Archie, The Little Suitcase Who Could


Eight and a half years ago, one December day in Cape Town, I welcomed you into my life.  Since then, you and I have had many wonderful adventures together.  We have been on many work trips away, but lots of fun times too.  We have travelled all over the country, and across the world.  Always you have been happy and eager to see what was waiting round the next corner, and excited for the next adventure.  You have been my constant, reliable, and cheerful companion, rattling along next to me with reassuring solidity and the promise of adventure.

Archie, with his happy smiling face

There was the time we got snowed into Belfast and I had to leave you there over Christmas because I wasn’t confident I could get you home in the snow.  I felt so guilty leaving you, but your happy, smiling face was waiting for me in January and I was so pleased to see you.

We have had so many fantastic nights away with friends.  I would pack you with excitement, and you’d carry pretty dresses, shoes and make up with ease.  For a while, when my life was different, we only did fun stuff together, but recently there have been more work trips.

You have been practically perfect in every way.  Your Mary Poppins-like interior holds a huge amount.  Your inner pockets are just so.  The secret space in your lid has held many emergency books and sets of work papers.  You nestle into overhead lockers like a pea in a pod, with your smiling face waiting to greet me the moment I open the door.  I can push or pull you with equal ease.  You helped me smuggle knitting projects  on flights before the security rules were relaxed and it was allowed again.

But you are showing your age, every scuff on your exterior a mark of the time we have spent together.  I’ve had to reluctantly make the decision to retire you.

A few weeks ago, the mechanism for your telescoping handle jammed.  It had been sticking increasingly frequently, but every time previously a determined jiggle would free it up.  Not this time.  I had to carry you back from Leicester, cradled in my arms like a child.  No amount of WD40 has been able to fix you.

Last week I went shopping for a new suitcase.  It felt like I was being unfaithful to you, walking around the shop looking at all the other suitcases and assessing what they had to offer.   Trying to imagine spending time with them in the way that I have done with you.  None of them were right, either.  Too flimsy, too ugly, and the wrong arrangement of pockets inside.  I came to the crushing realisation that I will never be able to replace you.  You are unique.

This week I go away on business, and I will take my new suitcase with me.  But every time I look at it I will feed sad.  Because it’s not you.

In Memoriam: The Contessa

There are some firsts in life that one hopes one will never have to experience.  But ten days ago I had to go through one of them.  We had to take my beloved cat to the vets for the final time.

IMG_0834I’ve written before about how the Contessa came to live with me, about ten and a half years ago.  Over that time she became in integral part of our home, beloved by friends and family alike.  We both knew that the time would have to come at some point when we would have to say goodbye, and that it would probably be sooner rather than later, but that has not made it any easier.

By the end, the Contessa was an old girl with kidney problems, a heart murmur and had gone deaf.  But right up to the last fortnight she lived in that indeterminate middle age that cats have, where she was playful and affectionate and interested in everything.

We still don’t know what happened.  The vet thinks she may have eaten something that poisoned her, and although she shook that off after a brief stay with them, she didn’t have enough reserves left to get properly better.  The vet warned us we would just have to look after her as best we could for however long she had left.

Watching her fade away was incredibly hard.  Coming home each day we had no idea how she would be or if she would still be with us.  Finally, overnight on 15 December she told us it was time and we took her to the vets for the final time early on the morning of 16 December.

Losing her has been a bitter blow.  It feels like the heart has been ripped out of our home, and that I have lost a part of myself.  For the first three years it was pretty much just the two of us and her ever-purring company was a buffer against the loneliness of living far away from home and loved ones.  (As my mother said, she adopted me when I was in need, just as I much as I adopted her.)  But she thrived and prospered when we moved back to London (apart from the plane journey, which she hated) and we built our life and home around her.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpourings of love and support from family and friends over the last ten days.  I think it’s a mark of how special she was that she is remembered with love by so many people.  She was always the life and soul of any party, demanding attention and treats, often loudly and with menaces.

In time there will be room in our hearts for other cats (and there are lots of other cats who need homes, just as much as she did when she first came to me), but for now I have only sorrow and many, many happy memories.

Seeing the world through fresh eyes

There’s something wonderful about spending time with small children. Everything is new and fresh, encountered for the first time. It makes even a jaded townie like me appreciate the things around me. I’m lucky enough to be the aunt to two brilliant nieces. When they came to stay a couple of weeks ago, it was the perfect excuse to head out and see some of the sights. 

We had a packed day, including a trip to a very crowded Natural History Museum. 

The gallery on the human body was particularly popular with the girls. It was one of those galleries full of interactive exhibits, and the fairground mirrors were a particular favourite. 


They also loved the geology sections, with their focus on volcanoes and gemstones. 


It was wonderful to spend some time with them. I see them less often than I’d like, living in a different city. But I’m hoping that as they get a bit older there will be more trips to London that will let Auntie Caro take them out and spoil them. 

Dietrich, The Contessa Fluffinski

Ten years ago today …

“There’s no sign of a microchip.  What do you want to do?”

I looked at the vet, and then into the fathomless eyes of one of the most beautiful cats I’d ever seen.  “Well,  I think she’s mine then,” I said.

Who could resist that face?
About six weeks before I’d been sat in my garden enjoying a rare day of good weather.  It was the kind of day that made me miss Breakfast, my old cat, who’d gone missing about six months previously.  While I’d been sat out soaking up the sunshine he’d have been popping in and out of the shrubs in the garden and investigating the nooks and crannies behind the oil tank.  But I had no plans to replace him.  I was travelling a lot at the time (for work and pleasure) and it wouldn’t be fair on a cat.

Then this cat I’d never seen before wandered into my garden.  She was black and white, skinny as a rake and her long hair was dirty and matted.  She wasn’t wearing a collar.  She came over to me, looked me in the eyes and miaowed, before twining round my ankles.  After an extended scratch behind the ears she rolled over and insisted I rub her tummy.  She had the loudest purr I’d ever heard.


The evening was drawing in, so I picked up my deckchair and went into the house.  Cat up and followed me indoors.  I don’t normally encourage strange cats (the last thing I would want to do is to cause distress by ‘stealing’ someone else’s pet) but this one looked in such a poor way that I opened a tin of tuna for her.  She polished it all off, and then collapsed in an exhausted sleep in the corner of my sitting room.  This was not the normal light doze you get with cats – it was a very heavy sleep.  It got to 10pm and I wanted to go to bed, so I reluctantly woke her and put her outside.

IMG_0914The following night I got home from work and as it was a lovely evening I opened the patio doors to let some air into the house.  Cat immediately walked in, as if she owned the place.

I spent the next six weeks trying to track down her owners, with no luck.  During that time she’d pretty much permanently moved in with me.  (Except for the week I went away on holiday, came back, and she was waiting for me.)  Taking her to the vets to see if she was microchipped was the only other thing I could think of to do.


In the last ten years she’s been my constant furry companion.  We’ve moved house twice, one of those moves across the Irish Sea (she didn’t like flying, it’s fair to say).  For a large part of those ten years it was just the two of us   She’d be the one greeting me as I came home from work, walking back with me along the road, chattering about her day.  She’s a very clingy cat, who suffers from separation anxiety and doesn’t tolerate other cats well (the epic wars with Ginger Cat and Tabby Cat are legendary).  But I’ve seen her blossom from a cat who shrunk from other people to one who loves being the centre of attention whenever we have people round.

The day she sat on my lap
The day she sat on my lap
For all her clinginess, in the last ten years she’s only ever sat on my lap twice.  Both of those times were on the same day, when I was off work with an injured shoulder.  And they were very brief.  Most of the rest of the time she will snuggle next to me on the sofa, purring her little heart out.

She can be a pain sometimes.  She has a habit of knocking things off the coffee table if she thinks she’s not getting enough attention.  She will behave appallingly if she thinks treats are in the offing.  And her idea of treats is not what many people would think is appropriate for a cat: Eccles cakes, pain au chocolat, cheese and onion crisps, mushrooms, scones etc.  Her desire for fuss is not always welcome at 4.30am, however much she may poke me in the face.  Her long hair means the house ends up covered in tumbleweeds of cat fluff.  And don’t get me started on the furballs.

“I have no idea how all these packets of treats ended up on the floor.”
One of my friends is even convinced she is a space alien, disguised as a cat while she scopes out the planet before her civilisation invades.

But I wouldn’t be without her.  She’s the most brilliant cat I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet (which is saying something), and I love her dearly.

A typical day of English sporting achievement

Yesterday we went to the cricket at Lord’s.  I got tickets for some fantastic seats via someone I know, and we were very lucky to do so.  Tickets for the Ashes, particularly at the Home of Cricket, are highly sought after*.  (When I told my father I’d got tickets he went ominously quiet on the phone.)

The view from our seats – Jimmy Anderson bowling one of the first overs of the day

It wasn’t really a day to celebrate England’s performance.  (We lost.  Embarrassingly.  By the end we were ironically cheering every England run.)  But it was a fabulous day out and the weather was amazing.


The hated enemy, coming in from early practice on the Nursery Ground.

One of the great things about going to Lord’s is how civilised it is.  It’s probably the only major sporting venue that encourages you to bring your own food, provides you with a nice space to eat it in and lets you bring in your own booze^.  So, when Australia declared shortly before lunch, we decamped to the Nursery Ground.  Along with everybody else.  We watched the last couple of overs on the giant screen while eating our picnic and drinking a rather lovely Macon Lugny.

Picnics on a crowded Nursery Ground.

While the match wasn’t all it could have been, we certainly had a great day.  And I made great progress on baby cardigan no 2.

*For those who don’t know, the Ashes is the world’s least impressive sporting trophy, measuring a mere six inches in height.  But it represents one of the bitterest rivalries in sport.

^Limited to one bottle of wine per person, obviously.

In Memoriam: Private Richard Milligan

100 years ago today, Private Richard Milligan, the man we believe is my great-grandfather, died of wounds sustained at Gallipoli.  He was 30 years old and his mother lived in Portadown.  We know very little more about him than that.  He was killed before my grandmother was born, and wasn’t married to my great-grandmother.  But we think (from his low service number and the regiment’s history) that he was a professional soldier rather than a Great War volunteer.

The 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were recalled from India in late 1914, arriving back in January 1915.  Not long after, they took ship for Malta (for training) and then on to Gallipoli where they were part of the assault on X Beach and then Helles in late April and early May 1915.  My grandmother was born in October 1915.  You can do the maths.

My pregnant great-grandmother returned to the family farm in Co Fermanagh, probably as a ‘war widow’, like so many other women of the period.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like to bring up a child in rural Ireland as a single mother during one of the most unstable periods in Irish history: the Easter Rising and its aftermath, the 1918 General Election, Partition and the Irish Civil War.  What we do know, is that she had my grandmother adopted at the age of 7 (in 1922/23) so that she could get married.  Her husband didn’t want to take on another man’s child and my grandmother had to live with that rejection by her own mother all her life.

Because of that complex history, these family connections to the Great War are still relatively new to the family.  They’ve been pieced together by my mother’s family from bits of oral history and the limited records we have available.  That process is still ongoing, but made more complicated by the adoption (which may have actually been a fostering brokered by the Church of Ireland, rather than a formal, legal adoption), the lack of records (including those that may have been destroyed by fire at the Four Courts in Dublin in 1922) and the historic silence about military service by Irish people during the Great War and WW2.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with formal acts of remembrance.  As a child, I was made to go to Remembrance Sunday church parades.  I had to stand in the November cold in my Guide uniform with no coat, while some people talked at the local cenotaph out of earshot.  The whole thing seemed to come bound up with a sense of “we’re better than you” entitlement from former soldiers rather than  genuine solemnity or acts of remembrance of sacrifices made.

It’s something I’ve come back to as an adult, in part as a consequence of living somewhere for a while where wearing a poppy was a deliberate and extremely political act.  I choose to wear mine for deeply personal reasons: for the soldiers I have known professionally, and for the great-grandfather none of us knew.  So today I shall be remembering him.

Passing on craft skills

Craft skills have always been an important part of my heritage. Both sides of my family have practiced crafts, and many relatives have made their livings that way. I have aunts who were florists and seamstresses, and my father is a mechanical engineer by trade. As an apprentice he had to make his own tools from scratch, and they are beautiful things: smooth curves of burnished metal. 

My mother was always making something while I was growing up, and she made most of my clothes when I was very small.  The hems were always let down as I grew until finally a strip of wide lace would be sewn onto the hem to eke a last bit of usable life out of a dress or skirt. She taught me to knit when I was seven years old. She still has the first thing I made somewhere. It’s a Tom Baker Doctor Who scarf. It starts off with a wobbly edge, gets narrower as my tension has the death-like grip of a new learner, before loosening drastically. The stitch count varies wildly as I inadvertently create and lose stitches, and it’s full of random holes. But my skills grow along with its length and it settles into something recognisable as a scarf. My mother also taught me basic dressmaking skills on her ancient Singer. The first thing I made was a skirt. Two rectangles seamed down the sides and gathered into a simple elasticated waistband (exactly the method I used to make the skirt for my Nyssa costume last summer). With such a basic machine (it only did straight stitch) I also had to learn a lot of basic hand sewing skills: neatening raw edges, invisible hemming, setting in zips by hand and making button loops. 

Craft skills are something that it is difficult to learn from a book. They are handed down teacher to learner, often within families, or between friends. Famously, there is one style of embroidery – Mountmellick – that nearly died out.  It went out of fashion and the knowledge of how to do it wasn’t passed on.   Eventually, the only person who knew how to do it was a former nun living in a nursing home in Ireland. The style only survives because someone took the time to sit with her and learn it, before passing that on to other embroiderers. 
Yesterday, as part of a series of wellbeing themed events at work, I had the opportunity to do my own part in passing on craft skills to others by teaching some colleagues to knit. My excuse was the wide range of evidence out there showing the beneficial effects of any type of crafting on stress levels, mental health and, in the longer term, staving off mental decline. But mostly I just wanted to share the joy of creating. 

I assembled some needles and small balls of leftover yarn, and pulled together a small display of finished items, yarn and pattern books and magazines. Over an hour and a half, and with the help of a fellow knitter, we taught people to cast on and knit. For the whole of that time there was intense concentration in the room and not a word was spoken about work. There was that wonderful buzz that comes from creativity and learning and accomplishing something new. 

What did I learn from this? The joy of passing on skills to others. And that both teaching and learning can be exhausting…