Passing

We are in our home ten years. The house to our right has changed hands three times in that decade, bringing us lovely young families with each sale. To our left we’ve had an elderly couple, their children have long since flown the coop. Grandchildren visit and once we had to retrieve a ball – small payback for the many trips poor Philip makes into his garden to return errant balls and frisbees to us.

It was from our senior neighbours that we learnt about Noel. How he moved into our house 70 years ago to join his new wife and her parents – the first owners of No 110, purchased over a hundred years ago. Noel cycled his bicycle well into his nineties. He was in the navy and brought a little of the sea back with him when he fashioned our clothesline from old boat masts using a pulley to hoist the wet laundry. It works a treat though I repress the urge to salute my washing. Philip’s neat garden lawn stood in contrast to Noel’s wilderness. A family of foxes made their home in the galvanised air raid shelter peeping in to view at the bottom of the verdant garden flanked by a bountiful walnut tree and blackberry briars. I’m guessing Philip and Margaret had high expectations when they saw a young family move in. And the foxes did scamper soon after our arrival. My dad pulled up the briars but we shamefully choked the walnut tree with our decking arrangement. Still our garden is far from groomed. However we don’t hear grumbles. Though they get excited when my father is about to visit as they anticipate the tidy-up he’ll do as well as the chat he’ll throw on them.

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On Monday Margaret died.  She was 76. They were married for 47 years. Cancer. Earlier this year she’d told me she hoped to die at home. Three weeks ago when I returned from the school run, I saw an ambulance parked outside and feared the worst. Later I learnt she’d been in pain so they took her to the hospice. I asked after her. She was comfortable. It felt odd that she was our neighbour one minute and then she was gone and wouldn’t be coming back.  I asked Philip if I could visit. He said she’d like that. I popped to the hospice the day before school broke for the holidays. I took flowers. They smelt of vanilla. She was very weak. She smiled when I said myself and her other neighbour would look in on Philip. I didn’t stay long. I said I might be back. I didn’t get to make another visit. Philip rang our bell on Sunday morning. He’d been summoned – they didn’t expect she’d last the day.

He called yesterday to tell us about the funeral arrangements. Regrettably we’ll miss the service. We’ll be in Ireland. My parents were very sorry to hear of her passing too. They want to send a mass card and asked me for her name. Margaret. Despite living next door for ten years I didn’t know their surname. Or I couldn’t recall it at any rate. I racked my brain. They’d often taken possession of an Amazon delivery for us. Maybe once or twice we’d received their mail in error. I couldn’t remember clocking the name. Now it didn’t seem right to ask. We exchange gifts at Christmas after all. Home-bakes from me. Prosecco from them. I knew Philip’s father was a Scot and I seem to recall a Mac. Or was it Mc. Or maybe it was neither. I consulted google and brought up hundreds of Mac/Mc combinations. None stuck. A search on their address didn’t even net a Zoopla record. I knew the first names of their children and their occupations. Maybe I’d get lucky with LinkedIn. Nothing.

We’d shared a tradesman so I thought about contacting him. He might check old invoices for me. But then I heard our post drop. I opened the door to catch the postie going through our gate. It wasn’t our usual guy but a young Polish woman. She said she was sorry when I told her about Margaret. On a slip of paper she copied a name from the envelope on top of her bundle and handed it to me. It fit.  We didn’t need a surname to appreciate her. We had a lovely neighbour in Margaret. R.I.P.

School’s out

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Let it go 1

 

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Moving on (to secondary school) and letting go (great pic of Annie’s from our send-off)…trips to town…Goodbye Dippy – leaving the Natural History Museum to be replaced by a Blue Whale which beached in SE Ireland…if the hat fits……Strictly Spice dance workshop at Kew…if the wig fits…fruit-picking…bumped in to neighbour Joan at a local street dance performance. I have written about her here before. Joan told us she was born during WW1. She’s 97. The cape she’s wearing was her mother’s. There’s a dress to match. Too hot to combine in summer.

