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Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Thursday, 18 June 2009

trouble in paradise (scones and sniping)

The gentle thrum of middlesummer rain assaults my ears, but rests my hayfever. Without my eyes to scratch out I’m at a bit of a loose end. I tell myself I would be weeding were I able to be. Silver linings in strange places.

The day before, Mrs Northern Posh had cleverly arranged for the sun to shine while 8 sundry ladies took tea in her most pleasant garden. We twittered over the geraniums, the roses, the pergola – a lovely Farrow and Ball blue – matching cushions were admired, as was the vine snaking up the house: incipient grapes perfect in miniature.
F10 wants us to grow a vine. I nearly bought one recently. He got quite cross with me. “NO! From a seed,” he said, “It’s got to be. Otherwise it’s cheating and what’s the point.“ He never cheats, of course. Mrs NP was silent on her own vine’s cultivation or quite how it looked so gaudy and good.

The Sexy Nurse kicked off, patting her cleavage, her clothes more off than on as is her wont. Since no men were present she had to import one conversationally and was soon in cheerful flow discussing her rather young gardener.
“But, tell me, Milla,” she said, “foxgloves ARE biennial, yes?”
“Yes-ish,” I said. “Yes in that they are, but they tend to come back every year. At least mine do.”
“And mine!” inserted Mrs NP swiftly, vying for the biggest gardening show-off spot. An authoritative arm waved towards the corner.
“Bugger,” said the Sexy Nurse. “Bloody gardener doesn’t know what he’s doing after all. He’s only gone and pulled the whole bloody lot out. I’ll have to speak to him!” She wriggled happily at the prospect and closed her eyes, slipping into a pleasure zone. Then, “The Post Office is having an Open Day, did you know?” she said suddenly, “Did you get your invites?”

Since the bizarre opening hours of the Post Office occasion us unfathomable hours of amusement, the fact that it was opting to have an Open Day was funnier than it could possibly seem to anyone else.

“What could they possibly do?” asked Mrs Northern Posh with a sinking heart, the enterprise doomed from afar, “Say, here’s the washing powder … bread over there … queue for a stamp here? It’ll be just like any other day.”
“Apart from that the Post Office bit will definitely be shut because it’s on a Sunday,” I said, “not merely probably be shut. Or just shut the minute you walk in. Anyway, no-one will go. It’ll be a disaster. Tragic.”

We discussed an Oldster in the village who nicks inserts from the Sunday papers from the Post Office. How low can you go? Down to the bottom shelf it seems. He slides them into his tartan trolley (a speciality of our village: I think it breeds them, spawning them and leaving them by immaculate gooseberry bushes) but is yet to be caught absolutely red handed.
It transpired that only the Sexy Nurse had actually received an invitation. “I’ll go!” she said, “It’ll be an outing. I’ll bring my own baps,” she chortled, slapping her cleavage again.

Mrs Sensible rummaged in her capacious bag for some sun block. Without a child there to boss about, she picked on one of us, “Mrs Gossip, you’re so fair, do you think you ought to borrow my hat?”
Mrs Gossip assured her that she never burnt, as it happened; she was lucky enough to have lovely skin which went straight to beautiful brown. Or words to that effect. She, too, closed her eyes and beamed at the sun.

It seemed that whatever people said warranted an eye shutting and closed-eyed session staring at the sun. I was quite tempted myself, but feared I would never wake up, that death would take me, and I’d have to be manhandled through the little back door and down the bumpy path at the front and stuffed all unseemly into the Sexy Nurse’s boot. God knows what my corpse would find there. Handcuffs and things. PVC.

Mrs Dull said “no” to a chocolate brownie. Her “no,” accompanied by the steady hand of a traffic policeman held in mid air, suggested that excess calories were the joy of the devil; it was an “oh no!” She further annoyed Mrs NP by wanting only half a slice of lemon drizzle cake. To have more would be very gross. While the rest of us greedily licked our fingers and slurped at things, Mrs NP had to upsticks from the wobbly chair a hostess must occupy to fetch a knife to halve a slice.

