Monday, 29 September 2008

Liberty.

Well, I had the best time. The palpitations of anxiety I felt just before I left, vanished as soon as I got in the car and by the time I was wandering around Terminal 3 at Heathrow airport it was hard to imagine that I was a wife and mother of four. To be honest I would have been happy to have spent a couple of days at the airport. “There is so much to see, so many perfumes to smell, so many handbags to fondle”, I said to the lady at the Jo Malone shop, my little face eager and excited by the variety of sensations bombarding me. The woman looked back at me with a look that most definitely implied, “Poor little provincial soul”. No doubt used to seasoned travellers who know exactly what they want, I took my time in every shop, exasperating the staff who wanted a sale from a rich businesswoman but I, as far removed from rich businesswoman as you could possibly get, meandered leisurely, unimpeded by the wants and needs of my rather large family.
The flight itself was thank God, without incident. In fact the aeroplane was half empty and so, once we had taken off, were free to sit wherever we chose. Minutes later with legs stretched out at the bulk head, a glass of wine in hand, headphones attached, movie on, I was like the proverbial pig in bliss and seemingly minutes later we were touching down at JFK airport. Luckily, due to the time of night, there were few people in the queue at the immigration desk. This was extremely advantageous otherwise I might have been there all night, not only because everyone now arriving in the States is required to go through the whole finger printing procedure and have their photos taken and their retinas scanned, but also because my immigration officer ‘came on to me’ as they say. By this time I was feeling rather weary and was not really up to having to deal with an amorous official. I was also in a rather compromising position. I could hardly tell him to ‘eff orf’ or he wouldn’t have let me in and besides, who would have believed my story? So I had to grin and bear it as he continued with his smarmy rhetoric, “Hey delicious lady, you married?” when I told him 17 years, he rather lasciviously replied, “No way man! Fancy a little variety in your diet? Must be boring eating hamburger every night”. I had to explain to Hubby via text what that meant: ‘He was comparing eating the same thing night after night for 17 years with sleeping with the same man. Wasn’t I bored? Wasn’t it samey?’
‘You should have told him that sometimes you alternate between ketchup and mustard’, quipped Hubby.
‘Then he’d have thought I swung from Arthur to Martha’, I replied punching the phone.
‘Huh?’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, I thought you sailors were the epitome in prurience. He’d have thought I was, well you know?’ Hubby didn’t know and the call was costing me a fortune, so I left it at that.
Finally and with a wink, I was on American soil and after a wild cab ride arrived at my friend’s fabulous house. What followed was some of the best few days of my life. I felt so liberated to be unencumbered by others that I felt as though my cage had been opened and for once in a very long time I was able to shake my tail feathers and fly free and swoop and soar.
To wander around Manhattan is not everyone’s cup of tea, not unless in the company of several friends but I like being by myself. Little makes me nervous and once I’d got the hang of the subway, well, I was like a native. Uptown and Downtown I travelled. Upper West Side, Upper East Side, I traversed. Broadway, Grammercy Park. Soho, Noho. I went to shops, restaurants, museums and galleries. I dined and partied and over a passion- fruit mimosa champagne cocktail, I, gently, turned down the advances of a Japanese dwarf. I brunched and lunched, and if ever I thought buying a coffee in America was confusing then a tall, single, skinny, misto, extra dry is nothing compared to ordering a salad. As I stood there behind Bergdorf Goodman’s amidst a gaggle of New Yorkers shouting out their orders, I was cowed into speechlessness when my turn came.
“C’mawn lady. I ain’t got all day”. Quickly, I chose my size and four toppings. I thought I’d cracked it until the guy shouted back at me, “Leaves?”
“Leaves?”
“Yeah lady, what leaves? Iceberg, mixed green, garden?” Oh I see. “Mixed green”, I yelled back. Phew, I was about to relax when the question of ‘dressing’ came up. I decided to go ‘naked’.
