Back on the grass – a new season in grassroots football

It’s Sunday 13th September. The sun is shining and the temperature is set to hit 24 degrees. It’s a beautiful day for football and in the Garforth Junior Football League, the excitement is palpable.

This day has been a long time coming. It’s been six months since a ball was last kicked in competition and I imagine every grassroots coach will say the same; it’s felt more like years.

When the season was shut down in March 2020 the majority of people probably felt that it wouldn’t last that long. I thought we’d be away from training for a matter of weeks rather than half a year. In fact, where some other coaches were telling anyone who’d listen that they didn’t know how they’d get through without football, I was actually quite glad of the break. We’d been having an indifferent season and didn’t seem to be able to find any kind of consistent form, so perhaps the break would do us all good. Maybe I would have time to think and figure out exactly how I could get the message across about passing the ball to one of your team mates! In fact, I had more time to think than I could possible have wanted. So much time in fact that the government very kindly suggested I take a daily walk, while maintaining a Netflix habit and re-discovering a dangerous addiction to crisps.

By the time August rolled round and we were allowed to start training again, I was more than ready to get going. COVID restrictions would mean cutting down drastically on working with a ball, but there was always fitness. My lads love fitness work! I’ve adapted some of the exercises from fitness routines I’ve been doing over lockdown and it’s safe to say that I was not a popular coach after the first couple of fitness sessions. Watching some of your team struggle to lie flat while keeping their legs lifted off the ground is both a hilarious and heartbreaking thing, but I know that we’ll benefit from the strength and fitness that will build up. I’ve already reminded them of the good it does during a recent friendly when we came back strongly in the final ten minutes and ‘outfitnessed’ our opposition. (That’s not a term you’ll find in any coaching manuals, by the way, but feel free to use it. Trust me, I’m an English teacher).

Gradually, we were allowed to work more with a ball and less in small bubbles, while retaining certain guidelines like using hand sanitiser and disinfecting equipment. So it’s been a drip feed of footballing fun, if you like. We’ve been allowed to get back to something like football, but nothing quite like normal.

But even then, COVID-19 and the footballing gods still weren’t finished. There was still a little bit more trouble to throw at us and complicate things further. Just at the point that we were told things could get a little more competitive and that we could start organising friendlies, the proverbial spanner was thrown in the works for some of us.

Just when we got the go-ahead to play matches and attempt something a it more competitive, Leeds City Council announced that if you played on council owned playing fields, which we do, they would be just that until Saturday 12th September. That meant no pitches were allowed to be marked out and no games to be played. Now every team in Leeds was left searching for friendlies elsewhere. Last pre-season we hosted 6 friendlies – now we’d host none. And with places to be play being in greater demand than ever before, it seemed that organising a friendly game was going to prove impossible for some of us.

Eventually, after about two weeks of trying, Wakefield Owls were kind enough to host us. Even that proved tricky. Keen to get away and experience something a little different from the same four walls where they’d spent lockdown, parents were taking their kids away on holidays. So for a while, every time I got the sniff of a friendly, I’d be apologising on WhatsApp groups hours later when I couldn’t get the numbers to play!

On the night of our first friendly it felt brilliant to be around an actual game again and the mood was great among parents, players and coaches. In the end, it was a fantastic game of football with both sides giving it everything. In order to take the necessary COVID precautions we played four 15 minute sessions which meant that posts, footballs and other equipment could be sanitised during the break. Unfortunately our rust at having not played for so long showed and with only the final 15 minutes to play we were 5-1 down.

Brilliantly though, all that fitness work paid off and we came storming back to level at 5-5, before conceding again. However, we simply pushed forward again and managed to pull the score back to 6-6! You don’t get action like this in the Premier League!

It was brilliant to be back. In many ways the performance wouldn’t have mattered and nor would the result. As it was, we salvaged something of a result, we played well – even when we were 5-1 down – we didn’t give up and most importantly, we enjoyed ourselves. And this should be what junior football is all about. I’m a big believer in my team enjoying what they do and this game was right up there in terms of enjoyment. Animated coaches, players giving everything and supportive parents watching soemthing brilliant unfold in front of them. Football – the game we all love – was back!

Our next friendly game was a week later. This time, although some of our number enjoyed themselves, I really didn’t. One of the things that frustrates me most about being a coach reared its head and left me unhappy with what I’d witnessed. We won comfortably, but abandoned shape, movement and passing; stopped following instructions in favour of chasing a long ball forward in an attempt to score more goals. It was like going back to when they were 7 or 8 years old and everyone just wanted to play up front! And I understand that kids love to score goals, but in terms of a performance, I felt we’d learnt nothing at all. Football – the game that has the tendency to frustrate the life out of us – was back!

And so, after 6 frustrating months, thousands of football related WhatsApp messages, countless hours of thinking and planning and possibly even more of just dreaming about games, the sun rose on Sunday 13th September – the first day of the Garforth Junior League season. It was sunny, warm and practically without wind; the footballing gods were smiling.

We had what promised to be a tricky away game against an excellent Beeston side. I was up early; shaved, showered and ready in what felt like no time at all. Breakfast was wolfed down and before I knew it we were getting in the car to head to the game (As an aside, I’d been so excited about the game that I’d packed all of our equipment in the car the night before, just to be sure we’d be ready!)

When we arrived we met up with other parents and players and walked around to the field where we’d play. Everyone was in high spirits – not because we were favourites to win, but just because we were ‘back on the grass’. There was a definite buzz of excitement and that carried on as we warmed up. As we jogged and stretched and then went through a passing drill everyone on our side of the pitch was smiling.

It would be an understatement to say that the game didn’t go quite to plan. We were 5-0 down at half-time and it ended up as an 8-2 defeat. Not the start to the season that any of us had dreamed about! And while it was frustrating, it was clear that everyone – myself included – had thoroughly enjoyed the game. It was fantastic to see my team out there playing football. It was amazing to see how calm they stayed, despite the pressure they were under. It was even more amazing to see them wearing the away kit bought last season that they were never able to wear due to Covi-19 cutting their season short!

In terms of the game itself, we kept everything as positive as possible. We spoke about positives before the game; about being grateful for the chance to play and not ruining it with tantrums or blaming team mates when something went wrong. We told them to go and enjoy themselves.

At half-time, 5-0 down, we kept it positive, re-iterating certain tactical points, telling them to keep going and in fact to up their work rate because fitness would tell in this game and that they were fit as a result of all the strength and conditioning work we’d done in the previous few weeks. We told them that despite the scoreline, they’d done very little wrong. We told them to treat the second half like the score was 0-0 and to go out there and have a go. And it was easy to speak to them like this because, after a long time without it, it was a joy to have football back.

Late into the second half we had got the score back to 5-2 and were unlucky not to have scored at least another. I think we all knew that we’d never get back to being level and that we were going to lose the game. But it was brilliant to be reminded of how well my team can react to encouragement. It was brilliant to be reminded of what a great bunch of boys I coach and what a great bunch of people I get to mix with in terms of coaches and parents.

It’s been an incredibly tough 6 months or so for everyone. People have lost so much and our way of life has changed in ways that we could never have imagined. In contrast to what we’ve lived through, football seems trivial. But, its return has meant that for some of us, we’ve got back a massive slice of normality and enjoyment – and you can’t underestimate the importance of things like that.

