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.
'I've changed my sneeze. Do you like it?'
'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.
'I say, Mum...'
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: