SCI Week 3: Second Look
If you've grown up in a small pond, and are good enough, you'll eventually get to a point where you consider yourself a big fish. Particularly if you're the youngest.

And then two small pools — in this case two small local youth orchestras — merge; and two nominally big fishes clash.

There were three of us all around the same age: the two youngest from the other youth orchestra, and me, the youngest from mine. And it was my orchestra whose residential week away it nominally was. Mine. Worse, we all played the same instrument: the violin.

Leanne was the older of the two, and by far the more self-assured. She went to a comprehensive school; I went to an independent one. I considered her brash; she considered me stuck-up, which in retrospect is a fair assessment of me at twelve. The third girl, the one for whose attention we were competing and whose name I now forget (let's imagine for the sake of it that it was Vikki), was younger than both of us, although far closer to my age than Leanne's. Then again, Leanne and I were in the same school year, even though she was more than eleven months older than me.

Never has so bitter trench warfare been conducted over such petty ground. For Leanne and me, that year, it was instant competition; instant hatred. Worse than which of us Vikki would pick as her best friend for the week was the added tension of battling over place within the orchestra. If our paths had to cross outside rehearsals, we sneered at each other. Leanne won the competition for place in the orchestra; I stole her friend.


A year passed. By this point, I had a proper best friend from my own school; and, even better, she had just got into my orchestra. Again we headed off for the residential course, but this time I was not so alone: I had Beth. Leanne and Vikki were there again. My heart sank when I saw that Beth and I had to share a room with Leanne and not Vikki — Beth had been hearing tales about both of them all year — but by then there were girls from the year below us in the orchestra, and Vikki was to share with them.

Beth, however, played the oboe, not the violin. So through long sectional rehearsals I was stuck with Leanne and Vikki. Vikki had changed over the year, though, and the spark there had been between us was gone. Leanne didn't even give her the time of day any more, either.

I cannot now remember what the precipitating incident was that caused Leanne and me to stop hating, and start caring about, each other. For the next four, five, years we had a wonderful friendship that overcame even the miles between as we wrote and shared gossip in the general manner of enterprising teenage girls before the age of the internet. She, and her family, were there for me when I first realised I wasn't straight, as my own family rejected me.

When we went away to different universities, or (for me) a gap year, we started to grow apart. And yet every time we met up it was if we had been chatting only yesterday. I didn't always approve of her choices — and I'm sure she didn't approve of many of mine! — yet it never came between us. We hadn't seen each other for a couple of years when I got engaged, but there wasn't anyone I would have wanted more to be my chief bridesmaid.

Looking at the wedding pictures now, thirteen years later, tears come to my eyes. I can't remember when last we talked. When my husband and I split up in a flurry of acrimony I was so ashamed that I didn't want anyone to know. I lost contact with Leanne; the last address and phone number she had for me is my ex-husband's. If she called there, she would have had poison dripped into her ear about me.


I am a demon at finding people with Google, Facebook, Friends Reunited, etc. However hard I try I can't find Leanne. She seems to have dropped off the electoral roll in 2006 or so; I fondly entertain the hope that she may just have emigrated, but there's a death record for someone of her (unusual) name sitting there on that I may one day have the courage to click on, just to find out. Today is not that day. Nor will tomorrow be, nor the day after.

Hadn't intended to carry on theme from last week, but that's the way it's happened. *shrug*

SCI Week 2: High Wire Act
Air on an E string

The real way to tell the quality of a violin is how the highest string, the E, sounds. The G, the D, even the A, can all be camouflaged to a certain extent by the skill of the player: vibrato, bowing technique and empathy between the violinist and the instrument.

Not so the E. The E exposes all the flaws in excruciating relief. A cheap violin will betray its origins when the E is played. A breathy, sometimes squeaky sound, will come out. It's even more evident when the piece includes harmonics: particularly artificial harmonics, where one finger stops the string and a second finger lightly rests almost on the surface of the string, lightly depressing it, a few centimetres or inches away, and brings out what should be a sound of peculiar clarity, almost an exquisitely perfect sine wave. On a poor violin, it can be a hit and miss affair, the pure note thin and reedy and covered almost entirely by interference and bow noise.

Alison was a lecturer. She had had a choice between studying mathematics at Oxford and music at the Royal Northern College of Music. In her younger days, she had been a promising violinist.

