Monday, October 8, 2012

Has set my mind to wander

There's a joke in my family when one of us goes on holiday. It's that we won't come back. There's an assumption that a day before we're due to return home there will be a cheerful phone-call followed by a flurry of activity and before you know it, some of our belongings are being boxed up and shoved into an attic somewhere while the rest are being shipped off halfway round the world to meet us.

It's a legitimate concern. My parents started it back in 1968 when they traveled down from Toronto and boarded the ‘France’ from New York Harbour bound for two years in London. The Canadian in Dad gave up after twenty-five years or so and he went back, but my Mum is still here, nestled in an idyllic 'black and white' village near Wales.


I was next to follow, when I went to Toronto for two weeks holiday in 1992 and tossed my ticket into the bin at the airport at 5am on my day of return and stayed for four years. I’d just moved out of the house I’d been sharing with my ex-boyfriend and two friends and was bored with Birmingham and its brutalist skyline; boxy squat grey buildings that seemed to permanently block out the light. I was ‘in-between’ things. In-between jobs, in between boyfriends, in between places to live, and so the attraction of Toronto's dizzying skyline and leafy avenues seemed a lot more appealing than drab Birmingham. I fell in love with the funky character houses and eclectic bars and restaurants and all-night diners. It was all so interesting. I’d wander round Chinatown where rank smells wafted up against delicious smells and stacks of strange vegetables were piled high outside the stores. In the Italian quarter, fat women dressed from head to toe in black chattered loudly to their neighbours whilst doing chores on their balconies, their husbands sat on street corners a block away playing chess and not speaking to each other. There were gallery openings and late night gigs and warehouse parties every night, and when I felt homesick I’d catch the ferry out to Toronto Island and stare back at the stunning skyline and I’d remind myself that I wasn’t in Birmingham anymore.  And whatever highs or lows I might be going through, they were definitely more appealing than the task that was waiting for me back home. The task of sorting through the hurriedly packed boxes I'd thrown together to get away from my ex who'd decided after we broke up that taking a cricket bat and some eggs to my belongings was a nice way of saying goodbye. My clothes and artwork and photos sat waiting for me in boxes in my mum’s attic feeling sorry for themselves, all crusted with dried egg and shattered glass. 

Next to follow suit was my brother, who visited me in Toronto a couple of years later. He's still in Canada now. Then lastly, my boyfriend (an infinitely better boyfriend then the cricket-bat-and-egg ex) and I played the stay-on-holiday-game by taking a year-long trip to Vancouver that lasted over a decade and saw us return, a ten year marriage and two children later.

In the cumulative fourteen years I lived abroad, there were two things that were guaranteed to make me homesick. Architecture and words.

The architecture is easy to understand. Canada, especially the west coast is a new country and we have different ideas of old. I was once late to my cousins wedding because my uncle told me it was in an old stone church and my friend drove me up and down the street in his battered up car nick-named the 'shoe' while I peered through the torrential rain looking for an old church. Finally he pulled the soaked Shoe up in front of a new church that we’d driven past three times and irked, asked me if I was blind. That was the first time I really understood that Canadian old and European old are not the same thing. And I like European old, with foot steps worn into stone staircases, crumbling gargoyles and beams so low you whack your head when you stand up straight.

And then there were words. I guess that all languages have their own special words, and just because you speak English, it doesn’t mean you speak the same English. Hell, you only have to go a mile down the road in Britain to find a strange new dialect or a different use for a word you thought you knew. So five-thousand miles across the world I'd find that every time I came across a word, more specifically a Briticism that my Canadian friends didn’t know, the same thing would happen: a few moments of confusion, a couple of questions, an explanation and perhaps some laughter. But then I’d find myself wistful and dreaming of home.

Here’s a list of examples:


So on that last-holiday-that-turned-permanent, we’d been in Canada for about seven years and were on our way back from a weekend in Seattle. I was listening to Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, a favourite of mine that I hadn’t listened to for a long time. I got to the chirpy Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying and these lines jumped out at me:

Oh, that wasn't what I meant to say at all,
From where I'm sitting, rain,
Washing against the lonely tenement,
Has set my mind to wander…

I hadn’t heard the word tenement for a long time and there was this painful tug deep down within me and I knew, in that exact moment, that I couldn’t live the rest of my life in Canada. My eyes welled up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe because suddenly the stunning wilderness and wild ocean and remote beaches and tall, tall redwoods and the west coast islands and breath-taking glass towers of Vancouver….well, they just weren’t home. 

So yeah, there’s a joke in my family about going on holidays but none of us quite knows what the punch line is yet.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

At Last I Am Free

I had a moment the other day. The details don’t matter; only the moment matters. 

We met up with friends on a windy down where I was handed the string of a kite that was fluttering high in the air above us. I took it, and as the wind tugged and pulled my hands up towards the blue blue sky, my insides turned over and I was transported back in time. Standing there as the string pulled, I closed my eyes, decades evaporated and I stood there, a child again. I could have wept. 

I should say at this point that I had an amazing childhood. It was filled with stories and adventure and we found the excitement in the smallest of things. There was never the time to finish off being pirates, explorers, animals in the jungle. We went on space adventures, made houses out of cardboard boxes and we dug deep holes in the garden where we built new worlds out of mud for our Camper people and dolls and plastic soldiers to live in. We played instruments and we did gymnastics and my brother taught me to bowl a cricket ball like a boy. We caught bugs in our fruit bushes, and we watched frogspawn turn into tadpoles in our pond and we kept chickens at the top of our long garden. Holidays were sprawling sun-filled adventures where we’d go sand-dune jumping for hours, hunt for treasures in rock pools and look for snakes in Welsh fields of heather and bracken, packed lunches of salami and sweaty cheese in our backpacks. At home we’d sit outside with a pan full of soapy water and make misshapen bubbles that would drift off on the breeze. When it rained we made home-made jigsaw puzzles, or shell jewellery or we baked hedgehog shaped bread. When we had chickenpox we painted dot-to-dot pictures on our bodies with a paintbrush and calamine lotion.

My brother and I had a record player in our room. It looked like a small square suitcase and even though its crooked needle would jump on our scratched records, it was ours and we loved it. We weren’t allowed to touch the one downstairs; the one by my parents wall-long record collection. Without a single piece of modern music, the records were all Bach and Vivaldi and Prokofiev and Poulenc and Stravinsky and Bizet and Mahler. Concertos, symphonies, masses, adagios, prestos, sonatas. That all sounds posh, but it wasn’t - we lived in an ex-council house in a drab suburb of Birmingham. There was no spare money, but it didn’t matter. We were loved and there was no shortage of fun. 

 Our record collection upstairs was beaten. The sleeves were dog-eared and the plastic was scratched which meant we had that sound, that sound of vinyl. That scratched, crackling, rusty sound of vinyl. It ran through our Jungle Book, and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy-tales and Peter and the Wolf. It scratched and crackled through Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady and Oliver and Westside Story. These were the days before we had pocket money, before we saved up to buy a proper record player, before we started standing outside the local record shop on new release day to buy Adam Ant or The Specials or Soft Cell. These were the days before we discovered John Peel and NME and the Sunday night chart countdown.  

And then it all came crashing down; my parents spilt up. This idyllic childhood, this imaginative wonderland we’d been living in must have been a dream, and so I did what you do when you grow up, I packed it all away in boxes. I neatly wrapped up all those memories. The tastes, the smells, the feelings. The crackling vinyl, the suitcase record player, the musicals, the wobbly bubbles, the home-made jigsaw puzzels and the dreams of flying. I shoved them into a dark corner never to be seen again and I threw away the key. 

Now I am grown and life moves in a different way. But there are times, the odd moment here and there when something brushes up against me, gets close enough to take me back. Moments like a kite string pulling my hands up towards the blue blue sky. Moments like a bubble floating past on the breeze, or moments when I hear the muffled crackling sound of vinyl or a line from a musical.

Yesterday held one of those moments. I sat at my desk, in my office. I’d been talking to my boss. I was wearing something proper. Maybe even heels. I’d done what I needed to for the day. And then it happened. I clicked on this link and I think perhaps, in the minutes that followed, I stopped breathing a couple of times. I closed my eyes and I unwrapped something that had been tucked away gathering dust for a long time. I walked down a path against a soundtrack of crackling vinyl and distant musicals and children’s stories. I could have wept.

And then, well the details don’t matter; only the moment matters.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Riding in cars with strangers - Part 1

For someone whose mother brought her up right, I’ve gotten into a lot of cars with strangers. For the record, it was never what was in the car that lured me, it was where I wanted to go that made me do it and seeing as I didn’t have a car, someone else was going to have to get me there. 

Here’s how my mother brought me up: We were not to get into cars with anyone we didn’t know. Not if they offered us sweets, toys and especially not if they said they wanted to take me to see their kittens. We were not to trust anyone that told us my parents had asked them to pick us up. We were not to help anyone read a map in their car and we were not even to go near to an open car window of someone we didn’t know. We got a bit older. Appendage added to original rules: We were not to get into cars with boys we didn’t know. Even if they looked like Adam Ant or Matt Dillon. Especially not if they looked like Adam Ant or Matt Dillon. We were not to get into cars with anyone who’d been drinking. We were not to get into cars with anyone who’d been drinking who assured us they could still drive okay when drunk, in fact, we were just not to get into cars with pretty much anyone. And all the other mums concurred. 

It was with this foundation, at the tender age of 16 that we started dating. Up until that point, not getting into cars with anyone who’d shown any interest in me wasn’t a problem because no one who tried to cop-a-feel round the back of youth club was old enough to drive let alone have a car. But then one night, my friend N and I were standing in a drunken stupor waiting for the last bus home when we met some boys who were old enough to drive, and we agreed to go out with them on a double date. They were to pick us up the following Friday at N’s house at 7. 

I’m sure that if these two young men, J and P actually spared a thought to us in the week leading up to this date it was probably to figure out who was going to try to get off with whom. Or how to get us drunk. Or where to take us to get served- after all, we were only 16. But N and I were not concerned about these things. We were in a mounting panic about the fact that we were going to get into a car with strangers who were obviously going to abduct, rape and kill us. The fact that their full names and phone numbers were stuck up on the pin boards in both of our parents’ kitchens was irrelevant; by the time that the police tracked them down we’d be long gone. During the mounting panic about getting into an orange Escort with J and P, and about our impending deaths, it didn’t occur to us to cancel the date. No. There was obviously only one answer. We had to get a gun. 

With hindsight, the date didn’t really stand a chance. The fact that these nice two boys turned up on time and opened the car doors for us and took us to a nice pub in Litchfield where they paid for the drinks and entertained us like perfect gentlemen all passed unnoticed because of the thickening fog of panic over what was going to happen next. And sure enough, on the way home J and P drove into Sutton Park and pulled up in a deserted dusty car park where they made a lame attempt to get something going. But they quickly realised that they were onto a non-starter when we nervously confessed that there was a gun in N’s bag and she might even have waved it around for them to see that we were serious. At that point, they probably wanted us to get the hell out of their car as fast as possible, because what kind of nut-job girls go on dates with certain killers and end up brandishing  around a miniature gun cigarette lighter in a dark car park. 

J and P didn’t ask us out again, though in fairness, we are all still friends. Maybe they feel safer knowing where we are at all times; keep your friends close and your enemies closer and all that.

Friday, August 31, 2012

All the Fun of the Fair

Oh the traveling fair. I grew up on a main road in Birmingham and once or twice a year the noisy, misshapen lorries of a traveling fair would grunt up the hill and half the neighborhood kids, including my brother and I would run alongside, praying that it would pitch close by. Our parents, not so eager were probably eying the peeling paint on the trucks, and thinking about us whizzing through the air in rusty metal boxes screwed together by the spotty, sunburned teenagers that rode past, perched on the back of the folded trucks waving at all the girls.

When we got lucky and the fair pitched up in our park, my friends and I would empty our piggy banks, put on our boob-tubes and ra-ra skirts and head off, promising our parents that we wouldn’t let any of the spotty fair boys anywhere near us. In fact, promising not to let any of the boys from up the road, or from the grammar school, or from the youth club near us either. No boys.

The moment that one of our dads dropped us off at the park gates, our ‘boys’ would crawl out from their hiding place in the bushes and we’d all takes gulps from the jam jars full of mixed spirits that we’d pilfered from our parent’s liquor cabinets. An inch of vodka, an inch of gin, an inch of cointreau, an inch of whisky. And with that vile-tasting alcoholic mess working its way through our bodies we’d enter the fair.

It was always exciting. The clashing music and the lights and the jostling crowd. The smell of frying onions and hot bodies, machine grease and candy floss. We’d ride the bumper cars, the helter-skelter, the waltzers and if we were drunk enough, or just feeling dangerous, we’d go on the wall of death, now tamely renamed the ‘Spin Bar’. Afterwards, when the jam jars and piggy banks were empty, we’d wander around on the arm of that week’s boy and hope he’d win us a cuddly toy or a goldfish with a good throw of the hoopla. That week’s boy would be hoping  he’d win us a cuddly toy or a goldfish too so he’d stand a better chance of getting his hand up our tops, or better still, down our knickers.

But that was the eighties, and now I’m grown with kids of my own and the travelling fair that pitched to the playground we visited yesterday didn’t look so glamourous or full of adventure. It was noon and they cranked up the music and the mood in the playground changed as mums and dads started to dance a little, smiling at each other while their kids looked on bemused or embarrassed. I didn’t dance. I wondered how I’d advanced to an age where I might be confused with these other parents, these uncool people gyrating to Rod Stewart in the park.

So I packed up our stuff and took the kids over to the fair. It looked kinda sad in the bright afternoon sunlight but the clashing music and spotty teenagers and tired, peeling paint were just the same. The kids ran round, wide-eyed with excitement at the flashing lights and cranking old machinery. I smelled the grease and the frying onions and hot bodies and candy floss and I wondered if, in another ten years when I pick up one of my kids and their friends up from their night out at the travelling fair, I will believe the story about why Emma is puking at the side of the road. “She ate a hotdog from the burger van, honest mum”

And as I eye the rustling bushes, I wonder if I’ll believe that my daughter, dewy-eyed and clutching a plastic bag with a goldfish in it has really just developed amazing hoopla skills.