Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Garden design with manic depressive Dave

It's bank holiday Monday and therefore pouring with rain. Vicky and her family are sitting down to a full breakfast when a man marches past the kitchen window. It's manic depressive Dave, the decorator, who has let himself in through the side gate. He gives a half wave but it's difficult, because his arms are full of tools and seed packets.

"What's he doing here?" ask Vicky's children
"No idea," says Vicky. She goes into the garden, shivering.
Dave has already started digging. He is wearing jeans and a shirt, and water is trickling down his neck.
"Surprise!" he says, lugubriously. "You said something needed doing to the garden, so here I am, doing it."

Dave, the anti-Christ of the interior decor world, the man whose preferred colours - dark brown, dark blue, dark red and very, very dark black, ideally on alternate walls - are less a paint chart than a pain chart, is turning gardener.

Unsurprisingly, his preferred gardening weather is wet, ideally with the occasional apocalyptic clap of thunder, so there's no sun and blue skies to taunt him with their allusions to an illusory happiness that will, of course, never be his.

It's an awesome notion, and there's something about the sight of Dave surrounded by large, sharp gardening implements that makes Vicky decide not to question him any further about his horticultural plans, despite the fact that she has never actually specified what it is she wants done.

"I'll leave you to it," she says, and goes back into the house.

Later that day, when Dave has just left, Vicky finally dares to inspect his handiwork. She puzzles over it for some time. The flower bed has been very neatly dug in a sort of undulating wave shape with two distinct curves.

"Oh, my God," she says, as realisation dawns, "it's....."

"...a perfect 36 D - and all in proportion," says Dave, making . "Sorry - left my trowel behind. I've planted all the veg, too."

"Veg?" says Vicky, faintly, "I was thinking of climbing roses."

"Veg," says Dave, firmly. "It's nicer. And useful."

When he's left again, she inspects the empty packets. There are turnips, radishes, chard, three kinds of lettuce. But, above all, lots and lots of big, purple carrots.

If she changes the design, there's always the possibility that Dave might become distressed and slash another of her carpets. So it looks as if she's stuck with her lingerie garden for the time being.

"I might just as well add a phallic water feature and have done with it," she says, when she texts me the next day.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Bad Lindy's bad hamster day

Bad Lindy rings me, sounding agitated. "I need help," she says. "We've lost a hamster."

"What do you want me to do?" I ask, surprised. Care and compassion may feature large on her job description, but Bad Lindy certainly didn't take her part-time job at the vet so she could transmit healing vibes to small rodents.

As a woman whose specialist interest is other people's husbands, Bad Lindy's main motivation is the short, white nurse's outfit she gets to wear and the opportunity to say caring things in a low voice to male pet owners while resting both breasts on the counter. If the men are moderately good-looking into the bargain, it takes only a diagnosis of an anal gland blockage - theirs or their pets - for Bad Lindy to be immediately on hand, ready and willing to soften the bad news with the offer of a nice cup of tea and an emergency lie down in her lap.

This time, unfortunately, the customer isn't a man. "This hamster died on us today," says Bad Lindy. "So we ring the owner, who's this woman, and I break the news. She takes it really well. And it's only a hamster, after all, so -"

It turns out that the owner has just called back, wanting to do the decent thing and bury the creature in the garden. Which would have been fine except that, without thinking twice, Bad Lindy has picked the hamster up by the ear and slung him in the bin. Several rubbish bags down the line, she hasn't a clue which one he's in.

"Can't you just get another hamster and swap them, instead?"

"What, go out and buy up all the local stock and then kill them off till I find one that matches? I don't think so."

She has a point. Adding 'Psycho hamster killer,' to her already tarnished reputation is probably not a good career move.

"I didn't think you were allowed to put hamsters in with the rubbish. Aren't they hazardous material, or something?"

"Well, it's not going to bloody well bite anyone now, is it?" she says, indignantly. I give up.

"What do you want me to do?" I ask, resignedly.

"Help me find the thing, of course," she says. "I can't tell my boss I've lost it. I've been in his bad books ever since the police turned up in the surgery and virtually accused me of being behind the tortoise heist down the road - and this would be the final straw. Look, we're shut, now, and he's gone home. Please come over."

I do, though reluctantly.

Half an hour and three unpleasant bags of rubbish later, we discover the hamster, yellow teeth portruding pathetically from a pile of paper. "His last nest," says Bad Lindy, portentiously, as she pulls him out. "Oh, God," she adds, a second later, "He's got felt tip all over him. Must have been the pen without a lid I chucked out at the same time. What are we going to do?"

A further half hour later, the hamster has been washed, soaped, and blow dried - though not, obviously, to within an inch of its life. Later, Bad Lindy hands the little blighter over, the owner looks closely at him. "What are those funny black marks on his fur?", she asks. Bad Lindy shrugs. "P'raps he was into tattoos?" I hear her mutter, under her breath.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Release your inner a*se for just £300

It's 11.00 pm. The phone rings. "It's me," I say, brightly, mouth on the move before the brain has even got its Jimmy Choos on. "I know it's you," says Marion, the hairdresser with the strong spiritual dimension.

She's desperate to tell us about a course that would allow Francis the chance to become a born again executive, liberated from the traumas that, unknown to him, are hiding his true character and thus preventing him from gting a gd jb, as those ancient Speedwriting ads used to say.

Apparently it's brilliant. It runs from 9.00 am to midnight and is 'incredibly' intense. For a pittance - a mere £300 - you get to go on stage and share your innermost traumas with two hundred complete strangers.

"It's really spiritual," says Marion. "Everyone needs to do it." As proof of its cathartic powers, she cites a previous boyfriend, who changed so much as a result of sharing his problems with a crowd and discovering that deep down inside he was a total arse that he immediately split up with her.

As a successful graduate of the starter session, she's been canny enough to save a few traumas for later, ensuring she has enough misery left for the advanced course, which costs £400 because it's so much smaller and intimate: this time round, you share your searing inner turmoil with just one hundred complete strangers, all nodding their heads supportively and asking open-ended questions, though not simultaneously.

"Sounds great," I say, wondering why she doesn't save the money and simply take a small megaphone into a public park to give the dog walkers a thrill.

As instructed by Marion, I pass on the news to Francis. Strangely, he seems less than thrilled by the opportunity to shell out for the chance to launch his first public speaking appearance with the line, "Hello, my name's Francis, and I'm redundant."

"Is he going to do it?" asks Marion, when she calls again next morning. I don't pass on his exact words, which are that for £300 he'd contemplate releasing his inner demons by drilling holes in his own skull. "I think he's going for beer-related therapy at the moment," I say. "If Stella Artois doesn't work, he'll certainly think about it."

Of course, there's the added risk that the course would reveal that only the trauma was holding back Francis's inner arse, too. In Speedwriting, a ttl rs. Or a pschpth. And I'm not sure our marriage is a good place for either. Unless, that is, I go on the course, too. Because I know I've got an inner arse. And sometimes, I feel it's on a very tight leash indeed - at least it would be if I could work out, even figuratively, just where a tight leash might go.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

What are they on about?

There's been nothing from the spa bath people. I imagine Mr Tosser and his team totally absorbed in a battery of gruelling factory tests; dropping babies in, perhaps, and seeing if they get thrown out with the bathwater, or sending everyone on a training course, naturally involving total immersion.

Nice but useless headhunter sends an e-mail saying that the role he had in mind for Francis that needed 'senior business building team leadership' changed drastically following the client meeting. It's now shrunk to a much smaller, junior business building role involving a box of Lego in the stationary cupboard.

But at last Francis has been invited to see another company. It's a chocolate firm hoping to team up with a cereal manufacturer for true love, cinema and theatre trips and the opportunity to make lots and lots of chocolate crispies when there's nothing else doing up at the factory of a Friday afternoon.

It's all getting on Francis's nerves.
"I hate having to go through all this, 'Yes, I'm professional. Yes, I can think of no better way to see out my days than by extolling the virtues of your...'" (insert product here).

To cheer him up, I decide to check out a few of the headhunters.

According to its website, the latest headhunter knows ' how important it is to recruit people who understand your business.' The firm can do this ...'Because we are those people.' Which, if true, is amazing. Not only do they interview candidates, they actually mind meld with them, too. No wonder they claim they add value. If inhabiting several bodies simultaneously isn't adding value, I don't know what is. They never stand still, they add. What with having to switch DNA all the time, it's not really surprising.

'The world of retail is changing,' says the second load of blurb, 'and more than ever, it is people who are making the difference'. As opposed to what? The flood of dolphins that swamped the employment market in the 1990s and really took the industry downhill, what with their insistence on jumping through hoops at work and getting paid in dead fish?

'To discover new islands', says the third, 'candidates need to lose sight of the shore'. I think we all know what they're on about. It's those dolphins again. Somebody's just going to have to stop them.

Then I come across a site called 'Doctor Job.' which, with its reassuring pseudo-medical title, will, I feel sure, have answers for every recruitment problem. But no. 'Can you answer Doctor Job's big question?' asks the site. I click. It won't let me on. I know why, though. The question is obviously, 'Why are dolphins still getting more than their fair share of the jobs?' and they're worried I'll go public with the information.

