I'm sure you wouldn't, but:

Protected by Copyscape Unique Content Check

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


The glamour in my life has reached new heights. Or plumbed new depths.
“Yeah, I was wondering why you were wearing that dressing gown,” said the builder.
“It’s just so bloody cold,” I muttered.
“Turn the heating on,” he said with an extravagant gesture. “Sod global warming, sod the heating bill.”
“What! You leave the doors open every minute of the day!” I squeaked. “I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, maybe,” he conceded. “Fair point. Got any more tea? Got any of that Earl Grey?”

The house is slowly collapsing; lintels and steels, switches, a socket, a tank. There’s one main builder, and a succession of dusty chaps barging in with wet boots on pale carpet. The dust-sheets are pushed aside. When they’re not pushed aside, but are collected up, they are shaken out in situ, carefully folded, given another Pumph! And then dropped on the floor. I’m sneezing as much as the dog. The dog’s giving me a “want to borrow my collar?” look.

Time was when the builders were the thick ones, they built because they had to, because there was nothing else. Now they stroll in at half 9, are off again by 3 (to take in a Pilates class, perhaps linger in Waitrose), pausing long enough to create havoc, demand tea and present unspeakable bills. Nice work. Well, I say work, a lot of eating upmarket sandwiches goes on, too, and Making Calls, striding about laughing at the paucity of the signal here. What was I thinking of wasting my time on Greek ‘O’ Level?
One of them, the most part-time of a group of thoroughly part-timers, is frightfully well-spoken. E has no idea where to put his McDonald’s accent. This is the voice he uses to order a McD for the children, or to chat with builders. Apart from when the builder clearly went to Eton. I caught him doing a half-way house version of it. Not good. He calls it camouflage. I call it bloody awful.

The house is shrouded in dust. Worse than normal, I mean. And where it’s not dusty, it’s damp. A double whammy of having a new steel inserted where it was previously thought to have been all along, and indeed had been signed off as such by the council inspector, and an overflowing water tank. Damp and dust, mildew and cracks. Marvellous. And the kettle threatening to strike.

The big beam and a load of purlins up in the attic took care of any foolish dreams we might have entertained of a summer holiday. Looks like the steel is going to do for Christmas. My how we laugh. And huddle in our dressing gowns.

The doors are permanently open and being slammed with a house-shaking certainty. I don’t know how the builder does it. Truth is, his mind's not on the job. It's Putin that's getting to him at the moment. "Why do they keep voting these buggers back in?" he says.

Shock, or something like it, made the dog throw up. Twice. Both times half onto her bed, half on the rug and half on the wooden floor Yes, three halves. I’m not going to say thirds, you’ll think I’ve measured it. Instead I dealt with it, juddering with horror particularly where the underfloor heating, now that the pump has been fixed, gently baked it. And when I say “fixed” I mean hit with a spanner by someone to whom I then had to write a large cheque.
There was an element of splatter involved in the resentful scrubbing which I have yet to process fully out of my memory. Needless to say the dog has not apologised. Indeed, she yawned irritably when I gave her a look.

I edged her, with some bad temper, a look, and the side of my foot, out of the dog door, out of the house, into Dog Shit Alley in order that she might contemplate her crimes. Reflect. Not a kick as such but perhaps a physical equivalence of what my father used to call “raising his voice” and what the rest of the world would call “shouting.”
There was a joyous leap and the brute was gone. The joyous yelp was mine. The builder had left the gate leading onto the front open. Of course he had, he’s the builder. So it was a snuffle and a leap and a trot down Dog Shit Alley, out out and away, and off.
That glorious moment, my burden lifted. I toyed with a beautiful future, and the likelihood of a truck tearing down the road round …. about …. now! and ….
Dreams of “Bye Bye, dog!” went up in a puff of smoke by the grim reappearance of the builder and his retrieval of the dog and her barging her way back in, bored and sulky, through the front of the house, filthy pawmarks joining the builders’ bootprints. Did she shake her collar? It’s safe to assume she did.

Then the inspector came and said dull things about pre-stressed lintels and patch points. I, the little woman of the piece, trudged down to make tea.
“Nice car,” I heard the builder say. The inspector perked up. I guessed they weren’t discussing my ancient Toyota. Or stressed lintels once the bill-payer had buggered off. The builder’s phone rang, and he was soon deep in conversation. I really hope I didn’t hear “colour therapy” mentioned.

The inspector left and the builder and I watched him go. “What’s the car then?” I asked as the inspector three point turned in a swirl of dust.
“Lotus,” said the builder. “Nice. He’ll have a good pension sorted, too. And BUPA.” He bit on his gold-plated apple and narrowed his eyes. His van’s full of DVDs from the hospital about some health regime he’s on. “DVDs and leaflets,” he’d said when I’d asked what the films were; we’d been talking about breastfeeding and “The Slap” and I’d glanced in his van. “Can’t get out of the hospital without a shedload more DVDs. I say to them, I say, ‘I hope this isn’t coming out of my taxes,’ ‘Nah,’ they say, ‘that’s the pharmaceutical companies, that is.’”
“Bloody hell,” I said. “Yesterday, I wanted to be a builder – you know, have the heating on without thinking, go on holiday.” The builder nodded. “Today I reckon working for the council’s got to be worth a look.”
“Or the pharmaceutical companies,” said the builder, “There’s a lot of work involved being a builder.”
“Indeed?” I said, “I guess.” In a parallel universe, perhaps. I offered: “Lifting and stuff? That’s what put me off.”
“Yeah,” he said, “And really messy. Oh, and I’ll be in late in the morning. I’ve got acupuncture first thing.”
Of course.
“I’ll be here,” I said. Well. I can’t afford to go anywhere else. And I’ve got a nice dressing gown needs wearing. As I said … the glamour.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


Darius may have packed up his stuff, tucked his English cultural treasures – Mockney CD and FIFA2012 XBox game – into his case and gone back to Germany but, in the interests of inter-country exchange, he left his dust allergy. With Lolly.
She has not stopped sneezing since - she only does it to annoy - and, when not sneezing, she is otherwise attention-seeking in a deeply unpleasing way: shaking her collar dramatically, squeaking, running like a loon on acid round the house (without, I may point out, going back shame-facedly later and straightening all the rugs). Standing oppressively close with a resentful cast to her eye. Breathing. Christ it’s annoying. Perhaps she needs Ritalin?
“Makes you wish for the good old days when she was just ... there,” I said.
“Makes you wish for the good old days when she … wasn’t there,” said E, “When she was just a twinkle in your eye.”
My eye!! A twinkle in your eye!” I said, squeaking as if I were about to shake my collar.
The next ten minutes can be glossed over, covering as they do the tedious and familiar ground of blame: who actually wanted the dog in the first place.

On the plus side, I finally have a valid reason to look pissed off, and am in a position to trade “tiresome noises I endure” stories with E. For, at work, E sits near a man who sniffs every 3 seconds, which E has worked out to be 9,000 times a day …. 45,000 times a week. They’ve worked in the same office 15 years. And when this man is not sniffing, he’s sneezing, like Lolly, over-dramatically, snerffff! Snerfff! SNERRFFF!!!
“Does anyone say Bless You?” I asked. E’s glance told me all I needed to know about bloody stupid comments.

“We should have got a kitten,” said F12, tutting over Lolly’s shenanigans, "Back then, not ..." He can't quite finish but relentlessly makes good on the feline-shaped hole in his childhood by being ever ready to channel “kitten,” while plugging away on the PR for a real one most hours of the day.
We did have a cat once, but Lolly’s inappropriate enthusiasm rather did for her and the kitchen fitter sped her away for his mum, on a cushion in his van. News is that she got the expensive end of cat ownership: the dwindling teeth, the cancer, the headstone. Animals. They break your little heart. And the vet drives around in a Beamer.

And now poor Lolly, rapidly losing her last vestiges of friends.
“Even if we had, that would be some geriatric kitten by now,” I said. “On the way out.”
“No," he mewed.
“Yup, or doing time, I’d heard. In prison, on the chain gangs.” The mythical kitten breaks rocks in my mind.
“How could you,” he whimpered, “Be so mean! To a kitten. Stew and wallow in your shame.”

E and I are rather fed up with stewing and wallowing in our shame. The imprecation is wheeled out frequently, by one currently in disturbing garb. F12’s favoured home clothes were a Poirot-dapper suit, with an Indiana Jones hat and a broken bamboo, for wielding purposes.
Then the hat was switched for a peaked Inspector’s cap (the child, irritatingly, having put in no interim service as a mere constable, drudge beneath a domed, unfetching hat, although one thinks he’d have warmed to the parking ticket issuing).
Tall wellies were dredged from somewhere. This is a resourceful child, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Put it down and it will rapidly be considered unconsidered. I picture some random old man in the village, stuck in his slippers, still turning in vague circles, muttering, “Am sure Oi left they somewhere round ‘ere;” his gate banging in the wind, a newly-booted child hot-footing it to the shadows.
The suit jacket was bossily buttoned and a swagger stick appeared. Culled no doubt from someone’s prized tripod or music stand.

So now, a door will slam, doors always slam if a child is one or other side of them, there is no gentle touch, and seconds will pass so you will forget and next thing your heart’s in freefall catching sight, out of the window, of a small determined Nazi Country Gent inventorying the garden in a worrying manner, swagger stick bouncing on a Chino’d thigh.

Later I spoke to him, having been troubled by that dullard: the self-esteem thing, having bumped into Mrs Caring, and being reminded, by unflattering comparison, how very dreadful I am.

We had been at Mrs Lovely’s and I was being disloyal about my darling boy, regaling the dog gang with some witty tale.
“F12 doesn’t really speak like that, does he?” said Mrs Lovely.
“No, not really,” I admitted, do details of realism matter? “But when he goes off on one, we do all rather purse up our lips like this.”
Mrs Lovely and I chortled our horrid little heads off.
“Oh Good!” she said, “When Lulu’s being awful, Mr Lovely and I prance around the kitchen being the Munchkins in Wizard of Oz – like this – you know that face they make when they sing. Their hands! It’s the only thing you can do.”
We laughed the laugh of cruel parents snatching small treats from the wreckage.
“It’ll all come out in therapy,” she said happily.
“It will actually,” said Mrs Caring, not smiling as much as us. Certainly not smiling the smile of the imminently damned.
It sort of put a dampener on things.

“You don’t mind, do you, the teasing about the kittens stuff?” I was tidying his gun, smoothing his cap and propping up the swagger stick – she who would otherwise end up standing on it in bare feet in the dark was me. He sat on his bed and watched the staff at work.
“No,” he said, patting me tenderly as I sank beside him.
“I know you do it for my own good. To brush off my rough edges.”
“They’re quite furry edges, really,” I said kindly.
“Yes,” he said. Then he said, word for word, “Teasing gives life colour, it would be a shell without it, all beige. Shall I tell you about Lenin?” Somewhere in the bowels of the house came a canine sneeze. There was a sound such as of a collar being shook.
“Miaow?” F12 said, hopefully.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Having someone else in the house, staying, actually going upstairs and strolling around, was odd. We missed him terribly when he’d gone, but all the parents agreed that it was a relief to know we could go back to having a bit of a shout, pop into our jim jams early of an evening and forget playing the Merry Mom. We chatted in the playground for an hour after we’d waved them off, a bit teary, and then worried we’d be put on a Register for hanging around in a school unattended by children.

