Saturday, May 26, 2007

Future tense

My builder has taken to breaking off large pieces of plaster board and writing messages in pencil on them. They say things like: "2 18" X 16" 4 M L" and "End bathroom right". Little arrows slide up and down and, alongside, numbers carrying fractions on their hips. It is all very Old Testament. I am daily expecting to read a larger chunk along the lines: "Thou shalt honour thy builder and his building mates. Thou shalt pay thy builder on time. Thou shalt hold thy builder above thine architect and shalt not take the name of thy builder in vain. Thou shalt not question thy builder about tea breaks. Thou shalt not covet thy builder's Saturdays and Sundays for in a number of months thy builder shalt make thy kitchen and thy bathroom and any number of other rooms for thee and thine and he hast need of the odd day off to resteth and to watcheth sport on TV. Thou shalt admire thy builder's craftsmanship and speak highly of him to all comers. Thou shalt abjure temples like B&Q and the false gods of DIY. Thou shalt appreciate thy builder is passing on his discount from his trade suppliers."

Even without a holy diktat, I am impressed by the skill I see around me in the cottage. I enjoy seeing the evidence of craftsmanship. There are things I have spent years learning how to do. Listening, for instance. When I talk to someone, I am all attention. I want to hear what they say, how they feel, what they think, what they do not realise they are feeling or thinking. I want to know. Not just for the sake of it but to understand their sorrow or their joy, to know them better. To make a friend. To keep a friend. To be a friend. To know, you have to listen. In the same way, I can appreciate the skill in a plaster perfect wall; the subtle, creamy finish of a painted room; a red clay flattened brick rescued from underneath the kitchen floor, cleaned and proud in a newly opened up hearth; a landing floor, quilt patched with wood rescued from that kitchen floor, each piece eased in and nailed down by a craftsman. It is not just a matter of a job and a bill. I can appreciate the efforts of a man trying to steam, sand, scrape and burn whitewash and distemper, clinging tight to the ceiling beams it has loved for years. I know his arms ache and his breath catches in the dust as he helps to build an idea of a house.

A friend told me that I am in a conversation with the house. True. My house speaks to me of the past, the present and the future. In that corner of what will be my living room, a pantry stood; that windowsill by a greasy wall was where the woman made her cream and butter; the hearth we have uncovered, once held a kitchen range. I have listened and learnt something of the house and those who lived here, in the rewriting of its rooms and passages. The present, of course, is around in all its brick dusted glory, patterns keyed in the render, electric cables hanging from the walls, strangers who have become friends marking the rooms with their skills. But I can see the future better than the present. As I stood on the landing looking down the painted corridor through the house, I saw soft painted walls and light from mended windows. The walls pushed back to open up the route between what were two houses, knitting the divide with space. I thought: "Perhaps this could be my home. Perhaps I could hang pictures along these walls."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scooby Doo, Where are you!

I had a seriously bad idea. I spent last night in a Northumberland castle which claims it is Britain's most haunted castle. I thought: "If I am going to spend a night in 'Britain's most haunted castle', I should do it on my own otherwise it would be cheating." Northumberland water must have addled my brain. Chablis never makes me think that way. Cheating? Cheating who exactly? The ghosts?

Usually, "on my own" translates to "surrounded by small children". This time I mean utterly, completely, not another living soul in sight "on my own." A night away from the children. I could have spent it at a luxury hotel with a complementary spa treatment. I could have zipped down to London and spent it with a credit card. I could have found a lover in a chat room, made some excuse about the car running out of petrol and spent it in cyberspace with my hand on my mouse. No. I spent it on my own where other fools have gone before and written comments in the visitors' book like this from George: "1am. Lying in bed, eyes open, wife asleep. A round ball of light flashes and is gone. Again a round ball of light." Or this one from a Whitby couple: "Caught lots of orbs. How exciting. Just to warn others, one was in the lounge area of the apartment." I am reading this book in the lounge area of the apartment in a chair that smells like it is trying to pass on a message. A message like: "Don't sit here. Someone is sitting here already." I read one from a week ago: "The bumps and bangs and sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor are still going strong! Spooky." I thought to myself: "I should stop reading this book and go to bed." I am slightly worried if I stop reading, I will look up and a hooded figure say: "Boo."

