Wednesday, 26 November 2008

A hall new experience

Every Tuesday afternoon for, oh, years now, I have arrived to teach Year 1 in the hall after lunch. The pudding is invariably jelly, the children invariably messy and health and safety rules unyielding.

This means that the floor has to remain unmopped until the cleaners arrive in the evening. Untrained operatives, like me, are banned. I assume this is because over-energic scrubbing might break through the patina of dirt and A-list germs that have lain undisturbed through the centuries and release anthrax spores and the plague back into the community.

"I don't see why the children have to sit in patches of old jelly," I say to one of the teachers, one afternoon.

"Look on the bright side," she says. "If it's really sticky they can't fidget as much."

"There must be something I could do," I say.

"Why don't you ask the catering manager if they have to have jelly on Tuesdays?"

There's another unspoken question behind this one. Suspecting it to be, "And when did you last see your lovely brain?" I disappear, leaving it forever (I hope) unanswered.

The catering manager is sporting an attractive hygiene hat in blue nylon netting. Too small to cover more than a smallish proportion of his head, it balances precariously on the crown, leaving almost all his hair free to shed dirt, shampoo droppings and small change straight into the custard. It's a mystery as to what exactly it's supposed to convey to the on-looker, apart from a profound sense of pity for the unhappy wearer.

"Do you think it might be possible for the Year 1 children not to have jelly on Tuesdays?" I ask. "It makes the floor really sticky and they have to sit there for music in the afternoon."

He gives me a long look and his face fills with sorrow.

"I just don't know," he says. "It's harder than it looks. We'll have to see how the menu goes."

He speaks in hushed tones. It's clear that to him, the menu is a sacred thing, eternal, unchanging and possibly handed down on stone tablets like the 10 commandments.

"I'm just an amateur in menu management," I say, "but wouldn't it just be a question of swapping one pudding for another?"

He opens his mouth again and I expect him to say either,

"Come midnight on the longest night, I will sacrifice the lasagne and read the runic kidney beans to see what the future holds for The Menu,"


"Jelly has been on the Tuesday lunch menu since 1635. We still keep the head of the last teacher who asked for its removal on show in one of the trophy cabinets,"

But he doesn't. Instead, he sucks his teeth, possibly wondering if they'd be an interesting addition to the normal condiments range, turns on his heel and disappears, to wrestle with the Mystery that is the Great Menu, a living, breathing organism with a brain of bright green jelly, whose internal construction is so complex that no mere mortal can tamper with it.

Sighing, I return to my piano and attempt to play the loud pedal. There's a loud squelching sound underfoot and a sudden burst of lime fragrance as a spatter of jelly rushes up my leg. The Menu has heard. The Menu is angry.........

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Light my piano, baby

It's Wednesday morning and Sasha is in full flow. The bell for playtime tolled long ago, but not for us, apparently.

We've had the prayer, the song, the presentation of birthday certificates and now it's time for what's laughingly known as 'the story'. Indeed, it's even promoted to the children as a desirable event, something worth several extra decibels of fake enthusiasm as the staff try to hype the unhypeable.

"Behave well," they say, "And Mrs Fear might tell you a story. If you're good."

(I read somewhere that Beyonce has an alternative name for herself - Sasha Fear - that she uses on stage to give her extra courage. It seems appropriate).

We all pray for them to be bad. Or at least, badder. They never are. Until about now, 15 minutes in, when Sasha, treating the morning as usual like an ad hoc therapy session, wanders through pretty much any topic that pops into her head. A programme she saw on TV last night; her time as an English teacher in countries with a gross national product too small to raise the tanks, armed forces and missiles necessary to resist her presence; interesting things she has seen, said and done (limitless, sadly - though by subjective definition only).

Then she sees a few children, shuffling closer to the glass window to stare at the empty climbing frames and grass with a totally understandable longing.

"It is simply not fair to expect 95 children to sit quietly and patiently during assembly when 5 other children apparently can't be bothered," she says to them.

"It is simply not fair to expect twelve members of staff to sit quietly and patiently during assembly while one teacher is allowed to monopolise the whole bloody thing," I hiss to the deputy head.

"Well, what can we do?" she hisses back.

"I've got an idea. It's risky but it just might work."

"What is it?"

"Another five minutes and I'm going to set fire to the piano."

"You wouldn't dare."

"Probably not," I say. "However, I do have a secret weapon."

Just within reach is the small electric lighter we use for the birthday candles. I pick it up and press the trigger. A small flame appears. Sasha sees it out of the corner of her eye and turns. I extinguish it.

We play this game for several minutes until she gives up, dismisses the school and everyone exits with a good deal more enthusiam than they showed coming in.

"Do you know the new head of music wants to conduct a wholesale review of the way the subject's taught?" asks Sasha, as she stalks out.

"No," I say, "But if you hum it, I'm sure I'll pick it up........"

Friday, 14 November 2008


As my three lovely children, relaxed husband and I carve a path with our machetes through Lala land, it's not hard to imagine why the lovely Rachael asked me to review UKFamily, a new parenting website, owned by Walt Disney. It's clearly a natural match.

Stop sniggering at the back.

Not only that, but Rachael is even offering a small payment - and asks for honesty.

Put that smile away now.

So here goes.

The one thing the UK isn't short of is websites for families. For anarchic humour, there's the Bad Mother's Club. For the reassurance that whatever experience you've had, somebody else has had it worse (or better, or in a funnier way) there's Mumsnet.

So is going to have to work hard, especially for a battle-scarred old witch like me.

I could have done with a user-friendly version of a mission statement. What was I supposed to get out of this? A bit of a laugh, advice, reduced entrance tickets to Euro Disney? All three?

In fairness, this site, as you'd expect, seems aimed at parents with younger children than mine whose cynicism is still at a larveal stage in their brains.

You can tell, because everyone is smiling. You can choose to click on a smiley couple, smiley baby, child or 'tween'.

Everyone is clean and lovely. I amused myself for a few minutes moving the mouse so the baby assumed giant proportions, looming over the mother - a much more accurate reflection of what it feels like, in my mind - and then realised that this was silly and immature and moved onto the advice sections.

The emphasis is on bite-sized, quick to read advice and then readers' feedback. It's good as an introduction, perhaps a little perfunctory. There are pieces from people like Linda Blair - a well regarded expert in the field.

Some of it feels a little glib. One expert believes passionately that 'relaxed, well informed parents produce happy, carefree kids.' Well, who'd a thunk it? And what happens to the unrelaxed ones, like me? Perhaps we're all doomed. Still, it's nothing a few rousing choruses of 'It's a small world after all,' won't sort out.

But it does attempt to cover the darker issues, too. Depression, tantrums. I'm heartened to read in one piece about tweens about 'the enormous physical and neuro-chemical (brain) changes that ... put your tweens under considerable stress...' until I realise that it's tween hormones under discussion, not mine.

Oh, try for yourselves. Just don't say I sent you. I've got my reputation to consider.

Can I have my money now, Rachael?

Sardines and martyrs

"You can't go to work like that."

"I've got to," says Francis, struggling out of bed.

"Surely they can function without you, especially when you're being sick every 20 minutes."

"Ten minutes, now," he says. "'scuse me." He marches, rather hastily, off in the direction of the loo.

"Why does Daddy have to go to the office when he's ill?" asks Deborah.

"He's a martyr to his job," I say.

"What's a martyr?"

"Somebody who suffers greatly, often for a cause they believe in," I say.

"Do sardines count as a cause?" says Beth, who has wandered in and is now leaning against one of the kitchen units, looking on while I unpack the dishwasher.


Such is the volume of my screaming that the cat and dog both fight to be the first to exit through the pet flap. There's the crack of glasses fracturing in the cupboards while, outside, ancient trees crash to the ground. In the distance, I think I can hear a plane's engines cut out and restart again.

"Why are you so cross?" says Beth. "You know I never notice things that need doing so if you want help you'll have to remind me. I keep telling you but you just don't listen."

She saunters over to the dishwasher and from the assorted plates, pans, crockery removes a very small teaspoon. Holding this carefully between the ends of two just nail polished fingers, she takes it over to the cutlery drawer and puts it in.

Francis, still white about the gills, reappears.

"What's all the shouting?" he says. "It's not going to help Leo's behaviour at school?"

I take a deep breath.

"IT'S BETH!" I shout just as Beth, equally loudly yells, "MUM JUST - "

"Must go," says Francis. "I'd have a nice cup of tea."

"If you're really throwing up every ten minutes I calculate it's going to take you six hours to get to work," I say.

"Better get going then," says Francis and leaves.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

From my private Spam collection

"Come quick," I shout to Francis. "All our worries are over."

He hurries - in as much as a man crushed by disappointment whose perfect T-shirt would read, 'I lived and all I got was this lousy family and a broken car,' can hurry.

"Look," I say. "At last, a spam letter than makes perfect sense."

He peers over my shoulder to read the following:

'Dear Canadian On-Line,

'I cannot inform you how happy I am I found you. My drugs are so expensive
here in the USA that I had a choice of going without my medicinal treats or
living on inexpensive soup.

'Thanks, I love your firm.

'Carol J.'

"There we are," I say. "All we have to do is order pills from them and we'll never have to eat inexpensive soup again."

"There's just one problem," says Francis.


"We don't eat soup."

We ponder this together for a second.

"I've got it," I say.

"If you have, I'm sure they've got the medication for it..."

"Let's start eating inexpensive soup, order some medicine and then we can stop again."

"You know," says Francis, thoughtfully, "I can't help feeling there's a flaw in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can't work out what it is."

"Good," I say. "Then I'll start chopping the onions, shall I?"

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Quantum of B*******

Writing off one car a year is unlucky. Writing off two borders on the psychotic. But that's where we seem to be as of today.

To mark the end of half term, the whole family goes to see 'Quantum of Solace.' Francis, who loves James Bond and, as a result, is able to stay awake for almost the entire film, mutters favourite lines from other Fleming classics.

I don't even have to hear to know that, as his lips move, they are issuing the words, "The loitering drumbeat of the two-inch exhaust," like a benediction.

