Monday, 31 October 2011


It is the Sunday morning service and we are gutsily singing 'For all the saints who from their labours rest', while above our heads is a painful sizzling sound, like ripping Sellotape, as a myriad cluster flies are zapped by an ultra-violet exterminator.

As, in the musical climax, the saintly deceased reach the 'calm of paradise', our voices are drowned by a long and mighty fizzing. Something large and airborne is having trouble shaking off the mortal coil. Even the Vicar, in his gold-trimmed chasuble, looks uncomfortable. My peaceable husband has a warrior outlook when it comes to the lower links of the food chain. On summer evenings he leaps gymnastically about the bedroom, swatting midges with the Church Times until the walls dribble blood.

This morning's violence is inevitable. Cluster flies have colonised the church in readiness for winter. Their whine gives an Amazonian flavour to the chancel, and they are dropping dead into the Jammy Dodgers. There is something Not Right, though, about mass murder during Mass.

But mass murder is worryingly infectious. Later I'm vacuuming the stairs and spy a tiny spider crouched on the skirting. Usually I liberate spiders through the window, but this one is too small to grasp and after a squeamish hesitation I aim the nozzle and suck it into oblivion. And suddenly a mad thrill of power seizes me and I patrol the house with the Miele, eliminating unwanted lodgers.

My house is now cleaner than it's been in a long while, but my conscience is not and it occurs to me that church may purify the soul, but it doesn't do much for my character.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Listography - five top toys of all time

Katetakes5, fretting efficiently over her Christmas lists, is anxious to identify the top five toys of all time. Parent bloggers are invited to spare each other a fortune by listing their soundest investments in infant pleasure. This troubles me. My six-year-old rejoices in jay cloths, Post-it notes, cotton wool pads and twine. They form flaccid sculptures under his bed and have cost me half a dozen Hoover belts. My nine-year-old's wish-list would enrapture the auditors at Claire's Accessories. I'm the only one who plays Sylvanian Families in our house. But below are five ingredients that have, over years, made child-rearing that much easier.

Hoops  The sort you see in Victorian etchings being bowled along with sticks. Modern descendents are rainbow-hued and pleasurably pliant with built-in rattle sounds and twinkly spangles. Ours have functioned as fairy rings, skipping aids, lassoos, bridles and ground-hugging boomerangs. They are the highlight of home-made assault courses and, when whirled round the midriff, handy for dislodging Mummy's fleshy extras.

Hobby horse  Yes, the Victorians were in to these too, but a century and a half hasn't dulled the appeal (only added a neigh when you tweak the right ear). A pink unicorn and his chestnut companion have been stabled beneath the kitchen table for the last five years. They have galloped their owners to school and doubled as Harry Potter broomsticks. Now they are easing my daughter through the first longing pangs of pony madness and, at £4.99 when I last endured Toys R Us, they are usefully cheaper than the real thing.

Orchard Games  Any and all of these inventive board games, but 'Tummy Ache' wins in the vicarage. 'Looks like Mummy's cooking!' cries my little one gleefully when he draws from the card pile a maggoty stew. It was mastered aged three and remains a reliable after-school time-slayer. It's portable, suspenseful and, most valuable of all, it makes a helping of broccoli desirable.

Build It Construction Set  My husband gets a man in to hang a towel ring, but he and the six-year-old have conjured ducks and trucks and robots and dinosaurs from these chunky plastic bolts and screws. It's two dozen toys in one when you wield the outsized spanner, and, three years after its arrival from The Early Learning Centre, it still keeps both boys peaceably out of my way.

Slide  I'm not sure if this is allowed because it's big and expensive and does not enhance a herbaceous border. Our basic blue chute rewarded my daughter for her first successful potty trial. Seven years on it's still in weekly use. It's also a social ice breaker: test a guest with a challenge to sample it. If they rise to the occasion you've found a worthwhile new friend.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Downton Effect

My married, forty-something friend Emily says that she has had to buy condoms and there was a problem. I'm not sure that I want to hear of this problem over toad-in the-hole, but she continues.  The condoms, she explains, came in packs of five  or packs of twelve. Emily is a thrifty girl. She always buys eggs and loo rolls by the dozen, but this twelve-pack confounded her. The problem was the use-by date: 2013. 'Am I realistically going to get through twelve condoms in two years?' she mused to herself in the middle of Family Planning. Reason prevailed and she saved £3.30 on the five.

