Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Poisoned.

The first day of the school summer holidays and all is as it should be, that is, chaos and disarray with me tearing my hair out and wailing to the gods. Hubby has yet to go on leave, so it has been down to me as ever to maintain a night-time vigil with one of my many children. This time it was the turn of the six year old. She started screaming and clutching her ear at midnight and continued until the doctor saw her very early the following morning. My constant sponging of her in tepid water did little to ease her temperature and the journey to the surgery in her pyjamas did even less for her tummy, given that she spectacularly threw up in the chemist as we waited for the magic medicine. One can only imagine the horrors of pre-antibiotic and Calpol Britain, although even I remember having earache as a child and my mother pouring warm olive oil into my ear, then plugging it with cotton wool. There was never a sweet elixir to swallow in the 60’s, instead we had to drink dissolved junior Disprol instead which left a chalky film on the side of the glass. Nor were there day long cartoons and DVDs to entertain us as we languished on the sofa, but at least our mothers knew that were drugs available to cure us and eventually relieve our pain. Their own mothers and grandmothers were far less fortunate.
Even less fortunate were my foreign students who had woken whilst I had been out and were patiently waiting for their petit dejeuner. The necessity of being in plenty of time for the ferry in the morning has yet to sink in and so I am to be found, minutes before the bus they require is on the ferry, ushering them out of the front door with wild gesticulations, histrionic pointing to my watch and bloody awful Franglais, yelling, “You are late, you are late, vite, vite”, like some Wonderland white rabbit on speed.
As I walked through the front door clutching the six year old, who was wan and pale, they all greeted me with a very cheery “Bonjour Madame Band”. How very far removed from my previous, discourteous lot.
I attempted cheeriness, but to be honest being up all night does little for a cheery countenance and I tried to explain that I was sorry that breakfast was late but that I’d been “to le docteur avec my fille because she has a bad ear”.
“She ‘as bad hair?” asked the boy in wonder. You could see him thinking this must be a peculiarly British thing.
“No, no”, I laughed, “Bad ear” I repeated, tugging at my lobe.
“Ah!” The penny dropped and they too all laughed. I escorted my sick child into the sitting room and onto the sofa and returned to the kitchen and provided my students with the requisite chocolatey cereals that all young people seem to love, along with a basket of toast. On the table were the usual selection of Nutella and jam and peanut butter. I poured them three cups of tea, made sure all was well, then went back to my role of nurse.
As I bent down to feel my daughter’s forehead and almighty ruckus emanated from the dining room.
“Mon dieu, mon dieu. C’est poison!” I ran in only to find the boy spitting and gagging onto his side plate.
“Pardonnez moi Madam, mais J’ai ete empoisonne!”, he coughed.
“You have been poisoned?” I had to get this right; what on earth had I done to him. How could toast and cereal cause such a vehement reaction? His sister exclaimed,
“Oui, oui, ze chocolate eez bad”, and I had to resist the urge to laugh out loud as she brandished an industrial sized jar of Marmite at me. In my sleep deprived stupor I had inadvertently put out the Marmite instead of the Nutella and in my experience, Marmite is a curiously British taste sensation, one that you have to be brought up on to appreciate and enjoy, which is why I have never put it on the table for my foreign visitors to thus avoid the exact situation in which I know found myself.
“Oh I am so sorry”, I said unable to stop myself smiling, “It is not poison and it is not chocolate”. They looked blank.
“Pas chocolate. It is a salty spread”. They now looked even more baffled but then trying to explain Marmite is nigh on impossible. ‘A black, tar like substance. Very sticky, it is made from yeast extract and is very salty but use it sparingly and it is very good. Infants are brought up on it’. It must be a marketing nightmare.
“You eat zis?” asked his sister shaking her head and peering at the ingredients. The Spanish girl had been quiet throughout the drama but suddenly spoke out.
“I have seen it before when I am in Southampton. I know it is not chocolate. But my French is not good. I cannot explain. In Southampton they did not have it so thick zo”. I looked at the boy’s toast which was lavishly smeared in the offending spread and gasped. Poor, poor boy, what a terrible mistake to make. I gave him a little hug and repeated, “Pardon! Pardon! Je suis desole”, repeatedly. By the time this episode had been resolved and the boy had been reassured that he would not drop dead their bus had long since gone. The next one wasn’t for hours and, as it was my fault for all the hullaballoo there was no alternative but to drive them to college. I dragged a protesting 12 year old daughter out of bed and gave her nursing instructions then texted my son who sleeps next to his mobile phone: ‘Lk aftr sisters. The merde has hit da fan’.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

El viva Espagna.

I saw the advert in the local evening paper a couple of months ago; a language company looking for host families for its foreign students.
“That’ll be good fun”, I said to Hubby, thrusting the encircled newspaper ad under his nose.
“Don’t you think we have enough kids Alice? Be honest. You are pretty much threaders with them all as it is. Do I really want to come home and find you rocking back and fore with a wild look in your eye, the house in disarray, my dinner as yet undecided?”, he then stroked his chin and added, “Oh wait, that’s how it is now. Yeah, why not. Go ahead. My domestic needs couldn’t be less administered to anyhow”.
And so, after three weeks, three fifteen year old girls have just returned to their home countries leaving me to rush back, change sheets, hoover rooms, scrub the shower and plan another set of menus as I await the arrival of my next three guests.
Where I was nervous before meeting my first lot, this time I am ready for the onslaught of demands that young Spanish girls, let loose in the city of Plymouth, hell bent on a summer of love insist upon. Perhaps I was naive to think that teenage girls on a cultural exchange would want exactly that, so that a few evenings would be spent with us chatting together over dinner and sharing stories. We had big plans to take them out and about. Unfortunately their agenda was less cultural exchange and more saliva exchange given their determination to attend ‘le disco’ every single night, without fail, even in torrential rain, even on a Sunday evening where no bus comes back to Torpoint, even in fact when there is a strike on the Torpoint Ferry and Hubby and I have had to collect them from St German’s railway station just before 11pm.
One of the girls was Finnish and I must not tar her with the same brush as the other two senoritas. The Fin has been a joy – sunny and smiley and happy to be part of the family. She has attended one or two discos but is happier ‘hanging out’ with us. The other two in contrast have demanded the bus timetable, ‘immediately’ even when my hands have been inside rubber gloves inside a sudsy sink and, instead of seeming to appreciate their dinner, it has been an inconvenience to them especially if said dinner was on the table ten minutes later than I’d promised. “We must catch ze bus. You make us late”. They have argued and raged and yelled at me for phoning their course leader when they were still out at 11.30 pm and for being aggrieved when they turn up on a Sunday night at eleven, even though I knew full well their disco finished at 9.30.
“Where were you in the meantime?” I asked. They rolled their eyes before a flurry of Spanish was hurled at me.
I shook my head and said “Enough. I know that you can speak English perfectly well enough to explain where you’ve been.” They could not understand why I was therefore more than a little annoyed that I did not find the fact that sitting up on the Hoe was perfectly acceptable for tiny, Spanish girls late at night.
The last straw for them was finding out about industrial action on the Ferry.
“But we must go to Plymouth. Si, we have to. My leader, she say that school is only 15 miles away”.
“Actually it is about 20. That means 20 miles there and back and again to collect you. It is too much to expect”. Imagine my shock then on finding on my computer that they had Googled backpacking hostels in Plymouth, so determined were they not to spend a night in.
Hubby and I capitulated. He drove them around the Tamar Bridge in the morning and at night I went and collected them from the train. I have tried to comfort myself by repeating ‘It’s a cultural thing. It’s a cultural thing’ but I know in my heart of hearts that even the most primitive tribes have words for please and thank you.
