Friday, 29 November 2013


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?