My girl

Matt, the preppy one has a can of lager between his knees.

My girl, looking relaxed and hopeful, clutches a bottle of Oasis.

Andy, the needy one, caresses his bottle of white wine.

Beth, the drama queen, juggles a red bull between her estimable thighs

Sarah, the one who never swears, sips at a glass of water.  (Later that evening she will OD on speed, but she will be ok)

A photo posted of the newly-introduced flatmates.  My girl is the most beautiful.

Judgement day

Now, can you tell us, Rachel – what do you think you could bring to this role?

Well…. I am good with information systems, and… and people, I’m good with people, and… um…

I take a sip of water, a deep breath, and start over:

well, I like to think of myself as kind of a buffer zone, actually, you know, between people and technology and I think that’s going to be important for this job, and… um, and I have a real passion for… I really want this job and, and… really, and… um.  And I…. I’m very…. um.  And I….  …  … so yeah.

My mouth lets me down again.  Under pressure, communication between my brain and mouth are severed.  In extreme cases, such as here, lines of communication are diverted to my fingers, so that while my mouth gapes lifelessly, my hands sweep complex movements in apparent efforts to form a new and intense sign language.

The interviewer is a woman just a little older than me.  She has an air of integrity and composure that leads me to believe that she would be the ideal boss.  A thin cardigan the colour of pine needles is draped around her shoulders, and as she looks at me over her spectacles, I see that the desperation she recognises in my eyes is met with a calmness she hopes will be infectious.  It helps, but I’m too far gone.

Thank you, she says, and smiles at me.  She looks down at her papers, and I notice a momentary twitch of her forehead, as if she is denying a frown.  She holds the papers up and reads deliberately from them so that I know this final question is planned, and not born of her own capriciousness:

what have you done to improve your communication skills?

***

I came home early for this interview.  I spent the week away, me and five teenagers; daughter brought two friends and son brought one.

The boys cycled, swam and messed on their skateboards, then lay on their beds and watched videos of other people cycling and messing on their skateboards.  Every now and again they’d come and tell me the headlines and highlights.

Each of the girls, individually, is lovely: friendly, intelligent and witty.  But together they formed a three-headed monster that glided round the place with its pretty noses in the air before draping itself over the settees, each set of perfectly-painted eyes fixed on a pod, a pad or a phone.  They compared twit-feeds, searching out images of young women to criticise: too fat; too skinny; not enough arse; too much cleavage; orange face; tan lines; wrong hair colour; wrong brow shape.

As I unloaded the dishwasher I reflected on my bare face with its deepening lines, my unstyled hair, my comfortable jeans and jumper older than my daughter.  I realised I am not even in the game; I saw myself through this beautiful youthful monster’s eyes, as something almost sub-human; I understood why it judged me as fit only for cooking and clearing away its vodka glasses.

In return, I judged the monster by my own standards and found it shallow and inconsiderate.

***

My ideal boss phones me with the news I am expecting.  But although she has to judge me, she doesn’t condemn; instead of giving me up as a bonzo, she offers practical advice and encouragement:

hello Rachel, I’m sorry that we can’t offer you the job at this time.  But it looks as though we are going to readvertise the post, and I’d be very happy for you to reapply.  If you do, please give me a call and we can have a chat about the job so that you feel more prepared next time.

***

A little passion for Valentine’s Day

Sigrid Frenson: watercolour of Rosa ‘Francis E Lester’ hips

It seemed I was the only customer at the David Austin Plant Centre today. Certainly, I was the only one in the gardens, striding purposefully through the mizzle, garden plan in hand.

***

A few weeks ago I came here to attend a session on rose pruning.  I’d seen the picture of David Austin on the website – silver-haired, golden-faced and pensive – and I knew that if I met him, he would recognise a kindred spirit.  We would talk for hours about about technical and creative aspects of rose breeding; he would value the freshness of my novice insights and would come to name his next rose after me.  This was a certainty, if only he were to spot me, so I put on my prettiest coat of peacock blue velvet, to attract his eye.

I met my fellow pruners and the six of us took morning coffee and polite conversation in the oak-beamed tea rooms.  A lovely lady named Diana led us to the gallery, where she described the different types of roses and explained how each should be shaped and trained.  After questions, it was to the gardens for practical.

As we filed out into the January sleet, Diana looked critically at my coat and offered me her spare wax jacket, which I declined.  She led us around the gardens, pointing out the differences in form between shrub roses and hybrid teas (one natural and voluptuous; the other upright and overbred), and in habit between climbers and ramblers (climbers generally have stiff growth and flower continuously; ramblers tend to be more lax but vigorous in growth, with one big burst of flower often followed by hips).

