Sunday, April 30, 2006

Quest, laundry and cheering.

1. A couple of months ago, I was poking about on Tacky Treasures and found a feature about a book by Charles Addams (as in The Addams Family) called Dear Dead Days. It's a collection of his source material for the Addams Family cartoons and features pictures of train crashes, circus freaks and adverts aimed at undertakers. I thought to myself: 'I want that book,' and followed it with: 'A copy will never turn up in Tunbridge Wells.' Well, one beautiful thing for today: I walked into Halls Bookshop and found a copy sitting on the counter.

2. As Fenella and Andy know all too well (because they've been doing my laundry (for which my heart overflows with gratitude)) my washing machine has been broken since I got back from Africa. What a relief to get a new (reconditioned) Zanussi washer-dryer plumbed in and working on my washing.

3.Walking in the woods with Rob and being cheered up.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Pink dog, fourth emergency service and assimilating.

1. On my way into work I pass a lady walking a Weimaraner. This dog has a gorgeous grey coat with a rosey tinge to it and wears a pink harness that really picks out the colour.

2. Having a wonderful neighbour (like Fenella) who is on hand with a glass of wine at times of crisis.

3. The whirring noise my scanner makes as it changes negatives into files on my computer.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Humour, derelict and home at last.

1. A house with a brass sign on the door saying: 'Never mind the dog -- beware of the owners.' I didn't think people actually put things like that on their houses.

2. I've discovered another murder house. It's a huge Edwardian villa, exactly like all the other huge Edwardian villas on the road. But this one has a scruffier garden, and you can look through the kicked in front door and see daylight coming down the stairs.

3. The cheering sight of my own front door. We have recently had it repainted -- it's black, like 10, Downing Street and looks very smart and imposing.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reminder, violets and little angel.


1. Getting an e-mail containing some pictures from Africa -- I was so happy to see these that they put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. This is me meeting a seal called Bushman. (Picture by Julie Stephenson)

2. There are lawns on Frant Road that are dotted with deep purple violets.

3. A little girl wearing a white straw school hat with a blue ribbon. She had it pushed right to the back of her head.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Down the rabbit hole, spring flowers and ham.


1. Burrows. I think Alice in Wonderland may have altered some pathway in my brain because I can't go past a hole in a hedgebank without investigating. I spotted a promising one among the roots of an oak tree near work. I didn't tumble in while inspecting it, so I'm guessing it was just a regular old rabbit hole.

2. The shoots of stitchwort poking out among dead leaves. (Picture by Michael Grant)

3. Italian ham -- the kind that is soft and sliced really thin and is salty and little bit sweet -- with bread and butter.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Out of the way, excuse our appearance and path.

1. Stripey snails. I nearly tread on a foolhardy one that is crawling across the pavement. I pick him up -- he pulls everything into his shell -- and put him at the bottom of a garden hedge.

2. It is so foggy today that we can't see beyond the end of the field. Possibly the rest of the world has been covered up so they can put the leaves on the trees and touch-up the paintwork on the sky without us seeing.

3. The way paths move. Half a beech tree has come down in the woods -- it probably happened during the snow a couple of weeks ago -- and the top branches are blocking the path. Already people's feet have worn a new path around the end, however. When the tree is gone perhaps there will still be a kink in the path.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Out to breakfast, magic food and spot the difference.

1. Spotting the crew from last night's party in a cafe. Caroline made a gesture encompassing the nine grey-faced breakfasters: 'All these people slept in our house.' She lives in a little Victorian terrace, so this was quite an achievement.

2. The soft and chewy chocolate chip cookies that appeared on a plate while I was watching a film.

3. Fenella, Andy and I watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was once one of my favourite books, and when I got home I spent half an hour dipping into it to see what they had changed in the film. The dialogue is funnier in the film; and Edmund is a less sympathetic, likeable character in the book.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Recall, pictures and canine capers.

1. I sometimes have moments when I forget my the number I need to use my debit card. I can be using it happily all morning when suddenly, bang, the number's just not in my head. With more and more shops using the chip and PIN terminals, it's getting to be a bit of problem for me. It happened today while I was trying to get money to finish my farmer's marketing. I sighed and headed home. Then just as I was crossing the road, the number came back again.

2. I am trying to get ready to go to a party when PaulV turns up with a load of studio equipment -- he is doing a photoshoot tomorrow with real models and wants to practice. He fills my flat with borrowed lights and huge backdrops. I am grumpy because I'm trying to dress and give Katie supper. Paul persists, flattering us both madly, and photographing us as we eat, until we agree to pose for him.

