Sunday, 30 December 2007

The seasonal snap of heartstrings

Beth's thank you letter to my mother in law. Pass the mallet so I can drive a few more spikes into my heart.

Dear Granny,

Thank you so much for a really awesome Christmas - I spent the evening drawing with my new pencils.

Our house feels so much smaller and untidy than yours.

I got so used to the formal lunches and your wonderful cooking - by comparison when we got back today we had a measly lunch of a few sausage rolls and no home-made pudding, just fruit.

I can't wait to come and stay with you again.

Lots of love


Saturday, 29 December 2007

Putting the carp in carpe diem

To say I've always had a cautious approach to life would be an understatement. Take insurance. I loved the notion that whatever my worst fears - illness, death, hideously defrosted food, snow on the BBC weather centre, Jonathan Ross' contract renewal, somebody would take my money and bet me it would never happen. Finances being what they've always been, I never did anything about it, you understand, but it was a lovely notion.

In the same vein, I used to save up my pocket money diligently so when that special, once in a lifetime toy came along I'd be there, waiting, able to recognise it in an instant and snap it up.

It took me a long time to realise that there was no such once in a lifetime toy and to accept that I'd be better off throwing away my pittance on rubbish like all the other kids.

Now, I'm treating my life the same way. I hoard it, anxiously trying to predict the unpredictable, guarding against accidents, impulses, extremes of emotion so when 'IT,' the once in a lifetime 'do it now, throw caution to the winds' moment comes along, I'll be able to grab it with both hands.

Only problem is that I think I may already have missed it.

So it's no wonder I'm struggling with the prospect of 2008. It's such an in yer face event. There you are, meandering through the dog end of December, days that seem as unwanted as the remnants of the Christmas turkey when everyone starts thrusting a whole year at you. And as for all those predictions that come with it - they're as vague and ill-defined as the presents in a Christmas stocking.

For somebody who finds living for yesterday or even the day before ordeal enough, seizing the day is an utterly alien concept. Having an entire year to seize is almost more than I can bear.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Well Met

We're about to leave to stay with Francis' parents and preparations are, in their decidedly disorganised way, proceeding apace, albeit at a snail's apace.

Things aren't helped when I'm driven into. I've just obeyed one rule one of suburban motoring lore, which dictates that in slow-moving traffic, you should always let in the first car queuing to turn left from a side turning but only a) if you like the look of the driver and b) they make a bit of effort to win you over - a smile, an imploring look or hard cash will all make a difference.

This time the car behind the one I let in appears not to like my interpretation of the rules and drives straight out and into the bumper, like a dodgem car.

I pull in. The other car follows. In it is a cosy looking elderly couple, obviously married. He is jovial looking with a large red nose and a benign expression. She is small and neat, wearing a smart dark jacket with gilt buttons.

"What did you do, exactly?" I ask the man. He shrugs. "Don't know, really. I'm not sure how it happened. I don't think there's any damage, though."

"I think we'd better swap details," I say. "Just in case. Who's your insurer?"

"I'm with the Met," he says.

"The Met?" I ask, stupidly, wondering why I've never heard of this exciting, new name in the wacky world of big finance and monthly premiums and hoping that Michael Winner won't pop up to endorse it.

"Yeah. The Met."

The nice wife now helpfully pulls down her blind. "Metropolitan Police," it says, in large letters.

"And do you have a warrant?"

"Yup. Here's my mobile phone number. Get your husband to call me later if he thinks there's a problem." I note the time, his registration number, the road name and we part company.

There are times in my life I've been glad that I've exercised restraint. Now is definitely one of those moments. There may be a right time and place for road rage but this isn't it. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Dying to tell Francis about all, I wait till he gets home and say, perhaps not thinking the words through for long enough beforehand, "Francis, you just need to check over the car. Somebody drove into me from a side turning today and -"

"JESUS CHRIST!" says Francis, who has obviously had a bad day at the office, with too much HO HO HO and too few sales orders, "NOT AGAIN. You just don't realise how much all these excess payments add up."

Feeling a tad aggrieved to be interrupted midway through a cracking story and, furthermore, accused of telepathically inciting cars to drive into mine, I snap my lips shut.

"Did you get their details at least?"

"No," I lie, and carry on typing, cartoon style, fingers jackhammering keys at random.


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Kittens and rainbows

Thanks to Debio for passing this on. It'll add a much-needed cuddly touch to my blog. It goes on to Iota (Not wrong, just different) in the hopes of getting her blogging again but also for leaving fabulously amusing comments; Mya (Missing you already) for being consistently witty; Snuffleupagus (To Miss with love) for continuing address the great, big educational issues but always with style and humour (though I'm convinced that she'll either get a book, a column or a peerage out of it) Go, girls, go.

The point of it all

"You have three children?"

"Yes, that's right."

Marion, the travelling hairdresser, is having her seasonal allergic reaction to holly, ivy, crackers with miniature handbells in them (Lakeland do them, if you really want to know) and piped carols, and is taking a break from hair so she can get her whole head sorted out instead, perhaps teasing the brain stem nodes into a pleasingly assymetrical arrangement with a fringe and fixing it with a blast of hairspray.

I've resorted, instead, to the local barber's which is run by two brothers and, despite an astonishingly large pole outside (bastard offspring of one of those outsize pepper pots beloved by Italian resaurants and a range of 'Arrogant' brand hair gel (extra big tubes only) promises unisex haircuts together, though not advertised, with an interesting line in scissor-side chat.

"Your brother told me he has a daughter in Instanbul," I say, to break a silence that has now lasted several minutes.

There's a pause as the barber meets my gaze in the mirror. His expression is completely blank.

"If he told you, it must be true."

"You don't sound convinced," I say.

There's another long pause, then:

"I don't see the point of this conversation."

Point? Since when did the edict go out that conversations with your hairdresser had to have a point? On the contrary, I thought that they were an exercise in comfortable non-sequitors which would at some point include holiday destinations, rain or the lack of it, the political situation - though painted with the broadest of brush strokes to avoid offending anyone, and a celebrity or two.

The haircut is finished in silence.

The next day I bring Leo and Deborah; Beth, who has spent several hours washing, straightening and then pouting at her hair in a mirror, refuses to come.

"On holiday?" the barber asks them. They nod.

"Lucky, lucky, you," he says. "I wish I was a child again."

"Why?" I'm about to ask him, always fascinated by this sort of comment and keen to know if people really mean it and would, if given the opportunity, trade places in order to labour through their lives all over again.

But, remembering the previous day's exchange, I bite the words back.

"I hope I didn't offend you yesterday," I say later, after I've paid.

"No. I am.....a big softy," he says, looking straight at me, deadpan, eyes as dead as any I've ever seen.

If he's a big softy, I am the Queen of Rumania.

Freecycler in nightmare candlelit menu mix up

"Offered: White solid plastic surfaced table. height 2' 5",width 3' 7", depth
2' 5" This is a perfectly adequate table but the legs are scoffed."

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Felled by the feel good factor

By the time I reel into Deborah's nativity play, I'm not in good shape.

I've been knocked for six by Noel, dazed by Divinity, felled by the feel good factor. And as for the seasonal alliteration: my dear, it's definitely getting me down.

Forget the Ice Queen and the splinter of snow that pierced Kai's heart (Kai - half boy, half goldfish, presumably): mine's been immobilised by a small, wiry strand of tinsel.

My parental credentials have already been somewhat undermined by Deborah's nativity outfit being sent back home again, owing to lack of fitness for purpose.

"They asked for a white skirt, white shirt, white tights, and that's what I sent them," I say to Deborah, indignantly.

"But it's a ballet skirt, Mum. They said it looked too much like what the angels are wearing."


"Mum, I'm Mary. Mary doesn't wear a ballet skirt."

"And just show me your theological proof for claiming that angels do," I say, then realise that I've had one too many sledgehammer v nut moments this year and that it's time to pull back.

Deborah ignores me. "They said not to worry, they'd sort out my costume themselves."

This, coming from a resource-impoverished state school, has to be one of the most degrading bits of feedback possible. To be honest, though, I'm so thrilled that I've been let off the hook that, as long as they don't invite me up on stage and make other parents throw copies of the National Curriculum at me as a punishment, I decide I can cope with the humilation.

It's clear that I've made another fundamental gaffe when I get to the performance, depositing Deborah round the back of the hall first. The other children are arriving in their costumes. Deborah has been asked to leave hers at school - the only one, as far as I can gather. Perhaps they're worried that, in a fit of pique, I'll infest it with allergy-triggering dustmites.

All the other parents are waving tickets. Tickets? "We had to apply for these weeks ago. Didn't you get a form?" says a smug-looking mother. Short of shouting, "I'm Jesus' granny, let me through," it's hard to know what to do, until a kindly looking teacher manages to find me standing space by pushing and shoving the crowds until a suitable sized gap briefly appears, and shoving me into it.

Deborah, diminutive and toothy, mumbles her lines to herself for several seconds before delivering them, like an old lady exploring the taste sensation of a custard cream, but delivers them, eventually, with apparent enjoyment. The real straw above the manger keeps falling down, the three kings arrive present-less and the pianist, I'm happy to note, loses her way in 'We wish you a Happy Christmas,' going on so long after everyone else has stopped that at this rate she'll be ushering us all into a Happy Easter and beyond.

I sit, feeling completely detached from it all, but applaud diligently. If I could just have a tinsel bypass, I might even feel quite proud.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Foiled Christmas Balls

A Christmas buying guide with Cultured Mum, Vicky and Bad Lindy.

Cultured Mum:"You can't do better than buy your loved ones that new DVD tribute to Jacqueline du Pre. There are some highly moving interviews that haven't been seen before. And, let's not forget, as her homage site says, the fact that she's arguably the greatest talent to ever play the cello, combining mind, heart, body and soul to produce the most expressive tones ever to emanate from the instrument. And her death at that tragically early age."

So that's one to have everybody collapsing round the TV with merriment on Christmas Day, then.

Vicky: "How about a labrador pup? In fact, how about mine? B****** husband presented me with him yesterday. Said just because I'd got rid of the Aga, it wouldn't stop him from instilling in us, and I quote, the sort of healthy lifestyle that is worlds away from my current wine and gossip based social circle. Bloody dog keeps retrieving. Retrieving things or vomiting. Sometimes retrieving things and vomiting at the same time.

