It was hell down there…

I lost fifteen pounds today.

Not fifteen pounds in weight, I should point out, which is a shame, given that that’d wipe the look off the instructor’s face at my zumba-till-you’re-thin class (‘Only a pound this week?  Are you having some difficulty understanding the diet?’)  But fifteen pounds in cash.  It’s my own fault.  It was folded and zipped in the pocket of my warm and waterproof green coat and though the thought that I should put it somewhere safer kept knocking on the inside of my skull, I didn’t listen.  I’m kicking myself now and wishing that I had.

The fifteen pounds wouldn’t have been folded in my pocket if I hadn’t been in a rush this morning and had to dash to the corner shop at the last minute to buy a bottled drink.  And I wouldn’t have been in a rush if I’d got my bag ready last night instead of doing it this morning, ten minutes before I was due to leave the house (at which time I discovered that I didn’t have a drink to take with me).

And furthermore, I would’ve been able to get my bag ready last night if I hadn’t decided it was a good idea to go out for a curry.  So it was an expensive tea, really; in effect, I’m down the price of a curry and the cost of a bottle of drink (which I didn’t end up needing), as well as the fifteen pounds.

The money could’ve fallen out at any point during the morning and going over and over where exactly it might’ve happened is pointless (though I’m doing it anyway).  I only hope that the person who found it was (a) not a hungry sheep and (b) really, really needed it, so that finding it made their day.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence, however, that today’s date is the thirteenth.

I bought the bottled drink because I was going with two coach loads of 7 to 9 year olds into the depths of the earth beneath Castleton, Derbyshire.  After the really hot weather we had last week it was pretty miserable today, as well as very, very cold, though discussing it with colleagues as we ate sarnies in a windswept field, we collectively failed to come up with any memories of visiting the Peak District when it hasn’t been pretty miserable.  Not that it mattered too much as we spent the majority of the day in dark, dripping caves.  With varying levels of enjoyment, as it happened, the children, for the most part, being completely under-whelmed.

I discovered today that I have a dwindling fund of patience with kids who moan about how dirty their shoes are getting, ask continually when they’re going to be allowed to eat and openly and loudly share their thoughts on how bored they are.  And it’s not as if it’s boredom by over-exposure; the majority of our pupils never make it to the countryside around our town, let alone further afield.

To be honest I’d been expecting quite a bit of oohing and aaahing and was more than a little fed up with the non-stop whinging I fielded throughout the day.  Were we that bad when we were little, I wondered to myself?  Did we find everything so dull and uninspiring?  Then to cap it all I discovered, half way through the afternoon, that my fifteen pounds had decided it couldn’t stand it any longer and had exited my pocket.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the feelings of abandonment.

The good news is that I’m heading back to Derbyshire on Saturday for the second of three writing workshops I booked myself onto in a village near Bakewell.  I’m travelling alone this time – no Thelma and Louise this weekend as my sidekick is in France doing research for her WW1 dissertation.  But I’m really looking forward to it .  Definitely no reprise of dull and uninspiring Derbyshire this weekend for me!


Arvon or Bust? That’ll be Bust, then!

So, I didn’t win the Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook 2011 competition on the theme of compulsion and won’t, therefore, receive either the £500 prize or the place on an Arvon residential writing course of my choice.  Never mind – a truly cracking story won, so I shan’t complain (not too much, anyway).  It’s very cleverly written, very subtle, and I can see exactly why it was chosen. 
It does, however, leave me with my own 2000-word story with no home to go to.  Though I’m its mother and very fond of it, I appreciate it’s very likely rough around the edges.  But I’m proud of it’s existence and would like to take it out of its box and give it a little fresh air for a while.  So here it is – see what you think.