The "ghost walker" who gave us a tour of the castle and its grounds has not helped my state of paranoia. He described horrid, bloody tortures in the sort of professional detail I did not think entirely necessary. He shut us up in the darkness of the dungeon, described the freezing touch of a 12-year-old girl dead from pneumonia and the heavy rose scent of a deserted and unhappy wife. He claimed, as he sat in one room, a rocking chair started to rock violently while on another night, a flag dropped from the chapel wall to wrap itself round a visitor.

He also told me the little bedroom in my tippy toppy tower apartment had a "very oppressive" atmosphere. He predicted: "I bet you won't sleep in that one tonight." "Not now, I won't," I told him. He said visitors often abandoned the apartment in the middle of the night after doors opened and banged shut and lights went on and off. I said: "Feel free not to share." Not one to take a hint, he claimed two staff would no longer work in it after they went into one of the bedrooms and the door "jammed." There are three bedrooms in the apartment; the little one, a twin bedded room and one with a double bed. I am not into the supernatural. I am hoping the supernatural will not be into me. I am no sooner going to sleep in the oppressive little bedroom than fly. I am standing in the hallway thinking that neither am I going into any bedroom where the door "jams" and the walls start to bleed. (He did not say the walls would bleed but it pays to think ahead.)

The little room is up a stone staircase and has a curtain across the entrance; the other two bedrooms both have doors. I chose the one with the double bed on the grounds that four girls from Durham: "had a fantastic night, seen loads of orbs, sat in all rooms with video but the best had to be the twin beds." At least, in my room, George only saw two rather than "loads". Apparently, orbs are considered by those who like that sort of thing, to be the souls of the dead. There were two couples on the tour along with me. A nice man from Blackpool took a digital photo with a round shiny "orb" in the courtyard. I remained sceptical. I am sceptical even when there is what sounds suspiciously like a knock on my door. I think: "Bugger politeness, I am not answering the door to anyone who might be dead."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big and little hands

I had another German lesson.I think I may have discovered the secret to happiness. It lies in the telling of the time. Some Germans, it would appear, do not tell the time as I do. If it was 9.30, they would say: "Es ist halb zehn". It is half way to ten. For 9.15, they say: "Es ist Viertel zehn" or It is a quarter of the way towards ten. That is to say they add an hour. If I could give myself more time in which I could accomplish more, I would be happier. Instead of thinking: "I have to do this work. I cannot play with the children." I would think: "I can do both." Happiness. Apparently, this is the way of going on in East and Southern Germany. I can only think people in East and Southern Germany are happier and get much more done than their compatriots. My handout is philosophical in its explanation: "...even before half past the hour it is quite common to think of the time in relation to the forthcoming hour. This is especially important with half past the hour where there is no choice." Quite so. Cometh the hour; cometh the man. Cometh another hour; cometh the happier man. Or woman. I think woman. Women tend to need more time. They have more to do in it. I am thinking what I could do with all that extra time; take up cross stitch, clean the bathroom, read a book, have another baby. Well, maybe not another baby. That might just kill me. Does it mean, I wonder that Germans are more forward looking? Is this the answer, not just to my time poverty problems, but to countries who spend too much time thinking of past glories rather than future happiness. We will speak differently of time and time will speak differently to us. It will say: "Draw up a rocker. Sit by me awhile. Let us drink coffee and talk of our future."

Saturday, May 19, 2007


A London Friday night. Where would I have been? A chi chi supper in a sushi restaurant, exhausted by work, distracted from enjoyment by a who knows why apathy of the soul? Fun, huh? Maybe not. Maybe, a just out movie, alone or with a friend. Alone, I am likely to cry in movies; sit in crushed velveteen seats, eat tear wetted popcorn, grope hopelessly for tissue scraps. Though, if given the choice, I prefer company and laughter.

