Friday, 27 December 2013

Blessings

Prayers can be answered in disconcerting ways. Progress can be more harrowing than stasis. Our Advent hope was for my mother to wake from her coma. And, one day, she opened an eye. But the eye  fixed on us unseeingly and unnerved us so thoroughly that the 9-year-old now needs a nightlight to guard him from the ghost of Grandma.

We longed for words. And one day they came. But the words are frightening. My mother thought the 11-year-old was Boudicca. She reckons fellow patients are Russian spies and the nurses Machiavellian conspirators. The woman who was planning the redecoration of her kitchen that night she walked home from work now clings to my neck and implores me to release her from a prison cell.

I sometimes wish again for the coma for, in that peaceful figure, I could imagine my familiar mother waking. I try to comprehend how a vivacious career woman can, through the inattention of a stranger, be transformed in a second into this. And yet I know that we are lucky. It is the harsh lessons that best teach us our blessings. And the car that felled my mother on that November night has, most harrowingly, reminded us how much we are blessed - in the casual acquaintance who turned up with a roast chicken one suppertime; in the school mothers who bought me 'magic' pyjamas to restore sleep and lipstick to gladden my mother's critical eye when it sees again; in the friend who filled my children's stockings when I couldn't face the shops.

We are blessed in the tweets from people I've never met offering their prayers; in my mother's colleague who arrived after work to cook for my father and in the stranger who offered her free physiotherapy if she leaves hospital.

We are blessed by the miracle that she is alive and talking when her heart stopped on the roadside. Above all, we are blessed in my mother. We may not get her back as she was; we may not get her back at all. But her absence has made us realise what we once took for granted: that her love and her strength and her generosity have infused every aspect of our lives. And for that we are so very lucky.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Aftermath

My mother was returning from work. She called my father to ask him to record The Archers and she started walking from the station. Then, a few hundred yards from home, she stepped onto the zebra crossing.

It was a doctor who hit her - outside the hospital where he worked. Her shredded clothes have been returned to us in a carrier. Her handbag now sits in its usual place on the hall chair, the shoes she was wearing packed inside by police. There is her favourite sheep mug on the draining rack and parcels she had ordered for Christmas arriving in the post. She is absent, yet the house is full of her. We can think of nothing else and yet we forget. My father finds himself putting her towel to warm on the radiator for morning like he always does and nearly calls from the bottom of the stairs to ask if she wants tea before bed.

I used to tune out sometimes when she chattered. Now I bend over her, listening raptly each time her lips move. 'Suffering' was the first word I heard her mumble. Then 'Family'. Her voice isn't her voice; it's become an unnerving baritone. Her face isn't her face; it no longer lights up when she hears us. But I know that deep in that changed body a familiar spirit is battling.

The last weeks have taught me that miracles can happen. I saw it in the face of the surgeon who had doubted she'd last the first night. I saw it in my father's joy when she shifted a bandaged hand. And I know it from the prayers of friends and strangers which are powering us all on.

Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation, and this year doubly so. While others shop for Christmas, when a Child was given, we wait in patient hopefulness - for my mother to be given back.

Thank you for all your messages of support. Each one was greatly appreciated.


Friday, 29 November 2013

Motherhood

When I tried to imagine a future without my mother in it I pictured a short illness or a long decline. I never considered a zebra crossing on a dark night and a car that didn't brake in time.

My mother was planning our Christmas stockings and her spring tulips. Now she is in a coma. And my mother, who used to listen raptly to every trivial detail we told her, lies unheeding when we talk.

They say the hearing is the last thing to go. So I tell her that I'm wearing lipstick like she always begged me to; that I've dead-headed her pansies and burnt the supper I was trying to cook my father.

I want her to nag me about sterilising my dishcloths and taking my Vitamin C. I want her to tell me, like she always does, that she will make things be all right.

But I realise, as I gaze at the battered body in which my mother somewhere hides, that we are blessed. 'All I can, while I can,' she always told us. And she has never failed. Whether or not she returns to us, it's her love and strength that carry us onward. And that is the greatest legacy a person can leave.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Self-Confidence and How to Lose It

Self-confidence, I always thought, is one of the gifts of middle age. Through my timid teens and twenties I looked forward to the day when I could stride forth in my polyknits, oblivious to public opinion. And that day almost dawned. No longer do I delay pressing the button on pelican crossings in case drivers are inconvenienced by stopping for me. I am equal to ordering dinner guests to leave by 10.30pm so I can get to bed on time and am comfortable bearing a bumper pack of loo roll up the street from the Co-op.

There was a fatal flaw in my theory, however. With middle age come children and there is nothing like an adolescent daughter to make you see yourself in your true colours. 'Have you thought that it could be YOUR fault?' cries the 11-year-old when I ask her to stop shouting. I pause to reflect and I realise that, yes, I am sadly culpable as a mother.

It is my fault that my scarf doesn't match my red beret, thus inflicting needless humiliation on the walk to school. It is my fault that I delay the arrival home by 'sliming slowly along like a slug' because I have burdened myself with all the school bags. It is my fault that pocket money is withheld for an unkempt room because 'you can't expect me to do chores when I'm resting' and it is undeniably my 'horrible mean selfishness' that enforces swimming lessons, punctual bedtimes and green vegetables.

Occasionally I study my reflection in the Vicar's shaving mirror.  I try to recognise, under the layers of hemp cream that shore up my complexion, the woman who embarked on motherhood with such good intentions. Instead I see myself through my daughter's eyes, an ungroomed matron shrilling reminders and recriminations.

I decide to help restore harmony by reforming myself. I shall coordinate my winter wear whenever haste and temperature allow; I shall leave the kids to carry their own burdens and stride home with Olympian grace and I shall stop nagging over childish deficiencies and find ways to make domestic duties and vegetables a happy bonding experience. Heck, I might even brush my hair before morning drop-off.

But no sooner have I resolved this than I realise my imperfections are too deeply embedded and that no amount of good intentions can redeem me. Because...'I wish that I was mixed race,' laments my daughter, braiding her wet hair for the Afro look. 'Why couldn't you have been born black?'

Do children boost your confidence?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Shrunken Horizons

I was offered a free smartphone last week by a company I was planning to write depressing things about. It took ten minutes of emails to persuade the press office that, my incorruptible virtue aside, I have no desire to own one. Why should I want to be pursued by emails and tweets, while minding my own business in a garden centre, when I have a £10 handset that lies reliably dormant in the depths of my handbag?

Then a box from another PR arrived for me at the office. My misgivings about bribes and freebies instantly fled. Painfully I tumbled from the moral high ground for inside, swaddled in festive paper, were three large bottles of washing up liquid.

'I think,' said an older colleague, watching my excitement, 'that you need to throw everything in your life up in the air and start again.' I packed my booty reverently in my briefcase and I reflected on the shrunken horizons of middle age. There was a time when it would have required a date with the Vicar to induce that kind of glee. There was a time when I travelled the world with matching luggage and sought my highs on mountain tops.

Now, though, the Vicar's and my deferred anniversary treat was to walk hand-in-hand to watch the re-opening of the local Co-Op. I've since found daily joy in browsing the soups in the edgily re-ordered aisles, while the adrenalin that spurs me through each week is supplied by bellowing Gracie Fields songs with the Mothers Union singing group. Conjugal bliss, last night, was watching the last episode of Downton Abbey with a block of cheddar (we'd missed the original airing because it finished after our 10pm bedtime).

People worry about me, I know they do. A school-gate mother has prescribed a spray tan and a night at a cage fight to teach me how to live, but I'm concerned that the tan will discolour my new flannelette and that the cage fight will be on the night I need to put the bins out.

What they don't realise is that I am content. If I require instant gratification I empty the Hoover bag and sift for lost treasure in the fluff and, while they are sleeping off their night of living, I taste the morning satisfaction of tea in bed with the Vicar.

