Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The List

I almost feel sorry for the man, he can’t sit in his own office, he’s being invaded by a triumvirate of assertive women: my mother, sister-in-law and me, and we’ve taken all his chairs. He perches on the edge of his fake wood desk, corporate slacks riding up to expose leg flesh, arms folded across poly cotton short-sleeved shirt. I try to keep quiet, the others are in full flow, if I say something as well it might tip him over the edge.

So far he’s taken it well. Now sister-in-law proffers The List, hand written, very neat, a mile long. I spot a few phrases: “lumpy duvet, no frying pan, damp in bedroom.” I’d like to distance myself from The List, now that I see him taking it in his pale, trembling hands but realise I’m up to my neck in it. I already rang to complain about cleanliness, or lack of it, (pubic hairs on the side of the bath - not ours) and he said he'd send cleaners. I tune back in. “Very dated,” mother is saying. “Not really fit to let to the public,” I add, despite myself.

We’re at Center Parcs for a week, an extended family holiday - grandparents' treat - for my brother’s family and ours, the perfect break for our combined party. The boys climb high wires, shoot clay pigeons; the girls and Youngest (honorary girl) build habitat boxes, meet owls; the adults cycle and play tennis. Exposure to the sub-tropical swimming paradise is kept to a minimum. Not sure we really qualify anyway as none of us has body art.

We had a fantastic time in May 2011, at Sherwood Forest. Mother booked top spec accommodation: two beautifully appointed timber houses with wooden floors, en suite bathrooms, flat screen TVs and WiFi… even the teenagers were happy. This year she’s booked Longleat to be nearer London, but the houses aren’t so nice. Not nearly. On arrival we’re crestfallen to find an all-pervading smell of damp, wood chip walls, dark patterned curtains, old carpets. Mother is shocked, it’s not cheap, she thought she’d booked the same as before.

“I’m sorry,” says the Guest Services Manager, not for the first time. “Would it make any difference if you had new carpets in the bedrooms?” “Um…” ponders sister-in-law and a phrase which includes the words 'wind' and 'sails' and 'out of' pops into my head. “I think we would like to move,” says mother, “if that’s possible.” “Of course,” says G S M, “Would you like to upgrade, at no extra charge?” We all nod: stunned into silence. “I’ll have a look and ring you later. What time will be convenient?”

Back at the house/s, as they are being blitzed by a crack team of cleaners, there’s a knock at the door. The first of many. A brand new duvet arrives… then a box of wine glasses… a frying pan… another set of wine glasses… a chrome bin. It’s turning into the conveyor belt from the Generation Game, all we need now is a cuddly… three small cuddly toys arrive, one for each of the little ones, along with colouring pads and pencils, swiftly followed by the window cleaning party.

On and on it goes, all through lunch and into the afternoon, stuff for our house as well: another frying pan, a man to mend the door, another to fix the fire alarm. It's getting embarrassing. How can we move now? The houses are being transformed before our eyes. It's almost as if some unseen hand is working its way down The List, ticking everything off, one by one. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Disposable Olympics

Who cares about the Olympics? Not me: waste of money. There, I’ve said it. But you could be forgiven for thinking I do care, when I had both hands in the middle of a putrid bin bag this week looking for a lost ticket…

I’ll backtrack. I’m not interested in sport but I do like history and will concede that the Olympics coming to London, it’s a momentous historical thing. And I like a nice show, which I believe Danny Boyle is kindly going to put on for us tomorrow night (see waste of...).

Same with the Diamond Jubilee: not in favour of the monarchy per se (see waste of, again) but it was a historical event, so we went to Battersea Park to watch the flotilla because someone gave us free tickets, and we stood/crouched in the cold and the rain near a huge TV screen, because we couldn’t get anywhere near the embankment, and at the crucial moment, when the Queen arrived, the people in front of us suddenly stood up, completely obscuring our view. So we saw nothing. We came home, put the kettle and the telly on (in that order) and were much happier.

But that’s not the point. If you have children you have to do this stuff. It’s part of the job: building memories. Even if they are crap ones. Even if Middle One decides, as a direct result of the Battersea Park experience, that the whole of humanity sucks. And even if the children never want to go in the first place, which they never do. 

So, I queued up last week at the local library to get more free tickets (note running theme here), to see the Olympic torch arrive at the Common and watch some God-awful band called Rizzle Kicks (not ‘the’ Rizzle Kicks, Mummy, oh my God you are so old!). But by the time the queue snaked all the way round the neighbourhood and back again and I actually got into the library (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you?). You guessed it.

Of course, after they ran out, I really wanted those tickets, if everyone else did. So I went to great lengths to get some. Such lengths that it’s a whole other story, which I will have to relay another time. Suffice to say I eventually got four: for the boys and me, and had them safely stashed in their envelope in my handbag, ready for the big day. Didn’t even look at them. Husband managed to get a fifth ticket from a friend, so he could come too. We would meet him there. Problem is, I’m tidy. Very tidy. And my first port of call tidying-up wise is… (you’re ahead of me again, aren’t you?).

Look, in my defence it’s stood me in good stead over the years, waging a constant battle against the tide of rubbish flowing into this increasingly decrepit old house. Only the odd vital document or child’s favourite drawing has ended up in there (and even then I usually get away with blaming the cleaner). So it’s hardly my fault that on Day One of the summer holidays, whizzing round trying to get the place in order, I picked up a tiny crumpled piece of green paper lying on the chest of drawers in the bedroom and chucked it away.

So, later, there's this wonderful moment, flailing at the front door, trying to leave, me and three boys, when Youngest is crying: I don’t want to go, I’m so tired! It’s so hot! You are so mean! and Eldest is muttering: I don’t want to go either, why did you get these stupid tickets? I haven’t had a shower, why is there no hot water? And Middle One is yelling: I hate Rizzle Kicks, they are chavs: it’s crap music, and I get a text from husband: just leaving office now, is my ticket still on chest of drawers? And my blood runs cold.

Good news is, husband found the ticket in the bathroom bin when he got in and joined us on the Common just in time to see Tim Henman arrive with the flame. Who would have thought I put it in there? And it was quite a good do actually. A total waste of money, obviously, but historical.

Yes, that is Tim Henman in the distance...

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Tuesday, 24 July 2012


I have this thing about dresses. I keep buying them. And wearing them. You might call it an addiction. Could be worse, I suppose, could be handbags (expensive), or shoes (take up lots of room), or cocaine (don’t think I need elaborate), but with me it’s always been dresses. I have scores of them. Not quite sure why. I just found an old favourite hanging in the cellar behind a coat. Thought I must have left if behind in Paris in 2010. And, yes, there is an anecdote to go with that but it’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds.

Perhaps it’s because you don’t have to think with a dress, just put it on and you’re done… except for shoes/tights/leggings to go with it. With skirts and trousers you need something else. Well, you do if you don’t want to look pornographic while walking down the high street... And that something needs to match, or at least coordinate in some way and that’s too much thinking.

Problem is you tend to look all dressed up in a dress, like you made a special effort, which is ironic because chances are you just pulled the thing over your head. I’ve lost count of the times friends have asked me where I’m going. Oh to a lunch, I say, or, to see an old friend/brother/colleague/boyfriend…  It’s just too embarrassing to admit the sorry truth: I’m wearing this dress only to go home now, after dropping the kids at school, put the smelly bin bag out, sweep the floor, mess about on Facebook and then suddenly remember I need to put a wash on before rushing back to get the boys and panic buying something uninspiring for dinner on the way home. From Tesco Express.

But there is another reason I like dresses: jeans. They’re just too easy. Jeans masquerade as safety blankets, left unchecked they will rise up from the floor where you discarded them for the night (you see, you can do that with jeans), and smother you to death. Metaphorically speaking. At first you think you can handle them, just the one pair now and again at home with the husband or at weekends, or maybe socially, with food. Easy. Comfy. Don’t show stains. You might even kid yourself you’re going to alternate: best pair, boot pair, comfy pair. But if you're a mum at home, the day will come after a particularly bad night with the baby or when you’ve finally given up all pretence that you’re ever going back to work, when you reach for that crumpled pair, the ones lying on the floor from the night before, and never take them off. Ever. You spend the rest of your life wearing the faded ones from GAP with the slightly wider waistband, a bit baggier cut round the thighs…

And it’s the same with black. Don’t let it in. Don’t give it lifeblood. Once you allow one single ‘useful’ black cardigan or pair of ‘classic’ trousers into your wardrobe it’s like bindweed creeping across the hangers: an insidious inky crawl, choking the colour to death. Better to buy pretty dresses. They don’t have to be expensive, often cheaper than wearing two items. But not black dresses. Well, maybe just one or two for winter, to combine with coloured boots or shoes. But that’s it. Although, I have to admit, the dress I just rediscovered at the back of the cellar is black, mostly. Here it is it…

I bought it from a local independent dress shop, which, of course, has recently gone bust. It was about sixty quid and my friend Debbie says it’s not a dress: it’s a top. I wore it as a mini with black tights and green high-heeled shoes to a birthday thing two years ago then I took it to Paris, thought I’d lost it and just found it again searching high and low for raincoats to take camping. No idea how it got there and don't really care. Hooray for the soggy weather, I say.