In the country. Tra la. Who goes out to dinner in the country? Some do. I don't, or only when the moon's shine is blue. Certainly not a movie. What's "a movie"? Better, far, a stockjudging event, a fundraiser for a good and rural cause. I can die happy now I have stared at a cow's backside all night. I asked myself: "Does life get any better than this? Right here. Right now. Staring at this particular cow's arse?" I thought to myself: "I bloody hope so."

Then I thought: what is not to enjoy about a Charolais cow? Who needs Daniel Craig rising from the sea? Watch the muscle ripple in that young bull's rump. Admire the conformation of that heifer, set four square and shapely. This cheeky Suffolk tup, a painted caramel and black faced beauty, spray tanned for the night. A city dweller, which of course, is far from what I am. A city dweller might think one sheep looked much like a fleecy other. Might feel they would rather eat the steak than spend quality time at the weekend with it. That is not me, of course.

To judge the beast, a farmer told me you look to see if they are "breedy"; that is to say they are a bright, attractive sort of animal. That their "top line" which runs along their back is straight and true; that they are not knock-kneed. Last night, four Texel tups, the same in Suffolks, four Charolais heifers and four Charolais bulls. Judges rank and mark the differences between the creatures in secret; contestants score them. Frighteningly complicated mathematics are done by frighteningly clever women sitting in front of an aga. Calculators tip tap, a quiet scurry of papers and a winner emerges whose judgment matches that of the judge. I did not win; though as it turned out, I am a good judge of bull.

They are cool customers these farming types. They march you to the creamy bull which is a thing of power and beauty. They flay it with their practised butcher's eyes, point and say: "Under that, the fillet," or "The hindquarter's where the eating is." Conversation is of bull semen in straws and the washed out embryos of calves. Breeding and the money breeding is worth; £55,000 for one Charolais bull recently. It makes me think when a farmer wants a wife; does he do as the rest of the world does? Catch a smile thrown by a pretty face? Buy her a drink? Cadge a kiss? Fall in love? Or, as he stands at the crowded bar with a note, folded and standing to attention in his hand, does he watch the way she moves across the room? Listen for the knock of a knee? Check the brightness of her eye? Span with invisible hands the spreaded width of her hips? Does he ask whether money will be well-spent?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hinged and hung

Newly carved window frames and doorways hang suspended by ropes from the rafters of the stone built arches in the farmyard. I watched them breeze swing awhile. Hung out to paint. Hung out to dry. They frame space; miss panes of glass and wooden doors. You think, not of hanged men, that would be macabre. You think of possibilities. You could step through the empty door to find a finer world; open a magic window on to a sunnier life. Gordon Brown has something similar, hanging in his attic. The frames hang like a promise."Open this window and you will see the view is of a beauteous Britain, more beauteous than the one you've known. " My house in well-plastered tatters, walls now just memories, the frames say: "The future is walking through our doors any minute now. Keep faith awhile and see. "

I know I can relax. Where there was a wall along the back of the kitchen, there will be doors to a courtyard garden. The builder placed a penny coin, as shiny as could be, beneath the first stone of the door surround to wish us luck. Is that not kind and noble? A well-meant wish for luck. Can a house fail to be happy when founded on another person's kindess? He does the same in every house he builds. Mine, of course is not a new house, though I could argue it is a new life we are building up here. The house though, the house is a renovation, restoration, knock through. Not new. More noble yet then to wish me luck. He made an exception. Perhaps, he thought we needed more luck than most. I did not ask him which way it lay. Heads or tails? I wonder, if he cannot quite remember, will he lift the house to check?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"To all parents"

A note came home from school yesterday. Usually, they say things like "Coffee morning on Saturday" which makes you think: "Great. Cake." Sometimes, they say: "Remember your child needs a sun hat and sun cream" which makes you think: "God we live in a paternalistic society." Then: "I have no idea where the sun hats are." This note, in my six-year-old's Spiderman rucksack, said on Friday 11th May "a man with a goatee beard, driving a small green car tried to pick up a y4 pupil" outside another village school a few miles away. It went on: "The attempt was unsuccessful but please make sure that your children are aware of stranger danger and remain vigilant at all times."

