Locked Down or Locked In?

Like Japanese soldiers found hiding on remote Pacific islands decades after the Second World War, unaware the hostilities had ended, I fear I may emerge from isolation months in the future to discover everyone else has been out and about, holidaying and having fun. Scenes on the news of crowded beaches and beauty spots and anti racism protests, leave many of us wondering if we have missed a miraculous and sudden end to the pandemic.

One of my earliest memories is looking out of our upstairs window at sunshine and blue skies and feeling shut in. Until I was nearly seven, by which time my parents had a toddler and baby to cope with as well, Mum and Dad rented what they called a flat, but was really the spacious two top floors of a large Victorian terraced house. A quick glance on Zoopla reveals you would pay over a million and a quarter for such a house in that road today. But Mum had to lean out the kitchen window to hang the washing on a pulley line, suspended high above the back garden of the ‘wicked old lady’ ( mum’s words ) who lived on the ground floor. She never offered to let me play in her garden. But I certainly wasn’t a prisoner; my parents were always taking me down by the river or to Kew Gardens, Marble Hill Park and Richmond Park for fresh air and exercise. I feel so sorry for children literally locked into cramped flats because of the virus. Most children in England will not now return to school till after the summer holidays. While many are having fun and never had so many walks and bike rides with their parents, some children are isolated indoors because of their health or underlying health conditions of someone in their family.

We adults may grumble and some people have found themselves in dire situations, but we are not sheltering in a basement in a war shattered city. For writers, bloggers, artists and gardeners it’s just another day at home, an endless succession of days at home, but it’s okay. Obviously I could not survive without BBC Radio, books, music, the internet, television and of course chocolate.

When we were having our medical dramas just before lockdown, there was another patient who seemed to be following Cyberspouse from ward to ward. He had no visitors because he had a frail wife at home and no family near. I knew this because I heard all his conversations to medical staff and on his mobile, but his greatest upset was not having anything to read and nobody seemed able to get him a newspaper. When any medical staff asked how he was he told them he was soo bored. He was reduced to doing origami with the paperwork they left behind. By the third ward I made sure I brought him a newspaper and he was overwhelmed with gratitude. Boredom can be a worse threat than a pandemic.

What things have been essential for your survival in isolation?

Friday Flash Fiction 1000 – You Have One Friend

He still had the same smile, sitting on the bed, arms open in greeting.
‘We found him in a bag in the loft when we were moving.’ My mother’s voice startled me.
Teddy was the only recognisable object in the bedroom. Just back from a year in Australia, I had no choice but to stay with my parents while I searched for a job. During my absence they had downsized. I was consigned to the tiny guest bedroom.
‘I’ll go and put the kettle on.’ Mum retreated to the kitchen and I picked up Teddy.
He never had a name, but once upon a time he had been my best friend and I used to wish that he could speak. Mum assured me that if I held him close and listened carefully I would hear him. I responded by repeating his conversation, perhaps I really believed he spoke. Teddy was a poor substitute for a brother or sister, but I told him all my secrets.
Now I had other best friends and 677 Facebook friends.

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‘Is it okay if I use the computer?’ I asked after dinner.
My father’s new computer had been given a bigger room than me.
‘You can borrow your mother’s lap top, we’re on Wi Fi now.’
‘No one goes in Dad’s den’ laughed Mum.
‘It’s only till I get a new phone; you’re not on Facebook yet then?’
‘Load of rubbish,’ said Dad ‘we only got e-mail to keep in touch with you.’
‘We Skype Aunty Dot in Canada’ added Mum.
Things had moved on since I’d been away.
I spent a busy evening checking e-mails and looking up old friends instead of career opportunities.

