YHA Not? 2013 365 Challenge #317

Girl on the beach Perranporth by Gary Rogers

Girl on the beach Perranporth by Gary Rogers

One of the unexpected side effects of writing Two-Hundred Steps Home has been learning all about the YHA and the many beautiful places you can visit in the UK. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, aside from a year in New Zealand, I’ve only visited a handful of places: the Lake District, Snowdonia, Dorset. I’ve lived in Manchester and Leeds and I’ve been to some lovely towns for weddings. That’s about it.

Using the YHA hostels as a framework for Claire’s travels was unintentionally inspired. The UK may not be a huge country but there is plenty to see (and write about). The difficulty is that there is no clear ‘route’.

When I travelled in Australia and New Zealand there was a general sense that you followed the coast round, or you hopped on an Experience bus that followed a preset route. I don’t know if there is an equivalent in the UK – having never been a tourist here – but I did meet plenty of people on my travels who thought Britain was just London, with maybe York, Edinburgh and Stonehenge thrown in for good measure.

Sharpitor, Salcombe by Graham Taylor

Sharpitor, Salcombe by Graham Taylor

If I were to travel around the UK, as I did around New Zealand, then I think the YHA hostels map would be a great place to start. They go to all the major destinations (although there do seem to be restrictions such as some are only available in the school holidays). In many cases the hostel is actually a spectacular building loaded with history, (if sometimes in need of some TLC, if the reviews are anything to go by).

When I have travelled in the UK it has never occurred to me to stay in a hostel – I’ve always opted for B&Bs or discounted hotel rooms – but I really wish I had. It’s almost too late now: the unfortunate thing about hostels is that they’re only really cheap when you’re travelling alone. With two adults and two children – once you add in breakfast – it can be cheaper to stay in a Travelodge, although infinitely lacking in soul.

Even so, I can see Family Martin fulfilling a long-held ambition of mine to visit Cornwall next summer. I think the hostels that Claire has recently visited will be high on our must-stay list, although I might think twice about the Eden Project, unless someone’s implemented Claire’s Gift Aid idea!

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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 looked around the bunkhouse with a smile. It wasn’t at all what she had expected. Her room was cosy, and she had been able to grab the proper bed in the corner, instead of one of the bunks. It would be nice to spend the night knowing no one was sleeping above or beneath her.

In the kitchen a cluster of small pine tables waited patiently for the next meal time. The farmhouse cottage feel enveloped her like a warm hug. In the courtyard a family sat eating a late breakfast, their bikes lined up ready for their day of activity.

Leaving her things in her room, Claire followed the advice of the bunkhouse manager and headed off to find the woodland walk into the village. The sun beat down on her bare arms and she thought it might be nice to be in the cool of the trees as the burning orb climbed up to the zenith.

Then lunch in the village, back to the hostel for the car, and off to explore the museum and the castle if I can manage it.

After taking a few sneaky hours to go surfing the day before, Claire felt a stab of guilt that she’d been slacking on work time. If she had to endure seeing Conor the following day, she wanted to make sure she had plenty to talk about. Even the woodland walk was a luxury, but it was difficult to know what to do with her time when she had such loose guidelines from her boss.

As she had hoped, it was cool beneath the trees and she made good time striding along beside the gurgling brook. All too soon the path left the shelter of the woods and came out in a residential road. Claire prayed it would be easy to find her way into the centre of the village as she paced along the path, her arms swinging at her sides.

Even as she walked, her mind clung persistently to the image of the hostel she’d just left. Something about the cottage atmosphere of the place wrapped itself around her, creating a hot sensation in her stomach that felt like yearning.

Oh good lord, I’m not getting all Cath Kidston, am I? I’ll be wearing a floral apron next, and be studying my Jamie Oliver cookbook to learn how to make bread. Oh how Polly, Molly and Sally would laugh. Maybe I’ll start watching Kirstie Allsopp programmes and make a stained glass window for my real oak front door.

The thoughts rang false, like a fake titter at a dinner party, and Claire realised she’d rather like to have a front door to make a stained glass window for. And if it was a little cottage with a scrubbed pine table, rather than a shiny modern flat with all the stainless steel mod cons John Lewis could provide, then that was okay too.

