Monday, 14 August 2017

Welcome Home, Carenza

The train journey back from our lovely holiday in Orkney was a little melancholy.
But the gold at the end of the rainbow was that Carenza was returning home after three months’ solo back-packing in South East Asia.
I had never met anybody at an airport before and neither had Will.  My only experience was watching Love Actually far more times than I care to recount.  Will, who came too, had more experience – he had seen the Gavin and Stacey episode where they return from honeymoon.
“The Mum makes this stupidly huge banner, then she forces the Dad, who’s embarrassed, to hold the other end at the airport…….What’s that you’re carrying, Clare?”
“Um.  A banner.  I’ve rolled it up to make it portable.”
“Looks quite… large. How big would you say it was?”
“Kitchen table sized.”
To do him justice, when we reached Airport Arrivals, Will barely put up a fight as I placed the stick in his hand.  He also held up his own discreet and beautifully made banner.
Many people who came through the gate crowed with delight at the large pink banner.  Blonde girls seemed particularly to like it which was a good sign.
However, it clearly ruined some people’s day – those who were being met by relatives with less sizeable banners expressed their disappointment  resentfully.
For quite a long time we stood there at the ready. 
“I’m beginning to get banner burn.”
“Yep, my banner hand’s gone numb.”
But when Carenza finally arrived, the banner didn’t matter at all. 

After she had diplomatically expressed appreciation for our art efforts, we rolled up my banner , thrust it in the bin and went home with our girl.

Friday, 11 August 2017

When holidays end.

















Every night of our holiday we had been gazing out of the window at the ferry, moored overnight and glamorous with its lights on. It had added to the scene.
But this morning, when I looked out at the growing dawn, I realised with a shock that the ferry was actually there to take us away. In a sense, it had been all along.
Holidays are like that - hopefully you have such a good time that you wish it could go on forever. You begin to consider the local jobs market; slow down as you pass the windows of estate agents.
But however enchanting a holiday is, it will end. That's the very paradox which makes it so attractive.
I guess the only thing we can take back with us is our reflections.
I don't bother with New Year's resolutions, but at this time of year I do generally have a think about how to live more as if I'm on holiday even when I'm back in the daily grind. For me, it will probably be
getting my sketch book out more.
We'll see if I manage it.
And if I don't, well, property on Orkney did look very reasonable.
And I'm pretty certain I could retrain to work on a fish farm.


Monday, 7 August 2017

Tourist trap?

I've been  thinking a lot about tourism lately and the good it does versus the damage. 
Recently on Orkney we visited Maes Howe, the stunning Neolithic chambered tomb, where later, Vikings had left their graffiti. 
So often, I had pored over pictures and now I was about actually to enter the tomb.  Anticipation made my blood run faster.
We checked to make sure that no massive cruise liners would be disgorging their passengers on Orkney that day, then booked our half hour slot. 
We arrived fifteen minutes early, as instructed, and loitered in the gift shop full of tartan packs of shortbread and Celtic jewellery.  
By this time, the mystique had dissipated rather.  
As we waited,  I saw Pascoe trying out a virtual reality headset. It was for people who were not able to enter the tomb - not everybody could crouch down to get through the entrance passage. 
I tried it on.  I could see clearly the stone construction of the tomb around me.  Circles indicated where there were graffiti.  If I clicked on them it showed me the Viking runes and translated them into English. I could explore the tomb with an uninterrupted view
Why did we even need to go in, damaging it with our breathing and touching?

