Sunday, 23 September 2012

Forgive me.

My ten year old daughter is nearing meltdown. She has a lot on her plate. It is of course, as it always is, my fault but I can at least offer myself small comfort in the knowledge that it is not only me that has a grumpy ten year old in the house because several other mothers I know, convinced that we are doing ‘the right thing’, are putting their child through the same pressure. We speak nervously to each other occasionally, either on the phone or in supermarkets or, whilst walking dogs and we all have the same furrowed expression on our faces. The one that says, ‘My child is going to take the 11+ exam. It is a punishing regime of hours upon hours of practise papers and hard homework. Like, really hard. So hard in fact that we struggle to help them. Verbal reasoning? Since when did that advance anyone’s chances in life? My heart sinks when I mention sometime after dinner, after ballet, or tap or swimming or musical theatre or just watching tv that it is homework time.’ These mothers, going through the same thing, nod silently, knowing exactly what you are talking about. Knowing the tears and the tantrums involved, the coaching, the cajoling, the tuition, the fees, the concern and ultimately the hope that after all this hard work one’s little darling has put in, that they pass, go to their grammar school of choice, continue to university, make like-minded friends, find a partner for life, become affluent, happy, fulfilled. Then it will all have been worth it. Of course, Hubby and I did exactly the same for the other two and we all know what has, so far become of my son. Shacked up with his bird, working in several pubs to pay the rent. I say so far, because hope springs eternal and he is a very bright young man with ‘A’ levels and a family who have always adored him. So you never know. Our eldest daughter on the other hand is, mercifully, following the party line and has excelled at her grammar school, has many interests, which as yet, do not seem to involve the attentions of love-sick, seventeen year old young men. She is ambitious and curious and desperate for adventure and can see that exams are just a stepping stone to that adventurous life. Exams which, if studied for and succeeded at, will never be referred to again. Hubby and I have not had to point this phenomenon to her; she has the sagacity to see it for herself. So, here we are again then, child number three attempting her 11+, her parents driving her on in the hope that it will deliver a better future for her. When you are ten though and are quite happy dressing up in your mother’s clothes and teetering around in her high heels and playing make believe with your sister, it is very hard to comprehend how another two hours homework will be better for you than whatever imaginary world you are currently immersed in. “Come on sweetie”, I cajole, “Just another few percentages”. She bites my hand off at the chance. Come off it. “But muh-um, I’m playing. I’m not eleven plus anyway, I’m only ten plus”. She has a point. For some reason, which has yet to be explained, the exam has been brought forward from January next year as it always was, to September this year. Many of the children will be very young indeed. Our youngest for instance, whose birthday falls on August the 29th, will only just be ten should she also take the exam when her time comes. “Ok, just finish your game, then put my clothes and shoes away and then, after homework, you can watch your ballet DVD”. She sighs. It is hardly surprising. It is not Swan Lake that I am promising her by way of a treat or Coppelia, or even The Sugar Plum Fairy. Alas not. It is an instructional DVD to help her with her ballet exam, which she needs apparently, because her ballet teacher is concerned that at the moment she is, “away with the fairies”. On top of which, she has a tap dancing exam and a summer show to practise for, a swimming gala to compete in and, as if that weren’t enough, she and her younger sister have recently relocated to a new school. I am hardly surprised that she is away with the fairies, were she my age, she’d be away with the valium. It will all soon be over though I keep telling myself and she is not the only one going through this I tell myself even louder. It does beg the question though whether it is right to put our children through this type of academic pressure. What if they fail? Do we as parents take the risk with such a young mind, allowing it, after having worked so hard for something perhaps ultimately unattainable, to consider itself spent and a failure forever? ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ I can hear my mother say. And she would have been quite right, for, where my mother’s idiom is as old as the hills, the more modern take, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, implores us to be brave, to take a new direction when it is so much safer, if far less satisfying not to. And as adults we know this. We know how set in our ways we so quickly become. How easy it is to say no instead of yes. How scary it is to start over. How scary it is to sit an exam. Children on the other hand are the bravest of the brave. They will give just about anything a try. We must strike whilst the iron is hot. In the end it will be worth it. She will never thank me, but please, let it have been worth it. 15th June 2012


No wonder Prince Philip has taken to his bed. I feel as though I could do the same and I haven’t exposed my kidneys to a perilous weather front on the River Thames, nor travelled the length and breadth of the country smiling and being polite to strangers. Nonetheless, a four day bank holiday with the expectation of fun and frivolity throughout has taking its toll on the best of us. It started last weekend when Mags invited us for a BBQ round at hers, I was sporting a badly sun-burned leg, acquired earlier in the week during a full day of sports day spectating. To cover up the smarting redness I wore my new dress, which has a sheer, long floaty bit over a very short underskirt. I felt quite attractive until Mags pointed out that the dress was ‘one buttock short of indecency’. I looked to Hubby for help, but he only shrugged his shoulders in a very cowardy-custard sort of way. Very conscious of said buttocks being too much on display, I tugged away at the underskirt all night after that and the new dress is now back in its department store bag, waiting for its fifteen minutes of fame on eBay. My wardrobe malfunction threw me into a huff, which I overcame by comfort eating. The food on offer was, as always, irresistible, especially to one who has just been told that her fat arse is in danger of being exposed if I should so much as tilt forward, let alone bend. Luckily for everyone then that dinner, whilst having been barbequed, was actually fairly formal and there wasn’t a finger roll nor ketchup bottle in sight. Nor did we have to stand, balancing wine glass in one hand, snorker in the other. In fact, we sat around a dining table groaning under home grown wonders and our plates were piled high with buttery soft lamb that Mags’s Auntie Sheila had provided from her Dartmoor farm. Over coffee, we discussed our Jubilee plans. Mags casually informed us that she was going to do a spot of wine tasting the following day and did we want to come? I almost choked on my espresso. Since when did I have to be asked if I’d like to do a little quaffing? “Where is it?” I asked her. “Near the Eden project”, she replied, “I’ve booked a mini bus. I was taking the whole family, but some can’t make it now, so we have some seats spare. Are you up for it then?” I looked at Hubby. “It’s free”, said Mags, reading his mind. As it transpired, we took the youngest children with us as well as my brother, his daughter and another good friend, Marie. It was in fact exactly like a Sunday School trip of yore. Young and old, off for an outing. An hour later, a mile or so beyond Bugle, we pulled up into a gravelly car park. It looked familiar. I hissed into the gap between two headrests to Hubby who was sitting in front of me, “Where are we exactly?” “Knightor Winery. We came here at the end of last summer, they’d barely opened then”. Well they’ve come a long way since. The kids all ran off to play with hens and pirate ships whilst the adults had an excellent tour of a sample vineyard and our guide showed us how their wine was made. “I’ve seen grapes before”, I whispered to Mags, “When do we get to taste it?” “Shortly”, said the guide, shortly, “All in good time”. All of a sudden I felt like the very naughty Verucca Salt caught out by Willy Wonka. I’d be in one of the vats if I didn’t behave myself, drowning, rather ironically, in what I loved to drink. Our guide led us into the bar and restaurant, where a most delicious and passionate young man spoke with great love about the art of viniculture and implored us to try the fruits of his labours. My brother, more a Whitbread man than a white wine connoisseur, was suitably impressed. “Better try another”, he said, holding out his glass for a top up, “Just in case the first was a fluke”. It wasn’t and both he, Hubby and Marie bought a bottle each of the two white wines and a Gold award rose. I didn’t, I bought honey and jam and chutney, cheese biscuits, posh tea, and even posher chocolate. “Will you come away from there”, demanded Hubby, dragging my arm, “Before you spend all my money. C’mon, it’s time to eat”. Suckling pig, salad, cold meats, the most divine Italian concoctions and homemade focaccia put a big, if weary smile on our faces and most of us dozed and dribbled on the journey home. My alarm went off on the Monday morning far too early. We had a rehearsal to fit in, cupcakes, meringues to cook, a Jubilee party to attend and another barbeque with friends in Plymouth. “I’m flagging”, I said as Hubby as I lolled in the sun at the Lawns that afternoon, surrounded by thousands of our fellow neighbours. It was Torpoint at its finest. My God, people had worked hard. There was three miles of bunting festooned around trees for heaven’s sake. Children danced, choirs sang, bands played. Suddenly, like a blonde mirage, Pia, my long lost Norwegian girl, came sauntering, among the throng of thousands, towards me. I was speechless. “Came to surprise you”, was all she had to say. There was a lot of hugging and kissing and all the while the band played Rule Britannia. It was a surreal moment. So guests have been entertained, requests for mid-week roast dinner have been met and we are girding ourselves for the carnival on Saturday and friends for dinner after it. “I’m rather relieved to be back at work”, said Hubby, “Anymore revelry and I may well have come down with a bladder infection”. 7th June 2012


I for one am swept along with the country’s summer celebrations. I love the Olympic flame and I love the Jubilee. Not everyone shares my nationalistic joie de vivre, preferring as they do to moan and groan and whimper and complain. ‘It’s expensive’, ‘it’s jingoistic’, ‘it’s nonsense’, they cry. ‘Who cares about the Queen?’, they continue. ‘The Olympics? Puff!’, they add disdainfully and then go on to tell me in no uncertain terms how much the security is costing. Ok, so the queen lives in palaces and owns priceless jewels and works of art. She has servants and handmaidens and her subjects bow and curtsey to her and call her ‘Your majesty’. But she was born into her world without choice as much as a child in Syria was born into his. Of course it isn’t fair, but wasn’t it ever thus? It isn’t fair that enhanced, large breasted, cartoon like women who pay thousands of pounds for unnecessary cosmetic ‘work’ are feted in this society and make a fortune by way of their ‘celebrity’, and it isn’t fair that little children in far flung corners of the earth are cast out of their society because of disfiguring hare-lips and other physical handicaps that blight their lives; lives that with a only a few pounds could be truly enhanced by cosmetic surgery. Every day on every news bulletin comes stories that sicken and depress and makes us wonder at man’s unerring inhumanity to man. War, slaughter, holocaust, terror, famine, murder, rape. It’s as though the BBC news is on a constant loop. There is only so much horror that we can absorb before we reach for the radio dials and switch off. There are only so many column inches that we can read before we turn the page and try our luck with the crossword. Closer to home, I listen to friends who are stressed or depressed. Their jobs are either at risk of being lost altogether or have changed so much that they cannot bear to go to them. Of the best students with whom I did my teacher training, one couldn’t bring herself to walk back into a classroom and another has already resigned. Another friend popped in to see me earlier this week to tell me that management had informed them that one hundred redundancies are to be announced within the next few months. Another, a nurse, is so unhappy with her working conditions and how her job of caring for her patients is being compromised by cuts that she cries as she drives around to do her visits. Yet another, a social worker, is so rushed off her feet with more and more cases as more and more families face crises and fall apart that, ironically if not altogether unexpectedly, she has no time for her own. The world is a very serious place right now. Some of the problems are unpalatably horrendous, others deeply sad and still others, enough to shake the strongest of constitutions. Which brings me back to the Queen, diamonds and a country celebrating a jubilee. The dictionary’s definition of jubilee is any occasion of rejoicing or festivity. Given what I’ve just written, I could be accused of being frivolous, trivialising the demons and despots that tyrannise the world. On the contrary. In straitened and in brutal times, the human spirit has always attempted to soar above the hell that is at times human suffering. I have often wondered how holocaust survivors carried on, how they found love and brought up families in a ‘normal’ world. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote after his long imprisonment at Auschwitz that, ‘man’s deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose….after all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips’. I wouldn’t be disgusting enough to attempt to compare the suffering of those who have truly looked hell in the eye with those who are struggling in Britain in 2012; a time and, to use the much mooted political parlance, of austerity measures, but what with our own troubles and those of the world’s which we are constantly fed, and which render us impotent and useless, in our own small way, we too need to find meaning and purpose. Hanging up some bunting and participating in a street party or equally cheering on team GB at the Olympics may not, on the face of it, seem very meaningful, but I would argue that it is the small stuff that sustains us in dark times. The parties and events for the Jubilee and the athletes and the coaches who have trained for a lifetime, will for a brief moment in time remind us how joyful it can be to come together as a community. Whilst there are those who will continue to be cynical about such events there are thousands more who will have baked, made record breaking lengths of bunting, mowed recreation grounds, organised, choreographed and swept and cleaned. It is just as the dictionary described it, an occasion for rejoicing. The day after the bank holiday will come soon enough. The news reports will continue to inform us of the slaughter of innocent children in Syria, the alleged murder of six sleeping children by the hand of their parents, poverty, unemployment, the continued double-dip recession, the apparent hopelessness of it all. But most of us will, as we have done since time in memorium, continue to search for meaning and purpose and where we find it will probably be in the most unexpected of places. For the time being God Save the Queen and God Save Tom Daley. We are relying on you more than ever. 31st May 2012


