Saturday, February 27, 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Feel the Fear and Say it Anyway

While other kids had quite sensible fears; spiders, snakes, getting lost in a crowd, sitting next to James Bissenden, I was riddled with a fear of throwing up that, by the age of seven saw me talking to bananas. Cut off the end and I either got a black dot, "No", or a Y-shape, "Yes".  It was conclusive. A simple fruit salad could ruin my day.

“Do you feel sick?” My dad sensibly asked when I told him what the banana foretold. When I confessed “No”, he said, “Well then,” with a tone of exasperation he usually reserved for the dog. But sitting cross legged in assembly in elementary school I'd always have a latent fear that someone, possibly me, would vomit unexpectedly. It was a fear I just couldn't shake. A fear of the messy uncertainty of life.

Notes from school tell us about nits and conjunctivitis but they never give you a heads up on the stomach bug.  Half the class are down with it before you realize this freight train is heading at you, spewing its filthy detritus into your home in the middle of the night. With some foresight you might have been more militant about hand washing, you might have Cloroxed the door handles, OK, maybe not, but at least you’d have been prepared.

When I was not yet two my only word was "Fascia board", a British roofing term I picked up while my dad was up a ladder. We lived on farm in a damp part of rural England with cows for neighbors. 
“Say Fascia board!” my mother would plead, presumably for lack of conversation with other adults. We lived half an hour from the nearest town down a narrow winding lane that was more often a river of slurry from the muck spreaders flicking shit in the fields than an actual driveway.

 “Fascia board” I’d say and my mother fell upon me with kisses.  

Back then my brother, Jos, and I were often mistaken for twins. Although he was a year older, we had the same blue eyes and mousy hair and wore the same boys’ hand-me-downs, corduroy dungarees with patches on the knee. Those were days of monotonous isolated minutiae for my mother, when we were not yet at school and days blurred into years.  

One bright day in March that year, we’d just finished the messy business of lunch. Jos and I had refused my mothers home-grown beetroot in her home-made white sauce. We’d pushed around the cold meat on our plates, meat that had come to us from our grandmother, a no-nonsense, buck-up, bandy-legged woman who bred bulls and sent us a whole butchered pig as a Christmas gift. She included a note to my mother, her daughter-in-law, about marinating the head and glazing it for the table. Mum carefully dug the head out from the box of body parts in the chest freezer and told my father to bury it at the end of the garden. Two weeks later the dog dragged it into the kitchen.

More lenient than my father, my mother had given in to us that lunchtime, though we didn’t deserve it, and handed us plates of stewed apple, apples she’d cooked up herself from September’s windfalls softening in the garage.  The homesteading life was one she had embraced, stewing tomatoes, making marmalade, freezing carrots and finally understanding what Aunt June had meant when she said over a cup of tea, "Thank God the plums have failed." 

It was familiar to see my mothers cracked hands discolored by the juice of blackberries and red currents or smiling as she shelled broad beans, saying how cozy they looked nestled among their fibrous white blankets. It’s possible she imagined a more literary life, surrounded by books and theatre but by marrying my father she’d agreed to a level of rural isolation that was amplified by motherhood. Sometimes a mobile bakery would rattle down the narrow lane, hedges high on either side and a man sold us a loaf of sandwich white, before rolling away with a tide-mark of slurry on his once-white van.

 “Outside” she directed us that day when our bowls are empty. “You don’t need boots.”
It had been a wet winter but the sun was out, gutters creaking, a wood pigeon’s coo promising springtime. For the first time, perhaps, my mother felt we could play outside without her constant supervision, so while we went outside, she put away the cold meat and the sliced beetroot. She wrapped the Cheddar and put it in the fridge and took the plates to the sink. We did not have a dishwasher then. With her hands deep in the soapy water she gazed out of the window, inhaling this moment of domesticity, no different from all the others, but somehow sweeter.  Just the sound of the fridge humming.

As she cleared the draining board and returned to the sink, she would have caught sight of Jos and I from the window – we had reached the edge of the garden, just before the field, creating a scene of water-colored simplicity as if pulled from the postcard-sized pages of Peter and Jane. But the next time she looked up we were in the field, beyond the fence and poking at something. She tore out of the house, her hands still dripping soap suds as she reached us. The toadstools reached our chests, they grew in tall clumps, dripping black ink from their delicate gills. The flesh on their caps was flaking like old skin and they oozed a damp fungal smell that leaked out when we prodded them.

