Let the Kids be Free: 2013 365 Challenge #275

Inventing ball games in the play room

Inventing ball games in the play room

The kids had a day off school yesterday, in our school at least, because one of the unions was on strike. I’m not here to talk about the politics, largely because I have conflicting views: I studied the nineteenth-century industrial revolution in history and I know how important unions were in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions and fair pay for workers. How unions work now I’m not so clear on.

I know teachers work impossibly hard – my friend, who has three children under six – doesn’t see her kids much in term time as she’s at school until 9 pm most nights and then marking until midnight.

I do know that it rankles that the school can close for a day with little warning and no compensation, forcing some parents to take a day’s leave or pay for extra childcare, but if I take my child out of school in term time I pay a £60 fine. Hmmm

Anyway, I said I wouldn’t discuss the politics. What I found interesting was how people chose to spend that day. My daughter is in Reception (I think Kindergarten in the US?), in her first week of full time school, so I knew it was going to be a down-day: one where she could do what she wanted, without worrying about rules or getting her uniform dirty or anything.

Playing shops

Playing shops

We hung out with friends, went to the park, baked cookies and did painting. My only rule was that she wash her hair (it’s long overdue) and even that resulted in tired tears. (To be fair, we’re all tired. Hubbie and I are dipping down into depression and the slightest thing sets me off sobbing. I feel like we’re all broken!)

That aside, I’ve learned recently that I’m more of a hippy parent than I ever knew. Because I want my child to be free as much as possible. I don’t want to do after school clubs and classes: I want her to be home, running with her brother, being as loud and messy as she wants to be. Plenty of time in the 6.5 hours of school five days a week to stick to the rules.

I’m sure, as she gets older, the balance will change. I want her to do well at school and in exams, as I did, although I want her to have more to life than just her education. For now, though, it makes me feel warm inside to see her playing ball games with her brother, or – as she did this morning – to sit quietly in her room for an hour playing doctors with her teddy bears while the rest of the house slept.

There was a woman in the park yesterday bringing (I’m guessing) her 7 or 8 year old grandchild for a play. It was around 2 pm and she proudly told a friend of mine that they’d already done flute, numbers, writing, piano, swimming, French (I can’t remember the exact list, but something like that) and now they were ‘burning off energy’. It made my soul ache.

Preparing for a rainy school run

Preparing for a rainy school run

Each to their own, and I’m trying really really really hard not to judge other styles of parenting than my own. But a whole new world has opened up to me, now I have been blessed with watching how my children interact and play when left to their own devices. How they comfort each other, sort out their own problems, find new games to play, take turns, share, apologise, teach and learn.

I loved school, I think my children will love school. But for the social aspect, as much for learning. We don’t come from a big family – their friends are all from school and nursery.

We went to the school curriculum evening recently and I have to say I wasn’t that thrilled with what’s to come for my children. Not the teaching – that all looks grand – but the building, the resources and, in some cases, the teachers. The building is old and dark, the classrooms dated and cluttered. The teachers seem rough and grumpy (and not one introduced themselves by name apart from the Reception teachers, who we already knew).

There aren’t so many alternatives round here. I’m going to the fee-paying school open day on Friday, but I’m pretty certain it isn’t what I want: I think there will be more rules, more activities, more expectations, fewer chances for down time, grazed knees, torn clothing, dirt and fun. Homeschooling isn’t the answer, because it’s the social element that’s important. Sigh.

I just have to remember that, whatever choices we make, the kids will be fine. In the meantime, we battle the rain, the parking fiasco, the chaos and commuter-like experience of the school run and hope we’re doing the right thing.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire regarded the airport through heavy eyes, expecting it to look different somehow. Surely the world had shifted on its axis during the long weeks she had been away?

Around her, people greeted loved ones, hurried towards men holding name cards, or – like her – shuffled head down through the waiting crowd, knowing no one was there to meet her.

Why would they be? No one even knows I’m arriving today.

Claire adjusted the straps of her rucksack and looked around for signs to the train station, hoping she could catch a direct train to Cambridge. Her first priority was getting to Kim.

Through every minute of the thirty-two endless hours it took to get home, concern for Kim had kept her from sleep. During the stopovers at Sydney and Dubai, with no iPad for company and no money for food, she had sat cradling her phone praying for news.

