D is for…

 

Don’t get in my way. Don’t fight with your brother. Don’t jump in puddles. Don’t leave anything on your plate. Don’t make a mess. Don’t play in the street. Don’t get dirty. Don’t leave your toys everywhere. Don’t answer back.

Don’t fence me in.

Don’t read under the bedclothes. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t chew bubble-gum. Don’t say naughty words. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t scratch your bottom. Don’t run in the woods. Don’t climb trees. Don’t do anything dangerous. Don’t talk to strange men. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t eat the daisies.

Don’t stay out late. Don’t argue with me. Don’t bring that boy home. Don’t grow your hair long. Don’t paint your nails. Don’t wear tight skirts. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t embarrass me.

Don’t go breaking my heart.

Don’t diet. Don’t go to coffee-bars. Don’t go to pubs. Don’t plaster your face with make-up. Don’t waste your money. Don’t lie. Don’t keep secrets from me. Don’t believe everything your friends say.

Don’t let me be misunderstood.

Don’t read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Don’t behave like that in my house. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

What happened to ‘Do’?

Do have a good time. Do bring all your friends home. Do be independent. Do take a few risks. Do discuss things with me. Do read widely. Do be positive. Do remember contraception. Do enjoy life. Do make your own mind up. Do be happy.

Even – Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.

Don’t look back in anger.

Don’t think twice, it’s alright.

 

I found them later on.

Don’t stop me now.

A Right Knees-Up

Eight.

That’s the number of knee injuries I’ve had while skiing. You might say my knees are my Achilles’ heel.

It started back in the eighties in Norway, where we lived and learned to ski. I managed to remain injury-free in our first ski season in spite of various mishaps, such as falling off a drag lift and getting stranded on a closed black slope. I was less lucky in the second winter. I fell and twisted my knee. Nothing dramatic and, with difficulty, I skied down to the bottom of the slope. By the time we’d driven the four hours home, I couldn’t walk. A visit to the Medical Centre resulted in large amounts of fluid being drained from my balloon-like joint. When I asked what I’d done, I was told, ‘You fell and twisted your knee.’ Not much info there, then.

Later that season, we went to Voss on the west coast of Norway. My knee had recovered by this time and so had my confidence. We were racing down a series of rollers on a lovely piste, going straight from higher and higher up, no turning, taking off as we sailed over the bumps. Braver and braver; more and more foolhardy. I crashed. Both skis came off so I avoided any more twists but I landed on a knee.

‘Mummy, your face is bleeding!’

‘It’s my knee.’

‘But your face is bleeding!

Three anxious children stood around me. Sod my face, I thought, knowing something more serious had happened. The blood wagon arrived and ferried me down the mountain. It’s not a pleasant experience. Apart from the snow that’s thrown at you and the feeling you’ll fall out at every bend, people peer in to see if you’re still breathing.

I ended up spending two nights in hospital with a broken tibia. Voss is in the area where they speak ‘Ny norsk’ – ‘New Norwegian’. It’s different from the standard Norwegian I’d learned. But I struggled through – and even learned the word for a bedpan!

We returned to Oslo. Our house was up a steep winding path, a challenge on crutches in the snow. I remember hiding in the house, crying from sheer frustration, to be found by our youngest, Tim, aged seven. He was distraught; Mummies don’t cry.

Later on, I had a series of mishaps on ski slopes in France. As ‘camp-followers’ when Tim was ski racing, we skied in many resorts. There was the time one of the racers needed his rucksack at the start of the race and had left it behind. I offered to get it. Rushing along the narrow path to the start gate, I skied over the edge. As I fell and banged my knee, I remember shouting to my rescuer, ‘Get this rucksack to the start straight away!’

Then there was the time we attempted a steep, unprepared slope because the snow looked so good. I’ve never learned to ski powder properly and I certainly made a mess of this attempt. A twisting fall at slow speed, the worst sort; another ligament injury. And I know there was another twisted knee around the same time which kept me from the slopes, but my mind has blocked out the details!

I had a few undamaged years when my knees behaved themselves. But they are out to get me whenever they can. I was skiing alongside the piste in Couchevel, having yet another attempt at powder when I fell. Unharmed, I tried to pull my buried ski out of the snow. Click! I felt and heard my knee go. Another blood wagon ride, no more pleasant than the first time. More crutches. Ruptured ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). At least this time I found out what I’d done. I recovered quickly and skied again the same season.

I knew by now I had dodgy knees. If, in the course of normal activity, I twisted the right one, something moved in it and I had to click it back into place. Painful for me and anyone watching. And it could happen at any time. Then it happened while skiing. I didn’t even fall. My knee would not click back. Here we go again. Another blood wagon ride. This time a broken cartilage which required an operation to remove it. I asked the surgeon if I’d ski again.

‘You’ll ski again if you want to,’ he said.

Of course I did. The operated knee was great, the stronger of the two.

I’m writing this with an ice-pack on my other knee. A stupid fall getting off a chair lift where I lost all grip. Maybe I skied over someone’s ski tails, who knows. Anyway, that put paid to my other ACL. I can still ski using a knee brace.

I’ve got fairly empty knees now. Four injuries per knee. It’s amazing what you can manage without. But it has taught me a little caution as there must be a limit!

Changing Sri Lanka

We visited Sri Lanka recently –  an interesting, friendly place of impossibly long names, vast Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines, Mosques, Christian Churches and religious tolerance. Education and health care are free as the country embraces the modern world. Tradition does still exist and some places are little changed from British colonial times.

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A magnificent Stupa

Future visitors may see a different country, however. Tea picking, largely done by women, is being rejected by the internet generation and soon rubber and spices will be the major exports, both requiring less labour than tea, with tourism ever more important.

We saw ‘toddy tappers’, agile men who scale coconut palms and walk on ropes between them to gather the nectar from flowers. This is used to make Arrack, a local spirit. But the skill is dying.

The production of handmade lace, intricate and delicate, raises little interest in the young. We bought small items and were glad the craft is supported by the Travel Foundation.

We heard about the iconic stilt fisherman of the south coast. Sadly, this means of catching fish, balanced on a pole with a fishing rod, has already disappeared. What you see today is a sham for the tourists, agents on the beaches charging for photos of men on poles fixed to the rocks where there are no fish.

But some changes are for the better. No longer can you ride on an elephant. These magnificent beasts are less commercialised than in the past. We took a trip in a jeep in Kadaula National Park and were able to approach wild elephant families. But there was no touching.

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There are two elephant orphanages and our guide took us to one. These institutions have had a bad press, again because of ill-treatment and exploitation of the animals. We were satisfied that the only viewing each day, thirty minutes at feeding time, did not bother the elephants and the money we paid went towards their expensive special milk. When old enough, the animals are returned to the wild. Less than ten percent of male elephants have tusks in Sri Lanka. We were unable to discover why but it has served to protect them. Fewer tusks – fewer ivory hunters.

The local people made us welcome. They were happy to have help in hauling in their fishing nets and enthusiastic to support us up slippery steps or down uneven roads. Even though I didn’t want assistance, I found myself propelled down a sloping street with a lady on each elbow. (I think my hair attracted attention; Sri Lankans who have white hair are extremely old!) Yes, there were a few beggars, but also people who wanted to talk to us because we were speaking English. They proudly told us of relatives in Guildford and memories of when the Queen visited in 1954.

No-one minded if we visited their most sacred places as long as we respected their rules such as the removal of footwear and hats.

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Cave paintings at Dambulla

Some of the temples cover large areas with mounds and rocky heights within the religious area. I have never before climbed so much in bare feet! It gave us a good appetite and we loved the food. Rice and curry (always with rice listed first as the most important part of the meal) was a feast of many dishes including dhal, fish or chicken, chutneys and sambals. It was full of flavour and never too hot, one of the highlights of the holiday.

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Mihintale temple complex – barefoot climing!

There is an old-fashioned modesty to behaviour in Sri Lanka. In the Botanical Gardens in Kandy, our guide introduced the official with the ‘hanky-panky’ whistle. He blows it if he sees any inappropriate behaviour and the offending couple are removed. We tried to find out exactly what constituted ‘hanky-panky’ but our guide (an educated, modern man who has lived in England and Sweden) was too embarrassed to give any details. Sex education is on the school curriculum but is apparently ignored by most teachers. Maybe that’s a change waiting to happen.

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Sri Lanka is worth visiting – go soon!

A Taste of his own Medicine

A ‘taster’ for my novel…

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Prologue

She didn’t think about him anymore. She hadn’t thought about him for three decades. In truth, she believed she’d exhausted her thoughts where he was concerned; she protected herself from him.

There was a time when it was different. A time when she enjoyed mundane tasks because completing them got her minutes closer to their next meeting. A time when she would find herself skipping like an excited child as she walked along the street, smiling at strangers because she was inwardly smiling at him. A time when all her thoughts contained him.

