A visit to the Dolphin

I’m always a little wary about walking into a pub alone… silly I know, but it dates back to childhood and being told that nice girls didn’t go to pubs and definitely not on their own. However, tonight I decided to brave it.

The sun had been in and out and mostly in all day, but by about 6 o’clock it finally made up its mind and decided to stay. The fields all around our barn were bathed in that golden light that descends at the end of the day and on the horizon a deeper band of blue was beckoning me. I hadn’t been down to the sea since arriving a couple of days ago and decided with the tide up, it was time I paid it a visit.

It was almost 7pm by the time I set out for the half hour walk across the fields, through the village of straggling thatched cottages and past a ‘dangerous’ herd of cows (apparently they had chased my daughter a week or two earlier) and then down a path through the woods to the mouth of the river Erme. I reckoned it would still be light by the time I got home and I was right – just!

I had slid a £5 note into my pocket just in case I wanted a drink at the pub on the return journey… that is, if I was brave enough to go in on my own.

At the slipway onto the beach a young couple were walking barefoot across the sand and the sinking sun was glistening its rays across the rippling water of the incoming tide. Gentle rollers were crumbling onto the beach and the slate and rust coloured rocks were gilded with sunlight. I was pleased I had come down, even at the last hour. This was Devon at its most superb. After soaking up the scenery and talking to God about it all, a Fisherman arrived and then two canoeists, followed by a couple who perched on one of the rocks to watch the sun go down. It was time for me to head back before it got dark.

When I arrived in the village, I thought I deserved a drink. After all, I’d climbed the hill through the dusky wood and disturbed a dear and I’d boldly marched past the fearsome cows and all before supper.

Inside the pub was packed with diners and I shuffled my way round to the ‘locals end’ where two men had pulled up stools, one reading a paper the other engrossed in his phone. I recognised the barman from a previous visit and we chatted briefly until he plonked a welcome pint of cider on the bar in front of me. .. so far so good. No one had asked me to leave because I was a woman on my own.

A man with a ginger beard and a lumberjack shirt appeared from the side door and ordered a pint and I shuffled up not wanting to hog the bar. Then another older man with glasses jostled past and placed a plastic box on the bar beside me, while he struggled to remove a jumper. I stared at the box and then glanced round at the blackboard… ‘Fridays open mic night… fish Sundays… Mondays darts…’

I looked across at the man next to me and surprised myself by saying out loud, “Is it darts tonight?”

That was all it took… he smiled and asked if I was on holiday and I explained we’d recently moved in locally… all of a sudden the other man with his nose in the paper came and introduced himself and started chatting, then a taller man walked in who I had met at the pub once before. Miraculously I remembered his name and we began chatting about his visit to see his new granddaughter in the Midlands and then someone else was telling me about the church and the parish boundaries and another about what was going on next week and by the way, did I play darts?

I decided not to take up the offer of joining in the darts.
1. Because I had no money left to buy any drinks – although they all offered.
2. Because I am very bad at throwing – darts especially.

Walking back up the lane and the along the fields ‘home’ I was hungry but warm. I was warmed by the open friendship I had experienced in that short time in the pub. Never mind the most wonderful scenery, what made me feel most at home is the fact that I had been welcomed by some of the community and this summer I hope we will be making new friends and taking our first steps into life in Devon.

It turns out going to a pub on my own was the best thing I’ve done in a while!

 

 

 

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The wrong pier

It had all been going swimmingly until the tuk-tuk driver dropped me at the Pier…

Finding myself in Bangkok last weekend, with one and half days to explore the world’s hottest city, I had decided against an organised tour. This was partly because I don’t like being organised and I also because I reckoned I could do this ‘city visit’ thing all by myself – after all I had an app and I was due an adventure.

Having found my way to Chatuchak market – Bangkok’s biggest weekend market – via the sky train, I entered the maze of more than 15,000 stalls. And it really was a maze. As I squeezed down the narrow passageway where the gaps between stalls were hardly wide enough for two people to pass, I soon lost my sense of direction and which way was out. Picking up a Hawaiian shirt which I couldn’t decide about, I realized I’d probably never find it again and so it was a case of buy it now or buy it somewhere else! After I’d exhausted the never-ending clothing section, I browsed around some of the crafts, while I took in the sizzle and scents of the food stalls, where everything was being tossed, fried and boiled under umbrellas in the heat of the sun.

Several hours later I left clutching a bag of bargains and feeling content but footsore.

I decided to head for the river next, vaguely aware there were sights to see and it might be a bit cooler. As I approached the peer I could see a number of boats of different sizes and sorts negotiating a passage between the bridge and the pier, with chugging engines and shouts reverberating under the concrete pillars. One was an oriental wooden boat with a curved roof, while others were more modern.

“You want boat trip lady?” A small man approached me.
“Am I too late?” I said, wondering if they had all finished because it was after 5pm – shopping had gone on longer than I’d planned!
He would fit me in, he said, for a sunset cruise up the river and around the smaller tributaries. I didn’t quite know what I’d let myself in for, and hoped it would be on one of the pretty coloured long boats, that looked a bit like gondolas with engines. After plenty of shouting and maneuverings with a giant engine and massive tiller, a long wooden boat with red and orange canopy and side panels approached the peer. It was completely empty and I was told to jump in quickly with urgent hand gestures from the man on the side. Seconds later, almost before I was seated, we were off with a roar of the engine.
“Sit in the middle!” the man at the pier shouted as the boat tipped and bounced through the water.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The little boat went very fast and although I’m not a fan of speedboats, this was fun. The bows of the boat slapped into the water with loud bang and spray rose up either side. I looked down at the polished wooden planks beneath me, hoping they wouldn’t split. Occasionally I was soaked, but I didn’t mind, I was hot. Pulling out my phone to take photos, I momentarily considered what would happen if we capsized and made a mental note to put my phone in my shoulder bag if I thought the boat was going over – after all it was waterproof and I could swim. It wasn’t until much later I noted the lifejackets decorating the seats… it felt a bit late to one on at that point!

We dodged other boats and barges with hoots and whistles and eventually turned off the main brown river to a series of even browner side streams, where we passed wooden houses on stilts that looked like they were about to slide into the murky waters beneath them. A group of boys fishing off a rickety pier waved at us and a small boy feeding fish with large orange pellets stared as we passed. I felt a bit like the Queen, waving serenely, all alone in the boat with garlands of bright flowers draped over the bow.

As we passed more and more dilapidated homes on the banks of the backwaters, I could see people preparing their evening meals, washing vegetables or just collapsed on a chair beside the river after a day at work. Skeletons of houses which had sunk into the water stood out like ragged spikes on inlets where even smaller long boats and crumbling vessels were moored. A gang of lads were draped over the wooden rails of a platform just above the water, all in swimming shorts, laughing as one of them hauled himself up a ladder dripping with water. I shivered at the thought of swimming in such grimy looking water. A giant water lizard (which I thought was a snake) and a shoal of catfish were the only wild life we spotted, but life in Bangkok’s waterways looked busy and the water was a welcome relief from the incessant heat of the city.

My first day exploring had been fun. I ate freshly cut mango in a bag from a street side stall and later enjoyed a long cold beer in little café near the guesthouse.

The next day I returned to the river and made my way from one glittering temple to the next, with my ‘hop on hop’ off river boat ticket. After soaking up as many gold statues as I could cope with, the last being the giant reclining Buddha, I decided to take my chances in a tuk-tuk instead of walking back to the Pier for my return boat trip.

The tuk-tuk driver suggested I go to another pier which would be quicker – it seemed to make sense. Happy to be back on solid ground after dodging taxis and cars at speed in the tiny tuk-tuk, I walked onto the pier where a handful of people were waiting. Eventually a blue flagged boat appeared and I walked down to the edge of the floating platform and watched it chug past without stopping.

Oh, you obviously have to flag them down to stop, I thought… Another boat appeared with an orange flag and dropped off passengers, but my ticket wasn’t valid apparently. Then a blue flagged boat appeared again and I held out my arm… thinking it must be like a ‘request bus stop’. The boat didn’t slow and the man on the back just shook his head as they slid past, just out of reach.

It was very hot, my feet were tired from three different temple visits in the heat of the sun, but it eventually dawned on me, that although this pier was marked on the boat’s map… it didn’t stop there. I had no choice but to walk to the next one. The riverside pavement came to an end after a few hundred yards and I began trudging my way through a maze of little streets knowing that if I kept turning right, eventually I must come to the one leading down to the next pier. There were no tourist here and the side streets were quiet. Several roads to the river led to dead ends or bike shops… then just as I was wondering how far I would have to walk I spotted the pier entrance.

When a blue flagged boat eventually arrived I was quite happy to sit and watch the world go by as it bobbed up the river from stop to stop. I would be doing a round trip and going all the way back to the bottom of the river… I thought. Unfortunately as the we approached the final pier where I was expecting the boat to turn around and head back, the guide announced this boat was not going back to where I could catch the sky train… they were stopping for lunch and we would have to get out here and wait for another boat.

It was almost half an hour later, after at least two orange flagged boats had come and gone, that a blue flag appeared on the horizon and I was heading back in the right direction.

As my eyes started to close and the sun was sliding towards the skyscrapers on the horizon, I realized I had spent quite a bit of the past 48 hours snaking up and down Bangkok’s brown river by boat. It wasn’t such a bad way to spend a weekend.

You can’t turn the clock back

I’ve watched a lot of films over the past 48 hours – five to be exact. All of them had their appeal, but only one of them has been haunting me. Now lying in a strange hotel room in Brisbane, when I should be catching up on sleep after flying half way around the world, flashbacks and snippets from the story keep flooding back… I suppose that means it was a ‘good’ film.

Crunched into an aeroplane seat for more than 24 hours, I found myself watching a string of movies. Faced with so much choice I picked:

  • a cartoon, because I like the music
  • a thriller because the story is clever
  • a comedy because I wanted to smile
  • a family film because I love sailing and the Lake District
  • and finally a film that I thought might be a sort of romantic drama… it wasn’t.

But it was this particular film that has kept me awake since I landed.

‘Manchester by the sea’ caught my eye a few weeks ago when I mused over the poster promoting the film on the station platform. There was a man standing by the water, with boats in the background looking at a girl. That’s a strange title, I’d thought, at the same time saying to myself, but Manchester’s not by the sea! This particular Manchester is a fishing town in America where the story is set. I won’t give away the tale, although it’s nothing complex or particularly mysterious. In fact I almost decided to stop it more than once because it felt quite slow and I wasn’t particularly enjoying it… it’s hard to enjoy watching someone suffer and becoming almost robotic with the pain that’s buried so deeply no one sees it.

When bad things happen and something or someone hurts us, it’s a natural defence to shut up tight like a shell and block out all the painful emotions so that we can’t be hurt anymore. Grief can do that to us and so can loss or rejection. Guilt can also tie us up in internal knots. But grief and guilt together seem to be a cocktail of emotions that have the potential to destroy someone.

I suppose no one would want to watch ‘Manchester by the sea’ if you told them it was all about guilt and grief – it wouldn’t sell cinema tickets. If you do watch it, you may not feel ‘good’, but you will be made to think. The very ordinariness of the story, the day-to-day plain boringness of life from fixing blocked toilets to shopping for food and fishing, is part of what gives this film its power. It’s an honest, down to earth, depiction of what happens to someone after a terrible tragedy…no more than that, after a devastating accident.

We never really know what’s going on behind someone’s expression – their real thoughts and feelings can be completely hidden. And the film shows that the way someone reacts, whether it’s blanking out emotion or picking a fight, can mask internal battles raging just below the surface. It’s what the director has left out that is most effective. The dialogue is sometimes sparse and there are those very real moments when people speak over one another and stumble in trying to say what they mean. There are awkward silences and clumsy hugs for the moments when there simply are no words.

If you do go and watch it – be prepared to be haunted by the face of a man who wishes every day he could turn back the clock and do one thing differently.

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turning pages

A pair of white gloves was draped beside an open picture book. I didn’t notice them at first because my eyes were drawn to the startling colours on the satin pages. I slid my hand across the expanse of paper, enjoying the silky texture beneath my skin. It was a giant picture book laid out on a stand in the hallway of the old house and there were no words. As my fingers twitched at the corner of the page, I paused – what if it ripped?

The other night we were invited for a meal at the home of a couple we had met briefly a few weeks earlier. We’d been welcomed in warmly and had sat by the open fire sipping Prosecco with brandy and nibbling canapés. It had been time to move to the dining room, and as I followed one of our hosts along the passageway I hadn’t been able to resist a closer look at the book. Each leaf was about the size of a television screen.

The gentle voice of the owner flowed over my head as she noted my interest and told me something about the origins of the book, which I instantly forgot. “There are gloves to turn the pages,” she said. That was all I heard. I stepped back and smiled. I thought she’d been joking. But no, there really was a pair of white gloves on the dark wood table beside the book. I realised my ‘crime’ and snatched my hand away. I’d dared to touch the book without the gloves.

During the meal and in the few days since I’ve wanted to go back to that hallway and slip on the gloves to turn those giant pages, soak in the colours and images and find out what the book was about. It was obviously very precious. So precious that it couldn’t really be touched.

I have some precious books of my own. But they come in two kinds. Some are precious in a valuable and historic sense, which means you have to be careful when you handle them and they must be wrapped away and stored in a safe place. Others are precious in another way. They are my favourite books from childhood and so well read they have become torn, dog-eared and stained. My all time special – More adventures of Caroline – has no cover at all, just the inside pages are left. I haven’t a clue what happened to the cover.

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When we love something very much it inevitably gets used, moved around, packed and unpacked and so it gets worn and sometimes damaged. (Readers of the Velveteen Rabbit will have heard this before!)

And that’s because when we’re attracted to something we want to touch it – we reach out our hands to see what it feels like. It’s an important part of the experience and so it seems alien to put on gloves to turn a page. Touch is one of the reasons I prefer reading a book to a Kindle. I like the feeling of turning pages and in the same way I enjoy flicking through magazines or rustling a newspaper. Touch connects me with objects, ideas and stories in a way that just looking doesn’t cut it.

So here is my Advent thought… God knew we needed someone who could physically be there, who could touch us and hold us, demonstrating love in a way we could feel it.

Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?

#adventword #touch

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What are the chances?

There are some moments in life that remain etched in your memory. We might not realise until something triggers that vivid picture, as if a film is replaying a scene in slow motion. For me it was a friend posting a photo of their mother on Facebook…

It was winter and I think it was raining. I was sitting in the concourse of our university building. It was a general meeting/hovering area with low vinyl covered seating arranged back to back in two squares. Long windows looked onto the railings which my bicycle was locked against, wedged in beside a string of others, and beyond that loomed the concrete slab of the student union. The college shop, jammed with stationery and sweets, framed one end of the space and a wide corridor was on the other side. It was a good place just to ‘hang-out’ if you’d had enough of the library or wanted to meet someone or kill time before a lecture (pre mobile phones).

As ever my canvas bag was bulging with folders and notepads and because it was nearly the end of the day I was thinking about mustering up the energy to go out into the cold and cycle home. An older lady in a long dark pink coat and white hair caught my attention in the corridor. She had a large handbag clutched against her and paused to look across at where I was sitting. I smiled absentmindedly at her but she looked passed me and continued down the corridor studying the various notice boards lining the walls as she walked. A couple of minutes later I slung my bag across my shoulder and headed down the corridor towards the main entrance. As I rounded the corner the same lady appeared again. She’d obviously come in a complete circle around the quad. This time I smiled properly and asked her if she was lost.

