Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Agony Aunt

A stranger has sought me out in the blogosphere hoping for advice on 'wearing my wife's shoes.' I'm quite happy to oblige. Wait, dear, until she's out shopping and have a trial run in the bedroom before flaunting them down at the Working Men's Club. You wouldn't want to make a fool of yourself - stilettoes, you see, can topple a man faster than a crate of Bishop's Finger.

I'm less confident that I can steer the surfer questing 'elderly man in his jockstrap'. I'll keep a look out, for sure, but, you know, with so many pensioners cruising the aisles of Asda in posing pouches you might need to narrow the search down a little.

When I began blogging nearly a year ago I was acutely aware that I had no wisdom to add to cyberspace. I love gardening, but the blogosphere is crowded with far more expert amateurs than me.  I'm pretty well schooled in consumer rights, but government websites have already done a thorough job on the Sale of Goods Act. I had no idea that the world would embrace me as an agony aunt.

When people want to discover more about 'dentil molding with post and lintel' or 'evil schoolgate mothers' where do they turn? To me! Google's search engine deems me an expert on 'middle-aged plumpness', 'wearing a raincoat with a quilted vest' and 'eustreptopondylus'. 

I confess that I am humbled by the confidences of strangers; by the glimpses of lives less fulfilled than my own privileged existence. An early post about the arrival of my two rescue kittens has, over the  months, prompted a heartwarming response from loners wishing to share their hearth with 'aged pussies'. And I sincerely hope, whoever you are, that you found your solution to 'middle age squirts on machine'. I would offer to experiment with the lawnmower, but the vicarage garden is so damnably overlooked. 

I'm less inclined to volunteer for 'matron shaving' until I know a little more about the process and purpose and I'm afraid I have no reliable expertise in 'mongering adventures'.

The surprise has been how great is worldwide zeal for matrons, a species I'd thought woefully neglected when I became one myself. Not that everyone's intentions are entirely kindly. 'Strict matron judicial caning' is no way to treat me. There's no grievance that can't be solved peacefully over a nice cup of tea. And it's a little hurtful that 'Japanese matron nipples' should be so especially sought after. But to the lady who asks 'Can I still study to be a matron at 50?': you can start any age, sweetheart and formal qualifications are unnecessary. All you need is a husband, alive or dead, and a couple of sturdy tweed skirts.

My influential knowledge of washing machines, sharks, Oreos and juggling has been well documented by Klout, yet parenting is the subject that brings many a lost soul to me. If you're the mother that wants to know if any of the rest of us w**k our sons, lady, you need specialised help and so, even more so, does your boy. Please don't visit again.

There are, regrettably, some questions that my four decades of life experience cannot answer. 'How to be a better mother' is the one that taxes my visitors most often. It just happens to be the one that I most frequently ask myself and to which I can offer myself no practical reply. Should any of you stumble upon the definitive answer, make sure I'm the first to know and in return I'll tell you all you were wanting to know about 'decomposing horse web template'.

Has blogging turned you into an agony aunt or uncle? If so what which areas of your expertise are in particular demand so I know where to turn in a crisis.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

What Lies Beneath

This week's prompt for the 100-word challenge is a picture.

Last night a ripper was on the loose. Guts lay in slimy pink piles in the corridors. Last night also a friend's toddler plunged head-first down a stairwell while in my care. And then I lost my teeth and my daughter.

Why should a mind, placid in daylight, unleash such horrors at bedtime? By day we are anchored by deadlines, smalltalk and teabags. At night, when darkness swallows the reassuring props and the mind is uncaged, we are reminded that the comforts we cling to are frail ones and that we are all perched perilously above the unknown.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Capturing Time

Today my daughter turns 10. She rejoices in her new seniority. I lament her ebbing childhood. Once birthday lists contained dolls clothes and magic wands. Now she requests Hollister hoodies and an iPod Touch.

We get out the albums and watch her morph over the pages from a blurred foetus to a lanky schoolgirl.

She questions me closely about the forgotten years. For her, the mop-haired toddler is a stranger. For me, sometimes, it's the tall pre-teen beside me, who is unfamiliar. In my mind's eye, she is small enough to lie on my lap and biddable enough to stay there. In clothes shops I unthinkingly head for garments that are five years too small. In reality she is big enough to borrow my shoes and cool enough to lament my sober heels.

I regret now all those years I wished her older so that I might gain quiet nights, civilised meals and the luxurious liberation of school days. I'm worried that I didn't make the most of what I had, while I had it. And I'm nervous, as she poses in her hoodie, of the teenage struggles to come.

But then there is sudden activity on the landing. Pandas sprawl across the carpet. Elephants block my bedroom door. My shoe boxes are pressed into service as thrones and my tweenager, hot with zeal, distributes invites to a teddy bear coronation.

