My 3 R’s of Ragdale 2017: Rest, Recuperate and Reflect

My first solo trip to Ragdale Hall, a place I enjoyed for years with my mother, was a bittersweet experience.

Every year since 2010, my mother and I have taken a 4-day spa break at the wonderful Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa, tucked away in the Leicestershire countryside. I blogged about my 2016 visit here.

When my mother fell ill in February 2017, our April trip to Ragdale had been in the diary for several months. I rang to cancel, promising myself that I would return in due course, even though it was clear by then that we had made our last visit.

The months that followed were intense and exhausting. For several weeks I spent hours almost every day at her bedside in hospital. Then, when she was considered sufficiently stable to return home, I stayed with her, spending every day and many nights helping to keep her comfortable, and making her feel safe, secure and loved. After she died, a different kind of work began; firstly the organisation of her funeral, the management of her correspondence, and advising friends all over the world; then, and for the last four months, my brother, sister-in-law and I have faced the almost overwhelming task of clearing her house of the stuff of a long and busy life, that of a woman who came from a generation who never threw anything away in case it might come in handy later; that of a woman who wanted to be known, and for whom recording history, activities and accomplishments, and accounting for life and all its significances and insignificances was  paramount.

There were cupboards so tightly packed you could hardly imagine the quantity of things which emerged from them. There was paperwork going back decades; important archive material, the history of a family caught up in every aspect of the Holocaust, requiring careful and responsible handling; a mass of writings – published and unpublished articles, accounts of trips and holidays, study output from numerous courses, personal and emotional, factual and fictional pieces – dating back to the 1970’s, letters dating back to the 1950’s, thousands of photographs, greetings cards and postcards. There were brochures, maps and guide books, cruise, exhibition, festival, event, theatre and concert programmes; all records of a life spent travelling, absorbing history, art, music and culture around the world.  And books, books, books… and more books. And there was more – our battered old toys, shelves of unwanted gifts, oddments and ephemera, souvenir trinkets and costume dolls from far-flung places. And on it went…

From the outset we took the approach that we would minimise what went to landfill, so we’ve been diligent in rehoming, recycling and donating the kinds of things which would otherwise end up in a skip. That has meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, calling and emailing, lifting, carrying and hauling about, to say nothing of the hours and hours spent shredding, whilst carefully checking each file to ensure we weren’t inadvertently disposing of anything of significance. It’s not over either. There’s the house to sell, and the auctionable ‘house clearance’ stuff to see to in due course. Oh, and because it’s been summer, we’ve been trying to keep the gardens looking tidy too (nowhere near the way mum used to do, but passable).

So… it’s been a hectic time, respectful and conscientious too. A doing time, rather more than a thinking time.  And I confess, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t done nearly enough thinking about my mum.

I had the idea that Ragdale Hall might be a good place to make the time and space to do a little thinking, as well as afford me the opportunity to release my weary body from some of the tension that had built up over recent months. So a month ago, I called and made my booking.  I knew exactly what to expect – care, comfort and service, experienced professional therapists, restful lounges and conservatories, yummylicious food, and the combined indulgences of sublime treatments and a multi-zoned spa and pool area. What I didn’t know, and feared just a little, was how it would feel to be there without my mother.

Ragdale had been our break. It was intended as a one-off, and it was an inspired suggestion – my mother’s, I should add – back in 2010 when she was about to turn 75, and I was heading for my 50th birthday. Our activities and interests were generally quite disparate, and it would be hard to envisage a holiday that could meet both her needs and mine.  The idea of a spa break, where we could spend personal time indulging ourselves with therapies, exercise classes, swimming, relaxing and reading, and yet come together for lunch and dinner, evenings and a lovely, companionable walk each day, was just about the perfect solution. And we enjoyed our 4-day break so much that we booked for the following year. And the next, and the next…

The lump rose in my throat as I pulled up outside the main entrance and the porter came out to pick up my luggage and park my car. The warm smile and friendly recognition I received at reception very nearly finished me off. I checked in, filled in my breakfast menu card, slurped my welcome coffee and high-tailed it to my room, to regroup.

