Chepstow

Sept Workshop

U3A Creative Writing Workshop, September 2020

Participants: Jude, Shelagh, Lesley, Barbara, Hermoine, Jan, Laraine, Val
Here are some of the results started in the workshop, some finished off or tidied up afterwards.

1) The thing I like most about mornings (Jude)
...Well, with no-one else to answer to, except my cats, who don’t let me stay in my cosy bed for too long, I like to wake slowly in peace and quiet, until I feel the urge to get out of bed. That’s luxury.
I stay in my dressing gown and have a wander around the garden, weather permitting. On good summer mornings I love to smell the clean air and listen to the birds. But mainly it’s the peace of early morning I enjoy, before anyone else gets up.

In recent days though, there has been a very loud cockerel who just loves the sound of his own voice. He appeared out of the blue one afternoon. Not only did he crow early in the morning, but all day. Peace was destroyed! I thought I would go mad, commit murder or perhaps suicide. Strangle the thing.
Yesterday, however, I suddenly noticed the silence. No rooster! Hooray! I won’t go mad after all and I won’t need to speak to my neighbour about noisy animals. Perhaps they were only looking after the cockerel for a few days. I dare say I shall find out eventually. So long as it doesn’t come back…

***

The thing I like most about mornings (Shelagh)
The thing I like most about morning is getting up when I want to. No alarm for me. I rely on eight hours sleep and a leisurely breakfast, catching up with the news and social media. A relaxing shower is next – with time to slather on body lotion and dress in comfortable clothes. I can make the bed, tidy up and wander downstairs for a cup of coffee.

The flip side of the coin is that I achieve very little before lunchtime. If I am honest, the hours between 9am and 12pm, while serene, are not productive. Sometimes my ‘day’ seems to start at 2pm, which rather limits my options. My new Pilates mat lies abandoned in the cupboard, and my plans to write every day have not materialized.

After six months of nothing to get up for, any motivation to get up and get going has long since disappeared. I have been amazed that other people are not all the same. Now that things have started to open up again, I am mystified by the messages I receive from people suggesting that we meet at 10am for coffee or a meeting. It might as well be 5am as far as I am concerned. But perhaps I am aware of the limitations of my lost mornings. Lately I have found myself suggesting morning meetings, myself, as if recognizing that a third of my precious day is in danger of atrophying. Just to be fair to myself, though, I don’t go earlier than 10.30am.

***

The thing I like most about mornings (Barbara)
Walking in the garden in the early morning before the sun has risen, coffee cup steaming, warming my hands. Little dog waddling along beside me. Swifts, tiny black commas flying high in a clear blue sky. The surrounding forest, pine scenting the air. Open, white magnolia flowers fallen on the rockery, bruised, still beautiful. Water falling into the basin in the silent dawn. A butterfly sits on Francis’ shoulders as he preaches to the birds under the olive trees, its wings opening and closing slowly warming up as the sun shafts into the garden. Then takes flight.

I sit under the willow, sipping coffee, bitter, warming. A robin hope inquisitively closer, we speak to one another without words. Wood pigeons murmur in the oak tree. White clouds drift by.

A car passes on the road. The magic is momentarily broken. The world awakens, dew glistens on the grass, grasps icily at my ankles, soaks the hem of my nightgown. I hear a soft rustling and see an oriental poppy shrugging off its green jacket and unfurling silky purple petals.

I stand up, stretch my arms up into the deep blue and fly away on a cloud, into the million drops of rain blown by a wind far above the earth, over the forest.

***

Morning Glory (Val)
I can almost taste the tang of wild garlic spicing the early morning air. Bluebells shimmer around us, an azure lake stretching far into the horizon.

Beneath my hands, your mane lifts and flutters, neck muscles bunch and flex as you move smoothly into canter and weave through lustrous trees. I crouch low across your back to dodge the pine needles that sweep my cheeks. Low sun flashes through the foliage like headlights, appearing and disappearing with each sway of the branches, spangling the leaves with brilliant stars. Slivers of sunlight catch the rich hue of your coat, a fox’s red-gold, resplendent.

All is hushed, save the chatter of birds high above, the swish of long grass below, as your hooves beat a rhythmic tattoo on the loamy forest track. The huff of your breath spirals from your nostrils, with the occasional snort and blow when a pheasant gusts from the trees, or a rabbit scampers across the path.

