B is for Brač

Croatia and Wales 109

Village harbour and church

 

The Croatian coastline is speckled with over a thousand islands; little green, wooded jewels in the bright blue sea, some inhabited, some not. In summer, brilliant white yachts tack between them; day trippers trailing their feet languidly into the sea, basking in the sunshine.

On our first visit to Croatia, four years ago, we explored these enchanting islands from our base on the mainland and discovered a relaxed, unhurried pace of life. The wooded landscapes dotted with ancient towns and the clear blue water utterly seduced us and we decided to stay on one of them next time we came.

Two years later, I found a little cottage to rent in a fishing village on Brač, an island near Split. It looked idyllic but was it going to live up to expectation?

Driving off the ferry, we followed the signs uphill out of the port and drove west through a landscape of olive groves and farms. Fruit trees grew in abundance and a purple rash of bougainvillea spread along many walls. Surprisingly, there were piles of white stones poking out of the ground everywhere.

Brač is famous for its limestone and there is still a working quarry on the island. The Diocletian’s Palace in Split is built out of it and Croatians claim it was used to construct the White House.

We turned off the main road into our village and drove down to the harbour. Looking at the narrow lane winding its way perilously close to the sea and crowded with shops and restaurants, John asked, quite reasonably, “Are you sure we can drive along here?”

I looked at my detailed printed instructions, “Yes. Just go slowly. We’ll be fine.”

He made his way hesitantly past the harbour, fishing boats rocking gently, some small shops, a tall church spire and a restaurant with tables and chairs set out by the sea. Inches to our right, was the Adriatic, where children were playing and men fishing.

Then, a beach and a small bar with a spacious balcony perched over the sea: our local for the next fortnight.

“Turn left, our cottage is up here,” I instructed.

John turned up a narrow lane and there was our cottage, an old fisherman’s place with white walls and green shutters, its little garden holding a magnificent fig tree.

Flagging in the sweltering heat, we dragged our suitcases out of the car.

“Who’s coming for a swim?” I asked.

The boys perked up and flung everything on the floor in their rush to find their trunks. We walked back down the lane and dived into the sea.

Floating on my back in the warm water I smiled. In front of me the sea stretched all the way to Split, just visible below the mountains, behind me the village clung to the hillside, colours vibrant in the hot sun.  In the distance, the little coast road disappeared over the horizon, meandering past tiny coves and pine forest, enticing me ever onwards …

 

Croatia and Wales 101

Biastrica beach at the end of the lane

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A is for Awakening

live your life quote

My writing/inspiration/motivation has been in one of those periodic ruts that affect creative people. Last night I came up with a plan to get out of it: writing 26 pieces of creative non-fiction, one for each letter of the alphabet. Here is today’s musing :

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Two years ago a friend nagged me relentlessly about going on a personal development course. Every time I spoke to him on the phone, he mentioned it and told me how much he’d benefited from it. Eventually I gave in and booked a place just to shut him up. What harm could come from going?

It turned out to be three of the most uncomfortable days of my life and the repercussions are still affecting me. As I listened to other people go up to the microphone and unburden themselves of terrible secrets – abuse, bullying, affairs, regrets – thoughts long buried slowly percolated to the surface of my mind. My one overriding realisation was how unfulfilled my life was.

As I sat in the white-walled lecture room it dawned on me I’d spent the last decade sleep-walking through my life and completely lost sight of who I was. It was an endless cycle of childcare and domestic matters which I could do with my eyes closed and used about a tenth of my brain power. And if I didn’t do something about it now, I would become stuck in a prison of my own making, never able to break free. Now I’d voiced this feeling there could be no returning to my old life.

By this time I’d been writing for about a year but it took doing the course and its follow-up to restore my self-confidence enough for me to sign on to the journalism course I’m halfway through and to teach me to believe in myself.

And when I hit a bump in the road now, I remember the most important lesson I took away with me: words are easy, action is hard but in the end only action will move you forward, so take it.

For the Love of a Dog

A friend of mine lost her beloved dog yesterday.

“Why are animals such an important part of our lives?” she asked me.

“They become part of the family, give us unconditional love and de-stress us,” I replied.

I got to thinking about the death of my little dog nearly three years ago and sat down and wrote something about it. 

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You lie on your bed sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a blanket for warmth, only your little black and grey head peeping out. The door bells rings and I answer with a heavy heart; it’s better you don’t know that these are your last moments on earth.