Francis will just have to change his name to Flipper and brush up on his sonar. Set to the right frequency, I gather that a technically adept dolphin can stun a whole school of herring. Now there's something that'll add a je ne sais quoi to his cv. Might help flog the odd spa bath or two, I shouldn't wonder.

Friday, 25 May 2007

A warning for half term

Normally it's the tennis coaches who come in for the attention. Never ones to miss out on a good cliche, the women round here, largely deprived of male company during the day - "Honestly, it's like living in a lesbian-only community," complains Vicky - gravitate to the courts to salivate over the teachers, all tight curls, trim bodies and tighter shorts, who twist and leap with precise elegance in their conscientious demonstrations of the perfect backhand return.

Not Bad Lindy. Bad Lindy fell for her son's football coach. Normally, Bad Lindy discards men like empty Wotsits packets, consuming the contents, additives and all, in one gulp, then licking her fingers and moving on to the next.

That's intimidating enough. So Bad Lindy in love is like one of the seven wonders of the world - the colossus of Rhodes, say - being brought back from the past, animated, and set on your trail.

He was nineteen, slightly built, tremendously earnest about his job, focused only on inspiring the boys a generation down and, who knows, being the first to spot the next Beckham or Rooney. She was Amazonian, loud, and simply there. To start off with, she appeared only at the beginning and end of the training sessions, car parked close to the wire mesh of the school playground where the training took place, window down, enormous sunglasses raking his shorts like the Jodrell Bank Telescope searching for signs of life.

Then, she began staying for the entire session. By now, you could see that her presence was getting to him. He'd be blowing the whistle, or doing a bit of fancy demonstration footwork then start nervously as he recollected her presence, and gaze away towards the parked cars while the little boys clustered round him clamoured for his attention.

A few weeks later, she took to leaning against one of the fence posts and eating things like outsize bananas or juicy peaches and within a few weeks, his concentration was completely shot.

Then it was his birthday. She'd got her furiously embarrassed son to ask the date. As the coach emerged at the end of the session, darting glances right and left, then relaxing as he became convinced he'd escaped, she appeared suddenly, holding a large present and a cake.

"For you," she said.

"No," he said. "It's very kind, but I just can't."

She continued to advance. He backed, no doubt thanking God when his hand, feeling behind him, closed round the the handle of his car.

The last anyone ever saw of him was his car, accelerating, while Bad Lindy pursued him on foot, present and cake still in her outstretched arms.

Being Bad Lindy, it took her almost no time to recover. Maybe she was a little less buxom for a while, her breasts slightly less perky. But being Bad Lindy, she didn't let it cramp her style. Soon she'd found another target - a leftover husband at a party - and was fully occupied again.

But sometimes I wonder if she doesn't have the occasional dream. It's full of passing, slide tackles and penalties but, above all, scoring, scoring, scoring.

Opening another can of words

The Association for the Promotion of the Blindingly Obvious (cardbox box division) is having a busy day. “Bake for the indicated time,” read the pizza instructions, “you could use this time to prepare a mixed salad”.

As opposed to what? Taking the children hostage, say, and mounting a short roof-top siege, surrounded by armed police, timed to end just as the pizza crust achieves crisp, golden perfection?

Then I come across words of wisdom from the lovely Mark Hill, possessor of at least one full head (possibly two) of moppet-like curls, on the box of his new Professional ThermoCeramic Styling Tong (sic).

“It has been my dream to create a range of new and unique styling products,” he says. Dear little chap. What with terrorism and global warming taking up so much valuable brain power worldwide, it’s good to know there’s someone out there having the sort of dreams we suburbanites can really get our collective subconscious into.

Just as I think my reading material is back on track, I discover a feature about a woman who is "an astrologer, teacher and flower essence consultant" and "has had the joy of experiencing all the elements in bringing up her own three children (water, fire and air)"

It makes me laugh. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. “Do you think there's an alternative career for me in flower essence consulting? Break it to me gently if not,” I write to Caroline, queen of the coffee morning and a trained Doula, a sort of super midwife, who does everything short of standing in for the actual delivery, although I wouldn’t put even this past her, given her science degree and a character so strong that she could probably do crowd scenes on her own.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t take it well. In three curt paragraphs she sums up my mind (closed); my humour (unwarranted) and my revised social standing (exiled to a small yurt in the conversational permafrost).

Sighing, I pen a fulsome retraction, blaming my lapse in taste on an unfortunate conjunction of planets and an over-consumption of herbal tea. Nothing. Then: “Just rattling your chain,” comes the response. I shudder slightly and order a lifetime’s supply of contraceptive pills.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A perfect day out

Forget Alton Towers or the British Museum. For a day out with a difference, follow Francis' example and head for your nearest spa bath factory for the chance to watch paint dry - literally for hours on end - or admire the spanking new fan extractor system which, in an interesting reversal of normal practice, gets rid of all that nasty oxygen, and ensures a nonstop supply of invigorating paint fumes to the workforce.

"And did you meet Mr Tosser and ask him to pass on your regards to Mrs Tosser and all the little Tossers?" I ask, breathlessly, when Francis returns. "There are times when I don't feel you're taking this seriously enough," he says, stiffly.

Mr Tosser, it turns out, has been noticeable by his absence. The interview is instead conducted by several frightfully nice chaps, all Church's shoes and Thomas Pink shirts, who seem baffled at finding themselves in the rough, tough world of moulded acrylic, where men are men - though, of course, spotlessly clean ones - rather than shaping up nicely as officer material in a crack cavalry regiment.

"So," they ask Francis at the end of the day. "Any ideas on where we're falling down?"

Francis points out that while the spa baths are tip top and Bristol fashion in every conceivable direction, there is the little matter of none of them actually leaving the factory. Ever. He suggests that the company might consider finding some customers and selling some spa baths to them, a radical notion that receives a rapturous reception from the assembled workforce.

But it's not as easy as it sounds. One of the directors takes Francis aside to break the news. "Some of our customers actually wear earrings," he says. "And drive 4 x 4s," he adds, in a lower voice. "You do realise that the job would involve talking to them - probably even going to see them?"

Francis explains that he's had considerable experience of this sort of unpleasantness already. "I say," says one of the directors, looking closely at Francis. "Surely -you've had one of your ears pierced yourself."

Silence falls. "And, could I just ask about Mr Tosser?" asks Francis, desperate to change the subject. There are baffled looks all round. "We'll get back to you," they say.

When he's nearly home, the new Community Assocation Chairman, who has expressed an interest in getting to know the locals, gets off to a cracking start by driving into the back of his car. It's the perfect end to a perfect day. That is, if you like spa baths.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Down the plughole with Mr Tosser

"I'm going to see a man about a spa bath," says Francis, as he prints out directions.

Like the rest of us, what Francis knows about spa baths could be writ large on a small,yellow duck. Ask him about the intricacies of making Easter eggs, biscuits, soup, cosmetics and, of course, microwave popcorn, and he can entertain a small crowd amusingly for several days.

He's not really your fixtures and fittings man, though. So it's a surprise when an excitable sounding man calls to say that Francis' cv shouts 'spa baths' at him. I suppose it's better than a cv yelling 'Help me, somebody, help me, I'm desperate.'

His company wants someone who can combine energy and intelligence with the ability to operate a mixer tap really, really fast. Francis could be just the person they're looking for.

In these days of new puritanism, a spa bath seems a run counter to every energy saving principle going, a leftover from the hedonistic lifestyle that I thought we were all supposed to be ditching.

The man in charge is called Mr Tosser. "Francis, are you sure?" I ask. "Well, no, but I couldn't really understand his accent and I didn't like to ask him to repeat it."

Mind you, it could be used to fix the company in the public memory: "Choose Mr Tosser's super spa bath. He always pulls it off."

Well, it's got to be better than my first attempt. 'If you want moving water in a bath, stir it with a stick.'

Maybe those spa baths have got something. Legionnaire's Disease, I shouldn't wonder.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Some legends never die. They just take longer to microwave

Hymns: Jerusalem and The National Anthem.
Staff who don't know words: All
School motto: 'Striding purposefully backwards into the 1950s'

Francis has an interview with a Jamaican food company. "I've seen your face before," says the man. "Something to do with...Wait a's coming." Francis looks suitably deprecating. "My God," says the interviewer. "Don't say I'm actually talking to the man who introduced microwave popcorn to the UK."

My husband, the icon. When he gets home, we invite the neighbours round to kneel at his feet and take turns touching his suit. Still no bloody job offers, though.

In my latest surge of misplaced energy (I do wonder sometimes if there isn't a little input socket on the National Grid with my name on it) I am about to register Francis for a sponsored bike ride. I did it two years ago and saw it as a mobile coffee morning with hills and bananas. Francis isn't keen, but I think it's probably the only way we're going to be seeing much in the way of endorphins this year, unless the NHS has plans for a happy donor service.

He reacts to the news with typical over-excitement.

"How will I get any sponsors? Nobody at work will be interested in what I'm doing now. I'm long gone. Still," he brightens slightly, "I got another email saying 'we still can't believe you've gone,'"

"Why don't you send one back saying you're still there. And ask for sponsorship while you're at it."

But there's no consoling him. "People are so insincere that I'd rather not talk to anybody."

"Can I have a glass of wine, please?" I say. "And, believe me, I'm very sincere."