Now, which dress shall I wear tomorrow to take the car for its M.O.T? Weather forecast says sunny. Could be that floaty fifties number with the red flower sprays (Warehouse: £55), it's my current favourite.

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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Vaseline for the nuts

I’m applying vaseline to the garden so that the tits can get at the nuts. I know what you’re thinking, I’m just being crude for the sake of it but honestly I’m not. It’s the squirrels. And it’s war.

The strange thing is that when Middle One, eating his morning cereal at the breakfast table and watching me banging on the kitchen window and shaking my fist at my fluffy tailed nemeses, pondered in a tone all bemused and rational: “Mummy, why are you perfectly happy to feed one type of creature but not another?” he stopped me dead in my tracks. Because that’s exactly what I used to say to my Grandfather when he went bonkers about the squirrels stealing his bird feed.

Am I turning into my Grandfather, I wonder?

“It’s not that I mind them taking the nuts,” I replied, sounding reasonable (I had to make considerable effort). “It’s just that they’re chewing through my lovely wooden bird feeder shaped like a little house that I bought at the Chelsea Flower Show. (All true.)

So, later I googled: “poisonous to squirrels” and up popped a whole list of websites catering for people with a murderous loathing for the little critters. There really is something for everyone out there in Internet land. And that’s not what I intended. I don’t want to kill a squirrel, and certainly not in the name of feeding a few birds. I merely want to deter it/them from attacking my little wooden house with the slate roof that’s hanging prettily from the magnolia tree.

Cayenne pepper! It said further down, just below all the support groups for squirrel haters. Exactly the sort of top tip I was looking for. Squirrels can’t abide it apparently and birds don’t give a fig. Perfect. So I shook some liberally all over the peanuts… and the bird feeder. Job done. Or so I thought. But the wretched furry rats were back at it, gnawing the wooden corners, the very next morning.

More banging on the window…

What I need is something to stick the cayenne pepper to the corners of the feeder, I thought to myself, taking up the challenge with a worrying sort of geriatric tenacity. And that’s where the vaseline comes in. I mixed up a marvellous paste of the stuff: petroleum jelly infused with cayenne pepper. Yum. And now it’s working a treat. The garden is squirrel free … and full of tits (no sniggering at the back).

Okay, so it may seem a touch eccentric, not to say a little desperate, but it must run in the family because now I come to think of it I remember what my Grandfather resorted to in his frenzied quest to stop the squirrels climbing up the rather grand bird feeder that stood in the middle of his immaculate lawn: he greased the pole with engine oil - and I don’t even think it worked.

You just can’t fight that sort of genetic destiny.

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Monday, 16 July 2012


23.50. Yawning. Sitting on the sofa. Crap on TV, desperate to go to bed. Saturday night. Watching the clock. Taxi booked to bring Eldest home from a party at midnight. What time can I expect him at the door? Quarter past? Twenty past? Then I can go to sleep… I could go now, husband already up there. Slip between cool silky sheets. Keep the phone beside me. Listen for the door...

No. I’ll nod off. Won’t know if he’s back. Will awake suddenly, hours or minutes or possibly days later. Stiff neck. Silent house. Not knowing. So I carry on watching the crap.

00.00. At least the taxi driver has his number. Not ours. Learnt from that mistake last week. Phone rang in the bedroom. Husband grabbed it. Not fully awake. Listened to the voice on the other end. Leapt out of bed, stark naked. (Don’t tell him I said. Invading his privacy). Rushed to the window. Peered out between curtains into the dark where only foxes and low life roam at such hours in south London. Tells me there’s a taxi out there waiting... somewhere.

It’s booked to pick up Eldest in Clapham, I say, exasperation seeping through the cracks in my patience. The taxi company has got it wrong. I told them the car was for our son. Told them to phone him when outside the party. Gave them his number. They have phoned us instead. Obviously. Predictably. There is no taxi outside our house. Husband goes back to bed, huffing and puffing.

00.05. That was last week. This week I get Eldest to ring and book it himself, for midnight. That’s five minutes ago. Great! He should be in the car. I text: are you in the car? No reply.

00.10. I get a text: just getting in the taxi now. 


00.15. Yawn. Watch the clock. Turn off TV. Plump sofa cushions. Sit back down. Stare at goldfish… that bowl needs cleaning.

00.20. Pick up paper. Read a bit. Put it down. Yawn. Watch the clock. Text again. No reply. Get up. Walk to door. Listen… foxes in the street.

00.25. I get a text: just leaving the party now. 

What! How can he be just leaving the party now when he said he was getting in the taxi five minutes ago? I text back: what!

00.30. I get a text: sorry, someone is being sick. I’m the only sober one to look after her. 


00.35. Phone the taxi company. Are you waiting for my son, outside the party? No. He sent us away. Said he wasn’t ready yet, to come back in ten. There is no taxi waiting outside the party. I re-book it, I apologise. I tell them to go back. Please. If they wouldn’t mind. Thank you. Very much.

Not yawning anymore. Very cross. Very tired. Want to go to bed.

00.40. Text Eldest: I have re-booked taxi. Get someone else to help girl. An adult?!!! Get in the taxi I am sending back for you. You are behaving like a spoilt brat!

Good. Feel better. Vented my spleen.

00.45. Look down at the text. It is flying into the ether on its way to Eldest. Predictive setting has reworked it. It does not say spoilt brat anymore. It says spooky brat. “You are behaving like a spooky brat!”

Kind of spoils the effect.

00.50. Smiling. Laughing. Not yawing. Saying spooky brat out loud to myself again and again in the hall.

01.05. A knock at the door. Quiet. Nervous. I kiss him. I embrace him. He embraces back. He smiles. I smile. He goes to bed. I go to bed.

01.15. I yawn. I lie awake in the dark. Look at the clock. Not sleepy. Not sleeping. Listen to foxes outside in the street. Screaming.

01.20. Won’t bother with taxis in future. Will stay up and go and get him myself. Not worth the bother. Too expensive. Too spoilt. Too spooky. Yawn.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Here Comes the Sun

Something is pulling the floating threads of my mind back together. They were wandering deliciously free only a few moments ago, doing silly and unfeasible things, like talking to field mice while spooning marshmallows from tiny egg cups into my children’s open mouths.

I’m trying to send it back again, from whence it came. I don’t want it. I like it here deep in my psyche. Go away! But this alarm is pitiless: a mother’s sixth sense, the strong arm of consciousness. It reaches right in to where I’m weak and soft and vulnerable, asleep in this cozy tent, yanking me back to reality.

A field in Sussex in the middle of the night and there’s a noise I should know. Not the deafening ferocity of rain hitting tent top - although this is the sound I register first - because that’s obviously been there all along. No, this is something new, something alarming. But for now it seems to have stopped...

Ah yes! We’ve come camping for the weekend with friends. Memory floods back in like rainwater down an overflow pipe. Youngest was keen but not still very well, with an eye infection. Middle One was grumpy because he didn’t want to go in term time. Eldest was happy-go-lucky because exams are over and his job as a runner in Soho has come to an end with all that lovely wonger in his bank account. He’s going to buy a new guitar, he says, and strummed us some lovely tunes on the old one by the campfire. Middle One can play too but not as well as his brother, yet, so he watched and sang a bit but mostly just watched. I asked for more Beatles and suggested Eldest learns Here Comes the Sun when we get home because, you never know, it might help with this shocking rain…

And now, lying here in this ridiculously narrow double sleeping bag, being jolted every time husband shifts position, I remember it all. The incredible amount of washing, shopping, packing, loading, driving. Followed by the incredible amount of unpacking, tent-erecting, bed-inflating, bickering, drinking, eating, smiling, joking. The lovely meal last night cooked on open fire, eaten in the farmer’s barn because of the rain, with the battery fairy lights I brought with us to see by, along with the candles supplied by friend, then snuggling under canvas for a lovely long sleep… And then I hear it again and realise what that noise is: vomiting.

I sit up, pencil straight on the airbed, catapulting husband a few inches into the air. “Youngest!” I exclaim with utter certainty “Being sick.” And unzip our pod for a better listen. Nothing. Husband groans, then he listens too. We’re used to this: sixteen years of this (not all the time, obviously). We even had a child vomiting the night after Youngest was born at home and had to change all his sheets, twice. That’s why this particular sound slices through even into the very depths of a wonderful drinking, eating, walking, pub-lunching, barn-dinning induced sleep: because I’ve heard it so many times before.

And then I hear it again, the unmistakable sound of retching, followed by a voice somewhere out in the rain, “are you okay?” It’s not coming from our tent. It’s not Youngest. It’s lovely friend nearby in her tent with her husband attending, having a much worse night than me. Poor thing.

So I go back to sleep and in the morning the rain briefly stops and we have the best fry up I’ve ever had the pleasure of wolfing down (except for poor friend, who only has toast), while standing in a field, and then we do more chatting and smiling in the drizzle and then an incredible amount of packing and loading and some driving, followed by an incredible amount of unloading and unpacking and washing and then some cooking and a bit more bickering, just for good measure, and Middle One goes upstairs and I hear him teaching himself to play Here Come The Sun on his guitar because, you never know, it might help with this dreadful weather and also, maybe, because I asked his brother to learn it.