Sad, lonely shirt…

This is a poem I wrote about an item that I couldn’t avoid as I bumbled round our house during lockdown.
At the start of a working week I usually like to have some shirts ironed and ready to go. I just don’t like having to be ironing during the week. Anyway…
When I had to start isolating from work – several years ago, it feels like – I had one, ironed shirt left, hanging on the wardrobe door, ready for the next day. I would see it every day and it would remind me of what I was missing. The shirt became both a sad reminder that I couldn’t be in work and a comfort in that surely one day I would get to wear it again with a suit and tie. We would chat, me and the shirt. You know, in my head. Because sometimes being in lockdown wasn’t that easy.
I’m really not sure about this poem. I think I like it. It makes me smile and as time has passed I’ve been able to read it without thinking of myself as some kind of attention seeker.

Sad, lonely shirt

Sad, lonely shirt. I pass you every day and you remind me of where I should be, but am kept away from until it’s safe.
I see you and I wonder what you think about all of this.

“I’m still here,” you say and then you ask, “Why am I just hanging here?” And I say, “You wouldn’t understand.”
Quick as a flash you volley it back. “Why? I am a smart shirt.”
And with reasoning like that, coupled with the fact that I’m a soft touch I have no option but to explain.

You listen attentively – you’re hung on the side of the wardrobe, after all – as I try to explain the world amidst a global pandemic and how these days, without work, it’s leisure wear only for me.

You stare at me for a while, wanting to shrug, but unable to because I’m using my shoulders and you’re on a hanger. Then you say,
“Can I make some requests?”
I mull it over and then think, why not, before making it clear that I can’t do ‘just hold me’ because I couldn’t stand the creases and I will have to wear you again one day.

You look a little crestfallen and then say “OK” and then, “Maybe just two then?”
“Go ahead” I say.
You ask, not unreasonably, “Can you get rid of this dust off my shoulders, please? I’ve been here for weeks.”
Shamefaced, I take you down and gently brush it away. “What else?”
“Could you hang me in the wardrobe, next to my friends, please?”
And reasoning that the light grey suit must be your closest pal, I place you near to that.

I think mainly, this is a poem that was borne out of having too much time to think. It’s another one that woke me at night and forced me out of bed and I just wrote it down in my notebook, with not a great deal of thought. The words just seemed to be there. I really did find myself talking to the shirt if I passed it in our bedroom. Never out loud. But there was always a conversation of sorts.

If there’s any kind of intellectual aspect to it – and if you know me, there rarely is – the poem could be about our own self image and maybe the relationship we have with clothes. I love clothes, always have. I get it from my dad, who was quite the stylish young Mod in his pre-chidlren days. However, because I’ve always had a very slight frame, I’ve rarely felt confident in whatever I’ve worn. Body image, while never something that has been debilitating for me, has always been a bit of an issue. However, I always feel good in a suit, shirt and tie and I’m careful in what I choose to put together. This particular sad, lonely shirt is a bit of a favourite. Maybe others would have just got thrown in the wash, but this one stayed out, hung up, essentially reminding me that I still had a purpose.

There are a few lines in there that I’m quite proud of. I like the “I’m a smart shirt” line as it makes me smile when I read it back. Again, I suppose it works with the idea of a shirt having a personality and giving me confidence in the way that certain clothes can do. And then I liked the line about the shirt not being able to shrug. I suppose it might say something about the fact that clothes can’t actually do everything for us, as much as they might add to our confidence.

As an aside, I’m now back at work and I wore the shirt in my first week back. I’d like to think it was a day that we both enjoyed just a little bit more than usual!

Anyway, as ever I’d be interested to know what people think, so feel free to leave something in the comments.

Book Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

When Sara leaves Sweden in search of a new adventure she’s in entirely virgin territory. Sara is 28 years old and has never left her homeland. But she’s not heading for the bright lights of New York or L.A.. Nor is she off to Europe to explore London, Paris or Barcelona. No, Sara is heading for Broken Wheel, Iowa.

Sara has been exchanging letters with fellow book enthusiast, Amy Harris, for quite some time. It seems that they’re kindred spirits and when Sara takes up Amy’s offer of a visit to Broken Wheel it seems that she’s about to start an entirely new chapter in her life. And yes, I really did use that particular book pun. But Sara’s long distance friendship is about to take a rather unpredictable twist. And so, the story begins.

Broken Wheel, Iowa seems to be the archetypal one horse town. It consists of four streets, a handful of residents and a row of shops, a diner and a bar, not all of which are in use. But despite this, Broken Wheel will undoubtedly change Sara’s life. She is welcomed by all, given a chaperone, handed some friends and is refused payment every time she attempts to hand over any cash. Sounds like the ingredients for a great holiday, right? But Sara quickly grows frustrated in this routine. And when she senses that the town is not only down on its luck, but is missing a few much needed elements, she decides to take things a step further and making a far more permanent mark on the town.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is a quirky book that is sure to make you smile. Originally written in Swedish and later translated, the novel gets off to a slightly dark and mysterious start, but it isn’t long before said residents – and our heroine, Sara – begin to pique your interest. And here the feelgood factor starts. But that’s not all. The novel is also shrouded in mystery throughout and you’re left with various questions that need an answer all the way through. Each time we meet a new character we’re left at least a little bit intrigued. There’s Sara’s pen pal Amy, well sort of, Grace who’s not actually called Grace (but comes from a family of not really Graces), moody Tom, Andy and his oh so handsome partner Carl who seem far too glamorous and cosmopolitan for Broken Wheel, as well as Caroline, George and the quiet and mysterious John. The characters are the best parts of Broken Wheel and ultimately what keep Sara in town.

However, for me, it was the amount of characters that created a slight problem with the book. I must admit that there were times in reading that I lost track of who everyone was and the way that the narrative can jump around from character to character left me a little puzzled at times. I suppose the counter weight to this was the fact that the action rarely moves from this town in the middle of nowhere and so you never quite lose track! But the interweaving of the towns folk’s narratives with Sara’s own was at times problematic, while also being one of several aspects of the writing that made ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel…’ so interesting. I must admit, that in terms of the outcome of the book, I wasn’t at all sure how things were going to end until almost the final page. And, I suppose that’s got to be a good thing.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is anything but predictable! There are twists and turns aplenty and all set somewhat incongruously in this one horse town in middle America where nothing ever seems to happen, yet everything, it seems, is possible. Sara is the spark that ignites the flame and her arrival signals the start of many a mystery. Her interaction with the residents of Broken Wheel, and in turn their curiosity with her, make for an intriguing read. If you’re looking for a thriller with endless twists and turns, then this isn’t the book for you. Broken Wheel isn’t scary and there aren’t any monsters. However, if you want something a little different, where you’re on the side of the many small town figures that you’ll find within its pages, then ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ comes, well…highly recommended.

I’d give ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Back to School again…

This time last year I wrote an article about how it might feel for teachers returning to work after their annual – and much begrudged by anyone else in any profession, ever – 6 weeks summer holidays. Despite the holiday, I felt stressed about the prospect of returning to work and having worked in the industry for so long, I know that lots of us feel the same way. I looked at things like the anxiety dreams that we would be no doubt suffering from, the clothing I’d have to wear and even getting overwhelmed by stationary. It’s on the link below if you fancy a read, but you know, one at a time!

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/its-time-for-a-new-teaching-year-and-im-stressed-out-already/

This year, the return to the classroom is days away and I’m more than a little anxious about my return. However, with all that’s happened over the last year, I’m anxious in a whole new way than ever before!

Wednesday March 17th 2019 is a date that will stay with me until I decide it’s time to stop the world and get off. Or someone/something decides for me. This was the date that I spent my last day in school for the 2019-2020 academic year. I haven’t been back since.

As we got into March of this year, Covid-19 was beginning to make a name for itself (actually I imagine scientists made the name, but you get the picture). Around school, pupils were starting to ask about closures and fellow staff were, in truth, a little giddy about getting a couple of weeks off work. I mean, we hadn’t even had a snow day, so a little bit of time off would make anybody giddy, surely. Because that’s what we imagined it would be. This was a bad case of the flu; it would pass. and before we knew it, we’d be back in work.

However, as the month wore on, the changes were glaringly obvious. People were preparing themselves for the worst by buying entire supermarkets worth of paracetamol, cold and flu drinks, dried pasta and anything that they could lay their hands on to then put on said hands and clean them. Oh, and some folk were clearly imagining that their houses were going to fall down and that they would recover from this particular blow by building igloos out of toilet roll. At least that’s what I think was happening.

In amongst all this madness, I was starting to worry. A little, tiny bit. As much as I ever do about anything, apart from my wife discovering the true size and cost of my box(es) of ‘To Read’ books. (If you’re reading this my love, my life, that’s just a little joke for all of the other readers – just never go into the loft.)

I have a couple of health issues that seemed to make me a little vulnerable to the virus that I was reading about. Firstly, I’m asthmatic and much to my embarrassment have been on the ‘At risk’ list at our doctors’ surgery for years. To add to this though, a couple of years ago I was admitted to hospital with a heart complaint and ended up having surgery to correct a couple of things a month later. I was born with heart problems too, so as much as I don’t like it, the fact is I have history with a bit of a major health issue. Bang goes my plan to live forever.

And so, after discussing the problem with my wife, I went into work on March 17th promising that I’d speak with our HR department. The first colleague I met as I went into the building that day almost shouted at me – ‘You shouldn’t be here!’ – which in truth is not that unusual, but as I was on my way to speak to HR, I didn’t feel too hurt.

I remember my exact words when I got there – “Julia, I’m not sure I should be here.” Yep, dynamic as always! However, I was ushered into an office, told Julia my concerns and asked to go and teach until she’d got back to me. A couple of hours later I was back in the office being told that today would be my last day. The situation would be re-assessed after the Easter holidays, giving me four weeks off. I won’t lie, I was as delighted as I was relieved. Not only could I stay safe, but imagine the amount of episodes of Homes Under The Hammer, Bargain Hunt and American Pickers I could watch!

Anyway, four weeks came and went and I was told to stay away from work. For my own good, not because no one likes me. Because people like me – I’d use up almost all of the fingers of one hand if I had to count them.

Weeks later, I was informed that, in all likelihood that was me done for the academic year. Schools were closed and any re-opening wouldn’t need to involve me. Because no one likes me. Not really; it was because I’m such a sickly weakling. Clearly, if someone were to sneeze in the same room as me it could be fatal.

I return to work in less than a week. When I do it will have been 174 days spent at home. That’s 4176 hours or 250,560 minutes, if you prefer. Or if you like, it’s almost as long as the gestation period of a baboon, but only around half of what it takes to make a baby sealion, llama or alpaca. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a long time away from the classroom and a long time in mummy’s tummy.

As my return approaches I have very much mixed emotions. I swerve wildly between feeling really excited and an extreme sense of dread about the whole thing. During lockdown it felt like I’d never have to go back to any kind of normality and so such a drastic change is going to take quite a bit of getting used to, I suppose. It’ll be brilliant to see people – pupils and colleagues – again, but then again I’m really not used to seeing people. So I suppose mixed emotions are to be expected.

Ironically, the lockdown life should have been the life I dreamed of. The solitude, the days stretching out ahead of me with little in the way of plans, the lack of pressure for any kind of face to face interaction. Not having to work for a living was something I’d long ago fathomed out was perfect for me. I’ve often thought that I might well have been swapped at birth and that my rightful family – noble of lineage, rich, idle, better than you and knew it – didn’t want the poorly specimen they were presented with (that’s me) and instead helped themselves to the athletic baby in the next cot. I could never shake the feeling that working just wasn’t for me. Harry and Margaret weren’t my actual mam and dad. The life on the Tyneside estate wasn’t what I’d really been destined for. So being able to do what I want, when I wanted through lockdown should have been perfect, or at least a bit more to my liking.

To an extent, that’s exactly what it was. But the name tells its own story and lockdown meant no travel and not a whole lot of freedom. Within a couple of weeks I’d painted all of our fences and both sheds. The gardens were looking good, I was reading and writing more and discovering Netflix. Our house was even beginning to resemble the type of place that people would want to live and not just the kind of place that was being photographed by the police having been freshly ransacked by burglars…and bears. But I missed going into work. I missed my team, my friends. I missed the kids, the random things that they’d say and the bizarre situations that you’d inevitably find yourself in.

So now, at the time of writing, I’m days away from heading back to work. And although some things will be familiar, the structure of lessons and the day has altered due to COVID and I don’t even know if I’m allowed in my own classroom yet. I’m excited about going back. As I’ve already stated, I’m honest enough to say I’ve enjoyed having time away from work. However, the bit of me that likes feeling like I’m making a difference to people can’t wait to get back in. I think it’ll be good for my own self-worth too. It’s nice to feel like you’ve got a purpose and for 6 months my purpose seems to have revolved around things like being Joe Wicks’s imaginary best friend and being able to make nice sandwiches for my kids. Try as I might I can’t really say there’s a future in either of those things (although I reckon Joe Wicks would be really impressed with my efforts, if not my hair.)

I’m excited about standing in front of my Year 11s again. I’m excited about coming up with new ideas to help my department out. I’m excited about speaking to a class, explaining things and watching the penny drop with kids who were adamant that they didn’t understand (it happens, on average about three times a year). I’m excited about sending sarcastic emails to our department. I’m excited about sending stupid emails about the ideas that swim around my head all day to our department too. I’m excited about meeting deadlines for projects I’ve been working on for months. I’m excited about taking staff briefings and slipping in silly jokes or daft pictures to a PowerPoint. I’m excited about attending meetings…alright, I’m not excited about that; I’m not some kind of pervert.

On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified of the risk to my health. I’m terrified of hearing the news that someone has tested positive. I’m terrified of the amount of people. I’m terrified that after all this time, I simply won’t be able to do the job. I’m terrified of the exhaustion that I reckon I’ll be feeling in about three weeks from now. I’m terrified of the new routine. I’m terrified of messing up with COVID procedures. I’m terrified of the new routine, the longer lessons, the pressure on Year 11. I’m even terrified that I might get part way through the new term and find that I’m just not enjoying what I do anymore. I might want to return to my royal duties instead! I’m terrified that a department and a school that has done without me for so long might simply not need me.

