Two Bureaux

When you live in an older house, you sometimes become aware of its previous life. It may be something substantial like removing a piece of board and finding a faded scrap of wallpaper chosen by a previous occupant, or lines inside a cupboard marking the passage of a child’s growth. Often it is more ephemeral. A glimpsed movement, seen from the corner of your eye, disappears as soon as your head is turned. The reek of boiled cabbage or the fragrant aroma of rich fruitcake, filling your nostrils with one breath and then leaving as you exhale, bears no relation to anything in your kitchen. Whispers, felt as vibration in the bone behind your ear rather than heard, convincing you that if you just tried a little harder you would know the speakers and, maybe, join their conversation.

Old things often carry their history with them. When they come into an older home, it is as if their stories blend with the spirit of the house to create something new. Adding more antiques to share their experiences makes the mix richer until, inevitably, they begin to make their presence known to the corporeal world.

In this old house where no children live, I saw a child. It was on the landing, its body angled away from me as it gazed through the open doorway adjacent to it. Soft blonde curls bounced lightly creating a halo around its head. It was perched on the edge of a small wooden chair in front of a half-sized desk.

Beyond the child in a small room I use as my study, sat the object of the child’s attention. The dappled light coming through the wisteria outside the window revealed few details, but I knew the person to be an adult woman by dint of her full skirts and swept up hair. The child was young, maybe four years old, dressed in old-fashioned rompers that gave no easy suggestion of gender. My subconscious said ‘her’ and told me the woman was the child’s mother. I believed it.

Mama – I was certain this woman had never been called Mum – had her head bent over the documents on her roll topped desk. Her hand moved across the pages, reached forward to dip a pen into an inkwell, then returned to the paper.

At her miniature desk, the child reached for a dark, wood framed board. A word from the stories of my youth leapt into my mind – a slate. In her other hand she grasped a piece of chalk. She watched her mother intently, copying her posture and, I was certain, imitating the expression of concentration on her face. When Mama dipped her pen, the child reached for a new chalk and continued to make marks on her board.

A breeze through the open window sent a floral scent toward me. Not the wisteria growing beyond but a smell that reminded me of grandmothers and face powder. Lilac? Lavender? No, Lilly-of-the-Valley.

Above the scratching of pen on paper and the squeak of chalk on slate, another sound came. The timeless peal of bells calling the faithful to Sunday worship. Mama raised her head and glanced out the window, a hand reaching for a cloth to clean her nib. With a sigh, she tidied her papers, closed the lid on the inkwell and rolled the lid of her desk shut. The snap of the lock closing was echoed by the clack of the child’s desk shutting.

Downstairs, the ting and ring of an old Bakelite telephone was followed by the claxon call of our modern handset. Irritated, I started for the top of the stairs. I glanced back, one hand on the banisters, but my visitors were gone.

IMG_0102Later I returned to the landing and examined the small desk and chair more closely. All the furniture was real. It had belonged to us in childhood or been purchased as a fitting addition to our home. I opened the desk lid, looking at the clutter that had accumulated over the years, then swivelled the little chair towards me. I had never sat on it, certain it would collapse under my weight. As it span beneath my hand, my finger snagged on a hidden catch. Surprised, I pulled back and the lid of the seat lifted with my hand to reveal a secret compartment. It was empty, apart from some childish scribble on the lid and, inscribed on the base, the names Susan and John. I wondered who they were. Was Susan the small child who had so recently sat on the chair’s battered burgundy cushion? Had a brother, John, been elsewhere, studying his Papa at work with the same intensity with which Susan had watched Mama?

I feel a responsibility to this family. They have given me a peek into their lives that I wish to repay. Maybe next time I visit a flea market or antique shop I should look for a new inkwell for Mama and a slate for Susan.

