Never enough

(This is my attempt to understand and rationalise my reaction to Christmas, so please forgive if it ends up ranting or whinging. Just consider it my pressure valve.)

It would start around September. Despite any alleged shortage of money, my mother would start buying anything she saw that “xxx might like”. If xxx was easy to buy for, lucky them – there was very little attempt to plan this out, to buy evenly, to ensure that people had the same number of parcels or the same value of presents – it was just pure chance if it worked out well.

This went on until the shops were shut and there was no more time to buy, all against a background of constant worrying that she hadn’t got enough.

And then we came to the day itself. With older siblings long gone from the house, that left only me to provide the appropriate responses to the pile of presents, and to keep my mother happy. My father, meanwhile, would stack his up and just watch others. When we forced him to open one of his, there would be an unemotional, “oh, lovely,” as he looked at it and set it aside.

After that, as they often both worked nights, they would disappear to their separate bedrooms, leaving me on my own, bored and lonely. That’s if they didn’t start squabbling.

Then the next day, my birthday, would become a better version of Christmas day, when my sister and her family would visit and provide all the feedback that I’d failed to provide the day before.

And so is it any surprise that the mere mention of the C word makes me stiffen uncomfortably? That I can’t bear the thought of trying to sort out presents? That I basically leave my wonderful hubby to do most of the work while I disappear under a rock for as long as I can?

Habits set in childhood can be very hard to break. Ingrained emotional reactions can be hard to overcome. And after all, it’s only once a year, right?




Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.


Diving in

I remember little of my time at school, but one incident stands out. We had an outdoor swimming pool at my school. It was always freezing cold, and I would always spend the first five minutes or so lowering myself gently into the water at the shallow end, trying to get used to the temperature. As a result, when the teacher spread the class out, with the confident swimmers at the deep end and the non-swimmers or poor swimmers at the shallow end, I was always in the poorer swimmer group, and I’m sure the teacher thought I couldn’t swim properly.

This particular lesson I remember, I think I’d been swimming at the public swimming pool in the days before – not a common occurrence, but I had enjoyed my time in the warmer pool and practised all the shallow, racing dives I’d seen the confident swimmers learning in class.

Then, on the Friday morning, I realised that my piano lesson coincided with this last swimming lesson of the term. Piano lessons were taken individually, missing lessons, and there were strict rules on which lessons you were supposed to miss. PE lessons were considered fair game.

My twelve-year-old brain couldn’t cope with this. I had so been looking forward to the swimming lesson, with all this extra practice I’d put in! I ended up in a toilet cubicle crying my eyes out.

I have no idea how this happened, but there was a knock on the door from someone I barely knew, saying that she would swap her piano lesson with me so I could still go to swimming lesson. I didn’t even know anyone knew I was there, or why I was upset, but there was this solution presented to me.

So I gratefully accepted, and at swimming lesson time I got straight into the deep end, without any of my usual prevarication, and showed off all lesson, with my racing dives and lengths. My teacher was suitably surprised and impressed and I’ve been forever grateful to whoever not only noticed that I was upset, but managed to come up with a solution.


Tied to the world

When I was growing up, I had a strange mindset – I felt as though I was trailing an invisible line behind me, and I had to take care not to get that line snagged. I knew that if the line snagged on too many things I’d be irrevocably tied to the world.

So I would take great care not to wrap that line around things if I could avoid it; retracing my steps out of a place, rather than going out of a different door, not twisting around or I’d get tangled. I couldn’t see the line, of course, but I could feel it, and felt uncomfortable if I ended up getting it caught on things.

Even these days, when I’m under stress I’ll take care not to twist round too much, and I’ll try to retrace my steps whenever possible. For example, if I walk from the cooker to the fridge, and then to the sink, I’ll turn back round the other way rather than complete the turn that comes naturally with the triangle of movement.

But I had a thought the other day – what if it’s true? What if, as children, we know things that as adults we forget? That part of that forgetting is snagging our invisible line on things and losing our memories that way? What if I’d been even more careful as a child? Would that connection still be strong?

When I was three or four years old, I could write. I remember distinctly being in church one day with my mother, and playing with my letter writing set – notepaper and envelopes, all designed for a child. I wrote my letters and sealed them up in the envelopes, and I knew I could write. Then I got to school, and suddenly I had to learn it all. Most frustrating.

Memory is an odd thing. If you go through an event, but remember nothing of it afterwards, does it matter? What if there’s something that all of us forget as we grow into this world, and will only be revealed again at the end of our lives? Will our lives actually matter then?

My novels, and the philosophical ideas behind them, are starting to create logjams, and I really need to get going on them.


A confusing teacher

Back when I was in primary school, we didn’t have such things as substitute teachers or cover teachers – if our classroom teacher was ill or absent, we’d be parcelled off in twos or threes to sit at the back of another classroom. Usually we’d have set work to do, and would be expected to sit there getting on with it while the teacher taught his/her class, but sometimes, especially if the classroom we went in was the same yeargroup, we’d be invited to join in with their work.

These days were often a fascinating glimpse into another life; spending all your school time with one teacher, in one group of students, can be a little claustrophobic, and it was always fun to see how the rest of the school lived.

One of these sessions, though, left me thoroughly confused and a little disheartened, to the extent that I still remember the day even though it was over forty years ago.

I think I must have been in second year at junior school, which these days translates to year 4, and I and a couple of others were sent to a fourth year classroom (top of the school; these days year 6). As I worked on my own tasks, we were nonetheless invited by the teacher (a man, although his name is long shrouded in the mists of time) to join in if we wanted. I declined, as I remember.

There were two tasks I remember from that day. The first was the instruction to the class to carry out a writing exercise. The instructions, as I remember them, was “I want description of being at the seaside. And it needs to be at least 20 pages long. Seagulls crying, waves on the shore, that sort of thing.” Twenty pages? I’d never written that much in my life. And twenty pages of description? Is such a thing even possible? Even today, I wonder. Surely that was far out of reach for ten-year-olds.

The other was discussion of what the word “estate” meant. The class were coming up with all sorts of suggestions as to the meaning, but each time he would say, “No, that’s not it. No, you’re not quite right. No, that’s wrong.” I never did find out what it meant according to him.

From those two exercises I took away the feeling of being faced with an exercise that I just consider far too hard, being given without any acknowledgement that it was tough, and the feeling of not knowing what something means and being constantly wrong without ever knowing the right answer.

I’ve no idea whether these were serious exercises, or whether his class usually did this sort of thing, or whether he was winding up the visitors, but to this day I think of that lesson with frustration.


I is for inquisitive

Posted as part of the A-Z challenge.

Are you inquisitive? Do you like knowing the reason for things?

I am. I like knowing what’s going on. I’m curious. I remember one particular time when being inquisitive put me on a whole new life path.

I was working as a childminder, caring for other people’s children in my own home. I heard about a childminding conference happening fairly locally. It was at the weekend, it was free, it offered a lunch and it offered a couple of workshops and a chance to meet other childminders. Now childminding can be fairly isolating, so the chance to get out was not to be missed. I duly left my own kids with hubby and left for this conference.

The workshops were interesting, the lunch was good, and there was just one other part to the day: the first ever AGM of the new county childminding association. As part of this meeting, one of those large publicity cheques was handed over to the officers, for the sum of £5000, from the county council.

As a childminder, I was inquisitive. Just what was that money for? What difference could it possibly make to me, in my day to day life?

The steering committee then went on to ask for volunteers for the new committee. I rarely volunteer for things, and I knew no one there, but I was so curious about that £5000 that I put my hand up. Maybe I’d get a chance to see what happened to the money.

I was duly voted on to the committee, and stayed on it for the next six years. For three of those years I was secretary, and I also joined the regional committee, which covered around 5 counties, and became secretary of that. The money was partly spent on offering training to childminders, and I went on a training course myself in order to deliver some of that training.

The associations (county, regional and national) offered me a chance to obtain a teaching qualification in order to train adults, and I did so. I went on to a higher level teaching qualification, and in the process got a job teaching adult education, so that I could log enough teaching hours for the qualification.

Eventually I took another qualification, enabling me to teach children as well.

So you see, all because I was inquisitive, and wanted to know what some money would be spent on, I developed my career and had a lot of interesting experiences, making new friends and learning lots on the way.


Conspiracy theories

One of my first jobs on leaving school was in a small printshop, back in the days when home computers were very rare and no-one had their own printer, let alone photocopier. One task that I sometimes had to do for a particular customer was to take a booklet apart, photocopy all the pages and then bind each copy together. She often came in for two copies of this booklet or five copies of that or three copies of another.

I was the junior in the place, and was told by one of the older members of staff not to read the booklets, but they spoke in vain; I’m a compulsive reader, and couldn’t resist taking a peek as I worked.

I’ve no idea to this day who the person was, or what organisation they were part of, or why they needed all these booklets or where they came from, but I learned many interesting theories.

