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China 37: Meeting mummy on the train

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Get up in the dark for the taxi to the railway station. I’m off to Kunming this morning to meet up with Cheryl and Elspeth. Of course, with China being so big, the trip will take a day or so, but I don’t care. I have a soft sleeper, and it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world, hundreds of miles south through the rich tea-growing province of Yunnan.

The taxi is one of those lumbering Morris Oxford jobs. While we are waiting to draw out into the traffic from the hotel, some guy is riding towards us on his bike, but he seems to have fallen asleep; he is nodding over the handlebars, even though his feet are still pedalling. And then he jerks awake, sees us and, trying furiously to brake, falls off. The taxi driver just keeps going and leaves the bloke in the dust.

I get to the station and, because I’ve got a soft-sleeper, the guard leads me to a special spot behind the barrier to wait for the train. It’s not a ‘special’ special spot. It’s just like I’ve been parked. I’m waiting with two spectacular Germans. They’re big, shaggy wild rovers. They have big felt hats, woolly pullies, and packs with all sorts of stuff hanging off; cups and tents and a full canteen of sterling silver cutlery complete with grapefruit knives and a 25-year money-back guarantee. Ok, so I made the last part up. The Chinese are astounded by these men. They are hanging over the barriers gawping; one girl just stares, open-mouthed with her head on one side.

‘Don’t you feel sometimes as if you are in a zoo?’ I ask the men.

‘No,’ says one of the guys. ‘In Germany too, we get stared at.’

The train arrives and I find my compartment. The soft sleeper looks a bit tacky – horrible net curtains, dirty tablecloth, sticky carpet. Still, there’s a plant in a nice pot on the table and the other three occupants are nice too; a soldier, an agricultural professor who keeps dashing out to look at the scenery and a man who works in a chemical plant. There’s also his wife, who sleeps next door, but who spends most of the day in with us. She can’t speak English but she does speak Universal Mother Language and we understand each other perfectly. She’s a little dumpy, cheerful woman and she never stops talking. The soldier lies in one of the top bunks and puts his hat over his face, while she just goes on and on.

‘Look at her,’ she says, pointing at me. ‘All she does is eat chocolate and oranges and drink coffee. It can’t do her any good at all.’ Her husband looks at me, and we both smile. Then she feels the cloth of my ski trousers. ‘Thin, so thin. How does she keep warm? Eh?’ I offer her my jacket and she puts it on. ‘Thin, far too thin. Nice feel, though.’ She gestures at her big blue padded coat, the sort that all the Chinese, and Cheryl and Elspeth wear. ‘That’s what you need to keep the cold out.’ She makes me feel it. ‘Good thick stuff. Warm, hmmm?’

After we eat in the restaurant car, it’s more of the same. ‘Look at her. She uses her chopsticks as though she has one hand tied behind her back. Two hands, dear, like this. Look, look. Like this.’ And, ‘How old are you dear?’ (She does this by by placing her hand parallel to the floor and counting) ‘Don’t you miss your mummy and daddy?’

In the evening another agricultural professor, who can speak English, arrives. He has spent a couple of months in Germany, in Wastephalia as he terms it, and has already met the two German backpackers. The woman leaves for a bit and when I ask the professor to translate exactly what she has been saying, all the other men start laughing. The soldier in the top bunk lifts his hat off his face. ‘Mama, baba,’ he groans theatrically, and everybody laughs again.

The professor is a lovely man. He’s very earnest and, boy, does he love his subject. He tells me that China has almost doubled its agricultural production levels since the revolution and that they are doing the best to reclaim the desert for grazing.

We stand in the corridor and lean against the window while he talks about tea production, and grass growing and behind him the countryside unrolls like a silk painting. Terraced hills in green and yellow, wide rivers, and rice paddies with water buffaloes and people in coolie hats. It is story-book beautiful. (Unfortunately, none of my pictures come out, possibly on account of the camera being dropped down the toilet, so I have posted a picture of a random shack. Hope nobody minds.)

Do not adjust your set



It’s Mothers’ Day in Britain, so I’m not posting the next instalment of my China diary today.   That’s very bad, I know, but I have an appointment with a box of chocolates. Back tomorrow.

Tea and physio

cup of tea

My mother, due to her superhuman powers, was let out of hospital at the weekend. Her health, at 94, was so good, that she was given an epidural, not general anaesthetic, when they pinned her broken hip. (She described the op as ‘like a party’).