And I realise, as her favourite bear receives royal medals, that she is still my little girl and that however much the years change her, there's a lifetime left to make the most.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Home Truths

Middle-age is an underrated condition. Those who have yet to reach it fear it; those who have, deny it. A survey by that matchless celebration of mid-life endeavour, Saga, shows that its customers reckon they pass from youth to old age near their 70th birthdays, bypassing middle-age entirely.

I am an expert in this field. I entered middle-age in spirit in my early teens and in body a good half decade ago. It's a stage that brings many comforts - a thicker skin, maturer children, guiltless nights on the sofa and an extensive collection of cardigans. But its greatest gift is wisdom.

While the young continue their blundering pursuit of their true selves, we mid-lifers have found ours, absorbed the shock, made some necessary adjustments and resigned ourselves to what we cannot change.

And so, from this enviable perch, I'm contributing to KateTakes5's collection of Truths as divined by women. Younger readers like Kate - this list of enlightenment could save you years of stress and experimentation!

A fountain pen. This is one of the most effective weapons against stress, confusion and cosmic disorder. There are, in fact, few woes that ink cannot help soothe, whether it's taming a day of heavy deadlines by listing and ticking them off or rationalising a crisis by venting on paper. Biros don't count.

Laundry. It's a mysterious truth that the amount of dirty linen in a laundry basket increases in inverse proportion to the amount that you daily take out of it. No matter how many cycles you fit in to a day. If this sounds preposterous, answer me this: when did you last see the bottom of yours? Which brings me to...

Ironing. Millions of modern women are enslaved to it, yet of all household chores this is the least necessary. Pressed linen is only an obligation for weddings, job interviews and a visit from a bishop. Creases subside from clothes after a couple of hours of wearing and are engraved into bedlinen after half a night's sleep, so what's the point? I used to excavate my iron once a year to smooth the Christmas tablecloths; now I use bigger place mats to disguise the crumples.

Gossip. Scurrilous gossip is more invigorating than charitable smalltalk. This is a very distressing truth and one I try hard to disprove. Daily do I resolve to suppress opinions of other people's child-rearing methods/lunch box contents/wardrobe combinations/marital challenges. Daily do I resolve to air opinions on their virtues. But the fact is that dissecting folk's shortcomings over a plate of Bourbon Creams makes us feel better about our own ineptitude and there's something unaccountably exhausting about company of finer souls who abhor it.

Security. You can withstand most routine slings and arrows if you are shored up by fleecy slippers and a block of Pilgrim's Choice.

What have I left out? Add your cosmic insights here:

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Ageing Gracefully

I strayed the other day past a shop which sold classy and desirable homeware. I knew that it was classy and desirable because the soft items were patterned with Cath Kidston-style florals and the hard ones notched and lined with cracks and crinkles. Distressed furniture is the scientific term. The more distressed a chest of drawers, the more it is valued.  House guests are supposed to assume that the chest has passed through your family dynasty; that each scar, painstakingly applied by a craftman's tool, is a souvenir of a generation.

My body is similarly distressed. My chest, after four decades of family life, resembles the railway intersection at Crewe. A craftsman would be proud of the fine lines that pleat my face and I've grown three well-shaped liver spots on one hand. By rights, like that furniture, I should be highly prized by society.

Yet adverts urge on me hi-tech slime to thwart Time. Clinics beg to hack years off me with a surgeon's knife. And now I read that scientists are using stem cell injections to abolish wrinkles. Why? Why is an ageing cabinet desirable, but not an ageing matron? Why are carefully torn jeans sold at a premium, but a fissured phiz is an embarrassment.?

Me, I've always preferred the lived-in look.  For, as with all antiques, each mark tells a story. The crevasses around my mouth are from bawling out my children. They are testament to my selfless efforts to harden their moral fibre. The creases round my eyes are from squinting at my laptop. They illustrate  ten months of wild living on Twitter.  The fretworks on my forehead are mementos of nights spent swabbing infant vomit, the children's first solo trip to Co-op, the unwholesome episode with a pickle jar and a batch of burnt Le Creuset.

An unlined pensioner would look as sinister as a wizened toddler and so, while the gullible start harvesting their stem cells, I am resolved to crease and sag with gusto. I have blocked the Vicar's shaving mirror in with loo rolls to strengthen my resolve and I leave off my glasses when I epilate my chin.

Evidently my inner beauty shines through the cracks for, in a restaurant one lunchtime, the Vicar flourishes his iPhone and takes my photo. He seems to gaze raptly at it for a flattering while, then he shows me:

Very proud he is of his 'ageing app'. He can, he boasts, inflate my figure most remarkably with a different device. With a few deft strokes of the screen I am a 20-stone octogenarian and I no longer fancy the dessert menu.

This glimpse of the future has unnerved me. Inner beauty could never compete. Urgent action is required while there's still time, so could someone please tell me: where the heck do I start looking for my stem cells?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

How to Cook Incompetently

As the apple fell is the latest prompt for the 100 Word Challenge. Anyone who was on Twitter last week might have heard my anguished cries from the kitchen after I'd burnt a pan of apples. @kateab answered them with the following fragrant recipe which saved the greater part of the Vicar's cherished Le Creuset pan and, thereby, my marriage.

For decades it's shamed me. Then, as the apple fell, I made my resolution. My crassness in the kitchen is legendary. Guests pale at the thought of my catering. My children have been reared on fishfingers. But now Worcestershire Pearmains rain down on me and the lawn is aroll with Bramleys, so gingerly I braved the cooker. Too late, the stench of incinerated Le Creuset recalled me. Frantically I simmered a soup of washing powder to salvage the Vicar's best saucepan. I blocked it from view when he came home, but he smiled and, for the first time in our marriage, declared: 'Something smells good!'

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


'What,' I asked my 9-year-old, 'Would your three wishes be?'
Solemnly she sorted her priorities and concluded: to meet Emma Watson, to become an Olympian and for us all to be happy.
I asked my 8-year-old niece. She required no reflection. 'A bow and arrow, a sword and shield and a laser gun,' she replied.

I admire childish precision. But now Babberblog has turned the tables on me. He wants to know what I want. I assume he means that whatever it is he'll try to get it for me. The trouble is, my mind's now gone a total blank. Naturally, I crave world peace, health and wealth for all, a rebirth of the rain forests and a cure for dandruff, but I'd better keep my wants within the realms of reason so that Babberblog has a chance of procuring them for me by Christmas. So, Mr B, these, in random order are my desires:

I want hair like Wonder Woman. All around me, insane beauties are forcing the curl from their tresses and bleaching out their chestnut hues, and here am I limp, straight, yellow and grieving. Please, Babberblog, can I be dark and kinky?

I want to speak Welsh. I have a longing to be able to make cutting remarks in a melliflous tongue that none of my fellow train passengers are likely to understand.

I want to be able to sit through the Sunday service with a mind unimpeded by the Boden catalogue/choc ices/plans for my funeral/ the server's new hair-do.

I want a canal in my garden. I'm growing out of my ponds. I need a waterway on which I can balance a boat with bunk beds and a gas ring.

I want to be able to do what the Lady from the Choir can do with a wet wipe. Shining like a mirror my kitchen bin was after the vicarage garden party! It was a pleasure to tip my cooking into it. But my efforts on the stainless steel lid resemble the aftermath of a mollusc orgy.

I want to be able to finish Alister McGrath's Introduction to Theology. I began it 13 years ago so I could make informed pillow talk with the Vicar, but have stalled at page 242. I never seem to get past Dialogical Personalism.

I want the coat on p41 of the Boden catalogue.

Babberblog, if you can't get all of these I'll settle for 1,4 and 7, please.

And now I have to tag other bloggers to reveal their wants. You are in the hotseat:

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Secret Gratification

Returning to the routine is the prompt for this week's 100-Word Challenge. I was about to glory in my reclaimed domestic rituals in a blog post anyway, so all I had to do was delete half the adjectives to fit!

This week I felt suffused with wellbeing. The cause? I'd matched a stray sock in the laundry to a single sock in the Vicar's drawer. Heady with triumph, I indulged in self-gratification. I arranged the spare loo rolls in a pyramid. I conquered the rings of limescale round the taps. And I bagged half my children's possessions into bin-liners while they wrestled fractions at school. The summer holidays were invigorating, but returning to the routine brings a superior fulfilment. Today, for instance, I am agog for that ritual unburdening. Yep - no spa resort can offer the purifying pleasure that is bin night!

Monday, 10 September 2012

A Happy Ending

Yesterday my 9-year-old was wrestling the new experience of grief. Today she learnt about miracles.
Her beloved black cat vanished ten days ago and we all presumed he was dead. Then we received a call from a stranger in response to this:

The stranger happened to have been in our neighbourhood, happened to have seen our posters, then happened to take a walk past a secluded fairytale cottage in the woods:

There on the gate he saw this:

A black cat had arrived starving on the cottage doorstep the week before, he discovered, and the owner had been leaving food in the front garden ever since. Instinct convinced him it was Harry. Instinct convinced us that it couldn't be.

We drove to the woods and found the pink cottage and soon a small black cat came hurtling out of its front garden. He found us before we found him. It was Harry. He had strayed half a mile over fox-ridden parkland, crossed a busy main road, climbed a wooded hill and arrived at the lonely cottage the very same day that the owner's elderly cat had died.

So now our family is complete again and my 9-year-old has discovered that life can have fairytale endings. Her birthday present will, as she had wished, be a cuddle with Harry. But there's one last thing on her mind. 'Is it all right,' she asks anxiously, 'if I still ask for an iPod Touch as well?'