Football teams have youth teams peopled by talented children from round the region, often found by talent-spotters at school fixtures. Less well-known is the fact that major orchestras have the equivalent. Passing an audition into one of these youth orchestras is a major step on the road to a career in music; technique is honed through long exhausting rehearsals, with tuition provided by section leaders. In the week leading up to a concert, the rehearsal schedule is hectic. Coupled with the hours needed to practise the pieces at home, over and above normal music practice, it is a hard pace for someone to sustain, particularly whilst attempting to maintain a normal academic schedule in the hope of gaining a place in an almost entirely unrelated subject at one of the world's leading universities.

And while Alison was a promising violinist, she had seen, all too painfully, at 17 that she was no prodigy. She would never be a Nigel Kennedy, a Tasmin Little. She was on the third desk of the first violins. She could probably have had a life as a professional musician, in a good orchestra, but she would never have been a star. So she turned her back almost entirely on music and went up to Oxford.

She still played, in amateur groups, at concerts. She only practised when there was a need. Having perfect pitch and good muscle memory she could get back up to 85% of her former standard within four or five weeks, which was enough to scrape by.

She was 35 when she discovered that her beloved violin was no great instrument. Her parents had bought it for her at 13, when she had outgrown the three-quarter size, for the princely sum of £100. Less than a year later, it was valued at £800, largely because of her empathy with the instrument. She knew how to woo her instrument, to coax it to sing in a way it hadn't for anyone before. But one day she was talking to a friend of hers, another formerly promising violinist. Because she had been in high-intensity "practising" mode for the previous five weeks, she asked to try her friend's violin. Its neck was of similar thickness to her own violin's, and she could play it in tune almost instantly. Intrigued, she tried out some of the artificial harmonics she was having such trouble with on her own instrument. They sang, clearly and repeatedly.

She was 45 when her father died and she came into her inheritance. One of the first things she did after settling the estate was to go and try out violins to find one at least as good as her friend's. She auditioned them like a merciless tyrant with Monti's Czardas, the same piece full of artificial harmonics on which that other violin had sung. She might have lost her opportunity for a career as a professional musician, but at least her amateur perfomances would now (almost) meet her own exacting, perfectionist, standards.

SCI: What's missing?
Everyday when Melissa came home there would be some subtle change that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Her flat was — on the surface — the same as it had been when she had left for work, and yet it somehow wasn't. She had something very close to eidetic memory: she had always managed to survive with an archaeological filing system rather than a more conventionally-ordered one, and she only left things in places where she would expect to find them. And now, it seemed that her memory was failing her. Things were in places she would have sworn that she would never even have dreamed of putting them. And, more worryingly, some things weren't anywhere at all. She feared this might be the beginnings of her losing her mind.

Her mother had succombed to early-onset Alzheimer's. Melissa thought she ought still to be too young for that, but who could tell? Her GP had told her that, unfortunately, the genetic tests to find out whether she needed to worry or not were not available in England. Privately, Melissa wondered whether or not that was true — after all, why would the Alzheimer's Society suggested getting tested if it weren't possible? — but she also wasn't entirely sure whether she really wanted to know. There was also the worry that she was an only child of elderly parents. Her mother had gone to the GP expecting to be told that she had entered the menopause, but instead had been told that she was finally, after ten years of trying, pregnant. Who knew what sort of weird mutations might have been present when that 44-year-old egg had been fertilised?

After all, Melissa was hardly without her problems. She had had severe depression (which she privately suspected was more than likely bipolar rather then unipolar, looking at the equally unpromising genetic heritage she had down the paternal line), almost glancing into psychotic episodes on occasion, since she was thirteen. The Faustian pact she had made to allow her creative muse access to the Divine left her open to such, and she had eventually decided that a life spent embracing the poisoned chalice was the life she would prefer to live. Even if sometimes the transition between the peaks and the abysses was so abrupt that her continued existence was endangered.

But this was a new problem. It was like some sick twisted version of one of those children's party games, where you had to concentrate on a tray of objects for two minutes, and then one would be removed, the tray brought back, and you had to try to compare the remembered version with the new version and work out which one had vanished. Melissa had always won those games, but this adult version Melissa seemed to be losing terribly. It was no game; it was reality. And it was a very worrying reality.


What Melissa didn't know, and would never have imagined could be happening, was that for her husband, Richard, love had turned to hate. Envy at her greater professional success whilst his own career was going to the dogs had chipped away at his love for her until eventually there was nothing left. His being made unemployed had been the final straw. Left at home all day, with childcare his sole responsibility, rather than making the best of things he had sought instead to destroy Melissa, and to drag her down to his level. It had been an accidental game at first, but when he had discovered how worried it made her, how it made her doubt her own sanity, he had been delighted.


Melissa only discovered, years later, after she had lost everything and undergone years of seemingly pointless therapy, that there was an established term for Richard's behaviour: gaslighting.

OK, decided (finally) I'll give this another spin of the dice (if I'm in time!)

LJ Idol Season 8: Week 9

"Never judge a book by its cover". One of those things you are forever being told as a small child, presumably in a misguided attempt to dispel prejudices and bigotry amongst those too young even to have prejudices and bigotry. (Actually, if memory serves me right, my parents did me the great courtesy of not harping endlessly on this theme, given all the prejudices they turned out to have. Sexism? Check ("women make useless engineers/only stupid girls do engineering because they're in it to find a husband". Thanks Dad). Racism? Check (my mother only pretended to be racist so as not to incur my father's wrath, but the ranting he'd do any time apartheid or the like was mentioned on the news was ... not a happy-making sight). Homophobia? Check (all hell broke loose when I came out as bisexual: physical abuse from my father, emotional abuse from both of them, and that's not mentioning the thing that triggers me too much to write it down).

Teachers, however, were always keen to cite that cliché. But surely there's something a bit wrong with that. Isn't it, basically, telling us not to trust our own instincts? Instincts which may well be honed to detect when we're about to get into a sticky or harmful situation. Instincts whose primary purpose is to protect us.

In the past I have been, I admit, maybe far too quick to make snap decisions about people on first meeting. And then I felt ashamed. Like I hadn't given them a fair roll of the dice; like I had, indeed, judged the book by its cover. So I gave them a second chance. And a third. And eventually I discovered that, in fact, my first instincts weren't wrong; if anything, they weren't protecting me enough.

Take, for instance, the (now defrocked, I hope) priest. Talk about the Prince of Darkness; the first time I met him, I felt like I was talking to the Devil. Other people's accounts of him did nothing much to reassure me. But then I started to think that I must have misjudged him, that there must have been some good in him for him ever to have got through a Selection Conference, seminary, and ordination, and that I just hadn't tried hard enough to find it. So I tried to be friendly and sympathetic to him; I spent long hours listening to his tales of tortured angst. And of course he turned on me in the end; he threatened to report me to the Bishop; I suppose in his addled state, and being used to this being the threat that was always being held over his own head, he thought this was The Thing You Had to Do. We lost contact after that; the last time I saw him was in a bar, when he spiked my drinks and left me for dead on the floor, refusing to do anything to help. I've heard tell, occasionally, of some of the terrible things he resorted to after that (and quite frankly I'd believe anything of him now!) but fortunately all has been quiet on the Western Front for a while now.

And that's not even to begin to get into how most of my relationships have started out with my having an intense feeling of dislike towards the person concerned, and then feeling that redemption must be possible. Trust me, none of them have turned out well. Until I actually learn that, against the grain and received wisdom though it be, I must judge a book by its cover, I'm best off steering well clear of relationships. And maybe even friendships.

LJ Idol Season 8: Week 8
Travelling Travesty

Throughout history, members of the fairer sex have been disguising themselves as men to go and do traditionally "male" things, such as fighting wars, from which women were barred. There were female "monks" whose real biological sex was only discovered after their deaths.

As a slight gamine (some might say elfin) woman, with a strong preference for male friendships and with an undeniable attraction to men, travelling alone (as I have done for the last ten years or so) has been rather too much fraught with danger for my liking. Somehow, my interest in discussing traditionally "male" pursuits such as football and engineering has been misread by one too many men; perhaps most women pretend to be interested in these topics while their inner eye is glazing over when they find a man attractive? I don't know. If I appear to be interested in something, it is because I actually am interested in it: I have no interest in pretending to like something I don't.

Such misunderstandings led to awkwardness, to broken friendships, and occasionally to, well, worse.

But pretending to be something I'm not, that I seem to have fewer problems with.

At first, I tried the trick that all good guide-books of a certain vintage advise for women who find themselves compelled to travel on their own (and at that time it probably mainly was compulsion, rather than preference). I wore a wedding ring on the third finger of my left hand and had a cover story of how my "husband" had been required to go on an urgent business trip, and I was following behind at a more leisurely pace. I could never quite pull it off, though. I don't know what it was that gave me away, but it didn't appear to be quite the deterrent I had hoped for.

