Thursday 23rd December is the worldwide release day of the free Butterworth Books anthology, LesFic Eclectic Volume Three, and our blog train starts on Saturday 18th December. Get ready to hear from 23 wonderful authors! Sign up to the Butterworth Books newsletter to get your eBook exclusively five days before general release on Saturday 18th December: http://eepurl.com/hFw4Jb
It has been two years since I was in Berlin for the Christmas season. Last time I visited there was no pandemic, only a faint murmur on the media wind of a new virus that was running amok in China, in a city called Wuhan. I had never heard of it.
I spent that Christmas being shown the seasonal sights of Berlin by my beloved. She took me to the City Weihnachtsmarkt in the centre of Berlin and I goggled at the huge Christmas Pyramid and drank in the sights and wonderful smells coming from the stalls as we pushed through the crowds. We visited the Christmas Garden at the Botanischer Garten, wandering entranced through tunnels of stars, leafy dells bathed in mysterious laser clouds and lawns that danced with rainbow lights. She even took me to a traditional fair where I tried my hand at archery, drank Gluhwein while I watched fire eaters and then staggered home with bags of freshly baked bread.
This Christmas in Berlin is very different. Necessary restrictions kept us apart for the last one, and I didn’t believe until I was sat in the seat on the plane that I was actually going to make it to Germany this year. Unwilling to risk the crowded trains to get to the city, we have stayed close to her home near the lakes. We have relaxed in each other’s company, played games, written words and taken walks. It has been a blissfully quiet retreat that has helped me detox from a difficult year.
And some things, the really important ones, have not changed. The warm hug from her dad, collecting me from the airport. The smell of fresh baking when I walked through the house to more welcoming hugs from her mum and sister. Small stringed lights, baubles and stars decorate every nook and cranny around the house, turning it into a magical grotto. I am proud to say that my own contributions of Gonks and paper chains have now found a place among them.
I have been embraced in a warmest way by her family, spoilt rotten with wonderful food and drink. I fly back to my own family in a few days feeling loved and cherished. I am truly blessed.
Merry Christmas Everyone.
I am privileged again to have a story included in the new volume of Lesfic Eclectic. The wonderful Robyn Nyx is editing, and there are stories from twenty wonderful authors.
It is completely free to download, so why not take a look. As the title suggests, there is something for everyone in there.
Facebook threw up some pictures from last year on my feed today. I stared at them for a while and then scrolled on down. They were a montage of memories from Berlin, taken this time last year. I had flown out to meet a woman I had met only months earlier and who had, bit by bit, stolen my heart. The long weekend we spent together contained moments so special that even now they take my breath away.
Looking at the images, it was difficult to believe that it was only a year ago. There were pictures of Art Deco stations, murals on walls, tables full of scrumptious food. Happy faces. However, the pandemic has made this year seem like three. Twelve months ago seems a distant memory. I no longer seem to be able to connect to the person I was then, the happiness that I felt, all the hopes for the future. COVID-19 has, bit by bit, chipped away at my soul until there feels sometimes as if there is nothing left.
I last saw my girlfriend in February. We knew then that the virus was spreading, but neither of us knew what impact it would have on our lives. She became becalmed at home, working long hours to meet deadlines. I was forced to work from home as well, but didn’t share her health concerns, so was able to venture out. Eventually I was able to go back to work on site even. I counted my blessings. I have a job and I stayed safe. Technology kept us in contact, supporting each other.
However, as the weeks continued to creep by, it became clear that the virus wasn’t passing through. There would be no quick return to normality. Indeed, perhaps it would never return. I had flights booked to Berlin, but moved them back, and back again. There was one set of flights I clung onto though, even though deep down I knew it was futile. I had seats on a plane for the August Bank Holiday. When I felt low I would go and look at them. I told myself to keep the faith, that after all these months, on our anniversary, I would be in Berlin again.
It wasn’t to be of course. The air bridge was established in time, and the borders opened. But Germany remains on high alert. I could get in, I could even be in the same room as my love, but I can’t hold or kiss her, I can’t even touch her. Touch, that simplest and most vital of loving acts, denied. I circled the problem time and time again, raging at the injustice. My love looked on compassionately, and didn’t try to dissuade me, although she knew it was fruitless. I love her for that. Finally the airline took pity, and cancelled my flights. I cried until I ran out of tears.
Inevitably, somewhere along the way the black claws of depression and anxiety have gripped me again, eager to reclaim territory. Bit by bit, I have lost interest in doing much. My world has shrunk and I have let it. I am lucky, I have the best professional help, and good family. But they can’t give me that answer I need. When will I be able to touch her again?
I have flights booked for October. November seems quite likely. Hope is keeping me afloat. Love will beat this virus eventually.
So, after seven weeks working from home in lockdown, this week I finally went back on site.
Now, I appreciate that lockdown has been a difficult time for many. Parents looking after children, the elderly and those already suffering from underlying health conditions trying to work out how to just get the necessities of life, others wondering if they will have a job to go back to, and of course many people just feeling very isolated and scared. COVID-19 isn’t a laughing matter.
So, it is with a real sense of guilt that I have to admit that I have mostly enjoyed it. It feels almost confessional. I don’t mind lockdown. I don’t miss the daily commute. I don’t miss crowded shops and the bustle of everyday life. I don’t even much miss people, or at least the majority of them. I have enjoyed the short journey from bed to desk. Being able to sit out in the garden eating my lunch and watching the busy spring wildlife. I have enjoyed the easy company of my family.
Working from home has of course not been without its challenges. I did get brain fog in the early days, but I have stuck to a routine which has helped. I am at my desk by 9am, lunching around 12 noon and then closing the lid on my laptop at 5pm. I get washed and dressed every day, although I have become addicted to wearing sweatpants. If it’s good enough for Anna Wintour… However, trying to concentrate on a report while someone is hoovering the stairs can prove difficult, as can having to run around after a squirrel obsessed terrier while trying to work out the intricacies of a website. I have a great family though and, somehow, we have made it work, respecting and supporting each other. Now, more than ever, I know how truly fortunate I am.
I am also lucky in other regards. I have over the past year built up a small network of social contacts, and although we have been forced online, we have kept in touch. I am still board gaming, and going to pub quizzes. I have joined in creative writing sessions and even supped cuppas at virtual coffee mornings. All using the power of the Internet. Yes, the evil, anarchic Internet, has now become our saviour. It offers boxsets, communication and collaborative spaces. The opportunity to see my boss disguised as a dancing pickle. It allows me to take control of a colleague’s machine, while chatting live to them and asking others via text for advice. I have even continued my German studies online, our enthusiastic teacher waving mini whiteboards at us from the comfort of her sitting room while we practise ordering food and making small talk. I love the Internet.
The worst of lockdown has been having to cancel planned trips. Flights to see my lovely girlfriend in Berlin, a writing retreat in Spain and a trip to the USA to attend my first High School Graduation ceremony have all gone up in smoke. The first two are postponed, the latter gone forever. (Although I have promised to embarrass my god daughter at her College Graduation instead). And not seeing my girlfriend really sucks. Technology keeps us in contact, supporting each other from afar but, every time I exchange a text message, I am reminded of how far away a simple cuddle with her is. I never took it for granted, and now I never will. I have kept a flight booked for the August Bank Holiday, and I am stoutly refusing to move it. In the dark of the night, when I am feeling low, it is there as a comfort blanket. A slim piece of hope. Lockdown has been a timely reminder, in a busy world, of what is really important in life. I might be having a good lockdown, but I still can’t wait for it to be over and to see my gorgeous again.
I have recently started learning to speak German. Now, I will freely admit that I’m useless at languages. I had to take my French and Latin GCSE twice to get a decent mark, and to this day I could swear that the very patient professor at my University, tasked to try and teach me Ancient Greek, retired back to Oxford to avoid a fourth year of torture.
Still, having spent a large part of Christmas in Berlin with my better half and her family, it had become more and more apparent that I was going to have to try. Whether it was the rather fixed smile of yet another shop assistant apparently politely asking me if I required any other service, only to receive embarrassed silence in return; or my girlfriend’s father tugging me towards a local park to show it off, only for our conversation to falter after a few words because neither of us know the other’s language. It was time to really bite the bullet, stop making excuses and start learning the language properly.
