Leap Year (or a Wet Half-Week in Donegal)

Photo by Sno Flo

I spied some kind of hawk as we landed in the dark green of Derry. I nudged my secret fiancé: Yes, secret fiancé, like in a 19th-century novel (we’re eloping, the day after April Fools, following a whirlwind romance. It’s so crazy it just might work…).

“I bet it goes like stink”, said my man, as he vroomed the hire car out the lot. “Which side of the road do the Paddy’s drive on again?”

Davy is allowed to use this ethnic slur, because of his Irish blood, from his mother’s side. That’s why we were there, on the old sod, our trip part mini-break, part pilgrimage. Davy wanted to see where his grandparents were born, drink a pint of Guinness in Sharkeys. I was more than happy to come along for the ride, curious, amongst other things, to find out what I was marrying into in such haste.

“Is this right?” said Davy, confused, as the sat-nav nosed us off-road.

We were to be staying with his Auntie Shelia on Cruit Island (pronounced “Critch”) a rugged outpost situated off the west coast of Donegal. Shelia is a recent transplant, having moved to Critch from the “too-pretty” Cotswolds – her husband Jason, an anxious Spaniel, and an irascible cat called Bill in tow. Shelia was just the first of many aunties, uncles, and cousins I would meet over the next few days: Some families are extended, and some are extended, my bethrothed’s comprising of the great clans of Boyles and O’Donnells.

But first – a walk along the beach. The sun was out, the roar of Manannán Mac Lir (Celtic sea god, ferrier of the dead) in our ears. I watched as Daisy-Dog buried the toy she was carrying in the wet sand, before going to retrieve it, after being shouted at.

I looked over at Davy: I must admit, I’d been nervous, worried how he’d fare. I knew this much of him, that at heart all he wanted to do was sit around in his underpants, drinking tea and reading Satre. But he was being a good sport. I watched him run around the beach, antagonising Daisy, in his new hat that stretched over his head like a condom, and thought  – I’ve chosen well.

*

Siabh League or “Slieve League” boasts the highest sea-cliffs in Ireland.

Out of the car and Davy and I walked into a wall of wind. But it was worth the struggle up and the argument in the car. The cliffs were dramatic – black rock, pure surf.

We walked hand in hand. There were lots of other couples there, doing the same thing. Most of them looked younger than us. They were probably doing the slow and sensible thing, going out for five to ten years, moving in together and buying a house before getting engaged, or just having a baby or two and not bothering with the rigmarole.

Suddenly, Davy broke free and ran to an edge where he stood waving and shouting I’m just going to go now, bye, before disappearing backwards.

I stood and waited for him to reappear, looking out over the sea into a bright, white nothing.

*

The angst I would be made to eat an egg sandwich was replaced with the fear I would be asked if I go to Mass.

“Yeah, they’re nuts for Jesus,” Davy had said of the Donegalians, after I stopped to take a picture of Christ-on-a-billboard at the side of the road.

We were at Auntie Josephine’s: I’m not sure where Auntie Josephine slotted into the family tree, or Uncle Denny, or Siobhan, or Niall.  But it didn’t matter, they were kinfolk, the rest mere detail. We were sat around the table with the traditional and obligatory spread of tea, sandwiches and cakes. To the right of me, above the sofa, was a big picture of a diffusey Jesus. Over the fireplace was The Pope, to the left of him a photo-frame containing Josephine’s 17 grandchildren.

I didn’t need to look behind me out the window to see the ancestors: I had already clocked we were slap-bang across the road from the local graveyard, the glass full of crucifix. Oh God…

We were interrupted by some neighbors, two children in bobble hats bursting into the room, clutching election leaflets.

“Are you voting for Pat the Cope?” they said.

“I certainly am!” said Shelia. Turns out The Cope had got her electricity connected.

*

Several cups of tea later, we piled into the car to drive up to a different Auntie Shelia’s. This Sheila was in her 90s, and lived in the house where Davy’s grandfather was born.

Outside was a pile of burnt peat. The light was dimming. We left Daisy whining in the back of the car, while we went inside.

Auntie Shelia’s reminded me of a doll’s house, and Auntie Shelia a small, smiling doll, with a silky grey bob and silvery-pink skin.

“Me and my ex-wife, we didn’t get on,” said Davy, after a polite enquiry about what he’d been getting up to up until now.

It was a simple enough explanation, and I was surprised to find it was enough, for all three of us. Shelia smiled and and patted Davy’s hand. Sheila, I knew from hearsay, came from an age when husbands and wives didn’t get on, yet get on anyway. But she passed no judgement. Times change.

At some point Uncle Hughey arrived, plonking himself down into a tiny chair, still grubby from his job which involved turf. He bit into a beef sandwich and grimaced:

“Sorry Shelia, I thought it was one of the egg ones,” he said sheepishly.

We laughed, and the remaining egg sandwiches were taken out to Daisy.

*

The next day we went for a walk on Critch, alone, where, like a couple of eejits, we got caught by the tide and had to scramble up a bank to escape. A boat had keeled over drunk and died, its long umbilical of rope grown shaggy with weed. I thought how beaches are nothing but haunted, with their ghost footprints and sense of ruin.

We arrived back at Shelia’s wet and windswept.

“You have to come back in the summer, and bring the kids,” said Shelia.

I had only met Davy’s kids once – a trip to “Tropical World” followed by a pub lunch. I remember the grilling we got:

“But Kate’s your girlfriend,” said Louis, who was five. Kate was a previous date. They’d taken the kids to Blackpool together. I could see the seven-year old sitting next to her brother, taking it all in whilst chewing her straw.

Davy explained that I was now his girlfriend.

“Why did you swop?” said Louis, confused.

Davy tried to explain more, but it didn’t matter, really, both children happily calling me as Kate for the rest of the meal.

*

There were other things, we did, on that trip, other things we saw, and heard – like Glenvagh, a place where Rivendell meets Mordor, and Poisoned Glen, where the sinister sheep were marked. Mt Erigal was always in the distance at Critch, snow-capped some days. I’ll remember Daisy-Dog at my feet in the evenings, sand on her belly sparkling in the firelight, me running my fingers through her salt-curled ears. All in all it was a good break.

“So when’s the big day? You know it’s a leap year”.

Niall had teased us when we were at Josephine’s.

Davy and I had caught each others eyes, and smiled, before cracking a few lame jokes about him avoiding me on the 29th February, when tradition decrees that chauvinism is given a well-earned day-off after 1461 days in active service.

Yes, it was a leap year: in a little over a month I was going to be a wife to a man whose address I didn’t even know, and step-mother to two children I’d only met briefly, over iguana and chips. It was about a great as unknown as I had ever experienced, but for some reason, I didn’t fell scared, because for once, I wasn’t alone: if I looked over my shoulder I would see them all standing behind me, every damn one of them, whether I liked it or not.

*

Post-script:

I wrote this back in February 2016. My husband, Davy, still dines out on this wet half-week. Everytime I accuse him of not cleaning the bathroom, of never buying the baby new clothes, of not doing anything nice he says “You’re forgetting Donegal!”

That’s marriage for you.




Essay Saturday: In Bruges

Lake of Love, Bruges
Photo by Flickriver

I’ve just returned from a mini-break with my significant other – my friend who is also single and ‘childfree’ and therefore able to do nice things like hop on the Eurostar, and eat waffles with slagroom (whipped cream) all weekend.

In truth, Rhian needed, and deserved, the break more than me.

‘I’ve already had two teenagers tell me they want to kill themselves today. Must know I’m going on holiday.’

She texted me, the day before we left. She works in mental health.

I met her at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. It was going to be great: We’d seen the film with Colin Farrell. We’d known friends who’d visited. Our mums and dads had been by ferry in 1984. Now it was our turn to explore the medieval city in West Flanders once considered the commercial capital of the world before losing out to Antwerp in the trading stakes. We were off to Bruges – hooray!

On arrival, we made our way to the historic centre. The Lake of Love was our first point of interest: Even the pigeons look UNESCO – the flying oil-rags of London replaced by turtle-doves. Its called Lake of Love, I guess, because of the swans. One growled when we attempted a selfie, so we hurried on to the Novotel, suitcases clattering along the cobbles as we went.

Next morning was all blue skies and cumulus. The queue was already starting to form when we got to the Belfry (Travel tip: when in Bruges, get to the Belfry for the crack o’ ten or be prepared to wait – it’s one out, one in, like a nightclub, but up a belfry).

There are three-hundred and sixty-six steps up. The mistake Rhi always makes is to stop half way to catch her breath in challenging situations: she did it up a hill in the breacon beacons, two summers’ ago. She’d done it the night before over her pot of moules, when her beer went warm and she decided she just couldn’t handle any more. Now she was doing it up the Belfry.

She stood there, red-faced, regretting her base-layer.

‘I got ninety-nine problems and my hip is one.’

She said.

At the top, we oogled the sweep of roof below us. The wind was up, slapping us happily round the chops. We attempted another

selfie, before making our way down the three hundred and sixty six steps to give some others a chance,

‘Oof…and my knees is two.’

Piped Rhian, half-way.

We’d bought a special forty-eight hour card for fifty euro that lets you into a whole load of the cities attractions for free. The problem is with these cards though, is that instead of being selective, you end up visiting a lot of crap you really didn’t need to (the lamp museum, saints preserve us), anxious as you are to get your money’s worth. We’d also made the error of buying it on a Sunday, when all the museums are closed Mondays.

We wandered round the streets and squares and canals, thrilled at how pretty everything was, and what good nick it was in.

‘It’s because the wealth vanished in the fifteenth century when the waterway linking Bruges to the sea silted up. All the merchants went over to Antwerp, and the city was deserted, and preserved.’

Said Rhi. She is a brilliant tour guide, giving only an executive summary of each attraction, gleaned (in this case) from her pocket guide to Bruges and Ghent. She also takes a mean panoramic, and downloads extra data onto her phone so we always have a map.

‘That there’s the money-shot,’ she said as we arrived at a bridge with the famous view over the canal. A willow overhung the water, church as backdrop. We in turn posed for a photo; and my overriding thought was what would happen if there was a storm, and that tree blew down? They’d have to find an exact same one and plant it there.

Next was The Groeninge Museum which greeted us with a huge oil of a man being flayed. Bruges isn’t short on grotesques. The Hospital Museum features a painting of a screaming baby with a large syringe up its bum, for instance. But perhaps most sinister is the life sized Madonna and child made entirely from white chocolate, which resides at the Chocomuseum. After seeing that that we’d retreated to the main square for a dry croque monsieur and an over-priced plate of frites.

Earlier on, we’d loaded ourselves onto a boat for a ride down the canals. We set off, the tour guide, a handsome blonde, pointing out architectural items of interest on the way…

‘..And this is the lowest bridge in Bruges..’

This was issued as a statement of fact rather than a warning. Luckily everyone seated in the flanks had the nous to duck: It’s a credit to the Belgians, their capacity to underreact at every given opportunity.

At the Groeninge, I stood entranced by a painting of a mythological scene. A woman was lounging on the floor, her tenderly-rendered nipple all white and silver with traces of pink and blue and green floating underneath.

‘Sorry, I was entranced by a silvery nipple.’
I said to Rhi, who thought I was behind her and had already exited the museum, before back tracking to retrieve me, as we made our way back into sunshine.

Later on that evening Rhi lay on her bed in her pjs.

‘What’s happened to your toe-nail?’ I said, pointing to a blackened bit at the end of one, thinking she’d bashed it.

‘Oh, that’s just old polish that’s grown out. It’s indicative of my level of self-care at the moment. You think that’s bad – I actually did the nails on one feet once, and then couldn’t be bothered to do the other foot, so I just left it for with one foot painted, for weeks.’

It was a crime, what Rhi’s job was doing to her. She still hadn’t sorted out the little toe on her other foot. She thinks its broken, and has to stick it down when she goes swimming, or it flaps to the side in the current.

Couple to the right. She’s boxing above her weight, no?
Couple over in the corner. She’s furious about something…

Rhian liked to do this, spy on couple on restaurants and cafes before typing out a message on her phone and sliding me the screen.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of how nice it would be, if I was here in this most romantic of cities with a love interest instead of my dear friend. Surely deep down Rhi and I knew we’d swiftly ditch the other into the nearest canal should Mr Farrell come barrelling round the corner all guns blazing to sweep us off our feet. And it would be no hard feelings…

But no. I was having a great time, and the pressure to be in love in one another’s company has caused more than one romantic mini-break to implode under the weight of its own expectations. I thought back to the last one I attempted, when I sat in a car crying next to my then boyfriend, after realising our long weekend in The Peaks was going horribly wrong, because, well, he didn’t much like climbing hills.

‘I think we should go on the silent walk,’ said Rhi on our last morning, after our buffet breakfast at the Novotel.

It was actually called a silent walk, in the guide book, it wasn’t just that Rhi was sick of the sound of my voice after three days and nights together. ‘Silent’, however, was perhaps a misnomer, as part of it was down a motorway. Still, it was lovely: It was raining, and the cobbles were gleaming, Bruges a mossy tapestry, all oldy-worldy and quaint.

‘Look, another church!’

We made our way into the courtyard, where a woman was polite enough to ask if we were under twenty-six, or students, before explaining it would be seven Euro each to get in.

‘Come on, let’s have a last hoorah.’ I said.

The Jeruslem church, or ‘Jerusalemkerk’ in Bruges is straight out of Indiana Jones. It was commissioned in 1428 by Anselm Adornes, a fifth generation Brugian and merchant and father to sixteen children. Anselm had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before moving to Scotland where he was murdered in a monastery in North Berwick. He was buried in Linlithgow, but his heart was returned to Bruges and buried in the Jersulamkerk, next to wife. They two of them are still there: two stiff bronzes lying next to each other, under the eaves.

I climbed some steps which led into a back chapel where I crouched down to get into a replica of Christ’s tomb.

‘How much to stay here for the night?’ said Rhi, wide-eyed, on our way to the gift shop.

‘I’d do it for free,’ I said. And I wasn’t lying.

And then it was over.

Before heading to the station, we nipped into a café for a bowl of hot, silky chocolate. Rhi couldn’t finish her waffle because, true to form, she stopped half-way through, giving her brain the chance to send a message to her stomach that she was full.

On the way back to the Novotel to collect our bags, we passed the church we’d now walked past many times.

‘It’s funny, how a load of bricks put together in a certain configuration can be so pleasing,’ said Rhi. I agreed. It felt like we had been in Bruges forever, in a good way, and we both felt sad to be going home. For our own reasons we just wanted to walk, and keep on walking forever…




Bangkok or Bust

Bankok or Bust
Image by Amy Whitehead

I had originally said I wouldn’t come, when my friend told me she was going to Thailand. Then I said yes. Then I said no again. As she was booking her tickets I made a spur of the moment decision and said yes – an act of foolishness that left me light-headed. What had I done? Me, in Thailand?

‘Make sure you pack leech socks,’ was the advice from a work colleague. I told him I would.

I met Kaylene at Heathrow. I’m a nervous flyer, but, after years of pills, I’ve learnt that the only way to deal with anxiety is exposure therapy, after reading on a mug with a picture of John Wayne on it that courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.

As we boarded I told myself over and over I’d have to fly every day for 26,000 years before my number came up. There were sweaty palms on take-off, but I had to admit I was beginning to feel just a little bit excited.

‘Scrabble?’ said Kaylene, as I accidentally ordered a quadruple whiskey.

Thirteen hours later and it was Bangkok a go-go. After collecting our bags we made our way to the taxis, where a cabbie pretended to know where he was taking us as we jumped into the back of his amphibian-green car. I reached behind for the seatbelt, finding none. No seatbelt !?! Okay. I can deal with that, I reasoned. When in Bangkok…

Kaylene was staying with her friend, for the first leg of our trip, while I’d booked into a hotel which had a piano in the lobby that played all by itself. I said goodbye to Kaylene, before collapsing into bed for a pre-dinner snooze.
When they arrived later to pick me up, Paul was wearing shorts and a tan, Kaylene a knotted shirt. They laughed at me when I asked if I’d need a cardie ‘in case it gets chilly later…’

We stepped out of the air-con bubble of the hotel into an air so hot and thick I panicked, thinking I might have a smog-induced asthma attack. But my lungs quickly adapted, developed gills as we navigated the crowded pavements of Convent Street.
Everything smelt good. Everything smelt of food. We stopped at an insalubrious looking café that opened out onto the street, sliding into a table covered with a plastic tablecloth before perusing the laminated book that was the menu. In the end Paul ordered a selection for us, in perfect Thai. When the food arrived, we were unsure how to proceed.

‘Wadge the sticky rice to soak up the sauces,’ said Paul, ‘And don’t be shy’.

We also learnt that the spoon is the main eating implement, and Thais think it’s funny the way ‘farange’s’ (Westerners) noses run when they eat spicy food: How they must laugh at us, us sweating, snotting, fork-eaters…

The next morning K picked me up and we wandered to the station down the back-streets of Silom. The roads were a tangle of overhead wires; tuk tuks and scooters weaving through the traffic. We stopped to admire spirit houses, or stray cats, or the occasional psychedelic mural. Young and old were eating breakfast on small pavement tables tucked against walls spattered with bougainvillea.

Paul had told us that all you need to cross the road is your nerve and a ‘magic hand’, and to never cross in front of a bus. We put this into practice, praying not to get squished.
On disembarking the deliciously cool sky-train we took time to ogle a skyscraper – a honeycomb of abandoned balconies rising from palms to cloud – before heading to the ferry. We’d been advised to get the commuter, not the tourist boat at Chao Praya, but we gave up trying to find it in the throng, settling in with the other faranges and soaking up a riverscape of golden wats and brand-spanking theme-hotels.

Bankok or Bust It was almost noon when we got off the boat. I’d been dreading the midday rays: If you’ve ever seen frog-spawn left out in the sun, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what would happens to me should the same happen. But I needn’t have worried, because pop open an umbrella to use as a parasol in Thailand, and no-one will bat an eyelid. I’ve always yearned to do this at home, but refrained from fear of someone shouting at me

‘It ain’t raining luv!’

At the Grand Palace, we donned regulation shirts to cover our disrespectful shoulders, and entered…
Roof scales shimmered, demons snarled and bejewelled buildings bedazzled as we ignored the no photos rule. We shucked off our sandals and entered a room where we sat in front of a tiny emerald man.

‘You mustn’t point your feet at the Buddha,’ K reminded me (or anyone else, for that matter). I tucked them under my bum. I’d forgotten how feet were ten-toed weapons of offence.

The next day was Ayutthaya – the old capital. We almost didn’t make it, when I had a melt down after collecting our transport: clunky, creaky bikes that weighed as much as a baby chang that we’d mistakenly hired on the wrong side of the river. I thought I wouldn’t have the balls to ride it the short distance to the safety of the pink brick roads that leads to the ancient city, and the beefin’ heat wasn’t helping. But after focussing on a cockroach to distract myself from tears, I dragged myself together and literally got back on the saddle. I’m glad I did. There is no better way to spend a day than cycling round ruins, breeze in your hair, discoveries round every bend: a Buddha’s head in a tree, dream-green lakes, toppling beehive towers… 3pm we were done in. We dismounted, and pushed our bikes along a dusty path. Myna birds were chattering, telling us no doubt to stop being dim, and get out the sun (you knows its hot, when you see dogs digging pits for themselves). I had an instinct to drink coconut water, so we bought some. We sat down and, hugging the cool, green orb to my breast, I sucked its contents through a straw, feeling its salty-sweet blood mingle with mine. Ahhhhh.

A man lay asleep under a tree, his face scarred from bleach. Across from him a child made happy- noises. All was well.

I asked Paul why no one seemed to care much about road safety, or poverty. We were in a cab – the back window view entirely blocked by stuffed toys.

‘You have to remember there’s a strong belief in reincarnation here. Most Thais think, I’ve had a good life, and if I die I die. And they’re generally happy-go-lucky.’
Could that be true?

Earlier I’d had an exhilarating ride on the back of his scooter, clinging on for dear life. I still can’t work out how the Thai girls manage it side-saddle – must be something they learn from birth, like learning to bend their hands backwards.

Day four we visited The Golden Buddha – the world’s largest solid gold statue, which for years was covered in plaster, before some klutz dropped it, revealing the jackpot beneath. We’d had to run across a walkway of sun-soaked rubber to get to it, singing the bottoms of our feet in the process. As the cool marble soothing our soles, Buddha smiled at us, laughing a little, perhaps.

‘Thais have asbestos feet,’ said Paul, later.

As we were in the vicinity we went shopping in Sampeng Lane. I bought two presents for my baby niece – a painted crane, and a vest advertising Chang beer. I think she liked them.

Later on we compared heat rashes. Mine was worse than K’s, and I’d been slapping on the hydrocortisone.

‘Nah, what you need is cooling powder,’ said Dan. Dan was Kaylene’s brother, and lived in Thailand, in the South, (so he should know). He’d also recommended a potent green salve for mosquito bites that almost burnt a hole in the back of my knee.
‘I think it’s not meant for soft tissue,’ Dan said, as I yelped.

Dan and his girlfriend Nong would be travelling with us for the next leg of our hols.
First stop was Korat, and Phimai. Phimai is an Angkor Watt-style temple complex, a city bombed by time through which we wandered reverend as spirits – especially me, who’d been applying the Factor 50 like my life depended on it.

‘You are ‘Phi of Phimai’’, said Nong, meaning ‘Ghost of Phimai’.

Earlier on Dan had picked a ylang ylang flower and handed it to me. I’d gazed down at its five marble petals spiralling to white in my palm. It was like I’d never seen a flower before.

Day seven was Kao Yai, a place full of macaques, elephants and supersized vines: I never realised the jungle was so loud: Worse than a construction site with its buzz-saw cicadas and ripping screeches and the occasional mysterious timber crashings that cause you’re heart to pin-ball.

We were at a waterfall, when it happened. I slipped on some rocks and fell into a river. I thought it was only my pride that got injured but when we got back to the car and I took off my shoes, I saw the horrible truth:
‘Agghhh, ARGHHHHH!’

A leech. On my foot.

Dan nonchalantly scraped if off. Blood bloomed from the wound, and I shoved on a plaster, before Googling leech-related diseases.

Day Eight saw us on the ferry to Koh Chang: ‘Elephant Island’. I was amazed we’d made it. A miracle, surely, to get this far alive. That night I tossed and turned. I had to get up in the night, and while I was sitting on the loo I saw a dark shadow scuttling out the gap in the tin roof of our hut. Back in bed I could hear things stomping across the roof, imagining an abominable jungle-man with red eyes and lizard skin, leaves for fur.

‘That wasn’t a gecko, that was a tuk-kae’ Dan said, over breakfast, when I told him what I’d seen, before proceeding to do a perfect imitation of the sound a tuk-kae makes by tapping his cheek with his finger before squeezing his throat.
TU-KAEEEE. TU-KAEEEEEEEEE…
‘Again!’ we demanded. ‘Again!’

Day nine we found the perfect spot on the beach which belonged to a dog with worn-out elbows whose mangy fur was the same colour as the leaves strewn across the sand. Although she was a flea-bag, Sandy seemed content enough. Nong gave her a piece of fried chicken at our picnic lunch which she dragged off to crunch, bones and all.
Later I sat and watched the three of them in the water.

I remembered us wave diving, and tried not to cry. I wished you could see me, I wish I could tell you that I was here. Perhaps that’s why I had come here, because I knew you’d been here, without me all those years ago. You’d sat at the same spot at PhiMai, I found out later. Was Nong right, was I just a ghost, haunting the places you’d been?
It got late and the sea turned black before a fireshow illuminated the dark.

A few more days of sun, massages, and seven-chilli som-tams and it was over.
We spent our eight-hour layover back in Bangkok, where we met Paul again. We lounged at a café near the Victory Monument drinking beer with ice and eating food with spoons like we’d been doing it all out lives – laughing and filling Paul in with all our adventures.

And when the plane touched down in Heathrow, and I gulped in the cool, crisp air of home, what did I feel? What Did I know?

That Thailand is a bag of wonders.
That I’m a tougher nut that I think.
That I wanted to do it all again.




Essay Saturday: ‘Home’

 

Photo by Sno Flo
Photo by Sno Flo

 

I pinged off the text to my sister.
‘I’m moving to Fanny Street,’ it said.
‘You’re not coming out are you?’
Was the reply. I’d been expecting this.

‘No. I’m actually moving to Fanny Street. Previous tenant, a Mrs. Dix!’

This was not a euphemism either. She was really called Mrs. Dix, the previous tenant. The estate agent had told me so (and we’d all had a good chuckle about it, afterwards).

I’d kept my demeanour breezy when the agent had asked me why I was moving:

‘I like it up here. I’ve been thinking about it for a while…and I’ve got friends here (two, precisely).’

I’d been anticipating, what? At the very least further questioning. None was forthcoming; so I don’t know why I felt I had to add,

‘And I want a better quality of life…’

Forgive me – but platitudes were all I had.

The truth was I didn’t know why I was moving North. Perhaps because things weren’t going very well I felt a grand, flagellating gesture was in order, the grand, flagellating gesture being ‘moving to Yorkshire’.

Photo by giant mice kill rabbits (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by giant mice kill rabbits (Copied from Flickr)

I would never admit this, though – cold, hard cash touted as the principle ratio. London is eye-streamingly expensive, no one can argue with that: a place where, for ruminates like me, the housing ladder never materialised, only a long string of boa-landlords, slowly digesting the collective will-to-live through crushing monthly rent extractions, and broken Wi-Fi. And although there are many advantages to studio living – being able to stretch out your arm and make a cup of tea in the morning without having to get out of bed for one – squirreling yourself and your whittled-down belongings into one room is not much fun after thirty (four).

But it was after encountering my downstairs neighbour for the first time, an ash blonde of luckless ilk with whom I’d had a doorstep bitch about the local drunks and their habit of making merry with our wheelie bins every night that I decided enough really was enough. I was tired of the dilapidated mansion that accommodated us and a mysterious number of others. Tired of its worn-wefted carpets, it’s fossilized air-fresheners, its post piled up from long-vamoosed lodgers.  I feared that if I stayed under its and London’s eaves for much longer that I’d become, not a Muswell Sally or Finsbury Park Flo – yesterday’s scandal and corroded-toe pigeons floating round the lyrics of my life – but nothing; that I would remain exactly the same, not a lick different: a fate, I believed, that could be dodged by moving Up North.

I’d stayed with my two friends, while I hit the streets, looking for digs. Common wisdom dictates that if you are going to relocate to the middle of nowhere, it’s better to go choose somewhere you know at least one other person, to somewhere you will be a complete stranger – even though I know common wisdom to be an ass, and suspect knowing no one is healthier than knowing just two.

The girls had been thrilled when they heard about my plans, in spite of the fact I was out to steal everything about their life and identity except the gay bit.  Nina sports sanguinello lips and stylish sandals, is a black-belt in Tai-Kwando and detests ‘regional pride’ of any kind. Natalie is a gold-star Yorkshire lass who dabbles in the tarot and suits canary yellow. They go for holidays in Ibiza and Barbados, have a cat and a coffee machine, and make pancakes on a regular basis.

I discovered there was a plethora of accommodation available in their village, accommodation that was affordable and spacious. Saltaire is a brass-rubbing of a village, smudged out in yellow and black from the hard-plate of social history. It’s founding father was a Victorian cloth-baron: a Sir with an ombrophilius beard condensed from the very climate that made the north so perfect for textile production. He’d built it for his workers, adjacent to his imposing mill, naming each road after a loved one – Ada, Helen, Constance, Victoria, Amelia immortalized in Yorkstone. Fanny was his second daughter, a child with a life cut short (she perished at nineteen of tubercular phthisis). Her body rests in the family mausoleum, and I vowed to go and visit her, when I finally moved into her namesake, and light a candle, even though the Salts were Wesleyan.

I’d gone back to Nina and Nat’s after signing off on Fanny, where, sunk in leather, listening to the tinnitus hiss of my own deep conscious and the deep purr of a thick-thatched, stocky-ankled tabby, I revelled in the cliché that could be: Big town girl moves to small town, has a rocky start when she demands a chai-latte at the local one-pump petrol station, but is thawed by the salt of the earth natives who take her into their bosom, meeting in her first week a lad with big hands after she welches on a hill-start and back-ends into the dry stone wall he is constructing…

Photo by Sno Flo
Photo by Sno Flo

I’d sipped my tea and succumbed further into leather. Beryl was now sitting at a picture window, next to an old-fashioned phone. I jumped up, hooking my fingers into its dial to drag out a number, before furling it inside a long spiraling cord, waiting for my mum to answer.

‘I’m moving to Fanny Street,’ I said, after some preliminaries.

‘What?’

‘Fanny Street?’

‘Sorry, what?’

Fanny Street,’ I shouted, causing Beryl to scarper.

Back in London, the city and its inhabitants did their best to romance me:

‘But why Yorkshire? I’m sure there are perfectly good Fanny Streets in Bath,’ wailed one disappointed friend who takes not-particularly restorative trips to that spa town every other weekend so her partner to see his child from a previous relationship. Since returning I too had begun to question my logic. I contemplated pulling out of the whole deal, telling everyone it was just one of my hideous mistakes. Who was I trying to kid, anyway? I’d moved dozens of times in my adult life: fresh starts that had turned stale when exposed to the oxidising air of the present. Why would this be any different?

A month later and I packed up my car and hit the M1. It would take two trips, to get all my junk up (it’s surprising how much stuff you can fit into one cubit of flat). I’d had to park half on, half off the pavement when I got there, because Fanny is so narrow.

Stepping into my new home for the first time, I breathed in the smell of newness. Two up, two down, with a small stone yard out back containing dead plants, an old outdoor loo, and a pole for a washing line. I ran upstairs (upstairs!) to look out the window. I could just see, over the rooftops, the pickelhaube-inspired cupola of the Methodist church glinting in the sun. Silence reigned supreme, and I didn’t once stop to think how much I’d sacrificed, for this quiet, this space.

I thought instead about all the weekends I’d have, roaming the dales even though, in truth, the local landscape didn’t inspire me. It seemed to be an upholstered world of stuffy browns and greens, the landscape equivalent of flocked wallpaper. Where were the modernist monoblocs, the lugubrious tunnels, and skyscraper of my dreams? The hills and the mills and the pebble-dashed clock tower in Shipley just didn’t cut it.

Still, I relished the fact that it was a few degrees cooler than London, feeling smug at the thought of the hoards packed into the sweltering underground, glad that I had escaped that rancorous bowl of smog. And the people were so much nicer here, if a little blunt.

‘I call them Yorktians,’

A South African from Keithley told me one day on the train into Leeds. I laughed, I knew what she meant. I did feel like I’d landed on a different planet. I’d almost got run out of the local pub for daring to preposition Ilkley’s two famous rocks, calling them The Cow and The Calf in a moment of Southern gaucheness.

‘It’s Cow ‘n’ Caaaaaaaaalf.’

A glamorous woman had remonstrated, while everyone around me cackled.

I’d have to learn to speak Yorktian. Would I start calling people love at the end of every sentence? Would I start calling baps breadcakes? And, god forbid, would I start talking to folk on trains?

No, but six months on and I’m still here. Some of the cliché did come true: I did meet a lad with big hands. He was from Hull; but I met him online, not backing into a wall. We’re still good friends. I named the cat I fostered after him, on account of them both being ginger. He turns up in my stone yard every so often with dirty paws and I let him in, before kicking him out again, usually in the rain. At Christmas my window display of ‘Partridges in a Pear Tree’ was on the local news; and it’s great to have two friends, that I see often, rather than the many I saw rarely.

Now, when I go back to London, I feel displaced. I’m dazzled by the parades of bright buildings, the cafes, the galleries where everyone looks so shiny, so quirky – like characters from a Dr Seuss. One trip I go to meet my sister for lunch near St Paul’s and I walk past a man in a pin-stipe suit having his brogues polished to a high city-shine and think, ‘You’d never see that in Leeds.’

Sometimes, I do lie awake, listening to church bells knelling through squally rain, wondering if it hasn’t in fact been that horrible mistake I feared. Have I pissed on my chips? I think(as they say in Hull).I start to panic, wondering how I would get my shiny white elephant of a wardrobe out of my bedroom if I did decide to move back, realising it would be impossible and therefore I’d be trapped up here forever… Aye, and my neighbors don’t seem any less dispossessed than the luckless blonde, one answering the door to me in his underpants and a fug of stale smoke when I went to retrieve a parcel. And I’m beginning to suspect that everyone is from down South, anyway.

Then, a quilt of hills. Mud gobbling my boots. I’m headed up – up to the strawberry-blond moor, clambering over a dry stone wall to avoid the worst of the mud, wet wind licking and slapping my face.

I trudge past a tree. Its bare branches are stickled with birds. The field to my left puffed with sheep: one makes a startling sound from behind a wall, causing my heart to pin-ball. A caravan park, some sodden fern, a dog, a river, a road.

At the top, the moor opens out into sheets of blue and purple and grey. I walk freely now across a scorched, Martian landscape: a stark contrast to the swamp below.

There is no one here but me.

The moor is cratered with large grassy pits and small puddles. I head towards a stone seat overlooking the vista, so I can watch the sky, and wait, for what? A spaceship to come and take me home, perhaps. Then I realize, with glee, that I’m already there.

 

 




Heading South: My Big Trip to Plumstead

AmyWhitehead-The_Pub_Landlord_of_Plumstead-the_pub_landlord_-_illustrationThere’s nothing like going to a new part of town to transform the city you know and love and have lived in your whole life. It becomes an urban dystopia, nightmared by some Hungarian expressionist whose psyche is fixated on conjuring the perfect alienating vision of Hell, just for you. Down south, London is “Thamesopolis” – its inhabitants monstrous. It was always somewhere to avoid, then my sister moved to Plumstead. “Don’t panic,” I thought. “Just never visit.”

But she decided to hold a vintage market in my neck of the woods (it was for charity, but that made no difference to the selfishness of the act). “You can pick up the stuff I’m going to flog from mine beforehand,” she texted, excited. “Stuff” meaning 20 to 30 sequined jackets, Tadashi jumpsuits, and “size 12” tutus that even a zero would have trouble zipping up.

Now, my best friend’s mullet-haired ex once drove to Mongolia, via Iran and Uzbekistan, in a one-litre Suzuki Swift (The Slo Rida) to raise money for orphans and falcons. As soon as I agreed to drive to my sister’s that sweet April day, I can honestly say my subconscious believed it was about to undergo a feat of the same magnitude. I just couldn’t imagine driving from Muswell Hill to Plumstead: it couldn’t be done, surely? Had ever such a feat been achieved?

My angst was not unfounded. I’d only had my license for a month and a car for a week. The license had been hard won, a long time in the making – 15 years, six instructors, and three tests no less. So, forgive me if I rushed out to Dagenham Motors to buy an almost-new Fiesta Edge before my license even hit the doormat. I called my new wheels Glinda, The Good Car of the North, and so far Glinda had only been on a few local jaunts (back home and to Brent Cross).

I drove to Tottenham Hale Retail Park and bought a Sat Nav and checked out the route to “Plummers” online. I set off in the late afternoon with plenty of time, Serena (the calm voice of TomTom) navigated me eastwards with aplomb. As I pushed Glinda into fifth I felt like a proper driver, zipping over flyovers, cruising through tunnels and only slowing down to a dangerous halt once. At the first major roundabout a white van reared up in my mirror, like a randy urban rhino, but I gave it the slip before it could mount me. A-roads turned into B-roads and I’d almost made it when I heard:

“Take ferry… Take ferry.”

Take ferry?

I cursed Serena, thinking it must be a mistake, a “Sat-Gaff”. I imagined Glinda and I rolling onto the deck of a tankard bound for Siberia, or worse, Calais, in a “Should’ve Gone To Specsavers” moment. It was too late to turn around, I was stuck in a queue of stationary traffic. I would shortly be boarding, according to Google, the Woolwich Ferry over the Thames.

As the ferry backed away from the dock I smiled, the five minutes it took to cross the river becoming a rare moment of joy, a taste of what seagulls must feel every day. The view was incredible, no wonder they caw so lustily: Canary wharf a molten obelisk in the pre-sunset light, the Thames a sea, freedom-bound.  I felt proud of myself, and Glinda, for coming so far. What other adventures would we have? We could drive to Bruges to stock up on chocolate and lace, or Scotland to see Nessy. If we could make it to Plumstead, Glinda and I, we could do anything.

***

One advantage of living in Plumstead is that you can get a whole house for the price of a doormat pretty much anywhere else in the capital. My sister’s road is predominately Nepalese, which, as a white woman, made her arrival a bit of a novelty. The granny-in-residence used to lean over their shared fence to stare and smile at my sister as she did the garden or washed the dishes.

The house was in good nick when my sister bought it, and even nicer since she’d done it up in a style I’d describe as “sui generis”. Each chair, painting and stuffed raven was carefully chosen for its rarity and beauty.

I flopped myself down onto a bed and watched my sister label a rack of clothes ready to be put in Glinda. The windows were open, a sleepy sun painting the room yellow. I jumped up and pulled on one of the jumpsuits. The foot straps pleased me, but my saddlebags just couldn’t pull it off so I put it back on the rack. Despite being similar in many ways, our “Dalek walk” for one, in sartorial matters my sister and I are polar opposites. I wear the same jeans and grey top until they die, then replace them with another pair of jeans and grey top. Helen, however, is never knowingly underdressed. Many a family funeral has been enlivened by the sight of my sis, sitting in a pew like a merry widow, all stripper shoes and scarlet lips.

I recognised a dress on the rack as one my sister had worn to our mother’s retirement party. It was full length, and binding, something a mummy might wear to one of Osiris’s legendary balls, peplum and shoulder pads taking off at eternally staggering angles. “Why do you want to sell all these?” I said, running my eyes over the gems she’d Ebayed hard for.

“I can’t fit into them and, well, most of them are mutton dressed as lamb, now…” I lay back on the bed, letting her words sink in. I couldn’t help but feel sad for both of us: she was only thirty-five, seventeen months older than me.  It was all going too quick.

“Hey,” I said. “Are we going for that curry?”

***

We were the only white-English in the curry place, so we’d have stuck out like a sore thumb even if my sister hadn’t been part of the group. I wasn’t helping matters in my tangerine jumper, something filched from a wash-basket when it turned cold. Helen’s boyfriend, Hamish, sat to my right. He was twenty-six and a local lad, a gardener who ploughed the allotment next to my sister’s.

A waiter took our order, my sister ordering a cold Kathmandu for herself and Hamish. My reflex was to order one, too, before remembering – I was a driver now. We’d taken the car even though The Danfe was only a couple of roads away, I wanted to give everyone a spin in Glin.

“Be careful,” my sister said as I neared the junction at the top of her road, “lot of African drivers round here.” If there’s one thing learned since passing my test is that driving turns you into a bigot. Shamefully, I believed Hasidic men were the worst drivers ever until a trip to Bradford, where my leftie-friend told me it was “Muslim drivers” I really had to watch out for.

When our food came it was, as my madras-loving ex would say, “as spicy as a rich-tea dunked in water.” I popped momos in my mouth one by one, trying to ignore the dimming light and the growing anxiety that I’d be driving home in the dark.

The waiter came to take our plates. “How was it? Okay?”

“It was nice, but not spicy enough,” my sister said with a smile. The waiter grinned.

“But you can’t eat spice.”

***

I made it back up north in one piece. I’d had to double back when I thought Glinda’s indicators had gone haywire, only for Hamish to point out they were just my hazards. Glinda started beeping frantically when she realised a seatbelt was undone, she wasn’t able to tell that my passenger was a bunch of frocks and not a child.

It was almost midnight when I pulled up on a double yellow close to mine, exhausted, but victorious, a few new fledge-stripes branded into my back. And what had I learned? That it’s humbling to be a tourist in your own town, to be taken down a peg or two, in restaurants, and at roundabouts because it’s a big, wide, city out there. Don’t be afraid.

Thanks to Sno Flo for her wonderful illustration, too.