A is for Agatha

I’m a collector of Agathas.

I met my first, an elderly lady, when we were stranded by snow at Chicago airport. My business ticket gained me a hotel room. She tagged along and although her economy ticket (not cheap, she protested, she’d saved a year for it) won her nothing, she ended up as my companion. I took her to dinner, then breakfast and escorted her back to England. I thought I’d have to take her home as no-one met her but a steward took pity on us both.

The next was in New Zealand.  She drowned me in information at a Bed and Breakfast. ‘Call me Aggie,’ she said but as I barely uttered a word, I had no occasion to call her anything. ‘So lovely to chat. So interesting.’ My husband had quietly disappeared, insisting I was better than he with overwhelming women.

The Agatha syndrome struck again in Madeira. We were having a pre-dinner drink when a dowdy couple came into the hotel lounge. Being Brits, we’d spread out to avoid the invisible barriers we’d all erected around ourselves. I nodded towards the newcomers and she shuffled delightedly towards me. I heard about her purchases, her favourite designers and saw her new shoes. When I said I was dreadful at buying clothes, she offered to take me in hand; and, by the way, her name was Agatha. I never found time to shop with her.

The following evening we went to a concert. The loud enthusiast beside me told me it was her eighth visit to the island and she always attended this event. I could have left immediately, I learned so much about it. Afterwards, her husband said, ‘Good as ever, Jean.’

Jean? Had I misheard? She had to be called Agatha.


This was published in the Mar/Apr/May issue of Mslexia


The Curse of the Sprout


It was the first and only time we’d taken a sprout skiing.

Why? Well, there’s a story.

It was a clear, sunny day and as we tightened our boot clips at the top of the Pas du Lac ski lift before descending into Courchevel, I heard laughter. Looking around, the cause was obvious. Three ‘ladies’ were entertaining the crowd. Dressed in flowery dresses and coats, headscarves tied tightly over fluffy hair, they clasped their handbags and adjusted their sunglasses. They preened themselves and stretched their lipsticked mouths.

‘Going to the post-office to collect our pensions.’

‘Do you know where the post-office is?’

Then some advice. ‘You take care. Make the most of being young!’

One of them handed a card to Siân: ‘The skiing Nana’s’ (with unnecessary apostrophe – author’s note).

Their repartee was well-practised in a (pseudo?) Brummie accent. These ‘Nanas’ have a strong Facebook following, where their odd underwear and odder anatomical parts are on display.  They cavort around the ski resorts for no obvious reason other than amusement.

As they prepared to set off on their short skis (the sort that need no ski poles; poles would clearly get in the way of the handbags), one of them handed something that looked like an old-fashioned gobstopper to Siân.

‘Have a sweet, dear.’

Ten minutes later, on an almost empty slope, a wild skier decided he needed Siân’s bit of piste, falling over and causing her to fall, too.  Siân never falls. She hurt her hand, not seriously, but she is a pianist.

We headed for a drink at a local chalet and Siân put a sprout on the table. We looked at her and stared at it. What kind of fetish was this?  It was the ‘sweet’ from one of the Nanas.  Well-formed, a tight little bundle, it was a sweet sprout. It accompanied us for the rest of the day.

When Siân fell getting off a chair-lift, a bruising fall, we began to think something was up. Was this the curse of the sprout? We were worried about a third fall – not that we are superstitious – so stopped for a vin chaud to calm our nerves. The sprout sat on the table again, greenly giving us the evil eye.

That evening, we decided there needed to be a ceremonial discarding of the sprout. One day was enough. We hoped it took its curse with it. The following day, Peter, Siân’s husband, was hit by a snowboarder. The third event – or did he have sprout remains in his pocket? Who knows?

The moral is – don’t accept sweets from strange ladies!


Taking our skis for a walk

Méribel Mottaret, January 2016IMG_3622

It wasn’t a day for going out on the slopes. Wind, heavy snowfall, mist – more the conditions for reading a book than being outdoors.  Then the wind dropped, the snowflakes became smaller and visibility increased. So we decided to dig out our cross-country skis.

For those who know little about this sport, it belongs to a different world from alpine skiing. The skis are light and long, have no steel edges and were developed in Norway to torture other nations. The bindings fasten to the toe of the flexible boot and the heel is free which means the skier, unless of Norwegian extraction, has little control.

We learned this type of skiing when we lived in Norway years ago and while never experts, became competent. However, like a little-used language, such skills wane with time. We have our own kit in France but we had not used it for years. No problem, we thought. We set out for a nearby cross-country area. The radio had reported the trails were groomed and there is nothing like a well-prepared track. It holds the ski in a straight line and makes the required stride-and-glide motion easy.

