Found & Lost redux

Don’t know if you remember the two abandoned guinea pigs we found in the snow, six months ago? Tiny little mites? Yes- those guys.

Well. A lot of water under the bridge since then, I can tell you. Not to mention bushel-loads of hay, kale, lettuce, apples, beans, courgettes- no, eughhhh, they hate courgettes. Which is a damn shame, since M grows them in such jungly profusion that another two pairs of jaws would have been very helpful at such times as when the tides of zucchini threatened to overwhelm GlioriSchloss and all who cooked there.

Since those early days, M has built a summer house with slot-in pig transporter so that the Boyz may be gently portaged from indoors to outdoors and released into their airy chateau sur les herbes HQ without too much stress and squeakings. And brought back in at night, since neither of us could bear the idea of the poor little mites cowering in their hutch while cats prowled outside trying to find a way in.

Since we first clapped eyes on each other, I’ve written a book about their earlier lives ( sheer curiosity and a long period of waiting for various projects to get off the ground drove me to imagine what on earth could have brought two little guinea pigs to a snowy car park in the back of beyond*) with a great deal of fanciful embroidery and writerly hyperbole, but hey…that’s how I roll. Besides, Lost may well have been the descendant of a Russian émigré…

However, as usual, I’m going off-topic. The thing is, time has passed and the Boyz are now the guinea pig equivalent of teenagers. Oh, boy. Oh BOYZ. NO! STOP! Eughhhhh.

Sex has supplanted food in their scheme of what is most important in their lives, and heaven knows, the poor wee guys need something to take their minds off a life spent in what amounts to a very pleasant prison. So scrawny little Found spends an inordinate amount of time sniffing hopefully ( or perhaps suicidally) at Lost’s cojoñes until finally, Lost manoeuvres his vast bulk around and jumps on top of Found. There is a considerable disparity in their sizes, I might add. Not to mention their intellects. Found, despite this behaviour detailed above, is definitely the brains of the outfit. But even so, we occasionally have to take them off to the bath, put them in a centimetre of warm water and gently launder their fur. BOYZ, I tell you…

I look at them in their cage and wonder if we did the right thing all those months ago. Then we have a rare sunny day, we hook up the slot-in pig transporter, the Boyz run flat out to be first inside, and look, there they are, being carried lovingly outside to their hutch. Where they run freely, jump all over each other, play with their toys, eat lettuce till I swear they’re stoned out of their tiny minds and generally have the air blowing around their whiskers.

Air on your whiskers, no predators, a wide and plentiful variety of things to eat and a hot and cold running supply of humans to do your bidding…how bad can that be?

*The answer is not – their own legs. Anyone who has ever seen a guinea pig waddle would know that they’re not built for distance.

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Hands across the ocean 2

So. Tickets found and I’m on a train which we caught by a mere whisker. Miss Mouse is a bit of a quivering wreck to be honest; running for trains with wheelie cases and fiddle in tow is not her idea of A Good Way to Pass a Sunday Afternoon. Still… 

Where was I? Yes; back to LA. After a few days of acclimation we ventured out ( always by car) to do a bit of sightseeing. The Californian coast was dotted with hundreds of those ‘nodding donkeys’ endlessly siphoning oil all the better to run the beating, glittering, air-conditioned heart of the City of the Angels. The coastline was lovely, we had picnics, drank date shakes ( yum) fended off predatory squirrels intent on stealing our picnics and generally enjoyed the warmth. Heading back into town with the sky a hot grey and the smog a visible presence as we drew closer to the city, we saw that all around on the Santa Monica highway were the biggest cars and suvs and trucks I’d ever seen.

Back then, that was. 

In 1988 to be precise. Since then, we’ve adopted the supersize US model in so many things, aligning our cars, portion sizes and expectations to those of our cousins across the Pond. After 9.11 we wrote that we were all Americans now. Just as after recent atrocities in Europe, we’ve been Parisians, Londoners etc. 

