Reminiscences of Childhood Figures

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I grew up in the green and grey of the Berkshire countryside, in a brick cottage that stood on the edge of a medium-large estate. A stone’s throw away, in a ramshackle house far too large for the two of them, lived two staunch figures of my childhood: the two Shirleys. For as long as I could remember we’d been able to watch them, children’s eyes peering over the kitchen worktop, as they pottered around their garden, skinny legs protruding from otherwise plump figures. Delicately pickering their way between broken flowerpots and along treacherous mud paths in every weather, they were a doughty pair, we all agreed.

They became known to us as the Shirleys, and what their real names were I have long since forgotten, they disappeared into the mists of childhood myth, until they were just The Shirleys: the larger, ruddier Shirley Brown, and the more petite, paler Shirley Blue. We differentiated by the colour of the wisps around their ears – my first sighting, now I think of it, of a blue rinse.

The house was extremely rickety, really on its last legs (had it had any), the adjoining garden disordered and for quite a lot of the year, despite our best efforts, little more than a mud bath. We helped out, every couple of weeks, two or three of us popping in to help give the place a good scrub and a spick and a span, and to try and bring the garden, if not to fruitful beauty, at least to a state where a slip and a bruise or a break weren’t imminent. While we worked, they kept to a discreet distance, not liking to get under our feet as we hurtled around the place. We must have seemed like a number of methodical whirlwinds, leaving a trail of orderliness in our wakes: floors swept, furniture scrubbed, spiders ousted and their webs dislodged in a flurry of feathers. After we’d rendered the house shipshape with the broom and scrubbing brush, my father, ever handy with a hammer and a few bits of four-by-two, would fix up any bits of the crumbling lodge that had rotted through or given way since our last visit.
We did their shopping for them too, every three or four weeks, together with a big expedition to Sainsbury’s to re-stock our own house. After lugging our own carrier bags from Sierra to kitchen, my mother (with the help of myself, my sister or both of us, depending on the state of sisterly relations that week,) would haul the remaining hefty bags to the Shirleys, grumbling (if we’d spent too long in the supermarket) about the weight. When we weren’t so little any more, we took our turns carrying those bags, amazed that their small frames could consume such heavy food: so much heavier, it seemed, than what we ate. They lived on the sort of food, dried and preserved, pounds and pounds of it, that keeps for a long time, not needing to be bought fresh regularly, possibly out of consideration for their loyal couriers. We could stock them up at the beginning of the month knowing that they wouldn’t go hungry before we could face the supermarket again. They had some fresh greens that by some miracle managed to survive and thrive in the occasional quagmire that was their garden. That and what we fetched for them seemed to be the extent of their nourishment. In these enlightened days it seems like an outmoded way of living, but when I was little it was what I saw and what I knew. I loved filling the larder with tins and packets of rice, trying to work out how long we would be able to survive for, should we ever be besieged. I had read far too many adventure books.

Once upon a time, there had been more than just the two of them, Mummy told us. They had been part of a big group of refugees from one or other of the world’s more tempestuous turmoils. They had arrived one day, and never left. Settled in and become a fixture in the community, part of the neighbourhood furniture. One by one their number had dwindled, some succumbed quickly to illnesses that had come with them, others simply upped and left. There had been a large pale chap, our father said, who’d set himself up as the Man of the household. He was known as Snowby, on account of his so-pale-it-was-almost-white thatch. But as time went by, he hadn’t been able to handle the confined nature of the place. To us the house seemed huge, but he wasn’t used to living in such close quarters to so many others. He needed more varied company, and space to roam, Daddy told us, adding, conspiratorially, that he knew very well the feeling of being in a house with soley female company. At this point he usually caught a look from my mother and backed down, comically shame-faced, daring to wink at us when her back was turned. The last that had been heard or seen of Snowby, he was right over the other side of the estate, with a wild bunch of swarthy, showy chaps, amongst whom his shock of snowy hair stood out a mile. They lived wilder, less settled lives; whenever gunfire was heard, it came from that quarter.
There had been Abbie too. I have faint memories of her, of sitting on the grass outside their house with her clucking around me, ever attentive, keeping me out from under the grown-ups’ feet. I don’t know if she was related to Snowby – I have no memories of him, so I don’t know if they bore any resemblance to each other – but I imagined that they might be brother and sister, since she was so pale too, almost ghostly. And indeed she might well have been a ghost, because one day she simply wasn’t there any more, and my parents couldn’t tell us what had happened.
No-one could remember really how many of them there had been in the beginning. Names floated through the air of half-remembered occupants, names of those who had been in the original group, or perhaps they had come later, were they two separate people, or wasn’t that just a nickname for that old lady, what was her real name again? We could never pin their number down, disagreements arose, and then it would be decided that what was most important were the two who were there now. They were on their own, and it was up to us to look out for them.

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They arrived one evening, stepping daintily off the cold, water-logged streets into the light that spilled from our kitchen window. We had seen her before, a couple of times, just in passing as she went on her way from one place to the next, always, apparently, with somewhere to be. She’d elicited a few appraising glances, this young dark lady, there was no-one else quite like her in the neighbourhood. But that day she simply arrived, two children in tow, went boldly into the Shirleys’ house and stayed there. It must have been arranged before, we speculated, that would certainly account for how often we’d seen her around the place. And why not, there they were, the new family looking for a home, clearly in a tricky situation, and there was the perfect house, all but empty, waiting for younger voices and little feet to brighten up its caverns. And more company for the two old ladies, with enough room for each party to have its own space. “Another Shirley” said Daddy, and so in accordance with the Shirley colour scheme, she became Shirley Black.
For all the positives, it wasn’t a smooth start for any of them. There were raised voices, morning and evening; she wasn’t afraid of making herself heard. Neither, it turned out, were the older Shirleys. The presence of a newcomer breathed new life into their old bones, like a bracing wind, and they went about the place with an energy that we hadn’t seen before. We imagined them facing off across the living room, pale versus dark, like the last stages of a tense game of chess, only a few pieces left, and all vying for domination of the board. The little ones watching from the sidelines, like perfect carved ebony pieces.

From behind the kitchen blinds we watched as the children grew under the tough love of their mother and the watchful doting eyes of the two old Shirleys. The boy grew fast and strong, his sister careened along in his wake, slower, shakier. And then a penny dropped one day and hit the floor with an ear-battering clang, as the boy scampered happily after his mother, round and round the garden, and the girl followed so unsteadily, her little legs wobbling more than her elderly godmothers’. The doctor was called, he arrived and went away again, leaving the words “brain damage” echoing in all our heads. Unable to ask, unwilling to pry, we could only speculate in hushed tones about what had caused it.We knew little-to-nothing of her earliest life – she had been up and toddling when she first entered ours. So we did what we could: we rigged up a chair-support with wheels to allow her legs to propel her along, hoping that the muscles would strengthen, feeding off the strength of blind hope. And when that failed and spittle-and-dust opened our eyes to the cruelty of nature, we could only watch her getting weaker, and make sure that she was always comfortable, seated in a patch of sunlight on the soft, mossy lawn.

When she died, we buried her with a small ceremony in a shoebox at the bottom of our garden, with all the other pet chickens that had gone before her to the great chicken coop in the sky. Eventually she was joined by all three Shirleys, as well as her brother Beaky, who became a cockerel of great character and a family legend, and countless other banty friends that came afterwards.

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Trying to come to terms

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In a week where we have been left flabbergasted by selfishness on a huge scale, I finally got around to some unselfish sewing – making a man-garment. It was The Boy’s birthday and I’d promised myself (and him) that I’d finally step out of my comfort-zone of not-too-fitted woman’s clothes and make him something a bit bigger than a bow tie.

However, in the middle of the sewing process something momentous happened in the country of my birth that I found myself pressing with shaking hands and try to thread the sewing machine through a blur of tears. This is not a political blog and I try and keep my political leanings to one side here, so please excuse this slip and believe me when I say that this issue is of such importance to me that I can’t let pass without a short reflection:

Just over a week ago, many of my generation were left shocked and horrified at the thoughtlessness of an older generation who, despite having had the best that Britain had to offer – free university educations, low house prices, good pensions, early retirement – voted in their droves to deprive their children and grandchildren of the freedoms that a united Europe provide, that they themselves had taken full advantage of, such as the ability to work and holiday freely in other European countries such as Germany, France, Austria and Spain.

There are many that say that their leave vote was a protest vote, that they never really expected it to go through (and indeed we saw the leaders of the Leave campaign hurriedly retract their main promises barely 24 hours after the results came through). But I’m not sure if this excuses such a reckless gamble with the futures of younger generations when it was based on little more than nostalgia for Britain in a world that was vastly different to the one we now live in. An unwillingness to let go of a world that no longer exists and look to the future that could be built by current and future generations that still have so much to give.