I listened to dozens of conversations that week, people-watched thousands and conversed with everyone from the wantonly, Latin lactation consultant to a gay actor who guided me through a ‘dodgier’ area to the old, fabulously glamorous Jewish woman on a bus down 5th Ave. She was, as was everyone I spoke to, alarmed by the sudden turn of events in the Presidential Race. It is surprising how profound a conversation one can have with a stranger on a twenty block bus ride. Her parting shot, “We gotta educate women. Let them choose a pregnancy or not. Stop them living lives of servitude”. Then I got off. Her words stayed with me. New York City is staunchly Democratic. It breathes liberalism; it advocates free choice, free speech, diversity, difference. Obama as they say, rocks. From personal experience, having lived in small town Pennsylvania, the rest of America ain’t so broad minded where creationists, pro-life nutters, homophobes and rampant racists live blissfully unchallenged, shoulder to shoulder. Unfortunately, ‘the rest of America’ is one hell of a lot of people and the New Yorkers have every reason to be alarmed.

NB: This post was not directed at my hosts, AG and CD who were the epitome of grace and generosity. Thankyou x.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Outta Here.

It’s been a bummer of a summer to put it mildly. The weather has been atrocious; the news has been all doom and gloom. I just want to get on with my life, head down, not causing anyone too much aggravation, looking after my family and eking out my grocery budget.
Thing is, no matter how hard I try to just ‘get on with it’, disaster after disaster befalls me. I can’t even be asleep these days without incurring huge costs. Take last Saturday night for instance. Hubby and I went to bed and, where I can usually hear a pin drop, especially noisy pins, like drunken louts outside my house, on this particular occasion I was left undisturbed until the following morning when I woke, refreshed and ready to face a busy few days with yet more and more guests to stay and church to attend with my youngest children.
Now, those who know me well will concur that I am not your regular church going type, but as my youngest attend a Church of England school and it was a family service and, because I want my children to develop some sort of moral obligation then I felt it only right that we support their school and attend. So, by ten past nine, whilst the rest of the family slept, we, in our Sunday best crept out of the house and went to the car.
The mess that confronted me stopped me in my tracks. A wind screen wiper had been snapped off at the root and the wing mirror, far from just having been bent back ‘for fun’ and been pulled at and pulled at and tugged and wriggled so much so that, not only was there no sign of where it might even have been, but, given the amount of scratching down the side of the door, one wonders if a tiger had taken the mirror off and not some A-hole of mankind. I just stood there, rooted to the spot. Why would anyone do something so malicious?
“Oh my God”, said the six year old, “Did a chav do that mummy?” I was speechless. This had been my mum’s car. The Renault I bought from Dad after her death and which has served me so well on my daily school run.
“Go and get daddy sweetheart” was all I was able to muster and within seconds Hubby, in his dressing gown, was at my side.
“Why?” I asked him and, apart from swearing and cursing and hugging me tight, he had no answer either. I left him to deal with the Police and insurance company and strapped the girls into Hubby’s trusty jalopy instead. As we approached the church an ominous smell of fumes filled the car.
“Bloody hell. What now?” I opened all the windows and parked the car. We entered the church and sang hymns and the girls listened attentively to a parable...but I couldn’t tell you which one. My mind was elsewhere; maybe I should have been down on my knees begging Jesus for mercy and a respite from minor, if costly disasters. But I didn’t, the only time I have called on Jesus’s name recently has been in vain, when faced with whatever crisis presented itself.
We drove home with the windows wide open and walked in to find Hubby’s expression grim indeed.
“Bad news Alice love. The insurance will cost us £200 excess.”
“Further bad news”, I replied, “Your car is giving off fumes”. Later that day our guests arrived and I cooked enormous quantities of food but my heart wasn’t in it, especially when ‘Forensics’ turned up the following morning.
“Well, well, well”, he said, looking at my car and shaking his head, “There was a spate of incidents around here on Saturday night, mostly damage to cars, but, well, this would have taken a good fifteen minutes to remove. These wing mirrors are attached by high tensile wire”. There were no incriminating finger prints.
