Saturday, 28 November 2015

"Oh, The Weather Outside Is Frightful..."

So, I've been out of the house for the day and guys, it's pretty bleak out there.  It was barely four o'clock in the afternoon when I got back and it was already dark.  The rain was coming down, mixed with hail, making it both wet and cold.  The wind was blowing a gale.  In short, the weather outside really is frightful.

But the fire is SO delightful.

It would be really easy to get down in the dumps, when it's dark, cold and rainy.  But I've been thinking a lot about a Manic Street Preachers lyric, today:

"We love the Winter.  It brings us closer together."

In spite of the rain, the chilly temperature and the darkness, I do have a soft spot for Winter.  Because, as much as there are few things worse than having to stand around in cold, damp air, feeling your fingers turn to ice and your hair blowing so wildly around your face that you end up looking like an extra from a Bonnie Tyler video, there are few things nicer than being all cosy in the warm, whilst the storm swirls outside.

There are so many things to like about this time of year.  Sure, we could get angry about the extra time it takes to de-ice the car before we can drive to work in the morning, but have you ever stopped to look at how beautiful the world looks, when it's sprinkled with early morning frost?  Have you ever looked at the patterns ice makes on the back of a frozen leaf?  Yes, I know I'm sounding a bit hippy-dippy, here, but bear with me.  There really are a lot of lovely things about this time of year.

I say this as someone who has suffered from a touch of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  Week after week of rain, getting up for work in the dark and arriving home the same way, grey days without a ray of sunshine in sight and of course, in January, you have more of the same, without the promise of Christmas being just around the corner.  I can certainly understand why this time of year can have its downside.

Convenient excuse for wet Tennant...

But I agree with the Manics.  There's something about the Winter that really does bring us together.  Whether it's celebrating Christmas with family and friends, or just moaning to your workmates about how bloody cold the weather has been lately, Winter really can forge a sense of togetherness that's sometimes missing through the rest of the year.  

Getting in from the cold, switching the heating on, curling up on the sofa with a cuppa...  Few things are cosier than that feeling of knowing you're home, warm and dry.  I'm one of those people who can quite happily lie in bed at night, listening to rain beating against the window, thinking: "Ha!  And I'm snug as a bug under this massive Winter duvet.  Emma 1 - Weather 0."

And then of course, there's Christmas.  I am a massive child when it comes to that.

Pictured: Me.

Christmas has always been the very best thing about this time of year, as far as I'm concerned.  When I'm Christmas shopping, it's literally the only time the Heavens can open and I can be soaked to the bone and not give a fudge, because I'm solely focused on getting wonderful presents that'll make the people I love the most smile.  The shops are warm, there are Christmas songs playing, fairy lights twinkling everywhere and all the people around me are doing the exact same thing as I am.  "We love the Winter, it brings us closer together" in action.  

There's something about being together as a family, drinking Bucks Fizz for breakfast, playing stupid games and watching Christmas telly that can make you feel warm, even when the temperature outside is in minus figures.  And I bloody love that.

Like I said, I know this time of year is hard for a lot of people, for a whole host of reasons and I completely understand that - I've found it difficult enough myself, at times.  But maybe I'm making an early New Year's Resolution to be more positive.

You see endless rain, I see a good excuse to stay in and watch cheesy Christmas movies.

You see temperatures dropping, I see the perfect reason for a glass of hot mulled wine.

You say potato, I say... Well, potato.  Nobody says po-tah-to.

I've been home for over an hour, now.  Outside, it's completely dark and the streetlights are twinkling against the night sky.  The rain is still falling and the wind is picking up.  But the kitchen is warming up nicely as dinner cooks, the dog is snuggled up in his bed and I'm planning to make a festive playlist on my iPad, to listen to on the way to work on Tuesday (because once it's December, I can go all out Christmassy).  In short, it might be cold outside, but it's lovely and snug inside.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

You know, as long as it doesn't cause too much travel disruption... ;)

*        *        *

Looking for a Christmas gift for the child in your life?  My new children's book, Seven Days With The Cherry Tree Gang is out now and you can buy it here!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bedtime Story (25/11/2015)

Not gonna lie, I'm sort of dedicating this week's story to myself...

Benji The Brave

Billy was the bravest bear in the forest.  He would happily climb the highest trees.  His roar was louder than that of all the other bears.  He was never scared of anything.

Benji was the smallest bear in the forest.  He didn't like heights.  He was very quiet and he hid away from the slightest sign of trouble.

Every day, Benji watched Billy and wished he could be more like him.  He wanted to be big, brave and strong.  He just didn't know how.

One, sunny afternoon, Benji sat beside the river, watching fish dart through the water.  He glanced at the jagged rocks that jutted out of the waves and remembered how he'd seen Billy jump across them, to the other side.  Maybe if I jump across the rocks, thought Benji, then I'll finally be as brave as Billy is...

Trembling, Benji shuffled forward and gingerly placed his paws on the first rock.  It was slippery and he struggled to stay upright.  He briefly thought about turning back, but he didn't want to give up at the first sign of trouble.  So, with a deep breath, Benji took another step and crossed over to the next rock.  One paw landed safely, but as he moved to place the other paw down on the wet surface, he lost his grip and fell into the fast-flowing water with a loud splash.

Benji yelped, his paws thrashing wildly in the water.  One by one, the other bears came rushing to the river.  "Help!"  Benji cried, as he was carried by the current further and further downstream.  

Suddenly there was a terrific roar and Billy appeared from nowehere, bounding towards the river, faster than any other bear could go.  He made an enormous leap and splashed into the water, grabbing Benji with his big, strong paw.  Quickly, he hauled Benji to the riverbank, pushing him up onto the grass to safety.  

"What on Earth happened?"  Billy asked, as Benji lay on the riverbank, struggling for breath.

Benji pulled a face.  "I wanted to do something brave," he whimpered.  "Like you."

Billy shook his head.  "You don't have to go searching for danger just to prove that you're brave," he told the smaller bear.  "Sometimes, being brave is simply about knowing the right thing to do."  He smiled and patted Benji's head as he clambered out of the river.  "You don't have to do anything dangerous in order to prove yourself, little man."

Billy stretched up to his full height, but as he did, his paw slipped on the wet ground and he fell backwards, back into the fast-flowing water.  Taken by surprise, Billy didn't have time to begin swimming and as the other bears watched in horror, he began to be carried away by the tide.  

"Someone needs to do something!"  One of the other bears cried.

Benji scrambled to his feet.  He couldn't jump into the river - he wasn't a strong enough swimmer and he was bound to make the problem worse!  He stared in fear, as Billy disappeared around the river bend.  Benji knew that there was a waterfall ahead and panic surged through him.  Suddenly, without even knowing what he was doing, he began to run.  Faster and faster he ran, following the path of the river, yelling as he went: "Help!  Come on, everyone, help!"

More and more bears began running behind Benji and other animals began to join in, too.  Finally, Benji overtook Billy, glancing over his shoulder as the biggest, bravest bear in the forest splashed helplessly in the waves. 

Benji headed straight for the tall tree that stood beside the waterfall.  He shimmied up the trunk and began tugging at a low branch.  "Help," he called to the animals gathered at the bottom.  "Help me get this branch down!"

One by one, the animals joined Benji, swinging, pulling and banging on the branch until it was almost ready to fall.  "Try harder," Benji begged, seeing Billy coming into view.  "He'll go over the waterfall if we don't hurry!"

At last, the mighty branch fell.  Benji slid down the tree trunk and hurried to the water's edge.  "You need to push the branch out as far as you can," he told the other animals.  "Hold it really steady and don't let go!"

With a mighty push, the animals lay the branch across the river, just a few feet away from the thundering waterfall.  As Billy surged into view, Benji yelled: "Grab on!"

Billy lunged wildly at the branch, clinging onto it with his sharp claws.  The branch swung frighteningly close to the waterfall, but Benji and all the animals hung on tight to the end, pulling the branch back towards them, as hard as they could, until they had dragged Billy to safety.

For a few moments, everyone simply sat in stunned silence, as Billy shook himself dry and lay in the grass, gasping for air.  Finally, he turned to Benji.  "Thank you," he said, simply.  "What you did was very clever.  And very brave."

Benji smiled.  "You said that being brave is about knowing when to do the right thing," he reminded Billy.  "And helping a friend in trouble seemed like it was definitely the right thing to do!"

Billy sat up and hugged Benji close.  "You're as brave as any other bear in this forest, Benji," he told him.  "Probably even braver."

Benji beamed with pride.  And from that day on, he didn't feel bad about being the smallest, or the most nervous.  He'd proved himself to everyone.  But even more importantly, he'd proved something to himself.  

You don't have to be big or strong to be a hero!


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Cooler Than The Red Dress - How a Trigger Helped Me Move On

In November 2009, I bought a dress.  It was a red, silk bandage dress and it was a bargain at just £29.99.  I bought it with the intention of making it that year's "Christmas Day Dress" (I always like to wear something nice on Christmas Day) and as soon as I got home, despite it having been raining the entire time I was out and my hair therefore resembling something from an 80s power ballad video, I took a few photos and put them up on Facebook.  

Seriously, the hair...

So, why am I harping on about this, six years later?  Well, Facebook has a feature called "On This Day."  For any given day, you can check and find out what you were up to in years gone by.  It's become something of a habit of mine to check this feature first thing in the morning and on the whole, I quite like it.  Sometimes, I see something funny and it makes me smile.  Sometimes, it brings back bittersweet memories.  But every now and then, I see something that I didn't want to be reminded of at all.

Yesterday, when I checked the "On This Day" feature, I saw the photos of me in my red dress.  I actually thought to myself: "Blimey, I haven't worn that for years.  I wonder if it even fits, anymore?!"  I then thought absolutely nothing more of it and got on with my day.

Today, when I checked the feature, I saw a public comment on my Facebook wall, written six years ago, by a man who, back then, I hadn't actually met.  It said simply: "I added you as a friend just so I could click the "like" button on your red dress album. :)"  Seems harmless enough, right?  Just a bloke I'd spoken to via a mutual friend's status updates, who'd cheekily added me as a friend himself, after seeing some photos he liked.  I took it as a compliment.  I thought he was gorgeous and I was pretty chuffed that he liked a few pictures of me, especially since all I could notice when I looked at them was the state of my windswept hair.  He jokingly added that he wasn't a stalker, honest.  I joked back that "it's not stalking, it's selective walking," thanked him for the compliment and deliberately put a kiss at the end of the message, because did I mention I thought he was gorgeous?!  We took the conversation to private messages and did some harmless flirting.

If it had ended there, seeing that perfectly innocent-seeming comment in my "memories for today" would have had no effect on me, whatsoever.  The trouble is, it didn't.  That "gorgeous" man whose cheeky message flattered me and made me laugh became, over the course of the next two years, the man who emotionally, psychologically and sexually abused me.  He's someone who, for very obvious reasons, is supposed to be blocked on Facebook.  Why he wasn't is beyond me (he is now), but I found simply being able to see his profile picture and his cover photo shockingly triggering, even though he looks different now to the way he looked six years ago.

People talk about being "triggered" online a fair bit, these days.  We put "trigger warnings" on posts about sensitive subjects and many of us - myself included - talk quite openly about what our "triggers" are.  But only if you've ever been triggered can you possibly know what it feels like.

I saw his photo and, when I hovered over his name (wondering why the hell it was clickable when he was supposed to be blocked), I saw his cover picture, too.  And instantly, I had to cup a hand to my mouth, as though I was about to be violently sick.  My breath started to come in short, shallow bursts.  I felt too hot and too cold at the same time.  My hands began shaking, until they shook so violently that my whole body joined in.  And that reaction happened years after the abuse did.  That reaction happened well after I've put my life back together and moved on from what he did to me.  That reaction had nothing to do with not being over it, or needing further counselling or anything like that.  It's just what my closest friends refer to as my "abuse hangover."  

In the four years since I left my abuser, I've actually walked past him in the street.  And bizarrely, it didn't trigger me in the same way that seeing that he was suddenly unblocked on Facebook did.  I think it's possibly because I've had a bit of a low week this week and Facebook has something of a part to play in that, so seeing him there was the cherry on the lousy cake.

The thing is, in true Carrie Bradshaw-esque style, once I'd stopped the shaking and the nausea and the general feeling of "ARGH!", I started thinking more and more about that red dress.

I suddenly realised that there's a subconscious reason I have barely worn that dress in the four years since I left my abuser.  And it's purely because it was that dress that brought him into my world - or at least, onto my Facebook friends list - in the first place.  I suppose, in a totally stupid way, I blamed it.  I associated it so much with him, that it became ugly; the very last thing I would want to wear.

It's no coincidence that, in the semi-autobiographical novel I'm in the process of preparing for publication, the character loosely based on me wears a red, silk bandage dress on the night she first meets a mysterious, dark-eyed stranger, who becomes her psychological tormentor for the rest of the book.  And yet, I never realised that when I was writing it.  I didn't think anything of it at all.  I just thought "I like red, so she can wear a red dress."  But somewhere, deep down in my brain, a voice was obviously trying to make a point.

It's weird when you realise stuff like this.  It's strange to suddenly understand why there's an item of clothing in your wardrobe that you feel you can't wear.  But it's a wonderful moment when you realise that you can and you bloody well will.  What happened to me came so close to breaking me.  But I stuck all those pieces back together again - with a little help - and I got stronger.  Stronger than I ever thought I was capable of being.

I met my abuser on New Year's Eve.  For the first two years after I walked away, New Year's Eve wasn't a nice night for me.  It brought back too many memories and made me think about stuff I had worked really hard to push out of my mind.

Then, in 2013, my friend Lizzie and I went away together for New Year.  We spent it at Butlin's, having fun and getting a bit drunk and dancing, singing and doing all the things you're supposed to do at New Year (minus kissing anyone at midnight, but you can't have everything...).  Ever since, I actually look forward to the date.  We have our routine of going there now and it's fun.  Getting to the point where I could enjoy New Year's Eve again was a big deal for me and it was a way of realising that I was over what happened and ready to move on.

This year, I'll be doing the same thing.  I'll be having fun, with one of my dearest friends and I will be wearing a smile.  

And I'll also be wearing a red, silk bandage dress.  Because, sometimes a trigger is more of a call to action.  It makes you realise that the bad things are in the past, however painful it is to remember them.  It forces you to realise how far you've come, even if it feels like a tiny thing can open up old wounds.  Seeing that supposedly harmless memory wasn't harmless for me, at all.  But I refuse to let the past spoil the present or the future.

I will be wearing that dress on New Year's Eve.  To make a point to myself.  To create new memories to replace the old.

Because I can.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Bedtime Story (18/11/2015)

Jennifer's Jumper

Jennifer's Nanny loved to knit,
Though she wasn't very good at it.
She knitted horses that looked like donkeys
And her stitching always came out wonky.

Jennifer's wardrobe was full of knitted stuff.
Jumpers, hats, scarves - she had more than enough!
But every time Jennifer thought her wardrobe was full,
Her Nanny just went out and bought more wool.

One wintry morning, Nanny came round
And from inside her bag, came a rustling sound.
"I've knitted you something," Nanny cried.
Her bag had another jumper inside.

The jumper was green, the jumper was itchy.
The jumper was the opposite of "titchy."
It was big - enormous!  Too big for Jen,
Who rolled her eyes, thinking: "Here we go again..."

The jumper simply didn't fit.
Jennifer was much too small for it!
It featured dots and zig-zagging lines,
In colours too bright for poor Jennifer's eyes.

"Thanks, Nanny," Jennifer politely said,
Before rushing to hide the jumper under her bed.
She loved her Nanny, but it didn't seem fair;
she kept knitting her clothes she didn't want to wear!

For days, then weeks, the jumper stayed hidden.
In the meantime, Nanny knitted scarves and mittens,
Until Jennifer's wardrobe was overflowing;
She couldn't shut the door without woollens still showing!

Finally, Jennifer could take no more
And she flung open her wardrobe door.
"These woollen things are taking over my room,"
She groaned, with a sense of gathering gloom.

So Jennifer grabbed a large black bag
And filled it with all the woollens she had.
Did she feel bad?  Yes, quite a bit!
But the jumpers Nan knitted didn't even fit!

From under the bed, Jennifer pulled out
The too-big green jumper and said without doubt:
"This knitwear is too much; it must go, today.
I'll take it all to the charity shop right away."

Jennifer marched straight out of the house, 
Closing the door as quietly as a mouse.
She rushed down the road, but began to feel bad;
When Nanny saw what she'd done, Jen knew she'd be sad.

But Jennifer pushed on, with her head in the air,
Though the cold wind was starting to blow her long hair.
In fact, the weather really wasn't that nice.
Poor Jennifer's fingers were like blocks of ice.

She paused for a moment and opened her bag.
Out of the woollens, she managed to drag
A pair of pink gloves, to warm up her hands.
Jennifer tugged them on and felt glad.

But after a while, she stopped once more.
The weather was colder than it had been before.
Jennifer shrugged: "I would be daft
If I didn't try wearing a hand-knitted scarf!"

Her hands and her neck were now nice and warm,
But Jennifer's head was exposed to the storm.
She opened the bag and - fancy that!
She had her pick of her Nan's cosy hats!

Yet something still didn't feel quite right.
Jennifer coughed and her chest felt tight.
Her body was cold and she knew how to feel better;
She needed to wear a nice, hand-knitted sweater!

Jennifer pulled out the big, baggy, green jumper
And when she put it on, she realised her blunder.
It was cosy and warm and didn't really itch.
Best of all, Nan's love was in every stitch!

Jennifer turned on her heels and ran home,
Knowing how wrong she'd been to have moaned.
When she arrived, her Nanny was there
And Jennifer hugged her tight without care.

"Thanks for my jumper," Jennifer said.
"And the scarf and the gloves and the hat on my head.
I love them so much, I don't mind admitting.
Please Nanny, never ever stop knitting!"

And to this day, Jennifer's wardrobe is full
Of all kinds of clothing, made out of wool.
She's always warm when she wears a scarf or a glove.
And she's cosiest in jumpers, knitted with love.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

"La Tristesse Durera..." - Thoughts on the Paris Terrorist Attacks

Credit: Jean Jullien.

Yesterday, I woke up feeling like I had reasons to be upset or stressed out.  Unread Facebook messages, misunderstandings between friends, Christmas gifts that should have arrived ages ago...  All these thoughts - and more - occupied my mind.  And every single one of them was utterly trivial.

This morning, I woke up.  Too often, we don't even think about how lucky we really are.

Whilst millions of us sat down around the TV with our families last night, dozens of people were being caught up in something unimaginable.  Whilst I curled up on the sofa - a cup of tea in my hands and a dog on my lap - not that far away, in Paris, innocent people were being gunned down.  People going to watch a football match.  People out for dinner.  People seeing a band in concert.  People with no weapons, or political agendas.  People who had not signed up to any kind of war.  Just people.

Ever since 9/11, stories like that which unfolded in Paris last night have become depressingly familiar.  Powerful minority groups - and it's vital to remember that these barbarians do not represent all of their religion - have successfully killed thousands of innocent people, in their bloodthirsty belief that they are right and justified in waging war against the West.

The word "Jihad" has been used to describe the violence inflicted by the likes of Islamic State, or Al Qaeda.  But it is done so wrongly.

"Jihad" is not a word intended to refer to the violent slaughter of innocents.  It's not supposed to mean a declaration of war against other religions, or cultures.  The word "Jihad" has many meanings.  It can refer to the act of striving to be a good Muslim, informing others about the religion's teachings, or protecting the faith against others who wish to bring it harm.  In Islam, "Jihad" must only ever refer to force when no peaceful option is available and should such action ever be used, there must never be violence meted out on innocent people (more info here).

It's important to remember that.  In the wake of such atrocities, there is, unfortunately, almost always misinformation and a desire for recriminations.  We must never think for a second that our enemy is Islam.  Our enemy are those who take the name of the religion and twist it in order to "justify" their lust for control, bloodshed and catastrophe.  IS and their like are no more representative of Islam than the KKK are of Christianity.

Despite their words of "battle," IS and other terrorists like them are essentially cowards.  How else can you possibly describe an "army" who wages war against the unarmed, the unprepared and the innocent?  These aren't soldiers, going in to fight against people on anything remotely resembling "fair" terms.  These are butchers, taking the lives of people who cannot escape, because, until it's too late, they have no idea that they need to.  There is nothing honourable or brave about attacking men, women and children who are merely going about their lives.  To do so is despicable.  It's understandable that in the wake of last night's disastrous events in Paris, so many muslims felt the need to publicly condemn the terrorists.  But it's depressing that they feel they have to, for fear of judgement.  Those men in France last night, with their guns and their explosives, weren't representing the whole of Islam.  Anyone with the ability to think for themselves should be well aware of that.

Wembley's arch was lit up in the colours of the French flag, last night.  Many places around the world followed suit.

When I climbed into bed last night, my heart felt too heavy for my chest.  I thought of those people, held hostage and killed in terrifying circumstances, when all they did was go out to see a band.  I thought of so many families, desperately trying to reach loved ones.  I thought of people who had gone out for dinner, or to see a football game, only to have their lives taken, or changed forever.  I thought of the residents of Paris, trapped in their own homes, watching the horror unfolding on their television screens.  I thought of the millions of peaceful muslims around the world, who will now fear reprisals from people too ignorant to realise that Islam does not condone these atrocities.  I thought of the thousands, upon thousands of people killed in acts of terror all over the globe, many of which just don't receive the same coverage, but are equally tragic for all those involved.  I even thought about the people indoctrinated into extremism and how their lives could have been different, had they never had their minds so shockingly manipulated.

And then, just as the tears began to subside and I realised how enormously lucky I was to be in a safe place, able to tell the people I love how precious they are to me, I thought of humanity and how it somehow always manages to prevail.  Because in a city in which murderers were holding terrified concert-goers hostage, there were also taxi drivers switching off their meters and driving people home to safety for free.  In a place where bodies lay in the streets, the residents were tweeting their addresses with the hashtag "#porteouverte" (open door), so that strangers, stranded with no safe place to run, could take sanctuary with them.  This morning, whilst bullet holes remain in walls of old Paris buildings, hundreds line the streets to give blood for those seriously injured as a result of these despicable attacks.

There may be a minority of brainwashed, dangerous individuals, intent on causing us harm, but the rest of the world is united as one.  We are, regardless of faith, nationality or the colour of our skin, just people.  Humanity is capable of horrendous atrocities.  But we are capable of incredible unity, love and empathy, too.  That, more so now than ever, is something we must cherish and cling to.  

There is almost certainly a long, frightening and violent road ahead.  We may all pray for peace, but we are dealing with a force intent on destruction and we must be aware that there is no magical, quick fix in this situation, however much we desperately wish for such a thing to exist.  But we do have a sense of unity.  We do have hope.  We have each other.

Today, I will hold my loved ones that bit tighter.  I will grieve for the people who will never again have that same chance.  I will feel sick to my stomach at the slaughter that took place in France's beautiful capital city last night.  But I will remind myself: 

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness.  Only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that."
- Martin Luther King Jr.

Let's none of us resort to misinformed hatred towards innocents who do not represent the actions of these terrorists.  Let's refuse to use what happened in Paris to further any kind of closed-minded political agenda.  Let's never allow a hateful minority to extinguish the freedom we are so lucky to have.  Let's instead show love to those who need it.  Let's hold on to hope.

"Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise."

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bedtime Story (11/11/2015)

If you're a regular reader of these stories and wish to buy my latest children's book, Seven Days With The Cherry Tree Gang, I'm thrilled to announce that it's now available as a paperback.  You can find it here - thanks to everyone for your support!

As today is the 11th of November - Armistice Day - it felt appropriate for this week's bedtime story to be dedicated to all those who have served (and continue to serve) this nation and others, in order to keep us safe and ensure peace reigns.  Thank you.

Poppies For Poppy

Poppy drummed her pencil on the table, letting out a loud sigh.  "History is so boring," she groaned.  "Why are we learning about stuff that happened years ago?"  

Beside her, her friend Jenny pulled a face.  "Learning about the past helps us to move forwards," she told her.  "And we're doing a project on the two World Wars - it's important we don't forget that!"

Poppy sat back in her seat and stared at the ceiling.  "I'm not interested in wars and fighting.  I just want to go home and play for a while before tea."

Finally, the bell rang and the children in Poppy's class all scurried out of the school and into the fresh air.  Jenny turned to walk a different way to Poppy.  "I can't walk home with you today," she called.  "I have to meet mum at the hairdressers.  See you tomorrow!"

Poppy slung her school bag onto her shoulder and began walking down the path in the opposite direction.  She was tired and the weather was getting chilly.  She hugged her coat tighter around herself to keep out the cold.  As the wind began to blow, Poppy broke into a jog, trying to keep herself warm.

She hadn't been walking for long, when she realised there was someone slow ahead of her.  An old man, with his head bent low, was trudging by himself, carrying a big box that seemed to weigh him down.  Poppy tutted to herself and prepared to jog past him, when something fell from the box he was carrying.  Poppy bent down to pick it up.  To her surprise, it was a pretty red flower, made out of paper.  She stared at it for a moment, before calling out to the old man.  "Hey, you dropped something!"

The man didn't turn around, but carried on slowly walking ahead.  Poppy sped up, until she came alongside him.  "You dropped this," she said, as she handed the flower back to him.

The man smiled at her and his grey-blue eyes seemed to light up.  "Thank you, young lady," he said, in a voice that was a little croaky.  He spied a nearby bench and placed the box he was carrying onto it.  "My old legs don't work as well as they used to," he said.  He laughed softly, as he sat down next to the box, with the flower still in his hand.

Poppy shuffled her feet.  She wasn't supposed to talk to strangers, but she didn't like the thought of leaving the old man by himself, either.  She paused, watching him turn the little red flower over in his hands.  "That's pretty," she said, eventually.

"It's a poppy," the man smiled.  "For remembrance.  We wear them so we don't forget the people who fought in the wars, years ago."

Poppy's eyes widened.  "My name is Poppy," she told him.  "And we're learning about the two World Wars at school at the moment."

The man nodded.  "I'm glad you're learning," he said.  "It's important."

Poppy shifted uncomfortably on her feet, unable to look the man in the eye.  "It was years ago, though," she said, quietly.  

The man laughed a little, then coughed and pulled a hanky out of his pocket.  "It doesn't always feel that way to me," he replied, as he wiped his nose, then balled up the hanky in his hands.  "Sometimes, I remember it as though it were yesterday."

"Were you in the war?"  Poppy asked, her eyes widening.

"For the last couple of years of World War 2," the man replied.  "I did my bit, yes."

Poppy shivered in the cold air.  "I wouldn't like to go fighting anyone," she said.  "I'd rather stay at home in the warm and stuff my face with chocolate and sweets!"

The old man laughed louder.  "Well, you couldn't have done it back then," he replied.  "Sweets were rationed; you could only get them now and again."

"What?  No sweets?!"  Poppy gasped.

"And no staying up with your bedroom light on until late, either," the old man went on.  "You had to keep your lights out, because of the planes flying overhead."

Poppy blinked back at him.  "Our teacher has told us all about bombs falling and stuff like that.  It doesn't sound very nice."

"It wasn't," the man confirmed.  "I lost my brother..."  His eyes started to look watery and he dabbed at them with his hanky.  "He wasn't much older than you.  That's why I was proud to go and serve the country; trying to end the war, once and for all, so nobody else had to suffer."

Poppy nodded, sadly.  "I'm sorry," she said, unable to think of anything more helpful to say.  "I thought learning about the war was boring, but... It's actually really sad.  And interesting, too.  Your life must have been very different to mine."

"We didn't have TVs, or computers to play games on, or mobile phones to call our mates with," the old man laughed.  "But we still had fun.  It wasn't all bad."  He rose, slightly shakily, to his feet.  "I'd better get back home," he told Poppy.  "Elsie's doing a steak and ale pie for tea."

Poppy reached out for the box on the bench.  "Here you are," she said, picking it up.  "What's inside here, anyway?"

The man gently opened the top of the box, to show Poppy a collection tin and what seemed like hundreds of little flowers like the one she'd seen earlier.  "I've been collecting for the Poppy Appeal," he explained.  "Raising money to help people who need it.  People who've been injured in war years ago, or to provide support to those who serve in our Armed Forces today."  He held out the poppy that had first fallen from the box.  "Here," he said.  "You can have this one, if you like."

"To remember people who died in the war?"  Poppy asked, taking the flower.

"Not just to remember them," the man smiled.  "But for the future of the living, too."  He began walking, slowly, down the path.

Poppy glanced down at the flower in her hand.  "I'm sorry I thought history was boring," she called after the old man, but he was beginning to disappear from view.  Poppy stuck the flower through a button hole on her coat and gave it a gentle pat.  "I was wrong," she told herself.  "Learning about the past is really interesting.  And doing something to help the future is just as important, too."  Breaking into a jog once more, she caught up with the old man.  "I want to come and collect with you next year," she told him.  "And I want to hear more of your stories."

And next year - and every year after that - that's just what she did.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Learning To Fly...

There are some things in life that we talk about as though they'll never happen to us.  For me, abuse was one of those things.  It was something I was trained to recognise, due to my day job.  Something I knew about, but would never have to personally experience.

Of course, then it happened to me.  And when you're in the midst of a relationship with someone you love, but who is harming you in any way, yet is also manipulating you to the point that you think you somehow deserve it, or they can't help their behaviour, it's very hard to call it what it is.  So you live in the situation, desperately hoping things will change.  The process of coming out of that situation is a long and difficult one, for all kinds of reasons, but when you do, you're almost immediately aware that leaving isn't the full-stop you longed for it to be.

Leaving a bad situation is often only the vital first step along the road to actually being free from it.

I often refer to the process of recovering from abuse as being like climbing a mountain.  The analogy I frequently make is that it can be a difficult journey, but you keep going, because you know the view from the top is going to be amazing.

I'm not quite sure when I reached the top.  Perhaps it was the day I had my last ever session with my amazing support worker, from the abuse charity who helped me put myself back together.  Or maybe it was the night I passed my abuser in the street and somehow managed to keep smiling and walking with confidence, despite the churning in my belly and the fear in my mind.  

The one thing I know, is that there came a point where I knew I had finished climbing the mountain (you always know that there'll be triggers and reminders that set you back a bit, but as time passes, they become less frequent and they don't drag you back like they used to).  What I didn't know, was what to do next.

You climb the metaphorical mountain and you survey the incredible view and do the whole "wow, I'm so proud of myself" bit, but then you're sort of... Well, just standing there.

You just stand theeeeeere!

It was only very recently that I realised what's supposed to happen next.  You don't walk down the other side of the mountain, nor are you supposed to set up camp at the top.  No.  You're supposed to fly.

There comes a point after all that hardship, after all that effort of putting your broken pieces back together again, where you realise you're as fixed as you'll ever be and you don't want to be shackled to the memory of what you went through.  Sure, you keep it with you forever, but it no longer defines you; it no longer weighs you down.  And once you have that realisation, the only way, as Yazz once sang, is up.

Whatever causes you to be ready to make that leap is a very individual thing.  It could be a brave decision on your part, that makes you realise you've regained your confidence.  It could be meeting someone new and realising you want to start again with them.  It could simply be a gut instinct that you wake up with one morning.  But whatever causes it, you've got to grab that feeling tight with both hands and never let it go - it's your cue to spread your wings.  

I realised this weekend that I was ready to move forwards with my life.  I suddenly knew - in an instant - that I was ready to go for it.  Before, there had always been a shadow on me; the ghostly hands of the past, tugging me backwards.  Somehow, recently, I was able to kick off those shackels and decide "no, enough is enough."

"I can't control my destiny," as Mimi once sang in Rent. but I can control whether I'm ready to let go of the past and start afresh.  And that time is now.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

In Praise of "Mr Nice Guy."

If there's one phrase I'm truly sick of hearing, it's: "All women love a bad boy."

Excuse my language, but bollocks.

Here's the thing: the stereotypical image of the "bad boy" might be attractive to some.  Heck, even I find the idea of the outspoken, outgoing guy who's not afraid to stay out all night partying pretty hot.  The trouble is, I want that same guy to be reliably at work the next day.  

Say the words "bad boy" and it conjures up all sorts of images.  The guy who constantly puts himself first.  The man who doesn't do "sensitive" or "monogamous."  The dude who never calls after a date.

A "bad boy" is meant to be a "real bloke," whatever the hell one of those is.  The trouble is, it's all bullshit.  

Is being confident sexy?  Sure it is.  But over-confidence slides into arrogance and trust me, far fewer women find that attractive.

Is putting your own needs first a good thing?  Sometimes, definitely.  But if you put yourself above others constantly, you're going to tiptoe away from "bad boy" and towards "selfish sod."

Besides, you can be confident, in control and sure of what you want out of life without being a so-called "bad boy."  The tips I've seen on how to be a bad boy in countless online articles verge on sociopathic: 
  • Don't show any emotion.  If you show her none, a woman will always want more, so she'll stay interested.
  • Always put yourself first.  Never put your girlfriend or friends before your own desires, regardless of how much they need you.
  • Hang up on a woman mid phone call.  It'll really piss her off and keep her interested.
If you're reading any of those "tips" and thinking anything but "that's the behaviour of an arsehole," then I worry about your state of mind.  Because, people: THAT'S THE BEHAVIOUR OF AN ARSEHOLE.  Even more worrying, are the comments beneath these "how to be a bad boy" articles, which genuinely range from moaning about being "friend-zoned," to one guy actually saying he's tempted to rape someone, just to "prove" what a "bad boy" he is.  The suggested article that came after the "How To Be A Bad Boy" one was, by the way, entitled "It's OK To Cheat (Sometimes You Have To Just Be A Man And Cheat On Your Girlfriend)."  So, that tells you a lot...

We use the term "bad boy" to describe guys who don't necessarily treat women that well, so what the heck is up with the idea that that's what we all actually want?  I've been cheated on.  I've been stood up.  I've had someone I loved unconditionally take all my time and support, yet give me utterly nothing in return, because he was number one in his world and nobody else ever came first (literally...).  He liked to describe himself as a "bad boy" and it was the worst relationship of my life, yet I'm supposed to want more of the same??!!  Erm, no thanks.

On the flip side, we talk about "Mr Nice Guy" as though it's a bad thing.  Being a good guy is supposedly unmasculine and unsexy (again, bullshit).  The idea is that being nice isn't exciting enough; we need a "bad boy" to stop us from getting bored.

Really?  Are women just toddlers, now?  I know I've been single a while, but I don't remember ever getting so fed up of being treated decently that I felt the need to seek out someone who'd walk all over me, just for the "excitement" of it all...

There is nothing wrong with being nice.  Nothing.

You could offer me all the "bad boys" in the world, but I'd still pick the nice guy who regularly phones his mum.  

Women are all different, so I'm not going to say "what we all want is..." because what I want and what the rest of the female population are after could be wildly different.  But speaking from experience of having had a "bad boy" (when I was never actively looking for one, either), I can safely say that "Mr Nice Guy" is 100% the one for me.

"Nice" doesn't ever have to mean "boring."  It doesn't ever have to mean that you can't be a bloke.

All "nice" means is considering other people as well as yourself; not to the degree that you end up unhappy from putting yourself last all the time, just to the degree that you're not an inconsiderate idiot.  It means showing a bit of affection and treating the people in your life with some respect.  It means being honest, rather than playing games and trying to live up to some ridiculous stereotype.

At the end of the day, I don't want a guy who treats me like I'm unimportant any more than I want a man to put himself second all the time.  When you get down to the nitty gritty, most of us - of either sex - just want someone we can be ourselves with.  Someone we can have a laugh with, as well as talk to about the more serious things in our lives.  None of us want to end up hurt and none of us should ever really want to be the one doing the hurting.

All women want a bad boy? Don't talk rubbish.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Bedtime Story (4/11/2015)

This week's story is dedicated to the memory of my lovely dentist, who passed away at the start of October.  

Daniel And The Tooth Fairy

Daniel watched his twin sister, Lucy, as she excitedly twirled around the living room.  "The tooth fairy's coming!"  She sang, as she danced.  She flashed her brother a big, gappy grin.  "Look!"  She squeaked, pointing at the space where her tooth had once been.  "My wobbly tooth is finally out and now I'm going to get a coin from the tooth fairy!"

Daniel pushed his own wobbly tooth with the tip of his tongue.  It moved, but it didn't fall out.  He sighed and pulled a face at his sister.  "I don't care," he grumbled.  "Fairies are for girls, anyway."

Lucy laughed.  "I am a girl!"  She raised her eyebrows at him.  "You're just jealous, because you're saving up for that cool helicopter like the one Charlie next door has, but if your tooth doesn't fall out, you won't get a coin!"

Daniel folded his arms.  "I'm not jealous," he protested.  "I don't even believe in fairies.  Like I said, they're for girls, not boys."

Lucy frowned.  "So, if your tooth fell out tonight, you wouldn't put it under your pillow?"

Daniel shook his head.  "No," he declared.  "I'd chuck it in the bin."  He narrowed his eyes at his sister.  "Fairies don't exist!"

"Well, I'm going to prove that they do," Lucy insisted.  "I've already put my tooth under my pillow and when I wake up tomorrow, there'll be a shiny coin there instead.  Fairies do exist and they aren't just for girls!  And with that, Lucy skipped out of the room.

Daniel listened to her footsteps on the stairs, getting further and further away.  Then he hurried out of the living room and into the corridor.  He stood on his tiptoes to see his reflection close up in the mirror on the wall and he pressed his wobbly tooth with his finger.  It wobbled this way and that way, but it didn't come out.  Daniel pushed harder and the tooth wobbled even more, but still it didn't fall out.  He blew out an angry puff of air and stomped upstairs.

Lucy was in her room with the door open.  She was sitting on the edge of her bed, reading a book all about the tooth fairy.  "Hey, Daniel?  Did you know that the tooth fairies use the teeth we lose to build beautiful castles in Fairy Land?"

Daniel's lip curled up in a snarl.  "Don't be so stupid."

Lucy slammed her book shut.  "Are you really telling me that you don't believe in the tooth fairy?"  

"Yes!"  Daniel shouted.  "They're a stupid lie that girls tell, that's all.  Boys don't believe in silly things like that."  He turned on his heels in a huff and walked straight into the door in his rush to storm out of the room.  "Ouch!"  Daniel's hands flew to his mouth.

"Daniel!"  Lucy jumped off her bed and rushed to her brother.  "You're bleeding," she told him.  "Are you alright?"

Daniel moved his hands away from his mouth to reply, but Lucy spoke before he had a chance.  "Your tooth has fallen out!"

Daniel stared at the floor.  "But where did it go?!"

Lucy smirked.  "I thought you weren't bothered?"  She teased.  "You don't believe in the tooth fairy, remember?  It's just a stupid lie that girls tell."

Daniel swallowed and fought to resist the urge to hunt for his missing tooth.  "That's right," he snapped.  "The tooth fairy is for girls and I don't believe in all that nonsense."  And with that, he rushed across the corridor into his own bedroom and slammed the door shut.

Daniel didn't come out again until it was time to clean his teeth at bedtime.

"The tooth fairy is going to be busy tonight, isn't she?!"  His mum laughed.  "Two children in the same house, losing a tooth on the same day!"

"She's only coming for my tooth," Lucy corrected, as she went to clean her own teeth.  "Daniel says the tooth fairy is only for girls.  Besides, he doesn't know where his tooth went!"

"Didn't you look for it?"  Daniel's mum asked.  

Daniel simply shook his head.  "Lucy's right," he said in a small voice.  "I don't care about all that rubbish."

But later that night, when the lights were out and everybody was in bed, Daniel crept out of his room.  He tiptoed across the corridor to Lucy's bedroom and very carefully turned the doorknob.  He sneaked into the room and dropped to his hands and knees, feeling along the floor in the darkness for anything that felt like his tooth.  After several minutes of fumbling and finding nothing, Daniel's eyes began to prick with tears.  He wanted that tooth!  He wanted a coin.  He wanted that cool helicopter!  With a sad sigh, Daniel tiptoed back to his bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Sneaking to the window, Daniel leaned against the windowsill and gazed out into the black, starry night.  "Are you out there, Tooth Fairy?" He whispered.  "I want to say sorry.  I'm sorry I said you were only for girls.  And I'm sorry I called you a lie.  I was just cross.  But I've lost my tooth and I really did have one and I would have put it under my pillow, but..."  Daniel's voice trailed off and a single tear trickled down each cheek.  Slowly, he crept back into bed and huddled up under the covers.  Soon, he was fast asleep.

"Daniel!  Wake up!"  Lucy's voice woke him early the next morning.  "Daniel, look!"  His bedroom door burst open and Lucy appeared at his bedside, waving a little pink pouch.  "The tooth fairy came and I've got a pound!"

Daniel sighed, but managed a smile.  "Congratulations."

Lucy smiled, hugging the little pouch close to her chest.  "You said the tooth fairy didn't exist, but I knew she did!"

Daniel nodded.  "You were right," he said, sadly.

"Mum and dad are up already," Lucy told her brother.  "I'm going downstairs to show them."  And with that, she rushed out of the room just as quickly as she'd arrived.

Daniel lay back down in his bed.  His heart felt too heavy for his chest and all he wanted to do was go back to sleep.  He wrapped his duvet around himself and pulled his pillow down as he curled into a ball.  But as he moved the pillow, his hand brushed against something.  Daniel sat bolt upright and tossed his pillow onto the floor.  There, right where his pillow had been, was another little pink pouch.  But next to that was a piece of paper, neatly folded into a square.  Daniel picked up the pouch.  He could feel that there was a coin inside and a smile appeared on his face.  He grabbed the note and hurriedly unfolded it.  There, in perfect handwriting, written with a gold, sparkly pen, were the words:

"I heard you talking, late last night.
Your tears were such a sad, sad sight.
I found your tooth, so you needn't worry.
I'd have stayed to say hi, but I was in a hurry!
I have teeth to collect from all round the world;
Every boy and every girl.
So, in future, don't be angry or glum.
There's magic out there for everyone."

Daniel practically flew out of his bedroom and down the stairs.  By the time he reached the kitchen, where his parents and sister were having breakfast, he was out of breath.

"How did you sleep, Daniel?"  His mum asked, with a smile.

"Fine," Daniel said, holding out the pink pouch.  "Look!  The tooth fairy came for me, too!"

Lucy frowned.  "But you don't even believe in the tooth fairy.  You said it was just for girls..."

"Oh, Lucy," Daniel tutted as he sat down at the table.  "Of course I do."  He gave her a smile.  "It doesn't matter whether you're a boy or a girl.  If you believe in it, there's magic out there for everyone."  He took a deep breath and slipped the pouch into the pocket of his pyjamas.  "Now, come on.  Let's eat breakfast and then we can go to the shops.  I've got a helicopter to buy!"