Crazy laughter emanates from the carriage. We have boarded nearest to the engine, at the back of the train. It seems the potentiality of this summer’s day has lifted the spirits of commuters. We take our seats in the middle of the carriage , back facing our destination.
The train is full and a pack of middle aged men in long sleeved shirts and suit trousers are separated, instead sitting in file, next to other not known, smiling city types. Sunglasses decorate their faces hiding eyes as they arch their necks round to continue conversations already established.
A quartet of early twenties hopefuls, making the early commute sit on the opposite side of the carriage to them facing backwards. The omnipotent emotions generated by this, one of their first journeys it’s appears as commuters, still holds enough novelty to generate an air of self- importance. It sends shockwaves through the personality. I cannot see the girls but I can hear them , piercing voices with little intonation giving opinion on news items, it appears to the whole carriage. Their volume increases as the old timers take up the ingroup offer of a polo which gets entwined in a discussion about ebola. “This makes an Ebolo”, a female voice finishes. Titters amongst the group and a raucous response from the males each keen to take up the offer of a mint. I look up.
“Yeh I’ll have an Ebolo Polo”, a clean shaven smiling sun-glassed man jokes.
Laughter circles, racing up the carriage
Encouraged by full smiles, framed with lipstick, compliments are flung towards the females.
“Intelligent and beautiful,” remarks the man sitting furthest from the group, he drops his glasses and smiles holding his stare confidently before sliding the glasses back and returning his head back to rest on the rose red head support.
His friend sitting directly twists round in front – “you flatterer” he smirks.
“Anything for an Ebolo Polo!” the man replies , smiling.
The females laugh and a kind of parabolic inflation of ego exchanges occurs – “you are so kind thankyou!” the female repies.
“No thankyou – thanks for sharing”, it continues
“Oh not at all- we like to share the Ebolo”.
Laughter rises once more.
My companion on this journey whispers in my ear.
“Would you like a polo?”
“Are you offering?”- I return my face to theirs. We laugh.
We meet momentarily.
The transparency of the moment is framed with laughter infecting faces up the carriage, mouths stretching and eyes dancing to and fro. The lighter side of humanity takes hold and dispels myths of a future of fractious dystopia and just for a moment,
In a deviation from his usual preoccupations smallest has become very interested in the natural world.This started with curiosity about the workings of Volcanoes.
Explaining how a volcano works to a 4 year old is no mean feat. Enter You Tube with its plethora of options to enable a level of understanding suitable for us both.
We selected a 7 minute programme hosted by “Mother Earth”, an animation which by my standards is hilarious and is a mine of information. Smallest is suitably impressed and we have watched this many times over the past week. Subsequently, at any given moment he has found the space to regurgitate his new found knowledge. “Lava is molten rock”, he says. “Yes”, I say. “Pompeii is in Italy”. I nod. “We are bundles of matter” he shouts. “Right”, I say.
Despite his fascination with Volcanoes his main interest appears to be Mother Earth herself. “Why is she called Mother Earth?”, he asks. I explain that we sometimes refer to our planet as Mother Earth, as she is the home of everything that lives and she keeps us alive , just like our Mums do I say . “Oh”, he says and stuffs a(nother) fig roll in his mouth.
Today we left early for our usual morning walk around the Abbey Field. In this journey we decide to walk past the site where the old Gym used to stand before it was knocked down four years ago. It’s been cordoned off by a wall of wooden fence panels, painted in anti-climb paint. We know this because there are signs dotted around on the fence panels with a picture of a Mammoth and the words warning anti climb paint written underneath. Obviously smallest queries the content of the signs and I tell him, explaining that Mamut is french for Mammoth. This sign is for a security company who must patrol the site.”What does it say?”, he asks again and I tell him that it says ‘Mamut’. “But this means Mammoth”, I add. “Mamut”,he says. “Yes, yes it ..means Mammoth”. Preferring the French smallest asks ,”Where are the Mammuts?”
“Pardon?”,I say. Smallest appears to be looking around the site.
“Where are they?” , he has stopped now and he is looking at the derelict gym site. “Oh no they are not there sweetheart they are extinct i say”. It’s just a picture. They are not there. I understand his confusion. He looks puzzled as if to say why is there a picture of a Mamut with a warning sign if there are no Mamuts there.
As we walk home he asks what extinct is and I explain that this is what happens when an animal used to exist but doesn’t anymore – maybe because they were all killed by another animal or even us. “killed by grown ups?”, he asks and I reply well maybe sometimes that happens.
I then continue to talk about the importance of looking after animals and of looking after ‘Mother Earth’. “Mother Earth?” he stops and looks at me. “How do we look after Mother Earth?” he looks at me. I talk about recycling, using less plastic, using litter bins and looking after the wildlife in our garden. All things which I think he can grasp and are relevant to his little life. Not wanting to lose his attention on this quite significant topic, I then rack my brains and drawing on his love of all things motorised, talk about using electric or petrol and not diesel vehicles. He asks why people drive diesel cars and I tell him ,”Some adults just like diesel motors”. It seems a ridiculous point to make. That we just like them. At this point I feel I have lost him – his stick is far more interesting and he’s shooting lava balls at passing cars. I stop talking and start thinking about tea.
Later in the evening we sit and watch the follow up to the Volcano video another Clip about volcanoes followed by a cartoon about the merits of recycling. Middlest sashays into the living room and says ,”what you watching?”, and ruffles his hair. Smallest sighs, “It’s recycling. How to look after Mother Earth.” I smile. There is a small silence,”I don’t think Grown ups are good for the earth. Children are. And Mammuts”.
Dad has three weeks before has his second vaccination. Then we can go into his house. I can’t tell you how excited I am just to get in there and sit down and have lunch and a cup of tea with him. He has been inside now since mid December. It’s an incredibly long time and it feels far longer. For him though it must feel like an eternity.
To pass the time he has re-established a relationship with Amazon , with whom there was a tumultuous few months where he had changed card details and then forgot his password. The reconciliation came a couple of months ago and since then he has used his time well and sat pondering what to buy and then making the purchase. Amongst other things this has included shaving foam, a coffee pot, a frying pan, herbs, pants, a sausage and a banana. Actually ,the latter was a purchase via Waitrose but I mention it because it highlights his difficulty with online shopping. “Why 1 banana Dad”, I said , as I stood at the front door. “Well I thought it meant one bunch- who wants one bloody banana?”, he said tutting. “And the sausage?” I said laughing. He sighed and looked at it in its small refrigerated package. “No bloody good”, he said.
I have always been close to my Father. When I was in my early teens I moved in with him and we muddled along together until i was 19 and left for University. In the intermediary years we drifted slightly though always remained in close contact, seeing each other two or three times a week. The pandemic though has reaffirmed what we had and cultivated something a little more enduring. It has certainly made me appreciate what he finds difficult and exposed my own struggle with accepting that. It has triggered the beginning of a narrative between us which has allowed us to reframe weakness as difficulty. The difficulties have been silently accepted and supported.- Dads with shopping, washing and cleaning , and my difficulties financially and with settling into my new circumstances.. Subsequently we have come to accept them; now they present no hardship as they are what life is a series of challenges to be overcome with support.
Most importantly though there have been the phone calls which, over the course of the year have got increasingly longer. These days we can easily spend an hour chatting in the evening. There is no topic which we have not explored together, politics, philosophy, psychology, literature, as-well as matters relating to family. The past has been dug over and we have cultivated a different understanding of those years from which the present is growing.. Our shared humour has carried us (and our dislike of the Johnson Government). It’s been fantastic.
3 Weeks Later
I write this having gone into his house for the first time for 5 months. I am pleasantly surprised at what I find; the only evidence of my not having been there is the kitchen floor which he struggles to get to now. Other than that things are looking good – even the kitchen sideboard has undergone transformation. We sit amongst books and papers and chat about Prince Philip and drink tea. It’s all very British one might say.
Before I leave I take a trip to the bathroom. I click the door latch and turn on the light noticing a slight difficulty opening the door fully. I step in and as I turn to close the door I notice an unholy amount of loo rolls behind the door.
When I return to the living room I comment on the rolls . “Ah yes I was going to ask you to take those downstairs Sploddy” he says.
“Right”, I say “erm ok all of them? How many shall I leave there just a couple?”
.”There are 60 there you know”, he says this triumphantly.
“I can well believe that I say – any particular reason why there is so many?” , I query.
“No”, he says -” I only clicked on one. Turns out it meant one box!”
Last night middlest and I sat on our sofa, ready to absorb another episode of IT Crowd. I passed her the obligatory packet of something chocolate and she passed back the drink that she had just removed from me. This removal is ritualistic for middlest and eldest. It begins with them seeing my drink sitting on the side. They ask me if its my drink. I say yes. They pick it up and drink some of it then put it down. I pretend to look indifferent. This scene has graced the last ten years. No doubt there would be some intricate psychoanlaytic interpretation of this; however even with my tendency to explore, I have avoided this and just enjoyed it for what it is. Regardless of time or day for that moment we are all standing on the same point in time and we laugh. “Its nice”, she said. She passes it back. “Yup”, I replied, “it is isn’t it?” “What’s in it?”, she says. I read, “Er 36 strawberries, 2 and a half bananas”. “Ooooh”, she says “very precise”- “5 grapes and…. what’s this?” I say. I squint at the teeny tiny writing on the side of the colourful bottle. “1…… Alice Pineapple……what the heck is an alice pineapple?!” I say. “You what??!” says middlest and she looks at me. “Alice pineapple”, I repeat. She takes back the bottle from me and holds it up, mirroring my facial squint, “alice pineapple….what even is that?” ,her voice travels up in question. It does not occur to answer our question with a google search, instead we just sit our faces scrunched up in disbelief at the alice pineapple and its place in our (my) smoothie. They put so much stuff in here. Middlest carries on staring at the bottle. She stops and sighs and says, “its like my list of homework – why they cant just reference the chapter we need to read and ask us to make outline of it? Why give us a list of points we need to make about the chapter- it just overcomplicates things .I just want to read something without panicking I am focusing upon the wrong thing”. “Are you saying the smoothie is overcomplicated” I reply. “No, just that we don’t need a bloomin’ list of ingredients like that… that we can’t even read”, she exhales. I am not sure of the comparison, I think she might just be venting but I concur – at least with the homework issue. Teaching became more of a faff as the years went by, the focus drifting from encouraging learning to ensuring that they students ticked criteria points in the syllabus. It makes sense to want to make sure that you are covering everything but in reality it took away from just enjoying the experience of learning and the sense of well being this can instil. Too much focus on the detail caused anxiety. When you are teaching students, especially with complex needs, just achieving the former is an outcome but there is no box for that on the syllabus. Learning moved from being an experience to a process.
“….And how did they do it?..”, Middlest holds the bottle up, “Put a whole pineapple in here??”, she is exasperated now .”Maybe its a miniature.” “Yeh, maybe; I cant believe I’ve not heard of it though” I muse. “Alice pineapple”. I shake my head and after this delay we press play.
Eldest comes in and seeing the bottle sitting next to me walks over .I look up and he nods his head toward the bottle, “Is that your drink?”. “Yes”, I say. “Right”, and he picks it up and sits down on the armchair opposite.
We are watching the episode of IT Crowd where Moss sets the office on fire. We settle into the episode and as we do eldest starts to read the ingredients, “36 strawberries, two and half bananas, 5 grapes oh and a… what is that?…. oh, he squints and stares, ” 1 ….. Alice? no…. 1 slice of pineapple.
Middlest snorts and I open my mouth and make what she describes as a Minecraft potion noise.
I moved to Colcheter in 2004 from North Wales. Then we were 2, myself and eldest , I was carrying middlest at the time. It was a reluctant move which I framed as a stop gap in which I would consider my choices. Colchester is my birthplace and is not far from where I grew up however, did not appear to offer anything outwardly. In contrast, I had moved to Wales to undertake my degree, and my childhood town well, it contained my friends and my family. There was vacancy in this transition though, one I was unsure how to eliminate.
Life filled up quickly though. First middlest was born and then came their schooling, employment as a local youth worker and involvement in a very supportive Sure Start led community. I grew a social life and from this friendships sprouted.
In my mind though, Colchester’s status remained the same. A stop gap.
One day, a couple of years after my move, I sat chatting with a good friend in my living room. They glanced at my wall and nodded in the direction of a map I had of Wales and another of my childhood home. “No Colchester? ” they asked. “No it’s temporary “ , I mused without explanation or offering a potential future narrative.
Back then I would look forward to the time I wasn’t here. I would frequently take us away on breaks and day trips and on our way back it was always “better get back to Colchester then”. Never home.
Two years later, I relocated to where I live now. Still loosely referring to it as a filler, to everyone else, the move suggested something different – now married , with a permanent job , schools selected and friendships underscored, my life exuded stability. My choices said- this is home.
Privately though my view was the same, it was a stop gap. My mind would often drift to Cornwall or Cromer or Brighton, someplace with just good memories, a bit more surf and a little less concrete. I would make plans and look at letting and opportunity in that direction. One day these dreams drifted into conversation with another friend. I revealed to them my disappointment that I was still here after 15 years, that this was ever only meant to be a stop gap. Their shock at my confession was palpable – “You don’t seem this as your home? Why?!” I couldn’t actually answer at first.
I stopped and wondered openly about this need to separate myself from the town. Why did I resist saying it was my home? I recalled out loud how on occasion I had been repulsed by it even hated it. I said that it felt as if it belonged to everyone else , not me , describing places, specific roads and instances that fuelled the feeling. It slowly dawned upon me that I was drawing specifically upon certain experiences of people (perhaps even the reason for my move here) and this had coloured my perception of the place. My ability to synchronise with my environment , appeared to rest upon bad experiences and in particular how I had received them.
Often when we have difficulties we project our feelings elsewhere, onto other people, situations or jobs or sometimes places. We may take out our bad mood on someone else at work. We might take a negative experience at work, home. Similarly places can become imbued with the characteristics or feelings generated there. So a town that is neutral might come to represent a series of difficult life events.
Similarly we may behave in ways which we struggle to reconcile with our present self and find it difficult to remain where we are reminded of our failings.
I naturally pick things apart and in this conversation I realised the power of my defences. It’s easy to avoid yourself through dissociation than to face squarely, difficult feelings that we find hard to process.It can make things easier in the short term. But there is a flip side – in doing this we can deny things about ourselves and for ourselves, and for me it appeared that had included, feeling where my home is.
A few weeks ago, I realised a huge shift had occurred. A picture had been posted on our neighbourhood , what’s app group. It depicted a sketch of the road drawn by a local artist.
Curled up on my sofa I sat up instantly and turned into the light to look more closely. I liked it. I copied it to my photo album and then printed it off. The next day I put it in a frame on my wall.
Somewhere along the line , perhaps in the middle of all this craziness, Colchester had become my home.
What changed? Perhaps it was the many walks around Abbey Field or the long runs around the outskirts of town. Maybe it was the faces that became familiar , throughout the hours spent doing both. Or maybe it was the sense of community which emerged from lockdown on our little road. The sharing of food and plants, the socially distanced chats with people who I have lived alongside for years, yet never spoken too. Or maybe it was the sharing of many pictures of resident foxes throughout. Whatever the reason, I have realised that I am at a different point in my life now and I exist in a space which is familiar yet is speaking to me in a different way. In relaxing my vision I have freed us up as a family.
The next day we head out of town and as we reach the end of another beach day , I get in the car. We chat and as I strap in smallest I ask, “where are we off to now buddy?”, and we look at each smile – in unison we both say “let’s go home”.
It’s been a while since I have posted. It seemed over Christmas that I might contribute a post about the kind of traditions that we uphold here in our home. The winky snowman that we have as a table centre piece, annoying Santa, who hangs on the living room door, rattling every time the door gets knocked. He has lost limbs and his beard in his 10th year but has managed to retain his ability to irritate . The robins which we place on the tree, one for us all and my sister. Some may recall my sister has passed, so her robin, now 39 years old, has travelled from our childhood and keeps her as part of our celebrations. He has lost his beak. Then there’s Christmas Eve PJs. Cheese and crackers on Christmas Eve. Reading Christmas stories on Christmas Eve. And so many more little things we do as a family.
Last night we sat and we made our resolutions and we looked back at our best bits and my daughter offered me a reminder of how our minds are so different. Very often it seems that we are thinking along similar veins but it struck me throughout the evening how little the pandemic and the lockdown has followed her through to the present. I wondered if perhaps, it’s impact upon others is not quite held in young people’s minds. Perhaps it’s not only the lockdown but people’s inner lives which escape us when we are young. The egocentricity of youth though keeps the young buoyant across rough seas and for this year it has been with good reason.
So I held back in reminding her the full impact upon others and prompt myself, it’s unnecessary to burden the young with too much. Highlighting all the differences in between us does nothing for the present. Or our future. Ignorance is bliss. Just as Santa and Snowman and the Robins are enjoyed without seeing their differences; being in the present without too much analysis is the lesson which I have taken from 2020 , to accompany me throughout 2021 and beyond.
Looking back many of my posts have focused on Lockdown. I wondered if going into the New Year things might change enough for me to take my eye away from all things Covid related. Not to be folks. We remain in Tier 2- one of only three towns in Essex who are not in Tier 4 and with my Dad in the latter, we are back to dropping food at his door and retreating. It’s a bit worrying now. So we went to Walton and were greeted by this.
Life became lighter for a couple of hours and then we returned home for Shepherds Pie. Not forgetting the sublime truffles created by middlest. Praying for a turning point.