Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Atishoo! Atishoo! We All Fall Down

Does anyone know who might be the God of Good Health? And what I need do to get into his/her good books again?

We are the House of Sickness! I may as well wear a nose bouquet, paint a cross on the door and have done with it. First, there was the migraine (mine), then the wobbles (mine) then the cold-virus-flu thing with the temperature and the sore throat and the funny tummy (me and Anna-Mouse simultaneously - we had simultaneous doctor's appointments with different doctors, too, which made for rather a stressful visit, seeing as only me and her were there, and I could hardly send her off on her own); then came the cough, the dreaded nighttime variety which wakes everyone up as soon as everyone is asleep (me and Anna-Mouse); then came the sinusitis-with-the-worst headache ever (the Bim) - oh please let it end.

We are also the House of Drugs: paracetamol by the packetful, cold cures and herbal potions and can I just say - where, oh where would we be at 3 in the morning without Calpol, other than at our wits' end... And although we've all rallied rather valiantly, we have also had our moments with the generally gloomy spirits that accompany such a pox-filled house.

So having very little but the colour of the four walls to write about, I find myself writing about very little at all. Makes a change from cancer, chemo and marriage wobbles, I suppose. But it feels good to fill the box, press the button, remember there's a bigger world and that in the Big Scheme of Things all this means nothing, nothing at all.

Now, I've a date with a Benylin bottle. There are some compensations...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Quiet House

The house is quiet. It is empty but for me, the cats and my thoughts.

The cats arrived this summer – a small, friendly tabby and a feisty three-legged tortoiseshell. I didn’t know she had only three legs when I fell in love with her, but that’s me all over, picking up the waif and stray before I know what I’ve let myself in for.

Earlier in the house today there was piano music. I let the notes soothe and rise. We acquired the piano this summer, too. The gift of a Quaker friend. An old German upright that’s been passed from family to family, wherever the wish arose, the only stipulation being that when we no longer want it we must pass it on ourselves, no charge.

My fingers move creakily across the keyboard. I think of the annual Open Day held in my teacher’s sitting-room; pupils gathered to play their best pieces to parents. I wore my white bell-sleeved lacy blouse and three-quarter length trousers. There was probably a ribbon in my hair. I was thin, studious, seven. A bit of a star pupil.

I play on, giving the Mozart a go, having better luck with the Haydn. It doesn’t come easily anymore, though I can imbue anything with feeling. I think of winter afternoons, then, in the playroom at Malts View Road. My sister Hope and I making up vast concert programmes for my mother to sit through, costumed from the dressing-box, accompanied by me on the piano.

Which song do you like best? we would demand after every show. Pick one! Pick one! You have to choose! I was triumphant when my mother chose Cockles and Mussels for me to sing again. I was a shocking romantic.

Then my piano teacher changed and I got one who smoked and I didn’t like him at all. Plus, I was thirteen and too many other changes were happening. I never took formal lessons again. Over the years I’ll sit down when there’s a piano and not too many people listening and let my fingers make the slow journey back to Clementi’s trills, or Satie’s stillness, but even the muscle memory of those dear favourites is beginning to fade.

So I’m cheering myself by learning some new pieces. I found a bundle of tattered sheet music tied up with string in the piano stool drawer. Most of it’s brown, and dry as parchment, but the notes are all there. My sight-reading is agonisingly slow, but just occasionally I perfect a little run of something that doesn’t sound at all bad. I round off every session with a very loud rendition of She, because it’s the only song my fingers can still remember from start to finish. When the silence is particularly odd, I sing along with it, giving my best impression of Charles Aznavour…

They are in Ireland. Planned for months. We didn’t know those months would fall now, when there’s so much to think about. Anna-mouse is being feted, at the absolute heart of her Irish family, which makes me happy. The Bim is getting another Celtic infusion, too, which he needs. I had plans for when they were gone, painting the house, sorting the garden, that sort of thing. Instead I find myself sitting for hours in my pyjamas, hugging a cup of coffee. The physical and mental toll of the last few weeks is being taken and I am, finally, allowing it to happen.

When I look back at the week I realise the two things of note I’ve achieved are learning how to play O Come All Ye Faithful for Christmas, in a vague but positive gesture towards having a happy one, and sorting my writing papers. That’s all.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

It Happens Like This

It happens like this. One moment you're going along, and you know it's been a difficult year - your mother's had cancer; your child turned three and temporarily lost the ability to sleep; you're been told you're post-menopausal way, way before your time; your husband's been off work all summer with a wretched back injury and an employer with less compassion than a gnat -but you're coping.

You're not only coping, you think you're making it work, and in fact you've finally cracked the writer's block and the confidence stuff and you've discovered you can write words that make other people cry, and in many ways, yes it's been one hell of a summer, but you're personally happier than you have ever been. You don't notice that you've taken your eye off the most important ball. You notice the anger, and the mood swings and the apathy, of course you do, but you don't say hang on, are you still happy, like me?

So then the trees shed one leaf too many and you're bare, bare like the branches, thinking How did this happen? How did I get here? and your husband is sending your brother a text message meant for the woman down the road and it would be funny if it weren't so very close to the bone, shall we say the bone marrow of your family, my family, my life.

Then, there's rage. There's that hour on the bench overlooking the view on the most beautiful day of the year, and those two trees against the skyline with the perfect, little tree in between, smouldering autumn trees which shouldn't be so beautiful on a day like this, when life has taken such a daft, unexpected turn. Weather does its own thing, though. Weather can be ironic.

Four nights apart help. Us, of course, not the child. The child who asks and asks and says and says, even though she took him to the airport because I thought it would make his sudden departure more real. Better than him walking out the front door and not coming back for four days.

So now it's a week later and the world's still turning. It does that, always, it's a good thing to know. The ground I stand on is not firm anymore, but at least I still have a Bim in my life and at least there is talking and love. I couldn't have been more delusional, he said from the country he has longed for all these months, than the strongest narcotic could have made me. And indeed it is clear that his breaking of the faith with us, with me, was the worst sin committed. The woman steered him, even in these early days of friendship, clearly back to me. Which is what you'd hope someone would do.

I look at my year. I look at his. Our lives did not meet very often. We are taking care, now, to make sure that they do.

It happens like this.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

All Shall be Well

I wasn't able to sleep the night before. Probably none of us were.

Faithful Hope, my sister, accompanied her. The appointment was at eleven. They made them wait a long time, though not as long as the interminable six months Esme spent having chemo and the rest of us spent watching.

I took Anna-mouse to music class. A bright, chirpy autumnal morning. The end of a week. And a chapter, as it turns out.

I was preparing lunch when Hope rang, as promised. Pizza fingers under the grill, half the fridge scattered over the counter, a bit of rough chopping going on and several half-touched drinks in the sink. Signs of a distracted morning.

"Hi Liv, you can stop stressing now," said my sister, a smile in her voice.

And with that, and the short, happy conversation which ensued, I learnt that my mother is cancer-free. That the scan result was fine. That she does not have to visit a hospital for three months. That the PICC line was being removed as we spoke (no more showers with the arm in a plastic bag!) and that the many and wretched signs of depletion she has recently been showing are due to the extreme toxicity of the drugs, not a return of the illness they were fighting.

I put down the 'phone. Forget Anna-m's lunch. Leap around. Feel the weight of ten heavy months begin to lift.

I pick up the 'phone. Call the Bim. Go into the garden to feel the briskness of the air, and let the October sunshine warm me as I talk. I note the neglected grass, the overgrown borders, the pots I planted with so much care earlier in the year parched and deadened before their time: something had to give this year, and rather than it be any one of the dear persons in my care, it was the garden I chose to let go.

