Let it snow (as long as we have shoes)…

‘Let’s do something different for Christmas this year,’ I shouted through the wind as we sat on a balcony in Tenby last summer sipping G & Ts in our raincoats. ‘Snow! I want to see snow!’

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We all agreed that a White Christmas would be perfect, and after deciding that we would have too much luggage to fly anywhere (who wants to travel with a turkey in a rucksack?), we hit on the idea of the Scottish Highlands. After all, they seem to get the white stuff from the August Bank Holiday until, well, Midsummer, don’t they?

It took lots of planning. As self-appointed Chief Elf, I had found the perfect getaway – a log cabin nestled in the forest, just south of the Cairngorms.

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‘You won’t get snow below the treeline,’ a friend helpfully informed me.

‘Lalalalalala,’ I sang in my head, as I imagined chopping down a towering pine and dragging it back to the cabin on a toboggan (a very big one).

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What had seemed like a simple idea became a military operation. I delegated shopping lists, which included seasoned logs, greaseproof paper and enough alcohol to souse the Scots in their entirety. I sent missives about gifts – just one small thing per stocking. I made meal plans and game plans and plans of plans…

Finally, we were off, and most importantly, all availed of the most essential of information: WE ARE GOING TO GET SNOWBOUND. BRING THERMALS. BRING HATS, GLOVES, SCARVES, LAYERS. BRING YAKS… No. Forget the yaks.

Travelling in two cars, the first meeting point was to be Yorkshire – at my mother-in -law’s where we would stay overnight ready for the second leg of the journey. What had not been on my plan was that my elder daughter, a medical student, just a few days before leaving, announced that she’d have to pop back to a Birmingham hospital where she had a piece of work to complete. She had left her ‘Scotland’ luggage at home so all we had to do was pack it, swoop by when we got to The Midlands, and pick her up. It was touch and go as to whether we would fit her in; Hubby had spent a long time early that morning packing every inch of the car – and the roof box – with Stuff.

We arrived at her student house, and as I was stuck in my seat with a huge, heavy hamper on my lap (one of three in the car to be relinquished in Yorkshire), Hubby got out to knock on the door. He walked around to my side of the car – I could only see his upper half. He stopped next to my window and looked down… for a long, long time. When he looked up at me again, it was with horror.

‘I’m wearing my crocs,’ he mouthed through the window.

‘Your crocs?’ I mouthed back. ‘Crocs?’

He loved those crocs and, as much as we’d always told him they were gardenwear only, he’d put them on at any opportunity; he’d slipped them on that morning for comfort while packing up the car.

I opened the door and looked at his feet.

‘You have packed other shoes, though? Boots for trudging through the snow?’

‘Did you pack any for me?’ he asked.

‘No…’

At that moment, my daughter scuffed her way to the car, wearing a pair of highly unsuitable fancy shoes which she had left undone to emphasise the temporary nature of their use.

She was followed by her sock-footed, pyjama-clad best friend.

More shoe shenanigans. I was all shoe-ed out.

‘Where are your shoes, Eve?’ I asked.

‘Packed. You’ve got them in the car somewhere. Have you seen the carrier bag I left for you to bring?’

We located it and she extracted another pair of (unfamiliar) shoes which she handed to her friend. ‘These are Anna’s.’

Anna scuttled off in her socks. Eve got into the car in her dolly shoes and Hubby pulled away wearing his crocs.

We had almost left the city when I heard a little voice from the back.

‘Uh oh. I’ve forgotten my coat.’

It was back at the student house. I sighed. We continued on our journey. We left the coat.

When we arrived in Yorkshire, we asked my mother-in-law if there was a charity shop in the village. There was! Eve and I hurried to get to it before it closed and, like a mirage, there appeared before us two coats, both of which fitted her. We bought the pair for about £10. Sadly, the only shoes for Hubby were a pair of football boots. We didn’t buy those. Plan B was to ask his dad who seemed to have a secret shoe shop in the back room. He brought in pair after pair of new shoes, various colours and sizes. The only pair which were a good fit was a brown suede pair.

‘Suede’s no good in the snow,’ I said.

Out came a couple of cans of waterproof spray.

Hooray.

The log cabin was wonderful.

