Thursday, 31 January 2008

Power-dressing the rubberised trousers way

It's fair, I think, to say I'm not looking my best. A sudden mid-journey rainstorm means that I'm now wearing rubberised trousers over my power-dressing skirt, causing it to settle like a snowdrift between my legs.

I look, according to taste, either like someone simulating the arrival of the placenta for an educational but tasteful video on giving birth, or Miss July from the Mature Fetishists' Calendar.

At this time of day, the hall is normally empty, giving me the chance to commune with my marracas before the first class arrives. But today, even I can't miss the ominous hush that's seeping out under the door and through the cracks in the window.

Pushing the door open, I'm confronted by interesting spectacle of 40 or so parents, all the children, a full set of staff and Sasha, who is tapping her watch and looking distinctly angry.

"Class assembly," she mouths at me with her back to the parents, dislike managing to jet, like steam, between her clenched teeth. "Had you forgotten? Fortunately, I was able to keep everyone entertained for a few minutes with a few jokey anecdotes about the importance of timekeeping while we were waiting. Oh, and you might want to kill the fluorescent bobble hat."

It's hard to stride into a crowded room full of strangers at the best of times; a good deal worse when a bunched up power dressing skirt has compelled you to adopt a legs apart rolling seafarer's gait.

I sit down on the piano stool, a good 3 inches higher than normal thanks to the extra padding.

"Let's have the worry song," says Sasha. "It seems appropriate."

Fortunately, it's one I know by heart as it's a school favourite, for reasons I still have yet to fathom:

"Worry is a scary thing, often makes us ill
Reasons can be differing
Really causes jittering
Yet worrying about things doesn't get them done
So talk to someone who can help
Together make a plan
Deal with your worries one at a time
You can, you really can."

"Thank you," says Sasha. "Now, let's have year 2 telling us all about how to be nice to each other."

At the end of the assembly, she leads the applause.

"Now, everyone," she says, "I think we've learned some very important lessons about being nice. And what I'd like you all to do - teachers and parents as well - is to turn to the person next to you and tell them something you really value about them. And when you've done it, put your hands up."

Sitting apart from the others at the piano has never felt more isolating. Soon, mine is the only hand that isn't up.

"Oh dear," says Sasha, "Our poor music teacher. Do you think nobody could find anything nice to say about her? I do hope not. I think we should all find something nice to say to her during the day to cheer her up for being in a bit of a rush this morning, don't you?"

There's a general murmur of assent, then:

"School dismissed," she says, and the whole, awful business comes to an end.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Sardines on the line

"Shouldn't you have left for work?" I ask Francis.

"Told them I'd be late."


"Sardines on the line at Crewe."

"Just two points. First, we don't live anywhere near Crewe. Second, you drive to work."

"Ah, yes, but the sardines don't know that, do they?"

Feeling either that I'm very stupid or, more likely, that Francis spent too long studying the surrealist pieces at the art show we went to and is entering his mid-life melting clocks phase with a vengeance, I abandon this conversational thread in favour of swearing as I try to mount my trusty bicycle, without any significant success.

"Stay right there," calls Francis. "I want to come and watch."

It would be touching, this spouse to spouse farewell ritual, were it not for the fact that I know Francis is only here because he wants to see whether it's possible for me to cycle anywhere in my ersatz 80s power dressing outfit, and make sure nobody can look up my skirt while I'm doing it.

"I don't think that Alice band is doing you any favours," he says.

"Deborah lent it to me," I explain.

"It's too small and it keeps slipping down over your eyes. Mind you, if Sasha has a thing about Star Trek you'll be fine - you've got a distinct resemblance to that blind engineer chap La Forge. Though I'm not sure about what looks like the output of an entire viscose factory round your chest or the swirly skirt. And what are those lumps on your arms?"

"I've got a shoulder pad slippage issue," I say.

"Forget Star Trek. You look more like a pirate auditioning undercover parrots, one at a time."

"If you keep going on like that, I swear that if I get my hands on a phaser, I'll put it straight on the castrate setting, even if it does run counter to the message of peaceful missions of discovery. Now beam me up onto my saddle. I'm heading into the alien zone."

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

A shoulder pad to cry on

"It's obvious," says Francis, later that evening, when I ask him for his advice on getting closer to Sasha. "You have to be more like her."

"What, more like someone so wedded to 80s power dressing that she looks as if she's had shoulder pads surgically implanted. Either that, or she's secretly breeding them on some secret factory farm. If some crazed shoulder pad activist sets them loose, there'll be shoulder pads running amok on every high street in the country, giggling they forcibly accessorise every woman of working age with pussy cat bows and Alice bands."

Francis, who has developed the probably essential yet strangely irritating habit of taking a short power nap whenever I set off on one of my longer verbal riffs, pays scant attention.

"Wake me up when you reach a recognisable sentence structure," he says, and shuts his eyes.

"Tell me what you mean and I'll stop," I say, gently hitting him over the head with the paper weight formerly known as one of my less successful homemade biscuits.

"What I mean is that you should mirror her body language, or echo back some of the phrases she uses. Soon she'll feel an increasing affinity with you, without really knowing why."

"She will?"

"She will."

This phrase echoing business is child's play, I think, heading off to school the next day, armed with a notebook so I can get the hang of some of Sasha's key bon mots. And there's no shortage to choose from.

"It's not a blueprint, but a road map," she informs the staff room while unveiling her staff healthy eating plan, involving the immediate replacement of chocolate biscuits with carrots at break time.

"We're definitely committed to consulting on literacy schemes," she advises a Year one child who tells her how much he hates the Oxford Reading Tree.

"I don't accept that characteristic," she says, when a Year 2 child, in an ill-advised moment, is overhead telling his best friend that she is a 'big poo'.

"I think we're looking at a rebalancing exercise in power and a transformation of the relationship," she tells the cleaners as they complain that, yet again, green jelly has got into the heated lunch trolley works and blown a fuse and if it happens again, they're going to get jobs at Marks and Spencers instead.

