Thursday, March 29, 2007

More pants

"When I am king," my four-year-old started up again. His brother interrupted: "You can't be king. You have to be born into a king's family to be king." The four-year-old looked momentarily disappointed. He thought for a moment or two: "When I am a policeman, everyone will wear pants on their head."

Au revoir

This is how I want to die. My husband was talking to someone today who has just lost his mother. She was 102. She died from old age and exhaustion (understandable I think). Her room was bathed in French Riviera sunshine and full of spring flowers. I imagine it to have white painted shutters but maybe I am wrong; maybe the curtains were of white muslin and moved gently in the warm breeze. She shared a glass of champagne with her son in the morning. It must have been chilled. Her son went out for lunch and she slipped away while he was gone. I could do that.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Playing House

I like and trust my builder - he is conscientious, wants to solve problems that come up, is helpful, intelligent, reliable and just very nice all round. He would be good to have as a brother-in-law. He built his own beautiful house even futher North than we are so he looks at the issue of costs from both sides - making a living and the "Oh my God, you have to be kidding" side. I asked him for a list of costs for all those jobs we want doing which are not in the spec. I do wish I hadn't.

"List of prices for extras
Stripping and Danish oiling beams £300
Stripping and repainting existing windows £335
Cottage B, master bedroom, en-suite, stairwell and corridor to
Cottage A. stripping wallpaper, two coats emulsion to walls and ceilings,
undercoating and glossing woodwork (assuming re-plastered) £850

Making good and re-plastering in A. £1,500
As above to stairwell and corridor in B. £500
Removing floor and replacing with concrete sub floor with damp
proof membrane and insulation in kitchen- extra cost negated by
builders saving from floor in barn.
Roof- extra cost of using slate- cost removed as goodwill gesture
(saving retrieved from scaffold hire)

Installing DPM(damp proof membrane), insulation and oak flooring to new family lounge and boiler room £2,100 (Flooring included in price)
Laying oak floor to kitchen (fixed to 50mm x 50mm battens on architects
recommendation) same arrangements as above £1,700.

Other extras still to price
repairing existing windows
installing client’s loft ladder, plaster boarding sloping ceilings and laying chipboard flooring to loft area above boiler room and part of family room
forming shelving to wall in new corridor
making good fireplace in family room. Installing multi fuel stove will be about double the cost of a conventional fire
Forming fireplace, flue and chimney to accommodate client’s stove in barn
Taking down garden wall, installing proper foundation and re-building to client’s design"

There is a certain irony here. The house is like an art installation, the smell of dusty pink plaster in the air, ersatz snatches of ancient paper shouting out pop hits from the seventies as it clings to its youth on the walls. As you pick your way around doorframes emptied of their doors and walk through the disappeared walls, you look for rooms that are not there. Your eye is caught by pipework twisted off like an unfinished sentence, the hanging, questioning flex and exposed brickwork taking you back to basics. The house, the two houses, are a statement on the grammar of your life - mixed up and incoherent. We are struggling to bring it all together, men are sweating out their days to brick-build our dreams and yet I can see it all slipping away. Can you have a dream house and an unhappy child living in it? I do not think so. We had a successful meeting at school this week; we figured our way through to strategies that will protect my six-year-old and get him past his feelings of isolation. The only problem is my son does not yet know that his problems are over; that happy days are here again. He did not want to go to school today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bud Stop

I started learning German yesterday as you do when you go to bed at between two and three in the morning every day and you are so busy you think your head might drop off. A couple of months ago, it seemed like a really good idea. One of my closest friends just moved to Germany at the behest of her husband (sounds somehow familiar) and I thought: "I will be going to see them regularly," (I have managed it once so far,) "I must learn German." I really like the idea of learning German and another mother from school agreed to teach me. Sitting at her kitchen table, I learnt: "Guten Tag", the word for tour operator "die Reiseleiterin" and how to say "Mein Name ist Hannelore Herzog" - ofcourse my name is not Hannelore Herzog but it might come in handy. Perhaps I will call myself Hannelore when I visit my friends. I had the lesson and walked back through brilliant morning sunshine to the house. I thought to myself: "How I feel right this minute is probably uncomfortably close to insanity." When I got back my husband asked quizzically : "Why are you learning German? You know there's no time for self- improvement." I growled at him, in German.

Later, we went up to school to discuss strategies to address our concerns about our son's various injuries and relationships. The meeting went well on a number of fronts not least the fact that I managed not to cry during it. Close run thing at one point but just scraped through. I do not think a parent is ever at their strongest in a staffroom, even with a china cup of tea in their hands. Part of you is thinking: "Should I be here?" and "Now I'm for it". I wonder whether teachers ever feel that way.

Thank God though for teachers who do not want to see an isolated child stalk their corridors and haunt their playground. The school is determined to stop the hurt. Among various proposals, playground buddies and a friendship bench were mentioned. I love the idea of a friendship bench. An honest place where you admit a primitive need. A bench on which to sit while you wait for someone to cross the painted asphalt and take your hand with its bitten down finger nails in their warm and grubby one. Someone who will say those magic words: "Come play." There is an idea for an up and coming politician. Pledge to buy a friendship bench for every school. Call it Gordon's friendship bench, or Dave's. Think of all those votes piling up in the future - talk about the Jesuitical "get them while they are young". How grateful would you be to a politician who gave you a friend to play with every time you were lonely as a child?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Oyster Oyster

It is not often you get to see a farmer with his oysters. Man and shellfish in perfect harmony. But such is the life of one Northumberland farmer these days. We drove out over grassy pastures to an isolated stretch of coast opposite Holy Island, the seat of British christianity. It is a bleak and beautiful shore where the oysters grow; a strangely disorienting No Man's Land between the North Sea and the sandy beach. The mainland beyond; the sea, grey blue and flat in the mid distance and grassy dunes behind you. You have no choice but to crunch through thousands of mussel shells to reach their oyster brothers. For a moment you balance above the fragile barnacled blues, but you cannot rest there for ever; you have to accept your lot, shift your weight and press down, walking on into yet more collateral damage. Best not to look back when you walk on what was the seabed - the post traumatic stress could kill you. You have to time it perfectly in order to plunder land which belongs to the sea and is claimed back again so quickly. When the tide slides out, it reveals trestle tables crouched low and iron in the sand. Cross-hatched bags made of strong plastic lie hooked to the tables so that their contents are not snatched back by grasping waves. There is a spot on the river tour of the Thames where a lip-licking guide will show you where offending unfortunates were chained to rusty iron rings to drown when the tide ran in to the capital. Somehow the oystered bags reminded me of that. Presumably they are happier about their situation than yesteryear's river victims.

These are Pacific oysters rather than natives. What crime do you have to be guilty of in a previous life to come back as a Pacific oyster living in the North Sea with no sex life to speak of - apparently it is too cold for them to reproduce. When my farmer friend told me his oysters were hermaphrodites, I was not quite sure what to say. It seemed like too much information too soon. Particularly when they were right there in front of us listening. It is a far cry from a seafood platter at London's Rules restaurant and a strangely timeless way to harvest food. It is believed that monks who lived on Lindisfarne harvested oysters as long ago as the fourteenth century. This most recent foray into oyster farming was begun in 1989 by my friend's father.

Seaweed festoons the oyster bags which are unclipped and then spilled out into a box to be sorted and sized. Tiny green crabs dash for cover between the gnarled and calcified shells, all covered in sandy mud, smelling of the sea - of nothingness and salt. Oysters as small as a thumbnail are "seeded" in the bags and grow for three or four years before they are big enough to be promoted to crushed ice and certain death. If they are too small for gastric tastes, they are returned to their trestle to await another Judgment Day.

When the waters begin to lap around my feet, I looked up from my work and calculated the distance across the pulling sands and crisp shells to the car. I asked myself whether I would make it and wondered what would happen if I did not. As I came back, bouncing in the open back of the 4X4 with the other oyster harvesters, we passed the patch of beach where naturists frolic. (I cannot believe there are that many naturists in Northumberland. They must be a hardy lot - may be I should try that next as part of my quest to feel more at home here? Let me think about it. You know. Maybe not. I might meet someone.) My oyster farmer happened upon a couple of naturists as he was driving out to his oyster beds. He knew they had to be local; the man covered his paraphenalia and the woman her face.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Breasting change

I have started breastfeeding again which is really quite weird because I thought I had finished. I was heartless enough to stop so that I could get on a plane and go somewhere far away from suckling creatures. A seriously bad mother thing to do but I figured the baby, who was 16 months old had had a good innings on the breast front. The nocturnal feeding finished some time ago and I was down to just morning and bedtime anyway; I explained to her, suitcase by the door. "You won't even know they've gone", I said. "They'll write, OK?"Astonishingly though, I might have decided breastfeeding had finished but my breasts decided otherwise and promptly flipped back into operational mode as soon as I got home, despite the fact I had not fed the baby for 10 days. I am rather impressed at their determination to maintain functionality. It was really quite a Stalinist mother of the nation thing for them to do. They appear to have a mind of their own. I am wondering whether they will want to take charge of the television remote control on an evening.

I am a big fan of breastfeeding. I am about as far as you can get from statuesque and if I had not breastfed my babies, I would never have known the charm of life as a woman with big breasts, and, it means you can eat more. Apparently it is quite good for the babies too. A friend told me recently she ended up with two differently sized breasts courtesy of breastfeeding. Apparently she used to let her babies do most of their feeding from one particular breast. She used her free arm to make tea, hoover and juggle, or some such other one-handed activity. She told me this and I laughed at her and her lopsided breasts. Since I am profoundly jet lagged and had little else to do last night with a sleeping husband by my side, I decided to see whether breastfeeding has had a similar effect on me. I did this very carefully - firstly, because I think you should be scrupulous in matters scientific and secondly, I did not want my husband asking me what on earth I was doing, or worse, whether he could help. With the right hand, I took the appropriate handfuls and then cross-checked my findings with the left hand. I scooped and weighed thoughtfully. Do you know, I think they are different. How about that? You do not get told that in the breast is best glossy little leaflet you carry away from the maternity ward. That your breasts are going to be different sizes from here on in and may want to watch Coronation Street on a Monday.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Jungle Book

If I cry, do I look like a victim? Probably. Do I care about looking like a victim? Probably not. I am old and, for that matter, mean enough not to care how I look. I certainly wanted to cry this morning when a friend who was in school last week, said he had noticed that my son was unusually quiet and anonymous in class. My friend described him as "a different boy". Another person described my son's face, normally responsive, as "set" in the last recent while. Sheesh! This afternoon I went up to school to see for myself what was going on. I was informed that the child who had bitten him yesterday, today managed to "accidentally" sit on my son's head. The boy apologised - as you do when you accidentally sit on someone's head. OK, I will buy the fact you can accidentally sit on someone's head. It is possible; a shove, a fall-over, a stumble. Not quite sure about the follow-through kick to the hip. School is a jungle. As an adult, you know deep down that school is a dangerous place, you just choose to forget the dank hurt and slavering darkness. Until the day bleeds out into a tropical sky and you watch your own child disappear into the leaf-heavy gloom, whistling as he goes.

I am assured the school is taking it seriously. The committed and professional teachers seem as concerned as I am. There have been conversations and meetings; next week we go back for an official update with the head who is a woman in whom I have every confidence. You trust teachers with your children's lives, quite literally. I have no idea what happens when you do not trust the teaching staff. Panic horribly and home educate? God. The thought of home schooling brings me out in shingles. My children would get bullied then, by me.

In the meantime, like nice middle-class parents, we are checking with a nice middle-class doctor in case there are "spatial awareness" problems with our son. I am not quite sure how spatially aware you have to be to avoid having your head sat on. In any event, I have issued my son with the first few pages of his jungle survival guide: "Do not sit next to him. Do not stand near him. Do not talk to him. Do not play with him. Do not have anything to do with him. Do not pull a tiger's tail." He looked at me blankly: "What tiger?"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Welcome home Mummy."

Well, I'm back. Mummy's home and did I mention the six-year-old is getting bullied at school? "Crisis? What crisis?" I want to gnash my teeth in rage and push someone smaller than me over. I was thousands of miles away and my husband revealed the six-year-old had told him he likes school, he loves his teacher but that "sometimes the other children aren't nice to me." He is heartbreakingly reasonable about it: "Some people aren't nice to other people. That's just how it is." Cor blimey. Maybe the world is like that but you do not want your six-year-old awake to that fact.

