Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some like it hot

Every religion has its own ritual, the whetted knife slicing through the unlucky chicken's throat spilling hot, garnet blood onto white feathers and a stamped earth floor; the pyramid of sweet rice dumplings piled under a sacred tree; the simple breaking of bread and sharing of new-pressed wine. Yesterday, I broke my own bread in communion with Northumberland. I drove to a favorite grassy headland overlooking the brooding Bamburgh Castle; carefully, I unwrapped the slightly greasy paper and gently held the ham and pease pudding sandwich in my hands. I raised it to the skies for the old North gods to bless and brought it down again, sanctified. Slowly, my hands trembling slightly as the chill wind swirled round the wooden bench ("In memory of Len, who loved this spot"), I pressed it to my mouth and bit down, hard.

As a stranger in this land, I was braced for something horrid - not least because of how it looks. It badly needs a makeover - what it most resembles is the fat at the bottom of a pan when you have roasted and eaten fragrant lamb, moved onto burgundy and bed. Then morning comes and head thickened by the traitor glass, you look into the red enamelled pan and think "Uurgh". Pease pudding looks like "Uurgh" in a pot. It does not taste like that though, it tastes more of peas without an "e" and has a consistency similar to hummus. It is made from split peas boiled in ham stock and then mashed to infinity and beyond. According to my scar-fingered butcher, who scooped spoonfuls of the dull yellow mash into a plastic dish for me, it is best eaten with ham. I took his advice. My butcher wears a white coat and I always trust what the men in white coats say. So that is it, I have arrived. I have looked into the heart of darkness and I have held my own and eaten it. Not bad actually.

My "shut your eyes and you might even think you lived here" day carried on into the evening. I had agreed to go to a pub quiz, my very first. The quiz was in aid of the Glendale Agricultural Show which is a big deal up here. Last year 15,000 people went and did whatever it is people do when they go to an agricultural show. Probably looked at tractors and admired cows. That sort of thing. I went to the quiz with three of the other mothers from school and we scored somewhere between genius and moppet, but I did not do well in the questions on farming. "What two breeds of sheep created the Suffolk breed?"Err. "When are you allowed to cut your hedges under the stewardship scheme?" Umm. "What is the newest english breed of cattle?" Wife in the North, you are the weakest link. Goodbye. But I did take the opportunity to join the Glendale agricultural show society which means that I can exhibit in the livestock and equine classes at reduced rates. That's good, isn't it? I tell you, if this experiment in country living does not work, my record is going to be squeaky clean. "You cannot blame me," I shall tell a fuming husband as we grind back down the A1 back to the dirty smoke. "I tried to make it work. I ate pease pudding and placed third in the pedigree sheep."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cherry scones

A friend invited me for coffee this morning. As we arrived, she was still rubbing her fingers free of doughy gloves and the smell of baking cherry scones hung about her busy kitchen, spilling fragrant through the open door into a wintered garden. "Drop by for coffee, I'll make scones," I say it out loud to see how it sounds. Unconvincing, in my case. She, on the other hand, knocks out a warm batch of home baked treats with the same nonchalance as I swill a crystal glass of cool and gooseberry-tanged chablis.

Some friendships you keep for a life. Others for only a train-ride. Some friends you lose and never know why and when you are old, you think: "Whatever happened to?" or "What did I do?". Some friends you mourn; some walk away and you do not notice. This friendship is spring green and sweetly brief, lasting weeks. Now my new friend is about to move somewhere bouncing hot and sandy to feed oily egg and cigarette thin chips to fat Englishmen who would prefer to eat their egg and chips at home. I want to say to her: "Don't go out of my life. You have only just arrived there." But in her head, she has already quit this place for a different tomorrow.

As I drink the coffee and graze on blossom-coloured cake, I gaze at the bonfire of trucks and old jeans piled up on her dining room carpet, salvaged from the rooms upstairs. Each of her four boys is allowed one black plastic bag of toys to tote with him into his new and sunnier life. One final boy is missing - her oldest. Seven years ago, she lost him. Just 13, he slipped through her floury fingers in one of those "Dear God" disasters that make you catch your breath. Mowing early summer grass and daisies, he cut the lead. Zap. A boy-child. I have seen his face smiling out of a sharp school photograph and in his mother's eyes, you can see him yet.

They are packing for the sun and a fresh start. I admire her determination that the four remaining boys will run from school bench straight into a warm and salty sea, nylon homework bags, spray-wet and abandoned on the beach. But I will miss her. She is a new friend and no one else will make me pastries and froth my coffee. While she was packing, she found bed treasures her missing boy once slept with, his teddy bear and a keepsake velvet cushion. In a suitcase at the top of a wardrobe, she found his summer coat, its pocket packet rustling, the crisps long gone. Prawn cocktail. She slipped the packet back into the coat and the coat into a bag to carry with her.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Of mice and mess

In two weeks time we are due to move into an unfurnished, rented house in the village to allow the builders to start work on knocking through the cottages to create that dream home I was promised. I suspect our stone-built rented house is cold. When I asked the estate agent whether it was a cold house, he looked at me in that blank way people up here do when I talk about the cold. "It has radiators," he pointed to two very small radiators hung on an immense magnolia wall. "Yes, but I might like to leave the radiator at some point over the next five months. Will I be cold when I do that?" I am so cold, so much of the time, I am contemplating sewing myself into my thermal underwear like someone from the depression.

The move means packing up this house in all its playmobil glory. Who invented playmobil by the way? Who had the bright idea to invent a children's toy that comes in 3,473 bits? We also have to clear out next door which we have used as an enormous storage cupboard since we moved here. "Hello, I come from London. I like to live in one house and buy the house next door to keep my clart in." I cannot think why there is a rural housing crisis or for that matter why second-home owners are despised by locals up and down the country. As you can imagine, I work very hard to avoid any admission that we are renting out our London house so that we can go back there if we decide it is just too cold to live here anymore. The only good thing about moving is that we will escape the mice who are overrunning the cottage at the moment. I figured if we left enough playmobil behind, when we move back in five months time, they might have built the Viking longboat.

