The wall

“Contenders! You will go on my first whistle. Gladiators! You will go on my second whistle. 3, 2, 1, whew!”

And so starts the game of The Wall. Two hopeful fitness fanatics attempting to scale a 36′ wall while two barely dressed Gladiators try their hardest to thwart their efforts; once the hair flicking and posing and fighting talk has finished.

It’s nail biting. Will they get to be interviewed by John Fashanu at the top? Will they get the coveted head start on the Eliminator? Which Gladiator will be at the local pantomine this year?

I loved Gladiators in the early 90s. Classic Saturday evening TV where you hoped dinner wouldn’t be ready before the end. There was no pausing TV then.

Despite never being remotely sporty or even ever enjoying any sport, I love watching other people push themselves to the limits of their physical endurance. I harbour secret dreams of being amazing at something physical. Mountain climbing, sailing around the world, skiing. Nothing too obvious like running or cycling, which the rest of my peers have taken up. The individualist in me wants to be outstanding at something different and unexpected.

And yet this afternoon finds me with the kids in a local youth centre. It’s been another long day of suburban parenting, on the back on poor sleep thanks to sickness in the family. It’s an indoor climbing session, which the 8 year old did for the first time last week after lots of encouragement. She ironically used to be obsessed with Fash, thanks to my Wimbledon FC loving husband. To watch a normally cautious and anxious child scale a tricky climbing wall several times was pretty inspiring. To see her problem solve and persevere all the way to the top. To see her triumphant face every time she made it, even if Fash wasn’t there waiting for her. It made me do a lot of thinking.

About how much I encourage her to do hard things. To keep practicing the physical things that she naturally finds so hard. This year she has learned to swim, ride a bike, tie shoe laces, do the monkey bars at the park. And now she’s climbing walls. And talking about how she wants to learn to do free running. My 8 year old child is teaching me a lot about myself.

If I can’t do something first time to my ridiculously high standards, I don’t bother trying again. I live in the awful inbetween of wanting to do something significant and different with my life but with none of the self encouragement and perseverance to even try. She wants me to go back with her another week so I can climb the wall too. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t even have the stamina to get halfway up.

We get home and promise to have a takeaway dinner and movie night. But instead all I want to do is sleep. I close my eyes while the kids watch an episode of a nondescript TV show and silently pray the youngest doesn’t wet herself on the sofa. I’ve hit my own wall. And it takes an hour before I have the energy to thing about dinner. Even take out is too much of an effort, so we settle for boiled eggs and jaffa cakes and Gansta Granny, and I try not to cry too obviously when Granny dies.

I reach my wall every single day. Thankfully there’s no mullet haired Falcon climbing up behind me, ready to take me down. It’s hard to think and plan and do something incredible with your life when just getting through a day without turning into monster mummy is an achievement.  Maybe right now isn’t the season for backpacking with the kids around Japan, relocating to an inner city ghetto, climbing Kilimanjaro. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe the most significant thing I can do with my life right now is to be kind to myself and the people around me. But it doesn’t hurt to still dream of Tokyo.

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We build it up

It’s a bit awkward to at first, making the transition. My head still has things floating around that I didn’t get time to do; there’s the hiss of the white noise on the baby monitor; stray toys, odd socks and crumbs that were missed on the end of the day tidy all distracting me.

“BrewTube?” he asks.

“Yeah, OK” I reply, while still scrolling through Instagram, not really paying attention.

So some vaguely alternative beers are opened and we sync our phones to the YouTube app on the PS3. Someone starts by playing a music video, and song by song the queue forms. Britpop, 90s chart dance, 80s pop, grunge, bad rock, 70s funk and soul, terrible duets, songs that we started off putting on for a laugh but now have grown a weird affection for – the playlist can take on many forms.

And so the evening unfolds – each time slightly different than the last. The earlier distractions disappear, we relax, we swap stories of the last few days, we laugh at each other’s witty observations and comments, we dream future plans together, we retreat into our own shared world where we know best. And we feel loved and we feel safe – we can just be ourselves.

It sounds bizarre, writing it down. But then maybe that’s what we are – I don’t know many other couples like us.

Engaged after a few short months (In our local nightclub: “Lets get married!” “Yeah, OK then!” ). Walking down the aisle at 21 to the Top Gun theme (because someone bet me I wouldn’t walk down the aisle to such a “masterpiece”). People had their doubts but we didn’t. We just knew. I’m not sure if I believe in the whole soul-mate thing, but it’s always just felt right to be together, so why wouldn’t we be?