We appear to have several things going on. Possibly more disturbing than anything else is exclusion from playground and classroom activities. Children not wanting him to work in their groups, while at break: "Sometimes I don't play. Sometimes I just walk around the playground and sometimes I sit on the bench." This is your cue as a parent to drop your head onto the wooden kitchen table and groan loudly.

I am trying very hard to be as reasonable as my six-year-old about it. Let me make the point, that I am, perhaps, not as impressed as I might be, all things considered, at the level of supervision in school. Separately and almost as disturbing as the bullying, since he started at this teeny tiny church school, he has sustained nine injuries to his head in a variety of incidents, some of which appear to be entirely accidental, some roughhousing and some aggression. The headteacher wondered if he had something wrong with his ears or may be his eyesight. He does not fall over at home; apparently though he is like a young Norman Wisdom at school.

On Thursday, he was swung round and hit his chin. (On the upside, at least he was playing with someone.) On Friday, an older and bigger boy kicked out at him hard enough for my boy to fall over and hit his head. Monday, he had a day off for good behaviour but Tuesday he was pushed over by an older girl in the playground while today he was bitten on the cheek by someone. We now have a little collection of notes home from school. Today's note read that one boy had "hurt" my son's cheek and "apologised" for it. That's alright then. Friday's note bears little relation to what my son says happened. It says he "overbalanced on his chair" and "fell bumping his head slightly." He was standing beside his schoolmate when he was kicked and fell to the floor. This happened at 10.30am. The larger boy along with another girl went on to berate my son at lunchtime for taking the last morsel of something when he was queuing for his lunch. The berating went unwitnessed by staff but after it, my son refused to join in normal school activities. I am being to steam up. Perhaps it is the heat. All this in the last week.

But it is not just the last week. During his time there, he has also fallen over playing horse which won him a massive lump on his forehead; he was hit soundly in the middle of his forehead as he walked behind a boy swinging a rounders bat (another lump); his eye was also cut when the older boy involved in Friday's incident managed to poke a broom into it, (this required a stitch). There was also a bump on the head from a cupboard. According to the cheery note home, my son "forgot it was there". Oh and earlier this month there was another tug of war, fall and bump. It is like the parachute regiment's "P" company for tots. We have had to take him to hospital three times. If these incidents had happened at home, the social workers would have been round by now.

Not that by son is blameless in all of these incidents. Leaving aside the occasional clutz-like walk behind a rounders bat or hapless push-me, pull-you with a skipping rope, he has a nasty habit of intervening in the world around him. He was bitten after telling the boy not to swing on a fence in case he hurt himself. He got pushed over trying to help a younger child get her skipping rope that older girls were standing on, while on Friday, he was only kicked over after the older boy told him his work was scribbly and my son kicked his chair. Fair do's, he would perhaps have done better to kick the chair and run away.

If this was happening at his former East End primary, it would be more immediately understandable. There, classes are crowded and some of the children are from difficult inner-city backgrounds. This is a tiny village church school with a church spire visible across grassy fields. It has fewer than 45 children in the whole school - five in his class. We are hardly talking a culture of hoodies with knives here.

I have always taught my son to take responsibility for his own actions and that he has a duty of care to his little brother and baby sister and to look out for younger children. Big mistake. His father wants him to slide into playground oblivion. Stop telling other children what to do for a start. But I do not want the sort of boy who turns into an adult who crosses the road when a teenage gang picks on a young mother waiting with her buggy at a bus-stop. I want Henry Fonda in "Twelve Angry Men." I wonder if Henry Fonda got bullied at school. How to survive at school? They should give lessons in it. How to teach your child to survive at school? They should give lessons in that too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Holiday blues

I have gone away and left everyone behind. It is just me for a week and I am guilt-wracked and tense about the whole idea of a holiday on my own. Not so guilty that I did not get on the plane though. It has been such a long time since it was just me that I do not know if I can do it any more. What if I am really bad company?

I left my husband a note.

