Giving birth to an elephant… Part 3. And a very Happy New Year #gettingpublished

SOUND THE CLAXON! STOP THE PRESS! ALERT THE NEIGHBOURS! It’s finally happened. I wriggle myself around, piss on a stick, and there it is: a double line flashing before my eyes. Me and the attractive, mysterious bull elephant are EXPECTING!

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IT’S A BULL!!!

In writing terms, this means that the once unknown, faceless gatekeeper to my literary dreams who expressed an early interest in my submission… loves it. SHE LOVES IT! She believes in my story, and – guess what – she has invited me to travel down to the posh publishing house in a swanky part of London town to MEET HER! OH. MY. GOD. What will I do? What will I say? What will she be like? Will she like me? More importantly, will she like my bull elephant, when she meets him in person? I just don’t know.

It feels like being invited for a personal meeting with Mr Wonka at his infamous chocolate factory – the real one – not some shitty Cadbury World Birmingham-based alternative which doesn’t even have a chocolate river (*although I have been, and it is actually quite good.) This one has an Egg Room with genuine golden-egg producing geese, a full Oompa Loompa workforce, and – she assures me – the world famous everlasting gobstopper. All these could potentially be mine, subject to the whims of Mr Wonka, of course.

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Willy Wonka’s factory… this is not.

I gather up my Yorkshire raincoat and the three of us – my bull elephant, my raincoat and I – pile onto the Grand Central Halifax-to-King Cross direct train one nerve-racking Thursday morning.

I am on my way to the chocolate factory to meet Mr Wonka.

I don’t see or hear anything on the train. I don’t notice the chatter, or where/when the train stops to collect more miserable commuter passengers. I don’t have any interest in the buffet cart, or the on-board restaurant facilities. I don’t even care for the half-price Kit-Kat offer when purchased with an overpriced hot drink. All I care about is getting to London, finding the posh publishing house, and meeting Mr Wonka.

I finally arrive at the swanky destination on King’s Road in Chelsea. I can feel small beads of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as I feign calmness and inform the suited gentleman at the desk of my appointment.

‘Lovely. Just take the lift to the 3rd Floor, Madam,’ he tells me. ‘The publishing house reception is just on your right.’

I shoehorn the three of us into the centrally-placed small glass elevator, and as we slowly begin to ascend, I peer down onto the shrinking reception desk, below. Shit. Did he say the 3rd or 4th floor? I wasn’t listening, and so I’ve pressed the number 4 on the elevator wall without thinking. The doors ping open, and of course it’s wrong. I think I can pick up the faintest whiff of my own body odour as my Yorkshire raincoat struggles to make it back into the lift before the doors close again, trapping a sleeve. Oh, Jesus. It can’t happen like this. No – not like this.

I’m overly sprightly, and vaguely reminiscent of a children’s TV presenter when I introduce myself at the publishing house’s reception. Thankfully, most people are still out on their lunch break. I gawp around me at the funky surroundings, and glance down to my Yorkshire raincoat. It looks dreary and unexciting in the uber-trendy, unfamiliar setting. And I can see the George label clearly sticking out of the collar. ‘I’m standing here in this chic, stylish, literary dream factory carrying a raincoat from fucking Asda,’ I briefly berate myself, wondering if I should slyly dump it in the loo before finally meeting the literary version of Mr Wonka in approximately 25 seconds’ time. But I have my sensible head on – it may be chilly on the long trek back home to Yorkshire. Plus, it was £35, and I’m not one for waste…

Meanwhile, my bull elephant has made himself at home. He has settled on one of the striking Union Jack comfy sofas placed conveniently next to the Jenga-style display of recent glossy publications. He doesn’t seem remotely phased by the fact that these appear to be mostly CELEBRITY non-fiction books. He is unflustered as he sits cross-legged and casually flicks through the pages of a millionaire racing driver’s autobiography. I can’t believe it – he looks to be entirely… comfortable, here.

Mr Wonka eventually arrives back from lunch, and I begin to breathe for the first time since 10.19am this morning. We head out onto the King’s Road high street, and I don’t know which words are coming out of my mouth, or in what order. It feels like a first date, or meeting the Queen, only far more important than that.

We sit down in the exquisite boutique restaurant with fairy lights adorning all available space, and Mr Wonka talks gently and calmly to me and my elephant. He looks kindly upon the bulbous grey mass before him, and makes no mention of the misshapen left earlobe, or his particular shade of grey. He even appears to look fondly upon him, as though I am merely the vehicle by which he has happened across this – what I also consider to be – rather attractive beast.

And it is then that I know.

My bull elephant and I must work with this Editor. We both instantly love her, because she understands us. She sees past our flaws, and to the very heart of who we are, and why we are here.  We talk and talk, and she asks us both many questions. I’m proud of my bull elephant as he sits and holds his own in the swanky King’s Road eating establishment. He’s come a long way since the MacDonald’s car park, where we sat and wept together just a few months earlier.

I have a strong feeling that this is it. I don’t yet know of the two-month nervous wait we will have to endure before an offer for publication is made in November 2016, or the subsequent year – yes, a full year – of a thousand different editing processes. I’m entirely unaware of the journey that will unfold, and the endless hours of reading and re-reading over 80,000 of my own words for the seven hundredth time. I’m oblivious to the fact that I will write and edit the book in Tenerife, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Mallorca, and in myriad Costa coffee shops within a ten-mile radius of our Yorkshire home. In fact, my bull elephant and I will travel everywhere together. We will eat, sleep, and breathe the same air for the next 12 months, until we virtually morph into one another.

Similarly, I cannot even begin to imagine what my bull elephant will become. I can’t possibly know that he will turn heads, and people will begin to notice him. I have no concept, yet, of the amount of love for my bull elephant, as he nonchalantly swings his legs under the table amidst the twinkling fairy lights and sips his San Pellegrino through a straw. He doesn’t know it either, but he will appear in national newspapers and magazines; he will pose for photo shoots; he will be invited onto the television and radio, and asked, ‘Could you please tell us exactly how you have transformed yourself into the elephant we see before us, today?’

But Mr Wonka sees it all. His eyes can envisage the journey long before we can.

