Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The uphill struggle to parents' evening

There's this hill. It's over a mile long. I cycle down it to get to work (9 minutes). I cycle up it to get home (an awful lot longer).

Over the summer, I told myself that, now my youngest was no longer at Primary school and could walk to his new school, I didn't need to drive. What I needed to do was to get on my bike and tackle that effing hill.

And so, since the beginning of September, I've ping-ponged up and down said hill almost every day. Over the weeks, I've learned many things about the downhill run, including how to avoid the pot holes at speed; that skirts really can fly up in your face if you're going fast enough; and that, if you have your brakes on all the time, you will soon hear the shrieking of metal on metal, smell burning rubber and witness an occasional naked flame (which is not good).

It's the uphill part though, that has caused me most heartache. Literally. It's made my heart. Ache.

My first issue was: heat. September seemed to be full of blisteringly hot late afternoons, and as I laboured up the hill in my Granny cog gear, I would attempt to strip off everything I possibly could, without being arrested for Mum Nudity. I would go so slowly that sometimes, I would fall off. Literally. People walking - with sticks - would overtake me. My heart, which already has a hole in, would occasionally shout "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?" and tell me to stop. Which I did. But after a short rest, I'd carry on with the hill torture and battle my way home, usually pushing the sodding bike for the remainder of the hideous journey.

And when I got home, I'd immediately (in this order): drink a pint of water, say hello to my children, take a paracetamol, have a cold shower and lie down. For an hour.

Six weeks later and things have got a bit better. I still hate the thought of the long journey home, but I can do the hill in one sitting now, and this week, I actually overtook a walker. Although, to be fair, he might have been walking the other way.

So this brings me to tonight's shenanigans. It was Parents' Evening, and I'd ridiculously booked my slots far too early, giving myself 30 minutes to not only cycle up the bleedin hill but to make sure I was in some sort of human form when presenting myself as a parent to my kids' tutors.

I had to put pressure on myself. Today was the day when I was going up a gear.

But about twenty seconds after I'd gone up one gear, three things happened: 1. my heart appeared to beating so hard that it filled my whole chest cavity, and my throat, and may have been popping out of my mouth, 2. my breathing became so loud that it smothered the clamour of all passing traffic, including a tour bus, and 3. someone had rushed in and fixed invisible lead weights to my thighs, which were burning like buggery.

By this point, it was raining hard. My eyes were swimming, and my nose was dripping. There were various other 'ing' words that I really don't want to talk about. Every car that passed me gave me an additional soaking and I started to scream, "THANK YOU!" at the top of my voice to each one. The final straw came as a Range Rover overtook me and then turned left in front of me, into the gates of a local private school. "THANK YOU, YOU FUCKER!" I screamed as I wobbled around the bulky boot of the car - then realised that the driver had heard me and so cycled off at top speed (2 mph).

I eventually made it to the top, and checked my watch. Eight minutes before my appointment; my house was a minute's cycle away, and the school five minutes from there. I couldn't go straight to the school because, to be honest, I looked like a banshee and smelt like a cowshed. I needed to get home, wash, brush and go.

The race was on.

My road is two-way but narrow. Normally I wait like a good girl for traffic coming towards me but today, I was in full 'chicken-playing' mode. I was stopping for no one. So precisely 56 seconds after reaching the top of the hill, I was home.

There is no easy way to say this, but essentially, I gave myself a good mopping. Impulse was used to cover any latent smells. My helmet was taken off, a brush pulled through my hair, and then my helmet was back on. A quick 'hello, goodbye' to my eldest and I was off again.

You know when you thought it was raining hard, and then it really starts to rain hard, and you suddenly think, "Oh....NOW it's wet." That.

The road was flooded. Water was getting in the top of my boots. I couldn't look up because it felt like God was sticking crochet hooks in my eyes.

So after five minutes of blind cycling, I arrived at the school. I locked up my bike, and took off my helmet.

And as I walked in, I caught sight of myself in a the window. I looked like a cross between a tramp, a bonfire Guy, and a parking attendant (high viz, see).

And with this knowledge, I strode into the school hall, dripping, hand outstretched towards my tween's apparently terrified tutor...

