I will be co-leading a programme of workshops this year, which will help women set and achieve some goals, in a supportive and accountable context. I went to a BOLD Goals workshop in Oxford the year that my life imploded and it really helped me identify some important areas of my life that were just not right. Mostly it was work and location, and the workshop made me think about what I did want instead. Eight months later and I had jumped ship from my horrible, toxic job and moved north to the house I bought. During the session itself, I hadn’t see a way forward. But I was readier to seize the opportunity that came along because I’d already put some effort in to visualise what I did want.
So kick off for the workshops is Monday, and I’m looking forward to it. However, I did realise that I probs need some goals of my own to take to the party.
First up has to be getting through my Greek GCSE in May/June this year. I started Greek in October with a self-imposed stretch target of hitting GCSE within the year, because I just can’t see how it could possibly take two years. I’m on track but it’s going to take some effort. So that’s my top priority and Wednesday evenings are sacrosanct to my hour with my tutor.
Next up is the perennial ‘what am I going to do to get my arse off the sofa?’ Heavy sigh. To counter my own laziness, I’ve registered for a MacMillan 26 mile sponsored walk in the Peak District in July. This means I’ll have to get out to the Peaks for training walks, because (a) I can’t walk 26 miles without training and (b) there’s no point training not in the Peaks or the topography will break me on the day. And, of course, registering and having to get sponsorship money means I can’t back out, so I have neatly trapped myself with that one. I’m a genius. I hate me.
That seems like quite enough for the first half of the year, given that the thought of regularly losing entire weekend days to not being in the house provokes slight panic. But what of the second half?
I have a half-formed thought about a structured reading programme. I’ve read a bit of and about Greek philosophy recently, and I’ve also just started listening to the Philosophize This podcast. So far, it’s scampered from the Pre-Socratics to Aristotle, and really, it’s beyond time I read Plato and made sense of it. I’ve joined the Hellenic Society, which gets me a library card for UCL’s Classics Library and access to JSTOR. Even better, it’s a lending library (up yours, Bodleian).
All the pieces of the puzzle are there. Usually, it’s the self-discipline that’s lacking. Maybe I can channel a bit of Aristotle and add some purpose to my life?
It is a dear friend’s 40th birthday celebrations this weekend. I know. 40. She’s barely out of short trousers. An evening of conviviality is planned, after which a group will be retiring to an Airbnb. I will be retiring to a one-woman tent, because there’s a limit to my appreciation of conviviality and it’s about four hours. Which I think will be stretched to six this evening but I already settled my get away plan because I shall drive. This seems a better idea than clip-clopping around Oxford on my own in search of a cab, and I don’t Uber because, well, that company is dodgy as fuck.
I did have my own Airbnb booked (see how Airbnb has become the brand name for B&Bs, like Bic used to be for pens?), in a nice little canal boat somewhere in Jericho. They suffered an arson attack so had to cancel my reservation, which is the least of the concerns in that scenario. Who sets fire to a boat? Bastards. Anyway, I don’t know if you have checked the price of accommodation in Oxford during the summer, but it’s ridiculous. I mean, the Malmaison, which I think we can agree you might go to £150 on for a special occasion and if it was a particularly nice Mal, charges £400. Pull the other one, mate, it’s got tourists on.
Hence, I am camping, for £20 a night. My friend’s horror at this prospect is matched only by my horror at the thought of sharing a 3-bed house with 9 people. We have tacitly agreed to disagree, each confirmed in their own conviction that the other is a bit nuts. But we love them anyway.
I thought I’d get down early, get the tent set up and spend a few tranquil hours wandering the ole dreamin’ spires and hoping for a sighting of Peter Whimsey. Then I remembered. I don’t miss Oxford. Ms Just Turning 40 and I had this conversation, because both of us lived there for years and moved away, and really only remember the horrible inconveniences. The city is undoubtedly beautiful but only at dead of night or very early in the morning, when the gargoyles climb down to play and before all the bloody tourists wake the poor spires from their only-too-rare opportunities to dream. One day, they will set the gargoyles on the tourists and then we’ll see a proper Dr Who Christmas Special.
Now, I do have to go to Blackwells. Genuinely, because the new Mick Herron is out and he did a signing and I couldn’t make it and tweeted my sadness and Blackwells said they could get me a signed copy and keep it for me. And they did, because a bookseller’s word is his ‘Have you seen this new edition of Bond?’ Admittedly, that is only Baby Blackwells in Westgate but it’s also only a hop and skip to the mothership. And I have 6 inches of space on the TBR shelf (add own joke here about the most pleasure a woman can get from 6 inches), if we don’t count the three books that arrived from Blackwells yesterday, which we don’t. Because… we don’t want to.
So my plan is basically to yomp through town, collect books, retire to my tent with my preciouses, and NOT start reading the Herron or I’ll be late for dinner. At some point I have to squidge into a dress and heels and chuck mascara at my face, but that’s all of 10 minutes.
And I can tell you that the last time I said that was sometime in the early 90s. A tale to thee I will unfold.
Glastonbury, 2019. No, I wasn’t there and I’d paid precisely zero attention to the line up as I assumed it was all people I’d never heard of. As was very much the case when I actually did attend Glastonbury, which was also sometime in the early 90s. But at some point during Glastonbury weekend it came to my attention that the The Cure were playing. Suddenly awash with nostalgia I decided a pleasant way to round off the weekend would be to tuck myself up in bed, with my laptop and a pot of tea, and watch their set.
In fact, I missed the first 20 minutes, but when I did start watching, Robert Smith sounded exactly the same. Exactly. Oh my god. I’m not very good with memories. My own memory is rubbish and I don’t connect at all with photos. Music can be the one thing that pulls me back in time, and that set worked a treat. I started searching for tour dates, and saw Glasgow in August. Hmm.
Then my phone told me I’d got a LinkedIn message, which was from an old school friend. I would conservatively estimate that it’s been at least 10 years since we were last in touch. No one did anything wrong, we just didn’t maintain contact. The years slipped by, who knows if the contact info is even up to date? You know how it goes. But now she was watching The Cure play at Glastonbury, and asking me if I remembered seeing them way back when, and did I know they were playing in Glasgow in August, and did I want to go?
She bought tickets. I booked accommodation. We’re meeting in Glasgow in August.
In shock news to no one, we’re not 20 any more. We’re both nearer 50 than any other significant number and we may have nothing in common. I don’t know if nostalgia and an ongoing appreciation for Just Like Heaven is enough to get us through a weekend. I don’t know that it matters. Our moment could have been when we were both, separately, watching the BBC coverage of Glastonbury and feeling the years roll back.
Way back when I first put the offer in on this house, before life proper blew up around me, I wrote about what I’d do when I lived on my own. So I thought I’d go back and see if I realised any of that particular fantasy.
Put the lights on in the morning when I wake up – No. But, when I wrote that originally, I expected still to be working and therefore getting up in the dark by now. At some point, I will set an alarm to make me get up before it’s light, but not quite yet.
Get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom – No, but I curse my current lamp every evening. I haven’t bought a new one because I don’t have any money but it’s inching its way up the priority list.
Go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee – Yes! And not only weekends. For a while, it was most mornings, now I’ve managed to shift myself downstairs earlier. It is one of the small but great pleasures of my new life that because I’m not dashing off anywhere in the morning, I get to make a pot of coffee and sit around to drink two cups while reading, or listening to the radio. In fact, it is one of the incentives to make my own business work, so that I have the flexibility to continue to do that.
Or, get all the cleaning done by 9am so I can sit down with coffee and a novel – this varies. I do tend to get the cleaning out of the way as early as possible. It helps that this house is small and easy to clean – 45 minutes tops.
I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug – No, again because by the time I moved I didn’t have any money. But I will when I get some, the impetus hasn’t gone away.
Music throughout the house – Yes! I bought a Sonos speaker months in advance, so that covers downstairs. I’d like another one for upstairs as well, so that whatever I’m listening to can follow me around the house.
Buy more pictures and not have a TV – Yes! I bought pictures from a couple of artists I visited as part of Oxford Art Weeks. Plus I have a ton of images that I got from my art nude shoot. But, lack of finance is getting in the way again, so nothing new has been framed. In fact, I still have to hang all my old pictures and there is less wall space than I remembered. Definitely no TV though. I did wonder if I would notice this, as during the summer I got quite used to Neflix on a big screen. But I’ve defaulted happily back to my old ways and watch Strictly on the laptop without noticing the difference.
Scent things in the airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary – Not yet, but good idea, Earlier Me! I shall put that on my list. I have rosemary in the garden so I could dry some of that as a start.
But the main difference I’m seeing is not the living on my own, it’s the unexpected change of not working and therefore having so much more time. My dears, it is glorious. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed and it may well be never, given that I’ve been working full time since 1994. It makes the fact that I’ll never be able to retire even more poignant, now that I’ve had a taste of what life could be like.
Of course, I am putting in a good few hours on my own business, but that is currently very flexible. At the moment, I prefer to start later, as a counterpoint to all those early mornings of the last few years. But I spend my time reading or baking or getting other chores done. I also find that I don’t mind working in the evening. I take a break from about 4pm – 7pm, so that I can go for a run, cook dinner, feed the cats and watch Strictly It Takes Two (yes, I am organising my life around Strictly. Because I can.) But then I don’t mind fitting in another couple of hours, particularly if it’s writing work.
