Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The babysitter

“Hi, I’m Vladimir,” comes a vaguely familiar voice from downstairs in the hall. Youngest has just answered the door while we’re upstairs getting ready to go out, it’s Friday night and we’re late, as usual.

“Mummy, Mummy! You have to come and meet the new babysitter!” Youngest bounces into our bedroom. “He’s from Russia and he can’t speak very good English! He’s never seen a DVD before!”

When I get downstairs I find that Vladimir bears a striking resemblance to our eldest son, but I shake hands with him anyway. It's a brilliant idea. Youngest responds so well to role-play, it’s one of the few things he does respond to. So when we asked Eldest if he would consider babysitting his two younger brothers for the first time, while we go out to a do at the school, I hit upon the sneaky trick of getting Eldest to go out the front door, stand on the step, ring the bell and come in again as ‘the babysitter’. But I can’t take credit for the Russian bit, that's his own idea: a brainwave.

Those who know Youngest in real life, or have been loyally following this blog (she knows who she is and I promise to pay for your cappuccino next time. Large, right?) will be familiar with Youngest’s penchant for pretending. Remember the goat? when he said nothing but ‘maaa!’ for two days and I had to put him to bed in a shed?

Well, the other day he managed to be two different people - at once. He was simultaneously a three year-old version of himself and a teenager called Jake (don’t ask me). It was confusing to say the least. Every time I thought I was addressing Jake, it turned out I was addressing the three year-old and vica versa. Until I discovered the genius wheeze of getting Jake to persuade Youngest to do all the things I couldn’t get him to do (are you following this, I will be testing you at the end, over that cappuccino).

It went like this:

“You really MUST get in the bath now! I’m not going to ask you again. It’s getting late and your hair really smells. It really is time for a wash.”

“I don’t want to! I won’t! You can’t make me!” etc. etc. Whine. Whinge. Procrastinate.



“Please could you help me get my naughty little three year-old here into the bath? I would be most grateful.”

“Oh yes, of course, happy to help,” says Jake (who is actually Youngest…still following?) and then Youngest jumps straight in the bath because Jake has told him to. And then Jake has to be called upon to get Youngest out of the bath, when I’m unable to do it, and then Jake manages to get him up stairs to his bedroom and even encourages him to brush his teeth (his own teeth, in fact). It really worked, even if it did feel mildly unsettling. Is this how schizophrenia begins? I wondered.

So, when we go out on Friday evening leaving Eldest (I mean Vladimir) looking after Youngest and Middle One for the first time, he is also minding a three year-old and Jake. Quite a houseful.

And we only paid him a tenner.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Exam stress

Can you write it by four o’clock, please?” says the editor. I look at the time. It’s 12.30.

“Um…” I say. “How many words?”

We’ll need about a thousand.” she says.

“Um…” I say again, “actually, my husband is having a vasectomy today. He’s just on his way home.”

There’s silence.

“And, um, my eldest will be back from an exam any minute for lunch.”

There’s more silence. I know this trick. I’ve done it myself.

“So, I’ll give it my best shot,” I hear myself saying.

“Great,” says the editor, “and if you could interview some other parents and a teacher or two would be fantastic, to get their perspective.”

“Right.” I say, “no problem, I’ll give it a go, I once wrote something for the Thunderer in two hours, so, how hard can it be?”

I put the phone down. There’s a voice somewhere in the back of my head screaming, ‘Oh My God How The Hell Am I Going To Do This!’ but I ignore it and start writing.

Eldest comes home.

“I can’t talk,” I say. “I have to write a thousand words on a mother’s exam stress by four pm.”

“Oh,” he says.

He has to go back for his English exam in two hours. I was going to go through it all with him. Instead, we negotiate what he wants to eat for lunch (I offer scrambled eggs, he counters with a sausage sandwich).

“Alright,” I say. “I’ll put some sausages in the oven, that will be easier anyway, but you will have to keep an eye on them, turn them over…”

I put six sausages in the oven: two for me, two for husband two for Eldest. Then I go back upstairs to the office.

I interview a friend whose children did their GCSEs last year (Eldest is doing Year 10 exams at the moment).

Husband comes home. I dash downstairs to greet him.

“Poor you!” I say. He is walking very gingerly. “I’ll put the kettle on but I can’t look after you I’m afraid, I have to write a thousand words for The Times by 4 pm.”

“Gosh.” says husband, bravely, then he sits down on a deck chair outside.

I go back upstairs. I interview a teacher who teaches GCSE physics and has a son in Year 11; I interview a friend of the editor who gives me lots of anecdotes. I write it all up. By this time it’s getting quite late and I’m feeling rather hungry. Eldest walks into the office.

“Any chance of a sausage sandwich up here?” I say.

“Oh! Sorry.” he says. “I ate them.”

“What? All six?”


“What about Daddy?”

“He’s in the garden.”

Eldest gets ready to go back to school.

“How’s your English preparation?” I ask. “Did you re-read Journey’s End like I said?”

“No,” he says. “But I read the notes.”

“Did you re-read Of Mice and Men?”

“No.” he says.

This makes me feel stressed.

He leaves. I ring a friend and ask her if she can collect Youngest from school today and hold on to him for an hour and then, when husband wakes up, I ask him to cancel the drumming lesson. Then I write up the article, interviewing another teacher at a different school and adding that bit at the end, and file it. It’s okay. Actually, it’s quite good. I feel great.

Middle One comes home.

“I just wrote a thousand word article for The Times in three and a half hours,” I say.

“Mmmm” he says. “Mummy? I thought I did really badly in my maths test, but it turns out I didn’t because it was all Level 7 stuff.”

“Oh.” I say, “Okay, well, let’s wait and see.”

This makes me feel stressed.

Eldest comes home.

“How did it go?” I say.

“Not very well,” he says. “The questions were really stupid. They asked what was dramatic about this particular bit, but there wasn’t anything dramatic about it.”

“Right.” I say. This makes me feel stressed again - and frustrated.

I sit down. I suddenly feel incredibly tired.

“What’s for dinner?” asks Eldest.


April 4th

I’m standing on a desk in a year 10 classroom in a secondary school in Sheffield waving a Chinese flag - and it feels fantastic.

It’s because I’m working again, as a producer/director, making a short film for a publishing company to promote a GCSE Mandarin textbook.

It was a phone call out of the blue that did it, just one little phone call. All those years of waiting: years in which I cried for it, buried it, mourned it and finally let it go. In the end I was content, at last, to move on from my old life as a TV director to be ‘just a mum’ and a writer at home.

I waited so long for the phone to ring that I decided it never would, that’s why I called my blog, ‘I don’t know how she doesn’t do it’, because I don’t feel I do ‘it’, not like so many other mums, the ones juggling families alongside exciting careers. I was just a mum stuck at home with the kids. (I wanted to call my blog ‘stuck in the house,’ but that was already taken).

And over the years I’ve managed to keep myself busy with journalism but it didn’t really feel the same as my old job. It didn’t fill the need to get out of the house, to meet new people, to create something from nothing - not in the same way that TV and film making did.

I’ve worked with P before, many moons ago. He said he was ringing with a question. Oh yes, I said. I thought it might be some advice, a contact he needed, a bit of info about an article, but then he said:

“Would you like to help me make some short films? It will just be some producing, writing, keeping an eye on the narrative and then directing on the film day with kids in schools and helping with the edit?”

Would I!

So here I am, up north, in a school, asking a group of Year 10 children to stand in a huddle and shout something in Mandarin. And it’s been a great day. I’ve been interviewing a teacher. I’ve been filming a Chinese lady writing Mandarin characters. I’ve been asking the children to do vox pops for the camera. It’s been fab.

And then we wrapped and I caught the train home to London, and as I walked up the long length of our road from the Tube at dusk - back to my house, my husband, our three sons - I was thinking about what it would be like to come home after a wonderful day’s work, now that I’m a proper I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it-mum. I will be pleased to see them. They will ask me how it all went. I will give them all a hug.

But when I walk in the door I see there’s mud up the stairs.

“What’s this?” I shout.

(This is not what I planned. I was going to call out: hello! I’m home! How are you all? It’s meee!)

I go the loo and there’s even more mud all over the bathroom floor (and the cleaner just came this morning).

“Why is there all this mud?”

There’s no answer. I reach out for the loo roll. There is none.

“Why is there’s no loo roll! Why am I the only one who ever replaces the bloody loo roll?”

There’s a lengthy silence…

“I’ve just got in!” I scream, like a harridan. “I’ve been working all day! Can someone please get me some loo roll?”

“Get it yourself,” comes Eldest’s voice from somewhere very close by.