Cracked in the Head?



‘Un enfant est fragile. Mettez-lui un casque.’  ‘A child is precious. Use a safety helmet.’ Illuminated signs in the Trois Vallées ski area in the French Alps exhort parents to take care of their skiing children. And I’ve yet to see a small child without one.

But what about adults? Aren’t they breakable too? There was a time only children or racers used such protection, it being considered either unnecessary or pretentious for ‘ordinary’ skiers. I thought that when I learned to ski in the ’80s in Norway, so shunned a helmet. It was unfashionable. But those were different times.

This week the slopes were busy, it still being half-term in parts of France. There were many ski lessons and the red-clad ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) instructors were everywhere. I heard on the local radio that it takes five years to train an ESF instructor. You’d think there would be time in the five years to mention safety helmets.  None of the instructors wears one. No exaggeration. None.  These people are role models. Children look up to them. Adult skiers follow them off piste and down black slopes.

A few evenings ago, a group of ESF instructors put on a demonstration of their skills – synchronised skiing, jumps and acrobatics – for our entertainment. It was impressive and great fun. I spotted just three or four instructors wearing helmets. They cared about their skulls when doing back-flips. Presumably the others were already cracked in the head. Fortunately none of the falls was serious.

What is it with skiers in France? Probably around half of the adult skiers I saw this week wore helmets – better than it was, but still poor. In Austria and Switzerland, the percentage is nearer 90%. In Norway, it’s almost unknown to see anyone on the slopes without a helmet. A helmet won’t protect you from all injuries – Michael Schumacher was wearing one when he had his accident – but anyone with any sense tries to minimise danger.

Helmets cost around 100 euros, less in the end-of-season sales. It’s paltry compared with the cost of a ski holiday, insignificant if skiing is your livelihood.  And what price a head? An expert skier friend was hit by a snowboarder and knocked out for a few minutes in spite of his helmet. He’s sure he’d have lost more than consciousness without it.

There are now multiple opportunities to do a head-plant, with snow parks proliferating everywhere. You can take off over huge jumps and reach high speeds going down skier-cross courses. Great fun but risky. And even if you avoid such risks, busy slopes bring collision dangers.

I’ll wear my helmet.  An adult is precious too.





E is for Enrepreneur



Pompous bighead. There’s always one on a trip like this. A group thrown together in Sri Lanka. We shared a love of travel but probably little more.

I complained that the insect spray I’d used had dissolved my watch strap as I looked yet again at my empty wrist.

‘I’m wearing a cheap watch. Didn’t want to bring my good one.’


‘Well, it’s expensive. Just paid £600 to have it cleaned.’


‘It’s a Rolex.’

He had to get it into the conversation. Yet he didn’t have fancy ways, quite the opposite.  Then I looked more closely. His clothes had designer logos on them; his wife carried a Gucci bag. When we all got chatting, he’d visited more places than most, owned a yacht, had driven a Ferrari and flown a helicopter. He needed to tell us.

When talk turned to jobs, he’d had more than all of us.  Now he ran a number of businesses, had sold a few successful ones and was moving into property.

‘Not bad for a Secondary Modern boy, eh?’

Well, good for him. I was moving away, not wanting to learn more about his entrepreneurial lifestyle when a snippet of conversation floated by.

‘I didn’t know I was adopted. Learned it from kids in the street who taunted me with “She’s not your Mummy”. I was a war-time illegitimate baby, signed over to a woman with a mental age of eight.

‘Just a signature. Didn’t matter it was a slum with a hole-in-the-ground toilet. My adoptive parents never discussed it.

‘My real parents? I did find them. They didn’t want to know me. All posh cars, big houses.’

He needed the comfort of possessions. It gave him a place in the world. The recognition he missed as a child.

I listened after that.




C is for Confusion

‘I’d never have married him if I’d known he’d turn out like that!’

‘It’s not Arthur, Betty.’

‘Isn’t it? Then where is he?’

‘He’s not here.’

‘Has he died?’

‘Yes, a long time ago.’

‘But just look at the way he’s dribbling. Arthur, Arthur, look! My friend will give you a tissue.’

‘No need, a carer is looking after him.’

‘But that’s my job. Not that I like it here. My boys are trying to get me out. I’ve told them not to make too much fuss or they’ll get themselves a bad name.  But if I do get out, I’ll get the place shut down. Then Arthur will come home. They live downstairs, you know, the warders. On the ground floor.’

‘Warders? It’s not a prison, Betty. It’s a modern care home for people who find it too much living on their own. Your boys chose it.’

‘It’s a prison. You can’t get out. I know. I’ve tried the door. So has Margaret. Just look at her over there playing with her dinner. It must be stone cold. What a way to chew with her mouth wide open! Mother would be ashamed of her. We were brought up to eat nicely.’

‘Oh, Betty, it’s not Margaret. She died years ago.’

‘Looks like her! And I suppose Mother’s dead?’

‘Of course she is. You’re ninety-six.’

‘Mmm. I’m the only one left with any manners. Arthur slobbering, Margaret making a mess of her food.’

‘Shh, they’ll hear you and it might upset them.’

‘Well, if the warders hadn’t hidden my hearing aids, I wouldn’t have to shout! My rings have disappeared, too. You can’t trust these people.’

‘I think you’re just a bit confused, Betty. It’ll be alright. Give me a hug. See you next week.’


I is for Interview

What hoops applicants have to jump through to get a job! Online tests, presentations, in depth interviews by a daunting panel – and that’s just to get on to the short list. Terrifying stuff.

I didn’t so much jump as wriggle on my stomach past the observers.

In the 80’s, my husband’s job took him to Norway so, being a pharmacist, I applied to a score of pharmaceutical companies in Oslo for an opening – just speculative, no advertised vacancies. It was a gamble – I’d never worked in the industry. Half ignored me; many rejected me. A handful made positive noises. One company called me in to talk to them at their UK branch.

We had a pleasant chat. They told me what they did – I wasn’t well prepared but fortunately they didn’t ask much. They said they couldn’t offer me a job at an affiliate office in another country but they told me who to contact when I arrived.

It worked.  I met a charming office manager in Oslo. He introduced me to the staff, a small group who preferred to speak Norwegian rather than English. I contributed haltingly having learned a little of the language. They made jokes about English pots of tea – theirs was made in a coffee machine. It was laid back and casual. Nobody wore a suit.

I wondered what the next step would be. Another, more formal, visit? An interview with a senior member of the company? No.

They simply asked me if I could start the following Monday.

Did everyone think someone else had done the interview? Who knows? If I didn’t wriggle past them, then I slipped through the net.

I worked successfully for the company for the next twenty years.

H is for Handbag

I am a serial loser of handbags. I’ve left one in Italy (on a train), Norway (in a mountain cabin), Scotland (in a distillery). Then there was Canada.

We headed along Highway One, the Trans-Canada Highway, a straight line into the distance.

‘You’d think the Romans had been here,’ my husband said.

Not the Romans but the early pioneers, going west, not knowing what lay head. We knew. We were going to the Rocky Mountains. The land was flat as we left Calgary. Then we saw the ski jumps, challenging monsters for other brave men, a legacy from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped to take photographs and have lunch in a café.

Then on again. We drove slowly, taking in the ever more spectacular view. At Canmore, a ski resort near Banff, we stopped to look around.

I reached for my handbag by my feet. Not there. Nor on the back seat. I froze as I re-lived the last hour of my life.

‘I left my handbag behind at lunchtime.’

My husband’s face was eloquent. There was much he could have said, but didn’t.  Instead we simply headed back east.

He didn’t need to berate me; I was giving myself a bad enough time. We listed the bag’s contents: passports, credit cards, $500, glasses, mobile phone.

The return journey was unpleasant. The scenery irritated us with its slow passage. The 90 kph speed limit mocked us.

I ran into the café, to the table we’d used. No handbag. Jumping the queue, I told my story.

And there was my bag, handed in by a customer. Thank you, honest Canadians!

From Tango Shoes to Wet Knickers

Patagonia! A magical name and the trip didn’t disappoint.

We started in vibrant Buenos Aires with a tango show. My fears that it would be tourist rubbish were unfounded. The standard was professional, the venue old-style glamorous and the food and drink high quality and generous. Anyone who has watched ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ knows all about the Argentine tango. In Argentina it’s even more athletic and dramatic. What I didn’t know was that it was originally danced by men, the gauchos coming into the city. While awaiting their turn with their chosen ladies, they would tango. You never know where a tango will lead you!

