31/10/18

So, Halloween last year was an interesting one for me and my family.

It wasn’t spooky and it wasn’t ghostly, but it was scary.

This post explains why.

I started it as a submission idea for a magazine and decided I didn’t want to let it go. So here it is in all its messy glory. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness letter to my Mum, right from the bottom of my topsy-turvy heart and brain. It may also shine a bit more light on my Moomin Medicine post from November.

And I’m happy to report that, although there are ups and downs, she is very much on the mend.

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Mama Pippin

It’s not right. You. Here.

I sit on the bed and stare at my purple-blue feet that are too cold and too hot all at the same time.

I want to look at you, but you scare me with your smallness and your illness. I want to look at you, but I don’t want you to know that I’m afraid. You know my face too well for it to lie to you. It’s half your face, after all.

I lean back on the hard mattress and scrunch the thin blue sheets between my fingers. In my head a nurse comes over – a Miss Trunchbull style nurse – all stern and angry. The imaginary nurse tells me to get off the bed, tells me to leave the hospital, tells me never to come back.

But outside my head, nothing happens. No-one tells me off, no-one asks me to leave.

I stay on the bed that’s yours but not yours.

The side of the not-yours bed cuts deep into the backs of my thighs and it cuts deep into my heart. I shuffle, wriggle, squirm from both pains.

I talk about work and how it’s been busy. I look at Dad. I talk about the kittens, how they miss you. I look at Dad. I talk about the chickens, about breakfasts and dinners, about the Great British Bake Off and how Rahul has won, about the weather and how it’s cold today. I look at Dad.

I do steal glances at you with my half-yours eyes. I try to make them lie to you, but the look on your face lets me know I’ve failed. You’re not fooled – never have been – by my lying, half-yours eyes.

Dad talks. He’s so much better at this than I am. He knows what to say, knows how to be. I drum my fingers against the sparkly white edge of your bed and I stare at the clipboard hanging from the end of it. Note after note after note.

I wish I had my notebook.

You know the one – it’s the one filled with all the inane and absurd worries that my brain spits out and clings to so desperately, so hopelessly. The one my therapist has told me to keep. The one I chitter-chattered to you about for weeks and weeks, joking – hurting – about all the ridiculous and horrible scenarios my mind invents, all the while not knowing the ridiculous, horrible scenario real life had invented for you. I could fill all the pages of that notebook now. But where do I even start, Mum?

I’m worried about everything.

Why did your surgery take so much longer than expected? What happened? I’m worried that the surgeons might have left something in you – a scalpel, a glove, a piece of cotton wool. It happens sometimes, so why not this time? And I’m worried – so, so worried – about what they might not have taken out. What happens if they didn’t get some of the cancer? What if they couldn’t reach it all? Or, worse, what if they just forgot a bit? I haven’t read about that happening, but I’m sure it’s something that could happen – and if it can happen maybe it has happened.

I’m worried about germs hiding everywhere and I’m worried about all the germs on me. I’m worried that I kissed you on the cheek with all my germs; that I’m sitting on your bed with all my germs; that I should never have come here with all my germs.

Most of all – and this one eats me up alive – I’m worried that I won’t be able to look after you, that I won’t be able to repay all your years of looking after me. How can I be strong like you? How can I cope like you would when it feels like all my insides are going to bubble up and burn out of my chest?

The list goes on and on and on.

Dad’s still talking but now he’s talking to me, looking at me. I come around.

It’s time to leave.

Mum, why don’t you to come with us too? You shouldn’t be here and none of this should be happening, so why don’t we just pretend that it’s not? That will work, won’t it? That will make it go away.

Maybe not.

I stand. I lie badly with my eyes. I kiss you with my germs. I’m desperate to go and I’m desperate to stay. This not-yours bed has stolen all of earth’s gravity and I don’t want to go back to falling through the empty space of home without you.

Time. To. Leave.

Dad and I walk away. A thousand gravity-cords stretch and pop and snap at my all-yours heart, ready to pull me back, ready to stop my hot-cold feet in their tracks. But away we carry on walking.

It’s not right, Mum. You. There.

Come home.

Reads – The Revenant

*sighs a long sigh and looks to the sky for help from the universe*

I’m really not sure where to start with The Revenant by Michael Punke.

For anyone who doesn’t know *scans the horizon with binoculars, waves at the stragglers in the distance*, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman, and his quest for revenge on the men who robbed and abandoned him after he was attacked by a big, angry, and extremely bitey bear.

Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?

Famously, it was adapted – adapted being the very, very key word – into a film, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Hugh Glass and a big, angry, extremely bitey CGI bear starring as the actual-bitey bear. (I watched it for the first time a few days ago on BBC iPlayer – the book is better, although it tragically lacks Leonardo DiCaprio.)

I’ll admit, I knew before I started reading that The Revenant wasn’t going to be a favourite – I just wanted to try it.

It was certainly an experience. At times, an ordeal. It took me over a month to finish it.

But there were positives.

  • The writing – it was excellent and evocative, even if it strayed into survival manual territory on occasion.
  • The characterisation (well, the characterisation of the men in the book) – I had no trouble picturing, liking, admiring, or loathing any of the main characters. They were a rich tapestry of lives-lived-so-far, motives, and emotions. But I wanted to throw the book out of the nearest window anytime a woman happened to appear in the story. Hysteric who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Prostitute who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. OId, haggard lady who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Wife who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Dreamy, lovely, pure fiancé who’s been dead for years and has nothing to do with the plot? Check. I get that The Revenant is a raw egg drinkin’, 72oz steak eatin’, manly man adventure book, but c’mon. (Side note – if you find yourself getting annoyed and angry at the stereotypes in the last sentence, then please, please, please imagine how annoying a whole books worth of them would be.)
  • The things I learned – I genuinely think I could trap a rabbit after reading this book. I mean, I wouldn’t because I’m a vegetarian and think they’re adorable, but it’s nice to know I could if I needed to.

So, as you might have guessed, I’m not a super-fan. I do have a weird, grudging respect for it, but I’m looking forward to reading something a bit less rugged and grim.

I think I’m in need of some January book-sunshine.

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The Revenant by Michael Punke

Mark My Words

It all started with a piece of golden glitter card and the magpie in my soul.

I was supposed to be tidying. I was supposed to be bringing order to the chaos inside the boxes under my bed. I was supposed to be letting go of things I hadn’t used in years. But then a twinkle caught my eye and all hope of tidiness and orderliness was lost.

I knew exactly what I was going to do.

I was going to make a moon. (I have to admit this is one of my more avant-garde reasons for not tidying, but any excuse will do.)

Leaving the boxes to their messy fate, I left my bedroom clutching the glitter card reverantly in one hand and pva glue, a pencil, and a pair of scissors in the other.

Some serious, serious crafting was about to happen.

What actually happened was this: I drew a moon, I cut out a moon, I glued the back of the moon to the back of some more glitter card, and then I left it to dry on a radiator for two. whole. weeks. Woops.

I did finally get back round to it – and the boxes, which is a minor miracle – and by the time I was eventually finished I had myself a not-too-shabby (even if I do say so myself) glitter moon bookmark.

Handmade glitter moon bookmark. Paper craft bookmark.

Handmade moon bookmark with stars, vintage lace, and upcycled beads.

Then, a few weeks after finishing my bookmark moon and completely by chance, I came across the eye-wateringly beautiful book Paper to Petal by Rebecca Thuss and Patrick Farrell. I love flowers and – surprise, surprise – I love bookmarks, so their tutorial for a paper flower bookmark made me super happy.

And I managed to finish it in well under two weeks, so that’s some crafty-progress for you right there.

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It was so nice to get back into making things after a long, long break from the world of crafting, and it’s been so nice using them – especially as I’ve got five books on the go at the moment (which is very unusual for me). I’ve certainly needed them to keep me sane.

It’s amazing where (half-hearted) tidying can lead.

Reads – Fevre Dream

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Christmas time is a time for traditions – conventional plus the weird, wacky, and wonderful.

My weird Christmas tradition (that is a grand total of, ahem, four years old) is to read about vampires. Nothing says twinkly, tinselly, merry Christmas like a big ol’ vampire novel.

This year I chose Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin because George R. R. Martin plus vampires sounded like too good a combination to resist.

The story follows Abner Marsh – a struggling, no nonsense, honest through-and-through steamboat businessman who receives an offer he can’t refuse from the mysterious, nocturnal Joshua York – and charts his adventures along the vampire-flooded banks of the Mississippi.

The first half of the story had me firmly under its toothy spell. I loved to love/hate all of the characters in their own special way and the Victorian South bled straight from the page into my brain. But somewhere in the middle of the book the story fell flat for me. Not completely flat, not flat-as-a-pancake flat, but flat like a cake that doesn’t rise as much as you were expecting. I can’t really explain why or how – helpful, I know – all I can say is it left me feeling like a passenger pacing the deck, waiting impatiently for my stop so I could get off. Which was a surprise.

At least I got my Christmas vampire fix.

I hope you’ve had a good Christmas, however you’ve celebrated it. Do you have any weird and wonderful Christmas reading habits? I’d love to know I’m not the only one if you do!

My Favourite Reads of 2018

Ah, December. We meet again.

I’ve spent most of this month eating dangerous levels of junk food (thank you for the excuse, Christmas), avoiding tinsel like the sparkly plague, and resisting – but only just – sabotaging the sound system at work.

Did you know that you should never do a tango with an eskimo? I didn’t until a few weeks ago.

My brain. It hurts from the music. *cries glitter-tainted tears*

Aaaanyway. When I’ve not been thinking about the weather outside being frightful or how I want a hippotamus for Christmas (I’m not even sorry if that song gets stuck in your head too), I’ve been thinking about some of my favourite books from the last twelve months.

So, in no particular order, these are they.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I really did. The writing is exquisite, the story is glitzy and sumptuous and fabulous, and it’s beautifully bittersweet.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – this was another unexpected love. It was so heartwarming and funny, and I got completely lost (the good kind of lost) in Eleanor’s story.
  • The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – I wrote about it very enthusiastically at the time (here), so I guess it’s really not a surprise that it made the list! I was expecting to love this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. My heart gets all fluttery and woozy knowing the final book is only a few weeks away from publication – I cannot wait to read it.
  • The Invisible Child by Tove Jansson – the Moomins just make me happy, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt more than anything this year it’s that happiness and fluffiness and goodness are things worth cherishing when you can. I don’t care that the Moomins are technically for children, their stories are perfect for everybody, everyday.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.
  • Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman – body image worries are my horrible obssession, and 2018 has seen me really, truly scraping the bottom of that particular barrel. But rock bottom means the only way is up, and although it’s messy and painful I feel less in thrall with the Gollum in my brain everyday. Books like this – toe-curlingly honest, laugh out loud funny, super duper gross – are so important for normalising these strange fleshy things we call home. Really, I needed a book like this ten years ago but c’est la vie. Bodies are 100% weird and 100% wonderful. We should look after them.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – I ummed and ahhed about having this one on the list, but it was such a memorable and absorbing read, even if it did wind itself in knots that it couldn’t entirely escape from. It kept me hooked and it still pops into my head every now and again – which is always a sign a story has done its job.
  • Moondust by Andrew Smith – this exploration of the lives of the astronauts behind the moonlandings was fascinating and had me daydreaming about space travel for weeks (though not daydreaming about all the hard work and science and maths behind it).
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – I can’t really say anything other than I think everyone should read this book. This isn’t a book about guilt, it’s about being aware of the things that have happened – and the things that are still happening – in Britain and not letting these issues get swept under the carpet. There’s still so much work to do.
  • The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang – a short, sad, and sweet story that was weird but wonderful all at the same time.
  • Mort by Terry Pratchett – I don’t remember the last quarter of the book being as good as the first three-quarters, but I do remember laughing a lot a lot a lot.

I could probably go on and on and on, and just end up listing all of the books I’ve read this year, but these particular books just stood out for me – both at the time and after the time.

And you never know… seeing as there’s still a week and a bit left of 2018, there’s still technically time to add to that list (although technical time does seem to be completely different to my actual experience of time).

Happy Christmas and happy reading!

Reads – The Haunted Coast

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray, published by the Caedman Storytellers.

Ghosts and the sea.

The only four words in the whole wide world that can guarantee I will read a book – no other information needed, no questions asked.

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray was the perfect November-Sunday read for me, curled up by the woodburner, snuggled inside a big woolly jumper, toasty warm but full of a horrible cold that just won’t go away and leave me alone to breathe like a normal human being. The book was forty-six pages of spooks and Yorkshire legends that whisked me away from my runny nose and aching sinuses into a world of ghosts and ghouls, mermaids and monsters, and a howling, churning, wild North Sea.

The perfect getaway.

Camera Shy

Like a lot of people, I’m not a huge fan of having my photo taken.

The sight of a camera lens pointing in my direction is enough to send a juggernaut of hyper self-conscious panic right through my heart. The words “say cheeeeeeese” are enough to make me want to sink into the ground and be eaten by worms. And opening the camera on my phone only to find my confused, freckly, selfie-unready face blinking back at me? Well, that’s enough to make me want to throw my phone into the sea pour les poissons*.

I’m both fascinated and completely repulsed by myself in photos. (Me, me, me, I, I, I, self, self, self. Sorry.)

For about ten years I barely let anyone take a photo of me. Photographic evidence of my existence in that time is minimal. As minimal as I could get away with. And the evidence that does exist is pained and reluctant, through gritted teenage teeth. I think everyone goes through a stage like this, long or short. (I’m kind of curious whether people felt like this way back in the day, sitting for a family painting? If someone could pleeeease invent time travel, because I’d like to go back and ask. Pretty please.) My stage just happened to be a very very very long stage.

So imagine my surprise when I found a photo from that time, taken a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, where I looked… relaxed. At peace with the lens. Zen with the flash. Okay with the camera.

Granted, that’s probably because I thought the photo had already been taken and that the danger had passed.

But I’m taking it as a small victory anyway.

For me, the best things about the photo are the memories that come with it. Memories so so clear and sparkly. Devon. July. Running. Laughing. Brothers, sister, mother. Twinkling lights and a shushing, shiny sea.

I can walk right back into the blue and feel it all the way through my veins.

But there is one thing about the photo that I would change, even if that wish to change it is futile.

I would stick two fingers right-royally up at the voice hiding behind my forehead that told me I was all wrong, the voice that told me (tells me) I was (that I am) hideous, disgusting, fat, ugly, gross.

I wasn’t. I’m not.

Nobody is.

And none of that stuff matters anyway.

We are all so so so much more than our bodies and our faces, no matter what those bodies or faces happen to look like.

We are all so so so worthy of having our pictures taken and not giving a flying fuck of how we appear in that split second.

So please. If you’re out there and camera shy like me, stick up those metaphorical fingers and tell that voice to piss the fuck off. Smile and grin and laugh and don’t care. Be at peace with the flash. Stare right down the barrel of the lens. Challenge that camera to a duel.

And in the wise, wise words of Moominpappa (I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself):

‘The world is full of great and wonderful things for those who are ready for them.’

Don’t let that voice make you think you aren’t worthy, whether it’s worthy of a photo or worthy of a life well lived.

Be ready.

Because life is alway saying cheeeeeeese.

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*there’s a story behind “pour les poissons” involving a ten euro note, a gust of wind, and a sweet but matter-of-fact elderly French man in Collioure. I promise I’m not just being pretentious à la Fawlty Towers.

Reads – This Is Going To Hurt

Book review of This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay.

I was not expecting to love this book.

I was not expecting it to make me feel angry, and upset, and like I needed to paint a placard and find a protest march.

I was not expecting to laugh and chuckle and wonder at the weirdness of humanity.

But I should have believed the title, because This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay made me feel all of those things.

It’s a brilliant, funny, and poignant insight into his six years as a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology that will make you hurt. It’ll make you hurt with sadness and amusement and fury. And – though maybe this is just because I’m a woman – it’ll make you hurt with horror.

I mean, jeez. Childbirth sounds like an absolute warzone.

All I can really say is: do not read this book if you’re pregnant. Seriously, truly. I genuinely found myself halfway through reading it trying to understand how we’ve survived long enough as a species to invent modern medicine.

If, however, you’re not pregnant, have easy access to placard-making craft materials and a protest march, and want to marvel at the strange ideas people get into their heads (and their… erm, I’m just going to leave that bit blank)?

Well, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Moomin Medicine

Last night, five minutes after turning out the light, I started to cry.

Not a delicate, ethereal, movie-style cry, but a full on ugly and snotty cry that made me feel like all the water in my body was cascading out of my eyes and nose.

The cry started for a lot a lot of reasons – and I came up with more and more reasons as I went along (thank you, brain!) – but somewhere down the melodramatic, tear sodden line I actually managed to have a good idea.

Read the Moomins.

So, in between disgustingly hideous sobs, I hauled myself back out of bed, switched back on the light, and found some Moomin medicine*.

It came in the form of Moominpappa at Sea, and in one chapter I was cured.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson.

First, I laughed.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Moominpappa. “I shall stand guard over it. I’ll stay here all night if necessary.”

“Do you really think,” Moominmamma began. Then she just said, “Yes. That’s very good of you. One never knows what will happen with moss.”

No. One never really does. Moss is tricky like that.

Then I nodded like a congregation at church.

“It can take a terrible long time before things sort themselves out.”

Hallelujah, praise be.

And then I found myself wondering if Tove Jansson had broken directly into my brain.

“…only nice thoughts came into his head, thoughts of islands in the sea, and great changes taking place in all their lives.”

It’s good to cry sometimes. All of us need a good old fashioned tear-fest every now and then. And maybe, seeing as last night was Halloween, I was simply exorcising a few emotional ghosts.

But I was certainly grateful for my Moomin medicine.

*side effects may include: laughing, smiling, marvelling, a warm happy feeling in your heart, and forgetting all your woes.

October Scares: Four

Ghost in the Great War, vintage Daily News book from 1927.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I just thought you should know that it’s almost – very very nearly, so-close-you-could-touch-it – November.

November.

*flings hands into the air disbelievingly*

I don’t know how it happened either.

On the plus side, almost November equals almost Halloween, which equals time for another spooky read.

I found Ghosts in the Great War at a flea market a few years ago and it was love at first sight of the title. It was published in 1927, and is a collection of stories (or, ahem, “thrilling experiences”) sent in to the Daily News by its readers, detailing strange occurrences during the First World War. I did make the mistake on first reading of a). choosing a dark and stormy night to read it on, and b). being all alone in the house. It spooked me a lot more than it really should have. Rereading it threw the hyperbole and melodrama of some of the tales into much more stark light, although there were certainly a few stories that were quite moving and/or disturbing.

There’s a family woken by the sound of chains hauling across the ceilings and floors of their house on the night the Aboukir sank, taking with it their son-in-law. There’s an injured soldier who follows the vision of his wife to safety. And there are countless “goodbye” visits from the fallen.

It’s not the scariest book in the world, but it’s certainly choc-a-bloc full of ghosts and apparitions and things that go bump in the night.

Perfect for almost-November.