You read it twice. You feel your skin chill. As you read it the second time, sitting in your kitchen with your child safe home from school and drinking milk, you think. Whether the sort of man who "keeps himself to himself" as they always say of monsters, when discovered, is watching every news bulletin with budding envy in his twisted heart, not horror. Whether on Friday, he turned the key to start up his small green car, still thinking of perfection. And told himself: "It's a nice day. I'll go for a drive."

What do you say to your children? What warnings do you give them? Do you make them turn away from an old lady's kind words in the bakers? Drill them in fear? Talk of black clad childcatchers? Sweets with too high a price. Puppies and secret birthday parties, promised but never delivered? Say there are those who want to hurt children, feed them poison candy, take them away from mummies and daddies? Do you talk of evil? Say it drives a car? Tell them to shout "No" so loud that trees fall down, refuse lifts, run screaming like banshees from men with goatees? Or smiles. Do you say: "Look, here in the paper. This little girl is called Madeleine"?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Splish Splosh

Went shopping for a bathroom. We had drawn up a list of six showrooms to look round. We took the baby and the four-year-old with us. Shopping with children concentrates your mind. We selected the bathroom in the first shop. The baby was wailing so loudly, I did not think we would make it to another. We had to keep putting the children in the baths to quieten them. The baby got very confused because the baths were, of course, empty. Empty of water. Full of my children. I think the showrooms miss a trick. I think sales staff should wander round in bathrobes and shower caps with outsized sponges and rubber ducks. It would, at least, entertain the children so you could get into the bath and try it on for size.

We were picking out "the grown-up" bathroom. I wanted a sleek, sharp modern bath with "an edge". I got a roll top. I wanted one of those toilets you hang off a wall that you can mop underneath. Not that I wanted to mop underneath it. I just wanted to tell my mother I could. The only wall hung toilet didn't match the bath (I didn't want). We ended up with a traditional toilet with a pedestal, a cistern high up on the wall and a chain you pull. Like school. I may have to take up smoking very fast in confined spaces. Preferably with my best friend.

There was a moment. The baby was crying; the four year old demanding I attach his moulded red plastic Power Ranger to the rocket; and my husband said if we went with the taps and shower I wanted for the bath (I still didn't want), they would obscure the view out of the window. I thought: "Do you know what? Fundamentally. I don't care. In a month or so, I won't even notice. Let's just decide something and go."

These shops, these catalogues are trying to sell you a different life. Not a bath. Not a toilet. It is one of the reasons I am finding doing up the house so intensely irritating. One catalogue tells me: "More than just a bowl to rinse your razor, clean your teeth, this is `art`." It goes on to remind the reader "today's bathroom" is "about feeling good. The simple pleasure of your own space and the sheer unashamed enjoyment of quality." As if your bathroom was a blank, tasteful bathroom in an overpriced boutique hotel where you are anonymous and rich; beautiful when naked; where you can close the door on reality and someone else picks up the sodden towels afterwards. As if your life was like that; a life of sanctuary, taste and the perfect shower spout.

Perhaps, I might feel differently if I thought there was ever a chance I would be able to spend any amount of quality time in it. The one thing I did like was the sink. I am not sure about "art". It is round and stone; it looks like I could baptise the baby in it. Which I may have to since the last time I went to mass (not including funerals) was Christmas.

We had already been bathroom shopping in one of those shopping warehouses where you buy food in bulk and televisions that think they are cinemas. There were some very large shoppers in that very large shop. People so large you wondered whether they shopped in bulk because they ate in bulk. You wanted to point at their trolleys and ask: "Ever wondered why you're fat? Stop shopping here. Shop somewhere normal. It will cost more. You will eat less. You will get thinner. "

I should not scoff. I look at the boys some mornings. I say: "Did you grow last night?" They are taller than they were when I put them to bed. There are other mornings when I look at my hips. I say: "Did you grow last night?" They are bigger than when I put them to bed. Doubtless, there will come a day when I will heave myself, rippling and sodden, out of my luxury bath, abandon my village shops and insist we go shopping with a forklift.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Totally unfunny

I am fed up. I am so fed up I do not think I can even be funny about how fed up I am. It is not funny when a mother of three seriously contemplates running away to London for a day's purposeless shopping, and not coming home, at least for tonight. I decided I couldn't. It would confuse the children. It would confuse me. I might not want to come home at all.

I say "home". Obviously, it is not a "home". My "home" is occupied by smiley, dusty men with big boots who have revealed they are four weeks behind schedule. We cannot move back in to the cottage when we thought we could. It is not their fault. Two weeks went on slating a roof which was not in the orginal spec; another two weeks , replastering all the walls when it was hoped they would just need repair. Both roof and walls look better; I feel worse. I want my house back.

I do not think the funeral helped. Death, I have to say, is a bit of a downer. Not just for the dead. Funerals give you the chance to catch up with those you love and never see; meet those you like and will never see again. I met a deal of kindness there. Other people's kindness fills up an empty part of me. Someone who walked me across a field with a bull in it. A bull can fill a field. Very fast. He made me braver. One of life's natural carers who made us tea and fed us ham. A girl in a lakeside hotel, who brought me a teapot, cup and plate of digestives as I perched, gloomy, in the hotel foyer with a laptop. Dancing between customers in the bar, busy as busy; yet, she took a moment to glance through an open door and see me. She could have looked away, poured a smiling, eager face another foaming drink. She didn't. Another. An old friend of my father's who said to me: "You're a lovely looking girl." I am 42; I suspect he had cataracts. I am 42; I take a complement where I can get one. I liked all these people.More besides. But still, I got "peopled out".

There are times, when I feel my life has no "pause" button. Something you could press for a few moments of silent time, thinking time; the time to ask: "Where am I now?" I grope around. No button. The clock ticks on. You tick on. Even this morning, I crawled back to bed after the school run. At least I tried. There were two adults downstairs but my four-year-old came up to me three times within half an hour; hectoring, demanding, loving.

I am fighting back panic, that swept-away feeling of: "What am I supposed to do here?" Yesterday, the boys had a spaghetti sword fight. Inch-long pieces of (uncooked) spaghetti, shattered over the kitchen floor. At bedtime, the six-year-old water bombed the four-year-old's bed. What am I going to do when the baby is old enough to join in concert with her brothers' mayhem? We are outnumbered. We will be washed quite away. In 20 years time, I am sure I will laugh at their antics. If I am not dead, I will play "remember when's" with them. I will say: "Remember. When you flooded the bathroom. Twice in four days." Today though. Today, I want to weep. I feel guilty. If I was not writing, that is to say, working. Working at home. Still. Working. If I was more focussed on the children, they would stop moving seamlessly from one outrage to the next. If I was more willing to make papier mache piggy banks and take them on forays to the playground, they would transform themselves. They would be Granny's dream boys.

I am constantly "the bad guy". I take treasures away; rant; drone on, endless and relentless. They must " as you are told". They carry on. Regardless. I am reconstituting the star chart (rewards and praise for good behaviour.) I do not want to draw up any star chart; I want to run away. I am just not sure London is far enough.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bye then

Yesterday was our ninth wedding anniversary. We have two anniversaries - the anniversary we started going out and our wedding anniversary. My husband bought me pink paeonies to match the kitchen table and promised me dinner out tonight. We did not make it to dinner; instead, he took me to a show and lunch.

The show was Tony Blair's last huzzah at Trimdon Labour Club. It is a long time since we went to a show. (I do not count the school nativity play). Unfortunately, my husband had forgotten you have to buy tickets. We looked for a tout. But I think the number of yellow-jacketed police put them off. We ended up standing in the crowd with the school children and the Trimdon locals who have mobile phones which can take photographs and the same foresight as my husband. We waited like Stage Door Johnnies to see the star and his wife. If you do not count several hundred journalists and camera crew, there weren't that many of us outside. It was ever so slightly pointless. My husband kept saying: "It's history." He wanted to see the only other man in the world who feels the same way as he does about Iraq. I exaggerate there are three of them.