"Just yesterday he retrieved the postman, an old lady and Bad Lindy, twice. Mind you, it was just as well. She needed retrieving from the gutter. She came to just as he was trying to push her in through the cat flap."

Bad Lindy: "One of those vibrating condoms. No - wrong order. Start with a fireman all round first. Then get the condoms. Why's my arm halfway through a catflap, anyway, and what's that licking my foot? If that's not a member of the emergency services, I'm going to kick it. Oh, God, I think it's just been sick on me."

As far as I'm concerned, Waitrose has summed up the whole thing. Foiled Chocolate Balls for all, and you can make mine a double.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

What's your daemon like?

I haven't yet seen 'The Golden Compass' - though I'm convinced that, however good the animation, nothing will live up to the unmissable combination of book + imagination which, to my mind, will always be one step ahead of script + computer programme.

I like the idea of the daemons, though - the creature that each child is born with and supposedly represents their souls, taking various animal guises until puberty, when its identity becomes fixed.

I'm convinced that I, too, have a daemon. However, its shape was fixed not at puberty when, as far as I was concerned, my identity was about as as clearcut as a lesser cloud formation, and with approximately the same clarity of thinking, but when my ideas became fixed, my views stereoptyped, my hopes for the future suddenly bounded, no longer limitless.

As soon the first middle-age appropriate cliche sprang fully formed from my lips, my daemon would have been given life. And unlike the main 'Golden Compass' characters, my daemon, were it to be visible, wouldn't be a snow-white and adorable furry creature (if it did have fur, it would either be of an ethically correct fun variety, or appear as enormous, peri-menopausal eyebrows).

It would, without doubt, be one of those choleric ex-Indian army majors much favoured as lesser characters and occasional murder victims by Agatha Christie.

It would harrumph its way round the corridors of my life, spending the majority of the day under the table, curled up at my feet in a semi-stupor and then wake up in the late afternoon after overhearing a remark it disagreed with, and set off to do battle against other daemons with its sword stick, stagger back 20 minutes later with an expression of supreme self-satisfaction and fall asleep again.

So if you've got one, too, what the devil does it look like?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Away in a manger with the fairies

"Carols aren't that hard," says the vicar impatiently, as I chop my way laboriously through the rising sixths half way through "Once in Royal David's City," for the 19th time.

"They are if you can't play the piano," I reply, hands poised above the keyboard with about as much chance of hitting the right notes as a short-sighted bird of prey trying to locate a small, fast-moving vole.

He sighs. "If you play that again it'll be repeating all evening," he says, making my performance sound like a small, indigestible gerkin, and brings proceedings to a temporary halt by putting on a tape of carols at top volume.

It's the last day of term and the first parents are filing into the church to get the best seats. Jesus may bid the children shine with a pure, clear light, but it's an injunction that doesn't apply to pianos. This one is fitted with a very small clip-on beam that keeps the keyboard in deepest darkness and illuminates only the first few notes of the hymns, which is great if it's metaphors about the state of my soul I'm after but of limited use when it comes to belting out the music. I point this out to the vicar. "Did I tell you about our really excellent new director of music?" he says. "Really first class. Nothing's too much trouble. Marvellous man. He always has this light. Doesn't seem to have a problem with it."

It occurs to me, belatedly, that really competent pianists like the director of music probably don't need sight of every note at least half a bar before it's played, whereas visual clearance is an absolute necessity as far as I'm concerned.

The result, inevitably, is a sort of race, where my hands, plunged into darkness, take on an independent existence from the rest of me during the service, and I can only listen, often aghast, at what they come up with as they attempt to translate my woolly instructions into notes. As a result, carols with a lot of repetition - 'O come all ye faithful' a particular favourite for this reason - get faster and faster as my confidence levels rise, while others ('In the bleak midwinter' a prime example) are executed at the broken canter of a novice jockey confronting the hurdles of the Grand National for the first time.

Amazingly, we all finish the carols together, although the vicar, who spends much of the service cast down in apparent gloom on a seat next to the choir stalls, casts contemplative looks in my direction from time to time, especially when I attempt to add a fifth verse to the four perceived to be perfectly adequate by the rest of the congregation at the end of 'O little town of Bethlehem'.

The final chord rings out, then rings out again, this time minus the three extra sharps that had somehow crept in and I stop abruptly. The blessing is done and the children and parents leave, to the sound of five pound notes rustling into the collection plates like dry leaves.

For one terrible moment, I thought I'd never see my lovely hands again. But here they are, back in the light again, ready to come home with me for Christmas.

So let's hear it for the arrival of Jesus - not once, not twice but six - yes, SIX times. I've welcomed Him twice on the piano, once on the violin and three times as a spectator. My father would have been proud of me. Though, as he was Jewish, maybe not.

And what could possibly be nicer than those favourite old carols? After careful consideration, I’d say a double brandy would do it every time. Five renditions of Away in a Manger is enough to tip the bi-polar balance of the toughest brain cells into deep depression.

I decide to skip the staff lunch, pleading death, and leave home, trailing brain cells, spare notes and a palpable sense of relief in my wake.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Ivy F treatment (not to mention Holly)

Two exasperated new posters near the Year 2 classroom ambush me as I pass.


I look, without success, for a third poster which, if I read the rising mood of irritation correctly should read, "SO FOR GOD'S SAKE, WHY CAN'T YOU BLOODY WELL LEARN IT?" but it has yet to be added.

The mood of exasperation is echoed elsewhere in the school.

"Mrs Philistine is going to look after the children who are trying hard because I'm a little bit busy getting a little bit cross," says the Year 1 teacher, as I wait to take her class into music.

She is propelling 5 year olds across the floor like skittles in her desperate attempts to choreograph the class into an approximation of a Christmas tree shape, the finale to the song which they will be performing later this week at the carol service - the final event of the term.

Soon, with only a minimum of shouting and child hurling, she has achieved a series of graduated rows, smallest children at the front crouched into root-balls, tallest, at the back, standing precariously on tippy-toes with hands held high.

She heaves a sigh of relief, turns away from them to demonstrate the final pirouette and takes an unplanned step backwards, treading on much of the first row which falls backwards in surprise, bringing down the rest like dominoes.

They say Christmas comes only once a year. Not in this neck of the woods. For an aetheist, I'm spending an awful lot of my waking hours with Little Lord Jesus, and it's hard to believe that the experience is doing either of us much good.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Stop me if you've heard this before

Can't remember if have previously posted this. If so, accept my apologies. It's not new, but it scarcely matters, as it happens in slightly modified form, every year.

At break, no doubt as an antidote to the stress of the nativity play, the staffroom is full of sentiment. Five or six teachers are watching the computer slideshow another teacher has e-mailed.

A reinterpretation of 'The Seven Wonders of the World,' it consists of 'to hear, to see, to feel, to taste' (but never bile at the back of the throat) , 'to laugh' (though never ironically), finishes with 'to learn' and 'to teach' and is copiously illustrated with pictures - a smiley baby reaching up to its mother's face, a labrador puppy sharing an ice cream with a little girl, ("I'm sure that's a health and safety issue," someone murmurs), lovers leaping through poppy-filled meadows. "It's really humbling," says one of the Year 1 teachers.

Feeling like a mad axe murderer let loose among a room full of tiny lambs, I lurch over to the coffee machine, to see if a jolt of caffeine will remove the feeling that I am having a near death experience, only to recoil at the sound of Mary, the deputy head, making running repairs to her latest bandwagon.

"Graves need to be tended," she's saying to the head. "I'm funny about things like that." Sickened, I turn away, and come face to face with a prayer bluetacked to the whiteboard. It's designed for 'all those involved in education'. "Make us more apt to teach but yet more apt to learn....with humble and thankful hearts," it says.

Just when I think I've entered a parallel universe made entirely from saccharine, with no way of escape, I hear the welcome, acerbic voice of Sally, the teaching assistant, coming up the stairs from one of the reception classrooms: "If another child sneezes on my hand, I'm going to go mad," she says, and immediately the atmosphere reverts to normal.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Not much on top

It's not hard to know when Francis is almost home. For starters, there's the sound of the car engine, a friendly chug chug, rising to a slightly asthmatic 'chug-cough-chug,' when he puts his foot down for the last 100 yards to try to give our neighbourhood slugs a run for their money, and usually loses.

The sound is a reminder of more innocent times when climate change and morbid obesity weren't natural word partners, and the doomsday scenario that exercised us all was the Millennium Bug - remember how it was going to cause global meltdown? Computers round the world would all fail to recognise the year '2000' and go mad, automatically sending Danielle Steel's entire back catalogue in triplicate from Amazon to everyone on your Christmas card list except in nuclear bunkers, where warheads would be dispatched instead, though with optional gift-wrapping.

Sweetly, perhaps, we all believed that the cancer generated by diesel fuel was of a nicer, kinder, slower-acting kind than the robust 'kill you as soon as look at you' petrol powered sort.

So, taking advantage of the cancer-lite lower duty, my parents bought an old saloon, drove it and then, shortly afterwards, died. Given that Francis inherited the car, it would be nice to think that it was in no way responsible for their deaths, but only time will tell.

This evening, though, there's no friendly panting as the barely out of breath slugs hurl themselves through the letterbox and celebrate their victory with a quick gnaw on the underlay - the signal to me to snort that last line of cocaine, hide the lover under the stairs and get the children lined up in order of cleanliness - often right way up - by the front door.

The first I know of Francis' arrival is a long, low roar and a throbbing vibration that shakes the house to its foundations, rather excitingly, then stops abruptly. I open the front door. Francis is sitting outside the house in a car that echoes his male-pattern baldness but takes it several stages further by having absolutely nothing on top at all.

He is sitting behind the steering wheel, a look of beautific happiness on his face, paying me no attention at all.

"Like it?" he asks, when I've finally brought him out of his testosterone-fuelled trance by dashing a glass of water in his face.

"What's happened to the old car?" I ask. "Is this yours?"

