Monday, 29 March 2010

Night John-Boy

Who was the wise guy who coined the expression ‘families who eat together, stay together’? Well, unless he was married to a mute and had one child who spoke only when spoken to, he was talking through his bottom.
Dinner time in this house is the peak, the pinnacle, the crescendo of the day when all and sundry are gathered around a dining table in various moods depending on the day they’ve had. Not only do they have an opinion on what they are just about to eat but on any given subject. Which they debate. All at the same time. Vehemently.
I am most likely to be found with my head in my hands, silently praying for them all to just shut up. Just shut up and eat, I silently scream as Hubby, whilst simultaneously eating , chooses some music; our son is texting, eating, arguing with his sister, groaning at his father’s choice of music and asking me for money; his 14 year old sister meanwhile, is huffy that we are having pasta again, stressed because of Spanish, upset by someone on Facebook, cross with her little sisters for being noisy and condescendingly hoity-toity l that I “don’t know the sun is a star? Duh, mum”.
The eight year old in turn aggravates her younger sister by teasing her about her easy spelling and how she could do it when she was five. Whilst she is teasing she is not only chewing but practising her tap dancing and the insistent tap, tap, tap of her school shoes on the wooden floor boards, combined with the general drone of everyone else’s objections have my nerves on edge. The youngest child of all is weeping snot and tears into her ragu sauce which she is emphatically not going to eat because it is, “disgusting”. She is also very loud in between the sobs and repetitively punches her bigger sister’s left arm as she shows off that she “can spell down” correctly. Unfortunately she can’t and her persistence is a challenge that no-one can tolerate and they all turn on her and shout, “D-O-W-N”. Cue renewed sobs before she flings herself and the ragu sauce onto my lap. The dog, seizing an opportune moment from lurking under the table with the outside hope of morsels being dropped, emerges in a flash, jumps up and gobbles her pasta.
“Alice” says Hubby with deep furrowed brow, “Don’t let the dog do that”. The meal that took me so long to prepare is finally over and dishes are scraped and carried into the kitchen. They rarely make it into the dishwasher but are left as a gift for me on the counter tops. Seconds later we are gathered again as a variety of yogurts is consumed.
“Yogurt is not the most fascinating pudding we could have is it?” remarks the 14 year old.
“Don’t we have any Magnums?” asks her brother.
“Oh yeah the ones with almonds. Yeah, yeah, yeah I love those” adds the younger sister.
“Me too and I know where they are” says the youngest of all jumping up. Before I can stop her she runs into the kitchen and flings open the freezer and extricates the Magnums from the mound of food I have delicately balanced on an iced up, overfilled shelf. My freezer is very small and so full, that one must shove the stuff in it very quickly, then slam the door shut in the hope that the food doesn’t fall out before the door shuts. Unfortunately, the Red-Head is only five and has yet to learn this trick and so, in her haste, peas, chips, frozen chillies and a bottle of Limoncella crash to the ground. The dog’s excitement is palpable as he frenziedly licks the sticky alcohol off the kitchen floor.
I am hollering at someone, anyone to help me as I try to hold the dog away from the broken glass and general god awful mess on the floor. The children it would seem have scarpered, Magnums in fists and after what seems like an eternity, Hubby calls the dog away before I can finally deploy the Flash kitchen spray.
It was never like this on Walton’s Mountain. They were respectful and god-fearing and grateful and they washed their hands and never, ever did I once hear John-Boy or Jim-Bob or Erin or Mary-Ellen whine that ‘spaghetti Bolognese was pants’ and when could ma get a bit more inventive and make chicken fajitas? In fairness I never heard Ma reply that they could all go to hell in a handcart, the ungrateful little buggers.
I cleaned up the mess on the floor and put the broken glass somewhere safe. I surveyed the general debris and chaos they’d left behind them and sighed deeply. I was about to address it when it dawned on me that I could actually, however painful it might be, ask the children to return and clean up themselves. I knew that I wasn’t going to be all plain sailing and I hardly expected them to rush downstairs and apologise and make me a cup of tea but neither was I prepared for the obstacles that followed. Our son suddenly, just had to finish an essay on Sylvia Plath, the fourteen year old was “in the loo for God’s sake” and the 8 year old was hiding. The Red-Head, who in all honesty I could have done with least, was eager to help. If there are suds and water involved she is likely to be too. Given that I have made such a terrible job in the upbringing of her siblings I felt it wrong to discourage her enthusiasm but, ten minutes later, my kitchen floor and smallest child were sodden.
I carried her dripping, through the house. Hubby looked up from his laptop.
“Ma Walton ended up in a Sanatorium”, I told him, “In Arizona. I’ve booked a room”.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Let it Be.

Everybody knows when I am worried about anything because I’ll spill my guts to anyone prepared to listen. That’s always been a downfall of mine. Too ready to divulge all. Heart on my sleeve. Candid. As far from mysterious and enigmatic as you are ever likely to get. I find it surprising therefore when other people are more secretive and guarded.
Hubby, whilst he’s not prepared to as I might, tell all and sundry over a cappuccino that he’s fretting about something would rather put on a brave face, but this mask slips when he is at home and I know immediately when there is something bugging him as my normally, “Come, come, chin up. Keep calm and carry on”, guy, gets all needy on me. This manifests itself by hugging me, rather alarmingly, randomly and too often and burying his head in my neck and sighing. This is something of a hindrance when one is frying bacon for instance, or taking the bins out. The last thing you need then is burning fat spattering up your arm as your husband needs succour, similarly standing there with a bulging bag of rubbish, one arm around one’s husband, the other hanging off due to the weight of the bag distracts one from the husband’s anguish.
Last Friday having spent the night away babysitting Mags’s children, I finally had to tell him to pull himself together, when, as my car pulled up outside the house, he was waiting on the pavement for me. He opened the car door and yanked me out, pulling me into his arms with a rather dramatic, “Oh my God I’ve missed you. Please don’t go away again”.
After I’d put the kettle on and made him a coffee, I asked him what on earth was wrong.
“Alice. We can’t carry on as we are.” Here it comes, he’s having an affair.
“The remortgaging didn’t go as planned. We just can’t afford our lives. We need to downsize. We need to do something drastic”. This is the point where, in the movies, the hysterical damsel in distress gets a slap across the face, comes to her senses and falls head over heels for the man brandishing the slap. I didn’t fancy my chances. Instead I handed him a fig roll to go with his coffee.
“Hmm I see” I said, rather calmly. I was only capable of being calm because the happy pills that I’ve been taking for a fortnight, are finally kicking in, whereas, had he said this a month ago I’d have fled the house wailing, “No more, I can’t cope with any more”. The Black Dog’s jaw has loosened its grip.
“Well, we’ll have to make some cut backs then” was my optimistic reply and if he was about he say, “it’s gone beyond cutback’s love”, I may never know. The moment passed as our son ambled into the kitchen. With his hair grown unattractively long, sideburns and a weird looking, beard thing he looks like a vagrant.
“What the hell do you think you look like?” asked Hubby, much I’d imagine John, Paul, George and Ringo’s dads asked back in the 60’s.
“A psychiatric social worker”, he answered. I smoothed his hair away from his face.
“Let me just cut your fringe darling”, I begged. He was having none of it.
“It’s for my drama exam. I’m in role”. Hubby and I looked at each other sceptically. Having a son that is a devoted student is not something we can boast about.
“Is that a fact?”, I asked.
“Yup”, he said, peering into an empty cafetiere, as though looking at it more intently were going to make it elicit magic coffee.
“So when is the exam darling?”, I persevered. Keep all avenues of communication open with teenagers, they advise.
“So, you’re not going to shave until then?” asked Hubby before burying his face in my neck again.
“What about Monday?”
“What about Monday?” answered my son.
