For part one, go to Tales for Tim: The Bare Arms weekend #1
My darling Tim
I signed off the last letter about feeling the odd one out. I was feeling alone and sorry for myself and very much out of my depth. And I sat with Jules and I cried about you, about feeling alone, and about being unfit, old, inadequate, afraid, shy, overweight, out of my comfort zone. All my inner demons came out and sat on my shoulder.
But over a glorious shared supper of local food we all started to talk, to learn about each other, to tease and to joke. I also found a fellow petrolhead and talked about motor racing and the joy of classic car racing.
We then went to sit outside the 'pub' – a garden shed with a couple of barrels of rather nice local beer – and I talked about how I had handled the bullets and the tactility, the sound, the smell of it all, the words that had danced in my head. I talked about your synaesthesia and about the amazing conversations we had about words and smells and tastes. The glorious sensory world you lived in. And people listened, joined in, made me feel part of the team. And I realised how wrong I had been. It also made me wonder – how many of us were sitting there thinking that we were the odd one out?
An early night in a pretty room shared with the amazing Kelley, a breakfast of cereal and fruit with fresh local milk that you would have loved, and then back to the classroom. A morning of firearms law, initially so complex that it made my head spin and then it started to fall into place. Civilians can have sporting and hunting rifles and shotguns, as they can't be hidden as easily as handguns, and they have a maximum of three rounds – while they can be lethal, they are not weapons for mass use. Revolvers, pistols, machine guns, and (perhaps not surprisingly) rocket launchers and cannons are more tightly restricted. Weapons for productions and rehearsals are generally real but adapted for blanks and supervised by an armorer.
And then we were handed assault rifles. AR15s. M4s C8s. M16s. Lighter, sharper, looking less like an antique and more like something that means business, but still effectively a bolt-action rifle in a party dress. Why rewrite a 1916 classic.
These are designed to do mass damage – 30 rounds in a magazine and one in the chamber – with an automatic reload fuelled by the exhaust gases from the previous shot. We learned to check the state of the weapon. Safety catch on, remove the magazine, open the bolt and three-point check, and hand it over open. Then ready to go – push the magazine in, a pull to check. It's loaded. Cock it – pull the bolt back and let it go. It's hot, or ready, or cocked, and you have to focus.
Next were the pistols, which are effectively the middle section of an assault rifle. So if the AR15 is a Lee Enfield in a party frock, the Glock is a little black number. Small, sleek, satin black, with the slide at the top that acts as a cocking handle and threatens to take your fingertips when you pull it back and let go if you hold it wrong. Even more so when you fire it. (Sorry, Bags. You told me that almost as often as you told me to take my finger off the trigger. See, I remember it now…)
The Glock is semiautomatic and has no safety catch, as it is designed for rapid fire. Its role is as a primary weapon for the secret services or armed police, and as a secondary weapon for soldiers. Slip the catch (takes practice), load the magazine, pull the slide and let it go to cock the weapon.
Once we were down at the range, we loaded and fired, blanks for the Glock and live shells for the rifle. And I finally got my eye in and hit the target. James Bond has nothing to fear from me, and to be fair the enemy would still get off lightly, but I was so proud of my perforated sheets of paper. And the rifle didn't have the kick of the Lee Enfield, which had left me with an awesome bruise.
Another night chatting in the pub, enjoying the beer and the company. Talking about cars, how writers think in words and dancers think in movement. About the tactility of swimming, feeling the flow of the water. Discussing films. Listening to stories about sets and stages. Enjoying being in a place that was outside of my still very new normal.
And the morning of the last day. What had seemed to stretch far away was suddenly there. We talked about marksmanship and movement. This is all about poise and balance and focusing on breathing. Standing or kneeling or laying in a stable position, with the weapon pointing naturally and without effort, the sight picture correct and movement kept as small as possible. Walking with a weapon needs to be smooth and silent, the head remaining level.
We practiced fast exchanges between a rifle and a pistol. Think John Wick. Aim the rifle, shoot, out of ammunition, turn to the side to check the weapon, down to the hip with the rifle with the left hand and draw the pistol with the right, making it as smooth and fluid. And then loading and firing the pump action shotgun with dummy rounds, bringing out my inner Arnie and leaving me with a grin on my face that disturbed quite a few people…
The whole weekend was a work up to the final scenario, where we had to move through enemy territory and transition between four different guns, three with live rounds. Choregraphed movement has always makes me feel vulnerable and self-conscious. It has been mentioned that I have all the grace of a fairy elephant, and as a child it was suggested that I could trip over a shadow on the ground. It felt like the combination of just before an interview and being picked last for PE. But I did my very best to get inside the mind of my character and the 'mind' of the gun. To move silently and smoothly. To see the jungle and the buildings and the 'bad people' with the guns.
And just before this, the final assault, I leaned over to Jules and said 'For Tim'. Because I wouldn't have dome it if you hadn't persuaded me to.
We began with firing a sniper rifle at a very distant target, and then loading and holstering a semi-automatic and a Glock. Moving and shooting five rounds with the semi-automatic rifle, switching to three rounds with the pistol, and finally picking up an abandoned pump action shotgun and being Rambo. It felt like being inside an impossibly loud computer game. The buzz was incredible. I wouldn't say that I kicked ass but I certainly nudged bottom.
We went through the scenario twice and after the second time I hid in the corner shaking with the adrenaline and weeping silently that I could never tell you about it. But I know that you would have been proud of me. And startled. But mostly proud.
I wondered whether it would make me understand the power of guns and why people feel so empowered by them. But it didn't. It left me with respect for the people who can handle them safely and smoothly, and an understanding of the hours and hours of practice it requires. And respect for the mind of an actor (and of a soldier) that can be fully immersed in the now. I'm not sure how many live rounds I shot, but you will be glad to know that the only blood I saw was when I scraped my finger shifting a piece of scenery.
I am so glad I did this. It gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing and charming professional actors who were very kind and welcoming to this writer and amateur thesp. Thank you to Bags and Al and to all of my fellow Bare Arms students for your patience, humour, talent and encouragement.
And thank you my darling for encouraging me to go. Love you and miss you.
For always, your Suzanne.
The last time I posted, I had run 70k in 2018. I am now up to 130k, so that's six items for the food bank. I have just read a piece in the Guardian that reports on the tragedy of hygiene poverty in primary age children.
According to a survey from the charity In Kind Direct, of the parents who responded, 43% could not afford basic hygiene or cleaning products so went without. Over half of the primary school teachers questioned said that they provided soap, shampoo and washing powder on a weekly basis.
In response, I will be buying shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toilet rolls, wipes and laundry liquid later today for the High Peak Food Bank.
This afternoon I stole an hour from work to plant up a bed I cleared and dug over on Sunday, putting in flowering plants for the bees, and enjoying the rainbows drifting in the spray as I watered the soil. I usually plug myself into a podcast but this time I didn't and that left me space for thinking, something that I often tend to try to avoid these days.
I have done Life v2.0 already. It was when I was in a marriage where I was so low that at one point I wondered whether there was a purpose in me being there any longer. Because if I wasn't, it would mean that my then husband could go off with the women I thought he wanted to be with. And then at least two of the three of us would be happy. I was in a job that made me unhappy as well, but I figured that at least I had a job, which was the one constant in my life. And then I was made redundant. That was me plunged into Life v2.0.
But I was brave enough to leave the marriage, move somewhere new completely on my own, and set up as a freelancer. And then Tim and I got together, after having known each other as friends for many years, and we had eight years of marriage. Those were some of the happiest years of my life. Life v2.1 I guess.
And then he died, and I'm left in the limbo of Life v3.0. I don't want to be here. I liked Life v2.1. I don't know whether there's ever going to be a Life v3.1. But I've decided that if I could be brave before I'm going to be brave again.
And it's not the 'Oh, you are so brave, I don't know how I would cope without [insert name here]'. It's a brave with the stitches showing and the glue not quite set. It's a broken and mended brave. It's a Kintsugi bowl repaired with gold brave, a brave that sees the beauty in the flaws. And while it's a kind of brave that doesn't always withstand a puff of wind, I'm hoping it might be the kind that will stand up to a storm.
Yes. I've been a bit quiet on this. My motivation levels haven't been good and comfort eating has led to me to put back on the six pounds I lost and then add another three, taking me to almost the heaviest I have ever been. But this last week or two I've been trying harder. And as a result I have lost six pounds, so that's another £6 to Diabetes UK
Last time I posted, I had run 30k in 2018. I'm now up to 70k, so that's another four items for the food bank. As it's now warming up, I'm following the recommendation from another food bank and am dropping off four small bottles of sun cream.
My darling Tim.
I think you were as sad as I was when I told you that all my colonies of bees had died. You loved to go and sit near them at the end of a long day, watching them flying in and out. Smiling at the shadows that made them look like incoming planes. Relaxing as they flew on their carefully charted courses.
We would sit and drink coffee and talk and watch the patterns in the sky that their tiny bodies made, and marvel at the amazing colours of the pollen on their back legs. You never liked honey but you loved my bees, and the pleasure they gave me.
You held me when I cried at the loss of the bees. Encouraged me to keep trying. Told me that you'd read that the second year is a hard one for beginning beekeepers. And made me promise to order a new colony, which I did. And that arrives next month.
But last month I got a surprise message. Someone from the High Peak bee group had a spare colony. And so a beekeeper friend came over from Sheffield to help me clear out the boxes, and see if we could work out what had happened.
It looks like the little swarm, the one I picked up from the allotment clinging to a gooseberry bush, was just too small to survive. The next colony along was isolation starvation, where they had got through the stores close by and had just been too cold, or not brave enough, to venture further. They were all clustered around their queen, trying to save her to the last. The third colony, where the rain and the storm had got in, had plenty of stores but had just got too chilled and wet. And the fourth colony – well, I'm just not sure. We couldn't see why. It could have been varroa. Or the cold. Or an infection. Or simply bad luck. It was a tough winter, this year.
I'm going to drive over to the High Peak tomorrow to pick up the colony in the little green nuc box. Drive home to the sound of gently buzzing bees, and put them in a new spot in the garden, to see if they will get better sun there.
I'm going to clean and paint the hives on the next warm day. Ready for the two new colonies. And take down two trees to give them more sun. I'm sorry. I know you loved trees, but I promise I will replace them with native trees full of flowers for the bees.
I couldn't tell the bees that you'd gone, because I'd lost them all over the winter. But I will tell the new colonies about you.
All my love
Everyone has a comfort zone. Everyone steps outside their comfort zone sometimes. Well, I've just been so far outside of my comfort zone that I think I ended up approaching it from the other side. I've come back from one of the most demanding and exhilarating weekends of my life, a firearms for theatricals course with the incredibly patient and proficient people at Bare Arms. I am bruised and exhausted and amazed. But… the hardest thing was not being able to report it all to Tim. So my friend Carrie suggested that I write it as if I was telling him. And call it Tales for Tim.
My darling Tim
You remember that night I called Jules to see how he was, and ended up sitting on the stairs talking through a sticky plot point in his latest screenplay for an hour. And he told me about the crazy drama firearms training course he was going on. And I said it sounded fun. And he said that there was a spare place on it. And I decided that it was too scary and too expensive, and you persuaded me to go for it. You said it would be good for me, an amazing experience, and a chance to spend an entire weekend with Jules. Well. I've just come back from it. Amazed and dazed and bruised and exhausted and still giddy on adrenaline two days later.
After Thursday working in Manchester and a drive down to Dorset via every single set of roadworks in the entire UK I emerged blinking into the night, at Monkton Wyld Court, once a Victorian rectory for a country vicar and his brood of many children and now a sustainable living centre. And accommodation location for 7 actors, an am-dram actor-cum-writer, Ben, an ex-Army officer, and Al, an RAF officer. I'm not sure that the nice people who were there to volunteer in the grounds or attend a shamanic course in the village hall quite knew what had hit them.
Friday started with theory. Well actually, Friday started with the indignity of being the only person who couldn't fit into a Bare Arms boiler suit after being told that they fitted everyone, but we will park that one there. Suffice to say at that point I wanted to go home. But I didn't. I knew you would be cross with me if I did.
So – Friday started with theory. How guns work. What the parts of a gun are (leaving me with 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed dancing in my head). What is (and isn't) a bullet. What makes up a shell, and how it fires. And the science and engineering part of me loved it. And then the writer part took over – while the others went for a coffee, I felt the weight and coolness of the shells and noted how they warmed up in my hand. Looked at the colours of the copper bullet jacket and the brass shell case. Smelled the whiff of cordite, tasted the tang of copper on my fingers, bitter like the smell of pennies. Heard the sound the shells made as they rolled together in my hand. What would your synesthetic brain make of the sounds and the words?
Next – the Lee-Enfield. Or to give it its full name, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle. This appeared on our desks, bigger and heavier that certainly I expected. The guns were World War I vintage, and the wood was smooth with handling, pitted with use. The shell – I keep on wanting to call it a bullet, and I know it's wrong – was large, heavy, pointed. Designed to do damage. We practiced loading and unloading, hearing the satisfying click as the bullets – no – shells pushed down from the clip into the magazine, making ready, the feeling as the bolt pulled up, back, forward, down, chambering the shell, making the gun hot, ready to fire. The reassurance of the safety catch. And all of this with dummies, but we knew that next it would be for real.
We learned how to be safe around guns. How dangerous even blank firing guns are. How to recognise the state of a gun and make it safe. Safety catch on, magazine off, shell ejected from the chamber. Three point check. And yes I know you know all of this, but let me show off a little my newly-learned skills.
Finally, we headed down into the range, a road tunnel left derelict after the building of a bypass and now made into The Tunnel shooting centre. Surreally, the road's centre markings still run down the middle of the 100 m shooting range. And then we got busy. Learning how to hold the guns. Where to tuck them into our shoulders. Aiming standing, kneeling, lying prone, always with the gun ready. Surrounded by actors from their 20s upwards, martial arts experts, dancers (both ballet and pole), lithe and fit, I felt every bit of my 50-year-old size 18 body protesting – however fit I am as a runner, my flexibility and lack of upper body strength was slowing me down. And yes – I can hear you – I just haven't lifted enough boxes of books lately.
And then we were handed shells. The target was an orange sheet with a German soldier of dubious vintage, with a pointy hat, a bayonet and a dodgy moustache. I loaded with slightly shaky hands, made the gun ready, and lay down on the floor in an approximation of the position I had been shown. Wedged the rifle into my shoulder and squinted down the sights, completely wrongly, as it turned out later. Slipped the safety catch and squeezed the trigger as gently as I could. I felt the shot deep in my gut and the recoil hard into my shoulder, enough to bruise. Heard it through the heavy ear defenders. Smelled the cordite and tasted the rusty tang of blood where I had bitten my lip. Four shots prone. Two shots kneeling, two shots standing. Ben patiently talking us through it. Shell cases falling to the ground with a metallic tinkle. And my status as a pacifist is confirmed. I missed every time. As I said to the proper actors, I'm just there to make them look good. But I have now handled and fired a gun for the first time in my life.
And there were some tears in the quiet. For feeling the odd one out. For missing the target. But most of all for not being able to call you and tell you what I had done.
Love you for always and miss you for ever
From the website of the High Peak food bank:
Food we always need includes: UHT milk; tins of vegetables, meat, fish, tomatoes, puddings and fruit; pasta sauce; rice; biscuits; breakfast cereals; shrink wrap beetroot; dried potato; packet soups; just add water meals; tea; coffee; dried puddings and baby food/milk.
We also need: toiletries, toilet roll, deodorant, shampoo, soap, nappies, baby wipes, household cleaning products etc.
And sanitary towels and tampons are useful things to add too.
My husband Tim died suddenly and unexpectedly in February 2018 from complications linked with his type 2 diabetes. Effectively, his heart just stopped. I always said that he was the centre of my turning world; the spot of calm in my hectic life. And his death has left me floundering. I am now trying to rebuild my life without that centre, and it's hard. It's not even day by day – sometimes its hour by hour, or even minute by minute. And it's early days. The journey has barely even started, and I suspect that it won't ever actually finish.
My work as a science writer is helping. My mantra, when the world has gone odd and sideways, has always been "I'm going back to my desk to write about science; I understand that." And I have started running again. During 2017, I ran over 650 km and raised more than £1600 for Cancer Research UK. I think there were times Tim wondered who this running-obsessed alien was that had stolen his wife. But he was so proud of me.
Type 2 diabetes is more than just an inconvenience. It's a killer. It reduces your life expectancy by an average of ten years. It increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease, and cancer. It can leave you blind. One of the biggest risk factors of diabetes is obesity, which puts me right in the frame. Despite being pretty fit, my current BMI is 32.4, which means that I am obese.
For me, obesity isn't as a result of me having a poor relationship with food. It's as a result of having a close, loving and dear relationship with food, particularly crisps, prosecco, cheese and chocolate. But for many people out there, obesity is a result of poverty. Food poverty is worsening in the UK – between April and September 2017, The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network handed out 586,907 three day emergency food supplies, compared with 519,342 during the same period the previous year – and 208,956 of these went to children. More than one in 10 adults and almost 1 in 4 parents with children aged 18 and under are skipping meals because of lack of money.
I have worked to deadlines for my whole career, and it's deadlines and goals that give me structure. And so I am giving myself some goals for this year. One is to lose weight, so that I cut my diabetes risk. And the other is to donate to food banks, to help support those in food poverty. For every pound I lose I will donate a pound to Diabetes UK. And for every 10k I run in 2018, I will donate a food item to High Peak Food Bank.
As I said, this year will be step by step. But some of those steps will be helping others, which I think Tim would have liked.
PS - 30 km completed so far in 2018 - so first three items donated today.
I'm late planting the bulbs this year. They should have gone in before Christmas and as I won't have time to prepare the beds until next week, I'm putting them into large pots to give them a head start, just in case the weather and the workload pushes it all back again.
The bulbs are a gift from my sister, to provide early feed for my bees. That is perhaps why I have put off the planting, as the storm last month ripped apart one hive and left two chilled into silence. Sad heaps of tiny bodies already breaking down into the soil. The bees I nurtured, gone to the Derbyshire winter, the challenge of nature, and perhaps, to my regret, the novice's mistakes.
I try not to anthropomorphise. They are livestock, neither wild animals nor pets, simply a flying flock to manage and harvest, much as people keep chickens for eggs or a pig for the winter larder. Feed and medicate. Provide housing. But in reality it does go deeper than that.
I knew the colouring of the three different colonies; could recognise them as they foraged on flowers as I walked around the village. I photographed them as they drank, balanced on moss in an old cutlery tray. I watched them fly in and out of the hive on a summer evening. I studied them when they landed on my gloved fingers, felt the warmth and breathed in deep as I opened up their dark, honey-scented hives.
And so I have mourned my bees.
The skins of the bulbs are delicate, papery. They rustle as I drop them into my hand, and scraps of pale brown drift down onto the darker compost like miniature drifts of autumn leaves. Tiny shoots of cream and pale yellowish-green poke blindly out of the tops of the bulbs, pushing towards the daylight.
I push the bulbs into compost, soft and dark, smelling of fruitcake and autumn, and the tiny shoots make me think of spring. And so I'm going to begin again.
The fourth colony still clings on. These were rescued from a gooseberry bush in the local allotments, a cluster of brown and yellow buzzing softly and clinging onto a branch. The queen a lighter shade, longer and fatter, surrounded safe in the depth of the colony, both protecting and protected. The cluster fizzing like champagne in my hands as I scooped it into its new home. And hopefully these will make it through to the spring.
A new colony arrives in May, from a breeder in the Peak District hills this time rather than the lower lands of South Yorkshire. And perhaps another swarm will make its way to the empty hives, which will still smell of last year's bee and wax and honey and summer to a queen and her scouts seeking a new home.
And the garden will be full of the scent of my late-planted bulbs.