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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.