The key in the lock resisted Pam’s attempts to turn it and for a second she felt relief that she’d been excused from going in.  But then the key clicked and turned, and the door swung open.  She put a hand in first, feeling for the light switches, flicking on both, too uneasy, truth be known, to walk in without light illuminating every nook and cranny.  She was glad she wasn’t here alone, though turning up at this time of the evening was stupid.  She was supposed to have come this morning, had been planning it all week, then spent the entire day deferring leaving the house.  But it was no good, it had to be done, and finally she’d decided to get it over with.  ‘If I don’t make a start now, I never will,’ she’d told herself and abruptly switched off the video her daughter was watching, bundling her into the car before she could change her mind.  Her daughter followed her into the house now, stepping carefully over a pile of post behind the door, a bunch of late-surviving sweet allysums, scavenged from the garden in the early evening darkness, in her hand.  Her lower lip, Pam noted, was trembling.

 ‘Are those for Nanna, sweet pea?’ she asked, taking hold of the child’s free hand.  ‘Shall we put them on the windowsill, like always?’  The young head nodded assent.  ‘OK then, let’s close this’ – reaching across to shut the door – ‘and see what’s in here.’  Assuming a bright, cheery voice for the benefit of her child, Pam pushed the kitchen door and stepped inside, eyes averted once again until the strip-light on the ceiling ping-pinged awake.  A brief glimpse around showed nothing unusual, everything unerringly ordinary and unchanged, as if the last traumatic weeks hadn’t happened.  Rebecca squealed, and dropping her mother’s hand, picked up a plastic tumbler from the table.  ‘Here’s my special beaker!’ she said, shaking it to agitate the glitter inside, ‘it’s still here!’  ‘So, it is!’ replied Pam, ‘just where you left it last time.’  ‘Are my other things here, too?  The toy box and my videos and… and my little red chair?’  ‘Everything’s still here.’ Hunkering down to Rebecca’s level, Pam brushed the fringe from her eyes.  ‘Everything’s still here, and if you like, you can have one last play before we pack them away.  Daddy needs to clear everything out next week, so Mummy’s got to sort through and see what we should keep.  You can play in the living room while I do that, if you like.’  ‘Yes please.’ Rebecca smiled into her mother’s eyes. ‘I’ll do Nanna’s flowers first, though.’  And she pulled a wheel-backed chair to the sink and clambered up it, reaching across for an old jam jar on the windowsill.  She dropped the flowers into it and turning the tap to a trickle, carefully filled it with water as if she’d been doing it all her life.

*    *    *
‘Can I watch ‘Hook’?’ Rebecca asked, plonking herself into the red chair, an old, threadbare teddy snuggled in her arms.  How ironic that she showed no sign of fear or anxiety, thought Pam, whilst she, the adult, was so full of dread.  But what exactly she was fearful of she wasn’t entirely sure.

Pulling the living room door shut behind her, Pam picked a roll of bin bags off the bottom step and climbed the stairs, eyes fixed resolutely on the dark rectangle of the landing window.  She fought back the urge to call out – ‘only me, Mum!’ – knowing it was pointless to do so but wishing she could make-believe that it wasn’t.  The landing was small and cluttered with boxes and packages, an ancient electric organ standing on end, a tatty old suitcase full of goodness knows what.  The detritus of other people’s lives that her mother could never say no to and which would all have to be sorted through, bin-bagged, thrown away.  Pam stepped around them, turned right and stood still.  In the dim light of the ancient light fitting it was warm and womb-like, here, redolent of sleep-time and safety, fabric softener and soap.  Central heating pipes ticked soothingly under the floorboards and in the bathroom ahead, a tap dripped an accompaniment to her thoughts.  There were towels, still, on the rack there, tumble-dried soft at her mother’s insistence, at who knows what expense.  The lavatory door was slightly ajar, revealing a toilet enhanced with a raised, padded frame and a toilet roll knocked clumsily to the floor.  Pam shuddered and pushed open the door on her right.

Moving into her mother’s bedroom Pam again placed her feet carefully, navigating her way through the clutter obscuring the pattern of the carpet.  Reaching the bed, she sat on it.  Someone – her sister in law, most likely – had smoothed it over since she’d seen it on the morning after her mother’s death.  Then, it had been just as her mother had vacated it, bed-head angled high, pillows indented where she’d rested, curled into fetal position, bedclothes thrown aside by the ambulance crew.  Now, Pam caught herself pushing back the quilt to look again for traces of that night.  But no, the imprint of her mother had gone. 

