Sunday, September 30, 2007

Enough rope

I just threw myself off a castle wall. I hate heights. I saw a note in a shop advertising a charity abseil off the local castle and ignored it. Then this morning, I thought: "I think I will go and do that abseil 150feet off the castle battlements." I said to the boys: "Do you want to watch mummy abseil off the castle?" They said: "No." They were watching TV at the time. I did not push it. I do not want them using their dressing gown chords to abseil out of their bedroom windows next time my back is turned.

By the time I drove up to the castle I had gone off the idea but by then it was too late. I had committed the pound for parking. I signed up and was given a harness and a hardhat and took a pair of gloves from a box. The chap dressing us looked me up and down. He said: "I have two concerns - the cardigan and the boots." I looked around. Everyone else was dressed in walking boots, tee shirts and fleecy things. I had on my brown leather boots and a rather attractive maroon silky cardigan which reaches to my knees underneath my battered fawn suede jacket. OK this was not good. I looked like the impulse abseiler I was. I took off the maroon cardigan. At this point, my whole outfit fell apart. The maroon was cleverly pulling together my maroon ruffled lace top, the jeans and the boots. I decided no one I knew was there so I could live with the style compromise. I hiked up the steep hill and through the castle gates. My heart hurt. I thought: "I wonder if you can die of fright." My mouth was dry and I thought briefly about going for a cup of tea in the cafe which is close to the battlements. I decided if I did that, I might remember an urgent appointment and have to go home. I dutifully joined the queue.

The thing about doing something as stupid as abseiling is that there is always someone even more stupid than you doing it. The two man-boys in front of me had the sort of sense of humour that made me want to slap them. One of them kept talking about how his worst fear was that someone would cut the rope. Cut the rope? Until that moment, it had never entered my head that someone would cut the rope. Apparently, he had abseiled off Table Mountain in Africa. I knew this because a. he told us and b. he was wearing a tee shirt that said "Abseil Africa." Yet when one of the organisers was telling us what to do, he seemed to have no idea he had to hold on to the rope. The organiser said: "Put your hand on your bum to stop." The man-boy dutifully put his hand on his bum. The organiser said: "You have to be holding the rope when you do that." He said: "Did you buy that tee shirt?" I think he meant on Ebay.

Mind you the organisers had that sort of gallows humour too. They said things like: "Mind, not one person whose jumped off and died, has ever come back and said they didn't have a good time doing it." Ha bloody ha. And, untwisting a rope: "I'm glad this isn't my rope." I said: "What's wrong with the rope?" He said: "It's just twisted up. It's fine for other people." You are standing on the battlements of the most beautiful castle in Britain amidst a spiders web of knotted up ropery and they say: "Don't look at the knots. If you look at the knots you won't go down." You immediately start looking at the knots. Then to take your mind of the knots, they start telling you how one little old lady who jumped off the other day, went down head first, having leaned out and forgotten to bring her feet with her when she started moving.

Too soon, it is my turn and one of them attaches a metal clip called a carabiner to my harness. He then clips me on to a black rope twisted through another piece of metal called a figure of eight. This is my abseiling rope. Another clip attaches me to a safety rope which has a bit of give in it which he says he will use to lower me down "if you die on the way". There are not a lot of instructions apart from the one about putting your hand behind you to stop and raising it to one side to go. As I am getting ready to go over the top, one of them says something about keeping your legs stretched out in front of you to avoid "smashing into the castle wall." With this cheery last tip, you climb into the gap between the two castellations.

I cling on to the battlements, face into the castle and away from the descent. I reach for the black rope with my right hand and steady it with my left hand. I think: "I am going to die. The very worst moment is this moment. The black abseiling rope is slack. Almost as an afterthought, he says: "What is your name?" I think: "If he asks me for my PIN number I am telling him." He says: "Stand with your heels over the edge." I think: "Not long now then." He says: "Lean your shoulders back." I think: "I hope only the good bits flash in front of me." He says: "Sit into the harness." And I step backwards into oblivion, remembering to bring my feet with me, and start climbing down the castle walls, swinging into and away from the rocks and the ivy. At exactly the same time as I realise I am not going to die this particular morning, I think: "I bet my bottom looks enormous from down there."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chaos and wreckage

When we moved back in to the cottage, the study became a dumping ground. Anything that could not find a home in the rest of the house weedled its way into a pile and stayed there. I tried ignoring it; pretending it did not matter; telling myself it would get better. It got worse.

The problem with a study that looks like you have a sideline doing house clearances, is that it shows what is going on in your head. You might as well have the words "My life is a mess" scrawled in neon glass and hung over the doorway. I have had psychotherapists living next door to me, I know these things. (I decided I like having psychotherapists for friends. I am hoping they will not send me a bill when they get home.) Chaos is alright in moderation but after a while you cannot think straight.

My husband does not help. When he is not down in London, he shares the study with me. I do not find it easy working alongside him. He has been known to eat herring at his desk. He prefers to work hunkered down behind enormous walls of paperwork, newspapers and statistics - in London, he has been declared an official fire hazard. He is also ever so slightly deaf which means he shouts down the phone. Sometimes, if I am on the other phone, the person I am talking to will start talking to my husband instead of me.

I was invited for lunch the other day in a house so grand it makes you think: "I so married the wrong man." It has a kitchen that would fit four of my kitchens in. Three larders including one in the grounds for game. The sort of book lined drawing room you see in Edwardian dramas. It has a dead tiger on the floor and an ironing room with a linen press. Thirteen bedrooms and an atrium so large I did not immediately notice the grand piano. I brought roses. My friend took me to her "Flower Room". Shelf after shelf of vases. I counted them. Including the planters for the 78 pots of orchids she has in the hothouse and the bowls for roses, there were 114 vases to chose between. I wished I had brought a bigger bunch. I said: "Wow." She said: "Let me show you the box room."

I grew up in a boxroom; it had a narrow mirrored wardrobe and a single bed. Hers was a room full of boxes; it smelled of dust, scented soap and money well-spent. It had heavy cardboard boxes from 1950s Bond Street jewellers; boxes from Hermes, Tiffany and Saks Fifth Avenue; for gardenia toilet soap, glace fruit, macadamia nut shortbread and oriental cigarettes. When you opened them, you could think: "This box is empty" or you could think: "This box was full." My friend said: "You buy something and you think, this would be a nice box rather than that's a nice soap." I thought: "Why keep all these boxes?" Apparently, it is handy to have a box if you wish to send a gift to a godchild. Then I thought: "This house is so big, they probably would not even notice if I snuck in my laptop and set up my study in an outhouse or a large shoebox."

I decided I did not want a room for my gift boxes. I did want a room in which I could work. I tried desperately to find an alternative working space in my own house. I suggested the four-year-old might like to move in with the six-year-old and let mummy have his room to do some work. That did not go down well.

The builders are still working on the arches. First of all we had to wait for the painters, then the electricians; now we have to wait for the carpet and floor fitter before the plumber can come back in to do the underfloor heating and the shower room. I have decided the builders have become emotionally attached and do not want to leave us. Unless I was willing to work in the arches with a concrete floor and type by candlelight, that was not a goer either. There was only one thing left. Clear the study.

My husband told me he would sort it out in November. He has been telling me the same thing since July. I hardly ever shout at my husband but I shouted at him about the state of the study when he told me none of the mess was his. He did that walk-away male thing and "left me to it." I cried. Then I threw something out and kept going. I dry cleaned my chair; I vaccuumed the floor so hard I broke the vaccuum cleaner. I became obsessed. So obsessed, I cleaned the windows. In three different ways to see which pane looked the best. I used washing up liquid and newspaper (a traditional favorite of my mother's). This is how I normally clean windows and mirrors but I think I may have put too much washing up liquid in the water because it came out slightly smearier than usual. Then I tried my best friend from school's window cleaning product designed for car windows (works a treat but you have to give it time to dry first). Then I used bleach. I have never used neat bleach to clean windows before but I went to visit a friend on a farm and the girl who cleans for her was using bleach "because of the flies". Good enough for me. It got the windows clean but the smell nearly knocked me off my chair. The problem with cleaning your windows in this way is that once you realise that you have a winning pane (the car cleaning product), you have to do the others again to bring them up to the same standard.

Anyway, I cleared the study; my husband helped me shift some of the heavier furniture despite the fact he had not diaried it in till November. We started speaking again around half past one this morning.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I said to the baby girl - and I know you should not ask such questions of children - "Who do you love the most?". She stared back at me, her face all truth and beauty; hazel blue eyes and her mouth which looks like mine at the corners. I whispered again as I bunched her to me, settling in to the rocking chair: "Who do you love the most? The best? Who in this world?" She lay back into me, raised up her plastic cup of milk as if to make a toast. "Granny," she confided.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lady of the Flies 4

I think the flies may have gone underground. Literally. They have disappeared from the kitchen but hanging out my washing on the drying green, I noticed four large mounds of earth tumbling up through the grass. I presume the flies are regrouping and plan to tunnel their way back in. I set the children to stomping up and down on the mounds in case the flies have not yet got the hint. Then last night I was lying in bed and all I could hear was scurrying in the ceiling space. I have heard a whole din of buzzing from them, particularly when captured in jammy ribbons of fly paper, but I have never heard them scurry before. I presume they were wearing leather soled boots. Cunning creatures flies. In fact, this whole country experience has brought me closer to animals - if not insects.

My eldest would prefer to go to school by bus as many of the other children do. He says: "Why can't I go by bus?" I say: "Because mummy likes driving you." I try to bear that in mind when I am running 10 minutes late and struggling to clip three children into car seats which are ever so slightly too big for the back seat of the car. And it is raining. And we cannot find our homework. On a good day driving the boys to school is like a long nature ramble. "Look children, cows/ horses/ sheep/ rabbits/ hares/ chickens/ pheasants." I still think "Wow" as I try and pick my way through the careless, gossiping pheasants drifting across the road or see a hare lollop along infront of me before it swerves off into the long grasses and through the hawthorn hedge. The other morning, I even saw a red squirrel. A dark russet red, its tail darker again; it whipped across the road, scrambling up onto a stone bridge and leapt for a tree. I have seen deer once with the boys. Deer spotting though is more of a solitary habit. I am not often out late at night and alone. When I am, the very best bit can be the drive back. There is a point in the road to home - a stretch after it has dipped and before it rises again - where if you slow down, lower the music, wind down the window and glance across, away and over to the right, you can, occasionally, only very occasionally it is true to say, see them bound across the field then disappear into a shadowed, distant copse of trees. Then drive on again, content.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dinosaur roar

Last week, a retired child psychotherapist and a consultant psychotherapist were staying in the cottage next to us. I made a mental note to myself: "Do not shout at the children. If you do want to shout at the children, remember to shut the windows." I was doing really well until the phone rang just as I was putting everyone to bed. Usually, I let it ring but I thought it might be my husband so I dashed downstairs and answered it. I saw first the pyjama-clad four-year-old and then the six-year-old tear out of the front door and into the garden. They were carrying cleaning products. When I put the phone down, I swept up the rompered baby and went out. I was careful not to shout. I called loudly: "Boys." I called slightly more loudly: "Boys!" They emerged; the four-year-old, beaming. He always beams when he has done something that will drive me to distraction. I said: "Right. I want the washing up liquid and the washing powder tablets back. Now." The six-year-old looked pained. "How did you know?" he wailed. "I know everything," I said. "I know everything you think. I know everything you do. Forever." I thought: "I really hope the psychotherapists can't hear this."

We opened up the wooden gate and stepped down into their garden paradise. The four-year-old went one way; the six-year-old the other. Realising his tactical mistake, the four-year-old veered over to his brother. He beamed at me again as he ran past to join his ally in all misdeeds. We peered over the stone wall at the bottom of the garden. The cleaning products had been thrown over the wall into their den in the cow field which backs on to the garden. The foaming bottle, the box and its contents were nowhere near where we were standing; they were laying among the trodden down nettles, over where the four-year-old had been heading. I said, through tight lips: "I want them picked up. Please."

Babe on hip, I cut across the grass to the point the four-year-old had been aiming for originally - a patch of garden close to the greenhouse. Here, a narrow entrance squeezes you between glass and golden privet leaves; the garden room enclosed by thick hedges on two sides, a greenhouse and a stone wall. Or what was a stone wall. It is a private place; curiously attractive to children. My hopes of ice-packed sundowners, sitting on an old wooden bench in this garden scrap have come to nothing. It is a superhero den. It has a tree which the boys use to scramble into their other den in the nettlepatch. My boys do not like to waste their superhero energies though. They decided it was taking too long to use the knotted rope and the rope ladder between the two bases. The quickest route would definitely be through the wall. The boys, with help from two small friends, had used sticks to scrape out the lime mortar and carefully pulled and tumbled out the stones. The hole in the wall was enormous. From ground level to just underneath the first rank of stones; wide enough for two small superheros, if not three, to emerge from their weedy control room at the same time. Aghast, I watched the four-year-old scrambling back through the hole with the washing-up liquid. Stones arched above his egg fragile head, resting on nothing but neighbours and innate good will. I said: "You are kidding me? What have you done? What were you thinking?" They wanted "a shortcut." While they worked with their sticks, they were pretending they were in the mouth of a big dinosaur taking out its teeth so it couldn't eat the little dinosaurs.

Later in the adult twilight, children in bed disgrace, the consultant psychotherapist assessed the latest outrage. She said: "You realise this is all about boundaries don't you? You didn't say 'No' to their other den when they wanted you to, so now they have pushed it further. They have literally pushed through the boundary. They want you to say 'No'." I said: "I say 'No' to my kids all the time." So much for keeping a low profile I thought. I told her about the dinosaurs. She said: "Hmmm. So they think there is a monster in their life somewhere." I changed the subject. To their thieving. Bad choice. They have slipped into a habit of stealing biscuits, chocolate, sweet stuff. I had thought because they did not get enough sugar in their little lives. The retired child psychotherapist hazarded: "Perhaps they feel they are not being nurtured enough." I groaned inside. I said: "What about the cleaning products though?" "Yes," she said. "That's an interesting one. They are stealing what they think is important to you, they are stealing a piece of you." I said: "There is no way they associate me with cleaning products."

I boy banned them from my Eden.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Are you dancin'?

My husband came back for the weekend and then went again. Maybe the flies carried him away on their sticky feet? I had put the children to bed after the usual two hour performance involving baths, books and bollockings. I had lain next to the six-year-old and said: "I love you so much. Do you know that?" And he said: "No. How much do you love me?" And I said: "I love you brighter than the stars." He said: "Do you love me more than Daddy?" I said: "Yes. That's just the way it is." He said: "More than Granny?" and I said: "Yes." and thought: "Don't tell her though." "More than television?" No contest. "More than your make-up?" More than that even. I said: "I love you so much if there was a tiger coming up the road and it was hungry I would let it eat me so you could run away." He rolled over, into me: "I think the tiger would change his mind and not want to eat you." I said: "You're right. We could invite it for tea instead."He said: "I don't think that happens. Only in books." I said: "Well, we shall ask the next tiger we meet and see if he says 'Yes'."

