Phantom

After giving birth to my son the nurse told me he didn’t exist.

Can you imagine? The child I’d carried to full term, whose heartbeat I’d heard with my own ears, whose little legs I’d felt kicking inside me, whose features I’d seen at every scan.

At first I struggled to take in the meaning of those seemingly nonsensical words. But, as her tone of voice became more insistent and her manner shifted from one of consolation to frustration, it dawned on me that, for some unknown and utterly incredible reason, she believed it to be true.

I myself was incredulous, as I’m sure you can imagine, and when Michael arrived I begged him to explain, to tell them they were wrong and that there was a baby – our baby – somewhere. There had clearly been a mix up and our son, our Max – or James or Saul, we hadn’t yet decided – was in someone else’s incubator, mislabelled like an erroneous tin of soup in a warehouse.

Once the truth had been uncovered there would be a full investigation, of course. Heads would roll, and we would sue them and set up a trust fund for our son with the payout. In years to come we would laugh about the ridiculousness of the situation, and it would go down in family folklore and be told at annual gatherings for generations to come.

At first Michael agreed it was ludicrous. In fact, he was outraged. How could a woman carry a baby to full term only for it to disappear?

And yet, slowly but surely, they turned him against me, poisoned his mind with vicious lies about my state of mind.

This is my last attempt at freedom, a final bid to unshackle myself from the false accusations that have led to my incarceration, that have stripped me of sanity as I knew it.

I beg you to read my story and decide for yourself who is mad; them, me, or every one of us?

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I came across this charming little fellow whilst exploring a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He was certainly very wary of me!

Letting go

This afternoon I did a presentation to a group of volunteer fundraisers about ‘Don’t wait until you’re certain,’ the campaign I helped to manage to promote the organisation’s adult helpline service. The first burst of the campaign was handed to me to manage by my outgoing manager three months after I joined the charity, in March last year. To say it was a stressful experience to devise and execute a PR plan for a national media campaign in under a month would be an understatement, but when the launch turned out to be a huge success and contacts to the charity about serious cases of child abuse increased by 16% I was delighted that the blood, sweat and tears had paid off.

Fast forward ten months to January this year and it was time to do it all over again. With a bigger budget to play with we were able to pay for TV advertising as well as digital, which gave a much bigger reach. As before my role was to manage the PR for the campaign, which included the development of a content plan across the charity’s website and social media channels to drive engagement with the campaign messaging. I even wrote my first film script – for a message of support recorded by the rather lovely actor, Dominic West (though sadly I didn’t get to meet him in person).

This time around, with the benefit of TV advertising and a sponsored trend on Twitter, we’ve seen a 46% increase in referrals to the helpline – an uplift that has stayed constant for the duration of the campaign. Social media engagement has also been through the roof as a result of the campaign, which has been exciting to see.

In truth it choked me up delivering a presentation on something that I’ve been so close to for the past year but which I will soon have to walk away from. Yet despite my impending redundancy, this campaign is something I will always feel enormously proud to have been involved with. I know that wherever I go next I will always feel a glow of satisfaction that its success was in no small part down to my contribution.

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A Chocolatey Affair

Today, rather than write a fictional story or bore you with the woes of job hunting, I want to talk about chocolate; how it makes me feel, how it tastes in my mouth and generally the myriad ways in which I believe it improves my existence – because I really do.

Take this afternoon for instance. I returned from a gruelling TEN MILE (impressed? Please be impressed) run and dragged my weary limbs into the shower, before dressing and resuming work at my desk. But something was missing. Ah, I thought, a cup of tea! For truly no afternoon of work can be complete without one (doesn’t it say that in the Bible or something? “And on the seventh day, God kicked back with a cup of PG Tips and observed all he had done.” No? Well it should do).  

No sooner had I made my tea than the feeling of something being amiss returned. Then it occurred to me how nice it would be to have a little post-workout treat as an accompaniment. I duly delved into my bag of Christmas treats and was distressed to find the box of Lindor chocolates which I had been systematically working my way through was – shock horror– empty. Fearing the worst I ran my hand around the inside of the bag. My hand settled on a small square box. As I pulled it out a wave of happiness washed over me, for it was not just any chocolatey treat, it was the Holy Grail of chocolatey treats: A Chocolate Orange.

I know from an unpleasant previous experience that the Chocolate Orange should be savoured and not gorged upon. If you ate it whole in one sitting you would have consumed most of your day’s calories, and would most likely feel rather nauseous to boot. But dipping a few segments into a mug of steaming tea and letting them melt onto your tongue is an experience I defy anyone – other than those who are allergic to chocolate, don’t like chocolate, or who are allergic to or don’t like orange – not to enjoy.

