Monday, 27 December 2010

Pack a Punch

I think we are coming to the end of an era. Bonnie marched up to me on Christmas Eve and fixed me with a glare somewhere between scorn, victory and disappointment. ‘I’ve got something very serious to tell you, Mummy: I’ve found the presents: You are Father Christmas!’ and she led me to a stack of presents in Alan’s wardrobe. ‘I think those are Daddy’s surprise presents for me!’ I whispered ‘Can you keep it a secret?’

It was a long night: ‘You can’t send me to bed; Christmas is a time to be with your family!’ (10pm); ‘I’m indigesting my food’ (11pm); ‘I don’t know whether I believe in father Christmas or not!’ (midnight, weeping); ‘I’m still awake!’ (1.30am).

At some point in the dead of night there was a commotion in the cellar, the crash of falling bottles, a muffled ‘OW! SH*T!!’…but there on Christmas Morning, set before the fireplace, were four piles of presents – magical!

The front room was transformed quickly into a trash can of wrappings, bells and bows, presents small and large tossed aside for the next one, and children lying down on top of the clutter, tapping and stroking their various squillion shmegabite this, that and the others. Alan made grateful noises about his (yes, his) stocking fillers, ‘ah, this edition of Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable…I don’t suppose the new one is much different…’ and tried to understand why the fridge magnet I chose for him ‘Fridge Pickers wear Large Knickers’ made me howl quite so uncontrollably. But soon I was getting twitchy about the mess so disappeared into the kitchen to get down and dirty with Jamie Oliver and ‘pack a punch’ into the maris pipers (‘smash those little babies (garlic) and chuck’em in with the big boys’), speed-peel the apples for a crumble, and of course teach Bonnie to knit right now (‘Father Christmas gets me the best presents’).

Alan was upstairs reading the ingredients on the toothpaste, in fact everyone was relaxing while I was doing my usual clockwork mouse impression, so I roared ‘What exactly are you all doing? Cathy and Johnny (neighbours) are coming in a minute, get dressed all of you, tidy up, teeth, hair, MOVE!!’ (Happy Christmas!), and funnily enough, Alan shot down the stairs a second later looking like that was exactly what he was about to say, and started yelling at the children who bawled: ‘I DIDN’T MAKE THE MESS - YOU’RE SO MEAN’ . Soon it sounded like he might ‘pack a punch’ into something else…

But just then our lovely neighbours arrived for a Christmas Drink, controversially arranged by Alan to start half an hour before we were due at my sisters for Christmas Dinner. ‘We can be flexible’ he’d remonstrated, meaning I should give in and ask her to stall the roast: ‘it’s Christmas – there’s no timetable’ he said (Oh?). I put it to him that he might not feel quite so flexible if he was the one with a duck in the oven already at the crispy stage and no guests in sight. But according to him, my inclination to show up before Ducky was cinders was anal rather than courteous so I delivered my own off-the-air Christmas Lecture, (and this one did ‘pack a punch’) on the subject of ‘I AM EXTREMELY ANGRY*!!*’ in the car on the way to my sisters, switching seamlessly to ‘Hello! Merry Christmas!’ upon arrival. We passed a very pleasant family day, all our lovely children getting a bit of the limelight - mine for stretching the hamster, hers for making the desserts, one a piece. A Merry Christmas To One and All!

Friday, 24 December 2010

We are Family

The serial Christmas Show-watching has drawn to a close. My highlights of the week:

1. Street-dancers, Secondary School Show - bums 'n' boobs, thrust 'n' jerk! - in the faces of the audience of middle-aged parents. Crikey.

2. Eleven year old boy band, same show, crooning ‘I lost my way, oh yeah, the lonely path, oh oh oh’ (‘Marmite soldiers for breakfast please, Mummy!’)

3. Inaudible Brownie Show ‘The Pnshs Oun’, that's all I know.

4. The shocking BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAST of Bonnie’s brass and wind concert: thirty beginner trumpets and clarinets in concert…but not in control. Very frightening.

Now it's just us, time to be together, reconnect. Snow underfoot (what a treat!), arms linked as we stomp across the Heath, then home to a roaring coal fire, tree twinkling, cocoa and muffins, ‘Mummy, do read us a story!’ ‘Yes, darlings, gather round!…Once upon a time...’ We are family.

Seriously, I entered the holiday so SICK of telling them all what to do since September (get up! go to bed! pick it up! eat it! stop eating! do your homework!) I decided to chill, man, after all this is the twenty-first century, things have changed - why would anyone want to make a horrible Christmas decoration when they could be shooting squeaky blobby things? ‘You can do whatever you like’ I said with the magnanimity of one who is about to get two weeks of quality time alone, and they vanished to log on. I closed the kitchen door: haha! I get it now!

But guess what – we can bicker with all the computers and tellies on, as well as off!

Mummy! It’s my turn on the computer. Alfie won’t come off!’
‘She can use the laptop!’
‘The laptop’s rubbish -tell him to get off!’
‘Wait! I’m in the middle of a level!’
‘Five minutes Alfie – be patient Bonnie!’
‘You always take Alfie’s side!’
‘No I don’t - I’m just trying to teach you to be a nice person, Bonnie’
‘You are teaching me to be a nice person badly!’
‘What about the wii, Bonnie – why don’t you go on that?’
‘Maddy won’t let me’
‘Hey - that’s because you always promise to put it away then don’t!’
‘That’s not true Maddy – you got it out first!’
‘You used it last, and it’s mine anyway!’
‘It’s not fair, I can’t buy anything because I haven’t got any money
‘Bonnie, that’s because you spend it all!’
‘No it’s because horrible Mummy fines me all the time for nothing!’
Hey Mummy! She took my chair, I only went to the loo!
‘It’s my turn anyway! Haha! OW! OW! Mummy! MUMMY!!! He hit me!!’
‘She stole my chair!’ and on..and on.. and on.

The screens rule came crashing down. ‘SWITCH IT OFF! AND THAT! AND THAT! OFF! OFF! OFF! NO SCREENS TILL 3PM!’

So Alfie set about entertaining himself:
‘I’m bored. What can I do?’
‘Read your book!’
‘I don’t know where it is’
Look for it, and look properly, don’t just stand still and swivel your eyes about!’
‘Mm.. I’m bored. What can I do?’
‘Empty the dishwasher’ (he is a Junior Citizen now after all).We negotiated a price of 75p
‘You should do chores anyway!!’
So he began, lifting one small plate: ‘Where does this go?’
‘In the left hand cupboard’
‘Where’s the cupboard?’
‘In front of you. Those are the cupboards’
‘What’s the left?’
‘The left cupboard. The cupboard that is on the left.’
(OK, calm down, you can do this).‘What hand do you write with, Alfie?’
‘Um…um…this one!’
‘That’s your left hand... So put the plate in the left-hand cupboard!’…
’Mummy, where does this go…?’ Jesus.

Bonnie can pass twenty minutes or so providing I’m prepared to hoover glitter off the ceiling, and I tricked Alfie into decorating a yule log by inviting a friend of his who likes that sort of thing, but he got his own back: ‘Look Mummy, Father Christmas’s head is in the chocolate butter-cream, and the reindeer’s on his bum ha ha ha!’ ‘Now now boys, don’t be silly!! Let’s just take Santa out and wash his head’.

We did have the snow: ‘Alfie you must stand at least one metre away from Bonnie when you throw compacted snowballs at her face’. But in the main, it’s been hard-going – and still three days to go..

Poor Alan’s working right up to Christmas Eve ‘Sorry Soph, someone has to do it’ (punching the air), and partying after work most nights with some TLA (Three Letter Acronym) or other: ‘RSM tonight – just got to show my face’ (home at midnight) – or worse still, ‘I’ll be home for something to eat’, slipping in as I’m letting rip the final tender goodnights ‘THAT’S IT – YOU’RE NOT GETTING A TUCK IN!’, to boozily fill me in on his plans to offer a human resources service to the entire galaxy by 2012, while I nod and think ‘I forgot the pink shrimps for your stocking’.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Build a Bear

I was BANGING ABOUT quite a bit by breakfast time today; the morning had begun cheerfully enough with a spot of housework, inspecting and sniffing clothes left for me on the floor and categorising them as ‘absolutely filthy’ or – the only alternative - ‘clean!’. Clean items were hurled vigorously at the relevant child’s bedroom door in the laughable hope that they’d pick them up and put them away when they came out of hibernation; the absolutely filthy stuff was bundled downstairs with me into the kitchen, where with some dismay I came upon a mixed up mountain of screwed up school uniforms, uneaten packed lunches made by me, revision notes, football boots (uncleaned by busy husband), important letters for parents to read and return the slip two months ago, etc etc - all dropped on the floor to keep me humming. The brain-mangling thought of asking the children to tidy their stuff up, and them replying ‘In a minute!’ for six years made me hang onto the wall for support. No, I’d be Nice Mum - ‘Quicker if I do it!’ - and started putting everything away. But in my experience there is an inverse relationship between shovelling shit and good cheer, so soon I was muttering ‘...I am just a drudge. They are animals!....Jesus!..’ working myself up into a lather as they slept on and on...

So when Bonnie came down for her cornflakes and placed a note regarding Christmas presents under my nose: ‘I want a pet – any pet to call my own’ (a dog – she’s had all the others) the answer was ‘No, definitely no!’ And Alan has provided bullet points: 1. buying Bonnie a dog would be rewarding bad behaviour 2. if you can’t find time to iron a shirt once in a while, how will you walk a dog? (and it will be you y’know!) a puppy would make raising Bonnie look like a picnic…but Bonnie wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer, so it was mind games (‘if you loved your child…’) and then a little picture to show how she felt - of a sweetie jar, but labelled ‘Mummy Posenings’(sic) carefully placed next to the first note. Nice one.

Never mind – Bonnie and I had plenty of time to sort out our differences for we were going to spend hours and hours and hours together buying her a Christmas present at Build-a-Bear in Covent Garden which if you haven’t been there is a soft toy shop where children ‘make’ (loosely) their own unique mass-produced bear: they stuff a (rather grotesque) empty bear skin, rub its heart against their own to show how much they love it, (gush), rub it on their ears so it listens to their secrets (gushgush), and give it ‘the kiss of life’. ‘I’m sorry’ I interjected at this point ‘is it dying then??’ (sharp look from Bonnie)).

Bonnie named her bear ‘Treasure’ (oh please) amended to ‘Max’ due to me raising my eyes to the ceiling, and then chose Max an extensive range of fashionable outfits and accessories. We queued with the other harassed Mums and Dads preparing to cough up, and the Grannies shakily writing cheques for God knows how much, thinking ‘bless me, that’s three million shillings and 29d – I had to make do with a walnut!’ We were even offered an extra Christmas Build-a-Bear for only £5!! instead of the usual £10 because we’d already proved we were stupid so maybe we‘d go round again and buy some more clothes for that one!

