Chasing Sunset

I wrote this for the Creative Ink Writing Prompt, but also for a special friend, my twin soul, who is forever chasing summer, and who turns 30 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Twin xx

She had always loved sunset; the romanticism of one day coming to a close, with the promise of another soon to follow. Flying at sunset was the best, that feeling of cheating time. But it was all too fleeting. You could never cheat time, not really. And that was why she had to leave.

Liv’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She slipped her hand inside and pressed down on the power button until she was sure she had killed it. She couldn’t risk the onset of unwanted emotion. The only way out of this was cold stoicism. And when she got there, well, then she could deal with things once and for all. It would be over.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but the red-rimmed sky had finally succumbed to the blackness of night. Liv rolled her neck from side to side, wincing as she cricked it back into place. The cabin was dark, save for occasional spotlights beaming down onto insomniac passengers like alien spacecraft.

Something brushed her hand, making her jump. It was the little girl sitting across the aisle. By Liv’s estimation she was four, maybe five. Tight black curls and fresh pink lips. Cherubic. Liv looked across at the girl’s mother. She too was beautiful, or at least she would have been were it not for the trail of dribble descending from her open mouth.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

“Hi,” Liv whispered back, ignoring the tightness in her chest. Her heart.

“I’m Becky. What’s your name?”

“Liv.”

The girl regarded her with such a look of scrutiny that Liv felt unnerved. Of course she didn’t know her secret, she couldn’t know it. And yet.

“Can we be friends?”

Liv smiled. “Of course.”

Becky’s face shone from the inside out. Her lips parted to reveal a gap-toothed smile. Liv wondered if she was perhaps older than her original estimation. She watched as the girl reached into the pocket of her pinafore dress, screwing her face up in concentration as she tried to retrieve something. Eventually she pulled her hand out with a flourish, extended her arm and unfolded her fingers. In the centre of her palm was a turquoise stone. “Take it,” she said.

Liv picked up the stone and ran her finger along its surface. It was smooth and round, and though it was dark she could make out flecks of glitter in its swirling pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s yours,” the girl replied.

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…” She offered the stone back to the girl, but she shook her head and refused to take it.

The girl’s mother stirred beside her, opened her eyes and looked down at her daughter. She followed her gaze to Liv, and when her eyes alighted on the stone in Liv’s hand her breath caught in her throat. “Becky, darling,” she said, her voice measured but tense. “Why did you give this lady your stone? Don’t you want it?”

The little girl looked up at her mother and shook her head. Her mother smiled as if this meant something momentous, but Liv had no idea what. “Thank you,” she said to the girl. “I will treasure it forever. Truly.” The girl’s mother smiled, and Liv noticed she had tears in her eyes. She blinked and looked away. Nothing more was said.

When they had touched down and were waiting to disembark the plane, Liv found the courage to turn on her phone. It buzzed immediately. She had known it would. Before she looked at the message she went through the motions of passport control and baggage reclaim. As she stood at belt six, there was a tap on her arm. It was the girl’s mother. The little girl was playing with a doll several feet away, lost in her fantasy. “I wanted to explain what happened on the plane,” the woman said. “It must have seemed strange.” Before Liv could reply, the woman spoke again. “You see, Becky lost her twin a year ago. In a car accident.”

Liv felt her lungs deflate. “I’m so sorry. How terrible for you both.”

Despite her brightly coloured and expertly applied makeup, the woman’s grief was obvious. But Liv sensed something else behind the sadness, maybe a spark of hope? “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” she said. “And for Becky, well, it’s hard to imagine how deeply this has affected her. She’s only five, and the two of them were thick as thieves.” She looked over at her daughter. “The thing is, that stone she gave you on the flight. It belonged to her sister.”

Liv pulled the stone out of her pocket. “Please, take it back. I would never have taken it if I’d known.”

The woman smiled. “But that’s the thing. She wanted you to have it. For a year she’s carried it around with her everywhere, desperate not to let it out of her sight. Her therapist said it was part of the grieving process, that she would let go of it when she had turned a corner. And now, well, now it seems she has. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you said or did on that plane, thank you.”