“You didn’t eat any of that did you?” My mother asked, her words coming at us like gunfire.
“Did you?”
“No” said Jos, wide eyed, using a three year old’s first language, denial, “but Emily did.”

I, the picky eater who had turned down beetroot and pork on a clean plate had eaten toadstool growing out of cow shit. Only a frantic mother would miss this. Most likely I burst into tears.  No "Fascia board" could save me now.

When my mother first shared this story she insisted I was at least four years old.
"But why didn't I speak up?" I said. "How come you only listened to Jos?" I pressed her on this. 
"Perhaps you were younger" she conceded, "Yes, possibly all you had was "Fascia board"". In telling this story, she doesn’t mention the vice-like grip she had on my wrist as she flung me back to the house or how she stretched my arms up to the sink, not noticing they were bending the wrong way at the elbow or how the water scalded my hands, as she locked her eyes on mine for some hint of dilation or delirium. She called the doctor who remarkably, because it was the Seventies, drove over, and like the baker, probably cursed the filthy roads.

Dr. Reddington had a square beard like a thick piece of toast which bounced when he talked. Did I appear to nod when he talked to me or was I just watching the jumping toast? He gave me the medicine anyway and told my mother to send me out into the garden again, this time under supervision, where I promptly threw up my stewed apple.

“Undigested” my mother adds when she tells the story. “Of course you hadn’t eaten any toadstool.” As if it was a trick we played on her. A practical joke. My brother walked away unscathed, I held him no grudge, only loved him more fiercely.  But I was left with a single question I asked every day, “Will I be sick?” until my parents could take no more and dispatched me, at eleven, to boarding school.  I was not the sport-loving rumbunctious tween that features in books about girls boarding schools, flitting around in a gym skirt, swinging my ponytail. I preferred the library over the Lacrosse  pitch and began carrying around a pocket book of Psalms, the text more baffling than the bananas and the fear of someone finding out so paralyzing, I’d sit, of all places, in the toilet stalls to figure out my prognosis.

While I'm certain the toadstool episode gave me my fear of vomiting, I wonder now if it also gave me something else, my fascination with finding the right words, of having them ready, of having my say.
“When,” my husband asks me these days, “did you ever not have your say?”

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Time

By the time the third tyre blew we were somewhere near Preston and we spun twice across two lanes of traffic. Three of us were in Andy's Fiat Panda, a two door hatchback. Andy was driving, J was in the front and I was packed in the back among several duvets, an electric lamp and a box of lever arch files; the luggage of students heading back to college.

The first tyre had blown about an hour into the journey, just outside Reading.  We were on a smaller road then and we shuddered a little before realising we had a puncture.  We limped off the road into a local garage, grateful for the help we'd get. We emptied the suitcases from the trunk and with the help of the mechanic, got out the spare. We levered up the vehicle and swapped the tyres, packing the punctured one back into the well where the new one had been.

'You don't want to drive too far on that' said the garage attendant in his overalls.

The vehicle was clearly loaded up for a big journey.

'That wheel's got almost no thread.'

He showed us how we should be able to put a coin in the tyre's rubber indentations. We were teenagers. Irresponsible. Immortal. My friend didn't want to fork out a hundred quid for a new tyre.  She didn't say as much, but she didn't spend any money there that day and we drove out of the garage on the spare.  Should I have spoken up? Bought the tyre myself? We journeyed on.

The second blow out wasn't long after that. Was it the spare that went? Possibly. This time we needed towing.  This time we paid up.  I found out then that the vehicle was thirteen years old and had never had its tyres replaced. 

When Andy and I were eleven one of the girls at school lost both her parents in a car accident.  Ann Acre was in the year above us.  She had a freckled face and the thick dark hair of a movie starlet.  In my childish imagination her parents were romantic travelers; he in a trench coat, she with a headscarf.  One day she was just another girl, the next she had no parents.  Our first year dormitory was near the surgery that year.  Sister Lux was on duty to take care of us as we settled into boarding school.  I saw Ann Acre waiting to see the nurse.  I took in her presence, sitting silently on a plastic chair without tears, without parents.  On the lacrosse pitch, in the lunch line, in the corridors between lessons, it was unbelievable she could be so alone.

