Swepstone

Rene Knaap 48/365

Rene 2

Rene and I have spoken quite a lot on the phone recently, the real phone, you know, the plugged in one. It feels a bit like going back in time because when we were small we seemed to be phoning the local Anglican priest a lot; church was at the centre of the village and the centre of our lives in the 1970’s.

My playground was the graveyard that surrounded the church until swings arrived in about 1976. Having the gravedigger as a close personal childhood friend and swinging my legs in the hole as he sank deeper and deeper into the earth is one of my most precious childhood memories. Later, when he had gone, we would have competitions with friends to see who could jump over the hole- lengthways! It was fine with some of the little old ladies, but Sid Sumner, never. The invention of plastic tarpaulin ended that great game. And I stopped going to church regularly in my twenties.

Rene and I met in real life in a cafe because I had asked him to be a referee for me. I sometimes wish someone would come along and blow a whistle and instruct me to sit on the bench but Rene would never be that kind of referee.

We had chatted for about an hour and a half when I told him how hard it is catching people on the landline now and then I announced that I was going to take his photo and turn this chat into a blog post. I’m not sure if that is breaking the rules or not but with the next page 49/365 being dedicated to my lovely French nanny/friend whom I haven’t spoken to in 15 years, I could do with a quiet number 48.

I then begin taking notes which Rene looks unsure about. I try to make it look less like a dictation by writing just the odd word (illegibly) and the focus of our conversation turns towards the phone. Rene tells me what he thinks about the modern use of the phone, ‘it’s all so immediate. People rarely chat, they are more often than not giving messages’ and I chip in that most people now say ‘don’t phone, text!’ They even leave spoken messages telling you to do just that. It’s putting a strain on our talking time but not our voices.

I tell him, as if he is my counsellor (which I suppose he is), that I now really only have two or three friends left to phone in England, it’s all about Facebook now. He calls it ‘The Long Goodbye. You emigrate and expect to keep in touch via modern means but really it’s just prolonging the inevitable.’ He explains that when his parents emigrated from Holland, it was for good and apart from airmail letters you had to cope with having said goodbye for ever. I do visit my homeland in my dreams and my dad used to spend hours on google earth ‘driving’ round his practice after he had emigrated too. And thanks to modern aviation, I shall visit it in person later this year when I am going to be a bridesmaid for a friend outside London. Yes, that’s right, I have two beautiful daughters but my friend wants me as her bridesmaid!

We discuss weddings and Rene tells me that there has been an 80% drop in the number of weddings held in churches. However, there is a couple in New Zealand who went on google earth and thought that our town was the prettiest they had ever seen so he is marrying them in the church later in the year; they have never been here before!

Two coffees, one tea and one hot chocolate later, we head back into the street. I have to tell you that I went to four church services over Easter, Rene and Brett put on such beautiful and peace-loving services, I became addicted. I never thought I’d find a church like my old one back home, and I haven’t, I’ve found a new one and it’s really good.

Offspring on Swepstone Church wall. Dad's ashes are here.

Offspring on Swepstone Church wall. Dad’s ashes are here.

Brett and Rene.

Brett and Rene.

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Damian Buckley 46/365

His first bike, my first camera.

His first bike, my first camera.

I find writing about relatives hard and writing about close relatives harder. I haven’t spoken to my cousin Damian for fourteen years so with that sort of distance, I thought this might be a breeze.

But Damian wins the prize for most time elapsed between phone call and blog post. Three weeks! I didn’t take any notes because it wasn’t going to be a blog call, it was to be a genuine ‘Are you OK?’ call. Word had got to me that big changes were happening in Damian’s life and my first thought was to Facebook him, my second, to phone him.

We were born just three months apart and he had the cool parents- my Mum’s rebellious brother who worked for Levi’s and the beautiful mother whom I used to dream was mine because we shared the same hair colour. Damian, or ‘Geranium’ as the boy next door called him, was the oldest and a boy, I was the third girl and I felt from a very young age that having him on my team was a good idea. I sometimes called him ‘Daisy’.

When we were three (1970) and at a family party, the adults raised their glasses and said ‘Cheers to the Commonwealth Games’. We thought this was the most hilarious thing we had ever heard, so repeated it over and over until it became our motto.

We visited our grandmother as a pair and she set us on gardening and painting tasks from a very young age, feeding us enough Parkin and Flapjack to sink ships. Unpolitically correctly we spent a great many weekends chasing imaginary Germans around the village and creating bunkers, then we would sit down and  tell each other tall stories and long cumbersome jokes where the punchline had to be explained. We rode our bikes ’til the tyres went flat, played endless board games, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ being the number one favourite and when Damian’s dad came to collect him, I ran next to the car to the end of the road, waving as he disappeared out of sight. After a couple of years of coaxing, Damian’s little sister joined our team and then his very little sister Eleanor (Belham 3/365) but by then we were at the ‘Dallas’ watching stage of our lives and she had to watch us watching telly.

Our grandmother used to tell me that her favourite ever memory was seeing Damian and me at 5 years old, on November the 5th, chatting and carrying a lantern down a dark lane together, on our way to light the bonfire. I knew her life had been an interesting one and in my teens would see her wistful face as she repeated this and I’d think ‘Is that really your best memory, Nanna? Just Damian and me walking along in our duffle coats?’

My chat with Damian lasted an hour but could have gone on for three. It was on a mobile. a rule breaking mobile, because he can’t get near to landline just now. He suggested that I turn it into the blog chat; not as a money saving exercise, I think it was more of a dare.

Talking to him for an hour was like an enormous childhood treat.

I pondered what happened to us that we lost touch so badly having been cousins and close for so long. Children happened, that did have an effect, and also we both moved to different countries- he to New Zealand, me to Australia (cheers to that!). I think Facebook was also a factor too as he had a page but hardly used it and too often we think that everyone is touch via this mini broadcasting means, but they’re not. It can be a very one sided communication option.

Listening to his voice takes me right back to a tme when the phones rang non stop; bells interrupting every activity; adults on constant alert, everyone getting told to shush! Really the phones were another reason for us to get out of the house and play.

We shared revelations and stories as if we were five again and I was on an adrenaline high for ages afterwards, running next to his car in my dreams.

The duffles are gone but the lantern burns just as bright.

Damian and me, matching smiles, back row.

Damian and me, matching smiles, back row.

Wayne Williamson 27/365

Wayne comes in at number 27. He wants to be 27 but doesn’t say why and I forget to ask. We have been friends since he was the one on the far left in the hand knitted blue V-neck and I was seated four along the second row.

Wayne in the blue in front of Mrs Rothwell, me in the smock, seated fourth from the left.

Our friendship is 41 years old and his voice hasn’t changed in sound, just in pitch. When he answers the phone he reminds me that we weren’t very close friends at Snarestone C of E primary school (thanks) and I tell him that he used to get on my nerves (you’re welcome).

I think he means that it is quite startling that, with the help of the instrument of Facebook, we are closer now than we have ever been. In 2012, after Wayne and I had spent a year on messenger, he organised a reunion of old mates. It was on the evening after my Dad’s memorial service and was like the cherry on the big medical cake- me chatting to old friends about what my dad had cured them of and remembering when, without anaesthetic, he had freed Wayne’s willy from his zip.

We both have crystal clear memories and catching up on them has been a scream. I can ask him to name the type of car that Geoff Eaton (father of our close mutual friend, Toni) was driving in 1973 and he would remember the registration. I could ask him what type of transportation  Norina’s Italian mum wore dangling from her ears and he would say ‘Silver ships’, wouldn’t you Wayne? And what did she use as a pet name for us all? My baby.

I tell him that I was always in awe of the naughty kids. When I stayed at Toni’s we took over the streets of the village of Snarestone, played ‘Knock-a-door-run’, rode our bikes round in circles in the road, and drank bottles of pop secretly stolen from the village hall. We did impressions of Terry Ashmore buying cigarettes, ’10 number 6 and a packet of matches’ and got chased by the same drunk man outside The Globe repeatedly. We did some other things that are just unspeakable, but it’s not as if any of us got killed is it? Yes it is.

I’m glad when the topic of our friends who have died comes up early in our conversation. In a school where there are only nine in a year group, losing two before they are adults is life changing for everyone. Wayne was in the year above and was close friends with Norina through village life and would have been protective over Roger because of their shared impish streaks. They were all such live wires. In the picture, Norina is three to the right of me and Roger is two down from her.

