Sunday, 30 September 2007

Beth speaks.

Beth is talking to me again.

It's not been an easy couple of weeks. She refers to the stables, rather insultingly, to my mind, as 'home'. She has written me three notes, sent me 4 multi-page e-mails and posted a video on U-Tube, consisting of a very ugly horse failing to clear some small jumps while James Blunt plays in the background.

I avoid watching the video. "You haven't watched it yet," she scrawls on bit of paper. "I have," I say. "You haven't. I can monitor it," she says, in a distinctly scary way that reminds me of the Hitler Youth

But, though I have glumly watched the video, sound turned to 'minimum', I have also stood my ground. Her riding holiday is not happening. She accepts this.

First class parenting in action? Unfortunately not. Naturally my superb maternal instincts played a not inconsiderable part - notably my decision to refrain from pinning her against a wall and beating her to death with one of her own riding boots, something I felt was deserving of some small prize. The truth, though, is that the friend she was going to ride with may be on holiday with her own family.

"We're not sure yet," says her mother.

"Take it from me," I say. "You need a holiday. Go. Please, go."

"We may not be able to," she says. "I don't know if there are any flights left."

"There will be flights," I say. "And I'm prepared to sell my soul to Satan and clinch the deal with a goat sacrifice a night, even if 1001 Dry Foam doesn't do a ritual killing stain removal product. That's how desperate I am."

"It may be too expensive," she warns. "Then lie, woman, lie." I say. "Keep the decision to yourself until it's too late to book the riding holiday. Then I'm in the clear and there's no argument to have."

She agrees. For once in my life, I seem to have ended a stand off with a win win conclusion. Is this possible? Can it last? And am I dreaming?

Friday, 28 September 2007

This week's Freecycle highlights

Offered - a sofabed, but not just any sofabed. This one has a tiny hole in the fabric making it unique from other identical sofabeds made by the same
manufacturer. Throw a throw over it. Put a cat, dog or relative on it.
It does it all.

Wanted - Myself and my wife are 6'5 and 6'3 and want some really old trashed clothes so we can dress as beggars soon.

Mobility-Aid Breadboard - With its convenient breadcatching spike, this breadboard is ideal for people with a dodgy hand or crucifiction complex. Comes complete with easy-pour trail of blood.

Shaggy blog stories

My blog is increasingly coming to resemble a long and occasionally baffling shaggy dog story, without any apparent resolution (I blame Wagner). So thanks, all of you, for sticking with it, and here's hoping for a punchline soon.

Thanks, Debio and DJ Kirby, for doling out more awards. Here's looking at you, kids. As you are all groaning with silverware of your own, I'm going to have to travel to hand these on.

And a special mention to Bad Lindy, whose body parts, texts and men have helped make celibacy seem such a tempting option to so many.

Carpe giblet. So many giblets, so little time, was her considered response when I told her of this dedication, shortly before she attempted to fell me with a housebrick.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Why I love the Archbishop of Canterbury

I love the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not for religious reasons, but because his notions on how to be a good mother tally so exactly with mine.

Pushy parenting, he recently announced, is positively damaging to children. After school drama? Appalling. Early morning swimming? Scar-forming. And as for those badges of success - trophies, medals and certificates - why, they're the marks of the devil himself. Parents, he thunders, are suffocating their little darlings with the weight of their own ambitions for them.

Right on, Rowan! To a parent like me, this is all manna from heaven and wonderfully liberating. Until now my approach - gather up the kids, get them home and stick them in front of the television, while I wipe off the top layer of mould from any remaining vegetables and try to work out how to cook them, assisted by a large glass of wine - has labelled me as a lazy cow with no interest in my children's development.

No longer. Now my laisse faire approach not only goes uncondemned, but officially qualifies as a parenting philosophy, no less, and one endorsed by the Church of England. And that's more than you can say for any of the standard child rearing manuals.

I’m proud to be the mother of children so wedded to the TV that they go to bed cuddling the remote control, and whose idea of vigorous exercise is to lift their feet while I vacuum up the crumbs from their carcinogen and cholesterol-loaded snacks.

My children are real children, happy children, children who can fully express themselves by lumping around at home and shouting at each other. Phew!

I have to admit that in my naïve and enthusiastic parenting days, I had a go - well, several goes, actually - at this pushy parent lark. But then I discovered the terrible truth. Success depends on having a child who is a) keen and b) talented.

One of my friends has a daughter so musically advanced that she's had to break up groups of rioting teacher vying for the chance to take her on, while the son of another friend has done so well at Kumon maths that he's been propelled into a group so advanced that he's probably already being targeted by some dodgy state anxious to recruit fresh blood into its nuclear weapons programme.

My children, though, are either average or not. Usually, thanks to heirloom quality DNA, lovingly passed down through the generations though occasionally dropped ('Butterfingers!'), not.

In the dim and distant past they've given up tennis, because they couldn't serve; football (couldn't kick) Beavers (couldn't sit still) and piano (I couldn't park), and that's just for starters. We've also dispensed with judo (too rough), violin (too discordant), Rainbows (too jolly), gymnastics (too competitive), and trampolining (too scary).

In addition to saving time and money, my strategy means we're the most popular family in the neighbourhood, what with our tireless round-the-clock efforts to remain average, thus making the brilliant achievements of other families shine the brighter in comparison.

The only drawback to my approach is the social aspect. While not a day goes by without exchanging a word with friends and neighbours, that word is almost always 'goodbye' as they speed past ourhouse on the way to the latest extra-curricular emergency. In fact, the only way to guarantee a decent conversation is by lying in the middle of the road in the hope that one of the mums on a mission stops to have a chat before running you over (or after, depending on how urgently that trombone lessonis calling).

Now, though, I can rest assured that while they have the wide open road, I'm the proud possessor of the moral high ground. And soon, no doubt, the Archbishop's words will be endorsed by reports by leading psychologists with advanced qualifications in tut-tutting. They’ll appear in their head-shaking droves to denounce the appalling men and women who are inflicting such outrageous levels of suffering on their innocent offspring.

There’s only one problem. Parenting experts don’t all agree. And I know full well that in a few months’ time, there’ll be a new report out. It will say that children bundled from activity to activity, after school and at weekends, are not only brighter than their peers but also happier and better adjusted.

In the meantime, I’m going milk the Archbishop’s comments for all they’re worth. After all, when your parenting skills are endorsed by God Himself – or, at least, one of His senior representatives on earth, you might just as well enjoy it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Piercing notes

The only atmosphere that might cramp Bad Lindy's style would be a vacuum, and possibly not even then. As a result, she's able to carry on as normal - which in her case means launching into an animated monologue about a stray fireman she captured recently - while Tom and Ra manage eye contact with the ceiling, floor and Bad Lindy's collection of assorted semi-pornographic ornaments - anything rather than look at each other, and Vicky and I watch them like spectators at a tennis match, or, more accurately, voyeurs at a motorway pile up.

