Motion

It was a day of warmth and wonder,

rightfully Autumn’s, stolen back by Summer

for one last brilliant burst

of sunshine, as we trekked the Anglesey coast.

We three walking together in deep conversation,

cementing friendships in nature’s contemplation.

 

Stepping along striated limestone boulders

we see the lifeboat station fling its boat asunder;

a brief breathless ascent to a quiet copse

to find ancient stones our world forgot,

then down to feast at variegated brambles

of unready reds and glistening purples.

 

Last back through gentle green undulations

to watch twilight birds swoop in secret formations,

to rest, to think, to pause

in the salty air and listen to the noise

of the ceaseless rhythmic incoming waves,

a giant yellow moon rising over the bay.

 

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Remember

blue-dress

Once she made her own blue dress,

tied ribbons in her short brown hair

to dance the night away with him.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they held hands and kissed

on the back seat of a Balham bus,

before he walked home again, penniless.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they swam naked in azure seas,

ate seafood on the beach then

walked quietly through island flowers.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Always she did everything for him,

entertained his friends, concocted special meals

from vegetables she grew in their garden.

She cannot remember it now.

 

So now he cooks some basic fare,

he slowly vacuums the floor,

helps her into her clothes, combs her snow-white hair

because he remembers everything about

 

his girl of seventeen,

his bride of twenty-three,

his lifelong companion.

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Clara

I first met Clara in the day room of a community hospital on a humid afternoon in late summer.   Sunlight flooded in through the floor to ceiling windows, as elderly people dotted here and there around the room dozed, mouths agape, heads lolling, curved spines wedged uncomfortably into high backed armchairs, with the unlikely high-volume background soundtrack of Judge Rinder from the TV.

Clara, however, sat alert and upright in a chair in the far corner, awaiting her visitor.  I joined her at her table, introduced myself and explained that I had come to talk to her and to listen to her views, wishes and feelings about whether she could return to her own home when she left hospital. She returned my gaze directly, her bright brown eyes in a surprisingly unlined face framed by long, straight grey hair searching my face as I spoke. If I had had to guess her age, I would have placed her at a sprightly eighty or so and yet her notes told me that she was ninety six and had been diagnosed with mixed dementias.

Clara was polite, articulate and keen to talk, but it became apparent very quickly that she could not remember many, if any, details of her life prior to her admission into hospital several weeks earlier. She could also not remember questions I had posed to her less than five minutes after I had asked them. At one stage, I asked her if she had ever been married and initially she shrugged her shoulders saying she did not know, but then lifted her left hand and stared at it intently. She looked in wonderment at the thin gold band embedded into the fourth finger, almost as if someone had just placed it there that moment without her knowledge or consent and announced rather stiffly ‘I appear to be wearing a wedding ring, don’t I, so I suppose I must have been.’

When asked what she felt about the doctors and social workers’ concerns that she would not be able to look after herself properly if she were to return home, she refuted the allegations tartly and told me that she could manage perfectly well. We discussed how she prepared her own meals, fetched her own shopping, washed and dressed herself and did not need to have carers visiting her in her house (none of which was true, according to a long suffering neighbour and the care agency who had been sending carers into her home three times a day prior to her hospital admission). I told her that I would like to come back and see her again the following week and asked if she thought she would remember me when I returned. Clara reached forward and plucked the long strand of beads I was wearing away from my chest, twirled them around her fingers and said thoughtfully ‘I like these. When you come back to see me, wear these…’. I assured her I would and asked her if she thought that it would help her to remember me and what we had talked about if I wore the beads again, to which she smiled slightly and replied only ‘it’s worth a try’. It was worth a try; I did wear them on a return visit the following week but she did not remember me (although she graciously complimented me on a pretty necklace).

On my visits to Clara, when I asked her about returning home, it became clear that, whilst she could not remember her husband or her home of the past fifty years, she could remember the home of her childhood and youth. The world she had known first was the only one still fixed into her disappearing memories. She spoke animatedly about living with her mother and father, who in her world were still alive and in need of her services helping behind the counter in their grocery shop. She told me all about the work her mother did in the house and that she was teaching her how to run her own home. She told me all about her little brother, who was away in the war and from whom they hadn’t heard for a long time. She told me about getting another job too, so she could help out her lovely mum and dad who still worked so hard.

