Monday, 20 May 2013
I saw the competition on the morning of the closing date, when I was sitting in the garden on one of those rare sunny days we had last month, trying to write a column and dropping biscuit crumbs in my keyboard. It was the perfect procrastination opportunity, and I spent a happy hour finding things to rhyme with Chekhov. As poetry has never been My Thing, I was forced to eat more biscuits while I found The Muse.
However, I'm delighted to report that I won the competition, and will be jetting off in September to Chez Castillon, in the South of France, for a six-night writing course with Jane. I will be starting book two round about that time, so it couldn't be more perfect. You can read my winning entry, and the very funny runners-up, here.
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
The boys were five weeks old when Alex died. In my head he has never got any older - how could he? If I think of those thirty-five days - and rarely do I allow myself to do so - it is of a hand curled around my finger; a butterfly heart beneath the translucent skin of a child who never left his cot. A child who never laughed. A child who never grew big enough for clothes knitted on the tiniest needles.
With a mixture of pride and grief I see Josh grow into his role of the only son. I see his shadow fade as he makes his way through life alone, and slowly, carefully, I pick my way through life as a mother of three, not four.
And throughout all of this, Alex remains a baby. A tiny, three-pound, bird-like baby, whose weight is far less than the blankets in which he is wrapped. He lies in my memory as he lay in my arms: quietly, silently, calmly.
Last week Josh asked to do some sewing. 'I want to make a picture', he said. He trawled my fabric stash for greens and blues; for red, for ribbon and for buttons, and he sat on the floor with his tongue between his teeth as he pulled the thread back and forth. 'It's Heaven,' he explained, pointing to the strip of sky stitched to the top. 'It's a huge poppy field in Heaven, and I'm going to use these buttons for Alex.'
'They're too big', Evie piped up, ever-concerned with accuracy. 'Alex was really, really small'.
Josh shook his head patiently. 'Yes,' he said, 'but not now. Now he's six, like me. Now he's big. Isn't he, Mummy?'
For six years I have closed my mind to the thought of how Alex would be now. I have turned away from imagining a second head on the pillow, another plate at the table. I have never let him grow up.
'Yes,' I said. 'I suppose he must be'.
So I took a deep breath and I listened to Josh tell me about Alex; about the games he plays in Heaven, and the friends he must surely have there. I heard tales which made me hide a smile, and I heard the imaginings of a boy who has come to terms with death far better than I ever could.
When I think of Alex, I remember pain and grief; impossible choices; a tiny white coffin. When Josh thinks of Alex, he smiles at the boy running free in a meadow of poppies; a world built out of the love of a brother left behind.
I can learn a great deal from my son, I think.
Saturday, 11 May 2013
I bumped into someone from work the other day. Not my 'now' work; my 'then' work. The work where I wore a rank on my shoulder, made decisions, briefed teams. The work I slid out of eighteen months ago, on the pretence of a break. The work I finally quit last month, earning in return a standard confirmation email containing fewer words than the years I served.
I ran into her in the supermarket, the pen-pusher's lunchtime destination. She saw me before I got to my car.
'How are you?' I asked. 'What are you doing now?' It was a work question. It was always a work question. She told me about her current role, and I felt a stab of envy. She was always one of The Bright Young Things: sharp, quick, destined for greatness. I was a Bright Young Thing too, once.
'And you?' she asked. 'You're...' there was a pause, 'writing?' She made it sound as though I spent my days making daisy chains: a harmless pursuit, yet without purpose or ambition.
'Yes,' I said. I wanted to tell her how I ached to write, how my fingers itched when they weren't at a keyboard, and stories fell over themselves to escape from my head, like excited puppies desperate for walks. I wanted to tell her that a decade in uniform had stifled and repressed me, chased out creativity and left me broken. I didn't say any of that. 'It fits in well around the children,' I finished lamely, and her look of understanding was so patronising I bit my cheek with the force of my smile. She smiled back. I could never be like you, she was thinking. I could never throw away everything I've achieved. I would never abandon my career on a whim, to scribble unread stories and gossip at the school gate.
And maybe she never will. But perhaps one day she will wish she had.
Sunday, 5 May 2013
There's something about the sunshine, isn't there? I woke up this morning and there it was: splashing itself across the garden in the most brazen way. I made pancakes, smoothies, fruit yoghurt. The coffee thrust itself upwards in the cafetière as though it couldn't wait to be brewed.
We sat on the deck beneath the heat of the gazebo, and we could almost have been in the tropics, save for the intermittent buzz of lawnmowers so peculiar to the English spring.
