Words, words, words.

Make a list of your obsessions, the writing exercise instructed. Keep adding to it, over the day, then put it in a drawer for a week. At the end of that week throw it away without looking at it, and write another list, that you will keep.

I had an old A4 envelope ready for the recycling bin. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Seeing them written down might help me to manage my time.

Now, my writing is quite large, when not confined to lines, so I’d like to make clear that filling the long edge of that envelope with bullet points shouldn’t be assumed to signify anything. A few hours later, though, as I found that even by reducing my writing font down several sizes, a last thought wouldn’t fit on the same side as the rest, I felt a qualm. Did I really do all of these things, regularly?

I read through them, looking for things to cull. Maybe I’d exaggerated. Were they really, all obsessions? What was an obsession, anyway?

I realised I wasn’t sure. A quick look at the Cambridge dictionary gave me two definitions. First, something or someone that you think about all the time. Well, clearly I didn’t, couldn’t, think about every item on my list all the time. If I did, nothing would ever get done, and I do have a life.

The second definition said it was, the control of one’s thoughts by a continuous, powerful idea or feeling, or the idea or feeling itself. If anything, that offered the potential to lengthen my list. But it was closer to the idea I’d had when I started, and maybe justifies the number of things I mull over as I go through my day.

I put the list aside, and forgot it, not for one week, but two. When I saw it again, I remembered that I wasn’t to read it, and dropped it in the bin.

I had five minutes to spare. I opened my notebook and wrote, ‘Obsessions‘ at the top of a page.

Oddly, the first word that came to me wasn’t a physical activity, it was described an emotion. I paused. My first list had been constructed from activities, for instance reading, and blogging. I wrote my word down, quickly, then added those two remembered ones.

Don’t rush it,’ the instructions had said. ‘Let the second list build naturally, over the next few days.’ That was easy, I was busy, in and out of the office, house and garden. I put the notebook away. I could remember most of what I’d originally written anyway. Days passed.

I must have been aware of it waiting, because at unexpected moments I’d come up with a word that needed to be added. It was never anything I’d written that first time round.

I kept reading back through this new list, wondering why I was reluctant to mirror my first version. I knew I could have, easily. By the end of the week that thought began to niggle, but I still had other things to do.

The sub-conscious is a wonderful tool. I woke up the next morning with a short phrase, and an idea. Completing things, I wrote.

Then I checked through the list again and confirmed my suspicions. The reason I’d not wanted to add my original list to this one was that it was already there, condensed under headings like, environment and work.

For years, I’ve been reading accounts of novelists who, on completing the first draft of their novel lock it in a drawer and start writing it again, from scratch. I could see the principle made sense, though I’ve never, until now, tried it. I think I’m likely to repeat this trick with my short prose.

I just wish I could remember where I found this exercise. I can’t. I noted the instructions on a scrap of paper, and even that has been lost.

* Paintings: top and bottom, by Kitagawa Utamaro. Middle one by Tori Kiyomitsu.

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Journeys into fiction

When a friend loans me a book, I know it’s important. It’s not unusual for books to visit my house fleetingly, but generally they’re on a journey without a clear destination. They might land up at the charity shop or with another friend, and there’s no time-frame for when that happens.

I’ve several shelves carrying that kind of load. I can only rarely tell you where any of them came from, or how long they’ve been there. In fairy tale terms, they’re passive, Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be woken.

A loaned book needs to be a different kind of heroine. She’s got a purpose.

‘You really ought to read this,’ my friend says, drawing a paperback with an understated cover from her bag. ‘I think you’d find it interesting.’

I’m intrigued by the binding. It’s expensive looking, made from thick, textured, cream-coloured card. The title jumps out at me, The Murderess. Beneath it a ribbon of stylised drawings of a woman’s face, in crimson and grey, half in cross-hatched shadow, are repeated across the cover and onto the spine.

My friend tells me no more. I thank her, and open the book, wondering if it can be short stories.

It’s a translation of a novel first published in 1903. The author is Alexandros Papadiamandis – a new name to me, but a glance at his biographical notes tells me he is ‘one of Greece’s most important writers‘. If the first hook was a recommendation from someone who’s judgement I trust, the second is this offer of getting insight into the literature of another culture.

All these years I’ve been dipping in and out of Greek myths, and I’ve not really thought about what was written after them. Starting with a modern classic seems like another good reason to get on and read this.

