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Don’t mention Tattenham Corner

My first paid gig as a writer was for BBC Radio 4, as a columnist on Home Truths. This was a programme filled with listeners’ stories, and I sent them a piece that I thought they might feature. It was about the loss of half my Led Zeppelin vinyl collection, when my marriage broke up.

Maria, as she appeared on the Home Truths webpage

The programme producer and I worked to edit the piece to fit their five-minute slot. She cut the first page and a half. On re-reading, I could see that she was right, and I agreed to this. Then there were other suggestions: I would need to cut a reference to the lyric of a Led Zeppelin song. Not everyone was a Led Zeppelin fan, and they wouldn’t get the reference. OK, fair enough. Each editing suggestion was explained, and I agreed to every one, even though the loss of my clever reference to the lyrics of ‘Tangerine’ was a bit of a blow.

Not every editing experience has been so positive. A couple of times, I have held on to the integrity of a piece at the expense of publication.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit to an anthology. I sent a story, which the three editors liked, but they said that this alone would not get me a place in the book. They also needed an essay. They gave me a fairly tight deadline to produce this, and a word-count of four to six thousand. I was about to go away, but didn’t want to miss the chance of publication, so I worked on the essay on a Eurostar journey, en route to Bruges, and worked further when I got home. I sent a 6000 word piece, but the editors came back to me wanting it cut by 1500 words. They made suggestions of what they wanted more of, and what they wanted less of. I sighed deeply. It was coming up to Christmas, and life was busy. I felt uneasy about some of the editing suggestions, but came up with a second draft. Days before Christmas, I was sent a version of my essay that the three editors had worked on themselves. I said that I couldn’t look at it until January, and I am glad I didn’t, as it would have ruined the festive season. When I finally read the editors’ cut, the 4500 words I had sent them had been slashed to 1500. A lot of it no longer made sense. Editing by committee does not work. I said I could not agree with their edit, and explained why. I said if they had wanted 1500 words, I would have written 1500 words, but they had asked for 4-6000 words, then 4500 words. Plus it was not acceptable to hack a writer’s work about in the way that they had. The essay was not published, though the story I had sent them found a place in their publication. This was all I had wanted, to have the story published, not to be spending my precious time dancing to the tune of the three editors, who frankly didn’t know what the flip they wanted.

It was a bad experience, which grates to this day. Normally, I am happy to receive a copy of a publication in which I have work, but when the above-mentioned book arrived, I didn’t give it room on the shelf above the desk where I write. Moreover, when I saw events to promote this book advertised on social media, I realised that I had not received an invitation to any of them. I was the one that was seen as awkward, bloody-minded, for holding on to my integrity as a writer.

Today should have seen the online publication of a new story. I would have been sharing it on social media and emailing people with the link. But that will not be happening. I had uneasy feelings about the publisher’s requirements when they accepted my story. There was a heck of a lot of admin attached, a form to fill in, a contract to look at, all of which took time away from my writing. They said that they would be editing for house style, and would send any changes for me to approve. The story is set in the 1970s, with the protagonist working in the kitchens of The Grandstand at Epsom Racecourse. When the edit came to me, they wanted me to remove any specific mention of Epsom, or any reference that might suggest that the story referred to the Epsom racecourse. So ‘the horses hurtling round Tattenham Corner’ should be changed to ‘the horses hurtling round the nearby corner.’ The reasoning behind this? The story referred to poor hygiene in the kitchens at Epsom Racecourse, and could be seen as ‘defamatory’. The price of publication was to make the racecourse and town where it is set ‘generic’, so as not to offend. I would not pay that price.

I suppose the moral of the story, for me, is to trust my instincts. I felt uneasy early on in the process of editing with ‘The Three’ as I have come to call the editors of the anthology, but I did everything they asked, until what they asked was unacceptable. I felt uneasy with the requirements of the publisher of the new story, too, and that instinct turned out to be right.

I now have a story that is still looking for a publisher; but I can also hold onto my integrity as a writer.

All Aboard for Morningtown for the last of the aunties

‘Auntie’ was the honorary title reserved for the closest friends of the family. Children in the 1960s were never allowed to call adults by their first names. Neighbours were Mrs Hubbard, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Sullivan, and so on – except for Auntie Joan and Auntie Pam, close friends to my parents, and with children that we played with all the time. It truly was a time when back doors were left unlocked; front doors, too, in warm weather. They were left wide open, so that aunties would just walk in without announcement, the first sign of their visits being a head and shoulders passing the front or back window on their way to the front or back door.

The woman gathered in the kitchen for coffee, Maxwell House or Mellow Birds, which my mother preferred. And I would sit on a stool in the corner, trying to be invisible, so I could listen to their talk and try to make sense of it all. What was a ‘prolapse’? What did ‘paying the milkman in kind’ mean? I would puzzle over these things, sometimes making up my own interpretation of the stories told. Eventually my mother would notice that I was there. ‘Little ears are flapping,’ she would say, and send me out to play.

I learned so much in that kitchen, and gathered material for stories and poems I would write thirty, forty and fifty years on. That time, those women, continue to haunt my writing.

Auntie Joan died a couple of years ago, and now Auntie Pam has gone, too. When I learned of Auntie Pam’s death, her daughter asked me and my siblings for any memories that could be retold at the funeral. Looking back through my notebooks and published work, Pam and her husband Uncle Dave featured strongly. In one story a thinly disguised Auntie Pam cuddles a young child whose dog has just been run over by a car, just as Auntie Pam did to me the day our dog died when I was 10 years old. I have a strong memory of my face being held to her bosom, and of the scent she wore. I can remember the colour of her lipstick and, on happier days than that one, her loud, uninhibited laugh.

Click on the image to hear Morningtown Ride by The Seekers

In ‘Rock On’, a performance piece that I debuted at the Confluence Sessions in Rochester, one of Pam and Dave’s parties is described. Pam was showing off the new radiogram and and TV that Dave had won on the TV game show, Take Your Pick. The audience would shout out ‘Open the box!’ or ‘Take the Money!’ to the contestants, and Uncle Dave had opened the box to find he’d won a big prize. The music played on the radiogram on the night of the party ranged from ‘Morningtown Ride’ by The Seekers to The Rolling Stones. It may have been from another party, another year, but I recall Pam in a long, halter neck dress with a drink in her hand, swaying to Demis Roussos, for all the world like Beverley in the Mike Leigh play Abigail’s Party.

Auntie Pam is the last of my childhood ‘aunties’ to go. I don’t have a picture of her, except those that I hold in my memory. Of her dancing at the Irish dances at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Of her holding up my baby daughter with delight, the first time I brought her ‘home’ to Epsom. Of her showing off the radiogram at her party, singing along to ‘Morningtown Ride.’

When truth is denied

Jane spoke without looking at me, without mentioning my name. ‘I think there is a personality disorder,’ she said. The meeting had been called to discuss the problems with the project I worked on, the clashing ideologies of the the national charity that employed me and the social services department where I was based. But mainly to address the concerns I had about how my volunteers were being treated, concerns that the volunteers had raised with me, which I had passed on to Jane, the social worker, her assistant Pat, and my manager at the national charity. Instead of discussing how these concerns might be addressed, I was being accused of causing trouble due to having ‘a personality disorder’.

My role was recruiting, placing and supporting young, full-time volunteers, in partnership with a scheme run by the social services department of a London borough. The scheme was based in a former children’s home. A couple of the rooms had been retained as bedrooms, as off-duty accommodation for the volunteers. While ‘on duty’, the volunteers lived in with a severely learning disabled person. There was supposed to be a paid carer at each project as well as a volunteer. The scheme was supposed to provide a positive experience for the volunteers as well as enable people with disabilities to live in their own homes, many having come from long stay residential care, at a time when Care in the Community was a new thing.

It soon became apparent to me that the volunteers were being exploited. Where there were insufficient paid carers and volunteers, sole volunteers were left at on duty for several days without relief. Also, the off-duty bedrooms were not exclusive to one person. Whichever bed was available was used, with no change of sheets, and there was nowhere for the volunteers to permanently keep their possessions. They were effectively living out of a suitcase. There was a volunteers’ house, too, given to the scheme by the council. It was ramshackle and tatty, and was infested with rats.

I thought that if I spoke the truth, if I tackled these problems directly with Jane and Pat, then they would be addressed. Instead, there was a kind of war against me, waged by Pat. Some of these skirmishes were direct – angry phone calls to my home on the days I wasn’t working. Others were sly, and difficult to deal with. Piles of jumble were left on my desk, paint pots and brushes piled behind my chair when the office I shared with Pat was being painted (she moved them there; they had been against a wall away from any desks). Pat complained that the name plates on our office door should be reversed in order: mine was above hers, purely because my surname came before hers in the alphabet. Instead of taking any responsibility for the volunteers’ poor living conditions, both Jane and Pat blamed these young people for being lazy and dirty. And I was blamed for not supplying the scheme with enough volunteers.