There was some old wax on the bases of the skis from the last time we used them. Waxes are specific to temperature and we had no idea what the conditions were at the last outing. Ski-waxing is a black art – in our case, more a dirty grey one – and many hours can be spent getting it right.

‘Let’s just go with what’s on there,’ Tony said. It was the easy option.

Fifteen minutes later, we were still trying to get our boots to attach to the bindings, partially seized up with lack of use. I succeeded but then had to remove my skis to help Tony who was struggling. When kneeling beside him pushing his foot down failed, I tried standing on the toe of his boot. This finally worked and he was shod. Putting my own skis back on was more difficult the second time and while I was trying, our Dutch neighbours walked by. We’d see them on cross-country skis a couple of days earlier and had smiled to ourselves – not mocked, just smiled – at their wobbles, lack of speed and minimal expertise. After all, hills and the Dutch are not normally associated. It was now their turn as they grinned and walked on by.

Finally, we were ready. We had a small hill to go up and that was no problem. We had plenty of grip – the wax was great. However, once on the flat we realised we had both grown. The snow was building up under our skis to a depth of around 3cm. Platform shoes were once a fashion statement. Skis are not fashion items. Clearly we had the wrong wax – one for warmer conditions – and could barely plod let alone glide. To make things worse, the perfect tracks we’d been hoping for had filled up with new snow and were little more than indentations. Skis off and scraper out. We removed as much of the grey sticky stuff as possible and gave the skis a rub with a special cork block.

Suffice to say putting the skis back on was no easier the second time. Our Dutch friends waved cheerily to us. They saw us only when we were stationary.  Our efforts gained us a marginal increase in speed but not enough so we had to go round the same wretched procedure again. The air was turning blue. At the third time of trying we made progress. I had some glide – more than Tony, which did not help matters. Our outing lasted two hours; we skied for around thirty minutes.

All was not bad, however. There were some positives:

  • We didn’t fall over
  • We used plenty of energy – mostly nervous – and got some exercise
  • We gave all our best swear words an outing
  • We thought better of our Dutch friends
  • Our skiing could only improve

Although maybe we’d have been more sensible if we’d simply read a book.

Riga on a Whim

My ears tingled for the forgotten hat; my feet cushioned the cold and the cobbles in my warm boots. It was winter in autumn colours.

We’d gone to Latvia’s capital, Riga, on a whim. No planning, no weeks of anticipation. Sometimes that’s the best way. We stayed in the old town, a compact area where it was easy to walk everywhere, chasing the narrow strips of sunlight between the tall buildings for a few warm rays. We sought out the ornate Blackheads House on the town square, wrought-iron tracery on its roof like Christmas trees, a legacy from the past. We wondered at its name – a reference, it seems, to an old symbol of a blackamoor’s head rather than a skin disease. Then the Three Brothers, wobbly, tall houses, centuries old. No shortage of places to point the camera.

Riga is a patchwork of designs and cultures, a city of churches and open spaces, designer shops and craft markets. In spite of its troubled past with occupation by Swedes, Russians and Germans, it has a comfortable feel. We heard Latvian and Russian in almost equal measure; maybe the enmity of the two nations is fading. And we were often welcomed in English. A friendly place where a beggar – there weren’t many – showed us the way into a church.

We ate well. Local food was hearty rather than haute cuisine. Riga’s famous Black Balzam drink tasted better than the guide book told us although a late afternoon glϋhwein in one of the quirky bars slipped down more easily. Early evening was picturesque, the gentle light glinting off the copper domes of the churches, cockerel weather vanes piercing the blue sky.

The city woke late. We wandered the early streets, discovering the squares and parks where golden cascades fell onto neat lawns to be raked industriously into mounds, a child’s delight. It felt safe; a minimal, kindly police presence, pairs of officers with truncheons but no firearms we could see. Soldiers guarded the freedom monument, against what we don’t know, and marched ceremoniously in front of it. By late morning, there was a bustle to the place which continued late into the night. As darkness arrived so did the music. Sounds of Elvis from a live band in a restaurant, street entertainers of all kinds: accordion players, saxophonists, a talented opera singer, an ancient woman playing a more ancient zither, her high-pitched tremolo vibrating the air. All earning our small change in this city of modern cars, smart trams and trolley buses.

Another day we left the old town behind to visit the Art Nouveau area. Here there are wide boulevards, magnificent well-restored buildings and an air of affluence. Our necks became stiff from gazing upwards. The Russian Orthodox cathedral was a gold assault on our senses, gaspingly ornate, in perfect condition. Too many museums to visit in our three-day stay. But we came away knowing more than when we arrived.

Going away on a whim is good.

Cheesy – or what?

I am addicted. Not to anything as commonplace as cocaine or Facebook. My problem is cheese. It is a life-long problem and, I have to admit, not one I want to resolve. If I think of the edible pleasures in life – chocolate, wine, fresh bread – I could give any of them up before I could abandon cheese. A fridge devoid of cheese sends me into a panic.

I’m aware, of course, of the dangers: high cholesterol, many calories. So I suffer low fat cream cheese, even like it. But there have to be treats. Proper, strong cheddar that makes your mouth tingle; creamy, unctuous blue whose taste lingers long after it has been swallowed; aged Red Leicester that fills your mouth with flavour.  I could go on like a magazine article.

Actually, that not far from the truth. I recently pitched an article to ‘Berkshire Life’ on local cheeses and had it accepted for the December issue. A special cheeseboard and Christmas go together. It was an excellent idea for a cheese addict – not only did I visit several artisan cheesemakers and learn about their processes, I met some fascinating people and tasted some delicious cheese. I came away with free samples! My husband who once claimed, many years ago, he didn’t eat cheese, came along as an enthusiastic photographer (and fellow taster – I think the tastings persuaded him into photography!)

Cheese attracts interesting and varied folk. I interviewed an ex-microbiologist (good background for cheese-making) and a Baron, a guy whose distant ancestor was a general in Napoleon’s army. For many artisan cheese makers, it’s a second career – one that seems to be as addictive as eating it is for me. They all search for the next refinement in taste whether it is a rival for stilton or an exotic truffle-flavoured creamy white cheese using cows’ or sheep’s milk. I was happy to assess their efforts.

I shall have to stop torturing myself – writing about cheese is not enough. I can feel the call of the fridge. Now what will it be? A piece of Barkham Blue? A nugget of mature cheddar? I salivate at the thought….


Brain Power

Winning article in the Scribble ‘Why I write’ competition:

I like words. There are loads in my head. I like the way they cascade onto the page. Sometimes a boulder blocks them and has to be removed by a glass of wine or two.

Or a run in the park. Or simply by a sleepless night, spent thinking.

I like the way words follow each other and inadvertently sometimes they rhymes.

I like the colour of adjectives: the noisy purple ones, the whispered cream ones, the silent white ones. And active verbs transitively being and doing, and living and dying. And rhyming. Again. I like solid Proper Nouns, upright citizens, not messing frivolously and promiscuously with adverbs.

I feel tactile words, smooth, bumpy, velvety. Especially velvety. Sensory onomatopoeia. And joyous words and melancholic ones. The sadness of tragedy. And greetings and partings. Adieu, adieu. And beginnings and endings. He arrived and then left forever. I like the control I have over them. I can choose whichever I want and put them in any order. Well, not any order. I like to write proper English.

Then there’s the sentence, coming to a full stop. Actually I prefer the semi-colon, more subtle in its pausing. I touched him; he touched me.  I like the satisfaction of a phrase well said, the feeling that the whole is far better than the sum of its parts. A good, solid wall is more than a collection of bricks. Of course, they don’t all have to be my own work. I like the thrill of reading something by a master of the art, soaking up the nuances and the expressions, storing them away, hoping I’ll be able to adapt them to my own style and so improve my writing.

And I mustn’t forget correct punctuation. Not just the fun of ‘eats shoots and leaves’ but the creation of a shape. Punctuation marks are the clothes pegs on which good writing hangs. Yes, I have been accused of being nit-picky but I can live with that for the joy of seeing a properly used apostrophe. And should there be single or double inverted commas? What about dashes or parentheses? I envy the Spanish with their inverted question mark or exclamation mark at the beginning of a sentence as well as at the end. How sensible is that? Or should I say, ‘How sensible that is!’ It all depends on whether I want an exclamation mark or not, a precious tool, not to be used to excess.

I love writing at my lap-top. I like being able to shuffle my work around without the eventual, inevitable illegibility of the paper and pencil. There is nothing more annoying than not being able to read what you have written. Good or bad, you can’t improve it if you don’t know what it says. And writing better is what it’s all about. I look back at pieces written months, years ago and realise I am writing differently now. And I hope the difference is an improvement. Practice makes perfect – whoops! Must avoid the cliché! Writing must be original; there are enough word combinations without resorting to hackneyed phrases.

