Tenacious and Constant

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Every spring, usually around the second week in March, male storks arrive in Bulgaria in order to get their nests ready for mating. They always go to the same spot. This, much to the delight of the locals in my village, who believe it is very lucky to have the same stork take up residence in his old nest year after year.
Most villages have two or three nests, and I count myself lucky to have a clear view of one not far from my office window. Two years ago, the male resident of the nest arrived. He tidied up a little…threw old bits of straw and got some new stuff to weave in. Not long afterwards, his mate arrived and she helped him with this task. However, their bliss was interrupted when another couple  of birds arrived and laid claim to the same nest. Friction, in the form of swooping and beak-fencing ensued. My husband and friends joked that we were witnessing a ‘storkgate’ type of drama. But eventually, everything calmed down, our usual resident male won back his nest and he and his mate produced three cute babies

In the summer of the same year, our mating pair taught their offspring to fly, and then left the nest to return to Africa. That should have been the end of it until the following spring, except..it wasn’t. During a particularly hot August day the telegraph wire, attached to the pole, (on top of which the nest was situated), caught fire and the entire nest burned down. This caused consternation throughout the village and we speculated as to what would happen when our stork pair returned in the spring.
When March finally arrived, we saw our confused male circling around the telegraph pole obviously wondering what on earth had happened. On tenterhooks, we thought he might give up and leave, but he proved to be much more tenacious than that. He spent the following two days building another nest and, my goodness, I have never seen such industrious workmanship. I mentally awarded him five stars for his effort.

Then, it all went wrong again because high winds arrived…seriously high winds and blew his new nest completely off the top of the pole. Shortly afterwards, his mate arrived and the two of them circled the pole. I imagined them pondering their misfortune and wondering what to do. She, heavily egged and in dire need of a place to watch her chicks hatch, would be telling her man that they should see that particular telegraph pole as jinxed, and they would be better off slinging their figurative hooks and looking elsewhere.
For the following two days we saw nothing of them, and my husband and I looked out at the bald telegraph pole, sadly convinced we had seen the last of them. But wait…they came back. They came back and worked from early morning until sundown to re-build their home, in exactly the same spot. It was such joy to see them stealing straw bits of this and that to make another construction. They went on to successfully raise three babies.

This morning, I listened to the Today Programme on the radio. As usual, it was full of harrowing stories of violence, conflict and tragedy. Then, I looked out of my window, saw the storks’ nest and basked in a warm glow. They would be back, I told myself. And, oblivious to the dark constant of their human neighbours, they would return to re-define their own constant, one which is simple, single-layered, but always full of hope.


Katherine’s Knight

A Christmas Tale by: Sandy Hyatt-James


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Katherine lay back and let the warm bubbles swash over her body. Her head now resting on the back of the bath, she gazed at the high ceiling with its wood-panelling and old-fashioned light fitting. Looking around the bathroom she then viewed the wall panelling, the old-fashioned chain-pull toilet, and thick tiles around the Victorian basin. What a good idea, she thought to come to a place like this for Christmas.
She usually spent Christmas in large houses, but going to a converted medieval castle, in the Northumbrian hills, like this one, was a novelty. She’d wanted her family to come. It’s been made into a five star hotel, she told them and there will be so many different people to see there. And anyway, why do we always have to do the same old thing each year, let’s go somewhere different. But, her family refused to come, and they urged her not to go as well. “Being on your own won’t be as productive as being with us,” they said. “You might be lonely. Your place is with us and together, we can make have much more seasonal fun.” But she wanted to know what sort of people visited a castle for the Festive Season and whether any were like her.
She closed her eyes, basked in the steamy stillness and listened to the echoing drip, drip of the basin’s tap. She told herself that she really should get out and dry herself before the water got cold, but she was too comfortable to move.
The first thing alerting her that something was wrong was when the swoosh of the bath water rose up like a tsunami and splashed over her face. Then she felt two feet which, if she hadn’t moved her legs in time, would have stood right on her. When the shower fitting seemingly lifted out of its cradle and ejected freezing cold water, she jumped out of the bath.
Then, she saw the intruder. With his back to her, he closed the curtains and sang in a pleasant baritone: Deck the Hall With Boughs of Holy. While he showered, she grabbed the towel and ran out.
Now in the bedroom, she dried herself and threw on her dress. But, still in shock, her fingers fumbled over the fastenings. She’d just got to the last one when he appeared in the doorway with a towel round his waist. She made for the door, hoping he wouldn’t see her.
“Wait,” he called out.
She turned and noted his athletic build and dark brown hair.
“Do you live here,” he asked.
“Er no, I’m just a guest.”
“Oh, so am I.” He looked her up and down with an expression which told her that liked what he saw. “There seems to have been some sort of mix-up with the rooms”
For a moment, they stared at each, as though discovering chocolate for the first time.
“Are you going to the Christmas Eve fancy dress tonight?” he asked.
“I, well I should think I will be.”
He walked up to her. “Then, maybe I’ll see you there?”
She gazed at his blue eyes and – didn’t answer.
“In the meantime,” he said, I’ll see if I can find another room. The hotel obviously messed up with the bookings somewhere.”
“Oh, no need,” she replied. “I can make other arrangements.”
He smiled. “That’s generous of you. So, I’ll see you tonight then.”
“At the dance.”
“Oh, of course. Yes.”
“My name’s Edward,” by the way. And yours?”

* * * *

Katherine didn’t join the other guests at the fancy dress dinner. However, her heart lifted when, peeping through the dining room door, she saw Edward. Clad in medieval knight’s finery he sat on the end of the long refectory table. She turned away and told herself that really, she shouldn’t let herself get interested in him because such a relationship would never work. If she were to allow herself to fall for somebody so….different like him, what would her friends and family have to say? She knew they would disapprove.
Once the dinner was over, he saw her sitting at the large bay window in the ballroom, and strode across the floor to greet her.
He seemed so pleased to see her. In fact, she found the way he treated her: as though she was the only woman in the room, quite intoxicating. I don’t give a fig about convention, she told herself at that moment and….to hell with…more suitable men. An encounter like this comes only once in a lifetime, so I’m going to make the very most of every minute of it!
They danced all night, only stopping now and again, to gaze at each other, chat a little, and feel so very glad that they’d met. So oblivious to outside forces were they, it was as though the other guests weren’t even there. Only once, when several of the dancers passed by the bay window and looked at them oddly, were they aware that, actually, they were in the middle of a noisy, social occasion.
Later, when the dance finished, they spent the night together, ending a special day with the most sublime moments of all.

* * * *

The next morning, Edward descended the hotel stairs to meet his fiancé. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “They’ve forecast snow for today and knowing this part of the country, I thought you might be delayed!”
Jenny smiled, kissed him and didn’t note the hint of disappointment in his eyes. “Merry Christmas, darling. You know I’m so looking forward to everything! The receptionist told me that Christmas dinner will be at one o-clock; and then guests generally gather in the lounge for the Queen’s speech.” She hugged him. “What could be better? Spending Christmas Day in a spooky castle hotel with the man I love!”
He helped the porter carry her suitcases up the stairs. Glancing upwards, he saw Katherine standing at the top. She stared down at Jenny for a second, before blowing Edward a kiss and disappearing down the hall.
Edward thought back to the night before. While laying together, he’d told Katherine about Jenny. She said she understood and even said that, given the circumstance, she didn’t mind if he continued his relationship with Jenny, as long as he still saw her from time to time. But in his heart, he knew Katherine was the only woman for him now and, he couldn’t be dishonest and live a double life.
“So, how was your Christmas Eve,”Jenny asked. Was the fancy dress do good.”
He hesitated, feeling wretched about what he knew had to do. Should I tell her now and get it over with, or later, he thought. He decided on later; feeling that he had to honour the holiday arrangements since they’d gone to so much trouble to arrange them. “Oh, I went as a medieval knight.” he said.
She laughed. “Very fitting in surroundings like this!”
She took his arm and they continued ascending the stairs.

* * * *

On January the second, Edward and Jenny stood at the Reception Desk, ready to check out of the hotel. Jenny, now subdued and still red-eyed from the ghastly revelation of the night before stood some feet away in the Foyer, waiting for their taxi.
When we get back, he’ll move out of our flat and, we won’t meet again, she thought, sadly. Oh, he’d said he still thought a lot of her and that now and again, they could meet up for lunch. But their relationship was now over; as stale as last week’s mince pies, and all that remained was to keep her dignity and play along with the, “let’s still be chums” bit.
She didn’t see Katherine until she sat and glanced into the dining room. Good grief, she thought, there’s a beautiful woman dressed in a medieval gown over there.
Katherine brushed past her, cutting a route straight to Edward. After slipping her arm through his, she watched while he paid the receptionist. Moments later, she kissed him on the cheek, turned away and dissolved through the wooden wall panelling.
When Edward joined Jenny, she asked, “Who was that woman?”
“What woman?”
“She was here: dressed in a long green velvet dress. She had long, brown hair and a yellow sash around her waist. I saw her! She kissed you and then….just disappeared through the wall!”
He checked a smile. “Oh the hotel says this place is full of ghosts. But I didn’t see anything.”
While driving away, Edward glanced out of the window and saw Katherine standing on the castle’s turrets, waving to him. If he’d been on his own, he would have waved back. But he didn’t want to hurt Jenny any more than he already had.
He wanted to be with Katherine all the time now. If only he could. But she told him she could only manifest for fourteen days each year and always it had to at Christmas. Carrying out a relationship with such restrictions might seem bizarre to most people. But as smitten as he was, he knew he would comply with them.
As the taxi crunched along the gravel, out of the castle grounds, he looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. It was receipt from the hotel securing his stay there for the following Christmas.


