Half-baked thoughts on friendship

I think I’m about to do one of those ‘oh I love my friends’ posts. I hate those. I hate that kind of thing because it sounds so insincere to my cynical drizzle-soaked British ears. I am inexcusably intolerant of blogs/round robin Christmas cards/Facebook profiles that are all about how wonderful the writer’s life is. What is the POINT of them? Most people’s lives are a bit boring, rubbish or horrible at least 30% of the time. Who wants to read about how perpetually excellent someone else’s life is? And those people are either fooling themselves or they’re lying. Or they’re robots who don’t notice or reflect on the non-lovely things about life. And what do they think their readers will think when they read that stuff? ‘O my GOD what an awesome human being….‘? No. What readers actually think is one of two things:

a) My life is shit compared to theirs. I am a failure.


b) What a cock.

But… friendship. Yes. I’ve thought A LOT about friendship because more often than not in my trainee-human years it was a source of painful disappointment.

My first friend disappointment was M, who went to live in Tasmania when I was young enough to think that I might be able to hear her if I lay down on the ground with my ear to the pavement, and after that I moved schools enough times to prevent me forming a group of friends to carry with me through life. At primary school number 2 I made another friend I considered my ‘best’ and was devastated when she went off with someone else who talked about periods a lot and laughed at me for being embarrassed. I wasn’t comfortable with vagina-based conversation in those days. Nowadays vaginas are everywhere so I’ve come to terms with them (although am slightly troubled by the fact that modern ones are supposed to be freakishly hairless, like – as my friend P commented – a pack of Tesco Value Ham).

I’ve always felt that, once you have decided someone’s worthy of being awarded the title of ‘friend’, then you should be loyal to them regardless of what they do in the world outside your friendship. If a friend turned out to have done some murdering by mistake, for example, I would still be loyal to them so long as I knew they could be trusted with my feelings, that they’d make me laugh, that they’d insist on feeding my cat if I had to go into hospital for gall bladder surgery and would reassure me, when necessary, that I am not too repulsive to go outside.

But it doesn’t happen that way very often when we’re young. Most of us are too busy working out who the hell we are; obsessing over (and being misled by) our own needs and feelings and being tricked by the concept of ‘cool’ to make real friendships. We hurt each other by mistake because we are still clumsy in the world ourselves.

Another thing that screwed up friendships in my particular youth was alcohol and drugs. Friendship is basically about living/working around people who you trust and who can trust you, and I spent many of my formative years in communities twisted by alcohol.  it’s impossible to work together when everyone is perpetually imbibing the liquid poison that makes humans revert to what Freud would call their Id. Alcohol makes people want to shag, talk shit, fight and eat crap, and we don’t even really enjoy it when we do it because we’re too pissed. How is it possible to hold real relationships together when at any minute someone might misread something you’re saying and punch your face off?

Some drugs, of course, are supposed to promote peace, respect, love, harmony and all-night jiggling, but my experiences with people who use those is that they may be all unity and loveliness while they’re on them, but that just makes them seem all the more hypocritical when they’re back doing their juvenile swaggering, bickering and back-stabbing the rest of the time. LSD, too, is supposed to bring you together with your fellow trippers on a level that transcends the material. I have had that experience myself. I remember a particularly lovely trip where my friend P and I totally comprehended the universe and saw it spiralling in the air in front of us. We knew without speaking words that we had discovered the meaning of everything. It was a right bugger when we found we’d forgotten it 14 hours later. We felt the utmost harmony with each other, but ultimately it was meaningless because it wasn’t applicable to the real things we do in the world like make babies, friendships, sandwiches and decipher car park ticket machine instructions.

I used to genuinely believe that everyone should take LSD at least once in their lives because it opens up doors of perception that otherwise remain closed, man. What a dick. Now I’ve finally distanced myself from that world, I realise that those years I spent in various altered states actually suspended my development as a human and as a friend. I only started learning about things that matter again after I’d completely escaped it and come to realise that being ‘straight’ – being able to think clearly – is the greatest high there is.

