Grandparents

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It’s less than two weeks to go before I set foot on the plane (well two planes actually) that will take me into a whole new chapter of life. I knew there was only one place I wanted to spend some of those ticking-down jobless days and that was in Norfolk with my 94 year old granny, who handily happens to be the most wise-owl and inspiring women in the world and a one of my biggest life-inspirations. Long-time Like a Skeleton Key readers will recognise this quaint countryside haven from this post. My gran’s house is a time warp where days pass blissfully filled only with eating homemade soup, reading, writing and rambling around corn fields. I’m very aware how fortunate I am to still have my gran at this age, and for her to still be so strong and well enough to be a friend and confidant at that. Even since my grandad died, which is two years ago this month, she is still determinedly enjoying life and shown incredible bravery. After 80+ years of being a couple (they met aged 13 and 15!) I can’t fathom how you adjust to being a me, not a we, but she’s doing it.

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This past week has actually provided me with some good pre-South America preparation, which I wasn’t expecting! Firstly, the hot water in the house has broken. It’s sort of there, but it comes out of the taps in fat drips rather than a flow… so for washing of any kind there is only the option of a freezing cold bird bath or (my preferred choice) just to be a bit stinky. The tap water has also been declared UNDRINKABLE by the local water provider, something about a bug in the pipes. I’m trying to force my brain to ignore the voice asking “but what about the gallons of tap water I’ve drunk every time I visited before it was declared unsafe” as I then remind myself that my gran is swiftly approaching a century old so it can’t be that bad. It’s strange to get into the habit of only drinking bottled water and remembering to not-so-much as swill my toothbrush near the tap; but it’s something that will soon become a way of life so it’s handy training. We are also eating the freshest food. It’s one of my favourite things about coming to visit! My uncle runs an organic garden, growing every vegetable you can imagine. My gran bakes a fresh loaf of bread every morning. And on Monday we had a surprise delivery of fresh brown shrimps caught in the sea that afternoon and munched on toast for our tea. That said, my gran also is a total fiend for baking (I wish Great British Bake-Off had existed a decade ago, as she’d have been the peoples champion I’m sure!) so every meal is finished off with at least one goodie. In fact, every 30 minutes I am being forcefully-offered a sweet treat and I learnt at an early age that no one says no to my gran when it comes to food. Safe to say, my skinny jeans are now weeping in the bottom of my suitcase. There will definitely be NO bikini photos for at least a month into our trip at this rate.

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The best test of bravery has been the influx of giant mutant spiders and drunk, determined wasps that have invaded my holiday. Every day I’ve been armed with a glass and a card, scooping up spiders so big their legs have stuck out the rim of the beaker and wrangling wasps so enraged I’m sure one will come back on a vengeance mission to sting me good. This has been balanced with some beautiful Norfolk nature though. It’s like the UK is determined to show me before I leave that there is plenty of impressive wildlife to be found right here thank you very much! One morning we took a stroll up the road and by chance I looked upwards and saw flash of red amongst the green canopy of leaves. Just a metre directly above us was a little robin red breast who was singing with all his might. He didn’t seem fussed by us in the least, so gave us an incredible up-close performance of his chest puffing and wistful warbling. Then today I was pottering around the potato plot when I saw my first ever Hawk Moth! What a majestic creature. I knew that we had some roaming around the UK at the moment because my sister works for a bat protection charity, and they’ve had a few phonecalls from people reporting bats that have turned out to actually be these mothzillas.

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In other creepy crawly creature encounters, my gran posted a letter on Friday. On Monday it was returned to her in the state below. A snail had been feasting on it all weekend long, on such a glue binge that it even ate the stamp. The perils of living in the countryside.

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I am so greedy when I visit my gran, I constantly question her about her childhood, the war, her friends and what my mum was like as a kid (very naughty). I can’t comprehend most of the experiences my gran has had in her life, especially at such a young age. She has a diary from 1939, when she was just nineteen and World War 2 was declared. It’s a harrowing, humbling read. She is left in charge of her younger brother who was fourteen and she talks of how he misses mummy and daddy and how hard it is to comfort him when she feels the same! The entry below ends with them trembling in the dark, clutching each other, as the air raid sirens wail. She describes how everything feels “twice as bad” at night-time. Obviously this was the same scenario the whole of the UK suffered, but there’s something about it being told to me by my precious gran that brings it so much closer to home. It certainly puts modern day woes in perspective! The best thing about the diary is her use of Jeepers Creepers, a phrase I definitely want to bring back into linguistic fashion. Oh and her incredible description of, “he had a face like a rat trap” !!

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It’s been such a tranquil week. In between the story telling, I’ve been nose deep in Questions of Travel by Michelle De Krester  which Phil kindly bought me for my birthday after reading a review in The Guardian. It’s a beautiful chunk of a hardback, so I’ve been saving it for a time when I could read it without lugging it anywhere. Also the travel topic has stolen my heart because for obvious reasons my mind is completely preoccupied with far far away lands right now. I took about 3 chapters to really get going, but now I am half way through and desperate for it not to end. The book charts the entire lives of two characters; Australian Laura and Sri Lankan Ravi, and their experiences with Geography, travel and finding their place in the world. Currently each chapter rotates between Laura and Ravi but I expect and hope their lives to collide at some point… I just don’t know when or where. De Krester has an entirely unique writing style and turn of phrase, which takes some adapting to but is very enchanting and manages to tackle everything from tragedy to humour to romance using subtle observations that many times have made me murmer agreements out loud to myself.  I am also reading The Rough Guide to First-Time Around The World which Nick bought me, as he found it useful to read before he first backpacked in Asia. It almost instantly melted away any travel anxieties I had, as it’s packed with smart and sensible answers to nearly everything I had rattled over in my brain. From packing tips to security to general stories and tales of getting the most out of your trip, I feel more like an expert every day and am chomping at the bit to get going.