On Trying to Feel Grateful

This week I have been feeling a bit grumpy.  It started last Saturday when, just as I was getting ready for bed, my wife discovered bulging walls and dripping water in the kitchen.  Cue late night telephone calls to insurance company and British Gas (who maintain our hot and cold water systems).  Also cue switching the off the water supply (after filling the kettle and a couple of buckets) and turning off the boiler.  The electrical controls were in the same wall as the leak, as was the plug for the fridge freezer.   Eleven o’clock saw two short, middle age women trying to re-position a large electrical appliance until the (surprisingly short) cable could go into another socket.

On Sunday the very nice man from Dyno-rod (on behalf of BG) came and found the source of the leak – the hot water tank in the airing cupboard.  He managed to isolate it and restore running cold water to some parts of the house – all appropriate places, thank heavens.  Since then we have had no central heating and only cold water from the taps.  Hence, me being in a grump.

My Name's Not Friday, Hardback This morning, lying in bed under a warm duvet with extra heat generated by two dogs and one of the cats, I finished reading ‘My Name’s Not Friday’ by Jon Walter.  It reminded me a little of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup, but with a lot less violence and a lot more religion.  It was a good read.  I put the book on my bedside cabinet and pulled my chilly hand back under the covers, tugging them up over my slightly icy nose, and had a serious word with myself.

I am not the first person not to have central heating.  We certainly didn’t have it when I was a child.  When I had my first home, heating was from a very dodgy gas fire and only in one room.  Later, we only put the heat on when we could afford it.  Now I am lucky enough to have the luxury of heat at the touch of a button and hot water whenever I turn the tap.  Samuel and Solomon would have been delighted to have any sort of soft mattress or warm blanket during most of their stories.  The idea of a full larder and a well stocked fridge-freezer would have been miraculous and heaven-sent.  The freedom to visit any of those wonderful things without permission was a prospect only to be dreamed of.

Daffodils in parkYou only have to turn on the news to see people who struggle to live their lives without things we in the western world consider to be basic – running water, fresh food, warm shelter.  I walk the dogs and have time to enjoy the spring bulbs showing their faces to the sun without scanning the sky for planes carrying bombs or searching behind every hedge for aggressors with guns or knives.

So today I have given myself a swift kick up the mental backside, thrown on an extra layer and got on with things.  It’s much easier to keep warm when you are doing something than when you are sat on your bum feeling sorry for yourself.  With luck, this time tomorrow we will have heat and hot water back on tap but, if we don’t, I’m determined not to let Grumpy Kim back in.

 

Super Sunday Snapshot

Four picture book covers
Before you ask – yes, I have been reading again this week. I’ve read picture books for the day job and have added all of them to posts on the When a Book Might Help blog (although, granted, not all of the posts have been published yet).

Four book covers

I’ve been reading (and listening to audiobooks) for my own pleasure.  It’s been great.  I love to read!  But I’m starting to think I might need to go on a bit of a book diet.  In food terms, my eyes are bigger than my stomach.  I am in serious danger of overdosing on the books in my house… and I keep bringing in more!

Overflowing bookshelfShelf full of books

 

In my front room I have two full shelves of books waiting to be read.  These are all books I have been given as birthday and Christmas gifts, books that I really wanted.  There are also some that I have picked up at shops, in library sales and at various author events.  Books I am longing to read.    How lucky am I?!

Three stacks of booksIn my bedroom are the books that are higher up the ‘To Be Read’ list. These are the books that have a ‘best before’ date, like library books and books for work. Some are for reading groups and others are for college.  You have to be a book with a purpose to make it upstairs in my house.  I do try and slot in books from the front room every now and then but, as you can see, I’ve got lots of books in my three ‘priority’ stacks.

In theory, this is my idea of heaven. Books as far as the eye can see! Unfortunately, reading has to be slotted in around other things like work, sleep, walking the dogs, laundry, and a whole list of other stuff. You know how it goes.

15 book coversBelieve it or not, my book stacks have gone down a bit over the last couple of months. Since I handed in my last assignment for college I’ve been able to catch up on some of my reading for pleasure. Then I had a birthday and this lot arrived.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful, I’m really thrilled to have every one of these books.  On the other hand, I’m very pleased that I have read two of them before and four of them are for study.  It makes it easier to find room for the others on the TBR shelves.

Three open books showing signatures

I am especially delighted with these three books.  My best friend bought me The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce and I received a personalised book-plate to put inside – Twitter is a wonderful thing!  My lovely partner bought me a signed copy of Four Stories by Alan Bennett.  I nearly always hear his stories in his voice when I read them.  She also found a shop that has close links with Jackie Morris.  They arranged for a copy of East of the Sun, West of the Moon to be autographed for me.  I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find a personalised message and a drawing of a polar bear on the title page.  Her illustrations are stunning!

I would like to say thank you to my family and friends for all the wonderful books they buy me, to the booksellers, to the libraries who lend me more books every week, and to the magnificent writers and illustrators (and their agents and publishers) who produce them in the first place.  Please forgive me if I don’t write about the books I’ve read this week.  I’ve had a look at the next book on my priority reading heap and it’s about fairies – I’m off to curl up with a book.

Why EVERYONE should have a pair of welly boots.

Dog and wellie boot in puddle It’s definitely been wellie boot weather just recently. There’s something very satisfying about splashing through puddles, feet safely encased in their rubber shields.

Scout loves puddles, too. She sticks her snout into them, up to the eyebrows for preference, and roots out interesting things from the bottom. They get unceremoniously dragged to the surface and killed, terrier style, by a jolly good shaking.  If I kick at something floating on the surface or flick water at her she pounces and bounces, yipping and growling with happy excitement.  I feel sorry for the children being walked through the park by adults who carefully steer them around the puddles.  What fun they are missing!

Book coverI’ve been thinking about the story I’m going to write for my dissertation and reading other people’s stories on similar themes. As part of my story takes place on a river, I read Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce.  It was written in 1955 – 4 years before I was born – and feels like a different world.  Eleven year old children earning money from a paper round; travelling the countryside by bicycle and canoe without adult supervision, but not until after they’ve finished their household chores.  Taking packed lunches wrapped in sheets of paper and bringing home treasures in their handkerchiefs.

I’m not saying that was necessarily a better way of life, but sometimes I feel like modern children are missing something special.  I understand that parents feel protective, but are the pictures on television as thrilling as those we see for ourselves?  Can finding out about flora and fauna on the internet ever compare to finding a bird’s nest or watching a newt slip into a pond at first hand?  What about climbing trees, padding in streams, building dens. They miss so much … and then I saw this.

Temporary shelter made from roughly assembled sticksAfter the dogs had finished investigating the den, we left the park and headed home.  I had a huge grin on my face.  For all those parents steering their offspring around the ‘dangerous, dirty’ puddles, there are still children who are out exploring and creating their own adventures.  Am I foolish to find hope in this this small thing?

For ‘Thursday’, please read ‘Monday’

Two wheelie bins in the morning sunlightI’m not a huge fan of poetry – please don’t beat me!  In my youth I did a lot of teenage angst poetry writing, but I was never a great fan of reading poetry.  There are, however, a few poems that have stuck in my head over the years.

This morning, whilst walking the dogs, we intercepted the bin men on their rounds.  Something about the sounds of the wheelie bins being emptied and the rhythm of our footsteps opened a door in my memory and I found myself repeating part of a poem I learned at school.  I couldn’t remember all the words so, when I came home, I went searching for it.

In my head I’d been saying ‘Every Monday morning, before you’re quite awake’.  As the poem is about a Thursday morning, it made it harder to track down.  I’m pleased to say I found it, so I thought I would share it with you.

The Dustman

By Clive Sansom

Every Thursday morning
Before we’re quite awake,
Without the slightest warning
The house begins to shake
With a Biff!  Bang!
Biff!  Bang!  Biff! It’s the dustman who begins
Bang!  Crash!
To empty all the bins
Of their rubbish and their ash
With a Biff!  Bang!
Biff!  Bang!  Crash!

