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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

i no longer know why I’m surprised, really

Lo, who is this crone who wanders near, leprous among the shadows, bleary and distressed and best to be avoided? Fresh from a Dickens slum, a look of bleak bewilderment crossing her smudged brow – lately blown in from the coal face. People whisper and point and shield their children. A deranged poor soul is she, in search of but a shawl, a basket of heather to unsettle the superstitious and perhaps extort a few quid in the doing (kerching!).
The sort of look to haunt the early hours, to wake from sweating, clutching the reality of sheets in hot grateful fists; but a glance in the mirror confirms the grim truth. This was no dream but me, following an unsuccessful session with DIY hair dye. Some rough old bit of grim mac is what I now call hair.
I mean, I hardly expected to morph into the simpering lovely on the box, not in 25 minutes, and luckily my fringe does conceal dark crimes against my hair line, but the Mind The Gap discrepancy between expectation and brutal reality is hard.
Hard, but cheap.
I think this particular box of disappointing lies set me back a fiver, whereas at a salon it can run to eighty pounds.
I sound like my father. That’s 1600 shillings. Sheesh.
It’s also a question of terms, some vocab-cocky copywriter’s “natural medium brown” is my “Crow Black: fit to scare the kiddies.” The children flinch, they flee from me that sometime did me seek…
Two weeks and it'll be brassy again, three and I'm back on the box, fiddling with the gloves, living in hope.

But meanwhile face the world I must, to walk the dog, a creature who is no longer the random flash of impetuous fur that has tortured our life for what seems like decades.
Instead, she stands mute and obedient.
When I open the door she waits, all but saying, “After you, love.” She does not barge between my legs, prompting an unseemly scuffle, where the lead whips across my skin, a domino effect of pain and rage and tears ensuing, laced with the adrenaline of failure. And once out, she is calm, not deranged, not displaying truly disproportionate joy in what is, let’s face it, a pretty dull walk round a field, and an unlikely trigger for such hysteria. No more is the walk a time of deep stress and unhappiness, my control freakery sent into freefall by Lolly’s jolly sociable ways, outstaying her welcome wherever she went.

For if the dog is the worst thing I have ever bought, then the zapper (aka obedience collar) is the best. Particularly when half price on eBay. And, whereas I’d love to lay claim to efficient training schemes, I must confess that this seismic shift in her behaviour is due purely to the detonator in my feverish sticky paw. My new best friend.

One session, lasting about 10 mins, and Lolly is TRANSFORMED. Say it loud, and it’s almost like thunder. Finally, I am the owner of a Good Dog and can pat her with a hearty laugh and say “marvellous” as if I mean it when talking about her.

The collar arrived, and seldom has a package been opened with more anticipatory thrill. No cross dresser on receiving his nipple tassels could have torn at the jiffy so eagerly. I fumbled with the strap, the box, the remote control with obscene joy. I all but used my teeth.
My busy hands were necessarily stilled for the 24 molar-gnashing hours it took to charge, time I used to attempt the instruction booklet, the bit of the process I’d rather busk normally. Or get E to read.
Page one tends to be fine in these things, then there’s a confusing set of diagrams where they try to convince you of 19 myriad functions, 17 of which you never tie down and, then, when the page is turned, all hell is let loose, all sense of sense obliterated while the words ‘input’ and ‘mode’ and ‘function’ and ‘interface’ make worryingly frequent appearances.
So normally I don’t bother but, better and better, since this kit has 3 buttons, just 3, one of which you don’t even need, then even I was able to read through to the end, read and digest: one for bleep and one for zap. Yo.

The next day, I rubbed my hands with glee, and got me started.
I tested the zapper and found that level ‘one’ gave but a mild thrill, a bit like a TENS machine. This was marginally disappointing, since I’d hoped for something more industrial; but not disappointing enough to risk testing ‘eight’ on myself. Ho ho, no. Stupid I am not. Eight could wait for dark days with Lolly. There would be plenty.
I strapped her into her kit, very Hannibal Lecter Wears Bomb. A most pleasing sight, a physical embodiment of ME being in charge. Me, Lolly, not you.

