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.