Because we have decided that we do not have time to sort out next door, we are renting an enormous metal container to put in the barn at the back of the cottage. "Hello, we come from London. I like to buy houses and I have so many things I need a metal container to put them all in." We really need that container; you know those Channel 4-type programmes which feature busy-body women with sharp noses who declutter your house. I do not watch them. I am incapable of decluttering anything since I threw out a clear plastic pencil case belonging to my eldest child when he was two. His nanny had bought him it but I bought him a bigger, better one and thought "He will not need that pencil case, so I will throw it out." An hour and a half I spent sorting through the rubbish to find it, watched by a tear-stained child and his smug looking child-care professional.

Needless to say, I have not started packing. I am hoping instead that Walt Disney will appear in the kitchen one day and start drawing arms and legs on my pots, pans and general deitrus which could then pack themselves while they whistle an Elton John hit. I am in far too much chaos to start packing. A neighbour dropped by for a cup of tea (one of those second home owners, we locals despise)."I so admire you," she said gazing at me, as I moved a dirty saucepan to reach the kettle. I looked round my kitchen at the enormous Gilbert and George-style painting of the children we all did together, the wilted yellow roses on the table, their heads just visible above the breakfast ceral packets. I picked the baby up from the wooden floor where she was eating her brother's buttered toast crusts. "Do you?" I said, touched. "When I was a young mother," she carried on, reaching out to take the grubby baby from my arms, "I was always cross with the kids for making a mess, I was always picking up after them, cleaning and keeping house. You just don't bother. I do admire that." I decided not to offer her a chocolate biscuit.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tally ho

Now for something I thought no one would ever hear me say: "Boys! Put your boots on, right this minute. We are going to be late for the hunt." They probably shoot you if you are late for the hunt. "I say. Do you know what time it is? You're 10 minutes late. Stay where you are while I pour the powder into my pistol and load the shot, dammit." I did not want to miss a moment. It must be - gosh, how long is it since I went hunting in London? Oh yes, that is right - never. I have decided to roll with those moments which make me think "Who am I again?"

It was one of Northumberland's apple-crisp, beautiful mornings. The winter-blue sky looked like a child had smeared white paint across it with his fist. Cold, obviously. If I ever fail to mention the weather, imagine it to be "cold". If I ever fail to mention the terrain, imagine it to be muddy. So there we were, cold with mud on our rubber boots, on a far-away farm, the snow-capped Cheviot hills brooding in the distance and surrounded by nice giletted women thrusting haggis balls at us - well, it works for me. It is 10 o'clock in the morning and suddenly something called a Percy Cup seems like a good idea - a half-measure of whiskey mixed with a half-measure of cherry liqueur. In the city, this would be called an alcohol problem; in the country, it is a tipple. I could not decide whether it made it more or less likely the riders would fall off. It would certainly make it less likely they would notice if they did.

One of the mothers at school had invited us along since the hunt was meeting at her farm. Out of respect to her, I worked very hard not to think city thoughts like: "Didn't Tony Blair outlaw this?" and "go fox go". I also decided against talking the pros and cons of hunting through with the children before the outing. The risk of "Mummy says animals have rights too, don't you mummy?" over the coffee and shortbread was just too high. I must re-programme them tomorrow before they think what we did today was entirely normal.

Clutching warm sausage baps, we stood in the farmyard watching the proud, clipped horses grandly pirouetting amidst stiff-tailed hounds. I fought not to morph into a Japanese tourist, politely insistent that strangers in flat caps and down jackets take digital photographs of me to display to the folks back home. I failed. I explained to one farmer: "This is just so different to what we are used to." "No offence," he said. I braced myself for the inevitable left hook, "but I am constantly amazed how naive townsfolk are about country ways." He left me standing there with my Percy cup and camera. I think he went to talk to someone altogether less naive and tweedier.

If you ever wondered what happens at a hunt, I can assure you that the riders come along in muddy land rovers pulling horseboxes; they do not just leap out of the 19th century print your favorite uncle hung in the hallway in the shadow of the grandfather clock. I am not knocking hunting. The outfits are great. Before today, the nearest I had ever been to a hunt was a Jilly Cooper novel in which I am sure jodphurs were eased down over taut thighs. It is certainly true that everyone looks sexier on a horse, jodphurs tight over taut, etc. (This is as close as you will come to a Belle de Jour moment in this blog so enjoy it.) They played it all wrong when they fought and failed to keep their hunting rights, they should have campaigned on the slogan: "We look sexy - leave us alone."

When they set off, hounds legally following the trail of a fox tail of rags tied to a quad bike, rather than a fox you understand, we gave them a head start and then followed on in a land rover. The slightly strange thing about hunting is that the hunters too are hunted by quad bikes and 4X4s, some of whom follow the riders into the fields and some of whom wait at vantage points with binoculars as if they are on a strange safari. "Is that an elephant over there? No, no it's just Edgar on Tinkerbell. Tally ho Edgar."

(By the way, those rags on the quad bike. Tell Edgar, we're not that naive.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

The thin blue line

As my mother lay ill in bed, bones aching and eyes tight shut, a shiny silver-buttoned policeman knocked on the door. "I've come about the accident," a young man told my father. "Who is it?" my mother, feebly called. They climbed soft-carpetted stairs to her bedroom, the policeman and the stooped offender; a gilt-framed Sacred Heart watching from the anaglypta wall, a rosary-wrapped St Anthony bearing witness from the dresser, as the policeman cautioned my aged father. "Now I don't want you getting upset but I have to caution you," he told him, this aged threat to the public good. "It's like what happens on TV," he reassured them, getting out his note-book and a black-inked pen. The plaster saints looked away in shame. "You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence ..." the youth chanted on. My mother, crash-bruised and still in shock, began the ages old lament of the criminal's wife. "My husband," she speaks out from the soft pillows, in between her tears, "did nothing wrong. It was an accident."
Later, steel-tempered by her encounter with the law, this fan of TV's Morse and Frost rings. "I told him straight," she says. "Coppers don't frighten me."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beauty and the Beast

Various things happen when a woman reaches a certain age. There is a moment in her youth, when she unzips her make-up bag and wipes a sponge around a peachy cream in a silver compact, she loads a sable brush with beige powder and looks into the mirror ready to start her work. She scrutinises the face in the glass and pauses. She thinks "What is there to do?". She uses her thumb to flick the powder from the brush and the cosmetic dust explodes into the sunny morning light flooding the bathroom. She lets the water run warm from the tap, holds the sponge beneath it and the foundation runs in rivulets down the white porcelain and into the drain. She zips up the flowered make-up bag which came free in a glossy magazine she never read. Fresh-faced and perfect, she goes out into her day. There is another moment in a woman's journey when she unzips a larger and all together more expensive make-up bag. Rubbing at tired eyes, she fingers the duelling scar slashed across her cheek by the egyptian linen sheets. She gazes at her face and thinks: "Where do I start?" and then "How long is this going to take?"

