Tuesday, 12 January 2016

ENTRY FORTY SIX - GLAD TIDINGS WE BRING



On the last day of 2015, Felix and I crouched in the damp earth and planted a bag of bulbs. A bright picture of spring idyll adorned the packet; ‘Blooms Bees and Butterflies’ it proclaimed proudly ‘Plant these and help combat the worldwide decline in the bee population’. Who could refuse such an entreaty, for the plight of our essential pollinators is an agricultural and environmental crisis of gargantuan proportions. ‘One bulb at a time’ should be the motto of us all.

2015 has been a year of epic change; Felix has metamorphosised from a speechless, newly walking baby to a chattering, dancing, fully fledged little boy. Over recent months I sometimes worried that he was slow to start speaking, and his frustration at not being able to communicate his increasingly complex thoughts and desires mounted and created a barrier between us. And then, like a river bursting its banks, the words started to pour forth in a glittering stream. His delight at being able to express himself has made a huge difference to our lives and daily his vocabulary grows in richness and diversity. He can request songs, ask for meals, make little jokes like ‘Knock knock, who's there? Felix!’ His passions and fears finally have a voice, and we begin see the person that he is becoming ever more clearly, like an oil painting taking shape layer after layer. First the background, then the shadows and highlights, and now the finer forms and figures become more defined with every brushstroke. I am sure that every parent believes their child to be a masterpiece that they have had a hand in creating, and after all I am simply a doting and pathetic mother. In his eyes the entire world is being fashioned as if from scratch, and I am in thrall to its splendour. This is not to say that he is not at times a wheedling, whining, tantrumming, insanely irritating and rude little toddler, for this he most certainly is. And yet his bounteous smiles
streak across the surface of my heart like searing stars, and his voice melts any icicle of anger that forms. Mispronounced words become my own catchphrases, and every new sentence thrills me like the finest poetry.

During this year I have undertaken my own voyage, away from pain and fear and towards hope and the wish to one day have another child. Late last year, over a year after giving birth to Felix, I realised that rather than the horror of that event receding it was beginning to possess me. On the surface all was well; the physical effects of a complicated birth had healed but the psychological and emotional scars were burrowing ever deeper into my psyche. I was experiencing chronic insomnia, long after Felix was sleeping the whole night through. Words like labour, delivery and maternity lurked like giant spiders under every bed, always ready to wrap me in their terrifying embrace, invading my dreams and increasingly my waking hours. I realised that the time had come to face my demons or risk being consumed by them gradually, like a death of a thousand cuts, and so I went to my GP, herself a mother of three, and confessed my fears. Rather than thinking them foolish or inconsequential she listened with grave attention and swiftly referred me for counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Several months later, just as my anxiety had reached a crisis point, I attended my first session of trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

I was lucky. I found a therapist whose natural sense of empathy and professional ability twined with my deep need for a sympathetic and trained ear into which to pour my poisoned story, and so began a dance that would last several months and at times leave me as flayed and stricken as a victim of unspeakable torture. Together we relived and discussed the burning black details of those hours in which I hovered above the abyss, a gaping void of pain and dread poised to swallow me whole. I voiced fears that I thought had no name, regurgitated memories so twisted and grotesque that my mind had thrown them into the scrapheap, where the vile things survived like filthy maggots. Post traumatic stress was something I had associated with soldiers and survivors of genocides, not normal, healthy women like myself who had entered a hospital to perform that most ‘natural’ of acts, childbirth, and come out the other side damaged and disturbed. And yet, after consulting the scale of stress under which trauma is graded, it turned out that my experience ticked a lot of boxes. Long hours of pain, helplessness, fear that the worst might happen, and critically an extended period of time in which my body was under siege and therefore releasing a constant supply of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenalin, which as it turns out blocks the brains ability to process memories as they are happening. This creates a situation where the memory is incorrectly stored and instead filed in its raw state; therefore repeatedly exposing the sufferer to the original trauma whenever it is triggered.

Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, intense anxiety and insomnia are some of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as an inability to control emotions. Sweating, shortness of breath, a racing heart, hypervigilance (looking for signs of danger constantly = my giant spiders) and eventually acute mental breakdown if the original trauma is not dealt with. Make no mistake, PTSD is no walk in the park, and increasingly traumatic labour and birth are considered amongst the most common causes. Somehow, it’s OK for a soldier who has seen all manner of death and dismemberment to admit to these symptoms, and yet every day women suffer the most acute pain, fear, and loss of control of their lives and it is considered completely normal. It is time for this conspiracy of silence to end. Everyone who has have gone through any kind of complicated or traumatic birth experience should seek help, for I promise you, the visceral ghosts that stalk you like grey stains on your vision can be exorcised.

Three months after completing my course of CBT, I feel I am cured. To me this is a miracle, and one that I know will alter the course of my whole life. I am able to discuss labour and birth, even my own, with dry eyes, not because the memories are blocked but because they are filed correctly under ‘past’. I am no longer under siege; I am free to go forth and consider the possibility of having another child. My giant spiders have been slain, each and every one, but only through sheer hard work and many hours of intense pain. The reliving of an acute trauma is something that you will never forget; if you do it properly it is literally like going through the event again; all the pain, fear and helplessness threatening to submerge you. You must then update it with more accurate cognitions, for example ‘I am dying’, but lo and behold, you didn’t die. ‘I cannot cope with the pain’. But look, you did, are you not here as hard proof of the fact? ‘I will be incontinent’. Nope, wrong again. You must face down each and every one of your fears, look them in the eye and realise they are in fact sordid phantasms. CBT helps to unblock the trapped memories and steer them into the right part of the brain, until you can look back and think; I survived. I did not die. I am here, and I am OK. Early on in my therapy, my wonderful, gifted, candid therapist, said to me ‘This will always be the worst thing that ever happened to you. We are not seeking to change or deny that. You have to learn to own this as part of you. What we can do is put this memory, for that is what it is, in the place where it belongs. We can close Pandora’s box, after looking deep inside it, and seal it up forever, knowing that what is in there did not in fact conquer or kill you. This is freedom; this is what can be achieved. But it can only be done by you, I will help you look into the abyss and yet not fall in, for the abyss is only in your mind and only you can reject it and live in the light. I am delighted, proud, and honoured to say that am living in the light once more, a survivor of a terrible trauma that produced the best thing in the entire world, and edging ever closer to doing it all over again.



For help and advice on recognizing the symptoms of PTSD visit http://www.ptsduk.org/.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

ENTRY FORTY FIVE - A VERY MINDFUL CHRISTMAS



In the depths of winter it is impossible to imagine summer. T shirts and bare legs, picnic blankets and long warm days. Yet winter holds a beauty all of its own; more subdued and sombre but just as striking, you just have to know where to look and how to see. Witness the copper haze of bare willow branches against a grey sky, the translucent eggshell of a frozen puddle, just waiting for a foot to crack its brittle surface. The welcoming glow of lights from within when all is dark and gloomy without, and above all the scintillating, sparkling, twinkling festival of lights that is the run up to Christmas.

Mindfulness; how very current and fashionable a concept, and yet something small children understand instinctively. Without apparent effort they live fully in the present, and it is up to us to learn from them so that we too may become mindful and content once more. This most essential and noble of abilities, forgotten somehow in the clamour and confusion of growing up and growing old. What we need to do is grow down to the child’s level and learn to live again, for if you want to see something afresh, see it through the eyes of a child. The first step is to make sure you actually have your eyes open; so many people live like sleepwalkers, wandering with eyes fixed blindly ahead and never sparing a glance at all the wonders that surround us. And anything can be a wonder in the eyes of a toddler; a fallen feather, a shiny sequin, the plume of smoke from a lit chimney. Even the bleak and barren charms of winter are beautiful to the innocent eye; the newly bare branches of a tree, now a superhighway of activity for squirrels and birds laying down their winter supplies. Rubbish caught in a fence that looks just like a jackdaw, a pile of rotting leaves to kick and a puddle to stamp in.