"No," he says, with evident regret. "One of the directors left last year and it needed driving around a bit so they let me borrow it for the weekend. It's a convertible. And look at all the extras. Heated bum-warmers, sat-nav, heated bum warmers, fabulous sound system, heated bum warmers, and a roof that goes up and down. Watch this."

He presses a button. Nothing happens.

"That's funny," he says. "It's supposed to go up automatically."

He presses it again. The roof stays obstinately down.

"Never mind," he says, almost nonchalantly. "I'll try again later."

"Francis," I say, "It's started to rain."

Two hours later, we've used the last of the bin liners, sellotaped together to create a makeshift roof or, depending on your perspective, an art installation which sweepingly conveys the deep insecurities of a generation ruled by its possessions.

The rain is gradually dripping into the car while we wait for the man with a special wrench to arrive and raise the roof manually. Then there's a small explosion from the dashboard.

"There go the heated bum warmers," says Francis, gloomily. "Rain's got into the electrics."

"Never mind," I say.

"I know it's telling me that it's pathetic for a man of my age to be driving something like this, and that it makes me look like a total w***** , and that I should just be grateful to have a car at all, even it if is 12 years old and only capable of keeping up with a hearse, but it is wonderful to drive."

We link arms and stand together in the rain, a mid-life couple watching a mid-life dream fill slowly up with water.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Intestine times

"Do you know what the word 'disembowel' means?" says the head, kicking off her pre-play motivational chat with the Year 2s.

"No? It means pulling all your insides out, bit by bit," she adds, demonstrating with a majestic hand over hand action that has the entire class goggling at her. "And, Bertie, if you sit with your legs akimbo so everyone can see up your king's gown again or fiddle with your crown during the performance today, I'll be strongly tempted to disembowel YOU."

Later on, as I triumphantly crash down my hands on the final chord, getting three out of four notes right - well above average - there's a collective sigh of relief from the teachers.

"The lovely thing," says the chair of the governors, after despatching a small child to present a seasonal basket of flowers to me and the deputy head, who wrote the thing,"is that the children were obviously enjoying every moment."

Little does he know that from my concealed position - right at the back of the hall, hidden by the children standing on rows of benches, I have long since mastered the art of hissing "SMILE! LOOK HAPPY! NO - HAPPIER!" out of the corner of my mouth while playing the introduction to 'Away in a manger.'

After the performance, we go round the school hall, collecting the parents' debris - used tissues, coffee and burger packaging. I'm half expecting to find a used condom in the back row.

"They might at least leave a tip," I say to the head. She sniffs. "A few inches of intestine stapled to the next letter home might help to reinforce the message that good manners maketh man."

Bertie, passing on his way back to the classroom, flinches and glances down at his robes, presumably praying that his mother had the good sense to make the bottom layer out of Kevlar.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Thanks, Brian Aldiss

From the Sunday Times (Bryan Appleyard)

"'The truth is,' (Brian) Aldiss has written,'that we are at last living in an SF scenario. A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers - it's all coming true at last,'"

On behalf of all those parents whose children are on behaviour controllers, thanks for crediting us with shaping a small part of this glorious future, Brian. May I call you Brian?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Dot comms.

"We've got a busy weekend," I say to Francis.

"We have?"

"Yes. We've got Vicky and her family round on Friday - I bet her that she wouldn't be able to taste the difference between this meal and the last one I cooked for her."

"Why - are you cooking the same thing?" asks Francis, momentarily diverted.

"No - it's just at everything I cook tastes identical to everything else. I think it must be those super-strength stock cubes I'm using.

"Anyway, on Saturday your brother's ex-wife is bringing the children round for lunch."

"She is? Why didn't you tell me? I didn't know."

"You did," I say. "I e-mailed you a list of dates."

"Oh, an e-mail. Well, I'm not going to read that."

"Why not?" I ask. "We both work. And what with all the school events - the children's and mine, your work things, the Christmas socials, it's the only way either of us can keep track of what's happening. And it's easy to update."

"I just can't get my head round the idea that our prime method of communication with each other is e-mail."

"It's not," I say. "I'm communicating with you by e-mail, and you're not communicating at all."

He looks anguished.

"I don't want to hear about what's happening from my wife in an e-mail. I want you to come and tell me face to face."

"I think you're spending too much time in the office, darling," I say. "Because that's not a wife you're talking about. That's a secretary."

Then I disappear back to the computer, dignity intact, like the high-tech, low-life bitch I am. Or not.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Dishing the dirt

"You asked for it," says D, inserting the tip of her little finger as far into the hole puncher as it will go.

"If we end up in Accident and Emergency you won't be able to go to the Advent fair, and then you won't be able to buy sweets or sing in the choir."

"Suppose I make holes in something of yours?" says Deborah, seizing one of my letters from a wobbly pile and dangling it just out of reach.

"Then you won't go to the fair at all, injured or not."

"I will. I'll just let myself out of the front door and go on my own."

"You won't, because I'll ring your head and tell her you're on your way...."

Damn, blast and hell. Yet again I've been captured by Deborah's cunning conversational ploy, starting off as a grown up and then seamlessly being dragged back through the years as we argue until, within seconds, I end up as another 7-year old, though not one that Pippi Longstocking would recognise.

"I'll behave! I'll behave!" says Deborah, possibly frightened by the towering toddler now sitting, snarling next to her.

"All I want you to do," I say, "is change your clothes. They've got tomato ketchup all over them."

She scowls at me and disappears upstairs, rummages through the secret stash of favourite clothes that huddle in dirty togetherness under her bed and arrives back, sporting a whole new range of food debris.

"You know," I say weakly, "Perhaps the ketchup stains weren't that bad after all."

She leaves, sporting a smile of triumph to coordinate with the food stains.

I eye the hole puncher. You never know. With a bit of effort and some WD40, I might just be able to force one of my fingers into it.

Friday, 30 November 2007


"What's going on," I say, as large men wheel slabs of metal out of Vicky's kitchen.

"Husband's away, so the Aga's going," she says.

"What? But it's only just arrived."

"I don't care," says Vicky. "Look at me. Do I look like a woman who wants to be slow-drying her tomatoes in a simmering oven overnight, or making her own chutney? Do you know what they make chutneys out of, these days?"

"Not being a chutney groupie, it's hard to say. But judging by the last school fair I went to, practically anything. Passion fruit, mud, engine oil. Put it in a Bonne Maman jar and shove a ribbon round the neck and you can't go wrong."

"I believe engine oil chutney is considered de rigeur with samphire and raw sewage soup," says Vicky. "But that's beside the point. The point is -"

"'Scuse me," says one of the men, loaded down with what looks like scrap iron coated with rust.

"- that I can't go on. I'm not a school fete fetishist with a chutney habit and six tombolas to feed and the only thing I'd like to tie a ribbon round wouldn't feature in any Aga bible, that's for sure.

"And then there's the heat. When it snowed the other day I had to have the back door open to bring the kitchen temperature below 80. And the rest of the house was arctic because the thermostat never clicks on. So the kids have all got chilblains and I've got heat rash."

"What are you getting instead?"

"Nothing," says Vicky. "I've got a really good price for the thing, and with that and what we save on the fuel bills, I plan to eat out for every meal well into the New Year."

"Won't that cause a major domestic upheaval."

"It may," says Vicky."But I'll make sure we get plenty of his favourite takeaways. And if he's really misses the taste of good, home cooking I'll specify that I want his portions carbonised. That way he can experience the essence of my cuisine any time he likes."

Thursday, 29 November 2007

My son the boyfriend

"We've got to get to grips with your homework, Leo," I say, driving him home after collecting him from his school trip. His eyes swivel away from mine in the vain hope that, just on the edges of his peripheral vision, somebody is holding a giant placard with the perfect, unarguable excuse painted on it in big, red letters.

"What homework?" he says.

"The RE homework. Two weeks running. It didn't get done, did it? Do you remember now?"

More swivelling. Still no placard.

"I remember some of it," he says cautiously, as his eyes swivel again. This time they clearly lock on to a giant sign reading, "Things are getting nasty. Divert her with some good news. Quickly."

"Hey, Mum. Guess what happened on the coach?"

"You lost your packed lunch, your clipboard, the questionnaire, the emergency money, your ...."

"No. Well, I did lose the fun quiz, but so did George, except I didn't get into trouble and he did."

He hurries on quickly.

"We were just mucking around on the coach and the girls started asking the boys out and then Zoe asked George out and Lydia asked me out. And I said 'yes'."

"So, you're not gay, then?"

Leo snorts. "Gay? I like fighting boys, that's all."

Visions of some sympathetic, artistic man who I can confide in vanish in a puff of smoke.

But who cares. My son has a girlfriend. My son, the problem boy has a nice, attractive girl who has ASKED HIM OUT. (Boys with any sense know who wears the hunter gatherer trousers in these post-ironic, post-feminist, post-dated times).

Is it too early to call and ask what we can contribute to the wedding, or if she'd care to sign a non-binding pre-nup guaranteeing a long term relationship with no comebacks if he fidgets in bed?

Now I know my ADHD....

I may be a teacher but I hate schools as much as the next pupil - at least, ones I don't work in.

I get a letter from Leo's school. I can tell it's one I don't want to open because, unlike all their circulars advertising fetes, concerts, plays, rowing, christmas tree sales and the winner of the Mrs Joyful prize for rafia work, this one is stamped 'first class' and is thus one for me alone. I suppose they could have circulated it as a round robin to all the other parents, too, for a laugh, but it seems unlikely.

It's from the head of lower school:

"Leo has acquired 6 misconducts so far this term and whilst his present behaviour seems to be under control, perhaps as a result of drugs, I think the time has come for us now to have a meeting to discuss his psychologist's report and find a mutual plan of action for his wellbeing and progress. Please could you contact me to arrange a meeting as soon as possible."

The wording fills me with horror. Quite apart from anything else, I haven't a clue what on earth it's saying, whether they think Leo is on the upward slope to success, or the downhill rush to failure and expulsion.

A 'mutual plan' could mean anything from agreeing to keep Leo on zombie-quantities of drugs for ever to removing him from school premises forthwith, compelling me to educate him at home.

I call the head of lower school, determined to strike an attitude that is objective yet informed, concerned yet calm.

It doesn't start well.

"Are you going to ask him to leave?" I ask.

