The First Mrs. Rochester, reborn

…that’s me.

I reckon the poor lady locked up in an attic in “Jane Eyre” just needed some TLC and maybe some progesterone and she, like me, would have passed for normal.

I nearly blew a gasket this morning in class. I MEANT to deliver a calm oration reminding them that gum was outlawed and so on, but what happened was thankfully mostly internal. I somehow controlled the volcanic eruption that came boiling up like overheated sugar, and all that really showed was me raising my voice above my comfort level and getting a little red in the face. I felt my blood pressure surge as the accumulated anger, ansgt and fury of just about everything decided to have a party in my soul and what should have been a mildly sharp telling-off almost got out of control. In my head, I ran rampage with an axe, hacking bits of students, throwing tables out of windows and chasing my head of department with a Kalashnikov. As I felt the surge of blood, I tried to pull back and I must have done so because the rest of the morning went remarkably well; I didn’t have to yell at them again, and none of them were cowering away from me as I walked round the class, marking work and chatting.

But really, I felt dreadful. I’d spent about half an hour on the phone last night trying to speak to someone at NHS direct because I’d been having such severe chest pains I was really worrying I was about to have a heart attack. NHS direct were too busy to speak to me, because of swine flu, so I gave up and I guess it must all have been hysteria because I woke up at 6.30 this morning, and nothing worse occurred. I’ve still got chest pains but I think it’s just stress now. Walking to work, I would have welcomed a minor run-in with a car; not enough to kill or maim, just enough to not have to go to work and maybe get a sympathy card from work mates.

At break, I discovered my period had just started so some of the madness will subside, now. But the fact was that the students nearly saw me lose it in a big way and really, it wasn’t due to them at all. It felt like all my anger at so many things was just waiting for an opportunity to escape.

I need a holiday, I need something to keep me calm and stop this insane anger. And it’s just not going to happen any time soon. So it’s up to me to try and limit damage until I can figure out a better way to live with who and what I am and how I react to the world. An island of my own would be nice…

The Parable of the Goldpanner

The Parable of the Goldpanner



  Once upon a time there was a young man who ran away to seek his fortune. He had heard that men could get rich by mining for gold and so he travelled to the gold fields only to be told that the mines were all but exhausted of gold but he could still find gold by panning for it in the streams that flowed from the mountain. Much gold still remained inside the mountain; indeed, far more remained than had ever been taken out but it had become too dangerous and expensive to go any deeper into the mountain and dig for gold and so men contented themselves with the gold that washed from the heart of the mountain. Indeed, this gold was known to be purer and need less processing before it could be used. In ancient times, the nuggets were simply taken and washed before being skilfully beaten and shaped into rings and cups of astonishing beauty. Now, gold that had been mined had to be crushed and heated and treated with dreadful chemicals to extract the pure gold and by the time the finished product was ready it had cost almost as much to produce as it was now worth.

   On his first day the young man stood knee deep in the icy waters that rushed from the heart of the mountain and panned and panned till his back ached and his feet and legs became numb with the cold. All the while he squinted into his pan and every so often he would shout out with excitement and pick out something and stuff it swiftly into his leather pouch. At the end of the day, he ran, tired and cold as he was to the Valuer’s tent and poured out his day’s finds expecting to go home to his family that day, rich beyond belief. A long silence followed that was followed by a low rumble of laughter, first from one man and then from all the men present.

  “Why are you laughing?” he asked, bewildered and angry that they should mock him so.

  “Because all you have found here is Fool’s Gold,” said the Valuer, wiping his eyes of tears of mirth. “Every man here did this on his first day. Until you know what gold really looks like, you will think that this mineral here is it. Let me show you.”

  The older man pulled from his pocket a small leather bag and extracted from it a small rough lump that shone like the morning sun rising above the hills. It was brighter and somehow purer in colour than the iron pyrites that he had shown the Valuer, and instantly the young man knew what it was he was actually looking for.

  “The old man who taught me gave me that lump so I would know what I was looking for and not be misled by fakes and forgeries. And now I am giving it to you because sometimes when the winter sun fails to shine and you are cold and miserable, you will need to look at the true gold so you can remember what you are seeking,” said the older man. “And one day, you will pass this nugget onto someone else so they too know what they seek.”

