Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Over the hill

 Over the hill


Sarah's contribution:

When is a woman past her prime?  In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Acquitaine was married and Queen of France at 15, released from her tumultuous marriage at age 20 after having travelled with the Crusaders as far as Jerusalem, remarried and Queen Consort of England at age 22, separated and head of an independent court in Poitiers at the age of 36, when she finally considered herself middle-aged.  This did not stop her assisting her young sons in a revolt against their father, which caused her husband Henry II to send her into house arrest for the next 16 years, until his death, and three years after that she ruled England as Regent while her son Richard was off at the Crusades, raising his ransom and negotiating his release from captivity when he was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way back.  After this son’s death she served her other son John, now king, as diplomat at the age of nearly 80.
In the fifteenth century, Margaret of Austria, also known as Marguerite de Bourgogne, was betrothed at the age of 3 to the Dauphin of France but jilted by him at the tender age of 11.  No matter: at 16 she had married the heir to the throne of Spain, Juan, Prince of Asturias, although their passionate union lasted only six months before he suddenly died of a fever: at 20 she married the Duke of Savoy, another lively love-match but one where she also showed her ability to govern their domaines because her husband was not interested.  This union too was cut short when Philibert died suddenly less than three years later.  At 23 she thought her life was over and threw herself out of a window, but survived and went on to become Governor-General of the Netherlands, energetic in the interests of her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, until her death at the age of 50.
In the sixteenth century, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland at the age of six days, married to the Dauphin of France at 16, Queen Consort of France at 17, widowed at not yet 18, remarried and a mother at 23, widowed once more, remarried and arrested after an uprising, not yet 25, did see her life go downhill from then on.  Kept a virtual prisoner by her cousin Elizabeth for almost 19 years, though not without passionate supporters, she finished on the scaffold by order of Elizabeth and was dead at the age of 44.  Elizabeth, of course went on to be the world’s most powerful monarch until the age of almost 70.  Let’s not even talk about Elizabeth II.
And yet.  In the twentieth century, when I first came to France, they were still celebrating St Catherine’s day in offices and other workplaces: any woman of 25 who not yet found a husband was fêted with cakes and flowers, given an elaborately decorated hat and reminded that she had better get busy as time was running out.  When I was 35 I asked a neighbour if  she could join the school parents’ committee and she apologised, saying she was “too old and tired”; she was my age.
And in the US there began to appear here and there notices on the grass in front of middle-class houses, with balloon decorations and general signs of festivity, evidence that the woman of the house had reached the age of forty and was thus about to commence the downward path into ignominy and obscurity.
“Over the hill”.   Who is to say when a woman is past her prime?  Eleanor of Aquitaine presumably thought she was well past her youth when she went to Poitiers, but she continued a very active life, without her husbands, for twice as long after that.  Margaret of Austria had finished her love life at 23 but her political life was just beginning, again more than doubling that age.  Mary Stuart, though her happiness was over before she was 25, continued fighting until the end, was never without devoted admirers and is generally considered to have died tragically young.  Most young Frenchwomen today are unmarried at 26, and although my teaching colleagues used to speak rather apologetically of themselves as “quadras”, most 40-50-year-olds nowadays still look and act young and dynamic, and have preserved their looks.  Most educated women don’t begin to feel old until they are at least 70 or even 80.  So I ask again, “over the hill” is 23?  35?  80? 
For my part, I hope, when I reach 120, to be able to adopt the remark of Jeanne Calment at that age:
“I’m actually still a young girl.  It’s just that I haven’t looked so good for the past seventy years.”


From Geraldine:

Over the hill

Just standing still

Is this graceful deer

I daren’t get to near

Not to cause him fear.

A noise whistles at my ear

And before I can hear

The moan of the deer

The sight disappears.


The moon is high

In the sky

The stars twinkle

The Milky Way shines

And under it’s gleam

The last breath of a deer fades away.


As the sun rises

The next morning,

A cloud of birds of prey

Swoop down for a copious banquet.


And a few hours later

All is clear.


 Jackie's contribution

Over the hill


The last red coals of the family fire glowed in the now fading daylight.   Sanja adjusted the cooking pot over the flames to boil water for a last nightcap.    


The sun, bright as a pomegranate fruit in the African sky collapsed over the hill leaving an imprint like a dark red birthmark in the sky.


His two sisters and mother were already asleep in their hut having been up working in the fields since before dawn:  he reached out to gently pull a cover over his fathers sleeping body as he lay lifeless with fatigue on his rush mat in the dwindling warmth.


As nightfall fell the hills became alive;  Birds croaked invitations to play in the dusk.  A lion roared its hunger and the slight breeze brought a whiff  of eucalyptus and lemongrass.


      Sanja was kept awake by his constant dream that hung like a dark cloud over his head.   Fantasizing of the images torn from a crumpled  magazine he had found one day – a rainbow ending in a pot of gold and pictures of buildings, streets , pretty girls and shoes.