It was an odd room, this, with its deep, dark airing cupboard and many-times-painted anaglypta wallpaper.  As a child, it’d been her brothers’ room, hadn’t become Mum’s until way after Dad left.  In a few more weeks, Pam would stand in this room and marvel at its bareness, trace fingers across the newly-exposed graffiti and pencil notches that benchmarked the childhoods of herself and her siblings.  She would imagine her mother as a young woman, a child on one hip, another in her belly, peering into the airing cupboard in excitement, fingering the newly-dried plaster of this, her brand-new home.  But at present, all Pam could see was a room stuffed with evidence of what that young mother had become.  A collector, a hoarder of things she didn’t need and which, piled closer and closer around her, drained her of life.  As her health and her world had shrunk in upon her, so had the physical space that Mum lived in.  To become, in the last six months, just this.  This room.

A number of the letters downstairs, Pam knew, would be from credit companies demanding money.  Yet when she’d applied for carer support, when Mum had allowed her to tot-up the pensions and benefits she received, Pam had been shocked.  Such a substantial amount of money, easily enough for a family to live on.  Mum should’ve been well off, it seemed, so why was she always so short of money?  Where had it all gone?  On unwanted gifts for everyone, on books and videos for her growing collection, on clothes she didn’t need and never wore, stuffed out of sight in the wardrobe or haphazardly given away.  For some unfathomable reason Pam’s mother sabotaged her financial security, just as she sabotaged so many other things in her life.  Love, trust, relationships.  Even when those relationships were with her children.

The books should most probably be burned, Pam thought, looking along the mish-mash of shelves across one wall.  There were some good books, too, history texts and a heap of high quality romantic fiction.  Such a terrible, terrible waste.  The videos and DVDs stacked around the tv would probably go well on ebay, but did she have the energy to sell them?  Shouldn’t she destroy them, too?  The numerous decisions she’d have to make weighed down on her.  ‘I can’t do it, Mum,’ she whispered, ‘I can’t do it.’ 

As if in answer, her phone vibrated in her back pocket, making her jump.  It was Ben.  ‘Are none of the others helping?’ he asked, sounding much too far away.  ‘You let them off the hook again, didn’t you?’  ‘They offered, to be fair, but I thought I’d better do it,’ Pam whispered, trying to control her voice.  ‘It feels like I’m throwing Mum away and if I don’t look at every single thing myself, I’m worried something will slip through.  Something important.’  ‘Okay,’ Ben replied, ‘but promise you won’t overdo it.  Ask yourself is it really worth the time and the upset.  I’ll be back tomorrow night and I can take the whole lot to a charity shop if you want.’  ‘I’ll think about it,’ Pam promised.  When he’d gone, she cradled the phone in her hand for what seemed like a very long time.

Pam had begun to sort through the wardrobe when the bedroom door creaked open and a small figure appeared around it.  ‘Mum?’ Rebecca asked, holding aloft her cupped hands.  ‘Look!’ ‘What is it, sweet pea?’ Carefully Pam opened the string of a small, velvet bag and peered inside.  ‘Marbles?’  ‘I gave them to Nanna, coz she’d lost hers.’  The child’s face crumpled.  ‘She hasn’t got them now, has she?  How will she manage in heaven?’  And she began to cry, big, noisy tears that shook her little body.  Pam folded her in her arms and let herself cry, too, her daughter tight against her, her cheek resting gently on Rebecca’s hot little head.  Unconsciously, she rubbed her daughter’s back to comfort her.  It was some minutes before she realized that Rebecca was rubbing her back, too. 