I’d spent a scant month grinding my fingerprints to a criminal-friendly blank in cleaning since we’d been told that T15’s German Exchange Student, Darius, was not merely on Ritalin but had a dust allergy to boot. Death by dust wasn’t going to happen on my watch.

He arrived late, since they’d missed the ferry. The clichéd by-word for efficiency had not merely missed the ferry but arrived late enough to squeak onto the next one by the skin of their teeth. We went to pick him up. The rain hurled its English welcome.

The first hour dragged.

“So!” I said brightly, when we got in that first night and were still tripping over shoes and cases in the hall, “Bed?”
Nothing like a decent welcome, you say, but the lad had been on the go since about 2 in the morning, 19 hours ago.
“No,” he said with what I grew to recognise as Teutonic directness.
“Oh,” I said.

We are lucky. We have 3 (tiny) bathrooms. Darius needed a whole one to himself since the beauty regime began early. I dread the electricity bill.
Mrs Lovely had suffered an exchange. Having twins, twin girls, and therefore 2 visiting female teens, and one bathroom, she and Mr Lovely were getting up earlier and earlier, 6 am, 5.30 am, on one dread occasion 4.45 to have a shot at the shower, a glimpse at the toothbrush basin.
Mindful of this, I said firmly, “We shower at night, the morning, such a zuursh.”
“Yes,” said Darius. He rose at 6:30, sending the shower pump into what came to be a familiar house-shaking dawn frenzy.

My linguistic pain lies in knowing No German. I have instead an all-purpose Euro-language, comprising shaky tourist Spanish-Italian, a blurry merge of eager nodding, a side order of flashing teeth and a few words ending in –o. It is well-meaning and springs from a desire to appear to try but I have a sinking feeling that is baffling. Thus is portokalada, the Greek for Fanta Orange, ordered with grinning confidence in Portugal, where my knowledge extends merely to “obrigado” (spelling unsubstantiated but widely assumed to mean thank you, at least that’s the meaning I give it when smiling and nodding in Athens). I have got to enjoy many drinks in Portugal, few of them portokalada.

Rising extra early was ghastly, as was pretending to be nice and communicating, veering between my habitual freefall gabble and the occasional hastily remembered crap cod Portu-Greco-Euro, “No like morningos.” Sinister teeth unsheathed.

I had to drive the pair of them in since the school bus company was being an arse – we pay over £800 a year for T15’s ticket – and our friend, who pays, but never uses the service in the morning, said we could use their seat but Bennett’s refused to sanction it. “No,” they said, as if born in Berlin, “Not transferrable.”
“Come ON,” I said.
“No,” they said.
“Come on,” I whimpered, “we’ve spent over three thousand with you.”
“Sorry. Not transferrable. You’ll have to pay. I’ll do you a deal for £30.”
Fuck it, I thought, and pledged to drive the sixty miles a day, in out in out, that this entailed, even if petrol rose to a hundred quid a litre. That’ll show ‘em.

In the back, the boys were laughing over a photo on Darius’ iPhone so at the lights I took a look and inserted a “Sweet!” then a “Who is she?”
“My ex-gurrrlfriend,” said Darius.
“What a shame,” I cooed. "What happened?" I narrowed my eyes. He was so nice. What could this horrid girl have done to him.
He crossed his arms across his chest. He chuckled. “I was, errr, norrrrrty boy.”
What can one say.
“Oh, Darius,” I said.
“So,” I continued, with maternal eagerness, showing my teeth to indicate Good Thoughts, “How was Oxford?”
“Bit boring,” he said. I felt slighted. All those pesky dreaming spires, I guess. Seemed things had perked up when they were allowed shopping and HMV had been favoured with his cash. A CD was pressed into my hand.
“We play?”
John Humphries hadn't gone down well in the mornings, prompting not the hoped-for healthy debate about youth unemployment, or the folly of dumping parliamentary papers in a park bin, but instead collective teen eye rolling, so I had few hopes for the slippery slope of this CD. T15 reached to turn up the volume.
Just as the house to the shower pump, the car now pounded to some Mockney trancey rap crap. The teens looked pleased. I sighed and thought, Ommmmm. The music vaguely grew on me. I started to tap my finger on the steering wheel. F12 gave me a look. The finger froze. This was Nan swaying to the Sex Pistols and was not to be.

Next thing, the sassy Welsh bint, recognising an alien silhouette in the car from 100 paces, was flagging us down with a cheery, “Ooo! Hellooo!” I thought she might be about to issue us with a notification that we had single-handedly lowered house prices driving through at such volume but she was busy inviting us to something or other and, while I was revving, since I didn’t want to go dancing, her glances into the nether regions of the car were such that I had to say, “Oh, Lou, meet Darius, who’s staying with us from Germany.”
She smiled, “Darry-oossh! Welcome.”
I panicked. “Darius! Gosh, I’m sorry, have I been saying your name wrong?! I’m so sorry!”
“It’ll be Darry-oossh,” Lou continued to correct, nodding firmly.
“No,” said Darius. “it’s Darius.”
I gave Lou my Gosh Sorry face, at which she was meant to say, “obrigado,” and then shut up, but instead said, “No. No, it will be Darry-oossh. My father’s half Russian.”
So – since someone had to – I nodded my Gosh, OK face and we all moved on, that little bit the wiser.

Back home both boys, Darry-oossh and T15, reached for their XBox controls. A blurring of cultural differences, the yawn factor of history and sight-seeing and John Humphries dispensed with. The bonding over FIFA2012 was getting out of hand.
“Portokalada anyone?” I said.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


“Muffin was SO bad,” said Mrs Lovely, hyperventilating at the memory raw from the weekend, “just refusing to give up the sock … and growling … so bad that I said, ‘Robert! Get me a glass of water.’”
Mr Lovely duly obliged and the pair of them had hovered behind the glass of water, scarcely breathing, just cooing, “Muh-fffinnnn, drop darling,” until the snarling and lip curling and sock savaging increased to such a pitch that the Lovelys’ faint bleatings were suffocated by all the noise. So Mrs Lovely breathed deep breaths, swung her arm and threw the water over him.

“It was awful!” she said.
I chuckled.
“Just awful. Pooooooor Muffin! He cowered! He dropped the sock and scuttled; he ran to behind the sofa. Soaking.”
“Only thing you could have done,” said Mrs Brisk. “You can’t have a dog growling at you.”

“We felt terrible. Robert said he felt worse, far worse than when he’s had to wallop the girls.”
We glanced at Muffin who was dry humping a footstool of a dog which lags behind whenever it can to sprawl, a butterfly beneath Muffin’s pin, as it were.
“Muffin!” shrieked Mrs Lovely.

The pain had cast a shadow until Mr Lovely said, maybe ten minutes later, “Do you think we should give him a treat. I hate it when he doesn’t like us.”
“No,” Mrs Lovely had said bravely, perhaps mindful of reportage fall-out with us lot, “No. We can’t reward bad behaviour.”
Mr Lovely trudged upstairs, his heart knocking about somewhere on the floor, and Muffin tiptoed from the back of the sofa and laid his face, damp and mournful, on Mrs Lovely’s knee. Mrs Lovely shed a tear and stroked his nose and kissed his head and smiled a happy smile.
Mr Lovely walked back in. “WHAT!?!” he had shouted, “So you’re allowed to make friends with him and I’m not!

During this episode of emotional trauma, I had been out walking in the woods with my friend Rachel. She, too, would rescue her dog in a fire before her husband or children. “Oh look at her!” she will say stopping to stare at Belle busily plunged face-first in a mound of piss-soaked grass. “Sweet!”
Any story I’d been relating feels foolish to return to now, so my patience with such scenes is limited.
“I really can’t bear dogs,” I might say.
“Not even mine?” she will say, wide-eyed. “Not even Belle?” There really is no answer to that beyond the bleeding obvious.

The Lovelies, meanwhile, the ménage reunited and loved up, went for a walk, and on their walk they saw that the old railway line was operating. A couple had stopped with their tiny children to wave at steam trains and the Lovelys stopped too, then shuffled on a bit.
“Well, we didn’t want to be taken for paedos,” she said, “with the children and everything. And then! Thomas came chuffing by. With his big blue face? Smiling. And I found that I was crying, I was sobbing.

“Ohhh!!” we said. “Noooo! How saaadddd!”

“Hmm,” she said. “Not Robert’s reaction at all. No, he tried to edge away from me, but was trapped between going too close to the little ones and looking like a paedo – ”
“He wouldn’t have looked like a paedo!” we said.
“‘You’re looking mad!’ he said to me, ‘Stop it, it’s only Thomas!’ but that just set me off more and whether it was because of being mean to Muffin or because the girls will never have that look of joyous innocence again – I don’t know: they only talk to us for £20 for Top Shop – but I was sobbing so hard that I gave myself a headache. Robert had to drive us home.”

I had been looking at old photos of the children on my phone, I knew what sad was. And I certainly knew what Thomas was. It seemed those days would never end. And then they did; a boxful of expensive Brio trains sits in the loft awaiting grandchildren.

Over in the woods, Lolly had done the splendid undreamable. She had gone missing. My step quickened. Rachel’s hand was to her mouth, her blonde curls bounced unhappily, “Look,” she said, “it’s sheer down there, it’s like a cliff?”
“Is that where she was?” I said hopefully peering down the precipice: glorious steep, craggy. Rocks.
“Yes! She was trying to follow Belle.” So irritating, my dog the follower, and inept at that (‘was trying’). “But of course couldn’t keep up.” Of course.
“What’s beyond there?”
“A road.”
I hardly dared believe my luck.
“And while Belle might be able to leap over the wall at the bottom, there’s no way Lolly could.”
I smarted.
“Lolly might look like an old bag of fur, but she could take that wall. Like a donkey winning the National, but she could do it.”
Rachel dared favour me with a pitying look.

“We might as well head on back,” I said in the manner of one preparing to do a runner, gathering myself for a hearty gallop away from the scene.
“But … you’re so calm,” said Rachel, “I’d be sobbing.”
“There’s not really any point, is there,” I said.
I felt like the heartless boy in the village who, on being told his cat was dead, had thought, shrugged, and said, “I reckon I’ll have got over it in two weeks so I’ll just go straight to that stage now. What’s for tea?”
We had all thought this the sign of most terrible moral turpitude.

“She’s got a nametag, I said, the grim truth settling, “and she’s chipped.” My pace slowed. Always some blot on the landscape, trouble in paradise.
“Belle doesn’t like wearing a nametag,” said Rachel, “and isn’t the chipping cruel?”

We walked down through the woods enjoying the path doing its requisite meandering, strolling through the dutiful shafts of sunlight. All was good although the thought of the chip hung heavy, and then there was an untidy noise, as of a donkey manhandling the jumps at the National and it was Lolly, bustling near. Belle jumped up and they bounced on their hind legs, knitting their front paws together. I must confess it was quite nice to see the drunk old fur coat again.
“Oooh, look,” said Rachel. “Belle! Isn’t she sweet. Such a kind-hearted dog. She’s pleased to see her, look.”