I had already made a little start using Duolingo (other language apps are available of course). I have no complaints about it, in fact I think the way it tries to teach you is rather neat. It even tests you on your speaking skills. However, it lacks the one thing I really need, rigor. I have no willpower and found lots of excuses to leave it to one side. So now I have signed up at my local college for a beginners evening class.
It was with some trepidation that I turned up for my first lesson. I got off to a good start by failing to even find the right room. However, I eventually found it and quickly realised I had landed on my feet. The lecturer looked straight at me and explained with a deadpan face that she was running a class in Russian. She almost had me going, and it was only when another of the newbies rescued me that I caught up.
I immediately started to relax. Here, I surmised, was one of life’s eccentrics and I was going to spend the next twenty weeks being taught by her. This is my idea of heaven. I am always at my most relaxed around fellow quirky types. Especially if they have a good sense of humour. Being around me usually requires it.
I haven’t been proved wrong. She throws balls at us, makes us chant answers back as a ‘choir’, and went speedily through most of the slides of the interminable official induction PowerPoint going ‘blah, blah, blah.’ This week we were learning everyday objects, and I don’t think “Das ist ein Apfel…stupido!” is, strictly speaking, the way the books deal with it. However, it made us all laugh. Laughing while you learn takes all the stress out of it. I wish my language teachers at school had realised that. She cheerfully tells us to learn with our ears, stop worrying about tenses and cases and all that boring stuff. Just to listen, repeat learn and yes, laugh. And I am learning, faster than ever before.
Laughter is also a good antidote for the malaise that falls upon me at this time of year. Endless dank days. Wet roads, grey skies and a damp cold that gets into your bones. It slowly saps all my energy, until I find myself floating through the waking hours, waiting to go back to sleep again.
This is the danger time for me. I have a stressful job at times, and it is easy to develop a tunnel vision, with the rest of my life taking a back seat. Unchallenged, it is a path that will eventually lead to me shutting down altogether. However, with the patient help of a really good psychologist, I have learnt to recognise the signs before things go too far. I was able to observe that I had stopped writing, had stopped engaging with people around me more than I had to.
Reaching out again beyond the tunnel walls is the hardest thing to do. It involves a mental effort that you simply do not feel capable of. However, it is always worth it. For the hours of weary effort it took to persuade myself and enrol on the course, I got rewarded with feeling wonderfully buoyed. I found myself talking excitedly about how it had gone and actively looking forward to the next lesson. My girlfriend is coaching me on the side (taking I might add an inordinate pleasure in correcting all my many mistakes!), and that also brings a valuable injection of laughter and pleasure to my life. It has also given me the energy I needed to reconnect in other areas of my life. This weekend I have my book club, next week perhaps a chance to go boardgaming with friends at my local pub, and of course I am writing this blog.
This winter will continue to drag on, but now I have a bit of sunshine inside myself to counter the worst of it with.
I love waking up in Berlin. An obvious part of that is that I am waking up in bed with the woman I love. However, there is more to it. Berlin is a city that I am coming to love more and more.
Travelling into the centre of the city yesterday, I was struck once again by the fusion of architecture. Grand red-brick buildings sitting easily side by side with modern, often zanily coloured, structures. In London, this mishmash of styles seems to clash, to jar on the senses. In Berlin it just works.
I couldn’t work out why at first, both cities are well established and cosmopolitan after all. After some thought I reached the conclusion that the difference is Berlin’s recent history. It is a city that has been torn apart, and then sewn back together again. Walking around, there is a sense of old Germany and new. Whilst there are tensions and problems, mostly there is a cheerful tolerance. London shares that tolerance of change, but it has grown fat and complacent, even about its own denizens. Its new architecture is born of wealth and the pursuit of more wealth. Mirrored buildings rising high, their steel structures exclusive and discouraging to the ordinary passerby. We gape briefly at them, but there is no comfort there, no sense of ownership.
In Berlin, new buildings have been born of necessity. First from the destruction of a terrible war, and then from the re-unification of the city split asunder by grasping superpowers. Small train stations are now shiny transport hubs connecting the city back to the country. Office buildings, hotels and apartments nestle against each other, all built at different times and in different styles and colours.
History has been preserved. The beautiful dome, broken by bombs. The sky tower built to spy. The quiet tiled train station, once use to transport people to their death, now preserved to remind and educate. A section of the wall, once a place of despair and death, is now a gallery of art. Oh yes, the art. It seems that any small corner of space left around the city is filled with it. Walls everywhere are emblazoned with colours and images. Even the graffiti on the trains work in Berlin, they communicate its indomitable spirit.
I saw a street sign on my way from the airport, ‘Königin-Elisabeth-Straße’. I thought I understood, but had to confirm the dreadful idea. Yes, there was indeed a street in the middle of the capital of Germany named after my monarch. We were in what had been the British Sector, and many streets had been renamed in this way. But this is Berlin, so not only had the name stayed, but the buildings along it celebrate by calling themselves ‘Queens’ this and that. It somehow summed up the city. Berliners just get on with the changing of the times.
History is not forgotten in Berlin, but it is a city that is reaching for the future. People are truly living in Berlin, rebuilding it from the ground up, and you can feel it around you. There is hope, determination and creativity in the air, and I love waking up and breathing it in.
Blue was the colour of the sky above the boat as it bobbed up and down, waves slapping noisily against its sides, just off the tip of Cape Cod. At least, in its most basic sense. I have tried since I got back from Provincetown to try to express what I saw that day, and failed miserably. You see, the sky went on forever, the blue searing my eyes. The sun glinted off the sea, the few fluffy clouds that there were, seemed to bob so low that at one point I imagined we were sailing above them. How do you explain that to someone who wasn’t there? Even the photos I took can’t fully convey what filled my eyes.
Turquoise blue was the colour of the whale that I was watching, languidly basking just below the surface. It was a Fin whale. I know that because the marine biologist on board filled us all in, slipping in casually that it was the second largest mammal on the planet after the blue whale. This whale, I will call it a she because that’s what I felt rather than knew, had just returned from a dive in the rich feeding grounds of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I supposed, looking at her lazily moving her huge tail, as she contemplated rising to take another deep breath, that she must have eaten well this time. She had dived far faster the last couple of times. As if sensing the excitement of her two-legged groupies, she surfaced briefly, rewarding us with a view of her beautiful head. Then she let out her breath and sank into the deeps, leaving us forlorn behind.
I was on my last full day in Provincetown. I thought I would have all week to do the trip out to sea, but a storm midweek had forced the ships to remain in port. Ours was the first boat to venture out. I had been tantalised in the meantime with sightings of dolphins and Humpback whales from seasoned whale watching campaigners who had already been out to look for them. However this lovely lady and one of her relatives were all that we saw. I didn’t feel cheated. Watching the arch of their backs, the green-blue silhouette of their bodies underwater, touched me deep inside. I left a little bit of my soul out in those waters that day, and I hope one day to return.
Vibrant blue was the colour of the busy dashboard display on our hire car. I think I mentioned in my last blog that part of the adventure was going to be the drive from the airport to the hotel. I thought I had anticipated everything, but being given a hybrid automatic wasn’t on the list. The dashboard would have shamed the Starship Enterprise. After fruitlessly trying to get the thing going, I sent my better half to fetch help. The nice gentleman rushed over, and then broke the news as diplomatically as he could. The reason I couldn’t hear the engine was because it was electric. Shouting thanks, I drove away quickly, clutching what was left of my dignity. We drove up through the Cape in darkness. The night hid the wonderful colours that would hypnotise us on the drive back. Massachusetts in autumn lives up to its billing.
Light blue was the colour of my girlfriend’s room. We had called ahead to warn our hosts at the Secret Garden Inn that we were going to be late, very late. Bless them, they waited up without complaint until midnight for us to arrive. We were welcomed with warmth, gorgeous smells of cooking, and blissfully comfortable beds. Our body clocks awry, we both woke at 6am and I popped round to find her enjoying the view from her veranda. We had made it to Provincetown, and it greeted us like the set from Murder She Wrote, lit by a gorgeous sunrise. We both had cushions on our beds with little whales on. I had starfish on my walls, she had fish. Snuggling under her blue blankets, we had truly found our own little corner of heaven.
Corporate blue was the colour of the carpet in Provincetown library. I knew it was corporate because it didn’t mind me spilling my drink on it. I spent a lot of the week in there, listening, observing and talking to my fellow travellers to Women’s Week. I met some wonderful writers and readers, and learnt a great deal as always. I also took the opportunity to get some of my writing done, knowing that the calm of the environment would help bring the words. However I was distracted by the half-size model of a Schooner (yes, a ship) that the Library had decided to house on its second floor, with the children’s books. I used to have a ship in a bottle, and felt a bit aggrieved when one day an expert on TV explained how the magic was done. Somethings are best left to the imagination, and I didn’t ask how they had got the Rose Dorothea into the space. I just looked at it with awe and wonder. What a wonderful space for children to explore the world in!
Finally, inevitably, blue was my mood when I had to leave. I didn’t hide my tears from my girlfriend and she comforted me as best she could. On the drive, and the flight home, I desperately tried to think of the quickest way to return there. To be somewhere where I felt so totally at home; where it’s ok to hold my girlfriend’s hand and give her a cuddle; where people like to say good morning and chat to you on the street; where I can feel the clean sea breezes on my face. To make things worse, two days later I was ushering my girlfriend onto a plane at Heathrow, knowing I wouldn’t see her for four weeks. On my second day back at work, I found myself crying on the journey, suddenly weighed down by the drudgery, drabness, and unfairness of the world I had been forced to come back to.
I will be back Provincetown, and it won’t be long, I promise!
In seven days time I will be in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for Women’s Week. This annual event celebrates the arts with literary events, film, comedy and much more. I had also not heard of it 18 months ago. Like much of my current life, it wasn’t just on the periphery, it was in another universe. Even once I had been acquainted with the wonderfulness that was P’town, I still contentedly assumed that it was something other people did. Braver, more adventurous people. Now it appears I am about to join their ranks.
I am travelling there with my amazing girlfriend who is far more courageous than me. To paraphrase Queenie from BlackAdder, she might have the demeanour of a meek woman, but she has the stomach of a concrete elephant. She had the trip planned over 18 months ago and was going to go on her own, with only the faint promise that some authors she had met might be there to say hello to. The thought of doing anything like that fills me with horror. It took me weeks to pluck up the courage to go my first board gaming group. I still remember with a shudder, the stomach clenching fear that I felt walking up the stairs in the pub. I might as well have been strapped in on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, on a one way trip to Mars.
Now she is taking me along and I am starting to feel excited. My ESTA is approved, currency ordered, hire car booked. Ah yes, the hire car. My girlfriend had planned to get the bus. I had heard too much for comfort about the ‘Cape Fear’ short hop flight option from Boston Logan to Provincetown airport. So the obvious option was to drive, for the first time, in the US. I have assured her that it will all be fine. After all I hired a car when in Spain earlier this year, and despite a slight false start that necessitated a couple of laps of the airport carpark, and a few hair raising moments which left the local taxi drivers probably needing therapy for PTSD, I made it to the villa unscathed.
I will, however, be leaving the navigation to my girlfriend. I have a terrible track record when it comes to map reading. My best friend still has fond memories of letting me direct her and her husband from the Solway coast back to Lockerbie. By the time I had finished, we were in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Dumfries (I only missed one turn honest!). In Malaga this all came back to haunt me again. I carefully added 30 minutes to an evening trip back from Malaga Harbour to our villa, and then led my driver the next day on a hair raising drive round the dirt tracks of the local village. Funnily enough, nobody asked for my help again.
My girlfriend has requested a book to listen to on the journey, perhaps wisely planning something to calm her nerves. She is big on audio books, as she is dyslexic, and has listened to hundreds over the years. She even runs a website devoted to cataloguing and raising the profile of all the Lesbian Fiction titles out there. However, despite dipping my ears a couple of times, I still haven’t been won over. Instead I offered the compromise of a full cast recording of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Thankfully the promise of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch’s dulcet tones was enough to win the day.
So P’town here we come. Whale watching, cake, gelato, dune walking, and maybe even the occasional cultural event are all hopefully going to be sampled over the next couple of weeks. I can’t wait to breath it all in, and even better still, I will have a wonderful woman by my side to share it all with. Happy birthday my love, I will see you very soon…