At last our turn was called, and a guide escorted us and sixteen others to the entrance to the green Telly-Tubby style tomb mound where swallows flittered round our head.
We crept along the lengthy passageway and the first thing I saw on entering the tomb itself was another swallow.  While everybody was assembling in the beautifully constructed stone chamber, I pointed out the swallow's nest to Pascoe, close by on the wall.  The guide said "Ah yes, those chicks are nearly ready to fledge."  As he spoke, the four young birds launched from the nest and whirled around our heads inside the ancient monument.
"Correction," said the guide, "The chickss have fledged."
Now a moment like that, I could never have gained from a VR headset.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

This is the life

I owed Perran a post exams trip. He chose Sofia. We broke our flying ban and went.
My objective was to live the high life. I wanted to come back with glamorous photos that looked as if I were saying "This is the life".
Only problem was that I was already completely wrecked from attempting to combine end of term lessons and admin with the London Summer School in Classics.
I managed the Roman archaeology and ancient churches, a slight sheen on my clammy forehead. I managed sitting in the many little parks staring blankly into space. I dragged myself around the controversial Soviet memorial. I enjoyed early evening cocktails, delicious Bulgarian dinners.
But then, when it was time to show what a cool and trendy Mum I was and to prove that I was not over the hill, I limped straight past all the bars desperate for my comfy hotel bed.
I was letting Perran down.
Until the third and final night. By eschewing the famous Bulgarian red wine and by simply inserting matchsticks to prop up my drooping eyelids I was finally able to stay awake through one cocktail at the Absolut Beach Bar.
Fairy lights and iridescent hearts twinkled in the lime trees. And a great live DJ mixed sounds. Perran looked at home. And for three quarters of an hour I felt like a grown up.
This is the life.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Beetroot crisps and kettle descaler

Didn’t get a coffee at church as I was on prayer duty after the service.  Arrived home gasping.  Delighted to find the kettle already half full of water, I flicked the switch, made two coffees.  The milk sank straight to the bottom.  That was odd – it couldn’t be sour as I’d only bought it yesterday.  Desperate for coffee, I took a gulp. 
Uuuuugh.
Should have spat it out, not swallowed it.
Vaguely, I remembered Nigel saying something about descaling the kettle.  After the last time I drank descaler, we had an agreement that Nigel would label the kettle.  Clearly he had reneged.
I drank lots of water.  Then a bicarb solution on the grounds that it was alkaline. 
More uuuuugh.
I rang 111 hoping for some sensible first aid advice. 
Apparently now was a good time to play twenty questions.  Was I breathing fast, bleeding from anywhere, in pain?  Somebody would ring me back.  Eventually.  I was busy throwing up when they finally did.
Cindy from 111 had a very comforting voice, but my confidence was short-lived - I had to spell the name of the descaler twice while she looked it up on her poisons database.  She put me on hold for a very long time and afterwards began calling the Kilrock descaler “Kilroy”.
Then she began the same game of twenty questions again.  Half an hour had passed and I had still received no sensible advice. 
“Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s say goodbye.  I’ll ring you back if I feel worse.”
In fact she rang me back. “When I looked Kilroy up on my database, it said you should go to A & E.”
Nigel calculated by how much he had diluted the acid and we thought we could probably take a risk.
So we went for the Sunday walk we had planned.  About a mile from the car, my gut was churning  and I had to race off into the undergrowth.  One of the twenty questions had been about whether I was passing any blood.  Now I looked down aghast.
Everything was red.
As I picked my way back to the path, I was wondering how I would tell Nigel I was dying.
Then I remembered – I’d eaten beetroot crisps the night before.

Tempted to fake that I was dying anyway – that’ll teach him to descale his wife.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Graduation

11.20 am
As I write this, we are sitting in nose-to-tail traffic on the M4.  Perran is to be in his seat in the Wills Building by 12.45 at the latest.  Before then, he must have picked up his gown and graduation tickets from the Richmond Building.  But our ETA is currently 1:40.  We have already abandoned hope of the photo session we’d booked.  And even when we get there, parking will be tough – we thought we’d left plenty of time, but apparently not.
There has been a crash ahead.  As callous human animals, we are measuring only the inconvenience to our own lives.  I force myself to say a prayer for those whose world has just been turned upside down by the road accident.
But then it’s back to us again.
This was supposed to be a carefree day, all dressed up in our best clothes, tipsy on sunshine, prosecco and happiness. 
And now Perran might miss his own graduation ceremony.