In short, my head is swimming with it all. From genuine concerns and excitement like those above to silly things like the fact that I haven’t worn a suit, shirt and tie for so long that it’ll just be strange. I also haven’t worn proper shoes for six months. I’ve spent most of it in shorts and trainers (and a t-shirt just in case anyone who knows me finds their eyes are burning at the image that their mind just conjured up).

I’m fully aware that lots of people have worked all the way through lockdown and the trauma of COVID-19. I know some of them and have heard of the strain that this past 6 months has put on them. So I’m not asking for sympathy. But on Monday, as I find myself in a school again and on Tuesday, as I stand in front of a class for the first time in half a year, I will feel physically sick. I’ll wonder what I’m doing, if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m safe.

After over twenty years as a teacher, next week I will enter a classroom both more experienced and more uncertain than I’ve even been. And that is as exciting as it is terrifying. No doubt next week I can tell you all about it. Until then, wish me luck!

Lockdown Holiday!

When lockdown first took hold of our lives and the government applied stringent rules to anyone who wasn’t Dominic Cummings or at least working closely with him, we decided against booking our usual Easter break. It seemed sensible and we felt it would be a small compromise and that we’d soon be able to travel again. Well, we all know how that turned out. Later, our summer holiday was cancelled too.

Each year we head to North Wales and the Llyn Peninsula for a week long break at the start of the school holidays. Now, we were being told that the infrastructure wouldn’t be able to cope with tourists and that essentially, North Wales was being closed to visitors. It was understandable, given what we were experiencing at home in a much more built up region where the facilities and infrastructure were set up to cope with a much greater number of people. The longer that lockdown went on and the longer that we worked from home, the more we just accepted our fate. There would be no holiday this year.

And then, out of nowhere, at the start of July we received an email from the owners of the cottage that we usually stay in. Wales was opening up to tourists again and, if we still wanted it, our holiday was on. After a lot less thought than I imagined we’d have, we emailed to confirm – we were off on holiday! We decided that our mantra would be ‘four different walls’ and took the plunge. Having been stuck at home since March, even four different walls would feel like a holiday. Anything to break the monotony of the previous few months.

In terms of lockdown rules, Wales was slightly behind England, so a lot less was actually going to be open, including pubs, but we were glad of the change. One of the bonuses of Wales still being largely closed was that we could probably pack less though! No going out for meals would mean less clothes. We’d still have things for the beach and there’d probably be more books and magazines to take, but overall the car wouldn’t be fit to burst this year. Maybe the kids could sit in actual sitting positions, rather than having to tuck their legs up to accommodate extra bags! (That’s not actually true for anyone considering calling Childline.)

Before we knew it we were indeed heading down the motorway in a car that was a little lighter and also heading for the first problematic part of our trip. We’re creatures of habit in our family and so every year, on the way down to the cottage, we stop off in Colwyn Bay (as an aside, we can never remember whether it’s Colwyn Bay or Conwy, but we know it’s near LLandudno!). The problem here was that with public toilets closed we would need somewhere new to stop and while this doesn’t sound like much of a problem – motorway services anyone? – it was actually quite traumatic. and kept us busy deciding where to stop for far too long! In the end, we found a services, followed the social distancing guidelines, stuck to the one way systems, popped into the toilets, armed ourselves with coffee and ate our picnic in the car. Not quite the same as always, but then this always was going to be a slightly different holiday.

Porthmadog was noticeable quieter than usual when we arrived. It’s normally a bustling little town, but now there were far fewer people on the main street. It was hearetning to see that some of the local shops and businesses were open and relatively thriving though.

This was our third stay in this particular cottage and it felt lovely to walk through the door and find that little had changed. Things like DVDs, books and board games had been removed and there were notices re health and safety on several walls, but this was still very much our little cottage. And there was also the added bonus of the owners signing up for Netflix to alleviate the situation with DVDs and board games – more than a fair trade, I’d say! A definite plus point for the global pandemic!

One thing that definitely wouldn’t – and didn’t – change was access to beaches. The village where we stay has a huge beach and so we knew we’d be able to comfortably stay at a social distance from others down there. Getting to our favourite little beach might well be more problematic, but more on that later.

There would be no pub visits either. Unlike in England, pubs in Wales were yet to open, although it would be possible to eat outdoors. Usually we have a rota of pubs that we visit and we generally always eat out, but Covid-19 meant a change of plan. Luckily, some of our regular haunts were operating a takeaway service and so, for our first evening we ordered a Sunday roast from our favourite pub and popped down into town to collect. What we got was an absolute banquet fit for about 12, meaning that the holiday got off to a great start, even if it was quite a fat one!

This was a theme that continued throughout the week. We’d order food from one of our favourite pubs and go and collect. Despite the pandemic and the sense of paranoia, there was always a warm welcome and it was clear that those running pubs were just pleased to be getting any custom. Everything was brilliantly organised and customer and staff safety was obviously at the top of all agendas. We were still told of some visitors who’d actually complained about not being able to go into the pubs though and it seemed strange that they had missed any news whatsoever of a pandemic and the fact that practically everything had changed!

In terms of trips to the beach, we spent the first full day on the local beach, Black Rock Sands, a vast stretch of sand, where as well as people you’ll find dogs, cars and even the odd ice-cream van! Needless to say, social distancing wasn’t a problem.

It’s such a big beach that we always make space and time for some family sports. This year there was beach tennis, baseball, football and a curious game that involves a ball and two kind of big plastic half-cylinders (I’m sorry I’m not eloquent enough to explain exactly what they are!) and of course even more space than ever. We also made time to just laze around, reading and watching the world go by. Lockdown restrictions or not, this is still a holiday and there’s nothing better on holiday than just to sit and stare at nothing in particular!

Before we travelled we were reticent about visiting our favourite beach, given that the only access to it was via a long narrow coastal path. This was also the coastal path that ran along the whole coast and thus dog walkers and hikers were a common site. So, the chances of making the journey to and from our beach without bumping into people and indeed squeezing past them, were slim.

However, by the second full day, with great weather forecast, we were wiling to try. We prepared a picnic, packed the car as usual and set off for the short drive to the end of the coastal path. It was busier than we’d imagined when we arrived, but most people seemed to be hanging around the harbour having a drink or an ice cream. We did pass one or two people on the long path heading for the beach, but it was just a case of holding your breath and squeezing in a bit as there was literally nothing else for it other than throw yourself in a hedge!

On the beach, despite it being quite a small cove, people were very respectful of social distancing and there must have been 7 or 8 metres between us and the next family on the sand. Buoyed by the weather and the conditions on the beach, we had a brilliant day and even spent the next day there too.

We’re usually quite fond of a day out on our Wales holiday. It’s home to many a castle and an amazing coastline and so there are lots of choices like Harlech, Cearnarfon and Barmouth, where we’ve had some brilliant times. This year though, with some lockdown restrictions still in place we felt it was safer to stay close to home – or actually at home – and so were robbed of such trips. The weather didn’t really help either – it was pretty much miserable for the last few days and although we managed one more day on the beach, it was fairly cloudy and not particularly warm. Defintely no need to get the beach body out!