We stopped to admire a particularly handsome rambler, rosa mulliganii, its clusters of deep coral-bead hips dripping from a pale stone wall: ‘Mr Austin says the best way to grow a rambler on a wall is to plant it behind, so that it cascades over,’ Diana told us, and we all nodded.

We were still admiring and nodding when I felt the thud of two muddy paws on my thigh; the jowly face of a stout black labrador smiled up at me.  I don’t do animals, and this seems to make me a target for them, but while I know that cats are sent from the devil purely to antagonise me, I am prepared to believe that dogs have more benign intentions, evangelical even; they see me as unconverted, convincible.

With outward acquiescence, I said ‘hello doggie,’ then, with my eyes: ‘my soul is as stone to you and you shall not have it’.

‘Hello Betty’, said Diana, then looking over to a white-haired old gentleman on the gravel path beyond, she said ‘good morning Mr Austin.’

David Austin nodded at Diana and tapped his walking stick at Betty, who gave up on me happily to returned to his heel.

I knew I would never wash that coat again.

***

I passed from the Long Garden into the Renaissance Garden and, still studying the plan closely, walked beside the water channel towards the Pergolas.

‘Won’t do you much good at this time of year.’

I looked across the water to see that same white-haired old gentleman looking back at me, and I realised how ridiculous I must appear to him, using a plan to try to distinguish one set of bare twigs from another.  Betty spotted me and bounded over.

‘I’m looking for hips,’ I explained to Mr Austin, as I patted Betty.

He nodded, and moved to tap his stick.

‘I was thinking Francis E Lester,’ I said quickly, ‘planted behind a fence, so that it cascades over.’

‘Best way,’ he said. ‘How high, the fence?’  He drew the tip of his walking stick up in a vertical line.

‘About there,’ I said when his stick-rule reached nearly six foot.

‘Yes, that will do,’ he nodded, and tapped his stick. He continued his walk, with Betty at his heel.

I glided through the Lion Garden and on into the shop, where I bought Francis E Lester and the biggest book on roses I could find.

***

A treat for those with misspent 1980s:

The house of the rising sun

 

Every morning now I creep up early, into the silence before the kids waken, open the curtains in the front room and watch as the big winter sky brightens over the allotments opposite.  I watch as shadows take shape and eventually colour: the outline of barbed wire over the allotment gates; beyond the allotments, the chimneys and gables of a Victorian school; to the east, the distant minarets of a mosque stand out against the cloud-streaked sky; the copper beeches lining the allotment entrance slowly assume their tawny burnish.  Every morning now I watch and appreciate, because soon I will look out my front window and see only the front window of the house opposite.Sunrise over the allotments

My world has been falling apart recently.  Not in a dreadful, catastrophic way.  Rather, many constants are coming to an end, many big decisions are having to be made: a period of reassessment and readjustment.  It is just now starting to come together again.  I accept the inevitable losses and begin to look to the future with hope, to plan.

As you know, I am blessed with two amazing children.  I moan at them when they are running late for school and ask for a lift, but secretly I love to drop them off in town and watch them walk away chatting together, suddenly all grown up.  Generally, they talk of school gossip and of music, but sometimes they plot, and a seed previously planted led to my daughter having A Serious Chat with me over tea one night;

Mum, we need to move.

But I thought we were happy here…

No, you were right before, we should move.

I look at the boy, he nods his head.

But we can’t afford anywhere better than here.

So why don’t we rent somewhere?

Because we like the stability of owning where we live.

Well, Dad has just bought another house to rent out, I’m sure he’d let us have it as long as as we wanted.

I see…

I asked him about it, he said he knows how proud you are so he wouldn’t do mates rates or anything patronising like that.

Bless him.

It’s in a decent area, the house is a bit bigger than this but still cosy.

Hmmm… I was kind of banking on having the mortgage paid off by the time I retire. If we start renting, I’ll be renting forever.

That’s ok, by the time you retire we’ll have decent jobs, we’ll help you out.

The boy nods.

By then, you’ll also have families to support.

Oh no, I’m going to be career-woman-bitch-from-hell, I ain’t having no brats.

We’ll see about that.

Seriously Ma, you do realise you’re not going to be blessed with grandchildren?

Your brother’s a good boy, he’ll give me grandchildren.

Nope, he’s gay.

He is not.

Really, he’s all gossip and hairstyles, he’s my gay best friend.

Look, I’d be happy if he was gay, but I just don’t think he is.

Don’t you remember how happy he looked the first time he put on my pink Cinderella slippers?

You’re just jealous cos he’s always been better at walking in heels than you.

Exactly.

My boy follows the conversation, interested to discover what is to become of him.

*

(Happy New Year)

Thicker than raindrops on November thorn

Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954)  Self-portrait with Necklace 1933

Already November is here; mists, mellow fruitfulness, all that, but also Na-No-Wri-Mo and Movember.

I have always ignored the fuss made about Na-No-Wri-Mo.  Even while I was taking Creative Writing courses and could tentatively call myself a writer, the thought of tackling the n-word at all was inhibiting.  I can barely read one in a month, so the thought of attempting to write one in that time made me want to find a quiet corner and sob.  So I did what I do when something scares me, I ignored it and nestled in the smugness of its non-existance.

But a couple of weeks ago, I blew it.  I told someone I could never do Na-No-Wri-Mo.  Not only did I admit its existence – thereby making it undeniably real – but I also awakened my inner mule; tell me ‘you can’t do that’ and I will huff and puff and I will find a way.  My way can be flexible and non-linear, but it will have the essence of the original in the way that a poem will be the essence of a truth even if details must be changed to get there.  It is in this spirit, then, that I have reinvented Na-No-Wri-Mo for the word-challenged: Wri-Mo-Micro.  Instead of 50,000 words in 30 days, I will attempt to write at least 100 words every day throughout November.

As for Movember, that’s easy.  I’m with the guys.  Come November 30th I’ll be twiddling my handlebar as I read back over my month’s vast writings.

Roseraie de l’Hay

Roseraie de l'Hay

I feel bad that I don’t remember her name; she was a lovely old lady, white-haired and soap-scented.  We lived next-door to her for eight years, we couldn’t have called her Mrs Next-Door for all that time.  And besides, I seem to remember Christmas cards being exchanged, so her name must be in there somewhere.  But it won’t surface and I feel discourteous.

Merry Christmas to you all,

from

Mrs Next-Door and Jeanie.

See, I remember her daughter’s name, but then Jeanie is difficult to forget – a lean woman with pale ankles, long squirrel-coloured hair, a thick stripe of red across her thin lips and everything else green: emerald eyeshadow; lime clothes; olive sandals; even her bedroom glowed jade.  When things got too much for Jeanie, she would take her bongos and her glockenspiel into the garden.

– It’s her glands, Mrs N-D told me once.  I worry about what’s going to happen to her when I’m gone.

Mrs N-D died last year, and what is happening to Jeanie is that she’s selling up and moving to Penzance, to be closer to a creative community.

Roseraie de l'Hay

When you drive into this city – I guess this is probably true of most cities – you get a feel for the localities by their street signs. Or lack of street signs, such as when you pass through rural villages (think The Archers) on the outskirts, where rights and responsibilities are taken seriously and any reminder might be considered condescending and reported to the parish council.  The signs begin, then, further into the city, tentatively, tucked between the leaves of the suburban Stepford estates –

Streetlight not working? Call us…

They are in full swing by the time you reach the council estates –

Kill Your Speed, Not a Child

and by the inner city – the neighbourhood as near to a ghetto as this tiny city can muster – they have lost all sense of decency:

Prostitution is a Crime! 

This is where we live now.  Posh end, mind.

When we lived next-door to Mrs Next-Door, we were somewhere between speeding admonishment and lighting reassurance; a comfy place to be, and when I saw her house up for sale, I flitted with the possibility of returning; to take the kids back to the street they were born. The possibility was slight, but I had to explore it, decide whether to persue it.

I mentioned it first to my home-bird boy.

– But you’ve just decorated the front room, with the comfy settee, and had the stove fitted. It’s so cosy, I don’t really want to leave.

– The settee could come with us, and we could have a new stove fitted.

He looked at me doubtfully and returned to FIFA 13.

So I suggested the idea to my daughter.

– It’s alright here, why would we want to leave?

– Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk home at night without being hassled by cars full of men?

She shrugged.

– It’s character-building, Mum.  If I get to uni next year, nothing and nobody’s gonna scare me.

– Well, that’s a positive way of looking at it.

– Yeah.  Besides, I like when I tell people where I live and they look all shocked.

I didn’t think our address was enough to provoke shock, but if it makes her happy… and sonny-boy is content with his creature comforts, wherever they’re located: just me to convince.

This here is an interesting place to live, but sometimes the enmity threatens to take over.  Especially when driving; a sport that has few rewards for fair play around these narrow streets, where civility is viewed as a weakness.  People seem overwhelmed by their own problems; struggles arouse hostility, drives out humanity.  Look closer and you will find integrity and grace, but they are harder to come by.

