I'm sure you wouldn't, but:

Protected by Copyscape Unique Content Check

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Ding Dong

The vicar sauntered on in slacks and a pully: holy casual. His hand toyed, casually, in the depths of his pocket. He seemed distracted, dippy-looking, as if he might break into a purr.
Despite the garb, and the soft porn gaze, when he got going he was pure vicar: deathly slow and fond of his own voice. Health and Safety had come to the church and he gave us several long minutes of frustrated trolley dolly guff about exits, in the hope of a fire. His hand reluctantly left his pocket, to point hither and thither with confusing enthusiasm for the correct quadrant, the apt exit; X had to filter here, Y must hurry along there. Candles wobbled in takeaway containers atop wonky piers. Several wanton souls perked up at the prospect of an inferno.
Til he spoiled it. We were told that come the end we should wait – for health and safety reasons – for all of the candles to be extinguished. Several hundred people bleakly scanned the church in quick count mode and took in several hundred candles. Trapped in tight rows, it was too late to adopt a “think I’ve left the gas on” face and leg it.

We were not, however, told that the end was so very far in the future, and most of us steeped in early onset dementia, that waiting obediently would be completely forgotten in the rush for the mulled wine. The fumes would be Siren-ing and we’d all be on a mission. Singed hair? Teetering flames? Elbow the slow and helpless. Get me to the grub and grog.

For it was the school’s carol concert and, being a high achieving school, there was not a wonky tea towel in evidence, no tears, no embarrassing silences, no Little Donkey. Just hours of, admittedly, beautiful singing, lovely readings, proper Christmas gravitas.
Lots of it, but conducted at a decent lick.

Each year I’ve stalked the town in search of a cracking carol service. And each year I’ve shuffled home mortified by the paucity on offer. Whether it was the tracksuit trouser and trainers vicar offering the drab metaphor of Asda light bulbs from a damp cardboard box (may the light be with you) on the way out; or the full-on horrors of enthusiastic arms-raised, closed-eye swaying to tuneless modern carols; or the linen-suited vicar, bounding on stage with big teeth, to read requests from the congregation for Toyota Landcruisers (really!) none quite hit the mark.
All I want for Christmas is a decent run of familiar tunes, and a little dignity and ceremony. What I get is quite other.

The worst of all the terrible occasions took place was when T14 was young, ahh, and the primary school choir was invited to sing at a nearby college. I think that that particular service lasted 2 and a half hours, fully 45 minutes of which was given over to Media Vicar. Media Vicar was a worthy wench, in a bust-hugging stripy jumper and shaggy hair, who’d spent too long in Africa and was prepared to share each and every moment. What we did not know at the end about rape, sodomy, AIDS and arson is likely to be thin pickings. Our primary banned whole grapes in the lunch boxes: they had to be sliced in half (health and safety). The head teacher emerged blinking, traumatised; genned up on genocide, grapes temporarily relegated. E still has a small scar from dripping wax on his hand in a semi-successful attempt to stay awake: we had to hold these little candles, all sermon long; yeah, yeah, may the light be with you.

Dutifully, we attend the village service each Christmas eve. It’s a dismal affair, and we know it even as we edge into our wellies for the stride across the field.
The vicar slides in, apologetically, clad in a Snoopy sweatshirt, waving. Some well-meaning, ancient, stout parties spend bloody hours dragging out the reading of a vaguely relevant story to toddlers strung out on smarties, and the rest of us dutifully freeze; the OAPs swaddled smugly in their factory shop anoraks, people like me wondering why we scorn them: suddenly seeing wisdom in Teflon fur. Tartan knee wraps are eyed with envy. Last time I was here was for a funeral. The vicar spoke endlessly about sex. The grieving daughter, her face a bruised chrysanthemum of sorrow, surely could not soothed by the intrusive image of her mother at it with old dad. I was suddenly grateful for my ill-thought through seat selection backing onto the flowers. I could hide my horror in holly and ivy.

Money is being raised for digital bells which no-one wants; meanwhile the wind cuts through ill-fitting windows and the glass freezes over both sides. A floppy hat does the rounds and returns home barely heavier, a mere one handed clap to its clink. The wailing plink plonk of Little Donkey kicks in and I remember what a long time an hour can be in a local church, how killing a song.

But last night was wonderful. The real thing.
Long, however, and wasted on the great British public, a breed unable, en masse, to sit still without coughing, rummaging or creaking. Within half an hour the texting was beginning. A series of Nintendo DSs pinged into action as small heads bent over pixelated screens. Every now and again, we were called upon to sing and I stood, with such anticipation that this time, of all times, I might actually be able to make something approaching a decent sound. Pitiful optimism. In speech, I’m like Princess Anne on helium, and in singing something even stranger happens as my vocal chords ricochet between emitting barrel-scraping grunts or desperate squeaks. Almost an art. I’d love to be able to sing well; of all the talents it truly is a gift. E is a lusty singer and I try to tuck my reedy croaks all unobtrusive in amongst his full baritone.

“It was OK,” said F12 as we scarpered, mince-pie rich to the car, “but that’s it, yes? We’re not going to the village one, too.”
“Why not?” I said, bracing myself. You have to feel strong to take on F12 and the humiliation of the non-singing had weakened me.
”I’ve already been to it. Lots of times. You won’t let me watch “The Simpsons” twice, why should I go to the service twice.”
He has a point. But we’ll go. Christmas is all about traditions. The good, the bad and the ugly. And the ones with wonky tea towels and Little Bloody Donkey. All 45 rotten verses of it. I feel a car coat purchase on the cards.