The Labour Club is a matter of yards away from a stone built church on the village green. As Blair was saying his "goodbye and thanks for having me's", "Nan" was being carried in to church in a coffin for her own "goodbye and thanks for having me". Everywhere I go, there's a coffin lately. At least, this one was not open. The one in Ireland was open. An open coffin can be quite scary if you are not expecting it. In Trimdon, hearses, flowers and mourners sat next to armoured plated cars, satellites and more mourners. I am not sure if the grieving relatives knew what was going on as they drew up to find the world's media and half of Durham's constabulary parked up on the green.

A handful of anti-war protesters shouted their outrage; two of them in orange boiler suits with bags over their heads. I think they would have been better shouting: "Hurray, hurray" if they wanted to win hearts and souls. Instead, they had a loud claxon and shouted things like: "Come out. the building is surrounded by police." That was quite witty. They also shouted: "Shame" which is an utterly pointless thing to shout at any politician. Their banner said they were "Sedgefield against war". Maybe they were. The locals I heard talking to them said things like: "You're a bloody embarrassment, you are." If they are local, I do not think they have a big following.

It was a bit like the Oscars. The Oscars if just Billy Crystal turned up . Everyone got very excited when the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson appeared. Make that Billy Crystal and Ellen DeGeneres. Blair made a quick exit. He blew a kiss. Not to me. My husband was watching. Cherie waved at all of us. I waved back. She waved again. Not to me.

I thought about "Nan". I wondered if she would have gone along, if she was able. Whether she would have minded about Blair. If you get dead, and then you get buried. You want your funeral to be the biggest show in town, don't you? In any event, I have told my husband, next time, I am booking the tickets.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Rinky dink

Pink is the colour of my return. I came home to a kitchen table which has been tinted a lovely shade of deep rose pink. My six-year-old said: "You like pink. Don't you, mummy?" I looked at the table, which was once my grandfather's. It is oak, you can see the grain through its pink glaze. I looked at the carpet in the kitchen of our rented house. Also pink. A "no getting away from it" shade of pink. A "I hope you are not expecting to keep your deposit" shade of pink. "We were playing at being master chefs," the six-year-old continued. "We made bubbles." He giggled. He kept watching me.

The master chefs knew what they were doing. They tipped red, blue and yellow food dye into a bowl along with honey, syrup (maple), curry powder(madras), rice(brown), pasta (quills), ketchup(Heinz), baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and a bottle of vinegar(malt). We have peformed a less ambitious variant on this experiment in the garden as mummy explained the nature of a chemical reaction and the creation of a gas. At least, she pointed and said: "Look." During the master chef extravaganza, in the kitchen laboratory, Daddy was upstairs, trying to get the baby to go to sleep . "You know that story of the magic porridge pot," he said. "It was like that. But worse."

I am trapped. I have encouraged scientific experiments. I have banned TV. I have left Daddy in charge. "You do like it don't you mummy?" asked my six-year-old Heston Blumenthal again, anxious now. I caught back a sigh. I nodded. Slowly. "Pink is my very favourite colour."

Monday, May 07, 2007

Poster boys

I have made it back. I could go on but "death, rosaries, tea" covers it. I am lucky to be back at all. The general election is on in Ireland. I know that because I nearly joined my aunt in the grave on the drive back to Dublin airport. I was trying to read the election posters that hang off every other lamp-post and telegraph pole. Somebody, somewhere, has told Irish politicians that the best way to bring out the vote is to become a major road hazard. YouTube and video blogs are very over. It is a retro-chic thing. Tony Blair should, perhaps, have written a letter.

Every Irish candidate has a large photograph with his name in BIG letters. Names like Reilly, Geraghty, Brady to match the unmistakably Irish face above it. (I would not want to criticise another country's political culture but some of those faces could do with eating fewer full Irish breakfasts.) In the corner of the poster, the political party is mentioned in much smaller letters. "Bit of an after thought; just so as you know, I would be Labour," it says. The best ones, the ones that nearly killed me, have a little message you decide you have to read even if you are ripping along at 60 miles per hour. Something along the lines of: "Everybody matters." That is a sentiment well worth dying in a head-on collision for. Even the Green party is at it. You would think they would know better than to waste all that paper. Bertie Ahern is trying to look like he could be trusted. Which would be a good trick if he could manage it. There are rumours that the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, has either had his photograph airbrushed or spent time in a spray tan booth. Odd. Does not cover it. His posters come with strangely petulant messages. They virtually "tut" as you drive by them. Under the photo, it promises: "Health services that work" OK. Alright. But it goes on: "for a change." Then there is: "Safer streets...for a change." How he can talk about safer streets with all those hypnotic posters, beats me.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

The new laptop has started speaking to me in German and will not stop. How did it know I was learning German? If it had to stop using English, why didn't it switch to Arabic or Spanish? Why German? Has it read and understood what I have written? Will it start giving me advice on my parenting or making friends? I can introduce myself and order beer in German. That does not get me very far in understanding a fluent German laptop. It is showing off because it speaks it better than I do. Rather than stamping on it very hard, I am attempting to see the bright side. It has taught me "blog anzeigen" (view blog) and "sehr geehrter kunde" (dear valued customer). I could perhaps work them into conversation after I had introduced myself and ordered the beer. What is German for: "Machines are out to get me"?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Checking in and checking out

I knew I had to fly over to Ireland. My mother sounded forlorn and lost in her calls. She said: “Your father’s managing very well.” Then, later: “We’re too old for this.” They were staking out the sickbed of my 86-year-old aunt in a nursing home. Holding her thin hand; saying prayers; doing what you do, as someone you love, fades back to black.

My little family was supposed to go away for the bank holiday weekend to a hotel. “We will go another weekend,” I told them. “OK? My aunty is ill. I should tell her goodbye and I have to go look after granny and granddad.” My six-year-old, phlegmatic: “If she’s your aunty. You should go watch her die.” My four-year-old, passionate: “I’m coming with you.” The baby, disappointed: In me. Again.

Newcastle airport; seven o’clock in the morning, Friday. The hen party jet set. Brides spouting tulle veils and sporting hope frothed garters; bridesmaids dropping Tupperware strawberries into plastic glasses; almost pink champagne. Blonde. Slim.Tanned. All of them. Even the ones who weren’t. Pink champagne at dawn can do that for you.

The hen parties made me feel glad for them. Sad for me. I wanted to catch a flight to New York. Make taxi drivers ramp up the sound system. Dance in cars. Stay up all night. Catch the eye of a handsome stranger. Try on my best friend’s lip gloss. Sparkle. Say: “No it suits you better,” and not believe it. Be born again. Blonde, slim, tanned. At the very least, I wanted the pink champagne.

I take comfort in the fact that once I have, literally, shaken off the children, who make a last ditch bid to smuggle themselves through to departures, I am a World Traveller. I decide the new laptop I am carrying makes me look like the professional I once was. I might even be on a business trip.

As I walk though security, a guard who has used his X-ray vision to look into my handbag calls over his colleague. I wonder if he admiring the laptop. He points to something and a security guard walks back over to the belt. He nods to the bag. I say: “Absolutely.” I want to be helpful and support the fight against world terrorism. Even in my handbag. He takes out and moves aside my laptop, two notebooks, some papers, a black leather diary and a cosmetics bag. He puts in his hand and extracts a jammy knife. I had cut bread in the kitchen, brought the slices and a pot of strawberry jam in to the car. I jammed bread for all three children before I lost the knife. I twisted and turned in my seat to find it but it had disappeared. It reappeared. In time to have me labelled “the madwoman “ at airport security. At Heathrow they would have taken me away to a little room and strip searched me for the matching fork and spoon. As it was, the guard held up the knife for inspection. He looked at it. Then at me. “Don’t get jam on yourself,” I said.

