I was reminded of an old joke this week and certainly needed the laugh. A piece of string walks into a bar and is refused a pint. ‘I’ve told you before we don’t serve pieces of string, and you are a piece of string, aren’t you? ‘ says the barman. ‘No, I’m a frayed knot,’ comes the reply.
I was reminded of this because of the tug of war that has limped me through the last couple of weeks. Finally, my zero energy at the start of the last day of term – and my chop- logic inability to sleep – makes me decide that kill-or-cure tactics are needed to set me up for the last 24 hours of goodbyes and packing up at school. 6 am and boot camp is calling.
Never one to let us rest on our laurels, our Sergeant Major smugly presents us with a new challenge. Laid out before us is a square of thick tied ropes, the square perfectly equidistant inside another larger square whose corners are marked by four white handkerchiefs. Four teams are selected on bib colour (fitness rating), age (sorry, team), gender and weight (sorry, again) and then sent to one corner of the rope square and told to, ‘take hold, adopt a brace position and pull on the rope hard enough to allow your team to pick up the white handkerchief behind you’. Our mission, naturally, is to simultaneously ensure that no other team manages to beat us to their own white trophy. I have need of a new handkerchief – it could multipurpose either to signal my surrender, or as a flannel for my uncontrollably leaky eyes.
The tug of war commences and I regret having taken the time to paint my nails the night before. I internally celebrate my team mates who have been chosen to smother my squeals about rope chafing and who are intent on bringing back the trophy, however lack-lustre it looks.
The few steps we gain in the the right direction are soon stalled by each of the other three teams who take great delight in ensuring that we skewer away from our goal; we in turn pull them back from their targets. The square rope holds taut and remarkably static throughout the long contest. Each team is – cursedly – evenly matched.
The last few weeks have mimicked this exercise. The few marginal gains weathered have been difficult to celebrate for they come at a price. My three siblings and I have played our own version of the tug of war square, this time effectively holding a metaphorical fire blanket taut, one of us on each corner trying to entice mum to jump from a crumbling building where she can no longer use the stairs, reassuring her that we will catch her in the blanket and that she will not be pushed.
One sister has taken the brunt of this hold, taking mum to see care homes and feeling the backlash as mum then backs away from the ledge refusing to acknowledge that her recent mini stroke has now rendered even a chair lift out of the question as an escape route; Sis never lets go of her corner and gracefully turns a blind eye to her sibling teammates who seem to have disappeared off for a water break and are distracted by work commitments.
Mum finally agrees to test our hold and we’re back in the game. She does this without grace however, for she sees it as defeat and suspects foul play even though we would be content with a draw and don’t wish for a final surrender. She agrees to test the waters in a care home for a fortnight – a respite for all of us – before making a final decision about her home. She lashes out verbally in the direction of my sister because she is the one brave enough to show mum a realistic glimpse of the future. Sis can’t even reach for a handkerchief to dry her stinging eyes, for she is loyally holding her corner of the blanket and will not let go. With the start of the school holiday, I acknowledge that I must do better to take up the slack; this blanket has four corners, not three.
I call mum and empathise with her about leaving a home she so dearly loves. I can do this readily for I spent the day before visiting my own home, the one which still stubbornly refuses to sell. I have tried valiantly to pack up more of my belongings in the hope that this will make the market shift again, but as I face my former wardrobe (ok, plural) I am appalled to acknowledge how terrible my dress sense has been and that I’ve clearly always been trying to look like someone else. Lesson learnt and the rope burns are the only things I can class as smart. I don’t think mum can really hear my empathy on the phone however, for my voice begins to leak in sympathy with my eyes. She is, though, reassured to know that her own respite will be spent in a building which was formerly a children’s home, a haven where she once as a child nurse took an infant in her charge. I remind her that I am now living in a conversion of a boarding house which my own children once used as a changing room for their junior school drama production. Again, I’m not sure if she can hear my comparison, but I take heart that she will prefer a circle of life reference to our tug of war square.
Back at boot camp, the ground is hard and incredibly dry – as the rope pulls, knees crumple and bruise against the unforgiving mud. One member of the opposition pulls so hard to stay upright, that he somersaults over the rope, resulting in demands for a steward’s enquiry. He does not let go though, and that I’m learning, is the point of the game. The smallest member of my team starts counting us in to synchronise the thrust of our pull, ‘on the count of 1, then 2, then 3,’ and we gradually start to gain purchase on the rope. For a glorious minute, it looks like we might make ground. We do, but it’s quickly undone – unlike the thick ropes that remain stubbornly tied and unforgiving.
We call it a truce and end the boot camp session. As we walk back to our cars, we agree that the tension and resolve did at least keep us standing – most of us anyway – and that as veteran morning muppets, we should congratulate ourselves on our ability to ‘dig in’ and work as a team. We compare rope burns, recommend cream used on babies for the chafing (lads, it’s pathetic, really) and check my nail varnish for chipping. (Intact, and still a luscious pink, thanks).
Not time to be afraid, I guess we’ll just string along together until we can organise ourselves more successfully against this monumental heart string wrenching.