I just finished reading Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks, a novel about WWI. My great-grandfather served in WWI, in the trenches. He came home missing an eye, deaf in one ear and never spoke. He lived well into his 90’s, so I got to spend time with him, in silence. We watched Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry and he’d always pour the last of his tea into his saucer for the dog.
He had two budgies called Snowy and Joey. When Joey got too old to fly back into his cage, grandad made him an intricate ladder out of matches. I imagine it was a miniature version of the crude ladder he might have climbed down into the tunnels in Flanders. He was so proud of that ladder, but when he turned to show Joey, he mis-stepped and trod on him.
As a kid, I loved this story but was never allowed to laugh. In the spring, he made cuttings of geranium plants and the sun room smelt like soil. These are the only pieces I have of him, an incomplete jigsaw. He died when I was eight. My aunt told me it was peacefully in his sleep, but I later found out he died shouting for the guns to stop.
His high-backed Parker Knoll chair was passed down to me. I’m still too scared to sit in it, in case it holds his secret horrors. For years I remained respectfully silent in my wondering about his years in France, but since reading Bird Song, my curiosity will not be quieted. I contacted distant relatives, seeking information, and with the scant details I gleaned, signed up to ancestry.com.
Within minutes I was looking at his service record. The form was right there on my laptop. His signature scrawled in pen, swearing to be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George the Fifth, so help him god. He was 18 years old.
I felt guilty for finding it. Here was what he didn’t want me to know. He was in the Royal West Surrey Regiment, in the Labour Corps, providing unskilled labour, and then he was put into the infantry. He served on the front line.
My quest is not complete. I plan to find his exact regiment and location, and then I’m going to go to that field in France and stand on the soil he toiled on. Even with all I know about WWI, it will only ever feel like a field to me, I never risked my life there, or took another’s.
Some people think children should not learn about the war. Some people think WWI was called the great war because we did well, not because so many people died – pushed over the top in a slow march to their inevitable death.
I can’t comprehend how I was ever in the same room as a man who had to witness these horrors. Perhaps if I hadn’t known a small piece of him I wouldn’t feel so moved by the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched, but I can still see the brown speckled skin on his hand as it shook holding his tea. His hands were always shaking. What did those hands do?#
This week, my husband suggested I ‘get a job’. Any stay-at-home mum will know the impact those three words have on your sense of worth. I thought I had a job. I thought giving up my body, my career and my financial independence to raise three children and run a home was a job. It feels like a job. A job I’m pretty sure I’d never been offered if there’d been an interview as I had no previous experience.
I used to wear pin striped trousers and shiny shoes. I had my own desk and a job title. I had an assistant who sometimes got my lunch for me. I had reports I had to deliver at sales meetings in board rooms with men in ties who said things like ‘pipeline’ and ‘put it to bed’ and I didn’t even laugh at the sexual references, because I had pin stripped trousers on, and my important report to deliver. I was a serious career woman.
Then I got knocked up, and those men in ties and too-tight suits decided my reports were no longer required. They doubted my brain, as though I’d become a child, rather than a mother.
Some secret meetings with HR decreed that my assistant, who had not committed the cardinal sin of giving birth, would be far better at delivering reports in pin stripped trousers. I was out. On a Tuesday morning with no notice, I was told I was no longer needed.
I went home and looked at the washing, and the hoover and the dirty dishes. I said goodbye to my cleaner (who I could justify employing when I had ‘a real job’) and swapped my pin striped trousers for leggings. I went to coffee mornings and library sing-songs and told myself it was an honour to do so and that I’d been selfish for ever attempting to be 'more' than a mere mother.
I told myself I was where I belonged. My waist grew and shrank with more children, scars replacing the skin I used to show off in snappy suits. My life became making my husband coffee in the morning and listening to him rant about how busy and important he is, while the children ignored all my attempts at bedtime.
I told myself I was glad to be out the rat race. I lost sight of the girl I used to be, who assertively bagged herself a seat on the train to London and won contracts over lunches. I lost my IT skills, my fashion sense and eventually my confidence. Now I’d prefer to clean a boardroom than present to one. It’s the only thing I feel competent at.
It’s my mother’s birthday this week. I’ve been reminding my brothers via text for ages, telling them to send the card now so it gets there in time (she lives in France.) My middle brother phoned me this morning for her address (they’ve lived there 13 years, why doesn’t he know it?). My eldest brother also called and said, ‘I’ll call her on the day.’ I spent ages making a personalised card on Moonpig. I even wrote a poem in it. My middle brother’s card will arrive late. It will be from the local corner shop and probably be a get-well card, or one that says, ‘sorry your dog died’ because he won’t bother looking at the card before he buys it, but he will send one.
