Saturday, 10 November 2012

Love songs 4: The missing measure

Every night, the last thing the Impster does before she goes to sleep is to try and find a measure: 'I love you more than my Lego Friends set.' 'I love you more than my new hairband.' 'I love you a trillion million.'

She has now developed a love index, where her best friend Isabella is usually 120, daddy and mummy drift around the 100 mark, and the boo exists in a very elastic range of 0-100 dependent on his daily behaviour.

When she was smaller, I used to read her Guess How Much I Love You. In that story Little Nutbrown Hare tries to explain to Big Nutbrown Hare just how much he loves him - it's as far as he can stretch, as high as he can jump, and finally all the way to the moon. And Big Nutbrown Hare's stretch is always greater, his jump is always higher, and finally, as he tucks Little Nutbrown Hare into his bed of leaves he whispers, 'I love you all the way to the moon and back.' Childish or not, we never seem to grow out of the need to somehow measure our love so that we can express it.

These last three days I've been in Jersey, and I'm missing the things the children say that make me laugh, and I wonder if they've had time to miss me too? I'm even missing my two-year-old morning alarm - one of the things in truth, that I was looking forward to escaping.

Often, at the end of a day when I've been at work the boo will turn to me and say, 'I missed you so much today mummy.'

Perhaps he's just experimenting with a line he's heard me say, and he knows it makes me melt. Or perhaps he's beginning to measure the pain of separation - knowing that time, whether or not we can use a clock to 'tell' it, can endlessly stretch or instantly compress, depending on the day.

What better measure is there of how much we love someone than by the amount we miss them? I'm not sure if absence makes the heart grow fonder but I'm pretty sure it makes us start to count. Sinaid O'Connor knew something about love when she sang, 'It's been seven hours and fifteen days, Since you took your love away.'

Maybe the unfortunate truth is that we're never so inclined to count the minutes and hours as when it pains us most to do so. Want to guess how much I love you? I measure it out not just in significant dates and memories, but also one lost moment at a time.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Love songs 3: Perfect pairs

I'll admit it, I'd been inspired by Jessica Ennis. Proof that long legs are not always better than short ones. And despite my desire for a perfect pair I was prepared to settle for perfectly functioning, after this injury and that. This morning it felt as if I might finally have got them back - not a perfect pair by Olympic standards, but good enough to do the distance.

So I was out on my test run, when I suddenly found myself swerving to avoid a pair of swans sitting together on the path. I turned back to look at them after I'd passed, hoping their bills would touch and they would form a heart shape with their necks (because that sort of metaphor pleases me). They didn't oblige, but all the same they looked the perfect pair: utterly intransigent, together, peaceful, while the world and its runners revolved around them.

The sight of them caused me to wonder how nature is deliberately designed to the power of two. The powerful grace of the swan, the gentle romance of the turtle dove, the patient, enduring penguin - all steadfast pairs. And yet, apparently, so are the wolf and the vulture. Not exactly cuddly by reputation, but as it turns out, reliable in the field of lasting relationships.

After lunch, K and I were caught in the act of having a cheeky snog in the kitchen by the Impster. 'You two are a good combo,' she said.

'Thanks,' we said, taken off guard by her surprising 5-year-old mode of expression. And then she nestled in between us and that was that. Another reminder that these days it's not about quality time, but seconds grabbed; not about grand displays, but tiny signs - the two empty wine glasses from the night before always waiting to be washed up; his two lips that speak our domestic shorthand.

This evening we watched our two children playing in the bath together, larking and laughing together with outrageous confidence. We shared a joke and all at once he kissed me again.

And into my head sprang Ira Gershwin's words: 'who could ask for anything more? Who could ask for anything more?'

Monday, 30 July 2012

Love songs: 2. Old love

So there I stood in aisle 22 of Sainsbury’s (pondering over the honey as if I were Pooh Bear) when I overhead a woman saying: ‘Oh he’s terrible for nodding off. I’ve left him home now dozing in the chair. Pinned a note on him saying where I was going. He’ll find it when he wakes up.’

‘Just as well he’s still working I s’pose,’ says her friend.

‘Oh yes, I couldn’t do with him being home all the time,’ she replied.

