Downhill to the end of the year

I can’t believe it’s actually November (soon to be called NaNovember?) already. I seem to say this kind of thing a lot. Why is time going so fast? Where does it need to be? It could be an age thing. Maybe time isn’t really going faster. It just feels that way. Most of the people I know who say ‘Can you believe it’s November already?’ are geriatrics like me. I’ve even started saying to people, and by ‘people’ I mean total strangers, ‘I’m 57, you know!’ (Having first checked that’s right, because for a while I was saying I was 58, and that was when I was ‘only’ 56). Once upon a time I used to say ‘I’d kill to be 30 again.’ Then it went up to 35, 40 and now I’m saying ‘I’d kill to be 50 again.’ NO ONE says that!! Who would want to be 50 again? Someone who’s older than 50, obviously. Way older…

Our aspirations expand and change to fit our present and our lifestyle. This time last year I was about to have a life-saving cancer operation. Here I am a year later, and feeling fab, if a bit forgetful about my age. At the time, (I didn’t tell anyone this btw, it felt a bit negative, though I didn’t mean it that way), I thought, if I could just have two more years of life that would be wonderful. But a year of that has gone by already, and I’m now hoping to live to my 90s. Or longer, I don’t mind. Because there are so many stories I want to write, and if I just stay on target with my current plan, I’m not going to look up from my keyboard until 2021. And that’s without any new inspirations I don’t yet know about…

Life goes by, is the moral of today’s meandering story. So don’t waste time thinking, ‘One day I will write that book’, or ‘One day I will…(insert lifelong ambition/meaningful pursuit here)’. It is never the right time, you will never have enough confidence to know you’re finally ready, because confidence only comes from facing a challenge and winning, or at least knowing you gave it your all. So stop waiting to feel complete before you step out into the unknown. Just do it, as those sports equipment people say.

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Not an Island, but a Peninsula…

We writers cannot live in isolation. We often think we can, we convince ourselves we do. Like many of my writer friends and colleagues, I spend hours each day in my own little world, deep in thought, planning story-lines, creating and manipulating characters. It’s all too easy to believe that I am divorced from reality as I build worlds and imagine conversations.

But I’m not. We’re not. We are in fact very closely linked with the world around us, necessarily so, since even our fictions must be built on some kind of reality. We people-watch, we observe, then we go back to our desks and computers screens, or our comfy sofas and our notebooks, and we report what we have seen and heard. Sometimes we change the outcome, or the setting, or the players in our dramas, to create a more useful impact in our work.

Years ago, on a holiday to Scotland, tour guides would always say, ‘And over there you can see the Black Isle. It’s not an isle but a peninsula.’

That’s what I am. Connected to the mainland of the world around me by a narrow but crucial and strong strip of reality, not an island, not remote, separate, autonomous or isolated. But an integral part, connected, associated, a partner in the journey. I depend on this connection for my work, and without it I wouldn’t be able to shut myself away and write.

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Don’t look back in anger.

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When I was studying history as part of my Literature and Arts degree programme, we debated the the purpose of studying history, and decided on something like this definition: ‘we study the past to illuminate the human present and plan for the future’. The past is vital to humans. I’d say the past pervades our lives continually. If the past is an important part of our lives when we are young, I’ve been told that as people grow older, the past assumes even greater importance. Certainly I’ve seen this in people I know, and in my own life. The past can sometimes have an almost unbearable significance.

Why do we live in the past? Is it because the outcome is known to us? I sit safe? Or a source of disappointment with a sense of ‘the road not taken’? Do we seek to relive our ‘glory days’? Or have we left something behind that we haven’t quite finished with? I often wonder if the past is/was quite as I remember it, as our memories are so subjective. And I wrote ‘is/was’ because even as I put pen to paper, I realised that in many ways, the past is ongoing. As often as I remember it, it lives on, never ending, never a closed file but always, always, always being updated, catalogued, reviewed, reevaluated, upgraded and rewritten.

Does the past really fade away, or is it ever-present, a continuous ongoing exploration that runs in parallel with our own sense of ‘now’? The future is seen, in the words of Star Trek (or was it William Shakespeare ;D  ?) as the Undiscovered Country, and the past must surely be the air-miles capital of our emotions.

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Reflections on a visit to an exhibition

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I had a reason for going to see this wonderful exhibition. It took place at the V & A – the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The exhibition is of medieval English embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum, (English Work) and I am planning using some of the information I gained in my next murder mystery novel The Mantle of God: a Dottie Manderson mystery, so when I heard about the exhibition I was keen to get down to London and take a look. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, and in fact the exhibition is almost over, as it finishes at the beginning of February, so I nearly missed it but I am so glad I finally made it.

Due to it being the off-season, the number of visitors wasn’t quite as large as usual, and the organisers were happy to allow everyone to wander around and browse to their hearts content, and also due to the busy but not crowded exhibition, I was able to perch on a bench and gaze fondly at the Butler Bowden Cope, which was the main item I had come to see ‘in the flesh’, and I was able to sit and make notes without feeling a need to hurry along and make way for others. The items were fabulous, far beyond what I had expected, and beautifully displayed. Here is a little of what I felt and noted:

‘The red velvet background was, as I expected, greatly faded away to a soft, deep pinky red although here and there it remains fresh and vibrant, and the threads of the velvet fabric were worn and even almost bare in places. As is typical, tiers of Biblical scenes and characters are interspersed by smaller tiers of angels ad twining branches form vertical barriers between sections.

‘The figures are more or less uncoloured now, but their hair still shines softly gold or silver, and here and there a vivid patch of blue cloth has retained its glorious colour. Lions peer between branches of oak, their heads realised by spirals of tiny pearls, for the main part still intact after, what, almost 700 years? 700 hundred years – I can hardly believe it.

‘Actually, I feel rather in awe. Of the creators, their skill, and even of the measure of inspiration they enjoyed, and the execution of the work: it all touches me, and I feel grateful, even tearful as I look at these beautiful garments and draperies. Who knows how long it will be possible to move these often fragile items and take them to other audiences? And then, when they are gone…will we be left with photographs and facsimiles? Somehow it isn’t enough just to go and look, I feel a need to record my experience, to capture it for the future.’

The cafe, too, is well worth an hour of contemplation! Entrance to the main part of the museum is, as ever, free, but the specialist exhibitions such as the Opus Anglicanum, have to be booked and paid for. But this is surely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I certainly didn’t mind paying the price of £12.

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Making a Drama out of a Crisis

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So…life eh? Doesn’t it just get in the way sometimes? You’re going along, minding your own business, about to launch a new book then a doctor says, ‘yes, I’m afraid the tests show it is cancer.’

That was the end of September. Since then I have been poked, prodded, hugged, barcoded, scanned, prayed for and operated on, and now, hopefully life is carrying on again. The writer in me always says, shyly and from the back of the room, ‘you can use this in a book.’ The realist at the front of the room says with loud scorn, ‘I’d rather not have gone through it personally in the first place.’ But what can you do? There were a few dark times, times when I sorrowfully wondered if it was worth bothering to finish up the new book and get it released. It felt like a trivial, transient, shallow kind of thing to bother about. My whole life felt kind of pointless. And I felt so guilty for putting my lovely family through so much anxiety. They have been amazing.

And I still don’t know if it’s all gone, or if there is further treatment waiting for me. But I can now smile, and think positive thoughts, and I feel pretty good actually, and yes, there really is so much mileage to be had from my experiences. Is there anything more sinister than a hospital corridor late at night? One person in a gown and mask looks pretty much like another – are they really who they say they are? What was that shadow that passed across the curtains surrounding my bed? Could someone substitute a poison for the meds I have to inject myself with? And then there are the life stories of the other women I met on the gynae ward. If anything I realised how good I had things: at least I didn’t fall over in the shower and set back my recovery by several weeks; I had a family around me, I was not alone like many; and I was not losing my womb at an age when I had yet to have my babies.

Many times lately, someone has said that thing about life and lemons and making lemonade, but it’s so true. And there no one as good as a writer for making a drama out of a crisis.

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Write your memories to build a sense of setting

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Last week I talked about world-building. I was talking about making any setting of your work of fiction real for the reader. It’s not just about how it looks, how you describe the setting for the reader, it’s also about an authentic emotional reaction. When I was trying to capture a sense of setting as part of a course many years ago, I wrote this piece called, simply, ‘When I was four’, it’s based on my childhood memory of roaming blissfully through meadowland in Kent, in the south of England. It is rather long – sorry about that.

More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what? Four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I felt like a princess. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.

There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things, the river and the caravan.

All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or – joyous task! – picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.

We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing and hiding and climbing and running. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight and I was inconsolable.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me – perhaps a link to a seafaring ancestor? – and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine waiting for my clothes to dry.

I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’ – but after a short while – or maybe after payday – my Mum bought me something new and exciting and wonderful – my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, but I never stopped loving my jeans.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff.

Footwear was again a choice of 2 simple pleasures – red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.

So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies – what was there not to love?

As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.

A caravan.

An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.

The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.

I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.

I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.

There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I – of course – followed him around with the worshipful attitude of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.

But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.

 

Old School – life writing and memoir

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I’m people watching again, and a guy at a table near me is telling his girlfriend (in a really loud voice) about how his teacher used to throw his keys at the kids in the class when they misbehaved. Oh the heady days when casual violence was an everyday part of the teaching curriculum; when it was the teachers, not the pupils, who were the tyrants of the classroom.

Teachers have such power to inspire and form young minds.

I went to a church school. My mum was a divorcee, fairly unusual in Britain in the late 1960s, and I suppose out of fear that I would become a prostitute or a druggie, she sent me to a school that she felt would keep me on the straight and narrow, even though she was not a religious woman herself.

I started at St Wotsit on the Sussex coast when I was about 8, and stayed there until we moved away when I was about 11. These are the years of the impressionable spirit and mind. And whilst I do have memories of earlier, and obviously of later schooling, those I have of St Wotsit are some of the most vivid, some of the most traumatic and horrid, and wonderful and freeing of my life. Happily St Wotsit closed down a few years after I left.

Every Friday the whole school went across the playground to the High Anglican church for a mid-morning service. We each had a big card with The Creed typed across the top, containing everything we needed to say and do and hear for the whole service. This was a really pretty long session. The cards had a distinctive, love-it-and-hate-it smell. I loved the church and the slightly tedious service – I loved singing and I believed God was listening to me. I was fascinated by the statues and the pictures and the high, high ceiling. Of course that didn’t stop me and about half of the rest of the school spending most of our lunch-time play scraping away at the crumbly mortar between the bricks of the church in the hopes that the edifice would fall down before the next Friday.

Every week we had RI – religious instruction – and we were taught by Anglican priests. They wore the long black coats with buttons all down the front. And they had the knotted rope around the waist. They took it in turns to teach each class. One of the priests was a baby-faced chap of about 40. We knew him as Father Herbert. The boys in particular liked him, he talked with enthusiasm about football, was loud and temperamental and sued to throw chalk or the board-rubber, or threaten to throw us out the window if we misbehaved. He was generally liked, and kept the class in order for the most part.

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Then there was another young priest whose name I have to admit I have forgotten. This man was the single most beautiful male I have ever seen – a young Gregory Peck but even gorgeouser. When he walked along the road the women used to actually turn and stare after him. Mainly sighing and shaking their heads and saying it was a waste. Which I didn’t understand until mum explained that the knotted rope meant that he couldn’t get married. I always thought the rope just meant he was ready for any rope-related emergency. After all priests were there to help people. At that time I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton books, and I had come to believe that one should never leave home without a rope, a pair of binoculars, a box of matches and a torch and spare batteries.

Thing is, all I can remember about him is his ravishing good looks. I can’t remember his name, his teaching style, one single thing he ever said that made a difference to my life in those three years. I don’t know if he was kind or funny or intelligent.

And then there was Old Father Wotsisname, the grizzled old bad-tempered one with one foot in the grave, who hated children, and who wittered on and on inaudibly and bored us all silly. He also presented me with my one prize from Prize Giving one year. It was the ladybird book of The Holy Land. I remember being excited about winning a book (I

LOVED books even then) and slightly disappointed by the dull contents. Oh well.

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I remember the headmaster. I won’t say his name. I hated him with a passion, and he certainly didn’t like me. To be fair, if there was trouble, I was always there in the thick of it; if anything happened somehow I turned up like the proverbial bad penny. But he lost my respect by proving himself stupid and unwise in the ways of kids. He had three of us lined up once in his office. He asked the first two in turn if they had been the ones to instigate the latest brainchild of disaster. When they said no, he turned to me and said, ‘then it was you.’ When I said no, his sole argument was, ‘well it wasn’t them because they told me so, so it had to be you.’ You just can’t argue with logic like that. I detested him from that day.

