Z-edition

A squiggled zig-zag-zig is Zed

  It whizzes, fizzes in your head

    And words like Zip and Zap and Zoom

      Will give your writing reading-room      

        Will give it oomph, will give it Zest

          Will make the commonplace the best 

           Some literates will say it’s Zany

        Though Zed’s for all, not just the brainy

       Will Shakespeare liked it, he said ‘Zounds’

     (He made a lot of funny sounds)

  We’re not States-side, it’s not a Zee,

Pronounce it Zed, as it should be

It may come last, bring up the rear

  It may laugh longest, even jeer

    Without it, we’d be left with Y

      Penultimate, the end is nigh

        But A to Y just doesn’t work

          If I said that, I’d feel a jerk

          The rules would change, the world would falter

        We couldn’t snooze, we’d have to alter

      The zzzzs would go, we’d exhale yyyys

    A dismal thought, a cause for sighs

  We’d have just ebras, have just oos

A Zed is such a lot to lose

An ero would be less than nought

  Now that’s a disconcerting thought

    Our letters need a cause to sing

      Let’s finish off with verve and Zing

        Let’s celebrate this final letter

          An alphabetical go-getter

Y is for Youth

I’ve long had delusions of youth. Youth, height and dark hair.

I used to have long, almost-black hair but the first silver intruders appeared when I was seventeen. It took some time before they won but inside my head I’ve always been dark-haired.

Height has eluded me. Until the age of twelve, I was of average size. Then, when everyone had their puberty growth spurt, I didn’t. I’m still waiting. But I feel tall. Photographs disappoint me; I’m the one standing in a hole.

I can’t grow. I don’t bother dyeing my hair. Acceptance has crept in. But youth is not just a matter of age and my youth was good. I wasn’t super-fit – but fitter than now. My brain worked faster – although had no bank of experience. I broke new ground and old rules. Youth had problems but it was better than what followed.

I fought the description ‘middle-aged’ until it no longer applied, glad to be so described once I was actually ‘old’. I went to the gym, enjoyed distance walks and believed in a ‘can-do’ approach to life. I was determined to carry on until I died with my ski boots on.

Then 2019 and Covid arrived. I found myself officially in the ‘old and at risk’ category. I needed to take extra care, have groceries delivered and avoid going into shops. A young neighbour sent a note asking if I needed any help. So kind but I hated the necessity.

Covid has made me, for the first time, feel old. I sleep less well. I worry. In spite of daily exercise, I’m less fit than I was. At least my age gave me an early vaccine – and an element of freedom.

But my wonderful delusions fight to remain. Youth is an attitude.

X is for…

X is ambiguous. It doesn’t know whether to be forbidding or kind.

It tells you what not to do. It’s unwise to walk through a door with an X on it. If someone crosses their index fingers and looks at you, it stops you in your tracks. Danger, no entry, you’re not wanted here.

It can send kisses to a friend or lover. Even an electronic message ends with xx. It’s one of the first symbols a child learns to write. Kisses for Mummy or Daddy in a wobbly, uncertain hand, drawn with love.

X is anticipation. It marks the spot. How many treasure maps have the ubiquitous symbol on them? The anticipation of an X-ray may not be so exciting.

It’s used to mean something extra. Xtra-large, an outsized garment, a huge tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken or the largest pizza you can buy. We may not want to be size XXX but we like the sound of bigger and better. Xtra-special. In Xcess. INXS even.

It marks something that’s wrong. Ticks and crosses on your maths homework. How I wished for ticks! When I lose my temper with a sudoku I can’t complete, I scribble a large X on it.

An X is a cross. A cross has religious significance. Serious business here. Christ’s cross has a different shape – except on a hot-cross bun.

Cross-stitch is delicate embroidery, pretty, needing patience. A picture made completely of xxxx. Maybe there’s love in them.

There’s the game of noughts and crosses – perhaps the crosses are the good guys this time. And crosswords – words in the shape of a cross, not angry ones.

            I’m crossing my fingers for luck with this piece. A poor X, but the best I can do.

