I only have one word today. Shattered. Normal business will resume tomorrow.
Phew, how do teachers do it? I spent the day with my daughter today, as my son was in nursery. It’s the only whole day I have with her this half term so we crammed a lot in. Swimming for an hour followed by shopping for new school shoes (how do they get so trashed?!), new waterproofs (why do kids grow so fast?) and new school socks (how can five pairs vanish in as many months?)
Then the obligatory trip to McDonalds (yes, I know, parenting shame. I don’t care, sorry!) followed by more shopping to buy another four birthday gifts to see us through March’s parties. An unexpected extra expense of school has definitely been the birthday parties. Although at least we rarely have to make weekend plans!
You’d think my daughter might have been tired when we got home? Oh no. I barely drank a cup of tea before she was onto the next activity: iron-on crayons that she got for her birthday. I didn’t mind, actually, as I like clever non-messy craft. And I knew those t-shirts I bought for her nativity would come in handy. It took a while to explain the concept of colouring a back-to-front design so it would be the right way round when ironed onto the t-shirt, but I’m pleased with our shared efforts. And I didn’t even interfere that much! 😉
A break then? Nah. Then we wrapped up a bunch of gifts (with my fast-dimishing patience put severly to the test. Gift wrapping is one of those things that I find it REALLY hard to leave to her: largely because I foolishly fear being judged as a bad wrapper!) There was just time for a quick sandwich before we had to pick up my son.
The day wasn’t over, as we still had an hour at the library to get through. The kids now want to play board games and I just want to crawl into bed. It’s only 6.30pm. I already had huge respect for teachers but the idea of multiplying today by 25 is just horrific. Give me struggling with character arcs and plot holes any day!
Talking of which, I woke at 4.30am this morning in a cold sweat having dreamed I was being chased by dogs. It was a convincing dream and during the hour it took to calm down (until my daughter woke at 5.30am) I had some great ideas for a sequel to Dragon Wraiths.
I’ve wanted to write a sequel since I finished it, but had so many dilemmas about viewpoints and plot. I’m still pretty vague but I feel a tiny step closer, including deciding that it has to be told by Leah again (my preference was to have it multi-viewpointed from the perspective of the new wraiths. But it felt like trouble!) Now I just have to get Class Act finished! But first, sleep. I’m taking my two terrors to the Space Museum on my own tomorrow: something tells me I’m going to need all my energy!
I promised hubbie that I’d take the children to one of our regular Farm places today, so he could have some time to get things done and look at assembling their Christmas pressie (a trampoline: only it turns out some important bolts are missing. Eek).
Unfortunately a storm has hit the UK and the weather is just plain awful. We do try not to teach the children about good weather and bad weather (the proper line being ‘good clothing’ or ‘the wrong clothing’) so I duly dressed them in wellies and waterproofs and off we went.
But my god it was miserable. Freezing cold with sideways sleety rain and a wind that could easily blow Dorothy’s house out of Kansas. Thankfully there were lots of Christmas events on, most of which were under cover, so we survived. The nativity was my favourite: they selected children from the audience, dressed them in costumes, and fed them their lines, while the grown ups sang carols. It was charming.
Apparently they normally parade animals across the front too, but I guess it was too busy or wet today. We did get to see the 24-year-old highland cow, though, sheltering in the barn, nice and warm. Which was more than could be said for the ponies, out in the field drenched to the skin.
The children still wanted their pony rides, so we battled our way to their field and I stood getting drenched while they had their trips round. Mummy needs to buy some waterproof trousers!
We fitted in a quick trip to the play barn, a ride on the barrel train in the rain, and a visit to the coffee shop where the children refused to eat their ice cream because they didn’t have chocolate, only strawberry. Of course the highlight of the day was jumping in the puddles in the car park! I’m not sure they used up much energy, although Mummy was pretty exhausted, but at least they had plenty of fresh air!
It doesn’t feel very Christmassy with the awful stormy weather (not to mention what it’s doing to our Sky reception!) and I really feel for anyone having to cross the country to visit relatives. We are fortunate that ours are two miles down the road. Whatever you’re doing this holiday, whether you’re home or away, stay safe, and Happy Christmas Eve!
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:
Claire drove down the tree-lined road, following the SatNav, unable to see anything past the tunnel of green. A spark of excitement built in her chest and she tried to ignore it, afraid of what it might mean.
Eventually the woodland thinned and the computerised voice announced her arrival. To begin with she couldn’t see the entrance, but further down the road she spied a discreet sign at the head of a lane. She turned in and bumped down the pitted track towards the building. More trees concealed the view until she came out into a clearing and gasped.
Ahead was a sprawling mansion, all windows and chimneys, surrounded by exotic trees and endless rolling parkland. It looked more like a National Trust property than a children’s activity centre.
As she parked the car, Claire wondered if she’d come to the wrong place. With her heart in her throat, and half expecting to be accosted for trespassing, she climbed out and went in search of Timothy.
The place was eerily silent. Claire had imagined it would be bustling with people. If not children, then staff or even workmen finishing the renovations. Convinced now that she had come to the wrong building, she was about to retreat back to her car when she heard a voice.
Searching round for the source, she heard the cry again and looked up. She could just make out someone waving at her from a first story window. Shielding her eyes against the sun, she realised it was a middle-aged man and assumed it must be the elusive Timothy.
“Don’t run away. I’ll be right down!”
The head disappeared and she waited, looking around her in bemusement. Everywhere she looked was green. Ivy climbed the white walls of the house and wrapped around the chimneys. Held back by low stone borders, flowers and bushes provided a riot of life and colour. Behind the house she could see an immaculate lawn stretching down to the sea, which shone brilliant blue against the sky. It was heaven.