How easy it would be, I think, for you to crush me with your weight and strength, to snuff me out in an instant. Yet, instead, you, who were once so wild and free, allow me to harness your power, share your speed and agility, and do so with unfailing trust, with such grace, so generously.

***

The thing I like most about mornings (Hermoine)

Each day brings a new challenge. No matter how dire life gets – and sometimes it certainly does – the new day is an unwritten chapter, a new adventure.

This day will be the time something new happens. Something good, something that will change life for the better. For me and for everyone else. It is a time full of hope.

The fact that this does not happen is not a great surprise. But it doesn’t stop you hoping, dreaming, inching forward.

And at the end of the day, when nothing has happened to alleviate any problems and, even if things have got worse there is always a new day tomorrow!

***

(2) He opened the book (Jude)

…and was disappointed to find the expected ancient script and old photographs had been covered over and used as a scrap book. Trying to gently remove the scraps of paper unfortunately only took off the precious script and pictures with them. Looking at the scraps of paper he deduced it was probably a scrap book from the 1940s during wartime.
How could anyone deface such a valuable book? He guessed it must have happened a lot during wartime due to the paper shortage.

***

Painted Prayers (Barbara)
“She opened the book….”

She sat in the stuffy, worm-scented library, a pile of books beside her. Reference books, biographies, critiques. She had sifted through them all afternoon taking copious notes. Eyes strained, hand stiff. Thirsty, she stood up, her back aching, leaving the books and notes she walked quietly to the exit. She needed to look into the distance, to drink some coffee, to breathe sharp fresh air.
A book caught her eye as she neared the door.
“Painted Prayers.”
She pulled it from the shelf and opened it, turning over page after magical page of exquisite photographs of poor village women, living in mud huts roofed over with palm fronds. Beautiful women, faces deeply lined with their life struggles, paper thin bodies draped in coloured cotton saris, arms encircled with glass, bone and beaded bangles, all painting prayers in the first light of day. Coloured powders worked with skilled, reverential hands tracing intricate jewel bright patterns on the beaten earth before the entrances to their homes. Patterns passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Each one different, unique to the family.
A morning prayer performed every dawn, a spiritual salutation to the new day. Visitors and family step onto the patterns on entering the huts. By nightfall the patterns have disappeared, the coloured powders mixed into the earth.

***

She opened the book (Hermoine)
She opened the book, which I had given her at her husband’s funeral.

I did not think that flowers were appropriate. I wanted to give her something that was meaningful and everlasting, especially to her.

This was a religious book, given to me by a Catholic nun to inspire me with my caring role, when I looked after my paraplegic husband. It was entitled ‘I am with you’ and written by a Catholic bishop who was a friend of this nun.

It was certainly very inspirational and uplifting. On a randomly open page, I read that it says ‘Let me develop in you the gift of uplifting others – simply by your presence. Cultivate the will to show love – even when your heart may be breaking.’

It is a beautiful, leather-bound book with gold lettering.

Maureen was my next door neighbour in Tintern, owning the Royal George hotel. We had grown very close and I was indebted to her for her love and kindness.

She looked at the book and I could tell she liked it as she was a Catholic herself.

What I didn’t expect was her reaction. She keeps the book in her handbag and takes it everywhere she goes and refers to it often. This fills me with great joy.

***

She opened the book (Laraine)
…and was lost. A different time, a different place. Gone was the mundane, the worry, the isolation. Here was a world of excitement and action. Where the hero always won the battles and mysteries were solved against all the odds. Where the land was grand, majestic, in desert or jungle or frozen wastelands dotted with danger. Perhaps there would be a ship sailing across the wildest weather of the ocean, manned by pirates or explorers, with the spume crashing over the bow and washing over the stern. Or perhaps into the vast emptiness of space there would be sights of new worlds, of alien beings, some friendly, some not. And monsters with five legs or two heads would almost, but not quite, defeat the champion again. In a book she could escape the drudgery of life.