Before long, Pam let go a little and wiped Rebecca’s cheeks with an open palm.  ‘It’s alright, Becca, Nanna doesn’t need your marbles now.’  Rebecca sniffed and was handed a tissue from a box beside the bed.  ‘Can you remember how Nanna laughed when you gave them to her?’  Rebecca nodded. ‘She said I was a clever little monkey!’ and they laughed together, the tension released.  ‘That’s right, she did!  And she’d be laughing at us both now, crying like a right pair of duffers!’  Pam’s voice cracked a little, but her gaze was constant, looking deep into her daughter’s eyes.  ‘Nanna loved you very much you know, Rebecca, and you’ll have that love with you forever, here, in your heart.’  A tear rolled down Rebecca’s cheek and she brushed it away.  ‘Can I keep the marbles, though, to remember?’  ‘You can keep the marbles.’  ‘And my beaker and my videos and the red chair?’  ‘Well, we’ll see.  You’re too big for the red chair really, and you’ve got lots of videos at home.  But we’ll think about it.  We’ll talk it over with Daddy tomorrow, shall we?’  Once more Rebecca nodded, leaning again into her mother’s embrace and for a while, they hugged in silence.

‘But now, young lady,’ Pam tapped Rebecca’s bottom and stood up, ‘how about we go home and have a girly night?  You can paint my nails, if you like, and we could watch a film.  This one maybe,’ she added, stretching forwards and picking a DVD off the floor.  ‘Have you finished your tidying?’ Rebecca asked, looking round in puzzlement.  ‘No, but I think I’m going to need a little help with it.  Maybe if I leave it for now Uncle Rob will give me a hand.’  She guided Rebecca out of the room, flicking off the light as she followed.  ‘Nanna was Uncle Rob’s mummy too, wasn’t she?’ chattered Rebecca.  ‘Yes, she was, sweet pea, and she was Uncle David’s, and Uncle Michael’s – you remember Uncle Michael, don’t you, the funny one? – and Aunty Ruth’s – careful on the stairs, now – that’s it!’  And putting the house back to sleep behind them as they went, Pam and Rebecca retraced their steps of an hour ago, hopping over the letters in the hallway and pulling the front door shut with a firm bang.  And as they drove away down the darkened street, a shaft of moonlight pierced the glass of the kitchen window, falling across the jar of sweet alyssums sitting quietly on the windowsill. 

Sharpening the Saw

‘The wood cutter frantically and ineffectively working with a dull saw and getting very little done, knows that the saw needs sharpening, but believes he’s much too busy to take the time to sharpen it.  Madness, certainly, but madness each of us knows all too well.’
Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

I was going to write a snippet about procrastination but, frankly, I can’t be bothered.  Not because I’m struggling to get it started, I should point out – I have, in fact, begun it – but because what I’ve written so far is very, very dull.  Trying to be clever, I found a couple of articles on t’internet and attempted to précis them into a short and amusing piece.  But it’s a difficult subject to add a twist of humour to, so I give up.  If you really want to read the articles, you can find them here Writer’s block or procrastination? and here Too busy to live my own life? – though I should warn you that they’re written by men with very dodgy haircuts.

So, as we have already established, I haven’t added much ‘content’ to my blog recently as more pressing things have had first call on my time.  I have, however, written and handed in two assignments for this semester’s MA module, as well as writing for and editing a 16 page newsletter for the local history society.  And I’ve done this largely because I would’ve been in deep trouble if I hadn’t.  Failing my MA because of missed deadlines is not an option and neither is failing to produce the spring publication for the aged – but vocal – historians of this town.  Luckily, I managed to fulfil both obligations within a short space of time, which was a writing challenge I’m pleased with myself for having met.

 ‘Remember that it’s more important to be productive than to be perfect’ say Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping in ‘Organizing for the Creative Person’, as well as saying lots of other really interesting things about why I can’t help being both untidy and mildly insane. 

For a long time I genuinely believed I’d never be a proper writer because of my inability to write daily.  Every writing course I’d ever been on and every article sharing tips from published authors said the same thing: write something every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.  And though I really, really tried to, with young children to look after, a job, the paperwork for my husband’s business to take care of, not to mention a home to run and extended family to support, I’ve never yet managed it.  So I thought I was stuffed before I’d even begun.  It was my very talented tutor, Kerry Orange, who first put me right on this and since then, I’ve come across a number of writers (usually women) whose advice has been ‘do what you can, when you can, and don’t stress about it’.  Which is exactly what I now do.

