Saturday, 27 October 2012

Baked beans on toast

I’m about to get on the tube at Oxford Circus when I feel my phone vibrating in my bag - a missed call, from Eldest. Strange. It’s 2.30 in the afternoon on a school day.

I text him just before descending the stairs: “On my way home, back in the 30 mins.” Then I fret about him all the way, wondering if he’s okay.

When I get off at the other end there's a reply: “I’m really ill, I’m on the way home. Runny nose! Stomach ache, complete exhaustion, about to collapse, really, really ill.” No full stop at the end, I’ve added that, and no answer when I try to call.

I half-run/half-walk up the road. It’s a long road. I’m worried. He might have collapsed on the way back and be lying under a bush on the Common. He might have got run over as he staggered around in a delirious fever.

I reach the house and burst through the door. The alarm isn’t on. Someone is home. I call out. No answer. I dash up the stairs and into his bedroom. Empty. I call out again, then I notice the bathroom door is closed. “Are you in there?”

“Yes,” comes a feeble reply. I let him get on with it and go and make a cup of tea.

A few minutes later I’m back up the stairs clutching my tea. He’s in bed. I crouch on the edge and put my hand to his forehead. His pale little face peers at me dolefully over the top of the duvet. “Are you okay, sweetie?” I say.

He’s says not. He says his stomach hurts and he feels very, very tired.

“Have you eaten today?” I ask, because Eldest has a worrying habit of skipping breakfast and lunch.

“No,” he says. Then he thinks. “I am pretty hungry, I could probably manage soup or something, if you could make it for me.”

“I haven’t got any soup,” I say.

“Oh well," he says, "baked beans on toast would do it then. Thanks.”

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(And, yes, it's all true and I did run that by him.)

Monday, 22 October 2012


"Do come in!" calls the perky young art teacher with long swishy hair. She's spotted us as we hover, all hot and sweaty and jostled, by the open classroom door. Gingerly, and rather reluctantly, we edge forward as thirty-three pairs of curious eyes swivel in our direction.

We're looking around the secondary school, Youngest and I, on open day, just like the other four and a half thousand anxious parents and children expected to visit this week. And it feels as if every single one of them has chosen to arrive now.

His brothers already go to this school. Middle One is enthusiastic about it, always has been. Eldest slightly less so, although he likes the 6th form. I think. Both older brothers were much more grown-up at this age. And a lot taller. This seems to matter more than it should.

The tension in our tour group is palpable, it's been a stressful morning, at least it has for me. The place is huge and rather tatty so there's lots of walking, and lots of children, and lots of chipped paintwork. But this looks promising - a sunny art room with some lovely, bright papier-mache models hanging from the ceiling.

"So, what are you doing?" I ask a group of girls slumped somewhat despondently over sketch pads. The art teacher drifts away.

"Observational drawings of sea urchins," says one.

"Ah!" I say, for want of something better, then I look around for the urchins. "Where are the urchins?"

"We don't have any," says a second, "they're on order."

"You're doing observational drawings of sea urchins, without the actual sea urchins?"

"We have these..." They waft a set of identical laminated black and white photographs in my general direction. I hadn't noticed them before. 

Youngest and I stare at them: different sized grey and black discs, looking for all the world like lunar landscapes at close quarters. Then we look back at the table where the girls are copying them, pencil-shading each circle, one after another... after another ... after another...

"Blimey," I say, momentarily lost for words. Then I look around the room again and realise that every single one of those thirty-three children is doing exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, and they all look bored as hell. 

"Do you like it?" 

"Oh we LOVE it, Miss!" says the first girl without the faintest flicker of a smile, and then she looks me straight in the eyes and adds: "We really love our school. Honest." 

And my heart sinks.

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Monday, 15 October 2012

A burning issue.

“Oh my god, but you’ve got to let me blog about this,” I say to Eldest as he puffs a series of spectacular smoke rings high into the air. His room smells of strawberries and he’s doing a fabulous impression of Gandalf. 

“Only if you let me keep it,” he replies, without missing a beat.

He’s talking about the bright red shisha pipe in his bedroom. For the uninitiated it looks a lot like this…

You fill it with water, burn stuff in the top, and then smoke it.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking, parenting-wise we’ve totally dropped the ball here, he’s only 16 and already he’s smoking in the house. But this is our defence...

He’s been asking for one for ages, a friend has one (of course!), it has always fascinated him and as far as we know he doesn’t smoke regular cigarettes (or any other kind) and he keeps telling us that smoking the herbal stuff, which you don't inhale and doesn’t contain nicotine or tar, is harmless. He’s looked it up. Although, from my own research I think the jury is very much still out on this.

It's not smoke exactly, it's water vapour, a bit like the steam from a kettle, except it's cold. Oh, and it’s only a very small shisha pipe, almost a toy really. 

Convinced? Yeah, me neither. Here's more... 

Round here you can smoke them all over the place, outside a multitude of bars and cafes, so we really would not be able to prevent him if he was determined, unless we locked him in the house, which of course we won’t/can't.

On the other hand, I have said that he can't have one in the house every single time he's asked me over the last few months (which has been often) and then all of a sudden it just appears in his bedroom, on Thursday afternoon after school, paid for with his own money, without a by-your-leave. 

But then he was just so cockahoop with it, and it looked so small and innocuous, and it is only strawberry, and maybe he just needs to get the whole thing out of his system? As it were… He'll probably forget about it in a week. 

Still disapproving?

Oh I don’t know! It’s quite tough this whole parenting malarkey isn't it? There’s no handbook. I’ve never had a 16 year-old son before. Just think what we got up to. 

I've always thought if you lavish enough love and understanding, if you make sure you keep talking, talking, talking all that time, if they know you think they're fabulous really and that they are sensible and responsible underneath it all... 

Information and communication, isn't that the key? That's what I say to him anyway.

Then, while I'm eyeing up the shisha with all that great copy potential, he says he doesn’t really like me blogging about him, which is fair enough. But you kids are my life, I say, there isn't anything else. I couldn't possibly have an imagination as good as this stuff. 

What about if you show me what you've written before you publish it? he suggests. You know, get my copy approval? 


So, I’m going to go up and show this to him now, in draft form. Fingers crossed he likes it because otherwise I’m blogging about Middle One’s trip to the orthodontist last week and how we had to sit for 35 minutes in the waiting room, and it's going to be dull as hell.

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And just to prove what a burning issue this is, here's an article from yesterday's Observer (note: they are referring to tobacco).

Monday, 8 October 2012


Youngest is ‘writer of the week’, his teacher told me. He had to ask a rhetorical question to get it and Youngest asked, “Do you want me to be unhappy?” so now his photo is on the wall.

It got me thinking about questions. I get asked lots, some easy, some not so easy and some downright silly. Here are a few I’ve been asked this week.

In the 90's, how many records were sold on vinyl and how many on CD?

Can I go to Esher for a sleepover on Friday?

What's your second favourite animal?

Can you make a meeting in Oxford on Thursday?

Why are we only learning about Christianity in RS?

Can you fill in this form for my guitar exam?

Can you do it right now?

Do you know where my green hoodie/ purple long-sleeved top/camera/book bag/house keys/iPad/wallet is/are?

Do you have any money?

In which bag?

Where is all the underwear?

What’s better, cereal with sugar already on it or cereal that you put the sugar on yourself?

Will you get me tickets for the Eric Johnson concert in April?

Can you get the tickets before 10.00 am tomorrow? 

So can you make a meeting in Oxford on Wednesday?

Will you top up my lunch money online?

Can you do it now?

Did you text the guitar teacher?

Did you buy butter?

After the sleepover can I go to Hastings on Saturday for the whole day?

Can you give me the money to go?

Can I have it right now?

But where is your bag?

What’s better, Chicken Cottage or Chicken Village?

Can you help me find my iPod touch?

Can you help me find it now?

Did you get the bread out of the machine?

Did you ring the surgery to make a double appointment?

Can we get takeaway pizza tonight?

Why not?

Which day is the best day of the week?

Do you mean this bag?

Did you remember to text the guitar teacher?

Which secondary school are you going to put first?

What is a verruca made of?

So can you make a meeting in Oxford on Friday?

Would you like to come to a poetry reading?

Which is the worst day of the week?

Can I have a friend over?

This bag?

What’s the worst animal?

Are you coming for coffee?

Do you mean the brown bag or the red one?

What is your third favourite animal?

Why are you suddenly flying off the handle about a bag?

What’s happened to that little girl?

Okay, so can you make a meeting in Oxford any day next week?

But why would someone want to take her?

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Wednesday, 3 October 2012


I blame the newspapers. I read too many. It’s why I’m catastrophizing right now, while standing on this wide expanse of beach under this huge and cloudless sky when I should be enjoying the view and giving myself up to the moment. Catastrophizing is what a friend of mine calls it and it’s a great word.

I like to think I’m a rational worrier, rather than an irrational one. The children really could drown while surfboarding, on this weekend away to Wales. It’s possible. Okay, it’s not likely but it’s possible. Especially since Husband is not in the water with them, to keep an eye out (he doesn’t like surfing). It’s riskier than, say, playing cricket on the sand… although they could get hit on the head by a bat, I guess, but at least then I would see that happening and be able to do something.

It’s like when I was in Africa (I like to throw that in). I wasn’t scared of the creepy crawly things in the bedrooms like some in our party were. I reckoned they could do us no real harm. It’s not nice to find a beetle the size of nailbrush in your shower tray, but it’s not going to kill you. 

That alligator, on the other hand, the one at the lake near the border with Burkina Faso, that they told us was perfectly harmless and had just eaten anyway so we could all have our pictures taken (for money), while straddling his back… No thank you very much. I declined that invitation. And yet the very same people, who were scared of the creepy crawlies, happily did that. As I say, my fears are rational.

You see, standing here on this beach at the base of the cliff with my friends, I can’t even make out who’s who out there in the foaming surf, let alone if they’re okay and there have been so many drowning stories recently… 

Those poor men in Scotland with their children; that father in Spain who couldn’t swim and who went into the sea after his son; the mother in Cornwall who did the same, that young couple out walking their dog last week near the swollen river…  

And maybe I’m supposed to worry, I shouldn't fight it, it's hard-wired, mums have evolved to do this for a reason, to protect their young - and I’ve all got all our near misses to draw on.

What about that time in Portugal when Eldest was four and we’d just arrived at the villa and if I hadn’t looked out of the window as we were unpacking, I never would have seen him walk into the pool, fully clothed, and go under? He couldn’t swim without armbands. Husband waded in to get him.

Or in the south of France when the older two were paddling and we were sitting on the beach with the baby and Middle One stepped back, to where the shore suddenly shelved away, and disappeared. I ran into the sea that time, fully clothed, not stopping to tell husband what was going on because there wasn't time, retrieving the gasping child under my arm, wading back to shore, soaked and shaking, while a French woman out walking her dog, called out, “Oh-La-La! Madam!” like some sort of cliché.

And then there was this summer in Crete; the children’s ill-advised evening swim with friends, those dark, wild waves in that rolling, empty sea (which really should have been a clue), the red flag we only noticed later, our youngest child drifting toward the rocks, a local man shouting about ‘the rip’…

After, as we towelled them dry on the beach, an image of Youngest, white and prone, lying lifeless on the sand, just would not leave my mind. For days it flashed before me and every night at bedtime as I tucked him in, I pressed his tiny body ever so slightly closer than usual. What if… what if… what if…

This, then, is what the worry is for: to remind us that they are so precious, that life is fragile, that we love them so much...

As if we need that sort of reminding.

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