It was meant be a quick saunter down the cliffs at Whitsand Bay and I had intended on only taking the one dog but as I opened the front door and beeped open the boot of our Multipla, my bequeathed dog ran through my legs, hopped down the front door steps and up into the boot. Eagerly. I could hardly drag him out and lock him up in an empty house, especially when the golden retriever was sitting there as large as you like. The saunter down was without incident. The little dog did not keep up with mine and Mags’s but was happy to go at his own pace. He is very old after all. Eventually, he and I reached the beach. The tide was out and Mags and the other two dogs had walked out to where little waves were gently lapping on the shore. The sky and sea were indiscernibly blue. There were few people on the beach and miles and miles of golden, ribbed sand. It seemed criminal to think that our children were sitting in lessons and not cavorting with the dogs. As we were. “Can you still do one of these?”, screeched Mags, running ahead of me before throwing her hands onto the sand and turning a cartwheel. “What the hell do you mean, can I still do one?”, I shouted back, “I’ve never been able to do one”. “Come on it’s easy”, and she did another and another. I continued to walk decorously. “Bendiness is not one of my plus points”, I called back. My golden retriever was by now out of his mind with excitement. What with Mags frolicking, the wide open space, cool water and other dogs to play with it was, well it was driving him nuts. He woofed and he woofed and he woofed, darting into the sea, snapping at the waves, diving under them, before coming back to find me once again to woof some more and shake his shaggy coat all over me. “Push off!”, I said sternly, but his excitement was infectious and what started as gentle paddling in millimetres of water, soon became a wade in knee high sea. My leggings couldn’t be persuaded to be rolled up any further though, so, I looked around, found no one to shock and then ripped them off. Mags was walking further along the beach, every now and then her gait interrupted by another cart wheel. “I’ll show her who’s young at heart”, I said to my dog, and removing my tunic and flinging it onto dry sand, I ran further out to sea before, with a deep breath, I submerged my body, apart from my hair of course, under the waves. The dog was ecstatic. He swam around and around, circling me like a highly-strung shark. Mags, when she turned around to look for me, was dumbfounded. “You’ll catch your bloody death”, she called. “Less chance of breaking a hip in here”, I provoked, “Come in, it’s lovely once you get over the shock”. She walked over and allowed the tiniest of ripples to wash over her feet before she squealed and retreated back onto warm sand. “You must be joking. It’s arctic. I’ll stay here.” And the dear old thing stooped to pick up my discarded garments and stood very loyally waiting for me to get my first dip of the year out of my system. I wasn’t long. Wallowing in the shallows at Whitsand Bay is not quite the same as the wallowing in the Med. Especially in May. I hid behind a rock to peel off my sodden knickers and bra and Mags very gallantly lent me her cardigan to rub dry my wet skin. It was 2.40pm, time to drag ourselves back up the cliff and collect the children from school. Her dog and my dog raced ahead of us. After one hundred yards, it dawned on me that the old dog wasn’t with us. “Did he run past us?”, I asked Mags. “I don’t think so”, she replied. We both turned around and looked down the cliff and scanned the beach. There he was, walking away with another family. “Oh hell”, I said, “He’s lost me”. Both Mags and I ran back down the cliff calling him all the way. By the lifeguard hut, we whistled even louder and waved and flapped our arms and my dripping bra. He wasn’t that far away. Not for a dog anyway. Most dogs would have looked up by now. Hell, other people’s dogs were running to us to see what all the fuss was about. “Jakey!”, I called, “Jake-ee”, to no avail. “Jesus, it’s like taking Helen Keller out for the day”, I said, “He must have contracted German measles as a puppy, he is utterly blind and deaf”. At last, a very kind man lassoed him for me and walked him over. Dear old Jakey, as soon as I patted him, he seemed to realise that he was safe, and eventually, after much heaving of chest, and stopping for catch-your-breath breaks, him not me, we made it back to the car in time to pick up the kids. Less than an hour later and I was at the vets, attempting to buy him a worming tablet. “This dog isn’t yours”, said the receptionist. “He is now, aren’t you?”, I said, smiling down at the dog, “His owner is in Abu Dhabi. He’s given him to me”. “We need proof”. “Proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the poo”, I replied. Blank. “Look, this dog isn’t in care. I am not asking for Ritalin. Just a pill to stop the worms”. They did what they could but he’s been subsequently allocated his very own social worker and his owner in Abu Dhabi has been granted unsupervised access. Just hope that I don’t have to go to the CSA to ensure regular maintenance. 24th May 2012


Hubby, in an effort to curb his propensity for becoming ever more grumpy and grouchy has been looking for a distraction. I think running a marathon would be too much of a challenge for him, ditto another woman. “You’ve got to be joking”, he guffawed, when I suggested it might at least put on a smile on his miserable, bloody face, “Don’t get me wrong, the sex I’m sure, would be a welcome departure from my normal life, but hope springs eternal and well, one woman is quite enough”. And then he muttered almost imperceptibly, “Oh yes, one is quite enough”. I was not surprised therefore to find him last Saturday morning outside the back door with a large stick and a stanley knife. “New hobby?” I asked him, putting the kettle on. “Mm-hm”, he replied, his face the picture of concentration. “And apart from making a lot of mess, what exactly are you doing?” He was using the knife to strip the stick of its bark and all the bits were flying through the air and onto my kitchen mat. “Whittling”, was the answer. “Oh-kay”, I pondered out loud, “Whittling what exactly?” “Staffs, canes, walking sticks, that sort of thing”, Hubby said, holding up the stick proudly as though it would suddenly transform into a thing of such magnificence that Moses, that celebrated staff handler would have been privileged to have parted any sea with it, turn it into a snake or indeed use it to invoke any number of nasty plagues onto unsuspecting Egyptians. “Have you read up on it then? Do you know how to whittle, if that is indeed the verb?” “I know I need a ferrule Alice”. And that was the end of that. I went back into the kitchen and was immediately irritated by the fact that, as Hubby had left the back door wide open to allow the dogs the choice to stay in the garden to watch, or alternatively, admire his crafting from the kitchen, the consequences were that the wind and the dogs’ promenading meant that there was an ever increasing amount of wood shavings and long strips of bark decorating not just the mat, but the whole kitchen floor. Attempting the impossible, I tried to hide my irritation and attacked the detritus with a dustpan and brush and a rictus smile on my face. “Why the face?” asked Hubby. “Because of this”, I replied, uncoiling a snake-skin length of bark that had found its way under my kitchen work top, “I’m shutting this door. Do you want to stay in, or go outside?” I asked the retriever. He replied by looking up at me from under very expressive eyebrows and ski-daddling to be with his master. Hubby was in the garden all morning. Some staffs were more successful than others and some had sling-shot style tops to them. For resting one’s thumb. Apparently. He is a tall man and by virtue of the occupational hazard of his height, the walking sticks that he has produced are a reflection of his stature. “Who exactly are you hoping to give this to?”, I asked, when at the end of the day, he asked me to admire and stroke his staff, “Goliath?” Less than a week later and I was to eat my words. The phone rang mid-morning, just as I was about to whip the Dyson around. “Alice. Come quickly” said Mags, “There’s an intruder in the house. I’m terrified. Let yourself in with the spare key” and she put the phone down. I picked up my kagoule, my keys and Hubby’s staff, threw everything in the car and drove to Mags’s. “Where is the noise coming from?”, I asked her, rushing in. Poor Mags was cowering in her hall way. She lives in a bloody big house. The stairs climb up and up. “Up there”, she gesticulated. “Let’s go”, I said and, brandishing my staff in front of me with the vehemence of a provoked American brandishing a pitchfork on a witch hunt, up the stairs I went. “I’m just behind you”, said Mags, herself wielding a torch – of the Maglite variety and not of the witch hunt notoriety. “What is that for?”, I whispered, “It’s the middle of the day!”. “To conk him out”, she said reassuringly. So, like Cagney and Lacey up the stairs we proceeded, pausing every few steps if we thought we heard something. Eventually, we got to the top of the second landing and sure enough, behind the door of the room dedicated to her mother-in-law’s visits, came frenetic banging. “Mary, Joseph and all the Saints”, said Mags crossing herself. “Are you sure that your mother in law isn’t in there?” I asked, quietly. “Quite sure Alice. She’s in hospital. Open heart surgery”. “Maybe she didn’t make it. Maybe it’s her ghost”. “Not her heart surgery for God’s sake. She volunteers on the ward! WRVS!” “Oh”. I swallowed hard and, with Hubby’s staff held out in front me and Mags bringing up the rear with her superbright LED Maglite that could have blinded a rapist/murderer/burglar let alone wield one unconscious, we burst into the room. Cue instant squawking, fluttering, flying and shrieking as two terrified middle aged women and one equally horrified hen, ran around the spare room, clucking and cursing. “How on earth did she get up here?” asked Mags after she’d regained her composure and the trust of her spotted leghorn. “I cannot begin to imagine”, I replied, my heart still thumping in my chest. Believe me, there are few things more terrifying in life than an airborne, stricken chicken, flying for one’s head, spurs first. “Come on Dotty Lotty”, said Mags soothingly, stroking her chicken, “Let’s get you some corn”. And she left me there, perched on the end of Nana’s bed, clutching Hubby’s work of art. “I will fear no evil”, I found myself saying, “Thy staff and Thy rod, comfort me". 17th May 2012


Alice 580. Meera Syal once wrote a book, ‘Life isn’t all Ha Ha, Hee Hee’. She wasn’t wrong. I am struggling at the moment and I want my mother. I want to sit down with her over a cup of tea and ask for her advice. Tell me how I should be feeling. Guide me on how to handle the situation. Hold my hand. Let her tell me that this is how it is. Perfectly normal. Not to worry. It’ll get easier. I can’t talk to my friends about it because they are divided. One lot with younger children laugh and say “God, I can’t wait until mine move out. Can’t wait until I get rid of all their toys”. Easy for them to say. They still have little ones, as I do, whose teeth-brushing still needs to be supervised, but whose little tousled heads are safely on their pillows when we look in on them at night. They have no idea what’s ahead of them. I look at my little girls tousled heads and know that I am living on borrowed time. Then there are the other set of friends who don’t say anything because they feel relieved. Relieved and smug that, unlike my son, music and sex didn’t deviate their kids from the path they had planned for them and their investment of time, holidays, home-cooked food, affection, boundaries, support, extra-curricular everything and infinitesimal love paid off, and their university children’s future looks bright and, if not affluent, then at least well educated. I cannot put into words the pain of my son moving out. Oh, I know, I’ve joked. I’ve played the crazy mother card. I’ve shouted and wailed but my heart is actually breaking. It’s so sudden. I don’t feel as though I’ve had time to get the hang of being a good enough mother to him yet. I wanted a longer shot at it. I don’t feel that I’ve had him long enough. In my ignorance I thought that when he did eventually leave home, he’d be prepared. Have wisdoms and philosophies about life that would stand him in good stead. He’d know how to change a plug – a redundant skill these days I suppose. Make a white sauce then. Know to how make a gin and tonic. The reality is though, it is I who is the one who is unprepared. Utterly unprepared. Covert goings on are almost imperceptible. I rang my daughter just yesterday to see where she was. “Cleaning the flat”, she replied. “What flat?”, I asked. “My brother’s”. Another stab. I haven’t even seen the place and my daughter gets to clean it? I’ve tried to help. I put an appeal out there on Facebook to see if anyone had any old furniture that they could donate to them. A sofa was pledged. “Cheers Ma, but no need. We have some beanbags”. Beanbags? With my back and your father’s knees? You’d hope that at times like this, Hubby and I would be a comfort to each other. Alas not. After only a few weeks apart, our relationship, as I very much predicted it would be, is remote. He comes in on a Friday evening grumpy with the long drive and awful job and throws himself on the sofa, surrounds himself with small children and large dogs, eats his dinner, watches tv and falls asleep. I, only to happy to transfer the reins of parental responsibility and never one for taking lightly to being held hostage, leave him there. By the time Saturday mornings arrive, a whirlwind of events overcomes us, leaving us almost breathless with exhaustion. By Sunday evening after more laundry, homework, 11+ tuition, walking the dogs and the preparing, cooking, eating and washing up of Sunday dinner Hubby is once again to be found removing from the tumble dryer his clothes for the following week, his mood gloomy and impenetrable. When are we meant to fit in conversation and romance? To try and redress the balance a bit I visited him this week at his new place of work. For one thing, it’s one hell of a drive and for another it’s one hell of a place. No wonder he’s gloomy. Dreadful accommodation. Dark and pokey and lonely. His office, were he surrounded by colleagues and the buzz of activity that was ever present in his last job might make up for his living quarters, but, there is only Hubby and another man in the whole building. Tumbleweed cartwheels by. We went for dinner. The youngest girls, enjoying a longer bank holiday due to two Baker days, joined us. And that was the sum total. In this enormous dining hall there were the four of us and two stewards and a couple of chefs. “What’s for pudding?” asked Hubby of the steward. “Chocolate fudge cake”, he replied. Cue two very excited little girls. “But we don’t have any”, he added. Cue two very crestfallen little girls. That reply begged a lot of questions. Why offer a pud when there wasn’t one to give; and why, when the staff equalled the customers was there not a pud? I could easily have whipped something up in the time it took us to eat our dinner. It was not a successful visit, although at least I now know that Hubby is telling the truth and not living a parallel life with another family somewhere off the A303. “I read about that once in the Daily Mail.”, I protested when Hubby said I was mad. “Really? Well I can’t afford the family I’ve got let alone another one”. We drove home in rain so heavy it sluiced down the windscreen. I returned home to an empty house. My son and my daughter were at work, our lost boy, lost. My mother should have been in the kitchen of the house next door. My son may feel he does not need his anymore. I need mine more than ever. 10th May 2012

Rich Pickings

“I’ve won the lottery!”, Mags yelled down the phone. Having just read The Sunday Times Rich List, I almost swooned. Several in this list are Euro Millions Lottery winners and Mags and I have made a pact that, should either of us win the lottery, we would pay each other’s mortgage off. I steadied myself. Hubby would be happy again. We wouldn’t be crippled by household expenses; there would be some dosh free to help daughter number one with her university fees. I swallowed hard. “How much?”, I said, barley daring to breathe. “Seventy eight pounds!”, she replied. I wiggled a little finger in my ear. “Seventy eight thousand pounds?”, I checked. “No. Se-ven-ty-eight”, she over pronounced. I sighed. “Why are you bothering to tell me that? That’s peanuts!”. “Don’t be so bloody ungrateful”, she joshed, “I thought that, as it isn’t enough to pay off loans and mortgages, we’d make the best of it and go out to lunch”. Beggars can’t be choosers. “Sounds like a good plan, have you got an idea of where you’d like to go?” “None whatsoever. I’ll leave it to you. Nowhere too far as we have to be back in time to pick up the kids from school”. “Thanks Mags”, I said, “Sincerely. There are several people you could have asked, I feel honoured that you’ve invited me”. “Nonsense. Besides, all my other bloody friends nibble at lettuce at lunch time and hold their tummies after a Muller Light because and I quote, they are ‘so full’, at least you have a rapacious appetite Alice and as I’m sure you’ll order a pudding, I’ll get to share it”. Cheeky cow. Later that day, my baby brother, who is about to turn forty, popped in. He always comes to visit when I am cooking. Funny that. He walked into the kitchen as bold as brass and lifted the lids on various pots and, having taking a dessert spoon from the kitchen drawer, helped himself to the things bubbling inside. “Tasty”, he declared, sampling my Moroccan chicken, “A little more turmeric?” I slapped him with a wooden spoon. “To what do I deserve this honour?”, I asked, pouring chicken stock onto a pan of couscous. “Thought you might like to hear about our weekend”, he said, helping himself to a hunk of bread. I took the bread away from his reach. “Oh yeah, of course”, I remembered, “Your dirty weekend away. How was it?” “Sufficiently dirty, but the food was better!” I slapped him anew. “Charming. Don’t let your wife hear you say that”. “I think she’d agree”, he laughed, “It was a bit like taking Sally, from When Harry Met Sally out for dinner, if her moans were anything to go by”. “Where did you go then?”, I asked him, absent mindedly adding another teaspoon of turmeric to the pot. “Well”, he replied, “We stayed in a lovely hotel in Tavistock because I really wanted to eat in Gorton’s” “Oh”, I recalled, “That chef from the Horn of Plenty?” “The very same. Peter Gorton has opened a restaurant in Tavistock and it was a good place to celebrate my fortieth. It was sublime”. He told me what they’d eaten and it gave me an idea. The next day I texted Mags –‘Lottery lunch booked. We are going to Gorton’s’. I drove. Mags paid, amongst other things, for the parking. She looked lovely in a pair of smart jeans and suede jacket. I, on the other hand, had put a rather unforgiving jersey dress on over an even more exacting, panty girdle. A gift from my mother-in-law. I’d like to say that I don’t know what she was implying, but sadly I do. As we took our seats, the panty girdle did not live up to its expectations and rolled, rather unflatteringly down my tummy and as it gathered speed, it created another roll, this time of flesh. This was far from the streamlined look that I was hoping for. My stomach looked like uber corrugated cardboard. I tugged at the pants. They resolutely refused to budge. “Why are you fidgeting so much?”, asked Mags, peering over the top of the menu. “I’m having a serious wardrobe malfunction with regards my undergarments”, I whispered. The waitress took our order and within minutes, two ginger syrup and prosecco cocktails were handed to us, along with a delicious treat of an amuse bouche of a little cup of soup. I tucked into my pigeon risotto when it arrived and Mags dug into her goat’s cheese starter. Our main courses of duck and a trio of fish was met with my sister-in-law’s similar orgasmic moans, but by now, I was getting a little full and really, the panty girdle thing was playing havoc with my innards. There was no way I was going to be able to digest, let alone enjoy my chocolate tart and coconut sorbet unless I dealt with the situation under my dress. “Excuse me”, I said to Mags, standing up and then, with a sudden terrific snapping of elastic, the hosiery rolled down further until, almost unbelievably, it ended at my knees. The establishment being what it was, meant that other diners had the manners not to point and laugh at my standing there, utterly at a loss as to how to get to the ladies’ in a dignified manner when my knees were bound together with a rather unbecoming pair of pants and I was met instead by silence as though I were an elephant in the room, which at that particular moment was a mortifyingly physical reality and not some silly idiom. There was nothing for it other than to shake my bottom and step, with as much dignity as I could muster, out of the pants, fold them and place them in my handbag. “Nicely done Alice!”, said Mags, chinking my glass, “Style like that can’t be bought” and she picked up her spoon and plunged into my tuile basket.

Emptying Nest

Incredible though it seems, my life and that of my family, seems to be degenerating further into a situation comedy, with the rest of my community as its laughter track, whilst I sit in a corner somewhere, not so silently pulling at my newly highlighted hair. It was bound to happen now that Hubby is no longer here , because were he, I would, if not pass the buck, then at least look at him helplessly as I grapple with the change that I am struggling to embrace. So, first things first. My son. That gorgeous first born who informed me a few nights ago that he no longer requires my services and instead wants to shack up with his girlfriend. “That’s it?”, I cried, “That’s it? You don’t want me anymore?” There is no manual when your baby gives you this sort of news, ergo I had absolutely no idea how to respond rationally and relied, perhaps a little erroneously, on gut instinct i.e with a modicum of high drama and emotion. “See this?”, I demanded, pointing to my belly, “This gave you life. And these?” I added, pointing to my nipples, “These bled for you and now you tell me, oh so casually, that you don’t need me anymore”. “Mum”, he replied, “You stopped breast feeding me 18 years ago, get over it”. “Get over it?”, my voice had by now reached dangerously high decibels, from which there is little chance of return to normal and more measured speech. Under normal circumstances, I would have by now passed the baton to Hubby, whilst throwing myself onto the sofa, to wail and tear at my breast. As it was, I was alone with my son and my histrionics. “But why?”, I beseeched, “Why? Aren’t you happy here? Don’t you feel loved anymore?” “Ma, for God’s sake, it’s not like that. It’s just that me and my girl want a bit of space”. I reeled. “Space? Space? Space?”, I spat, “What the hell do you mean space? Have you become an astronaut now?” “You’re mental”, he replied. “I am not mental, I am heartbroken. You have all the bloody ‘space’ you need. Far more generously awarded you than any other teenager that I can think of. Apart from walk the dogs occasionally and empty the dishwasher, little else is asked of you, and your girl stays over seven nights a week, I do your washing and feed you and her too when I have a vegetarian option on”. “Well, we’ve found somewhere Ma. It’ll be fine”. And that was the end of that. I poured myself a very large glass of wine and picked up a baby photograph of him with his tiny, precious foot in his father’s hand. He’s nineteen. I had such hopes for him. Such expectations and now, instead of being at University with his friends, he wants to go and play house with his girlfriend. I am redundant. I drank more than was wise, especially given the fact that the following morning I had to drive my eldest daughter to Cardiff University’s Open Day. She was excited. Her eyes blazed with the fire of opportunity and adventure. “It’s a great Uni”, she said later, “The English lecturer was clever and eccentric. The student union is buzzing and the city is fab”. I have one more year of her. One more year of my darling girl and her brains and her beauty before I have to hand her over and share her with the rest of the world. All the time Hubby, at his meetings and schedules and admin is utterly oblivious to my breaking heart. We drove home again that night in torrential rain. The windscreen wipers were I redundant as I. When I arrived home, Dad was flaked on the sofa. “Have they been good?”, I asked, gesticulating to my youngest children who were now hanging onto each of my legs. “As gold”, he said smiling, although he didn’t stay, glad to return home next door to a little peace and quiet, where the demands are few and the television not as exuberant. I snuggled one and then the other under their duvets and asked about their days. The eldest of the two happily regaled me with the results of a perfect spelling test and the fact that she can now name every one of Henry VIIIth’s wives. In order. The Red-Head however, was a little subdued. “How did your presentation go?” I asked her. She and her very big sister had worked hard on a presentation of our Queen. “Not good”, she sighed. “Oh dear”, I replied, lowering myself onto the bed beside her, “What went wrong? Did you forget what you had to say?” “No”. “Well what can be so bad then?”, I asked, oh so naively. “There was a funny bit at the beginning”. “There you are you see. You entertained your class. You made them laugh. Was it about the Queen?” “No”. “What was it then?” “My brother’s girlfriend in her bra and knickers”. My blood ran cold. It seems that the USB stick that the presentation had been saved onto had belonged to our son. Hubby had found it on the coffee table and handed it, without realising, to our eldest daughter who, being an expert on the Royals, helped her youngest sister with her presentation and saved it onto said USB stick. The ensuing drama unfolded when the Red-Head had then opened her presentation up in front of a class of 7 and 8 year old and voila, cue delighted 7 and 8 year olds, a bewildered Red-Head and a mortified, newly qualified young teacher, when instead of a picture of HRH on the interactive whiteboard, a rather revealing, if thank God, tasteful picture of her brother’s girlfriend’s corset confronted the class instead. Were it a sitcom, it would be hilarious, but honestly? You just can’t make this stuff up.


Before Hubby returned to work, we gutted the toy room. It was a dirty job and one that required a stomach of steel. What were those green, fluffy masses growing behind the Lego box? And why were the calcified remains of birthday cake, circa 2007, hidden in the Postman Pat jigsaw puzzle box? These enigmas will remain unanswered because the culprits involved, who were no more than toddlers at the time, have grown up a bit and have no recollection whatsoever as to why penicillin spores are more abundant in their play room than in a bio-technological laboratory, although they were very keen to help ‘sort’. Many, many bin bags were utilised in the big clear out. Limbless and beheaded Barbies and more than a couple of sexually ambiguous Kens, got the heave- ho. “But I love that Barbie”, was opined more than once by one daughter or another. “But she hasn’t got any legs/arms/hair or head”, I replied in vexation. Depending on the Barbie in question, she mightn’t have had any of the above, let alone delete as appropriate. Hubby was ruthless. “It’s going in the bin, ditto any jigsaw without all the pieces and any game without its component parts.” This, as it transpired, turned out to be most of the jigsaws and almost all of the games. With bin liners piling up as big as a thief’s outside a toy shop, the children’s resolve began to waver. “We haven’t got anything left to play with”, one wailed. “You haven’t played with this stuff for years”, replied Hubby, stamping on a doll’s head with rather over-enthusiastic fervour. “Get in that bag”, he added, squishing her in. “You are hurting her”, cried the Red-Head, attacking her father’s leg with remarkable gusto, “Leave her alone you pig”. “It is an inanimate plastic doll!”, retorted Hubby, attempting to prise her off. “So?”, she hissed at him. “The same doll, whose once sleeping eyes have been rather cruelly removed and, whose face is now disfigured by black marker pen where one of you has tried to remedy the doll’s blindness by providing it with felt-tip pen eyes.” The girls had the grace to look a little discomfited. The makers of Toy Story 1, 2 and 3 would have been up in arms as a Woody who couldn’t talk anymore, a Mr Potato Head who no longer had a head and who was now just reduced to a potato and a Buzz Lightyear with smashed visor and dislocated leg were plonked unceremoniously into a cardboard box, a scene that has been played out in the movie several times, but alas no plastic dinosaur, nor springy dog, nor green plastic toy soldiers came to their rescue. Books, hundreds of them, took hours to work through. I could not dispose of cherished books that had been read and re-read, time and again as bedtime stories, memories that are particularly precious to me now that two of my children are virtually grown up and the other two demand to read to themselves. Also all the books that have been inscribed in had to be kept. All books from my mother, from Godparents, and long lost friends. “Alice, we can’t keep all these books in the loft. They’ll bring the ceiling down”. “I can’t get rid of them”, I replied, beseechingly, “They are so precious. Our children’s babyhoods are written into the very fabric of these pages” and I brandished ‘Dogger’ into his face. Hubby sighed, “Good God Alice, never let it be said that you are not dramatic” but, I was careful to note, he put the special books in another pile – the pile of ‘things to be kept’. This pile, whilst being emptied from one room, now clutters another, only it isn’t even a room. It is the landing. Already this week the ‘pile’ has caused much embarrassment as Hubby, who having just about managed to lug it all from downstairs before he had to leave before dawn on Monday, never quite got it as far as the loft. And so, in this current mess it would have to be that Jacob, one of my lost boys, has returned from university to visit, bringing a friend with him. Said friend is South Korean and whilst, exceptionally polite, was at a loss as to why, “Such big house have many toys outside bathroom?”. No linguistic stereotyping intended by the way, he just genuinely used no prepositions. I was at pains to explain to him that they had originated from the room in which he was sleeping. “No, no! You do that for me? No” and he ran upstairs. Minutes later I found him humping a doll’s house down the stairs. “What are you doing Kim?”, I asked bewildered. “You very kind Mrs Band, but you no need empty room on my behalf”. Korean translators are very thin on the ground in Torpoint and so, whilst I wrested the doll’s house from him, I implored Jake to take pains to make Kim understand that whilst he was a very welcome visitor, I had not infact emptied the downstairs room so that he wouldn’t have to share a sofa-bed with a Playmobil Pyramid. “What are you going to do with this room now that’s it empty?” asked Hubby on the phone later that night. “It will be my boudoir”, I replied, “A place where I can entertain my friends in my private sitting room without having to compete with Horrible Histories”. Hubby was not impressed. I impressed on him that it was wonderful idea; he could have the sitting room to himself where he could watch Ice Truckers and listen to his music with impunity. We then had a slight verbal fracas which culminated in my hanging up. Minutes later a text arrived on my mobile, ‘Your boudoir is a perfect place for you to hang out. Just looked up its meaning – from the French: literally, a sulking place’


The demands made on Hubby since he’s been on leave have made him increasingly frowny, due to my to-do list, to ensure that, now he longer lives at home during the week, he doesn’t escape certain male domestic responsibilities, especially as he no longer doesn’t even get to put the rubbish out. More on that later. ‘The List’, in fairness was only written as an aide memoire, a brief reminder to the two of us not to waste Easter leave when so many small, niggling domestic jobs could be getting sorted. Unfortunately, what neither of us took into account was a serious of unfortunate events, which would put pay to the other tasks that had been so patiently waiting. It all started a few mornings ago after I’d flushed the loo. There was the usual din that a macerator lavatory makes as the monster inside it chews up whatever the person has just evacuated into the bowl. It grinded and shuddered; splashed and chomped and then, as I washed my hands, it began to whine. Quietly at first, like the soft hum of a few summer bees, but then the hum became more of a high pitched tone like that of a lone mosquito. I walked back into our bedroom where Hubby was enjoying the first sip of what he hoped was going to be, a mugful of tea. “Toilet’s buggered”, I said as I lifted the duvet to get in beside him. He lay his mug down. “What exactly do you mean when you say that the toilet is buggered? Do you mean broken?” “I think so”. Hubby groaned. “What’s the big deal?” I asked, “You’ve become a dab hand at mending it. It breaks all the time. I never thought it bothered you.” “I hate it Alice. I despise it. I loathe it. I find it an experience of such appalling disgustingness you just cannot imagine. It revolts and repulses me. It’s nauseating and makes me heave. The last thing I want to do now is leave my warm bed, my hot wife, my even hotter tea to immerse myself up to my elbows of familial effluence, especially as I had plans to.., well do any of those things on the list other than this!” He threw the duvet back with a force and drama appropriate to his abhorrence of a malfunctioning, macerator toilet and stormed out of our room. Five hours later, having employed my pretty, flower patterned hammer, my torch, my ladle and my kitchen tongs, not to mention my rubber gloves and, having emptied the airing cupboard of several dozen, clean, warm fluffy towels, he found the offending article. A Chanel lipstick. “Yours I presume?”, he said, brandishing the offending and now rather filthy, if not half chewed, article at me. “That’s where it went! Yes, it is mine, but I can assure you that under no circumstances, not