Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Medication. (This post is out of synch and was written after 'Empty Nest'

I came home from work a couple of days ago to find my son waiting for me in my bedroom. He looked very sombre.
“Sit down mum”, he said gravely. Oh God. I steeled myself for whatever bombshell he was about to drop. Gingerly, I sat down next to him on my bed.
“What is it darling?” I asked.
“What are these for?” and he handed me a packet of pills. Oh boy.
“Well, they, I mean I…”, I struggled to find the right words.
“They’re anti-depressants mum”, he said, his voice heavy with emotion, “They were hiding at the back of the paracetamol draw with your name on them. What’s wrong mum? Why are you depressed?”
“How do you know what they are?”, I asked him quietly.
“I Googled the name”. We sat silent for a moment or two.
“Are you going to kill yourself?” he finally stole himself to ask. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Oh my darling”, I replied and I wrapped my arms around him, “Of course I’m not going to kill myself. I was never going to before, I am not going to now and I will never in the future.”
I then went on to explain as best I could that it wasn’t a case of unrelenting sadness or a deep black hole that I was plunged into that was the reason for my prescription.
“Well why then? Do we make you unhappy? Do I? Does dad?”
I did laugh then. “No, none of the above. You drive me crazy. All of you. Your mess, your reluctance to tidy up after yourselves, your need for constant feeding, but you never ever make me unhappy. I couldn’t live without you all”.
“Well then, I don’t understand. Why do you need anti-depressants?”
This was going to take time. I needed to get comfortable. I peeled off my tights and then lay on my bed and snuggled him close to me.
“God ma”, he said, “Couldn’t you warn me when you are about he remove your hosiery. Can I open my eyes now please?”
“Yes, I’m perfectly decent”, I replied. He unscrewed his eyes.
“So, you were saying?”. I took a deep breath.
“I am not a psychiatrist my darling, so couldn’t tell you the inner machinations of my soul, but what I do know is that when I take my, for want of a better word, happy pills, I seem to feel less anxious than when I don’t. My anxiety sometimes gets the better of me and stops me from enjoying my life as I should. I fret and worry to such an extent that all rational thought goes out of the window”.
He was quiet and I could hear my heart beating.
“But dad worries. He worries about money and his job and redundancies. Is he on them too?”
“Not that I’m aware of but dad and I are very different characters and were he to feel that his health would benefit if he were on them, then that would be the sensible thing to do”.
“Do you feel ashamed?”, he asked in a small voice.
“There is a certain stigma attached to mental health and some people find it very difficult to disclose that they need medicinal help to cope with life’s challenges. I don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops, but nevertheless, I don’t see the point in pretending. I am more matter of fact about it. If I had asthma but refused to use an inhaler what would you think?”
“I’d think you were an idiot”.
“Exactly. Similarly if I had tonsillitis or a chest infection, I would be foolish not to take antibiotics. Therefore it stands to reason to me, that if my mind is playing up that I should take the appropriate medication to make it better. Am I making sense?”
“Kinda. I don’t understand why you feel anxious without the tablets though. What can you worry about so much that it makes you unable to function?”.
“Well, that’s the big question and one I’ve asked myself a thousand times. I’m older and wiser now though and I refuse to beat myself up about it. No doubt it has something to do with one of my closest relatives being killed when I was a child and, it has affected me since then by worrying myself sick about something tragic and shocking happening again. Of course, what I’ve come to realise is that you can’t control things outside of your control and, whereas perhaps a person without my experience would just not even imagine the unimaginable , I was wasting happy times in my life by just preparing myself, just in case. It is very wearing and a complete waste of time. It was stopping me being in the here and now”.
“You’ve felt like that all your life?”, my son asked me, aghast.
“No, not always, although I spent from that terrible day as a girl until the day grandma died, desperately trying to keep her safe, but it was always out of my control and in the end, she died anyway, when I wasn’t looking, when we were thousands of miles away living in America”.
He squeezed me. I carried on.
“The thing is, I want to enjoy your growing up, and that of your sisters. I don’t want the choices you make or the journeys you go on, blighted by my anxieties. That’s not to say, even if I were on intravenous valium that I won’t worry myself sick until I know that you are home and safe and sound.”
Just then Hubby walked into our room.
“What are you two in cahoots about?”, he asked. We told him.
“Oh, don’t worry about your mother”, advised Hubby waving at me dismissively, “She always was and always will be, as mad as a sh*t house snake”.

Invisible Me.

My feet were soaking in a washing-up bowl of Epsom salts when Mags came calling. She plonked herself next to me on the sofa.
“Hard day then?”, she asked.
“You could say that”, I replied, wincing as the dog came to greet her and knocked the washing-up bowl, stubbing my tender tootsies inside.
“How long was your shift?, she added, stroking a very excited dog. I extricated my feet from the bowl, better safe than sorry.
“Eight hours”, I said, “And as if that weren’t bad enough, there was no bus, so I walked from the city centre back to Torpoint”.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Mags.
“My thoughts entirely. I walked pavements that I’ve never walked before”.
We were quiet for a moment, both of us trying to remember a dim and dubious past when we might, as young women, have zig-zagged home in the early hours after a dancing the night away in some Union St night club. I was relived that I could not recall even one time.
“Thing is Mags, as I walked, I had plenty of time to think and walking in the dark, in my polyester uniform, I was completely invisible.”
“You mean it was so dark, no-one could see you?”
“No, I don’t mean literally. I mean …” and I felt a little embarrassed to say the next bit.
“Go on”, Mags prompted.
“I felt poor”. There I said it.
“How do you mean?” Mags asked.
“I’m beginning to loose my identity as me, middle class mum, commander’s wife, graduate.”
“Because what we do for a living and what we wear so very often defines us. Hubby goes to work and everyone knows he’s the commander. His uniform, lest anyone has any doubt, tells them so. Similarly when I was a teacher, my clothes suggested I was a teacher because I looked professional. Students lent their respect. A white coat and stethoscope suggests a doctor. What we wear has a certain gravitas, or not as the case may be.”
“So?” asked Mags.
“So when is the last time you held any particular regard for a shop girl?”.
“Well, I’m always polite to them”, replied Mags, defensively.
“Always?”, I queried.
“Ok, not always, but some are hopeless and sometimes I’m in a rush, but Alice love, they are just sales assistants. Hardly educating the nation, or healing the sick or commanding the Royal Navy for that matter”.
“Just sales assistants? ” I said, “Which is why, as I sat rather dejectedly at the bus stop before deciding to travel by Shanks’s pony, I realised just how invisible I was. For want of a better word, I looked working class and thus not worth the time of day. Honestly Mags, I walked through parts of Devonport which were very rundown and dodgy, but I looked as though I fitted right in.
“Don’t be ridiculous”.
“Straight up. My make-up had waned, my hair was pulled back; if I’d walked into Iceland to get a few frozen provisions, the sales assistant there wouldn’t have bothered with me because I am now one of them. I can truly understand how you start believing how others perceive you. No wonder the unemployed feel so worthless. It’s how we’ve made them feel, ditto single mums and immigrants”.
“I never thought a Christmas job would have made you so political”, said Mags, sounding rather nervous.
“That’s the other thing”, I added, “I know in my heart of hearts that I’m earning a crust and busting my ass to earn some extra cash for a family Christmas, which rather ironically, because of the gruelling world of retail, I won’t even be a part of, but I’m also, after only a couple of weeks in the job, beginning to believe that I am not capable of anything more. Perhaps my colleagues and other low paid workers share that feeling”.
“But I thought you enjoyed it?”, said Mags.
“I the words of Abba, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. I love the customer service, and helping old ladies in the changing rooms especially. In fact, I think department stores should specialise in services for the elderly. Have you ever given a thought to how knackering it is for old people to shop?”
Mags assented that she had not.
“Well, it is. Exhausting. For them to buy any new clothes they have to negotiate the crowds, find the item they want, queue to try it on, get undressed, put the new thing on and then, if it doesn’t fit, well suffice it to say that they are very relieved to find me. They hold my arm and we take time gathering several items, then I carry the things to the fitting rooms and stand outside the curtain whilst they undress. In a couple of cases, where the poor dears have been arthritic, they have asked me to be in there with them to help them dress and undress. It may be a drop in the ocean compared to teaching and medicine, but I get a wonderful sense of satisfaction that I have made one old lady’s day a better one.”
There is no time for personalised customer service these days though. Much like teaching, it is all about targets. Although I am delighted to help my old ladies, I am aware that I ought to be selling, selling, selling and with every sale, offering store credit cards, which for many families, especially at Christmas, will be a descent into the ravages of debt. Hubby walked in.
“Alice, sweetheart, whilst it is commendable that you feel pimping a credit card immoral, please keep your gob shut and hang onto this job. For once in your life, just smile and say to your superiors, ‘Certainly, Sir’”. Mags looked doubtful.
It was a phrase I’d have to practise; I reinserted my feet in the Epsom salts and mulled the rather obsequious, proposal.