And on that note I shall finish with my current favourite author-comment, from Ian Rankin, speaking in the Saturday Guardian Review last month.  Asked about his writing routine, he replied:

‘You get these writers who say: “I go to my office at nine and I write from one till 12 and then I revise from two till four and that’s my day, and I do 2,000 words a day and when I’ve done my 2,000 words a day that’s me,” and you go: “What?  I have days when I do fuck all.”’

Out to lunch – back soon

The blog has been silent for a number of weeks, which could be taken as an indication that being a blog writer – and, down the line, a newspaper columnist – is not for me.  The most successful and interesting blogs seem to have something posted on them every day, so that their creator’s interests and habits become familiar to the reader and they themselves feel like a friend.  Indeed, if you choose to comment on a blog and get a reply from the writer, the relationship isn’t too dissimilar to one you might have on Facebook, particularly if you regularly Facebook-chat with people you only know as friends of friends.  I have my privacy settings fairly high and don’t tend to chat on Facebook with people I don’t know, but I do spend quite a bit of time on the site, possibly more than is healthy.  Which begs the question of what I actually do on there for all that time, and the truthful answer is I don’t know.
You’ve got to have something to blog about, of course, something of relevance to the topic you’ve chosen as your theme, and the cleverest bloggers seem to go out of their way to find things they can ‘experience’ just so they can write about them.  But I’ve done a number of blog-able things recently which I could have written about and didn’t.  No, the problem for me has been that age old one of Time.  Or, rather, the lack of it. 
My everyday life gets in the way of writing about it for the edification of the wider world, which is the eternal problem of the writer whose main job – or the only job in my case– is the one that pays the mortgage.  So, though my brain is sparked off by a thousand ideas during the course of my working day, I’m not usually at liberty to do anything with them.  Leaving a group of children by themselves whilst you scribble something down tends to be frowned upon where I work, unless it’s to highlight achievements on a record sheet or write developmental comments in workbooks in your neatest joined-up writing. 
Which is a shame, really, because I get some cracking material handed to me on a plate on practically a daily basis.  Here’s a recent one, crying out to be put into a story:
Priya:              “I’ve got budgies, miss.”
Me:                 “Have you?”
Priya:              “Yes, blue ones and green ones.  But we have to keep them away from the cocktails.”
Me:                 “Cocktails?”
Priya:              “Yes, ‘cos they bite them.”
Me:                 “Ah, cocktails!  Do they look like this? (sketching a bird with plumed head feathers).  Priya nods.  “They’re called cockatiels, Priya.  Cocktails are a drink, like this, see?” (sketching a Martini).
Priya:              “Is it alcohol?”
Me:                 “Yes, they’re usually made with alcohol.  James Bond drinks cocktails.  Have you watched James Bond?”
Micky:             “I had a budgie but it got run over.”
Me:                 “Run over?”
Priya:              “Maybe it had too many cocktails.”

Writing Workshop, Old Rectory Museum, Loughborough

ORM workshop

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Loughborough, many people pass the Old Rectory as they go about their daily business, but few are aware of its ancient past or that the medieval ruins – all that remain of a once grand residence – house a museum at all.

On a chilly evening in February 2011, local writer Karen Ette and I ran a writing workshop at the Old Rectory.  The half-a-dozen writers who took part looked at the artefacts on display, at specially selected old photographs and documents, and explored the building and grounds, taking inspiration from the memories, sights and sounds they encountered.

They then listened to the story of the building, past and present, as told by a member of the Loughborough Archaeological and Historical Society.  The writing inspired by all these things was published in ‘Ghost Words from a Time Bound in Leather,’ an anthology produced by Scribbler’s Inc Press and available to buy from the Old Rectory Museum or online.  (Proceeds go to the Old Rectory Museum.)