Just had to tell you, I say. It's my mum. She's fine. The scan's clear. Isn't that fantastic?

And then I burst into tears.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Closing Picture

Is it time for lunch yet? reads Jay's text message.

It is Monday, my last full day. The weather has turned; all morning it has been spitting rain. I hop in and out of puddles and shoe-shops, trying to find something more substantial than my sparkly flip-flops. I am thoughtful, even a little melancholy. I miss my two beloveds desperately, at the same time as longing for more time alone. I spent so much of my life alone before I met the Bim that it will probably always be a state I hanker after. Time alone feeds me. I remember who I am again. I remember how to think again. I recognise this sort of time now, though (in a way I never did then, when I had oodles of the stuff ) as an important, priceless luxury.

Jay joins me for lunch at Skonir ir Kvapas, a wonderful, old-style tea-room in a picturesque courtyard where we order ginger tea with orange juice and honey. We talk for ages. I feel my conversation unfolding from me in a way I haven't for months. These conversations I've had with Jay throughout the trip are the longest consecutive conversations with a grown-up I've had in a long time. Jay is a great listener, and it feels good.

After lunch we go our separate ways with a promise to meet again for dinner. I go in search of the Holocaust Museum on Pamenkalnio 12, to complete my short investigations into Lithuania's recent past.

The Green House, a modest, green clapboard cottage, is difficult to find. It is not what I was expecting. The door is locked, though the Museum is obviously open: an ominous sign and again, not what I was expecting. No-one comes to answer the bell, and eventually a fellow visitor, just leaving, lets me in. Inside, there is no-one to whom I can pay the ridiculously small entrance sum, so I begin to walk around the house without a ticket.

There is a make-shift, temporary feel to the Museum, nothing like yesterday's exhibition, which was so expertly, expensively put together. This is home-made by comparison. I gather that it is not state funded - that Lithuania is, in fact, in some turmoil with itself about the role its own partisans played in aiding the liquidation of its own Jewish population - and that the Museum is the private project of several Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. Very little of the text is in English, so that I am forced to pick up what I can from the board headings (which are) and the exhibition's many images. They pack a weighty punch.

Pre-war Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North. Ironically, Jews were invited to settle in Lithuania in the 14th Century by Grand Duke Gediminas. In the 19th Century Vilnius became the centre for the European Jewish language, Yiddish, and by the 20th Century it had become the Jewish cultural capital of Eastern Europe. Many eminent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers, scientists and musicians made it their home. Pre-World War II there were 100 synagogues in the city and six daily Jewish newspapers. 100,00 Jews lived here of a total 240,000 in Lithuania as a whole.

Today, there are just 5,000 Jews in Lithuania. And just one synagogue still stands in the city of Vilnius. It survives because the Nazis used it as a medical store. A rabbi flies in from London now and then to officiate.

I'm not a numbers person, except when they become more eloquent than words.

A short way into my tour of the Museum, a door opens and two well-dressed Jewish women of a certain age appear. There is much consternation that I have neither ticket nor a guidebook, and was not greeted on arrival. They introduce themselves by Christian name, insist I retrace my steps to the very front door. Let's start again! they say. Come in, come in! they say, opening and closing the door even though I am already in the building - Now, where did you say you were from? They hand me a well-thumbed wodge of photocopied pages - an extremely wordy, well-written guide to the exhibiton.

I find their kindly attentions extremely touching. I know these women; they remind me of candlelit Friday nights at my childhood friend Shoshannah's house, welcomed into a culture which is not mine but with which I have always resonated. Coiffeured, intelligent, good-hearted women, too concerned for your health and well-being but achingly reassuring. I think of my friend Dee, whose Jewishness seeps through her every pore and more than makes her who she is. I think of Anne Frank, who was born the same year as my mother Esme - how she, too, could have been nearing eighty now. What a body of work we lost there! It was the slim, serious little paperback of Anne's diary, slipped into my twelve-year-old hand, which started my own habit of journal-keeping, which led, perhaps, to here.

There were two ghettos in Vilnius. The Small Ghetto existed for 46 days in 1941. No-one survived it: eleven thousand Jews were marched from here to their deaths in the forest at Paneriai, some 10 kms from the city. The Large Ghetto existed for two years. A few hundred people survived it; some nineteen thousand died. Studying the maps in the Museum I realise how little the streets in the city centre have changed. I make my own, lone pilgrimage to find the streets mentioned. It is a drizzly, sombre little mission. I begin to understand why the comments of Jewish visitors from all round the world in the Museum's leather-bound Visitors Book are so frustrated and angry. The ghetto streets remain largely unchanged, but they pass almost unmarked. I find two or three marble memorial plaques, but blink and you'd miss them.

The Ghettos were made and sealed in the old Jewish quarter, in the very heart of the city. It was impossible not to know what was happening. Indeed, crowds formed to watch the Jews being marched in at the main Ghetto gates. I find myself staring into the faces of elderly passers by, silently questioning: Were you here? I ask them. Were you?

As I identify street after ghetto-street, walk the pavements, touch the walls, I remember a couple of original, black and white posters in the last room of the Museum, advertising theatrical performances. In 1942, over 120 musical and theatrical performances took place in the Large Ghetto. I am ineffably moved by this. Plays, they did plays. And music. They had a Symphony Orchestra. They took up their instruments and played. They took up their instruments and played, learnt speeches and performed. Of course. As an artist myself I understand this in a visceral, passionate way. It is how I have been taught to live, too. And so it is that in the face of this sad, heartbreaking day, I go back to my hotel room, and write.

The next day I leave Lithuania, and come home.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Four

After lunch, Jay and I visit the Museum of Victims of Genocide, housed in the former KGB building on Gediminas Avenue. It is a fine day, the sky is high and we are cheery after our filming.

We only have an hour. As it turns out I am glad, because atmospheres work on me, and the building was heaving with its history. It is a heavy-doored, stone-staired, long-corridored structure. Eerie holographic hands holding guns reach from the walls.

In the upstairs rooms -which used to be office space to the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again - is a brilliantly assembled exhibition, beautifully lit, meticulously labelled. The walls are filled with writings and photographs about the various oppressions and occupations this fierce little country has had to tolerate. Cases of priceless human ephemera pinned behind glass like so many insect specimens detail the thousands of lost, deported, murdered lives.

Downstairs in the basement are the torture cells of the KGB prison, maintained virtually untouched since their last prisoner less than thirty years ago. The cells are painted an old, puce green. They boast of the darkest places the human mind can go. The Wet Cell struck me most, a nasty, claustrophobic space with a scooped out floor which would be filled with water which turned to ice in winter. In the centre there is a tiny metal pedestal, the prisoner's only refuge from the wet. Further down the corridor I find the Soft Cell, with its strange, stupid-looking straitjacket hanging on a peg just in front of me. This cell was padded in 1973, the sign says, to stop the torture cries, and the cries from those driven mad by torture, from being heard. Nineteen-Seventy-Three, I whisper, trying to make it fit. My nineteen-seventy-three, the one that I know, held in it Jackie magazine, and the Eleven-Plus, and bell-bottomed trousers.

At the end of the longest corridor, the penultimate cell has been put to a different purpose. It is the Prison Library. Books do not belong here! is my first thought. But then I think yes, yes let there be books. Let there - as with the volume of Shakespeare which Nelson Mandela read and annotated in his imprisonment on Robben Island - be hope. Beyond, a board carries simply a series of black and white photographs, all portraits of dead partisans as their bodies were propped up in town squares against walls and fences, for the people to see. The faces of the dead are beaten and battered, but oddly compelling. I cannot take my eyes off them. In one, the eyes of a woman are like the sewn-on eyes of a ragdoll, so swollen are they. I find myself wondering what act, what atrocity, could have done this to her, and discover that I cannot, literally cannot, imagine.

