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Motherhood

12 Jun

It was the fireplace that sold the house to me, before we’d even looked around. It’s a very lovely fireplace, original to the house, with eye-popping cobalt blue tiles. We have them in the kitchen and our bedroom too, with cream tiles, but I digress. What was I planning to write about? Oh yes, I’d like to tell you a little story…

I wake up at about 5pm after a much needed nap and as I move, I feel a small pop inside me, like a bubble bursting. I’m pretty sure I know what it is, but I decide to ignore it and go downstairs.

My two children are being given tea by the assistant at our local nursery school, who started helping me out a couple of days ago. At nine months pregnant, with a four year old and 22 month old, I’m finding it increasingly hard to get through the heat-wavey days. She’s supposed to leave once she’s got their tea ready but I ask if she’d mind staying on to help me get them to bed.

With two people, one of them an energetic 20 year old, it’s an easy job and by 7pm all is quiet. So I called the midwife. I’m pretty sure my waters have broken, I say. Any contractions? No, not yet. Well I’ll be over later, call me again if you need me.

Steve gets home. My waters have broken. Have you called your mother? There’s plenty of time for that. Remember last time? It took two days before I went into labour. Still, you should call your mother.

At 9pm the midwife comes. Still no contractions? No, just the odd twinge. But you do remember that I have fast labours don’t you? And I would like gas and air please. Yes, it says so on your notes, but it could be hours yet. Have a bath, relax. Call me again when you need me.

10pm contractions start. Not too bad, every five minutes. Must be very early stages of labour. Not nearly as bad as with middle child. That was every minute for two hours. One continuous wave of pain. Completely excruciating. I’ll call the midwife in a bit.

10.30. Speak to the midwife on the phone. I think I’m in labour now, I say between contractions. Well you sound like you’re doing just fine. Call me later when you want gas and air.

I want gas and air, I should have said. I’m a calm person, don’t make much of a fuss about things. I’m good in a crisis. I WANT GAS AND AIR. Why didn’t I say something? How soon can I call her back?

11pm. Steve, call the midwife, tell her I want gas and air. She’s on her way, has to go to the hospital first to pick up the canister.

This is my third baby. First one had to be sucked out with a ventouse. Second one, slithered out like a skinny, slippery eel after three pushes in three minutes. I’m pretty sure this one is on his way. I don’t want to panic Steve, so I won’t tell him. Steve, will you please call the midwife and tell her to hurry up.

It doesn’t occur to me that he would leave the room. That I’m making too much noise for him to make a phonecall. I’m not really thinking about him anyway. I’m just getting on with it. Only thinking about one thing.

I can hear him yelling, Oh my God I can see a head! The phone clatters to the floor as he leaps forward and catches the baby, who lets out a loud wail, right on cue.

Ten minutes later, the midwife arrives. She checks us over, tidies up, puts us to bed. Where I lie awake all night, unable to process the thousands of thoughts whizzing around my head like supercharged mosquitos. Thank God I never have to do that again. That’s me done, I am complete. Isn’t the human body amazing? Aren’t I amazing?

And the fireplace? Turns out the mantlepiece is just the right height to lean against when having a contraction.

PS If you look at the photos on the mantlepiece, the two in black and white frames are of Dickon and the midwife, about half an hour after his birth.

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I’m entering this post in the Victoria Plumb #GreatBritishHome competition. If you’d like to take part in their quiz to find out your celebrity style, click here, I’m Joey Essex apparently…

A street corner in Bangkok

9 Jun

I’m standing at the intersection of four wide roads.  The heat is overwhelming.  An invisible boiling water soaked blanket, smothering the city.  I’m so hot that I feel as if I’m standing in a steaming shower, fully clothed.  Even the belt on my shorts is damp.  A dark stain creeping across the leather from the pool of sweat collected in the curve of my lower back.

High rise buildings fence in the surrounding streets, trapping the heat, noise and smells.  A gold and white temple, all curved lines and painted statuary is an exuberant juxtoposition against the the flat, straight, blank towers.

As I breathe in the clammy humidity, the first thing to hit my nostrils, making me gag, is the sweet stench of  rubbish rotting in the heat.  The nausea inducing smell of decay is cut with the heavy, perfumed fragrance of incense burning at a nearby shrine and the woody smoke of the food vendors’ charcoal burners.  Cooking food, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke from the people hurrying past join the already heady mix.

The food vendors have set up stall along the length of the pavement.  They squat beside their buckets of fire, cooking a inventive array of snacks and meals, boiled eggs, baked bananas, pancakes, soups, stews, animal parts on sticks, sticky rice steamed in little banana leaf parcels.  Charcoal flames are fanned with one hand while pancakes are flipped with the other.   Customers get their food to go, or perch on tiny red plastic stools, slurping savoury, lemony, soup from large bowls, fiery ringlets of chili floating on the top.

