Farewell, Wuffles.

Two years ago, we drove to the shop to pick out a pet. With six of us, it’s sometimes hard to make a decision, but this was easy. Amongst the little scraps of fur sat a giant ball of fluff. With two huge beady eyes and the wuffliest whiskers that you’ve ever seen, there was no doubt about which hamster we all wanted. The sales assistant gave him a quick once over: “Yes, she’s definitely a girl*” and popped him in a carrier for us.

I drove home as carefully as I could, Si holding the little cardboard box. Every bump in the road and pothole seemed enormous, with Si murmuring “She’s* not moving, I think she’s dead” as we drove. But, we got him home safely.

Si is not a lover of instructions, and had missed the part about leaving the hamster for three days to settle in. He plunged his hand in to pick the little guy up, and was rewarded with a pair of needle-sharp incisors sunk deep into his thumb.

It was time for the solemn business of choosing his name. This was more difficult than picking out which hamster we wanted; there are six of us and many opinions. But we put forward our choices (Si proposed “Bitey”) and voted, and Wuffles he was.

Hamsters don’t look like much. It’s hard to explain exactly how a small bundle of fluff can have a personality, or be so adored. But Wuffles was. The simple happiness of watching him waddling around, the tickly joy of him pottering along your hand, the deliciously tactile floofiness of his fur, and the zealousness with which he stashed away peanuts kept us all entertained. Sometimes, in a world that can be harsh and confusing, you need a bit of trivial, uncomplicated happiness, and that’s what Wuffles gave us.

However, while we got a lot of pleasure from Wuffles, he was always—as one would expect from a hamster—entirely indifferent to us. He never gave any suggestion that he was pleased to see us. For the first year of his life, he would even raise himself up on his front legs, direct his bottom along the wire bars, and pee out of the cage onto our wall and carpet. Wuffles, basically, didn’t give a crap about anything but his sunflower treats and his wheel, and I rather respected him for that. He simply sat around, looking simultaneously magnificent and daft. “Look at our stupid hamster”, we’d coo, lovingly. “Look at him.”

We were lucky to have two great years with him. But over the weekend, he lost interest in his food. He suddenly slowed down. I couldn’t even entice him with a favourite sunflower snack. Si fed him drips of water by hand. The last two days passed in a strange sort of daze, with me popping in to check on him every hour. In an echo of his first car journey, I’d murmur to Si, “He’s not moving. But I think he’s still alive.”

His decline was so quick, we weren’t even able to take him to the vet. Last night, he was quiet and so still. And so small, now. I sat on the floor, cradling him in my left hand, listening to the click of his breathing. He didn’t move at all. I could barely get him to drink. We moved his cage into our room so he wouldn’t be alone (not that he would have cared). In the morning, he was curled up peacefully; he was gone.

A pet teaches you a lot about life, of love, of loss. Yes, Wuffles was only a hamster, and a stupid hamster at that, but he was our stupid hamster and we loved him.

Sleep well, little friend.

*A year or so after we got “her”, Wuffles was climbing the bars of the cage when I noticed, with some horror, that “she” had some lumps on “her” undercarriage. It turned out that these were merely fluffy testicles and that he was definitely not a girl.

The Art of the Compliment

I lost quite a lot of weight a few years ago.

I was round at a friend’s house for tea. She was busy in the kitchen, when the doorbell went. It was a good friend of hers—someone I’d met before but hadn’t seen in a number of years—and he greeted me with some surprise.

Friend-of-Friend: “You’ve lost weight!”

Me: “Yes, I’ve lost weight.”

F-o-F: “You’ve lost a lot of weight!”

Me: “Yes, I’ve lost a lot of weight.”

F-o-F: “Your husband must love that!”

I was totally thrown by that last sentence; in my world, love isn’t measured or contained by body size. My shape has indeed changed over the years, and it will change again, and it’s no measure of my worth.

Then, there was the insinuation that he used to find me unattractive, but now thought my appearance was acceptable; this troubled me. Why was this guy—who I barely knew—assuming that my relationship and my body were any of his damn business?

I wish I’d picked him up on it.

In a parallel universe, I’d have launched into an eloquent speech explaining all the above. Occasionally, I enjoy imaging myself simply shouting “OH FUCK OFF” as I slam the door in his face.

For the record, I was too flustered to think of a suitable comeback and instead stammered out a factually accurate but deeply unsatisfying reply:

Me: “I’ve no idea what my husband thinks about it. We split up a few months ago.”

The ensuing silence was immense, awkward and well-deserved.

The Shed of Doom

Having a productive sort of day, I decided to assemble a shelving unit in the shed.

It was a pretty easy job, but as I triumphantly pushed the final cap into place, I shrieked. I’d managed to trap a chunk of my wrist skin in between the pole and the cap, thus painfully attaching the whole unit to my arm.

I was stuck fast, pinned in place, like a lo-budget version of 127 hours.
I had no tools to hand to take the shelving to pieces.
I couldn’t reach my phone to call for help.
I was royally stuffed.

Eventually I managed to drag the whole shelving unit, still attached to my arm, to the door of the shed where I started shouting. Thank goodness some kind soul came to my aid and freed me from the unit (and my own stupidity). He didn’t even laugh at me. What a gent.

Anyway, five years later, the shelving unit still looks ace, so it was totally worth it.

Locked In

I made myself really ill once. Obviously, accidentally. But I didn’t understand how to look after myself.

As usual, I was doing too much: my A-level mocks, running a local youth group, acting as the programme controller for a hospital radio station. That probably would have been enough on its own, but I’ve never been one to understand when enough is enough. In my infinite wisdom, I then decided to arrange a residential weekend, including a Ball on a Boat (these were quite the thing in the 90s in North London), for the national youth group. Single-handedly.

There are many things I’ve done in my life that started as terrible, terrible ideas, then became terrible, terrible experiences. This was the first of them.

If you’ve ever tried to arrange an event for more than three people, you’ll know what a hassle it can be. Arranging a night out for the other parents in your daughter’s class? Challenging. Sorting out a trip away with your buds? Tiring. Planning and managing a weekend away with 75 fellow teenagers, where you’re solely in charge of organising food, entertainment, accommodation, transport and the sodding Ball on a Boat? A living nightmare.

I barely slept in the two weeks before it. There was so much to sort, plus people phoning me up at all hours of the day and night. On top of that, I’d caught a nasty cold and really felt quite horrible.

The ball wasn’t the disaster it could have been. By some strange grace it all went reasonably smoothly. I think I even managed to have some fun at some point, but I don’t remember much about it. What I do remember—with hideous clarity—is the morning after the event finished.

I woke up, but I couldn’t get up. My body was heavy, unresponsive, seemingly unconnected to my brain. It wasn’t that I was so tired that I couldn’t get up. I simply couldn’t get up. My limbs weren’t working.

The next 18 months of my life are strange and painful to look back on. I had many good periods, where I could get to school and enjoy a normal day. And many others where my body simply shut down again. One day, I was sat at the kitchen table, looking at a glass of water. I was thirsty. I desperately wanted to drink. And I tried to lift the glass but I couldn’t even get it off the table. It was simply too heavy. I simply couldn’t do it.

After numerous tests and trips to the doctor, I got what was effectively a non-diagnosis. The doctors had ruled everything else out so, by a process of elimination, they told me I had ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome*. It’s still really poorly understood today, but 25 years ago things were even worse.

I really don’t remember much from that time but the one thing that did stick is how people treated me. A number of my friends—not proper friends, I now realise—didn’t believe I was ill. I was teased for having “yuppie flu”. I was routinely pulled out of classes by my teachers—when I was well enough to attend—and accused of faking my illness. My mother would write me notes explaining my absences; I was accused of writing them myself. The school eventually threatened to keep me down a year if my grades didn’t improve. I wasn’t offered any help, only the prospect of punishment.

I still don’t know exactly how I got well*. I tried everything: diet, vitamin B injections, protein drinks, hundreds of strangely-named supplements. And something must have worked as the cycle of wellness, relapse, wellness, relapse finally ended. There was no fanfare: one day I simply stopped relapsing and stayed well. It took a long, long time to start trusting that I would actually continue to be well this time.

Did I learn anything from my illness? Well. I didn’t learn to pack less into my life, I continued to be strenuously, stupidly busy. I didn’t even learn to take better care of my body until relatively recently. But I did learn to be grateful for my health. It’s still easy to take it for granted, but everytime I feel unwell or tired now, the fear returns. Perhaps the relapse is finally here. Perhaps this has only been an extended, but ultimately temporary, period of wellness.

I am profoundly grateful that I was only unwell for 18 months. I know some people suffer for a lifetime. If you have any form of chronic illness, I wish you good health plus compassion and support from those around you. If you don’t, I wish you not only continued good health but also an appreciation of it.

And for me? I hope my body never takes me prisoner again, but I accept that it’s out of my hands.

 

*I’ve been reading more about ME recently and I’ve been questioning my (non)diagnosis of it. Apparently most teenagers who develop viral illnesses will recover spontaneously within 2 years during their teens to early 20s; this would explain my relatively swift recovery. Only a small percentage of teens who suffer from a viral illness like this will develop long term ME/CFS. So, it’s quite possible that I didn’t ever have ME in the first place. I’m deeply thankful for that; the insight into what life must be like, with full-blown ME, was more than enough for me.