“Emm,” she hesitated. “I’m trying to find someone from the Christian Union… do you know how I would find them?” I was surprised and nodded saying I was actually a member, which seemed quite a fortunate coincidence. She looked relieved and started to explain how her daughter was a student at the university and she wanted us to pray for her. She’d come in especially to ask for us to pray. She told me her daughter’s name and then which course she was on. At which point I took a step back… she was on the same course as me and in my year. The lady reminded me of my own mum, but it wasn’t her very traditional shoes and winter coat, it was something in her face and her eyes that shone out. She was here because her daughter meant so much to her that she had come to find a stranger to pray for her.

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I was quite amazed and moved. The next day I related the story to some of my Christian Union friends. I did pray for her daughter, but without much faith that it would do any good. This student was not someone I could really see myself befriending. I’d told my friends she was a lost cause. She was a wild firecracker who rushed in and out of seminars or lectures, wavy blonde hair flying around her, always in a rush. She cracked loud jokes and boasted about boozy nights out and her current boyfriend’s antics… who from what I could gather was some kind of bank robber. Poor lady, no wonder she wanted us to pray! I kept my distance.

Some months later I was choosing modules for the next two years and found myself in a small tutor group with this same girl and three others. We would have to work together in the coming year on a joint video project, which would form a major part our year’s work… I wasn’t looking forward to it. I felt I was the one in need of prayer now. Somehow the two of us always ended up being thrown together against my choice, but over the coming months I began to see another side to this brash confident student. As we lugged heavy video cameras around south London and I struggled to keep up with her striding pace, or we sat munching eggy rolls in the Union snack bar something thawed between us. We became friends.

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It was this same girl who a few months later hugged and listened and cried with me in the weeks after my mother’s sudden death. Together we crushed giggling into a phone box in deepest Devon to phone respective boyfriends on a summer camping trip with my recently bereaved father. On graduation day we posed for photographs next to each other outside the Albert Hall and then months later she bundled her essential long black skirt into my bag as I headed for Morocco. On the morning of my wedding we sighed as she helped me into my dress and she teased my dad, in a way only she could get away with. This same girl is married to an inner city vicar and has spent her life building a church and seeing amazing miracles of faith and healing. It seems incredible that my meeting with her mother in a university corridor so many years ago turned out to be the start of something I could never imagine. Was that a coincidence? Or was it an answer to prayer? Whatever you think… thank God for mothers who never give up praying for their children.

my imperfect Bridget Jones

I’ve had a bit of a love affair with Bridget Jones ever since one night in 2001 when I sat convulsed with laughter near the front of the cinema. Perhaps it was because I didn’t get out a lot due to the difficulty of finding a free night and a babysitter to match, but whatever the reason, I found the film refreshingly funny. It wasn’t just the liberal use of the ‘F’ word and Colin Firth either. It was the heroine. Bridget wasn’t perfect she was hilariously flawed and her obsessions and fears were something I could easily associate with. From her struggles with losing weight and finding a partner to mastering the skills of turning on a microphone, public speaking and riding in a soft top… I’d been there and loved it. The film became a much quoted script that was so versatile, “something to go with anything for any occasion!’ Each time I had to stand up in front of a training session or meeting where there was a speaker system, I was so tempted to tap the mic and shout…”the mic’s not working properly!” On my 40th birthday, such was my love of the film, that my husband shamed me by hanging out a huge pair of knickers on the fairy lights greeting guests to the surprise bash. Thankfully my time as a local reporter had passed so there was no danger of me doing a Bridget down the pole of my local fire station, even if I did have a bottom the size of Brazil! When Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, or Bridget Jones 2 came out it had lost a little of it’s appeal and freshness, so 15 years on, I was intrigued to see how the latest film, Bridget Jones’ Baby would fair.

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Instead of watching it with an embarrassed husband disappearing into his seat in a cinema full of women, I went on a girls’ night out with fellow military wives to soak up the new Bridget and all she had to offer. Unfortunately, although it was funny, my dreams were shattered. Bridget and Mark Darcy had changed… what had happened? They had got older, more wrinkled and Oh, I don’t know, it was just all wrong. Suddenly, Bridget’s dizzy moments didn’t seem quite as funny third time around and her muddy face plant at Glastonbury not so endearing. As we left the cinema one of the girls googled Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth’s faces from 2001 and we all sighed with relief… so those were the people we knew, not these strange new faces that had appeared on our screen in episode three. For me the producers had waited too long to make this new film and perhaps we should have let Bridget rest where she was, safe in the arms of Colin Firth in her cardigan and knickers in a snowstorm.

One of the disturbing things about my reaction to an ageing Bridget Jones is the fact that I’m even older than the actress who plays her and yet I still feel pretty much 35. So, is my dislike of the new Bridget a sign of my own uneasiness about growing older and coming to terms with all that goes with it? It was Bridget’s imperfections in the first film that made her so endearing and felt like a breath of fresh air from the perfect heroines in many mainstream films. So, if imperfections are Ok, why not the imperfection of ageing too? Perhaps Bridget Jones Baby is a my wake-up call… I’m not going to be 35 forever, but that’s OK isn’t it?

To camp or not to camp

Camping is like marmite. You either love it or you hate it. But even if you love it, at some point you’re going to end up hating it.

Despite having dropped plastic boxes caked in grass in the garage, loaded a pile of damp clothes into the washing machine and kicked sleeping bags and airmats into odd corners of the house because I haven’t the energy to put them where they belong, I’m still feeling fairly positive about camping. The last load of washing is drying outside and when we packed up the tent it was bright sunshine, so we don’t have to wait for a windy day to air it on the lawn to stop it growing mold… such is the lot of a seasoned camper.

Last week we headed off for our umpteenth camping trip beside the sea in Devon. What could be more wonderful? Two days before ‘D’ day we decided we couldn’t fit everything in the car plus an extra passenger and would need to order roof bars so that we could take a top box. This wonderful invention allows tall people to store beach things and anything sandy high up out of reach where they will never be seen again, until you come to unpack at the end of the holiday and discover that’s where the badminton rackets, beach ball, windbreak and umbrella were after all. The roof bars arrived and were carefully assembled, but unfortunately didn’t fit the connection with the roof box. Problem one. No time to order new bars, so alternative bars had to be purchased locally, which also didn’t fit. Problem two. Third time lucky the bars were exchanged, fitted and the box was on top and the car was ready to be packed. Another problem was the fridge. Problem three. Tents don’t have fridges unlike their superior caravan cousins. So cool boxes/bags had to be bought (and returned due to unsuitability)… We began to wonder – is it really worth it? Why are we going camping? What about air B&B?

 

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7 reasons I love camping:

  1. No housework
  2. Minimal cooking – due to limited pans and burners
  3. Waking up to blue skies
  4. Sitting out under the stars drinking… wine mostly
  5. The perfect view from the tent of a curving sandy bay and rolling waves, with an island in the distance
  6. Smelling fresh grass and BBQs 24/7
  7. Not feeling guilty about fried egg and bacon for breakfast

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5 reasons not to go camping:

  1. The possibility it may rain
  2. The long walk to the toilets in the middle of the night – or stinging yourself on nettles seeking alternative loo point by the hedge
  3. The beds – there aren’t any
  4. The cool box, that isn’t, and smells of cheese after 24 hours
  5. Filling the water bottle, carrying it up the hill back to the tent and then realizing you needed to go to the toilet
    Oh and also… leaving the Fairy Liquid beside the communal sink – returning half an hour later to find a half used Co-op bottle in its place!

On balance, I think camping is a good thing. Our children love it. We endure it and I expect we’ll be back again next year… after all there are 7 good reasons to go. And I forgot to mention the sunsets!

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