The lights of my life were two of the teachers. Mrs Osborne, my class teacher for the first two years (due to a quirk of staff reshuffling) I was at the school. She was kind, she believed in me ad tried to encourage me. And when I got into some rather more serious trouble, she visited me at home to try and talk to me and my mum. She was the first one who encouraged my love of books and story-telling. She used to read some intoxicating stuff to us at the end of every day: Stig Of The Dump, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Witch’s Daughter, Oliver Twist, The Wind In The Willows, The Silver Sword, Emil And The Detectives, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Paddington – wonderful, wonderful stories.

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And then, when I was 10 I went up into the top class, and we had a new teacher, Mr Rafferty. He had travelled the world and Seen Things. Like Mrs Osborne, he actually seemed to love kids and love teaching. He kept order, inspired us, encouraged us, pushed us and gave us Ideas. He read and critiqued, in a very serious way, my first two ‘proper’ stories. He told us tales about his friend who was killed by barracudas, described the blood in the water, made us feel the glorious terror of it from the safety of our classroom. He made everything about life seem like a huge adventure. He was such a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the teaching staff.

Sadly the events I’m remembering were so long ago now – over forty years – so I feel that probably many of these characters are no longer with us, but in a kind of Mr Holland’s Opus way, hopefully the impact they had is still out there in this world, living on in the children whose lives they touched.

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Short Story – Marriage Guidance

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[This short story is based on a true incident that took place a number of years ago now. I called it Marriage Guidance originally because I felt the relationship between myself and my violin was like that of a couple who no longer communicate properly and have drifted apart. Sadly in the end I did sell the violin, to a concert violinist in the USA who was going to have it professionally restored. I hope she did. I hope it made her and everyone who heard the sound of it very, very happy. Maybe it’s still out there somewhere – I do hope so!

Somewhere in the filing cabinet I’ve got the original story I wrote in a notebook, and that has all the details he gave me about the violin – it’s age, it’s manufacture. it was German, nineteenth century, a forgery of an 18th century instrument but beautiful craftsmanship, a wonderful tone, and very fine, dainty lines making most people think it was a child’s violin. Inside, there had been a tattered piece of paper glued with the name – but I can’t remember the name now. No, it wasn’t Stradivari! But, yes, I really did cry all the way home, feeling like a reunion of sorts had taken place. ]

It wasn’t my fault! The relief was enormous! The failure of this relationship was not my fault! The breakdown of communication between us was a sad but inevitable result of the situation we were in. No one was to blame. The man we went to see had explained everything.

It was raining when we arrived – one of those sudden tropical downpours which takes everyone by surprise in spite of the preceding humidity – and my mascara had run all down my face. I should have worn the waterproof one, but I was somewhat preoccupied with the coming appointment when I was getting ready and hadn’t paid much attention to my make-up. I just knew I had to put some gunk on my face as armour for this, not a confrontation exactly, but it would certainly be a frank, possibly an emotional discussion in which there would be no place for holding back. All my secrets, my hopes and fears would be laid bare.

His house seemed innocuous enough – no daunting concrete edifice, just an ordinary Queenslander in a quiet tree-lined street on the outskirts of Logan. We stepped up to the door and I took a deep breath before twisting the little knob that rang the bell. A brass plaque displayed his name and profession.

He opened the door to us himself, no polished secretary or glamorous assistant with an alarming professional manner sneering down her nose at us. He was well past retirement age, yet was young with the rejuvenating quality of a man who has got his priorities right. He smiled reassuringly and stepped back for us to enter. He showed us into a tiny lounge-room on the right.

On the wall there hung a golden-framed reproduction of Fra Angelico’s exquisite ‘Annunciation‘. On top of a corner cabinet stood a beautiful old lute, mellow-wooded and much played. In another corner an elderly didgeridoo was held in place on the wall, white painted markings shone against the blackened wood, and above it was a dreamtime painting, all swirls and waves.

Our host didn’t shake my hand, or offer me coffee, or invite me to sit. He didn’t comment on my bedraggled appearance or the sudden change in the weather. Social niceties took second place to the business in hand. We got straight on with it. I laid my violin on the centre table already loaded with other instruments. My fingers fumbled with the rusted catches of the case, with the covering, my late grandmother’s old silk headscarf. I drew forth my violin and he took it, almost snatched it from my trembling hand.