It is unfortunate that those of us with children may feel more than most that every day is a rush to get things done, an endless struggle to get them dressed, potty trained, fed, to school, nursery or whatever else, but alongside all these tasks and responsibilities - within all the mad rush - lies a margin in which we can find mindfulness. It's time to get on your child’s wavelength and take pleasure in the small things, to marvel at a bus or a train as it rushes by, to feel the weight of wooden bricks in your hand as you help them to build a tower, to make a special trip to pick some holly, so gaily festooned with berries and thrillingly prickly. I promise if you do, and do it wholeheartedly, you too will find the magic that is there. Of course children need to fit in with your day, and in fact they enjoy the chores and tasks that we can find so dull; filling the shopping trolley, putting on a wash, even sweeping the hallway. Felix loves a broom and insists on helping me to push it about. But if you wonder why your kid is bored and resentful when all you've done is drag them around John Lewis looking for gifts for people you hate, then forced them into a high chair while you drink lattes and send texts, then shoved them back in the car to race home so you can make them a dinner they don’t seem to want in front of the telly they don't in all honesty need, then you might need to think again. Sprinkle some fun and adventure into their day and you might find that you too have your mojo back, as well as a child who eats better, sleeps better and I dare say behaves better. Children need fresh air and mud, they need to stamp and kick and touch. They need the park, the beach, the forest and the river. They need the wind in their hair and the cold on their cheeks. Not just the safe environs of the playground, not just the airless vacuum of the shopping centre. Too busy? Stop for ten minutes on the school run home and feed the ducks, no one will starve to death if you do. Or take the bus; children find public transport more exciting than you could ever imagine. There's a reason the wheels on the bus is still a nursery favourite after so many years. 

As Christmas approaches and the world is all glitter and gold and flashing gaudy snowmen, the time of the child draws near. The baby Jesus lies peaceful in countless nativities, whilst children act out the timeless tale of an urgent search for an inn by the guiding light of the Christmas star, with the three wise men and a poor woman in advanced labour forced to give birth in a stable. Spare a thought for her when you're complaining about secret santa. As gifts are bought and wrapped and hidden away, it is the children who really bring the magic to the day, and anyone who is lucky enough to be spending any part of Christmas with a child should start to count their blessings. We are the lucky ones, and in the choas and crassness that surrounds the modern Christmas our children are the guiding light by which we can all see more clearly. And so I wish you, and your kin, a very merry and a very mindful Christmas. Ho Ho Ho...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

ENTRY FORTY FOUR - NORTHMOOR HOUSE



“Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it.”

C.S Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.



I have always been captivated by the work of CS Lewis, and never completely given up hope that I might stumble upon the door to another world. Thus while looking for an appropriate venue to host our wedding party, we discovered Nothmoor House; a manor so splendidly Victorian, rambling and remote and ever so slightly down at heel, I felt I may finally be close to finding that elusive magical wardrobe.



After a long drive from London Felix was desperate to explore, racing along echoing corridors and peeping into rooms which telescoped on infinitely. At one end of the ground floor a grandfather clock presided over the main staircase, at the other an old fashioned kitchen led to a network of rooms unchanged since the reign of Queen Victoria. Larders, pantries, cellars, billiard rooms and priests holes, every doorway revealed a new delight. Staircases multiplied as we roamed the house, trying to establish the order of rooms for guests who would soon arrive. At the very top of the house, tucked under the eaves, a small second floor beckoned. Taking Felix by the hand we climbed the steep stairs to find ourselves in a room of powder blue. Nauticalia dominated; a fine oil of a boat sailed over the mantelpiece, whilst a miniature galleon thrust triumphantly forth on the dresser. This was to be our room, a refuge from the celebrations that would spill merriment over the time worn bricks. ‘Bluey’ Felix remarked approvingly, ‘Bleuey bluey bleuy’.