8.30 pm
On our way home now.  It has been a splendid occasion.
This morning, the traffic had started moving and our ETA dropped rapidly, like a tide of disaster ebbing. 
We rubbernecked at the wrecked Landrover.  The headroom was largely intact so we hope the passengers and driver survived.
In Bristol, the graduation ceremony was brisk yet meaningful, cleanly choreographed and garnished with homilies of good advice. Afterwards there was the pleasure of meeting the parents of Perran’s friends.
It rained heavily, which shouldn’t be allowed at graduation ceremonies, but we were just pleased to be there.  Even the rain made us happy.

And now it’s time to say a little prayer that we get home safely.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Last Bash

After exams finished Perran stayed in Bristol until the rent ran out.
We didn’t mind.  Those last days as a student are so precious.
Then home for a short space. Then off to Spain with thirteen friends for a week. And then we were expecting him home sometime Tuesday. 
The exact timing seemed vague.
I came home from one job and had a cup of tea.  He wasn’t home. I went out to another job; came home and began preparing dinner. Should I make some for Perran? Perhaps if I cooked something with the tomato sauce from the fridge… In fact I couldn't find the sauce. On the shelf where I had expected it to be was a can of beans I didn't remember opening. 
Nigel came in.
“Heard anything from Perran?” 
“Nope.  And I’m not sure if he’s even got his keys.  Perhaps we should just install an enormous cat flap in the back door.”
“I’m sure he'll turn up. I'm just off to change out of my work clothes.”
Then from upstairs he called sotto voce "Clare, Clare. " 
Mirroring his quietness, I tiptoed upstairs. 
There asleep, face down on his bed and fully clothed was our son.

Bless him.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Back-packer

I was teaching Latin in school, when I put up a slide of the answers.
My pupils stared in silence.
One or two of them cast a glance in my direction.  The rest just went on staring. 
I inspected the screen – it was obvious in a flash that every single “model answer” was wrong.
Should I tell them why?
In fact, all I said was: “I’m terribly sorry – those are all wrong.  Let’s do it on the whiteboard instead.”

So what was wrong?  

Carenza was back-packing on her own in the Far East for 3 months.  And she hadn’t WhatsApped us for three days.
I had begun to wonder about tracking her down – how did they go about it in international thrillers? 
Of course she was soon back in touch – she had just away from the Internet, or out of signal , or maybe just having a really, really great time.
After that it was weeks until the next real scare – just about to run an adult class, I checked my phone to see if any students would be absent.  From another girl’s phone she had emailed “Hello – it’s Carenza here.  I have left my phone in the hostel in Mandalay.   I am trekking across country to Lake Inle and the phone will catch up with me when I get there in three days.
And miraculously, it did.

But just for the last two days I have not been worried at all as she has been safe with our friends in Singapore.  Carenza has enjoyed wonderful hospitality, and I have had a small oasis in my maternal fretting.  Thanks Mark, Adri, Kit, Dan, Thea & Ben.

Photo by Adri

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Thank Heavens for Churches

 Last week, the most beautiful thing I saw was in a church.  It was Sarrat Flower Festival and the ancient church was glowing with fragrant dewy arrangements, each representing a saint.






Last week, the funniest thing I heard was in a church. Sue was being ordained as a priest in Aylesbury.  A senior priest issued a cautionary tale to the new ordinands.  She had been visiting an old lady and had helped herself to the little dish of peanuts on the old lady’s coffee table. At length she realised she had eaten all of them.  Guilt-stricken, she bought her another bag.  The old lady’s response: “Oh you needn’t have bothered, Vicar.  I don’t like peanuts.  That’s why, when my son gives me a box of chocolate peanuts, I just suck the coating off, and put them in this little dish.”