Be patient with the children
Be more patient than I am with the children
Remember the six-year-old likes peas, hates beans
Remember the four-year-old hates peas, likes beans
Both eat raw carrots but hate boiled carrots
Do not try to make them eat boiled carrots
Remember the six-year-old needs a Comic Relief red nose for school on Friday
If the six-year-old has a red nose, the four-year-old will want one
Best get the baby one so she does not feel left out
Remember to ring my mother at least once while I am away
Remember to hear the baby if she cries at night
Remember the binmen come on Tuesdays
Remember you love me.

Back soon.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tally ho 2

I am a strong believer in any number of things: dark chocolate cannot make you fat; if you can make someone feel better about themselves, you should; it is a bad idea to teach children to think for themselves, and you should be some body's "gate-bitch" at least once in your life. That's what I was yesterday - a "gate-bitch". At least that is how my driver described me when I joined him as a pillion passenger on .his quad bike. My job, should I choose to accept it: open and shut gates while following the hunt.

I had thought about going hunting on a horse. Difficult since I do not ride, but I do love the outfits - so very Westwood. I thought about buying the outfit, going along and pretending I had forgotten my horse. I could still do some preening, meet new people and then go: "Damn. You'll never guess what I've done. I've only left the horse behind. Never mind - you chaps go on without me." I thought, however, there was an outside chance someone might see through me.

Instead, I decided to try hunting on a quad bike. My outfit was rubbish though. My riding pal warned me it would be cold on the back of a bike. She said: "Put on as many layers as you can. Then put on another one." I had on one silk pair of thermals (long johns and vest); one woollen pair (similar); one extra thermal vest; one woollen jumper; one woollen shirt; one pair of woolly tights; one pair of corduroy trousers; one cream jerkin; one waterproof coat; one thermal hat with earmuffs; two pairs of gloves; two pairs of socks and an enormous pair of walking boots for my sock-blown feet. I also had in my pocket, in the event of an Arctic winter sweeping in, a black balaclava. I was reluctant to wear the balaclava in case "the hunt" thought I was a "sab" and mowed me down "accidentally." I also thought there was an outside chance I would look like I had got lost on my way to rob a rural post office. But I hate being cold so I took it along.

Sometimes the quad bikes are up among the horse riders; more often they hold back and watch from a distance. Quad biking is basically as close as you are ever going to get to having sex with someone without taking your clothes off. I did not know my driver before clambering on to his machine. I then spent six hours slapped against his back yelping "Ooh" every time we went over a bump. We went over a lot of bumps. Naively, I said to him as we set off: "Do I hold on to you?" He never really replied. He could have said: "Only if you want to stay on."

The bikes are tremendously fat and wide with enormous tyres. Half 500cc Honda motorbike and half armchair. Farmers buy them and tell their accountants they need them to check on the sheep. They need them to get from one drink to the next. Who would not want to go quad biking?It is like Mad Max in tweeds.You are totally off-road, driving at between 10 miles per hour and 40 through a blissful Northern hillscape; ripping past yellowing gorse bushes, cutting through wooded bridleways behind beautiful women astride muddy-legged horses. Daffodils are green-budding in the lee of the jagged hawthorn hedge and, scenting the black and tan hounds, a deer streaks out of a coppice and across the field. Better than any of this, another cherry brandy and whiskey is just minutes away.

You obviously do not want to drink too much cherry brandy and whiskey when you are on the quad bike. Sometimes you have cointreau and whiskey instead. Sometimes you say: "What the hell. I'm worth it" and have cherry brandy, whiskey and cointreau. This is a good thing because if you drink enough, you cannot focus on the mud-splattered instructions fixed to the bike that say: "Never ride after drinking alcohol or using drugs." That instruction is part of a long list. It comes under: "Never carry a passenger since it would affect balance and steering and may cause you to lose control" and ahead of: "Always wear a helmet, eye-protection and protective gear". You are too drunk on cherry brandy to care by the time you make out the words: "Loss of control can result in severe injury or death."

Friday, March 09, 2007

It's official. I'm a bore.

There is no saving me; I have become a building bore. Traipsed up to the cottage this afternoon to meet the architect who is acting as the project manager. There was good news. According to the architect, we do not have dry rot, we have wet rot. Apparently, this is better. There was more good news, we can level the kitchen floor. This was a puzzler. The builder left us in little doubt that we needed a split level kitchen. It was a question of joists, ventilation, outside levels and steep steps. Technical stuff. Consequently, we had two different meetings with men from kitchen companies who measured walls and ticked boxes; men who went away to design a split level kitchen. These meetings involved head-shatteringly boring conversations about where to put the Aga and hinges. It turns out these meetings were a complete waste of time for them and us. We are back to plan A - the traditional kitchen on one level. Strangely enough, I wanted to understand for myself the reasons that suddenly all things were flat and possible. The architect explained it to me. Technical stuff - similar to the first conversation but different conclusion. No; not clear enough. Still could not get my head around why we could suddenly rip up boards, pour concrete and not have horribly steep steps to climb elsewhere. My husband had arrived earlier to talk this through. "Just leave it to us," the architect told me, inviting my husband into his very own boy's club of two. He could have added the word "pet" - that would have been worse.

I have let some comments slide by me here and I am not proud of it. Sometimes, if you are liberal and someone says something incredibly un-PC, it takes a minute for your brain to connect with your ears and go "Woh! Tell me he didn't just say that." The conversation moves on and being a namby-pamby liberal you think: "I'll just let it go." You cop out. Warning. Alert. Alert. I am not doing that any more. I am not a visitor. I live here. This time, my fluffy girly brain caught up that bit faster than it normally does. The amount of money we are spending may have helped speed up its Barbie pink and synaptic connections. I may have said I had no intention of "leaving it" to them. I may have used the word "chauvinist". I may have said half the money to do the work was mine and I wanted to understand exactly what was going on. I may not have smiled while I said these things. As an aside here, my husband was, throughout this exchange, admiring the dug-out floor. Assiduously.

I admit I may not have helped by own cause when I arrived and walked in to see half the floor up and piles of hard core heaped up everywhere. I did say: "Gosh, have you found coal?". But I know, our project manager did not hear the comment I made upstairs when I saw yet another wall has come down ( this time between the master bedroom and what will be the en-suite bathroom.) He definitely did not hear: "Golly, this is like shoes - the less you have, the more expensive it is."

Anyway, we got over it. I think he is talented and doing a very good job of overseeing the project. He rescued the space for us and says the wet rot is no big deal. Next time he gives us a bill, I will be interested to see whether my name is alongside my husband's.

A Table Monarch

"When I'm king," said my four-year-old tonight, fork in hand, pasta sauce on face, "everyone will wear pants on their head. Apart from Granny. I love Granny."

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Daddy dearest

When my worn-down husband comes back from the city fray, I think we struggle to adjust - all five of us. Men come home from war and business breakfasts and think their aproned, lipsticked wives should ticker tape their return, break out the brass band vinyl records and shout: "Huzzah!Huzzah! The hero has returned. Huzzah for him!" Last time my husband came back, my four-year-old pointed out: "The baby is looking at Daddy like he's just some old bloke." This time, at the railway station, as he hoisted her into his arms, she looked as if to say: "I know the face. I just can't place the name."

Today, he took my chair at the dining table and I said: "You're in my chair" and he said: "No, I sit here." "No," I said it slowly so he could understand, "you have not been here. Remember. I sit there. If I sit somewhere else, I can't feed the baby." He moved but hogs the phone for work and I have to wait to make a call, eats herrings in the study, assumes he will drive and I will sit beside him. When I do go out alone, the car keys are not where I left them; the jangling keys fewer and more silent than they were. "Where are the other keys?" I ask. "I took them off. The bunch is too big for my pocket."

While he was gone, I took my long-handled sable brush, my titanium white and painted him out of our daily life. We managed. We got through. We were OK - the kids and I. The picture still looked good. Daddy rang and there would be a silence. I watched my six-year-old with the phone pressed tight to his ear: "I'm standing, looking at the wall and the train engines on the floor". A silence, then: "I'm fine". Another, then: "Yes, good. Bye Daddy. Love you" all in a rush and that was that.

Now though, when I should cheer, I growl at his shadow. I am the irritated prompt as my husband tries to remember his lines back in the centre-stage of our family life. Family is a subtle, complex thing; petalled with strong emotions, hopes and history. I hear my six-year-old rage on the stairs when checked by his papa: "I don't want him here," and sympathise. Yet that same night, I see his father kiss a torn finger to better mend the tender spot and think: "He's home. That's good."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Living in Denmark

The builder knocked at the door to see if we were coming up to the cottage today. That is never a good sign. It is the financial equivalent of a policeman walking slowly up your garden path in the middle of the day, shaking his head. It is not going to be good news, is it? You do not look through your slightly grubby net curtains and think: "Oh good, there's a panda car parked outside and a grim-faced bobby heading my way." My very nice builder nodded at me. "We've found dry rot," he said it quickly as if it would hurt less that way. Little hanging things are dangling under the floorboards. Apparently there was a give-away smell of apples when he broke through the floor. When we went up to inspect ourselves, I knelt down and edged close to the gaping black hole. I sniffed; to me it smelled like dirt and several thousand pounds.

The other slight glitch in our plans is the four inch difference in height he also discovered between the two cottages. On the "up" side, this might not be a problem if you had one leg shorter than the other. They were supposed to knock down a wall between the two cottages and make one big kitchen. They knocked down the wall, all but two bricks of it, to discover one house has effectively been built on its own platform. We now have to chose between a smaller kitchen and a step up, into a dining area - effectively two rooms - or swamping the entire downstairs in concrete, as you would if you were planning a Victorian extravaganza on ice. Oh, and the grain shute they found in the arches which made me think "Golly, I have a grain shute. That is what you call an original feature. We'll keep that." Gone, rotten to the core.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"Is it... umm?"

Site meeting with the builder and the architect. There is suspiciously less house than there was. I was reconciled to the loss of the kitchen wall but there are walls missing all over now. It is as if someone is rubbing out bits of my life. The meeting went quite well apart from the fact one of the cottages needs to be entirely replastered because of the state of the existing plaster work. "Is it in the spec?" I asked hopefully. No, it's not in the spec so that is an add-on cost. I spotted some cracks in the plaster work upstairs. It looked as though the wall was thinking about leaning backwards to get a better view of the sea. The builder reassured me that it would not be just gaily replastered. He slapped a hard-skinned, dusty hand against its fragile plaster skin. "We'll get a rubber mallet and we'll make sure it's all quite sound before we do the replastering." He slapped it again - brutish and professional. I did not find that as reassuring as he expected; I could tell the wall felt the same way.

It is the unpredictability of it all that I find mildly disconcerting; as if you had clambered on to a big red bus and said to the conductor: "A single to...well, wherever we end up." The downstairs concrete floor is uneven and I would like it to be warmer. There is a solution; polystyrene, chipboard and oak flooring. "Is it in the spec?" Funny you should ask - No. The last time I was up, I asked about stripping back the peeling painted beams in the living room. Today I was told the decorator had thought about it and said it would be very expensive (I already knew that was not in the spec); the builder suggested we might be better painting them in blackboard paint. Why would I want to paint them in blackboard paint of all things I wondered. Also, we have knocked down so many walls, there is an unsupported staircase which hangs in the middle of the living room. It looked OK on paper but in reality it is reminiscent of being on board a ship. I keep expecting a cabin boy to skip down it with a tankard of ale for the captain. I wondered whether it could be moved. It can't.

We were presented with a bill for the first four weeks of work: £7,500. I am sure it could have been worse. I still like my builder and the envelope could have had my name on it rather than my husband's. Why would they put his name on and not mine I wondered? The architect handed it to me; I looked at it and thought: "What the hell, it's not addressed to me." I smiled cheerfully at my husband and passed it along.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Over to you

So you wake up and you stretch out an arm and you find a man in your bed. Your first thought as you wrap yourself around his warmth: "Fabulous, there's a man in my bed". His hand slides down your smooth and naked thigh and he murmurs something you cannot quite make out. Your second thought, and it follows light-speed quick, bearing in mind the room is black dark and you have only just made it to the surface of the day: "I can have a lie-in." You remove his fond hand as the baby starts to mew along the corridor. "Darling," you tenderly whisper into his ear. "You're on."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Daddy's home