Later on, snitch that I am, I recount most of this conversation to his mother. "He's always been a bit like that, ever since he was little," she says. "We'd all be sitting on the beach on a beautiful day and he'd look up at the sky, and say, 'Look, a black cloud. That's the end of the sunshine for the day.' "

Francis takes his bike to be serviced. It comes back daubed with a patch of oil like paint on a sheep that's been tupped, but with no other visible sign of having been tampered with. If it turns out to be pregnant, though, I'll have to eat my words.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

A word from the chairman

I think I may have solved the housing crisis. I heard a woman complaining on the radio that clothes are 'too cheap'. "You can get a T-shirt for the price of a coffee," she said, indignantly. Admittedly, she sounded like the sort of person whose idea of slumming it was to order her grand latte macchiato mocha without the 35p soya milk supplement (why do coffees increasingly sound like cars?) but, still, she had a point. I think.

No wonder first time buyers can't afford houses - they're frittering away all their precious deposit money on cheap clothing.

So the obvious solution is for Primark to build houses. On the plus side, they'd be ludicrously cheap and much larger than they claimed in the particulars. The only problems would be over-supply and refunds - every morning, there'd be piles of houses stacked up at the end of roads, returned because the conservatory looked much nicer in the showhome than it did on. Plus the front door colours would always be two shades short of a migraine. And the kitchen floor would shrink when you washed it.

Worth a try, though, I reckon.

I also read about a parenting guru who felt that we should be bringing a corporate management style to family life. She'd come up with the ultimate board game - weekly family meetings complete with an agenda, chairperson and, presumably, minutes.

You can imagine the impact if it takes off: "Trevor and Amanda are proud to announce the arrival of their very own little sub-committee."

And given that a fully realised corporate life can be a thing of beauty and balance, that's just the beginning. With just a little practice, none of us need make sense ever again.

Dear Family,

Whether you have been in a member of this family for five years or fourteen, you will be aware that it moves and evolves rapildy.

The family is far different from the one I joined in 1993. It is now five times bigger than each of each of the inviduals who founded it.

We have strengthened our team with three major new players. Beth, who is in overall charge of negotiation and freedom fighting; Leo who has coordinated sports development and Deborah, who has recently been promoted to head the very busy screaming and whinge division.

I am proud of what I, and you, have achieved over the years and look forward to spearheading more exciting developments in the immediate and long-term future, spanning everything from a successfully negotiated bedtime this evening to Deborah's party later in the year.

We have faced challenges along the way and have tried, but mainly failed, to overcome them as a team, preferring instead to adopt the 'You don't care if I die', 'I'm going to my room,' 'shut up, I'm busy,' or 'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times - now forget it,' approaches that have sustained us through many a difficult time.

In conclusion, may I wish you all good luck, good health, and don't forget the fish and chips this evening

All the best

Your chairperson

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Mums and daughters

"It'll serve you right if I'm raped and murdered because I'm on my own." says Beth.

I have just refused to let Beth ring her best friend for the fourth time in an hour in order, so she says, to 'confirm the arrangements,' so they can meet up at the shops. In the time she's spent running up the bill, she could have confirmed enough arrangements for Prince Harry, wearing a big sign saying, 'Third in line to the throne. Shoot here,' to complete a successful tour of Iraq in total safety.

"Oh, OK. Phone her." I say. "But no longer than five minutes, and you're to stay in here so I can time it." She looks at me, narrow eyed, dials, speaks briefly, then hangs up.

'She can't do it,' she says. 'So I'll go in on my own and meet up with her later."

"So how about being raped and murdered?" I ask. She grins. "Oh, I'll fit it in somehow," she says.

Upstairs, Deborah is supposed to be getting into party clothes. My standards are low. As long as the children don't actually look as if they're being reared by wolves, I'm happy. Though to be honest, I suspect many wolves would do a better job than me, especially as mine aren't showing any signs of going on to found Rome, or gain the power of man's red flower, come to that.

Deborah comes downstairs, modelling a pair of slightly sparkly jeans and an old vest, which is covered in food stains. The jeans are fine. The vest is not. I explain why. "But Mum," she says, her voice thrilling with indignation. "These are today's food stains." We compromise, a wonderfully generous term to describe my virtuoso playing of the various heartstrings until I find the one - I think it's the dry sob approach - that resonates just long enough for me to shove a shirt over the dirty vest. The food stains are plainly visible underneath.

Now she looks like a child brought up by wolves who haven't mastered the quick wash cycle yet.

In the car, we find a hairbrush which contains a large quantity of what looks suspiciously like dog hairs. Deborah drags it through her hair.

"Do I look cute?" she asks. I glance quickly in the mirror. She has a big, gappy smile, straggly hair and a hole in one knee of the jeans.

I take a big breath.

"Very cute," I say.

Friday, 18 May 2007

The trouble with words

The friend of a friend is a poet. She's had some modest success - something that's pretty much par for the course with poets, I guess - and is currently studying for an MPhil. She enjoys her life. You'd describe her as cheerful. Her poetry, though beautifully evoked and thought-provoking, reveals a rather darker side of her personality.

Her proud mother, thrilled when the first slim volume is published, gives a copy to a colleague. A few days later, she takes the mother aside. "I'm so sorry," she says, in a low voice, laying a sympathetic hand on her arm. "Your daughter must be terribly unhappy."

Today, Francis shows me the job spec he's received. He doesn't understand a single word. "Stand back - I'm an intellectual," I say, assuming that one of his more irritating passive-aggressive moments is coming on, and taking the letter from him with the leave-it-to-me body language he's come to know so well during our years together.

And blow me down. I don't understand a single word either.

The company is 'a commercial vehicle' (I thought that meant a lorry) 'which operates a number of product licences' which are 'either generic or niche branded products obtained from big pharma at the end of there (sic) product life cycle.'

But wait. There's good news. Because, 'after further significant investment in product licences, the board believe they now have obtained the critical mass necessary to move direct to consumer.'

Well, thank goodness for the happy ending after that humdinger of a cliffhanger.

And that leads to Francis' role which will be 'establishing a critical mass upon which new product development and licence acquisition can be sustained'. Well, of course. As if it needed explanation.

As quite an experienced critical mass myself - and getting massier by the minute - my own suggestion - that we track down the letter writer's mum, put a consoling hand on her arm and say "I'm so sorry. Your son must be terribly unhappy," - is rejected by Francis as unworkable.

"So what are you going to do?" I ask.

"Phone a friend," says Francis. "He's established a critical mass before. I'll get him to tell me what to say at the interview."

"What if you get the job?"

He smiles. "Like you said yesterday, why don't we worry about that when it happens?"



Thursday, 17 May 2007

Take a friend to work day

School: Hymn: Edelweiss (it's national Pantheism Day); Teachers moved to tears by beauty of singing: 1 (not me, naturally); Number of vomiting children in recorder lesson: two.

"This job isn't any good," says Francis, studying a letter with an A starred attempt at a D'Arcy sneer, though minus the britches. "It's a two hour commute."

"Why, have you been offered it?" Forget jumping guns. Frankly, if there's a water pistol in sight I can clear it by a good two metres. I am absolutely thrilled.

"No," he says. "It's just that it's a nightmare journey. No use even thinking about it."

Oh. I take a very deep breath. Then another, while praying for the Tact Fairy to tap me on the head with her biggest, most effective wand. Right this minute.

"But Francis," I say, and hear, with worry, that my voice has already climbed several semi-tones up the hysterical soprano register. "Why don't you see if you get the job first, and then let's worry about the journey there?"

"You complained enough about the last one," he replies. "If I recall correctly, you said you couldn't manage on your own in the mornings. And this one would mean leaving a good hour earlier."

At this rate, what with Francis' semi-courtroom language, and my rising voice, we'll need separate legal representation just to get through breakfast.

"I see, so it's all my fault now, is it?" We're on number 120b from the Bumper Book of Domestic Rows, now completely revised and enlarged to include an all-new redundancy spat section.

Forget 'take your daughter to school to work day'. What I need now is a 'take a friend back home day'. Think what a difference it would make. Especially now. Somebody to say, "Francis, she's very, very upset. What she needs is to go to bed now with a lovely coffee and the papers. And perhaps later on when she's feeling better, a good-looking naked man."

Mind you, I suppose it would cut both ways, and presumably, Francis would have a friend home too, and he'd tell me to stop trying to have the best of all worlds and accept my husband as the miracle-working home and life juggling expert he undoubtedly is.

Oh, well, it was a nice idea, though one undoubtedly requiring more thorough research before the national launch.

Later on, I collect Deborah from school. She hands me her lunchbag, schoolbag, music bag, recorder and coat and saunters off. "Look at Patsy," I say. "She's being so helpful and helping her mummy by carrying her own things." Deborah eyes Patsy with a jaundiced expression. "Good for her," she says, and carries straight on.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007


Francis arrives back from the interview with Posh Headhunter for the hair extension job. "How did it go?"

"Fair," he says. "They asked me what I'd do to grow the business and I suggested plaiting it and adding a small bow at the end."

"Did you really?" This isn't the Francis I know.

"Well, no, as it happens. But I might just as well. It was obvious I didn't really have the in-depth hair salon experience they were after."

