Library Night

I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.

Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.

And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.

I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.

I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.

I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.

Pulled Pork Baguette with a Side of Grief

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Fearful of mutiny by an angry mob of Striders, I thought it best to reconnoitre the walk route on my own, without pressure, so I could make my mistakes unobserved.  And I had made one or two, but managed to recover and regain the route before long.  So I arrived at the Cherry Tree, nestling in rural Oxfordshire, in good spirits.  I bought a pint, ordered my food and confirmed with the barmaid that the pub would be able to accommodate about twelve hungry and thirsty walkers of a certain age on a Monday lunchtime, subject to reasonable notice.

I chose a small table by the wall, sat down with my drink and fiddled with my phone while I waited for the food.  I was feeling quite contented, but perhaps I appeared lonely: a woman approached the table and addressed me.

“Would you mind if I joined you?  It’s rather better than eating on one’s own.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her: I’ve always been comfortable in my own company, and after a morning of walking, with occasionally stressful navigation, I wasn’t in the mood for making the effort to be sociable.  But she was no drunk or weirdo – a well dressed woman in her fifties: it would have been rude to turn her away.

She introduced herself as Clare, rather formally shook hands and sat opposite me at the small table.  We were too close not to talk, and I assumed that she wanted to converse rather than sit in silence.  So we exchanged small talk.  My food arrived before hers, and she gestured me not to wait, so she was doing more of the talking.

She was partner in a firm of accountants in London and she had taken the day off.  She mentioned that her husband was a partner in the same firm, who commanded a huge daily charge out rate.  When the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather, I mentioned that it had been one of those rare summers when I wished we had a swimming pool.  She responded that she couldn’t say that, as they had one at home.

In a wide ranging and superficial conversation we agreed that Lord Carrington had been a gentleman, and that Boris Johnson certainly was not, we discussed our respective careers, and then she asked me if I had any children.  So I prattled happily about our older daughter, smart, diligent, funny, analytical, and our younger daughter, a small force for chaos, art student and singer in a band.  Eventually it was time to return the question.  I was about to step on a mine.

“And you?  Do you have children?”

“I had two of my own.  A son and a daughter.  And a stepson.  My daughter died in a road accident in July.”

“I…oh God…you mean last month?”  She nodded.

“She was 26.  She was driving home from work on a country lane and a truck came round a corner on the wrong side of the road.  She died immediately.”

I floundered at the enormity and horror of what she had just told me, and feebly attempted a few words of sympathy.  She continued.

“She was six months pregnant.  The baby would have been my first grandchild.”

So far she had been composed, but was now making an effort to hold the tears back.  I continued to mutter platitudes and shift in my seat.  After a few minutes we had both finished our meal and I wished her well and we said an awkward goodbye.

I resumed my walk, once again getting gently lost in the west Chilterns, reflecting on her courage in exposing her grief to a stranger in the pub, and hoping she found it somehow therapeutic.  And I thought of some things I could have said which might have been more helpful.  And Clare went home, I hope, to continue her slow healing process.  One day at a time.

No Dragon Wood

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It started off as one of those little jokes, those tricks so many parents play on their children to try to persuade them to take a little exercise.

After roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Nana and Grandad, and once the dishwasher was happily chugging away, we tried a strategy to get our little darlings tired out by bedtime.

“Who wants to explore No Dragon Wood?”

Rachel and Alice cried out in enthusiasm, tempted, as we hoped, by the exotic promise of the name. So we set off, and it was only when we reached the wood that Rachel thought to ask us –

“Why’s it called No Dragon Wood?”

“Because there are no dragons here.”

She mulled this for a few seconds, and I sensed she was considering a complaint. But the logic in my answer persuaded her, and by now she was enjoying the outing. She giggled and carried on walking.

Of course a trick like that works just once, but as the girls grew older they discovered for themselves that a walk in the country could be enjoyed, and the route through No Dragon Wood – which continued to be shown on maps with the less romantic name of Bottom Wood – was a frequently chosen option.

There may have been no dragons, but I felt sometimes there was magic of a kind there. It nestled close by the M25, and the roar of that mighty motorway was ever present, louder still in winter. Perhaps this discouraged other visitors, but for me the place had an eye-of-the-storm peace. And there were very few houses nearby, putting it out of reach of all but the most energetic dog walkers. This meant that if one of these more energetic walkers, to give a random example, had a mind to sing loudly as he walked his Labrador through the wood, he could be fairly confident that none but the dog would notice. It was rare to meet another human there.

And perhaps the path through the wood once followed a regular course, but it was rarely maintained, relying on the few feet that walked there to improvise new routes around the many fallen trees. So it now wound its way up through the woods in drunken swirls, with moss-covered logs frequently strewn across.

Alice even used it for an art project, writing stories and making strange videos based on No Dragon Wood. It had become embedded in family mythology. So when one day I saw that the battered old stile had been replaced by a smart new metal kissing gate, I sensed an opportunity.

I sought out the fellow who administered the Chiltern Society’s Donate-a-Gate scheme, to ask whether a plaque with some appropriate wording could be attached to the new gate. I explained the story, and suggested that a more whimsical inscription might make a change from the many sombre benches and gates in memory of much missed Grandma, who loved to walk in these woods. He was very helpful, and gave me the good news that although his scheme was focused on central Buckinghamshire, and the gate was actually a short distance into Hertfordshire, the Society was on this occasion prepared to make an exception and take my money.

I consulted the family on the wording, and Rachel came up with an extra line – “No dragon related incidents since 1415” – a phrase heavy with its unanswered question, and which hinted at the impossibility of proving the negative.

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And the plaque was duly installed and celebrated. We have walked through that gate many times in the last few years, congratulating ourselves on our little joke.

But this evening my wife and I are on the M25, heading home after a short break on the south coast, and we run into stationary traffic: we are being diverted off the motorway one junction short of our destination. As we inch towards the exit, we can see armed police by the roadside, police helicopters, huge military helicopters, and in the distance, just to the left of the motorway, a huge plume of smoke rising into the air.

 

From Chorleywood, take the track beside the Stag pub and turn left along the path at the back of Heronsgate: when you reach the field adjoining the M25 walk diagonally downhill to the stile at the edge of the woods.  From Mill End follow Long Lane and take the path on the left across a field, leading under Denham Way and up to the M25 footbridge: then follow the path diagonally left down to the stile.  From Maple Cross use Chalfont Road or walk through Woodoaks Farm to the M25 footbridge.  Fire extinguishers optional.

Colin

boys in line

My primary school was near the middle of town: a Victorian building, surrounded by tarmac playgrounds, bounded by black iron railings. Boys would play in one part, girls and infants in the other. I remember it vividly. I went to look at it recently when I was in town: since 1967 nothing has changed, it’s still the same, even the light blue paint trying to brighten up the doors and windows.

There was a boy called Tony. A friendly lad, and bright enough that he was in 3a rather than 3b. He had a speech impediment, although he could always make himself understood. He also had an incontinence problem, which resulted in his wetting himself in lessons from time to time.

He was a playground buddy, and when we tired of kicking a sock-ball around the playground, Tony and I would join with a boy called Colin and the three of us would run around playing ‘it’ or some other game of our own invention.

At the end of break, or playtime as it was called, a teacher would come out and blow a whistle: the boys were supposed to form into orderly lines ready to file back into class. One day, Tony was standing close to the front. The boy standing behind him, who was called Carl, decided it would be funny to hold his nose (although Tony was dry) and take himself to the back of the queue. The next in line was a crony of Carl’s, and did the same.

One by one, as they came up behind Tony, the boys peeled off. I had started about ten places behind him, but rapidly moved up the queue. Soon it was my turn.

I went to the back.

Colin had been one place behind me. Now he stood behind Tony. There were jeers.

“Are you a bed wetter too, Colin?”

Colin’s face turned bright red, but he stayed there, and at last we filed into class.

* * * * *

Recently I discovered that Colin and his wife were running a small B&B in the West Country: as we were planning a holiday in Cornwall anyway, we booked a couple of nights there. It was a lovely place, and after fifty years Colin’s character was just as I remembered it. When we were leaving, I asked my wife to take a picture of the two of us. Looking at it later, it struck me how contented he looked – happy in his own skin, a good man.

The Fisherman’s Girl

Seahouses cottage

The Isle of Mull is a long way from London, so Jennifer suggested we could break our journey home in the north east of England, a neglected but beautiful corner.  There is the dramatic coastal scenery, spectacular castles at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, and you can take the one and only Billy Shiel’s boat trips out to see the puffins and other bird life on the Farne Islands.  There are also beautiful beaches, although you might not wish to linger too long in the water.  If the kids are happy, they say, the grown-ups have a chance.

So we had booked a holiday cottage in Seahouses, a couple of streets back from the sea, and now we made a detour to pick up the key from the owner. Mrs McCready was a kindly but rather worried looking lady in her sixties, and I sensed her quietly observing our daughters as she handed over the keys.  At last we approached the cottage through tiny streets never intended for SUVs.  We squeezed the car into its space, and Rebecca and Charlotte leapt out to explore while I fumbled with the keys.  Once inside, Jennifer made the tea, put the welcome pack cookies on a plate and started working out a shopping list, while I brought the luggage in and the girls tore screaming up and down the narrow stone stairs.  It had been two fisherman’s cottages, converted into a holiday let as far as the architecture would allow.  Some of the rooms were cramped, but it was a charming place.

The weather was kind to us – not exactly warm, but mostly dry with plenty of sun.  Towards the end of the week Rebecca’s school friend Constance came to join us for a couple of days, and we picked her up at Newcastle station – after we had taken a wrong turn and spent some stressful minutes stuck in a bus lane.  Then we drove to a section of Hadrian’s Wall, and had a rather chilly picnic.

It was an agreeable week of castle visits, clifftop walks, cricket on the beach, fish and chips…and the girls spent many happy hours pottering on the wide, rocky foreshore at low tide.

On Friday – our last whole day of holiday – when we had just sat down for breakfast, we heard a commotion from the seagulls outside.  We left the table for a while to watch them swooping, diving and squawking, and agreed that something must have agitated them.  When we sat at the table again, Charlotte was staring at her cereal bowl looking confused.

“What…I…?”

“What is it darling?”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any milk on my Shreddies.”  She continued to stare at the bowl, and raised a hand to pull at her curly blonde hair.  There goes Cartoon Charlotte, I thought, always having her little dramas and adventures.

“Don’t be silly darling, how else did it get there?”

She said nothing and looked at the milk bottle.  Then gave a little shrug of acceptance, but seemed subdued while she ate her cereal.

 

Saturday morning arrived, and we squeezed five people and suitcases full of unused clothes into the car.  There were no parking places near Mrs McCready’s flat, so I left Jennifer at the wheel while I went in to drop off the keys.

“Was everything all right for you?” There was something anxious in her tone.

“Yes thanks, it’s a lovely little cottage.  I should mention, though, we broke a wine glass.”  I proffered a five pound note.

Mrs McCready waved it away.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, they’re only cheap ones.  But, tell me, did anything unusual happen while you were staying there?”

“Unusual?  I don’t think so, no.”

“Oh good.  It’s just that…there have been a few incidents over the years.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a story about a girl who lived there in the 1820s. Quite a sad story.”

“Really?”  I tried to sound interested, but couldn’t stop myself glancing back at the door.  We had a long journey ahead, and Jennifer would be getting impatient.  But the lady wanted to tell her story.

“She lived in the lower cottage, which she had inherited. She got herself pregnant by a young lad who went out in the fishing boats.  Her parents were dead, and there was no-one else who would help her.”

“But the young fisherman stood by her, and promised to marry her.  But three days before the wedding was due, his boat was lost in a storm.”

Mrs McCready paused and looked out to sea, as if expecting the boat to return.

“The girl managed to have her baby.  But she had no help, and the boy’s family would have nothing to do with her.  It was winter, she was nearly starving, and she couldn’t feed her baby properly.  The poor scrap didn’t last a week.  The girl was found washed up on the beach, with the baby wrapped inside her coat.”   She stopped and seemed to be waiting for a reaction.

“Oh dear, that’s dreadful!  Did you say there have been…incidents?”

“More stories and rumours, really.  But there’s a kind of tradition that she still visits her cottage sometimes.”

“No!  She doesn’t sound like the chain-rattling type.”

“Not at all.  The story goes that once every few years she comes into her old kitchen, and makes sure the children have enough milk to drink.  The poor sweet girl.”

 

“What took you so long?” said Jennifer as I got back into the car.  She looked over at me before starting the ignition.  “Are you all right?  You look a little pale.”

“It’s nothing.  She just wanted a chat.  Let’s go home.”