We did attempt to salvage something on the rainy days too, rather than just resorting to lazing around watching Netflix. On the first of these days, we took a picnic down to Black Rock Sands only to find that it was akin to sitting in a sandstorm. This meant that we had an express picnic in record time, huddled behind a large sand dune with no one allowed to mention the extra sandy crunch of their sandwiches! On the other day we misjudged the weather conditions, walking the length of the beach before turning round to head back…just as torrential rain started! We could have swam back and been drier! Needless to say, both kids – the pre-teen son and teenage daughter – took both days in their stride, handling them with good humour…

(Actually, both took moaning about the weather to dizzy new heights, if the truth be told. In fact, such was my daughter’s level of sulking as we ate our picnic that I spent the whole time in fits of giggles trying not to choke on my food. She took this well though. Actually…well, you get the picture!)

By the end of our holiday we’d had a lovely time. I’d totally recommend this area of North Wales to anyone, especially families. The lockdown restrictions made things a little more difficult, but people were as friendly and accommodating as always.

We usually spend our last morning having a wander down Porthmadog high street going in and out of the shops hunting down souvenirs, but given the social distancing problems we gave it a miss and were on the road in record time.

We’d had a lovely time. The beaches had their usual relaxing effect and it’s always nice to get some sea air. We hadn’t got to do our usual eating out, but had taken advantage of some brilliant take out options. In the end we’d come for four different walls and had certainly got that and then some! We’ll try to do it all again next year, fingers crossed without the looming shadow of Covid-19!

Poetry Blog – ‘No blue lights.’

Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom on Pexels.com

So a little while ago, during lockdown, I got to thinking about a couple of years ago when I was poorly and got admitted to hospital. Fun times. It led to a couple of poems, the first of which – imaginatively entitled ‘Heart’ – I published on here a few weeks ago. At first I didn’t know what to do with the poems, given their personal nature. but as I’m not one for going back through notebooks and reading my own work, I decided to publish.
I thought I’d share because otherwise – as I said when I shared ‘Heart’ – it’s just words on a page for no one really and they’ve been sat in a notebook for months. This poem was actually the first one of the two.

No blue lights, no ceremony.
Instead, a last meal, rushed to send you on your way into the dark.
A numbness. A thought nagging at the back of your mind, like a job that needs to be done, but feels better ignored.

In the steady opening of a door time accelerates, yet thought slows down.
A world spins, but you watch wondering if you’re still part of it. And for how long?

A sharp scratch jolts you back, a reminder of a TV drama.
This is really happening. So you summon the banality of the everyday to make it go away.
Then a dark hint dropped by a friendly face and before you can utter a sound, formulate a thought, time moves on and you struggle to keep up.

Death is no longer a stranger. Death is the friend that everyone else hates, but no one tells you why.
Death is a temptation, but a step too far, a drug you will not take. An adventure that tempts you, talks to you before something unnamed barges in and stops you.

Dreams. Faces in the dark. One long nightmare.
The morning’s loneliness and thoughts that you’ll never see them again.
Until you do.
And you fight, kick like an Olympian down the back straight until you catch life. And them. Feel their tears, their warmth, their hearts still beating with yours.

Reading it back for the first time in a while, this feels like a really fast version of events. I don’t know why. There was certainly plenty of subject matter to tackle, so maybe subconsciously I wanted to reflect how quickly certain things seemed to happen. I’m not sure it was a deliberate intention though!

The story behind it is having to go to the Emergency department of the hospital when I was having heart palpitations. I drove myself in – I didn’t want any fuss – and fully expected to be given tablets and sent on my way. And maybe this is where the pace of the poem comes from. They were expecting me in A&E and unlike whenever I’ve been there before, I was seen almost immediately. People came into my cubicle in quick succession, each with a more serious expression on their faces! The ‘sharp scratch’ was a canula being inserted into my arm by a male nurse. It was something I’d heard of on TV, notably on things like Casualty, so I knew things were more serious than I first imagined when a canula got mentioned.

The friendly face was a kind looking young nurse. However, as kind looking as she was, I couldn’t help but notice her tine change when I explained that I’d been feeling this way for a few days and nearly didn’t come in at all. For the life of me, I can’t remember her exact words, but it definitely hinted that I was in a bit of a mess!

From that moment everything was a bit of a whirlwind. Doctors and nurses came and went and my wife popped in with an overnight bag, so I had to resume my act that it wasn’t all that serious. Not long after she’d gone I was told that I was headed for a ward, but wouldn’t be allowed to just walk up, so was helped into a wheelchair and taken by a porter. I’ve never felt so helpless in my adult life!

I was terrified that I was going to die. Doctors and nurses kept waking me up in the night when exhaustion and probably prescription drugs meant that all I wanted to do was sleep.

When I woke in the morning I felt massively lonely – as it says in the final stanza – and, although I’d had the fact that I’d be fine but needed an operation explained to me, started to think that I’d never recover.

I did recover though. I kicked ‘like an Olympian’, tried to eat the right things, exercised, rested when I needed to and cherished the people around me like never before.

Book Review: Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

So let’s start with a confession. When I found this book in one of my ‘To read’ boxes in the loft, I had little recollection of buying it. And for the life of me I couldn’t really think why I’d bought it. I knew it wasn’t a gift though and was sure it had been one of my own purchases.

In a remarkable coincidence though, a Facebook memory popped up soon after and I was informed that I’d bought it 3 years previously in a book splurge at a discount shop called The Works. I still had to work out what had attracted me to it though, but a bit of perusing did the trick. Turned out I’d made a very good choice.

‘Love Anthony’ is a novel about friends, and love, as well as the challenges of autism and family life. It tells the tale of two families; Olivia, David and their son Anthony and Beth, Jimmy and their three daughters. The first family face the enormous challenges of their son’s severe autism and the heartbreaking feeling that they’ll never be able to ‘get through’ to Anthony as a result. Meanwhile, Beth and Jimmy face their own challenges despite everything initially seeming to be pretty much stable with their lives.

The action takes place on Nantucket, which was almost certainly one of my reasons for buying the book. (I have a cousin who lives there.) The stark beauty of the island definitely adds something to the story and it’s on Nantucket where we find new arrival Olivia who’s life and marriage have fallen apart. The beaches of the island unwittingly bring Olivia and Beth together and yet their lives continue on seperately, despite everything they have in common. Their brief meeting has a profound effect on Beth, who when her own world seems to be falling apart, falls back on the memory to begin writing.

Only later do the two women become entangled in each others’ lives. There’s another meeting on the beach, this time through a family photoshoot, booked by Beth and to be undertaken by Olivia, now a family photographer. Memories are jogged, favours asked and when Olivia finally reads Beth’s book, lives are changed seismically.

‘Love Anthony’ is a great read. Heartbreaking at times as we read about Olivia and her desperate attempts to engage with and protect her son, Anthony, but life-affirming at others, as likeable characters triumph in adversity. There’s an element of the feel good factor about the book, despite some traumatic events, but then there are a number of twists which are sure to leave you racing through the pages. Hearts are broken, lives are shattered and then rebuilt and throughout it all you’ll find yourself rooting for characters like Beth and Olivia in their pursuit of a small chunk of happiness.