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By the next evening I was trying out my new smart phone, the latest model. After a few phone calls I checked out Facebook.
You have one new friend.
Strange, I had not accepted any new friends.
The new friend was born 5th June 1987, a week after me. There was a picture of him with that familiar smile. It was Teddy. Who was playing a joke? Only my parents knew about Teddy, but they didn’t know how to get on Facebook and they didn’t have a sense of humour.
I scrolled down to see what other friends were up to, hoping I had imagined Teddy. Parties, weddings, jobs and feeble jokes, plenty had happened since I had been in the internet café in Sydney. I scrolled back up. Teddy had made a comment.
I’m back, the dark days are over.
I left Teddy on the windowsill where I had put him last night and went downstairs. My parents were watching a ‘Nordic Noir’ drama.
‘I thought you said you didn’t do Facebook, which of you put Teddy on?’
They were too busy reading the sub titles to take in what I was saying.
‘Oh people put such rubbish on the internet.’
When the titles came up they came back to life. ‘Any luck yet? It’s not easy for anyone to get a job at the moment. Have you been in touch with your uni. friends? You have to network these days.’
I retreated with the genuine excuse that I was still suffering from jet lag and went to bed with a book, but I could not resist one last look at my phone.
New e-mails;
Come over and see my new flat, Dilly.
Welcome back, do you want to meet up for a drink for old time’s sake? Tom.
Where are you staying? P.S. Like your new Facebook friend, L.O.L. xx Tim.
I went on Facebook. Teddy now had 5 likes and 1 comment from Tim.
Welcome back Teddy.
I logged out and tried to get to sleep, Teddy was still smiling on the window sill.

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I slept in, woken by my phone ringing. It was Kate.
Sorry to wake you, but there’s a position going at my place, thought you might be interested… is everything okay, only you unfriended me on Facebook.
The house was quiet, my parents had gone to work. Teddy had not moved since last night. I sneaked into Dad’s den, perhaps on the large screen everything would be normal.
You have been tagged in Teddy’s picture.
A picture of us together when we were both the same size. I went into the tiny lounge. They had kept the best bookcase and in it were the precious photograph albums.
Amy, one week old, with new friend.
There I was lying on the sofa with Teddy. There had to be a rational explanation. I returned to the screen. My bear now had 35 friends, my friends. I looked up his details.
Work and education: St. Bear’s Infant’s School.
Interested in: Humans
Activities: Chillaxing at home.
Teddy had been the only pupil at St. Bear’s, I was his teacher.
When I glanced back at the page he had posted a message.
Ho Hum, sitting on the windowsill…
That was how he spoke to me when I was a child, he always prefaced each sentence with Ho Hum when he whispered in my ear.

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Another phone call; friends at a conference nearby; a proper evening out with sensible adults, but when I got there I did not get the warm greeting I expected.
‘What’s going on Amy, you’ve unfriended us all on Facebook.’
‘No, it’s a great joke, I’ve got a teddy bear for a friend’ said one of the guys who had drunk too much, already keying into his phone. ‘Another message’ Ho Hum, all on my own, Amy’s gone out. ‘Hey, you’ve been tagged in his picture… I like the underwear.’
Despite my best intentions I had taken my phone out of my bag and logged onto Facebook. Teddy had posted a picture of me in the bedroom, about to put on the dress I was wearing now. On the windowsill behind me he sat smiling.
Teddy has 196 friends.
I checked my details.
You have 1 friend.

‘You Have One Friend’ is one of the stories in Dark and Milk – download for only 99 pence.

Retroblog – Australia 1965

By Christmas 1964 we were in our new house on a quarter acre block; south of the Swan River in a new suburb laid out in the popular grid pattern. Our street would soon go on for miles, but at the time there was still a sandy track between us and the few shops. The location was ideal for Dad’s new job and we could see my future high school across the paddocks opposite our house. On one side of our house was bush with beautiful ‘Christmas Trees’ covered in yellow blossom. The other side was an empty quarter acre block that mirrored ours with gum trees and black boys – now days they are called grass trees – almost prehistoric, they had black trunks with long tough grass like spikes. They were said to grow just one inch a year, which is probably why they were only waist height.

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On the other side of the empty block were our only neighbours, Mable and George, dinky di Aussies who had retired from the goldfields in Kalgoorlie. George got himself a job as a dustman and after work devoted himself to the novelty of a television set. Mum and Mable became good friends, they were both strangers in Perth; to Mum it was a tiny city, but to Mable huge, she had never been on an escalator. Mable and George’s only son lived in The Eastern States, two thousand miles away; he may as well have been in another country. Even today Perth is still the most isolated modern city in the world.

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Around the corner were more houses; Dad soon found me some new friends when he went to buy petrol and met a Pommie who worked at the service station. The two families with two girls each were more established and had television sets. Mum and Dad had vowed never to get one now we had got used to its absence, they weren’t missing much, television was quite new in Western Australia.

Christmas was strange, no relatives to come and visit, no parcels to arrive in the post and Mum and Dad on a very tight budget.  My parents had not found a church, nor were they likely to find one to match the ancient parish church with a thriving congregation that we had left behind. Candlelit services and the dark greens and reds of winter were now in the past. But when our packing cases finally arrived it was like Christmas as we were reunited with our favourite books and toys.