Whilst I was believed by my manager, who stated that she was very concerned about me working in those circumstances, and about the volunteers, nothing changed in that scheme. The charity did not withdraw from supplying volunteers (which I suspect was due to them not wanting to lose the funding), Jane and Pat did not make any improvements to the volunteers’ living conditions, and I continued to be targeted by Pat in her petty war. The only thing I could do, for my own wellbeing, was leave the job.

The reason for recounting this story is to show that telling the truth, speaking out, is not always received gratefully, or dealt with as it should be. It’s something I have been thinking of recently, of times where I have spoken out and told to keep quiet, incurred the wrath of others, or had my truth denied.

In the early days of my illness I was disbelieved by my GP. He put all my symptoms down to depression. This went on for two years, his blinkered view not open to the fact that the various symptoms I had might add up to other diagnoses. I was telling my truth and my truth was ignored, discounted. I felt I was going mad; not being believed makes you feel like that. Sure enough, when I changed GP I received a proper and full diagnosis.

Over the years, I have had skirmishes with the DWP over my disability benefits, and each of these has been due to me not being believed. This year, I was assessed for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), which is replacing Disability Living Allowance, a benefit I received for 20 years as an indefinite award. My husband and I filled in the form together, gathered evidence from professionals involved in my care and a friend who could account for how my disabilities affect me. My account and all the evidence were disregarded by the assessor. She spent less than an hour with me, and decided that most of what I said, what was written on the form, was not true. Because she said so.

It was not just the loss of benefit that affected me, it was not being believed. I did not exaggerate my difficulties, in fact it was really hard for me to put across how badly I function on most days, to address the truth of how limited my life has become. I contested the decision, asked the DWP to look again via a Mandatory Reconsideration. The letter that came (12 weeks later) ignored all my points, again ignored the supporting the evidence, and upheld the original decision. So I appealed to the independent tribunal service, expecting to wait a year until my case was heard. Imagine my surprise, a month later, when the DWP (not the tribunal service) wrote to say that they had reconsidered the original decision and the Mandatory Reconsideration. They were awarding me PIP at the highest rate. Although this is wonderful news, I have had trouble accepting it. First I was disbelieved, then disbelieved again, then all of a sudden believed! I am half-expecting another letter to say they are taking it away.

Truth -telling and how it is received … it is too big a subject for a short blog. Especially at a time when liars and deniers hold power in the White House and in Downing Street. Globally, truth and evidence are ignored in favour of what people choose to believe. Personally, individuals will always be ignored or vilified for speaking their truth, will be made to feel like they are going mad. 

*Jane and Pat’s names have been changed.

The importance of rituals, candles and dogs

I was raised Catholic, as was my best friend Karan. I loved the rituals of a Catholic service, the ‘smells and bells’, and the sung Latin Mass. I knew the meaning of the words long before I learned Latin, translations from the English prayers that we chanted each Sunday and at primary school on a daily basis. The chanting meant that we didn’t appreciate the meaning of the prayers, and this was highlighted for me once, when I went to Mass in Ireland, and the service was garbled by the priest and congregation in double-quick time. It felt like everyone had done their duty, and could then get on with cooking the Sunday lunch or whatever.

In my teens, I started to skip church, choosing to spend an hour with my boyfriend instead. Until I was discovered passionately kissing my boyfriend goodbye at a bus stop. Caught by my father, he said nothing at the time, or at any other time. It was passed to my mother to deal with the embarrassing incident. ‘Snogging’ was the word she used, with a facial expression of disdain, so that I have associated the word with ‘a bad thing’ ever since. So back to church I went. When I reached 15 and had a different boyfriend, I was not allowed to see him on a Sunday unless I had gone to Mass and eaten a roast dinner at home first. Mass meant nothing to me by then, and hadn’t done for some years, and when I turned 16, I stopped going to church.

What I have held onto, though, is the ritual of lighting a candle, either in a church, a cathedral, or at home, and ‘praying’, in my own way, for friends and relatives who I feel need positive thoughts. I have other rituals, too, of my own making. Whether these help the person concerned or myself I don’t know. Perhaps they are something I perform for my own benefit. I do feel that rituals and ways of marking change are important.

