Friday, 31 October 2008

Life Counsel

my gothbuddy Bethan

The Weasel's hair is now 'cyberpurple' (disappointingly, in reality just an average darkish plummy red).

In the down time between baking Hallowe'en fairy cakes and gothing ourselves up good and proper for trick or treating, Bethan and I lay on my bed and had a chat.

"It's weird to think that if I went away and didn't see you again for, say, five years, when I came back you'd be a revolting, grunting teenager and you wouldn't want to talk to me anymore," I said, taking silly pictures of us with my camera.

"No way!" said Bethan, snuggling in for a cuddle. "I'd always want to talk to you! You're brilliant!"

"I'd be a Grown Up though. You'd hate grown ups by then. They're so boooooring."

Bethan laughed, delighted at the thought. She is at the age where everything is Amazing and Cool.

"It must be great being a kid," I mused. "People feed you, house you, buy things for you. All you've got to do is prance around having a nice time. How great is that?"

I pondered this for a moment while Bethan lay playing with my cyberpurple hair, then realised with a dawning horror I'd just described most of my adult life and my only aspiration.

"Blimey," I said, "I think it's about time I grew up."

"Don't grow up!"

"I really should."

"Weasel, you'll never grow up."

"I'm nearly forty two," I said. "It's about time."

Bethan fixed me with a stern look. "Don't be silly," she said.

"Ok," I said. "You're probably right."

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Love The Ones You're With


I am hanging out at my brother's place these days, which means I am spending a lot of time with Bethan (aged ten) and Mia (aged two)*.

I don't have a maternal bone in my body and yet I love the company of these kids. There isn't a television in the house so we spend our days drawing, reading, making things, playing games, going for walks, and dressing and undressing plastic 'babies'.

I can't think of a nicer way to pass the time.

Last night we all carved pumpkins for Hallowe'en. I've never carved a pumpkin before. It was brilliant.

Here is my pumpkin:



Miaow!

And here are all five finished creations, with a spooky see-through Bethan in the foreground. My brother's pumpkin is the one on the right (he's always been a bit flash):



Mia had a bit of help from Mum with the carving part but she enjoyed scooping out the goo singlehanded.

We're all going to go trick or treating dressed up as goths. There is considerable pressure on me from various nieces to dye my hair 'cyberpurple' for the occasion.

I'm tempted.

Happy Hallowe'en.







* and Fluffy the cat (aged four and a bit), of course.



Wednesday, 29 October 2008

By Temple Meads Station I Sat Down And Wept



Yesterday was a day of endings and beginnings.

BK got on an early coach to Heathrow Airport and flew off to a new life in New Zealand.

Flatmate and I stood and waved until the coach was out of sight. Then we spent a happy day wandering the streets of Bristol, concentrating mostly on visiting the places Flatmate used to eat his lunchtime sandwiches when he worked in Clifton.

Late in the evening, outside the railway station, Flatmate and I kissed goodbye forever, or until the next time.

"We'll ride again, Weasel," he said, "In every sense. It's not the end." He gathered me close. "I love you."

"I love you too," I whispered.

He had to run for his train. I watched him go, then turned and walked slowly to the bus stop. My feet felt very, very heavy.

Next week, it will be me on that coach to Heathrow.

And then what?

This is our song.


Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Be Kind



Apropos my experiences in France, I just want to say this:

"Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time.
Hatred ceases through love.
This is an unalterable law."

- Buddha

(I nicked this quote off the gentle and lovely The Department).

More truth and brilliance here.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Home Again



I am safely back in the bosom of my family, who, I have now realised, are Really Nice People.

My bags were packed and ready to go twenty nine and three quarter hours before my train was due to leave Poitiers.

I was so shattered by my time at Ma's and so glad to get away I cried on the bus the whole way from Paris to Calais.

I cried a little bit on the ferry, but mostly sat there in a daze trying to be invisible: there were no dark corners to hide in.

I cried going up the M2 to London.

I arrived at Victoria Coach Station at 5.35am. The bus to Bristol didn't leave til 8am. I wanted to cry, but I didn't; I just waited, trying not to be hungry and trying not to freeze to death.

On the bus to Bristol, I finally fell asleep. I'd been awake for twenty three hours.

Two and a half hours later in Bristol, I cried again when my brother met me at the bus station.

It was, all told, a rather lachrymose journey. But the joy returned with a brotherly hug and the promise of a bacon butty back at his house. There's nothing like being on the receiving end of small kindnesses to rebuild ones faith in human nature.

My experience chez Ma has caused my respect and admiration for Flatmate to swell to even vaster proportions. His terror of relationships, and his thirteen year drink and drugs bender (beginning the day he got his A Level results and he knew he was off to university) seem perfectly reasonable now I know what he grew up with. That he has turned into such a giving person is nothing short of a miracle.

I have changed the date of my flight to New Zealand. I couldn't face sitting on a plane with BK for twenty four hours. He leaves tomorrow, as planned, and I slip off quietly next week. I have things in Wellington I need to sort out, and then I feel sure I'll be back.

Flatmate and I will be there in the morning to wave BK off.


Thursday, 23 October 2008

Burning Bridges



“Can we have a chat soon about why my friends aren’t speaking to me?”

Oh shit.

“Erm, ok.”

Ma and I went for a walk, along narrow tracks which wound through ploughed fields and woodland.

The silence was excruciating. So I took a deep breath and said, “What was it you wanted to know?”

“What I want to know is what Mother’s been saying to make people not want to talk to me.”

Great start. Go in with an open mind an’ all.

“Heather said she’d be happy to talk about it if you wanted to phone her,” I said.

My hoped-for reply – ‘ok, I’ll do that, sorry to have dragged you into all this’ – didn’t materialise.

“No. I want to know what Mother’s been saying so I know what I’m up against.”

Another deep breath. I wished I was anywhere apart from here.

I started to explain Nan hadn’t said anything - people had drawn their own conclusions. I told her, as gently as I could, that after meeting BK they’d found him selfish and rude and everyone had been deeply offended by the way he spoke about, and acted towards, his grandmother. They weren’t impressed Ma let him get away with it either. Also, people were shocked by the sudden decision to sell the house: perhaps the issue could’ve been handled more sensitively. The perception was that Ma had changed since BK had arrived, and not for the better. They suspected his malign influence, so stayed away.

Ma listened in silence. So far so good.

I added, as delicately as possible, that in my opinion her friends were justified in their assessment of BK: he was an obnoxious, self-centred prick, a spoilt brat who had not only managed to alienate Ma’s mates in the short time he was here but also his Nan, his brother (Flatmate), and the person he considered to be his best friend (me).

“How can I trust him?” I said, warming to the subject. “He’s demonstrated that the only person he ever takes into consideration is himself. He hasn’t got a good word to say about anyone. The way he talks about people behind their backs is disgusting. He won’t do anything for anyone else unless he personally benefits. He is antisocial, in the true sense of the word. Who wants to be around someone like that?”

Strangely, Ma seemed reluctant to join in this part of the discussion. Maybe my Sagittarian diplomacy skills were winning her over?

Her continued silence was now my opportunity to mention – and I was really getting into my stride now, my voice was going all shaky - I also thought it pretty bloody piss-poor of her to put me in this position. It had made me extremely distressed and uncomfortable to be dragged into battles which were nothing to do with me. She’d expected – demanded - I go tittle-tattling around her friends so I could report back to her; what the hell was she thinking? I’d done it only in an attempt to rebalance her one-sided outlook.

(I said all this as politely as I could, of course. The Weasel hates unpleasantness of any kind. The Weasel, perhaps, is a bit of a wimp).

“Anyway, Heather said she’d be happy to discuss things with you,” I repeated.

Because can’t you see I’m bloody not.

And now it’s over to you, readers:

Option A -
Ma is mortified she has distressed her guest with her thoughtlessness, and apologises profusely. She is horrified her son has caused so much upset. She sincerely hopes she can patch things up with her friends. She accepts that she may have been unduly harsh towards Nan: she is actually very grateful that her mother has given her a house to live in and pays all the bills. Tears of humility dampen her cheeks. She thanks me for the feedback, and assures me she will consider what I have reported. She apologises again for putting me into this uncomfortable situation. I accept her apology – she is, after all, just a fallible human being, and who is ever truly blameless? - and we hug. It’s been an unpleasant time, we agree, but we are sure everything will work out all right.

Option B -
Ma explodes. “Why should I phone her?” she splutters. “I’m not crawling to these stupid bloody people. It’s none of their business anyway.” She demands to know exactly what BK has been saying, and when, and to whom. When I cautiously give her one example, she pooh-poohs it then demands more information. I shake my head: “No. You’ll have to ask your friend.” She snorts with derision: “I’m not asking that bloody weirdo.” She announces she’s not apologising for BK to anyone as he’s his own person and what he says is nothing to do with her. She then starts shrieking “So what do I do? What do I do?” at me like it’s my problem. I say mildly “I don’t know; I don’t generally fall out with people” (this may or may not have been intended bitchily). “Neither do I,” she spits, outraged. I suggest she could try building some bridges. She is not open to this idea. Why should she apologise for something that is all Mother’s fault? She fixes me with cold eyes and trots out an oft-repeated refrain: that Nan bought that house for her as her share of her inheritance; the other siblings got to do what they liked with their money so why can’t she? “It’s my house,” she snarls. I say it may be helpful if she and Nan attempt to communicate. She shouts “But she doesn’t listen.” After a pause I say, possibly unhelpfully, that people may not remember the words you use but they always remember how you make them feel, and people don't generally warm to unpleasantness. She resumes with the ‘So what do I do?’s and I realise she is actually demanding an answer. I repeat she could try talking to the people involved. She says grimly “I knew it was time to move on from here.” We walk on in silence. Then we are then joined by the nice lady with the dog from the next hamlet, thankfully bringing the discussion to a conclusion.

I bet you can’t guess which the correct version is!

And that, folks, is how you piss off your future mother-in-law.


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Business As Usual



I collected the United Front of Unpleasantness from Poitiers railway station.

For a brief moment, BK looked genuinely pleased to see me: his face lit up as I approached across the car park waving my arms and pretending to be an aeroplane to distract from the fact I was three minutes late (I’m always three minutes late).

Ma looked relaxed and well-rested. The three of us chatted about their trip as we made our way back to the car. I thought, I might just make it through to Monday after all (when my train away from here is booked) if nobody mentions Nan, and if Ma doesn’t ask me why her friends aren’t talking to her.

I waggled the car keys. “Who’s driving home?”

“I will,” said Ma. “Have you enjoyed driving my little car?”

The ‘my’ sounded like a threat. She reclaimed her territory; I climbed in the back.

I mentioned we needed some groceries, in case Ma wanted to stop at the supermarket on the way home. I produced the shopping list Nan had made: bread, fruit, veg, milk, cheese. Ma glanced at it with disgust.

“I don’t suppose she gave you the money though, did she?” she sneered in the tone that makes my nerve endings feel like they are being sandpapered.

“No,” I said, feeling all the pleasantness of the preceding few days when not one ugly word was spoken evaporate from my insides.

We didn’t go to the supermarket.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

This Is What You Wanted To Know, Ma



So, the situation we have here in France is this:

Ma lives in a house with English Nan.

The house is in Ma’s name, even though English Nan paid for it.

English Nan bought the house and put it in Ma’s name after she left the place she was living before.

The place she was living before was in a house with her other daughter and the other daughter’s husband, a few villages away.

Other Daughter and Other Daughter’s Husband borrowed the money to buy the house from English Nan. They also borrowed another few grand from her to convert part of the house into a granny flat. English Nan sold her home in England to fund this and moved over to France to live in the granny flat.

They never built the granny flat. English Nan asked for her money back. Other Daughter’s Husband told her she could whistle for it. They haven’t spoken since.

English Nan then bought this house, which was little more than a barn at the time, and moved into it on her own.

(English Nan was in her late eighties at this point).

She put the house in Ma’s name, thinking it was only fair that having given Daughter Number One a lot of money towards a house, she should do the same for Daughter Number Two. Also, inheritance laws in France state that when you cark it your property is equally divided between your offspring, and she didn’t want Daughter Number One getting another penny. With the house in Ma’s name, it was safe from Daughter Number One’s clutches.

She lived here for two years on her own, paying for essential building works, getting the house and garden shipshape.

Then she asked Daughter Number Two – Ma – if she would like to come and live in the house with her, to look after her. English Nan would cover all household bills in return.

Ma, having just retired on a reduced pension and with nothing better to do, agreed, and moved to France.

That was five years ago. They have lived here reasonably peaceably, until now. They got on each other’s nerves no more and no less than any two people who share space on a daily basis.

A few days before BK arrived at the beginning of July, Paul next door recalls Ma telling him she’d never been happier living in such a lovely place and that she was more than satisfied with the house now she’d got it sorted to her liking.

By the time I arrived in mid-August, Ma hated the house, hated that the house was so far away from the village she had to drive every time she wanted anything, resented the fact it was full of Nan’s crusty old furniture, and had fallen out with all her friends.

Any coincidence that BK also hated the house, hated being asked to drive to the boulangerie every day to fetch the daily baguette, hated Nan’s furniture, hated the resident English community Ma’d gotten involved with? Hmmm. Let’s examine that.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


To say Ma dotes on BK would be the gravest understatement. She would take a carrot up her arse if BK told her to, and wouldn’t ask why. His every directive is greeted with automatic, unquestioning acquiescence. His opinion is her opinion. His taste is her preference. She thinks he is faultless; absolutely wonderful. BK knows this, and takes full advantage.

BK loathes his Nan.

“Sell the house,” he said to Ma, “Have a life. Come to New Zealand, I’ll get you residency. Why should you be stuck in a shithole like this? Stick the effing old bat in a home. Chuck all her furniture out; it’s horrible. It’s your house, in your name; you can do what you like with it.”

And Ma, considering it, realised he was of course right. She was missing out. She was lumbered with a disagreeable old woman. She did want to go to New Zealand. Not to live – after all she had mother to look after, like a millstone around her neck; and she didn't really want to put her in a home because she paid for everything – but maybe a three month holiday would be all right. She demanded Nan get rid of her furniture, and all those annoying possessions that were cluttering up Nan’s part of the house. When Nan refused, the house was put up for sale.

“It’s my house,” I heard her screech at Nan after Nan had asked her if she knew what she was doing, “And I can do what I like with it.”

“Do you know she’s lived there long enough to have squatters’ rights?” I heard Ma splutter to a friend. “Can you believe it?”


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Ma has gone to Paris for a few days with BK. Just before she went, she asked me to find out, if I could, why her friends don’t talk to her anymore. She suspects Nan has been going around slagging her off.

Er, actually, Nan merely wonders why Ma has suddenly turned on her. Through all of this – and I have had Nan sobbing on my shoulder more than a few times - I have never heard her say a bad word about Ma, or even BK, beyond expressions of frustration and bewilderment. But what Ma says about Nan behind her back is truly nasty. Ma feels extremely hard-done by being held back by her duties as a carer (which extend to shopping, cooking, and carrying in logs for the fire), and boy she lets you know it.

If Ma has been shooting her mouth off like this to her friends, I thought, it would be impossible not to withdraw from her, chilled by her closed mind, her cold heart. If BK added to the badmouthing, you would be offended too by his utter disrespect towards his Nan and for anyone who dares to sympathise with her plight. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, listening to talk like that, talk with no compassion or understanding or acceptance that there might just possibly be another point of view. It is heartless. It makes you recoil.

The moment Ma and BK departed, the house was full of people, conversation, laughter. All those friends who hadn’t been round for months suddenly turned up to see Nan. Discreet enquiries revealed that they were appalled by Ma’s sudden heedlessness regarding her mother. They were also disgusted by BK, the language he used about his Nan, his general bad attitude. They were angry Ma let him get away with it. They couldn’t believe how Ma had changed since her golden boy came to stay. Was she stupid, wicked, or gullible?

Nan sat there and didn’t say a word.

I will have to tell all this to Ma. Wish me luck.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


I would be the first to concede that mothers, particularly elderly ones, can be extremely trying. And to be screwed over by one daughter over a house could be passed off as misfortune but to be screwed over by two suggests some sort of karmic debt. Yet all I can say is I’ve seen nothing to suggest English Nan deserves the treatment she’s getting. She is a quiet old lady, blessedly fully mobile, with all her marbles. She loves the garden and is frequently to be found carting rocks around or hacking at brambles. She cannot understand why Ma and BK stay inside watching TV all day when the sun is out (neither can I). And she cannot understand why Ma wants to sell the house. Around Ma or BK, she falls silent. Alone with me, she blossoms, is full of shy smiles and stories. She strikes me as a person who just tries to do the right thing, and is deeply wounded when the world doesn’t play fair. She has an obstinate streak: she won’t give up, won’t give in. She worries, but takes one day at a time. In her resilience, her reserve, and her kind nature, she reminds me of Flatmate.

Flatmate thinks the world of English Nan. English Nan thinks the world of Flatmate. English Nan felt very protective of Flatmate when he was growing up, the sensitive younger sibling in his attention-grabbing older brother’s shadow, with a Mum who didn’t really ‘get’ him and a slap-happy, then absent, very French dad. English Nan, she looked out for Flatmate. He used to cycle miles to her house after school, just to say hello. When he ran away from home, he went there. He was eight.

Flatmate sent English Nan a card once, she told me. “’Thanks for being there for me’, it said. That’s nice, isn’t it? I’ve still got it somewhere,” she said.

“Did you see Flatmate brown-nosing Nan when he was here?” BK sneered to Ma last week. “It’s pathetic. Makes you sick. And did you see her when he gave her a hug? She didn’t know what to do. She’s so cold.”

I saw it when Flatmate gave her a hug. He gathered her tiny frame in his arms and I don’t think they wanted to let each other go. They stood there for a long time in a silent embrace. Afterwards, she was so choked up she couldn’t speak, and left the room before anyone noticed her tears.

Tonight, she thanked me in a quavering voice for being there for her during this uncomfortable time, and we hugged in exactly the same way.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


BK acts as if English Nan doesn’t exist. I have watched in disbelief as he’s marched into the lounge and put The Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD on loud, while Nan is sitting by the fire reading. Other DVDs too, usually blood and guts ones or explosions and swearing; it is a daily occurrence. He hates her furniture yet he’s happy to commandeer her reclining armchair, claiming the optimum spot to watch TV. She just has to go someplace else. Tough.

“So what?” he’ll say when I express my disgust at his behaviour, “She’s evil. She doesn’t speak to me. She hates me. If I walk into a room she walks out. I haven’t got one single nice memory of her from when I was a kid. She never cuddled me or anything. Everyone falls for the sweet little old lady act but she’s horrible.”

There are a thousand and one other examples of his obnoxiousness, but I am sick of thinking about them.

I recall he used to do the same thing with the DVDs to me in Cardiff.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


So because of BK, a ninety three year old lady may lose her house, the home she thought she’d see out her days in. BK is adamant she deserves no better. When I argue – and I argue this ferociously - he tells me I should stay out of it; it is nothing to do with me, because I don’t live here. But he doesn’t live here either. I remind him of that, but he doesn’t get it, because he thinks he has a divine right to leech off his mum and she allows him to without question. I remind him that it’s his Nan who has paid for his food for the three and a half months he’s been here, and he’s done nothing – nothing – in return, apart from upset her. I tell him he is dangerous and foolish because he is not just expressing an opinion when he badmouths her, he is actually causing harm.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says – always his last resort from the truth.

I used to think the reason BK was like this was because he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Now I think he’s just a sociopath.

If you can’t rule them, destroy them.

Any last traces of respect I had for BK have vanished into the clear blue sky of France.


Sunday, 12 October 2008

The One



Joanne left Kent to travel round the world. In Sydney, she met a bloke from Kent. She married him. Four kids later, they’re still in Sydney, still together. When I asked her “But how did you know he was The One?” she replied “I just knew.”