On the opposite pavement, there are a row of fruit vendors.  The ready peeled, chopped and deseeded fruit is arranged in the vendors’ glass carts, like colourful gems in a jewellery shop display case.  Next to the fruit vendors are carts selling drinks.  Bottles of warm, lurid, sticky, fizzy liquid, their colours an artificial counterpoint to the fruit.  Drinks the colour of Smurfs, yellow day glo legwarmers and red London buses.  When you buy one, it is poured from the valuable bottle into a small plastic bag, which is swiftly converted into a drinking vessel with a knotted elastic band and a straw.  I would love the relief of adding ice to my drink, watching drops of condensation form, but I’ve seen it being dragged along the street by men with ropes like icebergs floating down a canal, picking up the detritus of the city along the way.

Life in Bangkok is never quiet.  A cacophany of beeping horns, revving motorbikes, the chirping song of caged birds, waiting to be bought and released for good luck, bouncy Thai pop music spilling out of shops, rhymic chanting and clanging bells from the temple.  And over it all, the soft lilting voices of the inhabitants, a thousand conversations in their melodical tonal language, sentences ending with a polite upbeat “krup” for men or a gentle falling “kaaa” for women.

I stand at the intersection, people rushing around me, bodies brushing past mine as they hurry on their way.  As I absorb the sounds, sights and smells, I know that this is why I travel.  To feel alive.

For this week’s Sleep is for the Weak writing workshop, I chose the prompt “Write about one moment with all of richest, imaginative sensory description you can muster.”

What does summer feel like?

27 May

I am lying on my back under the lilac tree.  The sun is hot on my face, pricking my skin, like a thousand tiny needles.  Heat is pouring into me like sand from a jug, weighing me down.  I can see the inside of my closed eyelids, thin, pink lines race across the bright orange glow.  Continue reading

Can you do a deal?

11 May

I am going to buy a Nintendo Game & Watch.  A really cool electronic game like my friend has.  It’s about the size of a small walkman, has a little screen, and you press the buttons to move the monkey from side to side to catch bananas.  It’s really fun.  I’ve saved up my Christmas and birthday money, and my pocket money for weeks and weeks.  I’ve been waiting for our trip to New York, because you can’t get them in London, at least, I don’t have enough money for them in London.

I carefully count up my pound notes. “How do I work out how much it is in dollars?” “You times by two and a half” says my father. “That means I have $25.”
“Make sure you bargain” he says as he hands me $25 dollars in exchange for my pounds. “What do you mean?”

“They will ask you to pay more than they really want. You suggest a lower amount, say half what they asked, they reject it, you suggest a little bit more until you can agree.” “But, why?” “It’s just the way things are done here.”

“So can you bargain for everything in New York?”  “Not things like groceries, no, but expensive things like electronics don’t have fixed prices.”  I giggle as I remember the funny advert for ‘Crazy Eddie’s Electricals’ where Eddie yells like a madman about his low prices as he chops up price tickets with a giant pair of scissors.  You don’t get silly adverts like that in England.

Later, with my dollars safely folded into my purse, my mother and I take the long walk from our apartment to 42nd street, the best place for electronics.  30 blocks is quite a hike for a 9 year old and I smile proudly as my mother tells me how well I’m doing.

I must have heard the song ’42nd Street’ before, because I’m expecting it to be glamorous and sparkly, but it’s just a normal, dirty New York Street, full of small shabby shops.  Not like Crazy Eddie’s electronics emporium further uptown.  We go into a few, but they don’t have what I’m after.  “Try the little shop upstairs next door, Cohen’s Electronics.”

We push open a plain, battered, door on the street marked ‘Cohen’s Electronics’ and climb a narrow, rather grubby staircase to the first floor.  “Well this is an adventure, isn’t it darling?” says my mother, rather nervously I think, as we enter a small, stuffy, poorly lit room.  Around three of the walls are brown wood and glass cabinets, and in front of them, brown wood counters.  Behind the counters are three men, dressed in the heavy black suits and black hombergs of Hasidic Jews.

“Excuse me, do you sell Nintendo Game & Watch?”

“Oh, isn’t she cute?  Check out that accent!  Where are you from little girl?”  “I’m from London and I’d like to buy a Game & Watch, please.”

“What kind do you want English girl?” asks the man in front of me as he opens a draw under the counter, pulling out a handful.   He spreads five Game & Watches on the counter.  “This one please, how much is it?” I say as I pick up the brown one, the monkey game.

“Well normally, it’s $40, but for you can have it for $35 because you have such a cute accent.”  “I don’t have $35, can I have it for $20?”

“She’s bargaining with us, Solly!  Ooh, how cute does bargaining sound in that accent?  Well I can’t let it go for $20 but how about $25?”