A minute ticked by. Then another. Unnerved by the silence and laden with guilt, I blurted out, “I’m afraid it’s not in very good condition. I hope you’re not disappointed. I don’t want to waste your time.”

I think he had forgotten me, for he looked up in surprise. But his smile set me at ease again. I was not totally ‘de trop’.

“Considering the age, I’d say it was in quite reasonable condition. I’ve seen far worse at auctions.” He was still turning it over and over, tilting it this way and that to catch the light. “Tell me about it,” He suggested. I was still standing in the doorway. Raindrops dripped off my hair and shirt collar, down my neck. And it was getting hotter. But clearly humans came second here and I didn’t mind.

“It belonged to my grandmother. She’d had it for about fifty years. I don’t know where she got it, and my father doesn’t remember. She was ninety when she died five years ago. She gave it to me when I was about thirteen, she was going to teach me to play it. That was about twenty-five years ago.” No polite flattery here, as I was used to. No comment such as, ‘you don’t look that old’ or ‘you don’t look a day over twenty-five’. The sort of things people often said to me. He said nothing.

“I tried to learn to play it but I wasn’t very good. She and I didn’t really get on and I soon lost interest. You know what teenagers can be like. It’s been packed away ever since. But when we moved up here from Newcastle a few months ago I came across it again. And now…” I didn’t know how to finish, so I just stopped talking.

“And now you’re thinking of selling it and you want me to tell you how much it’s worth.” He didn’t look at me, for which I was grateful. My face felt hot and red.

“Well, possibly. I – I’m just not sure. I don’t really want to, but…” I hesitated, but I had to justify myself. “It’s a beautiful instrument. I do really like it, except I can’t play it. But my husband wants to sell it to buy an electronic keyboard, which would be better for the children too…” My voice trailed away again. In mentioning the words ‘electronic’ and ‘keyboard’ I felt as if I’d said something obscene. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“Perhaps you’ll be able to afford a keyboard without selling the violin.” He was trying to be diplomatic. “Then you and your husband can play duets together.” He gave me a tolerant smile. “You say your grandmother taught you to play? Was she a music teacher?”

“No. She played in an orchestra. And we didn’t keep it up for long. I wasn’t any good.”

He nodded, looking at the violin again. “Well, you see, it’s one thing to play, but quite another thing to teach. I’ll just go and get my eyeglass, and a book I want to show you. Back in a sec.” He put my violin on the table again, placing it in possibly the only unoccupied spot in the whole room, next to a pile of others: larger, more modern-looking instruments, all needing repairs.

I looked around me. What was it about this room which gave it that restful air? The family snapshots? The painting? The lute? The earth-coloured aboriginal work? The mellow browns and golds of the walls, the polished wood floor? Here it felt as if time itself had stopped at the front door. I was able to relax. Something I didn’t do very often. There weren’t enough hours in my day usually.

He returned. “Read that. It tells you about the maker of your instrument.” He shoved a heavy book at me which I only just managed to catch before it fell on the floor. I began to read the place he indicated, smelling the musty old-book smell whilst he turned again to my violin. He had a tape measure, and was talking to himself.

“Yes. It is a full-size one. 14 1/16 of an inch to be exact. I thought it might possibly be a three-quarter size, it’s so delicate, but no, it’s a full-size.”

“It says here he was noted for the delicate lines of his instruments.” I eagerly showed him the extract. He smiled at me, as at an apt student who has learned her lesson well. But something else I had read surprised me. “Can it really be that old?”

“Oh yes, about a hundred and fifty years. That’s what I wanted the eyeglass for, to check the name and mark inside. See?” He showed me the faded writing inside the body of the instrument, tilting it towards the window to catch the light. He nodded to himself again. “A beautiful piece. See the difference?” He held up one of the modern, lurid tan-coloured violins from his table. I did see the difference. Hideous colour aside, next to mine the modern one looked simply huge.

“So subtle.” He murmured, turning my instrument over in his hands. “So delicate. Not like this modern rubbish. How’s the tone?”

“I beg your pardon?” I had gone back to reading.

“The tone. What does it sound like?”

“It’s nice. At least, I like it. Quite mellow, you know. Warm.” I said what I thought, but was I right? After all, what did I know about these things? How was I supposed to know what answer he was looking for? However, he nodded, apparently satisfied.