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I’m also spending hour after hour trying to transfer eight months of Spanish notes into a tiny moleskin because I know that my own phrasebook based on everything I’ve learnt will be easier for me to reference and understand now than anything I could buy off the shelf. I also figured it would be good revision and whilst I’m impressing myself with how much I have learnt, it is a tedious job. It also keeps overwhelming me by just HOW MUCH there is still to learn but I’m hoping once I’m immersed in the language it will come more easily. I know how to say yo soy el jefe so maybe this is enough anyway, I mean you can’t argue with that. I think my main problem is confidence more than ability. Since I’ve been learning people say “speak some Spanish!” (or in Nicks case “do Spanish bee!”) and I feel so self conscious as I blurt out my little introduction. I need to seriously get over this, or just be permanently tipsy on rum cocktails.

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I’ve been trying to take a magic hour walk every day. Magic hour is a term that just means the last hour of sunlight in the day. Of course in Norfolk this is spectacularly pretty and also a cooler time of day, as it’s been scorchio all week. It’s definitely de-London-ing me to be walking along tracks where I don’t see a single soul. I just send explosions of birds into the sky and critters running into the hedgerow, as my footsteps take them by surprise.

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It’s been over 6 months since I last went to see my grandparents but it feels like I just blinked and the time vanished. Since I last saw them I’ve bought a flat, flown half way around the world and back, spent hours exploring London sites and secrets and become a qualified first aider. So it was high time I crept onto the train that takes me to their countryside hideaway. Getting an East Coast train from Liverpool Street is a really good way of getting a sneaky view into the 2012 Olympic build. The train slows to a crawl as it passes through Stratford and you get long, open views of the stadium, the new train station and most impressively; the bare bones of what will be the Aquatics Centre. The thousands of seats towering over the empty ground look so strange and isolated at the moment but it’s easy to colour in the crowds and water and chaos with your imagination.

The surrounding of my grandparents house look so different compared to the last time I visited, when everything was sprouting green with Spring luciousness! I love visiting any time of year though, and even though the trees were mostly bare or bowing with rotten fruit, and the air was freezing cold and the ground was muddy, it still felt a million miles from work and tubes and crowds and Oxford Street Christmas shoppers which was what I needed for my tired brain!

My gran looked quite tired this visit, although at 91 she is certainly entitled to look a little weary. However she still chatted non stop and told me a few stories I had never heard before, as well as teaching me how to make brussel sprout soup (don’t make that face, it has to be tried to be believed, it has a really tasty smokey flavour and is delicious!) (and no, I don’t like brussel sprouts with my Christmas dinner either!) and when my aunt, uncle and cousins pitched up for a game of our family invented card game Racing Demon (it’s rawcous, rowdy and involves lots of shouting and distraction techniques) she still beat us all. Twice. My Pa was in good spirits and less confused this visit, although he has started talking about death more. On Saturday morning he looked distracted and I thought he’s misplaced something so I asked him are you looking for something Pa? And he said yes, to die. d. i. e. (nice of him to spell it out for me!) I sound like I’m making light of it, when obviously it’s not nice to hear your grandfather speak that way, but it’s the sullen attitude he does it with and then the fact that in the next breath he is right as rain again and talking about his old car or his favourite holiday to Ireland or asking for Yorkshire Pudding with golden syrup for his pudding. I think it’s probably quite normal for elderly people to talk about dying so that they feel more in control and accustomed to the idea? Either way I’ve told him he is absolutely not to go anywhere, and then I distracted him with the iPad which I think completely blew his mind and he enjoyed playing and typing on it and looking at photos of his feline great grandaughter for a good 30 minutes.

I felt extra sad to leave them this time, because next Easter seems like forever away to go visit again. As soon as I go I miss my Pa’s papery skin on his hands, and my grans smells and her perfectly set white hair and just how insanely happy sitting with them for hours on end just chatting and questioning and reading and eating makes me.

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There are many things I love about London, but one of them is escaping it.

My grandparents like in Norfolk, in a converted barn in the middle of meadows and countryside as far as the eye can see. My granny is called Lesley, she is 91, and she can still move faster than me. She refers to 70 years olds as ‘ancient’! She refuses to eat anything that isn’t homecooked (mostly by her – she says  the key ingredient to any cooking is love. Ah.), she survived bowel cancer in her 80s when everyone was busy clucking and talking about her ‘good innings’, she has the most incredible stories and she is still head over heels in love with my Pa despite being together since they were 13 and 15. My Pa is called Pat. He likes to wear a flat cap, his favourite colour is purple and he can still completely destroy me at cards. He has Parkinsons disease, which causes him to shake. It also makes him sleepy and confused. Conversations can quickly go off on a tangent, snippets of something he has read or seen on the tv or ancient memories suddenly bulldozing in and making no sense to anyone else. We can be sat in silence and he’ll suddenly grab my hand and say How many people does it take to look after that lion do you think? and I’ll say Oh I’d imagine two or three and then he is happy, and falls asleep again. I have no idea which lion he is talking about.

I love them both ferociously and I know that it’s so precious to have living granparents when you are an adult, that I do try to visit as often as possible. Not that it’s a hardship for me mind; nonstop homemade soup, clambering around fields and gardens in my wellies looking for bugs and treasure, swimming in their ramshackle old pool, reading lots, sleeping lot and ODing on good, clean country air.

I can’t wait to go back again, it already feels just like a nice dream with work and the central line and Starbucks and smog looming tomorrow.

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