Monday, 30 January 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Middle Age

A reader has asked me when middle-age starts. She sounded nervous. I can't think why. Years are no barrier; you can start middle-age any time you like. I personally embraced it in my early twenties when I eschewed Saturday night clubbing for re-runs of Brideshead Revisited. It proved so addictive that I have never looked back.

Middle-agers enjoy comforts unimaginable to those who are burdened by youth. You don't have to worry how many friends you have on Facebook because you foster your relationships on sheaves of Basildon Bond. You are the only one not shivering on a wintry station platform because you're sensibly swaddled in thermals. You can dangle from trees because you've stopped caring about street-cred and you know what to do with a Jerusalem artichoke.

Evidently, though, the transition remains mysterious to those who have yet to find the courage to try it, so here are 20 pointers to help you work out whether you qualify for Mid Life.

You know you're middle aged when:

A flannelette sheet tops your birthday wish list

You memorise the going rate for a cauliflower

You host a dinner party in your slippers

You tell your New Year's Eve guests that you need to be in bed by 10.30pm. 

You can't do forward rolls any more

You check out the obituaries in the newspaper

You read a newspaper 

You talk to vegetables

You leave off shaving your legs

You wear a warm coat when you go out on the town

Except that you don't go out on the town because you're working your way through your box set of Downton Abbey

Your mother gives you his n' hers all-purpose household hygiene wipes for Christmas

You mistake the wire from an iPod stored in a school mother's cleavage for an intravenous drip

You carry a bottle opener in your handbag in case you get taken short

You have opinions on different brands of furniture polish

You have the Boden order line on speed-dial

You have a husband who wears long johns 

You once wrote in to Jim'll Fix It 

You start to find other people's illnesses interesting

You feel maternal towards policemen

See? Nothing to it! Let me know your score and if you can think of any other enjoyable symptoms that I have overlooked please suggest them below. Happy ageing!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Around the World in 80 Words - India

I'm rather besotted by Sahdandproud's new linky to write up a global destination in no more than 80 words. Given that I've spent the last two months trying to condense wit and wisdom into Twitter's 140-character quota, 80 words seem positively incontinent. I am worried, however, that my previous effort on winceyette in Weston-super-Mare may cause some to conclude that I do not lead a glamorous life. So this week I'm going exotic to show you that before parish and progeny tethered me, I had Been Places!

You smell the dawn in India. It wafts from the dried-dung fires that warm the street-dwellers; from the holy cows nosing the gutters; from the men defecating beneath walls. It’s light when the women trudge to the edge of town for more discreet necessity. And through the light come the school children, balancing round lunch tins. Men crouch on the kerb to be shaved. A buffalo drowses with a bird on its head. And the cacophony, dulled by nightfall, resumes. 

If you want to try globe-trotting in miniature and don't have a blog, feel free to use my comments box. All royalties to Sahdandproud. I dare you!

Saturday is Caption Day....

over at Mammasaurus. The more comments I get, the nicer I am to my children, so please humour me or else I won't dig him out!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Stylish After-Life

My children are disconcertingly comfortable with death. My nine-year-old will cross the street to examine road-kill and keeps a spider's corpse in a ring box in her knicker drawer. I once feared that her mind was macabre; now I tell myself it's  anatomical research for medical career.

Their ease in the face of the Inevitable must be rooted in the martyred saints who have gazed down on their childhood from church windows. Or perhaps it's a happy symptom of infant innocence; youth is more accepting of life's mysteries and less stilted by taboos.

We are accompanying my elderly mother through a cemetery. I am conscious that death is an impending reality for her and I talk distractingly of Jerusalem artichokes. My daughter paces insouciantly alongside us, eyeing the mossy tombs.

'When,' she suddenly addresses her grandmother, 'you're in your grave, I'll put all your make-up on it so you've got it to hand.'
She pauses, reflecting on what further comforts lie within her powers. 'Do you think,' she says, inspired, 'you'll be wanting your hairspray?'

