The Key

In January 2020, before lockdown, I participated in a short, free, creative writing course. We were given prompts and invited to write a story. This is one, shared without changes

“I remember skipping ropes. Is that what you mean?”

“Not really, Louise. I was wondering what your childhood was like. Did you have many friends?”

Louise had to think. Many friends? She didn’t remember having any friends at all. She knew people. She played with other girls. But none of them liked her much.

“Oh yes, I had lots of friends at school. We played for hours, especially skipping ropes. I usually held the end of the rope and sang. I wasn’t good at skipping.”

“Okay Louise. So do you keep in touch with any of your childhood friends? Do they know you’ve been feeling low recently?”

She tried not to look at the clock. How many questions was the person going to ask? Was their time together almost up?

“Louise? Have you spoken to any friends about your situation?”

Trapped in a room, avoiding the truth.

“I told Madeleine. She phones sometimes. She knows my sister too.”

Yes, Madeleine knows Geraldine. They had been friends since school. A horrible child who grew up to be a horrible woman. Madeleine had never liked Louise. She and Geraldine used to laugh: “You’re called Lou! You’re a toilet!” Silly, childish taunts that now seemed ridiculous, had hurt so badly her head ached.

“Madeleine knows I’ve been unhappy. She’s very kind hearted.”

“Good you have someone to talk to. Can we speak about your childhood? Your family?”

Louise glanced at the clock. Could that be right? Had she only been in the room for twenty minutes? Would the person make her talk about her parents and sister till she had to leave?

“Oh, quite normal. Mum, dad, two daughters. Not much happened.”

Not much. Quite normal.

– “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

– “We’re disappointed with your school report. Geraldine has done so well.”

– “You can’t wear that to school. Geraldine always looks smart.”

Quite normal.

“Did you like school?”

Louise imagined all her teachers standing in rows, like a class photo, scowling at her. Each was muttering, “I expected better of Geraldine’s sister”.

“I got good marks. I wasn’t a high flyer but I always passed the exams. I got into university.”

“What about primary school? Some people form lifelong friendships at that age. Do you remember it with affection?”

Not in a million years would Louise use that word. Primary school was a trial to get through. The girls laughed at her name; the boys laughed at her clothes. The teachers laughed at her inability to be like her older sister.

“I remember lots of laughter.”

“That’s a great memory to have.”

How much longer would this go on? Louise didn’t want to look at the clock again. She wanted to escape.

“Could we return to your parents? Were they interested or detached?”

Louise’s parents were so interested, they opened her school bag every afternoon to check her work was adequate. It never was. They didn’t check Geraldine’s bag. Geraldine always got excellent results, sometimes a letter of praise from the school. Geraldine was entered for prizes and scholarships. Louise was told to try harder.

“Definitely interested. Sometimes I wished they were a bit more detached.”

Oh no! She’d let a little bit of truth slip out. The person’s face stiffened.

“You know what it’s like when your parents seem to read your mind”, Louise smiled. “They tell you to buy an apple but you buy chocolate. You don’t see how they could know, but they do. Of course, it’s all over your clothes, plain to see.”

Saved. That mustn’t happen again. Take more care.

“And your sister. Did you get on well?”

– “Geraldine, you’re such a clever girl.”

– “Geraldine, leave those dishes. Louise will wash them.”

– “Geraldine, you can have a treat this weekend for being so kind.”

“We were always together. It was very strange when Geraldine went up to the High School. Suddenly I was doing things without her.”

The summer that Geraldine moved from Primary to High School was like a prison break. The girls left their house together, but walked off in different directions. Louise could breathe. No sister reporting back to Mum and Dad, “Louise was in trouble again”.

“It was strange, but I got used to it.”

“There’s time to cover one more topic, then we’ll finish for today.”

Louise froze.

“You were very distressed when your cat died. I know you miss her. Would you be able to talk about that?”

No, no, no.

“Yes, that’s fine. She was sixteen. She had a long life. But the longer I had with her, the harder it was to lose her. She was sleeping beside me, and didn’t wake up. I loved her, but I knew she couldn’t live forever. Still, it was upsetting.”

“I understand.”

No, you absolutely do not understand. She never compared me with Geraldine. She didn’t ask me why I hadn’t been promoted. She didn’t laugh at me for having an inexpensive car and a tiny flat. Her way of life and mine were compatible. You don’t understand at all.

