Tuesday, 29 April 2008


“Out, out damned spot”, I roared at my germ ridden hands. No matter how many times I washed them, when I placed them back under the ultra violet light, white spots indicating deposits of bacteria persisted.
Poor old Lady Macbeth, no wonder she went demented. I too was beginning to feel the somewhat obsessive, compulsive desire to get clean as I sat under the tutelage of the food safety training officer at HMS Raleigh, who informed me in no uncertain terms that my hands were bio hazards ready to strike those I feed with certain death. I was not alone. I had brought company with me including two other mums from the PTA and 10 ladies from the WI. The Royal Navy had been kind enough to provide us, free of charge with a day’s tuition on food safety. It was entertaining and informative and something my colleagues and I had to learn in order to pass the exam, get a certificate and thus consider ourselves legal, when, in the role of PTA mums at least we are safe to serve a bi-annual cuppa and scone at the Christmas and Summer Fairs and also when at our annual barn dance, we don’t poison any unsuspecting heel and toe-er with, at best the norovirus and at worst e-coli 0157.
As I sat there, listening to terrible tales of food poisoning and errant practices, I considered my own fridge. God forbid any raw meat should be within contaminating distance of cooked meat, yet I knew full well that the raw bacon was shoulder to shoulder with the cooked ham on the second shelf, well not exactly shoulder to shoulder but certainly adjacent. But what of my son, whom I’d left in bed that morning, his school being closed due to a strike? Would he have the forethought not to slap one, willy nilly onto the other after he’d made his lunch? I was desperate to contact him but, as I was sitting in the front row and therefore right in front of the instructor, I could hardly pick up my mobile and text my son thus: ‘Bacon raw, cook well, replace unused rashers in fridge covered on different shelf to ham’, now could I?
My paranoia only got worse as the day went on. By the time we broke for lunch at midday and we trooped over to the very nice, very new restaurant which feeds our troops I was on the blower immediately, convinced that by now binary fission had reached a dangerous level, intent on killing us all. I needn’t have worried. A very sleepy voice answered the phone, “Hello?”, it croaked.
“Darling, whatever you do, when you make your lunch make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly before and after and be vigilant in scrubbing down the work surfaces afterwards and keep the meats apart.”
“Sure ma”. The line went dead.
I was surprised by how greedily we ate our food considering the awful facts which had been presented us that morning, but our instructor had kept the best til last and it was only on our return to the classroom that he produced a sticky trap, which had adhered to it a substantial number of dead and mightily aggrieved cockroaches.
After our photographs had been taken, for no doubt the Class of 2008 alumni year book, it was time for our exam. Now I haven’t sat an exam for over ten years but there were poor ladies there that afternoon whose age meant that they had not even taken ‘o’ levels let alone GCSEs. Multiple choice questions were an anathema to them. Personally, when the instructor told us, “You may now turn over the paper”, I felt quite sick, but guess what? I think my Nintendo Brian Training has paid off, because my mind was as sharp as a blade and I’d completed my thirty questions within fifteen minutes. I put down my pencil triumphantly, handed in my paper, whispered a thank you and went outside and waited in the corridor for my friends. Most of them followed immediately but as we walked back to our cars, the inevitable post mortem ensued.
“The danger zone is between 5 and 63 degrees isn’t it?” asked one.
“Oh no”, groaned another “That’s not the box I ticked”.
“I couldn’t remember how to use a probe properly”, said another.
“Calibrated and cleaned”, came the reply and so on and so on, so by the time I’d driven away I had grave doubts as to whether any of the questions I’d answered were correct.
I walked through the front door at 4pm to find my son making his lunch, bacon sandwiches. He’s a creature of habit. Before I opened my mouth, he said, rather gravely, “I was just looking in the basement for something and I just found it. Now don’t go crazy but...”
