Starting a new business: From sticky mud to soaring kite

Starting a business is a fascinating, challenging and exciting process.   There are so many unknowns, so much at stake, and yet also so much potential.  Grand dreams and ideas on the one hand, comfort zone-breaking wobbles on the other: do we have what it takes to launch, market and deliver something tangible and valuable? 

blog post 36 images

Mud by Birdisart.com; Kite by Clappingsimon at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

At times it feels like wading through gloopy, sticky mud (will we ever get this thing launched, and even then, will it succeed?) and other times exhilarating – like feeling a kite pull up and soar into the sky or a boat heel up to the wind, lift and rush forwards and onwards.

Nearly every weekday at the moment we chat with someone new who could help deliver the service or otherwise help us get off the ground.  The positive energy of these meetings is uplifting.  There is so much support and encouragement within the small business community for others making the leap.  Just as useful and important are the words of caution and realism, mainly resulting from our contacts’ own experiences.  And then there are the many ideas, suggested resources or pointers to similar services and business models of which we need to be aware if we are to position ourselves as best we can in our market.

It is difficult to balance staying focused on our core proposition with ensuring we keep our ears open to any serious alarm bells or game-changing perspectives that should change our approach.   It feels like we are constantly going back to our core ideas to double check we still believe they are the way we need to go.  That’s the bit that can feel like sticky, gloopy mud.

As a result of that process, the core proposition has flexed.  We’ve shifted our business model and brought forward services to test at launch rather than later.  What’s interesting, and hopeful, is that the fundamentals haven’t changed – who we are targeting, the need we fulfil, the way we want to grow.  That helps me feel confident we have something worth trying, however tough or crowded the market might be. 

Take our brand name.  I won’t reveal it now, as we aren’t at the right point to do that, but it’s been a bit Marmite with those we’ve tested it on – you either love it or hate it.  We wanted something that stands out, that reflects the brand identity we want to have and is relevant to the target market.  But getting mixed feedback forced us to decide if its ‘Marmite-ness’ was a risk we were willing to take.  We said it was. 

Then last week a wonderfully positive introductory meeting opened my eyes to another section of our target market to whom our name may not resonate at all. My heart sank – firstly had I lost all the credibility I’d built up through the conversation by demonstrating we hadn’t thought through this part of our market and brand, and secondly, did this mean we needed to start again?

Back to the core once more. Back to feeling relieved to have a fabulous business partner with whom to share the highs and lows – the difficult decisions, the workload, the potential and the fun of the process. 

As for our brand, we are sticking with it.  Most of our strategic conversations end in the same place: if we don’t try, we will never know.   It is our own, tiny-scale version of one of Richard Branson’s nuggets of wisdom in his book of advice for entrepreneurs, ‘Business Stripped Bare’:

“Failure is not giving things a go in the first place. People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.”

I haven’t written this blog for quite some time, mostly because the effort of finishing our house extension has taken my time, and setting up the business my energy.  I lost the habit of writing, but not the desire.  Today is my first attempt to get back on the horse. Hopefully I’ll be on for a good long gallop through the rest of 2013.

*******

PS. For anyone else interested in learning from the secrets of Mr Branson’s success, here are some other nuggets he imparts in his book ‘Business Stripped Bare, illustrated through his stories from his own and Virgin Group’s journey.  It’s a good read, and inspiring stuff for any budding entrepreneur, even if Virgin’s story feels somewhat in another league! 

  • Always protect against the downside
  • [As a business], remember who you are and what you’re there for
  • Trust your instincts.  Have the courage of your convictions.  The world is full of people who want to put you right, who want to play the realist to your wide-eyed innocent.  Gather people you trust and get them to play devil’s advocate.
  • Protect your reputation but don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
  • Remember to communicate.
  • Attention to detail defines great business delivery.  Delivery is never rocket science.  However complex a business is, you should be able to boil it down to a proposition ordinary people can understand.
  • Brand is key. A brand always means something, and ultimately you can only control the meaning of your brand through what you deliver to the customer.  Whatever your brand stands for, you have to deliver on the promise. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and deliver everything you promise. 
  • Keep a cool head. You’re in business to deliver change, and if you succeed, the chances that no one will get hurt are virtually zero.  Be sportsmanlike, play to win and stay friends wherever possible. Befriend your enemies.
  • Innovate your way out of trouble.  When your very existence is threatened, you have to change.  The best way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experiment and adaptation.
  • People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.  If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get back up.  If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward.
  • Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from behind your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.
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Can a book discombobulate you? “The Fault In Our Stars” certainly can

dis·com·bob·u·late  [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate

The fault in our stars coverYesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green.  “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type.  If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.

Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading.  Not so yesterday.  As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book.  I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.

At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life.  But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason.  Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me.  So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.

Why did this book affect me so much?  Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer.  But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me.  It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.

I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in.  There are no wasted words in this book.  I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time.  None of that here.  I am in awe of John Green and his skill.

No, this is not light and fluffy.  Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once.  But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation.  How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.

To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel.   This book made me feel on every page.  I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege.  I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease.  That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental.  It is beautifully handled in the book.  I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is.  Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.

I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book.  It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw.  The irreverence is its brilliance in my view.   I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.

In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life.  Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer.  More and more  diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war.  Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.

Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death.  Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today.  We believe it will never be us.  We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.

I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though.  More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain.  Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics.  How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.

If you read one book this year, read this one.

Random musings on 40 year old teenage angst and uncertainty

Golden_Eagle-Soaring

Some days I feel grounded in myself, my family, my friendships.  I soar, wings wide, feeling secure and confident in who I am, in knowing I have the emotional intelligence and control to handle feelings and situations as befit a nearly 40 year old adult.

Other days, I falter.  I feel like my wings don’t work.  I feel blown by the winds of emotion and uncertainty; like a teenager, unsure of myself and lacking the life experience and perspective needed to ground my behaviour and feelings in an intelligence of any sort.

Why is it that I so often find myself taken back to those teenage feelings of angst and uncertainty?  Sure, now, I recognise them for what they are; I know I can mostly control them and rationalise them and they feel far less raw or all-consuming.  But still, they are there.  Do we ever escape them?

Parenting is harder on days I falter.  Not to mention on days when the children demand more of me than I can give them; when tasks need doing that aren’t about them and that need my thoughts focused elsewhere and their presence where they don’t want to be.  I question my own judgement.  My self-control falters.  My mental energy is not sufficiently focused.

Those days need all my effort to manage.  And when I have some space, I employ the tactics I have learnt work for me to bring my feelings to the fore, analyse them and pick my way through them to the things I need to do to move past them.  I work hard to stop myself wanting to run away from the feelings and the implications – the often uncomfortable-feeling actions needed to sort things out with others, big or small as those things might be.

I have often wished I wasn’t so analytical – approaching life with more levity and less reflection.

But the reality is that I am who I am.  There is little value in wishing I were otherwise. Nor will mentally running away from hard things, small or large, solve anything.  Strength of character and self-esteem come from facing and dealing with situations, even if they don’t feel comfortable.

Just recognising the feelings, and what I need to do about them, allows my wings to spread once more, to feel the lift of the currents.

And as always, tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity.  Parenting, more than anything else in my life, has taught me that.  We are not perfect, we will always be flawed, but each day we can strive to be the best we can be and pick ourselves up again when we don’t quite make it.

Keeping the connection alive: Relationship 101


tides ebb and flowIt’s interesting, isn’t it, how relationships ebb and flow.  Just over a year ago, Mr H and I split our weekday jobs into diametrically opposed roles: he would keep working, focusing on his career and bringing in the dosh; I would stop working and do everything else.

On the face of it, you could say I have a cushy life.  We live comfortably without me working.  With Littlest H now at pre-school every morning, I have time (in term) to myself I can decide what to do with.  If there’s a snow day at school, a child is ill or there’s something at school I’d like to attend, my life isn’t turned upside down.  Yes, some rejigging is required, and things I planned to do go un-done, but in comparison to the stress created by the nanny calling in sick or figuring out how to be at home to attend a school event without missing meetings I couldn’t really miss, it’s pretty manageable.

