Reading on the train

December 1 marked the start of the Advent candles and calendars.

I went searching for an anthology of advent poems I’d ordered last year. It arrived late, I hadn’t used it. I found it, together with the Advent candles bought in the January sales. I spent the day travelling north. I went to look at Christmas windows with daughter#3 on the last day of her maternity leave.

The morning train was quiet, I read the advent poem before turning to my book.

Travelling home, I hoped to finish the book club novel. It’s a short and happy book: The girl who reads on the metro. Albeit that the book is set in Paris, I enjoyed the meta-moment of reading a chapter or two on the Tyneside metro.

My train home left from platform 1. I’d not noticed before the strange layout of Central station. With little time to spare, I could see platforms 11 and 12 right in front of me and a sign to platforms 3 to 8 over the bridge. I had to guess that the Cross Country train beyond Costa and Boots was at platform 1.

The train was busy; I found a double seat, sat by the aisle to selfishly guard my privacy. As I opened my book, the woman across the aisle opened her mouth to speak. She was heading home, away from the trauma of a court case. As she left the train at the first stop, she thanked me for listening.

As I turned my eyes back to my book, a man crashed into the recently vacated seat. ‘That’s it, I’ve left. I’m not going back’ he said. He turned to me and asked: ‘You don’t mind if I talk, do you?’

He was travelling further south than me. I put my book aside.

No empty seats

September has arrived and next week, I will be granny to a schoolgirl. Yes, I must be getting older too.

Times are changing quickly. Last week, I met my granddaughters, and their mum, on the train. We were heading into Leeds to see the dinosaurs. The train was busy, very busy. It got busier. It was reminiscent of pre-covid commuting days. No announcements on social distancing; just the regular ‘move down the carriage’ and ‘use all the available space’. So very different from the silent journeys of the last year. We’d overlooked the fact that there was a test match at Headingly.

We had a great day out, but made sure to get home early to avoid another crush.

The Friday writers’ group, still meeting by zoom over the summer, will be back together in September. But we also enjoyed an evening out. We were packed into a local church to hear Simon Armitage read from his work. His stories and poems brought laughter, but he also gave a moving tribute to his Dad, who died this year.

He made no apology for talking bluntly of death and dying. He said that he preferred the harsh real words to euphemisms. I was taken back to a memory of a shopping trip with my Gran. ‘I lost my brother’ said the friend. A pre-schooler, with an enquiring mind, I needed to know why she was in Marks and Spencer and not out looking for the missing brother.

Older now, and maybe just a little wiser, I can recognise the pain of loss, but I can’t deny my admiration for the poet laureate’s realism. I will remember it as I do my best to avoid the use of careless empty words to friends in need of comfort.

Connecting trains

I had a day trip, on the train, to visit my grandson (and his mum) at their home on the North East coast.

Returning home, I arrived at the station early. I often do. I don’t like to rush to catch a train and I don’t mind waiting, watching others rush. I bought my tea from M&S. I love a train journey, and don’t mind delays if I’ve got a decent book.

I did have a decent book, I’m enjoying it on Audible: Miss Bensons Beetle. I couldn’t listen to it. I discovered on the journey that there’s no headphone jack on my new phone. It’s time to upgrade to Bluetooth.

My train from Newcastle was delayed just sufficiently that it seemed I would arrive in York in time to see the tail lights of my local train. In the days of British Rail, a local train would be held if the intercity was delayed.

It was cold and it was dark. I wanted to get home. I’d had an early start. I tweeted northern rail asking what was the chance the local service might wait.

My first tweet was ignored; I had tweeted northern railways India, they couldn’t help.

I deleted and retweeted the more local northern rail. They wouldn’t help.
No they said, it’s only an hour till the next one.

The train pulled in on platform 3; there was less than 2 minutes to cross the bridge to platform 8. I told myself that some can run a mile in less than 4 minutes; this short run should not be a challenge to a running granny.

The train slowed then stopped. The doors opened at their leisure. Back in the day, we didn’t need to wait for the train to stop before we opened the door. Life’s safer now.

I leaped and ran. Not easy running in a mask. A man carrying a suitcase stopped right in front of me at the top of the stairs. I dodged around him, kept running over the bridge.

I made it onto the local train and heard the guard shouting to others following me down the stairs. I tweeted back to northern rail; yes, this granny runs. Maybe not a 4 minute mile, but definitely a useful pace.

Waiting for the 19.02

Wellbeing habits

Today is world mental health awareness day.

Last week, I had coffee with a friend. She reminded me that we all need to make time to look after our mental wellbeing, every bit as much as our physical. It’s not always easy to maintain good habits.

She’s a carer for a relative; she’s been unable to return to employment after an accident at work. She’s on universal credit. Last week’s headlines told of cuts in benefits and escalating fuel prices.

She struggles, but she doesn’t complain. She’s grateful for the support of her local foodbank. When she couldn’t leave her home, they delivered.

I asked how she was managing now. She told me that the first steps out of the door after lockdown were still hard for her. Her turn of phrase resonated with me.

‘When I run, it’s the first steps that are hardest.’ I agreed.

‘Do you still run?’ she asked.

I hesitated.

She noticed that, and persuaded me to commit to putting on my running shoes before I see her again. I thanked her for the motivation. She was pleased to be the one giving out support.

For her, I ran a slow three miles this week. It felt good.

I wonder now, how many times will I need to push myself out of the door before it once more becomes a healthy habit?

Walking at the speed of thought

Home from a long distance walk, I’m aware that the equinox has passed; autumn can be seen in conkers on the ground. It’s a time of rest, of rotting leaves, and new beginnings. The golden colours of this fruitful season glow. This is my season, my time of year.

I’ve been out walking, alone, today. There’s a joy in solitary walking that’s quite different from walking with others, even when they are good friends. Walking in a group brings companionship and common purpose. Walking alone brings solitude, and rhythmic thinking space.

This month, along with Mr A and friends, this granny walked the West Highland Way. Conditions were good: the weather, mostly dry; the few midges remaining at this time of year were kept at bay by a generous supply of Avon ‘Skin so soft’, a thoughtful gift from my neighbour.

We walked the route backwards: North to South. Sometimes it seemed to me that we were rushing, ticking off each of the 96 miles as we made our journey homewards, minds focussed on the end. Were we just trying to get this job done, out of the way, ready to move on to our next task?

Existential moments of simply being in the landscape, of walking at a steady thinking pace were too few for me. Time to enjoy the journey, to breathe along the way, felt in scarce supply. It’s left me wanting to return, to walk the other way, unwind the path and straighten out my mind.

A simple enough question

‘What are you reading at the moment?’ asked Jackie.

It was a simple enough question. The answer was more complicated. I’ve got several on the go. The one for the bookshop book club, the one for the road readers’ group, and a history of Scotland that I thought I’d read in anticipation of our holiday next month. Not to mention any number of half read books scattered around the house to dip into when the mood strikes.

It triggered a moment of panic as I tried to give an appropriate and not too rambling response regarding my erratic, and possibly attention deficient, reading habits.

Other, seemingly trivial, questions can provoke a similar reaction in me. The classic two, so beloved by Cilla on Blind Date: What’s your name and where do you come from?

Easy, if you are well rooted in a childhood town, with a clearly defined place of origin. More complicated for those uprooted at an early age leaving their heart on the far side of the Pennines. And then, in adulthood, finding that there is no family settlement to which to return.

As to my name, my label, my designation. I can tell you the name to which I answer on a daily basis – but you won’t find it on my birth certificate or passport. If you want to write me a cheque or buy me an airline ticket, you’ll need to use my proper name. It came as something of a surprise to me too. The day I started school.

The girl who didn’t answer to her name is still looking for easy answers to the simple questions.

Chaos and solitude

We had family celebrations at the weekend. There were birthdays and anniversaries to catch up on. Not least, we celebrated Gigi’s first social outing since Christmas 2019. GG is great gran, last year she astounded us as a Covid survivor.  She’s had window visits from her great grandchildren; this weekend she was finally able to see them without a glass screen.

Four generations gathered in the garden, the weather was kind. There was cake and more to eat. Football, belated Euro 2020, for the sons in law.

It was a little chaotic as we remembered how to socialise. Granddaughter#1 took herself away with a book for a while. With hindsight I am reminded of the childhood me, escaping from noisy adult chatter with an Enid Blyton.