“Yes please.”  “$25 dollars it is!  Sold to the little girl with the cute accent!”

I hand over the money and say goodbye, clutching my new Game & Watch to my chest.  As we walk back down the grubby stairs, we can hear the three men talking about my accent.  We celebrate my first bargain with a yellow taxi ride home.

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This post was written for the Writing Workshop at Sleep is for the Weak.  This week I suggested a prompt “tell us about a life skill you’ve learnt and a time you used it.”

Bargaining is a very useful skill in many places in the world.  In some countries, paying full price for anything, is as alien as asking the cashier in Sainsbury’s if she can do you a deal on baked beans.

Language barrier

29 Apr

We’d only been away from home a week.  A week into our six month trip.  Our first week had been spent in Hong Kong, with a family who were intensely English in the  way only expats can be.  We’d eaten Marmite on toast, been to a hand bell ringing practise, giggled as we watched Morris Dancers.

We arrived at our next destination after an interminable stop-start taxi trip through the notorious Bangkok traffic.  Hot, queasy, and nervous, two teenagers, turning up at a stranger’s house, all the arrangements made by my mother.  The taxi dropped us in a quiet walled courtyard at the end of a dusty lane off the roaring urban highway.

There were two buildings surrounded by lush tropical planting and shaded by the highrises on the nearby main road.  We stepped over the threshold of the larger house, poking our heads into a blue walled kitchen.  A smiley lady who was chopping herbs started chatting away in Thai and then shouted across the courtyard.  A girl our age came hurrying over from the other house and also started talking to us in Thai.  We did lots of smiling and said the only word we knew “Sawadee”, which according to the huge sign at the airport meant “welcome”.

They were clearly trying to communicate something important to us, but we just smiled and nodded, desperate to shed our heavy backpacks, our pale English faces growing redder and shiner by the minute in the overwhelming heat and humidity.  Eventually, the girl led us inside and through the kitchen to a hallway with beautiful dark, shiny wood floors, our trainers squeaking as she took us upstairs, past a small shrine with golden statues and burnt incense sticks, to a bedroom with a double bed and the blessed relief of air conditioning.

On the bed were a letter and two maps of the city.  The letter, from my mother’s friend, explained that she and her husband were away and would be back in a couple of days.  We would be fed three times a day if we were home, her cook and family would look after us.

Over the next two days we tentatively explored our surroundings.   Bangkok was like nothing I’d ever experienced.  The heat and humidity blanketed us like an incense scented karvol steam inhalation.  Walking down the street required effort worthy of running a marathon.  But we discovered a lake with pedalos, which we steered under the cooling mist of a fountain, a freezing cold temple to shopping and a low wooden school full of smartly dressed navy and white unformed girls who waved and said “hello” every time we walked down the dusty lane.

We’d return to the house for meals.  And what meals.  The food was a world away from the Thai restaurants in London.  Delicate, citrusy, very lightly spiced and fresh, perfect for the sweltering heat.  Big bowls of clear chicken broth with coriander for breakfast, sour green papaya salads, stir fries with herbs and greens.  We got used to not being able to communicate with the lovely people looking after us.  We had nodding and smiling down to a T, said thank you in Thai at every opportunity.  When we weren’t eating, we’d go to our room and pore over the maps, trying to match the places we read about in our Lonely Planet with the bus routes and rivers snaking their way over the crinkly paper sheets.

After two days, our hosts returned and greeted us with smiles and apologies.  “Sorry we weren’t here to welcome you, hope you’ve been enjoying yourselves.  Have the staff been looking after you?  Have you enjoyed the food”  “Oh yes, they’ve been so kind, it’s all delicious.”

They spooned rice onto our plates, looking rather embarrassed “There’s just one thing.  The staff have been trying to tell you, but you didn’t understand.  You see, we never wear shoes inside Thai homes.  Outside shoes are considered very unclean.”

Mortified, I thought back to the many times we’d seen the barefooted staff sweeping and wiping the beatiful floors.  Wiping off our dusty shoe prints.  The dirt we’d carried in from outside.

For all our reading of the Lonely Planet, we’d omitted to look at the local customs chapter.  It’s not a mistake I’ve made twice.

For this week’s Sleep is for the Weak writing workshop, I’ve chosen to interpret the prompt “When did you say the wrong thing, and wish you could have eaten your words” as “When did you do the wrong thing because you didn’t understand what was being said.”

In praise of boredom

21 Apr

Ours is a friendship born of boredom.  Born of long summer afternoons spent lying on our beds, white Provencal sun streaming through the shutters making stripes on our brown legs.  Heat silencing everything except the crickets, whose loud rasping was the soundtrack to our siestas.  We’d talk about anything and everything as we ate long strings of sweets from the garage, catching up on the time we’d missed.  At home in England, we often didn’t have much to do with each other, we were both at boarding school and at home had different friends, different activities.  But at our Grandparent’s house in the South of France we just had each other.  No TV, no friends, no toys.  Just each other, a pack of cards, a mahjong set with no rules and shelves full of other people’s discarded holiday reading.