Andy had just asked me if I could see a problem with the right rear wheel so I was trying to get a glimpse of it when we started spinning.  I imagine I looked like a child evacuee being dispatched by train. Fear and disbelief on my face. The world slowed. It was silent.  I saw my hands on the window. I always liked my hands.  I held this thought even as I tried to dismiss it.  My last thought? On my left hand is a scar in the shape of an L. I got it when I snipped grapes from a vine with a pair of scissors and drew blood. As a child it helped me tell left from right.  I saw the grey blur of the road, dotted white lines joining up as we spiraled once, then twice.

'I knew what to do', Andy said later, 'I knew to pump the brakes'. She was retelling the story. The responsible driver.

I had no idea about pumping the brakes. We teetered for a moment after the second spin, another car swerved away from us, there was screeching, car horns, swearing, roaring in my head and we came to rest on the verge. The engine fizzed and ticked. It had stopped on the brown grass just ahead of a deep trench. A hundred yards further up the road was a concrete wall, the base of a bridge. The distance between our vehicle and that impact was a matter of seconds.

We pulled ourselves out, stunned. A tow service appeared and it was dark by the time we pulled into a garage on the outskirts of Preston. Someone kind gave us coffee.   It warmed us.  We had three hours further to drive. We were lucky, irresponsible, stupid and alive. 

Years later when I worked on the radio, I'd be asked to do a thirty second voicer or be given a programme piece that had to be packed into one minute thirty. I'd spend all morning getting the right voices, the right facts, the right sound effects for one minute that would be broadcast to the nation.  The adrenaline was high, the editor was hard to please, seconds mattered. Seconds always matter. 

Time expands and collapses with children; the long arc of the day in which things happen so fast.  For eight years I have stayed home, a choice I made to give the seconds more meaning than the next headline.  I indulged myself, staying home.  Now, on the other side of forty I am clawing back the seconds.  The boys hurl their hugs at me. I try to write it down, in the moments before breakfast, before a fight breaks out about who sits where around the kitchen table or who gets the Mickey Mouse spoon. Precious seconds with all their joys and terrors.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Imperfect

'Can you tie my shoes? I might fall.'
My three year old is wearing a pair of hand-me-downs with laces. I bend down at his feet, realizing as I do that I haven't yet bought him his own shoes.  These latest ones came from his old babysitter.  I hold the fraying laces between my fingers.  As I begin the bow, I feel small hands in my hair, playing, seeking reassurance.  This is a child who strokes my eyebrows when I lean in to kiss him goodnight. 
'Cozy eyebrows' he says. 
And now I have memories of work experience at Vogue when one of the editors cried out across the office full of clothes racks and beautiful people and bizarre paper mache props, 'Let's do a feature on eyebrows!' And it was with breathless excitement that she hauled me out from behind my corner desk as a perfect example of 'uncultured brows'.  Was that really what she said?  Haunted forever by 'uncultured brows'.  She was stick thin in leather pants. I stood there in my floral A-line (my favourite) with an excruciatingly red flush. I did pluck my eyebrows once but it wasn't for me. I prefer 'cozy.'
The supper is cooking. I can hear water bubbling in the saucepan, the hum of the oven, the smell of boiled potatoes. I tie the bow and stay there, on bended knee even when I have finished, lingering with my son's hands in my hair. He sees the shoe is done and moves behind me, flopping on my back.
'Mummy, looky! I'm on your backy!' He giggles. I begin to stand up.
'I'm going to drop!' he says, but he doesn't, he holds on tight, gripping me as I move about the kitchen.
'Hello Mummy!' He tries to peer his head in front of me. I have gone quiet, taking in the weight of his body, the sound of his voice, the smell of his closeness to me. He is laughing and uttering a jibberish dream-talk, a collection of words I can't catch. When he can no longer hold on he slips to the floor and finds his Lego bike. He drives it noisily around the kitchen surfaces.
'I'm using your bread for jumps' he announces, 'and I'm getting the stool'.  I smile, too tired to tell him the bread's not for motorbike jumps, the stool will get in the way of the cooking and that dinner's nearly ready. Tonight I'll settle for less, I'll settle for cozy.