As we pack up to leave, Mr Wonka turns to us and says in his hypnotising, soft tones, ‘Congratulations to the pair of you…’

The expected due date is 11th January 2018.

You can pre-order a copy here… Running For My Life, by Rachel Ann Cullen

*And the great glass elevator in the publishing house? I’m planning on busting through the ceiling in it, next time…

All of the above will magically transform into this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Giving birth to an elephant Part 2… or is it a giraffe?? #writingabook

It’s a Tuesday morning in early March 2016. I’ve just come off the treadmill at the gym, as I need to keep even the smallest amount of headspace from my attractive bull elephant other half. It was very intense at the beginning of our courtship, but this relationship needs to be sustainable – we’re both in it for the long-haul – and so normality resumes as best it can.

I stroll back to the changing room with the slightest whiff of smugness, having ticked off my dreaded speed session. Phew! Thank God that’s over. Job done. I reach for my IPhone from inside the locker, and without thinking, I click on the ‘mail’ icon in the bottom right hand corner. I find myself doing this on average ten times every fifteen minutes over any 23-hour period (I leave one hour for uninterrupted sleep), just to see how the universe is responding – or not – to the story of me and my elephant. I don’t honestly expect to see anything different from the other 160 times I have already checked since 6am this morning, but this is how habits are formed (having undertaken some light research, I discover that this process is called ‘chunking’ – where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.)

I am now a chunker. I chunk.

And there it is. The Email. It reads:

Dear Rachel

We’re attracted to this submission. It has a lot of promise but it also needs some re-writing and re-ordering. On the plus side, it has a fierce energy and a raw honesty, absolutely no preaching, and we relate to a woman who finds and saves herself by running.”

WHAT? FUCKING WHAT?? I take a screen shot of The Email and, with shaking hands, I ping it over to Gav. But I can’t wait the ten nanoseconds for his reply, and so I immediately pick up the phone.

‘They like it!’ I scream to him down the phone, as the woman drying her crotch in front of me with what appears to be a shrunken tea-towel no longer exists in my reality: it is just me, Gav, my bull elephant, and The Email. ‘They fucking like it!’ I repeat, as if to begin the whole process of opening the euphoric email again, just to indulge myself, and relive the precise moment when my relationship with the attractive bull elephant was at least acknowledged by the universe as existing – like it mattered.

I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the prospect that somebody, somewhere, sees some vague potential in my beloved bull elephant, and that they may think he’s beautiful, too.

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This isn’t the actual selfie, but you get the gist…

Outside the gym, I take a selfie as evidence to Gav, and myself, of this monumental turning point. I check the selfie once more before pinging it across to Gav on WhatsApp. But my ridiculous, euphoric smile isn’t what I see. Instead, an ethereal glow radiates from the photograph. It is the unadulterated joy of potential: of what might be. This person – the one who has typed out the precise words expressing their ‘attraction’ to my submission – is now The Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper to my dreams.

Emails are exchanged, and over the coming weeks and months, a dialogue develops between the two of us.

‘Dear Rachel. We think that maybe your elephant might benefit from a slight makeover. Would it be possible, do you think, for him to work out a little, and to lose a small amount of weight?

Yes, I guess that’s possible. Although I do like his chunky thighs…

‘And he seems a little… grey to us. Would you consider adorning him in some brighter, funkier outfits, perhaps?’

I look over at my elephant who is sitting quietly, reading a book about self-acceptance on the sofa. Hmmmm, I think to myself, imagining my bull elephant dressed up like Timmy Mallet. I happen to quite like that shade of grey…

‘And finally, if we are to proceed with your submission, we will need you to take drastic action with your elephant’s ears. They are too flappy, and there is a small, misshapen chunk missing from the left lobe. Without a doubt, comprehensive reconstructive surgery will be required.’

I look again, and my heart sinks. I love my elephant. I love his colour, and his misshapen, flappy ears. I love the essence of him, and I don’t want him to undergo major cosmetic surgery to morph into a non-grey, neon version of himself that I no longer recognise. That’s not to say that certain improvements can’t be made and aren’t necessary, even (I totally know that they are) but I suddenly realise: it’s not my elephant they want at all. In fact, they don’t even want an elephant.

They want a giraffe dressed up as Timmy Mallet.

With the heartbreak of this realisation, we part ways, and they wish me and my beautiful bull elephant the best of luck on our continuing journey. I sit in the car and cry, because fleetingly I wonder, ‘Why couldn’t you be a giraffe who looks like Timmy Mallet? Why do you have to be a big old lump of grey elephant with misshapen ears?’ I think about the point of our relationship. Where are we going? And why? Do I really love him like I once thought I did? Do I believe in him – and in myself – enough to think that we could make it work? Salty tears roll down my cheeks and plop onto my hi-vis jacket as I ponder our future together. And then my self-indulgent woe is broken by the voice of a small child sitting in the back of the car.

‘Don’t cry, Mummy,’ she says. ‘It’ll be OK. Please don’t cry.’

You see, we have just finished Junior Parkrun, and only now – sitting in MacDonald’s car park at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning – have I allowed the weight of emotion to wash over me and to temporarily break me, whilst my daughter sits and watches, draining the contents of a blackcurrant Fruit Shoot, from her booster seat in the back.

‘It’s OK, Tills,’ I tell her, half laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene. ‘I’m OK. Honestly I am.’

How can I possibly explain to her how much this means to me; about the Joy of Potential, and the Gatekeeper to my Dreams? She frequently sees me sitting and tapping away on my MacBook Pro keyboard. She sees the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 take permanent residency on the small colouring table in our front room, and yet she has no idea that this is all for her. This is her story as much as it is mine; this is her elephant, and she will inherit all of it – whether she likes it or not.

I dry my exhausted tears and I commit once again to finding a home for my beautifully imperfect bull elephant.

We’re back to square one. Each submission is a masterpiece in itself: carefully crafted to the idiosyncrasies of the respective gatekeepers. I haven’t been through this process for a good few months, whilst I tried to bend and shape, flex and contort my bull elephant into the ill-fitting guise of a fluorescent giraffe. But I haven’t sold him out, and I haven’t sold my soul. For that, I am at least grateful.