Sunday, 5 October 2014

10 (alternative) tips on internet dating

Well, I've had one fairly successful internet date and obviously this makes me the world-renowned guru on the subject (it doesn't). More to the point, I have had more unsuccessful, dismal, disappointing, crushing dates than you can shake a stick at - so I thought I'd draw some positivity from this ultimately extremely depressing experience to bring you 10 alternative tips on internet dating.

If you've signed up to a dating website, sure as eggs is eggs you'll have googled 'tips on internet dating', 'safe dating' or 'find me an arsing boyfriend and be bloody quick about it'. Everybody's jumped on the bandwagon, offering nuggets of wisdom - even the broadsheets (see this article from The Guardian back in March). The same spiel will appear and re-appear: 1. be safe, 2. have a strategy, 3. market yourself ... etc etc, bla bla bla.

If you're teetering on the edge of internet dating, you need advice from someone on the ground. That's me. And here it is.

1. Choose your website carefully

Oh my effinglordy-ness. There are literally hundreds of dating websites out there. My view: paid ones are best. The very fact that you have to pay (sometimes quite a lot) sorts the wheat from the chaff. There are far fewer people on them, but the quality is higher. And the website that you choose will reflect the 'type' of potential partner on there; for example, Guardian Soulmates is (generally) littered with left wing, cycling musicians who are great at writing. Muddy Matches is its antichrist, a sort of right wing dating site for young farmers, which rates you in terms of 'muddiness'. Best not to ask.

But the point is, choose the site that floats your boat. If you're looking for an arty, introverted, vaguely depressed hippy - Soulmates is for you. If you prefer the Hunter-wellied, Hooray Henry with beagles, pop along to Muddy Matches. And there are shedloads of sites for anything in between. (Uniform Dating, anyone?)

2. Don't spread yourself too thinly

After much angst, you've put up your profile. You've 'Liked' or 'Winked' or 'Hoofed' (I just made that one up) some people, and they've reciprocated. You're in touch with one, two, three people. Now five. Now seven. And the feeling of being wanted, of being liked, is immense.

BUT. Don't let everyone have a piece of you. Think of yourself like a big round cheese, segmented up into 'time and energy'. Now, I'm a working single mum so, already, 40% of my cheese is devoted to work, and 50% to my children. That leaves a measly 10% for everything else, including meeting new people.

Be picky. Don't just keep seeing someone because they like you. If you feel the spark, keep going. If they score anything below a '9', make your excuses and head onto the next.

3. If they're new to the website, jump on them

It's a cattle market, no doubt about it. There is old beef that's been hanging around for months (sometimes years - I kid you not), so when fresh meat appears, it's a feeding frenzy. I'm exaggerating a bit, but if someone's profile appears and you like the look of them - get your oar in, get in touch and meet. ASAP.

4. Be brave and meet face-to-face, soon as.

I'm scared of meeting people. If I could, I'd live in a virtual world where I'd fall in love with someone via email. Words are powerful to me, but a meeting has the potential for disaster; I could get lost, I could trip over, I could have cabbage in my teeth, I could spill my wine down my front, he might think I'm ugly, he might notice the width of my thighs.... see? It's a wonder I get dressed every day. (I don't.)

The point is, this guy might be the best wordsmith in the whole of christendom, and yet face-to-face, he might do nothing for you. So. Words are lovely, important, they set the scene - but they are not real. Wrong foot him by suggesting a date early on. He'll be impressed.

5. Stay local and split the bill

I'm going to say something a tiny bit controversial, and make huge, overwhelming generalisations. Here goes.

People dating at our age, more often than not, have children. Generally, the children spend more time at their mother's houses, than their fathers. Therefore it is potentially more difficult for women to physically get out of the house and date; the children effectively create a barrier to meeting new people.

I am finding it hard. I have spent 18 months not going out, but now I find that I need a raft of babysitters on hand. I can't afford it (number 1), and number 2, my kids aren't happy with the sudden change. And neither, if I'm honest, am I.

But I can't stay trapped in the house until my kids are 18, can I?