The realisation crashed over her like a North Atlantic wave. When this was all over, she didn’t want to return to her Manchester flat. Her dreams no longer involved Hobbs suits and holidays to the Maldives. Why travel all that way for perfect beaches when there were some right here?

Claire felt as if ice were sliding down the inside of her skin. She stopped suddenly, only vaguely aware that she had arrived at the harbour. She looked around in bemusement, registering the buildings and the harbour wall without really seeing them. It wasn’t a picturesque place, not like some she had visited, but the endless blue skies still shone overhead, lighting highlights in the whitewashed walls.

Suddenly Claire needed to escape. Turning quickly, she retraced her steps through the town and practically ran back through the woods to the bunkhouse. She wanted to lose herself in castles and museums, reports and recommendations, anything that would distract her brain from the images it insisted on creating. Images of a future she could no longer afford. Even a tiny cottage by the sea in this part of the world was far beyond her reach now.

Not unless I went back to work for Carl.

She shivered and ran on.

***

Preschooler Party Postscript: 2013 365 Challenge #265

Birthday boy covered in chalk (post party)

Birthday boy covered in chalk (post party)

Phew, we survived.

The son’s third birthday party was neither a terrible failure nor a resounding success, but it’s done. All the things I worried about – was there enough fruit, did everyone like pizza – were irrelevant, as none of the children ate anything.

Only a couple of the scones and blueberry muffins I made this morning for the parents were eaten, but as mine and hubbie’s parents all turned up as the party was finishing they all went to a good home. (My Devonian Step-dad pointed out we’d bought double cream instead of clotted cream by mistake, but we were forgiven.)

The person who suffered most today was my daughter who, despite our best efforts to include her by giving her a gift of her own, letting her invite a friend to the party, and her even winning pin the tail on the shark (by virtue of being one of only three who would take part) she spent the day feeling left out.

Pin the tail on the shark

Pin the tail on the shark

I suspect by left out she meant not receiving enough gifts, despite our son’s pressies mostly being books, clothes or other practical things like a lunch box, duvet cover and wellies. When she had her last birthday we wrapped up half the playroom for our son and he still spent the day in tears. We hoped a four year old would care less than a two year old but we were wrong.

My mum had the right idea: she had two girls with birthdays only a week apart. Joint parties, joint birthdays, problem solved. Ah well, life isn’t about what’s easy. And at least I have another three months until Christmas and four months until I have to paint another ‘pin the tail’ poster. Do they still pin tails at five? Maybe we could take them all ice skating instead!

I get to go to someone else’s kid’s party tomorrow and let them do the worrying. Bliss.

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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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“Aren’t you going on the Speights tour? You’re on the bus, right?”

Claire looked up at the woman who had spoken and recognised her as the person who had checked her in earlier, although she hadn’t noticed then that she spoke with an English accent. Now it felt like a raft in a choppy sea.

“No, I’m not really a beer person. Besides, I’ve had my fill of touristy things.”

“You went on the wildlife tour today, though? That’s a tourist attraction.” She smiled and Claire swallowed her defensive response.

“I suppose so. But it’s real. Oh, I can’t really explain it, but at least the animals are native to this country and in their natural habitat. Not like Puzzling World or the luge or any of the dozen other ways I’ve been convinced to spend my money this trip.”

The woman leant against the wall and dried her hands on the tea towel she was holding. Claire realised she must have been washing up in the small hostel kitchen, and wondered if she’d left any pots out unwashed. She hadn’t really thought about the people that ran the hostels before.

“I think some of those things are the real New Zealand too, you know.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Kiwis love doing anything that makes the pulse race. Jumping in the sea in the middle of winter, or throwing themselves off bridges. They’re a hardy bunch and they like to prove it.”

Claire thought about her words, and her tone of voice: she sounded like an indulgent parent talking about the antics of her adorable but naughty children. “You live here now, then? Or are you travelling through?”

The girl smiled, and her face softened. “I live here now. I married a Kiwi last year. We met on the bus, though, so I’ve seen both sides of the country.”

Claire opened her mouth to ask if her husband was a driver, remembering the lewd phrase Mitch had taught her, and that she’d thrown at Neal. Something of her thoughts must have shown in her expression, because the woman laughed.

“Yes, I was a DAF. Don’t judge me for that! I did several circuits with him, before getting a job in Nelson and seeing him only when he travelled through. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Or as sordid. He works here now: he took you on your tour today.”

Claire thought back to the man who had shown her the sea lions and penguins that afternoon. She couldn’t imagine him with this gentle woman.

I guess it takes all sorts.

After a moment of silence, the girl pushed herself away from the wall. “So, what are you doing this evening? There are some great bars in Dunedin, if you head down to the Octagon. You’re welcome to come with us, we’re going out for a glass or two after work.”

Claire raised her eyebrows, and considered the offer. “Wouldn’t I be intruding?”

“No, of course not. Half the people who come with us are Europeans, working in the town or passing through. You’ll be fine. Come and see the real New Zealand if you like.”

*

Claire looked around at the gathered group of people in the small, dark bar. The woman from reception, whose name was Sally, was chatting to a group of girls of various ages and nationalities. Laughter echoed from the group, although Claire could tell at least two of the group didn’t speak good English.

In some ways it was no different to her nights with the rest of the tour group, although the average age was much higher and the amount of alcohol consumed significantly less.

Cupping her hands around the small glass of beer that had been poured from the jug in the middle of the table, Claire was content to sit and let the conversation wash over her. Even though she didn’t know anyone present, there was a real sense of camaraderie that Claire hadn’t felt for some time, if ever. For the first time in weeks she could understand why people chose to emigrate half way round the world to live in this place.

***

Friends are the Best Medicine: 2013 365 Challenge #263

Friends

Friends

It’s going to be a short post today, for various reasons, some good, some bad.

The bad is I have a stinking cold. I spent the afternoon trying to rest because I had dinner plans for my bi-annual catch up with my old work friends. The good is that I made it to dinner and spent a lovely two hours with good food and good company, catching up on the work gossip and not talking about the children (much).

It’s hard not talking about the kids but it is sort of an unspoken rule that we don’t, even though five out of six of us have children and the sixth has a puppy that is just as troublesome and gorgeous.

Even my friend who had her first baby seven weeks ago started the evening by saying “I don’t want to talk about babies.”

It’s actually rather lovely to forget you’re a parent for the night. I think parenting can be a divisive rather than inclusive subject for discussion. Everyone has different techniques and priorities, and there’s such a difference between age stages, from a baby to a pre-teen, as the age range is across our group. Plus the passing of the years are more noticeable when we talk about such and such starting school or big school. Without the kids to mark time, it only feels like yesterday that I left work rather than six years ago.

Work is always a safe topic. Even though two of us haven’t worked for the company in years, it’s still possible to follow along. Like an old school friend you haven’t seen in a decade, you can still talk about that shared experience. Incidentally the picture is one I drew of me and my two best friends at high school (a scary 20 years ago). The friend I gave it to emailed me a copy this evening, after finding it in a drawer. Happy days.

So, it’s off to bed for me, with the intention of writing my Claire instalment in the morning, after I’ve painted a shark. It’s been a lovely evening and I want to round it off curled up in bed with a lemsip, finishing Reckless Rebellion by Rinelle Grey (published on Amazon today!) Night night.

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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 looked out the window at the changing scenery and wondered if she’d make a mistake. It felt lonely knowing that Bethan wasn’t on the bus.

I would have had to say goodbye in a few days anyway. Travelling is all about meeting people and then saying goodbye to them, carrying them with us in our hearts.

She smiled at how corny that sounded, although no less true for all that. Bethan had begged her to stay in Queenstown for the extra day, but Claire felt no pull to stay in the famous town. Despite the lure of luging and drinking and other activities, she wanted to get on and get home.

I guess I could have missed out the bottom bus completely, but I really want to see the sea lions.

The brochure said she could do a wildlife tour in Dunedin and that had been enough to persuade her. Bethan hadn’t understood that she’d rather do that than drink shots out of tea pots.

I’m surprised too. I must be getting old.

She turned her attention back to the view, as the bus pulled into a town. She guessed it must be Dunedin, although it was nothing like she had expected. Apart from Wellington, it was the first really hilly town she’d seen, and the buildings seemed to be made of stone rather than wood.

As they drove through the streets, Claire peered out the window and felt a quickening in her tummy. It seemed familiar, as if she’d visited before in a past life. She soaked in the grey stone, the university buildings, the formal gardens and smiled.

