Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wagons ho!

My husband said: “Is this all a huge mistake? Are you sure you still love me?” “Is what a mistake?” “The move, all this. The three moves,” he gestured to the cardboard boxes of who knows what, toys spread across the floor, black plastic ragged sacks of sometime never to be worn again clothes. “Too late now,” I said. “We’re here. We’ll sort it out. It might take a while.” I do not know when my husband asks me this if he needs to hear that all is well. How he would feel if I raised a hand, said: “No, stop the wagons. Turn back. I’ve been far enough away from city life for long enough. This prairie adventuring is not what I was looking for. Too many cactii for a start. Pa, let us return to what we know.”

Change brings chaos with it. How do other people cope? Are we more chaotic then than most? Or is this family life? Constant friends constantly reproach me for the chaos. We have moved. Again. We still have builders. It is like living two centuries ago with Uncles Joe and Nicholas and Benjamin, and cousin Nathan(he’s a little slow, lives out in the barn but harmless. Providing you are not a chicken. Chicken necks, he wrings). You walk along the landing and see a bearded head. Old Testament but without a bloody, silvered platter. The decorator is painting the upstairs window frame. You reproach a child for breaking eggs into a box of his books; a door opens and a builder slides through on his way to fetch the sugar or a hammer. He says: “The Lord cometh” or sometimes: “The skip is in the wrong place. I told them not to put it there. ”

We have three children. Three children’s toys and clothes and washing. Three children’s crayoned loose leaf paper and favourite plastic bowls and cups. Three children’s legs to wrap around you, pin you down, stop you from standing up and tidying away. How do others manage? I do not know. I cannot say. I find it helps to cross my eyes. A glass of wine helps too at night and work. Work can divert nicely for an hour or two. Never long enough. And occasionally I rage and scream. A psycho mother for a while. All of these I recommend, except possibly, the last.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Slight hiccups in the moving.

*the builders are still here doing the utility room and finishing off the arches. When I say "builders", I mean builders, decorators, plumbers and electricians.
(Irritation factor, 0. Surprisingly.)
Actually they are quite handy to have around. Company you know. Other people have damp, mice, a labrador or a cyberspace lover. I have builders. I do, however, worry that they might judge my housekeeping skills which are negligible or that they might report me to social services for child cruelty.

*most sentences now begin with the words: "Have you seen...".
(Irritation factor, 7)
We are still awash with boxes and black plastic sacks we cannot hide in the loft because the plumber has not finished working in it. My London diva girlfriend will visit next week with her family. She will look pointedly at the chaos; I have nowhere to hide it before she arrives. I am contemplating asking each of the builders to carry a black plastic sack up their teeshirts during her visit. She will think them fat but she will think me tidier than she would otherwise. Possibly they could each take a box out to the arches to sit upon while they drink their tea.

*the four-year-old is down with ongoing stomach migraine which leaves him with a permanent stomach ache and insanely grumpy. Grumpier even than his mother. Yesterday morning watching Scooby Doo in the living room, he threw up all over the new beige, textured three seater sofa we had just got out of its plastic wrapping. I had not even sat down on it unwrapped. Luckily, we had paid an extra £120 to get it fabric protected. Money well spent. I think they should use a vomiting child in their advertising. He also threw up over a new wickerwork chair. Yuk. And the new oaked floor. Fair enough. My best friend from school is a business tycoon in the West Midlands. She is everything I am not: optimistic, positive, dynamic, efficient, organised, good with numbers, sporty, child-free. She did her own multi-million pound management buyout and runs a company that makes car cleaning products. She visits. Presumabily when she thinks my house smells bad, she delves in her car boot and pulls out large plastic bottles of bright blue liquids. She says: "I think you should use this."
(Irritation factor, 0)

*I lost my internet connection.
(Irritation factor, 8)

*the children's behaviour. I know I am supposed to do lots of positive reinforcement but it is just not enough. My boys never, ever, ever do as they are told the first time of telling. Ever. I know we have just moved. I know that is disruptive to a small, sensitive child. But they didn't do it before either. Buying a new kitchen carpet for the rented house is costing me more than £400 because they dyed it pink. I had thought it was an accident. It emerged their father told them to stop doing it and they ignored him. He went upstairs and left them to it.I tell them to do something, or to stop doing something; the big one looks at the little one; they carry on. Sometimes, the little one will look at the big one and carry on. They are in league. I swear to God. They have drawn up some midnight demon pact signed in boy spit and toad piddle which involves never losing face infront of each other by doing as Mummy says the first time.
(Irritation factor, 10)

*my mother fell.
“I’ll just give the carpet a vaccuum.” Trip and tumble. Crash and bang. Onto the fake coaled fire and the spiked metal grate. At least, the fire was not on. “Ooops” and “Ow”. Tears and “Shouldn’t haves.” Old lady preoccupations and old lady consequences. Vaccuuming a carpet she cannot see. To pick up dust of no consequence to anyone but her, she tripped over the wire. Her arm grazed by the spikes and bruised by the tumbled out coals, she lay there a while. The white marble hearth like a gravestone beside her. That is what old ladies do. The etiquette of an aged person’s fall. Lie there and play dead. Lie there and wish you were young again. Lie there and wait for Christmas to come or someone to walk through the door to pick you up and dust you down. Not onto the carpet though. It is important to keep your carpet clean at all times. My father was out shopping. She remembered, flat against the burgundy and woolen twist. She had turned the key, click, in the back door lock. You can never be too careful. Always lock your door to keep wolves and bad men out. You do not want wolves in the kitchen, they make such a mess. Blood and crumbs everywhere.