even when I’m really mad at you, would I throw one of my best lipsticks down a loo bowl just so that it would make you clean it out. That would be very cruel indeed.” He flushed the chain again. “I’m not happy with the seal on the jubilee clip at the back. Just popping to the hardware store. Back in a jiff”. “Where’s daddy gone?” asked the Red-Head wandering in. “To buy a jubilee clip sweetheart, he won’t be long”. She looked surprisingly delighted and sat on the outdoor step waiting for him to come home. When at last he ambled back up the road, she ran over to him. “Can I see it dad?”, she said, grasping a paper bag out of his hand. She removed from it a coil of metal with a key at the end. “What’s this?” she asked, most disappointed. “It’s a jubilee clip poppet”. As they walked through the front door, tears ran down her face. “What’s the matter darling?”, I asked. “I thought daddy had gone to buy a jubilee clip?” “But he had”, I explained, “You saw it”. In a little embarrassed voice, hidden into my neck , she explained that she thought the clip would be red, white and blue, maybe have the picture of a diamond Queen on it and would look nice in her long hair. Bless. A bit more grinding and groaning later and that was just Hubby - and the bathroom was finally, fully functioning once again. My kitchen utensils weren’t though as, with wrinkled nose and held at arm’s length, I dropped them into the bin. “Will they get recycled?” I asked Hubby. “Don’t ask me, the whole recycling thing is an utter mystery to me.” Since Cornwall County Council in their infinite wisdom has decided to provide fancy boxes for every resident and change collections days and times, some towns have gone into meltdown. Don’t get the residents started on overflowing dog-poo bins and long grass in parks. That service seems to have been abandoned. It is a hornet’s nest of dissatisfaction around here. And, as no-one seems to know exactly when refuse and recycling day is, bags of rubbish are put out in the morning and brought back in again, uncollected in the afternoon. Hokey-cokey for refuse. In out, in out, shake it all about. We didn’t even receive one of these new, black boxes and I had to purloin one from dad, who doesn’t really ‘do’ green. One morning, as ever in my dressing gown, I heard the rumble of the rubbish lorry. Opening the front door, I chased the recycling lorry down our road heaving fistfuls of recycling bags as I ran. “Yoo-hoo”, I called, “Please take my bags”. “Can’t love” said a bin man, “We are refuse, not recycling.” “But yours looks like a recycling lorry. There are huge pictures of glass and paper on the side of it”. I pointed. “That’s just advertising the service love. We don’t touch that stuff”. What a load of rubbish, or not, as the case may be.


“But I’ve got a silver medal in my L.A.M.D.A acting exam. With honours”, I lamented to Mags, who was patiently listening to my wittering, “I shouldn’t be nervous. I am though. I don’t have pretty little butterflies fluttering around my tummy either but great big, hairy, ugly moths”. I took a swig of my Americano, shuddered, wrinkled up my face and stuck my tongue out. It was very strong. “Not to your taste?” she asked. “Bleurgh. No. How can you drink this stuff? I haven’t even got a complimentary biscuit to dunk in it. That, at least, would take the edge off it”. “You are such a wimp Alice. Honestly. They do two shots here. It’s meant to pep you up”. I looked at her beseechingly. “Do I look like a woman who needs pepping up Mags? I am a bag of nerves.” “For God’s sake woman! Pull yourself together. You are singing as part of a choir. No-one will even notice you. You are hardly one of third of Banana-bloody-rama”. She had a point. “But I’m tall. What if they put me on the end? I don’t know the words to the songs and the musical director has told us we should be music free.” The trouble with an Americano coffee is, is that there is no redeeming feature to it. Nothing sweet. No froth. No chocolate sprinkles. Either of the former would have soothed me at this moment. I was looking for something comforting to suck off my spoon. “When is the concert?” Mags asked, making a concerted effort to sound interested. “Tomorrow night”. “What are you singing? “Well”, I said, “The rest of the Torpoint Lady Singers will be singing The Nun’s Chorus, The Rose, Wherever You Are, to name but a few. Personally I’ll be some oxygen starved guppy, opening and closing my mouth in desperation.” “But your first gig was ok wasn’t it?” Mags asked. I shook my head. “The rest of the choir were harmonious but the minute the bride entered the church, I lost my concentration. I was too nosy looking at what dress was like. Beautiful by the way, but I couldn’t find my place after that so I had to hide my face in my music folder”. “Hardly a Sarah Brightman moment then?” I shrugged. Mags squeezed my hand, “The next gig isn’t a wedding though is it. Just try and relax and enjoy it”. In the event, apart from the faux pas of helping myself to an egg sarnie before being told to do so – I felt as though I’d drunk the port before a toast to ‘The Queen’, it was a great success, mostly due to the fact that my fellow lady singers are very practised and professional and know the words and harmonies in their sleep. The musical director relented and allowed me to read mine and, as we took our places, my ladies were very supportive and guided me to my singing spot. I was relieved to find that even being tall, due to the lady in front having had her hair professionally coiffured, the lacquer was such that it obliterated my face. I was delighted and, for a short time, obliviously enjoyed a certain false sense of security until I was suddenly manoeuvred to stand in the front. In front of a packed audience is not the time to question the whys and wherefores of such a decision. Afterwards, I was told that it had something to do with sopranos and second sopranos. I took their word for it. Not that I’d like to imply that my life is one large mug of coffee, but no sooner had I recovered from the concert than Hubby, dearest, darling Hubby, was home again on Easter leave and I was making the most of being able to leave the house without so much as a backward glance and so, I arranged to meet Mags again, although in Polperro this time at the house of a mutual friend. Well, I’d planned to meet the girls, but I was stymied at the last hurdle. Without thinking that I might need a bank loan to park my car, I left Torpoint and its banks, drove straight through Looe and another few banks and continued my journey to Polperro which not only has no banks, but no cash machines that I’m aware of. I was already five late when I pulled into the car park and couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw that the price to park my car was four quid! Four. Quid. For three hours. There were no concessions, no half an hour drop offs to get essentials – like milk and bread or to run down to your friend’s house to inform them that you would not be joining them for coffee after all as you didn’t have four pounds in small change in your purse. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have paid it. That’s just extortion. Starbucks would have been cheap by comparison. I don’t know how the summer visitors will manage. Fuel prices have already changed our Easter holiday plans dramatically. How can families on, let’s say a multi destination day out – Looe, Talland Bay and Polperro be expected to pay these parking prices on top of the horrendous price of the fuel they’ve had to fork out on to get here in the first place? And what about the loyal locals? There is literally nowhere to park in Polperro apart from the top car park. I can’t imagine anyone being prepared to pay four pounds for the privilege of getting their groceries. I texted Mags to say that I was turning around and going home again. Her reply was ‘Shopkeepers are up in arms. Come back and sign a petition. All the shops have them”. Had I been able to afford it, I would have signed it. Gladly and with a most emphatic full stop. April 2012