The Square

It’s named after a Chancellor, this neat little Platz in town. It’s headed by a university building, slightly grand, but not imposing, that looks on over the newly renovated square and old town architecture. Rounded benches and newly planted trees line the sides, promising shade in summers to come when the saplings become more established. 

Most days it’s quiet, the benches occupied by mothers and pushchairs, workers on cigarette breaks, and the retired taking a pause in the afternoon sun.

On Thursday though, after the lunch time picnickers have vacated the benches, it comes to life. The vegetable stalls arrive, offering a rainbow of goods grown within walking distance of where they pitch their wares. Crates of local, seasonal apples of every shade and sweetness sit atop precariously erected stalls on the light cobbles. There are of foreign offerings too: peppers, courgette, aubergine, and bananas in green, yellow and browning.

There’s one stall for everything. A bread man, the lady with the cheese, the flower guys and the coffee people. No one is in competition. Each outlet offers something different: meat for the main course, strawberries for after, and flowers for the table. 

There are exotic tastes on offer too: Sicilian pesto and pasta driven across the borders, sold by a guy speaking German with an attractive southern-European lilt. There are little empanadas sold from Maria’s food truck which can be washed down with a taster of the wine offered by the German vinyard opposite.

The tiny coffee van pulls a crowd. It adds a Gallic touch with its soft pastel shades and delicate croissants. Stall holders grab a caffeine hit whilst locals and tourists loiter, savouring bitter coffee and sweet hot chocolate. 

Alone, each individual item, each bunch of flowers, each ripened pear are insignificant. Some are stapples, a need for most households. Others, the wine, the French cheese, the olives are wants, a taste of the good life. Together, all these goodies for sale and all these people who come to buy them are a tapestry of existence, coming together on a this one day a week to bring life into an urban space and take home a touch of that life with them.

Bench 

Sit on it, naturally.

Eat a sandwich there. Sip a coffee.

Waste – no cherish – a lunch break there; value time doing nothing.

Catch up with a friend. Chat about what matters and what doesn’t.

Take the weight off your feet. Rest your tired legs.

Watch the world from a different level. Ignore the world, nestled out of eye range.

Sit in the middle, taking it all for yourself.

Perch on the end, an invitation to share.

Laugh there. Cry there. Sit there. Dream there.

In parks and on the banks of rivers. In town centres and lining market squares.

Paint. Write. Chat on the phone. Study. Read. Spend time with your thoughts.

In the shade or in the sun. Exposed to the elements or protected under the trees.

Smoke a cigarette. Enjoy a cup of tea. Wait. While away time. Gain a moments peace.

Yes, sit down, naturally. Sit and do. Sit and don’t do. But sit, the rest is up to you.

Lullaby Nightmare

It’s 12.53 pm and the time has come. He’s rubbing his eyes, staring blankly at the brightly coloured butterfly suspended above his head, and there’s been a yawn. A fateful yawn. Taking the cues, you scoop him up, turn down the radio, and perhaps squeeze in a quiet story. Then, in the darkened nursery, you kiss his head, lay him down, clean, fed, and dry, following all the official guidelines, and off he drifts to sleep, lullabies playing softly from your phone on the window sill.

Except that happened exactly one, three and half weeks ago, and hasn’t been repeated. Instead, baby decides he’s not tired and wants to practice rolling. You’re treated to a rendition of shuffle, shuffle, boom, shuffle, shuffle bang as his legs come up and over before crashing down on the mattress. You leave him to it, relaxed in his bed, lullabies still gently playing.

Then the grizzling starts. A low growl from the back of his throat that escapes almost viciously from his mouth. A pause, then another. It’s okay though. You can stand a couple of those. More yawning and eye rubbing. Maybe he will take himself off to sleep.

And the lullabies play on gently in the background as you carry on washing the dishes or emptying the dryer, holding your breath, willing on sleep.

Suddenly, like you knew it would be, it’s not a growl or a grunt, it’s a cry. There are no pauses, no gaps. Arms and legs start to protest too as sleep seems a million miles away and the lullabies chime in the background, lost under the sound.

The internal debate begins: to leave or to pick up, to ignore or to sooth. Because there are the voices telling you to let him cry it out. It builds independence. He has to learn. He’ll think you’ll always come running the minute he lets out a cry. You have to be strong. Then there are the other voices arguing back, equally loudly. He’s clearly upset. He needs to know that you’re there. It’s completely natural for a baby to want his mother. It’s unhealthy to leave a baby crying. Imagine the sense of abandonment they must feel.