Look at her now, an unwitting (naturally, hello? she’s a dog AND she’s blonde) suicide bomber. She’s still unaccountably pleased with herself but I let it go, despite regretting the long chat which we’ll never have, when I could put her straight on that particular little myth.
If dogs spoke English life,would be a good deal easier, “Lolly, you are very, very dim,” I could say, “there is nothing to be proud of in your helter-skelter ways...”
Instead, I take comfort where I can. Well, you've got to.
So the flashing box is tied tight beneath her chin, tight as an old bag’s head scarf.
It works.
It works so well I could weep.
The thought that it might malfunction, to boot, and blow the dog sky high in wonderful random bits is the stuff of giddy dreams; greedy maybe, but it sure does lighten the step. There’s nothing like a bomb at a dog’s throat to cheer one up.

So I have been feeling sort of benign towards her, and sort of smug with myself for having sorted things out (albeit employing vast expense and electrocution) which was a damnfule thing to do and shows me how one never learns and should certainly never think that things are going well.
Oh no.
For the doorbell has only just this minute gone, as I was typing this, skewing the balance of my blog and making it too long, for it was the chap from the local shop.
I had thought that my newly surprised hair was the main arrow in the quiver of current cock-ups: I was wrong.

I half shut the door in his face, not able to bear a renewed session of chat about his teeth (“Dropping. Like bits from a glacier. Six of them. I’m on medication”) when I noticed a loathsomely familiar beast at his legs, grinning away with misplaced confidence, half bouncing on stiff woolly legs. “Hoiiii!”
“In!” I hissed, using my best steel-capped slippers as a means to guiding the hound sharpish with speed, holding the door firm meanwhile to keep shop man well and truly out.
The “In” will never apply to him: the last thing I need is a man on medication missing half his teeth.
“So sorry,” I muttered, which loosely translates as Bloody Hell I Hate That Dog.
“Peugeot nearly got her,” he said, rubbing it in.
Damn, I thought
“How nearly?” I said
He held up his hands to illustrate the gap – a few, cruel, fisherman’s centimetres – between us and a dog-free house. Life sucks sometimes.
There’s always next time, I thought, dredging up optimism from deep despair, such is habit.
“Oh well,” I said, “Lucky, huh.” When you live round here you have to pretend to care.
“She was on the mother-in-law’s bed yesterday. In the bedroom.”
“What? Upstairs?” I squeaked, thinking: little soft paws on grimy gritty sheets, yuk!
Upstairs,” he confirmed, in a way that can only be described as threatening.

My second fear was more real – sod the paws, she can lick ‘em clean – that this uninvited entrée, this furry surge, to Upstairs, somehow suggested that I might have to pay him something. Compensation, say.
I wanted to thwack into touch the gleam of dry cleaning bills lurking hungry in his eye.
Surely I make more than my fair share of unnecessary purchases from the shop to assuage my guilt at Lolly’s horrid interest in the white mice and sherbet puffs? When you’ve seen where that face has been the last thing you want is to buy sweets for your children seconds after she’s been rummaging, giving them the lusty once over. Just the thought is enough to regret not having installed a chair in the porch for recuperative purposes.
Lolly may have misjudged the mother-in-law for me - the ancient being does even better crone than I do, being the real thing. I smoothed a hand through my fearsome locks.
Shop man took flight, and backed away down the path, as if noticing the hair for the first time.
Five pounds well spent.

What that dog really needs now is manacles. Something desperately hard-core. Dog drugs maybe.
I was hopelessly naïve to trust in a mere collar alone.
But are they legal? Will I be arrested for simply typing in “incarceration methods” to eBay – dare I risk “inquisition techniques”? Is there a cyber keystroke police out there?
How much more, oh Lord, must we suffer with this dread dog, this greasy bag of fur? How very bad must I have been in a former life.
And if it’s not Shop Man, it’s Grim Duo from next door, ferrying Lolly back on an ostentatious lead bought for this purpose alone muttering about boundaries.

No wonder my mantra is Think Gin.
Meanwhile, what I can do, I will do, which is to wear a hat and turn the zapper wheel up to 8. We must take our pleasures where we can. Revenge is a dish best eaten whenever possible.
See who’s laughing then, dog. Mwah ha ha.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

busy busy busy

I have been tagged twice recently by the wonderful and clearly very sensible Ernest de Cugnac and DJ Kirby.
Because it’s sort of the same kind of thing, one of those memes where you just select absolutely the best blog you can think of ever in the whole wide world (or words to that intent), I’m going to merge them and select my new top five.
I have an old five, my favourite bloggers whom I’ve been reading, and who’ve been reading me, for over a year now. You know who you are. You know I love you. But life's cruel, and I'm ditching you lot for this one and moving on, although I will just thank Jane for getting me into blogging, consider yourself awarded something or other. Oh, the graciousness.

In spreading the net wider rather, will just point you in the direction of:

First, obviously Rottie, a most under-visited blogger, fierce but fair and with a worrisomely good grip on grammar, vocab and current affairs. I don’t always agree with him, I do always feel a bit dim reading him. Imagine what it’s like being married to him.

Then, in no particular order:
memsahibwordpress who writes like a dream and makes me feel gauche and awkward in comparison.
Mud in the City because I can live vicariously through those long-ago years of Will He? Won’t He? Very Jane Austen's texted for a date.
Eve, because I love child #4. For comparative purposes.
Karen, because she’s always very good, darn her.
the lovely NuttyCow who is far too young for me and I was scared to mention her first time round, but having just gone and read her estate agent one, I realise how very necessary it is that she is listed. Plus there's an ancient one about manners which is well worth a read.

In addition (blessikins) I’ve been swamped rather with a little rush of awards recently (Jane, MOB, Meanie, Elizabeth, Mud, fine people all). How very pleasant, astutely judged and thoroughly well deserved. Although .... the dusting opportunity! My shelf swelleth over.
Am generally rubbish at acknowledging these here, since I tend to snatch them up greedily, and just shuffle over to the giver’s site where I gush my thanks there, but thank you very much to all award-givers, and to all who’ve ever bestowed, and to anyone who reads this, feel free to nick one, but tell me which one and why! Anyone meme'd can take two. The generosity.

Finally Blossom tagged me wanting to know six random things.
Since I’ve already done seven (which includes this, too), and eight, my mind's gone blank. A depressingly frequent state of affairs.
I got as far as 1 and then stopped.
Over the days I've sneaked in from time to time and upped this to 4. By Monday, who knows, I might have creaked out the full 7.

1. I was born with a hole in my heart
2. I used to garden for a criminal. He would try to put his tongue down my throat and tottered, fat and oily, dapper and suited, across the grass, with glasses of champagne for me. This sort of softened the blow, but really, even I have standards. I saw too much.
3. I was asked to be a graveyard judge once. Said no. Vaguely regret it now.
4. I studied Greek at school. My mother had done it a couple of years before me, so I could cheat and copy her homework. My vicious trout of a Greek teacher said that I'd fail my 'O' Level. I got an A. Yah Boo to her.
5. ah, there was a five, and then the phone went, a person from Porlock, and I forgot it
and so then ... I ran out of steam.