I skip past the introduction, no tour guide necessary, thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with the narrator. I promise to come back later, though. It’s always interesting to share notes, afterwards.

She half-sat, half-lay beside the fireplace, her eyes shut and her head propped against the hearthstone, but Aunt Hadoula, often called Yannou or Frangissa, was not asleep. She had given up sleeping to watch beside the cradle of her little sick granddaughter. The baby’s mother, who had given birth less than forty days previously, had fallen asleep a short while ago on her low sagging bed.

A good narrator is a joy to travel with, even when the tale is dark. This one knows exactly how to draw me in. The story is neatly intersected with snippets of information about how life is on Skiathos, at a time when education is only just being offered to girls, and men are emigrating to America.

A Social Tale’, says the sub-title. Even when I was involved in what was happening, but especially in the gaps when I put the book down, I thought about the whole title. The first part foreshadowed every event. While reading, I was tense, wondering who would die, how, and when. At the same time, the story brought me back, again and again, to the way the described society was organised. It was local, personal, global and absorbing.

It was about how big questions impact on a personal level. It could be read simply as the first half of the title suggests, or it could lead the reader to think. It could make you look again at that cover, that line of cross-hatched faces, and wonder why they are repeated. Other copies have opted for different images. I like the subtlety of this one, by Nikos Akrivos.

This book will complete it’s own journey and get back to its owner in good time, not because I saved it from languishing on my TBR shelf, but because it more than delivered on its promise, and I made some unexpected discoveries along the way.

The first book from my Summer-of-Reading list.

I’ve had a busy week, so I decided to start my ten-books-in-three-months challenge with something easy. Everyone knows that books for children are light, and short, particularly when they’re described as ‘especially good for reading aloud‘. Charlotte’s Web seemed an obvious choice.

My first surprise was to discover that it’s illustrated. How could I have forgotten that about books for the under twelves?

Possibly because I rarely notice pictures in text. Unless I’m reading a comic-strip, or graphic novel, illustrations are an interruption. As my family will tell you, it takes a lot to break me out of a book. This one hooked me from the opening.

‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

‘Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs Arable. ‘Some pigs were born last night.’

‘I don’t see why he needs an axe,’ continued Fern, who was only eight.

If my jaw didn’t physically drop, my mind leapt. We’re talking violent death, and the realities of farm life and food production, in a book for children, quite small children. There surely wasn’t any way back from this. As Fern ran out, in tears, to confront her father, I had to turn the page.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you she saves the piglet, only simplifying the beautifully concise and convincing argument she has with her father. That conversation is a fine demonstration on rounding out characters. I loved this.

I loved all of it. It was the attention to detail, as much as the power of the story that continually surprised and pleased me.

Forward movement never pauses. Fern names the piglet, Wilbur. She feeds him from a baby’s bottle, and for two months he follows her nearly everywhere. In the process, there are some lovely descriptions of what Spring means for children. There’s no time to get complacent about the outcome, though. By the end of chapter two, Fern’s father insists Wilbur must be sold.

I knew what that meant, but I wasn’t sure if a child would. White makes it clear that on the farm, and in nature, the issue of death is never far away. He uses that understanding to build tension, and foreshadow the moment when an old sheep tells Wilbur: ‘…they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you...’

There’s a surprising amount of detail to come on that subject.

‘Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in. There’s a regular conspiracy round here to kill you at Christmastime. Everyone is in on the plot…even John Arable.’

‘Mr Arable?’ sobbed Wilbur. ‘Fern’s father?’

‘Certainly. When a pig is to be butchered, everybody helps. I’m an old sheep and I see the same thing, same old business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the…’

‘Stop!’ screamed Wilbur. ‘I don’t want to die! Save me, somebody! Save me!’

The cause, the point of this story, is finally out in the open. It’s been there all the time, in one form or another, but it’s been easy to forget or ignore the death references because we’ve been concentrating on Wilbur. He is, as the goose tells us, ‘a very innocent little pig’, and charming.

We’re about a third of the way into the book. The stakes are as high as they can get. Wilbur, who has already failed to run away; who has realised that he is too young to survive alone, will die, unless someone comes up with a plan.

Although Fern saved him from the first threat, she’s become increasingly passive. She agreed to sell Wilbur, and on her visits to his new pen, stays on the other side of the fence.