"Who is this?" says the head of lower school.

Explanations over, I ask him to clarify what's going on. He's not going to ask Leo to leave (phew). But, while his behaviour is improving, there is a problem with his homework - notably, that he's not doing it. While Beth has slogged over her homework every evening since she started at the school, Leo is free as a bird most evenings. His teachers, miraculously, fail to set homework either because they're away, in meetings or simply forget - or so Leo says. And the homework diary that should record his assignments rarely makes it home either.

But things have to change, says the school. More home involvement is needed. Weakly, I make assenting noises, knowing all the time that without somebody to cook the food, clean the house, sort out Beth and Deborah and move Leo into a sound proof environment with no distractions, decoration, pets, tv, playstation - anything, I cannot for the life of me see a way through this.

Death, ADHD, Christmas songs about elves. It's all here. Help yourself. It may be my life, but I'm quite happy to dispense bits of it to others.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007


....well, I am. And if I needed a justification for blogging, this is it. Put your problem out there and wisdom, humour and support flood in.

Thank you all so much.

As for the effect......

"Beth," I bleat, up the stairs, as viciously loud music pours downwards, taking my words with them in a slide tackle round about the seventh step. "Other bloggers have come up with really good advice."

I track her down. It doesn't take long. All I have to do is follow the trail of used facial tissues and blobs of mascara and there she is, head slightly on one side as she admires herself, Mary Poppins-like, in the bathroom mirror.

"Don't you think my hair's shiny?" she says.

"Very." I say. "Look, about this dying business. You remember all those tips I had. Well, there are more. They're really interesting. Take ageing. Did you know -"

"The thing is," she says, pencilling her eyes, a corner of the mirror and the toothpaste with eyeliner, "I'm not worried about it any more."

"You're not?"

"No. It just lifted about half way through art and disappeared. I feel fine."

She turns a radiant face towards me. "Can you book me on a riding course over Christmas, to make up for all the lessons I've missed with my broken arm."

I should, of course, be thrilled for her. And it is a relief. But would it be very, very mean of me to wish her just a small frisson of terror at around 3 a.m. - like the rest of us?

Monday, 26 November 2007

That'll teach me

It's 11.00 pm on Sunday evening and Francis and I are cosily apart in separate rooms: he, to lip sync the dialogue to 'Goldfinger' - again; me to do almost anything else.

Then there's the sound of sobbing and Beth appears at the top of the stairs, tears pouring down her cheeks, apparently heart-broken.

"Which one of the others is dead?" I say - never one to over-react. "Leo?" She shakes her head. "Deborah? I knew I should have put arnica on that bruised knee - she's got blood poisoning. No? You're pregant? Addicted to cocaine? Vodka? Fags? Problem pages? Quiz games with yes/no answers? JUST TELL ME!!"


"Whose death?"

"Just death. One day.....I'm going to die." She breaks into renewed paroxysms of weeping.

This is a new one on me. At least to begin with. But, searching back, I remember my shocked realisation that, despite my firm conviction that I was in some way indispensible to humankind and thus exempt from death, the universe was not planning to make any exceptions in my case and would one day decide that I was surplus to requirements and delete me.

Most of Beth's problems up till now have come with some sort of solution - albeit one that takes a little teasing out.

But short of compromising all my beliefs and urging that she embrace the notion of life after death, courtesy of one of the major religions, it's hard to know what to say. We're both too old for platitudes, me to deliver them, her to receive them, but somehow I have to make the truth less naked, even if it's only by drawing a joke moustache on it.

"The thing is," I try, fumbling for words, "That you're at the stage in life when you're realising just what it has to offer. And then, just as you start to think that there are no horizons, that the possibilities stretch on for ever, you suddenly also see that it must also come to an end. And it seems terribly unfair."

Am I sounding too much like a well-meaning vicar?

The dog is licking Beth's toes.

"Look at the dog," I continue, drawing inspiration, though pitifully little, from this. "She has no fear of death and that's the result. You could argue that it's only our understanding of mortality that makes us truly human. We accomplish because we're conscious that we have a limited time to achieve things. Without that consciousness, we'd all lie around licking toes."

Ancient memories of the Duchess of York surface, and I hurry on.

"I know it doesn't make it any easier, but everyone feels like this - we all have 3 a.m. moments. It's just very intense at your age. have got an awful lot of your life left," I finish, with a platitude - despite myself. "Do you feel better?" She nods.

The following morning she seems fine. But then, as I'm driving round and round the major arterial roads to collect and deposit children like a postvan, she calls me.

"Mum. I'm at school. It's death again."

What do I say to her? All advice welcome.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

1-2-3. DIE! (part 2)

"Yes, great-granny is going to die," says my sister, cheerily, to her small offspring, who are busily trying to eavesdrop on our phone conversation. "And probably quite soon!"

She makes it sound like a particularly enjoyable treat that's just round the corner for great-granny, about on a par with a nice, new crocheted cardie and a cuppa.

"That's a robust approach to mortality," I say, rather envying her no beating around the bush technique - while listening out for the sounds of distant sobbing that indicate its total failure, sibling rivalry being what it is, never stronger than when it comes to child rearing.

"The thing is that nobody in my husband's family likes her anyway," she says. "We went up to see them a few weeks ago and took some pictures of them all. She's sitting in the middle, almost comatose, and the rest of them loook really, really cheerful."

"Perhaps they're all part of some bizarre sect that actively looks forward to death."

"I think that's Christianity," says my sister. "And anyway, if's that the case, why didn't she look more cheerful herself?"

"Perhaps she'd already died and discovered it wasn't all it was cracked up to be."

"True," says my sister. "I've got to go. Promised the children we'd have a little burial. I've already got the trowel and the cardboard box."

"But what are you going to put in it?" I ask, intrigued.

"Don't know yet," she says. "But I'm quite sure something will turn up......"

One to get ready

"1-2-3. DIE! 1-2-3. DIE! 1-2-3. DIE! 1-2-3 -"

"What are you doing, Deborah?"


"Counting what?"

"People. Did you know that one person dies every three seconds?"

"Er -."

"1-2-3. DIE! 1-2-3. DIE! 1-2-3-"



"Do you think you could count something else. It's a bit distracting having you shouting 'DIE!' like that when I'm driving."



"1-2-3. BORN! 1-2-3. BORN! 1-2-3. BORN!"


"What? There's one person born every three seconds, too."

Friday, 23 November 2007

Jargon can change your life

One internet company has, very fortunately, found out how to solve your problems. Wanna know how? Just read on......

Tip 1:
'If it works, do more of it; If it doesn't work, do something different'
Honestly, would you have thought of that? No, you wouldn't. You wouldn't. Stop saying that, or I'll have to slap you.

'The problem is the problem; not the person'
Well of course it is. Unless, like a rose, it's a bison.

'Keep one foot in pain and one in possibility'
That gin-trap is sheer affectation. Of course it hurts. No, you can't gnaw your own leg off. I'm just going to call Alistair Darling. He's bound to know what to do.

The company, perhaps needless to say, 'provides solution-based management consultancy' achieved by 'taking on board concern and identifying resource to bring about change'.

Don't be silly. Of course you'd guessed.

Coming soon: Match the mission statement to the company. We'll guarantee you'll be challenged. That is, if you don't die of boredom first.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

No rhyme at the inn

"It's no good," I say. "I can't get them to remember it."

We're in the middle of a slightly tense nativity play rehearsal and I'm taking the children through the final song, written earlier this morning following the sudden realisation that without music, Mary and Joseph will make their entire epic journey to Bethlehem ('Circle twice round the shepherds and for heavens sake don't fall over the lamb again, Mary') in complete silence.

The parameters for the song - short, punchy and memorable - have resulted in a fairly feeble effort which does the job - but with one slight flaw. I've rhymed 'Mary' with 'weary' - a lazy rhyme that is coming home to roost, and doing a good job of mixing metaphors in the process as it lands heavily on my shoulder and utters a loud, self-satisfied squawk.

"Children, it's not 'wary' - that would mean that Mary was a little bit cautious. And she may be cautious, after all, they haven't got anywhere to stay and the baby's going to be born soon, but she's actually weary - which means tired. Can you all say 'weary'? After me. 1, 2, 3, 4 -'

"Wary," chorus the children.

"Not wary..... weary."

The deputy head who's producing the play, has already had a tough afternoon, what with moving a bunch of heavy benches for the children to sit on having played havoc with her pelvic floor, and this latest development appears to be having a similar effect on her facial muscles, which are sagging noticeably.

"Isn't there anything you can do?" she asks.

"All I can think of is simplifying the song," I say.

"How would that work," she asks, tiredly.

"I'm not sure," I say. "But the way things are going, I'd suggest lyrics on the lines of 'Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas'. Then we could tweak it for the Spring term: 'Easter, Easter, Easter, Easter, Easter, Easter,' In fact," I say, "It's got almost infinite potential. Take the Autumn term."

"Let me guess," she says. "Harvest, Harvest, Harvest - "

"You've got it," I say. "Am I fired yet?"

"Oh come on," she says. "Let's have one more go at the words."

"Or die trying," I say.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Polished performance

"I had to say 'no' - he was just too bald," says Bad Lindy, regretfully. "You know, not just hairless but slightly shiny looking, like he'd been out too long in the rain. And I could never cope with a man I kept wanting to polish."

"So what would you go for - original beeswax or a spray?" asks Vicky.

"God knows, I'm no housekeeper. A spray would probably be safest. If they've got a few little tufts of hair left - they often do, as keepsakes, I reckon - anything more solid would go all lumpy in the strands."

"Good point," says Vicky. "Mind you, you'd have to rethink your handbag policy. Forget spare knickers, you'd be packing soft dusters just in case you needed to buff something up to a mirror-quality surface you could see your face in."

"Exactly," says Bad Lindy. "That's why I said no. You have to watch these compulsions or they can take over your life. Let this one grow on you and next thing you know, you'd be pulling over at red lights and french polishing the heads of total strangers."

"Mind you," she adds, "They'd look good arranged in height size in a wall to ceiling display cabinet, like Russian dolls. Come on," she says, pulling Vicky to her feet. "Let's go and get some."

Monday, 19 November 2007

Severe weather warnings

Francis is away in Wales looking at a factory. I suppose it makes a change from sardine watching in Canada.

It's a cold, rainy night and I've been sneering at the government's attempts to keep us indoors with threats of severe weather. This turns out to be mistake number 1 - though I'm still not clear whether it's the government's error or mine.

The children demand hot water bottles. I hold one by its rubber top and pick up the kettle. The kettle, in a last-ditch flaccid nod in the direction of style - so far away these days that it would take a good Sat nav system to locate it - is made of metal. This is, or could have been, a second mistake.

The third mistake, depending on who plays a more prominent role in your life, is either too great a dependence on electricians, or too little on God.

I am just listening to a shortened version of Start the Week with Andrew Marr (abridged) which, this week, is talking about how electricity can affect the brain, with particular reference to a golfert struck three times by lightning, when a blue white arc of light shoots out of the kettle socket, performs a split second arabesque round me, the kettle, and the kitchen worktop, then subsides into nothing.

It is fleeting and attractive, like a strand of living tinsel.

"What was that?" asks Beth. As she speaks, there is an enormous clap of thunder.

"Mum," call Deborah and Leo, "All the lights just flickered."

For once, I'm with the government. Severe weather - definitely. It's just that I'm not used to finding it making its way inside. Perhaps it's just following the slugs and crawling in through the catflap for warmth and security.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Fighting the good fight

Owing to a bruising staffroom debate over which should have take centre stage for the nativity play dance routine; the seasonal camels, elves or - unlikely though it sounds - aliens, I am late for school pick up and arrive, panting and cross, to discover that I am the only parent waiting at the gates.

This can only be bad. So far this term, I've missed one parent teacher consultation at my children's schools and the vicar, twice, at my own.

I look around me for clues. Not an inset day - there are cars parked outside and, anyway, Deborah hasn't enough pocket money on her to keep her in sufficient quantities of heroin and/or alchohol for a whole day's spontaneous truanting.

I hear laughter from the hall and my spirits sink further. Then there's applause and parents and children erupt from the doors.

Deborah is waiting just inside. "It was our special play about bullying," she says sadly. "All the other mothers were there except you. I wish you never did this job."

I can't think what to do, apart from count heads so I can, logically and rationally, prove to her that I wasn't the only absentee. But such tit for tat efforts are below Deborah's dignity - though not mine, sadly - and, anyway, the hall is now almost empty.

I'm saved, if not from Deborah then from my own guilt by the arrival of Vicky and Bad Lindy who appear, giggling, from the back of the hall.

"Want some?" says Bad Lindy, brandishing a colourful Little Princess flask. "It's Frescati," she hisses. "There's a faint aftertaste of whimsey, but I think you'll be amused by its animation."

"Whassamatter?" asks Vicky, peering at me.

"I missed the ....whatever it was."

"It was some simplistic bullshit about being nice to the world," says Vicky. "Honestly, don't worry about it. You didn't miss much."

"No," says Bad Lindy. "I was really hoping to pick up a few tips on mental torture. But honestly, it was the same old hackneyed stuff they had when I was a child. No new ideas at all. You'd think they'd have been a bit more imaginative with all those new cyber bullying opportunities but no. It just means they've taken the easy option and gone for safe, indoor, terror by remote control. Bring back the hands-on duffing up people, I say. At least it's exercise. Nothing like a good catfight to bring a little colour to your cheeks."

"I expect it's banned by Health and Safety," says Vicky. "Honestly. You'd think they'd leave bullying alone. Is nothing sacred these days?"

She disappears down the steps, falls and recovers her balance. Deborah, wobbly lip temporarily stiffened by surprise, watches as they go.

"Mummy," she says, "Is Vicky drunk?"

For the second time that afternoon, the words fail me. Deborah takes my silence for assent and hugs my arm reassuringly.

"Never mind, Mummy. At least being a teacher means you can't be drunk."

"Well, not all the time," I say. "But I'm working on it."

Friday, 16 November 2007

The alterations

"Freecycle, wanted:
Hello...I have a new baby, and it would be so very helpful to have a sewing machine....."

It doesn't say why. I can only assume the baby hasn't turned out looking quite the way she's planned, so she wants to make a few quick alternations, perhaps adding its name to the back of its neck in cross-stitch, in case it gets lost, or deciding to avert the dropped toy horror by tethering teddy firmly and permanently to those little hands.

I suppose, though, she might be contemplating self-medication on the cheap with high-speed acupuncture.....

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Wise before the event

There's an interesting dichotomy emerging.

Take the government's recent decision to share more information about the severity of the terrorist threat at any one time. Presumably it's been taken on the basis that a worry shared is a worry halved: they feel better, we feel a hell of a lot worse.

Then there's global warming. A new crisis brought to us by the same people who you may remember from such threats as The Millennium Bug, morbid obesity in children; liver damage in teenagers and so on.

I'm not denying global warming exists. But given that we're already expected to cope with worries about Andy Kershaw, the level of BBC repeats over Christmas, personal debt and, in my case the possible links between recorder teaching and MRSA, bird flu, blue tongue and foot and mouth, I do wonder how we're expected to cope.

As we unpack our troubles, wondering all the while if the old kit bag they came in was made in a Fair Trade cooperative or woven by 6-year olds in a back-street third-world sweat shop, we're compensating in the only way we can, by ferociously over-controlling all other aspects of life. Our children spend their afternoons counting their many chins in front of the television: so few go to playgrounds these days that they probably think monkey bars are a high energy snack.

But fear not. I have a solution. Forget post-trauma counselling. What we all need is pre-trauma counselling to help people to deal with tomorrow's traumas - today.

Why wait for a rainy day when you can conjure up grey skies right now? Why waste your time brooding about the bad things that have already happened when there are so many more terrors round the corner that are probably a whole lot worse?

Instead, it's time to share all those 'what ifs' - the little niggling worries that lurk at the corner of your brain like loose change in a piggy bank and just need a little expert help to be shaken free so they pop out of your mouth, liberated at last.

If I have my way, teams of highly trained specialists will be available at every GP surgery in the country. They'll be there for you, helping to turn your hypothetical worries into something much more tangible and terrifying and allowing you to face up to the full ramifications, before anything actually happens.

In just a few years, we'll love risk, cleave to it, search it out. We'll treat calamity as our friend, catastrophe as a second cousin once removed, global disaster as the pen of my aunt. Phrases like, "I never thought it could happen to me," will disappear from the language. We'll all know it could happen to us. But, thanks to expert help and a bare minimum of hallucinogenic drugs, we'll no longer care.

Join me in making the world a worse place - but one where nobody gives a damn.

I thank you.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Book club notes by cultured mum

This one's for you, Stay at home Dad.

"It's nice to be asked to communicate with a wider public that can really appreciate literature," says Ra, aka Cultured Mum, when I ask her whether she's got any book recommendations I can plagiarise.

Conscious of a dearth of decent blog material of my own, I nobly suppress the urge to smack her in the kisser and instead plead for her to email me her notes, which follow. They are only slightly edited by me as Cultured Mum is totally lacking in humour - rather like Simone de Beauvoir herself, I gather:

'Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir

'Simone de Beauvoir's 'Memoirs' was generally felt to have been a 3-glass-of-wine read - much tougher than anticipated.

'Her densely packed account of her childhood was considered big on detail - sometimes excessively so - but annoyingly short of information and analysis when it really counted. The death of the erstwhile best friend, Zaza, dismissed in a few brief lines, was a case in point.

'However, as the discussion progressed, levels of irritation dropped slightly and a little more empathy crept in.

'Her often ambivalent relationship with her parents, passionate espousal, then total rejection, of religion and search for a man worthy of her devotion, set against a backdrop of crumbling family finances and stifling expectations for women didn't make her armour-plated intellectual arrogance any more appealing - but, if nothing else, it helped explain why she acquired it.

'The discussion then broadened to compare French versus English approaches to the intellectual life, including the much-avowed desire of Jean Paul Satre - and others -to embrace the proletariat in general and fishermen in particular, platonically speaking.

'Widespread sympathy for fishermen was expressed.'

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Agent orange

I am cycling to work, glowing gently, the result not of healthy exercise nor over-active glands but the pronounced over-use of cosmetics.

If The Simpson's ever revamp their skin tone range and opt for orange, I reckon I'd be in with a chance of playing the entire family.

As it is, the more cautious drivers take one look at my face and apply the brakes, assuming they've encountered a walking amber light and sensibly taking early precautionary measures.

"You should go and get yourself sorted out," says one of the other teachers, surveying my early morning makeup when I arrive at school.

"It's another acute case of slap, but minus the tickle, isn't it?" I ask, gloomily.

"That new shop down the road has got this marvellous range of foundation colours to choose from and they'll take the time to advise you on which shade is right for you," she says, diplomatically avoiding the question, as we pick up the 100 sheets of photocopied christmas stars that she dropped in horror when she first saw me. "Admittedly, all the girls seem to be aged around 13, made up like Tutankhamun and talk very slowly and loudly at you if you're anywhere over 25, but it's a small price to pay for getting your make up right."

I think it sounds like a very, very large price to pay. And, as I make my way into the hall, unwrapping the piano from its protective cover with an ill-tempered tug, I take my mind off things by reflecting on the alternative Christmas catalogue I'm currently devising. So far, the product range runs as follows:

Bumper pack of 'Face the truth' fragranced tealights, containing one each of the following:

Mid-life pack. A subtle blend of mould and general decrepitude. Entire pack guaranteed to be well past its best.

Early years desperation pack. All your favourite smells - sick, poo, wee and misery. Packaged in toning shades of brown.

Menopause pack: Guaranteed to flare up without warning then to subside in pool of wax.

Coming soon: "Back off, world." The long-awaited Omega Mum range of cosmetics. Guaranteed to be sold by people older than you are - thus giving an instant lift to your spirits before you've even seen what's on offer.

Be afraid, Lakeland. Be very, very afraid.

Monday, 12 November 2007

A taxidermist's Christmas

"Christmas catalogue books are in," says Vicky. "Here, listen to this: 'Have you ever wished you could recreate the traditional magic of a Victorian Christmas tree, complete with lighted candles?'"

There's a brief pause, then,

"No," we both chorus, and she chucks the catalogue at the Aga where it clings briefly to a damp patch of home made jelly before sliding off the enamel and on to the sleeping hamster.

"Vicky," I say, "What's the hamster doing in front of the Aga?"

"Toasting itself."

"I've heard of self-basting chickens, but this is ridiculous," I say.

"I'm not ready for a labrador," says Vicky, "so I thought I'd start off small and work up."

"Isn't it rather hot for it?" I say.

"No..though, now you come to mention it, he's not been moving around much recently."

She prods at the straw with a sugar thermometer. There's a small 'crunch'.

"Oh, bloody hell," she says, parting the straw to reveal a small, mummified corpse. "That's the third this week. And the pet shop says I've used up the similar looking ones from the same litter."

"Never mind," I say. "Thanks to the Aga, you'll be laughing."

I pick up the catalogue again.

"Have you ever wished you could create the traditional magic of a taxidermist's Christmas tree, complete with mummified rodent corpses?"

There's a short pause, then:

"Yes," we both chorus, as the still drying hamster stinks gently in front of the Aga.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Encrypted spirits

"My sofa's caught something off your piano," texts Vicky. "Come urgently, preferably in furniture removal van with hoist."

I turn up a few minutes later, minus van and hoist, but bursting with curiosity.

"Look at this," says Vicky, pointing at the sofa. "What do you make of it?"

"I'm no forensic scientist," I say, "But at a guess I'd say it's been moved."

"Exactly," says Vicky. "But by what?"

"Perhaps the Aga frightened it," I say. "It's certainly worrying me. Or have you accidentally given Bad Lindy a fireman and a spare key as a surprise un-birthday present?"

"Never mind that," says Vicky. "Sit down on it and you'll see what I mean."

Gingerly, I sit on the sofa and instantly have the sensation of being on a Dodgem car with an inexperienced operator at the helm, as it shoots several inches to the left and then comes to a grinding halt.

"You know what - I think it's trying to spell something out," I say. "Has it been out drinking with any ouija boards? I'd say it's got a message for one of us. You haven't got any of those flash cards - you know, the ones all the pushy parents use to test their children on the alphabet."

Vicky looks slightly shifty. "I might have. Though they were a present, of course," she adds, hastily. "I'd never have bought them myself."

"Well of course not," I agree, vehemently and with complete insincerity. "Why don't you go and get them?"

She does and we spread them out in front of the sofa, then take turns sitting down and trying to work out which letter it's pointing to, while Vicky keeps a record.

"So," I ask, after five minutes or so, "Is there a presence from the other side?"

Vicky looks down at the sheet of paper. "Oh. My. God." she says.

"What is it?"

"dbhtosnguopwrtkifogh," says Vicky.

"Trust us to get the only spirit that's had its messages double encrypted,"

"Probably very sensible," says Vicky. "I expect there's a lot of phantasmagoric fraud up there."

"Alternatively," I say, "I think I could have solved your furniture problem." I hold up some little plastic contraptions.

"My furniture cups," says Vicky. "Ah. Now I come to think of it, Chris did mutter something about taking them off to look for a missing contact lens. And this is a vinyl floor."

"Vinyl?" I say. "With an Aga? No wonder that sofa's complaining. It's asking for parquet. And a labrador."

Friday, 9 November 2007

Signs, stings and portents

School newsletter:
We are sorry to say that Bugsy, the Year 3 guinea pig has just died.
Offered: Fabulous rodent cage with double run. Free to good home!!!! Apply Year 3 classroom.

Offered: Very old galvanised bucketwhich is leaking badly. Might make shabby chic hanging basket or a pot feature.

From Biff Lan-Kwin (via e-mail)
......the success of our company is dependent upon the success of our employees,
and we therefore have created maximally favorable conditions to help maintain and improve the professional levels of our employees.

The qualities required for success with our company are: Initiative, Leadership, Ability to work with people, and, most importantly, a deep-seated gullibility that will allow us to empty your bank account within weeks.

Preference will be given to applicants with a knowledge of multiple languages, ideally including a wide-ranging choice of expletives to ensure that they can adequately express their rage and disappointment once they have discovered just how quickly we can make their money disappear.

Leaflet through letterbox:
I arrived in England a year ago. I'm cleaner!!!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Reaction and interreaction

"How was your day, Leo?" I ask, on the way back from school.
He has just opened his mouth when -

"I don't get why you ask Leo how his day is and you don't ask me about mine," says Beth.

"How was your day, Beth?" I ask.

"There's no point asking me about my day now, is there?" she says, crossly, flashing me a look that's all blurry eye-liner and i-Pod speakers and hatred.

Foiled again.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Swimming with sardines

"Francis is off to Canada again," I say to Vicky.

"Bastard," she says, companiably and without any real resentment.

"They're flying him in to look at sardines again," I say. "Stupid, really, given that the planes are so crowded that they might just as well ship a few sardines over to examine them instead."

"You know what I think?" says Bad Lindy. "It's obviously some sort of deep seated sexual perversion."

"Is there any other sort?" asks Vicky.

"Whose perversion? Francis' or the sardines?" I ask.

"Francis', obviously. And those poor sardines, having him flying over and inspecting them. I expect they've gone broody with the stress and stopped laying, or whever it is the little swine do."

"He loves Canada," I say. "He keeps talking about asking to be posted there."

"Take it from me," says Vicky, "It's the only place I know where every national stereotype is absolutely true."

"How would you know?" asks Bad Lindy, "You've never been there."

"True," says Vicky. "But you'd be surprised at how many conversations I've had with sardines. Admittedly, I was so drunk at the time that I never did work out if they were dead or just being very considered in their responses."

"I shouldn't think emigration is much of a danger," I say. "I've checked on the website and there's still no sign of them prioritising crap music teachers and sardine voyeurs. The day they announce a national shortage of people to play 'London's burning,' as a slightly out of tune five part round I'll be straight off to consult a good divorce lawyer."

"Don't worry about getting a good one," says Bad Lindy, laughing. "Once you start talking about Francis' sardine-watching habits you could hire the winner of the all England single-cell legal brain of the year competition and guarantee a first rate settlement."

"In the meantime," says Vicky, surveying the latest batch of cakes that are lined up on the window sills like parachute jump trainees, "Have a bun. It'll take your mind off sardines. And emigration."

Monday, 5 November 2007

Limping amok

Gemma, one of the teaching assistants, skips into the staffroom. "Hopping, skipping, jumping, walking," she chants, making her way rhythmically to the photocopier.

The familiar feeling of nausea rises in my gorge.

"Gemma, the job's getting to you again. I'm afraid I'm going to have to slap you," I warn her. "Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."

She stops skipping and looks slightly hurt.

The staff room is filled with such lovely warm vibes that it's all I can do to maintain my bitter and twisted position vis a vis the world. But I manage, somehow. Fortunately there are frequent prompts.

The wholesome prayers whose first word, often 'the', is enough to inspire a red mist, aren't up yet. But just looking at the home made cake ("Remember, girls, you'll all have to watch your hands afterwards because of the allergy-inducing pecan nut topping,") that somebody has thoughtfully brought in from home is enough to make me want to run amok with an arc welder.

Of course, running amok with an arc welder might be a bit ambitious, what with the weight. Then there's all those tedious health and safety rules, like having to ask the children to wait on wall side (going up) and on the bannister side (going down) while I pass, emitting the occasional spark.

Damn. Another plan to achieve that much longed for posthumous coverage beginning, 'She always was a bit of a loner.....' bites the dust.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Festive offers from Freecycle

1. Two old cushions. Used as dog beds. A good wash should get rid of most of stains and smells.

2. A small opened pack of smoked cheese. When I opened it I found that I didn't actually like it.

Don't even think of joining the crowds rushing to ask for these - I got in first.

Another brace of Xmas presents crossed off the list - though I'll have to stress that the 'best before' date on the cheese probably no longer applies.

Still no arc welder, though, which is a disappointment.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Fallen angels

Nativity play pre-production is in full swing and I've written an angel song by mistake.

"I hate to break it to you," says the teacher who's responsible for the script, "but reception will be dressed as stars, not angels. All the letters have gone out to parents and we can't change it now."

I stare glumly at my angel song which begins, predictably enough, "I'm a little angel," and wonder how to make, "I'm a little star," scan properly instead.

It's not really surprising I'm making mistakes, what with the heady rush of seasonal events. We did four this week.

Hallowe'en on Wednesay (lights off in the hall, spooky music courtesy of the electric piano's sound effect buttons);

Firework safety in assembly on Thursday ("Now you've heard the rules and when all the teachers go to the display at the weekend, they'll be watching you with your mummies and daddies to make sure you've listened," says the head. Several of the teachers who were clearly planning alternative entertainment exchange glum looks).

Christmas on Friday. ("No children, it's meant to be Christmas wrap, not rap. It's a sort of light-hearted.... Oh, all right, let me get the white board pen and I'll change it. That better, everyone?")

And at the end of the week we've moved on seamlessly from Christmas to planning for the summer productions. "Surely they can't sing 'Never smile at a crocodile' again. Can they?"

Christmas may only come once a year for most people. Round here, it never seems to stop. Pass me a cracker somebody. And a sunhat. Oh, and light a couple of sparklers while you're about it.

Friday, 2 November 2007

AaarGA 2

"They're taking over and I just can't stop them," wails Vicky, down the phone. "You've got to come and do something."

Five minutes later, I'm in her kitchen, surveying the sea of pink, yellow and chocolate icing that's covering every surface. As I open my mouth to speak, there's the wholesome buzz of an old-fashioned clockwork timer.

"Oh, my God," says Vicky, "It's the next lot."

She pulls on oven gloves, opens the Aga door and pulls out several enormous trays, loaded with buns. "There's nowhere to put them," she says. "And I've run out of muffin tins." She lays them down on the floor and points towards the sink, where baking tins and racks form an ungainly looking pyramid, like a domestic version of the Angel of the North.

"Stop, Vicky," I say. "Sit down. I've brought some wine. I want you to drink it right now."

I pour as I speak. Vicky takes the glass with shaking hands.