Once I had lost him to sleep, I came downstairs to the kitchen. I pushed the table against the hearth and cleared the chairs to one side. I thought: "I can sweep the floor. Clear it of crumbs, mop off the dirt and wait for it to dry or I can dance." I pressed eject to open up the CD drawer on my laptop, fed it and thought: "It has been an age since I went to a club. Will anyone buy me a drink?" Acoustic guitars and fiddles gushed out into the warm air to catch in the gobbets of crystal hanging from the chandelier. Folk rock spun me one way then the other. I like to dance; always have. I closed my eyes a while. I have a gay best boyfriend. He cool shimmies on the dance floor, hands behind his back, dandy hips asway. He and I do this thing. On the dance floor. We step around and round, twirling to face each other and then away. Anyone watching who did not know I am his hag, he is my gay best friend, would think we have hot sex and oftentime. But we do not, will not, cannot think of such a thing. Instead, we dance, caressing with a smile, loving each other in the beat . I danced with him last night. I could not tell him so. I wonder, later, in his London bed, if he dreamt he danced with me.

Lady of the Flies 3

Ding dong the flies are dead. Not all of them but most. Since I have effectively been living in the Australian outback of the 19th century, I am quite happy with a couple of dozen hangers on who do not yet know the party is over. It was bad. I would make a cup of tea and as I poured in the milk, a fly would bob to the surface. Often it would still be swimming. Sometimes it would have an inflatable toy. I pressed my nuclear button, the bait trap of a plastic bag filled with what I am presuming to be powdered cat poo or something equally disgusting. You had to fill it with a litre of warm water and hang it by your front door. I think it was meant for cattle sheds or hen coops. I said to my boys: "Touch this at your peril." I could have said: "Please don't touch mummy's nice new fly trap. It would make mummy sad if you poked a hole in it and covered yourselves in poo and dead flies." As it was, I went for the threatening growl option which I find altogether more effective. Sometimes, I add: "I mean it." Occasionally: "If you do x, y or z, I will take away your a, b or c," or a traditional "you will go straight to bed". Once in a while, I flounder and am left with the altogether more foggy "you will be in so much trouble." I skip straight over the "Intimidation -Don't Try This at Home" advice in the parenting books. I do what I have to in order to make it to another day. Anyway, it was useless; it killed five flies in 24 hours.

I bought geranium oil and burners along with geranium incense sticks. I braved the nettles to get down to the sandpit and ladled sand into a glass mixing bowl and brought it back to the house. I slid in four incense sticks and lit them. My six-year-old came in. He looked delighted. He said: "Mummy, you 've baked a cake." I said: "No, it just looks like a cake. I'm killing flies." He sighed and walked away. At the doorway, he said to the four-year-old: "Don't bother asking. It's not a cake." I liked the incense but the geranium oil got a bit much. It did not kill the flies, instead they retreated to the corners of the room to talk about me or sank to floor level. They swirled around my feet. I think they were doing that commando like crawl you are supposed to do in the event of fire, pulling themselves along by their elbows to avoid the stink of geraniums. They went just before I turned off the Aga. I had decided that the gates of hell through which the flies were coming might well be the double oven doors. Even if the Aga was not plumbed directly into the sulphuric flames, I thought the heat might be encouraging them. Turning off the Aga in the country is like having sex with your husband's tractorman, something you try not to do. At least, something you try not to get caught doing. I thought: "If anyone drops by, I just won't let them in the kitchen."

They surrounded me. My six-year-old even brought home a reading book from school on flies. I said: "What made you think I would want to hear you read this?" He just grinned and turned to the close up photograph of a fly poised with a great round ball of saliva dangling from what passes for its jaws. He started reading: "A fly spits on its food. This turns the food into a kind of soup." He flicked back past the photographs of shiny, hook-mouthed maggots, he carried on: "If the fly lands in a rubbish heap, bits of rubbish and germans stick to the fly's feet. Then, when the fly lands on something else, like your drink bottle, it will bring tiny bits of rubbish and invisible germans with it... One fly can carry nearly two millions germans." I said: "That's a lot of Germans." He grinned and carried on.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Brambles hang heavy, sweet with berry temptation on their hedge branches. You drive by; they shout after you: “Pluck me.” You stop; glance back; reverse; stop again and wind down the window. “Fill up your mouth with my round sweetness,” they call and pout. “Roll me over in your warm, wet darkness before you bite and swallow me. Eat me up till your lips blacken and your tongue shrinks from my taste. Wrest me from this thorny green and let me die happy in a shortcrust pie.” You nod. You say: “How much?” They say: “Your lucky day. Today, all day, I’m free.” Honeysuckle too, spindly, pink and cream amid white vine weed and russet hawthorn beads. “Summer,” the hedge says. “Ah summer that was. Gone now. Almost never here. But we shall take comfort in the autumn that is come among us.” Over the hedge, cotton reels and cubes of straw mark the season's shift. Fields worked; already green shoots of rape and wheat haze the ever restless earth. One or two late and golden fields of oats, rustle with embarrassment, still to be standing there, while the wind pushes away the skinny warmth of the day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Our cottage is at the end of a row of what were eight farm labourers' cottages. An access road runs in front of all the cottages binding us with a ribbon of asphalt, tying together neighbours and friends. It can be lonely when my husband is away in London. At dusk, when the children tip into sleep, I step outside and walk along the access road a little way, stopping to look across the fields, waiting for the lighthouse to blink, for the bats to notice me, swoop down and then away. I walk past the empty, ranked, blank windows. I think: "This is their cottage home from home. This one theirs. And this one here, is theirs." I nudge a wooden bench tighter against a wall, lift up and right a terracota pot, wonder: "Will she come this weekend or next?...How soon will they be up? Half-term perhaps?" I think what I might say, what he or she might say to me. I hope we make good neighbours; like to think we do.