Thursday, 9 December 2010


Got a new Christmas tree from B&Q (the glamour).

I only ended up with it out of spite, really. A real one was ruled out because of the extra hoovering duties incumbent on ownership of same. Plus they’re always wonky and bald when you spring them from the net.

Then Homebase had been hopeless, simply hopeless, and I’d found myself in that Mecca of tat, B&Q staring blankly, like the dog at her empty bowl, at the displays of plastic trees there, trying to make sense of the new vocabulary. The snow-tipped, the self-lit, the pop up.

Just as I decided I’d made a decision (oh giddy day) I noticed the gap behind the display tree. Typically, they'd all gone, the kind I had my eye on. The kind, moreover, that was half price. Who can resist? So I went on line and fiddled on my phone trying to see if could get one delivered, when I spotted a B&Q bloke huffing and puffing over a fork lift truck and asked him.

"Not getting any more in, no,” he said. Then, “you can have that one, if you want, the display one."

"Oh," I said, thinking about it. I couldn’t weigh up if it was really quite a good find or truly vile. The children were doing that near death thing children do when waiting on a parent and my decision making capacity has never been good at the best of times, still less when confronted with a possible bargain, possible big mistake.

Then a really oiky couple – him a big bruiser with a bald head and bulging eyes and her all fake fur coat, high heels and S American attitude – said, "Oi! We'd'a had that!" She munched up her lips and clutched her fake fur coat at impressive poitrine point and He left hooked the air making his car coat ride up.

"Are you together?" asked Mr B&Q. Did he really need to ask.

"No," I said quietly.

"I'll put it in your trolley, shall I?"

“Do,” I said.

So I got it. Whether I wanted it or not really which is not a part of my psyche I’m happy confronting.

Am still worried that it might be more than a little chavvy, particularly given the nature of the other couple’s interest, miaow, but overall it is really rather nice. I think.

I’d been to a drinks thing the night before where there was the most immaculate tree in the world. You could but stand and stare. It was the sort of house with garlands on the stairs and wreaths of dyed ostrich feathers. In November. Startling.

“Don’t mention the tree!” sighed my hostess, her hand shooting to her brow. “Stress! I’ll give you stress.” Her children skulked in the background. “Course the girls want to help,” she continued. “I thought about it. For a moment. But it always gets nasty. They haven’t got a clue. No sense of balance. I’m there, twitching. And that’s no good for anyone. So I sent them out with the dog and did it myself. Had a little sherry.”

With this in mind – and strangely familiar, bar the sherry – I determined to do ours with the children this year. So that in their memory bank was at least one instance in their bleak little childhoods of me playing the Merry Mum and not the vicious dictator. This meant not shooting out my hand to rearrange their cack-handed attempts. It meant Bye Bye to tasteful silver and Hello There to a more gaudy combo of bronze (by which I don’t mean orange, I mean bronze), lime green and purple. It meant it was all actually quite good fun. And, most importantly, up.

Just to say a big thanks to Ben at Appliances Online for sending me some yumtastic chocs. I wanted a washing machine where the door shuts without using your knee but chocs will do nicely instead. Nice company.

Friday, 13 August 2010

a little learning

F11 was crashing around in his pyjamas, over which was stretched his new rugby protective top (think: ‘80s meets slut: black netting and big big shoulders, not improved over bulky wincyette), thick socks and brand new school shoes. He was clutching Catty, and a cane, and was in search of his monocle. It’s possibly disloyal to share that he was miaowing, too. Ornaments quaked at the swish of the cane. The miaowing segued into something even more tuneless.

How can he possibly be big enough (isn’t) and mature enough (most def isn’t) to be going to secondary school in 3 weeks’ time? He isn’t.

“Chemistry, Physics, Biology, English, German, French, Maths, RE, PSCHE, History..” I said. I felt wretched at the range of subjects. The too-much-ness.

“ICT,” he said. Silly mummy.

“Geography,” I finished.

My heart sort of sinks for him.

Perhaps because even today I feel all pig-ironed out. Geography is very popular now but back in my childhood geography was just pig iron; pig iron, ox bow lakes and market bloody gardening in Denmark. Really. Christ, it was dull; the highlight was the end of term treat of watching the volcano film run backwards. No wonder my reliance on Sat Nav is so great. But if geography strangely flourishes (I’ve not investigated, I’m just grateful), history is on the ropes.

We’ve done virtually nothing this holidays. Just dossed around. The children have watched far too much rubbish telly. They’ve gone to bed far too late and got up far too late. It’s been fantastic.

There have been odd flirtations with real life. A man, big Jim, came to fix the drains and told us of that he's been banned from America for ten years. For hitting Wolfman at Universal Pictures. “I’d paid $300 for a tour,” he said. “I told 'em, I said, 'you can kick me out at 6 o’clock but not before.' Besides, Wolfman hit me first. It’s on CCTV and everything.”

But the joy of such time, the freedom from routine and the tyranny of the lunchbox, is occasionally tempered by memory of that from which we are temporarily free. I’ve been saddened by the struggles which T13, a very sparky boy, seemed to be having with some subjects.

Take history. Last term, I was trying to make out what it was that he was actually learning and, naturally, blaming him for the inexplicable randomness in dotting chaotically through centuries and continents. I couldn’t see the connection.

I asked his teacher, “Er, last month it seemed to be Henry VIII, then Cecil Rhodes and now it’s the English Civil War …?” I shrugged a ‘has T13 got it wrong’ shrug at her.

She blushed. “It’s the curriculum,” she mumbled. “We have to teach in, er, themes. This is Empire…. I know, I know, it seems crazy.”

“But there’s no context,” I said, “no sense of chronology, or consequence, or of … history.”

“I know,” she said meekly.

With a sense of dread, I rummaged through his English. He was ‘doing’ “Frankenstein.” From photocopied pages.

“Don’t you have the actual novel?” I ask.

“We read bits of it. In class. Joe’s rubbish at reading and gets all the long paragraphs.”

“But why?”

He shrugged. Shrugging seems to be integral to modern education. “Dunno. Something about Gothic novels. And then we write our own.” His, it goes without saying had been light on monks, and shadowy cloisters; no whey-faced heroine or evil uncle. He’d adopted a more slasher approach. Murder in a ski chalet. But that’s an interpretation, mkay, so that’s fine.

It goes without saying that while one rightly deplores our old friend Dumbing Down, there is also something deeply stupid about foisting ‘bits’ of “Frankenstein” on 12 and 13 year olds. It is a book which I loved … at about 17; the language is complex, the themes sophisticated, both lost on young boys and designed to anti-encourage them. I find it very depressing.

Randomness when self-instilled is one thing, having it imposed is quite another.

“Do you know,” F11 said, order restored with his monocle back screwed into his eye, and busying himself spreading almond butter (yum) mainly onto a wonky muffin and only a bit on poor, beleaguered Catty, “that China had some pyramids? Yes. They’re missing and the Greeks had a god for everything? Even cupboards? And their god of the sewer was called something like Cloaca…”

“Cloacina?” I said, the word landing from somewhere. Possibly too much time spent cleaning lavatories.

"Weirdo," said T13, strolling by in his cricketing helmet to log onto Facebook.

“Yes. (Shut up T13, freak) you’re so clever. Shall I tell Big Jim?”

I thought of Big Jim, in his stained beanie, jabbing furiously at the drains, frequently wiping a gloved hand across his face, tiny splatters. “Best not,” I said.

“Yes, and if an organism doubles itself 3 times in an hour then after 24 hours there are … well, I don’t know how to say it, but this many.” He showed me a piece of paper riddled with 72 computations, leading up to an impossibly long number which I can’t even type correctly (possibly 2361183241434822606848 but it was really really hard to do). I started checking on a calculator – which gave up at 2147483648, which tallied with his 32nd sum. I blinked. The teachers better not waste all this.

“I did it in my head,” he said. “Watching the Turtles. You just keep doubling. It’s easy.”

There is a God. Whether of the sewers or not.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


I don't like soup. It goes cold while you're talking, during which time it develops a granular texture which makes my stomach turn. It involves a slurping, bits of the gunge bleed from other people's mouths and a nasty dragging of the spoon across the china bowl is akin to nails on a board. The anonymity of soup disturbs, too. Just how bendy was that friendless carrot prised from the botton of the fridge, how damp that seeping of celery?
If I manage to deal with that lot, then there's the miniscus of leavings lining the bowl to hate plus that, around now, someone always breaks off some bread to drag across said miniscus. It can make me really quite faint, but then I'm a delicate soul in permanent need of an excuse to collapse on the chaise longue.

However, this is very nice.

I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to make some soup mainly because for me it's quite an event when I put aside my shuddering and twitching and pretend I'm a normal person without Little Ways. Lots of people contacted me later asking for the recipe, so, for the nicest possible Roasted Tomato Soup, what happens is this. Quantities are vague. En passant, the pulped stage, of the roasted garlic and the toms alone, is a lovely base for pasta, for pizza bases. I use it a lot. The amount I've mentioned here, the 25 toms, will do soup for about 6 twice over, and a tupperware-ful for a pasta meal and pizza bases. Time well spent and easy peasy.

So, roast some tomatoes - I've just done about 25 big chunky ones, vine attached, and a bulb of garlic , bulb being the whole big thing - slug of oil, s&p, scattering of basil if it pleases you. The lot for 40 mins at about 190/200 (mine is a fierce oven). The success lies solely in the roasting. All the rest is window dressing. There is no need for any of that steeping in boiling water business, to de-skin, or to fiddle about with the seeds. Not if you have a beast of a food processor there isn't, anyway. Here's mine. Click and weep.

Meanwhile fry up a couple of red onions - last time I just chucked in some salad onions, too, because I only had one dismal little red chap and I felt embarrassed for it, knowing it wouldn't be up to the job without help.

When fried, blitz the onions in a processor (last time, I did indeed add some sad celery and a couple of predictably ropey carrots, too. As we all know, it's that or the compost bin. In the past, I've put in a couple of anchovies - not that I like them (cue more jerking), but in small quantities they add a nice saltiness and, again, the fridge needed clearing. Pesky tiny jars.)

[note: In retrospect, it's worth affirming that messing about with naff veg is a mistake. Particularly if you've princess stamped through your DNA like me. Keep it simple. The compost bin IS your friend. No need to pretend you're half way to being All That with bloody stock. Celery, my arse. It must be the most over-rated food-type substance on the planet.]

Put in a large pan.

When the toms are done, blitz them, maybe in batches, including the greenery: sometimes you have to fish out the fibrous bits which won't fall dutiful victim to the swishing blades, but it's all flavour-enhancing stuff so worth doing.

When cool enough squirt out the pulp of the garlic (a waiting game you only get wrong once... owch!)

If have 'em, blitz half a dozen of those sullen turds which go by the name of sun dried tomato. Don't think about it, just drop them in the machine. And don't fret if don't have, no one will die.

(at this stage you can save some of the thickened mixture for other recipes, it's a playing by ear thing)

Stir together in the pan with a tad more olive oil, a spoon of sugar (I don't always bother, toms are sweet enough, but sometimes the children like to "help" (the lies bloggers tell the world, me and my magazine children) and it's the sort of thing they can do without too much disaster); a hefty shake of Bouillon (vegan, reduced salt) powder and maybe a litre of water. Or, if you must, if you're a bone keeper and have bits of old carcass hanging around, real chicken stock. Bit of s&p.

While it's just sitting there simmering gently - for maybe 40 mins or until you're bored or hungry - make some pesto with random amounts of parmesan, olive oil, pine nuts and basil. Or, failing that, just grate some parmesan in. If I'm feeling uber-mummy, I'll have knocked up some tiny bread rolls in individual tins. Really.

The colour is that comforting orange of Heinz tomato soup, the taste is out of this world. Even for ghastly princesses. Just wear blinkers and ear puffs to save you from your fellow eaters.

Friday, 30 July 2010


Let it be known that any sentence beginning with an enthusiastic “Let’s …” plays host to an utterly idiotic idea which needs slaughtering right there and then. Kick it to the kerb and turn the TV up loud instead.
We’ll take – let’s take – the recent instance still raw in the flesh of the Milla household of “Let’s have a party.”
I suggested eagerly, E shuddered and went to lie down and I got busy with a list.
“You must be mad,” my mother said; a sentiment that’s come this way from that a few times now.

On the fridge was a yellowing invitation sent out by Mrs Efficient in November. Yes, November, to chime with the Christmas cards. Yes, the Christmas cards, in November. The mind boggles, an Escher unfolding of things which should not be. Still, this shiny rectangle is witness to the fact that even such grotesque planning can go tits up. Minutes after ripping open the envelope on that chilly day, long, long ago, came the breathy phone call. The venue (this was a party with a venue, and a ceillidh, and caterers, 3 things ours was going to go shy of) had double booked and the party had to be shunted on a week. Into July. I decided to forego invitations.

But just deciding who to have forced problems to bob to the surface. Friends aren’t that simple. It used to be that you knew people or didn’t know them. I have 200 names on my mobile phone but I scrolled through muttering, “no, no, maybe, no.”

To cull numbers further (the merry hostess admits) we ditched anyone long distance. They might want to stay. Can you imagine anything worse? Than friends staying? Sheets. Small talk over croissant served in the debris of day old dead brie and evil glasses sticky with the night before. All the hot water going. Besides they wouldn’t know anyone. It would be an unkindness.
We closed tired eyes to the notion of having anyone from school, to eager huddles discussing the 11+.
There was a quorum from the village beyond the ones we like whom we were obliged to have – and when you have X there’s always a Y and a Z too. So we set the party date in close sight and luckily lost a few to a wedding and some more to the summer holidays.

Around this time the weather started changing. The endless Enid Blyton summer got bored and the wind moved in.

I panicked, and thought, “Why don’t I...” (a close cousin of Let’s) “Why don’t I … make some bunting?” Within seconds, elderly knees were busy creaking up the attic ladder and years of dust and 7 bags of ancient fabric came crashing down with me a mere sneeze behind.
Do not be fooled. Bunting is not “a few triangles sewn together and put on a string.”
The West Wind woke up. The acceptances came flooding in. E said, “Have you thought about food?”

Bunting is, in fact, an hour’s ironing, a day’s cutting out and pinning – well, it is when suddenly you are a 101 triangles in through fabric choice paralysis … if I have just this and this … oh and this (calling for 202 backs and fronts). The kitchen disappeared under piles of material.

The North Wind thought, “Might as well …” and bashed at the newly planted borders and E said, “Where are we going to put all the drink?”

Bunting is several hours on the sewing machine cursing and kicking as the wretched thing prats about with self-important tension issues and needle snapping; anyone would think I should run to a service after 30 years of ownership.

E was not impressed. But what he failed to understand is that 80 people’s not that many people to feed, not really, not when the bunting was assuming a life of its own. Displacement activity he called it. Can you believe?

To keep the peace I had to make bad tempered forays into the kitchen to cook. We didn’t want anything approaching plates and knives and forks. Mouthfuls only, there was to be no post-party broaching of teetering piles, separating gummy plates, fags in the butter, fingering abandoned cutlery stiff with smeary somethings. So I chopped and whirred and 100 little mini quiches (mushroom duxelley stuff; asparagus and parmesan) emerged and baby toads in the hole and weeny pizza-ettes and tiny goats’ cheese and cranberry soufflés. The best bit was a pleasing hour in Lakeland resulting in a happy shopper bent double under 3-for-2 baking trays. A friend lent a fridge. Everyone needs a friend with a spare fridge.

And then the stringing.
The East Wind moved a little nearer.
I dyed the stringing tape bright zinging pink. Foolishly, I didn’t wear gloves. And then ironed the tape, all 150 feet of it, down the long skinny middle, edging mountains of cheese straws out of the greasy way. E fretted about the effect of the sun (ha!) on the beer. I pinned and pinned.

The day came, my shoulders ached through being hunched over the machine, my lobster hands throbbed through a bain marie incident and a run in with the iron, and I eyed the sky in pain and nervous defiance.

With six hours to go on the Saturday, we decided we needed an iPod player to play our ancient, but never used (couldn’t face learning how) iPod. We found a real bargain within ten minutes but it seemed a good idea to go and check out 3 other shops before returning to the first place; the only surprise being that there was actually one last one left, rather than missing it by dumb moments. How often is one treated to such serendipity?

Back home, the oil cloth flapped on the trestle table, the bunting strained and tugged at the guttering, the platters I’d thought were under the hob were actually inaccessibly behind the borrowed fridge.

The weather was behaving like a child at a wedding: OK, just about, sort of getting away with it, but pissing you off at the same time. 2 friends called, along the lines of, “Do you want to borrow a gazebo, it’s a bit dusty but …” I resisted, without screaming. It was all a massive strain on the patience just as the rain itself strained at the leash of the glowering clouds.

Was fast all hummus and olive’d out and headachey from eyeing the sky with such grave concern. It mocked me with sudden gusts of wind and flurries of clouds but no actual wet stuff. “Four hours,” said E shunting crap off a sideboard and into an open drawer.

We set off for Tesco for the glasses (free hire!) with misplaced confidence, a sign the rain took to prompt gently the windscreen wipers into play. In the queue, a troublesome neighbour, a duty invite, who mercifully couldn’t come – interminable unnecessary explanation involving a lesbian niece – sidled up to me, “What are you going to do if it rains, Milla?” he wheedled, a delighted smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

Fuck off you old fuck, I thought, “Nothing,” I said, desperate for a random, aerial source of intravenous gin, that and a sledgehammer.

A party gains its own impetus. Plates were dropped off. Mini everything, Hunca Munca but yumtastic, no shards of plaster. My chums came up trumps. A dozen or so of them came bearing offerings. I started to worry that there was going to be far too much food and foresaw myself flung face first in a bowl of salsa sucking desperately to show that it was wanted.
The dog walkers en masse revealed a worrying inclination to bosomy puddings – delicious tiny meringues with splodges of raspberry atop wobbles of cream a favourite. There were dips and canapés and fudge and focaccio, and spicy popcorn. Mrs Very Rich got the gold star for lending magazine-esque levels of goodies: glass bottles with flip lids for water, pails for pinks, baskets lined in Glass towels for casual loveliness and staggering in laden with Michelin standard lovelies and champers and a present. Ditch fridge owning friends; everyone needs a Mrs Very Rich as their friend.

The sun edged out of hiding and the wind buggered off.

Shame was that guests had to come along and ruin it all, really. The pleasure, such as it was, I now realised, had lain in the planning and the anticipation and to be stilled in aspic in a moment of never quite arriving would be a pleasant state of affairs.

At ten to 8 I rushed upstairs and donned some odd thing I’d bought in an All Saints sale at Gatwick airport at 6 in the morning in January and spent all night shedding tiny sequins, and E wore his running shorts and dinner jacket. He has good legs. Strong men carried out the good-looking but crap sofa and everyone arrived at once bringing on an attack of quite extraordinary nerves. A glass of wine did nothing to quell the anxiety and I thought, what a shame. Were I to go to a party and see this lot I would be thrilled but, somehow, in my own house it did nothing but occasion extreme dread.

What’s to say? It went really well. Apparently. Good noise levels. Packed.
No spats, no sulks, no sobs and no-one threw up in a plant pot. Making it sound rather dull really; all I can offer in the disaster stakes is a woman (wearing white) a victim of a mobile glass of red wine.
I started enjoying it at about 1 in the morning.
The food was snaffled up and pronounced delicious; there was a long session of shame at the bottle bank next day. The thank yous have been touching. Lots of nice people brought presents.

But, say it slowly, and clearly, and loudly: Never Again. Ever. Let’s Just Not.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


By some uncharacteristic serendipity, I could lay my hands on the receipt stapled into its little Electrical Goods folder and clearly showing that the purchase was well within date. It promised a hassle-free experience should a fault develop. It’s not often that happens, I thought, too willing to believe jaunty print and anticipate an easy ride. The folly of one fundamentally unable to learn from experience.

F11’s Nintendo DSi had broken and it truly wasn’t down to him. (A DSi for the elderly or fortunately-oblivious is some small thing which folds in 2 and on which you can bugger about with pixels. He calls it playing games and gets most excited.) He cherishes it; moreover, it’s caged in some sort of OTT iron lung for its own good, armour enhancing the chances of long and happy life, say 6 months. But on the first occasion of him successfully tracking down the Emerald City of Wi-Fi, the touch screen went kaput. No, I don’t understand any of that sentence either.

So I took a book (for the queue), and the DSi, and the receipt in its folder, and went to Sainsbury’s to return the thing. There was a pleasing number of staff at the Service Desk but the gold of a hopeful quick turnaround turned to the dust of a long wait when it transpired that one’s on her mobile, one’s either ditzy or in training and the other 3 were working in an inverse version of multi-tasking, being multi-staffing, where many do the job of one. With commentary. Leaning with good natured interest at the return of mismatched bikinis and inadequate cutlery sets.
Oh, and one cross-looking one. Whom I got when the queue eventually shuffled forward.

Confident (fool) that even under a steely gaze, my transaction would be brisk, with right on my side and a valid receipt in a folder (imagine!) I presented the goods. I spieled my spiel only for some pursed lip action to kick in, domino’d with the apparent need for further consultation. Seems like the rules have changed. So predictable in retrospect.

“No, that’s between you and Nintendo, ‘fraid,” Mrs Cross said, with no discernible sorrow, her impatient glance suggesting “Next!” suggesting “Fuck Off Fool.”

Another, one of the chorus of commentators, muttered that the “hassle-free” promise on the guarantee should perhaps be honoured, that the wording was pretty unequivocal, that –

“Rules have changed,” said Mrs Cross, swivelling her disapprobation to the chorus member. “Besides, it’s not an electrical item.”

“It is!” I said, “And,” (because mere fact is never enough), “it’s in an electrical item folder,” I said, “look!”

“Well, it’s not,” she said, “Electrical. I can’t be held responsible for it being put in there. It shouldn’t be in there. It’s not electrical.”

No it’s a bloody pork pie. Silly me.

“Well, it wasn’t me, was it,” I said, fuelled by boldness. “I didn’t reach across the counter and staple it in.”

An unpleasant silence grew.

“You haven’t got the charger, anyway,” said Mrs Cross.

“I thought you’d just send it away to be fixed.” I worried that I might cry if I tried to work into the conversation that a charger, with its plug trailing out the end of a piece of wire, might be the tipping point for the item being upgraded to consideration of status: electrical.

So I went home, broken DSi in hand, drenched with foreboding at the prospect of an afternoon spent on the phone. Just me and Greensleeves, and menu options and press 2 for electrical items (would I dare to press 2?? A taxonomy of potential Kafka meets Alice nonsense Hydra-headed before my eyes, the quibbling over a term). The value of the DSi leaked away against the size of ensuing 0870 phone bill.

First, I thought, I’d break myself in by braving the Sainsbury’s helpline. I felt we had unfinished business, them and me; plus, it was free: a no-brainer therefore. And came upon one Jamie.

“You shouldn’t have had this experience at all,” he purred with real concern. “Let me see what I can do.”

He called back within half an hour and said that he had contacted the store and learnt that someone had given A Lady (presumably me?) a stroppy turn, and that if I could bear to go back (a pause for us both to feel my pain) then they would be more than happy to exchange it. He was so nice that it was actually quite hard to get him off the line. Toffee paper on shoes.

Back I went. Mrs Cross was prowling the concourse in front of the customer service desk. I flinched before saying bravely, “I can swap it!” I brandished not only charger but box, too (the joys of an OCD child). Get you, Mrs Cross.

“You should see my paperwork,” she said, “Rules’ve changed. You should see the paperwork. I’m off now or I’d show you.”

The new DS sits in its box in the kitchen. F11 is fearful of opening it, that its wonderful newness will be tarnished. “Consequences,” he said, “that’s what happens when you open things.”

Mrs Lovely on the dog walk was relishing a session at TKMaxx regarding a Patrick Cox handbag. “The strap looks like it’s cut,” she said, “It just went, boof, like that.”

“Have you got the receipt?” I said

“No,” she said in surprise, “I bought it a couple of months ago. But it’s broken.”
I trembled in awe: middle aged woman undaunted by lack of receipt, certain in her rectitude. I told them about the DSi.

“But you were in the right,” said she and Mrs DIY Helpful.

“That’s what retailers do,” said Mrs Helpful knowledgeably. “They put you in the wrong and you give up.”

“Well, I did get it eventually,” I said, “and Jamie was so nice.”

“You shouldn’t have had to,” she said firmly. “I’ve got a book. You must read it. Terrible title, something American about “How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty.””

I nodded weakly. I didn’t fancy it at all. I want to read Steinbeck and thrillers and the new David Mitchell, not a bossy book which will lead to some grim assertiveness prowess. But until I read the book I didn’t know how to say so. So I said, “Thanks,” with a meek smile. Mrs Helpful won't mind.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010


It was 20 years ago today… yesterday, actually. Which doesn’t scan, and calls to mind instead a sad song and one which is somewhat dreary.

Yes, we seem to have been married, E and I, for 20 years. So we bought each other bracelets (not on purpose, just one of those twinny things) which F11 eyed lasciviously. His fingers danced in the air towards our wrists, butterfly-light and shark-sure. “How do they come off?” he asked.
We clamped a protective hand on our clasps. “They don’t,” we said as one.

We went for dinner, missing political excitement and drawing what we could from the odd clientele. An odd place, too: low key; expensive; nasty surly waitress. Good grub.

In the corner was a guy fiddling with fags and phone, what passes for a celeb round here. For someone who’s recently sold his groovy clothing label for £250 million, he hid it well. With him was a girl, a very pretty girl, in horrid shoes, shiny, silly and high and a tacky bag, shiny, holey and bling and 2 not pretty men (shoes and bags not checked). In, out, in, out, they went. Fags. Phone. Fags.

Across from us sat 4 chortling Olds, the sort of people blessed with that rare contentment: happy in their houses being a) fully paid for and b) worth about 10 times what they cost. Florid chops, head to toe in Lands End clobber, confident ordering.

Next to us, Mummy and Simmy, our very own TV in a pub, from whom we could barely drag our attention (well, we’ve been married 20 years; we don’t need to talk, not when we can eavesdrop).

Private school mother and poor, track-suited offspring. Mummy was a bore, a crashing bore who did not stop talking, she simply did not draw breath.
“So, I’m thinking, Boden for Cornwall and for Spain my little Superdry dress.” Here she patted shoulders, chest and lap like an airhostess establishing the exits, “with my boxy jacket over, and as for Portugal, I’m thinking Billabong so … oh, look! Darling! Marvellous! Do look: Green Beans. Oh yum. Yum. Yum. Yum. Lots and lots, I think.”

The nasty waitress, summoned by such enthusiastic braying ripping the air slid close, her pen poised reluctantly.