A Brief Interlude

So, before I donned my polyester uniform and started my new role as shop girl, it was Hubby’s birthday. I surprised him by taking him away for the night to Center Parcs.
“Alice”, he said, “We can’t afford it”.
“Yes we can”, I answered imperiously, “I’ve been saving my two pound coins for it. Besides it’s only an over night spa break”.
So, with little more than a clean pair of knicks, a toothbrush and a pair of pyjamas, which elicited the most predictably lecherous comment of “You won’t be needing those, nudge, nudge”, from Hubby, we got in the car and left the small children in the care of the big children.
It was only mid afternoon when we arrived, but almost dark yet, having been to Center Parcs once before with the children we knew the routine, or so we thought.
“You’ve come to the wrong entrance”, said a bookings clerk with a clipboard, “You should have come in through the ‘Spa Break’ entrance”.
“Oh, sorry”, I said apologetically.
“You passed the sign further down the drive. It’s hard to miss”. Hubby and I looked at each other and giggled. She was very strict.
“Turn around and go back down the drive and then enter through the staff entrance”. We nodded meekly. Finally, after a lot of “No, up there”, “No, turn left”, “No. Stop. That’s only for bikes”, we found our accommodation. It was an apartment which was more than adequate for our needs. I had no plans in cooking.
The bath was deep and the bed very comfortable.
“But this is two single beds pushed together” said Hubby, much chagrined.
“Well that’s ok”, I replied, attempting to hide the relief in my voice, “I won’t be far away”.
After unpacking our small overnight bag, we walked to the swimming pool. We were at a loss.
“It’s weird without the children”, said Hubby. I nodded.
“Let’s go down the rapids”, he suggested. Really? Did I have to?
“C’mon, don’t be such a spoil sport” and without so much as a by your leave, Hubby hurled himself over the wall and into swirling water beneath. I attempted the same leap but, never particularly athletic, got rather mortifyingly stranded with one half of my body dangling over the wall and the other half dangling the swimming pool side. Try as I might, I could not engender the oomph to get over it. Thankfully, an elderly and rather well built gentleman saw my predicament and chucked me over the edge and into gushing water. I screeched and screamed and choked and coughed most of my way around.
“Wait for me”, I kept calling out to Hubby as though my life depended on it, “Please wait for me. Glug, glug, glug”. Every time I caught sight of Hubby, decorously going along the rapid in front of me, he was helpless with laughter.
It finally ended with me being deposited rather unceremoniously in a deep pool, sideways. When I looked up, Hubby was waiting for me looking like a tall Daniel Craig, dripping, sexily wet, his hair raked back from his face. I emerged from the pool like the Kraken, hair plastered to my face, swimsuit barely covering the essential areas, bruised with eyes bloodshot from the prolonged dunking in chlorine.
“Glass of wine?” Hubby mouthed. I shook my head vigorously.
“Huh?”, Hubby hunched his shoulders in disbelief.
“I’m not saying no to wine”, I shouted back over the noise of screaming children and rushing water, “I am ridding my ear canals of the last vestiges of white water rapids”.
Fifteen minutes later, having visited the shop and bought pretzels, wine and a bath bomb, I was wallowing in far more agreeable bath water. It was bloody hot though and I emerged later, poached, looking not unlike an expensive and rather fragrant crustacean; Rick Stein would have put me on the menu.
“Hello lovely lady”, said Hubby in his best James Bond voice and he got up off the sofa and whipped my towel away before adding, “Bloody hell Alice! I can’t make love to a lobster”. That’s where all similarities with Daniel Craig terminate.
The following day was sunny; we booked into the Aqua Sana. And once within its calming, soothing environment, enveloped in a snuggly white robe, it’s as though real life has been transcended. We spent hours wallowing and sweating; steaming and meditating until finally we were called for our massages. Sublime. No sooner had I peeled myself from one treatment bed than I was led to another. Facial time.
The next time Hubby and I faced each other our skin shone and radiated, having been sloughed to within an inch of our lives. “I must drink more water”, said Hubby in all earnestness, “My therapist said I had very youthful skin and that’s all I needed to keep it looking young”. Did she now? Mine suggested a very expensive but delectable box of vials full of elixirs to keep ageing at bay. A bottle of Perrier would have been far cheaper.
“Shall we go home then?” Hubby asked. Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away from the utopian bliss that is a day in a luxury spa and headed home. We arrived with a bang. Literally. Our children were waiting for us at Mag’s bonfire party.
The contrast was too much for me. Only hours before I’d been lying on a banquette in tropical heat, wearing little more than a swimsuit and a towel as a turban, now I was in an anorak and a pair of wellies on a boggy lawn with a baked spud in one hand and a chilled glass of wine in another. I lasted an hour.
“Sorry Mags, I can’t cope with the cold. I need my bed”. It took him less than a nano second.
“C’mon then Mrs Band”, said Hubby, whipping the potato from my hand before gripping it, “Excuse us Mags, we have some unfinished business to attend to”.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“I don’t know how you do it?”, said some; “I don’t know how you cope”, said the others. Well, truth be told, it transpired that I could do neither and so, after much soul searching and wringing of hands, my teaching career has come to, for the second time in a few months, a rather abrupt end.
Scores of bulging ring binders now litter the house like little tombstones and I feel inclined to inscribe upon them in my much used highlighter pen, R.I.P ‘Miss’. A library of hugely expensive teaching texts book gathers dust in my bedroom and my computer is a constant reminder of what might have been with its memory almost full with the assignments, resources and homework that I have written, researched and marked.
A debacle at a placement school back in March was undoubtedly the writing on the wall. Entirely at fault, but entirely without intent to injure or hurt, I erroneously wrote a few lines about one of my students. A delightful student who had made me laugh, I repeated what he’d said to the public at large. It was a grave mistake and one that cost me dearly. I was out on my ear. And suspended from my university college forthwith.
The shock was immense. My children were at once anxious, outraged and no doubt, although they spared telling me, embarrassed. My dad was so very, very sad about it. He knows his daughter is no villain and has looked after the hearts and minds of more children than Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins combined. He knows where my heart lies and it almost broke his to see me lost and suspended. Suspended it such a perfect term. I liken it to hanging in mid air. A floating sensation that leaves one confused and nauseated. In those first few days, when I suddenly had nowhere to go in the morning and no students to prepare and knowing that I was being discussed by tutors, teachers college lecturers, it was hard not to lose my mind.
Hubby poor soul, hoping that soon I would be in a well remunerated job with career prospects, a rising pay scale and a pension, looked terrified. Assuaged for one brief moment of his pecuniary angst by hoping that his burden of being the main bread winner would be shared. His dreams of one day ‘pottering’ were dashed. He didn’t blame me once. He may have wanted to, but not once did he articulate his inner demons which might have gone along the lines of “What have you done? For God’s sake Alice, what have you done to us?” I will be eternally grateful to him for biting his tongue.
My uncle, a head-teacher in another part of the country drove down to see me. He saw my predicament in a less emotional light than those directly attached to me. He read the notorious words I’d written and scratched his head, before saying “Oh Alice”.
“But it was meant to be funny”, I refrained, “I was quoting such a lovely anecdote. I made a mistake…”.
My friends, each and every one of them, from those I see regularly, to those who now can only communicate remotely via Facebook, remained devoted and loyal, reminded me who I was and kept me going and chivvied me along.
My university, who, after agonising months of uncertainty, finally met me for a disciplinary hearing in June. The ignominy of such a phrase. A disciplinary hearing. Cheats, thieves, liars and bullies get disciplined and now here I was: one of them. I survived it and they allowed me to continue my course, but that I would be ‘at risk’.
I’m sitting here, searching the thesaurus of my brain, but I genuinely cannot find a suitable word to describe how disgusting that little phrase sounds in my ear. At risk. To whom exactly? The most notorious child killers and murderers have been at risk to all of us. Whatever anyone may say, I cannot subscribe to the point of view that, a well meaning if hopelessly misjudged sentence, computes with any of the above.
And so, metaphorically battered and bruised, I returned to my teacher training in September. But my natural ebullience and chutzpah has gone. I feel like Winston Smith. I had committed the crime of committing my thoughts to paper, leaving all those in power to scrutinise me. It was untenable to work under the pressure of such surveillance. No matter how hard I tried, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that my lecturers would never tick all the boxes and pass me. It was an overwhelming ask. I think perhaps they knew that. And to be honest, at the great age of 46, the last thing I need is to hate myself, to think myself a despicable character. I have had to constantly remind myself that I am not. I am good old sort, far from perfect but a good and could have been, a great teacher.
The colleagues, with whom I have worked, especially most recently, have been an excellent bunch of people. I can only thank them for their advice, guidance, inspiration and support and of course to the children, too many to mention for being fabulous by their patience when I faltered and their excellence when my teaching produced from them work which made my peacock feathers splay out and shiver with pride and anticipation of the endless possibilities of what lies ahead for them.
I have taken a job in a supermarket. I start on Monday. Filling shelves will pay the bills, essays will not have to written, maths worked out on a till but the need to share my passion for my literary heroes and my resolve for correct grammar and spelling prevails, ergo, for those who need a little boost of confidence and oh boy, can I empathise with that, I am availing myself for private tuition..

Guests of honour?

Were she not already there, my mother would have died and gone to heaven.
“Guests of honour! Guests of honour mind you!” I can hear here telling her darts team. I was more than a little surprised myself, it must be said.
“Who will be at the Trafalgar Night dinner?”, I murmured through tightly zipped lips which were concentrating on gripping a needle, lest my internal organs be harpooned by it.
“The usual crowd of mayors and ex-service members. The locals from our town”, replied Hubby equally intent on bulling his dress shoes. I peered though the needle’s eye and pulled a length of black cotton through my lips, hoping for a stiff point to thread the needle with.
After several attempts, the thread went through the needle’s eye, “Ta-da”, I exclaimed jubilantly, “Who’s the guest of honour?”, I added, head bent, hell bent of mending my one and only navy coloured posh frock which had split under recent duress.
“We are”, said Hubby. I stopped sewing.
“What did you say?”, I asked, looking at him with a bemused smile. He was having me on.
“We are the guests of honour, or to be more precise, I am, but they wanted you to tag along”.
I scratched my head quizzically which, under the circumstances, made me yelp, as I was still clutching the needle.
“Are you making a speech then?” I hadn’t seen him writing anything.
“Yes, Alice, I am making a speech”. My heart sank. I thought this was going to be a fun night out away from Hubby’s work, where I could drink to the memory of Nelson, who for once, God bless his soul, had not scuppered any of my birthday plans as all events to commemorate his memory where held either before or after the 21st of October. For once in a long time, I had no beef with the esteemed Admiral and would instead, be eating it.
“Well keep it short then”, was the supportive, wifely advice I gave Hubby.
The venue was within a stone’s throw of our house and yet, because I had my very lovely, very expensive and very high heeled suede court shoes on, I could only take baby steps, much like a Geisha in a tight Kimono.
“Please wait for me”, I called plaintively in Hubby’s wake, “I really can’t go any faster”.
“Why did you wear such ridiculous shoes then?”, he replied, walking back to retrieve me, clearly irritated. Men are such hypocrites. Would he have preferred me to have worn a pair of Birkenstocks then, or a nice flat, comfy pair of wide Van Daals?
Puffing, as he had my elbow in a vice like grip and we were striding uphill, I posed the above question to him.
“Of course not Alice, I hate you in flat shoes. I just always forget to add an extra half hour to any walking that may be necessary… Hello, good evening”.
We’d arrived; it really wasn’t very far at all. A lot of hand shaking went on, and a large glass of wine was thrust in another. Some people were strangers, a couple were old friends and the rest were my community. The people I see on a day to day basis, in the bank, in the library, on the street, in the WI market. I felt very much at home.
Later, more than replete after a hearty dinner, Hubby cleared his throat and got up to speak. Oh, God, I thought, here we go. Apply rictus smile and look on supportively. Well, hush my mouth.
His speech was fantastic. Goose flesh ran up and down my body. I don’t often praise the poor sod, but fair dos. The speech was rousing and heartfelt; it was stirring and patriotic; it was passionate and persuasive. You could have heard a pin drop. Hubby’d made Nelson, the Royal Navy, me and his community proud. As he lifted his glass in toast to the Immortal Memory, I swear I had to use every fibre of my body not to stand up and whoop and cheer.
The applause went on for quite a while. Our old friends looked on at us at the top table with tears running down their faces, mouthing “Your mother would have been so proud”. It was a very emotional moment. To be among our community like this was incomparable with any other naval do we have been to before. I felt truly honoured.
More was to follow. Hubby was presented with a fine, engraved pewter tankard and then, leaving me rather lost for words, I was presented with a fabulous wicker basket of flowers. Me? I felt like Alice, Duchess of Cornwall. I’ll say that again as it has a certain je ne c’est quois –Alice, Duchess of Cornwall.
With the formalities over, we could relax and enjoy what was left of a wonderful evening. Later we teetered back the way we’d come. I hung onto Hubby’s uniformed arm.
“That was an amazing speech”, I said to him, standing on my sore tippy toes to kiss him, “I wanted to sign up immediately and whup the Frenchies’ butts”.
“Darling, I appreciate your loyal support but the Battle of Trafalgar was over two hundred years ago. You may find the French are our allies these days”. And there’s me thinking he was a rugby fan.
Two days later, I drove onto the Torpoint Ferry. The ferryman beeped my tag.
“Insufficient funds”, he said. Had he looked at my bank account recently?
I rummaged through my purse. It didn’t contain so much as a ten pence piece. Dammit. I apologised profusely but was quite unprepared for the ‘violation’ ticket they thrust through the window at me.
Good job I’d already been given my basket of flowers. I doubt a ferry felon would have been bestowed with such an honour.

Ship-Shape and well, what is Bristol Fashion?

From the furious screaming, hissing, spittle and fur that resounded from the landing, I thought the cats were having a vicious fight to the end. I ran upstairs two at a time to boot one of them away only to find my youngest daughters in the middle of a pugilistic brawl.
Tearing them apart, I demanded to know what on earth was going on.
“I hate her; she’s really mean”, squawked the youngest.
“You started it”, spat the 9 year old.
“No, you started it”, screamed the 7 year old, attempting to free my grasp and launch herself upon her sister once and for all.
“Well everybody knows how to add two to a number. You’ve just got special needs”. There was a sharp intake of breath and if I thought for one minute that the youngest one was going to capitulate and cling to me in a sobbing, self-pitying heap, I was very much mistaken. Instead she pulled herself up to her full four foot four and delivered her coup de grace, “I hate your personality”, she said icily, before adding, “Oh, wait, you haven’t got one”.
Before blood was let, I plonked one in front of the t.v and the other with a box of Barbies. It was before nine on Sunday morning and I had a houseful of young guests, all of whom had ‘crashed’ after our Lost Boy’s 18th birthday party. By all accounts no one had died of alcoholic poisoning and there was only one vomiting victim, who mercifully, had made it to the lav. In just over an hour, having fed the various teenagers, hosted family and dressed to the nines, I had to be present and correct at a Freedom of the Town parade.
I put in another load of washing, emptied the tumble drier, fed the dog, turned the bacon under the grill, buttered some baps, boiled the kettle and laid the table. Hubby had already gone to work for one final debrief, so he wasn’t available for scullery maid chores. I waited for the bacon to crisp, laid the rashers in the baps, squirted ketchup, poured boiling water into a teapot, carried the tray in to the dining room and then bellowed for all to ‘come and get it’.
The warring daughters had now forgotten all vows of enmity and were dressing up as St Trinian’s girls. The teenagers emerged from various bedrooms, looking undeniably worse for wear. The Lost Boy’s family ding-donged the bell and were shown in, made welcome and given tea and breakfast and that is where I left them. It was finally 10am, that hour when Sunday starts - the shops are finally unlocked. I needed nude coloured tights and lunch for all my guests.
My usual Sunday morning routine is to groan my way through a particularly gruelling keep-fit class. Today, I had been excused. My fellow keep-fitters, on the way to class, were in line outside the supermarket’s ATM presumably getting cash to pay for the agony. They were shocked to find me there.
“I thought you had a parade this morning?” asked one.
“I do, I do”, I said, undeniably in a bit of a flap.
“What are you doing here then?” asked another. They were all beginning to snigger. I felt a little uncomfortable.
“I need tights”, I explained, even though I have so very often been advised to, ‘never apologise, never explain’, “To go with my outfit”.
“What are you like?”, said the first again.
“You are so disorganised!”, laughed the other. Oh, am I? Really? I could have reeled off the list of jobs that I’d already achieved this morning, but at best that would just have seemed peevish, besides I didn’t have time. I still had to hare around Sainsbury’s, fill a basket, drive home, empty the shopping bags, apply my makeup and the ruddy tights and slip on a posh frock. A ritual that I have performed a thousand times. Suddenly, as I pinned on a ‘sweetheart brooch’ to my jacket, it dawned on me that this Freedom of the Town parade would be my last.
I reiterated my sentiments to Hubby an hour later, after he and the Royal Marine Band had led the parade of sailors through our town, for one final time.
“Bloody hell Alice”, he said, choking on the Mayor’s dry sherry, “You sound as though we are about to pop our clogs”.
“Metaphorically speaking we are”, I replied. The mayor came to shake my hand.
Later, over a splendid lunch, Hubby asked me what I’d meant by metaphorically speaking.
“It’s a comparison between two things, saying one thing is the other”.
“For God’s sake Alice I know that. But figuratively speaking, what did you mean’?”
“Our days of doing this sort of thing” and I waved at the company gathered, “Are numbered aren’t they? You’ll soon be in another appointment and then crash, bang, wallop, you’ll be on your terminal leave. Even that expression has more than a ring of mortality to it. All this” and I waved again, “will soon be a distant memory”.
“For crying out loud Alice”, Hubby replied, downing another sherry.
“It’s like the countdown clock to the Olympics; my days as a navy wife are counting down too”, I said.
“It’s fair to say being married to you has been quite an event. I’m happy to stand on a podium to receive a medal”.
An elderly lady sitting next to Hubby, intervened, “Once a navy wife, always a navy wife. It’s a way of life isn’t it? Ship shape and Bristol fashion. It’s taught me order and discipline. Loyalty, self-reliance and organisation. Surely you agree?”
“You’re asking Alice?”, guffawed Hubby, “She didn’t have tights to wear an hour ago”. I kicked him under the table.
“But that’s quite a skill” he added hurriedly, “to appear outwardly hapless when in essence you are methodical maestro”. And don’t you forget it shipmate.

All At Sea

I clicked the red, off button on my mobile phone and sat down. Poor bugger. Hubby walked in from the kitchen.
“Who was that?”, he mumbled, a chocolate Hob-Nob protruding from his mouth.
“Sue. Her husband’s ship has been turned around. She doesn’t even know where he is in the world or when the hell he’ll come back. It’s just open ended. She’s just had a two minute call from him. She’s really upset”.
“Life in a blue suit”, added Hubby, helpfully.
“I’m going to see her; the girls’ school uniform needs pressing and our Lost Boy needs to change his sheets and generally muck out his bedroom. At least it was a bedroom, I haven’t seen any evidence of a bed for weeks”.
“But I thought we were going to watch Strictly and X-Factor and Downton together?”, replied Hubby, overtly crestfallen for a strapping, heterosexual man.
“For heaven’s sake, Sky+ it and I’ll watch them with you tomorrow night”.
“We won’t have time then, you’ll be busy, I’ll be busy. It just won’t happen”.
“Well then, you have two alternatives, either you put on James Bond and get your son to watch tv with you, or, you ask any one of your three daughters if they’d like a girly tv fest on the sofa with their big, butch dad. ”
“I’m not watching that rubbish”, said our teenage daughter, “Honestly, I just don’t understand how people can watch such crass, cruel television”.
I am delighted that this girl is very much her own woman, I’m proud of her stellar achievements and thrilled that she stands out from the crowd and doesn’t blithely follow fashion magazines and celebrity gossip, but there are times when it wouldn’t be as wearing if she could just enjoy a little popular culture, which is by dint of its name, popular.
“What are you going to do this evening instead then?”
“I’m writing an essay on quantum mechanics”.
“Come again?”, I asked, scratching my head, “What subject is that for?”
“You’re not doing Mechanics A level are you?” asked Hubby, as baffled as me.
“God, you two are so thick”, she said emphatically before flouncing in the direction of whence she came. Hubby and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“As I was saying”, I said, “I’m popping out to see Sue, lend a shoulder to cry on, that sort of thing. Any wine in the rack?”
Two hours later and I was exhausted, as was a mansize box of Kleenex tissues.
“It’s the not knowing that I can’t cope with Alice”, a refrain that she had sniffed, repeatedly.
“I know, I know”, I replied soothingly, patting her knee.
“I mean, will he be home for Christmas? Can I book a winter holiday? Can I get pregnant? We were considering another baby, Alice. Think of all the eggs I’ve wasted.” Her tears started anew. My patting on her knee became more rhythmical.
“I’m knocking on”, she added, gesturing at her womb, “I only have so many eggs left”. It was like comforting a depressed Easter Rabbit.
“There, there”, I soothed, my free hand shaking an empty wine bottle as though it were lying that there wasn’t so much as a dreg left. Sandy bottoms as Hubby would say.
“He’s been away for months already. He’s missed everything, GCSEs, camping in Dorset, a benign lump, his parents Golden wedding anniversary. I can’t bear it any longer”.
“I’d like to say, just be strong a little while more,” I advised, “but it’s futile. Our husbands didn’t marry Sherman tanks, they married women; soft, squidgy women with bosoms and feelings and the romantic idea that marriage was about two people sharing a life, a home and family. It’s no wonder then that when we are separated for long periods, there are milestones that they miss and then, we miss them ”.
“He couldn’t cope on his own”, snivelled Sue, “I went to Center Parcs before he went with some friends and there was a message on the tannoy system for me to call home. I thought someone had died”.
“Had they?”, I asked
“No, one of the kids had to go to a birthday party and he couldn’t remember where it was or what I’d done with the present”. We laughed. A second later and her twin girls walked through the front door.
“Oh no, mum”, they said simultaneously, rushing to her side, “What on earth has happened?”
Sue explained that their father wouldn’t be home for another few months. I was expecting them to be stricken and, as we were out of tissues, to have to employ a roll of toilet paper to mop up the tears. I was much mistaken.
“Hey mum, that means we can watch all the chick flicks we want!”, said Anna.
“And Strictly all the way until the Christmas show”, added Ava. Their father is an Alpha male and unlike Hubby, not in tune with his feminine side, he is thus very unlikely to condone viewing marathon episodes of sequins and spangles on a Saturday and a Sunday night.
“Besides”, said Anna, more gravely, as her sister held her hand, “He won’t be here to rant and rave. Because…”, there was a pregnant pause. “I think you should know. I’ve had a tattoo”
“I’d better leave”, I said, getting up, remembering my own breakdown when my son disclosed his.
And this is where Sue surprised me. She slowly and very dignifiedly, stood up. And, undid the buttons on her blouse.
“Beat you to it love”, said Sue, revealing an ample bosom decorated with a small anchor and HMS Love entwined on it, “Got it done on the way back from Center Parcs. I was trolleyed”.
The shoe was on the other foot. Tears and tantrums, the ‘how could yous?’, the ‘but you are old!’ even, ‘mum you slapper’. This was a milestone their father would have been delighted to miss.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Empty Nest.

