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.