“Remind me why I’m doing this again?” asked Hubby as he bundled the girls into his car, their faces scowling and petulant. “The occasional por favor, wouldn’t go amiss you know”, I heard him say to them but they just giggled and nattered away in Spanish oblivious to the fact that Hubby was doing them an almighty favour and also oblivious to the fact that at breakfast they hadn’t even said good morning to their fellow foreign student, who morning after morning has sat at our dining table looking terribly lonely as the senoritas completely ignored her and excluded her from their conversation.
Luckily my daughter and the Finn have become fast friends and have spent hours together watching movies and giggling over Leonardo Di Caprio’s seemingly myriad merits. Her tears that she didn’t want to leave when it was time to go home reassured me that Hubby and I weren’t severe and austere parents who are completely out of touch with the (even continental) youth of today. Hell, no doubt were I young and gorgeous and sashaying down Las Ramblas of Barcelona free of parental restraint, that I too would be happy snogging the local hombres, but I’m sure that even then I would have said gracias for the privilege.
So, as I await the next lot, two French siblings and a Spanish girl I am prepared: a) I know the ins and outs of buses and discos b) far from preparing food that is spurned in favour of MsDonalds, it will not be d’accord to dine there five nights a week and c) we shall play games en famille.
“Entente cordiale, Jeux Sans Fronti√®res an all that ”, I said to Hubby confidently.
“Careful love, you’re beginning to sound like Stuart Hall”.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Jam.

During a very brief interlude in the incessant rain, Hubby, in a moment of uncharacteristic levity, suggested we go, en famille, strawberry picking.
“Why dear?” was all the enthusiasm I could muster, it after all being a Sunday morning after a filthy wet day.
“Only 8 weekends to go and it’s the autumn”, had been my mantra the previous day and now Hubby’s suggestion meant that I’d have to shake myself out of this unseasonal torpor, and get dressed.
“C’mon Alice. Let’s do it. We can make jam”.
“As in the royal we I suppose?”, I asked with just a hint of sarcasm.
“No, really, we’ll do it together”. So, against my better judgment we packed three of the children into the car, gave strict instructions to the fourth to work on his Jane Eyre essay and drove to the south Hams.
Many years ago, when a child, strawberry picking was great fun. We made a day of it and we children would stuff our faces with the fat, red, juicy bounty as our parents, bent double, would fill the truggs to the brim with what was left over. It was innocent and free, and those strawberry stains were, by all accounts, a nightmare for our mother to remove from our pre-Primark, cheap as chips t-shirts.
It is by far a different story these days. So much so that Jeremy Vine had a phone-in recently on the very subject where an irate strawberry farmer had his five minutes of fame by berating the youth of today and how appalling they are and what a nightmare it is to be a strawberry farmer as his livelihood was being compromised because his customers had the temerity to eat as they pick. Hardly a modern phenomenon.
The South Hams farmer must have been listening to the same Radio show as I because, as we pulled up in the car park, I saw ominous signs that suggested any child found with the tell tale red juice around it’s gills would henceforth be admitted to the nearest Borstal tout suite. I became very nervous and whispered to Hubby, “How the hell can we stop the youngest from trying the occasional one? We can hardly leave them in the car can we?”
“No?”, suggested Hubby.
“No”, I said firmly. And so, consequently our time, which should have been a bucolic reminder of gentler days, was spent with Hubby and I hissing at two young girls, who were thrilled to be out in the fresh air, to not dare put any of the strawberries into their mouths only into their punnets.
After fifteen minutes of punishing self control the Red-Head protested vehemently.
“This is not fair and not fun, I don’t want to do this stupid job”. The six year old, it appeared agreed with her sister,
“You let us eat the ones from Tesco’s and someone else has had to bend down to pick them. We are doing the work here. It is slavery”. She is a precocious six year old.
