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.


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Questions - no answers

"Well, if you don't like it, I'll just get another one."

"It's not that I don't like it, it's just not very easy to use."

In retrospect,.6.30 am, just as Francis is preparing to leave for work, lips set against the enemies of fun - cars jamming the roads, paper jamming his desk, all set off against the backdrop of dark, unpreposessing skies - wasn't the best time to choose for a free and frank discussion about our latest gizmo.

But he started it.

"I hope that new answerphone's recording properly. I'm sure it is, of course. It's just we don't seem to have any messages."

The old answaphone wasn't exactly something I held against my heart and cuddled in bed but, thinking of it, I'm filled with pangs of nostalgia. It didn't do much - it was lousy at jokes and I never did get it to make a decent toasted sandwich, but what it did, it accomplished with relatively little fuss. Press 'play' and it did. Press skip - it did. And so on for other typical ansaphone functions - 'stop' 'record message' 'delete'. No surprises. No frills.

The new one, on the other hand, appears to have ideas above its station.

"It is a bit complicated," I venture.

"It's not complicated," says Francis. "It's perfectly straightforward. You just wouldn't listen to me when I tried to show you how it worked."

By way of answer, I read out an extract from the instruction book.

"Here's what you have to do to play the messages, Francis.

"1. Press the MENU button

"2. Press the down arrow button four times

"3. The display shows Tam operation

"4. Press the Phone/OK button twice."

"Easy," says Francis.

"Not very," I say. "And definitely not very child-friendly."

"The children? Why would the children want to play messages?"

"Someone might leave them one. They get more calls than us these days," I start to say, then give up. And I can't help feeling that there may be a secret agenda here. Francis complains regularly about the phone bill. He points out, rightly, that as he's rarely here these days what with the agony of his daily commute, and has no friends to speak to as the daily commute leaves him no time to socialise, the bill is nothing to do with him.

Could it be that the answaphone is his representative on earth, acting, in his absence, as controller of the communications network? It's a thought that continues to haunt me on and off for the rest of the day as the phone stores up messages, none of which I'm able to play or return.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007


"The Aga man said why not dry citrus peel in the roasting oven and use it as firelighters?" says Vicky, looking at the shiny lump of metal the size of a small mini that's now occupying most of one wall in her kitchen.

She's on her knees in front of it, a reluctant worshipper, contemplating it with mixed awe and loathing.

"Tosser," says Bad Lindy. "You'd get a better blaze toasting his giblets and using them as firelighters instead. Speaking of which, mind if I toast my gusset?"

"As long as you're properly dressed," says Vicky.

"As if I would," says Lindy. She pulls up a chair and sits, legs well apart, revelling in the heat.

"That copper I know said he tried cycling to work commando fashion and kept sitting on his plums," she adds, conversationally.

"Not a citrus fruit," says Vicky. "And the bruising probably stops them heating evenly."

I've gone round to Vicky's to commiserate on her latest kitchen acquisition. Her husband, yearning for an Aga, has got just enough of a bonus to buy one and, despite Vicky's frequent and vociferous objections, has ripped out a couple of kitchen units and had it installed.

"It uses so much fuel that I've asked for the bills in black-edged evelopes," she says. "The meter shoots round so fast that you could attach a couple of sparklers and flog it as a catherine wheel, and I'm convinced we've created our own personal hole in the ozone layer. Look through a telescope and you'll probably find it's formed itself into an arrow shape pointing downwards and the words 'she did it'. I'm expecting Greenpeace round any day now, anchoring one of their dinghies to the main burner until we sign a treaty of casserole non-proliferation."

"So what are you supposed to do with it?" asks Bad Lindy, "Apart from warm your bits."

"Stew and baked potatoes, apparently," says Vicky. "And I'm not a great one for either."

"Blimey. I hope it's good with nuggets and frozen chips or your kids'll starve," says Lindy. "Mind you, they can always suck the ice off the sides if they're desperate."

"I've never wanted to be a domestic goddess and now I reckon Brett wants to turn me into Aga Woman, with my 200 dernier tights firmly outside sensible pants and a lamb tucked under cape, liberating mankind from its brink-of-disaster seasoning problems."

As the woman who put the carbon in Carbonara and could burn a fruit salad, Vicky clearly has some way to go.

"Mind you," she says, looking speculatively at the hotplates,"It's supposed to be able to dry anything. And it's children's bathtime tonight. You never know. It might just prove more useful than I'd thought."

