Friday, 28 May 2010

Playing house

The playhouse is being dismembered. Loud cracks and splintering sounds are punctuated by sudden crashes, all of it reverberating down a green tunnel that is the row of gardens between two terraces. Virmas, a Lithuanian, and very possibly the best workman in London, is knocking it down.

Why? Because a neighbour living somewhere behind us, we don’t know exactly where, has objected. I bet they can hear it now, whoever they are. They might even be watching. Arguments, shouting children, booming music, we hear it all, and see quite a lot of it too. Our very own south London Rear Windows. Disgusted, I go back in the house to chop onions.

That playhouse was made from guilt - and my grandmother’s money. Guilt that, at our old house, three little boys had only a tiny, concrete garden to play in for years. The previous owner, fancying himself a bit of a bricklayer, had erected walls and platforms, none of them straight or level and all made of different materials, which dotted the area like toddler trip wire. Its only redeeming feature was a beautiful apple tree that Middle One in particular loved to climb.

On hot days that garden seemed to shrink, even after we eventually removed the concrete. It was so small the boys bounced off the fences while their footballs invariably bounced over them and adults, despite sitting as far away as possible, always got soaked from the paddling pool.

So what did we do? We moved to another house, where we live now, with another tiny garden. It faces northeast with no redeeming features whatsoever, not even a tree. Brilliant!

So when my grandmother left us a little money I hatched a cunning plan, (as Blackadder would say) finding out who owned disused land behind, (housing association) and enquiring if we might buy, or lease, it. After much to-ing and fro-ing we eventually signed a contract and the lovely Virmas come to sort it all, knocking down partitioning, erecting new fencing and laying turf.

Voila! We doubled the size of our garden and gained a tree for Middle One to climb. But still, it was dull. A tree house would have been ideal, but complicated. So Virmas made a playhouse (essentially a shed on stilts) with a hole in the roof to climb out and railings so they wouldn’t fall off. We presented it to Youngest for his birthday last year.

For three weeks the idyll lasted, then a letter. Someone had complained; the Council wanted a look. Let them! Surely they can’t make us pull down a shed in our own garden? Ahh, the innocence…

It was a lovely South African lady at first. She smiled; she said she couldn’t imagine the Council taking it further, what with the expense and the inconvenience. So when new messages began again in January, from someone else, I was sure it was a mistake.

Nope. More visits and letters, phone calls and the threat of an injunction. We needed planning permission. For a shed! The charmless new official wrote there was evidence of “demonstrable harm,” involving “noise and privacy issues” for our neighbours (the ones who keep us up having parties and barbecues in the summer, no doubt). In other words, our noisy children could look over the fence.

Husband wanted to fight it. I wanted to let it go. Then I wanted to fight it and he wanted to just let it go. When we found out planning permission costs £150, entails endless forms and would probably be denied, in a rare moment of accord we rang Virmas. Let’s spend the money on something else!

Best thing we ever did. John Lewis just delivered. “This is much better than a playhouse!” say the boys and right now they’re screaming and shouting at the top of their voices as they jump up and down.

Of course, bouncing on the new trampoline gives a clear view of all the gardens around and one neighbour's garden in particular.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Plan B

“I just don’t have Plan B,” I overhear a stressed-out mum saying in the school playground as I dash past. Ah, childcare problems! At least I don’t have any of those.

I may not have a career in TV anymore (or the job satisfaction and esteem that went with it) but I have absolutely no need for Plan B. Plan A works very well for me thank you very much. Plan A is polished to perfection. It’s Plan A all the way because Plan A is…me. And I’m here all the time.

We stay-at-homes don’t need Plan B because we don’t go anywhere, at least not the ones I know; a bit of tennis, a bit of coffee, the odd jaunt to Peter Jones, that’s about it. It’s the one thing we have over those, ‘don’t know how she does it’ types.

But this week the stars aligned or the Gods conspired, or something, and lots of rare treats came at once, like the number 159, or multiple orgasms. Two pamper nights, a gig, the theatre, a dinner party and a night at a spa hotel in Gloucestershire to celebrate a friend's birthday. I don’t care what husband says, I think you can have too much of a good thing. It was exhausting, especially relaxing at the spa hotel and for once Plan B was required. So I dusted it off and set it in motion: Daddy.

What could possibly go wrong? All he had to do was wave Eldest off to secondary school on Monday morning, take Middle One to primary and accompany Youngest to his appointment at the fracture clinic. So, feeling optimistic I packed my bijou over-night bag (three bikinis, four dresses and two types of moisturiser) and escaped.

“And then, after yoga, we all sat together, naked, in a bath of goats milk,” says friend, M, as we sip Kir Royales by the pool on Sunday lunchtime. She’s telling us about another escape, a weekend at a friend’s French Chateau with a group of scary alpha mums two years ago. They were meant to get in touch with their ‘inner Goddess’. I’m not sure if she found hers but it did make her feel (what was her expression? Oh yes,) frisky. Which can only be a good thing at our age. I’m hoping one night away might have the same effect on me.

It didn't, quite the reverse. Perhaps I should have tried bathing in goat’s milk rather than drowning in alcohol? So much was consumed in fact, that when my mobile eventually woke me at what felt like the crack of dawn on Monday morning (but was in fact five past nine) and a strange voice said Eldest was throwing up in a gutter outside school, I thought I was hallucinating. I wasn’t, it was the school secretary and she wanted me to come and get him.

“I can’t,” I stuttered, fizzes of nausea wafting up from my stomach like bubbles in a Jacuzzi, “I’m not even in London!” SO THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A WORKING MOTHER. And then I remembered - Plan B. So I rang him.

Daddy was duly employed to ferry vomiting Eldest home from school along with the by now also vomiting Youngest (who obviously could not attend the fracture clinic) and as due penance I agreed to cut short my jaunt, but not before stuffing three tiny jars of complimentary sweets into my suitcase by way of compensation.

One problem: they weren’t complimentary. The other mums told me later. They cost £3.50. Each. If I give the hotel a nice plug do you think there’s any chance they might not charge the extra £10.50 to my already over-loaded credit card?

And by the way, did I say how lovely Cowley Manor was?

Friday, 14 May 2010

Kidding around

“Today I’m a goat, “ says Youngest, trotting off and crouching down behind a sapling, "and you have to find me." He is, of course, still clearly visible.

We are at Morden Hall, the aquatic and garden centre, buying weed for the fish tank and this sort of behaviour is not unusual; deciding to be an animal is his 'thing'.

Lately we’ve had to play, ‘I’m something cute and then you see me,’ every day on the way to school.

“Ah look! It’s a lesser spotted…” I begin, bleary eyed and struggling to form sentences early in the morning while carrying two book bags and a trumpet.

“No, No! In the accent!”

“Ah look!” I repeat, putting on my best Australian accent. It’s easier to try and get it right than protest.

Just occasionally I’d like to walk to school in silence. I’d like to drink in the lovely spring morning and the view of the common (we’ve been walking the back way). I’d rather not be a packhorse with a crap Aussie accent. But that’s motherhood for you, and, to be honest, there’s a tiny part of me thinking, ‘I’m such a great mum to be doing this!’ that almost makes it worthwhile… but not quite.

Youngest has been pretending to be someone - or something - for years. It started pre-nursery when I was invariably enlisted to be mother bear to his cub, or bitch to his puppy, (no sniggering at the back) and it wasn’t helped much by the nursery teacher who suggested I play on the floor with him. She said crawling improves the left/right orientation of the brain, or some tosh. So I was often on all fours barking round the living room. Not a future I envisaged when I did my B.A. Hons degree in English Lit.

Then there was a long period of space travel. Youngest always got the plum role while I could be any one of Buzz Lightyear’s many sidekicks: Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, Bo Peep, but never Woody - too much of a threat I guess. This went on for a while. I could be found in playgrounds with Youngest commanding I take-off in a rocket. Introverts need not apply for that job.

I know it’s not unusual for small children to have fads. The little boy over the road, let’s call him S - he’s three now - he had a thing for shampoo bottles, took them everywhere, lined them up, named them, put them to bed.

He played shampoo, went to sleep with shampoo and dreamed shampoo.

After six months of shampoo he awoke one morning saying, “where shampoo?” for the millionth time, and his mummy lost it.

“Enough already with the ****ing shampoo!”

And that mummy is a positive paragon, which just goes to show everyone has a breaking point. Which reminds me about the goat…

“When we get home, can you build me a goat shed in the garden?”

“You’ve got a playhouse out there, won’t that do?”

“No! Of course not! That’s no good for a goat!”

I even had to do the English comprehension homework - with a goat.

“So, what was the Granny doing when Jo got to her house?”

“Maaa! She was…Maaa!…Reading the paper…Maaa! And watching TV…Maaa! And knitting…Maaa! All at the same time…Maaa!”

I had to fetch fresh hay at bedtime.

“We can’t read that story! We have to find one about goats!”

When he woke up the next morning - you guessed it - he was still a goat.

Meanwhile little S over the road has moved on from shampoo. He’s obsessed with Barbie dolls now.

He lines them up, he names them, he takes them to bed...

also this week...

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Boxing Clever

“What I’d really like for my birthday,” said Eldest when he was about six “is a stick.”

Happy days that are now, unfortunately, long gone.

Two of them have a birthday coming up and no one has so far asked for a stick. An iPhone (you must be kidding, right?), a trampoline, but no sticks.

The youngest two are still crazy for cardboard boxes however. What is it about boys and boxes? If Middle One sees me demolishing an empty box - and I do love a bit of shredding - he goes mental.

“I needed that box! I was going to make something/keep my gerbil in it/use it for storing things…”

So I try to get boxes out of the house as soon as possible. As for boxes that come full of those white, foam, wiggly things - horror! I had to shower Youngest down last week after we unpacked lamps from John Lewis along with hundreds of tiny, sticky balls. They got everywhere: on his eyelashes, down his pants…

I let them keep a small stash of boxes in a cupboard and from time to time - for God’s sake don’t tell them - I have a little purge. I can always say the cleaner did it. She gets blamed for a lot.

Three years ago, when we moved, I dismantled a strange cardboard box-hanging-from-the-ceiling-from-an-old-piece-of-string arrangement in Eldest’s bedroom, throwing out most of the contents. You know the sort of thing: a few empty coke cans, some moldering conkers. I thought he’d forget, but he’s still looking for it.

Chucking things out is just something mums do, we have to, or we’d all drown in the tat. Just watch out for those transparent, orange recycling bags - they can spot a precious drawing through one of those devils at five paces.

“My drawing!”

“Oh no darling, what has the cleaner done?”

And then there are imaginary boxes. When Eldest was little he used to get scared at night. He was particularly freaked out by a Bible story (thank you Year 1 Teacher, you know who you are). I think it was the goat in was the burning bush. Anyway, one night it was really bad and I had to pull out all the stops.

So, getting into his bed and holding him close, I told him to imagine shrinking the monster until it was tiny, then dropping it into a strong box, winding a big chain around it, locking it up with a large, shiny padlock, carrying it down the garden, digging a hole, placing the box in the hole, covering the hole with soil, and then, finally, going back to the house. Genius.

He lay perfectly still listening to this long, detailed and (though I say so myself) rather brilliant ruse and then said,


“Yes darling.”

“That padlock…can I keep it?”

Actually, I think we gave him one as a birthday present that year.

Now that’s thinking outside the box.