Don’t be cross with me.

xxx

Back to Normal?

August 2021

Back in our apartment in Méribel Mottaret, France. We last left it in March 2019, a few days after the country closed down, fearful if we would get home, armed with makeshift papers I’d invented and we’d both signed. A frightening time, a move away from normality.

Last summer we debated whether or not to visit our apartment but fear of what might go wrong prevented us. We were over-anxious and maybe wrong. This year – both of us doubly vaccinated – was a different matter. We booked the club lounge on the ferry to make sure we wouldn’t have to mix with crowds. Unnecessary as the boat had few passengers, but a treat, just like an airport lounge. I could do that again.

The view from our apartment

Minimum beaurocracy at Dover. We showed proof of vaccination, passports were stamped (hello, Brexit) and that was it. In Calais, we drove through without stopping.

A long journey through France, visiting ‘aires’ only for petrol, loos and to buy a sandwich. (Brexit forbade the cheese and ham we normally take with us – although no-one checked.) No pleasant overnight stop to break the journey; we were still aiming for minimum risk. Then we were in our own home again, our second home. As safe as in England.

Or was it? Mottaret was full of people, more than we’d ever seen there in the summer. This was a ski resort, after all, a winter resort. The French were holidaying at home. The packed carpark showed no English cars. Once away from the centre of the resort, there were fewer folk around, although popular spots, like the Refuge du Saut, a couple of hours climb above Mottaret, were heaving. Tables were full and in demand. But they were well spaced out and masks were required if you went inside.

The busy Refuge du Saut

I don’t think of the French as being keen on rules. But where masks were concerned, they behaved themselves. It was a legal requirement inside shops and restaurants and many people wore them outside, too. Restaurants demanded the ‘Pass Sanitaire’ even if you were just having a drink. We wondered if the NHS App on our phones with its two QR codes would work and be acceptable. It did and it was! For once we were aligned with Europe.

There was an air of optimism. Much new building was going on and many places used lockdown for refurbishment. Large – or enlarged – terraces outside bars and restaurants appeared, necessary now but an investment for the future. The area is thriving and we are happy for the locals and ourselves.

One of the features of summer in the Alps is the Braderie. These are merchants’ fairs, sales of goods at much reduced prices to clear old stock and make some money. All towns and resorts have them. We walked down to Méribel, to its Braderie on a hot Sunday morning. We didn’t stay long. It spooked Tony.  A mass of people packed the main street and although it was possible to move between them, distancing – and it was only one metre in France – was impossible. We went part-way along and Tony said he’d had enough.

‘I don’t want to test positive before we leave. Think of the problems that would cause.’

 Indeed. I was less scared – it was a remote possibility – but I understood.

Méribel Braderie

Life felt close to normal. We invited our neighbours round for a drink and enjoyed the company of our Welsh friends, Siân and Peter, who have an appartment in Mottaret. We walked, had a couple of meals out, eating in the sunshine, and relaxed. We had almost forgotten how much we enjoy being in the Alps in Summer.

Above Lac du Tueda, near Mottaret

Returning home was more complicated than arriving in France. We needed Covid tests a couple of days before leaving and two days after arrival in England. Booking the tests in France was a hassle but the pharmacy rescued us; booking the test in England was straightforward.  We are just poorer now. At least, the requirement to quarantine after our return disappeared.

It was a huge shock when I received the result of my pre-departure Covid test on my phone. Positive. Initially, I thought I’d misunderstood the message, that my French had let me down. But there was no error. We were obliged to prolong our holiday by ten days and I was in quarantine.

Why was I positive? I’d been nowhere without Tony who had tested negative. Was I infected when shopping? At the braderie? From friends or neighbours? Fortunately, I had no symptoms. Breathlessless on a couple of instances when walking up a steep path at altitude – was that a clue? I had just put it down to my age.

We shall never know. I was worried I might test positive again – viral particles can persist a long time, I was told – and feared an extended stay in France. Much as I love it there, I didn’t like the prospect of being a prisoner for weeks. My fears were unfounded and the repeat test was negative. We could leave.