But I’d already legged it and was hurtling down the stairs, only to find the guest room, which had just had a new carpet laid, literally swamped in 20 litres of white emulsion. I fell to my knees, groaning and wailing. One step forward, two back.
“I don’t know what happened?”, my son repeated.
My reply was rather profane and my son scarpered. An hour and a half later I was still on my knees attempting to mop up and clean my honey coloured carpet, to no avail. Finally I gave up and woefully went and knocked on my neighbour’s front door. For the following hour and a half, my very dear neighbour did his best and steam cleaned ferociously but I fear, it is a fait accompli, the carpet and the cupboard under the stairs, where the paint ran into, has had it. By the time Hubby came home, I was quite literally, ‘threaders’. “Don’t let the pathogens get you down love” he quipped. I smirked. He had yet to descend into the Dulux bog.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Old Boiler.

There is very clear demarcation of roles in this house. The children’s role is sweetly parasitic in that they look lovely and I want to kiss them constantly but, they suck the life blood out of me both physically and financially, and apart from the eldest occasionally emptying the dishwasher and looking out for the younger ones from time to time, they do sweet FA. All other jobs Hubby and I share, blue jobs and pink jobs respectively.
Blue jobs generally consist of supporting a big family, putting out the rubbish, peering around u-bends even though you may not have a clue what you are looking at, very basic DIY and map navigation. Pink jobs are everything else, including but by far not a definitive list: cooking, cleaning, child rearing, driving, tyre pressures, recycling, discipline, Christmas and remembering annual key dates. Hubby has yet to grasp when his offspring were born; the month is fairly spot on but he is totally at a loss as to date and year.
I am most put out then that now, when we are in desperate need of our boiler being replaced, I find that this surely most blue of jobs, has been landed in my lap. Hubby has washed his hands of the whole affair and gone to work each day leaving me to harangue my friends and neighbours in the hope that they know a good heating engineer. My dad, who visits me daily and who is mercifully coughing up the not insignificant cash for the boiler will be most relieved when the job is finally done, as day after day as he sips his coffee, I bore him senseless with the latest quote and new hitch that yet another engineer has foreseen.
“You see dad we can’t have a condenser pump because there is no-where to pump the water to”, or “But the gas pipe is only 15mm, we may need to reconfigure to 28mm”, or, “Do I go for a 330kw Worcester or 400kw?” His eyes are glaze over, he downs his coffee and makes his excuses, leaving me troubled and tearing my hair out. I don’t want to waste his money, neither do I have a heating engineer as a best buddy who will be honest and do a safe and excellent job. Finding the right man for the job has opened a very disagreeable can of worms as every man has found something the other hasn’t, leaving me confused and uncertain who to employ.
At one point last week I got British Gas involved. They were very professional, a smart man sat at my dining table, opened his lap top and printed off a load of posters from his wireless printer, illustrating exactly what I needed, which included full loft insulation and all singing and dancing wireless thermostatic controls. He brought a torch and made disparaging and to be honest rather worrying noises as he scrutinised by boiler cupboard.
“Well Mrs Band, we need to sort this out as a matter of emergency”. I nodded eagerly and was relieved that at last someone had taken charge and given me some pictures to look at so that I knew exactly what I was getting and told me that everything would now be alright. I sat at the table with him obligingly as he itemised all the things this house would require to make it safe, efficient, green and warm and lapped it all up. With a final flourish, the ‘heating sales advisor’ sent this information to his printer which duly churned out the quotation and contract.
“Here we are Mrs Band. This is how much it will be”. Other quotes for almost exactly the same work had come in around the three grand mark, and so as I adjusted my glasses, I expected to find a similar sum but as my eyes flickered over the column marked, Total Price Payable, a sum for £6065.84 stared resolutely back.
I would like to say that I laughingly said “Are you a highwayman in disguise? This is daylight robbery!” but of course I didn’t and so British Gas will continue to charge sky high prices, payable on quite literally the never-never, because I and no doubt thousands like me, politely replied, “I see. Thank you very much for your time. You have been most helpful and once I’ve discussed this with my husband I’ll be in touch”. Showing him the door I leant against it and tried to breathe normally. Over six grand? Now what was I going to do?
