Spa humbug

23 Mar
Really noisy central locking

A car with a really noisy central locking system

The shudder of shame is something I do when I remember things I’ve said or done that have been truly awful. Like the time I told a passenger on a long-haul flight that I was Jewish. My desire to be Jewish has always overshadowed my desire to be anything else in life, and occasionally, still, I like to experience how it might feel.

“My father is Jewish. My mother is agnostic,” I told the woman. “Interesting,” she said, “because Jewishness is passed down through the mother.”

God only knows how I didn’t realise this aged 19, a scholar of GCSE RE. For the next 14 hours of the flight I wanted to melt into my seat. I was both a liar and an idiot and I learned from that experience never to tell lies to people who I can’t then run away from.

And then, there was the time that I took a ride in Mr one-night-stand-man’s car. I was 17, he was 21 and we were headed for the local GP so I could get the morning-after pill. I fancied Mr one-night-stand but he treated me like I was bad breath. He did, however, want to make sure I made it to the doctors, for I’m sure his greatest fear was that I might actually want to have his baby.

As he drove, I tried to look cool and nonchalant. I rested my elbow on the narrow plastic door ledge. I accidently pressed down on a button that made an alarmingly loud clunk. Unknowingly, I pressed it again. Clunk. The shocking sound of a cheap central locking system. Alas, seconds later I rested my elbow on the ledge again, thus locking every door. Mr one-night-stand rolled his eyes, and I dug my nails into my thighs with embarrassment. I accidently locked and unlocked his doors no less than five more times in the ten-minute journey.

From this, I learned never to sleep with anyone who I would later feel awkward around if – or when – I displayed signs of my inherent clumsiness.

Recently, I’ve found myself doing the shudder of shame when I think about my first overnight stay at a spa. A couple of months ago an email labelled ‘exclusive’ landed in my inbox, despite being sent to everyone who’s ever had supermarket shopping delivered to their home before.

I clicked on, enticed by the fact that if I did take up the deal I would essentially be carrying on a family tradition. My mother used to get whisked away by her childless friend (glamorous, American, wealthy) to the epitome of ‘80s spa glamour – Forest Mere. She always came back to me and my siblings smelling like Imperial Leather soap and champagne, and I’m sure she was in a better mood for weeks afterwards.

I’ve been to luxury spas in the past. I’ve been spoiled by three-hour treatments in London’s best, because I used to review them for Virgin trains magazine. (Sorry passengers who might have been reading it, hoping to find cheap places to eat. I knew that you couldn’t fork out £500 for a couple of treatments, but I was pregnant and only got paid peanuts for the reviews, so the free facials and foot massages were hugely attractive.)

Yes, I’d been to spas, but I’d never had an overnight stay in one. I just wish that before I’d signed up for the offer I’d have grasped the fact that hotel and spa deals – like chocolate and sex – should be enjoyed separately.

Oh isn’t hindsight marvellous? It could have saved me from a world of stained chintz and piss-poor massage. I even managed to cajole two friends into coming along. I dressed up the whole idea as brilliant. “We can walk around in bathrobes all day, lounge by the side of the infinity pool while being served cocktails by Joey Essex lookalikes,” I said. Heaven knows why I didn’t do any research.

The pub lunch we had before our grand spa entrance was probably the highlight of our break. Oh, and the porter. He was called Sic but we wanted to be polite so we kept looking at his nametag, mouthing to each other. “Perhaps the C is a soft C. Like the French pronunciation of six…” He swiftly corrected us though. “It’s S…I…C. Like, you know Sick!”

We tipped him double because, well, you know, poor man.

On our tour we peered into a gym that was like a human aquarium. Lobster-red couples were power-walking side-by-side on the type of treadmills that are sold cheap on shopping channels and that always end up dusty, depressed and defunct in spare bedrooms.

The room was a sad gathering of all things that have ever appeared on back-page adverts in weekend supplements: elasticated trousers, dumbbells, stain-retardant carpet, three-quarter-length cargo pants. Hell, I even expected to see a corner bath with an easy-access door somewhere in there.

We headed for the Jacuzzi. After five minutes of extreme eye irritation (the water contained enough chlorine to kill a million viruses) we entered the steam room where a man wearing Speedos was sweating out five years’ worth of takeaway curry. The outside hot tub looked like a tempting escape from the menopausal heat of inside, but we discovered it was about five degrees too cold. It was like stepping into a tepid bath, but not having the option of adding any hot water.

The rest of the trip was like that, really. We kept trying to fill up our night-and-day-stay with hot water, but finding only cold. There wasn’t any hope; not a single commiseration prize of a delicious meal at the end of the day; only lukewarm despair. The dining room was a symphony of dying coral, and some of the curtains hung down like they’d given up on life. We stole a pepper-grinder because when you’re not eating in a restaurant, we what else do you do?

Everything on the menu had a coloured triangle next to it: red, yellow or green, a nutrition code for weird people who still think that Canderel sweetener is healthy. The base of the cheesecake I ordered was made of what tasted like birdfeed balls (lard, hair, and various regurgitated pumpkin seeds.)