I could be in any northern British town.

It felt like home

The bus pulled up at the bottom of what looked like a residential street. Claire wondered if they had arrived at the hostel, although it didn’t look like the centre of town, where she thought the hostel was located.

“Right, peeps. We’re at Baldwin Street. World’s steepest street. Climb to the top and back and you get a certificate.”

The driver finished his terse announcement, got out of the bus and lit a roll-up. Claire followed all the other passengers, glad to stretch her legs.

Outside it was raining, a light mizzling rain that hadn’t been noticeable as they drove through town, although it probably explained the greyness of the buildings. Claire looked up the street and wondered if she had the energy to climb it. It didn’t look too bad from the bottom, but she knew looks could be deceptive.

Some eager passengers started up the hill at a run, but soon dropped to a jog and then a walk. As she climbed, Claire marvelled at the buildings, where the road started at the lower floor window and passed somewhere near the upper floor. She took some pictures and kept on climbing, ignoring the burn in her thighs and the lack of oxygen in her lungs.

At last she reached the top and turned to survey the view. It was worth the climb. The road dropped like a child’s slide beneath her, a straight ribbon of tarmac. In the distance, tree covered hills hugged the little bit of town she could see. The sun had broken through the clouds on the other side of the valley, and its rays lit the fields like a spotlight. More than any place she had visited in New Zealand, the place felt welcoming; as if she belonged there.

With a sigh, Claire put her camera away and headed back down to the bus.

***

Life in Layers: 2013 365 Challenge #261

Driving to Wanaka - 2006/7 Honeymoon

Driving to Wanaka – 2006/7 Honeymoon

The problem with working on multiple writing projects is I end up living my life in layers. Part of my brain is on a beach with Helen and Marcio, searching for typos, while another part is flying with Leah, as I format Dragon Wraiths for print.

In the back of my mind I’m searching for a new life (and a new name) for Rebecca, as she deals with the death of her father. And I’m permanently in New Zealand with Claire, remembering the three separate times I visited; as an independent traveller, a tour bus sheep and a honeymooner.

By the way, did you spot the cameo in yesterday’s Claire instalment? To try and get my mind in the right place for writing amid the chaos I read some of my travel journal and came across this:

“I drove from Franz Josef Tuesday morning. The weather was beautiful but cold. I stopped at Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, and walked round it: passed all the Magic Bus sheep which made me again really appreciate how great it is having my own car! I walked all the way round so I could go to the view of views: Mt Tasman & Mt Cook both reflected in the lake; but it was full of loud kiwis, so I left!”

As an aside, it’s funny how much you can dislike your former self – even more so when you realise you haven’t changed as much as you’d hoped. My journal from eleven years ago is full of me whinging about my fellow travellers and feeling like I’m a freak with no place in the world. I came across this nugget:

“The more I travel, the more I realise how little I have in common with people, how few people I like, and how few seem to really like me. No more turning into Dad [he hated the world and everyone in it much of the time] – I have arrived!”

Anyway, I digress. The problem with a life in layers is I am also living all the layers of emotion. As most of my novels are in some part based on my own life experiences, albeit transmuted and transformed, I truly live the events alongside my protagonists. I’ve been to the beach at the end of Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, so I can imagine I’m there too. I’ve been to New Zealand several times in different roles. I keep flicking through photo albums to help me with my writing and ending up lost in the past.

Puzzleworld on Magic Bus Tour 2002

Puzzling World on Magic Bus Tour 2003

It’s all good for my writing, but not so much for my day to day life. I end up dreaming epic fantasy adventures with dragons and fight scenes where I also forget to pick my child up from preschool. Or I’m trying to figure out the details of my son’s birthday cake (he wants a shark – in the end we settled for a football) while also wondering whether Claire should meet some more people before she comes home from New Zealand. I’m cooking stew and writing a guest post on postnatal depression in my head. And we know I walk the dog while mentally or physically writing hundreds of words.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what it feels like to go mad. Certainly I don’t feel entirely sane. I feel like all the words and scenes and chaos in my head are seeping out. I couldn’t plait my daughter’s hair this morning because I was overwrought and my hands wouldn’t work. Why? Because the vivid scenes from my dream, where I healed the good queen only to have her turn into a wicked monster who made me miss a school pick-up, were still swirling round my sleep-deprived brain.

