31 January 2011

Praha: 2 - Braving cold and cobbles

I was told that Prague would be cold. That it would be far colder than London - even London in the middle of January - I was told to expect something like -3 or -4 degrees Celsius. (That's very chilly for a Londoner.) But even after popping on two more layers at the airport, I realised I wasn't prepared enough for the biting wind that hit my face as I wheeled my suitcase out of the sliding doors at Prague airport. Flecks of snow drifted about the air, barely enough to even call it snowing, and my cheeks flamed a pretty shade of pink.
Prague airport is a small airport, and looked fairly deserted to me. There were only the last few stragglers of my flight who remained drifting about the Terminal - those few who had been lured in by the few small shops full to the brim of duty free perfume, cigarettes and alcohol, just before the baggage collection. This meant that the odd bag remained circulating around and around the baggage carousel looking for it's owner. 

Among the stragglers were two girls around about my age - who were loaded with duty free Benson & Hedges and a bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum. They looked far too bright-eyed and fabulous to have got up at 5:00am that morning, and were laughing to each other, waving their arms expressively as they talked. I was less a straggler; more half asleep. I imagined the state I must have looked; hair all frizzy on one side from my thirty minute nap, sleepy baggy eyes framed (or rather, hidden) by my 'comfortable glasses', rather than my sophisticated Prada ones.
I took in my surroundings for a moment. The large, familiar yellow and red M sign stood out to my left, calling my name, willing me to take stock of the situation over a Chicken McNugget Meal instead of standing aimlessly in the main hall of the terminal. It was slightly disorientating that all signs were in Czech (not that I was expecting anything else), but English was kindly written underneath in an italic font, coming to the rescue of lost tourists such as myself.

Right. I need a bus. A bus to the centre.

I noticed that the two girls I'd seen earlier had made their way to what I guessed was a little travel kiosk. It had photos of a bus, a train and a tram pasted on the wall behind the desk.

Aha, pictures - the universal language.  

They looked confident enough with where they were going, so I followed them over to the kiosk and joined the queue. I clutched my entire weekend's spending money which was still stored in the Post Office envelope it had arrived in, as I had no idea how much it might cost. The notes were in pretty colours and it felt like Monopoly money as they were all in hundreds and thousands. I thought about how I was going to come across as polite, whilst unable even to try and make the effort to speak Czech to the assistants selling tickets behind the counter.
I thought I would go and speak to the two girls, partly because I had been following them for the last fifteen minutes (I didn't want them to think I was completely weird), but mainly because I still had no idea which bus stop I needed to stand at. I approached them, teeth chattering.

"Hi, I'm really sorry, is this the right stop for the city centre? I'm on my own, and I've just bought this ticket - and I'm hoping it's the right one..." I rolled my eyes and laughed.

"Yeah, think this is the stop. We're going there too. We've been told we gotta get the 119 bus... You can tag along with us if y'like?" Said the smaller of the two girls.

She was tiny, with long dark hair, shaved up behind her ear on one side, and had a pretty diamond stud in her nose. I noticed she was wearing the black Doctor Marten boots I'd wanted for Christmas. Her friend, who was slightly taller, had cropped, blonde curly hair, and she nodded and smiled at me. If I hadn't have already guessed from their accents, they told me they were Aussies, living in London for the moment.  I've always found Aussies to be generally chatty and friendly - and these two were no exception.
We piled onto the bus together stamping our feet to keep warm, and laughing about how we'd been told off by the bus driver for not placing our ticket in the machine correctly. We chatted about where in London we lived, the best markets to go to, the quirky pubs which we'd discovered down the back streets of London, and then why we were in Prague. I told them I was here because it was Graeme's 30th birthday - my mate from Manchester - a born and bred Glaswegian Scotsman - and proud of it. There are eight of us in total, I explained; four gay guys and four girls - sharing an apartment which overlooked the river. They were booked into a hostel just outside the centre of Prague - the best way to meet new people - they'd said. They were staying for the weekend, just the two of them and a bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum. 

