Tuesday, 2 December 2014

ENTRY THIRTY - COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS


Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn't come from a store.

I have recently been reading Tom Hodginson's 'How to be Free'. This little book is essentially a manifesto on how to combat all the blood sucking evils of modern life, and how to live a freer, simpler, more authentic life with much less money and much less work. It is probably the perfect book for me to read right now, seeing as we are living on less money than ever before and I am working fewer hours than at any point in my adult life. And yet, I am on route to being happier than I have ever been, albeit in a different kind of way to years past. I am glimpsing the beginning of a new dawn, a way of life that involves less work but work of a far higher caliber. I am rejoicing in my gallery Mondays, rediscovering all the skills I used to take such pride in and adding to them. It is a very busy place, very demanding, and at times I feel pushed to the extent of what I can do. It has been a long time since I have felt so stretched and though it is tough it is wonderful. 

What gives the day its clarity, its extra dimension, is rushing back to put Felix to bed. My route takes me right along the river path from work to home, and as I race alongside the jet black Thames, the cold winter air bringing roses to my cheeks and tears to my eyes, my legs pump the pedals with determination knowing that each push brings me closer to home. There is no feeling like racing back to your baby, fulfilled by a good and honest day’s work, arms aching to hold the solid warmth of your child, to cradle them and bathe them and read to them, to lay them in the cot and sing the bedtime song, to stroke their hair while they surrender to sleep. I love knowing that the next day I am just mummy again; all the glamour and excitement of the gallery replaced by a very different kind of challenge; raising my son. Tights and dresses and leather boots are replaced by grubby mummy jeans and wellies and waterproofs, and honestly I would rather be in the damp wintery playground than anywhere else. I would give it all up if I had to but to have both feels very close to Heaven. Truly my cup runneth over, and I can feel my happiness and contentment skyrocketing with every passing day and week. 
 
We have endured hard times; the road has not only been rocky but at times nearly fallen away. We have clung tenaciously to our dreams, to our love, to what we value, tightening our belts repeatedly and to the point of pain, all for the love of Felix, and at last I feel a shift in the flow of energies. Things are becoming easier; financially, professionally, sleep wise. Felix is absolutely full of love, his wish to hug and kiss everything around him, the cat, his books, his favourite tree, even a strangers dog, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a lack of cash means nothing. He has no inkling that we have skated over some very thin ice money wise, he has not suffered or been deprived and has become an exceedingly happy and joyful child. Of course you need enough money to buy food, to provide shelter and toys and warmth, I am not proposing that genuine poverty is anything other than dehumanising, but all the other stuff is just window dressing, baubles that glitter enticingly but deliver little added value. We are all three of us still in one small bedroom, but now that he sleeps solidly through the night those tortures are over. Yes, I miss reading in bed. In fact, I miss doing anything in bed other than sleeping. We creep into the bedroom at night and in the morning are greeting by a hybrid of the Cheshire Cat and Tigger, an ecstatic, bouncing grin. There is no escape, we are as tightly penned as the Three Men in a Boat, but there is a special magic and intimacy to still sharing a bedchamber. 

The living room has become just that; our space for living. It is Felix's playroom and our lounge, it is where we read, where I write, where we play music, watch films, talk and entertain friends. Thank goodness we inherited two giant sofas from friends moving abroad, for they too must multipurpose. They double as daybeds and as sleepover beds, the cat uses one to sprawl on after a hard night on the tiles while Felix commandeers the other as a platform from which to observe the outside world. The cross-species love affair between Teddy and Felix continues apace; Teddy placidly accepting Felix's rapturous hugs and overly enthusiastic pats. He too has surrendered his space and his dignity to the force of the baby, showing his true mettle as Felix bashes him playfully with a toy hammer. 

With less than a month to go before Christmas I am more excited, more joyful, more content than I have been for a long time. I have started squirreling gifts in drawers and behind furniture, clearing the decks in preparation for the purchase of a small but fragrant Christmas tree. I am in thrall to the alchemy of Christmas, to the twinkling fairy lights and glowing candles, the warms reds and golds, the cool blues and silvers, the feeling of anticipation, of coming together. With Felix's passion for colours and lights I know that this Christmas will be an explosion of sensory delight like no other, and the best part is I can indulge myself in creating a festive wonderland all the while claiming it is for him. Haha! Finally, the infamous Toy Nativity will have a properly adoring audience. But even if all that were to be stripped away, if there was not a single gift under the tree, even if there was no tree, this would be a magical Christmas. 

