Friday, 30 November 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What are you getting instead?"

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 November 2007

My son the boyfriend

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

"What homework?" he says.

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

More swivelling. Still no placard.

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

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

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

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

He hurries on quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I know my ADHD....

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

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

It's from the head of lower school:

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

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

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

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

It doesn't start well.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 November 2007


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

Thank you all so much.

As for the effect......

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

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

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

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

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

"You're not?"

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

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

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

Monday, 26 November 2007

That'll teach me

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

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

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


"Whose death?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dog is licking Beth's toes.

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

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

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

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

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

What do I say to her? All advice welcome.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One to get ready

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

"What are you doing, Deborah?"


"Counting what?"

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

"Er -."

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



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



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


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

Friday, 23 November 2007

Jargon can change your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 November 2007

No rhyme at the inn

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

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

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

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

"Wary," chorus the children.

"Not wary..... weary."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Or die trying," I say.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Polished performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 November 2007

Severe weather warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Fighting the good fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Whassamatter?" asks Vicky, peering at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 November 2007

The alterations

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Wise before the event

There's an interesting dichotomy emerging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thank you.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Book club notes by cultured mum

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

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

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

'Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir

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

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

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

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

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

'Widespread sympathy for fishermen was expressed.'

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Agent orange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be afraid, Lakeland. Be very, very afraid.

Monday, 12 November 2007

A taxidermist's Christmas

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

There's a brief pause, then,

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

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

"Toasting itself."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pick up the catalogue again.

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

There's a short pause, then:

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

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Encrypted spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it?"

"dbhtosnguopwrtkifogh," says Vicky.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 November 2007

Signs, stings and portents

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Reaction and interreaction

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

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

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

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

Foiled again.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Swimming with sardines

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

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

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

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

"Is there any other sort?" asks Vicky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 November 2007

Limping amok

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

The familiar feeling of nausea rises in my gorge.

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

She stops skipping and looks slightly hurt.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Festive offers from Freecycle

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Fallen angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 November 2007

AaarGA 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shake our heads sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Louche in cyberspace

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

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

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

What on earth is going on?