Both of us remember Roger’s death as if it was yesterday. I remember the stripy socks I was wearing and the cream phone in Scotland that I took the call from Toni on. He remembers the look on the face of the neighbour who came to say that Roger had been knocked off his bike by a motorbike and had died.

Five years later, in 1984 I was in bed fretting about exam results on the 24th of August and my parent’s home help came in to tell me what she had heard on the radio and Norina had died after falling off the back of a motorbike.

Wayne and I discuss their funerals. Children weren’t at Roger’s. My mum went and gave me a minute by minute run down of it all. I remember the hymns and all the details as if I was there.

Norina’s funeral was packed. It was held in the tiny church that we attended as a school and again, nothing is forgotten. I tell Wayne that losing those two has sent my life off in directions that I would never have dreamed of because, at a very impressionable age, I learnt that life can be over in a second. And if it can end that quickly, what are we waiting for?

Wayne was clearly in a hurry to make the best of his life. He has three children and ten grandchildren (you heard). He is his own boss, he follows his passions of football and formula one and he wrestles daily with the vivid memories that make him who he is.

At Norina’s funeral the vicar stood up and, in his dramatic Welsh voice, said ‘Every single one of you will be sitting here now asking why. Why would God take away a young life such as this? Why would a caring God take back one whom we all loved so much?’

We listened as if our lives depended on the answer.

‘And the answer is…

we don’t know.’

me and w roger

James Natt 20/365

I call James. I have warned him that I will and he knows it is going to be me.

‘Does anyone ever call you at home?’ I ask.

Not since his parents have learnt to use Skype. He just gets calls from charities wanting money on a Saturday.

James has a wonderfully warm and kind voice. I met him in 1996. I had just begun courting my favourite Australian who took me to see Frank Black in Concert with James. I was looking forward to meeting the friend he had known since he was a baby. James grew up at house 99 and Martin at house 100.

At the concert, James was very handsome in black and throughout the evening he and Martin had gentle, knowing, six foot four conversations at eye level. I gazed up at them thinking, ‘Well if they’ve known each other this long and still hold this amount of affection, they must be pretty special.’ They both had a spell in the mosh pit!

When they were small, Martin would wave at James over the road. They secretly lit matches together, went on holidays with their families together and tormented James’ little brother Phil by pretending to be Dr Mental. They also got caught smoking and reading age-inappropriate magazines together.

We talk about James’ partner Lewis who is my most flamboyant and talented friend and I can’t wait to call him! I forget to ask him how Jackson, their tiger-like cat is. Our conversation topics are Eurovision (United Kingdom doomed never to win again), drag artists, skiing, the English countryside, Graham Norton and my husband.

He said he likes my blog and I tell him that I went on Google to see whether anyone else had called all their Facebook friends on the phone. When no one came up, I started! We talk about my writing, his parents, our families, and his god daughter, my middle child.

James was an usher at our wedding. We got married when top hats and tails were costume de rigeur. When the hats arrived, Martin’s father tried his on and it was way too big and made everyone laugh when his head disappeared. He took it back. What hadn’t been realised was that his and James’ hats had been accidently swapped. But James carried it off!

 

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Derek Whetton 19/365

I am one away from twenty posts. What better way to end the teens than to talk, for an hour and a half, to Derek Whetton; Newton Burgoland lad, fellow school bus passenger and childhood friend.

The last time we spoke, we were at the end of our teens. He was going into accountancy, I was wondering what on earth to do with my life. It was 1986. A lot of water has gone under the bridge at Help-Out Mill since then.

‘Miss Tellis’ he says as he answers the phone.

I’d like to share in detail what we talked about but I didn’t take any notes. We talked ten to the dozen, not having heard each other’s voices for twenty-eight years. The last time we spoke, middle age was what happened to other people, computer games came on tapes and Simply Red were Holding Back the Years.

My phone runs out of battery half way through the call. I run downstairs to pick up the plugged in version, he hasn’t taken it as an insult and he rings me back before I can redial.

He tells me that he thinks I should make this blog into a book, then at least I’ll be sure of selling 364 copies. I tell him that I have just heard that  42,050 copies of ‘If my Dad were a Dog’ have sold and now that it’s coming out in Mandarin Chinese, I hope to be calling him next time from my 40 foot yacht. He hasn’t heard of my book! Where has he been? Everyone else is sick of it and waiting for a new title!

He is a Grandad. What? So many of my school friends are grandparents. I have a seven year old closer in age to Derek’s grandchild than his children. He tells me that he went on Facebook to keep in contact with his wife’s friends because as a teacher, she wanted to steer clear of it. And after 28 years of trying to forget all his Ibstock/Ashby friends, we all rush him on the internet. Now we have Facebook chats as if we are all under the ever watchful eye of the librarian at Ashby Grammar School.

We talk about the sad loss of Rik Mayall yesterday, Derek watching Ade Edmonson playing folk music, his career changes, my career changes, life being an eventful journey and he asks if it was me that worked on a phone sex line.

‘Not me’ I said and then I went on to tell him about a job I went for when I was backpacking round Australia. The job description was really deceiving. It was as a… no I won’t tell you that story. I told Derek and, when the school librarian wasn’t watching he put up a post on Facebook saying:-

“To the wonderful Miss Tellis.
What a pleasure to catch up after 28 years. Don’t leave it so long next time.

I will always think of you as a little hand maiden in training!!”

I would have hit him with my pencil case if I could.

Here he is on the school bus. The boy next door.

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Karen Halsey 5/365

She answers the phone; her voice is exactly the same and it transports me back to the smoke.

I can’t imagine Karen sitting in a room that isn’t thick with itI Not only did all the grown ups in her house smoke, they also never opened any windows. We would head upstairs to her impressive doll collection and I would gaze out of the window at the little girl, Toni, over the road who eventually became my best friend. Both Karen and I could remember Toni’s wardrobe of clothes ‘do you remember her little kilt?’ I asked and she said ‘yes, she always wore it with that thin jumper’ and I knew we were both on the same page. Karen was my sister’s best friend at primary school and I would do what I could to find ways to tag along.

We haven’t spoken since I was 7. The saying goes ‘Show me a child til they are 7 and I will show you the wo/man’ (that’s the girl power version). So Karen knew the hot off the press grown up version of me and then we lost touch when she went to secondary school. She thought I was quiet but I was completely in awe of her, being as she was, the first May Queen.

The first and main thing we talk about is my Dad. He was the doctor in the area and that made his three daughters minor celebrities, a label which we tried to shake off constantly. I mean, your father’s profession really isn’t a choice you make, we just answered the phones and wrote little messages to him about chicken pox.

Karen tells me that she remembers him so clearly driving round the country roads with his classical music blaring out of the open sunroof. I’m suddenly sitting behind him on the back seat, asking if I can put my head out of the roof and then not being able to breathe with the rush of air.

I ask, bravely, whether her parents are still alive and she is pleased to say her mum is, and I’m quite amazed. She said she hasn’t given up the fags and can’t see the point at 84. Her dad died a while back. She said that my Dad was with him at the end. They had been expecting him to die for some time and my dad said ‘let go, just let go’ and he died.

I didn’t know that my dad said those words to his dying patients, but, in the hospice, that is exactly what I had said to him and he died.

I told her where his ashes were buried in Swepstone. ‘If you stand in the circle of stones opposite the church door and face Snarestone, he is at one o’clock (lunch time of course).

She told me of the death of her older sister, Diane, and that was a shock. That’s a problem with Facebook, you only know the facts that have been made public and if you aren’t on the phones anymore, these things can be missed. I might have been awestruck by Karen but I was always still able to say something. With Diane, I would gaze at her feathercut, her yellow platform shoes, her brown mini skirts and I became speechless.

I was pleased to hear news of her brother who was so popular and so naughty at school. (We didn’t mention the stink bomb that was set off during a screening of ‘Around the World in 80 days’ in the school hall and we didn’t mention the Southern Comfort incident either, best left.)

We talk about work and I tell her that my Dog book is coming out in Chinese. I laugh that the local famous Chinese restaurateur of Ashby is on my mind quite a lot and she tells me that he lost his empire in a card game, someone has taken over the restaurant and it’s still good.

Everything is still good. I’m on the phone talking to Karen, I haven’t spoken to her for 40 years and we are both grateful for the eventful and loving past that we shared.

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