Last week, the most inspiring thing I heard was in a church.  Kath was preaching at St Luke’s.  She reminded us of the brilliant rainbow which had lit up our neighbourhood the night before.  When God blessed us it felt like that.  However, just like the rainbow, the memory would fade.  But that did not mean we had never been blessed.  Just like the rainbow, it had really happened.  We must try to hold on to remembrance of glory.


And in each of those places, a volunteer was manning the tea urn and offered me a cuppa afterwards.

Thank Heavens for our churches – still at the heart of our communities.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

A Profound Learning Experience


I left Buckingham Palace in my fascinator and court shoes, took the tube to Euston and caught a train to the Peak District. 
I loved the stateliness of the Garden Party, but I would enjoy hiking in the Peak District even more.  Walking in the hills would encourage contemplation and help me to answer some of the Questions that Life Poses.

Carol, Caroline and Diane were there waiting for me as night fell on Buxton Station.  They told me my fascinator looked “Lovely!”  I preened coyly.

Unfortunately, when I removed my court shoes that night, I discovered that I had sustained a Garden Party Injury – a large, raw blister.  It limited the scope of our walks.  The others were very patient.  Although at breakfast the next day they did suggest that I might like to stop wearing my fascinator now.
However, in spite of our walks being curtailed, I DID discover the answer to one of the Questions that Life Poses.   Carol was kindly putting us up in her house so I was not surprised to see an unopened pot of my jam in her larder. 
I was surprised however to see that it was Mirabelle jam.  I have not made Mirabelle jam since July 2014.

I had thought that I had begun to see the rolling eyes of panic when I handed friends their annual selection of jams and chutneys at Christmas, but when questioned directly, they always pronounced them “delicious”. 

So I had two choices.  The first was to re-think my entire food-manufacture and gift-giving policy; the second, to carry on regardless. 


I think there is a photo somewhere of me eating toast heaped with three-year-old jam, my fascinator crammed firmly on my head.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

A Phalanx of Fascinators


What is the collective noun for fascinators?
A flotilla, a flirtation, a fluttering?
Not a word I have ever needed before the Royal Garden Party last week. 
When Nigel and I boast loudly and shamelessly about our invitation, people ask three questions:
1)      Why were YOU invited? (Tone varying from the incredulous to the mildly aggressive.)
I was there as Nigel’s plus one.  Nigel was there because, as chair of his industry trade association, he helped DEFRA solve a problem with electricals recycling. The invitation was their way of saying thank you.
2)      Was the tea good?
It was very nice indeed thank you.  My fave was the cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and the innovation of an added mint leaf.
3)      Did you get to shake hands with the Queen?
No – nobody does.  I don’t know why not. Possibly she has a fake hand which comes off if you shake it?  However, we did set eyes on her trundling around elegantly in pale blue. 
There seems to be more hat and less Queen with each passing year. 

But to return to fascinators, (and who wouldn’t wish to), headgear was a requirement of the day.  I tried on only one fascinator and declared, “This makes me look like a complete pillock.  I’ll take it!” I felt sure that no other fascinator would look any better, so why waste time? 
During the course of the afternoon I caught my fascinator on tree boughs, Nigel’s jacket and the flap of the marquee. 
Looking about me, I regretted our collective fashion choice.  Women of substance who had achieved accolades in their careers or in charity work were bobbing along looking as if they had sexually-aroused tropical birds on their heads.

As one fellow guest said, “This is a very sad day for the man who invented the hat.”
In Royal loos

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Dawn Chorus

It was 4am when the sun tilted over the brim of the hill into Hidden Valley in Worcestershire. First the larks, then wrens, dunnocks, blackbirds, goldfinches joined in a jubilant and ear-splitting dawn chorus.  The families in the six tents stirred.  Some lay listening in wonder.  Others rolled over to grab the tail end of sleep before it departed entirely.
The birds and the humans were doing the same thing  - forming community.  Speaking for the people, some of us met thirty-five years ago at university.  Others are partners or children who came along a little later.  Communication nowadays is often online, but every so often, Annabel shoos us out of the ether and into tents.
We shared adventures in a way you just can’t on FaceBook.  We learned to cook over an open fire.  We invaded the local pub.  We followed Dave tramping  across fields and challenging the owners of luxury homes who had blocked rights of way. And when the heavens opened, we all sardined into Nick and Jackie’s tent.