  So the young man returned to his icy stream bed and began again. Sometimes he would see a gleam that made his look again but it only took a second before he knew he was once more looking at Fool’s gold and he would sigh and carry on.

  Weeks passed and then months and all the time he carried on looking, his small reserve of money dwindling each day that passed until one day he had no money left to buy food. He looked at the gold nugget the Valuer had given him and considered whether he should sell that so he might eat that day, but after looking at it, he realised that he would maybe one day forget what true gold looked like and be led astray once more. So he put the nugget away and carried on swirling the water and sediment in his pan and suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, he saw first one and then another tiny lump of pure gold. All that day he worked and when he trudged back to camp, he had enough gold to sustain him for weeks.

  As the years passed, the young man accumulated gold, and slowly and steadily he grew richer and older until one day, standing knee deep in the water of his stream, his bones started to ache with cold and tiredness like they had never done before and he waded back to the banks of the stream and sat down.

  “All I have had of this stream, I have spent and enjoyed so very little,” he said to himself. “I have bought food and only the necessaries of life. Maybe it is time I began to enjoy the gold I worked so hard for.”

  So packing up his kit he walked back to the camp, which by now had become a small town, and went to the Valuer’s tent to say goodbye to his old friends.

  “I’m going back home,” he told them. “I have enough now that I can support my parents and maybe even marry my sweetheart and start our own family.”

  As he started to leave the tent, a second young man came in. His eyes were filled with feverish excitement that the first young man recognised at once.

  “I’m rich, I’m rich,” shouted the new arrival, pouring out on the Valuer’s table the spoils of his first day’s work.”

  The laughter that had seemed once so mocking now seemed friendly and rueful, the recognition of a mistake the men had all made in the past. The new youngster’s face became red and angry and he seemed almost in tears with frustration.

  “I’ve never seen gold before,” he admitted, sweeping his pile of Fool’s Gold to the floor in his disappointment. “How am I supposed to know if no one has ever shown me?”

  The first young man, no longer so very young or so very foolish, went over to the other man and put his hand out.

  “Here,” he said. “This might help.”

  In his hand was the gold nugget he had once been given to help him know what true gold is.

  “But don’t you need it any more?” asked the newcomer.

  “No,” said the first young man. “You see, after all this time, I think I will always know gold when I see it. And I have found enough gold of my own now to be able to be sure I will always know how to find more if I need it.”

  And so our not-so-young man walked away, and went home to his family richer and dare I say, wiser than when he had set out years before.








Negative serendipity

We all know the concept of serendipity- the happy accident, the coming together of plans and so on in a harmonious way.

Well, I have a talent for the complete opposite. I’d like to coin a phrase for it but the best I can come up with is negative serendipity.

Let me give you a f’r instance. About two years ago I was in a pub in Colchester, having done a tour and had adjourned with colleagues for lunch. I was standing at the bar waiting to give our orders for food and drink and since it was quite busy, I started chatting with the two guys propping up the bar. One of the beers available that day was called Nelson’s Revenge and I mused aloud about whether that was what the sailors got when they drank the brandy that had been used to preserve the body when it was shipped home after Trafalgar. “Mind you,” I said carelessly. “There wasn’t a lot of him to ship back anyway so it was presumably a small barrel.” The guy closest to me gave me a nasty look and I wondered what I’d said. I thought maybe he was a big fan of Nelson and I was being less than respectful.

But then my tray of drinks appeared, and as I turned to go, the guy I had been chatting with also turned, my way this time and I nearly dropped my tray when I saw he had only one eye and only one arm. He’d had his good side showing to me all the time we’d chatted.

I scuttled back to my table, crimson with confusion and shame and told them what had happened.

I mean, what are the chances of that happening? I don’t think it can be calculated. I could give you example after example of my ineptness, my appalling talent for negative serendipity, but you’d think I was making them all up.

Maybe I should just stop talking. I only open my mouth these days to change feet.


I’ve just crawled out of bed an hour or two ago, after arriving home at 2.30am after a 25 hours shift. I was utterly knackered when I got in but actually I feel worse now, all muzzy and woozy.

