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A removal van has just driven away from next door. I watched it move out of sight, around the corner as the post man walked up my drive. New letters to open, bills to pay, worlds to live in. I watched the son-in-law drive away from my neighbour’s house, after he’d let in the house clearance people, then drove off ahead of the van, as his late father-in-law’s furniture was carried away.

I used to know my neighbour’s daughter, way back in the old world, I used to sit around committee tables with her and in the early months, when I couldn’t leave the house, she popped by with bread and milk and calpol and we hugged. We’ve lost touch over the yesrs, I folded into my new world and she became someone I’d occasionally nod to as she visited her father next door.

I used to see him, tall and bent, like an old willow tree, sturdy, despite his age and he would drive slow with care, potter about and do his lawn. He started to build a greenhouse years ago when he first moved here. He was widowed, moved down from Scotland to be nearer his girls. He had a lilting gentle accent and I always thought he could have been an old film star. He had the look of Peter Cushing and eyes that must have sparkled long ago. His greenhouse project came undone with the Parish Council’s restrictions – no permitted development allowed here, so he never finished the job and it remained a carcass in aluminium, un-glazed, silver struts frozen in time.

In the summer, around the time our son prepared for his Prom, some relatives came and took the greenhouse down and while our boy swaggered in his evening suit, amongst his mates and bare shouldered girls with twirled up hair – some family came and painted his fence, painted over the pale blues and greens from old tins that he’d used up. I liked his patch-worked fence, his rainbow of creosote by the hand of a practical man. It’s just uniform brown now, waiting for the new owners to put their stamp on the land.

When I look out of my kitchen window I imagine I still see him, slower in frailty, heading out in his car, repeatedly heading out in a loop in my mind. In the summer, around the time our boy had left school and was holed up on the PC, laughing with his mates on theirs, I noticed his neat grass had become long, left to grow and before I could offer to have it cut for him, his family came to help out. And then more people in cars and his daughters tidied the patio out the back.

Around the time our son got his exam results, a skip turned up next door. As his face filled with pride and relief, when he compared notes with his mates as the summer crept along, my neighbour’s garage was cleared and I dropped a card in through their door.

Our old neighbour bridged the gap between our worlds, he moved in a couple of years after us and I went to see him as he chipped the snow from off his car. I asked him if he needed anything, could we help him out at all?

But he was fine.

‘No thank you, Lassie, I’m just going up to help my girls.’

I told my husband.

‘Oh he’s so grateful for the offer of help!’

He said, ‘is he?’ and I laughed.

‘No! He’s doing much better than we are,’ and he was. He dug himself out of the snow, he helped his daughters, despite his age and was active right up till the end.

I didn’t speak to him much in the new world, I used to imagine he’d see me from his kitchen window as I trudged home, and in his widowed world he’d have a sense of what I was dealing with in mine – but we never spoke about it. I could see it in his eyes though and he could see it in mine.

It’s been that kind of year somehow, so many changes and transitions. And as my neighbour’s family prepare to make the best of Christmas somewhere, when they go through the motions for their kids, I continue with our new traditions here.

I see our boy at the edge of a man, sturdy and strong, growing long college hair because he can. I see him stretching up and out. I am swamped by the Christmases we had, the best ones by the sea, all together with Thomas and masses of track on the floor, the military operation of the dinner and never enough roast potatoes for us all.

I see myself as a teenager unhindered by loss, spending half a day to create the perfect tree and how stressful it was, how the symmetry had to be spot on, how the baubles alternated in colour and size. It was a spectacle. And more than that it was something to control, something to bring order to, a sense of certainty in the world.

I noted myself as a girl, the structure of Christmas, the need to get everything right and I thought of her last weekend when a friend visited us. When we were running late and the tree and decorations were still barricaded in a cupboard, behind a chair and our boy did the heavy work while I checked on the food as he wrestled the tree to the floor. And there in our lounge with twenty minutes to go, he threw the tree into action. It’s our new tradition now and he dresses the tree like a true teenage boy. I stand and laugh and place a few things as he throws baubles at the green plastic hulk in the corner. If the baubles drop down and through, so be it, it doesn’t really matter at all. It’s just a game. Our friend turned up just as the tree settled into the corner. It has a designated ‘front’ sign where all the activity takes place and round the back, well it’s round the back so it’s not important after all. And this year we have a kamikaze polar bear who wasn’t placed but hurled and he lies where he landed, a symbol of a different Christmas now.

I’m less concerned with control now. There’s little I can do and I’m more accepting of that these days. I have control over how I respond to situations and how I spend my time but other than that, the world will do its thing.

We have climbed mountains this year, my boy and I, not literally, but mountains none the less. We are climb weary at year end but respectful of the need to rest and catch our breath.

It’s almost Christmas as I type this, eighteen years from the best Christmas I ever had. And now a different Christmas presents itself again, with my mother just out of hospital, after three months of illness and care, with my father marching on, despite the weariness of weeks by an empty chair. My mother came home last week and as they adjust to their own transitions we’ll take a small Christmas over to them this year.

It’s nearly lunchtime now, the blackbirds are still at the berries on my tree. I do enjoy the bareness of winter, the stripping back to bleakness and despite the thunderous charge of stressed people in shops, the clamouring, the need to consume, there is stillness. It is a time to stop and show gratitude, a time to take stock and breathe out.

And there is much to be grateful for. I breathe in deep as my neighbour’s house sits quiet and empty, waiting for someone else’s story. I focus on gratitude for my mother’s resilience, despite the treatments she has endured, and my father’s determination, despite his tiredness and his frosted window on my world.

And our friends, how grateful I am for the ones who are near, who support and encourage, despite their own trials – and our son. What can I say that I haven’t said before? How he shines out like a Christmas lantern, bright like the fairy glow, casting lightness all around me when it’s dark.

It’s winter, I am a winter baby and I resonate with this season. Time has had its way with me this year and so I am resting before the next phase. It’s almost Christmas as I tap away, the tree is up and I have many presents to wrap.

I’m focussing on now. In gratitude for the things that have past, the things that remain and the unknown adventures ahead.

In many ways – we are thriving.

***

And right now, editing with fifteen minutes to the New Year, we continue, we turn pages and we persevere with joy.

xxx

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The tree outside my window is showing berries now, it’s so proud of its changing form. The leaves have turned; they crumble and slime on the lawn that I haven’t cut and winter’s near. I can hear the neighbour’s daughter outside my window, on her way to playgroup, full of joy. Her high voice filters through the glass and I can see our son sat by a bookcase years ago on a bright duvet cover, surrounded by new friends. His playgroup still ticks and churns near our home, welcoming and nurturing, then letting go of tiny hands as they move onto the next phase.

I saw someone I used to work with, the other day. She hadn’t seen me in years and as I gave her snippets from our life now I could feel myself being scanned, being checked to see what the years had done to me and there, in the hours in-between us, on the bus, we chatted and told each other the little pieces of our life that we wanted to disclose. And after the bus ride we laughed and joked with our son by my side, taller than me now and somehow in the words that passed between us, in the early evening chill I saw myself, leaning up the radiator in the hall at the pre-school where I worked, next to my colleague and we laughed while children played. It would have been a Friday lunchtime in my mind and we’d have talked of our plans for the weekend, before everything was packed away with care, in a community centre cupboard until the Monday. She invited me to go back to the group and have cake and tea with the faces that used to fill my day but I doubt I’ll go. I know where they are, I know that now, just after nine in the morning, as I type this, that they’ll be having a last coffee before they let the little ones through the door and their aprons will be ironed and the toys set out for play but I don’t need to re-immerse myself in the old world, maybe coffee in a café but not there, en mass surrounded by a life I used to live.

And now as people outside leave for work, I am waiting, waiting for a call about a bed. I remember a Saturday in Southampton years ago. In the pine furniture shop and amongst the cupboards and bookcases we found his bed, a dark wooden one for his new room. He found a toy car underneath, separated from the hand of some unseen child, left and lost to them but an exciting find for our younger boy and it served him well. We emptied drawers yesterday and tucked at the back behind bedding and clothes we found old things, boy things, the secret bits you need to keep and some arrows.  He s been watching a new YouTuber, sing Acapella Science, parodies laced with science fact and his favourite, the Arrow of Entropic Time plays around the room as we undo the entropy of years and turn the arrow forward and fire it from the bow. I watch our boy, his mind buzzing with potential as he sets up his music system while I brush up.

Now, waiting for the men to take the bed away, to fill the stairs with their loud feet and the rustle of plastic and boxes and by the time he gets in from his last week of mocks, his room will have changed, like our home changed back then, when men came in, loud in the grey February morning, their fluorescent jackets an insult to my mind and then they left. They left us with a new world but one we hadn’t ordered, one we hadn’t scoured the Internet for, a world that forced itself in around us and took the old us away when they left.

I noticed the calendar recently, how this month, the days and the dates are the same. I don’t count much these days, months come and go, hours play around me but now when Monday is the 14th and Tuesday isn’t far, I go back there. I see our home as it was the week before, with all the old things in their places and our settees as they were. And upstairs, our son’s old bed with him there, sleeping, as the strangers knocked the door.

And I must go. I need to parcel up the old mattress and hoover up once more. It’s nearly time. Today on the 14th as I remember conversations, faces morphing with alien words and I look out of our son’s window, over his music system, to the shedding leaves outside. Our garden coated with old things, crumbled things and trees becoming bare. Winter is close, a silence before the Spring and I am waiting, waiting for the new bed, the changes we have chosen, waiting to fill his room with the next stage and our neighbour comes back.  She’s dropped her little girl at preschool, she’ll be sat on a bright duvet somewhere, scrabbling around amongst bricks. And they build next door, their extension is growing despite the greyness of the cloud and it creeps and it spreads out, a widening of their world as we prepare ours here.

I look out for pigeons, they like the berries on my tree, to land fat and clumsy and the branches wobble under their weight and they eat. They peck and burst the ripeness, it floods their bellies with what they need.

We did well yesterday, we found so many things to look at, to remember and let go and we laughed as we sang to his new favourite songs. And as the pigeon lands on cue outside my window, I see our boy, scrabbling under a pine bed in shop miles and years from here, he comes out with dust stained knees, holding up his find, like a trophy, like a staff to lead the way. And here, now, in the quiet of the house, as he sits at school, head down thinking, studying – he leads the way again.

The heating has gone off; I need a drink.  It’s nearing the end of Autumn and I have a mattress to wrap.

xxx

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