“Thank you. Some people think missing a pet is silly and weak.”

“No, it’s normal. Pets are important to us. They leave a space that can’t easily be filled.”

Breathing out, Louise picked up her jacket.

“Guard!” shouted the person. “We’re finished.”

And to Louise: “I’ll write up my report and send it to your solicitor. You’ll get a copy pre trial. It’s obvious to me you were under temporary strain, and you acted impulsively as a consequence. With tragic consequences.”

“Thank you” said Louise, trying to look sad. “I really thought someone had broken in. I forgot Geraldine had a key.”

Turning Point

The tent (and the Austin Cambridge)

A Kelso Story

The second time I came to Kelso it had turned backwards. I’ll tell you about that later

They say if you’re going to move to a town, first see it in the rain. Unplanned, that’s what I did

Should we move here?

Maybe for a few years?

Babies were born. I made friends in early years groups and at school gates. My children “Spoke Kelsae” with a wee hint of their origins as an Incomer’s Baby—like many of their friends

Back to the rainy day…

Our car was parked outside Freshwater’s florist. We wanted something to eat but couldn’t see through the wet windscreen. I think that’s when we found John Scott’s baker, just round the corner

So yes, I moved to Kelso in 1987. “For a few years.” I’ve spent most of my life here

_ _ _ _ _

The first time I came to Kelso I was fourteen. My parents had bought a fancy tent with sleeping areas and a canopy. I’d never slept in a tent before. In the style of all belligerent fourteen year olds, I hated it and made my hatred known

My parents, thinking I would be less teenager-ish if I was involved in choosing our destination, handed me the booklet of campsites in Scotland. I was to pick our next holiday

I’ve no idea what thought processes I used. Probably none. My finger landed on Kirk Yetholm

I don’t remember arriving at the site. I’m sure I didn’t help with putting up the tent. I do remember a horse in the next field

My mum’s cousin, born and bred in Ayr, was married to a psychiatric nurse. He worked in this part of Scotland so I think it must’ve been Dingleton. Since we were in the area, my parents arranged to meet their relatives. We stopped in Kelso for a look round on our way to wherever they lived

My brother and I stood at the door of Kelso town hall, looking over at a row of shops. You’re saying, that’s exactly how it is. But I promise you, when fourteen year old me stood in Kelso Square, the Town Hall was where Hastings is now

_ _ _ _ _

The third time I came to Kelso there was no rain, and the Town Hall was where it should be. Knowing my memory tricked me, I like to wonder how Kelso had reversed. I can still see the town both ways

Which may be a metaphor

__________

Thank you for reading my Kelso story. I’m in with the woodwork now! You can see me most days in my shop, One Basket, in Horsemarket

I originally wrote this for Visit Scotland, Year of Stories

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Leave a comment if you can

Grandparents

Shopkeeping – a family business

Unusually, I didn’t have grandparents

Well obviously I had grandparents, else I wouldn’t exist. It’s complicated

As a child I knew of two grandmothers and one grandfather

Grandmother 1 was known as Gran in hospital. She couldn’t talk, write, walk or even sit up. She’d had a stroke when I was five years old. There was nothing to be done for stroke sufferers. Grandmother 1 was called Annie. She lay in a hospital bed for seventeen years

Annie – Grandmother 1

Grandmother 2 never had children. She was our step grandmother, our dad having lost his mum when he was three years old. His dad remarried, but not until many years later. Grandmother 2 was called Jenny. My strongest memory of her is a collection of porcelain budgies. You read that right

Grandfather was in the RAF when my dad was little. When I knew him, he worked in engineering. When his wife died young their son, my dad, was mainly raised by his grandmother and his “unmarried” aunt – there’s a qualifier we can live without

Grandfather, who should be referred to as Grandfather 1, was called Allan. He was the youngest of a large family, which led to us having numerous second cousins

Allan – Grandfather 1,
and Jenny – Grandmother 2

These are the three known grandparents. Now I’ll move on to the unknowns. Sally and Jack

Sally died young. I can neither remember nor rediscover her cause of death. I do remember being told it could have been easily treated had antibiotics been available. They weren’t. Sally died leaving a three year old child, a widower, and an extended family newly liable for raising a wee boy

Grandmother 3, Sally: a grandmother who never aged

Sally – Grandmother 3 – with her family

Jack was never mentioned. My mother’s family emigrated to Canada when she was an infant. Several aunts, uncles and cousins emigrated together

A few years later, Annie – Grandmother 1 – returned to Scotland with her three children, no husband. Jack, Grandfather 2, stayed in Canada

One Christmas, I was seventeen, all the cards were on my parents’ sideboard. I read them, looked at the pictures, including one from my mum’s Aunt May in Canada

How can I describe my feelings as I read the short note inside? Shock; sadness; anger; distress; almost grief? It went something like this:

“Your dad has been unwell but he’s on the mend”

Your dad. That’s my mother’s father. My grandfather. Grandfather 2

No-one ever said he was dead. I had simply assumed. I grew up unaware that I had a living grandparent who had never been acknowledged – had never acknowledged me or my brother

Canadian relatives had visited my family. Had they spoken of Jack in secret? Not mentioned him at all?

Grandfather 2, Jack: a grandfather over whom a curtain had been drawn

One of them is Jack – Grandfather 2

So there it is. I had no grandparents, despite having five

______

Thank you for reading my stories. I enjoy writing them

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See you again soon

Macaroni Tuesdays

Macaroni

Every Tuesday morning I brought out my large oven dish, and set about making macaroni cheese

At Kelso High School lunch hour, a posse of teenagers came through my door, ready to eat the lot

I had a rough idea of how many there would be, but made extra to be sure

Now I look at the dish and wonder how long it would take my household to eat its full quota of mac and cheese. Maybe a week?

The teenagers are nearly thirty years old now. I wonder if any of them remember my macaroni

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School subjects

Boiled egg

Do you remember choosing school subjects?

Towards the end of Primary School we were given a form. Columns of Secondary School subjects from which we were to choose

The compulsory subjects had their own columns; then came the fun part…

We ticked our choices in pencil, and were instructed to take it home for a parent’s signature

I have zero idea why I ticked Latin. My mother had a very old Latin dictionary. Maybe I liked the binding?

Food and Nutrition, on the other hand, was a definite, positive tick. I really wanted to cook

So I walked home and showed the form to my parents. The horror! Had I erroneously ticked Arson? Shoplifting?

No, definitely Latin plus Food and Nutrition. But this was a problem

My mother, bless her heart, couldn’t cook. Did you read my posts around Christmas time? She was a clever woman who had won a place at university, before it was usual for working class families. But she definitely couldn’t cook

Why I was told not to tick Latin, I haven’t a clue. But I clearly remember why Food and Nutrition was unticked

“I can teach you to cook” said mum, without irony

At age eleven, I knew this was no more than a fantasy. I wanted to cook actual edible food. It wasn’t going to happen

Years later, when I was working and had a wee flat, I began to learn to cook. I’m still learning

Thanks for reading my stories

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Automatically Sunshine

Dedicated to Mary Wilson

Do you know what an Austin Cambridge was?

Automatically Sunshine?

This Austin Cambridge was our family car when I was a thirteen year old, awkward teenager

Holding my brand new transistor radio, in the back seat of that car, I was waiting for the ferry and our family holiday. It was a sunny day

The DJ on BBC Radio One introduced The Supremes singing Automatically Sunshine

Now this wasn’t classic Supremes

This wasn’t Diana Ross

This was Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell and Cindy Birdsong

Fin de ciecle Supremes

My life rather changed that day. Sunshine was never again Automatic

__________

I will tell you more about that summer, and how I changed, in future posts

Do you enjoy reading my stories? I love writing them. My day job is shopkeeping

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Concussion

Scarring from a fall

Scarred for Life

My working life began one week later than planned. Because I fell off a bicycle

I was at a friend’s older brother’s home. He was married, had a Cairn Terrier. There were bicycles in the garden. We borrowed them for the afternoon and rode off to explore the countryside

If you’re thinking Enid Blyton, read on. One afternoon, when I was only sixteen and a half, had devastating consequences on my life

I don’t think I was going fast. There was a small hill. On the downward slope I lost control. Seconds later I opened my eyes on a hospital trolley and said “Where am I?”