Luckily, she’s been replaced by an interesting range of new characters. Wilbur’s invited every animal on the farm to play with him, and if death is the ’cause’ in this story, friendship is the big theme. His overtures have provided a range of responses and justifications. Only when he touches the depths of disappointment does he find success, and it’s not what he expected.

‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’

Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend…

Rusty and I settled to read this in a chair by the window, yesterday evening. There was still daylight. As I came to the last few pages I was leaning forward, tilting the words towards the sunset, rather than break my connection with Wilbur and Charlotte by rising to switch on the lamp.

I’m sorry I missed this book as a child, it would have resonated on so many levels, but I’m glad to have found it now. I dismissed it as a light read, earlier, I won’t make that mistake again.

* All illustrations by Garth Williams.

One of the things I’m planning to do this Summer

746 Books has set up a Summer Reading Challenge for 2019, that has sufficient flexibility to entice me. Starting from today, the 3rd June, readers can join the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and set themselves a number of books by September 3rd.

Okay, so resolutions wise, I’ve not got a good record. But, despite that title, 746 Books has generously promised to be flexible. Not only do we have the option to choose our own number, we can make changes to our list.

Ambition aside, I’ve decided to be realistic, so I’m halving the original and aiming to name 10 books for my summer read. That should clear a little space.

Which books to choose, though? The beauty of this challenge is in the planning. There may be time for a little random side-reading along the way, but the ten books need to be listed at the start. How else will I set a measure for my progress?

I’ve put some effort into working this out. I’ve looked at the lists other, better-prepared people have already posted, and I’ve made notes. Some are planning to go with a theme. Interesting, but I don’t think that will work for me. I like random.

Another tip I picked up on is to include some children’s or Young Adult books, to provide variety of tone and length. That does appeal. There are several books I missed reading at the appropriate age.

As I gathered some of them, I found other books that have been waiting. Soon I had a dangerously leaning tower of reading. I resisted the twenty, though, and reverse my gathering process. That took time, too. It was tough, but here are my final choices.

Here’s my list (so far):

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
  • Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • The Thing Around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
  • Once Upon a Time in the North by Phillip Pullman
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • Charlotte’s Web by EB White
  • The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

All I’ve got to do now is decide which order to read them in…

Hotel life.

This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.

The start of the story had promise.

Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.

I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.

Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.

She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.

Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.

What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.

‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.

If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.

Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.

Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.

That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.

Theo Champion (1887 – 1952)

There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.

The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.

I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.

There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.

‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’

‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’

‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.

‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’

Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.

I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.

I’d like to recommend ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.

If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.

I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.

It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.

Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.

The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.

Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.

The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?

Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.

Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:

Photo from Newsflare

You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.

The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.

Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.

I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.

There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.

Bridport Boxing-Day swim, photo from Bridport News.

I’ve just read Stoner, by John Williams. Do you know it?

The blurb on the cover says this is ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. High praise indeed, and maybe it carries some credibility coming from the Sunday Times, though does that include in America?

When my brother handed me the novel he said, ‘You ought to try this. It’s interesting.’

‘In what way?’ I probed.

‘It’s different,’ he said. ‘Unusual.’

‘But you liked it?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘I kept reading it.’

I could get no further comment from him, so having a few moments to spare the other day, I skipped past John McGahern’s introduction and looked at the first page of story.

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

This was not the usual sort of hook. I could see no hints of a great issue to be solved, no situation that needed to be explored. Where was the characterisation? It read like an obituary notice. What, I wondered, was the book offering? So far there was no hope that William might be an Indiana Jones type, with a secret second occupation. Perhaps I needed to read a little further.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

What? The central character will be dead by the end of the novel, and has so little charisma that his students can’t remember him? I haven’t met him yet, and I’m wondering why I should want to.

Yet, I read on. Was I, perhaps, influenced by that recommendation on the cover? Not really. I’ll admit to a contrary streak that makes me suspicious of statements like those, particularly when they’re plastered to the front of re-issued novels.

It wasn’t my brother’s recommendation that kept me reading, either. Much as I love him, I value the fact that our tastes in the arts are individual.

It was, in the first place, the writing I fell for. I liked the apparent simplicity.

He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University.

There is an elegance in presenting the concrete details without flamboyance. The story, this style seemed to promise, was yet to come. The first nineteen years of William’s life is covered in two pages, because it needs no more. It describes, without detail, the long hours of monotonous labour that are small-farm-life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then do we move in closer to the characters.