Sometimes the loud words shout at me. Noisy thunder in my head telling me it’s time to get creative. A commotion, a din, a roar.  I’m most impressed when it’s a hullabaloo.  Or, if this doesn’t work, the persuasive ones mutter discreetly that I’m wasting my time on trifles and need to knuckle down. A gentle murmur. What a lovely word that is – murmur. I must try to use it more often. Occasionally, I’ll invent a word but there has to be a good reason. There are so many words already.

I have some special words. I like them simply because I like them, the feel of them on my tongue, the sounds they make when read aloud and maybe the images they conjure up: twilight, languor, euphemism. Putting them in a piece of writing can be a challenge and maybe I like them because they are rare. Delicious words are easy to use; who doesn’t revel in gorgeous, exquisite magnificence? I like horrible words, too. Repugnance and malevolence sound repugnant and malevolent, just as they should.

Words are tools; full stops and commas are helpers. Writing is putting them together in a private, imaginative world where anything can happen. It’s the work of my mind, something original, something that has never been said before. Sounds grandiose but it’s true. Writing allows me to be unique, maybe clumsily, maybe ineptly, but unique. I experience an addictive, adrenaline rush. It’s a pleasure only a writer knows. I know it. I know it especially late at night – my best writing time. I get lost in my own world, sitting at my desk with the curtains open, the silent darkness outside shielding me from interruptions, my notes and scribbles beside my laptop, a collection of pencils and pens in an old coffee mug next to my files and books. I don’t notice the minutes or hours. I don’t eat. I don’t hear ‘Isn’t it time you came to bed?’

That is when the noisy and the peaceful, the delightful and the rude words cooperate: nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs working actively and passively, pushed along by commas and colons. They form phrases, link into sentences, divide into paragraphs. Then they recruit their friends: metaphors and similes, irony and bathos and provoke me into using them. Characters emerge and start to talk to me. They can be hard to tame, willful and insistent on having their own way. They twist my plots and sub-plots. Eventually, I create a story or maybe we create it together. Perhaps I’ll get it published; perhaps I won’t. It will take many more sessions before it’s ready to go anywhere. But that’s the joy of it. I continue to write in my head long after I’ve shut down the laptop. It’s a recipe for insomnia. I’ll pay for it the following day.

So why do I write? Well, I need to do something with all these insistent words in my head, fighting to get out!

On Stubbornness

…as a mule, goes the saying.  Inflexible, pig-headed, obstinate, a failing in one’s character. Not a compliment. On the other hand, there is sticking-power, resilience, never giving up.  Now those are more positive.

We are a family of stubborn people. If we believe in genetics, it’s mostly my fault.

When my daughter, Anna, was nine, she and I had huge rows about piano practice. She would play her piece once and claimed she was done for the week. I remember screaming at her, ‘If you’re this bad now, what will you be like as a teenager?’ (Actually, much better – her teenage angst came early). We called her stubborn but recognised that one day we would call it strength of character. We do.

Stubbornness leads to the desire for high standards, not to accept second best.  My husband, Tony, is now adept at intercepting burned cakes as they head for then rubbish bin and pans of lumpy custard about to be thrown across the kitchen. (He hates waste, especially where puddings are concerned.) Actually, I don’t need to do everything well. I’m happy to be a poor cyclist and accept I have no sense of direction. But where it matters, it matters.

I have to win at Scrabble. I am a terrible loser. A series of losses (and I admit, they happen) sends me into a serious decline. But I stick at it.

Recently, my ‘resilience’ was tested. Tony and I walked half of the ‘Coast to Coast’ path, from St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen. (We’ll complete it next year.)  On the second day, I had a bad fall. I toppled backwards, knocked Tony over and we both rolled off the path for a couple of metres, stopping just short of a stream. It could have been thirty metres and I would not now be telling the story, stubborn or not. I hit my left knee on some rocks but I could walk so nothing was broken. As the pain increased and the knee swelled and stiffened, I realised I was in trouble. The remainder of the day is a blur. This was Day 2 of 7. A long-planned adventure we both wanted to complete. I could not let either of us down and I knew that if I gave up, Tony wouldn’t continue.

My knee was bruised and double its usual size. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and paracetamol and plastered the knee with pain-killing gel.  Stairs were difficult but I was still moving the following morning. Armed with my medications and a hefty dose of bloody-mindedness, I carried on.

By the end of the week, my leg was purple from mid-thigh to my toes. But that only increased the sense of elation when we reached our goal. As we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, I toasted stubbornness.

One last thought on the subject: while I know the stubborn traits in my family – the children and possibly grandchildren ­– may be due to me, I am not totally responsible. Perhaps stubborn people marry equally stubborn partners. I say no more.