"I can't use any of these," I say to Francis. "She'll think I'm mad."

"In that case, get yourself down to 'Shoulder pads r us,'" he says. "Because your wardrobe is going to need a bit of a makeover."

Monday, 28 January 2008

A very public convenience

By way of a diversion, Francis and I go to an art exhibition which his company is sponsoring. It's held in a Design Pavilion and is generally considered 'edgy' though, thank God, not sufficiently edgy to be themed entirely to fish.

Once I've visited the art installation formerly known as the toilets, however, I'm so edgy you could fashion me into an octagonal coffee table with corners to spare.

In the spirit of keeping vibrant creativity alive and the punters on their toes or, at the very least, in a semi crouch, the loo seats have all been pre-weed on.

The hand-dryer, a natty black and white object, concealed behind a glass panel, into which you insert your hands, emits the sound of a rocket with power to match, almost sucking off my rings in its eagerness to live up to its proud boast that it dries 'as twice as fast' - while coyly avoiding disclosing just what exactly it is that it dries twice as fast as. Possibly, judging by the end result, somebody blowing occasionally from the other end of the room.

"I've switched on my phone," I hear a woman say to a friend as they queue for their turn to enjoy the spattered seats, presumably so she can convey the intensity of the whole experience to a circle of Important Art People - though I'm a little surprised she's stopped short of filming it.

When I point out any of the disadvantages to the staff, they smile, open their eyes very wide and say, "I KNOW - isn't it awful?" which, while incredibly empathetic and endearing, seems unpromising as a first step on the critical path to analysis, change and improvement.

There are two floors of exhibits. Anything with a splash of colour or sense of happiness or optimism is banished upstairs. The ground floor, naturally, concentrates on monochrome pictures which convey a great deal about life's inherent pointlessness and misery, not forgetting a nod in the direction of torture, sado-masochism and surprise genitalia.

"Oh, so you're a poet," I hear one of the artists say to a prospective customer. "A lot of our work has a poetic dimension." Both nod wisely.

As we pause in front of an elongated statue, arms outstretched at head level, just waiting to be accessorised with a couple of real eye balls, I'm struck by its air of menace and confidence. Dress it in a tailored suit and slot in a couple of shoulder pads and it could be a homage to Sasha.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Bullying by numbers

"You're going to have to find out what's going on," says Bad Lindy. "He's started on the voice messages now. Listen."

She puts her phone on loudspeaker and an unearthly wail issues from it.

"That's the fourth one he's sent me. Pathetic, or what?"

"I think an early medieval classic called 'I'm a w****r," I say. "Though perhaps Sasha wouldn't agree. And if he really is going out with her, why bother hassling you?"

"Revenge, I'd have thought," says Vicky. "After all, we rescued Ra from a lifetime in overblown prose style in the nick of time."

"What's wrong with direct action?" asks Lindy. "Just lend me your school keys and I'll have the truth from Sasha in no time."

"What are you going to do?" says Vicky. "Conceal yourself in the stationery cupboard disguised as a Venn diagram and shout Fibonnaci numbers at her until her mind crumbles?"

"As it happens, I do a very good impression of a giant gluestick. You'd be amazed at how many hours people spend working out which bit unscrews."

"You're not going anywhere near the school," I say.

"Suit yourself. Then you're on your own."

"You just have to get closer to her," says Vicky.

"The only way I'm going to do that is by having my DNA melted down and recast in titanium. I'm convinced that woman can withstand anything. Come nuclear anhilation, I bet she'll be out there in the nuclear winter, building radioactive snowmen with the cockroaches."

"Not if me and my lead-stored firemen see her first," says Lindy.

"Ask Francis," suggests Vicky. "He must be an expert on getting on with people."

"He's only really good with fish," I say, "which is fine if Sasha happens to have kissing cousins who are haddock. But not otherwise. Though, now I come to think of it, he does speak fluent headhunter."

"Bob's your management consultant, then," says Vicky. "Ask him this evening, or if he's gone that fish mad, wiggle your gills provocatively. I'm sure he'll get the gist."

Saturday, 26 January 2008


There's nothing like teachers out on a bender, making it an experience that only the very mentally robust can possibly tolerate more than once a year.

Our school's staff do was originally scheduled for Christmas, which is why the room has been seasonally adjusted with piles of crackers and plates containing small fragments of turkey viciously attacked with cocktail sticks and then left for dead so they can get up to room temperature, just like the white wine.

It's been moved on by a month so we can combine it with a leaving event, thus saving on money, time and speeches.

To say there's a frisson of excitement would be to do a terrible injustice to two perfectly good nouns. As the staff convene - though, judging by appearances, 'congeal' would be more accurate - the mood is one of appalling resignation.

"How will we remember Elsa?" asks Sasha who, inevitably, is leading the tributes. Judging by the pause that follows, this isn't a rhetorical question but a real problem for the school.

I'm just about to volunteer to tie a knot in my handkerchief if it would help, when, fortunately, inspiration strikes.

"Elsa has has to deal with more incidents of vomiting than any other member of staff," says Sasha, brightly. Clearly feeling that she's struck a rich anecdotal vein, she starts listing the top ten barfing exploits in Elsa's professional repertoire, embracing and then thickly splattering, swimming pools, soft furnishings and handbags.

I wonder, meanwhile, if she's going to wrap up her speech by presenting Elsa, who's sporting a look that could be pride, regret or possibly rigor mortis, with her own specially commissioned strain of Novovirus.

It's hard to tell if the staff are swapping looks, or just entering the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, until I spot Caroline, the teaching assistant, who is stuffing crackers up her sleeve.

"I think the street price plummets in January," I whisper, as she starts on the other arm.

"Oh, bugger," she says, at normal volume, while Sasha glares. "What about turkey rolls?"

"Same problem," I hiss. "Your best bet is to fashion them into the crude shape of a bird and wait for lightning. If you can bring them back to life as an Easter chick you might find some takers."

"Do you think I could shove the whole foil platter inside my shirt?"

