. Someone you follow retweets something. You retweet it. The original tweeter sees you’ve retweeted it, and follows you. You check out their twitter feed to see if you want to follow them back. Within seconds, you know that within a day or two, one of your sweary/silly/KITCHEN DISCO tweets will cause them to think ‘Oh. Not the person I thought she was.’ And quietly unfollow you.

     The bots. You know. Mention Shakespeare, cats, Stalin, horoscopes, Norwich, politics, cats, exercise, cocktails, photography, cats, heritage, Kim Kardashian, parenting, crowdsourcing, or cats, and within a day, you’ll gain at least five new follower bots, who only ever tweet Motivational Quotes In Which The First Letter Of Every Word Will Be Capitalised For No Reason. They tend to drop off after about a week or so, a bit like a scab.

     Making a hash of things. They’re probably quite nice people. But they do like a #hashtag. They #LoveHashtags #Everything #is #Hashtagged #LikeThis #HashtagEverything #LikeHashtags #HashtagLove #Love Hashtags #TheyLoveHashtags #LivingTheHashtagDream #ItIsABitMuchHashtagging #IfYouLikeItThenYouShouldaPutAHashtagOnIt #Hashtags #Hashtagging #HashtagIsQuiteAnOddWordWhenYouWriteItOverAndOverAgain #JustOneOrTwoHashtagsWillDo #PleaseStopUsingHashtagsSoMuch #ForSomeReasonOverdoingHashtagsAnnoysMe

     And then. The type of follower that really, really grinds on me. And I don’t think I am alone in this.

     Clickteasers. You know. They follow you. You look at their profile. They’re following 14.5k tweeters. They have 20k followers. You see their feed is a lot of hashtags, links to That Type Of Motivational Quote That Is Bollocks over a picture of a sunset, a few retweets of people saying nice things about them, and them saying ‘Thanks! We do our best!’ And absolutely no real interaction with anyone. At all. Ever. Just constant selfpromotion. ‘Urgh.’ You think. ‘Not for me.’ And that’s it. Until ten days later. ‘Put up with mane, you have a new follower on twitter!’ Do I? Ooh. Who’s that? Oh. It’s that person who followed me ten days ago. Bit odd. Still not going to follow them. Ten days later, ‘Put up with mane, you have a new follower on twitter!’ I wonder who has discovered me, and my witty, clever, and inspiring tweets? Oh for the love of… it’s them. Again. Right… And it goes on and on and on. Unless you block them. But, and I guarantee this, if you then unblock them, within minutes, they will follow you again. And again. And again.

     It’s ridiculous, it’s pathetic, it’s really annoying. They’re repeatedly following and unfollowing in the hope of drawing you into following them. Guess what? Not gonna. It’s not really helping their cause, because it’s quite clearly telling you that they see twitter not as a tool for communication, interaction, and discovery, but as some kind of popularity contest where the person with the most followers somehow ‘wins’.  No. The clue is in the name ‘Social media’. You know, social. Getting to know people, to find out things, to promote things you care about, to provide support, humour, whatever you like. I would rather have ten followers who *get* me, than 10,000 who couldn’t give a monkey’s. And if I didn’t follow you the first time you followed me, then it’s unlikely that I will on the eleventh time either.

      So please. If you suspect you might be a clickteaser, please. Step away from twitter, and reflect. Is continually annoying a large swathe of tweeters really the best way to promote yourself? Or might it be a better strategy to be slightly more selective, slightly more targeted in your output, and ever so slightly less of a complete and utter click?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Scary Movie

     A few weeks ago, I had to face up to something that I’d had been doing my utter best to avoid confronting. The Black Dog had returned. The fucker.

     All the signs had been there. Not sleeping. Not eating. No motivation. Moodswings. Getting poisonously furious over trifling upsets. But what finally bounded out of the mist, smacked me over, and savaged my throat were the intrusive thoughts.

     This is always the worst part. Naturally cynical and pessimistic as a default, when the Black Dog takes over, my mind is set to catastrophe mode. It’s not so much that I expect the worst, I suspect it, I imagine it, I believe it to be happening. So I behave as if it is. Even when the wafer thin mint of sanity that remains tries to reason with me.

     It’s like when you’re five years old, and your elder siblings force you to watch a horror film rated 18. The quiet, quiet… BANG of a horrible jolting thought. You squeeze your eyes closed, turn your head away, hands gripping the sides of your chair, your face a rictus of trepidation and fear. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s just a film, it’s not real, that’s just tomato ketchup, after this scene was filmed they all went and had lunch together, it’s not real, if I open my eyes, it’ll be a different scene that isn’t scary, I’m not scared, I’m not, I’m going to look again now… Your face twisted in a grimace, head not facing the telly, risk opening one eye a teeny tiny bit and OH MY GOD LOOK AT THE PEOPLE BEING KILLED FOR REAL

     For this reason, I never watch scary films. The effect lingers on a bit too long. But obviously, that’s fine. I can just not watch scary films. But life… can’t be avoided, although I’ve done my best at times. And when the intrusive thoughts start up, it becomes very difficult to shut up the voice in my head that makes me suspicious and doubtful.

     It’s horrible. Just URGH. The worst interpretation is applied to everything. If someone puts an inappropriate wink in a message, I become instantly paranoid. If someone says they’ll do something and doesn’t do it, I know they’re trying to hurt me. If someone says they won’t do something, and they do, I know they are deliberately fucking with my head. Messages that I don’t get an answer to? I’m being deliberately ignored.

      And it’s not just interacting with others. It’s the potential for things to go wrong. If Alistair’s out longer than I expected him to be, I think ‘Hmm. Hope he’s ok.’ And then WHAM that’s it. My head merrily projects a horror film of a twisted lump of metal that was our car, his mangled body, the knock on the door from two Policemen, me having to tell The Blondies, the funeral (would I be capable of delivering the eulogy? What would I say? Could I write it, but ask someone else to deliver it? Who would carry the coffin in?) grief, loss, me, a single mum raising two fatherless children, birthdays, Christmas, important life events, facing all of them alone. Would I meet someone else eventually? Or stay faithful to his memory? How the Blondies turn out, growing up without a father? If I became a grandmother, how sad would I feel, knowing that Alistair would never meet his grandchildren? Would a grandson have Alistair’s name?... Yes.   An entire alternative reality, delivered in as much time as it takes for me to wonder why he’s later than normal. And all because the queue to get out of Sainsbury’s car park was a bit longer than usual.

     There’s no reason for it. None at all. But it’s there. Like an infection. Brain wanker.

      And it’s horrible, because you never know where it’s going to come from. Life is all fine, happy happy joy joy, then OOF. A thought hits you and you can’t shift it. Believe me, if I could, I would. It’s not pleasant to feel you’re teetering on the brink of disaster. And what is most damaging is that you can’t anticipate. Some thoughts… meh. Shrug. Something relatively minor comes along and that’s it. Your mind cracks in half, and you’re left reeling, angry, hurt, paranoid.