Before Claire could begin to imagine living and working in such an idyllic spot, the owner appeared before her, holding out his hand. He was a tall man, lithe, with hair that might once have been chestnut but was now sprinkled with grey. The lines at the corners of his eyes spoke of a life full of laughter.
“Hello, you must be Claire. How marvellous to meet you. Did you find us okay?”
Claire shook the offered hand and returned the smile. “Yes, no problem. The Sat Nav brought me right here. What a gorgeous place.” She looked around, not believing what her eyes showed her.
“Yes, isn’t it? I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” He turned and led the way into the building. “You find us on a quiet day,” he called over his shoulder. “The other staff are at a first aid course, ready for when we open in September. My goodness, that’s next week.” He laughed as if he couldn’t quite believe it. “There are eight of us in total,” he continued, “but I expect that number to increase once we start getting bookings.”
Inside was equally magnificent. Dark wood panelling ran around the walls, leading to a wide staircase that invited you to explore upstairs. Deep pink carpets ran throughout, giving the place an air of an old hotel. Timothy led her through a large social room full of faded sofas and long benches, with patio doors that opened onto the garden, until they came to the kitchen.
“Tea?” he asked, heading to one of the cupboards.
“Yes, please.” Claire sat near the window and looked out at the view. After a few moments, Timothy walked over with a laden tray.
“Do help yourself to banana bread or biscuits. Gemma’s our chef; she’s been trying out new recipes. Part of our aim here will be to send the children home well fed as well as well entertained.” He stopped and seemed to realise he’d jumped into the middle of their conversation. “My apologies, I should ask, how much has Maggie informed you of what we hope to do here?”
“Only that you’re opening an activity centre for disadvantaged children.” Claire selected a piece of cake and nibbled at it.
“Yes, that’s it precisely. Somewhere inner city children can come and breathe the air, try their hand at some outdoor pursuits and, as I mentioned, get some healthy food into the bargain.”
“It sounds wonderful, although it’s a long way for the children to come?”
“Indeed it is, but I believe that’s an element of the experience. A trip overland by coach, seeing the sights of the country along the way – or the motorways at least –” he smiled ruefully, “–is part of the journey. A widening of their world, as it were.”
Claire felt slightly uncomfortable at his words. His motives were admirable, but she wondered if it was all a bit patronising. Inner city children were just children after all. It felt a bit like alms to the poor.
But what do I know? I have no experience of what it must be like growing up in a city and perhaps never seeing the countryside or the sea. Who wouldn’t want their child to be able to come here and experience this?
“And where do I come in?” She looked into Timothy’s eager expression and could understand why perhaps they needed some business help.
“Maggie tells me you used to work in marketing? We have a competent manager running the place –”
Claire quickly revised her misconception and continued to listen
“–but she’s the first to admit that sales and marketing are not her strengths. We want to start slow, build up our experience and our reputation, but we need someone to get in contact with schools, find us some children willing to be our guinea pigs.”
Some of Claire’s distaste for a sales role must have showed on her face, because Timothy’s expression dropped ludicrously.
“You’re not keen? Ah what a shame, but thank you for coming to see me at least. We don’t often get visitors.”
Claire found herself saying, “I just need to know more about it all. Maybe if I could meet the rest of the staff? I’m not a sales person, that’s all. There’s a big difference between marketing and sales.”
“Is there?” Timothy raised his eyebrows. “You see, I really do know nothing about it.”
“Maggie also mentioned I’d be employed as an instructor, rather than specifically for the marketing. I’m afraid I don’t have any skills in that area.”
“But you like children, yes? That is really all one needs to begin with. We can send you on the training courses for the rest.”
Words of denial were in her mouth, when Claire really thought about the question. Did she like spending time with children? She thought back over her trips with Sky, and Alex and Jack, and thought maybe it wasn’t so bad. And if it meant getting to live in such a beautiful location, with views over the sea and endless space, it was worth a try.
“I have a niece and two nephews,” she said by way of explanation. “They’ve been travelling with me on and off this summer. I wouldn’t say I was qualified, but I have enjoyed their company.”
“Splendid. Well, all that remains is for me to offer you a room for the night, and to say I hope you will join us for dinner so that you may meet the rest of the staff. We’re rather like a family here and it would be marvellous if you would consider becoming a member.”
He stood and indicated for Claire to follow him from the room. Her thoughts scurried around her head like mice as she tried to process the interview, if that was what it could be called. Her sensible brain told her to get out while she could, reminding her that she didn’t like her own family and wasn’t in search of a new one. But some instinct kept her following Timothy to the dorm rooms. Something told her this just could be her next big adventure.
Today I went on my first date in nine years with a handsome young chap with a charming smile. It wasn’t a fancy date, and I didn’t mind paying. Nor did I mind the chattering repetitive conversation. I only baulked slightly at the £6 bus fare to travel twenty minutes into town, or the money spent on a lunch uneaten, for the sake of a small plastic toy.
I rode the lift and the escalator as many times as he requested, I walked slowly and watched the pigeons. I left the museum willingly because “the noises were scary”. I gave him my (mostly) undivided attention (I am writing this in McD) and endured the humiliation of trying to figure out the bus timetable as a group of amused pensioners looked on and gave helpful advice (my last paying trip on a bus was more years ago than my last date.)
He has his hand around my heart, this young man of mine. I am proud to be out with him, to give him my time freely. I’m glad I cleaned house yesterday in all my angst, because I bought this day of freedom. I’m trying not to feel guilty that this is our first date or that his sister hasn’t really ever had one. Instead I’m trying to be proud of what we are doing rather than guilty for what hasn’t been done before.
Anyway, I must stop writing and get back to my date. We mustn’t miss our bus home, I’m looking forward to my cuddle on the top deck.
