Thursday, 21 June 2012

Eldest's bedroom on the last day of his GCSEs: time for a tidy up now I think.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Crying over spilt syrup

There are little drips of something all down the hall. Maybe it’s water, I think to myself optimistically. I have to be optimistic: I washed that floor only yesterday because the cleaner didn’t come, because there was a seven-hour power cut, because some workman down the road accidentally cut the cable. No power, no hoover, no point paying for the cleaner, I thought. So I cleaned the house myself when the power came back on, on Friday night and then a bit more on Saturday morning, which sounds like a film - only with rather more mop action, and less sex.

I don’t have time to investigate the drips right away because I need to put Youngest to bed, a protracted affair under normal circumstances but even more so at the moment since he contracted his second ear infection in the space of three weeks. Now the bedtime routine begins with the dose of antibiotic (second round), followed by the Actimel to wash the revolting taste away before the lengthy application of verruca gel to the many verrucas on his feet (proof right there, as if any were needed, of his low immunity) and then, lastly, the inhalers, blue and brown, before finally we collapse into his bed for the story.

I have to read the story at the moment because it’s Wind in the Willows, my favourite. I’ve got a great voice for Toad, all lisping with a soft 'r' and totally exhausting. In fact, I’ve got so carried away as the various characters that when Mole smelt his home again and Ratty didn’t notice and carried gaily on down the road, back to the river, after they’d just been to the Wild Wood and met Badger, and Mole began to quietly sob to himself, I had tears streaming down my face. Youngest was transfixed, caught somewhere between awe and horror, I think. At least, that’s what I hope he was caught between; he could well have been thinking that his mother is a lunatic, which I suppose I might be looking at the recent evidence.

You see it wasn't an isolated incident. I started sobbing while watching the BBC Proms as well. It was Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and it reminded me of my second year at university when I used to play it all the time on my old portable record player in that damp little house near the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, when all the future was ahead of me and life still had possibilities and my heart had just been broken… But that’s another story. And it also reminded me of my Grandfather who introduced me to that piece of music and who is, of course, now long dead. I think it was played at his funeral. And we really loved each other, my Grandfather and I. So that made me cry too.

It was maple syrup, those drips on the hall floor. I realised this as I stepped in them when finally I got downstairs again after the verruca gel and the inhalers and sobbing with Mole and Ratty down on the River Bank, and it really wouldn’t have mattered much, that Eldest had obviously spilt it there while carrying his plate to the living room to eat his pancakes in front of the television before leaving the house to go to his GCSE exam, if I hadn’t left it for just that little bit longer and gone to sit down in front of the Proms.

Because then I forgot about it and later, much later, when I was carrying all the washing, after Youngest had come downstairs three times, all hot and emotional and exhausted to say he couldn’t get to sleep because Eldest was making too much noise (again), so that I had to take him back up and lie down next to him and stroke his brow and try to calm him down, lots of sand fell out of Middle One’s pocket. He’s been on a week long school trip to France, you see, and came back with a case full of the stuff, which I cleverly (or so I thought) emptied out in the garden so as not to get it all over the house, because I’d just cleaned it. But I’d neglected to turn out all the pockets.

So then there was sand stuck in the maple syrup drips all over the hall floor, which, quite frankly, just for a moment there, really made me want to cry. Again.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Building Blocks: Part 1

Middle Child is going away on a school trip to France at the end of the half term holiday. In the intervening time, nearly a week, he sits around the house all day going on Facebook or watching the telly, or doing both at the same time.

Older brother is ‘revising’. Younger brother is going up north for a couple of nights to stay with his cousins at his grandparent’s house. I have to take him on the train, a seven-hour round trip door to door in one day. And I have a stinking cold and a dodgy tummy. It would have been great if Middle One could have gone too, but they can’t manage four children with such a broad spread of ages so Middle One roams the house and tells me he’s bored and it drives me half crazy. Go and see a friend, I say. Ring someone. Go out. Walk to the park. Read your book. Go to a shop. Catch a movie. Go swimming. Come out with me. But he doesn’t want to do any of these things, his answer to everything is the same: can’t be bothered.

What he does want to do is talk about science and the universe and martial arts and the Mandarin and geography and Sherlock Holmes. He has question after question, none of which I can answer. It makes me feel inadequate. And he wants to do experiments with dangerous chemicals. All I want is an afternoon to myself to write followed by a nice sit down with a cup of tea and a read of the paper.

A few days before he’s due to go on the trip we start getting things together. Sailing shoes, a rash vest, six t-shirts, three towels… the list from school goes on and on. I leave him and Eldest at home and go shopping, ticking things off the list as I find them. Then the next day I go shopping again for the things I didn’t tick off the first time. On the Friday before he is due to go I start to label and pack. I get him to help. He says he needs a packed-tea for the twenty-hour coach journey and he wants sushi. “Only if you can be bothered to come with me to get it,” I say. So this time he comes, actually out of the house!

We choose some sushi in Waitrose, then we select some fruit and some drink and some crisps and some bread rolls, and other things I need, and he helps and he chats and I’m so glad he’s not in the house anymore. We got to Smith's to buy his magazine and after that I suggest lunch, a snack at a café, and to my surprise he agrees. He doesn’t want to just go straight home as I expect, so we sit in the café eating and chatting some more and he tells me things, about school, about the subjects he’s interested in, about the origin of martial arts, about why he is keen to learn one, and I listen. And I watch. And then suddenly I realize that I’m so happy; happy to be out with him, together, just being friends, because that’s what he is now, instead of just my child, my son. He’s my friend.

Building Blocks: Part 2

Middle One is away. Youngest is at school. It will be Eldest’s sixteenth birthday tomorrow and his phone has died because he dropped it down the stairs last week when he was throwing it in the air and catching it again. Except that he didn’t. Catch it I mean.

But I’m tired. I’ve just got back from taking Youngest to school, having a quick coffee and buying food (yet more) before the routine tidy up and the sweeping and the washing and more tidying and I’m not really right, not since that cold with the dodgy tummy thing last week, but Eldest wants me to go straight out again to get this phone, for his birthday, so I can hardly say no.

We go to Carphone Warehouse and wait in a huge queue and eventually talk to a really lovely guy behind the counter who tries very hard, for a very long time, to get Eldest a good deal. And he does. An amazing deal. So that when we part we are so happy and thankful that this lovely guy shakes Eldest’s hand and wishes him a great birthday for tomorrow and we stagger out onto pavement elated. “We’ve been in there nearly an hour!” I say. “I’m hungry,” he says. So I suggest the café again and to my surprise (again) my son agrees.

So we go to the café and eat lunch and chat and he sits opposite me where Middle One sat last week and he tells me about his life and he is very funny (“It's not that I'm paranoid, it’s just everyone is ganging up against me”) and warm and I think, you know what, they may drive me crackers, I may never get a single moment ever to myself, I might be drowning in all the cooking and cleaning and drudgery, I might have given up my career to be at home with him and his brothers, I might wish I was out of the house more, being a high-flyer, still at the BBC maybe, earning loads of money instead of sporadic bits and pieces here and there with a bit of journalism thrown in and no security and no career path and no pension. I might have a string of ideas for novels and absolutely no time to sit down and write them, but I wouldn’t swap this for the world.

They won’t always be around and these moments, these little trips out together, which seem so small and inconsequential and mundane at the time, they are my memories, each one a little building block that added together I will look back and realize, made my life.

Building Blocks: Part 3

Note to self:

Middle One is still away in France. He's been gone for five nights and will be away for two more. I miss him more than I can say and would give anything right now for him to be wandering around the house getting under my feet, talking about martial arts and announcing that he’s bored.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


He throws a tennis ball up and down behind my head. I carry on typing. My temples throb. I press fingers to forehead and glance out the window. The sun shines. The trees sway in the breeze. It looks like an ordinary morning. It’s not. I look at the time on the right of the screen: an hour to go.

“So have you got everything?”

“Yep,” he replies, nonchalantly. But he’s not nonchalant. He is tense. Up goes the ball again and then back down, padding solidly into his palm. 

“Do you want me to test you on anything?”


“Do you want some lunch?”

“Nope. Can’t eat.”

“You can’t go to your first exam without lunch, it’s illegal.”

“I had pancakes.”

“That was ages ago.”

I get up to go and make him something. He follows me down to the kitchen. He says he’d like haloumi in a baguette with lettuce. I bake the baguette in the oven. I cut the haloumi into thin slices and fry it in a little olive oil with some chilli and some lemon juice and a bit of black pepper. He stands behind me. He is chatting all the while. His nerves are palpable. It makes me remember: the smell of the school gym, scrape of chairs on parquet, the chorus of dry coughs, sweat making the pencil slip down my hand, the sunlight from the summer day outside streaming in through high windows, the fastest hour and an half of my life so far…

We sit outside at the table under the umbrella on the decking. He eats. I’m too tense to eat anything now. He’s ravenous so I’m glad I made him something. He eats every bit. I get him a glass of water, haloumi is so salty, I say, and he agrees. He goes upstairs to pack his bag. I thought he’d packed it already. I start to clear up.

I hear him thundering down the stairs to the hall so I go to say goodbye at the door but he’s not ready. He goes back up. I go back to the kitchen. I gather washing. I fill a recycling bag. I sweep the floor. Again. Still he is not ready. 

He said he wanted to leave at 12.30 so I start to watch the clock. 12.30, 12.31, 32, 33, 34… I want to shout for him to get a move on but I know he’s trying his best. He comes back down and I start to relax. He puts his shoes on. I begin my good-bye speech … just relax, read the questions carefully, try and enjoy it, this is your chance…  but he’s not listening and I don’t blame him.

He unzips the contents of his bag and checks everything again. Then he zips it back up. Then he does the whole thing all over again. I start to tense up. I look at my watch. “I.D. card,” I say, brightly. 

“Check,” he says.

“Clear pencil case,” I say. 

“Check,” he says.

“Bottle of water,” I say, “without a label on it!” 

“Check,” he says. 

“You know the room number?” I say. 

“Check” he says. 

“Well… I think that’s it, then.”

I start the pep talk again… you’ll be fine, good luck, just keep calm… He still isn’t listening. He opens the front door, he’s nearly made it out, then he comes back in to the hall again. He opens his bag, checks everything all over again. I count to ten in my head. Again. 

And then he’s gone.

At the hairdresser:

“I don’t want my hair too short,” says Youngest watching his older brother having his hair cut. “Long hair is cool.”

“True,” I say, “but it will grow. If you hardly have any cut off I’m just wasting my money. And short hair is cute." I ruffle it on the top of his head as if to prove it. "And you’re still only nine.” He looks up at me. I smile. 

“I’m ten next week,” he says, holding my gaze, looking worried. 

“So what's better, Mummy? Cool or cute?” 

I hesitate and then, “Cute,” I say. And he is happy. 

For now.