And yet, such a stark split of roles is tough.  Especially as a reasonably feisty, independent woman who enjoyed working and having financial parity with my partner, and who also has a pretty highly honed radar for female stereotyping.  It certainly took a while for us to get used to the new arrangement, without me feeling defensive about perceived expectation of ‘little woman’ behaviour, or a lack of understanding about just how much juggling there is in managing the day to day commitments of two kids. (To give an example, after a typical logistically-challenged day early on last year, that ended with tired, awful children, when Mr H arrived home to discover no milk, he questioned how I could not find time to get more.  A rare reaction, I might add, and rarer still since that particular instance and my response…)

Most of the time I can genuinely say I am happy managing the kids and the household by myself Monday to Friday, although I’ll admit I count the hours to Friday nights.   I’m used to it; we have our established routines and they work well nearly all the time.  I love hearing about the kids days first-hand and being the person ferrying them here and there and getting to know their friends.  I love being part of a community of mums who support each other through good and bad days, emergencies, building work, appointments or just the need for time out or a rant.  It’s also easier now I have some time in the day for decent exercise, as that keeps me sane (Mr H’s hours mean I can’t exercise early morning or evenings).

But I can’t pretend it hasn’t felt a bit dull and mundane sometimes too.  I love my children dearly, but the level of conversation is more “Mummy, I have a joke.  What is it Littlest H.  What do you get if you have a farmer?  I don’t know Littlest H, what do you get.  A farm.  Get it, Mummy?  Isn’t it funny, Mummy?” than discussing whether Cameron is right to call a referendum on Europe or even gossiping about the latest workplace drama or thorny issue.

I don’t think I noticed that mundanity last year.  Alongside the novelty of being with the kids, there were plenty of ‘projects’ that kept me occupied – redecorating, the allotment, planning a home-building project, writing this blog and children’s stories.  It’s only struck me since I started setting up a business with a friend this year.  It feels so purposeful, so constructive, so stimulating to be thinking about the world outside my domestic enclave in a pretty tightly circumscribed corner of Surrey.

But it hasn’t really changed anything about the roles Mr H and I have.  It won’t, as the whole point is for me to find fulfilling work that fits with family life.  In a way it’s harder – the volume of time I need to work on the business competes with time to spend with him, so the need to schedule ‘us-time’ is almost more important.

Being brutally honest, our set up has put a big strain on us, and we’ve fallen into lazy habits that haven’t helped.  Mr H is knackered when he’s home, and rightly puts his limited energy into the children first, who clamour for his attention.  Then there are the outings or social engagements, exercise, and sometimes it feels like we come last.  Not by planning or design, just by circumstance.  Us can feel like a mostly practical, sorting-out thing, a managing-our-lives thing.  A co-existence, not a fulfilling, positive relationship.

Last night we went out for dinner.  Just the two of us, to our favourite local haunt. I think it’s the first time we’ve been out by ourselves since mid December.  It’s been too long.  We’ve let our commitment to weekly date nights, or at least weekly ‘cook together and eat/chat without putting the telly on’ nights, slide.  It shows in our snippiness and lack of connection.  It’s easy to get lazy, but that connection is so important – I’ve seen at close hand what the loss of it has done to other relationships.  Without it, all our relationship is is a vessel for the children’s lives and our own separate existences.

Family life with young children, at the age when careers break through or risk being left behind, is tough.  You’ve survived years of sleep-deprivation. The time, money and energy for things you used to love doing are harder to find.  The fun of life requires more effort.  But allowing a lack of effort towards one’s relationship to slide into routine is a big risk.

So in a way I feel thankful we had a row on Thursday that triggered a rearranging of commitments to go for dinner last night.  Because we talked, we re-connected with each other’s lives and each other’s feelings.  We acknowledged the situation we’re in, the risk and the need to do it differently. We discussed ways to achieve regular date nights that don’t get canned by unavoidable work commitments or opting for the easy way out of tv and laptops.  We’ll book in some fun things to do together.  The ebb will return to a flow.

No doubt we will face another ebb at some point, but I am certain we are strong enough, and have open enough communication lines (albeit sometimes at higher volume than we’d like), to turn it around.  It might be relationship 101 to stay connected, but it can be all too easy to forget.  Marriage was never meant to be easy, but it definitely needs to be fun.  Time to bring on some more fun, I think.  Nevermind the Year of the Snake, let’s make 2013 the Year of Fun.

I can’t believe it’s come to negotiation with pants

spiderman pants

“I’m so disappointed in you, Littlest H. You’re not the big boy I thought you were.  Only big boys get to wear Spiderman pants, so I’m afraid they are going away until you can show me you’re a big boy who doesn’t wee in his pants because he can’t be bothered to get to the loo on time.” (Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk)

This was tactic number three million and three in managing my son’s mind-numbingly dull decision to use wee as a weapon of parental torture.  It was mildly successful – he really loves those pants – but as with all other tactics, both positive and negative, he quickly forgets and we’re back to Vanish spray and old towels as my new BFF.

Friends respond to my moaning by commiserating about his ‘accidents’.  I utterly refuse to accept there’s anything accidental about it whatsoever.  When I see his wee-signals, I often try to sunnily or breezily or cunningly bring his attention to the imminent loo visit, but however I do it, even ignoringly, he resolutely sets his mouth and refuses to go until he is so desperate he, of course, doesn’t make it.  He absolutely knows what he’s doing.  Even more irritatingly he immediately comes out with a plaintive “I’m really sorry, Mummy. I promise I won’t do it again,” repeated ad infinitum and utterly meaningless.  Oh, and then we have the battle of actually bothering to pull up pants and trousers shortly followed by the Great Hand-Washing War, both of which are often preceeded or followed by a game of Who Controls Who: “I’ll do it if you come to the stairs, Mummy; please hold my hand up the stairs, Mummy; no, Mummy, stand right there, no there.”

Honestly.  Does it really have to be this hard?  I’m so totally over his trouser drawer always being empty, the constant washing and the house and washing basket giving off Eau de Wee.

Have I vented enough?  I’m not sure.  I definitely could go on a lot, lot longer.  The worst of it is he’s not out of nappies at night yet.  He’s never been that good at sleeping through and I couldn’t bear facing up to the additional sleep-deprivation and life-shortening washing cycles of duvets, sheets, PJs and even closer companionship with Vanish, until I had to.  Which I reckon is when he’s four.  Which unfortunately looms large and close as it happens – for some reason I feel like it’s something I need to sort before he starts school (in September).  Not sure why, but that appears to be one of my personal ‘things’.  We will see.  At least spring and summer will ease the washing burden and allow Eau de Wee to waft outside more than it is circulated by central heating or results in us freezing to death.

With a six year old and three year old, I’ve tried a good number of negotiating strategies over the years, over a great many different things.  Some work, some don’t.  Some start out negative before I force myself to turn it round to a positive incentive.  Some don’t quite make it to the positive and a few even manage to start in a way I’d feel smug about when reading a parenting manual.

So far in the Battle of the Wee, we’ve used stickers, Thomas the Tank Engine books, cubes in the jar, masses of praise, putting a nappy on him with a heavy douse of parental disappointment about being a baby, ignoring it completely, leaving him in wet things, giving up and hoping the teachers sort it at nursery, and of course shouting at him in frustration. We may have tried others but it’s been so long I can’t remember.  Oh, and in case you’re wondering we have given each one a number of tries to get a tick in the ‘consistent parenting is key’ box.

I’m hoping there’s mileage in the pants angle though.  A great mate (and mother of three boys so when she advises I always listen with interest to such wise experience) suggested explaining the Spiderman pants (once returned) will be whipped off and away if they get wet.  Good idea.  And my own next step is to encourage him with the enticement of a new pair of Spiderman pants if he makes it through a whole weekend with no accidents.  I bought a pack of three so who knows how long they will last. Months I should think.

God knows what I’ll do if Spiderman goes out of favour.

PS

To my lovely followers, you may have noticed a lengthy absence of Mrs H blogs.  I’m finally back on the horse with this one, albeit a tad rusty, thanks to a nudge by a couple of people.  It’s good to be back doing something with the many observations and frustrations of parenting and stay-at-homing and everything-else-ing.  And as always to learn from and be inspired by comments and thoughts in response.  Roll on a blog-tastic 2013.

A Christmas Encounter

It was too exciting to sleep. It was Christmas Eve and Ella was desperate to know what Santa would bring.  She sighed as she stood with her head under the curtains watching the sky.   The clock ticked past midnight.  She should have been asleep hours ago.  She pictured Santa with his sleigh weighed down by presents in big, bulging sacks.  Would he really come?

The night outside was black and twinkling with stars.  The reindeer food glittered on the grass where Ella and her brother had sprinkled it before bedtime.  As she gazed out, Ella saw an aeroplane pass by – twinkles moving steadily across the sky.  Then another.  And another.  Hang on, she thought. That one looks funny.  It’s sort of rolling, like waves.

She kept her eyes fixed on the rolling twinkles, wondering what sort of aeroplane moved like that.  As she watched, she saw them dip down towards the lights of town before rolling back up into the sky again, all the time coming closer.  Her eyes widened, she stifled a squeak.  Could it… could it be him?

She held her breath and quietly opened the window just a crack.  As she stood still, not breathing, she heard a faint tinkling.  It’s their bells, she thought, it must be!  Ella crouched down so only her eyes peeked over the window sill.  She mustn’t spoil the magic, but oh, how amazing it would be to actually see him!

All of a sudden, her ears caught another sound, much closer than the tinkling.  In fact, it sounded like it came from her garden.  She straightened her knees and slowly, slowly peered over the window sill into the garden below.  She stopped, her mouth open, her eyes like saucers.  There was a reindeer in her garden eating the reindeer food!  So it was him, he was coming to their house.  He was REAL.

It was all Ella could do not to scream in excitement.  She couldn’t help her feet dancing a little jig.  The movement must have caught the reindeer’s eye, as it looked straight up at her, antlers gleaming in the moonlight.  Ella stared back, stunned by fear of what this meant and by wonder at this amazing beast in her garden.

In the sky, the tinkling was getting louder.  Ella’s eyes filled with tears of horror – had she spoiled everything by being awake? As she panicked, something suddenly whumped against the window, and hung, snagged on the open corner.  It was a blanket – the reindeer’s blanket.  She pulled it in hurriedly and looked down to see why the reindeer had thrown it to her.  But he had gone.

Ella slumped down the wall, terrified she had ruined Christmas not just for her, but for her brother too.  She wrapped herself in the warm blanket and buried her nose in its animal smell as she thought of how awful that would be.  At that moment, she heard the door creak and saw Mummy’s face peer round to check on her.  Then the door closed again and Ella heard Mummy go into her parents’ bedroom.

But why didn’t she see me?  Ella wondered, puzzled.  I’m not in bed, she should have been really cross.  She looked again at the blanket.  Was the blanket something to do with this?  She poked her head out, and looked down at her arm, covered by the blanket. She couldn’t see it – there was nothing there.  As her pulse quickened, Ella looked down at her legs. Nope, they weren’t there either.  The reindeer blanket made her invisible!

Ella jumped up and twirled around.  She hadn’t spoiled anything at all.  The reindeer must have meant her to watch Santa coming – why else would he have given her the blanket? She returned to the window, wrapped in the blanket from head to toe, her eyes looking through a tiny slit.  She scanned the sky for the galloping, twinkling stars and watched as they continued their journey up and down from chimney to chimney.

As they came closer she gradually picked out the outlines of six reindeer in front of a sleigh, just as she had always imagined.  The wooden sleigh was lit by tiny lights all the way along, and it was piled high with bulging sacks.  Right at the back was Santa himself, his red and white coat flying behind him as he raced through the sky.

Now he was close enough for Ella to watch him go into the houses.  She watched him gently pull on the reins to slow the reindeer, who stopped still in the sky.  Santa pulled a list out of his pocket, reading carefully before delving into a sack.  After a couple of tries he found the gifts he was looking for and jumped down from the hovering sleigh onto the rooftop.  He deftly removed the chimney pot, got himself inside and disappeared, leaving the reindeer waiting patiently above.  A few minutes later he reappeared, a bit red-faced, and a bit sooty.   He stepped across to the next chimney and did the same thing again.  Once he’d been into all the houses in the row, he clambered back onto the sleigh.  Ella saw him reach into his pockets and bring out a carrot for each reindeer and a mince pie for himself.

Then, oh how wonderful. Ella saw something that explained a bit of the Santa magic she had always wondered about: how could Santa possibly carry presents for every child on one sleigh?  As Santa sat there reading his list, Ella saw an elf on another reindeer appear at his side, carrying another sack.  Santa gave the elf a big smile, and patted the reindeer on the nose before taking the sack and pouring the presents into his big sack on the sleigh.  He gave the elf the empty sack, along with a mince pie for him and a carrot for the reindeer.  The elf slung the sack over his shoulder, turned and rode off into the sky until he was a tiny speck in the distance.