I have decided that shrunken horizons may be disconcerting to onlookers, but they are not to be feared, provided you own a decent pair of slippers to survey them in. Domestic life, if you peer closely enough, is full of minute thrills beside which smartphones and spray tans are mere gimmickry. And now... I'm off to open one of those freebie bottles of bubbly!

Come on, 'fess up! Where do you find middle-aged pleasures?










Saturday, 9 November 2013

Middle-Class Stress

It has been a wearing week and we are all assembled in the marital bed trying to muster energy for the morning. The Vicar announces that we need to decide on our summer holiday destination so that the prospect of relaxation can coax him through the parish toil. Tiredly I set down my tea and brace myself. The Vicar likes hot sun and piazza cafes; I like cool cloud and wilderness. The 11-year-old prioritises high-street shopping; the 9-year-old adjusts his preferences to whatever will curry favour with the Vicar and me and most provoke his sister.

Me (hoping for an easy life): 'I liked Cornwall last year.'
The Vicar: 'The sea's too cold in Cornwall and it will rain all week.'
Me (still hoping for an easy life): 'You liked the gite we had in Brittany this summer.'
The 11-year-old (rearing up from beneath the duvet): 'No, New York! Why have we always got to go to the same places?'
The Vicar: 'You've been to France twice in your life. I fancy a Greek island.'
The 11-year-old: 'No, New York! We've been to a Greek island. I need to explore new nations.'
Me: 'Some children never get any further than Yarmouth! Italy's nice and that would be a 'new nation'.'
The 11-year-old: 'All these countries are in Europe. I need to explore new continents.'
The 9-year-old: 'She means she wants to explore Forever 21.'
Me: 'I was your age when I first went on a plane.'
The 11-year-old: 'That was a different era. We live in new times and I need to go to New York.'
The 9-year-old (with fawning malice): 'Let's choose a holiday that involves lots of walking.'
The 11-year-old: 'You CANNOT expect me to walk on my holiday. What have you all got against New York?'
The Vicar: 'It gets very hot in summer and is very expensive to get to. I had a good holiday once in Turkey.'
The 11-year-old. 'TURKEY! You two are, like, so OCD.'
The 9-year-old (with fawning malice): 'Let's talk about Dad's beautiful legs!'
The Vicar: 'On second thoughts, it's too exhausting thinking about holidays. I'm going to get on with my sermon.'

Where can we go on holiday that is hot, cold and full of shops and wilderness? All suggestions gratefully received.





Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Birthday Blues

I assumed, having survived my 11-year-old's birthday party last month with the temporary mislaying of only two children, that I was an expert in the subject. I knew, for instance, that the combination of of nine guests, a flour-filled ball, white jeans and the London Transport system was a risky one and so, to celebrate my son this week, we decided on two guests and the family Skoda. But once again I had failed to think ahead and so here, for your instruction, dear readers, is the next chapter of my party survival guide for pressed parents. Before embarking on an outing to the local soft play centre - or indeed, any physical activity involving small boys - ensure that you:

Clear your diary for the rest of the week to accommodate twice daily trips to the Fracture Clinic.

Start collecting pound coins several weeks in advance to feed the ticket machines in the hospital car park. My experience suggests £20 in loose change is required in a 36 hour period.

Fill yourself up guiltlessly on the party food because it might be several nights before you eat a proper meal again.

Dispense with your contact lenses to create immunity to the posters papering the hospital waiting area warning that your tiredness/aching limbs/confused brain/nightly lager are forerunners of an early death.

Rehearse a repertoire of lavatorial jokes to distract your small companion during the four hour stints in said waiting area.

Carry at all times a small pot of jelly beans with which to disarm flustered nurses.

Make up the spare room bed before the big day so that you do not disturb your slumbering spouse when you and the birthday boy stumble in from A&E at 1am.

Forewarn your workplace that you will require flexible deadlines for at least three days following the event.

See? Easy once you know how! And now, forearmed, you can relax and enjoy the unique bliss of mothering...







Sunday, 3 November 2013

Fast Living

The family service is beginning and, scanning the pews from behind my hymnal, I realise that the Sunday School teachers have forgotten to turn up again. Hastily I pluck up a pew sheet and skim through the gospel reading. It turns out it's All Saints Day. Luckily the introit hymn is a long one and grants me the duration of five verses to decide how to instruct an infant audience on the Lord's Chosen.

Unluckily the only saint that springs to mind is the one who had her breasts cut off and flourished on a platter. I do not feel equal to improvising mammaries with the only equipment I have to hand - three biros, a packet of tissues, a pen knife and a tube of peppermints excavated from the bottom of my handbag.

The hymn ends and the Vicar dispatches the Sunday School to the church hall and I bellow insights into meekness, humility and gentleness above the din of my small charges who are chasing each other shriekingly over the furniture. Despite a golden radiance, achieved by a glitter shaker discovered in the store room and hastily confiscated by me, I do not feel that my brood has fully absorbed the essential qualities of sainthood as we troop back into church.

The Vicar is telling the congregation that they need to be energised like the haloed faithful in the stained glass windows. I, scraping at the glitter that has stuck to my tweed, feel merely weary. The rows of backs sagging in front of me look pretty weary too.

Then, when the service ends, the nine-year-old rides in on his new electric scooter. The churchwarden's  jaw drops. Abandoning her Bourbon Creme she seizes the handlebars, wrests it off him and speeds whooping down the nave at full throttle. The verger blocks her return route. He too mounts it and traces figures of eight round the sanctuary. The second church warden begs his turn and and so does the retired gentleman from the back pew.

Suddenly the placid building pulses with energy. I watch Churchwarden No 1 shooting past the choir stalls, one leg waving aloft and I realise that our church may lack saints, but we have an inspiring population of Hells Angels.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Domestic Mysteries

Last week, with the single press of a button, I managed to dye an entire laundry cycle, including half the Vicar's underclothes, bright pink. As I burrowed frantically through the under-sink cupboard for the bleach I'd just bought, and found instead five half-filled bottles of white spirit, which I have never knowingly owned, I realised that domestic life is full of mysteries that defy science.

There's the inexplicable fact, for instance, that the molluscs of Middlesex choose to commit mass suicide in my tiny kitchen drain - and the related conundrum that, despite the combined IQ of my family far eclipsing my own, only I am deemed capable of scraping out the slug stew that causes the sink to drain over the patio.

I would be grateful, therefore, if the world's great minds would leave off fiddling with the Higgs boson and find an explanation for why...

Each time you halve the contents of your laundry basket it doubles.

No matter how many bottom sheets you buy, there are never any spares in the linen cupboard.

All shiny new teaspoons are guaranteed to disappear, but the old liver-spotted ones that make the kids weep defiantly accompany you on every house move

Socks enter a hot cycle in conjugal harmony and emerge forever singletons.

There is always a can of sweetcorn in the larder in every home you've ever occupied, although you have never bought the stuff. 

There is never a replacement packet of coffee in the larder, although you stock up on it every Thursday.

The brolly bucket, despite your frequent investments, is colonised by unfamiliar umbrellas of unfathomable origin, none of which open. 

It's always the right-hand glove that vanishes on first outing, so you can never improvise a pair from your legion of lefts.

Regardless of how many smart leather bookmarks you acquire, you're always obliged to resort to a length of loo roll to mark your place at bedtime. 

No mortal being under your roof is ever responsible for the disappearance of the spare car key/new bath soap/black shoe polish/TV remote control.

What domestic mysteries bug you? Or can you produce a scientific explanation for mine?







Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Supermum


There is little that I would not do for my children.

I would scale bridges if it shielded them from harm...


I would hurl myself from an aeroplane...


Climb to the highest tree tops...


Wrestle warriors...


And battle freezing rapids...



I would even, if it came to it, endure public humiliation...