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Two-coat Eve was warm and dry, and Mr Tumnus (our new name for Hubby with his new brown suede hooves) was able to walk without getting frostbite or trenchfoot. It was very (very) cold, but, sadly, there was no snow until the day after we left. On the eleven-hour journey home, however, I got a message from my friend at home:

‘We’ve got snow!’

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Typical.

 

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Pug-nosed and perky

The squelching and snuffling coming from the opposite sofa yesterday evening was a sudden and stark warning:

Man Flu in the house! Man Flu!

Evacuate or succumb!

Man Flu!

Man Flu!

And I knew it would be a bad one as I could trace back its origins. This was going to be a three-weeker, and I didn’t want anything to do with it what with Christmas celebrations getting underway.

Hubby retreated to the bedroom first, and later I followed. He was still awake as I crept in. Listening to his mucus melodies, nasal trumpets and percussive sniffs was not going to bode well for my good night’s sleep, let alone the prospect of waking up healthy, so I opened the window ‘to let out the germs’ and told him to turn his back to me (and stay that way all night, I added mentally).

 

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As tired as I was, I was afraid to drift off. What if we – perish the thought – turned to face each other whilst in the depths of slumber?

I racked my drowsy brain for a solution. I could sleep in another bed, but then I’d have to launder the sheets. Nah.

Then it came to me, in a bright and clear vision. When in Rome [read as Japan]…

I hurried downstairs and rummaged in the kitchen cupboard below the sink. There it was – a sturdy roll of J-Cloths. I unravelled a few and decided that three joined together would be perfect. Placing the middle sheet over my face and mouth, I tied the outer sheets together behind my head and, intrepid and determined to defeat evil, mounted the Staircase of Doom to the Chamber of Horrors.

It was a little tight, I realised within minutes. My nose was flattened, and there was every likelihood that I’d end up pug-faced. The bow at the back was a bit bulky to lie on, as well. Eventually, I fell asleep, but continually awoke, gasping for breath; I had felt close to suffocating.

Bit by bit, throughout the night, my mask unravelled, opening up until my eyes were covered too, but on I slept. I probably looked like a badly-equipped welder. Actually, there’s no probably about it.

When I woke up, I looked through the mesh and took a selfie (yes, I know my hair is barmy in the morning and the camera has obviously malfunctioned to give me neck rolls).

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But on the bright side, I cunningly evaded the germs and, as always, am happy to pass on the survival tip.

 

You’re welcome.

Weather Gremlins

Last night, I saw Huw Edwards briefly grimace at the News at Ten desk before the screen went blank and the Apologies for the break in transmission message came up on a red background.

I must confess, I was a little worried for his welfare, lest a bunch of Ninjas were under the desk tying his shoelaces together (hence the scowl) before maliciously pulling out the plug, much to the awaiting nation’s disappointment.

 

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This morning, I switched on Breakfast for news of Huw’s fate only to hear talk of several incidents of studio electrical shenanigans attributed to ‘the heatwave’, and when I did my voluntary stint in the library today, the computers were slow and the little blue slips were not being issued through the little silver slits in the little black machines. Again, I heard talk of the effect of The Weather upon the servers at computer central, which had subsequently affected our ancient library equipment.

 

So, I guess that explains why at 5.20 this morning I was boiling the kettle for morning tea whilst multi-tasking and emptying the dishwasher with the usual self-set challenge to get it done before the kettle switched off.

 

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It doesn’t?

 

Then I’ll enlighten you.

I failed the challenge. Mid-stoop, with a sparkling clean Jamie Oliver frying pan in hand, I happened to glance towards said silent kettle at the point when it was just about to begin its contented purr, and in doing so, my line of sight skimmed the built-in ovens. I froze, puzzled, bent double and still clutching Jamie’s handle. Something wasn’t right. I stared at the oven clocks which both said 5.22. I stood up – that would surely help – and stared a bit harder.

Yes, 5.22.

By now, I had surely developed irreversible frown lines. What were these bizarre numbers doing on my oven clocks?

My trusty phone was charging on the worktop. My phone would not lie; we had been through a lot together. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the time on the screen: 5.22… so why on earth was I making tea and emptying the dishwasher?

Had I dreamed that the 7.20 alarm had rudely wakened me and that I had resolutely turned it off?