My adoration of chocolate doesn’t stop at Lindor and Chocolate Orange; far from it. I’m currently having a love affair with salted caramel in all its scrumptious chocolatey forms, and dark Lindt chocolate with sea salt is so divine it’s almost worth killing for (not that I endorse killing in any form, you understand). Dark chocolate with chilli is definitely worth a punt for the more adventurous aficionados. And don’t even get me started on Reese’s Cups – chocolate and peanut butter together? Dribble.

I suppose in light of this obsession it’s easy to see why I was a chubby child. My grandmother used to cut up Mars bars in a bowl for me to eat, and mum would often bring chocolate éclairs (the fresh cream variety – NOM) when she came to collect me from school. Being the product of a broken home, I think she used such treats to assuage her guilt at my sibling-less, father-less, state, though in reality I was as happy as a sand boy stuffing my face and playing with my Polly Pockets.

Fortunately after shedding the puppy fat and discovering exercise I managed to regulate my weight, whilst still occasionally indulging in my favourite treat. Over the years my habit has waxed and waned depending on my mood and situation. I wouldn’t say I use chocolate as a crutch, exactly, but I do find it comforting to eat every now and again – particularly after a bad day or a vigorous exercise session, when I can eat it guilt-free knowing I deserve it.

“Everything in moderation” is a phrase I’ve used many a time, and never has it been more appropriate than when it comes to chocolate. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a disgustingly chocolatey dessert after a meal in a nice restaurant, but if I ate it morning, noon and night the pleasure would evaporate and it would no longer be a treat but rather something commonplace.

We have a great relationship, Chocolate and I. But it’s a good job I’ve a half marathon to train for whilst I’m facing unemployment because, between you, me and the Mars bar, I think my consumption may just be on the rise.

Now, where did I put that Chocolate Orange again?

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Restoration

Apologies to anyone who is hoping for the next instalment of the story I’ve been writing over the past few days, but today I thought I’d mix things up a little and return to blogging. I am, after all, sitting in an ex-brothel in the centre of historic Prague, and it seems wrong not to acknowledge the effect this place has had on me over the past few days.

I’ve written a full feature on my experience of Prague which I will be posting tomorrow on the Bea blog, but what I would just like to say in this post is that coming here has reminded me how wonderful it is to step out of your life from time to time and experience another culture. As an aspiring writer I always feel particularly moved when I explore another part of the world, as it reminds me how much more there is to know and understand.

I defy anyone who is suffering from writer’s block not to find inspiration here, where every twist and turn in the maze of back streets brings a new surprise – whether architectural delights, performance artists, odd little museums or delightfully quaint restaurants serving traditional Czech fare such as goulash and dumplings (just like grandma used to make – yum).

Breaking out of normal life for a couple of days can be really beneficial – not least when ‘normal life’ is proving troublesome, as in my case with recent redundancy news and subsequent job searching and interviews. I arrived here feeling drained and stressed, but after three nights in my (free upgrade!) palatial suite in the Mamaison Pachtuv Palace hotel and time spent wandering by the river, drinking local beer and eating hearty traditional fare I’m leaving feeling inspired, rested and ready to resume my job search with renewed enthusiasm.

God bless Prague and all who sail in her.

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I took this last night whilst strolling around the old town square. It sums up just how wonderfully atmospheric this city is. I don’t want to leave!

You had me at first click – Part Seven

“Daddy?” Amy tugged at her father’s hand. “Who’s that lady?”

His trance broken, John looked down at his daughter and attempted a smile. “Just an old friend darling,” he said with as much reassurance in his voice as he could muster. “Right you two, it’s about time you got to class. Do you know where you’re going?”

Jasper, who knew exactly where his new classroom was, shot off like a rocket. As Amy hesitated, John could feel Jen’s eyes on him from across the room. He felt her presence viscerally, and it unnerved him.

“Can I help?” she said, in front of them now. John caught a scent of flowers, noticed a set of delicate beads around her neck. She looked, he thought – though even thinking it felt like a betrayal – radiant. She was still slim, but her face was fuller somehow, her skin pink and plump. A light smear of balm on her lips reflected the light, appearing to sparkle. Apart from that her makeup was minimal, her curly blonde hair tamed with her trademark red bow. John’s stomach clenched.

“My daughter, Amy, she’s, um…” He stopped, unable to find the words.

Fortunately his daughter was less shy in Jen’s presence, unaware as she was of the history and gravitas behind this chance encounter. “It’s my first day in Year One,” she announced. “Do you know which class room I need to go to?”

Jen smiled and knelt down beside Amy. As she did so the material of her wrap dress fell to reveal part of her upper thigh. She quickly rectified the problem, but not before a shock of lust had jolted in John’s groin. “Well guess what Amy? My name is Mrs Marsh and I’m your new teacher.”

As John struggled to register his childhood friend’s marital status, she stood up and rested a hand upon her stomach, where, he now noticed, there was an unmistakeable bump.

