Inside the monkey cage

The prompt for my writing group this week is ‘Inside the monkey cage’. I always hated the monkey cage on day drips to the zoo. I was always a bit frightened. It felt like they were reading my mind, or I could read theirs. Their eyes were too human. I wanted to write about being afraid to confront what is in front of you, for being scared to look something in the eye. I wanted to tie it in with the terrible events this past week in Ukraine. Our world is difficult to understand. It’s hard to watch. It’s like looking yourself in the eye and it’s terrifying and heartbreaking. It’s too close to home. And yet we must look.

Play music. Turn it up loud. Dance. Get the spring cleaning done. Don’t buy the newspaper. Go for a walk. Admire the daffodils. Switch off the TV. Plan a holiday. Suggest a day trip. Post on Insta. Life is fab. Turn off the radio when it gets to the news. Pat the dog. Drink some wine. Bottoms up! Clear out your wardrobe. Keep, charity shop or bin. Scrub the floor. Bake a cake. Listen to the sea. Read a book. Chat with a friend. Don’t look. Paint a wall. Paint a picture. Go for a run. Splash in the rain. Go to work. Go on a diet. Sweep up the leaves. Wash the car. Strip the bed. Down some beer. Don’t listen to the voice saying Look, look at us. Make a pie. Feed the cat. Buy the shoes. Sing a song. Shake a cocktail. Boogie in the kitchen. Look, look at us. Raid the fridge. Surf the web. Paint your toenails. Fold the towels. Feel the wind. Plan a cruise. Dye your hair. Run a bath. Run away. Look, look at us.

I don’t want to look inside the monkey cage. Their eyes are too like mine.  

Autumn

Autumn blew into my life on a windswept September day.  I had been living in New York for a few months and was still finding my feet, navigating the city, trying and failing to make friends. 

I had spent my day off plodding the streets, discovering new thrift shops and bookstores, wiling away the long hours before I returned alone again to my downtown bedsit. As I turned onto 22nd Street, large plops of rain began to fall from the sky and I ducked through a doorway into a dimly lit bar for some shelter and a much needed drink.  As I shook the raindrops from my jacket and wrestled with my scarf, a loud voice called out from across the room.

‘Hey, I love your hair!’

I glanced over my shoulder but the doorway behind me was empty. The tall, red haired woman leaning against the bar was talking to me. I lifted my hand to self-consciously touch my newly cropped head but my hair was irrelevant. Autumn had claimed me as her own, swept me up, and I had made my first friend.

She sipped a cocktail called a ‘Hudson Hurricane’ and had a voice that suggested a forty a day habit, although I never once saw a cigarette near her lips. She called me ‘Beau’- I never knew why.  She said it suited me. We drank late into the night, while Joan Jett blasted from the jukebox and Autumn told me about her life, asked about mine.  She worked in hairdressing and flitted from place to place, going where the work was and her heart led.   At closing time, we spilled out onto the rain-soaked alleyway and ran arm in arm to find a taxi.

We were inseparable for weeks. She introduced me to people I would never have had the fortune to meet. She could work a room in ten minutes, gathering people up under her wings, dragging them out of the shadows.  Within hours, we would be singing Karaoke, dancing until dawn, knowing we would never be lonely again. We strode unfamiliar streets, the air growing colder, the days shorter, the leaves crunching under our boots.

I tried to hold onto her, but she was flighty, impulsive.  I always felt she was one step ahead, vanishing round corners as I tied to grasp the hem of her red coat. When she didn’t appear in the bar as planned one night in early November, I felt the chill of winter in my bones. When I returned home later that night, there was a message waiting for me on the answering machine.

‘Hey, Beau!  Gotta go. I’m heading to the west coast for winter.  I’ll give you a call sometime.’

She never did.

Autumn swept out my life as the first frost appeared on the sidewalks of Manhattan. I wasn’t surprised, I had known she was never mine to keep.  She had planted the seeds of my future and my new life was beginning to grow, under the grey pavements of the city, unfurling, stretching, ready to bloom come Spring.

Getting creative

I’m beginning to get back into the swing of things. It’s taken a while.

Just over a year ago I decided to pluck up the courage to join a writing group. This was during the second lockdown and all our meetings were online (they still are). I wasn’t sure what to expect and thought that my inexperience would stick out a mile. It turned out that everyone brought different things to the table – we have a published author, a couple of poets and a few like me who enjoy writing and maybe have some dreams of stepping up to the next level.

We meet on a fortnightly basis and work from prompts – a word or phrase- and basically see what we all come up with. Our prompts tend to be random song lyrics or titles as our writing group has a musical background. For me, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. What it does do is get me writing. I now have a small collection of short stories, poems and prose that I would never have had otherwise. It has sparked up my old brain and got me thinking creatively again. I have been inspired to carry on with a longer piece of writing I’ve been working on for some time.

I plan to share some of my short stories on my blog as I don’t just want them sitting festering on my laptop. If you enjoy a good yarn, boil the kettle, have a read and please let me know what you think.

First one coming up.

Half a hunner, not such a scunner (after all)

My friends and I are going through the process of turning fifty together. We are not seeing this as a negative in any way. Events over the last year have shaped us, adjusted our outlook. We are here, we are alive! Good for us!  I said goodbye to one of them last week knowing I wouldn’t see her until after our birthdays, cheerily calling as I went out the door, ‘See you on the other side, when we’re both old bags’. Her response was, ‘One minute you’re fifteen and the next thing you know, you’re fifty. How did that happen?’