“It wasn’t a rhetorical question love. I was wondering what time the coach was”.
“What time the coach is where?” This was becoming tiresome.
“To the University expo”. It soon transpired that he wasn’t on the coach from school and that in fact he and his two band mates were planning to take the train.
“You do realise that the expo isn’t in the centre of Exeter don’t you? It’s at Westpoint”.
“Which is?”
“Just off the M5”.
Funny old thing, but Monday morning saw me and three glum band mates drive up the A38.Amongst a few thousand 17 year olds I was the token mother. I visited every stall from myriad universities and almost broke my shoulders humping jute bags filled with hundreds of prospectuses around with me. Getting my son to be enthusiastic was as painful as drawing teeth. He just wants to play music. There is a degree he can do in Popular Music for God’s sake, or Music Management yet he is so short-sighted that he cannot see that if he doesn’t go to uni he won’t have time to for his band as he’ll be schlepping to work day in day out and that’s if he’s lucky to find a job.
We drove home in silence. One of the band members, acknowledging that I’d spent time and money on taking them there and back and buying doughnuts, coffee and lunch at least had the grace to open a prospectus and read a page on a forensics degree.
We came home. Hubby came home. World War Three broke out.
“I’ve got news for you. You are going to University young man. You can’t be a waster all your life. Hell when I was your age I was earning a wage. I...” Much as I expect Mr McCartney said. Unfortunately I doubt they’ll be the next Beatles though, which I why I doubt Mr McCartney then buried his head in Mrs McCartney’s neck and sighed.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Hubby, throughout his illustrious career in the Royal Navy has from time to time, taken advantage of the many and varied courses available to him. At times this has caused great discontent domestically as I have waved him off with a couple of kids strapped to both breast and hip whilst he, without so much as a by your leave, has packed a bag and buggered off for a few weeks to “further his career prospects”.
It has not always been easy when he has called me from various locations, from a bar at the end of a “very long day” to sound sympathetic, especially when he “can’t stay long on the phone as I’m just going in for dinner”. In those days, I was often to be found under the dining table attempting to remove with the help of a sandblaster, tenacious spaghetti hoops that were steadfastly stuck to our polished floorboards. I was often dead beat, cheesed off and resentful and would fantasise of disappearing from time to time on an ‘essential course’, just to lie flat on a hotel bed and go down to dinner unencumbered by toys and sticky fingers. I think at that time I could have sat through endless Powerpoint presentations as long as it meant not looking after small children.
Life is a lot easier now that he is working in the same town as we live and the children have moved on from bright orange pasta shapes and are entertained at school for six hours a day. Going to work in the cafe has been a welcome diversion from the endless drudge of domestic tasks.
So, it was in the cafe the other morning, having attended to my customers that I had a few moments to idly flick through a specialty food magazine. In it was a flyer for a free Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano masterclass. It looked really interesting.
I showed it to my boss, but she is otherwise engaged in transforming the first and second floors of the cafe into fabulous B&B accommodation, so driving to Exeter to learn how to tell the difference between one parmesan cheese and another was not at the top of her list of priorities.
“I wouldn’t mind going” I said.
“Brill idea” said my boss, “Always good to have more than one string to your bow. You’ll be an expert in the deli department. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go and order some grout.”
“Don’t you mean trout?”, I asked.
“Nope, we are installing four bathrooms, I definitely mean grout”.
I was itching to tell Hubby.
“You’ll have to pick the kids up from school on Monday love”, I said airily.
“Ok Alice. What’s that expression on your face? You look shifty”. I was crestfallen.
“Shifty? Gee thanks, I was attempting mysterious”.
“They mean the same thing. Of course I’ll pick the girls up. Where are you going then?”
“Aw come on now Alice, we were there just the other week. You cannot afford to go shopping. In fact...”
“If you must now” I interrupted, “ I am going on a course”.
“A course? In what? Retail Therapy In Practise? The Benefits of Lunching with Ladies?”
