Counting Blessings: 2013 365 Challenge #196

Vintage Buses

Vintage Buses

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.

The heat all too much for my little man

The heat all too much for my little man

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.

A sign of things to come?

A sign of things to come?

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!)

Inspecting the new uniform

Inspecting the new uniform

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.

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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 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.

***

Ideas and Interviews: 2013 365 Challenge #73

Old meets New in the City

Old meets New in the City

Sometimes you have to get out your comfort zone to realise how comfortable it is. I actually missed the kids today, even though I enjoyed my London adventure.

I also felt like I was on some kind of research mission for a character not yet born. Not Claire, Helen, Lucy, Annalie or Rebecca.

Someone new.

Someone who, like me, tries to return to work after being at home with the kids for years and finds it all a bit different to what she remembers.

A comedy, definitely.

There will be an incident where she goes into Pret a Manger to buy tea and a sandwich, forgets to say ‘dine in’ and is too embarrassed to confess. She’ll end up heading out into the winter’s day instead of eating her avacado, crayfish and rocket bloomer snug in the warm cafe. She may wander the City streets surrounded by suits, carrying a cup of tea she’s dying to drink, desperately seeking a bench. In the snow. With her hands red-raw and freezing.

She may squat in the lee of a building next to the sneaky smokers, drain her cup of tea in one long gulp while feeling as self-conscious as a pink hippo, then head for Costa. She might go to the Ladies to scoff half a sandwich before buying a second cup of tea, then sit with the other half of the sandwich in her bag calling out to her rumbling tummy.

Lunch with Daddy

Lunch with Daddy

She’ll feel nervous to be back in London again and be slightly bemused by the new buildings. The fact that they’ve completely rebuilt Kings Cross will leave her flumoxed. She’ll get lost trying to find her platform with only minutes to catch the train home and really want to stop and take a picture when she spots Platform 9 3/4 as she runs for the escalator. She’ll resist and board the train as the doors close with a hiss, praying it’s the right one.

She’ll sit on the train home feeling like a real person for the first time in years, tapping away at her laptop and watching as the weather changes from blizzard to sunshine to blizzard again every few miles. She’ll wonder how the kids got on with Daddy and look at the picture he sent of them having lunch at Tesco.

Maybe she’ll call home and hear that they’re all snuggled on the sofa watching Peter Pan, having had a brilliant day at the park, and feel that maybe they didn’t miss her much at all. Until her daughter says “Miss you Mummy” and makes her all choked up and grateful.

She’ll sit, watching the world whiz by out the window, feeling the blissful space and distance away from the family home and feel torn between wanting to be a Mummy and wanting to be a normal functioning productive wage-earning adult again.

That might all happen in my next book. 😉

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Claire felt a sharp sting as a hand slapped her on the bum, followed by a loud guffawed as she squealed in surprise.

“Come on love, they’ll be waiting for us at the bus.”

Claire felt a strong desire to kick downwards and boot the source of the taunting voice on the noise. Taking a deep breath she conquered the impulse and poured her anger into her voice. “Get your hands off me. I’m stuck.” She tried to turn and glare at the offensive man trying to shove her through solid rock but she couldn’t move her head more than a few inches. Actually I’m quite glad he made me cross, it gives me something else to think about other than coffins and closed spaces and what they’re going to do if I really am stuck. Her mouth felt dry and she could feel her heartbeat begin to quicken as the sensation of immobility seeped through her consciousness.

“You’re not stuck love, you just need to wiggle those hips. Too many pies is it?”

“I am not fat. How dare you?” Claire wrenched herself forward until her shoulders were free. The sound of tearing cloth filled the tight space.

“Nah you’re not fat love, you’ve got a nice arse. Got you moving though, didn’t it?” He sniggered as he nimbly clambered through the rock behind her.

Now I know why they call it weaselling. Not only do you have to have the agility of a rat in a drainpipe, the instructors are all weasels too.