I’m only at ‘B’ in my Encyclopedia of Hope, and I happen across a publishing house called ‘Blink Publishing’. I do my usual research on the internet, and I am unable to cross this off my list of potentials despite being overwhelmed with magnitude. These are big hitters – the real deal. They publish many incredible non-fiction, autobiographical books for the rich and famous, but I won’t be intimidated. I dig a bit deeper, and I discover a wealth of evidence to support this being a potential loving and nurturing home for my bull elephant. I swallow hard at the prospect of sending a snap-shot of my blundering, grey, scraggy-eared, unpolished bull to the appointed gatekeeper of said publishing house. But I think back to the encouraging words of Giraffe Random House and the early indications I have received of our potential, and I know I must.

It is now early August 2016, and I send my very best effort – an entirely filtered portrait of my bull elephant to the fancy publishing house. He is standing at an angle, thereby disguising the misshapen left earlobe, and the filter I have selected makes him appear to be more of a silvery grey than the miserable, rainy day, murky colour that he is.

I press ‘send’ and I know I couldn’t have done any more. The rest is down to good fortune, and the will of the universe.

One week goes by, and I hear nothing. I’ve hardened up emotionally since the trauma of the MacDonald’s car park pathetic fallacy scene. I simply must accept that this might be a long, or even endless journey. There may be another thousand condescending rejections to contend with, and I may be met with an insurmountable wall of silence (the slush pile is an over-populated, hostile place) so best I get my head around those realities now, before I fall foul of the ‘joy of potential’ honey trap again.

My newly emotionally-resilient self sends a politely worded chase-up email to the faceless gatekeeper at Blink Publishing. I feel nothing as I send the email. My task is now purely pragmatic, and I cannot afford to become too emotionally involved.

But then, I receive it. Another Email. It pings into my inbox, and once again the joy of potential dances around, flirting with me.

‘Dear Rachel

I have indeed received your submission, and I have been reading it for the past few days. I am really enjoying it, and will be able to give some more detailed feedback once finished. Please expect a fuller response by the end of the week!’

I show Gav, and he hops about it the living room, whilst I remain seated.

I just hope they want an elephant, I think to myself, as I look across the room at my bull who is lifting weights over in the corner. He’s just come back from the local tanning salon. What shade of grey is that? I wonder.

He’s already beginning to look rather different…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Duathlon Virgin Pops Her Cherry

I’m a road cycling virgin – or at least I was until very recently when I purchased my very first second-hand speed machine from a guy at work. Cleats? Are those like vaginal warts? Derailleurs? French for train track? So, completing the Oulton Park Duathlon yesterday felt like a hell of an achievement. I entered it on a whim a couple of months ago when the realisation hadn’t yet fully hit that I’d have to at least pretend to know what I’m doing on a road bike. Fake it ‘til you make it? Yep. That’s me. 

I chose to enter the Standard distance race. This would be a 9k run + 39k bike + 4.5k run. The alternative was a shorter Sprint distance (4.5k run + 21k bike + 4.5k run) ‘Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound’, was my exact thought process whilst choosing the longer distanced race. If it’s going to hurt for 21km on an uncomfortable, unfamiliar set of wheels, then what difference is an additional 18km going to make? (hashtag: ‘ignoranceisbliss’). 

Gav and I have revelled in some mini-victories in the run-up to this unlikely feat. We have: 

  • Bought bikes; 
  • Equipped ourselves with a bicycle pump and some other basic maintenance equipment which we have absolutely no idea how to use (we have enough allen keys to make all necessary adjustments to the Eiffel tower, and yet raising my seat half an inch is a bridge too far.) 
  • Invested in a fancy bike carrier for the car. One entire Saturday afternoon was recently sacrificed as we wrestled to marry my Nissan Juke with the various wires / arms / straps and contraptions contained within the neatly packaged Thule box. It drizzled mockingly as we stood in hung silence watching instructional YouTube videos on repeat. 

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wear my cleats on Sunday for the race, Gav I declared to my endlessly supportive husband as he stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to gain access to the fridge which was entirely blocked by my now upturned Scott road bike. ‘It’s not worth the risk, and surely I won’t be the only one pedalling in trainers?’ 

‘Course not!’ he replied, still unable to access the milk. 

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‘Can’t you do without the milk, Gav?’

Once my Scott bike was sufficiently adhered to the car boot, the three of us headed off to Oulton Park racetrack on Sunday morning.  

No sooner had we parked up and enjoyed the relief of our compulsory thank-fcuk-we’ve-arrived-at-destination-and-escaped-from-the-car toilet stop than a tall chap in a hoody approached with a beaming smile. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said. I looked nonplussed at the approaching stranger, and then across at Gav. ‘The Deer Park dash!’ he said, as if this would make it any easier.  

Not a Scooby Do.  

‘Oh yeah!’ I lied. ‘The Deer Park Dash!! Of course!’ I said, as though repeating the race back to him were indeed confirmation that I had any kind of recollection of our exchange. ‘I was running with the pram? he continued, as my vacant look didn’t go unnoticed. Lovely chap. Still no idea. 

We stood at the back of our car next to the bondaged bike and the four of us – me, Gav, Friendly Hoody Man and his wife – talked turkey about race tactics. ‘It’s the last run that’s a killer,’ friendly hoody man says. ‘Your legs are like jelly. You want to run, but your legs have turned to mush.’ I didn’t want to tell him that the running parts were the bits I was actually looking forward to. ‘Just keep up a good cadence on the bike, and you can make up a lot of time with a decent cycling section.’ 

Bollocks.  

I looked at my bike, still gagged and bound to the back end of our Juke, and it suddenly felt like an alien to me. In that moment I realised – I don’t know it very well at all. I haven’t worked out how it feels most comfortable, or what gears it prefers. I haven’t taken the time to oil its chain or to lube the intricate parts. It doesn’t know my correct seat height, and the pedals and I muddle along in some persistent misunderstanding. I bought an entire set of allen keys, and yet the seat still chafes parts of me that only my husband knows. We are complete strangers.  

I wheeled my reluctant partner, Scott, into the transition area.  

