LET THERE BE LIGHT!

LET THERE BE LIGHT

After living in this house for 24 years, John and I have moved from the front bedroom to one at the back of the house.

Needless to say, I have a picture in my head of how I would like the finished room to look and my poor husband has the task of making it happen (for a somewhat exacting client.)   I had ‘sugggested’ that two lamps made from ostrich eggs and bought by us in Stellembosch, S Africa, should stand one on either end of 2 bookcases.   I went out with Janet to an evening meeting, and when I came back. Lo! There was light.

I like to sleep with the curtains open which was never possible when the room faced the street.   But now I can open my eyes at any point and tell how near we are to dawn.   If It is a starry night, as you see the constellations move across the sky, you get a sense of the planet revolving through space.   As dawn comes up you get a weather forecast.   And you are reminded of the season of the year.

Leaving the windows open means you can hear the fox move through the garden,  and as I write this in early June, a muted dawn chorus can be enjoyed, better than any symphony orchestra.   Squirrels and crows dance across our roof but we no longer hear next door’s milk being delivered.   I wake early and I look and listen to these wonderful things and start my day in a spirit of gratitude for being alive.

The room is at present adapted to our needs with the minimum change – but there’s not that much to do really.  Things rearranged in two existing bookcases.    A new mirror.   The TV hung on the wall and connected to Sky.   The doors to the ensuite adjusted.   Two chests of drawers fitted into too small a space and therefore one will have to be ‘adaped’.   A large mirror which we have (and is probably the wrong colour) hung above the rebuilt drawers.   Paper put on the wall behind the bed.    A quilt and two pillowcase covers to be made (so there are also tasks for me.).   A bedside table installed where there’s  no room for one.   New bed linen perhaps?   A cream mohair blanket bought in Knysna Lagoon, S Africa positioned.

No problem whatsoever for Mr Fix It.   The client may be a little particular…   (I seem to recall the word ‘picky’ being applied to me – the unfairness of some people!)    …but she’s flexible, tolerant and reasonable.   As we go into the tasks, Mr Fix It will have his own views and ideas which must be accommodated.      He would no doubt claim he was flexible, tolerant and reasonable (and probably with as much justification as I can!)

I find, aside from doing my tasks and giving my opinion, the best contribution I can make is providing attractive meals, and ones that I know will be liked, so that when the weary workman stops there is something to enjoy.

I’ll keep you posted.

RED SHOES

RED SHOES

 I have never been a woman much interested in shoes.   I am short, and therefore anything that draws attention to anywhere lower than my shoulder is not a good idea.   Additionally I am not blessed with beautiful feet so I do nothing that will emphasise them.   All my life, almost without exception, I have worn plain, black, unadorned leather shoes.

When I arrived in Cornwall in early summer with my elder daughter, Joanna, I could hardly bear to look in the mirror.   An over-thin, exhausted looking woman stared back at me from behind the glass.    I barely recognised myself.   But of course as the days passed, the holiday restored me.   When I myself looked back at me from the mirror, I knew everything would be alright, more especially when I demanded to know why I looked so shabby and dull!

Joanna and I shopped.  I bought trousers.   Size 8s were too large, but I bought them –  I refuse to be any thinner – I’m going to eat and get fatter.    I bought T shirts in colours I fancied – pinks and purples.   I seemed to have nothing in my wardrobe but clothes the colour of mud.   We bought a watch – well, it practically came out of its cabinet and begged to be rescued.   And it has large numbers and can be read easily.   So everything was good and I felt like myself again.   But Joanna shook her head over my shabby old shoes.

I have to confess, I am a snob about certain things.   I don’t do ‘bling’.   I don’t wear anything with a visible label – I refuse to be a walking advertisement for anybody.   And I don’t do attention seeking shoes.

So we’re in the shoe shop in Camborne and Joanna, helpful and lovely companion, brings me ‘my kind of shoe’ – black, unobtrusive, plain.   I look at them and feel that somehow they’re not quite what I want.   To my horror. I keep returning to a pair of red shoes.

Red shoes!  I have never worn a pair of red shoes in my whole life.    I’m as likely to wear a necklace that spells out my name, or a bracelet that goes round my ankle, or a tattoo that says, I love Leonard.     It’s not merely that I don’t like red shoes.   I DESPISE red shoes.   I think red shoes are common.

But it’s as if the ME who has thrown off her fatigue and emerged from behind the mirror steps forward, grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me.   She forces the red shoes on my feet.   She takes my purse out of my bag and pays for them.   She marches me out of the shop.

So here I am, out on the street in my red shoes.   I’m walking, very slowly, but I’m walking.   The road lies before me, destination unknown.   Unlike Dorothy, I have no yearning to go back to Kansas.

Who said, you can’t change the habits of a lifetime?

UNARMED COMBAT?

My father taught me combat from an early age.    I was an apt pupil.

The first lesson in the  art of combat is only to engage in fights you can win.   Clearly I was never going to win in any physical contest, so I always carefully avoided those.   But sometimes when a child, it is impossible to sidestep a fight.   I recall one pig-tailed tomboyish girl at school whom I had scarcely noticed (I cannot even recall her name) who announced one day she was going to fight me after school.   I looked at her incredulously.   “Why?” I asked.   “We have no quarrel.”   (I refrained from saying, and who are you anyway?)   She declined to give any reason.    I advised her  against it and walked away.   But she was tough and strong and I gave the matter some consideration.    At that time children wore leather school bags that were worn with two straps over the shoulders.   Mine was always heavy with books.    I thought my challenger would have the sense to go on her way – after all, we had no quarrel – but just in case…   I unfastened one of the straps and carried the bag in my hand, concealing that the strap was unfastened.   As I came out of school – late, to have given her time to think better of it and depart – there she was with her little band of supporters, incongruous with her pigtails tied up with  red ribbons.    Drat, I thought, as she squared up for the fight.   I never said a word but walked  straight towards her.   Some instinct for survival must lend you the timing at these times, for lord knows I had no practice or skill in physical combat.   I did not alter my pace, but as I came near her I swung the heavy bag at her head.    She fell.   I walked on.   I did wonder with some slight anxiety if she had been injured but reflected that the fight was not of my choosing and I had advised her against it.

Next day, she appeared at school, apparently uninjured, and relations between us were cordially neutral thereafter.   No-one ever mentioned the incident to me again.

So the second rule of combat appears to be ruthlessness.    You should avoid conflict wherever possible, but if challenged or forced to a fight, then it’s war.   Afterwards, when you’ve defeated the enemy, then you can be as magnanimous or generous as you like, but during the battle you must  employ every available tactic to win.   Victory or death.

In a long drawn out campaign, if the battle has been conducted properly, there will come a moment when our warrior has the enemy in his sights.   Perhaps this is why in films the truly deadly fighter is often portrayed as silent and still.   He is watching and waiting for the moment when his opponent makes a mistake.   He knows this opportunity will only come once and fleetingly.   He must recognise the moment and act with lethal precision.

So, let us assume our warrior has learnt the arts of warfare well.    He must behave to the highest standards, given the assumption that combat is a deadly art.   But even if he wins; if he becomes the champion, the Lancelot of his day, he faces some unhappy scenarios.    Firstly, he must live his life in a state of defensive alert at all times.     He is the Champion of all champions, and it is by defeat of him, and only him, that a rival for his title will be recognised in his own right.    As our hero gets older and more assured, he may become arrogant and complacent, and if he does this then eventually a challenger will come who will overthrow him.   If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.   But even if our champion really is heroic;  if he fights for justice, not for profit or glory;   if he is patient towards fools and does not destroy them because he can;   if he is generous in victory;  if he only fights when all alternatives have been rejected…    He may well remain unvanquished, but he will end up alone, victorious on a hill, surrounded by the dead bodies of his enemies.

Finally, there is the terrible possibility that the assailant who rises up to challenge him is someone he loves.    What will he do when the moment comes when this enemy’s neck is open to his sword?    All his instincts, his life long experience, urge him to raise his arm and strike.    For him, it would be as easy as taking a breath.   He will still be champion, and who could argue the case against him?   So will he stay his hand, or will he cut?     Or perhaps he will have learnt the wisdom to have seen this coming, and to have gone on his way?   Avoiding a few squabbles with silly schoolgirls hardly qualifies me to be a warrior prince, so I cannot give the answer but it seems to me, even if victory is pretty well guaranteed, the destruction of the enemy can never be a wholly desirable outcome.   Peace is a better alternative.

As for she of the pigtails of long ago, I am sorry that I do not remember her name.    She had pluck, and she was gracious in defeat, which was certainly more than I would have been.     I hope that life was good to her.

RAILWAYS IN RUIN

Recently Joanna and I travelled to Hayle, Cornwall and back, making one journey by train, and the other by car, Joanna driving.

I had not travelled by train since we were in Japan, and the difference in service was really quite shocking.   In Japan, spotlessly  clean trains glide in to  stations at the exact time to the minute, and come silently to a halt at a point where every door is marked on the platform and waiting passengers are queuing for their particular carriage in an orderly manner.   I am sure I do not need to tell you how this does NOT happen in the UK.

In the description of our difficulties, I have firstly to exonerate British Rail employees.   They were anxious to be helpful, kind and thoughtful, but the rail network has been so fractured and the system is so extremely complicated that I am amazed they manage to deliver any passengers to their destinations at all.     We decided to travel on a different day to what we had booked, and approached the ticket office, me with my walking aid and Joanna in full charm mode.    The clerk, faced with an out of the ordinary request – the cancellation of one ticket and the purchase of two, looked like a rabbit frozen in the headlights.   He said this could not be done and we would have to forfeit the cost of the already booked ticket.   We remained charming and sympathetic, but I shook a little more and looked distressed (as indeed I felt.)    Joanna expressed disappointment and wondered if there was some way…  perhaps, if he could be so kind ….     Anxious to help us, he consulted his colleague.   She thought it might be possible.   The two of them set to work on what proved to be an unbelievably complicated computer process.   It took the combined efforts of two of them about 15 minutes to unravel the machinations of the different timetables, plot us a route, undo the booked ticket etc.   (During this time, the queue, for there were no other clerks available, snaked longer and longer behind us until it was trailing outside the foyer and into the forecourt, and again, though people had been missing trains and looked peeved, seeing as I obviously had difficulties, no-one uttered a single complaint.)

We arrived at Gatwick on the day of travel.    We had a small suitcase (Joanna) and the three wheeled stroller (me.)   At this point we had to change for Reading ,and here we hit our first difficulty.    A train had broken  down on the line, and the delay and disruption this caused menat that we had to travel not by our original route, otherwise we would not have got to Penzance that night.   We consulted an employee.   He looked distressed on our behalf, but the timetable and alternate routes were clearly a foggy muddle in his brain.   Two railway managers, sitting on the platform waiting for a train,  overhearing his stumbling but   well meaning attempts to advise us, intervened, and discussing between themselves and consulting timetables for about 5 minutes, they eventually advised their junior colleague which train we should get and from which platform.   He carried Joanna’s suitcase down a huge flight of stairs while she carried my trolley as ‘the lift was not working’.  (I just cannot imagine what happens to people who are  completely wheel-chair bound.  )

When we arrived at the intermediate station – one we had never planned to visit – we consulted the ticket office for our next train.   He scratched his head and chewed on his pencil, and consulted his screen various times.   Eventually, using his personal mobile phone, and calling as though he were himself a passenger, he obtained the information we needed, and directed us to the right platform.    This train was very crowded, but by the miracle of the kindness of other passengers, I was helped on to the train, a path through the standing room only people was cleared, and a seat was found for me.    We had an hour to spare at Reading, and a helpful employee at an information point took Joanna’s case while we had some lunch and instructed us when to return.   When we did so, another employee escorted us through the station, found us a seat on the platform, and later returned when the train came in and boarded the train and found us seats (the booking system now being inoperative because of the earlier breakdown and there being two trainloads of passengers on this train.

The route from Reading to Penzance is rather picturesque, sometimes through delightful English countryside, where quiet churches with Norman towers nestle sleepily among gentle hills, and sometimes right along the shoreline.   We made speedy progress to Plymouth, at which point the express train suddenly becomes a local train, stopping at every interminable little station on the way to Penzance.    By this time everyone is getting rather tired.    The door to the carriage only opens if you wave your hands towards the top of it.   For long periods, for no visible reason, the toilet door does not open though there is no-one within.    A party of ladies sitting next to us are getting quietly drunk on a bottle of wine each.   A man gallantly gives up his seat so I can have one more convenient.    He is wearing a business suit, is eating crisps, and is carrying, as well as his laptop, a cardboard box full of papers and a cricket bat.   He enters into a long explanation of this to Joanna.    Nobody seems able to open the door to the platform, so another man (a passenger) stands by the door andf opens and shuats it for every exit.   A smart lady going  to see her sister stumbles and falls to the floor.   Joanna takes pity on a young mother and baby who have travelled too long and dandles the basby on her knee for 15 minutes to give the mother a break.    We organise the departure of an anxious lady who is being met by railway staff with a wheelchair;  other pasengers help move her luggage.   Throughout all this a mentally disturbed woman marches up and down the train, muttering, and has to be persuaded gently by he who has volunteered for door duty that she cannot exit the train except at a station.    The train begins to halt and shudder as it leaves every station, and has to stand and rest, wheezing like an asthmatic, before it can be coaxed up any hill.   No ticket inspector ever appears but the passengers have a Dunkirk spirit and pull through together.

When we get to Penzance, the station, John and Alexandra report, is shut up for the evening (it is 8.30 pm); there is no coffee shop, and the toilets are locked.   The gates are unmanned – our tickets have never been checked.

British Rail is ruined.    It no longer exists.    We have a  fractured network, badly maintained, where one section of the network does not connect to the next.    I blame Mrs Thatcher.