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away.

This is economy. Here is no high drama, it is a domestic scene. Look at how William takes his father’s suggestion that he should go to the new school at the University in Columbia, the College of Agriculture:

William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been further from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.

I was four pages into the novel, and I believed it. From that point, I stopped counting. I forgot to notice how the pages turned, or the morning passing. It’s not a long novel. I finished it by lunchtime.

To tell you more would be to spoil what is a beautifully paced and presented tale-of-a-life. If you’re looking for a new read, I’m recommending this book, though I offered it to a visitor a couple of days later, and she said, ‘Read it. I hated it.’

When I saw my brother again, I pushed him for an opinion, but he wasn’t to be shifted. ‘Odd,’ he said. ‘Not like anything else I’ve read.’ So I suppose that will have to do.

I hear there’s talk of turning it into a film. I don’t think I’ll want to watch it. Talking through a book is one thing, seeing how someone else envisions and understands it, that’s a wholly different type of spoiler.

Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

Eating Elephants

Photo of two of the children posing by a gnarled tree with newly planted patch of trees in the background.

We’re in the car, coming back from an afternoon in the forest. All three grand-kids and the dog have managed to stay with us. We gave them breadcrumbs, honest, but they ate them before we reached the spot where we’d planned to suggest they make their own way home.

‘I guess we’ll just have to feed them at tea-time, too, then,’ Ray says.

I’m not sure what with. At home the cupboard and freezer are bare of the stuff that they think delicious, or even edible. Apparently we eat ‘weird’ food.

Photo of the three children hiding in a large hollow tree, while Rusty waits for them to come out and play.

It’s Easter Sunday. All the places we pass where we could stop and buy something are already packed. There’s not an empty table to be had.

Well, it is, officially, the hottest Easter on record, here in the UK. Seems like the whole population may have opted to eat out.

But heck, the whole point of hoping to lose the kids in the forest was to avoid having to cook for them. If we had to take them home again, then we needed to agree on buying a meal. You think that’s easy?

Set aside the closed shops, for a moment, and think about three individuals of varying ages from pre-, to mid- teenage. They’ve been over two hours suspended in phone-free enjoyment of sunshine, trees, dog and pond, then we return to the car. It’s hard to imagine how even short journeys were achieved before there were portable screens and headphones.

Our questions about what might be suitable have to be negotiated between songs, text messages and important updates. Parents, perhaps, go into this situation with several advantages. Authority, by my estimation, is not the most important, they know the full range of what is acceptable.

As temporary weekend surrogates, maintaining our status as ‘fun’ limits us. The voting system is tortuous, and in the end we abandon democracy in favour of pleasing all. I plan a route that takes in four types of take-away, and we head for town.

It takes ten minutes to discover they’re all closed. My heart sinks.

Ray names a pizza place sure to be open. ‘We’re all okay with that,’ says Sammy, without looking up from her phone. The others agree.

Well, I think, that was easy after all. By now they’re so hungry that there’s no real discussion over the toppings, either.

‘I’ll stay at the car, with granddad and Rusty,’ Sammy says. Brandon, Breanna and I go to sort out our order.

Here’s the deal. It costs less for our two pizza’s if we also buy two side-dishes, than if we just buy what we went in for.

When we get back to the car Sammy is giving Rusty some valuable re-training on walking to heal, so he’s happy, too.

I tell Ray, ‘We’re going to save a quarter of the price and take home an extra quarter of a portion.’ I show him a handful of change.

Fifteen minutes later, Brandon is struggling to manoeuvre his long legs into the car while carrying the heap of hot boxes.

Back at home the boxes fill our modest table. ‘How do we even eat all that?’ Breanna wonders.

‘One bite at a time, I guess,’ says Brandon, reaching for a slice of pepperoni.

Photo of a mother elephant and her baby.
Photo by Ruth Boardman

‘Same way you would an elephant,’ I say, reminded of a quote I’d read just that morning, as I fitted in a little class preparation.

‘Eew,’ says Breanna. ‘Eat an elephant?’ .

I nod. ‘That’s what an American general, called Creighton Abrams, once advised.’

‘But who would eat an elephant?’

Brandon takes another slice of pizza. ‘She doesn’t mean you really do it,’ he says. ‘It’s a metaphor.’ He nods at me. ‘That’s cool.’

Serendipity, I think, isn’t it wonderful?