By happenchance, we own the access road, all packaged up neat with gardens, a drying green and a cess pit when we came to buy the house. My baby girl with her scitter scatter run, a glance behind, one elbow tucked into her side, the other arm pumping up and down, is off along the road, giggling, sooner than a blink. After we moved back in, we wanted to gate it to stop children, more particularly, the baby girl, staggering into the real world only to be caught up, twirled around and tossed out of it again.

A Northern city neighbour, his cottage retreat far away from the passing traffic, advised us in a letter: he did not like the wooden farm gate plan. He "copied in" the other cottage folk. Concerns for the safety of all our children could be "easily remedied" he suggested with a plan. As follows:

We should clear up the front of our house. He wrote: "I am sorry to say that access into the cottages has become more difficult recently because of the location of the collection of furniture, plants and toys amassed outside of your property ...". He made the point that our "collection" made driving past the property "very difficult and potentially dangerous." We Northumbrians are reasonable people; he had a point. We moved the plastic Wendy house, the wooden castle walls, lined up the herb pots, pushed bikes and large, plastic tractors down onto the terrace.

He said the gates would mean people would have to stop on the main road and get out of their cars to cross the road to open and close them. Another reasonable point. We moved the gates along the access road so that drivers can swing in off the main road before having to get out of the car to open them. I asked my husband how he felt about becoming a gatekeeper; visitors could beep their horns when they wanted the gates open or shut and he could scurry out and open or shut it, holding out his hand for a shilling tip as they drove through. I said: "Think of it as diversification." He said: "No," or something to that effect.

Our neighbour also offered to reintroduce "Slow. Children Playing " signs on the main road and to have them made up for us. I do not know if he was planning to make up the "Oops, You Just Ran Someone Over", for a little further along if they did not catch the first sign.

He also suggested the "installation of 'child gates' to the front doors of those properties with very young children". (We are the only parents with "very young" children in the road.) For the sake of his occasional visits to his occasional home, he thought I might gate in my country child. Better this, than he gets out his car.

We might also gate our garden and the drying green, the letter made the point. And parking, do not forget the parking. His letter said we might adopt a "parking policy of reversing in to the road in front of the cottages which allows all drivers to park their vehicle as close to their property facade as possible and get into/out of their vehicles from the drivers side. (Nowadays, a common Health and Safety practice)."

If we were to go ahead, we might consider the turning circle and sweep of various vehicles which might wish to access the cottages; he helpfully provided us with diagrams of the turning circles of a private car, pantechnicon, refuse collection vehicle, medium commercial vehicle, fire appliance, and the largest commercial vehicle. I wish he had included the immense "static" holiday homes you see on trailers as you drive these country roads. You watch the house roll up the road towards you, taking up both narrow lanes as it rounds the bend, you think: Now, right now, is when I die." Then it sweeps above your head and past.

I am, I tell the bats, a cautious, fear-filled mother first, a good neighbour second. The gates are up. Open. Shut.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A pirate's life for me

Yesterday morning started off in the way all mornings should start - in fancy dress. School wanted the children to come "dressed as a character from a traditional tale or nursery rhyme such as Cinderella, Goldilocks and the three bears, Bo Peep, Jack and Jill, Robin Hood, Tom Thumb, Mother Hubbard etc." My six-year-old dressed as Captain Hook. I thought we were slightly pushing it interpreting Peter Pan as "traditional" rather than as a "classic". We were definitely pushing it with the four-year-old's tiger outfit which he said made him Shere Khan from Jungle Book - again, I think a "classic" rather than a "traditional" tale. I wanted to make him a cardboard fiddle to be "the cat and the fiddle" as in "Hey, diddle, diddle". He said: "No way. I'm Shere Khan or I'm not going." I decided Jungle Book was fine. As soon as the boys started dressing up, the baby girl wanted in. She demanded the red satin-look coat of Captain Hook. I had to bribe her with Superman's red polyester cape and a Santa Claus hat to be Red Riding Hood.

I admire her taste. Hook's red satin coat was my best dress ever. I wore it in the eighties, hence the shoulder pads. The V-neck promised glories if you would only watch it long enough while every time I took a step, the skirt split wide open to reveal taut, shiny thigh. The entire dress was held in place by two buttons at the waist. As I looked at it in the cheval mirror, I would think: "If I undo those two buttons, just those two buttons, the entire dress falls to the floor." Sometimes, I would watch myself undo the buttons to see the dress shimmy from my shoulders, feel its brief caress before it folded itself into a flimsy heap at my pedicured feet. I do not think I ever looked better in a dress but the days of taut shiny thighs and shoulder pads are long gone. There came a moment, a couple of years ago, when I thought: "The days of this dress are over and I have a boy desperate for life as a pirate." I laid it out on my bedroom floor, took up a large pair of dressmaking scissors and scythed into my vamp past. I remade it; tightened up the waist, shortened the skirt, blanket-stitched narrow sleeves from the scraps and attached them to the ex-frock with white cotton. I did not think my son knew what it was I did. I thought he watched me cut and sew because he was anxious to be a pirate king. Yesterday morning, he hauled out the dressing up trunk and dug around among the soldier's armour and green clown curls for the crumpled red coat and a battered black hat with a broken red feather. He pulled on the coat, said: "You made me this. It was your best dress." I picked up a black and wetted paintbrush to colour in his piratical moustache and beard; I took his chin in my hand and tilted his beautiful boy face to the morning light, I said: "Once upon a time."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Party on

I got an offer I could not refuse for the other night. A ticket to a fundraising ball at a local castle for Conservatism and cancer. Who thought up that combination? Not one Central Office spin doctors would rejoice over. This is real politics out in the real world. Forget the obvious dangers of associating the party with a nasty disease that might kill you, let’s just get on with it and raise some money. Quite right too. Conservatism. Cancer. There is a difference.

I was so determined to go along, I caught a lift with my fellow London exile who lives in the big house along the way. Unfortunately, I had also asked another friend and her farmer husband for a lift. They arrived at my door about 20 minutes after I had left. I blame sleep deprivation for every brainless thing I do. The children have a rota going as to who will wake me up at night. Monday night it was all of them. Tuesday night, they let me sleep through to give me a false sense of security. Wednesday, the four-year-old woke up at 1 in the morning, sat up in bed, called for me and when I stumbled in, told me: “It’s dark. I can’t find the bed.” I said: “You are sitting on the bed.” Then he insisted on coming in with me and lying awake for an hour and a half, occasionally stroking my face with infinite tenderness which meant I could not even shout at him. Thursday, 3.10am, the baby girl started screaming: “Wata. Wata. Wata” as if I had her on a salt diet. Friday, 2.20am the baby wailed madly and collapsed back into sleep just as I got to her; about 45 minutes later, the four-year-old woke me again because he said he was having a nightmare. Then, on Saturday morning, my six-year-old complained he had also called for me during the night and I had not come. I said: “I didn’t hear you. What was wrong?” He said: “I couldn’t find the duvet.” I said: “Well, where was it?” He said: “The bottom of the bed.” I said: “Your duvet was at the bottom of the bed and you tried to wake me up in the middle of the night to get it for you?” “Yes – and you didn’t come. Where were you?” The consequence of this extreme sleep deprivation is low brain function, a distinct lack of amiability and acute, occasional stupidity such as arranging for a variety of lifts for the same occasion.

Anyway, I was running late due to the fact I had meant to lay everything out for the ball the day before, but had not had the time. I also had to go with my hair half done because my hairdryer decided to cut out and not start again right in the middle of blow drying my hair. I contemplated sticking my head in the Aga to finish the job but decided it might traumatise the children if they saw me. I do not want them telling me in 20 years time that their earliest memory is me laying on the kitchen floor with my head in the oven. Which is electric. When I left the house, it was without jewellery, gloves or the right handbag because I could not find any of them. Luckily, I found my long frock which I was convinced had gone to the textile bank or the charity shop when we moved house the last time. The girl who helps me with the children has been away but she babysat for me that night. As I walked out the door, I told her: “Don’t let any of the children in the bathroom because when I tried to empty the bath, the chain came off the plug and I can’t get the plug out now.” She said: “OK.” I think she is getting used to the chaos. I walked up to my neighbour’s house where we were leaving from, trying to shake off the thought that a. my hair looked a mess and b. there was a slightly scummy pond in the bathroom and the baby might throw herself in it reaching for a rubber duck while I was out. There is always such an appetite to crucify a grieving mother; the headlines would read: “Champagne Charlie Ma Dances till Dawn with Tory Boys while Baby Drowns in Bathroom Pond. ‘I Did It For Cameron and Cancer,’ says Devastated Mother.”

It is always slightly disconcerting to be in a meeting of fellow travellers when you do not have the same map. At least though the tables had numbers and names. Each one called after a Tory frontbencher. Tory party leader, Cameron was 1; former Tory party leader Hague, 2; could-have-been Tory party leader, Davis, 3. never-to-be party leader Eric Pickles was 22. I was on Grayling. We had to Google him on my fellow London exile’s Blackberry. He turned out to be the Conservative spokesman who appears on Channel 4 News and makes you think: "Who is that bloke? I have never seen him before in my life."You think the same thing every time he is on. Which was worse I wondered, to be on Eric Pickles or to have to Google your own table? I thought Pickles.

The Tories may be the traditional party of low taxation but this does not hold true for fundraisers. We had no sooner sat down than demands for money started in the form of strange party games and £20 for a raffle ticket to win a week for 10 in a ski chalet. The programme of events promised a speaker whose “talent for mimicry is legendary”; this immediately makes you feel as if you will need to be very drunk to hear him. There was also a “Grand” auction and a silent auction. I find auctions very stress inducing. Only that afternoon, I had been involved in an auction for sweet peas and parsnips at a local village fete. I had lost my bids for everything but a Victoria sponge. Admitting a desire in public can be hell I decided as I dropped out of the bidding, left the cricket pavilion and walked away from the pom pom dahlias I had wanted so badly. Conservatives angst less. I watched with admiration as the bids went in for the lots including tickets at Lords, fishing on the Tweed and “two guns on a 100 bird day” in North Yorkshire.