We couldn’t afford a big wedding, yet fourteen years together called for a
decent show. Thus we decided on a two point plan to alleviate costs. Step one; tie the knot officially in a simple and cost effective registry do. Step two; host a debaucherous weekend of celebrations in a remarbable setting that would weave its own spell on our party, whilst doing all the catering, decorating and everything else ourselves. A triumphant team of toilers produced a sausage and mash that would shame a chef, and at a table laid by my nearest and dearest thirty seven candles shimmered in glass holders - one for every guest plus a few for absent friends - we savoured a repast prepared by loving hands, listened to heartfelt words spoken by those who know us best, and later danced to an ever changing band of musicians, one drummer succeeding another in an orgiastic blur of jamming. I wore a dress that belonged on a ballet stage; a hundred layers of tremulous tulle floating to the knee; on my head a crown of multicoloured flowers. Yellow, pink and blue blooms, red berry, green leaf and whispering white gypsomilia;
a nod to every season. In the garden a group had assembled around the firepit; clustering around the flickering orange glow as people have done since time immaterial.  Stars untroubled by city lights shone with bright cold clarity in a sky of black velvet, gazing down indulgently as we tried in vain to set off the heart shaped sky lanterns until at last one lit and flew trembling into the night sky. 



On Sunday afternoon, a hungover group of survivors decamped to the beach, driving across an Exmoor aflame with autumn colour. Low mist hovered over the heather and gorse, painting the undulating wilds in a wash of watercolour hues. Lynmouth was as quaint and picturesque as could be, Felix chasing waves and throwing stones while we watched a striking sunset streak the sky with peach and rose. Back at the house, our numbers depleted but still great in spirit, we embarked upon an unforgettable game of Sardines. I have never played this other version of Hide and Seek and doubt I will ever play it as memorably as this. The endless rooms and stairways, innumerable bathrooms and uncountable nooks and crannies made for an epic game, culminating in a spooky final round. Just as we were getting tired of searching the house a peal from the servants bells rang through the silence, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. As we raced downstairs we saw one bell still slightly swinging, but no one to be found. When eventually we found the elusive seven, tucked behind pieces of furniture in the TV room like forgotten umbrellas, we raised a great cheer. 

That night, as I crept up to bed on the creaky staircase, feeling the half emptiness of the house yawning around me, I felt how keenly places like these need laughter and light and revelry. They need children and grandmothers and all in between to fill their echoing spaces and give them purpose once more. These stately homes that Britain has in such abundance, these crumbling and forgotten grand piles, these other Narnia’s waiting to be discovered. For one enchanted, unforgettable weekend I was both a bride and a memory of all the brides this house has seen. Every floorboard has been stepped upon ten thousand times, every bed seen its fair share of passion and anger, love and betrayal. Our wedding party joined a succession of events grand and humble, joyful and melancholy, that Northmoor has hosted. As I luxuriated in the giant clawfoot bathtub, the Victorian proportions of which have never been bettered, I felt the ethereal substance of history tangible about me. A princess for a weekend, just as every bride dreams of being.


On our final morning, as Felix and I wandered the grounds in the warm October sunshine, pilfering raspberries from the kitchen garden and watching the chickens peck about idly, I felt myself firmly rooted in the moment. This was me now; blessed with a beautiful boy as fair as the morning sun and a husband with whom I laugh every day, surrounded by friends from many corners of the globe, and cocooned in the warmth of love and festivity. ‘Damn it’ to hell' I exclaimed out loud, startling Felix and the hens, ‘We should get married more often’.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

ENTRY FORTY THREE - INDIAN SUMMER



After a cold and sodden August late September brought a much needed Indian summer. Mother Nature seized her moment, producing a second crop of blackberries and a triumphant blaze of late summer flowers. For a golden fortnight the primary colours of summer and autumn combine, scarlet berries jostling with yellow sunflowers, while lawns glisten thick with emerald blades, the smell of cut grass mingling with woodsmoke to create a juxtaposition of spring/summer/autumn. Ruby leaves shine beacon-bright on oak trees and horse chestnuts have slipped on their russet and gold cloaks, children have returned to school, but Felix and I bask in our extended summer. Almost too late we have found the rose garden at Hampton Court, a walled heaven of scented blooms carpeted with velveteen dropped petals like confetti. Felix races about sticking his nose deep in the flowers like a hummingbird collecting pollen, and the air is thick with the sweet, exotic smell of a hundred varieties. Rosa Dancing Doll, Nostalgia, Red Radiance; every name suffused with romance and promise.