Sunday, 25 September 2011


F12 threw himself on the bed, emitting a funny little sound, such as a hamster in crisis might make, “No, no!” he squealed, “This cannot be! This is the deepest darkest day of the Mummy Occupation. Courage! She will not overcome!”
I squirted my delicious Method spray a little more vigorously and busied with my duster. Love product, loathe cleaning. Mmm, almond smell.
“She may take our stuff,” the One Boy Resistance Movement squeaked on, face down into the duvet, doing bugger all to help, “but our dignity and honour remain intact.”
I lifted his legs and poked the Hoover under them sending an expensive clatter of Lego flying up the tube.
"I'll do it!" Too late; the same watery promise has been made for weeks, months. His credibility is shot. "Later! I'll do it later!"

A grim business, entering his room, but needs must when a German Exchange boy is coming to stay. On Ritalin, and with a dust allergy. The heart soared.
I was anxious and collared the teacher.
The Ritalin concern was brushed aside with a brusque, “Lots of children are on it, you wouldn’t know,” so I moved onto the dust allergy, shadow boxing with the brutal truth of describing our house; jabbing hints instead, fearful of closing on the deal and saying out loud that it was a slut fest. “It’s not really … it’s not exactly …. Well it’s not very show-house,” I plumped for. The German teacher inclined her head and indicated that I should flounder further, she all but handed me a spade and pointed where to dig. “It’s more sort of, well, arty,” I cringed and rattled on, “lots of books and pictures and rugs and, and stuff. There’s quite a lot of stuff. And we’ve got a dog and back onto a field, so the chances of him sneezing at something here are quite high. So perhaps he’d be safer in another house?” I ended in a rush.
She gave me a look and said that this kind of allergy meant no building work. It would mean industrial levels of dust. That’s what a dust allergy meant. A vision of our house popped into my mind to fit the bill while I mused, too, on clever old German teachers, the things they know, their skill in reading between the lines, leaving you back where you started only with your card marked and your laziness on parade.

At the time of fessing up, the house was as nothing to what came next and, in retrospect, my protestations were rather fey: the house wasn’t that bad at all, but that was before we had to forfeit several thousand pounds in getting the roof tied together internally, which revealed that a vital steel was missing rendering T14’s room liable to imminent collapse. Back to the breeze blocks we went. Arguments with the builder and dwindling cash mean that T14’s room still has 2 big holes in it, ceiling and wall. No amount of dusting can deal with that one. It’s the sort of hole big enough for this season’s mutant spiders to squeeze through, if they hold their tummies in. That big. About 4’ square each.

So I’ve been attacking the house, on a mission to kill dust and destroy spiders, the beasts that nightly taunt me. Eight we had one night, eight.
One Ran Over My Arm.
Another, the size of Mordor, with legs to match, put approaching the larder out of the question for an evening.
Lolly fleetingly comes into her own as chief spider eater, by which, horrors, I mean only spider eater. But it’s not reliable and it’s not going to save her from the glue factory come the day.

I’ve hoovered under things, not merely round or near them; not merely thinking about doing it and then doing something else instead. I’ve stripped each room back, one by dusty one, in pursuit of hotel status. I’ve polished glass, the while lamenting our endless shelves boasting an array of the coloured beauties, all dunked now in lemony hot hot water and buffed to a sheen.
Towels are lined up, chrome gleams, tiles zing, floors glow. Like when you’re trying to sell the thing. If I’m not hands and kneesing with a dustpan, I’m fiddling with a fluffy thing on a stick rounding up the cobwebs. Really, it will be a housecoat and a scowl next, a broom and an organised shed.

I twitch when the family return to Hotel Lite, drifting into reception (I mean, the porch), before trudging across the foyer (rather, hall), to dump all their gubbins willy nilly in the kitchen. A backpack here, a blazer there, a tie sprawled half on half off a sofa. Sofas where I’ve even hoovered under the cushions.
Oh, pointless life.

In F12’s room, sub sofa cushions yielded a perhaps unsurprising haul: the predictable sock, foreign coins, a locked padlock (no key), a worrying quantity of curry powder, a teaspoon, a selection of bird badges, a short sharp stick and an electric toothbrush.

His room was the final frontier, the bête noir, Room 101. Dreaded and feared and overdue tackling. I girlfully girded my loins and took the brute on. The division of labour shifted: its best, 70:30 (me:him) swiftly became 90:10, became 105:-5 as he realised how much more pleasant it is to sit feet up, reading a book, so sauntered off to do just that in a room I’d prepared earlier (immaculate), leaving me the legacy of his own half-started attempts at tidying, all of which boiled down to fiddling with Lego and wailing and making things worse.

I summonsed him and held up something approximating trousers, “Do these still fit?”
He glanced across and nodded, “Yes.”
“Are you sure? Did you look? These, these trousers?”
“Yes,” (irritably) “hence the Yes.”
“It’s just that they’re age 7-8 and you’re nearly 13. Hence the Are you sure?”

At the end, I stepped back pleased, my face a boil in the bag red, back stiff, hands raw. Under the bed were storage boxes bursting with collated Lego; several bags of crap (broken this, grimy that, illicit wrappers, unidentifiable other) lolled in the boot of the car headed for the tip, “My childhood!” he keened, “How could you.”
The room is now a room and not a squalid holding cell for ancient life forms. Moreover, the door can be left casually open for visiting Germans of a delicate persuasion to glance inside without risking death. One can inhale in there, and walking on the floor in bare feet is back on the cards. Really rather pleasant.

E returned from running round a county somewhere (recreational weekend fare).
“F12’s room looks good,” T15 said in the tones of one delivering unfeasible news.
“Good,” said E, “Good boy, F12!”
This was too much to bear, like having to sit by and just take that red-coated fattypuff Father Christmas getting all the praise.
I wheezed in desperation.
“Mummy helped,” F12 said airily. “It’s not as good as it was though. I liked it better before. It was more me.”
“What’s that you’re doing now?” E asked.
“This? Oh it’s a list. For my birthday. I need some more Lego. Quite a lot really.” He made that funny little sound he makes a lot to signify agreeing with himself – someone’s got to – “hmmmn mmm. Yes, more Lego.” He beamed. “There’s room now.”

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


my Twitter chums alerted me to this and while every word is undoubtedly more than true and long over-due I can't help being very pleased and very touched and very grateful. For this dear site PlayPennies loves me and this is what they said:

This week PlayPennies loves… Country Lite.

I’m not really sure how to describe this blog to you but I properly LOVE. IT!

It’s an anonymous one so I can’t tell you much about the family who star in it, but I do know it’s written by ‘Milla’ and she’s a Pisces.

“What’s the point then?” I hear you wonder?

Well, for starters if you want to read some fabulous writing then you can tick box number one – heck, you might even have to refer to the dictionary now and again if you weren’t brought up in a big word obsessed and ‘look it up!’ household like I was.

I never thought I’d read the words ‘maelstrom’ or ‘homunculus’ in any of the blogs among the Tots 100 index, but there they were; joy and rapture filled my heart.

Agony, pain, laughter and empathy also featured alongside the joy and rapture, as I read the 'Beep' post featuring ‘maelstrom and homunculus’ – don’t be put off by the words, you’ve been in exactly the same situation and you too will feel the author’s pain, as I did.

I love slave-driving, and clearly an entreprenurial visionary, F12 (I CAN tell you that F12 is ‘the son’), who, judging by his head for figures and business profits in the 'Work' post, could be a Lord Sugar of the future!

This blog is like a collection of observations and fleeting life situations, told with such witty eloquence that you 1) wish you could write like that and 2) resolve to try, immediately!

And as a result I should already have been in Milton Keynes a couple of hours ago, mooching around the shops with my teenage daughter, musing on whether we should get an ice cream even though we’ve only just had lunch.

Be warned, this is a blog with magical time machine powers; hours feel like minutes and when you’ve finished reading, you’ll have no idea where the time has gone.

So, that was nice.

Friday, 15 July 2011


I idly asked F12 on our journey into school this morning what he thought the publican in my novel (ha!) should be called. We had had a bit of a tense time getting out of the house – over which I’ll draw a veil – and some neutral territory was a must.
“I was thinking of Alan Tutt,” I said, “Something non-descript.”
“No,” F12 said dismissively, “Vasily. Vasily Hutz.”
“Vasily?!” I said, “He’s not Russian, he’s just an ordinary English bloke.”
“Ah, so you’re saying English people are just ordinary and you have to be Russian to be interesting, are you?”
Need I say I sighed.
“No, I’m saying that if you suddenly have a Russian chap running a pub in an English village, then people are going to snag on that detail and he’s going to become more important than he deserves to be.
“Why shouldn’t a pub man –?”
“Enough,” I said, “He’s not Russian. He's just there to wipe glasses and he’s called Alan and he’s got a surly son in the North.”
“Vasily wears a trilby and a checked jacket and brown loafers and beige trousers. He got fed up in the Homeland with cocaine being brought in over the borders in lead-lined coffins.”
This was me told. Alan faded into the background.
“And he’s got a double barrelled shot gun and is from a noble family and is going to become a Duke. And an Earl. And a Lord.”
Alan negotiated to move back in with his ex-wife and re-commit to the surly son.

I should have dumped it there and moved onto something uncontroversial like gay women vicars or the siting of industrial incineration but I found myself musing on my heroine and what she should do. She needs to be at home (don’t we all) but the practicalities of funding the Riley lifestyle had to be addressed. I asked F12 for suggestions.
“She makes flower barettes,” he said with absolute certainty.
“What? Hairslides?” I said, “how have YOU heard the word barettes?”
“I just have.”
“Too much MI High,” I said, referring to a presumed crap TV programme.
“No. Not MI High at all, I just have, OK.”
“Alright, so she needs to make a lot of …. barettes …. to earn her money,” I was worried that she would be bent double over her desk and not be able to do all the things she needed to do, like be a heroine, like not actually work at all, just earn enough to warrant occasional trips to the pub to be served by Vasily. Alan. Vasily.
I had wanted the work to be a vague detail. Again, don’t we all.
“How long do people have to work each day?” he asked, “12 hours?”
“Hmm, a bit steep,” I said, “more like 7?”
“We’ll say 12,” the task-master said, deaf to my Union Rep. “So that’s 12 times by 7 makes 84. Now, if she makes one every 3 seconds …”
“Steady on,” I said, “Give her a break, one every 3 seconds! It’ll kill her. No way. One every five minutes, max.”
“SShh,” he said, irritably, “I’m Working It OUT!! She can make one every 3 minutes then. But she’s very organised,” he added, clearly displeased with the downturn in productivity, his fingers twitching like a turf accountant’s. “OK, so she can make 240 a day, that’s 1,680 a week and sell them for £5 each, that’s … that’s …
“£5!” I squeaked, “she’ll be lucky to make 19p and that’s pushing it and there’s profit and time spent buying all the stuff, and she’ll have to post it out and do her accounts and advertise .…” I was quite impressed with my business acumen here but he greeted it with a
“SSHHH! I’m counting, she can buy rhinestones for £10. That’s £8,400 a week. Less the £10. Cool. That’s good. Why don’t you do that?”