He needed to get away from his village and  find out what was at the end of this rainbow that appeared over the hill after the rains.  He was frustrated with everyday life, of hauling water, feeding the animals, digging dust and watching his family go hungry.


 None of his relatives had ever traveled out of the circle where he lived.    They buckled down to their work in the fields every day perfectly happy to be singing and making hay – feeding the animals and not wondering too much about their future.   Sanja though had other thoughts – he wanted more out of life.    At 15 now it was time for him to become a man and it seemed to him that he had to go somewhere else which could only be better than what he had here.   The rainbow was the answer.

Looking over at the hill he started to think about what he would do when he got there how he would find the pot of gold – hoping it wouldn’t be too heavy to carry home

He heard the nighttime warbler  – it seemed to him he was screaming at him go go on – go over the hill to the city change your life     


It took many many days of walking through the undergrowth – brambles scratched his legs, sharp stones cut into his feet and with every step shredded flesh left an imprint of his own blood a buzz of flies and mosquitos hovered constantly.

 He encountered snakes and spiders hanging from the tangled vines.   Hid from tracks of a large tiger.   Drank dew from leaves and cut coconuts for breakfast. 


Up and up he went –surprised that the rainbow was further away that his eye had seen  –it had looked so close from his campfire.    Finally after 2 weeks of walking he reached the top and looked around for the arc of colours the rainbow had produced  – it had disappeared.  


Looking back over the way he had come – he saw his village as a tiny tiny spot in the middle of the jungle – a clearing with thatched huts where he could just make out his family and other villagers going about their everyday business in the glistening sun.     Suddenly it dawned on him that the pot of gold was there where he had come from, his roots, family, friends, a life in the village that would remain his forever.   


He vowed to go back when the time was right;   but at this moment in time he put out his thumb and hitched a lift to the City and a new chapter in his life 


Annemarie's story


Over the Hill

From the age of eleven my sister and I spent nearly all our school holidays  with an ancient aunt and an even more ancient great grandmother and our biggest treat was a visit, maybe two, to the cinema. We loved the adventure films -  Mysterious Island, Swiss Family Robinson,The Moonspinners , In Search of the Castaways.  There would be earthquakes, children tumbling down glaciers and in the last film the children hurtle down dangerous waters to emerge out of a hill. Over the hill was a magical land, sometimes a locked-in world with dinosaurs and incredible plants.

 I think I still anticipate something wonderful beyond  my hills when I approach one, especially on walks, although it's usually a view I look forward to. I was truly rewarded many years ago on our return from the South of France.

We had decided to detour so we could experience the new Millau bridge but en route I noticed one of those ubiquitous brown signs with the words “Cirque de Navacelles.”  Having no idea what this was I persuaded a reluctant husband to detour yet further - he hates stopping if I see an intriguing shop and always says “ Can't stop now, there's a car right behind me.” I wonder how many exciting things I’ve missed! But this time he agreed and on and on we drove with no respite from the blazing sun, through endless scrubland, and he becoming ever more irritable.

“We've driven for half an hour and all we see are those flipping signs. I think I’ll turn round.”

“No, let's just go another five minutes as we have come so far already. I’m sure we must be there soon.”  Five minutes later: “It must be over that hill, let's carry on a little  longer.”

Ten minutes later I’m saying “I'll count to 100 and if there’s nothing we'll turn around. »

It must have been forty-five minutes since seeing the original sign and after winding ever upwards this somewhat bleak and vast hill  that we arrived in a deserted carpark; nothing to see but sky and bare rough terrain. I leapt out of the car and rushed to the edge of the carpark.

 I was immediately transported into one of my childhood films .The hill around which we had zig-zagged to reach the top was in fact a gorge  carved out of the limestone plateau by two rivers. I gazed down at this hidden canyon which resembled a great green amphitheatre. The steep Rocky sides were scrub-covered descending down deep to flat plateau in the middle of which was  pointy,  three-sided 'pyramid' hill wearing a narrow skirt  of green fields;  nestled alongside was a tiny hamlet. It was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

Of course we had to go ‘over’ the hill. Sadly we didn't go sliding down on a glacier or emerge halfway down on a torrential river but took the road instead. It was poorly maintained and barely wide enough for one vehicle. It was a somewhat dangerous but exhilarating drive down a road  clinging to the cliff side as it weaved its winding way into the valley,

The hamlet consisted of some few old stone houses; the scent of boxwood, juniper and cedar permeated the air.  The river Vis appeared from its underground journey gushing from the cliff side beside an old mill into a large basin where it probably delved even deeper, right down to Hades I imagine.

We were lucky enough to have a coffee and something to eat in a cafe/B and B. ( more  than we find in many of our ramblings around French villages!). My anticipation of something special over the hill was fully justified and at the time we thought we would one day stay in the BandB but on reflection the enjoyment was in the quite first unexpected, surprising discovery.

The intoxicating scents of the scrubland, Holm oaks, boxwoods, junipers and cedars are almost overwhelming.


Read the poem through ...then read it again starting with the bottom line upwards!


Over the Hill

I’m over the hill

So don't keep telling me

 I’m not fat and wrinkly

Because to be truly honest

 I hate what I see

I'm really not going to kid myself by saying

It's what's inside that matters.

I keep telling myself over and over

That I'm a useless person and nobody wants me

You can say nothing to make me believe

 I still deserve compliments and love

Because whatever you say,

I'm not good enough to be loved

I cannot believe that

 Looks and youth are still on my side,

For when I gaze in the mirror I always say to myself

Am I really over the hill?


Monday, 1 March 2021

The cobweb



Sarah's story

The cobweb… 4 



It was an old house, and full of dim corners where spiders might make their home.  James was near-sighted and hardly bothered about the state of the house so long as it was reasonably clean and meals were on time and savoury.  He even helped with the peeling and the washing-up, but after that his interest in domestic affairs shrivelled.  Joanna herself was preoccupied with her garden and her cooking and her reading club, and took the house with equal complacency; as she said herself, she had never been “house-proud”.  Their friends were easy-going, not acquaintances that it was necessary to impress, and they had no children.

But Joanna’s sister had, and when one day they came to visit, her son Will, coming into the upstairs corridor, let out a shriek.  “A spider!” he screamed and would not budge.  He was eight.

Joanna had a look.  “I don’t see one,” she said finally.

“There, there!” 

Joanna inspected the corner again and said, “There’s no spider there.  It’s only a web.”

But he still would not advance.  Her sister’s mother-in-law had accompanied them, and she came up the stairs as well. 

“That’s easily enough settled,” she said and grasped a broomstick which Joanna, hastily sweeping before their arrival, had not put back in its closet.  With one expert move she twirled the cobweb round the broom handle and whisked it away.  She looked inquiringly, not to say imperiously, at Joanna, who indicated a waste bin nearby, but the woman making no move herself, Joanna took the broom and disposed of the offending article, and they were all able to proceed to the guest bedroom they had been headed for.  The mother-in-law inspected it briefly, and, satisfied, set down her things. 

“If you wouldn’t mind giving me that broom again, Joanne” she said, however, and proceeded to perfect the house-keeping.  Joanna smiled and left her to it.

Joanna’s sister and husband and two children were to take the back bedroom , which was very large, and once this was inspected and approved, they moved their things in as well.  The mother-in-law came in to take care of the finishing touches, and then she gave the broom back to Joanna.

They had a nice lunch, and a walk down the lane, and a tour of the garden before tea, and finally an evening of parlour games, and everyone agreed that life in the country was very pleasant indeed.

“We do miss the cinema a little,” said Joanna, “now that the local one has closed down.”

The mother-in-law beamed benevolently.  “One can’t have everything.”

The next morning went well enough, as most of them lay in, and the mother-in-law, who was not a late sleeper, busied herself with a broom and a duster, and seemed quite pleased with herself.  They went out for lunch and visited a model village and came home for tea , which was a pleasant and restful meal except for the presence of a few bothersome flies.   The next morning was much the same, and then Joanna and her sister got another nice lunch ready for the crowd and they all sat down.

“My, my!” said the mother-in-law, “you do have a great number of flies in the house!”  She shooed them away with her napkin.

“Humph,” said James, absently, “we didn’t use to have so many.”

“It is the country, you know,” said Joanna.  Then she added, “But James is right.  We don’t usually have so many.”

“You’re not suggesting we brought them?” asked the mother-in-law, and Joanna and James assured her, smiling, that such a thought could not have been further from their minds.  But the flies were very bothersome.

“I think I’ve heard,” said Joanna after a moment, “that spiders are good for that.  They eat the flies, you know, that’s what their webs are for, to catch them.”

“Drat these flies!” said the mother-in-law again, and switched her napkin left and right.  She looked as if her favourable opinion of the country was losing its brilliance.

“They eat flies?” asked Janey, Will’s sister.  “How disgusting!”

“Someone might think it disgusting that you eat chicken,” said James mildly.

“Shall we not have an entomology lesson during lunch?” suggested the brother-in-law, brushing a fly from the side of his plate.

“And don’t bother Janey with the views of vegetarians,” said Joanna’s sister.

“Is there nothing you can do, Joanne,” asked the mother-in-law, swatting furiously, “to control these insects?  I really cannot eat my lunch!”

Joanna smiled again, though her smiles were becoming forced, and she sighed.  “One can’t have everything,” she said.  Now what did that have to do with the situation, thought her guests.  But she was right.

Annemarie's contribution:


The water is a murky green, the sun sprinkling diamond spots on the surface of the pond as I struggle to climb up the reed. I've been sitting in the shallow water near the margins of this pond basking in the warmer water for some time and occasionally popping my head out to learn to breathe the air.

Today is the the day I will finally emerge as an adult. I cling  onto the knobbly green reed and I feel the warmth of the sun rays. My head, my thorax, legs and wings feel tight and constrained until they struggle  out of my  larval coat. Damp and wobbly I wait until my legs firm up and feel strong; cra-a-ack - what's happening? Oh, it's my external skeleton splitting open and my trapped abdomen is released like an extending telescope.I am still weak so I  wait while my wings spread and my abdomen firms up. Around me I can see other dragon flies going through the same body-hugging, body-freeing process. I gaze in wonder at their iridescent green wings glinting in the sun and watch as they gingerly flutter them and their long bodies dip up and down.  

It's my first day out of the water and a new set of dangers lie in wait as I metamorphose from aquatic larva  to  aerial dragon-fly. I lift off but my maiden flight is woefully weak and I land bumpily in the grass, watched by a prowling blackbird. One glimpse of my shimmering emerald wings and I will be dinner for her fledglings. Panic seizes me as I struggle to free myself from the matted grass; I lurk among the tall green blades, camouflaged but wary of the mornings dewdrops heavy on my fragile wings. With a final effort I’m up at last and I can fly -  straight up, straight down; I whirl about, I hover, I fly in jet straight lines, then swivel round - I'm a helicopter, I’m a robot, I’m swooping up in the air and feel the sun on my bulging eyes.

  These aeronautics trigger my  hunger. No more swimming after my food for now I must catch it mid-flight. But beware - malevolence crackles in the air. My big round dragon fly eyes catch sight of the slightest movement. There's the blackbird strutting along the low branch in the nearby hornbeam hedge, studying me surreptitiously. I soar straight up , grabbing a small fly with my feet and eat it while I fly. This is so easy; I weave this way and that following a misty stream of midges, snapping them up with my feet and devouring them.  I stop suddenly, my four  gossamer wings whirring, and veer off in pursuit of a fat shiny bluebottle. The warm sunshine switches off suddenly as I fly into a barn and as I clasp my quarry I’m caught in an insubstantial, sticky mesh of diaphanous thread. I bounce back but cannot extricate myself from this sticky, suffocating web, the bluebottle still clutched in my feet. I twist and turn, my frail, lacy wings wreathed in spun silk;  staring at me from the centre of the cobweb is a rapacious black spider, crouching patiently, expectantly on her springy, vibrating bed while I struggle, while I exhaust myself in the now cocooning filaments. My eyes are shrouded by the mesh of threads and from faraway I hear the persistent call of the blackbird  getting louder and louder. I’m being held, shaken... Hot and sweaty I slowly  open my eyes, and emerging from a tangle of sheet I see a familiar face bent over me.

“Wake up! Wake up! Your alarm has gone off and you've got your exam today.”




Geraldine's story


It was this dream that kept coming back to Fiona, but it was blurred, and shapeless, but still there.

It was somewhere in Gabrielle’s house (her grandmother),who would be reading her a story she would listen to, her eyes ferreting around the room where they would be sitting next to the open fire place.

From floor to ceilling, around the 4 walls, Fiona’s eyes would be looking at everything around her : the old grey polished stones on the ground, the fireplace with it’s stone shining mantelpiece and  the burning logs, the walls covered with shelves full of books, all types, all colours and all different sizes.

Here and there, there would be an object like a vase, or a stone, or a picture, or a statuette which had, of course, a story to tell.  Then a few boxes, either filled with games like chess or snakes and ladders, or big or small puzzles, a solitaire game with the red, yellow, black, white, blue and green pions  and the odd game of cards.  A few sepia photos would be stuck here and there with old faces that were usually looked into to find a resemblance with someone still alive in the family.

Then her eyes would fall on the ceiling trying to track the flyes, mosquitos or spiders settled along the wooden beams.  But when they would encounter the various cobwebs comfortably set up there, she would starts shivering for she was just scared to death by the spiders, above all the big ones.

Yes, she had tried to get Gabrielle to get rid of them or to kill them like lots of people in town, or at school or in public places would have done.  But no way, Gabrielle explained over and over again :

-       Now look sweetheart, these little arachnids are completely harmless and extremely useful, as they love feeding themselves with flyes, small insects, ants, mosquitos and they keep them out of the way.  You see, the animal world knows how to behave and regulates by itself. When man interferes, he destabilizes the whole system.

Of course, Fiona knew her grandmother was right, but she still couldn’t help hating looking up there, and nevertheless peeping an eye at the ceiling. Brrrr…..

Anyway, she grew up, and as she  did so, saw her Granny less and less often, as she had many activities in and out of school, College, sport and music.

She then became a Mum too and loved spending time with her children, helping them grow up, playing with them, giving them a hand with their schoolwork, developing their artistic skills, helping them discover which sport they liked and were best qualified for, and all these everyday natural things one does daily with children : singing, cooking, sewing, knitting etc.. 

And from time to time, this blurred dream would haunt her again, and then disappear.

So, the day her Mum disappeared for ever, when the coffin went down in the grave, at the cemetery, everything became clear as if it had been yesterday !  There it was, she could at last catch her timeless dream !

She remembered her own Mum with red swollen eyes, her Dad very pale but making this huge effort to show how a Man behaves when he is deeply touched by something,  and herself asking them :

« Please Mum, please Dad, can we collect the cobwebs from Granny’s ceiling and put them in her coffin, she really loved them so dearly » !  



Jackie's story:

They were out for the day into the old town of Troy to blow away the cobwebs.         Sophie and her mother.  

 Sophie at ten years old was precocious, and had insisted on wearing her mothers high heeled shoes and had painted her finger nails bright red.    Fire house red as it was called on the bottle.    They had set off to the fair but wearing high heels at the age of 10 hindered their walk on the cobblestones considerably.    

 Her mother, happy to be out after a long depression following the divorce with Sophies father was pulling her daughters hand trying to get to the fair a little faster.   In fact she couldn’t wait to get there as she had been in contact with someone on a dating website and she had sort of said she’d be at the fair on this day.  She had described herself but what she hadn’t mentioned was that she had a daughter.  


There he was she was sure,  tall and refined like she had imagined, smart jeans jacket, dark glasses and he was scanning the crowd looking for a lady alone by herself dressed as she had described.    As she was desperate to chat and get to know him she sent Sophie on one of those rides that would shoot her into the sky and send her round and round for quite a while.  


It was going well, she liked him, and they seemed to be getting on like a house on fire and were compatible.  He had a sense of humour, seemed kind and gentle and in a short space of time they were laughing and getting on fine


Sophie appeared.    Cross that her mother had left her on that machine for such a long time – she tugged at her sleeve and demanded attention.  Mom Mom Mom cotton candy please … 

“You have a daughter” the man astounded asked.    “I don’t like children” he stated his face darkening, evil eyes  hooded now and a frown arched across his forehead.  Sophie yelled back  I don’t like you either and you leave my mother alone she screamed kicking him in the shins and digging those red red nails into his arm causing him to flinch.


He went over to the sweet stand.    The pink cloud of sugar wobbled and swayed as he quickly made his way back through the crowd –here you are you little fiend  

and promptly plonked it over the little girls head.    The rose coloured sugary solution covered Sophie from head to toe,  hardened and solidified in a lace like cobweb oozing down her pretty pale green dress,  ran down her legs and stuck to her shoes – ooh ooh   ha ha ….mocked the man you are going to make those creepy crawly spiders jealous     Sophie who had a fear of spiders dating from babyhood  hearing a thousand times “an itsy bitsy spider …..”  launched into another session wailing and screaming punching out and insulted her mother like nothing on earth.   A crowd developed around them all trying to disentangle her from the mess.     

As her mother joined in to peel off the now hardened sticky substance from her daughters clothes she reflected on one hand that you could never be too sure about anyone.     Thanks to her daughter this relationship certainly was not for her and got her out of a sticky web of trouble.


Monday, 1 February 2021

If .....


She couldn’t remember the exact moment that she threw the bottle into the river .    One of those crazy things you do when you are 12 years old.  All silliness and giggles – cut off jeans and crop tops getting brown in the summer sunshine.


Memories come rare now –life seems to belong to someone else ,    just the other day she went from the bathroom to the kitchen a few steps away and - forgot what she had come to do.    


Filtering through her brain little snippets produced hazy images …

childhood holidays in a small village of Burgundy France, lazy hot days sleeping in the hammock strung between the cherry trees, playing with the village kids on bikes, skate board and constructing tree houses in the forest surrounding the village. Helping with the vendanges – sandwiches and an apple from the tree – chocolate croissants and  Playing with Augustus the family dog – walking down to the river with Mum and Dad on a Sunday afternoon - then a few years later with the gang – a group going for a swim and the evenings spent playing football or hanging out at the parapet near the village fountain.

Summers passed by with dreams and no fear for the future.    


One day they had found a bottle – an old bottle possibly previously containing some medicine by the smell.    The cork had been intact so she  had composed a note offering a reward to the person who found it.   Tossed it in the river and watched it float away bobbing up and down imagining it being thrown and lifted by gurgling waters to the next region in the  l’Yonne and beyond to the Seine river then Le Havre and then the Atlantique ocean and beyond – imagining a far off land -  nobody would ever find this bottle thrown into a small river in the middle of France.   Just a bit of fun……They had laughed at the thought.



Now 60 years later her deteriorating mind was playing tricks,  had practically erased those moments, had she ever been young? Words escaped her now  – rolling away out of sight like a box of marbles dropped scattering on the floor into unreachable places.   She looked for them in vain.


Looking at her grandchildren  had she ever been so carefree and mindless ….  Lurking somewhere in the grey matter of her brain were memories and pictures of happy days      she tries to read a book and gets distracted by ….things 

– I must go make tea – or the phone pinged again- a message – a reminder – an appointment.   She felt disconnected, wordless


The house phone rang this time.


Hello Madame –“yes, hello “…. a foreign heavily accented voice – what if ….. what if the voice hesitated and there was an echo from somewhere on the other side of the what sounded like a different planet …. What if ….Madame – are you listening can you hear me ?    What if I were to tell you that I have found your bottle with the message – I am claiming your offer of winning 10,000 £ if found - as is written by a certain Jacqueline.? 

Startled – who was Jacqueline ?  could it be me.  The name rang a bell.

I don’t have 10,000£

The voice was fading but –“ lawyer” and the words “moral duty” came faintly down the line.  


What if this was her.





Si Ma Tante en avait on l’appellerait Mon Oncle


So, just one of those beautiful autumn days, where the colours blaze in the air, the sun shines at its most, trying to make you think no winter will ever catch up and embrace you with cold winds, making you duck your necks to fight against the chill….

So Clare decided to take her three little boys out that afternoon for a walk in the forest.  When she put it out to them, they were rather resistant, wanting to ride their bicycles.

Lets have a deal then : there’s a nice place, right near the forest where you can play with your bikes in the small sand quarry there, and after that, we’ll have a little walk in the forest and you can help me look for  some mushrooms, said Clare.

Yes, yes, yes, hooray !

So, bikes in the boot of the car, kids in behind strapping in those who needed to be strapped in, a small rucksack with a little snack for afternoon tea and a nice big bottle of fruitjuice.  Off they set !

The place Clare took them to was amazing : it’s a small sand quarry in a strange clearing at the edge of the woods , with little heaps of orangey  sand.  With the autumn colours, some trees still quite green, some others almost red and the sun shining through them, it was just like in a fairy tale : you were wondering if they were around watching this happy family intruding…

Out came the bikes, the two eldest boys went up and down the sandy hills while Clare played in the sand, making castles with her youngest son who was only just 2 years old and couldn’t ride a bike yet.  Idyllic afternoon.

Big boys exhausted, came the time to have tea : out came the rucksack, the fruitjuice was shared, the cereals bars shared out, the papers collected by Clare, back into the bag  as well as the banana skins just collected after the banana distribution. 

Well now we are all restored, time for our little mushroom hunting and so they pushed off in a small dirt track looking around, under the trees, waiting for the first one to cry out « I’ve found one, I’ve found one ! » .  The sun was playing hide and seek between the tree trunks and everybody was having great fun ! 

But after about half an hour of this funny hunt, no mushroom had been found yet!  Maybe the weather had been to good, not enough rain in the previous days or our acuteness of vision was too low…

Nevertheless, when Clare stopped at a path-cross and looked up, the sun was getting low and…she had no idea of where she was, where she had left her car with the kids bikes, and which way to go… The forest was still a splendor, but she started feeling anxious!  First thing : keep the children free from this anxiety, keep looking cheerful and happy, and try and go back  on their steps.

IF only she had done like “Op’O my Thumb” and left some little gravel or any other kind of “clue” behind, she would know which way to go!

IF only she had asked the children to look out with her as to where they had been walking, but they had all walked with their nose to the ground like little dogs looking for truffels!

IF only it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon instead of almost 5 o’clock, there still would have been plenty of time before sunset!

IF only the little one wasn’t so tired, Clare wouldn’t have to carry him on her back now!

IF only science knew better and would have invented some kind of outdoor telephone that you could take with you!

IF only , if only, if only…. But better get walking now, either way and hope  your lucky star will guide you.

So, with suddenly much less enthusiasm, the little troop  set off again taking the first lane on the right and quietly started walking. The forest seemed now almost like an enemy, feeling dark and damp and the little fairies had been replaced by  bad  dwarfs.  At one point that seemed ages later, a weird noise began to grow. It sounded like music!  In the middle of the woods!  So Clare and her tribe quickened  their  pace, ears all out trying to follow the music and above all where it came from. The forest seemed to be getting more and more dense and dark….

And oh! What a surprise… As they were taking  a curve in the lane they landed into a small clearing where the sun was dropping and there was a man there, who seemed to be clearing up some cardboard plates and gathering plastic glasses and paper serviettes. Next to him was a small record player…. Playing the music that had guided their steps.  He looked very surprised to see them.

Clare walked up to him to introduce herself : hello, he said! What brings you around here?  Oh! He stank of alcoohol, but, on the other hand, seemed quite harmless and friendly.  So, Clare described the place where she had left her car and the kids bicycles and asked him if he knew where it was, and if they were not too far from it.  Oh! He said.  I know the place but it’s miles away.  You’ll never reach it before  dusk.  If you just let me finish packing, I can drive you back there if you are OK to squeeze into my little car! We just had a couscous picnic party with some friends and I’m clearing up.

And there, another load of “IF” emerged in Clare’s mind :

What IF he has an accident, he seems so drunk!

And IF he gets rough with me and/or the kids?

And IF he takes me to another place, strange or in the middle of nowhere!

But then, IF I don’t take his offer, how can I get out of this “horrible” forest before the night?

How can I feed the children who will start feeling so hungry?

How can I protect them from the cold night that I is beginning to fall on us?

But then, what other alternative?

So, believing in man’s kindness and again their lucky star, Clare picked up his offer and a few minutes later they all scrambled into his little car.  Motion towards civilization, hope and home…. It seemed a very long trip through the woods, in bad bumpy lanes, with a zig-zaguing driver,  but at last, through the trees appeared a patch of red that grew bigger and bigger and there was Clare’s red car standing just in front of the sand quarry where the adventure had begun. 

Here we are, and here is my car she said in a loud and   grateful voice to their unsure but nice driver.

She felt so relieved, so stupid and happy at the same time. 

They all climbed into the car, and as they started driving home, a little voice came from behind “Did   we really get  lost, Mummy? And IF we hadn’t found this nice man to take us back, what would we have done?

And Clare turned to her 3 boys with a smile and said :

You know, IF is a wonderful word, for it can give so many answers to a question, and take so many different turnings in an adventure like this one, that it opens all doors  for so many possibilities…

And… remember this all your life : it will be of great help to you little lads!



Annemarie's story

If only she could go for the day to the stables, then for a ride along the lane to Barrow Hill, the autumn hedgerows with their haze of blue from the sloe bushes replete with dark bitter fruit and spindle trees with their colour-popping pink and orange heart-shaped berries; instead she had to go to the committee meeting of the Talented Women Tennis Players. Then her grandmother's voice echoed across the years to her ten year old self:

‘If ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers.'

 Now Fiona realised the pointlessness of 'if' so she brushed aside thoughts of galloping across the hills; she quickly showered and dressed and went downstairs. A shaft sunlight slanted across the table where she sat scraping some of the butter off her toast and putting back some of the cherry jam that she had lathered on top -  after spending lockdown in tracksuits her normal clothes appeared to have shrunk.

Once at the tennis club she pushed a few chairs around the table and placed paper and pencils before each chair. These meetings were tedious and boring and Fiona felt that they were mostly a vehicle for some of one member in particular to parade her self-importance. Jane having no job or career was the stalwart of the committee.

If you ask me,  thought Fiona, there was little to discuss - the next matches, who'd not paid their subs etc; but for Jane particularly it was why certain persons shouldn't or couldn't join and “wearing a T-shirt with Dick of the Desert was as good a reason as any to ban someone!

“ Has anyone seen or heard from Harriet lately?” asked Lisa as they sat down waiting for the coffees.

“ She was supposed to pick up some hydrangea cuttings on Monday” said Kate. “Gorgeous blue ones I’d done specially for her. I tried phoning but no reply. To tell the truth I was a bit miffed and would happily give you lot those plants,” she added, pushing back a lock of shiny, though unruly dark hair with fingers whose nails were less than shiny and showing evidence of garden soil. 

“She used to pop round a couple of times a week, always with something delicious she'd baked but I’ve heard nothing from her for quite a while,”

It appeared that no one had seen Harriet or heard from her for over a fortnight.

“ Well,” said Jane “ let's get on. I for one have a very busy week - PTA, visit ma-in-law in hospital,

take Jamie to the dentist and Alison for a ballet exam, not to mention my colonic irrigation appointment - oh I could go on and on and all while Paul is away on business.  He never seems to be here when I need him.”

“Don't you think we should check up on her at home” asked Kate. “I'd be quite happy to pop over after the meeting.”

“If you ask me,“ muttered Lisa “and I know you won't and I  know Harriet has to manage on her own but as to this committee she doesn't really pull her weight..”

Jane interrupted with a sarcastic titter,,“ Difficult, considering how much there is of it; she could do with losing some!” At the same she  smoothed a slender well-manicured, pink finger-nailed  hand over her own svelte flat stomach.

 “ She only has herself to blame, forever making cakes and soda bread. After lockdown last spring when she was moaning about being bored I suggested she came to my aerobics class, get into shape.  Well...if looks could kill!”

“ You know,” interjected Kate, “ I think she's quite lonely, bringing up Ben as a single parent. Not much chance of going out and having fun. My hubby is on a job in Hong Kong and I know how difficult I find it, coping with the three kids on my own and working from home.  And I think things are tough financially,” Kate added in a kindly voice. “It's her birthday soon. We could club together and give her a spa day. If she got a good haircut, had a makeover she could be quite attractive..”

“ If pigs could fly!’ roared  Jane. “Do you really think any man would want her? She just doesn’t make any effort.”

The others looked shocked at Jane's vicious remarks. Jane, all of 5 ft. 3in. with a petite heart-shaped face and round blue eyes left the table to fetch the coffees from the kitchen., unaware of the looks of disapproval which followed her.

“ She looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, “ whispered Fiona “but some of the nasty comments she makes...well. Let's change the subject.” 