It is true that I may be seeing the world through rose tinted glasses, for the past month has been studded with wonders almost too many to name. After thirteen happy and fruitful years my beloved and I finally tied the knot. We
walked down the hallowed steps of Chelsea Old Town Hall amidst cheers and fluttering confetti, the smiling passengers of a passing double decker adding a surreal twist. Defying convention as ever, a fortnight later I flew to Ibiza to celebrate my belated hen do. Nestled amongst the booming clubs and raging hedonism we basked in the September rays, laughter flowing as readily as the mojitos. There is a type of hysteria only achievable when a gaggle of women get together, prompting imbecilic antics that would shame a teenager. Five days of shameless indulgence culminated in an unforgettable sunset at the aptly named Sunset Ashram, a kind of hippy beach club that draws a blissed out crowd to celebrate the setting sun with pagan enthusiasm.



After such extravagance it was time to drop back to earth just in time to celebrate Felix’s second birthday. Well, almost in time, for in the pursuit of total honesty I have to confess that in the whirlwind of planning and booking that ensues when six busy women try to coordinate diaries, the date of my boy’s birthday was forgotten. As our departure finally approached there was a flurry of emails and whatsapps, when suddenly in a moment of cold horror I
realised my error. Return date, 22nd September, the very day Felix was to turn two. I spent the day in a fug of panic. What to do? Would I come back early?! Not likely, flights having been booked in advance it would be costly and I was loath to cut off my final day. In the end I confessed, hoping for clemency, and after much soul searching decided to return as planned. It was the first and only time I could get away with such a shocking display of bad mothering, and I was lucky that his nana and auntie arrived with gifts and party food aplenty, spoiling him rotten on the actual day. Whilst I lay on a secluded beach in an incy wincy pink bikini, savouring the sun and my final hours of selfish freedom, Felix ate a dinner composed mainly of sweets and ice cream. Arriving home late that night, exhausted and grainy with unwashed sand, I crept into his bedroom. A shock of blonde hair fanned out on the pillow, one arm protruding from the covers like an antennae, his sweet face even more angelic in sleep. I stroked his plump and velvety cheek and tucked the covers more tightly around him, then fell into bed for a few precious hours, knowing I had both had my cake and eaten it.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

ENTRY FORTY TWO - MIRROR MIRROR



Children are a mirror, they reflect back what they see, not what you wish they would see. Thus if you show a child violence, it will reflect violence back on those around it. Perhaps not immediately, but in time certainly. All forms of abuse; be it neglect, sexual, emotional or physical, embed themselves so deeply in a child’s psyche that in many cases they can never be uncoupled. New research shows that children subjected to severe neglect before the age of two have abnormally shrunken brains, up to a third smaller than their luckier counterparts. Significant sections show up entirely black on scans, meaning they are empty. Voids where love and care and kindness should have been poured in unconditionally and which heartbreakingly can never later be filled. A tragedy visited upon the innocent by the malignant, truly a thought to make loving parent weep, but also something from which we can all learn.



Even a well meaning parent reveals their ugly and damaging traits without intending to do so, and the child sees and absorbs it all. Think you are hiding your bad self image from your little one? Think again. Negative comments and actions filter down to your child like water through layers of rock and soil, leading them to wonder ‘If mummy thinks she is fat and ugly, maybe I am too. If mummy doesn’t love herself, then maybe I am not worth loving either.’ Or try this one for size ‘Daddy shouts very loudly at his phone sometimes. He says bad things and he hits the wall. Will he hit me if I do something wrong?’ Scary isn’t it? The power and responsibility we wield as parents is both awesome and terrifying, and it is part of what makes parenting the most demanding job ever.



