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. Pornography has become powerful and influential in our society. We have let this happen. We are letting our children down.

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.

Chick mother

In the garden, the birds are getting busy. They sing beautiful, flirtatious songs. They flutter and spiral in aerial dances designed to impress.  They collect twigs and soft cashmere undercoat from the goats, helpfully deposited along the wire fence as they rub luxuriously along it. Two shiny blackbirds, bright yellow beaks and beady button eyes, face off at the bird feeder whilst a dowdy brown female watches with indifference. All is industry and love making. Soon, nests will be full of hatchlings; oversized beaks gaping and calling for food. Soon, parent birds will be even busier keeping their youngsters satisfied.

All this activity has reminded me of my old dog Sam, a few years back when he was a little more energetic. One spring afternoon, I stepped out of the back door to find him crouched on the pavement, head bowed. As I got closer, I noticed between his paws, two tiny featherless baby birds. On the fence, staring in anticipation, sat my three cats, licking their lips meaningfully. Helpless creatures fallen from the nest above, safe in Sam’s attentive care. He had protected them from becoming a tasty snack.

I’d noticed a pair of blue tits building a home in our rafters over the previous weeks. The babies had obviously tumbled down and landed on the path. Luckily for them, they were unhurt and Sam had found them before his feline friends. My heart was touched by his tenderness but I didn’t hold much hope for the pathetic little things. There was no way their parents could get them back in the nest and they were very young; bald, cold and eyes firmly shut. After Sam’s show of heroism, however, I couldn’t leave them to die so I scooped them up gently and took them indoors.

This was the start of a new role for me: chick mother. I found a little box, lined it with kitchen towel and placed them with care inside. Then I decided it would be more comfortable and warmer for them if they had a nest, so I took an old plastic bowl, put it in the box and filled it with shredded paper and tissue. They seemed happy in their new nest but still cold. I borrowed a small soft toy, a fluffy bear, from one of the children and sat him atop the nest like a surrogate mother bird. Then I searched the internet for any advice on rearing baby birds. Nothing encouraging came from my searching, mostly the information was don’t do it; never move a baby bird if you find one as its parents may return and rescue it. I could see the sense in this but my situation was different. If Sam hadn’t protected those birds, the cats would have had them for dinner. I had to bring them inside and see what I could do. I had to try. Further searching followed and I discovered that parent blue tits feed their young on green caterpillars that are abundant in the trees in springtime. They feed them many, many caterpillars every hour each day and into the night until dark. Never ever feed baby birds worms as these are too sticky.

My next job was a caterpillar hunt. There were plenty of trees; bashing the branches with a stick sent down all kinds of invertebrates onto my big white sheet of paper. There were quite a few caterpillars too. I took them inside and chopped them into pieces. A yucky, mucky job, poor caterpillars, but I knew parent birds regurgitate their offspring’s food and I wasn’t going to chew them! I found some cocktail sticks to use as a feeding implement. By this time, the baby birds were making quite a lot of noise and opening their beaks wide in starvation. I stabbed a piece of caterpillar and gave it to the first bird, which took it gratefully. This was the beginning of many days spent collecting caterpillars and feeding baby birds. Every two hours, to begin with, I fed my babies.

SONY DSCSadly, on the second morning, I came down to find one of the birds was dead. The process continued for the other bird, however, which seemed to be doing fine and ate greedily. After a few days, I bought some live meal worms and chopped them up to feed too. I was struggling to find enough caterpillars; the baby bird ate and ate. The more she ate, the stronger she got and the more food she wanted! I’d also developed a system for giving her a drink of water using a cotton bud. I called her Chickpea.

SONY DSCOver the days and weeks, Chickpea grew bigger and more active. Her eyes opened and she grew feathers, downy at first and then beginning to show her true blue tit colours. As she began to move around more, I realized the box was no longer a safe home so I constructed a makeshift cage from a bigger box and a clear plastic seed tray lid. I put in a small branch as a perch. She began to hop out of the nest and flutter clumsily onto the branch. Soon I realized she would need lessons in feeding herself and flying practice.  I started squashing meal worms onto the branch where she could pick them off. At least the gaps between feeding times were growing longer. Eventually, she had a bowl of meal worms to pick at as she chose. Then I started letting her out of the cage so her wings could grow strong. She would fly up onto my shoulder, then back to the perch, then up to a shelf and back to me. Once she was flying with confidence and feeding herself happily, I realized it was time for her release back into the wild.

One morning, just after dawn, I carried Chickpea, tucked safe in her box, far into the woods. When I got to a tranquil spot, full of the calls of other blue tits, next to a babbling stream, I opened the lid. She didn’t waste a moment, out she flew, up into a tall pine. She sat on an uppermost branch and sang. Then she pecked at the mossy bark and flew away. I’m not sure if I ever saw her again. On my woodland walks, I often hear a familiar trill but there are many, many blue tits living in the woods. I hope she lives there happily with them.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sitting in the grey and slate reception of a plain, somewhat dowdy, office building in lovely, ugly Swansea, I wonder what it would be like to be a receptionist. I have no idea what the role actually entails. I assume one would have to welcome people, organize appointments, do administration of some kind, talk on the telephone, tap on a keyboard, look at stuff on a computer screen, be smart and smiley.  This one is friendly and helpful. She has made me a cup of tea while I wait for my interview, which is running half an hour late.

It’s a worrying problem deciding what you want to be when you grow up. I envy people who are driven. As a child, I sometimes pretended to be working in an office. At the dining room table, I would sit, toy phone, typewriter, notepad and pen by my side: “Mr. So and So will see you now.” My father, on being told I was clever at school, said to me, “You can be whatever you want. You can be a secretary!” I had bigger ambitions. Enjoying telling stories, I dreamt of being a writer and journalist. Travelling the world, I would search out and share exciting tales.

