I speak of simple things

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Well actually I didn’t, I dreamt about my little gecko, but that wouldn’t sound as good at the start of a book or a blog post.
Dexter made me happy and the dream of him being back made me happy. In my dream, he fitted into his palm. He was blinking and breathing gently, silent yet determined, his marbled green-and-brown body curled around something he really wanted to hold onto. I woke up and my fingers were curving around the shape that I had known so well, but they closed on empty air.


Dexter – he was so very, very small, and I loved him so very, very much.

For the last three months I’ve been battling whooping cough. Well actually I haven’t battled it; I’ve put up no resistance at all. It’s left me breathless, weak, exhausted and embarrassed. Like all clouds though, this one has had a silver lining: unable to scuttle around like a manic crab doing everything I need to do and then some mystery shopping on the side, I’ve had time off and have been revisiting the simpler things. Like Dexter: the littlest things.

Golden syrup makes me happy. I was making a recipe which called for several tablepoons. Absent-mindedly (and after baking was complete) I stuck my finger in my mouth and my senses were assaulted by a thousand sticky, happy, sunny memories. I went out and bought some crumpets and ate them dripping in syrup.

Blackberry picking. Last week, feeling rotten, I was in my lounge-wear and had decided to hunker down for the evening, but was filled with a sudden fear that the last ones jewelling the bushes would fall into bruised mulch when the rains came. I went down the lane in the twilight, pulling myself free from brambles and trying avoid spider-webs as I reached for the last of the crop. Now my freezer is chock full of them, but nobody would get bored of blackberries.

A weekend with my granny in an isolated hamlet where all you can hear are sheep and birds. Her house perches on the edge of a hill, viewing a river where England and Wales meet and go their separate ways. A house full of clean distinct smells, soft carpet, faded photographs of well-beloved pets and one special grandfather. A thousand memories of a golden childhood. Corn-dollies, hops, a large blue butterfly in a frame, a glass jar full of shells in the bathroom, a solitaire board set with myopic marbles. Two fat china rabbits with black noses, which Granny gives me to keep. We curled up at opposite ends of the sofa and read. I could have done that comfortably for hours.

This is what I read (not literally all on that visit – I’m not that unsociable!):

The Visitors by Sally Beauman
An interesting story about a young girl in Egypt during the 1920s when Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutenkhamun.

Daughter by Jane Shemilt
A thriller about a missing daughter, and the secrets kept within a family. Started off brilliantly, then dribbled away to nothing.

Cheri by Collette
I feel such a Philistine admitting this, but I did not like this one bit. I found it dull and a bit silly. Sorry Collette – if it makes you feel better, I think I am one of only two people in the world who has not enjoyed this book. Probably the bloke at the local chippy is the other one, he looks like crime is more his thing.

The Dark Beneath The Stairs by Lance Salway
Salway is one of my favourite ghost writers. He wrote Mandy Kiss Mommy, one of the darkest stories of my childhood.

Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary by Ruud van de Rol
A photographic remembrance. A lot of photos I hadn’t seen before which were startlingly poignant.

Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon
A surprisingly funny play which I read in one sitting in the bath. (Should that be a lying?)

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
An unusual and discomfiting read about a young detective who goes missing and the workers in a shopping arcade who determine to track her down.

Maggie & Me by Damian Barr
The painful yet amusing reading of a young boy growing up gay under Thatcher in Glasgow. She was not reknowned for her tolerance of homosexuality. Or much else, come to that.

 A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Please don’t miss this book. Please, if you’ve never read a book before, and you never intend to do so again, make this the only book they read in your entire life. It doesn’t sound much – a Mormon family coming to terms with the tragic loss of their youngest member – but it really is extraordinary. When I came to the end I sat back, a bit stunned, teary and like I’d been walloped in the solar plexus by a sock filled with wet sand. In a good way. That’s a REAL reading experience.

Black Heart Blue by Louisa Read – written for teenagers, but very readable nonetheless, about twins living in a fiercely religious household.

The Distant Hours by Kate Moreton
This felt a bit unsure of itself for the first two-thirds, stumbling from chapter to chapter for a bit before suddenly becoming exciting and engrossing and breaking my heart a couple of times toward the end.

The Bed I made by Lucie Whitehouse.
I really enjoyed this; the tale was taut, and the descriptions of the Isle of Wight made me long to visit.

The Quick by Lauren Owen:
More sodding vampires! Quite an interesting story though until it suddenly came to an end and I felt a bit abashed, like I’d had a dinner party and a guest had left before the cheese course.

In Plain Sight by Dan Davies
About Jimmy Saville. Really disturbing and also answered a lot of questions I had about why people didn’t say anything.

The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine.
Erskine’s books are like your favourite puddings; reliable, enjoyable, and sit comfortably inside you for a good while afterwards. This one is set during WW2. It’s a little far-fetched, but aren’t they all, and since when was that a bad thing?

The Third Wife: Lisa Jewell
I really love Lisa, and The Third Wife was a rollicking read in which people actually look at how they’re behaving, and their impact on others. I love Lisa Jewell; I’d like to have her round for Sunday lunch. I’d cook her a pie, and then rice pudding with blackberries.

Reading has always been my chief delight, from the moment that I first battled with the word Acrooacree. I remember welling up with tears at my teacher’s desk as I tried to understand how to put the letters together (I don’t know why I had such difficulty with it, but my God Sheila K McCullagh you were responsible for a five year old’s mortification). Once I had won the battle with that, I realised I could win over any word if I just stuck at it. That realisation was the key into another world: the joy of reading which has never left me, has buoyed me through some very difficult times (Jilly Cooper, you carried me through 2004) and has meant that I never, ever get bored. I don’t understand people who say they are bored. If you’re bored, why don’t you pick up a book?

More simple pleasures. I’ve had a chicken and tarragon pie tonight, the first pie I’ve had in years. Followed by Ambrosia rice pudding with (more) blackberries. I’ve eaten far too much since I had The Cough and was unable to exercise: self-pity probably. As from tomorrow: gym regularly, and eating much less regularly.

I visited a friend in a hospice today. It’s a huge honey-coloured mansion on a hillside. She has her own room where she can look at the sunlight dappling the fields. Her shelves are full of flowers and letters of love. I covered my hands in lemon oil and massaged her feet, She told me she was very lucky.

I am very lucky, too. A shelf-full of books unread, words unlearned, characters who are still strangers to me. Hidden somewhere between or behind these tomes, rustling shyly, my own book. I discovered a word today and it has become my title. When I was little I wrote my books with the title first, always. That was the acorn from which my (not so great) oak tree grew. Writing was so easy then. Perhaps that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years. I’m not writing the word down here though; it’s too new, and it might get stolen by a squirrel.


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