Monday, 15 December 2014

Round Robin

Dear (note to Vicar: can you check your address book and fill in any dear friends I've forgotten)

Well, here we are again at the end of another year! Who would believe it!! It seems only yesterday that I was penning my letter to you all for 2012 (whoops, yes, I rudely neglected to fill you in on our little successes and adventures last year!!) and now the end of 2014 finds me taking up my pen again, older (and hopefully wiser!!).  As I contemplate the looming spectre of middle age (yes, I had another birthday this year!!) I find myself turning philosophical and it strikes me as quite remarkable how one day follows another and one month leads into the next and so a full cycle of seasons begins and ends, each containing their own little triumphs and heartaches!

The children continue to grow and develop as children are so wonderfully wont to do! It was a big day for us when the 12-year-old was selected to represent her class at District Sports!!! I'm proud to report that she would have won her race if she hadn't been outrun by three others!

What she displays on the sports field, the 10-year-old makes up for in intellect - this autumn he entered a poetry reading competition at school! I offered to lend him my copy of Shelley, but he wanted to surprise me and gave a moving recitation about vomit from a contemporary anthology called Disgusting Poems. He modestly tells me that he didn't win, but his originality makes us so proud! Unfortunately, space doesn't allow me to fill you in on all of my pair's remarkable achievements in school and out over the last two years, but you can see a full list here: www.mylittlegeniuses.com (including downloadable photos!!)

I have also enjoyed a few modest successes myself since my last little missive!! The glamorous lifestyles of my Fleet St colleagues inspired me finally to enrol in a members club, so I mustered the £20 subscription and added my name to the rollcall of the Mothers Union! Moreover, my team-leadership skills saw me headhunted in spring - I was appointed chief supervisor of tea urn during the community singing group on Fridays!

Hot (although sadly not literally!!!) on the heels of spring came summer! I know we're among the very lucky few in these times of austerity to be able to bake on warm sands among the mountains and dive for exotica in limpid seas. Yes, the water at Llandudno is like sushi, all swirling green growth and condoms and the 12yo was able to double the size of her collection of Tango cans after skimming the surf!!

Summer 2013 was dominated by loss. Our local Co-Op closed for four months!!! This caused heartache for the kind of mother like me who likes her kids' diet of fishfingers and beans served fresh and so drops everything and dashes down the street when the supper hour arrives each night. The extra few yards we were obliged to walk to buy bread from Budgens would have put a strain on many marriages, but the Vicar and I have come through our shared endurance all the stronger for being so tested. And, in a way, those challenging weeks served as a reminder, as I read the headlines of the deprivation in Margate and the Ivory Coast, that we should not take our blessings for granted!

Our headline news since last I wrote is that I have recruited a cleaner!! I take great pride in my domestic duties, but my efforts to create wildlife corners in the vicarage worried the Vicar (so many Christians are asthmatics) and so we decided to do our bit for the local economy and employ a lovely South American girl called ??? (note to Vicar: could you ask her name if you see her when she next comes) who can do remarkable things with the Miele!

September was a milestone month in the vicarage. The 12 -year-old started big school!!! I look at my baby and think - where did time go??!! She's already proved that vicarage children can exert a powerful influence in the classroom - half her class mates now wear their skirts rolled up to mid thigh and their top four buttons undone!!

As usual the Vicar and I have devoted ourselves to intellectual enhancement in modest hope that we can, in our small way, enrich the minds of the parish faithful. It's so easy, I find, to let domestic monotonies suffocate the psyche and so in spring I read a novel (note to Vicar: what was the name of that Sophie Kinsella we got from Age UK?) and the Vicar has mastered the science of Twitter which has allowed him to keep abreast of the evening menus of friends and strangers and the ponderings of the General Synod!

I write this in some sadness as I come to terms with the loss of old friends. It was all so sudden: one minute they were pacing about their old healthy selves, the next it was all over. The rubber had perished you see and so all the wet seeped in! As you all know, I paid £67 for my Hunter wellies and their short life has affected me badly. But if there's one thing life has taught me it's that whatever will be will be!

Whatever it is, I hope it will be wonderful for you all this Christmas and New Year!!

Love and hugs,

Anna xxxx

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Price of Carelessness

A year ago this month my mother was run over on a zebra crossing while on her way home from work. She was not expected to survive her injuries and her family was summoned to her bedside to bid farewell.

When, miraculously, she awoke from her coma she was no longer the cheerful matriarch who had been planning the family Christmas. She was the terrified prey of Russian spies whom she reckoned were trying to kill her. She was trapped in a prison cell and clinging to the wreckage of a sinking ship. She hung from my neck begging me to rescue her; she wept over imaginary parties that her family had failed to turn up to.

There is not enough evidence to charge the driver with dangerous driving. Instead, he is to be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention.

But here's the bombshell: there is no offence in law of causing injury by careless driving. Drivers can be charged with causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving or with causing death by careless driving. But the law does not recognise injuries caused by carelessness.

Thanks to the skill of surgeons, my mother did not die, but she wishes that she had. She, who used to care for my disabled father, is now dependent on him. She can't make a cup of tea or drive a car. She has lost her career, her purpose and her self worth. She talks frequently of suicide. My mother is now more like my child. In the eyes of the law, though, her injuries are of no more account than if the driver had felled a lamppost.  He, if found guilty, faces a fine and some penalty points.

We have been lucky. 18-year-old Miriam Parker was left brain damaged when a car crossed a red light and knocked her down. The driver was found guilty of driving without due care and attention, but magistrates were powerless to impose a custodial sentence. Her family are now petitioning the government to amend the law so that serious injury caused by careless driving is recognised. 'If she had died, he would have received a one-year mandatory disqualification and we would not have had to worry about the prospect of him getting mere points, say her sisters. 'Why should the fortunate fact that someone survives affect the chance of the driver being disqualified?'

We are still awaiting our day in court. The trial has been delayed three times as the defence argued there was no case to answer. Today it was adjourned again for another five months because an expert witness was required by a crown court trial and crown court trials take precedence over magistrates'. And because the offence is deemed a minor one, our case will not be heard by a crown court.

Any one of us could destroy a life through a moment's inattention. We do not wish the driver who hit my mother to go to prison. But the sufferings of my mother and the family are made worse by the fact that the law does not recognise them. For that reason I beg you to sign the Parker family's petition to help resolve this anomaly.

There needs to be an offence of causing serious injury through driving without due care and attention, for what happened to Miriam and to my mother could happen to any of us at any moment and a life doesn't have to be ended to be destroyed.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

How to be a Stereotypical Vicar's Wife

'You're not a typical vicar's wife,' says the churchwarden as I'm manipulating the tea urn for church refreshments.
'You're not a typical vicar's wife,' says the sacristan as I'm piling dirty plates at the end of a parish lunch.
'Noone would guess you're married to a vicar,' says a Sunday school mother, watching me help a brace of toddlers to bring the gospels to life with a pile of Whiskas boxes.

I am coming to the conclusion that they are right. At ministerial training college, where ordinands learn to be priests, there are no courses to prepare their spouses for the fine art of being a clergy wife. Often these spouses are creatures in shock having married a banker or a publican before the Calling came. They had lived in houses of their own choosing on secular salaries, baked cakes only on their childrens' birthdays and had lie-ins on Sundays.

My Vicar was already completed when I married him so I knew what I was letting myself in for. I was prepared for a guest room bulging with bags of cast-offs for the church fair. I had mastered the diplomatic potential of a Bourbon Creme. I grew used to strangers emerging from the front room as I was waltzing the cat up the hallway and I found faith in the miracle that three plates of cheese sandwiches can nourish fifty souls in the vicarage garden. I was the stereotypical vicar's wife:


Or I thought I was.

What I hadn't realised, as I equipped myself with a seemly supply of tweed skirts, baking tins and smalltalk, was that I'd omitted the most obvious essential for vicarage life: rubber. For what noone warns you is that the lot of a vicar's wife is to be almost continually wet.

Whether it's the commute in your Sunday best to the remoter of your husband's two churches:



The attraction noone else will man at the summer fete:




The parish outing:



And the awkward occasions when - well, never mind!



The thing is, ladies, it could one day be you. There's no knowing when your husband might get that calling and, if it happens, I hope you're better prepared than I was. Don't let my sogginess frighten you.  So long as you lay in an arsenal of Marigolds and several back-up wellies, you'll adapt to vicarage life like a duck to water. Just make sure your mascara is waterproof and take the plunge:




Wednesday, 22 October 2014

How to Spice up a Marriage

I'm discussing reliable waterproofing with a dog walker on the trudge back from school and suddenly we veer on to conjugal thrills. He tells me how a friend was dumped by her partner because he no longer found her exciting. Because of that, he says, he and his wife resolved to inject daily excitement into their marriage.

I smile politely and make to flee, but he's still in full spate. 'So what I do first thing in the morning,' he continues, visibly invigorated by the memory of it, 'is make her a cup of tea. Another day I might do the washing up. Today it will be dusting. That's what we call excitement - we don't need no swinging from chandeliers.'

As I listen I feel my own pulse quickening. The thought of the Vicar assaulting our black mould makes me dizzy. I picture him running the Miele nozzle over neglected crevices and gouging the remains of last night's supper from the plug hole in the sink.

I stumble home in my mud-slimed wellies. The Vicar is shut in his study. He glances up courteously as I burst in, his fingers still poised over his keyboard. He looks the embodiment of a man who needs marital excitement. I decide not to discompose him mid-sermon. Instead I shall stimulate him when he's least expecting it with techniques for which I've never before found the energy.

I shall, with my own unpractised fingers, fasten the new Harpic blocks that have languished for weeks atop the bread bin on to the lavatory rims. I shall squeeze globs of Felix into the cat bowls before we turn in at night without waiting for him to ask. I might even dig out the iron and smooth his clerical shirts.  

But tonight - tonight I shall start big. I shall look out the latex that I keep for emergencies and the miracle potion that prompts such fizz and steam.  And, by the time he comes to bed, I shall have descaled our ailing kettle in readiness for that morning thrill of Tetleys.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Friendship

We modern women expect far too much from marriage says Rosamund Pike in the tabloid I'm squinting at over a stranger's left shoulder. We require our spouses to be our lover, mentor, playmate and best friend, whereas our corseted predecessors expected no more than a dress allowance and an annual baby.

I am in complete agreement. There can be no finer husband than the Vicar, but he is not someone I would turn to when I crave a game of aeroplanes on the hearth rug or consult over the latest worrisome sproutings on my chin.

This month marks 15 years since we pledged to be all and everything to each other till death parts us and, 15 years, on there's noone I'd rather sip tea beside in the marital chamber. But those 15 years have taught me that friends are a vital ingredient for a contented marriage. Our relationship would have been sorely taxed without friends to indulge my addiction to mud walks and garden centres. Friends shield the Vicar from my fascination with petrol price comparisons on local forecourts and from the burden of childcare when I'm detained from school pick up.

It's the finding of these friends that's the challenge. When you relocate often, you need to identify soulmates with speed because you never know when you'll need an all-night babysitter after your mother is run over, or a competitor to spit cherry stones with on balmy evenings.

I've learnt not to waste time on small talk. Months you can fritter at the school gate discussing core curriculum without learning whether your fellow mothers are characters you'd want to to be harnessed with up a 30ft sycamore at Go Ape. No, the promotion of new acquaintance from a scrawled phone number on a Post-it note to an indelible inked entry in my address book is an incisive process that my several house moves have honed to an art. And it's an art I feel I should share so that you too can secure kindred spirits in your first week in a new home.

On meeting a likely stranger you start with obvious preliminaries - their name, age and preferred brand of garden compost. Then you cut to the quick with this failsafe test:

Invite them to play Crack the Egg on your trampoline after morning coffee. Do they:

a)  Protest that vigorous activity will dislodge their new hair extensions.
b)  Recall an imminent appointment with their financial adviser.
c) Hurl themselves through the net and attempt a backward flip.

Suggest an evening gin picnic armed with a waterproof mat from the 99p shop, a thermos of Gordons and a brolly in case it rains. Do they:

a) Declare that they only drink organic prune juice.
b) Insist instead on a bottle of Prosecco in a city wine bar.
c) Don their wellies with gusto and bring an extra tube of Pringles.

Serve them up a squidge (irresistible nourishment usually involving noodles, peanut butter, spinach and poached egg). Do they: 

a) Inform you they are on a macrobiotic diet and never touch animal proteins
b) Claim there's been a misunderstanding and they're due at Cafe Nero as soon as they've got their coat on.
c) Plunge their fork in fearlessly and announce that they've never tasted anything like it.

Produce a pack of cards and request a game of Violent Snap to revitalise your spirits. Do they:

a) Declare themselves handicapped by their acrylic nail extensions. 
b) Observe that their six-year-old grew out of Snap two summers ago. 
c) Slam their hand shriekingly onto a matching pair and beg a second game.

If your new acquaintance scores mainly a) they are self-oriented and high maintenance and you would probably not wish to dangle from killer heights in their company.

If they answer mainly b) they are self-oriented and high maintenance and their contact details can remain on that Post-it note in the kitchen drawer.

If they answer mainly c) you have struck gold. Embrace them rejoicingly. For priceless rarities like that it's even worth figuring how to programme contact details into the mobile phone you'd forgotten you owned.

With appreciation for my friends. How do you identify your kindred spirits?






Thursday, 9 October 2014

Dignity

I am squatting in the garage trying to dislodge cobwebs and mouse droppings from my cycle helmet with a leaf. The 9-year-old is watching me. 'You,' he says as I cram it onto my head, 'are the most undignified person on this earth!'

I am consoling an ailing check-out assistant with a jelly bean from the pot I carry in my handbag for emergencies. 'Mum!' hisses the 12-year-old, 'don't you realise how embarrassing that looks?'

I am watching Downton Abbey with an all-day breakfast on my knee when a poached egg drops into my slipper. The Vicar glances up. He is too kindly to pronounce judgment, but his eyebrows say it all. I am undignified.

Middle-age and motherhood rob you of many assets - your rainy-day savings account, for instance, and reliable bladder control on the trampoline. But there is one loss that I do not mourn and that is dignity. Dignity, and the exhausting maintenance of it, dogged daily life in my younger days. When a stranger handed me the squished egg sandwich that had slithered from my handbag onto the pavement, I  avoided that route to work for weeks in case I should meet him again. I'd grin clamp-lipped at parties for fear that spinach was dangling from my incisors and I'd lurk in the Ladies rather than compromise my decorum on the dance floor.

My 12-year-old suffers similar agonies. Mufti days torment her at school in case she wears the wrong kind of denim and, after vainly trying to ban me from her class Meet and Greet, she issues me with a list of proscribed topics of conversation lest I impair her image.

I, however, have shed such shackles. The company of small children erodes ones dignity so completely that I have long since ceased to take myself seriously and nor do I expect others to. It's a wondrous liberation. I'm comfortable carrying a bumper pack of loo roll up the street from Co-op. I readily agree to jive at the school gate so someone's mother can experiment with a new phone app and I'm unperturbed when, strolling genteely through a shopping mall, I'm grabbed by a saleswoman and told I need bottled sludge from Japanese swamplands to cure my blackhead problem.

Sundays are different, though. On Sundays I defer trampolining until I've washed up the lunch-time roast. On Sundays I wear my most inspirational wool garments and keep my jelly bean pot at the bottom of my handbag. Despite the toddler brawls as I instruct my Sunday school, despite my son testing paper aeroplanes during the sermon and despite an unintentional conversation with a new worshipper about haemorrhoids, I maintain an implacable decorum on this one day a week.

Or I thought that I did. I'm dressing myself for the church service in celebratory hues and telling myself that I wear middle-age with aplomb when the 9-year-old walks in. He surveys me for a moment, then beams. 'You look,' he concludes mirthfully, 'like Father Christmas's helper!'




Do you still have shreds of dignity? If so, get rid of them fast!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

How to Identify a Gentleman


'He looks the sort of man who'd take his weight on his elbows!' said my grandmother upon meeting my father for the first time.

It was the 1960s and my grandmother was prescient. That bastion of English values, Country Life, has redrafted the definition of a true gentleman to bring the species into the 21st Century. The new rule book is more concerned with correct prejudices against fuchsia trousers than whether men vacate their seat for a female. Millennial Man, according to the magazine I find in the hospital waiting room, abhors cats, gladioli and Twitter and uses Facebook only to keep in touch with his 'many godchildren'. He suffers soporific theatre shows until the curtain falls and, crucially, only makes love on his elbows.

My grandmother, evidently, could sniff out gentlemanliness at first sight. I feel slightly betrayed. The Vicar, I'd thought, was a gentleman, but he owns two cats. I haven't tested his opinions on gladioli and he seldom wears trousers that aren't black, but he devotes whole evenings to Twitter and he is guaranteed to fall asleep before the interval of any performance.

I decide to consult the embodiment of 21st century priorities, my 12-year-old. A gentleman, she says, is someone who is rich.  The 9-year-old, who is currently exploring the novelty of manly sensations, says he's someone who kisses women full on the lips. I ask the check-out lady at Waitrose while she weighs my bananas. She says she doesn't know, but would come home and cook me a curry if she could, so she's definitely a true gentleman.

The more I ponder it the more I realise that there's something wrong with Country Life's list.  There may be a gent lurking in many suburban kitchens, but the domestic environment doesn't give blokes much scope to exhibit the requisite symptoms. How many family men get a night out at the theatre or the chance to acquire a taste for Malibu? How they can reliably avoid the corruption of biros when scrawling an emergency shopping list on the fridge door, or ensure they acquire the full quota of godchildren when junior football league occupies every Sunday?

Come morning, as the Vicar wakes me with the daily mug of Tetleys, I've decided to rescue the modern male, for my conviction is this: it's perfectly possible to be a gent, whatever your taste in trousers, so long as you don a pinnie and abide by these rules...

A true gentleman should:

Put his own underpants in the washing machine.

Quietly supplant you at children's supper time as peas and insults hurl across the table.

Empty the sludge at the bottom of the marital tooth mug.

Scrape the pan you've burnt the supper in and left for the last week to soak.

Overlook the matted blade on his best razor when you nick it to mow your legs.

Put on, unasked, the clean sheets that you've abandoned on the bed after stripping it.

Let you play The Monkees on the motorway when Any Questions is on.

What do you think makes for a gentleman?


Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Day of Rest

It's an hour before the 9am service. As usual I am running late. As usual the 11-year-old is insisting on a lie-in. And as usual I still haven't finished working out how to illumine the toddler minds in the Sunday School. 'It's the feast day of St Peter,' says the Vicar helpfully. 'Tell them Jesus called him from his fishing boat to be a rock on which to build his church and warned him he would deny his Lord three times before the cock crowed. He was told he would hold the keys to the God's kingdom so you could do something with a key, a net, a rock and a cock.'

The 9 year-old is still shrilling delightedly over the cock when, with five minutes to spare, we sprint into the church hall to set up. The 11-year-old seizes the rock I've grabbed from the garden and pretends to be passing a giant stool. I shout at her. The 9-year-old appears to be holding a gynaecological consultation with an imaginary patient involving the net I've wrestled off a tub of nectarines. I shout at him. The church bells stop ringing as I attempt to speed-draw a cockerel which looks more like a blood hound and the 11-year-old practises twerking manoeuvres round the prie dieu.

As we attempt a short-cut into church through the vestry we hear the congregation is already half way through the first hymn. 'You're not allowed to say that word on a Sunday!' scolds the 9-year-old as we turn tail and dash round the building to a more discreet entrance.

We arrive, breathless, one hymn-verse before the children are led out to Sunday School. I've prepared for the usual tribe of toddlers. Instead I'm confronted by two 9-year-old boys and two mutinous adolescents who'd left the service in hopes of touching up their eye liner in the church hall toilets. Quailingly, I exhibit the nectarine net and the garden rock and the Vicar's spare keys that I've nicked from his study. I don't mention the cock. The adolescents gaze at me unblinkingly.

I produce a collection of Felix boxes and a Domino's pizza carton salvaged from the recycling bin and invite them to construct the Church on a cereal-box 'rock'. They help themselves to stick-on jewels from my Sunday School basket and improvise facial piercings.

The bell summons us back into church and my charges are invited to explain the teetering tower of cat-food cartons to the faithful. I murmur my first prayer of the day - that noone will mention cocks.

And then the service is over with ten minutes to spare to transfer the children to a laser shoot-out party across town. 'You're not allowed to say that word on a Sunday!' repeats the 9-year-old as I search for the car key. 'And you shouldn't be so stressy because Sunday is a Day of Rest.'




Monday, 23 June 2014

Etiquette

Two years of toil have toil have managed to instil most of the times tables in my children. And two years of nagging have taught them to change a duvet cover. On the matter of etiquette, however, I have dismally failed.

I endeavour yet again to show the 11-year-old how to place her knife and fork when she has finished eating. 'Wake up, Mum, and step out of your time machine!' she says, arranging them defiantly in a cross.

I remind the 9-year-old to say 'I beg your pardon?' instead of 'Uh?' when he fails to hear strangers. 'Uh?' he replies.

But it's in matters of telephone and doorbell etiquette that my failings are most mortifying. 'Hello my little pink and white butterfly!' trills my son on answering the phone to a caller I fear is from HMRC. Next time, my daughter grabs the receiver first. 'Yes?' she barks, then, 'Mum, it's some man!'

When the doorbell shrills, the 9-year-old likes to be first on the scene. Some natural instinct has taught him that vicarages should be places of welcome, but he's unsure how to pitch it. 'Coming my angel!' he pipes and exposes, on the doorstep, a bemused clergyman that none of us has met before.

I ask both children how they should greet strangers who arrive at our door for meetings or succour. 'Easy,' drawls the 11-year-old, 'Tell 'em to bog off!'

I am wary, therefore, when I am approached in Waitrose by a grandmother that the 9-year-old nearly felled with a shopping trolley. I start to berate him anew so that she should know that that it is his innate character, not my lack of discipline, that caused such uncouthness. But the lady is beaming radiantly. 'I just wanted to tell you what a polite son you have,' she says. 'He said sorry so charmingly he can run me over with a trolley any time!'

Do your children's manners shame you in public?



Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Last Word

'What's the last word you'll say when you die?' the 11-year-old asks from the back seat of the Skoda. 'Mine will be 'me'! Or maybe 'shopping'.'

'Mine will be 'f***!' shrieks the 9-year-old, gleefully envisaging a scenario where there can be no comeuppance.

'Dad's will be 'Jesus',' says the 11-year-old with withering scorn. 'What'll be yours, Mum?'

Over the steering wheel I ponder. I've given much thought to my preferred Apocalypse meal (boiled eggs), companion (the Vicar) and venue (Waterperry Gardens), but none at all to my parting shot. I'd like to think it would be 'sorry' for the distressing number of things I meant to do but didn't. And the distressing number of things I did that I didn't mean to. More likely it would be my catch-all for every unexpected circumstance: 'blimey!'

The children have tired of waiting for my answer. 'I bet yours will be 'minute',' prompts the 9-year-old grinning at his sister. 'How come?' I reply. 'Because when God decides your time's up, you'll say what you're always saying...' and there comes a sing-song chorus from behind me:

'Will you just wait a minute!'

What will be your last word?





Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Enlightenment

Some things in life are obvious. Such as prancing out in your underwear when the heavens open:


And executing the reverent ritual of a Saucepan Dance during the Sunday lunch wash up:



But maybe I take too much for granted. For my children, logic is an elusive concept. Years of training have given them some idea of the urgency of rain prancing and both have learnt to belt ballads over the soap suds with a potato masher mic. But when it comes to the realities of every day life, the blindingly obvious is lost on them.

They have a fastidious fear of germs, but it never occurs to them to flush the lavatory.

Their school calls me on frigid winter days to point out that they've forgotten to bring their coats. 

Each week they receive with fresh outrage  the news that they have not earned their pocket money, yet each week they ignore the qualifying requirement to tidy their rooms. 

They have yet to make the connection between their lack of clean tops and the backlog of dirty laundry growing under their duvets. 

Loud are their howls when they don't know that morning's spellings, but it doesn't cross their mind to learn them beforehand. 

There is a daily panic when the 11-year-old can't find an essential fashion item, but it never occurs to her to order her wardrobe.



This disconnect exasperates me. It's wearing to have to remind nine-year-olds to put both shoes on before walking to school. But then as once again I discover I've forgotten to pay the bills that I stashed for safekeeping under the guest room bed, I realise that the blindingly obvious is lost on me too.

The weekly ordeal of scraping items glued to the gunk at the bottom of the recycling bin fails to teach me to rinse beer bottles and baked bean tins before chucking them.

Tense journeys through wilderness with the empty tank light on are a frequent result of my dislike of interrupting Belinda Carlisle to fill up beforehand.

The solid back crusts lining the vicarage saucepans have yet to remind me to boil rice in water.

Keen as I am to celebrate the first summer day in a deckchair, it never occurs to me to buy a new lawnmower. 



My children blame their tender years for their obtuseness. I attribute middle age to mine. I appeal, therefore, to wiser readers: at what age can we expect Enlightenment?



Saturday, 3 May 2014

A Spring Christmas

Today it is Christmas. The tulips are shedding their petals in the garden and the Boden summer catalogue lies on the doormat, but over a festive lunch in the dining room we are opening our Christmas presents.

At the head of the table is my mother. Piled around her are the gifts she had ordered before the doctor's car felled her that night in November. They've lain for five months, still in their jiffy bags, in a corner of my old bedroom. We'd resolved not to open them unless she came home and handed them out herself. It never seemed likely that that would happen. Three days ago, however, the woman who was admitted to hospital with little chance of survival left the rehabilitation wing walking and talking.

 'I've been reborn,' she observes. 'I've become a baby again.' And in a sense she is right. Once an adventurous cook, she now fears making a cup of tea. Once a journalist, she has now forgotten how to type. She used to be a socialite; now she is relearning how to make conversation.

A damaged brain plays strange tricks. She can recall a panini she ate last summer, but not that her parents are dead. She has no memory of buying the presents and no clue who was to have received them. Her young grandchildren seem older than she is as they exhibit the treats purchased in another life. And yet the figure in the plastic hospital apron outflanks all of us who now look after her.

She faced the world with her lipstick on when that world was the four walls of the rehab wing. She toiled tirelessly to stand again on her broken leg and submitted to interminable tutorials on lifting a coffee cup. Despite her 80 years and the severity of her injuries she was never daunted. 'How do I continue to improve?' she asked as the doctors discharged her.

The homecoming is as frightening as it is joyous. Back in realm she once ruled, she now realises what she's lost. But, surveying her smiling gamely at her family, I am conscious of what we've regained. Christmas is the story of a miracle. We prayed for one last December and, this spring, it has been delivered.



With many thanks to all of you who prayed for her and wished her well. 




Monday, 21 April 2014

Renewal

It's a radiant day. Londoners have shed their winter layering to celebrate the sun. A hand through the hatch of the ice cream van is tirelessly doling out  99s. New leaves are unfurling on the horse chestnuts and my children have torn themselves from their iPods to play Piggy in the Middle in the park.

I drift into small talk with the woman who has spread her rug near ours. I've been struck by her high-spirited affection for her two small boys. We begin with the weather and graduate to jumble sales. Then she tells me how a stranger raped her in her native Zimbabwe. I notice there are knife scars on her cheek. The rape resulted in a baby. Her parents adopted it. They'd always wanted a large family. She was stricken with post-natal depression, but noone diagnosed her despair.

She fled to England to escape her past. Her parents came too, bringing the child. The child closely resembles the rapist and she found it traumatic to look at him.

Now she works as a live-in nanny mothering someone else's children. The family has just moved her from Birmingham to a Home Counties village where she knows noone and where hers is the only black skin.  'It was time,' she says resignedly. 'Time to start anew. Again!'

I want to ask her if she still sees her own child. If she dares hope for another baby or if her past has destroyed her faith in love. But her two blond charges have reclaimed her. She darts off for a game of chase. From a distance she is a carefree figure prancing over the grass in a pink designer dress she'd bought for 40p at the village fete.

The morning has shadowed a little with the trauma that she's shared. So much pain borne so smilingly. And I look afresh at the throngs basking in the spring sun and wonder about the histories hurting inside them. Then suddenly I am inspired by the thought of the courage borne invisibly beneath the mundane. And I am consoled to be reminded that for all of us, like the unfurling trees, there is always time to start anew.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

Memories

Katetakes5 whose blog inspired me to start my own, has invited her followers to celebrate 2013 with five photos from the family album. It must be an Irish thing doing this four months into its successor!
I'd thought 2013 was a year that I'd prefer to forget, but my albums have reminded me how much there is to be grateful for.


My 11 year-old is more grown up than me, her cosmetics collection more extensive, her behaviour more decorous and her hobbies more sophisticated - but this picture reminds me that beneath the Benefit foundation she is still my little girl.




Disillusioned with school-gate gossip about SATs tests and marital relations I decided that we middle-aged matrons needed to Get Out More. This was the second in a programme of undignified conduct before pick-up time. 


