Don’t be S.A.D

Much as we may hate to admit it the signs are becoming increasingly harder to ignore; daylight hours are waning, the sun is slowly starting to retreat out of our reach and there’s a desperate aura surrounding the pavement drinkers that says that they know their outdoor drinking days are numbered. In the words of my beloved Game of Thrones (the most amazing TV series since 24, for those of you who may not be familiar with it and have clearly been living beneath a rock for the past year): Winter is coming.

It’s not as if we can bemoan the lack of decent summer weather this year, though as a nation of moaners I’m sure many people will. After last year’s wash out the past few weeks have been almost entirely pleasant – we’ve even had a mini heat wave for goodness’ sake! (Bless). You can’t say fairer than that, eh? And so as the nights draw in we must accept the fact that no matter how well the weather gods treat us, the summer season will never feel long enough.

There will never be enough days spent languishing bare-legged and brown-skinned in the park, or sipping cocktails on a rooftop at the many pop-up bars that spring up like rabbits as soon as there’s a hint of summer blooms scenting the air. We will never eat enough ice cream (FACT), nor spend enough time building sandcastles on British beaches like we did when we were five years old. We will never have our fill of wandering by the river on a hazy summer’s eve as the sun starts its unhurried journey towards the horizon, pulling a veil of pink across the sky.

It’s true that winter creeps up like a thief, wrapping its cloak of darkness around our shoulders almost before we know what is going on. But lest we complain about the changing of the seasons we should remember the positives that each season brings. Winter may be cold and dark but it also offers cosy nights in pubs drinking mulled wine, and even cosier nights in sipping on hot chocolate. It also boasts the accolade of being the festive season, which brings families together and puts delicious food on the table. So you see, it shouldn’t be feared but rather embraced.

The changing of the seasons is Mother Nature’s way of showing us just how wonderful this world we live in really is. Granted, the seasons in this country tend to be particularly harsh, but if it was always summer and never winter would we really appreciate the summer as much as we do? What would we have to grumble about then?

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Escape to the country

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It may be rose tinted glasses syndrome that’s responsible for the long, unbroken childhood summers in that are forever etched in my memory, but I can’t help feeling the last few summers have been distinctly underwhelming here in this great country I call home-which is precisely why I’m squeezing every bit of enjoyment out of this one and have this weekend been down to Devon for a bit of country living in the August sunshine.

City living’s so fast paced it’s easy to get totally swept along with the tide and lose all semblance of tranquility. That’s why I love escaping every now and then to a place where the phone signal and electricity are intermittent and the pace of life considerably more sedate. Not sedate for the people who live here, perhaps, but certainly for those of us who are fortunate to be able to visit once in a while.

At first it’s quite a shock to the system being partially “offline” and adjusting to not having to check your watch every five minutes. But once you have adjusted it’s blissful going with the flow and spending time with nature instead of being constantly “plugged in” to one form of technology or other.

This weekend we’ve been to a village fete – where we spent ages trying to beat one another playing a simple game involving putting bits of pipe onto a board in the fastest time (take that Candy Crush) – and attended the obligatory post-event booze up in the local pub. We’ve also driven and walked through beautiful Devonshire countryside and sat down to a lovely roast pork dinner. If not exactly relaxing (we haven’t really stopped at any point to rest per se) it has at least been refreshing for our minds and bodies to take a break from the normal frenetic London lifestyle. Without the odd weekend like this I think I might go slightly mad, so long may they-and indeed this glorious and long-awaited summer-last.

 

Past Post: A Hard Life

Lucy was asleep on the sofa when Barbara returned from her shopping excursion.

“Hellooo!!” Barbara trilled, “Luceeeee!!”

She sighed and rolled over, making sure she kept her eyes tightly closed so as not to attract attention. If Barbara thought she was asleep she would hopefully leave her in peace. No such luck. For today, it transpired through Barbara’s muffled shouts from the hallway, was the ladies’ bridge afternoon, which meant that Lucy would be fully expected to join in the festivities.

Unable to ignore Barbara’s incessant crashing and banging any longer, she slowly stretched out and peeled herself off the sofa with a heavy heart. Walking into the kitchen, she saw Barbara unpacking several hefty shopping bags. The purpose of this particular shopping trip, like so many others before, had been to purchase ‘nibbles’ for the occasion – a concept that seemed to have been well and truly lost on this particular group of ladies, given the amount of food they systematically shovelled into their cavernous mouths at any one sitting. Lucy often thought it quite a feat that they managed to get the food anywhere near their mouths, such was the amount of blubber surrounding their big pink faces.

Sitting down by the table, she surveyed the pots of brightly coloured additive-laden dips, multi-pack bags of crisps and hugely calorific boxes of cream cakes. Her heart sank even heavier in her chest and she let out an almost imperceptible sigh.

“Oh! Lucy!” Barbara detected her presence and spun around to face her. “You look such a mess!” she gasped, “and the bridge girls will be here in half an hour – what on earth are we going to do with you?”

Barbara, oblivious as always to anyone’s feelings other than her own, continued to berate Lucy without pausing for breath. “You haven’t time for a bath now so we’ll just have to fix your hair and hope for the best. What a shame! I so wanted you to look pretty for our guests!”

Pretty. Lucy couldn’t care less if she looked pretty or not. She just wanted to be treated with some respect. Why was she expected to perform like a circus animal every time those big pink ladies came over? She was sick of being paraded around like a toy.

“I’m six years old!” she thought to herself, “Not a baby!” Crossly, she turned on her heels and stormed out of the kitchen, pausing briefly to cast a mournful look at the cream cakes. How could Barbara gorge herself on such delectable foods when all she fed Lucy was tinned food and leftovers? Whenever Lucy expressed an interest Barbara would say, “You can’t eat this, it’s bad for your digestion.” It really was despicable.

Three hours later the bridge ‘girls’ had gone, leaving a trail of crumbs behind them, trampled into the carpet. Barbara, slightly merry after two glasses of Babysham, was finishing the washing up and singing to herself. Lucy was standing behind her, glowering. Having been forced to watch them devour every morsel on offer, she had almost reached the end of her tether. And if only she could talk she would say so. There was really only one thing that could save the situation and prevent her from walking out for good.

And, at that moment, a miracle happened. Casting aside her rubber gloves on the draining board, Barbara spun around and smiled broadly. “WALKIES!” she warbled. And in that very instant, all was forgiven.

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.

Escape to the country

This weekend I’ve opted out of London life, preferring instead to soak up the glorious sunshine in the sleepy Hampshire village of East Stratton. I’ll admit the weather’s been a stroke of luck; it wouldn’t have been quite as perfect if it had been grey and rainy, though still not that far off.

East Stratton is a picture postcard village, the kind of place the word idyllic was invented to describe. With beautifully restored thatched cottages, a village hall, church and quaint pub (where I’m staying tonight) opposite the village green it’s got pretty much everything a country village needs.

The pub is called the Northbrook Arms. As well as having all the trappings you’d expect from a country pub (including my particular weakness, a real fire) it has several guest bedrooms upstairs which are designed to a very high spec (think satin bed linen and mahogany furniture). It even has an old fashioned skittle alley located in one of the outbuildings, though I can’t say we’ve ventured in there yet (having been seduced by afternoon tea and a game of Scrabble sitting at the pub tables in the village green opposite).

In short, this place is the antithesis of the frenetic London lifestyle that we’ve come here to escape (albeit just for one night). It’s great to know that places like this exist right on our doorstep (East Stratton’s only an hour and a half’s drive out of London). I’ll definitely be reaping the rewards of this little break for some time to come.

 

 

Canggu

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track, a mere fifteen minute taxi ride out of the heaving metropolis that was Kuta. But it was far enough to feel cleansed of the inherent grime that everything in Kuta seemed somehow steeped in, not least the throngs of intoxicated teenagers who lined the street each night after dark, preparing their drink-addled bodies for round after relentless round of vile neon shots. She was far from being a prude or a bore, but something about Kuta had unsettled her, made her feel unsafe and ill at ease. It was as if the town itself was intent on self-destruction and, as such, was taking all who resided there along for the downward spiral of a ride.

The taxi pulled up outside a delicate set of wrought iron gates. She climbed out and paid the fare, hoisting her rucksack onto her back as the taxi pulled away. Set into the lemon-washed wall was a buzzer, which she duly pushed. Moments later a man in a white linen uniform appeared to unlock the gate. He apologised that the owner of the property would not be back until later, and took her to her room. It was a decent size, with flagstone flooring that was cool under foot and a beautiful handmade patchwork quilt on the bed. But it wasn’t the room she had been promised – the room above the swimming pool, which looked out across the paddy fields. This was what she had come for.