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Lessons of Loss

Death has touched my my 9-year-old over the last two years. She sat a foot from the coffins of her great aunt and uncle at their double funeral. She watched the cremation service for her grandfather, mourned the loss of a schoolfriend's mother and attended the burial of the kind man at church who had given her his collection of vintage toy cars.

The disappearance of familiar faces baffled, but did not unduly grieve her. She tried and failed to imagine the people she'd known nailed into the wooden boxes. She gathered fragments of memory - her grandpa's flourishing bow when he opened the front door, the ice cream the friend's mother had bought her - and tried and failed to comprehend that they would do these things no more.

But life continued its orderly path without them and she moved serenely onwards with it.

It's taken the disappearance of a small black cat to teach her the reality of loss. Harry was her baby. She'd race upstairs from school to see if he was on her bed and shrill a special signal if he was. She would read her homework books with his head on her knee and lie beside him on the trampoline where he sunbathed. Her duvet is slack and cold without the weight of her sleeping pet. Her bed, once her refuge, is now haunted by his absence.

'Pets,' a woman stacking cat food once told me, 'help children develop.' Ten months after acquiring our kittens I realise she was right, but not in the ways I'd expected. Harry has taught my little girl to grieve. More than that. He has taught her, more vividly than Sunday School preaching, the value of invisible gifts - of dependence, nurture and love - that privileged children take for granted.

For her birthday this month she had craved Hollister tops, Vans shoes and an iPod Touch. Now she would willingly ditch all of them. 'There's only one thing I want for my present,'  she says. 'And that's to cuddle Harry again.'

Monday, 3 September 2012

Intimate Secrets

Last week a security man at London's Natural History Museum asked to search my handbag. I was dismayed. I have, you see, things to hide. Things that I really do not wish London's security officials to know about. Should some of these things come to light, my good standing in the community could be gravely undermined.
The man, however, was ruthless. He rummaged unfeelingly through my capacious companion and exposed my guiltiest secrets to public scrutiny. For all those in the queue behind me could see that within the elegant contours of my leather Bridge bag lurked:

I'm not sure why I carry a potato peeler. Probably it dates from my backpacking days in Eastern Europe when I had to seize any culinary opportunity that came my way. For those who scoff, how do you know you won't find yourself in the middle of a carrot field one day, and require instant gratification?

Yes, I do have those sophisticated tissues in neat plastic packages, but I don't ever open them if I can help it, for they work out at nearly 10p a nose blow. Some of the above probably aren't mine. They are thrust at me, limp with sinister fluids, after the children have borrowed them in a bin-free environment.

I have no idea what this is, but I know what I fear it is: a piece of left-over cake from a children's party. What unnerves me is that the last party either of my children attended was a full month ago.

I don't know how this plastic spider got there either. I was about to bin it when it occurred to me that I could balance it on my editor's in-tray. She shrieked and buckled in the middle of a telephone interview. I had no idea she was an arachnophobic. I've kept it, after that success, because it might liven up the next long meeting about the church fete.

This is a pot of magic medicine. It's efficacy is miraculous. Any childish hurt is almost instantly soothed by a single dose. Some of them contain laughing or dancing or singing spells which help revive the patient remarkably to the enjoyment of all around. I wouldn't dare venture outside without it.

Younger readers won't recognise this. It's called an address book and I use it for putting people's phone numbers in because I can never remember how to programme them into my mobile. New acquaintances, whom I judge won't be around long enough to justify a permanent inked slot, get detailed on Post-it notes and stored in a drawer. Friendships that just might blossom are recorded in the book in pencil. Most of the inked entries are dead.

This is a notebook - a necessity in case I should have a Great Thought. I've had this one for three years and it's mostly full of shopping lists, infant doodles and odd fragments of gossip that I want to remember for my diary. I'm mystified by the scribbled words: 'Barbie - plump, limp and viled with croissant grease' and by a phone number for Bill. Who's Bill?

The above arouses intense jealousy in men. The security guard at the museum insisted on borrowing it while I studied the exhibits and the bloke at the airport harboured it for the entire duration of my holiday. Actually, I've hardly ever used it, but I'm anticipating that it will save the day if I have to perform  emergency surgery or open a beer bottle.

These are the rest of my daily essentials. Things like screwdrivers and measuring tape and train timetables and emergency supplies of Vaseline and Extra Strong Mints. And a plastic fighter aircraft. I didn't photograph the menacing thing I found stuck to the dusty lining. Come to think of it, this exposition of my intimate secrets has been beneficial, for it's prompted me to overhaul the amount of stuff I lug round with me everyday. I've done a clean - and a determined cull: yep, I've got rid of half of those semi-used tissues.

What do you conceal in your handbag?