My children, alas, are less resolute and both balk at overcoming fearsome challenges for my sake. 

My son is powerless to take on the chaos in his bedroom...


My daughter flees in the face of the washing up...


 And neither has the stamina to confront a vegetable...


But today... weeks of sleepnessness have shrunk my temper. The cats flee before me and the Vicar, wounded by unaccustomed sharpness, seeks refuge in his study. I berate the children for their failings and shut myself in the sitting room for a sulk. As the door inches open I ready myself for battle. And in come two wary figures. One drapes me in a blanket. The other proffers a teddy. They have advanced where grown men have feared to tread. I guess I can call it quits!

Apologies to everyone who kindly left comments. I managed to delete the original blogpost and can't recover your much appreciated wisdom.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Dressing Down

'You cannot do this to me!' shrieks the 11-year-old. I reverse out from under the bed and find her brandishing a hairy brown banner. On closer inspection, it turns out to be my favourite Sunday skirt. My daughter sees the sentiment in my face and blanches. 'Mum,' she says in more patient tones. 'I'm doing this for you. I'm putting it in this pile here.'

I am performing the solemn annual ritual of retrieving my winter wear from under the guest bed and stowing my summer clothes in its place. Ordinarily this is a task I enjoy. Summertime I find stressful with its pressure to haul a bronzed and hairless body round beaches and barbecue parties. I have to start my annual hunt for the iron when my summer cottons emerge from hibernation. In winter I can vanish comfortably into wool which, even after a season in a zipper bag, hangs in biddable clumps without need of intervention.

This year, however, my daughter has appointed herself supervisor of the proceedings. Two piles rise on either side of her. The smaller comprises my collection of skinny jeans, some bobbled tops from Oxfam, redeemed by their French Connection label, and a slippery white Moment on Madness from New Look. It is dwarfed by the neighbouring mound of tweeds and polyknits, destined to boost the retail revenues of the local cat charity.

I look on stricken as the 11-year-old examines a length of lumpy orange wool. She sees a sad relic of Dorothy Perkins' history; she doesn't know that it's the surviving half of a twin set bought on a reckless spree the day I was made redundant so that I could walk tall in the dole queue. The stripy polyester trousers, unwearable now I see them through her eyes, were one half of a matching pair bought by my mother and me on our final family holiday in Llandudno. The corduroy skirt with the loud flowers was chosen from my first Boden catalogue while administering a dawn feed to my newborn.

My wardrobe, like my photo albums, is an eloquent record of my history. I rarely buy new garments unless I foresee a long-term relationship. So intense is the bonding process on the shop floor that I can recall the origins and circumstances of almost everything I own. When moths eviscerated half my jumpers it was a bereavement. The Laura Ashley jacket, a brave gesture from the Vicar in our courting days, and that hairy brown skirt, presented by my brother to ease my transition into Vicar's wifedom, may be modified with scarves and knee boots to disguise their antiquity, but they will always be part of the family.

I consider explaining all this to the 11-year-old who is now screaming over some elderly corduroy which I like to think still bears the hairs of my first cat. But I realise this is a truth she will learn for herself when her past starts to outweigh her future. Instead I bait her with Strictly Come Dancing on the sofa and, while she sits entranced by the silks and sequins, I creep back to the dominant pile in the guest room. She is right about the polyester trousers and the loud-flowered corduroy, but, furtively I reclaim the hairy brown tweed and the length of orange wool. Twenty years may have passed since that dole queue, but old friends can still help you walk tall.

Does your wardrobe contain old friends or are you a ruthless purger?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Family Time

It is Sunday lunch in the vicarage. Because it is the one meal in the week that the whole family eats together, the table is laid in the dining room with place mats and matching crockery and a lighted candle beside the ketchup bottle. The Vicar says grace, we take our seats and conversation begins.

The 11-year-old, 'What planet are you from, Mum! Potatoes aren't vegetables, they're carbs!'
Me: 'Trust me, they're vegetables.'
The 11-year-old: 'How can you say that something that just pops out of the ground is a vegetable! It's a carb.'
The Vicar (diplomatically): 'They don't just pop out of the ground. Mum worked very hard digging them up.'
The 8-year-old: 'Who do you think's the prettiest girl in this room?'
The Vicar (diplomatically): 'Both of them!'
The 11-year-old: 'What? You're saying mum's pretty! She's middle-aged!'
The 8-year-old (singing): 'Mama do the hump, do the hump hump...'
The 11-year-old: 'He's singing about humping, Mum. Why don't you tell him off?'
Me: 'Please don't sing about humping at the table.'
The 8-year-old: 'OK, I'll sing it in my bedroom.
Me: 'No, I mean just don't sing about humping. At all.'
The Vicar (diplomatically): 'Who can remember what the fruits of the spirit are from the service?'
The 8-year-old (glaring at his sister): 'What I remember from the service is that she ate loads of the cake afterwards and I didn't get any.'
The 11-year-old: 'Don't listen to him. He's a liar.'
The 8-year-old: 'Don't listen to her. She's evil.'
The 11-year-old: 'Hold on everyone, I'm going to burp!'
Me: 'If you dare...'
The Vicar (diplomatically): 'Did you say there were Cornettos in the freezer?'


What are your family meals like? Can you suggest improving topics for discussion next Sunday lunch time?



Monday, 30 September 2013

How to Build a Character

Scout Camp, we're told, is character building. And I can certainly vouch for this as my 11-year old's two nights roughing it have imported numerous new virtues into our vicarage:

Self-sacrifice: I missed my firstborn after depositing her in the Friday darkness with her sleeping bag and hold-all of Hollister tops. Her empty bed pained me in the mornings and I had, forlornly, to sing solo along to Adele songs on Youtube without her at my side.

Humility: as, hastily, I subdued my uncool glee at the reunion upon clocking my daughter's warning scowl.

Patience: as I listened with beaming attentiveness to a half-hour, high-speed account of who fancied whom on campus while, armed with a Post-it note of scrawled directions, I wrestled the A10 into submission.

Courage: as I squared up to the damp, muddy menace that was her dirty laundry bag.

Forbearance: as, all evening, I withstood the howls and recriminations of an adventurer who had achieved one hour's sleep the previous night.

Devotion: as, come the release of bedtime, she begged to me climb under the duvet with her for a half hour cuddle and my sassy tweenager became a little girl who had missed her mummy.

How have your childrens' absences improved you?




Thursday, 26 September 2013

Airhead

I am regarded as an airhead. The scantiest mishap is used as corroboration against me. There was that time, for instance when I found I'd carefully soaped a block of butter in the washing up bowl (this was not my fault: the Vicar had slipped it into the butter dish while it waited in the queue of dirty dinner plates). The time when I decanted a hot tray of oven chips into the laundry basket (perfectly excusable; oven and washing machine sit side by side); the time I sent my son to school with an unfilled sandwich, poured orange juice into the cafetiere and the occasion last night when I poached two eggs in a waterless pan. 'Couldn't you smell the burning?' asked the Vicar incredulous.

It's true that if I had properly marshalled my faculties I would not have left the car keys in the door all weekend or opened smalltalk with the Bishop with an account of a neighbour's breast implants. And it affects me as much as my family when I visit Budgens to buy bread and forget to buy bread.

What my detractors don't realise is that these confusions are the result of a furious intellect. Like all mothers I have the mental scope of an oligarth. While assembling the school lunch boxes I am simultaneously clocking the number of baked beans left in the tin in the fridge, assessing the rain clouds bulging over the sheets on the washing line, mentally scanning my wardrobe to effect the transformation of the 8-year-old into a Tudor peasant for school history day and conjuring opinions for the Vicar on the 'theology of place'.

When, on frigid mornings, the school rings to complain that my children have arrived without coats I point out that my brain has spent the dawn hours tussling the opaque login of Parentpay, diagnosing the brown growth blooming on the kitchen vinyl, outsmarting the patient-proof telephone menu introduced by our local surgery and improvising an emergency definition of an isosceles triangle.