The Long Way Home

I was nearly home when the woman stopped me. She was younger than me, slight, wrapped in a long beige coat, clutching a battered red suitcase.

“Can I ask you something? Where’s Tesco? Is it near?”.

I was pregnant, tired and desperate to get home. But something in her voice gave me pause. “Are you OK?”, I asked, knowing full well that she wasn’t.

She swallowed, hard. The words fell out, piecemeal, between sobs: “Tesco. I’ve got to get there. I’ve got to go now. Before he gets back.”

“It’s this way. I’ll walk with you.”. I started back the way I’d come, she dragged her suitcase beside me.

As we walked, she told me a little of her situation. She’d come to our country expecting a better life. Her boyfriend seemed kind when she met him. He wasn’t kind when he drank. She was scared of him, of what he’d done, of what he was going to do. He hit her. Repeatedly. She always wore long sleeves. He was at work, so she’d packed her case. She’d called a friend; he was coming to get her, but wouldn’t drive to her house. He didn’t want to risk running into her boyfriend. He, too, was scared of him. He said he’d pick her up from Tesco’s, that it was safer to meet there.

Along the pavements, across the busy road, we walked, in silence now. At the Tesco car park, I asked her if she needed money, if she wanted me to wait until her friend arrived. But she said I should go, that she thought she was safe.

I moved away from there many years ago. Once in a while, I drive past that big Tesco, and I hope that she was right.

“Do One Thing A Day That Scares You”

OK, over-familiar shop window, I’m in!

So, I just snogged a shark and later I’m going to fly a helicopter while blindfolded. Tomorrow, who knows? Disguising myself as a seal and climbing into the polar bear enclosure at London Zoo? Figuring out if I’ll ever be able to afford to retire? Contemplating the bleakness and futility of existence?

A sincere and heartfelt bit of feedback to Facebook

Dear Facebook,
 
Could you kindly, in your “people you may know” section, stop suggesting that I add the following as friends:
 
a) That weird guy from Guardian Soulmates who I went on a terrible date with in 2012
b) That person from youth group I had nothing in common with when I was 14, and haven’t seen since I was 14
c) That ex-colleague that I hadn’t added as a friend already for a very good reason
d) That other weird guy from Guardian Soulmates who I went on a terrible date with in 2012
e) That nightmare ex that I haven’t spoken to in five years. Yes, that one.
f) Possibly an ex-parent from my daughter’s class? Don’t know
g) Person who will think I am a crazed stalker if I add them as a friend, as there is no reason to add them as a friend (e.g. my friend’s teenage daughter who I have never met)
h) That woman who lived in the downstairs flat in 1998 with the sodding fluffy dog that never stopped barking
i) Brother of person I have not spoken to since accepting friend request on Facebook. I have never met this brother.
j) I think that’s my osteopath but I’m not entirely sure what his actual surname is (he’s in my phone under Alex Osteopath)
k) A cat. An actual cat. In Fulham.
l) Builder who did some work for me in 2011.
m) A garage. An actual fucking garage. In Manchester.
n) Guy who bought my house in 2009.
o) “Captain Halitosis”
p) That awful friend-of-a-friend that said that awful thing that one time
q) That other other weird guy from Guardian Soulmates who was so weird I decided I didn’t even want to meet him for a first date
 
If you could sort this soon, that would be appreciated. Before the next time I accidentally click “Add Friend” instead of “Remove Suggestion”. Again.
 
Thanks!
xxx

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I like Christmas. Very much. More than most people (which is particularly unusual given that I’m Jewish). 
 
But Christmas has always been my favourite time of year (except for a few years where I fell out of love with it, but more on that later). And it’s never been about the gifts (indeed, as the esteemed Ms. M Carey says: “I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree”), it’s always been about the people.
 
My parents used to own a gift shop and, as you can imagine, they used to be ever so busy in the run-up to Christmas. So, after school had finished, my sister and I would be packed off to my aunt’s to stay while they worked right up until the end of Christmas Eve. We’d be kept busy “helping” my aunt prepare for Christmas, giggling ourselves to sleep each night, tucked up in twin beds with a tiny Christmas tree inbetween us.
 
Come Christmas morning, our parents would arrive. I was always overjoyed to be reunited with them, then the rest of the day would pass by in a haze of laughter and food. It was a day of traditions—many of which were shared with other families, others were uniquely ours, like the Annual Family Walk (which was much talked about but rarely actually happened), the Annual Family Talent Show (which very much happened and still does)—and I loved every minute of the day.
 
Things change. They always do, they have to. I grew up, I could look after myself, I didn’t need to stay at my aunt’s any more. I got into a relationship with a man who didn’t celebrate Christmas and my love of it was dimmed. And after my father died, it became harder and harder to celebrate it; the joy of Christmas tempered with the knowledge that someone important was missing, that my happiness had a hole in it. My family shifted.
 
Things change. They always do, they have to. I moved into a new home, with my girls. New start. And I saw Christmas afresh, through my kids’ eyes, and I started falling in love with it once more; it came to represent all that was joyful and good. I started celebrating it again, more intensely than ever.
 
A while later, I also fell in love with a friend of mine. He was amused by, and supportive of, my love of Christmas and he came complete with two wonderful bonus children; suddenly I also had a brand-new family to celebrate Christmas with.
 
My favourite song—not just for Christmas, but for always—is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Specifically the original lyrics*: “Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
 
2017 has been a really bloody difficult year, and I’ll be glad to see the back it. But, we muddled through it and I celebrated this Christmas with my sister and her delicious family, my mum, my aunt, my boyfriend, our kids (and the little dog). It was loud, it was joyful, it was perfect. I was as happy as that little girl, on Christmas Day, watching her parents’ car pulling up.
 
So, have yourself a merry little Christmas now xxx
 
*None of this “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” business, that line was rewritten at Frank Sinatra’s request. I prefer the hopefulness and gentle melancholy of the original.
 
 

Situations Vacant

It was the first day of a new job, writing training manuals for my new boss and her beauty business.

I tried to plug in my laptop. “Let me do it!” she shouted, diving beneath the desk: “Health and safety! It’s not safe for you to do it”.

She waved a sheath of typed pages under my nose. “This is what I want you to type up. I wrote it on my computer, I just want you to put it into a nice format.”

“If you’ve already done it on your computer”, I asked, “could you email me the file? I could just reformat it then. It makes more sense than me typing it from scratch.”
“No. I don’t want to get a virus from your computer.”
“You won’t get a virus from emailing me a file.”
“No. I don’t want to do that. Just type it up.”
“That doesn’t seem to be the best use of time.”
“Just type it up.”

So, I started typing up the notes while she stood behind my shoulder, watching me type. After ten minutes of this, she finally spoke:
“I don’t think you want this job, do you?”
“Excuse me?”
“Your body language is telling me that you don’t want the job.”
“Excuse me?”
“Look at you, with your shoulders all hunched up. You think this job’s beneath you, don’t you.”
“What? I do want this job. But you don’t seem to want me here.”
“That’s right, I don’t want you here because your body language tells me that you don’t want this job. You should go now.”

Baffled, I closed my laptop and went to unplug it.

“No!” she shouted, diving under the desk again. “Health and safety! I must unplug it for you.”

I grabbed my laptop and left. It was less than forty minutes from arrival to sacking. It remains one of the strangest – and definitely the shortest – jobs I’ve ever done.

Scarves

I used to harm myself in many different and subtle ways; one of them was with clothing. When I felt bad about myself, I’d dig out my worst clothes and wear them to punish myself. Jeans that bit into my stomach and made me ache all day. Sloppy tops that made me look ultra frumpy. I wouldn’t bother styling my hair; I didn’t deserve it.

That was a lifetime ago. As part of my recovery, I cleared out all the sad pieces and—over time—built a new wardrobe of clothes that I love to wear, that flatter me, that make me feel good.

However, there were still some things that I longed to wear, but convinced myself were beyond my fashion grasp.

Among them, scarves.

I’d look at stylish people, floating around with a jaunty scarf, and think how wonderful they looked. And then, in the same moment think “Not for me”. Surely I’d look too messy, too pretentious… just wrong. I’d look like an idiot, trying too hard.

But I was at a party. And there, on the opposite side of the room, was a charming man wearing the most beautiful scarf. Festooned in bright, graphical print. He looked amazing and I practically vaulted over a sofa to reach him and tell him.

“You look terrific. I wish I could carry off a scarf like that”, I burbled.

He grinned. “It’s just a scarf! Of course you can!”

I must have looked sceptical, because he unwound the scarf of wonder from his neck and handed it to me. “Go on.”

Feeling somewhat self-conscious yet oddly happy, I made a hamfisted attempt to tie it on.

“There you go! It looks good”, he reassured.

I peeked in the mirror. Damnit, he was right. I looked… stylish. Confident. Full of scarf. I looked like a scarf-wearer.

The next day, I bought my own jaunty scarf. Like an 80s explosion of a scarf; pink, blue, orange and green, all in ragged blocks.

I wore it. And I liked it.

And perhaps I do look like an idiot. But I’m a warm idiot, so who cares?