I step at the last down into the Execution Chamber. I make myself step: there is no-one else around and I make the journey into this brightly lit bowel with dread. The floor is glass and lit to reveal relics of those who died beneath your feet in the sand. Thousands were shot or stabbed in this chamber. I try to say some sort of prayer for them but am so troubled that none comes. I go and find Jay. I've had enough, I tell him. Because I have. Because I can.

I run to hide in the sunlight outside. From an open window in the next building on the Avenue pours a piano solo, someone practising long and hard and strong. I remember that this building is the Academy of Theatre & Music, and almost cling to its walls as I gulp back my tears. This building houses my belief system, I remind myself, my soul.

I walk across the street to a park bench, letting the music work on me, waiting for some sign that it's about love, too, this life: find it in the brief, steadying "Grim" of nodded agreement between myself and my old friend when he too emerges into the sunshine. I put my hand for a brief moment on his arm to pin myself to the moment, here on Gediminas Avenue, beside the bloody geraniums.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Three

Astonishingly, the work itself, the actual shooting of the actual scene including travelling time and all, took only five and a half hours. I was picked up at my hotel at 7am on the Sunday morning and was done by lunchtime.

My old friend Jay was sitting waiting in the people carrier when I came down from my room. Neither Jay nor I had got much sleep, this being my only, and his first, day of filming. We greeted each other with that wide-eyed, butterfly-stomach, first-thing-in-the-morning-actor look I've come to know so well. We were taken to the unit's base camp which was in a leisure centre car park somewhere to the north of city centre and given a warm welcome by one and all. One of the actors remarked that film units look the same the world over, and we laughed agreeement. I felt a little flutter of excitement as we pulled into the midst of the service trucks - winibagos for the actors; hair and make-up; catering; the food tent. Several of the crowd eating breakfast turned their heads as we arrived. Many of the crew had been out there for some time, and were probably as glad to see us as we were to see them. Or as curious, I should say: there's an awful lot of covert curiosity about everybody else on a film set.

The director met us, shook our hands, looked weary and warm. The last time I had seen him was at the interview, somewhere in Central London. It was somehow reassuring that he looked exactly the same, down to the shorts and sandals. He asked the Second Assistant to show us where we needed to go - she showed us the breakfast tent and a winibago for each of us, with our character names printed on A4 pieces of paper pinned to the door. Another, private little flutter! Inside, fruit, bottles of water, our costumes. I got mine on and then, with as much dignity as I could muster without feeling reeeaaallly silly, had to phone the 2nd A.D. on my mobile to come and open my door, as I had accidentally locked myself inside... (Note to Self: Film Star Status not achievable until winibago doorlock mastered).

The filming itself, I am happy to report, went off with little incident. It was fun, and interesting, to be part of this international crew for a day. I gather this was the source of not a little tension on set, but I barely felt it, so glad was I to be working, and working with Jay. It was different, working with someone I knew and trusted. And we both come from stage backgrounds, feeling our way into some kind of a performance in front of a camera (later in the trip we spent an evening recounting our Most Cringeworthy Television Moments). I don't think my tiny scene was my most glorious hour on film, but I don't think I disgraced myself, either.

While I was waiting to be called, going over my lines and trying to keep my concentration (a priceless talent to an actor), Mick the Sound Man came over to wire me for sound. For those not in the know, this involved putting a little furry thing with a sticky back (the mic) between my breasts - Mick himself didn't do this, just suggested it in as tactful a way as possible and looked away as I dropped it down, then guided the wire and little adaptor box from my front to my back and tucked the box into the belt of my jeans. As we performed this intimate little operation, Mick chatted away about Lithuania, because he has worked in the country several times.

He says that he finds it a fascinating place. He says that it gets very cold in winter and this, combined with its painful history, is one of the reasons why the suicide rate is so high. He says that the Lithuanian women are fantastic - and indeed, their beauty was noted (several times) by my fellow actors the night before - but that there are two or three women for every man, so competition is fierce. I think of
the band of brides encountered the day before, and of a startling statistic in my guidebook - 57% of Lithuanian marriages end in divorce. Hmm, something not adding up, there.

Through the window, across a sobering vista of Soviet-era high-rises, he points out the TV Tower where Soviet troops killed 14 Lithuanians defending their right to broadcast independently only 16 years ago in 2001 - just months before the USSR finally recognised Lithuanian independence. He tells me about the racist attacks on one black crew member; how the skinhead right is not so very underground in certain places; how difference is not very well tolerated here: the rougher, underbelly of the country which has been nicknamed the 'Baltic Tiger'.

That night I choose to stay in, order Room Service and ruminate on what I have experienced thus far. I am deeply struck by what I am learning; while I'm not sure that I like Lithuania in the same way I could without reservation say that I liked Italy, say, when I first visited, I am intrigued by it. And it seems to be working a curious magic on me. Words pour out of me every time I sit down to write. With no thought. With no problem. In the same way that others have a compulsion to photograph, to record visually, I feel a compulsion to write. To mark-make. Set it. Not in stone, but in words.

It's the feeling I've been looking to accompany my writing for - well forever, really.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Two

I'm pretty good at taking on a new city. I know how to walk the streets with a cheap map until I get the feel of a place and the taste of its smell on my tongue.

When I was 18 I spent a month doing just that. It was my Gap year, though nobody called it that in those days. It was called Taking-a-Year-Off-Between-School-and-University, and you didn't have to consider good causes or save the world or anything like you do now (though I have to admit this would have appealed mightily to the Do-Gooder in me). No, in those days you needed an Inter-rail pass, a copy of Thomson's European Railway Timetable and enough hutzpah to go off and actually do it.

I was supposed to do my month round Europe with a horsey-looking girl whom I didn't know very well called Victoria, but luckily for me she broke a leg at the last minute. I remember stomping downstairs as only a hormonal 18-year-old desperate to have a few more Experiences can stomp, bursting in on my mother and declaring with bravado that if Vicky couldn't go then I was jolly well going to go on my own. To my astonishment, without a flicker, Esme said I think that's a very good idea, darling, and then I had to go.

So it was that one summer in the 80s I was waved off at King's Cross station with my Inter-rail pass in my pocket and a very large, unwieldy back-pack on my back. In the course of the next month I managed to see a great many European cities, stay in lots and lots of hostels, whack alot of people with the back-pack and have some truly unforgettable Experiences.

And now here I am in Vilnius, Lithuania having another one, and I am reminded on this first morning in the city of those younger days. The Old Town is a surprise of beautiful, baroque streets and cafe culture. This is a country which is finding out how it feels about itself. It's like a new-born colt trying to get up, I think, succeeding for the most part, with the occasional whimsical fall. It's an interesting place for me to be with my first allowed time alone for ages. Memories assail me, flittering like moths, one moment nowhere, the next everywhere, coming at me, my face, my hair. I can't shake them; stop, in fact, trying.

I take a seat on a pretty, flower-laden terrace belonging to an up-market hotel on Pilies gatve. I feel awkward that I don't know the language. I know in fact only one word - the word for 'Thank you' - which sounds exactly how Anna-mouse would say a sneeze - 'Aatchoo!' - so I sprinkle it everywhere, in the vain hope that smiles and sneezes will buy me and my country a good name.