As Felix zooms towards two I am more conscious than ever that I can no longer talk or act in ways that may affect him negatively. This has been complicated by the fact that in the last couple of weeks he has started to have full blown tantrums. Always an independent and opinionated baby, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Felix has started to make his
feelings known sooner rather than later, but nevertheless the first took me entirely off guard. I assumed it was nothing more than a normal complaint, but as he grew red with rage and wrestled himself from my grip, sinking to the floor like a popped balloon whilst uttering blood curdling shrieks I realised this was something more complex. The issue at hand was the choice of shoe; it being a warm day I had picked up the sandals. Normally he likes them but on this occasion the thought of these going on his feet was tantamount to torture. As he sat on the floor of the hallway, shaking his head frantically no no no and weeping fat tears of woe, I backtracked mentally. Did it really matter what shoes he wore? Yes, his feet may get hot in trainers but as we were only heading to the local playpark any discomfort would hardly be life-threatening. ‘What shoes do you want to wear then?’ I asked him, and instantly he got up and went over to his wardrobe, pulling out his high top trainers. Whatever, I thought, pulling them on, but wondering what I would do in other situations. The choice of shoe is one thing, but food, sleep and behaviour are another entirely…



True to form, a day or so later while daddy bear was away he pulled an epic tantrum over dinner. One minute we were sat at the table, a bowl of his favourite pasta before him, the next he was thrashing in the chair like someone being electrocuted. I looked on in disbelief as he tugged at the straps; face contorted with anger, body arched away from the table and the bowl as it were poison. ‘Felix’ I cajoled, thinking back to the months previous when he had refused to eat, ‘You love this pasta’. Shake shake shake went his head, tears rolling down his swollen cheeks, his face a picture of desolation. His water beaker was sent flying, the bowl almost flung over the room in his efforts to get it away from him. Suddenly I lost my cool. ‘Eat the bloody food’ I snarled, heart pounding, the sour taste of anger in my mouth. I was tired, I was alone with him, and all I wanted was for him to eat his dinner and go to bed so I could relax. My mind whirled. Still he contorted and flailed and screamed blue murder and I felt my frustration spill over into rage. Leaving him strapped safely in the chair I left the room and stood shaking in the hallway, scene of his earlier meltdown, wanting for all the world to pick him up and shake him till he stopped screaming. His howls increased in volume and urgency as I tried to get ahold of myself, and just as quickly as it had come my rage burst and love flowed back into my heart. ‘What was I doing? He needed me. I could handle this’.



I went back in and scooped him out of the chair, his body at first tense with wrath then suddenly limp as his tears soaked my shoulder. ‘Mama’ he said through wracking sobs and then I too was crying, feeling all my anger drain away like a tide, replaced with the desire to care for him. This tiny person who had suddenly realised there were choices to be made, who had glimpsed his own power and was quite naturally exercising it. Who perhaps was not hungry, or did not fancy pasta, or who had a sore throat or a bad tummy and could not explain. Deciding we both needed a change of scene I took his high chair out into the garden where he sat and ate the whole thing calmly, even following up with desert. After he was safely in bed I pondered how close I had come to lashing out at him, to showing him the wrong side of the mirror. I’m not saying that children have to be treated with kid gloves - far from it - but watching me lose control just as he has lost control, when he has none of the tools to fix the situation, is to put him in a place he does not belong. It is my role to be the bringer of calm, to show him how to come safely out of the shadows and into the light. I am his mother and I must always rise above and set an example that he can follow. I have to reflect back love when he shows hate, kindness when he shows anger, patience when he shows confusion. I promise never to put him in the drivers seat, for who wants to be in a car controlled by a toddler? Bring on the tantrums and the tears, mummy is ready and willing.


Thursday, 23 July 2015

ENTRY FORTY ONE - THE WITTERINGS


You don’t want to go camping with a toddler they said, not unless you've got a magic blackout tent that lets in no light or noise or you’re prepared to drive all the way back home in the middle of the night when they won’t go to sleep. Others offered more pragmatic advice, ‘an endless supply of blueberries and a pair of earplugs should do the trick’. The hippy crowd was more forthcoming with tidings of joy. ‘Oh you’ll love it, just take a washing up bowl and some plastic cutlery and he’ll be happy for hours’.