It was years since she woke in the night imagining she felt the touch of his fingers brushing her spine. She stopped reacting with a start if a man wearing his fragrance happened to come near. And the phone could ring without causing a jolt to her stomach.

But joy turned to bitterness and vengeance. Desire for him became the desire to hurt him; to scar him as much as she could.

Then nothing.

He was in a locked compartment in her mind. He was her past; he was no longer her everyday.

Inspiration

It was the piece of cardboard with ‘Birmingham’ scrawled on it. It pulled me like a magnet. Then he was in the car, sitting beside me, smelling of rain and wet wool, my haven of dryness splashed with mud and relief.

No sensible woman picks up a hitch-hiker. I never did. But I had now. Yes, I’d told him. I was heading for Brum. Yes, I’d said, no problem to drop him off on the outskirts. I pulled back on to the motorway.

‘God, I’m wet. Been standing there half an hour. Mind if I take my coat off?’ He didn’t wait for a reply and threw it on the back seat, a shower of droplets splashing the back of my neck. I was invisible as he rolled up the sleeves of his sweater, brushed his trousers and removed his boots. Steam rose from his socks as he stretched out his feet in the warmth from the heater.

Could he hear how fast my heart was beating? Could he feel the swathe of fear surrounding me? I gripped the steering wheel to stem the imminent shaking. If only I could turn back.

I said nothing as he sorted himself out. Just the wipers swishing and squeaking, fighting the cascade that poured down the windscreen. He wriggled around, adjusted the seat position to recline it and move it further back. His glance said, ‘Hope you don’t mind?’ although he didn’t ask. Then he picked up his canvas bag and rummaged in it. He wasn’t looking for a weapon, was he? Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Surely he wouldn’t take his shoes off if he was about to attack.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him extract a pencil case. The sort children use, oblong with a long zip. He undid it and took out a penknife. I gasped. I didn’t mean to but the sound escaped. He made a noise, a cross between a laugh and a sneer.

‘Do you think I’m going to attack you?’ He mocked innocently. ‘Just going to sharpen a pencil.’ And he did.

‘Most people use a pencil sharpener,’ I muttered.

‘Not me.  I like the shape a knife creates. Anyway, couldn’t do much damage with this knife.’ He waved it around, causing me to swerve.

‘Bit risky, picking up a stranger. A bloke. And it’s getting dark. I’m grateful, of course. Do you often pick up hitch-hikers?’

I was now feeling seriously worried. ‘It was Birmingham,’ I said. ‘I used to live there and I’d stopped before I realised what I was doing. I’ve never picked up anyone before. I should have driven past.’

‘Rubbish. You’ll have a story to tell now. Of this guy with a knife.’ He laughed at his joke and at me, a single ‘Hah’.

Then there was silence. He was making sure I was thinking about it. That’s what he was doing. More knife brandishing, a few more pencils sharpened. I tried to glance across, aware of his every move, but not wanting to lose my focus on the river that was the road.

He put his hand back into his bag. ‘Do you know what else I’ve got here?’

I hardly dared to look. He had a small box in his hand.

‘Stolen goods. Gold earrings. A birthday present for my girlfriend.’

He waited for my reaction; I could hear him listening.

‘I can’t afford stuff like this so there’s only one way to get it. Don’t go in for much theft. Just when necessary. No violence. Just a little sleight of hand.’ I sensed the broad grin on his face, the enjoyment my discomfort was giving him. I wondered if he was inspecting the contents of the car, prospecting for his next free gift.

‘Want a mint?’ He waved a tube at me.

I shook my head.

‘It’s okay – it wouldn’t be receiving stolen goods. I paid for these!’

The smell of peppermint wafted around me. I felt sick and had an intense desire to visit the toilet.

‘Nice jacket you’re wearing.’

It was. Leather. Cost more than I could afford. Was that his next target? He’d have to get me to stop. My head was a mess of possibilities. Maybe he’d want my handbag; that was expensive. It was on the back seat, next to my overnight bag. Easy game when he reached for his coat. I’d got around £30 in my purse but there were credit cards, too. Where had I put my phone?

‘Don’t know where I’m staying tonight. Got mates scattered about. Can usually find a sofa somewhere.’ He reached across and placed his hand on my arm. I jumped and jarred my neck as I pulled away from him, zig-zagging into the middle lane. The driver behind me sounded his horn, pulled out and mouthed something, his face distorted by the rain. I made out two fingers as he went past.