Monday, 15 October 2007

Holier than thou

Imagine a country where 20% of people have had to turn down dental treatment because they can't afford the cost.

Imagine a country where 6% of that 20% have resorted to treating themselves. And we're not talking about slapping on the Bonjela or swilling out twice a day with salt and hot water. We're talking about applying home-prepared fillings - and even DIY tooth-pulling with pliers.

Then welcome home, chaps (at least, those of you fortunate enough to live where I live). Because that country is England, home of milk, honey - and a million rotten teeth.

But there's good news. Gordon Brown, says the news today, is going to be 'turning his attention to dentistry.'

So if the man in the white coat and face mask starts talking about being a son of the manse while popping your pliers in the autoclave to scrub off at least the top layer of MRSA, never fear. Gordie is here.

At least the makers of 'Marathon Man' must be laughing, and you can bet they won't covering their mouths with their hands to hide the holes when they do. I predict that copies of the film will fly off the shelves as it becomes required viewing for the nation's L-plate amateur dentists as they hone their skills.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Not wrong, just different, Missing you already, Mother at Large

You all make me smile, in your different ways. Not Wrong, just Different with a frequent belly laugh, Missing you already with a belly of pork laugh (it's all those meat pictures) and Mother at Large wryly.

Have the 'You make me smile' award all of you, on me, and just remember not to look at the green and yellow logo with a hangover.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Together at last

"There are times," says Francis, gloomily contemplating the last of his fish and chips, "when I wonder whether it's all worth it."

We've not got the weekend off to a particularly good start.

Beth is banned from riding after calling Leo a 'hyperactive bastard,' at the top of her voice just outside the front door, watched by a small, but interested crowd of locals, including two of my pupils.

"I was calling it through the letterbox," she says, indignantly, as though shrieked insults were some new and long-awaited improvement to the postal service.

Leo is banned from seeing his friend, for having returned from the local park an hour and a half later than promised.

"But I just forgot," he says, outraged, as I attempt to explain that forgetting is the nub of the problem and the reason we were scouring the area looking for him.

Deborah is banned from the TV for being generally small and stroppy and wilfully perching on top of the sofa so she can accidentally-on-purpose roll off it on to other people's newspapers, glasses of wine and homework and then claim that it was an accident.

"Nobody knows how hard it is to be a seven-year old," she wails at us, before departing upstairs with two dolls and the kitchen timer to play some fierce, muttered game no doubt involving forced confessions and electric shock torture.

"I'm working my guts out," continues Francis, "and nobody seems to care."

I study his guts - or, at least, his gut. There's definitely rather more of it than there used to be. I bite back the thought that working a bit more of his guts out might not necessarily be such a bad thing.

"At least it's Friday," I say.

"When's the plumber coming to fix the cistern? It's still not filling properly."

"He thinks he'll be able to make it first thing on Saturday. About eight."

"The one morning I don't have to get up early and now this," says Francis, as though he's the victim of a family-inspired attempt to deprive him of sleep and sanity. "If I were a dog, I bet the RSPCA would re-home me."

"They might," I say, "But don't forget they'd neuter you first."

Thursday, 11 October 2007

In cyberspace, nobody can hear you smile thank God for awards. DJ Kirby of Exquisite Dreams, you are a kind woman and will no doubt gain rich rewards in heaven. In the meantime, thanks for the Smile award. And while I'm on the subject of fellow bloggers, three cheers for Mother at Large's publishing deal. Her book, 'Fashionably Late' will be published by The Friday Project. Great news and well deserved.

Crop tops

It's 8.00 - an hour away from Harvest Festival kick off.

I'm in the church sitting on a wobbly, too high piano stool and being interrogated by the priest. “Where have you come from?” he asks. Perhaps he's hoping to start a Creationism v Darwinism punch up. If so, I foil him by giving him my address.

“He means, what sort of background do you have?” hisses the special needs teacher who has volunteered to sit next to me and tap on the piano like a driving instructor to make sure I make an emergency stop at the end of each hymn.

“I just wondered if you had a theological degree?” he continues. “I always like to know if there’s someone in the congregation better qualified than I am”.

I look at him blankly, just managing to stop a trail of imbecile dribble trickling down my chin. So far, my teaching career has consisted of a series of questions which are either rhetorical, unanswerable or just plain odd.

And I have other concerns. I know I can play the six Harvest Festival hymns all the way through at home. This is my fourth Harvest Festival and I'm still not convinced -and experience has borne me out on this one - that I can play them in a church full of children, parents and teachers all singing along, too.

8.50 am.
Most fathers are in suits but one bucks the trend with a T-shirt featuring a bull with outsize testicles. It may be intended as an indirect reference to plentiful crops but it doesn’t go down well with the vicar, who gives the wearer one of the killer looks he has so far reserved for screaming babies.

The children walk up the aisle with their offerings, expensive olive oil and balsamic vinegar tastefully arranged in home-decorated cardboard boxes and wicker baskets that must have taken hours to get ready. Presumably home-made food in shop-bought boxes is out of fashion, though I am pleased to see one child lovingly adding a plain tin of tomatoes to the pile.

The vicar gives me a nod, I pick out a few random notes and cobble together an introduction to “We plough the fields and scatter,” and we’re off.

"The best way to be happy is to be grateful," says the vicar during his address. It's quite obvious he doesn't believe it and nor does anyone else in the congregation. Apart from me. I am both happy and grateful that despite transposing 'All things bright and beautiful' up a major third in the first verse, at which point the congregation temporarily stopped singing, en masse - I have, on the whole, begun and finished the songs at the same time as the singers.

The children roar out the words to “Oats and beans and barley grow” even when I accidentally read the words instead of the music and forget briefly who I am and what the piano is for. But I recover, and the event, only three weeks into term, is a success.

Although the children are all exhausted, the rest of the school day has to be filled. In my case, unfortunately, with a recorder class.

The recorder book pre-selected by the school is harder to understand than a set of IKEA flat pack instructions. It starts off by asking the child to shade every note in a different colour, depending on the pitch and note duration, defined by the author as "Taaaa" "Taa" or "Ta Ta" notes.

Fortified by wine, I spent a good two hours one evening trying to decipher the first 5 pages and then threw the book across the room.

"Are you using the book?" asks the now retired and deeply scary head of music, who has paid a surprise visit to the schook in order, I'd surmise, to find some small children to chew on so she can sharpen up her incisors.

"Well, I do find the way it starts with the hardest notes first a tad confusing," I reply. "Oh, I never bother with that page," she says, dismissively. I draw a line through it.

"Then it does A, and it doesn't get to B for ages." "I always leave those pages out, too," she says. I draw a line through those pages, too.

She flicks through to the last five pages. "Now, I always start about here," she says, sounding faintly surprised that I haven't thought this through for myself.

The parents are as baffled as I am, though why they bother reading their child's recorder book is a mystery to me. I get a note from one of the more obsessional mothers written in a fairy hand on the smallest post-it note I have ever seen: "Bill and I are both rather confused about recorder homework and require more guidance," it says. I draft several pithy but impossible replies before settling on a note suggesting that any parents who are worrying desist forthwith and try to get out more.

No book, however good, would help me deal with the children this morning. Out of a class of 22, 14 have left their recorders at home. Marnie bursts into tears because she has a sore throat and Able uses his recorder as a nose flute. I make a mental note not to borrow it for demonstration purposes. While the rest of the class tries hard to play alternate Bs and As, Tilly holds her recorder upside down and produces shrill squealing noises to see if she can make everyone else laugh.

The second time I give her back her confiscated recorder, I warn her that this is her last chance. Next time, it will stay confiscated until the end of the lesson. 30 seconds later, I have her recorder again and she is hitting her head repeatedly on the desk.

"Tilly," I say. "What are you doing?" "I'm drunk," she replies, and carries on. Perhaps she, too, has found the recorder book more than she can bear.

Back in the staff room, we agree to hold the first Christmas planning meeting immediately after half term and I am given a box of chocolates and a thank-you card. Despite myself, warm and dangerously fluffy feelings course through my system. I excise them quickly and leave.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Blinding bargains from F*******e*

7.5 litres vinyl mat dulux paint. Colour " ointment pink".
Omega Mum's top homemaking tip: What a super theme for the rest of your lovely home. What about asking guests to freshen up in the Preparation H en-suite before dining al fresco on the Truss patio?

Plain mirror with no frame. Would suit anyone with narcissistic tendencies or a dark hall. Alternatively an off-duty ballerina (just add barre) or a someone from the
red light district.
Omega Mum's homemaking tip: And once you've got that ballerina, narcissist and red-light worker together, just think of the scintillating after dinner chats you'll be able to enjoy together in the Hernia Suite.


Pushing water uphill

In the papers over the weekend, reports that scientists have finally pushed water uphill by making small droplets vibrate so vigorously that they get confused, defy gravity, and set off up slopes at great speed.

Apparently, there is a serious purpose to it: it's just that nobody knows what it is.

My own theory is that scientists, bored with serious research, are just taking a few old proverbs and testing them to destruction.

In one room, they're teaching old dogs new tricks; in another, checking to see which activities really are more boring that watching paint dry; upstairs, seeing if it is, after all, possible to make an omelette without breaking eggs. In the garden, they're busy checking to see if money could be persuaded to grow on trees.

As I write this, my children are shrieking at me to provide food, entertainment, a different mother. And a posse of scientists is no doubt just about to knock on the door with a variety of drills, brass instruments and foghorns, to test the premise that there's none so deaf as those that will not hear.

Monday, 8 October 2007

How mellow is your fruitfulness?

At the penultimate Harvest Festival rehearsal, the electronic keyboard breaks down, and instead of producing the stylish accompaniment to 'All things bright and beautiful' that I'd recorded, fuses it with the thumping drum beat from the next song, turning it into a heavy rock number.

We start again, this time accompanied by my uncertain piano playing which goes from full chords to a single note dribble as I stumble over the four flats in the key signature.

At the end of the rehearsal there is a dead silence. Then the head gets out her pen and slashes a line through two of the songs and about a third of the verses from the others. We now have a minimalist harvest festival, which will speed from 'We plough the fields and scatter' to the blessing in about five minutes.

If only I’d stuck to a cosy career in the cut-throat world of commerce where even if your customers hated you and your presentation, you could still be absolutely certain that they would never ask you to set it to music and accompany them, omitting verses 2 and 5.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

See a PIN and pick it up......

All the day you'll have good luck
But only if you're an identity thief.

Traditional sayings updated. Number 1.

Friday, 5 October 2007

A sister writes

(My sister keeps lodgers the way other people keep guinea pigs. She finds them trying, dirty and hard to get to love. Her latest is a sulky French girl, who is finding her embroyonic career in the fasion business - 'I will be at Milan, you know' - hard to square with my sister's lifestyle (two children under six, one being potty trained, both working on their screaming with a view to careers in the horror business, one in poo denial. Now read on....)

'The latest instalment of "Lodgers from hell" saw French girl leaving with just one week's notice (several weeks earlier than planned), as Rose's potty training proved to be too much for her.

Apparently the reason was not so much the the general disgustingness of it all, although the poo which ended up on the carpet outside her room obviously didn't help, but more the high pitched screaming which seemed to accompany her poo denial antics. Lawrence seemed to join in too for some reason I'm not quite clear about).

I don't really blame French Girl for going - in fact, I was very tempted to leave as well). The worst of the screaming coincided with FG needing to type up a report.

The incident which probably clinched it was one where both children went upstairs at bedtime just ahead of me and screamed very loudly on the landing. As I came up the stairs FG was shouting at them to be quiet and Rose was in mid dump.

A few days later both children were screaming very loudly in the hall. Above this din, a third scream, loudest of all, reached my ears from the spare room above the kitchen.

I think I knew even then that the room would soon be vacant.

Meanwhile, back at home........


"Those growths," Beth says, pointing with a trembling finger at a small outcrop of five, almost invisible blond strands on one ankle, "are ruining My Life."

I am Good Mother. I agree to wax her legs.

"All my other friends' mothers pay for them to go to a salon."

"How do you know?" I ask, giving a possibly over-sharp tug to the wax that's clinging to her left kneecap like a barnacle, while making a mental pledge to track down the offending mothers and rake their credit cards with machine gun fire, thus putting a temporary halt to their runaway spending power.

"Because - ouch - they've all got photographs of the first time they went."

I add selective mortar attacks on salon cameras to my To do list.

I am not Good Mother, but Bad Mother. And Cheapskate Mother, too, because of my reluctance, mainly financial, to put her almost negligable body hair into the hands of experts.

"Look on the sunny side," I say. "At least you don't have a moustache. But if you do, don't worry. Mum'll fix it." I grin, horribly, and Beth disappears to her room with a muffled shriek.


is not happy with his lot, and has taken to wearing socks with a cheery skull motif to get the message across. "How's the job?" I ask him.

"The job? Oh, I don't think about the job," he replies. "It's just an interlude between the two-hour journeys to and from work. And it's costing a fortune. If fuel prices go up again, I'll only be earning just enough to cover my travel expenses."

It's lateish, the children have conversed in screams, kicks and blows for two solid hours and I'm torn between presenting him with a perfectly cooked lasagne, teamed with a green salad and glass of rough, yet delicious red wine or raking him with machine gun fire, too. Decisions, decisions. It's so deliciously difficult to choose.

"My life feels like a series of issues loosely bound together with blood ties," I tell him.

He looks at me thoughtfully for a minute. "No it isn't," he says, finally. "It's a series of wisecracks, loosely bound together by events."

He could be right. There are times when I think adopting the Marx Brothers as role models (wrong sex, but who's checking the pants?) has done me few favours. Laugh at your own punchlines, these days, and you laugh alone. Cry and there's a reality tv show out there just waiting to flood to the rafters with sympathetic tears. I bet yesterday's warm up men are being tastefully renovated as weep up men, proudly getting audiences in a suitably dismal mood before the first of the heart-wrenching confessionals comes on.

I serve him his food and go off to watch 'A night at the Opera' for the umpteenth time, on my own, while the sound of muffled fighting persists overhead.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Each little flahr what opens

It is a windy day and the children are restless. "I can't do a thing with them today," says one of the teachers. She makes them sound like unruly hair. But she's right. I can't do a thing with them, either.

"Each little flower what opens, Each little bird what sings," chants Year 1. "Not 'what', children 'that'...." I say, enunciating so clearly that my nostrils flare, and trying to keep a kindly, yet firm note in my voice.

They try again. "Each little flower what opens......" And again. Things get worse. "Each little flahr what....." They sound like the street traders in a badly rehearsed performance of "My Fair Lady." I give up and we do "In and out the dusty bluebells" or, rather, "In and aht the dusty bluebells." depending on whose pronunciation is winning.

At least they try to do what I tell them. Other teachers urge me to rattle a musical instrument for silence but I find the idea of being able to assert my authority only through the conduit of a small yellow tambourine rather unsettling. In addition, it would make me feel like a Christian revivalist. The tambourine will be for emergency use only. I place it close to the fire alarm.

At break, there is a slightly awkward atmosphere. Last week, I inadvertently called one of the teachers by her first name and picked the worse possible moment to do this, in front of all 120 children during hymn practice.She took it fairly well, reminding me of the need to use titles only three or four times during the morning. Unfortunately, in a moment of madness when she came into my year 2 recorder lesson just as 22 children were playing an out of tune 'A' at top volume, I did it again.

Now she treats me with the caution you reserve for a mongrel, which may or may not meet the criteria for classification under the Dangerous Dogs Act, and will no longer help me with hymn practice as she says she has been called away for emergency remedial teaching. I can see I have some bridge building to do.

I mention class control - perhaps there's some sort of bra that would help? - and one teacher talks with a certain note of nostalgia about a retired music teacher acquaintance of hers, who would be playing the piano before the start of each new class. Children were expected to latch on to the tune outside the classroom door and to be singing lustily as they came in. Any who weren't would get a whack on the back of the legs with a ruler.

Ah, the good old days.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

A small, sticky patch of dark matter

One of the reception children is exceptionally musical. "Tell her mother," I say to her form teacher. "She really ought to be encouraged."

I get home to find Peter the piano teacher waiting on the doorstep. Peter, who has come to mend the broken piano pedals, is a huge improvement on his predecessors.

Andre was dark, intense and almost as monotonous as one of his own tuning forks, so dull that any wine glasses not already shattered by his voice would hurl themselves to the ground, opting for suicide rather than endure any more of his monotonous exposition of his marriage problems. He would pause only to make a half-hearted pass, which was easily fended off with a ukulele I kept specifically for the purpose.

Affected by his sombre mood, the piano would soon have dropped down a semi-tone into a dark, flattened depressive state which made me want to give it a sharp kick in the hammer felts and tell it to pull itself together.

After Andre came Ian, who was blind and driven everywhere by his amenuensis wife. In their spare time, the couple planned Frankenstein dog breeding projects, mixing and matching Cruft's Originals. They'd just staked everything on an exciting new model when the puppies contracted a brand new and 100% fatal disease and they lost the lot.

Before Peter, there was Giles, a short, wheezy man with all the charm and personality overload of a radiator key. Even his interest in pianos seemed faintly unhealthy, turning his favourite phrase, 'tickling the ivories,' into something with positively pornographic overtones.

But Peter brings no baggage or seedy demeanour with him, just new piano pedals.
"I got them at the piano pedal shop," he explains, when I ask. That clears up one retail mystery, then.

We're getting on fine until I apologise for the distinctly crumby nature of the carpet, which hasn't been visited by a vacuum cleaner for so long that it's all but posted 'Wanted' posters round the house.

"Oh, don't worry about that," says Peter. "You should see my house."

"Should I?" I say.

"Oh, yes. Why, the decorator I got in said there were so many patches of dirt that the paint just wouldn't adhere properly."

He takes my expression - combined horror and fascination - as an invitation to continue.

"It's not everyday dirt, apparently, but the patches of sticky dirt. Old jam, honey or - "

"I think I've got the hang of it," I say, hastily.

I've just waved him off the premises - avoiding shaking hands - when the teacher rings. "I told Mrs Brown that you'd said her daughter's a really strong singer and all she asked was whether you're that madwoman who teaches the recorder."

If there still is a dark force somewhere in the vicinity of that piano, I'm going to give it a map and a name and send it on its way to the Brown household. That assumes, of course, that it hasn't got trapped by a stray patch of sticky dirt imported by Peter the piano tuner.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The Singularity in your kitchen

According to 'The Times,' top scientists are discussing when we might expect 'the Singularity' - the horror film title that's been given to the moment when artificial intelligence (AI) might overtake human intelligence. And when happens, it's predicted that humans will be relegated to the status of amusing pets.

Apparently it's years in the future, they say, but I'm not so sure.

The reason? In the same issue, there's a survey of women and cookery.

According to this:

- three quarters of women make their own pasta sauce from scratch
- two thirds bake their own bread.
- two thirds make burgers from scratch (I tried it only once - you wouldn't believe the complaints I got when I slaughtered the cow in the back garden)
- Almost seven in ten make their child's birthday cake (I'm sorry, but what is secondary packaging for, for God's sake?)

There's no question, in my mind at least. Figures like this point conclusively to one thing, and on thing only.

The Singularity has already happened in a kitchen near you.

Listen when you next open one of the cupboards. And if your food mixer starts whispering, "Granary rolls....get out the flour......find the yeast......put on an apron," you'll know I'm right.

Take care out there. Remember, walls may have ears, but your kitchen has got AI.

Monday, 1 October 2007

How I became a teacher.

I once worked in a series of almost identical modern offices where amusing baby anecdotes were banned and anyone over 30 was virtually frisked for contraband Lego blocks, cute photos and shoulder patches of baby vomit.

This was fine with me. After all, my parenting skills were - and are - so negligible that after spending one short day looking after my lovely offspring, my single, childless brother booked himself in for an emergency vasectomy.

I worked part time when the first two children were small and gave up for two years when the youngest was born. But I couldn't bear it. In addition to the money, I needed stimulation.

I also wanted to be surrounded by brilliant people who radiated charm and knowledge in equal measure and, frankly, my three small children just weren't up to the job.

Instead, though, I got a job as a teacher. Frankly, it wasn't my first choice. I'd been here but not for twenty years, when I got halfway through my music teacher training interview, realised that if accepting a place meant that my life was going to consist of people in brown corduroy jackets nodding supportively and rhythmically while I ineptly extemporised to the tune of “Do, a deer, a female deer,” it wasn’t going to be worth living; reached ‘Tee – a drink with jam and bread,’got up and left.

But now the lucky world had been given a second chance to enjoy my Julie Andrews impersonation talents. A school down the road was looking for a part-time music teacher. I wouldn't have to do literacy, maths, cursive writing or make anything out of plasticine, with the possible exception of my acceptance letter. It was job on a plate, part time and mine for the taking.

I took a deep breath and accepted, dusted off my educational qualifications and tried to feel positive about the new vistas opening up in front of me, fighting off the overwhelming sense of doors behind me crashing shut.

Things didn't start well when, on a camping holiday just before the start of my first term, I meet the lovely Sally, who was a teacher, had always been a teacher, probably would always be a teacher and said she loved 95% of all children and couild see good in the other five per cent.

I loathe 99% of all children, mine included, and can see good in the other 1% only with the aid of an electron microscope.

As Sally and I supervised a table full of children one lunch time, the differences between us became immediately obvious. Sally bent tenderly over the little ones, successfully motivating them to eat up using only her voice, a series of non-competitive games, and a small tambourine, rather than the assortment of small firearms I would always assume to be an essential back-up on these occasions.

“I bet she even follows the national curriculum in her sleep,” I muttered, rather louder than I’d intended. Cathy blushed prettily. “You must think I’m a really boring person,” she said. “No,” I lied, “I’m just envious.”