The woman called her daughter and they turned to leave. As they walked away Liv heard the woman ask why she had given the stone to the lady on the plane. The girl replied: “She needs it more than me Mummy. Turquoise is for strength, she has to be strong for her daughter.”

The arrivals hall began to spin. Liv steadied herself on her trolley. She put a hand to her tummy and stroked it. How had the girl known? She couldn’t have known. Remembering the message on her phone, Liv took it out and read it. It was from Mark, of course. Just seeing his name on the screen choked her up.

Seven words.

The best she had ever seen:

I KNOW. I LOVE YOU. COME HOME. X

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Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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Friends Like These

Last Friday, UK-based social media news feeds were awash with post-election bitterness. Profanities, accusations and rudeness abounded between those who were – according to their profile descriptions if not evidenced elsewhere that day – ‘friends’ with one another. Characterised by a desire to shove opinions down each other’s throats whilst savagely and wantonly disregarding the pesky facts of emotional sensitivity and human decency, this was a war of attrition using words as weapons. And by God was it unpleasant.

To quote a friend who has herself been subject to recent politically-charged vitriol:

“Friendship does not spout vile names. It involves two parties making equal effort. It involves honesty delivered with tact and kindness. It involves laughing, a lot. It involves knowing when to step in and when to step back. It involves communication, balanced and regular. Anything that feels one-sided and wrong, probably is.”

Friendship isn’t always easy. As individuals (the clue is in the name), we will rarely find people with whom we always agree. But that’s okay, because being challenged in our views is the best way we can grow – so long as those who are challenging us do so in a way that is considered, measured and, above all else, respectful. Without mutual respect, friendship cannot exist. In its place is a barren wasteland of forced opinions, deaf ears and closed hearts. This world is full enough of hatred as it is. If we turn on those closest to us, what hope is there for a better future?

Another feature of friendship that is paramount to its survival is honesty. So many people let the behaviour of so-called ‘friends’ go unchecked, despite it impacting negatively upon them, because it’s easier to put up and shut up than it is to rock the boat by being honest. But if you can’t be honest with the person in question, can you truly call your relationship a friendship?

Finally, and most importantly of all, friendship cannot flourish without kindness. When we are going through our own struggles, it is easy to forget that others have theirs too. We cannot change the way others behave towards us during challenging times, but we can try to understand and forgive negative words and behaviour, and stop ourselves from getting drawn into a vortex of negativity.

We are, all of us, only human, and our time on earth is short. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have, so instead of squandering it we would do well to work on nurturing it.

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Friendship

Tonight I shirked the plethora of imminent-house-and-country-and-job-move responsibilities that have been piling up on me of late in favour of a night out with my girls. Four of them, to be specific, each precious to me in ways I won’t go into now, except to say they’ve always been there for me, and for that I’m truly grateful. One of these gorgeous girls is a mother, two are mums-to-be, and whilst it’s clear we are all moving on with our lives (“growing up,” some might say, though I think I speak for us all when I say we loathe that term) what is also unequivocally clear is that no matter what twists and turns we face on the journey of our lives, we face them as a united front, ‘one for all and all for one,’ as the old adage goes. We may not all be together that often, but when we are together the magic of our bond is stronger than ever. I know no matter where I am in the world these girls have got my back, and there is just no feeling like the one I feel right now, knowing that, and realising how lucky I am.

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Rejecting Stasis and Embracing Change

sta·sis

  1. motionless state: a state in which there is neither motion nor development, often resulting from opposing forces balancing each other
  2. state of no change: a state in which there is little or no apparent change in a species of organism over a long period of time.

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” – Henri Bergson

As you might have guessed from the above definition and quotes, in recent days I’ve been ruminating on the nature of change. This is, I suppose, unsurprising given that my immediate friendship groups are currently undergoing a lot of it. Some people have had babies, others are moving abroad, and it’s all a bit, well, unsettling if I’m honest. Which is only natural. If we weren’t scared of change we’d be robots. Anything that alters the comfortable stasis of our lives is inevitably going to wobble our foundations a little. But surely being wobbled is a good thing?

I’ve always said my greatest fear in life (besides being attacked by a shark or waking up with a tarantula on my face – those two remain the greatest fears of all) is waking up one day and realising I’ve been doing the same thing for the past twenty years. Why? Because there is SO much to DO in this world; so many places to live, so many jobs to try, so many hobbies to take up. Why wouldn’t we take every opportunity that’s offered to us? Why not make the most of every moment? It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, to fall into a career that doesn’t grab you and to follow that trajectory to the grave. Making fundamental changes IS terrifying, but sometimes it’s the only way to pull ourselves out of the slough of despond so many of us reside in for our entire adult lives. As Mark Twain said, “twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did.” I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets about the things I didn’t do. And whilst change does scare me, I’m determined not to let it hold me back.

I’m also determined to stop worrying about the effect of change on my relationships. Just because a person moves away doesn’t mean your friendship will die. If they’re a good enough friend in the first place, that relationship will thrive no matter where you are. Sure, you might see or talk to that person less, but that just means it’s all the more important to make the times you do see and speak to them count.

Life is too short to spend worrying about change and what other people think. Life is for living. And, one way or another, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

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Celebrating Life – and Good Friends

Today I went to Birmingham for the funeral of my good friend’s dad. It was sad and uplifting in equal measures, sad because Brian no longer walks amongst us and he will be sorely missed by those who loved him, and uplifting because so many people turned out to pay their respects. Brian was a larger than life character, and it’s always those people who leave the biggest hole when they pass away. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to know he would have thoroughly appreciated every moment of today, from the sympathetic vicar who delivered the ceremony in exactly the way he had specified before he died, to the inordinately large volume of champagne that was drunk in his beautifully sunny garden afterwards. I know he would have loved the fact that everyone had come together to raise a glass in his honour, and above all else I know he would have been hugely proud of his son, my friend, who has borne his father’s untimely passing with such strength and courage, helped in no small part by his gorgeous fiancé and wonderful family.

It’s on occasions like today I realise how important it is to count blessings. When I looked around me in the crematorium, which was lined wall to wall with people, I really felt the value of the life that had been lost. I like to think I live my own life well enough to ensure a decent turn out to my own send-off, whenever that might be, but that’s not to say I can’t do more in whatever time I have left on this mortal coil to positively contribute to others’ lives, to make them feel valued, supported and loved as they have me. I felt particularly grateful today at the wake, when I recognised the fantastic and extensive support network of friends I still have from university – not something everyone can claim to have sustained a decade after graduation. This friendship group is special and, despite not getting together nearly as often as we’d like, it is also lasting. I know I’m being a soppy cow but sometimes it’s just nice to take a moment to reflect on all the good things. And I’m sure that somewhere up there in the ether, glass of champagne in hand, Brian Simonite is doing just that too. Cheers, Brian.

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New Beginnings

On this Christmas Eve I’m thinking about new beginnings. More specifically, the new beginnings that two of my friends are making – one, in fact, who at this very moment is on a plane from New York to Hawaii to start the next chapter in the rip-roaring adventure that is her life, and the other who is spending Christmas in Bali after losing her boyfriend to a tragic accident earlier this year and returning to Australia without him to rebuild her life.

Both these friends are brave beyond all measure. They have endured the most testing of times and yet have still stood up in the face of tragedy and adversity and said to life, you know what? You won’t beat me, because I won’t let you. Their strength of character both astounds and inspires me.

Jen, the friend en route to Hawaii, is the fellow wanderer and writer who I met in India in 2011. She forged a fantastic life for herself in NYC from nothing, but she knew in her heart it was time to move on and has ignored her misgivings and the doubts of those around her to make this change happen. She is a free spirit in the truest sense of the word and is my muse and spiritual twin (as cheesy as that sounds it’s true).

Sarah, meanwhile, has been to hell and back in recent months after the loss of her wonderful Paul, and yet has borne her loss with a huge amount of dignity, poise and humility. It was incredibly brave to return to Australia so soon after Paul’s death and resume her life there but it seems, from the outside, at least, that the sun and her wonderful friends over there are beginning to work their magic, and whilst I’m certain she will never get over the loss of her love, I’m hopeful she will find in life many other much deserved joys that will bear testament to the fact it can still be wonderful.

So here’s to new beginnings, fresh starts and adventures-may they take us where we want to go, and may they make us richer in spirit and strength than we were before.

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