I am at,indeed, past that "Where do I start?" moment at the vanity table. As the fine laughter lines begin to tell around my eyes and jaw, I begin to see my mother in my face. As she was when I was a child, plaiting my hair and tieing it with yellow silk bows, turning grey wool socks inside out, folding them back to slip over chubby feet. But as I begin to see my mother in my face, the real McCoy slips from me. I look at her carefully coiffed and greying hair, her hesitant walk and white stick and I think: "My mother is getting old. I really do not want my mother getting old. She never told me she would get so old. When exactly did that happen?" Now, instead of baking sultana cakes and folding vests, she wears elastic stockings on her legs, an electric whirli-gig seat climbing the staircase instead of her.

Last night she rang to say: "Daddy and I have had a little accident". It was late and I was lying, melancholy, on the sofa contemplating sleep. My husband again away in London. It was oblivion dark outside and the wind so strong off the sea that it had twice pushed open the frontdoor like a bar-room heavy. Eventually, I had snicked the lock to keep the rude wind where it belonged. "We wrote off the car" I heard her say, the gusts now knocking at the sash-window. "We're fine. I broke a rib, that's all, and your father is a bit bruised." They had been crossing a carriageway, given the nod by the driver of the car in the lane nearest to them but unseen by the driver of the car in the other lane. A classic accident. As she speaks, I play it out in my head. My father, ressured by the kindness of the other driver, slowly, oh so slowly, old man slowly, pulls out and across the road and whoomph. Slammed into by the other car, spun round and round in squealing, metal-shrieking fear. Twenty minutes on the side of the road waiting for the paramedics; panic attacks under a yellow airtex sheet in a metal framed bed in the accident and emergency cubicle. "It could have been worse," she said, cheerily. "Because I'm blind, I was relaxed when the car went into us and everyone was very nice." I should have been there. I should have draped them in foil blankets and given them sweet tea, held their soft papery hands and told them they were OK. I do not want them to go out any more. I want them to live in a wardrobe, safe from the mishaps of old age. I will bring them food in plastic trays, a torch and a wind-up radio. I will keep them safe from harm.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Suggestions on a postcard

The phone rang today and my husband answered it. He looked across the room at me.
"What?" I said, putting down the newspaper.
"You've read it then?" my husband said. There was silence in our sitting room. "Is she? No, I have no idea why she is calling me 'TW' in it.'' He continues staring at me. "No, it does not stand for that. Definitely not."

A brush with a master

I thought this looked fun.
The Art Fund is trying to save this Turner painting for the nation (the UK that is). Click on the painting and "buy a brushstroke."

Making whoopee

When I returned to work after my six-year-old was born, I automatically became one of those mothers who are convinced they would be infinitely happier at home. These mothers think that quitting work would rub away the years on their face and boost both the IQ and life-chances of teenie-tinies who do not yet know how to cut up their own food.

My work-station consolation was a silver-framed, happy days photograph of the children and the thought of a patient and loving nanny at home who cared for my children with greater efficiency and better humour than I ever did. We saw our former nanny during the weekend in London and, about the moment she gave the children whoopee cushions, I went off her. Whoopee cushions - there is a good toy for the train especially when your husband insists you sit in the quiet coach because the other carriages are so busy.

The "quiet coach" has signs which dictate the terms of the peace: no mobile phone calls; electronic equipment to be used in silent mode and "chatting" (a past-time the railway company obviously does not approve of) to be done "quietly and with consideration for others." As my husband pointed out, the signs said nothing about whoopee cushions.

We took up our seats, blew up the cushions and the party began. "Daddy, daddy, listen." The whoopee cushions did their job. A gift, as they say, which just kept giving. It gave so loudly and with such ferocity that one of them popped and the boys were forced instead to decorate their baby sister with googly bloodshot eyeballs, drooping in brass loops from black plastic spectacles. Another gift from the ex-nanny who does not have to live with that picture in her head.

I heard the slightest "tut" as a fellow passenger in court shoes and a neat business suit marched by our mobile joke shop on her way to the buffet. She met my eye and glared. I looked at the boys realising with sharp horror that she was not just tutting at the grotesquery of the babe and the tomfoolery of my sons. How do you explain to a stranger who despises you that your children have not just spent 55 minutes burping their little bottoms off? Which is worse: "I'm so sorry my children are inveterate bottom burpers," or "I'm so sorry, I let my children play with whoopee cushions in the quiet coach. Shoot me now but put a silencer on the gun first."

Monday, January 22, 2007

A translation from the original

An American reader asked what a "health visitor" was.

A health visitor is someone who arrives on your doorstep soon after you have returned from an overcrowded maternity ward with your new baby who screams like a banshee if put down for a blink. You are so frightened by the noise that you decide you are a believer in kangaroo care and that you do not want to put the baby down even for a cup of tea. This is the first of many lies you tell yourself as a mother.

You are slightly concerned you cannot see the cat but you are holding the baby, so this is of less significance than it might otherwise be. You neither know, nor care, where your husband is. You do not like him anymore. You are, ofcourse, holding the baby when there is a ring on the doorbell. You are wearing a grubby cotton waffle dressing gown. It is tied with a worn pair of black nylon maternity tights and you sport a muslin square on your shoulder. You and the muslin square do not smell nice.

"Hello," says the woman on the doorstep. "I am your health visitor. This is Mary Jane," and she points to a large girl with a bob standing next to her. "She is training to be a health visitor. I hope it is alright if she sits in."
Black-eyed with exhaustion and grim-faced from the agony of learning how to breastfeed, you nod at Mary Jane who nods back. You think: "If Mary Jane is going to be a health visitor, she should lose some weight."
"Right," says the health visitor, settling herself into the only armchair without laundry on it. Mary Jane perches her ample posterior on the arm of the sofa and finds the cat. The health visitor gets out a clipboard and a biro.
"We haven't met before have we? How are you getting on? Is that the baby? Sweet Have you ever thought about suicide?"
She waits, pen poised over a tickbox.
The noose is knotted and swinging expectantly from the plastic flex going into a dusty cream lampshade on the landing. In the sitting-room, you widen your eyes slightly.
"No. Gosh. Suicidal thoughts? Golly. No, I'm fine, thank-you."
She ticks a box.

That is a health visitor.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A blog ate my life

It is conceivable that I have slipped into schizophrenia. Either that or the blog has taken an unholy grip on my subconscious. Then again, Jesus could be speaking to me, although I have always supposed that as a good Catholic girl, if anyone celestial wanted a word, it would be Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Many sinister tales surround the one true faith and I am not talking the Da Vinci code. Catholic children know that English Protestants stole all the best churches, leaving the faithful with red brick sheds and quite a good legal case if we ever went to court with it. They know that there was a time when masses were said in fear behind locked wooden doors and that the Tudor air hung heavy with the smell of spilt papist blood. All this by the way, seems like yesterday to some catholics. They are also told of the many apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to good children. When, year after year, she does not come, you ask yourself "Why not?" I had the same questions when I was little and my favorite nun, with her severe habit and grandma face, told her pupils how God had looked around and found the best, purest, girl he could and chosen her to bear the Son of God. The other children at their wooden desks, murmured their freckled approval of divine good taste. I thought: "Pshaw. That Mary. What did she have that I don't."

Maybe Mary overheard that remark. Maybe that is why she never came knocking. But even if it is not her, I am definitely hearing voices and I cannot think that is ever a good thing. Look where it got Joan of Ark. Nowhere you would want to be. Apart from heaven I suppose but I am not convinced being burnt alive is a price worth paying, even for heaven.

A narrator has moved into my head. This morning we had breakfast with friends back at the city farm again ( did I mention how much I love life on the farm?) The voice said: "This morning I had breakfast with friends at the city farm..." and here I am writing it.

I picked up a magazine while I was there (as you do at the farm). It was full of suggestions of what you could do and where you could go if you had young children in London. In it, was an advertisement offering "life coaching for children". I nudged my husband's arm and pointed to it.
"Look. If we lived in London, the children could have life coaching," I said.
He looked at me. "Alternatively, we could just let them grow up."

He bent his head back over his breakfast and forked up some baked beans and a sliver of crisped bacon.
"The blog thing then. How's it going?"
I cut and buttered a finger of toast for the baby.
"Good, a nice lady in Syracuse has read it."
"Excellent," he said, chewing. "Syracuse, eh?"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lost boys

Who says God does not have a sense of humour? Today, we spent six and a half hours getting to London for another children's birthday party and guess where it was. A city farm.
To me, the city farm is yet more evidence that nobody really has to go live in the country. The boys and the baby saw animals and got lots of fresh air in between the balloon fights and butter-creamed cake. The city even "does" the country better. At the city farm, there was a cafe with proper coffee. One Northumberland cafe I go to boasts "instant cappuccinos" on its menu and they are not talking about the wait. The farm also offered classes in upholstery, stone sculpture and bike maintenance with particular attention given to "wheel truing" - I have always wanted a true wheel. Best of all, there were helpful signs attached to the animal paddocks. I never knew, for instance, that sheep have very good memories and "can remember a face up to two years after a first meeting." That is better than me.

London still makes me heartsore though. It is the feeling you have when someone you love leaves you although I know I did the leaving. I am ashamed of myself for the teenage anxst of it all. So I moved. Big deal. I should shrug in a sophisticated way, inhale hard from a cigarette held in a costume jewelled hand and slowly blow a smoke ring into the already cloudy air. I do not live here anymore. I do not understand how I have left the city and yet carry it with me.

I think I have been in quite a strange mood though. I felt the day started oddly. We had not managed to snatch breakfast before we left the house in a bid to catch a 7.30am train. My husband had driven too fast down a dark and dangerous road and I had been worried throughout that we would miss it. Once we parked the car, we figured that if we ran, there was just seven minutes left to buy food before we crossed the bridge over the tracks onto the platform. Standing with the pushchair, I queued for five croissants, coffees and warm milk at the coffee stand on the concourse. The pressure mounted as I glanced at the large, wrought-iron clock which hangs over the heads of passengers warning them not to be tardy. The boys, muffled in their red wool hats and overly long scarves, were pulling at me and it was the sort of cold that makes you pull your shoulders close to your ears and wish you were anywhere else. One of those old men you find only in railway stations shuffled over. He asked me how old the boys and the baby were and stooped down to carress her small silky head. "A boy?" he asked. I did that up-down rapid calculation you do to decide whether the stranger spells danger and decided he was just sad and lonely.
"I had a boy but he died at seven," he told me. This is the moment at which the coffee seller decided to ask me what I wanted. I ignored her.
"That's terrible," I said. "You don't forget do you? What happened?"
He told me the boy had a hole in the heart.
"In four years, I lost six people," he said.
"How dreadful," I said, as you do.
I have been angry at myself all day because, anxious as I was to get us all some breakfast, there was a moment I turned away from him to order the milk and pastries for my own little family and I never asked him his son's name. I should have.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Nobody panic

