Monday, 30 April 2007

French kissing a haddock

Francis is back. He sits in his car for several minutes, motionless. The good news is that the engine's off, so it's unlikely to be an attempt at carbon monoxide poisoning. The bad news is the other interpretation - that he's finding it hard to muster the necessary reserves to say hello to his new 24/7 life with his lovely wife and family.

Still, the dog is thrilled. After several hours of being mauled by Deborah, who insists that it enjoys being pulled along the floor by one paw, its whimpering rush towards him is, I suspect, code for, "If you're thinking of leaving, please take me, too."

"Are you OK?" I ask. It's not a brilliant conversational starter for ten, but it will have to do. "I've done my back in and I've got no job, but apart from that, I'm fine," he says, laughing bitterly and walking stiffly to the front door, like somebody at a Woodentops tribute gig.

Action is called for. I ring Alice to see if she's still on for camping over the bank holiday weekend. Bill wants to go. Francis wants to go. The children want to go. Alice and I would rather french kiss a haddock than spend more than five minutes under canvas. (I've not actually checked this with her, but I understand that some of the larger specimens are really quite attractive).

Alice sounds tearful at the mere thought of camping, but says she'll think about it. I know how she feels. Weeing into a bucket in the small hours and producing gourmet one-pan meals over a bunsen burner may be a lifestyle choice, but it's one I'll embrace only if the men come to serve us with a repossession order.

We agree to talk again tomorrow, and I go to tell Francis of the magic I plan to weave into his miserable life. Hang on. What about his back?

Pops and robbers

Not a good start to the week. It's Francis' last day in the office and he's feeling understandably tense. There's only so many tears and sympathetic glances that any grown man can endure and he's now had so many that I'm seriously considering setting up a petition on the Downing Street website to ask for statutory limits to be set.

Leo, meanwhile, is in disgrace. An inveterate thief and an incompetent one, to boot - though only, I suspect, because part of him wants to be caught - he's hidden a half-empty family size bottle of undiluted Ribena, Pepperami wrappers and assorted sweet wrappers in his sock drawer, in the sure knowledge that they will be discovered as soon as I go on my clean underwear rounds.

We try not to shout because, as soon as we do, his behaviour gets worse. But it doesn't make any difference. Soon, Leo is is acting as if he'd been asked to put on a demonstration performance of a child totally at odds with normal family life. He shouts, he makes funny noises. Francis is on the point of losing it. "If you behave like that, I'll behave like this!" he roars.

I call Leo upstairs and, fortunately, he comes. We have a quiet chat, he goes downstairs again and mutters something that Francis accepts as 'sorry'. An uneasy calm is restored, and lasts until Beth and Leo leave for school. So far, so good. Let's hope he manages to hold it together at school today. And that Francis turns in a definitive performance as Mr Equitable at the office - at least until he's got his final cheque in his hot little hands.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

They came from metaphor land

Every time I open so much as the cat flap, small creatures rush in and try to beat themselves to death at the windows, like volunteer emissaries from Metaphor Land. Mind you, they could just be bored with what's on the telly, like the rest of us.

And that's without my current magpie worries. How does that superstition thing actually work? For example, if you see two magpies and one flies away, does the remaining one immediately swap from symbolising joy to sorrow?

Beth gives Francis a hug. "Gosh, you're tall," he says. "Much taller than I was at your age." It's a lovely moment. Shame, then, that I choose to spoil it by going into full-on educational mode. "She would be," I say. "Boys tend to have their growth spurt later." They both give me a look of deep irritation and Francis immediately stops hugging Beth and goes off to fetch a beer. "Mum," says Beth. "You shouldn't correct Dad. Men don't like to be told they're wrong."

I appear to have given birth to two children and a life coach who, irritatingly, seems to have a better insight into my life than I do. And I really shouldn't give Francis a hard time. He has spent the morning replying to job ads, lined up meetings with four headhunters and an old friend of his chairman, taken the children to a local adventure playground and done the shopping.

It doesn't require an Early Learning star chart to work out that he needs loving, cherishing, and huge dollops of good old marital relations on a buy one, get one free basis. So I'd better stop being a smart arse and get on with it.

Friday, 27 April 2007

The Donny Darko factor

Leo's school doesn't do things by halves. They regard normal sports days - all over by lunchtime, held in summer for a better chance of sunshine, as utterly wet and weedy and fit only for wimps. Theirs, in contrast, starts at 9 am, stops only when it's too dark to work out which direction the finishing line's in, and is held in April so that any overheated pupil can be well and truly cooled by torrential Spring rain, ideally served with a few bolts of lightning, hail or a small but perfectly formed plague of locusts on the side.

So the phone call from an over-excited mother to say that Leo has fallen down an entire flight of rain-sodden stairs and probably broken his arm, though alarming, isn't much of a surprise. She then calls twice more as I negotiate the rush-hour traffic, each time thoughtfully filling in a few more colourful details, like the witness to some epoch-defining disaster. "He fell really heavily," she says, then, "He was crying the most enormous tears," as I weave my way through traffic so heavy that what should be a ten minute journey stretches into three quarters of an hour, feeling increasingly scared and trying not to imagine him accessorised with gore, visible bone, and probably a compressed skull fracture, too.

When I finally get there, Leo is sitting up on the first aid bed, dry-eyed, and sporting a sling. His hand is a little red but the pain is bearable, and he goes off to collect his bag from the changing room without fuss. A trip to A&E confirms the fact that he's a bit bruised, but otherwise fine. Deborah is not pleased. "You love Leo more than you love me," she whines, as I question him about the accident.

I call Francis to tell him the news, refraining from sharing my feeling that we're either in a Donny Darko-style tangential universe, still plugged into to Janet's subconscious or in the grip of a divine presence who is urging us to count our blessings, or else. There are times when the volume and timing of heavily significant events makes being a no-nonsense atheist seems almost perverse.

Francis, so far, has not been offered a job, but, like somebody at a children's party, two crystal tumblers by way of a consolation prize. If he collects enough glassware, I ask, can he swap them for a job, instead. I'm expecting silence but, at the other end of the phone, he almost laughs. It's the first time in a week he's sounded even slightly amused. Surely that's a good sign.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Ex-colleague, hero, saint.

At midday, the e-mail announcing Francis' departure is circulated. Until then it was meant to be a secret, so of course everyone has known for days. His last days have been marked by a solemn procession of colleagues from marketing, distribution and accounts who have come into his office to weep over him and pay their last respects, as if he were lying in state. Eyes brim over like artesian wells - four pairs in the past 24 hours alone. If he swapped his chair for an open coffin and starting leaving work in a hearse, nobody would bat an eyelid.

When he's not comforting the mourners and liaising with the Vatican about fast track canonisation, he clears his desk, sharing out the customer files with his team and playing hide and seek with his laptop to stop his bosses seizing it when he's not looking and stripping it of all sensitive data, a process with the unlovely title of 'flushing'.

Immediately Francis's new status is made public, feelings of goodwill start slooshing round the company. The senior brass is out to placate the workforce - outbreaks of mass weeping are bad for business. Soon, Francis can't turn his back without somebody attempting to slap it. His boss calls him a consummate professional, and says he'll always be a friend of the family. The financial director winks at him and tells him to have a couple of pints on the company. Everybody loves him, apparently, and will always love him. There's just that little matter of losing his job casting a shadow, but soon, they'll love him so much that they'll be putting flowers in their hair, bringing out the guitars and singing him his P45.

Francis has one final meeting in Abderdeen, which is fine, and is following up a couple of promising-sounding job leads while he's there, which isn't. "It would be a great place to live," he enthuses. And as long as it's not me having to do the living, I'm in total agreement. We've been in our current home for ten years and it's taken me all that time to find a handful of people who I get on with, or who, more accurately, haven't actually stopped speaking to me yet.

Most of them are at the reconvened book club that I go to in the evening. I'm aiming for dignified restraint. It's an attitude I've always admired - and it plays so well in suburbia. My self-control lasts exactly as long as my first glass of wine, and then I'm straight into auto-gab. Motto: she does the self-obsessed rabbitting so you don't have to.

When I see Francis later, he tells me of another job going at a cosmetics company. It's been really hard to fill, apparently. Unless it involves actually inserting the trial batches of new moisturiser into tiny baby rabbits' eyes, I can't see any reason for him not to apply, and possibly not even then, but he's equivocal. "I'd be in town four days a week," he says, with heavy emphasis. "The travel would take hours." It wouldn't. I know because I spent over a decade doing it. I tell him so. "The money wouldn't be quite as good." he tries, next. "Well, couldn't you do it as a stopgap and then look round for something else?" I ask. He shakes his head, sadly, finally. "It doesn't work like that," he says.

An uncharitable wave of frustration makes me want to put my hands on his shoulders and rock him vigorously backwards and forwards shouting, "It's a job, for f**** sake. And how picky can you really afford to be?"

Instead, summoning a tiny bit of the restraint that deserted me at the book club, I mutter, "Whatever you think, darling," and retire to bed with a cup of tea, Radio 4 and the cat.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Emollient Mummy; family stooge

Deborah looks over my shoulder as I'm typing an e-mail to a friend. "'Francis has lost his job,' she reads, aloud. "Has he? Has Daddy lost his job?" she asks. "Well, yes," I say, startled into the truth. "Why has he?"

"Because there were too many people doing the same job," I explain, in the emollient Mummy from Lalaland voice I save for emergencies. "But that's fine. He'll just get another job, instead." I'm keen to stop her rushing in to tell Leo, currently the stooge in our improvised family farce farce while everyone else is in the know. Oh, help, I think, I'm going to have to do a bit of careful stage management to avoid an unplanned denoument we may all regret.

I plan a step by step discussion, each understated comment designed to prompt a question so that Francis' new status is revealed by degrees, leading us so gradually into the revelation that it ceases to be a revelation at all.

When I next get Leo on his own, I say, casually, "Dad's going to be working from home next week," then pause. "Yes? So?," says Leo. "Why are you telling me?" This throws me completely. Maybe I've over-estimated his ability to detect nuances. At this rate, he wouldn't spot one if it landed in his bedroom and spray-painted 'Your Dad's lost his job' in foot-high letters on the wall.

There is, though, the possibility that he senses change in the air but, like so many of us, does whatever it takes to keep it at arm's length for as long as possible.

Meanwhile, Francis is giving a fortunately empty box a good kicking. It's his reaction to my possibly unwise question about where he's going to work when he's at home. At this rate, Leo will need total sensory deprivation if he's going to stay in blissful ignorance of what's going on.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Revenge of the appliances

While friends offer suggestions, the electrical appliances, feeling neglected, strike back.

The freezer which is over a decade old, and feeling its age, starts treating the insertion of anything larger than an ice-cube as a form of assault, going into emergency defrost mode as soon as its door is opened and beeping noisily as the temperature rushes upwards.

The microwave waits until it is a week out of guarantee before beginning to overheat. Owing to the experimental nature of my cooking, it's only when the entire house smells of blackened plastic and one side of the microwave has fused, rather picturesquely, to the kitchen wall tiles, that any of us realise that it's not just another fusion cooking adventure gone horribly wrong.

In both cases, pleas to the local Freecycle group result in speedy offers of replacements. Feeling relieved, I get into the car to stock up on frozen essentials. It won't start. This time, Freecycle can't help. It's time to resort to that tried and tested favourite, paying a garage for a new battery. Sometimes, the old ways are the best.

Monday, 23 April 2007

The beginning

The day after my youngest child falls out of a tree and gashes her hand so spectacularly we have to rush her to A&E, my friend Janet calls in a panic. She'd dreamt that something terrible had happened to us.

A week later, my husband phones me from work. "They're about to make me redundant," he says. His voice is so diminished with shock I can hardly hear him.

We should have seen it coming. His firm has such an industry-wide reputation for revolving door recruitment that it's on several headhunter's black lists. In the five years he's been there, he's already outlasted three managing directors and a brace of top sales honchos, giving him top Duracell bunny status for longevity. Then, a few weeks ago, a senior colleague started shadowing him like an ace detective, meeting his clients, presenting his sales figures and taking such an interest in the minuteae of his life that we half expected him to pop out of the wardrobe every morning and advise Francis on his choice of ties.

The letter he's received telling him that his job 'may' be at risk - I love that 'may' - is a formality. It invites him to a meeting to discuss his future in two day's time. The outcome is a forgone conclusion. All that matters now is how big the pay off is going to be and how long it's going to keep us going.

At least we're in a slightly stronger position than last time round - six years ago. Then, our youngest child was a baby and I'd abandoned what seemed like the impossibility of managing a nanny, two full time jobs and having any time to do more than give the cat a bedtime kiss (she was frequently the only one up when I got home) and wonder what the children looked like when they were awake. Then, it took him over a year to get a new job.

Now, all three children are at schoool and I have a part-time job teaching music at a local school. It's secure and reasonably well paid but inevitably restricted as far as overtime and career progression is concerned - there's a limit to how many Disney tunes you can teach a bunch of seven-year olds in a week, and I think I've reached it.

I cancel the book club meeting which was organised for the following evening. The family is in official mourning for my husband's career and the niceties must be observed. Filling the house with a bunch of cackling women swilling wine and swapping PTA anecdotes may provide temporary therapy for me but I don't think it will do much for Francis. And, let's be honest. I now feel that, like somebody who's been diagnosed with a non life-threatening but disfiguring condition, our new status will set us slightly apart. At every social gathering from now on, we'll feel as if we're the have-nots to everyone's haves, the couple who are living in a parallel world, the people who'll hear about good news - promotions, bonuses, new cars - at second hand, everything tactfully toned down so we're not acutely conscious of the gap between us.

A friend comes round. She's brought a card for Francis. "Everyone thinks you're a c***" it announces, in bright primary colours. There's a badge, too, with the same word. "Do you think it'll cheer him up?" she asks. I'm not sure - but shouldn't think so. She's laughing so much, though, that I think maybe it's just me.

When Francis walks in, she presents it to him. He makes a good show of laughing when he opens it but later on, when she's gone, he has another look at it. "It's true," he says,"I am a c***. You only get made redundant if you're rubbish, and that's what everybody's going to think."

Oh, dear. I should have followed my instincts on this one. He spends the rest of the evening sunk in gloom. We go to bed. At 3.30 am we're both awake, eyes staring at the ceiling, each aware of the other but not saying anything.

The next morning, I phone Janet, to ask if she's had any more dreams about us. If some force greater than both of us is exerting a form of psychic control over our lives, I want to know about it. She hasn't. It may not be much as rays of sunshine go, but it's all that's on offer at the moment.