Up till now, it's all sounded fairly standard, but not out of the ordinary, until he tells me that Posh Headhunter asked him if he'd use the product himself.

"I said 'yes', and told them I'd be happy to be a male case study. Then," he continues, "She came over and inspected my hair. 'Of course, you're not really receding, just thinning,' " she said.

There are several things I would have said at this point, which is why self-employment has been my preferred method of earning a living for some time. Francis, the soul of tact, however, says nothing. Nor does he fell her with a swift left hook. I can't help thinking that in many ways he's probably a better person than I am.

I know he needs a job. I know we need the money. But is this sort of ritual humiliation par for the course at interviews these days. What will he be required to do next to demonstrate the extent of his employer loyalty? Have their mission statement tattooed on his bottom - or, in his case, his scalp? Or just sign an agreement saying that in case of difficulty, he's had break-out training in ritual self-sacrifice?

He's left the letter from the headhunter on the table. "Miserably different," is its motto. Quite right, too, I think. At least they realise. But, no, I've misread it. Not 'miserably' but, of course, 'measurably,'. Next time - if there is one - I'm going to suggest that Francis takes a tape measure and a pair of scissors when he visits them. At least he can see they how well they live up to their promise.

Childcare with Bad Lindy; hair care with Francis

I bump into Bad Lindy at Tesco. "What's with the window cleaner?" I ask. "Is he your type?" "Well, he's got a p***k. What more do you need?" she asks, a little surprised.

A small fanfare sounds, appropriately at groin level. "My phone," says Bad Lindy, hoiking it out of the back pocket of her jeans and avoiding catching it on the belt of the thong that protrudes a good inch above the waistband. She studies it closely. "It's my oldest. Says she's getting a headache, her tablets are at home and she feels sick. She was off last Wednesday, throwing up. I hate that bitch sometimes. Really cramps my style."

"I don't mean to be unkind," she adds, as an afterthought.

Following last week's meeting with The Man who Makes Things but Can't Get The Shops to Stock Them, Francis arranges to see another man, whose speciality is Persuading Shops to Buy Stuff. When the samples from Man who Makes Things etc arrive 48 hours too late for the meeting, which involved a four hour there and back drive, making the whole thing a total waste of time, Francis begins to have an inkling as to what might be going wrong. He ungrits his teeth long enough to deliver these insights to Man a few short, sharp sentences.

But the exciting news now is that Francis is getting ready to see Posh Headhunter about the hair job. Then, if he manages to impress her with his experience and his hair - and we've got high hopes of a very nice one that he's been growing specially - he'll be flown to Paris, home of lavish hair tossing. I don't know how far he's going to get with single strand, but he could just sing 'The answer is blowing in the wind' if all else fails, as that's about all it's up to thus far.

I might even suggest he borrows my Hermes scarf, instead, and tries to impress them with his through and through Englishness by wearing it a la Princess Royale. Well, it's got to be worth a try.

"Oh, and on Friday," he says, "I'm going to Windsor to see a man about - "

"- being King?," I ask, hopefully. Well, he can't do worse than the current lot, and at least the pay's good. He looks very slightly pained, prints out the latest version of his CV - now with added adjectives! and, sighing slightly, sets off for his interview, trying, and failing to run his hands through the once luxurious tresses d'autan.

It's always lovely to be the best at something and nobody could be prouder of Deborah than I was when she returned with a little plaque saying she was 'Beaver of the weeek'. She tells me it was her shiny shoes that secured her the accolade. I had wondered whether including girls in the Scouting movement was really that good an idea but now I'm convinced.

Just off to stock up on Kiwi's best Parade Ground Black. Well, if it worked for her....

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Lose a third of a pound in just seven years!

Calcium supplements reduce women's weight gain, said a report today. Sounded good to me. I might not quite be prepared to gnaw my own bones to ensure I meet the daily recommended amounts but it would be a close call.

Until, that is, I read the amount of weight not gained and the time it took not to gain it.

And get this. After seven (that's 7) years of taking those supplements, women in trials managed not to gain - wait for it - a massive one third of a pound - around, ooh, I don't know - 120 or 130g - the size of largish double chocolate chip muffin.

So get out now, buy those supplements and in just seven year's time, you could be a whole 5oz lighter than your friends. Alternatively, you could just not bother, hang on seven years, then go and sweat the weight off in one morning at a sauna.

No wonder there was another story today saying that female chimps are just as violent as the males and are going on the rampage, killing and maiming everything they can lay their hairy little hands on.

Nobody knows why. Except me. It's obvious. They've all been taking calcium supplements for seven years, only to discover that they've lost precisely one third of a pound compared to the other female chimps, and they're as mad as hell.

Ritalin, where is thy sting? And what are its weight gain figures over seven years, anyway?

Monday, 14 May 2007

Me and my European conspiracy

There's a mood of rebellion in the air. Francis is refusing to drop Deborah at school any more, because the mothers keep being horrid to him. "What exactly are they doing?" I ask. "This morning one of them said, 'Still unemployed', then laughed," says Francis. I ask Janet's advice. "Well, I asked him how the job hunting was going and then said I was sure he'd find something soon." she says. "Do you think that's what he means?"

Leo is also very quiet. "Freddie called me a horrible name again," he says, sadly. I e-mail his teacher, then check one of the many hyperactivity sites I've stored in 'favourites' - a misnomer if ever there was one - and, sure enough, find 'Bullying: Children with ADHD are more likely to be bullied because they may seem different.'

I'm sure there's a grain of truth in it - but how much? Is there a research gonk under every desk collating complains to teachers and cross collating them with rising incidents of hyperactivity? I contemplate googling redundancy, certain that somewhere there'll be some site that will link mid-life job loss in slightly balding men to previously undiagnosed hyperactivity.

Own a small dog? A neurotic cat? Prefer cold chicken sandwiches? That'll be ADHD and £400 please - collect the bill on the way out.

But the real truth is that we just haven't been thinking fast enough. On the radio this morning, the World Bank chairman, Paul Wolfowitz, who gave his girlfriend a tiptop post there the second he landed the top job, claimed that calls for him to resign were nothing to do with this at all - no, it was, in fact, a politically motivated European conspiracy. Of course.

And last year, you may remember that another bloke, caught with his fingers either in the till, or all over somebody else's wife - something of that sort, anyway - claimed that he'd been misunderstood. It wasn't what it seemed. It was - stupid of us all not to guess - part of an art installation project in progress.

So when Francis fails to get a job offer, I make a string of mistakes in assembly that turns 'Jesu good above all other,' into a John Cage tribute performance, full of silence and polytonality, and Leo's homework mysteriously goes missing from his schoolbag, I think we all know what it's about: a European conspiracy; the insensivity of the public in grasping the essence of the artistic temperament or, of course, that good ole family standby, ADHD.

Bring on the future.

Doing the maths

Problem 1.
Leo tells me about his day. "I'm friends with these really nice sixth form boys. They always come up and talk to me at break."

If X = Leo: 11, tall, blond, innocent, prepubescent
Y = Nice sixth form boys: 17, worldy wise, on the way to becoming men.

What is X + Y, taking into account the following variables:

a) How much I want to know the answer.
b) How much time I should spend trying to work it out
c) What might happen if I don't?

Problem 2
It's a cold, rainy afternoon. Beth appears at the front door, wet, crying, wheeling her bike with one hand, pulling the reluctant dog, whose walk has been cut short, with the other.

"I fell off my bike and hit my head. This woman was there, with her kid. She just watched me, then turned away. She didn't even try to help me."

Now calculate the probability that the woman :
a) checked Beth out, saw she wasn't seriously hurt and decided not to intervene, but kept an eye on her as she walked home
b) Simply didn't care?
c) Was too scared to help Beth in case somebody thought she was a potential attacker or kidnapper?

You may use quotes from the tabloid press to help you with your answers.

I say to Leo, "Those boys sound a lot older than you. What sort of things do you do with them?" He looks at me, a picture of blank incomprehension. "What?" I try once more. "If they ask you to do anything that you're not comfortable with, don't do it. And tell me." But it's hopeless, and his expression proves it. Things he's not comfortable with include reading a book of over 100 pages; supporting Arsenal or washing his hands before meals - which isn't quite what I mean.

With Beth, I swab the cut, apply antiseptic cream, utter soothing words, and wonder whether I dare risk A&E for the third time in as many weeks.

I could do with an extra pair of hands - just think of all the extra fingers I'd be able to cross.

Hands off my happiness

Is happiness becoming a political issue, someone asks on the radio?

Leo's room is a pigsty. No Playstation until he tidies it, is what I've said. And I mean it, too. As I pass his door, I listen. There's silence from within, but none of the muffled clicking sounds that would indicate surreptitious keyboard use, either. "Are you tidying your room, Leo?" I ask. There's a pause. "Maybe," he says, cautiously.

"Well done, darling," I say.

"Leo's tidying his room," I say, brightly, to Francis, as we gather the ties, socks, gym shoes and blazers that have sprouted all round the house like an unruly crop. Francis gives me one of his Monday morning grunts.

When they've left for school, I check Leo's room. There are pick-up-by-the-label-only pants, sweet wrappers, old copies of The Beano, cups, bowls, and the sort of aroma that you'd add to a Hammer House of Horror movie if they ever released them with Smellorama.