 

Sweet Saturdays*

My children bring me great joy. No doubts there. But something I struggle with is my time no longer being my own.  I miss being spontaneous, opportunistic, unpredictable…following leads and diversions. Roaming without purpose.  I can’t be that person. Most of the time. But bi-monthly when the London chapter of Lapidus meet I get to return to that self.

It starts on waking. There are no children to stir or lunches to pack for school. I shut the front door behind me and skip to the station. I get a much earlier train than I need. I buy the Saturday newspapers (a treat in itself), discarding the sections that weigh me down and hold no interest. Sport, property, business, cars are left in the carriage. On disembarking in Waterloo I turn my back on the underground. I won’t take a tube unless I have to. I don’t have little ones flagging and I’m in no rush. My journey is mostly metaphysical as I travel back in time to where my many selves lived, laboured and loved. It starts with the Royal festival hall and memories of time spent along the river bank.  I get in to my stride with the walk across the jubilee bridge.  I’m on my way. I spot my first blue plaque on villiers street. Rudy Kipling’s old domicile (1889-91). It caught my attention only a couple of years ago. The plaque sits above a shop front and is easily missed.I always see it now. I pass by St Martin’s in the field where on Thursdays twenty years ago I’d go to finish my assignments ahead of my travel writing class. I once bought a pair of cord culottes (fashionable at the time) in the craft market overhead. Depending on my route I might pass theatres where I ushered or cafes I was wooed in. At Trafalgar square I’ll remember long waits for night buses…somethings I was happy to drop with the years.

Walking through Covent Garden so early I get to see the street performers set up. I don’t delay because I want to hold on to the wonder I feel when I see yogi levitate.

 I find a coffee bar, place my order, open my pad and I write. It’s usually about something sparked by my walk. I head to the poetry cafe for 10.30 to meet up with my tribe of scribes.

 And so it was two weeks ago. I remembered we were having a guest speaker join us all the way from Canada. I didn’t take note of her name or specialism. I thought I’d receive the workshop as a gift instead. Margot Van Sluytman is a poet and expressive writer facilitator.

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Petite and sassy,she told us her first nations name is Raven Speaks. Perfect nomenclature.  And Margot spoke. She told us a little of her own story, the awful act that robbed her of her dad when he was 40, her mother 36, leaving four children fatherless. She was 16. And her journey through pain.  Then years later, as  a successful poet and practitioner of therapeutic writing, standing at a podium collecting a prestigious award she felt an ache in her chest and lower back, in her father’s wounds. She knew there was more healing to do. Days later by some sort of divine intervention she is in contact with the man who killed her father. A friendship ensued that has informed her work in restorative justice since.

She introduced us to Sawbonna, an African word meaning “I see you. I see your essence”.  Sawbonna helped with her own healing and now she offers it to others in their healing journey.

There appeared to be factors outside of us at play that had me in that group with Margot at the end of a monumental week for Ireland, and especially for Sligo, my home county. Prince Charles visited the seaside town of Mullaghmore, 36 years after his grandfather, Lord Mountbatten and others in his party were blown up on his boat by the IRA. I remember the day clearly. I was playing at a friend’s house. There were a lot of activity in the sky – helicopters certainly. Adults were shaking their heads and speaking in low tones. There was sorrow and there was shame. And the shame stuck around.

The people of Sligo wanted to say how sorry they were that Mountbatten was murdered in their community, a place where he felt welcome and safe. They weren’t responsible but they were sorry. I watched the TV coverage from afar. The world could see for themselves the beauty that drew the Royals to the region in the first place. I felt proud and lonely too.

Sat in the Poetry café on that Sat morning, when Margot gave us the space to write I wrote about that day in ‘79.

So we got to experience Margot. Her story and her presence. She deftly gave us responsibility over what we made of the morning. I found that very liberating. I made much. A value she mentioned and rates is WONDER, it was a homecoming to see the word crop up on her flip chart.

