A Christmas Star

“Oh, you’ve brought an egg sandwich for lunch. I never bring egg sandwiches to work. They make the staff room smell so dreadfully.” Betty Reid looked as if some poor creature had crawled behind the photocopier to die.

Ellen James sighed inwardly. She didn’t often come into the staff room with its atmosphere of prissy spite. She much preferred eating in her classroom; working on a display, preparing resources for an activity or hearing children read.

“I love an egg sandwich, though…one of my favourites.” She smiled.

“Mmm…but not in the staff room perhaps.” Betty peeled and sliced her apple with delicate precision onto a bone china plate.

The action irritated Ellen. What was wrong with crunching your teeth deep into the flesh and letting the juice run down your chin? She imagined the look of horror on Betty’s face. Food was for enjoying, not an autopsy.

The reason Ellen had entered the room of doom this lunchtime was because she had been summoned. Betty, who happened to be Deputy Head due to retire at the end of the school year, wanted to discuss the Christmas performance.

“Well, if everyone is here and finished eating, I’ll begin…” Betty said. The staff room door opened and a thin woman with frizzy hair stumbled through and sat down with a mumbled apology. “Pamela, mmm…we are starting.” Betty stood up and straightened her A-line skirt so that it sat perfectly six inches below the knee. She looked around at the teachers gathered there.

All women, all middle-aged, apart from young Ellen in her second year of teaching, all tired and all enjoying a good gossip. Ellen often wondered whether a couple of male staff might improve the dynamic. There was Mr Brown of course, the Headteacher. In a profession dominated by women, in a school full of female staff, their reclusive Head was a man. He never entered the staff room at lunchtime – that was a women’s domain. He was rarely seen around the school, preferring the safety of his office, though he did have an uncanny way of appearing in the doorway of your classroom at the most inopportune moments. No wonder her colleagues were bitter.

“It’s the beginning of November all ready and we need to decide on our Christmas play.” Betty continued, “I think Pamela suggested we do a Nativity this year when we discussed this briefly at our last staff meeting.”

Pamela Gaunt gave a nervous nod. “Yes, well we haven’t done a Nativity for the last couple of years, have we? And I do love to see the story of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.”

Pamela Gaunt was in charge of Religious Education at the school. The most disorganised teacher Ellen had ever seen, her classroom was a shambles of scattered books, games and resources. Always late for meetings, she never had the right report or folder with her; her class never arrived on time at assembly or often turned up in the school hall on the wrong day. She didn’t seem to do any planning, rambling from one unfinished activity to the next. Much like her classroom, Pamela was a dishevelled mess. Her clothes looked like they had been pulled from straight the laundry basket each morning and she usually wore her cardigan inside out. Ellen liked Pamela Gaunt. She was kind and lacked confidence. The children loved her too, despite the chaos, or perhaps because of it. The rest of the staff were cruel about Pamela behind her back, tut tutting about the state of her attire and the tattered, dusty displays on the walls of her classroom.

“No, we haven’t Pamela, thank you. Any other ideas?” Betty gave a hopeful smile.

The other teachers shook their heads.

“What about asking the children?” Ellen suggested.

A bluster of disapproval travelled around the room.

“The children?” Anne Foster exclaimed. “What an idea. It would be a fiasco!”

Anne foster was the Art Coordinator. She had been in the role for twenty years and had already stated she would be doing the scenery. This would involve drawing everything in outline for the children to fill in with paint – her speciality. Anne Foster was an imposing woman. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, heavy jawed and with hands that could crush a child’s skull to dust, few dared to argue with her. Not that Ellen was suggesting Anne had ever undertaken the crushing of a child’s head but there was still time…she had fifteen years until her retirement.

“What do you mean…a fiasco?” Ellen said.

“Children have no imagination these days.” Carol Radford said, Maths Coordinator. Carol had been Ellen’s mentor in her NQT year and she had the habit of surreptitiously altering the children’s work to make it look better than it actually was.

“Sorry? Surely…” Ellen tried to argue.

“It’ll be Barbie dolls and Action men.” Anne Foster interrupted.

“Or they’ll try and act a favourite film. Disney or Marvel or something awful like that…” said Liz Harris, PE Coordinator. Ellen had fallen out with Liz last summer when she remarked it might be good to try a non-competitive Sport’s Day, where the children worked as teams, rather than the usual races.

“The drivel they write for stories nowadays…all Harry Potter copies. It’s tiresome.” said Maggie Barker, English and Music Coordinator.

A flood of frustration engulfed Ellen. This always happened at staff meetings.

“Well, if there are no other ideas, a Nativity it is. Can I have a show of hands to ensure we are all agreed?” Betty said.

Everyone, except Ellen, raised their arms.

“Good, that’s pretty unanimous. Right, the bell will go shortly, so we must quickly decide who will be running this show. Anne has kindly offered to do her marvellous scenery again this year. Maggie will play the piano. We need someone to volunteer to sort out the play itself. It’s a demanding role but, I think, a rewarding one.” Betty eyed the room expectantly. Everyone avoided eye contact.

Finally, when Ellen could bear it no longer, she piped up, “I’ll do it if no one else wants to.”

“A little irregular for a teacher in only their second year to organise our special event.” Betty said shortly, “Anyone else?” The room was quiet. “Very well, Ellen it is, thank you.”

The bell rang out.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

During Circle Time, Ellen told her children about the Christmas performance and read them the Nativity story. Twenty-five upturned faces listened with wide-eyed concentration.

