Burnt Mash: 2013 365 Challenge Day #30

Amber's 'paint your own tea set' gift. Spot the ones controlling mummy did

Amber’s ‘paint your own tea set’ gift. Spot the ones controlling mummy did

At 11.57 a.m. today my daughter was exactly 4 years old. She was also sick of birthday celebrations and even sobbed “I don’t know if I’m actually four or not” because we’ve been celebrating her 4th birthday since Sunday.

I have learned an important lesson about managing the amount of birthday stuff that happens. Although what the alternative is when a birthday falls on a week day I don’t know. I do have friends who manipulate when their child’s birthday is to suit them but, even though I’m not at all adverse to lying to my children, that is one lie I feel I would struggle to maintain.

(I heard a great story about a mother coming a cropper when her child started school and the teachers gave her a card and sang happy birthday when she didn’t know it was on that day.)

Indoor scootering... they want to go outside but I'm scared!

Indoor scootering… they want to go outside but I’m scared!

Anyway, the birthday is done. We spent the afternoon painting her ‘paint your own tea set’ and scootering around the kitchen. The last present has been given (and it was a great one – a doll that actually swims in water – thank you grandma and grandpa!). Tomorrow begins a new day.

As I write this post I am inhaling the scent of caramelised potatoes and carrots. Not because of some fancy dinner but because I burned the mash while my parents were here. I’m now trying to decide what to cook as well as what on earth I’m going to have happen to Claire this evening as I haven’t done any research today. I think it’s going to have to be something with her new Aussie friend.

Indoor scootering - a great way to burn off excess energy...

Indoor scootering – a great way to burn off excess energy…

I asked my husband last week what should happen to Claire next and he said “surely someone will hit on her?”

He said it with such confidence but I don’t remember anyone ever chatting me up when I travelled around New Zealand. Mind you I was suffering from panic attacks after coming off antidepressants so I probably didn’t give off a come-chat-me-up sort of vibe. I did have an incident with a hitchhiker but I’m saving that story for later on in Claire’s adventures!

My other task for this week is to pull together an electronic version of all the posts for January so I can have it available for people who want to catch up on the story. I’m struggling for a title, if anyone has any ideas. I’m toying with “Two-hundred steps home” because of the 200 YHA hostels and Claire’s journey but it’s a bit vague. I’ve never been any good at coming up with good titles. Any ideas gratefully received!


“Look, there’s Orion, although it’s upside-down of course. His sword’s pointing skyward, if you know what I mean?” Josh chuckled, the sound spilling out from somewhere deep in his throat. Claire didn’t understand his words but the swell of his laughter washed over her, resonating deep in her midriff.

They stood shoulder to shoulder gazing up at the glitter-strewn sky. It reminded Claire of something Sky might produce at school that would turn up in the post to Aunty Claire, dropping blue sparkles all over her cream carpet.

Standing in the freezing night beneath the myriad of stars Claire realised she had never truly seen the night sky before. In Manchester it was barely possible to distinguish the Big Dipper above the persistent glow of streetlights. Here, deep in the Kielder Forest, it was hard to see the dark of Space in between the sparkling specks of light. She felt like a child in awe of the sight above her.

Claire became aware of the gushing words filling her head and gave a mental shake. All this sky is making me poetic. Time for another G&T I think.

She turned to Josh, to tell him that it was time to go. His silence spread to fill the space around him as he gazed, rapt, at the display above his head. Claire shrugged and turned to stand alongside him again. There’s no real hurry I guess. He’s having fun and it took some effort to get here.

She thought about the skidding, spinning Skoda ride up the snow-strewn path and sighed. Halfway up the track she had stopped the car and made Josh drive, as much to stop his constant stream of advice as to soothe her tattered nerves. When they arrived at the Observatory it was to find that Public Viewing was cancelled due to the weather. Thankfully they were still able to access the decked areas and see the stars with the naked eye.

The word naked caught in Claire’s mind and she became aware, as if for the first time, of the man standing slightly too near her for comfort. She could feel Josh’s coat brushing hers, his woollen clad hands near hers on the railings. Her nostrils filled with the scent of cheap deodorant and cigarette smoke. Not smells that would normally have the kind of effect on her knees that they seemed to be having at that moment.

Josh was pointing out the constellations he knew, explaining which ones could be seen in Australia, upside-down of course, and which ones couldn’t.

“Did you know you can’t see the Pole Star if you’re as much as one degree over the equator? Amazing. We don’t have anything that fixed in the Southern Hemisphere although our stars are brighter, especially the Southern Cross.”

Claire turned so she could hear what Josh was saying without taking down her hood. It was freezing up on the observation deck. Josh glanced round at the movement and his words fell from his mouth and lay dead in the snow. He leaned forwards and raised a mitten-clad hand to Claire’s face.

Claire’s heart beat loudly but not as loud as the clamour filling her brain. What the hell? Oh God is he going to kiss me? I barely know him and he reeks of fags and oh crap it’s just too corny to snog the first Australian guy I meet. Isn’t that what all backpackers do?

Josh’s face came nearer, his breath steaming in the cold air, brushing warmth across Claire’s frozen face. Her eyes widened as the monologue shrilled loudly in her head. She was immobile with indecision. It would be awkward to turn away and avoid the kiss, but not as awkward as what might happen after they came together. The thoughts raced on, wondering if they would sleep together, wondering how that happened exactly if you were both staying in dorm rooms.

They don’t shag in dorms do they? With people trying to sleep all around them? Surely they get a double room? She wondered who ‘they’ were. Some alien species of traveling people? That’s me now, I’m a backpacker too.

Josh’s lips were almost at hers and still no plan of action had presented itself in her jumbled mind. His eyes were closed, a fact Claire found slightly disappointing. She couldn’t remember her first kiss with Michael – they were both too drunk – but she had some idea that first kisses were meant to happen with each of the people gazing longingly at the other until the moment when lips touched and fire exploded.

She felt the first brush of Josh’s lips against hers. They were rough and chapped, and his unshaven cheeks scratched her cold skin. His eyes flew open when she didn’t respond and he looked into her face then, his expression rueful but unabashed.

“Ah well, can’t blame a bloke for trying. You are very hot. Taken?”

He pulled away.

Claire remained still for a moment more as she processed events, unsure why she hadn’t responded. She had wanted to. Every part of her body was throbbing with the need to lose herself in someone’s kisses. Her traitorous brain, not for the first time, seemed to have taken over at the crucial moment.

“Um, no, not taken. Er, you just caught me by surprise that’s all.”

Josh grinned. “Ah, so I I’m free to try again at a better moment? Sweet.”

He turned back to face the stars as if they’d been discussing where to meet for lunch. Claire swallowed, her throat dry, and tried to detangle her jumbled thoughts.

Great, that’s all I need, another bloody complication. Oh Michael, where are you?

She turned and faced the night, seeking answers amongst the stars.


Birthdays and (dare I say it) boredom… and 2013 365 Challenge #29

Card painting: the first painting I've done in over a year

Card painting: the first abstract painting I’ve done in over a year

As you read this it is (finally) my daughter’s fourth birthday. I’m writing the night before, as usual, and I have no words again. It’s been a long week.

Granddad came over for dinner this evening, so Amber had more gifts to open.She was overwhelmed after a long day at nursery and my poor son was bereft, even though I wrapped a few toys so he also had something to open. He didn’t even register what was under the wrapping so, after he went to bed, I wrapped a few more things from the playroom. Hopefully that will help tomorrow when Amber opens her final gifts. This birthday has lasted longer than Christmas! Although, as her labour lasted 32 hours, I guess that’s fairly appropriate.

I’ve also been painting today, for the first time since my solo exhibition over a year ago. It felt odd. It also reminded me why I haven’t painted in more than twelve months: I was cooking lunch for hubbie and it went cold while I tried to fix something that had gone wrong in the first painting. That’s the thing with the style of work I do – once you start you have to keep going until it’s finished or the acrylic dries funny. In the end hubbie had to tear the brush from my hand because I’d used some old paint which was full of dry bits and the painting was never going to come good. I finally managed to complete a batch ready to be cut up and stuck to card stock tomorrow. I have until Friday to get some Valentines Day cards to the Gallery. Nothing like a deadline!