Throughout the twenty-minute bus ride, we passed enormous warehouses and open fields - not of green, but of hard brown soil frozen on the ground. Large billboards loomed to the side of the road, advertising Czech beers such as Staropramen and Pilsner. The buildings were high rise flats of a simple and practical design. It was rather bleak, but then, most airport surroundings are. Finally we reached the end of the line, where I was to jump onto the Metro at Dejvická. I parted ways with the two Aussies, wishing them a lovely time in Prague, and we left with promises of meeting up again when we got back to London. As they walked off chatting together, I wondered if we would. I sailed through the tunnels of the Metro, following the crowds and navigating my way through (thankfully) only one line change, before I was to reach Karlovo náměstí station; where Graeme would be waiting.

Prague Metro Map

Four months of living in London, and it's only very recently that I can say that I've got the hang of using the London Underground system. I know to stand to the right of the escalators, I know to wait until people have got off the train, before getting on, I know that the tubes are pretty much useless on a weekend, and I also know, it is incredibly easy to go the wrong way up the line.
But I can hold my hand on my heart, and say honestly, that I was incredible at navigating the Czech Underground (or the Metro, as it's really called). Unlike London, they have only three coloured lines (rather than eleven), they do not name them after national places, people or events (such as the Hammersmith and CityVictoria or Jubilee lines), but instead name them simply A, B and C (genius, if you ask me), and far easier to navigate, if you don't speak Czech! 
The hardest part of my journey, was choosing which escalator to go up once I'd reached Karlovo náměstí station- to make sure I came out by the river. In the end I just chose one, and as I ascended onto the street, I understood why everyone had called Prague simply beautiful.

It was as if I had walked back in time. Narrow streets, with characteristic cobbles, ran in between  elaborately designed buildings, most of them, probably six stories high. No expense had been spared over the stone work; with statues of angels, saints and virgins looking down on the street below from their perches on the windowsills high above me. The walls had been painted in various pastel colours, warm and tasteful, as if to brighten up such a freezing cold city. Some of the walls even had gothic, geometric designs painted upon them, to look like expensive tiles. 

The wind whipped across the river, which was lined with tall cast iron lamps which could have come straight out of C. S Lewis' Narnia. I read somewhere, that Prague was a city untouched by the bombing of the world wars. I loved this fact, and could imagine people strolling up the river, taking trips on boats as horse-drawn carriages pulled by, because the city must have looked just the same now, as it had a hundred years ago.
Graffiti sprawled up the one of the walls of the subway, and drew me back into this century with a bang. It was quiet on the pavements in this part of town, although the beeps and shuffles of the traffic along the river kept the wind from whistling too loudly.

I took a right turn to walk alongside the river, ensuring I  didn't veer too residential, and 3walked far enough along to reach the gothic Charles Bridge, where Graeme would be waiting.
I saw him walking briskly across the zebra crossing, cars whizzing past him, front and back. As usual he had his head held high, his shoulders back, striding with purpose and just a little bounce in his step. He could hardly believe his eyes as he saw my determined little form dragging my suitcase proudly over the cobbles waving frantically, because he promptly dropped his cigarette on the floor, flung his arms wide open to hug me, and yelled in his thick, Glaswegian drawl, "Betty!"

25 January 2011

Praha: 1 - To Luton, and beyond...

My last post 'I wrote you a letter' got picked for a 'Charlie Award' by The Domesticated Bohemian. I was over the moon! A message had flashed up on my phone as I was busy packing everything and anything into the smallest suitcase I'd ever taken abroad - because I was going to Prague, Czech Republic. The message said; 'Go have a look at this - ' then it showed a link. And so I did. I've had this permanent beam (which has lasted the entire long weekend in Prague) plastered across my face and which still hasn't quite gone. Now I'm back in good ol' Blighty, I want to say thank you to Philip - also Charlie - and to all the people who stopped by my blog for a bit of a look.


I am notorious amongst my friends and family for being terrible with directions. I'm just not one of those people who seems to be built with an internal SatNav, who can direct their way around pretty much anywhere, using street names, rivers and motorways. I call that; very impressive. I am the kind of person who will walk around in circles staring at a map, before realising ten minutes later, that it is upside down and what I thought was a bridge, is actually the central bus station.  And if I'm not following the internal SatNavs to my destination (whilst thinking about what I might like to eat when I get there), I can only navigate my surroundings by remembering the weird and wonderful things which might catch my attention; like that pub we passed about five minutes ago on the corner, called "Darling, I'll call you later".

I'd booked my return ticket to Prague online in November. The others were flying into Prague from Manchester, and I was to meet them on the famously beautiful Charles Bridge, (or after a Google Maps search later - 'Karlův most' ) a day later. So not only would I be flying alone for the first time, but I would be navigating the Czech transport system on my tod too, unable to speak a word of Czech, (other than ahoj, which means hello - however this made me want to salute like a sailor each time I said it).  Marvellous. There's got to be an easy route from the airport to the centre of Prague. Then getting to the river really couldn't be that hard - could it?

"Do you want me to come in and find the check-in desk with you?"

Mum was poking her head around the corner of my seat from the back of the car looking as anxious as I felt. She'd let me sit in the front next to my Step-Dad, Steve. My stomach was full of nervous butterflies, and so I was rather glad I could look out the front window for the entirety of the 40 minute journey to London Luton airport. We had zipped up the motorway, the green trees and fields of Hertfordshire flicking in and out of view to my left. The moonlight reflected off the wet tarmac in front of us, always keeping a couple of feet in front of the car. But as the high rise airport hotels came into view, and the rows of red brake lights flashed up ahead, I realised we'd pulled up at the drop off.
Part of me really wanted my Mum to hold my hand and find the check-in desk with me. But I was twenty-five, not five, so I declined.

"Thanks, but if I cant check in at Luton, I've got absolutely no hope in Prague..."

I gave both her and Steve a goodbye kiss on the cheek, and pulled up the handle on my little wheelie suitcase (upon which I'd tied a blue Liberty ribbon for easy recognition) and headed towards the arrivals entrance with an air of independence. It took me five minutes and three zebra crossings, whilst Mum was pointing and waving like a loony (and me waving and smiling back) before I realised I was in fact a departure not an arrival, and so made a hasty left turn to the other side of the terminal.
It wasn't half as exciting as the programme Airline you see on television, with people forgetting their passport, arriving in the nick of time, and thinking they can take their pet pythons through as hand luggage. I handed my passport to the lady behind the check-in desk, who flicked it open and peered down her nose, past wiry glasses and layers of orange foundation at the picture of me as a smirking sixteen year-old. She sniffed, glanced at my boarding pass and handed it all back to me.

"Is that it?"  I asked, looking blankly at her.
"You can go through to the Security Checkpoint now."  She replied, her voice singing, as she repeated the automated words spoken a thousand times. She busied herself with shuffling papers and cleared her throat - the sign for me to leave.

I found it wasn't difficult at all getting through security, despite having to remove my jewellery, boots, coat, cardigan and then get felt up by a butch female security officer, who really wouldn't listen when I told her I had metal plates which always beeped when passing through security. Upon reaching the departure lounge, I managed to buy a Marmite bagel and a strawberry smoothie from a kiosk just before my gate number lit up on the screen. I followed the crowds, ever so pleased with myself at how smooth things were running, and made my way to gate number 24. The passengers queuing up were mostly couples; arms around each other, kissing as if nobody could see, or they were large groups of rowdy men drinking lager at 7:00am on their way for a stag do, I presumed.
There was that couple who'd brought the 'priority boarding' online, who looked delighted at their sudden superiority above the rest of us as the stewardess announced that it was time for priority boarding. The female of the two was a small miserable-looking woman, who looked as if she hadn't washed her hair in a week and didn't seem at all excited to be jetting off to Prague with her beloved. I'd watched her moan at him continually for the last twenty minutes, and she was now elbowing him in the ribs, pushing him forward to the front of the queue.