His heart sank.

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Writing about school made me think of this little chap, who I spent some time teaching in Taliwas, Borneo, last year. Our ‘classroom’ was a covered table and seating area surrounded by lush forest – beats a sterile concrete building!

You had me at first click – Part Six

“Jasper, Amy, come on!” John looked at his watch and sighed.

“I don’t know why you think shouting’s going to speed them up,” said Alison, entering the kitchen with a pile of freshly laundered clothes in her arms and depositing them on the table.

“Well something has to. We’re running late as it is.” John sighed again. “What are they doing up there?”

“Being children, darling,” Alison said, her voice laden with scorn, “something you’ve obviously forgotten all about.” She started sorting through the pile of washing.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Alison identified two matching socks from the pile and set them to one side. She looked up at John and shrugged. “You tell me.”

“I don’t have time for one of your cryptic one-sided conversations right now Alison.”

“Well there’s no change there then.”

John walked into the hallway. “Kids, come ON!”

He re-entered the kitchen and watched in silence as his wife painstakingly sorted his family’s clothes into neat little piles, one for each of them. Her mouth was set in a thin line, her forehead ruched by frown lines. John wondered when she had become so embittered by life, and whether it was his fault.

Thunderous footsteps announced the imminent arrival of Jasper, their eldest. He tore into the kitchen, closely followed by his sister, Amy.

“We’re ready!” Jasper shouted, zooming around the kitchen with his arms held wide like an aeroplane.

“Ready!” Amy mimicked, holding her own arms aloft.

“Don’t forget your packed lunches,” Alison said, pointing to the work surface. “And remember what I said about sweets and chocolate.”

“They’ll rot our teeth,” said Jasper, rolling his eyes.

“And make us fat,” Amy added, her expression solemn.

John shot a disapproving look at his wife and shepherded the kids out to the car. “See you tonight,” he shouted back over his shoulder, not waiting for a response.

At seven and five Jasper and Amy were proving more than a handful, and whilst he loved them dearly these days John often caught himself remembering fondly how easy life had been before they came along.

Whilst other friends had procreated and adapted to life with kids with what seemed – on the surface at least – to be complete ease, John and Alison’s journey into parenthood had not been so easy. John had known when they first got together at university that children were high on Alison’s agenda, but had he foreseen the fervour with which she would pursue her goal despite the detrimental effect it would have on their relationship he may have reconsidered the whole proposition.

When they found out she had polycystic ovaries Alison had cried for days, despite the doctor’s reassurance that it didn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to have children – it might just take longer. When she did eventually fall pregnant she was overjoyed, but her nerves were so frayed after months of treatment and false alarms that she became paranoid about losing the baby – a paranoia that had continued long after both the children were born. Although he knew it sounded dramatic to describe her as a different person to the one he married, in many respects it was true. And he didn’t have the first clue what to do about it.

John parked up outside the school and walked the children inside. It was a typically manic first day of term, with children and staff alike wandering the halls with confused expressions, timetables in hand. As they passed the staff room John heard a man’s voice say “welcome to the mad house,” and a woman’s reply, “thanks. It’s great to be here.”

John stopped in his tracks and turned around. He dropped the kids’ hands and took a few steps closer to the staff room, craning his neck around the door. Sure enough, in the middle of the room was a familiar slender form. Even from behind he could tell it was her, there was something unmistakeable about the way she held herself; something proud and assured. She turned around and gasped as her eyes met his. “John,” she breathed.

“Hello Jen.”

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I love this image, taken in northern India. It captures something magical and indefinable.

You had me at first click – Part Five

In truth she had been tempted to tell John about her plan, but at the last minute Jen had hesitated. Not because she didn’t trust him – she trusted him with her life – but because she didn’t want him to feel like he had to come. Before the attack she had been fairly confident he would come of his own volition, but afterwards there was a nagging doubt that he would feel an obligation to act as her protector rather than her friend, and she didn’t want to be responsible for that. So she left. Alone and in the dead of night, with only a small rucksack of belongings.

She’d dreamed of being free for so long, yet now it was happening she felt apprehensive. How would she survive once her meagre savings had been used up? What would she do? Where would she live? But, frightened as she was, the overriding emotion she felt as she slipped out of the front door and heard it softly click behind her was relief. Sure, she would miss her mother, but to save herself – her body and her mind – she had to get as far away from that place as possible.

Because there was one thing that nobody knew but Jen, and it was a secret so terrible that she feared she’d have to take it to her grave. The day that John had found her lying face down in the mud she had indeed been attacked, but not, as he thought and she had subsequently let him believe, by a stranger. The attack had been the culmination of years of abuse. That day, on a bed of autumn leaves and within earshot of her childhood best friend, she had been raped by her own father.

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I took this picture at Singapore Zoo. It’s one of my favourite nature shots from my travels.