“Darling? Duck? Duck for Simmy, and I’ll have just a steak. Rare, medium rare. And green beans. Green beans for Simmy, too. And a salad for me. And some broccoli. And pommes purees for Simmy. We’re on a diet.”

“Fuck me, that’s fifteen quid on green stuff,” I hissed at Edward.

It was the sort of place where your eyes watered at the prices, and then, when you were down and weakened, they stung you a further £3 a bowl for anything extra, for the stuff which used just to come with your meal, which used to be your meal.

The Olds guffawed over an ancient joke, and we opted to share a salad. “That’ll be plenty,” the nasty waitress said flicking a glance at Mummy. We asked what something in a pot on our table was. She let an insulting silence lengthen before saying with studied insolence, “Celeriac remoulade.” As any fule no.

Mummy and Simmy’s food turned up. The tiny table was bulging with bowls bearing a surfeit of greenery. “Dripping with butter those beans,” E said. We laughed and chomped on our faux gras, ekeing out tiny squares of toast.

Mummy was a-flush with excitement at having headed off the chips at the pass. What a nasty turn. Di-sas-ter averted! She had spied them heading her way and barked “NO!” Hand held high like a traffic policeman. “No, not chips,” she might even have said “frites,” Oh God, I think she did, I’d blanked it out of self-protection. The horror, the horror. “I’m on a diet!” She also proclaimed, “We’re running to a tight schedule,” which was Mummy-speak for ‘Gotta boot the kid back to school by nine.’

Simmy didn’t get to talk much. On occasion, she was handed the iPhone and told to tell Daddy about the 81% in chemistry, darling. Daddy was clearly busy because the chat didn’t last beyond basic imparting of brief info. Simmy also had to check with Natty about Wimbledon. Because if Natty wasn’t going to go they really ought (orrrrt) to get onto MelMel about it.

Simmy had, however, made clear from the off (orf) that she fancied a pud. Mmmm, chocolate. And, as so much of her duck made its way onto Mummy’s plate (an impatient fork tipping breasts and legs, grease dripping from every shard), Simmy was clearly still hungry but when the nasty waitress sidled over and said, threateningly, “Pudding?” Simmy’s eyes might well have lit up but Mummy’s mouth it was which opened first, “No, no, I think not. We’re on diets!” This word caused her to emit small explosive noises, perhaps it hurt? “Yes, ha ha. And a tight schedule. Just some water. I’m thinking few bubbles, I’m thinking Badoit? And the bill. Darling, does Daddy know about the change in plan for Saturday? I think you should phone him.”

We saw them off: Mummy tottering, Simmy slouching, while a sublime chocolate pudding headed our way. Yum.

Mummy crashed the gears on the 4x4 parked outside, and when I say parked, I mean slung at an angle vaguely proximate to the kerb. Still yakking. Scant attention paid to little things like other people.

Mrs Lovely’s parents had bought a big car. “Whatever for?!” she’d shrieked, mindful of the inheritance slipping into a most un-ness Land Cruiser. “Whaddya want a 7 seater for! You’re not taking the girls. You’re 80! Well ... you can take Lulu. Wake her up a bit.”

“It’s for the widows,” Mrs Lovely’s Dad had said. “They need a lift to all the funerals.”

We were gathered in the field this morning, while the dogs romped disgustingly. If Muffin knew how very unbutch he looked with his pompom tail, he wouldn’t swagger like Errol Flynn, he’d sit in the corner and crochet.

Rural Ted perked up, he’s threatened with redundancy. He’s always threatened with redundancy. It gives him a gloomy air. “Put the seats down and your Dad could take the coffin,” he suggested. “Widders could go boi cab. Your dad could make a few quid.”

I’m thinking enterprise, I’m thinking opportunities. Oh yum. Marvellous.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


5 and a half months? Who’s counting.

5 and a half hours in A&E it was the other night. I was counting then. Me and F11. Yes, he’s gone up a year. He’s also, in this 5 and a half month hiatus, passed for one of the best schools in the country, aka a “super selective” grammar, passed with a pleasingly high mark. E and I cried, we really did on opening the letter. The boast will end with recording that we reckon (deciphering the results takes some doing) that he got full marks on the notoriously difficult second paper, this despite having freaked us out a-plenty by having finished both papers with 10 minutes to spare and finding them "easy." How the parental heart sinks while dwelling on this folly in the long wait for results.
Clever, difficult little beast. Tank feck there’s a reason for his, well, oddness: it be brains.

Brains were sadly most def forgot on Sunday when he went out on his bike (brand new, 24 hours old). Sensing a 4x4 looming behind him he dived for the ditch, fearing that she’d splatter him. Maybe she would have done, but she got out of the car and asked very nicely if he was OK. I imagine he growled at her and she retired hurt and he limped home nursing his wrist; his helmet crushed, his amour propre in tatters but his bike unscathed. I left a caring ten seconds before asking about the bike. And he seemed fine.
I know that I’m not a natural nurse, this mainly to counterbalance E’s quite unacceptable hypochondria, but I did ask about him first, and bike second. I really did. I think.
Monday he was booted into school; me deaf to bleatings about the wrist and murmurings about a stomach ache and and and... Typical back to school stuff. Get on with it. Off. Go.
He managed well at karate, too. He seemed fine; after all there was no bone poking through the skin, no swelling, no bruise even. What's a mother to think? But at supper E, nice E, said, “I really think he should go to A&E.” So off we went. Each with a book. F11 finished his; I managed 100 pages of mine which, since it was “The Children’s Book” by A S Byatt is good going.

The waiting room was heaving with kids. “Trampolines are our bread and butter,” said the nurse. There was also evidence of a football ankle, a climbing frame elbow and a skateboard knee.
There were 3 Poles, jabbering over ownership of a tripod;
an ancient man, so very old, shouting into a bells and whistle mobile phone: someone appeared, he handed them money for fish and chips before returning to bellowing into his phone.
A glamorous woman, glamorous enough to have been a man in full slap, held a finger dipped in a purple cup. I longed for details.
Another man looked so confused turning in small circles round his holdall, round and round, that for the first time in months I felt comparatively well sussed and smart and up together. And so we read on.

Life passed slowly under the neon gaze. A TV too loud to ignore, too quiet to follow babbled in the corner of a room littered with torn magazines, abandoned plastic tumblers of leaking coffee dregs, and crumbs. Lots of crumbs. It wrote off quite half a dozen chairs and the place was nigh-on full. A serious place for the munching of snacks. Enough to turn the strong-stomached weak (and I am not strong-stomached) contemplating the snarfing of meat pies and slurping on sub-standard beige liquid; crumbs, crumbs and pools of squalid damp. People in public don't bother with bins. Another reason not to be a nurse, the fumbling with damp and the finding of crumbs in odd places. Spare me.

After what seemed like a week but was in clock time 90 minutes, a triage nurse prodded and poked and mispronounced F11’s name and called me "Mum" and then back out again we were, turned round quick like the loon round his holdall and back out onto the hell of the hard metal chairs. In the interim, ours had been taken by the next lot of oddballs who'd trooped in, being a group of four adult children. It’s the only way to describe them, not care in the community as such, not 100% fresh from an institution, possibly passing for normal in some circles, but still. Large, lined, one clutching a bag which dangled at chest height as if from eager paws. Very jolly, but slightly unnerving. Too loud, too friendly. They stood very close and touched each other a lot.
“Don’t catch their eye,” I muttered sotto voce to F11. A mistake.
“What? Who?” he demanded loudly looking all around him with avidity. “Oh, them.” He stared.

Eventually we ended up in the X-Ray department. Empty and a bit scary.
“It looks fine,” I said, expertly surveying the images on screen.
“Not allowed to say,” the handsome radiographer said.
“Oh?” I said.
“In case we get it wrong.”
I felt that this was code for “Yeah, he’s fine,” so I nodded slightly patronisingly, one radiographer unto another. But it seems, from the doctor who was allowed to say, that he has a buckled radius – the bone isn’t meant to splay out like that – and bone flecks in his palm. The doctor was called away mid-explanation to speak to the police about someone in the cells. Feeling like a teenager, I managed to take photos of the computer screen with my phone. Imagine.
“It’ll need a cast,” the doctor said, swishing in all important from police business. “We’ll isolate the thumb since I’m worried about these flecks.”

When young, the now T13 used always ask hopefully, on hearing of illness, “Is there blood?” I feel his interest now. Illness should show. There should be a clue. The wincing of a child is not clue enough. Not with Monday and back to school on the cards. I felt mean and defeated. Buckled. Bone flecks. Another reason why I’m not a nurse nor ever could be: bad, so very bad at all the ill stuff.

More waiting, then in with the nurse. She wheeled in the plaster in its own stand. Another nurse lounged in the doorway waiting her turn with it. Seems they don't run to 2, trampolines notwithstanding. Meanwhile, one of the adult children was pulled across on a trolley through the corridor at the back. Back and forwards a few times she went, the orderly taking touching pains each time to open and shut with care the double doors impeding his progress, anxious lest they bang the trolley. She looked thrilled, she clutched her bag the tighter. I imagined the other 3 big children watching, hugger-mugger in the corner, squealing, bouncing flat-footedly.

I felt like a child myself, watching one of those mesmerising educational films, as the nurse wound various layers round F11’s arm.
“Ah,” I said approvingly at one point, “you’re isolating the thumb.”
She gave me a look. At the end, having tossed the protective apron she’d laid over F11 in the bin (“Don’t want this plaster getting all over you”), she fumbled with the paperwork. A curse escaped her. “Gotta isolate the thumb!” she said. Plaster splattered everywhere. “It’ll wash off,” she said.

He’s back at school now, the cast hidden under his jumper. “He might need a scribe for his SATs,” said his teacher.
“Can you imagine?” I said.
His teacher blanched. F11 does ramble so. A clever boy, but random.

I’d taken a photo when it was done that night, to text with the x-ray to E and T13.
“Not T13!” F11 said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he’ll forward it to all his friends and then put it on Facebook,” he said.
I told T13 this. “What!” he said outraged. “I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t go round telling people. I know what he’s like.” A beat and, “Oh, all my friends are really concerned, they all, like, say Get Better and stuff.”
“It’s private,” said F11.
T13 looked baffled. By now he would have arranged a press release, a photo call and a rota of willing helpers to carry his bag. Much the same as when he last stubbed his toe.
“It’s not private,” I said, “It couldn’t be less private.”
Every other child in the Western world would be displaying their cast with pride. I put a hankie-sling on Catty, “Look, Catty’s hurt, too.”
“No!” he wailed, “Not Catty. Catty can’t be hurt, I can’t bear it.”

So Catty got better very very quickly, about as quick as it takes to snatch a hankie off his head, while narrowly avoiding breaking his neck. Human time will be a little slower. But not as slow as A&E time. I hope.