Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Baby's gone, again.

It’s the early morning and my baby is leaving home, again. This is the hard bit, the tough thing about being a doting mother: watching your son go off into the world without you. I'm not one of those parents relishing a future empty nest, if you hadn't guessed. And by the way, I know I’m not supposed to write about Eldest because he doesn’t like it, but he doesn't read this stuff so I reckon I’m safe just telling you. 

I kiss him goodbye at the front door, some hours ago now, up on my tippy toes, because he’s a hell of a lot taller than I am, and then I hot-foot it straight back to bed with my laptop. I can’t help it, writing is the thing I do when I don’t know what to do with myself, which is a lot of the time.

Family life with these boys means everything to me, yet sadly in the week Eldest was home I only managed to corral them round the dinner table together three times, despite cooking a meal every day. Sometimes it feels as if it's all slipping through my fingers, now that they're 14, 17 and 20 respectively. And you know, if I sound a little wistful about that, maybe it's because I am.

I pinned Eldest down for a Saturday night steak supper, only to discover Middle One was off to a shubs. I squeezed the dinner in beforehand in the end, but it’s like herding cats. My bonding movie night with Eldest went tits up when the wifi went down and the Apple TV inexplicably wouldn’t work, but at least we managed a trip to the RA to see the Hockney portraits. We bought audio-guides and that nice Mr Hockney whispered sweet nothings down my lug holes in his lovely Yorkshire burr, telling me that apart from the face, it's hands and feet that say most about a person, but especially feet. Really? First it's Magritte without faces, now it's Hockney with feet. I have a bit of thing about feet myself, (you might say it's my Achilles heel) so I thought that was interesting.

 John Baldessari - has big feet

Eldest enjoyed the exhibition, which made me glad I took him along. I like to find common ground with each of them. With this one it’s art and films, with Youngest it’s all a bit of a struggle because he's 14 (God, do you remember being 14? it was a nightmare), while with that grown-up Middle One, it’s music, of course.

On the way to the Hockney we bumped into one of Eldest's old friends, a boy I vividly recall from nursery school days, when he had wild hair and unruly ways, and he still does. He didn't put the work in at school so now he works in Lidl, which is ironic because all he wants to do is drugs and party and that's exactly what Eldest is up to at university, so that'll learn him. 

Any road, as Hockney would say, right now I don't know when I'll see Eldest again, but I do know I should be grateful he’s happy to go his own way, has made a nice life for himself at university with his mates, his gorgeous girlfriend, his part-time job, his band, all that. When all's said and done, that's what I'm here for: raising boys to be men so they're able to go out into the world without me, and be happy. 

Love E x


P.S. You might even say it’s my calling.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Les Scrupules de Bruxelles.

The day before our 21st wedding anniversary Husband asks if I’ve booked a table for dinner, as usual.

“Sod that,” I say. “Let’s go to Paris.”

“Paris?” he says.

“I love Paris,” I say.

“Or Brussels,” he says.

“Not Brussels,” I say. “Paris is for lovers, Brussels is for lunch.”

On the morning of our anniversary I give him the present I bought two days before: a new party shirt, in a square gift box, wrapped in blue tissue paper, and a card. And he gives me... the very same thing he gave me last year. “I got you a card, though,” he says. “It must be in the house somewhere. And I paid for Brussels.”

We get to Brussels on Friday afternoon. The place is quiet except for lots of armed police and beggars. A pale Syrian boy sits crossed-legged in the street. A vacant-eyed woman slumps on steps with a sleeping child. I hold out a Euro for each of them and their gratitude is humbling.

"I need more Euros," I tell Husband.

“We can’t give them all away," he says, handing me another.

I know this, but I reason that if I give them all Euros I might feel slightly less terrible about being incredibly fortunate, and British.