In the end, it was my long and hesitant journey into the heart of discovering my true gender that gave me the answer that has worked much better: to travel everywhere as a man. My passport gives me away as being female, but for the most part it's not been check-in officials or passport control officers with whom I was having such problems anyway. I seem to pass adequately as male in Paris, but less so in Rome; in London, but not so much in Corsica. I still need to fine-tune things, and I still can have problems when people discern my biological sex through the masculine trappings, but on the whole I'm having to spend less time dodging men (whose general idea of British women is far from what we might hope it would be, coloured no doubt by some of the package holiday companies) who won't take "no" for an answer.

In an ideal world, I wouldn't have to cross-dress to escape unwanted attention, but in this world I find it empowering and freeing to do so. And I make quite an attractive dandy!

LJ Season 8: Week 7
Rock bottom

It's an oft-quoted (and equally often misquoted) cliché that catastrophe theory says that a butterfly fluttering its wings in South America cna cause an earthquake on the other side of the world. It seems like such a small thing, doesn't it? And yet the difference between having it all and having nothing at all can turn on something just as trivial.

That last little flutter that the gambler up to his eyes in debt is absolutely 100% positively certain will take him back into the black with a significant safety margin, so that the loan sharks will stop calling at his house threatening to destroy all that he holds dear.

That one last alcohol or drug-fuelled binge that causes the addict's poor battered body to say "enough, already" and requires either enforced sobriety or a steady path towards death.

Or maybe just enough belief in love and the milk of human kindness to trust that your spouse isn't already squirrelling away all the assets whilst you're so sick carrying his child that you can't sit upright long enough to read the small print of the paperwork that he's demanding you sign so you can move into the house of your dreams before the baby's born. And then, to add insult to injury, when you've outlived your usefulness he throws you out, locks all the doors, and stops you having access to your own child, whilst claiming you've been sponging off him for the entirety of your time together.

Do I sound bitter? Well, maybe. Everyone who hits rock bottom has their own unique catalogue of misfortunes and tragedies, and not everyone is fortunate enough to come out the other side. I'm hoping I will be one of the fortunate, but only time will tell.

LJ Idol Season 8: Week 6
Food Memory

It's a strange time to be writing about food, when I'm feeling sick a lot of the time, and have no appetite the rest of the time. Even some of my childhood food memories aren't working the way they ought to in terms of getting me to eat anything like properly.

To me, food has always been one of the strongest of souvenirs. Duck evokes the Paris I knew as a small child, a world of a bizarre mix of spectacularly dodgy tourist restaurants picked off the street by my hapless father, and 1 and 2-starred Michelin restaurants when the thought of yet another omelette or greasy pizza had sparked off an argument between my parents. Snails in garlic butter and frogs' legs are the food of the Paris I knew as a student, a very different Paris from that earlier innocent one, a Paris of long hot nights by the Seine, and nights spent drifting from gay bar to gay bar. And dating a Frenchman, flying with him in his private plane, and eating the wonderful Alsatian cookery he introduced me to.

Oysters and lobsters are Cancale as a thirteen-year-old; mussels will always remind me of my father insisting on chowing down on 1kg of them for lunch every day in La Rochelle when I was fifteen (until the day when they served him 2kg instead, and he came back swearing never to eat one again. To the best of my knowledge he hasn't). Gambas flambés in Pastis are Perpignan, and there's an entire restaurant in Montpellier that is the definitive experience there (L'Olivier: a couple of years ago it was still run by the same little old lady who didn't look to have aged a day since I first went there aged sixteen).

Tiny snails, and rabbit, and crêpes flambées with Armagnac are a tiny little restaurant set into a wall in a village perché in Languedoc-Roussillon.

My mum's lamb chops and shepherd's pie were all I could keep down when I was first pregnant (later on, when the sickness became hyperemesis gravidarum, I couldn't even keep that down; the occasional mouthful of lemon drizzle cake was all I could manage). My mum's birthday cakes (Victoria sponge cakes with icing and buttercream flavoured with orange juice) are still my staple cake of choice.

Hazelnut meringue is my nan's, yet also belongs to a summer in Châteaudun where I cooked it for a Bastille Day barbecue held by my boss and his family, with whom I was living, and who gave it the ultimate accolade of being the only dessert cooked by an English person that they had ever enjoyed.

And then there are the memories that have come over the years of learning to cook: that expensive sea bass or sea bream can be substituted by the much cheaper trout in one of my favourite Provençal recipes; that sauce de Sorgues is even more fiddly to make than Hollandaise sauce and nowhere near as nice; that Provençal sunshine chicken is perfectly married with squid ink spaghetti.

Without this huge diversity of food and flavours, my memories would be much more two-dimensional, much more impoverished, much more insipid, than they are. Just the mention of a certain food can flash my mind back to what it was like to be there, at that time, and in that place. In many ways, food is my memory.

