Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Life of Decorum

The Church, I always thought, is a bastion of dignity and decorum. It was logical to assume, therefore, that when I married in to it, some of these qualities would rub off on me. I am not alone in that delusion. The eyes of strangers remain lifeless when I am introduced by name. But when that qualifying epithet 'the Vicar's wife' is added, as it always is, they gaze with new interest and respect. They see, I suspect, someone who starches her underhose and spends Saturday nights pulsing over box sets of Songs of Praise.

Behind closed doors, however, vicarage life has been a disappointment. Dignity and decorum, precariously simulated through my twenties, fled the moment I took my vows and neither has been seen since. It's not just the fact that, when I am mid way through an Adele impression, an archdeacon is liable to emerge from the Vicar's study, or that I'm required to host total strangers in my polar bear dressing gown when the Vicar runs late for a meeting. It's that the whole behind-the-scenes business of bearing Christian witness can be - well, undignified.

'Can you make me a crown of thorns,' the Vicar asks as he arrives with the morning tea. And so much later, while the kids' supper is smouldering in the oven, I grab a thorn-proof bag and dash to the park to gather materials. Too late I realise the bag contains half the household cleaning equipment. 'Are you all right?' asks a dog walker as I crouch in the mud wrestling a duster that's become impaled on a bramble. A bottle of Pledge rolls out from between my ankles. I realise it's my mental well-being he's concerned about. I look as though I'm dusting the blackberry bushes.

There was that Sunday, early in my new role, when the bell tolled for the Sunday service and the parish matrons promenaded to church while I straddled a Fairy Liquid bottle in the vicarage kitchen and filleted it with a steak knife. The Vicar had lost all his dog collars - those errant plastic crescents that worm their way into the most intimate parts of a household - and my emergency improvisation served the purpose. Until the end of Mass, that is, when I noticed the royal coat of arms emblazoned on his neckline and the words 'By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, manufacturer of soap and detergent'. 'I thought it was a special one for fancy occasions,' said the churchwarden comfortingly.

It's not that I resent joining the throng of tailored commuters on the tube home from work with a large fluffy sheep's head protruding from my brief case. You have to accept donations for the church fete raffle when and whereever they are offered. I've grown used to the annual chore of scraping mummified grapes off the family fruit bowl so the feet of the faithful can be washed in it on Maundy Thursday and when I have to raid my sanitary stash to conjure up Abraham's beard or stiffen the forefinger of a Marigold as visual aids for the Vicar's sermon, I rise resignedly to the occasion. I can even recall that incident with the nipple tassles without blushing.

I cling to the hope, though, that the unglamorousness of vicarage life is belied by my graceful, boiled-wool bearing. I like to think that the queue in Co-op sees a woman of poise and gravitas. The sort of woman who bakes a near flawless banana cake for a new parishioner and takes it round in welcome. Soon afterwards the new parishioner announces he has a reciprocal gift for me. Chocolates, I hope, or a floral tribute. He arrives on the vicarage doorstep bearing a thrillingly large package.

I smile graciously and wait till he's gone before tearing off the wrappings. And I found…that that new parishioner had taken one look at me in my Sunday hat and decided to buy me this:

Monday, 16 March 2015


It was 10am on Sunday. I had done the laundry, served the breakfast, baked a cake, washed up, prepared a stew, riddled the fire and laid out squash and biscuits for the cubs and scouts in church.

When, I thought, does Mothering Sunday begin?

2pm on Sunday. I had attended church, served squash and biscuits to the cubs and scouts, sat through the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, cooked the lunch, washed up and mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors.

When, I thought, does Mothering Sunday begin?

7pm on Sunday. I had sorted the under-stairs cupboard, changed the sheets, crashed out of a Monopoly game with the children, made their tea, washed up, fetched in the coal, unblocked a drain and performed an emergency dash to Co-op.

And it began to dawn on me…

…I had relished every minute of it all. I don't usually find the vigour to bake after breakfast. The bed sheets had at least another month of wear left in them. The kitchen floor hasn't been washed since our tabby vomited up bird parts last autumn and ordinarily I leave my kids for hours on their iPods rather than face a board game.

But this Sunday I was unusually energised. Even the fistful of drowned slugs jamming the kitchen drain gave me satisfaction. And there was enough of this miraculous energy left over to be nice to my children who, startled by my novel sunniness, suspended hostilities, ate my stew without weeping and hung the laundry on the drying rack.

It struck me then - a truth I have never realised before. Mothering Sunday is not about being feted by my children; it's about earning them. The chores were a tribute, not drudgery.

