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.