Sunday, 25 September 2011


These days, I am never quite sure who I will meet when I run.

I don't mean the passers-by: late commuters turning into their driveways, shoppers alighting at bus-stops; dog-walkers and ramblers; allotment gardeners and parents in the swing-park.

No, I mean versions of me.

Often, when I set off, I have butterflies, a nervous tightening in my stomach and a prickle in the palms of my hands. As I close the garden gate and set my watch to record my time and distance, I wonder: which one of me is doing this run? Will I run it with ease and set a new time? Or will I have to talk myself through every mile? Does triumph await? Or misery?

Almost without fail, the first three miles of any run are hard work. While my mind is wiping itself clean of the day's tension and filing notable events away, my body is fighting me. Ugh, here we go again, it tells me. Are you kidding? After the day you've had? Why aren't you on the sofa? As I push on through those first minutes I am wholly and entirely engaged in psychological games with myself. "You can do this bit," I say, as the first hill arrives. "Hills, pfft, this is nothing. Remember the one on the heath last week. You've done this one hundreds of times now. "

But having done it before is no longer a measure of reassurance. It's become a challenge. There is so much at stake now. There is so much riding on this. The half-marathon is two weeks away. I have raised around £1,000 - a sum that makes me blink with wonder. People are expecting this of me. Grace expects this of me. Failure, as the Hollywood-style voiceover intones in my head every time I run, is not an option. To stop would be disaster. To slow down, a defeat. I am often nauseous with fear and the panicky thrill of second-guessing my abilities.

Last week, after I had finally finished the round of homework, dinner, bath and bed with my daughters, I opened the front door to run and realised it was entirely black outside. It perfectly encapsulated my mood. What I am engaged in now is not the stuff of balmy evenings and soft summer mornings. It has become something darker and more complex. There are struggles here. Something is being forged here. Even my appearance is changing. I'm not a middle-aged mum in tee-shirt and shorts: I'm a serious runner and now I have to dress as one in long tights, warm long-sleeved athletic tops and reflective jacket. I rarely run less than six miles and regularly run more than ten. I am starting to understand why the language of the running community has such an intense ring: we are warriors, athletes, philosophers. Long-distance running is both a mental and physical challenge and only the fittest survive. I am proud of what I am achieving here, and also scared by it. Each time I run further and faster I wonder at my achievement and frighten myself at the thought that I may not be able to better it.

On Saturday morning I had to run 12 miles: the furthest distance I have ever had to run. I set my alarm but awoke before it went off, feeling fretful and uneasy. I ate to fuel my body, gaining no pleasure from the cereal and banana that I struggled to swallow. I set off and for as long as I could manage, I avoided looking at my watch. I barely glanced at my surroundings or the path that I was following. I was entirely lost in a multilayered, schizophrenic, mental debate, telling myself I could do this while feigning a light-heartedness -- take it easy, stop worrying -- that made other me's shrug with annoyance even as others still tried to calm my jitters. At eight and a half miles I encountered a hill so steep I could almost have leaned forward to kiss the road before me. I willed myself to keep going, to somehow get one leg in front of the other again and again, to straighten up and relax my shoulders and suck in big lungfuls of air. A third of the way up it, blind panic set in. With nearly four miles still to do I simply couldn't see how I would complete this run. It was like turning over an exam paper to discover that none of the questions corresponded to those I had prepared for: I felt like simultaneously bursting into tears and being sick. Resorting to tiny, staggering granny-steps I shambled somehow to the crest and back onto the flat.

The next two and a bit miles were manageable, but I had started to feel pain in my right knee -- where I fell by accident a couple of weeks ago -- that gradually got worse and worse. By 11 miles I had shooting pains the entire length of my right leg, from groin to instep. Every step made me grit my teeth and close my eyes.

I have no idea how I completed that last mile. Putting the key into my front door was like coming round after a period of unconsciousness. I was shaking. Climbing the stairs to the bathroom took me ten minutes. I ran a bath and sat on the floor watching the bubbles form, aware of every tendon and joint in my body. I was still on the edge of tears as I struggled to undress. Somehow I hauled myself into the bath and sank below the lavender foam, feeling it pop in my ears and float through my hair as the blessed heat of the water soothed my muscles.

When I came up for air, I was grinning.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Such devoted sisters

Grace's new school year has started well. She looks relaxed and happy when I go to collect her, striding out of the classroom on long, tawny legs and flicking hair out of her eyes with the self-assurance of a sixteen-year-old. The school trip was a huge success: while I fretted and paced (and ran) she scaled tree-tops and swam lengths and filmed a bunch of lopsided, giggly dorm videos of herself and friends. The first maths classes this week have passed smoothly -- a major accomplishment for her -- and she has established a pattern of playing with two or three classmates in rotation at break, an arrangement that means she has a willing accomplice for her repeated games of Monster High every interval.

But the next hurdle has already appeared.

With Grace chatting easily beside me in the car, I park outside the home of Betty's childminder and right on cue my toddler runs outside, splendid in her pink hoody, baggy jeans and sparkly trainers. I jump out to get her. Betty pauses on the path, her dandelion white-blonde hair caught in a sudden breeze. She is scanning the car. When she spots Grace her shoulders slump.

"No Cee-Cee," Betty says, and turns back to her childminder. I scoop her up and kiss her. I tell her hello and I missed her and not to be silly. I tell her lovely Gracie has missed her too. "No Cee-Cee," she says again, but this time she sounds resigned. I take her over and open the door and put her into her car seat and buckle her in, saying brightly: "Hello Cee-Cee!" for her. Grace smiles tentatively. Betty looks at her shoes and says "Hello Cee-Cee" in a tiny voice.

Back home Grace announces that she is going to do her piano practice and disappears into the front room. Betty potters and chatters while I cook, bringing bits and pieces of coloured plastic for me to admire and occasionally giving a brisk tug on my trousers to express her impatience for food. The meal is soon ready and I ask her to go and tell Grace to come and get her tea. She won't. I ask again. She takes a few steps and then stands silently with her back to me. I ask her three times, to no response, and then tell her to please do as she is told. She runs into the front room and lets fly a barrage of angry noise, nearly-words expressing fury at Grace, who flies into the kitchen like a bat out of hell, tears streaming, to shriek at me: "I can't take any more! I'm sick of this! She hates me!"

I scold Betty, who bursts into tears and buries her face in my legs, and try to soothe Grace, who is entwined around my arm and neck, still wailing. I shuffle over to the dinner table, making soothing noises and somehow sit them both down. They are quickly distracted by the lasagne I have placed ready for them and start to eat. After a pause, Betty starts to chatter again and to try to tell me about her day. "Man," she begins. "Grandma man." She gets no further. Grace explodes into laughter and points at her, exclaiming how funny her lack of words makes her sound. Betty knits her brows and frowns deeply at Grace, hurt and cross. Grace is oblivious. She throws her head back and laughs and laughs. I ask her to be quiet and explain how Betty might be feeling as she struggles to explain herself. Betty tries again. Grace sets off laughing again. Betty is beside herself with irritation and the effort of making herself understood and starts to yell at Grace again. I count to ten in order not to raise my voice and wonder guiltily if Betty is taking her cue from me, given how often I shout at her big sister myself.

After they've eaten Grace goes off again to finish her music. As I stack the dishwasher Betty trots over to me.

"Worried," she says, and frowns again. I close the dishwasher door and click it shut and say: "Why?" "Baby," she says simply and I sit on the floor so that she can clamber into my arms and be rocked. With her head in the crook of one of my elbows and her ankles crossed in the other, she nibbles a biscuit and gazes up at me. Behind my back I can feel the warmth and hum and occasional clank of our plates being rinsed by the dishwasher. "Are you ok?" I ask Betty, and stroke her little ear. She burrows further into my arms and nibbles one of them experimentally, grazing it with her baby teeth. "Worried," she says again, conversationally. "Don't be," I tell her, "I love you." She looks up at me again, with her father's startling blue eyes, and says: "Too, Mummy."

Later, as we prepare to go upstairs for her bath, I ask her to go and say goodnight to her sister, who is watching a film. Betty runs to Grace on the sofa and kisses her with a loud smack. Grace, delighted, immediately asks her: "Do you love me Betty? Do you? Do you?"

Betty doesn't answer but runs away, casting a naughty smile over her shoulder. Grace throws a cushion after her in mock frustration. Then she turns contentedly back to the television.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Captain, she can't take much more

I can't bear it. Emotional overload has hit and my systems are crashing. My eyes leak tears, constantly. The smallest kindness causes me to hiccup and fumble for a tissue. I love my daughter so much that it has rendered me incapable and thick-headed.

I have things to do. This must stop. The last time I burst into tears in a supermarket it proved to be the final confirmation of a six-month-long depression. This is not that. Granted, I am back in a supermarket -- Sainsburys seems to trigger crises for me -- but this time I have just waved Grace off on a three-day school trip and I am so apprehensive for her that I can feel the fault lines cracking along my heart.

I prepared so well in advance. I washed and ironed and packed and bought little treats and smiled and reassured and giggled along with her in excited anticipation. I tucked a letter to her inside her bag, along with contraband sweeties (It's here) This morning I brushed her hair and kissed her cheek and stood shivering beside her in the shadow of the school coach for 20 minutes, so early were we.

She is tall, my girl. Slim and elegant she is head and shoulders above her classmates. She holds herself well -- may she never adopt the embarrassed hunch of long girls waiting for a short world to catch up -- and this morning in the fizzing crowd of excited classmates she bent her head again and again to hear what was being said around her, exposing the vulnerable nape of her neck in a way that made my stomach tighten. A friend bounced up to her side and asked if they could sit together. Grace said yes, so long as she could have the window. It was agreed. Then -- suddenly -- the teachers were all there and it was a scramble to get on the bus. I hugged her and smiled and watched as she got on the coach and discovered that her friend had changed her mind and wanted to sit with someone else. Through the tinted windows of the coach I couldn't make out Grace's expression but could see only a solitary silhouette waving alongside the rows of excited couples on either side of her.

I blew kisses and mimed hugs and mouthed: "Never mind. It's ok" and forced a bright smile as the teacher went to sit with her instead. The coach pulled off and I turned away in grief.

This is ridiculous. I know this is ridiculous. She will be caught up in the events of the next three days at the outward bound centre and she will come home with long, rambling tales and an unused toothbrush and mud on the knees of all her trousers.

If only she would come home with a chum, a little soulmate to understand her and hold her hand and be trusted with her heart.

When Grace was ten months old and I was returning to work I would have to leave early in the mornings before she was awake. I would sit in the back seat of the taxi carrying me into the city and away from her and I would cry with the loneliness of leaving her and the worry of how she would learn to make her place without me. I thought it would get better and I would get stronger.

This weekend I trained for the half-marathon that is now only 4 weeks away. I was staying with my parents, on the edge of the Peak District. My father had mapped a ten mile route and accompanied me on his bike. I had a cold and within five minutes of starting felt an ache in my chest and down my throat and into my ears. The road wound uphill and across the moors. Blasted by the wind and assaulted by each gradient I spent an hour and forty-five minutes sobbing quietly behind an expression I kept as neutral as I could while I willed it to be over.

Grace is not a marathon or an endurance event. She is the bright finish line and the cheering smiles at the end and I will keep going for her.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A letter to my big girl

Hello darling puss,

I wonder what you will look like when you open this letter. Will you open it during your journey, I wonder, when you're still all smart and clean and shining with excitement? Or will you open it after you've arrived at the outward bound centre, and you're rosy-cheeked from running around. Perhaps you're sitting on the bunk bed you chose. Maybe you're just back from the swimming gala with your hair wet (make sure you ask a teacher to help you with those knots!)  Maybe you're opening this after you've done the assault course and there is mud under your fingernails. Or maybe you're opening this just before you do that big scary zipwire and you're feeling a bit worried about it. Have you got butterflies in your tummy? Don't worry - you'll love it once you're up there!

One thing I hope is the same whenever you read this -- I hope you've got a big smile on your face and that you're enjoying yourself. I am missing you and thinking about you and I'm so, so proud of you.

Do you remember what we talked about before you got on the coach? How are you getting on with your friends? Please try your hardest to be kind to them. Remember, they'll be just as nervous and excited as you are. They might be feeling a bit worried, or a bit homesick. If you are feeling a bit anxious, then I bet you they are too. If you're not sure how they're feeling, just ask them. If you're wondering why they're behaving in a certain way, just ask them. Maybe there's something in particular you want to tell them. Think to yourself first: how would I feel if someone said this to me? If you think you'd feel ok then go right ahead.

I'm sure everything will go really well. But just in case: if something happens that makes you feel angry or upset, close your eyes and count to ten slowly. Imagine I'm there and giving you a big cuddle. Breathe in, breathe out. Now imagine what I might say. Imagine that feeling of having got it all off your chest. Imagine a feeling of peacefulness. Breathe in, breathe out. There. Is that better?

You're going to get the opportunity to do so many new things my love. Relax and enjoy them. And don't worry if you don't feel like it, or if you're not sure what you're supposed to be doing. Just ask a teacher. Ask Mrs M. I've talked to her and she knows that sometimes you need another explanation. She'll be looking out for you.

If you start to feel tired and like it's all too much, ask a teacher if they can find you a quiet spot for a while. Take good care of your drawing things so that you've got them to hand if you need to relax for a bit.

You're going to roll your eyes when you read this next bit! Please try not to disappear off to Monster High or Phantom Manor. I know you're really into them right now and some of your new characters are just fabulous. But you won't get a chance to really take in all the fun stuff that's there if you're playing with DracuLaura and Grace Reaper! So imagine they've taken the bus to their own outward bound adventure and are away too for a couple of days. When you're all back home you can compare experiences!

Now I think this letter is long enough, don't you? So I'll finish now. But not before I ask you to remember one last thing: I love you darling. You are my precious pet, my little chum and the Grace of my heart.

Have a wonderful time.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

Dispatches from the front lines

We have been in Normandy, fighting battles.

The enemy approached across a lush landscape of orchards and cornfields. Wave after relentless wave bore down on us, drumming through clustered stone hamlets and lashing hedgerows and lanes.

In the face of such a deluge we sought many and varied strategies, tilting at one idea after another and fighting down panic. We began with straight confrontation: on the first day of our holiday we put on our armour and clad in anoraks and sensible shoes marched past the pool and sun loungers to find other entertainment. We went to Avranches, explored the cathedral and perused the botanical gardens under lowering skies. We admired the Mont St Michel shimmering in the distance across the bay, tethered by a silver ribbon of river across the mudflats. Then we went home and dried off.

The next day we tried ignoring the bombardment. The kids gamely unpacked toys and played in the sitting room of our cottage, marching Lego figures across decorative rugs and carved occasional tables whose every corner was a reminder how much nicer it would be to be outdoors. The bickering began. In a sinister twist the game was renamed Lego Riots. Hastily, we made sandwiches and put everyone into the car for a trip to picturesque Villedieu-les-Poeles, famed for its copper pots and pans. We walked through the market, bought sausages and cooed over fluffy ducklings in crates until baby Betty, wrinkling her nose at the animal smell, urged us on. The drizzle was low-level but building, as was the bickering. I slipped away into a gift shop and bought ceramic bowls painted with figures in regional dress and finished with our names in flourishing Gallic script. I willed us to be a happy family as I watched the shop assistant stack and wrap and bind us in protective bubble-wrap.

At lunchtime we hid out like maquis in the massive, silent Forest of Saint Sever. My husband carved up sausage and handed around bread to dejected troops as huge raindrops plopped onto us from the canopy above. By now Grace was retreating further into her herself, irritated by any request or interruption to her internal stream of thought in the absence of any compelling external activity. My younger stepson D, bruised by Grace's bluntness and tired of playing nice, was a tinder box in the dampness. J, my elder stepson, alternately teased the others and then retreated aloof behind his Beast Quest books. The in-fighting started in earnest.

This was not the holiday I longed for. This was not the giggling bonding with Grace in the pool under the sun, dipping and ducking and twisting to catch her ankles in the turquoise blue. This was not lazy and relaxed. Our cottage smelled increasingly damp and sour with boredom and disappointment. The next day the boys insisted it wasn't really raining and lobbed a tennis ball disconsolately back and forth in the wet garden, then played half-hearted games of Monopoly before falling out. Grace circled and paced. She hates ball games requiring co-ordination and loathes board games using numbers and other people's rules. She could not settle to read. Even drawing could not hold and soothe her. All she could think of was when or whether she would next be able to get into the swimming pool. She asked me over and over and over. By nine-thirty one morning I found myself counting the hours til dinner when I could have a drink.

On day five we tried another tactic -- outrunning the rain. We drove for an hour flanked by dark clouds then suddenly shot free of them and pulled ahead. A cheer went up in the car. We found Fougeres, a charming medieval town laid out on different levels like a game of snakes and ladders, with steps leading to dead ends and turnings that brought us back to where we started. And then there was the castle: a giant ring of crenellated fortress walls dotted with wild flowers and strung with piebald turrets from which the children chased bats.

By evening the enemy had found us again and the rain came all night like handfuls of needles thrown at our windows. The next day we surrendered entirely and sat watching the miles of rainclouds that stretched in every direction. The kids refused to get in the car but gave up asking if they might be able to swim. My husband and I defused quarrel after row after scratchy argument. My heart was in my boots. I had set such store by this time together with no homework and no chores and no work stress. But Grace was as detached as ever, furious and cutting whenever I asked her to take part in tedious family routines and no closer to the boys who could barely be in the same room themselves for five minutes before locking horns.

I tried to get away and run but could only manage a short, slow slog, hampered by rain and hills and a lack of form after a recent virus. I am rubbish at everything, I wheezed to myself.

Back at the cottage, as I started to think about what I should begin to pack first, the sky began to brighten. I ignored it. But then the sun came out -- tentatively, like it knew it was in trouble -- and we all rushed outside, turning our faces up to it like sunflowers. The cheering warmth was divine. We scurried to the pool, where Grace, J and D leapt in with whoops and splashes and started to shove each other around like old comrades. My husband bobbed gently around the shallow end with Betty, beaming, fastened around his neck. Like atoms, my family spun and bounced and separated and then clustered together in the middle of the pool, arms around each other, hugging and kissing while I watched from the side with a lump in my throat.

Within thirty minutes it was raining again. But this time the sun remained, stubbornly undimmed. We ate dinner with all the doors and windows open, beneath a rainbow.