Island Blog 156 Another Way Back Home

2014-12-31 09.15.26

I realised, whilst getting myself lost in the streets of Barcelona, that although most of us have two eyes, two ears, one nose and one mouth, no two of us look exactly the same.  Similar, yes, almost identical in twins, but never exactly the same.  Even the identical twins I know, numbering one brace of birds, are not exactly the same; eyes slightly further apart on one, mouth a bit wider on the other, one quiet and pensive, the other gregarious and full of chat.

People throng through these streets.  I stop in a patch of sunshine as they flow by me.  They seem to know where they’re going, these hundreds of different faces, just in this one square with 10 narrow cobbled streets running out from it like sunbeams in a child’s painting. Not only am I seeing different nationalities and colours, but within those very numbers there are more differences, and more.  Perhaps, I wonder to myself, as I puff for the enth time back into Government Square, they are all thinking it’s Groundhog Day and I am the one keeping it going, popping into view again and again as if I can’t get enough of Government HQ. Although they are a moving mass of human souls, I’m sure I recognise a few of them and they do stare a bit as I grow more and more de-hydrated and anxious.  How on earth I manage to keep returning to the same flipping square, when I choose a new street every time is a marvel, even to me, although in my defence, I would like to point out that every single one of them is lined with the same shops.  One Desigual, one Barcelona Football Shop, one Flower Shop and one Pharmacy.  I might be needing that one if I don’t find my way out of the maze.  I also have no money, no idea of the address I’m staying at, nor do I have my mobile phone.

I bet not another soul in this flipping Government Square (oh here it is again!) is as vulnerable on this deceptively calm sunny afternoon.  I decide to stop panicking and lean against a wall looking as nonchalant as I can manage. Even though my mouth is dry as sandpaper and my heart about to take off,  I manage to calm my breathing, refusing to pay attention to any thoughts of being lost in Spain for months and dying of thirst.   Nobody knows where I am, other than somewhere in Barcelona and, as it took us 30 minutes to reach the outskirts yesterday in a speedy motor, it’s a pretty big city.  It’s beautiful too, and filled with stunning architecture, churches with bells that toll every quarter and on the hour, quirky alleyways (!), window boxes ablaze with colour, bustling cafes and wine bars.  Gaudi is everywhere, or his influence is.  The Gran Familia is spectacular from the outside with swoops and swirls of stonework, angels and trumpets, holy words and what looked liked bowls of fruit at the very top.  The queue was long and it was raining that day so we didn’t go inside but sat, instead under a cafe umbrella drinking strong black coffee and sharing our opinions on the charge of 25 euros per person to walk through a sacred space, squashed, as you would be, in a seethe of people, and unable to see very much at all.

We are not only different on the outside, but on the inside too.  It’s a strange part of our DNA, this difference thingy, because, to be honest, if a little more consideration had gone into our wiring, we might all be great pals, and life would be a doddle.  And dreadfully dull, or so I imagine.  If we knew just what to do next around each other, we wouldn’t have to ask, research, enquire.  We wouldn’t have to dig deep inside ourselves for those folk we find ‘difficult’.  We would never need to change. It sounds like Pleasantville to me.

However there are times when I get thoroughly fed up with all this inner changing.  It’s all very well writing, and reading, books on the subject of inner betterment, but putting any of it into practice is hard work.  Sometimes minute by minute hard work and for years and years.  What I have learned is that, if I want to succeed in life I must put everyone else first.  I must be compassionate even when I feel like murder – especially then – and I must learn not to talk about myself as often as possible.

I could fold my mental arms and stay exactly as I am, but the damnable thing is that if I put into practice all of the above, learn to breathe more slowly and to count to ten instead of ripping someone’s head off, it is I who feel better about me!   I have achieved something, because I have overcome myself. I have found a new way. I don’t welcome change, not in the areas I don’t feel need it, but it is needed for there to be any peace. Biting my tongue is painful, but so much better in the long run.  Those unspoken words can leave my mouth in one slow outbreath.  Simples.

I was certain I was right in my choice of direction out of the square and yet I was insistently walking the same way over and over, hoping for a different outcome.  Once I stopped marching forth with all the conviction of a zealot, my mind set in concrete, and I slowed down, breathed away the panic and allowed in, if not welcomed, the possibility that I might be wrong in my choice of direction, I noticed a wooden walkway between two buildings that had been there all along.  It was the one I had walked beneath and admired some hours before. This was my way back home.

I can do the same around a routine, or the way I like something done.  It can be a no-big-deal sort of thing and yet it escalates into exactly that when I hold on too tight. After all, I’ve done it this way for years.  Why should I change it?

But….  if I let go,(just saying it lowers my shoulders and unclaws my fingers) I allow in the possibility that there might be another way.

Another way back home.

Island Blog 136 Brave Heart

 

Popz and Poppy

 

 

In life there are times when something huge happens whilst I am somewhere else.  I might feel a chilly hand on my neck, or the sensation of it, without having a clue why.  Later, sometimes much later, I might discover that, at just that time, this huge something was going on with a loved one.

Last Friday I caught the noontide train down to Glasgow.  I was supposed to be visiting a girlfriend but she called in sick and, as I was packed and arranged-up, I decided to go and see my sister instead.  The train was overly packed with not enough seats for all, or, only just, and only just is no fun when half the inmates bear heavy loads they cannot lift onto the overhead racks.  Nobody can.  In fact, as they ease off the shoulder straps and shrug a massive rucksack into the gravitational pull, I am amazed it doesn’t go right through the carriage floor.  And that was just one of the many.  The rest of us with less baggage, clasp it to ourselves on our narrow seats and decide to wait until the stock rolls before flicking our eyes around for a more acceptable resting place.

This is when a furry-voiced announcement slinks out from the speakers.  Something about a bus being laid on for those who can’t fit on board.  We look at each other eyes rolling.  Way too late, they say.  Way too late and, besides, we are now all fankled up in rucksack webbing, too many legs, big shoes and well-fed travellers to move anything other than our eyeballs.  It crosses my mind to suggest that the man who sold us all those tickets a few moments ago might consider counting them up next time, a fairly logical plan and one that might decide the bus option before we struggle aboard and meld into one living creature. We are all hot now and a bit grumpy and those lads just up ahead have obviously been on the sauce for a while now, their voices cutting sharply into the mumbled air.

The weekend was lovely and the journey home a very different kettle of fish.  We all had room, we travellers with less baggage, dotting ourselves throughout the train, pulling open our ziplock lunches, to munch contentedly, elbows out.   I thought everything was calm in my world, because, as far as I was concerned, it was.  But, there was a chill at my neck, like cold fingers and yet all the windows were closed.  I pulled out a cardigan and wrapped it round me, but the chill remained.  Back home, a huge drama was beginning to unfold, the facts of which I now have, and will tell, as best an absentee can, through the eyes and experience of my old China.

The boat had landed the passengers back on the pontoon and Popz had taken Poppy up to the grass for a pee, as usual, returning to the boat to clean up and take her back to her mooring, way out in the bay.  It’s about 500 yards.  Once the mooring line was secured, the crew and skipper set to cleaning and tidying, turning off electrics and engines and checking the heads for all those forbidden things people think can disappear down a tiny pipe.  This cleaning process can take a while.  Popz was aware Poppy wasn’t with him, but, then, she often joined the crew whilst they worked, so he wasn’t concerned as they all clambered into the dingy.  They presumed she had jumped back off the boat at the pontoon and that they would find her, as before, sitting waiting for their return.

No sign. Concern is now rising.  They asked everyone, looked everywhere, called and whistled.  Perhaps someone had taken her?

They turned again for Sula Bheag, crossing, once more, the distance through the waves.  Searched everywhere, above, below, inside and out.  Nothing.

Back to the shore.  Time is passing now.  Up the street, into the town, asking everyone, Have you seen a little brown dog?

At the harbour, some kind people with boats cast them off and set to, searching the expanse of water for this little brown dog.

Once more Popz and the crew returned to Sula Bheag, although by now hope was dwindling.  No human being could survive this long in the icy water and it was obvious she must have slipped overboard.  Then, as they fired up the outboard to return for the last time to the shore, Popz noticed some gulls circling, looking like they were looking down at something, way out in the bay.

And they were.  Upside down, four legs above the surface, plus her nose, but barely, was Poppy, all but given up the fight.  As Popz grabbed her, the flea collar snapped and she began to sink.  In desperation, he lunged for her, and caught her before she became part of the darkness.  She was almost dead, her breathing just now and again, frothing salty bubbles from her mouth, but, nevertheless, alive.  A crew member drove like the wind down to the vet, with Popz cradling a defeated Poppy on his lap, wrapping her round to bring back some warmth.  The vet held out little hope.  Salt damage to lungs and kidneys, shock, cold, hypothermia, the oil and muck in the harbour, all threatened to take her out, and he decided to keep her overnight to monitor her progress.

The next morning we phoned, and he said he couldn’t believe the change.  Sitting up, weakened but alive, our little girl had decided not to die.  Although we had to wait a couple of days to be sure the salt hadn’t destroyed her inner workings, we can now say she is a miracle.  Thinner, yes, and not eating much yet, but bouncy and bright-eyed and we are filled with thanks, to the crew and their hearts, to those who took their boats out, to the callers and well-wishers, to the vets.

She may have gone overboard, and you may think ‘careless’ but life happens whilst we make other plans and we can all remember times we didn’t pay enough attention.  But, now here’s the thing.  If the old seadog didn’t have the instinct that he does have, then those gulls might have got their lunch after all.

 

 

Island Blog 132

2014-03-28 12.29.53

 

 

We never talk about shrimps up here.  In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that word used anywhere in Scotland.  Up here, across the tempestuous border, we talk about prawns, and they are quite believably so.  Shrimps I remember from Norfolk days, and you needed 3000 of the little so-and-so’s for all of seven sandwiches.  I have been served up a plate of ‘prawns’ before now, and knew fine I was being ripped off, but not up here.  Folk can’t believe their good fortune when they order a prawn dish, savouring the fat pink bodies, dense and firm and tasting of a fresh wild ocean.

In Tapselteerie days, I would drive over the hill to meet the fisherboats coming in, bartering with the raw and ruddy-faced hard-working ‘boys’ for an overflowing crate of still-twitching jewels, the huge aga pans left to bring themselves to boiling point as I travelled.  The eyes of the guests grew wide with amazement as I laid down plates of them, pan fried with garlic and fresh herbs.  Then I would make bisque from the shells.  Nowadays, you can’t buy them on the quay, as I did, because they all go for export.  But there are a few choice restaurants who either make sure they have their own creel boat, or have found a way to do as I did, and connect with the fishermen. Some of these ‘boys’ are still fishing, some have stepped back to let their sons carry on the good work.  After all, shrimp or prawn, lobster, oyster or mussels are always a different experience when they are fresh and still full of personality.

Much like us.

So why am I talking about shrimps and prawns and the like?  It isn’t to lead on to the obvious Bigger is Better thing.  What I am talking about is choice and quality, yes, but more about paying attention to the strings that bind us.  Driving over the hill to find fresh shellfish meant I had to know and befriend the fisherman.  If he thought I was a stuck up little madam, he would have said nothing was available and I wouldn’t have blamed him for that.  I know that the lonely process of buying goods, any goods, via the interweb is easier, cheaper often, but it involves no human contact, or very little.  In fact, we seem to enjoy  as much ‘very little contact’ as possible these days, and, yet, it is only through a bonding process that anything in life really works.  Oh, I am not saying we don’t need, use and value the internet, but out of balance we can find ourselves clumsy and careless at times when we are with another person.  Out of practice.

When I go shopping for clothes (I hate shopping for clothes and am the very first to look online), I will avoid with great energy, huge shopping malls, caves of blue lighting, plastic walls and no air, or none already breathed in and out again.  Instead, I will choose the little shop with a ‘ping’ as I open the door and a welcome smile on the face of the assistant.  I don’t want ‘NEXT!’ yelled at me.  I have a name, and it isn’t that.  Although I absolutely do not like a pushy sales person, I do like the question ‘Can I help you with anything?’ and then, when I say I just want to browse, to be left to do just that.  If I buy something, I want her, or him behind the pretty counter, to be interested in me and my choice, as I will be in them.  I want to walk out feeling very chuffed with myself and with my purchase, and, more, the pleasant memory of our human encounter.

If I sound stuffy, I don’t mean to.  I blog, I Facebook, I text and tweet, but it isn’t all I do.

Recently I came to realise that my work is lonely work.  Writing, painting, loving my little home and being in and around it, walking with Poppy in the fairy woods, none of these get me in front of people. This is my choice.  I am, at heart, solitary and I need that space around me to feel creative and healthy, but, out of balance, I get fearful in crowds and resist meeting friends.  The good news is, that this is instantly fixable, once recognised.  Driving through Glen Coe, beneath the craggy snow-covered tops of the Three Sisters, I pulled over to call Lisa, my publisher.  We talked of mice and men, cabbages and kings, and, as I turned back onto the road, I felt a lift.  It wasn’t the content of our conversation that did that, but her voice in my ear, connecting me once again to the outside world and, in doing so, raising my confidence in me, making me feel important and interesting and changing my whole outlook so that I was, once more, fresh and full of personality.