***

She opened the book…(Shelagh)
She opened the book and settled back to read. The first sentence stared back at her: ‘The story you read is the story you choose’. Pausing, she went back to re-read the sentence, but, already, it had changed. ‘Your story starts four years into the future’, were the words there now. She went back to the start for a third time. ‘The court of Henry VIII was the most lauded in Europe’, she was informed. As Anne Boleyn’s lady in waiting, you witnessed the social and political movements of the rich and powerful, and you were hopeful of a good marriage.’ Her eyes moved across the page, trying to make sense of what she read.
By the time she had reached Chapter 3, she was betrothed to the son of a Lord and the confidant of Queen Anne. Flicking back to remind herself of her future father-in-law’s name, she realized her mistake too late. Reading on, she found herself not in the splendour of King Henry’s court, but in a hot and hectic kitchen. No longer the recipient of admiring glances from the young courtiers, she was being shouted at by the cook who was waiting for the vegetables.

***
She opened the book (Val)
...and she was away, travelling with the stars, inhabiting the minds of the characters, glorying in the words that unfurled on the page. They tickled her throat with their internal echoes, slid into her brain, lush and smoothly intoxicating as wine.

Oh, the joy of words, words that shimmered with lyrical beauty, or tore into her heart with shock and sorrow, or dripped suspense slowly through her veins, making her pulse gallop with fear. Words could make her weep and make her laugh out loud.
Words – millions of them swelled the pages of books whose colourful spines jostled for space on her bookshelves, always beckoning: Choose me, choose me!

The words in her books wove stories to take her back in time, or forward in time, or pulsated with the intensity of now. Stories took her on journeys to new lands, led her to imaginary places, stirred compassion for people in far-off lands and helped her to learn. She lived a thousand lives through these books, inhabited a thousand minds, experienced a hundred different cultures, philosophies, ideas and emotions – all through the power of words.

Reading by the bedside light, her heart picked up pace as she raced to discover the fate of characters lived alongside for many hours. As she sprinted to the end of each chapter, she found she could not stop there. She was compelled to hurdle over the page break to the start of the next chapter … and the next.

Finally, leaden-eyed, but sated and fulfilled, she reached the final page, sighed, and replaced the book on the pile beside the bed. As she did so the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon and peeked through her curtains. She realised she had been reading all night.

***

(3) One of the most important events of my life (Jude)
was moving from Sussex to Gloucestershire. I thought I had a reasonable life, and hadn’t hungered for anything spectacular, but, upon moving, I was totally unaware that my life was about to change radically. Isn’t it funny? You potter through your life, get married, have children and pets, and have no desire to change because you are happy the way things are. Life however, often has other plans for you.
I met new people, one of whom was interested in astrology. She informed me that, soon, according to my astrological age, I might experience big changes, and, if there were still issues not yet sorted, they were about to get flung right in front of my face!
I thought I was happy and fairly sorted; I didn’t want change. I hated change.
Actually I was peri-menopausal at the time, so that change was about to happen. Wasn’t that enough?
No.
For a while all Hell was let loose and I kept wanting it all to go away. Menopause wasn’t too bad except for lots of hot flushes, but everything and everyone else seemed to get tipped upside down. Mayhem ensued.
“Essential”, says my astrology friend, “something better is on its way.”
Not very comforting.
I didn’t like change, but many changes were coming. Some good and some not so good.
That’s life I guess.

***

One of the most important days of my life (Hermoine)
Not one of my good days, but important, nevertheless…. I was 11 years old and had been in England less than a year. At lunchtime I was on the flat roof of our school and saw my father’s car in the car park of the priest’s house next door. I wondered what he was doing there. My father was a doctor and I wondered if he was there to see to one of the priests.

At the end of the school day I was called into the headmaster’s office. He told me that my parents, who had been going to the races at Haydock Park, near Liverpool, had been in a very bad car crash. My mother had been thrown through the windscreen (no seat belts then) and the car had somersaulted and my father had been pinned underneath with the steering wheel resting on my father’s head. The three priests in the back of the car escaped without even a scratch.

My mother was taken to hospital with horrific injuries, and not expected to survive, while my father had a minor scratch to his arm. They were in the same hospital and when my father went to see my mother, she was unconscious and there were tubes coming out of her everywhere as they sought to keep her alive.

My father went into total shock and soon afterwards lost his memory. Despite shock treatments of every type, he never regained his memory and did not remember our early life or anything about us.

Important life-changing and important day of my life. Friday May 13th, 1948.