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:
“Hi, I’m Paul, I’ll be your instructor for today.”
Claire nodded at the tanned man standing in front of her, blushing slightly as he returned her greeting with a grin. She tugged at the neck of her wetsuit and looked around the group, wondering what she was doing there. There were ten of them on the beach, including a young lad with his grandpa and a group of thirty-something women giggling and blushing every time the teacher looked in their direction.
At her feet a brightly patterned surfboard rested on the sand, taunting her. Claire knew there was no way she would be standing on it by the end of the two hours, despite all of Paul’s enthusiastic assurances. She thought about her previous activities and accidents; falling off her bike; spraining her arm learning to snowboard. If she could stand on solid ground by the end of the day that would be enough.
She turned to gaze down the beach. The sand stretched endlessly, glistening under the morning sun. The sea slithered up and down the shore thirty metres behind the teacher, and she could see the sand beneath the waves.
At least it isn’t deep, so I won’t drown when I fall off.
As she followed Paul’s instructions, lying on her board and pretending to paddle, Claire felt glad that there were no witnesses.
Josh would be having a field day if he was here. I expect he surfs like a champion.
She looked at the white crests breaking along the horizon and gave a shudder. Paul had told them with an unnerving grin that the waves were just right for their lesson; maybe on the high side for beginners but better than a dead calm sea. Claire wasn’t sure she agreed. Although they didn’t look huge from the beach, she was certain it would be a different matter when they were pouring over her head.
She stood bemused as she learned she had a goofy foot, not entirely sure she understood what it meant. Ignoring Paul’s guffaws, she kept her focus on the lesson, repeating the pop up technique again and again until he was happy that everyone had grasped it.
“Right, peeps, I think you’re ready. Let’s go catch some waves.”
Fear clenched her stomach as the moment she’d been dreading arrived. Despite the sun overhead, the freezing water expelled the air from Claire’s lungs and she muttered a few choice curses. Seeing the grandpa frolicking in the waves like a five year old forced her to square her shoulders and dive headlong into the water. Once she was wet it wasn’t so bad.
The air filled with the sound of laughter as everyone in the group tried to remember all they’d been taught. Getting up onto one knee wasn’t so bad, and Claire’s body filled with elation as the wave caught her board and dragged her back towards the sand.
Paddling out again, despite the water being shallow enough to wade, Claire tried to stop caring what anyone thought, concentrating instead on getting to her feet. Her confidence was premature and she toppled off the board before she’d even got onto her knees.
She surfaced coughing and spitting out water, waiting for the teasing and laughter. As she looked around, the other students were too busy pulling themselves back on their boards or brushing wet hair from their faces to notice. There was a sense of camaraderie that she hadn’t expected.
Claire pulled herself back on the board and paddled out again. The wait for the right wave was a strange sort of pause. Then she saw the perfect line of froth and positioned herself to catch it. Paddling hard, she managed to get to her knees, ignoring the throb of pain as she landed too hard. The board pulled beneath her like a dog on a lead, and she tried to decide whether to enjoy the ride or attempt getting to her feet. Before her mind was made up, the board ran into the sand and it was time to start again.
It never felt tedious, grabbing the board and propelling it back out to sea. It was a game; choosing the right wave, waiting just the right amount of time, jumping on board at the precise moment so that she swooped back to shore like a bird.
Eventually, after falling off and into the sea more times than a toddler learning to walk, she managed to climb briefly to her feet. With a loud whoop of joy, she dug her toes into the waxed plastic and rode the wave back to the sparkling sand. As it ground into the beach she jumped off and punched the air.
“Well done,” Paul said, coming over to give her a high five. “You’re a natural. Are you coming back tomorrow?”
The smile slipped slightly and Claire shook her head. “Unfortunately not; I have to keep moving.”
“Nay worry. The day’s still young. Go get those waves, girl, they’re waiting.”
With a quick nod Claire picked up her board and ran back into the sea.
We went on a new day out with the children today. We didn’t mean to be out all day, but sometimes these things sneak up. My cousin was booked in to tandem skydive at the local airfield and we went up to watch him jump. Last year we arrived just as he was landing so we went a little early, took some snacks, and got there before they did.
Unfortunately it turned out he wasn’t booked in, so we ended up waiting for three hours and leaving before his group were called, when the children started to flag. We’re wind burnt and exhausted, but it was a great day out.
There was so much going on. Not just the parachute flights but other small aircraft taking off and landing, people coming and going. Our kids played with their big second (third?) cousins, and some other children also waiting. We had snacks and burgers, coffee and ice cream and caught up with family we usually only see at weddings and funerals.
I also got to tell the children that Mummy did that once, Mummy jumped out of a plane at 15,000 feet. (It’s the only thing I’ve done that hubbie hasn’t). My second cousins were impressed, probably because I don’t look like someone who would throw themselves out of a perfectly good airplane. I wouldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t have done it then except they wouldn’t let me stay on board. Apparently it’s not safe landing the plane with people in (or that’s what they said. Thinking about it that’s probably rubbish!)
So it’s been an amazing day. Shame about the windburn and the exhaustion (not that the children are tired. They’re never tired!). What is it about wind that is so tiring? Maybe it’s dehydration. I’m definitely filing it away in my writer’s mental notebook for future reference.
And the airfield is a great place to take the children for an inexpensive day out. There was even a replica spitfire in the hangar as we walked up to the viewing area. Fantastic.
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:
Claire inhaled the muggy scent of damp track and bushland and sighed.
This is what’s amazing about this country. You couldn’t wander through London and stumble across a bushland walk up a steep hillside.