Hubby sighed, the eldest daughter sighed and once again I tried to point out the fun in picking your own, the methodology of jam making and finally the joy of spreading one’s own confiture onto a warm slice of toast. They were not impressed and instead dumped their punnets before running off to play.
Due perhaps to the weather, few people had been out picking and subsequently there was a glut of fruit, which meant that within half an hour, Hubby, our eldest daughter and I had filled our cardboard truggs and took them back to the farmer to pay for them.
He put them on the scales and quite calmly said, “That’ll be £32 pounds please.”
“Excuse me?” I couldn’t quite believe what he said. Thirty two quid? For strawberries? I’ll never eat that much jam in my lifetime, not even if I bought Tiptree.
“I’m sorry”, said Hubby we didn’t come out with enough cash, “Would you be kind enough to wait while we locate a cashpoint?”.
The farmer sighed before reluctantly putting the truggs behind him. We got in the car.
“What are we going to do now?”, I demanded from Hubby, “No wonder people go to Tesco’s and such. So much for local produce and pick-your-own. And he wouldn’t even let a free one past our lips. What a rip off”.
We found a cafe cum organic shop, who thankfully offered a cash-back facility. I paid nine pounds for a few slices of free range turkey and a bottle of organic rose wine and received twenty five pounds cash-back.
“That’s it”, I said to Hubby, “I’m not prepared to pay more than that”.
We returned home with two and not three truggs, whereupon I set to hull the berries. “I thought we were doing this together?”, I called to Hubby.
“Just a minute. Just sorting my work shirts”. I don’t quite see how sorting a week’s worth of white shirts takes forty five minutes, but evidently it does because by the time Hubby came to join me every strawberry had been hulled.
“Shall we get them on the boil then?”, he proposed.
“Not on a Sunday evening. I’ll make the jam tomorrow morning when everyone is in school. Less mess”.
Hubby shrugged, “Whatever”. I went to bed before him but was woken at 1am with him prodding my shoulder, “Alice”, he whispered, “Disaster. It didn’t set”.
What was he thinking meddling with jam making? Independently.
Of course the following morning I walked into my kitchen and found eight gallons of strawberry soup on my hob. After much consultation with Delia and my old domestic science teacher not to mention the loan of a jam thermometer from the stalwart of the local W.I, I now have enough jars of jam to comfortably provide every cream tea this side of the new millennium. We shan’t be bothering with chutney.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Princess.

Many would argue that I already live an enviable life of luxury but, the older I get the more convinced I am that I was born to enjoy serious, filthy, dripping in diamonds, extravagance. Take last Sunday for instance. Hubby, the children and I were invited to Princess Yachts in Plymouth for their charity day. It was a great day out and the kids enjoyed the usual variety of events that are part of any British fete like experience. Every penny raised was devoted to charity, it was very well organised, there was a good turn out and the rain stayed away.
Hubby and the older two children enjoyed seeing the various stages of boat building and having the opportunity to clamber on board one that was almost finished. These yachts are without any shadow of doubt truly splendid, sumptuous toys made for the truly sumptuous, splendid rich.
The highlight of the day though was the boat ride. We had tickets for two people. Hubby and I had already drawn straws and whilst Hubby had won I questioned his prerogative.
“But it’s not fair”, I sulked, “You get to go to sea every day. Going on a boat is no big deal for you.” He gave in, although not without first mumbling, “So much for democracy” under his breath. My son wasn’t too bothered about the trip having managed to endure a family outing and by late afternoon was happy to go home to his computer. The youngest girls were too young anyway which left my big girl and me to enjoy the experience.
Now, I was under the naive misconception that a Princess yacht is at its best moored in a marina somewhere on the Costa of the Med; that it is a staid if luxurious craft where one can kick off one’s mules, open the bar, pour a G&T and watch the poor people on the board walk as they look up and gawp at one’s hedonism. This belief was further reinforced as we gently pulled out of Millbay Marina. The interior was plush and lavish with leather and suede upholstery, more lavatories than your average four bed-roomed house, a modern state of the art kitchen, bar and sundeck. As I waved to Pete Goss pottering around on his lovely wooden boat and myriad exhausting sails I thought, “Ah yes this is the life”.