Christmas with a young child is Christmas reborn. You can, you must, once again believe in Father Christmas, and leave him something to eat on his grueling rounds. Oh the joy of Christmas morning, Felix awakening with no idea what awaits him, eyes widening as he opens his gifts. If I could ask for one wish to be granted this Christmas there is no doubt what it would be...Oh Yea Gods of Weather the sledge awaits! Truly we are dreaming of a white Christmas. Bring on the blizzard, or even a dusting of frosty flakes with which to make a snowball. I want to see Felix's face when whirling white flakes fall from the sky, watch his nose wrinkle as one melts, to hear the crunch and squeak of fresh snow under foot. To experience afresh the wonder of winter. To suspend all disbelief and believe wholehearedly in the magic of Christmas once again. To be a child with him.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

ENTRY TWENTY NINE - NURSERY RHYMES

This morning we pulled on our wellies and went for a walk in the sparkling dew laden grass. Autumn has finally arrived; though it is still mild there is a sharpness in the air that feels fresh and vital. The trees, confused by the unseasonable warmth that has stretched from summer right into November, have finally received the clear signal to turn and treated us to a belated shower of gold. As we trudged through sodden leaves Felix suddenly pointed and made his exclamation of pleasure. ‘Oooh’ he cried, pointing at the shimmering grass. A sole summer daisy raised its white and yellow head to the morning sun, petals trembling with the weight of water. As we went over to examine it he carefully got down on one knee and picked it very gently, kissed it and held it out for me. I couldn’t help but wipe a tear from my eye as I held the daisy safely in one hand and his little hand in the other. It is moments like these that make motherhood what it is, a patchwork of wonder and struggle and elation and frustration, and it is for this that I am prepared to sacrifice almost anything, even a dream job….

The return to work is a huge fork in the road for a mother. When to return and for how many days, perhaps whether to return at all. For me the decision was rather different as there was no job to return to after the birth of Felix. My career in art was impaled by an unexpected arrow in the same week as discovering my pregnancy, bringing my professional life to a distressing halt. Post birth I found myself on an indefinite maternity leave, leaving me free to absorb the asteroid impact that is new motherhood. I quickly learned two things; firstly that no job, apart except from perhaps rebuilding the pyramids with your bare hands, is as relentless and exhausting as being a new mum, and secondly that after a while you start to crave a return to work. The professional part of your brain, the one that has gone walkabout while you cope with night feeds, colic and god knows what else, suddenly pipes up. 'Hey, remember me? I'm your work brain. You might have forgotten me but I've not forgotten you. One of these day, sunshine, we're gonna have to have a chat'. As you stumble from sore nipples to shitty nappies it grins at you inanely, a distant reminder of who you once were. And then all of a sudden months have passed and for many it is abruptly, shockingly, time to go back to work. 
 
Motherhood is transformative; it takes a woman and changes her permanently and in ways that may be unexpected. From what I have seen it generally makes people better; softer, kinder, more resilient, less selfish, which is all well when it comes to baby but perhaps not so good when it comes time to return to the hard edged world of work. I have seen stoical and determined women brought to their knees by the process of settling their baby into nursery, unprepared for the crying and the heartache and the guilt. Is this OK, should I be doing this, is this the right thing for me/my family/my baby? All questions to keep even the most resolute mother awake at night. Happily the babies in question have settled in beautifully to their new routines in time, but it has brought up a lot of questions in my own mind about childcare. We are very lucky in that my mother and doting grandmother of Felix lives a stones throw away, providing endless hours of grandmotherly care from day one. This however does not negate the wish in me to return to work, to immerse myself in the cloistered, idiosyncratic world of art. Not to mention the urgent need to get some extra income into our cash strapped household. Early on I had a kind of false start, an opportunity so perfect it was like a wish being granted. In the event in turned out to be more of a soap bubble, an iridescent mirage that burst as soon as soon as I grasped it, leaving me with a sticky residue and not much else. 