Never ones to listen to predictions of doom we packed the car with every conceivable piece of gear, filled the hamper with food and the cooler with booze and off we went. We have invested wisely over the years and are equipped with a full set of glamping essentials, invaluable when travelling with toddler, to which we added some extra Felix kit; his own camping chair in the shape of a lion, his travel cot and warm bedding, and a quantity of blankets and pegs for various uses. I also conducted some thorough research in terms of location and after much deliberation plumped for West Wittering, a two hour drive away and the location of a blue flag award winning beach complete with dunes. Nearby Nunnington Farm campsite offered a baby bath, in actuality a double butlers sink, for washing filthy infants at the end of a long day, and a petting zoo, which sealed the deal.

The campsite was a wide green expanse of perfect flatness ringed by trees, and we pitched the bell tent in dappled shade where we hoped we could be in shadow by bedtime. ‘Oooooh’ and ‘Aaaah’ said Felix as the tent took shape, his face lighting up with delight. It was love at first sight; in and out he ran, touching the canvas and making little squeaks of excitement. It was now time for the finishing touch. Two star print blankets, some clothes pegs, and a little ingenuity later, and Felix had his very own bedroom in which we placed his travel cot and favorite tiger toy. This addition, we hoped, would help him sleep well both day and night, and would also give us a little privacy. After lunch, eaten with gusto in the camp chairs, and a stroll over to see the donkeys and goats at the petting zoo, and it was time to try out the bedroom. After some gentle persuasion he zonked out, leaving us to relax.

***

That afternoon we walked the fifteen minutes to the beach, a beautiful expanse of golden sand backed by dunes. A strong wind buffeted the shore so we put on our hoodies and huddled into the dunes, where Felix raced up and down the mini mountains and caked himself in sand. 'Wittering means wind' an old lady said as she caught sight of us. 'Next time bring a windbreak!' We ate slightly gritty ham and cheese sandwiches and paddled in the shallows, then took it in turns to have a proper swim. The tide was coming in and the waves were crowned with ruffles of white foam. ‘Bubble’ said Felix, pointing at the surf and tugging my hand. Deeper and deeper we waded as the waves pounded the beach, nearly knocking him over as he chortled with glee and I clutched tight to his little hand. Later we walked back home, exhausted and windblown but happy. ‘Thank goodness for the baby bath’ I thought as a startling quantity of sand detached itself from Felix’s body and swirled down the plughole, leaving him pink and smooth once more, and as the sun began to droop heavy and the night milk was drunk, we laid Felix in his cot and stood listening. The cawing of crows and cooing of doves were the only sound, lulling him to a deep sleep.

The elongated shadows of sunset made tiger stripes on the grass as the sun took its final bow, bathing the tent in a warm umber glow. As the barbeque filled the air with the evocative smell of searing meat I cooked potatoes on the camp stove and sliced the ingredients for a Greek salad, thick salty wedges of feta to complement the spicy chicken and blackened sausages. Drinks in hand we toasted the success of our inaugural venture and set about devouring our feast. The 'toddler quarters' meant we could sit up in bed and read without worrying about waking Felix, and as we prepared for sleep I peeped over to see him deliciously cozy and snug in his blankets. Hours later I awoke to a terrifying sound, my heart hammering. As consciousness flowed back I recognized it as the cawing of crows, those intelligent corvids whose presence legend has it signifies impending doom. Glancing at my phone I saw it was 4am, and for an hour between then and five I lay wide awake,
convinced the sound would surely wake not only Felix but also the dead, an army of whose rotting corpses would stumble over to where we slept and drag us screaming to Hades. This not being the case I decided to pop out for a wee, and the sight that greeted me was fairytale in its beauty. A crescent moon hovered low above the sleeping campers, gilded with the coming dawn, a single star atip the point like a beauty spot. On one side the sky was the colour of indigo ink, on the other a deep powder blue. Dew silvered the grass and the air carried a hint of salt from the nearby sea, and everything was still. I felt the special magic of being awake when all others around were asleep, and for a moment I stood and breathed deeply. Feet plastered in wet grass, I crawled back in the tent and tumbled back to bed, smiling at the thought of us all safe and snug under the canvas.