Out of interest, are today's children too sheltered from death? And, if so, is that because we adults have less experience and, therefore, more fear of it than our predecessors? Would you let your children attend a family funeral? I'd welcome all views. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Home Hygiene

I have always done my own cleaning. Not very often, mind. Once every month or so keeps the funghi at bay. But, each time I've worked out where I keep the dusters, boy do I let rip! Skirting boards. Pelmets. U bends. With my portable radio in one armpit and a sheaf of Miele nozzles in the other, I stalk the vicarage assaulting cobwebs and secretly binning any infant possessions that can't be kicked to oblivion under the beds.

But uncooperative lungs have prevented me terrorising the family filth since mid December and even the Vicar is noticing the dustballs that skim in his wake. Sensibly, he seeks out a cleaner for a day to tide us over. I am excited because someone else can fidget the grime out of my daughter's shell collection. And I am nervous because I'm not sure I can cope with someone toiling over my bacteria while I lie on my day bed. What if she forgets to tame the muesli-like stuff under the sofa cushions? (We don't buy muesli. How does it get there?) What if she lifts the lid on my mortifying laundry basket? What will she think of the strange thing growing out of my kitchen floor cloth?

I spend the dawn hours readying the house for her. I swab the top of the kitchen cupboards in case she judges me. I perform violence on the black mould in the bathroom and I haul the laundry basket out to the garage. Then I agonise over etiquette. Should I offer her coffee when she arrives or would she spend expensive minutes consuming it?

The bell rings. She's very young. She has a sick baby at home and apologetically places a bag of prescription medicine on the hall stand. She only wants £8 an hour. I beg her to accept coffee. I beg her to accept tea. I trail after the Miele flex proffering biscuits. I am about to suggest that she sits down with a Jammy Dodger while I make a start on the dusting.

For three hours I sit hunched on my pillows feigning work on my laptop while she labours. She apologises if I pass her on the stairs. I apologise if I'm in the room when she enters. She dusts the doors. She dusts the shower rail. She dusts contours of the house that I never knew existed. She eliminates the sofa muesli, but leaves a pound coin that she finds embedded there on the coffee table.

I am stressed with gratitude. I try to overpay her, but she declines. She shoulders her heavy bag and sets off back to her sick baby. I go and lie down. I am exhausted. Watching someone else perform chores that should be mine is far more wearing than performing them myself.

Next month Mr Sheen and I will be a partnership again. On the other is satisfying to have a bathroom mirror unspotted by the flying fall-out from flossing and to tread uncrunchy carpets. And we all have to do our bit to resuscitate our local economy. So perhaps it's my fiscal duty, not extravagant sloth, to invite her back, even after my lungs are restored. Perhaps it's my fiscal duty, not extravagant sloth, to make it quite a regular fixture. She can earn some extra cash while I can concentrate on intellectual pursuits such as, my career.

Next time, though, I'll give the house a thorough dust and vacuum before her arrival so that I needn't feel quite so exhausted with guilt.

Lend me your views. Can a home-based, only-part-time career mother with school-aged children and a flimsy bank balance justify a cleaner, or should I invest in a clean floor cloth and shoulder my rightful domestic duties?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Around the World in 80 Words

Sahdandproud is an amiable young father who can’t sleep at night. In order to distract his mind from nocturnal anguish over recycling bins and family upheaval he has decided to tour the world in 80 words a stop.  To do this he has set up his first linky and requires globe-trotting bloggers to add their adventures in miniature.

Mr S&P faces a long, dark domestic journey of his own over the coming months, so I thought it might ease the pressure a little if he took a detour via Weston-super-Mare. I shall, therefore, skip plans to feed my children lunch and recall one rainy afternoon in Somerset….

It was the nighties that first struck me. Voluminous confections in winceyette bunched on rails in an indoor-market stall. Dangling above them, targeted presumably at the same clientele, were X-large French maid outfits in latex. Nearby was a video stall. Alongside ‘Carp Fishing’ and highlights of Daniel O’Donnell, were films about ladies who, well, nakedly loved each other! I knew then that Weston, purveyor of donkey rides and Ovaltine nightcaps, had a simmering underbelly unremarked by the travel guides.

80 words exactly, Sahdandproud. Will that do?

Saturday, 21 January 2012


A kind-hearted blogger, Sarah Hague has granted me a Liebster Award. This, apparently, is a salute to lovable blogs with fewer than 200 followers and I am supposed to import a special badge on to my home page to advertise my good fortune.  Now, obviously I can’t do this. I am incapable of programming contacts into my mobile phone, so I shall never master the science of html codes on Blogger. But you can imagine it. It’s a white rectangle with a black rim and it has Liebster Blog written on it and an amorous red heart. And I am very grateful.

But these gongs come with strings attached. I have first to thank my benefactress who blogs enviably about life in southern France and who shames my sparse larder with her fridge full of smoked trout blinis.

Then I have to pass on the compliment to five other bloggers who have a discipleship of under 200. This could be awkward. Some blogs don’t advertise their subscribers. Asking a blogger how many followers they have is like asking a middle-aged matron her age. So, with many apologies if I’ve underestimated their adherents, or if they have already been touched by the Liebster love, here are my nominations:

Sahdandproud When his new post alerts hit my inbox I drop everything. This Stay at Home Dad endures some dark and painful journeys, but he recounts them with a humour, an eloquence and complete absence of self pity that awes me. And his Kraft Corner could reinvent the Britart scene.

Maid in Yorkshire I hesitated before including this one. The fact is I’m jealous. No editor is going to beg for the rights to my blog posts while this journalist is on the loose. She has wise and witty views on all things from Hull to vegetable intercourse.

The Girl Behind was one of my first discoveries. She has a poetic ethereality which is restful after the domestic clamour of parent blogs. She shares my love of blank paper and sea foam and her camera skills can make Quality Street wrappers look like sculpture.

Upyoursginaford I ought to dislike this blog. After all, Gina Ford and I made a fine partnership during my baby days and these blog posts tend to explode into a linguistic fervour that makes my thermals quake.  I disapprove, of course I do. She once straddled a motorbike with Peter Stringfellow. She has a husband who punched a seagull.  She describes herself as a dishwasher bitch and has never once mentioned attendance at Family Communion. But she is hilarious. And her frustrated zest rings in my ears when I am resignedly dusting down the vicarage.

Midlifesinglemum I chanced upon this blog after she posted a thrillingly cynical ‘Blogging Charter for the individually and independently challenged’. Still wish I’d written that myself. It shamed me into only checking my stats once every half hour and deleting all the fetching pictures of my kittens that I’d planned to post daily to save myself the trouble of original thought. Since then she has given me a fascinating insight into life, customs and cooking in Jerusalem. She has also been selflessly supportive of my blog. She won’t thank me for this award. She has a healthy disdain for badges and tags and regurgitated blog love. But I’m shoving it her way anyway, because it might prompt another witty charter.

Saturday is Caption Day....

over at Mammasaurus. Neither advancing years nor ecclesiastical dignity will obstruct my fondness for tree-climbing. I can shin up a sycamore as sinuously as I ever did. I just can't always get down again.

You don't have to be witty. You don't have to be wise. All comments give me a thrill...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Making the Most

'They're testing me for lung cancer,' says the young woman at the back of church.
I moan in dismayed sympathy.
She says that she has endured a three-week lung infection that has resisted two courses of antibiotics, so her GP has referred her to Accident & Emergency for a chest X-ray. The poor young woman instantly assumed the worst.

I moan again. In alarm. I too have endured a three-week lung infection that has resisted two courses of antibiotics, so my GP has referred me to Accident & Emergency for a chest X-ray. And cancer never crossed my mind.

I sit out the hours in the hospital waiting room. Rationally, I know that there is nothing to worry about, but as I study the posters reminding me to Wake up to Rape, to report my drug problem, to memorise the signs of meningitis and to bear in mind that more people die from hospital-acquired blood clots than breast cancer, AIDS and traffic accidents combined, mortality seems to edge a little closer.

Nurses wire me up to a heart monitor and clamp me to an X-ray machine. They suck blood from a vein. They suck blood from an artery. They dress me in a hospital gown and order a curtained bed. I am bored and I am sanguine. Then they talk of blood clots and tumours and possible overnight stays and I start to think panicked of my children.

They hate the one day in the week that I commute to the office because I am not at the school gate to collect them.

What if I am not there, ever?

They hate it when I'm not there to give them their tea because the Vicar doesn't understand about potato terror.

What if I am not there, ever?

There is no finer father than the Vicar, but he doesn't:
grasp the importance of chocolate treasure hunts in muddy parkland.
know how to make a foolproof laptop out of a Cornflakes packet.
endure three games of Harry Potter Cluedo on the trot.
understand about the invisible shark poised to bite small toes in the local swimming pool.

So what if I am not there, ever?

The doctor fetches another doctor and they prod and they pinch and they pronounce that I have pleurisy. Mortality recedes. The gown is reclaimed. The Vicar brings the Skoda and I am phlegmy with rapture.

I long for the children's naked bath-time brawls that usually enrage me.
I long for the tea-time rows over the single shiny desert spoon.
I long for the clamorous return from school; the hallway clogged with flung shoes and book bags; the landing draped with inexplicably drenched clothing.
I even long for the nightly game of Harry Potter Cluedo.

This New Year I resolved to be a better mother. To feed and talk to and be nice to my children. Today's fleeting uncertainty has enlightened me. Our children don't need us to be better mothers. They just need us, imperfectly, to Be There. And so I consistently shall be - the minute I can be bothered to rise up off sofa.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Facts of Life: the Climax

I am leading a flotilla of small children to Sunday school. My daughter hurries to catch up with me, the big Bible under her arm. 'Ali says that Madison says that if you want a baby you have to drink from a man's dinky,' she shouts over a row of bobbing toddler heads.

'You explain,' I hiss to Ali's mother and burst hastily into prayer. Ali's mother busies herself with Pritt sticks and doesn't seem to hear. My daughter clocks the embarrassment and saves it for later.

Later comes when I'm sorting the laundry. 'So how does...?' I've braced myself for this moment for the last two years. Ever since an inflated picture of a sperm nosing an egg billowed from a street banner outside her primary school and she thought it was a worm that liked apples. Calm, frank and measured, I was going to be. Only when she asks I dash for the walk-in wardrobe and shriek for the Vicar. And the Vicar steps on one of her Sylvanian family rodents and the ensuing trauma distracts her.

The former Sunday School teacher is concerned. Says it's essential to be calm, frank and measured. That afternoon there is a package on the doorstep. It's the Usborne book of the 'Facts of Life' with a note suggesting that my daughter and I explore it together at the kitchen table. It falls open on a brief description of the '69' in the glossary and hastily I hide it under my back issues of Gardener's World.

I decide I will fall back on calmness, frankness and measurement and steer clear of printed illustrations. I steel myself and approach my daughter. 'You know you were asking about babies...?' I say shakily. She doesn't glance up. 'Oh that!' she answers casually. 'Daddy's already explained it.' I am slack with relief: 'And is there anything you want to ask?' 'Yes,' she says. 'Why would anyone ever want to get married?'

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Infant Philosophy

'What am I?' asks my son.
'A boy,' I reply, not listening.
'What's a boy?'
'A boy is someone with a ... A boy is human who is male.'
'What's a yewmanooizmale?'
My daughter is pondering separate cosmic mysteries on the sofa.
'Why does cat poo smell?'

These untiring interrogations exasperate me. They distract me from the serious business of the White Stuff catalogue or the Met Office weather bulletin. They also unnerve me, for their infant logic exposes the vastness of my own unknowingness. 'Why did Jesus have to die?' asks my daughter and I discover that, despite sharing a house with a theological library, I flounder. 'Why is water wet?' 'Why don't we have three arms?' 'Why doesn't my Lego tip over when Earth turns round?' I don't know and I don't know and I don't know.

Lately the questions have become more focused and just as foxing. 'What is eight times 13,' asks the nine-year-old, hunched over her maths homework. 'Who was Henry VIII's fourth wife?' 'Why do you never know the answer to anything I ask you?'

I wonder then why it takes children to reveal the holes in my intellect. In adult gatherings  I can maintain a semblance of worldly wisdom as we debate how to remove ketchup stains from lambswool and whether Jason Donovan should have won Strictly Come Dancing. At which point the answer blinds me. The weight of years and insomnia have innured most of us to life's philosophical questions. My brain buzzes with shopping lists and school dates. I lack the mental space and energy to ponder why the wind is windy or what is the essence of Boy.

I am sobered by this. By the time the children are flown and I have the leisure of my own unimpeded thoughts, my mind will have shrunk too small to recapture cosmic curiosity.

I resolve to revise Tudors and times tables and to look up Existentialism on Wikipedia. And next time my son asks me why cats don't need hair cuts, I shall rejoice in his quest for enlightenment, even though my answer will be 'Don't know'.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Wok and Roll

It is the family service and the Vicar is telling the assembled children about Victoria, the well-spoken homeless woman who once lived on our vicarage doorstep. She refused the floor of the church hall or a bed in a hostel. She laid her damp sleeping bag against our front gate and declared it was an 'act of worship'. There she pondered theological mysteries and traded cigarette stubs with passing vagrants.

Victoria, the Vicar is explaining, had three great needs: a sleeping bag, hot tea and occasional medical intervention for head lice. I'm worried that he'll mention her most visible need, which was men. No passing male was denied a slot in her sleeping bag and our vicarage CCTV pulsed with live footage of her vigorous hospitality. When I mentioned that Sex Addicts Anonymous were meeting in the church hall behind her she dashed in, arms spread wide, and threatened a collective relapse.

Victoria had once had a husband, but the only good thing in her marriage was, she said, the wok. The Vicar doesn't mention any of this and I am relieved. But later I hear him on the phone to my brother who is collating his birthday lists. The Vicar tells him that he urgently needs a new wok. Ours, he reports, is stained and shabby with over-use. Then I decide to bake a great many cakes for the next church tea so that he will rejoice in matrimony, for our old wok looks perfectly sound to me and the symbolism is unnerving.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

How to be a Better Mother

Each new year I make a resolution to make a resolution. And each year I fail, because unless there is a realistic chance of keeping it, it's a waste of mental energy.

Realistically there is no chance of my seeing the bottom of the laundry basket in 2012 because I'd have to open it first and face its dirty secrets. No chance of becoming the beacon of Christian charity that Sunday sermons briefly inspire me to be, because I'm far too fond of a gossip. No chance of me cooking a meal that does not incinerate the Le Creuset and resemble the fall-out of major bowel surgery, because I shall never master the alchemy of food.

But this week, after trying to make a meal out of an elderly mushroom and a stray cheese string, I think I may have found my new direction. I am going to become a better mother. To bolster my determination, I've divided the journey into five easy steps that even I should be able to achieve:

Feed my children
No more frantic 6pm rummagings through the brown juices pooled in the fridge in hopes a meal will materialise. I shall go to the shop at least once a week and buy fishfingers and pasta sauces. I shall be armed, at all times, with factory proteins. One day I might even try out that recipe I once dreamt of involving liver, Ketchup and canned chick peas so that they needn't feel they're missing out on home-cooking..

Play with my children
'Me time' has been seeping out of its legitimate evening confines and now starts around 3.30pm when the clamorous tumult arrives home from school. On a selfless day, I summon the stamina to do their homework with them, then I shoo them shrilly away and retreat to where I feel I truly belong: on the sofa behind a novel/seed catalogue/Twitter home page. Now I've nicked Junior Scrabble from the leftovers of the church tombola and I am going to haul my twosome away from their bedroom pursuits and engage with them, worthily, on the sitting room floor until that well-planned tea time.

Put my children to bed nicely
Currently bedtimes go something like this: I emerge from behind said novel/seed catalogue/Twitter page, realise it's late, harry the children into the bath, harry them irascibly out of it, tell them they've dawdled too much for a bedtime story, then, realising that my Beer Moment is tantalisingly close, bully them into their bedrooms, ask crossly if they want a prayer, gabble through a brief improvisation while they're still getting their slippers off, berate them for the chaos of possessions on their floors and scarper. In future, I shall shut my novel  - I mean the Scrabble box - an hour earlier, help them make bubble beards in the bath, read them a chapter of Enid Blyton and settle them gently onto their pillows with a lullaby. I might even make their beds before they climb in. And I won't give a thought to beer until their doors are safely closed behind me.

Talk to my children
So what if the only conversation my daughter can muster concerns french plaits and Emma Watson? So what if my son is only interested in light switches? It's a privilege for a mother to be able to nurture their fascinatingly evolving intellects. So I shall not turn up the volume of Radio 4 or pretend I'm immersed in a life-or-death email. I shall mug up on Emma Watson's off-screen hobbies and on electrical circuits and I shall be an ever-listening ear. Wonder if I could coax an interest in the subject of vegetable rotation planting, though.

Face the Facts of Life
When my daughter suddenly puts down her Sylvanian Families and asks how a Daddy cuddle can make a baby, I shall not make a dash for the walk-in wardrobe and shut myself in. No, definitely, I shall not. I shall shut the wardrobe door and bar all other escape routes. And I shall be calm, rational and factual. Yes, yes, I shall. I shall buy a book with pictures, and we'll look at it together calmly, rationally and factually. Oh, heck, though, what if there's a picture of a it? No, actually, no, no, no! Gentle, sympathetic diplomacy and a basic working knowledge of biology: that's got to be a job for the Vicar!

If you have any reassuring tales of poor parenting please share them here. We corner-cutting mums must stick together. And pop over to Actually Mummy to read more on the bracing hilarity of child-rearing.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Facts of Life: Part III

My daughter is looking sheepish. 'You'll be very surprised,' she says, 'but there's a boy I really like.' I am surprised. My nine-year old has a healthy contempt for the male sex. 'Bullocks' she calls them dimissively. She once flung movable parts of the sitting room at her brother's head when he suggested she fancied one of the boys in her class. But romantic fervour has swept our local primary school. Six year-olds who share a football are deemed an Item. Eight-year-olds nurse ruptured hearts when their swains place their lunchbox alongside a rival's. I, therefore, conceal my surprise and look encouraging.

'Who do you like?' I ask as I suspend a row of damp underpants from the drying rack.
'I'm in love,' she says,'with Harry!'
Harry is the cat.
'Harry is a cat,' I point out.
'But I'm in love with him.'
'You love him, sweetheart. You're not in love. If you're in love with someone you, um, want to share a bed with them.'
'I do share a bed with him.'
'Yes, but - you want to, er, kiss them ...on the lips.'
'I do kiss him on the lips.'
'Darling! his mouth will be full of germs.'
'But you kiss Daddy.'
'Yes, but...'
'And his mouth will be full of germs.'
'It's not the same. Daddy doesn't eat mice.'
'But Daddy eats cows.'

I rearrange the underpants to buy myself thinking time. Then I arrive at the clincher.
'When you're in love with someone, you want,' I declare momentously, 'to marry them!'
My daughter looks obstinate.'I'm not going to marry in that sense,' she says.
'In what sense?'
'I'm not going to marry someone who I have to kiss on the lips.' She seizes Harry and nuzzles his neck affirmatively. 'Especially,' she adds, 'if they eat cows.'

For more on how not to handle your child's biological education see Facts of Life and Facts of Life: Part II