Mum and I had stayed in every one of the spa’s small number of single rooms over the years. When I called this time around, none was available, so I booked a double room for single occupancy on the floor above. It was a very different experience, quite a bit more luxurious if I’m honest. I was, I confess, relieved that I wouldn’t be sleeping in a room previously occupied by either of us. Even the décor was different – and very pleasing.

At dinner on my first evening, I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision for myself.  It was very, very hard, sitting across the table from an empty chair. I’d chosen not to join what Ragdale calls its ‘social table’, as I didn’t want to chat with fellow guests. Nevertheless, that empty chair was very… empty.

I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but I’d developed a tight knot in my stomach on the drive up to Ragdale. The result was a nasty bout of acid reflux across the next couple of nights, something that hasn’t troubled me since I started eating more healthily. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably as my stomach twisted and ached. More than once I wondered if I should call it a day and return home.

But the intense soothment of the Ragdale experience eventually worked its way in.  I swam and steamed myself… I enjoyed what was intended to be a gentle massage, where the therapist, noticing the crunchy tension across my neck and shoulders, offered to apply her skills more vigorously to the task of un-knotting me, to my delight and appreciation. The next day I had a lovely reflexology session with a kind and compassionate therapist, who didn’t mind in the least that I burst into tears as I tried to explain what had brought me to the session. Later, Jon, Ragdale’s exceptional shiatsu therapist was subjected to the same tearfulness, and he too delivered a superbly effective treatment to, apparently, liberate my gallbladder meridian. The expert pressure-point massage and stretching did wonders for my taut, twisty frame. That evening, the restaurant manager, on duty for the first time since I had arrived, recognised me and noticed the absence of my usual companion, which resulted in a gentle conversation as he took my order. I was struck by his kindness and his thoughtful yet unsentimental words. It meant something me that he had noticed my mother’s absence and taken the time to stop and talk in a very hectic service.

The next day, I received an extraordinary deep-tissue massage, and made time for more swimming and steaming. By the end of that day, I was significantly unwound, relaxed both physically and emotionally, and firmly persuaded that in making this visit to Ragdale Hall at this point in time, I had done a very good thing for myself.  I’d also given myself some much-needed time to simply be still and remember my mother.  On my last day, I let more thoughts and tears come, in Ragdale’s dry flotation tank in a semi-darkened room. By then, I was ready to be home again – just as well, as all that remained was an indulgent buffet lunch, before I packed my bag and got on my way.

When it comes to death and bereavement, it’s easy to be busy – because there’s so much to do. It’s easy to fill the hours and days with must-do’s, dutiful activities and responsibilities. It’s all too easy to let them clutter the space where silence and stillness has an important healing role to play. By the time I went to Ragdale Hall, my mind and body were clamouring for the silence and stillness and my tears were very close to the surface. Now that I’m home, I feel a calm that wasn’t there before, and I know my mother would have been proud of me, that I took myself away to do this, for both of us.

Ten Values-Based Life Lessons from a Tough Year

This year is turning into a strange one – unexpected, disrupted, traumatic, overwhelmingly sad, but ultimately… reflective. First the discovery of my mother’s advanced brain tumour in February, an intense period of illness, and her death in May. In the midst of caring for her and trying to prepare, emotionally, for the absence of her, a couple of minor medical issues of my own. Since May, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of sorting through my mother’s mountain of paperwork, treasured collections, historically significant archive material, miscellaneous oddities, personal possessions and general stuff-of-life. And another personal issue forcing its way into my head and my life; a piece of my history returning to bite me, painfully, defiling the period of my mother’s passing and my grief, bringing a layer of stress I could have done without.

But I said… reflective. And this is the subject of my post. These are some of the life lessons I’m learning from all of this, in this most unsettling of years.  These are my lessons. I know I’ve used the word ‘you’ right through, but I really mean ‘I’… Oh, and… you… too, if you like.