Jane placed the coffees on the table commenting “Well at least we're being spared another of her guinea pig bake-offs.”

“ Now, now, Jane, you know we all gobble those cakes up except, perhaps, you.  With all the troubles going re Europe and the U.K. what part is Paul playing?” 

“ Oh, something boring to do with the post Brexit negotiations. Seeing some minion of Macron in Paris; I'm not really interested in politics. It's all taking so much of his time.  Shall we get back to important matters - the team for next week's match and our  tactics against the Warminster women.”

They were interrupted by Kate's mobile emitting a quacking noise.

“ If that's Harriet I’d like to say something to her,” said Jane. “She could have rung earlier - that woman has no consideration for others.”

Kate answered her phone and put it on loudspeakers they could all hear.  “Harriet,” she mouthed pointing her slightly grubby finger at the mobile.

“Harriet here, Kate. So sorry I forgot to pick up the cuttings and belated apologies for my absence from the club today but I’ve been tied up for the last couple of weeks. Hey, can you smell these delicious  croissants? No! - of course I haven't baked them myself - petit déjeuner after a fabulous fortnight in Paris, the city of love with someone we both know...but don't mention this to anyone else.”

Three faces turned to look at Jane, her pretty face frozen and ashen, while Kate tried frantically to switch off the loudspeaker but not before they heard Harriet start singing: “..if you could see me now..”



Sarah's contribution:


If … 2  (My life)


If I had got into Wellesley, as I dreamed, would I have been happier?  I might have turned out like my nieces, smug members of the East Coast, Ivy League elite.  Or I might have baulked immediately, and been unhappy there.  St Mary’s was probably better, though even there I finally reacted to its students’ aspirations as the future wives of successful Catholic citizens.  Still, I no doubt shared their upper-middle-class assumtions of our superiority.  When exactly did I begin to lose that?  Berkeley, perhaps.  Or France.  In any case, I think things would have been about the same wherever I went, but I would not perhaps have had exactly the same choices.  But let’s look at those choices, at the twists and turns that have brought me where I am.

If I hadn’t decided not to continue French as my major, I would probably have become a mediocre French teacher, like most French teachers across the ocean, never speaking the language correctly, with only a smattering of knowledge about “French life”.  Someone my present-day snobism would look down on and pity.  (Perhaps I haven’t changed as much as all that.)

If I had not decided to do a double major, and take on a full course of literature as well as my major in writing, I would not have had all those wonderful courses in Renaissance drama and Neoclassical poetry and Dante and what have you, and could not have gone on to my next choice.  Which was, where to go from there.

For if I had not listened to Caroline Tate, our writer in residence, who told me not, absolutely not to go to writing school but to go on in literature, which was the best teacher, I would not have applied to Berkeley, and been accepted there.  And had all those wonderful courses on Sydney and Spenser, on Pope and Milton, on the Romantics and the Victorians, on Old English and Beowulf and 15th-century poetry.  And of course, I wouldn’t have forgotten all about writing, as I did, becoming totally engrossed in Medieval literature and in preparing a career as a university professor.  And I would certainly have missed out on something else, for Berkeley opened my eyes to politics, to alternative life-styles, to the contradictions and deceptions of the world. 

But Berkeley was important for other reasons.  I was tempted by two seminars, Bronson’s on the popular ballad (which I absolutely wanted), but also Muscatine’s on Chaucer.  If I had not decided to break with tradition and sign up for both (never telling either professor I had also signed up for the other), then I would never gone to work as an assistant for Professor Muscatine, and I would not have become interested in medieval art.  And if I had not applied for a Fulbright fellowship, as he suggested, and encouraged me to—I would never have dreamed of it on my own—I would not have come to France.

And if I had not met Martine at the Bibiothèque Nationale, and if she had not insisted that I have a party and promised to get some French students, and if I had not met up with one of those students a few days later in the manuscript room at the Bibliothèque Nationale, I would never have decided not to go home.  To live in Paris, and then to marry and have children here, to go and live in Mexico for two years, to discover Burgundy and buy an old house here.  In short, to have a more adventurous life and to remain in France forever. 

Which was a very good thing.  If I had gone back to America, what would have happened?  One can guess.  It was the beginning of those crisis years in which positions at universities were suddenly very scarce, where people with advanced degrees ended up working in automobile garages and such.  I might not have got a job, or not a good one.  I might have become a high school teacher, married another high-school teacher and settled down to a comfortable but bland existence.  Or I might actually have got a job at a university, lost myself in research and never married, never had children, never remembered about writing at all, except for scholarly papers.

If, if, if …  I could go on and on, chalking up the milestones in my long and frequently changing life, but I will skip most of them until just a few years ago.  If I had not met Paula, and if I had not, at her 4th of July party, met Monica, I would not have joined the writing group and thus at long last returned to writing. Thank you, writing group all!  I had taken a wandering path, and then I met you, and it has made such a difference!

+ 800 wds



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