      Happily, there is something I can do about it. I can (eventually) get my unwilling arse to the GP, get a temporary upgrade in anti-depressants, wait for them to kick in, and smooth over the rumpled sheets of my brain’s misfiring chemicals. It’s not burying anything. It’s not refusing to deal with life. It’s not a placebo. It’s me fixing the faulty wiring of my mind. It’s me not letting the Black Dog pull too hard on the lead.

     It’s me getting up, turning off the telly, and forgetting about the scary film. It’s me not having nightmares.

EDIT: I really ought to explain that I wrote this several weeks ago, but knew I wasn't ready to blog it. The fact that I have means I'm feeling a whole lot better. The Black Dog has disappeared.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Clouds that won't pass

      He delights in torture, but he holds my hand, and never shields me. Because the best shield is to accept the pain. Then what can really destroy me? Let me close my eyes and lie invisible, and perhaps the clouds will pass through me.

     But they’re not. The clouds aren’t passing through. I am in the fog, the fog of The Boy, and trying to understand how I can make him happy again. Because at the moment, every day is a struggle, and although there are brief shards of light and laughter, they only throw the dark clouds into greater relief.

     He doesn’t want to go to school. Every morning, it’s the same. The moodiness, the sulkiness, the deliberately slow act of getting dressed, sniping at The Girl, storming ahead of us up the driveway. Silence most of the way to school. Once The Girl’s been dropped off, I try and talk to him, to try and cheer him up. Sometimes it works. Some days he goes in happily. More often it doesn’t, and so I embrace him at the school gates, feeling the sense of resignation coming from him in waves, my heart heavy with unconditional love as he trudges slowly into the playground, looking back at me just before he goes round the corner, and making the heart gesture with his hands.

     I’ve tried talking to him. The school have tried talking to him. I’ve tried talking to the school. But there’s nothing, no obvious cause. He’s not being bullied, he’s popular, his work is good, he seems happy in class. He’s eating normally, sleeping normally. But the hour before we say goodbye is the longest hour of the day. And once home, any reminder of school sets him off into either a silent sulk, or an explosion of temper. Sometimes he leaves notes for me to find ‘I’m not going to school tomorrow Mum, please don’t make me, I love you, I miss you too much when I’m at school so I’m not going.’ He’ll talk to me openly about it, when no one else is around, which I tell myself is a good thing. At least he’s talking. At least he’s being honest. At least he’s not ashamed of feeling how he does. He’s not trying to keep dark thoughts hidden.

    But I can’t help him. I can support. I can alleviate. I can distract. I can reassure. But I can’t help him; I can’t fix what’s going on in his head. I can’t change the way his mind works.  And what I see is me. My failings, my flaws, my fears writ large that I see reflected in him. Because I know I felt the same way when I was his age. The only difference is that I kept my thoughts to myself.

     And it terrifies me. If he’s thinking this way, feeling this way, just as I did, then what does the future hold for him? My beautiful boy, the baby who would turn his head when he heard someone laugh, assuming that anything funny somehow involved him? The toddler who would reach out and gently touch every child he passed, as a sign of affection, friendship, warmth? The Boy who falls over laughing at some of my terrible jokes? The Boy who cried last week because he accidentally tripped his sister up and she hurt herself? The Boy who told me he was crying because he felt stupid and useless…

     It doesn’t seem to matter what I say or do, or how much I keep telling him of his good qualities. That he’s kind, gentle, thoughtful, caring, polite. Every teacher he’s ever had has praised him again and again for his sensitivity. ‘He’s such a nice boy.’    Even a stranger on a plane this summer praised me for my good fortune in having such a sweet and funny boy. Every day I tell him to believe in himself, that I believe in him, that I love him, that he matters, not just to me, but to plenty of other people too. But none of it seems to make any difference.

     I’m his mother. I should be able to make things better for him. But I can’t. All I can do is be there and hold his hand for as long as he wants me to. And it breaks me. On a daily basis. To see my son hurting, to see him struggle with the fear inside him. I do so much to help. But I can only do so much. And so much is not enough.

Friday, 28 November 2014

NOT Black Friday

     Oy! Are you feeling bit rubbish? Not really miserable or anything, just a bit flat, bit meh, can’t really be arsed? There’s stuff you should be doing, but uh, can’t be bothered…  It’ll get done, just not right now. Would you like me to help? I can, you know. I can provide you with the energy, the motivation, the zip, the pizzazz, the spark you are currently lacking. No, we are not going to the off licence, and no, I’m not proposing anything illegal either, so reel your thoughts back from there, you dirty, dirty child. Stand up.  That’s it. Ok, go. It’s time for


      Oh, you’re not sure about this, are you? Feeling a bit silly. Alright, I’ll be gentle. Let’s go up to your bedroom, NONOTLIKETHAT. Imagine you’ve just got out of the shower, and you’re getting dressed. Here:

     Hmm? It’s not too overwhelming, is it? It’s alright. On that first ‘Do it!’ I want you to point both forefingers and mouth along to the words. Uh-huh. Just like that. Shoulder shimmy, bit of hip action, now spin…. And get your neck moving from side to side, arms slinking, ooh, sax SOLO! Channel that John Travolta inside you! Woo! And you’re getting dressed in time to  the music, and doing a little tit shimmy forwards…and then the rhythm kicks in once more and you’re bossa novaing like a BOSS, dude! Check you out! Sax solo arms spread spin time! Yay! Shake that tailfather! Heading out the bedroom door with a spring in your step, your bum seemingly has a mind of it’s own in time to the music, arms are windmilling, you’re smiling, and it fades out, so you don’t need to end on a big  flourish or anything. Well done. Proud of you.

     Ok, feeling a bit more confident? Let’s try this one:

      It starts slowly, so you can skip the first bit, or do overemotional 80s air guitar. Your choice. And THEN, when it kicks in, you MUST do the 80s power walk (you know the one – strutting with shoulders jutting forward in time to the music). And brilliantly, with this one, you can sing along and enjoy the peculiar pleasure that is Phil Oakley straining to reach and hold the high notes (as the ever excellent Chiller said on twitter, it makes it sound like a dodgy X Factor cover version, when it is the original). You can also add the signature 80s ‘pulling it in’ move on those notes, whereby you raise your clenched fist above your head and slowly pull it down to your chest, to denote genuine emotional feelz. And then, AIR GUITAR SOLO! Go on, you know you want to. Bent knees, head thrown back, gimme some serious strumming action! And add in some Dad dancing ‘I’m shaking imaginary maracas’ wrist action. And fade

     Here’s a nice bouncy one to tell the world just how fucking marvellous you really are. If the other songs were a bit too funky for you, try this one:

      Yeah? You can do your best badass crap rap moves to it with weird finger and thumb pointy things, but the BEST bit is the chorus with ‘HO-OH? Say HO-WOAH, HO-WOAH!   EAT MY GOAL?’ call and response. If you’re not leaning back slightly, arms outstretched, wrists  bent back showing open palms, like a footballer inviting the crowd to celebrate his goalscoring genius in an attitude of ‘How fucking brilliant am I?’ ness, then I want to know the reason why. Yes? I’m waiting. Why aren’t you doing that thing I just told you to do? That’s better.

     Yeah, we’re doing alright, hey? Ok, I’m going to step it up a gear now. I think you’re ready. I have covered this one before, but it’s a good ‘getting ready to leave the house’ piece, and I think you’re ready to move on to more freestyling efforts. 