Could I just safety check your bike please, madam?’ a necessarily efficacious gentleman said as I approached in my gormless state. ‘Do you know that you’ve got an end bar missing? ‘ he went on, pointing to a part of Scott I’d never seen. ‘I’m going to have to tape it up, as I’d hate for you to impale yourself on the course if you had a collision.’ Oh. Right. Yep. ‘And your tyres seem a bit low. In fact – bloody hell – these won’t last nine laps, love. Take it to the guy over there and he’ll sort you out.’ 

I trundled my non-friendly alien, Scott, over to another younger gentleman who winced when he felt the skinny rubber surrounding my wheels. ‘It’s a good job you’re here!’ I joked nervously.  

He didn’t laugh. 

After an informative safety briefing, we were off and I set off running confidently on my own two feet. Yesss! I know how to do this, I thought, as I soon passed a number of pro-looking tri-suited bodies on the first lap of the two-lap section. My pace was controlled but fast, and I felt good. I felt strong. No technical malfunctions possible, other than the obvious shoelaces or legs falling off. With no evidence of either, I arrived into the first transition entirely happy with the first running section.  

Remember to put your helmet on before you take your bike off the rack, I recalled the wise words of Friendly Hoody guy and stuck my Halfords lid* straight on my head before inhaling a gel and pushing my bike out into the traffic lane. Shit. I’ve got to hop onto the bloody thing, now. 

For the first lap, we took some time getting to know one another. It tried to mould to me, whilst I squirmed about on the impossibly narrow saddle and wondered if my marriage would survive nine laps of potentially irreparable damage to sensitive female areas. Fuck! My foot slipped from the non-cleated pedal and the wheels spun round at some speed, catching me on both shins. Fuck, fuck FUCK! I wrestled my Adidas Boost trainers back onto the slippery silver pedals and wrenched the handlebars back under control to avoid face-planting on the race track. I looked around me. No one else was cycling in Adidas Boosts. NO ONE ELSE IS PEDALLING IN FUCKING TRAINERS, RACHEL. Wait! Oh look! A girl over there is, and she’s a shit cyclist too! I felt like cycling over to her and making friends, but she didn’t look to be in the mood for chatting.  

Lap 3 and I felt sure my future was one of celibacy. I could see nothing through my entirely unnecessary Rudy Project sunglasses, and wind whipped snot across my face like a sad, sleeveless child. I looked up and saw Gav and Tilly up in the stand for the fifth time. ‘TAKE HER INSIDE IT’S PISSING IT DOWN’ I hollered across to Gav who stood looking perplexed at the unexpected instruction whilst I attempted to ‘maintain a good cadence’ on my alien bike. For the remaining seven laps, they took my advice, and were nowhere to be seen.** 

There were hills on the course. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I began to think I could manage to remain seated on my ill-fitting bike for what may feel like an eternity, they threw two significant inclines on the track for good measure. And just as I was attempting to lower my gear for the 5th time, I heard an emphatic ‘Keep going, Rachel! Keep pushing!’ from behind. For a millisecond I was transported back to the delivery room of Calderdale Royal Hospital in late September 2010, but a quick glance to my right and Friendly Hoody man came flying past me, clearly making up time on his cycle, just as he’d predicted. Fucking hell. 

The remaining cycle laps were a feat of a certain kind of endurance I’ve never experienced before. Like balancing on a thin, moving beam praying for the moment when it would all end.  

Approaching the second transition, I felt no fear about the second run. Legs tired? Of course. A bit wobbly? Yeah, sure. Desperate to get off the fucking bike? YES! YES. THAT! I hopped off the bike like a slightly drunken vagrant heading off to his last pub of the night. Right: Hang bike on rack? Check. Inhale a gel? Check. Right. Now RUN, RUN, FUCKING RUN!  

‘Wait! You’ve still got your helmet on!’ I heard Gav and Tilly bellow from the barriers as I headed towards the transition exit. Oh, for the love of God. I turned on my heels and handed my No Frills non-aerodynamic Halford’s lid to a very helpful fellow athlete, and ran off, as far away from my fucking Scott bike as was humanly possible. That was motivation enough for me. 

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I. love. tarmac.

‘Great running!’  one semi-limping guy said as I skipped past him on my final lap of the track, feeling the thrill of my Adidas Boosts on terra firma. The last mile felt tough on the final climb up to the finish, but it was over soon enough. 

Approaching the finish line after a cold, wet, tiring and uncomfortable 2 hours and 24 minutes, I could see Gav and Tilly – both perfectly dry and warm – cheering for me as I raised my thoroughly feeble arms in the air whilst attempting to look mildly victorious.  

‘WELL DONE, MUMMY!’ Tilly said, pawing at my medal and blatantly eyeing up my CLIF peanut butter bar. ‘You did REALLY well… But why were you so slow on the bike?’ 

Thanks, Tills. The adoption papers are being processed at the time of writing. 

 

*I can call it this, now I’m officially a #cyclingwanker 

**I subsequently discovered that they were neither cold nor pissed wet through, and my unnecessary hollers had simply caused them to fall about laughing. ‘The other cyclists must have thought you’re mental!’ were Gav’s exact words. 

The Seven Year Itch… Running through Motherhood

I love Marilyn, with all her maddeningly frustrating vulnerability. Some Like It Hot is a personal favourite of mine, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego – the location where several iconic scenes were famously filmed. Once there, I unashamedly sprawled myself across a tartan chaise longue, eating Corn Dogs whilst being hypnotised by the siren herself. Watching Some Like It Hot in situ, knowing that Marilyn had walked – together with her predictably fawning entourage – along those very same corridors, and that she had woken up (no doubt also feeling thoroughly bemused) to the very same sunrise – I felt a kind of solace.

However, I digress.

I am clumsily hijacking this titular phrase, borne of said Marilyn film, and referring to the ever-decreasing interest a person may have in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage. [Don’t worry, Gav. We’re not even at seven weeks.] I am referring instead to the last seven years of my life – marked today* – as being seven complete years of being A Mother. A mum. Somebody’s mummy. Responsible for another person’s joy. Provider of security, reassurance, and Yollies (don’t ask). Professional worrier. Also, professional actress (pretending not to worry). Disciplinarian. Groundhog Day face-washer, taxi driver and social committee chair. Picker upper of dirty pants and invisible fridge-filler.