Minutes passed, the shining gilt and glass carriage clock made tick tock turns around the garden. Slowly, she levered herself up to grasp the handy sofa arm, struggled upright and wobbled to the door to turn the key. A blessing the sofa was so close to her; pulled away as it was from the walls, for a better and more thorough clean right up, knock, against the glossed and skirting boards. It goes to show you should never cut corners when cleaning. Without the sofa there, she would never have got to her slippered feet.

She wobbled back to find the phone and speedy dialled a number for a neighbour. Shame she had put in the number wrong. Instead, she rang an aged brother, miles away, who said: “Put down the phone and try again.” She tried again. No joy. She really must be more careful with her speedy dial-ups. What use else? She rang my cousin and talked awhile, of the rain of which there is too much, and of me, of which there can never be enough. “Stay with me on the line till he comes back,” and so my cousin did. Kept my mother company while the old lady cried awhile, waiting for her shop gone husband.
(Irritation factor. "Irritation" does not cover it.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cupboard love

My new kitchen is perfect. Clean cream cupboards and silky black granite tops. The aga altar and the dropped in round and white ceramic bowls. The pantry to hide in when family matters matter too much. The oaked wood floors good enough to dance upon. A polka, I think, would be the best and liveliest of kitchen dances; though the choice is wide and a foxtrot too, is tempting. My kitchen is perfect. That first day, I put away, wiped away, tidied away to make it so. This, I thought, this is how I will live. Stylish and clean, glossy even. Easy. Cream painted walls smooth as a woman's thigh. A matching cream, intimate and leathered sofa; here, I will lie about in many "me" moments, hold magazines between crimson manicured fingers and read of political skulduggery. At the very least, I will do that. This window sill; here, I can mourn lost cities and swallow down the comfort of bitter, milky coffee. A fellow London exile stopped by. He left me two Starbucks china mugs - complete with medium strength Columbian dregs. He said: "I heard you might need these." My kitchen is perfect. New but with a history. "Did you hear the one about the architect? He finally came round to the pantry." My kitchen is perfect: it's official.

Life happened. Already. That did not take long. Now, a padded snail on rockers rides my wooden floor. My kitchen is perfect. Strawberry jam and dirty boy feet mark my sofa. "This is our sofa Mummy," and my kitchen is perfect. They eat their snacks on Starbucks stools. "We don't like the table. We like it here." A green cardboard frog with concertina legs and a red and lolling tongue sits on my shelf. Though desperate looking, he carries around a scrawled and thought filled bubble: "This is fun." An old decoupaged fire screen stands on my hearth, snipped and pasted before blindness ripped away my mother's sight. Washing waits patient on the side (good job my mother cannot see it) and a small boy's muddy coat hangs by one arm from the aga. Tears cool and slide across china plates onto my water smashed and disappointed granite; the china from the children's roasted chicken tea. My kitchen, my beautiful kitchen, is perfect.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Carry on moving

Right. The move. It was grim. They usually are. We did at least have a removal company this time rather than three mates and a horsebox. I almost wished we had stuck to the horsebox. There was some mix up in communications. I said to my husband: "Are they sending a pantechnicon?" I am not sure what a pantechnicon is, but it sounds big. He told me they were sending three vans. It sounded odd at the time, but I thought OK. They did not send three vans, they sent one van and two men. Two unhappy men who took one look and did not like what they saw. They immediately started talking about their tachograph. I do not know what a tachograph is either, but it sounded a lot less helpful than a pantechnicon. They had only just arrived and were already grumbling about getting back in time and needing four men instead of two. Not even bacon, egg and mushroom sandwiches from the village bakery quietened them. And they are particularly good sandwiches.

My only consolation was that I could not entirely make out what the gaffer was saying. He had a very thick Scottish accent.(For the record, I like Scottish accents and my husband is partly Scottish. I think it must be his lower half as he wore a kilt at the wedding. I do, indeed, find the Scottish accent a thing of beauty; two of my best friends are Scottish; I have also holidayed in Scotland and would recommend it heartily. Umm. I am not kept awake at night by the West Lothian question, am a great fan of Edinburgh, and like porridge.) Still. He would hold out a box and say something like: "Eurrrgh rrrrrrrhhhing khhhheeeargh?" Occasionally, he would say: "Eurrgh rrrrrrrhhing tachograph." When he said something like that, I did not want to understand him.