LJ Idol Season 8: Week 4
What does narcissism have to do with me?

It's all about me. No, really, it is all about me.

I may not be the worst patient in the world, but I'm certainly up there as a strong contender. Even an innocuous cold is quite enough to have me going around moaning, sighing, and sniffling as if the world were about to end.

So, when it comes to there being something actually wrong — something that no amount of Googling the symptoms can provide a rational yet reassuring answer for — you can bet that the whole world seems to close in to the narrow pinpoint focus of me, my pain, and what might possibly be wrong with me. After all, no-one else can actually feel my pain, can they? So obviously they need to be told in excruciatingly precise and gory detail all of my symptoms, and how much they're making me suffer.

The most anodyne of conversations can be hijacked onto the subject. Told that someone in a nursing home is having difficulty walking, I mutter darkly, "Well, that's only to be expected, isn't it, at the age of 87? Not like me, who's only 37 and yet am also having difficulty walking." Discussions of paintings and ornaments can be diverted onto who might wish to receive what in my will.

And so on, and so forth.

That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotight, losing my narcissism.

ETA: Well, the doctors can't work out what's wrong with me either, but they're definitely worried. So maybe I'm not being so neurotically self-obsessed after all.

LJ Idol Season 8: Week 2
Three Little Words

Follow your dreams.

Ever since I was 13, I've dreamt of living in France. At that time, the rather childish romanticised version of the dream saw me married to a rich Frenchman and living either in Paris or in La Rochelle, in Charente-Maritime. Or preferably both, if the Frenchman really were that rich. I was streets ahead — years ahead — of the rest of my class in French, as I'd been learning it from my mother, who was a translator, since I was 6 years old. I was bored in class, and spending my lunchtimes working my way through the French novel section of the school library (although as a rather sheltered naïve child, I wasn't really sure what Maupassant was going on about half the time, what with all these serving wenches getting pregnant, nudge nudge, wink wink).

By 19 , I was at university, studying engineering. I'd kept up with my French, but not to the extent of doing a full A-level in it (instead, I'd done an AS, with a "specialist subject" for my oral exam of Jacques Delors, the then-president of the European Union — strange child that I was!) Luckily, I managed to wangle a stage at the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique, just south of Paris, so I got to spend that first summer of my undergraduate years to some extent living my dream. The following two summers I worked at one of the most élite engineering universities, the École des Mines, and my masters project was done in collaboration with them. I was all set to move over to Paris to do a PhD there.

And then I fell in love. Not just with a man, but with a research concept that only the University of Cambridge would take seriously at that time. So, regretfully, I turned down the two PhD places I'd been offered in Paris, and resigned myself to living in Cambridge for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever.

The love affair with the research lasted far longer than the man, and the man after that. But in 2003, reeling from both redundancy and the prospect of a divorce within the space of a month, my mind had started to turn back to France. Only now it was complicated by Italy as well, or, to be precise, Liguria. (You may have read of the destruction last week of some of the Cinque Terre villages; my Three Little Words were almost Three Little Letters: RIP Monterosso, and possibly Vernazza too).

Confused, I did nothing much about it until some time early in 2006, when my all-knowing housemate, an information librarian, suggested I might like to take a look at Corsica. I booked a holiday with my father to take us round bits of France he'd loved, bits of Italy I'd loved, and to venture for the first time onto Corsican soil. It was a coup de foudre; I was bowled over. But, never one to do anything in a hurry, I did nothing about moving here beyond wistful looks at estate agents' websites until 2009. And, even then, I still had to be patient, as the development I wanted to move into was at that point at the stage of a bulldozer in an unploughed field.

I've been here since July, and it certainly hasn't been plain sailing. I've been without an oven for all that time, and correspondingly ill for most of that time as well. My father, whom I had initially hoped would get to spend the end of his days in the sun here, was too ill for me to cope with and had to return to England after three weeks. I return to England in 10 days time, partly to sort out his finances in an increasingly doomful market, and partly because I am lurching from crisis to crisis of illness and need to be amongst friends, and partly because I need to see a doctor who won't charge the earth and revitalise myself if I'm ever going to make a go of things here. In the meantime, I am hoping that the last rough edges of the flat will be smoothed out.


Follow your dreams. You may find them hard to achieve, and you may find (as I yet may) that they aren't really the dreams you wanted to follow after all, or that some completely immovable object stands in the way of your achieving them. But there's one thing worse that finding that out: and that's the eternal regret of those Two Little Words: What If?


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