‘Hang on! That was just a friendly pat. Wondered if you have a spare bed? Or a sofa? Even a floor and a blanket?’

‘No, No!’ I screamed at him. I’d found my voice. ‘What a cheek you have! How dare you accept a lift from me, then terrorise me? Pretending violence to frighten me. Boasting about your exploits so I’d feel like a victim. Well, it won’t work!’

My anger seemed to please him. He slid down the seat, put his head back and closed his eyes. He started to whistle, a song I half recognised. I turned on the radio to drown him out. It was an orchestral piece, something soothing and quiet. No use.

He took one of his sharpened pencils and a small notebook and started to write.

‘Tell me how you feel.’

‘Shut up,’ I replied.

‘I’m serious. Tell me. I suspect you’re scared. I know you regret giving me a lift. But you’ve got me, at least for the next half hour, so we may as well talk.’

What choice did I have?

‘Okay.’  I hesitated. ‘I’m mad at myself for being stupid.’

‘Kindness is not stupidity. You stopped to help a sodden young man get to his destination.’

‘Not thinking straight is stupid.’

‘So think now. What do you think of me?’

Anything true might spur him to violence; anything bland might annoy him so much it would have a similar outcome.

‘I don’t approve of stealing.’

‘I don’t either.’

‘You shouldn’t flash a penknife around.’

‘You’re right. It’s not up to the task. My Swiss army knife is better.’ He produced it from the bag and slowly opened one of the blades. I could feel tears starting to run down my face. My bladder was bursting.

‘This is good. Handy when camping. All sorts of useful gadgets on it. You should get one. Ask Father Christmas.’ He proceeded to clean his nails with the blade.

I wiped my hand across my face and sniffed. There were tissues in the glove box but I couldn’t ask for them. I’d remembered my phone was in there.

‘I don’t suppose you smoke?’

‘No. And no-one smokes in my car.’

‘I have something more interesting than tobacco.’

‘I said no.’

‘How about sex?’

‘What?’ This was worse than the knife. My sweaty hands slipped on the steering wheel and I could feel my dress clinging to my damp legs. I hoped I looked as repulsive as I felt.

‘Thought that might be an interesting topic to chat about. Just trying to fill the time. Do you enjoy it? Are you still single? Many partners?  Always fascinating to compare experiences.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Perhaps I should start the ball rolling.  I’ve got through a few. Not in the Russell Brand League but I like variety. Won’t go into the details. Would hate to embarrass you! It would embarrass you, wouldn’t it? You’ll be glad to know I disapprove of rape.’

Then why mention it? Why talk about sex at all?

‘I have to stop. I need the toilet.’

‘Okay, no problem. Next services.’

Ten minutes later, I’d pulled off the motorway and parked in a well-lit spot, close to the shops. Next to another car. There were people around. I had to make him get out of the car. I wasn’t leaving him to rummage, to help himself. Maybe I could be quick, get back to the car before him and leave.

‘I could call the police, you know.’ Courage came with the proximity of help.

‘The police? Why? What are you charging me with? Aggressive sharpening of my pencils? Cleaning my nails with a blade? Don’t think there’s a law banning cheeky conversations and the odd lie.’

He was right. He undid his seat belt and turned to face me, examining me closely. I shrank into my seat. Then he smiled, a genuine smile, not derisive or sarcastic.

‘I’m Jack, by the way.’ His voice was softer. He paused. ‘I’m not a scrounger or a thief. The earrings aren’t stolen. I bought them as a gift and they’re not gold, anyway. I don’t normally threaten people or lead them to think that’s what I’m doing. In fact, I never hitch-hike.

‘I’m a crime writer. I’m looking for inspiration, doing some research. My next book is about a psychologically disturbed guy who hitches a lift and then finds himself caught up with crooks.  So I need real-life info. I need to know how people react to different situations, real people, proper responses. I take notes in pencil in my note book. I have somewhere to stay tonight – my own home. I’m not sex-mad nor do I use drugs.’ He grinned, still enjoying my discomfort.

‘Perhaps you don’t believe me. That’s up to you.  It was useful. Thanks.’

He put his boots on, took his coat and left, head bent against the rain. After a few paces, he turned and waved. As I got out of the car to find the loo, a coffee and sanity, I saw him standing by the slip-road with his thumb out, waiting for his next inspiration.

***

This story is short-listed in the Hysteria writing competition, run by the Hysterectomy Association and will be published in an anthology which includes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Overall winners  to be announced end November/beginning December 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B is for Bragging

Six of us, travellers in France, thrown together at a guesthouse. It turned out Alice and Alec lived ten miles from Brenda and Bob. The ‘A’ and the ‘B’ team; we two were alphabetical and geographical misfits.

‘My God! We’re practically neighbours! You don’t sail, do you?’ Alex bellowed.

‘Actually, yes. Have a 38 footer.’

‘Mmm, our boat is smaller. But we do have a second one, a clinker-built job.’

Bob changed tack. ‘Damned good food at the boathouse.’

‘We prefer our local gastro-pub. The one with a Michelin star.’

Brenda jumped in. ‘I dislike sailing. I renovate our lovely old house with its half-acre of land.’

‘Land? Into gardening?’ Alice’s eyes sparkled. ‘I grow all our veg now I’ve retired from Harley Street. Must use our acre.’

The ‘B’ team preferred to buy local organic produce.

Touché.

‘We’re joining our son in Provence.’ Brenda continued. ‘He needs a break – such a stressful job. He’s a partner in a large law firm.’

‘Really?’ Alice grew two inches. ‘Our son is a hedge fund manager in the City. Earns millions – but I shouldn’t mention that!’

‘Being a Harley Street doctor entitles you to boast.’

Alice had a fit of coughing. Her husband explained she had been secretary to a consultant oncologist.

In the fidgeting break in conversation, I mentioned our next stop was the ancestral home of Josephine de Beauharnais.

‘Before she married Napoleon.’ Nobody seemed interested. ‘So it’s an early night. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.’

‘Who knows? Perhaps at that Beauharnais place, eh?’ Loud, dismissive guffaws.

‘Well, it’s possible. The place is for sale and we’re putting in a bid.’

Four pairs of eyes fixed on me; smiles vanished.

We left the room and waited. Silence. Then four clamouring voices.

Sometimes you have to lie.

Honfleur – end of the Grand Tour

We ran from Monet to Baudelaire. Then on to a French king, a scientist, a novelist. Rain pelted us with giant spots as the squall passed through the Parc des Personalités. Puffs of grey and white cloud, blown up from nowhere, blocked the sunshine. It had been a bright day but now we were seeking shelter. Then minutes later, the sun was out again.

This was Honfleur. Artists used to come here for the inspiration it gave them and the particular light found in this port on the north coast of France where the Seine meets the sea. We came to see the steep, cobbled streets and the squashed, crooked houses along the quayside, sometimes eight times as high as they are wide. The Quartier St Leonard was previously the artists’ area and is still full of ateliers and shops selling paintings and sculptures. There is a school of Graphic Art. It is also the place to stay and our ‘Chambre d’Hôte’ was an eclectic place full of the quirky and unusual, a metal dragonfly on our wall, embroidered lace slips on our pillows. Plus a delicious breakfast.

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Houses along the Seine at Honfleur

Food was a theme and we were spoiled by the variety of seafood. Unfortunately, my husband won’t eat creatures that live in shells so the magnificent platters were banned in favour of fresh fish. We ate at the delightfully named ‘Absynthe’, perhaps a reflection of the drinking habits of the bohemians who visited Honfleur in the past. I didn’t spot the spirit on the drinks list!

Drink is important with both Calvados and Normandy cider on sale everywhere. We learned that an eight year old Calvados is still ‘young’ – rough fire-water to burn the throat. If you can afford to buy a twenty-five year old bottle, that’s a taste worth savouring. We also learned something about cider, that ‘sec’ is drier than ‘brut’ and that it will keep about a year (although possibly not in our hands).

Near the elegant Hôtel de Ville was a permanently sited carousel. I usually dislike these tacky entertainments but this one from 1900 was two-tiered and immaculate. There was a constant stream of riders keen to mount the horses rising and falling to appropriately muted fairground music. This was typical of Honfleur. It seems to have avoided the ‘tat’ that seaside towns everywhere adore. Even the second-hand market on Sunday morning had a classy air about it. Sure there are tourists and the English make up many but it is also a resort for the French. It is a comfortable place where huge pleasure comes from sitting in a street café, drinking coffee or something stronger and watching the activities of passers-by.

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Interesting street art

We were drawn to the Musée Eugène Boudin to see the impressionist paintings. It wasn’t just good weather that had attracted artists to Honfleur. It was captured in all its moods and colours. Brilliant sunshine to grey, stormy skies – much as we had seen and enjoyed it. We understood the inspiration.