I guess the upside is I don’t have to worry about no one liking me anymore, or not being able to make friends: I have a permanent posse of people with me at all times. Unfortunately they’re all a version of me, so we don’t always make the best companions. Thankfully their male counterparts and best friends are usually rather good company.  Who needs a life when you can write one?

I wonder if you keep hold of all the characters when you’ve written ten books, or twenty or fifty? My head could become very cluttered place if some of them don’t go away! At least I’ll never be lonely.

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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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“Aren’t you coming into Puzzling World?”

Claire looked from Bethan’s eager expression to the building with the illusion tower outside that people were pretending to hold up, as if it were the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Except this wasn’t Italian architecture, it was a money trap for tourists.

“No thanks, this isn’t my idea of New Zealand, any more than tobogganing down a sand dune or racing round a track on an aerial bike. I’m exhausted by the endless ways we’re encouraged to part with our cash.”

“Oh, come on Claire, lighten up. You are a tourist, you know. You’re only here for a few weeks, why not experience as much as you can?”

“Because I’m skint, and I’m tired of being a sheep and it’s all a con.” Claire saw the smile slip from Bethan’s face and stopped her rant. “I’m sorry, ignore me. I’m tired. I was up late, thinking about stuff. You go on; I’m going to catch up on my email.”

Bethan shrugged and ran ahead to join the rest of the group. Claire felt a pang as she watched her leave. She’d meant every word, but she hadn’t intended to belittle Bethan’s enthusiasm.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. This is a trip of a lifetime and I’m being a complete grouch. What’s that kiwi song? Weather with you? We’ll I’ve certainly brought my black clouds with me.

Finding a bench in the weak wintry sun, Claire zipped up her jacket before loading her emails, expecting only blog comments and junk. When she saw Conor’s name her heart gave an odd lurch. He hadn’t texted for a while, and she only now realised the hole left by the absence of his happy messages. Her heart thudded uncomfortably as she loaded the email.

Hi Claire

I’ve spoken with my boss regarding my wish for you to join the company, knowing that you are reluctant to curtail your travels in order to take a full time position.

The Board have agreed to offer you a temporary contract that will also incorporate an element of hands on research. This will entail visiting hostels and tourist attractions in the surrounding counties to undertake a benchmark exercise on where Isle of Purbeck tourism sits at present.

At the end of three months you will be expected to prepare and deliver a presentation of your recommendations, including your vision for the future of Purbeck Tourism. The following three months will be spent drawing up implementation plans from your findings.

If this is of interest to you, please let me know as soon as possible. I understand that you are still travelling in New Zealand – perhaps there is something to be learned from their tourism and attractions also?

Extension of your contract will be dependent on your recommendations and implementation plans being accepted by the Board.

I look forward to hearing from you regarding this matter.

Conor

Claire read the message several times to ensure she had understood it correctly. Conor’s formal business language made it hard to grasp the full extent of the deal. At last she gathered that he was offering her everything she could want and more.

I get to continue travelling and get paid? The man’s a magician.

The idea that Conor was trying to impress her flitted through her mind, only to be dismissed. There was nothing in his demeanour or his communications to suggest anything other than a working relationship, albeit it a much more lighthearted and friendly one than she’d ever managed with her former boss. Claire tried to imagine Carl sending her jokes by text, and laughed at the absurdity of the thought.

Scanning the message one more time, Claire quickly tapped out a reply.

Hi Conor

How can I refuse such generous terms? I’ll be back home in a week. Jetlag aside, I should be able to start work immediately (I need the cash!)

Looking forward to hearing more about the contract. Off now to investigate one of NZ’s most popular tourist attractions.

Talk soon.

Claire

With a wide smile, Claire slipped her phone into her bag and strode towards the entrance.

***

Being ‘That’ Parent: 2013 365 Challenge #258

'Fixing the bikes'

‘Fixing the bikes’

I’m afraid I have no more words today than yesterday. Hubbie went to Newcastle this morning, leaving me home with the kids. Not normally a daunting prospect, but a night of broken sleep and, shall we say, a hormonal time of the month, has left me a little fragile.