By the time we’d reached the Underground, Bonnie’d had enough of rubbing Max on her heart, ears, and wherever else - indeed she’d had enough of carrying him at all, so it fell to me to lug him and his wardrobe home, despite my bad back acquired in the name of love (and a good bargain) the day before; I’d bought a second-hand table football table for Alfie's Christmas present. ‘No, I don’t need any help getting it in the car!’ I’d trilled, (musn’t be any trouble!) then fought with the thing for half an hour, its rods sliding in and out of my hair and hooking my trouser belt, trying to look as if I was merely interested in all the packing options. Eventually I lay under the thing, raised it up on my back and charged at the open boot of the car with such force I managed to launch myself and the table up and over the middle seats, only casualties a few staples in my thumb, and a bad back.

That’s two presents ticked off already – easy!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Advent Calendars

Call me a silly old maid, but I do like a traditional Advent Calendar, definitely no chocolates, just little Mary or the donkey (clip-clop!) peeping out of a window to warm the cockles and give a flicker of meaning to this daft and directionless existence…The children, however, are willing to forego time-honoured tradition in favour of a cheap choc with their cornflakes.

Obviously, I don’t get my way, so we end up with both kinds, and sneer vigorously at each others’ calendars:

‘Chocolates first thing! YUK! Look at my lovely Nativity Scene!’
‘Bully for you, Mummy! You are living in the dark ages – everybody has a chocolate advent calendar these days! We don’t just want boring old pictures. Yum yum - this chocolate is delicious!’

Sometimes I break down and ask them for a bit.

This year, though, I had a plan: I’d ask Bonnie to make the Advent Calendar. That’d get her on side, and the others wouldn’t dream of hurting her feelings by buying chocolate calendars (this bit had me edgy, I’ll admit). We’d gather around her lovely home-made calendar each morning; what heart-warming yuletide image would surprise us today?! The Three Kings? The Star of Gabriel? I couldn’t wait!

‘Bonnie’ I said, pulling up a chair conspiratorially, ‘Would you do me a big favour? Would you make our advent calendar this year? Completely secret from the others mind you….’ She bought it hook, line and sinker, and set to with pens and paper behind a cereal packet at the end of the table…

Josie was tense and shouty, in the middle of GCSE mocks: ‘I know nothing at all. I don’t care how many times you say I’m good at maths, I am not. You are just making me more upset. And I need total quiet; how long are you going to be banging about?’

So I went away to offer Maddy some guidance with her crucial science test (GET UP!!). She’d flunked the previous one by being in her flute lesson instead (‘Wh-wh-what? WHAT?? Didn’t you say anything to your teacher?’ ‘You want me to learn the flute don’t you?’). I spoke crossly to the motionless lump in her bed: ‘You are not to leave the house until you have revised all thirteen chapters of the Science Revision Guide!’ Excellent – everybody sorted! Now I was free to go Christmas shopping.

Two hours later, frozen with indecision and full of loathing for Christmas, I returned home, to find a house buzzing with activity: Alan was under the covers with the radio memorising weather forecasts in case I tried to switch our so-called heating off; Alfie was sitting on a blank sheet of homework, googling ’Thirty ways to annoy your little sister’; Josie was weeping in the bath (‘All this work is killing me!’); and all that remained of Maddy was a note explaining that, unfortunately, she’d had to go straight to her sleepover party, otherwise she would have missed kick-off and therefore a tiny fraction of the TV and junk consumption planned for the next twelve hours. She was now uncontactable because her phone was in a bowl of rice(obviously) to draw out the moisture that had got inside it when she dropped it down the loo. But don’t worry - she’ll do all the revision whenever she shows up tomorrow, full of get-go after four hours’ sleep. Only dear Bonnie – never any trouble from her – was engaged in anything remotely constructive, still diligently drawing Advent Calendar pictures behind the cereal packet. I mounted her lovely little pictures, placing the stable scene in the 24th December window with a frisson of excitement.

Best laid plans and all that – sadly, my Advent Calendar scheme was scuppered at the eleventh hour; Bonnie was given a chocolate Advent Calendar at Brownies! (thank you so much, Brown Owl). It was only a matter of time until the rest of the children had chocolate calendars too…

Still, we all gathered round on December 1st for the Grand Opening of the first window of Bonnie’s calendar... and...there it was! MARY HOLDING BABY JESUS!!!

I sat down. Oh dear. ‘Can someone give me a chocolate, please?’

Friday, 3 December 2010

Forty Winks

The trouble with loving child-free hours with the kind of passion usually associated hours, especially now that bedtime for Josie and Maddy seems to be when-they-decide-o’clock, is that I have to stay up really late for a fix of unencumbered pottering. The resulting daytime sleep deficit means that I tend to nod off at important moments in my childrens’ lives. This does not look good on me.

For one, I accompanied Josie to her first 6th form Open Day recently, which entailed hopping and shuffling along (bags and coats were my job) in the wake of my lovely girl as she strode forth into her new life, delicately, shyly smiling around her and lobbing back showers of leaflets for the old crow to snatch at with a wizened claw. Eventually we sat down for the head teacher’s sales pitch - with a friend of Josie’s, also with mum in tow, whom I politely greeted (wishing I was more shabby chic than shabby shit) and blow me it wasn’t five minutes before I’d nodded off, head in lap!

I can only explain the next inappropriate sleeping incident as an unconscious refuge from a ghastly situation; I’d booked Bonnie onto a fashion drawing workshop with her friend only to discover that I was to be the fashion model (‘Do a pose! Hands on hips and throw your head back!’). Silk purse and sow’s ear came to mind (oh, Mummy, you don’t really look beautiful’); my best bet was a seated pose hiding awkwardly beneath my designer bonnet (accessories were provided). Next thing was a tap on the leg ‘You’re not supposed to be asleep!’ (the instructor).

Now then, playing Maid of Honour to Bonnie as she prepared for her Tudors assembly - the elaborately twisted hair, the phone calls to a friend (got to look the same), the white lies ‘that scarf turns your best party dress into an exact Jane Seymour lookalike, it really does!’ – were all par for the course. But when the call came from school because Bonnie had lost the whole costume on the way to school and was 'upset' (what d'you want me to do about it?) I was obliged to ricochet around (pant, pant) piecing together a duplicate costume, run to school (puff, puff) with it - I guess I was all done in by the time I sat down to watch the actual performance, and it was all snug and warm...before I knew it the Head was thanking us for coming!

So after all that, I was in deep doggy-do for having no recollection of the assembly at all. But never mind, at the next week's music concert, I made a point of waving like a nut to my little treasures on the stage - to prove I was alert and raring to watch, listen and learn. I needn’t have worried; the music centre’s policy of introducing children to improvisation before they’ve learnt to write their name, and the resulting tuneless peeps and toots (audience nodding and ‘digging’ it, of course), always causes a forbidden hysteria to bubble up in my chest which I have to close my eyes to control, certainly no chance of a nap. Nor at Josie’s concert the next evening, for I was just settling down for a little shut eye in the Senior Guitars when Bonnie began asking loudly and repeatedly for snacks, and jumping violently off the rickety scaffolding supporting the audience seating (thud) just as the extremely talented jazz trumpeter who was supposed to be inspiring Bonnie to practice her trumpet was doing his thing. She climbed up behind me and whacked me on the shoulders ‘BOO!’ and it was home time for us: ‘Go to bed, Bonnie’. ‘No, you go to bed Mummy - you’re the one who’s always ‘so tired’…'Yes, I should' I said, 'but I just have a little pottering to do first...’

Friday, 26 November 2010

Especially for You, Grandma!

Alfie returned from his week at the Outdoor Education Centre, Pendarren, in Wales last week in fine fettle. ‘It was great!’ he said ‘I achieved my challenge!’ (Aah! He went away a boy, came back a man!) ‘What was the challenge, son?’ ‘I didn’t poo all week!’

‘Was it beautiful? Were there mountains?’ ‘Dunno. Listen, we had sausages twice for breakfast, and bacon once!!’ ‘Woah! And what did you do all week?’ ‘Oh, stuff…I was posted down this like letter-box thing in this like cave thing…’ I waited for a little detail on the geological niceties of the River Adventure Walk, the Coastal Visit (ox-bow lakes, cliff slump…this could trigger a life long passion for geography!) but that was the end of the report: sausages, bacon, being posted through a hole.

At bedtime he suddenly disappeared under his blanket and started heaving with grief over the paltry amount of post I’d sent! (one letter, chocolate enclosed).’Everyone else got a letter every day. I only got one all week!’

'But the purpose of going away is to experience separation, independence..’ I protested. But as he nodded, understanding, but crying still, I pictured the little waif, forgotten, watching clouds of love floating from London to Wales into laps other than his (oh oh oh) and I was all of a choke (Poor him! No – poor me! I didn’t know! I do my best!..sort of). I could barely get the words out for Alan downstairs: ‘Everyone else got a letter every day!’ sniff sniff ‘I only sent one!’ sniff.

Things perked up the next morning when Alfie presented me with a gift of Vanilla Fudge from Pendarren (labelled ‘Especially for You, Grandma!’). After a polite but humorous reference to the labelling, I thanked him profusely, fancying myself his favourite. He then presented it to Alan, which wiped the smile off my face, Alan glancing at me nervously, fancying himself the favourite, until I put him straight (‘he gave it to me too!’). Next he gave the coveted fudge to Maddy (he was really enjoying himself now) but she saw straight through him, as wild horses wouldn’t get him spending his own cash on a sibling, especially since he’s still10g of crisps down from when she got a maxi pack and he a multi-pack in the Summer..

As well as Vanilla Fudge and memories of better breakfasts, Alfie brought home with him a spectacularly bad temper (he was wrecked), one run-of-the-mill altercation over the tomato ketchup resulting in blood curdling psycho-screams, a pillow through the air, a shattered light fitting, and shards of lighted glass raining down on our heads (Lord!). I gathered my thoughts (‘sooner or later, someone is going to die’) but that didn’t help, and there wasn’t time to consult my parenting manual about what to do when your child smashes white hot tungsten because his sister won’t pass the ketchup, so, sobered in the presence of lunacy, I chose understatement: ‘Alfie, that behaviour was unacceptable’. This set the psycho-screams off again, so I changed tack and shut up, and Alan and I dropped to all fours, tipping our heads this way and that, trying in the dark to distinguish glass from general flotsam (Everybody don’t move! Put your shoes on! I can’t reach my shoes if I don’t move!). Alfie’s opponent hid in the loo, denying foul play of course, refusing to come out ‘it’s not safe’, all of which distracted us from bickering over the heating (silver lining!) for ‘tis the season to be boiled alive in our house, it being past 1st November.

By the end of Sunday, a hollow-eyed human shock absorber (formerly a mum) suggested a trip to that Mecca for parents who’ve thrown in the towel - The 99p Shop. They were out of safety helmets, which was evidently what we needed, but they did have just the gold spangled Reindeer ornament we were looking for to guarantee a truly great Christmas, and also Poptastic Corn for munching before the TV, which I couldn’t get on quick enough when we got home, faith in family life restored.

‘What about the disco at Pendarren?’ I asked Alfie (nosey parker), as we snuggled. ‘Well some of the teachers were really dancing a lot!’ he said, demonstrating by throwing his arms about violently (I am hoping there are no regrets in that department). ‘And you, did you ask anyone to dance?’ I coaxed. ‘I danced with the Vanilla Fudge’ he said.

Friday, 19 November 2010


Alan has taken my advice – plan ahead! prioritise! – and wrapped it up in a super little management mantra: ‘Fail to plan - plan to fail!’ (uh huh!), which he recites to me with the zeal of the reformed whenever we run out of milk.

I’ll give you planning, I thought. So today, I decided to print all my ice-cream labels for the Christmas season in advance. But the computer had other ideas: ‘Oops - you don’t appear to be connected!’ it said. I chortled a little to be polite, and my fingers started trembling. By the time I’d exhausted my self-help checklist (switch off switch on/stare at the screen and cry/whack the keyboard hard) it was time to text Alan ‘THREE COMPUTERS NO INTERNET’ (no pleasantries) but he must have had something trivial on like a deadline so it was back to the computer for round two. I was down in one - the computer was now so infected, it was DEAD - my ice-cream labels were probably being virally annihilated right now!!

I hurtled downstairs and threw myself at another computer: ‘Oops – you don’t appear to be connected!’ It was getting funnier all the time. At least this computer was still allowing word processing (for how long ??) so I began making all the labels again, quick, heart thumping, but the lettering came out all grey! DELETE! DELTE!! DELETE!!! ‘GO AWAY YOU GREY STUFF!!’ I shouted. I texted Alan ‘WORDS ALL GREY EMERGENCY!’

Then the doorbell rang and it was the plumber about our stinky loo.

I hoped he hadn’t heard me shouting at the computer and showed him to the offending toilet, at which point we both started breathing through our mouths. Could he find the leak please, said I? His investigations concluded that somebody had had ‘a little accident’ (‘no offence, Madam, do you have sons?’) and urine had collected on the floor around the base of the toilet.…the cure was disinfectant (ie clean it). Feeling like a clot I forced a laugh as I handed over £45, but boy was this plumber thorough! Just to be sure, we were going to do a ‘controlled experiment’ (scientific!) which was to flush flush flush (that was my job!) but not use the loo (finger-wag) and keep an eye out for ‘fresh moisture’. No fresh moisture - no leak! Brilliant! No sooner had he gone than I was wrapped around the toilet, sniff-sniff-sniff, wipe-wipe, flush-flush, noting with mixed feelings that I was better equipped for solving problems involving urine than software.

That was the successful part of the day. Toilet ‘fixed’ (we won’t tell Alan the full story), it was time for self-improvement, a two-part affair: first, try to switch the TV on, second, watch the news. I retrieved handfuls of remotes from their storage locations on the floor and worked through them all press point press point press point (which was cheating) until one of them switched on our snazzy digital flat screen TV, Alan’s pride and joy, which boasts fantastic picture quality and advanced facilities such as moving pictures on the first Wednesday of the month, but otherwise offers a random light show with sporadic commentary, the missing clauses probably nestling in the underworld somewhere with my labels…MY LABELS!!

I swooned to hear the key in the door. Alan had barely got his coat off and I had him by the scruff of the neck, pushed him towards the computer screen and hissed in his ear ‘Look at it! Look at the stupid thing! The writing’s all grey!’ He did a little lateral thinking, and, with infuriating calm, downloaded the evasive ice-cream labels onto a memory stick from the dead computer (‘it was dead, completely dead!’) during some viral remission advertised exclusively to people who already know what they’re doing. He gave me the memory stick. ‘All sorted – and you should have a back up, anyway: fail to plan – plan to fail!’

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Change Rather Than A Break

Just had a night away with the children, my sister and her girls! Stratford Upon Avon was our destination – ‘Avon’s the river, Stratford is upon the river – so that makes Stratford Upon Avon!’ ‘OK OK Mum, calm down’. We would not only see the outside of William Shakespeare’s house, but also the town’s beautiful river - they were all ears I can tell you. I’d even borrowed simple versions of Shakespeare’s plays from the library to get us in the mood; Julius Caesar went well, but alas when it came to The Tempest, we were in such a knot with Sycorax, Trinculo, Caliban and the rest, the Shakespeare programme died a dry death and the remainder went back to the library unread.

‘This is a great chance to tick off a few jobs!’ I said to Alan, smiling widely and and placing the drill on top of the Sports page; if I was taking three children and one psychopathic sergeant major out of the vicinity – a change rather than a break – naturally he’d want to grab the opportunity to fix all the hooks and rails I’d assembled for his convenience back onto the walls for a bit until they crumbled off again.

At the service station Bonnie realised with a jolt that she’d behaved for thirty minutes, so demanded I buy her a large soft monkey. When I said 'no', she beat me at length about my person with the monkey she had in mind, shaming me in public. I used my various unsuccessful parenting techniques: ‘You really like this monkey don’t you? Maybe you could ask Father Christmas…’; I had a go at laughing it off (ow!); and finally I drew her to one side (‘You’re a thug!’) and wondered if I could send her home by courier. Alfie suggested she save up but it was fingers in ears ‘I’m not listening I’m not listening’ and there was violence. We all silently thought ‘Good!’ while she howled, waiting for me to tell Alfie off, but I said ‘You need to think about your behaviour Bonnie’. ‘No’ she said ‘you need to think about yours’ !!!!!!, which three junctions later, I found myself doing, damn it. I should have bought her the monkey. No I shouldn’t. Yes I should. It was beginning to feel like a holiday.

We followed my sister off the motorway, noting with wonder her uncanny ability simultaneously to map-read, remember how many right angles she had turned her car, and maintain a non-life-threatening in-car environment without resorting to hydrogenated vegetable oil snacking or walloping. We drew up at the suitable lunch spot she had identified, signalled by the rumble of a cattle grid (wehey!) which put the children on red-alert of a walk, but fear not, it was pouring with rain, so we were allowed to eat lunch inside the steamed up cars. There was a heart-stopping moment when Maddy tried to reveal the allegedly stunning view by wiping the condensation off the windscreen with her hand! – ‘STOP!!’ we all screamed, united in adversity: ‘DADDY WILL HAVE TO USE THE CLEAN-EAZIES!!’ He gets very upset about fingerprints.

Onwards for a pretty but soggy walk along the river in Stratford ('I’m not moaning but how long is this walk? About fifty metres. What??!! How long is fifty metres anyway?') Through the town and into the Shakespeare shop where Bonnie, fingering the Shakespeare Fudge, had the brainwave that she needed something to show and tell at school so how’s about it? I came over all generous and purchased a book of Shakespeare Plays in comic-strip style for poor Bonnie who had therefore to be grateful in a pissed off kind of way. ‘You see I do buy you things’ I said.

Finally we were wet and fed up enough to check in to our Youth Hostel accommodation, described as a mansion in the brochure – white pillars and all! The children knew it couldn’t possibly be luxurious if we were staying there, but when we let slip that breakfast was included (compulsory obviously) they could barely contain their excitement; this was the big time...

We played the usual jolly games all night, levelled after a few rounds to allow for age and ability (let’s just say I wasn’t in the top group..) - and we still had the highlight to come – free breakfast, I mean Warwick Castle! The next morning, replete with double hash browns, sausage and egg, we powered up the castle’s towers, round the turrets, along the battlements, and down to the dungeons - bulging paunches befitting a Tudor monarch in fact - and home again to dear Mr DIY and his Tales of Unforeseen Drilling Challenges Mightily Overcome.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Trick or Treat!

Having been tricked into going to the Imperial War Museum right at the beginning of half-term before they’d had a chance to gather their wits and superglue themselves to the TV, the children were no way going anywhere interesting (free) again; they were not legally obliged, or paid, to do so, and there was plenty of sitting to be done! So by the time Halloween arrived at the end of week, the unremitting tedium of tidying up and wiping down after them without going anywhere or doing anything had put me in the most fearful grump.

When Maddy hauled a sack of oranges through the door for carving into ghouls, there being only one rotten pumpkin left in the shops by reason of its vast dimensions and putrid stink (which she bought too, oh good!), I should therefore have encouraged the urge to do something. But the mood I was in, I foresaw mountains of orange gloop topping off my week of slopping out all things uneaten, regurgitated or fallen off a shoe, and, miserable old goat that I am, supplied every kill-joy discouragement I could muster.

The children ignored me (rightly so) and got on with carving the oranges, nominating me – told you! - as orange slush wipe-upper. ‘You should be eating all that lovely orange inside!’ I winged. 'We need to leave room for all the trick or treat sweets later' they said, sensibly, which left me to sloosh down so much orange pulp I was bloated enough to stand in for the mouldy pumpkin. They did have a go at carving the yukky pumpkin as it happens, using pins to hold errant soggy fangs in place (which incidentally put paid to the horrible baked pumpkin I like to unveil around this time of year) and I have to say we had quite a lovely display of Jack O'Lanterns out the front this year, thanks to Maddy.

Bonnie wanted to dress up as a spider, and had the ridiculous notion of buying it, but I reminded her that in this house we were too mean to buy costumes so we made them, and anyway wasn’t it more fun? (clearly, from the stony look on her face) ‘We’ set about creating Incy Wincy with old black tights and tissue paper and she sulked, envisaging the hugely expensive bought spider costume she’d be wearing if she wasn’t so underprivileged.

Josie saved the day, thank goodness, by drawing a fabulous spider’s web all over Bonnie’s face, which moved when she screwed up her nose, and which Alfie thought was ‘sick’ when he returned from the golf course with Alan!!! (it’s a conspiracy now; additional golf slotted in under the heading ‘childcare’). I was so grateful Alan had returned after I’d cleared up for the fiftieth time I told him to get off the bed he was planning to have a rest in, he wasn’t supposed to be enjoying himself for such large chunks of the weekend, and to help by putting the carved oranges and rotten pumpkin out the front with candles inside.

Before you could say ‘Woooooooo’ it was time to step out. A few witchy rags, a wrinkled and craggy face that only forty-five years’ neglect could conjure up, and ‘Abracadabra!’ I was a witch to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, Alfie was more scared of knocking on strangers' doors than the householders were of his age five Devil outfit, so a certain large witch ended up with the starring role, cackling ‘Trick or Treat!’ in his place, which was very grim indeed. We were home again in twenty minutes, where a shiny-eyed Bonnie was flaunting a full bucket of sweets commensurate with a proper evening’s trick or treating, kindly ‘sharing’ the ones she didn’t like with her siblings. ‘Don’t steal any!’ she warned us as she went up to bed, and I nodded and swallowed whole the chocolate toffee already in my mouth.

Friday, 29 October 2010


‘Autumn half-term already?.. how wonderful..’ I thought. ‘I can spend even more time with the children. Let’s kick-start the fun times with a family outing, and what better place than the Imperial War Museum, especially as Alfie’s ‘studying’ World War Two at school; we can be good parents and support the learning!

I put the idea to him this morning and he was surprisingly keen: ‘It’s really annoying at school; just because we’re like children we always have to learn like what children did in the war – what they ate, what they wore, it’s so like boring...We never get to learn about the killing and the fighting!’ So proud of him.

It did mean taking Bonnie somewhere she hadn’t chosen of course, but we couldn’t always kowtow to her, just most of the time.

An hour later, I was growling ‘BONNIE!! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?’ and flying after her, laden with coats, sweating, as she nipped in and out of pillars at the museum. ‘YOU!’ she yelled ’YOU ARE THE PROBLEM! OW! YOU’RE HURTING ME! I DIDN'T WANT TO COME TO THIS BORING MUSEUM IN THE FIRST PLACE!’

So instead of engaging with the exhibits, the torpedo sound-effects, The Battle of Britain footage, and Alan’s erudite commentary of course, we were actually engaged in The Battle of Bonnie, who stationed herself twenty metres away, retreating if we tried to capture her, but shrieking ‘don’t just abandon me!’ as loudly as she could, if we walked off. She’d keep this up until we left, or bought her something from the shop.

Obviously you can handle the antics of an eight-year-old when you have forty-five years of life experience, fifteen of childcare, in the bank…it’s only for variety that I hop daily, hourly, between strategies; there’s Ms Calm (hush now, tell me all about it); Ms Feisty (let’s get this sorted!), Ms Easy Going (whatever..), Ms Boundaries (I’m going to count to 3..’), but mostly there’s Ms F*K!!SH*T!!!!

Oliver Sacks advises counter-intuitive ultra-love in cases of really abominable behaviour. We are to offer the miscreant a weekend of early-life close cuddly love to ‘reboot’ the child back into good behaviour (now booting I could do). Something – intuition perhaps? – told me that counter-intuitively giving my child a big bear hug when I most felt like throttling her was not going to sit easily with my sense of fair play, but although a whole weekend of being fake was more than I could stomach, I was up for strategic spurts of ultra love.

I started the first day with a twinkle in my eye: ‘Hug??’ but was given a wide berth, in fact all my overtures the first day back-fired: ‘If you could have anything you wanted for tea, what would it be, darling?’ ‘McDonalds’ ‘Oh, well I didn’t mean going out..’ ‘We never go out, not like everyone else...’

The second day I planned a love-in on the settee, sitting close while she watched TV and slithering down until I eventually, pathetically, laid my head on her lap, looking up her nose, like a dog wanting its’ tummy tickling. I got a bit of a pat, then she said ‘Mummy, I can’t breath, get off me,’ and went to play next door, leaving me alone with Dennis and Gnasher.

Day three and she asked to make ‘cakes or brownies’ with me! Ultra-love was paying off! We were REBOOTING! It was only five minutes until we had to leave for Brownies, but I counter-intuitively agreed to make cakes in a ridiculous timescale, and skidded around the kitchen gathering butter, cocoa, sugar at break-neck speed. We’d just covered the counter in cocoa powder and flecks of hard butter, when she cried ‘This is rubbish, Mummy - there’s hardly any mixture! There are thirty Brownies and they need one each!’ and started sobbing. At this point I realised I’d mis-heard at the outset: she’d said ‘Cakes for Brownies’. So this was not about wanting to bake with Mom, it was about parading into Brownies, platter in hand - ‘Look at me – aren’t I the Bee’s Knees?!’ ‘Oh forget it!’ I said, hurt and disappointed, and chucked the spoon down with more force than I ought, making her jump, and undoing all the ultra-love with a seriously intuitive ding dong of vitriol and self-pity which was neither Ms Calm, Ms Feisty, Ms Easy-going, or Ms Boundaries, just Ms Shamefully Bad.

No, counter-intuition wasn’t for me. I returned to the world of random parenting some time ago. I think it was Ms Unconditional Love who put in an appearance at the end of that museum trip and bought a small gift for Bonnie from the shop to reward her bad behaviour. Or was it Ms Inconsistent...?

Friday, 22 October 2010

Driver's Dream Day

Sometimes I wonder who’s the child around here: ‘I want my special 50th birthday surprise this weekend, not six months after my birthday’ said Alan. He was positively pouting! He made a great fuss of rearranging the covers, turned over with a big bang (we were in bed) and made as if to go to sleep.

The Birthday Boy was tired and fractious – too much excitement in one day; work had made a huge fuss of him, balloons and cakes, then a family meal out, the present opening ceremony…and now it was a whole year until his special day came round again. It wasn’t fair! ‘OK, OK,’ I soothed, ‘You can have your birthday surprise this weekend…but now it’s sleepy-time; you’re overtired’ and I patted him to sleep.

The birthday surprise I had planned was a ‘Drivers Dream Day’ – he’d drive a Ferrari around a racing track, then be driven ultra fast as a passenger by a professional, and then we’d both be thrown about in a jeep. A meal out and a night away with his loved one (me) would top it off…a gift of preposterous lavishness in my view, but there’s a history…

In the early years, I knitted him socks, painted him pictures, shyly waiting for an appropriate exclamation ‘Ah! You knitted me socks - they are unique and demonstrate true love’, but instead he’d look confused and a smile would play about his lips, almost a giggle. ‘Thankyou’ he would say, awkwardly (‘you cannot be serious!’) and that was the last I saw of the socks. Some of the paintings made it to low grade walls, upstairs loo or some such, others straight to storage until a polite interval had passed until the frames could be reused; whereas in my austere upbringing, a single modest but thoughtful gift in familiar wrapping paper was a fitting climax to a birthday (thankyou Mother, I was hoping for a new dictionary!), in his, the splurge factor demanded big, posh, shiny stuff – Moet Chandon! Leather bound volumes! Swedish furniture! Thick wrapping paper, curly bows, silken flowers.…

In the event he was delighted with his Drivers Dream Day (though I’m sure he’d have accepted Monaco, if Pro-Drive Birmingham hadn’t been available) and he whizzed around like, well, a 50 year old in a Ferrari. I crossed my fingers - he made a respectable 120mph top speed, upped to 130mph in the retelling - and I took photos of him next to his wheels (cut off his head, but I was forgiven on this special occasion). We were still awash with day; no food loop - fridge, counter, cooker, table, counter, fridge, counter, cooker - to fill the hours; no sweet chirpings - ‘Mummy I’m bored what’s for tea he hit me Mummy Mummy answer me!’ - to fill the silence, so we sat and talked.. We discussed the children of course, the grandparents, which is the same conversation, but also the future! the past! fiscal policy! (joke). We were positively chattering!!

We got back, unpacked and had a cup of tea, and when I heard the adverts in the front room, I thought I’d let the children welcome us home, so went in to see them. ‘Hello everyone! We missed you!’ ‘Hello, Mummy’ they said ‘just move to the side will you? – this advert’s so cool.’

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Take It Easy!

Sundays. Homework - Aaaaaaargh!!! I had my breezy homework voice at the ready today: ‘Alfie, can you get your homework out, please?’ He clutched his head with his hands. ‘OH NO NO NO!’ and threw himself headlong onto the kitchen floor where he remained. ‘Get your bag please.’ I was terse. He didn’t move. ‘Bag Alfie!’ ‘I can’t reach it…oh.. oh..’

Eventually stage one was complete; he got the bag, and I took out the homework out (it’s only fair). We were delighted to find THREE pieces of homework for Alfie to immerse himself in. If he needed a little help, all the better, I could find out what he was up to at school: fantastic!

First up, spellings (heavy phonetic slant (funetick slarnt), but we have to choose our battles). Next, oh joy, make sentences out of them! What with a) thinking-and-coming-up-with-nothing b) writing Mummy’s ‘suggestion’ and c) rubbing it out and then writing it in English (including an interval for throwing it across the room), I was more than happy to let Alfie knock out one long and meaningless sentence with all twenty spellings in it, and if the teacher didn't like it, they could see me outside.

Maddy was slumped in her dressing gown (it was only noon) snipping pancake into one centimetre squares, arranging them in patterns on her plate, sprinkling teensy bits of sugar onto each one, then selecting one at a time to pop into her mouth, an activity designed to make breakfast last until steam came out of my ears, there being no escape from homework today. She’d spent most of the previous day loosely ‘doing her art’, resulting in one single (but very nice) pencil line, several back-episodes of Ugly Betty (‘I’ve got to catch up’), some internet purchases (‘You want me to get Daddy a birthday present, don’t you?’), and a chocolate cake (wholesome activity, wrong time). ‘Maddy, can you finish your art now?’ I ground my teeth. ‘Oh, I rubbed it out’ she said dreamily, ‘I didn’t like it.’ ‘WHAT??? That was a whole day's work!! Well get on with something else, come on! Just tell me if you’re stuck..’ So she called me after a bit: ‘If you mix hydrochloric acid and zinc hydroxide, what do you get?’ ‘Well, let me see..’ I said, ‘Er, hold on..zinc’m sure we can um..have you got a book…?’ but her phone was jingling, and took priority of course, so I returned my attention to Alfie.

The slow, even breaths and closed eyes told me that he was keen to begin his ‘research’ task; ‘find and draw a ‘Sedar Plate’’. ‘Look it up in a book first’ I said (‘We’re not allowed to, my teacher said we had to use the internet’). I dragged him over to Alan’s awful Childrens’ Encyclopedia Brittanica 1952 edition, stacked for easy access behind the old videos. ‘Use the index!’ I chirruped. He half-heartedly nudged at the pages with one hand so he could still suck his thumb. ‘It’s too heavy, it hurts..’ he whined ‘Alfie, make an effort – use two hands you silly boy!’.

I cut my losses and skimmed the Very Lengthy History of Judaism Not Including Sedar Plates while he groaned on the floor (‘Why can’t I use the computer like everyone else?’), interest levels slipping sub-zero, then I rocketed up the stairs to fetch our fancy new ‘Wow’ picture encyclopedia: ‘Ssssssssssssssedar – what letter do you think it starts with….?’ I reminded him how the alphabet went and he managed to find the S’s, when suddenly my heart skipped a beat because there, in the index, was ‘Sedar Plate’ as clear as day! He turned up the colour photo of it, annotated, and I could hold back no more: ‘IT’S THERE! IT’S THERE IN THE BOOK! WE’VE FOUND IT!’ I yelled, hysterical, tearful. Josie came running ‘What’s the matter? What happened?’ ‘Shall we photocopy it?’ shouted Alfie, riding on my brilliant mood. ‘No, your teacher is definitely going to want a drawing of this lovely photo, labelled by hand!’ I said, and galloped off to fetch pen and paper. ‘Take it easy, Mummy’ he said, ‘you need a rest from all this homework!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Very Rewarding!

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but we have taken the plunge and embraced the convivial family evening meal! The full a la carte is back on of course, which means tipping out the fridge and cupboards on to the table and getting stuck in; and for me, it means being butler, chef and general drudge as usual, but also eating and looking as if I’m listening to the conversation as well. But surely the laughs, the debate, the refuelling amongst those you love, will repay the effort ten-fold - this could be very rewarding!

Conversation is tops:
‘Soph, I had a very productive DMT meeting with the LGO sub-committee today – Bonnie, I said I don’t want a ponytail, take the ribbon out!‘
‘Mummy when you make this stuff can you not put all those kinda like green bits in it, then I won’t have to pick them all out-’
‘Maddy, why are you holding your spaghetti up to the light?’
‘I’m checking there’s nothing in it.’
‘Sorry Alan, very productive what?…Alfie! Don’t you dare put your cucumber under the chair – PICK IT UP NOW!’
‘I can’t reach…can you get it?’
‘Bonnie knitting needles don't go in tomatoes!’
‘Plate in the sink please’
‘Oh my God, that’s so unfair! I’m only taking my fork!’

Current affairs thus mulled over, it’s first to the top of the stairs gets to put Alfie and Bonnie to bed (which used to be the short straw) because the other sucker’s got the entire contents of the fridge and cupboard to put back in again, and the whole kitchen to clean up, including fifteen items of crockery and cutlery per child because each food must be served separately so that nothing touches anything else, obviously.

At least I had a stage for my latest dramatic outburst. I spoke my opening lines gulpingly (so’s I could barely swallow my mash):

‘Has anyone noticed that I am very unhappy?
I can’t go on any more,
Asking you to do your jobs,
For you to then ignore’

There followed a moving soliloquy describing the life of Poor, Poor Mum (“Practice! Do your homework! Go to bed! Get up! What’s that doing in the middle of the floor? Brush your teeth, I shouldn't have to tell you! Turn off the telly! Pick it up, who do you think is going to pick it up if you don’t – me!..”). I explained that Poor, Poor Mum kept this jabbering up fourteen hours a day minimum, but that YOU ( and I cast my eye around the table, very effective) just move off out of earshot, rendering Poor, Poor Mum increasingly dispirited and stompy.

I think I pulled it off. At any rate, everyone came in with ‘Sorry, Mummy, sorry, sorry’ and there was alot of patting of my arms, and hand-squeezing, which led to me cancelling the seriously shouty climax I'd planned. A daily checklist of chores was drawn up, which everyone agreed to observe in a responsible and cooperative manner - it's all been very rewarding.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Learning Slippage

The radio had me choking on my wheatabix this morning when it informed me that middle class children enjoy the benefit of educational forays to museums and art galleries with their parents throughout the year whereas less fortunate children (my children would say more) suffer ‘Learning Slippage’, dilly dallying at home causing the brain to go to mush (thanks alot), and requiring relearning on the Monday of what they were supposed to have off pat on the Friday.

‘Your mouths are still blue, children’ I said, surveying the evidence of serious Learning Slippage the day before, when I’d bought myself some time ‘allowing’ them (pushed them out the door) to go to the corner shop for magazines. They’d returned with mock sorrow: ‘They didn’t have the magazines we like!’ This had compelled them to buy a shed load of sweets (slippage!), the centrepiece being ‘Lickety Lips’, a roll-on deodorant-style bottle filled with electric blue syrup to smear over (and stain) the inside and outside of the mouth. ‘That is revolting’ I’d said, delighted it would last for ages and let me finish my e-mails.

I may have a case of Learning Slippage myself, because I don’t actually see how going to the V&A to make a cloth bag or some such is going to help my son remember how to spell ‘stashun’, nor how skidding up and down that slopey bit at the Tate Modern will improve anyone’s simultaneous equations, but I’m willing to be told, and anyway once the radio has begun terrorising me with good parenting directives it’s only a matter of time before we have to go out on one of “Mummy’s awful trips’.

I peeled my mug mat, the National Gallery Free Family Events programme, off the table: ‘Watercolours! We can learn to paint with watercolours at the National Gallery!’ ‘OH NO!’ roared Alfie, ‘YOU CAN’T MAKE ME DO IT!’. But I had the bit between my teeth, and go we did, armed with the promise of extended TV upon return, and arriving at the gallery in time to play in the cloakroom, which is how I garotted my forehead on a coat hook with such force that my vision went weird and I had to sit down quietly for a bit, pushing Alfie and Bonnie forward to join all the bright girls and boys listening to the rules: ‘Don’t touch! And make sure your parents don’t wander off! haha!’ I was still seeing stars as we sat down before the chosen Gainsborough for some interactive teaching, in fact I rather embarrassingly nodded off (knocked out?) somewhere between ‘use of perspective’ and ‘colour tones’, but I rallied to encourage Alfie with his ‘initial study’ (‘that’s a fantastic table, Alfie!’ ‘It’s a dog’). The visiting artist demonstrated how to ‘develop’ the study by building up watercolours in blocks, and all the high achievers set to, carefully mixing colours and eyeing each others’ artwork.…all except Alfie, who decided the best way to sidestep the imminent humiliation was to have a little fun, as with his cross-curricular ‘Portrait of a Tudor Man’ which might have made the class display if he’d resisted adding a pig’s snout at the last minute. So in the workshop, he poured all the water and paint allotted to our table over his initial study (the dog/table) and stirred it wildly to a batter, singing loudly all the while, a challenging smile thrown at me as he wrung it out and lobbed it in the bin: One nil to Alfie.

Happy and fulfilled after this splendid educational foray, the children waited a polite thirty seconds after we got home before switching on for the promised Learning Slippage and I trotted off to my quarters for me-time with the radio and the rock hard wheatabix. ‘MUM! THE TELLY’S NOT WORKING!!’ It was doing that flickery thing that makes you epileptic. Oh Lord, grant me Learning Slippage, and grant it now. ‘Leave it to me’ I said, frantically unplugging all the plugs (‘Thanks a lot! Now we have to go right back to the beginning of the programme!’) and sticking them in again, which is how clever old Alan fixes it. ‘It’s broken, children.’ I said, reaching for the pills. Bit I jogged it accidentally, and all the lights flashed on. It started humming…and so did I.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


‘Mummy could I have a little word with you?’ said Josie. She's taken to addressing me like a busy but benign employer just lately. It’s part of GCSE over-drive; she’s the career woman, I’m the aged clerical assistant, past her best but too old to sack. I dried my hands on my apron, straightened my hair and stood to attention. ‘Yes’m?’ ‘I want to eat proper grown up food with you and Daddy in the evening from now on, vegetarian of course.’ Just like that, after 15 years of extreme pickiness.

This was a major development! Goodbye a la carte open all hours nursery food cafe, hello sit-down (vegetarian) suppers with older daughter! My imagination ran wild; I was Nigella Lawson, swinging through my state of the art kitchen, bestowing appetising plates upon my children, glossy smile, cascading locks, fullsome bossoms... We would have pies! We would have puddings! Oh the memories we’d have of convivial family meals, laughing and eating, happy and beautiful…I slipped my new Ottolenghi cookery book off the shelf, now let me see…My eyes lit upon ‘Cauliflower Frittata’ – I had the cauliflower but darnit the smoked scamorza (?) had run out…Leek pattie! Leeks I had, but no red onion….or onion…Here we go! – ‘Shakshuka’ – ‘meltingly soft and sweet’ red peppers, lightly spiced with an egg cooked to set in the middle, interesting side salad – Josie will love it.

I announced the new regime – dinner with Josie at eight! – to Alan, who was excited on two counts: first, the menu was to change from reheated childrens’ tea with a rasher of bacon on the top; second, he’d have a new (and captive) audience on whom to bestow the livelier Human Resources anecdotes of the day, instead of a slack-jawed wife in a dead doze in front of the TV. Before I knew it he’d transformed the kitchen into ‘Le Bistro Alain’- soft music, low lights, a candle! I told him the guitar was a step too far.

It was the teeniest bit annoying that Josie had to finish her TV programme before we ate, so the ‘shakshuka’ was a little tired, but we admired the sweet meltingness of the peppers anyway, and merrily chomped our way through the interesting side salad into which, with a surge of devil-may-care, I’d rashly cast my entire crop of five cherry tomatoes. We ignored the fact that the guest of honour was quiet, head down, plate untouched. Was she wretching? ‘What’s up Josie?’ I said eventually, when it could be ignored not longer. The flood gates opened: ‘Mummy I’m sorry you went to so much trouble, but…all these slices of pepper!...and the egg is in the middle!’. I felt slightly sulky, but we must not make an issue of food, must we, no matter how much we feel like saying EAT THE DAMN SHAKSHUKA or we will have anorexia on our hands, guaranteed, so I enquired: ‘Where would you prefer your egg?’ (it was a genuine enquiry) and ‘are the slices of pepper too large, too small, too sliced…or are they lying in the wrong direction?’ ‘I can’t do it, I just can’t!’ she wailed and took her leave. Alan and I blinked at each other, somewhat shocked. What would Nigella do? I appraised the middle-ness of Josie’s egg, then swallowed it in one (ouch) so I didn’t have to look at it any more. ‘She’s high maintenance,’ said Alan.

I was tempted to catch the last half of Dragon’s Den, but wired up with wine and work, Company Man nattered on past ten ‘..let’s face it, Soph, the strategy has to adapt..’ when Josie came back in for a hug (‘Mummy, what can I have to eat?’ Grrrr). He was still going as he climbed into bed ‘ won’t believe the timeline on this proposal-’ but when his head hit the pillow, the snores. The usual pushing and punching brought no relief for ages, but then a megasnort followed by utter silence. He was dead. Now I wanted him to snore. I pushed and punched some more until finally I was rewarded with the teeniest little snuffle, building and building until – yes! yes! - the room was alive with the full glorious repertoire. Phew.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Reading Time

The Summer Holidays are over. ‘Congratulations!’ I said to the children ‘During your six weeks of leisure you have read an average of twenty-three pages of a book each, that's including the Captain Underpants pages that are just a picture plus ‘SPLAT!’’. I issued a queenly directive that Reading Time was now mandatory (thirty minutes a day is sufficient, I am not unreasonable) before anyone was allowed to switch on a computer or TV. ‘OK!’ they said ‘No problem!’.

I spent the following week being model mum, welcoming them home with a little snack – home-made banana muffins one day ('what’s that stink?') – before offering to play a non-electronic game ('uh, no thanks'), asking them how their reading was going, then morphing into cop-mum, prowling around the house hiding behind doors and leaping out “HANDS UP! PUT THE DS DOWN! READ YOUR BOOK! GRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!’.

A week of them flouting ‘our agreement’ and I was a wreck - mute with fury and disappointment. It was me and the humble book against the world of high tech wham bam super-stimulation and I was beat unless I could remove the competition. ‘How was your day?’ said Alan, invigorated from a day of tricky meetings handled well.


Alan’s ears pricked up at this for I can be rash and he likes his technology. ‘We can’t turn back the clock thirty years;’ said that sensible man, ‘we are where we are’ (that is very helpful - thankyou.). The children were jittery (‘She’s gone mad – she might actually lob the lot out in the road!’) and suddenly I was awash with desperate pledges: ‘No computer-time during the week, quarter an hour at the week-end if we’re good…’ ‘No, five minutes once a month, or you cut our ears off...’

But of course the next morning…trot trot trot…the Wii was on, 7am. I stormed in and slammed it off:


Oh it was good, it was very good. Reading Time was conducted in complete silence – exam conditions – broken only by the occasional terrified whisper ‘have we had half an hour yet’ ‘No!’ I grunted. I am thinking of selling the idea to a Young Offenders’ Institution.

Later Bonnie came to me with a little membership card she’d made to hang around her neck. There was a photo of herself, and she'd penned the following caption: ‘Bonnie Grant-Pyett – Member of the Family’. She put her arms around me and said ‘I’m sorry I’m so bad, Mummy’. Oh God. Arrest me now.

On the upside, the children are positively queuing up to get out of the house in the morning and go to school – no separation issues whatsoever. Alfie is enjoying his SATS year, (after the initial struggle remembering how to write his name) mostly because there is a builder in his classroom whose trousers show ‘loads and loads of his BUM!’, and because after school he's exploding coke with mentoes with his chums. Bonnie is being entered early for her Arguing The Toss GCSE:

‘Mr Goolam Possum is in our old classroom now’
‘Do you mean Mr Goolam Hossen?’
‘No, Mr Goolam Possum
‘A Possum is a fluffy long-tailed animal found in Australia’
‘No it’s not, it’s a flower
‘That’s a blossom
‘No it’s not’…

Maddy has shifted out of stand-by mode (dressing-gown, remote) and into Year 9 with her customary enthusiasm (‘How was it???’ ‘Uh.’) and Josie is on the verge of a nervous breakdown one week into Year 11 because she hasn’t completed phases 1(i),(ii) and (iii) of the 97th draft of her colour-coded revision schedule: 'Oh my god I am like so exhausted you have no idea and I’m not kidding seriously I’m going to mess up all my exams do you think my ears are weird..?' so it’s best I shut up if she needs to go shopping again for relaxation purposes, and make her a cup of tea when she gets back. Unless we’re reading..

Friday, 10 September 2010

Milly Molly Mandy

By the end of the summer holidays I had plateaued into a lethargy of such proportions that the childrens’ refusal to go anywhere (unless it was Disney Land Florida) was a godsent cover for my own indolence. ‘Alan’ I would drawl down the phone ‘can you just get some bread, eggs, apples, milk, catfood and chocolate buttons on your way home from a hard day’s work please?’ ‘Had a busy day then?’ ‘Rather!’

Playmates were an essential prop for the long hours until my cursed 3pm watershed arrived and computer games were permitted to light up our lives, but if no-one could come to play, I occasionally announced ‘Storytime With Mother’: I’d got the little old-fashioned Milly Molly Mandy stories out of the library to supply a much needed antedote to the crisps ‘n’ computers climate flourishing chez nous and would bolt the children to the floor and tell how Milly Molly Mandy had mowed the lawn for Father and mopped the flagstones for Mother with no thought of reward – perhaps a banana (‘is that it?!) - and never clonked little-friend-Susan on the nose. I read while Alfie and Bonnie ate lunch to distract them from fighting over who had the ketchup first and not to waste their time when they could be loafing about. Sometimes I’d add some sauce: ‘Milly Molly Mandy said ‘Good Heavens Mother, get off your arse and clean out the grate yourself!’’ to confirm they weren’t listening. Once they’d finished eating, interest dipped sharply, and I had to read very fast indeed, or I’d be reading the ending on my own.

More successful was Bonnie’s nauseating ‘Sleepover Blushes Quiz’ from the one and only ‘Jacqueline Wilson’s Official Mag’. ‘Alfie!’ she’d shriek, ‘the morning after a sleepover do you prefer: a) snuggling with your bestie (oh my); b) practising your dance routines (oh yey!) ; c) peeping at panties (ooh!) or d) make-over madness (oh, baby!)?’. There being no ‘Jumping on top of my friend’ option, Alfie gamely chose the most girlish answers (‘I like my PJs cute and cuddly’ would be typical) and we killed ourselves laughing, until Bonnie felt ridiculed and walked out, nose in the air, quoting the Grande Dame Wilson herself ‘I think I’m Going To Explode!’ so that we had to beg her to come back for a round of Articulate ‘the vocabulary game made fun!’: ‘head of the Catholic Church, funny hat, come on stupid, guess it! ‘’Is it the Poke?’ ‘HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!! She said The POKE! POKEY-WOKEY-POKEY-WOKEY!….’

Before blood was drawn (well usually) we’d slope off somewhere so we could say we'd been out - like John Lewis’ shoe department (‘These ones?’ ‘Nope’ ‘These?’ ‘Nope’ ‘Wow – look at these!’ ‘Nope’ ‘These are the most brilliant shoes I have ever ever seen!’ ‘Nope’ ‘WHY THE HELL ARE WE HERE???’) leaving empty-handed and noting that Milly Molly Mandy would have been grateful for any of the lovely shoes and would have said ‘Why, thank you Mother!’

Home again, Josie's and Maddy's friends had got back from their holidays, and we were often met with the roar of teenagers HAVING FUN in the kitchen. Josie, in an ecstasy of relief that her friends still loved her, hissing at me ‘I can manage’ (ie. go away) ‘I’ll clear up later'. Only I noticed the fist in the failed falafel and the tears as she burned herself on the oven shelf; after her friends left (hug!kiss!) she had one of her heads and fell asleep with the labels hanging out of the new clothes she’d been showing, trying to watch a programme on slavery, bless her, while I cleaned the salsa off the ceiling, although she would definitely have done it the next morning, or perhaps afternoon if the alarm didn’t go off. Things were getting back to normal.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Nice Early Start

A childhood of Nice Early Starts to Beat The Traffic is hard to throw off; as a child I can remember getting caught in traffic just once or twice, and that was when something really unforeseen and terrible had occurred to scupper my father's Timetable – say if he lost his propelling pencil - in which case nothing else really mattered...

I still like a nice early start - which is why on the August Bank Holiday I insisted we should set off for Hayling Island with enough time to reach the South of France. 7am and we were on the road, thanks to a very long-suffering husband, and a deal involving Nintendos (which of course I’m going to get rid of very very soon..), handed over when the family chitchat and joke-telling died down at the end of our road - to all except Maddy in the front seat (car-sick) who had free rein with all ground controls, to Pilot Alan’s consummate delight.

We were on the beach before the locals. ‘Ha ha! Nice Early Start!’ I jabbered (‘Seven!’ they were counting my gloats). ‘Just look at the hundreds of yachts on the glistening water! – and the beach is totally empty!’ ‘Exactly!’ they muttered, stamping their feet and huddling together for warmth.

Alan nobly sacrificed swimming time to do a recky of the island’s fish and chip provision. I ran the troops through the hypothermia drill. When he returned he carefully folded the largest towel into a cushion, and sat down in a spot sheltered from the tearing wind with Alfie. The men sunned themselves and discussed whether Beberbatov or Drogba had the best shorts (or was it shots) while the girlie girls greased up for an exhilarating dip in the North Sea.

Alfie and Bonnie shared the one tiny sand-bucket remaining from my latest sort out when I chuck everything that’s not mine, and I curled up with a book while the children played for a few hours in the sand. I lost all sense of time for a few seconds, when would you believe it, one of them deliberately patted the bucket out of turn, so that was it, the sandcastle was stamped on in a mighty act of revenge! There was sand in eyes and I had to offer Alan's sweets around, which got him all upset because he'd given up sweets last New Year, (fine figure of a man, now!) and just bought these for a little treat for himself. Now Bonnie had eaten three of his favourite kind!! ’They were mine’ he blubbed, ‘It’s not fair’. ’We’ll get you some more’ said Bonnie, patting him ‘It’s good to share’.

We moved on to the throbbing heart of Hayling where the crooning of Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It’ drew us to the opening of the new rain shelter on the Prom…And that wasn’t all; when the applause had died down a mixed-ability dance troupe took the stage! But all that jiggling about was spoiling our appetites, so we took our fish and chips and sat on the beach. Alfie balanced pebbles on my head while I munched my cod, Maddy was under a towel, sibling-endurance over-stretched by now, and Alan pretended to be fast asleep in between chips when the phone rang and we all perked up because it was Josie! She’d declined to come on the grounds of destination and travelling party. The door knob she’d thrown across the room the night before because she’d dropped a stitch of her knitting didn’t work any more, so she was trapped in the front-room at home! We tumbled back into the car to rescue her from her predicament. 'You should have come with us, Josie' I said on the phone 'You missed a great day!’

Friday, 27 August 2010

Simple Pleasures

Wells-Next-The-Sea with just Alfie and Bonnie was to be our low-key get-away; crabbing, fish and chips, coastal paths, relax. But that doesn't mean lounging around in bed all day! I stabbed the map and held it under Alan's nose as he slept: ’Look! Picnic-spot here! Viewpoint there! Get up everyonewe’re on holiday!’ I’d planned a day soaking up the elements – shale underfoot, big skies overhead, blackberry hedgerows….the rest of the Youth Hostel residents had swallowed their All-Bran, donned sturdy walking boots and were half-way to Blakeney Quay already!

Alan turned over in bed. ‘Anyone for Bunjee?’ he said. ‘YES!’ Alfie and Bonnie both screamed, and leapt out of bed. ‘You’re the King of Guys, Daddy!’. And with that, my wholesome plans were wrecked. I stormed off to the kitchen to slap the sandwiches together, leaving Alan complaining about having to pass through a public space to have a wee wherever we went on holiday.

We’d started off with a bang the day before at The Old Gaol House of Kings Lynn, paying an entry fee so low we knew the Penal Traditions of North Norfolk would be of limited interest. Alfie ditched his audio-guide (‘too much talking’) to enhance my visit by shouting ‘WHAT’S THAT? WHAT’S THAT?’ over mine, so the stocks, pillory, and gibbet were all jumbled up in my head, but one of them fitted him well and got me a moment’s peace; he wasn’t having the best day, struck down by scenic-route-itis, which required a dose of apple bonbons every five minutes.

Continuing along our merry way towards Wells, I flashed the Youth Hostelling Association brochure around to build the excitement - ‘That’s where we’re staying!’ - but sarcasm was running high and it was ‘WOH! It’s got PARKING SPACE! A KETTLE! FAMILY ROOOOMS!!!! YEEEEHHHHH!!!’ They came good when we arrived though; Alfie carried his toothbrush up to our room in exchange for three apple bonbons, and Bonnie threw all the bedding on the floor to help make up the beds.

And here we were, first day, knocked sideways by the beauty of Holcombe Bay – and by the wind. I managed a veiled introduction to one walk along the Norfolk Coastal Path (‘look, there are loads of boats over there!’ (miles away), but as is often the case with nature walks, I find, we weren’t lucky enough to spot the Little Turn or the Common Lizard, 'abundant' according to the placard thing...

‘Imagine poor Josie and Maddy camping in the rain in Wales while we walk this lovely sunny trail!’ I exclaimed, trying to extort comments of wonder and joy at the scenery. ‘At least they can sit down’ was the response, so I had to introduce blackmail (‘if you moan there’s no ice-cream’) and the conversation proceeded along the lines: ‘How-far-is-it-I’m-not-moaning’ for quite a while until we caught cows mating which perked things up considerably, and we talked about where babies come from - ‘Out of a plum tree, silly!’ said Bonnie.

Crabbing was a mariner’s must-do, but despite offering those darned critters a menu more varied and nutritious than our own, would the little devils crawl into our net? Two days of all-weather waiting and we eventually ‘caught’ someone's discarded catch. 'Mummy you can choose your favourite crab for your tea,' said Bonnie, a twinkle in her eye 'It’s important to me.’ But I set them free when she wasn't looking and we discussed crustacean rights on the way back to the hostel.

Alfie’s bait was CHEAP BANGERS to which he awarded a Michelin Star and demanded daily, in earshot of the other hostel residents as they prepared their strictly organic evening meals. I shooshed him as best I could (CHEAP BANGERS! CHEAP BANGERS!) and hid the offending pink babies in brown bags in the hostel fridge. When Bonnie also shamed me by slurping a Pot Noodle 'I LOVE POT NOODLE!', I tried to salvage some eco-respect: ‘Fruit for pudding!’ I trilled, but I'd masterminded my own downfall: ‘YOU PROMISED US MALTESERS!!’

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Inflate Your Fun!

I am so sick of our spoilt children moaning about our lousy holiday destinations: ‘Can we please go somewhere good this year not cold and miserable?’ says Josie for the millionth time. ‘Josie, I know you’ve had it tough being dragged around North European areas of outstanding natural beauty all your life, but I am clearly not a beach babe; its sandwich, flask and ramble for me – frying next to a pool is not a holiday!’ ‘But everyone else goes somewhere hot with a pool!’ 'What about starving Africans?' (brilliant!) ‘AND WE ALL WANT TO GO ON A PLANE!!’ they cry since not having flown is laughable to their mates as, I don't know, having your hair cut by your mum. ’Stuff and nonsense!' I snapped. ’How about Youth Hostel hopping in Scotland?’

Josie won; being cooped up with us lot for a week deserved some compensation. Lake Garda was her choice, a destination befitting a family of wealth and style..

We booked a massive villa called ‘Supertent’ which comfortably accommodates six if you’re happy to jump from the ‘bedroom’ door to your bed. But, hey, we'd be outside all the time, because the weather would be glorious.

One day of sightseeing proved beyond doubt that breathtaking porticoes and lake-side citrus groves did not make up for the torment of walking around in the heat. 'You wanted it hot didn't you?' I carped, triumphant. We resigned ourselves to camp-life ‘Good, now we’re actually doing something’ they said.

El familio Smurph (stripy swim-hats, pool rules) hit the pool – and charged with unrestrained vigour off jetty into lake, our ‘Inflate Your Fun!’ mini-floats bought in the camp shop aiding the smallest among us…we provided pretty sophisticated entertainment for the bemused Italians sipping Bardolino in their deckchairs…

Dusk fell and we were first in the queue for the (free!) pool-side entertainments (campers only - it was going to be shoddy). Everything from line-dancing – by God we showed them how to move - to ‘kidz-quiz’ (clever!): ‘‘Snow White had seven...?’ ‘DWARVEZ!! YEY!!’’ The flood-lit colour-changing pool was almost too much to cope with (‘How naff!’ we snorted, transfixed by its beauty) so, dance-dizzy, we strolled home, happy and tired, to the BBQ, Alan’s pride and joy.

‘Pastrami? Pollo? Proscuttio? What’s it to be?’ ‘ SAUSAGES PLEASE!!’ cried Alfie, so we grabbed a ‘GRILL PARTY!’ cellophaned sausage selection, and settled down to watch the chef at work. For unbeknownst to me, my husband is a barbeque KING!! A quarter turn for each sausage every 2 minutes – ‘TONGS!’ he’d shout, snapping his fingers ‘CHARCOAL – QUICK!!’. He homed in on the only other English family - potential friends! – ‘Oh dear! Wrong firelighters.’ (shake of the head) ‘Here, try this!’ and carried over our entire BBQ after our meal ‘I think you’ll find it does a pretty good job!!’ I told Alan to calm down - he was scaring them off. Car-less and emasculated, he took to tutting over their parking ‘Ha! They’re very near the tree!’ and monitored their movements through a vent in the tent, declaring to them one morning ‘Your car wasn’t here last night – where were you??’. We never saw them after that.

Next, the heavens opened ceaselessly for three days, my cheery ‘Good job we’ve got our macs!’ quickly turning to ‘Muddy shoes OFF the beds!’. This wasn't supposed to happen! Pac-a-mac family ran hither and thither between boat, bus and public toilet. All we needed was that essential Hello Kitty souvenir of Italy and we were ready to get the hell out of there. ‘Can we, like, not fly anywhere next year?’ said Alfie..

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Packed with Fun

We did it, today, we did it! We went to the library!! ‘Mummy, what are we actually doing in this place?’ said Alfie, mystified. ‘This is the library, Alfie – remember we used to come here every week - for videos – before the DVD machine and catch-up TV?’ I whispered. Then, booming loud: ‘You need a nice book to take on holiday tomorrow, don’t you?’. ‘But I’ve already got my Horrid Henry Annual!’ he declared, which was true, but hell, why not try something new this year?

I’d extended the invitation to all, repeatedly, through gritted teeth - ‘Hey, isn’t it lovely we have time to go to the library!!’ - but the girls were up to their eyes finding anything but that to do. Only Alfie, who had no plans except hanging upside down all day, accepted.

The library’s Summer Reading Challenge was on to tempt us! Six completed books (one a week being the idea) earnt a smashing certificate and stickers (‘d’you get any money?’) handed out at the end of the holidays at the Presentation Ceremony. What's more, there was a free magic show - bookworms have fun too you know! - though my older two would rather eat mud than be seen dead at this…

Last year, Alfie had met the Challenge head on, choosing six baby books - 'Boo Baby Boo!', 'Splish Splash Splosh' and the like. He’d read them all by the time we got home from the library, so we were back there the next day to pocket the goodies, instead of a week later, exchanging one quality chapter book for another and guess what? forming a healthy reading habit! No, according to my lot, why would you spend lazy summer days reading Enid Blyton under the shade of a tree when you could satisfy your literary appetite by scanning cereal packets for theme park vouchers which, who knows, you might be taken to one day? Now that would be fun.

I grabbed a few thin books (I’d be doing the carrying once we left for our holiday and Alan’s bad back kicked in) and returned home to dread the next day getting four children with Nintendo withdrawal and a mild-mannered husband with freak outbursts closely associated with being with us lot, from London to Lake Garda. ‘We’ll have such an adventure children!' I exclaimed – 'let’s count all the modes of transport we're gong to use! First the car, then the shuttle to the plane, then…’

‘IT’S 3 O’CLOCK!! – SCREEN TIME!!!!’ They'd gone.

‘..then the plane, then the Italian underground…’ I trailed off. Anyway, it was time to pack, which presented a problem. The girls had been much much too busy shopping for yet more necklaces with clocks and birds and teacups hanging off them, and resting from these arduous excursions over lunch with friends, to find a single moment to unpack the dirty clothes or cheese sandwiches left in their bags from Latitude two weeks ago! I must have forgotten that crucial 45th reminder. I now had to decide whether to get stroppy and make them do the work, thus missing the plane, or do it all myself, which would make me stroppy. I’d give them a break – Lord knows they needed it – and do it myself.

But first, I yanked open the marital bedroom door to check Alan wasn't lying down, instead of doing his packing. Far from it! - Imelda Marcos himself was stuffing three pairs of identical brown trainers into our one hold bag ‘in case the other pairs get wet’(!?) ‘We are going to Italy Alan not Wales’ I said. ’Monday and Tuesday: sunny; Wednesday to Friday: cloudy and sunny’ he replied (obviously been googling the weather again). ‘Quick! Get the galoshes! ’ I said, but he wasn’t in the mood…wet socks were no laughing matter.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


First day of the summer holidays – bliss! Everything in place - a week camping in Lake Garda for the whole family, another in Wells Next the Sea with Alfie and Bonnie (‘Sounds damp and dreary, Mummy’ Thanks Bon) while the girls were at Camp, ripping another new tent and losing the poles...Courses in dance, athletics, football, art; strict ban – maturely accepted - on Nintendo/PSP/Computer games before 3pm allowing time to get bored and rediscover imaginative play. Right. By the end of the holidays they’d choose monopoly - or building dens! – over shooting squeaky blobs on a screen, and I’d be on the brink of liking work again.

‘Come on everyone, time to go to the dentist!’ I called, bright and breezy. Keep things pacy, that’s the trick! ‘Every day can’t be fun, fun, fun’ (‘why not?’) ‘but we can make it a nice walk and talk together!’

Two minutes up the road, Josie was yelping at the nail sticking out of her 20th pair of useless vegetarian shoes: ‘Buy leather next time!’ I comforted; the little ones wrestled me to the ground, fighting to get the most arm round me, and Maddy scolded them every time I did, reversing any effect: 'You're not our Mum, Maddy'. ‘HELP!!’ Bonnie screamed, ‘Alfie said I was THE WORST THING in his LIFE!!’. Alfie launched himself at her throat, catching me in the cross-fire. The bickering and fighting (’She looked at me’’I was talking first’) was rubbing away like sandpaper at my strategically high mood, which was supposed to spread to them. 'OOOOWWW MY FEET!!!' Josie continued, bottom of the list for attention at present, but whining anyway.


Congratulating myself on excellent crisis-management, I checked to see if anyone we knew was on the street. I counted to ten. Bonnie began again: ‘The dentist! You could at least think of one interesting thing for us to do – I’m sure you could manage that!’ I tried switching-off, imagining blue seas and tropical beaches, then I thought about people with real problems, like terminal illness, to put things in perspective, but my heart was still pounding and out it came:


So far so unravelled, things were going to get even better, as I’d volunteered to be the night-guard at Josie’s camping-expedition-cum-squalor-fest with her friends that night. I was up for a fair whack of thankless rubbish clearance, but hadn’t counted on Josie’s social cudos being so tainted by proximity to me that she could only address me in secret out of the corner of her mouth. For the rest of the Golden Girls, speech was out of the question. I was invisible to the beautiful ones, and hid like a leper behind the tinted windows of my car, letting them get on with it, which they did by cackling through the night at in-jokes and rolling around in make-up and mayonnaise, emerging the next morning a little tousled, but still wearing the beauty of extreme youth. For my part, I had the longest sit down I’d had for fifteen years, and discovered how very much I loved my children when Alan was looking after them. Josie crept over to kiss me goodnight in my tent. All was well with the world.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Biff Boff!