It’s as though the Pied Piper has been and, having done with the rats and the children, has now returned for the eighteen year olds. All around me are weeping mothers, sitting on empty beds, in tidy rooms, posters hanging on the walls of deserted bedrooms. Fathers, attempting a stiff upper lip, are at a loss with whom to watch Match of the Day with, stay up late with and talk man stuff with. Siblings, initially ecstatic at having the run of the house to themselves, a full biscuit barrel and a monopoly on the tv remote controls are slowly realising that being the one and only is not all it’s cracked up to be. The long for undivided attention of their parents, has in fact turned into a nightmare because, devoid of their elder sibling, the parents’ attention is undiluted, resulting in what seems like twenty four hour surveillance and an unhealthy interest into their very private, social lives.
I mustn’t complain too much, my Lost Boy was after all only borrowed for a year, but nevertheless the absence of his energy in this house is palpable. His room is eerie, on the one hand it’s as if no-one has ever been there and yet, when you look closer and find an overflowing waste-paper basket, a half full can of deodorant and a guitar propped against the wall, you are reminded that only a week ago this room was loud, messy, colourful, vibrant and a love nest for him and his lovely girlfriend, also gone. He never really belonged to me and so I am not allowed, apart from the odd sigh and a food parcel sent to Belfast University, to mourn his loss.
The same cannot be said for my friends. For some, this is their first experience of an empty nest; their chicks up until now having never flown away, yet, within weeks of receiving their exam results, the chicks have not only flown, but soared, taking their feather duvets with them. Mothers and fathers up and down the land have been seen in various supermarkets buying ‘value’ toasters, kettles and microwaves as well as bedding, towels and lots and lots of food. They have driven to universities, brave and stoic and the once rowdy teenager in the back of the car is uncharacteristically subdued as the destination and the severance from parental binds becomes ever more inevitable.
I have had many emotional telephone conversations this week with mothers who literally do not know what to do with themselves. For the last 18 years they have been defined by the fact that they have had a child to look after and be home for, similarly a child who must be remembered about and fed and watered and occasionally, nag. It was at times a bind and a bore and now all of a sudden, there is no-one to rush home for, no-one to make dinner for and no-one’s mess to complain about. It is as though they have been made redundant and, all the times in the past when they wished to come home later from a party, or go away for a weekend on a whim they can now do whenever they like. But it isn’t illicit anymore and therefore not as much fun.
Apparently, the teenagers themselves from the odd letter that I’ve received, haven’t all sprung from the family car without so much as a by your leave either. For many of them, they have been left in their rooms as bewildered as any 11 year old boarder, their pillow under one arm, their laptop under another, congregating in the corridor and trying hard to make as many new friends as they can, exactly like that day their mums left them in the playground of infant school. Whereas in infant school a packet of sweets to share might have helped them stand out from the crowd, at university the sweets have been replaced by rapacious drinking and many students are now hoping to survive Fresher’s Week without suffering the horrors of alcoholic poisoning. God knows what sort of friendships are forged in these first inebriated, early days away from home, but from what I’m told, they are life-lasting.
I asked my son, who has steadfastly refused any idea of higher education whatsoever, if he feels jealous of his friends for spreading their wings and jumping the family nest.
“Nah ma” is as profound as the conversation got, before he kissed me on the forehead and helped himself to three Mr Kipling mince pies. I wonder what it is that makes him want to stay. It’s a chaotic household, you have to shout the loudest to get the most attention, myself included. For him, dinner is an ad-hoc affair due to his shifts and band practises, so you couldn’t really call it cupboard love.
“Of course you could Alice”, ripostes Hubby, “Just because you don’t dish it up to him on a plate night after night, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have full access to the contents of the freezer, cupboards, bread-bin and fridge, wherein lies, rather conveniently, my beer”.
“Do you think he’ll be here forever then?” I asked nervously.
“Probably. Unless some woman is daft enough to take him on as a challenge, because let’s be honest Alice, he won’t be able to look after himself”.
“What on earth do you mean?”, I replied defensively, “I bought him a Panini maker and he can make”, I thought hard, “chicken fajitas! I’d hate him to be unhappy and run away”.
“Run away?” laughed Hubby, “He can’t even run a bath”. Ah, yes, the infamous bath that I’d asked him to run for me; the one that had been running for fifteen minutes. With no plug.
“But you never said to put the plug in”, had been his defence. University, my dear boy, would have been more than just an academic education.

Sunday, 25 September 2011


It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am completely and utterly rubbish at maths. The innumerate gene has, through great luck, bypassed my first three children. Our son and daughter both got excellent GCSE results in the subject and the nine year old seems to ‘get it’ and is slowly and surely mastering her times tables – but my poor darling little Red-Head is as mystified by mathematics as her mother.
Just the other night, as I was patiently trying to show her how to do taking away on her fingers, she explained how she felt.
“My head feels like a waterfall inside Mummy”, she said, rubbing at her temples.
“How so darling?”, I asked her.
“Well you know how the water in a waterfall falls down?”, she continued.
“And it’s like the water is falling off?”
“Well, my inside my head feels like that. Like the information is falling out of my head like a waterfall and I can’t remember anything”. Luckily I was squeezing her so tightly that she didn’t see my tears fall into her hair. I had to pull myself together.
“That was beautifully explained sweetheart”, I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve, “In fact few people could be that creative when trying to describe how they are feeling. Perhaps you will be a writer and write wonderful stories?”
After some consideration she seemed happy enough with this idea and we returned to taking six grammes away from ten grammes. It took a while. I feel so sorry for her. No-one in the world can understand her bewilderment as much as me. All those bloody lessons and extra lessons and tutors that I’ve had. All of them to no avail, all of them resulting in making me feel thoroughly stupid, my self esteem plummeting through the floor. Well this is the 21st Century. She needn’t tolerate as I did, being kept in at play time because she is ‘slow’. She needn’t suffer the ignominy as I did, of seeing her friends go to art whilst she is left with, God bless them, the smelly kids and even more sums to do until we got it right. We never did. Nope, if she carries on in this vein I shall have her assessed and if she is, dyslexic and dyscalculic then everyone shall know and she will get all the support she needs. Hell, if The Fonz can receive an award from the Queen for raising awareness of these special educational needs then his hard work may as well go towards making her life mathematically speaking, a little sweeter. Anyway, no sooner had we done sums, then spellings then reading, I very quickly had to throw off the mantle of mother to adopt the role of Commanders wife. These two posts cannot be done simultaneously for fear of shaking hands with my children and wiping the gravy of the face of a Naval officer. I daren’t risk it. So, ensuring all children were fed and watered, I ran upstairs to chuck on my trademark look of pearls, posh frock and pashmina.
Hubby and I had been invited to Truro for HM Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall’s Annual awards ceremony. We got there by the skin of our teeth and took our seats, panting. Now my back, has, much like mathematics, been the bane of my life. At any given time, on a scale of 1-10 of pain, it is an 8. I look like a wizened old woman much of the time, especially getting my knickers on in the morning, getting out of the car and up from a chair. I have seen all manner of doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and masseurs. Apart from having to be peeled from the ceiling at the end of my treatment, little else occurs and my back continues to hurt. Very much indeed.
As I sat there then, shifting my bottom from one cheek to the other and rubbing the small of my back and stretching my legs out in front of me and generally fidgeting to the point that at the same time the woman on one side of me tutted and Hubby hissed, “Keep still”, as one might to a child during a long sermon.
Don’t get me wrong, the ceremony was inspirational. It showcased the very best of our reservists and cadets from the South West; the young people’s achievements bringing a lump to the throat due to their terrific hard work and commitment they show both their detachment and community.
What struck me though and why I mention my back was the image of Lady Mary, who has for the last 17 years been Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant for Cornwall, but who will be retiring next week. She, I sincerely hope wouldn’t mind my saying, is an indomitable figure. Tall, strong and stately. As she stood up to present the awards, a gentleman offered her a chair on the dais. One look from her made it immediately obvious that she had no truck with a chair whatsoever and stood resolute for over an hour handing out awards and shaking hands. I looked on in wonder.
Not only would I have needed a chair, but I would also have needed someone to help me out of it. On the journey home I had to recline my seat and, as I lay there looking up at the Cornish Night sky, I mulled.
“Penny for your thoughts?” said Hubby, yawning. He rarely demands conversation. It must have been a ploy. Not to fall asleep and crash.
“I was just wondering how my life would have turned out had I been more supple and better at maths”.
“That’s a mad combination of thoughts Alice”, he replied, the indicator was flashing, we were almost home, “Is there that much call for a numerate gymnast?”
“The sad thing is”, I replied as we pulled into our road, “Is that it’s too late to find out”.

Regal Regale.

“Aren’t you going to get up with me then?”, I asked Hubby last Saturday as the alarm on my mobile phone went off at 5.20am. There was a text.
“Mags’s hubby has made her a cuppa”, I read.
He mumbled “traitor” from beneath the duvet.
“I’ll take that as a no then”, I answered tip-toeing as quietly as possible around our bedroom whilst looking for my underwear. I’d laid everything out the night before, but couldn’t for the life of me now locate my bra. I lifted various other garments off the ottoman at the foot of our bed and felt beneath them for the tell tale silkiness of my M&S 36D and shrieked in disgust as my hand felt something cold and yucky.
“Aargh, what the hell?”, I wailed and ran over to the light switch. As my eyes adjusted to the light I realised that I’d put my hand through a mound of cold, cat sick.
“Oh dear God”, I shivered, “That is bloody revolting, how long has it been there?”
Hubby was by now most aggrieved that the light was on and that his wife was making far too much noise this early in the morning and that, now he was awake, he’d have to go to the loo.
“Flaming Nora Alice, how many times have I managed perfectly well to go to work in the pitch dark and never disturb you?”, he said pulling my dressing around him.
“You can’t go to the loo yet”, I said barging in front of him, “I have cat sick on my hand, I’ve got to wash it off”.
“Can’t we do both simultaneously? Kill two birds with one stone”, he offered.
“Eww. No thanks, besides the way I feel I’d rather kill two cats with one stone”. I patiently waited on the landing as he relieved himself, my hand at arm’s length as though I had some ticking bomb in it. Infernal cats.
The doorbell rang.
“That’ll be Mags then?”, said Hubby as he exited the bathroom yawning, “Is there any more noise you can muster between you? You may as well put the radio on”.
“There’s no need to be sarcastic is there.”
“Hello mummy”, said the Red-Head, emerging from her bedroom and rubbing her eyes, “Why have you got sick on your hand?”. The doorbell rang again.
“Well?”, I said to Hubby, “You’re going to have to answer it, I can’t stand it any longer, I’ve got to wash my hands”. Looking utterly beleaguered at not only having been woken up before dawn but now having the added encumbrance of going down and back up the stairs and then persuading the Red-Head back to sleep, Hubby sighed very heavily indeed.
The Red-Head sat on the loo as I scrubbed away at my hands.
“Will the queen be at her Palace mummy?”, she asked.
“No darling, she’s at Balmoral”.
“What’s that?”
I dried my hands. From downstairs Mags’s excited chatter could be heard. Hubby was going to be less than thrilled.
“It’s a castle sweetie, where she has her summer holidays”.
“It’s a bit greedy of the queen to have lots of palaces and castles isn’t it? Why can’t she have a holiday in a caravan?”
“I don’t suppose Queens go in for caravanning that much”, I replied lifting her up and carrying her into our bed.
“Why not? She’s got a Range Rover. It could easily pull a caravan”. The image of HRH Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh towing a six berth Bailey up to the Highlands made me laugh.
“Or”, added the Red-Head, seriously contemplating alternative holiday destinations for our monarch, “what about Center Parcs? The whole family could go then; all the grandchildren and the corgis. There would be plenty for everyone to do. Nobody would be bored. In fact they could go horse-riding like we did. They like horses don’t they, the Royal Family?”
A further image of Zara Phillips, Olympic horse jumping hopeful and dear nonagenarian Philip, fellow champion equestrian embarking on a gentle pony trek, being led by a rope by a teenage girl around the country lanes of Wiltshire made me laugh even harder.
“Ah but which corgi would they chose?”, I said, wiping my eyes as I tucked her in, “There is only one dog allowed per lodge”. I left her cuddled up considering this canine conundrum.
I passed Hubby on the stairs.
“She’s in our bed”, I explained kissing him, “Will you pick us up from the train station later?” Hubby nodded.
“Please just go now”.
For once, the railway journey was entirely without incident, it even pulled into Paddington early. Mags and I had a coffee in Fortnum and Mason’s and then strolled across the park to Buckingham Palace.
“Do you think we should have worn a hat?”, I asked Mags as we approached the Palace.
“Alice, this isn’t a bloody garden party we’re going to; think of it as a super-enhanced National Trust Property”.
Not bleedin’ likely. Not with the Faberge exhibition, the priceless private art collection and Kate’s wedding dress, shoes and cake, well, Cotehele it ain’t. We walked around gawping like kids in a sweet shop and like every kid on a school trip, we had the best time in the gift shop. Where Mags plans to use her gold plated teaspoons with carved, royal dwellings at the end of the handle, God alone knows. At least my God Save the Queen tea towel is practical.
Hubby met two weary women off the 22.41 train. His delight that we weren’t laden with shopping bags and thus hadn’t spent any money was palpable.
“No shopping then girls?”, he asked brightly.
“We didn’t have time” said Mags, “Too much to see”.
“I only bought this”, I said and showed him the tea-towel.
“Oh God Save the Queen indeed”, cried Hubby, as though praying, “God Save the Queen”.

Poor at the Palace.

Well, I have polished the chrome on my barista coffee machine for the last time this season, the café will soon follow suit and go into some sort of caffeine hibernation; school uniform is in the process of being labelled, there is a great preponderance of colourful stationery, pencils, rubbers and fluffy pencil cases adorning the dining table; plimsolls have been Sharpied; hair has been cut and the nights are drawing in. All this can only mean one thing - the summer hols are over for another year.
I feel the most sorry for Hubby. He’s only just started to relax, his face has finally lost that pinched, scrunched up look and he remains resolutely under the duvet in the morning instead of jumping out of bed expecting ‘reveille’ to sound at any second. ‘Rounds’ have finally been dispensed with and he is now accustomed to living amongst many, many messy young people without swearing. As often. He opens a bottle of wine, sometimes as early as 5.50 and has taken to sitting outside in the garden, a rug over his knees, a wine glass to hand, a book in the other, a fire in his fire pit.
“What the hell do you mean I’ve ‘taken to sitting in the garden with a rug and wine?’”
He must have overheard me telling Mags. “I did it once Alice. Once when the flipping kids allowed me five minutes peace……in fact they didn’t even do that. They weren’t even here if I remember correctly, they were on a sleepover! Besides the image of me in the garden with rug, wine, book and fire makes me sound decrepit”.
Mags winked at me.
“Hey! I saw that”.
“Well you are getting on a bit”, Mags teased him, “Forget wine it’ll be cocoa soon”.
The rest of the evening past in jovial banter and as I served up a chilli con carne and sparkling champagne, or in this case, cheap Cava, Mags handed me a large envelope.
“What’s this?”, I asked, holding the envelope between my teeth as I sprinkled grated cheese onto the chilli.
“It’s a present”, she answered. I mumbled something incomprehensible, dribbling onto the envelope as I did so and carried three plates into our dining room. Pushing the fluffy pencil cases further up the table to make way for dinner, I took a big slurp and removed the envelope from my teeth.
“Open it now”, she implored. I looked at Hubby’s face and it was like looking into the face of a drooling Labrador.
“Let’s eat first ok?” I asked apologetically. She shrugged and picked up a fork. The conversation soon turned, once Hubby had steamed through three quarters of his chilli, to the Red-Head’s birthday treat.
“Build-a-Bear my arse”, said Hubby in his inimitable way, “Build-the-Buggers-a-Bloody-Fortune more like”.
“Why, what happened?” asked Mags. It has to be pointed out at this point that Hubby did not accompany our two youngest daughters and our niece to Build-a-Bear, rather he dropped us off outside and went ‘to park’, as though he were doing me a huge favour.
“It cost ninety quid, that’s what happened”, replied Hubby. It was a huge amount of money and I must admit that when the member of staff had put the items through the till and wished my daughter a ‘beary nice birthday”, that even I blanched at the total.
I stood outside waiting for Hubby, whilst three little girls hopped deliriously up and down with their Build-a-Bear boxes and looked through the receipt to see if there had been a mistake. No such luck.
“He only found out how much it cost after I’d confessed on Facebook.” Hubby grimaced.
“Why didn’t you tell him then and there Alice?”
“Because”, I said pointedly, “we still had lunch and the movie Mr Poppa’s Penguins to pay for and I didn’t want to ruin the birthday girl’s day”.
I didn’t bother to tell her that the next day Hubby had marched me down to our bank, demanded a meeting with the bank manager where I had to endure the most humiliating hour where the bank manager and Hubby tooth-combed my account. Most of it was pretty kosher.
“Do you want to cancel these direct debits Alice?” asked the bank manager kindly.
“What the hell are they for?” asked Hubby peering over my shoulder at the computer screen.
“My charity contributions”, I said quietly.
“Huh?” Hubby exhaled. The bank manager looked a little discomfited, after all this was impartial financial advice she was offering, not Relate relationship counselling.
“I pay a monthly direct debit to some very worthy causes if you must know”.
“I would like to know actually”. In for a penny in for a pound.
“Well, there’s the NSPCC, Macmillan Nurses, The British Heart Foundation, Greenpeace and Amnesty International”. Hubby twirled in his chair.
“God almighty Alice”, he roared.
“Okay, okay, I’ll cancel a couple”.
“You will cancel them all”.
“No way, that is very bad karma”. In the end I hung onto the Macmillan Nurses. Just in case. The others, when I am in serious employment, will once again benefit from my patronage.
I put my fork down.
“Yipee”, said Mags, “Now open your envelope”. I wiped my fork on a square of kitchen paper and tore it along the envelope and removed from it a shiny, glossy brochure .
“Can you tell what it is yet?”
“You sound like Rolf Harris”. I turned the brochure over. A gold crown was emblazoned upon its front cover.
“It’s an advance souvenir programme”, explained Mags, “We are going to London to see ‘the dress’”
“You’re kidding?”
“No! We go on Saturday. I’ve bought the tickets!” For a card carrying lefty, she was very animated.
“But Mags, I’ve always had you as flag waving Trotskyist?”. Well she’d been to Greenham Common in her youth and fancied Billy Bragg.
“Sssh. I’m putting it down to my hormones".


I’ve been vindicated. At last, after all these years of selfless mothering, the worry, the nagging, the curfews and the tantrums – mine not theirs. The insistence that the 16 year old was to only read books with any literary merit; the lofty disapproval of the viewing of chavvy t.v programmes, the expensive theatre trips, the traipsing around museums when I’d have far preferred the shops. It all paid off. It was a good investment. Her GCSE results were outstanding. So outstanding in fact that the press wanted to take ‘one of those pictures’ of her. The one where grinning girls jump into the air, holding their stellar results aloft.
I did in fact, tap the press photographer on the shoulder and say, “Oi, take one of me. Us mothers should be recognised for our children’s success and not just given a hard time when they riot”. I was serious. Unless he has teenagers himself then he has no idea what these last 18 years have been like. Most of my friends are now breathing a well deserved sigh of relief and patting themselves on the back. Their eldest are off to university, the youngest having passed GSCEs and so the future looks bright. They are off the hook. They can at last take up golf or watercolour lessons, or darts.
As I stood in my daughter’s school hall as she read her results and beamed, I wept. Not only because I was so very proud of her, but because I still have to live through this again. Twice. And not only the GSCEs but the journey there too. The 11+ coaching, the 11+ mock, the 11+ itself, the results, the studying thereafter, further GCSEs etc, etc. Hubby is 50 and his son and he can still enjoy shared enthusiasms: music, football, beer. Normal young man, middle aged dad stuff.
When the youngest receives her A levels though, her father will be an OAP and her brother in his 30s. What were we thinking? Will we still have the energy to enforce the sanctions that were imposed on their elder siblings or will we, exhausted by our previous efforts, give up the ghost and allow our youngest, second set of children a more lax childhood? I fear the latter. Already the youngest are a lot more lippy than either of the previous two. They have a precocious attitude which makes me wince and they whole-heartedly believe that models and pop-stars are to be revered. Books are used to pose with, high heels to impress. Hello! Magazine is the new Michael Morpurgo and even Harry Potter is a film star; a celebrity and not a school boy wizard who lives in a thick book and thus one’s imagination.
I despair for the next generation. My eldest two, looking back on it, enjoyed the last of the age of innocence. Admittedly they rarely went out to play on their bikes and almost never got dirty, neither did they spend incalculable hours watching trash TV and looking up to people who are the living incarnation of Ken and Barbie. They like to Facebook regularly enough so that they are not social pariahs, but the 16 year old is just as likely to be creating something on Photoshop or writing a story, whereas her elder brother is most often found, if he is home at all, in his room either writing lyrics or organising a gig for his band. Their imagination has already been fired. Me and Hubby must have had something to do with that surely? Just as we have as much to do with two younger children, who, although quite active, have yet to demonstrate any lingering interest in a novel or gold standard BBC programme which is why they think that Daniel Radcliffe genuinely is Harry Potter and that Britain’s Next Top Model is as fascinating as anything that David Attenborough had to say. So, as much as I can feel a certain vindication for my eldest children’s academic accomplishments, must I not equally share the ignominy of my youngest’ liking nothing better than dressing up as baby sluts and regarding academe with scorn and derision, the realm of geeks and nerds?
How do I put the brakes on this mind-set? They have excellent role models in their sister and her equally high achieving friends, who are as beautiful as they are brainy; the two lost boys are absolutely no trouble whatsoever and their brother, whilst hardly flying the flag for an university education, is enviably dedicated and loyal to his band and their music.
I can only deduce therefore that their rather defiant attitude is the fault of their mother and father, who having been parents for so long are knackered with the whole process and, instead of reading hours of endless bedtime stories and trying to inspire their young minds are just as likely to go sleep before them.
Watching them cavort around the sitting room to some god awful pop-music, dressed in wholly inappropriate apparel, I saw Hubby’s face twitch nervously. I read his mind.
“You know that empty nest syndrome? The one where people learn golf and painting and go on cruises and such like?”
His eyes had that far way look of an unattainable fantasy.
“Well, it’s also when couples start to have affairs, because their raison d’etre, i.e their kids, are no longer there to keep them together”. Hubby considered this analysis for a moment.
“That would be too cruel to bear Alice; the idea of putting up with this… this shenanigans” and he gestured at the posturing progenies, “only for you to bugger off with the milkman the minute I get my bus pass”.
I squeezed his hand reassuringly, “I’ll be past my sell by date by then as well love” and we drank our wine together, contended in our entrapment.


A few weeks ago, Hubby showed a smattering of VIPs around his place of work. I was allowed to tag along, “As long as you behave yourself Alice. No wisecracks, no flirting, no wandering off”.
“But you always forget about me”, I pouted.
“What the hell are you talking about now?”
“Whenever we go to one of your dos, you just abandon me to talk to some Captain Bligh or other; I’m left to peer miserably into the bottom of my G&T”.
“Well, as this event is during the day there won’t be any G&Ts for you to have to peer miserably into”.
“Usher me then”.
“I’ve watched other Officers and whenever they are about to embark on a walkabout with their wives they always put a gentle yet guiding arm almost imperceptibly behind their wives backs as if to say, ‘This way love’”. Hubby looked utterly bewildered.
“So imperceptible that I’ve never seen it”.
“Wills does it with Kate all the time as does Obama with Michelle as does David with Samantha or David with Victoria for that matter”. Hubby scratched his head. I helped him out.
“All I’m trying to say is that when we go for this walkabout and are about to move on, don’t stride off down some corridor with the VIPs or pop into another room with them without your hand being on the small of my back ok?”
Famous last words. We were barely off the mini bus before Hubby set about proudly showing off his department. Now I, who in the entirety of Hubby’s naval career has only really been to ‘dos’ that require a semblance of formality, was at a loss as what to wear. Hubby was already at work when I pitched up and, when I’d phoned him was unavailable for comment, which meant that when I eventually stepped off the mini-bus in kitten-heeled sling backs and a smart skirt and blazer, I was already impeding his tour. He scowled impatiently at me.
‘It’s alright for you’, I shouted silently, ‘You have an uniform to wear’. The other wives, appropriately sartorially briefed, hopped off the bus in their smart casual slacks and Clarks sandals. I click-clacked behind them, desperately trying to keep up.
The terrain couldn’t have been worse for kitten heels. As Hubby strode onto the playing fields to introduce the VIPs to some young, active, sport playing sailors, paces behind him I’d actually got stuck in the grass and, whilst my shoes stayed sunk into the turf I kept on going and performed what can only be described as a forward roll. I staggered up and gathered myself together with as much panache as is at all possible when around 50 young sailors, your Husband and his VIP party have been privy to your gusset. Hubby glared at me. I extricated my shoes from the grass, slipped them on and hurried over to him on my tippy-toes.
We were given a demonstration of teams running very fast around an obstacle course and whilst carrying a very heavy log. Practise for when called to do so when on active duty. The log presumably would be an injured comrade.
I’d seen this before somewhere and racked my brains as to where.
“Blue Peter!”, I suddenly hollered excitedly, “That’s where I’ve seen this before”.
“Oh yes”, said another wife and then whispered conspiratorially, “Gethin Jones. I would”.
The demonstration over we walked quickly back to the minibus. This time I hung on to Hubby’s arm. Our next stop was a state of the art firing school. Yet again I’d click-clacked down a corridor attempting to keep up with the others. An uniformed chap mercifully waited to show me in. It was a state of the art room. A chilling reminder of what our men and women are expertly trained to do. We were given a demonstration in shooting the enemy. It was like being in a 3D cinema experience only this time you were surrounded by baddies and not Pixar animations.
“Ma’am”, said a chap handing me a gun, “Would you like to try?”
Bloody hell. Another ignominious example of how Alice Band could make a tit of herself.
“Well, I…”
“Come on Alice”, said the Gethin Jones fan. Once again I removed my shoes and lay flat on my tummy, although this time it was a little less accidental. The gun was indescribably heavy. My heart was in my mouth. It was pitch dark. God alone knows where our troops find the endurance, tenacity and sheer courage to do this for real. Suddenly from out of nowhere, the enemy emerged. I pulled the trigger, again and again. More insurgents. Bang, bang. It was over.
The light came on. A Petty Officer who had been following events on a computer, showed me my score. Not only had I shot a few, but they’d been ‘double taps’. There was no way these baddies were getting up again.
“You are a natural born killer ma’am”, said the PO dourly. Hubby’s expression seemed to imply that he didn’t need million pound equipment to tell him what he already knew.
Another double whammy featured large and looming in the Band household this week. Two milestones were reached. My son’s A level results and my eldest daughter’s 16th birthday. Pow-pow. Both on the same day. An emotional rollercoaster that saw me oscillating between the party girl, her guests and her presents, my mobile which was continually receiving texts with friends’ kids’ results and Hubby, who was in the kitchen pacing, furious with a son who, by some miracle, passed his A levels with fairly decent grades.
“He didn’t even read the books”, I said. We were in mourning for the grades he could have achieved had he actually applied himself. My mobile vibrated. A text.
‘Nicky got 3 As. Reading biology at York. Yours?’ My fingers texted back: ‘3 Cs. Reading Music Magazines at Torpoint’.


“I feel as though I’ve been in a car crash”, I said to Hubby the following morning, proffering him my bottom to rub.
“More fool you”, he replied.
“Do my shoulders next”, I instructed before he got too carried away with my bottom. I winced under his strong hands.
“Ouch. Don’t worry about the massage; I’ll take some ibuprofen instead”. My back hurt, my shoulder blades felt as though they had bruises on then, my neck felt as though it could do with a brace and my brain still felt as though it had been shaken thoroughly within its cranium, which of course it had.
The nine year old walked downstairs and into the kitchen, “Mummy my head still feels wobbly”, she said, but with that extraordinary capacity that children have for an unending gusto for thrills and spills, added, “Can we go again?”
“Again? Are you crazy? You’ve only just stopped being sick”
“I still loved it though. What did you like best about Speed mum? My favourite bit was when we tipped over the edge”.
“Your day out almost tipped your mother over the edge”, quipped Hubby. What did he know? He didn’t even come with us.
The day out in question was a visit to Oakwood theme park in Pembrokeshire. We were once again in Wales as part of our annual pilgrimage to visit our friends. The annual pilgrimage that involves, without fail, getting to know your fellow M5 motorists so well, that after 5 hours on the same patch of asphalt you are sharing personal information with them and inviting them to be your Facebook friends. This year was by no means an exception, but due to engine failure which meant we only took one very packed car and not the usual convoy it was an even more keenly charged atmosphere, especially as it took over 8 hours to get to our friends’ house.
Oakwood theme park is just over a five minute drive from our friends’ house and for years, every time we’ve driven past its flags and precipitous roller coasters, the youngest girls have begged to go. Now, as I have always known that I would have to go alone – Hubby just doesn’t ‘do’ coasters, it just hasn’t been practical in the past to go. Height restrictions an all that. I think it might have been frowned upon if I’d tied the Red-Head up at the foot of the rides as her sister and I stood in queues for hours and then looped the loop above her head. This year though, after quite a growth spurt, I felt the Red-Head might just be tall enough and so, I did my research, visited the website, got out the measuring tape and was pleased to tell the youngest that she now qualified for Megaphobia and all the other ‘thrill’ rides. There was no longer an excuse.
I’m not sure that ‘thrill’ is quite the word I would use. I am thrilled when the car passes its M.O.T; I am thrilled when my children get good school reports and I am thrilled when there is a BOGOF on loo roll in Morrison’s – being catapulted into the ether in a wooden carriage, with only a lap bar to restrain me from certain death, is not thrilling. It is in fact petrifying. Made much worse by the fact that weren’t any queues ergo no respite, we didn’t even have to get off; we just went around and around and around. And up and down of course, oh and upside down. Now, having lived near Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, USA, I got used to a few scary rollercoasters and rather blasé, but years have past since and I am decidedly more creaky than I was and it is not without reason that they write at the entrance to the ride a litany of cautionary advice just in case one should suffer from heart complaints, be pregnant, have high blood pressure or back and neck problems. By the end of the day, apart from being pregnant, I am sure that I suffered from all of the above. The ride Speed was quite honestly, speedy. Thank God. At least it was over with quickly. That’s why my shoulders hurt from where my harness had held me in as I was hurled hither and yon and upside down and in screwdriver fashion for all of 10 seconds. My face at the end of the day had settled into a rictus of fear, like some bodged botox job.
By the time we walked back to the car, feeling decidedly worse for wear, the 9 year old was pea-green but managed to make the journey back to our friends’ garden before vomiting. To hear her asking to go again then made me shudder.
“I can’t take her back for years”, I whispered to Hubby, “A paediatrician would think she was suffering from shaken-baby syndrome”.
The rest of our break was far less adrenaline based; none of the children or Hubby for that matter wanted to move away from our friends’ garden. I on the other hand had to pop to Tesco’s from time to time in Pembroke. From Pembroke one can catch a ferry to Ireland. There are ‘embarkation’ directions in the town. I love the word embarkation. I find it far more exciting than any roller-coaster. Wherever I am I almost feel compelled to follow its instructions. Embark. It’s the start to an adventure. Be it a train, or plane or a ferry. Who knows what might happen on the other side of the journey?
“I can give you a clue” said Hubby as I explained this romantic streak to him on the drive home, “Just had a text from our son who wants to know what time we’ll be home and where we keep the bin liners. Shall I tell him we’ll be ‘dis-embarking’ the Torpoint Ferry soon?”


It was the deep dark night of the soul. 3 a.m to be precise when the Red-Head walked into our bedroom and clambered over me and snuggled down between me and her father.
“I’ve had a bad dream”, she said.
“Have you angel?”, I asked her in whispers, “What was it about?”
“A boy drank all the sea in the world.” I cuddled her tight.
“Through a straw”, she added. A gruesome image for anyone to have to imagine, let alone subconsciously invading your slumber.
“He got bigger and bigger and all the sea creatures were dying on the sand”.
“Hush now”, I soothed, stroking her hair, “It was only a dream”. Nightmares are not only the scourge of infancy, I still have the most alarming dreams that literally make me writhe in bed, sweating and breathing fast.
“That’s just after you’ve been dreaming about Mr Lover-Lover”, said Hubby, squeezing my bottom the following morning as I was trying to explain the previous night’s dramatic events.
I slapped him off. “Seriously. It’s awful. I dreamt there was a cliff falling down on people, only it was as hot as molten lava and I had no alternative but to keep driving towards it. There were no road closures. Charred bodies lay everywhere”.
“Bloody hell Alice”.
“I know, it was horrific. What does it mean? And what does it mean that our little Red-Head is having shocking, apocalyptic, ocean dreams. It makes wonder whether Jacques Cousteau is communicating with her beyond the grave.” Hubby looked at me askance.
“Don’t be mad Alice. I’ll tell you what that dream meant”. He is not renowned for his dream interpretations. Joseph of, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat fame, he is not. So I waited for his verdict. This should be interesting.
“Come again?” I asked, blinking at him.
“Cheese. It’s a well known antagonist where nightmares are concerned. It gives you the collywobbles”. He said the last word with as much gusto as one who has just discovered some rare and virulent disease.
“Oh good grief. You sound like my great-aunt Bessie. Collywobbles indeed and that is your scientific analysis is it?”
“Well, thanks all the same, but I shan’t be accessing Dr Band’s encyclopaedic knowledge of dreams and rare disorders any time soon”.
“Suit yourself but you mark my word, a bit of cheddar before bedtime plays havoc with your psyche”.
I went to work. A world away from family and nightmares and the confines of the domestic kitchen, is that of the kitchen of a café, which in summer, allows me to escape mine. It is as far removed from a familial kitchen as can be imagined. At least for me it is. The food that emerges from the metaphoric swing-doors has been previously carefully selected by the customer, and expertly cooked by the chef. At no point does anyone ask, with sullen attitude, “What’s for lunch?” or riffle through the shelves and biscuit tins and sigh. Then, when the food is served, no-one, absolutely no-one whines, “Oh but you know I don’t like crab salad/smoked fish platter/bacon, avocado and mozzarella sandwiches”. In fact, when I put their plates in front of them, the customers, without fail, remark, “Oh thank-you! This looks delicious” and then, as if that weren’t enough, they remind their children, “Darling what do you say?”. “Thank-you very much”, the little, beautifully, brought up darling remembers.
In a commercial kitchen neither are you on your own, forgotten about whilst your family sits in other rooms, waiting for you to chime, “Dinner’s ready”. The chef is not brow beaten and defeated, attempting hundreds of tasks singlehandedly, yes, she may be very, very busy but, at least she is producing food that people are going to enjoy and, ultimately pay for.
Maybe this is where I am going wrong. Vive la revolution I say. Imagine if you will, a world where our children and spouses are given a daily menu, a simple table d’hote where there are a few items on it. Sausage and mash; jacket spud and cheese and beans; spag bol/chilli con carne. The last two items are easily interchangeable - just add kidney beans and chilli powder. Off that list they can order what they want. I often cook various meals to suit different palates so that would be no particular challenge, then, when their plates are empty, which they will be because what they ate was after all what they chose and not, what was after all their mother’s whim to cook that day, I would present them with a bill. The eldest have part time jobs, the youngest pocket money. They can afford it. I cannot believe I’ve never thought of this before. Like I said, it’s revolutionary.
And so, as I pirouetted around the café, making coffees and milkshakes and serving English breakfasts and cream teas, I relished every moment. My heart sank as I turned the open to closed sign on the door and after cleaning up, went home. It sank even further on seeing Hubby’s face.
“Hiya”, I said, kissing him, “I didn’t expect to see you here. Where is the car?”
“At the garage. The AA man spent three hours trying to fix it. To no avail”. That night Hubby sat bold upright in bed. He was dripping in sweat and his heart was pounding.
“Bloody hell what’s the matter?”
“Jeeze, I just dreamt the car was knackered.”
“We haven’t had it long have we, it’s bound to be a spark plug or something.” That something was a new engine. A new engine? You’d have to eat a wheel of cheese to give you these kinds of collywobbles, only it’s a thousand pound living nightmare and no bloody dream.


For one with the constitution of an ox, the fact that it hurt my arms when wallowing in Cawsand Bay should have been a warning to me. I didn’t expect it to be the balmy seas of Kefalonia but neither did I expect the sensation of such frigidity that I might have been ice-hole diving.
“C’mon mum”, shouted the kids, “Don’t be a wimp. Just go for it”. They frolicked, adults swam, kayaks swept silently past me, but I felt as though I were participating in a New Year dip. “It’s absolutely freezing”, I said through chattering teeth.
“It is not”, laughed my daughter, as, with orange goggles on her head, she delved her head under the sea like a cormorant. “See?” she said, emerging again, equally orange hair dripping down her face.
I didn’t see, no. All I knew was that my blood and bones were quickly becoming immobilised, so after a very brief doggypaddle, I waded out and wrapped all our towels around my shivering body.
All around me were sun-worshippers sipping cokes or licking ice-creams; I, on the other hand unscrewed the Thermos and poured myself a coffee. Cupping the plastic cup as though my life depended on it, I wondered how long it would be before I could suggest going home.
I soon found out. The nine year old ran over to me, bursting with excitement, dragging a familiar little girl in her wake.
“Look who I’ve found mum. Stacey”. I said hi to Stacey, before she informed me that she had her own kayak and that, would it be ok if my girls went with her on it around the bay. Before I was able to utter any remonstrance or words of warning regarding deep water and subsequent drowning my daughter had said,
“Oh Cheers mummy”, and without so much as a by your leave, she’d gone, still dragging Stacey; the Red-Head was waiting for them in the shallows. She is bright enough to realise that the further away she is from me the less likelihood there is of capture. By the time I had heaved myself off the pebbles and strode down to the water’s edge, they had paddled away and all that was left for me to do was wave rather pathetically.
It goes without saying that they eventually returned safe and sound and very happy with their adventure, I by this time, had packed our bags, folded towels and beach mats and was waiting for them. Not very patiently either as I was still shivering uncontrollably.
Walking back to the car, the youngest asked why I was being so quiet. It hadn’t occurred to me that I had been and it wasn’t until I started to then enter into conversation that I realised that it hurt to talk.
“Ouch”, I said, rubbing at my neck, “My throat hurts”.
Later that evening, once spaghetti had been served up to the masses and I’d swallowed, with some difficulty, a couple of enormous ibuprofen, I went to the local pub to meet Mags for a drink and a catch up. She was in the corner, sporting an oversized Amy Winehouse t-shirt.
“Holy karumba Alice” she said, standing up to kiss me, “you look like the proverbial poo”.
“Thanks”, I replied dolefully, “I feel like it too”.
“What’s up?” she asked, throwing wasabi peanuts into her mouth.
“I’m not sure, but I ache and have a really sore throat”.
“Sauvignon blanc will do the trick”. Now, for most hum-drum everyday glitches such as a crap day at work, children playing up, marital disharmony etc. etc., then an enormously large, chilled white wine and the company of a best friend invariably makes the issues of the day seem suddenly less significant but, tonight it just didn’t work. I took a few sips of my wine, resolutely refused any offer of wasabi nuts and tried to sound interested in Mags’s condemnation of energy bills but, I was very aware that I was being very much a wet blanket.
“I have to go home”, I admitted.
“Home? Sorry, am I boring you that much? We’ll talk about Zara’s wedding if you prefer?”
“Cheeky cow”, I said slapping her with a beer mat, “I’m not that vacuous!”
“Well don’t go home then”.
“I must. One minute I’m shivering, the next I’m having hot flushes”.
“Menopause?”, she asked quietly.
“Maybe, and I know that there are a myriad symptoms of menopause but I genuinely can’t recall that a sore throat is one of them”.
An hour later and I was in bed. Hubby came up a little while later.
“My God”, he said, “You must be ill. I’ve never known you party poop on a night out with Mags before”. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to reply. Instead, I buried my head into my pillow and went out like a light. At 4 am, I awoke, choking on my own spit. Disgusting. My throat seemed to have closed over, my neck and ears were throbbing and it was difficult to move my tongue. For the next four and a half hours I lay propped up in bed whimpering, and willing the to time to fly so that I could ring the doctor’s surgery.
“Have a Strepsil” yawned Hubby some time around dawn. Something frothed in my throat as I tried to reply that he could shove his Strepsil, but he was already asleep again. I got up and attempted to drink some water. It was impossible.
By 9am I was at the surgery with a torch being shone down my throat.
The doctor shook her head, “Nasty case of tonsillitis. You must be in a lot of pain” and she wrote me a prescription for penicillin.
I know that it may have been through accidental discovery, but as I swallow each little tablet of penicillin and every hour I feel a little better, I can but salute you Alexander Fleming. Thank-you for your miracle mould.

Thursday, 28 July 2011


School, is once again, out for summer. Please let it be so. Summer that is. Let the sun shine gloriously upon all parents and their children for the next 5 weeks so that we can turf them out into parks, picnics and beaches, where, apart from a few sarnies, some crisps and a daily lolly, the rest of the excursion incurs no further costs. Rain is not only depressing, it is also costly.
“What are we going to do for the next few weeks?” asked the 9 year old when I picked her up from school on the last day of term.
“What do you mean ‘do’?” I said, chucking several, overflowing carrier bags into the back of the car. My heart sinks on the last day school day of the year. Not because I have five long weeks in which to entertain my little darlings, but because of all the ‘stuff’ they bring home with them. Every drawing, poem, mask, sword, clay modelling, maths book, spelling book, writing journal and painting is stuffed into a Tesco bag, ready for mine and Hubby’s delectation. I can’t get away with chucking it away for weeks; old cereal boxes, glued together haphazardly, representing Camelot or whatever, sit on my sideboard until sometime in September, looking like the junk they literally are.
Several times I have extricated these works of art from the bin, where Hubby, in a fit of clearing the decks has thrown them in. They must have a few weeks reprieve. There is no choice. These childish works of art, mathematics and literature have to be valued and pored over. Our youngest daughter’s spelling is nothing if not a little creative and it takes hours to decipher her stories but, decipher them I must. However painful. The Red-Head insists on climbing onto my lap and going through every single page of every single book, painstakingly explaining every arithmetical working out and every poem and story she has every penned. Not content with academia, we must remark, appreciate and applaud all the drawings and colourings and cutting out and gluing from the past school year. It cannot be endured without at least two, very large glasses of wine.
To show disregard for their masterpieces would crush their efforts and speak volumes. One can almost hear them on the therapist’s couch twenty years from now, wailing, “My parents never valued me”.
I therefore welcomed with open arms this week my friends from Brooklyn and their children. Their children kept my children highly entertained, but then we got to talking about what they were doing for rest of the ‘vacation’, not forgetting that they have been out of school since the beginning of June. But, not for them the every day waking on a boiling hot day and the wondering what to do with their little darlings. These kids and all their peers are in organised activity from dawn until dusk. At Camp. Period.
Given how American culture has infiltrated the British psyche over the last few decades, I am astonished that ‘camp’ hasn’t caught on here. We have all their tv programmes, their food and their music. End of year proms are now de rigeur for all high-school kids with many teenage girls sporting orange spray tans, meringue frocks and stretch limos to get them to the dance, the boys look a little more ill at ease having watched fewer chick-flicks than their female counterparts so are uncomfortable in the role of tuxedoed suitor. Wedding and baby showers are also gaining popularity. It is most surprising therefore that we have not adopted that fabulous American institution of, ‘summer camp’. I start back in my café on Saturday and am at a loss with what to do with my cherubs. Were I living in America, I could choose from Skateboard camp, riding camp, swimming camp, Jewish Camp, Christian camp, tennis camp and glee camp. You name it; there is a camp for it. No doubt in fact that there is a camp for those that are, well, camp. Not all of them are big bucks either but, from breakfast to dinner time you can rest assured that far from sitting in front of a tv or computer game, your child is being actively encouraged to participate in wholesome activities by the boundless, inexorable energy of the American teen counsellor.
Our British, older teenagers just aren’t that way inclined. Of all the myriad ones that I know very well indeed, I can’t name one that would have the effervescence of a Mickey Mouse club entertainer to quite happily give up their summer of festivals, drinking and casual sex and, for very little pay, to play for hours on end: baseball, basketball, cheerleading and goodness knows what else with little kids. And that is where the problem lies and why ‘camp’ will never take off here. Kids, especially young kids, love hanging out with big kids and older teenagers. They idolise and worship the ground they walk on. My own children would not want to spend their entire summer being entertained by a middle aged mum who can hardly get up a Cornish cliff without an iron lung let alone play ‘soccer’ with gusto. Tough luck then that they are landed with me and which is why my youngest are already fretting as to what the next few weeks hold for them. They need assurances that they are not going to be bored rigid when it does rain by helping mummy with the housework, or if the sun shines, that they will not once again take the dog and a picnic to Mount Edgcumbe.
Therefore, if there are bouncy, wholesome and hearty American teenagers out there who would like a summer job making crafts and bushfires; or who love nothing more than to put on shows and dance, I would be more than happy to receive their references. Current, resident teens need not apply.

