Peaceful Plateau: 2013 365 Challenge #309

Not quite a mountain

Not quite a mountain

In response to a comment on the blog a few days ago, I wrote about the contentment of sitting on a mountain top and letting yourself just ‘be’, because the journey to get there was enough.

At the end of a difficult climb, when you’ve challenged your fears and pushed your body, it’s enough to stand, hands on hips, sun on face, and take in the view. It’s a time to congratulate yourself on effort and determination, to say, “I did that and I’m proud and this is my reward”. A moment of tranquility.

As I survived my art presentation this morning and drove home in the sunshine I had a similar feeling. I treated myself to some stilton and cranberry bread, I read my book, I dozed on the sofa, (that bit was a mistake – I woke with my vision blurred in one eye that took an hour to shift. I don’t do daytime naps even after a night of no sleep).

I’m now walking the dog, breathing in the invigorating air and watching a kestrel fly by. I’m not flooded with quite the same euphoria I used to get climbing mountains, before parenthood and dodgy knees put paid to the activity. It’s hard to see how far you’ve come when the ground is flat and rocky.

But I know I survived a long week and I’m taking a moment to breathe in and say the journey was enough. Only a moment, mind, because there’s a post to be written, stew to prep and shirts to iron, before collecting the children from school: The climb back down the mountain is always harder work than the climb up!

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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’s mind whirled as she drove west. Conor’s message tugged at her thoughts like a puppy on a leash. She felt as if she’d received a bad report from her favourite teacher. Maybe not even a bad one, just a “Could do better”.

Determined to make sure it didn’t happen again, she spent the miles behind the wheel searching for some way to impress. She tried to think what Conor’s idea of tourism might be. It was clear that skulking around Dartmoor National Park hadn’t found favour.

What did you do in the West Country if you didn’t like to be alone? Bands, theatre, the Eden project, they all needed exploring. Claire wracked her brain for anything else she knew about the area. A book she’d picked up in a hostel came to mind. She remembered it because it was by that famous gardener her mother loved so much.

It was a novel about a lighthouse keeper, but one of the characters was a woman who loved painting in Cornwall, and moved there to set up an art gallery. She had talked about the special quality of the light. That sounded promising.

Of course I know as much about painting as I do pub bands. Namely bugger all. That artsy stuff is more Kim’s domain. Which reminds me, I must give her a call.

Claire told her phone to remind her to call her friend and investigate art courses, then went back to cudgelling her brain for inspiration.

What about writers’ retreats? Bound to be some of them; that could be fun. I might even learn something useful for the blog. Give it a touch of class.

Her thoughts drifted on to how much she’d neglected it since selling her iPad and she made another note to give it some attention.

If things don’t work out with Conor – as a boss that is – I might have to go crawling back to Carl. What a joyous prospect that is. Best to at least have something to offer.

Claire gave a sigh of relief as the SatNav directed her into town, along a narrow lane crowded with hills. The route to the hostel bypassed the town centre, coming in directly towards the shore where the hostel was located. She drove in past low slate-roofed buildings adorned with spectacular hanging baskets; the splashes of red and yellow lying vibrant against the grey stone.

As she approached her destination she began to see more people outside the window. It didn’t feel like a tourist destination, despite the large car park and throngs of visitors milling around. Claire turned her eyes towards the buildings, which grew in stature as she drove. The stone that had appeared merely grey now revealed a myriad of colours where the sun lit the surface. Browns and yellows mixed in with silver and gold.

As the road ran out, Claire remembered that she was meant to park in the large car pack she’d just passed. Suppressing a sigh, she turned the car and headed back, wincing as she saw the parking fees. With effort she pushed aside her irritation and pulled her bag from the boot.

Claire followed the path back down towards the harbour and her smile grew as she got nearer to the low stone buildings lurking at the water’s edge.

Around her rocky hills – partially covered in patches of luminous green grass and red gorse – climbed away from the water as if afraid to get their feet wet. White-washed buildings threw back the bright sunlight, dazzling her momentarily. She blinked away the spots in her vision and looked around. With a lungful of the salty air she felt her shoulders go back and her chin lift.

To her left a bridge crossed the small inlet that ran alongside the path, and up ahead she could see a slip sloping down into the water. The tide was out, showing the rocky bed, but she could imagine fishing boats being pushed into the water at high tide.

Then she caught her first glimpse of the hostel. The front shone white, interspersed with bright flowers, and people sat outside on metal chairs and tables. The roof looked as if a huge and heavy bottom had rested there once, leaving two deep dips in the slate. Claire pictured a giant taking a rest awhile, and grinned. As she got closer she realised the building was a café, tagged on the front of the hostel.

Handy for coffee in the morning.

Claire took some photos, determined to write a blog post that evening, and went round to check in.

I hate to admit Conor was right, but I’m glad he prompted me to get a wriggle on into Cornwall. I think I’m going to like this place. 

***

Jungle-Party-Eve and 2013 Challenge #27

This was me around four years ago, before this parenting adventure really began

This was me around four years ago, before this parenting adventure really began

It’s the night before the Jungle Party and right now I’m hoping my little girl feels better, as she’s been pale and poorly all day. Are you sick of hearing about the party? I’m a bit tired of it if I’m honest. It’s definitely been worth it though. My daughter is thrilled with her helium zebras and the room is going to look amazing – pictures tomorrow when everything is up and in place.

Understandably there wasn’t any research today. I have done about eight hours’ cleaning just to get my house ready for strangers. I’m not someone who does cleaning on a regular basis. I prefer to do a major blitz every few weeks, usually when we have visitors coming. Sometimes we invite the father-in-law over just to force us to clean and de-clutter.

The clock says it’s about an hour to bedtime. We still have wall hangings to put up, the kitchen work-tops and floor to clean and I should probably be making egg mayonnaise too but I think that will have to wait until the morning.

I had a moment of terror today when a friend of mine turned up with her daughter just after eleven. Poor lady had the wrong day for the party. She’d done her daughter’s hair and everything. My heart bled for her, after I’d recovered from the horror that it was me who had the wrong day. It wouldn’t be the first time. I make a habit of getting the wrong time or day for everything from doctors appointments to kids parties. My phone is my friend, and if it’s not in there as a meeting chances are I won’t make it.

At the end of the month I’ll be pulling all of January’s instalments into an e-book or pdf for anyone who wants to catch up without reading all the daily family chit-chat. I just have to decide whether to charge for it or have it on the site as a free download. I’m not out to make money (not off this book anyway!) but it might be interesting to see if anyone actually buys it. Anyway, on to Claire’s exploits.

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Claire tried to roll over to see what time it was and let out a wail of pain. She felt as if she had been slam-dunked by a twenty-stone bruiser. Time check could wait: still was best. If she stayed completely motionless only certain parts of her hurt. Her feet, covered in blisters that had only revealed themselves when she had peeled off her snow boots. Her cheeks, wind-chapped and raw. Everything else was a dull ache until she used any one of the hundreds of screaming muscles, when agony shot through her like a five-year-old trying out acupuncture.

The evening before replayed in Claire’s mind. There had been a sense of camaraderie when they got back to the hostel. The host prepared hot drinks, took their clothes away to dry them and then served up a delicious meal. The five of them sat together discussing the day, with Fi showing photographs she had taken on her iPhone. Claire was amazed at her ability to use the camera in sub-zero temperatures but Fi explained, with a strange look in her eye, that she thought they might be important.

They’d all gone to bed early. The two couples were leaving in the morning to return to their day jobs and there wasn’t a television for them to veg in front of anyway. Claire thought she’d never get to sleep before nine o’clock and surprised herself by sinking into the bed and closing her eyes with no palpable effort. It felt good, as if her body had been doing what it was built to do. Maybe this hiking lark isn’t so bad after all.

That was then. Now, as the sun came up, Claire happily cursed every deity that deigned to come within earshot. She had never experienced so much pain, not even after a brutal spinning session or an all-night-rave.

There was a scrape at the door and Claire turned her head to face it. She couldn’t find the energy to speak, never mind get up and answer it. Go away, she thought silently. I have no desire to see any of my torturers this morning. Go back to your happy, healthy, over-fulfilled lives and leave me to die in peace.