Today I was that parent. We spent two hours watching Heffalump at breakfast while I set up my free promo for Dragon Wraiths (I’m only doing it in a vain hope it might result in a couple of Baby Blues sales).

After dropping Daddy at the train station we paid a visit to the golden arches, where I surfed the free WiFi and ignored the kids while they ate unhealthy food and fought noisily over their free plastic toys.

More TV, a bit of shouting, a bike trip to the park and some healthy pasta and I survived to hubbie home time. Actually we were playing a happy game of ball in the garden when he arrived, which is always nice for the returning parent, even if tears came soon after.

Now I’m walking the dog while wracking my brain for something to cook us for dinner, and searching my mind for some conflict for tonight’s Claire scene. Oh and praying for bed. So, like yesterday, I’m going to include another of my poems from the Postcards set. I may share them all this week, because they were written about my father and I don’t think about him often enough. He is missed.

Not sure about the saw!

Not sure about the saw!

Postcards from an English Summer – June

The narrow winding lane is dapple-dark,
and ends abruptly in a sun-lit scene.
Upon the village green, a cricket pitch
where men in white stand round the batting crease.
 
Checked picnic blankets in the leafy shade 
are weighed down with their sumptuous summer fare.
A breeze of quiet talk weaves round the trees,
pierced by the cries from children climbing there.
 
An eddy in the languid lazy calm –
An eager bowler marking out his run:
then crack, bails fall, a ripple of applause.
The umpire takes a walk from stumps to leg.
 
The bowler paces, pauses, thunders in,
throws out his arm: releases the red sphere
at waiting willow. Thwack! Your favourite sound.
The ball sails high into the chestnut leaves.
 
My senses become dulled in sultry sun,
and as I mourn the space here at my side,
I’m glad that England brought their Ashes home
six months before yours scattered on the wind.

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

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“Come on, Claire, wake up. You’re coming on an adventure.”

Claire rolled over and peered at the source of the voice through sticky eyes.

“Go away, Bethan.”

“Nope. You don’t want to miss this. Sell your fancy boots if you have to, this is a once in a lifetime trip. The sun has even put in an appearance. Come on.”

Claire pulled the covers over her head, then shivered and swore as Bethan dragged them off. Her skin goosebumped as freezing air rushed across her body.

“You are not a good friend, Bethan.” Claire frowned, but swung her legs round and stood up. “How long have I got?”

“Ten minutes. Don’t bother with a shower: you’ll be too wrapped up for anyone to notice, and our tickets get us a free dip in the hot springs tonight. Besides, if you go up with wet hair you’ll freeze.”

“Am I at least allowed breakfast?”

“You can grab something in town. Come on!” Bethan hopped on the spot, finally making Claire laugh.

“What’s got you so excited?”

“What do you mean? This is the trip of New Zealand. Forget swimming with dolphins and chucking yourself off a bridge: this is it. It’s going to be amazing.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Claire pulled on her warmest clothes and tried not to find her friend’s enthusiasm irritating.

*

As the helicopter thrummed into life, Claire regretted letting Bethan bully her into taking part in the trip. They were squeezed into a tiny box and were about to launch into the air: claustrophobia and fear of heights all packaged up in one neat parcel of misery.

Claire turned to face Bethan and wasn’t surprised to see her grinning. With a shake of the head, Claire focussed on keeping her breathing even and urging the greasy pastry and burnt coffee she’d consumed for breakfast to stay put in her stomach.

Glancing out the window, Claire’s tummy flipped as she realised they were already a long way off the ground. She hadn’t felt the helicopter take off at all. The cab was all windows, and she could see the ground over the pilot’s shoulder as the landscape quickly went from flat glacial plain to climbing mountains and then the dirty grey ice of the glacier itself.

They climbed higher and higher, until everything was white. The ground came in to meet them as the helicopter settled down on the ice with barely a bump. As they jumped down from the helicopter and ran across the snow, Claire felt like a spy in a movie, and the excitement began to build inside her.

With a blast of air, the helicopter rose and flew away, leaving them abandoned with nothing in view but white. Then Claire spotted another helicopter depositing hikers in the distance: tiny black specks against the vista. Until then she hadn’t appreciated how vast the glacier was.

“Okay, Bethan, you were right. This is a bit cool.”

Bethan grinned, then bent to help the guide attach crampons to her boots. Claire did the same, cursing at her numb and clumsy fingers. She hoped the hiking wasn’t too strenuous.

When everyone had the proper kit, the group followed the guide across the ice. Claire had little idea what to expect. She knew the caves were a must-see, but didn’t really know why.

When the guide stopped outside a narrow fissure, she almost laughed. Then she watched as the group wriggled inside, one at a time.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve done my small-space terror-inducing experiences already, thanks. Caving, weaselling, I don’t need this.”

“Don’t be a scaredy-cat, Claire,” Bethan called, as she took her place in the queue. “You can’t see the blue ice properly from the outside. Come on!”

Feeling like a small child being continually chided by their parent, Claire did as she was told. The familiar blackness of fear swept over her as the walls closed in. Pushing herself through, glad of the thick jacket and warm clothing, Claire concentrated on forcing oxygen in and out of her lungs.

The cave opened up and all around shone blue. Fear evaporated as Claire drank in the scene, before fumbling for her camera.

“Wow.” Her voice sounded subdued, not echoing as it would in a rocky cave. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the blue, lighting up a dozen different shades. It was like being immersed in an abstract painting.

Claire realised with a start that the rest of the group had walked on and she shuffled after them, nearly dropping her camera in her haste. This was not a place to be left behind.

Back outside, the view of the glacier surprised her. She’d imagined it would be smooth, like a long sheet of ice. Instead it rose in pinnacles, reminiscent of a spiky plant or coral or something seen under a microscope. Fissures and caves could be seen revealing the blue of the oxygen starved ice inside. She wondered how safe it was for them to be hiking around up in the ice and how many people they lost.

Eventually the thrum of the helicopter returning rolled around the mountain. Claire felt a mixture of sadness and relief. It had been an amazing experience but the alien feel of the landscape left her on edge and longing for a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Bethan chattered away about the awesomeness of it all and her gratitude that Claire had shared it with her. Claire only half heard the words: they triggered thoughts for her that she didn’t want to hear. Just experiencing such beauty didn’t seem enough. The important part was being able to share it: to tell someone and recreate the experience for them; to re-live it through their enthusiasm and eager questioning.

Oh, she had the blog and that was fun, although half the time it felt like her words were dropping into the ether, heard by no one. But this – this amazing once-in-a-lifetime not-to-be-missed adventure – didn’t feel real, any more than if she’d read it herself on someone else’s blog. Yes, her nose tingled from the cold, and her mind fizzed with the imagery. But already it was fading.

By the time they landed she felt as if the experience had evaporated completely, leaving only emptiness behind.

***

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Baby’s First Day: 2013 365 Challenge #252

New born daughter

First Day in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Day at School

First Day at School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Ode to Autumn: 2013 365 Challenge #250

Cobwebs

Cobwebs

Ah autumn how I love thee. The season of jeans and jumpers, pyjamas and slippers, hot chocolate and stew with dumplings. Dewy cobwebs and the smell of wood smoke. Misty fields and blackberries in the hedgerows.

It turns out that the 28C heat of yesterday was summer’s swansong: it was 16C today. I had to put a jumper on and close the doors. I was also reminded how much longer the day feels when the children spend most of it indoors. We rushed around for three hours this morning, desperately cleaning before my daughter’s teacher came for the home visit. I swear the house was dirtier within minutes of her leaving than it’s been in weeks.

Time to buy spare wellies and waterproofs so relentless rainy days don’t leave me scuppered (at least until the heating goes back on and boots can be dried over night). Children are easier to manage outdoors.

Meeting Spencer the school bear

Meeting Spencer the school bear

After spring, autumn is my favourite season. The days are just long enough, without the sun nudging in unwanted at 5am. The weather is warm enough for a t-shirt but not so hot I have to shave my legs and find some shorts. In autumn it becomes cool enough to think (I’m like a troll from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: my brain stops working in the heat) and I don’t hear the children telling people, “Mummy gets grumpy when it’s hot”.

The good stuff starts on TV in the autumn, (Strictly Come Dancing, bring it on!) and the kids’ demands for toys can be fobbed off to Father Christmas. Curling up with a good book becomes an acceptable way to pass the time, without feeling guilty for not making the most of the sun.