This got me thinking about what we were like back when we were fifteen, what did the future look like to us and has it turned out as we thought? 

Growing up in industrial Motherwell, choices were limited. The very clever got the opportunity to go to university – on reflection now, I think only one girl from my year at school went to university. I might be wrong. She was the daughter of a schoolteacher. It wasn’t really the done thing, it was something other kids did, from different backgrounds. ‘I’m off to Uni.’ the brainy boys would say as we eyed at them in suspicion and wonder. What was this exotic place, where the chosen few got to go and the road looked to be steady and sure? We knew they were moving on, following a foreign path. Getting through school daily was an accomplishment for our crowd. Looking forward to the days we could leave it all behind and break free into the big bright world was what kept us going. It was the 1980’s. We read Smash Hits and Just Seventeen. We saw kids like us being successful, singing songs and sashaying down catwalks. Life seemed full of endless possibility. ‘Make it big.’ Wham! told us and we planned to. ‘Big’ for us wasn’t the bright lights of London. Glasgow beckoned instead. I had dreams of going to art college in the Scottish borders or maybe becoming a writer or a journalist, but how did you do things like that when your dad’s job in the steelworks was forever wobbling on a shaky nail and mum worked long, hard hours cooking meals in the local pub? You didn’t. It wouldn’t be university or a far away college for us, it would be a local college course with a Saturday job or employment in a local business where we could train on the job. We ached to feel the jangle of change in our pockets at the weekend.      

We hung posters of Rob Lowe on our bedroom walls and snogged the local boys, who didn’t have the film star looks but did have the softest of hearts. We ate chewy penny sweets until our teeth and jaws ached. We walked the streets for hours despite the weather, chatting about the world and life in general. We laughed a lot. I declared I wouldn’t get married until I was at least forty, and maybe never. Children were a no-no. We looked at our parents and prayed we would never be like them, with their small lives. We were going to LIVE. I wonder now about how small minded we were, how naïve, that what we thought they were doing was not living. That life was more than they had – family, love, health. How wrong we were. What they had was everything.

At various intervals down the decades we have all married, all had children. We have done well in our chosen careers, eventually graduating from university and gathering qualifications along the way. We have drifted apart at times and then gravitated towards each other again, like magnets. We have shared adventures, heartbreak and hope and always against a backdrop of fun, support and friendship.

There is a famous quote in the film ‘Stand by Me’ where the main character ponders how his life has turned out – ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12’. Well, we’ve turned fifty and we have the friends we had when we were fifteen. Older, maybe not wiser. Some crinkles and crow’s feet. Looking through our reading glasses at years of endless possibility. We’re only half a hundred. How lucky are we?

Step back in time…

It’s always an odd sensation to take a step back in time, to walk the footsteps of your ancestors, feel their long shadow through the years. Yesterday we took a trip to Port William on the southwest coast of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway.  My mum has fond childhood memories of long summers spent as a child at her great Aunt’s home in this quaint coastal village. The house sits on the edge of the sea, on the banks of the Killantrae Burn, and was built around the mid 1800s.  In the walled back garden there was a piggery and when the time was right, the pigs would be butchered in the adjacent abattoir then sold in the butcher shop – all under one roof. We have photographs of mum as a young child feeding chickens out in the back yard with the Irish sea glistening in the background.  She clearly remembers the pigs and taking part in all the local village activities and traditions.

The house has been lovingly converted to a luxury holiday home and the owners have attempted to retain as much history as possible – the butchers hook is still attached to the front of the building where fresh meat would have been hung.  There is a pig sign at the front door as a nod towards the previous occupiers. An internet search told of hand-carved wooden pig sculptures out in the back yard but there was no evidence of these when we visited.

I took quite a few photographs of the village square and surrounding buildings – mum told me it hadn’t changed much at all.   

Feeding the chickens- the wall to the pig pen in the background.
The local festival. Fancy dress time. Mum at the front with her cousin dressed as Gypsies.
Possibly taken on the banks of the burn.
How it looks today.
A nod to the porky ancestors.
The meat hook is still there.

Here we go again….

Stop. Start. Stop. Start.

This seems to be the pattern of my writing over the past year.

I have found it extremely difficult to get motivated over the last few months, in all sorts of ways. Restriction after restriction hasn’t stimulated my creative juices. After a hard day at work, the last thing I have felt like doing is pick up pen and paper or laptop.

What is there to say? Who cares anyway?

I enquired about a creative writing online group way before Christmas but was so inundated by life and work I didn’t think it was for me. My creative confidence is at an all time low. I feel I’ve got brain fog most days.

Despite this, I got an email from the group organiser the other day, inviting me along to the meeting this week coming. The theme for the week is ‘body parts’ -write about anything. I thought, I’ve seen more than enough body parts to last me a lifetime- the joys of nursing (again). I could not come up with any ideas. Absolutely zero. Brain fog again.

Me, trying to find some creativity 😜

And yet, I woke at 5am today with an idea. This afternoon, instead of getting organised for my work week ahead, I have written a short story about body parts. And I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. Is it any good? Who knows? Does it matter?

What I do know is that it has made me think about something different from the pandemic, work and how I’m going to cope in the week ahead. My head feels lighter.

I’m so looking forward to Wednesday.