The Hiding Tree

 

The tree I can’t stop looking at stands in the middle of the green, in the middle of a village whose name has too few vowels for my English tongue to properly pronounce.

We’re here for a wedding; Mike’s old school friend is marrying Agnieszka, at last. We’ve been promised three days straight of vodka and dancing, so we decided to rent a small house a little way from the venue, so that we can duck out if we need to.

The secret no-one but us knows yet is that I’m pregnant, so while the dancing will probably be okay, the vodka certainly will not. Mike will switch my shot glasses for water when no-one’s looking.

There is a plaque, brown and gold, in front of the tree, commemorating its success: it was recently named International Tree of the Year.

I never knew there was such a thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice tree. I imagine it was surrounded by others, once, others that were felled to make way for what they call the ‘new’ half of the village, built in the 1960s. But this tree was spared. It has a fine thick trunk, and branches that stretch like worshipful arms towards the heavens.

 

But its history is the reason it was commended.

In the early 1940s a Jewish family hid in this tree for two years and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz. The villagers brought meat and bread in the night, paper parcels laid as offerings next to a hole in the trunk from which a thin white arm would emerge in the darkness to gather them.

Two years.

I imagine the curled bodies, matted hair, dirty skin, lying among the crawling creatures and rotting mulch. A life lived in silence and shade. I wonder how many they were, whether they held hands, prayed, dreamed. I think of them finally, finally, coming into the light, unfurling their limbs and blinking, spitting dust and leaves as their tongues rolled in their mouths, remembering at last how to form words.

 

The hole they came out of has been filled in, now, and I move closer to try to see or feel the difference in texture that belies the once secret doorway, but find no obvious clues. The deep ridges of its belly are as beautiful as wrinkles on the face of a lover. I lean into the bark, inhaling its scent. I reach my arms around the trunk and find that however hard I stretch, the tips of my fingers won’t meet around the other side. I imagine that the tree breathes and moves in my embrace. Turning my head, I press my ear against the wood and listen, the way you might hold up a conch in the hope of hearing the ocean. I am listening for voices, for heartbeats. There is a faint rustling, nothing more, and I wonder what lives this tree continues to contain, what beauty and hope now grow inside it.

When I step away, there are traces of bark, of damp moss, clinging to me, little slivers of brown and green on my clothes.

 

I place a hand on my still-flat tummy, fancying I can feel the shape of the life that we have already dared name in hushed conversations under covers, a tadpole, a bean, a tiny thing doing nothing but the business of becoming.

The tree stands, steadfast as a mother, yet ever changing, edging skyward in imperceptible shifts.

Its roots chart a course beyond anyone’s reach, whispering their secrets to the earth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction

Melissa Smit

Melissa Smit. Your voice, your very name

a lisp, your hissing tongue,

your backcombed hair.

Bubblegum pink and baby blues,

and blonde, so blonde, but I knew you,

I saw through

the wide-eyed looks, the way you took

a sherbet dip-dab to your lips

and licked, and licked

and locked on him, on him, my Jim,

my all-time love. Your whispered words

and berry mouth

too much to resist, your apple bite,

your serpent’s kiss.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

Fairytale of New York

My first glimpse of the city, from the back of a yellow cab, was of the Empire State building lit in Christmas colours of red and green. The Hudson shimmered with reflected sykscrapers and I knew the instant we crossed the bridge that I was a city girl, an urban animal, and that the bustle and noise of this place would take a bite from my heart.

Movie scenes met us on every corner, in this unreal place where we cricked our necks looking higher, higher, the spires of St Patrick’s reaching for a sky filling with snow. Even the steam from the drains, the litter and the sirens had a kind of grimy glamour. I was falling in love.

Two years and a week later, the same man who showed me my city, via helicopter, boat and foot, proposed to me as the ball dropped and ticker tape rained down.

A little under ten years on, he was back in Central Park, where we had skated and fallen, marrying someone else.
Our small son stood between them, wearing a waistcoat for the very first time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

He’s always a legend to me: in praise of Billy Joel

There’s a scene in classic rom-com Love Actually when Bad Harry teases his wife for still listening to Joni Mitchell. She replies, ‘I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime.’ It always makes me smile and think of me and Billy: an (admittedly one-sided) love that’s coming up for 30 years and shows no sign of abating. I recently saw him perform live for the 8th time, and it caused me to reflect on where this love originated and what it’s meant in my life.