But what makes it worse is the crippling self doubt that follows on the heels of any enterprise I undertake. The feelings that I might have messed up or not pleased, or got things wrong and not noticed. In the cold light of day, it was a good trip; nothing went wrong as such, no one got hurt, lost, robbed or otherwise inconvenienced. I think the teachers were so tired when I left them at their school at 11.30 last night that giving the humble courier any real feedback was beyond them; the leader thanked me and that ought to be enough. But I have to do these things almost in a sort of vacuum, because I haven’t ever seen anyone else do it; I’ve just had to make it up as I go along and I am terrified, no, PETRIFIED that I am somehow making a hash of it all and people are too polite/kind/reluctant to cause trouble to say anything. That was my fourth European trip; my boss is trying to make sure I get new groups where possible and she tells me she has every confidence in me. That ought to be enough. But it isn’t. As well as being worn out, I’m in a kind of inner agony in case I didn’t do as good a job as I want to do. I do this in my other job too; I worry that because the kids don’t greet me as their long lost friend that I’m not a good enough teacher.

I think I fear at a very deep level that on every level I am simply not good enough.

And I hate it. I hate the day after a party, an event, an anything because I wonder if I did OK. It’s kind of a need for approval (thank you J!) and because I have a very thin emotional skin, it all hurts.

I’m getting ready to go out to a barbeque with our Bee group this afternoon so at least I’ll have something to take my mind off it soon. But for a few days I will actually be worrying that there’ll be a letter arriving on my boss’s desk saying I was rubbish or worse, complaining I did things badly or not at all.

I do hope there isn’t any alcohol at the BBQ that I might actually like, because I feel like getting drunk and that really isn’t a great idea.

Getting ready…or not!

OK, where’s my passport?

Right, I put it in my messenger bag with the company euros and my euros.

So where’s the bag? Ah, I see it, next to my rucksack for a day’s supplies of food and my clipboard. Is my itinerary still in the clipboarc? Yes, and my notes and the ferry booking and the sweet factory booking. Calm down, no one has touched them.

Where’s my phone? Where’s my freakin’ phone? Like I said, calm down, it’s in the other room charging up.

Company motto: P.M. T. It stands for Passport, Money, Tickets. If you got those, everything else is irrelevant. Actually, it’s the informal motto. I don’t think we have an official motto. It also stands for Pre-Menstrual Tension which about sums up the state I get into immediately before a trip.

I panic, briefly and quietly about everything. I’m full of what ifs and anxiety. I check things six times. If I do this I may have a chance of dropping off to sleep tonight, because my working day tomorrow starts at 1.30am and ends at 2.30am on Saturday. So I’ll be off to bed around 7pm tonight, having hung up my clothes ready in the spare room, and packed everything but the perishables in the rucksack. When I get up at 1am, I’ll fill my flask with boiling water, stuff my sarnies in the rucksack, slap on some makeup and be on the doorstep in time for my boss to ferry me to the coach depot. I aim to have a doze on the coach before we get to the school I’m escorting to Boulogne for the day because once we start, I can’t sleep; I’m on duty then.

So shortly I’m off down to Tesco’s to get my supplies (the budget for day trips is so tight there’s no spare for food; this isn’t a problem but it does mean I need to take what I need) then I shall transfer all I need from my usual capacious handbag into the rucksack and messenger bag. The messenger bag is for vital items I won’t let leave my body, like passport and so on, and the rest of the stuff is made up of things that make travel more congenial, like wet wipes and so on.

I’m going to be away from home about 26 hours, all told, maybe a little less. I do enjoy these trips; I wish I got more of them and the plan is that I will. I’ve got an overnighter provisonally booked for November already, and others that are in the pipeline, like a five day trip along the Rhine next year. They are exhausting in the extreme but very rewarding.

The trouble is I run around like a blue arsed fly the day before as I make sure I have everything. I’ve even asked my boss to get me to show her my passport before we leave my road. I like the belt and braces approach; I’d hate to end up with an involuntary debagging because of lack of forethought.

So wish me luck!

Vital petition


I don’t usually get into the whole petition thing but this one is an issue close to my heart.

Please go to the following link and add your name to the petition concerning urgent action regarding climate change.


This is a short story that is part of an ongoing project to incorporate some of the more interesting Greek myth characters and themes into a modern setting. This one comes as a part of the cycle that includes the story, “Snag” published here a while ago


   A spinning wheel in motion was the most incongruous thing you might find in a hospital lobby and it made her look twice. In the foyer of the maternity unit there was a row of small stalls next to the WRVS shop. She dimly recalled noticing adverts for the forthcoming charity craft fair raising money for the pre-term baby unit but it hadn’t really sunk in properly. Given recent events, a few old ladies selling tea cosies and home made jam didn’t seem important and if it hadn’t been for the elegance and compelling motion of the wheel in action she might well have passed on by without a second glance. But she was early and it would be better than sitting yet again in the hospital canteen drinking endless cups of unwanted tea to pass the time.

  She turned back. Most of the stalls were much as she’d expected; collections of handcrafted greetings cards, tissue box covers sewn from scraps of damask and velvet to turn a bedroom to a boudoir, and the ubiquitous knitted teddy bears and matinee jackets. Thankfully there wasn’t a jam jar in sight; the nearest equivalent was some rather nicely packaged jars of skin crème and bath salts. She’d delayed approaching the stall with the spinning wheel for reasons she couldn’t quite place; the girl working it seemed as unlikely as the wheel itself. While all the other ladies running the other stalls were the expected granite-haired grannies, this girl looked too young to be out of school. Yet she wielded the wheel with the skill and assurance of a professional. A wicker basket sat on the floor next to the wheel, spilling over with wool ready cared for spinning; she thought at first the wool was yellow but as she looked again she saw it had an odd tinge of old gold to it. It made her think obscurely of high hills and the smell of thyme with the sunshine upon it, and long ago holidays. Where had those holidays been now? All she could remember suddenly was the glory of blue skies and intensely blue seas.

  The girl glanced up at her, and let the wheel slow.

  “Can I help you?” she asked.

  Her voice was deeper than you’d expect from a girl that young; well modulated and ever so slightly unfamiliar, as if she had the trace of an accent that hinted at distant shores left long ago in early childhood. Yet the girl was fair, startlingly so, and with grey eyes.

  “Shouldn’t you be in school?” the woman asked.

  The girl smiled as though she were asked this all the time.

  “I’m older than I look,” she said. “Much older. See anything you like?”

  She gestured to her stall, which the woman now saw was arranged with the tiniest baby clothes imaginable. They almost looked like doll clothes. As she browsed through them, in wonder, she saw that they were knitted from the same wool the girl was spinning. Spun and knitted, it glowed.

  “Is there metal wire in this stuff?” she asked, rather sourly. “Like some of those Indian skirts that are shot through with threads of metal?”

  “No,” the girl replied. “That’s the just the way the wool is. No threads of gold, no. That would be scratchy and unpleasant. And these are only for newborns.”

  The woman picked up one of the tiny garments, and almost dropped it in surprise.

  “It’s so soft,” she said, astonished. “It’s so soft I can scarcely feel it and yet its like velvet. Not like wool at all.”

  She held the little jacket in her fingers, stroking the surface.

  “It’s the sheep,” said the girl. “The wool comes from a very rare breed. My family brought them over from Greece a long time ago. It’s the softest wool in the world.”

  “I’d love a jumper or a cardigan in it,” the woman said, longingly. “Do you do commissions?”

  “Sorry,” said the girl. “The wool is very precious and rare and I only make these baby clothes. It’s the best wool in the world for baby clothes.”

  The woman still held the jacket and she glanced now at the price tag.

  “But this is so cheap!” she exclaimed, in surprise.

  The girl shrugged and smiled.

  “It is for charity,” she said. “And babies thrive when they wear this wool.”

  She turned her attention back to her wheel and the motion made the woman feel softly dizzy, in a nice way, as she watched it. On the main body of the contraption there was a name carved into the shining wood.

  “Is that your name?” she asked the girl, pointing to the carving.

  “It’s an old Greek name,” the girl replied. “A family name.”

