Fourteen

Ever-busy, my energetic

lithe and lovely little girl

is suddenly grown and filled with

zest for living.  Wittily

acerbic and unforgiving, with

 

incisive puns and jokes to please us

sarcastically she teases us.

 

Freckled, newly fashion-conscious,

outstandingly quirky, palely gorgeous,

unapologetic, grabbing chances with

ready zeal, my

teenage girl is tall now, she meets me

eye to eye, blue to brown,

enjoying the present, challenging the future,

not long now mine to nurture.

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Swallows at the Pool

We sit together, companionably reading,

mother and daughter,

our pale feet dangling

in the still-too-cool water

sun warming exposed English flesh,

blonde French cows bearing witness at the fence.


At movement overhead, my eyes are drawn upward 

to a squadron of swallows hurtling toward

a stately line of tall trees,

tiny black wings furiously a-beat,

bellies flashing white underneath.
Then two or three break rank,

turn forked-tails and dive-bomb the pool,

swift, silent, bold – ready to refuel

with a swoop that barely skims the surface;

perfect execution, fulfilling their purpose.

And in their descent, to my lounging view,

their white undersides are illuminated blue,

transforming them suddenly to my surprise 

into tropical birds of paradise.
Later my girl will dive in too,

her fragile, flat belly briefly glowing blue

my heart fluttering in my throat

as I watch her body’s graceful arc.

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‘She used to sit on gentlemen’s knees at parties…’

 

I am shown into the ‘quiet lounge’ when I arrive at the care home and told by a cheerful young girl, who hands me Alice’s file*, that she will go and bring her to me.  The room is quiet in name only, so I turn off Jeremy Kyle, ranting at high volume in the corner to an empty room, and settle down to read the paperwork. I know the salient points already: Alice has dementia, she is subject to a ‘deprivation of liberty’ authorisation, she has no family and has been in the home for three years.  As I start checking through the daily records the door swings open, Alice is wheeled in and we are left alone.

 

She is not sitting in a normal wheelchair, but is reclining in a large, cushioned, wheeled armchair (she has had to buy this herself, at huge cost, as this sort of expense is no longer funded).   She is thin – very thin – and she is sleeping, her head slumped to one side, her open mouth showing only gums, no teeth.  I try to wake her, holding her blue-veined hand in mine and calling her name, at first softly and then more loudly, but I am unable to rouse her.  I decide to go through more of the paperwork while she sleeps in front of me, hoping that she will wake soon, and discover that she does have family – a daughter- but that they fell out some years ago and have not seen each other since.  Her daughter has never visited the home.  

 

Alice is no longer weight-bearing I read, and cannot change position herself, so needs to be repositioned in her cushioned chair every few hours and turned throughout the night in bed, to stop her developing pressure sores.  Alice is non-verbal now and on a pureed diet, but shows preference for sweet food over savoury.

 

And then, buried in a ‘previous history’ section, the following sentence leaps out at me:

 

               she used to sit on gentlemen’s knees at parties’.

 

There are two photos of the younger Alice: one is a head shot of a smiling, plump-faced woman, taken perhaps ten years ago at a guess; the other shows Alice in the foreground of an older, faded group shot with a grinning, raucous looking bunch of people.  It might be Christmas – they are wearing paper hats at any rate, drunkenly askew, and their glasses are raised towards the camera in a silent ‘cheers’ from yesteryear.  Alice is indeed sitting on a man’s knee, as is another woman; they are bunched up to get in the photo.  The picture raises a myriad of questions in me – who are all these people, and where have they gone?  Why has Alice lived here for three years with no visitors whatsoever?  What was said between mother and daughter to cause such irreparable damage?  Why would it be salaciously recorded that she used to like to sit on men’s knees, if the only discernible evidence is one photo of one party?  Alice cannot tell anyone anymore and there is no one else here to complete her story, to remember her before she turned into the unresponsive woman in front of me now.

 

Further attempts to wake Alice are fruitless and so I enlist the help of another carer, who has been doing the rounds of the home with a trolley for mid-morning tea break.  She comes in holding a plastic, spouted beaker holding thickened lukewarm, sugared tea.  She shouts ‘time for your brew!’ next to Alice’s ear and holds the beaker to her lips.  Alice’s eyes do not open, but her lips close briefly around the spout and she swallows a few sips, as insipid, beige rivulets dribble down her chin and are soaked up by the wool of her cardigan.

