Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Catching up

Well, I feel like I’ve been away forever! The highlight of our month was, of course, the wedding, but then things became a little more mundane as I had to go down to London for my heart tests.

They weren’t anything awful – just a 24 hour tape to monitor my heart beat throughout the day and night, and a little diary to fill in when I did anything to exert myself and send my heart rate up. These days, because of my lung fibrosis, I do get out of breath when I walk either too fast or uphill. And, of course, the walk to and from Belsize Park tube station always leaves me a little ragged, so that was my first diary note.

The journey down on the Wednesday had been a nightmare – the M4 had been surprisingly good, but the good old M25 that takes me to my friend’s house at Orpington, didn’t fail to trap me, as ever. My journey can take anything from 3 hours upwards, and this day it took me 4 and a half. I eventually pulled on to the drive, slightly frazzled, and unloaded the car. It looked like I’d come for a week – I always do this and don’t know why I pack so much. But I’d also come bearing gifts of wine (several bottles!), home produced eggs and chocolates from The Velvet Bean in Ledbury.

That evening we spent catching up and drinking wine and, as always, it felt like only yesterday we last saw one another. This is my Town Mouse friend, I wrote about on the other site, and we are as opposite as two people can be. But we love each other and are friends in the truest sense – accepting each other for what we are and enjoying every second of each other’s company. We don’t see enough of one another since J and I moved here and, hand on heart, she is the only thing I truly miss from my life in the South East. But we text and email, run up extortionate phone bills and see each other whenever we can. And we always pick up where we left off.

The next day saw my journey in to London to get my tape fitted and then we had the afternoon and evening together, as her partner (also a J) was out with work. We cooked together, drank more wine and stayed up too late, but I also got to spend some time with her son, who is two and half and growing up so fast. The time always goes so quickly and I was due to go home the next day after my “stress exercise test”.

Friday dawned and my tape was returned and then I had to wait a little while for my exercise stress test. This just involved having a heart monitor fitted and then lying down for an echo of my heart while I was at rest. The fun bit came next when I was put on a treadmill and the speed was increased, along with the incline, to get my heart up to its maximum rate when I had to quickly jump back on the bed to have another echo of my heart, while it was at full pelt. Easier said than done! I was pleased that it took a while to get my heart to its full rate, but the problem was the technicians were really nice guys and we were talking too much. I have a problem walking really fast AND talking, purely because my lungs don’t function as well as they should and so fast walking and talking don’t mix! By the time they’d got me at full rate, my mouth was drying up and I thought my lungs were going to explode. And then they just stopped the treadmill and the sudden halt (even though they’d warned me) had me careering off the treadmill into two pairs of waiting hands that were waiting to haul me on the bed for my next echo. I was glad to lie down! They then scanned me and monitored my heart beat until the rate slowed to “normal” – which took slightly longer than it did to get to the peak. And that was it – I was free to go and the doctor would be in touch.

Visits down to my friend’s are always such bitter sweet affairs for me: it sounds so awful writing it down, but I really dislike staying down there for more than a couple of nights. I hate the sirens shooting past my window; the airlessness; the bright night sky; traffic noise; hustle and bustle and the crowds on the trains and tubes, with people afraid to make eye contact. I always want to giggle when I am stood on a tube with my head wedged under someone’s armpit and blowing at the corner of a page from The Times to get it away from tickling my nose – it’s so bizarre how we can be so intimately crushed together but if you don’t look someone in the eye or smile at them, it’s okay. I managed to restrain myself this time as the tube headed back towards Charing Cross for my train out to Orpington and my waiting car.

I phoned my friend to say I was on the train and she told me I should stay another night – she said: “you’re barking. You’ll hit all the Friday night traffic heading west and won’t be home ‘til late. Stay and go home in the morning after breakfast”. This is the one thing about me that she can never get her head around. She doesn’t understand my “need” to get home. When I know I’ve got that journey to do, I just want to get on and do it. What’s one more night? An eternity when you just want to get out of the city. And then mum rang to say she hoped I was staying because the traffic was horrendous on the M25 and the M4. Damn! They were right, of course, and then J rang to put his pennyworth in.

And so, I found myself reversing on the drive once more and unloading my car (bags lighter this time!), feeling like the worse friend in the world who wanted to be going home. She was waiting for me in the hall, arms folded and giving me her stern mother look. Well, trying to but a) she's 4 years younger than me and b) she’s not very good at it. But then, her gorgeous boy came and threw his arms around my legs and warmed my heart.

That night, I read him a story and put him to bed and we talked about them coming to visit us. He wanted to know all about the chickens that laid the eggs I’d brought and about the tractors in the field. Could they come soon, he wanted to know. He loves the countryside, my friend told me, and now he is bigger there are so many more things we can show him next time they come.

