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?