And then an offer came along that made me question exactly what I value and forced me into a decision. A very fine gallery that I had been temping for had an opening, was I interested? My heart leapt with joy but as the proposition was outlined a blot smudged my ardour. The role was full time, five days a week, no weekend days in lieu possible. The gallery is a dream, centrally but discretely located, well established and successful, the kind of place I would love to work. But how could I even consider accepting, what would happen to Felix? Full time nursery was out of the question financially and my dear mother was already hard pressed to manage two full days while worked part time at a dull showroom. I arranged to go in for an interview, formulating my proposition with fervent hope. A job share, three days a week, flexible working….but in my heart of hearts I already knew. As I left the gallery I was crestfallen, knowing that the job would go to someone who could commit to the role in a way I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t. I was like a sailboat steaming along on full sail suddenly finding every breath of wind had dropped, and now found myself drifting helplessly on a dead calm sea.

But I had realised something in the process, something beautiful and vital. No job would ever be worth giving up Felix for. A week has only seven days; would I really want to be apart from him for four of those, let alone five? The answer, for me, is no. The soul searching had defined my own thoughts as clearly as the sun striking a sun dial, had made me appreciate my time with him in a way that only sacrifice can. In the week or so between being offered the job and realising I would have to turn it down I realised just how much I value the everyday interaction with Felix. I want to be there on his daily journey, to help him make the tricky leap from walking aided to running free, to teach him the colours of the rainbow and the words for happy and sad and cat and dog. I want to be the hand that steadies his as he learns to draw, tie his shoelace, to eat his own lunch with a spoon. Every day a tiny piece of the mosaic that is his forming personality is forged, and I have realised I care more about the emerging picture than about my career. However much the money would improve our lives and give us means we simply do not have now it was still not a fair trade off. You only have one chance to raise your child and my job, the most important I will ever have, is to be his mother, whatever material sacrifices that may mean in the short term. Any work would have to fit around that, not the other way around. Three days a week maximum or bust.

And so I found myself back at square one, hammering the phone while Felix had his morning nap, sending CV’s and speculative emails aplenty. For a while I was convinced I had turned down the ideal opportunity but I continued nevertheless, as dogged as a gambler ploughing coins into a fruit machine. And then one afternoon a perfect conversation happened and I allowed myself to dream again, buoyed by hope and renewed determination. Weeks passed and nothing materialized but I dug in, biding my time and issuing gentle but persistent reminders. In the meantime I made the most of every day with Felix and strove to appreciate the work I was doing, trying to find within myself the higher qualities of patience, faith and gratitude. Just when I thought the soil was in fact barren, that the seed I had planted had rotted under an overenthusiastic torrent of water, a green shoot burst through the brown mud. A day a week at a wonderful gallery, an opportunity to prove myself and make myself indispensible. I am over the moon and simultaneously cautious, fortified with the knowledge that resilience and tenaciousness have triumphed over despondence. More so than this I am armed with the understanding that the deepest river that flows through my life is motherhood and that I would sacrifice almost anything for my baby. He may only be fourteen months old but already he has changed me for the better, and I couldn’t be happier.

Friday, 7 November 2014

ENTRY TWENTY EIGHT - STARGAZER



On the South East coast of Cornwall, where the River Fowey meets the sea, lies the tiny and unspoilt village of Polruan. Artfully spilling over the steep hills that stand sentinel over the river, Polruan faces its more famous cousin Fowey over the sparkling silver estuary. 


Cornwall is a long way from London, both geographically and in spirit. Crossing the bridge at Plymouth you enter another world - the mysterious, piratical land of Kernow. I love coming into Cornwall this way, over the river Tamar that forms a natural barrier between Devon to the East and Cornwall to the West, the bobbing boats and tiny houses so far beneath they look like a toy town. Cornwall is the jutting foot of Britain, poking out precariously into the wide blue Atlantic, with only the Isles of Scilly between it and America. They say you can’t escape your troubles and you can’t outrun your feelings, but a change of scene and break from routine is just the tonic that the soul needs every now and then. I had been craving the wide open spaces and bracing air, the wild and rambunctious sea. I needed to let all the juggling balls drop and roll away and just be me for one weekend, not the many women I am and have to be. And thus it was that I found myself on the five hour drive to the land of Kernow, accompanied by my fellow adventuress and lover of nature. 