"Only if you tell the others you always shop in 'Mutant Turtles r us' - and even then I'm not sure you'd pull it off."

The party, based on a definition of the word looser than Bad Lindy's knicker elastic, grinds to a halt at 10.30. I stand on the pavement, ready to provide covering fire for Caroline with the cheese balls I've concealed in my handbag while she transfers the crackers and dessicated turkey into her car.

Sasha appears, gives us a cold gaze, then gets into a waiting car. An arm reaches behind her to pull the passenger door shut and I see the hand. Long, tapering, artistic fingers, coated thinly with long, artistic hair.

It's Colin. With Sasha. Quickly I get the phone and start texting.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Filth on a stick

"Did I tell you I was being stalked?" says Bad Lindy.

"You did," says Vicky, "I assumed it was attention-seeking and ignored you."

"I can't think why," says Lindy, with as much dignity as anyone sporting a non-attention seeking microskirt, microshirt, maxi cleavage and very little of anything else can muster. "In fact, I reckon I'm fast on the way to becoming a victim."

If my mouth is as wide open with surprise as Vicky's, you could pop in several elephants and couple of suburban housing developments apiece and they wouldn't even touch the sides.

"That would be after a total redefinition of the word 'victim' to include Vlad the Impaler and Stalin, then, would it?" asks Vicky. "Even then I think you'd be stretching it."

"Seriously," says Lindy. "I've had a very odd text. Frankly, I think it's filth."

Given the fact that Lindy has amassed so much male groin material that she's of setting up 'I-Giblet' - an online rival to I-tunes, but without the music, taste or variety, this is, if anything, more amazing still.

"Go on then," says Vicky. "Let's see."

It takes a while to locate the offending text, as Lindy's nostalgic wander through the sunny uplands that constitute her text archive reveals a cornucopia of giblets that bring back memories. Finally -

"- Look at this," she says.

A blurry, stick-like object, thick at one end, curved at the other is being lovingly fondled by a pair of hands.

"Disgusting, I call it," says Lindy. "Mind you, I'd be interested to know just how he achieved that angle."

A vague memory is stirring in my head.

"Forward it to me," I say, "I'm going to ask Ra. It's not what you think it is."

An hour later, I'm knocking on Cultured Mum's door. She answers it wearing a surgical mask across her nose and mouth.

"Gluten allergy," she says, lowering it to talk to me. "Just been diagnosed. If I cook with wheat flour, I have to avoid inhaling any of the particles or I swell up. You should see my stomach. On bad days it's up and down like a - oh, goodness, I can't think of a suitable metaphor."

"I can," I say, thinking of Bad Lindy. "Anyway, what happens if you need to blow your nose?"

"I've got Tom to build me a little circulating hankerchief on a roll. It works really well except I keep drying the dishes on it by mistake. I'm researching this idea I've got for a cookery book. I was going to call it 'Reaction-free Cuisine'"

"They'll be fighting to publish it," I assure her, then show her the text. Within seconds, either the colour's drained from her face or she's quickly dusted herself in icing sugar.

"A crumhorn. Oh, my God. It's Colin's favourite early music instrument. I recognise the hands. And just when Tom and I have got things on an even keel. We're booked in for his and hers allergen testing next week."

"Colin?" I say, slowly. "Now that is a surprise."

And leaving her to fend off the toxic wheat particles unaided, I make my way slowly back home.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Good with foam rubber

Assembly today is based on the fable of The Lion and Mouse and is about using your talents, however minimal.

The children are all reading out the nice things their friends have said about them. Some have had an easier job than others. "I am good at making things out of foam rubber," one reads, laboriously.

Then it's time for birthdays. The teacher quizzes David about his special day: "So you had a special party, did you? And you had a magician? How exciting. And did he have a special magic name?" "Ken," says David.

Sasha appears on top motivational form to hand out good work certificates. As their names are called, the children haul themselves to their feet, using the conveniently placed jumpers of their neighbours as grappling irons and their heads for balance.

Whether they're any the wiser about their achievements when they get to the front is open to question. "Good work on your homophones," Sasha says warmly to a baffled looking 5-year old. "You have been trying really hard with your high frequency words," she praises another.

By the time he has extolled the virtues of regular consonant, vowel, consonant practice to a third, I am sneaking furtive looks at the teachers to see if I am the only one who feels as if I've stumbled in on a teaching Klingon as a foreign language session.

But then it comes to a grinding halt. "Those two girls there! Playing with each other's hair. What do you think you're doing. Really!" They smile, uneasily, which prompts further exasperation. "You don't see me playing with your teacher’s hair, do you?" I catch another teacher’s eye and we both look hastily upwards, but the image Sasha has conjured up is so vivid that it might just as well be painted on the ceiling. It's a relief when the classes file out at the end, to the accompaniment of Mozart's Requiem. 'Je t'aime' might have been more appropriate, but there's never been much call for it before today....

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Dating the Freecycle way.

Step one: get fit..................
'Offered: Weight bench and weights. I am too fat, old and bald to use these, who would like them?'

Step two: prepare that gourmet dinner:
'Offered: 7 cans of lightmeat tuna. I hate them. Good news: they expire Dec 2011, so good for stocking up prior to the next inland war'

Step three: turn up the ambience:
'Offered: Six wooden chairs, all with rotted and broken bits, but some parts of each one still good. Ideal for being taken apart and made into 3 or 4 good chairs by someone gullible and well sorted for time with very few friends.'

Step four:
'Offered: One relationship. Slightly used and a bit sordid but could be turned into something much more enduring by the right person.'

With deep sympathy

Leo's teachers greet me like fellow mourners at a funeral. "Ah, Leo's mother," they say, clasping my hand. There's the flash of quiet recognition that we are sufferers together, made strong through adversity, struggling against the odds. They look earnestly into my eyes as if, through study, they will be able to see into my soul and discover through what mutational fluke I happened to come up with Leo.

They try so hard. "He's not a bad boy," they say. "There's no malice in him," "He does try to lie but, bless him, he has no guile."

After an hour and a half I know what Leo is not. It's harder, though, to discern what he is and, more importantly, what he will be, and nobody really knows. Together, we search for clues.

"Was he always like this or has a dip recently?"

"....and you've presumably heard the same thing from the other teachers?"

"'s the organisation that's such a problem - he got a day out of sync and turned up with Tuesday's textbooks on Monday.'

"....and why does he always have to be the one to break his pen and get ink all over himself?"

Sorrowfully, I write down my e-mail address, like a visitor signing a book of condolence. Sorrowfully, they take it. We agree that they will contact me if the lies increase, the homework diminishes, the ink blots spread like a virus through his exercise books.

And then I go home to have a very, very large drink and light a fire with the newspaper cutting announcing that middle class drinking is on a far larger scale than anticipated and that we should be afraid. Very, very afraid.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Poetry, please, with Bad Lindy

(With many thanks to Megadik's tireless - and poetic - team of spammers, from whom all these lines, with the exception of the last one, are taken).

The quicker pecker upper
Its improbable effect on the phallus
Erectile organ, improbable Monty, titanic bodypart
That when I've
fallen I can still get it up.

Or should that be Phallen?

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Greatly exercised

"'Improvised fitness is great fun," I read from the 'Bumper Book of Oh My God Haven't they given up this New Year Exercise bollocks yet?,' a free insert that practically bounded out of the newpaper this morning shouting '1-2-3 and REST!'

"'You can exercise with anything lying around like ash poles, tyres, barrels, jerry cans, overhanging tree branches and kerbs. Allegedly."

We look round Vicky's sitting room.

"I knew I shouldn't have got rid of that improvised jerry can and old tyre raft I was building when I ran out of jigsaws for entertainment," she says. "Do you think you could substitute decorative twigs for branches?"

"Only if you're under two feet tall and can make really convincing grunting sounds when you balance them on one finger," I say. "Anyway, why do you care?"

"No, you're right. Why do I? So what if my six-pack is made entirely out of undigested mince pies - it's incredibly desirable, or so I like to think."

"Here we go. There's something called partner training. It says 'You can have a lot of fun exercising with a partner or friend - you may find it brings out your competitive streak.'"

We study the copious illustrations, which feature men so flat with fitness that they appear to have shed at least one of their three dimensions. Their expressions, in stark contrast to the fun suggested by the dynamic text, convey profound levels of resigned imbecility and their legs are entirely hairless.

"Apparently it makes them more aerodynamic," I say as Vicky runs a finger up and down one of the saddest-looking knees, possibly feeling for stubble.

"What on earth for? Unless they hire themselves out as kites in their spare time."

There are a couple of crashes and the sound of a muffled exclamation and Lindy appears in the doorway, wiping her mouth.

"Post's come. Pity about the postman," she says, snatching the booklet and studying the figures.

"Blimey. I tried a back to back wrestle once with somebody who looked just like those two," she says.

"What happened?"

"Wheelchair," says Bad Lindy. "Now get out the wine. Let's see if we can juggle a packet of crisps and a couple of glasses. Then, if you're still keen on exercise, we'll nip off down to the fire station. It's equipment cleaning day today. I'm sure they'll let us all join in."

Friday, 18 January 2008

Beauty ev'rywhere

It's week two, and Sasha is formalising a radical new approach to job-sharing, ditching that old cliched one person at a time system in favour of the two of us doing the same job simultaneously.

She plans my recorder lessons and so do I, and then we attempt to teach the simultaneously which I can see might prove a little stressful in the weeks to come.

This week, we arrive together. "What are you planning for today?" she asks, as we survey the children. One boy gently rocks his recorder in a hammock made from its case; another is producing staccato volleys of notes, each one an ear-drum popper while a third has dismantled and re-assembled his recorder several times and is now, with an air of mild bewilderment, trying to blow into the wrong end.

Quickly, I attempt a bit of carpe diem with a note recognition quiz but it's too late. Sasha has already advanced on the blackboard, pinned up a giant bit of music and then compelled the class to play it.

She tries to fob me off by giving me a baton and asking me to point out the notes as she plays them, but can't resist joining in. Soon it's turned into a counting competition for two mad music teachers, one wearing an expression of sullen resentment.

One of the boys comes up to me. "I've got something caught between my teeth," he complains. I suspect it may be the recorder he was trying so hard to swallow earlier on. He shoves a grimy finger into his mouth so he can show me exactly where the problem is.

"It's making me embarrassed," he mumbles. "Last time, it was so big the dentist had to get it out with a bit of wire."

As the hymn we were singing earlier has it: "Look around! Look around! There's beauty ev'rywhere." Yes, indeedy.

"You've got a good rapport with the children," says Sasha, beaming that smile again. I beam back. Little does she realise that today's 360 degree bonhomie is a desperate attempt to win them over to my side so they will support my plea of self-defence when I am finally compelled to beat her to death with my recorder while maintaining the correct left hand fingering and producing a perfect 't' sound as I deliver the mortal blow.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Putting the sick in music

The rest of the family regards my piano practice like knitting; something I do with my hands to while away idle moments until something more interesting comes along.

They treat it with the indifference it so obviously deserves. I think they feel quite sorry for me - a poor, bored, ageing woman, sitting there striking random notes and hoping against hope that somebody will take her mind off things with an interesting problem to solve.

Fortunately for me, with all these dreary hours to kill, they're always happy to oblige. The first few notes act every time as a call to arms: within a few minutes of striking up the first notes I can guarantee that there'll be somebody leaning standing right next to me or, if particularly urgent, on the keys, talking to me at length and as loudly as is necessary to drown out that dull old music.

It's begun to dawn on me that this could be the reason I'm still a terrible pianist - but I am a first rate multi-tasker. I've set Beth's algebra problems to 'Shine Jesus Shine,' paired Francis' extensive ruminations on the possible causes of the new bathroom leak with arpeggios, and accompanied Deborah's many lectures about exactly which aspects of my parenting she most despises (it ranges from most to all) with a series of two octave scales in sixths.