As young adults we like to think that we’re independent from our parents and the adults that saw us through our formative years, and that we no longer need to look outside ourselves for the wisdom that life experience brings; but if the last week has taught me anything, it’s that I had felt secure in the knowledge that I could rely on the values and lessons that I learned from those adults: the people from whom I learned Christian values of love for others, generosity, unselfishness. Some of the very values that were lost in the bitter campaign of fear, hatred that they succumbed to.
That feeling of security has come crashing down around me; and as the country that I grew up loving seems to disappear under a swell of race-related hate crime and terrifying uncertainty I’m left in (thankfully) another country wondering if there’s anything left of what I left behind three and a bit years ago. It doesn’t feel like the country I grew up in. I don’t recognise it any more.

I saw an article in the Guardian today titled “Poll reveals young remain voters reduced to tears by Brexit result” and I wondered why anyone found this surprising. Quite aside from the loss of freedoms and rights for our futures that the EU had provided, the knowledge that the people you have always looked to for security were complicit in creating this world has been a terrible shock.
It’s taken me more than a week to bring myself to write this. For the first few days the horror of what my country had become kept crashing over me in waves, but it’s less raw now, and I’m able to be a bit more measured about it. I realise that it’s not the end of the world or even of the world as we know it. I don’t know what is going to happen (no-one does) but I know it won’t be Armageddon. I suspect that Britain will continue to be a country with more freedoms than many in this world, but it’s going to take me a while to get over the betrayal. Forgiveness will come, I hope, but it’s going to take some time.

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And Onwards

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As I have a little less than a week left in this little city, I thought I’d post a little collection of some of my favourite things. As much for my recollection as anything.

St Gallen is a long, thin city that sits in a valley which runs, eventually, down to Lake Bodensee. You can see Germany from the top of the hill that runs up from my flat to the nearest fresh milk.

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From almost anywhere in the city you can walk for 20 or so minutes and find yourself in the middle of fields.

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This means fantastic walks in almost any direction.

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At the top of the hills to the south are the Dreilinden lakes where you can swim for free (it’s a rare thing here) in the summer:

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It’s a city of many stairs leading from each level of the city to the next:

A city of stars at Christmastime:

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and where the Christmas tree arrives by Harry Potter helicopter each year:

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And bus- and tram-lines that extend a spider-web of electricity cables over most of the city.

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If you look closely in the top mirror, you can see (upside-down) a reflection of a favourite restaurant, Focacceria.

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And just in case you accidentally find yourself in St Gallen (let’s face it, it’s not exactly on the way to anywhere), here are a couple of places that I’ve enjoyed over the past three years.

Kaffeehaus, Linsebühlstrasse 77 is one of my favourite places. It’s a few minutes walk from the centre of the old town, but it’s conveniently on my way into (and out of) town. It doesn’t hustle, it doesn’t bustle, it’s the perfect place to go to to clear your head. The owner’s quirky style (including piano, trumpet candle-sticks and industrial right-there-in-the-café coffee bean roaster) is just my taste and the coffee is fantastic. I could sit there for hours (and have done), letting the world go by without my participation.

Another coffee shop for a nice but livelier atmosphere is Franz, on the same road but closer to the city, Linsebühlstrasse 35. They also have a garden that’s open in summer and gooooood cakes.

By far my favourite bar is La Buena Onda (Lämmlisbrunnenstrasse 51). Again, quirky style, and as it’s a little way out of the main city (but still conveniently close to my flat) it doesn’t get completely packed out. It seems to attract the non-Swiss locals as well, which makes for a nice atmosphere. And there’s a piano.


There are other places too of course, the Egyptian falafel man in the market place (seriously good) the Abbey is impressive, the library, museums et cetera, et cetera.
I know I’ve complained about you along the way, St Gallen, you might be at the wrong end of the country, you might be a bit on the small side for a city, but it’s been a good ride.

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Chickens and Sewing Boxes

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A few months ago I heard, by chance, about a job in a workshop that’s not two and a half hours (by train) from The Boy, so I decided to get in touch. A number of emails, a couple of visits and a week’s trial later and they offered me the job, which was rather exciting. And then the stress of finishing my long-term projects in my current job, finding a flat and dealing the Kafka-esque bureaucracy (seriously, Switzerland, Das Schloss is a sort of satire; not something to model your system on) hit me. So I was pretty glad to get back to Blighty for 10 days’ break in the real world.

Unfortunately a couple of weeks before I got back we lost all but two of our chickens to the fox. The two that survived were fairly traumatised but seemed to have bonded over the experience. 10 ex-battery hens were parachuted in to comfort them (and to continue the egg supply.) They were unbeLIEVEably scrawny, poor things (my sister described them as oven-ready, which just about nailed it) and looked rather forlorn compared to our remaining, glossy birds.

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The new feathers are coming through, but for now they look a bit like hedgehog spines.

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A feather-duster chicken.

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Ex-battery bottoms, and well-feathered ones.

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This one reminds me of Roadrunner.

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A brave hen investigating an equally brave cat.

I’m normally collared to do a bit of mending whenever I go home, because a) I’m often at a loose end without my own sewing projects and b) I’m still at the stage where I actually rather enjoy it. This time however my dad needed something stretchy mended, and since my mum’s ancient, hand-cranked sewing machine doesn’t do zig-zagging, so I retrieved my Granny’s machine from the loft, got out my other Grandma’s sewing box and used them both. (Actually after a promising start, when I actually came to use the zig-zag stitch I couldn’t get it to work properly. I think there’s a problem with a cam – the needle moves both up and down and side to side, but the two directions aren’t properly in sync with each other.)

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Cat approved.

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Between photographing chickens, trees and sheep, I also managed to get in a bouldering session with my sister, bake two not-entirely-successful batches of hot cross buns and see a number of friends including the little girl who has now thoroughly out-grown this, which I made for her last September:

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And indeed, this (which I hope she hasn’t yet outgrown:)

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Two nights before I left we caught the end of Storm Katie (or rather, the end Storm Katie caught us) and we came down in the morning to find a branch from one of the pine trees in the drive, a dent in the bonnet and the car’s badge on the floor. It’s been around since Lady Di hasn’t, so on its last hubcaps anyway.

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Sunday Evening

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Our car was one of a hundred, a thousand perhaps; like a stream of ants going between waypoints, with nothing to do on the way except ensure that the journey is uninterrupted. Back towards the anthill we marched, and if ants can’t plug in a Walkman and sing along to Tom Waits as they drive it’s only a minor discrepancy. I wonder if ants ever look up at the landscape and objects that they pass, and see that the sun – the first proper sun of spring – is casting a receding golden wash over the top storeys of the taller buildings.
A combination of the sunlight and the grainy booze-infused portal to Tom’s world – a world where the carpet needs a haircut and the piano’s been on the sauce – made me say “Let’s get out and walk for a bit.” And so this particular ant swung out of the column and into a side street. I cut Tom off mid-growl and we left the car and took the flight of steps opposite two at a time. Some internal reserve of energy that I didn’t know about seemed to have been activated by the evening’s somewhat expectant calm. The air whispered, waiting for spring’s tendrils to start pushing through the remains of winter.

The city lies in a valley, the old centre spread across the flat of the valley floor, while the hill sides to north and south are arrayed with fine houses and tall trees watching over the spires and towers and little roof-top terraces, looking out across rural urbia to the hill on the other side. From the winding cobbley street below, the layers upon layers of houses that climb the hills glare stoically, sombrely down. Standing guard. Always watching.
Roads wind up the hill sides, but in between and crammed into the gaps between the houses are flights of wooden-edged stairs. I lost track of how many flights we climbed, chasing the sun’s departing rays. They had already left the tallest towers of the lower city. We had to search higher.

When my breath was clawing like nails at my lungs, I stopped to look back at the city. Fairy lights were wound along a balcony rail below me, even though the sky was still light, and the almost-full moon hung in the branches of a bare, knobbly beech tree like a pale grapefruit. The top of the southern hill opposite – my hill – crested with bristly larch and bottle-brush spruce was turning slowly from green to grey.

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We followed the streets and stairs still further, to the layer of the city before the top, and came out opposite a wall guarding the muddy garden of a monstrous, square white house that squatted on top of the hill like a Vogon settled defiantly in the garden of Eden. Over the Vogon’s shoulder, however, were tantalising wisps of pink cloud promising something far more spectacular. The view from on-tiptoes, on-the-wall, was still unsatisfying. So we took the last flight of stairs and marched up a gravel path until the sky to north and west was as open as it can be in such hilly country.

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We had missed the sun – it couldn’t have been expected to stick around while we climbed 200 or so feet up the hill to see it off – but it had left several thin ribbons of golden fire floating above the hills where it had gone down. The trails of aeroplanes far above shone like little glow-worms. The sky above the hills went from purest gold on the horizon to a greyish winter-blue above us, and fantastic rose and dusky purple clouds crept in from above the lake which lay, unseen, away to our right. The swirls and ripples looked so contrived that in a film it would be mistaken for a lazy CGI job. I said “If we painted this now, exactly as it is, no-one would believe us. They’d say we exaggerated it for effect.”
The strips of gold floated higher and their light began to diffuse. The pink clouds inched closer to the gold. Three teenagers passed behind us, chattering in clipped dialect. Voices high, jeans low. The magic broke. We headed back down the hill.