My morning's perambulations have been marked by a curious phonomenon: brides and their bridal parties all over the city. When I first left the hotel and saw my first bride I thought aah, how nice, a Lithuanian wedding. A few moments later I saw my next bride, waiting to go into the Cathedral as the first one came out. Then I saw the third couple, married a good ten minutes before, doing their bridal pics on the Cathedral steps - and then, well, it went on. I became obsessed with them. I started photographing them. I'm thinking of doing a photographic medley of Lithuanian brides in my next post. Even when I left Cathedral Square and took to the side streets I came across wedding party after wedding party. Leaving church. Going to church. Clearly, Saturday is bridal day.

I eat my feta salad on the hotel terrace and listen to a boy busking by the market stalls further down the street. Elvis isn't at his glorious best played on a recorder.

Oddly, towards the end of my meal, as the Second Assistant for the shoot calls me on the Lithuanian mobile I've been given to check that all is well, a tiny moth lands on the tablecloth. It is the colour of parchment, archaic, as old as the hills. I stare at it for a long time. It's as if it holds the meaning of my morning, if only I knew what it was. The next moment, before I know it, it's gone.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - One

A happy journey, squished against the window in Lithuanian Business Class, demarcated by a rather shabby cerise curtain between rows 2 and 3. The moon rises, coming into focus as we fly into night over a cotton-wool bed of cloud.

We are flying over Denmark, my co-traveller in the next seat informs me.

We strike up a conversation. He is a 28 year-old Lithuanian IT consultant who works at Canary Wharf, going home to see his family. He is pleasant enough, but by the time we touch down at Vilnius International Airport (a cosy little hanger) I am more than happy to join my fellow actors again. Of Lithuania and all things Lithuanian he is fiercely proud - and this is justifiable, given that this little nation has pulled itself up by its bootlaces, shaken off centuries of occupation and oppression and achieved an impressive economic turnaround in less than two decades.

Of England and of London he is quietly scathing. Dr Johnson tickles my ear (When you're tired of London, you're tired of life) as this jaded young North European talks to older, excitable English me in his low, serious voice. I can't help but wonder if he hasn't been hanging out with the wrong crowd. I also recognise in our short little trip together a kind of microcosmic version of history. Voting in the Eurovision Song Contest of late suddenly becomes crystal clear...

My old friend Jay - unseen for 15 years or so, as happens in this odd acting profession of ours - is in the row in front of mine. We share a giggle when he gets up from his seat and bangs his head on the overhead lockers. Jay mutters a joke about Lithuanian Business Class needing to sort out its headspace, which makes me giggle even more. My Lithuanian companion is non-plussed. He wants to know why we are laughing. He wants to know what is wrong with Lithuanian Business Class. I get a sense of the inscrutability of different nations' humour.

In my mind's eye, Jay and I descend the aeroplane steps wearing red noses, fuzzy wigs and very very big shoes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bon Voyage!

As life and luck would have it, my acting star is taking me to Lithuania tomorrow.

That bigger part I went up for a little while ago? Didn't get that, but out of the blue they phoned my Agent and said Would she consider a much smaller part - and by the way it films in Lithuania...

So I'm off to Lithuania tomorrow, did I say that? I need to write it down alot to convince myself it's really happening. Imagine. One minute life's all fish fingers and peas and the next it's brave little Baltic states and Vodka. (I suppose. Not very up on my Lithuanian nightcaps).

Full report next week.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Happy Bloggerversary to Me

Precisely one year ago tonight I wrote this, my first blog post,
sent it out into the universe and began a journey that has changed my life.

What a ride it has been.

As a novice blogger, I remember the euphoria I felt every time I hit the PUBLISH POST button (my heart still leaps at it today).

I remember the lovely freedom, knowing that no-one but the Bim knew that Livvy was out there - and then my growing dismay that this probably meant that nobody was reading her, either.

(I have a reader! I yelled at the Bim when he got home, the night of my first comment. Somebody reads me!)

It took me ages to get the whole commenting phonomena. Small wonder nobody was commenting on my own blog when I was lurking away and never thought to join in the conversation. It took me, in short, quite some while to understand the way the web works. Even now I would love to spend hours surfing, popping in and out of all those lives I've come to know, love and admire. But time, or rather the lack of it, has been the common thread winding its way through this most interesting year.

But oh, the joy of a fresh-faced comment falling unexpectedly into my Inbox! Some blogging joys are constant, and this is one. I will never fail to be in awe of the fact that people return to read what I have written. Small wonder I call it my drug of choice.

And then a quite unexpected bonus - the steady flow of encouragement and support I've received through people's Comments over the year. There were at least a couple of moments of despond, both personal and writerly, from which I was lifted by the generosity of my cyber friends. My readership has never been large (though it's more than two-and-a-half, now, which is encouraging) but goodness it's loyal! International and eclectic, I'm proud to say, too.

What have I learnt? I have learnt to keep my eyes open way past midnight in pursuit of the right word. I have learnt that the great, world wide web has far greater importance and significance for all our lives than I ever imagined. I have learnt that I need to write like fish need air.

I have learnt much, too, about others' lives - how very similar we are in most regards, whatever our colour, wherever we live, each of us marked different and unique by the details. The blogs I read are full of detail. Blogging is a marvellous piece of detail in my life. It has taught me how to show up at the page and let the words go, even (especially) when I feel them to be awkwardly chosen, or incomplete. I don't quibble with them so much anymore.

It's late. I'll have to tiptoe to bed, again. Perhaps as so often happens I won't even make it to my own bed before Anna-mouse cries out and needs me to settle her. But I don't care, I often think to myself around this time, because I've done what makes my heart sing tonight: I've written.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Fourth Age

A dear friend of mine, Richard, the Strolling Player, has written such a beautiful post about memory, and where he finds himself to be now, that I can only hope all who read this will click on my title link, whizz over there and enjoy the read.

Stay with it; it's a slow, simmering burn.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Outside the bookshop, the light is drawing in early because the sky is so low. Traffic worms its way home and every so often the red of a London bus breaks up the grey with a swoosh. It's a rainy winter's evening in August.

Inside the bookshop, it's summer. The light, the faces, the gleam on the wine glasses - all these seem to glow. If ever proof were needed of the power of friendship, of community, of celebration, this is it.

Five years ago, my mother Esme began to write poetry. This evening we are gathered together for the launch of her first pamphlet. It's quite an event.

I can't believe how many people she's invited, my sister Hope and I say to each other, worriedly, over the past few weeks. We have our daughter-carers' hats on, speaking in that over-protective way daughter-carers do. But really, the actress in me knows that the actress in Esme will triumph: she may be exhausted tomorrow, but Doctor Theatre will get her through the reading and beyond.

Plus, she won't be alone up there: the bookshop people are greatly impressed that Esme has managed to come up with not one but two celebrities to share the platform with her. Hope and I will be doing our daughter bit and bringing up the rear, reading two poems each. (The night before, Hope gets cold feet and calls me for a team talk. But I'm the only amateur! she wails. I tell her she'll be fabulous and, whatever else she does, to practise reading the poems out loud. She does, and she is).

So never mind that Esme's three-quarters of the way through her six month stint of chemotherapy, has had two blood transfusions in the past month and can't stand up for very long - she's invited every person in her address book. Twenty minutes to go, it's already standing room only. People are sitting in bookshelves and bagging best spots on the floor. The nice woman behind the counter goes to Somerfield for more wine. It's a party atmosphere, the poems not even read yet.

And it is an extraordinary mix of people, from all the many and varied strands of her long life. Esme may have lost a couple of husbands along the way, but by jiminy she made - and kept - one hell of a lot of friends. Now here they all are, out in force, saluting the grit that got her here.

The poems are a triumph. Each of us readers step up to the mark and let the words speak for themselves. There is a hush each time a new poem is begun, and the air quivers appreciatively at each poem's end, with laughter or murmurs or sighs. Sometimes applause breaks from our audience without a pause, at others there is a thoughtful silence. A few tears are glanced at with backs of hands.

From my possie on the floor slightly to the left of the 'Bestsellers' table, I can watch both Esme and her audience. She stands up to read only once, early on, which is how I know how weak is, but it matters not a jot. Her beautiful, RP tones combined with the Scots of her childhood carry perfectly to the back of the room. When she is not reading she listens from her wicker chair, almost motionless. She seems to me to have arrived at some hallowed place tonight, emitting a most clear, fulfilled energy. She appears to be existing in a place of grace. And because of that all present are touched, too.

After the reading people mill and chatter. Hope tells me that three of Esme's chemo nurses are here, too. They came after work, straight from the hospital. They clutch their signed copies of the pamphlet, and one of them, the male nurse, has even brought his mum. Hope, who knows all the nurses intimately because of the long hours she has spent with Esme on chemo days, takes me to meet them. To both their amusement and bemusement, I am so moved by their presence that I throw my arms around their necks as if they are long-lost friends.

Oh thankyou, I manage to say, thankyou.

When Esme and I get back to her flat, I have Earl Grey tea and a biscuit and she a chocolate brown brew of herbs while we chat happily about the night. I notice a small piece of paper with her signature and nothing else on it. She must have practised it before the reading! I realise. But there is something different about it, too.

I discover the next morning that, to her delight, the best and only positive side-effect of Esme's chemo has been the complete loss of a bad tremor she has suffered in her hands for years. She holds them up for inspection, and we marvel that they are steady as can be.

I glance again at the signature and realise that it is this curious phonomenon which has changed it from a previously frilly affair, to a proud, straight-backed kind of hand.

Esme Peal, it reads, the only flourish a curved line underneath the name, as if to punctuate its simple effect. As if to say - Esme Peal: yes, I'm here.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


It's a blowy, cloud-racing day. It's always breezy in that playground down by the river. Following a week of broken nights, Operation Exhaust (The Child - At All Costs) is in full swing, so I don't immediately clock the funny little girl in the slightly old-fashioned outfit playing with her grandmother.

She's probably about four, quite slight, with a huge, pink sunflower hairtie holding back her dark hair. Her granny is attempting to persuade her to wear a white floppy sunhat. It's too big for her, I can see that from here, and anyway it's way too windy. Anna-mouse's hat never even made it out of the bag.

Anna-mouse is hell bent on a heart-stopping manouevre which involves throwing herself off the edge of the climbing frame, hoping to catch hold of the fireman's pole on the way down. I am a wreck, challenged but happy with her increasing physical confidence and the sheer level of application to her task.

The other little girl is attracted by the climbing frame, too, which has all sorts of ways to climb. Her granny briefly catches my eye and smiles broadly, nervously, wanting to be friends. I smile vaguely back, one eye still on my kamikaze kid.

A moment later the old-fashioned little girl does something - I don't see what - which causes her grandmother to say Oh, that was good, wasn't it.

Yes! The girl replies, delighted with herself. I'm clever!

To which the grandmother, who knows I am listening, hastily - sharply - replies We'll have to see about that.

Will we? I think to myself. Why? Why can't the funny little thing be praised for being clever and - more importantly - for thinking herself so? Why is it so important for your grand-daughter to be modest, at the age of four? What special quality was weeded out of you at that age?

I am quite sure that had the girl said I'm beautiful! her granny would have had no problem agreeing with her in public. It was the attribute of cleverness which so troubled her. This tiny moment touched an enormous nerve in me. As one who could never have boasted I'm beautiful! as a child (I was convinced I was plain for many years. Sadly, I look at photos now and think 'Gosh, I wasn't'), and who never felt her intelligence was great enough to say I'm clever! either, I try daily to infuse Anna-mouse with a positive sense of herself. It has taken me half my life to have any real confidence in my brain, though there never was anything wrong with it. Please God may she already have it!

Oh, let our daughters be clever! Let them trumpet their talents at any age, at all ages. Let them know what it is to know that they can outsmart anyone in the room - or playground.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Haiku x 3

My tutor said lots of good things. One of his best ideas was this:

Write a Haiku journal for a week. Every day, use the discipline of the syllable rules of the haiku (5 - 7 -5 over three lines, for those not in the know), to encapsulate your day.

I haven't managed to write much since. I haven't done my Portfolio writing yet, the stuff that needs handing in on Friday. I've barely written a shopping list. I haven't, as you know, written here. (If I simply state the words 'Leaks, Ceilings, Scaffolding, Insurance and Toddler Parties' a picture may begin to emerge...)

But I wrote three haikus. On three separate days. Here they are.


Last day of class I
throw my hat into the ring.
Contending, at last.


Roof man did not come.
Fractured our day. But our child
hugged us, and we laughed.


New painted wall speaks
of sea. Sweeps 'Sorry' away.
We make up again.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Notice

"Livvy U. would like to announce an unprecedented reaction to the previous week's events, something akin to the development of a nasty rash, only on the inside, in her being and brain, which has been preventing her - along with a go-slow by her computer - from communicating in this space in which she so loves to communicate.

She begs her readers' goodwill and will resume service as normal, as soon as she can decode her errant thoughts and make some sense of them.

In this last week, she has glimpsed a wider world and been thrown by it, after spending almost three in the wilder, but known, world of Domesticity. She is wrestling with metaphorical demons and is hopeful of victory, but has presently lost her poise.

Some would advise, never attend a potentially life-changing Creative Writing course in the same week as:

(1)an interview for a television job which would substantially up-the-ante in terms of your acting career
(2) seeing your mother-who-has-just-had-blood-transfusion because so very weak perform in playreading;
(3) receiving your first daughter's first written assessment (Music Class - 'Anna-mouse is a delight to have in the class');
(4) getting drunk for the first time in who knows when;
(5) not getting the acting job;
(6)writing stuff - actually writing stuff - and thinking, I can see it, I can see the future if I choose it to be so - and getting scared witless.

Livvy U. is not known for her capacity to deal with change.

Livvy U. feels like crying. She used to cry an awful lot (she was known for it, much to her annoyance). These days she has to remember how to do it.

She's not unhappy. She's just seen the Future and is scared by it.

Thank you for your indulgence."

Monday, July 02, 2007

Book List

I rise insanely early, feeling like a kid. So early I'm washed and dressed even before Anna-mouse's sing-song cries break the coolish air (Daaaddy, oh Daaaddy!). As ever when we're both around, she is suitably non-plussed when I appear at her door, not he.

But I said... she begins.

I know, I know, you said Daddy. Well it's sooo early he's next door sleeping, so I'm here instead. Good morning!

Can I go and give him a kiss? she asks. So sweetly sleepily I've melted already, and the day not yet begun. No time for sentiment this morning, though. I take her through to the Bim. She curls into the nook of his big arms and deposits a kiss on his sleeve. I note with relief that I won't have to worry about Anna-mouse today. They're reading the one about George, the scruffiest giant in the world as I slip from the house to catch my train.

After numerous changes and waits on windy platforms (won't do that route again) I get to the university site with just twenty minutes to register. It seems I have, magically, appeared at exactly the right moment: my surname starts with the very letter they have just called and I am whisked to the front of the queue like a celebrity at a nightclub. I embrace my new-found status and in a matter of minutes I am clutching my take-out cappuccino in one hand and a large manilla envelope with my name on it in the other. I am beside myself with excitement.

They send me to Room 038, which I take some pride in finding first go. The nice lady at the front of the class informs me that there has been a room switch and that I have, in fact, come to the Effective Writing class. Creative Writing is in another building altogether. I walk in circles for some time before stumbling, at two minutes to ten, upon Room 068, my correct destination. All morning there are small moments confusion as one, two, then another of our class realise that the same error has occurred to them, only in reverse. But I only wanted help with my paragraphs! I could hear them muttering as, one by one, they scoop up their papers and beat an embarrassed, hasty retreat.

The class is upbeat, interesting, stimulating and precisely pitched to what I need. We discuss monologue, point of view, the tricky line between stereotype and character in 3-D. I am in seventh heaven. It all goes swimmingly well, in fact, until the last informal moments. I have spent so long making notes that I find I'm the last to leave. The tutor is there, too, packing up his papers.

That was very good, what you wrote, he says encouragingly as I near the door. I am beginning to approach a feeling equivalent to the icing on the cake. And then -

Who do you read? he asks.

A hopeful, expectant look flickers across his pleasant face.

Er... I say.

He might as well have driven me into a brick wall. Who do I read? I ask myself, attempting bibliographies in my head. Who do I read? And I, who was raised on the classics, who could quote Shakespeare at seven, who once wrote critical essays citing Woolf, and Mansfield, and Plath - I who carried Henry James with me at sixteen, discovered John Irving in my thirties, moved on to Philip Roth, then back a century to Edith Wharton - in that moment could not utter one single author's name.

The question was asked of genuine interest. For my tutor, who I read places me on his world map. Later it occurs to me that had he asked What do you read? I could have answered. And what I have been reading of late defines me as sharply as my former intimacy with the Brontes.

The conversation goes like this:

What do you read? he asks.

Sell-by dates, I reply without thinking. I read alot of those. Oh, and ingredient lists come a close second in those stolen moments at the fridge door. Then there's cereal packets, shopping lists and instructions on battery-fitting - always a joy. Small-print, disclaimers, the fiddly bits on bills. When I have lots of time I read magazines - you know, Woman and Home, Ideal Home, that sort of thing. Anything with a home in it, really...

Late tonight I flick through my notes for the day. The very first note, in big, breezy capitals, says READ, READ, READ. ANYTHING. EVERYTHING. BROADEN YOUR WORLD.

I think I'll start doing that now.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Summer Report

Fellow would-be writers will be familiar with the desperate, procrastinatory 'I-must-clean-the-house-at-all-costs' attacks which frequently precede the act of committing words to paper.

Small wonder, then, that the Creative Writing course I am about to undertake (largely, it has to be said, in astonished response to the many hugely encouraging Comments received after my last post detailing my struggles to write - for which eternal, heartfelt thanks) sent me into a house-clearing frenzy.

Imagine finding 18 hours of University-standard tuition spread over 6 mornings, for the majority of which your beloved supportive husband happens to be off work! Imagine, too, discovering that the course is - wait for it - free. Yep! Gratis. Niente - nothing! - to pay. How can this be? I asked at first. Now I'm just readying up to enjoy it.

I'm a bundle of nerves, joy and guilt, though: I don't like taking time away from Anna-mouse but this time it is as if I have no choice. I need shaking up/challenging. And my energy levels have shot through the roof! All of which, as tomorrow's start date nears, has meant that massive de-cluttering and box emptying has been achieved in an action-packed weekend at home.

Delving into a dusty crate, untouched since we moved here two years ago and probably not looked into for many more before that, I found a batch of old school reports. There were even some from my primary school days. Small, handwritten epics. It was hilarious and only a tiny bit heartbreaking to find the REPORT FOR SCHOOL YEAR ENDING JULY 1972, which read as follows:
'Livvy is producing first class imaginative written
work. She is currently at work on her first three volume novel!!
Hmmm. Right then. Could be time to quit the cleaning, don't you think?

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Thursday, June 21, 2007


As Dee's Jewish grandmother would say, Nobody ever said it was easy: they were right when they didn't say it!

What is this thing I'm suffering from? Writer's block? How can it be? How can I have writer's block when I barely consider myself a writer? A writer, self-evidently, is someone who writes. Me? I write sometimes.

Sometimes I manage to do the day (the endless, mindless tasks which must be done simply to make one day look like another; interspersed with the odd, unmissable moment of brilliance with Anna-mouse); sometimes I manage to get the child down; share some sort of coherent minutes with the Bim before he stumbles up to bed for another 4.30am wake-up; call my mother-who-is-in-chemotherapy; call a friend (very unlikely if I have got through to Esme); watch something mind-numbing on TV for long enough to induce a semblance of relaxation and then sometimes, just sometimes, make it up the stairs quietly enough not to wake husband or child, turn on the computer and write.

It's an exhausting business, not being a writer.

They say it's a process. I'm pissed off with the process. I want results. I want to know I can string more words together than the length of a post. I want to write a short story in two days, not two years. Above all, I want to snatch the gremlins from my person (they've recently been breeding and now a collection of ugly voices keeps a noisy, near-constant vigil on both shoulders), throw them at the wall and watch them die a slow and nasty death.

I resent that these creatures, these voices with impressive credentials, inhabit my world. I am angry with myself that they have such astonishing sway. Where do the negatives get in? At what point? What age? Do they come from just one source, one parent, or many such figures? Have I spent the day passing subtle, debilitating messages to my beautiful clean slate of a daughter? If I knew, I'd sell quite alot of my soul to protect her self-confidence from the slime of self-doubt sliding its suffocating message down the ages.

Tonight I want to silence my ancestors new and old. I want to act David to the Goliath, Family, which gives with one hand while the other sneaks round from behind until it has placed its gentle, fatal seal across the mouth. Let me speak! Let me speak! Let me say the unspeakable, project my voice into the darkness and be heard.

Of course I know, I do know, that the voices which hinder me are not real, though lately they may as well have been. I also know that, for some reason, in my - dare I say it - extremely talented clan it is fear of success which has frequently stumped us, not fear of failure. Laughable when it's told out loud, just like that, without a by-your-leave, don't you think? Lethal, too, when you combine it with the voices.

I remember a favourite maxim of mine: Leap, and the net will appear. Or, as in my case, the inter-net. Writing here for almost a year has indeed helped me to silence the voices. I can only imagine that the reason I feel like I'm wading through treacle in over-sized wellingtons every time I even so much as think of writing, lately, is perhaps because it has become that much nearer. The dream, I mean. The one where I get to write all the time, where my commitment becomes tangible and the results are paid for - for real.

I'm scared. But I'm driving myself crazy with this. I need to leap.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Planting Up

A fine, damp mist falls into our urban valley as I work, quickly, against the fading light. Starting work with the old plastic trowel, I soon discard this in favour of my hands, plunging them into the bag of compost and coming up with fistfuls of warm, clean earth. In no time at all grit niggles satisfyingly behind my fingernails.

Eight budding petunias and a handful of busy lizzies make up four pots of varying sizes. Small and ungainly in their polystyrene trays, they appear to spread into their summer selves before my very eyes as I transfer them into patted-out holes and press more compost around them.

I’m aware, nowadays, of Esme’s hands working with me when I work in the garden - her know-how, her demonstrations, her advice firming the plants into their proper place. In my mind’s eye I see her in our childhood garden after my father left, heartbroken, kneeling before the borders, healing her soul with her solitary communion with the earth. I don’t remember Esme teaching much then, it’s more recent, adult times of instruction I cherish when I take up a fork or a spade.

