Invisible Friends – Everyone Needs One

Anne of Green Gables had one who lived in a glass bookcase. James Stewart had one in ‘Harvey’. Gerard Depardieu actually was one in ‘Bogus.’ Several of my children have had them. It’s great to have friends. They enrich every part of our lives. But what if they’re invisible? Do they exist if others can’t see them, and are they the first sign of madness?

Mr Nobody accompanied one of my sons throughout the first eight years of his life. He squashed into our car between the children, fastening himself in with his invisible seat belt. When arguments broke out, he had strong opinions, always on my son’s side. He had to be pushed on his own swing when we visited the playground and even demanded his own piece of cake when I baked, although he got short shrift with that one. He never caused trouble, was happy to go off on his own ploys when it wasn’t convenient for us to attend to him yet appeared immediately when summoned. In that way, he was actually better than most friends. And then one day he wandered off forever, never to be seen again, at least not by our family.

Many years later, we told our youngest son about Mr Nobody and he decided to make him appear again. He tried for quite a while, but it didn’t work. However often Mr Nobody was summoned, he never came. His loyalty was clearly to our older child and to him alone. Months passed without incident until one day an invisible monkey came to stay, a monkey who is still with us years later. His name is Pom Pom and he has a well-defined personality. When he heard I was a writer, he demanded several books about himself, which I obligingly wrote. His stories and jokes make me laugh, his demands for bananas are endless and his inability to settle in bed without hearing yet another story is legendary. I hope it’s a good long time before he leaves us.

I’ve often wondered what space it is that these invisible friends fill in our children’s lives. Real friends abound, so it isn’t that. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that there is comfort in a companion who never questions us, finds all our jokes funny, is firmly on our side when others don’t understand us, and appreciates us for exactly who we are, not who we aren’t.

Certainly, when I’ve had to tell my youngest off for various high crimes and misdemeanours,  Pom Pom is the first to come to his defence, articulating the arguments my son is too upset to make. When he goes off to his room to nurse his grievances, Pom Pom goes with him, listening with great sympathy to a list of my all wrongdoings. He is also a bridge between us when my son wants to come out of his room again. He might not want to talk to me directly, but Pom Pom always does, and he usually has something funny to say that breaks the ice.

I know that Pom Pom won’t be with us forever, which makes me sad and happy in equal measures – sad because I’ll miss the stories about him and his sense of mischief – glad because I know his leaving will be one further step along the path of maturity and independence which every child must tread.

I’ll miss him when he finally leaves. I’ll miss that part of my son’s life he can enjoy before his sense of magic fades. I know only too well that Pom Pom won’t come for our future grandchildren, even if summoned. However, I’ll tell them all about him and look forward to meeting whoever it is that walks with them throughout that most wonderful part of their lives.

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Half a cake is better than no cake at all

Today was the first day of the school year. Ever since our children were small, I have baked them a cake on the first and last days of term – chocolate cake, Victoria sponge, carrot cake, coffee and walnut cake – you name it, they requested it. At one point, I was cooking for four teenagers and a toddler plus assorted friends with the ability to smell baking from several miles away. A cake or a batch of cookies would disappear within ten minutes of their arriving home – inhaled rather than swallowed and never affecting their appetite for dinner.

But the baking of those twice-termly cakes was different, at least for me. It became a punctuation to the school year, a marker celebrating their school releasing them for a while, and a sad acceptance that it would all too soon reclaim them again. Holidays were always the best, the messiest and the noisiest times, and I still hate their ending.

Today marks the beginning of yet another school year. As usual, I pulled out the baking tins and recipe books, then stopped. Almost without noticing it, our resident family has shrunk over the past few years. Our four older children have left home and only the eight year old is still here. Without him, I might not even have known the schools had gone back. Looking at the familiar recipes, they suddenly seemed all wrong. The pictures of large and lavishly-decorated cakes only served to highlight the painful fact of how much our family has shrunk and how much quieter the house is nowadays. I almost gave up the tradition on the spot in a burst of self-pity.

Eventually, though, and after much thought, I baked half a cake. It looked odd and sad when it was finished, but our youngest deserves to experience the same traditions as our older children, even if he can’t demolish a cake with the same swiftness as his four siblings working as a team. When it was finally assembled, I looked at the half-a-cake sitting forlornly on its plate and wondering bemusedly where its other half had gone, just as I sometimes wonder where the rest of my family has gone. I breathed in the familiar scent of vanilla and sugar and began to feel more cheerful. My daughter always said her newborn baby brother smelled of vanilla cookies and cake crumbs. They were clearly some of her favourite smells, and he was one of her favourite things. That much at least hadn’t changed.

The afternoon passed very slowly as I counted the minutes until the end of school, feeling both the pain and the pleasure of nostalgia for things that have been and will never come again, or not in the same form. Thankfully, the ghosts lingered only until my son burst triumphantly through the front door, fresh from a day with his friends and the excitement of a new class. He dived straight into the cake, just as his brothers and sister always had. No gloomy cobwebs of memory and regrets can hang around for long under the onslaught of young energy and a face smeared with cream and jam. He was purely, blissfully in the moment, and so, after a second, was I.

Those cakes of years gone by were very wonderful. They punctuated our family’s year, helping to soothe disappointing grades and broken friendships. They highlighted achievements and eased the transition back into school each term. So too was this cake equally wonderful. It served the same purpose for our youngest as for his siblings, highlighting the fun of a new year ahead, offering me the same chance to connect and share in the rhythm of his life, just as I had with theirs. Half a cake – a whole cake – it doesn’t really matter. It connected the past and the future, both of them smelling of vanilla and sugar, giving us a moment to share together in joyful celebration of the fact that life does move on and change, and that the joy is as often in the change as in the continuity.


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Once in a Blue Supermoon

‘It will only happen once in my lifetime – perhaps twice,’ my son told me when I asked for details. ‘That’s once every hundred and fifty years,’ he added cheerfully.

You have to admire his optimism, but that’s millennials for you. Staying up until nearly three in the morning was a definite bonus for him, although less so for me. As a baby boomer I have come to cherish my sleep, but of course I agreed. I’m not yet so old that the idea of once in a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, has lost its power to charm me.

‘You’ll have to have a rest in the afternoon,’ I told him without much hope.

He thought about this for a full two seconds. ‘I’ll watch you have one,’ he offered in the spirit of compromise.

As resident astronomical expert, he declared no eclipse party complete without snacks. So, armed with supplies of junk food enough to satisfy a medium-sized army, or one twelve-year-old boy, we settled into our hammock to wait.