I made it to Dublin. Being away from your husband and children is both wrenching and empowering. These step-away moments make you remember there was a time you could cope on your own; obtain euros, hire cars, figure out how to reverse them. Particularly empowering is the moment on the motorway when you realise you are driving, not so much a sluggish car, as a car with the handbrake on.

It had its revenge. Arriving at the lakeside hotel, I shut the door. It locked. It would not unlock. I press the electronic key fob. (What is it with car keys?) Nothing. I had clicked a switch inside the car marked Lock;Unlock before I climbed out. I did not realise that meant for ever. I try a different approach. I abandon electronics and look for a lock to put the key in. I prowl the car in case a lock magically appears. It does not. I ring my husband. I say: “I have a bit of an emergency.” He says: “I’ll ring you back.” He does not. I have to ring the car hire company and explain. I try to explain without telling them I clicked the Lock; Unlock switch. I have to ring the AA and eventually, a nice friendly man with a garage rings me back. I explain what has happened. I skim over the Lock;Unlock switch. Since this is AA business, the man wants to know what make of car I am in and where I am. Since this is Ireland, he also wants to know who I am, who I am related to and why I am here at all. The young mechanic he sends shows me how to slip the tail of the key or a screwdriver into a small slit in the lower edge of the black plastic door handle to flip it off and reveal the metal lock underneath. I now have options; as a mechanic. Or a master criminal. The young man says I am not stupid, I just need a new battery for the fob.

About this time, my parents arrive back at the hotel. My aunt died in the early hours. I was too late to say goodbye. I am in time for the funeral.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

TV or not TV

The children lost TV. Note, I say "lost TV" not "lost the TV". I am hoping they are not the kind of children who are careless with things. I really hate that in a person. They lost permission to watch TV because of some dark crime they committed which I cannot now remember. It must have been a good one because I unplugged the video and DVD player to ram home the point. I was not at all influenced by my mother's observation on her most recent visit: "You let them watch a lot more TV than you used to, don't you?" I denied this and promptly issued my fatwa. I would have shoved the set itself into a cupboard but I might run mad if I lost BBC News 24, so I hid the zappers in case temptation struck. I find it always helps, if temptation knocks, to forget where you put your zapper. Life is less complicated that way. Frankly, I have enough complications.

The good thing about banning TV; you move straight to the moral high ground. I do not get to go there very often. It is pretty and I like it. You drop small shiny pebbles into conversation: "Of course, the children aren't watching television at the moment. They're learning Latin." In reality, my children would rather lie glazed in front of the television than do almost anything else. If you offered them a golden ticket to a green cheese, pitted moon, they would probably say: "Great. When the programme is over."

The bad thing about losing TV; they insist on making their own entertainment. If that is how they carried on in the past, I am amazed anybody made it to adolescence. I stumbled out of the bedroom to go get the wailing baby. My husband is away again which always helps to ramp up the morning mayhem. It means I do not get to say: "Listen, she is singing your song," and nudge him gently out of bed. My six-year-old was hefting the baby along the corridor to me, staggering slightly, both of his arms wrapped around her sleep-suited body, unable quite to see over her head. This was kind and brotherly of him. Coincidentally, fishing the baby out of her cot, had freed up her mattress. It could join the other three mattresses the boys had carefully laid, end to end, down the very steep staircase in our rented house. He handed her to me and trotted back down the corridor. "Do not even think about it," I croaked as he shimmied into his nylon sleeping bag. He perched himself at the top of the Cresta Run. Grinned and launched himself into outer space. I do not know how the pair of them were not splattered against the wooden door at the bottom of the stairs like Warner Brothers cartoon characters. After all my concern about him bashing his head at school, I had this vision of carrying him unconscious, his head swathed in a knob of bandages, into class. The pyjama-clad four-year-old took my hand. "I don't go down in the sleeping bag, mummy," he said, "I just go like this."