Yesterday, it was my turn to be alone. I dusted down my bike and cycled along the disused railway, over the Nidd gorge and into Ripley. I stopped on the viaduct and leaned against the parapet. I listened to the sound of living water flowing some hundred feet below my feet. Away from the noise of the town, just running water and birdsong. In the green spaces of the town’s edge lands that had sustained me throughout lockdown, I felt restored.

I’d read last week that, some miles upstream, the river had been polluted by silt. Thankfully, I saw no sign of it here. I stayed awhile enjoying the solitude. Alone,with memories of a happy, busy weekend; and wondering when we might all be together again.

Pause, breathe, rest ;

Running uphill, battling against the wind, I am always grateful for the chance to pause and rest as I wait for the traffic lights to change in my favour.  

The motivation to run is slow to return. My target is not ambitious: a reasonably paced parkrun when it returns next month. Just 5k, run without a break. I have a regular 5k route. It’s punctuated by opportunities to rest as I wait to cross the road.

Semi-colon moments; a time to pause and breathe. I love the beauty of a semi-colon.  I know that not everyone shares my view; we talked about them at our writers’ group.

‘You punctuate like an accountant,’ said J, a beautifully poetic writer.

‘Do you mean my writing is as exciting as a financial risk report?’ I asked. ‘Or, as dull as a debtors listing?’

 ‘No, I mean you’re very precise.’ She laughed; I took it as a compliment.

And now, today, I discover another benefit of semi-coloning. It really is a chance to pause, to take a deep breath. Less final than a full stop, stronger and longer than a comma; it’s used when a sentence could have ended, but didn’t. It’s been adopted as a symbol for mental wellbeing; it’s an antidote to the full stops of anxiety, panic and even suicidal thought.

I’m proud to celebrate the semi-colon; pause, breath deep and carry on.

Facelifts

Post lockdown haircut day: my hair is tidied up. Embracing its four months growth, I kept a softer look; I celebrate my grey.

The faded bench in the garden; mature silvered teak, bought at an offer price we could barely afford over 30 years ago, has also had a face lift. There was an advert in the Sunday paper, declaring it to be a bargain. I sent off the coupon, with a cheque, posted in a small brown envelope. That was how we bought things in the eighties.

It’s lasted well, done good service. But it was beginning to look in need of a little care. ‘Maybe it needs some oil’, I said, ‘to keep it moisturised’. No sooner said than done, Mr A is nothing if not thorough. He likes things kept in shape.

I came home to find him hard at work. ‘That oil looks dark’, I said. ‘I hope that it will fade.’ ‘It’s wood stain’, he replied. ‘Teak. I couldn’t find the oil.’ He stood back, agreed it didn’t look so happy with its fake tan look. He power washed it, but the stain has sunk in deep. Perhaps it will fade back over time, we agreed.

He’s repentant and forgiven. And we’re both a little sad. It’s only a bench, past its prime, but still much loved. It’s screaming at us rather loudly, rather than blending in right now.

Birthday adventurers

It was Pauline’s birthday last week. Some of us from the Friday writers’ group planned to meet together, under the rule of six, to celebrate. We booked tickets to visit RHS Harlow Carr Garden. The sun shone down on us, blessing the day, lighting Pauline’s bright red hair to perfection.

This group has supported one another through the toughest of years. A year of change and isolation that none of us had anticipated. A year of plans ditched, dreams shattered, a year of bereavement.

It’s been a year of opportunity too. In the internet age we came together via Zoom and WhatsApp. Friendships deepened, new friends arrived. Some arrived in the flesh, in 3D for the first time for the birthday celebration.

We gather together, online for now, each Friday, dare to call ourselves writers, give each other the courage to do it. We have written poems, memoirs, stories, even a radio play. We laugh and cry together.

We’d gone to the gardens to read the poetry tweets scattered around like seeds. They went largely unnoticed in the chatter and celebration of being together. Until that is, Pauline announced: ‘I am 70. I am going to sit down for a while.’ She sat, just by a poem that we had previously debated over WhatsApp.

We had already agreed that this piece was not our favourite. But we also agreed that we will be adventurers in our writings.