***

One of the most important events of my life…(Shelagh)
One of the most important events of my life was the year I spent studying in France. I had enrolled on the first year of Political Sciences at the University of Strasbourg, and, with four fellow students, I travelled by ferry and train to the east of France, just a few miles from the border with Germany. We had left London in the autumn sunshine and arrived in Strasbourg in the early hours of the morning to a vista of fur clad travellers lining the station platform. The fur was not for show, we soon discovered. The city was bitterly cold and it soon became apparent that my red anorak would be woefully inadequate.
I fell in to a new life. History lectures in French; conversations with other students. Trips to the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains, where there was more snow than I had ever seen in my life and where children barely able to walk were speeding down the slopes. I met people from many different countries – a girl from Luxembourg who was studying Economics, in French, in Strasbourg, and her sister who was studying Medicine, in German, in Heidelberg. Under a huge picture of Tito, the son of the Yugoslavian Consul cooked pancakes as he explained how Tito’s death would herald the break up of his country. We all celebrated our 21st birthdays that year and we met up all over France and Germany to celebrate. To me, it was a new world and anything seemed possible.

***

4) The truth, said the horse, is that no matter how it looks, everyone has their struggles (Jude)
That truth, I guess, is our saving grace. No matter how bad life is for us, everyone else is also suffering, or has suffered, or will suffer too.
Some people pretend everything is well, everything is normal, even when their lives are falling apart. The show must go on.
I don’t adhere to that view anymore. I don’t go around spreading my woes to all and sundry, but, if someone I know actually asks, I won’t breezily exclaim, “I’m fine” when I know I’m not. If I’m not authentic with my friends and acquaintances, how can I expect them to be authentic with me? If I don’t allow others to show me kindness and compassion, life becomes a sham.
The fact it is a horse in the picture, spelling out this piece of wisdom, is not lost on me. Animals pick up our moods and emotions much quicker than humans. You can’t fool a pet.

***

The truth, said the horse, is that no matter how it looks, everyone has their struggles (Hermoine)
We, all of us, have at least one friend on whom the sun always shines. Their lives are wonderful and nothing seems to go amiss with them.

I don’t envy them, but look longingly at their lives and wonder what it must feel to be so blessed.

But these friends may not be so blessed. And are adept at hiding their misfortunes, the things that go wrong in their lives. For all we know, they may look to us and wish that they had what we have, although we cannot understand how that could happen.

Money and health problems – all things that they would not want to share – are a source of anxiety and, often, hurt. A love affair that goes wrong, a friend that lets them down. They keep it to themselves, but ache inwardly and wish things could be different.

So it is best not to think how lucky they are compared to ourselves. Our
good time may come, so let’s keep hoping.

***

The truth, said the horse, is that no matter how it looks, everyone has their struggles (Shelagh)
‘No one knows what goes on in someone else’s life,’ said the horse. ‘Not really.’ ‘You are so wise,’ said the mole. ‘You know everything.’
‘Yes,’ added the mole. ‘You are strong and unafraid.’
‘I get frightened, too,’ said the horse. ‘And sometimes I am sad because I miss my family.’
‘We are family, too,’ said the boy,
‘We can be strong for one another,’ said the fox.
‘And we can share our struggles,’ said the mole.

***

The truth, said the horse (Jan)
Horse sighed and blew an enormous blast of air out of his huge hairy nose. If it hadn’t been for the quick actions of Boy, who gathered up the trembling Squirrel in his arms, he would have been blown away!
Wolf chuckled to himself – he had kept out of the way, at the back, for a reason. ‘What struggles do you have?’ asked Boy curiously.
At this precise moment Wolf leapt up coughing and spluttering and covering his long brown pointed face with his furry paws. ‘Sorry!’ whispered horse apologetically. ‘I have a lot of problems controlling my er………’ He fell silent.
Boy roared with laughter. ‘Oh you have just made a ! Awesome!’

***

(5) Across the Severn Bridge (Jude)
Years ago, when I came to Chepstow on holiday from Sussex, and the car got closer and closer to our destination, I scanned the horizon for the first sighting of the Severn Bridge. It was very exciting. A feeling hard to put into words, and even today, if I travel over the bridge for any reason, I am still excited to get my first glimpse of the bridge when I come back. The first Severn Bridge, that is. Useful though it undoubtedly is, and beautiful in its own way, the Second Severn Crossing is just not the same.
My mother felt the same way. When asked where she had been born, she would explain, and end with the expression, “Just across the Severn Bridge”. It was always “up home” to her.
My first trip across the Severn was on the ferry. I am scared of water, but the trip over on that little boat was exciting too. On holidays we watched the progress of the first bridge being built, and my mother stood somewhere on it to watch the Queen officially open it in 1966. It could be said that there is a lot of affection for the first Severn Bridge.