The final two years of your life have been hard as you’ve slowly declined and we’ve become your carers, nursing you from this day to the next. One afternoon, not long after Christmas, you started being sick and kept falling over. I thought you’d had a stroke but no it was vestibular syndrome, which affects your balance. Once you’d recovered, your little grizzled head had a slight tilt to it but otherwise no-one could tell you’d been ill.

I asked the vet straight out what your prognosis was; it’s better to know the truth about such things, even if they’re hard to hear. He was direct, “eventually it will kill her, from now on it’s about her quality of life.” It was sobering news.

Long walks were replaced with short ones and then disappeared altogether as your arthritis got worse and worse and you panted in pain. We visited the vet again and he adjusted your medication. Your circulation became poor and you would often shiver uncontrollably. When that happened I’d wrap you in a blanket and sit you on my lap until you stopped.

The next symptom of increasing age was senility: always a very clean dog, you started forgetting that you had to go outside to go to the toilet and would poo on the floor instead. If I told you off you just looked bemused, so after the first few times, I just quietly cleaned up the mess and worried that it would get worse.

Of course it did and after several stressful weeks of you weeing everywhere we started putting dog nappies on you and I moved your bed downstairs into the kitchen, where the tiled floor was much easier to clean than carpet.

And all the while vestibular syndrome lurked in the background, waiting to pounce whenever it had the opportunity. You had frequent mini episodes and with every one declined that little bit more. Sometimes, you would fall over flat on your side and I would pick you up and cradle you until you could stand again. One attack left you with the inability to walk straight; instead you had a strange crab-like gait from then on.

Visits to the vet became more and more frequent as I agonised over your quality of life and wondered whether I was being cruel or kind. Dogs are far more stoic than humans and despite all you medical problems you still enjoyed a little sniff round the garden and a cuddle on the sofa and two years after the first vestibular attack you were still with us.

But one morning you couldn’t get out of bed; during the night, one of your back legs had become paralyzed. It hung uselessly at a strange angle and you couldn’t stand up. My husband and I looked at one another: enough was enough. “I’ll call the vet,” I said sadly “and ask him to come over.”

So this morning, two vets in maroon uniform have come quietly to our house to end your suffering. I move your bed into the living room and keep you comfortable. We all sit round stroking you while the vet inserts a needle into you paw. Within seconds the chemicals have stopped your heart and you’re no more.

“She’s gone,” the vet says solemnly checking for a pulse. My eldest son bursts into tears and I wrap him in my arms, my tears mingling with his. The vet picks you up, your little head flopping peacefully out of the blanket, and leaves. Tension and worry swap places with sadness and relief.

We let the puppy out of the kitchen, put on some shoes and take him for a walk in the woods. Your long life with us is finally over but ours must continue.

 

Image may contain: dog

Beautiful Sophie who lived until she was 16

Is World Book Day a Waste of Time?

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Where’s Wally?

After a decade of being a school parent and at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, I have a confession: World Book Day stresses me out and I think the real purpose of it is being lost.

In the beginning, it was fun to think of who to dress up as and assemble a costume for my kids, but now I have to make my 10-year-old wear one, with the threat that everyone else in the class is doing it, so he must.

In reality, most kids raid their dressing up box and put on their favourite costume; a Disney Princess for girls or Spiderman for boys. But what have comic /film characters got to do with decent kids books? Very little. And I’m sorry but wearing a costume doesn’t encourage children to pick up a book. Most parents don’t have the time or the money to make or buy a new costume every year, so they let them do it. My household is no different, except superhero costumes have been deemed too babyish for many years.

The depressing fact is that this day has become totally commercialised, with companies vying to provide you with costumes for your little cherub at over inflated prices. Plenty of people buy them too; they feel they have to so their kid doesn’t miss out. And I’ve heard that smug parents in solidly middle class areas compete to see who can sew the best outfit. Isn’t all this emphasis on what your child looks like rather missing the point? How about spending money on actual books instead!

My son’s junior school does do some good book related activities, like a book swap and cushion and a clue, where the children wrap up a book so the title is hidden and then bring in some clues so that other children can guess the title. So why not make these the focus of the day and add in story telling and creative writing, rather than stressing out parents and a lot of children by wanting them to dress up too?

I have two boys. The teen is an avid reader and has been ever since he learnt to read. The pre-teen is the polar opposite; he’d rather do anything than get out a book. Yet they have both been brought up exactly the same: read to at bedtime since they were babies, given a variety of books to read and encouraged at every opportunity. They’ve also watched their parents reading every day; all the things the experts tell us to do if we want our children to be life long readers. It frustrates us no end that he isn’t interested but putting on our well-used Harry Potter outfit this morning, won’t make any difference.