I love that moment where you walk outside into the crisp, cold air onto the tarmac where the planes are parked. The blast of fresh air hits you hard and wakes up your mind from having waited your way all over the air conditioned airport for the last few hours. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling as much fresh air as possible into my lungs, as I marched out across the tarmac with the rest of the queue.

I leant back into my seat; it was surprisingly comfortable leather - probably since it was so old and worn in. Snuggling further back, I closed my eyes and felt the plane shudder into action. I had already moved from the seat I'd originally picked upon first entering the aircraft. It was, as usual, a rush to find the best seat, much like finding the premium standing spot on the Underground in central London at 7:30am on weekdays; people pushing, bags falling out of lockers and coats placed on seats. I'd been lucky and grabbed a seat by the window. It had seemed pleasant enough, until a group of nineteen year old lads sat directly behind me, and had started a loud conversation involving mainly booze and boobs. No way was I spending an hour and a half listening to this. Discreetly I stood up and went to remove my handbag from the overhead locker, which only two minutes ago, I had shoved into it's corner, slamming the door shut. A hairy man in his early sixties, who was definitely too huge to manoeuvre the aisle, tried to squeeze himself past me, as I was trying to squeeze my bag back out of the locker. He bellowed to me in a gruff voice, whilst huffing morning breath all over me, "Eh, you sitting here, love?"

"Um, No" I replied, "I'm not." I whispered to him, not wanting to be rude to the group of lads who were now staring at us gormlessly. After removing my handbag, I was now trying to bang shut the overhead locker again and again, but it appeared to be stuck. One of the guys stood up, winked, then laughing to his mates said, "Where's ya muscles then?" and promptly slammed the locker tight shut. To which they all chorused "Waheeey!"  It was far too early in the morning to be jeered at by teenagers, so I slid away, edging four or five rows down to sit on an aisle seat near a young girl with a big furry hooded jacket on. She looked quiet enough. No jibes there. She gave me a polite sideways smile as I slid into my seat. I didn't mind being in the aisle since there is nothing worse than edging across someone's lap, or waking a stranger up to ask to go to the toilet.
Happy in my new found spot, I relaxed and closed my eyes. It was 7:49am, and the plane had started wheeling in loops, waiting for the runway to become free for take off. I sunk deeper in my seat, feeling for the first time, excited. There was sudden, ascending whirring noise, as the engines really kicked into action, which jolted me from my drifting off. I opened my eyes, peering past the girl and out of the tiny window. Hundreds of little lights in oranges and greens scattered the runway - so beautiful in the morning light. They seemed, from where I was sitting to have no pattern at all, but looked like coloured stars that could have fallen from the pinky glow of sky.
Before I knew it, I was pinned back against the soft leather seat, as our plane picked up speed. Hurtling down the runway, engines roaring, I felt it would take a monumental effort to get us off the ground. And then suddenly we lifted, leaving the twinkling lights and London behind.

13 January 2011

I wrote you a letter

When you did that thing we don't talk about, they made you write us letters. I can't remember if you wrote me one. You didn't give it to me, but I don't think I could have read it, even if you had.

I was the one who'd found out about what you did. Probably best it had been me, looking back. The others couldn't have coped, they loved you more than I did.

I shall never forget the words I heard spoken, they came out of nowhere, one ordinary day. That look. The way he cried then his body shook. The sickness that overwhelmed me. Deep in my stomach, rolling, vibrating, reverberating to my very core. I held him tight. I hated you.

At the time, I couldn't bring myself to speak your name, think about your face, acknowledge who you were. But I wasn't able to avoid you, like I could avoid stranger's conversations, questions, and stares. You were too close to ignore. I withdrew inside myself, had lost my shine. I felt like I couldn't smile. I was forced to watch you carry on your life as normal - as if nothing had happened - laughing with your friends at school and pissing around by the tuck shop like you always did.

Do y'know, I was taken to see a psychologist a few weeks later? How funny, I thought, to be seeing a psychologist. I used to think they were for crazy people. I wasn't crazy, I was numb. The hospital was grand - we'd got in quick on the health insurance - it had large grounds surrounding it and I can recall the way the gravel crunched under the tyres for what seemed like forever as Mum drove the car up the long drive. If I hadn't been so worried, I might have found it a peaceful place to be. Set out like a stately home, I sat on the edge of the chaise longue, my slightly muddy trainers tucked underneath. My sister took the armchair to my right. She hadn't stopped crying for days; and her eyes looked red and sore. I don't remember the face of the psychiatrist, whether they were male or female, or the manner of the voice as it asked us to come in. But I recall clearly the white airy room we both walked into, the plush green carpets and especially the wide windows, wedged slightly ajar, with white papery blinds slanted half open, allowing me peeks of the beautiful gardens beyond this room.
I want you to know how it was for us, because I don't think anyone's told you.
I think you should know how I told the whole story, from beginning to end, as if I was reading an autocue. How my worried eyes kept darting to my sister - a teary mess in the chair next to me - I didn't want my words to hurt her more. Even after what you did, I felt I was betraying you. Later they told Mum that I was coping fine - that it was my sister who needed the drugs. Part of me was hurt, but there was a part of me that felt pleased I hadn't given all of myself away.

Maybe I'm too proud.
Because I couldn't bring myself to tell you that it hurt to lose you. Do you remember the silly garden games we played when we were young? We loved digging up Mum's flower beds, searching for 'treasure' until it got too dark and we were muddy and cold, left with little piles of broken white china at our feet - fighting over the best bits. We used to lie on our bellies playing Monopoly for hours - you were the ship, and I was the boot. You'd always cheat - just like Gramps - and nick Park Lane whenever I ran to the bathroom and back again - either that, or a £500 note. Remember when we collected the smooth skimming pebbles on Bognor Regis beaches? Us two, pottering about in our jellies, sandy hands clasping red plastic buckets filled with super-smooth skimmers. I hurt because you'd so carelessly thrown it all away.

I have so many questions I need to ask you, even now, after time wrapped it's forgetful hands over and over those painful situations, until all the sharp edges became blurred.  It's just like the sea's waves of repetition, when the days turn into years of tumbling jagged rocks in the tides, which in time, become our smooth skimmers. You cant tell by looking at a single pebble what it could have looked like, how rough those edges once might have been. I buried the hurt you caused deep down, so deep, I'm sometimes worried I'll forget. I often feel like I have to remind myself, skim over the details in my mind, just so you don't get away with it.

I could never walk, the way you walk into a room - cocky, like you own it. You make people feel as if they have to tiptoe around you. I don't like your arrogance and don't understand it. Sometimes I wonder if it's really who you are, or just a facade to protect yourself from what you've done. It's probably easier to be this way, than to care about what people think.

I watched you on Boxing Day, put your arm around my Mum. Her eyes went soft, and the colour flushed to her cheeks. She looked so happy. Just for that moment, it was as if you hadn't hurt her all those times, and I knew she was hoping you'd changed. I find it hard how you have crept back in. You lay sprawled on your belly on the living room floor, playing board games with the children (just like we used to). I thought how much space you took up now, how the room felt smaller, a little claustrophobic. I saw the years etched deeper on your face. Your eyes crinkled up whenever you smiled, but they didn't really sparkle.
I wasn't feeling that well, was I? Remember, I had that cold? You'd laughed at me glugging cough syrup straight from the bottle, and I'd given you a look. You reached out your arm and playfully grabbed me - caught me by surprise. You hugged me so tight, and wouldn't let me go, and I must have looked so small compared to you, because I only came up to your chest. You smelt of fags and other people's houses, a mixture of the familiar, and the not quite right. 

I was frightened that once you let me go, we would return to just pretending. You'd once again turn into you - the brother that I'd lost. And I would go back to never forgetting.

7 January 2011

Twelfth night

Do y'know? I am a complete softie.

I am also just a tiny bit superstitious. Superstitious enough to not walk under a ladder - because it feels quite unnatural to do so. I love it when I see two magpies, and chirp up with, 'one for sorrow, two for joy...' as I whoop and salute them on their way. I've pretty much outgrown hopping the gaps in the pavement by the side of the road - but I do tend to sing  'If you step on the gaps, then you'll fall and break your back!' in my head a few times after I accidentally tread on one.

There's also the one (I don't think this is a superstition, more me trying to get my little brother to pass out on road trips when we were young) where you hold your breath as you went through a tunnel, and you're not allowed to exhale until you reach the light at the other end. Thinking about it, I don't think it was unlucky if you exhaled, more than it was seriously cool to see our heads turn a bit purple. I do have a black cat who walks across my path - in fact, she pads across my path and under my feet quite a lot of the time, in and around the house. I can never quite remember if this is supposed to be lucky or not. Well, when you're heading for the bathroom, wandering down the hall in the middle of the night, it's certainly doesn't feel lucky, for me or the cat, I can tell you that for sure.

Wednesday evening was the time when all that was lovely about Christmas; the Christmas tree, the cards, the tinsel and fairy lights had to come down. Oh yes. I was most upset. Not more than L, however, who tried to persuade me that twelfth night was actually next Wednesday, all so he could have our Christmas tree up for his birthday weekend.

I got a £3.99 bottle of white wine on my way home from work Wednesday afternoon, thinking we could drown our Christmas sorrows, because the most beautiful corner of our living room would once again return to being completely bare and ordinary. This was my first mistake of the evening. Two glasses (maybe three if I was completely honest) later, L had put the film Che on, and I, who hadn't realised the whole two hour film was in Spanish (and so subtitled, requiring extreme concentration), had given up and fallen fast asleep, curled up on the sofa at 8:30pm in the evening - glasses all squiffy.

I woke up with an enormous indentation down the left side of my face and my eyes sort of stuck together. As usual it took me a while to realise I hadn't gone blind, but the arm of my glasses was resting on my nose, and I was looking through the left lens with my right eye - making everything in the living room look ridiculously tiny.  I adjusted my glasses and reached for my phone to check the time. Was it time to get up? The cat had been asleep, balancing precariously on my shoulder and upper arm whilst I lay sleeping on my side. I've got skinny little arms, so it couldn't have been easy. She always does this, and she's really heavy. My guess is, she feels an air of superiority at the chance to sit on me and simultaneously be taller than I am. I had sat up suddenly in my panic, causing her to fly off the sofa and stalk around the coffee table looking cross.

The first thing my puffy eyes could focus on, once the crunchy mascara had been rubbed off enough for me to open them, was the tree all lit up in the corner. Oh no. The bloody tree. All smug with it's mirrored baubles still whirring like little disco balls, shining tiny lights all around the room. Fairy light reflections. My phone lit up automatically, as if to rub it in that it really was 00:23 on Thursday 6th January.
And because, like I told you, I am only a tiny bit suspicious, I walked over to the socket in that corner of the room, flicked the switch to OFF, and all the fairy lights went pft. Turning my back on my not-so-smug-now Christmas tree, I pootled into the bedroom to get ready for bed.

I have to walk down what feels like the longest ever road on my walk to my tube in the morning. This morning was particularly bad as the rain splashed against the pavement, in my shoes and across my cheeks. I tried to tuck my long hair into my scarf, so it didn't go all frizzy at the ends. It's mornings like these, when the wind rips right through you, that I always decide to opt for the warmth rather than the fashion. First I slip on my smart pencil skirt, and my silky blue top. The clothes that say 'Yep. I'm a receptionist. I'm here to look good, and I work in Mayfair, don't you know...?'  Then, (because that is so not who I am normally) I throw on two grey hoodies, first my little one, then L's massive one. I slip on my converse, over 30 dernier silky black tights, and pop on my beanie hat, covering beautifully blow-dried hair. I grab my old leather jacket, because even though the zip has broken, it's waterproof, warm and me. Basically, I look a bit odd, and with my hoodie over my beanie - probably a little like a thug. But a warm thug, at that.