I am interested in this because I've read in the papers that couples in their forties have more vigorous relationships than those twenty years younger. Then I notice that our companion, Serena, is silent. Serena is also forty-something and she is also married. I ask her roguishly whether she'd have bought a dirty dozen. She says that her money would be more usefully spent on a set of replacement Hoover bags.

Now I am intrigued. I decide to quiz a couple more middle-aged friends, and, under the pretext of mentioning the church roof appeal, slip in a question about their conjugal routines. One replies that her husband finds his fulfilment in Delia Smith. Another has a husband with needs that are not culinary and that tend to interfere with Saturday Live. And so they've reached a polite compromise. 'Go on, then!' she sighs patiently, 'if you'll make me a cuppa after.'

A third friend mentions Downton Abbey. When the credits roll and the National Grid surges with the boiling of nine million kettles, she and her husband generate their own electricity on flattened sofa cushions. 'After every episode?' I ask incredulously.

Downton Abbey keeps me up twenty minutes after my usual bedtime. When it's over I barely have energy to squeeze the toothpaste. Then I am enlightened. That ravenous couple began their breeding early. They now have teenagers who hibernate for most of the weekend in their bedrooms, while the rest of us are wiping toddler tantrums off the living room walls. I realise that this is, in a way, good news and I resolve to tell Emily that in 2013, when her eight-pack has expired and her kids are grown, she'll be splurging on bumper boxes again.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Suddenly we have acquired kittens. Two pretty brothers hailed us from a cage in the rescue centre and begged us loudly for a home. But first we had to prove ourselves to the scary lady who wielded a fat folder. She paced through our house, examining our plumbing and our characters, seeking nerve-wrackingly for a cause or just impediment why we and these two felines should not be joined together.

So grateful were we to be found worthy that we agreed at once to expand our family. Now the house smells, the curtains are shredded and there is an unexpected IMP@ct oN my W*rking LiFE. The kittens Per@MBULATE A%cr*SS mY KEYBoard and take naps on CAPS LOCK so my editors at THe GUardiAn will think I'm SHOUTING. They take my computer mouse literally, claw a passage up my back and nest flatulently in my best hat. My guilty, secret Boden fund has been swallowed up by jellied rabbit pouches and I'm buying nappy bags again. But this is why it's all worth it:

Friday, 21 October 2011


'Cats,' says the woman blocking my trolley in Oils and Condiments, 'help children develop in a different way.'

I'm not certain what she means by this. Whether feline companionship makes children caring and responsible, condemns them to a life on anti-histamines or fosters a violent enthusiasm for small rodents.

My daughter is desperate for a cat. For two years she's been decided on the name - Frisbee - but has lacked an animal to bestow it on. Now everyone is telling me that pets are as vital to a child's emotional growth as sleepovers and probiotics and I know that they are right, but I don't want to face up to it.

The sad truth is that middle age has made me cowardly. Long ago I planned to be a spinster with 17 cats. My two moggies shared my pillow and my dining table. But age, kids and matrimony got in the way. Now I worry about paw prints on my White Company bath mats, jellified lamb chunks putrefying in the kitchen, pigeon entrails draping the stairs. I worry that now I can get away with cleaning the house every five weeks; post-cat I can't. 'Cat hair isn't a problem so long as you don't wear black,' says Woman by Condiments. But my husband is a vicar. He wears nothing but black. And paying a funeral visit with a thickly moustachioed behind will impair his gravitas.

The realisation of my reluctance is as shocking as the discovery last year that I can no longer do forward rolls. When the Cat Subject is next raised I tell my daughter: 'We'll see'. I'm hoping that I can justify a year or two of 'seeing', by which time she'll have switched her ambitions to an iPad 3.

She knows that and says that instead of a cat I could have new baby. She's heard that older people like me can get one off the internet.

That night I dream that I've adopted infant twins. I wake up sweating. I promise my daughter that tomorrow we're going to get a cat.