We saw a super moon only last year in Denmark. I remember the date because it was my father’s birthday. My son remembers it because he caught a Snorlax on Pokemon Go. Both things felt equally important to us at the time. They probably still do.

It was a crisp winter night and the sky was perfectly clear as we walked out at dusk to watch the moon climb above the treetops, ten times its usual size. We talked about my father having seen the same super moon at my son’s age, and as I watched him stare up at the sky,  I wondered whether his grandfather had once looked just as small and earnest. It was impossible to tell. Like all children, I had only ever known my father as a very old man.

Exactly a year later, as we waited for the super moon to rise over Australia, we talked of my son’s possible descendants, deciding that even his grandchildren would be quite old before they saw what we hoped to see that night. My son was too preoccupied with idea of the possums challenging us for our snacks to think much about his own mortality, but while he practised various growling noises I thought a little about my own.

There are times in life that force such thoughts upon us, refusing to allow us to look away. For me, the day my mother died was one such time. I was suddenly faced with time’s relentless forward progression and the thought that my own generation now stood on the front line, facing the end of all things. These are the three o’clock in the morning thoughts and quite possibly the reason our species chooses to sleep at night.

Thankfully, though, the night of the eclipse wasn’t one of those dreadful times. I watched the moon drifting gently upwards over the trees, coldly indifferent to the millions of us who were watching it together, and felt oddly comforted.

‘It will all be the same in a hundred years,’ is a saying I was brought up on. As a child, it meant very little to me. A hundred years was a million lifetimes and would never pass, any more than our six week summer holidays could ever possibly end. As an adult, however, I’m beginning to make more sense of it.

The moon rose steadily higher until what appeared to be, but was not, a cloud crept across one edge. The shadow moved steadily forward, swallowing the light until the moon blushed faintly, turning at last to blood. It hung in the sky just as it always had, only now hidden behind a shroud of red. For half an hour we hardly dared to breathe, in case the shadow should become a permanence and the world stand still, trapping us in the moment.

Suddenly, at a signal only the moon could hear, it stirred, woke and shrugged a little of its red shawl from one edge. Emboldened, it slid more quickly from its covering until at last it blazed with the same cold splendour as before. I have no idea what happened to the red shroud. Possibly, it is up there still, waiting for the next time it might be needed. To a sky as old as ours, one hundred and fifty years must seem less than a day.

Watching with my son during those three rapt hours, I almost forgot that I won’t be here next time the sun and moon perform this particular dance. I thought instead of those who would see it, and of those lucky enough to see it the last time. They were no longer with us and the next watchers are not yet born, but they will be. Like us, they will live in in their own short moment, enjoying it for what it is without mourning for what it isn’t. Nothing is lost simply because the characters change.

As we had known it must, the eclipse came, but it also left. Darkness covered all things, yet even as it did, we saw the light behind it. Gradually, the darkness left and everything was the same as before, or very nearly so. We were privileged to see something that most of those who have come before us have never seen and most of those who come after us will never see, and I finally understand that the saying from my childhood is very nearly true – it will all be the same in a hundred and fifty years.




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Writing About Friends and Family

I have often written about friends and family. What writer has not? The descriptions needn’t be perfectly specific to anyone, but how could we possibly write about people in general without including those we have met over the course of our exemplary or misspent lives?

It never works to write about people as one homogeneous mass while we consider what it is that makes us all human. People are a glorious mishmash of quirks, eccentricities and downright oddities. As a species, we all want pretty much the same things – something I learned very clearly during my years of moving around the world and living in different cultures. It is an undeniable fact that our aims are the same, but we go about getting what we want in very different ways.

Even when I resist the temptation to put friends or family members into my novels, I know that I’m wasting mental energy because they’ll see themselves in there anyway.

‘But why did I have blonde hair in your book?’ asks a puzzled friend, having decided that the overdrawn caricature of a shrieking socialite was based entirely on their introvert, retiring self. I never respond in detail because denial only gives offence and I’ve come to understand that people would rather be immortalised in print than not, however unflattering the portrait.

Everyone is convinced that any writer of their acquaintance will naturally include them in much of their work. They see themselves in every line and are rarely insulted, however awful the portrait, as long as you get their hair colour and weight correct. Woe betide the character I write as a size twelve who faintly resembles a friend who proudly wears a size ten.

‘But, Hilde, you’ve never worked as a Spanish portrait painter!’ will never convince your German gym teacher friend you haven’t grossly misrepresented them. Lifelong friendships have been shattered for less.

Only once have I modelled a character on a particular acquaintance, because she really did inform every line I wrote – not too flatteringly, I must admit. I hesitated for a while, changed her hair, gave her glasses and took my chances. She loved the book and never once saw herself in it. It may be that we all only identify with those we see as positive characters, and that particular likeness was indeed speaking …

My latest book is about a family of three children, loosely based on myself and my siblings. I used our childhood home as a template and wrote about some of the things we used to do as children. However, these are simply the skeletons of people, the loose structure of a family. The three characters are not the three of us – although no one will ever believe that, least of all my siblings. They have even forced me to change the descriptions of their fictional partners because they would never date someone like that. I have obliged as far as possible but am still resigned to giving offence, although to my mind the descriptions have been quite flattering and the characters created pleasant enough.

The only trouble-free experience I ever had with loved ones was when writing about my cats. They remained as loving and unruffled as ever, even when I wrote about them as fat, duplicitous, greedy and self-centred. In point of fact, they were all these things, but I still loved them to distraction and my life has never been quite the same without them. I definitely appreciated their pragmatic approach. Did my writing about their defining characteristics lead to fewer bowls of food or cuddles? If not, what did they care? If only people were as simple to deal with.

Dick King Smith may have been onto something when he decided to write about animals. Perhaps my next plot line should be about a cat, whose best friend is a dog, as they open a pet food store together. No feelings will be hurt and no sensibilities ruffled. No delegation of local felines will turn up on my doorstep with a petition for me to rewrite them as slimmer and less fluffy – and you know the Man Booker people will want to talk to me when it’s finished.

In the meantime, I plan to continue with my career of giving offence to those to whom it was never intended and insulting others with impunity. I should also finish this post quickly. I have a phone call I need to make to a writer friend, whose one-eyed, nearly bald South American mass murderer needs a little work before I’m prepared to accept it as an entirely accurate portrait of me. I should add that I’m very flattered she cares enough about me to put me into print.

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The Royal Wedding

I wrote this very early on in my writing ‘career’ and it really shows. It may even have been the first thing I wrote. However, given the latest Royal Weddings, it seems a good time to post it again. It is actually an entirely true experience!