Men’s tango shoes

We wondered how welcome we would be in Argentina. However, it seems the Falklands war is a dim memory and people are more focussed on improving conditions nearer home. The mausoleum of Luis Vernet, last governor of the Falklands, is in a neglected state in the Recoleta Cemetery, not far away from that of the much more revered Eva Peron.

The tomb of Eva Peron (née Duarte)

We liked Buenos Aires, from the eclectic mix of styles in the centre to the colourful streets of La Boca (where we saw more tango, danced on café steps).

La Boca
Street tango

On the ‘wrong’ side of the railway line, visible from the motorway, are the slums, a strange assortment of cubes built on top of each other, separated by narrow alleyways, where the poorest live.

The slums from the coach window

In contrast, Porto Moderno is super-rich. Our guide called it ‘Money-Laundering Land’. Politicians live here in huge apartments. There is much corruption.

We flew from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego. It was called the Land of Fire by the early explorers who saw fires burning on the shores. The early natives lived naked so needed fire to keep warm. An amazing visit to the prison in Ushuaia, now a museum, told us of British influence – the Argentinians sent their convicts here just as we sent ours to Tasmania for punishment.

Ushuaia prison

We took a trip on the Beagle Channel, saw sea lions and cormorants, and were amazed that early sailors ever found their way among all the islands. The weather is unreliable here – usually only around six days a year with cloudless, blue skies. We had two of them! Boats leave from here for Antarctica. We really were at the end of the earth.

Patagonia stretches across both Argentina and Chile and so we set off on a 12 hour bus journey to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For much of the time, the scenery was flat and uninteresting – the Argentinian Steppe – but the Park is worth the journey. Our guide told us about mate tea which the locals drink. It’s a caffeine-rich infusion, traditionally made in a calabash gourd and drunk via a silver straw. It’s passed from person to person, a social ritual they all seem to enjoy. Our guide handed his mate round for us to try. Far too bitter for me.

We stayed in cabins with snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes around us just outside the National Park, a lovely position.

Torres del Paine National Park

There was the option of a 23km trek the following day. We decided to go for it although our local guide nearly put me off with her severe warnings (Health & Safety prevails!) It was difficult at the top, steep and rocky, but a real achievement to get there.

The often seen Firebush

Another long drive back to Argentina – you can fall asleep and when you wake, the scenery hasn’t changed! Lots of guanacos scattered about – they look like llamas. We headed for El Calafate, a pleasant if touristy town. This was our base for the Perito Moreno glacier. A spectacular 70 metre wall of ice, calving from time to time into Lake Argentino, shone bluish white in the sunshine. The system of walkways and viewpoints is excellent and we took a boat trip to get an even closer look.

Perito Moreno glacier

Off to El Chalten the next day, stopping en route at an old ranch, La Leona, now a café. There were pictures of Butch Cassidy on the wall – apparently he stopped here for a month when on the run to Bolivia. Who knows if it’s true!

Poster for Butch Cassidy at La Leona

Another long walk to a view point in the Fitzroy Massif the following day. Our luck broke and the wind and cloud made the final part of the walk impossible. But we’d seen the Fitzroy mountain the previous day, so shouldn’t complain.

We now had the final stage of our visit – the Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Someone said the temperature there was 37˚C (actually, it wasn’t). I had no shorts with me so chopped the legs off a pair of jeans. No time to shop! Yet more travelling including the chaos of Iguazu airport with an IT failure and no systems operational!

Iguazu Falls seen from the boat

The Falls are wonderful, probably best from the Argentinian side. There is a compulsion to take photos constantly – I have more than I know what to do with!  (Some people still seem to find selfies more important than the spectacular scenery…) The highlight was a boat trip to the foot of one of the cascades. They said we’d get wet – they weren’t lying. It wasn’t just the spray – a wave landed in my lap. I was in my denim shorts. Not often do I need to wring out my underwear!

We were well-sustained by the amazing Argentinian beef and Patagonian lamb throughout the trip. We’ve never eaten so much meat but it was good. Then there was King Crab and spicy prawns when we were near the sea. Empanadas for lunch. Add to that, the Argentinian Malbec and a Pisco Sour or two…

Argentinian beef
Barbecued Patagonian lamb

All superb. I am now dieting!