A mind sagging beneath a burden of digits - the children's current shoe size,  three month's worth of impending birthdays, the eleven-year-old's next hospital date, the Vicar's blood pressure readings and the latest price-per-litre at the three local petrol stations - cannot be expected to focus reliably on domestic trivia. I am explaining this to the 11-year-old who has found her sock drawer full of mens' Y-fronts. 'You wouldn't even remember to put your shoes on to walk to school if I didn't remind you,' I tell her, and I have a brief, awed vision of how the household would disintegrate without me to mastermind it.

Then a familiar stench silences me. I've confused the oven knob with the grill and the smoke alarm joins in the wails of anguish at the charred lumps that were to be our supper.

Are there any other airheads out there? If so, congregate companiably here and tell me your finest moments.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

How Survive a Children's Party - the Expert's Guide

I've always assumed that children would be content to celebrate themselves with the sort of pleasures I favour for my own parties - a shimmy on the trampoline, pass-the-parcel and a sagging sponge improvised in the vicarage oven. And, until last year, the formula seemed foolproof. Now, though, a pack of crayons swaddled in back copies of The Guardian and my unpredictable baking are deemed a social handicap. The kids and their classmates require the hire of doughnut cafes, paint ball pitches and ice rinks to mark the passing years. This has its advantages; no more scraping vomit from the skirting boards and no more multi-packs of cheese strings colonising my lager shelf. It's easy, however, to assume that your large cheque absolves you from the risks of other people's children en masse. Don't be fooled. Each time your child gains a year you are likely to age by three more, whether or not you farm the festivities out to professionals. But there are precautions you can take to minimise the impact on flesh and sanity and, here, following recent, raw experience, I've listed some of the most essential:


  • Don't don white trousers for the occasion then spend the morning performing essential autumn tasks in the compost heap. And recruit someone wearing darker clothing to operate the defective plunger on the cafetiere.

  • Don't leave nine children alone in bedroom with a flour-filled ball of half perished rubber.

  • Don't wait until you are half way to the station with said flour-coated children before discovering that you've left your 8-year-old locked in the empty house.

  • Dispatch your husband to the pub on arrival to prevent marital wear and tear. 

  • Don't fling yourself onto the ice rink if you are a middle-aged matron who has forgotten the braking procedure. 

  • Assume the air of a blameless passer-by when five of the girls in your charge lock themselves in the Gents.

  • Try to avoid locking yourself in the Gents when a towering ten-year-old hangs off your neck and propositions you. 

  • Endeavour to be an invisible presence when your charges press the emergency button on the station platform. 

  • When losing someone else's child on the train home ensure that it's a service that contains empathetic ticket inspectors (thank you again Ugo and Immi!)

  • Make sure that there's a bucket of lager and an aspirin supply waiting at home. 

  • Persuade your child to accept an Amazon voucher in lieu of a party next year (but secretly book your own skating celebration because the children are the only impediment to birthday parties). 






Sunday, 15 September 2013

Monster Mother

'You deserve a sock in your eye because you're so HORRIBLE!' screams the 10-year old, dislodging my contact lens with well-aimed footwear.

I have never had any delusions about my character. 'Mediocre' wrote my history teacher. 'Lunatic' says my brother. But it takes offspring to divulge the full extent of ones defects.

I never realised the depths of my egotism until my daughter pointed out the damage wholemeal bread and the mile-long walk to school is doing to her sense of Being. 'You are totally selfish!' she says.
I never understood my callousness until my son blamed me for the pooches with killer eyes that cross his path on Sunday strolls. 'You are evil!' he shrieks.
And my horribleness had not hit home until Sunday lunch when I deferred permission for the 10-year-old to browse body art on my laptop while we finished our sausages.

I extract sock fibres from my left eyeball and reflect on motherhood. Storybooks tell of serene, selfless, irresistible women whose children kneel lovingly at their side to recite their bedtime prayers. My manual on raising girls invites readers to imagine their daughters as adults radiant with graces instilled by their mother's fine example. The reality is that motherhood has turned me into a monster.

I am a despot because I extinguish my twosome with 8.30pm bedtimes and hold vindictive views on iPhones and body piercings.
I am a thief because I spirit cherished T-shirts to the washing machine and a torturer because I enforce peas.
Most unforgivable of all I am an embarrassment because I wear floor-length waterproofing in rain storms and have never patronised Dominos Pizza.

This revelation of my true nature is dismaying, but I hadn't reckoned on the forgiving nature of children. There is a scream as the 10-year-old spills UHU on her new leggings and I rise instantly to the occasion. Without thought for my own sanity I brave the stormy weeping and seize the injured garment. And with endurance that awes me I assault the stain with improvised nail polish remover.

The 10-year-old, studying her almost-restored treasure, embraces this hint of my redemption:
'The best thing about mums,' she muses, 'is that they can always make things better.'

Has motherhood ruined your character?






Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Being Indispensible

Vocabulary in our vicarage is limited. If a bishop strays by, we may muster dialogue on theological ethics and we are capable of whole sentences on Haagen Dazs ice cream flavours. But mostly the family gets by on a catch-all three-letter word: mum.

It serves as an expletive: 'M@!*M!! (You made me drop my iPod!)
As an SOS: 'Muuumm! (There's a ghost under my mattress...)
As an imperative: 'MUMMM!' (Come and get Barbie's hair out of the plug hole)
As a warning: 'Mu-um!' (Don't dare wear that corduroy to school)
As a prevarication: 'Ask Mum...' (...why you should iron your nightie for your wedding night)

It is a privilege to be indispensible. But privileges can be wearing. The word is a prefix to almost every communication. And it is a prefix I am obliged laboriously to acknowledge before these communications can proceed, even if I am alone in the room with the speaker.

'Mum?'
'Yes?'
'I've changed my sneeze. Do you like it?'

'Mum?'
'Yes?'
'Are you a mum?'

Lately, I've made attempts to ban this most irritating of words. 'Just say what you want to say!' I bark as it cuts across my efforts to conquer the oven timer. In retaliation the children have upped the ante.

'Mum?'
'Yes?'
'Nothing!!'

'I say, Mum...'
'What?'
'Nothing!!'

When they are dispatched on a five-day holiday camp, that wretched sound is silenced. I indulge in leisurely pursuit of my deadlines, my assistance unsought and my approval uncalled for. I am briefly expendable and the novelty is beguiling.

Then: 'Mum!!' shrill two voices across the school hall as I arrive at the end to collect them. I realise that the three-letter word has a meaning that I'd missed and the sound of it suddenly enchants me. Those childless days were revitalising, but I've missed being indispensible.

On the drive home I resolve to be unstintingly maternal and to deserve that cherished sobriquet. Then the 10-year-old fears she has forgotten her stuffed elephant. I glance in the rear view mirror and brace myself for the onslaught. When it comes, it conveys rage, grief and recrimination in a single slaying syllable:

'MUM!'









Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Put on the Spot

'What does it mean to have a w**k?' asks the ten-year-old carryingly as we enter a peaceful country tea room.
'It means to have a walk,' says my brother quickly. Our mother, reared in wartime Bristol when provincial slang was out of synch with modern pleasures, routinely suggests a nice little w**k after lunch.
'We can't let her think that,' I hiss, fearing the implications of our lengthy morning walks to school.

We both turn to the Vicar who is masticating placidly on a scone.
'It means,' he says, 'to, um, touch yourself...'
'We can't let her think that either,' I say, mindful of the ten-year-old's obsessive fiddling with her hair.

Luckily I recall a piece of intelligence passed on by a parishioner during casual conversation in the vicarage garden.
'We all,' I repeat doubtfully, 'have a 'happy spot'...'
'In our house it's the sofa,' says my brother.

