Time Travel and the Sherbet Lemon Tardis.

Roots are funny old things. Even the most hard-headed, independent expatriate girl needs to get back to her sources from time to time. And when MM’s boat started navigating through choppy waters a few months ago, the auto-pilot button for home started flashing. I needed space. My parents and siblings. Littlest Little Sister’s legendary English breakfast. Crumpets. Hugs. Family. My mum’s cooking. Laughter. Beer. Marbles and hopscotch. Fish and chips. Seeing reasonably priced cheddar and baked beans on the supermarket shelf and knowing that I wouldn’t have to hoard it all away because it would still be there tomorrow. Waking up to the sound of seagulls screaming insults at each other on the roof. The smell of the sea, the sight of grey waves crashing over the Cornish coastline. Sherbet Lemons. In a nutshell, the reassuring, familiar flavour of childhood. So I gave in to the temptation and got tickets, and Little My and I jumped on a Ryanair flight and headed for home.

We’ve been back in Cornwall for ten days now. MM is rolling unashamedly in family and familiar surroundings, and is driving her daughter up the proverbial pole with comments that all include the words “when Mummy was your age…”. I’m drinking too much beer, eating my weight in pasties and cheddar and am still running out of the front door to listen to the seagulls. I’m talking all day and sleeping all night. And loving every minute of rediscovering my old stomping ground.

My childhood, in a paper bag.

My childhood, in a paper bag.

Just cross the English Channel, and you change worlds. Since we got off the plane, I have  gone back 30 years in my life. This was best illustrated by the sweet shop, where Little My saw her mother melt into a quivering, nostalgic heap before feverishly purchasing armfuls of pear drops, barley sugars, love hearts and lemon sherbets from a bemused shop assistant. Little My was happy to oblige by sharing a taste-bud revival of my childhood with me, although the flavour didn’t evoke any memories for her. One day it will. Tempted by time travel? Forget the Tardis, and embrace the sherbet lemon. I rocketed back forty years in the blink of an eye. As we sucked on the sweets, I showed her around my home town in a delirious sugar and nostalgia-induced frenzy. The place where her aunt broke her arm waving to the train as we played on the swings. The places we used to play tennis until I invariably lost all the balls in the freezer centre gutter. The pier where I went crabbing with my sisters. The river where I sailed every Friday. The path that skinned my knees and battered my best friend’s bike again and again until I finally managed to cycle in a straight line. The pub where I downed many a pint-too-many.

They can't come in, but feel free to leave them outside the pub door.  Copyright: Multifariousmeanderings.

They can’t come in, but feel free to leave them outside the pub door.
Copyright: Multifariousmeanderings.

Getting back to your roots matters – right down to that greasy, emotional reunion with fish and chips on the rocky shore, hunting for prawns in the rock pools, and taking pics of my favourite winged bad boy, the seagull. I even had the pleasure of an impromptu Punctuation Police intervention with MM’s Mum (aka MMM). Our eyes locked with a malicious glimmer, and we licked our fingertips and banished an army of greengrocer’s apostrophes from a restaurant’s chalkboard menu.

As I relive my childhood memories, Little My is no doubt building her own. This experience will perhaps be one that she will repeat to her children one day.  The very same mundane everything days that comfort me are making my daughter grind to a sudden halt with surprise. Like the tinny ice cream van music, echoing across the valley on our way home from the shops. “What’s that?” she asked, startled. “It sounds like music from a creepy film.” The hot chocolate, marshmallow and whipped cream creation she only thought existed in fairy tales. The women striding confidently around town with their hair dyed bright shades of pink, blue, red and green, like something out of a Dr Seuss book. The mother with a buggy who thanked my daughter for letting her past with a cheery Cornish “Thank you, my darlin’!” and was greeted by a quizzical stare from Little My, who muttered in French, “Only my mum’s allowed to call me that”. The great Cornish conjugation of the verb to be: “I were/ you wuz” made her raise an eyebrow, too.

Challenge accepted!

Challenge accepted!

We started off with a day in Plymouth, or “Big P”, in our family jargon. We first raided the charity shops for appropriate wedding attire – Little Sis is getting hitched at the weekend. The pickings were rich, and I tried on several numbers under Little My’s expert eye (if in doubt about being mutton dressed as lamb, always check out your choice with a pre-teen, whose tolerance level is generally on a par with that of Genghis Kahn with a sore head). After negotiation about skirt length, we chose a simple but feminine knee-length red dress that most definitely puts the “cat” into “catwalk”, then stomped off for more aventures.

As we strolled through Plymouth city centre, it became clear that local behaviour is a far stretch from that of our French locals. Little My tugged on my arm, and I looked down to see incredulous eyes. “Mum !” she hissed, jerking her head sideways. “Why’s that kid on a lead?” I realised that she had never seen a child harness before, and explained the reasoning behind it. Little My looked back at the child as if he was an abandoned labrador tied to a tree at a motorway lay-by.  “Poor kid. He’s not a dog.”