I just need to find new ways to wear out my kids and find time to walk the dog before six o’clock, when the fields become treacherous underfoot in the gloom. And, in the interests of fairness to the other seasons, there are some things I don’t like about autumn: mostly they are muddy paws, daddy long legs and extra laundry. But I can live with it, after weeks of sun cream battles, lost hats, dehydration and muggy sleepless nights.

I’ve had an amazing, sticky hot, summer, and the kids have loved it. But all hail autumn; you are most welcome.

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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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The kayak felt like it was floating in the air rather than resting on the water. Beneath her, the transparent sea concealed nothing of the sandy depths. Claire felt as if she could reach down a hand and touch the bottom, even though the tour guide had told her the water was several feet deep.

Around them, seals swam and bobbed, some coming over to stare at the newcomers or show off their tricks. Claire turned her head left and right, trying to take it all in and feel connected. Her head told her it was breath-taking, beautiful, something to be treasured in her memory forever. Her heart and her body were too concerned with the silent figure in front of her to have time for anything else.

Josh had barely spoken since they’d left the beach. A double kayak wasn’t the place for intimate conversation. Claire realised that it was the perfect way to avoid a confrontation: more so than if he’d been in another craft, where she could have seen his face.

She found herself trying to read his shoulders. Were they tense? Disapproving? Disappointed? Resigned? He seemed to have got the message that she didn’t want a fling, and now the thought that she had wounded him twisted her stomach.

It also seemed that, now she had made her decision, she wanted nothing more than to bury her fingers in his hair and pull him in for a kiss. Claire sighed and reached down for her camera.

I’d better take some pictures so I can at least look back and remember how gorgeous it all was.

She hated the feeling of disconnectedness: of watching the world from inside a bubble. Of knowing she should be moved but feeling nothing.

If this is what obsessing over a bloke does to me, I think I prefer being alone. In fact, I didn’t feel lonely before, when it was just me, with the occasional text from Conor.

Now, even though the man she had loved for months was sitting mere feet in front of her, she felt close to tears.

Life sucks. Why can’t I just have no morals? Then I could have him, and not care about Fiona or the sprogs.

She tried to imagine what that might be like, as Josh dipped his paddle in to steer the kayak after the rest of the group.

When all’s said and done, I’ve only known him for a few weeks. And, now, I’m not sure I knew him at all. The Josh in England wasn’t clingy and needy, sulky and pushy. Or maybe he was and I just didn’t notice.

Claire tried to remember what travelling with him had been like, but her memories were a blur. There had been laughter but, now she thought about it, most of it seemed to be directed at her: at her fear of heights, at her getting drunk and singing in a bar.

And then, of course, when she’d seen him with Fiona and the kids, she’d fallen for the family man, the husband, the life partner. He was none of those things now: he was a potential cheat and a coward.

She shivered at the relentless thoughts. Desperate to get out of the kayak and away from the cause of her disquiet, Claire dug her paddle hard into the water. The kayak rocked sharply and, before she knew what was happening, Claire felt herself submerged in icy water.

There was no time to remember what she’d been told to do. Her only thought was to free her tangled legs and find a way to breathe.

Through the clear water, she saw Josh free himself and turn to see if she was out. He hesitated, as if unsure whether to free her or go for help. He disappeared from view and Claire gasped, losing the last of her air. Panic rose inside her as water filled her mouth and she struggled against the boat, desperate to be free.

A wrenching movement made her swallow water and she felt as if she was drowning. Then she realised she was upright, as her sight cleared and the wind froze her wet skin.

Coughing up water, Claire collapsed forwards over the craft. A hand patted her back hard, and she wanted to ask it to stop, but her lungs didn’t contain any air.

At last she could breathe. Tears streamed down her face and the sobbing made her ribs hurt.

“Christ, Claire, what were you doing?”

Josh’s voice cut harshly through her pain.

“If you wanted me to go, you could have just asked. You didn’t need to drown me.”

Claire looked up, ready to defend herself, and saw the concern in his eyes. He was standing waist deep in the water, his lips blue from the cold. She managed a weak smile, and Josh’s face twisted. He reached for her and pulled her close.

“Don’t do that again. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

And then he, too, began to cry.

***