“Now Blue Class, I’ve said I will organise the show this year and I need your help.” Ellen said when she finished reading. Twenty-five mouths gasped in excitement, “Everyone in school will be in the play and we need to think about the different parts. I’m going to go around the circle and ask you one at a time for an idea about the people, animals and things we’ll need in the story. I’ll write your ideas on the whiteboard. Everyone will have a turn to say something and if you can’t think of anything, that is fine. All right?”

“Yes, Miss James.” the children chanted.

There was soon an impressive list on the whiteboard: Mary, Joseph and a doll for Jesus, shepherds, angels, kings and camels, the usual farm animals, a donkey (‘Oh yes Olivia, we must sing Little Donkey,’ agreed Ellen), an innkeeper, a llama (that had been Ben’s idea and everyone laughed but Ellen said there were camels, so why not a llama too?), a stable with manger, presents for Jesus (Ellen asked if anyone remembered what the three kings brought Jesus and received the confident answer of gold, Frankenstein and mirth from Chantelle), guests at the inn, a drummer boy (‘Another good song Dylan,’ Ellen smiled), costumes, crowns, angel wings and tinsel. Finally, Ellen got to Amy, who was sitting next to her feet, the last child in the circle. Amy had listened carefully to everyone’s ideas, occasionally standing up to excitedly repeat what her friends said. Her hands moved busily as she said the words as she was developing her Makaton sign language. Amy worked the hardest of all the children in Blue Class and was the most enthusiastic pupil in school. Everyone in class loved her and her teaching assistant, Miss Williams.

“Amy, can you think of anything?” Ellen signed the key words in her sentence.

Amy jumped up and down. “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” she signed and sang.

Ellen did a thumbs up. “Amy, that’s a good idea. The star that showed Jesus was born. We need a star.” She wrote the word star on the board and drew a star next to it.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…” Amy sang.

“Let’s all sing and sign ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, Blue Class.”

Later, when the children were settled at their afternoon activities, Ellen went over to speak to Amy and Miss Williams who were busy making autumn leaf prints.

Ellen crouched down at the desk, “Amy, I think you would be a brilliant star. Would you like to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ in the play?”

Amy dipped her brush into the orange paint and laughed. “Yes.”

Suddenly it was nearly home time, the children bustled and chatted as they tidied away their things then gathered on the carpet for a story and goodbye song. After waving the children off homeward, Ellen and Miss Williams sorted out materials for a tie dying activity the next morning.

“It’s lovely you asked Amy to be the star.” Karen Williams sliced a length of white cotton sheet into neat squares with pinking shears. “But are you sure? It won’t be popular.”

“Why shouldn’t Amy be the star?” Ellen said, “She’ll be great singing that song.”

Karen smiled. “I know that and you know that but I don’t think the rest of the staff will agree. For a start, it’s normally top class that take the main parts…”

“I’m running the show. They’ll just have to agree.” Ellen folded her arms in determination.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

A week later, the teachers were gathered in the staffroom again to discuss Ellen’s plans. They had to decide who in Anne Foster’s Red Class would be taking the lead roles and what the other classes would be doing. As usual, Maggie’s Green Class would be the choir. There was no negotiation on that.   

“Oranges have such a pungent smell and all that juice is dreadfully sticky.” Betty Reid wrinkled her nose as Ellen self-consciously stuck her thumb into the pitted peel.

“Lovely and fresh compared to eggs, though.” Ellen smiled. 

“Yes, well…we need to begin.” Betty wiped her hands clean of crumbs with a lace handkerchief. “Can we have quiet, please everybody? Ellen is starting.”

Ellen popped the orange in her lunchbox and picked up her papers. “With the help of my class, I have jotted down some plans. Red Class lead roles are: Mary, Joseph, two lead shepherds, three kings, the innkeeper, angel Gabrielle and a drummer boy. Then there are the animals: a donkey for Mary, three camels for the kings, then cows, pigs, horses and a llama…”

“A llama?” Anne interrupted. “Are we setting it in South America? I’ve never heard the like!”

“It was Ben Spencer’s idea and the other children laughed. I said we had camels, so why not?” Ellen smiled.

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why not. We’ll be a laughing stock. This is what happens when you insist on asking the children. What did we tell you at the last meeting? A fiasco!” Anne snorted so loudly she blew the froth from her cappuccino.

“Yes, scrap the llama Ellen. There are plenty of parts for Red Class without adding unnecessary animals.” Betty smoothed her skirt. “Go on to the next class.”

Ellen sighed. “Ben will be very disappointed. Anyway…Green Class are the choir. So, then we have Yellow Class. They will be the host of angels. They’ll come on and sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Is that OK, Pamela?”

“Yes, lovely.” Pamela put her hands together as if in prayer, “I do love that hymn it’s…”

“I don’t think the boys in Pamela’s class will want to be angels.” Anne interrupted. “And the parents won’t like it.”

“Angels can be both sexes, Anne. The angel Gabrielle is a male.” Ellen said.

“I’m not giving a boy in my class the part of Gabrielle,” said Anne, “I have Hannah Evans in line for that. Such a beautiful child, with that mass of blonde curls.”

Ellen gritted her teeth.

Pamela said, “I think the boys in my class will be fine as angels when I explain the importance of them in the Nativity story.”

“Good, thank you Pamela.” said Ellen, “Next is Purple Class. They will be people in the town of Bethlehem and at the inn. They will perform ‘Rat at tat tat, there isn’t any room.’ Liz, are you happy with that?”

“Yes, sounds possible. I just hope you are providing directions and a script for this. We don’t want the children standing around like lemons. Christmas is a busy time…we can’t be expected to plan our own scenes.” Liz said.

“I have a script and stage directions in rough all ready. I thought each class could incorporate a simple dance into their songs too. I’ve got ideas written down for those. It’s all here.” Ellen tapped her folder, “You will have to spend time practising your scenes and dances in class though. There won’t be enough time to do it all in whole school rehearsals otherwise. Is that OK, Liz? You are PE Coordinator so I thought you’d be good with the dancing.”  

“Of course. Anyone would think we haven’t put on a play before.” Liz folded her arms.

“Orange Class next. I have you down for ‘While shepherds watched’. There will be shepherds, sheep and lambs. Is that fine for you, Carol?”

“Yes, perhaps Pamela and my class can join forces and if there are any boys who don’t want to be angels or girls that don’t want to be shepherds or sheep, we can swap around a bit?” Carol nodded at Pamela. “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Not this again, Ellen thought but said, “Then we come to your children Betty, Pink Class. I have you down for the Little Drummer Boy scene, like a marching band of soldiers come to pay respects to Baby Jesus.”

“I’m sure Mother Mary will be thrilled about that, when she’s just got the baby off to sleep.” Anne guffawed.

“What a brilliant idea, Anne. I’ll add that in as a joke.” Ellen scribbled in her folder.

“Interesting, something a bit different. Got to stop the parents falling asleep. They see a lot of Nativities over the years.” Betty said.

“I’m glad you like it, Betty. Finally, my children, Blue Class. We are going to be the stars in the bright sky. Anne, your class will do ‘Away in a Manger’ then my little ones come on as stars. Amy will be the main star singing and signing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ then the whole class join in. Then on come the three kings guided by the star to ‘We Three Kings.’ That’s your class again, Anne.” Ellen blurted the information quickly in the hope no one would say anything. 

“Hold on a minute.” Anne said, “Did you say Amy will be the main star? Leading roles are for Red Class.”

“It’s not a leading role, Anne. There are no lines.” Ellen explained.

“And Amy? Do you mean Amy Mackenzie, the Down’s girl?” Anne said shortly.

“Yes, there is only one Amy in my class and she is not a Down’s girl, Anne. She has Down’s Syndrome but that is only a small part of Amy. She is a hardworking, enthusiastic and funny child who loves to sing and she will be brilliant in the play.”

“Is it really a good idea, Ellen? Amy can be emotional at times. If she feels anxious or under pressure on the day, she might not perform well. She might have a tantrum, or burst into tears, or make a mistake.” Betty said. The other teachers nodded in agreement.

“So might any of the children.” Ellen argued. “Last year, poor Jack wet himself on stage. He was so nervous, he forgot to go to the toilet before he put his Humpty Dumpty costume on.”

Anne chortled. “One shouldn’t chuckle but the egg filled up and he left a little trail everywhere he went!”

“So sad.” Tears shone in Pamela’s eyes. “We do expect a lot from them.”

“Exactly,” said Carol, “and perhaps you’re expecting too much from Amy, Ellen?”

“Karen and I know what she is capable of. She signs the song so well. Can we give her a chance?” Ellen looked around at every teacher in the room. “Please don’t write Amy off.”

“All right,” said Betty finally, “Amy can have a chance but any problems, that will be it. We can’t risk the show being spoilt.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

By the third week in November, Ellen had written up the scripts, stage directions and costume requirements, printed them out and given copies to the staff. Rehearsals were due to begin in classrooms the following week. From December 1st, there would be two or three whole school rehearsals weekly, depending on how things were going. Anne Foster had allocated the lead roles to favoured children in her class and begun drawing the scenery.

The first week of December arrived and classrooms filled with the busy hum of children making decorations, cards and calendars for Christmas. Shiny paper chains hung from every ceiling and cotton wool bedecked displays of Father Christmas and snowmen covered the walls. Glitter trailed along the corridors as if some disco snail had been having a party. As the time of the show got nearer, and every day there was another practise, the children got noisier and more excitable.

One afternoon, Ellen felt fed up of Christmas so she suggested her class go on a Bear Hunt around the classroom. The children liked this game. It was something they had done often. They especially enjoyed the bit where they crawled under the tables to get to the bear cave. This particular afternoon, they were impatient and over-tired. Underneath the tables, there was pushing and shoving.

“Careful children, we must be quiet or the bear will hear us!” Ellen said, “Sssh!”

They carried along, creeping on their knees, a little quieter this time when suddenly Amy cried, “Ow, ow, ow!”

Someone had knelt on her hand. She screamed and screamed. Miss Williams tried to calm her but she would not stop. She held up the inflamed fingers to inspect them, then lashed out with her foot at the boy in front who had inadvertently done the damage, catching him on the thigh. It was Daniel Matthews, a child with a tendency to weep at the slightest provocation. He began to wail in time with Amy.

“Whatever is going on in here, Blue Class?” Mr Brown’s voice boomed from the classroom door. “Where is your teacher? Get out from those tables immediately. What shocking behaviour!”

Ellen scrambled out from under the table. “It’s all right, Mr Brown. We were playing a game and someone trod on Amy’s fingers. That’s all. We’re sorting it.”

“Oh, Miss James, you are there. I thought from the noise, the children were unsupervised. I see you have everything under control. I’ll leave you to it.” Mr Brown turned and left.