We were both bemused by the predominant need to please customers in shops – so much so, indeed, that customer care seems to have become customer scare since the last time I visited. At the building society, an apologetic bank clerk a with highly visible name badge nervously asked if I would « mind terribly » if she made a phone call whilst I waited for another bank clerk to bring me the paper I had requested. A cashier at the local supermarket asked if I wanted help packing my bag, and carefully passed me each article, one by one. This is a far cry from my experiences in France, and it actually made me uneasy. It was as if the shopping world’s sword of Damocles was teetering above their heads. Then I realised that it was indeed the case – the British customer is king, and has the eerily disconcerting right to drop whoever they wish in the doo-doo. Your shopping receipts all include an invitation to answer the question, « How did we do today ? ». Just a phone call away, eager beavers man the lines and are ready to take your complaint and set up an enquiry, just for you.

Anyway. Enough rambling – I’m off for a pub lunch with the gang. MM management apologizes for the erratic posting of late, and hopes that you enjoyed today’s contribution to the worthy cause of worldwide time-wasting. Please feel free to comment below, and win £1000 of shopping vouchers the right to come back again next time.

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A Resounding Silence.

The sun tried its best to pierce its way through the heavy clouds that were brooding over the graveyard. Starlings argued in the bare branches of the tree nearby, an irreverent yet timely reminder of life. A sudden gust of wind blew across the line of children, ruffling their hair. One of the boys absent-mindedly ran his fingers through his fringe, then scuffed at the gravel with the point of his shoe.

“Where shall we put it?” The girls moved forward and gently moved two wreaths apart to make room for the plant. Crouching down, they slid the flower-pot on to the tomb, then placed the handwritten card in the leaves and stepped back, feet crunching on the gravel.

Six pairs of eyes looked down at sneaker-covered feet, then up towards the soft, grey, impenetrable sky. I did likewise – like them, I could not bring myself to focus on the sea of white flowers before me. How I wished the sky had been blue. How I wished that the sky had brought more hope that this.

The momentary silence was uncomfortable. Eleven-year-olds are never this silent, and one of the boys answered their unspoken need to justify it by clearing his throat and quietly saying, “I guess it’s time for a minute of silence”. Heads nodded, hands were clasped  together.

Silence ensued. The silence of six children contemplating another child’s grave is unlike any other. It was at this moment that I understood the concept of a “resounding” silence; by definition, silence is devoid of noise, yet silence can speak volumes. The children’s silence communicated so much – feelings and emotions tumbled out of that silence and seeped into me through each and every pore.

The silence spoke. It said that the children had taken yet another step into the hard reality of life, a reality that we parents try to protect them from for as long as we can. It explained that their rounded, pre-teen shoulders were feeling the unfamiliar weight of sadness. The silence reassured me, telling me that they were more mature and more resilient than I had imagined. It was a sad silence that expressed their feelings for the friend who had lost his little brother. It was an angry silence that screamed that life was unfair. It was a frightened silence that asked fate to spare them from the same experience in the future. And a comforting silence that wrapped itself around them and embraced their friendship.

In this roaring silence, a tiny, isolated sound caught my attention. Then another. Light, crisp, clean, almost imperceptible. I would never have heard this sound without the silence. The children noticed the sound too, and their eyes sought its source. The sky had stopped brooding, the tension had disappeared. The first raindrops were falling gently on the ribbons decorating the wreaths.

A voice interrupted the silence. “Ok, I think that’s enough. Wow, it felt like ten minutes.” A nervous giggle rippled through the group. Then they moved. Shoulders were squared, their faces cleared, and determined expressions replaced the worry that had been there seconds before. “Right. Where are we taking him to cheer him up?”

The silence was over.

Post written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge: the sound of silence.

Happy Birthday, Bigfoot.

Seventeen years ago, you changed my life for ever. You lay on my stomach and looked at me as your father nursed his nail-indented hand and the football team of nurses waited impatiently to complete their birthing routine before the next mother arrived in the maternity ward. Your eyes sought mine and locked on, and we were a team. No screams or tears from either of us. The rest of the world disappeared, and I have never forgotten that first soul-searching look, your impressive calm. In the space of a few seconds, you read me like a book. We’d only just met, but we’d been together forever.

I came into your room this morning to wish you a happy birthday. I noticed again that when you sleep, your expression is the same as when you slept in the maternity ward.

I thought back to that day. I cannot describe the fear I felt. You were four, and when the specialist told you to play in the waiting room whilst she Continue reading

Aphrodite

Aphrodite of Cnidus.Munich.

Walking down the town high street one day, my mother spotted a shop dummy leaning drunkenly against the wall. Her perfect proportions and bald head were glistening in the rain (I am of course talking about the dummy here, not my mum).

She had a sullen pout on her face. This did not surprised me given the fact that she was devoid of arms, which had perhaps been stolen overnight by drunken pub-goers on their way home. Yet our armless, harmless heroine remained aloof and apparently unconcerned about being stark naked in front of all the passing cars, staring placidly across the road at the newsagent’s window.

Mum has always had an eye for something original, so I was not unduly surprised to see her hoist the dummy under her arm and continue walking down the street, impervious to comments by passers-by about the pair of perfectly shaped, cellulite-free legs sticking out behind her.