Our place of refuge was a converted loft, a beautiful, minimal space that was the very embodiment of the simplicity we were seeking. Stargazer, as it was called, quite rightly let the views do the talking. To one side only a single house stood between us and the open sea, to the other the panorama of Polruan tumbling down to the river with the lights of Fowey sparkling on the other side. We arrived in darkness and rain, tired from the drive and a busy week. We awoke to a brilliant morning with the clear Cornish light streaming through our windows. The vista was breathtaking in the morning sun; the river as blue as the arching sky above, boats already hard at work on the water and in the distance the car ferry making its repeat journey back and forth. Our mission that day was a long walk along the South West coastal path, our destination the beautiful Lantic Bay. After a hearty cooked breakfast we headed out, armed with doorstop sandwiches and the fervent desire to see absolutely no people for a few hours. The rugged coastline provided the perfect backdrop to our solitude, and we stopped every now and then to let the vigorous wind buffet our cheeks. We reached Lantic Bay in record time and decided to continue onwards, making our way down to a tiny rocky beach to eat our lunch and watch an intrepid boy of about ten risk his life on some rocks while his parents looked on, seemingly unconcerned by his impending death. He was armed with a long stick which he used to beat the waves from his vantage point on a rocky outcrop, and as we watched he was soaked by the crashing surf. ‘Hiyaaaa’ he screamed lustily as he battered each oncoming wave and suddenly I was seized by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. His mother, clad eccentrically in shorts and a jaunty bobble hat, made her way over to her errant son. ‘Now he’s for it!’ we exclaimed but not a bit of it. After scrambling over the jagged and slippery rocks to where her small son sat prone, still locked in his fierce and futile battle with the ocean, she took a seat beside him. I was seized by a fresh wave of laughter as I watched them doused with briny spray, and as they huddled in together felt the tenderness and understanding between them. ‘That will be Felix in a few years time’ I remarked, wiping the tears from my cheeks ‘Jumping around trying to kill himself’. ‘Yeah’ said my companion, ‘and you’ll be right there with him risking life and limb’. My heart soared with the vision of my baby grown into a strong ruddy cheeked boy, limbs covered with the bumps and bruises of adventure, and I knew that the magic of Cornwall had seeped into my tired soul and revived what had been flagging, restoring colour where it had faded. 


Fancy a cream tea?’ my mate enquired as we neared Polruan, legs quivering with tiredness. ‘God yes!’ I replied with the hearty hunger of the walker. We had concocted a plan to hop over to Fowey and find ourselves a tea shop and have a wander over on the other side, but as we boarded the small boat that served as ferry the ferryman had other ideas. ‘You wont get a cream tea over there at this time’ he said mournfully ‘Everything be closed down now’. We glanced at each other in dismay. ‘But it’s only four thirty’ we protested. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of defeat, then added ‘Best you can hope for is a pint of Rattler in the pub’. We exchanged glances, ‘We’ll take the chance anyway’. ‘Your lookout’ he muttered curtly and set off for Fowey.
Twilight was gathering and the brightness of the day was ebbing, dark clouds roiled and gathered in the sky above, promising rain and maybe a storm later. He glanced up at the sky and over at us. ‘Might be the last one today at this rate’. ‘What do you mean?’ we exclaimed with horror. ‘Storm coming in’ he said briefly as if that were all the explanation required. ‘But we’re staying the night in Polruan, we have to get back!’ I said, anxiety starting to wind its net around my heart, ‘The ferry is supposed to run till seven’ ‘Times it do, times it don’t’ was his only answer and we finished the crossing in silence. Suffice to say his pronouncements of doom were unfounded and we found ourselves a very charming tea shop where we devoured a delicious homemade cream tea and a thick slice of carrot cake, washed down with a gallon of fine Cornish tea. Racing back to the harbour we feared the worst; peering out into the dark water it seemed certain the ferry would never come and we would be stranded, but after a mercifully brief time its lights came into view. It was a crossing I will never forget, the small boat cutting through the silky black water like an eel, the ferryman guiding it amongst the moored boats with the casual precision of experience. As the twinkling fairy lights of Polruan harbour came into view I sighed with contentment, and as we struggled up the steep hill home, legs aching with exertion, the first drops of rain struck our faces. ‘Storm coming in’ I muttered and we collapsed with laughter.


Is there anything more relaxing that soaking in a hot bath while a storm rages all around you? That evening as the weather turned and the promised storm arrived we found ourselves cosy and tucked up in our loft, the wind screaming past the windows in full surround sound, rain lashing at the toughened glass. We drank wine and ate roast chicken and baked potatoes with the gusto that only a day spent outside in the elements can provide, luxuriating in the simple pleasures of being clean and dry and safe indoors. Later, as we lay in our beds listening to the wind I was reminded of being on a boat, rocked to sleep by the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves. ‘Stargazer would make a great name for a boat’ I thought sleepily, the satisfying tiredness of hard exercise making the bed seem the most comfortable I had ever slept in. The prospect of a
drive over to the other side of the Cornish peninsula in the morning for a surf in Watergate Bay seemed almost too good to be true, and I smiled to myself in the darkness. There were no stars that night; the storm completely occluded the majesty of the heavens, but when I awoke during the night and looked out I saw a cornucopia of stars piercing the velvet blackness of the sky. Stargazer had live up to its name, delivering everything we needed and more, and as I gazed at the distant planets I gave thanks for all the good in my life. Sometimes all that is needed is the perspective to see that in fact all is well, that life is wonderful and that there is so much to look forward to. The spirit needs to be restored, the batteries recharged, the heart gladdened. There are no short cuts to healing, but at that moment I felt certain that eventually time, and at some point down the line another child, would wipe the pain from my memory. All in good time.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

ENTRY TWENTY SEVEN - DARK SIDE OF THE MOON



I wanted the first entry in book two to be a happy one, full of joy for reaching the one year milestone and excitement about the coming months. But it has come at a period of darkness and struggle, in a tangle of negative energy and emotion. A persistent grey cloud hovers over me, ominous and dense with unspent rain. And so I am on a hunt for silver linings, because even the most forbidding cloud has a flash of silver if you know where to look. 

In part it is the change in the weather that has prompted this depression, for our halcyon days are well and truly over. September was a glorious extension of summer, spilling its golden light and warmth well into autumn, while October has ridden in on a dull grey horse, bringing with it the turn of the seasons and days of endless drizzle. The official end of British Summer time
has prompted the early twilights of winter, and already I find myself returning from walks with Felix in darkness. Yet it is not merely the sudden quickening of the seasons that lies upon me like a smothering blanket; Felix’s one year anniversary has provoked a flood of memories of his birth and I realize I am far from being over it. I am haunted by knowing I was let down; by the midwives, by the anesthetists, by the whole damn system. My suffering was entirely preventable and it is this knowledge that stops me being able to move on. The only thing I can liken it to is having an operation without anesthetic, an experience so outrageous the mind shuts down at the very thought. 

All this has been underlined by the fact that other friends who had babies after me are now trying for a second, whilst I cannot contemplate giving birth again. Heavily pregnant women bring me out in a cold sweat as I imagine the agony of labour, and I know this is not a healthy reaction. Felix is a gift for which I am thankful every day but even he cannot erase the painful memories of his birth; deep in my soul I fear I would never survive another experience like it. At the same time a part of me yearns for another lovely baby to nurture and treasure. I would happily carry another child, and second time round marvel at the miracle my body was casually constructing while I went about my daily business. But I find myself unable to process the
fear and pain of childbirth and complete the grieving I must do if I am ever to begin the cycle again. I have an inkling that only a better experience will ever truly heal the trauma of the first, but first I must find a way to release the black and dreadful memories that weigh upon me in moments of contemplation. What I need is a dark side of the moon and a rocket in which to blast away the reminisces to where they are no longer sustained by the brilliance of the sun, and where they can eventually drift off into space, distilled into tiny particles that can dissipate harmlessly into the great vacuum of the universe.

***


The tragic death of an old friend, one I had not seen for many years, has thrown into stark relief my own struggles and cast a dark shadow where once was a light. Anna was on the first leg of a charity cycle from John O Groats to Lands’ End when she was killed by a collision with a lorry. Since leaving college, the last time we saw each other, she had become an accomplished rower who had competed for Great Britain in the Commonwealth Games. The paths of our lives ran concurrently in many ways and for many years. We went to the same primary school, secondary school and sixth form college. We were part of the same friendship group, one that travelled intact from the final year of school and into the first year of college, and thus shared many formative and unforgettable experiences. Anna was that rare thing, a truly natural blonde, with bright blue eyes and a winning smile. As a child I remember her vivacious and yet serene, a person with an inbuilt moral compass that directed her steadily through life. As we entered the tumultuous world of college I was dizzy with newfound freedom, a rudderless ship that embraced every temptation. As I become ever more estranged from my old friends I lost touch with Anna, and it was not until her funeral that we all came together again. 