We went back down to the kitchen and decided on an Indian takeaway. Oh, and the luxury of it was that they delivered!!!!! Heaven. We got the plates in the oven and cracked open a beer and soon we were tucking in. Later, stuffed, we threw ourselves on the sofa and watched Jonathan Ross but my eyes kept getting heavy and I had to make my excuses and say night, night. I hauled myself up to the top floor guest suite and got ready for bed. A blurry conversation with J and then I was fast asleep. Yes, they’d all been right and I was glad I’d stayed. I was glad I’d fought my “flight urge”.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, we hugged and kissed and brushed tears from our eyes. We promised to see more of each other – proper quality time, not bits squeezed in around my trips into London for hospital. My car soon found the M25 and, of course, it was much clearer than the previous evening. I grinned. I missed her already.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A country wedding

Saturday was the day the village had been waiting for – the wedding. Friday had dawned grey and cold and we’d all been a little worried at the prospect of partying in a barn. But as I opened the curtains, the sun was glimmering through the high clouds and the air was distinctively warmer.

We arrived at the church as the bells were peeling, and a crowd of fine hats, posh frocks and smart suits stood outside the village pub, next door. The groom was looking handsome in his kilt suit and soon we were moving to take our seats in the church. And then the bride arrived – a vision of loveliness beaming as she walked down the aisle on the arm of the proudest father in the neighbourhood.

Our next door neighbour is also the village priest and he has watched R grow up to become the beautiful woman she is today. It made the ceremony especially touching as he was able to recall firsthand memories to share with us as he conducted the ceremony with pride. R has three sisters and they made such beautiful bridesmaids, along with flower girls who are nieces and a nephew as ring bearer.

The church was decorated with hand-tied posies of flowers and wicker obelisks hung with wooden hearts and cream lilies. The obelisks had been made by the father of the bride, at home on the farm, and were truly stunning.

Soon, we were back out into the warm sunshine and the bells rang out in celebration as we threw home-dried rose petal confetti, collected from wicker baskets held by the flower girls, and wrapped in individual cones of brown paper, stamped with gold hearts. The photographer was wonderfully swift in his work and we were reversing on our drive before we knew it. The dogs had a quick run around the garden and then, after changing into my more comfy shoes (!) we walked across the lane to the farm.

Pink champagne waited at the gate and we moved though the line-up kissing and hugging and saying our congratulations. We emerged into the courtyard and R’s cousin was playing the keyboard softly in the background as we milled around and chatted. There were old wooden advertising crates filled with packets of our local Tyrell’s crisps and bowls of plump, shiny olives, along with plates of the most delicious home-made cheese straws. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and happy and we brushed past terracotta pots filled with rosemary and lavender.

We were called through into the barn – and what a transformation! Two weeks ago, it had been the cow shed and, as such, looked just like …….. a cow shed. Now, it was white-washed and draped with cream muslin – an indoor marquee. An old wooden farm gate was hung on the wall and decorated with wooden hearts, at each place setting was a brown paper name tag, tied with raffia and decorated with rosemary sprigs and dried rose buds and the table was adorned with terracotta pots of young rosemary plants, alternating with thick, cream church candles. Bottles with crock stoppers of home-made cider and perry, from their own orchards, were placed in groups down the table, along with wine and jugs of water.

The hog-roast was fantastic – Gloucester Old Spot (not their own!), with bowls of salad, potatoes, homemade pickles and chutneys, plus a vegetarian alternative of homemade quiche. Afterwards, there was a wonderful cheeseboard (provided by our neighbour – and, yes, there was Stinking Bishop!) and wedding cake. Not your usual wedding cake either. It was a tier of individual sponge cupcakes, decorated with cream icing and topped with a single rosebud. I really can’t describe how wonderful and different this was – and we each received our own individual cake with our champagne for the toasts.

Speeches were made and we alternated between crying and laughing hysterically – a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The best man was, in fact, a best woman and she did a wonderful job (of course!) and R’s father paid moving tribute to his daughter, the bride, as tears coursed down our faces.

Eventually, it was time for the two of them to leave and we all gathered as the bouquet was thrown and we cheered and waved them off. It was 7.30pm and we said our goodbye’s, hugging and kissing new and old friends, and then we wandered hand in hand back across the lane to our little cottage.

We changed out of our finery, put the kettle on and sat outside as the sun slowly sank down behind the trees. It had been a wonderful day. A true “country wedding” – simply stylish and full of honest, good old fashioned love and laughter. The very best kind of day.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

New Life

We had an unexpected phone call on Monday evening, from J’s aunt. It was to tell us that her brother-in-law (J’s last surviving uncle) had passed away last week and the funeral was on Wednesday (yesterday), up in Macclesfield.