Reunion. The 9-year-old meets his cousin over from Oz. 


My parents' 80th birthday party. My mother, five hours older than my father, declared that a melancholy date had been turned into one of the happiest in their long lives. Which is a comfort for us now.



This is the last photo taken of my mother shortly before she was run over. And this was my last trip out with her. We took her to Buckingham Palace and she said she would remember it forever as a golden day. That memory was erased that November night, but I shall now never forget.

What did 2013 do for you?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

How to Be Normal

'Have you got your outfit yet?' asks the school-gate mother. I have been invited to her grand engagement party three weeks down the line.

'Is it fancy dress?' I reply, alarmed. The only disguise I possess is a French maid's outfit, required for a long-ago murder evening at theological college. I don't think it will be suitable for me to make a public appearance with the Vicar in a frilly garter.

She is bemused. It is not fancy dress, but every female guest has been haunting TK Maxx to assemble a killer look for the occasion. Now I am bemused. My nights out number three or so a year. When it's curry evening with the Ladies from the Choir I don my chunky-knit dress in case of draughts. When, more rarely, it's a Do I rely on my funeral suit. It's the only garment I possess not made of pilled wool. It has never crossed my mind to buy an outfit.

Now it's half an hour before the party starts and the 11-year-old has confiscated all my black viscose.  I reach resignedly for the chunky-knit. The 11-year-old repeats her daily lament: 'Why do you always have to embarrass me with your uncoolness?'

Fortuitously I remember a piece I read in The Sun while hanging around the barber's. Celebrities, it seems, have been eyeing my woolly distinctiveness with admiration. Exhausted by the effort of looking exactly the same in their designer bling, they crave the individuality of a BHS cardie. All these years I have, unbeknownst to my daughter, been cultivating 'post authenticity' according to the New York trend agency K-Hole which has identified the new craze for looking ordinary. Normcore they call it.

Jack Wills must have clocked my polyknits on my reluctant visits with my tweenager, for its creative director says he's working on introducing The Special Ordinary and The Perfect Boring to its clothes rails. My matronly look, carefully nurtured over decades of M&Co sales, proclaims, he says, my uniqueness, soul and intelligence. Even Vogue has acknowledged that my corduroy smocks, the labels bleached blank by 12 years of hot cycles, express 'ingrained authority and inner confidence'.

I explain all this to my daughter who is looking mortifyingly 'yesterday' in Juicy Couture sequins. I fancy she looks sceptical, but I'm certain that under cover of darkness she'll be creeping into my closet to try out my tweeds. I know too that the trendy young mums will soon be jettisoning their Louboutins and their Pauls Boutique and begging loan of my bobbled cardies.

It's a new sensation for me to be a fashion guru, but I feel it's only fair to share my expertise in readiness for their transformation. The important thing to remember is that the Normcore look should combine utilitarianism with thrift and a total indifference to style.  Here, therefore, are the essential steps to Perfect Boring Ordinariness (while sparing your wallet the strain of Jack Wills):

Junk those salon stylists and curling tongs. Invite a trusted friend round for a Gordons every six months and hand her a pair of scissors, then all you need to do is filch a rubber band from the postman.




Ensure you choose cardigans with snug enough sleeves to lodge a store of tissues (BHS slouchers tend to lack pockets). The cardigans should include the colours of at least two different body fluids to ensure longevity amid family life.




Try to choose corduroy bootlegs with elasticated waists for flexibility should you suddenly need to entertain guests on the trampoline.




Footglove flatties from M&S suit every circumstance from putting the bins out to a night on the tiles.
All your efforts at boringness will be undermined by an unsuitable mobile phone, so keep that iPhone 5 for pillow talk - this is the must-have handset on the school-gate catwalk.





If you have any tips for those disillusioned fashionistas do share them here.








Saturday, 29 March 2014

Mothering Sunday

When the Vicar marvelled over a recipe for 'Penis Stew' in a Two Fat Ladies' cookbook, my mother roamed the Home Counties in search of an abattoir that would supply a bull's glory to expand his culinary repertoire.

When intuition told her that I was ill was during a phone call from university, she got in the car at 5am and drove 120 miles to nurse me.

When my newborns wore me down at night, a dressing-gowned figure would emerge from the guest room and bear them away till dawn.

When I admired a garment or a garden plant it would turn up inside my luggage when I reached home.

When the children grew, the bottom drawers in two chests were cleared to become treasure stores and were filled with novelties when they visited.

When, the day after her accident, I was clearing the Christmas presents she'd begun buying, I found she'd remembered the rose hand cream I'd once raved over and predicted the 11 year-old's craving for a jewellery casket.

Everything she did for us was a tribute; everything we did for her she deemed a favour to be acknowledged with notes of blissful gratitude.

Now it is we who look after her - wheeling her in her chair as she once pushed us, cutting her food, cleaning her teeth and calming her terrors. It's painful to see the family pillar so dependent. But it's a privilege to have the chance to repay her.

This Mothering Sunday is a poignant one.  We so nearly lost our mother. The woman who survived is more child than matriarch, but even through her anguish she exudes still that wondering gratitude for her family. And as I adjust to mothering her, I appreciate more fully the years she has toiled for us.

When parents go, there's no buffer generation between us and eternity. I once took her devotion for granted; now it's the only thing to have survived that November night intact and I'm conscious that, for most of us, every day that we still have our mothers is a blessing.

Happy Mothering Sunday.







Monday, 24 March 2014

Life Essentials

The Vicar has confiscated the 11-year-old's iPod. 'You may as well,' she sobs, 'take away my life!'

Upstairs she sags desolately, contemplating 24 hours without Instagram, Jesse J and hair-styling videos on YouTube. I am fascinated by her grief. Self-sufficiency, I tell myself, is one of the perks of maturity. Fate might rob me of any of my possessions and I'd be none the poorer, provided health and loved-ones remained intact.