 

The carer then wheels her back into the main lounge, parking her enormous chair in its usual spot and tucking the blanket around the buckle which stops Alice from slipping out of it altogether.  During my time with Alice in the quiet lounge, the once-a-fortnight activities co-ordinator has arrived and is doing ‘armchair aerobics’ with the more able residents.  The music is loud, but Alice sleeps on.  Then one of the girls on duty brings over a large baby doll, almost toddler sized – the type with a realistic crying function.   She places her in the crook of Alice’s arm, with the crying noise on and calls out ‘your baby needs you Alice’.  Alice’s eyes flutter briefly and she turns her head, her mouth puckering into a reflexive kiss against the plastic head.  As the carer pushes a dummy into the doll’s mouth – its mechanism to stop the noise – Alice mutters ‘aw, sh’ and closes her eyes again as she sleeps on holding the doll and the carer turns her around once more in her chair.

*not her name

 

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Sixteen

He often sits nowadays at piano keys

absorbed, iPhone propped amidst classical sheets,

playing pop tunes from previous generations,

painstakingly-learned from

you tube demonstrations

 

Brown glossy hair is flicked out of eyes

incisive, searching the world with his impatient,

rapacious appetite for knowledge and information:

teeth, habitually covered in sweet lips-closed smiles are,

head thrown back, revealed in straightened glory, when with

dimpled cheeks and deep explosive laughs he shares with me

a joke, a story, a meme on his screen – his

youthful exuberance; just being sixteen.

 

My

Gorgeous, gentle

Adorable, acerbic

Beatles-encyclopaedic

Remarkable, relentlessly-

Inquisitive, intelligent

Emotional, eloquent

Lovely, lovable

 

Son.

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Jane Eyre

 

I was a very square teenager, out of step with the 1980s.  I have no embarrassing photos of Diana-inspired flicks or Kylie-inspired bubble perms to look back on, because I never experimented with my hair, preferring instead to allow it to grow long down my back.  I only rarely wore make-up, and only mascara,  so I’ve no photos of the frosted pinks or heather shimmers I remember loving on others.  And I had eczema.  On occasion really bad, really embarrassing eczema, when my sober, navy blue girls’ grammar school uniform was set off by jazz hands – jaunty, unwantedly attention-seeking white gloves smothered on the inside with steroid creams; when my socks stuck to the open, oozing mess on my feet and had to be peeled away painfully every evening; and when the corners of my mouth cracked and bled slightly when I smiled.

 

As a distraction from near-constant itching, I always read a lot, turning my attention as a young teenager to the Victorian classics that were to hand both at home and at school and, no doubt in common with many young girls over the past century and a half, I identified with the Bronte heroines in particular.   Jane Eyre became a firm favourite:  I, too, was small and plain with, I fancied, righteous rage at injustice burning quietly inside.  Perhaps my own adventures, perhaps even my own Mr Rochester, would be out there for me somewhere in the big, wide world.

 

 

A few months ago, my beautiful, hip thirteen-year-old daughter was mooching about the house declaring herself finally bored of the diversions afforded by her phone.  ‘Read something’, I suggested, to sighs and shrugs that she had read everything she had, several times over (probably true, as she is an avid reader).  So I suggested we read Jane Eyre together.   I was not sure she would be interested in such an anachronism of a book, or indeed whether she would agree to being read to, but she was touchingly keen to experience something different from her usual fare, and to do it with me.  For many evenings in the past winter’s months, therefore, I have had the absolute pleasure of her curled up next to me in my bed, as the wind howled and the rained lashed in appropriately Bronte-esque fashion against the windows, her golden hair fanned across the pillow and her pale, thoughtful, freckled face nestled against my shoulder, listening to the tales of Jane, Helen Burns, Mrs Fairfax, Blanche Ingram, Mr Rochester et al with rapt attention.   Though the chapters seemed to me sometimes over-long and verbosely Victorian on this re-reading, the first for me in over twenty years, she was gripped and absorbed, giving the timeless story an entertainingly twenty-first century twist when she exclaimed of the rocky road to romance for Jane and Mr Rochester

 

               OMG, Jane is TOTALLY friend-zoning Mr Rochester! She needs to stop it!

 

 

Last week, I took her to the touring National Theatre production of Jane Eyre.  Watching her being entranced by the play, and talking to her afterwards, adult to almost-adult, about its feminist interpretation, was as satisfying to me as the wonderful production itself. 

 

It turns out you don’t need to feel plain to identify with Jane: the character speaks just as well to a beautiful, well-adjusted teenager, inspiring her to speak her mind, fight against injustice and cruelty, and unlock her full potential to make the most of her life.

 

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Perfection

 

I recently had a birthday. Not a big one, no zero involved.  No need for any fuss.