She is now at home with a rota of carers in attendance. Being my mother this meant that, on her first morning back, she got out of bed in the morning to make herself some tea and toast (which took her hours, but she’s nothing if not bloody-minded), before hobbling back to bed so that she could graciously wait for the carer to arrive to help her get out of bed.

So she’s on the mend. But this is what fascinates me. Before she was allowed home she had to show the physios that she was capable of making a cup of tea. In fairness, I suppose getting a brew on does combine several skills. But I’m reckoning that nowhere else in the world is your tea-making ability evaluated by health professionals.

I mean, do you get points knocked off for not warming the pot, or putting the milk in last (or first, whatevs, ed) and does your inability to open a biscuit tin count against you? Do they want to see your fine motor skills evidenced by one lump, or two? And what happens, if like my mother, you can’t stand milk and ask for a lemon and a sharp knife (actually I know the answer to that; the aforementioned, and rather fazed health professional then allows my highly amused mother to play ‘lets pretend to make the tea’).

What happens in other countries? Do Italians have to rustle up an espresso? Are the French asked to uncork a bottle of wine? And do the Aussies have to pull open a tinnie?

Picture courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cup_of_tea,_Scotland via Creative Commons

No calls please, we’re British

cov and warwick

On Saturday my mother fell over in the bathroom and she was not able to get up. Being 94, she has an alarm button on a necklace, that she can press for instant help. Being bloody minded, she doesn’t wear it. So she spent the next hour or so crawling the 20ft to her bedroom to get the necklace.

Bedroom reached and panic button pressed, the rest of the world swung into action. A passing paramedic came by, followed by two others in an ambulance, I was called by the council’s panic people (I’m sure they have a proper name, but it probably doesn’t mean so much), and soon she and I were off to A&E.

I wasn’t very optimistic about what was going to happen to us. We’ve all seen the national news about how hospital A&E departments in England are at breaking point at the moment. Two in the Midlands this week could not accept any more patients and one, in Stoke, according to a paramedic interviewed on TV, got to the point where it locked its doors.

At University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire there were people lining the A&E corridors on trolleys, (perfectly conscious, and not looking in a huge amount of pain, it has to be said, although we weren’t in the George Clooney part of the department) and the staff had that kind of controlled calm that you get in a place that is really, really busy. One of the doctors was gripping her hair, and pulling it up, up, up, as if it would make her think better.

I had expected that mum too would be on a trolley in a corridor, and was astonished when we were met by a nurse who knew all about her, and who had been told to take her to Room 18. (It was the nurse’s third day on the job and she had no idea where Room 18 was, but she was cheerful and bright and kind, and she found the correct little side-room in two ticks). Mum was X-rayed (broken hip); put into a hospital gown by two other nurses, one of them African (I point out his nationality because all nurses should have African accents, it is the kindest and jolliest voice in the world); given pain relief; and seen by an anaesthetist and an orthopaedic surgeon. Okay, so we had to wait around for several hours while this all happened, but it wasn’t much of stretch, especially not for mum, who once the morphine kicked in, started playing Candy Crush with the ceiling tiles. When she was taken up to the orthopaedic ward, I left for home, knowing that she was in kind and good hands.

In the last three days my mum has had her hip fixed, she’s been given a special vibrating bed to stop the build-up of any blood clots, she’s had physio-therapy, nice meals, and a handsome doctor blowing in her ear at 3 am (apparently it’s the standard way to wake someone up) to check her over. And nothing has she had to pay, except the National Insurance payments that she has contributed through her taxes, all through her working life.

The only quibble I have with all this is that she has a phone by her bed. And the company that installed had the bright idea of making all outgoing UK calls free (while charging a fortune to call in, mind). This is not a good idea, NHS people. Not with my mother. She has rung every single person she is related to.

Yesterday, when everybody else was probably unavailable due to ear exhaustion,  she rang me and asked me to bring in a pencil. As she was not wearing her hearing aids, you can imagine that the conversation that followed was rather difficult. Something on the lines of,

Her: ‘I’d like a pencil. You’ll find one in a jar on my table.’

Me: ‘But I can bring you a pencil from here.’

Her: ‘Cardboard? I don’t want cardboard. What are you talking about? ’

Me: ‘Pencils!’

Her: ‘Pencils, of course I want a pencil. I told you that. You’ll find one in the jar. I want to do the crossword.’

Me: ‘But I’ve got pencils here.’

Her: ‘That’s no good to me, is it, though? I need one here.’

She’s definitely on the mend. Thank you, NHS, you are a marvellous thing, and long may you continue. But, please, hide my mum’s telephone.


Picture via Creative Commons from http://www.geograph.org.uk

What was I saying?



I was thinking the other day about…well, I can’t remember what about, and that’s half the problem. My brain has gone mushy.

I’m doing all those things they talk about in Readers Digest. (At least, I think it was that. For all I know it could have been Miniature Donkey Talk, or OMFG: Official Meeting Facilities Guide). I go into rooms and can’t remember why I’m there.


I start sentences and get stuck at the most tantalising moment. ‘Yes, but that’s nothing,’ I will confide to a friend. ‘I remember a time when I took all my clothes off in a train and….’ Friend looks at me eagerly.

‘When I took all my…’ I repeat.

Friend nods. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Yes??? What happened next?

And then I look at her rather doubtfully because at the same time as I am talking something really mundane enters my head, like the fact that the woman at the entrance to TK Maxx is pleading with her seven year old son, ‘Look, Ryan, I’ve gotta have a roll up, right? One roll up, and then we’ll do the escalator. We will Do The Escalator. Right?’

And whatever I was talking about has vanished into the Christmas mist.

Still, my mind is as a steel trap compared with the rest of my family when it comes to remembering stuff. In the 1950s my mum and dad lived in Malaya, as it was called then, and when they wanted to come home they had to fly in a succession of Dakotas. Which was fine, until my mother left my brother, then a baby, at Milan airport. Apparently, they were all ready to taxi off when this Italian judge came running out, shouting, ‘Signora, signora…I think you have left something!’

Even then my mother just smiled at him. ‘No, really, ‘ she said comfortingly. ‘I’ve got my handbag. And my passport. What else could I possibly need?’

A handbag

A handbag

A baby

A baby


But it was only when I met my husband that I began to realise that forgetfulness can be specific. Steve, when he wants to put something down, generally puts it up; his favourite places are, the top of the fridge, the top of the wardrobe, or above a door. He lost a drill for three years and then discovered it on the top of the window shutters. (Don’t ask). On holiday one time in Chamonix, in the French Alps, we had a lovely picnic in a summer meadow and then drove off. Only for him to realise he’d left his Swiss Army knife on the roof. Which, when he stopped was, strangely, no longer there. Optimist that he is, we went back and searched for it. And, get this, we found it. In the middle of a bloody Alpine meadow.


We weren’t so lucky a few days later when he left his sandals on the roof of the car in the middle of Cannes and drove away. They sailed off into the blue, God knows where. We never found them. He had to go to a supermarket in bare feet to get a new pair. Which, even for the French, was a Bit Bohemian.


A few years later I drove off with the kids in the back of the car only to hear a vague crash as I neared the post office. Eldest son said conversationally to eldest daughter, ‘I knew she wouldn’t see that dinner plate on the roof.’

And then…I’m not actually sure I should be telling you this, but, we went to Ikea and husband bought a wardrobe door in the bargain basement. He thought it would Come In Useful. It was an enormous thing; far too big to get in the car. So he tied it to the roof. And, determined that it wasn’t going to fly off, he tied it on very tightly. Too tightly. Because at 60mph it reached maximum waggle (I’m sure that’s the correct physical term) and yes, you guessed correctly, it flew off on a major A road Somewhere in England. All we heard was a giant Craaaaack! And then a bang as it hit the road. Neither of us wanted to look round in case there was a mortally wounded motor cyclist lying behind us, struggling feebly under some bloodstained particle board. You can imagine our relief, therefore, when we did look and there was nothing in the road but a trail of splintered wood. Gosh, how good we felt. We picked up the pieces and found that they now fitted quite nicely in the car, and drove away, quickly.

So there you have it. What was I talking about?


Images via Creative Commons, courtesy of:







Happy birthday, baby


Exactly 18 years ago today, I punched my husband. I was past speaking, but I hit him hard enough so that he fell half under the bed, with a muffled ‘Ow!’ At this point the midwife, who was a cross between a sergeant major and girls’ school hockey captain, told us both to behave and that she would not tolerate fighting on her labour ward. Quite what she was going to do if we continued, I don’t know, considering I was in the last gasping stages of giving birth.

Steve, in his defence, had been told to make himself useful by dabbing my lips with some damp cotton wool on the end of a stick. Being a technically minded kind of guy he set out carefully to poke every square micron of my mouth. I’m sure I told him to stop. He’s sure I didn’t. Whatever. The pethidine was wearing off and I was in no mood for being shakily dabbed at.

Shortly after that, everything changed entirely because Rose was born. We had waited so long for a baby that, even when she arrived, I couldn’t believe it. I remember looking at her and saying wonderingly, ‘It’s a baby.’ Honest to God, if she had been a puppy I would have been less surprised.

And now, as I say, it’s 18 years on and Rose is officially grown up. We’ve watched her grow from an intensely absorbed, imaginative little girl to a beautiful, generous and kind young woman. I know you don’t really like me mentioning you on my blog, Rose, but happy birthday, and thank you for being you.


Happy birthday, mum


My mum is 94 today. As I’ve said before, she still lives on her own, and does her own cooking and shopping. I’ve written elsewhere about her spirit and coolness in the face of danger. And her handiness on a Scrabble board. I just want to say what happened after I visited her this week.

When she came out of her flat to wave me off, I got cross because she didn’t want to use her walking stick. ‘Ach,’ she said, picking it up in disgust. ‘You’re making me old.’

Happy birthday, mum.

Awkward Alice


They try to be kind to Alice, you know. But she’s an awkward customer. She lived all through the Blitz. Had a stillborn baby the night they hit Wapping.

Her husband was odd though; Tony, he were in one of them Japanese prisoner of war camps. In Burma. When he came home he was as thin as a gipsy’s whippet. You could see right through his hands. He ate a bone, once. At a Rotary dinner. Chomp, chomp, chomp all through the speeches. Like a bloody great dog. Alice just acted as if it were normal.

Tony didn’t live long after that; Alice brought all them children up on her own. They’re all grown up now. Very good jobs; doctors and the like, in Australia. The nurses at the home are lovely. But she’s a difficult one. Never happy unless she’s miserable. And now her family’s here and it’s her birthday dinner. She’s 100. They’ve all come to get her. Her sons have come all that way, and her grandchildren. They’re taking her to a fabulous restaurant.

Alice is at the home watching Bargain Hunt. She watches it every day. ‘Come on, Alice sweetheart. Time to go for your dinner.’

‘Bugger off,’ says Alice.


I was inspired to write this by the short stories on Bruce Goodman’s blog. I like his short, staccato style. I wanted to write it so that the narrator had a specific voice, but to keep him/her separate from the actual story. (If you make the ‘you’ in the third par into an ‘I’ for example, the last par doesn’t work.)

I also wanted to experiment with voice; to break the rules about not using cliche, and to see how far you can write how you speak, without it becoming as confusing as real speech.

Picture courtesy of https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2744/4398104241_0a5ac81a59_z.jpg  via Creative Commons

Say, Cheese


What is the worst name for a child that you’ve ever come across? I started thinking about this yesterday after reading LBWoodgate’s post on Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Her daughter is called Bristol. (Bristol???) Still, I suppose it’s better than Stoke Poges.

But get this…a survey of half a million people by parenting website BabyCenter found some parents had named their new baby Cheese.

I take it back…Bristol, your tea’s ready!

picture courtesy of sha3teely.com via Creative Commons

Someone to watch over me

central control

Tessa worried about her mother. Eadie was 92 and getting a bit frail. And she lived on her own. True, Eadie lived in a warden-controlled flat, but what good was it if the warden did come round every Tuesday? What would happen if Eadie had an accident on a Wednesday?

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Eadie. ‘Look, there’s a pull cord in every room. If I have an accident I just tug on that, and it alerts Central Control.

‘Central Control?’ echoed Tessa. ‘What, like when they send a rocket to outer space?’

Eadie looked confused. ‘No, it’s a lady called Brenda at the council. I talk to her sometimes when I pull the cord by mistake.’

Tessa felt better. At least the pull cord worked. There was somebody looking out for her mother. But then something else occurred to her, and she said, ‘But what happens if you fall over and you can’t reach the cord? What then?’

‘Tessa, you’re being ridiculous,’ said Eadie. ‘I might be old, but I’m not stupid. I will be fine.’

That night Tessa couldn’t sleep for worrying. Her husband was working a night shift, so she had nobody to confide in. And then the phone rang. Something had to have happened. Why else would the phone ring at 3am? She got up in a hurry to answer it and fell over the dog. She lay for three hours with a broken leg before her husband found her.





image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mission_control_center via creative commons


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