The ten-year-old is looking bewildered. Worse, her young brother has left off his perusal of the cake stands and appears pruriently agog. I flounder. Occupants of the surrounding tables are sipping their tea in disconcerting silence and I'm sure the flagstoned floor is causing us to echo. Yet I am conscious of my resolve to answer all biological enquiries with factual frankness.

The ten-year-old is poised to probe further and just in time I remember the killer response that I always deploy in sticky situations: 'Wait till we get home,' I tell her, 'then Dad will explain it!'

How would you have enlightened your young daughter and an audience of elderly strangers?


Saturday, 27 July 2013

How to Pack

It baffles me the panic people get into when faced with holiday packing. There is indeed a science to it, but it's a science that's easily mastered and I, who have been studying it for a quarter of a century, can now clothe four for a fortnight in less than an hour. Things that seem obvious to me, however, have clearly been missed by most of my acquaintance, so here, for the benefit of all, is my cut-out-and-keep guide to holiday preparations.

1: Locate the cat bed that, three times a year, doubles up as a suitcase. It's advisable to give it a vacuum for moustachioed thermals can cause discomfort.



2: Extract from the dirty linen basket all the must-have wardrobe items that you forgot to wash before departure. This operation should be undertaken discreetly. 




3: Fling said items plus all other necessities in a pile. For best results this pile can be begun the night before to give you more time to appraise it.



4: Remove from the pile approximately a third of your daughter's choices and double the quantity of underpants contributed by your son. Don't worry if you haven't got round to shopping for your beach body. So long as your brolly coordinates with your tankini you can still cut a dash on Britain's sands. 



5: Find a temporary hidden home for the sculptures that tower on your kitchen draining rack so that the cat sitter won't judge you.



6: At this point you may feel panic rising. Positioning two cubic metres of luggage into 1.6 cubic metres of Skoda involves advanced mathematics and unusual cunning, but remind yourself that children, like Ikea shelving, are adaptable.



7: So, now you're all ready to set off. Oh, but hang on, I always forget this bit! Think back to what's in that suitcase. If you've packed more than two pairs of shorts and fewer than two pairs of cable-knit tights, you'll need to leave the family in the car and dash back to the house for one last imperative:



Happy holidays!


Sunday, 21 July 2013

Time Out

'Bet you're looking forward to the summer break!' says the lady in The Co-op. I smile with improvised serenity and sag under the weight of the lager I'm stockpiling.

This last weekend of term has given me a foretaste of the six weeks ahead. Idyllically we grouped in the garden, my children and I. The sun was shining, the barbecue smoking and the hammock swaying under the apple trees. And my ten-year-old:

threw stones at her brother and broke his front tooth.
cracked the back of his head with a carefully-aimed swingball swipe.
jabbed a streak of mascara into her left eyeball.
warbled of lust and bondage outside the vestry wall.

The eight-year-old:

flattened his sister's limited-edition Lucozade bottle
tipped her skull-first out of the hammock.
piled a stash of illicit sweet wrappers under my geraniums.
made resonant remarks about female biology as parishioners passed the garden gate en route to the Sunday service.

I, meanwhile, have spent my weekend mini-break supervising three medical emergencies, diffusing seven fights, flailing through nine swingball matches and processing four baskets of laundry, eight bowls of washing up and two blocked drains. Plus I might, in carrying tones, have informed my daughter that I could murder her as our new neighbours picnicked on the far side of the vicarage fence.

And the Vicar? He has spent the two days in his swivel chair with the study door shut. 'It's so hard on him,' says one of the faithful at the family Eucharist, 'having to work weekends!'

What are your chances of surviving the summer holidays?





Thursday, 4 July 2013

Facing the Music

My daughter has always held tyrannical opinions on in-car entertainment. In the early days she would clamour for her Sing-along Nursery Rhymes cassette when Desert Island Discs was about to begin. She has vetoed my Dolly Parton collection in case pedestrians should hear when the windows are down and today, as Aled Jones wafts us along the M25 with my favourite funeral hymns, she insists that he is extinguished so she can make her own music.

'Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me!' she bellows from the back seat. My shrill of horror intrigues her. 'What's so bad?' she asks, genuinely baffled. Intuition tells me that this is one for the Vicar, lying prone in the passenger seat beside me. 'Say something!' I hiss, but the Vicar is evidently formulating his next sermon for he doesn't seem to hear.

I am just improvising an answer involving circus ring masters and fairground rides when I glance in the rear view mirror and notice the eight-year-old making disconcerting gestures. 'Come on, come on, I like it, like it!' he sings. My shrill of horror intrigues him. 'What's so bad?' he asks, but I'm not convinced that his bafflement is genuine.

I announce that from now on that song is banned. 'You can't ban it,' says my daughter, shocked. 'It's Rihanna.' I glance helplessly at the Vicar, but he has now evidently sunk into a state of profound prayerfulness and he doesn't seem to heed.

My daughter resumes her rendition. I can see her watching the back of my head, hoping her defiance will prompt thrilling revelations about this mysterious taboo. I remember my resolution to answer all sensitive questions frankly and wisely when they arise. But I'm dodging Eddie Stobarts on a packed motorway, it's late, I'm tired, my youngest is within earshot and I really really don't feel up to discussing bondage.

Instead I reach for Aled and turn the volume up. 'Just promise me,' I conclude, 'that you won't do any singing in the vicarage when the churchwardens are there.'

What do you do if your children learn inappropriate songs in the school playground or on their iPods? Does trying to ban them - or trying to explain them - increase their appeal? How do I wean a cool ten-year-old off Rihanna and onto Doris Day?





Monday, 1 July 2013

Finding Fulfilment

I have long held the suspicion that I am not fully woman. My make-up basket consists of two lipsticks, a jar of Vaseline and a pair of illuminating tweezers, lately donated by a concerned friend. I would far sooner browse manure blends at our local aggregates depot than try on diamonds at Asprey. My secret giddy pleasure is removing the lavatory cistern and watching the ballcock rise and fall and any fashion catalogues that make it to the vicarage are employed to wedge the truncated marital mattress in place along with two four-packs of Heinz Beans.

A survey has now confirmed my fear. The sisterhood, it reveals, spends £13,000 in a lifetime on beauty products in order to feel better about itself. Plucked eyebrows, a manicure, perfectly styled hair and new underwear are among the twenty favourite methods to promote self love, according to the Ready to Glow campaign. And hairless legs are essential.

With dismay I realise that my life lacks all of these. It's been eighteen months since I visited a hairdresser. Those reproachful tweezers are a daily reminder of my spring growth and the haul of thermals, purchased from a London market during my first week of work twenty years ago, still sustains me through Sunday Mass in winter.

For a moment I am discouraged. Then it dawns on me. It's not me that is deficient; it's that list. No wonder stress and depression are on the rise when women have got their priorities so wrong. And so I'm going to share with you here five top feel-good factors guaranteed to bestow a sense of feminine fulfilment. And the great thing is you no longer need to shave your legs!

Limescale warfare: that moment when, after months of ineffectual scrubbing with your husband's tooth brush and a flood of own-brand chemicals, you vanquish the black crusts round the bathroom taps. The secret? A tub of citric acid unearthed from my handbag when I was searching for a mint in the Sunday service. 

Verbal warfare: that moment when a perfectly-honed, perfectly-aimed riposte silences your unreasonable tweenager/partner/parking warden. 

Bake-off: not only do you find you possess all the necessary ingredients to make an impulsive cake; not only do you remember to turn the oven on; not only do you remember not to turn the oven off ten minutes into the baking process because you've forgotten you had anything in there; not only do you fail to burn or sink or desiccate said cake in the excitement of Gardener's Question Time, but the end result is deemed respectable enough to be fed to an archdeacon. 