(1) Resilience

You are as strong as you need to be, and you always have been. You can deal with your stuff, take difficult – and sometimes seemingly impossible – decisions. You can rise to challenges, do more than you think you’re capable of. You can get up and do what needs to be done, even when you think your bones won’t carry you. You can put on a brave face when all you want to do is crumple and weep. You can push through grief, manage stress and bounce back after pain, deceit and rejection. You are… resilient.

(2) Standards

Hold yourself to a higher standard. Whether that’s about establishing better habits, being more selfless, working more diligently, being more honest, having more compassion or empathy, exercising more self-control or developing more self-respect – you have a right to expect big things of yourself. And when you hold yourself to a higher standard, you reap the benefits – in self-awareness and self-esteem.

Conversely, don’t allow yourself to become disappointed or disheartened when others don’t behave, or treat you as you hope they will, or as you would do in their place. Your standards are yours, and theirs are theirs. Only they can manage their behaviours, not you. You have no influence, other than your own good example, and that is easy for those with different standards to overlook. Don’t let lies and mistruths go unchallenged.

(3) Live in the Moment

Live the life you have TODAY. Stop waiting for things to be better when this or that happens, or when you achieve a certain goal, income level, relationship status, weight, or whatever. Burn your favourite candles, use your nicest sheets and your best crockery. Wear your prettiest underwear, your best shoes and your most prized shirts. Don’t save them for a special occasion – today is special. And if you want to ‘dance naked in the rain’, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Just do it.

(4) Integrity

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Stop dropping hints and feeling let-down when they pass unnoticed. If you want somebody to help you or do something for you, ask them directly. The men in your life especially, will welcome the absence of ambiguity.

Don’t let misunderstandings fester. If you’ve been misunderstood, offer clarity. If you can’t do what someone wants, for whatever reason, tell them. Be a person that others can trust.

(5) Forgiveness

Make peace with your past. This is first about learning to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, but it doesn’t help to look back with regret. Instead, understand, recognise what happened and what has changed – about you, about others, about circumstances – and let the mistakes go. They are a weight you don’t need to carry.

Forgive others too. They may not seek your forgiveness – they may not even be remorseful for the harm they did you – but their intransigence shouldn’t stop you from letting-go whatever anger and pain you feel. Time is a great healer. But so too is the realisation that you are bigger and stronger, and you have more personal power when you let what others may have done fade into insignificance.  Nobody says it’s easy, but it’s infinitely better for your spirit to look forward, not backward.

(6) Forbearance

Whatever it is, this too will pass. Whether it’s work or family pressures, relationship challenges, grief, sadness, regret, memories coming back to haunt; whether it’s financial challenges, personal problems or health issues. We all have stuff sometimes, which we simply need to bear with calmness and restraint. These are loads that we carry for a while, until their time passes, or until we are ready or able to deal with them or set them aside. There is peace in exercising patience and cultivating inner strength.

(7) Positivity and Mindfulness

Be mindful. Notice what there is in every moment of life. Celebrate the dawn, a rain shower, a field of sunflowers, a canal-side walk, the sight of a bee collecting pollen, the taste of a good cup of coffee, the loving support of a friend or relative. Whatever is going on in life, there is beauty and positivity in it somewhere – and you don’t have to look too far to see it.

Appreciate your world and the beautiful people within it. Focus your attention on what you have, not on what you lack. Wherever you are in life, whatever the state of your finances, social life or domestic situation, there will always be things beyond your reach. You could be a multi-millionaire, in your dream home with your ideal partner, and still be chasing after something you don’t have. Ambition, plans and goals are fine, but don’t let your sights become so firmly fixated on some perceived deficit, or some distant future gain, that you forget to appreciate your now.

(8) Organisation

Overwhelm comes from disorganisation. When life gets chaotic, it’s easy to spend more time worrying about how busy you are than actually accomplishing the things you need to do. This is where practical planning comes in, along with task prioritisation and letting go of what you know in your heart you will never get around to.  It means handling each piece of paper only once – doing rather than shuffling the paperwork and the tasks.  It means focusing not on all the things you haven’t yet done, but each day acknowledging the things you’ve accomplished. Appreciate the progress you’ve made. That way lies a calmer spirit, the best preparation for tomorrow.

(9) Be You

Whoever you are today, wherever you are, whatever you want in life, whatever your personal priorities and preferences, you are fine, just as you are. You don’t need to pursue things you don’t really want, just because people like you expect you to be pursuing them. That means it’s okay not to want a career trajectory any more. Yes, it’s ok not to be ambitious. It’s okay to go for softer goals too, or no goals at all. It’s okay to be on your own if that’s how you like it. It’s okay to wear whatever you want to wear; it’s okay to shun social media or not drink alcohol; it’s okay to walk rather than run; it’s okay to cry, or not cry. It’s okay to break whatever rules you’ve made for yourself, whenever you damn well like. Whoever or whatever you think people expect you to be, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you be you. Those who care about you will love you for it.

(10) And lastly… Follow your Dream

If not now, then when? If you want to change your life, change it. Do you want to travel the world, live in another country, or become a writer? Do you want to work for yourself, become fluent in another language, play a musical instrument, foster a child, learn to draw? Do you have a ‘bucket list’? Whale watching… a parachute jump… see China’s ice sculptures… the Northern Lights…? Don’t wait. You don’t know the length of your days – they may be shorter, or longer, than you imagine. However it turns out, don’t have regrets about what you didn’t do.

Some things are simpler than others to begin. A writer writes. An artist paints. If you want to be a writer, write something. If you want to be an artist, get out your paints.

Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

2015-10-25 15.54.40

The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

Nine lifestyle and fashion trends that make me feel out-of-step

tattoo-631206_1280I must be getting old…

I’m taking a risk here, as I’m pretty sure there will be a few readers standing-by to take issue with me. But if I can’t be contentious on my own blog, where can I? Here are some thoughts on just a few contemporary lifestyle and fashion trends which make me feel, well… old.

1. A passion for ink:

The craving for tattoos on every inkable scrap of flesh is a trend that’s completely beyond me. Extended ink used to be the province of gang members and warlords boasting allegiances and body-counts. Now it seems, ink is cool and everyone wants a tattoo, or several. From a cute little devil on an ass-cheek or a rose on an ankle, we now have sleeve tattoos, whole-back imagery and random scatterings of words and clip-art creeping across shoulders, chests and necks and down arms and legs. Some look upon it as an expression of what matters in their lives; some simply pick images they fancy from the tattooist’s catalogue; others wake from drunken outings to discover indelible messages in embarrassing places. And is there anything more unsightly than a woman in a graceful couture gown, her elegant image scarred with an obtrusive back or shoulder tattoo?

2. Facial foliage:

I don’t know about you, but IMHO, men whose looks are improved by a fulsome beard are few and far between. I’m not talking about close trimmed growth – light stubble or the careful cultivation of what used to be known as ‘5 o’clock shadow’ – but the tangle of undergrowth now sprouting from male faces everywhere. Often ungroomed, untamed and extending scrappily down the neck, is it a throwback to the 70’s hippie era, a craving for simpler times? Do men really believe it makes them look more masculine? Are they blindly following the edicts of men’s grooming magazines or are they relieved that this particular trend masks the fact that they’re just too busy, or lazy, to shave? I know… I know… there are plenty of women who will disagree with me. But beards… I just don’t get it.

3. Boob jobs and botox:

Since when did artificial, Barbie Doll looky-likey become the norm? As a woman born in the 60’s and educated to strive for and expect equality in the workplace and beyond, it disturbs me to see women unable to feel comfortable with the naturalness and individuality of their own bodies. Fearful that their looks aren’t good enough, or worse, sexy enough, they balloon their breasts, plump up their cheeks and lips, swell their buttocks to some grotesque parody of a feminine ideal. Men – some men – don’t seem to mind that what they admire is fake. By their enthusiasm for this pretence, they encourage women with self-esteem and body confidence issues to pump themselves full of chemicals and substances that have no place beneath human flesh. Girls as young as 16 going for breast implants; older women with their faces scragged up behind their ears, their lips tight and immobile. The craving for porn-star looks – is this what feminism and equality was meant to bring us?

4. Footwear – fashion or fetish:

Talking of porn-star looks… seven inch heels used to be the province of fetish shops and stalls at the Festival of Erotica. We used to call them ‘bedroom shoes’, because that’s where we played with them. Yet, here they are, in every high street shoe shop. Young women are forcing their feet into these perilous articles and tottering around, barely able to put one foot in front of the other without clutching on to a friend or passing banister. But all young women wear bizarre fashions, every generation, no exception, myself included. I’m only taking shoes as an example here. What discomforts me is the blurring of boundaries, the aggressive sexualisation of fashion, and not just footwear, seemingly without limit.

5. Pings, rings and dings:

Always-on, social media is with us everywhere. Etiquette and courtesy have gone out of the window in restaurants, cinemas and homes – even, for some, in the bedroom. Our Pavlovian response to those chippy audible commands is to reach for our phone or tablet – which of course, is by our side – and respond immediately to every Tweet, comment, status update or email. As a result, every natural social and even intimate activity has the potential to be interrupted a hundred times. Even those who know they are being rude by jumping to attend to a ping or a ring will do it anyway, accompanying their knee-jerk response with a helpless shrug or a mumbled apology. Worse still, is to see the person who hears his or her phone go off in a remote place, suffer, squeaming from one buttock to the other until they can make an excuse to dip into whatever pocket or bag contains the demanding device. Social media has much to offer society, but the intrusion into our face-to-face social time, the demand it makes for immediate attention, is a price we pay.

6. Demise of the landline:

How did that happen? Increasingly people are abandoning the traditional telephone landline in favour of their constant companion, the mobile phone. To have both is deemed – by some – no longer to be necessary. I understand when a person is on-the-move, regularly relocating or a frequent traveller. But using a landline is so much more… comfortable. The sound quality is better and a landline enables us to ‘take up the position’ on the sofa, telephone handset curled into our shoulder, for a nice, long natter. You can’t curl up with an iPhone. A landline requires you to settle down to take a call. It expects you to give that call your full attention, for as long as it lasts. Maybe the days of the nice, long natter are slipping away.

7. Travelling light:

I read a piece in a magazine this week which seemed to coalesce all my thoughts about the transitory nature of… modern stuff. A young woman wrote that she no longer had collections of CD’s, Books or DVD’s – but kept everything in the cloud. She bought ever cheaper clothes which she could dump before the next season, or discard at the end of a holiday. Her furniture came from Ikea, because it was cheap enough to leave behind when she moved on. This woman travelled light through life – and this seems to be the way these days. Play it right and you can move house in a hatchback. Modern stuff is short-term, temporary and easy to shrug off when you move on. But those who live in the cloud will never have the pleasure of owning a bookcase with bowed shelves, crammed with volumes which relate the story of their life.

8. The cult of celebrity:

In the world of Hello and OK, WAGS, TOWIE and the Kardashians, paparazzi and appearances, fashionistas and their designer handbags, too many are being sucked into the shallow, vacuous world of celebrity. This is where the young aspire to be famous for being famous, not for acquiring any skill or mastery, achieving status within a profession, forging a career. Instead it is enough to be spray-tanned and squeezed into the tightest, shortest garments, then photographed falling out of the hottest nightclub or dangling off the arm of a footballer. In the cult of celebrity, ignorance and stupidity are badges of honour and achievement is being seen in the right place.

9. Scripts, soundbites and the death of authenticity:

With an election coming up in the UK, we’re drowning in soundbites, scripted speeches and staged appearances. Nice and safe, rallies of the party faithful have replaced the pitch-and-toss of a Town Hall meeting or session on a soapbox – the politics of yesteryear. Modern politicians are polished and dressed, coached and prepped to within an inch of their lives, directed to stay on-message, forbidden from eating anywhere near a camera or getting caught – heaven forefend – talking to an actual member of the voting public. Everything is stage-managed and the fear of being caught off-guard is palpable as politicians are ushered, surrounded by minders, from one scheduled activity to the next. The reason people warm to a Boris or a Nigel is because in their clumsy oration, bad-hair days and offhand asides, they offer a tantalising glimpse of spontaneity and reality – the way politics used to be. Today, it’s all about leaving the right impression. Politicians are afraid of being seen being… real.

So I’m certain you’ll take issue with some of my thoughts. I don’t – obviously – want to be trolled, but I am interested in hearing from anyone, whether you’re in unashamed agreement or horrified opposition. Or do you have any other trends and fashions to add to my list – things you don’t ‘get’ about modern life?

These are, after all, only my own humble opinions – and they’re put out here in the interests of generating a little lively interaction.

So… please… don’t be shy. Let’s have a debate!

Am I the toiletry industry’s wet dream?

This morning, I counted up how many different products I apply to myself before I leave the bathroom.

Turtle-neckEarly on in my yet-to-be-published novel, SINGLED OUT, my main character, a woman in her 40’s readies herself for the day. It seems to amuse people that her make-up routine is, shall we say, comprehensive. This has been insightful, as her exact routine used to be my own in the days when appearance was everything and I faced customers and prospects on behalf of one global technology company after another, every working day. Safe to say, as a home-based freelancer, I’ve let myself go a little since those high-pressure days.

And yet… I remain in thrall to the toiletry and cosmetics industries. It seems I cannot rise in the morning without recourse to no less than 23 jollops, unguents, creams, lotions and potions. And that’s before I begin my now significantly curtailed make-up routine.

Impossible, I hear you cry! Well, here it is, this morning’s precise schedule of application:

  1. Toothpaste – a minty-fresh dental drenching
  2. Gum gel – yuk, temporary measure only, I hope
  3. Mouthwash – yes, I do love that minty-fresh feel
  4. Soap – duh
  5. Shampoo – twice, primer and undercoat
  6. Conditioner – topcoat
  7. Shower cream – soap is for the basin, bottled jollop in the shower
  8. Ph-neutral wash – muse no further upon this
  9. Shaving mousse – see, I still have some self-respect left
  10. Deodorant – what did the old advert say… may your armpits be charmpits?
  11. Hair mousse – it’s purple, does it really make my highlights gleam, I wonder?
  12. Anti-ageing serum – meant to sound medical, but off-the-shelf from Boots
  13. Face cream – I think this one actually does a job
  14. Eye cream – a micro-pot of magic with an earth-shattering price tag
  15. Talc – summer… summer
  16. Body lotion – scrummy one infused with tiny flecks of something gold, summer indulgence
  17. Athlete’s foot cream – purely pre-emptive, as I love to swim
  18. Heel balm – ditto above
  19. Lip salve – I keep a half-dozen of these dotted about the place
  20. Hair putty – gravity-defying sticky stuff
  21. Hairspray – I’m an 80’s girl, so shoot me
  22. Hand cream – I go back to this at least 5 times a day, but it pays off
  23. … last but not least, I can’t leave the house without a squirt… Eau de Parfum

As far as make-up goes, my significantly curtailed routine still involves eight products on an at-home day and ten on a going-to-a-meeting day.

You might call me a little OCD – and I would of course protest. But as a woman with a bathroom all to herself – I get all the cupboards, all the shelves, all the drawers, every flat surface, the whole dressing area, all of it – I can give free-rein to my corporal indulgencies. So I do.

Just don’t ask me if I line my jollops up facing forward with exactly, precisely the same space between each one.

In praise of Costa

My coffeeI had some retail therapy to attend to, so I headed into Uxbridge early this morning. I fancied kicking off the day in my local Costa Coffee, loading up with caffeine before attacking the shops. I took my writing practice notepad since mornings are my time for this new habit. Fifteen minutes on ‘a jewel’ and I was done – not one of my more inspired mornings, I admit.

At 08:30 and before the shops open, Costa Coffee is a haven, comfortable and subdued; a few early customers like myself, but none of the hectic crush that a busy shopping Saturday will later bring. The counter service was cheery, my Americano strong and delicious, my toastie crisp yet gooey and brought to my table. Seal’s Kiss from a Rose was the first track on the playlist I noticed and it was followed by a swell of Central Perk style mid-market soft rock. All very nice and right up my street.

The minutes nudged towards 09:00 and the business of beverage was well underway. Coffee machines whizzed, clanked and hissed, plates and cups clattered, the fridge displays rattled and the air conditioning hummed – all composing a vibrant mechanical backing track that was not at all unpleasant. Conversations ebbed and flowed – regulars acknowledging each other, friends meeting up, two guys behind newspapers sharing occasional observations, someone debating the climate of gun crime in South Africa; several accents in English, a chatter of Polish I think, perhaps from behind the counter.

A blast of chill air funnelled round from the door every time someone entered – I don’t mind this either since I’m at that age when I seem perpetually to feel too warm. A man came in, wrapped in a donkey jacket and woolly hat, a young girl grabbing a take-out cup, another swaddled in fake fur; a young mother struggling with a push-chair adorned with colourful toys, a teen in skinny jeans and giant headphones that looked like earmuffs.

What is it about the aroma of fresh coffee and toast? It takes me to a place of comfort and warmth, of pleasure in small things, of calm contentment. Of all the myriad coffee shops where I live – and there are too many – Costa is my favourite. I love the cosy burgundy/brown decor, the fact that there’s always somewhere to sit, upstairs if not downstairs – if you can survive the giant spiral staircase without decanting your beverage on to unsuspecting customers below. I’m not somebody who shows up every day, only every once in a while, but when I do, Costa rewards me with a heartening half-hour.

Hot flushes of inspiration

I’m in my early 50s (best to be honest about it) and lately, menopause has hit me like a blow to the solar-plexus, followed by a punch on the nose and a kick in the shins. I lie wide awake at stupid o’clock drenched in rivers of perspiration; my nights are spent whipping the duvet off, then on, then off, then on again – windows open, windows closed.  Throughout the day, in a dumb stupor through lack of sleep, I flush at inopportune moments, heartbeat galloping out of my chest.  I’ve acquired itchy-scratchy, eye-watering allergies for the first time in my life.

My waistline has exploded outwards and I’ve waved a fond farewell to my once cuddly hourglass.  My chins (two at the last count) have blown up like helium balloons, much like my ankles on a warm day, and I boast a cup size which is heading towards the middle of the alphabet (well maybe that’s not such a bad thing).

Befuddled on a tiny fraction of what I used to be able to drink, blotchy-necked and sweating from every pore, I spend nights out with the girls exchanging tips on the ins and outs of HRT and the best eye cream to ward off crows-feet.

Worst of all, my head is full of cotton-wool; I forget names and faces and I can’t locate words that I’ve known for ever; my fingers find all the right keys, but all in the wrong order.  If I don’t write it down, it’s gone for good.

But for all this mid-life fun-and-games there’s an upside, and it’s this – a conviction that now is my time.  And as the cliché goes, if not now, then when?  So I’m fighting mental meltdown, myriad distractions and my sticky, blurry eyes to give free rein to the would-be novelist inside me – just to see if I can.

So far I have 45,000 words laid down and a clear outline for the 45,000 or so more needed to complete the first draft by Easter 2012.  Beyond that point, there’s everything to play for.