If she closed her eyes, it was easy to imagine she was back in the Tongariro reserve, or up near Cape Reinga ready to hug the trees, rather than in the country’s capital city.
She could hear Josh’s steady breathing beside her. That was the difference. In the Tongariro Park the closest she had come to companionship was dodging Neal’s strange attempts at seduction. Having Josh alongside her was like pulling on her favourite sweater to stave off a chilly evening. Except it wasn’t so comfortable any more.
Claire thought through the new awkwardness of their relationship, as she kept pace with Josh’s long strides and tried not to pant with exertion.
What’s changed from when we travelled together? We weren’t involved, apart from that near kiss at the beginning. It didn’t matter that he had a wife and kids. But only because I didn’t know about them, I suppose. Would I have been happy sharing a bunk-bed with him if I’d known he was married?
Looking back on their time at the Hartington hostel, and the day trip in Cambridge, Claire remembered how altered Josh had been. When Fiona had been unknown, when she hadn’t met Lucas, Sophie and Lily, Josh had been hers. There were no complications, no guilt, no subtext. She hadn’t even worried that much whether she fancied him or not. All the Michael stuff had been too raw for her to want to dive headlong into something new.
Now that was old news it seemed she was a dog on heat. Because there was no doubt she ached to hold him. Every time his skin brushed against hers she felt on fire. Her senses zinged as if she’d been fed coffee on an intravenous drip since breakfast.
She kept glancing at him, trying to see if he felt the spark between them. If she caught his eye he just smiled or ran a little way, taunting her for her inability to keep up. On the surface he was the Josh of old. But now and then, when he thought she wasn’t looking, she knew he watched her. And of course there was the email. They hadn’t talked about that. Thanks to the strenuous walk they hadn’t talked about anything much.
That’s probably a good thing. It’s lovely to see him, but it will be better for all of us when he flies back to his wife and I finally get both feet on the south island.
After what felt like hours, they crested the hill and left the bush behind. Claire gasped at the unexpected view. All around and beneath her, Wellington sprawled out to the horizon. She groaned as Josh pointed to the steps leading up to the top of the lookout.
“No more climbing. My legs are on strike.”
“Do you want me to carry you?” Josh’s voice was playful but Claire gave a little shiver.
“It’s fine. I’ll walk. You may have to roll me back down the hill to the hotel though.”
Before he could say anything she strode past him, taking the stairs two at a time. She reached the top first and had a moment to catch her breath before he was once more standing too close for comfort.
“Told you it would be worth it.” Josh said, once he was breathing normally.
Claire turned, confused at his words, and realised he was talking about the view. “Yes. It’s nothing like Auckland, is it?”
“No. This is more the real New Zealand, I think. Look, there’s the airstrip.” Josh pointed at a ribbon of green stretching out into the ocean.
“Bugger that. Now I’m definitely taking the ferry south.”
There was a pause, and she realised it was the first time either of them had spoken of the future. She wondered if Josh would take the chance to explain why he had come. He leant his arms on the railing and looked around at the panoramic view. Claire sensed the tension in his shoulders, but didn’t have the words to break the silence. Instead she gazed at the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the harbour beneath her where the high-rise buildings were dwarfed by the surrounding hills. On the other side she could see a large circle of green that she decided must be a cricket pitch. And running through the buildings all the way to the horizon were thick bands of native bush.
What an amazing city.
“Claire, I …”
Josh’s voice cut through her reverie and made her hands tremble. There was so much loaded into two words. She turned to face him, studying his profile as he continued to gaze into the distance.
“I needed to see you. The truth is I’m–”
A voice cut through Josh’s words and Claire bit back a curse. With a deep sigh she turned and forced a smile onto her face.
The girl rushed over, leaving behind a group of people Claire vaguely recognised from the ferry. Bethan’s ability to make friends astounded her.
“You didn’t get the ferry then? I thought you might, as it’s such a gorgeous day.” Then, sensing she was interrupting, Bethan looked towards Josh in confusion. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“No, it’s fine. Bethan this is Josh, Josh, Bethan. We were on the ferry together yesterday.”
Josh pushed away from the railing and turned to face the newcomer, shielding his eyes against the sun. He turned on his brightest smile and chatted to Bethan as if they were old friends.
Claire watched the mask slide back in place across his face and felt a heavy lump drop into her stomach. Whatever he had been about to say, the moment had passed. Following Josh and Bethan as they walked towards the other group, Claire wondered if she felt disappointed or relieved.
Yesterday I was urged to count my blessings, by a Londoner I bumped into while walking the dog. He was born in our county (Northamptonshire) but hadn’t returned for many years.
Walking across the fields, with the dotted rocks, natural ponds and long grasses (and too many cows for my liking), on a hot summer’s day, he said it was one of the most beautiful places in the country.
With my recent trip to Scotland in mind, and my various excursions to The Lakes or the Peak District, I struggled to agree. The land is too flat and domesticated for my liking.
But the particular walk we were on is lovely (I would go more often if it weren’t for the cows). There is a lovely brook I used to swim in as a child, where the dog will chase sticks for hours.
I could see my mum’s chimney from where we stood, and I pointed it out, to loud exclamations of envy. Then, when he asked if I was taking the dog to the river for a swim, I mentioned that I was, to be followed for a dip by me in my mum’s pool. He laughed, with more obvious jealousy, and said he hoped I appreciated how much I was truly blessed to live such a life. In the three days of his visit he hadn’t seen a policeman or heard a siren.
Needless to say, he was not one of the people you meet who think London is the centre of the universe!
Now, I love London, although I’ve never lived there. My various trips for work and pleasure have always been amazing. I have friends who live in beautiful parts of the suburbs, with glorious parklands close by.