I asked Clara if she knew how old she was. There was a long pause while she fixed her eyes on mine, arched her eyebrows and said ‘about twenty-five? Am I right?’. I told her it was not quite right but that she could be any age she wanted to be on the inside. She then asked me to tell her how old she was, confessing she had guessed at twenty-five because she had no idea, but that was how she felt. However, when I did tell her, she reacted with astonishment and rising horror: ‘ninety SIX? NINETY SIX?’. Thankfully (for me), after a minute or two she had moved on to telling me about her mother again and appeared to have forgotten everything except her desire to return to her days as a young adult living in the family home above the family shop.

 

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Summer of Love

It is summer 2016. My children are older now – 15, 12 and 10 – and I find it so difficult to remember my life before they changed it forever. The early, slow, can’t-tell-day-from-night phase has gone for good and the last few years have whipped by in a blur. My children are changing almost on a daily basis before my very eyes, metamorphosing into the adults they will soon be, so I wanted to use the Summer of Love project to document what I love about them today, this week, this summer, before it whizzes past me and I can no longer pin it down.

Some of the things I love now are:

Their senses of humour

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However difficult a day I may have, there is not one that goes past without at least one of my children making me laugh at some point. I genuinely enjoy their company more and more as they mature into their personalities. My youngest child still has quite slapstick tendencies and I now suspect this may always be the case. Living with him is like living with Cato from The Pink Panther: his favourite current trick is to try to steal up behind me, noiselessly, as I, Inspector Clouseau-like, haplessly chop vegetables/brush my teeth/check my email, and leap onto my back shouting triumphantly ‘bet you didn’t know I was here!’ He still finds it hilarious to stick two oranges up his t-shirt and pretend he has breasts and is still to be found rolling around on the floor in abject mirth watching You’ve Been Framed. My daughter is altogether more sophisticated in her humour. She can speak volumes with a carefully raised eyebrow and a scathing look and is turning into a good mimic. My eldest likes a visual gag, passing his phone to me ten or twenty times a day to chortle at something or other and share the joke, often loftily hiding the screen from his siblings, declaring it ‘unsuitable’ for them or telling them they wouldn’t get it because it’s about Brexit, or Donald Trump.

Their developing engagement with the world

No one could have missed the dramatic political developments of Summer 2016 and my children are certainly all aware of Brexit, terrorism and the US election. Although it has been chiefly my oldest child who has been gripped by the unfolding events and had articulate, passionate conversations around the debate (whilst bemoaning that he and his friends were not eligible to vote in the Referendum), all of them have an awareness of the events of the world around them and ask pertinent questions. There are many stories I wish I could shield them from, like the Nice attacks, particularly when their questions reveal anxieties and inaccuracies but this is now impossible, not least because the news is beamed directly to their mobile phones.

Their hormones

Hormones are raging for two out of the three of them (not to mention me). This can sometimes lead to sulks, slammed doors, arguments and tears (including mine). However, I am really heartened and impressed by the way they are learning to deal with this and to understand my point of view. Recently, several weeks of nagging to try to get my son to tidy his bedroom resulted in a sarcastic outburst in which I was accused of being unreasonable (of course) and of having OCD. Later that evening, I received a text from him, showing a grinning selfie with a thumbs up from inside an immaculate bedroom. My daughter’s moods are becoming more erratic but a couple of weeks ago, after a prolonged bout of snippiness, she silently presented me with a beautiful drawing of an elephant (known to be my favourite animal) by way of a peace-offering.

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Their bodies

They are lengthening, stretching and growing. They are lithe and lean, freckled, muscled, beautiful creatures with glossy hair and shiny eyes. I sometimes cannot stop myself from staring and marvelling at how bonny and strong they are. They all still do a lot of sport but, whilst the football, cricket and gymnastics plus the rigours of secondary school are enough to wear out the older two, who have become rather floppy, enervated and adolescent in their down time, no amount of exercise seems to exhaust my youngest child. He is, dog-like, irrepressible, continually moving and continually fiddling with anything in his vicinity. This year, I have finally had the brainwave of taping up the remote controls, to try to stop him absent-mindedly pulling their backs off so that the batteries spill down the sides of the chairs.

Music

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All of them are very engaged by music this summer, in different ways. My eldest is taking music GCSE, which he is finding more absorbing than I could have hoped. He is also developing an eclectic retro style, teaching himself Beatles and David Bowie numbers alongside his Moonlight Sonata and New Worlds Symphony and putting Nirvana and Etta James on his holiday playlist. To my great joy, he has asked me to sing along when he tries to work out his Lennon and McCartney chords on the piano (cue sarcastic comments from the others about how we should enter Britain’s Got Talent. Not.) My daughter has taken to lying on her bed, trainee teenager like, listening to the latest chart music. My youngest likes nothing better than when we are driving around the area after school, dropping and collecting from various activities, and he can enforce Capital radio in the car, to which he joyously sings along at the top of his voice. They are all learning instruments but pop music is gaining precedence.