As I stood outside the overflowing church, watching her flower laden coffin being shunted onto the shoulders of the pall bearers, I was struck by the overwhelming, unspeakable sadness of her death. Anna was in the prime of her life, not only an elite rower but also an avid supporter of charity. She was innately a good and kind person who made her way purposefully through the weirs and whirlpools of life, making thoughtful choices and dedicating herself to the relentless training of the elite athlete. As people wept openly around me I felt keenly the appalling sadness of losing a child. A child should never die before its parents; it goes against the rightful order of things. We hope and pray that old age takes us peacefully and in good time, and even if not that we live long enough to fulfill at least some of our dreams, some of our potential. Anna’s story ended so much sooner than it ever should have done and in the very act of trying to help others, but she died a beautiful person, someone to be admired and feted. I dedicate this entry and my sincerest condolences to her family and friends and all those who loved her. She will not be forgotten. 

In memoriam of Anna Roots (Townsend) always remembered.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

ENTRY TWENTY SIX - I AM 1

It has been three weeks since Felix's first birthday, and in that time I have started and scrapped at least a dozen entries. I have been tormented by the task of trying to sum up Felix's first year in a thousand words or less, and all the while the words have been lodged deep within, slyly whispering in my ear then turning tail as soon as I try to pin them down. Reading back my false starts I have felt sickened by them. Delete.

And then finally, at long last, on a sunny bench in a churchyard in Hambledon a glorious release occurred. Words that had been jammed and tangled flowed once again, like a river silted up and suddenly cleared, and I felt overwhelming relief as pure clear water gushed once again down the dry riverbed. How to encapsulate a whole year? A year in which Felix has gone from being unborn to newborn to infant to toddler. A year of the most profound and wonderful change, but also of struggle, sleep deprivation and gnawing anxiety. A year of immense personal development for all of us, for the breakneck speed of change that a baby undergoes demands that as parents you keep up. It's like a race between a tiny jet propelled car and a push bike, you have to keep peddling and the pace is relentless.  

Motherhood is a brutal pruner, anything unnecessary is ripped off ready or not, but although painful I have welcomed these changes. Motherhood has made me a better person; more patient, more humble, kinder. I have become incredibly dexterous, able to carry a baby and run a bath and feed the cat and pick up stray toys all at once. I have grown the extra arm and eye that all mothers possess, invisible weapons in our struggle to keep our offspring alive. I have felt the pain of sacrifice and done battle with the green eyed monster. We have long outgrown our one bedroom flat and at times I have felt trapped, while financial worries have exacerbated the ordinary challenges of parenthood. And yet a light shines through all the rubbish and clutter, a beautiful beam that illuminates everything before it, chasing away the shadows and striking fear and resentment from the dark corners in which they lurk. Felix. It may be a cliché but it is also a truth; Felix makes it all worthwhile. 
 
On the Sunday before his birthday a small gathering of family and friends converged to celebrate. There was a picnic, a homemade cake iced to look like Mr Bump and a trip to Clarkes to be fitted for his first pair of proper shoes. But most of all there was Barker, an antique dog walker purchased in a curiosity shop in Rye. As we sat beneath the sycamore tree Felix raced around the grass with his new pal, stopping only now and then to smother him with exuberant kisses. As I sipped my celebratory wine and nibbled on picnic food I pondered the meaning of the first birthday. It's a strange thing really, incredibly significant and yet not really understood or appreciated by the celebrant. It is a rite of passage, an acknowledgement that the first and most dangerous year of a baby’s life has been successfully completed. So many hazards lurk in the first few months, and like any mother I have stood by Felix's cot a thousand times watching to see him breathe, sometimes I still do. 

As our very nearly one year old son tumbled to the grass after an overly ambitious turn I rose automatically, running to his side to make sure he was unhurt and setting him back on his feet, and I thought what an incredible journey a human being makes. Once a mass of cells nestled in my womb that had been expelled into the world and become a boy, a person capable of independent thought and action. His blue eyes alight with joy our son was in his element, pointing at every airoplane and bird and truck and bus that whizzed past, and I was reminded of the maiden flight of a baby bird. Seeing him prepare to launch himself into the limitless future made me dizzy with wonder; what a privilege to have brought a child into the world, the most beautiful, terrifying honour I will ever know. This is the true meaning of the first birthday, for it is not only the first birthday of your child but also of you as a family. A newborn baby may be fragile and helpless but it's also the Big Bad Wolf and you better make damn sure your house is build of sturdy bricks or it'll huff and puff and blow your straw house right down. The first birthday is a milestone for you as a family, a time to reflect on the year that has passed and celebrate the creation of a family unit, that most precious and wonderful thing that springs out of a baby's birth. So go forth and multiply, it will undoubtedly be the best thing you ill ever do.