For the last seven years, this has been me. It will continue indefinitely, for a lifetime.

Today is my daughter’s 7th birthday. It marks not only the moment when my life transformed into being about something infinitely greater than my sorry little self; it also defines the rebirth of who I knew myself to be. A dawning of a new me. A raising of the bar, and a resetting of any previously (arguably shoddy) standards. It was make or break, and fortunately, I chose to make.

Without delving too much into the story from which I have written a book, Running For My Life, (yes, that), about setting myself a challenge to greet me on the other side of motherhood, I decided that I would run the London marathon – my first ever marathon – just 7 months after giving birth to my beloved blood-sucker and nipple-cruncher. From that moment on, and because of that single decision – my life has never been the same. It has been richer, braver, bigger, and brighter than I could ever have imagined, whilst also being at times tougher, darker, and infinitely harder than I might have known.

And as I sit here, post sugar-fuelled giddy Sylvanian Families celebrations, I can look back on seven years that have fundamentally changed the person who I did, once, believe that I was, and who I could be.

As Tilly’s seventh (outdoor) birthday party came to an end, the four of us – me, Gav, Mini Me and Mini Dodd – all meandered back to the car with arms full of fancy gift bags and boxes of leftover Colin the Caterpillar cake. The party was a great success, but why wouldn’t it be? Throw a random group of kids into an unspoiled outdoor climbing rope maze, and watch them fall over logs in hysterics.

Back at the car, I gulped down a mouthful of jam sandwich whilst wriggling out of my jeans and wellies, and miraculously transforming into Running Mum (courtesy of my running shorts and fancy new Adidas Boosts.) We’d planned it all meticulously, and within 90 seconds I was Eric the Bananaman – ready for action. Tilly and Ava already nodding off in the back of the car; Gav grateful for the silence.

And I ran. I ran, and I felt free. I ran, and I felt joy. As I headed over the glorious Yorkshire hills, I felt to be a part of the beautiful landscape I could see all around me in every direction – a moving, living cog in a wheel of gloriously vibrant life. To be a part of the landscape. Read it again, because how often do you feel to be a part of the beauty that you see? As I ran over the hills today, I knew that I did. I knew that I was. And I thought, THIS IS WHY. THIS IS WHY I RUN.

For those seventy-nine minutes – the time it took me to run ten miles up and over the tops of Mount Tabor… dropping down and running through the quaint old village of my childhood, Warley Town, working my way to eventually meet the canal… I was free of knicker-picking, bean-stirring, school bag-packing and present wrapping. Free from the school drop off and polite chatter at the Big Blue Gates; free from hand-holding and shirt-straightening. I was spared the “Mum… can I just…?” random questions, and the search for answers I cannot provide. Free from over-tired tears and vain attempts to make broccoli taste infinitely better than it actually does.

I was free from it all.

And in that seventy-nine minutes of freedom, I also knew that I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t swap the regimented bedtime routine and the alarm for brushing teeth; I wouldn’t change the endless pile of washing or the arguments about wearing tights (although I’m with you on that one, tills. They suck.) I can handle the ridiculously early mornings, and the cartwheels in the lounge. I can pair the socks, and painstakingly de-knot the hair. I can apply the Sudocrem where the sun don’t shine, and administer the Calpol, watching as a sticky pink blob lands on the carpet, as it always does. As long as I can have my seventy-nine minutes to ponder, collate, process, cogitate and digest all the madness of being a mother, I can do it all. And I never ever thought that I could.

So, happy birthday, Tilly, happy birthday motherhood, and happy birthday the Me that emerged out of the delivery room a stronger, happier and infinitely better person.

Here’s to the next seven years of running through motherhood… (Cue Mazza’s rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’. What a woman.)

(I got myself a sneaky Colin the Caterpillar cake and blew out the candles on my own, in the kitchen like a right sad bastard. Luckily, there was a BOGOF deal in Morrison’s. Winner. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO (THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD NEW AND IMPROVED) ME… 😀 )

*Written on 22nd September, 2017

 

 

I DON’T HAVE TO CYCLE UP EVEREST…

It all began a few months ago, when I dug my old 2010 Trek mountain bike out of the cellar and heaved it into Halfords for a service (and by this, I mean checking that the wheels were still round – the back one was suspect) pumping up the tyres, and making sure the brakes still work. And as much as I’m no cycling connoisseur, the name ‘Avid Juicy’ (a brand of cycling brakes, for the unenlightened) had stuck in my mind. To my knowledge, they may well have run out of their magical avid juice.

Wheels round? Check

Tyres pumped up? Check

Brakes working? Check

Gears working? Kind of. Well, not really, as they keep sticking, but just about manageable. Plus, I’d forgotten how to use them, so no bother.

It was the start of a new era. Not some Kick Ass, Dream Big! plan to cycle round Peru (that comes later) but my own personal plan to start off small, and set myself some tiny, incremental goals.

CHALLENGE # 1: CAN I RIDE A BIKE?

ANSWER # 1: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

My first challenge was cycling down to the gym from home – a five-mile route consisting of a couple of main roads (Gulp. Cold sweat.) followed by a traffic-free canal section (better, but it’s got plenty of bumpy, cobbly bits, and low bridges. Fuck.)

So, I set off one day on my now circular-wheeled Trek mountain bike, with grips on the tyres large enough to tackle even the most mountainous regions of the Alps, and headed on my way.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I locked my bike up outside the gym with my daughter’s £5 fluffy unicorn-pink child’s bike lock (yes, I did) and trotted off to my class. Surprisingly, it was still there when I came back out, and so I cycled the 5-mile route back home again. But there was a small incline en route. Fuck, fuck FUCKKKKK. I managed to crank the gears down to the speed of a slug steadily progressing from the garden to the empty bean tins in last week’s recycling – stopping three times on the way – and eventually made it to the top.