My mother died two years ago. We had been estranged for many years, and I did not feel I wanted or needed to go to her funeral. To put it plainly, the thought of doing so filled me with great anxiety. I knew that I would only be going to put on a show, to please those who thought I should be there. Grief is hard for everyone, but it is a strange thing when you have been estranged. I discovered that there has been some research on ‘disenfranchised grief’, where it feels, or other people feel, that you have no right to be bereaved. This can happen when an ex-spouse dies, for example. I did feel  alone in my grief, and different from my siblings who had remained in touch with our very difficult mother, and indeed cared for her in her later years. I decided to hold my own wake for Mum. A few friends attended, I read something I had written about my mum, others read poems and sang songs. There was food and drink. Although none of these people knew my mum (except my husband, who had met her briefly), it was tremendously supportive, and I did feel that I had made my own ritual to mark Mum’s death. I also lit a candle while her funeral service was happening, when I was at home.

Karan, my best friend from my childhood years, died this week. It had been expected for the past 10 months, but is nevertheless a huge blow. During her treatment for a brain tumour, I sent her a Dog of the Week every Saturday. Karan loved dogs, and it was a way of keeping things light, but letting her know that I was thinking of her. The rules I made were that each dog must be able to fit in an envelope and must be posted on a Saturday morning. Each week I searched for dogs in card and gift shops, or made my own – I made an origami dog, found a wooden key ring at a craft fair, and a small felt dog in a gift shop on Brownsea Island. In the cards I sent each week, I would make up a name for the dog and a little story about them, and repeat the same text every week at the bottom of the card: ‘Dog of the Week is brought to you, dear Karan, to cheer you on and cheer you up during treatment, by your old mate, Cookie.’ Cookie was a childhood nickname, which only Karan and my two brothers still used. Now there are only two people in this world that call me Cookie.

I sent the last Dog of the Week on a Friday rather than Saturday. Karan died 6 days before her 61st birthday, and I had already made a card with a patchwork dog on the cover. I decided to send it to her family, with a note. I shall miss the ritual of finding, making and naming dogs, of going to the postbox each Saturday to send them. I have been lighting candles at home for Karan all week. Soon, that ritual will end, too.

Talking to strangers and travelling fearlessly

We are standing on the railway station in Sighișoara on a cold morning in April. It was 19 degrees the day before, as we wandered round the citadel, and now the temperature has dipped to 2 degrees. There is no indication of why the train is late, no announcement, nothing on the board. The train is coming from Vienna, so plenty of opportunities for delay, and our journey back to Bucharest will take five hours.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

A small crowd of people cross the track to the warmth of the waiting room, either knowing something that we had been unable to discover about the delay, or being used to this sort of thing with Romanian trains. The six of us left on the platform decide to follow them. We are a party of three, and then there is an older couple from Belgium, plus a young man with a rucksack, travelling alone. ‘Shall we dance?’ I say, in an effort to keep warm. The Belgian woman laughs, and joins me in a few steps. Her husband has hair the colour of the glacial water in the mountain streams that we have seen from train windows on our journeys through Transylvania. The couple intended to go to the Black Sea, but with the turn in the weather, they are heading for Brașov. The young man is touring fortified churches, and hiking when the weather allows. He tells us of a place in Moldavia he has visited. ‘It’s like a living museum,’ he says. ‘The people live in wooden huts built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s really hard to get there by public transport.’ It transpires that the young man is also Belgian. He and the couple are from the same village, but have never met before.

A sudden chime from the speakers, like an Alpine tune played on handbells. Our train is arriving in three minutes. The locals have already gathered this, ahead of the announcement, and have crossed to Linia 2. This is a theme throughout the trip: foreigners are just supposed to know, in the way Romanians know – where to find a kiosk to buy bus tickets, when trains are late. There is little information for tourists.

This is me, travelling fearlessly, with my husband and my friend. A pledge I took in my sixtieth year, to do sixty things for the first time, with a running theme of going to places I hadn’t been to before. All my life I have been fearful of travelling. My parents had migrated from Ireland to England, and the only trips I knew, growing up, were the long journey by rail, sea, bus and taxi to County Clare each summer, and the occasional journey to the Sussex coast. I had my children young, then had little money, and it seemed the opportunity to travel had passed me by.