I forfeited the tea – which was easy as it was still only at the boiling-water-within-the-kettle stage – and slogged back up the stairs where, if there were answers, I would find them, godammit. Granted, I had felt unduly tired on the downward descent a few minutes earlier where, bleary-eyed, I had relied more on my sense of touch than sight to negotiate the stairs.

Back in the bedroom, Hubby was still sound asleep. I picked up my clock – an electronic thing which is meant to automatically attune itself to the correct time – and held it right in front of my face for scrutiny. Yes! In the hour column was a 7. Of all the sevens I had ever laid my eyes upon, this was a prime example.

 

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Not actual clock – quite evidently!

Still not quite convinced of the actual time, I checked the time on the house phone next to it. Maybe they would be in cahoots. But no, this device told me it was definitely 5 something.

I set the alarm on the house phone instead, and got back into bed, frightened to go to sleep for what might ensue. I could sleep until Friday if the world of technology had gone awry.

So, it seems that the heat has been affecting equipment willy nilly, my alarm clock being one of the casualties. At some point in the night, it had taken it upon itself to add on two hours and then trick me into getting up at the wrong time. And it still hasn’t righted itself.

I’m so glad it didn’t take two hours away; the reason I got up was to ensure that my daughter was up in time for her Physics A level exam this morning.

I just hope that if there were Ninjas underneath Huw’s desk, he didn’t get up in too much of a hurry.

Got to hand it to them…

How delighted I was to find a new shop in the village. The ironmonger’s was long gone and in its place was a shiny new replacement called Savers.

It wasn’t long before it was the talk of the village. The bargains to be had!

Well, yes. There were. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw nine rolls of toilet paper for a mere £1.99, or my favourite coconut oil at £1 a pot! I’d pop in regularly for toiletries – for toiletries galore were their speciality, along with, for some bizarre reason, a pot pourri of pet food in the last aisle.

For months I’d been wearing odd rubber gloves – one red and one yellow. I know many of you will be shocked by that confession.

Sometimes I shock myself.

They were both for the right hand so I wore the yellow one inside out, or sometimes, if it assumed its default stance due to a rough pulling off (yes, I have been known to be a tad rough with them: shock#2), I occasionally just forced my left hand into it. This pulled back and twisted my fourth and baby finger somewhat, lifting them up into a position where they were unusable (but quite elegant), and my thumb pointed the wrong way, but I lived with it.

I have to admit, those gloves annoyed the hell out of me, but as all you nail-varnish-wearing ladies know, washing up without sheathing one’s fingers in rubber can only result in disaster. As can many similar practices…

Well, I could hardly contain myself when I saw a pair of yellow rubber gloves in Savers at 49p. They were ‘Large’ and I am ‘Very Small’, but it’s rare to find anything less than a Medium so I snapped them up and snapped them on when I got home.

Not just for the fun of it, I hasten to add. There was washing up to be done. Who in their right mind puts glass in the dishwasher? No way, Jose!

I have worn Large before, so I knew that there would be a length of empty, flaccid glove at the end of each finger. It makes picking up very difficult; you just have to swipe and clutch, and often you have other fingertips in your grip too.

It wasn’t long before I mourned the loss of  Reliant Red and Inside-Out Yellow. My new gloves were not what they seemed for they began to stick together inside. It dawned on me that they had none of the powdery non-stick stuff that your average (or Large) Marigolds have. One by one the finger spaces became mini channels, or even cul-de-sacs, so that I could only get my digits part of the way up. There was now even more floppy finger dangling off the ends of my hands, and not only that, it was grossly deformed.

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I am gradually getting used to them. They are a bit like crab claws now; I mostly don’t bother with the finger compartments at all and just insert the odd bit of extremity where I can find an orifice. I have just cleaned out the kitchen bin in them. It wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t find the opening of the new bin bag and when I finally did, I was unable to deposit a dirty Cif Wipe into it. Over and over it fell on the floor, and over and over I grabbed at it with fingers cramped into the palm of the glove.

Savers isn’t that good, and neither are 49p rubber gloves. Don’t be seduced, folks.

When three buses come along…

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I think that all writers would agree that we do it – writing – purely because we love it, and also, perhaps, because we are a little bit obsessed by it!

However, it’s always an added bonus to get a bit of recognition:

It’s wonderful when someone tells you that they have enjoyed reading the words you have written; it’s fabulous when you find a new review of one of your books, or read an encouraging comment on a writing or social forum… but what especially floats our/my boat is when you/I receive the email that says,

We would love to publish your work.’