Wishing everybody a merry Christmas and a happy new 2019


Tough Love



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When I became a frontline manager in child protection social work, one of my first problems was in dealing with a client with mental health problems. During supervision with one of my staff, it emerged that this person, a mother of a four year-old boy, had a history of psychotic episodes, punctuated with reasonably long periods of adequate functioning. By that I mean, after losing touch with reality, she was a good, loving mother who provided a decent home for her son. The problem was that she needed medication to keep her on an even keel. The factor which brought her to the attention of my department was in her believing that she no longer needed the medication, and ceasing to take it.
At a case conference, the child’s maternal grandmother said that her daughter (who wasn’t in attendance), after a long period on the medication, believed that she was cured of her problem. After she stopped taking it, she would gradually slide downhill, unaware of the changes this made to her behaviour. The mental health professionals assigned to her would try and reason with her, but she refused to listen, saying that the meds made her feel lacklustre, and that she was perfectly all right.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t. This came to a head one day when the child’s nursery rang the department to say that the boy had told everybody that his mother was seeing giant snakes in the bath. Though only four, he said this wasn’t true. Even so, the concern was that he was young and vulnerable enough to be frightened by his mother’s psychotic episodes.
The mental health authorities admitted the mother to hospital, and we had no choice but to look around for a placement for the child. The maternal grandmother offered to give him a home. The department ran checks on her, and she was deemed suitable. Consequently, she gave up her job and, with the allowance given to her by our department, was able to look after her grandson full-time. On top of this allowance she would receive one-off payments for clothing and presents for the child’s birthdays and Christmas.
The mental health professionals said the child’ mother had gone into a particularly bad state and that that treatment would take a long time. Or, she might not recover sufficiently to be take over the care of her child again. This, of course, meant that the child couldn’t return to his mother and we were glad that at least he was placed within the family.
A long-term placement within the family would usually mean less trauma for the child at being separated from its mother. You would think so – but in this case, maybe not so.
It emerged that the maternal grandmother knew the workings of the social services department quite well. I was astounded and dismayed to learn that, within a week of taking over the care of the child, she came to us asking when we were going to arrange respite care for him. She wanted the child to be out of her home every weekend, with respite foster carers. When I asked her why, she looked at me as though I was crazy and replied, “That’s what all foster carers get, and I’m his foster carer.”
“Em, yes you are technically his foster carer, but you are also his grandmother,” I replied.
The conversation took a turn for the worse from this point on. The social worker on the case, whom I was supervising, shuffled around and looked embarrassed, and the grandmother looked angry. “That’s got nothing to do with it,” the grandmother retorted.
“Is he (the child) misbehaving,” I asked. “I mean is he giving you such a hard time that you feel you need to have a rest from him every weekend?”
“No. But all foster carers get respite care, and I don’t think I should be any different, just because I’m his grandmother.”
“Mrs Bla,bla,bla,” I said. “If you are asking for respite care for your grandson, when he isn’t causing you any problems, I can only deduce that you aren’t attached to him as we first thought. Your grandson is young enough to be put up for adoption. That is, he could be placed with carers who desperately want a child of their own, who want to make a long-term commitment to him.

After the conversation ended, the grandmother reported me to my line management, to whom I eventually gave these concerns: The fact that the grandmother is asking for respite care from her own flesh and blood, for no reason, indicates that she isn’t bonded to the child and isn’t likely to be in the future. Furthermore, it also begs the question as to how much input from the grandmother contributed towards her own daughter’s illness.

There were long discussions with the legal department (who largely agreed with me) and the Family Placement department (who thought I was Medusa incarnate). In the event, the department decided the child should remain with the grandmother. Foster carers were in short supply, and I would do well not to pass judgement on them, they told me. As mentioned, the Family Placement department in particular got very uppity with me, for upsetting their client (the grandmother). They argued that she was doing all she could for her grandson, and that respite care should and would be granted to her.

So, that was that. I was overruled. I didn’t have a problem with that. But every time I thought of that child being hustled out of the home every weekend, just so his grandmother could avail herself of ‘her rights’, I balked. I knew he was a well-behaved child, I had spoken to him and his nursery confirmed that he was no trouble. How, then, was he going to sort through his young mind and find a reason for why he had to leave his new home and his grandmother every weekend?

Perhaps I was being too judgemental. Perhaps I mistakenly put my own take on the situation. I knew that if I had to take over the care of my own grandchild, I would be honoured to do the task. But the situation was decided by those who though they were doing right by the child, and I had to forget my own feelings and just suck it all up.


Poor Girl


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I heard yet another harrowing tale of a young woman disappearing and believed dead on the radio this morning. This time it was a twenty-two year-old backpacking in New Zealand. She was last seen going into a hotel with a man.
In this twenty-first century, you would think it would be safe for a young woman to be out alone. After all, the age of savagery is long gone, isn’t it? What a pipe-dream.
The problem is young women are brought up to believe they are equal in every way to men. I readily espouse this view, but in the area of safety I will always have reservations. It simply isn’t the case, unfortunately, that if a man can go backpacking on his own, women can do the same. It doesn’t work out this way because men are stronger than women and some men, as we have seen time and time again, will avail themselves of this advantage.

This isn’t a rant on men’s sexuality. Most men are decent. Many men are loving fathers to daughters, love their sisters and respect their mothers. I am talking about dangerous men with skewed minds, who persuade themselves that the women they target will want their advances and enjoy forced sex with them. When they go too far and go on to kill their subjects, some are even able to rationalize their actions and manage to sleep well at night afterwards.
Psychologists say the actions of rapists and killers are fuelled by the need for power. Some say they have had fraught relationships with their mothers, and there are many other explanations as to why they are a danger to women. Either way, a young woman on her own will appeal to these men as would a gazelle to a predator on the Serengeti – easy target, easily taken.

In the aftermath of this sad story I hope young women will come to realize that, even though they are as good as men, even though they can do many things as well as men, in the areas of walking out alone and travelling alone, they are on sticky ground. Unfortunately, this isn’t about to change any time soon.
Emancipation is with us yes. It’s alive and it’s real. However, true freedom hasn’t landed in our laps. If young women delude themselves into thinking that it has, they might find themselves paying a very high price for their mistake.

Move Like Jagger


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That’s how the song goes, doesn’t it? I remember thinking how uncomplicated it is for a well-shod person like Mr Jagger to keep fit. Uncomplicated, not so much because he’s always had the money to kit himself out with gym equipment and maybe afford a personal trainer, but because he had, and still has the time to put himself through a multitude of exercises every day.
It’s an annoying fact that our bodies start going to seed after the age of thirty. The process is insidious, but inevitable. And dammit, it’s also a fact that, as a rule, when we are in our thirties and forties, we are at our busiest. We are cutting out careers for ourselves and having children. These two things alone are enough to ensure that we are at our most exhausted in the evening, and have little inclination to go to the gym. Even if we are determined to go to exercise after work, when then have to factor in getting meals and finding somebody to look after the children.
I lived in a family with a mother who constantly battled with her weight. Her lamentations on this subject got into my psyche and I thought the same was on the cards for me. Thankfully, an actress by the name of Jane Fonda then came up with a fitness craze that eventually swept the western world. You can remain slim and fit, she said, as long as you get off your bum and do her set of aerobic exercises every day. Aside from her fitness movements, aerobics in the form of jogging and sustained swimming also became popular. Gyms opened up and now even airports have them, to ensure that long-haul travellers can factor in their wellness routines.
I chose to exercise in the morning and get it all over with for the rest of the day. When I first went to early morning swimming sessions at my local pool, it was just after the Jane Fonda craze took off. Then, only cranks got up in the morning and swam a mile before work. I ignored all that and duly swam my lengths with the mantra, keep at it or watch it all point south and turn to jelly, swishing through my synapses. Afterwards, I attended meetings with chlorine-cloudy eyes and a self-satisfied air.
Did it pay off? Yes it did. For the past thirty-eight years I’ve swam, jogged and power-walked on a treadmill. Now I’m retired and have time, I do a ballet routine every morning and can hold a developpe well above ninety degrees. Trust me, you don’t know you’re alive until you’ve held a developpe that high for at least twenty seconds!
All this has ensured that I am the same size now as I was when I was eighteen. Yet truthfully, the only thing Mick Jagger and I have in common is a determination to stay on our feet, (because we’re well past it chronologically). I’m not crowing about this achievement. Sure I give myself a pat on the back for being so single-minded about keeping fit. But when I think back to the days when it all started, and how difficult it was to get it all into my schedule, I completely understand how hard it is for the younger, movers and shakers out there to be doing the same.
Being overweight and under-fit sucks. But getting up each morning and working out before work sucks too. So, when I hear that song, Move Like Jagger, my cynical side takes over and I say, ‘Yeah, right, it was easy for him.’