Across the corridor, Anne Foster loomed in her doorway, a Big Unfriendly Giant.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

That evening, as Ellen was leaving school, Betty Reid called from her office door.

“One moment, Ellen. I hear you had an incident with Amy today. You don’t think she is becoming overwrought with these rehearsals, do you?”

“No, it was nothing to do with the play. A slight accident, that’s all.” Ellen said, “Amy is doing brilliantly. I’m really proud of her.”

“Well, if you’re sure but remember what we agreed. Any more episodes and we’ll have to reconsider.” Betty went back to her office.

Pamela Gaunt came out of her classroom and smiled. “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“I bet that was Anne telling tales.” Ellen said, “It’s so annoying. The play is only next week, I don’t want Amy to have to stop now. She’s worked hard. She’s so excited, got her costume and everything.”

“It’s just jealousy, you know. The play is really good and you’re an excellent teacher. They can’t stand that. They think you make them look bad.”

“Thanks, Pamela. Why ever did I volunteer? I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Finally, the day of the Christmas show arrived. Ellen’s stomach bubbled with anxiety and excitement. She had worked herself to near exhaustion for the last month, lost count of the number of times they had practised the play, knew all the lines backwards and dreamt every night of shepherds, angels, kings and stars. The hall was packed to brimming with parents, grandparents and carers. There were no seats left, many stood at the back and the warm air steamed as damp coats, hats and scarves dried on the back of chairs. A tattered velvet curtain hung across the stage, behind which teachers and classroom assistants bumped and scraped with props and scenery. Maggie Barker played a medley of carols on the clunky piano.

Mr Brown approached the front of the stage and performed a short welcome before hurriedly skulking off. The audience clapped, the lights went down, and there was silence. Everyone waited, nothing happened. Whispers began to travel around the hall. Someone was pulling at the curtain. It appeared to be stuck.

“Excuse me.” Ellen apologised, as she stepped onto the stage and gave the velvet a hefty tug. The curtains swept back to reveal Mary, Joseph and a donkey beginning the arduous journey to Bethlehem. Ellen scooted out of the way and Maggie began the intro to ‘Little Donkey’.

After the initial hold up, the performance went smoothly. The audience seemed to enjoy it. They ‘Aaahed’ to the choir’s beautiful voices. There was a rumble of laughter at the Innkeeper’s emphatic, “No, we have no room. Go to the stable!”. They weren’t concerned by female shepherds wearing tea towels and male angels wearing tinsel. There was a gasp as Gabrielle nearly toppled from her bench as she gave her declaration to the shepherds, and an audible “Phew!” when a fellow angel grabbed her wings to steady her. Mary picked Baby Jesus up by his legs on a number of occasions. Several of the shepherds sat picking their noses as they looked upon the stable scene. ‘Away in a Manger’ brought tears to many eyes. Then it was time for Blue Class. Ellen took a deep breath.

Out trotted twenty-five little stars and spread themselves around the stage. There was a puzzled murmur, as one of the stars appeared to be a llama. In the centre stood Amy, the brightest, biggest star of all. The room went quiet, then Maggie began ‘Twinkle, twinkle’. Amy looked at the audience wide-eyed but no sound came from her mouth. Her hands remained still and stiff at her sides. Maggie repeated the intro. Amy stood silent. An expectant shuffling went round the audience. Ellen came forward and gave Amy a double thumbs up, willing her to start with a big smile. The piano tinkled for the third time. With a shared sense of relief, Amy began to sing and sign her song. She performed with gusto and, at the end, did a thumbs up and gave a huge grin. The whole class joined in, singing and signing the song. The audience clapped and cheered. Then Blue Class went off stage.

Amy returned leading the three kings to Baby Jesus. The play continued. Jesus was given Frankenstein as one of his presents. When the marching band woke the Baby and Mary was livid, there was much kind laughter from the crowd. Then the finale, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with not a dry eye to be seen in school. Even Anne Foster choked back a lump in her ample throat. Finally, each class entered the stage for their applause. Ellen couldn’t help but feel glowing pride when Amy and Blue Class received the loudest claps and cheers.

Then Mr Brown was back on stage calling up Ellen to receive her praise and a bunch of flowers. Anne Foster and Maggie Barker were thanked for their contribution too.

“Thank you so much.” Ellen said, “We couldn’t do it without the hard work of the children who were all wonderful. I’d like to give a special mention to Amy. She was a Christmas Star!”

Shine

I wrote this song thinking about the various troubles we’ve experienced this year and how divided people seem to be; whether through race, religion, politics, ideology or belief.

——————

I got my eye on the mountain

I can see far ahead

The sky is clear there

No grey clouds to obscure our way

What we need now is to take our anger and throw it away

What we need now is to cast our fear to the wind

I got my mind on the next year

I can think far ahead

The days are clear there

No worries to obscure our way

What we need now is to sit down here and talk about it

What we need now is to find some friendship and love

I got my hand on your shoulder

I can reach far ahead

The path is clear there

No hatred to obscure our way

What we need now is to recognise we’re both the same

What we need now is to accept our differences

What we need now is to stand side by side and face it

What we need now is to come together and shine

We need to come together

And shine

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.

Can you come out to play?

“Can you come out to play?” said the boy at the door.

Liv looked him over shyly. He didn’t seem threatening. He was small and pale, oddly old-fashioned in his grey school shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. His knees were muddy and his plimsoles scuffed. Mum had told her things would be different here. “In the countryside people won’t care what you look like. No one will tell you that you’re wearing the wrong trainers. They’ll probably be in wellies. We’ll be happy there.” she’d said.  

“Wait a minute, I’ll ask my Mum.” Liv pushed the door to and ran up the narrow hallway calling, “Mum, there’s a boy asking if I can go out to play with him.”

“A boy…who?” Mum came to the top of the stairs with Mrs Bevan, the landlady, waddling behind.

It was Mrs Bevan’s house they were moving into. Well, not her house exactly, she was renting Mrs Thomas’s house to them. Mrs Thomas was Mrs Bevan’s Mam who had lived in the house all her life until recently. Mrs Thomas had gone into a residential home after she fell down the stairs and they hadn’t found her for two hours. Liv tried not to imagine the old lady laying on the dark wooden floor, legs twisted underneath her, a livid bruise growing across her face.

She shrugged. “He didn’t say his name. Can I Mum? I’m bored. Please…”

“I expect that’s young Dylan, your nearest neighbour. Good boy, he is. Nice family. Struggling a bit, they are, you know. Father just lost his job.” Mrs Bevan said. “She’ll be fine playing with Dylan.”

Mum thought for a moment, then sighed. “I suppose it’s all right but stay in the garden. And only for an hour tops because you’ve still got to unpack your things.”

“Thanks.” said Liv, scrambling to put on her shoes. She hurried down the hallway and flung open the door but no one was there.

“Dylan?” she called, wandering down to the front gate to see if he was in the lane. A startled blackbird flew up from the hedgerow but, other than that, it was deserted.

“You back already?” Mum said when she saw Liv sitting on the bottom stair struggling with her laces.

“He’d gone.” Liv replied.

“There’ll be plenty of chances to make friends with him, I’m sure.” Mum smiled sympathetically. “Mrs Bevan is leaving now. She’s shown me where everything is. We’ll go and have a cuppa and a sandwich then I’ll help you sort your bedroom out.”

——

Liv sipped her hot chocolate. It was strange sitting in a different kitchen, at an unfamiliar table, drinking from someone else’s mug, eating from someone else’s plate. She missed their kitchen with the shiny breakfast bar where she sat on the shiny stool swinging her feet.

“You okay, little dreamer?” Mum asked.

“Just thinking this kitchen looks very old.”

“Everything in this house is old, Liv. That’s why we got it for a good price but it’s clean and warm and furnished with the things we need.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t bring our own things.” said Liv, then regretted it as Mum’s beautiful dark eyes clouded over. 

“I’m sorry we couldn’t too…” Mum reached for Liv’s hand. “But you know Dad needs them for his new family. You have your special things. And we’ve never had a garden before and now we have an enormous one. It’ll take all day to explore that tomorrow.”

“It’s okay, it just feels weird.”

“We’ll get used to it.” Mum squeezed her hand. “Now eat up so we can get your room done before bedtime.”

——

The next morning after breakfast, there was a knock on the door.

“Can you answer it, please Liv?” Mum called from the small back room she had chosen for a study. “I’ve got to ring the solicitor.”

Liv skipped along the hall and opened the door. There was Dylan looking the same as yesterday.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“I’ll just tell my Mum.” Liv ran to the study. “Dylan’s here. We’re going to play in the garden.”

She tugged on her wellies and went to join Dylan outside. It was a bright day and the air felt crisp with breaths of Autumn.

“I’m Liv. Are you called Dylan?”

Dylan nodded then stood scraping at the fallen leaves with his damp shoe.

“What do you want to play?” asked Liv.

“Cowboys and Indians. You be an Indian and I’ll be a Cowboy. I’ll chase you, like this.” He trotted around as if he was riding a horse and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

Liv looked doubtful.

“You do the Indian cry.” He opened his mouth in a large o, moving his hand over it in an ululation.

“No, I don’t want to.” said Liv, “I don’t think that’s a nice game. The Native American Indians were driven off their lands by the settlers. It was horrible and sad.”

“Cops and Robbers then. You be a robber and I’ll be a cop. I’ll chase you, like this.” This time, he pretended to drive a car and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

“Another quite nasty game.” said Liv, “I’m not sure.”

“Can you hold your arms like this so it looks like a bag of swag?” Dylan mimed creeping around holding his loot over his shoulder.

Liv sighed. “I suppose I can.”

The two children chased around the garden, Liv exploring as she went, finding paths through the overgrown lawns, ducking under branches and jumping over old fallen walls. It was an amazing place to play in, left to decay and grow wild. When they grew fed up with chasing about, they kicked up piles of dead leaves gathered near the hedges and pulled moss off the crumbling stonework searching for woodlice.

“Let’s go to the stream.” Dylan said.

“I can’t. I mustn’t leave the garden.” replied Liv.

“It’s in the garden.” Dylan said, “At the bottom, then you cross the stream and you’re in the woods.”

Liv followed Dylan down a winding pathway, partially hidden with ferns turning shades of gold and brown. She could hear the stream before she could see it, a whispering, giggling sound like there were other children playing somewhere in the garden. They sat on the wet bank amongst the dying ferns and bracken, hidden from the view of anyone who might come walking, and watched the water hurry over rocks and stones.

“Sometimes I come here and hide.” Dylan said.

“Why?” asked Liv.

“When they laugh at me at school. When they point at my pumps and say we can’t afford proper shoes.”