This summer, I am also remembering with love my grandmother, who died ten years ago this month at the grand old age of 96 and my mother, who died two years ago this month. My grandmother was a tiny, charismatic Scottish woman who, despite being an extrovert through and through, was the one person who made me feel comfortable about being an introvert when I was growing up. ‘You have a stillness’, she told me, ‘that reminds me of my mother and it is a nice quality. You just be you.’ As I am writing this at the start of the long summer holidays, I will probably fail time and time again, but my heartfelt aim is to make my children feel that just being them, whatever that is, is good enough for me.

 

Summer of Love Series 2016

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Up

We surged up together in the basket

Shockingly fast – un unlikely quartet –

We two, your mother and your sister’s boy,

Sudden blasts of flames shooting us into the sky.

As we drifted uneasily above English shires

You took my hand and we stood side by side

Our silence punctuated by regular fiery jets,

We would marry in a year, but did not know it yet.

Our descent impeded, giant pylons in view

We banged down sideways, balloon spreading askew,

Instructed  to fall, big catching small, one upon the other,

Thus I fell on you and the boy on your mother.

Everything and nothing has changed since our ascending,

You are still by my side, always my soft landing.

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Cloth ears

earI’ve been thinking about cross-country running a lot recently. Running that I did 30 years ago.

By the time I reached the sixth form, I had no interest in school sports. The school didn’t have much interest in me as a footballer, on merit, and rather than play cricket for the school I preferred having a Saturday job where I earned the money to go drinking with my Club cricket pals after Sunday matches.

Double games on Friday afternoons was a permissive business. I was allowed to jog off into the Buckinghamshire countryside, returning an hour later, changing and heading off for the weekend. Looking back, the surprise is that I did often go running. Not always.

Some weeks, two or three of us would visit a friend from the girls school, who had lost interest in school and whose Mum was happy to have her home for company. We would have tea and biscuits with them before jogging back to school.

What brings back these memories is something that happens a lot with both of my sons. With the older boy, typically we will be in the car, me driving and him in the passenger seat. The radio will be on, a window open. He’ll make a comment or ask a question. “Sorry,” I’ll say, “What was that you said?” Whole journeys will progress like this, with me straining and failing to pick up what he’s saying, asking for him to repeat himself.

The answer could lie in a trip to the doctor’s for a hearing test. I don’t think so, though. My wife, my daughter, my work colleagues, touchline pals and cricket club cronies can all be heard clearly.

With the younger son, the situation is also when we’re on the move. Walking to school, along suburban pavements, he’ll mutter something looking down into the gutter. Or, time his interjection for the moment that a car passes. Then he’ll look up at me. “Sorry. What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” He’ll look down and away and repeat his comment. “What? I couldn’t hear you.”

The temptation, and this is when the cross-country memory comes most strongly, is to nod and smile, give an affirmative indication, not let on that I’ve not a clue what he’s going on about.

On one of the surprisingly many Friday afternoons as a sixth former that I really did go running, I had taken a route with two or three others through a beech wood. We had cut back alongside the road that led up a steep hill back towards school. We made our way along an embankment a couple of meters above the road, until the path disappeared and we had to scramble down to the road. I went down ahead of Mark, reaching the road on the inside of a bend, and let my momentum carry me on up the road.

Behind me Mark shouted something that I didn’t hear. I turned and he shouted, incomprehensibly to me, again. “Yeah,” I replied to the unknown question. He pitched forward, ready to launch himself down the slope to the road when a car tore around the bend from behind him and up the hill. With a cold jolt I realised he had wanted to know if the coast was clear.

It was, in the language of health and safety, a near miss. There was no incident. I had beckoned a schoolmate into the path of a speeding car, but he had seen the danger just as he was about to charge down the slope to the road, trusting the clearance he thought I had given him.

When I strain to hear something my sons have muttered, that has floated away in the wind, I think of Mark’s near miss. I fight the temptation to nod, to let a matter of no consequence pass with a pretend acquiescence.

I don’t fear that I am going to usher them blindly into oncoming traffic. But I do worry. I worry that I might miss a sentence of import:

“Dad, there’s this girl..”

“I’m really frightened to go to school..”

