Sex and sausage rolls

When I was a girl, I used to enjoy sleep overs with my cousin Stacey who was almost exactly a year older than me. Sometimes, we slept at my Nanna and Grandad’s house. We would share the big double bed in the chilly front bedroom and lay there talking and giggling until late, or until Nanna came to scold us. I relished scaring Stacey silly with stories about ghosts or ‘Creeping Jesus’ – an unfortunate man with long, lank hair, always in sandals, who passed my house every day. He had become a character in many stories of child abduction, stalking and murder. As the passing cars cast shadows across the curtains, I would tell my tales until Stacey shrieked in fear and we heard the bump, bump of Nanna inching up the stairs, “Go to sleep, girls!” One summer, I told Stacey the facts of life. This story was the most horrific she’d heard yet. She exclaimed in disbelief, “They put their thing where? Well, I’m never having children!”

Our favourite game was to pick fluff from the blanket, roll it into a ball, then wet it with spittle before throwing it up at the ceiling. If a ball stuck, it was a win. Uncle Jack, Stacey’s father, had told us all about this game. Remarkably, Nanna never seemed to notice the fluff balls hanging precariously from the ceiling or find them when they finally fell to the floor. Or if she did, she never mentioned it to us, which was a relief as she could have a sharp tongue when she felt it was needed.

Other times, I went to stay at Stacey’s. Auntie Deirdre would make a bed up for me on the floor in Stacey’s room and the same hilarity would occur. We had a little more freedom at Stacey’s because her parents stayed up until late watching the television on full volume. One stay, when I was about twelve and Auntie had gone to her morning job, Stacey beckoned me into the box room, “I’ve got something to show you!” She was wide-eyed and excited. She climbed onto the narrow bed and stretched up to reach a high cupboard. “They’re in here. I found Dad’s porno mags.” I had no idea what she meant but a heap of magazines tumbled onto the bed. Stacey sat down next to the pile and grabbed one, “Look!”

I received an education that morning. Uncle Jack had found new games to play. The magazines were glossy, full of black and white, some might say artistic, photographs of a couple in various acts of carnal passion. It was the Joy of Sex or the Karma Sutra with real people. I had never seen such biology before. Stacey and I gaped and giggled in incredulity, “Why would she want to do that?” We were so occupied, we didn’t hear the key turning in the front door. “I’m home!” Auntie Deidre shouted. In a mad scramble, we scraped the magazines together and threw them back up in the cupboard.

Auntie Deidre smiled as we appeared at the top of the stairs, “Had a good morning? I thought we’d pop into town. I need to go to Woolies and we can have a bit of something to eat in the canteen.” I couldn’t look her in the eye. On the bus to town, Stacey and I whispered and sniggered. Thoughts of the things adults got up to lodged in our brains. It was hard to see the passengers, tightly squeezed together on prickly seats, in the same way now we knew their smutty secrets. In Woolworths canteen, we stood before the glass counter and chose our food. “Sausage rolls look nice,” Auntie Deidre said and we both burst into laughter. We took our sausage rolls and sat at the shiny formica table. Neither of us could bring ourselves to eat them. “Come on, they’ll get cold.” Auntie prompted. I lifted mine to my mouth and took a bite. Stacey squealed and I guffawed, sending meat and crumbs all over the table top. “Whatever is wrong with you girls today?” Auntie tutted.

Pornography was different when I was young. Available only in sex shops, or on the top shelf at the newsagents, it was fairly difficult to get hold of. Now, internet porn is easily available and children are watching it; some surprisingly young. As demand has risen, porn sites have made their pornography more shocking and hardcore to get an audience. Much of it involves violent acts perpetrated on women. Some sites, such as Pornhub, have made material featuring child abuse and rape available. There are links between pornography and sex trafficking. Sex education is poor in schools, so kids learn about sex from porn. They think they are expected to behave like that. Violent, hardcore acts seen in pornography have become mainstream, encouraged by women’s magazines. Young men see women as sex objects. Young women advertise themselves as ‘enjoying being choked’ on Tinder. Desperate to attract a partner, they do not understand the dangers. The porn industry is wealthy, powerful and influential in our society. We have let this happen. We are letting our children down.

War

This morning my dog woke me before light. I crept downstairs on aching limbs; hauled on my coat and wellies to take him out into the freezing air for his first business of the day. There was a hard frost; sparkling over the grass in the lamplight, as if an over-enthusiastic child had sprinkled glitter everywhere making the garden a Christmas card. The world slumbered, frozen in fantasy land, and I expected silence. Instead, the rumble and roar of a mechanical monster stalking the fields beside my home assailed my ears; its two fiery eyes like searchlights scanning the icy darkness. A fountain of stinking, putrid liquid manure gushed from its rear, coating the rock-hard ground.

Nature is not in harmony with farming in the Welsh countryside. A war rages and wildlife is losing the battle. Farmers say the slurry adds valuable nitrogen to fertilise the soil and they are simply recycling animal waste. In truth, they are caught in a cycle of growing monoculture grasses, cutting for silage and spreading muck which depletes the earth of nutrients. Winters in Wales are wet. When it is cold, the ground freezes and muck cannot soak into the earth. Rain washes slurry into streams and rivers, removing oxygen and killing plants, invertebrates and fish.

Farmers are at war with the Welsh Assembly too. New regulations to prevent muck spreading in the winter were due to come into force in January 2020 but farmers protested and the Assembly conveniently buried it under the ensuing Covid crisis. I understand that farmers are in a difficult position and they need to make a living. My farmer neighbour has recently bought up several hundred acres of land surrounding my home in order to double his herd. He has weed killed and ploughed up fields that were laying almost fallow; full of wildflowers, cut once a year for hay. He has cut down trees and hedges, thick with insects and birds. He has planted grass for silage winter feed for his many cattle. Life has become harder for local wildlife. My unruly, overgrown garden is a sanctuary. From my windows, I watch the year-long rotation of cows grazing, grass growing and silage cutting, and muck spreading. I listen for the tractors racing up and down the lanes, holding my breath as they pass while I walk my dogs, fearing for my life and for my cats tentatively crossing the road. Double the herd means double the dung. He has a lot of shit to shift.

There must be a solution. Some way for farmers to work in harmony with nature. I am biased, I know. My concern for the environment and animal welfare means I have chosen a vegan lifestyle (I won’t go into the unpleasant breeding cycle I sadly have to observe living next to a large dairy farm.) If people could cut down on milk and meat consumption that would be a start, as well as Government legislation to support farmers to work in ways that help, not harm, the countryside. Some farms are managing this but we have a long way to go.

For all our sakes, nature must win this war.

Blind date

In my secondary school, if you didn’t have a boyfriend by the age of 15, then you were odd. Several of the girls were mothers by that age. In one memorable sex education class, a new mum gave a full commentary while we watched a woman giving birth on video, “Oooh yes, that bit was painful.” At the end of the day, a line of bouncing babies in buggies waited for their mothers outside the school gates.

Awkwardly shy, with a reputation as a swot because I was interested in learning and hoped to study at university, I was definitely in the weird category. By the time I was 15, I still hadn’t been asked out on a date. My chances of this happening seemed unlikely; made worse by teachers who insisted on reading out my essays to the class as examples of good work, while my face grew a deep shade of beetroot. An English teacher even read one of my stories to Year 5, much to my mortification as the marvellous Marty Tender, my biggest crush at the time, was in that class. Marty was all beauty but no brains and the teacher asked him to pay particular attention to my writing skills. Everyone considered me a target for their jokes; a favourite one compared me to a tampon (both stuck up apparently). I must admit I didn’t enormously enjoy my school days.

One day in physics class, I was paired in an electricity experiment with Samantha Heacham. When she asked me whether I had ever been out with a boy and I answered in the negative, she gasped in disbelief; her eyes goggling so dramatically I thought she had received an electric shock. Samantha felt it was imperative that she fix this situation immediately and offered to set me up on a blind date. Now, Samantha was not a person I especially trusted. She had a reputation for having lots of boyfriends, always tried to get me to tell her the answers during tests and once, in second year, she challenged me to a fight after school because I disagreed with something she said. Then again, I wasn’t having any luck on my own so, somewhat desperately and completely crazily, I agreed. Samantha went to a drama group and she knew a guy called Rich who was looking for a girlfriend. Over the next few days, arrangements were finalised.

We met at The White Horse pub, a popular venue with the young folk of the town. I had spent a ridiculously long time choosing my outfit, spiking my hair and putting on eyeliner. As usual, I got there early and sat nervously peering out from a cosy corner table. After about ten minutes, Rich arrived, a blond-haired Morrissey look-alike in paisley shirt and tatty cardigan. He carried a bunch of flowers (I was surprised they weren’t tucked in his back pocket). As a massive Smiths fan, I thought perhaps this date would be okay. He spotted me, waved and navigated his way to the table.

“Hello, I’m Rich.” He smiled, revealing two missing front teeth.

I must admit I was taken aback, “Hello…”

“Sorry about these,” he said, pointing to his mouth, “I fell down the stairs yesterday, knocked them right out. Nearly cancelled but I thought…oh well. Hope that’s all right.”

My heart went out to him, “Oh, that’s awful, of course it’s all right.”

“I saw the dentist. He’s putting two new ones in next week so then I won’t look quite so hideous.”

We laughed. After that, we got on famously. I thought he was sweet and felt very sympathetic towards him. We agreed to see each other again.

I went out with Rich for several months. He played guitar and wrote me a song. We watched Live Aid together, sobbing on the sofa. I went to see him acting in a play at the theatre with my parents and felt very proud. My Dad didn’t like him as he was overly demonstrative with his affections and called me ‘babe’. Then one evening, he got a bit carried away and stuck his hand up my jumper. That was the end of it for me; I wasn’t ready for a relationship of such magnitude. I finished with him the next morning.

Fermenting

During these strange times, I have been enjoying the art of fermentation. A traditional method of food preservation, it appeals to my belief in a simpler way of life. I enjoy the whole process: selecting fresh produce, cleaning, chopping, salting, massaging the leaves and packing the vegetables in the jar. It is relaxing and uncomplicated; my mind has time to unwind and think. While I ferment vegetables, I ferment ideas. Then comes the waiting: watching the bubbles start to rise, checking every few days for unwanted mould and tasting to see if it is pleasing to my palate. The smells as I unscrew the jar lid hit me full in the nose and carry through the house.

Fermentation has opened interesting doors for me. There is a whole world of fermented food out there waiting to be discovered. So far, I have made sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and giardineira from Italy. The last is my favourite, at the moment, with its delicious garlicky flavour. Many pleasant hours are spent searching the internet for new recipes. I have found an exuberant man called Brad who shares videos about fermenting on Youtube. His enthusiasm is catching and I like his often imperfect presentation without any artificial polish. It is good when things go wrong. It creates a feeling of humanity and camaraderie. It is because of Brad that I have my ‘fermentation station’.

Fermenting foods is great for the mind and the body. Not only is the process relaxing, the final produce is healthy, being full of good bacteria. Our bodies need this good bacteria for our digestive health. There is growing scientific evidence that gut bacteria play a role in many diseases too, including heart disease, cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Good bacteria can boost our immune systems and help us to fight disease. Other research has suggested that gut bacteria play a part in our mental health, so eating fermented foods may help to keep us happy.

Fermenting foods is a positive experience for me. Returning to old, clever ways, safe and busy in my kitchen, while the world outside goes off kilter.

Rescued

We have a new puppy; an eight-month-old crossbreed from a local animal sanctuary. He was rescued from a designer puppy farm. The runt of his litter, malnourished and afraid. Thankfully, the farm was shut down. He was lucky to be fostered by a wonderful lady who brought him back to health during lockdown. She did an amazing job teaching him to do his business outside, to travel in a car, to walk on a lead and to sit on command. It means our job is much easier. He is a beautiful boy and settling well. We have named him Pasha which suits his good looks.

I had forgotten what hard work puppies can be; their bursts of boundless energy. He must be kept amused with games and walks. He needs to learn the rules of the household (it is okay to chew the rubber tuggy but not my flip flops). He must be taken out to the garden for regular toilet trips. He needs help to build his trust and confidence in us. His hardships in early life have left their mark and he is nervous around men and new people (though improving everyday). He and I have become very attached. He is my shadow. I am trying to get him used to being without me for short periods so he will not develop separation anxiety. It all takes time and patience. It is much harder at the moment to train your dog to be alone, and to socialize them, as we are home all the time and no one visits much. He sleeps in our bedroom. A thing unheard of in our house but this is what he is used to and change takes time. Slowly, we are moving his bed further away from us. I hope this will work. He wakes me at 5.45am every morning exactly. I am tired but I love him. He has given me plenty to do.

I had forgotten how much fun puppies can be; the silly scrapes they get into. He tears around the garden and paddock so fast that sometimes he cannot stop and goes somersaulting over. He adores puddles and will jump crazily in every one he finds. When he grabs a shoe, he runs with it to the living room and launches himself onto the sofa in such a rush that he flies off the other side. (The jumping on the sofa is another thing he is used to and something I am not sure we will ever be able to stop.) He chases through the long grass alongside Monty, our little terrier, with complete abandon giving me a real sense of joy. He has given Monty, who is twelve and was missing company after our old dog Iolo passed away, something to think about.

I had forgotten how revolting puppies can be; the yucky things they enjoy. He loves going on chicken poo hunts. He found a dead bird in the garden and gobbled it down with pride before I could snatch it from him. He caught and ate the mouse that lives under our potato containers (even the cat had not managed that!) We have suffered the consequences of his undesirable snacking. I am trying to teach him what he may and may not munch on. I need another pair of eyes and hands to keep him out of mischief. He has given my son, feeling rather low from weeks of being isolated, a sense of purpose.

Re-homing Pasha from the animal sanctuary has been an absolute pleasure. He makes us laugh every day and keeps us busy. We have little time for worrying about the future and how our world will be changed now. Like dogs, we live in the moment, making the most of each minute. In fact, you could say Pasha has rescued us.

The Mask by Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

#blacklivesmatter

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/

We wait

Time passes in fits and starts at the moment. As the lock down continues, with no easing here in Wales, hours can disappear without notice yet weeks and months seem to stretch on interminably. There is a paralysis of inspiration, focus and motivation; nothing much beyond normal routine is achieved, activities are cancelled, future prospects and plans are on hold, loved ones are missed, anxiety is buried beneath layers of mundanity.

We wait.

Nature does not wait, however, and time continues in the passing of spring into early summer. The swallows have returned and built a nest in the barn, flitting and swooping above the paddocks, finding pure joy in the hunting and catching of winged insects for their hatchlings. The hedgerows are vibrant with wildflowers, white, blue, purple, yellow and pink; bees darting among the petals, legs laden with pollen. The air is filled with amorous sounds of life; the buzz and hum of mini beasts, the chattering conversations of birds, the throaty calls of frogs, busy in their mating rituals. Less welcome, the local farmers are industrious, cutting silage and spreading muck on the fields during the dry spell. Tractors roar up and down narrow lanes all day and late into the night. The pungent perfume of manure sends us scampering inside with our lunchtime sandwiches.

Staying active in the garden, observing and enjoying small moments of this normality, keeps us grounded and content. Vegetable seedlings need planting, weeds must be cleared, brambles and bracken cut back. A poorly chicken needs care. Wood preservative is ordered ready for treating the stables, barn doors and fencing. There are jobs to do. Physical work to keep us healthy in body and mind.

There is family too. The bliss of being together with nowhere else to be. The pleasure in gathering for good food cooked with love. Sourdough bread is a success; warm, crusty and flavour-full, now yeast has become like gold dust. Pride at how well the young people are coping, with university closed, projects and dissertations to complete in difficult circumstances, unable to enjoy a night out with friends. There is zoom and social media but it is a long period of uncertainty and missing out. They are doing remarkably well.

And there is community. A group of willing and able volunteers in the nearest village. We post leaflets through doors, offer help for those alone and isolated; shopping, collecting prescriptions, posting mail. A support network, building links and hopefully lasting friendships. A chance to give something back for those of us who know how lucky we are. More people are walking; unable to go further afield in their cars, they explore the footpaths of the local countryside. We see new faces, shout welcomes over the hedge, have little chats. This gives us mixed feelings; selfishly we have enjoyed the peaceful isolation, and wonder if we will continue to have walkers once this is over.

Life is quiet and simple. We think about how it will be when lock down ends; what will we have learnt, what will remain and what will the new normal be?

We wait.

Tough times for a tortoise

Tortoises are awkward animals. Every job they undertake is hard work. Eating is effortful – with no hands to hold the food, necks stretch, mouths grasp and pull. Sometimes the delicious item slips away. Walking is effortful – dragging a heavy shell around, managing uneven ground. Sometimes the weight causes a tricky balancing act with the inevitable toppling over, then there is a scrabbling, useless flailing of legs in a hard-won attempt to get right way up again. Love making is effortful – the arduous manoeuvrings, scrape of claws on shell, crunch of carapaces and anguished cry. Sometimes the other half just wanders off. Life appears tough for a tortoise.

Living with a tortoise for forty-three years has given me some insight and surprises. My grandfather bought me one for my seventh birthday. Named after a popular road safety squirrel of the time, I chose probably the most inappropriate name ever given a tortoise – Tufty. He was beautiful – his shell a shiny, patterned olive green and mottled brown. At that age, I did not think about the terrible journey he had undertaken – snatched from the wild, crushed in a crate with hundreds of his fellows, packed onto a container ship. Shamefully, I think of it now and wish he could be returned to roam the dry, grassy slopes of his home country, sun warming his burnished back. Instead, he has had forty-three years of living in damp, rainy Britain.

thTufty the Road Safety Squirrel © ROSPA

At the end of every November, Tufty has to go to bed in a cupboard box, stuffed with paper bedding, insulated in another plastic box filled with polystyrene wotsits, for his annual hibernation. Every February, there is immense relief when he wakes up, fit and well. For Tufty is a resilient little creature. He is awkward but he is tough, reliable and lovable. He has character. He comes when called and likes human and other animal company. He particularly enjoys chasing other pets around the garden – dogs, cats and even ducks – who never seem to understand quite what he is; a moving rock, how is that possible? He never gives up if he wants something, even climbing out of his run to escape. Tufty may lumber around carrying his heavy home but he can move when he wants to, especially on a hot day. His pleasure in munching on a dandelion or buttercup flower is a joy to behold.