Wednesday, 8 July 2015

ENTRY FORTY - SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS

It is midsummer and the season hangs full and heavy like the ripening fruit in the orchards. The days are long and languorous, the nights mild. Solstice is only just past and the birds start their serenades at four am when dawn peeps through the shades of night and begins to bleed the black sky pale. Swathes of lawn turned crisp and brown speak of the recent heat; while in the meadows wild grasses wave golden fronds in the sunlight like a mermaid’s hair under the ocean.

Felix too is ripening like a warm peach in the sun, golden skinned and mellow, sweetness oozing from every pore as he embraces all the pleasures of summer. Already Chiswick seems a distant memory, so at home are we in the wilds of Teddington. I would swap a tube stop and proximity to central London for the abundant open spaces and parkland that surround us without hesitation. It seems that every direction culminates in a park or meadow, river or lido; across the grassy expanses of Bushey Park to the tropical blue waters of Hampton Open Air Pool, down the tree lined river path to our very own secret beach at Thames Ditton.The buggy sits folded and forgotten as Felix travels almost exclusively by bike nowadays, perched in his Co Pilot seat observing the world passing by and noting points of interest. Bright red buses whizzing by on the high road, blue and white boats on the river, flashes of lime green parrot in the trees.
His smattering of words has swelled to a babbling brook of nonsense chatter;
wibble wobble bibble babble he says, bubu baby and moomoo mama. He trills pleasantly like a caged canary as he plays with his train set, and every now and then he mimics a word or expression then refuses to repeat it, leaving you wondering if it actually happened. 'Don't know' he echoed as I asked him where the lid of a pen was the other morning. His words are like the whispering of the wind in the willows, invisible and impossible to pin down yet strong enough to sway the boughs. He seems to be at a zenith of happiness, and being able to communicate his contentment adds to the joy. He loves having his own room and his assortment of toys; the train set, play tent and drawing table. He loves the deer of Bushey Park, and has taken to collecting fallen feathers, brushing their softness across his cheeks in an attitude of rapture. He loves Hey Duggee and In The Night Garden on TV. He loves the garden and his sand pit, loves watering the sunflowers I have grown from seed and the tiny allotment I have cultivated in the neglected corner of the garden. Potatoes have shot out their tall straight stalks from the bare earth with unbridled enthusiasm, whilst the broccoli and carrots, hesitant at first, have taken strength from the recent sun and settled in. The giant oaks whisper and wave in the wind and Teddy sprawls sphinx like in his favourite spot by the trunk, half covered by the fronds of last springs bluebells like the tiger in Rousseaus painting.

We have almost everything we need, and whilst the tectonic plates of work continue to shift under our feet there us still cause for anxiety, yet the rightness of our move here, the gains we have made in favour of the losses, means we live literally and metaphorically in the sun. The simple pleasure of opening the kitchen door into the garden gives me daily pleasure. Feeling the honest earth under my fingernails as I work the soil and watch the green shoots emerge like faithful flag bearers is a minor miracle. Al fresco meals every day make not only us but also the birds and Teddy happy, as they feast on the dropped scraps and crumbs post mealtime. We are closer to nature and further from the city, and when needed the silver snake glides to Waterloo and the urban grime of Vauxhall in no time at all. Teddington Lock is where the Thames turns from tidal to a regular river, meaning the water past the locks is no longer saline but fresh, a river you can swim in. Felix loves to watch the endless gush and gurgle of water as it is squeezed through the metal barriers, a manmade waterfall marking the end of the grubby brown river that flows through the great city and the beginning of the green and silver stream that pootles through the suburban landscapes of Teddington and beyond. We have crossed the barrier and somehow in the process entered a real life Swallows and Amazons; a place where where the river is blue and safe and welcoming, where on Sunday afternoons we can decamp with a picnic for a dip, where a cycle ride away is a sandy beach with children frolicking and sturdy boys and girls popping canoes and kayaks into the water, where likeminded people can escape to a place of childhood innocence and joy free of the worries and duties of city living. One foot in the country one in the town, and already I know which foot is the happier one...