I paced it up Replington Road. I passed rows and rows of terraced Victorian houses with different coloured doors; some with the paint flecked off, some with the number sprayed casually on the wall. One or two of the houses had window boxes. It was 7:30am, and I passed the whistling street cleaner with his luminous jacket and wooden broom, who nodded my way then quickly looked away, just the same as he did everyday. It was still quite dark and the cars had their headlights on. I pulled my leather jacket around me, holding it tight together.

I was dodging puddles, hopping from one foot to the next, simultaneously avoiding the odd gap in the pavement - which was actually proving to be quite a difficult feat - when I came across the first one.

Lying unloved to the side of the pavement, partly in the road, it looked so sad and bare. Pine needles scattered the street around where it lay. The softer part of me wanted to pick it up, all dripping wet and soggy and take it home to stand next to mine. This little one had clearly seen better days. I looked just a few metres up the street, and saw the next one, and the next. One after the other of balding Christmas trees propped up against each other, stripped of their glory and slumped against dustbins ready for someone to come and take them away.

I felt like a nutter. There was I, on a quiet street, in the pissing rain feeling guilty for just having stared at a naked Christmas tree and walked on by. Right now, turning my Christmas Tree's lights off last night, didn't seem too mean after all. I was hugely relieved I'd opted for the plastic tree from Asda, and not chosen the authentic, chubby, pine-dropping, Christmassy smelling, beautiful tree, that now lay here in the gutter. I don't think I could have put it outside and left. Lucky, or unlucky, it wasn't Christmas anymore. It was time for my tree to go back in it's box.

Not wanting to miss my train, with relief my thoughts occupied themselves with the prospect of catching the 7:52 train to Earls Court. The one where I might just get a seat, and not have to stand squashed up to strangers. I'd pick up a paper at the station.  I don't think there's time to buy a coffee. I didn't want to miss it.

5 January 2011

The Present

As my earlier post, The Magpie might have told you, I am a sucker for silver. I collect silver rings. Being a slightly self-confessed hippy, there was a time when I used to wear one on each of my fingers, so I almost couldn't close them together without a gap appearing between each one. I've toned it down a little now (only four between both hands) - positively discreet.

L has bought me almost half of my silver rings, picking the ones which reflect me perfectly. He knows I fall in love with the art decor swirls, mixed gold and silver, the unique crystals, the odd antique ring saved from the 1800's that's got a dent and oodles of character. He got me one for each of our first few Christmases together, on a couple of my birthdays, and sometimes just because he saw that one he knew I'd love.

I remember when my Dad used to buy Christmas presents for my Mum. I used to utterly dread her opening it. When I hadn't managed to monitor his annual purchase, not only was it wrong, it was often a disaster.
All those mid-Decembers, I went with him to choose something for her; browsing around John Lewis and picking out a cute black Elle jacket which I knew she'd love, leading him to the perfume counter and making sure he sniffed more than the first bottle he laid his eyes on. I desperately wanted him to pick something for his wife which said, 'I know you. I love you. I chose this for you, because it's something which represents all you mean to me.' That was all he had to do.

One year, I hadn't gone with him. The present lay under the tree, and I had squeezed it on Christmas Eve, not out of the usual excitable present-squeezing, but out of pure fear, dreading the potential few hours of disappointed looks, tears in the potatoes and choruses of  'is this really what you think of me!?', tomorrow afternoon.
I eyed the present suspiciously all Christmas morning. Then after lunch, when the living room carpet had been almost entirely covered with multi-coloured Christmas wrapping paper, the present found its way into my Mum's hands. She opened it, and I swear to God, the following present happened:

It was a nightie. Ok. Not that bad, you're thinking. But it was an extra comfortable large T-Shirt nightie. Not the sexiest nightie he could have picked out at the lingerie store for his wife... In the middle there was a picture of a fat cartoon mouse. The mouse was eating a large piece of Emmental cheese. Yes, you know, the Tom and Jerry style, 'cartoon' cheese with the holes in it? But it was what was written on the front of her new nightie - in bold, comical writing - which made my jaw drop:


Nothing says, 'this is how I feel about you', than a literally and metaphorically, cheesy nightie.

This last Christmas, L and I agreed to save the money we would have spent on each other's presents and put it towards a holiday sometime in the Spring. With a severe cash-flow problem, and the disappointment of not receiving a Christmas bonus this year (not even a little one) hitting me hard, I was quite relieved to be let off one of the dozen presents I had to buy for my ever-extending family.

L arrived on Christmas Day, and within a matter of minutes, my little brother had arranged his bag of presents under our tree, whilst my Mum fussed about him and threw a Jack Daniels his way.
It was a couple of hours after he'd arrived, just after dinner, before we managed to get some time together, just us.
I'd gone for a bit of a lie down, a combination of too much sparkling wine, and hundreds of children running around. I'd barely closed my eyes, before L, who had followed me upstairs, poked his head around the door and said coyly:

"Bth, don't kill me... I wanted to get you just a little something for Christmas. You see, I got a bonus, and you didn't. And I thought you deserved just a little present."

He was holding a small box wrapped in gold paper with a matching tag, half hidden behind his back. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to kill him or hug him for how thoughtful he was.
He dropped the little box into my hands.
I turned it over a couple of times. Thoughts flew through my head.

  • It's got to be a ring with a box that small.
  • Oh my God. Not an engagement ring?
  • No, don't be stupid. He's not on his knees.
  • Damn - he got me a ring! I hadn't got him anything.
  • I wonder if this means the holiday's off...

I slowly undid the golden ribbon and opened the box. I saw him looking at me - expecting - scanning my face for any response. It was a ring. It was silver. But I was surprised. The time had passed when I should have squealed "I love it!", but I couldn't find the words. It didn't have soft feminine curves, or see-through crystals set in gold and silver. It looked strong and dark, almost masculine.

"It's just really different... nothing like I'd expected." I mumbled, my cheeks flaming red.

You idiot. Shut up now and say thank you.

I was horrified I didn't love it. But this was a present, not something I'd chosen myself. 

Just be grateful. 

Flashes of my Mum's expression flew through my mind. Specifically the time one Christmas when she had opened a Boots own brand of Evening Primrose Body Lotion and a pair of nail clippers from my Dad. Oh God. Please don't let my face resemble that look. I scolded myself. This wasn't my Dad we were dealing with, and this present was obviously no last minute disaster. It was from the man who had thought of me, of what I'd like. As if to prove my point, L piped up:

"I thought it looked Arabic and unusual... a really strong piece."

I took the ring out the the box, running my fingers over the smooth underside of silver. It had a thick band, and across the top was a strong silver ridge. Down the two sloping sides, it was covered in tiny sparkling marcasite crystals. L was right. It was unusual. It was nothing like anything I'd ever loved in a ring before. But there was something strangely beautiful about it. It spoke differently to my other rings.

I put it on my finger. It fit perfectly.

"I really liked it in the shop." He said. "But don't worry, we can take it back and choose you something else together. It was just something little I chose which reminded me of you."

I felt like a real fool. I looked at the silver ridge. It reminded me of a backbone; strong, secure. The marcasites although set deep, glittered at me beautifully. They sparkled and spoke to me more than a solitaire diamond ever could. A unique kind of glittering.
I saw a real present on my left hand. One from someone who really knew me - apparently better than I knew myself.
One by one I took all the other rings off my fingers and popped them into the little ring box, looping the golden ribbon into a bow.

"It's actually perfect" I whispered. "Thank you."