3. At the end of the party, the dog gets into the bar. It runs around, excited by all the people and the noise. Then it finds a balloon. It bats it around, paws it, pats it and then pops it. It looks so sad that someone gives it another, which it bursts; and soon all the balloons are being pulled down for the dog to play with.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Poem boy, over the hill and time to spare.

1. When I arrived for my lift to work, Oli answered the door with a poetry book in his hand.

2. Standing at the two towers I look across the valley to the clump of pine trees that I can't quite get to in my hour's lunchbreak. It always seems like a Shangri La place.

3. I am scanning in my holiday photos. It's a dull task because it alternates periods of waiting with repetitive activity that calls for lots of concentration. In the waiting times I have been doing all the little tasks that I've left for too long: dusting, cleaning the bathroom, watering the plants, filing all the post that has piled up.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Adventurer, ping and procrastination.

1. I'm quite into my gentleman adventurer stories, so finding The Vesuvius Club (graphic edition) was very exciting. It features a louche-looking artist called Lucifer Box, Charlie Jackpot his beautiful manservant, as well as purple zombies and some disappearing vulcanologists. Meet Mr Box here.

2. Discovering that I have a dangerous serve in table tennis. It's very girly and falls slightly short, making it hard to return. The boys are impressed -- for now.

3. I have been putting off making the insurance claim for the African face slashing adventure, because I hate collecting documents and filling in forms. Just as I am about to do it, the Mother rings up -- one last bill has come through that ought to be paid before I can claim.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Open mouth, star flowers and postbox.

1. Our boss's youngest, because she says the things no-one else will. Overhearing someone booking accomodation for a conference, she asked: 'Are you the one who always books the rubbish hotel rooms for my dad?' Tactful enquiries were made and the situation cleared up. Other gems include a motivational poster instructing us to work hard for her father and not for the other director; and her critique of some promotional key rings: 'What are these? They're rubbish.' The other reason we like her is because she joyfully takes on soul-destroying tasks like label-sticking and envelope stuffing.



2. A few branches of forsythia in a field hedge. It has bright yellow flowers that look like big floppy stars growing on naked twigs. It's usually a garden plant, so I was surprised to see it growing wild by a country lane. (Picture by Michael Grant)

3. A very little girl runs across the pavement to put a heavily pen scribbled envelope into a letter box. She is almost too little reach the slot -- she has to stretch right up over her head to get it in.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Peachy, to the door and what the Romans did for me.

1. The lovely egg-yolky colour of tinned peaches.

2. Getting my groceries delivered. It feels like shoplifting because so little effort is involved.

3. A.E. Houseman's On Wenlock Edge. It's one of my favourite poems. This is because it's very learnable -- each line has a little picture, and the rhyme scheme is simple a b a b. Also, it's about Romans and it deals with one of my favourite themes: things are pretty much the same as they ever were.

I had a bit of an epiphany about this during my GCSE year when I was studying some other poems about Romans in Latin. Catullus was a young man who wrote a series of very brilliant (and very rude, some of them) poems about a heart-rending love affair. I studied them, read them over, wrote about them and suddenly realised that Romans were not just exercises in a Latin primer; they had been human beings who quarrelled and fell in and out of love and teased their friends, just like me. Catullus also made me realise that there was something in this writing lark: he did his best to express things as handsomely and as pleasingly as possible, and 2,000 years later, people are still reading it.

Anyone else got a favourite poem about Romans?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

No money, lunch stop and moving as one.

1. Antique and craft-fairs that charge entrance irritate me -- I'm sure the organisers don't just do it for greed, but it's cross-making to discover that you've paid 50p to walk round a room full of old-people smelling tat. Today I sneak into a fair behind the money-collecting lady's back. There is nothing I want among the seaside souvenirs, flaky costume jewellery and postcards of Wales, which is disappointing; but I leave feeling curiously pleased with myself because I haven't paid to find this out.

2. My family is rubbish at stopping for meals when travelling. We can't agree where to go and end up circling a town until everywhere stops serving food; or someone will say: 'I don't care. Let's just go on.' Or we end up in a motorway service station with everyone looking like thunder. It's always a huge relief when we do stop somewhere.

3. I have been watching The Blue Planet -- it's a series of programmes by the BBC about life in the ocean. I love watching schools of fish -- the way vast numbers manage to move as one is magical.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Washing arrangements, a room of my own and tidy woods.

Sorry for the gap in posts -- I meant to write on Thursday and explain that I was going away for Easter; but that day turned out to be a bit hectic, so I didn't.

1. We booked into a National Trust bunkhouse and somehow ended up in the hall. Everyone except me and Rosey are sleeping in rooms with showers en suite. We are using the communal bathroom. This might sound a bit unlucky for us, but it means we have a shower each, a loo each and three basins between us.

2. Everyone except me has gone out. I am sitting in a sofa in the conservatory, a stack of writing magazines at my side. It is very, very quiet (except for the scratching of my pen).

3. The leaves are late coming out this year because it's been so cold; but it's lovely to walk in bare woods under the April sunshine. It's a bit like very early autumn but without lots of dead leaves messing things up.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Ospreys, family photo and communal eating.

1. We went down to see the osprey project. It's a neat hide on the banks of the river and some portable offices and some picnic tables for people and birds. The nest is about a mile away -- this is as close as it's polite to get to the nest of the only pair of breeding ospreys in Wales. This is the third year the pair have come back to this nest -- they winter in Africa. The project is manned by any number of enthusiastic twitchers in RSPB jumpers. They set up the telescopes for you, and write osprey facts up on the whiteboard. And they get all misty-eyed, too: 'I still get a thrill when I see them fly over on their way to the coast, even after three years.' I got a look at the nest. They haven't laid this year, but the female was sitting on the nest getting comfortable, while the male sat proudly nearby.

2. On the hill above the house is an artistic bench called 'Giant's Chair'. We set up Rosey's camera on a timer so we can get a family photo. In all the pictures we are laughing because Rosey is trying to squash in among us.

3. Since leaving the truck gang in Africa, I've really missed eating with lots of other people around. There are eleven of us from three families staying here, so dinner time is very lively and noisy.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Breakfast for two, released and steamtrain smell.

1. Getting to use my big teapot because Katie stayed over. Then I cooked bacon and egg sandwiches.

2. I took the train to Wales -- the bit I like best is along the North Wales coast between Crewe and Llandudno Junction. It is the first warm day in ages and families were out on the beaches and in pub gardens enjoying the sunshine.

3. Getting off the chuggy old diesel at Blaenau Ffestiniog and smelling the steam train on the next platform. It's the smell of a coal fire, and also hot metal and a bit of oil.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Real words, nurses are human too and jazz.

1. A new copy of one of my favourite story mags has arrived -- Quality Women's Fiction. I like it because the women who get published are ordinary writers who work at their stories because they love to put words down on paper.

2. Conversation at the GP's:
Me: That's a nasty cough.
Nurse: Yes. It's the smoking.
Me: (a nervous laugh)
Nurse: I'm giving up.
Me: Oh right?
Nurse: I'd given up, but my mother died before Christmas and I took it up again.
Me: Oh.
Nurse: I'm going to give up. (Pause) The trouble is, I don't want to. I do really.

3. I look up the number of the Indian restaurant I want to go to in the phone book. But when we arrive, I realise I've booked the one over the road; so we go there instead, and they have live jazz.



Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inspiration, cafe set and my opinion.

1. This month's speaking at Tunbridge Wells and District Writers was Della Galton. She told us that when she was working on her novel, Passing Shadows, there were nights when she couldn't sleep because she was so excited about getting up in the morning to do more to it.

2. I walk past a cafe each morning and it always seems to me that everyone is enjoying their coffee there, even the people who have to sit outside so they can have a ciggarette with it. Happily for me, there was nothing for breakfast this morning, and the sink was full, so what else could I do but join them?

3. Writing my first leader column for the weekly news at work. It's about death.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Somewhere to put things, all the way home and just what I wanted.

1. My new trousers have massive pockets -- so big that I keep losing my handkerchief.

2. It is raining hard at home time and so Oli drives me to my front door.

3. When a book falls open on a poem that's been chasing round your head -- in this case, Ogden Nash's The Adventures of Isabel.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Independent, spring snow and bridge.

1. The snow has caused chaos, but I don't mind because I'm not a mum with four children, an incontinent dog and a senile mother-in-law who need to be taken to six different corners of town. Instead I can sit in my warm flat typing away and drinking tea while I wait for Oli to drive down the hill and take me to work.

2. Bright green spring grass and pink and yellow blossom peeping out from under the snow. Oli commented that the colours looked rather cartoonish.

3. Leaning on a bridge rail looking down at the stream hurrying away under my feet.

PS: For those that asked, I'm loving Wicked still -- and I've just discovered there's a sequel (yay).

Monday, April 10, 2006

Witch, carnivore and snowfall.

1. A book all about Thessaly. She’s one of my favourite Sandman characters, being ruthless, clever and in deep denial about her softer side. Thessaly: Witch for Hire sees the ghost who loves her land her in deep trouble. He has taken on contracts to kill monsters, which he fulfils by sending them after Thessaly.

2. Seeing Rob and Lou. Much has changed in my absence. Rob, previously vegetarian, has taken up meat and become a sausage fanatic.

3. While we eat dinner and catch up, it starts to snow. The flakes are like huge feathers -- perhaps someone is plumping up the clouds. When we go out to the car, they land with big, wet splats on us, sticking to our clothes and melting down our necks.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Drag, starting early and Green Wing.

1. A child at the farmers' market is pulling a shoebox on a string. Inside the shoebox is a greyish toy animal.

2. A father letting his little boy press the buttons on the cashpoint.

3. Caroline and Ian introduce me to Green Wing -- it's surreal and it's about hospitals. The entire cast seems to be stuck in a love polygon that will never be resolved to anyone's satisfaction. I think the misanthropic HR woman jogging through the dining room shouting 'that's not for you, fatty' and smashing trays out of people's hands was what caught me. Or possibly the imaging consultant being forced to apologise to an officeful of managers after his nuisance call was put on speakerphone. Or maybe lovelorn Dr Caroline Todd and her quest to help the gorgeous Mac remember that they were dating before he went into a coma at the end of the last series.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Back-up, bars and reassurance.

1. Having another woman in the office to back me up when Ed is being awful.

2. I'm enjoying Jordans All Fruit Bars. They are made of pureed fruit concentrated into a chewy bar, which makes a refreshingly sharp mid-morning snack.

3. An old colleague meets us at the pub. We sooth him by saying that we like him better than the new boy.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Witch, key and cutting up.

1. I have been quietly wanting a copy of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West since before it was available over here. But it's been in our bookshops for a while now, and I don't know what was stopping me picking it up. On Saturday, I went into Waterstones on mischief bent, and spotted a beautiful new hardback edition. It's black linen with shiny silver and green decorations; and the pages are thick and green edged. I feel very spoilt reading it. The story isn't bad either -- enough tension to keep me turning; and the characters are nice enough to be likeable but bad enough to be interesting. Also, I've always been fond of Oz and I'm enjoying exploring a more grown-up, darker version.

2. A mother is cramming babies into her car and the passenger door is open so it blocks half the pavement. The other half of the pavement is blocked by her little boy. He glares at me threateningly and waves a cupressus twig. It makes me laugh and immediately he smiles back and closes the car door so I can get by.

3. When I was at university a housemate called Ben Hall showed me how to slice carrots for stirfry with a vegetable peeler. You take all the peel off and then keep on peeling one surface, pressing quite hard to get thick slices. I did it last night and my fellow cook was suitably impressed. So thanks Benny, wherever you are.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tweet, well travelled and Katie.

1. The sun is shining and the office window is open. I can hear birds singing. Oh, and speaking of which, a beautiful thing was that someone at work remembered to hang fat balls out for the birds while I was away -- thank you whoever was responsible.

2. Drinking a cup of coffee made from the beans I posted back to the office from Malawi. It was yummy.

3. Seeing Katie for the first time -- we have a lot to catch up on and I have been very worried about her while I was away. But she seems to be full of exciting ideas, so things are looking up. Plus she brings a box of Bean chocolates, which is always a bonus.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bearing up, no cooking and longer days.

1. Being praised by the nurse for not making a fuss when my stitches were being taken out. You can see the result here.

2. Eating dry cereal out of the box for dinner.

3. Leaving work in broad daylight.

Breathe in, chugging along and homely things.

1. I am walking up to Oli’s to get my morning lift when I suddenly smell something that makes me think ‘Tunbridge Wells.’ You know how smells are -- you can’t remember them when you aren’t smelling them, and you can’t say exactly what they are; but they can stir up such a strong feeling. So... what do you think I could smell? What is the essential Tunbridge Wells fragrance?

2. Walking into the office and feeling very cheerful about it. Travelling is all very well, but for me it isn’t a sustainable lifestyle -- I let it take too much out, and it’s hard work wondering at things all the time. Whereas I can keep up flatlife and worklife and Tunbridge Wells life for a year or two at a time.

3. I keep finding little things that I have not even thought of missing while I was away, but make me feel joyous to pick up again. Today it was a pint of Harvey’s. Oh, and English trees -- palms and sausage trees and marula trees and umbrella trees and acacias are tremendously exotic and atmospheric, but I never stood under one feeling awestruck as I would under an oak or a beech or a yew; and I could never feel the same affection for them that I feel for a hazel or a hawthorn.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lost, bathroom and neighbours.

Note: I'm back. Thanks for being patient with my shriftless itinerant ways. I know that some people were frustrated by the irregularity of posts; and others were distressed when I couldn't confine myself to three. But you know how it is when you are adventuring.

1. My thoughts on waking up at home for the first time in nine and half weeks: ‘Bloody hell, where am I? This is a very posh quilt for a backpacker dorm. Where on earth are the other girls? Oh God, whose bed am I sleeping in? Why is all my stuff here? I’m sure I didn’t bring that little table with me.’

2. I had a shower and it wasn’t a major expedition involving a delve in my locker. Nor were there insects buzzing around my head. And the water was actually hot. There was somewhere dry to put my clothes down. And I used a real towel, not a torn sarong.

3. Having a neighbour who rescues me when my washing machine breaks down, and gives me dinner when I need it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Seen and not heard, me first, trail blazer and housesitter.

1. It’s the start of the South African Easter holidays, so the plane was full of children and babies. But none of them was sitting anywhere near us, and we hardly heard a squeak out of them.

2. Spotting Daddy in the arrivals hall before Rosey did.

3. The Mother has got involved with a patient support group and is very enthusiastic about it -- she’s been having her experiences recorded for the benefit of other people.

4. Coming back to my flat and finding it cleaner than when I left it. The wonderful PaulV has also left me some heart-shaped helium balloons, and a selection business cards for Las Vegas prostitutes. Classy.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Thank you, mountaintop and coming home.

1. Anne and Wayne are wandering round the hotel with a pile of incoherent postcards. Apparently ‘someone’ posted them under their door of their room at half past midnight. The cards are mostly along the lines of ‘We love you’, although there are some confessions from Rob (‘I’m American so I can do what I like’), a collection of Bond autographs, a picture of Bob’s leg ulcers and a note allegedly from George the truck. We had been sitting in a cafe next to a rack of free postcards, and you know how it is... We must have run out, because my arms are covered with scrawl, too.

Anyway, what I meant to say in mine was: ‘Thank you so much for being the best leaders ever in the whole world -- lending Rosey bikini bottoms, taking me to the medical centre to get my face mended at 2am and bringing Rosey back to visit at 7am, contributing to Three Beautiful Things and occasionally being Beautiful Things yourselves, finding our leopard, taking us on our first game drive, untangling the mysteries of life, conjuring up surprise wine and nibbles at Fish River, doling out praise when the group did well and passing on the kind comments of campsite owners and hotel receptionists, getting out to batten down the sides of the truck when it rained and then to unbatten them ten minutes later when it stopped, booking tables for group dinners, adding up bills when we were too confused to do ourselves, finding border crossing money changers with honest faces, keeping on trucking (and knowing the time to stop) when you were ill, filming our adventures, finding Francis, knowing exchange rates, getting us to Lake Kariba in time for sunset, stopping for the sex powder man, waking us up to see a lively market, finding unusual meat for us to try and cheetahs for us to stroke, playing Uno with us, going over the map, making scones and dampers and providing marshmallows, sneaking scraps to hungry little dogs, lighting fires, identifying antelopes, earning us the love of stranded travellers by trying to pull their coach out of the mud, digging up missing tent pegs, recommending books, sympathising with badly itched insect bites and belly aches, driving us down the Skeleton Coast and a load of other things that are hard to explain in words.

2. Table Mountain is a strange sort of place when the city below is a little hazy. The valley floor on the other side was entirely covered in cloud -- there could have been nothing there for all we knew. But it was clear on the plateau, and the sun warmed my hungover bones as we followed the paths through the fynbos. We shared the cable car down with some schoolgirls. The operator encouraged persuaded them to sing for us.

3. It was sad to leave, but I fully admit that my nose has been turning towards home -- I am looking forward to seeing my friends and family again and to catching up with all the gossip. I’m looking forward to spending some time really-o truly-o alone. But all the same, I manage some tears when I say my goodbyes because I’m genuinely sorry to be leaving the group. These guys have been like a family and on this journey I have travelled more than just kilometers.