A wonderfully written book that deserves your attention.

I give ‘Love Anthony’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: A Slice of Heaven

It’s undoubtedly been a funny old year. I don’t think I need to give you some kind of encyclopedic explanation as to why. However, recently we managed to get away for a week’s holiday in the UK, something that we felt wasn’t going to be possible and another thing to fall victim to the pandemic.

Initially our holiday had been cancelled and then we received an email letting us know that it was once again possible. Somewhat hesitantly we agreed that we’d go, our reasoning being that a different four walls might be just what we need. We never imagined that we’d be able to go to our favourite beach.

It was that thought that led to me writing this poem. I was just sat one night, thinking about the upcoming holiday and previous ones and remembering the feeling of heading to our favourite beach. Whenever we’re there we’re relaxed and happy and so it really is like a slice of heaven to us, hence the title.

You clamber up the steep path, weighed down by a day’s food, drink and entertainment, round the last curve of the dead end street, stalking the low wall that snakes along the cliff edge and catching a first glorious glimpse of the sea. Soon, your feet will feel the first crunch of gravel. You glance right and see the bench where you all first huddled during a gale stricken picnic, because that was what families must do for a sense of adventure. The memory fades, just as you do, engulfed by hedgerows as you crest the first hill and disappear from sight, furtively glancing back, relieved that no one follows to discover your almost secret. The path narrows and curves, dips like the lasts wallow of summer before turning to sand, just like the feeling of life before this place. Your progress now covered by the tree line, you tramp steadfastly on, gasping for breath a little, still weighed down by explorer’s provisions. You remind yourself of what awaits as you stagger to the top of an Everest-like rise with nothing now between you and the sky. Deeper sand, a rickety bridge and then you creep down steps steep until you sink into pristine sand at the bottom and moonwalk exaggerated stpes across the cove, finding the perfect spot and spreading out your things just a little too much to hint that no one should come too close. Seconds pass and you remove layers of clothing, while simultaneously discarding a year’s worth of work, stress, life, before collapsing onto a perfectly placed blanket and gazing, awestruck, through sheltered eyes at the rest of your day. The estuary with its strong currents, where if you time it right and challenge the tide you can wade out through ever warmer water until you find yourself on a sand spit that feels like another planet, cut off from all other human life. You remember his hand clasping yours as he trembled, trying to be, desperate to be your big boy, as the water lapped at his chest and with every step he sunk deeper into the sand beneath. Eventually you picked him up, daddy’s got you, and bury your own trepidation until you made it onto the ever-fading island and let him run through the rock pools while you sat and took pictures with your mind that you knew you’d cling on to forever. Later, you’d watch them both playing on the rocks, best friends for once, keen to be grown up adventurers; the elder doing whatever it took to keep the younger happy. Their happiness shrieked its way across the sand so that even when you drifted off and lost sight of them, you could find them easily again. Beside you, the love of your life lies on the blanket, no longer propped up on elbows, book still stuck to fingers, headphones still in ears, but breathing a little too heavily to feign being awake. While the sun beats down, you leave her be, safe from the demands of everyday life; the phone calls, spreadsheets, meals, entertainment. You turn your eyes seaward, touch hand to head and feel the heat absorbed by dark hair, as if somehow this is an unexpected comfort. Your eyes catch the shimmer in the ripples of the sea and you imagine yourself one day out there, gliding back and forth on a paddle board, hair a little less dark, but mind a little more relaxed, in the autumn of your days. This is where we come to relax, reflect, to dream, to escape, to forget.

Not a lot of explanation needed here, really. It’s a poem about our favourite beach. You have to take the cliff-top coastal path for about ten minutes, until you get there. I think that puts some people off as it’s quite tiring if you’re carrying a day’s worth of beach gear for everyone. It’s worth it though.

The cove is on an estuary and when the tide goes out you can have adventures on the newly exposed sand, but you might have to wade out for a while to get there. My children love this.

In short, it’s somewhere we love – we’ve considered buying a holiday cottage there, we love it so much – and it’s a place where I think every one of us is able to relax.

Feel free to let me know what you thought of the poem in the comments. I’m always interested in hearing what people think.

Working with women – it’s a ton of fun being in the minority!

The guys tried to hide their excitement and look professional, but the chance to book drag queen tickets didn’t come along that often. Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

I’ve wanted to write this blog for a long while now, but I’ve never been sure of the approach to take. For me it’s a topic worth writing about because it’s a part of my life that I really enjoy, but I can’t help but think it’s a tricky topic to broach and get right. Writing a blog about working with women for instance may flag up warning signs of some kind of pervert. I mean, we all know ‘lads’ who’s imaginations would go into overdrive just at the thought of being in a room with several women. Not me. Apart from anything else, I don’t rate myself highly enough to actually head down that route! Every woman I’ve worked with had eyes. They can all see what a lanky, awkward knobhead they’re working with!

Or maybe people might expect some kind of sexist rant about female colleagues not being up to the job. Again, not my thing. Of course there have been exceptions along the way, but so many of the women I’ve worked with or am working with are extremely talented, hard working and driven by a love of what they do. They can handle anything! I think though, the main reason that I wanted to write a blog on this subject was to try and get across how brilliant working with women has been for me. And when I say ‘working with women’, I’m generally referring to being the only man in the place. It’s never been a 50/50 split or even a close run thing.

Being outnumbered, so to speak, doesn’t faze or intimidate me. In fact, it’s never felt like any kind of problem. But I can see that for some men, working within a department of 10 or more women as the only man would probably be terrifying. Well let me try and express why I’ve always loved being one of the girls then!

As an English teacher in high schools, I’ve worked, often as a lone man in departments chock full of women for the best part of twenty years and it’s never anything less than entertaining. So, I couldn’t possibly write some kind of misogynistic rant. It has to be more of a fond recollection of the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learnt. That and the chance to gently mock some of my colleagues…

Working with women is…eventful, to say the least. It’s generally fun, but can also be incredibly stressful because…how to phrase this…well let’s just say that, in my experience, women are a great deal more complicated than men. And that’s not a criticism. Goodness me, dogs are quite often more complicated than men. And conversely, as a simple – in every sense of the word – man, maybe that’s why women can seem so complicated. But working in a female dominated environment daily throws up the kind of bizarre and hilarious situations that I don’t think I’d ever tire of.

That said, my first proper English department should have put me off working with women for life. There were two men and 8 women, if I remember rightly and I quickly found out that the other man in the department was the target of much mocking at the hands of the female teachers. Much of it was horribly personal – about his appearance, his sexual prowess etc – and I became aware fairly quickly that I was possible only missing out on being the victim of this ‘hilarious’ banter because I was new to both the school and the profession. Luckily, I’m fairly quick with a verbal response and for a while I held my own when the inevitable happened.

However, I’m not sure someone standing up to them was what some of the women in that department wanted. Without boring you with the finer details, let’s just say that they found a way to bully me which resulted in me leaving the school after just two years. In fact, it was so bad that I considered leaving the profession. Some of my female colleagues were wonderful people, but none of them actually stood up for me or spoke out about what was happening. One of the more sympathetic ones smiled, shrugged and avoided the topic. She later went on to become the Head of the school.