I don’t like to complain, but …

Sleeping dog hanging out of basketI like a quiet life.  There – I’ve confessed.  I’m not much of an adventurer or a party animal.  I enjoy the occasional concert, movie or trip to the theatre.  I like going for walks, curling up with a book, eating nice food, listening to music, snuggling and cuddling.  I DO NOT LIKE FIREWORKS … OR BALLOONS … OR ANYTHING THAT GOES BANG.

My plan this evening was to sit at the dining room table with my laptop and catch up with some outstanding assignments on the Blogging 101 course I’m doing.  Instead I’m sat on the floor, tapping one-handed on the keyboard, trying to calm to dogs who are shaking and drooling with fear because some (insert your expletive of choice here) is setting off fireworks at 6:30 on a Saturday night.

My dogs are usually pretty chilled (check the picture of Tucker) but fireworks send them to pieces.  On the evenings when you usually expect fireworks (Bonfire Night, New Year) we make sure all the blinds and curtains are drawn, have the TV on extra loud and even give them some medication to try to help them relax.  I’ve not found anything that works totally, but it does take the edge off things for them.  Events like tonight when the bangs and flashes are unexpected and unannounced give me, other pet owners, parents of nervous children and anxious people who are spooked by loud noises no chance to prepare or protect ourselves or our loved ones.

Our Blogging 101 assignment was to include a ‘new to you’ element and to address it to your ideal audience.  In the ordinary scheme of things, my ideal audience would have been agents, editors and publishers of books for children but, today, my ideal audience is anyone who sends up fireworks and my ‘new’ thing is a plea to you to think twice before sending up a rocket or lighting a Catherine Wheel.  They look pretty, but to lots of people and creatures they can be terrifying.

Rant over.

What Happened to the WiFi?

Bookstart StandToday I am at a conference for work.  My table is beautifully set with an ‘Elmer’ cloth, covered in an array of freebies for delegates to take with them.  My display boards have been updated to include information relative to this audience. The laptop is open, ready for me to signpost them to a host of different sites where they can access free information and resources.

Wait a minute – what’s happened to the WiFi?  Great signal, but local connection only.  We have no internet. Aaaaarrrghh!!!!

I don’t know the web addresses I need to share with all these lovely people, they are in my favourites – not my ordinary internet favourites, but the favourites on my ‘work’ system that I can only access through the internet.  A quick scrabble through my diary (yes, I do still use a paper version sometimes), notes and leaflets gets me a short list of places I can ask people to write down and look at when they get home.  I’m feeling very frustrated and unprofessional. How did we do exhibitions and conferences in the old days, before the internet?  I must remember to produce a paper back-up version to bring out with me, even if it is only screen shots in a display book.

Technology has had such a huge effect on the way we live our lives.  I know other people have noticed this – I’ve seen other people’s blogs, posts and tweets about it and thought ‘yes, very interesting’.  It’s only when your own technology lets you down that you start to scream.

In a recent blog John Scalzi talked about the reasons he still has a landline at home.  I’m with him 100% – I love having a telephone line that is not dependent on electricity, batteries, airwaves or my technological skills to enable me to have a conversation with people.  I like having a big chunky handset I can tuck under one ear whilst I make notes during a conversation.

TelephoneWe have a lovely old bakelite telephone in our front room. I really love seeing young children trying to figure out how to make a call using the old dial.  They usually poke through the holes, expecting to find buttons.  When they realise they need to turn the dial, they struggle against the weight of the mechanism, their fingers slipping and failing to complete the circuit.  They marvel at the weight of the handset and don’t understand that they have to stay next to the telephone if they want to talk – you can’t carry it any further than the length of the cable.  I suppose any technology that isn’t familiar is difficult to learn at first.

I’m going to hit the ‘publish’ button now.  Who knows when this will be visible to the world.  Think I’ll take a walk and try to find a WiFi signal.