Tuesday, 28 February 2012


A black swivel chair sits in the middle of a room. Lights dim. Low music begins: ‘approaching menace’, it is dramatic... building. A solitary spotlight illuminates the chair. A small child sporting a flat cap, grubby white shirt, waistcoat, and an anxious expression approaches. He sits. “So!” booms a disembodied voice, “Welcome to Mastermind! Give your name, please.” The tiny child gives his name. “And your specialist subject?” The tiny child gives his specialist subject. “And your occupation?” The tiny child hesitates; he looks to me where I am crouching by the doorway. I try to mouth the word ‘job’ but he can’t see me and bursts into tears. “I don’t know what you mean!” he screams at his brother who is standing behind the iMac and the lights go up to reveal the squalid scene: mother and three sons huddled in a back bedroom office in a terraced house in south London attempting to make a DVD for a school project on the Victorians.

It’s late Sunday evening at the end of half-term. We’re all knackered. We shouldn’t have left it to the last minute: I know that, I do know that, but Youngest was ill with a chest infection and then he was recovering and then we went away so really there was no other opportunity and now we’re all tired and fractious and stressed and trying to help him and get it all over in a hurry. The Mastermind DVD was his idea, and it’s a great idea, he was meant to do it with a friend and write a script and research it but he didn’t get himself organised - of course. We don’t have time to edit the thing before school tomorrow so we’re trying to film it straight onto the computer in one two-minute take.

“Look, you idiot,” says the older brother, who is the question master and not helping things one little bit. “It means what is your job. You’re meant to say chimney sweep. We’ve been over this!”

“Oh my God!” joins in middle brother from where he’s perched on the other side of the room, his hand poised over the second computer mouse to cue in the music from YouTube, “I am not going to do this again! Get it right, you moron!”

“Don’t call him a moron,” I say. I can see Youngest is on the verge of a complete meltdown. His chimney sweep make-up is running down his little face in streaky black rivulets. Calm. I must remain calm. How hard can this be? “Look, we’ll do this one more time.” I turn to Eldest: “you need to ask the questions more slowly. Slow. Slow. Slow. It might feel too slow to you but it won’t be.”

“Yes you do,” chips in Middle One, “you’re completely crap, your delivery is rubbish, you’re gabbling."

“You are crap you mean, you idiot,” says Eldest.

“And,” continues Middle One, oblivious to the insult, “you don’t know how it works, you’ve never watched Mastermind, when he gets a question wrong you correct it and then you say all the passes at the end!”

“That’s not how they do it!” shouts Eldest. He has an incredibly loud voice.

“Yes it is!” Wails Youngest from the chair, “Oh my God, Oh my God! We’re never going to do this right! I hate you, I hate you all!”

“Okay,” I say, trying to calm them all down, “listen, let’s just try one more: fifth time lucky. I’ll cue in the music and then I’ll signal for you to walk on and for you to begin the questions…”

“I was cueing in the music then!" screams Middle One, “you just spoke over it and I’ll have to start it all over now. I’ve had enough!”

“No, no, no!” sobs Youngest, “we haven’t done it yet! You can’t go now!”

“Well, I’m off,” says Eldest, "you’re all losers.”

“Right! That’s it! You listen to me! I do this professionally! I trained at the BBC! I make videos in schools with whole classes of children and it’s a doddle compared to this! You just have to do exactly as I say, for once!” This lunatic screaming at the very top of her voice is me, of course.

“Oh you’ve done it now,” says Eldest. “I’m definitely not staying to listen to this, I’m off. I have homework to do.” And he leaves as Youngest throws himself to the floor and dissolves into hysterical tears.

God, how I hate school projects.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Moving to Peru


“Do you know train drivers in Peru work 15 hour shifts without a break?” I say to the train driver, and luckily he laughs. But hang on a minute; I think I need to rewind a bit…

The half-term plan was that all three boys would go to their grandparents without us for two nights - hooray! I would deliver them to the station, Eldest would be in charge on the train, mother would meet them at the other end, but holiday GCSE sessions at school have got in the way. We knew about Geography on Monday and the Chemistry re-sit on Wednesday, we’d worked around that, it was the last minute three-line whip from the eccentric Biology teacher for a Friday afternoon revision bonanza that completely scuppered our respite plan. So we gave it up. I bought a ticket for myself to York instead along with two for the younger boys. We would just have to leave Husband behind in charge of Eldest. So much for romance, and we still had the builders in anyway...

So here I am, Wednesday morning, trying to pack, falling over said builders on the landing because I'm also trying to get to the office to write a tribute to a friend who has just died, so feeling very emotional, with chief builder wanting to talk about ceiling lights as Middle One shouts that he can’t find his grey jeans and it's all my fault, “they've been missing for months!” and to be honest it’s all a bit much. I think, if I can just get on that train north I'll be able to relax, chill out; forget about the sadness and the builders…


Three of us sit on the tube. I'm catatonic, staring at some haggard old woman opposite before realising it’s my own reflection in the glass, and we finally get to King’s Cross and stagger up to the concourse with luggage and coats and then, horror of horrors... there are no trains, nothing coming in or out, signal failure or a broken down train or a body on the line or something. Some idiot with a clipboard, shouting over the top of a sea of irate people, tells us to get a train to Manchester and change there. Manchester! I ring mother who suggests Sheffield from St Pancras, if they will honour our tickets, we can change for York there. I’m not keen. Middle One even less so. Both my charmless travelling companions are for ditching the trip and going home, and if there wasn’t building mayhem waiting for us there I might be tempted myself… but no, let’s give St Pancras a whirl.


So we drag ourselves out of one station into another much nicer one, and walk the entire length of it to the information desk. Me out in front, one child crying behind that he wants his Daddy as the other swears constantly under his breath, until eventually we’re told we can get the next train to Sheffield: it leaves in half an hour. We go to get coffee... big mistake. I’m usually of a mind that getting coffee will make everything better but I wasn’t thinking straight, it takes hours to arrive and by then we need to get up to the platform so we have to put it, and two hot chocolates, into paper cups and carry them, along with all the luggage and the coats peeled off because it’s very warm for February, but probably wouldn’t be in York, and the rest of the St Pancras debacle is a dreadful blur of pushing on to a very crowded train, eventually finding seats, starting to unload, and then realising they are all booked and taking the view that we really don’t want to stand the whole way to a city we don’t want to go to in the first place. And getting off.


Good call. Probably the best we've made all morning, and somehow I persuade Youngest and Middle One to go back to King's Cross to see if anything is moving and there we discover that, yes, a train has actually just left. This means they've cleared the line and ours might, at some point, run as well. So when I see a train driver sporting the correct livery, climbing down from the cab of a train that has clearly just come in, I nab him. “Is this the train from Sunderland? He smiles at me, a very nice smile, so maybe I can still cut it with the flirting-mum-routine? I give it a whirl and smile back, although remembering my reflection on the Tube I’m not at all sure that I can. “Yes,” he says, still smiling. “And will it be going to York anytime soon?” I say, looking at my watch. It’s 12.30 now, this is probably our delayed 11.25... “Yes,” he says again, “after I’ve had my forty-five minute lunch break.”


Forty-five minute lunch break! There are a million people, sporting babies and buggies and large musical instruments and ageing relatives on crutches, standing only a few metres away, all desperately studying the departure board waiting for a train north, and he wants a forty-five minute lunch break. So that’s when I tell him about Peruvian train drivers who work 15 hour shifts with no break. I watched a programme about them only the night before. Luckily he thinks this is hilarious and shows us to our carriage, pointing out our reserved seats which are somehow miraculously there waiting for us, and that’s how we end up sitting on an empty, peaceful train, ready to set off to York, as soon as the train driver has had his lunch, while all the other poor saps wait for an announcement on the concourse. So I can’t really complain. But I definitely think we should consider moving to Peru.

Monday, 20 February 2012


Suddenly there’s a thud in the background of our lives. It causes ripples of tears. Close to they flow large and plentiful and will do so for many years. Further away, where we are, they hit late and with less force. But still we are affected.

A friend has died, a father, the father of one of Eldest’s friends now living overseas: a lovely man. We are stunned and saddened more than I can say. I cry for him and for his wife and for the son I know well and the younger son I hardly know at all. I cry for everyone and find I can’t stop crying. Why?

Because his untimely death puts everything under a microscope of introspection and makes me watch. For days after all I do is watch. I watch as we eat and as we argue, as we each try to be heard above the others, as we sometimes smile but more often bicker and mostly just are. I watch as we hug, kiss, love, hate, dress, sleep, slump together in front of the TV, take turns to wash, make a huge mess and as I try to tidy it all up.

And as I watch I see us take each other for granted and I think of him and of those he left behind. I vow we won’t do this anymore. We will be careful with one another. We will be thankful for what we have. But I know we won’t. This reverberating shock will slowly fade. Until next time.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Peace at Last

You know that picture book by Jill Murphy where Mr Bear goes from room to room looking for peace and can’t find any? It’s like that in our house at the moment. Gunfire staccatos from the basement, guitar music ricochets round the attic, cars screech in the living room, feet crash on stairs, drills wail in the bathroom, hoovering drones in the office, the washing machine climaxes in the cellar, the dishwasher beeps in the kitchen and the front door slams again and again and again. Noise. Noise. Noise. With three boys there’s always a lot of it but even by our deafening standards it’s gone up a notch lately with a new Brazilian cleaning duo and three builders to refit a bathroom. And we both work at home most of the time...it’s a joke.

I add to it just a little too if I'm honest, the noise that is, as with my odd pair of girl's knickers thrown atop the enormous man/boy washing pile. God knows what our peaceful Hindu neighbours think of my screaming. And possibly I reached a nadir on Wednesday evening with Husband away on business and Middle One and Eldest about to have a fight at the dinner table (“I’ll stab you with this knife!” “Oh yeah! I’ll smash your face in!”), when I chased Eldest up the stairs to his room shouting, “Don’t you dare behave like that… I hope you fail all your GCSEs!” (I think it hurt me more to say that than it did him to hear it). I noticed too late that his row of Velux windows were open wide to the street but I didn't much care. The threat of violence from someone now so much bigger and stronger than me, even when not directed at me, was deeply unnerving. And perhaps I shouldn't worry unduly about adding to the racket where we live, it’s already a cacophony of car alarms, sirens, fox screams, smashing bottles and wheelie suitcases trundled along pavements at five o’clock in the morning. I’ve had so many sleepless nights lately the bags under my eyes feel like friends.

Even when the drilling and vacuuming stops and the children finally go to bed, the broken boiler hums so loudly from below stairs it’s like our terraced house has snapped free from its moorings: a giant throbbing ship ploughing away through the night. By Friday evening we were desperate for some peace at last - and it almost looked like we might get some. The builders gone until Monday, the cleaners done with their weekly frenzy, the cellar door shut against the worst of the humming, if Eldest could just curtail his lengthy ablutions in the bathroom and turn the wretched tap off (it’s on a pump) we might actually be able to close our eyes and… but what’s that? Drip, drip, drip (I told you it was like the picture book). The builders had left a bucket under the newly installed leaking shower nozzle creating a bespoke Chinese water torture. How kind. No matter, simply shut the door against that too and then... at last... close eyes and... finally… sleep. But only for a short while because Youngest appeared at the doorway, his ghostly wheezing figure swaying before our bleary eyes, telling us he couldn't breathe.

Turns out he has a nasty chest infection so we’ve spent the last two nights lying in bed listening to a rhythmic rasping. If there wasn’t snow on the ground right now I might consider sleeping in the car. Well it worked for Mr Bear.