I waited until my dad came over for his coffee, “And they want £292.20 just to flush out the system”.
“Listen Alice love, this is driving me to distraction. Here’s a number someone at the Legion gave me. His lad is Corgi registered, he’s got good references, knows what he’s about. Give him a call and please never the mention the bloody boiler ever again”.
Hubby was just as dismissive. “You’re becoming obsessed Alice. Have you nothing else to talk about?”
“Well as a matter of fact no and it’s all very well for you to yawn but I’m the one stuck in this bloody house day after day waiting for yet another bloody plumber to show up. Do you honestly think that I like to discuss the configuration of our pipe-work?” I was getting in my stride and my voice was getting shriller, “I can’t say I’m enjoying making these decisions alone. Why don’t you ring one of these guys up and listen to them wax lyrical about radiator valves and periscopic flues?” I flung the number my dad gave me at him and stormed into another room.
“He’s coming on Saturday”, said Hubby putting the phone down. “He wasn’t quite sure when”.“That’s a pity. Mags and I are going out for the day. Remember?” The look on his face suggested he hadn’t.

This post is dedicated to Sally Lomax who truly understands..

Tuesday, 15 April 2008


Now I’ve always suspected that I wasn’t particularly bright, but there’s a far cry from veiled assumption to stark certainty. I was horrified then at the end of last week to discover that I was even dafter than at first alleged.
After last week’s events I’d gone over to Mags’s house for a reviving cup of tea. “Coo-ee” I sang as I entered Mags’s kitchen. She was sipping her Green tea and chatting to her mother-in-law. As I poured boiling water over my own bog standard tea bag I tried to make out what they were talking about.
“I’m thrilled my brain age is only 32 now” said her mother-in-law.
“32? Blimey I can’t get mine down beyond 34”, replied Mags.
“What on earth are you two on about”? I asked heaving my bum cheeks onto one of her kitchen stools.
“Brain training Alice. It’s a must. It keeps you on your toes and exercises areas of your brain that, how shall I put it, are perhaps hibernating”.
I was still in the dark. “I don’t get you”, I replied, “How do you exercise your brain? It’s not as though you can take it down the gym”, I laughed at my own wittiness.
They however were deadly serious. “It’s like that actually Alice. It’s exactly like taking your brain for its own workout.”
“Well I still don’t know what you’re both talking about. What is like taking your brain for a workout? How do you know how old your brain is? Isn’t it the same as your body?”
Mags, slipped effortlessly and elegantly off her stool. “Come into the sitting room and I’ll show you”, she said. Where she was elegant, I was clumsy and her mother-in-law had to lend me a hand as I struggled to get off the stool, my thighs now settled, were resolutely stubborn to be moved again in a hurry.
“Sit on the sofa and have a go at this”. Mags handed me, what I now recognise as a Nintendo DS Lite. She opened it up, pulled out a stylus and touched the screen a few times.
“Here we are. Quick Brain AgeTest. Have a bash”. Before I could protest the numbers on the screen counted down from 3 and I was off. Simple arithmetic flashed up on the left hand of the screen and with stylus in my right I had to write the answers down, very, very quickly. I felt as though I were once again back in school, in remedial maths. Finally the sums and I ran out of time and I handed the machine back to Mags.
“Bloody hell Alice! You’re worse than I thought! You’ve got a brain age of 80!” The two of them fell about on the sofa laughing, much like those Smash Aliens from the 70’s.
“80? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s only six years older than me?”, roared the mother-in-law.