I still vividly remember being physically and verbally bullied by two particular women on a night out at the end of my first year of teaching. It wasn’t a vicious assault, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to have an enjoyable 2nd year in teaching. They literally told me as much. Still, as prepared as I was, it was worse than I could have imagined and by the end of the year I had a new job to go to, but was reasonably certain that I’d be back working as a civil servant sooner rather than later. I was a complete mess for the experience and not really a person that I recognised anymore. This teaching lark, with its girl gangs, just wasn’t for me!

I didn’t quit though. In fact, I lasted 10 years at my next school. And this time it was largely the women that I worked with that kept me there. Regardless of age – they were all younger than me – the women I worked with became my big sisters. They were always a great deal more mature and responsible than me and undoubtedly brighter. I adored working with them. They filled me full of confidence by laughing at the majority of my jokes and poking gentle fun at me and more or less just giving me the platform to become the department show off, a role that I was absolutely born to play! When they fell out with anyone – husbands, partners, colleagues – I felt defensive and would try to offer advice or just an ear to rant into. They were my big sisters and I was their little brother – the Scrappy Doo to their Velmas and Daphnes if you like!

When I got married and then had two children they were all there for me. This was never more evident than when my children were born and there were worries about their size and health. My ‘sisters’ would rally round and reassure me that everything was going to be alright. In return I’d play up even more as the class clown and they’d continue to boost for ever inflating ego by laughing along.

Those particular women in that department probably helped me to be at my very best. I barely spoke for the first 18 months of working there and it was my big sisters that encouraged me. Without them, I simply wouldn’t be a teacher anymore and I think I’d be a lot quieter and less interesting person as well. Not that I’m claiming to be particularly interesting!

In my experience women are just more fun than men. There’s little shame and no particular ego. I worked in that department for 10 years and we would take time out from the stress of the job to have things like music quizzes and themed days. At one particular time we held a Lionel Richie themed day, playing his songs in the office, wearing masks of his face and willing each other on to get his lyrics into our lessons. I’m not sure blokes would be quite so carefree and as silly in this particular kind of way. Despite my age I’m still very much a child at heart and I still take a huge amount of pleasure from memories like walking into colleagues’ classrooms on that day and asking, in front of a bemused class, ‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ before leaving with a straight face that quickly buckled into a fit of giggles. I’m not sure a lot of my male colleagues would have gone for this taste in jokes. But my female colleagues would allow me to have stupid ideas and actually entertain them. I have to say that for almost all of those ten years, I was in my element.

Working among so many women has definitely left me with a lot of dilemmas though. Mainly these would fall into the harassment folder. I’ve always been reticent to compliment my female colleagues, both in a professional manner or a personal one. If I observe and watch a genuinely good lesson am I being viewed as patronising them if I give a compliment? I always feel like I’m coming across as saying ‘Hey, that wasn’t bad… for a girl’! And I’m certain that this is just down to my own paranoia.

Then there’s personal compliments. If, when surrounded by female colleagues, you tell someone they look nice, or their new hairdo really suits them (because yes, I notice), am I coming across as an old perv? Rightly or wrongly, that’s genuinely how I feel I’d be perceived. But then I guess that the alternative might run to working in a factory and shamelessly telling a male colleague that he looked good in his overalls or something.

‘Ooh, Gary. Those overalls hang lovely off your shoulders and they just cling to your sugerlumps. You look fantastic!’ I’m not sure I’d just have my own thoughts to deal with in this situation. So I think the paranoia of complimenting a female colleague is probably worth it. Either way, all it takes to be able to look at someone and tell them that they look nice is to be in possession of at least one working eye. It’s not difficult, but I hope you can understand this particular dilemma. But it’s nice to be working with people that I feel I can compliment.

In my present job I’m once again the only man in the department. Or rather, the only full time male teacher in the department as the head is also an English teacher, but is usually a little busy with running a school to be able to join me and the girls. In all, there’s me and nine women; ten if you include the fact that our student teacher is also female. It’s a fantastic school in a disadvantaged area with a diverse cohort of students and a brilliant staff who, day in day out, come to work to give the kids in our community the best chances possible in life. I love my job.

It’s made all the better by the colleagues in my department, who if I’m honest, were the reason for writing this particular blog. I’ve been in this role for 5 years now and the women I work with have become my new big sisters. Once again they’re all younger than me. Some in fact are so young that I am old enough to be their dad. And if you’re one of my new big sisters and you’re reading this, let me repeat that, just for fun. I’m old enough to be your dad!

So happy in my work am I that one day, when something happened that I really didn’t understand, it prompted me to write. Because this thing could only have been presented to me, in the way it was presented, by my colleagues; my new big sisters.

It started in the morning meeting. Bizarelly – and remember, I’m a 48-year-old working class, Northern male – several of my colleagues were excitedly talking about drag queens; Ru Pauls’ drag queens to be precise. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t put drag queens and highly intelligent young women together. As I say, old, gruff, working class Geordie. It’s my problem, not theirs. But I just couldn’t understand. Suffice to say, I sat through this ‘meeting’ and really didn’t contribute aside from the odd curious smile.

And then, not long after the meeting, I received the following email, which I’ve cut and pasted below for your delectation.

From: Laylor, Nindsey (that’s not her real name, but I’ve cleverly disguised it).
Sent: 25 September 2019 08:46
To: English Dept
Subject: Extra-Curricular Meeting 3:30pm – Heels of Hell – Drag Qweeeeeeeeen show

Hi guys,

Who fancies this???? Ru Paul Drag Queen Halloween show, Leeds O2 Tuesday 22nd October! We’re going to meet in my classroom after p7 (3:30) to book tickets.

hoh19[1]

Graham, I know you are well up for this, here’s what you can expect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q63RoZ9v4X0

Queeeeeennnnssss Everywhere!!!!!!!!

xxx

We won’t mention the spelling but to clarify, I was not ‘up for this’. I did click on the YouTube link though and it seemed to awaken some very strange feelings in me. It didn’t. That was a joke. And dad, if by some strange quirk of fate you read this, it didn’t awaken any feelings, that was really just a joke.

I’ve got nothing against drag queens (or even queeeeennnnnssss, for that matter). I hold no grudge with Ru Paul and I’ve never had a problem with Sharon Needles or Latrice Royale. And as matter of fact I count Biqtch Puddin as a personal friend (that’s another joke, dad). I just didn’t understand. The level of surprise is another reason why I enjoy working with women so much though. When I walked into our meeting I was genuinely not expecting anything so left field as a discussion on drag queens, let alone another meeting about them. As ever, when I walked into our meeting I was expecting t sit there sleeping with my eyes open. It’s my default meeting setting.

Drag Queen surprises aren’t the only surprises I get on a regular basis via my Big Sisters. I’m well attuned to walking into the office and a discussion about Weight Watchers or Fat Club as it’s often referred to. Being around 10 stone dripping wet, these types of discussions mean nothing to me. But I’d count myself as some kind of expert on the types of things that we should avoid eating and the kinds we’re allowed as treats.