Romania was quite a challenge, but I was attracted by a non-touristy destination, and by the fact that my brother’s boyfriend is Romanian, the two of them having made a similar trip through Transylvania. I was able to get advice from them – on how to buy bus tickets and train tickets (no point getting an Interrail card, as trains are dirt cheap in Romania), on bringing food for long train journeys, as there is no buffet. I learned some Romanian through an app, Duolingo, which taught me many useful phrases, such as ‘You are men. You have children,’ and ‘The owl eats insects.’ My friend, armed with a Berlitz phrasebook, and I, armed with six weeks on Duolingo, managed to negotiate buying train tickets and ordering food in Romanian, and even my reluctant husband ordered a taxi and learned how to say ‘Multumesc’ (‘Thank you’).

The memories I hold of that trip are not only of visits to castles, the beautiful scenery, of storks in flight and nesting alongside railway lines, but of the conversations with strangers. On a train journey, Teodora, a medical student on her way to university in Cluj Napoca, told us of her parents’ experiences, living in the time of communism, when they had to get up at 4.00 a.m. to queue for one loaf of bread for the week for the family. She explains why the younger people speak good English, but the older ones were only taught Romanian and Russian in the time of Ceaușescu, which explains why we have trouble conversing with older taxi drivers and people on buses. Nonetheless, the older Romanians we encounter are willing to show us how to stamp our bus tickets, and to reassure us that we are travelling in the right direction. There is friendliness and good-naturedness all round.

The Belgian couple we meet on the train platform think we are Romanians, at first. Coming towards the end of our stay, we no longer look like bewildered tourists, and I am no longer a fearful traveller.

Small steps to a bigger world

Twenty years ago I walked out of the charity where I worked, never to return. Someone had given me permission to do so. A stranger, a counsellor with Victim Support, whom I not only told about the shock of my car being set on fire, but spilled all the awful things that had happened in the previous year. Not least of these was my deteriorating health, and an intolerable work situation. I had gone off sick the previous year, for 3 months, and returned sooner than I should have done, under pressure from the board of trustees, and because of my own wish to ‘get back to normal’. I returned with promises of more support and a reduced workload. This did not happen. The stress piled up, and my underlying health problems became more prominent. But I felt responsible, knowing how the charity had struggled with my earlier sickness absence, so I struggled on, until I came to a halt.

I do not remember the name of that Victim Support counsellor, nor what she looked like; just her words. ‘You don’t have to go back in that place,’ she said. ‘You never have to go back.’

My world became small. I had hoped, after a few weeks recovery, that I could apply for another job, resume my life, but weeks became months became years. My functioning was severely reduced, physically and mentally, and although I have improved since those early years, my life remains restricted by low energy, mental tiredness and physical pain.

I am telling this story, as I am approaching a milestone – my 60th birthday. That day I walked out of the office for the last time, twenty years ago, I was a couple of months short of my 40th. A third of life has been restricted by illness. My small world has only become a little larger in those twenty years, and this has only happened because of small steps.

There is a lot of emphasis on big achievements in the media – I remember a TV programme where people with mental health problems were supported and encouraged to run a marathon. Some of them achieved it, but I recall a man whose anxiety was so great that even leaving the house was too much for him. He tried in the early stages of the programme, but dropped out of the big run. He had achieved something big, just giving it a go, just leaving the house. Of course, showing him leaving the house and walking to the shops and back would not have made great television. The runners receiving medals and being hugged by Nick Knowles were what the viewers wanted to see.

I don’t want to totally put down what that programme achieved. My daughter was inspired by it, and took up running as a result. I am very proud of her for doing so, and for completing the Great North Run. But what about those of us that can’t run? Can’t run at all, let alone attempt a marathon?

My small steps over the past twenty years have led me to do bigger things. Taking up part-time study, leading to an MA in Creative Writing, started with little bits of writing, small sessions of researching funding for my fees, short sessions of filling out application forms over several days. It took a year for me to recover enough energy to attend a two-hour class once a week: my first writing course. And there were backward steps, during my MA course, when I had to get extensions for assignments due to my health.

I was inspired in recent days by a friend who is fundraising, asking for sponsorship as she loses weight and gains fitness. Her goal is to achieve this in small steps – walking to the shops instead of driving, taking her dog for longer walks. How fabulous, I thought. No marathon to run, no mountain to climb; just everyday things.

I thought, then, of friends whose lives are limited by illness, and others who find achieving big goals too daunting to embark upon. Of how to celebrate their small steps, their achievements. I think this could become bigger – a book, a blog, an inspiration for others. Watch this space as ideas come together.

Meanwhile, I am working towards doing 60 things for the first time. These range from visiting all of Kent Country Parks to travelling through Transylvania by train, which I did in April of this year: ‘Travelling Fearlessly’. For someone who barely left the house twenty years ago, it’s some achievement.