Technical victory: you finally succeed, without help from the husband, in finding the off button for the new radio/prising off the cap of the petrol tank/dislodging the crammed Hoover bag/ unfurling that recalcitrant bargain brolly from Primark.

Affirmation: Your usually uncomplimentary children lisp: 'I love you' and, given the £10 Amazon voucher you've just handed them, you know they really mean it. 

Now, come share the wisdom: what things make you feel good about yourself?

















Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Fragility

I am driving my 10 year-old to her weekly gymnastics class. We are not in harmony. She is berating me for refusing to allow her an iPhone. I am berating her for spurning the supper I'd painstakingly incinerated for her. As we draw up at the leisure centre I have decided, not for the first time, that I am not cut out for motherhood.

She stumps off to the gymnastics hall; I join a slumped row of mothers on the floor of the viewing gallery. I am nursing wounded feelings and read a novel instead of watching my firstborn with the raptness she expects of me. Later I look up. She and her class partner are performing backwards rolls. Her partner rotates clumsily and doesn't get up again. Teachers bend over her, cajoling her to stand, but she lies there, head bent to the floor, legs twisted under her, and she doesn't respond. I think she's malingering and watch with amused exasperation as she ignores all overtures. A group of lifeguards are summoned from the pool. They too try to coax her into movement and it occurs to me that noone could sustain that position without crippling cramp. I start to study the scene more anxiously as people mill with clipboards and a blanket is fetched.

The paramedics are arriving as we leave. The crumpled figure on the floor hasn't stirred. Her mother kneels beside her, stricken. The lifeguards are in a solemn huddle talking of neck injury.

My 10-year-old is incredulous. 'She is so lively,' she says. 'She was only joking with me just before she screamed.' I too am trying to understand the swift swipes of Fate. It could have been my daughter lying there unconscious and me weeping terrified at her side. It could have been our familiar weekly ritual ending with a siren's wail.

I tuck my daughter up with more than usual gentleness this evening. I don't mention the foul chaos that is her bedroom. I ignore the nail varnish stains on the bath tub and smile through a final sally about iPhones. I am not as skilled a mother as I'd meant to be and my daughter isn't the smock-clad paragon I'd planned, but I must remember not to waste time on regrets. Blessings can be ripped away in a second before we have even realised that we possess them and, for all her impertinence, I'm going to be grateful for my little girl. But no way is she having an iPhone!





Monday, 24 June 2013

Virago

I do most of my mothering on a wing and a prayer. Only come evening do I forage the fridge in hopes of stray proteins for supper. Homework is a high-speed frenzy over breakfast bowls and my tartan sofa rug has had to stand in for most fancy-dress costumes required by school.

I have, however, always been braced for puberty. Patience and humour were to be my guides. I would extract the Usborne book with the frightening diagrams that I'd hidden behind my archive of Gardener's World and talk my daughter through feminine biology. I would shop companionably with her for her first bra and I would defuse adolescent tantrums with a kiss.

Now, though, our once quiet vicarage is bedevilled by puberty and I have lost control. The Vicar watches papal masses at top volume on Youtube to drown out the shouting beyond his study door. Fights are needlessly picked, recriminations slung up and down the stairs and the sulks can cloud an entire afternoon. Yes, my behaviour has deteriorated dismayingly since my ten-year-old entered adolescence!

I can turn a single insubordination into a bloodbath and brood mutinously over a pubescent slight. I expel my daughter ruthlessly from my room when she grates on me and emit dark threats when she won't bend to my will.

'I think Mum's tired!' whisper the children, scurrying to safety as I shriek at their disordered bedrooms. My daughter looks at me pityingly. 'We need to be patient,' she tells her brother. 'This happens to mums when they get old.'


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Father's Day

It is the family service. For once the eight-year-old goes unprotestingly to Sunday School so I can sit in my pew with dignity unimpeded by a small boy building himself a bust out of rolled-up service sheets or rehearsing Gangnam-style manoeuvres in the nave.

The Vicar, majestic in vestments, preaches of love, faith and hopefulness and I watch the faces of the faithful raptly absorbing his wisdom. I wonder, not for the first time, how it must feel to be a revered father-figure to such a throng and, furtively, I suppress a length of loo roll trailing from my sleeve so as to look worthy of him.

The Sunday School troops back into church. The children are clutching glittered cards for Father's Day. The Vicar, all dignified benevolence, invites them to read out their tributes and, to my surprise, the eight-year-old, ordinarily silenced by an audience, is first up to the microphone. I beam proudly as he regards his daddy and musters his courage. 'My Dad,' he begins, 'is very lazy and greedy. He has about five naps a day and he snores like a lion's roar. He is scared of his own sneezes which are like a hurricane and when you tickle him he screams like a monster.'

There is a short silence. The old ladies in the opposite pews are studying the Vicar with what I fear are new eyes. Briefly their vestmented Father is exposed as a mere daddy. Then he smiles beatifically and commences the blessing and I duck hastily into an attitude of extreme prayerfulness as our son slides onto the pew alongside me. 'You're always telling me to be speak up in church,' he whispers, 'so are you proud of me?'

Monday, 10 June 2013

To Catch a Thief

My name is Anna and I am a kleptomaniac.

'Where,' shouts the Vicar, 'have you put my swimming trunks?'
'Where,' shouts the 8yo, 'have you hidden my school tie?'
'You're dead meat, ' bawls my daughter, 'if you've lost that over-the-knee sock with the bow on.'

Guiltily I survey the empty banister where the clerical trunks usually hang and wonder if I have, through some unconscious compulsion, spirited them off to my potting shed. I survey the scrunched uniform shed by my son at last night's bath time and try to recall if I hijacked the tie. And I climb inside the family duvet covers in search of said sock because I remember putting it in the washing machine and I don't remember taking it out again.

Marriage and motherhood have exposed my criminal underside. And the volume of items that go  missing is shaming. Most of the Vicar's socks are without partners, the remote control for the DVD has not been seen since an evening of back episodes of Rev, my son's homework book vanished in transit from sofa to school bag and the children had to sprint the mile to school when the car key went missing.

'Go and look in your handbag,' says the Vicar when a new loss is discovered. My handbag is suspected to be the repository for most of the swag and admittedly it has yielded some surprising items. A jar of puttanesca sauce was lately discovered inside; the eight-year-old's only intact pair of school socks and a large, much mourned plastic spider.

In time, the swimming trunks are discovered in the Vicar's sports bag. The sock turns up in the garden pond and the school tie has evidently joined four other school ties in a parallel reality.

Briefly I am exonerated. 'I wasn't blaming you!' says the Vicar, unearthing the lost car key from his cassock pocket. I resume my search for the iron, previously used last summer. Strangely only I have noticed its disappearance. I run it to earth in the shoe polish crate just as a cry echoes downstairs:

'Mum, where have you hidden my hairbrush?'

What goes missing in your family and are you the one who is blamed?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Scapegoat

Our family has gained a garrulous new member. She spends her days in my 10-year-old's room and is unprepossessing in looks and character. From the bed she holds forth on her world view which is as jaundiced as her complexion, for Tweety is a creature of vigorous and vociferous prejudices.



She deplores my M&S wardrobe (she demands Hollister) and shouts over Radio 4 (she wants Heart FM). Tweety is contemptuous of Sunday Mass (she desires shopping malls), appalled by green vegetables (her diet is restricted to pastrami sticks) and is militant about washing up and pocket money (she requires £20 a week with extra for the Superdrug make-up counter).

'It's not me, it's Tweety!' protests my 10-year-old when shrieks of derision greet the family Skoda.

Life has become clamourous since Tweety was won at an Easter tombola, and yet, united in disapproval, my daughter and I live in vastly improved harmony. And so I too have decided to acquire a friend who will fearlessly pronounce prejudices.