So some sort of compromise has to be negotiated. If the guy lives in another town, ask him to come to your town to meet. This will save on valuable time away from your kids. If and when the relationship gets going, you can talk about how to work it out to make sure everyone is happy (and not left with an empty wallet).

But when you're on the date, split the costs. Please don't expect him to pay for everything; you are not Lady Mary and he is probably paying his ex wife an arm and a leg and is living in a bedsit. So offer to buy him a drink, and watch his face light up.

6. If you're nervous - tell him

I've learnt that nerves are ok - as long as you admit to them. If you don't say anything, your date might assume that dribbling/stammering/falling over/spilling your drink/uncontrollably winking are just parts of your multicoloured personality.

Saying that you're nervous is cute. And articulating it immediately makes you feel more relaxed.

7. Have a drink - but only one

I need a drink when I'm on a date. I just do. I have a glass of red wine - I don't care what sort - and it helps. It's not just the warm, comforting feeling that the alcohol gives me; it's the glass itself. The stem gives me something to fiddle with (probably in some sort of semi-erotic way, now I come to think about it), in a way that a normal bog standard tumbler of Diet Coke just couldn't.

If you're not driving, have another drink. But stop there. Do not get legless; terrible things will happen. You will reveal too much, physically and verbally; you will fall over on your way to the toilets; you will spit; there will be mum-dancing. There will possibly be flirting with the waiters, and a revealing of the long, sorry story of your divorce.

Two drinks is your absolute limit.

8. Check your teeth

Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman was right. Dental hygiene is key to a successful date. Look at your teeth before you get to the date, and during when he's not looking. Take floss, or those teepee sticks, with you. Bits in teeth are just..horrible. It's making me have a tiny wretch even now. *shudder*

9. Have a deadline on the first date

Set yourself a two hour limit on the first date, and come up with a great excuse why. Mine is concrete; my kids are just old enough to be left on their own, but only for two hours. And then I have to be back. This has the double-win of:

- if the date is awful, you've got an escape route,
- if the date is wonderful, you leave him gasping for more. Sort of.

Caveat: If you're going to be the first one leaving the bar, make sure that your skirt isn't tucked into your knickers. He will watch you leaving. Showing your arse at this stage is probably not a great idea.

10. If it goes well, resist the temptation to get in touch too soon

This, for me, has been the hardest lesson to learn. If I like someone, I am all over them like a rash. If I haven't heard from them within ten minutes, I text them, showering them with compliments, sending them links to jewellers shops, asking them about baby names.

Unsurprisingly, they get a tiny bit put off by this, and quite often have disappeared into the ether.

So I have learnt to sit on my hands. Literally - sit on my hands. My thinking now is: if they like me, they'll get in touch. If they can't really be arsed, nothing I can say will change that. So I do nothing (except for daydream of our wedding day - there will be red roses and confetti in the shape of hearts) and wait.

Good luck with your dates - I'd love to hear about them.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Eleven years isn't long enough

A boy in Tween's year died this weekend. He was eleven.

We don't know how he died, but there are rumours of bullying and suicide. The school is in shock, parents are holding their own children closer. We are all waiting for news.

And while we are waiting, we are thinking in layers. At the top: we try to put ourselves in the shoes of his parents and we can't breathe. It is too painful, and we withdraw from our empathy, glad that it has not happened to us. We have the advantage of being able to dip in and out of the terror that comes from the death of a child. Not so his parents, his siblings, his grandparents. We allow ourselves a minute to think: what if?

It would be hard to keep living.

And then, a layer below. Thank God our own children are alive. We hold them close. We talk to them about sadness, about the importance of sharing, of talking. Because we know it could still be them. We look at them in a different light; with a love that doesn't often come on a Tuesday tea time. Seeing clearly their young skin, their innocence, their potential for life. We feel lucky.

So lucky.

And then. The concern for the school, for the staff. If the poor boy was being bullied, and he did take his own life, there will be enquiries, fingers pointed. The school is a good school and the pastoral care is excellent, so what happened? Guilt will claw at the teachers - should they have done something more? But for now, there are too many ifs and buts. We may find out that the rumours are false.

