Russian Dolls and Parties.

Russian Dolls. I have a small collection of them. I love their colourful designs and themes. The fact they contain smaller, sometimes different versions of their outside shell, that can’t be seen, unless we take the time to open them. Some have as few as 3 pieces and others have as many as ten or more – each one beautiful but slightly different. Some are simpler in their design as each doll reveals itself and they become smaller. Others have an unvarnished, unpainted wooden exterior, embellished with a little gold -yet when they are opened the ones inside are painted in vibrant colours. All rather like people, I think.

People are complicated and rarely do we get to see the smallest, simplest versions of them. It requires time and effort on both sides. We need to listen and observe more in order to see beyond the exterior. For our own part, there is also a freedom in allowing our inner versions to be exposed. But it requires honesty and bravery.

Age gives us the confidence to be more honest. On the one hand I can easily stand up in front of a hall full of people and speak or read and even enjoy doing so, but as my friends now well know, I find parties very difficult. At this point in my life, I find it stressful having to socialise with lots of people. The woman who happily exchanges smalltalk with the public at work or at the checkout in the supermarket, really dislikes social occasions doing the same thing. I love just being at home. I talk a lot at work and I like peace, quiet, comfy clothes and my own company in my free time.

The whole getting ready to go to a party has become stressful. I can guarantee that any outfit I have planned to wear will look dreadful on the night and I end up with a bedroom littered with clothes and a longing to stay at home. I feel bad-tempered and hijacked. Even the anticipation of this feeling increases my anxiety. When and if I finally get to the party I wonder when it would be polite to leave. It sounds ungrateful and unfriendly, I know.

I feel the same about committing to going out as a group in the evening too – in fact any social arrangement involving a group of people. However much I love those I am supposed to be meeting, when a ‘night out’ is arranged, I can’t get enthusiastic about it. Dread would be too strong a word, but In the past I have been thankful for reasons not to attend. Putting that into words seems shocking but I have become protective of my ‘Me’ time.

One day, as an evening out was being arranged, I finally decided to be honest with my work colleagues. I admitted how I felt and asked if it would be ok if I decided on the day whether to go or not. Their complete understanding warmed my heart. Now when booking a table they always call me a “maybe” -but say that it will be lovely if I do come – and with that freedom I mostly do – and I have a great time.

Knowing that friends understand if I don’t attend has made life much easier. By peeling back a layer I may have made myself appear more vulnerable – weird even – but I have removed a source of stress from my life and I feel closer to the people I have shared that with.

F for Fish

At what age do we start to worry ? When do we stop expecting the best to happen and start to contemplate the worst ?

When I was three, I started attending a little school called The Kindergarten. Up until the age of five we were in the Nursery – a room that had the Alphabet along the wall that we would recite phonetically each morning. I can still remember most of it to this day. A for Apple, B for Balloon, C for Cake , D for Duck, E for Elephant , F For FISH….

Life in the nursery was mostly carefree. We finished at midday and activities were informal and play-based. At the age of 5 we moved into the Schoolroom on the other side of the cloakroom and we would stay for the whole school day. With that came school lunches and, at some point early on, Fish Pie.

Fish Pie was salmon pink with potato on top. On its first appearance the enthusiastic school cook, hair in a bun and flushed with heat from the kitchen, dug her spoon into the cooking tray and put a large dollop on my plate, smiling reassuringly. As the steam hit my nostrils the unfamiliar smell of fish turned my stomach as I took my plate back to my seat.

We didn’t really eat fish at home. My parents would occasionally have fish and chips – but I always had a sausage instead. The only other time I remember fish being cooked was when my Dad brought a trout home from a fishing trip. It lay there staring into space, glistening on the kitchen side. Then, my Mum, with a certain reluctance and my my Dad, the proud hunter-gatherer, decided its fate would be in the oven. I stayed in the garden because of the smell and wondered how anyone could eat something like that. In the end, only my Dad partook of the catch.

Yet, here I was, at school, with a plateful of it. I picked some of the potato off the top -but most of it was touching the fishy filling. I could eat no more.

It was customary for us to parade past the teachers’ table with our plates after our first course. It was at this point that it was observed, and a comment made, that I had ‘barely touched’ my food. I wasn’t forced to eat it, and that was all that was said – but for the people-pleaser that I was – and still am to some extent, it shattered my confidence. I had done something wrong. A grown-up was unhappy with me – and Worry fired its first fiery arrow into my life.

From that day forward my whole experience of going to school was over-shadowed by worry that today would be Fish day – and that I wouldn’t get away with not eating it. Up to this point my life had been worry free. I had lived in the moment, not anticipating anything but normality or good things.

Dad used to drop me off at school on his way to work and I was often the first to arrive. I would wait in the little cloakroom and play with the owner’s kids until the others arrived. The lady who owned the school lived upstairs, and one day, after sheer panic on my part in the car on the way there, Dad agreed to go to the bottom of the stairs that led up to her accommodation and shouted up, “Mrs. Hughes, Mrs Hughes – if it’s fish today, Claire doesn’t have to eat it !” The relief I felt was overwhelming . I knew she knew I didn’t have to eat fish- and my Dad knew she knew. I was safe !

But once wasn’t good enough, you see. Adults forget things. Mrs Hughes might forget that I don’t have to eat fish. So EVERY day I made my Dad go through the same ritual and Mrs Hughes would yell down, somewhat impatiently, that she understood.

Nowadays, I suppose a written letter would have solved the problem, or a little meeting to make sure I understood that everyone was onboard with the Fish issue. But somehow, things didn’t work like that back in the seventies.

And so Fish Pie – in fact Fish anything for school lunch became my first real worry. This, in turn, became a kind of phobia that I carried through to my next school, where I ingeniously managed to convince them I had an allergy to it. Instead, they would give me a slab of cheese when it was Fish day – until the time I left some of it on my plate after they had given me a hunk of cheese large enough to make a Ploughman’s lunch for a couple of hungry adults. As I approached the slop bucket, I was shamed in front of the whole dining room and told I was ungrateful and wasteful by the sour-faced dinner lady and cooks. The next day I arrived with a packed lunch.

Growing up brought more pressing worries than Fish and my fear subsided. As a young adult, spending more time in Portugal, Fish even became something I enjoyed. And I knew when my mother-in-law placed a grilled fish head on my plate one lunchtime that my fear had been overcome. “There’s plenty of good fish on that! Here’s another plate for the bones .”

An Olive Grove in Tuscany

Photo by Julia Sakelli on

Do you ever think back to what you dreamed your adult life would be like? Does your life now look anything like what you had hoped for ?

I dreamed of living in Italy – looking out over a Tuscan olive grove. I had vague ideas about what I would do, but nothing concrete – nothing to work on really. My dream was a precarious one as I was always a home bird and relied a lot on my Mum for emotional support. Therefore things started to unravel the moment I waved goodbye to my parents on my first day at Uni and I sat on my bed, in a shared room with another girl, who I didn’t know. I felt sick with longing to return home.

Eventually after trying to fit in and struggling with the workload, I gave up. The dream of my Dad had ended. I was supposed to get a degree, any degree. But that was not meant to be. What followed was a series of jobs for a temping agency, none of which was very interesting. Checking crystal glasses for imperfections, calling out phone calls on an intercom while reading Mills and Boon novels and phoning directory enquiries all day asking for three phone numbers at a time to make up a contacts list, to name a few.

Having fallen for a Portuguese guy whilst on a summer course while I was still at Uni, I aimed to find a job in Portugal, so I could be near him. This resulted in a foray into the cut-throat world of timeshare. It was a disaster – in two weeks I only managed to convince two people to go and look around the hotel we were promoting. I spoke to the well-spoken lady who had recruited me in London – she was ‘in a relationship’ with the aggressive American in charge of the selling. ‘You’re too nice for this job” she said. Her American pit-bull just called me a drop out.

I never made it to my house in Tuscany. But I did make it to a house in Lisbon, where I lived with my husband – the Portuguese guy – for the first years of our marriage. We looked out on an area where gypsies had made their ramshackle homes, with their evening bonfires and frequent brawls. (These homes no longer exist and the people who lived in them are now rehoused in tower-blocks – a sort of cleansing before the European Cup in 2004). So I ended up with a city-scape on the Atlantic instead of my countryside retreat on the Mediterranean – but Portugal is my second home now. I can speak Portuguese and I love their food, wine and beautiful weather.

Bringing up children brought me back to England. But to this day I somehow feel I don’t quite belong. I have a job in a Drs surgery -a job that interests me and which I enjoy going to. but it will never pay for an interesting retirement or be anything more than a means to feed and clothe myself.

I still yearn to be somewhere else – yet I have no means of knowing how to do that. I am waiting for youngest daughter to finish college or Uni and then I will have to think. Fear makes me want to be safe – to be where I know how things work, where I have the NHS, where I have family and friends. But I also have another fear – a fear that somehow this is it – this is my lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful and happy for all that I do have. I know that many people are not as fortunate as we have been. But I want to surprise people – I want to be able to go “Look ! look what I have done!” And I just want my life to be more than general housework interspersed with shopping trips, being a taxi service and dealing with prescriptions.

I don’t want an olive grove in Tuscany any more. But I do want something different – something I can show my teenage self with pride – something to surprise those that love me.

The Fall

I struggle with my weight, like many women. I try hard to eat healthily – sometimes I succeed and other times I just fall into ‘fat mode’ and eat what I want. I do feel guilty if I eat cake or have a McDonald’s and yesterday evening was one of those times.

Youngest daughter and I had returned from depositing older daughter at the railway station and a McDonald’s seemed a comforting thought. A token gesture to wise choices was my Diet Coke – although I had planned to add a dash of rum to it when I got home. However it was not to be.

As we arrived home our neighbour’s kitchen light was on – in full view of our driveway. They are a pleasant couple – both hospital doctors and one is surgeon. I was keen to hide the fact we were returning with a McDonald’s – silly I know – but I always imagine they judge me. There’s that overweight, middle-aged woman not helping herself by stuffing her face with a Big Mac!

It was with these thoughts in my head that I strode towards the house, purposefully, keys in one hand and a carton containing my Diet Coke and a Mocha Latte for my daughter. Husband had sensibly asked for a bottle of mineral water – sensibly because, suddenly, my ankle just went over and I knew I had to break my fall with my hands – so Latte and Coke flew into the air and I landed on my hands and knees. Bottle of water lay intact by my side.

The shock is horrendous when you fall, as an adult. For a moment I just stayed on my knees, horrified what the healthy doctors next door might have seen. I had no idea if I could actually get up even. My lovely daughter, with concern and pity etched on her face, pulled me to my feet. I scrabbled about for the cups and lids that had fallen, hoping to hide the evidence, and limped back to the house feeling ancient and somehow deserving of my bruises.

She’s had a fall. She’s fallen over. She fell over walking to the house. She tripped. Some sound worse than others. Definitely want to avoid the ‘had a fall’ one. It reeks of old age and frailty. And just when I was getting on top of my arthritic knee !

The fall has made me think yet again about my age, my weight, my frustrations about what my body can no longer do easily. So I will use it as motivation to at least have a Good Week this week.