     It starts slower than you think, so you’ll probably want to kick things off with a funky walk, but once that choir and guitar kick in, along with the brass section, I’m expecting serious airpunching, spinning, and jazzy arm movements. Yes. That choir are singing for YOU. They’re telling you that YOU are getting stronger, that it won’t be long now, that YOU are flying high now. And yeah, those shouts of encouragement in that video are for YOU too. Get you, you fab downstairs dancer. And now, here’s the big crescendo, MAKE IT COUNT.

     OH YEAH. You are the showstopper. And now, the final grade. It’s kind of an abstract. You can’t really dance to it. But you can totally throw away all inhibitions, all the notions you have of not looking like an eejit, of any pretence of not just going completely batshit and not giving the tiniest toss what you look like. I’ve already kind of said what that songdoes to me before. But just go with it.

     Now try and tell me that you don’t feel better.

      Once you’ve cracked KITCHEN DISCO, you’ll find it a very pleasant friend in times of trouble. And, I hope, you’ll find your own KITCHEN DISCO playlist that works for you too. All suggestions welcomed. And look! Suddenly you’re no longer grey, dismal, and fed up, are you? You’re bouncy, joyful, pert and perky. I like it. It suits you. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Machineries of Joy

   ‘I know it’s happening all the time; I know the death squads are torturing people  and the Israelis are behaving like  Nazis and Pol Pot’s preparing his comeback tour; you keep telling us; you always told us! And people just scream and die; get tortured to death because they’re poor or they help the poor or they wrote a pamphlet or they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time; and nobody comes to rescue them, and the torturers never get punished; they retire, they even survive revolutions sometimes because they have such fucking useful skills, and no superhero comes to save the people being tortured, no Rambo bursts in; no retribution; no justice; nothing… and that’s just it!  There has to be something more than that!’

     ‘Why?’ Kenneth said, trying not to sound angry. ‘Just because we feel that way? One wee daft species, on one wee daft planet circling one wee daft star in one wee daft galaxy; us? Barely capable of crawling into space yet; capable of feeding everybody but… nya, can’t be bothered? Just because we think there must be something and a few crazy desert cults infect the world with their cruel ideas; that’s what makes the soul a certainty and heaven a must?’

     Those two paragraphs have been going round in my head since yesterday afternoon (from The Crow Road by Iain Banks, one of my best, favourite, all-time top ten books. If you haven’t read it yet, read it. NOW. But er, if you could come back and finish reading this too, that’d be great). It’s hard not to feel defeated sometimes. The world just seems so full of misery, pain, suffering, people being shitty to one another, war, conflict, Jeremy fucking Clarkson, climate change, cancer, food poisoning, health scares, dodgy journalism, rubbish in the streets, homeless people, sexism, depression, crap telly, overpopulation, immigration, scaremongering, UKIP, AIBU, twitter storms, unsolicited junk mail, the mess The Blondies leave behind themselves, fucking hell the car needs new tyres, discontinued raspberry pannacottas, fake sheikhs, misogyny, Ebola, twatty celebrities who are famous for being famous, Iain Duncan Smith’s continuing political career, scandal, twatty blogger breakdowns in Liverpool Street Station, corruption, Ofsted, the NHS being sold off under our noses, people dying too young, mental health, The Daily fucking Mail, famine, refugees, civil war, Liz fucking  Jones, violence against women, racism, Dapper fucking Laughs, inequality, poverty, shit parenting, the continued presence of ‘romantic  vintage shabby chic’ bollockery in shops, people being twats, fucking car drivers with a sense of entitlement bigger than their white 4x4s, relationship breakdowns, torture, injustice, Ched fucking Evans and his crew of merry rape apologists, discovering you’ve run out of skimmed milk and only have vile almond milk to put in your coffee, the rise of the far right, bankers, FIFA, none of my clothes fit me, Blondies having meltdowns for no conceivable reason, spammers, people conning the elderly and vulnerable, Christmas adverts that make me cry, being let down, Piers fucking Morgan, clickbait articles, finding your blog has been ripped off, paedophiles, pissing yourself off because you still haven’t replied to those emails, Katie fucking Hopkins, victim blaming, theft, vandalism, people banning fun, inappropriate sexualisation, health and safety gone mad, the PC brigade, you, you massive twat… apathy.

     And what seems to make it so much worse is that when people do stand up and challenge those who are responsible for so much sadness, anger, and hatred, they themselves get attacked. They get threatened, shouted down, abused.  To take two very recent (and ongoing at the time of writing) cases – Dapper Laughs and Ched Evans. To see the amount of abuse campaigners and critics get, it’s tempting not to support the people you believe in, because it’ll only draw negative attention your way, and you know you probably won’t change anyone’s mind. You might feel a little better for having the courage to speak up, but the amount of crap you’ll have to deal with cancels it out. I know, I had it with Richard fucking Dawkins' followers, sending me rape threats and all kinds of other lovely endearments when I blogged about him.

     And it’s horrible. To think that people can be capable of such nasty, vicious unpleasantness. To see beneath the mask of apparently civilised people who walk amongst us, and realise that there isn’t much covering the contempt they feel for other people, and seemingly think it’s ok to abuse and threaten others. Or not even that. To throw out hideously offensive statements, just for attention. To fuck other people’s heads around, for no reason. To play games and feel they’ve somehow ‘won’ by hurting others.

We’re of primitive abolution
Like a hobbyist of deranged proportion
Or the wait is yours and we’ve failed again
The fleshy existence you keep to yourself is secure

      It makes me question why we’re here as people. Is this what we’re here to do? To wallow in other people’s misery, to belittle, to throw insults, to maim, to wound, to destroy? To keep pumping out shittiness, wave after ceaseless wave, pushing the boats back against the current, to stand by and do nothing because it’s ultimately pointless? To see others struggle, hurting, and merely stand by? To know all of the world’s problems, and instead choose to add to them, instead of taking time to make the smallest gesture imaginable to improve someone’s day? It doesn’t take much.

     But then yesterday, something wonderful happened. Philae. And it brought home just what humanity can be capable of. Not just intelligence, but co-operation, hope, and ambition. We can be those things. We can push further, harder, stronger, be better, brighter, bolder, make the world feel like the kind of place where it is possible to do something that seems unthinkable, by reaching out and connecting, in the best way imaginable. We can do all of those things, be those people. Not necessarily by landing on a comet, obviously, but all of us can play our part in making things better. It doesn’t matter how we do it, just as long as we do. Instead of letting the misery spray us with hatred vomit, we can fart glitter, laugh, and make our own little difference to other people, even with something as small as a crap joke, or an unexpected compliment.

     And now, have my earworm du jour*

     *I love this song. I fucking love this song. It’s one of my favourites ever. I’m not allowed to listen to it in public because I can’t listen to it without dancing like a toddler impersonating a ninja**. Seriously, it’s just the most uplifting and incredible song I think I’ve ever heard. The story is sad, but the message is a reminder that some people will sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity, and that is something we should remember, and take with us. Listen to it, and let the euphoria of it just bloody course through your veins and realise   what we can be, and what we can do.

      ** Really not joking. I don’t even really dance to it. I spin, and punch the air, and kick, and jump, conduct an imaginary orchestra, and possibly indulge in some headbanging airdrumming, and oh Crysakes, I’m bouncing in my chair now, just listening to it, even as I type this because fucking hell, IT IS THAT GOOD, and it just makes me feel so happy. Of course, you may feel differently (thinks of one reader in particular).

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Liverpool Street Station

    It’s not often you find a place that brings all sorts of people together. People from every walk of life, from all backgrounds, people with all sorts of futures ahead of them. Think about it. Even in places like libraries, pubs, evening classes, school playgrounds, everyone there has something in common. Possibly the only democratic place these days is a transport hub.  But in a large train station, everyone’s moving, or queueing, or staring at noticeboards. The place to go to watch people is a bar within a train station.

     Down there. Group of men. They’ve been here since at least half past eight this morning, drinking pint after pint after pint. By half eleven, they’re adding chasers. The table’s full of empty glasses, and I can’t imagine for a moment how any of them are managing to stay upright, or even lean without crashing, face first, to the floor. They’re mostly in their mid-40s, clad in t-shirts/polo shirts of cheap, manmade fibres. The oldest member of the group puffs constantly on an e-cig, apart from at thirty minute intervals when he disappears outside for an analogue cigarette. Oddly, sitting with the group is a younger man, dressed in designer jeans, cashmere brown jumper, the collar of a smart shirt poking through the neck hole. Alone of the group, he wears a wedding ring, is very obviously drunk, and seems unsure as to whether he’s going to fall asleep, fall off his chair, or puke next time he yawns.

     Then there are the middle aged couples, sharing a pot of tea, trying to pretend they’re oblivious to the noise and drunkenness around them. Quietly remarking on the quality of the tea cups, pressing lips together tightly as they swallow their (still too hot) tea, anxious not to dawdle in case they miss their train. On the way to the platform, they’ll pass Starbucks and wish they’d gone there instead. Not wanting to be tagged as the sort of person who frequents pubs during the day, they’ll secretly blame their spouse for not suggesting looking for a cafĂ©, instead of heading into the pub.

      The group of drunk men are at the ‘Meaningful drunk’ stage now. Lots of hand of shoulder deep chat, forefinger thumping into own chest sincerity, and ‘burrano, burrano, burrano, YOU’RE agoodman. Yurra good man. You. You. Are. A goodman.’ They’d make eye contact if they could, but no longer have control of their faces.

     The stag do groups mill around. Men self-consciously wearing top hat & tails, or personalised t-shirts (depending on social class), drinking champagne or pints (again, depending on working or middle class), and seeing who can be rowdiest (ex public schoolboys win hands down). They’ve got half an hour to kill before their train leaves, and they intend to make it count.

     The football fans, scattered around the bar, identifiable by their West Ham shirts. The one group that seems to cover all ages, genders, social classes. From the seven year old girl, squeezing close to her dad as she sips a J20, to the skinny old geezer in his seventies (whom you just know is going to tell someone he’s ‘supported the Hammers for 67 years, man and boy’ in a thin, high-pitched Cockney accent) to the bloke in his forties, modelling the signature ‘Status Quo bald patch and wispy ponytail’ hairdon’t. Some are in large groups, others are on their own, but mostly groups of three or four, having a quick pint or two before the game.

     The tourists. Specifically, the French family next. to me. Mum, Dad, teenage son. No conversation. No eye contact. All three of them instead delicately tapping and swiping phone screens, occasionally sighing to themselves, but not sharing the source of their ennui with anyone other than the people living in their phone. A modern disease. Highly contagious.

     The hipsters. I thought we had a problem with them in certain parts of Norwich. But here, in Liverpool Street station, you can’t move for them. Rolled up skinny jeans exposing bony white ankles, flat caps, winkle pickers. Not a hair left unstyled, not a face devoid of beardedness, not a glass of milk drunk unironically. Trying so hard to be individual that it becomes a uniform.

     The elderly gentleman. Politely asked if he could sit on the other side of the enormous table I’m occupying. He takes out a copy of ‘Europe’ by Jan Morris. But instead, he gazes out, unseeingly, across, the room, his face troubled, forefinger pressed against his cheek, his mind many miles away from the deep leather armchair he sits in. Then, abruptly, the present and immediate world rushes in on him like a wave, and his thoughts are gone. He picks up his book, becomes engrossed for as long as it takes him to drink his pint of real ale. I manage not to cry for the full 45 minutes he sits with me.

     And the baby. The baby in the pushchair, with the family who come in after the French tourists have left. Kicking his legs. Blowing raspberries. Catching my eye, grinning at me, and reminding me of the purity of an infant’s smile. That they expect the world around them to be good, happy, welcoming. That they are secure in the knowledge that they are loved, treasured, precious. The simple innocence of his smile at me, that I reciprocated, even as my eyes filled with tears, knowing I have no memory of feeling that way.

     And then me. A twatty blogger, who’s had too many knocks of late. A twatty blogger who couldn’t bear to meet the people who’ve meant so much to her, in case she was a let-down, was rejected, in case people realised how much of a nothing she was. A twatty blogger whose confidence, never much more than a will o’ the wisp, deserted her. A twatty blogger who gave up, gave in. A twatty blogger   who cried for thirteen hours straight in Liverpool Street station. A twatty blogger who realised she has nothing to offer anyone. A twatty blogger who is a disappointment.   A twatty, fragile, broken blogger who never left the station. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Lost in translation

     My name is Lucy Benedict* and I am a people addict. I was going to say ‘I’m a people person’, but that would be a lie. I’m not. I’m shy, utterly lacking in confidence, and a compete introvert. Being around other people too long has the same effect as kryptonite on Superman. I lose all my powers, get drained of energy, and my hair gets upset. I’m not a people person. I like people, generally, as individuals, but I find real life interaction a bit much, and can only handle it in small doses. I prefer to observe.

     ‘You should have been an actress!’ My mum’s been saying that to me for years. I always thought she meant it in the sense of ‘Oh bloody hell, you melodramatic creature. Stop making a scene, calm down, and cease this quenchless thirst for attention.’ It was only recently I found out that what she really meant is that I have a gift for mimicry, and for spotting things that perhaps other people don’t always.

     It was brought home a few months ago, when Alistair and I were discussing a mutual friend. Let’s call him ‘Roy’, seeing as I don’t know anyone called Roy. I made a crap joke, Alistair said ‘That’s the kind of joke that Roy would make!’ and I made a kind of high-pitched ‘Hnugh?’ sound. Alistair stared at me, worriedly, wordlessly. ‘What? That’s what Roy does, whenever he makes a joke. Hnugh?? To draw attention to the fact that he’s just made a joke.’ Alistair looked dubious. ‘What?! He does! How can you not have noticed? Hnugh? Every time.’ Alistair turned away and muttered ‘If you say so’ in tones designed to tell me ‘You are talking utter bollocks, and no, Roy does not hnugh?? after he’s made a joke.’