And the last layer. A realisation, or a reminder more like, that life is finite. That we all end, one way or another. But we hope that we end in a certain order, with the eldest dying first, and the youngest last. We are all owed a good go at life.

Eleven years isn't long enough.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Internet Dating

So here I am, back on the internet, searching for love.

However you look at it, internet dating is an odd thing. I know it is practical, I know that everyone's doing it, I know that it doesn't carry the social stigma that it maybe once did. Even young people do it, for God's sake! But looking at pictures of people, like jars of sweets, and picking the ones that you fancy (literally) off the shelf - it all makes me feel a bit....shifty. A bit wrong. Sort of - on the wonk.

Surely I should be able to meet someone at work and fall in love? Oh, no, hang on - everyone is a woman where I work, apart from the MD (whose wife is a friend of mine) and a 26 year old man who thinks I'm his mother.

So not at work, then. Ok, so I should be able to go out to a bar and meet someone there! Shouldn't !? Ye-essss...except that the men you meet in bars in the over 40 bracket are of a certain type. Very lovely, I'm sure, in the dark and with their mouths surgically sealed.

That last bit was catty. Sorry.

Anyhoo, where does that leave me? Chatting up men in Sainsburys? (I've been tempted.) Joining the cycling club? (Yes, if I wanted a sudden heart attack.) Standing in the street with a 'lonely and desperate' sign? (Don't tempt me.)

So internet dating it is. Round one of my on-line dating experience was not a huge success; I met two guys - one was an accountant who lives with his cats in a mansion on the edge of a forest (bodies under the patio, anyone?), the other seemed perfect but texted after the date saying that he 'wasn't ready for a relationship' yet - having said that, he's still on the dating site 18 months later. And then he texted me looking for a job.


And then the boyf came along so that knocked things on the head for a while.

But now, boyf has told me that I shouldn't put all my eggs in his basket. I didn't really understand what this meant, as I only have one egg to put in one basket. I can't go round falling in love with multiple men (sadly), putting multiple eggs in multiple baskets - my thingy (psyche, feeling-maching-thingy) just doesn't work that way. So I've been extracting my egg from his basket and, now it's nearly all of the way out, I'm ready to re-house it. *shudders*

So far, so good. I've got a date tonight with a man who is good with words and lives fairly locally. Two big ticks. I have a mental list of questions to ask; 1. Are you an axe murderer? 2. You've never been married - what's the matter with you? 3. Why have you got a picture of yourself with a herd of alpacas on the site? etc.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

To the Scots

Firstly, let me say this. I am not Scottish. I do not have any Scottish heritage. I have a vague handle on how some of the Scots feel about the English, but only because I watched Braveheart and half listened in History lessons at school.

I do though, get that you're pissed off by being governed by a third party. And that you want to run things yourselves. For God's sakes, what's wrong with that? You are your own people, your own country. You are a proud race with a wealth of history and culture, and a strong financial centre that I'm in no doubt will weather any approaching storm.

But, oh God. I don't want you to go. Yes, I'm English and yes, I have absolutely no right to ask you to stay, but please - stay. I want to feel proud of your achievements like I do now; I want to shout and scream and celebrate when Andy Murray wins Wimbledon again (which he no doubt will). I want to revel in the Edinburgh festival, the best of its kind in the world. I want to be able to climb Ben Nevis, like I did when I was eight, and not feel like a visitor, an alien, in your wonderful country.

I want to feel part of you.

And I want you to feel part of England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. I know that it's a huge ask, given the shedloads of baggage that has come with the union and our past, but I want you to come down south - yes, to London - and revel in its fabulous side (because it's yours too). To show at least a flicker of contentment when Wales wins the Six Nations (it will). To celebrate in our joint successes in the Arts and Sciences. To share in our innovations and inventions, To help us keep our heads as joint Nations, when all around are losing theirs.

And finally. I bought this yesterday. Even though I recently learned that tartan does not come from Scotland, this to me is a little bit of the Highlands, in a bag. I mean, not 'in a bag', but just - 'a bag'. You know.

