104. Worn Out

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”

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99. Lemonade Sparkle

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley.

Page 9

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Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash

I’m lying on my belly on a crocheted blanket on the grass, propped up by my elbows, wearing a found, floppy hat, reading a book without a dust cover. A book that’s older than me. That’s too old for me. One that I couldn’t borrow from the library for another two years. But, this is the summer holidays, and there’s an unspoken, earned freedom. People are more relaxed about everything. My bare feet are suntanned with the pattern from my jelly shoes.

We never realised just how few glorious summers we would actually have together as a family, before we went our separate ways to college, or that we even knew we were supposed to try and make the most of them. How could we? Barely a handful of years of endless summer days, making daisy chains, running through the sprinkler, eating ice cream, riding our bikes until our legs ached, searching for baby crabs in rock pools, regretting not putting on sun cream, building a den, wishing for a treehouse, reading every book in the house and deciding to write my own, making best friends with a girl from the caravan park down the road, who I would never see again after that fortnight, picking and gorging on wild fruit, wearing the same t-shirt or necklace for weeks on end, never ever mastering how to stand up on an old wooden surfboard, making our own ice lollies from flat pop, or truly knowing boredom. My older brother tried to convince me that was how board games got their name, but I never quite believed him.

The inaugural, world triathlon, board game championships were invented in the summer holidays sometime in the early 80s, in an old clifftop farmhouse in Mother Ivey’s Bay, Cornwall. The house is still there, you can Google it.

Weeks of training had led to that moment, which was a few days before the August Bank Holday. That date symbolised our summer was nearly over, and next week meant we would have to get haircuts, new shoes and start a proper bedtime routine again for school.

Draughts, ‘Connect Four’ and ‘Downfall’ made it to the finals. ‘Ker-plunk’, ‘Buckaroo’ and ‘Jenga’ were lost in the initial heats, due to their messiness, missing pieces and not complying with the new equality rule. Contestants could not be discriminated against for having dexterity issues (pre-schoolers and arthritic grandparents). Those games were far from relaxing as everyone had to be quiet and tensed up every time someone had their go. After a couple of drinks, the adults were rubbish at them anyway.

‘Sorry!’ too was removed in the semis. The nature of the game required a good easygoing, sportsmanlike temperament, and the ability to read. For the same reason, ‘Monopoly’ was also banned. It ended with too many slammed doors and furious arguments. ‘Cluedo’ never even stood a chance.

One summer, we were obsessed with card games. What do you do when you don’t know any except ‘Snap’? You create your own future classics such as ‘Scabby Knuckles’ and ‘Cheat’.

Rain stopped play for the ‘outdoor’ rounds of kite flying, frisby and non-stop cricket. The wind was so gusty once that it did actually lift me up off my feet.  Not a good idea when the house is on top of a cliff. My father took our kites off us after that. I don’t know where he put them, but it wasn’t the boxroom.  That oversized cupboard was too small for a bedroom but just perfect for all kinds of junk and the first place anyone ever looked for someone during our many games of hide and seek. It was where (almost) every toy and piece of sporting kit ever owned by the family for the last hundred years was stored. It had everything, and I mean everything. Flippers, prescription swimming goggles, skis, home-made body boards, a selection of life jackets from throughout the ages, hundreds of little green army men, one even hanging by his parachute from the ceiling lampshade, plastic toys from children’s TV shows, a repaired paper pinata, various Sindy dolls in 60s fashions, several mismatched china tea sets, still containing mummified Mr Kipling French Fancies, dried-up felt-tipped pens and cracked brown plasticine. New racquet sports were invented with a wooden, barely strung tennis racquet vs a child-sized, modern badminton racquet still in its plastic wrapping. Deflated footballs, non culturally appropriate, highly flammable dressing up clothes, headless dolls and an out-of tune electric guitar with, amazingly, two spare packets of strings, a heavy crackly amplifier and a whole book of sheet music of folk songs. My subsequent concerts consisted of the two songs I learnt. “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Strawberry Fair.”

Tents that had been packed away wet, so reeked of wood smoke and damp when unravelled. Great clods of dried mud and spores from mould clouded the room as the heavy canvas was lifted heavily and dropped open. Not one useable tent-peg. Those tents were hauled out onto the lawn, scrubbed down with a broom and hot soapy water with bleach in it. Then left to dry and assembled. The best bit was sitting inside whilst someone else poured a watering can over it to search for leaks. Rewaxing a tent with a candle or vaseline required a lot of effort and didn’t seem worth it when it rained. Spraying it with reproofer was just too expensive. All that for a couple of nights under the stars.

After the great jigsaw fiasco of 1984, it was agreed, nay, ordered, that all pieces had to be carefully stored inside a plastic bag before they were put inside the box. Recent discoveries unearthed a plastic fruit crate stuffed with carrier bags from long-forgotton shops (Liptons, Presto, Bishops and even a few from Woolworths). Unfortunately, few bags survived. Even plastic bags left exposed to light disintegrate into a shredded mess of crumbs quicker than you realise.

A dented, wooden trunk from some great-grandmother’s schooldays contained old clothes people had left behind or grown out of, so there was always a swimming costume, a pair of sandals or waterproof coat to hand. That garment might not have been made in this decade or the last, but we didn’t care. I loved that trunk, not only because it looked like a pirate chest, and so could hold treasure, but this distant relative and I shared the same initials, which were still feintly visible in aged gold on the front.

This old house part-belonged to three relatives, cousins, I think. They were the children of the last farmers. It had long since stopped being an actual farm, and the adjoining land was the perfect endless lawn for croquet and afternoon tea. Old photos actually show a road with horse-drawn carts in front of the house, but coastal erosion put a stop to that a long time ago. So a football pitch sized piece of private land on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea was priceless for memories but virtually worthless as real estate. It was just a matter of time before it was gobbled back by the sea. In an area of the country where the majority were priced out of the housing market, it seemed baffling that nothing could be done to save what little land there was.

As was often the case with family heirlooms, each sibling had their own ideas of what should be done with it. As none could agree on whether the house should be sold, lived in or rented out for the holidays, it was left to the executor Aunt to mediate. She owned the five-roomed cosy cottage adjoining the house, which had once belonged to the farm staff, and earned a living from working in a local shop and illustrating children’s books. A gentle existence. It seemed a perfect life to me. The money left over from holiday rentals of the big house barely covered her expenses in advertising or maintenance, so as none of the siblings saw any return, they just dug in their heels or forgot about it, depending on your point of view. As time went on, and the value of the house increased significantly, their own confirmation biases about their own original opinions hardened. “Its a good job we didn’t sell it then because it’s worth a million quid now.” “If we had sold it back then, the new houses will have spoiled the view and they would be falling into the sea. Wouldn’t you feel guilty about people losing their homes?” “People should live in this house while they still can.” “I want my kids to spend their summers here just like we did, for their memories.” “I want to live here a few months of the year as my share, so you can’t sell it.”

With hindsight, perhaps the siblings should have left it six months or a year to live with their grief and for the anger to subside, so their recollections had time to marinate, before they discussed any future of the house. Its history was still too raw right then.

A more uncommon feature of rambling, tumbledown country cottages than British rom-coms would have you believe is the private beach. It was actually a right of way on public land but very few people ever discovered it, most likely due to the ‘Danger! Keep Out!’ signs that were dotted along the winding, sandy, road to the house. They were erected when the original cliff side road began to crumble, and were never removed. This was the house at the end of the lane. Cut off. We could actually scramble barefoot down a gently-sloping, cliff embankment to our own secret beach. Only once did my brother attempt to bounce down it on his space hopper. A trip to A&E served as a reminder to the rest of us how stupid of an idea that was, as was his tanned body and white right arm for months after the cast had come off. We were the Famous Five, having adventures, allowed to play out of sight for hours on end, only knowing the time due to our rumbling bellies. There was an actual gong in the hallway, which mum would bong twice at 5pm, so we knew how much time we had left to play outside. Last one in got a cold shower or a three-inch bath made barely tepid by a hot kettle.

Jealous of school friends who stayed in an apartment in Spain and went to organised kidsclubs, I also envied those closer to home to got to go to a water park at Butlin’s every day, and were entertained nightly by people who’d been on TV. It never once occurred to me that they would look back and wish they’d had an English bucket and spade holiday.

Once or twice we’d have an actual trip to the seafront, for 2p arcade games, and Dad would buy a tray of whelks in vinegar from a stall. I always hoped we could see the lifeboat going out. We’d come back with cheeky postcards to send to our friends and pockets of sugary treats which were supposed to last us the rest of the holiday. Sometimes, my mother would take us girls shopping, and we would meander down the cobbled streets away from the neon, and find little shops smelling of patchouli, that sold crystals and dream catchers. I might be lucky and get some joss sticks or a bracelet made from polished semi-precious stones. The real treat would be sniffing out a second-hand bookshop. My pocket-money stretched far in a place like that. I used to play a game whereby I’d guess the pencilled-in price on the top-right of the first page. Everything tumbled in together, coexisting. All genres muddled up, except for a curtained off ‘adults only’ section.

If I close my eyes and inhale, I can still smell it. My summers. The house. Old books. Woodsmoke. The sea. Hot sugar. Lavendar.

94. Hydrophobic

We run into the old bus shelter, giggling like schoolgirls who have just seen someone they fancy. Within a few seconds, we are mere inches away from a curtain of rain. Not the famous grey British drizzle that makes pavements slippy, but a stop/start torrent where gardens get battered with a side order of flash flooding.

