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!’