“Mum told me it would be different here but I knew it wouldn’t. They laughed at me at my school too.” Liv said, “They didn’t like my trainers or my curly hair. And they called me dirty…because I’m mixed race.”

“Your hair is pretty.” Dylan turned his face away. “Sometimes I paddle across the stream and go into the woods and hide in the trees. When my Dad gets angry, when he shouts at me and my sister tells me to get outta the house before I get a good wallop.”

“Mrs Bevan said he lost his job.”

“My Dad don’t want me.” said Dylan.

“My Dad doesn’t want me either. That’s why we’ve moved here. He wants his skinny, blonde girlfriend and new baby. So, we’re the same, you and me.”

“We can be friends.” Dylan said.

“We are friends.” said Liv.

“Shake on it.” Dylan spat on his palm and held it out.

Liv spat on her palm and they shook.

——

At lunchtime, Liv told Mum about Dylan and what he had said down by the stream.

“That’s really sad, Liv.” Mum said, “I hope he’s all right. Perhaps we should call in and say hello to his family this afternoon when we go to post the documents for the solicitor.”

“Don’t say anything Mum, please. He’s my friend and he told me, not you.” Liv bit at her lip. She didn’t want Dylan to think she was a blabbermouth.

“I won’t Liv, but we need to check. This could be serious and we might not be able to keep this a secret. Okay?”

Liv nodded and picked at her cheese sandwich, dreading the walk to the Post Office.

——

On the way back from posting the letter, Mum stopped at the tiny cottage with the peeling front door at the corner of the lane. Their nearest neighbour. Liv stayed by the rusty iron gate.

“We’ll just say a quick hi,” Mum whispered as she rang the bell.

There were shouts and scuffles behind the door, a baby’s cry then a round, flustered face appeared at a grubby window. The face disappeared and a moment later the door opened.

“Oh hello, I thought you were the milkman come for his money. We’re a bit late paying, see.” said the round-faced woman.

“Hello, we’ve moved in next door and wanted to introduce ourselves. I’m Becca and this is Liv.” Becca smiled broadly.

“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Sioned. I’d invite you in but you’ve caught me in a bit of a muddle, everything all over the place and the little one a bit agitated as you can hear…” She shrugged as another whining cry came from behind her.

“No, no, we wouldn’t expect that. We just wanted to say hello, and Mrs Bevan told me you’ve been having a hard time lately…with your husband losing his job. Just to let you know I work from home and I’m always around if you need anything.”

“I bet she told you, a right gossip that one!” Sioned snapped.

“No harm meant, sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it…only we all have troubles, I’m going through a divorce now, that’s why we moved, so…” Becca said.

“Oh, no…it’s very kind of you to offer. It is a struggle, with four kids, see.”

“It must be difficult. Are your children all okay?”

Liv squeezed her hands tight in the pockets of her coat.

“Well, normally yes. We always put them first, see. Go without ourselves as long as they got what they need. But, oh they have been poorly, little loves, with this stomach bug going through school.”

“Your children are ill? That’s miserable.” Becca said, “What about Dylan? He’s managed to escape it then, has he?”

“Dylan? No! He’s been the worst of the lot. Got it bad, he have. Been in bed for three days. The washing I’ve had…” Sioned shook her head and the baby wailed again. “Look I gotta go sorry, nice of you to come round. When things are calmer, you’ll have to come for a cuppa. Tara!”

She shut the door and Becca gave Liv a bemused look. “There must be another Dylan in the village.”

——

That night, Liv lay awake as a seasonal wind blustered around the house. The large tree outside her window was scratching at the panes with finger-like branches. Mum had drawn the curtains back to show her there was nothing to be scared of but she felt uneasy. She regretted telling about Dylan. After they left Sioned’s house, Mum had asked lots of questions about him, trying to work out where he came from so she could help him if he was in danger. She wanted to know everything he’d said, what he looked like, what he was wearing, whether he wore the same school uniform as the one she’d bought for Liv (he didn’t; Liv’s polo shirt was a pretty royal blue.) Next time he visited, Mum said she would have a word with him. Liv thought herself a bad friend and decided, if Dylan came again, she wouldn’t let Mum know. She sat up, switched on her bedside lamp and reached for her book.

It was difficult to concentrate with the howling of the wind and the scraping of the branches. Liv lost her place on the page many times until she bumped the book back on the table in frustration. As she did so, she heard a tap on the window. It was a different sound to the rasping tree. She sat very still, listening. The tapping sounded again, a series of sharp, urgent raps on the glass. Someone was knocking on her window. Liv went cold. She lay still, uncertain what to do. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

Liv took a deep breath, then slowly, slid out of bed and padded across the chill floorboards on wobbly legs to the curtain. Once there, she froze, heartbeat pulsing. She took another breath and put out a shaky hand to lift the curtain. The branches scratched at the window. The wind roared. There was no one there. Liv turned the latch and opened the window. It pulled out of her hand with a crash and hung broken against the wall. She leaned out, peering into the darkness.

“Can you come out to play?” said a small voice.

“Dylan? Where are you?” Liv called.

“Here.”

Liv strained her eyes and saw his face, white in the rays from her lamp. He was sitting in the crook of a branch a little way from her window.

“What are you doing? In this wind? You’ll fall.”

“I’m a good climber.” Dylan started to shuffle along the branch towards her window.

“Dylan. No. Get down.”

“Can you come out to play?” his voice carried, clear and cold on the wind.

“It’s the middle of the night! My Mum would be angry if she knew you were here and so would yours. Go home to bed Dylan.” Liv tried to pull the window closed but it dangled on damaged hinges.

Dylan shuffled closer; his skin bruised in the shadowy light.

“Go home Dylan!” Liv shouted.

The wind tore at the broken window. Liv held on tight.

“What’s going on?” Mum shouted.

Liv turned and saw her Mum standing, hands on hips. She looked back at the tree. Dylan was gone.

“Whatever were you doing opening your window in this wind?” Mum struggled with the catch. “It won’t close properly. It’s broken. That will have to do for tonight.”

She took Liv’s hands. “What were you doing, love? I’m not cross, it’s all right…”

“I don’t know…I was scared…the tree.” Liv hugged her Mum.

“Well, you’d better come and sleep with me tonight. I’ll ring Mrs Bevan in the morning and explain about the window.”

——

Mum called Mrs Bevan early the next day. While she was on the phone, Dylan knocked on the door. Liv opened it angrily.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“Can I come out to play?” Liv spat. “What do you think you were doing coming round like that last night, Dylan? You could have got me in trouble. I broke the window. That’ll cost Mum money. You could have been killed.”

Dylan looked down at his plimsoles.

“I’m not sure I should play with you again.” Liv started to go inside.

“Can you come out to play?” said Dylan.

Liv sighed. “You’re hopeless…just let me tell my Mum I’m going outside.”

——

They sat by the stream. The water sparkled in the sunshine as it tripped over rocks. The air was at rest after the wild night. Liv had suggested they do something quiet after the adventures of the previous evening. She hadn’t told her Mum she was playing with Dylan and didn’t want her to hear them if she came out looking. They searched amongst the ferns for signs of insect life.

Liv pulled at a beautiful orange frond. “Where do you live, Dylan?”

“Here.” he said.

“I know you live in the village, but where?”

“Let’s go in the woods. I’ll show you my favourite tree. I’m a good climber.” said Dylan.

“I don’t think I should. Mum says to stay in the garden.”

“I’ll show you my favourite tree.”

Liv shook her head. “I don’t know…”

——

Becca put the kettle on to boil then searched in the cupboard for the bara brith. Mrs Bevan would want a cup of tea and she liked to have a little something with it. Becca hoped she wouldn’t stay too long. That woman knew how to talk. She’d been very understanding about the window though, offered to pop in on the way to the residential home. Becca didn’t know why Mrs Bevan had to see the damage; she could simply organise a carpenter, but it was her mother’s house after all.

“Hello…Becca?” Mrs Bevan called from the hall, “The front door was ajar so I came in, hope that’s all right? And I have Mam with me. She spent last night with us.”

“That’s fine.” Becca said as Mrs Bevan entered the kitchen with a small, frail old lady hanging onto her arm.

“Thought it might be nice for Mam to see her old home. There we go, Mam.” Mrs Bevan settled her mother on a chair. Then, as an aside to Becca said, “She’s getting a bit forgetful and I didn’t want to leave her in the car on her own.”

“Oh, of course.” Becca said, “Would you like some tea before we go upstairs?”

“Paned, mam? That’ll be lovely.” Mrs Bevan struggled to get her bulk out of her jacket, hung it on the back of a chair then sat next to her mother. “Where’s Liv then? I want her to know it doesn’t matter about the window, cariad.”

“She’s playing in the garden with that boy, you know, the one who came round the other day when you were here.  She thinks I didn’t see them creep off.” Becca put two cups of tea on the table, making sure to use the coasters. “I’ll let you do your own milk and sugar.”

“Thanks. Dylan, is it? From down the road. Here we go Mam, two sugars for you.”

“Well, he is a Dylan but not the one from down the road. To be honest, we don’t know who he is. Do you know any other Dylans in the village?”

“I can’t say I do. It’s not like the old days, see. I used to know everyone here but we’ve had so many incomers.” Mrs Bevan looked sheepish, “Sorry, not to mean anything by it but since they built that housing estate on the edge of the village, it’s not been the same.”

“Dylan? My Dylan is here.” the old lady said.

“No, Mam. The little girl has a friend called Dylan. Your Dylan isn’t here anymore, is he Mam? That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you knew a Dylan too, did you Mrs Thomas?” Becca smiled at the tiny, wrinkled face peering at her with confusion.

“He was her brother, wasn’t he Mam?” Mrs Bevan patted her hand.

“Ssssh, quiet Dylan.” Mrs Thomas whispered urgently, “Dad’s coming and he’s angry with you. Run, Dylan, run away quickly. Hide. Hide. He’s got his belt.”

“Oh, mam. It’s all right. Dylan’s not here. That was when you were children. Drink your tea Mam, I need to go and see this window with Becca.” Mrs Bevan got up and beckoned Becca to follow.

Outside the kitchen door, she said in an undertone, “She’s getting worse, poor thing. Dementia.”

“I’m sorry.” said Becca.

“Sad story about her brother. Died when they were children. Only nine, he was. Mam doesn’t normally talk about him. Finds it upsetting. They were very close.”

“That’s terrible. How did he die?”

“He fell from a tree. In the woods behind here. There was lots of talk at the time, nasty gossip you know, can’t stand gossip. People in the village said their father was to blame.”

“Really? How awful.”

“Yes, he was known for his drinking and his temper, my grandfather. Some said he chased the poor boy into the woods to give him a beating.” Mrs Bevan sighed. “Terrible the things people say. It nearly destroyed Mam.”