Monday, 22 September 2014

ENTRY TWENTY FIVE - CAMBER SANDS



Morning. I awake to the sounds of gulls shrieking. The sky is misty blue, the air fresh and fragrant. Our apartment backs onto the dunes at Camber Sands, so we can’t see the beach but we are near enough to smell it, hear it. I glance at the time, 7.49. Felix is still asleep; a minor miracle. It has been an age since I have woken before him and it feels odd, like putting a shoe on the wrong foot. I check on him, his cheek is pressed tightly into the bed, his breathing deep and even. I pad down the stairs and make myself a cup of tea, write my thoughts in the notepad while the sun rises and floods the balcony with warmth and light. It is a beautiful place; dune grass and cactus grow in the communal gardens of the eco apartment complex, giving the place an exotic, almost Greek feel. Swallows dart and swoop between the buildings, their streamlined black bodies like arrows. I am full of joy.

8.17. Felix sleeps on. I leave a note and do the thing that I always say I will do and never do; I go for a run on the beach. The sun is warm and kindly on my skin as I scramble up and over the dune. Although it is mid September the weather is summery, the sand cool and soft under my bare feet. I race down the side of the dune towards the beckoning sea; it glints and sparkles like a tray of sapphires. The beach has been combed and is pristine, the track marks giving it the appearance of a vast athletic ground. I start to run, my feet
digging into the powdery sand and slowing me down. After just a few paces my calves are burning but I carry on, fixing my eyes on the curve of the bay in the distance. The dunes are to one side, green and ancient, the sea to the other. There is no one on the beach, I am alone. My heart beats a wild tempo but I carry on, drawing the morning air into my lungs to counteract the burning there, until eventually I collapse onto my knees, my breath ragged and laboured. The sea winks at me. Eventually I rise and walk into its cool embrace, feeling the soft briny water wash away the sweat and exertion. The tide is on its way in but still I have to walk some distance before the water comes near my hips. I dive into the waves and feel the shock of cold as my head goes under, but I experience it as pleasure not pain. Mind over matter. I float on my back, bobbing with the waves like a bottle.

‘If you want to feel depressed, go to Dunguness’.

We drive from Camber Sands in bright sunlight. Another blue sky day, 20 degrees or so, the sun warm and yet mild above. As we approach Dunguness a strange tinge appears in the sky like a shadow. I have read about Dunguness, seen it on Coast. I know it is ‘Britains only desert’. We drive past wooden houses and shacks, randomly dotted on the stony expanse. The dirty fog thickens as we drive into the centre of the desert; it has the strangest colour, yellow-grey like the depiction of a fart in a Beano comic. There was fog this morning on the beach at Camber but it was beautiful, a dove-grey mist that covered the beach like lace. The sickly fog that rolls over Dunguness only heightens the dismal feel of the place. We park next to a sad looking pub called the Britannia, ‘The only pub in Dunguness’ it declares boldly. It feels like a threat. The power station looms ominously, a blot on the already forbidding landscape. We wander down a wooden walkway towards the beach, Felix strapped into the backpack, the modern lighthouse uttering regular calls declaring the fog to approaching boats. The beach is a desolate expanse of brown pebbles, the lapping sea muddied by the underlying sand. With the thickening ochre mist I feel like I entered the sepia world of an old photograph. It is one of the most depressing places I have ever been, bringing to mind the T.S Eliot’s Wasteland. ‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water’.

The old lighthouse, the only thing of note to visit in this barren wasteland, is closed. Weekends only it declares. We are left to wander like lost souls in purgatory, glancing nervously at the power station in the background. It was not the drabness of the landscape that bothered me; as a matter of fact I am quite partial to an austere landscape every now and then, it is cleansing for the soul. But Dunguness held an unspoken menace that crept into my very bones and made me feel like screaming ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’. The vast openness of it, with its scattered homes like the remnants of an Armageddon was interesting, painterly even. I can see how artists are drawn to the place. But always the spectre of the power station caught the eye, looming darkly on the spirit, suffocating any joy to be found there. Apparently the inhabitants of Dunguness receive free energy, a kind of pay off for having to live under its shadow. It seemed to me a cheap price for the stifling of your soul.