YESSS! VICTORY IS MINE! I’d proven to myself that I could get on my bike – after 5 years of abstinence (even back then I was shit) and navigate roads, traffic, wanker lorry drivers, canal cobbles, clueless dog-walkers, piles of dog shit, low bridges, crossing roads, and pedestrians. If this were a jigsaw puzzle, it would have been a simple 6-piece affair for target age group 2/3yrs. Possibly in Peppa fucking Pig design. Anyway, I cracked it.

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…baby steps…

CHALLENGE #2: CAN I CYCLE TO MY MUM’S AND BACK HOME AGAIN?

ANSWER #2: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

Having never been formally diagnosed as appearing on the OCD spectrum (highly likely but am now too long in the tooth to find out) the simple task of cycling on another route to another place was a significant enough variable to increase this to stage 2: a 49-piece Paw Patrol jigsaw, target age group 5/6yrs. There were more roads involved, and therefore increased exposure to wanker white-van-man drivers and other imbecilic fuckwits on the move. Less canal, so fewer bumpy cobbles, dog walkers with mile-long leads and steaming piles of excrement. All things considered, it was progression.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I sat drinking a brew on mum’s sofa, feeling disproportionately chuffed with my little self, whilst my Trek bike waited patiently for me on the ground floor. We (the pair of us, myself and Trek) cycled home exactly the same way as we’d come, only this time, I only stopped twice on Granny Gear hill. Result!

Text from Mum: Have you arrived back OK, Rach? I was watching you from my window. You didn’t look overly confident on the roads, love. Let me know when you’re back safely.

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So yeah, thanks, Mum. I may have looked like I could cycle up the back end of a Skoda at any given minute, of have a close shave with a Corsa, but I made it. Another mini victory in the small-fry book of minor achievements in my life. Job done. [tick box emoji]

CHALLENGE #3: CAN I CYCLE A 6-MILE LOOP FROM HOME, THE FIRST HALF BEING UP A BASTARD 2-MILE HILL?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

The answer would be simple enough: I either could cycle 2-miles up a hill, or I couldn’t. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have to get off my bike and push it. So fucking what? I’ll give it a whirl…

I geared myself up for the grind (awful pun, I know) and settled in, pushing steadily and consistently in as high-a-gear as I could manage to enable me to still have some torque (see! Who is this absolute wanker I have become?) It worked. I dug my off-road trainers into my pedals and I pushed. There were a couple of fat blokes on road bikes just ahead. As I approached AND PASSED them, I was suddenly aware that I didn’t look at all like a cyclist, but here I was, gate-crashing their party – without cleats (#wankerism again. Sorry about that.)

Once at the top, I stood on my pedals and lifted my bum high in the air for the most incredible downhill section, and I felt a kind of elation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I CAN FUCKING DO THIS! I shouted to myself, as the wind blew rain and snot sideways into my face. Such was the increase in my confidence, I even took one hand off the handle bars and wiped the snot from my top lip/chin area which had been dangling there for approximately 15 minutes. This, my friends, is progress.

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I got wet.

CHALLENGE #4: CAN I CYCLE A 15-MILE LOOP FROM HOME INCORPORATING 3 OF THE BIGGEST LOCAL CLIMBS, AND BE BACK BEFORE 10AM TO START WORK?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

I had my sights set on this one. I’d even bought a new lid (#wankerism for cycling helmet) jazzy cycling gloves, and dug out my old padded shorts and cycling jersey. This is happening, Rach. You know what to do.

I pictured the route and saw myself grinding up the first hill climb to Norland, and then standing up for the long descent down into the far side of Rishworth, following country lanes I know well from miles of running around the area. Stop 1: a selfie outside our favourite pub, sent through to Gav approximately 30 mins into the ride, with the words, ‘look where I am!’ typed underneath my gormless grin.

The second climb was tougher. Up and over from Rishworth to Baitings reservoir, involved many more climbing sections than I’d remembered from the last time I’d run the same route. Bloody hell, my self-doubt chimp began to chunter. You’ve got Ripponden Bank to tackle after this! WTF!

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Beautiful Baitings Reservoir

With a few pauses for breath (and to inhale a Peperami) I made it to the other side of the reservoir, and once again stood high on my non-cleat pedals and rolled at speed down the 2-mile descent – the calm before the unholy shit-storm of Ripponden Bank.

Now then, kids. We’re on with a 1000-piece 101 Dalmatians jigsaw, here. This ain’t easy on a road bike, or on any friggin wheels of any description. My 3rd and final climb of the morning would involve the infamous Tour de France Stage 2 route climbing past The Fleece Inn, and over the top dropping down into Barkisland – and finally, back home.

My steel-framed Trek cranked and groaned as I pulled the gears back to the slug-trail speed, and pushed again with my cleat-free shoes on the non-clip-in pedals. And fucking hell it was tough, but I made it to the top.

Free-wheeling the final few miles back down home, I almost sang with joy. I’VE DONE IT! YESSSS! I’VE FUCKING CRACKED IT!

You see, as my jigsaws have increased in pieces and complexity, so has my confidence and my self-belief that I can take on new challenges and tackle them head on. They don’t always have to be ones with a big shiny medal at the end, or ones that other people even know about, but they are my personal challenges, and I know what they mean to me.

CHALLENGE #5: CAN I CYCLE 20 MILES UP AND OVER THE TOPS TO HEBDEN BRIDGE AND BACK THE DAY BEFORE A TOUGH 7-MILE ROAD RACE?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

That was Saturday, and the #kilburnfeast road race was yesterday. A step too far? Perhaps. I fell and whacked my shoulder whilst cycling under a low cobbly bridge* (it was either that or fall into the canal.)

And the race? My legs were battered at yesterday’s race, having cycled 45 hilly miles on my beloved Trek bike in last 3 days, and so no PB for me, today. But do you know what? I couldn’t care less. I did it anyway, just because I could.

You see, I don’t need to have grand ambitions to cycle up Everest. Ripponden Bank will do.

*Maybe I’m back to a 500 – piece jigsaw of kittens all playing with balls of wool.

**At the time of writing, I am exploring the possibility of cycling 511km from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas in 2018. Yes, I am.