This was where I first learned about the mysterious Men in Black – those men who would turn up at someone’s house after they had seen something that could be extraterrestrial in origin, and would demand they keep quiet about it. Their visit, of course, would be somewhat counter-productive, since it served to prove that something really had happened. There were two or three different Men in Black books, and I would become fascinated by the stories of encounters.

I also learned about the hollow earth theory – the evidence was convincing to my eighteen-year-old self: in the sixties, when there were several nuclear blasts, there were also several UFOs seen. Since all the UFOs arrived at the same sort of time as the nuclear explosions, and travel from any other planet would take time, the UFOs must have all come from our own planet, where they live inside the earth and access their world via holes in the north and south pole; basically our world is doughnut-shaped.

I think this is where I was also exposed to the idea that we as a species came from another planet, that we travelled here on a ship and displaced the natives to become the dominant species.

It was a fun time, before the internet, where rumours and theories were much slower to travel, and communication generally was slower and more personal.  And my mind was irrevocably marked by those sneak reads.


Christmas memories

The history group meeting I attended last week involved thinking and talking about Christmas memories. As one of the youngest at the meeting, I bowed to the superior experiences of those who could remember back further, but I thought I’d put down one or two memories on here.

sriped socksWhen I was little my father was a part-time football referee – I think it was a voluntary thing. This meant that he possessed a pair of referee socks, which were long football socks with black and white hoops round them. I used to have one of these to hang up each Christmas Eve, and in the morning the sock would be laid on my bed, filled with goodies. Their length and size meant that presents were fairly inventive at times – I remember one year receiving a wooden pencil case, with a sliding lid and a swing open section. There were toys, of course, and nuts and chocolate and a satsuma in the toe. The edible goodies bore a strange resemblance to those on the side table that was laid out downstairs with goodies on it – not to be touched before Christmas, which led to constant enquiries as to when Christmas officially started.

I would find the stocking when I woke up, empty it to see what I’d got, then pack it again and take it in to my parents, where I would unpack it again to show them everything that I’d received – a habit that was continued even after I knew they already knew what was in it!

I shared a bedroom with my much older sister when I was young. I remember one year waking up slightly as she came to bed, and feeling her put something on the bed. Next morning when I woke up there were a couple of wrapped presents on there – my first hint that Santa wasn’t real. I remember feeling proud that I’d worked it out.

One memory of Christmas that my mother would rather forget is the year that she took me (aged around 5ish I guess) and my cousin (who was a couple of years younger) to see Father Christmas in the big Tesco’s in the town. He was upstairs in the home and toys section, and I remember she paid a magnificent 30p each for us to see him and collect a wrapped toy. My cousin insisted on opening his then and there, to reveal a set of small plastic guns, action-man style. On the way out of the store, Mother spotted the exact same set of toys in a basket. She picked one up to look at it and compare it to his. “27p,” she said. “They charge you 3p just to wrap it.” She replaced it in the basket and my cousin’s toy in her big shopping bag (she always carried a huge shopping bag around) and we went past the checkouts and downstairs. We had just reached the exit when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Excuse me, madam, I have reason to believe there are goods in your bag that you haven’t paid for.” A shop assistant had seen her looking at the toys and putting one in her bag, and had reported it.

In my memory it was me who realised what had happened, and we explained, and Mother showed him the torn wrapping paper still in her bag. The store detective accepted the explanation and quite happily let us go, but Mother refused to go in there for a long time after that!

My birthday is the day after Christmas, and so always feels overshadowed. When I was little I started making a fuss if anyone gave me a combined present instead of two separate presents, and to this day I get upset if birthday presents are wrapped in Christmas paper. I do remember one combined present that went down well though, a doll I received from an aunt, called Tippy Tumbles. She had a cable coming out from her tummy to a remote control – when operated, she would turn somersaults.

As I grew up, my sister married and moved away, and from then on Christmas was usually associated with my sister and brother-in-law – and later their children – coming round for presents and Christmas dinner. They had to divide their time between his parents and hers, and did an admirable job of it, until they decided it was easier to come down before and spend the actual day at home in peace.

When my husband and I moved into our house, I became the Christmas cook, so have been cooking Christmas dinner for over twenty years. I’ve never had Christmas day anywhere but in my own home. Usually we’ve had relatives round for dinner as well – there have only been a couple of times at the most when it was just us and no-one else.

The first year we were in our own house we bought a Christmas tree that was slightly too big for the room, and spent our evenings sitting by the coal fire, with a pot of tea in the hearth keeping warm. And roast chestnuts, of course – the only thing I really miss about the fireplace we no longer use.