The voices compete for the stage against another rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle.

And baby still cries. Call it giving in, giving up, or giving your baby what he needs, whether you are ashamed of your weakness or confident in your decision to attend to the tears, you pick the little guy up. On your shoulder he nestles, cries calming, breath slowing. Quiet, calm, soothed, a deep breath that suggests he’s tipping gently from awake to asleep.

Except no. The deep breath was in proportion to the depth of scream that follows. Even in your arms, safe and sound, he finds energy to cry. Fists flailing, fingers grabbing, and head bumping against your neck, being tired has long passed. Over tiredness has kicked in.

The lullabies can barely be heard now. It makes no sense, you tell yourself. I read the signs, I set the scene, and I did it all right. How they told me too, whoever they are. The parenting Gods. The oracles of wisdom. The Internet.

You sing. You bounce. You walk.

You shhhh. You cradle. You hum.

You rock. You sing again.

The lullaby plays, mocking you with its calm predictability.

But calm does come. It does. Slowly, slowly. You lay him down, on the edge of sleep, and hold your breath again. Three, two, one. Alas,  no, not this time. The grizzles begin again. So does the debate. Sometimes the grizzles turn to snores and sometimes they turn to tears. Sometimes this is a sign that sleep is coming; other times it’s just the warm up to another chorus of upset.

It’s 1.18 pm and the lullabies are still playing.

The debate continues. The routines. The tried and tested tropes for daytime naps get repeated and repeated. Sooth, settle, place gently in bed. Gurgles (good), grizzles (not bad), cries (bad), screams (game over). And you’re still there, in the darkened nursery. The rest of the world does not exist. You are alone and cut off. No decision seems right. Nothing seems good enough. You worry about sixth months time when nursery begins. You worry about visiting your family and them seeing what a failure you are. You worry about this going on for weeks, months, years. What habits are you teaching? What expectations are you setting?

The lullabies drive you to distraction and there’s just you, alone, trying to work it out to the chimes of bells and piano scales.

It’s 1.30 pm and his eyes are closing. Gingerly you remove your hand from his stomach as it rises and falls in peaceful breath. He is an angel lying there. Perfect in every way. You wipe a tear from your own cheek, take a deep breath, and slip out into the lit hallway. Pausing at the door, you smile to the sweet sound of lullabies floating through the house and assure yourself that next time will be easier.

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Letters 

No good comes from the ones with printed addresses. The tax man needs another document or your TV license is about to expire. Ones with windows are no better: often bills, bank statements, or bad news. To the owner or address-less envelopes are recycling fodder, junk adverts for faster Internet or cheaper gas. Day in day out the mail box disappoints. Six days out of seven the hall floor is home to correspondence likely to be scanned and disregarded with the briefest intention to file.

Then, occasionally, and just occasionally, a handwritten envelope sneaks in amongst the chaff. A nugget of gold in the sand.

These are the envelopes that get studied. First, the handwriting. Is the scratchy blank lettering familiar? Do you recognise the cursive blue ink? If the answer is no, it’s on to the postmark. Narrowing down where the mystery envelope came from can help win the guessing game. And, whether you know who the sender is or not, the contents is always destined to bring a smile. A wedding invite. A postcard. A letter from a friend.

A WhatsApp photo is always nice to get, as is an e-mail or a text. It’s great that it can be so easy to say hi. But a letter, a letter tells you that someone took the time to put pen to paper. It tells you they took the time to select a card or search out some paper. Maybe they sat at the table or leant on a magazine whilst sat on the sofa. They looked up your address, went and bought a stamp, and dropped it into the mail box. It’s nice to picture the letter on the kitchen table, waiting for your friend to take it out the next morning. It’s comforting to picture your oldest school mate smiling to herself as she fills a card inside and out with news and love.

Letters like these deserve to be read, really read. Each word needs time, sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of tea. Friends who write like they talk bring fond memories to mind, the closest thing to having a distant close one close again. News you haven’t heard trips of the page. Uncrossed Ts remind you of your pals lazy tendencies. A card with a hilarious design reminds you of the few people who share your sense of humour. From a perfectly chosen postcard to pretty letter paper, even the stationery is cause for a smile.

Once opened and read, letters remain. They lie in shoe boxes or sit on window sills, to be read again or to act as a simple reminder of the person who thought of you, the person who cared.

So send emails and texts and Facebook messages galore, but also send time and effort on carefully selected paper. Send letters now and then, take pleasure in the writing knowing your recipient will take joy from the reading.

Market Town Tales

It usually takes less than a half hour to spot someone you recognise. Your old dinner lady. The guy who had the sweet shop on the corner. The couple who ran the butchers. They’re neither family nor friends, but they’re wonderfully familiar.

There are ladies who have always been elderly. Even two decades ago they were grandmas in calf length florals with pull-along trolleys. They’ve been dignified in age for twenty years, and we all know of them. Their permanence here something we take for granted.

You can trace a percentage of the town to someone you know. A great aunt, a former colleague, a neighbour, or a cousin of a friend. Several people are your cousins. Or your cousin’s cousin. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows you. From afar, at least, or by name or just reputation.

Then there are the lads that were in the year below at school, suddenly men pushing prams and managing the banks where they opened their first account at sixteen.  There are woman with faces you remember as girls, sitting cross legged with you on the carpet in pigtails and gingham.

Shops aren’t where you remember them. You first job is boarded up and the bakery is a chemist. Still, old faithfuls remain. The pubs. The photographers. The WH Smith. That’ll be there when we’re photos in the history books sold there.

Life beats here at a familiar pace. The routines and rhythms are reliable and safe. Saturday market and Tuesday cattle show. Annual Christmas light switch on and August festival day. Growing up, it’s too easy to take it for granted, to scorn even at the size and the limits.

Yet now it’s a haven. It’s clean, safe, and beautiful in places. Just another spot on the map, of course, made up of bricks and concrete, traffic and a disappointing council like a thousand other towns. But, it’s home and it’s special. It’s the same as so many places yet full of unique stories, faces, and most importantly, lives being led.

 

Bad Photos

The lighting is all wrong. Faces are in shadow. It’s overexposed.

Someone is talking instead of smiling. The baby is crying. Grandma isn’t looking.

There is a pile of washing in the background. Dad’s t-shirt clashes with the wallpaper. You can see Uncle in the background having a smoke.

They need a retouch, these pictures. They should have been taken on a better camera in better light with better timing.

Don’t get them printed. It’s a waste of money. Don’t back them up. It doesn’t matter if we lose a few.

But it does. It does.

Hastily taken snaps on borrowed time, they catch a moment. Perhaps the moment. When Grandad cracked a rare smile. When baby opened his eyes. When sisters shared a knowing glance.

Sure they could be more professional, filtered, and edited. Sure, we could have set them up better and cut out the red eye. Yes we could have taken more time and got the perfect shot. But we were too busy living and enjoying the moment. Too busy playing to set up the filter. We took okay photos, even bad photos, of wondrous times.

The bad hair, the funny expressions, and the shadow cast by the burning sun will not be blemishes to commiserate over. They will be talking points to memories when the albums are dusted off sometime down the line.

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Joede, “Simple Camera”, https://openclipart.org/detail/240744/simple-camera, 2016-2-11, accessed 25.07.2017

 

Mirror, Mirror

I feel bloody amazing. Heart beating so I know I am alive. Sweat creeping slowly down my back so I know I am working hard. Dull ache in my legs telling me I am on the move, getting stronger.

I am a champion. I see myself striding out confidently, looking every bit the pro. Nothing can beat me. No one can catch me. I was born to run.

Except.

Wait.

Who is that red-faced plodder coming towards me? She has the same shoes as me. And the same glasses. Huh. Weird. She looks tired, as if her legs are made of lead. She looks hot, and not in a good way. Her face isn’t sparkling with dewy moisture; it’s leaking salt. Her skin isn’t glowing with the effort of exercise; it’s burning red with the stress of sport.

She is amateur. Unfit. The Sunday driver of the jogging world.

And she is laughing. Laughing at the sight of me running towards her. She is grinning at the image, the reality headed her way.

And I am laughing too.  I am laughing because I am delighting in the knowledge that I can turn away from this picture and carry on carefree. That ungainly sight melts from my mind as I turn from the shop window and continue my stilted strides. I still feel amazing. I feel great about being out, great about moving, great about remembering that if you feel good, nothing else matters.

Photo on 20-06-2017 at 16.57