Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I'll get my coat..

My life at times goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. From the highbrow to the mundane within the course of a conversation. Last week I was at a dinner flanked by a Lord on one side and an MP on the other. I make coffees for a living so, trying to sound worldly wise and grave and grown up was something of a real challenge. I deal with the day to day minutiae of life and rarely have to give a formed opinion on anything other than whether a daughter’s hairstyle looks lush in a certain style or whether or not the jeans/top combination is ‘immense’. My son who is studying government and politics ‘A’ level, just by-passes any opinions I might have and talks directly to his father. As I generally only have time at the weekend to read the News Review pull-out section of the paper and perhaps the odd movie critic, then I really am out of practise regarding scholarly discussion on pressing party politics. To be honest, if I had all the time in the world I very much doubt I would venture far beyond the news review, unless the Style magazine was still hanging around and hadn’t been purloined by a 14 year old daughter.
To say that I was a little nervous in making sparkling conversation with these two men then would be something of an understatement. Hubby was far away at the other end of the table, not that he’d be any use anyhow. He has long since given up any hope that I might actually know anything about the cabinet, especially given the fact that when he last asked I replied, “What cabinet? The one with the books in or the one with the albums?”
“Jeeze Alice just tell me you at least know that Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister?”
I did know this. Of course. But what happened to be in my favour that night was the fact that I had Samuel Pepys on my side. I am slowly becoming an expert on my fellow diarist and could, I’m sure, use him for my individual round on Mastermind; the fact I’d crash and burn on the general knowledge side though puts me off applying. So I was able to say to the minister on my right with much confidence, that “Pepys writes in his diary that, apart from the great fire, in 1666 Naval Officers got into terrible trouble for not disclosing the ‘prizes’ they took from caught enemy ships but kept the goodies for themselves. A sort of 17th century expenses scam? Fancy? It was going on even then?” After that, the minister seemed as nervous as I’d been and suddenly didn’t feel inclined to talk politics at all, in fact he was more than happy, like most of us, to talk about the kids and the general anxiety that their insouciance creates. The Lord to my left was equally far too uncomfortable to join the conversation on random drug testing in the armed forces as he had, by his own admission, been a bit of a 60’s hippy. He was joking but that brought us nicely around to the subject of rock music, a subject I know quite a bit about due to my son’s loud and regular playing of it. The evening passed far more pleasantly than I could ever have hoped for.
The weekend that followed passed, as is customary for a February half term in this house, with a virulent tummy bug. The Red-Head was the first felled. All night she vomited and vomited. Our Monday morning excursion to an old friend in Wiltshire had to be postponed whilst I disinfected every surface. To no avail because on Tuesday morning, whilst the Red-Head had recovered her verve, Hubby lay green in his sick bed. We left him there and drove to Wiltshire regardless.
Sarah and I have been friends since we were two years old. Her husband was once a city banker earning millions. He was remote and absent a lot of the time. No doubt that happens when making millions. These aren’t the type of men who cuddle up with you on the sofa of an evening with a bag of Doritos and a jar of salsa, happy to watch American Idol, as I pointed out to Hubby. Luckily for Sarah’s husband and consequently Sarah and her family, he packed it all in just before the financial crisis. Now they live the ‘good life’ in an old farmhouse, surrounded by the rolling fields of Wiltshire, where they keep pedigree sheep.
I thought I was clever turning up with a tin of scones and a large pot of Rodda’s finest clotted. That was until I shooed the chickens away from her path and walked into her fabulous, warm, under-floor heated kitchen and saw, like some carbohydrate Bonsai, freshly made pasta dangling from a wooden stand. The pasta wasn’t the only domestic wonder. There was fresh bread in the oven, home-made jam for the children to spread on it and if you can suspend disbelief, home cured Breasola for the adults. Before we went to bed, her husband took the cling film off what I thought was forgotten pancake batter, but which turned out to be in fact, home-made yeast. Home-made yeast? For God’s sake. He added it to some flour in a bread machine and the next morning voila, artisan bread. We enjoyed it as much as we could before my 8 year old proceeded to puke and reluctantly, I repacked the car, waved my farewell to Tom and Barbara and drove the long journey home again, pink plastic bucket under my daughter’s chin all the way.