For Better, For Worse

The following story was shortlisted in the ‘Unhappy Ending’ competition in Writing Magazine

The open bedroom window was too tempting. She leant out and dropped the bottle. It bounced on the terrace below.


Then another one. It hit the garden table and rebounded on to the grass.

‘Damn, damn.’

She looked at the remaining bottles. They were all solid, sturdy pots. Unscrewing the lid off the next, she threw it with the energy of repressed anger. It still didn’t break, but it did splatter a vivid, scarlet scar over the terrace. That felt better! One after another, they made a mosaic of colours, an artist’s irregular palette. A death blow to her nail varnish.

She stretched out her hands, looking at her elegant fingers. Then she grabbed the nail scissors, hacking each nail down as far as it would go. She grimaced at each destruction. A year of care and nurturing; a year of manicures and treatment. All gone.

She opened the wardrobe where the dress hung and touched the faint red wine stain. Profuse apologies and much white wine had followed.  An aunt had announced that staining one’s wedding dress was a bad omen. She’d laughed and said she didn’t believe in old wives’ tales. Not a tactful response to an eighty-five year old widow. But high on compliments and envious looks, she didn’t care.


When Richard asked her to marry him, she couldn’t wait to start planning.  Her surge of enthusiasm was magnified by her mother who telephoned daily with suggestions and ideas. The house filled with wedding magazines and bridal shops became magnets. Her mother had several recommendations for venues. Was it to be a church wedding or not? Would she wear a veil?

Richard kept away from anything to do with the wedding.

‘You could show some interest. It’s your day, too, you know.’

‘I do know and on the day I’ll be enthusiastic.’

Andrea stood in front of the mirror, naked. She surveyed herself from every angle. Nothing escaped scrutiny as she planned how to get herself into perfect shape. Richard often told her she was beautiful, but then he loved her. Her standards were more rigorous. A schedule of gym visits with a personal trainer; a series of beauty treatments: manicures, pedicures, hair appointments.


The vivid, scarlet scar on the stones imprinted itself on her mind.


The timing had to be right so she created a calendar on her laptop, her life for the following year, and worked backwards to ensure every treatment was performed at the precise moment. She thought of showing Richard her clever schedule. After all, she was doing this for him. But even the mention of the beauty salon drove him away.


A jagged nail scratched her face as she brushed back her hair.


They were once so close. The physical contact was still there but a barely detectable barrier, a chiffon of resistance, now blocked their intimacy. Bound to happen, she thought. There’s always pressure in the lead-up to a wedding. Maybe it’s Richard’s way of coping.

‘The point is to get married, not to provide business for half of the town. Do you know what you’re spending on beauty treatments?’

‘Mum is paying for most of them. She wants me to look my best even if you don’t.’

Richard didn’t reply. He went upstairs, put on his running gear and left, closing the door loudly.

She took her shoes out of the cupboard. No point in showing them to him. The red soles said everything. Maybe he hadn’t heard of Louboutin. She stroked and kissed them. Never had she possessed shoes so chic or so costly. Her mother had contributed but nevertheless they hit her budget hard.

When he returned an hour later, he carried flowers in his sweaty hands.

‘Bit hard of me. Sorry.’

She knew he’d bought them at the garage. They had a look of yesterday about them, the leaves starting to go brown at the edges.

‘When you’ve had a shower, I’ll hug you for them.’

She lit candles at dinner that evening. The atmosphere felt lighter for a day or two. But the invisible obstacle in the house soon returned, the unsavoury, persistent visitor, unwilling to leave.

Richard announced he was planning his stag “do”.

Andrea smiled. At last, he was getting involved in something. Richard’s weekends filled up. Off to Brighton to see what it had to offer. Bath another weekend. Then Bristol. He came back tired, hung-over and flippant.

She barely knew him; she rarely saw him.

She had no interest in where he chose to go. Instead she focussed on her own hen weekend. It shouldn’t have been a competition. But the sense of outdoing each other got stronger as the events approached. Andrea commented her friends were buying new outfits; Richard dismissed the idea with a shrug. Quad bike racing just needed old clothes. The wedding became secondary, fading into the background. The celebrations of leaving single life dominated their lives.