Our Lapidus group disbanded at lunch time. The day was still young. I had made an arrangement  to meet my lovely cousin visiting  from Seattle in Euston Sq. There was time enough to get lost and find my path again so I edged my way northwards weaving a route through streets, some new to me, others familiar.  I took these pictures as I went along.

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I’d suggested we meet at the “Welcome Collection” – a draw “for the incurably curious”. Last visit I sat in a circle with a few other curious visitors and we learnt about infectious diseases namely Ebola and smallpox. We were given a sheet and asked if we could inoculate against something what would it be. I went for Apathy. Wouldn’t  a world free of  indifference be a better one.

We wandered through the Institute of sexology exhibits then sat at a desk in the reading room and wrote postcards.

Curiosity stirred we set off next to find a quirky café I’d read about in a newspaper a couple of years ago. I saved the revelation until Sophie was with me.  My directions were vague so we felt a sense of achievement when we found ourselves by “The Attendant”, formerly a Victorian toilet. We had cappuccinos and polenta cake in the shadow of a cistern and between two urinals!

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Ah, the day that kept on giving. Back on the train and homeward bound we popped in to our local pub for a glass of Guinness and a quick catch up with some friends before dashing back to the house to receive a bunch of pals who I’d asked to pop by from 9.30.  And home in time to kiss my kids good night.

*Of course this type of day is only possible with the coöperation and generosity of my husband who understands that days like this one keep me sane.

Serendipity at play

Readers of this blog will know that I am a logophile. I love words. I love randomness, coincidences and synchronicity too, not essential likes for a logophile though I’m guessing there’s some sort of cross-pollination. I’m not sure what that makes me other than slightly whacky.  I get excited when I discover a connection or a pattern or even something totally new.

As part of Volunteer week, Richmond library treated its volunteers (I facilitate a memoir/biographies reading  group) to a visit to Strawberry Hill house, the Gothic palace of Horace Walpole and one of the finest examples of Georgian Gothic revival architecture.  Son of the Prime Minster he was a wealthy man and is generally acknowledged as the Prince of Letters, so prodigious was he in his output and subject matter.  My time at the Castle was brief as I had kids to collect from school so rushed off before I got to complete the tour. However not before I tripped across the gift shop (tours start there with the purchase of house tickets).  And on the shelves these two cards…

 

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Now Serendipity and me have history. The first time I used the word in my writing was back in the nineties as part of my title for an entry to become the Ham and High travel writer of the year. The prize was a 5 star holiday to Thailand and I won it! With a piece on a trip I had made to Slovenia.  Serendipity is my driver. And then to discover that Walpole created the word (having read an Arabian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip) was serendipity at play.

I also love magnificence. He declared this on completion of the gallery in his castle and showed false modesty in his declaration. Magnificence is a great find too.

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These cool cats were roaming in the lawn. Bronze sculptures by Laura Ford “Days of Judgement”. No tie-in for me.  But playful to trip across.

Later I took the train to Waterloo and made my way to the Royal Festival Hall for the readings from the short-listed novelists of the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, a favourite event on my calendar. I’ve been attending for over twenty years.  And yearning to be in their rank for as long too.  Of course it would be useful, essential you could say, if I wrote a book. I look at what they’ve chosen to wear, their bearing and posture, their stride across the stage to the podium.  All these distractions. Later when they speak about their work, we hear of the sheer hard graft. Writing letters, blog posts is more appealing for now.

 

 

 

One of a kind?

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Sligo’s magestic Benbulben…on the road out of town

Like a lot of my pals I worry about my parents managing in a world so different to the one they negotiated at ease in their prime. Though in their eighties they lead very active and fulfilling lives. But the worry persists. They are kind decent people who think the best of others. See, this is where the worry creeps in. I’d hate to see their trust betrayed. When I read about online scammers and hoax emails extorting cash I hope they don’t get through my dad’s firewall (“What’s that about our walls on fire” I can hear him say).