There had been just one text from Jeff, telling her that Kim was scheduled to spend a few days in the hospital so the staff could ensure she didn’t make a second attempt on her life. Jeff had had to fight to stop her being transferred to a secure facility.

Poor Jeff. Poor Kim.

That was as far as Claire could think. Her own role in her friend’s drama ate at her like a cancer, until she too felt an eternal sleep might be preferable to continuing to live every painful day.

Hanging in the limbo of a long-haul flight, lost to the world and unconnected to anyone in it, it wasn’t difficult for Claire to imagine what drove her friend to her desperate act. Anything to make the emptiness go away.

The darkness pursued her now, as she shouldered her way through the happy faces. A lump lodged in her throat and she longed for solitude, so she could break down in peace.

“Claire!”

The voice brushed at her back, but she refused to turn and realise it was not her being hailed. Footsteps ran along after her, and she jumped as someone touched her arm.

“Claire, wait! I can’t believe you came through just as I was getting coffee. I thought you might like this.”

Turning slowly, Claire’s eyes opened wide as she took in the reality of her boss standing in front of her holding out a giant cardboard cup.

“Conor. What are you doing here? How did you know I was landing today?”

Thoughts and emotions crashed in her mind like waves in a stormy sea. With numb fingers she accepted the coffee, the aroma seeping into her fuddled brain with all the comfort of home. When did she last have a proper latte?

“I follow your social media. Someone called Jeff wished you a safe flight home, said he’d see you today. It wasn’t hard to figure out which flight you were on, there aren’t so many from Christchurch.”

Claire stared mutely, wondering if it was her destiny to be surrounded by stalkers. The last person to track her down through social media had been Michael. Honesty forced her to admit that her ex-boyfriend’s tenacity had proved useful, rescuing her from a night passed out in a dark lane with a bump to the head. And now her future boss had come all the way to the airport from Dorset, on the strength of a Facebook update.

“Are you for real? What are you doing here?”

“You said that already.” Conor grinned. “Come and sit down, you look bloody awful.”

The words hit Claire like a blow, and the tears began to pour out as if the force had broken a pipe. She felt Conor guide her to a bench and sit her down, taking the coffee from her limp grasp.

For a while they sat and Claire rode out the wave of sadness and humiliation. At last she became aware of a tissue being offered underneath her curtain of unwashed hair. Accepting it, Claire dried her face and blew her nose.

“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone. You broke down the barrier, damn you.”

“What happened? I thought you were having a great craic in New Zealand. Your blog posts and texts were all about sky diving and rafting, getting drunk and all that. You look like you’ve been in a concentration camp. Did you forget to eat?”

Claire shook her head, unsure whether Conor was berating her or trying to make her feel better. She couldn’t think. She wanted him to go away, but didn’t want to be alone. Feeling the tears building again, Claire dug her nails into her arms, wishing she could rip her skin off and fly into oblivion.

As if sensing Claire’s distress, Conor patted her knee. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. Where do you need to be? I am at your service.”

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Claire’s voice sounded heavy, the words hard to speak. Suddenly she just wanted to sleep.

“It’s Sunday afternoon, I don’t have to head back for a few hours. Where can I take you?”

“Cambridge. I need to be in Cambridge.”

Claire saw Conor’s nod through her curtain of hair. He rose abruptly and tugged her to her feet.

“Cambridge it is. Here’s your coffee. Drink it, you look like you need it. And a shower.” He sniffed, dramatically. “You definitely need a shower.”

He grinned and, through the numbness, Claire managed to raise a smile.

***

Baby’s First Day: 2013 365 Challenge #252

New born daughter

First Day in the World

I realised today, as I sobbed in fear over the ironing board and my daughter’s new uniform, that I’m just as stressed about her starting school tomorrow as she is. And for all the same reasons.

I’m scared about getting something wrong, being told off, wearing or saying the wrong thing, not knowing anyone or where things are.

It’s like going back to school myself, only not, because I loved school. It was where I didn’t get shouted at for being lazy or making a mistake, unlike at home.

I was a Straight-A student, helped by being an October baby so one of the oldest in the year. I liked getting stuff marked and I loved learning. I was bullied, but I hid in the library or worked through my lunch break. I had plenty of friends, well until we all discovered boys.