The Wedding of the Century

Everyone wants to tell you where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot – in fact they insist on it, as if the telling of the tale gives them a place in history too. I don’t even have the luxury of retaliation because I wasn’t born back then. However, I do remember where I was when Princess Diana was married, and not everyone can say that after all these years.

A quick glance at the Royal family tree would inform you that Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer tied the knot on the 24th of July, 1981. It was the wedding of the decade – what am I saying? – of the century, and no-one could get enough of it. The summer in which she traded her job as kindergarten assistant for a temporary slot as a fairy tale princess, my sister and I took school holiday jobs as waitresses, dishwashers and occasional ice cream makers at Berty´s. Berty’s was planted squarely on the edge of our town’s gardens, an oasis historically both tranquil and deeply genteel but now filled to over-capacity with large groups of French and Italian language students. They lay on the grass next to the bandstand, enveloped in clouds of hazy blue smoke, shivering resentfully under Britain’s poor apology for a sun, radios blaring as if the students were afflicted with some specific continental deafness. They brought us that taste of exotic European culture we so sorely lacked. Berty´s never attracted these students, being more expensive than McDonalds while providing less ambience.

I worked that entire summer for a slave wage. The Royal Wedding was a highlight for all the temporary staff, not because we were monarchists but because we needed a break from our tedious routine of egg and chips for the endless streams of irritable families on holiday and scones with artificial cream and synthetic jam for those vague elderly ladies trying to recapture a time when all the best families holidayed in our town and service still meant something.

All the casual staff had to work on the day of the wedding with no paid overtime, the owners having decided the chance to serve our country was recompense enough. A few of the regular staff were pressed into reluctant service and we were ready to do our duty by the nation. We even had a television brought into the cafe so that no customer in search of both sustenance and excitement would be forced to choose between scrambled eggs and ivory satin.

When Diana emerged from her carriage and floated up the steps of St. Paul’s, the restaurant fell temporarily silent. It was impossible to guess how many artists had been involved in such a lavish creation. Carl, our head grill chef, offered his professional culinary opinion that she looked like a baguette in a crumpled paper bag but he was swiftly silenced by George, the assistant manager, who was watching in rapt and tearful silence.

James, our section manager and a man with no soul, pointed out tartly that the tray of parfaits in the freezer was nearly empty. I was only allowed to work in the ice cream section on very rare occasions, of which this was one. We also had an ice cream machine facing the main street, but this was only for the plebeian takeaway ice creams, the poor relations of those glamorous confections sitting smugly inside the freezers. 

It took skill to create a solid enough foundation to support the real Everest of ice creams. After the final snowy swirl, I liked to experiment with new angles for the chocolate flake, often placing it perpendicular to the cone, as though the ice cream was smoking a joint. Obnoxious customers received from my hands a portion as minuscule as was consistent with Trading Standards, with the flake inserted at such a shallow depth and angle that it fell out around ten paces up the street.

But it was inside the cafe that my artistic bent found its truest expression. Left alone for half an hour, I could produce creations worthy of display in the Tate. First came the perfect frosted parfait glass, into which went a lavish spoonful of fruit from a catering pack of mixed fruit cocktail. This was tenderly laced with rich, red sauce from a metal container. A squirt of delicate rosy-pink ice cream and another helping of translucent ruby sauce was topped with an icy whirl of vanilla and finished with a lavish spray of canned cream and a tablespoon of chopped nuts. I could produce infinite variations on this theme and always watched in fascination as the customers selected their parfaits, wondering anxiously if they knew how much artistic tenderness and creative fervour had gone into each one.

The wedding ceremony itself looked most impressive, even when seen on the miniscule screen perched between two drooping spider plants. Diana looked suitably radiant as she repeated her vows, mixing her groom’s string of names into a glorious nonsense as she went.

‘I think she just married his Dad,’ muttered Carl, sliding two blackened eggs off the grill plate and onto the damp slabs of toast mournfully awaiting them.

James heaved himself over to inspect the glass dish of cream cakes, regretfully binning those with the thickest yellow crust. His face that summer was perpetually gloomy, his lips theatrically grim. He was relishing his role as a doomed and desperate lover, having conceived a burning, forbidden passion for his aunt by marriage. He would droop against the ice cream machine for hours, blocking my access to the tins of cherry sauce, breathing pungently into my face and discussing his plans either to emigrate or commit suicide. After three weeks of this, I was sure I wasn’t alone in hoping he might do both.

By the time the happy couple had been slowly driven down the Mall and were safely back inside Buckingham Palace, I had filled the freezer with snowy glasses, all with an extra sprinkling of nuts in honour of the occasion, while Carl was leaning heavily against the grill, sighing loudly at the thought of having to fire it up for the lunchtime rush. Diana and Charles were now on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, smiling and pretending not to hear the vast roar from the crowd. As Charles finally leaned over and kissed his bride, George sniffed richly and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

‘Beautiful, just beautiful. Hold the fort, James. I’ve got to go again.’

After working for three weeks at Berty´s, I had become more familiar than I would have wished with the vagaries of George’s bladder. It was a peculiar organ that sent him scuttling off to the mens’ room at the most inopportune times. He was peculiarly proud of his inability to tackle tasks of any length, regarding this as a charming eccentricity and describing each new symptom very fully to whoever happened to be in the lunchroom at the time. After the first few days, I began to take my sandwiches in the gardens, preferring to brave the radios and blue smog rather than risk further distressing details. When my sister heard that George might also be developing bowel problems, she took to joining me each lunchtime, despite the fact we usually had nothing but insults to throw at each other.

The television switched back to commentary as, with rare smiles and discreet waves, the Royal family finally left the balcony. Inside the palace, or so the permanently smiling BBC reporter informed us, the extended family would be toasting the health of the happy couple in the finest champagne, a gift from the President of France. The reporter had a faintly resentful look in his eyes, as of one whose own invitation had been lost in the post.

Sprinkling a delectable topping onto the last strawberry parfait and humming Rule Britannia slightly off key, I was slow to focus on the screams at the far end of the counter. When they finally pierced the mist of my creativity, I rushed over to find my sister, doubled over and retching. Next to her stood James, concerned yet defiant, holding a suspicious yellow bottle. Exhaustive enquiries later revealed that Carl had been making a stream of unpleasant remarks on the subject of incest and inbreeding and James, taking exception to these oedipal jibes, had devised a revenge worthy of any Greek tragedy and laced what he mistakenly took to be Carl’s lime cordial with the finest lemon-scented bleach. My sister had only taken a sip and so, unlike most tragic heroines, survived, but James was sent off with his bottle of bleach to clean the toilets for the rest of his shift. As George was on particularly fine form that day, it seemed a fitting retribution.