So now, as hurricanes batter Cuba and St Kitts- are we all Cubans now? As Irma bears down on Houston and Florida? Where are we on that? As wildfires turn an area of California roughly equivalent to Germany, France, Spain and Portugal combined ( combined!) to smoke and ash… where are we on that? 

What the hell will it take for us to wake up and say- ‘ we’re all humans here and we need to get our shit together before…’

Before we destroy our one and only home.

I don’t know if those siphoning nodding donkeys are still doing their thing on the California coastline. I don’t know if the outdoor pools I swam in and indoor a/c I enjoyed is still running. I suspect the cars are smaller; only the poor drive those vast gas-guzzling museum pieces. I don’t know if the highway still has fourteen lanes of traffic.

Or if the squirrels still try to pinch your picnics.

One thing’s for sure; we are all nodding donkeys now.

I hope we wake up in time. 

Hands across the ocean 1

First time I ever went to America, we flew from Edinburgh to London then caught another flight to Los Angeles. With two children. One of whom, a baby, spent the entire fourteen hours clamped to one or other of my breasts. By the time we landed at LAX, I was a shrivelled prune, as dearly in need of rehydration as one of those California raisins I’d been consuming since childhood. I’d always loved the packaging on those ; a vanishing series of girls holding a box of raisins on which was a girl holding a box of raisins until she was so small, she was invisible.

matruschka of California girls. I’ve always loved those Russian dolls too. With their smaller and smaller editions of the mama dolly, until the penultimate  tiny dolly yields what I like to refer to as ‘the Bean’. Woe betide the hoover or dog that devours the Bean. Anyhoo, I digress. America. We landed, were picked up by our in-laws ( well, then they were out-laws) and driven in an enormous car out to the ‘burbs to a house with two vast, panting Alsatians with Greek names. I suspect the dogs were for security purposes rather than any love of dogs since their lives were proscribed by the smallness of their back garden enclosure and the lack of places to run, walk or generally be a proper dog.

Overhead, planes took off and landed all night long. Police helicopters chopped past, shining floodlights down into the glittering streets. Morning brought floods of sunshine, Cheerios and a trip to the supermarket which was an education in itself. The Santa Monica highway was seven (seven!) lanes wide and drivers of open-topped cars sat reading ( reading!) as we inched along.

Some years before, a boyfriend had nicknamed me Miss Mouse, and would draw little encouraging drawings for me if I ever had to take a portfolio down to London or go anywhere outwith my normal zone of operations. For that same Miss Mouse to find herself in LA was disorientating in the extreme.

I’m going to continue this later because I’m going to Morayshire tomorrow and somehow, I’ve lost all details of my train times. I know Morayshire isn’t that far, but Miss Mouse is still having a Major Fret and feeling totally overwhelmed. So for now, I’m off to hunt for train times and leaving you with the promise that I will return.

Squeaking.

Best bun, ever.

Those of you who have been following this blog as it takes its infant steps across the digital carpet* may have noticed that it has had a makeover recently. Before then, I was reduced to weeping and swearing like a Clydeside docker at my laptop. What the hell was a widget? How was I supposed to know if I needed to tag things, or use a standard format and how come my illustrations wouldn’t fit on the welcome page?

A friend helpfully pointed out that my blog looked a bit corporate, then confessed that she hadn’t a clue how to help make it look better. Cheers, mate. Other friends made soothing sounds and muttered something encouraging about how it was the content, not the packaging that counted, but…och. I mean OCHHHHHH. I’m supposed to have a degree in graphic design and illustration for heaven’s sake. So what if it was handed out in a bygone age when we ( I kid you not) learned our typography skills by slotting little tiny metal legs with individual letters impressed on one end into other metal slotty things ( technical term) which were, in turn, slotted into big metal clampy things ( another arcane technical term) and then inked up and slooowwwwly thudded down onto bits of paper. At which point, I’d invariably discover that I’d put the d or the p or the q or the b round the wrong way. And out it would all come, and I’d begin again. Oh, how we suffered, just to put together one single paragraph of type. This single post, back then, would’ve taken three miserable afternoons in the Case Room, enduring the wrath and scorn of the grumpy printer whose karmic destiny it was to instil the rudiments of typography in a group of delinquent art students. Poor man.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Making my WordPress blog look good. So. On I went, trying to ignore the mess of the home page, the fact that I seemed to have spawned not one, but three blogs and the feeling that I was adrift in a sea of technical jargon, surrounded by much evidence that every single other person using this site appeared to be terrifyingly accomplished, design-savvy IT gurus. I’d landed on WordPress like a newbie at Wimbledon armed with nothing other than a burning ambition to play using  an old, saggy Slazenger. Oh…Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Oh, do shut up, Gliori.

Until…an email arrived from my friend the Bookwitch. Being a Witch, and not just a common-or-garden Witch, but  a witch who blogs, she had divined that I was making a mess of my attempts to prettify my blog. And offered help. Real, practical help. Hers plus the assistance of her husband, the Resident IT Wizard.

Really? I mean, why would you want to be trapped in your own gorgeous sunroom with a waffling, flapping and deeply confused illustrator who can barely recall her own password, let alone decide what template she’d like to use on her new blog? Why? This, friends and neighbours, is an important question. Why would you do this to yourself?

I think the answer lies in kindness, in all of us working together, sharing skills, giving up of our most precious commodity ( time) and also, I may be alone in thinking this, but it was fun. I really enjoyed spending an afternoon in the company of a BookWitch and an IT Wizard. We talked of many things ; politics ( how could we not?) long-distance walking, far-flung daughters, how long a kilo of pasta can stave off starvation and finally, of buns. Vanilla tea was poured, followed by a plate of buns.

Ohhhhhhhhh. The buns. Imagine, if you will, a brioche-type dough, but denser than that. A reinforced bread/cake hybrid. Imagine it baked to a shyly golden hue, then cooled and its little top sliced off. Imagine it is then gently filled with a grainy paste, something like marzipan ( I love the old word ‘Marchpane’ for this sweetmeat) but far more granular. On top of this is piled a pillowy, billowy cloud of whipped cream, whereupon the little lid is replaced on top.

Behold. The Bookwitch’s Lent bun. My illustration doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. A thousand thankyous to you and your husband for making my day. It was, as the young people say, MIGHTY.

*Apologies for this. Digital carpet? Who writes this stuff?

Lost & Found

IMG_3287Atop a hill near Peebles, contemplating heading onto higher ground into snow, we paused to take stock. Note the dog. The dog with the amazing, finely-tuned nose. She is smelling the wind, delicately picking out each and every scent that it brings her. The wind smells of snow and heather, of sweat and goretex, of sheep and rabbits and, hang on, of guinea pigs?

But I’m racing ahead here. Let’s just stick with the dog for the moment.  Her name is Cara, and we love her extravagantly, all the more so because she’s nine and we are also, probably in dog-years, close to nine too. In short, none of us are exactly in the first flower of youth. Anyhoo – I digress. This day had been pre-arranged, inked in diaries, put off and rescheduled but finally fixed upon for a long hill-walk, and we were packed and equipped for a good day out on the hills ; sandwiches, fruitcake, tea, oatcakes and if we peered through binoculars, we could just about see the splendid frontage of Peebles Hydro which, if we felt in need of rescue by way of tea and scones, we could try to walk the miles between us and it and hopefully get there before they stopped serving such delights.