I could not even make the point they had been sent an inventory and it was their decision to send the one van and two men because we were so very much in the wrong for not putting every last fork in a large cardboard box of its own. I had to accept responsibility for that one. For some reason, I was so depressed the day before the move, I had to bail out for an hour, go lie on my own on a friend's wooden bench and look at the world's most beautiful castle and the lighthouse and the sea for a while. I could not tell you whether I was low because of the grinding boredom of moving again or because I was thinking: "OK, this is it then. I really have moved to Northumberland. No more coxing and boxing and renting. I have a proper home. It is time to start feeling like I belong." But by midnight, with some way to go on packing, I had entirely lost the will to live. I went to bed. I decided the children's toys could stay in their own unlidded plastic boxes. I asked myself: "Why unpack drawers when you can put a piece of paper over them?" I told myself it was entirely reasonable for my husband to unhook the computers and pack away his office paperwork in black binbags and suitcases while the removers were shipping stuff out of the house. I admit this did not work well. It certainly does not make me a pin-up as client of the year back at the removal company depot.

I was totally in the wrong. Apparently, everything needs to go in a box. I am the only person the world who does not realise you break the social contract with your removal company when you fail to put your plastic boxes and carrier bags in their cardboard boxes. It is something to do with stacking them one on top of the other and squaring them off. I thought the boxes were optional extra like those small bottles of shampoo you get in hotel rooms. You are not actually obliged to use them to wash your hair. My builder has moved 17 times in 16 years. He has an infinitely more patient wife than me. I said: "When you move, do you put everything. I mean everything. In cardboard boxes?" He said: "Yes. My wife is very organised." The upshot was they did two runs between the rented house and the cottage but did not quite finish the job. My husband said I am not allowed to go back to the rented house and see how much has been left behind. I think I will sneak in like Bluebeard's wife when he is busy elsewhere. It is possible the village might hear my scream.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ta-ran, ta-ra

We got our cancellation. Due to move tomorrow. The builders are on course but we have so much to do by way of packing, I am not sure we are going to make it. I decided last night as I tried to get to grips with stashing my life in cardboard boxes that I really rather disliked my husband. Communication is the key to a successful relationship. He said: "Do you resent me for making you do this again?" This is our third move in two years. I said. "To be accurate, I resent and dislike you in equal parts." We have been invited to a party where you have to "come as a feminist". Only the fact that my husband then clambered into one of my old skirts and stuffed a pillow up a jumper to form a pair of low slung breasts, succeeded in tipping the balance in his favour between me staying and leaving that night.

I am very excited about going to the party. Despite the fact I droan on endlessly about my pursuit of friendship, I never went to parties in London. Here, I went to a fiftieth birthday party soon after we arrived, and a 30th birthday party a few weeks ago. The only problem, people never say: "Come as you are." The fiftieth party was seventies themed and the 30th party was also fancy dress. My husband acquired a severe work crisis within a minute and a half of seeing what I was wearing for the 30th. I had to go on my own. I stood at the community club bar for a considerable period of time wearing my orange frock and even more orange silk blouse, black and white stripey tights and red suede ankle books. Oh and my long, curly, dark brunette wig. And my silver beaded purse slung across my body diagonally the way you carried your little ladybird leather purse at school when you were seven. The theme was fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. I had sixties clothes and seventies hair. In the right light, it was conceivable I looked like a Vogue model, circa June 1971. In the wrong light, it was conceivable I looked like a "dog's dinner". Not even Batman. Not even a Blues Brother came over to talk to me. I am hoping I shall have more luck as Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. If I decide to go as a suffragette, I may invest in a rubber feeding tube to thread up my nose and down my throat.

My most recent dressing up experience was on Saturday, I spent the afternoon, dressed as a Victorian to sell cakes at the school fete and the evening in a gown at the hunt ball. The Hunt Ball. It is worth repeating. "How was your weekend?" "Oh, y'know. Did the shopping. Trip to the beach. Went to the hunt ball." I was slightly disappointed because I had thought we would eat dinner on horseback but they insisted we sat on chairs at a table. I had thought we would eat roast fox but it was braised Northumberland beef. I also thought we would burn an effigy of Tony Blair before the dancing started; instead, we were entertained by white-fleshed belly dancers. It could have been a chartered accountant's annual thrash had it not been for a couple of clues. The raffle prizes for instance, included an £80 voucher to "buy new tack for your horse (saddles, bridles, bits)" as well as a pallet of "haylage (which) provides the ultimate in high nutritional forage...sweet and appealing to even the fussiest of horses." I was so disappointed when I did not win the haylage. Another clue were the chaps in red tail coats who are the masters of the hunt. I think that means if they point at you, you are obliged to have sex with them.

Lovely women in silk and beaded frocks cantered around on high and skinny heels; occasionally they whinnied. I had decided against high heels. This was possibly a mistake. The organiser is particularly beautiful. Very tall. Her legs are as long as I am; the top of my head is about level with her midriff. I looked up at her. I said: "Well done. Everyone is having a fantastic time." She smiled brilliantly at me, a vision in bronze and black satin. She said: "Oh, thank you. How nice of you to say that." As she turned away, she patted me on the head. I wondered briefly if she was going to offer me a sugar lump. After dinner, there was dancing. I am not sure what they are like on the field, but they are bloody dangerous on a dance floor. Gusto does not cover it. Hooves pounded the ground, sweat flew from flanks; they leapt over "Come on Eileen". The hounds scented their prey and they thundered on past "I predict a riot", ploughing through the mud, the blood beat in their ears. One idea filled their heads: "Should I go as Germaine Greer or is Margaret Thatcher a safer bet?"

Friday, July 13, 2007

Wedding blues

I know the feel of my mother's wedding dress. Her first one that is. As a girl child, I would slip it over my plaited head and feel the scratch of net at my throat, the rippled waves of lace; drop pearls and rainbowed sequins catching beneath my nails as I clawed, vain, at the too tight zip. Bride for an hour, I would gather up the skirt in frothing handfuls, not to altar fall; preen and whirl twirl before the glass. Dressing in my mother's past and my own future. I wonder will my daughter do the same in my ivory and satin empire line? Will I let her play dress-up? Or will I say: "No darling, mummy wants to be buried in her dress. Won't she look pretty in the box? She'll finally get her money's worth anyhow. Here's a cowboy outfit. Wear that instead."

I have seen black and white photos of that special day, my mother's happiness with the groom who did not stick around. Who had to be replaced with something that smiled and was more durable. "You may kiss the bride and make her cry," the priest must have said to this groom who fathered a child and then cavalierly, cancerously died. Job done. But I never knew until today that my mother's bouquet was of golden yellow roses with a white ribbon bow. Now I know, I can smell the yellow from here.

Black and white; the day seems far away. In the hectic pink flush of my mother's cheek; I am there, or at least, the idea of me. My uncle JPEG'd me a colour photo of the day. Double click, double click, open and OK: my parents wedding, 24th August 1963. A windy day. My mother's lace dress with its hooped petticoat, lifted up and hurled against her own proud and sentry mother in a sky blue two piece. Dress and coat with matching "I'm looking for something for my daughter's wedding" daisy petalled hat. "He loves her, he loves her not." He loved her; just not for long enough. And my gran, my gran who liked an orchid, exotic in a clear and plastic box, her orchid was a burgundy. A nice contrast, we all thought, against the blue.

The huddle then, from left to right, my father (now deceased in a dove grey silk tie), his grim faced mother (my other grandmother in a dark blue suit), my sky blue gran and the pink cheeked bride. My mother is the only one to smile. I cannot tell if his mother is trying to smile and just unaccustomed to it. Or whether she is thinking; "This will not end well." A groom then, two widows and a bride. I think he should have guessed how it would end. The way it often ends for men. Dead. And gone. Did I mention he was gone?

Still, I am glad I went to the wedding, stood with them in the breeze awhile, smelled the flowers, admired my gran's hat, the sheen on my first father's tie. I magnified his face to a pixillating blur. A blur the size of a daughter's hand. I know this to be the case. I pressed my hand against his glass face and measured it. Taking it away and looking hard, I thought I saw him smile.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What price history?

The BBC's Antiques Roadshow came to the local market town yesterday. I thought: "Why not?"I will tell you why not. I do not own any antiques. Indeed, I do not own anything of value apart from the children and the Aga. I did not think there was any point bringing the children when I have no plans to sell them; I decided the Aga was too heavy for my handbag. In any event, despite the fact it is trying to look as if it has been in the family for at least 17 generations, we only got it last week. My husband said I could not go to the roadshow without something old or they might not let me in. I said: "Fine, I will take you." He did not laugh. We have something of a connection to the roadshow. My brother-in-law made it on to the opening credits of a previous series in a Citroen 2cv with the roof down and a grandfather clock in the back. This brought him and his car no small degree of fame. When he was out and about, people would say: "Is that the car from off the telly?" His best moment was when two girls pulled alongside him at traffic lights, the driver flashed her breasts, then drove off. The power of television.