  “Clotho doesn’t sound very Greek to me. Are you Greek then? You really don’t look it.”

  “We’re an old Greek family, yes. You might even say ancient. But it’s a myth that Greeks must be dark. The original Hellenes were blonde. Both my sisters are fair too.”

  The wheel hummed as it turned and the girl’s hands seemed to be turning the fluffy cream clouds of unspun wool into pure gold. The thread spun on the spindle shone in the dull light of the foyer. Balls of it lay ready-wound in another basket at the girl’s feet.

  “So what do your sisters do?” the woman asked, as the spinning lulled and calmed her nerves.

  “My closest sister, well, you might say she works as a life coach. She helps people sort out their lives. So does my oldest sister. She’s a doctor. A consultant.”

  “Do you want to be a doctor when you’ve finished your studies?”

  A small, amused smile turned the corners of the girl’s mouth upwards.

  “I’m happy with what I do,” she said. “I like working with my hands and what I make helps people.”

  The woman turned with jacket indecisively over. Her hands were not work roughened and yet she could scarcely feel the wool at all, and she could feel her hands becoming warmer and softer and almost cocooned. It was a strange feeling. Her mind was still full of the image of the body in an incubator upstairs, more like a shaved starved monkey than a human baby. Today, she knew she would be saying goodbye and yet, in all the rush and terror of the last days, she’d not been able to give this brief, unexpected grandchild a single gift.

  “Can I have some bootees as well?” she said, and the girl nodded.

  “They’re at the end,” she said. “Put the money in the box. I can’t stop the wheel now or I’ll break the thread. And that’s a thing I try to avoid.”

   Taking the bootees and the little jacket, she put money in the box, far more than the prices asked and walked on, tears beginning to prickle at the corners of her eyes.

  Upstairs, she saw her daughter first, still terribly ill but starting to recover from the physical distress of the last few days and then went into the room where the incubators stood. The tiny naked body inside was so still she wondered if the baby was already dead. The tubes emerging from the minute body seemed wider than the thread-thin limbs.

  “He’s not going to last long,” the nurse said, bluntly. “It’s a matter of time now, I’m afraid. We’ve done all we can. I am so sorry.”

  Biting her lip, the woman nodded.

  “Then you won’t mind if I dress him,” she said. “I’d like to do that for him at least.”

  With the expert assistance of the nurse, the bootees and jacket were put on the baby, who moved softly under their hands. He felt more like a mouse than a baby, she thought.

  “Now we wait,” said the nurse. “Your daughter…?”

  “Bit better. Conscious but pretty ill.”

  They watched in silence. A hand no bigger than a spider twitched out and caught a hold of the jacket. It had seemed ludicrously tiny on the stall but even this dwarfed the baby. The bootees looked like they were meant for a giant, coming up to the knees. The hand began kneading the wool, playing through the soft plush of the surface.

  The woman sighed.

  “Well, he seems to like it anyway,” she said and the nurse passed her a box of tissues and took a handful herself.

   The day passed. And night. And another day. The woman slept at the side of her grandchild’s plastic crib, refusing to go home. She kept vigil, assisting the procession of nurses who turned the baby and cared for his needs, and spent few minutes away keeping her daughter up to date.

  “It’s amazing,” she said, as evening fell for a second time. “You won’t believe the difference. He even opened his eyes earlier. His colour’s better. The nurses won’t say it when the doctor is there but it’s a miracle.”

   When it was clear the tide had firmly turned, she allowed herself to be persuaded to go home and as she went through the foyer, she noticed the stalls were still there. But the one at the end was gone. The trestle table remained but was bare. The old lady running the stall next to it looked up.

  “Where did the girl with the spinning wheel go?” the woman asked.

  “Well, she sold everything and has gone,” the old lady replied. “ Raised a whole load of money; more than any of us I think. Funny child she was too. Talented. I don’t know anyone of that generation who can knit at all, let alone as well as that lassie did. Though she spun the whole day she was with us. Never saw her knit. She was spinning even when we all packed up and left for the night too. Oh, she said to say to you, if you came back, that she didn’t let the thread break. Like I said, funny child.”

