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.