As you stepped through the castle archway onto the green lawns, nice people queued up in an orderly fashion by signs that read "Jewellery", "Books" or "Military." I stood in the "Miscellaneous" queue. Somehow it was a fit. Queuing was dull. Much more interesting were the antique dealers in their smart jackets and silk ties sitting at tables, trying to look excited by what you can find on Ebay these days. Even more exciting was the appearance of Michael Aspel in sunglasses, looking more dishy than a 74-year-old has any right to be. I bought a photograph from the official souvenir stand for one of the friends I was with. She said: "I dare you to get it autographed." Dares are so juvenile. I sidled up to Mr Aspel who was being talked at by a large sixty-something woman while he signed pieces of paper for other silver fox admirers. I smiled brilliantly at him and looked slightly overcome as I held out the photograph. I said breathily: "Would you mind?" I can tell you Michael Aspel also knows how to smile brilliantly. Perhaps he hoped I might show him my breasts. He took the photograph, clearly impressed by my youth or the fact I had paid 50 pence for his likeness. I said: "Would you make it out to...?" and gave him a name. He might have thought it was my name. The deal was if I got the autograph, she had to put it up in her lounge. So far, Michael and I are in a win: win situation. I get the autograph: he thinks I am a big fan of his work. This worked really well till my friend decided to go up to him about an hour later and confess that it was a put up job and the autographed picture was for her. I saw him walk back across the green; I swear he looked disappointed.

Back at the tables: out came a hideous vase painted with blossom and butterflies. The lady asked: "Can you tell us about it please?" What she meant was: "How much is it worth?" The dealer did not come straight out with: "Put it back in the plastic bag, dearie. It's rubbish." Instead, he sat back in his chair and talked about "the revival of chinoiserie...". Value: £40 a pair. The lady next to the vase woman brought out her smeary blue china plates. "Wedgwood and Co," said the dealer "a different company." Value: £1 or £2 each. "They were my mother's," she said, as if that might up the catalogue price. You had to wonder whether some of the hopeful crowd might have been better not asking the experts. Whether they would have been better cherishing the object handed down to them or picked up cheap at a car boot sale. If they had never asked, they could have held on to the dream that perhaps they were millionaires but did not yet know it. Even worse, the shattering of your dreams is witnessed by the onlookers around or those who sit in the comfort of their armchairs at home and use the identical vase as a spittoon. You can feel the air flinch in embarassment around you as the inquirer attempts to keep smiling as she wraps up the offending object along with her hopes of a bungalow and zips them back into her hold-all again. If we were not British, we would yell: "Rats. You know nothing" at the men in blazers. Instead, we nod and say with exquisite and understated courtesy: "Thank you. That was very interesting. I wouldn't have sold it anyway."

Occasionally, a fortune does make it unchipped through the years to stand dusty on the sideboard. An elderly couple brought in a green, white and gilt vase with pelican handles made in the early 19th century. It was left to them by their neighbour who died 10 years ago and whom the old lady had looked after. "She had no family," the lady explained, tiny in a green driving coat. "I used to bring her meals in." Goodness rewarded. A Rockingham Porcelain vase. Value: £1,200 to £1,400. "I will be frightened to dust it now," she said.

Some remain resolutely unimpressed by discovery. One couple were told they had a rare example of an 18th century station or dial clock, the round clocks that hung in public places such as railway stations or schools. The dealer was sceptical it worked. He advised restoring it at a cost of £1,000. Value after restoration: £5,000. I said: "Will you restore it?" The husband said: "Probably not. It will be the same in 10 years time. We'll hang it back on the kitchen wall. It keeps perfect time."

One of my friends took a chronometer which had belonged to his grandfather. This particular marine clock came from a German submarine. Not just any submarine. In May 1941, two merchant ships in a convoy heading for Liverpool had already been torpedoed when a periscope was spotted in among the other ships. The sub was forced to crash dive after it came under attack but surfaced after it was damaged by depth charges.The German sailors including its commander abandoned the sub. When the German officer realised that his attempts to scuttle the sub had failed he attempted to swim back to it but was never seen again. Instead of ramming the sub (the U-110), the commander of the British destroyer in charge of the convoy ordered a boarding party to row over and board it. They took what they could find including the chronometer, a naval Enigma machine, code and cypher books and charts. An event described by King George VI as the single most important maritime event of the second world war. The machine and documentation was sent to Bletchley Park where they were used to break the German code. Six months passed before the German forces changed their codes. Value: "£5,000 - £10,000?" then again according to the dealer: "impossible to put a price on."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Indefinite futures

We were supposed to move house the day after tomorrow. During a conversation with the builder yesterday, it rapidly became apparent that moving in, when there was still so much to do, was going to be a nightmare. We said we would try and get hold of the removal man to put things back. Today, the builder described it as "imperative" we did not move in. Unfortunately, we could not get hold of the removal man to tell him the move was imperatively off. Again. And would he mind moving us next week, or possibly the week after that or maybe sometime never? I had this vision of a large removal van turning up at the crack of dawn only for us to open a bedroom window and shout down: "Not today, thank you Milky." When we finally managed to touch base, Milky said he was charging us for Wednesday and that his next slot was in two weeks time unless he got a cancellation. Two weeks! Cancellation! What are the chances of a cancellation? Who cancels removal men? "Darling, I know we said we were moving. Well we're not. We will just live with the nice people who bought the house. They seemed fun, don't you think?" Obviously, "we" cancelled the removal men. Twice. But I cannot believe it happens that often. God. Two more weeks.