I manoeuvred my trolley in the direction of the biscuits (is it just me or do you find that the more choice there is, the longer it takes you to choose, until the packet you finally end up with seems altogether less tempting than it did when you began?). And I started to worry that in thirty year’s time my marriage might be held together by a pack of post-it notes and a biro. Or worse still, I'd be living with the looming fear of his retirement and of being under each other’s feet. Since being apart so much of the time seems to have brought us so close, who's to say being together might not pull us apart?

The prospect of old love doesn’t have as much going for it as young love. When two taut, prospective bodies have become saggy and rheumatic, and the forces of entropy have set in, and every bad habit has grated and amplified, and nearly everything of worth that two people could possibly discuss has been said – then what joy, what larks, what pleasure to be found?

I suppose it is natural that whenever I think of ageing couples I think of my dear old grandparents. At their diamond wedding anniversary I read a piece from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernière, who talks about young love as the passion that burns away, and old love as that which is left. When the temporary madness has subsided, he says:

‘You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.’

It still seems to me as good a definition of love as anyone has ever written, and you can hear the whole of that wonderful passage here:



My grandmother had such a hot temper and quick frustration that living with her must have been like inhabiting an emotional cyclone. And yet - and yet - if my grandfather was ever tempted to leave, there was something that made him stay. They may have fought, but they also laughed, and this mutual mischief was enough to make a marriage work.

She remains endlessly quotable, her caustic wit is still the source of an aphorism for every occasion. Perhaps it’s a small, insignificant kind of thing, but I think it punches above its weight in the field of relationships, a shared sense of humour.

We can be connected by families, or social groupings, or shared tasks, or shared experiences. We can be connected by blood, by loss, by mutual need. But to find the same things funny is an elemental connection, as strong as passion, only with a longer shelf life. How very important it is to be able to cheer each other up. I can still hear them singing: ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey...’

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Love songs: 1. Young love


I spent last week in quarantine with an infectious, but unreasonably lively, Boo. At times like this only mummy will do - mainly because no one else will take on the childcare. By the end of the week I'm not sure who needed out more. We cuddled and shouted our way through it, the days punctuated by far too many DVDs and the odd reward sticker (later replaced by more effective smarties) for timely use of the potty.

But the chickenpox was the least of his worries. His sickness was pure lovesickness - for the Impster's friend, Isabella.

Six months ago, the only way I could get him to cooperate was to use the prospect of seeing (or threat of not seeing) Is-Bella. 'If you don't get in your car seat right now,' I would reason firmly, 'then we won't go to see Isabella this afternoon.' And within moments he was clipped in peaceably.

At his birthday party there must have been nearly thirty children, but when they had left it was clear that there had needed to be but one. I shall never forget the sight of him holding his balloon and with a puzzled little frown repeating: 'Where Is-Bella gone? Where Is-Bella?'

Since the dawn of time (by his clock at least) he has loved and tormented her. She is two years his senior and quite the most beautiful child we know. Both are quite set on marrying the other, and will tell you so in a heartbeat, with a coy, knowing smile.

Naturally he is rough and tumble in his affection, but Is-Bella is wise beyond her years and understands the nature of his attention. 'It's because he loves me,' she will say after the Boo has energetically launched himself upon her. And on one occasion she was even heard to say: 'I like him on top of me.' To be honest she's got used to it, so we don't worry quite so much about his molestations these days.

Anyway, last week we have a proper stand-off, a full blown tantrum. 'I do NOT have the chicken pops!' he bellows, inflamed with spots and anger. 'I CAN see Is-Bella.'

Momentarily I have a vision of his 15-year-old self standing before me, acne-ridden and brimming with unrequited passion and anger.

But the Boo's two-year-old outrage is relieved in a series of stomps and shouts of 'It's not fair!' And then he sulkily puts in a more measured request: 'Want to dress up as Rapunzel.'


This desire to dress up in Disney princess costume and role play the way through the afternoon is their shared interest. It's what has brought the Boo and Is-bella together. To begin with it was very cute and he looked good in pink. Now the cross-dressing habit has become a bit of an obsession and frankly he can out-Disneyfy even the Impster - though in a slightly less graceful, more rugby-tackling kind of way.

Is it possible that my son could be a lesbian? I can answer only with Blurish wisdom that: 'girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they're girls who do girls like they're boys, always should be someone you really love...'

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Walking the walk

'Well I doubt any of the others will be able to say they have done a walk such as this today,' he says with satisfaction.

'Daren, we have walked 20 miles of Cornish coast path in a hurricane. No one will have...'