From that day on, Aphrodite reigned magnanimously over our courtyard. Jauntily propped up in the corner amid the plants, she was our Greek statue par excellence. None of my friends had anything like it; she was a refreshing alternative to the politically correct pottery hedgehogs decorating their parents’ gardens.

Aphrodite wearing her sensible grey wig and jewellery.

According to our mood, the weather or the occasion, Aphrodite the fit, slick chick was kitted out with wigs, hats, glasses, jewellery or scarves bought in local jumble sales. On sunny days she was a hippy Woodstock throwback sporting a straw hat and sunglasses, with strings of colourful beads dangling over her perfect, pert bosom.  On stormy days she was our version of Ellen Ripley, stoically facing the alien Cornish elements with her wigless head. We occasionally scraped the seagull droppings off her, although they did add a certain je ne sais quoi to her look.

Aphrodite stayed with us until my parents sold the granite and brick house we’d grown up in. She had suffered the persistent assaults of weather and time over the years, and finally got the thumbs-down for the removals van. Our courtyard goddess was stripped of her divine rank and accessories and relegated to her earlier status of roadside rubbish. I felt guilty to see her propped against the wall in the street once again, like an ageing hooker who’d got too old for the game. Holding her chin high, her glazed eyes fixed on the horizon, she pouted as she awaited the binmen.

When my kids roll their eyeballs at my odd behaviour, I tell them how grateful I am to have a mum who showed me that it’s ok, and even preferable to do your own thing and not follow the crowd, as you’ve only got one life to live and it’s yours, with no trial period.  So, I tell them, go ahead and do it your own way: The important thing is to be yourself.

Great Grandma Barmcake.

The most incongruous things spark off memories of people. In films, a piece of sappy music, a sunset or the smell of a flower stop the picture-perfect heroes in their tracks. None of the things that set me off down memory lane are particularly poetic, and they would be a total flop in a film scenario. Imagine Julia Roberts on screen, dramatically wiping back a tear and saying “I’m sorry, darling…… my emotions got the better of me. The sight of that slug reminded me of when I negotiated with my grandmother to bring my plastic ice cream tub of pet slugs into the house for the night”.

A limited number of simple things can catapult me headfirst into my childhood each and every time I see them. I think about Grandpop when I see an unusual postage stamp or a globe. My Grandad when I see a chocolate easter egg. My Aunty Laura (-my maternal grandmother, who refused to be called grand-anything at all-) when I see ladybirds, slugs, Ryvita or melted chocolate ice cream.

I think about Grandma when I see swallows and house martins, whisky and the colour purple. I particularly think about her when I’m ironing. Halfway through one of P.F’s shirts this week, I realised with a lurching tum that Grandma would have celebrated her birthday this weekend. She would no doubt have pulled out a bottle of Vimto and a pile of baps, and whopped together her legendary sausage barm cakes. Great Grandma Barmcake – or GGB for short – positively rocked in my son’s esteem after he tasted this bread bap stuffed full of sausages, covered with whatever sauce floats your boat. Mini-Bigfoot admired her to such a point that he felt bad about asking me to unpick the Noddy sewn on the woolly hat that she had sent him for Christmas years before, so that he could continue wearing it to school at the age of six without his schoolfriends taking the mickey out of him.

I saw her every summer as a child when she got on the train and crossed Britain to see us, and I have a huge pile of memories. Memories like asking her again and again to tell me how it felt to work on a sweet factory production line and not be allowed to eat any. Like watching her iron a shirt in less time than it took Flash Gordon to get to planet Mongo. Grandma reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to me at bedtime, with her throaty smoker’s voice and comforting mancunian accent. Chatting on the back step in summer as she smoked her cigarette and sipped her small daily glass of whisky and water, whilst swallows and house martins looped and screeched through the evening sky above our heads. Seeing her carefully picking coins out of her purse for our «spends» to buy sweets at the weekend.  My pride when she enthusiastically ate the breakfasts I took her in bed, only for her to admit with a chuckle – once I had grown up – that she couldn’t stand the milk and honey that I systematically put in her coffee and on her toast.

Back in 1980, St Winifred’s school choir spent a staggering 11 weeks in the charts with the ultimately cheesy « Grandma we love you ». By the time it had been N° 1 for two weeks, it was driving my mother up the wall (incidentally, I must remember to fix a date with my sister to line the kids up with their cousin and sing it to their grandmother, just to see how she reacts now that she is a grandmother). The song was force-fed to us on local radio, enchanting grandmothers nationwide – except mine, who grinned and told me I was a “daft bugger” when I sang it to her in my own off-key, off-the-wall way a good ten years later.

But one little piece of this song has now taken on a certain significance: “And one day, when you’re older, you’ll look back and say: there’s no-one quite like Grandma, she has helped us on our way”. There was certainly no-one quite like Grandma, and she’s still helping me on my way. Every time I hesitate about the right thing to do, I apply her sound philosophy on life:  « Always look after number one, ‘cos no other bugger will ».

Sometimes I take a sneaky peek at the sky to see if she’s sitting on the edge of a cloud, with a whisky glass in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other. I hope so. Happy birthday, Grandma.