As I drove under a dark sky, a metaphoric dark cloud gathered. I considered the people I’d recently met, those far greater intellectually and others more domestically adroit. If they are sublime, then really, I am quite ridiculous.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


It was a ‘Ta-da’ moment that almost misfired. Hubby and I were in desperate need of and I’m sure it’s the Americans who coined such an apt, if slightly euphemistic phrase, reconnecting. Left to Hubby, we would have just grumbled along for another few months whilst various domestic crises came and walloped us. I have seen too many movies, had coffee with far too many friends and read far too many articles not to realise what happens to relationships if one ignores warning signs. There weren’t just warning signs in this house, oh no, I felt these signs were accompanied by flashing lights, bells and sirens, and whilst men may be immune to such obvious dangers, women are not. I can sense matrimonial peril whilst Hubby, along with most men, struggles with the subtleties and nuances of marital life.
Hubby needs to be told in no uncertain terms when I am cold or hot, happy or sad, at ease or anxious. There is no point in my hoping that just by sighing in a particular way or adopting any specific expression that he is going to be able to ‘read’ these signs.
More than one friend has said to me that she has had her hair done, put on a new dress and splashed a liberal amount of parfum and waited seductively, with every fibre of her being for her husband to arrive home from work, only to be met with a perfunctory kiss. When challenged with a desperate “can’t you see anything different about me?”, the lover in question has catastrophically, yet in utter terror as he quickly scrutinizes a wife whom he hasn’t genuinely looked at for weeks, replied, “Er, new lipstick?”
Of course all hell then breaks loose. The woman cries that she is invisible, that he doesn’t love her, that she is taken for granted and that she has become his mother. The husband stands there bewildered, longing for escape, a beer, simplicity, completely at a loss as to what has “brought all this about love?”
I myself have, over 20 years in a monogamous relationship had several of these confrontations, some worse than others, some only involving flying insults but some involving flying crockery. At other times the extensive period of conflict, tension and even economic competition that followed would have given any Cold War a run for its money. So, to avoid military coalitions and let’s be honest Hubby has more contacts than I in that department, I felt the time had come for a little ‘glasnost’.
Consequently, I tallied my saved up pay slips and figured out that I could just about afford it, so last Saturday morning, whilst Hubby was absentmindedly stirring his coffee, I hit him with it.
“Go and pack your overnight bag”, I said, heart beating.
“Huh?”, he barely looked up. Be cheery, be cheery.
“We are going away for the weekend! Go on, go and pack”. Had he said that to me, I would have, without so much as a by your leave, ran and grabbed my knickers and a toothbrush. Hubby on the contrary, looked at me over the rim of his spectacles and, with a very grave voice said,
“I sincerely hope we are not Alice because, and I’m sure that you are well aware, we have the equivalent of a small natural disaster in our garden and are having to remortgage to pay for it”.
“I know, I know” I said, desperately trying to keep the excitement from waning from my voice, “But it’s been getting us down so I’ve been saving up. The money is not coming from any account. It’s in a drawer somewhere in Cawsand. Come on, it’s a surprise!”
Even the children were looking beseechingly at him, as though a negative answer would have a direct bearing on the rest of their lives.
“Where?” was all he’d commit to.
“St Moritz!”
“What the f...?”
“ Polzeath silly, not Switzerland. I’ve looked at the website. It’s fabulous”. Had it not been for the children’s palpable excitement that they were going on a sleepover, I’m sure that Hubby would have remained resolute.
“What about the dog?”.
“Sleepover too”.
“England Wales game?”, I thought he was joking, so breezily replied, “There’ll be a telly”.
A couple of hours later we were shown into our suite. It far exceeded my expectations. I lay my bag on long dining table that led to an enviable, kitchen. Huge French doors opened onto a balcony that was hot after a balmy, winter afternoon of an unbroken, tranquil, blue sky. A champagne bottle stuck out of an ice bucket. It was cool and contemporary. It was in fact, perfect.
The bed was of the marshmallow variety. I have never lain down on anything so comfortable.
“What shall we do then?” I asked with my best come hither eyes. Still blind to signs, Hubby answered.
“Well, you brought your kit. Go for a run and I’ll watch the rugby”. He wasn’t joking and I did go for a run, along the coast and even paid my respects to John Betjeman buried at St Enodoc church. I ran back and fell back into the marshmallow bed and waited. And waited. I fell asleep with a lump in my throat.
Forty five minutes later, during half time, guilt must finally have affected even my husband’s dull senses and full of remorse, he appeared at my side. There was no time to be huffy. Instead we went to the pool and fooled around, then sat in the steam room and sweated it out with a girl from Yakutan.
We showered, we dressed, we went for dinner. Wine was drunk. Good food consumed.
Hubby and I finally returned to our room and enjoyed what can only be described as a passionate frenzy. The Cold War was over. Nixon and Brezhnev should have had a weekend away together. It would have saved a lot of heartache.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


I tried to hide it but I just wasn’t quick enough to whip it away. Hubby caught me red-handed.
“What are you reading?”, he asked, trying to wrestle the cushion that I’d hidden it under away from me. One could be forgiven for thinking that I had something truly naughty in my clutches.
“Er, The Independent”, I replied, attempting a look of indignant insouciance.
“Yeah right. Since when have you been interested in political comment and current affairs? Come on, own up”. And without further ado, he tickled me, I immediately conceded and he thrust the Daily Mail triumphantly into the air.
“Ha, I knew it”, he said, “I can’t believe it. You know how I feel about you reading this bloody paper and its ‘opinions”.
“Look mate”, I replied, getting up and trying to swipe the paper out of his hand, “You are not my keeper, you can’t tell me what I can and can’t read”. Hubby is very tall and when he extends his arm, a pogo stick or something similar is required to reach his hand. Undeterred, I jumped off the sofa and attempted the impossible. The dog however, got very excited by my jumping up and down and decided that he too would get a piece of the action. So what with my inelegant leaping through the air, his added barks and bounds, it was hardly surprising that all four of the children came to see what the commotion was.
As they walked into the sitting room we must have looked quite a sight. The dog and I had met mid-air and crashed into each other falling unceremoniously on top of Hubby who, unsurprisingly was under the two of us, winded and covered in slobber and dog hair.
The eldest two looked faintly disgusted, as though we’d been caught out in some unspeakable act, whilst the youngest two thought it was a green light for some high jinks.
“Yay, mummy and daddy and the dog are having a rough and tumble” and without further ado, threw themselves into the melee with gay abandon, further hindering Hubby’s chances of reclaiming his breath.
It wasn’t until several minutes later that I succeeded in extricating myself from the rug and when I finally did the Daily Mail, by some miracle, was in one piece and I ran off to finish an article I was reading. Locking the bathroom door and sitting fully clothed on the lavatory seat, I at last, found five minutes peace.
The article in question was that age old debate about working mothers and I felt compelled to reply to the columnist who was writing about her experiences of being a working mother of three and how if she wasn’t, perhaps she would have more time to devote to her little darlings and maybe at least one of her children would be well on the way to being the next Vanessa Mae.
I wanted to set her mind at rest and reassure her that had she been available to her offspring from the minute they cut the umbilical cord and every minute since it would be no guarantee whatsoever that her progeny would be prodigious.
Apart from occasional forays into education and making designer coffees a couple of times a week, I have been that ‘stay at home mom’ and what thanks do I get? Actually I don’t want thanks. I want results, something to show me that my efforts have not been in vain.
My son, as we all know, is forging his own path and no amount of nagging, coaxing, tears, bribery and downright begging have had any effect whatsoever on him considering being a barrister, doctor, surgeon or any other worthy and well paid profession. The eldest daughter, the most forthright and outspoken of them all, needs, it would seem no advice from her beleaguered mother whatsoever. Even the most delicate of subjects is taught at school these days and in fact, only this week they have dedicated a whole day to the ‘relationship’ side of sex. Is there any other I asked, appalled? By the look she, her brother and his friends threw me, obviously there is not.
Why can’t my children be just a little bit biddable, the odd acquiescent “ok”, would be most welcome. But they have strong opinions which they voice loudly, emphatically and vehemently. Even my daughter at the tender age of eight, is very much her own person and, whilst I have read her stories since she was a tiny baby and she has hundreds of books filling a groaning bookshelf, she has no interest whatsoever in the written word and just wants to dance and sing and be on “cruises”.
This has left me to pin my hopes on the youngest. Perhaps she will be my Vanessa Mae? For the fourth time, I have read stories and played dressing up endlessly, I have embarked on stimulating days out followed by searching conversation and yet this last child is my biggest worry of all. Now well into her second year of schooling, the whole learning to read thing seems a mystery and we have had to make extracurricular arrangements for catch up lessons.
Had I been out there and much to Hubby’s unconfined joy, earning a crust and she was struggling, I would feel guilty because I hadn’t given her my time but, and this is why I feel I must write to the Daily Mail lady, it obviously makes not a jot of difference. So, good for her that she made the decision to strive for a rewarding career and raise three children.