"I haven't had a drop of alcohol for days," she says. "Last time I tried, I found myself grinding my own coffee beans instead. And look at that." She gestures to several packets labelled 'Wholemeal organic bread flour.'

"What, home made bread as well?" I ask, amazed.

"Yes. I can't stop myself. And just doing the business with waiting for the dough to rise takes hours. And the children are suffering terribly. They say they can't eat any more cake. They keep leaving stills from the latest McDonalds ads round the house. Yesterday I found them weeping over a picture of nuggets and fries."

We shake our heads sadly.

"I never thought I'd be able to say the word 'traybakes' without laughing. But look at me now."

I do. Her face is perfectly still, apart from a cake crumb that falls like a single tear on to the kitchen table.

"I don't think this one's down to Bad Lindy," I say. "I suspect you may be possessed by Cath Kidston."

"So who do we get to do the exorcism."

"I don't know," I say, looking at the Aga again. "But it may need to be somebody with an arc welder and a Corgi certificate."

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Louche in cyberspace

Plates and cups hurt themselves to the floor. Vital documents, hands over their mouths to stifle their sniggers, creep into cracks in floorboards, slip behind cupboards, insert themselves into books that are never opened.

Even my e-mails are at it again. I send a 'don't forget' note to myself (sad but occasionally necessary). It doesn't arrive until the next day, and looks distinctly wobbly and blurred when it does finally turn up, emitting what sounds like a small hiccup instead of the normal 'ping'.

It's quite obvious that my authority has deteriorated to the point where even my e-mails, despite being told to hurry on home are stopping off in some louche cyberspace pub, having a couple of beers and then staying out into the small hours before tottering home. Next thing you know I'll have the first e-mail to turn up with a cyber ASBO.

What on earth is going on?

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

A different boy

Slow growth, headache, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, stomach ache, feeling week, increased blood pressure, neasea and/or vomiting, upset stomach, weight loss, tics, dizziness, muscle weakness, sleepiness, anxiety, nervousness, depression, emotional highs and lows, hostility, rash.

And that's just me. It's also partial list of all the possible reactions to Concerta, the Ritalin-type drug Leo has decided to try to see if it helps him at school.

"He'll be a different boy," says the beaming consultant - a new one, this time.

I burst into tears. "But I don't want a different child," I say. "I want the one I've got."

The two friends I've confided in both say 'don't do it.' But Leo is being teased about his fidgeting, to the point where he feels that he'd rather take medication and be part of the crowd than isolated.

"Change schools," say the friends. Perhaps they're right. But we're on day 2 now, and Leo feels, and looks, happier.

I don't know. I just don't know. And on the plus side, surely you can't suffer from sleepiness and sleeplessness simultaneously?

Monday, 29 October 2007

Corporate news from Megadik

I get an e-mail from Megadik. They've been rather quiet of late and I was getting worried.

'What has a monk got to do with breast enhancement?' they ask. Unfortunately, before the question can be answered, the company is carried away on a rising tide of hyperbole - spumy, frothy and surging, naturally - and can think only of the latest exciting company developments.

'Make your c**k so long even you will be able to suck it,' is the next announcement.

I pass the news on to Bad Lindy. "Honestly," she grumbles, "Life's hard enough as it is. There's never a fireman around when you want one, these days. And now I know why."

We debate the monk issue for some time without arriving at a conclusion - let alone a firm one.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Puss in cahoots

"Where's the cat?" ask the parents in law.

"Oh, she's around - somewhere," I shout, attempting to drown the mewing that's growing in volume and intensity from just outside the back door.

We're on the fourth bottle of wine and things are going fine, so far.

In a desperate bid to look in control, I've achieved a look of bare minimalism by giving away half the furniture to my sister and hiding everything else, including the children and the vacuum cleaner.

I am forced to retrieve the vacuum cleaner when a close observation of the floors reveals so much surface dirt that unless I plan to claim oxygen starvation as an avant garde technique for perfect preservation - as in the case of assorted bog men, woolly mammoths and the Mary Rose - something will have to be done.

I'm just doing it when the doorbell rings - 15 minutes early. "We were incredibly lucky with public transport," say the delighted in-laws, as I greet them with as much poise as the hoover hose coiled round my shoulder like a pet anaconda will allow.

Then there's a bang and a flash as something awful happens to the lights.

I finish cooking by candlelight. This has the benefit of making my cooking more palatable - a blackout providing, to my mind, the optimum conditions for successful presentation.

"I'll just see if I can fix the lights," says Francis. A few minutes later, to my slight chagrin, they come on.

The in-laws stare at the plates whose contents are suddenly all too visible. Then there's a diversion. Not, though, a welcome one.

"There's the cat," say the in-laws. "Puss, puss."

I can only assume she's somehow tunnelled her way in, possibly taking a tip from the tapework on burrowing techniques.

"You don't want to touch her," giggles Deborah, "she's - "

"Sssh!" I hiss. "Remember what I told you."

"Oh," say the parents in law, looking slightly closer at the cat as she retreats off to her food bowl. "Is that...?"

And suddenly we're plunged into darkness again. It's all I can do to resist giving three hearty cheers.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Mopping up

I should be tidying. I need to be tidying. Less than four hours to go till the in-laws arrive and the food isn't started and the brass handles are dull.

I've made a start, though, giving up on any logical plan based on usage where putting away is concerned. Instead, I've grouped objects according to random similarities.

Thus the recorders on the piano share their space with the bicycle pump, thanks to a likeness in length and use of windpower. I suppose a tapeworm might fit in on an ornamental basis.

Now I'm off to buff up the children and pets and arrange them by height order, cross referenced by hair and fur colour.

You'll catch me in an hour or so experimenting with mood lighting. There's a choice of cross, very cross or simply furious.

Friday, 26 October 2007


I used to think I had the signs of bad motherhood pegged. The desire for a glass of wine as your small bundle of joy greets you at 3.15 with a shriek of rage because you have, yet again, brought the wrong biscuits.

The outright refusal to read any bedtime story that bores you.

The occasional refusal to read anything at all.

The tendency to substitute Franklin the Turtle with whatever you're desperate to finish reading for your book club. (I can tell you now that few 7-year olds relate to Primo Levi. More fool them, perhaps).

But today, I have surpassed myself.

Readers, I forgot to worm the cat. No, more accurately, I thought I had wormed the cat but it turned out, I can only assume, that I mixed up the sachets of combined flea and worm treatment and flea and tick treatment and administered the wrong one.

And saw the consquences - bits of a tapeworm nestled cosily in the undercarriage of my cat's fur, apparently sharing a laugh and a joke about the humorous ability of primitive lifeforms to ruin an indequate mother's day before preparing to voyage further afield - obviously to attack my children with their toxoplasmosis-harbouring worm buddies - who, for all I know, were staging a pre-dawn invasion with the slugs showing them the way.

I was there at the vets just before opening time, thanking my lucky stars that it was Bad Lindy's morning off. Normally, she's doing her meeting and greeting act at the door, shrugging on her overalls with exaggerated difficulty, embonpoint pointing out into the street like weapons on a disputed border crossing.

The cat was caught, wormed and forbidden re-entry by 9.00 am. As I type, she's circling the house, mewing, tail held high, the better to display the evidence of failed worm control policy. I've put out food. I've even put out a towel for her to sleep on but I am still guilt-ridden.

Every time one of the children blinks, I assume they're going blind.

"Don't mention the cat," I keep saying to the children. "And do you have any flu-like symptoms? Or worms?"

They look at me as if I'm mad. (Is madness a symptom of toxoplasmosis, or am I merely mad?)

But I'm not really mad. Because the icing on the cake is that in less than twenty four hours my in-laws will be here, testing my cooking, my childrens' manners and, though they don't realise it yet, my emergency parasite management skills.

And it's all completely and utterly my own fault.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

A touch of the school runs

NB. I have no cleaner nor Ribena but I liked the rhyme.
I don't drive to school, either.

I’ve got the school run blues
Three children and five shoes
Cake sale today: I beg the cleaner
For change. Oh, God there’s no Ribena
Food colour works instead
I dye the oj red
I’ve got the school run
I’ve got the school run blues

I’ve got the school run blues
I’d like to hit the booze
The car’s gone wrong and I can’t start it
Can’t even be the dear departed
We’ll have to walk to school
I feel a total fool
I’ve got the school run
I’ve got the school run blues

I’ve got the school run blues
In self-indulgent hues
Five minutes after leaving home and
It’s like a screening of ‘The omen’
The children’s heads spin round
They’re making eerie sounds
I’ve got the school run
I’ve got the school run blues

I’ve got the school run blues
A bomb they can’t defuse
Still miles to school and there’s the whistle
We’re late again and I know this’ll
Mean phone calls from the head
I wish that I were dead
And that’s not all – this school run sorrow
Will start again at dawn tomorrow
I’ve got the school run blues
I’ve got the school run blues
I’ve got the school run blues

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A brief pause

"I've never liked that sofa."

"Well, what about your old car?"

"I inherited that."

"Well, I inherited the sofa."

"And there's your desk."

"What's wrong with the desk?"

"You spend the whole time working at it. Or playing the piano. And I have to work at the table on my lap top. I feel I just don't have my own space."

"But you have an office. With your own desk. And a phone. And a photocopier. And a boss who takes you out to lunch."

"I could work from home, sometimes, but I choose not to, because I have nowhere to work."

There now follows a short intermission while desk space is suitably rearranged to strip out all Francis's excuses and put this working at home offer to the test. Pass up the chance of a husband being at home more? No way.

The car goes, though. Perhaps as a trade for the sofa.

See you all in a day or two.

Dead slugs and dog sick

Most of the time, I am fine with my life. Take this morning's small moments of horror -

- the small patch of dog sick, cunningly disguised to look like biscuit crumbs until a quick, ungloved sweeping action reveals the truth

- the half-dead slug, intestines crushed just by the front door as fate, in the form of a postman in a hurry, ends its bid to join the family circle via the letter box

- a year's worth of the children's discarded lollies, thoughtully arranged behind the sofa cushions, stick upwards for easier access

- the phone call about this year's nativity play: could I transcribe the Doctor Who theme so it sounds convincing on a piano.

I can deal with them all (apart from the Dr Who theme) with only minimal dry retching, something I regard as something of an achievement and possibly worth a bullet point or two on an updated cv.