After spouse and I abandoned that world, we gradually shed our connections with anyone who we couldn’t trust or who didn’t make our lives feel better in any way. This sounds selfish, but I reckon it’s the secret to constructing a life that feels worth living. Humans are pack animals I’m sure, but not just any old pack will do. I only have one close friend left from those days now, and we have both had quite a struggle unweaving ourselves from our background. I’ve learned about friendship together with her; I’ve also learned it from some extraordinary people I met in my first proper job, and from my own spouse (what is a long term relationship if not the most important friendship of your life?).

But oddly, having opined a lot about how much I’ve learned about stuff from growing older, it’s a 27 year old human who has taught me most about friendships; or maybe she has just made me pull together all my observations about friendship into a coherent whole. Whichever it is, it’s through discussion with her that I realise I’ve finally achieved those elusive friendships that I have looked for all my life.

This friend, H, is very wise (her dad recently said, “H, you never were 5 years old, You were born and then you were immediately 32″), probably because she has suffered from health problems since babyhood and is as familiar with the inside of a hospital as she is with her parents’ home. The result of this is that she has always appreciated the security of solid family and friend relationships and has learned from those times they have gone wrong. She finds absolute contentment in things like having a cup of tea with a cousin, or watching some shit on TV with her brothers. She knows how to make people love her because she is funny, undemanding, pleasing to have around and goes out of her way to show appreciation to those she loves and to make the most ordinary occasions into tiny celebrations of what fun it is to be alive. She does this without being nauseating in any way. And she’s good at swearing. She’s sort of a tiny, sweary Buddha.

Anyway, between us we have spent many a tea-and-cake consuming hour working out exactly how to ensure excellence in friendships. Here are our conclusions:

1. Allow friendships to develop naturally, and only be friends with people who make you feel happy and who you can trust.

2. Be a person who makes others feel happy to be around you. And be trustworthy.

3. Work on the assumption that you and your friend/s are on the same side. If someone says something you think is a bit horrible, assume they’re having a bad day or that you’re being paranoid, and don’t dwell on it. If it turns out it was horrible, then don’t be their friend. I discontinued contact with one friend I really liked because she has a habit of occasionally making little critical remarks. Life’s too bloody fantastic to waste any of it around people who make you feel bad. I have not missed her.

4. Don’t be paranoid. Paranoia breeds horribleness (see above and below).

5. Don’t be needy. Neediness is absolutely offputting. If a friend you trust hasn’t contacted you for a while, then assume they are busy or whatever, don’t assume they hate you (if you don’t trust them, why do you want to be their friend?). Real friends can be apart without contact for an unlimited amount of time because they know that the friendship is solid whatever happens, and they know that people sometimes just want to get on with their own lives, because the same applies to them.

6. Build the sort of friendship where it’s possible to say, “I can’t be bothered”, in response to an invitation and nobody will think you don’t love them. Also – if someone says ‘no’, don’t take it personally and don’t keep pushing.

7. Don’t expect or demand too much from each other. I had another friend who I really liked – she was funny, interesting and very clever indeed – but she demanded my time and attention all the time. When we were on our final dissertations at uni, for example, she finished hers first and I was beside myself with stress over mine. Instead of offering me any support, she demanded that I read hers to check it was written properly and got stroppy when I said I couldn’t spare the time. I distanced myself from this friend because she made everything too stressful. I actually miss the good things about her, but they weren’t worth the bad.

8. Make the occasional effort to do something unexpected and lovely. Our friend P once sent me and H a Valentine’s Card each that he’d made from the Niceday stationery catalogue because we always laugh at their stupid name. This made us happy for several weeks.

9. Be comfortable with silence and laugh as much as you can.

10. Any other suggestions?

Number 12 in my occasional series of Empty Nest coping strategies

Nobody has pointed out to me that I put 11 suggestions in my list of 10 ways to deal with an impending empty nest (which is here): http://throbbingsofnoontide.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/10-ways-to-deal-with-an-impending-empty-nest-2/

But I did.

Today we found another one.