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The street lights had come on now, like more fairy-lights draped along the streets of a toy town. A couple of snowy mountains peered through a gap in the hills. I wanted to push the hills back so that Säntis had a better view. I watched my feet carefully on the stairs. If I tripped and fell, I might knock over the cathedral, or crash through the carefully-placed little streets and houses.

We didn’t follow the same route back, so as the houses grew once again to full size around us, we turned down a back road and into an unlit street. All of the buildings in the row were dark except for one room, from which light, veiled by semi-transparent gauze curtains, spilled. Muffled swing music seeped out of the room too, and I stopped level with one of the curtained windows. Once my eyes had agreed to ignore the gauze and look into the room beyond, I could see the couples dancing, and the sports hall, the mirror on the opposite wall and exercise balls on a rack above it.

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“That… looks like Lindy Hop” I said. I’m not an expert, but we were taken to a taster lesson by a friend in the area once, and the movements of the dance were distinctive. He laughed and said “It is Lindy Hop!” and we stared some more. I pointed at a large, slightly brooding figure at the far end of the hall: “And that looks like…” He stepped nearer and peered more closely through the curtain. “Yes! It is!” he said. We looked at each other and laughed at the strange serendipity of the moment. The music stopped and the women all moved one partner anti-clockwise. Now that he was standing still we could see more clearly. “And that girl… she was in the group that I was in the mountains with the other week!”
When the music started again we tried to recall the dance steps, but the dancers, far more advanced than we were, gave few clues to the basic steps that we’d been taught. Eventually he hopped over the fence at the side of the building and ran up the sloping path to a small uncurtained window, floor-level on the outside, but high up in the inner sports hall wall. “You can see better from here.” We crouched down and watched, looking like children that hadn’t been invited to the party. “It’s the same teacher we had!” I’d already seen. He was hard to forget. Pale hair and skin; a t-shirt, trousers and a boater-style hat on his head, even when walking, he moved with grace and purpose.
The music, slightly tinny, came through an air-vent a few metres away on the wall, and we attempted the steps again, trying not to stumble off the narrow path into the damp soil beside it.

Eventually I said “You know, we still have to cook this evening.” We climbed back over the fence and ran the rest of the way along the street, feeling like naughty children who have been spying on their elders. We skipped back to the car. The stream of ants was smaller now. We rejoined it and headed back to our anthill.

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Inhabiting A Stereotype

I thought I’d start off the year with something ramble-based rather than sewing-based to indicate my intention of not being a completely sewing-based blog – I seem to have done the opposite of diversify my blog  (whatever that’s called) since I started sewing.

So welcome to the inside of my head.

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Ripping off Shakespeare

Sometimes, dealing with opposing view-points can be fairly humourless. So here is an attempt at some humour.

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Let me not at the barrage of closed minds
attempt intelligence. For not one case
will alter when it quiet reason finds
or, willing, look itself full in the face:
Oh no! It is an ever-fixèd grudge
That reasoned argument believes mistaken;
and each opponent rather just pre-judge
than risk from dreams of black and white awaken.
Waste not one breath, for shouting at a wall
no pain relieved or city reunited;
Waste not brief hours, for time will never stall,
and wasted, patience is, on the short-sighted.
If blinkered anger is their sole resort,
the moral high-ground is my only port.

(And just in case of some 17th century copy-right, here is the original. Check it out. it’s not bad.)

Where I went: West Dean

My Easter break was an extended one – the Friday after Easter was the start of a bi-annual 9-day violin restoration course, which I’d been hoping to attend for some time, and not only because of the fantastic learning environment that everyone who comes back from it talks about. What they also talk about is the almost magical bubble that you disappear into, and the waking-from-dreamland state you find yourself having to deal with at the end of it.

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The Ripples We Cause

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”(Reaper Man)

There are countless Terry Pratchett quotations that describe what such a huge swathe of the population are feeling now, that I can’t do them justice. But here’s one that stuck with me from the moment I read it. So much so that I wrote it on a spare violin rib. Another one from Reaper Man

“The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”

TP2RIP Sir Terry, the wonderful way you sent up the world in your books has provided a welcome breath of fresh air to us for so long. That fresh air will still be breathed for many many many years. Your existence will continue for a long while yet, I wager.

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*sniff*