Then, at the end of the weekend, it was time to strike camp, and our little village melted away.  As we rise for work tomorrow, we shall remember the larks soaring in song and waking all the many other birds.  They will sing to the Hidden Valley where only flattened rectangles of grass show we were once a community there.




Saturday, 27 May 2017

Bucket List

"Why Strawberry Hill?" asked Will from the back of our car on the M25.
From the wheel Nigel answered, "Well it's been on our bucket list for ages."
"List," I said, "it's just a list. A To-do list."
"No, but a bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket - before you die."
"But everything I want to do, I want to do before I die, with maybe the exception  of 'go to Heaven'. Why does everything have to be  a bucket list suddenly?"
"Very true," conceded Nigel, "And  what happens now to people who actually need to make a list of different types of bucket?  What do they call their list ?"
But anyway, we finally arrived at Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill Manor and enjoyed it's delicious Gothic atmosphere. 
So we can tick it off the list.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Perfect day

We've been friends with Nick and Jackie for over thirty years.  Right now each of the four of us is concerned about an elderly parent.
We suffer anxiety and regret for our beloved parent, then an aftertaste of bitterness as we worry about our own future decrepitude.
We discussed all this over Jackie's excellent lunch. As per the cliché,  a trouble shared is a trouble halved.
Afterwards we met Bethan and her family and walked through buttercup-gilded meadows past verges foaming with cow parsley to the mellow stone ruins of Minster Lovell. While Innis and Riley paddled in the river I visited the shade of the church with its alabaster tomb of the long-ago lord of the manor.
It was a perfect afternoon.  
Maybe if we could distil it into an elixir and bottle it, it would be a cure for all our old age worries.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Mount Snowdon by Unicycle

Will came to stay with us, and said how much he loved old family videos.
We found an old VHS tape.  Even more remarkably, we found something to play it on. 
But the results appalled Nigel and me. 
There were close-ups of twins being adorable – twins crawling briskly about and smiling at the camera; twins vocalising and playing with toys.
But in the background was Pascoe calling “Look at me, Mummy and Daddy.”  The camera remained trained on the baby twins.
“On no!” said Will, “Now he’s doing star jumps to try to get your attention.”
Still the camera was fixed on the babies.
In our defence, I think we were trying to capture some milestone, like the twins learning to crawl.  But we still felt guilty.

Over the last two weeks I have been fretting mainly about Carenza going off travelling, and somewhat about Perran, taking his finals. (Although he seemed to have it all under control.)
But WhatsApp reminded me that Pascoe was also out in the world doing daring deeds.
I knew about him unicycling up Snowdon.
But I didn’t know about Copenhagen until I saw this:
"In a pout-off with the Little Mermaid."

And I certainly didn’t know he was wild camping (without a tent!) in the woods near to Copenhagen until I saw this:
"Have found great hotel with Dawn Chorus alarm clock and Fairy Forest wallpaper."

I guess over the years he has stopped hoping for our attention,

but I am certainly waiting now to see what Pascoe gets up to next.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Take-off!

Carenza left on her gap year travels early this morning.
I am attempting to be like a Noel Coward character - brave and witty in the face of emotional turmoil.

WhatsApp from Carenza:
Safely at the gate: flight leaving on time.
Will miss you!!!
WhatsApp from me:
I would be missing you too if only I weren’t so busy interviewing lodgers for your room.

Now the flight is in the air I am thinking that maybe I sounded a little uncaring.
It is all bloody Noel Coward’s fault.
Sadly I go in search of the envelopes, containing her essential information, and only to be opened if absolutely necessary.
And discover that Carenza has left us something to smile at too.