So that’s how he does it, Ella thought.  The elves help him.  How clever. We must leave more food out for the elves next year.

Just then, Ella saw Santa look over to her row of houses.  He put his list away, picked up the reins and, with a gentle tinkling of bells, the sleigh set off again.  Only this time, it came closer and closer until Ella found herself looking up at the reindeer standing right above her house.  She could see the clouds of steam from their nostrils as their breath met the cold air.  She could hear the crackling of the paper as Santa unfolded his list, and the ruffling of fabric as he rummaged in his sack.

“Aha,” she heard him say under his breath.  “Here we are. Ella and Tom, number 17.  Elf report says they’ve behaved well this year and shown lots of kindness.  Full complement of presents for them this year, eh, Rudolf.”  The red-nosed reindeer snorted softly as if in answer.

Then Ella saw the sleigh shift a bit and heard a soft thud on the roof above her.  She rushed to her door and tiptoed downstairs to the living room.  As she peeked in, the lights from the Christmas tree lit up the empty stockings hanging over the fireplace, and the food and drink they had left out for Santa the night before.  She barely breathed as she saw Santa’s boots appear in the fireplace, followed by his legs, his tummy and finally his arms and head.  He moved the fireguard away and dusted himself down, before reaching into his pockets for the gifts.  As Ella watched, he filled up the two stockings, drank the drink, and stuffed the carrot and mince pie into his pockets.  Then he bent down and squeezed himself back into the chimney.

Ella raced back upstairs to her window.  The reindeer were still there, standing quietly waiting for their master to return.  Ella heard Santa replacing her chimney pot, walk a bit on the roof and then silence.  He must be visiting our neighbours now, she thought.

After a few minutes, she heard him return and saw the sleigh tilt slightly as he got back in.  No elf appeared this time – it must be an occasional refill.  She couldn’t help herself craning her neck that little bit more to see Santa himself.  Sure enough, she could just see one side of him: his big, thick boot, the red coat trimmed with white, and his gloved hand holding his list.  I can’t believe this, she thought.  I’ve actually seen Santa.  I know he is real.  While she was thinking this, she had a funny feeling she was being watched.  She swung round to her door, but nobody was there.  She glanced at the garden, but no, no-one there either.  She pulled the blanket more tightly around herself and returned to watching Santa and his sleigh.

A moment later, she saw Santa’s hands folding up the list and putting it back in his pocket.  She saw him pick up the reins and turn the reindeer back towards the sky so they pointed away from her.  Ella wanted to hold onto this moment forever.  Did they really have to leave so soon? She felt like crying.

As Santa picked up the reins, he suddenly turned and looked straight at her. Before she could do anything, he winked at her, smiled and tapped his nose.  Then he was gone.  Up into the sky and away.

He knew!  He knew she had been watching him, and still he brought their presents.  Ella found her teddy and buried her face in him.  “Can you believe it, Teddy,” she whispered.  “Santa’s real, he really is, and I saw him!”

While she hugged Teddy, she heard a soft grunting from outside.  She leaned out to look into her garden, where she saw the reindeer again, looking back up at her.

“Oh,” she whispered to him.  “You must be cold without your blanket, you need it back.” She opened the window fully and threw the blanket down to him.  As he shook it into place, she smiled at him.  “Thank you, reindeer.  You made this Christmas the most special ever.  I will never forget you.”

The reindeer snorted and nodded its head before turning to gallop down the garden and up into the sky.  Ella watched as he faded into a shadow and then disappeared completely into the night.

Ella climbed into bed and wrapped up herself and Teddy tightly in a bundle of duvet. What a night.  It almost seemed like a dream, it was so amazing.  She smiled as she kissed Teddy and closed her eyes.  It was going to be a brilliant Christmas.

Santa-Claus-on-his-sleigh-Wallpaper-500x333

(Photo credit: http://www.johnrwallace.com)

A letter to my Dad

Dear Dad

At about 4am four years ago, we were with you as you took your last breath.  In some ways I can’t believe it’s only four years – it feels like a lifetime ago.  So much has changed as our families have expanded, the children have grown up and life has continued apace, as it always does.  So much we would have loved you to be here to share.

