Friday, 27 May 2011

Second Skin.

To be honest, when Hubby emailed me and told me that I was to be his Plus One in an invitation that addressed us as ‘distinguished guests’, I rather hoped that perhaps some minor royalty might be involved and, hence the need for a new titfer.
Nothing mad, I continued to ponder. No Princess Beatrice configuration, just a large, sweeping brim. I made a mental list of what I might wear and realised, that, if I were to wear the navy ensemble, then I’d need to buy some stomach flattening knickers. Perusing the lingerie department in M&S, I was baffled by the endless interpretations of knicker available to a woman with a stomach which has accommodated four, rather large babies and a lifetime of good food and excellent wines.
“Excuse me”, I asked an assistant, “I’m looking for some deceiving undergarments”. The girl, who couldn’t possibly have been older than 16, looked at me with pity. She was stick thin and as needy of hold-me-in pants as I am of a belly-button piercing. I held my gaze and reluctantly she led me in the direction of some rather, alarmingly large, pants.
“These are our magic knickers range”, she said.
“Magic eh? Does my bum transform into Pippa Middleton’s the minute they are pulled up then?”
“They are not really magic”, she said, poker-faced.
“I see”, I replied, fondling the heavy-duty material. These things squeeze your innards from your navel to your thighs, much like a tube of toothpaste, “A guy could die trying to get into those”, I laughed conspiratorially.
It was obvious that the idea of me having a sex life and the subsequent image of a frisky man actually attempting to get into the aforementioned drawers was very disturbing and the girl gave a discreet little shudder.
“How much are they?” I asked, looking for the label.
“Twenty-nine pounds fifty”, she replied. I reeled.
“Bloody hell! Gastric surgery doesn’t come in at much more”, I exclaimed, “Can you suggest something else?” Before the poor girl could actually utter, ‘gastric surgery wouldn’t be such a bad idea’, her supervisor appeared on the scene. More mature and rather more, how shall I put it? Shapely.
“Can I be of assistance?” she asked.
“Yes, I hope so”, I said, “I have to attend an official function with my husband, and the dress I am thinking of wearing is rather unforgiving, therefore I need some underwear that will give the illusion that under all this,” and I waved in the direction of my tummy, “I have the body of a svelte teenager”. The lady in question held on to the stainless steel display racks and racked with laughter. It wasn’t that bloody funny.
“The thing, thirty pounds is a lot to spend on a pair of pants that (and at this point I crossed my fingers) I doubt I shall ever wear again”. The lady wiped tears from her eyes, and led me down the escalator to the hosiery department.
“I have just the thing for you”, she said, “Ultimate Magic, 10 Denier Secret Support Waist Shaper Tights. And only eight pounds”. Golly. Eight quid for tights. Still, a darned sight cheaper than the knickers.
“Thank-you for all your help”.
“My pleasure, but be careful and remember…” at this point I thought she was going to finish her sentence by saying, ‘and remember to be home by midnight otherwise the magic tights will suddenly give up the will to live and your tummy will once more resort to being a pumpkin’. As it was she only advised me to remove all my rings before I put them on.
Having pushed the boat out on expensive hosiery, I dropped the hat idea. Instead I bought lunch. Well, to be fair, Uncle Dave bought lunch. I found him on the ground floor, also buying pants. It’s not an issue for men. By a certain age they know how much support they want ‘down there’ and just buy in bulk thereafter. Uncle Dave was no exception. Bundling several pairs of large, black y-fronts in an M&S bag, he was delighted to see me.
“Alice! I’ve got the day off. Let’s do lunch”. It is common knowledge that when he puts his mind to it, Uncle Dave, gastronomically speaking, goes for it. Cue two hours later and I had to be virtually shoe-horned behind my steering wheel, so full was my tummy. When I got home, it was all I could do to crawl upstairs, down half a bottle of milk of magnesium and have a very dyspeptic lie down. Hubby rang at 5pm, promptly.
“Get your glad rags on Alice, I’ll be there to pick you up in ten minutes.” I could have cried. My tummy was still as swollen as a Highland haggis and now I somehow had to persuade it into a very, very, very tight pair of tights without laddering them.
Our destination was a Mayor making ceremony, so going hatless was a good decision as the only ones worn were of the tricorn variety and accessorised by a plume of feathers and a mace bearer. I found it hard to concentrate on proceedings. My inner machinations were under great duress and I was terrified of passing wind every time we got up and down to pay respects to the past mayor and then the new incumbent. Were my tights to give up on me now then I had appalling images of me as some human balloon whose knot has been released; and I could see myself flying around the room getting smaller and smaller whilst simultaneously making very rude noises.
I thank God that the new mayor was a magnificent speaker and by the end of his speech I had almost forgotten that Vesuvius was grumbling dangerously under my dress. It was only at the reception afterwards when Hubby handed me a platter of pasty, scones and saffron bun that I baulked and ran for my life.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


For reasons which will become apparent all too soon, I have, unexpectedly, found myself with a bit of time on my hands. It is a double edged sword. I am now available at all hours to pour oil over troubled waters. This has meant that I have been more visible to my family and able to be there for various crises, which, when you have a large brood, happens daily to one or another of them.
Hubby as loyal subject and employee of her Majesty and acutely aware that his wife is now once again ensconced in the home can not, I guess it is fair to say, be called upon to talk to primary school teachers at 8.30 in the morning to discuss that bloody legendary King, Arthur and why it is that I have found my best Sabatier knives plunged into bits of rock and earth in the garden as my youngest decides she wants to re-enact ‘The Sword in Stone’. This will account for the dog’s mortified expression and reluctance to play as he is made to wear a wizard’s hat and draped in a towel “for a cloak, because he is Merlin”. Neither does Hubby need to have tricky conversations with Heads of sixth forms, who call in grave voices to let you know that ‘A’ level course work, “despite promises”, has yet to be handed in. It is my place to apologise and to placate them and to renew promises that essays will be handed in poste haste and beg them not to let whatever child it might be, fail. I am acutely aware of the nightmare it is for teachers at this time of year having to spend more than half their time chasing their students to make sure they hand in outstanding work before the deadlines set by the exam boards. Simultaneously attempting to quell my fury at errant teenagers, who have been very opportunity to be far better organised, I replace the receiver and, using my best text language, communicate to the teenager in question, my wrath.
Anyway, having dealt with the above and driven back and fore to Bristol Airport to retrieve my eldest daughter, I awoke on Tuesday morning feeling rather blue. Recent events have made it hard to feel motivated to do anything other than the usual domestic drudgery and because of it, the Black Dog has returned to plague me with his persistent barking. Luckily I can read the signs these days and for now he is metaphorically chained up in the garden, where although he can get on my nerves, he is at least far enough away to do too much damage.
I was washing up a few dishes and staring aimlessly out of the kitchen window, when the door-bell rang. Wiping my hands on a tea towel, I went to answer it. It was Mags, smiling, very hard.
“Do that much longer and you’ll get rictus”, I said.
“I was just trying to jolly you along”, she replied still beaming and thrusting a present into my hand.
“What’s this?” I asked, squeezing it.
“A bloody football”, she replied, “What on earth do you think it is?”
“A book?”
“Bravo. Well, open it then”, she said urging me along by undoing a square of wrapping paper.
It was a copy of Ruth Saberton’s new novel, ‘Ellie Andrews Gets Second Thoughts’.
“It only came out today”, continued Mags, “and I thought, seeing as you knew her, you’d like to read it. I ordered it from Amazon”. Dearest Mags, she was trying very hard to be bubbly and elicit some enthusiasm from me.
“Thank-you”, I said, “That was really thoughtful. I’ll read it soon” and I put the book on the sofa beside me.
“You will not read it soon, you will read it now. Take some time out, go for a drive somewhere, pull over and relish every sentence”.
“Ok, I will”. Mags wasn’t convinced that I would, and neither, believe me, was I.
“C’mon Alice, you must pull yourself out of this. Things will be sorted out, you’ll see. In the meantime, you have got to stick your chin out, throw your shoulders back, whistle a happy tune and just get on with it”. I smiled, you had to admire her tenacity.
“That’s more like it”, she said, giving me a hug, “Now, the sun is shining and you have petrol in your tank. Here are your sunglasses, car keys, your handbag and ‘Ellie Andrews’. Go and find sanctuary somewhere and not too far away”. I was ushered through the door before I could, with Garbo-esque style utter, “I vant to be alone”.
The next minute I was sitting in my car and the engine was running. Where to go? Fifteen minutes later and I was in the lounge of The Cawsand Bay Hotel. The manager Dan is new, but our friendship is old and he was very attentive, making sure that I had everything I needed.
“Coffee”, he said, putting a steaming cup next to me on a squishy sofa overlooking the bay. I sighed and pulled out my new book from my bag. An hour later I lifted my head. The sun was dancing on the little waves that were gently flopping onto the sand, the Ferry had arrived and instead of tourists tripping off it, fishermen with lobster pots jumped onto the sand. It was an idyllic scene and the book was everything you need when trying to escape your own mind. It is very funny and I found myself laughing out loud. Dear old Ruth, if her characters are anything to go by, she’s had as many scrapes as I have.
After another hour of idling the day away drinking coffee, reading chicklit and watching the sea, I felt renewed and as buoyed as the little red balls out in the bay.
There was no need to write an SOS in the sand after all. Mags, Ruth and Dan had saved my soul.

Thursday, 12 May 2011


“What’s for dinner?” as I have said before, is singularly the most irksome question a child can ask. This is the first thing they enquire as they walk through the door. Never a ‘hello’, or a, ‘how was your day? It wouldn’t even be so bad if, when I inform them of the menu du jour, they replied approvingly, tapping their tummies in anticipation of a culinary delight and laying the table without having to be pressganged into it. Unfortunately with so many palates to placate, one of them invariably groans in disappointment whilst another groans ‘but it’s not my turn’.
When I just had two children and they were little, it was fairly simple and very much nursery fare: fish fingers, sausage and mash, fish pie, that sort of thing. They went to bed early and Hubby and I ate, in fairly civilised companionship, a fairly civilised and sophisticated diet. They grew older and two more children came along which also coincided with us living in America. Soon, sophisticated dinners a deux were a fond memory replaced by the regular ding-dong of the pizza delivery boy or trips to noisy, ‘family’ restaurants and ‘take-out’.
More recently two more young people have been added to the family inventory and any dreams whereby the younger children hanker over the simple pleasures of fish fingers and chips or the teenagers an Indian take-away or where Hubby and I long for a nice steak are truly, delusional. With eight mouths to feed, I must be thrifty but considerate of nutritious value. I am more of a dinner lady than domestic goddess.
If I make spaghetti bolognese one or two offspring will complain, ‘that’s boring’, or, ‘I’ve gone off it’, or worse, ‘I’ve gone off mince’. Puts paid to - Tuesday: chilli, Friday: Cottage Pie.
Soup is met by the youngest with, ‘It tastes funny’, presumably because it is not characteristically orange-red and from a tin, but because it is instead freshly pulped tomato and basil. Leek and potato soup was eyed up dubiously by at least three of the six children, whereas my son voted it, ‘lush’.
Spaghetti carbonara is, my eldest daughter insists, ‘too squelchy’ and salad, Hubby protests, ‘is too vegetarian’. The tines of my fork pick out the chicken and bacon on his plate, but he is not appeased, ‘Salad is a side dish, not a main meal. Just ask the French’.
The newest members of the family it must be said are a little easier to please or perhaps they are still being polite. No-nos though are beetroot, bananas, coffee and kidney, but as I have yet to find a recipe that incorporates those ingredients then they are happy to give most menus a go. And so it goes on and if there anything more tedious in eating the same dishes week in, week out than it must surely be in the shopping for and preparing of them.
Beuof bourgignon and mash; lasagne (this was before the mince embargo) and chicken and pasta has been done to death this winter, along with burgers and chips and toad in the hole. The odd occasion where I pushed the boat out and made chicken enchiladas complete with sour cream, guacamole and salsa accompaniments was met with such a ravenous chorus of approval that I thought that at any given moment a Mariachi band would burst through the front door all ruffled sleeves and sombreros to serenade me.
So, what with the unrelenting tedium and monotonous routine of auto-pilot supermarket shopping and the unenthusiastic response to my dinners something had to be done; I had to finally break out of menu malaise and be more pro-active. Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals has been sitting with innumerable other cook books on my kitchen book shelf for months. Greasy and unread. Nonetheless, I love Jamie Oliver, I admire his enthusiasm and his integrity, so if anyone was going to inspire me to get back into cooking it was going to be him.
30 minutes though? Perhaps, if you have a bevvy of sous chefs to do all your chopping and picking and counter cleaning. It could be argued, that with four teenagers in the house they could be called upon to help in a supporting role, but curiously, once they have enquired what it is they will be eating for dinner, they scarper lest they are asked to assist towards its denouement on the dinner table. Still, shopping for ingredients has been more appealing, instead of just robotically visiting the fruit and veg aisle and chucking chicken into my trolley, Jamie has provided me with a list to follow. Now, where all other cook books ask for fennel seeds and star anise and you never use them again, finding Schwartz’s herbs from circa 1987 in the back of your cupboard, Jamie asks that you make dishes using the ingredients time and again, so nothing goes off. Take egg whites for example. I cannot remember the times that having made meringues I have been unable to throw away the yolks, intending to make mayonnaise with them. Two days later and they are still in a dish in the fridge, shrivelled and congealed. Such ‘waste not want not’ shame is not an issue in this book, the egg yolks are all used up for the Wonky Summer pasta recipe which is on the same page as the meringue.
I have cooked my way through several pages, some with more success than others, but generally speaking there is a hushed and reverential silence as my family eat.
“I’ll get the yogurts”, said my son, clearing the table, replete.
“No need”, I replied, beaming proudly, “I’ve made pudding” and there was a collective gasp as I laid it in front of them.
“What is it?” asked Hubby.
“Warm, individual frangipane tarts with a dollop of crème fraiche”. Mention of the word frangipane and dollop in the same sentence and you’re onto a winner.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Happy and Glorious.

As I write there are only hours to go, by Saturday morning it will all be over. The bunting will be drooping, the balloons deflated, children will have been lost and hopefully found in various crowds, military members will have breathed a sigh of relief that they no longer have to bull and polish, the outfits and who wore what will have been scrutinised by countless fashion police forces and ‘the dress’ will have been metaphorically taken apart, stitch by silk threaded, stitch.
At the moment though there are just a few hours to go and I am very excited. I can’t wait to pour my first flute of pink cava and nibble the first, of what I hope will be a many and varied, bridge roll. Hubby has given up rolling his eyes and instead of asking “but why?” just Sky Plusses any Will and Kate type programme. I have studied Hello, Ok, Country Life and a plethora of newspaper articles regarding the nuptials with more dedication and zeal than my son has shown towards his ‘A’ levels – but then that is not a good analogy to illustrate commitment to a cause. My more republican friends, of whom there are far too many, all think I’ve gone potty.
“You’ve lost the plot Alice; all that recent studying has made you a little bonkers”, they say.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, I reply imperiously as I simultaneously re-arrange my tiara until it is just so.
“What a waste of money”, they continue.
“How so?”, I answer them, “The mood of this country has been nothing but doom and gloom for over a year; all we ever hear about is war, natural disasters, government cuts, redundancies, fear, cancer and heartache. I’ve had it up to here.”
“But the taxpayer?”
“The taxpayer will always pay tax. The powers that be will always find ever more ways of making us pay it. I am not in the slightest bit bothered that some of it is going towards paying for a show that only we Brits know how to put on. How can you be so dour about pomp and ceremony and cavalry-men and military bands and golden carriages and princes and princesses and frocks and morning suits and wedding breakfasts? How? Isn’t it so much better than hearing that yet another business has gone into liquidation or yet another poor sod has lost his job or that planned equipment for a hospital has been shelved?”
They look defiant.
“I for one”, I continue, “am looking forward to a reprieve from what has come to be the norm of pessimism. A few brief hours of fun and frivolity. All that serious stuff will be just as serious next week.” And that is all I have to say to these party-poopers. Miserable gits all of them.
On that note, this afternoon was fabulous kick start to the festivities. My youngest daughters’ school PTA decided, like many schools in the area, that it would be a lovely idea to hold a street party for them complete with queen, party frocks, bunting, sausage rolls and wedding cake. Now, when you are sitting in the pub, chewing on the end of a pencil and coming up with ideas for the PTA’s involvement, bright ideas are just that and I got quite carried away with the notion of cakes and jelly and balloons and bunting and, “Oh and we could wear hats and make bridal favours!”, I remarked.
“This is not your wedding Alice”, added the secretary. Oh yes, I forgot. The point is, sitting in the pub making lists and being creative is a far cry from the actual doing. I should have learnt this now given that I have been involved with the PTA for eons. And whether is it the Christmas or Summer Fair, the coach trips or indeed a Royal Wedding, it is always the same faces that one sees cooking, carrying, ferrying and cleaning up. The children would not have had anywhere near as much fun if the PTA secretary had not schlepped around Wilkinson’s and stuffed her car full with paper plates and bunting and cups and flags and god knows what else. It would have been a meagre party without the help of another member and her husband inflating dozens of helium balloons or another full-time working mum who made hundreds of individual jellies or the Chair, who with four children and a part-time job, found time to bake three wedding cakes and me, who ran around Plymouth this week like a headless chicken, buying icing and ribbon and little silver balls and little silver horseshoes to decorate the cakes. I may never be Jane Asher, but they turned out rather well.
This morning found me up to my neck in cocktail sausage fat which clogged up my sink and sausage rolls that burnt my tongue – well I had to check they were properly cooked. I made a thousand and one trips back and fore to my car filling it up with all the stuff I’d either bought or made.
The Chair and I then spent ages weaving the bunting in and out of the school fence, before the cavalry arrived by way of other staff to help us heave tables and chairs, make gallons of squash, lay tables with red, white and blue napery and arrange the balloons, the flags, the cups and the plates. The school playground looked suitably resplendent and as the children paraded outside in their Sunday best with the Head as the queen in a very fetching gold crown, we were all moved to tears. We had toasts and best men speeches, the Queen cut the cake and prizes were handed out. I doubt they’ll ever forget it.
“Not much chance of forgetting it anyway”, whispered the Chair to me.
“Diamond Jubilee next year. We’ve got to do this all over again”.

Skin Deep

For one reason or another I have done a lot of crying lately, the latest bout brought on my bloody son.
“But we raised you to be such a nice, middle class young man. Hell, your father and I paid for every type of class that little boys who are on the way up could possibly need to further their social connections. Look at the forthcoming nuptials, with the modest background you have, well, you could have easily married a Princess. No bloody luck now is there?”
“Ma, get things in perspective will you? I am not going to prison, I am not on drugs, I am…”
“It can only be a matter of time!”, I yelled back, ferocious tears flying onto every surface. Hubby was attempting a there, there dear approach and keeping quiet, but I knew that even he was upset.
“How can you equate a tattoo with prison and dugs mum, I mean, come on”.
“Oh don’t me so naïve”, I continued to bawl and wail, “You’ve seen Jeremy Kyle. All you need now is the debt, a dodgy dog and a baby and you’ll be sorted”.
“It’s a tattoo”, my son repeated, bored with having this conversation, because, “Everyone else who’s seen it likes it and thinks it’s tasteful”.
“Tattoos tasteful? Well that’s an oxymoron in itself, and you”, I added with a flourish, “are the moron”.
“It’s just a tattoo”, he opined.
“Can’t you understand”, said, blowing my nose into a tissue, “that when you were a baby, my first born precious boy, I dreamt of you growing up illustrious not illustrated?”
I felt Hubby wince behind me. This was hurting him as much. I couldn’t bear it a moment longer. It was very late; our daughter should have been home from her waitressing job by now. I’d go and meet her and escort her home. Sobbing I left the two men to discuss the ‘design’.
I picked up the dog’s lead and, as he looked back at me puzzled to be taken out at such a time, clipped it onto his collar and walked down the road to the pub. I tied the dog up outside and went in. It was completely empty except for the bar-man who stood at the bar, like some latter day Shylock, counting the takings for the night.
“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…”
I threw myself on a bar stool and howled anew, “My beautiful baby boy has gone and got a tattoo”, I howled.
The bar-man paused and lines of deep concentration ploughed themselves across his forehead, “..eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one”. He bagged the pennies.
“Alice”, he said, as patiently as was possible given that the poor chap genuinely just wanted to cash up and shut up shop for the night, “It’s what they do these days”. That was all the solace I was getting.
It’s at this point that I felt like some old timer in some run down bar, somewhere south of ‘Frisco and I almost felt compelled to demand, “Scotch, straight up”, as though my life and my marriage depended on it. This isn’t California though, it’s Cornwall. We do things differently and you sure as hell don’t demand hard liquor once the bar man has balanced the till and cashed up. Besides, my bar-man may not have seen the same movies as me and then we’d have been in a right pickle.
My daughter, it slowly dawned on me, was not in the building. She must have taken a different route to mine. I peeled myself off the bar stool, said goodnight to the bar-man, who had now turned his attention to the bank notes and was counting those. Without pausing in his addition, he nodded his head to acknowledge my departure and carried on as though it were nothing unusual to have weeping, middle aged women in his bar, late at night, even on a Wednesday.
I untied the dog, who slowly and sympathetically walked next to me. He seemed to sense that I was in no mood to be pulled along the waterfront. It was a beautiful night, utterly still and warm. The tide was in and the moon was reflected on the inky blackness of St John’s lake. I sat on one of the benches and looked upriver. Little boat lights twinkled mesmerizingly. It should have been perfect.
“May I join you?”. Luckily I recognised the voice to be my husband’s and not some drunken nutter so tapped the space on the bench next to me. Hubby sat down and put his arm around me. We sat in silence, both recalling periods of our son’s charmed boyhood.
“Beautiful, golden ringlets framed his gorgeous face” said Hubby wistfully. It’s now raven black.
“I sat for hours on village hall floors when he could barley sit up, with other mothers, who had also been sold the lie that circle time and musical instruments and running under a parachute canopy whilst simultaneously breastfeeding and singing five little speckled frogs was going to ensure an education at Oxbridge and a career in medicine”.
“He doesn’t want to go to Uni and doesn’t want a career in anything. The only chance of working in medicine will be a part-time job in Boots”.
“He’s had drama lessons, swimming, tap and ballet, guitar and driving lessons”.
“The guitar lessons paid off I suppose”, said Hubby.
“That was classical; he plays bass”.
“Good point”.
“It’s only a tattoo”, I said but we both knew that I didn’t really mean that. For 18 years we have tried our damndest to ensure that nothing hurts him. When he cut himself we picked him up and soothed him. We have applied ointments and balms, plasters and bandages. It is unsurprising therefore that we feel the pain that our baby’s skin has been branded, acutely.