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?


Hubby looked most disapproving as I got ready to go out for a night on the town with a bunch of twenty-somethings.
“You are not going dressed like that are you?”, he asked. I looked down at my dress.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? I look alright”.
“Hmm. Mutton and lamb spring to mind”. I was most affronted. There was a bit of cleavage on display and a little flash of leg, but nothing outrageous.
I ran upstairs for some sartorial advice. My eldest daughter, having now finished her exams, is oft to be found in bed, where she is languishing as her brain is bored. In fairness to her, she is not idling the day away in that torpid sleep that only teenagers and hibernating wildlife assume nor is she flicking through the inane pages of celebrity magazines; instead she whiles away the hours watching documentary after documentary. I knocked and walked into her room; she pushed a button to pause her computer. I raised my eyebrows.
“World War Two. The Complete History”.
“I thought you watched that yesterday?”
“No, that was Mysteries of the Amazon. You look nice”.
“Do I?”, I asked, scrutinising my appearance in her full length mirror, “That’s what I came to ask you. Dad thinks I look like mutton dressed as lamb”.
“He’s a bright one to talk; he took the dog for a walk earlier wearing a Paul Weller t-shirt and a pair of red Converse. I nearly died”.
“So, you won’t die if I go out dressed like this?”
“No, but you may need to change your knickers, you have a serious case of VPL.” I turned around and looked at my bottom in the mirror.
Bugger. That’s the problem with tight pants, they may hold you in, but other parts of your flesh have a disconcerting habit of seeping out elsewhere. My daughter handed me a scissors.
“Make a snip in the leg elastic”, she advised.
“Bloody hell ma, what’s up?” asked my son, walking in. I must have looked rather odd hunched over with my dress gathered up, wielding a large, craft scissors and attacking my knickers with it.
I let go of my dress.
“Oh, hello. I’m getting ready for a night on the tiles. How do I look?”
“Better now I can’t see your knickers.”
“You are not embarrassed by me then?”
“Ma, I am often embarrassed by you, but rarely by what you wear”. I gave him a playful clip around the ear.
“Well, I’m off then. See you guys later”.
Forty minutes later and I was in a beer garden on the Barbican. It was rather nippy and I was glad I had my pashmina. My friends however, being decades younger than me and thus more inclined to wear less apart from skimpy numbers in thin, silky fabrics, shivered. Maternally, I offered my pashmina. They looked aghast. You’d have thought I’d offered them to cover up with an Orlon cardigan. What is with young people and their abject horror of being warm and dry? You see hordes of them walk to school in torrential rain, either utterly coatless, their hair and school sweatshirts clinging to them, or, more queerly, a raincoat draped over their arms. I shrugged my shoulder and took a sip of wine.
If my attire aged me, then my choice of drink made me look positively prehistoric. The culture of sweet, lurid drinks has, mercifully, passed me by and apart from a few ill-advised sweet Martini’s when a teenager and the odd G&T at a cocktail party, then wine has been my usual tipple for nay on thirty years.
“What on earth is that?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by the neon blue liquid in my friend’s bottle.
“This Alice”, she explained as though I were her elderly, confused patient, “Is called a WKD”.
“Is it blue curacao?”
“Isn’t that some sort of parrot?” asked another friend, sipping some equally vivid alco-pop. The girls and I had a few more drinks and then, rather unwisely, started a drinking game. A sort of post-modernist twist on Truth or Dare. The nature of the game was in revealing secrets and, had you a shared experience in the activities disclosed you were to take a swig. Having led a sheltered life, I can report that I only watched, eyes ever widening in amazement at their exposés.
Being on the Barbican, I was quite comfortable with our choice of venue and, even though I was in the company of beautiful young things, there were at least, a handful of other middle-aged codgers milling about. All that was to change. Whereas by now Hubby and I would be yawning, looking at our watches and fretting about what ferry to catch; for this lot, the night was yet young and the earlier drinking was only a precursor of what was to come. Before I knew what was happening, I was bundled into a taxi where it deposited us outside some bar in the student quarter of Plymouth. There were kids here younger than my son. There was no-where to sit, the music was indescribable and the wine non-existent. Besides, why would young people buy a £5 glass of Pinot, when they can buy jager-bombs for two quid a shot? For those unfamiliar with a jager-bomb – it is glass of Red Bull with a shot glass of Jagermeister wallowing at the bottom. Its effects are no doubt as explosive as its name implies.
I didn’t quite know what do to with myself and found myself ultimately hanging onto the girls’ handbags as they got their groove on. I felt like hat-stand. An antique one at that. To add to the ignominy of the situation, the Smiles on the Tiles photographer of the local paper turned up and, whilst the girls beamed their bright smiles at him, he asked them “Do you want your mother in the shot?” I caught the next ferry home.