Drugs didn’t make it better. OK, we didn’t take any drugs, but even if we had, I just know they couldn’t have made anything better. You can’t polish a turd.

We left the next morning smelling like chlorine and school dinners, my friends surprisingly jolly about everything. They said it was fun, an experience. I think they were just being kind because the whole thing had been my suggestion.

I drove us home shrouded in shame and silence thinking, next time the offer of a spa trip arrives in my inbox, I’ll remember this: that fabulous spas never advertise deals on Amazon.

Hide and Seek

9 Jan
http://johnlewis.scene7.com/is/image/JohnLewis/000002173alt1?$prod_main$

New sheets. How delightful.

 

It’s easy to find my son when he hides, because he squeaks, growls or laughs. Of course, I pretend I don’t know where he is: I ignore the hump under the duvet, or the legs sticking out from behind the sofa. He is three, and fun is easy.

What is not so fun is when I genuinely can’t find something. Laptops or iPads that I’ve hidden from my daughter, because – when I’ve confiscated her phone – she smuggles anything electronic she can find into her bedroom for late night Snapchat. If I hide these things in normal places she finds them. I have to think of tricky nooks: under mattresses, inside shoe-boxes, sandwiched inbetween pairs of knickers (big knickers in my drawer, which I think is pretty crafty, because she finds my underwear drawer abhorrent).

The only problem is, when I need these things I can’t remember where I’ve hidden them. I try FIND MY DEVICE on my phone but then realise I never activated it in the first place.

And then there are all the virtual things I lose. Emails. Important work ones, sent to me marked with a yellow star that means “LOOK AT ME AND FILE ME SOMEWHERE SAFE.” Within hours they are sucked up into the ether like errant socks that leave a basket full of partner-less odds behind in my laundry basket. “My Gmail is fucked!” I tell everyone. But it’s no good blaming Google when everyone knows I’m the problem.

“Folders are the answer,” says my husband. But my brain is rubbish at sorting things into categories. PERSONAL, for example. Isn’t everything that relates to me personal? Should a smear appointment reminder go into the same folder as a British Gas man coming to take a reading?

There are certain crossovers, and the folder marked SHOPPING might have a holiday booking in it, which let’s face it should go in HOLIDAY. But might it not also go into FUN? It could, of course, include plane tickets, which could fit into multiple folders: FUN, HOLIDAY, RECEIPTS or SHOPPING. And what about the folder marked CHILDREN and SCHOOLS. Should they go together? Should emails from the school attendance officer asking why my teenager is at school only 68% of the time also go into the same folder as my reminder for Nit Presentation Day? Fun, games, money, work and deadly serious issues are all so hard to separate. And so I end up deleting them all, or scrunching up the letters.

Contacts are also something I need to tackle. I have yet to create an online address book. I rely on the computer remembering, so when I type in the recipient bar it comes up with multiple options of people I’ve previously emailed. There are problems here, of course. There are so many Catherines, Kates and Rachels in my email list and I’m not familiar with all of their surnames. Sending emails to the right person is often a guessing game.

The day after the birth of my last child – when I was still fuzzy-headed, euphoric and flitting between thinking I’d been born again or was about to die – I sent an email to a woman named Sarah, who I believed was the midwife who had just delivered my son. She’d asked if I could send her some photos of the birth so she could keep them on file for reference.

“Here we go!” I typed, pressing send. In all the photos attached I looked like a Woodstock woolly mammoth, the kind of woman you see in books called things like “Childbirth – the natural way’. My husband, who incidentally looked as hairy as I did (though he was thankfully dressed, unlike some of the men in the ‘70s black and white childbirth books) was supporting me on all fours. All fine for a midwife. They’ve seen big bushes, baby’s heads crowning, women mooing and partners grimacing loads of times.

A couple of hours later I got an email back from Sarah. “I think you sent these to the wrong person.” I looked at the address and realised that she was someone I’d once emailed about a quote for sofa re-upholstery. How could I apologise for the weirdness? Or for the fact that she probably opened the attachments in an open-plan office, and the photos, as they appeared slowly like the uncovering of some weird porn, became more and more gruesome. And then I thought about how she might have explained the photos – the pendulous breasts, the matted hair, the blood – to anyone looking over her shoulder.

“Whoops! Sorry! Wrong Sarah!” I emailed in reply as if it was an everyday mistake, because explaining seemed far too difficult.

Fuck the resolutions, God, but teach me how to use Gmail. Take me to Muji on a shopping splurge and I will be your concubine forever. I can stock up on Japanese Perspex, and that will turn me into a very organised person who wears oatmeal loungewear accessorised with the odd flash of pleasing, tasteful neon (pants, socks, hairband); a woman who takes bento boxes to work with last night’s photogenic salad in, who manages to have just the right amount of organised clutter in their home (ie. barely any). A woman who manages not just to keep her children’s faces clean, but her pubic hair trim in winter, and everyone’s socks together. When I fantasise about changing my life, I first think about how I can buy into the lifestyle.

But before Muji, I want to go to John Lewis. It is time. My bedsheets are embarrassing. Nail varnish and foundation have made them fit for an Emin instillation. (Who puts on foundation on in bed? Answer: my teenage daughter.) The bed-linen is not good enough for animals, let alone guests. Instead of asking a visitor whether they want the en-suite or the garden view when they come to stay (ie the view of the housing estate or a mattress on the floor of the room closest to the only bathroom in the house), I can say, “Do you want the dark orange stain on your sheets, or the fuchsia one? I’d go for fuchsia personally, as it doesn’t look like any sort of bodily fluid. The foundation is on the dark side, and in certain lights it looks like shit.”

The sheets I can buy. There’s a sale on now. But organisation may take a lifetime. Now please excuse me while I delete some more emails.

Vegetable Anxiety

26 Nov
If I had the time, I could carve my vegetables into horror scenes such as this, featuring Charles Saatchi and Nigella

If I had the time, I could carve my vegetables into horror scenes such as this masterpiece, featuring Charles Saatchi and Nigella

It’s coming up to my anniversary. I’ve been ordering a vegetable box for a year now and to say thank you, Riverford are giving me a free bottle of apple juice. Vegetables make me anxious. The worry eats me up in the night. It plagues my thoughts when I should be thinking about much more pressing issues, like how on earth I’m ever going to get my daughter to go to school again.

When I’m sitting around tables with earnest, well-meaning health and education professionals, and we are talking about strategies and things that are – but mainly aren’t – working for my daughter, my mind is consumed with thoughts of rotting cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, celeriac and squash. And what the hell I’m going to do with them all.

“How middle class!” I hear you say. Yes, it is middle class. I worry about vegetables because the other worries I have are far too worrying to really think about, or indeed too hard to sometimes tackle. We all do this, I’m sure. Working, middle, upper class. It makes no difference. It’s like referred pain: humans don’t always dwell on the things that hurt most or need the most attention. They choose the stupid things to sweat over.

Celery sticks have melted in the bottom drawer of my fridge, like lollies that turn to slush on a hot day. I carry them to the bin and the children recoil in horror. I tell them to grow a pair. “These are vegetables, children! They are rotten, but one day, this is what will happen to us.

I don’t say that. Instead, I say, “OH GOD. Another week where I’ve spent 15 quid on a couple of root vegetables that I could have bought from Sosos (cheap, lovely Cypriot greengrocer) for less than a quid. But oh no. I choose to have my vegetables delivered by a man called Hugh from a fictional farm in Dorset, in a van that runs on recycled coconut oil.

It all happened last November. I felt sorry for the girl with the Riverford clipboard, who was standing on my doorstep. She arrived at precisely the time when I was thinking about how I was going to make my children eat the remains of a cauliflower cheese, some fatty roast beef and a half tub of baked beans that had turned a depressing shade of orange. My nose told me they were all OK.

I invited the girl – let’s call her Helenka – into my house. “You like vegetables?” she asked, like a James Bond character who’d been sent by the government as a nutrition spy.

“Well, yes,” I replied, trying to do my bit as a good citizen. The day before it had been a man from the RSPCA asking me if I cared about neglected animals, and the week before that it had been a couple of people in green tabards asking me if I cared about neglected children. Of course “Yes!” was the answer to all of these questions, because I’m not a sociopath. But at 6.30pm it’s hard to really care about anything other than getting the children to bed before midnight.

Helenka was tall and thin and had Slavic cheekbones like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Standing next to her, I felt like a gnome. If I were my friend’s grandmother – who sized up all beautiful girls in the manner of a talent scout – I might have said in a New York Jewish accent, “You should be a mo-del.”

Instead, I suggested she buy a longer coat that covered up her kidneys to save her getting an infection. Her eyes narrowed, as if I’d told her she smelled, which made me feel terrible. And then, somehow, within seconds, she was sitting down at my kitchen table and filling out a direct debit form, all smiles. Signing me up to a lifetime of organic vegetables. More than a year later, I’m still trying to cancel the order. I fear Helenka will find me and try to kill me.

And anyway, in the ten minutes she was in my house she made friends with my children. My daughter wanted to know what shade of lipstick she was wearing, and where her coat was from.

“Russian Red… and Topshop. Tell your mama to stop vorrying about stupid kidneys. Crop bomber is all the rage!”

My sons mocked the dinner I had put in front of them, and she joined in. “Mama’s cooking is interesting, yeah? Wait until you eat these vegetables. Much nicer!”

But of course, my sons never touch the vegetables that are delivered on a weekly basis. They chew on Kale like it’s tobacco – they spit it out afterwards. I frantically try to eat everything, but there’s only so much roasted winter root veg mush I can eat. I don’t have time for fancy cooking in the week, because I work and so does my husband. Which is why the children eat mainly pasta, sausages and the odd bit of broccoli and I eat packets of crisps.

So it’s come to the crunch. I have to ask whom I am ordering the vegetables for. My children? Or the scary beautiful woman whose name I don’t even know? The answer is clear. So, today I will be brave and I will cancel my subscription. I do hope that Helenka’s been spotted by Storm Models and whisked away to New York. I’d hate to find her on my doorstep again this winter.

Do cats blink?

14 Nov

buster jpgI’m glad we found something to laugh at on the morning I found our cat Buster, dead. I watched my husband pick him up, both his and the cats limbs as stiff as cardboard. The question is “How do you casually take a dead cat to the vets when there is only a towel to cover him but no box to put him in?”

“You look as if you’re carrying a piñata to a children’s party,” I said. In the car, we tried to move Buster’s rigid tail so that the door would not close on it. When we arrived at the vets the towel kept slipping to reveal his upright head and cloudy eyes. We didn’t want to scare any small children, so I walked in front trying to mask the view.

Of course, earlier I wasn’t laughing. I was looking for Buster in a nonchalant kind of way, barely looking at all really because I didn’t think he was missing. We’d seen him late the night before, but he hadn’t come in for breakfast. It wasn’t unusual though for he often strolled the streets, followed us to friends’ houses, sidled up to children walking to or from school, leaving traces of his ginger hair on their static black school uniform trousers as he brushed past.  Most were happy to see Buster, and bent down to give him a stroke. Sometimes, he would see if his girlfriend (the black and white ball of fluff from number 11), was around. Late at night she would often slink through our catflap to say hi and share some of Buster’s food. A midnight snack for lovers.

And yet, there was Buster, out cold in a shallow puddle. At first I thought he was a fox. His ruffled up coat did not make me think of our handsome, gleaming cat. He was wet all over, spattered in mud; little matted areas of fur made him look unkempt, more dark and more wild. Of course, when I took a step further to inspect his face it was Buster. He had died with his tongue sticking out which I’m sure would have displeased him, because he was a very proud cat who had not once done anything ungainly (although the children often blamed him for their silent farts at the dinner table).

I always think that humans in coffins at funerals look decidedly tiny, much smaller than the alive person. But Buster looked enormous. I cried very loudly. Afterwards, when I told people that he looked huge when dead, they said, “But he was massive when he was alive!” It is true that Buster was known for his big bottom, but he was small compared to say, a tiger. Lying there motionless, he looked very much like a fox.

The neighbour, somebody I’d only said hi to on a couple of occasions, came out of his front door, saw me bawling, and walked over. He bent down and ruffled Buster’s fur, saying, “Poor little man.” He seemed so at ease and I immediately asked if he would help me take Buster inside because I didn’t know how to pick him up. I went into the house to fetch something and at first I thought “A shovel!” But Buster was all in one piece, so a towel would do. How useless and squeamish I am with things like death, and how nice to be able to call on somebody more useful.

Buster was placed on the kitchen floor and lay there for a good couple of hours before my husband came home. I called the vet, told her there were no obvious wounds, then sat looking at him, almost expecting his little ribcage to start rising and falling. I thought it would be nice to sketch him, as my sister might, but then I remembered I can’t draw for toffee. We got Buster when our middle child was a few months old. In the parade of the rescue cats that we were shown, we knew when we’d found our cat. Of course, we bypassed the ones who looked mean, or incontinent, or too much like Hitler.

Buster was a hedonist, it’s true, but what else is there to do when you’re a cat and a useless catcher of mice? He would lie atop freshly laundered, folded clothes, leaving tufts of fluff in his wake. I hoovered lots, but to no avail. There was one health-visitor who stayed rather too long one day (and who also suggested that I was breast-feeding my four-day-old-baby too much) and when she stood up from a sofa that Buster had been sleeping on, the seat of her black trousers was covered in fur. I had visions of me rolling one of those strange sticky clothes de-fluffers up and down her backside, but decided that would be weird. So I just said goodbye and off she walked with a hairy bottom.

I could go on and on about how wonderful Buster was, but the reason he was so great really, was because you hardly noticed he was there. He moved about like a much-loved song in the air, coming in and out of rooms where he was nearly always welcome. He never once directed his claws at a small child who chose to pull his tail; he would simply slide away to a quieter spot. He often sat on my husband’s chest in bed, like a paperweight holding down fragile paper. My husband said stroking him was the best therapy of all.

The children have grown up with him. When I told them Buster was dead, the youngest asked, “Can I see a picture of him killed?” and then,  “Do cats blink?” (to which I strangely didn’t know the answer). The eldest felt guilty that she’d shooed him out of her room the day before he died. The middle child just cried and cried and I just hugged and hugged him. I do distinctly remember a friend of mine saying that childhood pets were a good thing because “they teach children how to grieve.” And here we were, ten years after Buster entered our lives, dealing with that very grief.

I had lots of pets as a child but I can’t remember their deaths affecting me much. Humans, yes, but animals, no. And oh how I cackled like a cold-hearted witch when my best friend once recalled how he had given Peanut – a kitten that belonged to his father, who collected cats like medals – mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that had failed. I excuse myself now because at the time I was a very mean teenager. The thought of my best friend’s fleshy lips pressed against the tiny line of Peanut’s cat lip that was probably smaller than a bird’s, trying to breath life into the little animal, seemed very amusing then. And we were stoned.

But my best friend was upset, and since finding Buster the way I did, I want to tell him that I’m sorry because I get it now. I’ve never been what you would call a fan of cats, but most who met Buster became a fan of him.

In the middle

4 Apr
Sometimes I forget he's in the house

The middle child

We are experiencing a very bleak winter, despite it actually being spring. Paired with the fact that my children are at home for the Easter holidays – day upon day climbing upon me, the furniture and each other – these times are reminiscent of the darkest days of any winter, ever.

Will they end, I ask myself? I keep thinking, “We are beyond the middle. We are nearing the end of the middle, getting closer to the beginning of the end. The finish line will be summer, when we can all raise our arms like Mo Farah and say ‘Hurrah. We have made it, people. We have missed spring, but summer is promising to be the best of times. We’ll open up the doors, and the children will be free, and all of the dark feelings will rise up into the sweet hot air and disappear… until next winter.”

On Sunday the clocks changed, and something in the rhythm that had seemed so intransigent, so heavy, so stubborn, shifted too. Yes, the cold wind still whistled through the hefty gap in our front door, but the extra hour of light seemed to bring with it a certain hope that things were indeed going to brighten.

I sometimes think that the summer of my life existed in the few years that made up my early twenties – the period that coincided with early parenthood. My mother lived a short drive away, while I lived with my daughter, sister and best friend.

The set-up was so perfect that it felt like my very own version of ‘Friends’ had been commissioned. All I had dreamed about in my teens, and talked about with my best friend (“I hope we end up in a house together, and get stoned every night and eat dinner side by side on the sofa”) had in fact become a reality. So perfect, in fact, that it couldn’t last forever. To me, it felt like it might, and I didn’t want to tempt fate by thinking that one day it might not. But, unfortunately – yet not unsurprisingly – it did not.

We grew up, and quickly. My friend changed jobs and moved, my sister bought her own place with her boyfriend, and my new husband and I found our own house when our first baby together came along. My parents moved to a different country.

Flash forward a few years from this initial big shift, and my sister and her family now live in the US, my friend is working all over the world, and my mother is plotting her escape (having done her 10-year trial period) from my father’s idea of a rural paradise in Ireland. Everything has changed.

With the realisation that it is me that must move on, I have to change the way my life is working. Not least because I realise that my family, together, often doesn’t seem to work at present. It is sometimes a fait accompli that we have to do things together. But when there are options, I try to remind myself that it is better to try to do some things apart.

I was the middle child of five, with large age gaps in between my siblings on either side. While my older brothers sniffed glue and listened to The Dead Kennedys in their defunct 1960s bus that was parked outside our house, and my two younger siblings pedalled their plastic tractors up and down the garden path, I devised ways to seek attention.

Everybody seemed to have somebody: my mum had my dad; my older brothers had each other; and so did my younger brother and sister. I simply wanted to be part of somebody’s gang.

At first, I did things like hang upside down on the climbing frame for 10 minutes at a time, just to see how purple my head would turn. There’s a family video of me swinging like a monkey from the bars, screaming “Look at me! Look at me!” The camera focuses on my gangly limbs and beetroot head for a couple of seconds, but frankly, I am boring. My younger brother is riding a two-wheeler for the first time. The crowd (my mum, dad, aunt and uncle) cheer.

Soon my physical acrobatics turned to verbal ones. At ten, I had stored up a healthy vocabulary of controversial rude words. Who cared if I knew how to use them? The derogatory put-downs that would normally be directed at men seemed just as effective when used on my mother. Incidentally, my dad never asked how I was, so he was saved from being called a bitch.

My mother, the guilt-ridden parent, always seemed too caring, too concerned, too quick to ask how I was and what I was doing. Her questions were delivered with a real desire to connect. They could have been as innocuous as “How was French lesson today?” but unfairly, I always hated her simply for asking. I stared ahead, barely able to utter the words ‘fine’ through gritted teeth.

She may have asked how I was, but she couldn’t stick around to find out what was really going on in my world. Understandably she was always so busy with my other siblings. But I had no understanding of her life. I held her responsible for every bit of my frustration.

Anyone with a large, chaotic family who has grown up in a ‘normal’ environment ie not one governed by Rudolph Steiner or The Brady Bunch, will probably recognise the feeling, as a child, of not being anywhere near the top end of the favourite scale compared to your siblings. It’s just life, and I felt it for quite a few years, not helped by the fact that I behaved like a little shit for more than a decade.

My thoughts were: “If you and dad hadn’t been so sexually incontinent after you’d had me, then I would have been the third child. None of this middle business. My older brother would have had the pleasure, and he wouldn’t have been so badly hurt because he’s so out of it he’s numb to feeling anything, and also, he has a best friend in his older brother.”

Now I have a middle child, but he’s not a little gobshite like I was. He has taken on his role with heavenly grace, only occasionally riling the family with his refusal to eat anything that isn’t sausages and white bread. He is passive, mostly kind, easy to placate and – well, thank God.

I couldn’t cope with another child version of me. He’s also extremely suburban in his tastes, so anything that can’t be found within a two-mile radius of us (a path to scoot on, a shop that stocks custard creams, and a satellite dish to transmit Doctor Who on iPlayer) is not something he desires. Sometimes he amuses himself so well that I forget he is even in the house.

Either side of him are his rambunctious siblings. One is so hyperactive it takes a faulty winch and serious muscle to wind her down. The other, the youngest, is so wild that our friend told us one day, “Do you mind if I just call him Danger from now on?”

Sometimes, I look at the middle child and I want to scoop him up and take him to a quieter place, one where we don’t have to share it with such clamourous beasts. Unfortunately, his father usually beats me to it. But the other day, I thought “We’re going to escape to Brighton for the day, just like a mother and son version of Thelma and Louise.”

At the time, I was sitting in our living room dipping my feet into the dusty, tepid water of a Clairol foot-spa. My daughter had promised a pedicure, but her friend had knocked on the door so she disappeared before I could scream “I PAID YOU FOR THIS!” I was stranded, towel-less, with wrinkly feet and a bowl full of floating dead skin.

(Incidentally, have you ever wondered how many abandoned foot spas must be left outside houses on a yearly basis? Once used, they are boxed up never to be opened again. My kind cousin passed her one on to my daughter, the family hoarder.)

Anyway, there I was looking at the youngest child, sitting on the edge of his ‘swimming pool’ drinking the cloudy foot water with a straw he’d found on the floor. I sighed and sipped my half-price Co-op champagne, and thought “I could be enjoying this moment with the quietest of my children, had I not been so sexually incontinent. He would let me read fashion magazines from cover to cover. Hell, he would even tell me to take my time in the bath.”

I looked over at him, the quiet, easy-to-please one. I mouthed the words “We’re going away.”

The next day, we were in the car, taking it in turns to play our favourite songs. I had to endure Carly Rae Jepson (do all seven-year-old boys, the ones who don’t teef their ‘cool’ parents records, have such terrible taste in music?) In return for my generosity, he let me listen to The Manic’s ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You should have come over’ on a loop. I was 18 again.

We had a great time, despite the winter refusing to budge. Somewhere inside me, however, the seasons had changed in one short day. I felt light once more, ready to move on and be brave and make changes.

It is up to me, I thought. I can make things different in this family if they are not working. I can’t change this God-awful spring weather, but I can take myself out of this gloom, and occasionally, if the family gets too much, whisk the quiet one away for a night and day. Winter won’t last forever.

When you can’t look away

26 Mar

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I have been extremely passive of late. I only seem to have enough energy for the very big decisions I’m making, and everything else, all the small yet visible things that seem to matter but really do not in the grand scheme of things, have fallen by the wayside.

I will at some point clean the bathroom. I’ll find the time to re-hang the living room curtains that my son tore down last month. I must, by the end of the week, contact the mortgage broker about my current deal coming to an end, but first I need to increase my annual earnings by £40,000. These things will happen. They just haven’t yet.

The only things I’ve failed to neglect are my children, nits and domestic abuse. The first two cannot be left to their own devices for large amounts of time, so I tend to them. The last is thankfully something I walked away from a very long time ago, and I have chosen not to think about it for a while now, mainly because it makes me uncomfortable and sad. However, in the past few weeks, I’ve experienced it from afar.

The other day my daughter and I reported an incident to the police. We felt virtuous, like we’d done something good. In terms of being a parent, I was grateful that I’d been presented with a situation where I could demonstrate how to deal with an unpleasant situation in a sensitive and intelligent way.

It wasn’t another case of “Now, what would you do if you saw a woman being shouted at, and threatened in the street?” type scenario. It was actually happening, right outside our house, so we didn’t have the time to ponder over how we’d deal with it. We just had to deal with it.

My daughter called me to her bedroom. “Mum. A man’s shouting at a woman and she’s crying.”

We watched at her window. The woman, perched on a neighbour’s wall, was clearly half-cut but extremely upset. The man was pointing his finger at her accusingly, calling her bitch and cunt.  The woman sobbed and stared into her lap looking incredibly lost.

Just another pissed-up couple having a row, I thought. Sad, but something I see quite a lot around where we live. Was it grounds to call the police? He hadn’t hit her.

But then I had to correct myself. It was clearly not a fight, as the woman was being subjected to this man’s anger but was not in any way retaliating. She was passive throughout: not fighting back, not looking up.

The man walked a few steps and pulled out a knife from inside his coat. It was long and looked sharp.

“Call the police, mum” said my daughter, as we continued to watch the man bend to hide his weapon in a bush that adjoined the two houses opposite. He carried on walking, and without further pestering, the woman stood up and followed him, like a dog that knew she wasn’t loved by her cruel owner, but worried if she’d survive without him. They disappeared around the corner.

Strangely enough, during my telephone conversation with an officer (where I provided some pretty detailed descriptions of the type of trainers, hat and coat the man was wearing, due to my daughter’s fastidious examination of the visible branding, impressive from 20 feet away) the man and woman reappeared on our street. He walked in front; she dragged behind.

The police cars arrived shortly afterwards, and nobody ran. Later, when the officers knocked on our door to question us, we were told the man had been arrested due to possession of a dangerous weapon. We had seen him getting into the van, shouting “Wait until I see you next, bitch,” to the woman, who had been searched but not arrested.

Only a couple of weeks before the knife incident I was with my daughter at a restaurant in town. As our food arrived, we heard a man’s angry shouting rise above the general noise of the room.

When I looked up I saw that he was shouting at a woman. There were two young children also present. (I later learnt that this was his wife and their daughters). The man wasn’t drunk, and he wasn’t wearing a tracksuit from Brixton Market. He was well dressed, and well spoken. He stormed away from the table and over to the counter.

“GET OVER HERE AND GIVE ME THE FIFTY QUID. DID YOU HEAR ME? DAMN WELL COME HERE NOW, OR I’M LEAVING!”

I think the whole restaurant went into hush mode, not really knowing what was going on. A fight between a customer and a waiter? No, actually, but that would have been preferable.

The man didn’t just stop there. He continued to shout from across the restaurant. He seemed far from embarrassed, which in itself was terrifying, because he was in an uncontrollable rage. What we were all witnessing was a man humiliating and verbally attacking his wife in public. It couldn’t be brushed under the carpet by anyone.

I couldn’t watch anymore and I stood up. I told my daughter to stay sitting. I was shaking, but I walked over to where the man was standing and I told him that I could not bear to see him shouting at his partner, in front of their children. He refused to acknowledge me. I went over to the wife and asked if I could do anything. She was crying. “Sorry. You probably think I can’t cope. I can usually, really.”

“I don’t think anybody would or should be able to cope with the way he behaves, but you’re doing brilliantly” I replied.

“Daddy’s very grumpy,” one of the girls said. Was this normal, I asked myself?

“My husband is a bastard,” the woman said, in a voice so quiet that it suggested she’d probably never said it out loud before.

“Thank you so much,” she said, as I helped her get the girls into their coats.

Her husband made his way back to the table, but stood away from all of us, a look of extreme arrogance on his face.

When everything was buttoned and zipped up, I asked if I could do anything else. What I really wanted to do was accompany the woman and her children to another place, away from this man’s rage. I wanted them to feel safe, but deep down I knew that they wouldn’t until some drastic changes were made, and I couldn’t make those changes.

So I returned to my table, pulled a business card from my handbag and surreptitiously handed it to the woman. “Please, call me. I have experienced this and you must do something.”

I later thought this seemed like the act of an evangelical nut, or an interfering do-gooder, but to be honest I didn’t care. The thing that bothered me was that this woman might not have had anyone to talk to.

The next day I received a text. “Thank you for your kindness yesterday. My husband is really stressed at the moment, but that does not excuse his behaviour. What you saw usually happens at home where no-one else can see.” I replied with a short bit of advice, and some support numbers. That was all I could do.

I hope she is seeking help. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the victims continue to excuse their abuser’s behaviour, through shame and loyalty and a need to keep it together. Just the very words she uttered in the restaurant “You probably think I can’t cope” seemed to suggest that she held herself responsible for making everything appear ‘normal’, in the face of her husband’s abusive behaviour.

The reason I’ve mentioned these two very separate incidents is because I’ve thought about them a lot, perhaps because upset usually lingers for longer than something uplifting. It’s the knowing that I can’t fix some things that frustrates, niggles and causes a sense of dis-ease.

And I’ve been in an abusive relationship, and in times of need, I was treated with kindness from friends and total strangers. I want to give something back.

On these occasions I was able to help. I felt safe. The outcome is questionable (the idea of an arrest is not always simply “Great! They’ve got the bad guy and now everyone can get on with their happy lives”). But it was, I believe, better than being a passive observer.

If I try to look at my involvement in these events in a positive light I think the fact that my daughter was present allowed me to actively demonstrate how to help someone in need. But that would seem very self-regarding, and suggests that I need real-life acting out of all sorts of predicaments (to the detriment of others), in order to show how to intervene in the ‘correct’ way.

Of course, it is not always easy to speak up. I don’t really want to be punched in the face by a hench guy twice my size, so I choose who I tell off in the park. “Erm, I think your dog just pooed over there, so you might want to pick it up,” is, I confess, something I prefer to say to a woman who looks a bit like me, rather than a bloke of 6ft 2 with a Staff Bull. Yes, I may be a coward but I like to think I know my limits.

As for the crying woman on the wall, she’s probably still wandering around looking a bit lost. Sadly, she’s most likely gone back to her man, if he’s out of handcuffs. But hopefully, one day she’ll have the strength to walk away.

Whisky reject

13 Feb
"Would you like me to seduce you?"

“Would you like me to seduce you?”

This morning I was told I hadn’t got the job. I would not, it transpired, be leaving on a jet plane this Friday for a week-long whisky commercial shoot in Romania, and I would not, it also dawned on me, be able to put my account back into the black before summer.