The afternoon passed without further incident. George spent some time tasting the rest of the drinks in the chilled cabinet in order to satisfy himself that James hadn’t decided to poison the customers as well as the grill chef, but the shift manager caught him and put a stop to it. At 8 p.m. we finally shut our doors, leaving the hungry multitudes standing forlornly outside. My sister had been sent home after the bleach incident, so I wiped down the freezers alone, listening to the BBC reporter breathlessly describing the glories of Broadlands, where the Royal couple planned to honeymoon. The bride and groom left the reception at last, Diana dressed in a frothy peach outfit that had cost more than the entire week’s takings at Berty´s. I threw my bile-coloured uniform into the corner of my locker and escaped, passing George in the doorway, his face tense as he headed for one last time to the men’s room.

Outside, the late evening sun was still warm and the gardens pleasant now the students had moved on to the clubs for the evening. I breathed deeply and calculated the number of days I still had to work at Berty´s, then multiplied it by twenty-five to see how many bathroom trips that would make for George. Both answers were equally depressing.

I sat in the dusty golden sunshine under the pine trees, relaxing at last and glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done. It had been a memorable day for me. I expect it was for Diana too.


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Mother’s Day

And it is Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday if you prefer – which my mother emphatically did. Either way, it’s a great time to show her how much you care – as Amazon, Marks and Spencer and a hundred other companies have been reminding me for several weeks. Apparently, my mother would be bowled over by perfume, flowers, chocolates, meals out, books, toiletries, balloon rides, bungee jumps or a hundred other wonderful things that make the multinationals some money. Despite knowing all this, I wouldn’t grudge a penny, except that I don’t have a mother – not anymore – not for several years now. These annual reminders in my inbox don’t sting the less with the passing of time, which isn’t to say that I think no one should celebrate the day because some of us no longer can. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think they should celebrate the heck out of it, taking the opportunity to show those who love them that they love them back.

Each Mother’s Day, I have re-read the letter I sent to my mother when she told me she was dying. It was my last chance to say the things I wanted to. I wish now that I’d written her such a letter on every Mother’s Day, because I almost left it too late. I hope that everyone remembers to speak in the midst of joyous life and not only when facing incipient loss. When my mother knew she was dying, she wrote my husband and children a birthday card each for the coming year – and one for me, of course.

Everyone else opened theirs in turn, read their special message and smiled. It took me nearly four years to open mine. Once my card had been opened and read, I knew I would never again see my name in her handwriting, never again read something written especially for me. I took the card from the drawer each birthday and held it for a while before putting it back again. When I did finally open it, I wished I had done so earlier. As well as the words of love, she told me not to be too sad, a message I could have used during those first few months. When faced with their own terminal diagnosis, not everybody thinks immediately of others, wanting to make sure they will be alright. It is the act of those who truly love. It is the act of a mother.

I have children of my own and when my time comes, I hope I can behave as she did. In that way, my mother’s gift to me will reach beyond her children to my children and to their children, none of whom she will never meet. I have no one to whom I can send a card this year, although I wish I had. But I do have the precious memory of a quintessential act of motherhood, and for that I will always be grateful.

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When summer seems to be the hardest word

In Denmark, we look forward to the summer. We really do. We endure six hour days in December and the sort of vitamin D deficiency for which the only cure would be eating an entire raw seal. We watch anxiously for the first spring rays and occasionally the sun does actually appear. I have always suspected that the locals perform secret spring rituals in the quiet of their scandi design living rooms, involving candles and animal sacrifice and possibly some special dance. Danes like special dances. I’ve never asked and I don’t really want to know.  However, they do need to up their game because their rituals only seem to work for one year out of three. They worked last year, which means that this year we should expect the deluge, unless global warming kicks in to help us out. There’s always a silver lining.

The one thing I always forget, while I eagerly count the days until May and the brief thawing of my hands and feet, is that for expats, summer means all-change. Many of us have children and summer is the natural time to move on and settle into our new location before school starts. Looking back over more than two decades, I cannot remember a summer which has not been punctuated by the word goodbye. Quite frankly, I have grown to hate it. Promises of keeping in touch don’t always materialise, at least in the long term, which is how it should be really. None of us can fully establish themselves in a new life while looking back to the old one.

Of course, we don’t let go all at once. For a while, we glance over our shoulders at what we have left behind us. We check in case the old life became suddenly more fun just as we left it. We need to make sure we were not instantly forgotten, swamped by the influx of new and possibly more exciting people into what was our old life and is now their new one. But time intervenes and our new life gradually becomes the real one and the old life becomes a ghost. It must, or we could never live the life that we do.

Even understanding that, the word is now one I avoid completely. I used it dutifully and emotionally each summer, as old friends left. I used it at the end of every assignment, as I was the one to leave and the word weighed more heavily each year. In the end, I simply quit and refused to say the word at all, or even think it. After all, I reasoned, people emerge from the woodwork all the time and in the most unexpected places. One friend who said goodbye to me in Denmark and went back to England, came to live near us in Canberra a year later. Our goodbyes in Denmark had hardly been necessary.

I most stopped saying goodbye because it is a deeply painful word and associated with difficult emotions. Nowadays, I duck out of the farewell parties, try not to think that any casual school gate conversation is possibly being the last and generally make myself scarce as summer approaches. Perhaps we all have only so many goodbyes in us and I am reaching my limit. Possibly I am nearing the end of my capacity to live this kind of life. I have roots in so many places now, and in none.

It has been a wonderful life, travelling the world, seeing new places and experiencing new cultures. It is a privilege and generally one for which I am grateful. For me, the benefits have always outweighed the negatives, just as the summers bring more fun than pain. I am, however, beginning to look forward to the time when the first spring days mean nothing more than the approach of summer, followed by winter and another summer spent in the same place and with the same people. I am not quite ready yet but I know that time is coming, a time when summer will once more become the easiest word.

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When Winter Comes

This is the prologue and first two chapters of my latest book. After years of estrangement, three siblings return to their family home after their mother’s death. The novel explores the effect of a traumatic childhood event on each child. They only have three days in which to make sense of the past and the conclusions they reach will shape the whole of their future.





I hated Bournemouth when we first arrived, leaving behind us everything I had ever known. There was a stream in our Shropshire garden with rainbow trout drifting through the weedy shallows. A group of minnows nestled under the far bank, flashing silver and splintering like a drop of mercury each time I poked them with a stick but stupidly regrouping almost at once. In the field above our house was an orchard full of damson trees, my Grandfather’s particular favourite. The oval fruit gleamed among the acid green leaves like ripe amethysts and my mother made pots of glowing, purple jam.

Until, without warning, my father returned from a business trip and told us we were moving to Bournemouth, a distant but exciting town by the sea. I had been stung by a jellyfish on holiday the previous year and now harboured a deep mistrust of oceans and their treachery, but my father, flushed with the triumph of a new and better paid job, produced fat sticks of bright pink rock, miraculously shot through in shaky green letters with, ‘A present from B’mth’. I was four years old and had no real conception of the future or ‘forever’ so I sat quietly and listened to the excited talk around me as the peppermint sugar slowly dissolved on my tongue.

I hated that first winter in Bournemouth. I hated the smug looking people and the busy traffic and smells of a town after the lazy scents of the Shropshire fields. Even my new school was less friendly. We had grown radishes at my Shropshire preschool and watched the shearers outside our window in the spring. I had waited eagerly for each sheep to kick its tormentor and escape but they never did. We even laid bets on it and I lost a whole week’s pocket money to Jamie Marshall when the last knotted fleece had been safely laid out on the grass. Bournemouth appeared to be singularly lacking in sheep and wrapping balloons in papier-mâché was the most exciting thing we had done in preschool. Even then, I popped mine before it was properly dry and was forced to endure the laughter of my strange new classmates for the whole afternoon.

That first winter in Bournemouth, our family walked alone by the sea because we were strangers. At first, I kept a wary distance, watching the grey waves crash against the promenade, foam gleaming under a watery British sun. I missed the sea I had known before, where the bright green heads of wheat, shining after the light spring rain, had bent their heads to the warm breeze.

The spring was less lonely, as I made new friends and grew familiar with the maze of roads, of which our house was the centre. There was an apple tree in our new garden which draped itself in curtains of white blossom in May. The fruit would never substitute for the tart headiness of the damson but was satisfyingly streaked with red and held the promise of apple pies. One of the branches was low enough to climb and I rode it often, its head always turned hopefully towards Shropshire, but however many hours we galloped through the counties of England, we never quite reached home and hunger always drew us back through the woods and fields to Bournemouth.

I wondered what my birthday would feel like in our new house. Everything around us was now so different that I worried no one would recognise the day. Despite my fears, it arrived at last, as clear and hot as only the birthday of a five-year-old can be. We ate strawberries in the garden and I fired my new bow and arrow wildly at my brother until he collapsed, mortally wounded, onto the hot grass. He would usually push my face into the dirt until I apologised but there was an unwritten rule for birthdays and he honoured the code.

And later, as the scented dusk settled around our heads and mosquitoes drifted downwards through the cooling air, my father told me he had a surprise for me and I should bring my cardigan. We set off up the hill together, my hand gripped tightly in his. Music curled through the warm darkness above us and bright lights danced among the trees.

I had never been to a circus. The tent was already hot and the lights dazzling. Magical people flew to and fro above my head and a pack of glossy poodles formed a pyramid and barked the notes of the national anthem so perfectly, I wondered why no one stood. Shining white horses galloped past in perfect formation, their saddles studded with real jewels, a shimmering pink figure skipping lightly from one to another.

Through the noise and brightness, one figure stood out more vividly than any other. His name was Rocco and he swung into the ring on a drum roll and dropped neatly into the elephants’ water bucket. His mouth drooped mournfully with each new catastrophe. He piled his cans of paint far, far too high and I shrieked at him to be careful but when his pyramid crashed down, I screamed at him to rebuild it.

I know that my father carried me home that night but I have no memory of it and was deeply puzzled to wake the following morning in my pyjamas. At breakfast, I tried to convey the wonders of the previous night but my incoherence was annoying and my brother soon told me to shut it. His amiable mood had vanished with the sunset. I would have been far more uncomfortable if it had not.

My sixth birthday arrived more quickly than I had bargained for. It was in Bournemouth that I first learned to measure time through the changes in the sea. The water, a soft cornflower in early summer, grew brighter and livelier with the approach of autumn. By Christmas, it had turned the same grey-green as the lead sheets on our church roof and swelled menacingly around the pier. I liked to terrify myself by leaning over the railings to watch the ominous suck of the undertow. My favourite part of the year was also the coldest, as the water faded to palest emerald under a hard winter sky and rippling waves slapped playfully against the iron struts. Within weeks, it would be spring and I would once more be counting the days until my birthday.

That day was also hot and still, the only difference being my newfound awareness of the passing of a year. As evening drew near, I hung around my father in anxious silence until at last he smiled and raised an eyebrow and I ran to fetch my cardigan.

This year, the circus was even better. I was a year older and able to stay awake for longer. The horses were still light as drifting snowflakes, the lady in pink even more entrancing. Rocco, as anticipated, was perfection, from the first roll of the drums to his final arrest by the ringmaster. When he tipped his stack of paint cans over himself and regarded us with rueful bewilderment, I laughed even harder than before. When he stretched up to replace them and his trousers slipped down, revealing tattered, scarlet-spotted shorts, my father threatened to take me home unless I could be quiet.

The circus became a fixture in my yearly calendar, the one event I need not share with the rest of my family. My father and I climbed the hill together each year. My legs grew longer and the colour of my cardigans varied but the circus, more especially Rocco, remained gloriously the same. As double figures approached, my father suggested that I expand my birthday repertoire to include new places and I agreed, although not without a mild feeling of regret. I had always created my own private structures and calendars and it was hard for me to move on. There was an unspoken agreement that the rest of the family would now join us, an agreement I hugely resented, and as my twelfth birthday approached, I struck for the right to reclaim both the circus and my father. After months of my irritable persistence, he agreed.

The tent was as hot as ever and still scented with sawdust and candyfloss. The first act was new – a family of contortionists who appeared to be innocent of bones, but I knew the second act very well. A blast of music ripped through the tent and my beautiful white horses galloped in. A stout lady in a tight, netted dress jumped breathlessly from one to  the other. Their saddles were festooned with chunks of coloured plastic and in need of a clean. My father stared intently at the ring, his lips moving, as though in prayer. The horses galloped out again to loud applause and I knew who must come next. When his drum roll sounded, I jumped from the bench and fled.

My father threaded his way carefully between the seats and joined me outside. He laid a hand on my shoulder as we stood and listened to the muffled cheers and laughter. After a minute, he turned and strode away across the field and I followed him. We walked home together in silence through the darkened streets, alternately swallowed by the shadows and illuminated by the shining patches beneath the street lamps.


Chapter One

The funeral over at last, we scatter along the path, jackdaws beneath spiky black umbrellas. I slide between clusters of mourners, hoping no one will notice me, dreading the detailed questions that would expose me as an imposter.