However, the fates had something different in mind. A little curved ball for you? Or, how about two? An hour before this photograph was taken, we’d been getting our boots on in a car park about two miles from Peebles on a very B road. In fact, it was so B it was probably a C road. The car park was, regrettably, full of trash and dog shit, and we were mincing our way around it, tying laces and complaining about the fecklessness of gaiters and the gruesomeness of dog owners who don’t clean up when Cara ( the dog? remember?) dived off into the bushes and something black and white bolted out ahead of her. The men in our company gave chase and found that what Cara had uncovered was a very small and terrified guinea pig. What to do? As we debated what on earth to do with this squeaking, tiny creature, Cara lunged back into the bushes and flushed out another, larger, cinnamon and black guinea pig. AAAARGH. Just how many of them were in there?

Fortunately, only two. Faced with the prospect of pretending we hadn’t seen them and releasing them back into the wild ( no, too cruel) or calling off the hill walk and going home ( no, we’d taken three months to synchronise diaries to actually get to this car park, let alone up the hill) we decided to make a cave for them in the back of M’s car, leave them some of Cara’s dried food and a few oatcakes and a dish of water, and head up the hills anyway. At least the car was safe and warm.

The hill walk was glorious, but we did fret. There was much training of binoculars on the car park to check that nobody was standing over our car with an axe, full of self-righteous guinea pig liberating wrath ( there wasn’t) and we worried that they might find the car too warm after their time in the snow in the car park ( they didn’t appear to). M did also consider that by the time we returned to the car, he might find its wiring and electrics somewhat compromised, but we needn’t have worried. All was well when we returned. There was an unbelievable quantity of what guinea pig owners coyly term ‘magic beans’ released all over the boot of the car. Who knew they could produce quite such copious amounts of the stuff, but it’s an old car and M is a kind man. Much kinder than I, since I wouldn’t have been anything like as sanguine if it had been my car they’d used as a latrine.

So. What to do? Well, we took them home, of course. In a bag for life. Guinea pigs for life. *Sigh* But seriously, how could their previous people do that? Peebles was Baltic. The car park was full of Jack Russells when we got back to the car. It doesn’t bear thinking about…

Look – here they are, about to emigrate from Peebles to the Lothians, the poor wee mites.

IMG_3297Found is the black and white one and Lost is cinnamon and black. M took them to the vet and discovered that they’re both boys and they were very undernourished. They lived for a few days in an old steamer trunk and then we cracked and bought them a luxury condominium with two bedrooms, in which they enjoy hot and cold running straw, herbal forage, and copious amounts of spring greens and kale interspersed with a little chef’s salad of red peppers, cucumber and carrot.

Everyone who’s met Lost and Found says the same thing – oh, boy, those are two lucky guinea pigs. And yes, I suppose compared to what might have happened in that car park, yes they are. Sort of. But… many years ago, when we buried the last of the children’s tiny caged animals under a tree in the garden ( Ruff, the beloved hamster) we both swore that we’d never, ever, ever have a small creature in a cage as a pet again. It’s just too sad. I mean who the heck do we think we are, subjecting animals to that kind of half-life?

Plus, please don’t judge me, but part of me wants to stamp my feet and sob –  we’ve only just released our last child into the wild. After forty years of parenting. ( She’s not forty, but we do have five children. ) Surely we could have  a little time where we aren’t subject to the needs of small creatures? A little time in our lives where we could, at the drop of a credit card, decide to go away for a weekend up North. Unplanned. Oh, the heady freedom of it, thwarted by two little guinea pigs. And then I hear Found’s mellifluous fluting chirrup, or I see Lost lying on his side, so full of straw he’s in danger of being classed as a paliasse rather than a rodent, and I…er…um. Melt. Soften. Make some pretty rodent-like fluting sounds myself.

Just don’t, I beg you, don’t say – oooh, they’ll give you some good ideas for your next book. Because I’m there already. Thinking. Chewing. Nibbling in fact. I appear to be trying to turn straw into gold. Or magic beans. Or something…

Night Shift : 12

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An antidote to the internet. A walk in the winter sun at high tide. An attempt to still my thoughts and gain some perspective. I keep thinking ‘this too shall pass’ and of course, it will, but… So I took my own advice and went for a walk – to this exquisitely beautiful part of East Lothian which rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Except, as I squelched along the shoreline, I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t feeling grateful for being fortunate enough to live near to such beauty. I was awash in a complete information overload, horrified at events playing out across the other side of the world, aghast at our own government’s lack of spine, moral compass, ethical stance…

In the face of current affairs, I feel powerless. There are events afoot in the wider world that make me so afraid, I’m amazed that sleep is possible. There are events afoot near to home (  the looming spectre of a vast housing development ) that make me feel besieged. If it all goes according to the developers plan, our little single-storey houses on a leafy lane will be overlooked by the upper floor windows of three hundred identikit three-quarter of a million pound executive homes with their massed entitlement to the best part of the sky, light and view. For the past umpty decades, we’ve filled our eyes with that sky, that light and best of all, that view, and counted ourselves blessed.

Caveat. Blessed when I haven’t been wrangling with depressive illness ;  at such times it’s impossible to feel anything other than star-crossed.

Back to the walk along the wintry shore. My tangled thoughts carried on twining and snaking around inside my head, jumping from one bleak prospect to another ; a series of what-ifs leading off into some grey and dystopian future. With five children, I can’t just write off that future knowing that I won’t be around to see it. In truth, we have a massive stake in ensuring that there still is a decent future for all children, whether they are related to us or not. Then I had a short pause while I beat myself up for overloading the planet, diverting more resources to looking after my family, publishing books that entail chopping down trees, running a car, burning yet more trees on a woodturning stove, occasionally eating meat and generally being that hackneyed thing; an eco-hypocrite. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to have good time when out for a walk. Oh, the thinks you can think.

The high tide made walking along the shore quite a tricky proposition. At times, I had to head inland into deep mud and leaf mould, weave under jaggy branches, risk soggy boots and slither over rocks. In short, I had to pay attention to something other than my own thoughts. And at such times, solutions can suggest themselves to you. Precisely when you’re not looking for them. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans said. It is solved by walking.

What came to me was that we are always out of control. We are always powerless. To accept this is to take a step towards true freedom. To acknowledge that no matter how tightly you cling, or holler, or clutch the sides of the river, or try to keep things from changing,  in the end, everything changes and everything is swept away. And to cling to keeping things unchanged is to waste time and energy that might be better spent experiencing the full heft and breadth of right here and now.

So ; in that vein, today is the proper launch day for Night Shift. My publishers at Hot Key in association with the excellent booksellers at Blackwells on South Bridge, Edinburgh are having a proper launch event tonight complete with a Q&A, drinks and signing of books. It’s a big day, I’m slightly nervous ( actually, make that very) but also looking forward to releasing my book into the wild and hearing what people say. And remembering that ultimately, I can’t change anyone’s opinion of the book, or my ‘take’ on the subject. All I can do is let it go and allow it to find its own path.img_2811

Night Shift : 11

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It’s almost imperceptible, but night-time is happening later and later each day. The year has definitely turned. Buds are budding, birds are singing and green shoots are poking up through the earth…you get my drift. Why this should be a cause for joy inside my head is another matter – as the light returns, I draw closer to my own particularly perverse seasonal affective disorder ; namely, the more light there is, the worse I seem to feel. Go figure. Perhaps it’s the frequent disappointment of yet another dreary Scottish summer ( sorry, Scotland, nothing personal, just…you could try harder) coupled with the knowledge that I seem to be locked in perpetual combat with myself at a time when it feels as if everyone else is looking forward to holidays, sunshine, barbies and time off…

So why am I posting this? Why advocate something I don’t feel works for me? Getting out there and looking for signs of spring? I think I’m doing it because I’m convinced that taken one day at a time, this gentle medicine works. Instead of trying to look ahead to tomorrow and worry about what’s happening on the world stage ( no, no, no, let’s just not) perhaps we need to take each day one at a time. Each hour, if necessary. Heck, let’s break it into easily assimilable minutes. So, in this minute, the birds are singing their hearts out. The grey sky is disappointing a restful  pearly grey. This moment is good. I am breathing. Nothing hurts. Well…after today’s session with the energetic yoof and super-fit people at the gym, actually everything hurts, but we’ll gloss over that, shall we? This single moment is amazing. I’m grateful to be here and now.