Which of these acts will make my mum happiest? The phone call from the eldest one. She’ll act like he flew in a helicopter to deliver her hand-picked flowers. She won’t mind he didn’t send a card, because my eldest brother, who is single with no children or animals is “too busy to have time”. If I’d not sent a card because I have three children, four if you count the husband, (and I do) a menagerie of animals and a job, she would have been ‘disappointed’. She would not have told me this. She would have gotten my dad to ring me, while she stood in the background saying, ‘no post on my birthday, very sad indeed’.
It’s the same in all families. The child who makes the least effort is the favourite. All brother John has to do is tag her in on Facebook and she is cock-a-hoop. “I don’t have favourites” she says, then asks me if I like the painting she did for him.
When she comes over to see us, she will say, without fail that she fancies line-caught-cod. It doesn’t matter how expensive the restaurant is I take her too, she’ll take one bite of her fish and say “well that’s not line caught”. She will then refuse to eat it, so Dad finishes it and then she’ll ask me if I think he’s got fat.
The MET office has announced it might start using regional slang to describe the weather, to make bulletins simple and more accessible. According to a survey Manchester like to describe wet weather as ‘lashing it down’ while Newcastle and Leeds would say ‘chucking it down’.
I can see how this might be confusing. Thank goodness the MET office are decoding dialects for rain, otherwise, when in Newcastle, if someone told me it was ‘teeming it down’ I’d have no idea what they meant, even if it was raining heavily at the time. According to the survey, us Brightonians call it ‘p*ssing it down’. How considerate of the MET office to use this term when describing storms in Sussex, or we’d be going out without our brollies, clueless as to what ‘heavy rain’ meant.
This got me thinking about other local dialect we use. Turns out, while Sussex wrongly liken rain to urine, we have over thirty different terms for mud, including ‘slob’, ‘sleech’ ‘swank’ ‘stodge’ ‘sludge’ and ‘slurry’. I do hope the MET office start using these differentiators when describing the local terrain, or I may go out in a tennis shoe, when a sturdy walking boot is required.
Other local dialect, which I’ve never heard anyone use ever, include ‘chog’ (apple core), ‘goistering’ (loud female laughter), ‘kiddy’ (friend of a workmate), ‘somewhen’ (sometime), ‘jiggered’ (surprised) and my favourite ‘bread-and-cheese-friend’ (a true friend, as distinguished from a cupboard lover). You can’t trust those cupboard lover friends, they’ll steal all your furniture given half a chance.
Confusing as these terms are, they are still easier to decipher than the language my kids and their friends use. Three local youths were stroking my dogs outside the school gate this week. Trying to be hip, I walked over and said ‘hey lads, you like my dogs do you? They’re cool aren’t they’. They looked at me like I was an idiot, and told me no-one says cool anymore. Apparently, my dogs are ‘dope’.
Now when I a kid, dope was squidgy black resin, also known as wacky tobacco. Determined not to lose my street- cred, I went home and did some research. When I saw them the next day, I said ‘Hey lads, how ‘lit’ is my Labrador?’ It seems I missed the mark again. I read ‘Lit’ meant ‘turned up’ or ‘popping’. I thought it was the right thing to say, but I was wrong. When I asked them what was ‘sick to say’ they told me to ‘jagoogala’. I had to google it, to find out it meant ‘just google it’.
In an effort to show my children that trying new things can be fun! I let my friends rope me in to going to a yoga class. Having tried it before, and sucking at it, I knew I was not going to have the best time of my life, but my friends were waiting for my after school drop-off with yoga mats and grins on their faces. I don’t have many friends and won’t lose the three I’ve got left, so I went.
To show the teacher what sort of student I was going to be, I wore a t-shirt that said, “I’m wasting my life”.
To begin, we lay on our backs in the dark with a lavender eye bag on, under a warm fluffy blanket. I began to drift off to sleep thinking maybe I was not wasting my life after all, but then the actual lesson started and I was told to place my hands over my heart-centre. I had to lift my eye-bag to see what part everyone else was touching, because this is Brighton, and you never know.
It all went downhill from there, and I mean literally. We started doing ‘downward dog’. The green smoothie I’d necked before class (to try and get into all that jingly jangly stuff) churned like waves in my stomach. I was light-headed, and my wrists hurt. I looked at my friend Sammy, and saw her head was on the floor, like actually touching it. My head was level with her bum, which was pointing high up in the air.
I never knew Sammy was competitive till I went to yoga with her. She stretched and squeezed and showed off while the teacher held me up with ropes and offered me blocks for balance. I’m not competitive either, but if Sammy, who is a 5ft midget (love you girlfriend) didn’t need a block, then I wasn’t have a bloody block either. What a mistake.
Who knew it was so hard just to stand up straight with your arms out? I was told to push my toes into the earth, charge energy up my legs, point the inside of my elbows together, feel my tailbone, hold in my core, dip my chin, raise my head, soften my fingers, straighten my arms and breathe.
I reminded myself of my husband when he tries to multi task; useless. I didn’t even remember which side was my left one. Suddenly even staying upright was challenging. I quickly realised either I was wasting my life, or someone had snuck vodka into my green smoothie.