But the city is wasted on me. I’m not bothered about going to bars, I hate shopping and I rarely have time or energy for theatres and museums. Walking the dog, though, enjoying silence, breathing clean air: these are things I am regularly thankful for. Having lived in Manchester for several years, and Leeds before that, I tasted enough of city life to know it isn’t for me.
Nor am I someone who needs to be told to count their blessings. I’ve lived in enough places, have played sufficiently different roles, to appreciate who and where I am. (I do occasionally miss my little terrace house, where I lived alone while dating my husband, but I think that’s natural as a parent of two!)
Yesterday I took the children to a vintage bus rally at the farm, including a free trip on a 50-year-old double-decker bus. We wandered around, saying hello to people we knew, visiting the new ducklings and playing hide and seek in the barn.
Then we stopped off for a swim on the way home, where both my little babies can now jump unaided into the pool and swim a little bit before sinking. Then we went home to tuck the children in bed, before going up oursevles without worrying about locking the front door (although I always do if hubbie is away!)
This morning I am writing this in a coffee shop in town, nodding to people I know, while hubbie takes our daughter for her last school taster session before the real thing (in her school uniform, too, so adorable!)
For all the trials and sleepless nights, the work worries and the endless toddler chatter, I count my blessings and they are many.
Life is good.
Claire heard a familiar voice as she entered the bar, and her heart skipped more than a beat. Her eyes raked across the room, even as she knew it couldn’t be him. Locating the source of the voice, Claire exhaled in relief and disappointment. Now she could see the speaker, she realised the voice didn’t even sound like his. Similar, but with more inflection at the end of the sentences.
The man lounged in the corner of the room, chatting to two young women, both of whom were clearly hanging off his every word. She judged him to be older than Josh, although with the same tan and laughter lines that suggested a life lived largely under the sun.
I guess there must be hundreds of Aussies backpacking round the UK, particularly as it’s winter over there.
Putting the man, and the memories he dredged up, from her mind, she went to the bar.
Claire sensed eyes on her and looked up. The man from earlier stood inches from her shoulder, looking down at the screen of her iPad. Claire bristled and flipped the case closed.
“Thinking of a trip to New Zealand?” The man’s accent added several extra vowels to the words.
“No, just researching a piece I’m writing.”
“Really? I could help ya, whatcha wanna know?”
He pulled up a stool without asking and sat next to her at the bar. Claire was torn between amusement and irritation. She glanced over her shoulder to where the man had been chatting up the girls, but they were gone.
Picking up on her glance, the man laughed. “S’alright, they weren’t with me. Just being friendly.”
Claire stared at him, unsure how to react. On closer inspection she decided he wasn’t all that attractive. On the shady side of thirty-five at least, although his skin was so weathered he could be anywhere between twenty and fifty. His relaxed air and easy confidence set up her British hackles, and her first thought was to tell him to get lost.
But he reminded her of Josh and, with Kim still refusing her calls, her parents getting more action than she’d seen in six months, and the memory of Michael red-hot in her mind, she decided what the hell.
With a glint in her eye she asked, “What part of Australia are you from?” She laughed at his disgruntled expression. “I’m kidding. You’re a Kiwi, right?”
“Ha Bloody Ha. If you’re planning a trip down under you’ll learn not to make that mistake.” His brow furrowed and she was surprised to see he really was put out by her joke.
“Oh come on, it must happen all the time. Could you tell what part of the UK I’m from?”
“Maybe not, but I don’t think you’re Scottish or Welsh and I wouldn’t ask you if you were a yank.”
“Australian is much closer to the Kiwi accent than English to American.” Claire was bored of the discussion but couldn’t think of a way to end it.
“Not to me, chook.”
“Fair enough. Sorry. What part of New Zealand are you from, then?” She wasn’t really interested, but politeness stopped her from turning back to her daydreaming.
“Dunedin. It’s in the south,” he added, “don’t suppose you’ve heard of it.”
“Between Christchurch and the Catlins?” Claire threw out the comment, before taking a drink of her gin.
The man grinned. “You have done your research. What are you working on? I’m Mitch, by the way.”
“Claire.” She nearly held out her hand but thought better of it. “I’ve been offered a writing job over there.” It felt good to finally tell someone. Mitch’s eyebrows lifted in interest and Claire found herself pouring out the whole story.
“But I’ve decided not to go,” she said at the end. “My sister’s recovering from cancer, I need to somehow mend bridges with my best friend before she has her baby, and I don’t want to give my boss the satisfaction of not having to sack me.” She took another gulp of her gin and tonic and wondered why she had spilled her guts to a stranger and, more to the point, why he hadn’t legged it.
He didn’t even look bored. Instead he had a thoughtful frown on his face.
“I see your dilemma. Crappy time to visit New Zealand anyway, unless you like skiing?”
Claire laughed at his response. “Well, I do like to ski, but I hardly think I could afford it on what they’ll be paying me.”
“There’s always work for those that need it. I can see you pulling pints in a backpackers bar.” He winked and Claire wasn’t sure if it was an insult or a compliment.
“What are you in the UK for, holiday?” She didn’t want to dwell on the potential of going to New Zealand, not now she had decided to stay.
“Yeah, not much work in the winter. Thought I’d come see what all the fuss is about.”
“What do you do, in New Zealand?”
“I’m a bus driver for Magic.” Claire raised an eyebrow in enquiry. “Thought you’d done your research? It’s one of the tour companies that take backpackers round to all the sights. Kiwi Experience is the other one, although we have a different name for it.” He told her and she blushed, much to his amusement.
“That’d be the way to do your writing dead easy. Two or three weeks, everything booked and sorted for you. What do you Brits say, A doddle?”
She laughed at his attempt at an English accent. A yawn caught her unawares, and she covered her mouth with both hands.
