Monday, 17 July 2017

ON THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE ROUTE OF HS2 THROUGH SOUTH YORKSHIRE

Today our north was promised a broken future.

It made the news.

It made us cry.

I see the monster viaduct, the swathes of sweetness, cow parsley and paddock, cut by knives of ringing rails.

HS2 is coming to harm and haunt us.

I am feeling furious for the fields;
for the warren of whirling windfarm blades spinning in breezes on Penny Hill at Ulley;
for Thurcroft and the southern reaches of my Wickersley on her upland plain;
for Broadlands at Bramley;
for Hellaby, Braithwell, Firsby Reservoir;
for Hooton Roberts, where Vaughan Williams played croquet, learned the apple tree's lean on Linden Lea;
for Conisborough, its castled keep and bailey;
for Denaby Main, split by something more sinister than pick and pit;
for the floodplains of my beloved Dearne;
the Shimmer estate in Mexborough, cloven in half and hammered flat;

I am feeling heartbreak for my heartland;
for the souls caught in the soulless march of money;
for those whose homes will be demolished;
for those whose babies must be relocated;
for those whose children will be uprooted from familiar schools for classes across an alienating distance,
leaving friends in mixed up mayhem.

I am grieving
for lost lads and lasses, their amenities, homes, communities gone;
for the disabled, the disadvantaged, the disoriented poor,
facilities snatched away, shattered, scattered,
subjected to demolition, compulsory purchased;

I am up in arms
for people's daily lives razed by arbitrary mandates from on high;
for our farms, our wildlife, our fragile habitats, noble nature,
irreplaceable treasures destroyed on a whim;
for our woods, our blessed places, our countryside,
green fields that will be gone
when HS2 belts blazing through.

It will not stop to nod to us,
nor note our tears,
the absence of bat, newt and bumblebee,
the wandering death of hedgehogs.

Shame on greed.

Shame on the gravy train.




Saturday, 15 July 2017

WELL DRESSED


Someone said you were 
Well dressed.

I tried to see it in you.
I gazed down into your depth,
Your mossy brickwork,
Your echoing hollow of plipping dark.

I hauled up your pail, hand over hand,
Thirsty for a drink.

I made eye contact with myself 
In your lichen circled mirror,
Coins thrown, making wishes.

I whispered a blessing
Over chaplets of daisy and cinquefoil,
Withering woodruff woven
Sticky Willy,
Woundwort.

You had spelled your own name
In stitches of myosotis,
Instead of the local saint's.

Chlorophyll clouds dried
On boards of salt and clay,
Straws strewn on water,

"Don't fall in!"
A dove flustered out of the copse
A startled naiad
I grabbed your rail,
Recovering my balance,
Blinded by your shimmer,
Newly baptised,
Baby fresh
Bathed.



Tuesday, 4 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 4. The one who was a 'bit of a lad' and a bigamist

James Wallace in his army uniform in the 1880s

Last in this series of blogposts about 'all my grandfathers great', concerns my maternal grandma's father. He was James Wallace, a lucky Jim who was known in our family in hushed tones as a 'bit of a lad', the one who was a saw maker, had an extra tooth in his lower jaw and was a bigamist.

Jim was born to a Sheffield cutler, Charles Wallace b 1824 with distant Scottish roots, who became a professional vocalist, travelling round the northern counties singing in the Music Halls, and his second wife, an Irish lass, Mary Ann Bray who had, I believe, come over to the north of England in the wake of the Irish 'Great Hunger', the mass starvation of the 1840s.

Jim used to tell my grandma and her elder daughter Phyllis, my aunt, how he "went round singing on my father's knee." Jim was born in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, while the family were touring there in 1859. A younger brother, Albert, was born in Bradford the following year, and other siblings were born in Sheffield and Leeds. Censuses and certificates show the itinerant family in other venues such as Halifax, a place that would become especially significant later in Jim's life.

Jim was always a restless soul, having grown up on the road, in and out of places of entertainment. I get the impression his boredom threshold was set very low! As soon as he was old enough, after the deaths of his parents, he joined the Army in the Prince of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment and served in India from 1880-1892. He used to tell his own children when they were slouching at the dinner table:

"Sit up straight, because I was in the army in India!"

His army records reveal, among other gems, that he spent a lot of time in the military hospital in India with malaria every hot season and with an injury from being knocked out with a cricket ball. Whether intentionally is not revealed! He also had an extra tooth in his lower jaw, something I inherited from him, or rather I have inherited the space where that tooth should be, which dentists have remarked on, mystified.

On one of his furloughs from the army in 1887, he was back in Sheffield to marry Alice Jane Seagrave, my great grandma, by whom he had a daughter, Annie Lilian, known as Lil or Lily, a son James Victor and another daughter, my maternal gran, Elsie, born the year he left the army. Looking back, it becomes evident that once he'd left the army, life at home with a family was a bit tame for 'bit of a lad' Jim.

In a short space of time, he had moved his family in with a local girl, 13 years younger than Jim, who ran a local Sheffield Dining Rooms on the premises where my grandma was born in 1892. This lass was an invalid for much of her short life, with TB, and must have been glad of the extra rent from Jim. They had a child together just five years after my grandma was born, a boy who was a brother adored by my gran and taken in most willingly by Alice Jane after the early death of his mother.

At this stage, rather than living in the same house as landlady and tenants, they were living next door, and Jim was the informant present at his lover's death. The lad's great grandma insisted , rightly, that Jim take his responsibility to his son seriously, not a hard ask given the lad's adorable personality and the fact he was already very much considered part of the family, then and ever after. The mind boggles at the brazen way Jim went about things, though! Oh, to have been a fly on the wall to hear the polite conversation at the breakfast table once my long-suffering 'wouldn't say boo to a goose' great grandma Alice Jane knew what he had been up to for so long behind her back and under her nose and roof.

Jim did various jobs up to his retirement: tool maker, saw maker (his mother was part of the Davenport saw manufacturing dynasty in Sheffield), bicycle maker, invoice clerk, spade and shovel maker. From his children's school records, it seems Jim was not always around. No surprise there! Ever the wanderer with an eye to the main chance, a charmer who inevitably came up smelling of roses, in 1921, when my gran Elsie was holding her eldest newborn child in her arms, her father was on a flying visit, and said as he left:

"Well, Elsie, I'll see you when I come back!"

"IF you come back..." my grandma said wistfully.

She adored him but knew him too well to fall for his patter. She was right that she would never see him again, that he would never again live with her mum. But nobody could have predicted what would happen next, as Jim reached his mid sixties.

Remember Halifax? That's where Jim's father and mother had married back in 1853 when they were travelling vocalists. In 1924, leaving no traces back in Sheffield, Jim, still married to my great grandmother, was in Halifax in his retirement, claiming to be a widower. There, he married another Alice, bigamously, under the name James Maitland Wallace. He used his uncle Henry's name in place of his father Charles's on the illegal certificate, and claimed to be still in his late 50s!

Nobody knows where he dreamed up the name Maitland. Perhaps drawing on his pride in his distant Scottish roots? It kept me off his trail for many a long year! The only clue I could trace is that the minister who officiated at the wedding of Jim's younger son, my great uncle by the family's landlady, which took place in Sheffield that same year, had Maitland as his surname. Who can tell if it wasn't some bizarre joke on Jim's part? In any case, it kept him one step ahead of the law. Meanwhile, my great grandmother Alice Jane went to live with their eldest daughter, only dying in 1933.

His eldest lass Lil took his secret to her grave, and did her level best to save his skin. She buried her mother in the Seagrave family grave in Sheffield General Cemetery as a "widow". Nobody but close family would be any the wiser till I started digging seventy years later!

James, to his credit, faithfully nursed and cared for his second Alice till her death after a long illness in Halifax. During the Second World War his eldest daughter Lil sent my aunt, her niece Phyllis, to check Jim was safe during the blitz. She was the only person alive who had his secret address. My aunt remembered spending the night in the same bed as Alice Mk II in their tiny terraced house that stank of gas. Goodness knows how Jim explained to poor Alice who this lass was who had turned up out of nowhere claiming to be his granddaughter, from the family he dared not speak about for fear of the long arm of the bigamy law!

Towards the end of WW2, in January 1945, Jim turned up unexpectedly at my grandma Elsie's funeral, his youngest daughter who had died unexpectedly at 52 from heart trouble. My aunt clearly remembered the tears in his eyes. Jim himself had angina from the age of 42, but went on to live to the ripe old age of 92. He spent his twilight years with daughter Lil and her family in Cheshire, not far from where his first and only legal spouse, Alice Jane, had also died twenty years previously.

On his 90th birthday, my uncles arranged to fulfil their errant grandfather's ambition of going in an aeroplane at Manchester Ringwood Airport. Irresistible to the end, he always got his way!

Oh what a tangled web we weave, and all that. But those tangled webs are the stuff family history is made of. We genealogical armchair detectives wouldn't have it any other way. Those weavings are the very substance of who we are and where we have come from, what binds us together with so many fascinating silken threads of memory and mitochondria.

Great grandfather Jim in old age, dapper to the end

Monday, 3 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 3. The one who was an inventor and went bankrupt

My Great Grandfather, Charles the cabinet maker
The third of my great grandfathers is on my maternal side, my mum's dad's dad.

Charles Mamwell was the eighth of nine children born to Christopher, a cottager (farmer) in the tiny village of Grainthorpe, a couple of miles inland from the bleak coast of Lincolnshire and Mary Townend, a lass from the neighbouring village of Marshchapel. The year was 1839 and the new Queen Victoria had been on the English throne for two years.

Charles's ancestors had lived in Lincolnshire, farmers, builders, fishermen since at least the 1590s. He was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and to better his employment prospects, moved north to the steel city of Sheffield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1860s.

There Charles met and married Elizabeth Oldfield, niece of Sheffield philanthropist and businessman James Howarth, an Edge and Joiner's Tool Manufacturer, her mother's elder brother who had founded the firm Howarth and Sons. Charles must have felt at the top of his game, with premises on Fitzwilliam Street and later a shop on Queen's Road at Heeley.

One of his nephews, his brother William's lad from Grainthorpe, came to Sheffield to learn the cabinet making craft from Charles as his apprentice at the beginning of the 1870s. However, this nephew, William, never became a rival cabinet maker in the city. Instead he wandered the country doing various carpentry jobs, before ending up in Blackpool, on South Beach, where he set himself up as a phrenologist with the tag-line: "Prof W. Manwell (sic); private sessions 1s/6d". Bump-feeling was a popular pseudo-science at the time.

Back in Sheffield, Charles and Elizabeth had three daughters: the eldest a skillful left-handed hosier and draper called Helen and her younger sisters Alice, a midwife and Ada, a cook. Another child, a son called Charles Arthur Oldfield Mamwell died in infancy of convulsions. Charles travelled back to  visit his folks in his native Grainthorpe regularly, and his younger children were baptised in the Parish Church of St Clement's there in the village.

Helen was born with a facial birthmark which, by the estimation of those times, disfigured her. Wanting the best for Helen, Charles paid for treatment from what we might call a 'quack' doctor, which must have cost him very dearly. Not long afterwards, he declared bankruptcy. The sad saga of his creditors and debts I discovered in the pages of the Sheffield newspapers, in stark contrast to the joyful announcements of his marriage to Elizabeth only a few years before.

This 'treatment' left Helen so damaged that she was compelled to wear a veil over the affected side of her face for the rest of her short life. Gradually, her face was eaten away as the mole grew cancerous and she eventually died at the age of 47, after many years of stoical suffering while carrying on her drapery business at a shop in Broomhall, of carcinoma of the larynx. Charles did not survive to see the final years of Helen' life, perhaps mercifully, as he never forgave himself for his well-intentioned intervention.

Two years after the death of their infant son, Charles' first wife Elizabeth also died at the age of 35. You can trace the course of Charles' grief by looking at his writing in the family Bible, where he recorded all the births, deaths and marriages of his family in the middle pages under tissue paper inserts. In the days before Elizabeth died, his looping copperplate script is a thing of beauty. Later, the letters crowd and sag, reflecting his grief and despondency as his life spiralled down from those first hopes and dreams.

Alongside his cabinet making, Charles was an inventor. He invented a hinge for a school desk. It never rains but it pours. When he showed his design to a man who promised he would take it to patent it for Charles, this same charlatan stole the design and passed it off as his own. I inherited the article in a newspaper cut out and saved by my great grandfather, praising this other man for "his" ingenious invention. One more nail in the coffin of Charles's high hopes of success and security for himself and his family. I also have his prototype model of the hinge, still in the original buff envelope in which he kept it ready to make his family's fortune, and an oak chest with his business plate lovingly hammered into the dovetailed wooden joinery.

Elizabeth Thompson Mamwell, b 1848, my great grandma and Charles' second wife


Charles hired another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Thompson, a cobbler's daughter, to help look after his young girls when he was widowed. My great grandmother was a sunny, capable, humorous lass, and they fell in love and married the following year. They went on to have another two daughters and, finally, a surviving son, my maternal grandfather, Chris, born in Tipton Street, Wincobank in 1889.

They moved further out into the Sheffield suburbs, to Chesterfield Road, Norton Within, where, at the age of 63, Charles died of apoplexy, a broken man. He is buried with Helen and my great grandma in the cemetery at Norton Lees, overlooking the gorgeous Peak District that was the backdrop to his hopes and his hardships.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 2. The one who spelled his name wrongly and whose bones went to chalk


The second tale of my grandfathers great kicks off a little further south, in the Erewash Valley in the English Midlands, on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Last blog, you met my ancestor Thomas Barrass. My other paternal Great Grandfather was James Ellis, born in Awsworth in Nottinghamshire in 1874, the eldest boy in a family of eight siblings in a mining family in a mining community.

I have no photos of James, but I'm told he was tall and spare, and according to my dad's cousin, I am the spitting image of him, which I take as more of a compliment than she perhaps meant it to be!

The nearest I can come to knowing what he looked like, short of looking in the mirror and cutting my hair in a short back and sides from the start of the last century, are these photos of James's younger brother William Henry, whose lovely granddaughter I went to school with, still my dear friend, who lent me this picture:

William Henry Ellis, my great granduncle b 1884 in WW1
James's surname, "Ellis" was wrongly written as "Ellies" on his parents' wedding certificate, and on James's own birth certificate. His siblings had no scruples about shruggling off this error, but it seems James was more wary. On the 1911 census, when James was sharing a house with his younger brother William's family, William fills in his bit of the return as "Ellis" but no! Great Granddad James dutifully writes "Ellies". He doesn't want the men from the ministry making trouble, now, does he?

James worked as a miner down the pits of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield and married a local lass, from nearby Ilkeston, Mary Ann 'Big Polly' Stenson. The Stensons had given their name to Stenson's Lock on the Erewash Canal, as many of Polly's ancestors had worked on the canal as wharfingers and lock keepers. They had two children, my paternal grandma Mary Elizabeth 'Little Polly' and her younger brother Lambert. Sadly, Lambert died of tubercular meningitis and exhaustion when he was just six years old. James was present at the death in Nottingham General Hospital. There were no more children, and I grew up imagining my grandma was an only child, like me.

When the Barnsley coal seam was discovered in the later years of the nineteenth century, new pits began opening on the South Yorkshire coalfield. Some of James's family, including some of his brothers and inlaws, moved north to work in these new areas.  James and his two Pollys, big and little, left the scene of the loss of their beloved Lambert and settled close to where his relatives were already telling stories of Yorkshire hospitality, in the village of Goldthorpe, nestled in South Yorkshire's Dearne Valley.

James worked as a dataller (a worker hired or paid by the day) at Hickleton Main colliery until crippling rheumatoid arthritis confined him to a water bed upstairs in their cramped terraced house. He never left that bed again. As my gran always told me:

"His bones went to chalk" 

which I learned as a fact till his death certificate told me the full truth many years later. Cerebral hemorrhage, arteriosclerosis and his long-term rheumatoid arthritis ended James' life at just 56 years old.

He is buried in Bolton-on-Dearne cemetery with his Polly and close to other members of the family. From the Erewash Valley to the Dearne Valley. My grandma was always proud of her Ilkeston roots, and so am I. Going back there once I had unravelled the history was one of the most moving of my genealogical adventures. I can't explain how much it felt like home from home.

One bonus discovery I made along the journey to discover my great grandfather's story: James's elder sister Charlotte was aunt by marriage to the successful and popular Ilkeston-born jockey, Elijah 'The Whippet' Wheatley, who won the 1913 St Leger on Night Hawk, and married famous music hall star Marie Lloyd's sister Maud. We genealogists have to grab our claims to fame with both hands, whenever we find them, you know!

Mary Elizabeth "Little Polly" Barrass, nee Ellis, my paternal grandmother, only surviving child of James Ellis and Mary Ann "Big Polly" Stenson Ellis 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

ALL MY GRANDFATHERS GREAT: 1. The one who worked with horses, dreamed of sheep and kept secrets

Yours truly at Huggin Carr, Hatfield Woodhouse near Doncaster in 2003, where my great grandfather Thomas Barrass worked as a farm lad in 1871 aged 14


Family history is so giddily glorious! (At least, it is to those of us who have ever been bitten by the genealogy bug!)

Years of trawling round gusty graveyards, scrutinising old photos, traipsing round records offices, perusing births, marriages, deaths, going cross-eyed over newspaper cuttings, chasing up family rumours, and I feel like I know many of my kin from a bygone age.

Can't text them. Can't email them. Can't Skype them.

But I feel like I know many of my ancestors better than I know some of my living friends and family! They run through my dreams. They inhabit my heart. They echo through my writing.

My four great grandfathers are right up there, jostling for attention, to be known and named and nattered about, long after they died in the days before I was born. Like the best of friends, I'd like to introduce them to you. Grab a cuppa - incoming series of four!

First there's Thomas, the one who worked on farms with horses and narrowly avoided causing me to be a Bottom. Thomas Barrass was a man of many secrets.

I have no photos of Thomas. No photographs of my dad's side of the ancestors survived the bonfires kindled by one over-zealous married-in relation who decided, after my grandfather's death, that tidy drawers and clean breaks were preferable to pictures of your husband's unknown Victorian ancestors grinning back at you in sepia.

The family rarely spoke about Thomas. He was born in 1857, in a run-down area of Hull near the docks called Chaffer's Alley, long since swept away by slum reforms. This was where his mother Charlotte's ancestors had been mariners and keelmen, shuttling between the port and the canals and waterways they called home for generations.

Thomas was born under a double shadow. No father was named on his birth certificate. The shame that went with that in the past is hard for us to grasp today. Only a year earlier, his mother had been in the farmhouse when her grandmother, a Yorkshire farmer's wife and daughter of a seafaring man, slit her own throat with a penknife while suffering from 'melancholy' on a cold winter night while lying in bed next to her husband of half a century. That tragedy split and scattered Thomas's family.

His mother hastily married a kind man who seems more than likely to have been Thomas's father, a yeast and bacon dealer, a cordwainer's son from a tiny village near Doncaster, as soon as she was free from the responsibility of caring for her devastated grandfather, after whom Thomas was named. They married at Thorne Register Office in October 1861, a matter of weeks after Charlotte's grandfather passed away. Had the marriage taken place a few years earlier, Thomas's descendants, myself included, would not have inherited his mother's surname, Barrass, but that of his putative father, Bottom. I'm truly thankful for small mercies!

When he was just seven, Thomas's mum died from galloping tuberculosis just before her thirtieth birthday. Little Thomas was like the cuckoo in the nest when his widowed father wed again, going on to have many more children who bore his own blushfully preposterous surname. (Sorry, Bottoms up!)

Thomas worked as a young lad on local farms. He had a special affinity for horses. He had less affinity for writing, as his childlike spidery signature in the marriage register shows. He made up a name for his father (his own name) and put 'tailor' as his father's profession, grasping at the idea, perhaps, because his mother was a seamstress and dressmaker.

He soon felt the wanderlust that ran in his veins, but instead of sailcloth and tide, he followed the call of the earth from his great grandfather's farming blood. Thomas moved away from the flat farmland around Doncaster to the hills and valleys near Barnsley, first to Bolton-on-Dearne, where he married a lass whose relatives were, in contrast to Thomas, chatty, jokey, confident, open.

Thomas and Eliza had ten children, including twins and my paternal granddad. How they all subsisted in a tiny tied farm cottage at the bizarrely-named 'Rockley Bottom' near what is now Worsborough Country Park, is an enduring mystery. In fact, Eliza didn't survive for long. At forty-seven, after another short move to Upper Hoyland, cerebral meningitis snatched her from Thomas's side. This new blow left him struggling to bring up his large family alone. The eldest girl, Blanche, became a mother figure to her younger siblings.

Luke and John (Jack), twin sons of Thomas b 1893


Newly bereaved, Thomas decided, along with many other Yorkshiremen of the day, to seek his fortune at the other side of the world. The Patagonian sheep farming boom was still a draw for struggling agricultural labourers of the Old World. Thomas is listed in the ship's manifest as "Thos Barries", shepherd, travelling steerage to Punta Arenas (as his son Joseph told his own son Joe) on 27th September 1906 from Liverpool on the "Oriana" with many other farmers and shepherds. Eliza had died in April the year before.

It seems an unlikely move for an unambitious soul like Thomas, but life had already thrown all it could to scupper his happiness - suicide, illegitimacy, rejection, widowhood, poverty. He had very little left to lose. So he sailed to Chile's Punta Arenas, bound for Argentina in the early years of the new century to seek his fortune on the sheep farms, opportunities offered as an incentive to emigrate in the local newspapers at the time. But he soon returned to South Yorkshire. The best of the boom was long past. It wasn't the first boat Thomas had missed.

In his declining years, Thomas seems to have been a regular guest at the seasonal celebrations of his children's families, particularly his twin sons' families in Ackworth, a taciturn ghost at the feast, giving little away, of words or goods.

I learned from a cousin of my dad's, one of the twins' children, how Thomas was a man of very few words. No wonder. He had so many secrets to keep, not least suicide and bastardy, which in those days attracted discrimination and judgment from society.

His wife Eliza's family, the Wrights, used to tease Thomas, get him drunk, mock him, emphasising his otherness in their eyes. Dad's cousin, a child in the 1920s, remembers Thomas jingling half a crown in his pocket for ages, a coin his grandchildren thought he was going to give them as a treat before he left for his own cottage. As he left, having eaten and lodged for free over Christmas, he would grudgingly give them just a few pennies instead. They saw only a miserly freeloading old man. As a more distant descendant with the fuller picture laid out in the branches of my family tree, I have the luxury of judging him less harshly.

By 1911, Thomas was living with his son, my granddad, in Goldthorpe, in retirement from his labouring, but he did not stay in one place for long. He moved to his last home on Longfields Crescent in Hoyland, near to where his youngest child, Grace, lived with her husband and children in a caravan, not far from where Eliza had died. Perhaps our love of compact living spaces, be it caravan, cottage or cabin, stems from Thomas's roots living aboard the Humber keels that were home to many generations of the Barrass family. His ancestors founded the keel community that grew up around Stainforth on his Barrass side, and were Thorne mariners on his Pattrick side. Blood and water - canal water, that is - are equally thick in our family!

Thomas died in the building used as the Barnsley Workhouse on Gawber Road, that later became St Helen's Hospital, now part of Barnsley District General Hospital. It was the summer of 1928, and Thomas was 71, suffering from the cardiovascular troubles common in his side of the family. His cause of death was given as valvular disease of the heart.

Many years ago, as I began to dig into our family history, I discovered how deeply hidden Thomas's roots lay. When I asked him the routine starter question about his grandparents' names, my father could only say, frowning in puzzlement,

"I have an idea they were William and Mary..."

That's all Thomas was for many years. Eliza too. Forgotten. Misunderstood. Question marks in the dim distance of time. The ancestors before them, too, were obscured by fogged opaque glass. Tragedy had sent them scuttling for cover, for anonymity, even to their own.

That's why I think telling our ancestors' stories is so healing and so important.

One great grandfather down.

Three to go.

Join me here on 'Pinwheels and Rainbows' tomorrow for the next.

Exploring my waterways roots on the West Cut Bank in Stainforth, near Doncaster, where Thomas's mother Charlotte and generations before and after her were born around the Stainforth & Keadby Canal











Wednesday, 28 June 2017

WRITING DOUBLE DARE


"Write what you know!"

Writing advice we've all heard.

But what if you don't really know what you think you know? You know?

Here's an idea.

Write what you dare!
Write what you dare to imagine!

If we never dare to write while clinging by our sweaty fingertips to the edge of what we might never be sure of, stomach churning, naked to possibility, how will we really know anything, anyway?

Living's a risky venture. Writing sometimes has to kick away the stabilisers, if we want to grow, exhilarated and incorrigible, into the writers we were born to be.

Write what excites you, challenges you, expands you, pushes you to your limits.

I double dare you!


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A BLACKBIRD IN THE HAND



One of the male Blackbirds (Turdus merula) regularly hops inside the conservatory to check I haven't dropped any mealworms on the carpet. I usually have and he knows this. Sometimes he even leaves me a little "present" as a thankyou!

This week he got a bit more adventurous. Once inside, while I was in the kitchen with the door closed between us, he became so entranced by the view of the outside from inside, he forgot how to get back to ordinary life through the wide open back door.



After capturing his extraordinary adventure on camera, I managed to calm him down after his sporadic attempts to fly back through the picture windows to the garden beyond. I gently wrapped him in a handy pillowcase to stop him flapping his wings or panicking and carried him out to his more familiar place on the patio. He flew off gratefully.

He'll be dining out on that story for years! The other Blackbirds will be so envious!



Later that day, I was outside dead-heading the chives when I noticed there was only one Blackbird bold enough to come close to me to eat the mealworms I always scatter for my garden friends.

Guess who? I think he's read the memo that there are some humans who only want the very best for you and that some glass cages have invisible hidden keys and featherless janitors who set you free to feel again the sunshine on your wings.



Monday, 26 June 2017

MOTHING MOTTEPHOBIC

Small Dusty Wave (Idaea seriata)

Mottephobia: the irrational fear of moths.

My phobia of moths goes way back, to this childhood incident.

Now I'm working on overcoming my mottephobia through my camera lens. Through curiosity. Through my stubborn determination  to refuse to be deprived of moths in my life forever more.

This summer, I'm even starting to do mothy things with sheets, torches, sugaring and wine ropes I never ever dreamed I could steel myself to do. Even opening a window with the lights on in the evening has been a no-no for most of my life!

The following poem squeezed its way out on such an evening of lying in wait for the whisper of wings.

Female Bee Moth (Aphomia sociella)


Let's sit suspended in this burning dark
Moths mutter and barge in watch-spring arc
Kidnapped wings
From nectareous things
Sheets running rivers of fluttering light
Retina flexes to flatten night.

Still heart-deep primal phobia
Shrieks headless panic under buddleia
I tense transfixed, pinned corpse on card
In the melting dusk of my own backyard
They blunder through gaps 
Between stratus and star
To the flames of our fears 
To wherever we are.

White-shouldered House Moth (Endrosis sarcitrella)





Tuesday, 20 June 2017

HEDGEHOGS AT DUSK



It's been a long time.

It's been many summers. Too many summer nights snufflefree and still.

But they're back! First an oval of shadow on the lawn. Then a shuffle, a ripple of spikiness along the flower borders.

I know they are a pair. One night at the start of the current heatwave, I met the first one on the lawn where it had crept close to observe me as I leaned, steadying my camera against a tree trunk, trying to capture Jupiter's string of moons in the southwestern sky. The other was waiting for me on the patio, smaller, with mischievous eyes. The second one was less interested in a peculiar human stargazing, more in gazing at the goodies the departing birds had left unpecked for the creatures of the night.



Hedgehog numbers are declining on these islands. They are now a rare sight in British gardens. Fewer than a million remain, down from nearer thirty million when I was born at the dawn of the Sixties. A third of that catastrophic loss has been just in this past decade. These little souls are survivors of this long slow bereavement of the English countryside. I feel unutterably blessed.

Once the birds have flown off and the heat of the day has decanted itself down the thermometer into the soft melt of dusk, I wait to lionise them with dried mealworms, crushed sunflower hearts and peanuts. I top up the bird and bee baths as the sun dissolves into pastel glad-rags of coral and titian on the western horizon. Someone else has need of the nocturnal libation.

I wait. I wait, holding my breath to catch the rustle of their coming. Footfalls across the lawns, threading through hedges, triggering security lights, trembling the dreaming heads of daisies.



Then they're here! Noses badged with leaf litter, eyes more accustomed than my own to the gloaming. Above us, bats skip and soar under the trees and out into the crepuscular backcloth of cloudless sky, tiny Pipistrelles skittering through twilight. Their nationwide numbers too are in steep decline. The hedgepiggies and I, below, must celebrate and survive today and hope for tomorrow.

Before my head hits the fridge-cooled pillowcase, they have melted back into the sweltering South Yorkshire nightfall, making unspoken promises to lighten my life again tomorrow night, and the next, promises I hope against hope they will be cherished enough by humankind to be able to keep.



Monday, 19 June 2017

ANTIDOTE TO THE TOXIC TIDE

Another outrage.

Another day when love has to be stronger and more creative, wiser and more resilient to show that hate can't win.

Another day when indifference and silence is a mask for complicity, smugness, cynicism.

Today my heart breaks for those families and friends in our country, fellow human beings, innocent citizens who were murderously attacked in the midst of life, terrorised in their community, by blind hatred outside their mosque in Finsbury Park.

I stand with my friends, beloved Muslims with whom I mourn at this latest horror.

I know and love people of every kind, friends rejoicing in a rainbow of colours, beliefs, persuasions, personalities, gifts and orientations. I hold them all precious. Friends of endlessly rich variety, each worth the world to many and to me.

I wish all my beautiful friends the strength to hold on to your unique loveliness.

Those who try to divide us in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways will never win.

Love, respect, empathy and compassion are our best antidote to the toxic tide of hatred that seeks to rip our hope, humanity and peace away.

Blessings.


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

THOSE TOMORROWS - in memory of Manchester


You can't unsay one word you've sown
You can't call back the shade you've thrown
Unfling one fragment of shrapnel flown

Can never recoil from the hatred snarled
Or bask in a bubble in a broken world

You can't backpedal once the tree is split
Unspill the milk when you curdle it

You can't retract and you can't retrace
The spiral down from this burning place.

The coward whimpers.

But courage cries:

My broken won't weaken to bitterness
My shattered won't melt into caring less
My outrage won't turn me to hate or hit
This awful day
I will live through it.
I will not be changed by revenge or rage
Nor fold my arms nor turn the page
I won't be diminished by fear or dread
Betray the innocence of the dead.

I will make those tomorrows they can't now see
As full of true love as they'd want them to be.



Link to Fundraiser to support families of those killed and injured in the Manchester Arena attack





Monday, 22 May 2017

YOU CAN RING MY BELL, or THE DOORBELL THAT DOESN'T

I love my doorbell.

You see, most visitors refuse to take this notice seriously:



Campaigners. Odd jobbers. Chancers. Passers-by.
Maybe some don't notice my notice.
Maybe some can't read.
Maybe some don't care.
Maybe some think "Me? I'm harmless! This can't apply to ME!"

So they march up and hammer at my door anyway.
If I'm lucky, they ring my bell, too.

It isn't so much a doorbell. It's more of a dumb-bell.

Its buzzer button is next to the side gate that leads into the back garden.


There's a narrow rectangular peephole in this gate that looks mysteriously like a letterbox. If somebody comes to the gate, they can peer through it and scry into the easternmost reaches of the conservatory. If I flatten myself against the back wall, just where the old back door now acts as a portal between original house and newer conservatory, I'm invisible to doorstep invaders. Saves the bother of a foil hat and dark glasses!

My doorbell isn't connected up to its voicebox any more.

Parts of its innards lie tucked away inside the little back utility room. In there, its ancient workings live above the washing machine, which disgorges fluffy water down its pipes and hoses through the wall into the drain that still dreams it's outside the back door. But that drain's actually inside the conservatory now. So when it pumps out its rinse-water, scented with camomile and jasmine, it fills the glass palace of morning light full of its sweetness.

The doorbell's jangly bits above the washer are in a little soundbox near what used to be a little window looking out onto the garden. These days if you want to see the garden from the utility room, you have to look through the conservatory first.



My doorbell, like me, isn't fit to function fully any more.
Charmingly, it continues to *look* like it does.

When I first moved in, I planned to repair it. Get some wire. Buy a battery. The usual technical stuff.

But I never had the heart for it.

Friends, after all, have twigged the basics of chronic illness after all these years. Real friends invariably check with me first, to make sure I'm prepared and well enough for a visit in person. In person can be exhausting and excruciating when you've got M.E. Friends know my health limits. They understand the energy it costs me to talk, make cuppas, have a slice of chocolate cake ready for sampling, bat words back and forth, laugh, enjoy a friend to the full. They know how drained and sick it may leave me later once they've left. They'll text or email first, to be sure I'm up to it, even for a short time. Because they care. They don't bang on the door at random times or ring the bell.

They know it doesn't, anyway. Ring, that is.

Quite simply, that's a little slice of heaven on this earth.

I sometimes open the door, on a good day when I'm able, when the postie knocks, or the meter reader, or the delivery courier, only to find them not standing outside the door, but further along the house wall, trying to look over the gate where they've just pressed the button. I frighten the shivering shenanigans out of them by appearing from behind them when they were just convincing themselves nobody was at home.

So, I love my doorbell.

Precisely because it doesn't do what's expected of it.

It takes the world by surprise.

But, thankfully, not me!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

I'D RATHER BE CALLED UNCOUTH THAN COUTH


I'D RATHER BE CALLED UNCOUTH THAN COUTH.
COUTH'S PERCHED ON A PEDESTAL VOID OF TRUTH.
MUCH RATHER BE SCORNED FOR MY LIBTARD HEART
THAN BE SNEERING SUPERIOR SET APART.
I'D RATHER STILL THINK AND CARE AND FEEL
THAN TICK ALL THE BOXES, THE LIQUIDISED MEAL,
TOP TABLE, TOP DOLLAR, MEAN NOTHING TO ME.
SPEECH NEEDS TO BE KIND IF IT'S MEANT TO BE FREE!
IN AN AGE CRAMMED WITH ISMS, A CATALOGUE
OF OPINIONS NICKED FROM A NODDING DOG,
DUMBED-DOWN, PSEUDO-'NORMAL', TABLOID AND TOFF,
IT'S TIME WE WERE FLINGING THOSE BLINKERS OFF!
WHEN JUDGING AND HATING END UP AT THE PROW,
IF YOU CATCH ME SEAL-CLAPPING, PLEASE - SHOOT ME NOW!


Monday, 15 May 2017

RACE TO THE RAINBOW BRIDGE (Flash Fiction)

No idea how I made it here. Without my shoes! Last thing I remember is the vet's voice:

"I'm sorry. We did all we could."

Here's his lead. In my pocket. I fly that dog like a kite. He weaves in and out the bollards and lampposts like French knitting.

I know it's here somewhere in the wood. Our wood. Mine and my lad's. Between the Horse Chestnut and the beck. Between the dell and the darkness. The Rainbow Bridge.

I'm scuffing leaf litter from my paws. Everything's gathering on my soles as I run. Seeds, dead things, lichen, carapaces. Did I say paws?

If I can make it there before he comes, bounding, baying, I will throw myself in his path, block him and baffle him from crossing. He'll mop my tears with his loppy tongue. He knows me better than my shadow. Better the shadow than the space.

I'm limping, now. Thorns and nettles. It must be here. Has to be! What if he's there already? Now I'm sliding down scarps, colliding with hazel and bramble. Ricochet echo off the wind turbines. Scent of oilseed chasing us across the folded fields. That copse where the cuckoo surprised us.

My feet, finding themselves in my shoes again. The carpet with the corporate logo under me. Worming powders and pet insurance.
"He was lucky to find his forever home with you."
I was the lucky one.

Staggering, now, not haring down all our dreams. Our old walk feels wrong. Tilted, somehow.  Leads were never meant to be so slack. Collars so empty.

How can I ever go home without him?

Friday, 12 May 2017

#MILLIONSMISSING FROM THEIR LIVES WITH M.E (M.E. AWARENESS DAY 2017)


In the middle of living my happy, busy, joyful life, a monster called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis came and ate me whole.

The M.E. monster stole my work, my home, my income, my social life, my health, my independence, my spontaneity, my possibilities and a big chunk of my future.

I spent years blogging about it here:- M.E. Myself & I Ask You (Joyce's other blog about living with M.E. and Type 1 Diabetes) if you want to know more about my journey.

Today is M.E. Awareness Day worldwide.

Today, millions of people with this devastating, life-changing disease, are uniting under the #MILLIONSMISSING  banner to raise awareness of M.E. To fight the willful misunderstanding, underfunding and neglect patients have suffered for decades, from the medical establishment, the media and government.

For years I pushed through, blaming all my pain, bone-crushing exhaustion, vulnerability to infections, heart arrhythmia, unsteadiness, sickness and cognitive dysfunction on my diabetes. But it wasn't just the Type 1. Autoimmune illnesses love to flock together. M.E. had decided to join the party too, to move into my central nervous system, my immune system, my brain stem, my whole body.

One of my social media posts for M.E. Awareness Day 2015

Nobody knows how all this started. One day, we will. I had M.E. symptoms back as long ago as my teenage years, with periods of boom when I felt fine, and bust, when I was totally unable to function for months on end.

It worsened in my 30s when I was working in South America and contracted giardia, a common M.E. trigger. It worsened every time I crashed and tried to struggle back to work and life. I had severe shingles in my head (not "all in my head") 4 times in 8 years as my body struggled to cope with the onslaught of being attacked mercilessly from within.

Then, in October 2005 I collapsed in the week I had the flu jab. Sometimes over the years, the flu jab has made me very ill, other years, less so - a vaccine lottery, for me! That year, whatever the trigger, from that moment, on a Sunday morning before work, life as I knew it was over, in spite of my best efforts to continue as before. My body, my brain, the me with M.E., would no longer co-operate and in 2007 I had no option but to accept early ill-health retirement and put my life into limbo.



All my GP and the NHS could offer was a dose of CBT & GET (from the now resoundingly discredited PACE trial) which made me and so many others worse. In the end, the occupational therapist forced to administer this torture at one of the government's so-called "Fatigue Clinics," knowing I knew as much as she did about CBT and much more about coping with chronic illness long-term, looked at me and said apologetically: "You really *ARE* ill, aren't you?"



Ten years later, here I am. To put a positive spin on it, I have been worse than I am now, both bedbound and housebound. Even now, though I can occasionally get out into the local countryside or a hospital appointment, this often leaves me so drained and poorly, (with the classic M.E. post-exertional exhaustion) that it takes me days, weeks, or months to recover.

On a better day, I can fill my life with joys, subtly different from, but just as valuable to me as what I treasured before.

Writing.

Researching.

Photography.

Reading.

Dog-sitting.

Birdwatching.

I am one of the blessed. Others become bedbound and never see the light of day again. Children. Men. Women. Just as I was often convinced I would not. Without the support of a loved one, my dear mum, there's no question. I wouldn't still be here. Too many are not.

Today I give a huge shout-out to all my fellow #millionsmissing all over the world. Those and their carers strong enough to join physical demonstrations to raise awareness, hope, understanding, funds (including the excellent biomedical research championed by INVEST IN M.E.), resources, research and, one day, a cure. A shout-out too, to all those who can't be there with their broken bodies, but who, like me, stand shoulder to shoulder in spirit with the rest from our homes and our beds.

The monster can't keep us down. It tries its hardest, though, every day, in somebody's bedroom, darkened, unseen, mocked, forgotten.

There are #millionsmissing - but finally the lost are finding a voice.








Wednesday, 10 May 2017

HAPPY WINGS: A HOUSE SPARROW'S TAKE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

You wake up. You feel great. Your feathers feel lush. Your beak's full of tasty.
Sunshiny! You feel all sunshiny!
You've got your happy wings on!
Your family's chattering inside the hedge.
You enjoy trips out to the feeders.
Those sunflower hearts, though!
Gourmet mealworms!

Aren't we blessed? The right to flutter! Freedom to soar!

Have you seen our eggs? Some have already cracked. Disaster, I thought! But you should see what came out! Fluffy, funny, downy darling nestlings! We did that! Aren't we clever? And lucky! And special! And unique!

Can't be doing with social media, fakery, trolls.
They try to crush your happy wings. You don't feel so great, so special, so blessed any more. It brings you down off your happy perch.
They say you're wrong, you're stupid, you're the wrong shape, born in the wrong nest, hang with wrong flock, fly with the wrong partner. The world's ending, the elite's still eliting. Your spirit sinks down into the tips of your claws.
Social seedier's better.

So I had a little preen under my wing.

Having a little preen under my wing

Then I looked in a puddle. Had a drink. Saw I was still wonderful me. Me with ripples.
The real world. My world. No malevolent meta-meddling here. Here the sun shines. The rain rains. The wind whoofles through your plumage. Always a song to sing. A chippy chirp to cheep. Or you can be quiet. Let all the other birds be birdy-licious in their own ways. Like a noisy dawn chorus of diversity and joy. Every colour of every rainbow. And some you can't see but feel in your feathers.

You have to keep an eye out for the birds of prey, but back home in their nest, they're just like me with a family to feed. Not an axe to grind. So I don't take it personally.

My happy wings are perfect for me. They don't fit anybody else.

Spring is busy being beautiful.
And so am I.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

HERE BE NO DRAGONS

Here be no dragons
Though stiffened necks nod
Over greenbelt and wildwood

No breathing integrity 
Of flame and tongue
Here be duplicity

Wolfing up landscape
Flogged to the fattest
Fracking our green

Blindfold off the cliff
St George with his breastplate gone
Bare to the drill

Monday, 8 May 2017

LOST PROPERTY (Humour/autobiographical)

(Image courtesy of Clipartfest)

Now I'm kept on a short leash by chronic neurological illness, it's easy to romanticise how I used to be a giddy gadabout.

Freedom to
- go on open-ended adventures,
- cycle down hills,
- wander around graveyards scanning masons' chiselled lettering on memorial stones for names of my ancestors,
- go on a summer jaunt to the coast or the capital,
- take a trip to the countryside, a museum, a gallery, a shop full of clocks and mysterious antique curiosities, a West End show, a Wednesday match, a weekend under the stars.

I can't pretend that's freedom I don't miss, even now. I can't just shrug and settle for memories.

Lots of these adventures used to begin at Sheffield Midland Station.

Two occasions spring to mind that have my rosy recollections face-planting with a down-to-earth kind of thud. There were, in reality, times when I wasn't really safe to be let loose on the world!

One of those times, I was in a queue in the main ticket hall at the station. I was juggling my purse, my luggage, a cellphone the size of Scafell Pike, shuffling forwards behind a snake of fellow commuters doing a slouching conga towards the ticket window. Nothing to see here? In fact, I was soon seeing a whole lot less than usual!

Somehow, under the harsh fluorescent strip lighting glaring from the ceiling, my contact lens parted company with my right eye, which was, at the time, attempting to protect itself from the ferocious flicker offensive by pouring out more tears than when Scott and Charlene got married on 'Neighbours' the week before.

I looked down at my chest. I felt gingerly down my front for the prodigal optic. Nothing. I blinked. I squinted. Nothing. At my feet, a sizeable rectangle of jute carpeting at the entrance to the ticket area. I dropped to my knees, feeling about for the recalcitrant lens, narrowly avoiding having my fingers trampled by travel-focused Dr Martens and kitten heels.

I never did find that lens. I wondered for years whether a passenger breaking their journey from Edinburgh Waverley to London St Pancras might some day see a flash of convex glass winking up at them from the Network Rail logo on the matting and wonder who once lost it there.
That would be me.

The second occasion of note at Sheffield Midland was during my days as an undergraduate, shuttling between my parents' home in South Yorkshire and the breezy platform at Leicester, the city where I studied English Lit. Most trains would pass through Nottingham, pulling into the station platform forwards before reversing out as if heading back in the direction from which we had already come. That in itself caused me several heart-stop moments in my greener days.

More than once I'd register the unnerving reversal of direction and leap from my seat to button-hole a passing guard, stammering my fears along the lines of the old Music Hall song 'Oh Mister Porter'; "I want to go to Birmingham and they're taking me to Crewe!" Or, as I imagined, back to Sheffield Midland, thus missing my lecture at Leicester University. The guard would roll his eyes at this common passenger panic trigger:

"Of course you're on the right train, luv. Always happens, you know. Tickets, please!"

It always did happen. I never did get used to it.

I never quite recovered, either, from the moment my last shred of dignity (dignity - what dignity?) fell away on Platform 1 of Sheffield Station circa 1982. The Eighties were a nadir in general due to my vague nods in the direction of fashion. As if corkscrew perms, shoulder pads and blue eye-shadow weren't enough humiliation, there was my underskirt. My pink nylon underskirt with the elasticated waist and the hem of greying lace.

I loved that underskirt. It had done me a lot of service. That underskirt had almost earned its long service medal and retired with a carriage clock and a nice little pension. But before it could rest on its laurels, there was "that incident on Platform 1."

I knew the waistband was getting a little "tired". The elastic wasn't so elastic, any more. That day, as I strolled from the concourse onto Platform 1, I felt a distinct slackening around my midriff. My mid-length skirt covered a multitude of sins. I wasn't certain if it was my knickers, my underskirt, or those 'serviceable' taupe tights that might be threatening to wrinkle around my ankles. I was only aware of an impending sense of doom.

I quickened my steps along Platform 1 towards the Ladies, to snatch a moment of privacy before my train arrived to adjust whatever undergarment was slowly but surely migrating down over my hips.
The passengers on Platform 2, parallel to my platform and adjacent, were obscured, thankfully, I thought, by the length of an intercity train with many carriages.

My underskirt, however, had scented its moment of liberation at that point, and would wait for no man. Or woman. Or, indeed train.

As the elastic finally gave way and the underskirt slumped like a puckered pink wreath around my feet, I followed what now seems an unthinkable impulse to step out of the thing. I did so with some magnificent hauteur, I like to think, or I would have done, if I hadn't almost tripped over its loop of textile smugness as I strode on towards the shelter of the conveniences just as the intercity locomotive pulled away from Platform 2, leaving me exposed to the gaze of all humanity.

I know I missed my own train before I finally re-emerged, hoping my audience on Platform 2 had dispersed to their various onward destinations.

No. I didn't stoop to scoop up the forlorn underskirt. It may still be there, along with my lost right contact lens, in the great Lost Property Office of memory, or imprinted on the traumatised mind's eye of some unfortunate punter on the 2.47 to Bristol Temple Meads.


Sunday, 7 May 2017

TIBETAN TEMPLE SENTINELS & TAP DANCING BLACKBIRDS


The Lhasa Apsos I'm dog-sitting are having a wonderful time! This Sunday, they're doing what comes naturally, fulfilling their ancestral role of temple sentinel, whistle-blowing on intruders.

Lhasas are a breed that originates in Tibet. Kept as watchdogs in Buddhist temples and monasteries, their hearing is incredibly acute. When they catch wind of anything they think the temple inhabitants really need to know, they tell you, in no uncertain terms. Woof! Woof! (and in case you're in any doubt) Woof!

If necessary, they'll strut outside to prove they mean business, stubborn, independent, self-possessed. Somebody has to be told! If they were to catch up with the offenders, there would likely be much licking and wagging, rather than an international incident.

These days, the intruder may not be a stray Himalayan antelope, bear or lynx, a visiting dignitary or the Dalai Lama dropping by for a steaming cup of Po Cha.

At my house, interlopers might be no more than busy Blackbirds tap dancing on the conservatory roof!


The Lhasas are mesmerised by the constant comings and goings of the parent birds as they make their Spring food-gathering forays on behalf of their nestlings. Heads tilt, ears cock, eyes track overhead silhouettes of unseen strangers chasing one another across the opaque slats.



The sheer bare-faced effrontery of these winged trespassers! How very dare they? Toe tapping back and forth, disturbing the tranquillity of the Lhasas' monastic sanctuary!

Now the dogs are resting after their action-packed shift. No Tibetan silk brocade cushions for these honoured temple guards, but they're much too well-bred to complain!




Saturday, 6 May 2017

HE CAME AGAIN TODAY

He came again today.

Lingered opposite my window, segmented and framed Piet Mondrian-wise by the grid of panes.

Eyes flick from his handheld gadget up and down my street, swinging right through me like a feather-light axe.

Looking for someone?

Pacing the pavement, holding his scrolling screen like a dowsing rod.

The wifi hotspot sizzles round him, riffling the interwebs in and out of his shadow.

Secure connection.

His fingertips, sensitive as some sightless masseur, skitter through cogs for settings, email, like, share, tweet, read more, meme.

Then he's gone again.

Till next time.

I will glimpse him, breaking his stride to gather the googleable, the encrypted out of ether.

Wondering if he sees me seeing him.




Friday, 5 May 2017

SWEETS FOR MY SWEET (Short story/fiction/romance)

 “Max! Where have you got to this time?”
Harry could only just hear himself above the crash and rumble of the waves below and the breeze buffeting and flattening the grass on the cliff top. It was chillier than last time he had been here, but at least the rain the weatherman had forecast had stayed away. Max was nowhere to be seen, as usual.
The trouble was, thought Harry, Max always followed his nose. He seemed to remember every winding path through the thrift and samphire above the little seaside town where he had holidayed every summer of his life with Harry and Maureen. Now he was eager to revisit them all again, haring back every so often to sniff the air and lick Harry’s hand apologetically before lolloping back to pick up all the private messages other doggy friends had left for him over the two years he’d been away.
When Max was a puppy, Maureen used to bring tasty liver treats in the pockets of her mauve fleece jacket to tempt him back from the exciting adventures he was enjoying down in the gulleys and caves along the shoreline. He could always find something more interesting to do than come running back to his master’s voice.
Harry, you old duffer, Max knows you don’t mean it!” Maureen would say. “I bought you that ultrasonic whistle but you always forget to pack it! Lucky I remembered his favourite snacks. His tummy always wins in the end!”
Maureen was right. Max would always come bounding back up even the steepest path when treats were on offer, panting and smiling to get his reward. For that moment, he forgot about the special smelly seaweed and whatever the gulls had left on the rocks. Sometimes he brought some of that back on his nose or his paws but Maureen always had a packet of those wet wipers to clean him up again.
We can’t go back to the guest house with all that flotsam and jetsam on us, can we, Max?” she’d say.
Harry chuckled as he remembered how she had used the wipes to tackle a huge blob of rum and raisin ice cream on the back of his own jacket. He’d blamed that on the gulls, too, until Maureen poked him and said:
Harry! It’s not the gulls. You’ve only gone and sat on your cornet!”
They’d had a fit of the giggles, then, just like they’d always done together since they were teenagers. They shared the same sense of humour. That’s what made Harry notice Maureen at the dance all those years ago; her sparkly eyes and the way she got his jokes and made even funnier ones of her own that made him howl with laughter.
Harry blinked, disappointed with himself.
Silly soft old sausage,” Maureen would have said. It was no good keep dwelling on those last precious few months over that awful winter and getting upset.
You need a holiday, dad. It’s no good moping about again in the house all summer. Anyway, you and Max will have lots of lovely walks on the promenade and then there’s the crazy golf and the café that looks out onto the seafront. I’ll phone Mrs Archer for you, if you like.”
Kathy was right, just as grown up daughters seem to have an annoying knack of being. She was a lot like her Mum, too, practical and sensible where Harry often seemed in a muddle and a dream.
I’ll do it myself, love. Max needs the exercise, the great hairy lump, now he’s an old dog.” But when Harry booked himself into the pet-friendly guest house where he and Maureen had always stayed, he was determined not to avoid their familiar well-loved walks. Where was the fun staying on the flat bits? That was for old codgers! Even when the doctor told him he had diabetes just after he retired, Harry was determined everything would be just the same. His own dad had “had sugar” as they used to say back then, and Dad had carried on regardless till the day he died.
Mr. Collinson,” his new young consultant had said more recently, “now your pancreas isn’t working quite as it should, it’s important you get some gentle exercise to help the insulin to do its work; just remember always to carry something sugary with you in case your blood glucose drops too low.”
Harry had been hopeless at timing the injections at first, when they told him tablets were no longer enough to control his diabetes. Sometimes he would go a bit wobbly and sweaty and Maureen was always the first to notice.
Do you need a sugar tablet, Harry? I think you do; you’re getting a bit argumentative and wibbly wobbly, you know.”
Sure enough, Maureen would fish out the packet of special glucose tablets from her pocket or her posh handbag if they were at a dinner dance or a café, and Harry would soon feel better and raring to go again.
You’d forget your head if it wasn’t nailed on with glue,” she joked. “Lucky I remembered to bring the spare packet with me.”
Harry heard Max’s barking coming up from the path that descended steeply to the shingle strand where the limestone caverns dotted the coast like a doggy paradise. At least he hadn’t fallen in a rock pool, but what if he was stuck on a ledge? Harry imagined the big yellow rescue helicopter whirring overhead and the photos in the local rag showing a soppy old Golden Retriever with a silly smile on its face getting winched to safety with the locals and holidaymakers whooping and applauding.
Harry had always tried to keep himself as fit as he could. A few years ago he could have shimmied down there and been the hero himself.
You’re always my hero, you old softy,” he could hear Maureen saying.
Harry felt in his pocket. His fingers closed on the neat embossed tin with ‘Best Dad in the World’ on the lid. Kathy had bought it for him as a holiday present to keep three whole packets of glucose in. It felt very light. Then he remembered putting the packets on the bedside table ready to pack into the tin in the morning. They must still be sitting there, along with the wet wipes he was going to put in his pockets for the usual little mishaps Maureen always dealt with so sensibly.
Max! Come on up! Time to go for walkies back to the cottage!”
Shouting made Harry realise his voice was going a bit funny as though his cheek muscles and his tongue were made of rubber and when he looked where the gulls were wheeling over the sea, they were mixed up with little swirling spots and squiggles like bits of burning paper blowing up from a bonfire. He was starting to feel quite weak and shaky and although the wind was cool and bracing on the cliff, he was getting so sticky hot he felt he wanted to peel off his jacket and sit down on the ground.
As though he was a million miles away, he could still hear Max barking above the sound of the waves that seemed muffled, somehow, as though his ears were full of singing cotton wool.
The familiar woofing started getting nearer and nearer.
Good boy, Max. I’ll be up in a minute, I’m just having a little lie down,” Harry heard his own voice saying, as if he was a stranger with detachable lips. He couldn’t remember actually laying down, but his body had taken over somehow, trying to conserve his energy for fight or flight. He had never ever let his blood sugar get so low before, or rather Maureen hadn’t. She always saw the signs long before anybody else even noticed, including Harry himself, and brought out the sugary lifesavers.
Then something warm and wet was tickling his hand where it lay palm down on the prickly grass that felt like little spiky tufts of that artificial stuff greengrocers used on their stalls. His brain was whizzing round trying to make sense but he felt so weak he could only think of giggly silly things as if he was drunk. He hadn’t been drunk more than once in his life when he was just a tiny bit tipsy at a neighbour’s wedding as a very young man. After he met Maureen he never bothered with more than a glass of shandy, so how did he know this felt like being drunk? He remembered then the glossy leaflet the nurse at the Diabetes Centre had shown him describing the symptoms of a ‘hypo’ attack when your blood glucose is too low.
Be careful as people can sometimes mistake a hypo for being drunk,” the leaflet had spelled out in large underlined capitals.
What if somebody found him like this and called for the police? The tickling got even more slobbery on the back of his hand and he could hear a woman’s voice, now, close by, though his eyes wouldn’t seem to open to let him say hello.
Are you alright there?” The owner of the voice was kneeling by Harry’s head. “Well, obviously not. Are you diabetic, by any chance?”
Harry managed to nod, but he wasn’t sure which way was up and down, so his head ended up flopping around in a way he hadn’t quite planned, but he did manage to tell the lady his name.
Alright now, Harry, you’d better have some of these jelly sweets,” the lady attached to the voice was saying, very gently but matter-of-fact. “First we’d better see if you can sit up and swallow properly or I’ll have to call for an ambulance to get you off to A&E. Thank goodness I have this terribly sweet tooth and I carry a big bag of jellies with me whenever I go for a walk. I’ve just been exploring those caves. I felt rather like a smuggler! My grandson calls me Dora the Explorer. Cheeky monkey.”
The voice went on saying soothing, funny things that kept Harry chuckling and concentrating. She helped him sit up and as soon as she was sure he could manage them without choking, she fed Harry some of her jellies. At first his mouth was so numb he couldn’t taste anything but soon the different fruit flavours came through. Gradually, he began to feel much better and they sat at the side of the footpath, with Max trying to sit between them, begging for a sweet of his own by putting his paw on Dora’s wrist.
Quite an intelligent dog, aren’t you, Mr Max?” said Dora as the three of them made their way back along the cliff top path.
If he was clever he wouldn’t keep going AWOL and leaving his lord and master stranded miles from nowhere,” joked Harry, “but he’s sharp enough to know which side his bread’s buttered when he wants something.”
They both laughed as Max nuzzled his nose into Dora’s pocket.
He knows which side pocket the sweets are in, you mean,” she chortled. Harry found himself rather taken by Dora’s laugh.
How did you know I was a diabetic?” Harry was suddenly curious. Dora smiled.
I’m a retired nurse. Endocrinology was my specialism so I’ve worked in a lot of diabetic clinics in my time. I used to come to the little fishing village in the next cove every year with my husband Stan. When he passed away I decided I just couldn’t face the same old same old. I started coming here when I needed a break. I love walking the cliff and exploring the caves. Usually I have the place to myself but today Max kept running up and barking at me. I realised he must have somebody waiting with a lead somewhere so in the end, when he wouldn’t be shooed away, I thought I’d better climb back up here in case he got lost or stranded when the tide came in. Dog’s know, you know.”
Max knows when he’s onto a good thing, that’s for certain,” Harry smiled as Max managed to tweak a jelly out of Dora’s pocket when she wasn’t looking.
I mean some dogs know when their owner’s in trouble; sort of a sixth doggy sense. You can train some dogs to alert people when they start going hypo, or get help if they are prone to seizures.”
Harry grinned and patted Max’s head.
Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, eh, Maxy?”
But he wasn’t so sure about that any more.
A few summers later, after endless emails and long phone calls and meetings in country pubs with Max in tow, Harry and Dora were walking on the cliffs again. They stood for a moment, close to each other, in the special place where Harry had had his little lie down, as they always called it, just listening to the seabirds squealing and crying as they rode the air currents over the ocean.

A dog was barking somewhere on the beach. They could hear its owner calling it and whistling for all he was worth. Dora squeezed Harry’s hand tenderly the way she did when words weren’t quite enough. They thought of Max, always running on ahead, nose quivering towards hidden horizons, but always coming back when Dora rattled the liver treats that she kept in her pocket next to Harry’s special sweets.