Mandy left her marriage to be with Pete, a guy she met at work. He was married too. They are as madly in love today as when their affair started nine years ago. When I asked her “But how did you know he was The One?” she replied “I just knew.”

My Ten Year Ex took a year after we split to gather his thoughts, then set off to walk the wild places of New Zealand. At the first hut of the Heaphy Track he met Martine. One year later, they got married at the same place they met. Even after setting up a business together and starting a family, it is plain they are still crazy about each other. When I asked him “But how did you know she was The One?” he replied “I just knew.”

His best mate Dave was a player. Spent his teens and most of his twenties loving and leaving ‘em. Then he met Janette. Stopped playing. Got engaged, got married, had kids. The eldest will be going to college soon. Dave and Netty are still happy. When I asked him “But how did you know she was The One?” he replied “I just knew.”

I have been in love four times, but all the same with the first three I somehow just knew that they weren’t. The fourth, well, I have a hunch he is but it’ll take a while to persuade him.

My Lovely Sister met her hubby when she was eighteen. He was her first proper boyfriend. They got married in 1977. They seem happier today than ever before. When I asked her “But how did you know he was The One?” she replied “Oh I didn’t, we just bought a really nice bed in a sale and thought we might as well get a house to put it in.”

Ah, the romance.


George



A couple of years ago, George next door committed suicide.

He was only in his forties, and seemed a cheerful enough chap. He would frequent Ma’s gatherings without his retiring wife Nadine, and, despite not speaking too much English, would always drink enough wine to enable him to communicate warmly with Ma’s friends, none of whom spoke too much French.

George hung himself in his barn, which adjoins Ma’s house. He threw a rope over a high beam and leapt off the mezzanine floor. Paul, who bought the house from Nadine soon after George died, told me that when he moved in there was blood soaked into the barn's mud floor. George must’ve swung into the wall, hard.

The wall George hit is also the wall of the room where I sleep. I lie awake in the dark and try not to imagine how he would have felt, rope scratching at his neck, heart in his mouth, the moment before he jumped. I try not to imagine the thud he would’ve made when he hit, but it’s difficult to shut your imagination up in the small hours.

I just pray he didn’t hear the thud too.

Paul has placed a small clay figurine of a man in a high window of the barn, facing out over the garden.

“That’s George,” he told me, “Keeping an eye on things.”

George is as present in this house as the people living here. He is mentioned often, casually, as if they only saw him yesterday, will see him again tomorrow. Visitors to the house always bring him up in conversation. Paul pops round and chats about George like he was an old mate. I am amazed at how often I too find myself thinking about this man I never knew. He is always on my mind. It is like he is still here.

I found an old rug in Ma’s shed one day and suggested to Ma it would look good in the house. She agreed, said it used to live on the landing, had only been slung in the shed because it got paint spots on it during some building work. Could I get the paint off it?

I thought I probably could.

I hung it over the washing line and started to beat the dust out of it. Clouds of grime billowed out. I beat that rug for a full twenty minutes – it was filthy. My lungs filled with grit. I coughed and sneezed and rubbed my eyes, which made them stream. There was a bitter, dusty taste in my mouth.

Ma came out to inspect my progress.

“That rug came from next door,” she said. “Nadine left it behind when she sold the house.”

I looked at the motes swirling in the sunlight and pondered the fact I’d probably been inhaling particles of George. Microscopic George atoms up my nose and in my eyes. Bits of George stuck to my clothes, clogging my hair. It was weird, but strangely reassuring. Dust to dust. Do the dead ever really go away?

I glanced up at the barn and saw Clay George looking out impassively over Real George’s garden. The next day I hoovered the rug thoroughly and scraped the paint off with a knife.

The rug’s now back on the landing.

I wonder what Real George would think if he knew he was still around.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Freedom



I have escaped the compound!

This is good news in so many ways, but I will leave that for another post.

BK has taken his Ma up to Paris for a few days to see French Nan, leaving just me and English Nan holding the fort at home . The joy I felt at dropping those evil fuckers off at the railway station and driving away was indescribable.

I am now availing myself of the facilities in the Poitiers McDonalds and never has a walk beneath the golden arches been so welcome.

Because not only is it virtually untainted by customers, but there is also pleasant coffee, classical music playing in the toilets, and – get this – free wi-fi!

For the first time since Britain I can look at websites with pictures on! For the first time since Britain I can revisit blogworld! With a connection speed of a mighty 54.0 Mbps, ‘very good’ signal strength and nobody looking over my shoulder, I am liberated. How I’ve missed you. God bless Ronnie McD.

And God bless My Lovely Sister for posting copious amounts of waffle for me in my dial-up exile. You rock, Sis. Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Same As It Ever Was



Flatmate’s been.

He came to stay for a week: his yearly visit to see his mum.

I’d had eight weeks to adjust to life without him, to get used to the idea of going back to New Zealand and maybe seeing him again in a year or two, by which time life would have given us both some idea if we wanted to pick up where we left off. I’d had eight weeks to reconcile myself to the fact that while he is the only person I’ve met I’d be content to go through time with, right now us getting together is not an option because he’s terrified of being a relationship and what can you do about that?

I’d put the whole experience in the ‘Wonderful Memory’ box and put the box in the ‘Don’t Get Your Knickers In A Twist About It, If It’s Meant To Be It’ll Happen’ drawer. I'd missed him, but equanimity was restored.

And then he goes and turns up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Days Preceding His Arrival: I am nervous but excited. I have got over the misery of not wanting to leave the UK for fear of never seeing Flatmate again and am happy to be going to go back to New Zealand to dedicate the next few years to becoming the woman I know I could be. You know, one of those accomplished, successful women who are complete within themselves: independent, graceful and popular with just a trace of mystery, the kind men fall over themselves to get to know. I am going back to New Zealand with my head held high, glad that I got to share some special times with my strange and wonderful housemate but knowing I am utterly over him – I live in the present of course! If it's meant to be it will be - and I will not moon about because I have lost him; instead I will find myself by forging a brilliant career as a, um, well, I’ll worry about that when I get there but in the meantime, Flatmate’s coming!!!! Aaaaagh!!!!

Day of Arrival: I am more nervous than excited. At the station, BK and I scan the crowds of people getting off the train for Flatmate’s familiar hat. I see it first and squeal “There he is!” I rush towards him and, once there, feel too churned up even to look him in the face. Flatmate throws his arms around BK and me for a three-way hug and I notice he can’t look at me either. We finally make eye contact while walking back to the car; half a smile is flashed my way. Relief – the softness of the smile is still the same, and there is a question in the eyes. My returning smile floods out but I can’t meet his gaze. I am overwhelmed with a shyness and a longing so deep it renders me virtually incapable of speech for the rest of the day. All I want is some time with him but I’m not going to get it. He talks to me only in passing as Ma and his Nan demand his attention. By late afternoon, overwhelmed by churning emotions, I am sobbing my heart out in private at the end of the garden. I go for a walk to try to calm down but the tears still pour out. After dinner I spent most of the evening hiding in the bathroom. I am distraught. He must think I’m a complete mentalist. Tired from his journey, he goes to bed early. I cry myself to sleep.

Day Two: I feel more able to deal with the runaway emotions but still very wobbly. Flatmate initiates a play-fight by way of greeting in the morning but we still don’t speak much. In the afternoon Ma takes us to the wonderful local tourist attraction, monkey sanctuary La VallĂ©e des Singes. BK opts to stay home. Queuing to get in Flatmate pretends to be a little monkey so he can cuddle up to Ma. Normally staid Ma beams with delight and gives him a great big hug and a sloppy kiss on his cheek. I wish I could give him a great big hug and a sloppy kiss too because I still haven’t said hello to him properly. To my surprise Flatmate then pretends to be a little monkey all over me. Yay! It’s sloppy kiss time! I also get to tickle his face– a favourite occupation of mine when confronted by his displays of indescribable cuteness. He doesn’t seem to mind that Ma is watching all this. Back home we play frisbee in the garden. We are both the kind of person who is more comfortable when actually engaged in an activity. It breaks the ice – stilted conversation slowly returns.

Day Three: I become irritated by Flatmate as he – the man who hates computers – spends the best part of the day on the internet fiddling around with his mum’s stocks and shares. How dare he when I am here waiting to be attended to! I spout off to BK about how self-obsessed he is then go and work in the garden trying not to be so petulant. Eventually he comes to me and says the magic words: ‘Fancy a walk?’ At last. We walk and, after I apologise for my weird reaction to seeing him again, we talk. But we are both still hesitant together. Out of sight of the house, he stops and turns to me. He puts his arms around me. He hugs and hugs me. We stand entwined for a minute or two, in silence. It is what I have been waiting for. When we walk again, we carry on telling each other our news but this time he is holding my hand and after we stop to pick up conkers he puts his arm around me and pulls me close as we stroll. We only have this snatched half hour so words and topics stumble over each other, but God it is good to be with him again. We are clearly equally relieved nothing has changed since we've been apart. In the evening we – me, Ma, BK and Flatmate – go to a pub quiz. BK has been very quiet since Flatmate and I returned from the walk clearly back to normal with each other, and he refuses to join in with the quiz. He sits there playing sudoku and moans when Ma asks him to hand over the pen. In spite of this, we still come third. The winners beat us by only two points. A vinagaroon is a kind of scorpion, apparently.

Day Four: The day starts well when, passing me on the landing, Flatmate reaches out and gives my bum a good hard squeeze. Now I know we are definitely back to normal. Me, Ma, BK and Flatmate go out for a daytrip to a nearby village. Flatmate sits in the back of the car with me. He pulls out his mobile phone and shows me an old text from his inbox: ‘it is no wonder I keep smiling when a bundle of loveliness keeps wanting to kiss me xxx’. It is from me; I sent it on 2 July 2008: he has kept it, just like I’ve kept the gooey ones from him. There is a delighted expression on his face as he reads it again, and he looks out at the passing countryside and smiles to himself. Walking around the village, BK and Ma go off ahead while we explore down by the riverbank. Out of their sight, I wonder if Flatmate will give me a kiss. He doesn’t. Ah well. I know him well enough by now to not even to think of asking for or giving him one. He is only comfortable with shows of affection when he’s initiated them. When we get home Flatmate suggests another walk. It is a sunny day, though brisk. We set off for the next village. Away from the house, we have another brief hug, but we are more in talking mode, so we talk. Proper talking; I am happy it is back. Walking through a particularly pretty bit of the forest, he suddenly says “Actually, I’ve been thinking about doing Very Rude Things to you out here in the woods.” “Righto,” I reply, thinking this is classic Flatmate – all talk and no action, but next thing you know he is treating me to the steamiest snog of my life and soon we are indeed rolling around in the mud and mulch under a tree doing Very Rude Things. Stark naked and all! Not even shoes. Brilliant. Except it’s a chestnut tree, so we have to pluck spikes out of our bits afterwards. We reel home in the sunshine, high on happiness, cuddling and tickling and pawing at each other the whole way. Approaching the house we move apart. Neither of us wants Ma or BK to know what’s going on. At bedtime, even though Ma and BK are in the next room watching TV, before I go upstairs I can’t resist giving Flatmate a goodnight kiss on the cheek. He recoils from me, grimacing. Sometimes this boy mucks with my head.

Day Five: Because it’s a Sunday and Ma’s boys are together under her roof for the last time in God knows how long, my suggestion that we make it an unofficial Christmas Day is put into action. The weather is suitably filthy. Unfortunately so is BK’s mood. I climb into the loft to unearth the Christmas decorations, and adorn the dining room with tinsel. Flatmate produces gifts he brought with him from Cardiff: scented candles for Ma and Nan, a skipping rope and some sweets for BK; a sequinned clutchbag and a Haircut 100 CD for me. “Well, it is a fantastic day,” he says by way of explanation. In the evening, after the decorations are taken down and packed away, he says he wants to go for a walk. It is cold and dark and the wind is howling round the house. Rain is lashing down. “You coming, Weasel?” he asks. Well, what would you do? Miraculously, the rain stops after a few minutes of walking. We stop and just hold each other for ages. “Miaow!” he whispers as he nuzzles my neck, wrapping his arms around me. “Miaow,” I reply, pressing into him, pulling him tighter, breathing him in. I can feel his smile pressed against the side of my face. Our bodies get closer and closer. I don’t trust myself to say anything other than “Miaow!” so we stand there mewing softly at each other and laughing and butterfly kissing while we snuggle up in the middle of a dark muddy track. I am aware that this might be the last time I ever get to do this with Flatmate: it is the last day of his holiday tomorrow. Back at home, we sit in the kitchen together, him with his chess board and me with my laptop, just like all those evenings in Cardiff. Talking nonsense, talking chess, frequently not even talking. It is how I most love to spend time with him; I think I could happily do it forever. Ma and BK are in the room next door watching TV. When he goes off to bed, he gives me a goodnight kiss on the cheek.

Day Six: Having stayed up very late writing about Day Five, I fall asleep on the sofa downstairs. I am woken in the morning by Flatmate tucking his toy monkey (who of course travels everywhere with him) under my blanket and kissing me softly on the forehead. Tension in the house is running high. BK is a brooding monosyllabic lump; Ma is getting on Flatmate’s nerves with her motherly nagging. After lunch Flatmate goes for a long walk on his own. I can see by the way he strides up the road he is very rattled. When he gets back he asks if I’d like to come for a stroll. We set out. I let him talk. He is angry with BK’s juvenile behaviour. He is upset by the realisation he doesn’t much admire his mum. Flatmate’s personality is so warm and soft he could melt an icecap but neither BK nor Ma ‘do’ big-heartedness. They are takers, not givers, and Flatmate finds them cold and selfish. He doesn’t feel he is part of this family anymore. He doesn’t know why he bothers seeing them. He is very wound up. There is no more than a cursory kiss and hug for me on this walk, and I am sad as I know this is our last chance to spend time alone. I am also sad for him because I understand how he feels (I’ve already been through my ‘alienation from family’ phase; I am finding his folk hard-going too, but it is easier to let it go when you are not related). Despite my disappointment in knowing there’s no chance of any more cuddly stuff with Flatmate for now, I’m still glad of this time together. Our strange relationship has always been like this, swinging from red hot attraction to distance to plain and simple friendship depending on his mood. It doesn’t worry me now; it’s just how it is. I’ve learnt to remain unfazed and, when he's distanced, let him come back to me in his own time. He always has, so far. After dinner, he seeks me out in the kitchen. I am at the table, working on my laptop. He does two-finger press ups on the floor, then flashes his biceps and his six-pack at me, being deliberately distracting, soliciting my admiration with a cheeky smile. “You’ve missed this haven’t you?” he smirks, playful. It is his way of making amends for earlier, saying he still wants me to like him. It is hard to keep my hands off his sleek slender body but I know if I approach he will just shy away. So instead I just kiss his tummy when I pass him to put the kettle on then open a blank page on Word and type ‘you are beautiful and I love you and I am glad I got to spend a year with you xxx’. I show it to him. “That’s all,” I grin, “Nothing else. Just that. Cup of tea?” “Crikey,” he blushes, “Camomile please. It was more than a year, wasn’t it?” He gets embarrassed by my confessions of adoration, but I can see from his expression he likes them. I don’t care that he rarely reciprocates: I just want him to know another human being finds him utterly lovely because from what I know of his history I don’t think he even suspected it was possible. We spend another companionable evening at the kitchen table. As it’s our last night together I force him to give me a goodnight kiss. He giggles nervously and keeps his lips tightly closed.

Day Seven: His train leaves at 9.35am. Flatmate gets up at seven so he can wash his hair. I hang around, watching him dry it with my hairdryer. Under cover of its noise, he sneaks over and hugs me. When I go to clean my teeth in the bathroom, he sneaks in and hugs me. Doing my hair in front of the bedroom mirror, he sneaks up and hugs me. While he is packing the last of his stuff, he sneaks across and hugs me. It is always the same kind of hug: he comes in low from the side, under my arms, nuzzling into me, softly kissing my face. They are gentle and lovely. “I love you,” I whisper to him, “But it’s a secret so don’t tell Flatmate.” He gathers me up and we hold each other very quietly, then it is time to go. Ma is waiting downstairs; BK has been sitting in the car for five minutes already. We get Flatmate to the platform with four minutes to spare. Curse these efficient French railways – the train is bang on time. He hugs Ma, then BK, then me. He hangs back, waiting for the other people to get on. Ma grabs him for another kiss before he boards. He turns to look at me so I grab him again too. As he steps onto the train he spots something shiny on the floor of the carriage. He picks it up and throws it to me. It is some sort of pin. I hope it is not something vital that holds the train together; it looks as though it might be. The doors shut. He waves through the glass. There are tears in his eyes. Then he’s gone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I will see him once more before I get on that plane – we have arranged to meet in Bristol two days before I fly.

BK is now talking to me again.

Ma asked me to strip Flatmate’s bed so she could wash the sheets. I did, but I have retained a pillowcase for sniffing purposes. It smells of him.

Mes Amies



There are very few mammals that fail to delight me - only humans, off the top of my head - and I have been thrilled to make the acquaintance of the three horses who live in the field next door to Ma’s garden.

I am not a horsey person and, despite a horse riding career encompassing three decades and two continents* I have never really got up close and personal with our equine chums.

My friend Matt (hi Matt!) lives and breathes horses (it used to be horses and beer but he’s all grown up and sensible now) and has tried to persuade me of their virtues by taking me on painful and terrifying canters along windswept beaches. But I have remained unconvinced due to the fact I can’t work out what horses are thinking.

(Can’t work out what they are thinking, that is, unless they are running away and I am running after them with a halter, or if they are in the process of biting me).

Also, horses are just too damned large to feel entirely safe around. So due to the fact they are great big unpredictable things that could easily crush you to death if they felt like it, it is no wonder I’ve always preferred lemurs.

But my three friends next door have changed all that! They are docile and relatively small. There are two dark brown ones and one white one and I have named them Scratchy, Stinko, and Beautiful. I lure them to the fence with handfuls of bay leaves and rub their necks and blow gently up their noses and sing them French horse songs (eg: ‘Bonjour bonjour, bonjour, bonjour/you are nice/except for the flies/in your eyes/ though you smell a bit/mon petit’ - I should say at this point it is a habit of mine to make up songs for animals I am fond of). They seem to enjoy the diversion – their day appears to be as unexciting as mine – and having got to know them I can now spot horsey inquisitiveness, horsey disdain, and horsey affection. No more horsey inscrutability for me.

I received my first ever horse-cuddle yesterday from Scratchy. I was patting his/her neck and telling him/her some stories when s/he started nuzzling me about the torso, leaving a significant amount of green drool on my beige fleece. It was without any doubt a cuddle, and dribble aside it was so touching I suddenly realised why young girls want to tie bows in the manes of their ponies.

In the absence of anyone else sensible to talk to (BK and Ma just watch telly all day) my hairy amigos are saving my sanity. Other friends I have made here include Monsieur Le Chat who lives in the next hamlet, and the robin who regularly visits Ma’s bird table. I also like the wild deer in the forest and the dog skeleton on the side of the road, but to be honest they’re not great conversationalists. Ma’s two semi-feral cats are rubbish: they run away when you try to stroke them, but I’m attempting to woo them. The bats in the garden, naturally, rock.

I have also been very excited to see a snowy owl and a hare and a woodpecker (though not all together) and Eric, a visiting uncle from Birmingham, swore blind he saw a moose in the woods over the road.

I am not sure you’d find too many moose (mooses? meece?) in the agricultural heartland of La Vienne, but I could be wrong. I will keep my eyes peeled, just in case. Anything furry is a friend of mine.



* (equalling about seven one hour pony treks)