Tag Archives: insomnia

On a Sandy Shore

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This morning I woke at 4 am. Not unusual, especially on a full moon. It was so bright and my mind was active, writing narratives that will never see the light of day. It’s been a couple of long, challenging days at work with overtime and 4 hours travel each day, a situation exacerbated by the short-staffing that the health service routinely endures, further compounded by the panic that occurs when sickness and injury removes any meat from a workplace already shaved clean to the bone.

And while I tend to thrive on the adrenaline of panic (it’s how my shy character once found a comforting home on the stage), I am still only 8 months into a 2 year recovery from surgery on my ankle, and I tire easily. Yes, it’s a long recovery. If I knew it would take so long, I’m not sure I would have done it. Especially given that it’s only in the last few weeks that I could say there has been an improvement in my condition. That said, my general fitness is a lot worse than it ever was. I try not to think about it. I do exercises and stretches every day, and go for short walks, training my heel, ankle and knees to walk again. Who would have thought that shaving a 9mm spur off the ankle would have such an impact?

Given that situation, you may think I would be glad of a lie-in. But there is too much to do, and I have a mind that never rests. Often when I sleep I dream of running (something I have done all my life until Haglund’s Deformity knocked me on my arse and on to crutches). Last night I had an incredibly vivid dream where I was about to play a match with the Warriors (the only sports team I love). It felt great to be moving, running, passing the ball but I soon realised that I was about to take the field in the hardest professional Rugby League competition in the world and the Australian opposition was bound to target me. I got very, very anxious, afraid for my bones and life, waking suddenly at 1am, relieved (and a little disappointed).

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Ouchie!

None of this is what got me out of bed at 4am on a day when I have no work or child to tend to. I got up because I wanted to write about my grandfather.

It is his birthday tomorrow, and, were he alive, he would be 111 years old. Crikey, that’s quite a number. Apparently, when the New Zealand cricket team is on 111 runs, the players in the shed all lift their feet off the floor to avoid losing a wicket. (I had a girlfriend once who was a great cricket fan and she always insisted we did the same. I can’t recall if it worked).

On a more personal level, my mother, my grandfather’s first daughter (who he always called ‘hen’), died on 11.11.11: Remembrance Day (as if I could forget). Once, during those impossibly short, endless months as we waited for the unthinkable, I told her she had to make it to that date. But, then, many things are said as you wait, wait, wait.

My grandfather, Sandy (the Scots shortening of Alexander), was born in 1903, and though he left Scotland in the 1920s, he never lost his sing-song Scots accent. I have, by chance, a quick snippet of it recorded 4 days before he died in 1985. I treasure those few seconds of audio.

He was a lovely, gentle man who, like most of his generation had a hard life. He married my grandmother, Flo’, in Forth in 1926 and they had my uncle, Alex (my mother’s big brother who passed in January), in the historic ironworks town of Wilsontown.

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An imagining of Wisontown in its heyday

A significant player in the Industrial Revolution (the first use of coke instead of charcoal, the first hot blast form of the blast furnace) it was in decline by the mid 1800s.

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Long demolished housing, Wilsontown, Scotland

My wider family worked the coal mines that remained and my grandparents and wee Alex escaped the soon-to-be demolished insanitary slum in the late 1920s, on a boat that took them to the coal mines at Dobson, on the West Coast of New Zealand, where my mother was born on the kitchen table, to the sound of my granddad’s squeaking boots. (“Will ye no stop that dreedful pacing, Sandy?!)

When I visited Wilsontown (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument) in 2000 it was beautiful, a wild field of flowers and forest with a few ruins. Annie, the elderly cousin of my mother, her husband Bill, and their daughter, Rae walked me around the ruins and I picked up a piece of slate from the place where my grandparents lived.

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Annie & Bill attacked by midgies, Wilsontown 2000

Bill, in his 90s, recalled living there, pointing out the spot where, as a child, he had gone to see silent movies (!?!) They also took me to the place where my grandfather had taken my grandmother by motorbike when they were courting, impressing her not with the red Panther, but with his skill on the cornet.

When I lay in bed at 4am this morning, eyes closed, willing myself to rest, I started to grasp for a verse Bill had recited when we went to see my grandfather’s old school. They asked if I wanted to get out the car to take a photo. I didn’t. This was the pre-digital era and, unlike now, photos were rationed (more space in the backpack, more expense).

But I have the picture in my head because Bill pointed to a hill; a Marilyn (a hill of 150m) named Tinto, and recited a verse. It seemed to me that whenever a subject came up Bill would burst into a relevant song or verse. I only heard it once, but it is a much stronger image than any photo.

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Tinto in Lanark (the verse is at the end of the blog)

My grandfather, ‘Sandy’ Alexander, died 4 days after my father’s 60th birthday, his lungs drowned in fluid caused by all those years down the mines (helped on by the fags). Long-widowed he was living with us at the time, that’s why I have a (brief) recording of his wonderful voice (“like a set of bloody bagpipes”, my Uncle Alex would say). In his last week he would call out in the night, “I’m coming mother, I’m coming”. We weren’t sure if was calling to his actual mother, or to Flo’, who he missed dearly and called ‘mother’ (or ‘hen’).

Sandy had escaped the rapid decay of Scotland with his young family for the promise of New Zealand, but ended up smack-bang in the Great Depression, and WW2 Christchurch.

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Sandy, ever-present rollie in mouth, Christchurch c.1930s

He worked for the railways and helped build the causeway to Sumner to provide for the ever-increasing brood of my uncles and aunties. Flo’, with my mother’s help, fed the kids and whoever else needed a feed (like a lot of the now-despised poor, they were always generous with what they had).

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Sandy, Mum, Flo’, Alex and new baby Anne, Lyttleton c1930s

As a child, my mother used to sit on his knee as he taught her the old songs.

He died in my bed in the dark of night in my mother’s arms, struggling for breath as she sang him the old lullabies, one of which, Sandman Grey, I sang to my daughter when she was a restless baby.

We sang the same song with my dying mother, the last time I saw her. It was agonising saying goodbye. With Mum in one arm, my infant daughter in the other, my sisters beside me, it was the hardest day of my life. I will hear the pain in her tears forever.

But what can you do?

Life is hard. Death is harder. But amongst both, there is immeasurable beauty.

It’s a long time till I will walk with ease again, let alone run. At the moment I head to the beach whenever I can to march up and down the loose sand, working on unstable movement, gentling increasing impact and stress to my withered muscles, tendons and ligaments, helping them to get stronger.

I cannot believe my grandfather was born 111 years ago tomorrow, 2 years after the death of Queen bloody Victoria. I sometimes wonder if my relatively long roots (Antipodean pun intended) have fed my hunger for history and memoir.

I shall sing the songs and stories that made me, each verse and chorus of love, lust and loss for as long as I breathe.

But now it is light, the full moon outshone by day.

I need to head to the beach in search of loose sand to test me.

 

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‘On Tintock tap, there is a mist,

And in that mist, there is a kist,

And in that kist, there is a cup,

And in that cup, there is a drap.

Tak’ up that cup, and drink that drap, that’s in yon kist, on Tintock tap!’

Dreams of Children

The other morning my daughter came into my room saying she had just dreamed there were crocodiles under her bed. She wasn’t distressed, more surprised and curious. I cuddled her and we talked about other things and I wondered if the dream had been real or an excuse to share time in the darkness with me. Either way I didn’t mind. It reminded me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child where a wolf’s head sat on a wood pile between me and my parents. It had teeth and angry eyes, but no stomach, so why would it eat me? Terrified and intrigued, I was often too scared to get up to the toilet and repeatedly wet the bed.

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A real monster under a bed

As I’ve grown up I tend not to have nightmares, the real life fears of being a parent hold greater sway over me. That said, lately I have been sleeping badly and some pretty bizarre images have popped into my head. The most notable involved being required to keep live pieces of human flesh in my mouth for medical purposes. They didn’t taste bad, and there was no way I wanted to chew or swallow, but the spongy texture and metallic taint of haemoglobin had me on the point of gagging. I woke hoping the foreign flesh was of a blood group compatible to mine.

As I lay with my 6 year-old listening to Bad Jelly the Witch, singing out our favourite lines (“tree, tree, 1-2-3, make it very big for me”… “steekeeble-steekeeble knickers, knickers, knickers!” et. al) my girl asked if there were crocodiles in New Zealand.

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The ‘Famous in Christchurch’ Charlie

I said, “No. Well, only in zoos,” and told her about Charlie, the famous crocodile I used to visit at the New Brighton ‘Mini’ Zoo with my sisters and mother. It was pretty sad, even to a kid in the ‘70s. Stuck on the outskirts of Christchurch with a tiny concrete pool and not enough space to turn around, he (or she, as it would turn out after ‘he’ died) never seemed to move and looked depressed (if a crocodile could have a psychological condition). As ‘he’ was always in the same position we weren’t certain that he was real, but we never bashed on the glass to get a reaction as other ‘naughty’ kids did. We were always too keen to get on to the friendly otters who stuck there tiny paws through the mesh to shake hands.

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Friendly Otters

All this I told my daughter; she’s a great lover of animals, and understands that it is not their nature to be caged for our entertainment.

What I didn’t tell her was that when I was about 7 or 8 something happened that burned into more than my memory.

We were at the zoo seeing if Charlie had budged from his miserable ledge by the puddle of water. While my sisters and mother stared at the static reptile I checked out the tiny turtles in the aquarium opposite. Suddenly, my world went very peculiar. I felt warm and heard a hum inside my body which increased to a ringing bang that threw me backwards with a scream, hitting Charlie’s glass panel hard. My mother, assuming I was being stupid, slapped me across the face as I bounced back and fell onto the wet concrete. I didn’t feel the slap; it was too much like a dream. What I did feel was the two bloody burn marks on the top of my left foot. An exposed live wire had been hanging underneath the turtle’s display and I had just suffered a strong electric shock (something which would happen again, many years later, but that time I would recognize it).

The owner came in to check out the noise, apologized and laughed it off with an “oops, must fix that”. I was in too much shock (pun intended) to cry or make a fuss. The wounds scabbed-up to the size of two 5-cent pieces. I never saw a doctor (as I said, it was the ‘70s) but instead was sent to see the electrician that lived next door who assured me I was within inches of dying. The condescension impressed my 7 (or 8) year-old mind and I wore the incident with pride.

I think slightly differently of the whole thing now and at some point will tell my daughter about the shock. But she doesn’t need to know about the slap and not seeing a doctor.

It’s only 3 years since she lost her Gran E and I lost my mother.

I thought about all this as I held my girl, closing my eyes in the long darkness, resting from her constant questions as Bad Jelly attempted to eat brave little Tim and Rose. I remembered I used to have a crocodile. It had bright white teeth and a delicious soft texture. I treasured it for years, sticking my finger in its mouth, or attaching it to my nose, pretending it was gobbling me up to amuse my sisters.

It was the only present I got when I turned 6, which sounds a bit sad, but there was a reason for it.

Some weeks before my birthday, while my mother was on the phone, I climbed onto the kitchen bench beside Mum’s shiny new electric fry pan. Somewhat obsessed with Tarzan (old movies played on the telly every Saturday) I slipped the electric cord through my belt and with a “hey, Mum, watch this!” jumped to the floor, thinking the weight of the attached pan would halt my leap, leaving me swinging like Tarzan on a vine. Not a very realistic expectation but I was, like my daughter, a rather imaginative child. Of course, the big golden fry pan came with me to the floor and my mother let out a horrified scream.

I was not hurt by the floor, or falling heavy pan, but the impact snapped it’s plastic (or Bakelite) handle. It wasn’t replaced for over a decade.

Kids often do naughty things without realising it. It only became clear to me what I had done when Mum didn’t smack me, crying instead for her new appliance (things were very expensive and hard to replace back before we joined the disposable society). She played the ‘wait till your father gets home’ card.

I was terrified. Dad never did the smacking. Like most of the parenting in my family, it was always left to Mum.

After my younger sisters went to bed there was a meeting at the kitchen table where they coolly decided that my punishment would be the cancellation of my upcoming 6th birthday party. To my fearful young mind that seemed a good deal. I hated (and continue to despise) physical violence.

Maybe they thought better of that decision later on but felt unable to back down, because closer to the day Mum told me that Dad was taking me to dinner for my birthday.

I have no recollection of where we went (there were no child-friendly restaurants in the land of ‘70s Christchurch, and I was a fussy eater) but I vividly recall him taking me up the escalators to the toys on the top floor of the wonderfully art-deco Millers department store. As was his way, he said nothing about what was happening. We walked up to a wall filled with playthings and I was invited to pick something. I did not know what to choose. There were so many toys, most of them clearly worth more than Dad could afford. How do you act in a situation where reward is mixed with punishment? I was taking too long and reached for the nearest thing, a very realistic 5-inch rubber crocodile with bright-white painted teeth.

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Not actual size

My parents weren’t ogres; they were loving, fun and caring. And like people who put animals in cages, to ‘save’ them or ‘educate’ children, they strove to do their best.

I have little doubt that in years to come my daughter will have unsettling stories to tell about my efforts at parenting. You do what you think is right, don’t do other things in case they are wrong; worry yourself to death on both counts.

There are many reasons why people sleep badly. For me, it happens when I am stressed or over-worked. And while I can tick both of those boxes at the moment I put my present fractured sleep down to it being the anniversary of those days and nights when I sat with my sisters keeping our dying father company, easing his discomfort as we could, trying to will his release from torment.

There’s so much I could write about watching a loved-one succumb to self-imposed starvation but I shall not ‘hammer the mahogany’ as JK Baxter put it.

That week in a secure dementia facility wasn’t a nightmare. It felt unreal; full of fun, beauty and humour. There were no crocodiles under the bed (well, there may have been), no strange flesh in my mouth.

Things happened I’m desperate to get out of my head but they can wait.

Was the crocodile really the only thing I got when I was 6? Having just hosted my daughter’s 6th party, I find that hard to accept.

Just as I can’t believe that in the morning it will be two years since Dad died.

I’m hoping that when tomorrow passes, and my daughter is back from her mother’s, I can sleep; free of the words that fill my head. And that in years to come my daughter will think well of my choices, good and bad, and that any nightmares that snap from below will be faced with tenderness and warmth.

 

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Like my toy croc but not as pretty