Saturday, 28 December 2013

Bleak midwinter

I awoke to the bellow of the foghorn today; a low mournful sound, conjuring a memory of those still, quiet days of breathing in the damp heaviness as we headed out into winter woods to walk off the Christmas excess.
As a child, fog was exciting, acting as cover under which to stalk imaginary prey through the sodden undergrowth; the snapping of twigs underfoot curiously muffled in the whiteness,  as was the sound of the dog gambolling at our heels, panting flumes of mist whilst barking for sticks to be thrown into the blankness beyond.
We would return, pink cheeked and red nosed to battle for the warmest spot by the fire; tucking into slices of freshly baked fruit cake, safe in the knowledge we had burnt off Christmas pud.

Now I view fog not as the mysterious blanket shrouded under which we could play our games of stalk and seek; but as the seeping clammy cold that finds a way through the thickest of layers, chilling me to the bone, and causing my joints to ache with a fierce burning unknown as a child.
Tamoxifen has robed me of temperature control; leaving me wrapped layer upon layer like some odd woolly Babooshka in my quest to stay warm, then suddenly leading me to shed clothing like a demented streaker as my inner furnace steams into the red zone.
My joints swell and stiffen at will and I find myself stumbling on the stairs, fumbling to grasp objects with banana fingers, and clumsier than I have ever been. Yet for all this, Tamoxifen has given me back my life, and for that I am truly grateful.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Unto us a boy is born.....

My brother entered the world on the shortest day, whilst we, his sisters, sang carols in the old Norman church to mark the end of the school term. My father, unused to the demands of small girls; made porridge with too much salt then, with relief etched on his face, surrendered the plaiting of our hair to the nurse who had come to help whilst my mother was in hospital.

It was an exciting time; the unfamiliar delight of a new male child , and the novelty of a father home for Christmas; mixed with the anticipation of socks stuffed with goodies from Father Christmas and presents piled high in the wicker laundry basket.

When mum came home we knew how much we had missed her steady presence, and with promises not to tire her out, all trouped up stairs to the bedroom to re confirm her love for us; and become enraptured with the brother we had all hoped for.
As the youngest, I felt my place somewhat usurped by this small red faced being, and although fiercely proud of my new baby brother, resented the fact I was the baby no more, so acted accordingly; becoming needy and whiny to the exasperation of all.

With a birthday so close to Christmas, my mother always ensured there was a distinct separation between the two celebrations. No amount of cajoling would move her to decorate for Christmas before we had properly celebrated my brother's birth.
 We were the only household I remember who held off decorating until Christmas Eve. Whilst lights twinkled on trees in the windows of many a house, ours remained quite bare; then on Christmas Eve to the radio playing Carols from Kings College, or some such, we would all be assigned jobs.
The house was cleaned from top to bottom, and the Christmas tree brought in from outside to be hung with the red silk baubles from the Far East, and delicate glass decorations which shattered into sharp shards if they slipped from fumbling fingers. Holly, gathered in the forest on those long frosty walks with the dog, alongside evergreen branches,garnished the wooden curtain pelmets; whilst the house filled with the scent of pine and oven baked mince pies. The table and silverware were polished, red or gold candles placed in every candle holder, and finally the Nativity figures set up on the hall table to greet visitors as they entered.

 As small children, we would then wrap up and walk to church to attend Nine Lessons and Carols; the liturgy and rituals of which became so ingrained in my consciousness that I can still recite them to this day. When we grew older we stayed up late, meeting up with family and friends to go to Midnight Mass.
The heavy, still and timeless atmosphere of the church; where ancient words seeped to the very heart of Norman stones as the flicker of candlelight played across the walls; never failed to bring home the true meaning of Christmas.

Even now, I find in decorating the house, faint echoes of the rituals we had as children. The tree is not put up until school has finished for the term, and I listen to carols as we hang the ornaments we have collected over the years.
 We still demarcate Christmas and birthday,but this time it is the birthday of my husband at the beginning of January; so New Year's Eve finds us talking down cards and tree, leaving simple lights to radiate Christmas warmth and brighten the way for a birthday to come.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Merry and bright

My tree is up, adorned with the tin decorations and wooden beads collected over the years. No tinsel, just small, unobtrusive white lights that peep through foliage and flicker to their own set rhythm.
In the kitchen, star lights have once again attached themselves to the windowpane spreading a warm glow to the passer by; whilst the Swedish Nativity tower spins lazily round under the watchful eyes of stylised reindeer.
 I love the ritual of decorating the house at Christmas; stringing lights around the picture frames, and banisters; and scrabbling in the box for  Jesus in his manger. When the gloom of the evening settles heavily all around, the strings of lights banish the dark with their soft golden light.
Baby Jesus slumbers under the soft focus gaze of Buddha and the Madonna once more,  and all is calm and bright.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Full Circle

Yesterday found me back in the hospital operating theatre where my odyssey began 3 years ago; to finalise the rebuild that will mark an ending to what has been a life affirming and life changing experience.
During this journey I have lost and regained a breast, my hair, my immune system and the profound sense of who I am.

Unlike Humpty Dumpty I have  been put together again, but in a different, more complex manner. There is more balance in my life; I have learnt to be still and breathe the world around me. My wide eyed trust in the inherent goodness of others has wobbled, then been reaffirmed not only by the medical teams who came in and out of my life with more frequency than I ever thought; but by the people I have worked with on a daily basis. There has been trauma, loss and bewilderment, but this has been tempered by laughter and the friendships forged in the fire.
I have emerged, battered, bruised but as yet unbroken; and I have family and friends to thank for that.

It is said that we are never given more than we can cope with..... I say a little inner Tank Girl goes a long way!!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Leap frog

As a student I lived in a thick stone cottage on a farm nestled in the rolling countryside; at the foot of a hill leading to a village so small, the sole amenities were a spit and sawdust pub and a lonely phone box.

There was no heating in our cottage bar an open hearth in the living room in which to burn scavenged wood and, from November until March, an ancient aga in the kitchen. As Autumn bit deep, hours were spent huddled round the kitchen table to soak in the aga's comforting heat, whilst nights became an interesting lesson in how to dress for bed so as not to succumb to the creeping cold in the small hours. Flannel pyjamas, sweatshirts and woolly socks were the sleepwear of necessity.... and occasionally, if the temperature dropped below zero, mittens and the odd wooly hat were added to the nighttime ensemble; our quest for warmth overriding any embarrassment.

We had no need of an alarm clock; as at dawn the cockerel crow mingled with the throaty roar of the tractor, and slow, low bellowing as the cows made their way to be milked , made sleep impossible.
Later a brimming milk churn would appear on the doorstep, still  warm from the parlour, with the cream already settling on the top. This was the perk of the first up, to lavish on the porridge slow cooked on the aga.

The farm buildings were reached by a long narrow drive, flanked on one side by a coppice, and on the other by pasture bounded by a ditch. There was a solitary lamppost half way down resembling nothing so much as that which Lucy found when she stumbled through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Its light was always so dim, that on dark evenings stumbling into the ditch was all too real a possibility.
  The rain brought further hazards, as the coppice contained a pond beloved by spawning frogs, and the ditch was their destination of choice. Walking home in the dark became a test of skill and endurance. We would gingerly tiptoe, half blind by raindrops, staring through the darkness at our feet as frogs hopped under and over, all but invisible in the gloom. One wrong step could result in a sickening squelch if the poor victim failed to jump quickly enough. There were plenty of near misses, but we, graceful in this ballet of life and death, managed to avoid the ultimate horror of frog underfoot. Yet every morning after rain, a scene of carnage awaited; the tractor a merciless executioner, and the quickest of frogs unable to escape the enormous rolling wheels.

Squashed frogs splayed as if prepped  for a biology investigation, slowly desiccating in the sun,is an enduring memory; and probably the reason why I cherish the squat White's frogs that live in the safety of our vivarium; appearing once the lamp is extinguished, to sit wide eyed like comical gargoyles on the heads of long suffering water dragons; and softly croak to the rising of the moon.