Naturally, my interests are far more down to earth. I am permanently riveted by the apparently non-ironic contrast between the glossy foyer, so intent on transporting you to a different world, and the cinema bogs, which are equally committed to making quite sure you stay firmly rooted in this one.

The loos come in three varieties. The first lack seats; the second seats and door handles; the third have no seats, handles or, indeed doors. During the few days of hot weather, management attempted to make up for this by adding a) the unflushed detritus of the previous few occupants and/or b) a promotional bluebottle in each cubicle; a ploy that I would have to mark down as a dismal failure, as few flies stuck (pun intended) to their designated bogs but tended to swarm off to the most interesting and hold a meeting.

But, amazingly, the onset of the recession has brought a change of heart. There are no flies and every cubicle now has its full complement of floor, door and porcelain furniture though there is one in-joke - a wobby hook on the inside of the door which, amusingly, ensures that your coat or handbag has a very real chance of falling straight down into the complementary puddle of urine provided by the previous client/customer or - judging by the ominous colour and quantity of the pool I come across - possibly patient.

We file out. Francis' head and heart are filled with thoughts of Aston Martins, speedboats, jet planes. The garage, where the family car is in for its service and MOT, chooses this moment to ring tell him that the car has developed a fault that they are unable to fix, and may need to be written off. To add insult to injury, they have spent a good many hours, 'Five,' confirms Francis, gloomily, nobly and expensively labouring on the car before coming to this conclusion.

"Quantum of Bollocks," I hear him mutter sadly, as we begin the journey home.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Scarier without masks

It's Hallowe'en. The 'phone rings. It's Vicky.

"Bloody hell. Bloody Hallowe'en. I hate it all. Oh, hang on - it's the doorbell."

I hear her voice, fainter now, as she opens the door.

"Hi, there! How're you doing? There you are, darling. Have a sweet....Off you go. Byeeee!"

The door shuts. She picks up the phone.

"I just wanted a chat. I hate them all. Take my eldest. When I wouldn't give her the money to buy the Hallowe'en outfit she wanted she told me she was thinking about killing herself. I was so cross I told her I thought it was a damn good idea - we'd have enough bedrooms then. Oh, God, there's another lot. Just wait a minute.....

"Hallo. What a lovely outfit. You look gorgeous! See you! -"

She's back.

"I am just so sick of being nice all c***ing night. Oh, God. There's more of the f*****s. And the pumpkin soup's boiling over."

"You know what?" I say. "With minimal effort, it could be Hallowe’en all year round. And we never need to fuss about costumes, just come as we are. Because round here, everyone is a hell of a lot scarier without a mask."

Vicky laughs and hangs up. For a second, I could swear I see a fine, green mist swirl out from the 'phone before disappearing into the ether.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

My daughter the writer

Looking at the small spider in the sealed wineglass, I glance up at my Mum.
‘Mum, it’s an ordinary house spider, nothing dangerous about it.’
I give the glass a tap to prove my point.

My Mum has always been a worrier – to say she’s a bit overcautious is like saying that the Queen is only a bit royal. She sees danger everywhere; it would be no surprise to find her scanning the sky for asteroids on collision course with earth, and her policy is quite simply, ‘If it moves, insure it.’

So when Mum found a spider nestling in the grapes, we all laughed when she claimed it was poisonous. It was just your average spider - small, brown and shiny. But Mum insisted it had an unusual mark on its back, like a double arrow.

But Mum was not going to be persuaded. “I’m not going to kill it, that would be cruel, and I’m not going to let it go either, just in case it is poisonous.”

Instead, she got in touch with the Natural History Museum. We waited around, expecting them to give her a polite brush off, but instead, Mum informed us that they wanted to see the spider. She sent it off in an old spice bottle, padded with damp tissue paper and waited excitedly for the results.

A few days later, she got a letter back from the museum.
“I’m right!” she called as she waved the piece of paper proudly. “It’s a poisonous False Widow Spider.”

Our over cautious Mum really was right – her spider belonged was officially known as a Steatoda paykullianus, apparently regular stowaways in grapes from Southern Europe. Although their bites are not fatal, they can inflict a lot of pain and swelling.

Mum was thrilled. Although she is still over cautious, we’ve learnt that sometimes, her worries aren’t always completely over the top.

Beth. Aged 14

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Mothers, daughters and colour coding

"This really isn't what I call a mother and daughter shopping trip," says Beth, staring round the packed shelves.

"What's wrong with it?" I say. "There's more things than you can shake a stick at. And that's what it's all about. Things. Looking at them. Trying them on. Laughing at ourselves. A rare moment of inter-generational togetherness."

"No offence," she says, "but somehow, when you said 'let's hit the shops,' I wasn't thinking Oxfam."

"You're striking a blow againsy rampant materialism," I say. "Be proud. This is the first of many sub prime shopping trips. And it's my treat. I've got two pounds in small change in my pocket, and I'm not afraid to dig deep into it."

"Too kind," says Beth. "Well, I suppose I could look at the books."

She wanders off.

Meanwhile, as I run my eyes up and down the shelves, not letting them settle for two long lest somebody sticks a price tag to the iris and tries to flog them, I can't help overhearing the conversation between two other customers.

Their conversation sounds completely normal. But it is also extraordinary because it is completely lacking in inflection; so flat, so unaccented that it is as if they have learnt their words by heart before they came out and are now acting their lines in public but without any real feeling for the words.

"Isn't that nice? It's not too tight on my bottom, is it?"

"I think we might nearly have spent our money..."

"That would look nice, wouldn't it, on a hot summer's day?"

The smaller of the two women has a neat bob of black hair surrounding the tiniest of faces, a downturned mouth. She utters her lines in a vaguely nasal voice that is lacking all conviction. I listen, avidly.

"What does this look like?"

"You could wear it in the winter...."

"It's a bit big. I'd have to put poppers on it. What do you think?"

There's no sequence, no conclusion, no continuity. I am surrounded by their words, pushing my way through them like somebody in a snowstorm when Beth, fortunately, reappears.

"Come and see the books," she hisses and drags me to the back of the shop.

The books look - odd, somehow but, like the conversation I've just overheard, it's hard to pinpoint exactly why that should be.

Then - "Do you see?" says Beth. "Look at the way they've been arranged."

I look again and see that she's right. The books haven't been arranged by topic - Crime, Fiction, Biography; nor by author, alphabetically. Instead, somebody has painstakingly organised them by colour.

There are five shelves of books with white spines. Another three or four with dark blue or black spines. Other colours take their place in a rainbow like display between them. It's magnificent. It's striking. And, unless you happen to know exactly which colour your favourite authors are published in, it's almost completely hopeless.

We admire it for a while, then leave, empty handed.

"You see," I say. "That was very good for us both. What about Princess Alice next time. I hear they do a great line in almost matching lampshades?"

Waiting for God (oh!)

Another year, another school harvest festival in the local church. There's just one difference. We've managed to lose the vicar.

In my quaint old-fashioned or possibly just pig ignorant way, I'd always assumed that a vicar was central to a happy and harmonious communication with God. But apparently not.

"So where's he gone?" I ask the deputy head. "Is it down to my piano playing? He never was keen on the way I transposed 'We plough the fields and scatter," into C major and removed all the other chords."

She sighs, slightly.

"He's retired. Apparently, a nice little cottage by the seaside came up and he felt he had to grab it now or the chance might never come again."

Obviously he wasn't given to premonitions. If so, assorted financial events since then would have allowed him to get his hands on any number of nice little repossessed seaside cottages, assuming he didn't require a nice little mortgage to go with it.

"So who's going to take the service?" I ask.

"I am."

"You?" I say. "Excuse me, bishop, but I had no idea."

"I'm just going to announce the songs and do some kind of story," she says.

"If I play specially well, would you consider blessing the piano?"

"Play all the songs in the key they were written in and I'll get it fast-tracked as the next Archbishop of Canterbury."

"Do that and I'll crochet you a dog collar," I say. "And things are looking up. At least it's you taking the service and not -"

"Not who?" says an icy voice from behind me. Naturally it's Sasha.

"Not me," I say, with quite astonishing presence of mind. "I know God moves in mysterious ways, but even he's unlikely to choose a part Jewish atheist as the Sat Nav approved quickest route to Jesus ."

"Quite," says Sasha. "I'm sure it will be a great success."

She stalks off.

"Mind you," I say to the deputy head, watching her retreating back. "If she goes anywhere near a church I'd have thought they'd have to do some sort of superstrength exorcism afterwards. That's assuming that she doesn't turn to smoke when she looks at the cross."

"I'm packing a clove or two of garlic," says the deputy head. "Apperently there's a very nice smoked variety you can buy these days. Once you've ousted the vampire, it adds a really subtle quality to casserole dishes."

"Now that's what I call credit crunch thinking," I say admiringly and go off to put on some suitably stirring music while the school files in for assembly.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

A guide to credit crunch etiquette

"I'd love to be unemployed. It would be such a wonderful opportunity to improve my golf," booms a neighbour to my newly jobless husband.

It takes a friend to remove my kitchen knife and remind me that he isn’t just a tactless arse but that decades of full employment have atrophied his ability to empathise.

And he’s not alone. Until recently, consumer consumption was so conspicuous it was all but visible from outer space, while redundancy was considered about as much of a threat as Po running amok in Teletubbyland and taking out the Noo-noo with anthrax spores.

But now, as the nation’s collective rainy day savings dwindle to 6p and a used toffee stuffed inside one of Alistair Darling’s socks, it’s a social minefield out there.

But never fear. Whether you’re cash rich, compassion free and aiming to stay that way, or a nouveau pauvre able to laugh in the face of bad karma only because you’ve had your IQ cosmetically shrunk to single figures, our guide to credit crunch etiquette will help you through with the minimum of public humiliation.