Could it have been more perfect? I don't think so. Happy children, happy parents, happy puppy - dancing between pairs of bare feet you would think were provided expressly for her pleasure. I had that notion one feels at a party or concert, where one steps back from the crowd and looks down upon the revelry. I watched my children laugh at nothing, smile at each other, giggle at some unseen joke. I felt warmth spread throughout me and I basked in the happiness I had helped to create. My family. My perfect, happy family.
When the clouds gathered overhead I shuddered, bracing myself for the inevitable chill. But the smiles didn't fade, and the laughter didn't die, and the warmth in my heart remained despite the shadow in the sky. And I realised the happiness I felt had nothing to do with the weather. Sunshine doesn't bring happiness - it simply helps you see it a little more clearly.
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
Blood, bone-marrow, breast-milk, or good old-fashioned cash. Most people I know donate something on a regular basis, or have done so at least once in the past. I was a regular blood-donor, until a life-saving transfusion meant I could no longer donate. Ah, the irony. When funds were more plentiful I sponsored a child, set up standing orders for two charities close to my heart, and always had a pocketful of change to drop in a busker's hat.
Nowadays my own children eat through my income like locusts through a cornfield, and the spare change I once scattered so liberally is carefully collected from pockets and bedside tables to ease us towards the end of the month. But I have time. Lots of time. Instead of a fifty-hour week and an hour's commute, with reports to read at home, and a vibrating Blackberry, I work twenty hours from home, with my phone on silent. I earn the same, but with less stress. I work smarter, not harder.
I am fortunate to be in this position, and as I'm not the sort of person who can comfortably spend time loafing around sipping Pina Coladas and watching Homes Under The Hammer (although, did you see how much they paid for that two-bed in Durham? Incredible), I donate my spare time. I have become addicted to volunteering. Time expands in a way that cash doesn't, and there always seems to be another hour in the week if I really need it.
I spend half of Monday in my children's school, supporting ICT teaching, and I have just committed to running a free creative writing after-school club for children from years five and six. I am Vice-President and newsletter-writer for a WI I helped set up a couple of years ago, and a Trustee and Director of Chipping Norton Literary Festival. I write a quarterly newsletter for an amazing charity called Emma's Trust, and do various bits and pieces for community groups and other local charities.
Volunteering, like other forms of donation, is rarely entirely altruistic. Of course I want to help the children I support at school, and of course I am committed to the educational aims of the literary festival. But I enjoy it, and that's the bottom line. Like the feel-good glow you get from knowing someone on the streets is going to eat something hot tonight, I get a buzz from knowing my spare time has made a difference. Still more selfishly, I enjoy the mental stimulation. I gave up a career which required constant dynamic decision-making and presented strategic challenges on a daily basis. I love writing, but if my most difficult decision was whether to replace a comma with a semi-colon I would begin a slow mental decline. Securing funding for a literary festival, managing a team and bringing a project in on time and under budget? That's more like it.
Almost everyone can donate something. I know that's a sweeping statement, but whether it's twenty pence in a collection bucket, or an hour a week spent reading the papers to retirement home residents, I think few people can genuinely say they can't do it. And those who can't? Well, that's precisely why we need people who can.
Thursday, 25 April 2013
I am almost obsessional about the time between seven in the evening and bedtime. It's mine. All of it. I revel in the peace which comes when the children are asleep, and the utter selfishness of an evening spent doing what I want to do. When the babies were all under two, and the witching hour began at three pm and stretched through till bedtime, I would take a deep breath (and a large slug of Pinot) and tell myself I could get through it. I could get through anything as long as I could knew that, come seven, the night was my own.
Often I will work - I don't have the concentration required for television - and occasionally I'll read. Sometimes I'll write. Rarely do I go out, except for committee meetings, which happen all too frequently. But never do I spend the evening doing chores. I flatly refuse. There is nothing more soul-destroying than spending the evening ironing or sorting socks, so instead I race feverishly about the house from 6pm, tidying away toys and loading the dishwasher so that at precisely seven o'clock I may down tools.
When the children don't settle, or the chores are misjudged; when supper runs late, or the phone rings at bath-time, I begin to twitch. I feel the minutes seeping out of my evening, and it stresses me more than you can imagine. This is my time.
I know that the children will not be children for long. I know that seven o'clock will not always be their bedtime; that I will share my evenings with teenage angst and reality TV shows. But for now this is my time. And I guard it fiercely.