Alan and the girls returned from Latitude Music Festival as gentle as lentils: ‘That was cool, man.’ The girls demanded a further unauthorised absence from school to recover horizontally from doing nothing all weekend, but Alan shot into work before his tan faded to model the designer stubble which was just too much hassle to remove until a straight-talking first-born said ‘I didn’t know you were going grey’, whereupon it disappeared pretty much immediately. ‘No ponytail, absolutely not’, I said, ‘it wouldn’t match your brogues, and the smock – bedwear only’.

Josie had a heavenly glow about her and I knew for sure she’d had an amazing experience: I was right – she’d borrowed her friend’s leggings: ‘They were so soft!’ She put her arm around forlorn me, ‘But don’t worry, Mummy, I don’t know how people stop their washing being rough and hard either’. Maddy and her mates were escorted back to Alan, lying down in his tent, by a security guard, who'd found them in the S&M tent. Glad some-one was keeping an eye out.

One more week of learning before the Summer Holidays! By Tuesday, ALfie and Bonnie were bug-eyed with film-watching while their teachers hid the best rubbers for next term. Teacher presents! I'd planned to give the teachers ice-cream, but Bonnie was on it:‘You are no way giving boring ice-cream to my teacher, that sucks’. I searched the emergency presents drawer. It was the last day of term. 'What about a fluffy Winnie-the-Pooh hot water bottle, Bonnie?' I said, but it was ‘Oh man, are you kidding?'. A football motif whoopee cushion and a glow in the dark IKEA toilet bag rounded up the selection, the latter winning by a whisker. That meant that Alfie’s very un-fluffy teacher would get the fluffy Winnie-the-Pooh hot water bottle – it could double as a missile when she was breaking in her new class. 'What do you think, ALfie?' I said 'Biff boff' was the reply, so that was decided. I was imagining my dreadful presents lined up alongside the organic chocolates and Estee Lauder, but Alan put me straight: ‘Don’t worry, those teachers must get all sorts of junk’, which made me feel alot better, I think.

I wrote the last crawling notes of apology to the girls’ teachers with some relief: ‘Dear Miss, Maddy couldn’t do her homework and watch Hollyoaks, Misfits and The Apprentice, so she prioritised the good TV. She is so very sorry and will never ever do it again, Yours Sincerely, Sucker’; ‘Josie has no tie, I don’t know why, Where can it be? She should have three!’

Maddy tumbled in after school with her friends in a 'school's finished hysteria' throwing together a pancake mixture, pink this time, some of which made it to the kitchen table where it was eaten off the large sheet of paper I had stuck down to encourage everyone to draw their vision of the holidays to come (I am the sole contributor so far). The rest of the pink gunge was welded to areas of high use – the kettle, door knobs, microwave, cutlery drawer, and the bathroom sink where they had thought to wash their hands so's they'd be clean and comfortable. They kindly moved up to our bedroom so that the cleaner (me) could get started on the kitchen, and they could eat crisps on my bed and discuss how annoying mums are. I quite like it when they're at school.

Later, still grumpy from spring-cleaning the kitchen and not being able to shout properly until Maddy’s friends had left, it seemed like the perfect moment to announce my holidays rule, with effect from the next day: ‘No screens until 3pm - you are not zombies’. The obligatory caterwauling ensued, all of them placing bets, once my back was turned, on how long I’d last if they kept to their rule of continuous aggravation by all and any means, though they did expect a better effort than 12.45pm the next day, by which time I had the mother of all headaches, and was turning the wii remote over in my hand saying ‘this looks intriguing – what is it?’ until they got the hint and asked please to go on it. ‘Just this once’ I said. ‘BIFF BOFF!’ whooped my boy.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Get Down, Baby!

Cripes - the girls are at a Pop Festival!! With Daddy, though. ‘Oh all right then, I’ll take you to Latitude’, he said, his voice squeaky with excitement, but keeping a straight face. A weekend away with the girls? That must mean serious brownie points! ‘Why don’t you bring a few friends too?’ he said, getting carried away now – but no, this would ensure the girls would want nothing to do with him once he’d shelled out the dosh and he’d be free to get down, baby! Three-day pop festival!! Whoo-hoo!

Both of us insanely busy - him with his big job, me with my whisk - the organisation of the trip left a little to be desired; we’d hatched a plan to think about it later, but later came before the thinking, and suddenly it was time to go! I just got Alan up to speed on his responsibilities (‘child x is having an asthma attack and calls you from somewhere in the festival. Her credit runs out. What do you do?’ ‘um, put some more pasta on?’), threw 48 toilet rolls and a packet of dried soup in the car and they were gone.

Back at the ranch (!) I was up with the lark the next morning, and (absence making the heart grow fonder) I was looking around for little memories of my love. The shrunk shirts (‘thirty degree wash’ he’d said quietly); the massively over-filled cat bowl, for he scolds me for not feeding them – as if there’s a chance, with him leapfrogging the banisters every morning, grasping the GoCat: ‘There! Empty again!’; oh and his tomato puree tubes all lined up: ‘you can never have too much tomato puree!’ Bless.

Just in case Alfie and Bonnie resented being stuck at home with me, instead of camping with friends and non-stop entertainment, I had planned a varied and interesting day: we could enjoy fresh air, ethnic delicacies and the arts too! Blood was drawn over breakfast (something to do with the milk lid) but luckily our lift to football training arrived and it was time for Fresh air and Exercise! I stood on the touchline - I was Dad today! - and aped the other Dads, ‘Push Up! Back! Back!!’ and shook my fist urgently at random players. Was Alan getting any exercise? Twirling the poi? Exploring the martial arts? - one leg cocked, stock still on t’other? Kaftan-clad? Bandanna-ed? He has been under an awful lot of stress lately.

Lunch time approached. I knew for sure that Alan would be stuffing as much chips, beer and jelly-babies as he could without falling over, but for Maddy it would be 'Stop eating junk, Maddy, and try a bean and tofu fancy.' Well, we were going to sample Chinese Cuisine - Crispy Roast Duck in China Town, which I garrotted down the middle before you could say ‘that’s not fair’, so that Alfie and Bonnie could share it without sharing. We were getting along famously so it was time for the sting in the tale: the National Portrait Gallery where I happened to know a match that! We were going to print a T-shirt inspired by the Collection! (‘Mum, can we just go now?’)

But at the desk we discovered there was a misprint in the pamphlet! No Free Family Event! No T-shirt inspired by the Collection! I looked the assistant sternly in the eye – ‘this is really bad’ I said, ‘we’ve come all the way from...London’. ‘Madam, I am so sorry you have wasted your journey but you are holding the Programme of Free Family Events for July 2009. I stared at my 2009 pamphlet and muttered cantankerously that it was nearly the same colour as the new 2010 one.... Alfie spluttered with mirth and relief in equal measure and my phone ding donged a text from Alan saying he’d just watched Michael Bourne’s Swan Lake across the lake at Latitude to which I didn’t reply.

Well we were here now, so we stomped around the BP Portrait Competition 2010, critiquing the art loudly, impressionistic getting the thumbs down (‘that’s really messy!’), Alfie winding me up by pointing at the pictures very very closely (‘ don’t touch!’). There were child friendly captions: ‘This artist was interested in putting patterns side by side! Can you find another pattern in this room??’ ‘Na’ he said, ‘let’s go.’

The texts from Latitude dwindled to nothing the next day...he’s in a drunken stupor or having his hair braided by some young lovely who looks him in the eye, instead of in the stomach and says ‘shift over, I need to get to the sink’. But probably not – he’s too tired, like me.

Friday, 16 July 2010


Just played in my first orchestral concert for years! I was so excited about the children coming to watch! I was playing the viola - how better to inspire them to practice diligently and perhaps trigger a life-time's enjoyment of classical music? But as the day grew near, two dropped out because something better cropped up - parties, sleepovers - so in the end it was just Bonnie and good old Maddy. ‘Bonnie,' I whooped, 'you can sit right in front of the violins and watch them at close range!!’ ‘I don’t want to listen to a few STUPID violins. I want to go to the Steam Fair and GO ON THE OCTUPUS!’ she bawled.

I strapped her into the car nonetheless (‘most children would think themselves lucky...!’) and brushed off the shoe-prints she’d stamped on my concert dress. It was unfortunate that the Steam Fair coincided with my concert, but I was confident that culture would win over candyfloss. In the meantime, I struck a deal that she would watch half the concert, get an edible treat on the way home, and I would take her on the Octopus at twelve noon the next day. The words 'spoilt brat' never crossed my lips, I swear.

Once seated in the concert hall, my family group were transported by the glorious Grieg Piano Concerto. Glancing over from the second desk of the violas I spied them concentrating on the music with eyes shut and mouths open, excluding Bonnie who was transfixed by the pianist’s peach gown; the combination of balmy evening and vigorous tinkling were turning it dark orange around the bosom area as she became drenched in sweat, a social faux pas of the gravest order by the look on Bonnie’s face and her pointing at the offending armpits. Alan whispered something in her ear – at a guess concerning the edible treat – and she then sat quietly, staring into the middle distance, no doubt soaking up the heart stopping beauty of the final movement. The audience rose for a standing ovation as the magnificent performance ended, and I rushed over to receive Bonnie’s congratulations and witness her awe-struck reaction to the music first hand.

‘That was the most BORING thing I have EVER heard’ she said, ‘Let’s go Daddy – I want my treat’.

The next morning I knew I had to get out of the Octopus ride, for I would be sick; the obvious solution was to allow Alan to do it after he’d returned from remedying his golf swing; but when I explained my idea to him, he said he might not be able to get back by noon, but he’d try, so I knew the score. With mounting unease, I tried entertaining the children with good old-fashioned family fun so that they’d forget all about the boring old steam fair, but Bonnie positioned herself on the garden gate straight after breakfast and was shouting ‘Let’s Go! Let’s Go!’ I even got out all Alfie's model-making sets that birthday guests mistakenly thought he had the fine motor skills and enthusiasn to conquer, and squinted at the teeny weeny B52 bits, but he preferred turning the telly on and off by banging his head on the TV table, a trick which relies on excitingly unpredictable circuitry, a wobbly house, and a seriously bored child. No, it wasn't working, so I grimly accepted defeat, rang my Dad to say I’d always loved him, and walked to the Octopus, there to have my stomach pulled out of my mouth and shoved back in a thousand times before being deposited back on firm ground whence I fell over, and was led home by the hand and put to bed by Alfie and Bonnie. I am hoping to recover by the next orchestra rehearsal.