“Hmm. Typical of this make. Very well known for the tonal quality.” As he moved about the room, showing me this item and that on the other instruments, comparing them with my own, he had to keep stepping over a ‘cello which lay in its case in the middle of the floor. He caught me smiling as I saw him step over again.

“I’m very busy at the moment.” He apologised. “I’m afraid I haven’t much room here. Now then…”

He began to show me all the things on my violin which needed attention. He gave me a rough estimate of the cost to replace or repair, as necessary. It was a modest sum, really, compared to what he now revealed to me was the probable value of the instrument, but it was more than I could possibly afford. And the value took my breath away.

“If you do decide to sell it, I’m afraid I can’t personally make you an offer, although I’d like to. But we already have about a hundred violins in our shop. Now if it was a viola you’d brought to me, then it would be a different matter. We’ve got very few of those. I suppose you could try advertising in the papers.” But there was a note in his voice that sounded a bit like an accusation. Obviously he was biassed.

“I don’t know if I want to sell it or not. I had no idea it was so old or so valuable. What I really need is some marriage guidance for me and my violin. We’ve kind of – stopped talking.” I told him, trying to laugh, to keep my tone light. But he saw the tears in my eyes and was not fooled.

“You really love it, don’t you?” He asked, softly. I nodded, I didn’t trust myself to speak. A clock ticked loudly in the corner.

“Well, I’m not surprised you’re not talking at the moment,” he said briskly. “You couldn’t possibly play it, because, quite simply, it’s not in a playable condition.”

“I thought it was me…” I couldn’t finish. Frantically I tried to pull myself together.

“No. It’s not your fault. Even a professional couldn’t get a decent tune out of this. As I say, get this work done on the bridge, a proper tail, adjusters on the strings, which will help you with the tuning. And these cracks need repairing, before they get any worse, the bow needs straightening and re-stringing too. I can do the repairs for you, a bit at a time if need be, as finances permit. Then I’d advise you to have a few lessons. You’ll find that the two of you begin to develop your relationship again in no time. And it really will be worth the effort. Believe me, it’s very rewarding. When you’re old like me, you’ll be grateful for something to give you pleasure and help you pass the time.” He waved a hand at the room around us. “If it wasn’t for all this, I don’t know what I’d do.”

He could see I was torn. My family wanted one thing and I wanted another. The violin was worth far more in hard cash than I had imagined. What we could do with that money! Yet my grandmother had given it to me. It was mine. I couldn’t play it properly, but the bond was still there. He didn’t press me further.

“My advice is free.” He told me. I thanked him, unable to express sufficiently my gratitude. I could have hugged him.

It was still raining when I went home. I dashed down the road hugging the case to me, like a beloved one, tears and mascara running down my face, but no one could tell they were tears not raindrops.

At home, I and my violin sat on the sofa with a cup of coffee. Tears dried away now, I made promises which I hoped I’d be able to keep. The mellow wood gleamed. We’d been together for twenty-five years, we couldn’t split up now. The man’s last words came back to me.

In the doorway I had stopped and blurted out my final worry.

“I just don’t have time. I’m so busy at the moment. I have three small children and I’ve just enrolled on a course at TAFE. I just don’t have time…”

He had just smiled. “You’ll have time one day. And when you do, it’ll still be there.”

 

Storytelling and music

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Storytelling in my yoof took many forms. For those of us of ‘a certain age’, music lessons at school in the 1960s involved the handing out of a set booklet, and the teacher would turn on the radio so we could all listen in with the BBC Radio Workshop for schools. Yes, we did singing practice once or twice a week as well and occasionally someone would get to bash a xylophone or rattle a tambourine, but it was the weekly radio workshops I loved. I remember how much I loved it. It was more than just a singing lesson, it was story-time! The nice man with the BBC correct accent would read along, and tell us a bit about music (I think) and we used to sing our heads off. This must have been about 1968 to 1970, I would have been about 8 or 9 then.