I’ve always wished I had said something clever

Seconds had been hours, I’d been taken to the nearest hospital by ambulance. Road gravel (mostly) removed from my knee, hip and forehead. Stitched up. I’d been totally unaware of this, because Concussion

I was sixteen years old. There was no space in a suitable ward so I was allocated a bed in geriatrics with five “ancient” women

That was actually fun. I liked them and they enjoyed having a teenager in the room

So, the stitches…

One or two on my knee, under which a grey layer of road dust still remains

Several on my hip. Lumpy, bumpy, very messy. Not what a teenager wants on her body

But my forehead. I’ve never accepted the scar. It’s stared at me from the mirror for decades. It affected how I wear my hair, the glasses I choose. And I can’t raise my left eyebrow. My face is uneven

A nurse told me there was a mirror on the right hand side of the bathroom, and I might not want to see my face. I understood – my face was a mess – and took her advice

However I was young and had no idea how long my face would be bruised and scraped

Six days into my stay I was asked if I’d like to wash my hair and put on proper clothes. Fed up with lying in bed, I definitely wanted to get dressed

Nobody said my face was still frighteningly destroyed. I thought if they’re suggesting I get dressed, I must be better

So I crossed the ward to the bathroom, didn’t avert my eyes from the mirror, saw my face

Maybe I screamed out loud, maybe not. I certainly screamed inside. Black, blue, red, purple face. Hair still matted with dried blood that hadn’t been washed out because of the stitches

I managed to dress and wash my hair. Then I walked by the mirror without looking

On the morning I was due to leave hospital, eight days after admission, the surgeon who had stitched me up came over. “Never mind, you can get plastic surgery when you’re older”

I hadn’t said a word! Did he think I was going to complain about his terrible patchwork? Sue him? I hadn’t even noticed the twelve stitches within the devastation that was my face

But let me return to the concussion

Concussion has consequences way beyond a hospital stay and terrible stitching. For me the most evident result was a change in my periods. Until the concussion, regular and monthly. Textbook

The concussion happened in May. I didn’t have another period for months. Then they were irregular, unpredictable – for ever

Another issue was the start of my working life. Two weeks and two days after the fall I began my first job. (I hated it, soon moved to a different company. I’ll tell you another time)

Two young people were due to start on the same day. Myself and a young man. My concussion meant I started one week later than him

For five days he was “last in” – office junior

Then I arrived. Excellent! A girl! She can have all the rubbish jobs while the young man can aim high. Sexism 101

And lastly, the scar on my forehead. I cut a fringe. I parted my hair on the right. I chose glasses that don’t draw attention to my eyebrows – remember, I can’t raise the left one

When the pandemic came and I couldn’t get my hair cut, still I worked around the scar. This week I took a huge step and drew my hair right back, scar in full view. No-one seems to have noticed

I could say there’s a lesson in this story. But there really isn’t. I was concussed; I was scarred; I’m still affected by it

But I’m getting better

_________

Read more of my stories if you enjoyed this one. And you can find out more about me on my socials. (I’m a shopkeeper by day)

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Danish Blue from Fine Fare

“What are you talking about, Anne?”
If Fine Fare was part of your life, you already have an image in your mind.
If not, let me take you back in time…

Fine Fare supermarkets

The first proper supermarket in my town was Fine Fare. I was around 12 years old when it opened. For this story, I’m 17

I worked in the offices of a carpet manufacturer. Just around the corner was Fine Fare

I’d become interested in food and cooking, and was reading Elizabeth David books. I so wanted to eat something more interesting than mince, or filled rolls. So my lunch break destination was Fine Fare

My parents weren’t interested in food, other than as a method of surviving. I wanted more flavour, texture, enjoyment. One day I’ll tell you more Tales from Fine Fare. Today it’s Danish Blue

Cheese in my childhood home was something orange and cheese flavoured, known as cheddar

Fine Fare had cheeses I’d never heard of. It’s funny to remember how few choices we had. But that was then…

One lunch break I picked up a wee, foil wrapped cube of Danish Blue. I hadn’t come across blue cheese before. Worth a try

Danish Blue Cheese

I went outside to sit on the wall, removed the foil, bit into the cube, almost died. Danish Blue was the worst thing I’d ever tasted

My office was close enough for me to reach quickly. Otherwise I would have collapsed, frothing from my mouth

I next tried blue cheese about 10 years later. Strangely, I liked it

Today a customer asked me if I had a nice blue cheese. (I don’t – yet) Got me reminiscing about Fine Fare, and the horror in that wee, foil wrapped cube
.
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Fine Fare

Fine Fare sold LPs

Second Instalment

Other supermarkets and grocers in the 1970s sold food, washing powder, aluminium foil… Fine Fare was in a different league

The shop looked gigantic. My mum used the two Self Serve grocers in town. They weren’t much bigger than a corner shop. One of my “Aunt Marys” (my dad’s cousin) worked in the grocery. I’ll tell you about both my “Aunt Marys” in another post if you like?

Fine Fare opened the year I started secondary school. My mum made the first visit, came home full of enthusiasm, so we had to get down there

Now this was the early 1970s. Shops were not open after tea time. Fine Fare broke the mould – they were open late

Late, but not in a way we’d recognise in 2022. Late meant 6 o’clock most days, with wildly decadent, Friday late night shopping till 7 o’clock

So a family outing to Fine Fare was arranged. It must’ve been early winter, almost my birthday, since I remember choosing gifts

My birthday presents that year were:

1. A rubber plant (true fact!)

2. A patchwork suede shoulder bag (I wanted the suede patchwork skirt – it must’ve been too expensive)

A year later I was a music obsessed teenager with a particular liking for T.Rex

Fine Fare sold 99p compilation records at the check out. I bought the one pictured above

Later in my teens, Fine Fare was the place I shopped for groceries, including products I had only read about. But you’ll have to keep reading for those stories

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy my reminiscences

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Monaural

Lucky me

When you’re told, age nine, how lucky you are, you accept it.

When you question your “luck”, age 50, you feel ungrateful.

When you see an Ear, Nose and Throat consultant for a nosebleed, age 59, and he says he’ll investigate your unilateral hearing loss, you are shocked.

This is the first time in 45 years that a medic has shown any interest.

All that remains in my medical records – all that remains of the hearing tests, appointments with specialists, trips to hospital that took me out of school – is a letter signing me off.

We can’t help. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Well I wasn’t lucky.

Overnight I lost all hearing in my left ear. It never came back. My life has been adversely affected by monaural hearing. I’m not lucky.

Every day, every minute, I mitigate for my loss of hearing. Let me show you.

You go out with friends for a meal. It’s a rectangular table with ten chairs, five on each side. Where do you sit?

Beside your partner? Opposite your closest friend? Near someone you feel sorry for? Or simply the seat to which you’re directed? It’s your choice.

At that same table, there are only two chairs I can sit at.

I have never heard stereo.

My world is in mono.

You go to the cinema or theatre. You choose a good seat with the best view.

I choose the seat farthest to the left hand side of the room, whether or not I can see.

You’re outside, someone calls your name. You turn towards their voice and wave.

Wherever a person is shouting from, they’re at my right shoulder. The only way to find the voice is to turn on the spot, round in a circle, till I see them.

Don’t shout me. I’ve no idea where you are.

Stop, look, listen.

I’ll stop and I’ll look. No point listening, as all traffic noise comes from my right hand side. Better that I look again – and again, just in case.

In a new workplace you spend the first few days getting used to the layout and your colleagues.

In addition I have to learn the acoustics of the building, where I hear best, where it’s impossible to listen to speech.

You know that look on a person’s face when you misheard them, and answered the “wrong” question?

That’s me every day. Someone looking at me, judging me for not listening.

I was trying my best. I’ve been trying my best for decades. I’m so exhausted, trying my best.

“What’s your right side?”, people who know of my hearing loss ask. They know I can’t hear as we walk unless they’re on my “good” side.

But no-one ever remembers. Never since age nine has anyone remembered which side to walk at. Yes, on a familiar road, because a habit is formed. Not in a different environment. Because I’m lucky. I can still hear. Because it can’t be that bad, otherwise something would have been done about it.

The truly annoying comments – Oh I know exactly how you feel. My ears often block when I get a cold.

You have absolutely no idea how it feels to have permanent unilateral hearing loss. But hey, I’ll smile as usual and you can feel good about your empathy.

And by the way, my sudden hearing loss was probably caused by measles or mumps. No vaccine back then. We had to catch those diseases.

And some of us were lucky. It could have been so much worse.

Lifelong monaural hearing loss