Missed

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Maybe I needed this jolt on a Saturday in July that marked the start of the summer school holidays. Four old friends connected by a past employer meeting up. It only happens once or twice a year now that we have families. This time, in the open access gardens of a National Trust property.

Some of us brought our children. Rugs, flasks, picnic food, laughter, chatter. There wasn’t an iPad in sight and no pestering for one either. My son oscillating between nest-building with the toddlers in our party and playing football with the older boys. At nine he fell between the two camps. Intermittently he’d wander over to me for a hug or to plant a kiss on my cheek. He’s a gentle and caring boy. That morning when my husband had taken him on a bike ride and took a tumble from his steed, our son was at his side with tears streaming down his face as he helped his dad to his feet. My husband was touched by his concern and proud that we’d reared such a sensitive soul. I remembered all this hours later when I was asked to give a description of our missing boy. To the man with the walkie talkie. But sensitive and caring wouldn’t find him and may have even been his downfall. I croaked “Red shorts with white stars and a navy striped top”.

Reel back twenty minutes. It was almost 5 pm and the cafe was about to shut. The park was emptying out. We’d be leaving shortly ourselves and I knew my boy would ask for a drink once the football was put away. I took our water bottle in one hand and a toddler in the other and made for the converted stable cafe. I didn’t alert my son. I’d be back in a few minutes and I could see he was happily dribbling a ball with his pals. Others had the same idea so I stood in line as bottles were filled ahead of me. We walked back across the courtyard, through the gate and into the clearing where our rugs were. Where our boys were. Only mine wasn’t there anymore. My pal said the four words that started the terror ‘Isn’t he with you?’ She asked her sons if they knew where he’d gone. One suggested the toilet, the other thought he’d left to get water. My heart was pounding in my chest as I walked back to the cafe and searched the stalls. No son. He wasn’t in the Ladies and my male friend checked the Men’s toilet. He wasn’t there either.

Mild hysteria was creeping in. I couldn’t sit back on the rug and wait for him to rock up. Racing through my head a directive about the first hour being crucial. That is if he was still physically able and not bound up by a pervert. Oh the scenarios that raced through my head. A paedophile was on the rampage and, like a bee to honey, headed to this family park. He’d seen my gorgeous boy play with the toddlers and could see he was a polite and pleasing boy, an easy target. He’d pretended he’d lost his little boy and asked my son to help him search. Oh why hadn’t I had more of the stranger danger talks with him.

Meanwhile one of the adults in our party ran to the lake. He might have slipped in. This summer  idyll was fast becoming a menacing and sinister spot. I ran up the steps of the mansion – my boy loves flights of stairs but he wasn’t on these or hiding behind the stone columns by the entrance. In the distance I could hear the other children calling out his name.

I’d given his description to the NT staff and later to the man driving the visitor buggy. As I walked away to carry on my search I heard the man say over his radio  ‘I have a mother here whose son is missing and she’s looked everywhere’. Had I? Overhearing that made the situation sound so desperate. My phone was in my hand and I knew I should call my husband. But what to say? The lovely special son you spoke about this morning, well I’ve lost him. My mouth wasn’t this dry since I’d sat my driving test many many years ago. I couldn’t bring myself to make that call and anyhow I honestly don’t think I would have been able to get the words out. How long had it been? That’s what the buggy man asked. An eternity. I felt utterly helpless as I stood surveying the beautiful expansive parkland thinking ‘Where can he be’. Just then my pal shouted ‘We have him’.

He’d probably been missing no more than 20 minutes. Though from his perspective he wasn’t missing at all. He’d simply gone to the toilet and on his way back stopped by the table tennis where he stood waiting to have a turn. He reappeared when he saw the commotion unfold in the distance and wondered if we might be looking for him. Grrrrr.

Tragedy averted, the sense of relief immense. Talk of ‘what ifs’. It was only then that we adults shared our fears as we collapsed on the rug. There would be stiff words with my boy later.

The holidays have only begun and there’ll be other outings.  These are some of the measures I’ve taken since:

  • I reinforced with my son how much he means to our family and how one of my jobs is to keep him safe but he’s got to help me with that too.
  • His older sister could recite my mobile number since she was four. Previous attempts to teach him were futile but he’s older now. I taught him the first five digits that very evening. The remainder he’s learnt since. If he gets lost he knows to approach a female with children and ask her to call me. It’s not foolproof. He knows that too.
  • He’s promised  to tell me when he needs the toilet and I can decide where he should go and who with.
  • Now when I know there will be crowds or wide open spaces I dress him in distinctive bright colours so at a glance I can get a reassuring sighting from afar.
  • We’ve had the stranger danger talk again. We’ve practised scenarios and ways to say No and Go away.
  • I need to be able to say No too. Like when he pushes me for freedoms I feel he’s still too little to have. Or when my inner knowing is saying No but I go along with someone else’s plans regardless. 

Our family refer to that afternoon as “The jolt in the park”,  and thinking about it sends me straight back to the to the moments just before he was found when I looked as far as my eye could see but I could not see him.