Today I have lapsed back into my customary cantankerousness. There was nothing invigorating about packing the school lunch boxes. But, when I quail at the thought of enduring Key Stage 2 spelling lists this evening, I shall try to remember yesterday when I was newly grateful for my children, instead of expecting them to be grateful for me.

How was it for you?

Saturday, 14 March 2015


In a remote part of the cemetery is a small stone urn, dwarfed by the tombstones around it. Inscribed on the sides is simply 'Mum' and 'Dad' and the year of their deaths in the 1960s. There's no headstone or kerb, nothing to show it's there except, this last December, the glow of coloured lights from a miniature Christmas tree placed beside it.

Such a tiny testament to such huge love. Fifty years after their deaths, someone somewhere can't imagine Christmas without their parents a part of it. Fifty years on, that aged someone marks Mothering Sunday with lily-of-the-valley and a spray of pink rosebuds.

I am awed by the enduring power of human relations and daunted by the expectations it implies of parenthood.

That devotedly tended urn exposes the void that is left when parents pass on. And it shows me the impact we have, for good or bad, on our children.

This Mothering Sunday I shall overlook the wash load that my 12-year-old forgot to hang up, the mascara she's smeared on my bath towel, the raid on the biscuit drawer that no one will admit to.

I shall try, as I soothe sibling conflicts and wrestle fractions on school worksheets, to see my chores as a privilege. For domestic demands, that I sometimes feel diminish me, are building a legacy which I hope will power my children on through the decades when I am just a memory.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

I Love You

I am not always affirming with my children. I assume my love shows in my painstaking plucking of burnt bits off the suppers I cook them and in the hours I spend hanging round in New Look.

Maybe, though, this is not enough.

'Do you luuurve me?' asks the 10-year-old on the walk home from school.
'You know the answer to that,' I say absently.

He ponders.

'If I was a bench would you love me?'
'If I was a gas pipe and you were a gutter would you love me?'
'If you were a washing line and I was clothes would you dry me?'
'If I was a sign post and you were a lamp would you light me?'
'Well, I….'
'If I was a bin and you were a recycling bin would you sit with me.'
'How long can you keep this up?'
'If I was a lavatory and you were a p….'
'YES!' I interject hastily. 'I LOVE you!'

Sunday, 1 March 2015


I like to keep my intellect in good repair. Whenever the Vicar finishes a chick-lit novel I bag it for my bedside table. I'm serious about my looks. Every six months or so, when my hair can no longer be restrained by my bath hat, I pour a friend a gin and she shears it for me. I have, though, never given much thought to my fitness.

It came as a shock, when I hit 40, to realise I could no longer do a forward roll, but I found other evening pastimes that respected my unbending joints.

When my back began protesting at tasks I used to take for granted, I was regretful...

…but I failed to heed the warning signs. It was only when I struggled to heave myself off our sagging  sofa that I decided I must face what the other school-gate mums embraced routinely and embark on a fitness regime. They all subscribe to David Lloyd, but I reckon no gym can beat The Vicarage with its state-of the-art facilities and 24/7 opportunities for body-honing. My daily workout has made a new matron of me. Why, the churchwarden, when trying to estimate my antiquity last week, only added a year to my age!

The Stepper

I usually spend twenty minutes a day on a stepping routine to boost my cardiovascular fitness and strengthen my quads, glutes and hamstrings. Adding a weight-bearing element helps slow bone mineral loss.

The Treadmill

The sprint to 9am Sunday School at 9.04am each week has improved the flexibility of my joints, invigorated my circulation and helped fight cellulite.  And this vigorous church treadmill is, of course, so very good for the heart.

Rowing Machine

The forward and backwards motion raises the heart rate and increases oxygen uptake, but the real beneficiaries are my rhomboids, trapezius and lats as I flex my back and shoulders. Thighs and calves also get a surprisingly thorough workout as I brace for the thrust. Traditionally, of course, this exercise is performed sitting down...


Regular resistance training can increase your basal metabolic rate by up to 15 per cent and for every additional pound of muscle burns 50 calories a day.

Press ups

Every evening I extract the cats from under the beds in order to shut them in the kitchen for the night. This lowering and lifting from plank position engages arms, chest, abdominals and other core stabilisers and so strengthens the upper body muscles. The New York Times decreed it 'the ultimate barometer of fitness'.

Aerobic Dance

The nightly ritual of dish-washing has an important impact on heart and lung efficiency and releases endorphins to improve mental health. For maximum effect, stick Elvis Presley on the stereo, grab a mic (a hand whisk or potato masher are useful for this) and start boogying round that tea towel while you're drying the pans.

How do you keep fit?