I suspect Claire will have another quiet day today. This is the first time since the beginning of January that I’ve sat down at my laptop and thought bugger Claire I want to go watch TV. I have a fairly short attention span and I am finding it hard to think up a new situation for Claire every single day. Normally (for me) a first draft of a novel propels itself forward by its own momentum once I’ve got past the first ten or fifteen thousand words. Even though I have written 25,00 words about Claire so far this month, the challenge is starting to feel like writing a short story everyday. I loathe writing short stories.  If it only takes 30 days to build a habit this should be second nature by now. Some people say it take 60 days in which case I’m half way there. Just keep typing, just keep typing…

I did manage to get some research done this morning but not enough for a detailed post so I think it’s time Claire met someone to talk to. I am enjoying travelling around the North East via my laptop (even if I’m not enjoying thinking what to write about every twenty-four hours) but it’s almost as time-consuming as going there in person! Whose crazy idea was this postaday lark?


“G’day, you need a hand?”

Claire ducked out from under the bonnet to find a tanned face full of teeth grinning at her.

“Car bust?”

“What?” Claire looked bewildered for a moment before realisation dawned. “Oh, no, I haven’t broken down. The engine’s at the other end. I’m just getting my boots out. They were wet so I put them in here instead of in the car. The carpets might be old and mouldy but I don’t want them stinking of damp or getting my bag soggy.”

She stopped speaking as she realised the words were rushing out in a torrent. As it was only half an hour’s drive from Byrness to Kielder Claire had decided to take a detour to the nearest town in search of coffee. She had arrived in Hawick in time for lunch and had lost a pleasant hour or two in Turnbulls. As she knew the Kielder Hostel reception wouldn’t open until 5pm she went on to another café bookshop and happily immersed herself in other people’s lives until it was late enough to head to Kielder. As a result she hadn’t spoken to anyone since her phone-call to Julia that morning. It seemed words built up like water behind a fallen tree if you didn’t use them.

Claire looked at the man to judge his reaction to her verbal diarrhoea. He didn’t seem fazed by it. He wandered closer and peered under the bonnet as if to confirm that there was, in fact, no engine there.

“I might be a girl but I do know what an engine looks like.” Claire’s voice came out sharper than intended. The man looked up and smiled again, and Claire was struck by how attractive he was. Something throbbed inside her and she looked down at her boots as if hoping they would fill the awkward gap in conversation. Brushing her hair behind her ears Claire reached in and retrieved the still-wet snow-boots. She tied the laces together and threw them over her shoulder where her rucksack was already in place.

The stranger stood up and dug his hands into his pockets. “You staying here?”

Claire swallowed a giggle and looked around the emptiness that surrounded them. “Oh have I missed the five-star spa resort?”

The man grinned as if to acknowledge his obvious question. “Name’s Josh. I’ve been here a while, you want me to show you around?”

Is he hitting on me? Claire couldn’t tell. It had been a long time since anyone had chatted her up. Apart from Mike from Accounts and that didn’t really count as she had initiated that particular conversation, more fool her. Deciding it didn’t really matter if Josh was interested or not Claire slammed the bonnet down and followed her new Aussie friend into the hostel.

Claire had been prepared for the remoteness of the hostel, after reading the information on the website. She knew, for example, that the nearest shop was 17 miles away. What she hadn’t noticed was that, all covered in snow, the place resembled a ski resort. It was comforting even though they weren’t in the mountains. Maybe I can pretend it is a five-star hotel, especially if it looks as smart on the inside as Byrness did.

After she had been shown to her dorm and had a chance to take in the wooden bunks and multi-coloured duvets Claire dismissed the similarities to a ski chalet. Never mind. Josh has promised to take care of me. She took out her least-creased top and her make-up bag. A dab of mascara, a spritz of perfume and she was ready.

Back in the lobby she looked at Josh askance. He was wrapped up in winter woollies including a giant hand-knitted bobble hat and scarf set that looked like it was a Christmas gift from his Gran.

“Um, are we going out? I thought there was nothing to do round here?”

“Have you looked out at the night’s sky? It’s a beaut. Be criminal not to get ourselves to the observatory on a night like this. Skedaddle back to your room for your coat or you’ll freeze.”

“What observatory?” Claire’s mind struggled to catch up. She was tired and hungry and wanted dinner and maybe a gin and tonic if that was possible.

“It’s about a mile away. Come on. Public viewing is from 8pm and it’ll take a while to walk there.”