After a good look around and fantasising of featuring in a five page spread in Hello! Magazine, my daughter and I climbed the stairs to the outer deck and sat jauntily on the leather banquette, watching the very handsome young skipper take charge. There were only a handful of other punters on board, so it really did feel quite exclusive and as we sailed past Plymouth Hoe, I genuinely felt to the manor born.
“Do you think it’ll go much faster?” asked my daughter.
“I shouldn’t have thought so darling”, I replied knowledgably, “They’re like me, not built for speed. Built just to be looked at and swan from one marina to another.” Why don’t I just keep my trap shut? Actually I don’t think the skipper heard me - only the devil because suddenly we reached the other side of the Breakwater and I’m sure I saw a demonic look in the skipper’s eye as he shouted into the wind, “Shall we see what she can do?”
An unanimous roar went into the air and before you could say, “There she blows”, we were flying along on the crest of a wave. That’s not entirely true. Most of the waves in fact seemed to be cresting on me and within seconds I was soaked. The damp lifejackets we were given should have been an indication of what was to come but I hadn’t given that a second thought.
By God we were going fast, so fast that it was impossible to speak, my jowls were in fact wobbling like James Bond’s in that G-Force scene. Standing up the skipper then turned the boat into the spray as if astride a jet-ski not a 67 foot motor yacht. It was impressive if terrifying and at one point as we turned, the boat seemed at such a slant that I thought we would topple over but the skipper had a reassuring air of confidence. Nonetheless, with one arm I clung to the guard rail for dear life, with the other I gripped my daughter. She however, along with the other passengers was having the time of her life. “Yee-ha!”, they all called out. They say there are no atheists in the trenches. Neither let me tell you are there in a very high powered motor yacht, where the skipper is hell bent on showing off his boat’s impressive seafaring skills. I prayed and prayed that none of us would be catapulted into the sea and my hand and arm ached as my grip was loosened by the salt water on the rail. Eventually he slowed down and made for the Breakwater but it was only a lull in a very fleeting sense of security and no sooner had I thanked God than once again we were hurtling towards France and I was hurtling towards a certain, watery death.
After 40 minutes of action thriller, movie stunts I was amazed to find myself disappointed that we were returning to the marina. My confidence in the boat and my skipper had grown and as we disembarked we all agreed that we were terribly impressed by the stunning youthful performance of something that looked as though it could only cruise, albeit very grandly. As I cast aside my wet lifejacket I felt hard done by. What a job to work for Princess but what job enables you to buy such a fabulous toy and then to maintain it? Why couldn’t I have one? And when is the next Euro Millions Lottery rollover? I’m going to buy at least a fiver’s worth.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Cherry.

“Get your glad rags on”, Hubby reminded me, “I’ll pick you up on the other side of the ferry at 19.15”.
The invitation to a cocktail party aboard a Dutch frigate had been gracing my mantel piece for a couple of weeks. In the past I’ve been wary of these functions, mostly because Hubby was some lowly officer and I therefore had to mind my station not to mention how many drinks I threw down my neck. It’s easily done. A tray of drinks seems to be circulating the hanger constantly and, because you don’t know anyone and are a little nervous, well needs must.
These days, with Hubby at the zenith of his naval career, the only way is down, meaning, apart from my handbag, I have nothing to lose so, I look forward to these do’s where after a gin and tonic or two and with rather disconcerting aplomb, I can let my hair down.
Walking onto the ferry that evening I felt even more confident. My weigh-in had been triumphant, my hair was behaving itself and I felt very trendy in my new high-heeled wedges. It was a fabulous evening, the sea was blue and the sun was shining, allowing me to don my shades, adding, I felt, to my air of glamour.