The omen of the red wine on her dress – no, she didn’t believe in silly superstitions.


So he went to Bath and she went to Bristol on consecutive weekends. What fun the cocktail-making session was! And the burlesque dancing. After that it became a blur as the alcohol took over.

He returned with a bag of muddy clothes and several bruises.

They discussed their weekends in clipped sentences. She put her Minnie Mouse outfit away without Richard seeing it.


The scissors were lying on the table after the nail-hacking session. She picked them up and looked in the mirror.


‘Andrea, can you move your dress fitting to Wednesday? I can’t make Tuesday and I need to be there.’

‘That’s a pain, Mum. You’re always changing arrangements.’

She couldn’t refuse her mother who was paying for so much. But maternal involvement was verging on interference. There’d already been one row when Andrea screamed, ‘Whose day is it? Yours or mine?’ Her mother had left the house with a sour, screwed-up look, her shoulders taut and raised, her silence stubborn.


The red wine stain looked deeper now.


When Richard proposed, they both agreed the honeymoon had to be in Florida. They were like children where Disneyland was concerned. He had booked everything early to get a good price, an Economy ticket so they had money to spend when they were there. She said if they couldn’t fly Business Class on their honeymoon, when would they?

He said he’d think about it. But he didn’t tell her his decision.


The temptation to snip at her hair was enormous.


The day arrived. The morning suit looked good on Richard; he wore clothes well. Andrea’s plans had worked and as she took a final glance in her mirror, she sighed with pleasure. When she walked down the aisle, she saw Richard’s eyes fixed on her.  But she couldn’t read his face.


She cut a few centimetres from one side of her hair and threw the strands out of the window where the wind caught them. Some landed on the messy stones below. Like a collage.


Her mother wore a silver-grey suit that complimented her figure and a large pink hat that didn’t need a price tag to announce how much it cost. She was in ecstasy. She floated around the reception on a cloud of good wishes. It was certainly her day.


More strands of hair floated out of the window.


A week after the wedding, they set off for the airport. They had been difficult days. Richard spent much time staring at his i-pad; Andrea sorted out the wedding presents.  Their promises at the ceremony rang emptily round the house. She looked at her shoes daily to raise her spirits. They spoke when they needed to, civil but uninvolved.  It’ll be alright once we’re away, Andrea told herself.

Richard checked in on-line and printed off their boarding passes. He put them in his travel folder. While he was in the shower, Andrea looked. Seats 44A and B.


At the airline desk, Andrea asked about the possibility of an upgrade. Yes, there was space in Business Class. At a cost, of course.

‘We only need one ticket upgraded,’ she said. ‘Mine.’

Disneyland would have been wonderful if Andrea had not been with Richard.


She grabbed a handful of hair and chopped vigorously. Strands went everywhere, on the floor, on the bed, out of the window. Quickly, quickly, she muttered, before I change my mind.  She opened one of the remaining bottles and poured varnish on to a pile of hair on the window-sill, mixing it with her fingers.

‘Finger-painting, Mummy? Can Charlie play?’


They flew back Economy Class. She had made her point and money had run out.

‘Why did you ask me to marry you, Richard?’

‘Why do you think?’

‘Once, I thought it was because you loved me.’

‘Well, once I thought I did. But you changed. Everything about you changed once we’d decided to get married.’

‘You could have called it off.’

‘What? It would have been like standing in front of an express train. And, anyway, the real reason I married you was Charlie. I am his father, after all.’

‘You’re his father whether or not we’re married.’

A month after the honeymoon, Richard moved out.


Now her mother phones daily with updates as the bills come in. She speaks in a flat voice, emotion wrung out with weeping. She asks her confused daughter how she is and wonders what Andrea will do next. Fearing for the wedding dress, she plans to remove it. There is always a market for once-worn designer clothing.

Charlie sits by the window each evening, waiting for his father to come home. He lines up his toys so they can watch, too, and tells them it won’t be long.

The spectre of the most wonderful day of her life haunts Andrea. Soon there will not be much hair left on her head. She has thrown the last bottle of nail varnish out of the window.

She still has the shoes.