The oddest thing happened as we drove out and away. As soon as we were some way down the road the sickly mist started to lift, thinning perceptibly as we reached the outer edges of the desert. As we drove towards Camber we left the stifling cloud behind entirely and re-entered a beautiful September day, a world of sunlight and blue sky. I glanced back at Dunguness, wondering about those lost souls stuck in their eternal gloom. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the weather changed just as we arrived and left, but it felt to me that the very landscape of Dunguness makes its own weather, a kind of perma-gloom that envelops this sad and dispiriting place like a filthy coat, shielding it forever from the welcome, warming rays of the sun. Perhaps this is what some people seek, a smog to dull the beauty of life, a dark nuclear shadow to blight their every day, a kind of penance for happiness. A pub so sad it would make me teetotal. To live in a barren pebbly wilderness that stretches flat and drab as far as the eye can see, the only features man-made and ominous. Only the lighthouse relieves the eye of Dunguness’s ugliness, and it is simply not enough. It is worth visiting if only to be glad to be gone.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

ENTRY TWENTY FOUR - WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD

Angel puff…it just slipped out on the bus the other day. A nickname of such cloying sweetness it would make Barbara Cartland turn in her grave. It sits pinkly radiant amongst such other gems as my love, angel boy, sweet love and Mr Milk. What is it about babies that inspires such nonsense? That turns the normal adult brain into a giant cream puff, sickly sweet and oozing. Could it be their satin-velvet skin, so poreless and perfect it demands to be stroked and adored? Or it is their tufty gossamer hair, as fine and soft as the fluff on a dandelion. Their plump, rounded faces, eyes as wide as a bush baby and sweet rosebud lips. The earnest attempts to communicate, mamamamama and dadadadadada and nanananananana. Or just the smile they give you when you do a peek-a-boo, face lit up like Piccadilly Circus. Wait I know, it must be the sleeping baby; that irresistible bundle of plump sprawled limbs curled in the cot, making soft sighs and murmurs as they dream sweet baby dreams. 


I was never one to coo over babies, immune to their clumsy, milky charms. In many ways I didn't see the point of children till they were a little older; once they were up and talking, walking, climbing trees, drawing and interacting I was much more at ease. Babies terrified me with their helplessness , their dependancy. The floppy necks and uncoordinated limbs of newborns freaked me out, like marionates with broken strings. During pregnancy I worried I would not cope with a newborn, that grub-like creature that eats, sleeps, cries and soils the nappy. It all seemed so one sided, so draining. Due to the factors of Felix's birth I was not overwhelmed by love, or any emotion apart from relief, when I held him for the first time. Over the first days and weeks we bonded but still I did not feel the overpowering rush of emotion I had hoped for. It was at around six weeks, when he first smiled, that I began to understand what it was all about. I woke on Sunday morning to Felix grinning at me from the cot. It was a lightbulb moment; not just the smile but the feeling that his personaility was starting to shine through the fog of being a new mother.

 
Now it's like a button has been pressed and I can't turn it off. I am captivated by Felix; his development is as swift and exhilarating as a hare in the grass. Seeing the evolution of a newborn into an almost toddler puts me in mind of a garden coming to life after a long winter. At first nothing much seems to happen, a few green shoots, buds tightly wrapped on branches, the smell of sap rising. Then as the warming sun shines down, incrementally stronger and longer each day, the garden starts to dance. Leaves appear; the lime-bright first leaves of spring, grass shoots up and blossom begins its wedding procession along the branches. That first burst of growth is magical, but what follows is a riot. Flowers of every hue and type burst open, creating a carnival of colour, while blossom petals fall like confetti on bright new grass studded with daisies. Leaves darken with chlorophyll until everything around is shaded, and wildflowers colour the verges with cornflower blue, poppy red, buttercup yellow. Nature's firework display is in full effect. This is how it feels to raise a nearly one-year-old, to be in thrall to the full force and ingenuity of Nature.


But it's not just Felix, I am now officially into all babies; newborns, toddlers and others. I'm helpless in the presence of infants. Like a desperate politician I want to kiss and cuddle them all. I rubberneck at newborn babies in prams, exchanging smiles with tired looking mothers, wave at toddlers, pull faces. I kiss and cuddle the children of my friends with ardent adoration, loving their button noses, their chubby arms, their developing personalities. I look at myself and see a baby-lover, and I'm surprised by the change in me. Oh who am I kidding? I've fallen down the rabbit hole and plunged deep into the syrupy sweetness of a treacle tart, and the worst thing, is I love it...