Hubby as promised was there to meet me. He wolf whistled as I disembarked and was about to sweep me off my heels and kiss me but, having just applied a new lippy, the last thing I wanted was for ‘Raisin No 17’ to be smeared not only all over my face, but also his clean shirt and deftly, I managed to dodge his embrace so that he got a mouthful of clean Timotei flavoured hair instead.
“Cheers”, he said, extricating long strands of hair from his mouth.
“Sorry, that’s all you’re getting for now”, I replied patting his arm before adding, “God I’m starving”. That’s the trouble with being on a diet, the awful yearning ‘ I could eat anything’, hunger. I wake in the morning wondering whether to have muesli with fat-free yogurt or muesli with skimmed milk. I eat my rice cakes at lunchtime longing to take an enormous bite out of a warm tiger bloomer filled with strong cheese and thickly sliced gammon ham, a packet of Walker’s Sensations on the side. At dinner time as I watch my family tuck into creamy, parmaseny spaghetti carbonara and garlic bread, I stoically nibble away at a fillet of poached salmon and yet more salad, repeating the mantra of ‘it’ll all be worth it, it’ll all be worth it’.
On this particular evening I hadn’t eaten a smidgen beforehand as I wanted to be able to indulge on the canap√© that are served at these affairs and, knowing how partial the Dutch are to a bit of nasi goreng and satay sauce and how partial I too am to such fattening titbits, dinner had to be sacrificed.
We were piped on board in the usual style, although my new shoes, which had yet to navigate a ship’s gangway, let me down and as I stepped down onto the ship I stumbled straight into the captain’s arms. Pretending this is what British wives do, I went on to hug him, before, in the Dutch way of greeting: kissing him three times. To give him his due, he did not recoil but laughed, saying to Hubby, “You have an affectionate wife Commander Band!”
Hubby grimaced before leading me, my elbow in his vice like grip, to meet his colleagues. As we chatted, a tray of champagne cocktails was presented to me; I took one and sipped it. It was divine. A heady mix of Amaretto and champagne graced with a maraschino cherry. Thank God for the cherry, because, apart from a couple of bits of ham impaled onto the end of cocktail stick, cherries were the only consistent victuals I saw all night. It didn’t seem right to mine sweep the drinks just to remove the cherries and so, what’s a girl to do? I had to drink the drink as well. One can only imagine, after having eaten barely a thing all day the effect of a few cocktails and one or two glasses of wine has on a dieting girl.
As I stood leaning against Hubby, who was in deep conversation with his colleagues, my new heels began to play merry hell with my feet and I sucked on my cherry with renewed fervour, anything to distract myself from my pain, my hunger, my encroaching inebriation and my present company. Do these men never get bored with talking about their bloody jobs? They had worked together all day for heaven’s sake, in fact Hubby had spent the previous evening with them at dinner and, when they came home to our house for coffee, far from attempting to engage in flirtatious banter with me, they continued their Navy parlance with the same zeal as they would in the mess. I knew not of what they spoke but it would seem that they had dished out several B.S’s.
Finally, as I stifled a yawn, an old face wandered over.
“Hello shipmate. Alice. Long time, no see”, he said.
“Still drinking Alice?”, his tone was reproachful, thinly veiled by a smile. What the hell did it have to do with him? I smelled a familiar rat. He tried again.
“So, when are you getting a bigger car then?” That was it. I was still fat. Five weeks of strict calorific self denial combined with far too much alcohol was a heady combination.
“I am not pregnant”, I barked, leaning towards him menacingly. Unfortunately, whether I fell off my shoes or passed out I’ll never know but I hit the deck a most undignified heap.
“You’re drunk”, he said as Hubby pulled me to my feet.
“And you, to paraphrase Nancy Astor, are a horrid man, but tomorrow I will be sober”.