     And then of course, two days later, we saw Roy, Roy made a crap joke, and as sure as I cannot type ‘teacher’ without first typing ‘tecaher’… ‘HNUGH????’ Alistair caught my eye, and I got to pull my very best ‘See, I bloody told you, how have you not noticed this before, oh my god, you’ve known Roy all this time, and yet you never saw it. Until I, me, ME, pointed it out, and you didn’t believe me, o ye of little faith’ face. It’s quite a complicated expression, but I have a big face, so can fit it in quite easily.

     Another way I’ve found of pissing Alistair off is to copy his hand gestures. Every time he describes an action, his hands and/or head get in on the fun too. So when he told me how he was going to strap down some tools in the boot of the car to stop them ‘bobbling around’ his head  performed a little involuntary wobble, a bit like Stevie Wonder, to illustrate the way in which things can ‘bobble around’. Or if he says he’s going to the garage, his left hand, seemingly without his knowledge, will point to the car park. To be a massive annoying tit, I innocently ask ‘Where are you going, darling?’ and he shoots me a look of longsuffering pain, and says ‘To the garage’, points, sighs, and contemplates walking out of the house and never returning.

     But it’s not just physical stuff I notice. Body language is practically my mother tongue, and I can read someone’s thoughts without ever exchanging a word with them, but what I do best is people, in the round. This is probably why I love things like twitter, facebook, blogs. Because it’s not just what people do, it’s what they try to tell the world about themselves. Earlier this year, I had a thought. You can tell a lot about people from their favourite mug. And #MugTheory was born. People tweeted me a photo of their favourite mug, and I tried to provide a concentrated personality analysis. It was fascinating. Genuinely fascinating. To try and analyse people based on a single photo of a hot beverage receptacle. Some people didn’t have a favourite mug (I’m one of them), so they proved harder to read. Other people turned out to have two favourites – one for sentimental reasons, one for actual drinking. And one person (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) refused to submit to my highly scientific process (I WILL BREAK YOU DOWN ONE DAY), and even referred to #MugTheory as ‘nonsense’ (BE VERY AFRAID. I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE).

     It was fun, and I met a lot of lovely, shiny new people on twitter, to replace the older, more worn out ones (I don’t mean you by that. I do mean you, though), but I wasn’t altogether serious about it. What I prefer to do is read the hidden conversations that are happening, the things that aren’t said, or the things that may seem to be a throwaway line, but serve a far deeper purpose than may first appear to be the case. Here’s an example of a conversation I have made up:

     Tweeter A: @TweeterB Hey, you around for that thing we mentioned doing on Saturday?
     TweeterB: @TweeterA Yes, I think I’m still free. Say about eleven?
     TweeterA: @TweeterB Great! Really looking forward to it! Last time was brilliant! Text me when you’re leaving :-)
     TweeterB: Ok, will do.
     TweeterA: @TweeterB Thanks xx

     Right, from the outside, it seems like nothing much, yes? Just two people making plans. Ok, here’s the thing. Why didn’t TweeterA send TweeterB a direct message instead? Because they wanted to make sure someone else saw. Why did TweeterA say ‘that thing we mentioned’? Because they wanted someone else to know that they and TweeterB had had previous conversations about it. Why did TweeterA make a direct reference to ‘last time’? Because they wanted someone else to know they had a history with TweeterB. Why did TweeterA mention texting? Because they wanted someone else to know that they exchange texts with TweeterB. This also reinforces the question ‘Why didn’t TweeterA just text TweeterB in the first place, instead of having a public conversation?’ Because TweeterA wanted someone else to see the exchange, and text messages wouldn’t have achieved that. And the ‘xx’ at the end? That’s the final twist of the knife in the heart of the third party not directly involved in the conversation. And I can guarantee that TweeterB would have been blissfully unaware of any of the heaving, seething mass of undercurrent running through the tweets, probably thinking ‘That’s a bit odd. Why didn’t TweeterA just text? Oh, well’ shrugs, gets on with their day, with no further thought about it. Whereas for me, it’s as plain as the nose on TweeterA’s face.

     People give themselves away far more often than they would like to think, and if you're the type of person I am, you learn to read the signs without really being aware of it. It feels instinctive, when really it's more an accumulation of years of hanging back, watching, and then seeing how things go on to unfold. So I've learnt to  trust my 'instincts', and I'm not often wrong. It’s a shame, but it does peel back a rather sad truth. As people, most of us aren’t really all that great.

     We like to think of ourselves as being kind, altruistic, caring. Actually, most people’s motives are pretty base, and our behaviour is usually caused by the nastier side of ourselves we try to keep hidden. We behave the way we do through fear, jealousy, lashing out, attacking, retaliating. The irony is that the people who motivate our best behaviour, our loved ones, see us openly at our worst, when we’re hurt, upset, angry. The people we care about the least see us at our best, keeping up appearances, not letting our demons peep through. But no one wants to admit that, least of all to ourselves. So we perpetuate the myth that we are being kind, generous, helpful.  We’re not. We’re seeking to impress with a shinier, nicer, better cover version

    But I’m fluent in the language of people. And even if no one else can understand you, I can. I do.                                                                                              

     *My name is not Lucy Benedict

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

     A rather wonderful thing happened on Friday morning. I was lounging around in bed, awake, but not yet functional, when The Girl came in, snuggled up next to me under the quilt and said ‘Mum? Something amazing has just happened. I finished my book!’

     Her first book, read alone, with no help from a grown up. She’s read the appalling Biff, Chip & Bollocks ones at school, Well Loved Tales at home with me, comics, picture books, that kind of thing. But she’s never sat down with a paperback book with over 100 pages, and read it, for pleasure. Until this week.

     So we cuddled, and I told her I was proud of her, and how important it is to read, and how much joy it can bring you. I told her about my first book too. I can still remember the perfect flashbulb memory of it, sitting in my green flowery sundress, on the steps of a Nissen hut on the edge of a field in Fenland, August 1985. I can recall how engrossed I was in the story, and how, having finished it, I closed the book with a snap, coming back to earth, having made the most profound discovery of what reading can be, and how it can take you to places you would never visit. That perfect mindgasm of being somewhere you’ll never go, with people you’ll never meet, experiencing things you’ll never do.

     Yeah, I know, Enid Blyton. We all have to start somewhere. And that was the book that kicked it all off. I know she was a racist, nasty, stuck up cow who didn’t like children very much, but I am grateful to her. A while back though, I had reason to curse her for turning me into a bookworm airhead. I don’t know if you’ve seen the thing doing the rounds on facebook lately, where you have to list your top ten best/most memorable books? I was nominated for it, and oh my god, the anguish it caused was unbelievable. There were three or four non-negotiable books that held their place. But the others… It nearly destroyed me. Seriously. Trying to decide between du Maurier and Conan Doyle, McEwan and Rendell, Pratchett and Nabokov. It was awful. Books got selected, deselected, loved again, then rejected. After twelve hours of this, I was SPENT. I could have come up with another twenty books, but I hardened my heart.

       Typing up the list on facebook, I started to write ‘Lolita’ as my number ten, when out of nowhere, a book pinged into my head like the facebook messenger chat head (which I just LOVE. Something so satisfying about it).  And with more certainty than about any other book, I changed book number ten.