Why indeed. It was a relief to get to school.
On the way home, my heroine tossed aside, I thought, hmmm, barettes; cool. And if I could just up that productivity, haggle on the rhinestones …

Friday, 8 July 2011


Finally, finally, the lights turned to green, signalling that our lane could turn right. Not a big ask. My erratic heart was lulled into hope that something as crazy as actual movement might be on the cards. I was almost hysterical with what betrayed me as misplaced relief. Silly me.
Late and stuck in traffic, I had just spent half my life behind the most impossible old man.

The car at the front of the queue might have looked disconcertingly empty but it was headed up by a shrivelled homunculus consisting of a ropey cardigan and a flat cap and a sackful of crappy driving habits. I know. I was there. A plume of smoke and the irritable shucking of the fag ash out the window was all that proved that someone was putatively alive behind the wheel. Normal life form was undetectable in terms of things like motion.
The lights had changed, and his car stalled. Again.
The long tail of vehicles behind bobbed about cartoonishly, heads within craning for a look. Salesmen revving.

His engine retched into a kind of life, plunged forwards and died again. I weakened under a wash of adrenaline and panic, twitching with impatience. The driver’s door opened and a bony, shiny shin, topped off with a loafer, poked out, followed by the creature himself. Age shall wither him and custom soon staled. Bloody hell. I’m sympathetic to a T, but.
Bent double he shuffled, slipper slow, cardigan sliding from his shoulder, down to the boot which he opened with a hopeless arthritic paw.
There’s nothing in the boot, I seethed, nothing. Get back behind the bloody wheel.

The lights slid through green to amber to red. I sat back in my seat and wondered about weeping. The junction involved a four million way combination of goes and stops and filters, ten seconds of which came our way, finishing off with a completely unnecessary free-for-all half an hour stop for pedestrians, of whom there are always none. None. Not one, ever.
We sit there, aging, heading towards death, our petrol leaking from our tanks, obedient to coloured bulbs.

A bicycle – oh, woeful sight – then wove its precarious way past and popped itself comfortably in the red zone ahead of the old chap, bang in the middle. Vicious vibes (mine) made their way sharpish through the ether and the woman turned her headscarfed head, blinked, took in the queue and, wonder of wonders, wiggled obediently to the left.

The old man meanwhile stared blankly into the boot, like Lolly at her empty bowl; you could see him thinking, “Oh?” Then “No.” Then “What brings me here?” He gave a theatrical shrug, slammed the boot with unlikely strength and lurched back to the car. He sat down – need I say ‘slowly’? sinking into what had to be a pile of cushions to give him the requisite height to see out. His right leg was hanging still out of the door. Shut the fucking door, I was seething. Shut … The….

The lights changed to green. He pulled his leg in; reluctantly. It bent in slow motion. He then reached for the door handle without looking for it, his hand just batting blindly in its vague direction.
I thought I might scream. I did, inwardly, hurting my throat.
There was no movement.
The old fuck, I thought, snarling; my conscious being a maelstrom of rage, my unconscious part busily replenishing the adrenaline levels on a second by second basis. No movement: the car sat stock still, but I sensed the seat belt being subject to some sort of play, a half-hearted tugging. The green light shone bright. Not the fucking seat belt, COME ON!!! I didn’t dare beep, knowing it would occasion a slow, slow, puzzled turning of the head.
Nan wobbled off on her bike, some freakish cousin of science keeping her upright. Knowing the sequence of lights, I knew we were into the home run, the few seconds allotted for us, presumed reasonable drivers, to turn right was about to expire.
Cars started beeping behind me, in the mirror I could see hands thrown up in the air. The slow tortoise head began to make its interminable turn. I fell on my car horn almost sobbing with rage. He started the engine. And the car bounced away, coughing and spluttering. I revved like a boy and threw the car into gear ... as the amber light came on. Was the flow in traffic flow again to be denied?

The old man finally noticed Nan weaving about like a pisshead and slammed on the brakes, guessing that just the ten foot clearance wasn’t sufficient in Senior Land. Anything might happen in a world where headscarfs and flat caps are part of the uniform. It would be me ending up with the liability but I managed to avoid ramming into his vile beige boot and the lights swept from amber to red leaving the three of us blocking the route of the oncoming traffic whose turn it now was, all three lanes of it with their left and their right and their straight ahead priorities.

A volley of horns and flashing lights came our way. Nan panicked and put her foot down on the ground to steady herself on the bike. The old fucker stalled. I thought it would be easier to die, just to have a heart attack and let some nice chap in an ambulance take us all away – at least we’d get a blue light right of passage, but I swung my way out and round past the pair of them, glared at a white van man bold enough to dare think he might slide ahead of me and stormed down the road, giddy at attaining 29mph.
At last!

And ahead of me, encouraged by the surprising absence of traffic, a tractor had edged its way, sliding happily in to burble down the road, king of the road, dragging his clattery thing noisily and enormously and painfully slowly behind him. Within seconds the convoy built. I hovered behind him, tight and close, eager for a chance to overtake. None. My mirror told me that Nan was drawing near on my inside.
The tractor was going slower than Nan. The tractor driver was presumably reading his paper and eating his sarnie.
I was spared direct line of ole Tortoise in my mirror, by dint of Van Man having shoved his furious way in between us.
We were a grim line, a mix of rage and incompetence.

A hundred yards on were some pedestrian activated lights. Oh joy. A trio of hoodies slouched by, one hand of one little bastard reaching out idly to set the lights to change. They did. The tractor driver could have sailed through, I would surely have done the same, but no. And so we sat there, my insides rotting, my hope of a timely arrival dying on the vine, awaiting the crossing of no one until the last second, the very last second, when the thing was beeping and my hand was pressing on the gear stick.

At which point a sturdy lass, sense dimmed by sleeplessness, trudged into view leaning on a pram and dragging a toddler. Her expression brightened at spotting the lights on green. Technically not green at all, let it be known (indeed I would have welcomed the chance to deliver a quick lecture), but flashing, which meant red for her.
Her thinking was clear: surely this long line of friendly motorists wouldn’t mind while she took her time in crossing? After all, what’s the hurry? Who would begrudge Mum with her pram and a little one, too? And if the little one dropped his Bunnie and burst into tears and Mum had to set the pram on the brakes and do a comedy trot, remarkable for its tardy inefficiency, back to pick up Bunnie and squander a few seconds in comfort and reassurance, root around in her too-tight trews for a grubby hanky, well, who’s to mind?

Further down the road, my future lay in the form of more of the same, fresh but familiar hell, a comforting sight, that of motorised nerves, of a learner driver, lurching from the left jerking into the traffic, grateful for a long gap in which to execute such a tricky manoeuvre. The tractor pulled in to a bus stop and wearily waved us past and I pulled up behind the learner.

There was a sign. “Watch Your Speed!” it growled. “30!” Chance would be a bloody thing.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Lolly is shorn to a shadow but somehow attracting compliments. I guess it’s pity.
She went in a 14 and came out size zero. But not in a good way. I need canine purdah to take her out in public and a thumping big pair of sunspecs.

We’d met on a walk, complete strangers, the groomer and me, and she fell on Lolly, “Ooh, yarrss! Lurffleee derrgg. Cudd Oi grumm urrr? Hef juss lurrrned? Durrn twenny arrrze kurrss.” (Brenda’s Dutch.)

£20 she said (I think), so what could I say but yes. Besides I’d be spared the normal embarrassment of apologising for the state of her fur since Brenda’d seen Lolly at her worst. And volunteered. Lolly adores jumping in rivers and emerging with her coat a dense trapping of damp cotton wool, with side order of badger and a dollop of dead crow. One learns the knack of shallow breathing.
I did, however, still have to phone her normal groomer who’d messed us about a bit but who loves Lolly to the extent of holding several photos of her on her mobile. She bit back metaphorical tears and I nearly bunged Lolly down the phone as a guilty consolation prize to recompense. E will want to know what stopped me.

So I took Lolly in, sensing dread that I was dumping her at the gas chambers. Were twenny arrrze tuition enough for my little Lolly?
This was at about 10 and Brenda said she’d phone in a couple of hours. So I skipped off air-punching my freedom, all guilt forgot. Bye Lolly! Missing you already. Not. Careful with that gas now. Freedom til noon. Yes!

I got me to the garden and ponced around primping and preening with plans for my yellow and blue border (segueing onto purple and orange). Such a pleasure to do without the inevitability of Lolly escaping in pursuit of cats, me a shuffling bundle of apology and rage huffing and puffing in her wake.

Brenda then phoned at half past one, I laid down my secateurs to hear the grunt of, "Heese gohne-a be layyy. Heese toikeen lerrnngg toime. Emm juss cummin up furr a breeedurrr. Hurr. Hurr. Hurr."
It was what could only be called a mirthless laugh and guilt washed around me, trespassing on my well-being. Bloody dog.
I returned pronto to my Pat Austin rose, my Euphorbia and my Cotinus Grace and shunted the brute from my mind.

At four, I rang. Well I felt I had to, and my fingers were buzzing with recalcitrant nettles. I was a little bit bored of gardening and hay fever was kicking in but it was as nothing to the exchange of phlegm chez Brenda. The line throttled with a coughing and a spluttering and I could all but feel the fur in the air. I sneezed sympathetically.
“Wurrr gohne avter curl ee a doi,” wheezed the groomer, tragically.
“Yes, yes,” I cooed. “Of course. I’ll be right over.”
“Tayke yurr toime,” came her death rattle of determination, these Europeans are made of stern stuff. “Hevv smurrl beets er feenerssh. Vunna du err gud jerbb.” Her voice dragged bravely along the gravel pavement of her throat.

I took F12 with me. We entered the back room and he fell about laughing, a gurgling drain of pure hilarity. I could see a market opening for Tena Lad. I had dropped off a noxious bag of fur and was collecting a pornographic pipe cleaner reeking of cheap scent. The transformation was startling. With burly chest, cheerful beard and hair-pin legs it’s not a good look, but Lolly doesn’t know and is a happy little thing. She turned liquid eyes on me. “Hoii!”

“She looks lovely,” I quavered – there was no way I could be seen out with her –handing over an extra tenner: blood money. Lolly bounced eagerly on the floor, most pleased with things taking advantage of the surprised atmosphere in the room to try to shag my leg. We took her home and she collapsed on her bed, knackered, slurping at bees and drooling. Small yaps punctuated small sleeps.

E walked in, “Christ!” he said, and flinched.

Each day the fur grows a little more, returning Lolly to some sort of social acceptability. She bounds in buttercup fields and romps through poppies, delighting in her summer frock. Before long, I’ll be able to drop the comedy moustache and trench coat.

“Had a stroke of luck today,” I told E last night. “The dog ran away …”
He perked up.
Lolly staggered to her feet, shook her collar loudly and irritatingly and swaggered round to wipe her face on the sofa.
“You said she ran off,” E looked peeved, cheated.
“Well, she came back, I went and found her. But it meant passing the house on the corner, it’s being done up and they were chucking out all the plants, I got a load of the irises.”

There was never going to be a meeting of minds over what constitutes a stroke of luck, and any sentence beginning “the dog ran away” which didn’t end in “and ended up in Glasgow,” was doomed to disappoint, particularly when all that came as compo was some knackered old discarded irises. They are however knackered old irises of a particularly pretty shade of a strong powder blue. And I have just the spot for them.

PS I'd like to thank some new readers who left comments buried deep in blogs I wrote about a year ago. Very much appreciated. I must have ticked something some time which enabled these to be forwarded. Savvy or what.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


“So what have we here with this young man then?” The old man’s knees cracked when he knelt, sounding like an expensive mistake in a fireworks factory.

He’d taken a while to set The Walk in progress: a deal of disembarkation and cumbersome coat work, and painful stretching to slam shut the car boot. The clipping on of the lead had been clumsy.

Lolly and I had done a lap of the little park and stopped because, to Lolly, any speck of fur however, frankly, hopeless, is a Must-See situation. He had turned to Lolly and bent down to, I don’t know, make the most of her. I stiffened as he passed his hand through her ripe fur, fearful of a seizure, that the odour release would trigger a heart attack.

The old man’s dog, an exhausted ball of knitting wool the cat had given a good seeing to, panted a worrying sequence of near-death gasps. Perhaps she was olfactorily fragile, too. Lolly bounced on her stiff little legs with an energy which is wearisome to me and terrifying to the weak.

“What we called then, boy?”

“She. She’s a she,” I said apologetically.

“A she!” he carolled, and a couple of sparklers went off in his legs. “Sorry, boy. So what kind of fine young fella are we then?”

“Well, a soft coated Wheaten Terrier,” I said anxious she might send him flying.

“Beg pudding!” he bellowed, creaking to a stand. “You’ll have to speak up, hearing’s on the way out!”

I was shouting as it was and somewhat too tired for this fruitless exchange of information. I upped the volume.
“Wheaten Terrier! Soft coated!” My throat hurt.

“Marvellous, well done, boy!” he roared. Then, “What’s one of them then?”

Lolly shoved her face up the ball of knitting wool’s bum which promptly fell over.

“Sorry,” I said. Not for the first time in my life. “And yours, what’s your …” ball of wool?

“Just a Yorkie,” he said, his voice softened by love. “Little bit arthritic aren’t you, boy. Him and me both. Falls over all the time, silly old thing.” He whisper-hissed, lest the dog hear. “Best be off.” He gave the lead a tug. “C’mon Bella.”

Lolly and I stood and watched them go. Lolly sat, tucked in neat, energy contained, sweet and streamlined, and looked up at me. Such a good boy. Sometimes.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


F12 was pointing and making gagging noises, the cause of which was hard to pinpoint since, although he had stuffed his face with a whole half muffin, the panicking horror was greater than a mere sudden aversion to peanut butter would suggest.

I frowned. Had he of a whim inherited his father’s freak-out over chicken and sausages? Listeria Hysteria? It was true that I was grappling with a punnet of chicken breasts and mashing them into a marinade – I can all but hear the noise of E fainting somewhere in cyber-space. If there’s one thing the man can’t abide it’s a spot of meat handling. Ideally, when it takes place, he should be in another county and under mild sedation. I should be clad in hairnet and latex, a floor length apron, and enter a sterilised zone via a holding cell where I would be whooshed with a big shower spray and doused with an antiseptic douche, preferably one not wildly available in this country due to its nuking capabilities. All instruments to be sterilised after use.
Lacking such facilities he has to make do with me wiping a cloth and wielding a disinfectant.

His repulsion used to be expressed in a mere facial tic, like a cat thinking of a dog, maybe, an involuntary spasm. Then the notion of sell-by dates, and my woeful inattention to same, upped the ante, upgrading the distaste to a revulsion. Now I have to explain and vindicate the welfare and housing arrangements of every piece of chicken that enters the house. It is always apartheid chicken, segregated into its personal wing of the fridge, on its individual Rule 45, kept apart for its own protection, and that of others as he all but hears the Salmonella cells doubling and quadrupling, breeding and breathing, thickening the air, calling to maggots and E coli, summoning its hellish cohorts, its partners in grime.

It makes the preparation of a normal meal into something quite other and his fear has begun to infect me. On tottering out to the bins with the packaging (no longer can it be slung in the kitchen bin, it must be outed and ousted to the great outdoors) I then panicked – had I touched the key of the lock of the door with a contaminated hand? Maybe I had. Totter back with the spray. And did I touch the handle …? spray to make sure. And use a bit of kitchen roll not the Normal Cloth. As it is, the Normal Cloth spends an abnormal amount of time in the washing machine glumly spinning round thinking, “What did I do to deserve this, this death by suds?”

Still, while incarcerating the marinating meat in an all but lockable Tupperware, prior to returning it to its isolation wing in the fridge, I have taken to developing this insane anxiety that I might just lick the raw meat, or smear it on my face. Do something wildly inappropriate just to make flesh the fear. I can see how madness develops.

Meanwhile F12 is still pointing. And spasming. Ah yes, his own private source of horror. A scrap of cling film casually tossed aside when I was in Busy Biddy in a Pinny mode yesterday, making pizza dough.
Cling film! His eyes go big, his hand gestures wildly. He looks dizzy. Hyperventilation is but a pace away. I roll my eyes and put it in the cupboard.
“The bin, the bin!” he wheezes.
What? The bin with the chicken gizzards? Our horrors meeting and mating, chatting and sharing ideas.
My own fear is of spiders. Which makes total sense. The random movement, the sudden dart. A fear for which the bin alone is not sufficient prison. But then I’m totally sensible with completely rationale phobias. Unlike them. Them’s mad.

Monday, 13 June 2011

turn over

F12 was given last Thursday and Friday to spend at home as Study Leave prior to his Year 7 exams which start today.
“That’s not fair,” grumbled T14, “Why should he get two days at home watching television?”
“He’ll be working,” I said primly. If wishes were horses ... God knows there was plenty to do.
“Shut up, T14,” said F12. “Stop doing me down. What about my self-esteem?”
A child more possessed of self-esteem is hard to imagine.

We had woefully underestimated the amount of revision to be done. And when I say we, I mean he. I had been snapping and nagging and whining for weeks, let alone drip-feeding wisdom throughout the year (“if you’d just read through your notes each night...”)
My friend, G – efficient, son in F12’s class – produced a revision timetable: greater love hath no better definition than that such a thing is then shared with the competition. But the days slipped by and the amount due to be done was daily piggy backed onto the next day, and then the next, and then the next week. The probs with attending a school which covers Key Stage 3 in two years, and not the more normal three. It soon stacks up.

So these Study Days were allotted and pretty soon the rumours went round among Boy Parents that the Girls were deep in Study-Sleepovers and were revising in pairs.
G texted: “makes you want to vom.”
We were taunted by the star charts they would make for each other, the curly clouds in different felt pens, the issuing to each other of little hearts and flowers in mutual reward; their resolve just to do one more hour, ok, let’s make that two. Giggle giggle, little hug, and noses back to the books.
In stark comparison to Boy Work: Pokémon and lolling on the sofa.

G texted: “the girls are just too aggressive with it all. Have visions of them swottily driving up the class averages and poor boys impaling themselves later on guilt spikes. Bloody girls!”
We agreed. It was ghastly. We imagined the shiny eyes, the thrilled faces, the focus. It was easy to picture the perfect recitation of every irregular verb going, the creation of nifty acronyms. It was official. The girls were far too keen and high-achieving and committed, and in their spare time wedded to their violins and welded to their hockey sticks.
Our only hope lay in the time-wasting intrinsic in the colour coding, the glitter pens and the opportunities they would already be taking for laying down excuses against not coming top.
G texted: “every little helps.”

I texted: “there will be some, surely, awash with headaches and leg aches and lies and general boy-esque slack reasons for not getting on with it?”
F12 pfaffed about making some noxious brew and calling it coffee.
I texted: “There’s value in them getting a raw score, not just biased in favour of excessive revision.”

F12 went upstairs to tackle BBC Bitesize. Pokémon-type noises soon issued from what is laughingly called the Study.

G texted: “Some will not be working too hard, I am sure. I am not going to worry any more. Have wasted time on maps and now see maps not included in list from school. Feck.”
I texted: “Have jettisoned music. Attempting history tomorrow, but languages are going to have to fend for themselves.”

On the Friday, I had to take the car in first thing to the garage. The bit hadn’t arrived. Surprise. So it was Tesco for me and then home, drowning in bags to find F12, sitting in his pyjamas and a long Wee Willie Winkie hat, watching “The Simpsons,” a worrying mug of hot chocolate slopping about cheerfully above the pale carpet.
“Why aren’t you doing your maths! And get that cup out of here!” I screeched so gnat-high that it was clearly off his hearing range.
He threw his hands in the air. “What do you expect?” he said, “I need supervision. I’m not to be trusted.”
I headed off the hot chocolate and denied physics its triumph.

So I set him about his history and, some time later – after, in fact, another trip to the garage – went to check on him. He was deep in Shaman lore and the Cro-Magnon cave paintings. I twitched. Whither Tudors?
“Have you heard of this tribe?” he asked, pointing me to a page in his book.
I was soon drawn in. It was fascinating: early spirituality, the Sungir burial ground, the Ain Ghazal clay collection, the moundbuilder sites.
“You’re meant to be doing the Norman Conquests, really and the monasteries, Henry VIII, just the British stuff,” I said weakly. I hated it. Denting his enthusiasm and dragging the second child in as many weeks back from something more interesting, back to bloody Henry VIII: I bet he never let himself be dragged anywhere else. What we don’t know about Anne Boleyn and her 6th finger isn’t worth knowing. The curriculum returns to it again, and again.
It represents everything that I hate about modern education, that it no longer is that, e-ducere, to lead out, but e-shove-in-o.
I gave him The Tudors, he went off with The Greeks.

G texted: “on a major cull. Too much to do. Stopping for lunch at 2. D counting the minutes. Need wine.”
I texted: “F feeling confident. Heart plummets.”

I came across him in the sitting room. Lying on his back and talking to himself.
“Don’t you think you should be revising?” I said.
“No, darling. I don’t.” Darling! He stood up, “I’m going to make some coffee.”
E walked through the kitchen as F12 was mopping up the sideboard.
“Tell him to revise,” I hissed.
“When do his exams start?” E asked, surprised.

They’re in there now, puzzling over geography.
Is there a grimmer subject than geography? And so much of it, I know now; know, that is, in terms merely of the title of topics we actually know nothing about: isotherms and tectonics, relief and settlements. Clueless, he’ll sit there, the false balloon of self-belief swiftly fizzling flat. Will he even remember to read the instructions, those hellish requirements to do one from Section A, etc?

Need I say that I’m dreading the fall-out, the public reading of results, the girls writhing smugly from positions of colour-co-ordinated success? The boys glowering and baffled. I can see it all. Not for nothing did my old boss call me Cassandra. But some lessons you just have to learn yourself. As F12 is about to find out.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

choo choo

The platform was dense with those waiting. Either to meet what are tediously referred to as Loved Ones or to catch the train that wasn’t there, to be shunted further into the bowels of the country. It should have arrived at just gone 9 and it was now half past ten.
The guard was trotting up and down, loving it, bobbing here and there, totally unable to dispense meaningful advice and utterly in his element. His semaphore paddles bounced useless on his thighs. The information board kept edging forward, without explanation, the arrival estimate of the train, clicking it just out of reach.

I was waiting for my Loved One who was returning from Lords. We’d been a week in Cornwall and he had ducked out early to watch a spot of cricket.
“Any idea why it’s so late?” I asked the guard
“Delayed,” he said, thrilled. Which cleared everything up.
“My husband texted to say that the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“Oh no, it won’t be there,” he said. “It’ll be somewhere else.”
Across on the other platform, a solitary person waited. His face an uneasy sweaty mix of anxiety and boredom. He smoothed his hands on the long ruffles of his long skirt and crossed and uncrossed and re-crossed his legs. Perhaps the Victoriana bootees were uncomfortable.
“’s fucking shite, that’s what it is,” a man to my left said.
“’s fucking outrageous. Orra comploine.”
E texted. “Moving backwards.”
I told the guard. “Ah,” he said happily, “That’s Gloucester for you.”
The chap in the skirt flounced off, holding his hem high up the steps. I half hoped he had plans of breaking into the car - would a man in a long dress fancy a spot of joy-riding in a Toyota? It would be one way of getting rid of it.

When E finally got in he was smiling with relief – we few, we happy few. “Nearly a stabbing at Swindon,” he said. “People were going crazy. One man insisting on a taxi. We all bonded over our compensation forms.”
The unspoken chill in the air was that the compensation is delivered as vouchers for more rail travel. Surely no one wants to get on a train twice?

The last time I went on a train I missed it. There was a problem – on-going, but unannounced at the station – on the tube en route to Paddington so, after being stuck without explanation in a tunnel for 20 minutes, we were disgorged at High St Ken.
“’s fucking outrageous!” shouted a girl. “Sorry,” she said, catching my eye. “But it’s so crap. I’m ashamed of this country. We get these people, clients, they come here and I’m ashamed. Third bloody world. It’s not like this in China.”
When she talked about work her right hand bent out – I understood later that a major part of her job, when not stressing about foreigners’ perception of the infrastructure of our transport system, was collecting dry cleaning.
Her hand shot out in anticipation of invisible clothes hangers. “’m not even meant to be in today, ‘smy day off. But she,” her dry cleaning hand jabbed, “she can’t bloody work out which car to get from the car-pool without me going across London and showing her. Christ!” She lapsed into hopeless boss speak, “‘Tee-nah, if it’s not too much trouble, darling, it’s all so confusing!’ Fuck. It’s my bloody day off! And which of us is on a hundred K?? Hey, let’s get a taxi. I’ll pay.”

So me, and her and my wheeled luggage and her invisible dry cleaning cut a swathe through the crowds and we caught a cab and he drove like the clappers and I got to Paddington Just In Time, Tina’s cries of “RUN!” speeding me on …. down the concourse, round the corner, up the platform, to see the train, to run some more …. to be denied a foot in the carriage.
The guard, a piggy, just stood there. “Door’s shut now,” he said with a little smirk. “Health and Safety.”
“Please open the door,” I said.
“No,” he said. Like that. Just, "No."
I stared at him through the window and he stared at me for nearly a minute and then the train rolled off.
I cried.
For I knew that this being England, that common sense had long left town. Presumably hitching or on a moped. It was my son's birthday and I was due back to make cake and I wasn't going to make it, in either sense of the word. In buying a ticket, I hadn’t simply bought the right to travel from London to Cheltenham but I had availed myself of ”a product,” being one seat on one train only. Everything is product now, from pensions to shampoo, bleach to trains.

My friend Susan had been on a train. She’d had a 24 hour clock confusion and got on the 7pm train rather than the 17:00 one. She is 52 and the carriage was nearly empty. She was relieved to sit down. The guard all but elbowed her out, chivvying her to alight at Swindon, to go to a cash point, to draw out £50, to wait an hour and to buy another ticket for this leg of the journey.
She apologised and pointed out that this train was cheaper than the one for which she had bought a ticket, that it was a simple mistake, that she was tired and the train was empty. It was a dark and windy night. It was November. She is tiny, and beautifully spoken, but lacking a credit card.
“You’ll have to get out and go to the cash point,” he said. “Your ticket isn’t valid.”
Her one fellow passenger said "May I?" and reached for his wallet, and bought another ticket for her. The kindness of strangers stepping in when the system is heartless and happy to throw you to the wolves.

I went to the help, ha ha, desk, heart a-sunk.
“You’ll have to get a new ticket,” the man said, “This one’s no longer valid. ’s too late,” he said. “That ticket was only valid for that train. Need to buy a new one now.”
“But it wasn’t really my fault I missed it,” I said. “I allowed nearly an hour to get from Sloane Square to Paddington. It’s six stops, I thought it would be enough. It took ten minutes the other way yesterday. I could drive from Cheltenham to Oxford in an hour. There was a fault on the line.”
The man couldn’t care less about that. I don’t know why I bothered. He punched my Oyster card and shook his head. “Insufficient journey time allowed.”
There was further nonsense since my seat reservation ticket was missing somehow rendering my ticket even more invalid, and I couldn't make him see that since the reservation was for a train which was now somewhere near Reading it surely couldn't be THAT important but apparently it was and it just showed the customer service man how very foolish I was and how very little I know about valid tickets. “Nah, you’ll have to go and buy another ticket.”

A serpentine queue, like the desperate line for returns at IKEA, was threaded through the ticket hall.
He all but flicked me away with a dismissive paw. As flies to wanton boys are we.

A little lad in a high vis jacket trudged like my shadow towards the monstrous Stalinist queue. I became aware that he was there and that he was frowning and that he kept muttering, "That should be plenty of time."
"I know," I whimpered prettily, eye to the main chance.
“You allowed plenty of time,” he said again.
He shot a glance over at the grim kipper of a customer service manager then shimmied with resolve. Chest out, shoulders back. He queue-jumped me ahead of 60 people trapped in queue-hell and he got my ticket re-stamped and I travelled home without having to shell out £70.

It was a massive triumph over the Kafka in Wonderland bureaucracy of Modern Britain, although it’s never that simple since there was more nonsense in Bristol (I had to go the long way round) where all the boards and signs said that the connection up to Cheltenham left from platform one and, lo, there IS no platform one. And no-one who worked there seemed to know anything about it.
"Oh, that'll mean platform 3," said a weary passenger. But of course.

I was telling my friend Simon about it later, he doesn't get out much. "What was the problem?" he said, quite reasonably, "you missed the train. Couldn’t you just get the next one" Poor innocent. Has no idea that life isn't like that anymore.

So we don’t want the vouchers. But it seems incumbent upon us to claim them. Apparently they pretend not to receive the forms, so the Swindon Band of Brothers were telling each other to scan them in, then they can't be "lost". The games we play. The games we have to play. The good times ended with Thomas the Tank Engine.

Friday, 27 May 2011


"Mummy?" piped T14 from the back of the car, forgetting to pretend that his voice has broken, "Mummy, please can I have some money?"
I took a quick look in the rear view mirror, scanning for piss-taking: the "mummy" word setting off triggers.
"Please, Mummy, for bacon butties at break?"
"Of course you can, darling. Help yourself. Little blue purse."

The day was starting well. Crack of dawn, but boy being a sweetie.
"See," I said, gripping the steering wheel with top o'th' morning cheer, "see how easy it can be, how pleasant things can be? All you have to do is Ask Nicely."

F12 turned to me, sweet big eyes, innocence stamped in every pore.
"Mummy? Can I have a flame-thrower, please? And an axe."

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


“All you do is nag and drink wine.”
The need for both is linked. I had a mouth full of pins at the time, altering the curtains, so couldn’t squawk in outrage. I thought about it, but guessed that death might get in the way.
“You said you’d stop nagging.” This could only be a teenager speaking. Or maybe a recalcitrant footballer to a humiliated wife. Sue me.
“Nagging is only repetition,” I said tartly, momentarily pin-free, and taking the opportunity for a medicinal tot (me nerves, doctor, summat chronic) of the vino. “And repetition is only necessary when you don’t do what you’ve been asked to do a hundred times. I said I wouldn’t nag, if you just did. And you haven’t done.”

E strode by. He frowned. “There’s pins on the floor.” He has a mediaeval belief that pins will pierce his skin, take the boat, sail north and puncture his heart.
“Pick them up then,” I might have snapped.

T14 looked blank. “Anyway, I’m crap at exams.”
“You’re crap at exams because you don’t do enough work for them.”
“They’re not for ages.”
“They’re not for ages, until they’re suddenly tomorrow, and yours are in 4 weeks. However much you might dislike the idea, the day will come when you are on a chair and facing a paper you are quite capable of easily passing. If you’d just thought to glance at a textbook beforehand.”

The evenings are light and long and the urge – never strong – to brush up on diffusion and refraction and negative enlargement and irregular verbs, ebbs further as the wind drops and the park beckons.

His local chums, at the local school, phone endlessly, “’s T14 there?” they grunt as if I hadn’t known them a decade and fed them fish fingers in their tiny days. These boys’ exams were a fortnight ago. “Wanna go down the park, T14?”

The head boy at T14’s school went to look round Durham, or was it York? with a view to studying medicine there. He abandoned a 1st XV match to do so. And was despatched roundly, for “only” having 7 A*s and 3 As at GCSE. Apparently you won’t be considered without 8 A*s. Bye! Could try harder. A mother panics.

“Yeah,” says T14, “See ya.”

Fourteen is a bit of a rubbish age. I wasn’t allowed to be fourteen. I only realised what a teenager could and should do when I was about 35 and aghast at the feral offspring of eye-rolling, older friends, “What can you do? They’re teenagers!”
Too old (dammit) to be Mummy’s boy and too young to be anything useful. Still tied to the chemistry textbook while dreaming of a VW campervan laden with chums making its way across America.
“J14’s coming to America,” says T14.
“Is he,” I say, “Is he really.”
J14 chucks a cricket ball against the wall and grins vaguely. The funding of the trip is not broached.

“I’ll revise later. Promise.” He’s off, a head phone in one ear, cycling hands-free to the park, free from piano practice and valencies, from the nagging alkie, the pin-freak and the bossy professor:
“T14’s not wearing his helmet!!! Phone him, phone now. Tell him he’s got to put his helmet on!!!”

Somewhere in the past couple of years, I’ve seen him artlessly naked for the last time. I didn’t, of course, realise that it was the last time, just as I didn’t realise when it was that I closed the cover on my final goodnight story.

Progress brings backwards steps, a merging from the individual to the masses, to fitting in with the other honking poltroons. Soon he’ll be like all those others, you know the ones, the ones who won’t kiss their mothers in public and who go out leaving the hot tap on and the back door open, a loaf of bread in the sink; who turn up just to frown at the fridge’s content and expect mounds of laundry to transform into neatly piled clean items. He’s never been a taking for granted type of child, but it’s seeping in, edging out the charm and softness. Leaving himself behind. I hope he finds a good new him to inhabit.
The next day, such is the volatility of what the in-flight magazine called Those Hard To Please Teens, he is smiling again, and singing on the stairs.

On leaving me at my brutal breeze-block Halls of Residence, strip lit and lino-floored, my father patted my shoulder, “You don’t need to come back at Christmas,” he said. This was his version of reassurance, to spare me the horror of claustrophobic obligation. Bugger off and don’t look back. Ha. Way to prompt a major neediness… I’ve missed only one Christmas in the decades since. Trap them and they don’t come back. I sit on metaphorical hands and grind a zip across my mouth against the urge to smother and annoy.