From a quiet side street we are funnelled toward the Grand’ Place, then separated, men from women, frisked, asked questions, and eventually spewed into the ancient beating heart of the city. And it is a grand place indeed. In stark contrast to the deserted streets around it, here, there is colour and light and music, with people who smile and laugh and kiss... because they are pissed.

“The whole world is here,” I say.

“It’s the beer festival,” says Husband.

“Did you know that when you booked it?” I ask.

“Er,” he says. “No. It was £100 each to go to Brussels, including the Eurostar, whereas Paris was £250 each.” Then he adds, “funny thing, when I told the Frogs in the office, they said, ‘it’s cheap, yes, but it’s still Brussels.’”

We eat lunch in the square, sitting next to four British men and a woman all dressed as green dinosaurs. Kids, really. One of them, nearest to me, is a bit of a character, and he's having trouble with his drink, which is huge.

“It’s a litre of Kriek,” he tells me, sipping it gingerly.

‘Why?” I say.

“Well,” he says, unsuccessfully trying to focus on my face, “it was a big night last night, so, you know.”

“Right,” I say, “that makes perfect sense, then.”

On Saturday we check out of the hotel and head off into the city. We eat breakfast in an elegant arcade, with Magritte’s bowler-hatted motif everywhere.

“Where are the Magrittes?” I ask Husband.

“Not far,” he says. “In the Museum of Fine Art. Why, do you want to go and look?”

I do, and I say so, which rather takes him aback. “I’m having my bluff called,” he says.

The gallery is empty. I look for the painting of the man with the apple. I see the man with the bird, and the man with the pipe; I can’t see the man with the apple anywhere. I read that Magritte saw his mother just after she drowned herself and her face was obscured by her dress. Some psychologists think this is why he was obsessed with painting faceless people.

Suddenly I am standing in front of L'Empire des Lumières, with its stunning pool of lamplight. It stops me dead in my tracks, because it’s really beautiful, and a bit desolate, and more than a little melancholy, just like the city itself.

Love E x


P.S. My baby is home! Eldest has been away for weeks. With the others back at school, I now have a whole week with him all to myself.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The monk.

Let me take you back a week or two, to Italy, where it’s the middle of the night and something is moving outside. It’s not the earth, at least not yet, it’s feet, falling faintly on gravel. Definitely. I decide it’s a person and he’s staking the joint. I sit bolt upright in bed.

“Listen to that,” I say. “There's someone out there.”

“There really isn't," says Husband. "I looked already, everywhere, with a torch.”

“You won’t be able to see him with a torch,” I say. “He will hide, or run away.”

“If he runs away I’ll hear him,” says Husband, “on the gravel.”

“He’s still out there, then,” I say.

“He’s not,” says Husband. “There’s no one. It’s not a person.”

It sure sounds like a person to me, and if it’s not a person, what on earth, or heaven, is it?

As it happens I don’t believe in heaven, or ghosts, or ghouls, or anything much, only in people. I sit firmly excluded from conversations at dinner parties and in coffee shops about God/spirituality/spirits/souls/star signs/something bigger than we are/more than this. As far as I’m concerned this is it, mate. We shuffle off this mortal coil and get eaten by worms, or turn back into stardust. So when Husband leaves the room to look again, I’m alone with my rationality, bathed in sweat.

After a few minutes, he returns.

“And?” I say.

“Nothing,” he says. “Absolutely nothing. Definitely. Must have been an animal, maybe a cat.” And he goes back to sleep, with the light on.

I can't go back to sleep. I stare up at the ceiling, listening to HIM, out there: his feet stealing round the house, his hot breath wheezing outside the window.

I get out of bed and go downstairs to the kitchen. There’s a full moon but still I turn the lights on, all of them. I sit at the table with my laptop, and then I remember.

Directly above our casa, on the hill, is an ancient tower dating from the 13th century. Once part of the monastery, it was built to house Santa Vittoria’s remains. We were taken inside it the day before to see the frescos in the chapel, which, incidentally, keep on looking as fresh as the day they were painted (see above), and we also saw a hole in the ground in the middle of the floor.