Roseraie de l'Hay

I spent this afternoon in the late-summer sunshine, tidying the front.  I trimmed the yew that I’m trying to turn into a hedge, pruning it back to leave room for the daffodils to poke through in the new year.  (Last February they were just about to open when I found all the buds snapped off and strewn on the pavement: we’ll try again next spring.)  When I had done what I could with the yew, I moved on to clip the lavender edging.  (A few weeks ago, I found that someone had dumped a dirty carpet on top: once I’d lugged the big muddy square into the bin, the lavender soon sprang back to life.)  My final job was to hack at the Roseraie de l’Hay, my beautiful rugosa rose.  Rough and tough and thorny, the deep rich crimson of its carefree flowers in the summer is matched by the exuberance of its perfume, but this late in the season it is past its best, so I chop back, save its energies for next year.  I was nearly done when I noticed Mrs Atwal standing beside me (the two Mrs Atwals were introduced here: this was the sedate one).

– Are you throwing the sticks away?

– Well, I was going to…

– Please can I take one? I’d like to put it in the soil of our garden to see if it will grow.

– Of course.

– I walk past here every day.

– Yes, I see you sometimes.  (I don’t tell her I used to buy 10p mixes off her in her shop, but I wonder if she remembers me.)

– In the summer, this rose smells beautiful. I asked my sister and she smells it too. We would love that in our garden, thank you.

 – You’re welcome. I hope it works for you.

Roseraie de l'Hay

Once outside was spick and span, I came inside and checked the estate agent’s website.  Mrs N-D’s house is sold: Jeanie will get her dream, get to live where she wants to.

I will keep on living here, keeping searching out the grace.  After all, this here is an honest place to live, and my kids have lived here longer than anywhere else.  After all, it’s our home.

Roseraie de l'Hay

I have a dream

I don’t remember what I’d said, but it had made him laugh, briefly, before the seriousness we both recognised, settled.  His eyes focussed too long on mine, then scanned my mouth.  He took a deep breath, exhaling slowly and unsteadily as he moved closer, as he bowed his head down to reach me.  I felt the roughness of his thumbpad on my cheeks and our lips brushed; the lightest of touches…

Not likely – boomed my unconsciousness, and gave a good poke in the ribs to ensure I was woken fully.  For the hour that remained before my alarm set The Today Programme upon me, I pondered my unconscious and its increasingly unkind behaviour.

Until a few months ago, we’d got along fine.  Then one day, the good ladies of the office had a discussion about recurring dreams:

I dream that my hair falls out – said the bold one at the front.

I dream that I’m sitting on the bus and I realise that I’m naked – said the timid one at the back.

I dream – I added from the corner – or rather I used to dream, that something horrible happened, but when I tried to shout out, I had no voice.

That night, I dreamt that I had a hard swelling, right in the hollow where my neck and chest meet.  It was leather-brown and ribbed, like the pupa of a large grub, and my fingers worried it and worried it until it fell off into my hand, leaving a gaping hole at the base of my throat.

Bugger, I’ve self-tracheotomised – I thought.  I can’t breathe, I’m done for.

I held onto the air in my lungs; the few extra seconds it gave allowed me to acknowledge and accept the finality of death.  When my lungs could hold it no longer, I released my breath and instinctively I gasped for air.  The air did not seep from the stoma in my throat as I had expected, but instead refilled my lungs: and again, and again. I breathed and I lived on.  I cried out in joy.  Or at least, I tried to; my cry wheezed silently from the grub-shaped gap.

It was only when I recounted this dream to my ladies that I realised I’d been set up.  It can’t have been chance that a random dream just happened to end in a way I’d described hours before.  My subconscious must have planned it: planted it.  This is contrary to how I thought my brain in general – dreams in particular – work.  I had visions of a democratic process – id, ego and super-ego working together in harmony to organise my mindspace and its contents:

Ego: so guys, here’s what I’ve experienced today.  Make of it what you will…

(video plays)

Super-ego: OK, that right there.  See what you did there?  You learnt from a mistake.  That’s a great learning strategy, well done.

ID: blah blah strategy blah.

Ego: no, I think Super is right.  It might come in useful, we should keep that in the Long Term pile.  So, let’s see what’s up next, guys…

(video)

ID: oh my! Oh, that’s good, can we keep that?  Can we, can we, can we?  Oh, can we? Please say we can!

Super-ego: certainly not.  You shouldn’t have been looking at that angle – C for chickenshit.  File it.  Now.

Ego: I’m not sure, Super.  It wouldn’t hurt just to poke a bit of that into a dream?  Huh?

Super-ego: well…

ID: gwarn Super!

Ego: oh Super, you’re just the best.

*

Turns out it’s not a democracy but a dictatorship.

I had a dream.  I think he may have been Ifan from Information – sweet guy, not normally considered fantasy material (he’s Welsh for a starter) but dreamers can’t be pickers, especially when they’re being bullied by their super-ego.

*

I wanted to go with this:

But Super, she insisted on this: