Saturday, 30 November 2013

Ravelling and unravelling

As a child, Granny knitted us woolly socks to keep our toes warm on those days when we squeezed the most mileage from even the scantest of snowfall to build snowmen, or indulge in those vicious snowball fights that always ended in tears. Our fingers quickly turned red, then blue from the damp cold seeping through our gloves, until frozen to the bone we ran inside, white faced and breathless, to jostle for the warmest spot by the fire.

My cousins too were mavens of the knitting world; no tangled wool and slipped stitches to hinder their progress, rather the steady click of the needles in precision harmony. Complex cardigans of every hue, adorned with cable, lacing, basket weave and all manner of intricate patterning flew from metal at lightning speed; leaves, cherries and delicate buttonholes appearing with seemingly magical ease under their skilful fingers. I was lost in admiration as I watched them chat and knit; following the most difficult of instructions with a confidence  I could only hope to aspire to.

As an uncoordinated, clumsy child; knitting was not an obvious choice; but one day I spied a pattern for a jumper in my mother's magazine, that I just couldn't bear to live without. I had to learn to knit if only to possess such an item........ and so it began, the slow tortuous process; made more difficult by the complexities of awkward left-handedness.
But knit I did; battling through the dropped stitch, tangled wool stage, until I found a fluid rhythm that, although nowhere near the speed and dexterity of my cousins, sufficed to produce a good interpretation of the jumper I had so longed for. Confidence brimming, I took on further challenges, knitting mohair hoops of black and red to provide my brother with a 'Dennis the Menace' delight; and venturing into the pattern book of Norwegian sweaters knitted on circular needles.

As with all things, life moved on, and the  knitting needles were put away in the sewing drawer to lie in the dark bereft of the coloured yarns that had twisted and turned around them. But just last week, I stumbled across a cornucopia of wool in a shop that just cried out to be bought; so I did, along with a new set of needles.

They say you never forget a skill once acquired, but knitting is a vicious mistress; and with the echo of chemo and tamoxifen befuddled synapses slowing me down, I found myself back at the tangled wool and dropped stitch frustration stage once more. I cast on, knitted, frowned, unravelled, recast, knitted, dropped stitches, unravelled, picked them up again...... then suddenly, quite by chance, touched upon the smooth rhythm I had first discovered all those years ago. The sheer elation of finishing a small square of cable and stocking stitch took me by surprise; a feat so insignificant marking another dropped stitch picked up, in a life unravelled.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Dem Bones......

I love this ring, it's a huge knuckle-dusting weighty piece of beauty;  a Tank Girl special that sits loosely on my finger and taps against the table as I write. It is a post chemo ring, spied in a shop nestling amongst the girly bling rings, a strange interloper, oddly out of place, but with my name firmly stamped on it. Bought with a smile and worn with love, it has become the key piece of my bone collection.

In the healing weeks post mastectomy, before the onslaught of chemo, my sister and I went shopping for the hats and scarves I knew were to become my headwear of necessity . No acrylic itchy wigs for me; rather soft silks, warm wools; plain, patterned and carefully turbaned .... my choices in which to swathe my head and hide FEC's poisoned touch.
We had a glorious time, and stumbled upon the perfect item, a scarf of skulls and roses, artfully printed so at first glance the skulls appeared to be buds hiding in amongst the leaves. It became my talisman, to be worn at every chemo session to keep black thoughts at bay. It made me smile to think that in this place where the tussle with death was played out amongst the young and the old, I would carry death's symbol as a totem .

When my veins gave up, shrinking and stiffening at the thought of  bright red toxins, and my Hickman line was introduced; I bought skeleton tees, soft against this new scar, further talismans against my stumbling body and an immune system which had all but ceased to function.

Now I am firmly back in the land of the living, I still find myself drawn to the skulls and bones that saw me through those dark difficult days.
My Charlie Chaplin and skeleton mariachi  tees add gentle humour to dull day outfits, their quiet significance lost on those around me; and my scarves no longer turbaned round a smooth bald scalp, nestle cozily around my neck on those days when my bones ache and the cold seeps into my very core.
 I found a bird skull ring for sale on the internet today.....just one more piece for the collection, perhaps.....

Friday, 22 November 2013

Winter warmer

On the cold winter nights of my teenage years, pyjama clad and with cheeks still rosy from the hottest of baths; I would scurry downstairs to bask in the glow of the open fire, or sit with a book, back pressed against the radiator, to soak up the warmth before braving the chill of the hallway .
Thick woolly socks were the natural choice to keep the cold from creeping through my toes, and an old fisherman's jersey belonging to my father, to swathe my body in warm familiarity. I loved that jumper, with its slightly unravelling cuffs, flecks of colour amidst the grey, and  faint aroma of apple tobacco. It was a fail safe for wintery nights; or for those days when the chill seeped under my skin and I arrived home from school pale faced , with teeth chattering and feet like ice. I guarded it jealously, keeping it in my drawer during the long days of Summer; bringing it out to lie at the foot of my bed as the days shortened and the frost on the grass welcomed in the chilly Autumn days. 
When I headed off for university, however, I chose not to take my beloved jumper with me.... It was a house garment, too bulky to pack, too parochial, I reasoned to myself..... so I left it, with the promise it would once again swathe me in warmth when I returned at Christmas. That was the last time I ever saw it; I arrived home for the holiday to discover my mother, in an act of charitable kindness, had given my jumper away!!
 I still recall its frayed cuffs and slightly flecked wool with fondness; but above all it is the faint aroma of apple tobacco I miss the most.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Soup kitchen

Now the cold weather has begun in earnest, I find myself dressing in layers; a practical exercise beloved by mothers, and rebelled against by reluctant teens. Tamoxifen is a fickle friend, causing huge fluctuations in body temperature that central heating alone won't fix; so I compromise, layering tees under thin sweats with thick knits, and scarves on top, to be cast aside as the heat in my body rises. I have re fallen in love with an old cashmere cardi, bought in a sale years ago, whisper soft and gentle on my cold bones. It is my fail safe; long and pocketed, perfect for pulling on over pyjamas first thing , before the heating launches into action, allowing me to brave the chill and scurry down to the kitchen to brew the first pot of coffee of the day.
It is weather like this that makes me crave warming dishes; chilli con carne, lasagne , curries  and deep crusty pies...... but most of all soup. Not shop bought, pre packed  sterile tasting soup, but the soup we ate as children; thick and flavoursome, tasting of love and comfort.

My mother is the queen of the soup pot. She has perfected her skills to a fine art; adding handfuls of this, sprinkles of that, and interesting titbits encased in those little bowls of 'leftovers' from the back of the fridge, to a heavy based pan slowly simmering on the stove. I'm sure at one time there was a recipe, yet over the years, it was tweaked and enhanced until it metamorphosed into something special, the taste of home. Carrot and coriander was a staple, served up with chunks of  crumbly homemade bread. Then, with the addition of leftover Sunday veg, Jerusalem artichokes,a couple of courgettes, a grind of pepper, and a sprinkling of herbs, it transformed into a thick veggie delight, to stick to the ribs and banish the chill.

On days like today I too find myself in the kitchen, making soup. Not the same as my mother's; but rich and warming all the same ....  My favourite being slow roasted root vegetables, smokey with paprika, hinting at  the warm slow fire of chillies . My thin soups of summer, tangled with noodles and fragrant with lemongrass, ginger and lime are a thing of the past; put away ready for Springtime. Now is the time for robust flavours, for Harissa paste, Ras al Hanout, and the dried chillies from the garden. Yesterday evening I found a bunch of coriander lurking at the back of the vegetable my kitchen will once more smell of home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Facing the fear

As children we were fearless; careering downhill on skateboards,oblivious to traffic; intent on speed. On wild windy days we would unfasten our coats and, holding the billowing sides above our heads, harness the wind to drive us along on our roller-skates; twisting and turning our arms to steer the way.
During the seemingly endless days of Summer, we spent many an afternoon in the garden building walls from boxes.....before crashing into them on our bikes at top speed, with all the panache of the most daring stuntmen; scattering cardboard, and sometimes ourselves, to the four corners of the lawn.
 Weekends were spent scrambling up to the tallest tree branches in the park or swinging on ancient frayed rope swings over cool forest streams. We would dare each other to climb higher, swing harder, vying to be the best, the bravest. For us, adventure was king, and setbacks part and parcel of pushing our limits. Cut knees, broken bones, bruised skin and bruised egos were learning curves; and there were plenty of those to be had.

Looking back, I often wonder at what point we became cautious, and lost that carefree attitude to danger. Is the loss of fearlessness a prerequisite of 'growing up' or is it that life simply changes, regiments, loses that instantaneous joy of just being?
 I found my rollerblades in the back of the cupboard today, and am tempted to grasp the nettle and speed down the hill opposite our house ..... Just to see if I can throw caution to the winds and be fearless once more.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Back in the saddle

I grew up surrounded by ponies. Not the mane plaited,glossy hoofed, gymkhana jumping kind; but the wild ponies of the forest, with their docked tails, dusty coats and deliberate habit of congregating on narrow roads to prevent easy passage. Part of the local scenery, they nonchalantly hung out with the donkeys; a picture postcard for snap happy tourists...... but I loved them best galloping wild across the heath, spurred on by some invisible force, their hooves muffled in the scrub; or in the early morning, stoically standing swathed in the rising mists; whinnying to foals lying couched in heather. These were the free - unfettered by saddles and bridles, skittish and unpredictable; accepting the odd pat from gentle hands only if the mood took them, soft mouthed for picnic treats, but with a vicious nip for the unwary.

I wasn't a child who yearned to ride, but there was something soothing about being amongst these beasts. We would go to the stud where dad and his friend had Welsh Mountain ponies, and I would bury my hands into the oats to breathe in the smell of their soft breath. I did not fear them, and would happily clamber into a saddle, should the opportunity arise; which from time to time it did.
I was not an elegant rider like my father mid polo match, or my sister who seamlessly flowed as one with her chosen mount. I was the Thelwell sketch, awkward in the saddle, all elbows and knees-spurring on my steed with blind optimism; ever hopeful that the pony was far better versed than I, and would carry me safely on my way. Mostly this method worked, but one afternoon as we trotted up the field, I suddenly found myself  forcefully ejected from the saddle, landing in a vicious gorse bush. Pride battered and jeans full of prickles I picked myself up, dusted myself down, and did the only sensible thing..... gingerly remounting and heading for the stables; my blind trust in ponies forever dented.

Lately, after months of uncertainty leaving me somewhat battered and bruised, I have managed to pick myself up,brush myself down, and once again climb back into the saddle.
Being at work once more has soothed me, but my blind trust is now, like my trust in ponies, somewhat tarnished.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The fine art of surfacing

Shoe shod, sleekly coiffed and city suited; my journey back into the land of the living has begun in earnest . No longer a piece of  discarded  flotsam and jetsam, battered by the pull and crash of  breaking waves; I have become as driftwood cast onto new shores offering a wealth of interesting possibilities.
The kindness of strangers has allowed me fully to become myself , a wiser, stronger version; the salt stung scrapes and bruises from the rolling surf fading into memory; my feet firmly anchored to the dry land once more.

Monday, 4 November 2013


When I was small I used to brave the rolling waves; allowing them to crash over me, tumbling through and over and under, before being deposited in a jumble of limbs and wild mermaid hair onto the shingle. Eyes salt stung, breathless and cold-trembling, it was my personal battle with the surf; yet the feeling of being amidst the crests and foam was exhilarating. Finally, teeth chattering, blue lipped and exhausted, I would reluctantly admit defeat; creeping back to shore to lie in the hollows between stones so the sun could warm my shivering bones.

Lately I have once again been tumbled over stones, under the weight of heavy water; exhilaration replaced by the overwhelming fear of an uncertain future. But today a small gesture has spun a lifeline to reel me back to solid ground once more.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Press pause....

Stuck in suspended animation, no drive to move forward, no way to get back . It is as if the pause button has been pushed whilst I wasn't looking. Every day is Groundhog Day .... my default cosy knits and vintage tees hold no surprises, my inbox holds no offers, my phone no messages. The still quiet of the house, once soothing , is now oppressive .... hours are spent curled up, iPad in hand, searching job sites for my redemption; whilst my brain slowly turns to thick silt and my confidence wilts to nothing.
I cook, I clean, I bake and I blog; all the while moving as though underwater. I need to shake myself loose from this torpor that I have allowed in,  give myself a stern talking to, and come up for air........