A nice American reader just told me he had to wikipedia Northumberland to see where it was. How cool is that? I wonder if I tell the local people that I have been acting as an ambassador for their country, in cyberspace y'kna, whether they will douse their burning brands before they set light to the house.
When I was not dealing with the backwash from Andrew Sullivan's kind mention, I was at the doctors with the children who were due to get their jabs. I am convinced that I am already marked down as a bad mother with the health visitor (God, don't you just hate health visitors?) because I regularly forget to turn up for one or other child's appointment. It is not that I do not care about my children's future welfare. I am their mother and when it suits me, I care a lot. It is possible, however, that I do not write things down as I should. If at all. Apart from on my hand. I write things there because you cannot lose your hand, unless you are very unlucky. You do wash it though which is where my system occasionally falls down.
I went on to lose further brownie points with the nurses because we are still not MMRing. I realise this is an incredibly "yesterday" standpoint, the debate has moved on and we probably should be ramming needles into them willy-nilly for the sake of the public good. But we spent so long agonising about it for the eldest, I cannot bear to go there again.
After the deeply unfashionable MMR confession, I then had to admit to the entire waiting room, that I had lost not just the baby's "little red book" where all the medical notes are kept, but the four-year-old's as well which made the nurses sigh deeply and the other waiting parents look at me in wonder. "Call yourself a mother?" hung unspoken in the air. You just know they all keep their children's little red books in manilla folders with the words "Children's little red books" marked on them. At least I didn't fall for the obvious trap laid by the nurse who shot the baby up, after I had been chatting to her about how violent boys can be.
"All you can do is say to them, 'I don't hit you, so don't you hit your brother'."
Nope. Wasn't falling for that one.
But the closest they came to calling social services was the moment I started picking up leaflets from the windowsill with the dusty money tree on it. Picking up leaflets in the doctors' surgery is definitely something no-one should ever do. It is akin, up here at least, to taking out an advert in the local paper admitting you have gonorrhoea. I hasten to add that was not the leaflet I picked up. Instead, I gathered together a little package of paper guides on "panic", "shyness and social anxiety", "stress and anxiety" and "stress". I was intrigued by the fine distinctions at play. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the nurse watching which leaflet I was picking up next. She was thinking: "It'll be the gonorrehoea next you know."
The guides, it turns out, are stuffed full of handy hints like this one from the panic leaflet.
Theses words are written in really big letters, some of them in bold, presumably in case anyone who might have been reading the leaflet had been relaxing for a change.
Meanwhile, the shyness and social anxiety leaflet warns that if you think you suffer from social anxiety: "You may think 'I'm boring' or 'I'm strange'" and goes on "After you've been in a social situation you think 'that was awful', 'I looked so stupid'." Doesn't everyone feel like that all of the time? Apparently not, I have just been suffering from acute shyness and social anxiety all these years and all I needed was a leaflet. Anyway, I find it hard to believe that anyone suffering from shyness and social anxiety would even pick up the leaflet. Someone might see them and shout very loudly: "Nurse, this woman just picked up the shyness leaflet."

Birth pangs of a blog

Gosh, blog god Andrew Sullivan just linked to me. Do not tell my husband - I have promised him no-one will ever read this.
Actually, he would not mind if someone Stateside took a quick peek into our lives, he just does not want anyone living within a 50 mile radius of us reading it.
I must say blogging is nearly as exciting as childbirth and a lot less messy

It's a free country

When I turned on my computer this morning, my hands went cold at the thought of people I didn't call Aunty, reading my blog. I never knew fear did that to you. I should have made pastry. Thankyou very much to anyone kind enough to leave a comment - even the slightly mean ones. Better out than in, as they say. Up to now, I haven't had to reply to any comments because I haven't had any readers - apart from Aunty (sorry about that hottub story by the way Aunty.) It is probably breaking blogger etiquette to reply to the comments on an actual post but until I figure it all out - just for today:
1.*My recipe (rather than one snatched from the net)for chocolate rice crispy cake.
Buy rice crispies. Tell the boys to put back the cheesey quavers, blackcurrant fruitshoot and 17 comics complete with 17 unnecessary toys sellotaped to the front cover. Ignore wails of "But I really wanted one of those." Stand in queue at local supermarket. Think up 53 retorts to the hatchet-faced shop assistant I always get, who seems to have taken a personal dislike to my children. Pay with a £20 note just to irritate her. Leave the shop. Return.
*Buy very organic and expensive chocolate. Hope not to get hatchet-faced assistant. Fail to recall any one of the 53 retorts when she looms up behind the till and snarls at the four-year-old for standing on the conveyor belt with a shopping basket on his head.
*Return home. Realise six-year-old has technically shoplifted the quavers. Turn on TV for the children. Make cup of tea. Eat large amount of chocolate and bag of cheesey quavers. Feel slightly sick.
*Break hypnotic spell of Scooby Doo to drag children into kitchen for mummy time. This, after all, is why I quit the day-job. Explain empty quavers packet away to small and accusatory inch-high private eyes.
*Melt chocolate.
*Allow four-year-old to pour in box of rice crispies.
*Realise this was a mistake.
*Clean up half a box of rice crispies from floor, kitchen surface, top of the oven and room upstairs that we never go in.
*Allow both boys to stir concoction with wooden spoon.
*Tell boys that hitting each with a wooden spoon is a bad thing to do.
*Realise there are no bun cases in the house
*Drive to supermarket for buncases. Hope not to get surly assistant. Give her £50 note. Smile sweetly.
*Return home. Scoop gungy spoonfuls of crisping chocolate gore into bun cases.
*Carry over to fridge with immense pride.
*Wash baby thoroughly.
(My recipe for pastry before anyone asks me for it is similar but less chocolatey.)
2.My reasons for agreeing to move to Northumberland (which I have apparently failed to explain adequately to anyone at all, including myself. This is probably as good enough time as any to do it.)
Love, simply. Mine for my husband and my husband's for this bleak and beautiful placeland. I do not know whether he realises quite how difficult it has been. I hope he does not really. I do not want him to think that I am being a martyr, all bloody and limbless. I agreed to come because he wanted it so desperately and I thought I should be willing to try something new. There aren't many laughs in that are there?
3. My voting intentions.
Iain Dale kindly linked to me on his fascinating pages and suggested in his comment I might like to vote Tory in thanks to him rather than Labour in tribute to Tom Watson who linked to me first. I had been thinking Tom could play Carlo Ponti to my Sophia Loren in the movie. Then I realised Ponti was dead? So maybe not.
This is an interesting one, because I think I am probably just the demographic David Cameron wants to vote for his party. Grateful though I am to Iain Dale and much as I would love to make it onto his blogroll, I have to be honest, Berwick upon Tweed is a Liberal Democrat constituency. Alan Beith, MP has 53% of the electorate and a majority of more than 8,500. He spends his entire life trying to dual the deathtrap known as the A1 so that post offices can travel up and down to Edinburgh in safety. That is when he is not trying to stop the RAF spooking the foxes and telling the barboured countryfolk they have a right to hunt cows. All in all, I do not think a Tory vote from me would count for that much. Sorry about that Iain. I am also slightly uneasy about the blogging equivalent of a casting couch but since my new-found happiness in Blogland is at stake, I am willing in principle, if enough readers are at stake, to vote for both Labour and Iain Dale's party - although that would mean voting twice. Perhaps I could move to Birmingham.Wife in the Midlands? Hmm.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Define "special"

I have my first official link from someone else's blogsite to mine and am absurdly pleased about it. On a scale of one to 10, about as pleased as Dorothy was when the Emerald City appeared on her technicolour horizon. Tom Watson, the definitive blogging MP, has listed me on his blogroll. Pausing for a quick sigh of happiness and a glance at my sparkling shoes, this means that someone has now read my blog who didn't go to school with me and doesn't share my gene pool. To hell with Iraq, I may even have to vote Labour at the next election to say thankyou.
Today has been rather a good day all-round. I spent the morning being a "special person" at school and was awarded a certificate with red felt-tipped hearts, a daffodil and a chocolate rice crispy cake by my sons. There was a slight vested interest at stake which worried me. If I came in to pick up my award (along with a cup of tea) , my boys also received a chocolate rice crispy cake. Sometimes though, it is best not to look too closely at the quid pro quo, as I am sure Lord Levy would tell you.
To continue the political theme of this blog, the children have apparently been learning about special people - like the Queen. This has involved drawing the Queen's jaggedy- toothed head on a stamp, making a corrugated cardboard crown and a consequent lecture from mummy explaining that the Queen is not actually a special person (apologies to the royalists out there). She is infact an ordinary person just like you and me who only got the job because she was born into a particular family and actually Helen Mirren could do it just as well.
If you cannot brainwash your own children, what is the point of having them?
By the way, for anyone who stopped by yesterday. She left the dog.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Do you take the dog?

Two people I love a lot are breaking up. It is all so sad, it makes me want to cry, cry, cry. On paper, everything should be perfect, they are both beautiful, carry around doctorates in the sort of science that makes me go cross-eyed and have the world's loveliest, plumpiest, one-year-old daughter. They are healthy, creative, have thousands in the bank and live in a rural idyll.
Like so many other modern marriages, this one has lasted just two years. It's on the canvas and being counted out. Maybe it will all come right, maybe the fairytale wedding will have a happy ending or maybe not. At the moment, there are great puddles of hurt everywhere. Today, the wife moved out and took the child with her. The dog is the child's best friend. Does the mother take the dog for the sake of her child - suddenly displaced and daddyless? When the poor hero of this sad tale gets home tonight, it will be to a house turned upside down and emptied out of its family. As he boils the kettle for a cup of tea, he will be staring into a new and lonelier future. His child will wake up tomorrow and go to bed without a kiss from her father. In his absence, a suited developer went round the house deciding whether to buy it.
I hope when she goes, she leaves him the dog.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dollies and Disability

We had to go into school this morning for a daddy's reading day which entailed TW reading a book called Vesuvius Poovius which is all about poo and how to get rid of it. Not quite sure if that is what they had in mind when they asked my husband in to read but the children seemed to like it. I am, however, disowning responsibility if any of the other mothers start telling me little Johnny is stashing his number two's under the frontroom rug.
While I was there the baby crawled across the classroom to the doll's house. As she pulled out the dollies, each was revealed as more unfortunate than the next. Among the inhabitants were an old lady clutching a zimmer frame - fair enough, grannies do get that way. Granny had a lot on though, living there as she did with her middle-aged son on crutches, another bespectacled momma's boy with calipers and a blind daughter who could not move anywhere without her white stick. Infact she could not really move with it. Meanwhile a little granddaughter dominated the sitting room in an overly large wheelchair while a deaf black teenager, presumably a lovechild to the calipered one, sported an NHS hearing aid and learnt signlanguage. Two other elderly wooden dolls lay around on a bed upstairs, presumably dementing quietly while two child dolls, fresh into their 15th foster placement contemplated arson and the doll that looked closest to being a whole-bodied adult considered coming out as a moulded plastic lesbian. Talk about The Curse of the House of Usher. If there had been a cat, it would have had three legs. Apparently, local education authorities require schools to buy Caribbean and Asian dolls at the same time as Caucasian. Quite right too - the children up here never see a black face. But all things in moderation and that was more of a care-home than a doll's house. According to the classroom assistant, it is all about diversity and inclusion. Really? What about escapism and imagination?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Babes in Gotham city

The boys went to yet another birthday party yesterday, this one, a fancy-dress discotheque. They have an infinitely better social life than I do. I seem to spend an awful lot of time handing round greasy pizza slices to their classmates, but at least that is better than my mum and dad who are currently locked into a hectic round of internments and funeral teas.
The problem with children's birthday parties is, ofcourse, other people's children. This time was no different. The parents of the birthday girl were far too involved cooking up smiley faces and miniature sausage rolls to supervise the party-goers. When two four-year-old boys squared up for a fight, I was faced with the eternal dilemma of whether you attempt to parent someone else's children or shrug, turn away and think "Thank God, you're not mine." Initially, I tried to ignore them, as you do, but the pushing and shoving went on. I looked round the church hall, desperately trying to spot a mother who might be willing to claim ownership of one of them, but nada. The boys were rapidly taking on that Friday night look of "Did you spill my lemonade?" Reluctantly, baby on hip, I went over.
"Look, this is a party," I reasoned as I knelt beside them. (I have seen those How To Be A Good Parent - At Least When The Camera Is On" programmes. "No fighting."
One of them promptly shoved the other.
"Hey, hey, hey," my voice grew slightly less liberal. "Where is your mummy?"
Batman looked at me, "I don't have a mummy."
"God," I thought to myself, "I have found the room's only orphan and I am pooping the party for him." I decided to pick on the other one before the orphan started crying loudly.
"Where is your mummy then?" I turned to the cowboy. I cannot say his mummy looked as grateful as she might have done when I interrupted her cup of tea to explain why I had brought her little hard man back to her. Infact, she looked distinctly hostile. I don't think she was a fan of the old African "It takes a whole village to raise a child" school of parenting.
But what are you supposed to do? We had already let some ghastly brat hold on to and then unwrap the pass the parcel present when he really should have passed it on to the child next to him. I only just stopped myself pulling it out of his jammy fingers and slapping him around the head with it.
As for sexual stereotyping, do not get me started on why all the boys were dressed as superheros while all the girls were in pink and mauve tuile with tiaras and glittery slippers.
"You know," I whispered to one Cinderella in a quiet corner. "You could be a superhero too next time."
She moved away to stand with Sleeping Beauty. They regarded me silently, holding hands and plucking at their opalescent sequinned trim.
"You don't have to be a princess, you know. You could fight for truth and goodness."
"But we look pretty," Sleeping Beauty told me and they skipped away.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Haunted houses

Apparently, while I slept last night, the baby was weeping uncontrollably and went to look for me under my pillow. "You'd have caved," my husband boasted manfully this morning. "She was utterly pathetic." He sobs in imitation of her over the breakfast table and she gazes at him from my arms as if she hates him.
Next door is hardly a haven. It has become a strange, silent place. A house which is ours but is not a home any more. It is not that it is hostile. I was perfectly easy as I slept in the high wooden bed we have set up in the frontroom infront of the coal fire. But, even with the fire flickering, the air in the house is catch-your-breath cold and still and the rooms feel like they are waiting for something or someone - us hopefully - or, at least for us to send round a man with a mallet. It wants to be a home again I think as it was for 47 years, to the elderly couple who used to live there. Perhaps it misses them. The chap was lovely. He was very kind and welcoming and used to be the farm manager here. The cottage was tithed and when he died, only a matter of months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, his widow went on living there for a couple of years. She didn't drive and it is an isolated spot and lonely. I think too, it must feel very odd to sit as a silent widow with your puzzle books and jigsaws. In the same chair, in the same room, just as you have done night after night but without him. You must look up expecting to see him, you must think you hear him moving about upstairs but, ofcourse, he is not there. It is just you and your plastic-wrapped library book. She decided to move into the village when another house became available. Every week or so, I drive down to the new estate where she lives in a warm and cosy bungalow and I drink her tea and eat her cherry cake, her puzzlebooks resting by my plate on the tiled coffee table.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Mama? Mama?"

I was thrown out of the house last night - well maybe, not so much thrown as eased out gently with a flashlight and a duvet and told to sleep next door. My husband, let's call him TW, has had enough of the baby's nocturnal breastfeeding. Since we are pushed for space and there is nowhere else for her to go, the baby's cot is in our room. Unlike my husband, the baby rather likes her nightly routine and, in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, I have been unable to resist her plaintive bleatings of "Mama? Mama?" in the cold darkness. She starts up and I stumble out of bed, pluck her from the cot and sink back into the bedding with my little victorious suckling. As she sees it, I'm lying there and it's not like I'm doing anything else. But TW is right, it has gone on long enough. She's nearly 15 months old and God knows, I could do with a night's sleep. The mini-bar is officially closed.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Books and buckteeth

Feeling much more together now we have made a decision about the house and staying here - at least for the moment. Frankly I would rather make a bad decision than no decision. I hate living in limbo.
Went out into the rainy darkness to my bookgroup last night. Bookgroups, blogs, downshifting - how zeitgeist am I? Unusually, we had an author - or should I say Author. I was vaguely uncomfortable about the Victorian scene of the creative man all white beard, fob watch, ivory handled cane and distant gaze sitting in the damask armchair while his female disciples asked respectful, twittery questions and hung on his every word but what can you do?
Nice chap, cabinet maker in his real life. After his father died, the cabinet maker wrote a book about his dad escaping Poland at the start of the Second World War - a memoire of a displaced person. I really didn't like the book. It rambled and was very dull but you can't say that when a nice man has driven four hours from the wilds of Scotland to talk to you, can you? It's out of print now so this was a big deal for him. Instead, I said it was "lyrical" and "beautiful written" which is true in parts but not so lyrical you would want to read it. We even had dinner in his honour rather than tea and cake. Unfortunately, I had forgotten we were having dinner so I had already eaten. Politeness then dictated I had to sit down and look like fish lasagne and garlic bread was just what my life had been missing.
As the plates were being cleared from the table though, he made the mistake of asking the group whether anyone had any criticism of the book. That is what he said but what he really meant was: "This is winding up - can we keep talking about my book please? Say something to warm my heart's cockles that I can think about as I make my cabinets." But one of the group only heard the words and not the meaning behind the words. "Well I thought it was difficult to get into and confusing in places like when you...", she chattered on. This is the literary equivalent of telling a mother her child has buckteeth. Consequently, his cockles distinctly chilly, the delightful man looked slightly hurt and fell back to nodding a lot.
I am always amazed when people don't hear what is behind the words. Another member of the group leant forward across the table to earnestly inquire whether you could still get a book published if you had a great idea for one but your writing wasn't much cop. This woman obviously wants to write a book if she hasn't started already. There was a whooshing sound from the heavens as an enormous jackbook came down on her literary dreams and another member airily dismissed such aspirations: "No. Never. That just wouldn't work. It's the same with students and essays. If they can't write, there is no point and did I mention your child has a monobrow?"

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mouses and houses.

I have never had so little control over my life - ever. Unless you count that one time in the hot-tub when far too much wine had been drunk and a guard had to be posted incase I slipped beneath the bubble-filled waves and was permanently lost at sea.
Here I am in windswept, muddy Northland when I have Beatrix Potter's townmouse written all over me. I know the marriage vows say something about "in sickness and in health" - I am sure, however, they didn't mention "up in the North and down in the South" because I wouldn't have signed up for that. I come from Leeds - I have "done" the North and you know what, I like dear old London town just fine. I feel like I am a character in one of those epic sagas of a Northern lass who gets hersen' down to London and suffers vicissitudes along the way, oh yes. But does she let them get her down? She does not. She's got grit has our heroine and she makes a reet success of her life in London and she gets a posh job and brass and nice frocks and a fella and then bugger me, if the fates don't decide to blow our scrappy heroine back up North to the mud she thought she had escaped so long ago.
But it is not just the mud and the loneliness. Three small children hang off our heroine at every available opportunity (or at least when they can't find the nanny) and they should know that really their Mam is not just their Mam, she is a career girl. Well maybe she is a little passed her sell-by for the term "girl" but there was a time when she definitely wanted to conquer the world. I mean, in what chapter did it all start to go so horribly wrong?
Was it that fateful moment, clutching a tear-stained photo of her little ones, she handed in her resignation at t' Big t'Office where she had t'Big Salary. Now, her glory days behind her, she works at home and when I say "works at home", at the moment she pretends to work at home because she hasn't actually done anything she got paid for since October. Soon, the nanny will notice and then there will be talk in't t'village about our soft-focus heroine being no better than she should be.
Anyway, enough of her. Cut. Pull focus and back to me. And the house.
To say we have dithered about what to do about the house is putting mildly. Let's spend nearly nine months waiting for planning permission to knock two houses together and go through a very painful tendering process. Yes let's do that. Then let's take some advice from estate agents and our accountant and decide we can't knock them together after all because we won't get back a big chunk of the £120,000 building costs when we come to sell one big house rather than the two little ones. OK, then let's decide to go househunting. (This involves vast and incomprehensible arrays of numbers on bits of paper and calls to a variety of building societies - some of whom laugh at us.)
I know what! On the same day (today) as having a meeting with a prospective builder about the original plans, let's go see another house we could buy for the laughable sum of £615,000 which we could just about afford if I sell the children's kidneys. Luckily for them, I didn't like it although my husband did. If, however, he thinks I am letting him decide which house we live in up here, he has another think coming. By four o'clock in the afternoon, we are so fed up with not knowing what to do, we decide we will go back to London. That's straight then. By 7pm, I decide that is a bad idea because we will feel we have been beaten by the system and if we go back to London I want it to be for positive reasons and not because we can't make up our mind between scrambled or fried eggs on a morning.
There was a time when I used to be quite good at making decisions. The latest decision, incase you are interested, is to knock the two houses together (what do estate agents and accountants know anyway?) and stay. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow. Over breakfast when I shall be having cornflakes. Or porridge.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sofa so good

We bought a sofa yesterday. Having put up with a two-seater sofa since we moved up here, I finally rebelled and insisted I wanted something I could lie down on. Fair's fair. There is nowhere to go out to at night up here which means I am forced to lie on the sofa and watch TV. I wouldn't do that normally.I'd be out at gallery openings, first nights and glamorous parties - honest. You'd have seen the pictures in those magazines you read at your desk when you are supposed to be working. Even though I am very short, a two seater sofa means my feet jut out over the end. Every night as I gaze at my feet, the irritation grows. It is the sort of thing that Balkan countries would have called the "The Sofa Question" and gone to war over - hence a trip to one of those large sofa showrooms. I didn't think these places actually existed outside the adverts of lounging beautiful couples, but they do. The only problem I had shopping for the sofa is that I am no longer one pedicured half of a lounging couple, I am the nail-quick biting mother of three noisy children who all had to come along. The two boys decided to treat sofa shopping as another soft play opportunity while the baby just screamed to draw more attention to us incase anyone was missing her brothers' antics. The only thing more irritating than the cheery sales assistant pretending to find my children charming ("Is that you making all that noise? Is it? Is it?") was the fact she demanded an extra £120 for fabric protection. Obviously we didn't have to take them up on that, she told us, gazing adoringly at my two boys dismantling her dried flower display. "But, I think you'll need it." Ofcourse I need it. Why then don't they just spray it on automatically? Because they see an opportunity to slap an extra £100 surcharge on "Wimmin with mucky kids" presumably. I should have bartered for it with a child.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Sex and chocolate cake

There you see, I start writing about sex and I finally get a comment from a human being. (Merci, Pierre.) My only other comment which attached itself to a blog with a pound sign in it, was a spam message promising me "secret ways to earn money" if I read on. I didn't, which could explain why I am still stoney-broke. Obviously Pierre and I have a future - in the ether at least.
If Pierre isn't enough for me, well I will always have cake.

My five-year-old turned six yesterday (unsurprisingly, he will from henceforth be known as "the six-year-old"). He and his brother (previously known as the "three year old, henceforward, etc, etc) had a hideously noisy party yesterday afternoon. God, I hate children's parties. Does that make me a bad mother? No, I don't think so. It's all the other things I do that make me a bad mother - start drinking at 4.30pm while I make their tea, shout so loudly I scare myself, object on religious principles to sewing their nametapes into their school uniforms. Anyway my six-year-old just seems to take far too much for granted. Enormous wooden play castle meant for the garden and constructed in our teeny, tiny lounge for the birthday morning and then giftwrapped. "Fine. Thanks. Can I watch 101 Dalmatians now?" Party for 28 children. "Yeah it was good. Are there any more presents to open?" By rights, he should have drifted off to bed utterly blissed out and dreamt of balloons and icecream mountains. He remained studiously phlegmatic about the day and had a nightmare his brother's head fell off. On the upside, there is a large amount of uneaten chocolate cake which I am steadily ploughing my way through. I figure if my husband is going to make me live in the North-east, I will get fat in silent protest.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pierre et moi

Clown: Hughes Leglise-Bataille

Frankly I don't think I am having enough sex with enough people to justify a blog. Since I now have a toe-hold in Blogland, I thought I would have a trawl through the more famous blogs to see what was out there. Golly. It seems to me that no-one will ever want to read this apart from those I love dearly. Who would want to read about my leek beds when they could be sliding around the satin sheets of a Girl with a One-Track Mind and Belle de Jour or the affairs of Washingtonnie or the Petite Anglaise? I am not even sure I should be wasting my time writing the blog when I could be reading up on my compatriots peccadillos. Maybe I could invent a torrid, strictly virtual amour just to spice up my tales of toddler tantrums and middle-aged grumps. Maybe I will call him Pierre and in those moments when I begin to bore myself, I shall whisper his name into the electronic ether. "Ah Pierre. I saw him today. His hand brushed against mine. The feeling was electric. "Eh oop, pet," he said. "A'reet then?"

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A happy and gay New Year to all

I enjoyed New Year's Eve so much more than Christmas although I did get a bit peopled out. On New Year's Day I counted that I had social exchanges with more than 30 people and that doesn't include repeat social exchanges with the same person later in the day. Neighbours, up for a couple of days festivities in their holiday cottages, pop in and out of the kitchen like we are all in an episode of The Archers without the tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum tum-ti-tum-ti-tumty. Neighbours can come as a bit of a shock when it is usually just us chickens. Anyway New Year's Eve, I hosted not only a children's birthday party complete with chocolate fountain and Happy Feet cake for my now four-year-old (excellent timing for a birthday I always think) and a dinner party for two of my old friends - urban and gay and two of my new friends - rural and definitely not gay. We ate, drank and scored the year we were leaving behind (four out of 10 in my case)and then we thought ahead to what we wanted out of 2007 (some idea of where we should live longterm and more patience with the children). By far the best moment though, was the audible gasp from the very straight Northumberland farmer as the bongs tolled for midnight and London's fireworks began, my beloved boys wished each other a "Happy new year darling" and plunged into a lip-smacking, luscious smackeroonie. I swear that must have been the first and probably the last time said farmer will ever witness a gay kiss. Marvellous.