  “Thank you,” said the woman. The empty table looked strange. Bare and blank like a fresh piece of paper. Or a new life. A faint gleam caught her eye; on the floor next to the table was a single snippet of the wool the girl had been spinning. She picked it up and held it. The wool felt as warm as if it had been spun seconds ago, and as soft as thistledown. The hint of gold needed the sun now to make it shine, and going out into the gloomy November day, she felt the sun was shining inside her heart and the thread too would always shine when she remembered. Tucking the relic in her purse, she went to the car and drove home, exhausted but ecstatically thankful.

Chance; it’s a fine thing

A colleague’s status update on Facebook caught my eye and set me thinking earlier and it’s got me a little annoyed. He basically commented that “Go in thinking positive things and good things will happen”, but in reference to his students and how his lessons wernt today.

I’m annoyed because I’ve heard this before and while I would agree that a positive attitude is a good place to start the day, I don’t believe that it’s an automatic process that being positive brings on good things. Oh, I do think it can turn around a bad day and all that jazz. But I don’t believe that you create your reality this way. I’ve had loads of times where I have started out thinking positively and then everything has just gone wrong and turned out badly. I’ve also had many times where I’ve thought beforehand the day was going to go badly(like yesterday) and it’s turned out brilliantly (again, like yesterday)

I think it’s pretty much a matter of chance; a whole host of things beyond my ken and beyond my control. And it upsets me when people preach or are smug about “being positive” because once more it throws it back onto blaming myself when things don’t go well. You can do all the right things and nothing works; who do you blame then?

If I give a slightly different example it might help. When my daughter was a baby and a toddler, she was one of those kids that didn’t sleep. She did not sleep through the night, reliably till she was past five or six (actually, she doesn’t now but these days she gets on with it herself!) But I was among a lot of other parents whose kids did sleep and did do all the things they wanted them to do, so I had to listen to them crowing about what wonderful parents they were and how their bedtime routine was perfect blah blah blah. It didn’t matter that I had tried everything in all the books and a few more less orthodox things I found elsewhere. Nothing made any difference. I had a brief moment of glory when one mum had a second child who refused to play by their rules and made life hell for them; this lady had to admit to me that she’d thought that her first child was “good” because of what she and her husband did for it, and that now she could see  it was nothing to do with her and it was all down to that first child being an easy child.

It’s like that with life, really. Sometimes it all falls neatly into place and things work. And other times, every damn thing that can go wrong, does go wrong and no amount of positive thinking can change that. It can help get you through, I admit that but only because you tend to be thankful for small mercies. I came home from one awful day at work last year and all I could say was, “Well, nobody died!”

My colleague is a nice chap and is always cheerful but I do wish he and others wouldn’t assume that things going well is down to them in some mystical way. Logic being what it is, I do wonder if people who think like that also think that things going wrong are somehow their fault but my experience is that they never do.

Life happens. Shit (pardon my French) happens. It’s actually quite rare that it’s anything much to do with us, good or bad; we’re just collateral damage.

English Summer

English summer


The roads weep tears of tar

As the country bakes.

The smell of dust and burning earth

Mingles with the scents

Of barbecues and beer.

Dogs pant, distressed

By this unusual heat.

The puddles that once

Were inland lakes, shrink,

Dry up and vanish,

Leaving cracking mud

Peppered with footprints.

A few days only,

And yet we crave rain,

A cooling breeze at least;

The nights a humid torment,

Skin sticking to sheets,

Mouth parched by 3 a.m,

Head pounding from poor sleep,

We curse the early birds,

The only ones pleased

To see the rising sun.

Lawns yellow, turn to straw,

The earth beneath unforgiving

As concrete or stone,

Holding the heat for hours

And giving it back all night.

Tempers fray, quarrels start,

Passions rise to boiling point.

The long days draw out,

Hellish hot and airless,

Fields whiten with ripening wheat,

The thrips infest my hair,

Tickling and torturing me

With pinpoint irritation

Grown great with weary heat.

Too brief, these days of sun:

Thunder storms relieve us,

The first drops sizzling

As they hit the burning ground.

The air, cool and damp,

Brings fresher nights

And better sleep for all.