Happiness, in my case, is a fleeting, non-political thing, spun from the finest threads of self-delusion and based entirely on what I want, or need, to believe, at any one time. But if Gordon Brown or David Cameron want to nip round with a vacuum cleaner and parenting manual (not Ming - I think all that bending down would do the old codger's knees in) and see if they could up my happiness quotient, they'd be more than welcome.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

The weekend so far

Bad Lindy: Window man texting non-stop - had to put fone on silent. will try out lipgloss 2moro and c if can seduce dog or 2.

(Did I mention that Lindy has a part-time job as a vet's receptionist? Since she started, hamster sales to middle aged men in the area have doubled)

Friend with troubled marriage: cooked roast, did ironing, cleaned up. Hub lazy bone idle tw*t

Beth: I'm getting really stressed but i don't know why

Me: Daydream about Francis getting fab job and me becoming Super Corporate Wife. Then read one of Gordon Ramsay's recipe instructions.

' make a 'barrel' of tagliatelle, pick up a few strands with a carving fork and press them against the side of the pan. Start to twist the pasta into a barrel shape. Push it back against the pan side to neaten once the strands are wound, upend the fork into the centre and gently push off the pasta.'

God help us. Next week: how to construct an entire dinner service out of origami. I can tell when I'm out of my league.

Manflesh and music

I wake on Sunday morning to the sound of pounding feet and look out of the window to see a stream of athletic-looking men running past the house, while bicycle-riding marshals urge them on to greater efforts. Several look slightly scared, which quite naturally makes me think of Bad Lindy, especially when one, slower than the rest, keeps looking behind him with an expression of dread, as though pursued by a giant pair of super-pouty lips.

Then the phone pings with Bad Lindy's first text of the day. "Waiting 4 text 2buzz and thunderbolt 2 strike! come the f*** on," - which I assume means that Darren hasn't called yet. Perhaps I should invite her over so she can dangle by her heels from the bedroom window and pout over the continuing parade of manflesh.

But no. In Francis' current gently depressed state, an early morning infusion of Bad Lindy - with or without lip gloss - might cause total breakdown. Even worse, it might not. Either way, I decide against it.

Instead I ring Cultured Mummy. She's the woman I know I could be if only I learned to swap Agatha Christie and Artic Monkeys for Coetzee and Bach's Goldberg Variations. She lives for the arts, has Radio 3 on the whole time in the background and is learning the bassoon. I never quite catch up with her, though it's not for want of trying.

"Did you find a recording by that Chinese pianist who played the Chopin so wonderfully at the proms last year?" I ask. "You know, Ling Ling?" "Lang Lang," she says, though kindly. "Wasn't Ling Ling a giant panda?"

But even Cultured Mummy is struggling. She's been in a 'Is that all there is' mood all week, she says. Everything seems black, pointless and impossible. We compare notes on moods. We're all approaching that difficult stage - too old for smear tests, too young for mammograms - while hormone levels surge and retreat like spring tides. The result is that we all live for the brief state of mid-cycle euphoria that lasts mere two or three days before misery sets in again.

"There's just no way out," says Cultured Mummy, gloomily. "A sex change might do it." I suggest. "Though Francis might feel a bit funny living with a man"

"No," says Cultured Mummy. "He married you for the person you are, not what you look like."

"I think two of us with five o'clock shadow might be pushing it," I say, "but frankly, if things go on like this, I'm prepared to risk it."

Maybe I should get Dave the decorator round for a quote, after all. At least he'd be able to offer some penetrating insights into my up and down feelings, possibly by scoring them into our carpets with his Stanley knife.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Housekeeping tips with Bad Lindy

If Vicky has her finger on the social pulse, Bad Lindy is a walking defibrillator. We've all spent time with a Bad Lindy. They're standard issue at school, the 'there but for the grace of God' bad lot element that your parents warned you about - the girls who know what's what, years before anybody else realises there's a 'what' to know anything about.

They disappear after school - sometimes expelled, occasionally pregnant. Then you reach adulthood and suddenly there's a Bad Lindy in your life again. Bad Lindys know things about your neighbourhood that somehow never make into the dear little Mum 'n' toddler guides - like where to find the local brothel (in our case, up the stairs from the bike shop), or where the swingers hang out (and we're not talking playgrounds).

Our Bad Lindy adds a whiff of danger to every social occasion. She loves to shock, removing her top on every possible occasion, and some impossible ones, too. She's the thing waiting to happen that makes every other woman in the room reach for her own husband and hang on for dear life.

Once you've sewn a movement detector to your husband's trousers you can relax and enjoy Lindy's refusal to take herself, anyone else, or their marriages, too seriously, especially as she has made it her mission to distract me from Francis's predicament. So far, she's doing a pretty good job.

"Window cleaner here," is her latest text. "Called Darren. Have put on 'Soap & Glory,' sexy mother pucker lip gloss. Says on wrapper lip size crucial 4 sexual attraction'. am waiting 4my lips 2 expand 10 x- thats wot it says on box! and then i will pay the f*er motherpucker!x"

I leave it an hour, bursting with curiosity, before I call her. "So what happened?" I ask, breathlessly. "He knocks on the front door to tell me he's finished the windows." says Bad Lindy, "I ask how much and he looks up and says, 'What's your situation? Are you married - because I really want to take you out?'"
"No," I say, enthralled. "Yes," says Bad Lindy. "So I say, it's quite difficult, now. And he says, 'I'm hoping to see you very soon. And there's no charge for the windows.'"

So forget 'How clean is your house?' Instead, follow the first in the series of Bad Lindy's housekeeping tips of the week:
To give your windows a deep down shine that really lasts, absolutely free, add Soap and Glory mother pucker lip gloss to your slap. You'll see a difference within minutes.

Friday, 11 May 2007

A mania for decoration

Teaching duties over for another week, I drive back from assembly (hymn: 'Lord of the dance'; theme: helpfulness; number of non-stop nose-pickers - one), but instead of accelerating so fast that I burn my carbon footprint into the tarmac in my desire to get back to a house that's overwhelmingly full of Francis, I decide to go to see Vicky, the demon texter, instead.

Vicky was something big in the City - she reckons a 36DD - but giving birth to a brace of top centile breast gorgers soon put paid to that. Now she's something much smaller in the suburbs.

There's always something going on in her house, and today it's Dave the decorator, all round top plasterer, painter and manic depressive.

Dave has slicked-back hair, low-slung jeans and an almost palpable air of barely repressed violence. He is just packing the final brush away when he lets me in. It's noon, early for happy hour by any standards. "What happened this time," I hiss at Vicky. "He sent me a text saying, 'Am pissed off, c u Tues,' Vicky hisses back. "I asked him why and he sent me another one saying 'Am having mania day. Have 2 leave 4 ure own safety.' "

We inspect the rooms he's finished. They look absolutely beautiful, with the exception of a six inch slash right in the middle of one of the bedroom carpets. "Oh, yes," says Vicky. "It was just after he told me my choice of paint colours was all wrong. Then he grabbed the stanley knife and muttered, 'Get out.' So the children and I waited downstairs and played cheerful music very loudly to calm him down. And when I asked him about the slashed carpet, he said, 'Sorry. It's just that your house depresses me'. But I can really recommend him," she says, quite seriously. "Of course, you have to catch him during a manic phase, because he says he works twice as hard as normal. But at least he hasn't got a waiting list."

I can't think why. "It's tempting," I say, "But I think I've probably got enough to deal with at the moment. And we don't really have the money for a decorator, even a manic depressive one."

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Bring out your inner Air Scout

Francis has had a meeting with four Even Scarier headhunters, who have taken it in turns to play good guy, bad guy, interrogating him like cops in some vintage TV series. "Why do you think you were made redundant?" snarls the first. "I'm not entirely sure," says Francis, truthfully. "So you're saying there's no logic to it?" sneers the second. "Well, I'm certainly baffled," says Francis. "And what would you say if we told you we were going to call your ex-boss and ask him to tell us all about it?" threatens the third. "I'd say, here's his phone number," says Francis. All four look surprised. Either he has a layer of chutzpah so thick you could re-render a chimney with it (which would certainly come in handy) or - and you can tell they can scarcely credit it - he's actually telling the truth.

"So.........." begins number four, then stops. "You know, I'm a bit baffled, too," he says, suddenly dropping the intimidating manner. The tough interview loses momentum, they all have a cup of tea, tell Francis to stay in touch, and then he comes home again.

I am feeling slightly low. Francis doesn't need to be told, partly because he is so terribly sensitive, but also because of the jaded way in which I eye the rubble on the kitchen table - two of Beth's pencil cases, three beanie babies, a pink plastic handbag, a book on how to make Christmas decorations, and the cat, then sweep it all onto the floor in one peevish gesture.

"Are you worried I won't get a job?" he asks. "No," I say, and at this moment, it's more a sense of having arrived bright and early for an exciting life, only to discover that it went without me.

Given Leo's tendency to treat any enclosed space as a challenge to his right to roam, and Beth's vertigo, which, limbo-dancer fashion, seems to kick in at a lower altitude each day - soon we'll have to move to a bungalow - I am also questioning my decision to enrol them not just in scouts but in Air Scouts, whose proud links to the armed forces means they take real flights in very small, claustrophic planes at quite considerable distances off the ground.

So far in their short lives, my children have given up Kumon maths (couldn't count), tennis (couldn't serve), judo (too rough), Rainbows (too jolly), gymnastics (too competitive), and trampolining (too scary). Giving up ballet was a cinch, thanks to the advent of Angelina Ballerina, the dancing mouse, which enabled me to console Deborah with the thought that only part-rodents could ever be truly successful, and that while cross-breeding might be a way forward, there was no guarantee she'd end up with the pink ears and the tutu but might just land the teeth, instead.

So why Air Scouts? They say the heart has its reasons, but it's my subconscious that has got a lot of questions to answer. Perhaps I ought to call in those headhunters to give it a good going over.

Hair for the headhunters

Francis starts the day by making a spreadsheet, listing all his job applications to date, so he has statistics-backed evidence to prove what a failure he is.

I suggest we extend it by including all the other bad things that happen to him, of the when the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad variety (where were you when we needed you, Julie Andrews?) so we can try to work out if the gods are using him as their plaything or if he's just prone to exaggeration.

"I thought it was as silly idea at first," he says, "but it's really useful." He types 'Rejected' and the date in a tiny box and then reads it several times with an air of mournful satisfaction.

Meanwhile, the headhunters are doing their best.

Posh headhunter has come up with a really super opportunity as a payroll manager in Inverness.

Scary headhunter has communicated by e-mail. "Your cv is a model of good information and well laid out. We will certainly be in touch," she concludes, though without any suggestion as to when this might be, if ever.

Excitable headhunter has come up with a small company that 'specialises in bridging the gaps between beauty and medicine' - presumably by weaving great big ropes out of bandages and then swinging across the gap.

In recruitment speak, it's a niche brand specialising in luxury quality human hair extensions with a 'unique, non-destructive application technology'. Translated, that means it collects human hair and makes things with it. Possibly bridges - who knows? As a company that's going places, it needs someone who's 'well spoken, with gravitas and able to consolidate relationships with top level managers'.

"And lots of hair?" I ask, meanly. Francis feels the top of his head gingerly. "Well, they haven't asked for a family history of male pattern baldness yet," he says.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Meet the headhunters

We're getting to know the recruitment consultants. When they ring, they sound identical to the caring salespeople who have dedicated their lives to finding out how I am today. It's ironic, really, that they are all employed by banks, power companies, supermarkets and charities, instead of by NHS direct, which really should care how you are today, but patently doesn't.

The effect, though, is that in order to establish just whose jolly voice is on the end of the line, I'm having to play 20 questions to find out instead of just uttering a short, bitter laugh down the phone and then hanging up.

It could be Lucy, the enthusiastic headhunter, who loves Francis and his super, super experience, but doesn't appear to have read his cv, and keeps inviting him up to her website to admire her big and bouncy job opportunities, none of which bears any relation to his actual experience.

Sometimes it's friend-of-a-friend Nigel, who is beginning to worry me more than Francis. He's so frightfully nice that, although his company hasn't got any suitable jobs, he's taken to cutting other people's ads out of the appointments sections of the press and urging Francis to apply for them.

Then there's Charlotte, the posh headhunter, who may well have hundreds of juicy, melt in the mouth posts just waiting to be plucked, but whose accent is so Home Counties that it's virtually impossible to tell.

So we are pinning our hopes on Nicola, the terrifyingly efficient headhunter whose own interviews with prospective candidates are famed in the industry for being ten times more intimidating that anything an employer can come up with. Francis has to call her today and, in preparation, is wearing his smartest shirt, as it's rumoured she can pick up background dressing gowns and stubble using nothing more than advanced business acumen.

Meanwhile, Francis has organised his life so that he does the school run and then disappears for the rest of the day, arriving in time for an evening meal. It's certainly putting Leo off the scent. Yesterday, he saw the solicitor who is now renamed 'my' solicitor - perhaps I'll get one, too, if they're doing a buy one, get one free offer this week. Francis' severance letter from his company is, says the lawyer, the basic sort - as opposed, presumably, to a scented, polysyllabic version on Smythson stationary that plays 'So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye,' when you open it.

I have visions of Francis secretly dressing up in a suit and tie and playing office workers all day, eating sandwiches in a park somewhere and having conference calls with tramps in a simulacrum of office life. But having quizzed him minutely and, I like to think, tactfully, this should remain a vision as he does have various bona fide meetings all this week and well into next. Only after that will I need to contemplate scouring the local swings and roundabouts with a big sign saying, 'Francis, come home.'

Mind you, if I had any choice in the matter, I'd prefer to sit in a playground, minding my own business and reading the paper, secure in the knowledge that somebody else was on squalor watch back home in the witching hours twixt school run and bedtime and having to deal with the high pitched calls of"Mumm-EE! Mumm-EE," that echo round the house like hunting calls.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Retail therapy

The timing of Francis' redundancy - Leo's birthday - wasn't ideal. Our rendition of 'Happy Birthday to you' wouldn't have sounded out of place by a graveside. Forty eight hours later, it was 'Take your daughter to work day.' Fortunately, it was something that passed Francis, Beth and Deborah by completely, and just as well. 'Take your daughter to your official redundancy meeting day' or 'Let your daughter fill our your jobseeker's allowance form day,' just hasn't got the same ring to it.

But it could all have been worse. We were just about to have a new kitchen. And yes, of course ours is perfectly adequate, and plenty of people have far, far worse things to cope with, and why am I moaning? Because I can, I suppose. And because I was dreaming of something better than the mean-minded, top opening unit door that puts a huge amount of effort into undoing all its screws in the night so that by morning, no matter how tight you've fastened them the day before, they've worked themselves just loose enough for the door to fall on your head when you reach up for the porridge oats. Better than the panelled ceilings whose pine strips hang down like playground seesaws, and much, much better than the lino the faded yellow of old dogs' teeth. And the rotting back door. And the wonky gutters whose reluctance to part with rainwater means surprise showers days after the storm has been, gone, and been replaced by drought warnings and hose pipe bans.

So I cancel the kitchen which is easy, because it merely entails not phoning the plumber, builder and electrician who all work on an inertia principle, requiring a minimum of ten calls before they can build up the necessary momentum just to call you back.

But inside, I'm crying, though in a positive way, naturally. So when old Colin next door tells us that our chimney is 'in trouble' - though why it can't pay for therapy like everyone else round here - the less than tactful words are out of my mouth like particles in an accelerator. "The sooner you find a job....." I begin. "What do you think I'm doing?" demands, Francis, reasonably. "Do you think I'm sitting on my a*** doing nothing?" "Well, no." "And you can take that tone out of your voice," he adds. "What tone?" I say, knowing just what tone, but not caring to acknowledge ownership of it.

Five minutes later there's a stark choice between an escalating screaming match or a dignified temporary exit. I pick up the car keys. "Come and say goodbye to Mummy," says Francis. "She's leaving." "I'm just doing a bit of shopping," I say, hastily."I was just going, anyway."

Only one organisation can help me now. I head straight for the nearest branch of John Lewis where I hover over assorted electronic desirables, and after three assistants have asked me, in caring tones, if I'm all right, and I have reassured them that, yes, I am fine, thank you, I go home again. "Where's the shopping?" asks Francis. "Oh," I say, "They didn't have what I wanted. I'll go back later."


The cutting edge

Francis's dad calls, and we have one of those peculiarly British conversations which is conducted entirely in half sentences. "And how's Francis getting on with his.....?" "Oh, fine, though there's nothing really......." "No, well, of course, but he wouldn't want to take the first......" "Well, yes - not that it wouldn't be nice to.....". We both agree that in the circumstances it's all, quite......isn't it? and feel all the better for having exchanged these morale-boosting little intimacies.

Next I 'phone Marion, who is notable for the ability to make me almost as guilty as my own children, because she appears to have, and want, so little, that every expectation I have seems, in contrast, grossly vulgar and grasping.

Marion is our travelling hairdresser. She in thrall to spiritual forces ("You know she believes in fairies," warned the mother who told me about her) but if they exist, they certainly aren't doing her any favours. She's followed by packs of traffic wardens, scouring arcane by-laws so that wherever she parks, she always gets a ticket. There's no shower so light that it can't grease the pavements just sufficiently to ensure that she slips and breaks a couple of bones as she falls; she's so sensitive to every hair care chemical she uses that she has to glove up like a surgeon before she can even open the boot of her car to get out her bags of booty. But it makes no difference. Whatever she does, eczema plays up and down her limbs like a virtuoso pianist.

She's also severely allergic to animals and is thus effortlessly able to attract not just our pets but everyone else's as well, to the extent that were I to find every formerly untameable feral cat, fox and sheep-killing panther of Bodmin Moor circling round our front door on the off-chance of brushing against her and triggering a severe reaction, I would be only slightly surprised.

Afflicted, like Francis' father, with the same admirable reserve, she will never tout for business but waits for us to call her - which, of course we do, but always rather later than we'd meant to. My guilt has grown over the years because while I have recommended her to other families, none tends to stay with her for long, ditching her tales of fairy folk and skin treatments in favour of the reassuring platitudes of the traditional salon.

Would I like to do the same? Well, given the reputation of a couple of the hairdressers round here - one, an honours graduate of the Sweeny Todd School of Barbering, is famed for his combined hair 'n' ear reshaping techniques and co-ordinated lawsuits - perhaps not. And I've know Marion for so long that it would be the height of betrayal. I just have to remember not to slip a long-haired hamster in with the tip.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

The long goodbye

Things are falling apart, say Francis's ex-colleagues. His former boss, Malcolm, working on the what goes around, comes around theory, is convinced that having done the dirty on Francis, mafiosa-style, he's next in line for the axe. He's now refusing to go to meetings, convinced that if they can't catch him, they can't fire him, either, and spends all day playing golf.

This means that there's nobody in charge of the sales team, who spend their time buffing up their cvs, going for interviews and arranging supplementary wakes for Francis. In the past ten days, he's been invited to a farewell team Chinese dinner, an au revoir Thai team lunch and a goodbye Pizza. Where next? A cheerio for now tea at the Ritz?

Perhaps all this is making the chairman jealous, because he decides that the little, weakling brands that Francis wanted to buy and restore to profitable good health are in fact the darlings of his later life, who, far from ailing, are piling on the pounds and whose growth means they are much too precious to part with, at least for the money Francis would be able to pay.

I should, I know, be big and grown up about all this, especially as it will make no difference now. But however much I concentrate on higher things, I continue to hope -though only after Francis has got his cheque - that the company will go bust in a spectacularly public fashion, ideally as a result of some amusingly humiliating exposure in a tabloid newspaper. Francis, it goes without saying, is hugely mature about whole thing, and dismisses my talk of evil eyes, wax images with optional pin embellishment and notes in bottom drawers as pointless. "It won't help anyone," he says. But it will, Francis, it will.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Hat of doom

It's been a good day out with Bill, Alice and our children. After two weeks of nothing but big, important conversations about Francis' job and our future, it's a delight to swap them temporarily for inconsequential nothings as we watch neat-bottomed riders and their heroic steeds charge along the point to point course in the blazing heat.

Ah, yes, that blazing heat. My Hermes scarf doesn't cut quite such a dash now when teamed with a slightly too small child's sunhat in vivid pink, with daisies sprinkled liberally round its brim. It would - does - look sweet upon the head of a toddler, but rather less so as a topping for the chemically enhanced locks of a mature woman.

And hubris isn't, of course, far away. As the day goes on, the crowd starts to lose its anonymity and we are soon on nodding terms with people who stand out by virtue, say, of their dogs. One family, for example, has a dalmation instead of the ubiquitous black labrador. But then I hear one woman say, "I recognise that lady with the hat. She's quite distinctive." There's a muffled titter from the group she's with. I look round to see which lady they have in mind and realise that the only one wearing a hat is, of course, me.

I remove it, feeling horribly self-conscious. Later, a rider passes, leading two horses. "I could swear I recognised that women," I imagine one saying to the other, "but I think she's ditched the hat."

Friday, 4 May 2007

The Hermes factor

It's 7.15 on Saturday morning, and we're just about to set off for the point to point. We are all, in our own ways, celebrating our forthcoming encounter with all things equine. Leo is wearing his favourite tracksuit, pre-splattered with mud and grass from his last football session; Beth, who has been deprived of horse companionship for the past three weeks, is beaming and excited; Deborah is complaining and I am wearing my Hermes scarf. It features bicycles rather than snaffles - who realised that Hermes featured any mode of transport that didn't have four legs and reins? - but that's what you must expect when, like me, you buy Hermes second hand at the local Oxfam, rather than direct, as it were, from the horse's mouth.

We pack a picnic. It features two day old cold sausages; god-knows-how-old ham from a packet at the back of the fridge and some old Easter eggs that somehow escaped Leo's attentions. Martha Stewart - where were you when we needed you?

Deborah and Leo have their first fight before we leave the house, over who will sit where and there's a two-hour drive ahead of us.

I love family life.......

More later


I am beginning to wonder if we're fictional characters in somebody else's blog. If we're real, we're definitely headed for a chapter in a prize-winning book called something like, "Disfunctional familes - maternal ineptitude as a contributory factor."

At lunchtime I get a text from Beth about her now very definitely ex-best friend. "She's doing it again, ruining my life by spreading rumours, god i hate her. I'm not going to school on Monday, i can't, i'm doing everything i can not to run out of this place. I can't do this." My knee jerk reaction is to rush to the school and scoop her up in my arms, murmuring, 'My baby' as I stroke her hair and splifficate those responsible for her troubles.

Then I realise that, what with her latest growth spurt and my shrinkage rate, that's going to be a physical impossibility, so I remove the keys from the ignition, go back indoors and take another, closer look at her text.

Beth, dearly though I love her, knows what makes me tick. Anyone capable of threatening self-harm when denied what she regards as her inalienable right to play Sims 2 into the small hours on a school night is going to go a long way, and hopefully in the opposite direction to The Priory.

That text is suspiciously well crafted, with every comma placed just so. Punctuation is an early casualty in any emergency communication. Hmmmm. It may not be normal to give your child's crisis a rating based on use of grammar and syntax, but it works for me.

I call Beth. "I'm in the computer room," she hisses, sounding subdued but - hurrah! -not tearful. "I can't talk." "Are you sitting next to someone nice?" I ask. "I'm on my own because nobody wants to sit next to me," she sniffs. As this is a lunchtime club and she's one of the few in her year who loves IT, she's usually the only one here - so that's not strictly true.

I tell Francis what's happening. Given his lack of involvement with Leo I expect him to listen, comment sympathetically, and then leave me to deal with it. "I could go in to the school and sort it out," he says. I gape at him. "Let me know if you want me to make an appointment," he says. I'm still gaping when he leaves to go and do some research for his next job interview.

I collect Leo first and tell him that Beth sounded upset about Becky. "But Beth spends the whole time being horrible to Becky," he says, then looks appalled at having given his sister away. "Don't tell her I said so," he mutters, as Beth, looking cheerful and damp, gets into the car. "What happened?" I ask. "Oh, we had a water fight," says Beth. "Is there anything to eat?"

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Social death

I'm researching ADHD like somebody revising for an exam, studying everything from trials where academics administer bumper doses of fish oil to troubled children to see if it makes them behave better or just grow fins, to first person accounts where parents either rave about Ritalin, or rant about its side effects.

But hundreds of thousands of words later, only one sentence hits home. It's not flowery. It says nothing that's particularly new. It's just one bald statement among many - a casual side observation in a list of symptoms: "Children with ADHD will not have many friends and certainly won't get invited to parties," it says.

It makes me cry, because it's true. And because it makes me realise that I am as guilty of self-deception as the next parent. When whole-class parties stopped at around the age of seven, Leo simply ceased to get invitations. Once, he came home in tears because a former best friend told him he'd invited everyone else 'except you,' and I did something I'd always vowed I'd never do and called the other mother to see if this was true. Her squirming embarrassment on the other end of the phone told me everything I needed to know, but I couldn't bring myself to ask why.

Leo's not totally friendless. I share a once a week pick up from the school sports field with another mother, so the boys do their homework and then play together alternately at our house, or hers. And there's another boy, Dave, who lives round the corner and is Leo's best mate. He's also a bully, so cordially loathed by every other child in the area that Leo is the only one who'll talk to him.

I don't like him much, but with such a limited choice, beggars can't be choosers. Then, today, a silver lining suddenly appears. For all that Leo fusses, and screams and has tantrums, and flies into rages with his little sister, he can see how things are. "Dave bullies me," remarks Deborah, as we're on the way home. To my surprise, Leo confirms this. "I heard him," he says. "I told him he wasn't to do it, or he couldn't come round." Deborah nods in vigorous agreement and I come over misty-eyed all over again, which is both unusual and inconvenient, as I'm trying to negotiate an awkward right turn into a busy one way system at the time. "Mum," shrieks Beth, "Mind the lorry!" The driver mouths a stream of silent abuse through the closed windows, but I don't care. In fact, I feel pretty good, something that lasts all of one minute and forty seconds until Deborah starts to demand food, water, her choice of cd and ends up slumped down on her booster seat, rhythmically kicking the back of my seat to give extra emphasis to her demands.

A fistful of thistles

It's breakfast time, and Francis is checking his e-mails. "Well, I've had my first rejection," he says, in the tone of voice of someone who knew all along the worst was coming, and now has the evidence to prove him right. We're at a tipping point. Any further bad news will plunge him straight into deepest Eyeore territory, and it will take more than a handful of thistles to lure him out again.

Sometimes I suspect his pessimistic attitude is protective colouring. Faced with a crisis, he likes to spend time thinking things through, whereas I view contemplation as akin to torpor and inaction as one step up from a persistent vegetative state, and react by sparking off ideas in all directions like a misguided firecracker, opting for action and plenty of it. Doing something, anything, is infinitely better than nothing, as long as it produces a temporary adrenalin buzz that quietens the panic that otherwise threatens to engulf me. And then I wonder why Leo has behavioural problems.

Beth, meanwhile, has started her day by washing out the dog's food bowl in our sink with our washing up brush. Diet, say some hyperactivity experts, can be linked to behaviour, but I've yet to come across anyone who tips encrusted Winalot as a miracle cure. No wonder we've had to treat all the children for threadworm again.

Later, when Francis calls between interviews, I ask him whether he's had time to pay in his final cheque yet. Casually, he says that he hasn't got it yet. My husband now has no job and no money.

It turns out that his ex-employers won't release the cheque until he's got a solicitor to check through the terms and conditions letter that goes with it, and he hasn't got round to sorting this out. "Do you have a solicitor?" he asks me. Unless they were doling them out at Tesco's with the special offer Tempranillo, the answer is almost certainly a 'no'.

I'm fairly sure that at the back of Francis' mind there lingers the notion of an avuncular family lawyer, kindly, astute, and secretly devoted to us all. I blame it all on Ian Fleming. If Francis hadn't become infatuated with the lifestyle portrayed in the James Bond films, particularly 'Goldfinger,' he'd never have matured with such unrealistic expectations, if matured is the right word.

Unfortunately, the nearest we get to retaining a solicitor is the legal hotline that comes free with our contents insurance, a grown up version of the plastic toy in the cornflakes packet. But to sort out a local lawyer who is more than delighted to read the four-paragraph letter and charge the thick end of £150 for the privilege is but the work of a couple of minutes. And if they, and Francis, want a closer family connection, we can always consider adoption.

When the children get home from school, Leo spots Francis's car. "Dad's back," he says, sounding surprised. "Yes," I say. "He's working from home." "Why?" I pause. "It's just the way things have panned out." "Does he want to?" persists Leo. But we're at the front door. In the time it takes me to open it, he's pushed past me, flung his blazer and bag on the floor, and disappeared upstairs. Perhaps he feels he's got as much information as he can cope with for the moment.

Beth, meanwhile, has been presented with a Torchwood DVD by two schoolfriends. I'm really touched, and tell one of the mothers so. "Well, they were doing three for two," she explains. I can't fault her for honesty - though in this instance, I rather wish I could. And it could be worse. At least she doesn't lower her voice and add, "What with things the way they are, we thought she might be a bit short of pocket money...."

Coincidentally, I hear from two old college friends. One is married to the CEO of a huge conglomerate, whose salary is so vast that his payrises make the national press; the other to a head honcho in the Arts, whose work is that rare thing, a hit with the masses and also hugely popular with the cultural elite. Consquently, their presence is requested by everyone from Royalty to Hollywood.

Would I swap places with either of them? While a medium sized lottery win would come in extremely useful at the moment, the answer has to be no. With success comes a requirement to dress up your personality as well as your wardrobe. I don't want to go out disguised as a different character, able to slip into my comfortable, slightly shabby but true persona only when I get home again.

And, when I ask Vicky what she thinks, she has some pithy, but useful advice. "Don't worry," she texts me. "At least u have me, neither rich, nor famous, just a c*** really."

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Community behaviour/private lessons

It's not until one of the hard-luck boys selling dusters door to door from a zip up bag backs slowly away from me down the path, not even attempting his sales pitch, that I realise my attitude of carefree insouciance may not be all it's cracked up to be. Even the spammers have given up. The normal flood of life-enhancing, special offer medicine slows to a trickle, then dries up completely. The makers clearly feel there's no drug on the market, legal or not, that can help me.

Procrastination isn't helping. I've put it off since Monday, but today I pluck up the courage to call the community behaviour clinic and make an appointment for Leo. I am so grateful that the receptionist doesn't hiss 'I know you're a rubbish mother,' down the line that I greet each of her perfectly normal comments as to parking arrangements and opening times with totally inappropriate levels of gratitude and, once, a braying whinny of thanks, which takes both of us by surprise. I can almost hear the click of the keyboard as underlinings and exclamation marks are added to the family background section of Leo's case notes.

We won't be seen for almost a month. My immediate reaction is to spend the next four weeks coaching Leo in how to be a normal child. But this reminds me of the parents who, according to our opthamologist, see short sight as a major character failing and refuse to let their children wear glasses, even when their vision is so poor that they struggle to pick out the cars when they're crossing the road.

I call Alice. The forecast for Bank Holiday weekend starts well but gets progressively worse. Unless we plan to set up the tents on Mount Ararat or equip them with oars and an outboard motor, we're going to get very wet. Plan B is a day trip to a point to point on Saturday. It will be expensive, but banning all fun will make Francis feel guilty and probably isn't the best way of keeping up his spirits, especially as he's just gone for the first of his four interviews. It therefore counts as an investment.

In the meantime, the school I teach at offers me more work, this time giving piano lessons to beginners. I know I should jump at it. My current job as a class music teacher is relatively anonymous - it's a rare parent who really wants to hear exactly how I approach the vexed question of unpitched versus pitched percussion. The thought of switching to one to one teaching and being interrogated by parents as to why little Isolde didn't get distinction in Grade 1 when everyone says how intensely musical she is, makes my stomach sink slowly to my knees, to be greeted cheerily by the pelvic floor muscles which arrived some time ago. Once my breasts join them, there'll be quite a party down there.

Then Francis calls on the way back from his interview. While I listen to him, Deborah, Beth and Leo, sensitive little souls that they are, respectively mop and mow, demand that I vet a pot of strawberry jam for salmonella, and kick a football repeatedly and loudly against the sitting room windows - from the inside.

"How did it go?" I ask, lightly, as if a new job were a mere bauble on the already shining crown of our existence. "Oh, it's not a place to work in," he replies airily, and somewhat confusingly. But it's not all bad news. The company hasn't the funds to hire him because it can't get any of the big supermarkets to stock its products. If things don't improve, the owner is thinking of selling up. But if Francis can talk to some of the buyers and help shift some stock, and he thinks he probably can, the owner has promised him a good slug of commission. It's not definite. There's nothing in writing. And promises can mean nothing. But if it were to work out, the benefits - morale boosting and financial, could be considerable. And perhaps, just perhaps, I could avoid taking on those extra piano lessons.

I look and feel more relaxed. At least, that's what I think, until Beth comes up as I'm ruminating in kitchen. "Mum, why are you baring your teeth like that?" she asks. My impromptu Dracula impersonation is bad enough - charades were never my thing - but what's worse is that I had no idea I was doing it. "So, now you're so stressed you do it without thinking?" says Beth. "Great."

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Take me to the bagging area

Francis and I had got into the habit of e-mailing important dates to each other, partly because we're a modern family finding our way in the fast and furious world of modern communications, but mainly because I forgot to buy a 2007 calendar. Admittedly, my dates were more of the 'worm dog' and 'think up lie to avoid coffee morning' variety as opposed to Francis' ones, which sparkled with hotel names and flight numbers.

Tonight, Francis sends me the latest version, which is now a lot shorter, and a note saying, "Not much left for me on this now - go out when you like...."
I celebrate my new-found freedom with a late-night trip to Tesco, where the man next to me in fruit and veg starts talking to the Braeburns. 'Not so loud,' he keeps hissing. I assume he's a paranoid schizophrenic. Then I spot his tiny earbud and and realise he's simply on the phone.

At this time of night, it's not easy to distinguish dyed in the wool crazies from up to the minute technophiles, especially when the dress code - stubble, mad stare, slightly grimy clothes - is the same for both. I'm so relieved not to be taken hostage and forced to wear an explosives-filled belt (so unflattering - when will they come up with a range that includes stomach control panels?) that I attempt a chatty exchange with the nice recorded lady at the do it yourself till, who urges me repeatedly to put everything in the bagging area. I've had worse advice. And at least it makes a change from packing up my troubles in my old kit bag, I suppose.

Core values

The house is now littered with cards saying 'Goodbye'. All, for some unfathomable reason, feature cuddly hedgehogs. Leo ignores the lot, even the great big one in the hall, which is adorned with a particularly unpleasant baby-faced version wearing little blue trousers and a cynical leer and waving a big farewell banner.

Francis' final present was an unremarkable leather document folder. He drops in on to the kitchen table, where it spends several hours getting acquainted with a couple of old sausages, at one point taking a quick dip into the tomato ketchup, until he is able to muster sufficient enthusiasm to open it.

When he does, though, it's worth it. His team has filled it with momentos of his time at the office, like one of those memory boxes you put together for the children when Granny snuffs it. There are jelly babies, breath freshener, business cards, and a leaflet listing his company's core values which are "... about recognising and respecting each other's views as a team." I add, "Except yours, Francis," in big bold letters as a joke, then, remembering Francis' reaction to Vicky's card, panic, and hide the leaflet in the recycling bin.

Of our immediate issues, the first is knowing how to refer to Francis' predicament. It's a bit like describing a relationship whose status is as yet indeterminate. Up till now we were safe with that marvellous little linking word 'just'. He'd just been made redundant. He was just about to leave. The relationship equivalent would be 'newly single'. It kept a tenuous little connection between Francis and work. Now I need to work out what to put in its place. I suppose there's 'gardening leave', but I always take it to be a euphemism for 'so damn useless we'll pay for him not to come into the office.'

I try 'between jobs'. Its hopeful vagueness reeks of desperation. After all, you don't advertise for the love of your life by saying you're between partners.

The next problem is one of respect. With Francis at home all the time, it will be all too easy to eat away at his remaining status by treating him as a glorified errand Dad, especially when my teaching job does mean I struggle with the school run. I make a vow not to ask for too much help. Not having a job is bad enough. Being asked to take up the slack when your partner does is worse.