It doesn’t happen that often, but, like the old bus cliché, I recently had three concurrent publication conversations.

17097306_1317827568277459_3697667099805185446_o.jpgThe first was with Rebecca, the editor of The Caterpillar. This is a wonderful magazine for children full of poetry, stories and art.

John Hegley chose The Caterpillar as one of his ‘top ten poetry books’, and many, many big names have been published in it.

The first time I submitted a batch of children’s poems to Will (the other editor) and Rebecca, they weren’t the ‘right fit’, but, encouragingly, they asked me to submit again. By return email, I sent a batch of poems which were different in tone from the first, and they chose ‘Wind’ to be published in the Winter edition. (See earlier blog post)

                         Spring Edition

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Imagine my surprise when Rebecca contacted me again recently to ask if they could use another from the selection I had sent to be included in the Spring edition.

Marmite’ has just been published.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks back, Maverick publishers had put out a call for picture book submissions. This is an area I have never really considered, but I thought I’d send a couple of ‘story poems’, anyway. In all honesty, I expected to hear nothing. Then I received a totally unexpected email:
I especially enjoyed reading Turning Up The Heat as I felt your tone, rhyme and humour were all very strong. I love the idea of a dragon who is afraid of fire and I believe the story would lend itself well to illustrations. My only qualm was the end – at the moment it feels very sudden and rushed. It did not give Smoky his moment to shine as a hero and lacked the jubilation of Smoky saving the day, as well as his fear being accepted by the surrounding characters. You are under the word count at the moment so don’t be afraid to expand the ending a bit more to give your story that rounded finish. If you choose to have another look at Turning Up The Heat then I would definitely be interested in seeing a new draft.’

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They also gave me an email address to jump the queue…

Well, I reworked the ending and re-sent the poem.  It was taken to an editorial meeting, and while they loved the new ending, the outcome was that having a character with a quirk which becomes an asset is a little too predictable. Out of 4000 yearly submissions, they only publish 15… but it was very exciting to be considered.

Coinciding with both of these was another invitation to have a poem published by Popshot Magazine. They had asked for poems written for the theme ‘Future’. This is what Jacob, the editor, wrote:

After extensively whittling down the shortlist over the last week, it gives me great pleasure to let you know that your poem — To the unborn — has been chosen for publication in our forthcoming ‘Future’ issue. Thanks so much for sending it in for consideration; it’s an absolute beauty of a piece and we can’t wait to immortalise it in print.

My poem  is to appear shortly. It has been slightly tweaked from the original which involved a couple of emails to and from Jacob with alterations. Again, I was thrilled to be involved with such a prestigious magazine. Here’s what it’s about:

‘In June 2008, the idea for a poetry & illustration magazine materialised as a result of picking through the literary shelves of the now deceased Borders. There was a feeling that the world of poetry was driving itself into an elitest and fusty no-through road, and we wanted to do something about it. Combining illustration with poetry in a neat and beautifully designed format, in April 2009 the first issue of Popshot launched, thumping its chest and quoting Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’. With black pages, a sans serif typeface, and filled with vibrant illustration work, the magazine didn’t look like a poetry magazine and we were thrilled with it.

Some favourable press swiftly followed with the magazine being picked up by Dazed & Confused, placed on The Observer’s Cool List and named as one of ‘the fresh breed of literary magazines’ by The Independent. Shortly afterwards, Prospect named Popshot as ‘the new face of British poetry’ after it became the first British poetry magazine to achieve major international distribution into 18 countries. With the launch of Issue 7, we started talking about the introduction of short stories and flash fiction into the magazine, as well as poetry. In October 2012, with the arrival of our eighth issue, Popshot relaunched as ‘The Illustrated Magazine of New Writing’ firmly positioning itself as a literary magazine that champions new writing across the globe.

In the years since, that positioning has developed into a strong reputation for quality writing, with Dazed & Confused calling the magazine “a who isn’t yet who of contemporary literature” and The List claiming that “Popshot looks for the best and finds it.”’

For more information about submissions and competitions, you may like to have a look at my ‘other blog‘: 

I also have two websites which may be of interest:

Fiction in a Flash

Helen Laycock | Children’s Author

As Little Red Riding Hood can attest…

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Flat shoes. Can’t overrate them enough. Abseil ropes? Something else that I shall carry from now on.