That evening, Hubby and I drove in convoy to our local garage to drop off his old car and the following day my guests and I went to a scrap dealer for a new wing mirror and wiper blade. We returned to my local garage for said parts to be fixed and were met with the very solemn face of the mechanic.
“Mrs Band? Will you come into the office please?” I followed him meekly. Now what?
“It’s not good news I’m afraid”. There’s a surprise. “I don’t want to get too technical with you but basically it’s to do with blah, blah” he broke off. From the expression on my face it was all too clear that I just wanted to know how much money were we talking here.
“Over two and a half grand”, he said. There you have it. One car vandalised. One car too expensive to mend.
Then, just when you think the world has got it in for you, the post the following day brought a surprise. An invitation from an old school friend. Her book is being published. I was cordially invited to the launch party. In NYC. The Big Apple. Hubby laughed when I showed it to him. “In your dreams Alice love, in your dreams”.Well, as in all the best fairy tales, my God-mother (no wings) has made my dreams come true. “I’m buying your ticket for you”, she said, “And if you refuse to accept it I will never, ever, ever speak to you again”. My dad, in cahoots with my God-mother has bought me a new dress and handbag and inside a wad of green dollars. So I’m actually going. I fetched a pumpkin from the garden and it turned it a Virgin Jumbo jet. This is a modern fairy tale after all. Very modern actually, my Prince Charming is staying at home to look after the kids.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Romance.

“Happy Anniversary darling!”, murmured Hubby into my shell-like last Saturday, before depositing simultaneously, a kiss on my cheek, a cup of tea on my bedside table and an enormous bouquet of lilies on my chest. Who could ask for anything more, as Ethel Merman once sang.
“Thanks”, I said groggily, before leaning out of bed and delving into my bedside table to remove an envelope and handing it to Hubby, “I thought you’d forgotten”.
“Evidently”, he replied grimly reading its contents. But our wedding anniversary hadn’t been mentioned. We hadn’t discussed if we were going out for dinner or to the pictures or indeed whether we were going to mark the occasion at all and so the card I’d bought was rather a facetious one, which had the following quote on the front, ‘A wife can surprise her husband on their wedding anniversary by merely mentioning it’.
“So were you testing me Alice?”, he asked.
“Well”, I explained, “I normally give you plenty of advance notice regarding matters of significant dates and this time I thought I’d see how you got on alone, without my prompting you”.
“So, basically you were angling for a row?”, he demanded. I shrugged.
“Jeepers Alice. Ever the romantic”, said Hubby.
“Look”, I replied, sitting up in bed defensively, “There’s no need for the hang-dog expression. You don’t usually know when your own children’s birthdays are and you hadn’t mentioned about going out, so I thought the card was, in the circumstances, apposite.”
“Well we are going out actually. So there”, he replied petulantly
“Oh? Where?”, I asked. Please, not Pizza Express again, I prayed. After 17 years of marriage however, many couples communicate by way of extra sensory perception and we are no exception.
“Well it isn’t Pizza Express ok? It’s a surprise. Just be in your glad rags by 7pm”.
Our various children gathered at the breakfast table in dribs and drabs. The youngest ones, with typical bonhomie threw themselves at Hubby and me, lavishing us with kisses and enormous hugs.
“Happy Anniversary mummy” said the 6 year old before adding by way of an afterthought, “and you daddy”, as she handed us an, albeit grotesque, drawing of a bride and groom.
“Ditto”, said our son sleepily, kissing his father’s crown before turning his attention to me, “Yeah man, happy, you know, wedding-thing...”
“Is the word anniversary really too much of an effort to articulate before 10am?” I asked.
“Sorry ma, but um, like yeah”. It’s like sharing a house with a cross between Dylan the rabbit and John Lennon. I sighed.
My teenage daughter though bounded into the dining room, gave me a huge kiss and handed me a card. Always precocious regarding her literary choices, her inscription within the card brought tears to my eyes as I read it aloud: ‘Romeo and Juliet might have gloried in the songs of the lark and nightingale but they heard it only once together. Your love has continued for uncountable lark songs and we too will love you forever’.