“You are so disparaging. Can you not for one minute imagine that my career prospects might benefit from a course? You have been on hundreds over the years.”
“That might be Alice because I have a career that has prospects”. Ouch. “Sorry”, he said giving me a cuddle, “That was uncalled for but really, what course can you be doing? How to make the frothiest cappuccino?”
“Don’t be so insulting. I am going to be au fait with parma ham and be able to distinguish an 18 month old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from a 30 month old”, I read from the blurb, “So that I am able to advise my customers with conviction”.
I stuck to my guns and last Monday climbed the stairs of The Royal Clarence Hotel, with no idea what to expect, other than I would be tasting cheese and ham.
It was fantastic. It far exceeded my expectations. It was run by a lady called Juliet Harbutt who is an absolute expert in cheese and has written several books on the subject. Far from being dull and dry and Powertpointy, the masterclass was fascinating, informative and most entertaining. Her passion and expertise was really infectious and she demonstrated how to tell the difference between different ages of Parmesan and Parma and how they tasted remarkably different when eaten with different wines. I was in seventh heaven. Not so much because of the food and wine but just to be in the company of someone who is evidently such a skilled connoisseur and who can communicate that expertise with enormous verve and passion. I wanted to be her best friend and travel around the world with her tasting stuff. What a dream job.
I was still on a high when I walked through the door and immediately started jabbering “And the ham is hung in room with big open windows. It needs the right breeze, the right temperature and the right humidity. And do you know how the Master Salter finds out if his ham is ready for consumption?” I asked Hubby.
“No idea”, he said.
“Well I’ll tell you. He inserts a needle of horse bone into it and then he sniffs what comes out on the needle. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Amazing”. He obviously didn’t share my enthusiasm. My daughter thought me quite mad.
“How can you get so excited about ham and cheese mum? It’s just parmesan, we grate it over pasta. Big deal”.
“Big deal? Provenance my dear, provenance. Only 830 dairies produce it and only ten cheeses a day are allowed to be made”.
“Whatever. What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti carbonara”.
“Oh not again. I’ve gone off it”.
“And what does that mean?”.
“Hard cheese. In Italian.”

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

And the Winner Is...

“C’mon. Hurry up!” For once I was having my own back. It made a nice change from Hubby’s exasperated, “For God’s sake Alice, we are going to be late. Get your slap on and let’s go”, to turn the tables and inform him, in no uncertain terms that we better get a move on or else.
It was a last moment invitation, from a farming friend of mine. I’ll flatter myself by hoping that we were cherished guests and not last minute reserves after the original guests pulled out. Not that I mind if we were. I’m always up for a diverting night out and surely it doesn’t get more diverting than the Western Morning News farming awards.
We’d already had a busy day. Hubby had made the most of a rare weekday off and we went to Exeter for lunch. A bit of a trek from South East Cornwall but what the hell, especially when Hubby suggested Carluccio’s. Honestly we thought we were the bees knees sharing a big plate of cold meats and cheeses, a glass of chilled Prosecco delicately sparkling in our hands. My sophisticated London friend thought it hysterical, “But Carluccio’s is a chain!” As though a chain of restaurants were a dirty word.
“I pop in there regularly during my lunch break and grab a filled foccacia and there you are, my provincial little friend, driving a ninety mile round trip and thinking it the height of sophistication”.
“Well, not exactly the height”, I said petulantly, “but it does make a change from the smattering of pubs on the Rame peninsula you know. Besides, where else can I indulge in an antipasti Massimo?”
“Hmm, dunno, but there must be a number of places where you can indulge in a massive anti-pasty surely?” She thought her little Cornish play on words quite hysterical and it took her a while to compose herself and even then it was only to tease me further,
“Oh and by the way, just in case you’d been to Bath and thought you’d come across a little gem. Jamie’s Italian is not Mr Oliver’s one and only. It’s also part of a chain. Not just in Bath but Brighton, Cardiff and whilst we’re talking alphabetically, Canary Wharf”. I thanked her for her information but was able to say that yes, I had been to Bath and had spotted Jamie’s latest venture but decided to go to Wagamama’s instead. By now she was crying.
“Wagamamas? You have to be kidding? Alice, you are living in the dark ages. Only tourists and students go there! Really, you need to get out more”.
Only tourists and students indeed? Bloody well off students then if they think that a bowl of broth and noodles is a bargain at £9.70. I wasn’t up to the ribbing, so thought it best not to let on that a family favourite, and only on very special occasions, is Pizza Express.
That was a future conversation. At this particular juncture Hubby and I were very happy feeding each other mouthfuls of delicious delicatessen things but, all good food must come to an end and whilst Hubby went to pay the bill, I struggled into my coat. A very suave, elderly gentleman came to my aid. Helping me with my sleeve, he handed me my bag and struck up conversation. When Hubby returned, the gentleman was holding my hand and as I said goodbye, he kissed it with a very theatrical, “Farewell you spectacular woman”.
“Jeeze. How many Proseccos had he had?” laughed Hubby as we walked back to the car.
I bristled, “Why did he have to be sloshed? Couldn’t you for a moment imagine that some men might actually find me ever-so-slightly, spectacular?” From the expression on Hubby’s face, evidently not.
It was therefore, with no further ado, that I was able to say, 30 minutes before my farming friends picked us up, that we were going out that night and that he needed to be in black tie, pronto. I must confess that it was a bit of a rush. We didn’t get back from Exeter until four, so picking the kids up from after-school club and then feeding all four of them, walking the dog and straightening my hair was a bit of a quick turnaround but with only minutes to spare I was clean and sparkly and amused to see Hubby sweating and swearing at his bow tie.
An hour later and we were mingling with the great and good of the county’s farmers. It made a nice change to talk sheep instead of ships. Having slammed more than enough lamb in my time I certainly have more of an opinion on them than I do NATOs fleet. After enjoying trays and trays of the most excellent and locally sourced hors d’oeuvres and sinking several glasses of champagne, we took our seats.
Having never been to farming awards show before, none of us had any idea of what might happen next and, whilst I didn’t share the paparazzis’ flashbulbs with Helen Mirren nor knock one back with Colin Firth it was nevertheless a most entertaining evening. A kind of bovine BAFTAs. Where at the Royal Opera House the audience get shown clips of the latest movies, at the Royal Cornwall Pavilion we were shown slides of cows and daffodil fields and sexy Massy Fergusons.
The food was delicious, the speeches amusing, the wine, copious. I leant over and asked my friend if he was nervous regarding which expression to adopt when the awards were presented.
“I’ve seen enough Oscar ceremonies”, I hissed, “And watched enough reactions. If you don’t win, just clap and smile through gritted teeth; clap and smile”. My worries were groundless however because, when the envelope was opened “and the winner is...” announced, they called out my friend’s name. He never once paid tribute to his mother though nor his producer or even his agent...

Monday, 1 March 2010

Rest in Peace.

Driving home from swimming the other afternoon, the sad news of Lionel Jeffries’ death came on the radio, “He will be best remembered for his role as Grandpa Potts in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang” said the reporter.
The two youngest girls were unusually quiet in the back of the car. There was continued silence whilst they absorbed this information, until finally, the Red-Head asked, “So Mummy, will he still be in our DVD?”
With no intended disrespect to the late Mr Jeffries, I laughed so hard that I had to pull over and compose myself. As it transpired, my having parked the car was most opportune as immediately my mobile rang. My guffaws were immediately extinguished as the caller made himself known to me.
“Mrs Band? This is Steve. I’m outside your house with the digger. Your husband told me you’d be in”.
I felt the blood drain from my face. Bloody hell. This was it. It was starting. I drove as much like a maniac as is safe to do so and threw the girls in front of the telly, then ran into the garden to administer to Steve’s needs.