I preferred the silent auction where you wrote in your name and the amount you were willing to pay underneath the particular lot you were interested in; later on, as excitement built and the auction was about to close, you told a girl and they wrote it on a board for you. The lots included a 1994 Subaru Legacy Turbo 4WD Estate (it fetched £810)- the funds for this were to be shared with the campaign to stop wind turbines on a local farm. (They are very political these people.) I think Cameron would have preferred to see a bicycle in the silent auction rather than something that boasted “wide boy spotlights on the front”. You could also bid for a “a day’s hunting for two” with two different hunts, a hacking jacket and a gundog workshop for four handlers and dogs and a carriage driving lesson. I was tempted by the gundog workshop, presumably you throw a gun in the air and the dog is taught to fetch it; I decided instead to bid for a day’s stalking on an estate in the south of the county. With just a minute or so to go, a bid for £275 came in over my head for the stalking and the girl started writing in the new name, I turned to complain. I said: “You just beat my bid.” I did not add: “You Tory bastard.” I thought that would be unsporting. I was glad I did not. He was very charming. He said I could go stalking with them and to call. I shall take him up on it. I am hoping we might see George Clooney.

I found myself looking round, saying to myself: “So this is what Conservatives look like.” Despite what Cameron may hope, they still wear dinner jackets and lurex. I do not think they do this when they are knocking on doors for votes, but I could be wrong. I hope they do. I met the local Conservative candidate, sparkling in Tory blue. A woman, obviously. Tories do not cross dress I am sure in Cameron’s conservative party. Not in public anyway. The candidate was clever, enthusiastic and a good communicator. She is fighting in a constituency where everybody votes for the Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Beith. Canvassing, people tell her they are Conservatives and she says: “Great”. Then they say: “But we vote for Alan Beith; he’s such a nice man.”

I had hoped when someone said the Tory candidate in the Berwick constituency was a woman, she was the blonde girl in the black corset with the most enormous pair of breasts you have ever seen. She was not carrying them. Like a handbag. They were attached. Mesmerising. The skirt of the dress was scooped up the front on either side to reveal legs but no one was looking at her legs which I am sure were shapely or her face which I am sure was lovely. Where ever this girl went, her fellow Tories turned to stare at the passing and fabulous breasts. Cameron should scrap the oak tree and get a big boob logo. Easy to design; easy to remember. “The Conservative Party – the breast choice.” “Conservatism – breasting ahead.” It could run for years. In fact the candidate should take this girl with her when she canvasses. Whenever a male voter told her he was Tory but voted Beith, she could pull the girl in to his line of vision and say: “But we have bigger breasts.” I think it might tip the balance.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Say cheese

I dropped the boys at school. I remembered to take the camera to capture my four-year-old's first day. In most of the shots, he is looking unhappy but reconciled to his miserable fate; in one, he hides behind his six-year-old brother but that might have been because he wanted me to stop taking photographs. He was brave which made it more bearable; he wobbled only once when the teacher drew him away from me but righted himself. I was holding it together up to the moment it was time to walk out the door of the classroom and I was handed a packet of tissues and a teabag wrapped in a white silk ribbon. "Go home. Have a cry and make yourself a cup of tea," I was told by a cheery member of staff. Really, I was fine up to that point. They might as well have erected a billboard outside the school gates with the words: "He's not your little boy anymore, Mummy." And in very small letters underneath: "He'll forget your birthday, make excuses at Christmas. Eventually, he just won't call. And when you're really old, he'll put you in a home and never even visit." I looked for the billboard when I came out. I thought: "I don't want a cup of tea. I want my son back."

I could not bring myself to drive back home so the baby girl and I drove in the opposite direction to a market town. Not the nearest market town, another one. One further away so that I could kill more time. Within the 40 or so minutes it took me to get there, I changed from a reasonably sane member of society into the woman you sit next to on the bus who starts talking to you about the book you pull out of your handbag, only for you to realise, 30 seconds too late, that she is actually a complete lunatic. I told anyone who cared to listen that I did not live in the town, I was not supposed to be there, my son had started school and I did not want to go home when he was not there to fill it with his noise. Even my baby girl was looking embarrassed by the end of it. The nice lady who sold me blueberries and red exotic flowers knew how I was feeling. She had a six-year-old boy who did not like school, did not want to go back, felt he had no-one to play with. She said: "I would watch him in the playground without him knowing. I had to stop. It was making me ill." I almost gave her my tissue-teabag favour. I thought: "Been there. Done that." Instead, I said: "I know. You worry, don't you? I hope it goes well for him today." She smiled at me and said: "Yours too."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lady of the Flies 2

Summer then has been insane. Not a little mad, but full blown, lollopy, lollopy insane with builders and moving and more builders and children everywhere. My husband has been here for all of it. Yesterday, he went back to London. He waved cheerily as he pulled away. An hour before he left, he said: "I am so ready to go back to London." Then he said: "But I'll miss you." And he went. Cue massive tears from the four-year-old due to start school tomorrow. The six-year-old said: "You have to stop because you're making me sad now." While my baby girl stretched out from her high chair to lay across the kitchen table, gaze into his sodden little face and tell him: "Don't cy. Don't cy."

