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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Letting yourself go

Do you ever let yourself go? I don’t mean not washing your hair and wearing old clothes, but really ‘letting go’. I’m not precisely sure what this kind of ‘letting go’ looks like, but I know I’ve been on the edge of it and I’ve certainly had dreams about it…

I did a parachute jump quite a few years ago. It was BC*. I’d spent a whole weekend sitting in a classroom, then practising jumping, landing and rolling off a little platform a few feet up. We were all ready to go by mid afternoon on the Saturday… but the weather wasn’t. Apparently it was too windy. There was a chance it would be too windy the next day too and as our ‘training’ only lasted a few days, if we didn’t make the jump soon we’d have to train all over again. It does actually make sense. Practising to jump from a great height is a good idea, so that when it comes to taking that leap of faith you do it almost automatically. There’s a drill you know and the drill will make you safe.

During the early hours of Sunday morning the person I still share a bed with was woken with me shouting, “One thousand, two thousand… check parachute!” with most of the duvet pulled over my head. I thought I was ready!

The wind was still a touch too strong the next morning and us would-be parachutists lazed around in the sunshine, looking up at a blue, blue sky and intermittently watching a wind sock. This isn’t a sock hanging in the wind on the edge of the runway– it’s more of a traffic cone made from kite material that fills with wind and flutters or flops. We were hoping for more of a flop as the day progressed. The wind was a problem for parachutists because it could easily blow us off course and we could end up in the river Trent or a up a tree or in a silage tank… yuk! ..rather than the intended cornfield.

Eventually we were called to order and told we were going up in a plane that we wouldn’t be landing in. The little practise jumps and rolls were repeated and hugging our black parachute packs to our chest we walked towards the runway. I remember glancing back and waving and hoping everything was going to work out OK. There were a number of possible scenarios.
1. The parachute didn’t open
2. The parachute tangled
3. I broke my leg on landing or worse
4. The emergency chute failed or I forgot where the pull thing was (where is it again?)

Hopefully the person who had packed my parachute had done a good job and all would be well. But I said a little prayer anyway. A parachutist had died a week earlier at the same airfield when both his parachutes had failed, but statistically didn’t this make my chances of survival better?

It was amazing looking out of the door of the plane and inching myself along with my feet dangling over the edge of the sky. A guy in goggles gave me the thumbs up and I really had nowhere else to go except out. I let go of the handle I was gripping with one hand and leapt. A few seconds later I was looking up at a perfectly circular canopy above me and had that beautiful experience of floating to earth like a spaceman/woman. The landing was a little bumpier than expected… but all in all it had worked. I lived to tell the tale and write up the story in the local newspaper.

Somehow jumping out of a plane was easier than some of the other leaps I’ve been called on to take in life. But experience is telling me taking a risk, doing something that doesn’t make complete sense, is more fulfilling than watching from the safety of the ground. So… what leaps are you taking today?

*Before Children

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The end of a hot day

Today’s hot weather made me dream of being back in Cyprus. It was after a day of slightly higher temperatures than this that we picked up an unexpected stowaway in our hire car…

During a visit back to the island last month, we’d decided to pop out for an ice cream and an evening stroll down the beach. A couple of miles en-route there was, unusually for Cyprus, a queue of traffic caused by a Cypriot wedding, as guests dropped cars on the corners of pavements and stopped unexpectedly to let out glamorous ladies in high heels. I could hear the sound of a cat crying and it seemed very close by. I looked around to see where it was, then as we continued we both noticed the noise was still with us. I even turned to check in the back seat. As the sound grew more distinct and insistent we had the awful thought that the cat could be injured somewhere under the car or shut in the boot, so we quickly pulled into the nearest hotel entrance and jumped out. The mournful crying hadn’t stopped and unbelievably it seemed to be coming from under the bonnet.

A couple of Russian tourists wandered over to see what was wrong and could also hear the crying. The bonnet was popped and we all peered into the engine… no sign of a cat. But the plaintive meow continued. I was worried the animal was trapped and injured. One of the Russians suggested we turn the wheel slowly because that’s where the sound seemed to be coming from. Seconds later he leaned into the back of the engine and lifted out a tiny black and tortoiseshell kitten. Amazingly it seemed fine and was still desperately crying. He handed the kitten over and said, “Here you go – it’s yours!” Neither of us could believe this tiny kitten had survived the drive a mile a two down the road and lived to tell the tale.

We were very relieved that it was uninjured and decided to return to the flat where we assumed it had crawled into the car. The kitten buried itself in my neck and even started purring. We bought kitten food en-route (we are softies at heart) in case it was hungry and to help with the shock of being in an engine. We hoped it would wander off and find its mother somewhere in the surrounding bushes where many stray cats seemed to be living. So with the Kitten left eating, we headed out for that ice cream…

The next morning we checked the car for any sounds incase the little chap had returned. There was no sound from the car, but wait a minute… there was a familiar cry and it was coming from a car behind us. This time we couldn’t open the bonnet and didn’t even know who owned the vehicle. Eventually after practically lying under the car the same kitten, with a dangerous passion for car engines, was coaxed out from the engine through the wheel arch. This time a local lady was on hand to carry it off to safety, away from the temptation of parked cars.

That old advert for Esso petrol sprung to mind, urging drivers to ‘put a tiger in your tank’, with the photo of a roaring tiger. We’d had a baby tiger in our engine but his roar had been more of a meow.

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Trains: laugh or cry?

I stumbled into a ‘commuter sit com’ yesterday… the cast included tubes, trains, buses and a woman without a shoe. I had to laugh or I’d have cried.

It was a sultry afternoon in the big smoke and I’d planned to leave an hour or two earlier, but found myself juggling and then dropping luggage en route to the tube. This included a pulley case, a large handbag that wanted to slide off my shoulder and a 6ft poster partly encased in a cardboard tube. I was pleased to bump into a colleague also off to the station and as we stood on the platform we discussed tube routes and places to live and work in London. The platform was filling up and after we’d been chatting over an announcement, we were puzzled to see everyone leaving both platforms and heading back up the stairs to the entrance. What else could we do but follow? There were no underground staff in sight to give advice or point in the direction of helpful buses. Luckily my colleague knew the bus routes and we strolled for half an hour through beeping traffic and people-lined streets. The poster was getting shirty and as I tried to slide it back under my arm the white lid at the bottom popped off and rolled along the pavement. As my colleague skipped towards it, we both sighed as it toppled into a deep brown puddle and disappeared from sight.
“It’s OK no problem,” I said, thinking, “Crap, crap and double crap,” or words to that effect, as the poster slid through the tube again and I hoisted it up against my shoulder. When we eventually arrived at the bus stop for number 18, there were no buses in sight and the iphone showed three or four all bunched up some miles away. We sweltered on the pavement as successive buses with eights in came and went. Number 228, number 28, more 228s – no number 18. Eventually it arrived and sitting on the back seat with my poster safely stored and carry on case at my feet we were making good progress. All I had to do was watch the electronic ticker screen for the right stop for Baker Street… meanwhile we were moving again, so all was good.

About 10 minutes later, as we gazed at the screen instead of the next stop the words ‘terminating’ flashed up and seconds later the bus had pulled in at some traffic lights and the driver said everyone would have to get out and catch one of the posse of buses behind. I secretly reckoned he needed a loo stop. We sighed and back out in the sunshine there were no buses in view, but there was a tube station just across the road. Having worked out which line to pick up to get to Victoria we found ourselves in a huge crowd pressed together waiting for a lift to the platform. More tube, case and bag manoeuvres followed as I knocked a few grumpy commuters on the head with the poster and also tried not to drop the bankcard I was using as a ticket.

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After letting one tube go because there was no way my poster, bags and I were fitting into the sardine tin that was masquerading as a carriage, we eventually squeezed into a slightly less packed train and a few stops and changes later I was filtering towards the way out. The route to the escalator was packed with people moving at a snails pace and the mainline station was the same. All my trains south had ‘delayed’ next to them and I found myself very hot and waiting with a throng of other frustrated would-be passengers for news of two possible trains without a platform number. When it eventually flashed up half an hour later I trudged towards the snake of coaches and started counting carriages to avoid the first four, which were heading to Bognor.

I found a seat and settled down, but still wasn’t sure if I was in the correct part of the train. I wasn’t. It was that kind of journey. Before it set off I trundled bags and poster down the length of the train to carriage number 4 of 12, which involved a lot more collisions with other people’s bags and heads and arms and legs that were blocking my route, scattering sorrys as I went.

Thankfully I secured a seat and we were off. It was a direct train to Emsworth… well that’s what I thought. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as the journey the day before when I’d arrived at the station to find my train had been cancelled? I had to change twice, only just getting to my meeting on time.

A few stations on there was a commotion behind me next to the doors as someone screamed, “My shoe, my shoe! I’ve lost my shoe – it’s fallen down  between the train!” People were looking concerned and hoping no-one was going to try and be heroic and reach down to fetch it. There were no rail staff in sight and the wailing and worrying continued from the distressed passenger. Her friends were shouting out for someone to help, until one piped up. “You’ve got more shoes in your bag haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, “Of course I have more shoes, but I want my shoe, I’ve got a flip and I can’t flop now!”

The doors closed and we were moving. A lone flip-flop was abandoned on the tracks below. The ‘one-shoe’ woman’s party of 40 somethings were Bognor-bound and continued to discuss the missing shoe loudly. They then realised they were in the wrong part of the train. What followed could only happen on an English train. The five or six women, carrying clanking bottles of booze, cases and a blackboard of instructions, including ‘take off your bra’ and ‘sing a line from Queen’, pushed and shouted their way down the corridor of hot standing commuters. An elderly lady with a stick opposite looked astounded at the conversations and another one at the table put her head in her hands as the shouting for people to move out of the way and questions over whose luggage was blocking the corridor echoed round the carriage. Eventually the carriage doors closed and their piercing voices faded to a muffled clamour. “Lock that door,” snapped a man with a closely cropped beard sitting on a single seat. Everyone giggled. Then the singing started and the automatic doors occasionally opened to treat everyone to a full volume rendition of, ‘Like a virgin,’ and other memorable tunes.

I put in my earphones and began to enjoy the view of passing fields and hedges. Everyone in the carriage agreed that when the train divided we’d all be happily waving farewell to our band of women heading for that 40th birthday bash in Bognor. Lucky old Bognor. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The allotted station came and a guard slammed doors and turned keys assertively. We expected to be shunting off soon. Then the dreaded announcement…“This train won’t be dividing now due to staff shortages… wait for further notices.” Everyone was phoning friends and family to tell them of further delays to the already delayed train.

Some time later I was standing on a platform again – poster, wheelie case and now an apple core in my hand. It was nearly 8pm and I’d left the office just before 4pm… the journey had turned into a marathon. Two men beside me talked about their attempt to catch a train at 3.30pm from London. “My wife’s driving over to pick me up, do you want a lift to Chichester?” They disappeared down the steps from the platform and I looked after them dismally, wishing for a car. There was confusion amidst the crowds on the platform, but no one was panicking. We’re British. We cope and grin and bear it. But this was Friday night and everyone just wanted to be home. How we all loved English trains at this point and Southern Rail in particular. It wasn’t too long before another train slid in beside the waiting crowd on the platform and my wheelie case, poster and bag (minus apple core which had joined the breeding ground of missing shoes on the tracks below) were safely transported to Emsworth. It was the end of a very long journey. Luckily fish ‘n’ chips were waiting… Laugh or cry – you choose…

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