***

Across the Severn Bridge (Laraine)
…it’s another country. A land of adventure, of hot summers, of meeting cherished aunties and uncles, of being spoiled with days out and ice cream. Another world of marching in line along the vast, empty beaches, of running among the sand dunes, of scrambling down tall cliffs carrying buckets and spades. Cups of tea on the primus, sandwiches with real sand in them, windbreaks and lilos, floating in the blue, blue sea. A time of chatter and squealing, splashing, dunking in the water, and burying Bertie in the sand…..a child’s summer in Wales.

***

Across the Severn Bridge (Hermoine)
The Severn Bridge has played a great part in my life as I have lived near it for fifty years. I remember it opening and we then lived in Hereford. We often went to Bristol and it was always a source of wonderment to see this majestic bridge spanning the River Wye and showing the vistas below. It never ceased to make crossing it a joy,

Later we moved to Tintern, which brought us closer to the bridge and we crossed it much more often. Then, my daughter, Julie, went to work for Phillips the auctioneers in Bath and I visited her at least once a week. I loved driving across it on my own and the connection it soon made.

Once or twice there were dramas when we drove across. Once we saw two people, who had got out of their cars and were arguing. Later we heard that she had jumped into the swollen river and I was glad we had not been witnesses to that. Also, when they were painting the bridge, a young man had fallen to his death from the gantry. His young son had started school the same day and his elder son was in the youth club I started in Tintern, and it was such a tragedy.

But other things were not tragic. Once a year a thousand or so motorcycle come across the bridge, which is closed to other traffic. Harley Davidsons and all weird and wonderful motorcycles and their even-weirder owners ride into town and take over Chepstow on a Sunday. They raise huge amounts for charity. Our church opens to give them refreshments and these weird drivers were so good to meet and so respectful.

The old bridge is often closed for repairs and if the wind is considered too dangerous to keep it open. Then we have to go a long way around via Newport. Having been caught in this once, I don’t recommend it and it is a very long way around and adds a good hour to a journey.

Now at last there is no charge to use the bridge and this makes an enormous difference to any business you have in Bristol or further. The Bridge is a great asset to Wales and there is a great fondness for it.

***

Across the Severn Bridge…(Shelagh)
Across the Severn Bridge the sun was setting, and a candy floss sky was reflected in the still waters of the river. Jessica fiddled with the radio, trying, but failing, to tune into Radio Bristol. She glanced in her rear view mirror at the view receding behind her. It didn’t show her house, or even her street, but it was as if she could see them disappearing in front of her eyes. She sighed and fixed her eyes on the approaching sign. The word ‘CHEPSTOW’ appeared before her, beckoning her on. Turning off the motorway, she concentrated on the authoritative voice of her satnav as it beckoned her on. Exiting the car park, she strode into the quiet pub garden where a man was seated, sipping a pint of beer. He half stood, a smile playing on his face.
‘Jessica?’ he enquired. She gave a quick nod and held out her hand.
Another day, another date. Might this be the one?

***
Across the Severn Bridge (Lesley)
Dan’s car was heading for Chepstow along the M4. Jane guessed that their first Saturday night date was going to be an adventure into a foreign country. Unfortunately for most the journey the road was engulfed by thick fog. Dan stopped at a barrier to pay the half-crown toll, they seemed to drive for ages.
“When are we going over this bridge,” enquired Jane, anxious to see the eight million pound edifice, which the Queen had officially opened the day before. It had taken three and a half years to build and was going to revolutionize the economy of the Severnside area. “We went over it before I paid the toll” replied Dan, “they are keeping all the money on the English side.
“Where are we going?” asked Jane.
“Wait and see,” said Dan.
All he had told her was to bring her dancing shoes.

The fog had not cleared by the time they reached the city centre but it wasn’t so heavy. Jane was used to Cardiff, going on a Thursday to Top Rank with a gang of friends. Then hurrying to catch the last train back to Newport where he darling dad would be waiting to pick her up and deliver all her friends safely home. He was good like that.