Daddy's little girl (even when she's crying)

Daddy’s little girl (even when she’s crying)

Actually I think I only lost my self-esteem and confidence when I started dealing with boys and humiliated myself left and right – having never worked out how to make my father happy. Hopefully my little girl won’t have that problem at least (she has Daddy wrapped around her little finger).

But now? I’ve spent a year listening to the mum’s at coffee morning sharing horror stories about school – returning forms to the wrong place and getting shouted at my the receptionist or told off by the teacher, miscommunication between staff over bullying, needing to escalate problems to the Head.

These are not things that play to my strengths. If the receptionist tells me off, I’ll cry. I’d rather pull teeth than make a fuss (though maybe if my child is being bullied I’ll grow a backbone) and I’m rubbish at forms and fitting in.

First Day at School

First Day at School

Also it’s a C of E (Church of England) school and I couldn’t even bring myself to go to family service today. I’m not an atheist but I’m not a huge one for organised religion either (I do like C of E schools, though, for the sense of community and doing the right thing).

Needless to say, hubbie is taking our daughter in on her first day tomorrow, thus avoiding me increasing her nervousness by my own fear, or upsetting her by getting defensive when she tells me I should have let her wear a skirt (as I’ve discovered her best friend will be.) Evil Mummy only bought pinafore dresses because I thought they’d look smarter and she wouldn’t have to keep tucking herself in. Guess what I’ll be doing tomorrow?

(In my defense, especially as she hasn’t got the blue cardigan she wanted either, there was meant to be a second-hand stall in the summer but I got no communication about it and I didn’t want to buy anything else new!)

Ah well, life is about conquering our fears. I just never realised there would be so many as a parent! I couldn’t home school (my daughter refuses to even let me teach her how to write her letters) so there aren’t many other options. And she’ll love it, I know she will. It’s probably just as well we decided against the public school for now. At least I’m not wondering if I should be wearing Boden when I pick her up at lunch time!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Come on, Josh, I want to go on the jet boat. Where else can I go in a boat that works in only centimetres of water? Stop being a worrywart, I’m fine.”

Claire tugged at his hand, feeling flashbacks of trying to convince Sky to do something she didn’t want to do. Seeing the stubborn look on his face, she dropped his hand and folded her arms.

“Fine. Although I’m surprised that someone who laughed at me for not jumping off a waterfall is worried about a stupid speed boat. You’ve got old and boring.”

She turned away, but watched him out of the corner of her eye; trying to analyse his expression. She hadn’t even been that interested in doing the jet boat ride – that afternoon’s suggested high adrenalin activity – until Josh said he thought she should give it a miss. In his best preachy doctor voice, he had advised her to rest after her near-drowning.

Despite explaining at length that she hadn’t been anywhere near drowning, he had insisted. It was like being with Michael all over again.

Why do people feel the need to wrap me in cotton wool? I’m not such a pathetic or fragile creature.

“You coming, Claire?” Bethan called, as the group split into those going jet boating and the ones remaining behind to horse ride or catch up on sleep.

Claire threw one last look at Josh and, ignoring the knot in her stomach, ran after Bethan. “Definitely. Sounds like fun.”

As they walked away, Bethan turned to look back. “Isn’t Sir Galahad coming? I thought Aussies were as keen to try and kill themselves as the Kiwis are?”

“He’s sulking because I won’t follow his doctor advice and rest after my near-death experience this morning.”

Bethan threw her head back and laughed, her long black hair flying out behind her. “Near death? You capsized a kayak in three feet of still water. Oh dear, he has got it bad, hasn’t he?”

Claire pursed her lips and they walked the rest of the way in silence.

*

Claire screamed as the boat swung close to the rocks; the gorge towering overhead and blocking out the sun. Spray splashed over them, drenching Claire and drowning out her laughter. She clung onto the seat as the driver twisted the boat away just as it seemed about to crash. Her head jerked with the motion and she felt a sharp pain as something pulled in her neck.

Damn, don’t let me get whiplash, I’ll never hear the end of it from Josh.

Gritting her teeth, Claire massaged the muscle then quickly grabbed at the seat in front as the boat span three-hundred and sixty degrees before tunnelling through the water across to the other side of the gorge.

Ahead she could see the driver grinning, his teeth flashing bright white against his dark tan. Wraparound shades covered his eyes and he had one arm resting along the side of the jet boat, as he nonchalantly span the wheel.