Dos and Don’ts

…For the jobless

DO remember that redundancy meetings take place in hotel foyers for a reason. Not because the boss thinks you might enjoy tea and a macaroon with your P45 but because he’s terrified you will run amok with a meat cleaver and is counting on your fear of looking silly in public to hold you back

So pat your sides, give a sigh of relief as if encountering the welcome shape of a sharp, metallic object and cultivate an unblinking stare and small but perfectly formed tic. You’ll double your leaving package in seconds.

But DON’T actually run amok. Bloodbaths rack up the dry cleaning bills and are hard to gloss over on your CV.

DON’T be wallow in self-pity. So you’re suffering? So what? Just imagine what friends and family are going through. Yesterday, you were a solvent member of their community. Today, you’re an emissary from a doomed land. Naturally, they’re in shock and need help. So if your dismissal package includes counselling, DO cut them in on the action. They’ll feel all the better for it.

DO learn to love headhunters. Tipped to replace estate agents as the new national hate figures, they come in three varieties: posh, scary and useless, though these are interchangeable. All have enviable jargon-stretching abilities and will treat you as their new best friend one day, then cut you dead the next when you flunk an interview. DO remember that they’re not actually human but, like Pixel Chix, pre-programmed hominoids who simply can’t help themselves. In time, you’ll even become quite fond of them.

DO use psychometric testing as a form of self help. There are only a handful of these jumped up personality tests on the market. Memorise them, and you can be anyone you want to be. More to the point, you can be anybody a future employer wants you to be.

One moment, you’re a team player with an almost insanely consensual way of working, the next a borderline psychopath, whipping your team into delivering the impossibly unrealistic sales targets plucked at random by senior managers so out of touch with the business they appear to be based on Mars.

For partners and family…..

DON’T ever say, 'Worse things happen at sea,' and 'at least we still have our health,' as a new EU cliché overload ruling requires compulsory transfer to a leaking barge midway across the Channel, where you will instantly contract bird flu and sink.


DO say ‘no’ to expensive winged pets, especially second hand albatrosses and single magpies trained to squawk ‘You’re doomed,’ down the chimney of a wet, misery-laden evening. The novelty value wears off surprisingly quickly.

Instead, borrow a copy of the best-selling book, ‘Fly-whispering for beginners’. Soon you’ll have swarms of tiny invertebrates scampering playfully round your feet, providing hours of fun and enchantment, not to mention several million maggots, all for the cost of a few scraps of putrid meat.

DO economise by hunting out cheaper cuts of meat. DON’T share too much information about it. So while serving roadkill is acceptable, asking who’s got the piece with the lucky tyre marks on it isn’t. And while supermarket bin-dipping, Freegan style can be a real money spinner, DON’T invite guests to guess which course has the oldest sell date using smell alone.

DO restrain children from doing a ‘Jude the Obscure’ and hanging each other as a money-saving ploy: tea, cakes and sympathy cannot make up for the devastating loss of your tax credit and child benefit

DON’T overdo the stoicism. If the children greet your partner on his return after a hard day’s job-hunting, clinging to his knees and sobbing, “Daddy, there’s nothing but lawn-clippings to eat for supper,” DON’T say, brightly, “Don’t worry, darling, I’m sure Martha Stewart does a splendid little grass casserole – we can marinade it in the old vegetable oil we were going to refine into bio-fuel.” Unless, that is, you mind him suggesting that you use your stiff upper lip as the basis of the stock.

For the (still) gainfully employed….

DON’T rake the recently unemployed with a quick up and down glance as if hoping for a sign that marks the out as natural candidates for misfortune, like the words ‘one of life’s victims’ tattooed in inch high letters across the forehead.

DON’T Put your head on one side and adopt a special low-pitched voice as a way of expressing heartfelt sympathy.

DO think twice before offering charity. Wine, meals and anonymous cash donations rarely go amiss but scraps can be problematic, while second hand sofas covered in cat wee are a definite no no.

And, finally:

NEVER use the phrases, “One day, you’ll look back on this and laugh,” “Adversity brings you closer together" or “I believe things happen for a reason”. You won't, it doesn't and they don't.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Mission impossible

"95% of our patients see a smile as a valuable social asset," says the dentist's flyer that's just popped through the letterbox .

For the rest of the day, I mull over the 5% who don't. Are they so generously supplied with assets that teeth come a long way down the list or have they simply given up trying?

"The things you fuss about," says Lindy who, thanks to her outsize personality and embonpoint, probably accounts for at least four of those missing percentage points all on her own.

Unlikely though it sounds, we're cycling to the supermarket, not because Lindy has suddenly developed a taste for exercise but because she's just had the latest cosmetic treatment on a few almost imperceptible thread veins and wants to display the results to an admiring public. I can only hope the public has been adequately schooled in its response.

Lindy, who has no truck with lycra shirts and padded shorts is, in its loosest sense, wearing a skirt so short it is actually a fringe. She pauses at the traffic light to admire her reflection in a shop window. Several drivers, doing the same thing, swerve violently.

"Like my mount?"she yells at me. She is in command of a man's bike that she describes as a 'trophy'. I'd like to ask what happened to its previous owner, but with Bad Lindy, ignorance is almost invariably bliss - or at the very least, a necessity if nightmares full of graphic text-fuelled images are to be avoided.

"Blimey - dropped my sunglasses," says Lindy. "I'll just get off and pick them up."

As she dismounts, she is compelled to essay a sort of high kick to avoid the bike frame. At the apex of the manoeuvre, I hear what I can only descibe as a collective gasp and the scene suddenly resembles one of those freeze frame panoramic ads, where all movement is suddenly stilled.

Except, that is, for Lindy, who repeats her high kick and re-mounts, apparently oblivious to the reaction she's caused.

"Lindy," I say, not having to raise my voice at all, as it is the only thing audible in an otherwise completely silent street.


"Everyone's looking."

"So? What's new?"

She follows my gaze and is greeted with expressions that range from total shock to utter delight.

"Bloody hell," she says. "Good thing I've didn't go commando today."

She pauses, evidently trying to remember something.

"Whoops!" she says, and guffaws. "Who says a smile's a girl's best social asset now?"

She cycles on ahead, still laughing. "Remind me to keep my glasses on, on the way home," she calls back to me.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Fashion on the mind; hurricane lamps on the chest

"Honestly, it's getting worse," says Vicky. "Look at this magazine."

She thrusts it across the table at me, open at the fashion pages. I leaf through them.

"Nope," I say. "Can't find anything out of the ordinary."

"Just read the headings. Slowly," says Vicky.

"'How to make the latest looks work at any age'," I read, out loud. "20s, 30s, 40s -"

"Exactly. That's it. That's what I mean. It's age apartheid. Look at the pictures that go with it."

As I concentrate a little more closely, I begin to see what she means. Each spread is lavishly illustrated with photographs of luscious models. At least, that's the theory. Because, come the relentless march of advancing years, it gets harder to make out the women. As the decades tick pass, the flesh on show declines and the clothes take over.

Check out the double page spread on clothes for 20 to 30 year olds and there are body parts on show, and then some. It's a skinorama special.

Hit the section on 30s to 40s and while, at first glance, it all looks very much the same, close inspection reveals that knees and elbows are conspicous by their absence. The volume of material used in the outfits mounts like a rising tide. Cleavages are suggested but never seen. Uncompromising sun-kissed backgrounds fade into crepuscular gloom. There's so much vaseline on the lens you could annoint the bottoms of a thousand infants.

And, as for 40s to 50s -

"- I haven't dared turn the page," says Vicky. "It's the future, Spock, and horribly as we know it. Go on - you look at it. It wouldn't surprise me if all the models are wearing Millett's family size tents with optional groundsheet accessories."

I take a quick look, then close the magazine again, wincing.

"Look on the bright side," I say. "Remember Millett's teamed up with Cath Kidston? At least you can look sweetly floral while being completely rain-free, as long as you spray yourself with waterproof coating once a year."

"Yeah, right," says Vicky. "Play my cards right and I'll probably find they've included a hook for a hurricane lamp just below my right tit."

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Schrodinger's clothes

We've embarked on the long, slow cruise of the summer holidays. No, not a cruise. More like a spell on a desert island and endless repetition - Robinson Crusoe crossed with Groundhog Day.

Every so often, as if in a dream, I pick up armfuls of dumped possessions, convey them to another room for sorting, then redistribute them. There are shoes (always single, never in pairs); discarded exercise books, small plastic toys, nail polish, invariably missing the lid.

But worst of all are the clothes.

Schrodinger's cat was a theoretical beast locked, unseen, in its box, awaiting a randomly administered blast of strychnine. Because unseen, to the observer it was both simultaneously alive and dead.

But that was just the beginning. My, children, whose undoubted talents as theoretical scientists have yet to be fully appreciated, have evolved this principle into a modus vivendi that is providing endless family entertainment.

I am surrounded by Shrodinger's clothes. We have Shrodinger's hoodies, shirts and trousers. All are simultaneously both clean and dirty. They curl up on chairs like sleeping cats. They lurk behind curtains like burglars. They coil on stairs like pre-diet serpents.

The nub of the matter is that they are too clean to be added to the dirty laundry baskets that I have provided in such liberal quantities that they adorn every corner of the house like art installations. But they are also too dirty to be put away.

Of course, there are exceptions. You can't have Shrodinger's socks - or pants - at least in our house. Their status - always fully dead, often for some time - proclaims itself a mile off.

But with the rest it's science, experimental bloody science all the way.

And my maternal treat is to enjoy those few moments of their unique dual-natured, clean and dirty state before I pick them up and yell, like a fishwife, for my darling little physicists to get down the stairs, now!, and come and clear them away. Or else. And what that 'else' is, only Shrodinger knows.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Ou sont les eyebrows d'autan?

"It's happened again," moans Vicky, on the phone. "You've got to help me."

I know where my priorities lie so, pausing only to advise the children on ad hoc chemical castration techniques should any Big, Bad Paedophiles knock on the door while I'm out, I head for her house.

When I arrive, she's staring into her mirror with a look of bitter resentment.

"What's happened?" I ask. "Did it tell you you're no longer the fairest of them all and, if so, can I go halves on the evil woodcutter after he's polished off Snow White in the forest?"

"The mirror's beyond speech," says Vicky. "And no wonder."

She gestures to her face.

"I just don't know what's happening. One moment I'm gorgeous, vibrant and sexy. The next, something has stolen all my body parts away and replaced them with someone else's. It's like Frankenstein in installments. Take my eyebrows. They're straight off Dennis Healey. There's one, right in the middle that's growing so fast I've had to repot it twice this week. I tried to use tweezers on it and it was like a thrush wrestling with a worm on steroids. I haven't seen them since. I think it ate them.

"And there's my lips. They're so thin that they're losing the power of expression. I'm having to hold up a card to show when I'm smiling. And as for pouting....."

She turns an anguished face towards me. At least, I think it's anguished. After what she's just said, I'm afraid to ask.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Music and movement

"- so I hope you'll all take great care of it as it's a very special instrument that's been in my family for a very long time," says Sasha. "Don't you agree, Mrs Philistine?"

There's a pause as one of the teaching assistants, under instructions, prods me with the business end of a yellow and black HB school pencil, jolting me abruptly out of my sun-drenched, Sasha-less reverie and back to the grim reality of assembly.

I nod, dumbly, while the word 'instrument' - the only one to have reached me, conjures up visions of Sasha admiring her heirloom collection of various torture devices, all mellow wood and gleaming metal, buffed up with nowhere to go.

"What instrument?" I hiss.

"The piano, silly. Haven't you noticed it's different? Sasha's donated it to the school," the teaching assistant hisses back. Given a heavy drinking session with Vicky and Bad Lindy last night, causing every object in my line of vision to splinter agonisingly into zig zag lines - something that, in Sasha's case, can only be a blessing - it's as much as I can bear to open my eyes at all, let alone get them to focus.

"And now, let's have our hymn," says Sasha. "Something really uplifting. I think 'Morning has broken,' would be nice. Sorry - what was that, Mrs Philistine?'

"Just a bit of dry retching, Sasha. Nothing to worry about," I think of saying, but instead stifle my groans as I shuffle cautiously and agonisingly over to the piano.

It's during the opening verse that I begin to suspect that it's not just the morning that's having problems.

The piano normally cowers against the wall as if terrified, though, given the treatment it receives at my hands, who can blame it?

As my right foot aims, optimistically, for the loud pedal and, as usual, misses, thumping the wooden base instead, there's a juddering, creaking sound as if the piano is attempting to join in. Suddenly it's pressed up close against both my knees, like an attention-seeking labrador. "Down, Spot," I mutter - but it has no effect. Blackbird may indeed have spoken, like the first bird - but he's clearly not the only one.

And it's only just started. At 'Praise for the springing, fresh from the word,' I pump up the volume and the piano shifts a foot to the left. I follow it, lagging two beats and several keys behind.

'Sprung in completeness where His feet pass,' and there's a jolt to the right. I lunge again, hitting a random, though nicely arranged, bunch of black notes.

'Born of the one light, Eden saw play.' I can only be glad Eden isn't around now, as the piano hits the back wall again, though only temporarily and I fall on top of it.
I'm just getting the hang of what's coming to resemble a slightly unusual take on 'Simon Says,' when the hymn ends, after a third verse that sounds as if the Musique Concrete movement, acting en masse, has taken out Christina Rosetti with a length of lead piping and then fired the various body parts from a series of cannons.

"You seem to be struggling," says Sasha, after the school has filed out.

"Not at all," I say, wondering if there's a way of luring the piano back to the wall by using a particularly attractive little glockenspiel as bait. "It's just that the piano's particularly lively today. It's got a fine range, hasn't it. I'd say it could be as much as 20 feet."

There's a pause, during which I wonder whether I can get away with asking her to sign a request form to fit 360 degree castors to the piano stool together with sat nav.

"I see the problem," announces Sasha, inspecting the piano base. "The lock hasn't been applied to the moving wheels. I'll call the site manager and we'll get it sorted out within the hour. Obviously you'd worked that out."

"Obviously," I echo. "Mind you, leave it like this and it could add a whole new dimension to music and movement."

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Chariots of belch

"Why weren't you at my choir concert/prize-giving/form assembly?" Deborah now asks me every day at home time, while I scuff my shoes along the ground and look guilty.

It's the time of year when so much is going on at the children's schools that, with minimal effort, I have only to blink to turn myself into the sort of unreliable mother who elicits much tutting in the staffroom.

"It's my brain," I say. "I think it's stopped working. If you put your ear to the side of my head all you can hear is the 'snap, crackle, pop' of synapses giving way. I'm thinking of calling in the builders and having the whole lot demolished as an unsafe structure."

There's a pause.

"Anyway, I did come to sports day," I venture.

"Huh! Only because I reminded you," says Deborah, grimly, "And you refused to do the mother's race."

"God - that mother's race," says Vicky, who has caught us up. "Dontcha hate it? And talk about pressure to do it. I only just padlocked myself to the car steering wheel in time, and even then I had to fight off that class rep with the blowtorch."

"It wouldn't be so bad if they didn't have that new teacher pirouetting round the place like a jack in the box on steroids."

"Miss Carter," says Deborah, a look of hero worship lighting up her eyes. "She's very young."

"Young?" says Vicky. "She's about 12. If that."

Miss Carter is the newest teacher at Deborah's school, apparently recruited in an effort to boost levels of suicide and anorexia amongst the mothers. She is so petite that if she curled up on a sofa, you could easily mistake her for a smallish yet perfectly formed scatter cushion and squash her. Not that she'd stay still long enough to give you the chance because in addition to her looks, she also has a pre-teaching career behind her as a top level gymnast.

"I don't think she broke sweat when she won the teacher's race - or anything else, come to that," says Vicky.

"And when she won, she turned that cartwheel," says Deborah, dreamily.

"Cartwheels, schmartwheels," says Vicky. "But can she burp the alphabet? Now there's a true test of sporting ability, not to mention literacy."

We look at Deborah, triumphantly.

"You're pathetic," she says, and marches off ahead.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Moo loud

"What's different, children?" asks Sasha, who, having run out of underlings to crush, proposals to reject and objectives to fulfil, is re-energising her batteries by sucking the lifeforce out of the rest of us in assembly.

The children look baffled, as well they might, and stare around them in the vain hope, shared, I suspect, by the other teachers, that somewhere around them is a great big speech bubble proclaiming, "Look at me! I'm different!"

No such luck.

"Little boy at the front," says Sasha, gesturing vaguely at the half dozen or so children who amply fulfil the description. Now they look at each other. Then one, braver than the others
, speaks up.

"That mole on your face is a bit bigger," he says, pointing.

There's a sharp intake of breath.

"I'll ignore that," says Sasha. "No. It's something outside."

Perhaps she's persuaded God to turn up to do the prayer at the end.

"It's the sun, sillies," says Sasha, with a smile that seems to include all of us, as well as the pupils. "And do you know what I think? I think it's because all you children have been behaving so well that you've made the weather pleased with you."

I can't help wondering how, on this basis, she'd rate the 10-year drought in parts of Australia. Logically speaking, you'd be praying for Satan and all his hosts of cloven-hoofed friends and relations to drop in for a long visit.

"But it's not always like that, is it, children?" she says. "Last week, there was lots and lots of rain, and I think the teachers must have been very unhappy indeed. So what I've done to make sure your behaviour is wonderful every day is to turn every day into a special day."

She calls up five children and presents each of them with a coloured chart.

"There's Manners Monday, Tidy Tuesday, Well-behaved Wednesday, Thoughtful Thursday and Fab Friday. Now, as it's Tuesday, that means that today we're all going to try our hardest to put everything away whenever we've finished with it."

It's unfortunate that at this moment, her eye alights on the piano, which I tend to treat as a useful alternative desk. Right now, the top houses a miscellany of objects, including three tambourines, a small ball, a cuddly toy, my handbag, cycling helmet and some 'I ate a good lunch' stickers that have been there for months and show every sign of having settled in for life.

"I'm sure teachers will be wanting to sign up to Tidy Tuesday, won't they, Mrs Philistine?"

I dip my head, as if in thoughtful agreement.

The next day, Sasha happens to come in as I'm taking reception through the song I've just written for their summer play, which is themed to farmyard animals.

"'Moo loud, if you're proud, to be a cow,'" is the opening line, repeated fortissimo three times.

"Is that one of yours?" asks Sasha.

"It is," I say. "Bizarrely, it came to me in a flash just as I'd finished clearing up the piano. Tidiness clearly can be inspirational," I beam at her.

She gives me a long, long look and disappears.

Notes home

"'The best way of learning is to make learning a life experience,'" I say to Francis.

"It is?"

"Yes. It says so right here in the booklet from Deborah's school all about how to help with maths, so it must be true."

"So what are we supposed to do?" he asks, with all the enthusiasm of a Burmese general invited to display an 'I love democracy' sticker on his armoured car bumper.

"Take pocket money, for example," I say. "Guess what. It can be 'worked out in relation to saving for a particular item or in relation to change given'"

"What a fun idea," he says. "Can you imagine just how that'll make Deborah's little face light up on Saturday mornings when I perform the ceremonial unlocking of the wallet."

"And we can apparently transform dreary old shopping expeditions by 'searching for packaging in different 3-D shapes (e.g prisms).'"

"I can hardly wait."

"But best of all, there's bills. We've been so selfish, keeping those fun brown envelope moments to ourselves. From now on, what we'll be doing is involving every one in the excitement by 'discussing how they are laid out and calculated, asking children to check them and discuss methods of payment.'"

"Is begging one of the options Deborah's allowed to consider?"

I consult the booklet.

"Sadly, no. They assume that cash, cheque and direct debit will see us right."

"Sending children up Aga flues to remove noxious gas residues? Benefit cake sale?"

"No, again."

To cheer us both up, I show him the next letter, this time from Leo and Beth's school:

"The school now plans to tackle some sex education, covering a variety of sex-related issues including puberty-related topics, menstruation and menarche, conception, contraception, AIDS and safe sex, masturbation, homosexuality and any relevant queries raised by pupils. We will follow a loose pattern of topics."