“You’re lucky none of the teachers can hear you talking like that.” Claire spat the words over her shoulder as she wriggled through the crevice towards the chink of daylight at the end.

“No chance of that, they’re miles ahead. You know you’re being shown up by a bunch of kids?”

“They’re smaller than me; of course they can get through. Besides, kids are bendier.”

“What about the teachers, they all whisked through quick enough.”

He chuckled and Claire could hear the goad in his voice. She thought about retaliating that most teachers were skinny because everyone knew they were a day away from a nervous breakdown, never mind being poor as church mice, whatever that meant. She decided the trek leader wasn’t worth her ire and concentrated instead on getting through the narrow fissure in the rock without losing any more skin. Her hands were raw and she could feel a graze on her cheek from when she slipped and fell against the rock at the beginning, much to the amusement of the gaggle of brats in her group.

“Why did you want to come with a bunch of kids anyway?”

The trek instructor seemed to read her mind. Claire thought about telling the truth: that she’d been double-dared by her boss’s PA to go weaseling and had discovered the only way to go was to join a school party. Sod that. Makes me sound like a right muppet. As she dug her chipped nails into the crumbling rock, trying to pull herself forward before she got slapped on the bum again, a nasty idea popped into Claire’s mind.

“I’m an undercover journalist, investigating malpractice by tour guides and trek leaders. You know, inappropriate behaviour, hazardous practices, unsafe equipment.”

She giggled quietly as she heard Pete the trek guide suck air through his teeth at her words.

“You knew I was mucking about, like, when I slapped you and said you had a nice bottom? You won’t report me? I need this job. I’d never do that to one of the children.”

He sounded genuinely concerned and Claire felt a stab of guilt. She let him sweat a moment longer then, with as much reassurance as she could put in her voice while wedged in a tight crevice, said “don’t be silly. I was winding you up. I am a writer but not a journalist. I have a blog and I’m meant to do loads of outdoor stuff to please my boss.”

There was a pause and Claire wondered if Pete would be offended or see the funny side. She suspected he wasn’t sure how to react either and felt a bit sick at the thought of being cruel. It was below the belt I guess.

“I am sorry. You pissed me off that’s all.”

“That’s okay. I deserved it. I shouldn’t have wound you up. It was just nice to have a bit of a laugh. You have to be so careful around the youngsters.”

“I don’t know how you do it.” Claire pulled herself through the gap and crawled out onto a ledge, glad to be able to stand vertically for the first time in half an hour. She squinted her eyes against the sudden brightness and tried to see how far ahead the school party were. She wasn’t in a hurry to catch up. “Just spending the morning on the bus with them was enough.”

“Ah they’re alright. All full of lip and nonsense at this age. Give me ten-year-olds to teenagers any day.”

Ten, fifteen, five? They’re all the same. You can keep the lot of them with my blessing.

***

A Manic sort of Day: 2013 365 Challenge #72

Mega Blocks Garages: a moment of calm

Mega Blocks Garages: a moment of calm

Phew. What a non-stop day.

It started at 7am when Dragon Wraiths went free on Kindle for my first promo day. There began a crazy 12 hours of tweeting, Facebook updates and madly checking my KDP Dashboard to see how many downloads I’ve managed. (124 as I write this).

It’s addictive, checking the KDP Dashboard every five minutes (125 now) and I can see why people have programs on their computer to disconnect the internet so they can get some real work done. Actually I was wondering today when I’ll ever get round to start/finishing a new manuscript. Between the daily blog, revising Baby Blues, and keeping up with Social Media stuff, there isn’t much time left to write.

I hope I haven’t overdone Twitter today. I do get frustrated by the clutter of promos in my Twitter Feed day in, day out. I know I follow a lot of self-published or new authors but there is often no actual human interaction and I don’t want to join that noise. That said, my increased Twitter activity is obviously paying off as I also reached 100 Twitter followers today. Not sure one of them would buy a book or retweet a comment – I think it’s mostly follow and be followed – but it’s a start and we all have to learn somehow.