In October they trekked a section of the Camino pilgrim trail in Spain. And they got on fine. In fact my mam said it was the best vacation ever, dismissing all the family holidays of my youth. She was euphoric when she recounted the trip on a phone call when she got back.

She sounded almost as excited when I spoke with her last week. She calls me from Ireland every day since I became a mother eleven years ago.

On Friday she said she had good and bad tidings for me. The car broke down as she drove through Sligo town. Bad. It happened at the one of  the busiest junctions by traffic lights. More bad. There wasn’t so much as a splutter from the engine. It stopped dead. With a line of traffic building up behind her, she got out of her car in a bit of a state.  I can picture her so clearly. Red cheeks and furrowed brow. The young woman in the car next to my mother turned off her engine and hopped out. Good. She waved on the cars lining up behind my mother’s. My mam described this girl as her guardian angel but she later found out that her name was Siobhan. She was a young nurse and newly married. She’d decided to go shopping in Sligo on her day off.

Siobhan immediately took control of the situation and assured mam that she was going to help her and for my mother not to get upset or anxious. It was all in hand. She ushered my mother out of the cold and into the warmth of her car. First she called the guards so they could deal with the traffic and move the defunct car. They arrived promptly.  Like many people of her generation my mother doesn’t carry a mobile phone so wouldn’t have been able to make the necessary phone calls even if she knew what to do. She only drove herself in to town because my dad (her chauffeur) was recovering following surgery in Galway hospital during the week. Car trouble was the last thing she needed with her patient waiting for her swift return.

Siobhan found mam’s insurance details and made that call too. She asked if she could contact any family.  My mother didn’t want to worry my dad and the only number she could remember by heart was my sister’s in Dublin. So Siobhan spoke with her to get the details of my more local  sister. She in turn was contacted and Siobhan arranged to drive my mother to the bank where they could hook up.

In  the car on the drive to the bank, on finding out what townland Siobhan was from, my mother asked if she knew her good friend Anne Flanagan. Siobhan knew her by sight. She’d spotted Anne at mass that morning. Mam was further impressed (though not surprised she added)  that this young woman would head to mass on her day off.

They parted ways an hour after they first met. Mam wanted to make some gesture to thank Siobhan. Siobhan was very gracious and simply said that she’d like to think that a stranger would do the same for her mother or grandmother if they found themselves in a sticky situation. I’d like to think so too.

I suggested to mam she call Joe Duffy.  He presents Liveline, the second most popular radio programme in Ireland (after Morning Ireland).  I wrote an email to the show. And then forgot I had. So my mam was more than a little surprised when Aonghus McNally  (he was a TV presenter when I was a child)  rang her this morning and knew all about the rescue. She said she’d be too shy to speak on air so they asked if I would and I agreed. Though I wasn’t keen I wanted this tale of kindness out. And better still Siobhan might hear it. For the next couple of hours I waited. But the show was about drugs, the tobacco industry and the wrath of smoking and there was no time for the good samaritan.

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Little wonder we worry about our most vulnerable when so many news stories focus on the negative. Hearing my mother so elated after her car break-down (and rescue) was so reassuring. It’s a lovely story, especially for those of us living away from elderly relatives. As well as a reminder of the goodness out there, it’s a timely prompt to take heed.  Notice the plight of others and help out where we can. Because some day it will be your people in need of “a Siobhan”. Though exceptional I hope she’s not one of a kind.

To ensure happy endings…keep your family safe online

Last year I ticked off a parental milestone when I had “the chat” with my daughter.

We covered periods, sex, contraception, love and respect. A lot for a ten-year old to take in. But I wanted to start the conversation so she’d know she could pick it up again with me any time. I wasn’t anxious because I knew what I was talking about. Where I do feel outside my comfort zone is talking about  permissions and viruses (strangely enough words that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in my earlier talk ) and navigating the virtual world. When I was a child the closest I got to securing my personal information was protecting my diary with a curse. My sisters knew that if they so much as had a peep – ill would befall them. It kept them out. Simple solutions for simpler times.