“Sorry, I think I’m going to have to say good night. It was fun talking to you, Mitch. Enjoy your travels.” With another yawn, she picked up her iPad and headed to her room.
Last week I read a post on the Mummy Kindness blog about remembering to celebrate the small daily achievements, as well as the big ones, particularly as a parent.
On those days when the chores are overwhelming, the laundry endless, the fridge empty, the children impossible and the tears enough to fill a paddling pool (and that’s just mine) it’s important to remember that the little things matter.
Mummy Kindness summed up the feelings of despair eloquently:
“Do you ever feel like your main role in life is simply to move mounds of clothing from one place to the other?
“Or is that just me? From the floor, to the basket, to the machine. Where it remains for too long. Wash it again. Put it in the dryer. Forget about it. Still damp and smelly. Wash it again. Repeat. Dry it. Iron it (sometimes), put it in drawers and on hangers. Chase moving targets to wrap them in it. Find items on floor. Move them to basket. Repeat, repeat, repeat ad infinitum.”
The point of the post was to reassure us harassed parents that it all matters. Even when the day feels like an endless stress of thankless tasks, it is all important.
“The small things. The chores. The wiping and the chasing and the cajoling and the finding of things. The comforting and the playing and the rushing and the constant busy. It is all part of a very important picture. It may seem ordinary. Mundane even. Sometimes banal. But it is part of the tapestry of family life.”
On days when it feels like you have done nothing but yell at your kids and feed them chocolate (or is that just me?) it’s important to remember that all the tiny details add up to something huge.
My response, in the comments, was this: “I really needed this today. Hubbie had a bad day at work yesterday and, instead of being sympathetic, I stomped round the house grumping that it’s always me that loads and unstacks the dishwasher, buys food and cooks it, cleans floor, kids, clothes, smelly dog, paint-covered-paddling pools and mouldy car carpets (it’s not just you!)”
“It’s hard to not need that pat on the back, but I do try and give it to myself. Every time I manage to get to nursery on time with brushed hair (me or the kids, I don’t mind) and at least one set of teeth brushed, I give myself a mental gold star!”
Well, today was a gold-star day. Today, in 32 degree heat (which makes my brain boil and my temper fray) I managed to get all the way to bedtime without bellowing once. A miracle.
I had the fab idea to take the family to a National Trust property that has a tree-covered adventure playground (star)
I remembered the place is huge and a pushchair is essential, even though we don’t really use one anymore (star)
I managed to pull a picnic together out of half a loaf, some cheese and a pack of museli bars (star).
I covered us all in factor 50 sun cream (star)
I packed spare clothes so daughter could change out of her chocolate-ice cream-covered dress (star),
I remembered the porta-potty, the kids comfort toys and their milk for the trip home (star)
I thought to pack the swimming bag so we could swing by grandma’s on the way home for a swim (star).
In response to my comment, the author of the Mummy Kindness blog said “Maybe we need to think of it as a mental piggy bank for us to fill with our own virtual gold coins. Or to take it a step further, perhaps our very own reward chart complete with stickers, to remind of us of all we do and how important we are!”
My idea? To reward ourselves with a spa day for every full reward chart. I think I earned at least a pedicure today!
A final thought from Mummy Kindness to sustain you on a bad day: “When it feels like we’ll never be enough, we need to remember; Who else knows that the Hulk costume is in the green toy box under the table in the spare room?”
Claire pulled up outside the Oxford YHA, and knew she should have stayed in her own bed. The purpose-built yellow brick building loomed large and soulless against the night sky. A train thundered past and she guessed the station must be nearby.
At least I’m tired enough to sleep through anything.
She peered through the window, trying to locate the car park in the dark, headlights dazzling her tired eyes, before she realised there wasn’t one. Damn, I should have checked when I booked. Bouncing the Skoda up the kerb on a single-yellow, she put the hazard lights on and ran in to ask at reception.
“I’m booked in for the night, but I can’t see the car park. Is there anywhere to leave the car?” Claire panted out the words, barely registering the smart reception or the group of people waiting to check in.
“You have to use the park and ride, love. About a mile away. You’ll be lucky to get a bus at this time on a Sunday, though. Leave your bag, it won’t take too long to walk.”
The receptionist smiled, as if this were perfectly acceptable news for someone just arriving after a long drive.
Claire groaned, and headed back to the car for her rucksack. All she wanted, after two hours of negotiating winding roads and roundabouts and junctions, trusting fully in the satnav to bring her safely to her destination, was a cup of tea and a comfy chair.
Would have been nice if they’d mentioned something on the website.
She thought about walking the streets of Oxford on a Sunday night, never mind leaving her car in a park and ride to be vandalised. Sod that. Jaw set and brow furrowed, Claire climbed into the car and started scouring the local residential streets for a space that wasn’t permit only.
After quarter of an hour, the traffic gods smiled on her, and she found a space just large enough to squeeze the Skoda into. With a smile of satisfaction, Claire pulled her rucksack out and tried to remember the way back to the hostel.
Her tummy rumbled a reminder, as she finally found the building again and walked into reception. Now she was here, with a bar and restaurant tempting her, it felt like the right decision to have come. Had she been at her parents’ house, she would be eating beans on toast and listening to the silence of the unnaturally empty house creaking around her.
The noise coming from the bar promised a rowdy evening, and Claire made a mental note to take a book and headphones down to the bar.
I recently came across an article / blog post on Linkedin, by someone called Dave Kerpen, about the importance of balancing career progression with spending time with the children. It’s aimed at fathers but I think it’s relevant to any parent, working or not.
The article presents, in a lovely balanced way, the constant battle between spending time with our children and providing for them. As he so eloquently put it:
It’s all too easy to skip the family dinner in the name of helping to put dinner on the table.