Families. Mine is complicated, and has its fair share of skeletons in the cupboard! J’s, on the other hand, is VERY complicated, and his late mother’s paternal side is responsible for this!! That half of the family is not close with the rest of the cousins – they tend to be close to their own immediate units of parents and siblings alone. I suppose, this is quite normal for most families, but I am lucky in that mine is a bit of a “tribe” for want of a better expression. Don’t get me wrong, we are not in each other’s pockets, but there is regular contact, even if it is just by phone or email.

J’s paternal side is also close and in regular contact, but he was a bit taken aback to only find out about this uncle at the last minute. And more than a little sad.

And so, we were up at 5.30am yesterday to make the journey north. Unfortunately, I am NOT an early morning person and so I won’t regale you with tales of how wonderful the morning sunshine felt on my face, nor how uplifting the dawn chorus was. No, I was trying to nap in the front seat without smudging my carefully applied makeup or messing up my hastily blow dried hair. I’d calculated we would be there in 3 hours and so another hour’s kip in the front seat should leave me bright eyed and bushy tailed for giving J directions during the last bit of the journey. That was the theory, but unfortunately the sunshine DID wave its wand over me and so I stayed awake – highly irritating for a girl who needs at least 8 hours!

The journey ended up being a delight. We didn’t go on the motorway after we reached Lichfield. No, we headed to Ashbourne and Leek, rising ever higher and snaking through the beautiful Staffordshire and Derbyshire countryside, the fields edged with dry stone walls (unlike the hedgerows and trees of Herefordshire). And then we arrived in Macclesfield with an hour to spare. Enough time for a mug of tea and bacon sarnie at a cafĂ© on the outskirts of town. Replenished and revitalized, we met up with J’s middle brother and his wife, and went on to the crem. You know how these things go so, again, I won’t go into it, but suffice to say it was a humanist ceremony and I have only been to one other in my life. Different, but still incredibly moving.

Afterwards, it was back to J’s cousin’s house and we sat in the garden, soaking up the sunshine. Stronger bonds were forged that afternoon between this younger generation – our generation. Maybe things will be a little different for the family now. Enough business cards/telephone numbers and email addresses were exchanged; shy glances became forthright smiles; there was laughter in the air and many hugs were given and received when we left.

I drove home as J sat quietly reflecting next to me. Eleven years have taught me when to leave him be with his thoughts. This man of mine is many sided. He is the joker in the pack; the one everyone relies on to lighten an atmosphere and who can make anyone feel instantly at ease. He is also highly intelligent – not in an academic, certificates out of every orifice kind of way: his knowledge of social and political history astounds me. I am proud when I see someone do a double take at this man they have “judged” as a jack-the-lad. One minute he has been telling jokes or laughing with someone, and then he can turn and seriously debate this country’s history. His mind has soaked up names and dates for almost every event of importance (or not, as is often the case, when he can sprint to the finish line in a pop quiz!). I am frequently bemused that he can tell me who was prime minister in 1854 or who the lead singer of Blah, blah, blah band was and what their 2nd number 1 was, but can’t remember that I have asked him to hang the washing out!

And then there is his heart. The biggest and softest I have ever known. When you receive the key to the lock, it opens and enfolds you into its protective world, just as his arms wrap you in his bear hug. His quietness on our journey home spoke to me louder than he could know: he feels keenly the divide in his family and I know he hopes with all of his heart that those times are now gone. He WILL pick up the phone and reach out to these cousins who have been distant for too long.

As our journey entered its final stages, the Malvern Hills appeared to our right on the M5. Wherever we have been, we know we’re nearly home when they come into view. Our hearts lift and shoulders relax as they keep us company along the final fifteen minutes before they slip out of view as we turn towards the village. “It’s good to be home, love,” he said and he squeezed my hand. I glanced at him and smiled as I scanned his face. He looked tired and his brown eyes held a hint of sadness. I pulled in.

“Are you okay?” I asked him, concern making me frown. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sad. He was mum’s last brother – only auntie R left now and then the siblings are all gone. It’s just us lot then. I hope we do a better job of it. You, know, the family thing. It doesn’t seem so important when you’re kids – you’re just concerned with your mates and all that. Family stuff is just………. well, family. But now, you realize how important it is to keep it going. To get along. You know……” He shrugged his shoulders and looked a little embarrassed.

“Yes, I DO know,” I said and squeezed his hand tight back. He loves my family. I know he does. But Christmas and Easter………. all the major occasions, in fact, it’s always my tribe that gets together. “Let’s get home and put the kettle on,” I said as I let in the clutch and pulled off.

As we sat drinking our tea, watching the sun go down over the trees, I played the answer phone messages. It was my brother. Usual stuff, then an “oh, by the way, sis”…….. He’s going to be a dad again. Another new life is beginning.