SONY DSC

Despite my guilt at having a pet who was torn from his homeland in traumatic circumstances, I am glad I have Tufty. He has been a constant since I was a small child and he holds an important place in the cycle of my life. Quiet, steadfast, patient and determined, Tufty has kept me company and provides a symbol for simple, sensible, contented living.

Years ago

My husband and I started dating in 1991. We’ve recently celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary – that’s a long time together and a long time married. Like any married couple, we’ve had our ups and downs. It takes work to have a successful relationship, and some days it’s hard to put the effort in, but we’re doing all right. We both agree that we’re happy. Here’s a poem I wrote a while back about long-term partnerships.

 

Years ago, you knocked on my door.

I put the chain across,

opened it a slit and

looked you over.

Then I

let you in.

For a drink, a chat.

 

But you

hung up your coat,

took off your shoes,

put your

feet under the table.

 

Sometimes we danced in the living room

giggling until we

fell in dizzy heaps.

Sometimes we sat reading

separate novels,

lost in

distant worlds.

Other times we fought,

brutal bloody battles,

no one could win.

 

Sometimes we shared a meal

together, diced sliced,

laughed over a glass of wine,

candles twinkling.

Sometimes we were tired, got take away,

couldn’t be

bothered with the effort.

Other times we ate apart,

solitary below the

cold kitchen light.

 

Sometimes we snuggled

beneath the duvet,

late lazy lay-ins,

close, so we were

touching.

Sometimes we gave a

peck on the cheek, rolled over,

started snoring.

Other times we slept alone,

chilly with a blanket, on the

hard floor of the

spare room.

 

But you

made yourself at home.

And I

never moved out.

We’re still here.

 

 

On Bergen

Bergen is a beautiful city. It sits nestled between mountains, fjords and islands. Known as ‘the city between the seven mountains’, it is actually surrounded by nine in total. The name Bergen means ‘the meadow among the mountains’. The mountains protect the city, keeping its climate relatively warm considering its northern aspect. The water is clear and blue. The many lakes and fjords are like glassy mirrors reflecting pure images of the forested surroundings. Up in the mountains, if you are lucky, you can see goats living wild. (OK, so this one isn’t really wild – but they are there!)

P1030808

Bergen is an old city. It was founded about 1070. In the harbour, you will find the ancient district of Bryggen. These beautiful wooden buildings now house shops, museums and eateries. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, they are crowded and popular with tourists. Bergen’s narrow cobbled streets are lined with picturesque, clapperboard houses.

P1030853

Bergen is a city of fires. Its history contains a trail of destruction. Many of its buildings are wooden and in danger from the flames. In 1248, eleven churches were burnt down. In 1702, ninety percent of the city was reduced to ashes. Bryggen has burnt on more than one occasion, including in 1476 in a fire started by a drunk and in 1955 when many of its buildings were destroyed.

P1030836

Bergen is a clean city. It is a city you can breathe in. The mountain air is sweet and fresh. Bergen has an excellent public transport system, including trains, trams and buses. Much of it is electric. This transport system keeps cars out of the city centre. The few cars you do see are mostly electric. The Norwegian government subsidises the purchase of electric cars, so Norwegians drive more electric cars per capita than anywhere else in the world. It is a green and environmentally friendly place.

P1030817

Bergen is a wild city. Bergen residents like to party on a Saturday night and this includes indulging in some heavy drinking! Luckily, alcohol is very expensive, so drunkenness seems to be limited to once a week. People in Bergen love to enjoy the outdoors – swimming in the fjords, walking the trails, sailing around the islands. There are trekking trails everywhere. It is easy to get up into the mountains and explore, especially the two most popular ones. Floyen has a funicular railway and Ulriken has a cable car. There are cabins hidden in the mountains and forests where you can stay after a long day trekking. There are places to set up camp and get your fire going all over the mountainsides.

P1030792

Bergen is a beautiful, old, clean, wild city. I recommend you go and visit.

P1030839P1030949