Sunday, 27 June 2010

How do I look?

I’m looking at clothes in Marks and Spencer trying to choose something for the boys to wear to a wedding on Saturday. I like the white granddad shirt and beige waistcoat combos. They don’t have them in Youngest’s size but they do have one age 11, for Middle One, and one age 14, for Eldest. Can I get away with it? I think the last time they wore matching clothes was on holiday in the Caribbean six years ago. I still have the photo, three boys on the beach, standing in descending order sporting brightly patterned short-sleeved shirts from Gap. I love it.

I have something for Youngest, so I buy the shirt and waistcoats in a mad flurry of optimism. Back home I remove the labels from the bigger set, leaving it lying on Eldest’s bed and later in the evening he comes downstairs holding it aloft, between thumb and forefinger, like a piece of limp road kill.

“Is this meant for me?” He says.

“Um, well, I thought…” I say.

“You’re joking, right?” He says.

“Yes, well, I know it’s not very trendy, I just thought it’s for a wedding and…”

“But I have a really nice shirt from Top Man I’m going to wear. That tight one.” He says.

“Yes. Of course, that’s fine.” I shuffle away to get on making the supper. Silly me.

I should remember that what you wear when you’re a teenager is hugely important. How can I forget all those sweaty, static hours trying things on in Chelsea Girl? Marks and Spencer is just never going to cut it.

When I was 14 my mother let me have my monthly Family Allowance. I planned each buy meticulously, coordinating everything; some of those outfits are etched in my memory still. Like the pink jeans, matching jacket, stripy top and crocheted scarf from Dotty P’s (as modelled by the mannequin in the window). I bought that for the school trip to France and my best friend, Susie P, copied it in blue (you know it’s true, Susie).

We wore our matching ensembles on the coach and a cool French boy gave me a vulgar non-verbal come-on, which I took to mean the outfit was a big success (but later realised might have been an insult). Then there was the black and gold ra-ra skirt with matching gold lame leggings. Strangely, I didn’t manage to pull in that…

Despite being all grown up now I’m still prone to the odd sartorial meltdown. Earlier this year, when husband and I were going to a trendy do for a tenth wedding anniversary (important because lots of friends from uni would be there), I was overwhelmed by three possible choices: sexy slut, sophisticated but boring or trendy but no shape to it. Initially I opted for sexy slut (of course) but then had a crisis while appraising myself in the mirror at the last minute.

“Do I look tarty?” I asked husband. Big mistake. Just in case there are any men reading (I know it’s unlikely), the answer to that question is, no, you look great. In fact, that's always the answer to the question, just so you know.

Unfortunately, husband didn’t know (yet). After the briefest of glances he said, “Well, yes, you do a bit.” Fatal. I had a fit - during which I changed outfit more than once - and asked for his opinion again. He replied, calmly, that he really didn’t want to get involved. Another big mistake. We rowed all the way to the Tube and onto the tube and while changing tube from the northbound Northern line to the northbound Victoria line, until I sat on a bench (to get his attention) refusing to go any further.

“I’m not moving until you apologise.”

“For what?” husband asked, fairly reasonably.

“For saying that you didn’t like my dress and then not offering any more advice.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like your dress. I can’t say anything right,” he complained, “I just don’t want to get involved.”

“But you ARE involved. You offered an opinion at the beginning. You were up to your neck in it!”

He started to laugh and I tried desperately not to join in. Then I started to laugh too. Sitting next to each other on a bench at Stockwell underground station with people dashing past, all of them giving us a much wider birth than strictly necessary, we laughed hysterically while I was wearing the trendy dress and wishing I’d worn the sexy one.

After the incident with Eldest and the waistcoat I lose confidence and wait another day before trying to get Youngest to model his new shorts and shirt (he thinks just holding them against him will suffice). As he’s putting them on, Middle One strolls in from the garden and spies the Marks and Spencer white granddad shirt and waistcoat combo (age 11) on the hanger.

“Is that for me?” He says.

“Yeees…” I say, hesitantly.


Sunday, 20 June 2010

Thanks for the memory

“Thanks for my birthday Mummy,” says Eldest as he gets up from the sofa to go to bed. He bends his head towards me and I put my arms around his neck so I can kiss him and ruffle his hair, “and thanks for not embarrassing me!” High praise indeed.

He was 14 on Sunday and instead of a party with balloons, pass-the-parcel and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, like the one we held for our eight year-old three weeks ago, we agreed he could take some mates for a meal. He wanted to “go Nando’s,” and he didn’t want us tagging along.

Fair enough, but what about paying for it? “I could turn up and pay at the end if you like?” I suggest, hopefully. “It doesn’t really work like that,” Eldest patiently explains, “you pay first.” So that’s classy. We agree to give him the money and he looks absolutely delighted.

You don’t really want your mum turning up at Nando’s when you’re 14. I get it. I want him to have what he wants for his birthday, I just have to accept that doesn’t include me anymore. But we did still celebrate as a family in the morning. There was the customary opening of presents followed by the fry-up Eldest requested and then a cake with candles in the afternoon before his mates turned up. Did he want to wait and have the cake with his friends? No, he didn’t. I guess that’s embarrassing too when you’re 14. Funny, because by the time you’re in your forties it’s really rather nice.

Negotiation. At this age, it’s all about negotiation, and so far (cross fingers) it seems to work. There’s none of the conflict and emotion I had with my mother mostly because Eldest is so calm and laid-back about everything. He didn’t want me to go to Nando’s, or sing happy birthday with his friends, but he’s tactful, he doesn’t say, “Oh my God! That would be sooo embarrassing!” He just shrugs, raises his eyebrows a little and suggests we might not do it like that.

Then there was the sleepover on Sunday night (it was an Inset next day) when I agreed not to embarrass him by telling them to go to sleep at 10.30 and checking if they’d brushed their teeth, I said they could stay up, so long as we didn’t hear anything. Apparently, I’m the only parent who tells them to go to sleep at sleepovers. Yeah, right. Whatever. They all slept in the basement and we didn’t hear anything, so it worked; I guess.

It’s all a far cry from the first time, his real birthday, that June dawn 14 years ago, still my favourite memory and the one I use late at night when I’m trying to sleep. The other two births were lovely too but Eldest’s was special because…well, because it was first and it was good, great even. I know it’s not what everyone wants to hear, especially other mums with traumatic birth stories - and there are so many of them - but it has to go right sometimes. What can I say? I must be a peasant or something: I could have crouched in a field, had him and carried on threshing.

Instead of a field I almost had him in the car on Battersea Bridge on the way to the hospital. There was no time for pain relief and no time to ask for the water birth I wanted either, (as explicitly requested in my three-page birth plan. What a waste of an essay that was!). I arrived in a sort of animal trance, threw off my clothes, climbed on the bed and just managed to grunt the word, “water!” So they brought me a glass of the stuff.

“You’re going to have this baby within the hour,” said Jane, the wonderful young Australian midwife. It was just the three of us in the room – husband, midwife and me and dawn was breaking over the Chelsea rooftops: the beginning of a stunning summer day - and a new life.

That quiet early morning, the view through the window, the lack of intervention, the encouraging midwife, I think it all helped to get me through it, and I told myself, I can do this, it’s what I was made for. I’ve certainly never felt stronger or more alive and I guess there was some sort of natural high that kicked in as well. Of course it hurt, it hurt like hell; I didn’t wear the gown they gave me, and I didn’t lie down either, I knelt, with my arms over the head of the bed, and I had him, like that. It was wonderful.

Immediately before the cord was cut or anything, I took him in my arms, held him close and looked into his eyes, and he looked straight back at me. He seemed so wise, so knowing that I felt he was looking into my soul and we knew each other straight away. And I often think, despite all the ups and downs, all the inevitable frustrations associated with raising a rather lazy teenaged boy, maybe that’s why we still manage to get on, most of the time, because there was some sort of deep understanding between us right at the start. Probably sentimental rubbish, but I like to believe it.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Star Gazing

I’m in Claridges sipping champagne with Kristin Scott Thomas. Actually she’s sitting at the next table but let’s not split hairs. I was the first to spot her. You know when you see a celebrity but you’re not completely sure? It happened with Natalie Imbruglia in a bar. I thought: that woman looks like Natalie Imbruglia, just paler and much thinner. Then realised it was Natalie Imbruglia and she is paler and much thinner, if that’s possible. She looked ill. It must be her, I reasoned, she’s wearing a bowler hat indoors, in July. So it was a tad embarrassing when a member of our party, all a bit pissed and over-excited, nicked her hat and ran off.

It’s the same with Kristin Scott Thomas. Not the hat nicking thing, the pale and thin thing. But it’s definitely her. The friend I’m sitting with is thrilled, she says it’s because there weren’t many celebs where she grew up in Coventry. There weren’t many where I grew up in York either, just Judy Dench. But apparently they’d have killed for a Judy Dench in Coventry. She is a Dame now I suppose…Judy Dench, not my friend.

I used to work in the media, you see, where celebs were ten a penny. I’ve worked with Joanna Lumley, I went to her house and she gave me champagne darling. And then there was lunch with Michael Palin, just me, the manager of my department and Michael. And I’ve rubbed shoulders with any number of early 90’s BBC has-beens, you know the sort: Jilly Goolden, Tony Slattery, people we never hear about now. I’ve got a great story about Tony Slattery I often reel out at dinner parties, and one about Jilly Goolden. If you haven’t heard them ask me - but chances are you’ve heard them.

I got to know Bernard Cribbins quite well when I worked on Jackanory (how old does that make me sound, for God’s sake?), and once had drinks, at Soho House, don’t you know, with an actress friend (called Beverly Hills, I kid you not) and her great mate Meera Syal. So, maybe that’s why I’m not that bothered about Kristin Scott Thomas.

