Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Swine fever - the musical!

I arrive at school in a wave of hysteria. Actually, I arrive everywhere in a wave of hysteria. It's just more obvious in a school, where at least half the staff seem to have been recruited for their ability to exist in a state of ordered calm that borders on the unnatural.

Like everyone else, I've been calculating the odds of staying in employment with or without a pension. Thanks to swine fever, the good news is that none of us will need to worry about being jobless - or reaching pensionable age.

The bad news is that because of swine fever, this is because we'll all be dead.

But there's one silver lining to it all. Our fabulous new pandemic coincides with planning for the summer plays. Asked to consider animal-based themes for reception, I've had some corking ideas.

There's the semi-staged version of 'Old Macdonald's Farm,' whose climax coincides with the line 'and on that farm he had some pigs,' which is follows by mass hysteria and a stampede for the exit.

Or we could do 'Three little pigs,' with the three hastily crossed out and replaced, successively by 'two,' 'one' and, 'Oh my God, I've got the sniffles,' followed by mass hysteria and so on.

Chortling heartily at my own wit, I pull open the staff room door and by way of greeting shout, 'We're all going to die!'

Half a dozen unnaturally serene faces stare back at me. Half a dozen faces of unbridled serenity - and Sasha's.

'Ah, Mrs Philistine,' she says. 'Had you met the chair of governors? We'd arranged he'd be attending the staff meeting today to get to know you all a little better.'

At this point, it's hard to know what to do for the best. Whipping out a fetching little blue face mask, as seen in Mexico, but with the logo 'Get off me, you swine,' and then tap-dancing backwards out through the door again and into the street would be the best option if, as unfortunately isn't the case, I possessed a) a mask and b) the ability to tap dance.

But thank heavens for quick-thinking colleagues.

'That's one of the songs for the summer play, isn't it, Mrs Philistine,' asks the deputy head. 'Surely I remember you saying that you had a really good idea for a gripping adventure yarn. Didn't you....?'

For once quick-witted enough not just to recognise but act on a cue, I nod in violent agreement.

'How clever of you to remember,' I say, gratefully. 'And I think I've just remembered where the music for it is. Excuse me. I must see if it's there.'

Later on, I thank her.

'Do you think Sasha was fooled?' I ask.

'Pigs might fly,' she says. 'And if they do, let's pray they sneeze on her as they whistle past.'

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ancient notes from my wall calendar.

This breaks two rules. Well, one really, but so important they wrote it out twice, or should have done.

Never indulge in cute kids' quotes.

And here I am doing it. Soon I'll be reduced to eyeballing babies in prams (I always find I look away first) and nodding benevolently as the recorders shrill the note of death into my brain.

These are things that Beth and Leo said during 2000 that I noted on our wall calendar as being memorable in some way. My mother had died recently (30th December 1999 - honestly some people are just so selfish). I assume that's why death crops up a bit in their conversations. Or maybe they just like talking about it.

At the start of the year, Beth was six; Leo nearly four and Deborah not yet born.

No quotes. Everyone too sad.

Beth (playing the same bit of music over and over again until I could have screamed - and may well have done): 'I'm greedy with my favourite songs.'

Me, to Beth: 'Where's Dad?'
Beth. 'Upstairs.'
Me: Can you go and get him?'
Beth: Why? - I didn't put him there.'

Leo, talking about his breakfast with certain note of resignation:
'I'm preparing for boiled eggs.'

Beth (to me)
'Don't get cross while I'm at school. I'm not there to control you.'

Overheard from a children's cartoon:
'Subdue him, then bring him to me.'
Not a quote from my children, but felt it was an instruction that would help my parenting enormously.

Overheard as children playing schools together:
'Granny could be death monitor.'

'Let's play we're death.'

Beth, after Francis had endured particuarly horrid dental treatment and was complaining about the pain.
'At least we have my teeth.'

That's quite enough. Phew. I'm just going to go and crush a few hamsters underfoot until I'm back to normal again.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Sweet and sour

"It is simply not fair to expect 115 children to sit quietly and patiently during assembly when 5 other children apparently can't be bothered," says Sasha.

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

It's 25 minutes into the penultimate assembly of term and Sasha, the great orator, is in full flow. The bell for playtime tolled long ago, but not for us, apparently.

As, once again, she takes us through notable incidents from her childhood, favourite holidays and friendships, it's dawned on me that in her hands, assembly storytime is simply a form of budget therapy. Where else, after all, can you ramble on as long as you want, secure in the knowledge that your audience - like a therapist - is compelled to listen to you utter the first rubbish that comes into your head but - unlike a therapist - without the power to evict you when your time is up?

All we need now is to train the children up in synchronised supportive head-nodding gestures, install a comfy couch next to the piano and hang a note on the hall door saying, 'The doctor is IN' and Sasha's monologues can gain the medical legitimacy her subconscious has probably been crying out for for years.

'So now let's all stand and sing our special Easter song,' says Sasha, who has reached the denouement of her story and compelled the children to search for a moral. My choice: 'Persuade your parents to emigrate to a country where compulsory education starts at 8,' isn't, apparently, an option.

Our Easter-themed song is an unfortunate choice. Unfortunate, that is, because the title, frequently repeated in the many, many verses, is 'Chocolate Dreams.'

It wasn't a problem until Francis looked over my shoulder as I was typing out the words and, unasked, offered several non-infant school-friendly definitions of what exactly these might be

As the children reach the second chorus, stretching the word 'Dreams' over several long, long bars, I catch the deputy head's eye. Obviously she's been talking to Francis or, more likely, subscribes to 'Doubles Entendres weekly,' because I see reflected in her face what I know is already in mine - barely repressed hysteria.

There's nothing for it. I play a few crashing chords, then stop.

'What is it?' says Sasha.

'Er.....I thought we should do some sort of hymn,' I venture. 'As a balance.'

'Very well,' she says, with unwonted benevolence - that last therapy session must have exorcised a fair few inner demons - 'If you want.'

Blindly, I pick out the first hymn I can find. It's 'All things bright and beautiful.'

We're doing fine until we get to the line about the purple-headed mountain. There's what can only be described as a suppressed giggle from the direction of the deputy head but somehow, we reach the end.

'I would stay for longer,' says Sasha, 'but I've got some visitors to see.' Casting one suspicious look round the hall, she leaves.

You can almost hear the thwack of a thousand intensely visualised arrows thud into her departing back.

'Never play that song again,' says the deputy head to me, out of the corner of her mouth, as she leads a class of small children out to play.

And, on reflection, I don't think I ever will.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Playing your cards right

'What about that one?' asks Beth.

'No. Sorry. Too .......green.'

'Well, how about this?'

'No...it's that rolling, endless landscape. It's like a peep into eternity.'

'It's not, Mum. It's just some fields and things. You're reading too much into it.'

We're in town and I'm in search of a greetings card. Beth is currently being Perfect Child and, given her behaviour in the last episode, quite right too.

The card has got to be blank, neutral yet cheering but in a restrained sort of way.

Yet another friend has been diagnosed with some grim sounding ailment and is about to be whisked into hospital for tests, more tests, surgery and no doubt a bonus dose of MRSA if she fails to express sufficient gratitude for her treatment.

So it's card time. And there's nothing like hunting for one whose picture balances empathy with a judicious amount of optimism to throw me into a kind of shop-induced coma.

I have only to see the words 'blank inside,' on a dinky piece of folded cardboard to feel exactly the same way.

'It's those pictures,' I tell Beth. 'They're all landscapes with hills. And what do you get with hills?'

'A great view? Snow? Sore legs? I dunno.'

'Valleys,' I say, with a certain bleak triumph.


'The Valley of Death,' I say.

She looks as blank as one of the cards.

'So what you could read into that card is an implication that they might not get better.'

'She'll just be pleased to get a card. Nobody analyses get-well cards.'

'I do,' I say. 'Somebody sent me a picture of lillies in a vase once and it took Francis two weeks to convince me it wasn't a death threat in code.'

We gaze together at the rows of stationery.

'And that's another thing,' I say. 'Have you noticed there's never anything living in those blank cards.'

'There's trees. Flowers.'

'Yes, but there's no animals. No people. Nothing apart from endless vegetation. What does that suggest to you?'

'A bunch of crap artists who couldn't draw animals.'

'No. It suggests the solitude of death.'

Beth gives up, chooses a card for me and propels me towards the checkout. She is, sadly, bigger than me, and I am powerless to resist.

Just after we've paid, Vicky sends me a text announcing the arrival of an exciting and possibly fatal new illness in one of our previously disease- free friends.

'Is there anything I can do?' I ask.

'Shouting "God's a ******* **** might help,"' she texts back. Despite myself, I laugh out loud.