So, Blossom, forgive me for having nothing of interest left in the pot.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

eye of newt

“Couldn’t you make me sound caring?” my mother said.
Ever a slave to the truth, I was bound to pause.
“Well, there is the stuff about the hamster,” I said, floundering, as if in an interview when asked to discuss my achievements and finding that particular folder marked empty. “And the bird.”
The pause sounded sad this time.
“It just doesn’t sound quite enough,” she said.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, dizzy with the unaccustomed sensation of being granted the upper hand. as rare for me as an unsupervised go on the TV remote control.
I put down the phone (firm but fair) leaving my poor mother to totter to her kitchen and mash her destroyed gnashers on an omelette. For the last 30 years she has battled with her teeth. A serious design flaw, we have decided, that bridging bit between body and inside. And now her sine qua non is root canal. If she’s not going to the dentist forking out £200 a time, she has just been or is going tomorrow. There are operations and in between there are check ups where her regular dentist peers and winces and pats her shoulder. Big money exchanges hands: one way as usual. Leaving my mother the choice of soup, yoghurt or soup. Or yoghurt. Or if she’s feeling defiant, an omelette.
But she’s very caring. Very very caring.
Have I said that she is very caring?
And while I’m in penance land, I should point out that the Daisy Loves a Chicken type of books my brother was buying for his 7 year old are to help her in her third language, English. She’s doing Sartre in the original back home in Paris, and saves her native Dante for bedtime. Who can deny her kung fu unicorns in the face of that expertise? Not even me, though God knows it hurts to say so.
Meanwhile, when not momentarily alert to my duty of playing fair by my family, I have been busy multi-tasking. Not a concept I embrace naturally, finding deadly onerous the notion of chewing gum AND walking simultaneously. Heaven forbid.
No, my multi-tasking is of the maternal kind where I don’t actually have to do anything but react.

At one polar end is T11, newly endowed recipient of about 85 Grade 5s at SATS and fine Bottom of this parish who has just acted his mismatched little socks off in the school version of Midsummer’s Night Dream. An abridgement fashioned predominantly around the mechanicals thereby rendering his part the most important.
Oh yes.
And all those lines! None of which you can fudge (being the real thing, not kiddyfied), nor sort of make up on the hoof, not with all the “ousel cock so black of hue” and “O dainty duck, O dear, thy mantle good ..” and “stolen hence” etc. No, he had to learn them all. And did. And made them charming. Jack Sparrow does Bottom.
Now, normally, I am not one to enjoy Species Child Actor, finding it a stiff and stilted little breed in urgent need of a slap and, normally, moreover, I am a fierce judge of my own children, wishing to protect them from a wider criticism by being the first to notice it myself. But, as Bottom, dear T11 found his zenith.
"Of course," my mother said, "He's far too pretty to play Bottom."
I contemplated in peeved silence how the role of Titania should indeed have been his, flowing robes and lots of lace, rather than ass's ears and a colander on his head.
We went in with scant expectation – and who would have thought it, a Shakespearean comedy which was actually highly amusing? The audience chortled and clapped and I was all but mobbed at the end by admiring parents.
Friends, I wafted, Cloud 9 was mine and on this happy day, my inner Mrs Clooney rose magnificently to the challenge as I kindly nodded modest acceptance of his fine turn. (Incidentally, quite why the mothers of stars don’t have more of an on-going role escapes me. Surely people are more than interested in hearing what Johnny Depp’s mother might have to say on any given subject? I certainly have respect for the fine woman given now that we have more in common.) while gracious enough to boom, very Margot Ledbetter, how Simply Marvellous all the children had been. Smiles all round. I fumbled discretely for a pen ready to favour one or two grateful random souls with an autograph, should they be so lucky. Goodness I could warm to some Lady Mayoress type role. I am wasted on housework.

In the corner, something sawed away at my contentment. F9, indulging in his very own Gene Kelly: his penguin umbrella not being employed as Fit for Purpose but trespassing into dangerous weapon land as careless of its spokes he spun beneath its private glow oblivious to all around him.
My antennae bristled as shades of glory passeth onto the fog of despair. We scooped up the miscreant before true damage was done, and went home, only very slightly cross.

Today at breakfast, F9 growled, “Oi ‘ate B9.”
As do we all, I thought, a stranger to the idea of loving all children as mine own, particularly with regard to the odious B9.
“What’s happened now?” I asked, shrill, buttering the muffin with a little more desperation, the knife clutched tight (“Is this a dagger that I see before me…).
“He said to all the boys at lunchtime to put up their hands if they hated me. They all did. Apart from A9 and J9.”

Reader, hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, my blood boiled as pain and fury surged my arteries. Long have we suffered at the hands of this troll-like runt, this hateful little toad, this herder of pathetic sheep, larding our days with discontent. A brutal creature is he, hewn from sub-standard stone and laced with aggressive swagger. His nostrils flare disdainful, a Flashman for our days in idle search of a Tom Brown to plague. His Tom Brown, my F9, resists, but still B9 does not tire of his torment.
It does not help that his mother virtually lives at the school, forever "helping"and Queen of the PTA. They are the stuff of nightmares. The child sees himself as inviolable.
“He’s not,” the headmaster was quick to say.
For F9 to tell me about it meant that it hurt. He is a brave little soul, not easy, but brave. I said that, too.

Nothing comes of nothing, so I approached the headmaster at the gates.
“Still glowing with pride?” he asked.
“Yes, no, well, didn’t they all do marrrrvellously,” I heard Mrs Clooney purr, slipping easily into favoured character, touched by T11’s success. Then, frailty took hold of the vocals, part harridan, part insipid soul on the brink of tears, a lean and hungry look for justice on me. I burbled out the new discontent.
He looked concerned and promised to investigate. I think he thinks that he is a detective.

On my way from school I was accosted by J9’s mother. Worse was in store: she filled in more details of yesterday’s “incident” giving the brutal tale more flesh, none of it nice and most of it below the belt.
“I hope you don’t think I’m tittle-tattling,” she said, her tongue sliding out between her teeth.
I called back into school and blurted out the whole sorry story, apologetic but fretful. There was an onslaught of Inappropriates and Unacceptables and Procedures. Something is rotten in the state of the system but he still says, he’ll see what he can do.

Wish me luck. I’m about to sally forth for the update.
And tonight, my carrot of reward luring me through to sanity: one last bask at Bottom, where Mrs Clooney will film the entire MND, the final performance. Leaving me something to drool over when age has withered me. When I have but dim memories of painful times featuring penguin umbrellas, when the name B has lost its power to hurt, when I am old and grey and signifying nothing.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

them were t’days, and the price of everything

My mother, never shy of having the last word, fixed a scary eye on F9, jabbed at his brand new watercolour set and said,
“In your mother’s day, that would have been a Christmas present.”
“Yes!” I said, a schoolgirl again (grateful variety), “My Guide uniform was my birthday present!”
“Oh, but the belt was lovely,” said my mother, “not like now. Has he said 'thank you'?”

F9 sat, face forward, his lips imperceptibly pursed, acknowledgement of these interesting facts: nil. His hand curled a little tighter round the paint box.
It seemed that a further last word was needed.
My mother leant forward.
“And in my day, a second hand one of those would have been a Christmas present.”

We had been to Bristol, to the RWA,where my brother and father had photographs in the current exhibition.
I had bought F9 a little watercolour box since, in his day, we encourage any hint of interest in a wholesome activity. Indeed we pounce on it and throw in a pad, a pen, and a notebook, too. I forbore from mentioning that the paints only represented 3 bottles of wine and, quite frankly, the purchasing had also doubled up as mollification. Words had been exchanged representing Health and Safety on the till operative’s part and intense interest in climbing on the balcony rail on F9’s. If you can get out of anywhere these days only £20 the lighter, whether in bribes or unnecessary purchases, it has to be called a triumph.

But somewhere between my childhood and his, things have indeed changed. Further back in time, my grandfather famously had only three toys while growing up, and one of those might have been a wooden spoon. Clearly he didn’t know he was born.

In Borders, I came upon my brother wasting money on crappy books featuring unicorn detectives or puppies knitting jumpers. Pink, swirly glittery covers bearing phrases like, “dreams can come true” and “friendship saves the day.” The stuff to send your thoughts selachimorphal, anyway, (which is a big word to do with sharks).
Later, I asked him what he spends a week on his daughter, on what might be called “extras,” ballet, horses, crappy books.
“Only about £30,” he said.

Luckily, my mother was out of the room, possibly instructing her hamster in New Moves (the hamster is the only one left who can realistically fall under her instructional arc), for that would have surely called for a Sharp Intake of Breath, £30 representing what our private school fees worked out at a week. The signing of the school fees’ cheques was always a black day in our house, shrouded in tiptoeing and nervous smiles; my father’s magnificent signature a flourish of desperation on the small rectangle.
“I’m only as good as my last job,” was the phrase implying a circling of wolves at the door.
Councils were at it even then, social realignment. Because we merely lived a mile from the good local grammar, we had been allocated the other, a seamy sink with only 6 pupils (what would be called students today) in the combined sixth form. Childhoods were famously short there. My father was exhorted by the head to do anything, anything at all, rather than sacrifice his children to that school. So he sold his collection of miniatures and off to private school went we.
On Saturday, I was able to explain the reasoning behind his cryptic crossword clues (luckily merely the Telegraph and therefore easy) which I think went someway towards recompense. Finally, a sense of money having been well spent.
That I only know what a fly agaric is being down to Babar was something about which I kept quiet.

Back in those days, the days of uniform as presents, our idea of humour was to peel off the stickers from a large item, say dog biscuits, and laboriously re-position it on something like mustard.
Out would stretch my father’s innocent hand and a frown would develop as focussing brought terrible truth.
“£3.50!” he’d breathe, sick to the stomach. Then, quick as a flash, “That’s 70 shillings. 70 shillings!
“Life’s expensive,” we’d say.

“You look after those paints,” was said at lunch.
The price of things, and the age of things, all relative, all important.
“Don’t patronise me,” wheezed F9, “I’m 9th oldest in my class.”

My mother was tending the hamster. Apparently he was sorting out his bedding. Making a bloody mess I’d’ve been told, doing that to my duvet.
The irony of it is that the one creature in our midst who truly does not know he is born is that hamster. The ease of the thing’s life defies belief. My father dipped a paw into a tin and retrieved a rock cake. My mother makes daily batches, her interest re-kindled by a pigeon they rescued. Which they called Frances (or Francis). Apparently Frances (now dead) liked rock cakes.
The hamster is not treated to rock cakes but I was wise enough to resist asking why. Age confers some sense, wariness the rest: you’ve got to feel strong to take on my mother at the best of times, let alone over the thorny issue of the most expensive bundle of fur in the world. I would have been treated to an irritable frown, and a “no no no, hamsters can’t digest Anchor butter.”
What they can digest is broccoli, and not bog-standard broccoli, either, my sharp glance told me, but Waitrose tenderstem broccoli. Presumably flown from Kenya - I dread to contemplate that creature's carbon pawprint. And laid, what’s bloody more, very Michelin, in same directional stripes on a mini-saucer, very shiny.

The hamster had to go to the vet recently.
“The what!” I shrieked, thinking what’s wrong with the bin. “What did that cost you?”
“Only £30,” my mother said, “very reasonable, in the circumstances.”
I did not enquire after the circumstances. As far as I could see, £30 equalled fifteen hamsters, one and a half mollification sessions at the RWA, or 9 bottles of surprisingly nice cheap wine. Or, if you must, for we all have our standards, 6 ghastly books about do-gooding unicorns.
Moreover, the most indulged hamster in the world has more toys on each layer of his, get this, his glass palace, than my poor grandfather could even dream of. Not one of them a wooden spoon, but colour co-ordinated to keep boredom at bay and enhance his SATs' score.
Sensory-deprivation comes there none, hamster-wards, each bauble over a hundred shillings’ worth.
Perhaps that is the true reason she was eyeing the water colours so and, next time I visit, there will be an easel propped in the corner of the glass palace and the hamster crashing about in a beret.
It had better be bloody grateful is all I can say.