Bristol city centre on a Saturday night was something else. It was buzzing, so many lights, so many people, so much noise and so much traffic. Her first date with Dan had been on the previous Wednesday to a local pub but to be here, with him, in this atmosphere made her feel so excited.

Eager to encourage people from Wales to the attractions of the other side of the river, the Sports and Social Department of their workplace had acquired free tickets to the Mecca Complex. It included an Ice Rink, Bowling Alley and many bars and restaurants. Dan had got some of these tickets, they were set for Mecca Dancing.
Mecca was so much more luxurious than Top Rank. A live band, plush seating arrangements and twinkling starry lights on the high ceiling made it feel so romantic, a perfect ambiance. Jane was so glad she had dressed for the occasion.

At one point in the evening there was an announcement from the stage asking who was there from Wales. A huge cheer erupted.
“Hard luck,” they were told, “the fog is so bad they have closed the bridge.” A groan descended.
Dan muttered, “If you think I am going around Gloucester way, you have got another think coming.” That was the alternative and the reason the bridge was there. To cut the long, arduous to Gloucester and back home that way, it carried the motorway across the waterway which had the second highest rise and fall in the world. It had been decades in the planning.
As for the journey home, the fog had cleared and although they found it difficult to get out of Bristol because every road seemed to lead to Bridgewater, they eventually found themselves on the Portway. Driving under Brunel’s inspiring Clifton Suspension Bridge they made their way to the new bridge standing magnificently in the lovely starlit night on their way home to Wales. A new era had begun and in the forty one years Jane and Dan were together, many times would they go “Across the Severn Bridge.”

***

(6) She warned me but I didn’t want to listen …(Jude)
True, I am sure, of most 16 year olds. I was strong-willed and didn’t want anyone’s advice. Whatever anyone said, I was going. What could happen to me? It was only a train ride to Scotland after all. I had been planning the trip for weeks now, and saving every scrap of pocket money I had had for many months. I had enough for the train ticket and my first night’s bed and breakfast. After that John would be there and I would get a job. We would be together at last.
I put my mother out of my mind as I trudged along with my suitcase, to the train station, and set my chin to the skies. Soon I would be walking in the mountains with John. I had seen photographs and it looked like heaven. I couldn’t wait.
Sitting on the train my mind was filled with thoughts of John and what our holiday would be like. We had made plans so nothing would go wrong.

***

She warned me but I didn’t want to listen (Hermoine)
Saying ‘Don’t’ to me is like red rag to a bull. I was always very feisty and rebellious as far as my mother was concerned. Having lost my father to amnesia, I was in the charge of my mother, who had three energetic sons and me to look after. A fearsome responsibility, especially after her car accident left her with health problems and a debilitating depression.

I rebelled against everything and when she said ‘Don’t leave school’, I took that as a challenge. My headmistress begged me to reconsider, but what did she know?

So I did not heed advice from either of them, even though the headmistress said they expected me to go to Cambridge and do Maths. That had no appeal whatsoever. Instead I left even before my GCE results, which were not that good.

I had a boyfriend, who, like my results, was nothing special. He joined the army for three years and this entitled him to have a house. Once again, my mother said ‘Don’t marry him’, but I rebelled. Not before she had taken me to Court to try and stop me. I married him and six weeks later he left the Army, so we didn’t get the house. He dodged the Army after that, as he should have done his National Service. Never worked again.

Mum, why did I not listen to you?

***

She warned me but I didn’t want to listen…(Shelagh)
She warned me but I didn’t want to listen. ‘It will come to nothing, Anna,’ she sighed. Them at the manor aren’t for the likes of us.’
I tossed back my shining hair and raised my chin in defiance. ‘George’s different,’ I insisted. He says I’m beautiful and there’s no one in the village like me’.
‘He won’t be home more than a couple of months,’ Ma snorted. ‘He’ll forget you when he’s gone.’
I turned on my heel and flounced out of the kitchen. Ma didn’t understand. George wasn’t interested in anyone else. He wanted me. As the afternoon sun streamed down, I ran along the dusty main street and out through the orchards at the edge of the village. Soon I was walking up the track leading to the Manor, my head held high and my step confident. Hearing voices, I hid behind a bush. A young, handsome couple came into a view, the blond head of the man bending down towards the raven head of the young woman dressed in a gown of blue silk, a lace collar framing her pale neck. He whispered something in her ear and she inclined her head, her delicate cheeks flushing a rosy pink. I glanced down at my own rough cotton skirt as an unexpected tear slid down my cheek. George and his elegant companion walked on, voices low, unaware of my presence. Head bowed, I made my way back down the hill. Ma was still in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, but she stopped when she saw my face. I waited for the ‘I told you so’, but it didn’t come. Just a hug and a cup of tea.