She is probably running bets with her friends on how soon it will be before I give into the temptation to rip them open and discover all her shady secrets.


Eat your heart out, Noel Coward.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Gap Pack

“Have you got a money belt?
Have you got a padlock?
Have you got a personal alarm?
Have you got your passport?
Will you leave us a copy of your passport?
And have you got a waterproof splashbox for when you go swimming?”
“Yes, Mum, I have. And Mum…”
“Yes Love?”

“I’ll be back safe and sound in three months.”

Friday, 5 May 2017

Finding Yourself

The other day Carenza snorted with amusement – one of her friends who was nearing the end of his travels had put up a Facebook post: “Self now 85% found.”
Myself, as a student, I didn’t Inter-rail etc. I still had brilliant Summer Holidays, mostly working on Archaeological digs both in the UK and on the Continent. But as a consequence, perhaps I’ve never Found Myself.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever Lost Myself either.  I tend to believe I have become myself by rubbing along with family and community and developing my role at work. 
However, I do agree that travelling alone does wonders for the self-confidence.
The other day Carenza had arrived back from travelling alone to Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade, but I missed her return as I had flown out to join Nigel in Bratislava at a conference he was chairing.  I landed at Vienna airport and got on a bus to Bratislava.  Nigel had briefed me, but it still felt adventurous.
Carenza texted:
“Where are you?”
“Doing a spot of solo travelling - arriving Bratislava in forty minutes.”

“In that case, you don’t have long left, Mum – better hurry up and find yourself quickly!”

Friday, 28 April 2017

A Bit Flat

At Easter, we had a low-key family holiday in Cornwall.     I may have mentioned it.
We set off to return from Penzance on Easter Monday.  Stopped off in Truro for a pasty with my parents; dropped Pascoe off at Exeter airport and Perran at Bristol Uni.
Carenza, although she did come home with us, departed in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning on a flight  for Eastern Europe.
So from a full table on Monday lunchtime, less than twenty-four hours later, we were empty nesters once more.  Melancholy threatened.
I said as much to Carole:
“It seems ungrateful after having the privilege of a great holiday, but it’s hard not to feel a bit flat now.”
“Ah, but that’s a good thing because it means you get on well with your family.  Apparently the peak time for divorce lawyers is at the end of the holidays, at Christmas and in the Summer, when people have realised they can’t tolerate each other’s company any longer.”
Thanks for putting it in perspective, Carole –

When our holiday finished, it could have been much worse than feeling a bit flat – instead, I could have been feeling relieved.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Why Take a Holiday?

Photo by Will
Sometimes when you are trying to get your work up-to-date, cancel the milkman, engage a helpful neighbour to empty the letter box, it feels like the last thing you need is a holiday. 
On top of that, Nigel and I both felt washed out following a long-lasting cold virus. It was hard to summon the energy.
However, for Easter Nigel had booked a house in Penzance where Pascoe, Perran, Carenza, Will & Dan were to join us.
For a week we tramped the cliffs swathed in blackthorn blossom, bought the freshest fish, foraged leaves and blossoms from the hedgerow, ate round the kitchen table and spent the evenings reading.
When I came to pack for home, I found myself staring at the nasal spray and cough sweets in my drawer.  For a moment I couldn’t think why I had them there. 

That was when I realised just how much good the holiday had done us.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Stick Men go on Holiday

Photo by Adri, Singapore
Since my post about endangered stickmen, I have received good news from Adri in Singapore about the care being taken of Stick Men and Women there and was feeling quite optimistic about the future of the species.

However, a recent holiday in Cornwall has re-awakened my worries about these accident-prone little chaps.  
Whereas Singapore public transport offers them a sanctuary, this is what happened to a Stick Man on a Cornish bus.

And at the sea-side, if there is an accident to be had, then Stick Men seem to have it.







It’s just a good job that we humans would never get into all the trouble that these stick men do when we visit the sea-side.

Perhaps it might be safer for them to stay at home.