“What’s that for?” one of us asked, (I can’t remember which one). I thought it was a well, perhaps.

“That,” said our guide, “if you must know, was for the dead.”

“The dead?” one of us repeated (again, I can’t remember which one).

“They used to throw the dead monks down there,” she said. “They didn’t bury them; they threw them down the hole. Until recently the cellar was deep with bones, all the way up to the ceiling. A few years ago, they were removed.”

Her words echoed round the empty chapel, as we peered into the pit.

Anyway, I remember all this just as the wind, or maybe the fridge, or possibly a dead monk, makes a deeply eerie, truly howling sound, right behind my head. I click the laptop shut and leg it back upstairs, where I shiver madly under the sheet: an illogical, superstitious, mess.

And then… across the gravel, there are those faintly falling footsteps again, softly circling: the monk, with his hot, heavy breath, just, outside, my, window. Definitely.

Somehow I sleep, eventually, and fitfully, and night passes into day and in the morning, when I wake, I go straight to the window and open the shutters and... there’s nothing. Nothing at all. Except… after some moments… a wasp, vanishing under a broken tile.

“I think it might be wasps,” I say to Husband, at breakfast.

“A wasp?” he says.

“Plural,” I say.

Later, I Google it, and sure enough wasps make a strange crunching noise when they’re building a nest. It’s wasps, then. Wasps!

What a blessed relief. It’s not a burglar casing the joint. It’s not the ghost of a dead monk. It’s wasps making a noise exactly like that of a man walking on gravel, as they make themselves a nest on the roof. Definitely.

Love E x


P.S. I have to stop reading about the earthquake - too dreadful. Pity poor Italy, where the bones of its dead lay deep beneath its beautiful ruins.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Words right out of their mouths.

Three conversations with my boys on holiday.


“I’ve got a Canadian friend,” I say, as we're tucking into supper, “she goes back to Canada every year with her partner and they do this wild camping thing. They kayak across the lakes, lifting the kayak between them, lifting all the gear between them, skinny dipping in the crystal clear water together, and the entire time they never see another soul. No one else. At all. Isn’t that amazing? I think that's the best thing. I would love to do that.”

“I have two words to say to that, Mummy,” says Youngest.

“Oh yeah,” I say, “which two?”

“No,” he says, “and WiFi.”


“I can’t believe you said that,” whispers Middle One, as we say goodbye to the lovely Italian biology student, who just gave us a private tour of the tiny village we were staying in, in Le Marche.

“Said what?” I say.

“About those bones,” he says.

In the quiet crypt of a church we were shown a saint’s bones, in a series of jars. Santa Vittoria, she was called, a Roman martyr, devoted to God. She wouldn’t marry her boyfriend so he had her stabbed through the heart, in 250 AD, which is not alright. As a matter of fact it's a bit rough.

“Remind me,” I say. “What did I say about the bones?”

“You said, ‘are you really sure there are bones in the jars?'” he says.

“Yes, well,” I say. “I think it’s a valid question. I was born sceptical. I want to know. They might be pickled gherkins in there.”

"It was disrespectful," says Middle One.

"Okay" I say. "Well, I also don't believe that drinking from a blessed fountain can make an old lady lactate, and I never said a word about it."

Looking through glass darkly, at those jars in the tomb (really, they are in there, apparently).


“This place is full of posh people with villas in Tuscany and an air of entitlement,” I say, plonking a plate of croissants and three cappuccinos down on the table, in Perugia airport restaurant. “They don’t look you in the eye, they talk incredibly loudly, and they push to the front in lines.”

“Wait,” says Youngest, “you do realise you just described yourself?”

"How?" I say, because that one really is unfair.

“Come on, I wouldn’t queue jump on purpose. I will look people in the eye, if they have good eyes, and I particularly don’t have a villa in Tuscany,” I say, loudly.

Love E x


P.S. But I’d really love one.