Maybe if I stopped wanting it so much, it would all come together. As it was, every time I walked into the cottage, I looked around and thought: "This is not going to get finished in time." But you do not want to seem like a panicky, depressive girly. You do not want to stick a finger in your mouth, twirl a curl round around and giggle nervously as a man tries to reach the finishing line. They do not like it. I was right though.

I think builders are natural optimists. They step through their own personal landscape of debris and chaos. They say: "I am really looking forward to getting stuck in to that big problem with the drains." They like banging their heads against brick walls. That way they get to knock them over. I am trying to keep it in "What's another week or two between friends?" perspective but I am desperate to stop squatting in the rented house. Ever since the boys dyed the kitchen carpet shocking pink, I have not been able to relax. Lately, I have not even wanted to get up on a morning. I have always been able to get up straight away. The last few weeks, I lie there until the children's screaming escalates to a pitch I cannot ignore. Then I get up and shout at whoever I see first. Victim or offender. I am not fussy. The only time I moved with the speed of light was one day last week when I heard my six-year-old tell the four-year-old: "Look. I have shaved my head." That got me up. Thank God, he was not entirely accurate. He had not shaved it. He had cut a large, sloping chunk out of the fringe. I cut the rest of it to match. It did not look that bad. Sometimes I think I should have been a hairdresser.

The whole process of getting back home is just taking so much time: packing or at least thinking about packing; endless fannying on about bits and bobs of furniture we have managed our entire lives without but which have become critically important to our happiness. Glamorous stuff like pan stackers and trivets. I mean "trivets". How have I managed all these years without a trivet? There was once a time when I did not even know what a trivet was. Ah. The innocence of youth. Then there is the Aga. All sorts of rituals appear necessary when a new Aga is installed. This afternoon, I spent several hours mopping down the sweat from the hulking brute. Normally, I would quite like that. But there was little return. I took up a slightly soapy cloth and washed it first. An hour later, the sweat was running from it. I tell you these things are very demanding. I expected something that would clean itself and do its share of the ironing. What do I get? A traditional "Mop me down and worship at my size". It does not even have any decent conversation. It just stands there saying: "Big aren't I?" over and over. Still, it is on now and it will keep the builders warm.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Wipe your feet

Ok. God. We were unusual among our London friends in that we went to mass. Being a "believer" has no novelty value here at all. My "belief" is a pretty ropy affair of feminist hesitation, personal doubts, general embarrassment and a cultural legacy from my mother. I am a catholic; that is my get out of jail free card. I do not have to talk about God. I hardly have to talk to God. The priests and my mother can do that for me. I have issues with God. I have certainly got issues with the Pope and frankly, I would be much happier if I could have back the childhood, gilded glory of a robed and guardian angel. Did he leave my side? What I thought was a breeze, was that the moment that he left me for another soul to keep? Or, did I just stop believing he was there and "Phut" he was gone? Feathery and glorious. Is that the moment, the loneliness began? I admire sheer conviction but I cannot lose myself in "Jesus". I cannot think myself saved and another damned to fall and burn. I can flirt; I cannot bring myself to surrender. I have tried, watched myself, the thought comes unbidden: "Ye gods." I am facinated though by others' faith, struggling as I do in all my uncertainties.

At the weekend, we had to go to a border town to pick up large numbers of cardboard boxes from the removers. It began to rain and we stumbled into a cafe. I tell a lie we stumbled into a church that was pretending to be a cafe. No not true either we stumbled into a cafe that has a sideline as a shop and which turns into a church on a Sunday. We sat down, all unwitting. My eyes fixed on a photo frame for sale. It said: " "For I know the plans I have for you," declared the Lord, "Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)" I thought: "Golly." I looked around. Sure enough there was stuff like that all over. One thing struck me. How often in the merchandising, the Christian believer or customer asks or expects something of his God. " I have paid £4.99 for this mouse mat, I expect happiness for the rest of my life and my child to get into the university of his choice." I particularly liked a frame with three photographs in it. The first, a bakerlite phone "Ask and it shall be given you"; above and below the pair of binoculars were the words "Seek and ye shall find" while the door knocker was "Knock and it shall be opened unto you." (Matthew 7:7). My least favorite was a watercolour of a plant in a pot: "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