I had a really bad day today. I always have a really bad day when my husband is not here. For a start the flies came back. They never really went away but the gates of hell must have opened again and they are everywhere. Often one is on top of another. Having sex. I mean eeeeeeurgh. I said to two of them: "Get a room." Then remembered they had. My kitchen. There are so many of them, they are virtually swarming. I sprayed before I went to bed last night; this morning there must have been 200 dead flies on the floor and my polished granite worksurfaces. I had to sweep the dead away before we could eat pancakes. It has reached the point that when you cook something in a pan and come to serve it, you look in and there is almost certainly going to be a dead fly staring back at you. I was serving pasta the other night when I realised that the black stuff on the quills was disintegrating fly parts, not pepper. I ate it. I figured it might make me think like them and so help me kill more of them. Unless it makes me want to have sex with something with more legs than I have. In which case, I probably won't eat it again.

The day then starts off in a flies graveyard. I make the pancakes, pick out the flies and feed the children. A visitor, a farmer's wife, is expected at 10 so I tidy round furiously. She is slightly late which means the children have time to untidy everything by the time she arrives. Not content with tidying the house, I go out to the garden and start cleaning out the tent we borrowed last week for the children to have a go at camping out. It is squalid. I decide I have to empty it, clean it and after spending some considerable time staring at stains, reluctantly strip the inner lining out to wash it. This is the problem with borrowing anything. Time comes to return it and you think: "Was that stain already there or did my children put it there?" I am still cleaning off what I hope is banana from velour sleeping mats when the stove man arrives to inspect the stove he painted which is now installed in the arches. He tells me he will have to paint it again which I decide is OK providing I do not have to pay him again to do it. Halfway through lunch with the farmer's wife, the builders arrive. I was not expecting builders this week as they are technically on another job. My builder puts into my care his teenage apprentice who is tasked to strip out my ensuite shower which I want tiled. This means I now have no sanctuary. The apprentice, who is both talented and hardworking, is at that age where every word he utters has to be wrenched from him. He makes me think to the future, to how my sons will be when they are grown. The noise level with my outlaw boys after six weeks of summer is horrendous. If we had neighbours, they would be drawing up a petition to get us rehoused. I said to them tonight: "Boys the noise has to stop." I do not think they heard me. In 10 years, if the builder's apprentice is anything to go by, I will be pleading with them to speak to me at all.

After lunch, the farmer's wife takes the children away down to her farm and I arrange to meet up with them in two hours time at their swimming lesson. I had wanted to do some work but realised instead I needed to spend the time finding things for tomorrow morning and writing names on clothes. I have always suspected parents are forced to write names in the clothes so that when teachers get the children mixed up, they can haul up the collar and read it. Some of the clothes these days have a space for the child's name and his class. I put "aspirational middle" but I got bored after the gym kit. I do not have to bother finding my four-year-old's new school shoes because he had already told me he is not wearing them. For some reason, I can find no blue airtex tops for the six-year-old and no school trousers for the four-year-old. In the midst of this, the friend who lent us the tent drops by with his four sons, aged five, seven, nine and 11. Within 10 minutes, the nine-year-old has killed 14 flies and the 11-year-old, 28. They line up the bodies for me on the oaked wooden floor. When they leave I put away all the clothes and calculate I have exactly, to the minute, five minutes to drink a cup of tea and eat expensive chocolate to make myself feel better about everything. I spoon a fly out of the tea. At that very moment, my evangelical friends arrive with their three children. I make the grown-ups a cup of tea (two minutes), chew a large piece of chocolate (one minute) and chat (another two minutes); I leave them finishing their tea outside the cottage.

I am very stressed as I drive to the swimming pool as I think about how to persuade my four-year-old to fall in love with school. During the complicated transfer of child seats in the car park between the farmer's wife and myself, I manage to reverse the car with the back passenger door open and scrape the car next to me. I leave a note. I want to leave an amazingly complicated rationale for why I parked where I did, explaining why the door was open, that I had not noticed, that at the very moment I did notice and turned to check, a child shouted out for me and I stalled, the door swung out, scrape and damage and what a bad day I am having. I settle instead for a "terribly sorry " and "my apologies" and "please call me and let me know the damage" sort of note, sign it with my name and weight it down with their windscreen wiper. I am aware that I have not done anything to improve that driver's day either.

When I get home, I get the tent liner out of the washing machine to discover that navy blue has now run into beige, giving it a marbled effect. It still has suspicious stains. I hang it on the line, cursing. I go upstairs to check on the children to find the six-year-old has given the baby girl, a piece of paper, a squeezy bottle of red paint and a paintbrush. The baby girl is painting the paper and my newly sanded floor, pillarbox red. I am not happy. I explain why I am not happy. I know I should say: "Thank you for looking after your sister and for being so creative. Shall we take the paintbrush away now and give her this nice wax crayon?" Instead, I say: "What were you thinking of?" among other things. By the time I push, bully, plead and cajole everyone into bed, I am fit for nothing more than killing flies and drinking wine while I do it. Around 9.30ish the phone rings. A woman on the other end says: "Hello, you left a note on my car..." I want to cry. I say: "Yes, I am so sorry. I was trying to fit a child seat and I didn't realise the door was open and..." She is lovely. Coincidentally, her car is going in for other paintwork jobs and she tells me her husband is a mechanic. She does not want any money from me. More importantly, she does not shout at me. She thanks me for the note and says she has got children too. I put the phone down before I cry. I think: "How about that? The day just got better."