The man who was earlier repeatedly throwing a ball to a soaking wet joyous dog, runs by, led by his bounding Labrador. They are followed by a drenched youth, dressed in a thin t-shirt and jeans. He’s walking quickly, head down, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep inside his pockets, but he’s too far gone to consider trying to save face by seeking shelter. Fate accepted. This is a moment to remember, like when I got dropped off at the supermarket, still wearing my slippers.

We’ve all been there. Stripping off in the kitchen, today’s clothes thrown into the washing machine, running upstairs in wet underwear, stepping straight into a hot shower. Bragging rights come later. Newspapers stuffed inside shoes for a day or so, with no guarantee that they would survive.

We were reliably informed by the lady in the chippy, that the local premier-league football team who we saw training on the beach, had left this very chip shop just minutes before we went in. She didn’t ask for any selfies. Their anonymous steamy minibus is parked near to our bench. I suppose this weather gives them a rare moment of normality, away from the spotlight.

“I really do need to re-wax this jacket. It’s no good to no-one in this state. I might send it off, and get this hole fixed as well.” I say, waggling my index finger through the pocket at him.

“Or you could just get a proper jacket.” He replies. “Don’t you get hot in that? It’s really heavy. You’re dressed like Scott of the Antarctic and I’m, I dunno, Bear Grylls.”

“Would you drink your own pee though?”

“If it was filtered I would. Why not? If it was that or die.” He admits, unashamedly.

He unwraps the steaming damp paper parcel, to reveal “one fish, half chips and scraps please.” I take off my sodden coat, and drape it onto the wooden bench next to me. I run my finger over the ‘DS x GT 4 eva’ engraving and wonder if they still are.

We take turns to jab our tiny wooden forks into award-winning chips, then pant like we’re in labour, to try to cool our mouths. Fortunately, nostalgia also bought me a small bottle of bubblegum-flavoured pop.

“Look, see how the water forms little balls and runs right off? The seams are taped. No leaks.” He says, demonstrating the technical properties of his Italian-designed jacket, a favourite brand of football terraces. It really is water off a duck’s back.

I’m the opposite. I’m hydrophilic. I live to soak in the bath, revitalised by twice-daily showers. I’m the “aahh” after a drink, who deliberately splashes in puddles, washes up dishes, is queen water bomber and dominatrix of nerf gun fights. I swim every week and dream of dissolving my worries in a good sauna. That first cold shower is incredible.

We holiday in the UK, out of season, enjoying a run out in the car to the seaside on glorious autumn days. I call it ‘VIP’ because sometimes we are lucky and get the beach to ourselves. Returning to our holiday cottage with a pocketful of pebbles or shells, a handmade bowl or seaglass pendant and a selection of cards from a craft shop (to support local artists). Future memories for other people’s birthdays.

It’s the little things, like sharing a cone of chips on the wooden boardwalk on Lake Windermere, Cumbria. He stood, deliberately blocking the low winter sun from my eyes, one hand shielding me with his open coat from the icy wind.

That time I spilt hot vinegar on my only pair of jeans in Padstow, Cornwall. I love tangy, soggy chips from the bottom of the polystyrene tray, but I’m so clumsy. Someone should really invent a powdered version of salt and vinegar. Like a wet finger final dab at the end of a packet of crisps, but sold in a little tub in the herbs and spices aisle. I would keep it in my bag, like some people do with little bottles of Tabasco, to sprinkle whenever needed. Redistribution of flavour, then the first few chips wouldn’t have to be so salty, and the last few, so dangerous.

A toddler squatting to investigate every piece of driftwood and seaweed, apparently equally repelled yet delighted by the gentle waves that chase, cover then retreat from her yellow wellingtons.

We once stood up, mid meal, to let a small child continue their busy, important business of trying to walk unimpeded, the whole length of a low brick wall in Cromer, Norfolk, whilst we simultaneously shoed away aggressive seagulls, who were not used to tourists finishing their chips.

There’s a time and place for peeling chili prawns bigger than my thumb, sucking their heads, then dabbling my fingers in the water bowl. Lemon halves wrapped in muslin, white napkins, matchstick frites and elegant sips of chilled Pouilly-Fume. As there are for Jenga-stacked, thrice-fried chips, minted peas, local IPA beer battered cod, and their faux-hipster, gastro-equivalents (the basket/bucket slate-not-plate arrangement) of proudly sustainable pollock, gurnard or lemon sole goujons. Sometimes, they just cannot compete with the traditional northern chippy cafe’s plastic checked tablecloth, white buttered bread cakes, scraps, mushy peas or curry sauce. Oval plates, with crunchy haddock hanging over the edges. Utilitarian turquoise tea cups and saucers reminiscent of school crockery, non-brewed condiment, shaken granular (not flaked) salt and generic ketchup from a huge plastic tomato.

Fish and chips are on almost every restaurant menu in England, but no two meals are ever the same.