 

There was a new booklet/story/songbook every school term or half term, not sure which. There were three books in particular I remember – we had Aladdin, based on the fairy story – I can’t remember much about that, only a few fleeting memories of artwork involving large urns and a lamp. And there was another one called The Violin-Maker – I quite liked that one too. But my favourite was The Bluebird Line. It was fun and bright and full of great songs about a run-down railway line abandoned for the modern amenities of the Motor Car. The main characters were a young chap called Charlie and his father who was the station-master, ‘and lived in the country because he’d rather.’ I remember there was a creature called the Railway Boggart who contributed to this decline by making a nuisance of himself:

 

Diddle ee dum, diddle ee dah

The Boggart is under the restaurant car

He shakes it about, he’s an impudent chap

And makes all the people spill soup in their laps

 

LOL

 

It was a beautifully illustrated story with songs for the children to join in and told the tale of people who fell in love with that new-fangled thing, the car, (“Ah, cars. They don’t go diddle-ee-dum; everyone knows they go brrm brrm brrm!”) and abandoned the railways. But the love-affair with roads all went wrong when they had to sit in traffic lines and there was a outcry, ‘oh give us back our railway line’. I’m sure we could make a case for a political statement back then that we kids were oblivious to.

 

I still have the book for the Bluebird Line, it was in a box in the loft, but I think the Violin-Maker got thrown out years ago. I can remember a soppy romantic song about the Violin-Maker’s daughter who fell in love with a chap who played a guitar. There was a heated discussion between smitten maid and her irate father (the eponymous hero) in song form, of course, about the relative merits of traditional and modern music. There was a bit about the young lady preferring the sound of ‘a nice guitar’ which her father dismissed ‘it just makes a horrid din!’ Not quite as up-to-the-minute as it could have been.

 

Wonderful memories – and the snatches of a story that I still half-remember even after 45 years or more. And I know I’m not the only one. And guess what – they are still running for the age 9-11 group. At the moment they’re doing The Tempest. I bet it’s brilliant.

Uncle Harry

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When I was a little girl, in the 1960s in Tunbridge Wells, it was I think pretty normal for elderly close friends of the family to be referred to by children as Uncle and Auntie.  I had a couple of Uncles and Aunties who weren’t really family but were friends.  I have written quite a lot about Auntie Zonya, a unique soul and wonderful woman, an enigma.

But living in our grand old house in Tunbridge Wells, there were others.  In the room next door there were two hairdressers, two men, who went ‘professionally’ by French names – deemed more ‘suitable’ for hairdressers.  One called himself Rene (or Rennie as we used to say), I can’t remember what the other one called himself.  They were very ‘artistic’.   Of course now I look back and realise they were a gay couple, but in those days they were simply glamorous, artistic people, who lived together for convenience and to save money.  None of us living in the house had much of that.  It was a house full of similar people – no estate, no money, not much of anything.  There was an artist who made me a cat mask.  On the top floor was the elderly lady who owned the whole house, Miss Lilian, she had snow-white hair and almost never went out.  I was a bit scared of her.  We were a strange little community.

And in the room next door but one, on our floor, was an elderly man who lived alone.  His English was good but heavily accented.  He was from a exotic-sounding place I had never heard of – Yugoslavia – and he had come over during the second world war, and had never been able to return.  He was all alone.  Family left behind, unheard of, out of touch, maybe dead.

I don’t know what his name was really, but I called him Uncle Harry.  Perhaps he really was called Harald something.  I used to scamper into his room once or twice a week, sometimes with a story book, sometimes with paper and crayons.  He used to tell me stories.  He used to tell me about his little girl.

He always used to give me a little glass dish of tinned fruit with tinned cream poured on top, and he used to sprinkle sugar on the cream.  He kept the tins for me, in his little cupboard.  He used to tell me to run and ask my mum if it was okay for me to have it.  She always said yes, and told me to say thank you.  My mother could rarely afford such a treat.  I didn’t get much pampering (neither of us did) and I hadn’t much experience of father figures.

But Uncle Harry was gentle and indulgent.  He was softly spoken and kind.  He never told me off.  He let me chatter.  He told me stories.  He gave me pudding!

Whenever I have a dessert with cream, even now, 50 years later, I sneak a bit of sugar on top.  And when I am sad, or worried or bored, sweet things are what I crave.  Especially dairy products.

I remember sitting at his dining-table, my legs dangling, unable to reach the floor.  I felt safe.  I felt loved.  I had an uncle-figure, an older man, wiser, who had weathered storms to make his home in a bedsit in Kent.  He added hope to my life.  I wish we hadn’t moved away, I would have liked to know him when I was older.