“Isn’t that just wonderful?”, I asked those at the table, wiping away tears, “Thank you sweetheart”.
“Yeah cool” responded her brother, glumly chewing a sticky maple and pecan Danish.
The postman delivered a card from my in-laws and my sister in law also remembered. As I arranged them on the mantelpiece after breakfast, I was horrified to find an inch of dust greet me but, just as I was about to address the situation with a can of Pledge, the doorbell rang. It was the plasterer, come to fix the hole in my ceiling.
“Bloody hell”, he said looking up, “So this is where the Hadron Collider is then eh?” My anniversary thence continued in an asthmatic cloud of pink plaster dust, falling debris, boot foot prints on my carpet and infinite mugs of builders brew. As I hoovered for the nth time later that evening, Hubby began to get agitated.
“C’mon Alice, leave that, we’ve got to get ready”.
“What’s the rush? We’re not going far are we?”, I asked, more preoccupied by my Dyson which was having difficulty sucking. I peered into its wand.
“We have to be on the seven o’clock ferry. We have to be”, he reiterated looking at his watch, “Please, go upstairs and get your slap on”. Twenty minutes later I was showered, dressed, bejewelled and smelling heavenly. I stepped into my vertiginous heels, kissed my kids, gave orders and waited for Hubby in the hallway. He emerged from the basement in his naval uniform.
“What’s going on?”, I asked suspiciously.
“We’ve been invited for dinner on a German frigate”, he said, taking my arm and ushering me outside before I could protest. “It’s a private affair, in the Captain’s cabin”.
Before you could say ‘achtung’, Hubby, me, a handful of other officers, their wives and a contingency from the local Anglo-German fraternity, were on board a ‘PAS’ boat, sailing out to the frigate. The sea was slate grey and lumpy. I felt queasy.
Eventually our little boat moored alongside a pontoon out in the Sound. I gingerly stepped onto it and picked my way up the ladder to the ship. It was literally a white knuckle ride as I gripped the railings. The wind buffeted me and I wavered, collecting myself before continuing my climb. My shoes were preposterously inappropriate as was my frock. Beneath me waited the unfathomable jaws of the sea.
Most unexpectedly I had a wonderful time. The Captain, his crew and the company were delightful, the food fantastic and the wine plentiful. Emboldened by Dutch or in this instance German courage i.e a few shots of J├Ągermeister, which I was advised contained over 53 vitamins, I tripped back down the ladder to our waiting boat like a happy-go-lucky gazelle. As we approached Millbay Dock I fingered Hubby’s gold stripes, “After 17 years you never fail to surprise me. Danke darling”.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Canteen.

I’ve been promoted. The travel company, through which we had hosted the international students at the beginning of the summer, were so impressed with my sterling efforts at race relations that they have sent me another girl. Only this time it is not for a three weeks, hell no, I have been entrusted with the moral and physical welfare of an exquisite Norwegian teenager for a whole year.
Hubby was kept in the dark for a while, well, there’s no point in worrying his pretty little head for nothing and I thought the best policy would be to frighten him into thinking the very worst, so that when it became clear what was actually happening, he would be relieved and immediately relenting. And so, over breakfast one rare sunny morning, when Hubby was at his happiest with a cafetiere of coffee, the fantasy property pages of his newspaper spread out before him and his favourite music playing, I hesitatingly started the following conversation:
“Isn’t it lovely how this house is always full of young people?”
“Hmm”, he grunted in reply, not looking up. I tried again.
“I love it. Last week what with sleepover buddies, a girlfriend and various band-mates I counted thirteen youngsters in this house, that’s not including the surprise arrival of the Red-Head’s God-father and daughter and his friend and her two children. It must keep us young.”
“Speak for yourself”, he mumbled. This was not going according to plan. I tried harder.
“But darling, some people have such dull lives don’t they? You can’t call ours dull, can you? I mean the kitchen is like a canteen. I literally seem to ladle out food from a bottomless cauldron”, I paused, Hubby was at least looking at me now, if only sceptically, “but I do love looking around my dining table and finding that even the spare chairs have been utilised and all these kids are chatting away and passing bread and sharing food”.