The merchandising went on and on. A soft and cuddly praying frog who sang "Now I lay me down to sleep..." ; blank paper which they made sure you knew was "compatible with printers and computers" with the heading "God's best to you! Christ's blessings on you! (Philemon 1:3)The Message" and I liked a purple coffee mug emblazoned with "...handle with prayer." I thought: "Who buys this stuff?" Then I thought: "Me." There was a pair of holy novelty socks with a design of the burning bush and two pairs of feet. One of them Moses and the other Joshua. Apparently, there are more than 600 references to feet and walking in the Bible. I never knew that. The packaging instructs you: " "Put off the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." Exodus 3:5." The packaging says: "Displaying our faith in a non-threatening and humorous way, our original designs are interesting and amusing and can be conversation stoppers ..." I personally do not think the "non-threatening" bit is true. I would assume, anyone who wore socks like these was a complete lunatic and immediately feel very threatened. Naturally, I bought a pair and plan to wear them tomorrow. I also bought a book about starting a house church, that is to say, people coming together to worship in someone's home rather than feeling they have to attend a "real" church. I am thinking: "New kitchen, coffee, all these people up here who believe in God." I said to my husband: "Look, I could start a church." He said: "Yes. The church of the cappuccino. Your kind of place."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

House about town

I am trying out a new cafe in the nearest market town. It has armchairs. This may sound like nothing very much but believe me, an armchair to drink a decent cup of coffee in, is right up there among my priorities alongside "Bring up the children to be decent human beings. Stop my mother getting any frailer. Make friends" and "Learn German".

Perhaps I will not need the armchair. I had an idea. The newly refurbished kitchen, at least the half refurbished kitchen has a high window. I have decided to buy two bar stools, tile the windowsill in black granite to match the work surfaces and acquire one of those large china coffee mugs that want to be a Starbucks paper cup. When particularly desperate, I could ask the nice man who drives the big red bus for golfers and tourists to come round and park in front of the kitchen window. I could stare out; pretend I am back in the city. I have it all planned. I will do the school run in the morning, buy the newspapers, and head for my little piece of London. I will turn on the Gaggia coffee maker, perhaps I will queue up by the sink for a while and leave some money in the children's toy till. I think that would work. The other advantage to my sill cafe is you do not need friends in Starbucks. If you sit there on your own, you feel not odd, but urban and busy. "Too busy for friends right this minute. Too busy thinking of romance. Too busy planning my career. Too busy writing this screenplay. I only just have time for this latte and one more piece of caramel shortbread." Alternatively, if my lonely coffee stop palled, I could always say to another mother: "Come round for a coffee. I will meet you at my windowsill. Ten'ish."

God knows, I need more coffee these days. I blame the osteopath for telling me to cut down on caffeine. If people stopped telling me what to do, I would not have the urge to go out and do the opposite. I also blame my caffeine cravings on the fact that we are due to move on Wednesday. We were due to move on Tuesday but pushed it back a day to buy our way back into the builders' affections after making them shift the bath. I went up to the cottage this morning. In fact, I went up to cottage three times within five hours. I suspect the builders have started hiding in my pantry when they see me coming. The plumber moves more slowly than they do. Or perhaps he cannot fit. I said to him: "Thank you for moving the bath." He did not say anything in return; at all; he just looked at me. He could have been thinking: "In this light, when she stands like that, she looks like Kate Moss" but I do not think he was.

There seems to be so much to do. Every problem knocks on to create another problem. Damp has started coming through the walls of the family living room and the kitchen. They have only just been painted. They have to be repainted with a silicone product. The decorator was already miserable because he painted everywhere several weeks ago, then electricians and plumbers ran cables down his walls. He said to me this morning: "This has been my worst job for 10 years. I am three or four weeks behind. " I felt quite guilty. So guilty I could not bring myself to ask him to repaint the two walls of the hearth which he lovingly tinted a warm pinkish colour to match the red square tiles underneath the stove. Yesterday, I picked out beige and duck egg green curtains. I think the curtains may insist on the hearth being beige. I am going to let them tell him.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Good cop; bad cop

It is less than a week till we move back into the cottage. It is difficult to believe it will all be ready. I do not think I helped when I asked the builders to move the bath they had just installed. They went off me a bit then I think. I walked into the bathroom and the roll top bath was pressed against the wall as if it had a crush on it. It looked terrible. Admittedly, the builders did ask me whether I wanted it to stand away from the wall or against it. I might have said: "Against it." I did not mean obscenely pressed against it, right against it, up against it. I did not mean for the bath to make a show of herself. I meant more of a casually, in the vicinity, if you happen to be passing then feel free to call in "against it". It is in fact not just the bath which is up against it, it is the builders. I thought about not saying anything. I always think about not saying anything. Then I climbed into the bath and realised you could not rest your elbow on the side or put your hand on the bath to lever yourself up. I thought: "Every time I have a bath I am going to think: 'This over-priced bath is far too close to that newly plastered wall in a bathroom I have just paid good money for and which I hoped would be perfect because it is costing enough to be perfect'." I said to the builder: "Slight problem." He was incredibly calm about it bearing in mind the plumbers had only just finished plumbing it all in. Sometimes though, I think my husband should have these conversations without me. The wrong insulation on the spec. My husband said: "You talk to the architect. He likes you." The mixer tap arrived bent and the taps arrived without their "Hot" and "Cold" buttons. My husband said: "You ring them." The Aga was installed surprisingly far from the wall. My husband said: "You talk to them." I say: "Why do I always have to be the bad guy." He looks at me with puppy dog eyes. "You know how I hate confrontation" he says, throwing down the nice guy card and sweeping up the chips. He wins both ways. I confront. The situation changes. For the better. For the both. He hands me a bullet for the gun, hands me a bullet belt for better rat-a-tat. I fire and in between their ragged, bloody gasps the wounded think: "I don't know how that nice bloke puts up with that stroppy baggage." My husband then will kindly smile down upon their suffering faces, uncork his canteen of water to wet their dry and cracked lips; then straighten up, beckon over his armoured wife, point, smile again and say: "This one's not dead yet."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mad old ladies