In fact, I'm so used thinking of playing the piano as a kind of background activity to any other task that I've begun to feel it's missing on dog walks and during meal preparation.

So you'd have thought that I'd welcome the arrival at school of Sasha, the new music-mad assistant head, with open arms. She's new, she's fizzing with energy and she wants to know all about us and, in particular me. And, more particularly still, absolutely everything about the recorder, because if there's one thing she loves, it's music-making with this age group, she tells me, delightedly, referring, I assume, to the under 8s rather than the over 35s.

She favours oatmeal cardigans and a big smile, as forced as early rhubarb.

"I can see you've got a great sense of humour," she says, when we first meet. "We're going to be a great team."

'Team' in the context of anything other than a now defunct chocolate wafer snack is a word to strike terror into my heart. Teams are for horses or relay runners, not for women fighting their corner against the dark forces of bureacracy, government and clothes shops that sell jackets so small that the only part of me they would comfortably enclose is my drink-swollen liver, making colour matching horribly difficult.

The next day, as I am about to get started on the first recorder lesson of the new term, Sasha appears, cradling a normal recorder and what appears to be its two ugly sisters. It's been pantomime season in recorder land.

"I am feeling ENTHUSED," she says. It's fair to say that she is alone in this, especially when I learn that she has re-scheduled her all her departmental meetings so she can be involved in all future recorder classes.

She speaks wistfully of her old school, where the music teacher used to 'fill the school with beauty', singing as she went. Instead they have me, filling the school with the sounds of muttered blasphemy and lost chords. "How do you want to do this?" she asks me. "On my own," I'd like to say, but don't.

I have never made a secret of my lack of previous teaching experience, which is just as well as Sasha quizzes me so relentlessly that I am thinking of getting highlights from my CV tattooed on my face. There are also moments when the minimal role played by The Arts in my life so far is so dazzlingly obvious you could stick it in the sky and use it to land night flights at Heathrow.

I put music stands together, and end up with something that looks like a minimalist Christmas tree crossed with a miniature version of 'The Angel of the North' complete with my own finger tips by way of decoration. Sasha demonstrates the recorder to the class, years of expertise apparent in every note she plays. Then I take over. "You don't use your left hand for those notes," she hisses.

Sasha’s enthusiasm extends to forming a staff recorder group. Her recruitment drive begins at break, when she attempts to infect the other teachers with her relentless energy.

"Can you read music?" she asks one of the teaching assistants, who is carefully tracing and cutting out 50 paper leaves, a painstaking task which requires total concentration and a large pair of scissors. “No,” replies the assistant, snipping carefully round a stalk. “Would you like to learn?” “No,” she says, again. The scissors tremble slightly in her hand. “What about joining a recorder group?” “I just want to sit here quietly, minding my own business and doing my leaves,” she says,in a voice of just perceptibly rising hysteria. She adds the finished leaf to the pile and starts on the next. “You’re in!” says Sasha.

By the end of break, Sasha has also recruited the caretaker, who arrives at the end of her stirring recruitment speech - "With just five notes there's any amount of fabulous 16th century music you can play," - and is so moved he volunteers on the spot. The following day I ask her how membership is progressing. There is a pause. "I'm making other plans," she says, grandly.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Just for the hell of it

The council has decided to accessorise the flood warnings with roadworks, which appear in matching sets just where you're least expecting them.

"They're such teases," I snarl, gaily, to Leo and Beth as I accelerate madly away from the large, decorative hole that straddles two lanes, serving no purpose except as a visual illustration of the futility of escape, and round a corner to where the back of the next traffic jam is lying in wait for me.

There's nothing quite like an early morning queue of January New Year's resolution breaking commuters, whose joy at having failed to stop eating, drinking, smoking or texting giblet pictures is matched only by the thrill of being hermetically sealed from but in close proximity to hundreds of other people just like them.

As they attempt to latch their front bumpers on to the numberplate of the car in front, the better to rebuff all attempts by other drivers to turn on to the stretch of road they've grown to love as their own during the three hours they've been stuck in it, it's awe-inspiring to be part of humanity and to see just where thousands of years of evolution have led.

"Remind me to disembowel myself with a tuning fork before I ever get talked into giving you another lift to the bus stop," I smile, epithets trailing like fairy dust and rising up to join the exhaust fumes whose carcinogenic particles shimmer almost magically in a brief patch of early morning sun.

But I can console myself with one happy thought. Unlike everyone else, my New Year's resolution was to ensure that I stayed the same cantankerous, cross, rushed, foul-mouthed harridan I've always been.

And I'm delighted to say that I've kept it, without fail, ever since January 1st.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Now with added blue sky and flowers

Ta, Mya (Missing you already) so much for my new award. It's adding a much needed dash of colour and loveliness that was sorely missing from my blog. First kittens, now flowers. At this rate we'll all be going to Lovely Land in a handcart.

Except Bad Lindy, of course. I mentioned the award to her, with some pride, and she immediately started work on one of her own - first recipient, me.

If it's ever offered to you, refuse it at all cost.

With the working title 'Sad Bastards trapped in Cyber space' award, it features giblets (naturally) as a reminder of what the real world has to offer and is also armed with a virus. The picture cleverly overrides the 'shrink to fit' command in the blog layout and, once in situ, is impossible to delete. Rampaging through your blog, it coarsens every heartfelt emotion, substituting rudeness for taste and guffaws for refined humour.

I, as you can see, was invaded long, long ago.........

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Saddo saves the world

"God, you know some sad f******," says Bad Lindy, who has battered her way in to show me her pick of the year giblet texts, which she's thinking of turning into a calendar.

"I don't know them," I say.

"Then why are they writing to you? I mean, listen to this." Bending over the screen, with a faint sigh of regret that she's wasting a prime view of her derriere on such a meagre and ungrateful audience, she reads out my latest Freecycle messages:

"'Offered, backpack. Not clean, not new and not waterproof. Would suit slightly grubby indoor and gullible hiker.' And what about this one -
'Offered: Builder's buckets. All at least half full of dried in plaster or mortar but only one has a small hole. Also available, broken fax/answering machine. May be fixable if you understand the instructions which are in Japanese.'"