The Birthday Weekend – Three Yorkshire Peaks – Part 1: the shit sandwich

I’m sitting on the sofa with my legs propped up on the corner part (When did we all start having corner sofas? When were Shackleton’s three-seaters no longer adequate? Maybe for occasions such as this…) I’ve got a large white toasted cheese baguette to my right, which is slarted with enough Lurpak to bake a small Mary Berry Victoria sandwich, and that’s placed precariously next to a pint of instant coffee – none of that posh stuff: it’s usually shit.

I’m 39 years old, and I’m KNACKERED.

We’ve just arrived back home after our mini adventure weekend away – forward slash – Rachel’s birthday “treat”. This was, as you may or may not know, the challenge of completing the Three Yorkshire Peaks as part of the organised Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice charity group event which took place yesterday, the 24th June, also nonchalantly marking my 39th year of existence.

The weekend started off in spectacular style when we rocked up to the Falcon Manor country house hotel in Settle. Within 35 seconds of arriving – perhaps less – I was entirely submerged in our room’s stand-alone bath, washing away any evidence of my earlier hilly 10-mile bike ride over the hills to Hebden, whilst watching the sheep being herded by the real* sheep dogs out of the panoramic windows scanning the beautiful Yorkshire dales.

Once my skin resembled that of an Amaretto-soaked raisin (try it – they’re fit) myself and Gav Dodd Fax ambled into the town of Settle and set about doing some damage to our his credit/debit card in the one outdoor clothing shop which appeared to have some kind of affinity with Innov8 training gear, and therefore, also with us. Two windstopper / waterproof running jackets later (and yes, we most certainly did need them) followed by a quick stop off in a compulsory coffee shop for hot drinks the same price as a pair of Sealskin gloves, we headed back to our home for the weekend – the Falcon Manor.

‘Are you taking all four pork pies with you, Gav?’ I asked, as he unpacked a Russian doll’s sequence of Tupperware containers ready to fill them with what appeared to be the entire spread from a large family christening. ‘And do we really need those sausage rolls?’ I thought about the navigational task for the following day, and whether pastry goods would survive being hauled over 24 miles up and over in excess of 5,000 feet. Conversely, the 4-pack Peperami would be good travellers, I surmised.

We woke painfully early the next morning after (not) sleeping in what felt like a smouldering kiln, as these posh hotels would insist on having the highest tog duvets for luxuriating purposes, not thinking that perhaps the temperature can exceed ten degrees, even in North Yorkshire.

‘Did you get much sleep, Gav?’ I stupidly asked, whilst assessing the status of luggage bags collecting under each eye.

‘No. I’ve been awake since 5am,’ he half replied. I noticed a few beads of sweat forming on his brow.

At 6.10am we stumbled down the hotel stairs with our mobile buffet neatly packed away in Innov8 rucksacks, and happened across some other FMN walkers about to undertake the very same challenge. One of them looked down at my shorts and long socks. ‘Crikey, are you planning on running it?’ he quizzed, sounding partially stunned.

‘Maybe in parts, but no, not really. And only if there are any easy downhill bits which are run-able, then we can get it over with quicker!’ I replied, already wondering if I could run any of it, even if I wanted to.

We set off on the short drive to the meeting point – a field in the middle of Horton-in-Ribblesdale – where we would register and attend the necessary pre-event safety briefing. Queues of cars were both behind and in front of us as we pulled into the enormous field, having already been turned away from a nearby car park. ‘Bloody hell, Gav. It’s like the Meadowhall Boxing Day Sale!’

He didn’t disagree.

‘Are you two runners?’ the event organiser asked when we turned up to the pop-up registration desk in shorts, decked out head-to-foot in Innov8 race wear. ‘If you are, then I’d like to ask you to set off an hour after everyone else has departed.’ My heart dropped as I looked over at Gav. Shit. Were we going to have to hang about in some overly-congested field which more resembled a packed Ikea than an outdoor pursuits meeting point in a small Yorkshire village? Not a chance.

‘Erm, we’re more likely to just set off walking, to be honest,’ I replied. ‘If we want to run any of the later sections, then that’s up to us, but we will be setting off as walkers, with the walkers,’ I continued, just managing to spare us from pacing about pointlessly in Ikea Outdoors for an additional hour.

People were everywhere, milling about like those miniscule red ant things that crawl about on patio paving. I began to feel overwhelmed and disheartened, as though the sanctity of this quaint Yorkshire village had in some way been eroded because hundreds – no, thousands – of people, just like us, wanted to say they’d conquered the challenge of the Three Yorkshire Peaks. We were no different to anyone else. How did the village cope with the endless onslaught of visitors? Cars continued to stream into the field like the constantly dripping nose of a snotty child. All of that said, it was a Saturday… in June.

 

 

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WHERE HAVE ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM? The photo doesn’t show the full extent of Ikea on grass.

Just before we left the safety of our car for the final time to join in the throng of red ants running about on the patio, Gav handed me two small envelopes… This felt a bit like a shit sandwich – the gruelling reality of the Three Peaks challenge being wrapped up in the middle of two far nicer pleasantries on either side. I opened my cards, and my birthday pressie was revealed:

‘FUCKING HELL, GAV! WE’RE GOING UP IN A HOT AIR BALLOON!!’ I shrieked, demonstrating that the first part of the shit sandwich had quite clearly worked.

Back in the Ikea field…

‘WHERE IS RACHEL CULLEN? Could RACHEL CULLEN please raise her hand,’ the organiser hollered above the hum of muffled excitement and general chatter. ‘RACHEL CULLEN could you come and join me at the front, please?’ I looked around and reluctantly raised my hand above the sea of ants. ‘Don’t worry, Rachel,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘I’m just going to use you as an example, if anyone is thinking of running this, today.’ Ahhh shit. I feared once again being made to meander around Meadowhall’s most rural car park long after everyone else had departed for their adventure challenge.

‘LISTEN, EVERYONE,’ he began, as a sea of nonplussed faces looked over at me gormlessly, wondering what the hell they were supposed to be looking at. ‘TODAY IS SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY!’ Organiser Man continued in a booming voice. Thank fuck for that! I glanced up at him and beamed as the throng of strangers sang an obligatory rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. Because sure – that was very nice indeed – but mainly I was thrilled that we wouldn’t have to pace about in the Ikea field for another hour…

Happy birthday to me!