The scratching sound came again. Cursing her visitor’s inability to understand the silent command, Claire opened her paper-dry lips and croaked, “yes?”

“It’s Fi, can I come in?”

Fi. What the hell does she want? Come to gloat? Curiosity overcame ire and Claire called out, “Come in.” She flushed as she heard the weakness of her voice.

Fi’s head peered round the door and her brows contracted in concern at the sight of Claire in bed. “I’m so sorry, did I wake you? We’re off early I’m afraid.”

“No. I was awake. Just unable to move.”

Fi moved closer to the bed, her frown deepening. “Does it hurt? A hot shower and a gentle walk will help loosen off the muscles.” She smiled in sympathy. “I remember my first major hike. Jason dragged me over Scarfell in new boots. I had blisters on my blisters and my body felt like it had been filled with molten lead.”

“Yes.” Claire tried to nod and thought better of it. “That sounds about right.”

There was silence as the two girls watched each other warily. “I wanted to get your email address, so I could send you photos from yesterday.” Fi hesitated. “…for your blog.”

Claire sat up, then cried out as a dozen muscles protested the sudden movement. Her mouth opened but no words came. Her shock must have been obvious though because Fi blushed.

“I’m sorry. We should have come clean yesterday. I’m friends with your boss Carl’s sister on Facebook. When we put in our status update that we were staying in Byrness he said to look out for you. He asked us to goad you into hiking, as your blog was about healthy lifestyle but you weren’t leaving the hostels. I didn’t like it but Jason wanted to see if he could. You did really well especially if that was your first hike?”

The words all came out in a rush and, when she had finished, Fi stood and twisted her hands, staring out the window. Claire didn’t know where to start. She hadn’t heard from Carl once since her arrival in Berwick, despite calling several times and leaving messages with Julia. It made her skin itch to think of that snake discussing her with strangers. As for Jason dragging me on that infernal hike at Carl’s bidding. How dare he? Claire wanted to stalk out the room and find Jason so she could smack him in the face. Except it would hurt too much and Jason didn’t seem worth the extra pain.

“What will you do?”

Claire had forgotten Fi in her rage at Carl and Jason. Aside from being weak and silly and doing what her husband wanted, she hadn’t really done anything wrong. It was a good question. What should I do? Claire’s brain began to ache more than her thigh muscles as she tried to pick through her options.

“What would you do?” Claire looked up at Fi who was still standing by the bed. She thought about her situation, stuck in bed talking about her boss with a total stranger. She looked around at the sparse bedroom, the still-damp rucksack, the worried-looking lady, and began to laugh. It hurt her tummy muscles but she laughed anyway. It felt good. Fi looked shocked at first, as if Claire had snapped and had some sort of breakdown. Then she too began to giggle.

“I’d probably smack Jason in the face if he played a trick like that on me. Except I wouldn’t because I’m a wuss. I bet you could though. And that boss of yours. He sounds nothing like his sister, she’s a darling.”

Claire laughed harder and wiped at her streaming eyes. Eventually she had no more mirth left and she sank back into the pillows like a punctured balloon.

What should I do?

“Can you send me those pictures? If Carl wants outdoor pursuits, I’ll give him outdoors.”

Fi grinned and started tapping details into her phone. As she was leaving she turned back to face Claire.

“Piece of advice?”

“Of course, fire away.”

“Buy some hiking trousers.”

Claire grinned and nodded before sinking back into the protective hug of the bed.

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Palm Trees, Donkeys and 2013 365 Challenge #26

Crazy Geese - one of them tried to bite the donkey causing it to buck.

Crazy Geese – one of them tried to bite the donkey causing it to buck.

I took the children to the Farm today (Sacrewell Farm: a great place where you can feed rabbits and goats, play on the indoor and outdoor climbing frames, go on tractor rides, stroke the horses and see the pigs. We go at least once a week.)

Normally we are there for several hours and the kids have to be bribed away with cookies. Today only the youngest one had to be bribed. My daughter was cold and has decided she’s all done with snow.

We lasted less than an hour and some of that was spent getting hats and gloves on.

I'm not sure if she's nervous about the snow or the peacock

I’m not sure if she’s nervous about the snow or the peacock

(Have I mentioned I’m more of a Spring/Autumn girl? Summer is all suncream and chasing kids to put hats on. Winter is about layers, wet gloves and I’m cold… said over and over in a whiney voice.)

The forecast is for more snow 😦 and then heavy rain 🙂 Even though it will mean more flooding I’ve never been so happy to see a heavy rain prediction.

Poor donkey not too happy about sharing his paddock with the crazy geese!

Poor donkey not too happy sharing his paddock with the crazy geese!

Today has been spent making poster-paint palm trees, assembling party bags and putting together Musical Leaf (think Musical Chairs) / Musical Trees (think Musical Statues) prizes. It’s gone bedtime and I haven’t started today’s post yet. I’m enjoying all the party prep but I admit I’ll be glad when it’s over. Next year I think I’ll suggest we hire out the nearest swimming pool and buy in pizza.

I’ve enjoyed my research today. I decided Claire needed to get out in the snow and do some hiking in her Helly Hansens (I still need to Google whether they’re even waterproof! – They are, apparently they’re snow boots. Perfect).

For the first part of my info-gathering I took the dog for a walk and wrote down as much as I could of the experience with my numb fingers. Then I stumbled across this great website detailing the Pennine Way one photo at a time: Bynress to Kirk Yetholm. I’m currently scrolling through it experiencing the walk without getting off the sofa. I wonder how much Claire is going to enjoy it?

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Claire looked around the dinner table at the flushed, shiny, faces of people who had spent too long out in a blizzard. The food was good but Claire couldn’t wait for the meal to be over. So much eager enthusiasm was putting her right off her spaghetti.

“So Claire, are you here to do the Pennine Way tomorrow? Rather unusual hiking by yourself at this time of year.”

Claire jerked her head up, so inured to the conversation wafting over her that she had ceased to pay attention.

“What, me? Hell, no.”

She laughed loudly but stopped when she realised no one else was smiling. She managed to swallow the next words waiting to spill out: Only sad freaks and single people go hiking. She wasn’t sure what category that put Michael and the darling Debbie in. She didn’t want to think about them. And after an hour of conversation she knew that these good folk certainly didn’t fit in either category. Jason and Fi were married and, when they weren’t hiking, spent their days working for a busy firm of solicitors. Jenny and Paul were engaged and both studied medicine. They’d all met at university and now went hiking together twice a year.

Claire had been conscious of a growing sense of unworthiness throughout the meal and was surprised that any of them had bothered to talk to her at all. She had introduced herself as a Marketing Exec and wondered afterwards whether they thought that meant she was at the bottom of the pecking order rather than the top.

“We’re out again tomorrow, why don’t you join us? It must be dull cooped up indoors by yourself all day.”

Jason’s grin had a spiky edge that Claire mistrusted. She wasn’t about to admit that the day had dragged like a Finance meeting. She had every intention of leaving in the morning for the next hostel, but something in Jason’s sardonic stare made her hackles rise. She looked back at him coolly and silently challenged him to continue.

“We’ll be walking out to Kirk Yetholm tomorrow to complete the Pennine Way. Well, we haven’t done all of it this time. Who has twenty days to spend travelling?” He raised an eyebrow at Claire and it was as if he knew everything about her.

Has he figured it out? Maybe he’s linked me with the Two-hundred Steps Home blog? Can’t imagine how, it’s only got three followers. Maybe he’s a friend of Carl’s sent to spy on me. After reading that Visitor Book yesterday anything is possible.

Thinking about the Visitor Book comment made Claire think of Debbie again. Before she was aware of it her mouth opened and she began to speak. “Okay, why not? I probably don’t have all the right gear with me but I should be able to manage a dozen miles.” Her traitorous brain seemed to have the wit not to add, how hard can it be?

Twenty-four hours later she was glad she was at least saved that humiliation.

Damn this streaming nose, when will it stop? Claire turned her head left and right so she could see if anyone was watching, then wiped her nose with her woollen gloves. Mental note to disinfect these when we get back to civilisation.

Claire’s hood was pulled up as high as it would go, and her coat was zipped to her chin, reducing her vision to the patch of snow directly in front of her. Her face was so numb her nose could be chopped off by a cosmetic surgeon and she wouldn’t notice. There may be something in that. Freezing as a form of anaesthetic. Why not?

She dug her hands deeper in her pockets and tried not to whimper. Her thighs burned from keeping her balance in the deep snow. The sound of her own sniffing was driving her nuts. Little other external noise made it through the hood; only the rustling of her clothing, the scrunch of snow and the wind whooshing past her hood. Her eyes ached from the brightness of snow. Funny, it didn’t occur to me that I might need my damn sunglasses in March. Claire mentally catalogued the pains: Hips sore, feet sore, skin dry, lips chapped, face frozen, knees creaking. This must be what it feels like to be ninety.

They crouched in the lee of a low stone wall to get some food. Claire perched on her rucksack and stared longingly at Jason’s flask of coffee and foil-wrapped warm pasty. She bit into the sandwiches provided by the hostel and tried not to expose more skin that necessary. They didn’t stop for long. Even the cheery Paul had fallen quiet as they neared their destination.

Claire dropped into a metronomic one-two one-two beat just to keep her feet moving. Jenny called out names like Black Hag and Old Halterburn. They sounded like insults but she guessed they were points on the map the others all carried.

Claire’s heart began to thud in her ears as something dark loomed out of the snow. She wondered whether she should alert the others, but they were a few paces ahead, leaving her to trudge at the rear. None of them seemed concerned by the hulking shape. Claire watched it nervously as they approached, before realising what it was. It’s a damn tree. I think that’s the first one I’ve seen. Where do the birds live up here? Maybe they don’t; maybe they have more sense.

Occasionally the ground beneath the snow was solid, like a path. Her legs were grateful for the respite from uneven terrain until she felt her boots slipping and realised it was even more treacherous than the unpaved earth. Paul had mentioned something at dinner about it being a shame about the snow because he’d bought his gaiters deliberately for some bog hopping, which was still possible in places between the boardwalks and the paving slabs. Claire had no idea what he meant, picturing bed-hopping with more dirt. Now she felt the snow might be a mercy.

On the ridge Claire’s entire world contracted to the focus point of Jason’s blue ski jacket in front of her. Ski jacket! It hurt to see it and think of the snow trousers, Degree 7 snow jacket, snood and gloves currently sitting in a storage facility somewhere near Manchester. The hiking jacket sold to her by the tasty man in Blacks, combined with her cashmere and as many t-shirts as she could fit on, was keeping her warm on top but it was not the weather for jeans. They clung like a blanket of thin-sliced liver to her legs and dragged her down with every step.

Jason had sniggered to Fi when Claire joined them in the hallway ready for departure. He had smoothed the smile from his face and suggested alternative trousers might be more comfortable. When Claire had explained she had nothing else he just shrugged. Fi looked troubled and said something to him in a low voice but he just shook his head. Feeling the numbness in her thighs, Claire wished Fi was the kind of woman who stood up to her man and helped the city girl. Not that I’d have accepted help then. I’m glad I went back and put tights on underneath. I might be sweatier than a clubber at 4am but I’m not getting frostbite. At least her Helly Hansen snow boots were coming into their own, even if the snow was over the tops most of the time.

They walked past some more trees and some pathetic-looking sheep huddled into the scanty shelter afforded by a wall and Claire felt the mood of the group lift. Her brain processed the information that they were reaching the end of the ordeal. Her steps became more brisk and she raised her chin for the first time in hours. There was a footbridge at the bottom of the valley and at last they were off the snow and onto a paved road. Claire swung her legs from the hip, trying to stretch out tired muscles. All she could think of was a hot shower and a cup of Earl Grey.

Her muscles tightened as she felt the road begin to climb. You bastard, I’m done. How could you just have one more hill?

And then it was over. They were all tucked into a warm car with steamed up windows heading back to the hostel. The two couples chattered excitedly about the walk, about having finally completed the Pennine Way, about getting some certificate or other. Claire rested her head against the vibrating freezing glass and dreamed of tea.

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