Grumpy is loud in his loathing of Claire's Accessories. He drowns out Jesse J with Tosca's dying screeches, derides the Juicy Couture tote bags that tempt the 10-year-old on eBay and mocks pubescent tantrums.

'It's not me, it's Grumpy!' I protest when snorts of contempt greet her sketchy attempts at homework.

My plan is to launch Grumpy into the wider world. He'll tackle the man who hangs knotted bags of dog doings off trees in the park. He'll scoff at the shrivelled growths that pass as mushrooms in Co-op and he'll harangue the Audi that filched my parking space.

And, come evening, Grumpy and Tweety can be shut into my daughter's bedroom and they can slug out their differences among her pink pillows, while she and I, deploring their intolerance, eat toast in peaceable companionship on the sofa.

To all of you who voted me into the finals of the Brilliance in Blogging Writer category, I'm truly grateful.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Legacy

Today the Vicar conducted his mother's funeral. As a priest he followed her coffin reciting the promise of resurrection. As a son he spoke of how she would wipe his face with a spit-moistened hankie and accommodate his aversion to greens. And as priest and son he stood with his hand on the coffin and committed his mother to the hereafter.

I gazed at the wooden box that contained the woman who had borne and raised and nurtured and enervated him and I tried to fathom four decades of maternity nailed inside. Then I thought of myself similarly extinguished one day in a casket of pine. And now, suddenly, the mopping of spattered ketchup, the quelling of childish brawls, the tedium of times-tables and the hours on school sports fields seem sacred rituals.

Motherhood is a privilege I too often take for granted. And, equally often, I fear I don't measure up. But, as the Vicar recalls his boyhood, I realise that it does not require glamorous heroics or conspicuous sacrifices. It's the unremarkable routines and the sum of daily gestures that build the legacy. And so, remembering the son bowed over his mother's remains, I vow to shed useless worries about the future and to celebrate the monotony of domestic life. Instead of fretting over school grades and processed foods, I mean to deserve my children by reliably, if imperfectly, Being There, whether in flesh or, when my own time comes, in memory.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Loss

The prompt for this week's 100-word challenge at Julia's Place is Parting is such sweet sorrow. Yesterday we heard that my mother-in-law had suffered a brain haemorrhage. She is in a coma and will not live. 

Parting is such sweet sorrow. So they say. But where, I wonder, is the sweetness? Where, in the body on the bed, is the person that once vitalised it? Where is the lifetime of memories? What happens to the  hopes and the hates and the secrets when a mind closes down?
Back at home on his piano, the Vicar is painstakingly mastering the tune that evokes a boyhood outing with his mother and, as the chords float upstairs, I realise that there is indeed a bitter sweetness to parting, for loss, with painful potency, defines the forgotten power of love.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Real Men

Spiders, it seems, are the secret to machismo. Women, asked by pollsters what vital ingredient marks out a real man, were in broad agreement: real men are unfazed by wildlife in the bathtub. They also support their local football team, drive their own car and earn more than their wives. So finds the stain removal firm, Dr Beckmann which commissioned the survey on household heroes. Quite why a stain removal firm wishes to plumb machismo is a mystery to me, but I could have saved them the trouble, for there is nothing I don't know about manliness. Why, I even possess many of the essential attributes myself.

A real man, ladies, is someone who:

fearlessly, when a menacing midnight sound wakes the household, plunges through the darkness and, without thought for his own wellbeing, swabs the pool of childish vomit on the landing. 

grabs a knife in an emergency and, with a skilfully improvised stew, succours his defeated wife and little ones.

with muscled vigour that brooks no dissent, grabs at his woman and thrusts a Champneys voucher into her nappy bag.

hurtles resolutely through the witching hours to save his mother-in-law from a station taxi fare.

armed only with a biro and his own quick wit, stands shoulder to shoulder with his youngest in face of the eight times table. 

What would you say makes a real man?


Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Mod Cons

I'm not a great believer in labour-saving devices. I evicted my husband's microwave when I moved into the vicarage. I rely on the remaining intact pages of my road map rather than entrust myself to a satnav. I've never owned a tumble-dryer and I would be clueless about loading a dishwasher. There are, in my view, few domestic challenges that can't be overcome by a dustpan and brush and a pair of Marigolds.

I am, however, thrilled with my dual-function washing machine: whenever it drains a cycle, it washes the kitchen floor. Muddy paw prints and cemented cornflakes no longer crust my vinyl. Desiccated peas have been washed out from under the fridge and the mysterious scabs round the cooker feet have been dissolved by Fairy non-biological.

Admittedly there are drawbacks. Lately the machine's thoroughness has turned the kitchen into a boating lake. Yesterday's copy of The Guardian is no longer adequate defence. I've had to restrict my laundering to Mondays when the Vicar has finished with his Church Times and the Sunday supplements are to hand.

But the plus points far outweigh the inconveniences. No longer does the spin dry carve creases into the family cottons. And garments outgrown by the children stretch to fit as they sag soaked on the airer.

A replacement appliance arrives next week. The Vicar, weary of wellies at breakfast, insisted. But I am grieved. I'm still wary of mod cons, but I've had a fortnight freed from unloved chores and it was a heady feeling. Now I've got to remind myself where I keep my floor mop.

What's your favourite mod con?

Many thanks to all of you who helped me onto the shortlist for the Brilliance in Blogging Awards. If you'd like to vote your favourite bloggers into the finals, do what it says here

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Artistic Sensibility

We are in a small gallery devoted to an artist I have never heard of. Gazing from the walls are rows of voluptuously lipped pre-Raphaelite women united by a common problem: keeping their robes decorously in place. I am resigned to the will of our host and embark on a dutiful examination of the brushstrokes. The children are less resigned and demand to know when we are leaving.

Then, while I am studying a damsel whose curves are inadequate mooring for her gown, I realise I can no longer hear my brood. Hastily I glance round. They are moving slowly from picture to picture gazing raptly at each. They even seem to be making notes. 'They're doing well,' beams an elderly room warden. 'So nice to see children enjoying art.'

I beam back, torn between pride and perplexity. I start to hope that our occasional dashes to the National Gallery to use the loos on London shopping trips have instilled in my twosome a sense of artistic integrity. I decide to replace our desiccated poster paints and to find fun facts on Van Gogh on Wikipedia.

As the children approach, revitalised by culture, another elderly attendant approaches. She too has been watching them benignly. 'So what did you get out of your visit?' she asks. 'Bosoms!' shouts the eight-year-old rapturously. 'We've been counting all the bare bosoms and I won 'cos I got 52!'

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Art of Joy

Katetakes5 is celebrating the fact that her son rates David Bowie above One Direction. Heady with pride she wants the rest of us to teach our children that some pleasures are superior to adolescent hollering. I've never knowingly heard a song by One Direction. Come to think of it, I can't call to mind anything by David Bowie either. Anyone with pretence to taste and intellect knows that Doris Day outstrips all of them. It's therefore no trouble at all for me to teach my children five things that are better than a boy band:

Stream wading. This was my birthday treat last year and this. There is an entrancing pleasure to clambering into a stream as far down as possible and paddling up it as far up as possible, defying the hidden gullies and submerged traffic cones and dangling en passant from tumbled trees. The patterns of water whirling round wellies, secret flowers on steep banks and the occasional fleeing rodent give the sense, unequalled on dry land, of being embedded in the landscape.



Pick-axeing. A joy much extolled by me and mystifyingly unappreciated by everyone else. March your rage and frustration into the garden, preferably your own. Grasp the handle of your pick-axe, preferably a wooden one. Hurl the spike viciously into the sod. There is an intoxication in feeling it yield and smash which will instantly cure you. And, if you keep at it hard enough you get a pond out of it. I have three.



Clean sheets. A pleasure intensified by novelty. The vicarage bedlinen is not changed as often as it ought to be, but every five...er, every couple of weeks or so I treat myself to the smug joy of laundered flannelette and even my bunions celebrate the difference.