Walls of white rose on either side as the boat bumped over the river; every jolt running through Claire and ripping at her neck, until tears mingled with the spray on her cheeks.

Around her the landscape unrolled in brilliant detail: the deep blue river stretching like a ribbon through the high walls of the gorge, the colours rendered sharp by the afternoon sun. It was a far cry from sea kayaking with seals that morning.

Although I think I’m probably as wet. Maybe Josh was right, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, though I’m not going to tell him that.

Warming her torn muscles with one hand, Claire clung on with the other and willed the ride to finish soon. Only the knowledge of having to face Josh and his smug “I told you so” when they got back made her glad to still be in her seat.

My trip of a lifetime is starting to turn sour. I can’t get off the bus, because I can’t afford to travel any other way now. I can’t seem to get rid of Josh, which a few months ago would have been amazing, but is now a literal pain in the neck. I just want to go home.

Letting the spray conceal her tears, Claire gave in to the wave of self-pity washing over her.

***

Narcissistic Self-Absorption: 2013 365 Challenge #170

Playing tennis

Playing tennis

My daughter had her first taster session at primary school today, and it inevitably raised the subject of schools again.

She’s happy with her current placement and so am I. What was interesting, though, was spending the day with two of my baby-group friends and raising the question of State vs Private schools with them for the first time.

They’re both State school teachers, and their children will be in my daughter’s class in September. I therefore wasn’t expecting an endorsement of private education.

However, what I hadn’t really expected was the strength of their negativity. I’m not a political person and it never occurred to me that State vs Private was such an emotive subject. (Okay, I’m naive).

Phrases like, ‘You might be able to afford the fees but can you afford the lifestyle?’ came up, even though one of them had looked aghast at me the week before, when I’d suggested getting my kids clothes from a cheaper supermarket, and admitted that I’d happily send my child to school in a jumper with a hole in.

Tennis balls hanging from the washing line

Tennis balls hanging from the washing line

The nuances of okay and not okay are too subtle for me to comprehend. I’ve never been very good at fitting in, although I’ve always tried desperately hard to do so.

Also both my friends already have children at school and I felt I was getting it all wrong by ordering the wrong uniform in the wrong sizes and taking at face value the letter that says summer dresses are only for the summer term. (I haven’t ordered one as a result, even though my daughter is desperate to wear one. Apparently they’re fine for September. Who knew.)

It’s like joining the parenting club all over again. So maybe it’s going to be as bad whatever school she goes to, and if it’s one where I don’t know any other parents, well at least I won’t know if I’m getting it wrong!

I did get a whiff of a sense that I might lose some friends if we decide on the private school. I’d be sad, for me and for Amber, but can’t help wondering if they’re really friends in that case.

My best friend and her son live in a different town and our friendship – and that between her son and my children – has survived him going to a different school, (as long as his school friends aren’t actually there) so I won’t be without friends, whatever our decision.

Next stop Wimbledon

Next stop Wimbledon

I also read an interesting article today on shyness and how it can make people narcissistic in their self-consciousness. That’d be me. I’m clearly destined to be paranoid and delusional whatever, so it may as well be on a grand scale! Sometimes I’m rather proud of being different. Maybe I’ll be the one who doesn’t wear make-up and Boden on the school run. The world won’t end.

I tried for neat hair and make-up today, so I didn’t embarrass my daughter at her new school, and the faff it took finding time and space to get ready wasn’t worth the look of shock on my friends’ faces or the surprised ‘Wow, you look amazing’.

Though, of course, that was nice.

What were those three rules again from the comments on my last post on Education?

You’ll always get it wrong, your kids will think you got it wrong, and none of it really matters in the end.

A good friend I bumped into today, whose kids attend private school, said pretty much the same thing.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“When did you last have your hair cut?”

The stylist lifted Claire’s hair and let it fall again. Claire looked up at his face in the mirror and caught the faint sneer as he pulled his fingers roughly through her hair.

“I don’t know. A few weeks.” She did a quick tally in her mind. “Two months. I had it done before my leaving do. It’s only been two months.”

With a small tut, the stylist turned away and called to an assistant. “Wash this, please. Plenty of conditioner.”