I had packed carefully for our trip to Durham University as I knew there’d be a lot of walking. Our younger daughter has been offered a place there for September and was invited back for a post-offer day this week. It’s a long ol’ journey – it took us nearly five hours, but it’s such a lovely place that we didn’t mind at all. In fact, we turned it into a kind of mini break. We booked into a hotel on Tuesday night ready for the 9 am start on Wednesday morning.

Durham, like Oxford and Cambridge, is a collegiate university. Our daughter had selected a college to apply to without ever having actually seen it. We had been to Durham’s Open Day in the summer but hadn’t got round to visiting every college. As the college tour started at 10.30, we had a bit of time to spare and decided to have a look at the sports centre first, which was right on the edge of the action – just where the town ended and the countryside began. We left half an hour to get back.

Well, now my tale turns towards my husband.

Unlike me, he has a very good sense of direction… most of the time. However, our hearts invariably sink when he announces that he (thinks he) knows a short cut. As we were heading back along the main road, the very road which we had followed to get to the sports centre (which, in case you have forgotten, is in the middle of the countryside), he stopped at a pathway which disappeared into woodland on our left. There was no signpost, but, he assured us, it was going in the right direction and would be a short cut to the college.

So, off we ambled in the morning sunshine, kicking through the leaves, admiring the view to our left – fields of horses and far-reaching vistas, while on our right was steep woodland. We had walked quite a long way, without a sniff of civilisation, when I suggested that this might not be The Way.

But, hey, what do I know?

On he marched, and on we trotted behind him. On several occasions, I brought up my concerns, but it was only as the woodland trail began to curve to the left that he reconsidered his conviction.

‘Oh,’ he finally declared. ‘It’s heading in the wrong direction.’ It was as though the path had deliberately misled him about its intentions.

‘I did try to –’

He glanced to the right and his eyes travelled up to the top of a very high, very steep slope.

‘All we have to do is take a right here to get us back to where we should be.’

‘But there’s no path –’

Undeterred, off, and up, he scrambled. My daughter, a gymnastic mountain goat, skipped up behind him and I brought up the rear, my over-sized, over-stuffed handbag weighing heavily on my right shoulder and throwing me off balance as I began to climb.

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No matter how many steps I took, the summit seemed impossibly far. The reason was that, with every step, I was sliding backwards. Although the surface was covered with dry leaves, underneath was cunningly concealed, slippery mud. I muttered loudly as I teetered and tottered, my arms spiralling like windmills as I tried to maintain my balance. But then the slide of all slides began to pull me, feet first, back down to sea level.

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There was just no stopping me. My knees eventually wedged into the mud and my hands sank beneath the leaves. That halted me all right.  Did my fellow mountaineers help? No! They did not. They just took pictures as my hair dangled in the mulch.

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Suffice to say that I eventually made it, and that when we did emerge from the deep, dark forest, we weren’t that far from the college.

At every tuft of grass, I stopped for a boot rub down, but I don’t think I made the best impression as we arrived to a meet and greet with refreshments. My boots were caked in mud, my knees were dirty, and I was still brushing off humus from the zip of my handbag. I probably had leaf-mould in my hair, too. Who knows? I avoided hand-shaking as we introduced ourselves, preferring to cup my brown hands around a white china mug of coffee instead. And for the rest of the day I picked mud out of my nails.

The moral of this story is: Never veer off the path, as Red Riding Hood would confirm. Oh, and never take a short cut with my husband.

 

Rubbing shoulders with Thomas Hardy

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This week I was delighted to receive the Winter edition of The Caterpillar, a lovely publication for children full of stories, poems and art.

The Caterpillar is the offspring of the prestigious Moth  arts and literature magazine.

I sent off a selection of poems to one of the editors, Will Govan, back in September. Although they weren’t suitable, he asked for more…

‘Wind’ was one of the poems I submitted in the next batch, and Rebecca O’Connor, the second editor, said that they would love to publish it. I actually only added that one to make an even number of submissions; I thought it was the weakest of the lot. What do I know?!

Anyway, here it is, looking perfectly lovely on p.21:

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And, this will probably be the only time that my name appears on the same contents page as Thomas Hardy.