Happy Days

30 Jan

Are you winking at me?

Last week, in a half-arsed attempt to potty train my youngest, I was up to my elbows in crap. My middle child was at home with tonsilitis and my daughter was expressing her rage through the medium of passionate slanging matches. Katie Price winked at me from her pink Range Rover, which just about finished me off. By Wednesday, the week was looking irrevocably bad. And then, all change. Here’s what God, were I a believer, should have told me when I was at my wit’s end.

He should have come down from high above and said, “Fear not, sweet no-one from Tulse Hill, for in-between trying to calm the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I have decided to shine a light on you. In the next few days, you will:

  • Go out until 4am, and make the decision not to feel guilty about anything: the sore head, the taxi ride home or the fact that you will bore the tits off the taxi driver by rabbiting on about the genius of Fleetwood Mac, when you don’t even have any change to tip him.
  • Eat two packets of cheese and onion crisps whilst typing. Then hook the bit that always gets stuck behind the very back tooth out with your finger. Savour this bit. It’s like the oyster on a chicken.
  • Look at the bed sheets on all of the beds in your home. If they are in need of a change, think “Oh, what’s another couple of days? I’ll do it tomorrow.”
  • Squeeze your partners arse, and say, “Hmmm, lovely.” If you have children, make sure they see.
  • Talk to a friend about an article you enjoyed reading somewhere and then drift off half way through explaining it because you can’t really remember where it appeared or what it was about. Then get them to finish the conversation and enlighten you at the same time, because they actually read it.
  • Paint the bits on the walls that you missed the first time around with a children’s budget paintbrush, because the patches are small. Then realise that you’re doing a really bad job because the bristles are flimsy and soft. Then do the same thing you did with the bed sheets, but make the days years. “Oh, what’s another couple of years? The walls always get ruined anyway. I’ll come back to it in 2015.”
  • Sit listening to Leonard Cohen songs at 3am with someone you once entertained the idea of having a relationship with. Don’t touch or do anything that lovers would do. Just relish the feeling that you are still friends, and that if you had slept together in the past, you probably wouldn’t be friends now.
  • Dream of owning a collection of Glen Campbell’s shirts.
  • Stand at a piano and sing while somebody plays. If you can’t sing, speak the words. Don’t be embarrassed. Just think “David Bowie’s still got it, and his voice is a bit shaky now.”
  • Have sex. If you’ve been selfish recently be generous for once. Get off your back and make an effort.
  • Talk to a well-known restaurateur whom you’ve never met, but really admire for the work she does, at 2am. Exchange emails. Contact her the next day. Wait patiently for a response, and when it doesn’t arrive, think “Oh well, I was a bit drunk and she probably thought I was fairly annoying but I still think she is great.” Then feel overjoyed when an email arrives the next day to say how nice it was to meet you.
  • Don’t feel bad for liking Gerald Scarfe.
  • Go to a casting for a Whisky commercial. Ad lib in a scene where you are the ‘older’ woman in a bar, trying to seduce a young geek (there will actually only be 2 years between you.) Don’t feel too embarrassed, when the cameras are rolling, if the words “Are you going to buy me a drink or do I have to sing for my supper?” slip out of your mouth. Be prepared to not hear anything back.
  • Make soup from the Guardian food supplement in a bid to save money. Then throw it all away because cauliflower tastes bitter, and because you fancy sausages.
  • Ask someone “How was your half term?” even though it is no-where near half-term, and they don’t even have children. Then laugh all the way home at your imbecilic tendencies.
  • Don’t worry if you think of having sex with everyone you meet, even when it’s your children’s matronly school office administrator. You’ve always done this. It doesn’t actually mean you want to have sex with them. You think about them on the loo, too, but that doesn’t mean you want to follow them into the bathroom. It’s just nerves.
  • Send a curt message to someone on eBay who wants to bid on an item you have put up for sale, just because they don’t say please and thank you.
  • Walk out of the room where an argument between your husband and daughter is just about to erupt. Go downstairs and make toast. Speak to the cat about what idiots they both are.
  • Go to bed on five nights out of seven before midnight.
  • Don’t spend time worrying that your husband may still be drinking behind your back. Most of the fun he has is usually when you’re not around.
  • Watch Spitting Image clips on YouTube and wonder how everybody and everything is so censored nowadays. The days of Thatcher were good for satire.
  • Go to bed and dream of having sex with George Osborne. When you realise it was all just a dream, you’ll feel so much happier.”

My week got a whole lot better.

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99 problems and 11 is one

17 Jan
Me at 11, with my trusty pony

Me at 11, with my trusty pony

How was 11 for you? I’m trying to remember myself. It’s pretty much all bad, but if you need something good, at 11 I discovered that the pommel of my pony’s saddle was great for frequent fanny gallops. Here’s the bad, in no particular order:

  • The embarrassment of growing breasts: one nipple grew hard before the other, and as a result my left boob has always been larger than the right. It’s quite charming. But at 11, I thought I had a problem. So did my mum, and her concern lead her to ask a doctor friend to feel it one Sunday lunch when we were all sitting around the table. This resulted in many years of therapy.
  • The beginning of pubic hair. So sparse, and so alien. Not a friendly mass of Australian outback bouffant curls like the women in the swimming pool changing rooms. Just the sad sight of barren land with a few stray weeds growing with stubborn irregularity.
  • Girls. Girls could be mean. Even when I had given a friend my last block of flourescent Fimo, she kicked me to the curb. I nearly got run over once trying to roller-skate in the wake of a so-called pal who had crossed the road seconds before me. This confirmed my belief that I would always be the accident-prone elephant and she would continue to be the lucky swan.
  • Worms. In the 1980s, in my world, they were everywhere. I was too embarrassed to tell my mother because we had a strange doctor, and I didn’t want him looking up my bottom.
  • Ditto thrush. I had it twice in my eleventh year. I thought that if I told anyone, they would think it was because I had been touching myself. And I probably had. But really, thrush was just one of those things. If I get it now, I know what to do, but 25 years ago? I didn’t know about the wonders of natural yoghurt.
  • My parents. They were so interested in everything but me. My younger siblings, my older siblings, their dysfunctional marriage, their parents, animals and all of the other things that were elbowing their way into the very small space that I had tried to reserve for myself and them. So I turned against my parents. For nearly a decade, I hated them. Of course, I loved them, but I told them I hated them.

I’m digging to remember not so much for myself (believe me, I have learnt to deal with all the hair and niggling anxieties surrounding friends and thrush – if I’m lucky, as separate issues, but sometimes as a mix. I also really love and appreciate my parents now.) So rather than remembering in order to heap blame onto things that once caused me grief, I am trying to conjure up some of these feelings for the sake of my daughter. She is 11, angry a lot, and she says she hates me.

This is nothing new. And of course, all of my life crises’ at 11 are not going to be the same things that my daughter is losing sleep over now. Some will though – like the parents and the girls. Mean girls are always going to be around, and parents who don’t understand. Well, it’s obvious that we’re not going away.

But anyway, beneath the initial tedium and sheer exasperation that comes from repeatedly being told by your daughter that you are a rubbish mother and you are ugly and not fit to be a parent and you married the wrong man and blah, blah, blah, comes the fact that something needs to be done to try to remedy this perpetual vitriol. Shut her out in the garden? Good for 10 minutes sometimes. But for the longterm, I have to devise a loose plan.

I probably won’t ever know the exact reasons why my daughter is angry with me because I am not, and do not want to be her best friend.

However, I can try to help. It seems that the main feeling I remember having when going though any ‘bad’ stage of adolescence, was the need to feel loved and tended to. This might sound a little too Oprah for some and too darn obvious for others. I can hear the cries of “Try telling a teenager you love them whilst they are hurling abuse at you over the gas hob!” But I have to take note when trying to unpick what lies beneath my daughter’s apparent hatred towards me.

I spend a lot of time with my children. I work from home and only go out in the evenings a couple of times a week. I prepare three meals a day for them. I am not asking for a medal from smug parenting-guru Steve Biddulph, but simply illustrating that I am not an absent parent.

And yet, my daughter has a point when she says I never spend any time with her alone. I’m good at barking orders: “Have you done your homework/washed your hair/checked for nits/filled out that form/cleaned up your room?” I occasionally half-watch television with her, though I find it hard to stomach BBC3. I try to find programmes we’ll both like. Cue American cult show Girls, which I swiftly turned off when I realised how filthy dirty the sex scenes are. Yes, I am parentally inadequate in parts, but I am not bad.

My husband gets to do the fun stuff, because I feel he needs to bond. He is a step-father to our daughter. He has been on the receiving end of his fair share of expletives from her over the past few months. I encourage good times for them to share.

And then I curse the time that he is spending accompanying her around museums, window shopping in Liberty, and eating out. Meanwhile, I am breaking up boy fights with our other chidren, while simultaneously trying to make dinner that usually results in me slam-dunking fistfuls of mashed potato onto the top of a rather dubious looking pie. Oh yes. I want to be fun mother for a day.

And luckily, for reasons explained above, my daughter wanted me for the day too last weekend. “I hate you”. Again. Then, “Can we spend the day together, mum, even though I hate you?” And for once, my husband was not working at the weekend. There seemed to be a window of opportunity. And there we were, just my daughter and me an hour later, riding the number 68 bus into town, gliding over Waterloo bridge with just the sights for distraction.

Needless to say, the day was fabulous. You can have fun with little money, sometimes. I spent Christmas vouchers in Space NK and was made up by a half blind Brazilian man who said I was “BEEYOODIFUL lady.” My daughter did her best semi-scowl, then agreed. “See.” I felt like saying “Men still find me attractive. Mostly gay men with a penchant for Liza Minelli, but all the same.”

We were home at 10pm refreshed and happy. It was a taste of the future and I really am relishing sharing more time together, alone. As I kissed my daughter goodnight, we exchanged I love yous. And that, dear readers, was a good day in the life of an 11 year old. Next time she says “I hate you” I’ll remind her that It (her life) and I (her mother) are not always that terrible.

In bed with Grace

2 Jan

 

Great in bed

Great in bed

“I’m sure I packed it! I got it down from the kitchen cupboard this morning.”

But soon after emptying the entire suitcase on arrival at my parent’s house in Ireland, I had to admit I’d forgotten my daughter’s Ritalin. I added this to the list of other things I failed to bring: my knickers, all of our toothbrushes and some Tampax.

Naturally, my period started soon after. My mother has not had a period since the mid nineties and my parent’s house, set in a rural backwater, is miles from anywhere that would be open on boxing day. I started to think like a hardcore survivalist stranded on a desert island. All I came up with was a wedge of christmas embossed paper napkins strapped to a pair of my mother’s large, buttock-hugging pants. I bought proper supplies in the morning.

But the Ritalin. No chance. So for more than a week now, my daughter has taken a holiday from medication. And the results, I am pleased to say, have not been catastrophic.

The pills were helping her to concentrate at school, but come 7.30pm when their effects began to wear off, she could become incredibly irritable, frustrated and angry. Despite winding down with a bath every evening, and the occasional massage from me, she would find it hard to sleep.

Often, when I was getting into bed at around midnight, she would still be wide awake in her room. And this would mean that she was surviving on just six hours sleep a night. Barely enough for an adult, let alone an 11-year-old.

I think, then, that leaving the medication behind was not such a bad thing. My  daughter has had a chance to re-charge her batteries, feel relatively normal again and more importantly, catch up on her sleep.

My husband’s idea of a holiday is being left home alone in London with only the cat for company. He occasionally suggests that I might like to stay put while he takes the children away, but he always follows this offer with the words “of course, I wouldn’t be able to cope with all three, so you’d have to keep the youngest.” Not strictly alone then, I reply.

He came out the night before New Year’s Eve, and left on New Year’s day morning. It was his idea of a perfect holiday.

In my mind, a holiday now (because believe me, sandy beaches, cocktails and lie-ins feature heavily in my future life) is one underpinned by familiarity. I don’t want to fill my days with endless activity: in the past, when I have done this, I am usually the one playing at having fun in an attempt cajole the children into having a good time. No. This holiday is about me adopting the role of Waynetta Slob, and I have brought a friend along for company.

We have taken daily dips in the hot-tub (best at night, alone, when the stars are magnificent) but also good in the day with all three children and a beer, possibly in an attempt to pretend that we are larging it up in an exotic location, sans les enfants.

I have also acted on the occasional strong desire to be 15 again. That’s not to say that I have been getting stoned every night, eaten five Kit-Kats in quick succession, and complained about spots and boyfriends. No. I have carefully selected the best bits of teenhood.

Being driven around in the car by my parents. Yes, there is something slightly odd about this, I confess. But having a temporary chauffeur is a relative treat as my husband can’t drive. When I visit my folks I can sit in the back seat and appear extremely generous by allowing my daughter to ride shotgun (a bit like late bedtimes, the front seat doesn’t have the same appeal when you’re an adult). In the back I don’t have to talk to my extremely difficult-to-talk-to father. I can look out of the window and daydream instead.

And bedtime. I am sleeping in the same bed that I had when I was young. It is incredibly comfortable but barely 6ft long. The brass ends are excellent for propping me up in bed when I read (I have devoured the whole of Grace Coddington’s memoir ) or write, as I am now. The cold bars at the end of the bed are excellent for cooling my feet in the middle of the night when I feel hot.

There has been little need for extra-curricular activity. I have my friend, my mother and wine; the children have each other and their grandparents, and for once we are all finding each other amusing. Where my parents arguments would cause me upset as a child, I am finding them entertaining now. They can have a disagreement about anything and everything. Last night my mother lifted the potato masher high in the air when my father suggested that the queen was 23 when she married. “SHE WAS 25!” Unfortunately, my mother was wrong, but she did put the masher down to apologise.

The best way to cook a ham caused another kitchen ruckus.

My father: “In the Rayburn.” My mother: “In the oven because the thermostat on that unpredictable wood burner is fucked.”

They even managed a row over the Hoover. It was 10pm at night, and we had not eaten. They were on the floor, bent over the Hoover’s innards, inspecting the bag with dismay. “Why the hell didn’t you check that you’d put it in right” said my father. “Perhaps if you Hoovered then you’d understand how the thing was supposed to work!” said my mother.

 

Battling with the Hoover

Battling with the Hoover

 

My mother tries to solve the problem

My mother tries to solve the problem

I’m watching scenes of dysfunctional domesticity with interest. Every night, my dad likes to dig into the chocolate box before dinner. He reads the menu card like a cryptic crossword, prizing his favourites out with his stubby fingers, a look of glee on his face as they are released from their crackly casing. My children try to join in, but my mother and I shriek: “YOU’LL RUIN YOUR APPETITE.” Naturally, my father is to blame.

If humans get boring, there are always the animals. The new dog likes to find dirty knickers and deposit them around the house, crotch side up, and we have to warn my friend about things like this. She has been a great sport. And the donkeys. They are geriatric, but they still like humping with regularity, even if just to get a leg up to play with highest branches on the trees. The children find this hilarious, although it’s difficult to explain why human penises’ do not grow to such a size, even in adulthood.

Taking a break from humping

Taking a break from humping

Our last couple of days in the countryside will include much of the same. And then it’s back to London, and Ritalin, and wearing proper clothes again. I’m not sure I’m ready.

Thanks for that

19 Dec
A few of my favourite things

A few of my favourite things

Back in the eighties Liza Minnelli sang a song with The Pet Shop Boys about losing her mind. As a young child, I remember being particularly baffled by the lyrics:

“The coffee cup – I think about you.”

Must have been a pretty special coffee cup, I thought. Of course, now I see it as part of a bigger song about lost love.

It’s nearly Christmas and I’m not losing my mind. This is a first – I’m one up on Liza at the moment. But had it not been for the good fortune of the last half of this year, then come Christmas Eve I would probably have been tap-tap tapping at the entrance of the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital asking if there was room at the inn.

Instead I am here, at home, playfully sending texts to my husband with a devil-may-care attitude when he asks how I am going to survive on £2.65 until January 6th. I am feeling very fine though, because I’ve bought the kids their presents, and I have a stash of smoked salmon in the fridge. What else does one need at Christmas?

“We need to eat around Christmas day, and you haven’t budgeted for things like petrol, cat food and your bikini wax. ”

(Thankfully my husband has never cared about my bodily hair, but I am looking forward to diving into my parent’s hot-tub on New Years Eve, which admittedly sounds more swingerish that it actually is. I am depilating for my daughter. She is horrified by my hairiness, and the feminist in me would usually say “Oh, to hell with you. I’m not called Squirrel Nutkin for nothing you know.” But I am kind, because I remember the embarrasement I felt as a teen standing next to my mother – Surrey’s answer to a Woodstock stalwart – at the local swimming pool).

“Budget smudget.” I say to my husband, helpfully. I am so over money, because we don’t have any. We never have. But we have a hell of a lot more than many people and for that I keep reminding him that we must be extremely grateful. My gung-ho attitude is not convincing though.

No doubt he’ll be reading this later to see that I’ve painted him as the responsible realist in the relationship, which of course he is. To lift his spirits and help him forget my £2.65 remaining balance, I have compiled a list of things that have made me happy over the year. Hopefully some of them (the re-emergence of my tits, rehab etc…) are things that have contributed to his happiness too.

  • Insurance: It’s a marvellous thing. We were burgled, I left my mobile phone in the bottom of a very wet bag, and I lost my keys in a multi-pocketed Parka. The fact that I had insurance for all of these things made them a lot cheaper to replace.
  • Reading “How to stay sane” by Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and wife to Grayson Perry, a longtime crush of mine. I recommend to anyone who occasionally thinks of running away from everything.
  • Rehab – sadly my husband and not me because I could have done with a lengthy break from life. Yes, he needed time to sort his shit out and so did I. We were lucky that his health insurance paid for his treatment. It didn’t solve everything, but no one thing ever does. But it has helped us to see what the problems are.
  • Nitty Gritty combs. Expensive to lose (and a couple have fallen through the gaps in our floorboards), but not pricey enough to insure (see above.) Having spent the best part of my annual salary on wholly ineffective head lice lotions, it seems that fastidious combing, folks, is the only way forward. You may baffle at the metal nit comb appearing on this list, but believe me, when you spend hours in front of CBBC with squirming children and a head full of oleaginous mites (look at a nit under a microscope and you’ll vomit) you want results. It is boring. It requires skill. It requires a firm hand and an even firmer voice “If you don’t stay still while I comb then Christmas is off.” Yes, when people ask me what I spent most of 2012 doing, I will reply “combing.”
  • My tits. They came back. Well, sort of. I lamented their decline and rapid fall last year when I stopped breastfeeding. And then slowly they made a reappearance in the late summer, along with my love handles. I’ll happily keep both if I can’t return one without the other.
  • Paid work. Admittedly, I’ve earned enough in a year to pay for George Osborne’s anal bleaching, but it feels good to be back in the trainer saddle. Up until recently I was solidly changing nappies, scraping congealed porridge off the floor and answering teacher’s calls from my daughter’s school telling me she’d be in an altercation, but the type of work I prefer? The stuff you can invoice. Clearing gunk off surfaces is what I do on top of other things now, and as a result the domestic duties don’t feel like such a grudge anymore.
  • My pelvic floor. Again. I have written about it in the past like it’s a badly worn out clutch. Now, it’s had a bit of work. I’m not saying I don’t occasionally wet myself (key in front door, refusing to turn is always a danger point) but things are noticeably better. I have been doing my exercises on the loo to stop peeing mid flow. I think I’ve located my core muscles, and I regularly practice the ‘squeeze’ while at traffic lights. I can’t do them without pulling a face, but that’s a small price to pay.

I may be foraging for sticks and mushrooms come Christmas Eve because we have nothing for lunch, but I’ll keep this list in my head. If I were writing a thank you card to Father Christmas (which would be frankly creepy, but who else is able to provide a sack load of good when I don’t believe in God?) then it would go something like this:

“Thank you for signing me up to Direct Line even though I accidentally said yes to content insurance because I couldn’t understand the salesman; thanks for my tits – I was actually alright without them in the end but at least I haven’t had to throw out all my best bras; thanks for rehab – even though I wasn’t there, I feel I benefitted as much as my husband. And thanks for books, the occasional morning shag, and dry knickers.”

I digress

28 Nov

These boots are made for walking

Picture this. I am wearing nothing but a pair of thermal socks, size 11 hiking boots, waterproof trousers, a thermal top, a fleece, a waterproof jacket and a head lamp. All of this belongs to my husband, and I don’t quite know why I am wearing it whilst sitting at the kitchen table.

I am the sexy lovechild of Berghaus, Karrimor, Craghoppers and all the other outdoorsy brands that threw up their past season or not so popular colourways onto the floor of my local TK Maxx. I’m so padded, I can barely move to type these words. If I fancied getting amorous with myself, I’m sure I could navigate my hand in and out of the various breathable flaps.

I call my husband at work.

“I’ve just dressed up in all of your hiking gear, to see if it’ll fit you.”

There is a silence. He knows that I have bought him some clothes for his Scottish walking holiday in a couple of weeks, but is probably baffled as to why I have tried it all on.

“Why? You are a few inches shorter than me, have different size feet and you have boobs.”

I point out that yes, I do have boobs, but they are small, and if you take into consideration the difference between my chest width (32) and his (38), we’re probably the same.

“I tried to take a picture of me wearing it all, but we don’t have a full length mirror. I even stood on the kitchen table to see if I could capture the important bits in the wide mirror, but alas, all you could see were the boots.”

“Why, why, why?” my husband asks, again. “I can try everything on when I get home.” Then he asks something really worrying. “Do you look sexy?”

I answer that yes, Macca Pacca would love a girlfriend like me.

The reason that I have shrouded myself in my husband’s clothes is simple: I am trying to avoid work. Well, more specifically, the chasing of work. When I’m given work to do, I do it. I usually finish it early, ahead of deadline in fact. It’s just when the work’s not there – and I am its creator – that the problems begin.

It’s the follow-up calls, and emails, and leaving messages on voicemail and texts that I can’t stand. It’s akin to speaking to boys I liked in my late teens. In the days before mobile phones, I would pluck up all my courage to call them at their house. If I was lucky, they answered. If not, I was met by the voice of a grumpy father, or a mean sibling.

“IT’S YOUR GIRLFRIEND FROM SCHOOL ON THE PHONE, YOU FREAK. IS SHE THE ONE WITH THE REALLY HOOKED NOSE?”

(Once, my aunt was staying with us when I was fifteen and she answered the phone to a potential boyfriend of mine. His voice was in the middle of breaking. My bitch aunt, tactful as ever, shrieked with laughter across the hall.

“It’s a young man for you, though I can barely hear what he is saying because his voice is so squeaky!”)

Yup, calling people up who I barely know is a hideous task, and one I’d rather avoid at all costs.

A couple of months ago I called someone at the wrong time. She was furious. “Sorry, who?” she said when I announced myself. “I thought you were the editor. This is a REALLY bad time.” I didn’t dare ask when a good time would be.

I put the phone down, took a deep breath, and hummed. I hum when I’m nervous, or angry, or simply embarrassed. I was all of these things.

Today, I’m supposed to be chasing all of the people I contacted ages ago. Instead, I’m fit for a hike in the North Pole. I have a list of things that I can do instead.

I will tackle these tasks with ample time and thought, so as not to risk someone shouting down the phone at me “IT IS NOT A GOOD TIME TO CALL, OK?”

Varnish this collage that I started in the early hours of labour with my last baby, which was nearly two years ago:

Read this book. It seems to contain all of the things that I think about regularly:

Fix the cot, so that I can take away the milking stool (i.e. broken chair) that is currently holding the side up:

Continue to scratch away at the remains of this sticker on the kitchen window. The last owner loved dogs more than people, and left many reminders of his devotion to slobbering death-breath fart-bags all over the house. I cannot make this one disappear. If you look closely, you can still make out all of the dog’s features.

Buy the correct latch for the understairs cupboard from B&Q so that my little helpful Biro outline can finally be covered up.

I’m meeting old family friends from New York tonight. They love to talk about their children. They will show me pictures of them all. They will tell me how beautiful and talented and wonderful they are. They will tell me how kind-hearted and self-less and humble they are, and how their eldest daughter has driven an ambulance around Israel for the last three years, helping injured Palestinians despite being Jewish. They will tell me how the other has been a volunteer in a New Orleans Women’s refuge for the past year. I will tell them that all of this is incredible, and say “How happy and proud you must be.”

They will ask me what I am doing with my life at the moment. I should of course tell them that my youngest is being looked after by  a childminder for a couple of days a week now, so that I have the freedom to prance around my kitchen dressed up as a middle-aged male hiker. But I won’t.

“This and that.” I will say. I will think of Israel, and ambulances, and injured people and victims of domestic abuse. Then I will think how scared I am of editors. What a wimp.

Anyway, now that I’ve wasted sufficient time NOT chasing people for work, what will I wear for tonight’s dinner with the Epsteins? The waterproof trousers and boots, or the cocktail pants?

Living The Dream

24 Nov

Beans, beans, good for your heart

My husband was travelling back from town on the number 68 bus the other day. He sent me a text.

“The guy sitting next to me, without any irony whatsoever, just proclaimed that he was living the dream. He boarded on the Walworth Road.”

As anyone in South London knows, The Walworth Road is not a salubrious address. There is no ‘other’ name for it, like Walworth Village or Passage to Elephant. It does not have delusions of grandeur, such as East Dulwich, or Herne Hill, or Clapham Old Town.

And yet, here was this man genuinely feeling good about his life. He truly seemed to understand that a good life does not always depend on whether you live in the right  postcode, drive a fancy car or eat in the best restaurants.

I am not my grandmother. I do not, at the sight of anyone even slightly working class, start eulogising the whole of the lower ranks of society with patronising terms of affection. “He was so sweet, the way he loved life even when he lived in the back room of his father’s cobblers.” She called workmen ‘ducky’ and anyone who had any sign of the exotic about them (i.e. darker skinned than her) was brave and wonderful, even if all they had done was poured her a whisky.

Like I said, this is not about any of that. People who feel lucky in life should be able to exult about their fortune from wherever they please – be it the top deck of a bus, their private jet, or the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. As long as their good fortune is not to the detriment of others, then I say brag away. It’s a rare thing to feel truly lucky.

It is Christmas, as you may have noticed from the flimsy greeting cards and lurid special edition Mr Kipling Fondant Fancies that litter supermarket shelves. It is the biggest money making holiday of all money-making holidays. I don’t feel bad about Christmas – despite never quite being able to tell my children if God is Jesus or Jesus is the son of God. This is where my husband steps in.

But the presents. They cause me grief. I mean, I like the stockings because I can pop down to Brixton pound shop, Hoover up a few branded nail polishes, re-package them and present them to my terribly scrupulous adolescent daughter. Or I can scoop up  a couple more Lego figures for my middle son, which, within a matter of minutes will be headless, and no doubt end up in the bottom of the Hoover bag along with all of the pine needles by boxing day.

Being children, they want. They have lists, lists not drawn up on paper yet, because all of our felt tips have dried up, but lists in their heads all the same.

“Just remember that my sum-total earnings this year are enough to buy you a packet of jelly beans to share.”

They don’t care. Of course they don’t. They’re children. When I try to include harder up children in their class as examples of those who will no doubt be going without this year, they look at me aghast.

“Him? You think he doesn’t get anything? Last year he got a pair of limited edition Nike Air Max’s and a Wii with all the games.”

My plans to guilt them into wanting for nothing are failing. I am, therefore, already trying to train them for next year. This time around, they will manage to squeeze possibly one of seven things out of me from their mental gift list, (and note, because it is not written down, I can make them forget). Next year, however, I’m going to have prepared them for a total bah-humbug of a mother.

I am already using the man on the bus as my spiritual guide. I didn’t even see him, therefore I am going only by what my husband saw. For all I know, and more likely given that my husband’s descriptions are usually way off mark, he was the richest man on the Walworth Road, taking the bus for the pure hell of it.

In my head though, he was a pensioner living on the fifth floor of a council flat overlooking Burgess Park (nature is always uplifting).

“Kids. The joy in life is never to do with what you have. You know that, don’t you?”

I turn to my daughter:

“You could have the best hair extensions in the world, and the coolest headphones, and a pink car that dispenses Cherry Coke at the touch of a button, but you might not be happy.”

Because I feel I’m on a roll, I turn to my son and continue:

“You could have the life-size Millenium Falcon parked in your garden, and the original Darth Vader costume and a lifetime’s supply of peanut butter cups, but still you might not be happy.”

I even think of turning to my 21 month old, but can’t think of anything he likes more than biting off the heads of Lego figures. This is cheap, and perhaps in his own way he is the only one in our family who is living the dream, so I don’t press on.

My daughter turns to me. “You could ask for a brow tidy and a nose trim for Christmas. You’re beginning to look like Chewbacca.”

Just because I can rarely think of anything I want or need other than a loft extension, the access to a spectacular carpenter for a week, and a dog trainer who works with children, I’ve compiled a list of things that make me feel that in some way, I am Living the Dream:

I have three children. They are mostly a blessing, sometimes a curse. I wanted five when I was young, but then I realised that my mother had far more of a capacity for vomit, sibling brawls and dealing with policemen. She also had a large barn in which she could shut us all if we became too much to handle.

I have a bath. Sometimes, when I’m lying in it, with a great book, I truly believe that heaven doesn’t come closer.

I have a husband who looks like Jesus and is a walking encyclopaedia. In my youth, I was drawn to men who looked like gods, but couldn’t tell me what edify meant if I had asked. Now, every time I’m stuck I shout down the stairs. “I was asleep for the whole of second year History. I never really understood the Cold War. Could you give me a quick lesson, because Wikipedia is not making sense?” He always comes up trumps, and is never patronising.

I live on top of a hill. Perfect for the only muscle toning exercise my body every endures, and also essential for escaping the floods. I can also sing the song about being Queen of The Castle, even though our semi looks like it was built for a “Grandma’s House” style sit-com. Pebble-dash, Lido swimming pool blue paintwork (including gutters) and rice pudding coloured tiles. Not had a revival yet, but I’m waiting in hope.

Not living the dream – well, it could be a list of about a hundred things, but you’ve got me on a good day. I’ve allowed myself one:

My pelvic floor. I wish I’d realised that the exercises post childbirth were a necessity, not a choice. In fact, if it were a real floor, it used to be highly polished parquet and now it’s badly laid lino. I am that woman who has to contemplate whether to have a cup of coffee before heading out. I have learnt to hop expertly from one leg to the other. I have perfected the old woman hunch, the one that says, if I stand up straight, I am sure to pee myself. I have been known to fight small children out of my way on the race up the stairs to the only loo in our house. “But mum, I’m desperate.” I scare them off.”Do you want to see a 35-year-old woman wet herself in front of your friends?”

Love, peace, dreams, piss, jellybeans and a whole sermon from the joyous man from the Walworth Road, who for now will remain a stranger. I hope he boards my bus one day though.

Giving Ritalin a go

9 Nov

Me and drugs are a bit like oil and water: we don’t mix well. Or rather, the idea of us doesn’t feel very natural in my mind.

I did acid once in the mid-nineties, and nearly burnt myself on an imaginary stake in the heart of a bonfire, in front of a field of a couple of hundred people. Luckily, my best friend stopped me, carried me home, and calmed me when I was convinced that the Queen Mother was riding past my bedroom window on her horse, side-saddle.

Yes, I’ve dabbled. I’m about as cool as Louise Mensch though. The guilt and the general feeling of doom always gets the better of me. Having experienced the effects of my brothers’ heroin addiction when I was growing up, I find it hard to take a relaxed approach to drugs. Yes, they look fun, but I have always been more of a spectator than a participant.

Recreational are usually a no then, but pharmaceutical? In the last year I’ve probably downed the sum total of a blister pack of Nurofen and a couple of Temazepan I stole from my father’s medicine cabinet for a flight.

So when I went for an appointment with my daughter yesterday, and we decided, with the advice of the clinician, that she would start on a course of Ritalin it felt strangely unfamiliar.

I pretend to be an expert in areas I know nothing about, yet when it comes to things I should actually know lots about I am a complete ignoramus.

Take ADHD for example. I should know everything there is to know about the condition, because my daughter has it. I know very little though.

Ask me on a good day and I’ll be able to tell you that it has something to do with the deficiency of dopamine in the brain.

Ask me at another time and all the information I’ve ever learnt will have evaporated – I’ll give you some very vague description of the disorder. I might give you the non-abbreviated name and gesticulate wildly with my hands, to emphasise the  impulsivity and hyperactivity bits. Then I’d probably look you in the eye as if to say “You must know. Everybody knows about ADHD. Except me.”

Whatever ADHD stands for, or means, or how it is diagnosed, is pretty irrelevant to me now. I live with it. Or rather, I live with my daughter, and she has it.

Like so many other popular disorders (and I say popular because they often appear in soap opera storylines to give meat to the characters and don’t require extra budget or special actors) the condition is often used as hyperbole by people who have a tendency to over-exaggerate.

Those who might say “I wriggle a lot. I think I must have ADHD” might also be the same people who proclaim – after eating a chocolate bar: “OMG. I have got bulimia, but without the throwing up bit.” These terms, conditions, disorders, diagnoses or problems are sometimes real, and they are sometimes not.

With ADHD, who is to say? Unlike a diagnosis of cancer, there is no failsafe test. The rating score-sheets we’ve had to fill out over the years are not wholly objective. They cannot always be measured accurately.

But having been with my daughter since her birth nearly twelve years ago, it’s clear she can’t control a lot of her behaviour. She is hyperactive, impulsive, fidgety, unruly, often rude and at times uncontrollable. Those are obviously the hard-to-handle traits, and unfortunately they often overshadow the brilliant things about her. She is engaging, generous, bright, optimistic and entertaining.

Having received such exemplary care under the NHS at one of the country’s leading child and mental health centres for the last five years, I have slipped comfortably into the back seat: not out of sheer laziness, but because I trust the team that have dealt with my daughter implicitly. We have all been lucky. We know that.

The only thing that my husband and I have resisted has been the suggestion of drugs to help manage our daughter’s behaviour.

“We think Ritalin would be very effective in helping your daughter’s concentration.”

We batted that advice out of the room. We continued to support our daughter in all the other ways that we had been advised. The team continued to support us, and they did not pressure us unnecessarily to turn to the tablets.

We said no when the question of drugs came up last year. Actually, no thank you, because we are polite.

We said no thank you very much I think we’re OK thank you when our daughter was having issues with the transition from primary to secondary school.

We even said no after a period of really volcanic physical and emotional behaviour, where ‘fuck’ and ‘bitch’ and ‘fucking bitch’ and words that are too rude for the likes of this blog were shouted loud enough for the whole of Lambeth to hear; where heavy items were thrown out of frustration, and friendships and work at school were suffering. Why did we still resist drugs?  Because we didn’t really like the idea of them. If we were honest, we probably didn’t want to look like we were failing our daughter, or taking the easy option in the eyes of others.

But who were these others? My father, who has always said “You’re not going to go overboard like they do in the States and give her drugs, are you?”

Or the voices of people, usually not people I know, who didn’t agree with drugs being given to children in order to control their behaviour. Usually people who didn’t question anectodal evidence.

“Child turns into catatonic, compliant zombie after taking Ritalin. Bores everyone to death.”

And then, our daughter after all our gentle protestations, said yes. Yes please, I’d like to try the Ritalin. I’d like to be able to control my behaviour in class, and not answer back, and I don’t always want to be the one who is blamed for everything that goes wrong. I’d like to be able to make friends and keep them. I don’t want to always be seen as the annoying, over-excitable girl in school. And I don’t enjoy being rude.

And we, in turn, had to listen. Obviously the ultimate decision had to made by us, the parents, but when our daughter spoke up we had to question why we’d been so against the idea of Ritalin.

So we decided, after a consultation with the someone on the Neuropsychiatry team, that our daughter would start on a course of medication. Doses will be extremely low at first, and increased slowly over the coming weeks.

There will be side effects. We’d be mugs if we believed that drugs don’t carry such things, but hopefully they will be minimal and short-lived. She will be monitored, and if she doesn’t feel the benefits, she can stop at anytime.

I won’t be making excuses for our decision to try the drugs anymore, even if I’m only talking to myself. Ritalin is something that I might still be slightly wary of, but I am not my daughter, and for her they just might help.

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