My second ambition was to become a vet. I adored the James Herriot stories. Once qualified, I would publish hilarious tales about my antics. This, however, did not come to pass. On a work experience, aged fourteen, at a local veterinarian practice, my mind was changed by the old, head vet who told me of his experiments on calves as a student; transplanting their livers into their necks. Despite his assurances that it was pioneering work, allowing successful organ transplants in humans today, I was horrified. I wanted to be a vet to help, not harm, animals. That same vet had me wash his car too!

As for journalism, I went off that idea when I got bored in typing classes: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How could I be a successful writer if I couldn’t touch type? Instead, I became a teacher, sharing my love of books and writing with others. In fact, that is why I’m waiting in this reception today. I have an interview to join a teaching agency. After fourteen years of home educating my children, I’m going back to the world of paid work. It’s a scary thought, especially as I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, despite supposedly being a grown up!

The scribbling has always gone on though. I’ve continued to create stories and scenarios in my head. If I get some teaching work with this agency, I fully intend to keep writing and working on poems, short stories and my novel. One letter tapped on the keyboard at a time.

I’m getting braver about sharing my work, so I mustn’t stop now.

The wind calls for you

The recent windy weather has awakened memories of childhood. Looking out of my window at the raging gale tossing the trees and pulling at the hedge, I am transported to my old room. I am a girl, hiding under the bed covers, terrified of the wind’s mournful cries. Fueled by bible stories at school, and my own interest in Greek and Norse mythology, I was convinced some incensed God was metering out punishment for a sin committed. Although a fairly well-behaved child, I often felt guilty; any mischief or misdemeanour would burden my mind for days. I still have a tendency to overthink things.

 

 

Today the wind howls

from the heavens,

thumping roofs,

bending branches groundward,

sending clouds scuttling

across an insipid sky.

And I am lying in bed;

a child again,

fearful, enshrouded in nylon

sheets prickling static.

Ears strained for parental voices; a

muffled reassurance below.

Am I alone listening to the

wail and roar? Blustering

divine judgement crashes

around me. A

monstrous anger gathers

as I await retribution.

 

 

What sends you back to your childhood?

 

 

October in the Library

October is here and autumn has arrived in full force. Everywhere are signs of decay: the fallen leaves turn mushy on the wet grass, fungi grow puffed and swollen along the woodland paths, branches creak and tumble in the howling wind. We leave the house in darkness and return in darkness. We begin to look towards festivals that mark the end of the abundant summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.

This is the time of year associated with death. When the divide between the living and the dead becomes a thin veil and spirits may cross easily into this world. For our ancestors, winter was a difficult and dangerous time. On the night of Samhain, they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth; some to cause mischief. They lit bonfires to keep away evil spirits, left offerings of food to appease the Gods and held feasts for dead kin, in the hope that they would make it through the coming darkness.

Soon, many families will celebrate Hallowe’en. Children, and some adults too, will enjoy dressing up, grotesque party food and scary stories. Although the shops are full of tawdry, plastic trinkets, unpleasant costumes and cynical commercialism, these activities are the evolution of ancient traditions. For that reason, I find the end of October a special time. The dark, chill nights are filled with the melancholy of seasons passing; the year is heading towards its end. There is hopefulness too, standing by a roaring, hot bonfire; the flames spread light into the moody, black sky. I think about past days, people I have lost, people I have forgotten. I remember my childhood; I enjoyed a good scare then, as I do today.

I remember one particular day in the school library…

Everyone was surprised when I wasn’t made a Prefect in my final year at Junior school. Pupils were usually awarded the role as a reward for academic or sporting success. I didn’t mind, though. In fact, I was relieved. Prefects stood in the corridors telling other kids off for running instead of walking. They were unpopular; bossy and rude teacher’s pets.

The teaching staff chose to make me a Librarian instead. Being a Librarian meant staying in at break times. It meant avoiding the playground with its noisy, rough games of Bulldog and Tag. It meant sitting in the quiet hush, organizing, labelling and cataloguing books, checking records, tidying shelves, making displays, and best of all, when the library was empty, which it often was, reading. Those teachers knew what they were doing.

One lunchtime, I was in the library with my friend, Dean. We had just finished creating a display of new adventure stories. We sat satisfied with our work, laughing and chatting in subdued voices about the myth of the ghost that haunted the library. Like all schools, there were many tales of ghostly happenings. The fact that the library was haunted was well-known. Stories of strange bumps and scrapes, chills down the back of the neck and shifting, shadowy shapes were shared with giggles and gasps between classmates. Exactly who or what haunted the library was unknown.

Certainly, the library had a special atmosphere of its own. Entering it was like entering a different world, far removed from the hustle of school life. It was cool and peaceful. The lighting muted. The outside world muffled as if it might even have ceased to exist.

Dean and I didn’t believe in the ghost nonsense. For us, the library was a place where we felt comfortable and safe; unthreatened amongst the neat rows of books. As we shook ours heads and tutted scornfully at the silliness of our fellow pupils, a book fell violently, in fact almost flew, from a shelf in the furthest corner. We looked at each other in bewilderment. Dean got up and went over, a little cautiously, to pick it up. Then, he yelped and dropped the book as if it had bitten him.

“What is it?” I asked in surprise.

“The book.” he said, pointing to where it lay on the floor.

I walked across to see what he was talking about. There sat the book on the dusty, grey linoleum. Its title: ‘Ghost Stories.’

 

Have you ever had a strange, other-worldly experience?