I enjoy the smugness this realisation causes me and, leaving her adrift without her prop, I go downstairs to make breakfast. Then the blow strikes. Someone's scraped out the last of the Marmite. The jar is empty. I have to face 24 hours without Marmite toast inside me.

My complacency evaporates. I am not invincible. Shaken, I start to ponder the material objects to which I'm enslaved. The length of the list dismays me. I feel sudden empathy with my bereft daughter for I realise that I would struggle to live without:

My wellies. Hunters, don't you know, bought to mitigate the embarrassment of my M&S labels at the school gate. Faithfully they have seen me through stream-wading, pond pick-axeing, mud-floundering and parents' evenings. Every mud splash is a memory. They are removed each day only to accommodate my slippers.



My fountain pen. It and its two predecessors have endeavoured to make sense of my days through thirty years of diary entries. It has maintained friendships when long miles have intervened and relieved my mind when my thoughts have tangled.



Bendicks Bittermints. Lent is a misery without them. I am a misery without them.



My hot water bottle. It's elderly, dust-rimed and spattered with the fall-out from family flossing, but I turn in with shameless speed after dinner so urgently do I desire to embrace this bedfellow.



My bottle opener. Every night for eleven years this has heralded respite from my children. As soon as they are in bed I flee to it. Tin openers, tea spoons, corkscrews are feckless things, always absconding from the kitchen drawer, but this friend is a faithful presence in all emergencies.



I shan't, of course, confess my new empathy with my daughter. Instead I tell my children that material objects are of illusory worth; that love, courage and kindness are the only meaningful legacy we leave behind us. When the Vicar announces the death of a parishioner the 9-year-old assumes an expression of pious sorrow. I hope he's about to repeat these newly-learned insights.

But - 'Poor woman,' he laments. 'Fancy having to die before they've released the iPhone 6!'

What couldn't you live without?









Saturday, 22 February 2014

Inquisition

Iota has tagged me into a list of cosmic questions to which she requires answers. Self-exposure alarms me, but Iota strikes me as the sort of person I'd like to have as a next-door neighbour so for her sake I'll bare all:

What is the view from the room where you are currently sitting?

The empty playground of a children's nursery and the family Skoda which I had meant to get round to washing last year.

Do you buy lottery tickets?

Of course not. I'd hate to risk becoming an overnight millionaire.

If you had to live in the Arctic Circle or on the Equator which would it be?

The Arctic Circle. I'm fond of tobogganing and dislike heat.

What's the novel inside you (you know, the one that everyone is supposed to have)?

I'm the only person I've ever met who doesn't have a novel inside them. To console myself for this deficiency I channelled my literary energies into a large diary when I was 14. I haven't missed a day since, so should you desire to know what I had for breakfast on 5th May 1984...

Do you still have your wedding dress?

I did, until our last house move but one. It took against the coal cellar where I'd housed it in its giant box and I, once it had turned green and fluffy, took against it. The thermal vest I wore underneath it is still going strong, though.

Is your big toe longer or shorter than the toe next to it?

Well, I don't know and I'm not about to remove my sock and slipper to find out.

Name a guilty pleasure

Speeding past cars queued on the motorway on the opposite carriageway to me.

If you could change one thing you did last week what would it be?

Putting my daughter's cheap pink jeans in with a white wash. Again.

What's your middle name?

Alexandra.

Can you, with Edith Piaf, say 'Je ne regrette rien'?

My stack of years - and all those journals - have taught me that most painful experiences have a purpose, although it can take both decades and discipline to recognise it. They have also taught me that one shouldn't take oneself too seriously. So I try no longer to agonise over what can't be changed. But I do regret not being able to recall the last phone conversation I had with my mother before she was run over.

What fairy story character do you most identify with?

The witch in Hansel & Gretel.

Now I'm supposed to invite 11 bloggers to answer 11 questions of my own. I can't think of 11 bloggers or 11 questions so here are five of each:

When you look in the mirror what do you see?
If you could choose one motto/mantra to live by what would it be?
Which era would you command a time capsule to transport you to?
What was your childhood ambition and have you fulfilled it?
If the world were to end tomorrow where would you want to be and what would be on your apocalypse menu?
When did you last change your sheets?

Over to you...

A Dad Called Spen
Kate Takes 5
Kate on Thin Ice
3 Children and It
Actually Mummy





Thursday, 13 February 2014

Hardcore Living

Recently a BBC researcher contacted me and asked if the family would be willing to be filmed for a series on vicarage life. Obviously, narcissism urged me to say yes. I could be the next Amy Childs, only in an M&S cardie. The church teas on Fridays would be seething with fans wanting to bond with the Vicar over a Jammy Dodger. And watching the episodes would keep me going through the suspenseful wait for the next series of Rev. Indeed, said the researcher, a real-life Rev is what they are after. A heart-warming, fun-filled glimpse into family life in a vicarage to follow Songs of Praise.  It was at that point I knew we had to say no. Any fly-on-the-wall portrait of our vicarage life would have to be shown after the 9pm watershed to protect the nation's children. I myself would find it hard to stomach:

Graphic footage of me wrestling my chin bristles with deadly steel weaponry in the bathroom and, sheathed in rubber, delving for the plastic Smurf someone's dropped down the lavatory.



The shaming intemperance when come 5pm I can't hold out any more and fall upon my stash of PG Tips.



The terror when the grill pan bursts into flames after I try greaseproof paper as a substitute lining for foil.


The psychotic mood swings, when, tucking my babes up for the night, I glimpse the state of their bedrooms.



The raw expose of mid-life marriage as the Vicar and I masticate side by side on a wedge of Cathedral City while watching re-runs of Foyle's War under his 'n' hers sofa rugs.



The chilling suspense as, with five minutes to go before school drop off, I'm still hunting down my son's left shoe.

The wanton child cruelty as I confiscate my sobbing daughter's iPod Touch for the third time in a week.

The ungodly indecorum when, at 9am on the Sabbath, I realise I'm on the rota to explain decapitation to flock of Sunday School toddlers.