I am prevented from finishing by a gust of wind so violent it takes my breath away.

'Plant your poles,' he shouts as I shoot sideways, literally swept off my feet, and with all my might I do.

'You remember to tell them,' he shouts, 'that poles are not for nonces.' Then, in more reasonable tones, continues, 'Mind you, I can understand why they might think that. I also used to be of the view that they were only for old men. Whereas, what I say now is,' he pauses to leap a puddle, 'that it's just like taking your own personal handrail with you.'

With each gust we find ourselves laughing, caught out by these improbable circling winds, swooshing in from the north east one second and from the south west the next.

Eventually at 5.09pm we make it into Porthtowan and fall onto the seats in the bus shelter - somewhat blistered, certainly windswept. The buses to St Ives are not frequent and the 5.23 is the last of the day. At 5.25 we make the discovery that, being a Cornish bus, this one does not stop at the bus stop. In small print above the timetable it notes that if you actually want to catch the 571, then you need to turn left and walk 5 minutes up the road.

What is this place where the buses stop in private places and the 5.23 is pretty much considered the night bus? Clearly somewhere with a local pub in need of custom. We retire there in search of beer and a landline phone to call for rescue.

And conveniences. I had offered to avert my eyes but Daren was quick to note the perils of pissing in a changeable wind.

Two pints and a bag of pork scratchings later, K arrives to collect us.

'We have encountered unnatural phenomenon today,' Daren tells him impressively. 'Nothing less than an upward falling waterfall.'

Truly, it is not often you witness such a thing, and when I am in possession of the video footage (captured on his camera not mine) I shall plant it here in proof.

He's now walked 460 miles of the south west coast path. There's officially 630 miles in total. 'I estimate I'll have done 660 miles by the time I finish,' he announces.

'Why the extra 30 miles?

'Getting lost mainly. And extra distance to reach the pubs.'

Or the buses it would seem...

Monday, 9 April 2012

Fortuna

I stood at the bottom of the steps leading up St Catherine's Hill. I'd just run up and walked down and now I was contemplating running up again. There are 330 steps and they get steeper the higher you go. Of course I wasn't fit enough to run them again. Then I remembered I wasn't fit enough the first time. It isn't your legs and your lungs that get you up there - it's your mind.

So tonight I ran. I ran to feel my heart beat, to feel my blood race, to breathe. I ran too far, too fast. Fast enough, perhaps, to even lose my mind. For that moment in time I was my own limiting factor. It felt like pure, unstoppable escapism.

Tomorrow I will ache, tomorrow my persistent cough will worsen. Tomorrow I will remember the previous damage - the black knee, the bruised foot - and will regret it. Tomorrow I will be slow and I will think.

In all likelihood I will consider what happiness looks like to an average runner, an average lover, an average mother, an average employee, and how it might best be achieved.

On Saturday night a friend, who has recently had her first baby, told me it won't make sense for her to return to work. I used to work with her, so I know her talent and have watched her painstakingly build her career over the years. We talked it over, trying (and failing) to make sense of this surprising turn of events.

Perhaps this is why today I have been beset by that familiar feeling that what matters is not the taking part but the sense of winning. And that you have to be a loser before you can be a winner. Sometimes it seems as if we spend our lives wilfully knocking things down in order to build ourselves back up.

I got to the top of the steps. I took in the view. And I turned and walked down again.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 4. True stories

And so my mind wanders to wondering what life’s greatest tactful omissions might be...

I wonder how many sitting rooms are housing an elephant while their inhabitants silently watch TV.

I wonder in how many boardrooms tomorrow the recession will be blamed for everyone’s failings.

I wonder how many forbidden ‘I love you’s’ are not being said tonight.

I wonder about the stories we tell ourselves in the dark, so that we might sleep soundly.

And I ask myself whether fear, self-preservation, the greater good or a simple act of kindness is the reason for these tactful omissions?

Tricky lesson number four: always tell the truth, especially to yourself.

We tell ourselves we use them to spare others’ feelings, to boost their confidence, to keep the peace. But how often do we tell them for our own sakes: because we don’t want others to think badly of us, because it’s an easier life, it’s easier to please, easier to be beloved by all?

Perhaps the truth is that our tactful omissions are at the heart of what define us. For life is an editorial process; we shape it as we go, writing our stories and vaguely remembering the discarded opportunities and the unwritten, unwritable chapters.