She looks at me. "These are people who seriously think that they're going to light up the life of some sad b****** by offering them a bucket you can't even throw up in? You tell me what sort of saddo is going to reply?"

I regain control of the keyboard and delete a couple of messages.

"Not you. Please tell me you didn't."

"It's supposed to be good for the environment," I say, sounding, even to my own ears, like the saddest saddo on the block.

"What, you're telling me that getting in your car and driving off to collect a load of rubbish you end up throwing out for good a week later is going to save the world?"

"So they say."

"If you're serious," says Bad Lindy, "the sooner we're all dead, the better." And pausing only to seize the computer, type, "Get a life, c***," and 'reply to all,' she and her giblet texts head off to brighten someone else's day.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

One little foot

Passing the supermarket shelves, it gleams palely out at me, one of those so-called 'standard' chickens, now so reviled by every TV production company and the celebrity chef it's signed up that it's amazing it doesn't blush in death. Like Adam and Eve, its nakedness has been awkwardly covered. It's been limed, thymed and done about with butter to the nth degree and been born again under a chicken witness protection scheme as a Mediterranean roast.

But chickens don't make good liars. Look a little closer and its terminal makeover is somewhat less than skin-deep. Beneath the herbs and fat is a pathetic tucked under foot. It's kicked off its disguise, alerting you to its true identity.

But how very taken we all are with disguises. In fact, our whole lives, to a greater or lesser extent, now resemble a 24-hour fancy dress party. Don't call a turnip a turnip. Vacuum pack it with a carrot, a swede and an onion and call it a cassorole mix, instead.

Come as you are? I think not. Too old? Quick - hide round that curtain with a beauty expert and a syringe, and reappear a few minutes later like a plumped up pillow. Too young? Fake an indentity card? Too wicked? Steal a nicer identity and use that, instead.

See a troublesome child? Hey Presto, now you don't, thanks to the behaviour-altering drug that will turn him (it's usually a him) into a simulacrum of a nice, well behaved youngster though, as with Cinderella, the magic always wears off after dark.

And if you're a government minister being interviewed about a policy that will kill people, like rationed treatment or forcible repatriation or, sometimes, both - as with the dying Ghanaian woman with inoperable cancer seized in a UK hospital yesterday, forcibly repatriated and now cut off from the dialysis that was keeping her alive - hide individual cases by turning them into numbers, trends, statistics, predictions - anything that conceals the fact that underneath them all, underneath the greasy coating of highly seasoned platitudes we're all guilty of slathering them in, there's always a little, pathetic, individual foot poking through. You just have to keep looking for it. I can guarantee it's never very far away.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Pillow talk

'Offered: Old pillows for composting. Feathers are basically organic - so why not compost them? For a perfect mix, mix the feathers with hair, which contains ten times the nitrogen of most manures and add wetter stuff, like tea bags.'

"Why bother with tea bags?" says Vicky, when I mention this to her, later. "If you've got all that hair to get rid of, you've clearly got a whole body to dispose of and it's definitely not a time to stint. I'd add some blood and top the whole thing off with a few intestines, woven in to vary the texture. Done nicely, you'd have a visual focus that anyone would be proud of. After all, those willow hurdles are so terribly pre-global warming, aren't they?

"In fact," she says,"I might to suggest it to Dave.You'd have thought that what with niche marketing taking off, somebody would be catering for the psychopath keen on reducing his bloodstained carbon footprint but not a bit of it. When he really does start running amok with his Stanley knife, he'll be wanting a few tips on being creative with body parts, and I'd guarantee it's not something they're covering off in those TV property programmes."

Thursday, 10 January 2008

A seasonal sprinkling of projectile vomiting

It's the first day of term and it's been ten minutes to five for the past hour. I'm having difficulty deciding whether time really does go slower at work or if I've just died.

But no - it's flat batteries, a seasonal speciality, along with the faint sound of 'Silent Night' coming from the cupboard under the stairs: the head's patented carol singer trap, baited with glasses of sherry and mince pies, has scored a record number of victims this year.

It's cold, too, and dark, though only inside. The thermostat was buried weeks ago along with most of the light switches and can only be reached by ripping off the layers of cotton wool snowmen, angels, cards, Jesus, three kings, shepherds and the very timid student teacher on a placement who was accidentally glued on to the Nativity tableau on the last day of term and was too shy to complain before it set.

I can cope with all this, but what's getting me down is the seasonal sprinkling of Novovirus which I'm convinced is coating every surface.

"Do you think we're at risk of catching it?" I ask the head.

"What gives you that idea?" she says, busily dousing her desk, pupils, staff and lunch trolley with a pump action, industrial size antibacterial spray.

"Do you think it lives on recorders?" I ask.

"Probably, with all that warm spit to breed in," she says. "But look on the bright side. Get them to play 'Au clair de la lune,' and I guarantee the vibrations will finish them off."

I'm still not convinced. "How would you feel if I stood somewhere else for the lessons?"


"I thought the other side of the street would work for me."

"I've got a better idea," she says. "The hamster's dead. Let's soak the spare bedding in disenfectant and put it outside the classroom door."

"Fair enough," I say. "And I've got a leftover shepherd's crook from the Christmas play. If they get their hands the wrong way round I'll prod them with it."

I suppose it could be worse. Thanks to Novovirus' new, improved symptoms there'll be no more boring conversations in the staffroom - we can just draw a target on the notice board and play competitive projectile vomiting instead.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Good cause and effect

"What the f*** are you doing down there." says Vicky, looming out of the later afternoon semi-darkness of the Tesco car park.

"Waiting for spring," I say, bitterly.

"Unless you've learned how to charm daffodils into coming up through tarmac, you're going to have a long wait," she says,

I'm perching on a small folding stool, so low down that unless swallows decide to abandon flying in favour of a tunnel, I'll miss them, and so precariously balanced that the only way I can avoid falling over is by resting my chin on the table on front of me.