I love this bag. But if you leave, I won't be able to look at it for a while.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Last night was like a Miranda sketch

Looking back, perhaps I shouldn't have gone out and eaten alone. It was a decision influenced by my gut rather than careful planning. It was bound to go tits up.

Yesterday was odd, in that I had a blind date in the morning (I thought it went well, but he later texted to say he was seeing someone else. Fucker.). A lady came all the way from Birmingham to pick up some beads.

I watched Skyfall. That wasn't odd. That was bloody great.

By 6pm, I was hungry. After much discussion with myself, I decided I'd earned a takeaway, so ordered a Wagamama takeout. (I have never done this before.)

Off I went to Wagamama. When I got there, it looked so inviting that I asked the waitress if I could eat in. (I have never eaten on my own before. I don't know what came over me.) I was sat at the tiniest of tiny tables, flanked by single women pretending to work on laptops. I didn't have a laptop, or a paper - or anything, except my phone, which I immediately scrabbled out of my bag and started texting furiously. To no one, of course.

My food came and I thought how I brave I was to do this. How grown up I was. Look how I use my chopsticks, as if I really was Japanese. How....


Now, picture, if you will, the scene. I have noodle juice all over my face, eating alone. My ex is chatting happily to his girlfriend and I thank my lucky stars that a) she doesn't know who the bloody hell I am from Adam, and b) he is as blind as a bat and, even though he is standing but a few feet away, cannot tell the difference between me and the seven foot tall hairy waiter standing next to me. (Although this might be more to do with my lack of recent Immac-ing.)

Tween is always in his own world, has spied the menu and his thoughts are on food. But Teen has seen me. Teen's eyes get so huge that the encompass his whole face. His jaw slackens.

I go white.

He makes a little smile with his mouth, and the whole party sit down at the next table. My boys face away, my ex and his squeeze face towards me.

I slide a little bit under the table. I might have had a little wee.

My brain is overrun by parallel thoughts, by far the loudest being HOW THE FUCK DO I GET OUT OF HERE? But also in the mix is: Jesus, the boys must be embarrassed. This is the first time they've been introduced to her, and now they've got to deal with their Norman No Mates mother sitting behind them. And also, this: God, she's young. How must she be feeling? That's a tough gig. And: What in the mother of Mary does she see in him?


I text my friend. She doesn't answer in a nanosecond, so I give up on her, cussing. SOME FRIEND.

I decide to get up, nonchalantly, hoping against hope that I don't slip up, trip, fart, belch or cause any disturbance that would draw attention to me. I slide myself against the wall around the restaurant until I come to a halt next to a waiter. The manager, I think.

"Please." I hiss. "My ex husband has just come in with his girlfriend who is TWENTY YEARS YOUNGER THAN HIM and MY kids." A bead of sweat falls off my nose. "Please." Tears form in my eyes. "Help me."

The manager looks at me with pity. Thinking about it, he might have been studying my noodle juice. He takes me by the elbow. "I understand," he murmurs, "let's sit you at the back." And he pulls me to the back of the restaurant, sweeping up the remnants of my food as he does so and settling them back down in front of me.

I sit next to a couple who aren't talking to each other. I am desperate to tell them what's going on, but manage to pin my mouth shut.

"Would you like some water?" the manager asks. I nod weakly.

From my new position at the back, I have a good view of the merry party. My ex and his girlfriend are still oblivious to my little cameo performance, but Teen has told Tween, and Tween keeps leaning back and staring at me. I wave and smile, but he can't make me out against all the happy noddle-eating visitors.

It is better here, at the back, but now I am trapped, and daren't walk past them to leave. So I keep ordering more food in the hope that they will finish. Noodles, gyoza, cheesecake, coffee  - and still they were there.

I needed back up.

I texted my plumber friend who I'd enjoyed a small dalliance with some time back. I was supposed to meet him later but PLEASE could he come and rescue me? I gave him a potted explanation and sat back to wait for a response.

It came quickly. 'I'll be there in 5 minutes.'

My God. Six words have never been so gratefully received. And lo, after some more nervous phone-fiddling and cheesecake eating, he was there. Liked a much smaller, more Irish and less attractive 007. At that point, I truly loved him.