The room – her room – would be occupied for a further night, she was told at reception, where two western tourists lounged on oversized cushions beside the small yet beautifully maintained swimming pool. She had felt a stab of disappointment to find other westerners in residence, having naively believed that she alone had found this calm oasis. This was not what she had expected, and a knot of anxiety formed in the pit of her stomach which she repeatedly tried – and failed – to ignore. She asked after food, was told she would have to venture out or order takeaway as they didn’t prepare food on site.

There was nothing else for it. She would go for a walk, explore the local area. Find food. After twenty minutes she realised she was walking in a big circle. She had not passed a single food vending establishment and was beginning to feel tearful when she saw a sign further down the road from where she stood. On closer inspection she saw it was a café. Relief flooded through her as she sat on a red plastic chair and waited to be served. But there was no sign of the owner. Instead, a curtain behind the counter twitched and two high pitched giggles could be clearly heard from the other side.

First one face, then the other, came into view. Two little girls peered out at her. She smiled and they disappeared in a fit of hysteria behind the curtain. The curtain moved again, this time revealing a man with a broad smile. He served her as the children ran around the table, occasionally stopping to sing her a song or involve her in their game. They shared no language but it didn’t matter. The girls were such absorbing company that she was lost in the moment, unselfconscious and somewhere near happy.

Once she had eaten, she regretfully took her leave, the girls waving sadly until she was out of view. When she returned to the homestay the owner had arrived. She too was a westerner, though she made a point of stressing she had been here for many years. She was apologetic about the room mix up, promising to get things sorted as soon as the current inhabitant checked out the following day. In the meantime she suggested her new guest might like to hire a scooter and head down to the beach.

In the absence of a better plan she did as the owner had suggested, and as the wind whipped through her hair and the sun beat down on her tanned skin she had to admit it was a good idea. After ten minutes she arrived at the beach. She parked the scooter and kicked off her sandals, stooping to pick them up from the golden sand. In front of the beach was a restaurant. She took a seat on one of the wooden benches outside and ordered herself a Coke. The beach was long and virtually deserted, save for a handful of surfers frolicking in the shallows and a couple of ponies trotting up and down, their owners on their backs.

Feeling restless, she drained the Coke as soon as it arrived, left a note under the bottle and walked down to the beach itself, covering a fair amount of ground before allowing herself to sit down near the shore. She wiggled her toes in the sand, took a deep breath and lay back with her arms flayed out either side of her. The sky was completely devoid of clouds, and she had to squint to prevent the sun from blinding her. What a ride this past few months had been. She could hardly believe it was almost over.

By the time she returned the late afternoon sun was beginning to set, reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pool. The man in the white uniform appeared with a key, handed it to her and pointed to the room above the pool – her room. The occupant had left not long after she had gone to the beach, he explained in broken English. She beamed at him and ran back to her other room to pack. Ten minutes later she was installed in her own private paradise. She flung open the shutters to catch the final rays of sun as they took one last careful caress of the green shoots of the paddy field. Then, quite overcome, she sank to her knees and wept tears of pure joy.

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track. But it was far enough. 

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This was that place. I remember it still.

 

Simple things

I’ve no plans for this blog to stray too far into my personal life (I’ve made that mistake before) but I feel today is worthy of note, because it’s been the kind of day that makes you feel that everything is just the way it’s meant to be. You know the ones. You wake up next to someone special, the sun is shining and you’ve got plans with good friends whose company make you feel positive and happy. In my case those plans involved two friends, their new baby and a pleasant stroll around Brockwell Park. This was followed by an impromptu brunch with my boyfriend’s friends and a slightly random excursion to purchase wheelie suitcases. Upon our return we donned our running gear and went for a five kilometre jog around Clapham Common. I’m now curled up on the sofa in my slipper socks writing this post and allowing myself the odd moment’s distraction in Location, Location, Location, before changing into my glad rags for a posh (but cheap – you’ve got to love toptable deals) meal at the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant, Portrait, which I’ve read has rather spectacular views across London.

What I’m trying to illustrate by sharing the finer details of my day is that sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make it so worth living; spending time with people who mean a lot to you, eating good food, being good to your body by exercising and getting fresh air, even allowing yourself time to veg out in front of a favourite programme. We live in such a fast-paced world. It’s easy to get swept along without ever taking time to appreciate the things that seem so simple but are, in fact, the most important things of all.

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Talking of appreciating the simple things in life reminded me of this photo I took in Manali in northern India. I was walking by myself when I turned around and saw, perfectly positioned between two tall trees, a cow. I love the way this photo came out, with a romantic haze. It’s one of my favourites from my travels.