Now head over to Actually Mummy's new Sunday Funny to see more of the comic side of parenting 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Facts of Life

I am walking my daughter and a visiting six-year-old through the park. On a bench is a couple embedded in each other's larynxes.
'They're having sex!' says the six-year-old conversationally.
My nine-year old notices me freeze. 'Don't worry, she consoles me. ''Sex' means kissing.'
I am unthinkingly relieved. Then a horrible thought dawns. If sex means kissing, does kissing mean sex? What might she tell her school mates about daddy's goodnight peck? I realise that the Moment has Come and, as usual, I am not ready for it.
I tramp onwards in weighty silence while I muster my shreds of courage. And then, with agonised effort, I tell her. 'Sex,' I gabble, 'is kissing ... without clothes on.' But I am whistling in the wind. The girls are shrieking with glee over fallen conkers. The moment has passed and I don't have the bottle to resurrect it.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Importance of Being a Luddite

My daughter wants an iphone. I am Against it. I tell her lamely that it's too expensive. She says she'll pay for it with her £1 a week pocket money. I tell her she's only nine years old and I was 35 when I got my first mobile. She says she's the Only One in her class without one and that even the French teacher illustrated conjugation with the assumption that 'We all love our iphones'.

I pause. I'm not why sure why I am so viscerally dismayed by the notion. Probably it's to do with my instinct that anything that wasn't around in the 1970s is unnecessary to child development. Which is why my children can feast unfettered on Iced Gems, but I have vigorous prejudices against Haribous.

We put on a DVD of The Railway Children (1970) and my intolerance suddenly crystalises. 'See that!' I say jabbing zestfully at Roberta's tumbling hair. My daughter stares at me, anxious. I tell her about the sacred rituals of Coming of Age: how maturity in more ordered eras was marked by the putting up of girls' hair and letting down of their hems. 'Now,' I conclude, 'the only milestone in adolescence is a diptheria booster.'

I can see enlightenment dawning. 'The day you start secondary school you can walk there on your own for the first time with your first, brand new mobile in your pocket and you'll be 11 years old and feel 10 ft tall.'

My daughter nods. 'I think I like that idea.' There's a pause. 'So can I save up for a Blackberry?'

Monday, 17 October 2011

Keeping Abreast

Eileen mentions that there is a bag of breasts in the vestry. All sorts of oddments have found their way to that dank back chamber since the church was reordered, but I hadn't noticed mammaries among them.

Eileen explains that she's been knitting them in the evenings. Eileen is very good with wool. She can knit crinolined mice and fancy tea cosies, but she's not the sort of person you would expect to knit breasts. I do not want her to think that I am not a Woman of the World, so I ask very casually what the breasts are for and she explains that the ladies of the Mothers Union have been asked to knit them for the maternity wing in the local hospital. The nurses are no longer allowed to touch their patients when showing them how to suckle their newborns and so Eileen's breasts will be used for demonstration.

I am briefly silenced as I conjure visions of midwives modelling globes of pink purl stitch and suddenly I am worried. Eileen is a gentle, proper white haired lady who never misses Mass and feels it is her Christian duty to Rise to the Occasion. I am therefore anxious about what I will find in the vestry when students of urology and gynaecology are banned from touching human flesh.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Truth about Mothers

My daughter thinks that I do not stand trendily at the school gate. 'This is how you've got to do it,' she says, buckling my right knee with one hand and swivelling my toes together so that my left hip slews out and jabs Dillon's mother. Then she rotates my arm into a teapot spout, unfurls my index finger and instructs me to dangle my car key from the end of it like Summer's mum does.

We both turn to look at Summer's mum. She stands there in a floral maxi dress, flesh bronzed at the Tantastic tanning salon, a Peugeot key swinging from her fibreglass nail extension. Then we look back at me. It doesn't help that I don't have a car key. If I did, I point out, it would be a Skoda key. It also doesn't help that I'm wearing my customary school uniform of corduroy stuffed into wellies. 'You look like an old countrywoman,' my daughter says. I find I mind this. Not the countrywoman bit. I nurture the usual urbanite fantasy of marshalling regiments of marrows in a cottage garden. I mind the 'old' because it's very nearly true. My husband's shaving mirror told me brutally so this morning.

So when I return for school pick up I've put on a denim skirt my mother bought me when she wanted me to get out more, my Moment of Madness from Barratts ten years ago (glistening black knee boots with a two-inch heel) and I've brought the Skoda. I gingerly arrange my left hip in one direction and my right arm in another and hang the car key from my forefinger. I'm buffeted, in this precarious position, by the backwind of fleeing school children.

Then my daughter appears, dishevelled in her school track suit with a smear of school dinner on her forehead. 'Mum!' she hisses, 'You're so embarrassing!' Through her wilderness of hair I see Summer's mum craning swan-like over her daughter from her Louboutin-style wedges and I see Summer ducking crossly away and I realise that shortening my skirts and lengthening my nails and cocking my contours like Lily Cole will serve no purpose. Mothers are, just by dint of Being, an embarrassment.