     It’s marketed as a children’s picture book. But it isn’t just for children. It’s for anyone. And everyone. I didn’t read it until I was 30. But it changed my way of thinking. The very first page hit me like a kick in the stomach and immediately flooded my face with tears, snot, and possibly some laboured and terrible gasping and droning sobs.

     Deceptively simple words. But powerful ones. Because who hasn’t felt like that? Who hasn’t felt that they needed to cover over the sadness, in order to be liked? And to see it written down, to realise it’s not just you brought me more comfort than a fabric conditioner factory.

     I managed to get through the rest of the book, wiping my nose on my sleeve as I went, seeing how my feelings were brought to life by short, sparse sentences, feeling the pure and unalloyed truth of the words and pictures, creating the most perfect storm of recognition, sorrow, and solace.

     I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it. I could never accurately capture just how perfect the book is, how it tells you things you already know, but this time you believe, because it’s someone else telling you. That it’s ok to be sad. That sadness can be overwhelming. That you’re sad, not bad. That sadness can be like a mist that obscures and distorts. But there are happy times to come.

     If you haven’t already, read this book. It will destroy you. It should destroy you. But at the same time, it is the most uplifting book I have ever read.

And candles. There must be candles.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The garden centre - a horror story

     I don’t scare easily.* People especially don’t scare me. It’s more things that unnerve and unsettle me. A piece of haunting writing. A melancholy chord. The interior of West Runton church. But never could I have predicted that an afternoon out with The Girl would prove to the thief of sleep, peace, and inner tranquillity.

     Half term… YAY! Say the facebook mums. NAY! Say the twitter mums. ‘Oh Christ, I’m completely flat broke, and can’t afford a book of matches, let alone the sticker books that The Blondies are clamouring for.’ say I. Happily, my mum’s staying with us for two weeks, and both Blondies love spending time with her, so yesterday afternoon she took The Boy out to play a round of golf, leaving me and The Girl to spend some quality time together. I was a bit stuck for inspiration of free FUN!! things for us to do, when Alistair suggested going to Notcutt’s. It’s not far, it’s free, and there are plenty of things for us to do there. PLAN.

     Except… except that it turned into an afternoon of sheer, unrelenting horror. Terror stalking us at every turn, a downward spiral into the underworld. We made it out alive. But my soul will carry the scars forevermore.

     You know how horror films start, right? With a group of happy teens/a happy family/happy professionals embarking on some kind of outing. There is much joshing and joking, smiling, arms around shoulders matiness, plenty to laugh at. Like this.

     I hear ya, sister. I fight on a daily basis with my hair too.  Nice to see it immortalised in stone.

     And this. Something tells me the dog's not too happy with this situation.

     And I amused myself with imagining that David was actually thinking ‘FFS. Picked up the wrong towel again’ in the gym showers.

     The Girl spotted this, and we both sniggered a bit about having a statue in your garden that appeared to depict a girl dying for a wee.

     I also snorted to myself over this

     Imagining some wannabe reality tv star hoping that her new tits would distract people from looking at her dodgy nose job.

     And erm…

     Maybe the designer should have thought a bit more about Cleopatra’s belt decoration. And where it would be positioned? Just a suggestion.

     My mood darkened.

     In no way are these ‘fun to collect’. In no way. And I don’t want to meet anyone who thinks these would be ‘great for gifts’ either.

     My mood became slightly apprehensive.

     I can’t decide what part is worst. Her second head, her freakishly long bendy arm, or her short little dibber limb.

     Oh god.

     What happened to it’s nose? It’s actual NOSE? And is that a mouth? Or some kind of suction device?

     And then this.

     ‘I am the soul of ancient evil, trapped inside a statue posing as a young boy. Please buy me and put me in your garden. I promise I don’t come alive at night, and stand over your bed, watching you. You have children? I will possess them.'

     Turning slowly on the spot, I realised that we were alone in the congregation of stone people. A shudder of pure fear coursed through my veins, before adrenalin kicked in. Clutching my precious, beautiful daughter to my breast, I picked up my skirts and fled inside; convinced I could hear the grating dragging sound of ceramic footsteps behind us. Had the doors inside not been automatic, I would have leant against them, panting with relief. I looked to right and left. But the real horror was only just beginning…

     27th October. And Christmas is coming. What says ‘festive’ like a polar bear being electrocuted whilst holding a sack?

     I know! A mirror mosaic reindeer! Because which of us doesn’t have £1,700 to spend on such Christmas essentials?

     I wasn’t the only one feeling The Fear.

    This poor creature had obviously been trafficked to Notcutt’s, promised a life of joy and splendour, and then discovered this actually entailed being camouflaged by plastic foliage in a garden centre.

      Those eyes. Those eyes. Dead inside.

     There was even a decoration set up to ensure you never receive any visitors to your house, EVER AGAIN. In fact, you would never return to your own home again.

     Because who would risk having to stand next to THAT, for even a second? A braver person than me, that’s for sure.

     The gaping chasm of horror in me wasn’t even charmed by two fairies having a yard of ale contest.

     Now, it seemed twisted, and as though innocence and purity had been replaced by immoral debauchery.

     The horror. The horror. Imagine being bought one of those mugs. Imagine being the type of person who buys one of those mugs. Not bad enough? Remember that the person who designed those mugs is, unaccountably, still alive, and walks amongst us.

     I couldn’t take much more. I was whimpering, taking tottery, staggering steps, my hair had made a dash for freedom, my arms were held up protectively in front  of me, pleading with my faceless tormentors to ‘please, just kill me, stop this pain, it hurts too much, I can’t live with this, please’ Then I saw this.

     A worse collection of words I think I have never read. Hairline cracks appeared writ large across what had once been my sanity, my reason, my mind. Reeling backwards, my mouth an open maw of despair, a silent scream ripping through my body, I turned.

And knew that I died and gone to hell.

*Complete and utter bollocks. I jump at my own shadow, have been known to scream at unexpected doormats, and the story of What Happened At The Cinema When I Saw The Others still makes my sister laugh so hard that she cries, and snot bubbles come out of her nose.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The ghost in the machine

     She dreamt of you last night. She dreamt of you as though you were real.  She dreamt you were together, in full three dimensional form, no longer just words on screens, occasionally enlivened with punctuation. Or not.

     She dreamt you existed beyond 140 character limits, beyond a concentrated distillation of thoughts into a carefully selected choice of words. Or even a badly chosen phrase that wounds and bruises. She dreamt you in full. She dreamt she heard your voice, beyond the little she already knows. She dreamt that you and she spent time together, just in one another’s presence, revelling in the simple pleasure of harmony.

      She dreamt that promises were fulfilled. She dreamt that the months of patient waiting were over. She dreamt that the typed words that insinuated themselves inside her head, from your screen to hers, were true. She dreamt that your feelings were what she read, not what she experienced. She dreamt that you were real.

     And then the dream was over. You’re not real. You are the cursor on the screen that blinks and flashes. You are the facebook status update. You are the twitter notification, the text that arrives too late, the email recipient who never replies. You are the caress of an unsolicited compliment. You are the warmth of admiration. You are the glow of unexpected praise. You are the gentle kiss of consideration.   You are the slap of indignant denial. You are the sting of unworthiness. You are the whiplash of deliberate and intentional cruelty. You are the rebuke, the slap down, the withdrawal of contact, and the ignored plea for comfort and consolation.

     You are real only in the screens she sees. You are real only online, real only in her phone, real only on her television.

     You are not real. But she dreams you are. You are not real. But she wishes you were. You are not real. But she needs you to be. But you are not real. You are the ghost in the machine.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

To catch a leaf

Build your coffin of balsa wood
Spend all that you earn
When you go, you are gone for good
Never to return

  Have you ever read ‘Rivals’ by Jilly Cooper? Stop sneering. Jilly Cooper is a literary genius, and I will shoot anyone who says otherwise. She gets dismissed as a writer of bonkbusters, but her books are so much more than that. They’re clever, funny, touching, romantic, puntastic escapism. In my dreams, I live in Rutshire, riding horses and lounging about in front of apple log open fires. It also helps that a lot of her books feature maps at the front. Being an aficionado of cartography, just wave an Ordnance Survey map at me to fondle, and take me, I’m yours, you tempting little peddler of map porn…

     Oh yeah, sorry, Rivals. Right. In one scene in the book, our heroine Taggie O’Hara (bit wet, but we’ll forgive her) gets Rupert Campbell-Black's children to catch falling leaves to give to him so that he’ll have thirty happy days in November. I’d not heard of this as a superstition before, but apparently it is A Thing. Like picking up a penny for good luck, catching a falling leaf is lucky/good luck/full of good bodes.

     I forgot all about this until two years ago, one grim autumnal afternoon, tugging two reluctant and whiny Blondies home. It was drizzling, it was windy, the sky was dark. There was low level pushing and shoving going on, a fair bit of sibling kvetching and deliberately winding each other up. Then, to cap it all off neatly, large, brown, wet leaf fell from a nearby horse chestnut tree, got caught by the wind, and wrapped itself around The Boy’s scowling visage.

     And The Girl HOOTED. Of course she did. Har har, annoying brother, you’re cold, wet, and have just been slapped by a leaf, allow me to point and laugh to make the situation so very much worse.   But, in one of those lightning flash moments of parenting genius that makes you so impressed with your brain that you’d snog yourself if you could, I said ‘WOAH! The Boy!!! You are going to be so lucky! That leaf was meant for you!!!’

     The Boy was intrigued, so I explained further, and what should have been a fairly miserable ten minute trudge home became instead a giggly race back and forwards, hither and yon, darting all over the pavements and verges, trying to catch leaves before they hit the ground.

     Try it. Seriously. It is so much harder than you expect it to be. Partly because it’s unpredictable – you never know when a leaf will sail past, but also because leaves being so light, they tantalisingly fly past your face, only to sail twenty feet to the left in a gust of wind. It’s fab exercise, leaves you breathless, and makes you laugh. A bit like the best kind of lover.

     Obviously, it’s quite season specific. Not many falling leaves in May, whatever darling buds are being shaken by rough winds.  But it’s been a failsafe way of cheering up The Blondies on gloomy afternoon school runs when I’m out of ideas. On good days, we compare our haul, and tot up how many good days we’ve harvested. On bad days, we end up chasing up and down the driveway for hours at a time, Blondies reluctant to go into the house until they’ve caught at least one leaf. Those are the days when I curse my flashes of parenting genius.

Always to thine own self be true
Not to fools like me
Who’ll change their mind
For the sake of rhyming schemes

     Because it’s bollocks. Don’t put your faith in superstitions, prayers, songs, poetry, writers, or anything else that starts life in the mind of another person. People are contrary, contradictory, changeable. Don’t rely on ideas or ideology to guide you. Think for yourself. Make your own decisions, and never ascribe good or bad occurrences to anything other than pure coincidence. Things happen. Make the best of what you have. That’s what I thought I’d taught my children.

Au revoir joi, bonjour tristesse
Good times come and they go
Life owes nobody happiness
Only pain and sorrow

     And I had cause to curse my flash of parenting genius again last week. After the events of Tuesday and Wednesday, having dropped The Girl off at Infants, The Boy and I were making our way across the treelined playground when his attention was caught by a leaf flashing by in a tailspin. He leapt forward to grab it, missed, and hissed ‘Dammit!’ like a nine year old Jack Bauer.

     And that of course was it. He refused, point blank, to go into school until he’d caught a falling leaf to ensure that the rest of his day was going to be good. After five minutes, despite an absolute sodding blizzard of leaves tempting us with their unpredictable and confusing journeys to the asphalt, we were leafless. Checking the time, I realised we weren’t just a bit behind, but on the verge of ‘go-to-the-office-to-make-sure-you’re-on-the-register-and-that’s-a-playtime-detention-for-you-young—tardy-fella-me-lad’ LATE.

     In yet another lightning flash of parenting genius so amazing I’m thinking of taking myself out for dinner to wine, dine, and possibly 69 me, I ripped a leaf of the nearest sycamore tree, handed it to The Boy and said ‘Here. A leaf. It’ll be a good day.’

     ‘MUUUUUUU-HUH-HUM!!!’ That doesn’t count! You just took it off a tree!’

     ‘You make your own luck in this life, The Boy. So there. Make it a good day.’

     Superstitions are the thief of responsibility. When things go wrong, it’s not the fault of some bearded sky fairy, or because you broke a mirror six years and 364 days ago. It’ll be a bad decision, yours or theirs, the weather, an accident, a coincidence. Have faith, by all means (I don’t). But don’t let that absolve you of your own responsibility for making yourself happy.

So don’t rely on the starry skies
Screw the universe
You ought to try
To live your life on earth.

I'm going to try
To live my life on earth.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Take my hand

     Here is my hand.

     And mine, with my heart in't

     The problem with The Girl being like me is that when we have a disagreement, it becomes a standoff. There can only ever be two losers. Food, clothes, toys, bedtimes… - you name it, we will face one another, and neither of us will back down. So when I do manage to achieve a victory, however small, it becomes a source of immense pride and satisfaction. To date, I have managed one victory. In six years. Getting her to hold my hand.

     Remember the toddler years? The hourly daily battle of wills you have? Every weekday, at half past eight, and three o’clock: ‘You need to hold my hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ ‘Hold. My. Hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ ‘HOLD. MY.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ Exhausting. Painful. Public. After several months of squirming and twisting, trying to free herself from my grasp, The Girl decided to focus her energies on more entertaining methods of thwarting peace and quiet, and meekly submitted to holding my hand whenever we walked anywhere.

     And she still does it now, aged six. She panics if I can’t, because I’m weighed down with holding schoolbags, lunchboxes, book bags, discarded coats, apple cores, school created works of art, etc. She won’t even just hold my arm. It has to be her tiny, soft hand placed in my aged and rough mitt, my fingers enclosing hers.

     The Boy’s not the same at all. He’ll hold my hand when we cross busy roads, but beyond that, he’s never been bothered, probably because when he was a toddler I didn’t have to negotiate A roads and city traffic, and car parks and things like that. Anywhere we went, we went in the car (the joy of living in the countryside, where there are no pavements), so the question of making sure he couldn’t dart off into traffic did not arise.

     But then Tuesday happened. And for The Boy, things are never going to be quite the same.

     I knew who she was. Two sons, the eldest of whom is one of The Boy’s friends, the younger six years old, the same as The Girl. We’d spoken a few times in the playground, but the way these things work out, we had never really clicked, and become closer. Friendly enough, but we didn’t hang around and chat. Then, about 18 months ago, I noticed she was becoming paler, thinner. Her husband started doing the school run more often, she wasn’t around much. Then she started wearing a headscarf for a few months. When that came off, it was to reveal fresh new hair, regrowing. In the very British way of doing things, we observed, but ‘didn’t want to pry’. Didn’t want to seem nosy, rubbernecking. None of us said anything to each other, either. Some topics aren’t right to gossip over. Those who were friendlier with her had quieter, more thoughtful chats at hometime. The rest of us hung back, taking care to make eye contact and smile at her, hoping to let her know, wordlessly, that we didn’t know what to do, wanted to do something, but at the same time, didn’t want to add a further strain.

     Thinking about her this week, I realised I couldn’t remember seeing her at the school gates since term started. It wasn’t necessarily significant. The Boy is always one of the last out, so the Girl and I take our time on our way to pick him up. Now they’re in Year 5, a lot of children walk home by themselves in any case. I chided myself for automatically thinking negatively. But then Tuesday happened.

     The Boy has swimming last lesson on Tuesdays, thus adding to the delay in leaving school. Fifteen minutes after school had ended, he still hadn’t come out, and The Girl, clutching my hand, and doing the ‘Dying for a wee, I didn’t need to go when I was in school, but now I fear it may be about to start the trickle of humiliation’ jiggle next to me, was scornfully saying ‘Let’s just GO!’ when I spotted him, shoulders slumped, head down, slowly shuffling along the path. Irritation at his tardiness turned to annoyance. Why did he always have to be the last one out? Then I saw his face. Streaked with tears.

     ‘Have you heard, Mum?’

     ‘Heard what?’

     ‘Tom’s mum died this morning.’

     I held him as he tried to stop the tears from rising again, feeling his body shudder with the effort, his chest expanding. And all the way home, despite the fact I had my bag, his schoolbag, his lunchbox, both Blondie’s swimming bags, The Girl’s book bag to carry, he kept hold of my hand, never once letting it go.

     And I knew it wasn’t just sadness for his friend. He was struggling to cope with the realisation that bad, sad things don’t just happen on the news, or in books. Bad, sad happen in real life too. That his friend was going to grow up without his mother. And if it happened to his friend, it could happen to him, too. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, The Boy was quiet, withdrawn. A longer than normal hug at bedtime. Wednesday morning, the same. I had to go into the school office and say he ‘wasn’t feeling well’, with an exaggerated eyeroll at the secretary on the counter, who discreetly winked back.

     Then the phone call at one o’clock. ‘The Boy’s here in the office. Says he’s not well, and needs to speak to you?’ He sounded fine. When I asked him what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong, he was fine. Why then had he got the school to phone me? ‘Dunno.’ Did he want to come home? ‘No.’ Hmm.

     An hour later, another phone call. Did he want to come home this time? A tearful yes. And I knew what that first phone call was about. It wasn’t that he was feeling unwell. It wasn’t even really that he wanted to come home so much. He had just wanted to hear my voice.

     So we sat in the park for forty minutes, until it was time to collect The Girl. And it was a hard conversation to have. My instinct was to tell him not to worry, to reassure, to rub away the anxiety and   fear clouding his mind. But I couldn’t. Because bad, sad things do happen in real life. Because Tom and his younger brother are going to grow up without their mum. Because The Boy had realised that we are all frail, earthly beings. Because Tom’s mum died.

     And The Boy held my hand. His soft, rounded hand, nearly as big as mine. He held my hand, and I held his. Because things are never going to be quite the same again.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Shine on, you crazy diamond

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.

        We can’t run away from who we are. Before The Blondies erupted onto the scene, I was a vehement supporter of nurture versus nature. Now… it’s not so clear cut. I can hope to direct them in certain ways, I can encourage or gently steer them away from things, but for the most part, their personalities were fairly strongly rooted, long before their first word or first steps. The Boy is me, in so many ways. Same sense of humour, same love of sleep, same stroppiness, same sensitivity.

      I never really thought The Girl and I had much in common. She’s a girly girl, but she’s also confident, tough, never seemingly dented by people around her. Plonk her in any new situation and she’s off and running. I’ve long wondered where her confidence comes from, and enviously hoped some of it would rub off on me. Not a hope in hell. We are chalk and cheese. In personality, looks, and temperament. Or so I thought.

     I suppose I didn’t want to see it. It’s not something I like about myself. It makes me an absolute fecking nightmare to deal with at times, as those closest to me would quietly demur to my face, whilst thinking ‘Christ, YES.’ It’s the passion.

     The problem with me is that things tend to be all or nothing. I’m rarely halfarsed, except when it comes to housework. When I like something, I go all out, full throttle, air-punching, racing for the prize. When I’m down, it’s not just feeling a bit meh. It’s a stormtossed sea of pounding waves and angst, a little ship caught in a whirlpool and pulsing with St Elmo’s Fire. You’d think that the years of beige might have knocked it out of me. In fact, it seems to have made it worse, as though all the years of not feeling anything just dammed it up, and now it’s burst forth like Bardabunga, all the more stronger and uncontrollable because it was suppressed for so long.

     That’s my excuse, anyway. And The Girl has it too. There’s no middle ground in her life. She’s either twirling around like a fairy with a pet unicorn that farts glitter onto rainbows over waterfalls, or she’s a vengeful banshee, shrieking and hurling death and destruction on an unsuspecting, undeserving, and unprepared world.

     It’s a problem. Because I know how much I annoy people with the extremes of my personality. And um… now I understand why. The Girl doesn’t get the best of me, as a person. It’s hard for me to admit, but it’s true. I should be better with her than I am. I should be able to anticipate the oncoming storm and make the necessary preparations. But I don’t. Because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to admit it. I don’t want to concede that the thing I like least about myself has been passed on to my daughter.

     And there’s more than that. Being passionate about things means you’re forever disappointed by those around you, when they don’t seem to share your enthusiasm. When you put as much of yourself into something as The Girl and I do, it matters. We care about it, about how people react. And when people shrug, or don’t seem interested, or ignore it, it stings. And in my case, it turns inward, it reinforces a sense that I am that unworthy creature I always believed myself to be, and I retreat into an inner storm. I put up a wall between myself and the world, aloof, distant, wary, unwilling to engage, until something new comes along and the dark clouds pass.

    That’s me, though. The Girl is not such a tender and easily bruised character. More robust, self-assured, and positive than I could ever hope to be, she’ll shout down the world if it disagrees with her. I hope she stays that way. I hope she doesn’t start to take it personally when people aren’t as enthusiastic and excited about things as she is. I hope she continues to be herself, to love things with brio, to hurl herself into life and care only for her own opinions. Diamonds are formed under intense heat and pressure, and when the rough edges are taken off, they shine for the world to see. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You’re as beautiful as you feel.