The vicarage linen cupboard. Ironing is not something I rate above One Direction.

Leaves. Councils pay a fortune to eliminate them. Me, I can't get enough of them dead or alive.



Bedtime. When the voices of your pre-teens itemising your maternal failings are stilled and, softened by sleep, they are your babies again.


What things do you think are better than One Direction?

Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Search of Self

'You know I have an attitude problem,' says the 10-year-old. There's a hint of pride in her voice.
'Yes,' I reply warily.
'Well everyone in Year 5 and 6 has one too. It's something you get when you're ten.'

Impertinence, I realise, is the latest playground must-have, along with a Juicy Couture school bag, Ralph Lauren underpants and an iPod Touch. Anyone with dreams of status has rehearsed the curled lip and the cocked hip with which to repulse all adult utterances. They've mugged up on fashionable conversation openers: 'You're dead, Mum!'/ 'You just don't geddit!'/'You wanna ruin my life!'. They've jettisoned puerile pleasures: bedtime stories/family time and devoted themselves to the things that really matter: self-adhesive nail extensions, New Look fashions, Jesse J and Instagram.

The shadowed eyes, for which I've blamed hormones, are down to the strain of this transition. I've been distracted by my own frustrations as I watch my little girl changing. Now it dawns on me that she is equally unnerved. Peer pressure is precipitating her into a new world before biology has quite caught up.

At night, freed from other ten-year-olds' eyes, she clutches her toy elephant and asks for a Mr Man story. 'At secondary school I suppose I'll have to invent a new me again,' she says. 'And the trouble is I'm worried I won't know who 'me' is any more.'

Middle-age, I realise, is a blessing.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Guilt

There's an emotion that assails you when your child draws its first breath and that emotion remains steadfast for as long as you draw your own. The feeling powers you through those hectic months of bonding, through the first wrench of schooldays and through the turmoil of teens. It requires of you sacrifices that your childless self would have quailed at and conjures spectres that appal you in the night hours. This feeling is inevitable, indestructible and all-consuming. It's called guilt.

There is no remedy, although you'll convince yourself that every other parent has found one. When you feed your kids sausages, you know that every other mother is serving organic ragout. When you terrorise them for tardiness on school days, you know that every other mother is cheerfully diffusing tension with a sing-along.

Other mothers never shout at their children, never feed them cheese strings, never leave their bed sheets on for five weeks and never harry them from the house so they can read Twitter or send them to school with a temperature so they can catch up on the garden. Other mothers listen raptly to their rambling tales from the school playground and never ever find their children boring.

Guilt at the hours your brood spend on their iPods prompts you to enrol them in drama and t'ai chi. Then, guiltily, you fear you're controlling. If they spurn their spinach and litter their rooms you feel guilt that you've spoiled them. When you demand instant digestion and a spring-clean you feel guilt that you're a nag. Should a teacher declare them talented, you beat yourself up for not having harried them through Homer. If the report shows room for improvement you blame yourself for those years of Enid Blyton.

At night when, well-fed, well-soaped and well read-to, they sleep on their soft-plumped pillows, their follies fade from memory and you recall only your own voice hectoring. And when, infrequently, they tell you you're the best mum in the world, the guilt is worst of all. Because you know that, however hard you strive, you'll never feel you deserve them.

What makes you feel guilty?


Nominations are now open for the Brilliance in Blogging Awards 2013. If you relish the thrill of voting, but are stumped for enough candidates, feel free to use my URL in one of the categories! Should I be shortlisted my 10-year-old will give anyone who voted for me a makeover.


Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Wild Living


The prompt for this week's 100-Word Challenge at Julia's Place is The unseasonal weather meant. Dunno what made her think of that one...

The unseasonal weather meant we had to rely on our inner resources last weekend. My eight-year-old possesses enough of these for all of us. He sold paperclip bangles which hooked me inextricably to a stranger during the morning crush on the Tube. He taught me to recite rhymes to cheer a potted palm and he invented the killer game 'Suspense': together we gazed at his digital clock and watched for the minute to change. 

Relentless winter intensifies family time and that's a privilege. My son has many more distractions up his sleeve. So why, ungratefully, do I now find myself longing for the liberation of sunshine? 


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Makeover

My children want to make biscuits. 'To be a cook you must have the look!' says the ten-year-old. She has been holding clandestine talks with my mother about my need for cosmetic enhancements and, while I'm looking out my apron, she produces a bucket full of lurid substances which I never knew she owned.



She applies to cosmetics the same technique that she uses for her splatter paintings. Now and then she swabs the splashback off with a tissue soaked with spittle.

My looks may be improved by the ordeal but my confidence is not. 'I can't get the lip gloss on straight,' she says, making random sweeps with a tube of pink gel, 'because you've got all these little red lines going off your mouth.' When I am suitably glistening she tells me to keep my mouth shut at all times to hide my yellow teeth. Then she ponders a cunning hairstyle that will hide my moles.




Eventually I am ready to survey my new reflection. 'You look years younger!' she tells me. I look, in fact, like Colonel Gaddafi with conjunctivitis. She modifies my bright pink eyelids with bright blue and rubs a layer of the black mascara from my beetling brows with spit. The green face glitter she admits is a mistake and it's scrubbed off with loo roll. Then she leads me to the Vicar's study, certain that he'll rejoice anew in his life's companion. The Vicar looks up from his sermon. 'You look like a trollop!' he says. The ten-year-old sags. 'A very nice trollop,' he adds kindly.

I tell my my daughter that she has done a fine job. I don't tell her that I shall scrape every last bit of it off my face before taking my Mothers' Union vows in front of a congregation of 80. Then it hits me...

... I don't possess any make-up remover!




Nominations are now open for the Brilliance in Blogging Awards 2013. If you relish the thrill of voting, but are stumped for a candidate, feel free to use my URL in any of the categories! Should I be shortlisted my 10yo will give anyone who voted for me a makeover.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

A Nation of Undesirables

I've just completed the trawl though atlases, timetables, savings accounts and passport renewal forms in order to book our summer holiday. And, having settled on a beguiling gîte in Brittany I was about to become excited when I realised who would be coming with me.

Believe me, you wouldn't want to holiday with this woman. I suspect she's on day release from a female offenders' institution. She definitely looks as though she'd been doing hard drugs. Or maybe I'm misjudging her and her grim-faced pallor is a symptom of galloping tuberculosis.


The Vicar, too, paled when he saw the company he would be keeping. He's been lurking in his study ever since laying eyes on her, bracing himself for August. So you see, the Home Office has a lot to answer for. I suspect its requirements for passport photos are part of a strategy to reduce the numbers entering this country, for most immigration officials would baulk at admitting the personages pictured in the average British passport. Those photo booths with mortuary lighting which make a toddler look like a cholera victim, the ban on smiles that gives us all the air of axe murderers, the print colours that simultaneously bleach our complexions and darken our eye bags transform us from adornments to society to apparent fugitives from justice.

A nation that was at ease with itself would insist on photo booths with mood lighting, the odd Grecian column as a backdrop, perhaps a discreet nozzle to administer an emergency spray tan. Radiant smiles would be obligatory to reflect the national pride. But presumably, officials are so accustomed to sullen expressions in the log-jams at Passport Control, that a beaming portrait would render us all unrecognisable.

And it's those border controllers that worry me. What kind of impression must they form of human nature when their social interaction consists of gazing at mugshots like mine? How much pleasanter their job would be they could browse snaps of us poised on a surf board or laughing into a cocktail umbrella.



I cling to one sole comfort. I've aged ten years since my last passport pic. The difference was paining me. But simultaneously I had to renew my ten-year-old's ID. And I can confirm that in merely five years since her last photo shoot, she's aged far more dramatically than me!


How about you? Are you happy to be seen on holiday with yourself?