Year of the Dog – December

It is almost a year since we met Faye, at Epiphany, at the King’s Lynn kennels of the Retired Greyhound Trust. We took her home at the end of February, and each month I’ve blogged about how things have been going. I still feel – much like parenting children – as if we are at the start of the adventure; every month we move forward in confidence and experience, and every month Faye manages to surprise us with more of her character, or quirks. Yesterday I got my first dog-related injury, when she tried to help as I was leaning over to collect my muddy trainers. Her skull is still intact, but I got two split lips and a sore tooth. No major harm, thankfully. Perhaps it is payback for forcing her to wear a reindeer hat.

I look silly, don’t I?

With Christmas approaching, I thought I’d better help Faye learn about the new smells, textures and experiences she might come across. I took her to the village Christmas tree, which she was indifferent to (except for sniffing where other dogs had got there first), and I showed her that tinsel looks exciting, but is not for playing with. She was keen at first, but realised that it was not a toy.

After this I decided that she must be very clever to learn what is and is not for playing with; I let her have a large amount of packing paper from an Amazon box. She loved it. She spent twenty minutes or so joyfully pulling it into shreds with her teeth and playing in the paper. And then she squatted and weed on it. So now we have learned that Faye must have used newspaper when she was younger to amuse her and to line her toileting area. Oops. A quick distraction to get her away, a bin bag and some pet-friendly carpet cleaner did the job however. No more indoor wees!

You can’t see me!

On the final day of term I dressed Faye up in her festive attire and took her to school to collect Lily and Joe. She got lots of smiles (as usual) and children coming up to see her (as usual) as well as extra comments on her antlers. Children are not discreet when it comes to commenting on something they have spotted, so it was clear the hat was popular with the crowds.

Tell me truthfully – do I look ridiculous?


After the end of term we spent a couple of days recovering, but still had to get up and walk and feed Faye. I am actually relishing the discipline she has brought to my life in this respect. I am not a great morning person, but over the last few months I’ve been able to cultivate a really good morning routine for getting things done.

Faye will wait very patiently for her morning walk. If she’s really ready she might even lay her head on the bottom stair. Such a chilled out dog! Most of the day is spent lying down somewhere or other – I’m amazed she manages to sleep all night after a heavy day’s napping.

We went up to my parents-in-law in Blackburn for Christmas. We’d asked about borrowing a roof-top box for our car as we knew it would be a tight squeeze with all five of us and gifts, but the fittings weren’t the right size, so we had to jam everything in. Faye did not complain at all. She loves car journeys and was excited to revisit NT Clumber Park en route, with the finished ‘Central Bark’ cafe, other dogs, lots of squirrels and Christmas decorations. The dog-friendly cafe is one of several eating options, but has space and provisions for dogs with their owners. Faye was quiet and well-behaved, but we hadn’t realised that not all the other dogs would be so relaxed.

When we arrived, Faye needed to sniff around and investigate. She had a place to sleep, but wasn’t keen to use it – there was a noisy grandfather clock nearby and she wanted to be at the bottom of the stairs instead. For two nights she woke us several times with whining and whimpering, so Matthew had to spend some of the time sleeping downstairs. Thankfully she relaxed and got the idea by the third night; excellent timing and much-improved sleep for us, as ‘not a creature was stirring’.

She spent a lot of the time asleep, but also loved staring out at birds and squirrels. We allowed her a few treats, but not too many as she was unsure about eating usual quantities of her regular food in a new place.


We took her to a couple of parks in Blackburn. Corporation Park has lots of steps; Faye managed most of them, but wasn’t happy when water was running down one set and wanted to go through brambles instead. Other times she wasn’t quite sure what to do.


At Witton Country Park there were lots of other dogs, and Faye enjoyed a little bit of off-lead time, running and chasing. She is a real show-off when other dogs or new people are around, and tends to run even faster. There were longer walks to do and places to explore. Great for canine enrichment.

It was certainly colder in the north, but when she’d been running she got warm, which is why she doesn’t have a coat on while she was looking at the rabbits at Witton. (And has she been secretly been learning to read? Joe’s been reading to her, but I don’t think she really listens properly.)

It’s almost the end of the year, but what a super year it has been here. Adopting Faye has brought real joy to our lives and enriched us all. May 2019 be a joyful year for you too, and one where you can make the most of every walk, treat and opportunity to snuggle down in front of a warm fire.

Blooming Rhubarb


I love rhubarb. The plants are deliciously odd in their shape and size in the garden, glorious in colour and just sour enough to make the perfect crumble. You can force rhubarb and grow it in the dark and the leaves have enough sass oxalic acid to be poisonous. The stalks are fine for human consumption, of course.

When we moved to our home in Cambridgeshire nearly three years ago we inherited one in the garden which has quietly got on with its job rhubarbing very efficiently. I love it when we harvest some of the stalks and my husband makes a rhubarb clafoutis (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe here). I am always impressed at how quickly rhubarb leaves grow, stretching out over their territory like umbrellas, greedy to catch the light and protect the family.

rhubarb benefits
Rhubarb has many health benefits too. As this diagram indicates, the fibre eases digestion, Vitamin K helps strengthens bones, it can help stave off brain disorders, fight free radical damage, relieve constipation and diarrhoea and it even acts to inhibit inflammation (click on image for larger view). Regardless of the details, sometimes I just crave rhubarb and my body seems to understand why. Marvellous.

Now, I am not a natural gardener. I do enjoy taking plants out (if I know which ones, and for the right reasons) and putting plants in (because often that involves shopping and creativity). I have also learned a certain amount about pruning, mowing and trimming, but Latin names escape me and remembering whether something is perennial, annual, about to do something interesting or already dead can throw me. I don’t mind too much; gardening is an ongoing process and half the fun is in the surprises.

Our rhubarb surprised us this year. It flowered.

So we cut the flower off.

It flowered again.

This time we googled it, cut the flowers off and put them in a bottle, to enjoy:


Why did the rhubarb flower? According to the experts, rhubarbs can flower when they are stressed. Allowing the plant to go to seed means that much of its energy is then taken up with reproduction instead of growing stalks. So the accepted wisdom is to cut off the flower and allow the plant to produce a better harvest.

Sometimes I feel a lot like a rhubarb. Somewhat leggy, crazy and colourful, with a side helping of sass acid. I do my best to seek the light, protect and be a good influence for others and serve them well. I also have my limits. When I am under the most stress, I also flower. The bitterness is replaced by an urge to create.

Maybe you know this feeling too?

I am setting myself a hefty writing target this term, and have decided that I will blog here when I can, but not to do it when I need to flower in my writing elsewhere. I will still put up the occasional 500 words, sometimes even on Fridays.

Now is the time to flower.

Friday 500 – I drew a line

Today I drew lines.

I drew up a list of jobs and hoped to cross out many of the tasks with lines. In biro perhaps. Call the boy’s nurse. Get the guinea pig outdoors. Bring in the neighbours’ bins. Find props for a youth group session. Plan the weekend science festival activities. Decorate. Do the washing. Make sure the children get to two locations in the right colour non-uniform attire with their noses, jokes, water bottles, reading books and brains in gear. Make sense of numerous tasks for the coming weeks and upcoming trips. Take a delivery between 12:17 and 13:17. Choose not to be as obsessed with timings as the rest of the world. Be spiritually present and engaged. Listen to others and encourage them. Be kind.

In the car as we set off a little late for school I drew up to a line of standing traffic at the end of our street and wished I had insisted on scooting to school. The children had started the day tired and Fridayed out. My boy needed to be at a different site from usual and I wanted to be back to start painting. I had thought driving would be clever.

We shuffled along the line. My girl did not panic as much as she usually does when she’s delayed. I chalked that up as a success. We took a short cut through back streets; a different line from A to B. My girl is reliable enough to get out of the car at a junction and walk herself halfway to school (she arrived on time). My boy and I parked up and raced on foot to his infant school site (he arrived on time too). I got back home well after nine and decided No More Driving When In A Hurry. Felt like a parenting Rubicon had been crossed: a line drawn in the sand, if you like.

I drew a blank while trying to call the boy’s nurse. She’d left a message with the wrong number to call her back. I’ll have to find it another day.

montacute meadowMy husband and I painted the study. I was cutting in, drawing lines smoothly at the edges, poking brushes around radiators, wiping drips, finding the space redefined as the lines became walls and walls became a new room. The room took on a new weight: dark away from the window for a new reading nook, light at the front where I can work at my desk. We chose Montacute Meadow. The colour makes me happy. I don’t know why certain colours do that, but I have decided it is good to choose colours that make you happy. The room needs at least one more coat, but you can already see what it will be like now and it is good. I was glad we had already painted the ceiling a few days ago and done lots of preparation work; today my husband opted to take a morning off to make good progress. It was very good spending time together painting. It is also the first room that we have worked on in this house, so we have crossed a line there, taking real ownership of how we want the space to look. We finished in time for some fish and chips. I drew the line at my husband cycling there in his painting gear as his trousers were more ripped than he had realised.

My delivery arrived in the allotted time, and I squiggled some kind of line on the device. I am not certain what this proved.

In the afternoon I crossed out more of my tasks as I completed them and then took the children’s scooters and walked to both their schools to collect them. I stood in a line of parents and grandparents while my boy took his time finding his wellies, his bag, his wobbly junk modelling, his fruit boat craft, his cap, his unnamed hoody, his unnecessary coat. Then he needed to buy a bun at the cake sale (the lines were long), choose another one for his sister (she didn’t want it when we offered it) and took his time trying to get all his gear on to his scooter. He thought carrying it all would be clever. It didn’t work.

We wobbled down the street and were last in line to collect my girl. Her school had a cake sale too. She did not like the lines, and decided not to buy one. It upset her and she hid. We handed in her money for charity anyway and I took her to a shop and she chose some unhealthy things to eat to make it better. The lines in the shop were quite long too. We bumped into our minister and his wife, with armsful of unhealthy snacks. I made excuses. They smiled and told me I was not a bad mum.

The children have decided to have a sleepover in the boy’s room. They are camped in sleeping bags, squeezed in at funny angles with his lamps on and her radio playing. I love the fact that they get on, but I doubt they will both last the night in there.

I did not cross out all the tasks on my list. I did not even keep to my official 500 words. But I made progress and good things happened. So that makes a successful day.



Friday 500 – The Birthday Cake

True story: I did not make my daughter’s cake again this year. She just turned nine.

For a time I used to think I was an inadequate mother for not making my children beautiful birthday cakes. For many mums it is something of a rite of passage. Not me. I don’t feel a need to prove anything, am not skilled at baking and often need the time for other things. I want her to have a special day and feel loved, but preparing a beautiful cake isn’t really necessary.

Like me, Lily likes to be original. She can be fussy about details. No raspberry jam filling. No chocolate, because chocolate cake is unhealthy. No surprises. No candles. And certainly no turning the lights out.

I didn’t want to disappoint her.

No candles

I spent the days leading up to Lily’s birthday in suspense. Would she think of a great cake idea and ask me to make it? Would I have the mental and physical stamina to do it?

And what about our visitors? Would they get here?

Our Albanian friends had hoped to visit us last weekend. Their visas were refused last month, despite being invited by the bishop of Coventry to lead a seminar. But they didn’t give up. As the weekend passed we assumed they would not get permission in time and would not be able to travel. We were all disappointed.

Then I got a surprise message on Monday evening. Gjystina and Fredi were in Rome, on their way to the UK. They had secured visas at the last possible moment and boarded a flight shortly after. This despite family illness, traffic, imminent flooding, a closed check-in desk, a conference they were preparing for this weekend and a court case that afternoon. Somehow, against all the odds, they were on their way. They travelled via Brussels and Birmingham, arriving early the following morning for their audience in Coventry. Our friends are faithful and humble people with a heart for the poor and weak. They are true lights in the darkness. Their plans are often hampered, but good things still happen. I collected them the next morning on Lily’s birthday after dropping the children at school. We gave them a whistle-stop tour of Cambridge and planned an event to meet folk at church later on.

Fredi and Gjystina in Cambridge

Amid all the changes of plans, I was glad I had not tried to bake as well. Then, just as the birthday tea was starting, the lights went out: an unexpected power cut.

We lit candles, sitting in the dark with our surprise guests and an unhealthy shop-bought chocolate cake. I knew Lily was disappointed at the hampered plans and I started to feel inadequate, despite myself.

A slice of disappointment?

Disappointment feels deeper in the dark. So many elements we can’t control. But our friends reminded us that we aren’t alone. That we are loved.

And in the dark, the little lights shine so much more brightly.


Friday 500 – While the Lemon Grew

Nine months, it took. White flowers first, giving way to tiny green fruits and a slow swelling and enriching to bulbs of yellowblue glory, glowing for attention.

While the lemon grew, we did not touch it. We watered it with rain and let it feast on sunlight. We found other things to do. There is much you can do in nine months. You can grow a baby. You can go to war and return, if you are one of the lucky ones. You can complete a novel, build a house, lose twenty pounds. We did none of these things.

No. While the lemon grew silently and slowly, we listened.

We listened to people with stories. Slowing down our racing hearts and our eager minds we learned how to listen and not interfere with the stories of the grieving, the lost and the hopeless. We heard their fears, recognising small elements of the pains they were enduring. Ah, the ache of wanting to just change it all. We hoped to help, but perhaps, despite our best intentions, help was not always ready for them; and in some cases they were not always ready for help. We grieved too, as some refused to be heard and chose silence instead; muted by their own demons.

When we listened, we realised that life does not always give lemons, still less lemonade. How can the cup be half-full when there is nothing in it at all?

The people with the stories grew too. The stories released brought relief in some cases, and new purpose too. With permission, with some nudging and careful questions, we proposed directions and opportunities. We saw – more than once – the light of hope appear across a face like a lemon in full sunlight, as pasts were released and futures presented. That was why we listened. We thirsted for hope too.

There was much crying. Tissues ready every week; you never know who will need them. There were stories which broke us (we took turns to support each other on the hardest days). The sourness and tang of the saddest stories should not be sweetened with simple foolish sentiments. We learned to hold our tongues, hold our judgements, hold their hands when hands needed holding. We learned to pray silently and to scream in our heads.

For nine months, one storyteller came every week to tell us what trapped him; releasing more of his hurts, growing slowly. Though nurtured in some acidic soil he had struggled to contain it all and wanted to live again, needed to thrive. For nine months we listened and kept quiet, giving cups of water, letting the sunlight fall on his heavy shoulders.

And, when the lemon was ripe and the stories had all been told, he lifted his head for the first time and noticed our lemon tree, growing outside. All his life snakes had confused him. Now the lemon tree brought clarity; a kind of healing in its leaves. With a changed face, he laughed.


Friday 500 – Soup in a Foreign Country


Mae, lapsed vegetarian and committed traveller, found herself late one Wednesday afternoon in a tuk tuk, Hanoi, her mid-twenties, broke and something of a stew.

Lately unkindled from a relationship she knew none of her friends or family at home would have approved (had they known of it), the nearness of the evening stirred her mind to action. He was not worth it. Oh, she was better than that. There were always plenty more fish in the sea. Fish and fish; many not as slimy. Or smily. Was that what she’d fallen for?