***

She warned me but I didn’t want to listen (Jan)
Wild Camping. What’s not to like? Freedom. Being alone with nature. Doing our own thing. Just a few of us letting off steam together before Uni.
We borrowed my mate’s Dad’s Camper van so we could relive our parents’ hippy days or so they said. Mum was very unsure. Always a pessimist, she listed all the problems that could go wrong in the hope we would abandon the idea. Dad knew better than to disagree.
The weather was set fine for a few days, so we joined the long queues on the M5 going South towards Dartmoor, the world our oyster. Soon our first problem arose as the poor old engine overheated or something but a trusty AA man sorted us out after a three hour wait by the roadside. Just a glitch, we said, as we roared ahead.
Darkness had fallen by the time we approached our destination. Starving lads are never very happy so we decided to call into a pub and have our last proper meal. Well-fed and a few beers later, we stumbled outside. Sam climbed in muttering to himself in the driver’s seat. He had promised his parents that he would be good so only had one. We seemed to find everything incredibly funny and it took a while to get coordinated.
A short while later we pulled in to a clearing at the side of the road and unpacked by the light of the stars. How on earth were we going to carry all this gear? Like sheep, we followed Sam striding ahead, now still muttering, relieved that he seemed to know where we were going. My head was hammering and I heard a mate throw up in the bushes.
Well, the morning told the whole story. Only Sam had managed to erect his tent on a hill and greeted us with a grin in the morning. A herd of cows stood sniffing inquisitively at our bodies, that lay in a layer of cow pats, leading to a stream. We smelt. We had hangovers. Unsuccessfully we washed in the stream. The stove did not work. There were no eggs and bacon sizzling in a frying pan as they were still in the van.
One by one, the scratching started as the infamous tics had breakfasted well on our collapsed bodies. Shall we go home? The response was almost unanimous; Sam changed his mind after reading our black looks.
P.S. Don’t tell my Mother.

***

(7) If I could go back to that day again I would (Jude)
…listen to my mother’s words. Alighting from the train at Glasgow, full of excitement and hope, on my first holiday by myself, (and maybe more) my mother’s words couldn’t have been further from my mind. I looked around for John, but he hadn’t arrived yet. I went into a café and ordered a cup of tea and a cake while I waited…. and waited… and waited. It got dark and I began to worry. I looked at the clock and it said 10.15 pm. John had assured me he would be there when my train arrived at 5. What could have happened?
Another hour slipped by and the café closed up, so I had to reluctantly look for a bed and breakfast on my own, but it was difficult in the dark. Lugging my heavy suitcase, I walked along dark streets hunting for any available signs, but found none. I went back to the station and sat on a seat there. Even during the night a few people were still about and I felt fairly safe.
A policeman spotted me and walked over to speak to me. What could I say? My boyfriend hadn’t turned up?
“Hello miss, are you OK?” He had a broad Glasgow accent, and sounded kind. I felt very silly and tried to squeeze out a “yes, thank you” but it got strangled somewhere and came out as a sob. The policeman sat down beside me and asked where I was going. I blurted out my story and said I was hoping to go on to Inverness in the morning, only my companion hadn’t arrived. He took down some notes and asked me more questions, then the big one. “Do your parents know where you are?”
I said “yes” but he knew I was lying.
“Well, do they have a telephone? I would just give them a call to let them know you are OK, then go and sit in the warm. There’s an all night waiting room just over there. It will be warmer than out here. Then, if your companion doesn’t turn up you can catch a train back home in the morning. How’s that?”
I dried my tears and said, “Yes, thank you,” and walked towards the phone booth. Mum had warned me that John was an older man and probably had a wife somewhere. If only I had listened.

***

If I could go back to that day again I would…(Hermoine)
Once again, the day I would choose would be the day I first got married. Rebelling had already lost its appeal and I realised what a mistake I was making. But at 17 it is hard to make a stand and go into reverse.