For a month every summer, we were best friends.  We spent our days roaming the vineyards, the soft, sandy soil filling our espadrilles, finding treasure under every stone, beneath every tree.  We built some Sterling Prize worthy dens in the secret places we found.  We utilised every nook and cranny of a natural landscape covered in gnarled American Oak trees and rocky, limestone outcrops, fashioning roofs out of bamboo gardening poles, branches, sheets.  We once constructed a pulley from a bedroom window in the house to a den on top of a flat rock.  At least I think we did, we certainly spent a long time discussing it.  The more inaccessible the den the better, my favourites were on top of rocks that could only be climbed by nimble, barefooted, children.  We knew every handhold, every branch strong enough to hold us, we could climb them in the dark.

Sometimes we played with other children, had friends to stay.  Our cousin used to join us every summer.  But then my brother had a new best friend, and the boys would spend all day playing cricket, the soft thunk of tennis ball against terracotta tiles and cries of “four” and “LBW” joining the cicadas’ song.  Their matches were long enough to rival any played at Lords.

Attempts were made to find us local playmates.  The snobby pharmacist was pleased that her children were playing with us, we were a cut above other the local children, old beyond their years, who brazenly smoked in the  village square.   But her prissy children did not embrace our preferred activities of rock climbing and football played barefoot in the prickly couch grass, and friendship never blossomed.

As we got older, we’d sometimes take the long walk into the village by ourselves while our parents sensibly slept after lunch.  We walked the two kilometres down the hill under a bright, brassy sky, our reward a coffee in the deserted Cafe de la Place, mangy dogs asleep on the cool marble floor, shops shuttered against the heat of the day.  The walk home up the side of the mountain, as the oven-like afternoon was starting to cool, left little breath for talking, but talk we did.

We talked all the time.  During the long evenings lying in bed as Beethoven’s Ninth echoed up the stone staircase.  On our explorations of the vineyard, discovering secret gardens and fallen down hunters’ hideouts.  While we spent hours in the pool, perfecting handstands, competing to see who could swim the furthest, and stalking and killing wasps.  During stormy late summer afternoons painting wicker furniture in the garage or listening to classified ads on the laughably bad ex-pat radio station.

I can’t remember what we talked about now, but our meandering conversations, winding their way through the slow, summer days bound us together as siblings and friends.  We’re all grown up now, but we still like to talk.

For this week’s writing workshop, Josie asked us to Share some memories of a sibling or siblings“.

Dresses

14 Apr

Before we leave in November, we are having a huge clear out of our stuff.  Partly this is to make it easier to rent our house and put our belongings in storage.  But it is also because despite professing to not value material things, our really quite big house is bursting at the seams.

One of the hardest cupboards to clear out has been Eve’s wardrobe.  I always knew I’d have a little girl and I always knew I would love dressing her.  And I do, I love buying her clothes, and she has some beautiful dresses.  Not mini adult dresses, proper little girl dresses.  Dresses that I imagined I might pass on to her daughters, like my mother has done for me.  And one or two will maybe become family heirlooms, but most of them are ordinary clothes.  Keeping them for sentimental reasons is going to lead to our house ending up on a TV programme involving pest controllers in contamination suits.  So clear out we must.

Every year she grows like a sunflower, shooting up towards the sky and adulthood.  And I can barely remember the little person who filled the dresses with her exuberant, wriggly, little body with the fat bracelets on her wrists, round toddler tummy, and pudgy feet with sausage toes.  The dresses have become turned over corners in the book of her life, reminders of the tiny person she once was and the places we played.

Each dress brings back a different memory.  The red needcord dress with big bright pink spots that she wore on her first birthday.  The elasticated cap sleeves used to leave a mark on her squidgy upper arms and her nappied bottom would poke in the air when she ‘goed upside down’.

The pale pink silk sundress with the stripy ribbon sash, that she wore the day we moved into our house.  Hours spent exploring our very own garden and  climbing in enticing empty boxes bigger than her.

The pale blue dress with the smocked sail boats that she wore on her second birthday, playing ring-a-roses with her little friends in our sitting room.  Cheeks red from exertion and excitement, dress smeared with chocolate icing.

I keep telling myself that they’re only clothes, that it’s not important, but giving them away is hard.  Giving them away means she’s growing up. Giving them away means I’ll never have a baby again.  Those neverending years of sleepless nights, leaky breasts and constant watchfulness have gone.  They’ve gone and I don’t know how it happened.  I swear I only looked away for a minute.

For this week’s writing workshop, Josie asked us to “clear out a cupboard you’ve not visited in years”.

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