The undignified lack of self-control when, at 10pm, the Vicar and I can no longer suppress the urgency of our need and head for bed with Sophie Kinsella.




Is your family life fit for public viewing?






Sunday, 9 February 2014

Shopophobe


I've never been much of a one for shopping. Security staff scrutinise me as I stand immobilised by apathy near store exits while companions contentedly browse. The vicarage laundry basket brims because I lose the power of motion before reaching detergents at the far end of the supermarket.

In the past I surmounted this deficiency by wearing clothes till they shredded and rinsing the vicarage smalls in Head & Shoulders. Now, however, I have children and my children persist in growing and currently scarcely a month goes by without an emergency dash round shoe shops to replace essential footwear. And on these occasions I marvel that I used to deem shopping a hardship for high streets with two kids in tow are like this:

11yo: Oh my gosh, Mum, I need this pore eraser.
Me: You don't need it; you want it.
11yo: Mum, you're so medieval. Make up is my life!
9yo: What are 18 nines?
Me: Um…
11yo: I've got to get it!
Me: What is pore eraser?
9yo: MUM, 18 nines?
Me: Um ...
11yo: You don't even know what instant pore eraser is!
9yo: What are seven 14s?
Me: Um...is this homework?
9yo: I'm counting the lightbulbs in the ceiling.
11yo: Mum, I cannot live without these heels. Can you lend me the money?
9yo: Did you know there are 329 lightbulbs in the Asda in Kingston?
Me: You are not having heels like that.
9yo: There are 98 lightbulbs in this store.
11yo: Get with it, Mum! Just 'cos you wear fashion like Henry VIII in the 18th century...
Me: 16th century.
11yo: What's the point of knowing when some old king died when you don't know what instant pore eraser is!
9yo: MUM, I've just made the biggest mistake of my life!
Me: Heck, what?
11yo: Tell him not to interrupt!
9yo: MUM!
Me: Goodness, what's wrong?
9yo: I've just realised - it's not 98 lightbulbs, it's 72!

What's shopping like with your young 'uns?

Sunday, 2 February 2014

How to Repair Self-Image

It is the Sabbath and I am prising cat hair off my warmest corduroy. My house guest is peaceably eating marmalade in a woolly jumper when a holler from the 11-year-old diverts us to the vicarage sitting room. Only it is no longer a sitting room. A sign on the door announces Sexy Salon. The coal scuttles have been moved aside to make room for three pink crates of cosmetics. Fairy lights are strung across the Vicar's favourite armchair and reading lamps have been trained on the sofa.

The 11-year-old breaks it to me gently. I am in many ways a good person, she says, but I have trouble with both glamour and dignity.


Me having trouble with glamour and dignity


She tells me that, since it's Sunday, she's prepared to sacrifice half an hour to school me in both and thereby make me feel better about myself.

My friend's two daughters are surrendering a chunk of their Sunday for a similar purpose. We are both manhandled into seats, the reading lamps are aimed at our faces and an assortment of weaponry is brandished.


My friend's transformation appears to be unfolding serenely across the other side of the room...



...but, before long, my 11-year-old's zeal starts to falter. 'Your spots are using up all my concealer,' she laments, surveying the dwindling stick of pink unguent.

She flinches as she daubs on blusher and encounters an obstacle: 'You've got bristles growing out of your mole!' she informs me indignantly.

Then she reaches for something brown and gloopy -  'I'm just using a bit of this to hide the bald bits in your eyebrows' - before finishing me off with a rainbow palette of eyeshadow. This last stage in boosting my self-image presents problems that my beautician has not encountered before. 'Gosh, your eyelids are wrinkly - your eyes are hidden under great folds,' she says. 'No offence - I'm just a bit shocked.'

The half hour approaches an hour and I still haven't scraped the mud off my Sunday boots. 'She looks like Baby Jane!' squeals the 9-year-old gaping at my mask of pink grease and lopsided ringlets.

The 11-year-old starts listing the facial flaws of various celebrities and I feel bound to explain that beauty can be inner as well as outer. She puts down the hair tongs and surveys her handiwork. 'I think,' she concludes with an air of defeat, 'that yours must all be inner.'


Baby Jane (left); Me (right)


Monday, 27 January 2014

Being an Embarrassment

My brother are I are hand-jiving to Bonnie Tyler in the front seats of the Skoda while we wait for a red light to change. We deem it a tribute when we see that two men in an adjacent white van are filming us on their mobiles. The 11-year-old ignores their beaming appreciation. 'Mum,' she shrieks sobbingly, 'You are EMBARRASSING!'

I have always known that there are two certainties about motherhood. One is the guilt that roots itself in the maternal heart from the moment you meet the gaze of your newborn; the other is the embarrassment that your existence causes them as soon as they start school.

I perpetually mortify my children with my wonky red beret, my fastidious consonants, my attachment to pen and ink and my tendency to extract the life stories of check-out staff.  My daughter dies a little inside each time I wear wellies to the school gate. My son ducks out of sight when I try a headstand in the vestry.

What I didn't expect - and what my offspring fail to realise - is how they, in turn, undermine my matronly dignity. When they shut a stranger's arm in a cafe's freezer chest I cower. When they barge old ladies out of the door of Cancer Research, ask what a virgin is during a gospel reading and scratch their undercarriage in the Communion queue, I feel myself diminished.

Sadly, recalling my hot flushes when my mother lodges complaints in restaurants, I realise that this is a torment that is not cured by age. Generations gaze at each other, cringing, across a chasm, and the more like our mothers we become the greater the discomfort they can cause us.

As a treat I agree to buy the 11-year-old a take-away pizza from down the road. I command her to remove the make-up she has layered on, mortified at the thought that people will judge me. She, meanwhile, frets over her own reputation. 'Have you ever been to Dominos Pizza before? ' she asks. 'Never,' I reply. She turns on me a scrubbed face full of reproach. 'Oh my gosh, Mum,' she cries, 'How EMBARRASSING!'

Do you embarrass your children? Or do they embarrass you?