Conversely, my Big Sisters are quite the sight when someone happens to bring in food like crisps or chocolate. The guilt is still there and all the ‘right’ things are said, but I’ll be honest, it’s not long before someone has opened the thing that no one was going to open and tucked in! And if you happen to be in there during lesson time it won’t be long before one of the ladies just happens to be passing and can’t resist something chocolatey! I find it all nothing short of entertaining. In fact, I should start to run a sweepstake or some kind of bingo around the kind of things I expect to hear. Phrases such as ‘Keep those mini rolls away from me’ are an absolute guarantee and it always makes me laugh, the thought that the mini rolls might be expected to aggressively follow someone round the room until they get eaten!

Among the other highlights are the random dances (one colleague will Grapevine on request. She’s also been known to stand singing the theme tune to Mr Tumble in the corridor), the accents (my friend Emma puts a particular spin on any accent that I’d never heard before until my daughter got old enough to start trying), the frequent period talk (that’s right Graham, we’re talking about PERIODS!), the rants about partners (one colleague would regularly put the phone down after having spoken to their husband and just say ‘Knobhead‘. For ages I just thought she was trying to get my attention) and the unexpected swearing (I thought I had a mouth like a docker, but in actual fact some of my female colleagues make me sound like the announcer on one of the old Pathe news reels). The crying I can do without and I’ve been known to just quietly leave a room when one or more of my Big Sisters are in tears! Not helpful and not supportive, I know, but then again there are 10 of them and I think they could literally cry me a river.

So there we have it. Having got to the end of the blog, I’m still not entirely sure what the point is. I definitely had a point when the idea occurred to me, but it doesn’t really feel like it materialised along the way! I suppose I just wanted to share my experiences and write about how much fun I’ve had at work. In all, working with a gang of women is just a joy. And apart from those first two years in teaching, it always has been. I’m entering my third decade of working in the minority, so to speak, and I look forward to every day. I’ve made amazing friends, have fantastic working relationships and have gained many ‘big sisters’ along the way. I’d definitely recommend it!

Poetry Blog: Heart

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

This is a very personal poem. I wrote a couple in March, at the very start of lockdown, when I had been sent away from work due to what they tell me are underlying health conditions. I’m asthmatic and so Coronavirus wasn’t ever going to be my friend. However, on top of this, a while back I was admitted to hospital with what turned out to be a problem with my heart. At the time I genuinely thought I was going to die and it became quite the experience! I didn’t die – I was given various different types of pills to calm things down and then a month or so later had an operation to correct the problem. I’m much stronger now, but the virus brought a lot of memories flooding back, as well as providing me with a genuine sense of fear that there was again another chance that I could die.

In amongst the memories came the sleepless nights and in amongst the sleepless nights came the creativity that led to the poem below and a couple of others. Anyway, here’s Heart.

For four days, I waited. Thought, as all men do, that this would pass. Eventually, fear brought a confession that led to here. And then more waiting, a false confidence painted on to everything I say and do because I cannot let her see my vulnerability, cannot let her see my fear. Strength is a necessary pretence. Yet with every new face, strength evaporates until I am wheeled like a casualty of war or, more likely a damaged antique, into a room where some will come to die.

I sign forms, answer relentless questions, give blood and am attached to a machine that makes me feel like it is doing my living for me. Something has to. Even false confidence gives way now and I sit, slumped, preparing for tears. The thought of death is probably as good a reason as any.

Then a voice from a darkened corner speaks. He’s been here before, a veteran and senses my terror, my weakness and flings out a hand to drag me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black and terrifying ocean. I listen mostly, adding an occasional cliche or just a noise until I sense that I have recovered the strength to be alone. Life has come full circle, I think.

And although I’m far too frightened to close my eyes, I give way to the darkness where the sounds emanating from machines punctuate the eerie, unwanted silence. It is all too much.

Eventually, I am woken by strangers with the best of intentions, giving me tablets, asking more questions, taking more blood and as dawn’s light pushes its way into my dreams, I realise I am still alive. Still here. Still scared, still bewildered, still alone. No longer disguised by darkness I paint on another mask of confidence. This is what men do.

Far too much later she returns. It has been a lifetime. I’m still here. Still hers. Eternally, but almost not at all.

What happened to me wasn’t all that serious. Not when put into context, anyway. I didn’t have a heart attack and as far as I’m aware, there was never any panic from the people that matter that I might not make it. There were, however, some serious conversations had and I was left in no doubt that I’d been very silly to leave things as I did. I worked with a heartbeat of 140+ for a few days. I can’t quite remember, but I think I coached my football team and ran a warm-up that weekend too. Even when a doctor told me I should go to the emergency department I somehow managed to weasel my way out of it and attend a meeting about our football club instead. My doctor called me in the middle of the meeting though and when blue lights were threatened, I took the hint.

On hearing that I’d been ignoring my thumping heart a nurse made some kind of remark that was along the lines of ‘it’s a good job you finally came in’ and that really shocked me. Later, my cardiologist took time to inform me that I would be monitored very carefully and that they were doing everything they could to stabilise things. Meanwhile, I became sure that I wouldn’t be going home.

So that’s what the first verse is referring to. I ignored things thinking that one morning I’d wake up and it would all be alright – very male! I didn’t dare tell my wife at first so I didn’t worry her and then as time went on, so she wouldn’t explode at me!

At hospital I expected to be prescribed some pills and sent on my way. When I wasn’t I was scared. The whole process was lightening quick – a nurse would visit and prod me or give an injection or a tablet, then a doctor, then another with questions and I was told I’d definitely be admitted. My wife came in with a bag for my stay and I had to appear my usual relaxed self. Hence, the line that ‘strength is a necessary pretence‘.

I wasn’t allowed to walk up to the ward. A porter was summoned and I was taken in a wheelchair and this is where the ‘casualty of war/damaged antique image comes from. It was after 11pm so the ward was dark – bizarelly I didn’t expect this – and after a lot of activity with various staff coming and going, I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I sat fighting tears.

The third stanza was the time on the ward that really helped me. The man in the bed opposite had been brought in a few days previously, having suffered his third heart attack. I didn’t want to talk, but on reflection as he ‘flings out a hand to pull me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black ocean.’ was a genuine moment of human kindness. He wasn’t wallowing in his own illness, just concentrating on cheering me up. He talked about how amazing the staff were and just the need to slow down – why I was here – and I was forced to listen. I can’t remember his name, but I know I’ll never forget his kindness.

The rest of the poem is just about the exhaustion that led me to sleep and the people that woke me up at certain intervals to make sure I took pills, drank and just knew where I was and what was happening.

The final thing that I feel I need to point out is the short final stanza. I think ‘Far too much later she returns’ probably sounds critical and impatient. It isn’t. It’s about my wife visiting the ward. I hope the poem isn’t looked at as remembering being ill. It’s also a love poem.

I was absolutely desperate to see her. This was partly for me and partly to let her know that I was alright. I must have woken up on the ward before 6am and so it felt like ‘a lifetime’ had passed when she arrived. Part of that covers just the sheer amount of thinking that I did and part, just very simply the amount of time it seemed to take.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed the poem. As I said, it’s a really personal piece of writing and the kind of thing that I both wanted to share while also wanting to keep private. Essentially though, if it’s left in a notebook, it’s just words on a page.

Let me know what you think.