Meanwhile Mrs ExecutiveMum (normally found running a small country but on day release from the shackles of her desk), set to lamenting that she had discovered, by foolishly fiddling around on Excel (one could have guessed it would end in tears, never trouble trouble …), that they (by which she means she) had spent £8,000 on presents last year. Again. Problems, problems. Déjà vu was unpleasant for she thought she’d cleaned up her spending habit. Seems not. Either that or she’s really crap at Excel and had done all that work only to bring up last year’s figures again. Possible. I could have suggested it; I also toyed with mentioning that scooping up 4 iPods at the airport as “stocking fillers” for her daughters and godchildren might be one area to trim in the coming months. But I stilled my busy mouth, a bit because I couldn’t be bothered, a bit because I probably know less about Excel than even her but mainly because I’m trying to curb myself from leaping in with pointless solutions or dangerous prattle: step away from a failing dialogue or awkward silence, it is not your responsibility, quit digging, stop lying; keep your mouth shut.

“You’re quiet, Milla,” Mrs Gossip said, her hopes of a little interjection of disbelief at £8K on presents! dashed.
“Just happy listening to everyone else,” I said, spoiling things further.
“T12 not picked for the cricket on Sunday?” she asked.
“Bad ankle,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed.

Mrs ExecutiveMum tried to re-gain ground with the poverty stricken proles with whom she was stuck for the afternoon by confessing that all her clothes (that day) were from Tesco. Of all places!
“Nice,” everyone said, nodding.
“Yes, their shoes are horrid, though,” said Mrs Gossip.
“My shoes are from there, too!”
We all laughed. Kindly, of course. The iPods, latent guests, slipped into the past. Mrs EM relaxed: so this was what all this At Home Mom stuff was about. Weird.

Everyone moved their chairs about, metal scraping on the terrace, to avoid the very sun we had all been so very ardent to park ourselves in. Mrs Sensible fetched the parasol and I don’t know who screamed the loudest, her or the emerging-with-a-knife Mrs Northern Posh (who favours control freakery with regard to things like manhandling defunct garden equipment) when the thing cracked open and a million woodlice tumbled free. She all but went arse over tit over the badminton net guy ropelet thing which we had all been warned to avoid on our way through, occasioning a desperate squeal audible unto heaven.

Half a piece of lemon drizzle cake was off the agenda, a side order of woodlice not appealing to Mrs Dull. “Protein?” I thought but didn't say.
The Sexy Nurse had another fumble with her cleavage, this time with an excuse and a shriek.
I sneezed one of a million sneezes that afternoon.
Greenflies died floating deaths in our glasses of warming water.
Bloody summer.
It was a lovely couple of hours.
“This is nice,” I said, and meant it. Mrs NP looked a little ragged round the edges.

The news on TV featured piracy in Somalia. The camera scanned an exquisite beach. The voiceover breathily assured us that the ship in the distance, which actually looked quite nice, was a pirate ship. Very beautiful people swarmed in a sort of prison, the bars a distressed blue, of which Mrs NP would whole-heartedly have approved. All the clothes looked so lovely, so clean: random wild patterns matching in saturated colour. We were told that a rather lovely looking chap in a fetching pink top was a pirate. No Pugwash he, rather he resembled an escapee from some urban fashion shot.
The setting was very brochure; but not of somewhere you should consider going. Not if you wanted to come back.
Clearly always some sort of trouble in paradise. Here, there and everywhere. Just a different scale of pest.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

in which an awful lot of brackets are used. (but i don’t bladdy care)

Back when I was a grown up, and not a mere dishrag of a person sporting light wounds (thorny bushes … stranded tennis balls), I coulda been a contender, I coulda been someone. (Well, so could anyone, I’m reminded by The Pogues).
I “worked with” (by which I mean lunched, drank, bobbed around in the background) names. You know, people you might have heard of, from Michael Caine to Ken Livingstone to Bob Flowerdew. Being a lip curling iconoclast, I naturally saw through the lot of them. Well, not Anthony Hopkins, what a sweetie, sigh.
Now I am reduced to boy-handling, dog-handling and glaring at the hoover – not much love lost there: it’s sullen, claiming under-use; I’m sullen, claiming the opposite.