The shed is dead

I used to be a sheddie. I had my very own writing shed that overlooked an orchard. I lost that shed at the end of January 2017 when we sold the house we had lived in for eight years. And yet the shed continued to feature as the header photo for this website … until today. And this blog page, which was called ‘The Word from the Shed’, has now been renamed ‘Written by the river’.

I miss my shed. Facebook often reminds me with Memories featuring the shed and the orchard; my latest book is about orchards, and features the shed. But the shed is dead, or now under the ownership of a lovely young couple and their baby. The shed is in good hands, and I must let it go.

Thames barges on the Medway

Thames barges on the Medway near to my home

Now my vista as I open the bedroom curtains in the morning is the River Medway. It lies just beyond the Jubilee Clip factory, with a view of Hoo Marshes in the middle of the river and Hoo St Werburgh on the other bank. I spend a good half hour after I wake staring at the river and the sky, watching the birds, the sky, and various shipping pass by.

My desk is now tucked downstairs at the back of the house. I write facing a wall, but if I turn, I can just see a sliver of river in the gap between the houses and the factory. I write in my house, down by the river.

The river and I have history. I used to live a short walk away from the Medway, when I first moved to the area nearly thirty years ago. I crossed it, via Rochester Bridge, to walk to work for a couple of years, then drove across twice a day when a new job took me further afield. When the Medway Tunnel opened, that served for more journeys than the bridge. When we drive beneath the river, the sat nav picture shows blue, as though we were swimming. And I was a kind of swimmer once, with Medway Mermaids women’s writing group. I still am. Mermaids only lapse; it’s like being Catholic.

I am written by the river. I write by the river.

Not building a wall, but making a brick

P1000418 smallI have a mini-noticeboard above my desk with interchangeable cards for how I am feeling today. I have attached to the bulldog clip that holds the cards to the wooden frame some homemade oblique strategies cards. The card that comes to the fore when I shuffle them states: Not building a wall but making a brick.

All I have done this week, towards a story I am working on, is to think about replacing ‘rectangle’ with ‘parallelogram’ in the phrase ‘a rectangle of light’. I think this, but don’t write it down. I have been working on this story, on and off, for over two years, adding small bricks, knocking down little walls that don’t belong.

Meanwhile, as I don’t write, I travel around my area, and watch new houses shoot up fast in empty spaces along the side of the road. Elsewhere, an old terrace of flats and houses is flattened. I used to look down on the communal gardens of these dwellings from the train. The plastic toddler cars and sandpits that were scattered about are gone. A giant crane towers over the ground, which is encased by hoardings proclaiming affordable housing to come. Not building a wall, but knocking them down.

Three new houses were topped off not long after we moved into our house in March of this year. I watched from my bedroom window as skips were filled and removed. Carpets were cut on the ground outside, offcuts and cardboard rolls dropped in the skips. It is November now. A billboard still promises three houses to come on the market, but there is no For Sale sign yet. The corrugated fence surrounding the parking spaces at the back and the tree at the front is covered in graffiti, bearing the tag ORES or DRES, and a cartoon of a man’s head. A light burns in one of the windows. No-one has returned to switch it off since the workmen moved out in the summer. I see it when I open my curtains before the winter dawn. Perhaps there are bricks to be made, walls to be built before the people move in. Perhaps, next summer, new owners will be breakfasting on the terraces placed on stilts above the parking spaces.

I watch a documentary on Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers. There are images of people throwing stones and half-bricks at tanks. I have memories of that time, in 1981. Of the hunger strike being debated at the Student Union in the year when I took my finals. I remember standing in the doorway at the back of a crowded hall, listening to the debate. I remember a man I knew when I was growing up. He wore a black beret like the IRA marchers they show in the film. I store these bricks, these connections. They do not fit with the story I am writing. They might fit somewhere else.

I play with my granddaughter, with wooden bricks. She wants to build with only blue ones today. There aren’t enough blue blocks. We add some green ones.

I have not written for a week. I do not sleep well. I worry. My head is full of different bricks: images, memories and connections. Still I do not write. I shuffle the cards and find the one that says: Not building a wall, but making a brick. Then I write.

The Fallen and The Faithful

Two sample pages from There are Boats on the Orchard, by Maria C. McCarthy:

TABOTO 4 The fallen

TABOTO 9 The faithful

 

There are Boats on the Orchard is only available direct from Cultured Llama, £7.00 (click here to buy your copy).

Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.

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