My husband is back. This is a good thing because I get to point the children at him and say: "Look children, daddy is back. Mummy is just going for a bath. I'll be out in three days." We have only had one row so far because he made us late for a children's party. We are driving along; he is behind the wheel and I am wrapping the fleecey, black, baa-lamb puppet present in paper that says "Merry Christmas". My husband has been home for three hours. I am not in a good mood. I would go so far as to say, I am in a bad mood. Snipping off a dangling piece of cellotape, I said: "This party was really important to the boys. I really did not want us to be late for it but you had to take them out. You couldn't just let them play for half an hour and get them ready. If I had been on my own with them, we would not be late." My husband psshawed (if that's a word, he made that sort of clapped out steam engine sound anyway) and snarled: "That's outrageous." All this, by the way, in glorious sunshine, driving too fast along country roads which are too narrow . My six-year-old spoke up for sanity in the back. "Daddy's been away for a long time Mummy. He's still getting used to it. OK?" I hate the way men make you feel so unreasonable.


This cash for honours thing is gaining currency. As BBC Radio 4's Today programme mumbled on, my four-year-old lifted his bed-haired head from his rice krispies to ask: "Is Tony Blair going to prison?". Milk dripped from his spoon as he waited for my answer. "No," I said, "I very much doubt it." Difficult to judge which way my four-year-old would jump if breakfast focus push came to infant ballot but his brother is firmly behind TB. Already on his muffin, my six-year-old chimed in: "I think Prime Ministers should be allowed to do what they want." That's TB and a six-year-old then.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Smile for the camera

The album which keeps my baby photographs is worn and grimy with the years - a bit like me. It is a pale and padded plastic blue with white buttons; held whole with tape that has begun to curl and a sorry silk tassel whose burlesque days are through. When you open it, joints creak and it sighs a little. The inside cover, once virgin cream, is now a rusting and unpleasant brown, as if one day, I snatched it from a hearth where it was smouldering.

Many of its flattened subjects hold me tight in there and once loved me. Some still do. But others I could not keep by me: a father, two grandmothers, godmother, godfather, a curly-haired aunty and her cross-legged son. The blood list lost, goes on. Then, they were mine and I clutched their fingers. Now, they are mine only in memories and an album - for as long as they smile "Cheese" and the page is open.

I think the album sad, though it show-cases a content and lace-dressed child. Perhaps the thought that these days have come and gone, arrives too soon for me. On the very first page, a suited man relaxes, leaning against the rails on the windy prom at Blackpool; a cigarette between his fingers. You can only lean so long. Look again, he is sitting down on a wooden bench, my mother's leather handbag and a parcel beside him. The snaps are of my father who should perhaps have tossed the cigarette into the cold black and white sea behind him. My mother tells me I was six weeks old when she left with him for three or four days in Blackpool. Her husband - the first - my brand new father, had not confessed to coughing blood but pleaded for a seaside break. "I didn't want to leave you," she tells me, "but I knew he wasn't well and so we went."

One year and eight snap-filled pages later, the cigarette has quite gone out, the coughing stopped and there is no more suited man. Instead, another trip this time to Ireland; the camera shutter closes on a young matron in a tilted, black straw hat with her solemn fat-faced babe. My widow-weeded mother holds me forever in her arms in front of roses, river, bridge and church. He may be gone but I am her victory over death, a triumph in pantaloons and bonnet. I think she may be sad then. I'm sure she is, as she carries me around with her, a memory of him, until, in the way of things, she meets another kindly father man, marries him and smiles again.

Here is the confusion. I opened the album up because twice lately, I have had the sensation as I looked at my own daughter, that I was looking at myself. I never felt that with the boys. My sons are my lions; terrorsome and grand. See how they go; march and strut and shout. But the other day, as I gazed at my baby standing proud in the grass, deciding should she walk or not, I felt: "That's me. I'm looking at myself". Again today, I held her in my arms at the bathroom sink, glanced up at the mirror and thought again: "That baby in my arms. That's me." So I dug out this relic of the past to see if my baby-self had escaped her black sugar-paper prison. But no, she was still there, safe in her mother's arms.