14233043_10154539180034116_5406040960334306654_n

Giddy as you like in September

Getting ready for the Wembley Stadium concert last September, which I suspected might be the last time I’d see him (although I’ve been wrong before, so here’s hoping), I thought it would be fun to dig out my teenage diary from 21st May 1990 – the date of my first Billy Joel concert.

In a manner to be expected of a nearly-14-year-old, I (1) talk more about the minibus journey from Bolton to London and back (arriving home at 4.33AM Tuesday morning – responsible behaviour from the teachers who took us?!) than the concert itself, and (2) employ mainly generic superlatives e.g. ‘fantastic, wonderful, unbelievable’. A flick through the pages preceding the gig is revealing, featuring countdowns to the big night, and Billy’s birthday (9th May) duly noted (was I planning to send him a card, I wonder?).

How and when did the obsession (which was not a normal one, to be honest, in the days when most girls my age were attaching Grolsch bottle tops to their shoes and swooning over those blonde twins, oh and The Other One that Smash Hits called Ken) begin? As with so many of these stories, there was a boy, of course. A boy I had a crush on made me a mix tape (for younger readers, this is what we had before playlists. They were ace and we would search them frantically for romantic meaning, of which there was usually none. For further illustration of this, see Avenue Q, below, which spookily enough references Billy Joel*).

I became hooked on the same things I love today: his melodies, his piano playing, the sheer variety of his music, which ranged from jazz to pop to rock through classical and blues, and probably above all (being a bit of a fan of the words even then) his lyrics. I thought he was just a brilliant writer. I liked the way he used songs to tell stories; and those stories were about ordinary people, who, although they were usually from another continent, were people I could recognise, people I might know. He wrote about working class (or lower middle class), ordinary people.

I fell in love with Brenda and Eddie (see Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, best song ever, by anyone, yes ever), Anthony who worked in the grocery store, Bobby, who was driving through the city in a hot new rent-a-car, and Virginia with her much-coveted, well, virginity. I fantasised about the places: it was no coincidence that, later, New York would become my favourite place in the world. It was a kind of pilgrimage for me: while other people’s ‘must see’ lists were headed by the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty, I sought out the Staten Island Ferry, Mulberry St, Sullivan St, and thrilled when I found them, humming to myself in a triumphant, dreamy way.

Now, it will probably come as no surprise to hear that the 14-year-old me was a full-on geek (and geekdom was not cool then, as it is now). Evidence: we did a kind of ‘show and tell’ in an English lesson, which was really just a ‘tell’, when we all had to get up and talk about something we really, really liked. I talked about Billy. I read out THE ENTIRE LYRICS to Goodnight Saigon (it’s a seven minute song, folks, and it includes the lines: We came in spastic / like tameless horses / We left in plastic / as numbered corpses). It’s fair to say the room fell into stunned silence. Not just a geek, a socially-conscious, earnest geek at that.

Then there was another boy. I wanted to kiss him so I made him sit on my sofa and watch the entire ‘Russia concert’ (again, see Avenue Q) and waited for a slow track (Baby Grand, I still remember it – not particularly conducive to smooching, being a love song to, well, a piano) during which to make my move. It wasn’t the last time I tried to enforce a Billy initiation as a precursor to romance; I can’t say it’s always been successful. I soon came to realise that not everyone would understand Billy as I did; and no-one, no-one, could love him as I did.

Over time my tastes broadened and eventually I could even pretend to be a little bit cool, because I started to like bands other, cooler, people liked (see: Stone Roses, Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. OK, hardly ground-breaking, but a step up for someone who had Genesis and Sting posters on her wall at uni). But I never lost my Billy Joel obsession, although at times I expressed it like a guilty pleasure. I continued to be frustrated by people whose eyes would glaze over and who would then mumble, ‘Uptown Girl, right? Er…that one about the river?’, would continue to suppress the urge to tie them down and perform a kind of inverse Ludovico technique on them, forcing open their ears while they absorbed the full glory of his back catalogue (particularly The Stranger, Turnstiles, and 52nd Street, since you’re asking). Every now and again, I would meet someone who shared The Love; in this crucible were special friendships forged.

Mostly though, as with all the best love affairs, it was just me and Him (yeah that’s right – I just capitalised him). He was with me through all of the growing up, the joys and the disappointments, of teens, twenties, thirties and he’s still with me in this proper adulting bit that’s happening right now. He’s my all-time favourite and that means for all time.

True love lasts a lifetime.

Thanks, Billy. Happy birthday. Don’t take any shit from anybody.

 

*’Mixtape’ from Avenue Q:

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Boy on the moon

Some people think it’s made of cheese. I don’t, of course; I like science and things that are true.

Even so, it’s rockier than I thought. A hard and solid thing, not the ball of light it looks like from Earth, not spongy or even particularly shimmery. It’s just grey and dusty.

I’m glad to be here though. If only Joseph Dodder could see me now. Joseph Dodder is the naughtiest boy in my class, and he says the moon landings didn’t really happen. He says the flag would have waved, and it doesn’t matter how many times you explain to him about atmosphere. He’s a stupid boy, even though I’m not supposed to call anyone stupid, but I think it’s okay to say it about Joseph Dodder because once he pinched my arm so hard it left a finger-shaped bruise.

I kick a stone and it bounces and floats away, sort of taking its time, sailing through the air, but no sign of it coming back down, and I wonder how it is I’m here and I don’t just float off the surface and into space. I’m not wearing a special suit, like the astronauts did.

I learned most about the astronauts when we went to Florida. It was a special trip, Mum always said we couldn’t afford it but then some kind people paid for us to go because they said I should get my wish. ‘Trust you,’ she said when I told her I didn’t want to go to Disneyland, I wanted to go to the Kennedy Space Center. They spell Center like that in America, even though that’s not the right way. I’m smart with words, Miss Lane says so. She’s my teacher and she’s kind and smells of strawberries.

We went early and a nice man in a suit met us and told me I was a VIP, which stands for very important person, and showed us the place where the relatives watched the rockets launch. We sat on metal benches called bleachers and looked out over very flat ground that went on for miles. It was quiet and I squeezed my eyes closed tight and tried to imagine the flames and booming noise there would have been.

Joseph Dodder says that if the moon landings were real, how come you can’t see the stars in any of the photographs, but he doesn’t understand that the moon is so bright that when you’re on it, it blots out all the other lights. And now I’m here I know that’s true because the sky is black.

It makes me think of other black things, people dressed in black although some were in colour, and someone reading out loud about putting out the stars. I remember Mum crying and people hugging her, and me not there.

I want to tell Mum, it’s okay, the stars are there, I just can’t see them. I want to tell her no-one packed up the moon; I am here.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Good and Not Good things about living alone*

(*caveat: I know I’m not always alone, because my son is here half the time and he’s pretty close to perfection, human being-wise, but he’s 7 and therefore I can’t watch Broadchurch with him)

 

Good:

 

  • Falling asleep in front of the TV without anyone poking you and saying every 30 seconds ‘Wake up, you’re missing it’ and ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’
  • Leaving the washing up until morning sometimes because NO-ONE WILL KNOW
  • Cooking your famous ‘pasta with pesto and anchovies’ AGAIN, just because you fancy it, without anyone looking at you strangely
  • Watching Friends re-runs, Gogglebox, anything at all on TV in fact, without shame or argument
  • No men’s socks ever found on dining room table or other inappropriate places
  • Spending entire day writing (translation: 5+ hours of alternate staring out of window and walking aimlessly around house, plus 45 minutes of frantic scribbling / typing in manner of one possessed) without having to entertain anyone else or indeed explain your bizarre behaviour
  • All choices regarding décor, pets, hoarding or disposal of possessions, being yours and yours alone in manner of mini-dictatorship
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

Not good:

 

  • Cooking AND washing up, every night. In fact every household task being your responsibility alone, especially…
  • Putting the bins out. Yes, it only takes approx. 45 seconds once a week, but I resent it so much I would consider living with Hannibal Lecter if he promised to do this one job for me
  • Having no-one to watch Broadchurch with and so having to dramatically gasp and air your theories to an empty room
  • Getting ill and still having to deal with life admin, for example on one memorable occasion, simultaneous chest infection (me) and nits (boy). Combed them out in the bath, exhausted, then cried and went to bed. Would have been nice to have someone to bring me a Lemsip, at least
  • Sometimes really shit things happen, like someone dies, and although you have lovely friends who you know would drop everything to receive a ranty, tearful phone call or come over and hug you, you feel very, very alone
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

5 Comments

Filed under Blog

Happy Mothers’ Day?

I was about halfway through writing Hush Little Baby when I realised I was writing a book about mothers. It’s about lots of other things – family dynamics, secrets, societal pressure on today’s teens – but in its pages, mothers – flawed mothers – abound. Not just the main character, Sally, fighting to win back her baby from social services, but also her own mother, hypercritical and distant; her mother-in-law, judgmental and controlling; and the ‘first wife’ Zoe, too inconsistent and self-absorbed to properly parent her troubled daughter.

I hadn’t realised how much I had to say on the subject, but I had long been aware of the strange dichotomy in society’s attitude towards mothers, even before I became one myself. Mums are simultaneously fetishized and demonized. The gender gap, while it might be narrowing in some places, is alive and well in parenting. A ‘bad’ mother is extra vilified precisely because she’s a woman, while men get brownie points for even basic parenting. How many times have you heard ‘He’s so good with the kids,’ offered out as a kind of awestruck gong when a dad has taken his offspring to the park, or changed a nappy, or helped with the homework? My response has always been ‘Well he should be, right? They’re his kids.’ And yet nobody ever says it about a mum, because, well, she just ought to be good at it; and if she isn’t, she’s a freak. Similarly, I have lost count of the number of (otherwise seemingly well-adjusted) men I have heard refer to looking after their own children as ‘babysitting’. My stock reply is ‘The word you’re looking for is parenting,’ and they laugh, but I don’t. Because I’ve never heard a mother say, ‘I can’t come out tonight, I’m babysitting.’

Oh, I know, it stems from the days when men went out to work and women ran the household, and children were to be washed and presented to their daddies at the end of the day, along with his slippers, a large scotch and a perfectly coiffed wife. But come on, we’ve moved on, and the parent narrative needs to, too.

But if the misogynist message is insidious, it’s nothing to the pressure we women put on each other. It starts even before your baby is born; you join the NCT and competitive mothering begins (so subtly that you hardly notice it – you’re mainly there to make friends, after all, because you’re pretty sure your workmates won’t want to know you when you can’t drink Sambuca and dance on tables any more and all you can talk about is sleep and poo). You’re sold the ideas of a perfect birth – one that you can actually write a plan for, ho ho ho – and blissful breastfeeding, and these are served up to you by other women, mainly (alongside my other personal favourites ‘You’ll love your baby as soon as you see him’ and ‘Oh, you’ll just know what to do when it’s your own’). And when these things don’t happen in actual real life, it begins: you start to get tipsy on the heady cocktail of guilt, anxiety and, if not exactly failure, then not-quite-good-enough-itis. Fast forward a few years, and it’s bake sales and bloody Easter bonnets, and offspring who demand to know ‘why there isn’t a Child’s Day’, to which you smile even though you are screaming inside: ‘BECAUSE EVERY DAY IS CHILD’S DAY, YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE SH*T!’

Oh dear – just me? At any rate, this leads me to acknowledge what I see as a backlash against the ‘perfect mom’ fetish: the comedy parenting blogs / books. Pages like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’ and ‘Hurrah for Gin’ lampoon the ‘perfect’ mother with her ruddy-faced, outdoorsy children and expertly constructed craft projects, and gleefully admit the hitherto unspoken facts, that sometimes our kids piss us off, and more often than not our partners are thoughtless and, well, a bit useless, and sometimes we are just TOO DAMN TIRED.

The trouble is (and I hesitate to say this, because I really, really love Hurrah for Gin), even these books / blogs are a teeny bit of a smug club and however horrendous the tale (one involving a small child being sick in their parent’s mouth made me feel considerably better about my own day – large helping of schadenfreude, anyone?), in the background there is usually, actually, a hapless but ultimately supportive partner. There are usually understanding friends to laugh / cry into the prosecco with at the end of the week.

Now, this is all as it should be, of course, because it’s comedy, but we should keep in mind that there are some women for whom it’s not funny; women who are properly sinking, not just sinking into the sofa on a Sunday night with a large glass in hand and Call the Midwife on the telly.

Mother’s Day is probably not that welcome today for a whole load of people: those who’ve lost beloved mums, or maybe had shitty relationships with them that they’d rather forget; those who can’t have children, and those who maybe could but choose not to and would rather not see the relentless portrayal of the mum as a kind of goddess, which won’t be helped today by social media streams clogged with pictures of breakfasts in bed and teary blessing-countings for idyllic relationships with mums and children that, well, aren’t really. Maybe for those of us who are mums, it’s a bit annoying if we congratulate ourselves just for the fact that, by accident of biology, our ovaries worked ok while someone else’s didn’t. And for those of us who are sons and daughters (ok that’s all of us), at the risk of sounding like one of those rubbish husbands who uses it as an excuse for forgetting Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, maybe we should appreciate our mums every day, not just once a year. And that doesn’t mean idolize them, it means value them – for all their faults and flaws as well as the qualities that make them brilliant. It’s time to get real, and reject the dichotomy: mothers aren’t angels or demons, they’re human beings. They make mistakes, and they kick ass. Sometimes they even do both on the same day. Just like everyone else.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all of us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog