Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's a killer

Seven-year-old desperately brave but sad this morning when I broke the news about his fish. He curled up on the kitchen sofa under the ocean creature duvet he had pulled down the stairs with him and said: "I knew he was going to die." I am now convinced both the others are goners and it is merely a matter of time. I took a friend's advice and rang the garden centre where we bought them. I explained we had done everything according to the book and asked what the problem could be because we did not want it happening again. The assistant explained that fish "get stressed" travelling from the garden centre to their new homes. "Fish get stressed" - try telling a two-year-old her pet is about to die. The seven-year-old might have been phlegmatic, the two-year-old was hysterical when I tried to soften her up for the fact hers is probably next. Apparently, at the garden centre they put something called "Stresscoat" in the bag of water they travel in which is supposed to keep them calm but he agreed "It doesn't always work" and there can be subsequent problems in the immune system. If they have lost a scale along the way then they can indeed end up dead. He offered me three free fish when we were ready - three free fish and family therapy is what he should have offered.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Something fishy

Well on the up side I got better but on the down side the fish just died. I mean "just" died - I found the body about 40 minutes ago. Yuk. Yuk. Yuk. Little fishy eyes staring up at the surface; its silvery body huddled up against the pump and resting dolefully against the rainbow gravel. I am traumatised and I am in my forties - what is it going to do to my seven-year-old? It had to be his fish of course when he is the one so desperate for a pet. This is so why I did not want pets. And what is worse is the length of time it has taken. First, one fish got sick, then this second one got sicker, the third one is OK (so far but you have to wonder). The first fish is still sporting what is apparently a bacterial ulcer but the second fish looked like its fin was thinking about coming off. I thought pets were supposed to make you feel more relaxed and at one with the world. I knew its chances of survival looked slim. This afternoon, it had taken to swimming but not moving forward, either at the bottom of the tank, at the top or hiding in the green stuff. It looked so bad, I had decided to set the alarm early to make sure the seven-year-old did not make it downstairs and find the corpse before I did. As it is, I am still going to have to get up early because I had to put a plastic bag on my hand and pull it out the tank and he will come down to find the damn thing is missing. There is no getting around it - I am going to have to tell him it died . Unless I tell him it escaped.

I do not know whether he will want to bury it. At first, I pulled it out, wrapped it in another plastic bag going "eeeeeurgh" and put it in the kitchen bin. Then I thought: "What if he is really upset and wants to bury it?" So I had to "fish" it out of the bin, dig out a plastic box from a bicycle repair kit, cover it with silver foil, line it with a baby wipe and lay the fish in there (still going eeeeeurgh.) I also had to make sure it was lying with its good side up because I really do not want him getting a close look at the other side. I then wrapped it in a third plastic bag and put it in the freezer. (Perhaps I could hold out cryogenics as an option?) It certainly has not had what you would call an ecologically sound death so far. God. Now all I want is for the next one to die and the waiting to be over.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

The fish and I are really ill. That is to say I have a chronically sore throat, so painful I do not want to speak and cannot shout - even when provoked. As for the fish, they are in an even worse state. Obviously they cannot speak either so there is a possibility we have the same disease but then again they appear to have chunks of flesh falling off them and, according to the book I just read they may have a "threadlike parasite" hanging off their nether regions which I definitely did not have the last time I looked. This is really bad. Not only am I in agony but I think the fish might just die on me. Already. And we have been so careful. Washing hands, adding chemicals to water, waiting for the water to heat up to the appropriate temperature, regulating feeding, etc, etc. Even worse, I have begun to care about them - I quite liked the way they appeared to have their own little personalities, my daughter's fish infinitely quicker and pushier than those of the boys. And now they look like they might die on me. Life sucks. I thought the biggest problem was my seven-year-old had been so desperate for a pet, he wanted to net one and get it out to stroke it. This afternoon, we made a trip to the village pet shop for advice. The woman in the pet shop had the biggest, fattest goldfish I had ever seen. Fifteen years old, she told me. I said: "What's it called?" She said: "Fishy". I thought: "I bet that took a lot of thinking about." She sold me a little pot with a pipette and I had to pour more than 16 capfuls into the acquarium. This is why I did not want fish. I am going to come down one morning really soon and there is going to be a silvery bell tolling, an aquarium with a temple from the Lost City of Atlantis on the kitchen hearth and three corpses floating in it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Going to the fair

Went down to meet my editors at the London Book Fair this week. It was frenetic. I had to wear a badge saying "writer". I felt like a walking snack. The fair is not really for writers, apart from one or two big name ones who make key-note speeches, it is for the business end of books - the agents, the publishers, the money men. I think they all drink too much coffee because they all seemed to be buzzing - perhaps it is because they are in such close confines with their competitors. I was meeting my French and Italian editors at my agent's stand in a section called International Rights (which involves selling the rights to publish a book abroad. That is to say you are selling the same thing over and over again which is what you call a good trick if you can manage it). Consequently, this section is full of earnest Europeans hunched over tables anxious not to miss the "next big thing" but struggling to understand if they should indeed buy that book about Gothic cathedrals in Lincolnshire. I was thoroughly intimidated by the whole event. I do not think I know enough people - everywhere I looked agents were kissing scouts were kissing publishers. It seems to be quite a kissy business. And they were all on this incredibly tight schedule of back to back half hour meetings with each other. This made even the simplest thing like going to the toilet obviously quite stressful courtesy of the large, time-consuming queues. I heard one woman go into her meeting saying: "It's alright, I pretended to be disabled." You have to be quite ruthless to do that.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Author, author