Claire weighed up the merits of eating dinner alone or accompanying her handsome new friend to look at dots of burning gas in the sky. She looked at her watch. “It’s only 7pm. Why don’t we eat first then I’ll drive us up to your observatory thing if it’s so important. It’s too bloody cold to walk.”

“You beaut, that’s a bonza idea!” He pulled off his hat and beckoned Claire to follow him to the dining room.

Claire felt like a leaf that had just been blown by a gust of wind into a swollen river.


P.S. Apologies to any Australians – it’s a terrible mimicry of an Aussie speaking. What can I say, I’m tired!

Post Party Blues and 2013 365 Challenge Day #28

The Jungle Party was a success

The Jungle Party was a success

Everyone is sad and jaded this morning. Husband has a second-interview tomorrow and no energy to spend on learning his competency-based answers. I’m behind on my post and can’t keep my eyes open, and I left two crying children at nursery which always breaks my heart a little bit.

I phoned ten minutes later to check they’re okay and Amber had been let into her brother’s room to give him a cuddle. I love that they look out for each other and are a comfort to each other. I must work hard today to make up for their sadness. I do wonder how my daughter will cope with going to school every day in September. She does so love being at home, particularly since Daddy has been home too. Let’s hope his interview goes well.

Party Girl in the Zebra mask she made as part of the craft activity

Party Girl in the Zebra mask she made as part of the craft activity

The party was amazing but we were all exhausted afterwards. The only problem with having it in the morning was surviving until bedtime. And my daughter’s birthday isn’t actually until tomorrow so there are still visits from grandparents and more gifts to come. It’s overwhelming for children even though we’ve tried to keep it as calm as possible. It’s tough on the little one, too, as he doesn’t really understand the gifts aren’t for him. Especially so close to Christmas when they both got presents. So I’m going to get him a little something today so he has a toy to play with tomorrow.

The tightrope walk of parenthood!

My daughter told me this morning (after I lost my temper at their constant whining about not wanting to go to nursery) that she wanted a different Mummy rather than me. Husband was horrified:

“Mummy gave you an amazing party this weekend, aren’t you grateful for that?”

I just shrugged and said, “But that’s my job.”

The Jungle Party Room

The Jungle Party Room

If she doesn’t hate me from time to time I’m probably not doing my job properly. I love her, I want her to be happy but I also want her to grow up knowing the balance between times when she is the centre of everything and times when the world gets on and she must fit in.

I want to be her friend but first and foremost I’m her Mum. The two are not always the same thing.

Anyway, I’m late with the post because I had no words by bedtime last night. I have twelve minutes to post pictures and write something about Claire. Might be a bit of 200-word flash fiction today. I’ve been reading some great Flash Fiction over on the Apprentice, Never Master blog and it’s a skill I don’t currently have.

And then I have to make a dozen Valentines Day cards for the Gallery, buy Amber a gift from her brother, wrap all the presents and make dinner for Grandad’s arrival this evening. I might not earn a wage but it still feels like work to me!


“Julia? It’s Claire. Don’t bother: I know Carl’s in an end-of-the-world summit in Timbuktu and can’t be reached. I don’t want to talk to him, I just want to pass on a message, seeing as that’s his preferred method of communication. You tell him it will take more than his sister’s friend’s stupid husband to make me quit my assignment. If Carl wants to fire me he’ll have to do it in person. Until he grows a pair and tells me to my face that I’m no longer required I will do the job he is paying me to do. That’s all.”

Claire hung up the phone and grinned. An unfamiliar surge of liberation flooded through her, starting in her chest and spreading out down to her fingertips. She pictured Julia’s face as she listened to the diatribe pouring down the phone, imagining the perfect cherry-red O in the middle of her flawlessly made-up face. Glancing in the mirror on the back of her phone Claire realised with a start that she hadn’t put make up on for two days. And she didn’t care. Who is there to impress out her in the sticks? She stroked her face. It felt clean and smooth, like it could breathe. I don’t remember the last time I went out in public without slap.

The sun shone on the while walls of the Byrness hostel as Claire loaded her things into the car ready to drive to Kielder. She looked at the building with more fondness than she could have imagined two days earlier. Settling into the icy seat Claire pulled on her gloves before touching the freezing steering wheel. She tugged the choke, gave the car a pat of encouragement and checked the Sat Nav instructions. Her heart felt buoyant as she poked around for a gear and drove away.