Claire allowed herself to be led towards the sinks, feeling abashed at the terrible state of her hair. It didn’t seem fair. She hadn’t straightened it or done anything more than brush it into a ponytail for weeks. It should be in excellent condition. Okay, maybe being out in the sun and wind didn’t do it much good. And she often only managed to wash it with shampoo before the shower ran out of hot water. But still.

“Is that water okay for you?”

Claire realised the timid question was directed at her. The water was too hot, but she nodded and gritted her teeth. Attempting to relax into the chair, despite the sink digging into the back of her neck, Claire closed her eyes. The assistant massaged her scalp, digging deep with nails that were too long for comfort. As her head was pulled this way and that, Claire inhaled and admonished herself to relax.

A hair cut was a luxury she hadn’t managed in a while. There hadn’t seemed much point on the road. But that morning she had woken with a clear urge to have it done, and had phoned around the local towns until she’d found a salon with space.

The massage complete, Claire shuffled back to her chair, where the assistant asked her if she would like a drink, without quite meeting her eyes.

“Tea, please. Earl Grey if you have it.”

The assistant glanced at a machine in the corner, and Claire braced herself for something more akin to dishwater than a tasty beverage.

“What are we doing with it, then?”

Claire winced as the stylist dragged a comb through her wet hair. She met his eyes in the mirror and tried a smile. It bounced off his tanned skin, as he continued to frown.

“Your hair is thick, isn’t it?”

Stifling a sigh, Claire nodded. Every new hairdresser said the same. “Yes, it’s thick and heavy, no it doesn’t hold a curl or a style. I just need it tidied up, please. With some feathering around my face.” She indicated the shorter sections that were meant to tuck under her chin but currently hung nearer her chest.

With a look of disappointment at the lack of challenge to his consummate skill, the stylist sectioned Claire’s hair and clipped most of it up on her head.

“No highlights or lowlights? I can see some growing out.”

Claire tried to shake her head, but he had it pinioned. “No thank you. Keep it natural, please.” A tiny thought flickered in her mind, Michael prefers it natural. She ignored it.

*

An hour later, Claire’s head felt gloriously light, as her hair bobbed above her shoulders, curling under in a way she knew she’d never achieve at home. It shone like polished mahogany. The stylist had cursed at how long it had taken to straighten her mass of hair, but it was worth it.

Claire swung her head a little on the pretence of shaking away the shorn locks clinging to her cardigan. She felt like a woman in a shampoo commercial.

With a beaming smile, she took her credit card back from the lady on reception and left the salon, head held high.

***

Evaluating Education: 2013 365 Challenge #163

If my children go to a private school will I have to learn to iron?

If my children go to a private school will I have to learn to iron?

I received a prospectus for our nearest public (private, fee-paying) junior school in the post today. Our daughter is enrolled in the state school and due to start in September, but I read it anyway because, why not? I’ll tell you why not! It took us long enough to choose the right primary school, without bending the brain yet further.

We’ve often talked of sending our kids to private school at some point. It would stretch us financially, but so does sending them to nursery so I can write (and they can make friends). You make your choices. Cheaper cars and holidays, no dinners out or weekends away, clothes from charity shops. Easy choices, actually, as they’re not things that bother us too much. But I’d always figured there wasn’t much point paying for education at 4 years old when there’s a perfectly good primary school funded by our tax (well, hubbie’s anyway!)

Our discussions about private education have never been straight forward, either. It’s not just the money. What if our children became ashamed of us and our concrete-coated ex-Council house? What if Mummy has to start shopping at Boden and wearing make up on the school run? What if an old car isn’t good enough? Would I need a Chelsea Tractor to fit in?

My little princess

My little princess

I remember childhood embarrassment. Hiding in the foot-well as Dad dropped us off in his latest rusty yellow banger or when my stepdad picked us up from the school disco in his dressing gown and clogs. I was never embarrassed of them as people, though, or of our house. It would never occur to me not to invite someone home.

I do remember the chagrin of not having the same possessions or going on skiing holidays. I remember a whole school year of enduring taunting from a child several years younger than me, the grandson of my mum’s boss, who’d been put in state school after years of private education. He used to tell everyone I was his Grandmother’s secretary’s daughter, in that plummy voice that made me want to hit him.