Unfortunately, with all that extra time comes less money. But even that has an upside: necessity means that I’m cooking so much more and fortunately, I love a veggie casserole at this time of year. I’m baking my own bread or cakes too, so my grocery bill has plummeted. Over all, I’d say I’m eating less (the workday boredom doesn’t kick in and drive me to snack), but more healthily and for cheaper. I am driven not to waste the fresh ingredients I do have, and that pushes me to be more creative in what I’m cooking. It’s a matter of ‘What can I do with what I’ve got that needs using?’, but I enjoy that, and the knowledge that I’m being less wasteful.
And finally, it’s an absolute joy to spend so much time with the cats. In the seven years I’ve had them, I’ve always been away most of the time. They are older and calmer these days, and spend most of their days sleeping. But they come and find me several times a day, and Belle in particular likes to be nearby. Previously, it seemed that just when they wanted attention, I had to head out the door. Now, I can always stop and make time for them, so I do.
These halcyon days can’t last, because I must earn some money. I am gathering all the rosebuds I can right now.
I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.
As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.
The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.
Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.
I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman.
Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.
Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.
Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.
Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.
I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.
Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.
They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.
Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.
And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.
Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.
The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.
After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.
Ok, so everything is all friendly etc, and we went out to see Deadpool 2 and have pizza. Then we got home and I realised those are date like activities, and that, mwah ha ha ha ha, the soon-to-be-ex Will. Have. To. Date. Because, as I have explained in gentle, soothing tones, he isn’t going to meet his prospective future wife by hanging out at home watching videos about Porsches. Nope, he’s going to have to sign up to Flamr* or whatever, iron a shirt, shave, dig out the aftershave and go out and make polite conversation for a couple hours at a stretch. Possibly repeatedly.
I confess that as soon as I had this realisation, I started laughing not entirely sympathetically. Partly because being friendly and supportive only goes so far and I’m not a fucking saint, and partly because of the absolute horror of the contemporary dating scene.
In comparison, I have done my time. I’ve had so many boyfriends I couldn’t do a roll call, I’ve been married, I’ve had one night stands. I have earned my stripes and now I get to retire from active duty and sit in on Saturday nights until the end of time, wearing PJs by 7.30pm, with a bottle of wine, a box of Maltesers and Strictly. Bring it.
*As far as I know, I just made up Flamr, but now think it’s a dating app for barbecue enthusiasts. Or arsonists.
I have had an offer on a house accepted, so now I’m working slowly through the strangely Dickensian conveyancing process. Sending documents via the post, really? Still, at the end of it, I will have a house. I realise that I’m supposed to be more excited than I am about this sudden achievement of a long held dream, but circumstance is rather against me. Buried deep, there is some excitement, it’s just that I have to excavate down through layers of sadness, tiredness, anxiety, dislike of paperwork, worry about my job, concern about how the cats will cope with another move… Inner me may be whooping it up with champagne, to which I say ‘You go, girl!’; but outer me is knackered.
As well, this reality of becoming a home owner is still incomprehensible to me. I realise that all my thinking about where I will live is short term and assumes precariousness. So presently, I’m fighting the impulse to rush to buy curtains or blinds, or think about paintwork, or organise built in shelves. Yes, all that will need to be addressed. No, it doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m planning on being in this house for at least 5 years. I can take my time settling in before effecting its gradual transformation into Musings Towers.
Other thoughts that come unbidden are the small mental pop ups about the difference between now and then. Inevitably, when you live with someone, you both adapt your life’s natural patterns. I have early starts, I’m gone in the morning before my partner gets up and a weekend lie in for me is 7am. This isn’t to say that I resent the status quo. I wouldn’t get up early if I didn’t have to and I quite see that being disturbed several hours before you need to be is horrible. But, this is a sad parting of the ways, prompted by a single but insurmountable difference in life choices. Instead of focusing on that, I’d prefer to look at the small sources of contentment that will follow.
I will put the lights on the morning when I get up. Well, not overhead lights because who can face that cruel blinding brightness at 5.30am? In fact, I might not have any overhead lights at all because I’ve always hated them. Give me the soft, reflected glow of uplighters. But the main thing is I will not be navigating around by torchlight.
I will get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom, and stay up late at weekends, to read in bed.
I will go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee.
Or, I will get all my cleaning done by 9am so it’s out of the way, and then I can sit down with the novel and the coffee.
I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug. We have never managed to agree on a rug for this house, so there are none.
I will have music throughout the house. Or The Archers. Or audiobooks.
I will buy more pictures, and put them up on any walls that don’t have bookcases and I won’t have to leave space for a TV because there won’t be one.
I will scent things my airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary.