Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A Shropshire Lass

It is always a peculiar feeling going back to somewhere you spent time at as a child. It's like visiting a parallel universe, where things often look similar, but don't seem quite the same. Possibly because you are twice the size and your viewpoint has a few extra years of baggage and cynicism clouding your view.
Or maybe just because things change.

Last weekend I returned to Shropshire, with my family, unusual in itself for us all to be away together, but even more unorthodox in that this was a weekend of manual labour. No strolling across Ironbridge back and forth marvelling at the divets, pointing at the severn river and commenting whimsically on the currents, slurping on an ice cream whilst perusing over novelty keyrings in the shape of the Ironbridge with the words "oh the irony (bridge)".

No this was manual labour. Helping out the family. We had to put fences up, and get scrammed by thick brambles. Holes are often dug on family get-togethers, but usually by insulting comments, not literal spade out and tunnelling away. But so it was.

It began arriving at the hotel of kitsch. A beautiful building from the 1770s, decorated like the 1950s but playing the music of Elton John. It was like a musical montage of time travel. The brother in law had the entire contents of B&Q in the back of his huge trailer, painstakingly packed; it resembled an Escher painting. If Escher had drawn chainsaws, wooden posts and cementing bags.
Mother had packed an entire SUV boot of food, possibly to feed the British Army (and their wives, dogs, lawyers, window cleaners, tamigotchis and grandchildren who hadn't even been born yet). Because obviously, there were no food shops in Telford.

Worst was to come. I had to share an hotel bedroom with the parents. Two seconds into the first night, I suddenly remembered why I had left home in the first place, as a cacophony of warthog snores began to bounce around the walls. For a split second I thought a giant cyborg psychotic combine harvester was picking the building up, ready to devour it whole. How ironic, I thought, for a building from 1770 to last through the years, through economic decline, through world war, only for two middle aged sleepers to destroy it in seconds with their orchestra of nuclear snores. Needless to say it was a sleepless night.

Next day saw action stations and getting down to work. And that was just unloading the trailer. We assembled our motley crue and stood in the middle of a field. I surveyed the scene and immediately thought of Dad's Army, with a hint of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. It was an ominous sign when my Uncle accidentally stabbed my mother's hand with a giant knife when he went to kiss her a greeting.

I was stood clutching a pickaxe when some kids had walked by. There were giggles directed at me. Perhaps my Ted Baker sunglasses were not appropriate. I pretended not to hear. Mother had already told me to "wear old clothes" and had not been too impressed when I said I didn't have any.

Holes had to be dug, holes through thick earthy shropshire mud. Which turned out to be mostly stone. Surprisingly it was only by the fourth time my 'oh between a rock and a hard stone' gag became mind numbingly irritating.

My dad digged a lot, attacking the earth like it had accused him of supporting the England rugby team, and his face turned purple. He was making strange noises, sort of quacking. I brandished the spade off him. It was all too much like Arthur Fowler's demise on his allotment, and I was still traumatised by that.

Mum spent the whole time waving tools around. "Ooo me ends need cutting!" She was foraging around in her element, like a squirrel in a Holland & Barratts trolley dash. Then suddenly I saw a hatted middle aged walking secateer disappear behind the bank "Got a prick in my bottom!" she squeals as I went to help her back up again. I am sure that happened to Corporal Jones on more than one occasion.

The brother in law (The Gaffer) did all the really important (and dangerous) tasks. Like chain-sawing posts. Cue many Chainsaw Massacre "jokes". Uncle and The Gaffer had pressed ahead the military operation, whilst I contemplated pitching "digging machines" on Dragon's Den to Duncan Ballatyne for his Gyms. More calories burnt wielding a spade than you would ever get using the entire celebrity endorsed fitness dvd section in HMV.

I kept thinking of myself as a child. Imagine if someone had told me then aged 10, that one beautiful sunny scorching day, in the middle of Wimbledon; amongst the claps of the tennis crowds on the TV, the buzzing of bees in the garden, the family chattering, the metallic whirr of the electric fans trying to dampen the stifling heat....that something would happen that would change your life forever. And you would never go back to this place for years and years. When you did you would be a world-away, at an age that had once seemed geriatric, in a sphere that you promised would not occur. I would not have believed it....

We stopped only for tea. Tea and the endless supply of mother's muffins. I came to the conclusion if ever terrorists really wanted to disable a nation, they should destroy all tea supplies; the UK would implode within minutes.
Locals thought we were strange tourists having some sort of a bizarre picnic. A picnic involving spades and digging holes. The nearby pub were wary of my camera. "Is a boster is that".

Two days, dozens of aching limbs, a roll of barbed wire, 6,8329 gallons of tea, infinite swearwords and one sunburnt nose (mine) later, we had finished. A fence was up. Mother went around putting stickers on posts warning of barbed wire. "Tell me where to stick it Sian" She didn't understand my titterings in reply.

By the time I got back to Cardiff I had lost all trace of time and space. It had been a strange weekend, an exhausting weekend, and one I would not forget in a while. A blast from the past I have so often struggled to fathom, and yet I had learnt nothing new. Aside from how to hold a chainsaw. Perhaps next time I went back things would seem even smaller again.

I begged to the family that we could meet up in normal circumstances next time. But then realised immediately, that I had no idea what normal meant.


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