My four-year-old came in with a tightly folded piece of paper. He said: "Happy Birthday Mummy." Bleary, I pushed a pillow underneath my head. I said: "Darling, how lovely." I unfolded the A4 paper to admire the coloured pencil scribbling. I unfolded it some more to reveal the words: "To Granny and Granddad, love." I said: "This says it's for Granny and Granddad." "Yes," he nodded, "but they can't have it. It's yours." I kissed him. When I came down to breakfast, my six-year-old had marked the occasion by peeling a satsuma and making plate faces with it for his brother and sister and chopping up an apple for me. He must have been awake for some time because the apple was brown and deep scars striped its flesh; it looked like it had been in a knife fight and lost, badly. Technically, he is not allowed to use knives when I am out of the room but since there were no fingers among the slices, I pretended not to notice. The only injury of the morning was in fact mine when I was helping to dress him for school and an arm shot out of his sleeve and he socked me in the eye incredibly hard. I thought: "No one's ever given me a black eye for my birthday before."

Once the older boy was at school, my four-year-old and I went to the local ice cream parlour. It is a little how I imagine American milk bars to be; a long counter with stools which you draw up and occasionally fall off. Or perhaps I am mixing up my bars. This year, it finally recognised Britain's membership of the European Union and introduced cappuccinos and lattes. Before the arrival of the big glittery coffee machine, I once asked for a cappuccino and was told: "We don't do cappuccinos pet. We do coffee and hot milk." I love this cafe. It serves milk shakes in glasses whose sides bulge with pressed glass fruit. Next to the frothing trophy of pink, bubble popping milk, an aluminium vat stands with more shake; ready, when you drain the glass, to fill your life again with thick and chilly sweetness. Here, bar flies stuck fat and happy on their stools, eat bacon sandwiches and watch cold tourists buy colder ice cream cornets at the window. Hands wrapped around your coffee, you can sit there and think: "I live here. I know you do not have to stand at the window. You can come in and sit awhile." You do not call out an invitation to the strangers.

I think my birthday was all the better for being spontaneous. I like the idea of spontanaeity, I just find it difficult to work into my schedule. But as soon as I decided to stay put, it was make do and mend and the better for it I think. My four-year-old and I bought a blue marbled plastic bucket, a red spade and a fishing net to celebrate the day, snatched up the baby and headed for the beach. I always thought myself a silent soul before I became a mother. Silence was easy for me. I could hold my peace and never felt the need to chat and chatter. Then children come and you think: "I have to talk. I have to teach or my child will grow silent and grave as his mother. Which would never do." So you talk and you do not stop. You say: "Look at that..." Whatever it may be. You say: "Did you see...?" and "That's because..." till any sensible child blocks up his ears with peas. Then, children leave. "Bye Mum". There is silence in the kitchen and the car and everywhere. But I do not think there can be silence in the heart of that woman. I think in her most secret places, her mother's chatter plays out, regardless of the emptied nest. An old woman, shabby in a mac and slippered feet, holding a shopping carry-all; her hair, tousled; her mind worse. Sometimes then, the words escape again, she calls long gone children to her side and loud mumbles to them of birds and trees and passing marvels that she sees.

I have not yet become that ghost but as I watched my son walk ahead of me, intent on the sea, resolute in his wellies, his net in one hand, his bucket dangling from an arm, the spade in the other. I thought: "This is how the man will be; looking out to the horizon, armed and ready for his task, his mother hardly more than a memory. This is how I will be, trailing behind him, hoping he will stay safe, hoping he is happy, that he will turn round and remember me." He found his spot in a wash of water running across the beach while the baby girl and I squatted down, gathering seashells and pressing them into sandy walls of small castles. I got older. Despite that, it was a good birthday.

Today I discovered, my friend has taught my daughter to say "Princess" when she is asked: "What are you?". I said: "We're republicans" when I heard it first. Then I wondered: "Is it right to teach a daughter that she is a princess? That she is your princess? That she is special, different, richer, that life is a fairy tale, that she may need rescuing, her wishes will come true and her endings all be happy ones?" In the event of revolution, I have set before her a different path. Tonight, I taught her answers to a different question. "Who will you be?" The answers she can chirrup: "Docdor. Loya. J'neer." I am working on "Astronaut". "Physicist" may defeat me.