It’s something we’ve had to deal with in the past, when hubbie’s work has taken him away at short notice, resulting in missed parents evenings or carol concerts, or when he travelled overseas regularly, leaving me to be a single parent for a week at a time.
It’s one of the reasons I didn’t go back to work after my first child was born. I worked as a contractor and my day could start at 6am and finish with me getting home at 9pm.
You can’t easily have two people working those hours and raise children, although I’m sure some people manage it.
When he worked from home, hubbie had the opposite dilemma: the kids got used to him being around for lunch and struggled with the idea that he was in the house but unavailable.
Then came the six months following the redundancy, when hubbie was home but desperately looking for work. And now it looks like he might have to commute further to get a new contract: missing bedtime most nights unless we keep the children up late.
I feel it too, when I’m buried in drafting or editing and it’s tough to raise my head above the parapet. Or I’m running a promotion and check Twitter far too often, until my son tells me to put the phone away.
Whatever job you do, or even if you don’t work but still have housework, laundry, cooking and all that jazz to deal with, finding a balance is hard.
The article had two particular lines that resonated with me. One was the article title: Your Career Highlights won’t be on Your Tombstone: your kids’ names will be. A bit black and white in a world of hues of grey (funny how I shy away from writing Shades of Grey these days!) but a useful reminder of what’s important.
The other line was a quotation from John Crudele: “How do children spell LOVE? T-I-M-E.”
My children spend more than two-thirds of their time at home with me, but they don’t always get my time. So today, when I picked them up from preschool, I took them to the Gardens of Surprise, a local attraction with water fountains and a sculpture garden. It was 26 degrees and humid outside and hot equals cross for me, so it was a gift for all of us.
For three hours we stomped on fountains, splashed through water walls, climbed trees, explored the woods for sculptures, visited the ice house, met a giant bunny and ate ice cream. It was fab.
At the end of the day I asked my daughter if it was nice to spend some lovely time with Mummy, and whether she felt like she’d had my attention for a few hours.
Her answer? “Not really, Mummy.”
Ah well, back to work then.
“Kim, it’s Claire, how are you?”
“Hello, I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon. How’s the wrist?”
Claire looked at her bare arm, amazed that she had forgotten about it completely. It seemed months since her snowboarding incident, rather than just a week.
“It’s fine. I took the bandage off a couple of days ago. I haven’t exactly been straining it.”
“Where are you, then?”
“Where? Why? That’s practically Wales. I thought you were going to stay near the hostel for the wedding?”
Claire laughed. “I have to move hostel more or less every day, and there are only a handful round here. Besides, I can’t stay in Kington at the weekend, so I had to get to it and mark it off the list. Nice hostel, big red brick building, en-suite room.”
It was Kim’s turn to laugh. “You can take the girl out of the five-star resorts, but you can’t take a need for luxury out of the girl.”
“I’ll have you know I normally stay in a dorm.” She didn’t add that Carl and Julia challenged her expenses if she didn’t. “But this place is mostly small rooms and they happened to have a single free.” That was her excuse anyway.
“No need to defend yourself, I’d be staying en-suite every night if I could afford it.”
“Me too.” Claire heard the wistful tone in her voice. There was no romance sharing a bedroom with strangers. Not even Scottish ones. She flushed. That particular incident wouldn’t be shared with anyone.
“So, why are you calling? Mum has all the wedding planning under control. You just need to be there on the day, with whomever you manage to pick up as your plus-one.” She giggled.
Claire resisted the urge to tell her what happened when you shacked up with strangers in a hostel. An unwelcome image of the girl asleep on the floor flashed into her mind and she shoved it away.
“That’s why I’m phoning, actually.” She took a deep breath. “Michael called me yesterday.”
“Good God, what did he want? I thought you gave him the heave-ho months ago?” Kim kept her voice light, but Claire could hear the undercurrent of enquiry. They’d never discussed her break-up with Michael. It was too painful to revisit at the time, and other things had taken over since then.
“He wants to be my plus-one.”
“He what? The cheek of him! He hates me. And Jeff.”
“No, he doesn’t. You’re just very different, that’s all.” Claire winced at the memory of Michael meeting her best friend. They’d got on like dog and cat.
“You could say that. He’s an over-bearing, over-protective, old-fashioned, chauvinistic prig.”
Claire reeled at the litany of flaws. “Don’t hold back, Kim, you say what you really mean.” Her voice had a slight edge that was not lost on her friend.
“Are you defending him? Why did you dump him, if he’s so marvellous?”
“I had my reasons. He’s not as bad as you think, you know. You brought out the worst in him. You and Jeff, all over each other in the bar. He’s more reserved, that’s all.” Certain memories flickered in her mind. “Well, in public anyway.”
“You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?” The accusation stung for its veracity.
“No! No, but I don’t want to be the single bird at your wedding. He’d only come as a friend. It would be good. Give us closure.”
Kim snorted down the phone, but didn’t say anything. There was a strained pause, and then they both spoke at once.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be harsh–”
“I don’t have to bring him, it’s your wedding–”
They laughed and apologised. After a minute of, “After you,” “No, After you,” they resumed their conversation.
“Bring him, Claire. You don’t know many of my friends and if it allows you to move on, find someone more suited to you, then that’s a good thing.”
Claire smiled at the barely-hidden barb. “Okay, I will. He can make himself useful, pouring drinks or ushering people around.”
“Cleaning up vomit, looking after the drunks.”
“Sorry.” She laughed, and changed to subject to the tricky question of red roses versus lilies.
As she hung up the phone, Claire replayed the conversation in her mind. She knew that Kim wasn’t Michael’s greatest fan, but the vehemence of her dislike surprised her.