The heat and noise were crowding her, reminding Mae her immediate mission was ready cash and a warm meal. Her bags were probably still at the hostel, presumably locked up. The bank had long since stopped meaningful transactions and her father would likely be unreachable. She had told him she had a job, when in fact it had been her boyfriend who had funded her these past few months. The tuk tuk jolted; she tapped the driver’s shoulder and they stopped outside a cafe. She handed her last note over with a shallow smile and stepped out on to the busy pavement. Chili, fish oil, hot noodles, vegetables and rich stock broth infused her senses and she looked through the crowd in the busy cafe for her friend and former travelling partner. Raz, lapsed student, committed life junkie, had recommended working in the pho kitchen months before, but Mae had been too reluctant. It had all seemed far too much hard work. Now, with no prospect of food until she earned her own keep, these cooking smells felt like torture. She was in luck; Raz was working, serving a pair of Dutch customers with sunburn and various differences of opinion. It didn’t take a moment. Raz looked up and noticed Mae as she chatted, not missing a beat. Picking up the menus with twinkling eyes she left the pair, pulled Mae through a screen into the hot kitchen and grinned.

‘I don’t need to know details,’ she started, in her rich Wirral brogue, ‘but if you need work this evening grab an apron pet and give that pot a stir. I’ll be back in five. ‘S’alright, no one’ll question ya.’ Mae breathed out in relief. The apron was grimy, but the soup looked delicious. No doubt it had been prepared some hours before and was used for the basis of a number of hearty meals on offer. Mae had not made the effort to learn to read the language, or speak more than a handful of the most useful words, but as other waiters and cooks brushed past her she realised that she was in good company; many of those connected with the cafe were westerners, perhaps working for a few days or weeks to fund the next stage of their travels, no questions asked.

‘What kind of stew are yous in then?’ Raz probed as the shift ended.

Mae looked up and licked her spoon. Egg Roll No. 1 -- our favorite Pho place.



Friday 500 – The Ice Cream

Hot day, crowded beach, noisy queue.

It was raspberry ripple and it had a waffle cone and a short, flaky chunk of chocolate peeking out. On the side of the van and in the hand of the ice cream seller it looked delicious. On the ground it was waxy and waning, one milky lump sliding over stony concrete. A melted dream with half a story.

Grieved over, yes; loudly perhaps, but kicked aside and trodden on by a distracted few (others laughed, not all of them discreetly). Shards and lumps, trickling and tickling the ground.

Kev blinked and looked to his right. Now was not a moment to hesitate. Now was a moment to act. Now, to circle, drop, bite! Pushing the world away from the bottom of his feet, Kev rose and swallowed.

Cold moment, empty sky, noisy amusements.

Out of the haze of the sea and over the noise of the sticky children Kev turned a wide arc, looking to spot who else was about. No blinkers, no criers, except lined up on a wall looking guilty. He was in no mood for sharing; Kev understood those smaller children he regularly saw who hated having to give away any of their much-wanted treats. That was his law too. Finders, eaters.

Finding more courage in his hungry belly and glaring at the boy who had just kicked at the remains, Kev dropped down, shrugging and tugging as he landed. The pecking was not easy in this busy space. People drew around and he had to dance out of the way. Then his brother landed and screamed at him. Other brothers and sisters were above him. Kev retrieved the largest piece of waffle, his favourite move among siblings and lifted quickly, knowing he would be followed. Let them. He had it. Ha! He laughed back at them and dropped the crunchy cone in a mad moment of forgetfulness.

It fell, dropping on to the top of a hut of people. Others got there first. Kev screamed at them, flapping and beaking his way in through the feathers. Too late today. No top bill. His pride had cost him and he preened his wing and shook his head.

The sky was no longer empty, but the noise of the beach reached his head at the same moment that the cold hit it. Every time this ice cream mistake. Let the others take what they could find. Kev needed a quiet place to get his head back again. He lifted again and blinked. Looking right, there, just on the side of the path was a newly-lost chip. A toddler was approaching it. Kev was close enough; he screamed. The child was lifted by a parent and chided. The chip too was lifted, up into the blue, up away from the noise, away from the crowds and the gulls, away from the cold water and hot tempers. This time he would not laugh, but inside a smile warmed him.