Earlier this same day, Esme has gone to the hospital for her weekly cancer clinic. The previous night, as it happens, the episode of a popular TV drama in which Esme has a guest part was aired. Everyone at the hospital knows about this episode, because it was for this job that Esme postponed her operation. She actually phoned the consultant and asked him whether she’d be putting her life at risk if she put the op off for a couple of weeks. His secretary, a lover of TV soaps and serials, was terribly impressed with this real-life quandary of a real-live actress, and helped Esme chase the consultant round the hospital until he picked up her call.

And so it was, a few hours before my twilight planting, that when Esme walked into the chemotherapy unit for her blood test, everyone – staff and patients – cheered.

I hope my plants prosper. And I hope that my other growing project, the sleeping child in the room across the landing, has mixed into her being some of her grandmother’s grit.

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'm It

Required: eight facts. Only eight. About me.

When Elsie let me know I'd been 'tagged' I was pretty chuffed. Since then I've been struggling to write this post. I'd even go so far as to call it a mild case of Poster's Block - really, I've found it unbelievably hard to come up with 8 facts about myself which won't bore me to death to write about, or bore the reader to read. Funny, since so many of my posts are, let's face it, about, ehem, me...

Anyway, I'm fed up to the back teeth with this procrastinating (and, as my old Italian teacher used to say, my back teeth go a long way back), so I'm just going to plunge in and see what surfaces...

Fact One: Once I danced naked on a roof in Herne Hill in the rain. My friend and I threw off our clothes and climbed out of a window onto the flat roof when the downpour came. It was joyous. A marker. A memory of youth. That same friend and I hit an impasse years after that which caused us to pause our friendship. Just recently we made tentative moves towards one another to resume. I understand now that love doesn't go away just because you can't handle it, and that where some people are concerned, family is family, whether they're blood family or not.

Fact Two is this: I understand the above because of something I started doing on Sunday, 5th March 2006. On that day I started to attend Quaker Meeting for Worship. This is a quiet fact, not one I shout about. How to speak of something as private and mysterious as uncovering one's faith? Perhaps another day. I can mention the astonishing power of the silence. The hopefulness of the light which streams through the three celestory windows of our simple meeting room. The subtle working of the other light, the one Quakers speak of, in parts of my life which I did not think could be illuminated. And I can mention the silence again.

Fact Three: In another silence, one July eight years ago, during a guided 'creative visualisation' I had what I've only ever been able to describe as a vision. I saw some part of a possible future for myself. It involved dance, and working with the dispossessed, and running a place of which I was the boss. I was on holiday at the time, and my life was a million miles from what I had seen. But within weeks this vision led me to be offered movement teaching work, then to the decision to re-train in Community Dance, and from there it led me to a placement in Ireland, where I met the Bim. Which led to... well, let's just say the vision's on hold for the time being!

Fact Four: Anna-mouse had a sister called Joy. We were both sure she was a girl, though she only made it to seven weeks. I have never forgotten the intensity of the happiness I felt when I carried her. Hence her name. I found out she had died in a tiny cubicle in a Catholic hospital in southern Ireland. It was just past midnight. You never forget.

Fact Five: I had been trying to live in Ireland with the Bim. The country, while a pleasure to visit, sat uncomfortably with me as a permanent option. When Joy died, I had to come home.

Fact Six: I came home, in a fantastical journey with nine bags, over land and sea: Cork city to Rosslare to Fishguard to Swansea to London. What I remember most as I stepped off the train at Paddington Station was being hit by this vast wall of sound, a city soundscape which has no equal. I began to realise I'm a Londoner, through and through.

Fact Seven: Within months of my return, the Bim had followed me over the water to live with me here in England. Before we met, he had never been on a plane and didn't have a passport. I never forget this. I hold this act of love very dear.

Fact Eight: It's not actually very hard to write eight facts about yourself if you do it quickly, and from the heart.

Now I believe I am supposed to name 5 others out of whom I would like to tease eight facts. Elsie, forgive me - I'm useless at chains of any kind, I'm too much of a laissez fairekind of a gal. I can only humbly offer my 8 facts and hope the ether might inspire others without the asking.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Seeing the Funny Side

Last week my sister Hope took my mother Esme - currently in cycle number 4 of twelve chemotherapy cycles - to the cinema.

Of all of us, Hope is the offspring who has been doing more of the practical stuff than anyone else. She is the one who accompanies Esme to the hospital every second Wednesday; she is the one who sits with her while they attach the bottle full of drugs to the PICC line in Esme's arm; indeed, she is the one who sat with her and held her hand while they inserted the PICC line - not a pleasant experience, for the patient or the witness. It's fair to say, then, that Hope is loving, solicitous and if anything over-protective of our Ma.

So there they were in the cinema foyer, waiting in a queue to buy their tickets. Now, Esme has been experiencing a vicious little side-effect called 'peripheral neuropathy'. This is when something happens to the nerve endings in the fingers which makes metal and cold things extremely painful to touch. Opening the fridge, for instance, is a nightmare (she has to use a washing up glove). That morning they had successfully negotiated the car door and got Esme to the cinema relatively unscathed. She was feeling weak, however, and couldn't stand up for long.

All of sudden, Esme realises she has left her spectacles - essential for proper viewing of the movie - in Hope's car. Hope, who has just bought an ice-cold bottle of water for herself, insists on going back to the car for them while Esme waits in the foyer. It's pouring with rain, the film is about to start, and she knows at Esme's pace they'll never make it there and back in time.

Give me the bottle, I'll hold it while you're gone, says Esme to Hope.

No! barks my sister. You mustn't touch the bottle!

Oh I'm sure it'll be OK, says my mum.

NO! You can't have the bottle! says Hope. I'll get your glasses as soon as I've got the tickets. Now, GO over there, SIT down, and DON'T TOUCH THE WATER!

Esme, who knows that she goes all funny if left to stand up for any length of time, duly does as she is told.

By this time the queue has moved on and Hope finds herself at the head of it. She looks up at the box office assistant, only to find the woman watching her, aghast. Clearly, she believes she has just witnessed a nasty case of elderly abuse and is wondering what to do about it.

She only wanted a drink of water, the woman says, accusingly.

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tanka, for Esme

I am often wordy. Too wordy, methinks. So as part of the ongoing writing practice I thought, I know, I'll enter a Tanka writing competition (as you do).

For those, like me, who thought that a Tanka was a rather large truck, it's useful to know that, like the Haiku, it is an ancient Japanese poem based on a strict syllabic structure: five lines of 31 syllables, arranged as follows: 5-7-5-7-7.

So I wrote the Tanka. Then I discovered I'd missed the closing date. So I thought, I know, I'll post it on the blog.

Hope I won.

Spring’s mixed offering:
cherry blossom and cancer
carpeting the lanes.

It shocked me to discover
you will not live forever.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Noting the Joy

Ever since the gloriously named Elsie Button, who has a 6 month old baby, left the following comment, I have been pondering:

I keep reading all these stories people have written about these bad days
with their children, and sounds like I have it all to come.

Yes, there are quite a few scary stories out there, aren't there? Probably because there are quite a few sleep-deprived, worry-driven, over-worked and under-appreciated parents out there, too.

I don't think it's just that, though. Through the discipline and joy of the regular writing practice blogging bestows, I have come across a bonus I never expected. In writing about the bad experiences, I can make sense of them, and of myself in the process, and find a powerful place for self-reflection. Something there is almost nil space for in the full-time parent's/carer's day.