"You didn't get conned into selling raffle tickets again, did you?"

"I did," I say, "and I've got the counterfoils to prove it."

Given that I missed Deborah's carol service, parent teacher evening, class assembly and quite possibly the moment of her birth, it's hard to resist her tearful pleas to do 'Just one thing right, Mummy and sell some tickets so the church hall doesn't fall down' - especially when she reinforces the urgency of her appeal by holding a carving knife to her throat as she speaks.

"Nobody's buying," I say to Vicky, "And even when they do I can't see over the top of the table to write down their phone numbers on the stubs."

As I speak, a man takes a look at the top of my head, all that's visible above the table top, and hurries away.

Vicky gets her phone out. "You need Lindy," she says, texting busily.

Five minutes later, Lindy's car screeches to a halt in one of the disabled parking bays. She swats a couple of indignant wheelchair users out of her way and sashays over to the table.

"Raffle tickets - why didn't you tell me earlier?" she says. "Here, give me some. I'm off to play pick and mix."

In thirty minutes, she's back. "Here are the stubs," she says, "And there's the money."

I flick through the books. "Brilliant job," I say, "but only some of them have got phone numbers."

"Oh, that's the ugly ones," she explains, and pats her phone. "The rest are in here. Tall, young, six-packs you could do your times tables on - and all so generous as well. I scarcely had to use any violence at all."

"So what if one of them wins?"

"Don't worry about that," says Bad Lindy. "By the time I've finished with them, they'll all be winners. Tell you what, why don't I send you some of the pictures - that'll put your mind at rest."

"No. Please, no."

"Please yourself," says Bad Lindy. "I'm off, anyway. Got a few calls to make." She winks, and goes.

It's just as well my chin's been resting on the table. The way my jaw has just dropped, it could use the support.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Morbid obesity for the living dead

Francis leaves early in the morning, shaking me awake before he goes to ask me if I think he should put a sign saying 'gone fishing,' on the car.

"Leave me alone," I answer, lovingly, "I'm in the middle of a dream about making you a cooked breakfast."

"Pity we've not mastered telepathy yet," he says, "because it's probably the nearest I'll ever get to having one." Pausing only to tip me forty quid - "Buy yourself a new set of matching insults, Madam - the old ones are getting very threadbare," he sets off for the airport, making me wonder why I thought watching Sense and Sensibility together would be a bonding experience.

"Forget sardines - what about line-caught firemen?" says Bad Lindy, hungrily, later, when I go round to Vicky's for tea, sympathy and bad puns after the school run. "Do you think they'll ever get round to farming them?"

"Not unless they're critically endangered. Mind you, the way you've been plundering their resources, that may happen sooner than we think," I say. "Sugar and hydrogenated fat special for you, Vicky?"

"No thanks," says Vicky, pushing away the plate - an unprecedented gesture from someone whose idea of a sophisticated tea time snack is half a dozen crispy creme donuts with lard topping.

"You what?"

"I'm thinking of trying this restricted calorie diet," she explains. Bad Lindy starts to back away nervously. "Is there somebody we should call?" she mutters at me. "What have you been saying to her?"

"It's all the rage this year, apparently," continues Vicky, gamely. "The idea is that you eat almost nothing and live forever, or as near as makes no odds. Obviously you have to weigh everything - in fact, they've even come up with a special calorie counter. And you go off sex. But apart from that, it's really, really good."

"Who invented it?" I ask.

"Some American bloke."

"And is he still alive?"

"Funnily enough," says Vicky, "He died in his 70s. Unluckily he got the only disease that prefers its victims half-starved."

"The only one? What about typhoid, dysentry or cholera?"

"Poor sanitation," says Vicky, primly. "No fear of that here."

"That's a laugh given the way your kids leave the loo," says Bad Lindy. "So let me get this straight. You get to lose all your curves, your libido and your taste buds in order to hang around with a bunch of calorie counting skinny octogenarian obsessives. Sounds like joining the undead, except you don't even get to terrify the neighbours with the pointy teeth and rotting skin. Mind you, I don't think their small talk's up to much."

"Well, yes," says Vicky.

"Way to go, girl," says Bad Lindy. She holds the plate out to me. "A little Victoria sponge with your morbid obesity?"

"Don't mind if I do," I say.

Monday, 7 January 2008

How to do parenting. Part 1

'My family, by Deborah
I have a family a not very kind one my brother always wants to play football and my sister when we go to fairs she spends my money and my mum does not sit with me at bedtime and my dad does not ever go shopping with me and they all don't love me'

"That child doesn't know she's born," says Bad Lindy, when I tell her. "Let me babysit one evening and I'll soon put her right."

"Dont even think about it," Vicky texts later. "Only time she looked after mine she got so over excited reading Fireman Sam to them they self-registered themselves on the 'at risk' list."

Saturday, 5 January 2008

A feather from Lovely land

"Happy New Year," says Lovely Mummy to Vicky and me as we collect our children on the first day of the new term. A small form hurtles towards her. "Oh, sweetie, how was your day? Come and give me a big hug."

She and her daughter hold each other close. They are wearing identical coats, hats and gloves and no doubt would have gone for a 100% clothes match had the the school's brutal uniform policy not intervened - though her petite figure and ability to buy clothes for herself in children's departments means that a large sweatshirt and regulation hairband can't be completely ruled out.

Lovely Mummy is new to the area, and has yet to work out that some school run audiences are more sympathetic than others. "So, did you draw a picture of your guardian angel, like you said you would?" Her daughter nods, looking up at her with a radiant face.

"Woman's obviously got a paid residency in Lala land," says Bad Lindy, very nearly quietly enough not to be overheard. She's come to persuade either, or preferably both of us to thrust our children into the hands of the nearest gullible-looking parent and join her in a post-Christmas drinking session.

"I know it sounds silly," says Lovely Mummy, defensively, "but I'm quite sure everyone has their own guardian angel. You ask them something and tell them what sign you'd like them to send you as the answer. When I wasn't sure if we should move here or not, I asked for a feather if it was the right thing to do and two weeks later, a beautiful snow white feather floated down and landed in my hand. So I knew." With great dignity, she takes her daughter's hand and sets off down the road. We watch, temporarily silenced.

"Blimey," says Bad Lindy, "Let's hope she doesn't ask her guardian angel what it thinks of me. Forget feathers. Give it couple of weeks and she'll get a flock of pigeons flying over and crapping on her head."

Friday, 4 January 2008

Crimping the sausage rolls

"Surprise!" says Vicky, putting a plate of what appear to be utterly ordinary sausage rolls in front of us. We crane forward, waiting to recoil in amazement while the labrador puppy looks hopefully on. "Nope," says Lindy. "I'm not getting anything so far, apart from puff pastry crumbs up my nose."

"I crimped the edges," says Vicky. "Can't you see?"

"I think it only works before they're frozen," I say. "But the holes round the edges have a certain charm. And if they ever introduce finger-print based identification, I'm pretty sure they could use these for reference."

"You've got post-Aga guilt, that's your trouble." says Bad Lindy. "There's a part of you that's always going to feel bad because you're not decorating jars of home-made lemon curd with gingham ribbons. And that labrador's not helping."

"I rang the Aga man to see if he could come and dismantle the dog, too, and install it in a new home but he refused. Said they don't touch anything that runs on raw meat and walkies."

"You could always bring it round to the vet's," says Bad Lindy, eyeing the dog speculatively. "I'm trying to bring in bargain treatment options for the meaner pet owner."

"What do you mean?"

"Take euthanasia," says Bad Lindy. "You could have the luxury option for the discerning customer - chapel of rest, hand-finished casket, soothing massage - though that's obviously only going to be an option for the discerning male customer."

"And for the budget shopper?"

"Mallet over the head round the back of the surgery for a fiver."

"And how's that playing with the vets?"

"Funnily enough," says Bad Lindy, "they say it may need a bit of mulling over. The locum took me up on the trial massage, though we had a bit of a fight about just where the soothing oils should be rubbed in. Sometimes I just despair of getting them to see things from a commercial perspective. Mind you," she says, brightening, "Vaccination charges will shoot up this year."

"How do you know?" asks Vicky.

"Simple. I didn't bother sending out any reminder notices, so they'll all have to pay double and start all over again."

"And how's that gone down with the vets?"

"Haven't told them," says Bad Lindy. "I can't decide whether to break the good news when I negotiate my pay rise or leave it as a surprise for later on." She crams a couple of crimped sausage rolls into her mouth. "Honestly," she says, showing us with pinkish meat and greyish crumbs. "There are times when I just don't think they appreciate me."

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Little scaly faces

Francis is off on his travels again, consigned to airport lounges and hotel food for another week.

I have to say that he looks remarkably cheerful about the whole thing.

"The sardines are calling," he says, putting a hand to one ear.

"What are they saying?" I ask, suspiciously.


"Why are they watching horror films?"

"Why not? And don't ever underestimate the power of modern technology. They've probably got those unlimited DVD rental plans, same as the rest of us."

This conversation isn't going anywhere, unlike Francis, who is following the fleet with such assiduity that it can only be a matter of days before he's given a company waterside hovel and apron to wring his hands in when there's a storm at sea.

"What is it with you and sardines?" I say.

"They're touting Omega 3 as the wonder cure for Alzheimer's now," says Francis, "and the company's taking it very seriously."

"Fair enough," I say, "but aren't you taking things a bit far? I know Waitrose has this thing about naming every one of its organic chicken farmers, but surely you don't have to know every oily fish by name before it goes into a miracle cream or potion."

"Funnily enough, you get fond of their scaly little faces," says Francis. "I think I've got a real rapport going."

He heads into the kitchen, and soon there's the cheery sound of an orchestra warming up as the trademark tune of the many different pieces of software installed on his computer announce their presence.

"What are you doing now?" I ask

"Appraisals," he says. "I need a bit of peace and quiet. It's absolutely essential that I clear my head so I can summarise my team's contribution to sales in an objective and dispassionate way."

Two minutes later, he appears again.

"What's another way of saying 'cynical bastard who questions all my decisions'?" he asks.

Scented candles - the new detox diet from Freecycle

'Offered: Two scented candles in pretty rose-patterned holders. Very sweet. I would like them if I knew they were vegan.'

Omega Mum's serving suggestion: A warming snack, though some seasoning advisable. Blow flame out before swallowing.

Enchanted, I'm sure

"So we come out of the film and the kids both want to go to the loo," says Vicky. "So we go in and the first thing I see is one of those timetables by the door."

"You mean the ones that have to be initialled by the cleaners every hour, because they're linked to some implant that gives them an electric shock if they don't?" I say. "Well, it's got to be something like that, or why bother putting them up."

"That's right. And next to it is this sign. 'To ensure the highest possible standards, these facilities are regularly checked and cleaned by both female and male team members.'"


"To give them their due, they had been conscientious. They'd made sure that every cubicle was missing its door and bog seat and accessorised with a large, unflushed floater in every bowl. They were even colour-matched, as far as I could tell. So full marks there, assuming that was what they were checking for. They certainly hadn't bothered to do anything else. I wouldn't mind so much except for the contrast with the film we'd gone to see."

"What was it?" I ask.

"'Enchanted,'" says Vicky.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

2008 - first impressions

Bad Lindy:
Social life shaping up well - senior vet whisking me off to conjunctivitis work nite out - evening conference on eye infections in domestic pets. Can't wait.

Harassed mother
Took children to ice rink. Very crowded. Some c*** whizzed past and knocked son off balance. Legs went backwards, face forwards and teeth took impact. Needed emergency dental treatment and root canal treatment next week. Tooth dead cos so much broke off and will need crown. Root exposed so v painful and risk of infection. Happy f****** New Year.

First resolution for 2008 - never to spend another New Year's Eve in remote house with septic tank. They say there's a first time for everything - can't believe this includes laundering tampons, but there you are.