Thursday, 27 November 2014

Big girls don't cry

Big girls don't cry

When I was growing up, I often joked that I was a princess. But not in a pretty, tiara-wearing way; my royalty meant a heavy burden of responsibility. Daddy was a big somebody in his home town and far beyond and this put our family into a spotlight.
My brothers and I tried to rebel. We wanted the right to a childhood and to be allowed to make mistakes. But we quickly learnt that that those would cost daddy his reputation so we did our best not to embarrass him.
I have never heard my mum shouting. She always carried herself with dignity and class. Friendly, wise and full of energy she was loved by everybody. She was my queen and I was looking up to her.
And even though she was a warm, affectionate woman, the display of emotions felt somehow inappropriate. Because I never saw her crying (other than an odd classy tear at funerals),  I adopted ‘Big girls don’t cry’ attitude and started dealing with emotions in the privacy of my room and after dark.
By my early 20s I learnt the art of denial and was excelling at pretence. Tears and any display of emotions became a huge no-no and a sign of weakness. If I ever got overwhelmed and the tears could no longer be contained, I felt the need to apologize to whoever witnessed my embarrassing outburst – even if it was my boyfriend. Good girlfriends don’t cry.   
Years went by. The queen passed away and I was swallowing my tears over her grave. She left me her crown but it felt too big for me. So in desperate attempt not to let her down, I stayed strong for daddy and my brothers – being positive and helpful during the day, I sobbed myself to sleep at night, missing her dearly.
Last summer I found out that daddy had a cancer. Not wanting to believe and deal with the reality, I pretended it wasn’t serious and carried on with my life. It wasn’t until I saw him (or what was left of him), did I realise what was going on. My daddy was dying. The illness was eating him away and there was nothing I could do.  The feeling of helplessness and despair swept through me like a tsunami, washing away denial and any scraps of hope I had left.  
But my family needed me, and I had to stay strong. So I bought a month worth of supplies in cakes and chocolate – we ate, drank, laughed, took photos, shared stories and reminisced. I was constantly aware that I needed to be positive and cheerful. It took every ounce of my energy but I never let go.
Back in the UK, in the privacy of my flat I collapsed.  I got in the shower and cried until I had no more tears left.
What felt like hours later, I climbed on the sofa and called Mr Chateauneuf. As soon as he picked up, the floodgate opened again. I was embarrassed, I didn’t want him to see or hear me being a mess. So I apologised.
Much later that night, disintegrated into the sofa and surrounded by a box of used Kleenex tissues I was staring at TV. I couldn’t help but wonder, when something so terrible like cancer happens, surely it is ok to be upset. Then why couldn’t I give myself a break? Why couldn’t I let be my nearest and dearest to be there for me?
The following morning I got ready to get back to work. With the keys in my hands I took one last glance in the mirror. The reflection smiled – it wasn’t me, it was the queen. And right there I realised I grew into her crown.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Life is about making happy memories

Life is about making happy memories

I will never forget the day I found out daddy had a cancer. I still remember calling him to find out about his visit to the doctors. As soon as he picked up the phone and said ‘hello’ I knew. In fact, I had known from the moment he told me he wasn’t well a few days before.
A couple of weeks later he started radiotherapy. It drained him completely; having destroyed his immune system, it left him with the second degree burns. Those took over a month to heal. Daddy then faced a major decision – whether or not to have an operation.

Being a real denial pro I did what I do best - pretend that everything was ok and daddy had just picked up a case of a seasonal flu. It lasted until Mr Chateauneuf had enough of my nonsense. He bought me a ticket and sent me to Ukraine to see daddy.

One flight, two G&Ts and way too many hours on a bus later I arrived in a little town somewhere north of Kiev. I got off the wretched bus and looked at the man walking towards me. I barely recognised him – he looked like a ghost of my daddy past. Deep lines pierced his face, dark circles settled under his eyes and had he lost half of his body weight. Last time I saw him this skinny was on his wedding photograph.

I gently hugged him, afraid if I squeeze too hard he would break. It took me all my self-control not to cry. So I babbled about my trip, work, kids – anything and everything to divert my attention from thinking about how sick my daddy was.

My baby brother arrived the following morning. We needed to talk about daddy’s illness and the options he had. It was simple – he needed to have an operation which meant a major lifestyle change. Daddy refused point blank. There were no other options.
That afternoon I took my brother for a walk and a much needed cigarette. We sat on the bench looking at the river and talked about mum. We reminisced, we laughed, we smoked. Mum’s death was sudden, it came as a shock. Neither of us wanted to be shocked again, we wanted to be prepared and to spend as much time with daddy as we could.
As I turned to look at my brother I suddenly saw a little boy who was scared but wanted to look brave. I couldn’t help but wonder, in our attempt to come to grips with grave reality are we failing daddy? Should we try to convince him to have that operation? Can we do more?
Later that night we all settled in the lounge drinking whatever was going, taking silly photos and laughing. We laughed so hard, my stomach ached. It was like the good old days.
And as I looked at daddy, with his face lit up with laughter, I suddenly realised that we weren’t failing him. We both were there spending time with him and making him laugh.
I don’t know how long he has got left. But I will always remember that night, I will remember my mascara running and my stomach aching; I will remember daddy’s deep laughter and the sparkle in his eyes. After all, life is about making happy memories.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Price of Friendship

The price of friendship

When my girlfriend Lora texted and cancelled our girlie dinner, I barely reacted – I simply changed the channel and ordered a pizza. But when half an hour later she texted again and asked if we could PLEASE go shopping on Sunday, I was worried.

The thing about our shopping trips is that they are usually planned in advance and coincide with sales. They are always more about catching up, gossiping and venting (in fact my whole post-divorce recovery took place mainly in Bluewater and Ikea), although I always manage to arrive home with lots of shopping bags and a maxed out credit card. So getting an unscheduled shopping request from Lora was disturbing. I knew something was up.

And boy was I right. I barely got in the car when she exploded – a very close friend upset her, to the point of no return. A relationship Lora considered to be solid collapsed like a house of cards.

I have always been a huge believer in give-take balance in any relationship. Sometimes you are there for your friend, other times your friend is there for you; sometimes you give, other times you take.  Unfortunately Lora was stuck in a relationship with a taker only who inevitably left her behind as soon as a better source of taking became available.

In the shopping centre Lora ranted through Next, Phase Eight and John Lewis. She was so upset that I couldn’t even leave her to try on Phase Eight’s 75% off dress, and the floral Ted Baker 60% off shoes didn’t seem that appealing when my best gal was almost in tears.

There was only one thing I knew that could make her feel better – sugar and coffee. I dragged her to a coffee shop that sold expensive cakes with astronomic calorie content. Those were desperate times and desperate measures were required - my strict diet before the big charity ball was in jeopardy.  

One enormous piece of cake, two buckets of coffee and what felt like an eternity later we left the coffee shop. Having exhausted her vocabulary of swear words and comprehensively scrutinised the topic of cheap friends, Lora switched to a more expensive activity - shopping. When I saw her checking out cute tops at Hobbs, I knew she was on the mend.

Lora dragged me back to Phase Eight and made me try that dress on. As I was twirling around in the dress the RRP of which was could-never-afford, I couldn’t believe my luck – I was getting it at the fraction of the original price. I was getting a bargain.

And as we hit the sales in Laura Ashley and my arms were full of discounted clothes I couldn’t help but wonder, why do we discount our friendships? When the takers try to get a bargain out of our relationship, why do we let them? Why do we discount ourselves to that level?

We left the shopping centre much later than usual. I knew Lora started recovering when she substituted her cheap friend for an expensive pair of Jones’ and a River Island bag – yep, she was definitely getting better.

I felt good too - I was there for my friend.  Although I maxed out another credit card and ate my monthly allocation of sugar in one sitting, it felt good seeing her smile again.

And as Lora asked me if I wanted to come over for a movie and Chinese that night I suddenly realised that good friends are a very rare commodity. In fact they are like that limited edition pair of perfectly fitted jeans. Incredibly hard to find but once you do find them, you don’t mind paying the full price.

Friday, 7 November 2014

A City girl in Shoreditch

A City girl in Shoreditch

A few years ago my diary mainly consisted of birthday reminders and an occasional party. These days I navigate between my own errands, the kids’ appointments and school holidays, Mr Chateauneuf’s travel arrangements and the little matter of my two bosses.  Occasionally it gets crowded.
So imagine my delight when I come across an exciting entry - I almost forgot about -  jammed in-between a five way conference call and a waxing appointment. This is where the adventure begins.
The thing is, my schedule doesn’t leave any room for adventure and spontaneity. I work in the City, live in South London and spend most of my weekends in Lincolnshire. My geography is neatly connected by East Coast, FCC and Southern train lines; my life is run by a tightly packed diary in my iPhone and a strict routine.
My race against the clock begins in the morning – shower, getting dressed, hair, make-up and rush out of the door; I hop on the train where I battle against backlog of texts and emails. A day in the office features endless reports, meetings, infinite amount of filing, errands for the two bosses and gallons of tea and coffee. In the evenings I Skype with the boys; catch up with my friends, writing, laundry, ironing and whatever else I’m behind on.
So when one evening I turned off familiar Old Broad Street, aka where the City ends, and found myself trotting over the cobbled pavements of Shoreditch in my stilettos, I had to double check my diary to confirm if indeed I was in the correct location - I was. I have never been there before, but that was where my girlfriend chose to have her hen do.

A little turn right, just past Liverpool Street station, opened up a completely different world to me. This new world was full of vintage shops, markets and food stalls where the cooking was done mainly on a BBQ or an outdoor chimney type thing. There was graffiti everywhere, hair colours encompassing the whole spectrum of the rainbow and the smell of freshly cooked meat mixed with unmistakable hint of cannabis.
Even the crowd was different, more relaxed; people were dressed casually if a little eccentrically. I was fascinated by the new scene I was on. People in this world seemed friendly and happy; they were laughing and having fun. Nobody was rushing anywhere, the concept of a diary, or time for that matter, didn’t seem to exist. Even the air slowed down and relaxed here. 
I, on the other hand, was hyperventilating - my phone was showing only 20% of battery life and I was about to lose my connectivity, which at the time felt like losing air supply. My City outfit was suffocating me and killing my feet.
With my phone barely alive and my feet throbbing I decided to adopt ‘when in Shoreditch…’ attitude, ordered a drink at a bar, sat back and almost relaxed. As I was watching a guy wearing a ripped t-shirt and a brand new pair of green Converse, casually chatting to a girl next to him, I couldn’t help but wonder, when did my life become so busy? How did I let a little expensive device to run my life without allowing myself to actually live? When did I become so City?
My phone died half an hour later and I spent the last 17% of its life on taking photos of fabulous girls I was out with. It was a great night. We bowled and drank cocktails; we reminisced and ate deep fried food; we talked outfits and flights for the wedding.  And as a sign of any great night, the journey home night was a blur.
The following morning, hungover and clutching my travel mug with two precious shots of coffee, I got off the train and joined the sea of suits, polished shoes and laptop bags moving across London Bridge. It suddenly occurred to me there was nothing wrong with strict routine and tight schedules. I loved my life the way it was – busy and planned with the military precision. As long as I made time to escape to my own Shoreditch now and then where I could switch off and not think or wear City. I texted my friend immediately and made plans for that weekend.