Unfortunately, for the past few days I’ve been spending all of the money I would have earned from said gig (albeit in my head) with ease. Nothing frivolous at all, but rather satisfactory, sensible spending. The kind that makes me feel wholesome because instead of thinking “Christopher Kane, come hither”  I imagine employing someone to paint my front door a colour that doesn’t make people think I was inspired by the colour scheme at Brixton Rec.

I could hand over my wad of cash to builders, so they could make the loft safe: I could move the shrouded monster that lives in the corner of my bedroom – otherwise known as tents and summer clothes and things that I might one day need again, but would rather not have to look at first thing in the morning and last thing at night – to somewhere less visible instead. I could also pay for the quarry-like wasteland at the bottom of our garden to be evened out in time for spring.

When I said that I believed the job was almost mine, I was simply employing some positive thinking. I’m not known for being good at selling myself: take me to a casting and I am the most likely person in the room to talk the casting director out of using me at all. “Now, could you look to camera and give us both sides of your profile… Face on… And now smile.” I usually reply: “Er, you probably don’t want me to smile with teeth, because if you can imagine what the inside of Celine Dion’s jaw looked like before she had expensive orthodontic work, then that’s about the size of my smile.” Unsurprisingly I very rarely get a call back.

But with this casting, I felt differently. I thought “I’ve had quite a few rejections recently, and if I look to the law of averages and divine luck, surely I’m due a break?” I walked in, and did what I had to do (which, incidentally, was play a 40-year-old woman seducing a man at a bar). Then I left.

Much to my amazement (my sexy whisky voice had reached new levels of gruffness, so much so that I sounded like the male actor next to me) I got a recall. “They LOVE you. You’re down to the last two.” I have heard the LOVE line many times before, and I could see my agent racking up a tasty commission fee in her head.

But of course I went back. I showed the camera both sides of my profile again, and smiled at the director and the crew and I did another rendition of ‘How to seduce a nervous geek in 90 seconds’. I also quite unintentionally left them with the notion that I was gay. “I hope that was OK.  Seducing men is really not my thing,” but this surprisingly raised a hearty laugh from everyone in the room. I left feeling good, patting myself on the back for marrying humour and seduction, and for once a lack of self-deprecation.

And then I just had to wait. “You’ll hear back on Tuesday afternoon.” Of course, two days is not a long time, but I became frantic.

Yesterday, I Hoovered the whole house and in the process sucked up two of my best pairs of knickers, drank four cups of coffee and started to imagine what it would feel like to have a cleaner (the money, oh the money if I pull this one off). I kept looking at the clock (Tuesday afternoon!) and felt quite frankly like I did when I popped one of my daughter’s Ritalin to see what it would actually do to me. I felt freakishly wired by 4.30pm (still Tuesday afternoon!) and couldn’t even reply to simple questions like “What’s for tea, mum?” I wanted to answer “Whisky?” because that was all that was on my mind.

By 5.30pm I called my agent. “They really LOVE you.” she said.  I felt like saying “I know, I know” (for I was speaking in my role as brazen whisky woman, but instead I replied “I need to know by the end of today. I have to arrange childcare for next week and I’ll need to employ a temporary cleaner, because I don’t think anyone in my house knows where the loo paper is kept.”

At 8.59am this morning (quite evidently NOT Tuesday afternoon!) I got a call from my agency. “I’m so sorry. You haven’t got the job.” Crash, bang, no damn loft ladder. No minor landscaping. No mini-breaks. No seeing my money with a C next to it rather than a D. No eyeing up Acne boots but buying Topshop instead (see, I’m almost a reverse adult now.)

And back to real life, and the fact that at 9.03am I was having to wave goodbye to the week of a working holiday, and hotels and free time and a foreign country, and the actual ability to confirm my family’s beliefs that I play a pretty lousy seductress. The one time I thought alcohol could actually save my family, it had let us down.

Now, before you think that I poured myself a large drink and called my husband at work to say “I’ve had enough,” I didn’t. The next hour went something like this.

Firstly, I talked to myself in the bathroom like a crazy. “OK, it’s very much Wednesday morning, and not Tuesday afternoon, and you have very most definitely not got the job, unless the chosen lead seductress breaks both legs and they can’t fly her out on Friday, which is highly unlikely.”

And after my talking to, I fished my toddler’s bottle of milk out of the loo, where my other son had just peed.

Then I ate a king size Snickers, knowing that my clear skin didn’t matter anymore.

I texted my husband and said “I’m really disappointed. Could you get me some pudding from Waitrose on your way home from work please?” He was very sweet and cheered me up immensely with his promise of a double serving just for me.

Then I walked out to my car and realised the front tyre had a puncture. Not what a seductress should have to deal with, I thought. Then the mechanic arrived, toothless and seemingly pantless judging from the expanse of waxen arse on display. I looked at my children and realised they were laughing. I started laughing and crying at the same time. Quite a talent, really, and one that I probably won’t be booked for in the future.

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