And hold that thought.

The small things that bring pleasure, the vanilla moments of semi-contentment ; these little things vanish when we suffer from depression. In fact, they almost turn against us, taunting us with a faint memory of what used to be, whispering in our ears that such moments will never return and it’s probably our fault for not appreciating them enough in the first place. When I had my first encounter with depression, I looked back to the postgrad year I’d just finished and couldn’t connect with who I’d been then. She ( the illustration post-grad) was made out of an altogether different substance from the soggy mess I’d become. She was busy, happy ( I thought) and looking forward to a future which seemed to be opening out like a flower. (Which it did, but not until I’d gone through a year of illness.)

A dear friend cajoled me into coming out to dinner with her and some of her women friends. ‘It’ll cheer you up’ she said, thinking that being in the company of these amazing women would somehow rub off on me, or that they could accomplish what I’d clearly been unable to do. By then, I was on a hefty dose of amitriptyline, which I suspect I wasn’t supposed to mix with alcohol. I forget what the contraindications were. Anyhoo – I was too ashamed to say to her a. I’ve actually had to go and see a psychiatrist and have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed and b. our family doctor has prescribed an antidepressant medication that appears to have turned me into a zombie. I couldn’t even tell one of my closest friends that this had happened. Such was the stigma back then. I felt, deep down that somehow it was my fault that I was in this state.

So we took our places round a large table in a restaurant. The women ordered wine, I tried to bleat out something about how I’d rather not drink, but due to a combination of my newly-acquired stammer and the general noise levels in the restaurant, an unwanted glass of white wine appeared in front of me. Since the whole meal was a gift to me from my friend, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, so I tried to sip it very slowly. The meal finally came and the conversation flowed around me. The women were bright, funny, clever and kind. They tried to include me in their group. They brought me in on topics, threads, jokes but nothing seemed to enable me to speak. I felt as if I were a large, silent rock on which every little conversational wavelet, every big frothy surge crashed and ebbed upon. In the waves came, and out they went, leaving me mute and still. I simply had nothing at all to contribute.

Then I began to feel very unwell. I managed to flee the table and made it to the bathroom just in time to lose medication, wine and supper in one go. I washed up, tried to make myself look less ghostlike, and returned to the table. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed myself as much as I did that night. Back home, my partner asked how the evening had gone, obviously hoping that I’d miraculously ‘snapped out of it’ or that the company of some good women had helped return me to myself in a way that his best intentions and efforts were clearly failing to do. I knew how much I was letting him down when I said that I hadn’t enjoyed it much. I saw myself through his eyes and, if anything, felt even worse.

The main problem then, as now, was a lack of communication. I couldn’t explain how I felt without appearing to sound as if I was either criticising,  being ungrateful or just pathetic. I was ashamed at myself for succumbing to this illness. Nobody had actually said to me that depression wasn’t my fault, or that it wouldn’t last forever, and I, in turn, couldn’t explain how terrible it felt. Words were letting me down. In extremis ( and depression fits that category) I became inarticulate. Yet I needed contact – I desperately needed to feel that I wasn’t alone. The isolation brought about by depressive illness was the loneliest place in the world.

Thirty two years later, in drawing ( and writing) Night Shift, I wanted to try to assist  communication between the spheres of the ill and the not-ill. To facilitate a signal boost between worlds. To let the birdsong back in and allow us to take one day, one moment at a time. To reassure us that this will not last for ever. To be able to point to an image in the book and say – this is how I feel right now. Help me. Give me a hug.

Help us. Remind us that depression lies. Remind us that this will not last for ever. Remind us that we are not defined by this illness any more than a pool is defined by the action of the wind on its surface.

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