 

I knew my daughter was up to something, though.  She’s getting more opaque but, at thirteen, is still touchingly transparent in her questions and actions.

 

Several weeks before my birthday, I saw her eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly and her head give a satisfied little nod when she got my answer to the ‘casually’ asked question as to which chocolates I liked best from a display when we were out shopping together.   She was canny; telling me first which her favourites were and speculating about what her brothers might say, before directing the question at me with a swift, penetrating glance from her blue-grey eyes.  Sure enough, the chocolates I mentioned were part of her birthday present to me, the specific type and flavour perfectly recalled from several weeks earlier.

 

During half term, a couple of weeks before the not-so-big-day, she suggested a trip to Hobbycraft, claiming, implausibly, that her little brother wanted to have a browse.  When we got there, in what was clearly a pre-planned move, they suggested I go ahead of them to the next shop and they would catch me up.  I played along and left, not before seeing my younger son pull hot pocket-money coins from deep inside the pocket of his skinny jeans and count them in his hand, their conspiratorial heads together as she marshalled him around the corner to another aisle.

 

There were some clues to something else too, like when she asked to use my phone to take a photo when we were out in a café, emailing the picture to her dad, but refusing to tell me why, just telling me I’d find out soon enough.  There were rustling noises from her room, a closed door and shouts of ‘don’t come in Mummy!’ and a bin suddenly full of polystyrene and plastic wrappers.

 

And on the evening of my birthday, after a mundane, normal February Sunday with its usual mix of skateboarding, cricket and homework, we went out to a local restaurant for birthday tea and I was given my presents (including a wonderfully random assortment from Hobbycraft).  I loved them all, but one of them made me cry.

 

Two photo frames, containing three black and white photos each, horizontally arranged.  I pulled them from the wrapping paper, initially confused.  I was aware that they were spelling something out, but was unable to decode what it was.  She eagerly put me right, watching me warily for my reaction, as she instructed me to reverse the glass frames in my hands.  Then it was revealed that they spelled out my name, through:     

 

L – my beautiful girl lying solemnly, semaphore-style, on her bedroom floor

 

O – a shot of her bedside light

 

U – taken in a cafe

 

I – the clock in our kitchen

 

S – a bagel cut up on the breadboard

 

E – kitchen roll, shot from above (NOT toilet paper; she was affronted at the suggestion).

 

 

 

She had the idea: she thought about it, she planned it over a period of weeks; she enlisted the help of my husband; she walked to the photo shop and printed off the photos, she shopped for frames and agonised about finding the right size to match them up. 

 

I am so touched by her hard work, creativity and thoughtfulness.

 

It was perfect.

 

 

 

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About a Boy, aged eleven

He has bright, brown eyes like his winter-bird namesake.

He has glossy dark hair and long eyelashes that his big sister says are wasted on a boy. They curve down casting shadows onto his still-soft, still-plump cheek when he goes to sleep.

He is open-hearted and endlessly affectionate, kindness knitted into every pore. He wants to hold hands. He wants us to sit together in an armchair that once comfortably held the little-boy version of him with me with room to spare, even if we must now sit in it uncomfortably wedged together. If he comes to stand next to me whilst I am sitting elsewhere, he wraps one arm around my neck, immobilises me in a loving headlock and ruffles my hair with his free hand.

He adores his big sister. She looks after him and he loves her for it. They giggle and plot. His vitality withers away a little when she is not near.

His mouth is often wide with laugher and often turned down in grumpiness. His laugh, when it comes, is explosive and contagious. His joy is whole-hearted, his misery is complete: his emotions are always writ large across his face. He is transparent. He cannot dissemble.

His hands fiddle and meddle. They twist things, they turn things. They flip bottles. They absent-mindedly pull things to pieces. They worry tissues and sweet wrappers, deep inside pockets, ready to shred all over tumbling, wet washing.

Sleep will only come over him if there is a bright overhead light shining into his face to ward off his night-time fears, and if the wardrobe door is open so he can be sure there is no-one and nothing hiding within, but he sleeps a little longer, a little later now, as his body stretches and lengthens and adolescence nods to him from the future.

He is a boy in love with the idea of having a dog; a boy perpetually disappointed by the knowledge that he will not be getting a dog and who plans for the dogs he will have when he is grown and living in the sunshine. He is a boy who says he would like to be a dog. He is a boy who spends time thinking about what kind of dog his family and friends would be if they were a dog (he used to think I was a Jack Russell, but now I’m definitely a Labrador he says).

Happy birthday to my beautiful Springer Spaniel.

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