"How loose?" asks Francis.

"Doesn't say. Elasticated waist, I'd imagine."

"But they really ought to pool their resources," says Francis. "I bet Beth and Leo's school could come up with lots of interesting ideas for 3-D shapes."

"Prisms might be tough," I say. "Perhaps I should call Bad LIndy and ask for ideas."

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Sorry, Sweet Irene

I've been a bit pushed and haven't thanked you properly for my awards. And I think there's one from Crazy Cath, too. How useless of me. Please accept my apologies. It's all been a bit busy what with the holidays, sardine issues (did you realise fish could count?) and the cat lying with its back feet along 'QWERTY', its head resting on the printer and its body blocking the monitor and then biting me whenever I attempt to move. It's rough out here. Don't ever forget it.

The hair straightener solution

I'm waiting to collect Beth from sports training. She's late, no doubt because she's trying to straighten her hair: currently her answer to all problems, big and small, and no doubt something that would form a cornerstone of her considered approach to global warming, food shortages and the ethics of bio-crops.

Two boys, who are about her age, saunter past, deep in conversation:

"Mine knows how much homework I've got but she's still on at me, all the time. 'Get up.' 'You need to need to help.' 'I can't do this on my own.' She just doesn't realise how tired I am after a full day at school."

"Mine does it all. No stopping her. But her timing! She waits until I've finished my homework and I'm watching something really good on TV and then it starts. BZZZZZZZZ...And if it's football, you can guarantee she'll be vacuuming right in front of the screen just when they score the vital goal. I ask her to move but of course she doesn't take any notice."

"Mothers," the boys agree, shaking their heads in disbelief. "Why do they do it to us?"

And at that moment, they have no idea how lucky they are. Because if I had access to rope, a power source and Beth's hair straightener, I can pretty much guarantee that I could really help them change their minds about mothers - permanently.

Notes from the edge

"I don't want to go back to school. I don't like the children, I don't like the teachers. I hate the school lunches."

"So do I."

"But you're the teacher, Mum. You're not allowed to feel like that."

"Oh, yeah? And what are they going to do? Dock five minutes of my playtime for being rude?"

Deborah giggles.

She's back at her school today. Mine starts tomorrow. And, as is usual, the mood is a cross between endless shaggy dog story and mourning for the time I could have spent in places that don't smell of cabbage and echo with screams. And that's only our house. School is 100 times worse.

"I'm just too old to be in a classroom," I whinge, overcome with sadness for myself and the parallel life I know was out there for me once, before thick blue veins started pulsing across my hands and I developed not so much a mono- but multi-brow that heads off down the side of my face in so many directions at once that I'm convinced somebody's given it a dodgy plan of escape that leads straight into my ear.

But the real problem is that, in my customary 'ignore the problem and there's just a chance that some superior being will magic it away' fashion, I haven't yet put together my lesson plans. Admittedly, these are short at the best of times, but even the most unobservant of heads of department can probably tell the difference between four paragraphs of lucidly constructed objectives and a blank piece of paper - though, given a severe enough hangover, it's certainly something capable of foxing me.

I'm waiting to collect Deborah from her first day at school when Cultured Mum's brother greets me. He is also a music teacher, though one who, bizarrely, appears to enjoy what he does. He also has boundless energy, enthusiasm and an encyclopaedic knowledge of techniques and instruments I've never heard of. I feel my heart sink.

"Are you using the Kodaly method?" he asks.

"How reliable is it?" I ask. "With three children already, I don't want to take any chances."

He looks confused. "You know, that marvellous Hungarian system of getting children to sing on their own, limiting the range of notes and encouraging them to listen as they sing. You get the most amazing purity of sound."

"You do? I mean, you do, yes, absolutely. Couldn't agree more. Good old Hungary. I'll certainly be rooting for them come the next Eurovision."

"Anyway," he says. "I'm working through the instruments of the orchestra with mine. It's the Cor Anglais this week, and then a Bass Oboe. If I can get hold of one."

I nod, dumbly. I've come to the reluctant conclusion that being a crap music teacher isn't just a case of playing the wrong chords consistently.

Later on, I ring Cultured Mum and ask her what a Bass Oboe is. "You mean, you don't know?" she says, laughing, and hangs up.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Socialising - the freecycle way

Socially inadequate? Worried that, come springtime, the occasional appearance of the sun might trigger long-buried 'getting together' instincts in friends and relations?

Terrified that they might demand to see you and, even worse, require food, drink, conversation?

Neurotic about the possibility of being forced to lend them valuable DIY equipment or, even worse, being asked to help out?

Your worries are over. Because with Freecycle's bumper crop of seasonal freebies, it's a virtual certainty that you need never be bothered by other people ever again:

Begin by solving communications difficulties at a stroke by trying not to talk to people. This 'top of the range mobile phone battery' is bound to make life easier as it doesn't hold a charge, making silence a round the clock everyday communication option once again.

And if people do get through and ask for DIY help, Freecycle has just the backup you'll need. Choose from the '3 step aluminium ladder - very useful round the house. Bottom rung must not be stood on,' and just watch the faces of elderly or infirm relations as they work this one out for themselves. Then there's what we call procastination in a box - a 'non-working Black and Decker Firestorm drill.' - perfect for those jobs you know you'll never get round to. Even better, why not get both.

And if, despite all your efforts, unwanted guests do turn up at your door, there's only one thing to do. March them out into the garden during a heavy spring shower and sit them under your special, no expense incurred, Teak garden umbrella frame & iron base.' As it's 'sadly missing all its fabric' there's no question that they'll soon get the message.


Wednesday, 9 April 2008

A friend e-mails

'We are doing well. If it is any consolation to you, another friend, who works in the mental health arena, (a little visual here of a white lab coat, in a coliseum trying to reason with schizophrenic lions) told me that the worst a woman will ever feel is when she is 44 years old; her parents are old and sick, her kids are teenagers and hate her, she has come to the realisation that her success and ambitions are limited (and more than likely over) and her body and hormones are conspiring against her.

So remember - you cannot be held accountable for any of your actions.

That's probably just as well. We move house on May 2nd. I may notify you of our new address/phone number in a few weeks but seeing as you are still sending Christmas cards to the place we left five years ago, it might all be a bit pointless....

Monday, 7 April 2008

Honour his name

It's almost exactly a year to the day since Francis was made redundant. Rather than let the occasion go by unnoticed, his former employers have decided to mark the anniversary in a moving and novel way.

Instead, of going for those tired, stale gestures - say, by calling him and asking how he's getting on in his new job, or putting up a commemorative plaque next to his favourite cubicle in the gents (the one with the shelf rest where he could prop up an elbow while reading the paper on company time) they've decided to honour his name by making the rest of his team redundant, too. Clearly, they do care after all.

Trevor, the man who took over from Francis, calls to tell him the news. "They've sent out a memo saying that they're reviewing the headcount, and for people not to bother talking to their line managers because 'they won't be able to give you any reassurance.'"

"Succinctly worded, if brutal," comments Francis.

"I've been called into a meeting at 2.30 tomorrow afternoon," continues Trevor. "And my second in command has been called in half an hour later. Apparently it's to talk about management issues. Do you think my job's safe?"

"Er - " says Francis.

"The thing is, I think I'll be OK, because only last week, the chairman told me that I was a greatly valued member of the team and that he'd always be proud to think of me as a friend. That shows I must have some standing, mustn't it?"

"Well, it must," I agree, when Francis recounts the conversation to me later.

"I'd go along with that - except that this time last year, the chairman said exactly the same thing to me. And look what happened next," says Francis. "That invisible menders round the corner still hasn't managed to remove the knife marks from the back of my jacket."

He whistles to the dog.

"Has that animal been adequately rewarded, food-wise?" he asks.

"Francis," I say. "You've been in too many meetings again. Speak normally or I'll have to set fire to your briefcase. And you know how annoyed it made you last time."

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Forward planning

Perhaps it's the way I keep forgetting where I live, recently ending up over the road spending three years in the wrong house until evicted for complaining that nobody seemed capable of remembering which brand of conditioner I preferred, but Francis has taken it into his head to start explaining things to me.

"And that's the villa we always stayed in," he said, today, showing me some old photographs. "Every year we'd get there by - "

"- catching the BOAC bus that had the little trailer and went from where they've built the Sainsbury's in the Cromwell Road," I say. "I know, Francis, I know."

"That's all of us, right outside the front door on the first day," he says, a few minutes later. "Dad would always say - "

" ' - room for a litte one in the back?'" I fiinish, for him.

During lunch, he explains where his parents live now, virtually including postcode and directions, then moves on to what a sardine is, and seems on the point of reminding me of the children's names, ages and shoe size when I interrupt him.

"Francis," I say. "Against all the odds, I have succeeded in retaining a few facts about us all, and I intend to hang on to them."

"I'm practising for when you lose your memory," he says, cheerfully. "Since I'm obviously going to be spending half my life telling you who you are, I thought it would be worthwhile practising now. Then it won't seem so odd when it happens."

I can't tell you how delighted I am by his solicitude and forward planning.

"Darling," I say, "Look at this long, pointy, sharp object. It's called a kitchen knife. And if you insist on telling me anything that I haven't specifically asked to have explained to me, I'll be using it. And I'm counting on my memory to tell me exactly where to cut."

Truly, marriage is a wonderful thing, even if, in our case, it's not exactly the meeting of minds because his is right here and mine, I greatly fear, is in Lalaland. Or, possibly, in Terminal 5 at Heathrow, along with 28,000 other old bags.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

That sort of a week

It's been the sort of week when complete strangers very nearly pause and ask if I'm all right before hastily remembering not to care - after all, this is Britain - and pushing past me, a shudder of disbelief vibrating in their slipstream.

Cars accelerate towards me, apparently motivated by a genuine and well-intentioned desire to put me out of my misery instead instead of merely seeking to experience the thrill of reaching the next red light slightly faster than everyone else.