Writing a book is all sorts of things - amazing, bloody hard work and frightening for instance. One thing it isn't, surprisingly enough, is an ego trip. Yesterday a friend took some photographs because my American publisher wants one. I suspect they think I am hiding a congenital deformity because they keep telling me to send a snap and they do not seem to believe I do not have any. Once you are a mother, your husband loses all interest in taking photographs of you and just photographs the children while mumbling "He really does look like me doesn't he?"

Real up-to-date photographs were a bit of a shocker. Either I am suffering from acute body dysmorphia or I am looking really old. I have decided it is dysmorphia. Perhaps it was triggered by curling my hair - something I used to do years ago and look fabulous. Now it just looks as if I should know better. The problem with the photographs is they do not bear any relation to what I think I look like. My mother tells me I am lovely, my husband tells me I am lovely. Why then do these photographs tell me I am weird looking, slightly goofy and have one half of my face infinitely fatter than the other half? And when did my nose grow so long? Has it been growing for a while and I never noticed or did it have a spurt the night before the shoot? Even my two-year-old daughter is noticing. We were reading a story book and she said "He's got a big nose" pointing at the picture of a bear. "Yes darling he has," I agreed. "My nose is little," she told me, checking it with her finger. Her nose is exquisite. "Yes darling," agreed Mummy, "you have a very little, very cute nose." She looked at me: "You've got a big nose Mummy" she informed me. Thanks. At least it prepared me for the photographs.

Having a book published does not only undermine your faith in how you look though. It can also make you feel like a real under-achiever. I had to fill out an eight- page publicity questionnaire. Sections include: "Any special awards or honors, including academic awards and prizes for previously published works." (I think they mean this is where you mention the Nobel or the Pulitzer. I wondered about including runner-up in the North-East Young Journalist of the Year 1902. I still have the Parker Pen somewhere.) Then there is the section where you provide the "list of your previously published books" and "approximate sales figures in both hardcover and paperback."(When I was 13, I got a story about a cat published in a book by children - my mother still has a copy somewhere. Would that count?)Not to mention the section where you list the books which have been "serialized, adopted by book clubs or made into a film." I was also asked "for what college courses will your book have particular appeal", and to "list academic meetings or conventions where your book should be displayed", as well as whether I had any "upcoming lectures scheduled". Finally, I was reminded "corporate and institutional purchases can become a major factor in book sales. With that in mind, please list any organisations, academic institutions or companies you think would be interested in purchasing a large quantity of your book for a discount for giveaway or resale to their employees, members, students, or customers." (This form is for the same people who want the photograph.)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Something fishy

Have just got back from expedition to garden centre. This is what my life has become - taking the children out to the garden centre. It was not as if I wanted to buy plants, it was more a case of somewhere to go in the bucketting rain. The weather on the way down was appalling; sleet, snow and rain so bad I thought there was a chance of an accident which might kill us all. Dieing en route to the garden centre would be a particularly rubbish way to go. We had looked round the kitchenware, glanced at the tomato plants, felt guilty about the state of the vegetable patch and had ambled into the pet section when I was ambushed. I did not even see it coming. My seven-year-old took my hand in his: "Can we have a fish? Can we? Can we? I'm not allergic to fish so it's only fair." My five-year-old saw the opening: "Yes can we have a fish? Or a hamster? I want a hamster. Can I have a hamster?" Just as I opened my mouth to say what I normally say which sounds like "We'll see" but means "Over my dead body," one of the assistants opened up the pen right next to us and scooped up two guinea pigs and placed them carefully into a cardboard box with holes at the top. They scampered round nervously. A proud and incredibly happy little girl stood to one side of him, her beaming, doting mother on the other. My boys watched the whole thing, I saw the older one glance at the girl, the younger one look soulfully at the empty guinea pig cage. I lost the pet argument right at that moment and I blame the guinea-pigs.

Courtesy of my seven-year-old's allergy to anything with hair, furry pets are out. We traipsed round the tanks watched by glittering tiny fish. Sanity suddenly prevailed and I said: "We can't possibly do this. Have you seen how much these tanks cost? The bowl is £400 and the goldfish is £1." Both boys looked like I had hit them over the head with a sandbag. I tried reason. I said: "Let's wait till Daddy's back at the weekend and come back then." Eventually I accepted the inevitable but I did not go down without a fight. Like the psycho-mother I am, I said: "If you do not feed it and look after it I will flush it down the toilet - right?" They virtually promised to pay its tuition fees through university. I have ended up £118 poorer than I was when I parked the car - I am now the proud possessor of an aquarium kit, two bags of black gravel, a fake tree stump and a small, ruined temple from the Lost City of Atlantis. Funny thing is they would not sell us the fish. Apparently we have to set it all up, leave it for 48 hours and then go back for the fish. I am hoping the children will have forgotten what it is all for by then.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Or are you just pleased to see me?

Went to a market town to meet a friend for coffee. The market town has one of those department stores which sell everything a middle-class woman could want, all of which is reportedly selected by the owner's wife. It has a smattering of top-name cosmetic brands, handbags, shoes, fashion and a home department. It is slightly odd thinking everything has been bought by the same person but then again, she does have good taste so fair do's. I pottered up to the lingerie department. I always found bra buying in London very stressful - there you are stripped down to nothing very much, looking at yourself in the mirror thinking "What the hell happened?" and squishing fleshy gobbets into a lacy bra cup that do not really belong in there when there is an urgent rap on the door that would not shame a debt collector. Even worse, are those shops where the assistant pokes her head through the curtain, catches a page three moment and then insists on doing you up as if you have lost the use of your thumbs. Luckily this is the sort of department store which is far too discreet for such an invasion of privacy.

Bras selected, I was at the till when my eye was snagged by a packet of "silicone petals" with a picture on the front of a woman in a bathing suit. You could see her right nipple above the word "Before" but on the left hand side, there was no nipple above the word "After". I was intrigued. I thought about whether they could be selling nipples to women who do not have any but the continuity seemed all wrong. I said to the woman behind the counter. "What are they?" She told me they were nipple protectors for women with large nipples and were designed to hide them. Apparently, according to the packet, they are "particularly useful when swimming or in colder climates." Well Northumberland can be chilly so it made sense to me. Naturally, I bought a pair. I resisted saying to the woman: "Well that's lucky because as it happens I myself have very large and shy nipples."

The petals are peach coloured with a wavy border and sticky. You stick them over your nipples and they do indeed hide them. From a distance in the mirror, this looks incredibly weird as if your top half has suddenly become that of a slightly raddled mannequin. I slipped a white tee-shirt over my head to admire my "natural contours". Frankly if these are supposed to reassure the faint-hearted that the world is not looking at their nipples, I suspect they may well have the opposite effect. The "natural countour" they give you is a breast with a large and on me at least, quite prominent, nippleless aureole. I would have thought any man would invest a considerable amount of time on playing "Spot the nipple" if you went out like that.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Do you...?

Back from Poland. How can you not like a country where the taxi-drivers kiss your hand? And the coffee is so good?

For reasons which escape me, we decided to take all three children to the Krakow wedding. My boys, seven and five, wore pin-striped suits. We went shopping for them in M&S. I expected to buy them a nice tee-shirt and new chinos; instead they became fixated on blue-pinstriped suits which "make us look like Daddy." They looked like very short accountants and I looked like the sort of mother who would make her boys wear suits.

The ceremony was in an enormous baroque barn of a church with a priest I thought might die before he got to the end of the service while the reception was in a restaurant with a cavalry theme. Every where you looked there were black and white photographs of soldiers with sabres staring into the mid-distance as they sat on their brave battle-hardened horses. I thought that was an interesting message to send out at the start of married life.

The wedding mixed English and Polish traditions that is to say every now and then the Polish table got to its feet and raised a glass of chilled vodka to the English table who all looked very worried by the fact they could not get a cup of tea and instead they might be expected to get horribly drunk, horribly quickly. In cultural revenge, the best man (my own dear husband) made a speech which had been translated into Polish and was read out paragraph by paragraph by the Polish bride's chief bridesmaid. The Poles were all very interested by this because they do not have any such tradition. (I imagine they could not possibly have a tradition of wedding speeches courtesy of the vodka.) Also since this was a wedding of two people who only met a year ago, they took it as an opportunity to acquire in-depth, intimate information on the bridegroom. My husband said to me later in the night: "Apparently, all the Poles thought it was great because they got to know so much about the groom." I said: "You spent most of the speech talking about how desperate he was to have sex at university and how bad his taste in music was." My husband shrugged.

We are now at the age where we have started getting invitations to weddings the second time around. The groom already has twin girls of 11 who acted as bridesmaids along with a pretty, sombre-faced, seven-year-old Polish child. I do believe that one of the best things about weddings are the little girls.

Small girls in long cream lace dresses, twisted coronets of silvered metal in their hair danced to Polish pop. Butterfly chiffon friends in Monsoon prettiness held hands and twirli-gigged round, taking their turn - as girls do - to jump into the golden centre, raise plump and perfect arms and giggle at their spotlit cheek. At a nod, they would abandon the dance and dash into the darkness of the courtyard for games of tig and tag and scarecrow. I played with them. Brave, they enquired: "What time is it Mr Wolf?" "Two o'clock," I growled. "Three o'clock". They silk slipper-stepped forward some more across the hard ground covered with worn down rose petals. "Dinner time" and screams bounced off ancient stones as I leapt on them to slavering eat them up as time and wolves will do to small and lovely girls.