In spite of the obligatory extension to our holiday, it was good to be back in the Alps. We’re glad we went. The next challenge will be skiing in the winter. I hope I remember how to do it!

W is for … Wagon (the Blood Variety)

People peer in to see if you are still alive as you pass.

I’ve now had three trips down mountains in a blood wagon. It’s the most uncomfortable way of moving across snow I know. You are towed by a member of the ski patrol, an excellent skier who moves fast. While getting a casualty off the mountain quickly is important, it means you are rocked from side to side, a fine spray of snow covering the small part of your face still visible. You can see the sky, any trees or buildings you pass and the faces of interested spectators. None of that helps. Being so close to the snow gives a feeling of vulnerability and imminent tipping out. They never tip anyone out. The straps are fastened tightly. But knowing that doesn’t help.

My first wagon trip was in Norway. We were riding the big bumps, going straight from higher and higher up, taking off as the ground fell away. Then I lost it. Skiing beyond my ability. The children were distraught to see blood on my face. I was more bothered by my knee. A small break but enough to finish my holiday.

Several years later in France, skiing in powder beside the piste, I fell. No damage until I tried to pull out a buried ski and snapped a ligament. Stupid mistake. Another blood wagon ride. Crutches for weeks. Then, as if twice wasn’t enough, I damaged a cartilage. A wild skier hit me from behind, I shot in the air, lost both skis and landed on my other knee. I skied on but my leg gave way sometime later.  Carted off once more; an operation this time.

This won’t happen again.  Absolutely not. (I have said that before.)

V is for Vac Job

It was a daring move in the early sixties, putting an ad in the Birmingham Mail, seeking a vac job. ‘Intelligent, reliable sixth-former seeks well-paid job during summer holiday’. I’d got sick of working in department stores where my lack of knowledge about coats earned me sniffs from well-heeled, older ladies.

            There was money out there. Several phone calls suggested removal of my clothing was a lucrative direction. After the first two, my mother fielded them all, just in case I was tempted. Conversations ended promptly when the callers realised they weren’t speaking to me. Personal Assistant sounded promising and I met a gentleman who needed assistance with some complex, but unclear schemes. When it became apparent I was the main project, I declined.

             Intelligence and reliability were not in demand. Then an accountant phoned, a well-spoken, middle-aged man who needed someone with neat handwriting to help him complete ledger entries. Said he would collect me and drop me off each day as we visited various clients. My mother approved. And he paid five shillings an hour. I was employed.

            I learned about book-keeping, credit and debit, his failed marriage and, later on, about Cheryl, another teenager who worked for him. He confided he was in love with her and hoped she felt the same. A weird situation I didn’t understand but I knew I was paid to listen. And so I listened but didn’t tell my mother all I learned. Kindly and correct, he never said anything inappropriate or touched me although he did look at my mini-skirted legs a lot.

I earned good money that summer and worked for him again several times. We became friends, of sorts. I never met Cheryl. Years later, I realised she was me.

U is for Underwear

As a child, I wore too much of it. I was layered up in the Winter, cold (and the catching of one) being anathema to my mother. There was the vest, the liberty bodice – which had nothing to do with freedom – and the petticoat. As money was tight, clothing was not, all items being bought to last. So assorted tucks and hems added to the thickness of my undergarments. Never a slim child, they gave me a well-rounded appearance.

            Spring was the time to shed a layer or two. But not quickly. My mother, a believer in the truth of old sayings, would proclaim, ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May is out!’ so I struggled on whatever the weather until the beginning of June.

It wasn’t surprising I rebelled. As a teenager, when the liberty bodice gave way to a bra, a vest was still mandatory. It had more style (if a vest can) than the functional garments of infancy but I was embarrassed none of my friends wore one. I went to a school where communal showers after gym lessons meant we were all familiar with each other from the skin outwards. But my mother expected to find a vest in the washing each week. So she did. I never wore it but slept with it in my bed to give it the appropriate crumpled look.

The roll-on, an elastic type of corset, was introduced to hold my stomach in. We all wore one for a few years but the fashion waned as did my mother’s control of my clothing. Apart from a few sniffy remarks about the smallness of my knickers, she gave up on underwear-policing in my later teens.

I hope I was more liberal about my own daughter’s underwear. I really can’t remember.

Not in Heaven but in Hull

It was an odd match. I never thought I’d be best man to this pair. I stood beside Phil and fiddled with the gold ring in my pocket.

She was a live wire, Beth. She’d danced on the table at New Year’s Eve, her skirt swirling high and her hair and mood higher. Phil had watched and nodded his head in time to the music, refusing to join her. He didn’t say he’d rather be at home with the book I’d given him. He was kinder than that. Lily, now the bridesmaid, had danced with her instead.

Their parents had been neighbours for decades, happy in Hull. There they were, grinning in the front pew, best friends, soon to be related. Creating their dynasty. As the ceremony continued, my attention wandered. I looked at the vicar’s scuffed shoes; a wedding was too every-day to warrant shoe polish. The edge of his cassock was frayed and there was a dirty mark on his dog collar. A nudge brought me back to reality and I produced the ring, placing it on Phil’s large, shovel-like hand, brushing his fingers. He was a huge man, an imposing presence. I wondered, again, why he was marrying the butterfly that was Beth, his childhood sweetheart.

I glanced towards Lily. Wasn’t it usual for the best man to get off with the bridesmaid? The thought amused me. Not likely.

My attention must have wandered again. Before I realised it, Beth and Phil were walking down the aisle as man and wife. I caught Phil’s eye and the glance that passed between us spoke of times past. A similar look passed between Lily and Beth. No regrets – just sadness that it was over.

Although maybe not…

It wasn’t a match made in Heaven. It was a marriage manufactured in Hull.

Published in Wokingham Today, 25 February 2021, as Wokingham Writer’s Group selection for the month.

T is for …Tents

I’ve slept, usually badly, in various tents. Back in the seventies when we had little money, we would camp on the Isle of Wight. We cooked on a gas stove, considered Vesta packet curry the height of high living and bathed the baby in the washing-up bowl. If we were lucky, the sun shone and we drank cheap wine sitting on folding chairs outside. It was fun.

When we could afford something better – a B & B, occasionally a hotel – we moved out of the tent (which rotted in our loft) and up-market. Camping lost its appeal. I said never again.

Then we were invited (cajoled, leant-on) by friends to join them at a camp-site in St David’s in Wales. They went every year. This was glamping. Proper food, nice wine, spacious tents. All mod-cons. They even had a fridge! No slumming it here. We were re-converted and even bought equipment of our own. The new tent was easier to put up than the original one. The bed is still uncomfortable but I’m hopeful of finding a better one. Still the problem of the weather, of course. Wales isn’t tropical. But it was fun.

It has, however, been out-done. We recently went on our first safari – a treat for a special wedding anniversary. We stayed at a ‘tented’ safari lodge. Our room had three solid walls, an open canvas front which was fastened at night and (ta-dah!) a tent-style roof. It had indoor and outdoor showers, complete privacy. The bed was large and comfortable. We knew it was a tent when the wind roared at night and the roof flapped. I thought we had trapped a bird and panicked. But it was only canvas noise.

I like tents – however you define them – but the last experience takes some beating.

Limericks

Mslexia – the writing magazine for women – is publishing a Limerick Advent Calendar on Twitter in December 2020 and has chosen three of mine for inclusion. They were all submitted to Little Ms, the online arm of Mslexia, in various of their Limerick competitions. The first one won one of the competitions.

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The teenager stared at his phone

No response to my words, just a groan

How’s your day, having fun?

Taciturnity won

FOMO issues best suffered alone

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Some say a diaphanous nightie

Implies that the wearer is flighty

And to sleep in the nude

Would appear rather rude

Don your wincyette jim-jams contritely

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Her fiction was pithy and Flash

Tales crafted with grit and panache

Her stories exciting

Plots twisty, nail-biting

A pity they brought in no cash!