His face, his beautiful face, is changing. I thought all this would last forever. I was wrong. The bones beneath the skin are cranking and stretching, the hair's a little lanker. Sometimes his childish beauty is still there, or an echo of it, and sometimes the mix of growth is not that pleasing and the spots flare and the nostril flares and the lip curls and the eye no longer holds mine. Then he grows into himself a little more and edges a little older, another day away.

And the girls on his Facebook page call each other whore and slapper and bitch and fucker and say, “Oh Charl, you’re so pretty Charl, I hate you Charl, you bitch. Ellie tell Charl she’s a bitch.” And all the boys click Like. And the girls fly into a frenzy.

The door goes and in he comes, and he hugs me and he says, “Mummy,” and he says “Sorry,” and I say, “Darling,” and I don’t say, “Maths?” or “Geography?” though it nearly bloody kills me not to impart a wise word. He goes in to the kitchen and he fumbles on the window sill where all their school-books lie and he selects a textbook and neither of us says anything and he sits down and goes as if to read it.
“’t was boring down the park,” he said. He lies.
His eyes stray to the window, to the big sky beyond, and then, reluctantly, back to Henry VIII’s monastic reforms.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The F Word

“You’re not wearing that!” the Piano Festival being 15 driving minutes, and 16 temporal minutes, away it was time to take issue with T14’s slouching hoody, low slung slacks and moody face. The park beckoned yet he had to go and play Schubert.
“I’ve told her. I hate bloody festivals.”
'Luddy festivals,” cried F12 gleefully, gathering close his audience attendance kit: 2 Nintendo DSs, a clutch of books, Catty, his gun. “Not BLOODY! Mum! He swore, T14 swore! Tell him off!”
“Enough! You: 30 seconds. Shower and get changed,” I hissed, gathering my own audience attendance kit. My kindle slims the need to grab at 3 books (current read & 2 spares for panicking). Then the credit card bill had arrived. A sea of download costs. Could they not be elided? E frowned. I lied and self-justified.

The dog, sensing action, and pitifully anticipating japes, circled the hall with annoying
avidity; all bum, and rubbing her nose in everything.
“Get in the fucking kitchen,” E hissed.
“She doesn’t understand,” I snapped importantly, “Bed… Darling … Bed …. C’mon! C’mon …. Good Girl!! …. Beh-edddd! …. Get in your fucking bed! T14! Shower! Now! … !”
“We’ll go to PizzaExpress afterwards! I promise.” The things you do. “Just. Get. On. With. It!”
The shower pump lurched dangerously into action. My heart skidded.

I fired up the computer; it pissed around with its whirring icons and password crap. PizzaExpress is so bloody expensive nowadays that it’s only affordable with half-price vouchers. Which means, to fund the freeloaders, that it has to keep upping its prices.

“We might as well fucking forget it! To think, I had to get out of a meeting early. Why do I bloody bother.”
“It’s cost a fiver to enter. We’re going. We’ll be fine. F12!! Get in the bloody car …”
“T14’s not …”
“GET …”

The printer sulked. I turned it off. And on. The only language these appliances understand is to turn them off. Revenge through annihilation. It sulked its way through a load of solipsistic self-checks. Mechanical eye-rolls. While it was thus obsessed, I rang PizzaExpress.
“Oh, soh-ree!” said the voice with a chucklesome regret. “Our booking system closed, oooh, 3 – min-utes – a-go!! It’s on-line. I’m afraid,” he purred happily, “we can’t over-ride it.”
“What? You not allowed to operate a diary any more? Like, write something in with a pen?”
“Nooo!” the very thought! “Everything ..” you middle-aged fule “…is on-line now.” His enthusiasm waned, “You’ll have to come as a walk-in.” He all but started filing his nails.
I sighed; most testily, “Well, if there’s any wait at all we’ll Go Somewhere Else.”
That’ll have scared him. Adrenaline threatened to short circuit me. I needed turning off.

The Festival, presumably, prides itself on being a celebration of the arts. Its website is light on enthusiastic hi-falutin and busy on, well, not much. A rare reality check pervades: it boils down to turn up and behave.

For some crazy reason, the Goddess of TV Parking smiled on us and we parked right outside the Town Hall. Right Outside. Like we were royalty and getting married.
A white van man beeped us irritably, and roared, “’S’for fucking taxis!!”
I threw him the Vs and shouted, “Not til 6. Tosser!”
I smoothed my nice East outfit and hissed at the children to get a bloody move on. Sometimes my degree, my way with words, comes in so handy.
T14 slithered out like T1000 in The Terminator making it through a gate. His lip curled to his nose.
“I’m NEVER playing this Scherzo again!”
“No, no, no!! Honest.” E and I were ushering, as if the pair of them were geese, “No Schubert even, ever… Stand Up Straight! … You! DS in the car …! Because I say so. Because it bleeps.”

Long, long ago, when I was about M14, I went to a funeral. My first. The family approved. “A perfect first funeral for Milla. No-one liked Isobel.”
My mother put her smart coat on and a fruit cake in the boot of the Jag.

We drove north, a long, long way. Up and up and bloody up. My brother and I possibly bickered in the back.
At Knutsford Service Station, I was forcibly ejected and ordered to remove my make up. Out-rageous. A glittery pink eyeshadow stretching to my temples was deemed – had the word existed in this incarnation then – inappropriate. Much eye rolling occurred. My brother smirked. The familiar hiss of “Do as you’re fucking told” was trotted out.
We arrived at the holding cell, the icicle house from which the funeral proper would kick off. Our hostess, Little J, shimmied forth, glassy-eyed and dripping “darlings!” but no warmth.
My pixie boots kicked surlily at Persian carpets. My mother kept her coat on.

Alcoholic desperation, that helpful blurring in times of family incarceration, was met by offers of water from Little J, a reluctant niece-in law pressed into action by unfortunate geographical proximity to the great dead one.
Distant arms of the family united in triumphant disappointment at the paucity of the hospitality. Little J, famous for her lapses, had again sunk to the occasion. She retired frequently to the pantry and tottered out, reinvigorated by a session with the bottle.
Kedgeree was grimly served. Possibly knocked up the day that Aunt Isobel kicked her clogs and given the odd stir since. The rice was cold, the haddock ripe. Knives and forks did what they could with the bleak offering, rallying chiefly in disguising the leavings. Conversation, bleak at best, stalled.

Back at home, Granny, sister to Isobel, but too poorly, apparently, to attend, snuggled on the sofa, clicked at her knitting needles and turned on the telly. She had a thing for Ivor the Engine. Her son-in-law, another Ivor, was an endless recipient of her jumpers. It made her chuckle. “Chuff Chuff!” She could never quite believe how small he was and knitted large. Her daughter, her other daughter, my mother’s sister, muttered something about there being only so many jumpers a son-in-law could be expected to wear. “Who is the mother-in-law?” my grandmother asked, pressing the button on the remote control to amplify Ivor the Engine and drown out her own daughter. Her glass of advocaat sat at hand half hidden behind a photo of her dead husband. His vicar smile cheerily alibi to the denial of her quick tot.

The funeral itself, however, was deeply entertaining.
My mother’s extended family rose from the pages of Debrett to sit tight-lipped in ancestral pews and pass poisonous judgement with pleasing frequency. “Has she managed to orf-load what Elspeth calls the White Elephant…?” one rello whispered about another’s misery with the housing market.
Elspeth, suddenly aurally alert, shot daggers at being crucially implicated in an insult which left the reporting rello untainted.
She narrowed her eyes. “My cancer sticks, Thomas.”
In those days smoking at funerals was all but expected and Elspeth was content, in this only, to oblige. Husband Thomas, Knight of the Realm and, more crucially, keeper of the cancer sticks, fumbled with the stiff switch of the rigid triangular bag owned by all elderly ladies in those days, and carried by their husbands. A cigarette was obediently located and transferred and the new owner’s fingers irritably clicked for a lighter. Never happier than in a state of suspended dissatisfaction. Sir Thomas panicked and forced his arthritic digits into the unyielding folds of the triangle. Elspeth waited icily, her hand out, her expression elsewhere. The things you remember.

Meanwhile, the vicar was talking, a grim hymn was endured and another reluctant sprig of the family was ushered in.
A nervous nephew hovered, hopelessly, too tall at the lectern, “Aunt Isobel,” he began, stooping into a non-existent microphone. “Aunt Isobel survived an illness which would have killed a better person.”
The silence grew new textures. The family exchanged a ripple of thrilled glances and pursed lips.
Little J clattered out of the pews.
“Gorn to put the heating on!” percolated Aunt Elspeth in a Revenge is a Dish voice, “Marjorie says. She waits – seems – til the headlights come rahnd the corner, at the bottom of the drive. Puts the heating on then. Not before. Freezing!” She happily mimed a brrrrr. Thomas dodged the vibrating fag end.
Marjorie mangled her triangular bag. Her time would come.
“I mean,” said the nephew, a little too late, flustered, “an illness which would have killed a lesser person.”

Back at the house, the hospitality failed to reach the Norfolk heights even of lunch. We were introduced to second cousins. A succession of Flavias and Hugos and Jaspers all of whom’d populated Eton’s Pop and trounced the bladdy locals at lacrosse in Argentina passed before us in a fleshy, entitled blur. We’d heard all about them. Their blank faces suggested derring-do tales of the black sheep end of the line hadn’t travelled north.
“Oh!” said my brother cheerfully extending his easy-going hand, “D’you hate us as much as we hate you?”

My mother proffered the fruit cake, cooked against the much-anticipated, never-experienced breakdown on the motorway. It was fallen upon and divvied up. We never saw a slice.
“Tay, darling?” it was Little J, tottering on heels, hair awry, skin flushed from an unshared gin, a teapot dangling worryingly from a tiny wrist, “Nevvies aw string?”
Our heads cocked like Lolly’s. Uncomprehending.
“She says Navvies or Strong,” boomed Marjorie in that stage whisper they all shared, “She means Navvies or Drawing Room. You’ll get Navvies.”
My mother likes tea where the water has been told that there’s a bag in the room, but one never so vulgar actually as to mingle with the old H2O.
My father has control issues with milk allocation. Less being so very much more. Tea at the hand of others is never going to go well. Both blanched. “Nevvies or String” became a family catchphrase.
In the distance, Little J was trilling at The Young, at the bloated Flavias and Jaspers and Hugos, “Chraist, Ai don’t know; just forage, dahlings, forage.” That’s become a catchphrase, too.
“Everything AOK?” barked Thomas, “Marvellous.”

When we got home, Granny phoned, “Darling,” she commanded. We could all hear, whether in the room or not, “Tell me about the wedding.”
“Funeral, Mother, funeral,” my mother corrected. “It was your sister’s funeral.” A dismissive paw cutting the air could also be heard. Details, shmdetails. “Little J,” Granny settled back for a laugh, advocaat loosening the throat, “What was Little J wearing?”

Back in 2011, we entered the Drawing Room of the Town Hall (£9 the poorer), hissing and tutting. We’d forgotten the cheque for the music teacher and had to rummage a lie. A sea of the local smart school gels filled the seats. The beastly competition. They bustled back and forwards, back and forwards, at one with the Steinway, laughing and tossing their glorious hair.
We caught eyes us 4 and flared nostrils.
They announced their pieces with glorious confidence, Hong Kong via America, yah. They played with confident aplomb. What the adjudicator later called “robustness”. They were well attended, not necessarily by parents, but by a buffering of teachers. A floppy haired man passed his hand through his rampant wiggy follicles and fiddled with his glasses and bopped up and down with studied self-regard to turn the pages.

T14 played very well. He didn’t win. He didn’t stand a chance. The adjudicator ran through the results, entrant by entrant. At the end, the floppy haired man stood up, “Er,” he said irritably, bladdy amateurs, “you seem to have forgotten Sophie!”
The adjudicator shot a horn-rimmed glance and the audience rustled to show that no, Sophie had not been forgotten. We’d all noted Sophie and her robustness. Sophie looked embarrassed. “Oh, OK,” Floppy conceded, flapping an off-hand hand. “My mistake.”
“Who’s else would it be?” said F12 with Family loudness.

We walked across to PizzaExpress. I fiddled with slight panic in my audience attendance kit for the PizzaExpress vouchers – last seen on the kitchen island.
“You seem to have forgotten Sophie,” bellowed F12.
“NO! My mistake!” shouted T14.
They muttered together. Even crossing the road seismic changes can happen. I tensed for the push, the shove, the “He started it!”
T14 was glued to his iPod. “I seriously can’t stand … ” he burst out laughing, “I seriously can’t stand it when a sentence doesn’t end the way you think it octopus.”
We laughed.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Piste Off

It’s a very expensive way to buy some scent cheap, but the thought of that knock-down, duty-free Miss Dior drew me on through those giddy circles of hell, the online booking forms.
The only true way to afford skiing is to hover like vultures circling the price drops, deaf to the inward tutting at just the scummy places being left, blind to the blanching at the cost of extras breeding like flies.
“Helmets,” muttered Lorraine not quite under her breath, “£42…”
“£42,” I said, joining in. I join in on the silences a lot, I think of it as being friendly, dreaming of a “friendly” button allied to “give big discount” button on their keyboards. “That’s not bad,” I said. “That’s, what,” I calculated, “Just over a tenner each.”
“Nah,” she said. “That’s each.”
“We’ll buy them out there,” I said slightly snappily, consigning the friendly button to the bin.

So, having done the surprising thing of establishing at the beginning of the process that we can afford it, I found myself on various ski sites, chasing deals round the internet and becoming frightfully weary in the process. I filled in Enquiry forms, and made quick checks on various unhelpful helplines (“please note our agents cannot help with ….”)
It was exhausting. So much so that staggered from my chair almost thinking that I had been skiing. Dizzy with alpine views and dazzled from absorbing the inside of each and every chalet in France. Ooh, nice sofa. Hmmm, bleak bedroom. I was in severe need of a vin chaud. Or froid.

I grew to loathe the mouse. Every site required the inanity of details, of clicking, of Inputting my Requirements. 2 adults, 2 children: age? Drag click 12; age? Drag click 14. I’d press Submit eagerly only to have the site collapse on me with a reproachful “select departure airport.” Irritably, I’d snap on South West, cursing (there’s a lot of cursing, the dog covers her ears) that I can’t chose London and South West but I can’t, so I sit back and wait.
“Thank you for your patience,” whirrs the website, giving me a slowly revolving egg timer to assist in the notion that the waiting has a purpose. I picture the website sitting back on its rocker, having a cup of tea and a laugh. The egg timer shooting tetchy glances, “what? You want me to go round again??”

Up come some options. Hoorah. All flying from Manchester at 6 in the morning. I no longer wonder why they wanted to know where I’d prefer to fly from: unless there’s a by-product perk in pissing off the hapless holiday maker by trilling “South West! Peek-a-boo! Can’t seeee yoooo! Heh heh heh!!”
3 chalets with drop dead gorgeous prices don’t allow children (drag click 12 …) and there are endless gummy looking apartments, all requiring us to crowd in together to a 18m square space. Whatever that means. But I’m guessing no love is strong enough to share it with F12’s chaos. What that child can do with an open suitcase would bring dictators to their knees. Where’s Franco when you need him. Same with the unappealing phrase, “quad room.” No, he can share with the luckless T14. Besides, where’s the ‘holiday’ bit in stirring some grim pasta in a bleak flat while damp salopettes steam in depressing contiguity? Carrying shopping in ski boots is not an option.
Option is, however, a favoured word in any given web site but what’s annoying (lots is annoying) is that you have to opt for one thing when you want two: catered chalet, or hotel and when you’d really rather opt not to have one thing, self-bloody-catering for starters. You see. It gets confusing.
Now and again interesting looking possibilities arose. By now the true hydra headed nature of choice has kicked in. There’s no such thing as a “that’ll do,” not when you have the horrors of being able to cross check.

So off I scurried to Trip Advisor to check on the remnants of availability, witness the hotels put through their paces. “A great shame,” puffed one reviewer, “that there were no tea and coffee making facilities in the room; it is on this basis that I can only give 3/5.” What?! Go without. Go to the bar. Another couple had “had” to downgrade their accommodation (how easily one adopts the parlance) due to the “unfortunate incident” involving someone else’s child having been sick on the coach.
Trip Advisor is the home of the green inked psychopath and he’s going to wield his power. A deal is made of momentary power, while the bi-focals are busied about on the bridge of the snout and “a 3? I think? Overall? Muriel? given the scarcity of matutinal bakery items?” The question is of course rhetorical for Muriel is otherwise occupied sorting out the squalid end of the suitcase and muttering mantras of “honour thy husband …. Thou must not stab...”

Half a memory of a really good looking place about 4 websites ago goaded so. Which called for urgent back clicking, the computer freezing, the sites flashing past my eyes. "Session timed out" announced the site in question. "Please re-submit your details." My need for a glass of vin chaud increased to a pitcher.

Then I thought, are we quite mad? The snow’s not brilliant, so round and round the websites once more I went, perving over webcams, gleaning hope or desperation from static shots.
I phoned random people in random resorts, plucked unluckily from pages on Google
“Eeese snn-ow dewww?” they parrotted back at me perplexedly. “Lurrr slurps eese gud.” “Yess Yess,” said another, “hi-yup, hi-yup, eese gud.”

I dithered.
Exit or Submit.
Submit or Exit.
I clicked.

Friday, 18 March 2011

giddy up

The race-goers peppering the village are as recognisable to locals as plain clothes policemen appear to be to low life on TV dramas. It’s a roundness of tum, a type of tie, a slope of shoulder from slouching over the Racing Post. That and all the Bentleys.
A string of them were aimlessly wandering around the shop, flush-faced and cheery, at odds with the processed ham and gluten free biscuits which are failing to sell but still ordered in. Crowded, that corner of the shop is getting.
The owner was – his words – made up. Generally, he’s slow to smile.
“All that booze they buy!” he hissed confidentially, loud enough for all to hear. “Each night! We buy more. You wouldn’t believe. Back and forward to the Cash & Carry.”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head at the giddy commerce of it all, purse lipped at the repeat runs to the C&C, a case of wine clanking ostentatiously, so removed from the usual mere bottle of scotch rolling around in the boot. The wanton repetition, “They drink on a Tuesday. AND a Wednesday!” (Imagine.)
The thrill of the till clanging shut on twenties. Notes not coins. This is the man who’s lived a bit. Driven to Spain with ducks in the back. Not much gets him going.

Every denizen in the geographical fallout of Cheltenham Racecourse is out to fleece the racegoers. Bleak pole dancers trudge up from Bristol to hand out leaflets. School children sell cakes in the name of sponsored do-gooding trips to Peru. One-handed guitarists busk.
My friend has had 10 jolly Irishmen a night staying with them, (bed and breakfast, @ £40 a pop), camp beds lined up while the family squash in one room and count the cash. Skiing’s booked for Christmas. Another friend, with a more modest 5 a night, is half-way to Florida on the proceeds. Both are bored with sausages, but it’s a price worth paying.
Elsewhere, driveways are dusted off and called car parks, that’ll be a fiver, please; limos fill lay-bys; opening hours are rapidly extended; normal old breakfasts at cafes are dubbed Racing Breakfasts and charged double. The police milk the moment by buggering up the traffic at roundabouts. It certainly adds a buzz and, apart from being stranded this side of Cheltenham by dint of the queues, I love it but this year is the first time I have actually been. Yes. Mrs Very Rich had some chums to stay and a spare Members’ Ticket was going begging, so what do you do but dust off your frock and toddle along.

It was a glorious day. The air thick with Spring and the promise of warmth. My bag was heavy with spare cardies I didn’t end up needing, but would have done if I hadn’t brought. Out of towners tottered in in heels beneath spray tanned legs, clad in floaty layers and lace like bizarre lost brides. Sturdy locals stride head to toe in tweed. Top Hats are sold from the makeshift shops at £2,200. You read that right.

The skies meanwhile were alive with the sound of … helicopters. In Gold Cup week, the rich at play are supported in their quest to offload loadsa cash by being ferried about in the air. It’s so green you could weep.
Mrs VR’s chum Lucy commented on them. Perhaps they were aurally displeasing, perhaps the very rich marvel at the astronomically rich.
I joined in. “What does it cost to land here?” I asked, unwittingly displaying my amateur status, while trying to give the impression that I was thinking of bringing the chopper next year, giving it a run.
Lucy gave me a down-grading glance. “I think the amount they cost to get up in the air slightly outweighs that.”

We kicked off with champers and butties at Mrs VR’s, ten minutes of living the princess life which I should surely be enjoying daily. I have my own pea and everything. The traffic goddess smiled on us (no policemen around) and we pulled up ten minutes later at a prime parking spot, swooshing past the proles who had to actually, like, walk, and strolled in, our important metal pins affording pleasing status. My handbag was pawed through by the guard, but sadly nothing of interest was found.
Lucy’s husband Melkin is a pro and I betted twice on his most fine advice and won twice and felt quite sick with triumph, at a whole, free, £17 ending up in my purse. Melkin bought more champagne and we sipped it in the sun while Lucy bemoaned being a corporate slave and I nodded as if I understood and had another quick sip.

It’s always The Atmosphere people mention to offset accusations that you can see it all from the telly, that you don’t need to go to such events. As I know from cricket, the telly is great, but the atmosphere is something else. It is so genial, so optimistic, so out of the norm of the day to day. So bloody lovely.
I also sort of got horses. A bit. I loved all the parading, the beautiful silks (my fingers itched to turn them into curtains) and when the winners came in and the crowd cheered and clapped it almost brought a tear to the eye.

“You’ve started high,” Lucy and Melkin said. It had seemed wise to alert them to my racing virginity. Treat me gently. “Great weather, great results, great races.”
I wouldn’t have it any other way, I thought.

And another excitement to hang onto. E was updating the one day scores, and texted in that England, somehow, had beaten the West Indies, just as Junior romped in netting me another tenner.

“Oh, Mummy, you smell of champagne,” F12 said gathering me in a big hug from tiny arms when I got in.
“Yes,” I said, we’ve hardly drunk all year, “I’m afraid I have had some. It was lovely.”
“Good,” he said, “It’s about time you shrugged off the male oppressors in this family.”
“Indeed,” I said.
I told E, the chief male oppressor, glum on the sofa doing some work on his laptop. While I gallivanted, he'd had to leave work early in order to pick up the children. He'd got stuck in race traffic, so he snorted.
I put my pea back in the freezer.