Hellenic Heaven

My sinuses are not what they were. I am helped to smell and taste through a variety of daily antihistamines and steroid nose drops. Flying therefore is torture and the pain of the pressure as the plane starts its descent makes me cry.
“Excuse me”, I asked the Thompson stewardess, my head sandwiched between my hands, my face screwed up in agony, “Could you please give me a boiled sweet to help me swallow?”
“Sorry, we’re not allowed to provide sweets. Choking hazard”. I uncapped my ear in an effort to hear her properly.
“Choking hazard”, she repeated.
“Choking hazard? But only half an hour ago you brought a trolley around and offered me a bag of peanuts. Forgive me, but on a choking scale, I do believe peanuts are notoriously more apt to get stuck in your lung than a Fox’s Glacier Fruit.” She only shrugged her shoulders and repeated the advice to swallow.
My 9 year old daughter held my hand, “Don’t worry mummy. We’ll be there soon. Try this. It really helps” and she opened her mouth as wide as Maria Callas in full aria and then, stuck out her tongue, far, like a Moari Warrior and wiggled it around. Surprisingly, it was very comforting and much to the great embarrassment of my 15 year old daughter who thought I looked like an imbecile, I continued these facial exercises until the plane touched down in Kefalonia.
Within less than an hour burst ear drums were a distant memory as we had disrobed and were frolicking around the pool at our accommodation. Now, most normal people, especially those with young children in tow, would have stayed put around that pool for the week, perhaps occasionally venturing to the beach or a local tavern when the sun finally set and it had become slightly cooler but, as has been demonstrated year after year, I am not particularly normal and the minute my little red, Hyundai was delivered, we started on an odyssey that would have made, well Odysseus want to unfold a sun lounger in surrender and take a siesta.
I drove over a thousand miles in the last week but, had I not, we would never have experienced the white knuckle experience of driving down the precipitous hair pin bends of various mountains to reach the deep phosphorescent turquoise seas beneath.
“Bloody hell mum”, said my daughter, her throat constricted in fear as the passenger seat overlooked hundreds of feet of nothing as we made our descent down to Myrtos Beach, “Stay in the middle of the bloody road”.
Had I not driven, neither would we have found the most exquisite little town of Assos, and bought honey from a weathered, ancient old man, who sits at a picnic bench under an olive tree, selling his jars of home produced honey day, after day, after day. We wouldn’t have meandered late at night, around the narrow streets of Fiskardo, licking our ice-creams, our sea-salty, bedraggled hair and sweaty, cheap cotton clothes a million miles away from the clientele of this very glamorous town, who looked at as disdainfully as they sipped their fancy cocktails in the fancy restaurants that twinkled around the little harbour.
Had I not hired the Hyundai, we would never have found remote beaches where, liberated from the eyes of other, more conservative bathers, we removed our cozzies and went skinny dipping, the fish scurrying past, mortified by our luminescent, white bodies.
Greece is a wonderful place to go though if, in a bikini, one does not strike the iconic look of Ursula Andress emerging from the waves. The Greek diet of oil, pastry, cheese, and bakeries selling all number of cakes steeped in sticky syrup and stews of stifado, kleftiko and gyros has put paid to Greek ladies being the skinny cows that one might find in other holiday destinations. Sure, there were several tourists who looked sculpted and brown in their itsy-bisty bikinis, but on the beach, surrounded by locals, great big hulking women with equally itsy-bitsy bikinis, I cared not a jot in my British Home Stores, stripy tankini.
The latter part of the week, saw us drive further afield again and for the first time, utilise the air conditioning in the car. For days we had endured the intense heat but had driven with bottles of cold water to keep hydrated and the windows fully open. The windows open option, not only isn’t particularly effective when the temperature is 41 degrees but it also plays merry hell with your coiffure, so that hair that is already matted and salty, once it has been blown dry by the elements of the Greek sun and wind, ensures that by the time you reach your destination and you emerge from the car, you look slightly deranged and not a little unattractive.
We refreshed ourselves with a dip at the beach in Katelios and, later, sipping an ice cold beer at a beach tavern, I remembered that I knew a lovely Cornish woman who owned a villa near by. Texting her wildly in excitement, she responded immediately and insisted, even though she was at home in Cornwall, that I find her house. We went in search and minutes later were knocking at her door. Her guests couldn’t have been more charming or better mannered. We must have looked quite a sight, four dishevelled females gate-crashing their dinner but this other Cornish family welcomed us with open arms, an infinity pool and chilled white wine. It was perfection; a movie star house, nestled on a hill side, the sea down below, the island of Zante far in the haze on the horizon.
As we drove back to our very basic apartment later, my eldest daughter, in awe of the company we had just kept, said “They had a cook! Mum, we haven’t even got a cooker”. All the better to eat out my dear.

Cor blimey trousers.

“I don’t know whether I’m coming or going?”, I whimpered, listlessly and literally throwing the towel in.
“Now, take a deep breath”, suggested Mags, removing the beach towel from the suitcase “and be systematic”.
“I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve written a list as long as my arm, yet no sooner have I ironed a pile of t-shirts then I remember about Euros. I’m half way to the Post Office and then I remember the after-sun lotion. I go to Boots, only to remember prescriptions that need repeating, so then I run to the surgery and return to the ironing having left all the previous jobs unfinished.”
“You are only going on holiday”, reminded Mags, “You are meant to relax”.
“Relax! Are you having a laugh? I’ve myself and three daughters to wash, iron and pack for; four other men to provide meals for and of one of those men, I have to dance around as he is seriously cross that I am going on holiday in the first place”.
“Nothing new there then Alice”. Nope, my holidaying without him is nothing new. Poor Hubby though, I do feel for him, left alone with big work commitments and three teenage lads to keep in line having been abandoned by a wife who threw caution to the wind and booked, albeit as long ago as January, a weeks holiday in Kefalonia.
“Thing is Mags”, I confided, “I thought I’d have a job lined up by now and so, a week away was not going to be as much extravagance as it seems now”.
“Well ,don’t worry about that”, she said laying her hand on my arm, “that will all work itself out and I have no doubt that by Christmas you will be in gainful employment”. I appreciated her comfort and neatly folded the beach towel and laid it flat at the bottom of one of the suitcases.
“Speaking of gainful employment”, I said, running my finger down my list of To-Dos, “Your god-son is gainfully employed”.
“Really?”, she said, helping fold other items of clothing, “What’s he doing?” Now, having been a grammar school boy with a good brain but, who has spurned the idea of university, one might naturally assume that he would be looking for a full-time and ultimately, prosperous career. This is not so, it would seem.
“Ma and Pa, I have something to tell you”, he had sat us down and looked very grave. Hubby and I swallowed hard. Were we about to become grandparents? I clutched Hubby’s hand. It was clammy. Our son read our minds.
“No guys, it’s not what you think! Jeeze, why do parents only ever have sex on the brain?” I knew that Hubby was about to quip, ‘Perhaps because we never get any’, but I squeezed his hand. Code for, ‘keep your gob shut’.
“What is it you want to talk to us about then darling?”, I asked as gently as was possible in a tone that would engender a confession.
“I don’t want to work in an office ok? I want to work outside. In the fresh air?” We nodded, I think both of us had an understanding of what fresh air meant.
“And I want to work earlier in the day ‘cos it leaves time then in the late afternoon for band practise”. We continued to nod. He looked at us, from one to another and then came out with it.
“So, I’m going to be a bin man”. I wiggled a finger in my ear. Had I heard him properly? A bin man as in, refuse collector? Hubby looked quite calm.
“It’s a tough job son”, he said, “Hard, physical graft. Very early hours, long day, lots of walking. I’m proud of you”.
I was more, how shall I put it, pragmatic?
“Tampons, pads, filthy nappies, dog mess, maggots, bin-juice, stink, seagulls, vomit…” Oh my god. Proud? If he said he’d got into Oxford I’d be proud, or, given his love of his band and was on Top of the Pops, then I’d be proud.
“Top of the Pops isn’t on any more Alice”, said Hubby softly, rubbing my knee.
“I can honestly say that when I wrapped you in a hand crocheted shawl for first time and inhaled your gloriousness, I never once thought to myself, ‘one day this perfect creature will be a bin man”.
“Well, I never saw that one coming” said, Mags, after I’d recounted the story, “So, how is he getting on?”
“It’s only casual labour”, I explained, “But he’s been getting up at five and cycling across Plymouth, hoping that on that day they need an extra pair of safety-gloved hands on their wagon.”
“He’s only a kid Alice; credit where credit is due. Most lads his age are just loafing around doing sod all”. I still can’t bear it. I don’t want him to work that hard.
All afternoon we checked off the list, item by item. I had stopped flapping around like a headless chicken and was very pleased with myself that my list, whilst having initially sent me into a spin, was at least, most comprehensive.
“Dried mixed herbs?” asked Mags.
“Very light to pack”, I explained, “and adds incomparable flavour to any pasta sauce”.
“Had you not considered, that, as you are after all going to a Greek Island, that they may possibly have fresh herbs in abundance?” I hadn’t considered it, no.
“Oh, well, plonk them in anyway.”
At about six, after Mags had left, my son had returned and thrown himself onto his bed before starting his waiting shift and the girls were literally bouncing with excitement, Hubby came home from work. He handed me an envelope. Inside were three, crisp, 20 Euro notes.
“For a Greek salad and some calamari”. I threw my arms around him, who needs Captain Corelli when you are married to Commander Band?