Becca said, “Is your Mum okay, do you think? We better check on her.”

They went back into the kitchen. Mrs Thomas was fumbling with her handbag.

“What are you trying to do now, Mam?”

“My photo…Dylan.” the old lady said.

“Oh yes, in your purse. She has a photo of her and Dylan. Keeps it with her.” Mrs Bevan reached into her mother’s bag, pulled out the purse and retrieved the photo. “Here you are, Mam.”

Mrs Thomas touched the photo tenderly then held it out to Becca. “My Dylan.”

Becca saw a faded black and white picture of two children, about Liv’s age. A girl in pigtails and pinafore, arms locked with a pale boy in a grey shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. They both wore plimsoles.

“Are you all right, Becca? Your hands are shaking, bach.”

“It can’t be…” Becca dropped the photo and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Becca? Wait!” Mrs Bevan shouted.

——

Outside, Becca ran on to the lawn, calling wildly, “Liv! Liv!”

The grass was slick and she slid, twisting her ankle.

“Owww…Liv, Liv!”

She heard children’s voices, laughing and whispering, but when she limped towards them, she realised it was only the stream gurgling over the rocks.

“Liv, where are you?” she shouted. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. Her stomach gripped tight with panic.

Then, she heard the scream. The piercing cry of a terrified child. It was coming from the woods.

“Liv.”

Becca slipped and splashed across the slimy rocks, chill water seeping into her trainers. She hobbled through the undergrowth, frantically searching the trees, trying to locate the screaming. Up ahead, stood a grand old oak, its lower branches almost swept the ground. Liv sat slumped over one of the branches, howling pitifully.

“Liv, Liv, it’s all right, I’m here.” Becca scrambled up the tree, grazing her elbow on the rough bark.

“He fell, Mum. He fell. He’s dead.”

Becca pulled Liv her into her arms in an embrace. “I know.”

They both looked down at the leafy floor but no one lay there.

Dancing alone

Enjoy the days when sleep evades you, when you pace the chilly floor, a restless shadow, soothing the warm bundle in your arms. Make the most of the times when door handles are sticky, feet bruised with plastic brick imprints, a favourite jumper smeared with snot, or goodness knows what. Breathe in that special, belonging to your baby, smell. Take it deep, deep into your lungs. So, you’ll never forget.

Every trip an adventure, every moment a question, the wide-eyed why? why? why? Back breaking bag full of books, crayons, plasters, snacks and sand, always sand. Bucketfuls of shells and stones. Crinkly seaweed, stinky dead crab, bleached bones. Shiny conkers, spiky beech nuts. Bark rubbings and coin rubbings and grave rubbings. Bumps, scrapes, tears, laughter, lots of laughter. Singing in the car, in the bath, in the park. Kitchen band, walloping the pots and pans.

Later, gossip and giggles, worries shared, successes and failures. Falling outs and making ups. Lifts given, endless waiting. Meals spent around the fire, guitar playing, silly prancing. Cello screech, drum machine beat, tap, tapping of a foot keeping time on the ceiling.

The house is quiet now, stillness fills spaces where junk models stood. Silence wiped fingerprints away. Everything tidy, where it should be, in its place. The songs I sing to myself, dancing alone.

Just walking the dog

This little tale popped into my head while I was out exercising my two furry friends the other morning.

———————————————————————————

“Where do you go every day, bach?”

“What do you mean, where do I go every day? You know where I go…I take the dog for a walk.”

“But where do you go?”

“You know where I go. Down through the cemetery, into the woods, to the stream. You know Buster likes to splash around in there. Proper water baby he is…Then home the other way, through the village and up the hill.”

“But why are you gone so long?”

“What do you mean, why am I gone so long? He has to have a decent play, dun he? Sometimes, on the way back, we stop and chat to the old girl, you know, the one on the corner. She’s usually pottering about in her garden. Likes to chat she do…bit lonely I think.”

“You see why I’m worried, doctor?” Mrs Thomas pinched her lips into a small o with pale fingers.

Doctor Williams sighed, “I’m sorry Mrs Thomas, I don’t understand…”

“It’s the old girl, see. Mrs Jones. She died last year…” Mrs Thomas clenched her hands together, squeezing out any remaining blood.

Doctor Williams leaned towards Mr Thomas sympathetically, “I’m sure there must be an explanation, Mr Thomas? Perhaps you are getting this Mrs Jones confused with somebody else? Maybe the new owner of the house?”

Mr Thomas stared back blankly at the doctor.

“No one has moved in, doctor.” Mrs Thomas explained, her forehead furrowing into deep gashes, “They’ve had a muddle. The family are squabbling over everything. No will, see.”

“Oh. Well…perhaps you are getting your times confused Mr Thomas?” Doctor Williams looked at his patient hopefully, “Is that the problem? You’re thinking about conversations that happened some time ago…something you haven’t done in a while?”

Mr Thomas looked through the doctor.

Shaking her head, Mrs Thomas said, “No doctor, he told me just this last Friday he’d had a chat with her, see.”

“Mmm.” Doctor Williams leant back in his chair, pressing his palms together.

Mrs Thomas drew a deep breath, “The thing is, doctor. That’s not the biggest worry…”

“Then tell me, Mrs Thomas, what is the biggest worry?” Doctor Williams turned his chair to properly look at this small, anxious woman for the first time.

“Well doctor, the biggest worry is…we don’t have a dog.”

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.