Then I get an e-mail from a friend, who now works in London, a place I visit so infrequently that it has taken on a mythological quality.

I'm not even sure it still exists. For all I know it could by now be under 50 feet of water because of global warming, the drowned chimes of Big Ben still faultlessly reproduced on Radio 4 (though I suppose the rust would affect the tone quality in the end).

"Why don't you join me for coffee in Mayfair?" she asks.

Why not, indeed? After all, what is a part-time job, three children and a slug-ridden house but a series of mental barriers that I have erected to ensure that my inner hedonist is denied a voice.

And perhaps if I get the slug stuffed in time, it can join me, tucked into my buttonhole as a post-ironic nosegay.

Riding for a fall

"I'm beginning to see why you won't film me when I'm riding," says Beth. She's on a bed in a side ward in children's A&E, arm loosely bandaged, the grey look beginning to fade from her face as the painkillers she's been given kick in.

"This'll be the matching injury," says the nurse, watching as the ambulance wheels in the next trolley.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Once we've got a riding fracture, we always get a rugby one to go with it," she says. "I think there's probably some NHS quota."

She's right. A small boy in a sports shirt and shorts appears, with a heavily bandaged leg.

There's nothing like riding for extracting maximum maternal anguish once a week for an hour, though I dare say bear-wrestling and sword-swallowing come close. If possible, I leave and come back later. When compelled to stay, I will resort to almost any means to block out the sound I know is coming - the thud of body on loose sand, including.

Once, in desperation, I played recorder scales very loudly with all the car windows closed. I'd like to say I got sympathetic looks from the other parents but as they stared at me, open-mouthed, before hurrying past, it was clear that they were hoping that somebody would get me back into that straightjacket before the lesson ended.

We've enveloped Beth in body proctectors and hats, swathed her hands in gloves and her mind in warnings but she remains horribly keen.

I don't want her confidence to be destroyed but, as we sit together, I can't help hoping that doing a Thelwell and taking the jump beautifully, but without the horse, and making a heavy landing on her elbow might make her consider the allure of a less active hobby, such as crochet work or rug-making.

"It wasn't Hero's fault," she says. Hero? Huh. Some hero, I think. "It was me. I knew he had a tendency to stop suddenly and I just didn't push him on."

The only place I'd like to push Hero at this precise moment would be into the knacker's yard, along with all his equine colleagues and probably the riding school owners, too - not because I blame them, merely for acting as a spur to my daughter's enthusiasm.

After the break has been X-rayed, confirmed and plastered - choice of six colours and a glitter option for the party babes among the casualties; Beth settles for light blue - we make an appointment with the physiotherapy department.

"You'll need to come back the day after going to fracture clinic," says the senior receptionist, "we don't like to book physiotherapy on the same day in case they run late."

When I ask for a spot of leniency, pointing out that the logistics of arranging a teaching job and three different sets of school finishing times for two consecutive days will require a certain amount of juggling she says, 'Well, we'll see what we can do," rolls up her sleeves and sets to work at the computer.

As far as I can tell, she presses every single button, including the funny F ones at the top, and takes so long that she appears to be wrestling time itself, stretching and twisting it so she can manhandle in another hour that will allow us all to honour our commitments.

"Done it," she says, triumphantly, returning from whatever parallel universe she and her computer simultaneously inhabit.

"Mu-um," says Beth. "While I'm not riding, will you drive me to the stable so I can film my friends riding?"

There's really only one answer to that, and it's one I give without hesitation.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Pees in a pod

"Honestly. Dogs. Who'd have one?" says Vicky.

"Well, me, for a start," I say.

"And look at your life. You spend the whole time handing out bottles of wine to people who return her when she runs away and clearing up sick."

"Sure you're not thinking of Bad Lindy?" I say. "And what's with the dog business, anyway?"

"It's the husband," says Vicky. "Now we've got the aga, he's going for the accessories. And a dog's next on the list."

She holds up the book that's open on her knees.

"'Best of Breed - your guide to choosing the perfect pup,'" I read out, in a tone of mounting incredulity.

"He wanted some sort of gun dog to begin with," says Vicky. "Until I told him the only thing it'd retrieve round here is low-flying aircraft - and we'd need to get its teeth reinforced to get a proper grip on the wing tips."

"And if scrap metal prices take a tumble on the world markets you'd be on a hiding to nothing when you tried to sell the wreckage,"

"They all sound like psychopaths," says Vicky. "Listen to this. 'Clumber spaniels are usually trustworthy with children' - good thing I like a gamble, and they say plastic surgery costs are coming down all the time. And get this: 'As puppies, they may be submissive urinators.'"

"Is that good or bad?" I ask.

"Put it this way, if Francis started doing it at meetings, I shouldn't think he'd last long," says Vicky.

"How do you think they come up with these breeds, anyway? Sit down at a big table at the end of Crufts, brainstorm a list of things the dog should and then shoehorn them into one breed?," I say, removing the book and opening it randomly in the 'Large dogs' section. "How about St Bernards? 'Drool after they drink or eat.' Fit in well round here, then."

"Or labradors. 'Crave human attention.'"

"Join the flaming club," we chorus.

Bad Lindy crashes through the house like a fugitive Baskerville pursued by the family hellhound.

"What is it?" asks Vicky, stunned by her distinctly twitchy look.

"I'm being stalked," says Lindy. "Stalked. I ask you. Me! What am I suppose to be do about it?"

"If it's dog that's on your scent, you could try going teetotal."

"And if it's a human, I'd have thought a short of passive urination would do the trick."

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Rude, rude, rude

But learning manners gradually. Thanks for award, Lady Macleod. I'd like to thank the English language for being there when I needed it. I'm passing it on to Stay at Home Dad, DJ Kirby - though I need to run over and check to see if you have it already - and Sweet Irene.

Dissolving tonality single handed

There's been an outbreak of advanced naughtiness in reception, a bit like bird flu but far more serious. To combat the symptoms - excessive giggling and fidgeting - the teachers have taken to playing a little game with the children, with the aim of getting them into the music room so quietly that I - allegedly - don't notice until I turn round and am theatrically amazed by the unexpected sight of 25 children, arranged neatly in rows, almost hysterical with suppressed mirth.

The great thing about this game is that, with only a small amount of mime to suggest the rapid onset of profound deafness and advanced memory loss, I can pretend not to see the children for up to five minutes which cuts the lesson by a sixth with a minimal amount of effort on my part. Now, just before half term, I have an increasingly strong temptation not to see them at all for the entire 30 minutes and then leave. So far, I've resisted the urge. Instead, I bring down the big drum that rarely makes it downstairs on account of its size and noise, which makes the teachers jump and stops the children concentrating on spelling tests.

I ask for volunteers to try it out and every hand goes up. I survey them all, trying and failing not to enjoy the desperate looks on the faces of the children. One of the keenest, hands flapping, accompanied by cries of "Ooh, ooh, ooh," is Jodie, owner of a larger than average mouth which is always set at full gape, the better to aid her tongue's relentless search for a tasty leftover morsel of breakfast cereal; on the other, Jordan, ("Please, Mrs Phillistine,") whose presence, thanks to the ripping sound caused by the constant fastening and refastening of the velcro strap of his shoes is always audible. Conscious that, as two of the school's most irritating children, they are rarely chosen to do anything, I am overcome with a rare fit of compassion, and choose them both.

Feeling beautiful, at least inside, I arrive home, put some pasta on to boil and decide to get in a bit of piano practice.

My hands approach scales with all the alacrity of a very stupid and reluctant student being compelled to master a notoriously difficult language, like Mandarin. As they stumble up the piano, periodically barging into each other or one of the black notes, like a couple of drunks, I think how much I would have liked to meet Mahler. The books say that he left it to Berg and Shoenberg to complete the dissolution of tonality. If he'd just hung on a hundred years or so, he could, with complete confidence, have turned the job over to me.

Rushing back to the kitchen, I rescue the pasta which has stuck to the bottom of the pan and, in its few remaining millimeters of water, is now waving gently in surrender, like fronds of unlikely looking seaweed in a fast evaporating rock pool.

Friday, 19 October 2007

A half term walk.

Friend’s mother, Friend 1 Friend 2 Friend 3, dog 1
Omega Mum Deborah, Leo, Deborah, dog 2.

10.30 am. Half way round the first pond, realise that Leo has lost his school mac, after being warned, repeatedly, not to wear it draped loosely round his shoulders. When asked to go and find it, he shouts ‘No! I don’t care!’ He is threatened with death.

Beth and Friend 1 offer to go back with Leo. They eventually find the mac nice and close to the large, rotting fish they all spent some time admiring.

1035 (all timings noted are approximate and in no way convey the sense of almost unendurable tedium which frequently overtake the proceedings).

Deborah and Friend 2 have been kicking up the water in a large, muddy puddle. Friend two’s shorts are soaked. Deborah’s shorts are soaked and mud-spattered. So are their gumboots. But whereas Friend 2 keeps his boots and shorts on, Deborah removes hers and starts dancing through the puddles in bare feet, giggling.

Beth agrees to sort this out by whatever means necessary and only if she receives a large bribe (nature and timing to be confirmed). Her solution is to dunk Deborah in the pond.

10.40 Biscuits and breadsticks are served.
10.50 Friend 3 has gashed her knee and decides that she would rather not walk. She demands to be carried. Friends’ mother tries to lift her but feels that her back might give way. Friend 3 is offered a sweet if she’ll walk, but says no. Deborah gamely attempts to remove the rest of her clothes.

10.55. Rain starts falling. We are now at the furthest point from the car park. Negotiations continue.

11.00. Friend 3 has had a sweet but is still not keen on walking. She is carried while Beth gives Deborah a piggy back. The rain stops.

11.30-ish. The children ask to go to the playground. “No,” say the mothers.

11.35 The cars have never looked lovelier. Leo cries because he wants to go in with friends’ mother. Friend 2 sits in the Omega Mum car and quietly reads a book about trains before incorporating it as the weight in an elaborate pulley arrangement which also includes the Gameboy cable with the coat hanger above the door as the fulcrum (?).

12.00. Home. Lunch. Peace and harmony.