And, as I load the shopping into the trolley one afternoon, it seems only appropriate that, as I pay, I notice that I'm standing opposite a bright red sign that could have been made especially for me.

"Pull your bag here," it says. I wait for 15 minutes, but nobody comes. As I say, it's been that sort of a week.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Over exposed

In the few days we've been away, my in-box has, as usual, been filled with messages from well wishers, all of them from Megadik.

"Things to tell a naked woman," is the title of one typically well meant, though unecessary piece of advice. In my case, "Stop it, Lindy," or "Did you realise you were doing the school run without on your clothes on?" do the trick every time.

There are also many, many photographs, all, according to the caption, on loan from satisfied customers.

They have an initial shock value but once I've pressed the delete key and held it down, retrieved my toast and marmite fingers from the keyboard and mopped up the spilled tea, it starts to wear off.

Given the attention paid to the composition (none); the focus (excitably blurred) and the central feature (elaboration unnecessary) it is obvious that they are the work of a recent though unlikely to be award-winning graduate from the Bad Lindy School of Giblet Photography (slogan 'No pictures knowingly taken above the waist')

I forward the picture on to her. "Were you responsible for this?" I ask, somewhat ambiguously.

"No," comes the reply, a few minutes later. "But pass me his phone number and I'd be more than happy to take him in hand."

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Death has to be more interesting


"Oh, hello - I didn't see you there at the back of the queue."

"How are you?"

"Very well, thank you; and you?"

"Struggling to remember things. Honestly, look at me. I have to keep my shopping list in my purse all the time with a little pencil or I simply forget to bring it out with me."

"But doesn't that mean that every time you want to add something to it you have to get your bag, open it, find your purse, find the list, find the pencil, write it down and then do the whole thing in reverse."

"Well, yes. It's very time-consuming and rather boring. But at least I don't lose the list. Anyway, I'm at the front, now. Better get on. Bye, Pat.......It is Pat, isn't it?"

"Pam. It's Pam."

"So sorry."

"But I only live next door. And you've known me for twenty years."

"I do aplogise. I'm not very good with names either."

Monday, 31 March 2008

The dark side

At least Euro Disney is predictably horrible - cynical commercialism wearing a giant pair of mouse ears, down to its oft-repeated slogan: "Where dreams become reality."

It's a bitterly cold Easter Sunday - snow is forecast but not yet - and Disney, in all its corporate glory, has made the decision to keep Jesus out of Wonderland, sensibly concluding, perhaps, that a giant effigy of the Crucifixion on the side of Cinderalla's pretty pink palace might put the punters off their hot dogs.

By the time we reach the first ride - a steam train that runs round the park - we've already had a crash course in queuing; first for the shuttle bus, then for security, then for the tickets, and finally behind a man who seemed at first to be queuing for something but turns out simply to have stopped dead and is staring in disbelief at the till receipt, stunned at the cost.

That queueing practice comes in handy straight away because the first train is cancelled and for every three announcements in an American voice attempting to recreate the laid-back feeling of the Wild West we have a cool French one cutting across it and announcing with evident enjoyment that the wait time has just increased yet again.

By the time the train finally arrives, it might just as well have been promoted it as an authentic recreation of rush-hour UK commuterland, because that's exactly what it resembles and its appearance is greeted with the sort of hysterical joy you'd associate with the last chopper out of Saigon

We head back to the coast. The weather worsens the further north we travel, snow falls heavily and the drifts pile up while Deborah, to add to the fun, begins running a temperature. Simultaneously, Francis and I both remember the Calpol, sitting on the table in the kitchen, waiting patiently to be packed. We end the journey at a crawl, following two lorries that are snowploughing at one end and salting at the other.

Francis' company has recently treated him to a satnav - though given his sardine inclinations, I can't help feeling sonar would have been more appropriate, and he has selected the voice of Yoda from Star Wars as his guide.

"At the roundabout, straight across you must go," says Yoda.

"The sign says the tunnel is the other way," I say.

"Never doubt the power of a Jedi warrier," says Francis, wagging a finger at me, as we speed off in the opposite direction.

"The motorway you must join, then the first exit you must take," says Yoda.

"Why are we surrounded by lorries?" I ask.

"Ssssh," say the others, Yoda included.

Two minutes later, we're in the freight terminal with just one other car for company, which I assume is also navigating by Jedi knight that day.

I get extremely stroppy and unpleasant ("Never doubt the power of a pre-menopausal woman") and compel Francis to switch Yoda off before I trample him underfood and we finally reach the terminal using those quaint, out-moded sign posts. Though we've missed our train, we are lucky enough to be put on the next one.

"So, what did you think of Euro Disney?" I ask the children, as we leave.

"Well, I won't be taking MY children there," says Beth.

"Remind me to avoid any trains with the words 'Thunder' and 'Runaway' in them," says Deborah, recovering slightly. "But I still can't believe I've been there."

"Judging by the satnav, nor can Yoda," I say, nastily.

"Honestly, you can't expect him to be an expert on navigation when he's having to take on the Evil Empire the whole time," says Francis.

"Hah," I spit. "And where does he say we are now?"

"Tuscany," says Francis, tapping the screen like a faulty barometer.

"Dream on," I say to Yoda, as, snowflakes swirling round the car, we join the back of yet another, brand spanking new queue.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Under the sea

We're in Folkestone, having arrived at the bit of the holiday when, in what turns out to be a dress rehearsal for the Terminal 5 opening at Heathrow, you've just been told that your Euro Shuttle is stuck in the tunnel, they've no idea when it will be unblocked and you're checking your travel insurance documents for clauses that specify how long you have to be trapped in a car with your three fighting children to file a successful claim for mental torture.

I'm stunned, as always, by the docility of the travelling public. The numerous embarcation lanes are all jammed with cars and, by now, I'd be expecting at least some tangible signs of suppressed rage - at the very least, a few graphic *&&!!@ speech bubbles rising up into the sky, the way they do in cartoons, but there's nothing - just silence. Apart, that is from Leo and Deborah, who mop and mow fit to bust until we push them out of the door to play, quite literally, in the traffic - which for now, at least, is at a standstill.

Meanwhile, with nothing else to do, I'm reading Beth's celeb magazine and she's deep into Leo's copy of 'Match' magazine.

"I must remember to drive on the left when we get to France," says Francis.

"The right," I say.

"No, we drive on the right in the UK," says Francis

"The left," I say. "Perhaps you're getting confused with the steering wheel - that's on the right."

"A detail, I'm sure," says Francis. A detail, maybe, but one I'm very glad we've sorted out now rather than just after we've created our very own contraflow on the Autoroute.

When they finally clear the train (a process that I imagine involves a giant corkscrew and an enormous 'pop' when success is finally achieved) initial relief gives way to more frustration when Beth and Leo realise that the brief exhilaration of movement has been replaced with inactivity, at least from their perspective, as the train slides into darkness.

There are two other cars in the carriage with us. In one, an enormous man is asleep behind the wheel with a tiny terrier curled up on the summit of his vast stomach, like a decoration on a cupcake.

An 8-year old boy called Tom comes over from the other car for a chat. He, of course, has eyes only for Leo who is older and therefore, incredibly glamourous, but, to his evident discomfort he is instantly annexed by Deborah. Within seconds, she is perched next to him by one of the windows, making enormous sideways eyes at him as she combs her hair with one hand and gestures in an animated way with the other, apparently having made the decision to confide her entire life history to him during his enforced 35 minutes of captivity. I can make out only the occasional phrase but "It was SO unfair," and "And then he did it again but they blamed ME," both seem to loom large in her chat up lines.

But it is all in vain. "Where's your brother?" he asks, wistfully, as the train comes out of the tunnel, then swings down from his perch and leaves her looking mournfully after him, hairbrush still poised for action. She catches sight of me and a terrific scowl crosses her features. "Were you watching me?" she says indignantly, then bursts into tears of chagrin and rage.

Holiday romance is certainly a potent thing, even when you're only 7.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

..everybody loves good neighbours.....

"So, what's the deal with paper rounds?" asks Beth. "Like, how do they work?"

"Well, as I understand it, you do it for about three months, forget to buy new batteries for your cycle lights and are crushed under the wheels of a large lorry, leaving the the rest of us to mourn you every day of our lives," I say.

"'re not keen."

"I think that's a fair assumption," I say.

I'm probably being mean, but then I'm feeling guilty, and what is your family there for if not to provide a a safe discharge for emotions that can never really be unleashed in public?

I'm not bad at keeping up to date with what's going on in the world, and could give you a reasonable account of what's happening in Iraq, Tibet and in the Zimbabwe elections. And yet it took me a week and a half to find out that the old man two doors down had died, leaving a space in the bright yellow ambulance that brought him home from the day care centre every other day, a widow and an unmowed lawn.

Time to get off the blog and back into the local community?

Friday, 28 March 2008

Well, well, well

"So what did you do today?" I ask Francis.

Prelimary welcome home bickering is over and done with and we're enjoying a temporary lull before child, cat, dog or Martha the sardine problems raise their ugly, furry and scaly little heads respectively and usher in the next round of fights.

"I've been talking to potential suppliers," says Francis. "At least, I think so. Here, read this." He hands me a printed out e-mail:

'Anyways, back to business as mentioned to you we distribute ecommerce packages/pick and pack them through our various distribution contracts throughout the UK/Europe and World Wide, including Air/Sea operations.

'Also do direct marketing mailing campaigns as well fulfilment but if you can provide me some scope of what you may need I will certainly be happy to assist.'

"What's 'well fulfilment'?" I ask.

"I was rather hoping you'd know," he says.

"I don't know what they've told you about my life here when you're in the office, but, as a music teacher, I encounter fewer boreholes than you might suppose."

"Discontented artesian wells?"

"Not so far. Though it could just be that I'm incredibly unobservant and I've simply overlooked the fact that the cupboard under the stairs is crawling with dowsers and Jack and Jill lookalikes."

I take another look at the e-mail.

"Can't you just ask him?"

"I did," says Francis, grimly, "and I couldn't make out a world he said."

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Chick lit

We're in the hall, which is awash with so much seasonal goodwill that you can practically feel the warm fuzzies breaking against your skin like a warm, sticky tide, a sensation that has caused me to slump over the piano stool in an attitude that requires only a half-smoked rollup glued to my lower lip and a used syringe propping open 'Junior Come and Praise' to complete the general air of dissolution that I can't help feeling hangs over me like a cloud.

The children are parading round in their Easter bonnets while the teachers attempt to judge them, something that requires a keen eye to work out the degree of parental involvement that has gone into each hat.

There are three types: those made exclusively by parents - amazing confections of feathers, woven branch nests and papier mache chicks - those still made by parents but in a faux-naif style - cardboard daffodils, shredded tissue grass - designed to add a child-made authenticity, and the real thing - genuinely naif soft toy birds, chocolate eggs and badly cut out flowers inadequately stuck to the hats with vast quantities of sellotape, all apt to shed profusely and continuously in every possible direction.

"It wasn't always like this," says the deputy head, when the judging is complete and the whole school has been rewarded for its efforts with an extra-long playtime and newly hatched warm fuzzies for all, complete with a seasonal beak.

"It wasn't? Why what did you do - name and shame the pushiest parents?"

"Nothing like that," she says. "We used to have an incubator. Each year, one of the teachers would bring in a load of fertilised eggs to hatch and make the children and staff take it in turns to rotate them."

"Was it fun?" I ask, utterly bemused by this idiosyncratic approach to classroom pets.

"Fun?" she says. "It was a nightmare. He had a stepladder and made the children climb up and watch as he cracked open the eggs. If the chicks hadn't made it - and lots of them didn't, he'd make the children work out what stage they'd reached when they died, and then get them to help with the post-mortem. We'd either be trying to find homes for the ones that had hatched, sterilising the scalpels, or trying to square the concept of the Resurrection with the chick corpses."

"He sounds very hands on," I venture.

"Oh, no. That was the sum total of his involvement in the children's education. Every so often he'd come in, smoke a cigarette and catch up on daytime TV - he didn't have one of his own because he didn't believe in them."

"And his title?" I ask.

"He was the head, but he delegated everything to the parents. In September, he'd tell them what he expected the children to do during the year and then leave the rest up to them."

I can't help but sense a distinct note of nostalgia in her voice.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

You, me and Martha the sardine

Francis has recently returned from a solo trip to Cyprus where he has delivered a stirring speech to 1,500 delegates about the virtues of sardines.

"Were they moved?" I ask.

"The delegates - definitely. There's a wealth of emotion in Omega 3 if you know how to tap it. If you mean the sardines, I think so, but it's hard to tell what their little fishy faces are expressing. Though I'm working on it. 'Read your sardine's mind,' could be a surprise Christmas best seller if I play my cards right."

Overwhelmed, as he always and touchingly is to see his lovely family again, he says, "We never go on proper holidays as a family."

"We do," I say. "Just not together, except when we're visiting your parents."

"I think it would be good for us," he says, looking as misty-eyed as a sardine with conjunctivitis (or so I imagine - the scientific research to back this up lags way behind).

"Why don't we have lunch and think about it," I say. "Deborah, can you call the others and tell them the meal is ready."

Deborah, who is in the kitchen with us, raises her head from her drawing, yells, "Beth, Leo - FOOD," at the top of her voice and then, satisfied with this tangible contribution to family communication, lowers it again and carries on writing 'Kill, kill, kill,' next to a picture of an amiable-looking farmer.

"Deborah," I say, "I can shout, too."

"Well, why make me do it, then?" she says.

"That's not the point. I need you to go out of the room, find them, tell them it's food and make sure they've heard you."

"Oh, all right," she says, disgusted, and gets up.

Ten minutes later, Leo saunters in. We are all eating. "If you're this late again," I say, "I'm going to give your food away."

"Who are you going to give it to?" he asks, interestedly.

"The poor."

"What did the poor ever do for you?" he says.

I look at Francis. "You know," he says, pouring us both a glass of wine. "What say we try and go away together, leaving the children and homicidal thoughts at home."

"What about the sardines?" I ask.

"I've met a particuarly attractive one called Martha who I thought we could just scoop up on the way but - oh, hell, no. No sardines, either."

"Oh, all right then," I say. I'd like to blush prettily at this point but, raddled old hag that I am, simply rush upstairs, apply blusher lavishly to my cheeks, the bath, the cat and a couple of residual slugs. Sporting my new Deaths Head meets Maybelline look I rush downstairs again.

Francis looks at me, then away. "Oh, Martha, my love," I think I hear him mutter, as he fetches a second helping. But there again, perhaps not.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Sand, cement and sicked up cheques

The woman next door is leaving for work as I put out the rubbish, with the half-traumatised, half world-weary expression of someone dealt the latest in a series of catastrophic blows by an unforgiving God, but who has, fortunately, always expected the worst. The first time I saw her, it was almost enough - but only almost, mark you - to send me round with a list of good psychiatrists and some Class A drugs, until I realised it was how she always looked and that she was, underneath, really quite cheerful.

Francis, on the other hand, is far from cheerful underneath, but skims over the cracks with sand and cement crinkly smiles and bonhomie, though like a cowboy builder, never spreads it quite thick enough and tends to be a little flaky round the edges.

The insurance company has finally coughed up a cheque - 'sicked up' would be a better description given the tiny amount involved - and Francis, after much ringing of small ads and phone calls to people who are all called Dave - has gone to collect the replacement car which is just like the old one only slightly older, rustier and with a higher mileage.

"It's just not fair," he says, staring crossly at it. "Why am I driving round in a rustbucket like this when everyone else we know is in some flash new sports car?"

Prepared Speech 2,006 comes straight into my head. It compares Francis' marital status with that of his young, single, mortgage-free colleagues, taking a sideways swip at the lost decade when, while his career conscious contemporaries were all dressing for success, chasing their dreams and hunting down promotion after promotion, his sole aim was to do as little work as possible, finish the day as early as possible and thus maximise drinking, smoking and staying up late time.

These unkind and unwifely thoughts are there long enough for me to eye the meat cleaver and wonder just how long it would take me to assemble the lethal cocktail of drugs that seems to be so readily available to every would-be murderer.

And then, readers, I shut my mind with a snap, extemporise some ghastly grimace that has to do duty as a smile of loyal love, and get him a beer.

Thursday, 13 March 2008


"Celebrating 100 years in business in the High Street," proclaims the enormous banner above the local undertaker's shop window.

It's good to know that every company these days has a real sense of occasion and oodles of marketing savvy (sensitivity is, surely, a hugely over-rated virtue).

It's even better to try and work out just how this particular firm is planning to spread the happiness:

People are rarely in a party mood when they visit a funeral parlour. We say, lighten up, folks! It may be a bit sad, but it's nothing a complimentary glass of bubbly, funny hat and balloon can't sort out.

And what about a loyalty card scheme: 'Build the points to claim prizes that are literally out of this world!!!'

It's nice to have a get together and reminisce so what about keeping the spirits up (literally) with a reunion seance - cheap on catering though ectoplasm is, as I understand it, the very devil to get off soft furnishings.

But what I'd most like to see would be a Corpse of the Month scheme, building up to fabulous annual, nationwide contest. After all, death is a dismal business at the best of times. A bit of slick marketing could help us all put the fun back in funerals, right where it belongs.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Good Work

"And what's that noise?" asks Sasha, as the school wends it way, rather fussily, into the hall.

"It was me - I was just re-arranging the class." says Mary, the assistant, implying that with just a little work, she could transform the children into an attractive table decoration.

"The children shouldn't NEED rearranging," says Sasha. Mary looks downcast.

"I can see this is going to be a cold prickly day instead of a warm fuzzy one," adds Sasha, before launching into a lecture about the 'Good Work' sticker system which some of the children who are clearly aiming for starring roles as Heroes of the Resistance have started to subvert.

Get a good work sticker from a teacher and you get a warm fuzzy symbol stamped on your card. Get twenty warm fuzzy stamps and a giant warm fuzzy symbol bearing your name and photograph is stapled to a board in the hall.'s it. But so keen are some of the children on reaching the hall of fame that they've taken to shortcutting the process, buying the same Good Work stickers as the school's and giving them to each other at playtime, then appearing for lessons like heavily decorated war veterans and causing the Warm Fuzzy board to fill up so quickly that a second is having to be pressed into service.

"Was that you, curled in a foetal position on top of the ukuleles in the cupboard under the stairs, suppressing a primal scream?" I ask Mary, after a long fifteen minutes in which counterfeit Good Work sticker wearers are taken outside to be stoned to death with Cold Pricklies.

"No," she says.

In that case, it must have been me. I wondered who it was.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Half measures

"Have a glass of wine and tell me which bedroom design firm I should go with," says Vicky. "What would you like to drink?"

"Anything as long it's cold and you fish out the sawdust first. You don't think you're getting a bit design obsessed?"

"Of course not. Now listen to this one. "'When we come to create your dream bedroom, closet or home office, we don't start with a tape measure. We start with a cup of tea and a ginger biscuit.'"

We look at each other.

"Is that a boast or a warning? Do you think they've had complaints from customers refusing to let them across the threshhold until they show that they're fully trained to handle asbestos and shortbread selections? And what have they got against tape measures? I mean, have you ever tried to measure a bedroom with a ginger biscuit, let alone a cup of tea?" asks Vicky.

"No," I say, laughing derisively. "Far too soggy. Just the same with Gypsy Creams. Everyone knows that when precision's required, nothing beats flapjacks. Given that they set rock hard you can mark them out in centimetres - though the syrup does tend to absorb the ink after a while. And I'm told that if you weld a couple together, you can even improvise a mitre block. Believe me, Vicky,all the best bedroom designers use them. This lot are clearly massively behind the times when it comes to tool kit biscuit ware. I wouldn't touch them with a bargepole."

"I think you're right," says Vicky, shutting the catalogue with a snap and picking up the next.

"This one sounds more like it. 'We'll talk about what you love, what you hate and what your innermost dreams are for your most personal space.'" She pales and double checks the cover.

"Bloody hell," she says. "You know, for a moment there, I thought I'd got hold of Lindy's list of New Year's resolutions."

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Thin end of the wedgie

"You should have been there," says Vicky.

"Even if I had been, it doesn't sound as if I'd have recognised anyone," I say, "given that you were all wearing the same thing."

"How was I to know the fancy dress place had a glut of Marilyn Monroe outfits?" says Vicky. "Lindy and I left it all till the last minute and decided to go there together and when we arrived, there were only two left. The man eyed us both up and told Lindy she'd need the de luxe version, she asked what extras it came with and he said, 'an extra breast, love, and in your case I'd say it'd come in quite useful.'"

She takes a sip of wine.

"So by the time I'd told Lindy to put him down again and we'd all agreed that doing wedgies on a grown man wasn't funny or clever - though I'm still not totally sure Lindy really believes that - there wasn't really much opportunity for chit chat."

"Go on."

"We arrived at the ball and there were Marilyn Monroes everywhere. You couldn't move for them, though even without the extra breast it wasn't hard to work out where Lindy was. She was working her way round the Elvis Presleys and seeing how far she could pull down the zips on their jumpsuits without catching anything on them, so I could trace her by the yelps. And then I scored."


"Not intentionally. I just felt really sorry for this poor old chap. He was all on his own on the dance floor and he told me how sad and lonely his life was - and then he tried to stick his tongue down my throat and another Marilyn tapped me on the shoulder and said she was his wife and would I mind awfully if she took him back and gave him his next lot of pills."

She opens another bottle.

"So we all had a few more drinks, then the taxis started arriving. I found ours but there was no sign of Lindy and I ended up borrowing a torch from the security man and shining it round the grounds until I found her behind a hedge and on top of yet another Elvis, retrieved her and tried to drop her at home but she insisted on coming in for a coffee and a gloat.

"Then she fell asleep diagonally across the kitchen floor and I couldn't shift her. I had to leave her there till morning and both the children fell over her when they came down to get breakfast. She slept all the way through Coco Pops, a full English and freshly squeezed orange juice. And then she got up for a pee and I realised she was wearing bits of an Elvis jumpsuit and almost no Marilyn. And presumably, somewhere out there there's a very confused man in a dress."

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Easter without tears (or blood or crowns of thorns)

"Who likes these?" asks Clara the teaching assistant, holding up a brace of hot cross buns. Hands wave. Lips are licked. Beads of saliva form at the corners of mouths. Arms stretch forward.

"Well, you're not having them," says Clara. "They're for the children. I'm using them in music."

"You're dicing with death teasing the other teachers like that," I say to her, as we head for the hall. "They ran out of chocolate biscuits yesterday and they're getting desperate. I could swear I found some sucked pigeon feathers by the kettle this morning."

"Well, we need them to explain Easter to reception," says Clara.

"If you say so," I say. "I vote we just do the hymns and let them interpret them any way they want. You could link almost all of them to current obsessions."

"'There is a green hill?'"


"'Forty days and forty nights?'"

"Faddy diets."

"'Trotting, trotting to Jerusalem,?'"

"Animal welfare. And rubbish lyric writing."

"Sasha wants the story told," says Clara, primly. "So shall I be the one to do it this year?"

"Be my guest," I say. "I'll be in the cupboard, polishing my maraccas."

Easter euphemisms have arrived even earlier at school this year. (Personally, I blame global warming for the general tendency to turn good, crisp unambiguous language into mush, though the evidence is purely circumstantial).

It's not hard to tell the Christmas story. After all, the themes - celebrity babies, royalty, exotic travel and goodie bags - tie in so well with society's major preoccupations.

Then, just as the last angel pictures come down off the Good Work board, in springs Easter - all betrayal, suffering and death. True believers would, of course, count everlasting life and redemption for one and all as a happy ending - but however great their commitment to the idea, it tends to lose a little in the retelling to 5 year olds, especially as nobody ever seems to bother explaining how, in the intervening three months, it's bye bye Baby Jesus and hello Fisher of Men.

You've got to give Clara credit for persistence, though.

"Who likes hot cross buns?" she says, wiping off what looks like a big blob of staff drool before holding one up. The arms wave.

"What's on top of them?"

"Butter." "Jam." "Honey." "Your finger."

"No," says Clara, "It's a cross. It's all about what happens at Easter. It's a little bit sad because Jesus got put on a cross. Why?"

"Because he was going to get eaten?"

"No....anyway. His friends came to look for him and he wasn't there. And on Easter Sunday, what happened. Was Jesus still dead?"

"Yes," say the children, logically enough.

"No. He came alive again. Which was good, wasn't it?"

The children look extremely doubtful. The class hamster has recently died. Having all been read tasteful books designed to promote the idea of death as a one-way rite of passage, this must all be coming as a terrible shock, especially the notion that Hammy could even now be trying to dig frantically through the shoebox and back up through the earth.

"He's not alive now, is he?" asks one child with noticeable trepidation.

"No," says Clara, "It was a very long time ago. But if you go into a church and look carefully, you may see a little Jesus on a cross."

They seem disinclined to try this out for themselves.

One thing's for sure. Clara's Easter chats can do nothing but help the spread of secularism. And if I can somehow get her to do the same thing for every other religion, too, the world is practically bound to become a better place.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Coffin fit


'I just don't know what they're going to do this time. With Dad, my older brother suddenly said, "We're carrying his coffin." The undertakers give you training if you ask for it but of course, he decided on the day.

'Well, they're all different heights. There was lots of wobbling as they went up the aisle. They'd roped in a couple of cousins and they were so tiny they weren't supporting it at all - it had been raining outside and they looked as if they'd taken shelter under the coffin.

'I think he's learnt his lesson with Mum - I've heard nothing about carrying the coffin this time. But there's talk of a harpist. Some tiny women who's taught the Thai royal family, apparently, manhandling this gigantic harp.

'She must be pretty strong by now, so I suppose if they do decide to carry in the coffin, they'd do worse than to ask her to put down the harp and lend a hand. She'd have to do a better job than the cousins.

'But I've half a mind not to go at all. Last time round, my brother - you know he hadn't seen Mum and Dad for years, completely ignored them, just after the money - spent the entire funeral sitting behind me and crying down my back. I told him any crocodile tears this time and I'll be out of there.

'And then there's Mum's flat. I wanted to clear it all out but no, he says it needs to have all her things left in it so it feels like home.

'Home? It smells of wee and feels like a place someone's died in. In fact, it's felt like that for years, a long time before she did die.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Beth's parenting advice. Part 1

On Friday I collect Beth from late games practice. She sits in the car, nodding in time with music that she alone can hear through her headphones. She does the same at supper.

The next day is Saturday. I collect her from some sort of inaccessible school thing with a friend, drive them both to the friend's house, wait while the friend changes, drive them home again.

On Sunday I take Beth riding, do the shopping while she does various terrifying things in a ring; collect her and drive her home.

On the way, she pulls out her headphones. "Mum," she says, "You know our problem?"

"What?" I ask.

"We don't spend enough time together," she says, with the air of someone dispensing hard won and valuable information.

But she does, unasked, help carry the shopping in, make me a cup of tea and, later, sits heavily on my lap - she's as tall as I am now - to give me a box of chocolates and my Mother's Day card decorated with hand drawn daffodils. So this time, I take it as the well intentioned advice it's undoubtedly intended to be.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Where is Debio?

I don't normally do a 'calling all cars' thing on the blog, but just wondered if anyone out there knew what had happened to Debio (Land of Sand)? Her blog has been removed. Is she OK? Does anyone know? All answers on cyber postcard. No prizes but would love to find out.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Spreading the pinkness

Big, pink things need to be distributed widely - so I'd like to pass on my very treasured one (top of sidebar) to Expat Mum, Crazy Cath, Elizabeth M and Molly Gras. With love, pinkness and the accompanying cuddly feelings (but don't take too many at once or they'll make you sick. I'll be posting some bitter twisted ones to go with them soon).

Dawn chorus

"She won't move!"

It's 7.00 am and Deborah is sitting on the floor in the middle of the kitchen, making loud mewing noises, while Leo rapidly loses his temper nearby.

"Deborah, if you want to make sounds like that, go and make them in the sitting room."

She disappears. Within seconds, the mewing starts again, only louder.

"I said 'Go into the sitting room,' " I say, as Leo shows every sign of leaving his brief simmering phase and going instead for rapid boil mode, like those extremely fast kettles that are being advertised, though with the additional features of being much redder in the face and also capable of sudden, explosive violence.

"I am in the sitting room," says Deborah.

"She's in the doorway, which is why it's just as loud," says Leo, slowly, deliberately and with considerable force.

The cat, who has always had a nice sense of timing, chooses this minute to make an appearance from the garden and treat us to a new game of her own devising, called 'Keepy Uppy with a mouse." The mouse has every appearance of enjoying the game less than the cat, though the screams from Deborah as Leo finally runs out of patience may also be contributing to its general air of malaise and world-weariness.

We catch the mouse in a shoe. It runs up the shoe and falls out from a considerable height, attempts to stand up and falls onto its side. The cat, obviously brimful with new ideas for fun things to do with a small rodent, reappears before we can stop her, and bats it in an exploratory way with a sheathed paw. We recapture the mouse and release it outside. It huddles under a wall, looking vulnerable.

"We should put it out of its misery," I say, as I always do.

"Well, I'm not doing it," say Leo and Deborah, jolted out of their argument by the excitement of seeing something that's so obviously a much bigger victim than they are, despite being so much smaller.

All this, and there's still breakfast, school snacks, school uniform and my own departure to organise.

By the time I get to my first lesson, I feel as if I've already completed a full week's work.

"What do you say to your music teacher?" asks the class assistant, as the children line up at the end. I can only hope they see fit to recommend a large G&T followed by the rest of the day in bed.