But perhaps I do tend to write about the more difficult, challenging side of child-raising more often than I write about the joy. When I wondered why that is, I realised that it is much harder to write the joy. But tonight I put Madeleine McCann's face onto this blog, and tonight Elsie Button has a six-month-old baby gurgling in her sleep, and it seems very important to try. So, Elsie, for the record:

I cannot imagine any one single moment eclipsing that when Anna-mouse was put onto my chest for the first time, and she looked at me, blinking and unphased by the length of my record labour and the cord around her neck and the lights and the scores of people in the room. Welcome to the world, little one, I said. Welcome to the world!

And something wonderful came with her: a sense of achievement. At last, here was one irrefutably special thing which I had made happen. A true contribution to the world. A person. A mark. This made me feel, and continues to make me feel, ridiculously proud.

Not least because she spreads love. Anna-m spreads love and laughter and I reap the smiles in her wake. She draws abundance to her, I have noticed. She was born between two blue moons. Perhaps this is why. She has sealed multiple healings for me. She leads the way in loving forgiveness, as far as I'm concerned.

Hard to express the profundity of the satisfaction in holding her vibrant self every day. Holding her physically - oh the unadulterated sensuality of the perfect, peachy body in my arms after her bath! - and holding her metaphorically, guiding her, keeping her to as true a path as I can. When she was tiny, Elsie, I swear, her hot, soft head smelt like candy floss, or caramel, or toffees - a different sweet every night... I cried the night I gave up breast-feeding for good, struggle as it sometimes was, giving up as I was the soft pawings of her tiny fingers as she sucked; the coos and sighs.

Yes, there are bad days. But even when they outweigh the good they are as nothing to the moments of joy. To realise she has a sense of humour! A jovial, prank-playing, Irish sense of humour I could not possibly have imbued in her myself. Which brings me to a more private joy - that which I get when I watch them together, the Bim and her, from the playroom windows. The satisfaction in knowing that the huge leap of faith paid off: she has a father who will never leave. That pain, at least, I may have spared her.

And now that language is everything, oh the pleasure in literally seeing the words come, the thoughts form. And being able to shape that, throwing my own love of words into the mix.

But the best thing about this creature, this fizzing, funny, self-possessed girl born of nothing but love, is the love she engenders. In others, but in myself and the Bim most of all. She floors us with love. At mealtimes, she takes our hands, me one side of the booster seat, and the Bim the other, and holds them to her cheeks. We glance at each other and want to weep.

Once, she painted a picture, an abstract in sweeping, swirling turquoise. Asked what it was of she replied without thinking 'The sky above Mary Poppins'. That is what children do. At their best, which is what I am concerned with tonight, they shed new light on life. They illuminate it for us, and represent a kind of living hope, like the candles we light in church.

So, there. A few reflections, Elsie. An impossible task, I fear. Let me take one more stab at it: Nothing, nothing in life is quite like choosing to be there to cherish a child.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Bad Day, for Another

Here is a little story of a winter's day in 2006.

At the time, I was too all-over-the-place and, if I'm honest, appalled at myself to write it down. Just now I read Wife in the North's desperately honest account of a truly bad day - which reminded me of my own.

Wife, I humbly dedicate this story to you, and to anyone else who has lost it, the plot, and themselves of late, in that highest pursuit of all, child-raising:

So two-and-a-half-year-old Anna-mouse had just discovered several important things.

One, that she could shout 'No!' really rather loudly, quite alot of times, and that it had a startling impact on her mother. Two, how to do that incredible body arching thing which made getting her into the buggy well nigh impossible. And, three, that the effect of doing the opposite to what was required of her was far, far more interesting than complying. Oh, and she was teething - those last, thumping great behemoths, the back molars.

Something propelled me out of the house that day. It was cold, child and I were at war, I was frantic, and hot flushing, and anxious beyond all measure at the recent, sudden, ante-upping in previously angelic child, but rather than put on C-Beebies and hide, I thought -what? That the fresh air might do us good, I suppose.

A few hundreds yards and thirty minutes of toddler-dawdling later, I decided to bite the bullet and get her back into the pram. The wind was whipping us about and I was desperate to get to wherever we were going. After what felt like decades of kneeling, weeping child thrashing her little hands into the pavement, wailing 'No, Mummy, no!', and alot of just-what-kind-of-mother-are-you glances from a number of passers-by who had clearly never in their lives had sole charge of a goldfish, let alone a tantrum-ing child, I picked Anna-mouse up and by a series of rather physical manoeuvres I vaguely remembered seeing on The House of Tiny Tearaways, buckled her into the buggy.

A couple of minutes further down the road, as I raced us maniacally into the oncoming wind, I saw a man coming towards us. As he passed me he waved his two hands in my face, pointed at Anna-mouse and said 'Gloves!'

Reader, I lost it.

PISS OFF! I heard myself yell. He was clearly surprised, though not half as suprised as I was - really quite a polite, well-mannered person in the normal run of things. He stopped dead and, fair play to him, engaged in a kind of conversation.

I'm sorry, he said, I only thought that if my hands are cold, hers must be too...


Oh, he said. Right, he said. Yes. But I hadn't finished yet. This probably rather nice man had unleased a demon and nothing was going to make it stop.


I'm sorry, he was saying. I'm sorry, he said again. And all of a sudden, as suddenly as it had come, the beast left me, and I was sorry, too.

No. No, I'm sorry, I began to babble. Again, I think he was surprised, but by God he was hanging on in there. A lesser person might have got very angry back, or walked off swearing by now.

I'm just so tired, I confessed in a very small voice, near tears. I've had a terrible day, and I really didn't need this, I said.

We continued the contest to see who could apologise more for a little while longer, then I wished him well and we continued on our separate ways. My hands shook for several hours. Anna-mouse, who had been meek throughout, was hugely cheered and clearly thrilled by the whole encounter. She behaved herself for the rest of the day.

On reflection, I thank God for that kindly stranger who allowed me to shout at him until I had emptied myself of the strains which had been building up for so long. I think that I had come to a line that day, and that man helped me not to cross it, to have a little glimpse of what was over it, turn around and come home. To my child, and to myself.

It's not nice to reach the line. I got there with one child. Wife, you have more. I salute you.

Friday, May 11, 2007

In Evidence of Love

How are you? I asked my father yesterday. I cradle the 'phone to my ear and stare absently at the bird activity going on in the garden.

I'm feeling old and creaky, he says. And if truth be told, the news about Esme has rather demoralised me.

Of course it has, I say, trying to sound practical and breezy, as if I'm taking this huge admission in my stride. After all, she is your closest contemporary.

Your ex-wife, is what I could have said. You know - your conscience, your reminder: the woman who played 'mother' to your 'father' and remembers what days were like in the 'Fifties. The one who holds safe the memories, and has kept the faith, in love and anger, all these years.

I don't say any of this. I'm simply glad that he has someone to whom he can say what he has said, and happy that the someone is me. It's all a little bittersweet, but I'm a great believer in things being better late than never.

This afternoon in Esme's flat, mid-supper-making for Anna-mouse, my mobile goes. It's him. I wonder afterwards if I told him where I was going to be today. After a couple of minutes juggling new potatoes and mobile phone I ask him, casual as can be, if he'd like a word with Esme. Yes, yes, put her on, he says.

So I do. And for the second time this year I try to appear as if I'm not listening to a conversation between my parents that I'm actually desperate to be privy to. I realise that I'm so used to the volatility of their connection that I find myself hovering at the kitchen door, straining to check the tone of the chat, just in case I need to intervene. But this is not necessary. They want to talk to each other. They need to talk to each other.

Afterwards, Esme says as much, and that she's pleased he asked to speak to her. I glance briefly at her face. It's alive, interested, slightly flushed - and not because of the drugs. It takes only a split second to decide there's no need to let on that it wasn't quite like that. Same difference, I think.