The vicar appears to recognise me as I walk past. His smile is pleasant, standard-issue Anglican and he has the obligatory slight stoop. He told the congregation he had never met the deceased but had talked to neighbours and friends since her passing. He carefully refrained from using the word family, the omission so blindingly obvious that I wondered why no one stood to point an accusing finger at the three of us. Of course he had not known her. Mum was never one for organised weekly religion. She was simply one for doing things properly, which accounts for the meaningless ritual we have just been forced to endure.

She took us to church on Christmas Eve and Mothering Sunday and again on Easter Sunday, after which we hunted in our garden for the eggs she hid in exactly the same places each year. That was the extent of her own church going until the following Christmas but she dispatched me to Sunday school long after Cath and Daniel had won their independence. I was left to walk there resentfully and alone and to sulk and complain throughout our Sunday lunches. My arguments ranged from a stridently-assumed atheism I did not actually feel, to chippy accusations of parental hypocrisy.

I finally won an amnesty from Dad, on the condition I did not disturb his Sunday lie-ins, dearly cherished after a week of pre-dawn rising, and accompanied my mother to church whenever she saw fit. This was fine with me as I suspected, quite correctly, that her sense of fitness would never extend beyond those three services. I would never admit it but I secretly enjoyed walking three paces behind Mum on a frosty Christmas Eve and the melodic bells which summoned worshippers through the sweet Easter air, chimes heralding the spring, if not necessarily the resurrection.

I was more ambivalent about Mothering Sunday and hugely embarrassed by the public presentation of daffodils. Our parents hated the Americanism of Mother’s Day and forbade its use, even though the stiff Mothering Sunday cards were more appropriate to a funeral than a celebration. The obligation lifted somewhat when I left home and could compromise with spring landscapes and cards without poems. It struck a small blow for the inner child without resorting to the knockout punch that would demean us both. Dad only ever went to church on Mothering Sunday, after which he cooked the Sunday roast, rather inefficiently, and we three cleaned up afterwards. It was the only day on which we might wash up unsupervised, Mum being so finicky and precise in her kitchen, but she had a great sense of occasion.

Cath and Daniel sat alongside me during the funeral, like three magnets, all with opposing poles. As the service creaked past, I worried I might slide down the slippery pew away from them and fly out into the aisle. Watching the three of us now, standing together so separately on the church path, the vicar seems to sense something of our relationship. He winds up his chat and shepherds Cath expertly into the first funeral car. I step past him on a black wave of resentment, ignoring the offer of his damp hand. I am still angry that any stranger should speak so urbanely at Mum’s final service, skating slickly over her life and closing its final cover. Perhaps I should reserve some of that anger for those who shared her life and home and still knew nothing of her. Cath does not shift her gaze from the floor as the car slides silently from the kerb and drifts towards the crematorium.

Three hours later, I watch the rain trickle in dreary streaks across the living room window. The gaggle of strangers has thinned at last, full of under-cooked pastry and gory details. The women were the worst. Their sympathy, in the cases of those who actually knew me, was underpinned by a faint, lavender-scented disapproval. I could not even place most of them; they looked so similar. They even smelled the same.

By four o’clock, no one is left except our family and Mum’s best friend, Cynthia, who has watched me grow from a small child into whatever it is I have become. I often suspect that she preferred the earlier version. Dad’s sister Bella hovers in the doorway, planning her escape. She has been determined to remain a forty-something redhead for as long as I can remember. I add the dyed hair to the list of mental grudges I have always held towards her. It is faintly possible that Dad liked her but she and Mum never got along and we children dreaded the ritual Sunday lunches, with their charged, almost menacing atmosphere.

I start to collect up the plates but Cynthia notices me and comes over. ‘You mustn’t do that, my love. Leave it all to me.’

She pulls me towards her and I freeze at the contact before I remember the thousands of similar embraces she has given me since childhood. I relax against her and she pats my shoulder approvingly. ‘You’ve just lost your Mum. You can cry,’ she orders. Surprisingly, I almost do.

We carry the plates to the kitchen, where I look around despairingly at the mess. ‘Why didn’t we book some proper caterers? They’d have cleaned up and the food would have been so much better.’

‘She’d have hated that. She’d have said it was a waste of money.’ She turns the subject smoothly. ‘How long are you staying, my darling?’

My face puckers into a predictive frown, simply thinking of the weekend ahead. ‘Only until Monday morning. I have to help Cath and Daniel with Mum’s things but I really must get back to work next week. We’re opening a branch in Paris next month and I haven’t met the new buyers. I was planning to fly out there this weekend but they came here instead, seeing that …’

‘Goodness, you do have fun at work, Jen. I’d have loved a job like yours – travelling, meeting interesting people.’ Then, quickly enough to show her strand of thought, ‘How’s your social life? Anyone special yet?’

‘No one special,’ I say tightly and stare her down.

She takes the hint and moves on. ‘This will be a wonderful opportunity for the three of you to catch up. You don’t see each other very often these days, do you?’

Not very often means never and Cynthia knows it, but she was always the soul of tact, separating us so deftly at the height of our younger quarrels that we would all have sworn she had taken our individual side. I pull a mental face at the thought of spending a whole weekend in such close proximity to my siblings. We have long since shrugged each other off, much, I suspect, to Mum’s unexpressed distress. I wonder how she feels to see us all back under one roof, as she surely does. She has not left. Her presence still fills the place. We have opened the doors she always kept closed and the entire house is now scented with the ghosts of Chanel and lemon furniture polish.

Bella appears in the kitchen doorway. ‘I think we must leave now, Jennifer. Henry can’t cope with very much stress nowadays. He isn’t getting any younger.’ She bares her orange gums in amusement at the thought of Henry’s decrepitude and blows cheap sherry fumes directly into my face.

I allow a shade too much concern into my voice. ‘This must have taken a lot out of you, too. You’re three years older than Henry, aren’t you?’

She glares at me and twists her lips into a farewell grimace. ‘We’ll see you all soon, I have no doubt.’

I have not seen Bella in ten years and will be delighted if it is as long again. I remain outwardly polite. ‘Oh, you can count on it.’

She shepherds Uncle Henry towards the front door and I smile to myself, feeling mildly avenged for the years of wasted Sunday afternoons and the birthday cards with a, ‘Buy yourself something nice’ fifty pence piece slipped grudgingly inside.

Cynthia is watching me closely, her face unreadable. I shrug and mentally group  her with the group of disapproving elderly women I have suffered all afternoon.

‘I’ll leave you to it, my love,’ is all she says but I melt instantly and wrap my arms around her. I think she understands. She hugs me back. ‘Bye, my poppet. Have a good weekend.’