“It’s all those kids she’s had. They’ve genuinely turned her brain to mwsh. He-he-he. Mwah-ha-ha ha.” I was most put out. Was I really that thick these days? Had my lifestyle of day to day child rearing, domesticity and morning coffee genuinely atrophied my grey matter? It wouldn’t be that surprising, hell the most profound conversations I had these days were on the lines of “What do you want for dinner?”, or if I was lucky, discussing the issues raised in my older children’s RE lessons. Hubby has long since excluded me from what is happening at work, especially since he is now also studying for his masters’ degree and won’t even share assignment titles with me. Well really, does, Simulation & Synthetic Environments sound that sexy? I rest my case.
I barely touched my tea before making my excuses and returning home. I turfed my son, who had just got up and was still in his dressing gown, off my computer – we are now in phase two of the Easter Hols, whereby my youngest have returned to school and my eldest are loping around the house for another fortnight.
“Aw ma. I was just msn-ing Laura/Becky/Hannah/Sarah/Charlotte” or whichever it was of the myriad girls he regularly communicates with but who, oddly, never actually materialise in the flesh. One wonders at times whether they are actually living girls, or whether they are figments of the virtual, electronic world teenagers exist in.
“Tough luck matey. I need to look up something”. He sloped off into the kitchen muttering unpleasantries under his breath, whilst I Googled eBay, then searched for a Nintendo DS Lite.
Immediately a choice of thousands were returned, the first one a snip at £70, especially as it came with the much desired Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training game. I wondered what the highest bid was and typed in £90, then, like some ghastly game of Countdown gone wrong, the time ticked away from me and before you could say Richard Whiteley the auction time had run out and you-know-who had won the item.
“Oh my God”, I groaned, “No, no. Why didn’t anyone else put in a higher bid?” In the past, whenever I’ve had my eye on something I really want, like a Boden coat, I’m always pipped to the post in my bidding at the last second. Now I’d won something that I could ill afford. My curiosity had certainly killed the cat or surely my marriage. Hubby would go spare.
By now my 12 year old daughter and her sleepover friend had wandered in to see what was for lunch and were astounded by my folly.
“Mu-um you idiot!”
“We can’t keep it”, I wailed as though one of them had returned home with a puppy. “Daddy will be so cross. Oh God, our overdraught”. I put my head in my hands. Hubby’s response was icy if resigned. “I fear it will take more than an electronic game to have any impact on your intellect Alice. It is just far too blonde”.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008


“Kawasaki”, said my son, nodding his head awkwardly.
“Konichiwa you idiot” said his 12 year old sister in a loud stage whisper.
“You look different to me”, added the six year old, peering at my four Japanese house guests suspiciously. “Your eyes are s...”
“So beautiful”, I added quickly, ushering them into my house. I couldn’t believe it, my guests had only just crossed my threshold and already I had a Prince Phillip situation on my hands.
I looked at Hubby and he shrugged his shoulders, which suggested, ‘this is going to be harder than we thought and I’m lucky that I’m out of it’.
True to form, no sooner had I answered a plea to host Japanese visitors on a week’s trip to Cornwall, than Hubby informed me he that it clashed with his ‘university week’ and apart from welcoming them to his house, Hubby would be absent.
Well, to all those people who run a B&B and evening meal service, I salute you. I am absolutely cream crackered. I hadn’t realised that cooking for a few more people and, more pertinently, being consistently polite would be such a strain on my more defeated, persona. Whereas I normally crash and burn once the youngest children are in bed, feet up on the sofa, large glass of wine in hand, I have found myself instead preparing dinner for the following night and laying the table for breakfast.
It’s cost me a fortune. How could I possibly say when we went out for lunch, “This is where we go Dutch”? I have also fed them well. It seemed welcoming to provide tea and stickies when they returned from their days out laden with gifts for me. Consequently I consulted Nigella’s bloody tome of domesticity and thought, I know, I’ll make some brownies, everybody loves those. It wasn’t until I had cracked the six eggs and added a whole tablespoon full of vanilla extract that I realised I needed four bars of ultra expensive 70% solid dark chocolate. At a pound a bar, these brownies were singularly the most expensive thing I’d ever cooked. And then, so scared to overcook them as Nigella ominously warns is so simple to do, I bloody well undercooked them and had about six quid’s worth of chocolate goo wallowing on a sheet of baking paper.
All was not lost however and after a little thought, I cut away the cooked brownie, reheated the goo and served it like some sort of fudge with ice-cream and fresh raspberries. It went down a storm.
It shouldn’t be surprising how much more washing up is generated by adding another four people to an already large family, but by Jove, every day has been like preparing a Christmas dinner. So many plates, glasses, mugs, side plates, cereal bowls, cutlery, saucepans, utensils and baking trays are used for every meal not to mention my Cif kitchen spray. My Marigolds torn, my hands are like those of a scullery maid.
Of course when I haven’t been in the kitchen, I am conversing. It has been great fun to try and understand and be understood. The two ten year old Japanese boys have been too shy to attempt their conversational English and the mother of one of the boys’ English is limited, so it has been down to the sterling effort of the father of the other boy and me to make illuminating and interesting chat. We have been lucky to have laughed many times because we understand the other’s effort in putting across a point and only once have I wished the floor to swallow me up. The mother and the two boys had retired; my children were all in bed, leaving me and Mr Akito to enjoy a tête-à-tête. They had been to Plymouth that day.
“What did you think of it?”, I asked.
“Mm”, he searched for the right words, “It is very modern”.
“Well, you see it was flattened during World War Two”. Bugger. Change the subject immediately.
“And Japan? You have many old building?”, I enquired.
“Some. Others also obliterated”. Oh Jesus, Mary, Holy Saint Joseph and all the saints as my Irish friend would say in times of crisis.
“Do you take many holidays?” I changed tack and so a calamitous, cultural exchange of words was avoided as he waxed lyrical about his job as an anaesthiologist where his holidays are few as he works until 10pm with only a fortnight off a year.
The following day however was met with further discomfort when I had to gently chastise one of the boys for squeezing one of my cats like a tube of toothpaste, especially given that only hours later, when I was up to my elbows in mashed potato and onion gravy, said cat gave birth to three kittens at the bottom of my wardrobe.
“Mu-um!”, squealed the 12 year old urgently, “Come quick!” I put down the potato ricer and ran upstairs, worried that perhaps we had a flood. My toilets are at best temperamental and my Japanese nowhere near good enough to explain that feminine hygiene products were not to be flushed down them.
I was as surprised as the local tom-cat will be, on finding my poor cat, atop a nest of my beige skirt and white shirt, serenely nursing three tiny mewling little kits surrounded by blood and embryonic sacs.
“Oh Jeepers”, was all I could muster before returning downstairs to address the baked sausages, spuds and gravy. Dinner was a massive hit, “Ah sausage and mash! Very English!”. They smiled and beamed and nodded and got out their cameras to take pictures of my snorkers. I was thrilled. Few people have felt it necessary to photograph my cooking but then they have photographed everything. I hate to reinforce cultural stereo-types but perhaps some are earned much like English chavs and football hooligans. Of course I cannot speak for the Welsh and sheep...

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


“Come the hell on Alice!”, Hubby roared at me from the car, “We have to get going”.
“Just one minute”, I trilled back. The gas man, who I’d completely forgotten about, had arrived minutes before to service our boiler. This was particularly bad timing given that five children and it – it being Hubby, were squished in the car ready to embark on our mammoth drive to Brussels.
“So what you’re saying is that this boiler and flue are kaput? I scratched my head. This was bad news.
“That’s about the measure of it Mrs Band. This is an old one, there is no ventilation, I’m surprised to be honest, that you haven’t all died from carbon monoxide poisoning.”
I blushed, “Well since you mention it. I do have an alarm and every time it goes off, which is only when it’s freezing, we drag the kids out of bed, run into the street, turn of the central heating and ventilate the house”. I think the gas man thought I was joking.