"Honestly," says Bad Lindy. "Talk about dull. It had got to the point where I was thinking about sending a couple of texts while he carried on. All I did was tell him his range of positions was so boring that he could probably put a fire out just by looking at it and he came over all sulky and left. That's emergency services for you - no sense of humour. No wonder the country's in a mess."

"Do you think we should go?" I hiss at Vicky.

"Only if you're getting bored," says Bad Lindy, overhearing. "Otherwise I vote you hang around and wait for the fireworks."

"Do you mind?" says Ra.

"Do you know what?" says Lindy. "I think I do. Given it was me who found Tom in the first place."

"Found him?" says Ra. "He's not an object trouve, like seawrack. Or treasure trove."

"He looked pretty lost to me," says Lindy. "Didn't you, Tom?"

"I'd been driving round for hours," says Tom. "Every time I stopped the car, somebody knocked on the windscreen and asked if I was all right. Then I parked a few houses up from here," - he motions round the room, "- and the next thing I know, Bad Lindy's smashed in the window and is dragging me out through it."

"I thought you were trying to gas yourself," says Bad Lindy.

"No you didn't," says Tom."The engine wasn't running. Anyway, you told me you just wanted to try out that fireman's axe."

"Good choppers are hard to come by," says Bad Lindy. "Anyway, I brought him in and offered him a bed for the night."

"I bet you did," says Ra.

"In the spare room," says Lindy, emphatically. "And since then, he's been here building up his strength with a nourishing diet of daytime TV and microwave popcorn and working out how to win you back from Colin."

"I've even been trying a bit of classical music," says Tom, making it sound like one of the faddier diets. Beside him, obscured by a tasteful reworking of one of the more acrobatic positions from the Karma Sutra is a small pile of DVDs. Mozart and Bach feature prominently, together with several Beethoven symphonies.

"Hence the tattoo," says Bad Lindy. "We thought it showed commitment."

"You did," says Tom. "But if I'd been sober, I'd never have agreed."

"You didn't go to that awful salon place?" says Ra, aghast. "Painted black, just by the railway bridge. I'm sure they sell drugs there."

"That's the one," says Lindy, with pride.

"Well, I suppose it could have been worse," says Ra. "Don't they do body piercings there, too?"

"Ah," says Tom. "You only got the text with the rear view, didn't you? There's more...round the front. I think you'd better come with me."

Tom and Ra disappear. A few minutes later, there's a muffled shriek.

We both look at Lindy.

"His decision," she says. "He nodded 'yes' just before he passed out. And once it's healed, he's going to be a music-loving superstud.Believe me, they'll never look back. Just down quite a lot. Though he may have a problem with airport security."

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Bodacious and proud of it

I love awards. Thank you, Mya, for the 'Bodacious Blogger'. It came at a particularly good moment, when I was wondering just what I thought I was doing casting yet another load of botched-together sentences into the ether.

I keep expecting to get an e-mail from some craftsmen saying, "Who's been putting your paragraphs together? There's a gap in your argument so big you could drive a truck through it. As for that logic, flawed isn't in it. And whoever supplied that non sequitor should be struck off. By the way, I've got a box of adjectives going cheap in the back of my van. I can see you're desperate. I can do a good price if you take the lot."

Temporarily reassured, I'm passing the award on, this time to Mother at Large and Lady Macleod who I'm convinced have bodaciousness in their genes.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Motherhood by text


Lazy arse of son has driven me 2gin bottle again this evening. He knows it all. We r just fkwits ruining his life. Jesus am at melting point with his fking disrespectful attitude. Fk the school – feel like sending him 2 sweat factory – tonight. He was asked out by girl at school, declined and then accidently sent her txt saying ‘I know, f****** hell, who’d go out with that c*** anyway?'

Thought was organised today - ballet kit washed and ready, piano bks by door, kids ontime 4school then got call on way 2sch from son reminding me that its fkin roman day 2day and he's got to dress up. I can manage toga I say, thinking can take sheet in 2school but no, the bastds got 2b a roman centurian.

Daughter just told me that 2day she got highest mark shes ever got in science – 96%. Then found out it was 4 reproduction! Oh dear, just like her mum.

Deloused youngest then lovingly blowdried hair and put her bk 2 bed she promptly sat up and vomited over clean bed and hair so had2do all over again.

Can anyone the fk hear me? Hello! Oh, God oh fk maybe ive died and this is it. Bitches.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Hard of herring

"I'm back," calls Francis.

He's been in Canada. His pizza-sick topping job has yielded one significant benefit - notably, his boss' occasional desire to fly him to places to look at possible new men's grooming product ingredients.

This time, they've got themselves terrifically worked up about Omega 3. It seems that, added to moisturiser, it might do wonderful things for ageing. So Francis has been looking at fish. Dead fish, live fish but, above all, oily fish. Fish with grease issues.

"It could be the first step on the path to the secret of eternal youth," says Francis.

"As long as you didn't mind the strange, fishy smell wherever you went," I add, unhelpfully. "I bet Adonis wouldn't have gone for it."

Francis opens his suitcase and distributes presents. The children get keyrings and T-shirts. There's a can of nice-looking maple syrup.

"And there's something for you, darling," says Francis, to me. Despite myself, I feel quite excited. He hands me a parcel. It's big and heavy. Not a good sign if you were thinking - ooh, jewellery, maybe. Or scent.

I tear it open. There are two books, "Silver Harvest," which has a big picture of two boats and a fishing net on the front cover and is about sardines, and "Herring Weirs: The only sustainable fishery," which is illustrated with a picture of what looks like a small, waterbourne prison, which has to be the weir itself, and is about herring. And weirs.

"You really shouldn't have," I say. And I mean it.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Not the balcony scene

"I thought you said nobody could fail to be moved by Beethoven," says Vicky, as we stand up straight again.

"I did," says Ra. "But yelling 'Da da da Da,' repeatedly through Bad Lindy's letterbox is a more liberal interpretation of his oeuvre than I had in mind."

The front door remains obstinately shut.

"Time for Plan B," says Vicky.

"Must we?" I say.

"It's the only way," says Vicky. "Come on."

It's only after we've yelled, "Special delivery for Bad Lindy - and just wait till you see where they want you to sign for him,' at the tops of our voices, twice, that anything happens and even then it's only a window that opens.

"Go away," calls Bad Lindy, "Or I'll show you my scars."

"What scars?" says Ra

"Botched hemorrhoids op," says Vicky.

"Would she really do that?" says Ra, in awed tones.

"Oh yes," says Vicky. "Ask anyone at the magistrate's court. They all had to have post-traumatic stress counselling when she presented them as evidence, but they still did her for parking in a disabled slot."

"Oh, God," says Ra, looking distinctly ill. "And Tom chose to go in there with her?"

"Choice and free will are relative terms with Bad Lindy," I say."She's a predestination sorta gal."

"Tom," calls Ra through the letter box. "Can you hear me? Please let me in. I need to talk to you. I can't get the petrol cap on the estate to lock and we're surrounded by clouds of petrol vapour whenever I do more than 15 miles an hour. The children were both late for their recorder lessons yesterday."

"Talk about making someone feel wanted," mutters Vicky to me. "If I were him I'd tell her to sod off."

"Please, Tom," says Ra. "All my computer settings keep saying they're in an error configuration and flashing at me. What do I do?"

The window opens again.

"Is that really all I am to you?" says Tom. "A computer mending, fuel-cap fixing seven day a week handyman."

Ra thinks for a moment.

"Well, yes," she says "Mainly. Though, of course, it's not all. By any means. You''re....Oh, Tom, this is too difficult. Please let me talk to you face to face."

"You are talking to me face to face."

"No she's not. From down here, all she can see is the underneath of your chins and slightly up one nostril," calls Vicky. "It's not your best profile, take it from me."

"Oh, all right, Ra," says Tom, crossly. "And will the harpies be coming in with you?"

"Love you too," calls Vicky. "You bloody bet we are, with a welcome like that. Start slicing the lemon drizzle cake."

The door is unbolted. Tom's chins and nostrils, now presented from a more flattering perspective loom round the frame.

"You'd better come in," he says.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Notes from the edge

"Mum, you can't do this to me. I want to break something. I have to go, Mum.

"I can't cope anymore. Right now, I'm not just depressed, I feel worse. I'm aggravated, distressed and I'm in a complete state of anxiety .....there's so much anger and sadness and I can't stop.

"Do you actually know what it feels like to watch the clock, count every day, second, moment, not care if you go to school and everyone spreads a rumour about some horribly embarrassing thing, and you don't care.

"I felt sick yesterday because I was so distraught.

"So now, I beg you, acknowledge you've read this through and I will beg you. I will plead with you.

"I feel I am entering hell."

What have I done to my almost fourteen year old daughter? I'll tell you what I've done. When, at 7.30 a.m, pre-school run and teaching job, we had what you could call a bit of a barney over a missing bit of PE kit, I did the 'If you don't stop screaming at me by the time I've counted three .....' business and then cancelled -

- a riding weekend which will be reinstated next year. No more, no less.

At her age, I was no nicer, but we were poorer. And it was a real struggle for my parents to buy me my first full size violin. How did we get from hardship to hysterics over a riding weekend in one generation?

Is it just hormones or inflated expectations? And hormones, is it hers or mine? If inflated expectations, do I prick them or puff in more hot air?

All advice welcomed.

PS She wants to be a writer. Does it show?

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Not the Edinburgh Tattoo

"She won't answer her front door," says Vicky, who has obviously decided against breaking the truth gently.

"Who won't?" asks Ra.

"Lindy," says Vicky. I try to catch her eye without success. "She's got Tom in there with her."

"I thought you were planning a subtle approach," I say.

"I was, but I got bored," says Vicky. "And anyway, I've tried it before. All that happens is you take a bit longer to get to the brutal honesty bit and it's just as bad when you do."

"Tom?" says Ra, tearful again. "What's going on? It's not a hostage situation, is it?"

"I shouldn't have thought so," says Vicky. "What would Lindy ask for? A waiting plane to take her to an 18-30 holiday where all the other women have been mysteriously abducted by aliens, leaving bronzed, sex-starved hunks craving the presence of female company?"

She pauses. "I suppose you could have a point, Ra. Let's go and find out."

Shortly afterwards, we're thumping on Lindy's door. Nothing. Upstairs, the curtains are drawn and there's the very faint sound of a growling bass.

"Oh my God," I say. "Isn't that Ride of the Valkyrie?"

By way of answer, my phone pings. I take a look, jump, and pass it to Cultured Mum and Vicky. It's a giblet text with a difference, a rear view of a slightly pimply backside.

"So what?" says Vicky.

"Look at that left buttock," I say, "And tell me if that mark is what I think it is."

"It says, 'I love Beethoven' - and there's some notes," says Vicky.

"If I'm not mistaken," says Ra, "It's the opening of Beethoven's fifth. The hammer blows of fate. Or am I thinking of Mahler Six ?"

"Mahler six, legs eleven, Lindy's soixante-neuf - who cares at a time like this?" says Vicky. "Do you want Tom or not?"

Ra examines the text with care.

"Whoever did that tattoo certainly didn't have what I'd consider a solid grounding in music theory. That treble clef's a disgrace."

"Why don't you write and demand the entire London Symphony Orchestra when you get yours done?" says Vicky who is getting a tiny bit impatient. "If they wrote small they could probably fit a whole symphony across your bum and add an encore round the front. You could keep crowds entertained for hours at next year's Proms."

"I just don't want to face the truth," says Ra. She looks at the text again. "Mind you, I think facing that tattoo is even worse."

"Right," says Vicky. "Talk about hammer blows of fate. We're going in."

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Unrepeatable Freecycle offers. Thank God.

It's so easy!! Act now!!

Just hurry, hurry, hurry in the opposite direction and you, too, could avoid some or, with skill, all of today's bargains!!

And, while you're about it, get out of town, too, before anyone can lob them on to your doorstep from a speeding car!!

Choose from.......

Lot 1: A white plastic garden table with some 'unremoveable stains'.

Lot 2: Paper Plates: most do not appear to have been used

Lot 3: Instruction Manual for music centre (the device itself was disposed of a while back)

Lot 4: Melita Coffee Grinder (model CM1)- for spare parts. - The top is missing. The blade is getting blunt. So someone might be able to put it together with
another damaged one to make one good whole one.

Lot 5: Second-hand incontinence knickers, Ladies size XL - 3 bags. All have been washed. Some have unused pads placed in them ready for use, some don't.

A clash of symbols

"Who's gone? Colin?" I ask Ra

"Not Colin. Tom," says Cultured Mum, a touch of impatience edging its way into her tone through the tears.

"Tom's gone? But I thought - "

"Quite. The thing is, I just don't know what to do. Can I come round?"

Vicky is mouthing something at me in an exaggerated, conspiratorial way, all teeth and tonsil, like somebody leading a lip reading tutorial for beginners, but I still can't make it out.

"What?" I say, when I've finished on the phone.

"It's not Colin who's round at Lindy's. It's Tom."

I stare at her.

"I'm going there now - while you're seeing Ra."

"You are? Does Tom know."

"Who cares," says Vicky.

"Well, he might," I say. "And should I tell Ra?"

"Personally, I'd save it for the time being," says Vicky. "After all, it's not as if you're going to run short of things to talk about."

Cultured Mum tends naturally to the brusque side, conversationally. Where others would um and er, her favourite all-purpose word is 'quite' which she uses for punctuation and is despatched from her lips like a bullet, making it hard to resist the urge to dive for cover whenever a sub-clause hoves into view.

But today she's more brioche than biscotti when it comes to verbal crunch.

"I saw this couple today," she says. "There was a girl, and a man. But the strange thing was that he was wearing a hoodie - it was grey, enormous, almost monastic and I couldn't see his face - just hers, young and pretty, sipping her coffee opposite this hooded, brooding figure. It looked like a visual representation of 'Death and the Maiden'"

I look blank.

"That famous quartet. By Schubert."

"Oh. I see. Or like that film with about the plague - by - um -"

"The Seventh Seal. Bergman. Quite," she says, repeating it for greater emphasis. "It made me feel - oh, I don't know, as though it were a message."

Despite her careful use of the subjunctive, this is very bad. Cultured Mum's messages are delivered through the normal channels - computer, mail and phone. She does not do symbolism, unless, of course, it's embedded, like a journalist on army duty in Iraq, in a major work of art.

"I've been listening to a lot of Rachmaninoff," she says, apparently by way of explanation for what, for her, is an unprecedented marshmallow mood.

"So, going back to Tom. I thought it was all over."

"It was," says Ra. "But now he's gone, I'm beginning to find out how much I miss him. Take the wireless computer system he installed. He's the system administrator - nobody else can get into the system without his password."

This isn't exactly high romance, but I suppose it's a start.

"And then there's the in-line descaler we've just bought. Heaven knows which valve you need to unscrew before you clean it out."

I can't help wondering how, exactly, Ra and Tom worded their marriage vows, but from the sounds of it they might just as well have cut and pasted them from an instruction manual and then chosen the Bob the Builder theme song as the bride made her triumphal entry down the aisle.

"And what about Colin?"

"Oh, he's there, all right. I never believed Lindy for a moment. It's just he doesn't do anything. I ask him for to sort out the computers and all he does is rant on about Rameau's neglected role in early French opera. It's no help at all, frankly."

"Ra," I say. "What would you like to happen?"

"I don't know," she says. "Help me."

The doorbell rings. "That'll be Vicky," I say. "Let's see if she's got any suggestions."

Monday, 17 September 2007

An axis to grind

There's a general sense of things being slightly out of kilter.

I send Francis an e-mail with school dates and copy it to my own inbox. It never arrives. I imagine it in cyberspace, redirecting itself to my cyber doppelganger who's a better turned out version of me and is now staring at the uninteresting list of dates and laughing to herself.

Then that evening as we look out into the garden, we see a frightened looking fox running down the path. It is followed by a tabby cat, tail crooked downwards in that 'No kidding, I really mean it," way they do so well. As a staunch believer in those 'urban fox ate my baby and wouldn't pass on the recipe' urban myths, it's unsettling to see one so comprehensively quashed in front of my eyes.

Fox and cat criss-cross the garden, the fox running a little faster each time, the cat looking a little more menacing, then exit into the shadow underneath a hedge.

"Exit, pursued by a cat," I say.

"Our dog would beat the fox," says Deborah.

"It depends what at," I say. "I hear they're very good at Sudoku".

Deborah looks at me. "Muuu-uum," she says.

Later on I call an urban fox myth hotline. Cats have clearly been doing a wonderful propaganda job for years. Foxes are the innocent victims of the feline thugs who, fed up with the pesticide residues in small birds, have embarked on bigger, more exciting prey. Ours is probably running herself up a small pink jacket and mewing, 'Tally ho!' in the garden shed every night.

The world seems to be losing all its certainties. Or perhaps I am being jolted out of my normal complacency, and about time, too.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Gone too long

"Things v quiet round here," Vicky texts me.

"Too damn quiet," I text back.

It's three days later and there's a palpable sense of tension in the air - palpable, though, only to Vicky and me.

Ra's unnerving intensity has earned her few close friends on the school run, though she has a lot of casual acquaintances who tend to hide behind trees when they see her coming, thus avoiding the danger of being shaken out of their default stand by mode and, instead, subjected to intellectually rigourous conversation first thing in the morning.

So they either don't notice or don't care that Ra seems to have mastered the art of teleporting her children to school and back again - one minute they're in the playground, as usual being pelted with chocolate chip brioche rolls - stones are so declasse, my dear - as they attempt, unsucessfully, to woo a crowd of mixed infants with 'Greensleeves' arranged as a recorder duet, the next, gone, leaving just the faintest echo of the most delicate of demi-semi-quavers hovering in mid air.

Lindy, too, has been unnervingly absent. There have been no giblet texts. In fact, there have been no texts at all. Even her house, which normally has the air of a structure under severe strain, seems to have breathed out and settled down on its foundations for a nap.

"Wot next?"

"Sleeping dogs?"

It's not easy. Even the vet's looks different without Lindy. The animals are palpably more cheerful and less apprehensive and so, to an even greater extent, are their owners.

Then Vicky turns up on my doorstep.

"Look!" she says, pointing dramatically at her phone.

"Got him!" says the text from Lindy.

My phone starts to ring. "It's Ra," I mouth at Vicky.

"He's gone," she sobs down the line.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Concert Pitch

It's one of those moments. To be more accurate, it's several of those moments, all rolled together and combined with the interesting sensation that the universe has encountered a points difficulty and lurched to a grinding halt somewhere outside Thurrock.

I look at Vicky. She's not saying anything - in itself, a highly unusual state of affairs. I am trying to gather my thoughts and rearrange them into a nice, ordered little posy rather than the disordered Triffid-like tendrils they currently resemble.

Bad Lindy, too, is silent. But when I glance at her I see that she's perfectly relaxed and looking straight at Colin with a half smile.

"So you resent it, do you Colin?" she says. He draws himself up to his full height, tailor-enhanced shoulders following a split second later, and looks straight back.

"I do, as it happens," he says. "My good lady friend here - "

"Your what?" says Vicky, perking up suddenly.

"I can speak for myself," says Ra. "And I don't know what the three of you are up to, but it feels like a very public transgression on to very private territory."

"How funny," says Bad Lindy. "Because that's pretty much what your mum said, too."

"My mum?" says Colin."What's my mum got to do with this?"

"Quite a lot, now," says Bad Lindy. "Since I told her all about you and me - every little sordid detail."

"You did what?" says Colin."But you don't even know my mother. You don't even know me."

"I may not know you inside out," says Bad Lindy,"I was starting with the extremities and working my way in. That is, until you dumped me."

By now, Ra, Vicky and I have combined forces to form a sort of impromptu Greek chorus.

"He dumped you?" we say together, running our eyes up and down Colin in an effort to calculate whether so puny a frame as his would be able to dump anything as large as Lindy without severe internal injury.

"Oh, yes," says Lindy. "We met on a campsite. Colin was showing me the ropes. Literally. He wooed me with words. Just the way he's doing with you, Ra."

"And which word exactly was it that did the trick?" I say unwisely, but unable to resist asking.

"There were so many. Aufenthaltsgenehmigung was one, if I recall. But I think it was 'Fancy a f***' that did the trick in the end."

"Colin would never be so coarse," says Ra, indignantly.

"Oh, no?" says Lindy. "Want to see his texts?" She gets out her phone and, after a bit of finger agitation, shows the screen to Ra, who reads the message and goes pale.