I cried all the way to the church, sitting in the big black car with my husband’s grandfather. My own family did not attend and did not know I was getting married that day. I was so lonely and unhappy and realising that I was doing the wrong thing did not help.

I remember all the bumps in the road as the car carried me to the church. Had I known what it would carry me to, I would have jumped out of a moving car. But hope springs eternal and I thought things would get better; they didn’t.

I have spent the rest of my life wishing I could go back. Had a daughter who added to my regrets, but we can only move forwards.

***

If I could go back to that day again I would…(Shelagh)
If I could go back to that day again I would in a heartbeat, but I can’t. We can’t. No one could have known what the consequences of our choices would be on that cold October afternoon. I had been out with my sisters collecting conkers and leaves. They were still young enough to enjoy scouring the wet grass for their treasures, and I was enjoying our allotted time out in the crisp autumn air.

The sirens started without warning and I glanced around, seeking the reactions of the other people walking and playing in the Out Zone. They, too, were looking around in bewilderment, unsure of whether to carry on or return home. It was only a ten-minute walk from our habitation, but I turned, shouting at Marissa and Clemis to drop their spoils. I was filled with unease and, grabbing their arms, I started to run.

The In Zone was in sight as I heard the sickening thud of the first section of fence hit the ground. The airships were discharging their heavy cargo with no regard for those of us hurrying to the habitation. Eyes wide, I looked at the In Zone from beyond the new fence. Our parents were outside the habitation, shouting and running towards us, even as the opaque panels of the fences turned to steel and they were hidden from view.

And so began our life in the Out Zone, my sisters and I. The fence divides us from all we know, and we can never go back.

(8) Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort (Hermoine)

After I had finished the role of caring for my paraplegic husband, I came across papers that I had kept while I was chairperson of the carers group.

This invited anyone to apply to Ruskin college, Oxford if we felt there was project we had to write about. We could choose our subject. We all had to be over 60, with no upper age limit.

I decided to apply as I was rather at a loose end. The experience at first seemed daunting, but when I went for my interview and met the other people on the course, it seemed very exciting.

We had to research our subject and the Bodleian library and other libraries and colleges would be at our disposal. Wow! Most of us had not been to University and the prospect to write in an academic way was so exciting.

We had a lecturer to help us, a weekly lesson in computers. lots of company and interesting chats, scrabble in the evenings and sometimes dancing and music. A glorious chef, Evelyn, who made us very basic but good food that we enjoyed, and ate at long tables like students. We all felt as if we were making up for time lost. Such a wonderful, happy time. Best of all, being able to write about our subject with the help of all the libraries.

We were constantly assessed and advised on our work. We also had to interview real people for their experiences. I had got in touch with a magazine, who printed my story and many people got in touch with me and I was able to quote them. We could not write only about ourselves, but use it as a sounding board.

I spent ten weeks in Oxford and the whole time was an unforgettable experience. I am still in touch with most of the people who went on the Course and we are all grateful to have been in each others’ lives.

At the end of the time, we had to print our findings, giving it a title and making it into a book, which is kept in the library at Ruskin. A copy of mine was sent to Gordon Brown to plead the cause of Carers.

***
Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort
My Painting (Barbara)

I stood before my painting hanging, fourth row up on the wall of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. A small painting, a “cabinet” piece, I believe the art critics would call it. Yes, small. Easy to overlook. And it was overlooked. The critics, kind and encouraging to so many others, had completely ignored my work. I stood looking up at it. What was I thinking sending it in? At least, it had passed the acid test and had been accepted and was now hanging on the hallowed walls of the Royal Academy, albeit four rows up. Nobody was showing the least interest in it. Other paintings were being pointed at, earnestly discussed, referred to in the catalogue and highlighted with bold red biro marks. Humility weighed me down.
I left the gallery for the café, had a tall glass of steaming cold prosecco and some very small, very delicious canapes. I went back to the gallery to take another look at my painting still bravely glowing in the fourth row up.
“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort…” I said to myself soothingly. Then almost laughed out loud in what would have been a most unseemly exhibition of elation on my part. My painting had acquired a little red dot beside it. It had been bought. Sold to a highly cultured person with an acute eye for artistic merit!
“Well, I would say that wouldn’t I?”