‘The first of the Mohicans’

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I first met Shelley at playgroup.  I was new to the area, pregnant and with an energetic toddler.  Her little boy was very quiet by contrast; lost in a world of his own whilst my rumbustious boy cannoned round the room.  We exchanged smiles, identifying each other as outsiders from the rest of the chattering mothers.  I wasn’t able to work out why she was isolated from the group but was warmed by her friendliness, especially when it was time to go and it transpired that she lived just around the corner from us and was also pregnant.

We pushed our buggies down the road together and, surprisingly candid for a new acquaintance, she told me that she had a daughter from her first marriage, that the marriage had ended because her husband beat her, but that she had now married her childhood sweetheart and that he was the father of her son and the baby she was carrying.

Shelley wasn’t as well groomed as some of the other mothers; her conversation was simple and honest.  The love she had for her children was obvious from the way she spoke to them, but drawing on my past experience I could see that her little boy wasn’t just quiet.  There were definite signs that he had some kind of developmental delay, something was wrong.

We often walked to or from playgroup together.  We didn’t go to each other’s houses; she would have been very welcome at mine but her house was first on the route and as she seemed reluctant to ask me in, I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position.  We sat together at playgroup and although no one else spoke to us, it didn’t matter because, with one ear on their conversations, I knew that Shelley’s simple words were more honest and interesting anyway.

My baby boy was born first and I stayed away from playgroup for a while, learning to juggle the needs of two small children within the safety of my home.  By the time I made it back to playgroup, Shelley was absent having also given birth to a boy.

I saw her in the street about a month later and was slightly taken aback at her appearance.  The dowdy cotton shirt and leggings uniform adopted by so many of us mothers at the time had been replaced by a ripped black tee-shirt, black jeans and Doc Martens.  Shelley’s shoulder length hair was dyed black and cropped close to her head and she sported a piercing in the side of her nose and another in her chin.

She was accompanied by her daughter, her silent son, her equally silent husband and the new baby in a buggy.  I stopped to say hello and tried not to show my curiosity at this change in her appearance.

Smiling, Shelley told me that she and her family were on their way to church.  A church I’d often seen in passing and wondered idly what denomination it was. Shelley didn’t say – and I didn’t ask – if her transformation had come before the call to church or after. She looked happy, and I felt that having experienced the small minds and sneers prevalent in many older established religious communities when faced with the unusual, that the people attending Shelley’s church must be very accepting and open by contrast.

Shelley stopped going to playgroup and attended one at her church instead.  I had a new group of friends who invited me to their houses and to other social events. Occasionally I would see Shelley in passing; we’d wave and smile but she never stopped to talk.  Her hair went through a rainbow of colours and the piercings increased, as did the tattoos.

My eldest started school and we frequently saw Shelley at the school gates.  She was pregnant again and her youngest boy displayed all the energy that his older brother lacked. The other mothers avoided Shelley, clustering in groups and turning their backs on her when she approached.  Most of the time my husband and I dropped our son off and collected him together, so I wasn’t subject to the approval or disapproval of the mummy clique in the way that Shelley was.

After the birth of her fourth child – a girl – Shelley’s appearance became even more unusual.  Talking as someone who cried when having their ears pierced at the tender age of twenty-three, the increase in piercings and tattoos confused me and I wondered why Shelley felt the need to adorn her body in this way.  Her husband did not seem perturbed by these changes, and he continued to dress in jeans, tee-shirt and a khaki parka that he never seemed to take off.  Shelley still smiled and waved when she saw us  but we had moved to a house about a mile away and no longer saw her on the journey to and from school.

My eldest was in the same class as her eldest son.  In the way that young children do, he occasionally remarked that the lad was quiet and had a special lady to help him in classes.  My boy remembered going to playgroup with Shelley and her son, and I believe that it was this early acquaintance that led him to take a protective stance  towards Shelley’s boy throughout their years at school together.

The children progressed through primary school and without fail, Shelley and her family attended the Christmas and end of term productions, sports days and the annual fair. Without fail, heads turned, elbows nudged and snide comments were made just out of Shelley’s hearing.  She seemed impervious to it all; almost serene.

With the birth of another baby, Shelley now had three girls and two boys.  They walked to school in a strange crocodile; her eldest daughter and the two boys in school uniform, the toddler and baby dressed as most other small children of their age, with Shelley – in bondage trousers and a ripped tee shirt that  showed off her mostly religious tattoos, huge wedge boots and a face covered in piercings – always at the head of the group.  Caring and attentive, she shepherded her family across the main road, ignoring the hoots and cat calls from passing motorists.

Primary school was bad but high school was worse. At primary school people were used to Shelley but the move to a large high school that took in half a dozen primary schools brought several issues for Shelley and her family.  Her eldest daughter had managed three years without other students identifying Shelley as her mother, but her younger brother had to be brought into school by Shelley and collected by her or his father.  Other children were cruel about him and to him.  They were even more cruel about Shelley’s appearance.

Towards the end of my older son’s time at high school, along with other proud parents, we attended an evening of entertainment in the school theatre.  Shelley and her family turned up at the last minute; the children were dressed conventionally but Shelley sported a foot high black mohican; the sides of her head were closely shaved and tattooed and the wedge heeled boots were at least twelve inches tall.

A silence fell as she led her flock into the crowded auditorium.  Every eye was on her.  With the exception of her eldest son – now formally diagnosed with autism – all the children hung their heads in embarrassment.There would have been room for them to sit together if other parents and their children had swapped seats but no one would.  They just stared; stares of hostility sparked by – fear? Confusion? Or envy?

Shelley’s daughter went off the rails after leaving school.  She ran away from home and ended up living with her abusive father.  He hadn’t changed.

There was no available provision for Shelley’s eldest son. Cut loose from school he became increasingly frustrated and frightened.  His fear took the form of aggression, generally directed at his mother.  They tried so hard, Shelley and her husband, but with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia, they could no longer look after him and he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and went to live in a secure facility.

My youngest son tells me that he is still in contact with Shelley’s younger son; he works with his father in the plumbing trade. Now both my boys have left school I don’t see Shelley, unless we happen to be driving past when she is taking the youngest children to school or collecting them.

The mohican is defiantly high, the tattoos and piercings have almost obliterated the Shelley that I remember.

It isn’t really my place to find reasons for Shelley’s behaviour or even to ask why.

Tattoos and piercings are very much a personal thing.

Perhaps it is linked to her early exposure to domestic abuse?

Perhaps she was testing those around her – especially the people at her church or the sniggering parents at school?

How did she feel when she heard the whispers, saw the sneering glances,was openly rejected by the other parents?

Did this rejection make her want to become more outrageous?

I don’t have the answers – just a bunch of psychological theories that may or may not apply.

Whatever.  I wish her well.

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‘Waving Hands Pushing the Mountain and Repulse the Monkey’

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Some years ago, whilst gainfully employed by an organisation that I am forbidden to talk about, I received an e-mail inviting me to partake in Tai Chi classes specifically aimed at employees with arthritis and diabetes.  Having an infliction of both, as well as an interest in the participation of an activity that hitherto had seemed to be performed in parks by hundreds of old people wearing silk pyjamas, I signed up.

It was being held at a venue close to my workplace, at half-past five and only cost three quid.  Bargain!

On arrival in suitably baggy clothing and sensible footwear (no silk pyjamas though), it transpired that the email had attracted a diverse bunch of people, a few of whom obviously hadn’t read the ‘baggy clothing’ instruction.  Some of the attendees, like myself, looked quite happy to be there.  Others bore distinctly resentful expressions and I later found out that they had been referred by (scary music) Occupational Health and told that there would be dire consequences if they didn’t attend.

Our Tai Chi instructor, far from being a wizened pyjama-clad martial arts man of an Asian appearance (Grasshopper), was a young NHS physio in a polo shirt, trainers and tracky bottoms.  He was lovely; patient, a very good teacher and particularly kind to those who were obviously pressed men and women.

Most of us participated and had a good time. Some of the hard-core pressed people started wincing and grimacing before they had even been shown the warming up exercises and by the time we actually got around to learning the moves, had collapsed in agony onto chairs at the back of the room.

The drop out rate therefore, was quite high and by the third week there were only half a dozen of us who had been charmed by our instructor’s enthusiasm and relieved to find that the slow, gentle movement did actually help out with management of the achy bits.

It wasn’t easy learning the moves, especially for those of us not blessed with the ability to tell right from left. There was a certain amount of coordination needed between feet and arms too.  After a few wrong turns, minor collisions and occasional fits of giggles, we all picked up the sequences (after a fashion) and I managed to remember enough to be able to practice at home.

I bought a CD of music specifically for use with Tai Chi, and thanks to the tolerance of Hub and the boys, began to have my own Tai Chi sessions before work every morning.

The environment had to be right; not too dark or light, with some fresh air and sufficient room to parade up and down, backward and forward (about 2 metres by 1 metre).  Our front room could just about accommodate this provided no one left diving gear, Airsoft guns or paintball markers in the way.

I did so well that my instructor asked me if I would be interested in training as a Tai Chi instructor.  The NHS would fund my training but I would need a current first aid qualification – either funded by myself or my employer.

Fuelled with enthusiasm and the thought of a weekend learning Tai Chi at a hotel in Stockport, I asked my boss if he would nominate me for a first aid course.  I didn’t envisage any problem; we ran these courses every couple of months and though they were always well-subscribed, there was no desperate rush as the next Tai Chi course wasn’t till after the New Year.

He refused.

He said that we already had two people with first aid qualifications on the team (one had lapsed and she had no intention of taking it again) and that was enough.  I was surprised at his attitude – usually a combination of laissez-faire management and ‘can you do this for me?’ but when I questioned further he clammed up and refused to discuss the subject.

I returned sadly to my instructor, only to be told further sad news that he would not be running any more courses for my employer ( they hadn’t paid), and that was why he had suggested that I do the training so that I could carry on the sessions at no further cost.

I asked my boss again. He refused again and nominated me for a fire marshal course instead.

Six months later, there was another email about Tai Chi classes.  They were going to be held in out own building but with a different instructor.  I signed up and tried not to giggle at the women who turned up at the first session in pencil skirts, tight white blouses and high heels. They didn’t read the bit about baggy clothing either.

The new instructor was dressed in black and spent most of the session telling us to listen and making sure that no one was creeping up on us from behind.  It was all very ninja. Not everyone took his exhortations seriously and as a consequence there was much giggling but at him, not with him.

He didn’t turn up for the second session.

I carried on with Tai Chi at home; not as rigorously as before but enough to try it out in various different venues when we were away on holidays.  The balcony at the hotel in Cornwall was good – if a little damp from sea spray.  The bungalow we rented when we went back down South to visit family was very accommodating and I often had an audience of birds and squirrels as I waved my hands at invisible mountains. I even managed to keep up my routine when I went away on a residential course.  Luckily I had blagged an accessible room with an en suite, my fellow students were stuck in shoeboxes that barely accommodated a bed, chair and desk. I had a longing to return to the scene of previous holidays in Majorca or Cyprus, and a villa with a sun-drenched balcony where I could Tai Chi to my heart’s content.

Hub and I were attending a health and fitness centre and I enrolled in Tai Chi classes there.  The instructor bore a startling resemblance to Gary Glitter in the Vietnam years and even wore a matching scarf.  He lined us up and announced that we would be exercising to music.  Far from the delicate and soothing tunes that I had become accustomed to, he put on a CD of what can only be described as Red Army marching instructions. As the  instructions were not in English, they had to be interpreted for us and as a consequence we were all rather behind with the steps, more giggling ensued and our instructor was deeply displeased.

I didn’t turn up for the second session.

Fate intervened and I bumped into my first Tai Chi instructor whilst shopping in Asda – as you do.  He was running another set of courses on Friday afternoons.  They were supposed to be for the over 65s but if I was interested then he could get me in.  The Tai Chi master behind the sequences I had learned previously, had added another nine moves.

Accordingly I booked long lunch hours for every other Friday afternoon – not really a problem as no one EVER wants a meeting on a Friday afternoon.

The lessons were lovely.  I was the youngest in the class – barring the instructor – I picked up the further nine moves eventually and managed to incorporate them into my early morning sessions at home.

Then I had the accident that I’m not supposed to talk about.

The accident that turned my life upside-down and put paid to any kind of exercise for months.

We also acquired Scooby, his bed, dinner and water bowls.

The combination of Scooby’s stuff and boxes of legal paperwork ate into my Tai Chi space, so that even once my injury had healed, there was no room to move any more.

Ah, but now we have the new kitchen and with it – more than a space 2 metres by 1 metre. I can open the windows for my fresh air and lower the sparkly black blind so that I don’t frighten the horses or distract the mad mother drivers as they round the bend on their way to school.

I have Tai Chi-ed every day since May 22nd.

Rusty at first and I had to send off for the wall charts in the end to remind me of the moves, but it has all come back.

Scoob insisted on watching me for the first couple of days.  He wasn’t sure about the arm waving and the strange music – doesn’t bat an eyelid when we play Motorhead or the Foo Fighters in the kitchen – but this weird tinkly stuff…….

He has settled down now and stays in the front room until the music stops and he knows that toast may be in the offing.

My blood pressure is down.  My blood glucose is down. I have lost the half a stone I put on during the kitchen renovation.  My Tai Chi makes me feel at ease again and able to tackle some of the less palatable jobs that I’ve put off.

The parcel delivery man just called.  He hadn’t seen the kitchen since it was done.  He loves the twinkling lights and the sparkling worktop. Obviously a man of great taste.

Love the kitchen.

Love Tai Chi.

Love family and friends.

Love life.

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Dr Paul Lam – a very bendy man in silk pyjamas who provided the inspiration, the moves, the music , DVDs, books and the wall charts

In the presence of presents

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When Gap Boy and Uni Boy were younger, buying presents for Christmas and birthdays was simple.  I could let my imagination run riot in the toy shop – avoiding the pink aisle and the weapons of mass destruction.  We worked through Lego and K’nex whilst Tilly, Tom and Tiny watched from the toy box – we had Rosie and Jim too – as well as a plethora of other character spin offs from whatever children’s programme the Red House book club was flogging that week.

As the boys got older and diversified, all my good intentions about not allowing guns or electronic toys went out of the window; Uni Boy became a Gameboy fanatic (subsequently progressing through a vast range of must-have Nintendo products) and Gap Boy’s latent killer instinct would not be suppressed. The boy would shoot anyone with anything given the opportunity – including his mother  (on Mothering Sunday) with a BB gun.

I thought that Hub was easier to buy for; I bought him things that I was sure he’d like but it took several years of him gratefully accepting my weird purchases before the penny dropped and I noticed that most of his presents were still in a brightly patterned gift bag a year later (he would never give or throw them away for fear of hurting my feelings).

I inherited the tendency to overbuy from my Lovely Mum.  Neither of us ever felt we had given enough and as a consequence we would shower each other (and other people) with shedloads of goodies.  I do miss Mum’s hastily wrapped bags of delight.

Increasing age and a modicum of maturity opened my eyes to the perils of inappropriate present giving and I decided to let Hub have more of a say in what I bought – as in ‘you order the bits you need for paintball and I’ll wrap them up‘. Birthdays and Christmas are less imaginative now but mutually happier and there are fewer festive filled carrier bags hanging around.  UB and GB now request filthy lucre instead of presents, or as in GB’s case, get us to drive to the motorbike shop and pay for his protective gear.

Hub had a big birthday.

Big birthdays call for extreme measures.

A brand spanking new marker for paintball – his first ever because he’s been good and only had second-hand stuff before.

UB announced that he couldn’t get home for his dad’s birthday due to Uni commitments but suggested  that we meet up in Manch for an evening meal.  He then came up with the even brighter idea that we should go to Manch on the train.

Hub loves trains.

As I don’t drive, he spends a lot of time ferrying me about in the car.  He loved my birthday weekend in York because we went on the train and he got to look at the scenery and relax.

We decided to invite Bezzie Mate up for the birthday celebrations as we love his company, he loves trains too and he has become an integral part of our family.  We did ask GB if he wanted to come but the joint perils of using public transport and spending the evening with his older brother proved far too repellent. He said that he would stay home and look after Scooby – who’s minding who?

UB booked the restaurant and as the family train expert, gave me a potted version of the timetable and texyed me a list of his own  commitments. I booked train tickets (not with the cheapest online source according to UB but what the hell) and baby we were ready to go!

BM arrived on Hub’s birthday with a beautifully wrapped box containing marzipan and a Spiderman helicopter  both of which brought a huge grin to Hub’s face.  His marker had arrived in time for me to wrap it and he’d completely forgotten about the melon vodka that UB and I had bought him.

The builders were still busy in the kitchen when BM arrived but he was able to see the glory that was the sparkly granite worktop being fitted before the three of us left to – catch a bus to town!

Hub made a beeline for the back seat; memories of schooldays obviously flooding back.  I prefer the front seats especially if there is a bell to ring nearby and a pole to grab hold of.  BM and I followed Hub but after a few moments of hideous bumping and the full blast of the sun, we all relocated to more comfortable and less sun-drenched seats.

We were travelling to Manch in the rush hour, so needless to say, the train was packed and it was standing room only.  Nearly everyone sitting down on the train had a laptop or tablet of some description on display.  Hub and I managed to get seats at the next stop but BM was so wrapped up in looking at HIS tablet that he preferred to stand.

Manchester Piccadilly station brought back memories of my misspent youth; my Lovely Mum worked for what was then British Rail, and as a consequence I got four free rail tickets per year and quarter-fare the rest of the time. This came in very useful for a homesick eighteen year old who had relocated from the seaside South to a land-locked Birmingham and the delights of drama school. Ticket inspectors often failed to clip my ticket, giving me the opportunity to make more journeys home (and back), usually on the through train but sometimes via Euston and Waterloo.

Large train stations and the Underground held no fear for me in those days as I lugged my hefty sailbag southwards and to home – or reluctantly back to the cold and endlessly damp Midlands and my tiny bedsit.

Thirty-odd years later, laden only with a ladylike Primark rucksack and accompanied by two of my favourite men, Manchester Piccadilly was a delight, even if one of the travelators wasn’t travelling – until nature called.

Thirty pee to pee!

To add insult to injury the toilets stank of other people’s stale pee – and worse.

It took a sit down and a takeaway coffee to restore my equilibrium.  Hub and BM found my ire most amusing. They frequently gang up on me like a pair of naughty schoolboys but I forgive them – usually.

UB phoned as we were drinking coffee and teasing each other on FaceAche.  His meeting had overrun and his train had been cancelled so he would be going straight to the restaurant and could we please stop messing around and get there first in case they let the table go to someone else. Suitably chastised for our levity and wondering how the al-seeing eye of UB knew we were messing about, we packe dup and drank up.

I would have gone for the taxi option, but Hub and BM were excited by trams (and the ticket machine) so we took the Metrolink. As we passed the Manchester Eye I had to kick Hub to shut him up because he started talking about the chap who had occupied the Eye in protest against being recalled to jail for breaking his parole.  You never know who might be listening on a tram, and to my wary eye there were several fellow passengers taking an unhealthy interest in what Hub was saying. He was oblivious to it all. He loves trams.

We got off the tram before the heavies did. Hub had to use his mobile satnav to find the way to the restaurant, which was under the shade of the Beetham Tower and alongside the canal.  Our progress was slow but enjoyable; BM was happy-snapping the surroundings, Hub and I were just happy looking and lapping up the atmosphere of a balmy Manchester evening.

We were on time. Our table was inside rather than out on the crowded terrace.  We ordered cocktails, including one for UB who had texted to say he was on the Metrolink and would like something sweet, fruity and very alcoholic please.

It was a wonderful evening.  The food was great and the cocktails even better. When he found out that it was Hub’s birthday, our lovely waiter Guillaume bought over a surprise brownie pudding complete with candles and a glass of champagne – on the house.  More cocktails with dessert, UB and I were torn between two drinks so we ordered both and took turns slurping through separate straws – that’s my boy.

Despite having return tram tickets, I persuaded my men that a taxi to the station would be a better option given our varying levels of inebriation.  Many cocktails made all three of them very amenable.  UB’s train left shortly after ours so he packed his parents and his funny uncle safely aboard  and waved us off with that curiously old-fashioned look on his face.  He’s always been much older and wiser than us.

The journey home was only marred by a yoof with very cheap earphones broadcasting his boom-boom repetitive dance music to the whole carriage.

Hub rested his eyes.

BM was engrossed in his tablet.

I smiled the happy smile of the slightly intoxicated and tried to work out where the hell we were.

Disembarking was an experience.  The clothing of our female companions was – skimpy – to say the least – and although it was a Thursday, there must have been something exciting going on in the town centre (or cultural quarter as the PR merchants have christened it) as most of the yoof were headed in that direction.

Another taxi and home to a shiny, shiny kitchen, a very happy Scooby, a slightly disapproving GB (aren’t you all a bit old for this?) and much needed sleep.

Just in case you were worried that GB was left out, Hub, BM, GB and I went off to our favourite curry house for dinner the next night.  UB hates curry.

Hub says it was his best birthday ever.  He had more cards, more messages on FaceAche, presents he really wanted and a good meal enjoyed with some of his favourite people, not to mention the bus, trains and tram.

I’ll think he’ll cope with the nifty fifties now.