“Shall I send someone around to give you a quote for a new system?”
“I think that would be most expedient”. Hubby held his hand down on the car horn, the gas man packed up his brief case.
“I’m sorry”, I said, apologising for my husband’s impatience and guiding him out of my hallway, “But we have a long drive to Dover to catch the ferry to Dunkerque.” I looked at the steaming windows and the expectant faces of five children peered through the mist. My son and his friend, sitting in the back of the Espace facing backwards smirked at me through some rather vulgar steamed-up window graffiti.
“Rub that out at once”, I barked. The gas man looked at me with pity, “It’s going to be a long day Mrs Band. Good luck”. I locked up and in silence, took up my position in the passenger seat.
Many, many hours later we arrived in Dover and drove on board the Norfolk line to Dunkerque. My nerves were in tatters. The youngest children had been hell all the way, bickering constantly, “I had it first”, “No, I had it first”, “No me”, “No me”.
When reprimanded and asked to pipe down, they met this with a ricochet of “Told you”, “No, told you”, “No told you”.
Not even Charlie and his Bloody Chocolate factory on CD appeased them.
“Put Mika on mum” demanded the 6 year old.
“Yeah Mika”, reinforced the Red-Head parrot. It was with much relief then when we unfurled our legs on the ship and climbed the stairs to the cafe area where there was a rumpus room for the young children.
Hubby got himself a beer and a paper and sat himself near the kids. The teenagers sloped off to see what delights the ship had in store for them and I just gazed out of the window at the, mercifully calm sea. I sat back and relaxed.
Within two hours the ship docked and we drove off in darkness in appalling weather. Hubby had taking up position of navigator and I was behind the wheel. I was very nervous and my neck muscles were taught within minutes of driving. There were few cars on the road but hundreds of trucks and lorries and the rain was sluicing off them and onto me. I drove at 55mph.
“Speed up a little Alice, or we’ll never get there”. Hubby was cross with me for being a wuss.
“Look I don’t know of any of my female friends who would do this, so don’t give me a hard time. I cannot see the road, I am getting used to the French road signs and the driving on the left. Give me a break.”
Now I am fairly proficient in day to day French – at least I understand what ‘Autres Directions’ and ‘Prochaine sortie’ mean but ‘Volgende uitgang’ and ‘alle richtingen’, were lost on me. So let’s recap. The weather is atrocious, it is pitch dark, I am tired, the children are tired, my husband it tired, we cannot understand the language, we have to find some suburb of Brussels and Charlie has yet to find the golden ticket. If my nerves were in tatters before, now they were in ribbons.
Finally, when Hubby screeched out “For God’s sake Alice, get in the outside lane, we need to get off here”, I was able to park up, be embraced by my friends and finally relax with a much deserved glass of wine.
The following morning our friends left to go on their own holiday, leaving us to navigate ourselves once more. We eventually found the centre of Brussels only to remember, on hearing a sickening scraping sound that we had the roof box on top of the car and were thus excluded from all multi story car parks.
“Watch out!” yelled Hubby as I was about to pull out and find a parking space, somewhere, anywhere. “I have to pull out a bit”, I yelled back, “I’m on the other side don’t forget, I can’t see”.
The weather was not good. It snowed. I drove in all conditions. I only almost killed us once, on entering a No Entry road and only to see six lanes of traffic came towards us. It was a talking point for days.
It was a lovely city but the weather was not conducive to meandering with several children in tow. And expensive? Unbelievable. It’s not much fun when you have to share a coffee and a sandwich and the children have to make a coke go between three but when it costs €18 for a Quick Burger for two little children and one adult then what can you do? The ketchup sachets were 45 pence each and a pee? 30 pence. The journey home was without incident. Matilda went down better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It wasn’t until we’d unpacked and Hubby had a beer that I mentioned the boiler..