‘You can count on it,’ I say again.

I bump my blue case up the stairs and pause outside my old room, wondering whether it will still recognise me. It has not seen me for over a year, when Mum was first diagnosed.

Cath is already inside the room, staring down into the garden and holding a piece of curtain against her cheek. I throw my case onto my bed and she spins around. ‘That’s not my case.’

‘No, it’s mine and this, in case you’ve forgotten, is my bed.’

‘You can’t sleep in this room,’ she says more quietly.

I raise my eyebrows. ‘Where do you suggest I sleep for the next three nights?’

‘I don’t really care. This is my room.’

The shell I so painfully acquired during my adult years was supposed to be impenetrable but it is splintering under her assault. I breathe deeply. ‘The last time I checked, which was four whole years after you left home, this was my room.’

Her face is contorted with an emotion I thought we had left behind, when the hair-pulling and neck-flicking subsided into an uneasy teenage truce.  Apparently, I was wrong. I sling my pyjamas onto my bed and, for good measure, sit on them.

‘Does it really matter?’ she asks at last.

‘Not at all, so why don’t you get out?’

Daniel peers around the door, wearing a shabby backpack and half a beard. ‘God, here we go again.’

I stare at his face. ‘Why did you choose the week of the funeral to grow a beard? Mum would have hated it. You know that.’

‘Do I?’

He disappears and I turn back to my other fight to see that Cath has already tucked my pyjamas back inside my case and is fumbling with the zip.

‘What the hell?’ I say angrily.

Her face has turned an ugly pink. ‘You can easily sleep in Mum’s room for three nights.’

‘Why don’t you grab that room for yourself? It’s a symbol of authority and you can boss me just as well from there.’

‘Is it possible that you’re still this immature, Jennifer?’

‘Quite possible, so why not be the grown-up, Catherine?’

I am stunned by the speed at which the cracks are showing. The veneer of years and apparent adulthood has been completely stripped away, leaving two teenagers glaring at each other, with a string of ten-, nine- and eight-year-olds shadowed behind them.

I try again. ‘You’re the oldest. You ought to sleep in Mum and Dad’s room.’

‘Mum’s room,’ she corrects me at once.

‘She’d want you to sleep in there. She’d never have trusted me.’

‘Yes, she would.’

I smile, rather poisonously. ‘You can argue as much as you like but this door has no lock so you can’t keep me out. If you won’t leave, we’ll have to share. It’ll be just like old times.’




It was dark before the promised snow arrived. I watched from my bedroom window the whole afternoon and leaned out a dozen times to taste the frozen air on my hopeful tongue.

‘It’s too cold for snow,’ Mum said when I consulted her. She was wrestling with a brightly-coloured cookbook and refused to come to the kitchen window yet again.

I stood on the driveway in my socks, feeling the frost shock my toes into tiny balls. The afternoon was leaving the garden now, its exhausted grey light draining from the frozen air. Dusk hovered at the gate in a miasma of cold. Tiny ferns crept along the path to the house, matching the flowery splinters snaking across my bedroom window. At a silent signal, which only the birds could hear, a cloud of dark swooped towards me and I jumped, slid back into the light and slammed the door.

‘Who’s going outside?’ called a voice from the kitchen.

‘Just checking for snow,’ I called back.  

‘Don’t you dare go outside again, Jennifer! It’s perishing. If you really have nothing better to do, you can lay the table.’

I slithered silently up the stairs before she could emerge to enforce this. I opened my bedroom window and gasped as the frozen vacuum burned a trail inside my lungs. Our neighbours never shut their curtains and their living room window tossed a glowing band of light across both gardens, throwing our blackened cabbages into relief where they squatted miserably in the biting frost. The latticed wooden trellis that Dad had built for his runner beans towered above them, casting the shadow of a gibbet.

I stretched my hand far out into the night and cupped my palm invitingly. Frozen dust trickled through the air and I drew back in disbelief. My palm sparkled for a second in the light and the spark was gone. I held out my hand once more, hardly daring to breathe. Frost tickled my palm and tiny diamonds twinkled at me like fairy lights, reminding me of Christmas, already two months past.

I ran downstairs and hurled myself into the kitchen, where Mum was wrestling a long, shallow dish into the oven.. She looked up. ‘What do you think of tonight’s dinner?’

I glanced at the chilly lumps of raw meat and nodded hypocritically. ‘Looks great. It’s snowing!’

She shook her head. ‘Too cold.’

I flung open the backdoor in reply. The light streamed out across the path and I waved a dramatic hand, introducing the snow.

She peered out and shook her head again. ‘Now, shut that door and come inside, before we all die of exposure.’

I frowned at her. I had not imagined it. The snow was simply biding its time. Even now, the clouds were piling overhead in thick stacks. Each would be full of icy splinters if you bit into them, like frozen candy floss.  

‘Haven’t you changed yet?’ she asked. ‘They’ll be here any minute. Wear something nice for your father’s birthday.’

Cath was perched on her bed reading a textbook, revelling in the neatly-ordered charts of chemical elements. I pulled open the curtain. ‘It’s going to snow.’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘Yes, it is. I felt it.’

‘That was just the frost falling off when you opened the window.’

‘It was not!’ I snapped but she had sown a seed of doubt.

She returned her book to the shelf. ‘Why do you want it to snow so badly?’

I puffed out my chest. ‘It’s Dad’s birthday, Stupid!’

‘So what?’

‘He says that he likes his birthdays best when they’re snowy. Don’t you ever listen?’

She laughed. ‘Why should I? I have you to do that for me.’

I shook my head stubbornly. ‘It’ll snow. You wait and see.’

She snorted and left the room and I dragged on my hated skirt, looking longingly at my jeans. They were my key to mad scrambles up trees and bike rides through puddles. This was my only skirt and I hated it, the more so because it had once been Cath’s.

I heard a gabble of voices below and stumped down the stairs to be swept into a whirl of colours and perfumed kisses. I watched the adults sip their drinks and nibble at the dishes of salted nuts and every few minutes, I tugged at the heavy curtains to peer outside.

Mr. Jackson, my favourite of all my parents’ friends, noticed what I was doing. ‘Is it snowing?’ he asked me.

‘I can’t see. It’s too bright in here.’

‘Go outside and look.’

No one was looking so I slid from the room and into the kitchen, where Mum seemed even more flustered than usual. ‘There you are! Tell your father the dinner will be completely burned if he doesn’t stop pouring drinks and telling his ridiculous stories.’

She switched off the rings and began to drain the carrots and broccoli. ‘Go on! Tell him to get everyone sitting up.’