But I do love that movie, The English Patient, fabulous. I just cannot agree with another wonderful friend of mine, let’s call her G, who, although pretty perfect in all other respects insists Meet The Fockers is better. Maybe it’s because she’s foreign, she doesn’t get all that British tight-lipped restraint in The English Patient. Well I’m sorry, but that sex scene, the one on Christmas day, in the heat, while all the soldiers are celebrating and they’re doing it standing behind a wall? Need I say more?

Right now Kristin Scott Thomas is eating tiny cucumber sandwiches like butter wouldn’t melt. I really can’t imagine her doing it against a wall. But that’s great actresses for you.

Oh, and I nearly forgot, I met the Queen at Buck House (as husband endearingly calls it), special invitation, arrived by limo because I worked on a programme about her. Then, afterwards, caught a Network South East train home from Victoria Station to my bedsit in Streatham. Sat next to a man eating a burger. Bit surreal. But all that was many moons ago, in another life, or rather, a life. Nowadays I have to make do with Arthur Smith in the local café, or that Andrew Rawnsley chap on the way to school. He writes for the Observer, you know. Well, it impresses me.

Funny thing about celebrities, however minor, they always know when you know, you can just tell, it’s almost imperceptible but it’s there, that telltale little look, they’re watching for it. Kristin Scott Thomas knows we know and for some reason I find that annoying.

Here at Claridges, with the chandeliers, and the music, and the dainty little cakes like miniature hats at Ascot, all worlds apart from my usual routine grilling fish fingers in Tooting, I’m blissfully unaware that in approximately forty minutes I’ll be back home, heels kicked off by the front door, new dress hanging in the wardrobe again, chatting to the boys and husband wearing my sloppy trackie bums and attempting to cook two Waitrose Essential pizzas for tea but burning them round the edges because I’m a bit pissed.

And you know what, you can keep your celebrity lifestyle; truth is I’m happy in the kitchen with my kids. It’s lovely having little trips away from it (and them) now and again, like this one, because they make me realise that.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

What are family holidays for?

It seems a silly question, but think about it. After days of military-style preparation: organising what’s to become of the pets, spending a fortune in Boots, washing and ironing my body weight in shorts and t-shirts, packing the car with everything from Monopoly to the obligatory boules set (and let’s face it, how many of us ever actually play boules on holiday?), it’s only the thought of walking back into that lovely empty house again after the cleaner has been and cleansed it all that gets me into the car. And that’s just the start. When they are good they can be very, very good, but when family holidays are bad, they are horrid. And sometimes they can be good and horrid at almost exactly the same time.

Take cycling through a coastal pine forest in France this week, wind in the face, hair blowing behind, husband and three boys up ahead, thinking – this is the life! And then, minutes later, rounding a corner to find Middle One standing beside his prone, twisted bike, eyes ablaze with tears, kicking furiously at the front wheel.

Or, later, hugging knees, sitting at the edge of an expansive, empty beach in the sunshine, starring out at the glittering surf, listening to the children’s delighted whoops as they roll down the dunes and then suddenly being confronted by Eldest’s naked left toe dripping bright blood onto the sand like water from a tap. “Mummy, I think I might have stepped on some glass…”

This is the stuff family holidays are made of, heady highs and plunging lows complete with unexpected challenges. How do I concoct a nutritious meal for five on an unresponsive electric hob using only eggs, UHT milk and a bulb of garlic? Or, how many times can I recycle socks (and worse!) for the children - and smelling them all to find out. (The socks, not the children.)

Good weather is key, having the power to turn a mediocre week’s break in cramped accommodation into a blissful retreat - as happened this week. Beginning a bit mixed, sunshine and showers, a little chilly, turning radiators up, finding that extra jumper, and so nearly sliding into disaster the evening it rained when we came back from Nausicaa and the older two, slumped on the inadequate two-man sofa in the tiny living-room/kitchenette, announced they really would rather be at home with the Wii and the X Box (and secretly I agreed). There was a complete volte-face when we awoke next day to blazing sunshine. What a wonderful place!

Success could be charted from then on by the position of the table outside, on which we took all subsequent meals, as it moved from the middle of the lawn, to catch every precious ray, to the increasingly essential dappled shade of a nearby tree.

And what meals! The chocolate bonanza that was petit dejeuner (chocolat chaud, pain au chocolat) moving on to the dejeuner of cheese, bread, beer and seafood and invariably ending with moules, or steak, frites in the evening, sometimes at a café by the sea. And if the wet Tuesday evening was the low, then the sunny Thursday morning horse riding with Middle One through the dunes was the definite high.

But best of all there was nothing and nobody else. No telephone, no Internet, no newspapers, no TV and no appointments to be made or kept, just us. In particular it was lovely to spend so much time with Eldest who, at very nearly 14, is increasingly leading a social life of his own at home in London. I told him, often, how much I was enjoying spending time with him as well as with the other two, and he smiled benevolently. In fact, he smiled a lot, despite himself. We all did. So, I think I’ve worked it out, that’s what family holidays are for.