Only one of my new friends was also starting high school at the beginning of February 1965. I was glad to have someone to go with, but as we walked along the sandy track on the first morning Linda told me that if you didn’t pass your junior exams you had to repeat the whole three years. I believed her.

There were fourteen hundred children in the school, it was a senior high school so that included fourth and fifth years. We all lined up on the grass in front of a long veranda. There was no assembly hall. Names were called and we were allotted to the ten classes, Linda and I were separated. Although education was comprehensive the classes were ranked. 1-9 and 1-8 the only classes to do French, then all the way down to 1.1 and if you were in 1-Special that was bad… I had made it into 1-9, another girl in my class later told me she thought 1-9 was the bottom class and went home and cried.

I was on my own, but not for long, an Australian girl said ‘Do you know anybody?’ she was new to the area and in the same boat, we became friends.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past – Episode One

What was your worst Christmas, your strangest? Some Christmas memories blend in, others are never forgotten. For those of us who had a happy childhood Christmas remains in our memories as a time of heady excitement; dark winter days brightened with nativity plays, school parties and candlelit churches. There was one traumatic experience that dulled the excitement when I was seven. At school we were told to write a letter to Father Christmas, the girl sitting in front of me turned round and said ‘What’s the point of writing to Father Christmas when he doesn’t really exist?’ I tried to appear nonchalant, I was not going to admit my ignorance, but I was devastated. As soon as I got home from school I asked my mother if it was true; my last hopes were dashed and she swore me to secrecy, not to spoil it for my younger siblings. I soon recovered, the Christmas atmosphere remained and there was still the thrill of presents to unwrap.

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When I was eleven we emigrated to Western Australia; our arrival was in October, we moved to our new house in December and my childhood Christmases disappeared forever. This was not the fault of Australia or my parents; I was growing up, the dark mystery of winter days was replaced by bright sunshine, we knew nobody, there were no gift bearing relatives visiting and my parents’ budget was tight. But by the following year Christmases were settling into a new pattern and we acquired family friends to celebrate with.

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My first Christmas away from home, when I was nineteen, came about when my best friend and I planned a six week summer holiday trip across Australia, inveigling a mutual friend to share the driving and his car across the Nullabor Plain. She assured me her relatives in South Australia would be delighted to have the three of us for Christmas and indeed they were very welcoming. A collection of aunts and uncles had orchards and shops. On the first morning of our stay my two friends were commandeered to take one of the aunts to hospital with a miscarriage, I was left behind to look after her young children who I had never met before. More relatives arrived and unbeknown to us they had spotted a freezer that didn’t work properly in uncle’s shop, they warned each other not to eat the chicken. A very pleasant Christmas Day was followed by food poisoning on Boxing Day.

Next week – what was I doing at Heathrow Airport 6am one Christmas morning?

Quarter Acre Block follows the Palmer family as they emigrate to Western Australia in October 1964. At  Christmas they realise how much they have left behind.

 

Bank Holiday Book Bonanza

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Charles Dickens and I have one thing in common, not literary success, but we have both been to Broadstairs on holiday. He enjoyed summer holidays in a house now called Bleak House, where you can still stay. My earliest holiday memory is of Broadstairs, two summers blended into one set of memories. There was only me at the time and Mum and Dad did not attempt to stay in a hotel again.

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On one occasion I opened the wrong door, to be confronted with a lady wearing black underwear, I had never seen such an outfit. With brilliant insight she said ‘Are you looking for your Mummy and Daddy?’

The hotel boasted child minding, so one evening Mum and Dad left me; probably only for a little cliff top stroll, I’m sure they did not spend all night in the pub, but whatever the supervisory arrangements were, I had enough time to take our clothes out of the suitcase and wash them in the large washbasin in our room – this was in the days before everyone expected en suite facilities.

Apparently I never wanted to leave the beach, drawn to the sea already, and had to be dragged off screaming or bribed with a ride on the ‘Peter Pan Railway’.

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Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Margate are all part of The Isle of Thanet, the easternmost part of Kent; an island formed about five thousand years ago and always a busy place, Stone Age, Bronze Age communities and then The Romans. The last ship sailed through the Wantsum Channel in 1672 and over the decades it narrowed, it is many years since Thanet was an island.