“You feeling alright Alice? You are not your usual, moody cow self”. I chose to ignore that remark.
“I just love having children and young people around that’s all and I mean, well, what’s another mouth to feed?” That clinched it, Hubby, mid-pour of coffee, missed his mug completely and dark, hot liquid dripped off his paper and onto his lap.
“Jeeze, ow, ouch”, he yelped, hopping around and holding his soaking, dressing gown safely away from the family jewels, “What are you getting at Alice? What the hell are you trying to tell me?”
“Well, recently I’ve felt...”, but he didn’t even give me the chance to carry on.
“I knew it”, he blew, “I bloody knew it. You’ve felt sick! You’ve lost three stone in only a few weeks and the only time I’ve known you do that before is when you were pregnant. Have you been sick in secret? Oh dear God, oh no”. His slumped into a dining chair and plonked his head on the table.
“For heaven’s sake”, I said and was about to add an important fact that he seemed to have overlooked when suddenly he remembered and he sprang up from the chair, fury blazing from his eyes.
“But I’ve had a vasectomy! My God! I don’t believe it! How could you? How could you?”, he demanded. I put my hand on his shoulder and very soothingly said,
“My darling, I am not in the slightest bit pregnant and I have most certainly not been carrying on with anyone else. Now, had Johnny Depp wanted me for his film and we’d met up over a cup of coffee at his trailer then I might have found it nay on impossible to refuse but as I’m only on his shortlist, then my chances are slim and for the time being you needn’t worry...”.
“Get to the point”, Hubby growled.
“I just felt, that, as the international student experience was, by and large such a positive experience and, as we have the time and space, we could host another one”. My plan had worked and his relief was palpable.
“Phew, is that all?”, he fell back onto his chair, “Sure, why what’s the arrangement?” And so I told him that the company had been in touch and that they wanted us to host for a full year.
As anything was better than the horror he’d previously imagined, he smiled and agreed, “Sounds like a good idea. So they go to school here do they?”
“Yes, the programme is called the High School year and I’ve arranged for her to study her AS levels locally”. There was a pause.
“She? Do you know who’s coming then or, should I say, when is she coming?” It was my turn to look uncomfortable.
“Er, Sunday”. The coffee almost went flying again, but Hubby succeeded in keeping it together.
“You mean tomorrow?” he asked. I nodded.
Pia has been with us almost a week and is without doubt everything one would expect a Scandinavian to be, beautiful, blonde and encouragingly, like every other teenager I’ve encountered i.e messy, emotional and with a mobile phone permanently glued to her ear. I must admit though that I have grave reservations regarding the travel company who facilitated this experience, who have amongst other gems of wisdom, advised me and the other host families that we must not provide lunch, that our students must not make contact with their parents for three months and that at Christmas, we are only expected to provide a cheap, token gift. My gut feeling, sadly, having met the other host families, is that there is more than one who would have no qualms in allowing a nervous, homesick sixteen year old watch as they enjoyed a round a sarnies, let alone a Sunday roast and who quite candidly were only in it for the money, as one nudged me conspiratorially, before rubbing his fingers together and saying, “It’s a holiday innit?”

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

New Shoe Hell.

“Alice, I will do anything, anything, but please I beg you not that!” so pleaded Hubby the other morning as we lay in bed.
“What’s the big deal?” I answered grumpily, “Other men do it and I don’t want to do it by myself”.
“You’ll enjoy it more on your own, really love, I just can’t stomach it. In fact I feel a panic attack coming on just thinking about it”.
I sat up, “Don’t you think you are being a tad over-dramatic? Honestly, I’ve only suggested that you come with me to buy new school shoes and you’d swear you were being coerced into some deviant and transgressive act”. Hubby at least had the grace to look sheepish.
“Yeah well, you’re a better man than I am Gunga Din. I’ll get dinner ready for when you get home, I’ll re-grout the bathroom tiles, I’ll weed the garden, I’ll...”, his voice trailed as I got out of bed and pulled some drawers on.