 

The man in the shed

There’s a wooden hut at a busy junction near us. It’s about the size of a bus shelter with a back and two sides. The missing flank means it’s open to the street.

Set back from the pavement and about 10 meters from a bus stop. a wooden bench runs along its length. In the past we’ve taken refuge there ourselves. To dodge a rain shower or wait for a lift. It’s occupied now. Since early last year. I don’t really know “John’s” story. I know the bits I’ve heard. We pass him at least a couple of times a day. He looks like a bloke waiting for a bus. Only his ride never comes. So he sits next to his neat rug sack. Some afternoons, this doubles as a clothes horse and supports a damp towel or jumper. They say he has an arrangement with the local pool and does his ablutions there. Daily it seems. From 8 til 3 the shack holds no trace of him. Not so much as a cigarette stub (he smokes).  Or a book. (He’s a voracious reader).

Where he goes in those hours is his own business. Truth being it’s all his own business but when he plays his life out in an open fronted structure (a stage) it’s difficult not to take note. He walks as far as seven hours will take and back. I’ve passed him on the street and you’d mistake him for a backpacker. Someone breaking their journey to Heathrow. Though he’s a little older than most intrepid travellers. He could be in his forties or he’s recently hit 50. He walks with purpose (where?).  Big strides with his gaze fixed ahead. 

I was in a meeting room in the library one day when he excused himself and set about charging his phone. His voice is firm and clear.

When we have visiting children in our car my two love to point him out. Like he’s ours. See, that’s John, they’ll whisper. He lives in that shelter. Don’t stare.

Often he’ll have company. A local who’ll dismount from their bike and have a chat. Rarely will someone sit beside him on the bench. Mostly they stand and talk to him ‘in passing’. I guess he doesn’t invite them to sit though he seems to tolerate these constant visitations. I’d heard that a few of the churches are keeping an eye on him. It could be they see his soul is up for grabs. Women with buggies stop for a natter. As much as they appear to offer him friendship, they seem to be looking for something too. A cause, maybe. Or just an ear.  

In the fine weather when our windows are down and we wait at the traffic lights the wind will carry some of the conversation. Congenial. There was talk of a broken marriage and children and redundancy. John has spoken about a possible job offer from his old employer. We heard the pool had offered him work and he turned them down.

A child passenger told us that her mother’s friend had proffered their summer house at the back of their garden but he didn’t want it. There’s been at least another offer of accommodation. Declined. At an over-catered party, rather than throw good food away, someone suggested it be given to John. It ended up in the skip. He’d already eaten his supper, thank you all the same.

With winter approaching, someone left him a duvet, neatly folded in a striped shopping bag. For three days it sat where it was deposited untouched until the well meaning benefactor withdrew the offering.

These cold days he wears a Down jacket with a fur trim. He wears it with the hood up most of the time so he looks like someone from an Arctic expedition. Still on a stopover from Heathrow. During summer nights he stretched out on the bench. Now he sleeps huddled in the corner, shoulders hunched, head down, with a rain sheet tucked under his chin. I drive pass him on late nights home.  

My friend gave him a book but he’d already read it and didn’t rate it.  She said his look seemed to say “what do you take me for, a Philistine?”

He works hard not to be taken for a charity case. But there is something uncomfortable about his presence amongst us. Despite his bearing and house-keeping, his proud posture and neat appearance he can’t be well. Who in their right mind would do as he does.  Then who am I to judge.

I have fantasised that he’s a method actor or an author (all those books)  and “The man in the Shed” will hit our screens this autumn. And we’ll all be incredulous at the lengths he went to for his art.

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New word for New year

A loveable day. It’s up there with my birthday. It shouldn’t have to take a new year to start new practices but it helps me to. This is my year of grateful living. I will look for the good and I believe I’ll find it and more. I’ve got a journal by my bedside to tail my day with my gratitudes. The same jotter carries my daily affirmations. I want to be accountable to myself this year so I aim to track my thoughts and movements, my spendings and consumptions. Tagged. When I give my workshop on letters we touch on the joy of a hand written note. During my year of grateful living I will write 52 Thank-You cards.

“Such a sweet gift – a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill, sitting in our friend’s path when she trudges home from a long day spent among wahoos and savages, a day our words will help repair.They don’t need to be immortal, just sincere. She can read them twice, and then tomorrow.” (How to write a letter – by Garrison Keillor)

This winter I’ve been writing a lot of my correspondences in cafes. To sweeten the chore. Of course it’s not really a chore once I get stuck in. And never when there’s a coffee at the ready. I’ve carried unsent letters in my bag until they disintegrate. All that effort to end up as bag dust. Now I stock-pile stamps and that helps though the bottle neck can occur with addressing the envelope and I’ve no short cut there.

Gratitude joins Magic (2015) and Abundance(2014).

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When No means Yes

I used to hate endings and I’d avoid them at all costs. I especially hated last days in jobs and wished I had the audacity to pull a sickie as some others do. My aversion to endings meant I’ve stayed too long in work situations, in relationships and probably even overstayed my welcome at parties. I’ve waited to be made redundant rather than walk. I’ve chosen to be dumped than be the dumper. And I’ve been shown the door.