Is Michael all those things? She didn’t remember him that way. He’d been a gentleman, in every sense of the word. Gentle, kind, thoughtful. Sure he opened doors and booked restaurants, but that didn’t make him old-fashioned, just unusual. Compared with her previous boyfriends it had been wonderful. And of course there were other things he excelled at. She blushed and forced the thought away.
That’s history now. He wants something I can’t give him. The weekend will be good; we can part as friends and move on.
Claire gazed unfocussed at the bright yellow walls of the hostel lounge and let her mind drift, ignoring the sense of anticipation building in her tummy.
Today has been a great day.
Too often lately this post has focused on about how hard my day has been or how awful the kids have behaved, or how tired I am, so it’s only right to praise the good days. (Although I am so tired right now it hurts to blink, but it’s a good tired from six hours of happy sunshine and walking.)
Having failed to get the kids into nursery for an extra day (thus saving £82) I decided there was a bit of spare cash to go on a proper day trip. When it’s new for all of us there are far fewer arguments and differences of opinion. Plus I find the kids are much better behaved (and therefore nicer to be around) when they’re out in public.
It took a bit of research to find something local but eventually, while the kids played dollies and watched Mike the Knight, my trusty new iPad and I discovered a Farm, forty minutes away, that looked like fun. A picnic was packed, the satnav programmed and off we went on our adventure.
We must have pleased somebody because the sun shone down from a blue sky all day, to the point where I had to borrow some sun cream while the kids played in the giant sandpit (prompting the only tantrum of the day when little man REALLY didn’t want cream on his neck!)
The place was brilliant.
Unsurprisingly it was very similar to Our Farm, as the kids are now calling it, but very different too. There’s a daycare on site so maybe they understand and cater for young kids a bit more. Whatever the reason, it was pitched just right: bright, colourful, compact and over all spot-on.
The highlight of the day was being able to fulfill a long-standing request from both kids to ride a pony, as the Farm offered short walks for over-twos (up until now, Aaron has been too young so I haven’t taken either of them.) There were also endless free rides on the little Barrel Train to see the sleeping dragon; guinea pigs to cuddle; sheep, goats and ducks aplenty to feed; and even a piglet race: Is there anything funnier than watching four piglets, with soft-toy jockeys strapped to their backs, racing round a bespoke track with a crowd of kids cheering them on. Brilliant!
My only dilemma was whether to upgrade to an annual pass, as the kids have decided it’s Their Farm now. (If I’d bought the pass while there I’d have had the day’s entry fee refunded).
The decision was taken away when I realised it was closing time and we had to leave. But we might be taking Daddy on Sunday as they’re having a Pirates and Princesses event, so it’s a possibility. Even with the forty minute drive I can see us going back. The zoo pass has expired so maybe we do this one for a year instead.
Kim looked over at the curled up shape of Sky, asleep on the sofa, Claire’s jumper draped over her like a blanket. A crease formed between her eyebrows.
“How has it been, looking after her? It must be really frustrating having to go to bed at 9pm rather than going out to dinner or for a drink.”
Claire thought about the previous week and compared it to the first few weeks of her hostel adventure.
“It hasn’t made much difference to be honest. I wasn’t exactly partying hard anyway, and not at all after Josh left. I probably eat and go to bed a little earlier but then I’m that shattered I’m ready to sleep.” She sighed. “And of course Sky’s awake half the night with terrors or because she misses her Mum. Some mornings getting up is like trying to clamber out of a bath of treacle.”
The line on Kim’s face deepened and Claire’s earlier suspicions returned. They grew in strength as Kim shook her head and smiled a little ruefully. “You’re not really selling the whole parenting thing to me.”
Claire felt her heart jump into her throat. She wondered if she was brave enough to probe. Kim didn’t push me for answers about Michael; I should probably keep my mouth shut and let her tell me in her own time. There was a pause, both women watching the sleeping child. Kim sucked in air as if steeling herself for a difficult challenge.
“Claire, I –”
“Hello, ladies, are you hungry?”
Kim and Claire turned to face the door together, like rabbits starting at the sound of danger.
“Shhh, Jeff, you’ll wake Sky,” Kim hissed, her face flushed red. Jeff narrowed his eyes and looked directly at his girlfriend. A sense of what he had interrupted seemed to occur to him, and he raised a hand, smiling apologetically.
“Sorry.” Holding up a thin white carrier bag laden with boxes, he shrugged sheepishly. “Chinese?”
When they had eaten more than their fill, they stretched back on the sofas, cradling their swollen bellies. Claire instinctively looked towards her friend, trying to gauge whether her belly was more rounded than could be explained by too much Take-Away.
Kim was snuggled next to Jeff, curled into his shoulder in such a pose of belonging it made Claire’s heart contract like withered fruit. She remembered why she didn’t spend much time with Kim when her boyfriend was around. Not only was he too good looking for comfort, he was also completely absorbed in Kim to the exclusion of anything else.
When she had been with Michael it made the arguments all the more painful. Now, knowing that the only person sharing her life and bed was a six-year-old girl who would return to her mother in a week, Claire felt the pain like a cavernous empty space in her soul.
Out in the hills, with a destination to distract her and the feel of the sun and wind to keep her company, the loneliness didn’t bite. Sitting in the quiet lounge, with guest huddled together reading, playing scrabble, or just existing in each other’s orbit, Claire felt smothered by how much it hurt.
Unable to bear it, she rolled off the sofa, weariness dragging at her limbs. She stretched, then walked over and gathered the sleeping child into her arms, glad of the warmth. With a nod at Jeff and a smile to Kim, she cradled Sky close and carried her away to bed.