And then, we were off…

To be continued…

*I say ’real’ sheep dogs, in that they were working – as they are meant to do – at herding sheep. Not sitting in some corporate kitchen somewhere proverbially filing their nails. And if the photo of the bath looks good, it doesn’t do it justice.

‘The Power of Yet’ vs ‘The Curse of Enough’

We’ve been learning about something called ‘The Power of Yet’ today, Mummy,’ she said, tucking into half a sausage roll on our walk home from school. It’s one of the perks of living near a farm shop.

Really? And what exactly is ‘the power of yet’ then, Tills?’ I genuinely didn’t know.

Well, if you can’t do something, then you put a ‘yet’ at the end of it,’ she explained, sounding like a teacher in a child’s body whilst processing her pork and pastry combo, ‘and it means that you just can’t do it… YET… but you WILL be able to do it some time in the future.

Wow! That’s a great way of looking at things, Tills,’ I replied, genuinely impressed with the whole notion of this ‘turning obstacles into challenges’ and ‘stamping out defeatism’ vibe.

She continued, ‘So, I cried when I couldn’t work out why number 9 was the odd one out in maths today, out of 9, 12, 20, 36 and 45, when Delilah could.’ I temporarily switched off from her verbatim and drifted into some dusty old mental arithmetic corner of my mind where I divided and subtracted, and raced through my basic knowledge of prime numbers, before finally coming to the conclusion that this was a test designed for six-year olds. How hard could it be??

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

She continued, ‘But then I thought that I just didn’t understand it YET [she exaggerated the ‘yet’, delivering it slowly and deliberately, as though talking to someone of significantly inferior intellect] and that I would understand it some time.

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

Right, right. I see,’ I replied, still racing through chapters of Algebra for Amoebas in my head, as she continued telling me about her day.

The power of yet. Not making the grade… yet. Not quite hitting the mark… yet. Not understanding the how’s or the why’s… yet. Not reaching the ‘qualifying standard’ … yet. Not getting there – wherever that might be… yet.

Yet, yet, yet. And yet…

It’s a big and generous concept. It stops kids giving up before they’ve really battled with their own internal belief system, and reminds them that sometimes the answer isn’t always easy; it doesn’t always jump out from the page; the qualifying standard might take many, many attempts, and that giving up isn’t the right option: Word on the street is ‘it ain’t cool to quit, kids!’*

Hallelujah! Amen to that. Don’t quit folks! Keep going. Tally-ho! Crack on! Onwards and upwards, and all that.

But then it got me thinking. When is enough ever enough? When does ‘The Power of Yet’ turn on us and become some big old shitty stick with which we can (and do) beat ourselves? What if the right thing to do IS to quit? Move on. Leave it there. Accept our limitations. What happens to ‘The Power of Yet’ then? And furthermore, when are we enough? When are our accomplishments, achievements, feathers in caps and certificates on walls, enough? Are we forever doomed to kneel and worship at the altar of The Power of Yet, deeming ourselves – and any/all of our achievements – to be (offensively scrawled in red pen) ‘could do better’s’ and ‘must try harder’s?’ What if we have tried our best? What if that is as close as we can possibly come to hitting the bulls’ eye?

What then?

You see, I’ve spent years in a silent, daily battle with The Curse of Enough. I’ve spent decades chasing, wrangling, and head-locking a little bastard chimp inside my head which told me that I simply wasn’t good enough… yet. I wasn’t fast enough… yet. Not thin enough… yet. Not pretty enough… yet. Not successful enough… yet. Not GOOD enough… yet. That some illusory, unidentifiable moment in time would occur in my future when I would reach this pinnacle; this mecca of contentment, but that time wasn’t here, and now.

Well let me tell you, fellas (generic term for all readers. We do inclusivity, here) The Power of Yet has been a double-edged sword for me. It has motivated me time after time to try harder. Want to knock an hour and a quarter off your marathon time in the space of 2 years? Use the Power of Yet. It works. Want to write so badly that you spend eighteen months re-writing 80,000 of THE SAME WORDS because you believe in the story? The Power of Yet will help you to get a publishing deal, and a literary agent. Believe me. This shit works.

The medals, the certificates, the contracts, the achievements. The Power of Yet doesn’t know when to stop. What about enjoying the journey? What about luxuriating in the momentary glimpses of joy? What about putting a lid on an endless fascination for desired outcome? Years of being bounced between The Power of Yet and The Curse of Enough like some stunned Wimbledon tennis ball being strewn around Court 1 has taught me to TREAT WITH CAUTION.

This comes in the week when my Good for Age entry for Virgin London Marathon 2018 has been accepted, from a time I ran at last year’s Yorkshire Marathon which was 10 minutes off my marathon PB. At the time, I was devastated, seeing it as a huge personal failure, and a regression away from that elusive moment at some point in my future when it all makes sense: when I am enough.

But I see now that was all wrong. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, on that day. I battled with every cell of my being for the last fourteen miles, and I crawled over the finish line in 3 hrs and 27 minutes. Only a few years ago, this would have been a huge mini victory. Fucking hell! I’ve run a sub- 3:30 marathon! But the Power of Yet combined with the Curse of Enough stole my moment. It won’t get the opportunity to do it again.

So, did you work out the answer then, Tills?

To what?’ She was temporarily distracted by the realisation that her sausage roll was done.

Your maths puzzle. The random numbers and why 9 was the odd one out.’

Oh yeah. It was only because it’s a single digit. The others are double digits. How easy is that?

Of course it was! I was just about to say that!’ I lied.

FFS! Algebra for Amoebas back in its box. There I was involving multiplication, subtraction and square roots. No doubt my six-year old daughter (or clone) was doing the same with her similarly overthinking mind. But the answer was so simple we could barely see it.

I’m hoping that one week she’ll come home and tell me all about ‘The Power of Enough’. Because sometimes – just like the number 9 brainteaser – the answer is very simple: Trying your best is good enough.

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We cracked it!

*Quite pleased with this, having just thought it up. If it were the 60s, I would be Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

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