“Ok”, I said, hopping around our bedroom as I attempted to get the other leg in, “I get the picture, but I’m not taking them all then. I may indeed be a better man than you but even I know my limitations and taking all four children to buy school shoes, is most definitely one of them”.
Leaving the youngest and most unpredictable child behind with her father, I drove away in silence. Not only was 11.30 far too early for teenagers but the thought of a day spent traipsing after their mother, buying items for school had rendered my eldest children mute and irritable. The six year old was more up-beat, her only request being, “Can I have a doll in my shoes mum?”
It really shouldn’t have come as any surprise but when I was on the verge of vertigo given how many floors we’d driven up and then corkscrewed down again in the new shopping mall car park before we found a parking space, I began to fear that perhaps every parent with school age children had had the same idea.
Jones’s was the first stop. They were duly measured and the young assistant brought a selection of boxes, removed the shoes and attempted to persuade my children’s feet into said shoe. I felt Prince Charming’s despair; none of the shoes fitted.
“Well why don’t they fit?”, I asked the 13 year old.
“They rub” she answered, stonily before hissing in my ear, “and they are seriously hideous”.
My son wouldn’t even try his selection on and the six year old choked on a sob, “But they haven’t got a doll in”.
“That’s Clarke’s”, said the assistant automatically and without emotion, as though this was the thousandth time she been stymied in her sales by a disappointed school girl, hell bent on a plastic doll in her heel.
“I’m sorry”, I said, gathering my kids, “This is going to be a long day”. I walked out briskly, holding onto my six year old daughter’s hand firmly. My other daughter was near me but my son was doing his level best to lose us in the crowd, shuffling his feet slowly and meandering. It was all I could do not to clip his ear.
We could hear Clarke’s shoe shop before we could see it and by the time we eventually climbed the stairs to the children’s department, the noise was cacophonous. An assistant met us with a number and wasn’t even able to say, ‘take a seat’ as there weren’t any. Not one. Only harassed parents, screaming toddlers strapped into pushchairs and other children of varying ages. Boxes, shoes, socks and tissue paper lay everywhere and everyone: parents, staff and children looked close to tears.
One little girl was having a pair of black, lace up shoes fitted. Finally she succumbed to a sob.
“But they are so ugly”, she blubbed, “They look like special needs shoes. I want girly ones like Hannah. Hers have got lights.” Her mother looked on, defeated.
We waited in this retail hell for forty minutes before we were served. My son, who has size 12 feet was allowed to go downstairs to the adults section as there was nothing available for him in size Sasquatch. My girls, thank God, were measured and fitted without further delay and with a pair they, and more importantly I, liked. The younger had the all important doll and the elder a pair that weren’t too ‘academic looking’. Her words not mine.
I went downstairs to find my son leaning in the doorway.
“Well?”, I asked, impatiently, “What’s happening?”
“I wouldn’t be seen dead in any of them”. God give me strength. We still had uniform to get.
As we walked, stony faced back towards the mall, my son’s girlfriend and her best friend walked towards us. Suddenly as though a magic spell had been cast, my son’s recalcitrant manner was transformed into joy, effusion and animation. Smiling from ear to ear, he hugged her tight. Time for a break. We left them outside, to court, whilst the rest of the family sipped frappucinos in Starbucks. The best friend was left to stare at her hands.
Revitalised after a sit down, it was time for Round 3. The lovers said goodbye by way of a lingering snog under the escalators but my son did rejoin us with a spring in his step. Barratt’s provided the shoes, shiny black winkle pickers and Derry’s with brown skirts, a nasty jumper and a green blazer.By the time I arrived home I was fit for nothing, except a lie down, alcohol and guilt induced TLC from Hubby. It was not forthcoming. There was a note on the fridge, ‘Gone to Mags and Co for BBQ. Sorry about dinner. Promise I’ll cook tomorrow. Hope you had fun. Love you xxx’. Fun? Fun, my arse. Plotting my revenge? Now that was fun..