What if I felt like that about my own children? I’ve battled insecurity and a lack of belonging all my life, and I dearly want my children to have a different experience. That’s the lure of a private education. The attention, the sport and music, the extra curricular activities, all help children find their niche and excel in it. That gives confidence and contentment that lasts well beyond the relevance of academic grades.

I see it time and again, comparing the friends with at least some private education versus those with none. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?

I'd have to learn to wear a mask over my foot-in-mouth honesty

I’d have to learn to wear a mask over my foot-in-mouth honesty

But will my insecurities mean I suffer and they suffer with me? Will I lose my sense of belonging with my Mummies community, so they can find their place in the world? And should that stop us? Just reading the prospectus left me torn. Because that belonging starts right at the beginning. It says “there is no assessment for Reception year”, which implies there is after that. We might decide we can afford the school in a year or two, only to have them reject us and our child.

There are other factors too. Reading one of the ‘Related Articles’ below, suggested by WordPress, there are arguments I haven’t even considered.

Is it right to perpetuate the class divide by sending our children to a private school? Will they get a sense of entitlement, rather than learning that hard work is the only way to get results in life? I would still want them to work in the summer holidays, as I did, but would that fit with their life/friends/social engagements? It’s a tricky decision and one that will never be straightforward.

We all want the best for our kids. If only we knew what that was.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire tapped some commands into the SatNav and continued driving. Her throat begged for water, dry to the point it was hard to swallow. Inside her pulsing brain, her thoughts raged through the pain.

What is wrong with me? My best friend is practically a wife and mother, and I’m still doing the walk of shame at 5am.

Her cheeks burned as the events of the last twelve hours ran through her mind in unwelcome clarity. While Kim has a career, a man who loves her and a baby on the way, what have I got? She glanced around the inside of her car. A rusty old Skoda that’s my only travelling companion, a boss that wants to sack me, and a daily blog that needs more attention than a new-born brat.

Following the monotone instructions from the small plastic box attached to her windscreen, Claire tried to ignore the stream of self-loathing pouring into her mind. It didn’t work.

I wanted to stay at that gorgeous hostel for a few days. Visit Stratford, maybe take in a play. She thought about the programme to As You Like It tucked into her handbag, picked up from the hostel reception. The manager had informed her that she would probably be able to get a Monday night ticket, if she didn’t mind where she sat.

Instead I go and ruin it by getting semi-naked with a complete stranger. Not to mention bouncing on a bunk-bed in a single-sex dorm. I’ll be lucky if they don’t revoke my YHA membership.

Attempting to stop the torrent of thoughts with rationality, Claire tried to put the incident into context. Shacking up with total strangers and frolicking with them back in the bedroom was closer to her original impression of what hostelling was all about. But, then, she had pictured flea-infested bedding and filthy facilities. All her initial preconceptions had been proven to be rubbish.

Motorway lights paraded past in a blur, as the dawn dragged the darkness from the sky. Claire willed her eyes to remain open, and concentrated on the road ahead. Her eyes ached from staring out of the alcohol-induced fog filling her skull. At last The SatNav announced her favourite words.

“You have reached your destination.”

Claire looked up at the services. She chose not to think about the fact that she had passed one Starbucks only minutes from the hostel and travelled an additional 20 miles to find one that might be open. Her phone said 5.30am. Please be open.

Collecting her bag and phone and, checking the keys were in her hand, Claire pushed down the lock and slammed the car door.

The services were quiet, with only a few lorries parked in neat rows, and a handful of cars dotted around in careful solitude. The sun was only just thinking about hitting snooze on the alarm, and the sky remained steel-grey. Trees and shrubs added life to the paving and tarmac, and the services building reared up ahead in glass and tile. The words Claire longed to see emblazoned the building to the right of the entrance. All around was an air of peace.

Stratford might be a beautiful, ancient town, steeped in history. But service stations offer promise: journeys, moving on, respite and refreshment. They’re soulless, yes, but wonderfully anonymous with it.

The doors opened with a quiet hiss and Claire headed towards Starbucks. It was closed.

“Opens at 6am, love,” called a voice from behind the counter. “You can always go to the Coffee Nation.”

“I’d rather drink from the toilet,” Claire muttered quietly. She checked her watch. 5.35am. Taking her iPad, Claire found a seat and opened her book. The important things in life, like husbands, careers, good coffee, were worth the wait.

***