As part of my counselling studies I took classes in endings and I’ve come to appreciate their potency and place. Endings evoke strong emotions. They bring feelings of abandonment, unresolved loss, anxiety, fear. But a well handled ending can be an opportunity for reflection and closure and set you up for what comes next.

After two years as a volunteer reading group facilitator at the library I led my last meeting yesterday. My role didn’t involve a big commitment but it was yet another draw on my time. We’d meet mid morning on the second Monday of each month though we went for the first Monday in December. I’d pitched the idea to the library in the first place – a reading group with the focus on memoirs and biographies. I’ve been introduced to so many fine lives since we started. Chaplin, Gandhi, Joan Crawford, Coco Chanel, Robert Graves, Anne Heller to name but a few.

The memoir group was very well read. They members were older than me and I enjoyed a glimpse into their worlds. With a young family and parents living away I rarely find myself in the company of elders. In her prime Victoria* was an arts critic with a national paper. In the fifties she reported from Africa for the BBC world service. Her love of literature remained in spite of her dementia but over the time she’d been joining us her condition deteriorated and she wasn’t reading the books any more though she could still tell us about her days in Fleet street or her impression of a writer (famous or infamous) she’d encountered.

Patricia’s husband  is 85 and he makes his way to East London once a week to ice-skate. He was a World champion skater back in the day. Tom is a retired lecturer and the most knowledgeable of us all. He makes fantastic use of his Freedom Pass (free travel) with constant trips to the city for concerts and events. I loved to get his recommendations and more often these were to free performances and exhibitions. Of all our group, he was the one who never missed a meeting. So I felt I’d be letting Tom down in bowing out. Though I’m hoping the group has gained enough momentum to carry on without me. On Monday Tom gave me a little pot of white hyacinths. It meant a lot. It means a lot. I made a decision and I said No to carrying on something I enjoy so that I could say Yes to other projects in my life that I want to pursue.

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“Sometimes you must gently refuse even some things which appeal to you, so that you can focus your limited human attention not only on what is important, but on what is possible”. (Elizabeth Gilbert)

There are other things I need to decline and cull to do the stuff I know I want to do. This was a start.

 

*Names have been changed to keep anonymity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blogfest 2015

Blogfest falls in November as does my birthday so I gifted myself a ticket to the “annual celebration of sharp writing and big ideas” that makes up Mumsnet Blogfest.

A winning tweet netted me another ticket which I offered to my sister. She’d have her flight from Dublin to cover but the goody bags alone would negate that spend. Not to mention a programme packed with brilliant speakers and inspiring sessions. Funny to see these folk in the room and not as head shots attached to clever newspaper columns or wise commenters from radio and TV. Bryony Gordon, Polly Vernon, Esther Freud, Tim Dowling, Fi Glover, Lucy Cavendish and Robert Crompton spoke. There were amongst comedians and actors too.  Val McDermid, Sandi Toksvig and David Baddiel delivered their thoughts in 5 minute long think bombs. Lionel Shiver was in the house. Margaret Atwood appeared via a live link but problems with sound meant we mostly could only benefit from her reactions. Nods and giggles and a beatific smile.

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I attended “25 ways to get published” and left more convinced than ever that writing a novel might be a good place to start! We had talks from YouTube and a session with the Crumb sisters. Is there room out there for another sister team, we asked ourselves.

A random choice led me to From blogging to vlogging. I was one of about 50 I guess.  Our instructor was only Mike Figgis, the hollywood film director (Leaving Las Vegas)! He was brilliant. And the stories he used to illustrate practical solutions to cinematography  (or iphone shooting as most of us would be) were a complete treat. See my attempt at photo-bombing Mike Figgis.

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Later at home I positioned myself in the hallway. I took on board some of his tips, adding my own spin. Light streamed in over my shoulder. I held the camera at a height. I bit my lip as he suggested to get that puckered look and I shot my portrait. But from the neck down. My solution to crows feet and furrows.

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I’m wearing the Mother Tee from Selfishmother.com, one of the goodies in our take-home bags.  Also in the bag were a mindfulness colouring book, Boden brolly, Cadbury’s Advent calendar, a novel, deodorant and body creams, coco cola, popcorn, stress ball, magazine and pens. There were more products dispensed from sponsor stands. 

Butlins are looking to recruit blogging ambassadors. Pitrok are asking for people to trial their #sweatwell deodorants. Maybe. We cooperated with Unilever and headed outside to do their sombre tree walk stressing the devastation of deforestation.

A drinks reception capped off the day perfectly. We had an  interesting chat with one of the organisers about the planning that goes into the event. The speakers give freely of their time. It’s testimony to Mumsnet’s great reputation that they fill the programme with such a successful and generous lot. She told me that only 12 people attending this year had been to all four blogfests. I’m one of them.  I consider it a part of my own professional and personal development. Yeah, the goody bags are a draw too.

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