The dog, who had heard a lot of commotion in the garden, was by now demented and howling at the moon and as I opened the back door he shot in front of me and turned more enthusiastic triple salcos than any Olympic, Korean figure skater. Barking and woofing and jumping and spinning, he was so excited to see Steve and his side-kick Jamie and digger and fresh earth that I thought he would expire from sheer, unconfined joy. Once he’d tired of chasing his tail, he picked up a log and ran around and around the garden, until finally, I succeeded in cornering him and putting him, desolately, back in the kitchen.
Steven then told me what he intended doing. He had managed to unhinge a side-gate, he said.
“That makes two of us then!”, I quipped. Steve looked at me nervously.
“Sorry”, I explained, “But this bloody wall saga has been going on for months, at no inconsiderate sum. It’s making me a bit doo-lally”.
“Right, well anyway.” This guy clearly had no time for neurotic women. Hey, how many men do? “I’ve taken the gate off”, he continued, “and as you can see, was able to drive my digger up the steps into the garden. I’m going to knock the rest of the wall down now ok, then, excavate?” He was talking to me now as one might benevolently address a mental patient. Slowly and safely.
I nodded my head meekly. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Great, milk and half a sugar. Jamie over there takes two”.
I went back into the kitchen to find the dog moaning piteously.
“I know how you feel”, I said to him, handing him a bit of raw hide. Within seconds he was lying contentedly at my feet, chewing.
“Would that chewing on old bit of hide would have the same effect on me”, I said.
“What do you mean?” asked the 14 year old walking in, “You’ve got dad!”
“Talk of the devil. I’ve got to call him”. I picked up the phone and rang his office number.
“Hello? Commander Band?”
“Hello Commander Band. There is a digger in our garden being ridden by a man with a mean glint in his eye. Can you come home early to talk to him?”
“What about?”
“Well, building stuff. You know, man talk”.
“Alice. Love. I am just about to go and have a three hour meeting on the long term effects of blah, blah, blah (I can never make head nor tail of his work talk); I do not have the time, nor, if I’m honest, the inclination to talk diggers with anyone. You are the project manager.”
“You know what Kevin McCloud thinks of people doing their own project managing?”
“Alice. We are not talking grand designs here; we are talking about the demolition of a wall, followed by the loading of it onto a lorry and its subsequent removal.”
“Fine” and I put the phone down. I made the tea and carried it into the garden. The wall was down and several bucket loads had been loaded into the truck but no sooner had he drunk his tea and driven away to unload, Jamie the side-kick started heaving.
“Ugh”, he said, covering his mouth, “If there’s one thing I can’t stand and that’s maggots”.
I walked over to where he was standing, where in fact all the rubbish bags had been buried since Christmas, and there, wriggling frenziedly, like something from one’s worst horror movie, were seemingly trillions of the things.
My skin crept and I shuddered but as Jamie was no good to anyone, I had no alternative but to fetch a bucket and bleach. The horrors didn’t end there. Once Steve had returned and climbed astride his digger once more, it wasn’t long before he was knocking at the kitchen door.
“I’m sorry to have to have ask you this but I wondered if you wanted me to chuck them in the truck or re-bury them?” I looked puzzled.
“Re-bury what?” and I followed him into the garden.
“Unfortunately my digger has exhumed what I think must be your, um, pet cemetery”.
I looked over his shoulder and there, amongst the earth and rubble, were the skeletons of several domestic creatures. A dog, a couple of cats and what must have been once, a bloody big rabbit.
“Oh. My. God. It’s like C.S.I Torpoint”
“Is it too distressing for you Mrs Band?” My earlier unhinged quip must truly have led him to believe that any sudden shocks where bound to send me into some deranged, emotional fervour.
“No, they are not ours”, I said, “You can dispose of them”. By now the Red-Head was on the scene.
“Oh wow”, she said gleefully, peering at the bones, “Is that what’s left of Grandpa Potts?”