“Daddy, what does.. mean..”

“Dad, I need some money..”

And if I don’t hear it and ask too bluntly for a repetition, it might be followed by, “Nothing, it doesn’t matter.” But it might matter, long after my cloth ears missed their chance.

 

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Fifteen

One evening in early May, fifteen years ago, I greeted my husband with alarm when he came home from work. I was newly on maternity leave, nervously awaiting the birth of my first child and had spent the day in conscientious preparation (washing baby clothes in non-biological powder, packing a hospital bag), eating and dozing off in front of the television. I had awoken in a daze to find myself watching a travel programme where a harried, old-looking couple were trying to find a suitable holiday for themselves and their morose teenage sons.

I had not found out the sex of my baby but I knew, deep down, that I was having a boy and I suddenly started to panic about how I was going to manage with a teenage son.  What on earth had possessed me to think this mothering business was the right thing to do? Why had it not occurred to me until now – when there was clearly no going back – that a little baby boy would grow up into a giant, sullen creature with whom one would have to find a suitable holiday to go on? The only thing that calmed me down that evening, as I paced around a flat punctuated by lots of little babygrows drying here and there on radiators, was the rationalisation that, by the time one had a teenage son, one would (hopefully) have got to know him and so the whole going-on-holiday-thing might be less of a challenge.

Fast forward fifteen years and I like to think I understand my teenage boy and what makes him tick, for now at least.

It seems rather abrupt, however, that he has suddenly attained an age that can be counted up in fives, leading me to reminisce about him being a baby, about him being five, and ten and anticipating the speed at which twenty will come hurtling towards me. Time with him feels like it is accelerating and is being used up at a terrific rate. Unlike the baby-time – those hours that could feel like days, or the sleepless nights that could feel like weeks. It is poignant and a bit sobering to realise that there is really not very much time left with him at home to have those family holidays in that sent me into such a flat spin back in 2001. I have now started to worry instead about how to fit it all in, about how to make it count, about how to not forget the hours, the days and the terms which are slipping away in a blur of football fixtures, cricket matches, margherita pizzas and mock GCSEs.

The time I do spend with my boy now is precious. In years gone by, he could often be an even-tempered, personable, intelligent and funny companion: at fifteen, he is all of these things consistently.   Most of the time, he has a new maturity of attitude and is equable and affable (sibling relations sometimes being honourable exceptions).

He has a new, deepened interest in music and has eclectic tastes – equally interested in attending a classical concert with his parents and grandfather to listen to Elgar and Vaughan Williams; in listening to and researching the music of the Beatles; in understanding the reason why 80s classics are 80s classics and even in attempting his own compositions on the piano or guitar. We spent an enjoyable hour or two recently listening to a downloaded ‘Best of British’ album where I challenged him to guess the performer and the decade of each track and a long car journey at Easter was punctuated by having to score and rank Beatles tracks out of ten. I can share favourite old songs with a truly appreciative audience, telling him about dancing him to sleep with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ when he was a baby, or explaining why John Lennon’s ‘Watching the Wheels’ struck such a chord with me when I stopped going out to work for a while.

He is endlessly acquisitive, searching facts and opinions on a diverse range of topics and – gradually – learning the difference between facts and opinions. He is articulate and well-informed on lots of current affairs, with a particular interest in the U.S. election, as well as an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of worldwide football statistics, honed by the considerable amount of his time which he devotes to football you-tubers. He is determined to get to the bottom of whatever he comes across, such as questioning me endlessly about the Cold War (as well as the rights and wrongs of 80s fashion) whilst watching Deutschland ’83 with me.

He is a child of his times in his communication strategies. He is a humourous texter (sometimes sending them to me in French or German, just because he can) and will sometimes talk to me via text from a different room in the house. This is not quite what I usually have in mind when I want to talk to him, but can sometimes elicit more information from him than a conventional conversation. He emails me his Christmas and birthday lists, but it is always politely done, with an acknowledgement that he does not expect everything on the list and with helpful links to the actual things he wants.   What he wants, aged 15, is trendy clothes (with a particular propensity for near-identical, ruinously expensive long sleeved grey tops), sheet music and lots of chocolate.

He is badly organised, messy, charming, impractical, beautiful, sensitive, bright and bonny.

He is physically stronger, bigger, hungrier, leaner and male-r than ever before, but I think he still has quite a way to grow.

If I could go back to the first week of May 2001, I would tell myself not to worry. Your boy is amazing and you will look forward to a holiday with him the summer he is fifteen.

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