I slipped back to the living room, where Dad was indeed perched on the arm of a chair, telling one of his stories. I waited for the great roar of laughter as he finished, under cover of which I whispered my message.

He stood at once. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is apparently served.’

He shepherded the chattering crowd to the dining room and we tucked our legs neatly under the heavily-embroidered cloth, reserved only for Christmas and Dad’s birthday. Mum spooned the casserole onto gleaming plates, Dad handed them round and I stared at my plate, entranced. Two hours in the oven had magically transformed the pink slabs into fragrant, brown chunks. Tomatoes glistened like rubies in the thick gravy. It was an alchemy beyond my understanding.

When the casserole had been eaten and the plates cleared, Mum brought in a trifle and everyone admired the snowy peaks. That would be our garden tomorrow, I thought, hugging the secret knowledge to myself. The cut glass bowls were passed down the table – ‘Just a small one for you, Jen. I put sherry in it.’ – and we lifted our spoons.

Daniel burst breathlessly through the door. ‘It’s snowing! I was stacking the plates in the kitchen and I saw it. It’s pelting down!’

There was a collective ‘aah’ around the table. It seemed that snow still had the capacity to excite adults, perhaps stirring memories of childhood, however distant. I finished my trifle rather gloomily. Daniel’s casual appropriation of my news had taken some of the shine from it. When the glass bowl had been scraped clean and Happy Birthday rowdily sung, we trooped down the hall behind Dad and he flung open the front door with a flourish, enjoying the gasps of delight behind him.

Mum squeezed his arm. ‘It’s arrived especially for your birthday, darling.’

Mrs Hardy, who had enjoyed a third helping of trifle, smiled flirtatiously at Dad. ‘That’s right. It’s all in your honour, isn’t it?’

I waited for him to turn to me. I was the one who had waited all day in anticipation. It was my confidence that had drawn the clouds down our street and torn them wide. So great was my belief in my own powers, I would hardly have been surprised to see the snow falling on our house and garden alone.  

I knelt on the window sill for an hour that night, watching the flakes tumble over and around each other and the flurries fill the wheelbarrow, smothering its wheel and turning it into a hunched, dwarf-like creature. The apple tree grew white lines along its branches, shivered them off and gathered the snow to itself once more, like an everlasting waterfall.

Cath snapped on the light. ‘Get off the windowsill! You’re keeping me awake.’

‘I’m not. The light was out.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘It might melt.’ My voice was no more than a fearful whisper.

She shrugged the quilt more firmly around her shoulders. ‘It won’t. It’s too cold. Just shut up and go to bed.’

Too cold to snow, too cold to melt. She might as well have said it was too warm for the sun to shine. I tucked myself into bed before she could call Mum, reminding myself that it scarcely mattered whether the snow was there in the morning or not. It was here today, just for Dad’s birthday.

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When summer seems to be the hardest word

In Denmark, we look forward to the summer. We really do. We endure six hour days in December and the sort of vitamin D deficiency which could only be properly cured by eating a whole raw seal. So we watch anxiously for the first spring rays and occasionally the sun does actually appear. I suspect the locals have some secret spring ritual they perform in the quiet of their living rooms, involving candles, animal sacrifice and possibly some special dance. I’ve never asked. I don’t really want to know.  If there is such a ritual, it only seems to work for one year out of three, so the Danes need to up their game. It worked last year so this year should mean the deluge, unless global warming kicks in to help us out. There’s always a silver lining.

The one thing I always forget, while eagerly counting the days until May and the brief feeling of thawing hands and feet, is that for expats, summer means all-change. Many of us have children so the summer holiday is the natural time to move on and settle into a new location before school starts. Looking back, I can’t remember a summer over the past two decades which has not been punctuated with the word goodbye. Quite frankly, I have grown to hate it. Promises of keeping in touch don’t often materialise, at least in the long term, and that’s really how it should be. No one can fully establish themselves in a new life if they are always looking back to the old one.

Of course, we don’t let go all at once. We glance over our shoulders for a while at what we have left behind us. We check that the old life didn’t suddenly become more fun just as we left. We make sure that we haven’t been entirely and instantly forgotten in the influx of new and possibly more exciting people into what was our old life and now is their new one. But time intervenes and the new life becomes the real one and the old life becomes a ghost. It has to, or we could never live the life we do.

So the word goodbye is now one I avoid completely. I used it dutifully and emotionally each summer as old friends left. I used it at the end of each assignment, as I was the one to leave, and the word weighed more heavily every year. Eventually, I simply quit. I refused to say the word at all, or even think it. After all, I reasoned, people emerge from the woodwork all the time and in the most unexpected places. One friend who left me in Denmark and went to England, wrote to me in Australia to say they were coming to live near us in Canberra. Our painful goodbye in Denmark had hardly been necessary.

I mostly stopped saying goodbye because it is a painful word and associated with difficult emotions. Nowadays, I duck the farewell parties, try not to think that any casual school gate conversation may possibly be the last and generally make myself scarce as summer approaches. Possibly we all have only so many goodbyes in us and I am reaching my limit. Perhaps this also means I am coming to the end of my capacity to live this kind of life. I have roots now in so many places, and in none.

It’s a great life, travelling the world, seeing new places, experiencing new cultures. It’s a privilege and generally one for which I am grateful. The benefits for me have always outweighed the negatives, just as the summer always brings more fun than pain. I am, however, beginning to look forward to the time when the first spring days mean nothing more than a summer to look forward to and then a winter and another summer, all in the same place and with the same people. I am not yet quite ready for that but the time is quickly coming, a time when summer will once again become the easiest word.

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Pom Pom the Great

Pom Pom is finally available to read. Who is he? He’s the monkey who came to live with us several years ago. He is messy, unpredictable, self-centred, energetic, resourceful, over-confident and has an idiosyncratic way of wrestling with the English language. His arch enemy is a Teddy Bear, against whom he wages an unceasing and increasingly bitter war.

Over the years I have come to be very fond of him and his antics. He was brought to life by Lynelle O’Flaherty, an Australian artist and illustrator. It took her quite a while to produce the portrait because he wouldn’t sit still.  The second book is about to be published and I am halfway through the third. As Pom Pom himself would say, he is the gift that keeps on giving.

Pom Pom’s very most favourite things

Bananas, Climbing, Exploring, Bananas, Demonstrating his extreme cleverness, Swimming, Ice Skating, Bananas.

Pom Pom’s very most least favourite things

Teddy, Going to bed, Running out of bananas, The word No, Not winning at everything, Waiting in line, People who don’t understand his extreme cleverness.

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