And it’s not always been easy, but there’s this connection between us that just can’t be broken. We’ve experienced seasons of life during our marriage that have stretched us up to and beyond our limits. They don’t need writing down, but we still carry them deep within us because they have helped form who we have become – together.

In lots of ways we are not the people we were when we met 15 1/2 years ago and drank Ladyboys together. We have changed both individually and together; so the ways in which we hang out and just be us, with no parenting or adulting demands, has changed. It’s been Sunday afternoon ‘Come Dine With Me’ marathons, holidays, weekends away, trips out, (many) evenings in the pub, devouring box sets whilst sleep deprived (“Risk one more episode before she wakes for a feed?”), competitive games of Scrabble where I hate to lose.

And currently? It’s BrewTube evenings – born out of necessity due to small children and a lack of local babysitters, we have crafted a way to be us without needing to leave the house.

We won’t do this forever, but for now, I won’t look any further.


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Sunday snapshot

I look up from the pile of cuttings I have been putting into a filthy orange bucket. Cuttings from a shrub that I am too embarrassed to ask my green-fingered neighbour what the name of it is yet again. I don’t really like it anyway but I know she would have planted it for the lady that lived here before, and so it stays until we make up our minds what we are going to do with the garden.

And I see him, cheap Wilkinson saw in hand, hacking through branches of the bay leaf bush; another thing I don’t really like but in our three and a bit years of living here it is somehow still there. Very much still there in fact, overgrown and neglected and nearly as tall as the garage. I didn’t even realise they were bay leaves until the neighbour pointed it out to me a few months ago.

I have no clue what to do with bay leaves, other than bolognese sauce. I tore out a recipe for an aubergine dish that called for a bay leaf from a supermarket magazine the other day. It will join the pile of other torn out recipes that I will never make, not just because I am the only one who likes aubergine in our family, but also because we don’t even seem to make it a week at the moment without getting take out.

And then I see the one year old sitting on a push-along car looking very pleased with herself and just happy to be here, and the six year old is calm and apologetic after just returning from 6 minutes in her bedroom for pushing the one year old over. She was already on a warning from wrapping her skipping rope just a little too tightly around her sister earlier. We’re choosing to ignore the ongoing jealousy issues and instead joke (somewhat nervously) about We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The oven is heating up for a sausage and mash dinner and then it will be clear up, bath, stories and bed. A cup of decaf tea and a vaguely pretentious non-ITV drama to be watched once the evening chores are done, followed by a final half an hour of smartphoning before bed. Another day finished.

A day that I think started before 6am (we did not dare look at the clock) when the one year old awoke us with her morning chatter, which we ignored until 7. And then it was tea and milk in bed whilst refereeing duplo snatching, breakfast, showers, supermarket food delivery, present wrapping and forced card writing for a classmates party. Rushing as normal to a Harvest service at church, then onto the party where the six year old ate only party rings for lunch and plays happily. Back home where the one year old is awake from her nap and out in the garden we go.

A very ordinary day. A day that sounds boring and simple and uneventful to the rest of the world. A day that if I described it to my 14 year old former self I would have been appalled at how small and insignificant my life would at first appear.

I was going to change the world when I was 14. Leave the suburban life that I knew and loathed and go and “make something of my life”. It may or may not have involved going to live as a musician in Seattle, naively unaware that grunge was dead as I was only just discovering Cobain et al for the first time.

Fast forward 20 years and I have been married for 13 of those, with two daughters and a mid terrace 30s-style-but-built-in-the-50s house in the suburbs. I am about to abandon my career as I know it.

But I have never felt more content or thankful or loved than I do right now. Or tired. That inner awkwardness and angst has mostly gone. I am still working on the anxiety and people pleasing. I am finally starting to grow into myself and know myself and stop trying to be someone I am not. I don’t need to change the whole world. I don’t want to. Just the knowledge that I will be one of the most significant influences on my girls can sometimes paralyse me. This life is enough for me to getting on with for now.

Besides, my hair would frizz too much in the Seattle rain, and I only ever learned to play the bassline to Come As You Are.


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The 92nd year

“What’s your best price for an old pensioner like me? It’s for my wife – she’s poorly”

We were shopping for dressing gowns in the Gravesend Marks and Spencer for my Grandma and the shop assistant was being charmed by my Grandfather. I hurried him away, my embarrassed face looking apologetically at the woman.

“Come on Grandpa, lets just go and buy this one,” I say.