A more recent Christmas memory that is recalled with amusement by all who observed it is that of my mother and the Christmas chocolates – a couple of weeks before Christmas she gave me a couple of wrapped presents, plus an unwrapped tin of chocolates – Roses or similar. We started eating them as we wrapped presents up, and were grateful for the energy boost they provided. Mother was here for Christmas day, and asked for a chocolate. She was shocked to discover the tin already nearly empty, and said as much several times throughout the rest of the day. Apparently were weren’t supposed to start them until Christmas – which once again brings us to the question: When does Christmas officially start?

For me, it starts at the point we decide there’s no more going out and getting extras or forgotten items, usually around 5pm on Christmas Eve. The point when there’s no more buying things and all that’s left is to eat them. The shops are only closed for the one day, these days, of course, but there’s still a feeling that we want to hold out as long as possible before getting back to the routine of shopping again.

But still, we usually make a point of buying at least one tin of chocolates in the run up to Christmas, opening them early and making sure they’re mostly gone by Christmas day – in memory of Mother. And I can never cook Christmas dinner without thinking fondly of my father standing behind me and watching while I check on the sprouts, and then disappearing outside for a cigarette before dinner is ready, or of the years that he had his own separate pork roast because he didn’t like turkey – until eventually he caved in and admitted that it wasn’t that bad and he could eat the same as the rest of us instead of needing a different type of meat.

And tell me – does anyone actually finish their jar of cranberry jelly, or am I the only one who throws the old, mostly full  jar away each December and replaces it with a new one? Not to mention the jar of pickled onions…

Waking up

A couple of hours after my first ever 10k race, I woke up in the night. I stood up, holding onto the bed for balance as I groped for my slippers in the dark, and then carefully made my way towards the door, heading for the bathroom. I could feel my legs creaking, an after-effect of all that exercise.

I opened the bedroom door – right outside on the landing were my three sons, all wearing pajamas and dressing gowns. standing in a line, as though queuing for the door. The youngest, in front, had his arm raised, hand ready to knock. They made me jump, standing there like that, but I shook it off, wondering what the urgency was to have them all there ready to summon us. Then I noticed that all their eyes were staring blankly forward, showing no sign of any reaction to me. One by one they started toppling forward, and I staggered under their weight…

And woke up. And held onto the bed for balance as I groped for my slippers in the dark, and then carefully made my creaky way towards the door, holding my breath as I grasped the handle, almost afraid of what I would see there…

This is in response to a challenge via The View Outside. This really happened to me the other night, and it took me a long time to shake off the feeling of fear it brought.


A different perspective

Have you ever had one of those moments when you realise that someone else sees the world in a completely different way from you?

Let me describe a time when that happened to me.

First I need to set the scene. I live on a bus route. To one side of my house is a footpath that leads to the local primary school. On the other side, a little way down the road, is a public car park, where many parents will leave their car in order to walk up to the school and collect their child.

One day many years ago I was walking back from picking a child up from school. I had that child walking, another in a pushchair, and there may or may not have been a third; I don’t remember exactly.

What I do remember is the little boy, who must have been between two and three years old, and who got the idea that his mummy had already walked back to the car park, leaving him behind.

This child ran just ahead of me, crying, and as he rounded the corner at the end of the footpath I saw what he saw: a group of people blocking the pavement in front of him, with a garden wall one side of them and a big open area on the other side.

I also saw what he didn’t: the double decker bus just coming down the road.

In that moment, I understood that while to me the road was a danger zone, a no-go area, somewhere that you never ever step into even if your way is totally blocked, to him it simply offered an obvious way past the people who were obstructing his route to his mummy.

I cried out. I never thought I’d be someone to shout out like that, but it wasn’t anything I could control. I think I was the only one who saw and understood; the lollipop man stands on the other side of the road and so his vision would have been blocked by the bus, and no-one else had the same view as I did, just behind the boy.

The bus driver – much to his relief as well as mine, no doubt – slammed on the brakes and managed to avoid the boy, who continued down the road totally oblivious to the danger he had just been in. I pushed my children in the front gate with firm instructions to not move, and ran on down the road to the car park, where the boy stood crying.

“Is your mummy here?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“Come on, then, I think she’s still back at the school.”  I took his hand and we walked together back up the road. Just as we reached my house, I saw someone I recognised: it was one of the Aunties from the local playschool. I told her what had happened. She didn’t recognise the boy, but offered to take him back up the path to find his mummy so I could deal with my own children.

I never heard any more about it, and to this day I don’t believe the child or his mother understood just how close they came to tragedy that evening. But I always try to bear in mind that what can seem completely obvious to me can, from someone else’s perspective, seem completely different.