I seem also to have accrued quite an impressive crop of enemies, from the already mentioned Mrs Playmobil and Nasty Troll Goat Woman to, in a quick shuffle around, the biggest of them all, the games teacher at F10’s school.
Here I can but quote the mad old Nan in Catherine Tate. What a bladdy cow. Fack me.

My own PE teacher was a terrible old bag – my mother had her, too. Two generations of non-optimum sports people occluded by the same sneer, scared rigid by sturdy thighs ‘neath a flapping skirt. Cold indifference and a belief in their legs must be something they learn at PE college.

Now, you know me, moderate and easy-going to a fault. And I would really rather my children were never picked for anything sporting, since being selected lands you as parent in a particularly nasty nest of anxiety – need I but say “goalkeeper” to any other mother out there? But F10 was selected, for the rounders, and was thrilled.

Normally the after school conversation goes something like this:

Me: Howdy, F10. Good day?

F10: Yeah, well, no.

Me: Oh, anything happen? (my maternal antennae casually a-frisk for Moments of which I Need be made Aware)

F10: No. Well, I scored.

Me: At lunchtime? Great!

F10: Yeah, it was nearly a hat trick actually.

Me: So you scored twice?

F10: No. Once.

With the day despatched, there’s then the happy trudge home through the field, a small paw slotted into mine, Lolly stuffing her snout into dubious damp patches of long grass. But this time there was the joyous news from F10 that he had been picked to play, and the cry of glee when he told me, his reliving the experience three, four times, all but broke that shrivelled little walnut I’m stuck with calling a heart.

So we go to the tournament and there I’m not best pleased to see that it’s presided over by Vile Bag Cow Teacher. What a slappery trout that creature is, unfit to be in charge of dogs (though I wouldn’t quibble if she insisted I hand over the lead). She hates me. My chum Mrs Northern Posh, whose child was treated badly by her last year, asked me to go to the headteacher with her, in protest. She knows me to be brutal (she kindly calls it articulate) and anti-bullying of any sort, and felt too wobbly to go it alone. In assisting a friend, I got my own card marked.

During the first match F10 and his classmate C10 are both subbed. Someone has to be, this is fine: 11 kiddies, 9 places; I’m mellow with this and it gets it over and done with. Although, it goes without saying, that if our team has to lose, it’s quite pleasing that they lose heavily. Bad luck everyone! Well played! Better luck next time!

Actually, I’m wrong, apparently they come second. “That’s silver,” the father behind me says. I shoot him a look.

F10 plays match 2. They lose again, though – can I be the only one to notice? – by a narrower margin than the first match.
We all remark on how enormous the children are from the other schools. The boys have beards, the girls maternity bras. F10 stands a head shorter than everyone there. He flicks me the thumbs up, his enthusiasm already the stuff of nostalgia, and readies himself with confidence for match 3, cavorting with the others.

But which foul creature is this with her clipboard? Why, it’s VBCT. Yippy-doo. She consults her notes. God? Aren’t the few facts already seared onto her small rabbit dropping of a brain? Seemingly not. She confers with her Sour Sidekick who nods the nod of the executioner. At one with the pain she causes.
F10 totters my way, his face a riot of suppressed tears. C10’s lower lip trembles. Subbed again.
The other children jump around heartlessly, fit with the confidence which the permanently selected find their due.

Hope then comes in the unlikely form of a stout lass, bearing another school’s colours, staggering over, “Not playing 4 girls,” she splutters.
F10 is reprieved.
2 girls are plucked from the squad and told to sit out. Yes, shifting arcane ruling dictates that while some games demand a patronising quorum of 4 girls, in others they can be kicked to the kerb. They sit and make daisy chains and talk about horses.
We win the game. Small stirrings of that odd emotion ‘triumph’ stir in my unimpressive bosom.

The final game, game 4 beckons. VBCT is surprisingly on the ball, attributable to the fact that there are no male PE teachers with whom she can flex her dismal flirting techniques (believe me, not a pretty sight). Her stumpy finger follows the little list of names, her lips moving as she struggles to read.
“Right, year 5, same team as game one,” she says.

She throws me a look, rife with fat spite. “Just rotating everyone,” she says. Although this is exactly what she is not doing. F10 crumples. C10 looks like he might give up and die on the spot. He clutches his asthma inhaler as alibi to his exclusion.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter, it’s petty. But if they’ve been selected, they should have a go, and a fair go. Otherwise resentment breeds (lessons given here). It’s not a nice thing to see, this ritual process whereby one or two children are always singled out despite being of much the same standard as the others. It is divisive and humiliating. For the parents as much as the child. At secondary school, one thing. Not at primary.

Had the tournament meant anything I would have understood. Had it been a Cup match, ditto. Had the other kids not dropped endless catches, botched throws, cocked up on making it to second, I wouldn’t have said a word. But, hand on heart, though he wasn’t the best player and he might not be a Rounders Ronaldo, F10 sure as anything wasn’t the worst. Bang slap in the middle. C10 was one of the best. VBCT must really hate his parents.

What’s a mild mother to do but go and concoct a wax doll? If it’s stuffed into a short skirt, possibly clutching a clipboard and smirking, would anyone really judge me as it burst into glorious flames?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

where's my small ... boy?

F10 went missing last night. The classic props were all there – the open gate onto the back … the chain and padlock dangling from the hasp … a cricket bat tossed aside suggesting the stepping stone in the journey from garden to field to off, off and beyond.
The front gate was open too. This was wrong. It is always to be kept shut to keep the ghastly dog in, although it’s time I questioned the wisdom of this. Off you go love, the big road’s that way. Most poignant of all were a pair of scruffy little socks left scattered on the grass, clues to his final moments.

Which way to go? With panic building, I scanned the field, then faux-sauntered out of the front. The saunter was necessary to convince me that all was still normal. I strolled down to the right. And then back and to the left. A trot became a bit of a sprint (all terms are relative).
Given the recent shenanigans, various endings were playing out in my head. Had I given him a decent last half hour, a decent life being too much to claim. Yes, I told myself, we’d had a nice walk with the dog. We’d taken a cricket bat (he has rounders today, I thought that some practise might help), I had been throwing it at him, he’d been thwacking it. We had played catch. I had been kind and encouraging. I had said things like “oh, good throw” and “my fault, too high.” Angels were busy in heaven with my brownie points. Even when we had to tussle with the dog to let slip half a shagged-out blackbird it had all been quite pleasant. Relative terms, remember.

Then we'd returned home. While he stayed outside to play at bowling, I had felt I deserved a glass of wine. Some might like to pause here to ponder, with an admiring moue, on the late hour, 8.30, of the first glass of the day. We can forget the small but necessary gin at 7, too tiny to mention.
And here the reflections, all taking place in seconds, morphed into the imminent police investigation. If the road continued not to proffer up my son, I’d have to be on the blower, 999. The sirens, the heavy shut of the door, the swagger of the policeman hoicking up his trews, the belt loaded with cuffs and phones.
“So, Milla, you were drinking wine and you checked on your child .. when?”
“5 to 9,” I mumble in my mind.
The sarcasm is heavy. “A whole 25 minutes elapses, how extremely good of you, Milla, to remember him at all. Let me top up your glass.”
The sergeant and the constable exchange glances, sigh heavily. Lips are pursed. The At Risk register will be consulted, and amended.

My sprint intensified, which means that speed would possibly be detectable by an alert passer-by, an Old seized by a need to vacuum the car.
Up ahead a blur of blue. Some tuneless whistling reaches me. F10 strolling back.
“Oh, hi, mum,” he burbled huskily.
I scooped him to me.
“Where were you!?!” I said, my face buried in his ledge wig.
“Oh, you know, I was looking for my barbecue man.”

His barbecue man is, what? 3cm tall. He is from a Lego barbecue kit (featuring lights, a parasol and a leg of chicken, all eminently losable, naturally) and occupies a domain of joy shared with a ring, a rabbit …. He has developed a huge back-story and doles out chicken to all and sundry with impressive regularity. We’re all rather sick of it to be honest. Mmmm, more chicken. Yum. It had fallen out, he assumed, while off on the walk so he had gone back, in the gathering dusk, to search through long grass in three fields for his Lego man.

His childhood has been littered with such hunts. “Where’s my pirate’s foot … where’s my small mazagine” being perennial and plaintive cries from his early years. When a pirate’s foot belongs to a Playmobil man and the small mazagine is the instructions to the Playmobil man, no, we never knew where they were, but we measured out our hours in looking for them. The sticky possession of important items vital to his being. Sometimes the memory of them would echo in my head, lulling me to sleep. It’s become a catch phrase for anything misplaced nowadays.
“You know not to go anywhere without telling us!” I said.
“But my man …!”
Some things transcend rules.

Lego man was found among the socks. Thrilled he was. He squeaked. Then put it down. “And where’s the barbecue?” he said, heading towards the gate.
Give me strength.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

hell is other people's mothers

There’s a frigid woman at school, startling white jeans, Playmobil hair and crossed arms clamped firmly across her chest. She is one of my arch enemies. I doubt she even knows my name. Why should she? I have merely driven her 2 hooligans from an after school class for a year without recognition, let alone reciprocation. It’s not that which I hate her for, and let’s not think hate’s too strong a word here, but that her nasty little son is one of 2 tormenters of F10. She's bred a brute, doesn't know it, doesn't care. As long as her Merc keeps going, life is sweet.

F10 is a complex beast. He does beautiful, intricate drawings, he is fascinated by nature, his mental arithmetic is startling. He dresses up in a suit, an Indiana Jones hat and my Jasper Conran elbow length gloves to watch ‘Poirot.’ Eccentric is the word, random. He can also be maddening, argumentative and with a wearing sense of his own rectitude. He aint your average 10 year old and is a quandary too far for many of his classmates. It’s not a good mix.
Mercifully many of T12’s friends love him; for them he is “The Ledge.”
“F10’s hair is ledge,” said W12 yesterday wistfully, ruffling his own black mess, “that’s what I aspire to.”
“What?” I said, “a crazy wig in need of a radical re-think?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s ledge.”

Meanwhile white-jeans Mum (the original ice maiden who, when once she tried a smile had to spend a week in recovery), has spawned a toxic pram toy of a boy who squeaks malevolently and is chief toad in opposition to my F10. What he does not get he seeks to destroy.
His co-general is a squat lout with a plasticky quiff and the cold pale eyes of a killer fish, 4th child of a troll-goat (down to the purple hair and stumpy legs). The family have a genetic misfortune to look as if they have been thumped on the head with a hammer. I’m trying to work it into conversation.

Last week, for whatever misguided reason, F10 took to school with him his precious ring. Had I but known, I would have wrestled it from him, I would have undergone wounds from cross claws to keep it safe and out of sight.
I can only imagine that he had a very different outcome in mind when sliding it into his pocket. In his mind’s eye, he would have revealed the ring, expecting an admiring intake of breath. The ring would glow bright, drawing all near. Perhaps one boy would have dared to ask if he could touch it. F10 might graciously have conceded. An eager audience would have gathered, each craning for a glimpse of The Ring. It would be the talk of the playground.
He was wrong.

The scenario unfolded in a very different way.
Out came the ring. F10 nursed it tenderly, shyly.
“It’s crap,” squeaked Toxic Pram Toy.
“Yeah,” mocked Plastic Quiff Troll, “Crap.”
A round of laughter at the heady wit.
“I bought it from the museum,” F10 said, rallying with the wrong rally.
“Should be in a bin.”
“It’s trash, rubbish.”
“Stupid, ugly ring, crap.”

They all joined in, thoughtless safety in the pack, careless power in numbers; it went on for some time.

For in addition to the leaders, as powerful as Roman Emperors within their fiefdoms – although as yet without the authority to confer senatorship on their gerbils – there are the hapless bystanders. A depressing lot, happy to gather in the skirts of the great, anxiety to be in with the core group bleeding from every desperate pore. One, an erstwhile friend of F10’s, is the Brutus of the piece. Brutus, but in smaller shoes. Another fond mother to avoid.
I'm not saying he must be cossetted. There will always be pushing and shoving, one cannot micro-manage. They have to learn to deal with the pack. The other kids don't have to like the wretched ring. But, six of them, against one? Again.

Gollum’s intensity of fervour would have wavered beneath this jeering attack. F10 clutched his ring the tighter, and said nothing.
The story leaked in bits and pieces over the weekend. He sobbed.
“Why didn’t you Tell?” I said.
“I couldn’t,” he said.
“Was Mr J not there?” I asked, meaning the headmaster, who always wants to know when there is a fresh “incident.”
“It’s not that,” he said.

What it is is the humiliation. He cannot, could not and will not Tell because to articulate the episode would force a new reality. If it hasn’t been said by him, he can convince himself it didn’t happen and keep safe his dreams. He has already developed what the school would call Coping Strategies which are far too sophisticated for a ten year old. Those of disembodiment, of effectively writing off his time there against when things start properly at his secondary school. But whenever we suggest moving him elsewhere he is distraught. It would smack of failure, of having been driven out, of the triumph of PQT and TPT.
His teacher is fantastic, and when she telephoned me to discuss it I detected a whisper of the warpath.

I do not believe for an instance in the innocence of children. ‘Lord of the Flies’ reinforces that. Sassy and wanton, vessels of corrupted morals, shot through with deep rooted unkindness and a huge sense of their own entitlement, yes. Or so my jaded condition convinces me now.
I am not alone. A sad father spills his own story when we’re out dog walking. Many of the girls in F10’s class seem as bad, with bitchy shifting sands of allegiance. Loyalty dumped for a sleepover. Promises abandoned in return for a fiddle with a mobile phone. Do they learn it from television? I don’t know. Too much too soon and none of it nice.

I don’t think I’m blind to my own children’s faults: I could list them here and it would take some time. I am not unrealistic. They complain that we are far too strict with them. We are hot on manners, harsh on dereliction of duty. I wonder what the parents of Toxic Pram Toy and Plastic Quiff Troll are told, why aren’t they on these boys like a ton of bricks? Is it just me left feeling the anguish, suffering the night thoughts, driven to fond fantasies of tragic road accidents: an ice maiden cut short in her white jeaned prime, a troll found squashed beneath the tyres of a friendly truck.

Chatting to other children’s parents brings a warped view. For many their children seem to be gadgets, accessories, objects of great wonder who can do no wrong. Perhaps they don’t see them enough. I’d be happy to fill them in. Until that joyful day, the day of great reckoning, they are free to chuckle indulgently at feral acts and enjoy the inflated sense of their kiddies’ dubious worth. They roll their eyes, “what can one do?!”
You are supposed to collude, to bill and coo. Kids, eh. I don’t. I avoid the school gates at the moment, sullen at the thought of encountering what Sir Alan Sugar would call the whole bladdy lot of them. Anger brings eloquence and I fear what I might say.

“Don’t take your rabbit in,” (Bunsy being up there with the ring), I said to F10 when tackling his wig this morning, chasing the curls with a busy hairbrush.
“I won’t,” he promised, ruffling them up again.
The ring I’ve not seen since.