12. Swerve into Pets At Home on an impulse and spend a whole hour getting in the way of young people cleaning out rodent cages, flailing a camera and planning a gigantic Degu cage in your tiny house because you have discovered that Degu respond to your whistle like you are the Messiah prophesied in their holy book .


This hamster is posing in a futuristic dystopia.


This hamster has been imbibing an unwholesome fungus it found in a fake log

These degu are pleading with us to lead them to the promised land.

Memory dump (2) In which the end of a tether is nearly reached.

If you haven’t read Memory Dump (1) and would like to, the link is here

J moving his tin box into my caravan did not immediately result in Happy Ever After. Nothing like it. We still lived on the moors in a tiny space with little money and no facilities in a culture which valued getting off your face above all else. J, like most people on site, was a very heavy drinker. The men would stash cans of Special Brew away so that when they passed out pissed each night, they would have something to drink straight away the next day. Also, we hardly knew each other, and none of these factors constitute the ideal start to a relationship. We were dysfunctional as hell, and I was pretty unhappy without really realising it. J wasn’t. He was mostly pissed.

The other day I interviewed J about all this, trying to remember the details. Here’s how he describes what life was like on site:

“It was damp and miserable. An air of barrenness I suppose. Used to get drunk lots. Talk shit. Mend broken vehicles. Try and find firewood. I suppose that was a major thing, wasn’t it. There weren’t any trees so you always had to go out looking for things in skips etc.”

Winter was approaching, and we knew it could get harsh in Yorkshire, especially on the moors; so we managed to upgrade the caravan to a bigger one which felt like luxury to us. Which is funny, because it was so obviously total squalor. Here is a picture of our entertainment centre.


The black and white TV is run by the battery of J’s tractor (which we will meet again later in the tale). The cat is watching Wildlife on One.

Here’s J reading.


Life gradually got a bit better in the new caravan; we adjusted to each other, distanced ourselves slightly from site life and he drank less often. But the relative security didn’t last long.

That winter, when it started to snow, I thought it was wildly exciting; it muffled all the noise and cleansed the filthy site, but we woke a few mornings later to more snow than I had ever seen in real life before. The half-mile track to the site had completely drifted over and was indistinguishable from the flat plain of white that was the rest of the moor which now joined seamlessly with the flat white sky, as if someone had erased the world while we were asleep. If I’d have taken a photo at that point it would have looked like this:


Aesthetically, it was a great improvement, but practically it was a significant problem. We were completely stranded; the track was impassable and the only vehicle that would miraculously still start was J’s tractor which fired up after being buried right up to the seat with snow. But even that could not negotiate the track. After a few days of this, people were running out of food and certainly of firewood. Here’s J’s description:

“We couldn’t get wood, so we had to burn furniture and parts of our caravan. Everyone in benders had to squat with someone with a vehicle and we burned all the bender poles. It was bitterly cold – as you imagine polar cold would be. We were reliant on wood – major thing. You can only burn so much of your home. Pooing was a problem because you couldn’t dig a hole in the soil so you left it on the surface to be eaten by dogs or did it on newspaper and burnt it. Sounds barbaric but it’s actually sensible when you think about it.”

This was all a particular joy to me, 6 months pregnant and needing a wee several times a night. It became impossible to go outside so I had to do it in a saucepan and chuck it outside in the morning. Bang went any dignity I had left – and things got worse.

Another problem was the plight of the bus-dwellers next door. I forget why, but they had no windscreen – the hole was covered over by a torn tarpaulin. Here is a picture of that tarp, complete with hole and some of the residents.


The night the worst blizzard hit, our neighbours awoke to find their tarp had fallen off and their bus had filled up with snow.


I wish I’d taken some photos of the interior, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for thinking of things like that. Their bed, they said, was covered in a soft layer of snow, and they had a paraffin lamp hanging up which had a little dome of whiteness on it like some sort of perverted Christmas card.

And so it was that I came to be sobbing silently under a blanket every night while snowed into a 25ft caravan on some remote moorland, 6 months pregnant, lost and wildly hormonal, with 4 adults, 4 dogs, a cat and a pack of puppies.

To be continued…

Egg-based violence

I received a message from a man called Tony in response to my violent crime clipart.  He made, I felt, a valid point:

“These are all very good, but is there an intermediate level of violent clipart? Perhaps a Chinese burn, an eye poke, a wedgie and a bit of a shove with an accompanying ‘Grrr’ would help complete the set.”

While I was reflecting on the possibilities of this, I suddenly remembered an incident of low-level violence carried out by a member of my own family.

When my mum was young, she once waited on a bridge to drop an egg on the head of a girl she hated. I have drawn a representation of this in which my mother is bald:

This is clearly a case of premeditated bullying which proves that my mum is a very bad person indeed, but the thought of our mother doing this made me and my brother laugh until we nearly did a wee. Our laughter was not moderated in the slightest by the information that mum’s victim was called Gun. This took place in a country where Gun is not a hilarious name, but it finished my brother and me off altogether.

The universe did not let my young mother off entirely scot-free for her evil deeds though, because she did have to wear glasses that made her look a bit like this:

Violent crime clipart

I eavesdropped on a Facebook conversation between two of my friends today while procrastinating. They were discussing where they are at with their planning (they’re teachers). One was saying she’s finished and just browsing for clip-art for her resources. The other, after admonishing her for using clip-art at all, pointed out that you can’t get clip-art for her topic – violent crime.

BAM. A much more exciting way to procrastinate! Me to the rescue!

1. Gang violence.

2. Stabbing

3. Petrol bombing

4. Impossible kneecapping.

A response

I had a lovely couple of emails in response to this post:


The sender, a teacher and friend who has just moved out of Cornwall, said he is happy for me to post them here, so I have.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to, especially in weather like this, is of moving into a house. Of being able to make a cup of tea or go to the toilet or even move from one ‘room’ to another without having to put on wellies and walk for 10 metres outside.

Aside from a brief spell at university I’ve lived caravans on my farm since I was 5. Through winters so cold that one year the mirror in my room cracked, rainy seasons where the caravans leak and you find the new leaks caused by the previous winds and cold spells, high winds where the roof cladding and walls stripped off, creaking and groaning as if they’re in pain. Falling through floors weakened by decades of rain, stress and use; thin windows that don’t keep the cold out or warmth in when they want you to, but turn the caravans into an oven when you want cool; power cuts caused by water leaking into circuits; falling over in rain soaked or frozen walks to get a warm drink (negating the point of the drink in the first place because of the journey outside in the cold or wet!); having no water because our spring line has frozen; all the years of having to go outside and have a shit when I was younger before we plumbed in an inside toilet.

People come here and see the farm and tell me that “It’s quiet and there is nobody else for miles and how beautiful the lake and all the green space is” and bloody hell they’re right, and I’ll miss that, but when they tell me that
“they’d easily manage in the caravans if they could live here” (especially if it’s summer when it does look picturesque here), I look at them and I know they’re full of bullshit, they wouldn’t cope at the first sign of rain or a light frost, they don’t know what ‘cold’ truly is, from their centrally heated homes with big thick insulated roofs.

And now I’m going to become one of them, and I’m going to truly relish something as simple as going to the toilet or getting a cup of tea without having to prepare for the elements. Even being inside when it’s raining ridiculously. Your blog post pretty much captures how I feel, especially when I used to visit my friends houses when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who can really understand this.


After this week it’s amazing how easily I’ve got used to this. Each morning when I wake up I walk from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to lounge just because I can – without having to put on trousers, a jumper or boots! I think the frequent and quite heavy rain we’ve had this week has played a part too. Several times this week I have caught myself standing in the lounge looking out the patio door at heavy rain, walking to the kitchen and making a cup of tea and then going back to stand and stare out the window; once I return to the window tea in hand, I find myself subconsciously smiling as I stare out the window.

It’s the same smile I used to give whenever I’d walk the twenty metres down the bank from my room to my kitchen to make a cup o’ tea, and then back again; serendipitously timing both journeys with breaks in the rainfall – that smile that somehow I’ve beaten the rain!

And whilst I didn’t sit and watch the washing machine first time like you did when you first moved into a house, I did appreciate being able to wash clothes again without either taking them to a friend’s house, or visiting a launderette.
But my cat did sit and watch the first cycle – I think he was intrigued by the noise.

Also, I love reading your blog, don’t stop, do a creative writing course and find a way to make it support your life so you can get out of teaching, (or carry on teaching on your own terms). I love reading it because I can hear your voice in my head and it makes it even better to read!

Thanks Brynn, we’re going to miss you.

Life is a five act play

I’m at the beginning of Act 4, I realised this morning on the train. That’s what’s brought on all this memory purging I’ve been doing: collating (and crooning over) photos of the sons when they were small and writing down all the stuff I need to leave behind now.

I’ve been teaching Othello for a few years, and always get the students to summarise the structure of the play – how the plot develops through the 5 acts.

Some of my students in their Emilia, Desdemona and Iago masks.Image

Othello’s trajectory in some ways fits with mine. And probably yours too. Here’s how:

Act 1: Shakespeare sets up the conflicts Othello’s going to encounter and the backdrop in which it’s all going to take place. For me, Act 1 is childhood and (if you’re a Sociologist) socialisation.

Act 2: Othello moves from the comfortable (with hints of conflict) life he has in Venice through a turbulent journey to a less civilised and more chaotic world in Cyprus. This act is what leads up to the pivotal third act where he undergoes his biggest transformation. My Act 2 is the bit where I leave home and begin a life of squatting and ‘travelling’, and it’s this that sets the foundations of the journey I have to make in my third act.

Act 3: This is the part of Othello’s story where he falls prey to his own vulnerabilities and a malign influence and goes from being desperately in love with Desdemona at the beginning to plotting to kill her by the end. It’s the biggest shift in the play, just as it is in mine. My third act begins when son 1 is conceived on a traveller’s site, follows my transformation from down-and-out to teacher and ends with my boys leaving home.

Act 4: For Othello, this is where we begin to see how he deals with the effects of Act 3 – how he responds to his changes. Othello has a fit and plots murders, but my Act 4? I don’t know yet. This is where I negotiate everything I have learned from my transformative Act 3. It’s down to the choices I make right now.

Act 5: We see the consequences of Othello’s decisions in Act 4. All, for him, ends in tragedy. It’s a good job I realised this plot structure in time to make sure I make better choices than he does.

Does this structure work in your life? I’d be dead interested to find out.

Anniversary memory dump (1) In which boy re-meets girl and the usual happens.

I reluctantly turned 44 this year and this month contains the anniversary of the day, exactly half my life ago, that son 1 was conceived and the seeds of the second phase of my life were planted. This is the story of that.

I can’t remember why, but in 1990 I was at a festival in Merseyside without most of the people I was close to, so I was feeling even more lost than usual.

Me on a truck at the festival.Image

Another thing I can’t remember is why I didn’t have a vehicle of my own at this point – I can’t seem to remember the order in which everything happened. Maybe this was after my ambulance blew up and I lost my taxi, I don’t know. But at this point, I was basically hitching lifts on the backs of other people’s trucks with a few bender poles and a tarp. The bender on the left (above) is mine and here’s the inside of it:


My interior design skills and home hygiene have improved since then but my tidiness is more or less the same. (I think the book is Philip K Dick’s Valis. I still have that 22 years later, and still haven’t finished it).

There are three things I remember about that festival:

1. Meeting a very handsome old friend and watching his irritation as we sat by a fire chatting and hippy women gyrated around him trying to catch his attention. He later shaved off all his hair “to make myself more fucking ugly”.

2. Meeting a woman who had left her baby somewhere and was publicly milking herself. My pre-motherhood self was horrified. My post-motherhood self understands (apart from the public part). Turns out, too, that she had given birth naked on the Yorkshire moors and eaten the placenta. Raw.

3. It was my first real encounter with the rave scene. It was noisy. On reflection, this was probably the beginning of my loss of interest in festivals.

A day or so into the festival I bumped into another old friend who had come up (down? my Geography is embarrassing) from Yorkshire and suggested coming back with her to winter on Blackshaw Head. Life then was a series of random encounters and featured pretty much no deliberate, purposeful decisions, so I agreed for want of anything better to do.

I have no memory at all of the journey, but I do remember reaching the site. Blackshaw Head is part of the Pennine Way, I think. The nearest towns were Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, but the site felt as thought it was in the middle of nowhere and was accessed by a deep track about half a mile or more long, bounded by rickety stone walls and high hedges. There was nothing to be seen in any direction apart from rocks and moorland which gave it a peacefulness and a pleasing sense of isolation on that sunny day and I felt some relief as we pulled up and I saw a friend I’d originally met in Cornwall – someone I was genuinely fond of and who I’ll call S – sitting by a fire, smoking a rollup and boiling a kettle. It seemed a haven after the jiggling humans and the repetitive thumping of the sound systems at the Merseyside site.

This picture isn’t mine, but gives an impression of what it felt like on the moor. On a good day. If you ignored the traveller’s site.© Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Sitting next to S, prodding the fire with a stick and also smoking, was a wiry bloke with very dark hair, piercing brown eyes and a beard like a cartoon of the devil. From an evolutionary theory perspective, I reckon I was just at that very moment, aged 22, biologically primed to find a partner and reproduce, because my brain clocked the Satan bloke and went KERCHING. He seemed visually spot on. Maybe my genes were yelling at me that his genes would do very nicely mingled with mine. That’s how biology works, right?

Of course 22 years later I would probably be looking for slightly different things in a breeding partner (such as an ability to wash), but at that time this is what appealed to me. Here’s a picture of the man himself at Blackshaw Head.

I was mildly smitten – or my biological imperative to breed was, anyway – fairly quickly, and was only partly put off by the discovery that the devil-bearded man was none other than the loathsome curly haired smug bastard I had met on the bus in Cornwall (in this post: http://throbbingsofnoontide.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/girl-meets-boy/). He was marginally less of a bastard in the West Yorkshire sun than he was in the Cornish drizzle and shared his Special Brew with me that evening, which I took to be a good sign.

Long story short, etc. I built a bender to share with a female friend in the vicinity of the devil-bearded one, who we shall henceforth refer to as J, and we (J and I) were soon engaged in the types of activities people do in these sort of circumstances, although with no commitment of any kind mentioned, of course. Below is a picture of our idyllic rural community:

When I discovered that we had conceived an offspring I thought it best not to mention it and confided only in my friend E and another girl. I was going to keep the baby, I decided, but I’d do it on my own. It was impossible to imagine J having any part of it – so impossible that I didn’t even consider telling him. I don’t really know what I thought he would make of it when I began to expand. I don’t think I even thought about the expansion. As I have said before, I lived in the moment like a chicken.

Of course, living on a traveller site is no different from living in any small community, so the news got round fairly sharpish and J appeared in my bender one afternoon when I was  reading. “I think you’ve got something to tell me,” he said. It was clear from that remark that I didn’t have anything to tell him, and I can’t even remember how the conversation went from there, but we didn’t decide to get married and live happily ever after, and I didn’t ask him for anything at all. I just agreed that I was pregnant and I was going to have the baby and that was that.

The next time I got my giro I spent it all on a rickety caravan, reasoning that if I was going to be pregnant it might be better to do it under an aluminium roof rather than a canvas one. A couple of days later, the door to my caravan opened and there was J with his tin box of belongings and a filthy army sleeping bag. Seemed he was moving in.

Part 2 can be found here

Everything I don’t know about headscarves

There was an old lady on the bus today who was about 3 ft tall and wearing a scarf. I suddenly found the scarf unfeasibly peculiar so I drew a picture.

It seems such an odd thing to do, to fold a square of material round your head and tie it under your chin. Are ladies over 70 worried their hair is going to fall off?


I decided to go home and research the history of the headscarf, but after a whole 15 seconds of looking I STILL hadn’t found anything interesting, so I gave up.

Do you think I will wake up one day in my 70s with a burning compulsion to tie a small cloth round my face?

Rain and dining tables

It rained last night. It rained so much it sounded like a deity of infinite size draining an infinite amount of pasta through a colander of infinite holiness in the sky above my Velux window.

We all love that, don’t we? – lying in a warm bed under a non-leaky window listening to it all going on outside and relishing the fact that we’re not in it. What is left of my heart goes out to people whose homes have flooded in the deluge overnight; it’s pretty damn unpleasant when all the comfort-paraphernalia you have accumulated to protect your family from the outside world is invaded by a seeping, stinking version of that very outside you shored yourself up against. It leaves you with nowhere clean and warm to hide, and everyone needs that.

I’m not naturally the sort of person to count my blessings; I’m much too much of a miserable sod for that, so the closest I ever get to Polyannaism (I’m reasonably certain that’s not a word), is when the rain is hitting my skylight. It triggers a rush of anti-nostalgia for long, drab English winters spent on dripping traveller sites with nothing much to do and only just enough money to chip in for one bottle of Merrydown between me and E so we could get drunk and forget that it was not much of a life.

Those long, grey days bleed into each other in my memory. When we were in Yorkshire, parked up on the moors, E and I would sometimes find ourselves in Todmorden at dusk waiting for a lift back up to site and we’d wander the wet pavements of streets lined with terraced houses, curtains still open as it was not quite night, and lights on as it was not quite day either. The glowy orange of electric light is irresistible  from outside when you’re damp and aimless and only have candles, paraffin and a cold, unlit fire to go back to. Those windows were magic gateways to fantasy worlds of Waltons-style happy families, comfy sofas, hot water from a tap and all those home comforts we had rejected, yet apparently secretly yearned for. E and I were drawn to them like Victorian orphans. If we hadn’t been too well trained we would have squished our faces up against the glass and whined pitifully, “Ere Missus, can you spare alf a crown for a poor omeless pauper?”

Instead we rode back up to the moors through the convoluted and darkening Yorkshire  lanes on the bumpy back of a flatbed truck, holding onto various dogs and becoming saturated with drizzle. We’d arrive back with only just enough light left to go scouting for damp wood to stoke up a hissing fire in the woodburners we had constructed from old fire extinguishers or gas cylinders, but which would soon warm the tiny tin spaces we lived in. Fire is another element that brings out the Polyanna in me. It conquers all kinds of greyness – literal and metaphorical – and makes even the most miserable hovel into a palace in which you can go warmly to whatever it is you have that functions as a bed and listen to the rain hitting the metal of your roof with a feeling of security; however temporary or illusory.

I can’t really remember why we stayed in that life for so long; most of my memories are of bleakness. The other thing we used to do when it was raining – I remember this particularly when we were on some Cornish mining wasteland somewhere, surrounded by nothing but doom grey sky, rocks and browning gorse – was to crowd into my old ambulance (only the girls did this), get off our faces on cider and paint vivid verbal pictures of the places we would rather live. Or rather, place. E and I especially had the same house in our minds. It was big, scruffy, many-roomed and indistinct apart from the garden that E filled with herbs and vegetables and the kitchen which we both saw as clearly as if we were sitting in it. It was large, of course, and furnished as if it had just grown out of history – a bashed wooden floor, a huge old range for cooking on – and the centrepiece of the whole dream was a massive kitchen table with block legs hewn from sleepers, a top several inches fat, and big enough to seat 20 people.

It seems obvious now why we fixated particularly on the table. It’s a symbol, isn’t it, of family living – children and adults all piling in together to produce food for the table. I think we were imagining children even though neither of us at that point had any, or had any conscious wish for them. The table symbolised the dream we had, and  I still secretly have, of living in a massive chaotic family home working together as a community to keep out the rain.

E and I never managed the big chaotic house, but we did manage to live in the same village for a few years and to bring up our children together in gardens and on beaches, which was almost as good, until she moved 300 miles away. We both now have dining tables, but our children are nearly gone and it’s time to look again at our lives and what we want from them. But when it pours down on my skylight and I compare that sound to the soundmemory of rain on a caravan or ambulance roof, I do get that Polyanna moment, just briefly. I might even count a blessing or two.