"That is his number, isn't it?" Ra looks at it distractedly. "Yes, I'm sure it is."

"Anyway, your mum didn't take kindly to hearing about the new woman in your life, especially one who's married. I think she'll be having words with you when you get home. She told me she felt really sorry for me."

"I'm not taking any more of this," says Colin. "It's a pack of lies from beginning to end. Coming, Ra?"

Cultured Mum looks bewildered. "I...I don't know," she says. Colin shrugs and turns away.

"Come on," says Vicky to Ra. "Come back with us. Let's find somewhere you can calm down for a bit." She leads Ra away.

"How did you do that?" I say to Bad Lindy.

"Do what?" she says. "I'm telling you, the boy was a legend in bed. I don't know what they teach them at music college, but he must have practised a hell of a lot of scales." She catches my eye.

"Oh, all right," she says. "It's all down to the private detective. He tracked down Colin's mum and I phoned her. Sounded pretty damn convincing, if you ask me."

"And the texts from Colin?"

"Oh, I just sent them to myself from that other phone."

"But I thought Ra recognised the number."

"She was upset. All numbers look the same when you're in a state of post-Colin shock."

As Vicky and Ra come back, I can't help wondering how long it will take Ra to become suspicious. The odds of discovering that your new man has a history with one of your friends must be astronomical. Unless, of course, that friend is Bad Lindy, in which case all bets are usually off.

Friday, 14 September 2007

To infinity and beyond

Finally, proof not only that we go to a better place after death, but that someone knows how to get to it, too.

Insurance companies - who I suspect have been in cahoots with the Almighty for years (after all, if He tells them exactly when the next batch of floods is going to happen, and where, they can adjust premiums way in advance) - clearly have some inside knowledge.

A national press ad for a PBYG - Pay before you go funeral scheme, like PAYE only more pointless - announces the many benefits of signing up for a regular savings plan, possibly for decades, in the sure knowledge that customers won't be around, at least, not in any conscious state - to enjoy the full gorgeousness of their coffin, lustrous and with the decorative wood effect of their choice.

The firm highlights the many benefits of the scheme:

1. Peace of mind.
2. The pleasing sense that if you play your cards right and use up every last penny of your spare cash, this will be the last time anyone will take you for a gullible idiot
3. Er, that's it.

Sign up now, they say, and there's a free gift.

What is it?

A satellite navigation system.

Like I said, the insurance companies clearly know where we're going after death. Let's just hope they remember to slip the postcode into your shroud.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Words fail me.

The oven's on the blink and I need emergency microwave recipes. A quick internet search works wonders.

My, but how things have changed. Forget those tired old cliched pictures of the finished dish. Instead, you get photographs by the score of chefs staring coyly at the camera, sucking the tips of their fingers. Though I may be doing them an injustice, of course; could be they're just trying to pick the scraps of meat out of their back teeth.

I pick and click:

"For those times when you have a craving to don an apron, get your hands dirty and cook up something comforting, find delicious recipes by method here..."

Frankly, the times I've had to wrestle with my apron-donning cravings are so few that a quadruple limb amputee would have no difficulty counting them. But this is no time to be Mrs Picky, especially when the 26 letters of the alphabet fill the screen, all promising enticing microwave menu options.

I press the letter 'A'.

'There are no recipes beginning with 'A'. Please select another letter!' (I'm particularly keen on that exclamation mark - as if it adds the note of edgy humour that makes the whole thing somehow worthwhile.

On with 'B'.

'There are no recipes beginning with 'B'. Please select another letter!'

C - nothing. D - you've guessed it.

I'm beginning to lose heart. And there's no sign of an offal recipe in which to stew it, either.

Then, at E - bingo - 'Eggs Florentine.'

But it's just a cruel joke. At 'Z' I have unearthed only one more recipe, for Bread and Butter Pudding. Even here there's a twist. It's filed under 'M' - for 'My grandmother's recipe for Bread and Butter Pudding.' Of course. Stupid of me not to bone up on the author's idiosyncratic filing system. And her relations - or, at least, the ones who like cooking.

But they've got one thing right. I do now have a craving to 'get my hands dirty' - by taking a meat cleaver to whichever finger sucking star chef came up with the the idea in the first damn place.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Why we love the internet fraudsters

I used to get tears in my eyes and flinch whenever the black-ringed pages in the Sugar Plum Fairy School Holiday Calendar of Doom swam across my peripheral vision. I don’t now.

Thanks to those lovely people from the on-line criminal community, entertaining my three children has never been easier. Instead of creative play - in our house a euphemism for ever more imaginative forms of sibling on sibling violence - the children cluster eagerly round the computer (I prefer the piano on cultural grounds but it’s impossible to attach the mouse to the keyboard) so we can download the latest batch of fraudulent e-mails and nominate the thief du jour.

I was keen that my children – like everyone else’s, so sheltered that they believe the outside world comes packaged in 10-minute segments spliced together with commercials – should become a bit more street wise, without, of course, actually having to go into a real street.

Then, quite by accident, I found a way of introducing my children to Real Life – or, at least, a virtual version of it, when I put a violin up for sale with a specialist on-line site. I paid a modest fee, sat back and waited. Within days, I had dozens of new friends, all trying to steal my money and, quite unintentionally, providing hours of educational fun, spanning everything from grammar and geography to forensic psychology.

Thanks to classics like ‘Mog, the Forgetful Cat’ and ‘Burglar Bill’, my three knew for a fact that all burglars sport those easy-to-recognise black and white Breton-with-a-twist T-shirts – although the eldest was beginning to question this if only on grounds of style. After all, Prada isn’t exactly rushing to launch Hessian sacks marked ‘Swag’. Not as far I know, anyway.

So the first lesson was about the evolution of burglars. The children shuddered as I explained the tough, tough world of traditional burglary, all outdoors with the ever-present indignity of having to say “It’s a fair cop, gov,” to a panting PC Plod – and the alternative, sitting cosily indoors, using guile and the internet to extract the loot and relying on on-line anonymity to make a quick getaway. It’s a no-brainer.

In fact, as crooks no longer have to be fit enough to outrun the local bobby, I’m convinced that their new working practices are linked directly to the soaring obesity rates.

Then it was time to check the e-mails. Crooks work so hard to lure you into their evil webs of words that the strands of personal information intended to be irresistibly enticing invariably sound as if they’ve been lifted straight from 'The Incredibly Stupid Punter’s Guide to Getting Conned'.

After only a little practice, the children became experts. Tony, for example, was: ‘a tourist I tour the world. Let me hear from you’. All fine, until he signed himself off as Susan. However far he travelled, it was clear that the line of bemused travellers in his wake would always stretch further.

Owen was keen for me to ‘facilitate … with faults affectig (sic) the product’ and
assisted ‘various beneficials\clients regardless of their little financial strength’. We all warmed to kind Owen, who wanted to buy my violin as part of ‘an attempt to put together an entertainment school for a client’ - until we realised that he was sending us the same e-mail day in, day out, under at least ten different names and had so many incarnations he would have been perfectly cast as the new Doctor Who.

Owen’s caring attitude was shared by the equally lovely Williams, who enquired tenderly after my family’s health before offering to buy the violin ‘ for a staff of mine’. And who said employee motivation was dead?

Then we moved on to geography, and how not to do it. Not surprisingly, the world the fraudsters inhabit is as skewed as the English they use. John Thomas (yes, really) was ‘a US expartriate (sic) based in the New Zealand’; James Femson, an engineer ‘in the north part of ireland’ (sic). It was hard to imagine what Henry Fish, a 'local dealer of cars spare parts in Denmark' would do with a late 19th century violin, unless he planned to use it as an emergency in-car entertainment system in adverse weather conditions.

Next came literacy, as the children competed to spot the moment when the authors ran short of time, patience and editing skills. Frequent requests to buy the ‘(violin)’ indicated an advanced cut and paste problem but others went one better by offering to buy the wrong item altogether. With his touching yet completely misguided desire to purchase the ‘advert piano’, Harry was the children’s virtual fraud winner until he was trumped by the bizarrely named Stone, who had clearly lost the plot quite some time before he e-mailed me, appropriately in Comic Sans MS font, to say that he was ‘very much interested in purchasing your horse’. You can lead a horse to the Elgar Violin Concerto, Stone, but it’ll never hit a top ‘F’.

The violin is still awaiting a new home. But who cares? I now have three children so attuned to fraud that they wouldn’t reply to an e-mail from Father Christmas if it contained the words ‘cashier’s cheque’. And thanks to my new network of criminally-minded pen pals, the children and I can survive any holiday – just as long as they keep the e-mails coming.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Not a prayer

Germany: A TV talk show host praises Nazi family values, saying they were 'something good.' She is sacked.

Africa: a village priest dives into the water to communicate with the river gods. His body is recovered three days later.

Israel: Neo-Nazi gangs attack religious Jews. The gangs are themselves technically Jewish - having one Jewish grandparent is all it takes to be allowed to settle there on the tit for tat basis that it was also the minimum requirement to be sent to the gas chambers. Gang members are arrested but there's a problem. There's no law that specifically outlaws anti-semitism - the Israeli government having assumed that it was never going to be much of a problem there.

The UK: In assembly at school I play, 'Shine, Jesus, Shine,' - one of the children's favourite hymns - and reflect on the irony that, as an agnostic of Jewish descent, I spend more time playing Christian hymns than pretty much anyone else I know. And, despite my loathing for the cant, I can't helped being moved by the music it inspires.

There's got to be a moral here, but, for the life of me, I can't see what it is.

Monday, 10 September 2007

File under martyr

Francis puts down the phone.

"That bastard's going for my job," he says.

Derek, Francis' former colleague has decided that it's self-promotion time. The headhunter referred to him by Francis has been in touch and an exciting job looks to be his for the taking, thanks to tip top testimonials from every top man in every supermarket. A passion for adhesives obviously gets you a long way - unless, of course, you've accidentally stuck yourself to your office chair.

Buoyed by this success, he's decided to go for broke and is staking everything on a call to the company chairman, offering himself as the ideal successor to Francis, only better.

"He wanted my advice," says Francis, whose lip has curled so much it resembles a party streamer that's retracted in too much of a hurry and may require the application of hair straighteners out if it's ever to look normal again.

"So what did you do?"

"Told him to go for it. Well, what else I could I do?"

"Hang up. Blow a whistle down the phone. Laugh loudly and then say, 'Oh, sorry - wasn't that a joke,' or -"

Francis looks sternly at me. No wonder my own short-lived business career was, indeed, so short-lived. In an environment where team skills, people management and a natural ability to co-operate with every psychopath bearing a company cheque was prized above everything else, my top skill - a burning desire for revenge extended, if necessary, through the children's children's children of my enemies - was never really considered much of an asset.

"You have to go along with it," says Francis. "You never know when you might bump into these people again."

"You do know," I say. "It takes a bit of work but I could guarantee to trap Derak down a dark alley within a week. And I know just where I'd stick all his adhesives, too."

"It wouldn't help," says Francis. "So I've given him a few hints on the best way to play the conversation."

"Was this before or after you had yourself carved up as sacrificial lamb and seved on a plate with a garnish of rosemary and a dash of apple mint jelly?"

Later that day, Derek rings again.

"Excellent. Well done," says Francis. He turns to me. "The chairman's interested. Sounds like it may work out for him."

"Children," I call up the stairs. "Mummy's got a really exciting new game. It's called, 'Blood Feud'. Come down, and we'll play it."

Disobedient dogs.

Round here there's so much oneupmanship that even pets are selected for intelligence. There are collies so highly trained that several are working as classroom assistants. I've even met a goldfish so bright that it's little fishy eyes follow you round the kitchen, possibly so it can make a quick escape if it sees the sauce tartare coming out, but also because when it catches sight of its fish food it spits water out of its tank with excitement. I've heard of drooling before, but this is in a different league.

Not us, though. I selected our little dog because I thought she'd be up for games, fun, long walks. She's useless at all of them. I made a few mistakes, admittedly - the dog training class had to break it to me that almost no dog manages more than the rudiments of Vingt et un and they all tend to get over excited during Monopoly and eat the Community Chest.

But still. At least there's good news about our dog - of a sort, anyway. If she isn't the nation's most disobedient dog it's only because she is, categorically, the nation's stupidest, which makes her behaviour at least unintentional.

Matters came to a head when we took her with us for a visit to my parents in law. Their house is immaculate. It's clean in places I'd never thought of cleaning -behind radiators and the underneaths of loo cisterns.

Within minutes of our arrival, she'd found her way upstairs to their bedroom, peed on their brand new carpet and, tired out by her exploits, jumped onto their bed where she fell into a deep and satisfying sleep, leaving a great many hairs and some impossible to remove stains.

They found her, and the by now dried up wee several hours later when she sat up, wagged her tail and did the dog equivalent of, "What? You what? What is it - I don't get it. Why are you looking like at me like that? Ow!"

She was not asked again.

However, I did tell the story to several friends and several who have a distinctly iffy relationship with their own parents in law reckoned they might try a similar approach next time they go to stay.

Perhaps she's not quite as stupid as I thought.....

Saturday, 8 September 2007

A drive with Francis

We drive along the motorway. The rising sun is low in the sky behind us, flashing us in the mirror like an impatient motorist.

There is a rattle, says Francis.

"This car doesn't rattle," he mutters. He is doing 70. He is agonised. He drives with one hand and pats down the dashboard with the other like a police officer frisking a suspect.

The rattle continues. Francis starts to question me. The car cannot be to blame. It must be me. Have I packed any metal item? Well, plastic then? Could I have packed something a while back and hidden it under the seat. Because this car DOES NOT rattle.

The children and I remain stolidly indifferent. We can hear nothing. The rattle is audible only to the car fanatic.

A second rattle joins the first rattle.

A shadow falls across the sky.

"There goes the sun for today," says Francis, surprising the faux wood surround with a karate chop.

We can all hear the third rattle.

"These - cars - don't - rattle," he says, through gritted teeth, dealing the glove pocket a sharp blow with his fist.

He surveys the nearly empty road. "If only," he says wistfully, "all car journeys could be as stress free as this."

Friday, 7 September 2007

Helpful hints from the internet

When domestic disaster strikes, I always turn to the internet. Does it help me resolve my crises? Does it, hell. However, the amount of joy derived from inbibing the words of wisdom consigned with such care to the internet by a bunch of anal retentive twazzocks always takes my mind off them.

Recent snippets include:

'Five ways to kitchen design happiness

1. Face into the room when cooking. Cooking is sociable.
(Omega Mum's tip: Once you've learned to rotate your head 180 degrees while flash frying steak, remember that the resulting third degree burns will also provide a useful talking point when other conversational topics fail)

2. Ensure you can load the lower shelf of a dishwasher without bending.
(Tip: Growing to a height of no more than six inches is the key here. That, or ready access to trained mice)

3. Place appliances intelligently
(Tip: The novelty value of attaching your washer dryer to the ceiling, however amusing, wears off sooner than you might suppose)

4. Place tables in a spot with a view
(Tip: The Bristol Channel always works well, but don't forget to swim back to land in time to stop the potatoes boiling dry)

5. Reflect the householder's personality
(Tip: A feature pile of empty vodka bottles and unpaid bills does it for us)

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Coda honour

Vicky, Bad Lindy and I are waiting for a train after a brief, celebratory stop-off at a nice little waiter round the corner who, conveniently, comes with in-built wine bar ("I could listen to him croon that list of specials all night, couldn't you?" says Lindy. "No," we chorus rudely.)

The station is crowded with the walking inebriated who are still able to move at a fast stumble without vomiting. We're hoping that by now, all the concert goers are well on their way home.

"What about the phone you put in the briefcase?" I ask.

"What about it?" says Bad Lindy.

"Couldn't it be traced back to you?" I ask.

"No way," she says. "And the phone I called him on is registered to a small haybarn in Lithuania. I knew that private detective would come in useful."

"What private detective?"

"The policeman's wife hired him to discover if there was anything going on between us. He turned up on my doorstep to read the meters. I let him in and locked him in the cupboard under the stairs - they'd only been done the week before, so I knew he was a fake."

"How long did you lock him in there?"

"I dunno. Ten minutes or so. Well, as long as he took to find where I'd hidden the key."

"What were you doing in there with him?"

"What do you think?" says Lindy. "I never could resist a man in overalls."

"Or dungarees," says Vicky, "Or clothes. Or standing up, sitting down -"

"So, what about Colin?" continues Lindy, taking Vicky's comments as some sort of tribute. "Ra'll ditch him. Got to. It's embarrassing, crass, tasteless." She looks a little wistful for a mioment. "Shame to waste it, really, but there we are."

"He'll certainly find it hard to explain away," I say. "Mind you, should make for an interesting review. That is, if he ever gets round to writing it."

"He's like a jackal," says Vicky, indignantly. "Sneaking round and scraping up the fag ends of other people's marriages."

"No, he's not," says Ra, suddenly.

"No, I'm not," says Colin, popping up behind her. "And what's more, I resent that."

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Notes from the staff meeting.

"... so, in conclusion, do not touch the children. Do not shout at the children. Do not send a child out - they are unsupervised. You don't know what they might do. Self mutilate, possibly. And remember, no beverages in the classroom, and if you get a letter of complaint from a parent, bring it straight to me.

"Any questions?

"Decoration? Well, we certainly aim to get the entrance hall painted in time for the parents' evening. The rest of the building work has been put on hold. Why? No cement. Because of the Olympics, we're running out of the stuff. Did you know that? Put your shares in cement manufacturing, that's what I say.

"Is anything happening to the junior toilets? We thought we might flush them, for a change. Joking aside, what had you in mind? Bright-coloured doors? Right. So that urine shade doesn't appeal? We'll think about it.

"You want to report a what? Oh, not another child with a food problem. What is it this time? Chokes on apple? Look on the bright side. We could always do Snow White as the Christmas play this year.

"Anything else? No? Then let me wish you all a very successful and happy Autumn term."

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Overtures and beginners

"Oh, go on, let me keep watch. They'll never spot me," says Bad Lindy, who has arrived at the concert hall wearing a scarlet jacket and matching leer that is slightly less unobtrusive than a fleet of fire engines, but only just.

There's an hour to go and we're all in position. Vicky is stationed by the entrance and I am in a dark corner with Bad Lindy, who is making strenuous, though so far unsuccessful efforts to disguise herself using native cunning and any raw materials that come to hand: in this instance, an attractive young attendant.

It's already getting crowded when Vicky joins us. "They're over there," she mutters, pointing behind her.

Colin and Ra are in the queue for drinks. They look serious and absorbed. Colin isn't audible, but Ra appears transfixed by whatever it is he's saying, nodding vigorously at intervals and clearly in total agreement.

"Over to you, Lindy," says Vicky. "Aim for his case."

Lindy picks a phone from her pocket, and, using the attendant as cover, wanders behind Colin and Ra. She stoops, briefly, apparently checking to see if she's dropped something, then, as she stands up, very quickly posts the phone inside Colin's briefcase.

"Phase one accomplished," she says, as she arrives back. "I'm going in. Wish me luck."

A few minutes later she calls us. "They must be in love. I've never heard such a load of b******* in my life. Here, I'll hold up the phone."

Colin's small, whiny voice is chewing up the syllables, one by one.

"Now take that remastered HMV version. I thought Isolde was in superb voice," he says, "though the dynamic quality was somewhat lacking."

"I never felt she reached her true pianissimo, especially in her initial entry," says Ra, earnestly.

There's a snort as Bad Lindy's laughter ricochets off the double entendres.

"How did she manage to get so close?" I say. "She must have disguised herself as the entire string section."

"What about that double bass build up to that ominous, surging Liebestod climax. You could almost see them being enveloped by that tsunami of sound." says Colin, "A breathtaking moment."

There's the associated scraping and puffing of an orchestra tuning up, applause for the conductor and singers, and then they're off. The music surges, rises, surges, rises - "God, if it was a bloke you'd be hiding the Viagra," - says Vicky and then dies away temporarily.

"I'm doing it - now," says Lindy. "Bye for now." The phone goes dead. We steal up to one of the auditorium doors and open it a crack.

The music is at it's softest when a sudden, alien sound rings out, so loud that even Vicky and I can hear it.

"Pick up the f***** phone, you c****," it shrieks. And it's coming straight from Colin's briefcase.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Awesome fellow bloggers

Beta Mum nominated me to talk about I enjoy about blogging. She summed up the benefits beautifully, so what I have to say is more of a PS.

Blogging is like going to the best party in the world, but without any of the drawbacks. You're never pinned against the knobbly bits of the cooker while some old drunk launches a spit-filled tirade against the government, immigrants or property prices and the only way out is to dig a tunnel under his feet.

Where else can you short cut small talk and go straight for the essence of what makes people tick - from education to ghosts, autism to being a hippie wild child?

You can travel the world courtesy of the ex-pat writers and even inhabit different worlds altogether courtesy of the bloggers who draw you into the fictional kingdoms they've created.

The most surprising thing, to me, has been the generosity of spirit. I've shared problems and had support that was really moving. You can't help feeling that with this sort of community spirit, the world, however bad the doom and gloom reports, may be capable of some sort of redemption.

That's enough sentiment.

I'd like to nominate I Beatrice, Stay at Home Dad, DJKirby and Mother at Large for the Awesome Blogger award. Not that everyone else isn't awesome, too, it's just that these blogs work in such different ways.

I Beatrice has shared done something very generous in sharing the trials and tribulations of being a writer. SAHD, because I wanted to give him an award before, but it was too pink; DJ Kirby for an always interesting look at a childhood with a difference, and Mother at Large for being so consistently authoritative that once I read her blog, I feel I've actually learned something. And at my age, that's no easy task.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

6-0 wash out for Barbie. Nation mourns

When the football results come on, my attention is wandering until I hear the following:

"Liverpool thrashes Barbie six-nil."

Well, of course Liverpool thrashed Barbie. Eleven fit men against one woman whose butt is smaller than her head and runs like a pair of scissors opening and closing? It's no contest, is it?

Perhaps, though, it was just down to a lousy choice of tactics. The stilettos probably didn't help, and I suspect pausing to change outfits would have worked against her, too:

"Two goals down, and it's time for desperate measures. Barbie's changing into her Air Hostess outfit, but the word from her manager is that it's too little, too late.

"Four down, and she's set up the Vet Barbie kiosk almost in the goal mouth, but it's been declared offside and she has to remove it, along with the cute plastic kittens and pet travel box.

"It's going to be hard to recover from five down, but Barbie's taking it on the chin, literally, by bringing on her substitute head with the adjustable hair lengths

"It's a wash out. Even the poseable limbs couldn't turn it round for Barbie. And as she swivels her head 360 degrees to smile winsomely at the crowds and swaps sets of co-ordinated handbags and earrings with the other players - who, admittedly, look slightly surprised - you have to admire her pluck.

"That radiant smile disguises what must be a huge anxiety as Barbie waits for the results of the random lead content tests. She may face a lifetime ban, just like the Polly Pocket team last week who ran out of magnets just hefore half time as they were about to score and were forced to spend the rest of the match disco dancing on the spot."

Later on that day, the results come on again, and I listen more carefully. It's not Barbie. It's Derby - of course. But I bet it wasn't half such an entertaining match.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

When the fun never starts

"Never again," says Marion the hairdresser, waving her scissors dangerously close to my ear to emphasise the point. "Never, never again."

After a life-skills refresher course, she had endorphins to spare, leading to an evangelical desire to give her colleague Janet, the excitement-averse, mid-mouse colourist whose idea of adventure is a different sandwich filling at lunchtime, a taster of life on the edge.

So she organised a girl's night out at a local restaurant. It was to die for, she says, but only in the sense that you'd rather die than ever have to do it again.

I ask what made it so awful.

"Well......" begins Marion, and my heart sinks. She's clearly emotional - I can tell, because now the scissors are shaking - and has an awful lot of hair still to cut.

"Things didn't get off to a good start, because I was a bit late. Janet was already upset because I refused to make the restaurant booking for 4.30 pm and she'd had a couple of hours to kill."

"How did she spent the time?" I ask.

"Oh, reorganising her sugar packet collection. She spends hours agonising about whether it's better to maintain the pack integrity by keeping the sugar - though it does discolour the paper - or removing it grain by grain through a tiny hole. And then there's the sub-sets - you know, airline packets, hotel packets, and whether you cross-reference them by language or design components -"

"- I think I've got the gist. Several gists worth, really. Thanks."

"So when I arrive at the mad impetuous hour of 7.00 she's already really twitchy. 'I was hoping you'd come soon, because of ordering drinks,' she says.

"'Just ask the waiter,' I say.

"'Oh, you ask him, I'm too shy.' So I do, and when he comes over, I ask him to turn this outside heater off - it's much too hot for it. And he does. And Janet says, 'Oh, thank you. I was boiling.

"Then we look at the menu. And Janet says, 'I wanted garlic mushrooms for the starter. I didn't want anything else. I know they do them, but they're not on this menu. They must be on the lunchtime menu.' And she's beginning to sound a bit tearful, so I say, 'Why don't you ask the waiter?' she says, 'Oh, I can't. You do it' We get the waiter back and explain that this is a special treat for my friend and is there any way they could give her a starter from the lunch menu and they get the chef out and finally agree.

'Then we order the main courses and Janet whispers that she's a bit short of money and perhaps she'll just have something from the children's menu. I offer to pay for her but she says no, she couldn't possibly, she doesn't want to be in my debt. The waiter comes over to take her order and explains that she can't order from the children's menu because she's not a child. And she looks tearful again, so he gets the manager. The manager gets the owner, the owner, who's obviously just wishing we'd leave says 'Fine, give her a child's portion,' and they go away again.

'She's ordered steak. She looks at the menu again and says, 'It says minute steak. What does that mean?' I say it means it's not cooked for very long. She says, "Oh no, I hope that doesn't mean it's going to be all bloody and red or anything. Could you ask if they can make sure it's well-cooked?' 'You do it,' I say. 'Oh, no, I couldn't,' she says. We get the waiter over again.

'Then she sees the sauce it comes with. It's got blue cheese in it. 'I don't like this sauce,' she says. 'Well, don't have it.' I say. 'Yes, but now the steak's going to be well cooked, it might be much too dry,' I'm so cross I start to say, 'Just breathe on it, you're being so wet it'll moisten up a treat,' but I bite the words back and say, 'Why don't you ask for some melted butter.' "

Marion's scissors are now jigging around so much I'm surprised there aren't fragments of my ear clinging to them. "I think I know where this one's going, Marion," I say, and we both chorus:

"'Oh, I couldn't Marion, could you do it instead?"

"By the time I've organised the pudding - something that's not on the menu, the tea - Janet's brought her own bag - and the bill - Janet kicks up a huge fuss and makes me query every single item - I can truthfully say I never want to see her again. And you can almost hear the cheers go up as we leave. I have to walk Janet home - she's frightened of the dark.

"We get to her door, I say goodnight and she says, 'That was such fun, wasn't it? I really, really enjoyed it. Let's do it again.'

"And the saddest thing," finishes Marion, "Was that I think she really meant it."