Just imagine she’d forsaken it and she’d driven home one day with her youngest child only to pass a lady carrying a Yorkshire Terrier and said child was silent for a minute before inexplicably commenting, “Did you see that woman carrying a hamster?” Imagine how she’d feel? That’s why I think I’ll tell her.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry...

It cannot have gone unnoticed that I have been feeling rather fed up recently. I keep reminding myself of all the things I should be thankful for and how lucky I am and I am. Truly I am. But then I have the days that make me froth at the mouth because the children are too lazy, grumpy and resolutely self-centred to the extent that, the request for help with laying the table is tantamount to child labour; the depositing of dirty pants into a conveniently placed laundry basket a foot from the bed is too much effort and it is I who has to bend, retrieve and wash said pants from the floor and then there is the issue of tantrums and much door slamming when the polite reminder of homework dares rear its ugly head. There are also the days when a lovely, new pen bought that very day is secretly played with by the youngest child and left haphazardly on the sofa so that a very blonde golden retriever can masticate it to small pieces and thus distribute black ink all over his pale, furry paws and consequently my carpet.
But most of all are the days when I look out of my kitchen window and still see 24 tons of rubble on my garden. It’s still there. Just because I don’t mention it every week does not detract from the fact that, weeks later my garden and its flora and fauna is demolished by the remains of a massive wall. How come, given how much we pay in premiums, do the insurance company always find a way of absolving themselves of any involvement whatsoever? So much has happened to us in this house that every time the answer has been an emphatic ‘No’ to our claim we have upped the ante and paid for extra cover and still they wriggle out of it. Now we are left with having to remortgage our house and the horrendous hassle to find someone to take away the rubble. Surely someone could make use of it? Why anyone would need 24 tons of 200 year old wall I don’t know but stranger things have happened. What did they do with the Berlin Wall for instance? Someone must be able to advise us. I can’t even think about a re-erection. It certainly won’t be old and historical and attractive. Chain link fence comes to mind.
Hubby and I, it goes without saying are understandably cool with each other and every time money is spent a domestic dispute swiftly follows.
“We have to eat”, I argue.
“Since when has Rioja been one of our five a day?”, he retorts.
“It’s made of grapes”, I impertinently snap. I want to add that I always buy wine that is half price but my protestations are futile especially once Hubby found the ten pound holiday vouchers I’d secretly been cutting out of the local paper, knowing that a more exotic holiday would be out of the question this, or any other foreseeable summer. Hubby demanded to know ‘what I was thinking’. I was thinking of a few days escape I wanted to reply but I didn’t, I just bit my tongue and hid them somewhere else.
Avoiding each other and speaking only when essential is easy at home, I’m at the gym a few nights of the week and at a quiz on the other; Hubby likes nothing more than playing with his playlists on his computer which is in another room to the TV, so we don’t even have to squabble over the remote control. It’s hardly domestic bliss but it works for us. Occasionally, when the kids haven’t sent us into orbit or the dog isn’t in the dog house we allow ourselves a brief hug and the attempts at gracious conversation but it rarely lasts because someone, usually within five minutes, has done something either we or their sibling wholeheartedly disapproves of and, once again after the inevitable recriminations have been doled out, the impenetrable curtain of coolness and mutual blame descends upon our union.
There are times however, frequently in fact, when Hubby and I are invited to partake in polite society. We are expected to sing for our supper and be witty and good value and loquacious; entertaining dits must be spun. We must show warmth and generosity of spirit not only to our hosts and fellow guests but also to each other. Given however, that more often than not, our arrival at our destination was immediately preceded by stress and shouting and making tea for the rest of the family first and myriad other things I have to do before leaving the house, then the fact that we enter homes with smiles and kisses and enthusiastically proffer bottles of wine and boxes of chocolate, is nothing short of a miracle.
The other night was one of those nights. Even though minutes before I’d sulked, “You’re all in the Navy, that’s all you’ll talk about”, we walked in smiling broadly. We ate good food and drank excellent wine but the conversation was far from dull especially when one chap regaled us with a story of showing Margaret Thatcher around a warship. She had wanted to see all of it, including the Chinese laundry. When they got to that end of the ship, far from seeing the sailors smalls go round and round in the washing machine, there were a couple of chickens in there instead. Dead and plucked of course their wings still flapped as the drum turned them over and over. By all accounts it’s a good way of steaming them.
I was tickled pink by this little anecdote and laughed and laughed and, as anyone will attest, laughter really is the best remedy. Hubby and I left therefore holding hands and kissing. Long may it last but I’m buying a Billy Connolly DVD just to be on the safe side..