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The next time I visited the Isle of Thanet was when we took our toddler, in the days when we wondered how anyone coped with more than one child on outings, on a British Rail Awayaday to Margate. It was a sunny day, but fog descended halfway down the line and never lifted. We sat on the beach, but never actually saw Margate.

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When a branch of the family moved to Margate in 2015 we returned in sunshine; a great chance for Tidalscribe the beachwriter to explore more of the British coast. We were soon sitting in the cafe of Turner Contemporary Gallery, which had opened only four years previously, looking out over the sunny harbour. As well as being famous for Tracy Emin, Margate also claims the painter JMW Turner.

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/mr-turner-exploring-margate-and-tracing-the-inspiration-behind-mike-leighs-latest-film-9823823.html

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May Bank Holiday Monday brought hot weather and hordes of visitors streaming out of the railway station. The Turner Gallery was gleaming white in the sun and as part of the Margate Bookie there was a book launch. Once again Dickens and I have something in common, we both have short stories in a new anthology. Shoal is a venture by Thanet Writers.

Writing is a solitary occupation; most of us are energised by meeting up with other writers in local groups or on line. To speak in public and read out your work is another skill very different from writing. Gathering people together, setting up a website, publishing and creating a book requires plenty of enthusiasm and yet another set of skills.

The launch of the anthology was very well attended and presented and the book is a delight. A varied selection, from the brief and poignant ‘The Pigeons’ to ‘Life and Times of a Zombie.’  There are flamingos in Pegwell Bay, an unhappy wife a hundred years ago and a fairy tale so much darker than Disney.

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https://thanetwriters.com/

Spend a day in Margate at my website.

https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-five-beach-writer-s-blog/

 

 

Beds to Boogie Bounce

 

One of my early memories when there was just me, was of my mother taking me round to visit her friend who had three sons, a livelier household than ours and I was especially excited when the boys said we were allowed to jump on the settee. It was great fun until their mother walked in the room and told them off, followed by mother who of course told me off.

With the advent of garden trampolines perhaps children don’t jump on beds anymore, but for most of us that is the first introduction to trampolining. At this point I should add that there was plenty of fun and exercise to be had at our flat as Dad had built me a miracle of carpentry and engineering; a rocking horse that was a small scale version of the ones in the park.  By the time we had a house with a garden and I had a brother, sister and a friend round the corner with a big family, the two dads had built us everything from Wendy houses to climbing frames. Plenty of play, but no bouncing.

My first opportunity to go on a real trampoline came in first year high school in Australia; a girls’ camp where the trampoline was the lure to come on a  Christian holiday in the lovely Darling Ranges. A week that inspired Jenny’s school trip in my novel Quarter Acre Block.

I never mastered a somersault and we returned to the boredom of softball, netball and PE at school until a new Phys-ed teacher arrived from England. He had floppy blonde hair, reminded us of  Illya Kuryakin from The Man From Uncle and we all wanted to be in his class. He taught us fun things like Jujitsu and using a ‘trampette’ to leap over the wooden horse. Then he moved on to another school.

Forward a good few years and at the local sports centre Popmobility classes started two evenings a week, very addictive, followed by a new Ladies’ Leisure Morning complete with crèche. At last we could have a go on the big trampolines we had looked at enviously when we took our children to classes. There was also roller skating at weekends to which children were allowed to bring an adult. If you’re enjoying something it usually doesn’t last, classes get cancelled, buildings close and line dancing went the same way as the other activities.

We then belonged to various leisure clubs with pools, Jacuzzis and gyms, ranging from fantastically smart and too expensive to cheap and dire. When we moved I discovered Aquarobics. It was great fun and exercised the parts swimming didn’t reach, but the local hotels and council pools lost teachers and closed classes at regular intervals. By the time the water dried up I had missed the Zumba craze and avoided Yoga and Pilates as too serious. When I read on Facebook about  Boogie Bounce with Mel above our Sainsbury’s Local on a Monday morning, it sounded too handy to be missed.  We each have a little round trampoline of the sort children used to have till the giant garden types appeared. Like any exercise class you get out of it according to the effort put in, but bouncing around is more fun than circuits of the gym and every part gets stretched. It is like Aquarobics without the water and your brain also gets exercise as you try to follow the routine. It’s always good for writers to have an antidote to sitting at the computer, but don’t think of new ideas for the plot of your novel as you are exercising; you are bound to lose concentration on the routine and get your legs and arms in a  tangle.