So when we were invited to partake in Fairytales in the 21st century- an event during hosted by Norton (the internet/anti-virus company with the focus on helping families to stay safe online I accepted on the spot. .

It would all be happening at the House of Illustration in Kings Cross.  On embarking at the station on a beautiful crisp Spring morning, we followed the labyrinth of billboards with Quentin Blake drawings directing us to our venue. King’s Cross was looking smart. The house is next to Central Saint Martins, the college for art and design. and the kids were mesmerised by the fashionistas filing in and out of the college. They were especially taken with hair colour – they spotted every hue.

We walked in to a haze of magic bubbles – the ones that don’t burst and easily stack. An entertainer read fairy tales retold in a modern context. The wolf huffed and he puffed and he hacked in to the pigs devices. It was lovely to see kids being kids. They dressed up in costumes (no assuming aliases). They made friends, engaging in the type of social interaction that’s stood us for centuries but is often usurped by screen-time, aliases and virtual friendships.IMG_0581

We got the chance to talk to the experts as people from Norton and Get safe online mingled with the attending parents. We spoke about passwords and the need to change them often. They suggested a password vault to store my passwords as I struggle to recall combinations from my expanding repertoire.

Remembering my need for privacy as a child (the diary curse) I sought their guidance on the issue around having access to our children’s emails. I’m not convinced its the right thing to do. They agree. The important thin, at this early stage with children, is to discuss the vices and virtues of online  presence. Tell them what to look our for, equip them with the knowledge to make the right decisions for themselves. It’s so much more empowering and fits in with my personal philosophy. Tony from Get Safe Online suggested I sit down and agree a contract with my child that is mutually beneficial. We expect to sign a contract for our phones etc. Why shouldn’t they. Given my background in creative writing for children I know I could turn this into a fun yet effective exercise for my daughter to do. She’s excited about drawing up her own contract. I’ll post it here. Tony said to send him a copy and I will – he might post it on his site too. Online etiquette will refer to time spent on and off line.

Just before our tea party the children were given a big rectangular biscuit – a tablet to decorate with icing pens. Some made gallant attempts, others couldn’t resist a nibble.

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There were so many other treats to entice.  The table heaved under the weight of  sumptuous  gateaux and cupcakes . There were  salads, Quiche and sandwiches too. We were set up for the day.

The kids got gift bags with balls and frisbees and pens and torches – paraphernalia to entice them outside and away from their devices methinks! I got a cream moleskine notepad.

My two had befriended the children of a fellow blogger.  We let them have a quick wander through the illustrations while we were at the house.  They even did a little drawing. Then it was outside to play with the contents of the goodie bag. Our new friends had a football with them so the boys enjoyed a kick-around, the girls played among the dancing fountains in the expansive courtyard while the mothers chatted.

On our way in I’d spotted a barge on t Regent’s canal that begged further exploration. Words on Water.  A boat full of books. We didn’t hop aboard. Four children #bullinchinashop. It would wait for another day out that didn’t involve sugared up children and wet feet (from fountain dodging).

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We said goodbye to our new friends.  The day was still young(ish) and we had a travel card.  What a better way to finish off our excursion than with a trip to the British Museum. After a morning of talking about the future, it felt right to pop in on the past.

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Days later my daughter and I visited Norton and staysafe online. We talked about kindness, respect and other friendship values and the need to extend them online. We read up on digital footprints and cyper bullying. We both learnt new things. I was impressed with the lexicon that goes with the emerging technology. Shoulder surfing (people watching you screen over your shoulder), click jacking (enticing you to click on a link), sexting and cyperbullying.

Thank you Norton for a great day out and a lot more besides. Coming soon….the contract!

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