I miss you.

When you first told me about the bowel cancer, Little H was a week or so old.  I didn’t want to find out anything about it, I didn’t want to know.  But I had to – no point hiding from it. And the two – five years typical life expectancy was too shocking to accept.  Two years?  Is that all?  And for all the ups and downs, all the hopeful operations, all the ‘maybe this time’s, two years is what it was.

Almost the hardest thing was realising Little H would be too young to remember you as part of her life. I can’t know for sure, but I have a feeling one of the things you fought so hard to live for was to be part of your grandchildren’s lives. You were a great Ganda to them.  It was wonderful to see you relax and enjoy being and playing with the kids, despite how much their noise and chaos must have disrupted the order and peace you liked to have in life.

I wanted to write a chatty letter to you about what the children are like, what’s happened since you’ve been gone. But it seems that’s not where I am today.  I want to remember you and the things I loved about you.  The things I miss.  Sorry if that’s a bit melancholy – you would hate it, wouldn’t you, Dad – you were never one for dribbling on about feelings, except when you wrote to us – those poignant letters and emails when you felt able to share your feelings.

There’s a lot I miss.  I miss your bear hugs.  I miss “Well, quite”.  I miss those times when you deadpanned a joke which had us all looking at you a bit uncertainly until you cracked a massive grin and laughed.  I miss the satisfaction you took from finding a really good wine.  I miss seeing you in your chair by the fire playing with the cat, letting her scratch the hell out of your hand or chase a laser madly around your feet.  I miss your quietly said, well-considered advice (although I don’t miss the expectation that we followed it!).  I miss your voice.  I miss the chats about what was going on in the world.  I miss your irritation with the downward spiral of the English language from its proper form.  I miss your inability to do a food shop without coming home with DVDs, way too much awful packaged sweet stuff and enough drink and snacks to do Christmas all year.  I miss the way you would always do things ‘right’ – house guests meant G&Ts at the yard arm, well filled glasses and good snacks, fun outings and preferably a good pub lunch.

I miss the bond that grew between you and Mr H, particularly during and since those treasured months we lived with you when we got back from Sydney.  I miss the unspoken pride I saw in your eyes, or in a fierce hug, when one of us did something that made you proud.  I miss your quiet determination, your methodical, fastidious approach with your interests and projects you took on, whether genealogy, clocks or helping us with house hunting, car buying or DIY.  I miss your fascination with new technology. I’ll never forget you discovering eBay and suddenly all these clocks appearing as you tested how it worked, Mum worrying about just how much money you would fritter away on your latest obsession, and just how much more stuff you could cram into the house.  I miss your sense of duty and of doing the right thing, with and for family as well as friends and colleagues.  I miss your generosity and desire to help whenever you could – the way you would have a quiet word and offer what you thought was needed, whether I was at school, university or an adult.  I miss the calm way you approached problems, particularly given my own tendency towards overly dramatic panicking.

Recently, I heard your voice on a video clip I opened for Little H.  It threw me quite a bit, but actually it was lovely to hear you.  Moments bring you back to me suddenly – a phrase, a situation.  I treasure those moments – the art of remembering, as I’ve written about before.

I feel sad that you aren’t here to watch the kids grow up and become the lovely little people they are, to share in their joys, triumphs, curiosity and innocent wonder at the world.  Mum is so very present in their lives, which is wonderful.  But wouldn’t it be even more wonderful if you were too?

You always loved this time of year.  The traditions, the carols, the big roast lunch with all the trimmings, all the silver out, the family occasion.  How you managed to resist our petulant nagging about putting up the decorations and tree before Christmas Eve for so many years, I have no idea.  That was just one of your things, and I guess it did make Christmas week feel ultra special in a way we now try and make last the whole of December!

Perhaps if you had to go at some point, it was better you went at this time of year, when we can remember you together as a family, at a time infused with so much memory of you.  Next week we will all be in Aldbourne, where you grew up, married, and were buried, all your children, grand-children, Mum, Granny.  We will drink good wine, eat good food, say hello to you in the churchyard on Christmas morning, sing our hearts out and laugh as the children complain about waiting for presents until after lunch, just as we did to you for all those years.

Love you Dad.  You’re often in my mind, and always in my heart.