I’m sorry if you feel differently but I’m looking forward to World Book Day next year when we’ll take part in this pointless dressing up exercise for the last time. In the meantime I’m going to be thinking of how to deal with the real issue; getting my son to read.

The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.

THE “I’M DOING IT” CONVERSATION

Croatia and Wales 150

Our teen

We have a pretty good teen on the whole. He walks the dogs on his own, pops to the shop for me when I’ve forgotten something for tea, lays the table and is very concerned about politics and the environment. But he is 13.

This morning I was sitting in bed reading another blog about parenting and laughed out loud. My other half wandered out of the bathroom and asked why.

“I’m reading a post on Facebook about a teen who never answers his mother when called and then swears blind that he did,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well our version is the ‘I’m doing it conversation’.”

Let me enlighten you…

Several times a day, I’ll call up the stairs and ask our teen, who spends most of his time in his bedroom, to do something.

Me: “Can you get in the shower please.”

Teen: “OK Mum.”

Five minutes later not having heard any movement I’ll climb the stairs to his room, suspecting that he’s engrossed on his phone or reading a book and not doing what I asked.

I open the door to find him lying on the sofa.

Me: “Why haven’t you got in the shower?”

Teen: “I’m doing it!” in an aggrieved tone.

Me, through gritted teeth: “No you’re not, you’re lying on the sofa looking at YouTube/reading your book.”

Teen: “Well, I’m doing it now!” picking up his phone/book and retreating again.

Me, in a stressed tone: “Come on, give me your phone/put the book down and go do it.”

Teen with his best flounce and putting down the offending article: “OK”

Objective achieved I retreat to the kitchen, grumbling under my breath. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was an occasional occurrence but this conversation plays on a loop all week and then when we get to Monday morning, oh joy, it starts all over again.

It isn’t only mine I know, teens all over the world do this as part of the letting go process. But it would be nice if, for once, the teen did things the first time of asking; there would be less stress all round.

Whenever I see parents with small children, I come over all nostalgic and think “You don’t know how easy you have it!”

What Is Love?

Today being Valentine’s Day, my Facebook feed this morning was full of pictures of hearts and flowers accompanied by soppy messages. But a post by fellow writer, Judy, made me smile, as she got right to the heart of the matter as usual. She inspired me to set my own pen to paper.

Like many an old tradition, this day for lovers has been hijacked by crass commerciality of the worst kind, which just makes me cringe. To be brutally honest, most of the things we’re supposed to do today, leave me cold. As I have been with the same man for 25 years, at times a long and very difficult journey, this is what I think love is really about…

Is it about a card with a badly worded message? No, it’s having a husband who works a 12-hour day in London without complaint to support his family.

Maybe it’s an overpriced bunch of roses? You’re wrong, it’s reading Harry Potter to your son every night for two years as he loves the books so much.

Is it an expensive watch, carefully chosen from the local jewellers? Not at all. It’s walking the dogs in the pouring rain without argument because someone has to do it.

Perhaps love is expressed by a beautiful pearl necklace? Not really, far better to have someone who’ll put the washing in without you asking and do a big supermarket shop.

How about a meal out at the latest place to be seen? Not for me. I’d far rather be brought a cup of tea in the morning from someone who knows that I’m the “mummy monster” without it.

Surely, a weekend away counts for something? It’s a kind thought but a truer test of love is not telling your wife how much danger she and their son are in as she struggles to give birth to him.

Oh come on! Doesn’t your favourite bottle of wine mean anything? It’ll taste pleasant but living with someone who knows from my expression or tone of voice exactly how I’m feeling and soothes me with a kind word or a gentle caress is worth infinite bottles of plonk.

Love is being there through the good times and the bad, facing the unexpected together and not letting one another down. It’s knowing that most of the time family life is mundane and repetitive, as well as stressful and relentless and not walking away because you’ve tired of it. It’s about committing to one person, even though some of their habits drive you crazy because you know they’ll always be there for you.

My husband is actually in Barcelona on business today, while I keep the kids entertained in grey, drizzly Wales but neither of us minds at all. When I arrive home in a few days, after a very long drive, he’ll come out and unpack the car, order us all pizza and help me put the children to bed. It’s exactly what I need him to do. No more no less.

Happy Valentine’s Day!