“Oh all right then – it’s always worth asking though,” he winked. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee afterwards?”

My Grandpa died this weekend, 19 months after his beloved wife, my Grandma. He was in his 92nd year as he liked to say. Or 91 to the rest of us.

Nothing I could write could ever do him or his life justice, or even begin to convey how much he meant to me, but I need to mark the passing of the most wonderful Grandpa.

In some ways it is hard to separate him out from Grandma. Don and Ruth. They came as a pair – my memories are mostly of them together. It is only in latter years – after the disease that cruelly took her precious memories worsened – that I spent more and more time with Grandpa on his own.

I could write about the image of him sleeping in his chair at Shorne with Ceefax on the TV after lunch and the folded Daily Telegraph on the stool next to him; the curious elasticated silver sleeve holders of his that I used to wear as bracelets; the beige suits and brown leather shoes – always shiny. Cream slices, trips out, walks in the woods, books, maps and discussions on current affairs where we tiptoed around our different political viewpoints.

But they don’t describe what he meant to me and the enormous influence he has had on my life.

Because this was a man who knew how to love well.

He showed me that long marriages can be good marriages, and he adored his Lily throughout their life together.

He showed me the significance of family, roots and belonging; but also the importance of independence and hard work.

He showed me the value of learning. He would ignore my teenage awkwardness and just see my love of reading and would send me home with armfuls of books on Plato, Aristotle and other classics from his study.

He showed me the beauty of the world we live in through his stories and pictures and maps of the places he had been. He has passed on a legacy of wanderlust in my family, and a love of mountains and all things Scandinavia.

He showed me generosity and how good it is to give.

He showed me that faith and belief will get me through all of life’s twists and turns, even if I cannot understand them and they hurt.

He showed me perspective and wisdom on life, and the things that ultimately matter.

He showed me unconditional love.

I can never thank you enough Grandpa – I love you and miss you so much xxx

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The notice

I wrote something else too.  I wrote my notice to my job.

Three months notice to a job that I have come to loathe, a profession I am not sure what it is about anymore, and an employer that has changed beyond belief. I have 20 more working days and I will wave goodbye to a 13 year career that if I am truthful, I have never loved despite the ‘worthiness’ of it all. A career I chose because it ticked practical boxes and I seemed to match the criteria for. Plus the university had great band line ups. I fell out of love with it during my training, so the warning signs were clear and yet ignored because there was rent to pay, and a man to marry and a life to live.

And three addresses, two babies and the same marriage later, here I am. About to become a ‘wife, mother, homemaker’ person – a title so dull and unimportant on the surface, a title that immediately puts me in the comfortable, boring, ‘helps out at the school because she has sod-all else to do’ box. You know the ones. The one that hang out and gossip outside the school gates in the mornings until 9.15, ignoring their toddlers whining in their pushchairs, bragging about All The (usually unnecessary) Things they have to get done this week and comparing waterproof coats. The ones that smugly saunter into the Christmas Play without queuing in the freezing playground and sit on one of the Golden Ticket Seats, while the rest of us are left to feel slightly ashamed of our lack of helping with all things school but also thinking that must be the most disappointing and unexciting Golden Ticket ever. Hardly what Mr Dahl had in mind.

Except that was me this morning. I had the whiny almost-toddler, commented on a coat, talked about first birthday plans, essentially wasted 15 minutes before I had the Important Tasks of going up the precinct and keeping the nearly one year old awake and amused until midday. Which I accomplished. And then I read a blog post about vocation and calling and the importance of finding space in your life to do it.

And it got me thinking.

About how I don’t know what my calling is, beyond loving well. About how I don’t fit into boxes. About how many years I have wasted trying to fit into certain boxes. About how at 34 I finally don’t care about fitting into boxes anymore, but about being the person I am.  Whatever that is.

And all I could think of doing was coming here to write.

And so I find myself here again.

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The beginning

“Just write”, he said.

So I did.  A ‘to-do’ list for the week. In a fancy squared notebook. Because that’s all I write these days – ‘to-do’ lists. Oh, and slightly anxious notes on the emotionally unstable personality disordered, where the bottom line is ‘would this hold up at an inquest if they actually did kill themselves?’

So this is my first experiment in writing something which is neither of the above.

I have never done this before, I have no idea if I can be good at this, I don’t know what my style or ‘voice’ is. My greatest fear is that I will be boring and have nothing to say. Actually, my greatest fear is that I will have something to say. That if I peel away all the layers, I will have something that needs to be written.

And so here is where this all begins.

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