Preparing for a possible return to Contracting

Preparing for a possible return to Contracting

Then came the next manic bit of the day: finding out I have an interview for a contract job tomorrow. I was really hoping they’d let hubbie take the contract but that hasn’t happened so I’m off to London.

I’m terrified.

Not of going to London, although it will be the first time in two years aside from a family trip to the Olympics. I used to go to Agency and Client meetings in the Big Smoke all the time when I worked for a living (said tongue in cheek of course!). Funny how four years at home with a couple of kids can erase all your confidence.

I know I can do this contract, whatever is involved (unless it’s databases: I hate databases) but the learning curve will be steep. I haven’t used Excel in two years except to keep track of Claire’s hostel visits and I haven’t put in a full working day in over a year. Thinking about concentrating for that length of time in a strange office with a new brief for a new company (my last contract was back at my old office) is making me feel more than a bit sick. But we’re in a recession and I can’t turn down work, especially not when I went cap-in-hand asking for it! So I will squeeze my post-pregnancy feet into my heels, and my post-pregnancy tum into my stretchy trousers and get on a train. Wish me luck! (Oh and if I get the contract there may be a few days a week when Claire will be ill in bed with the flu or reading a good book…. The contract is an hour’s drive away so there won’t be much writing time in the day!)

Talking of which, it’s bedtime and I’ve completely failed to write a Claire post after falling asleep on the sofa. Another favour from hubbie required to take kids in the morning then! Oops. Apologies if it’s a short one!

Morning Update: Was up most of the night because my brain was running a zillion miles an hour. I had 332 total downloads for my first promotion day. Wow! If only 1% read it that still means 3 strangers reading my book. Feels weird.

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Claire ignored the twisting in her stomach and opened the email. How bad can it be? Then she remembered her leaving party and the things Julia had said. Okay, pretty bad. Then let’s get it over with at least.

Claire

Carl has asked me to collate a list of activities to inject some fun and humour into your blog. These are all near your current location in Castleton so you’ll have to pick the ones that are available. We suggest number five and/or six as they are activities more specific to the Peak District. If you can furnish me with your future itinerary I will find some other activities that have Carl’s approval.

Julia

1. Kayak and/or Canoe
2. Raft Building
3. Climbing/Abseiling
4. Mountain/Hill Walking
5. Weaseling
6. Caving
7. Orienteering
8. Rope Course
9. Search and Rescue
10. Archery

Future Itinerary? Does she think I’m planning that far ahead? Actually Julia probably plans her sick days. Claire thought about the list of hostels booked for her time with Sky. Oh I can at least look a bit organised, that will be nice. As long as she finds things I can do with a six-year-old girl. She remembered the kids on the Go Ape rope course and decided that Sky was probably more suited to adventure activities than she was. She scanned the list and laughed, relief flooding through her like caffeine.

What is Julia going on about? I’ve done half of these and the rest aren’t exactly High Adrenalin. I mean, Raft Building? I’m hardly going to get eaten by a crocodile or fall into shark-infested waters, however much she hopes I might. I guess her main desire is that I get wet and humiliate myself.

Checking Julia’s email again, Claire looked at the activities at number 5 and 6. Caving. I’ve been in the Blue John Cavern, isn’t that caving? And what the hell is Weaseling? Julia’s email had a link at the bottom to a website with more information. Knowing she would regret it Claire clicked on the link and scrolled down to Weaseling.

Weaseling is all about getting into a tight spot – and then getting out of it! This activity is very similar to rock scrambling, as the fun comes from low-level climbing. It’s also fairly similar to caving, with small, often dark spaces forming the perfect playground for intrepid weaselers, but it all takes place above ground level. Weaseling doesn’t require ropes as there are no big drops or climbs, so it’s great for younger children.

Great for younger children? Should be fairly easy then although I can’t say I’m that keen on the ‘dark spaces’ bit. With a sigh of resignation Claire followed the information and wrote down the phone number to book a day Weaseling.

I’ll remember this Julia, don’t think I won’t.

***