We laughed (O how we laughed!) about the situation and drank an awful lot of coffee, waiting for them to leave. They didn't leave. And he needed the toilet (I, dear reader, had gone earlier by mistake, if you remember).

He said, "Hide behind me", forgetting that he is two inches shorter than me and built like a twiglet.

It was never going to work.

So he went in front and I attempted to walk, camouflaged, behind him. He managed to hide about a fifth of my body behind his athletic (but miniscule) form. As we were leaving he stared at the girlfriend. Stared and stared. And he said:

"You are better than her."

And suddenly, it wasn't 'what I call' such a bad night, after all.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Writing a eulogy and having a burning new business idea

I haven't been able to write posts for a while. I haven't even been able to look at my blog - the stats, the comments, the 'Google shares' that I usually get so excited (or disappointed) about. I haven't been able to do much at all, really. Because this week, I've been writing my step mum's eulogy.

When I offered to write (and read) it, I had no idea of the time it would take. The emotions it would spark. The sleepless early hours, anxious that everybody who should be included. The crafting of emails to other grieving relatives, gathering in as much information as possible, from every part of her life.

And the gnawing sensation in the stomach, a reminder that you'll be reading this out, in front of your step mum's coffin, in front of everyone who loved her.

It is the most difficult thing that I have ever had to write.

It started like a wraith, a transparent, untouchable, uncontrollable concept that I couldn't pin down.

After hours of writing and scribbling out and scrunching up, it eventually became more tenable, workable, visible.  I eventually settled on a tone that I thought was appropriate to her, and my 'audience.' I felt that, when it came to the crunch, I just wouldn't be able to read out a mournful saga of how much we all missed her, what a cruel disease MND is, how unlucky she was to have had it - so I made it light hearted. I chucked a few jokes in. I talked about her sports car which constantly broke down - so much so that she became friendly with the local guys from the AA; about her disastrous first date with my dad, who only saved the day by sending her flowers afterwards; about how most recently she liked to join in the conversations of my disastrous love life, tapping out advice on her iPad 'text to speech' app, laughing.

I gathered in stories from her teaching friends about dancing the can-can at the Year 12 review, and going on the Big Dipper at Blackpool with her Year 7s.  About how, despite not being able to move anything apart from her hands, she ALWAYS beat us at cards.

It was only at the last paragraph, when I knew it was safe for me to break down, to blubber uncontrollably, that I could talk more emotionally:

Motor Neurone Disease is perhaps one of the cruellest ways to end a life, but A bore the disease with courage and spirit. She must have had dark days, but whenever we saw her, she was just ‘A’ - always bright-eyed, smiling, immaculately dressed. And when we remember her, we will think not of MND, but about that elegant woman with the fur collar and the long legs. The talented teacher. The card sharp. The do-er of crosswords and sudokus. The linguist. The lover of sea and sunshine.

We will all miss her.

Her funeral was yesterday, I read it, I cried, it's done.

And I got this from my Dad today, which made me cry again.

I was so proud of you yesterday.
I know how you were feeling, but you held it together brilliantly.
I had to keep my eyes closed – I daren’t look at you.
But everyone loved the Eulogy itself and the brave way you delivered it.
The catch in your voice at the end was noticed by the audience, and that for many was the crowning touch.
I was surprised but so pleased when D called for the congregation to applaud.
You deserved it.
Lots and lots of love

PS (Post Crypt): Crematoriums on Trip Advisor

On a different note: I've been to a few crematoriums in recent years and, by jove, they vary tremendously. Yesterday's - Lodge Hill in Birmingham - comes highly recommended. If they reviewed crematoriums on Trip Advisor, I'd give it 5 stars. The chapel really was like a little church - clean and bright and intimate. It's an enormous place with a lot of dead people rolling up, but we didn't feel pressured to get out or move on before we were ready. The graves and memorials were well tended.

In short, even though it was a place for dead people to come - it was very much alive.

The worst crematorium I've ever been to was in Luton. It was like sitting in a dusty school gym; cobwebs all over the ceiling, sparse, unloved. We might as well have been in an empty warehouse, sitting on crates. I thought: this is appalling. We are saying goodbye to someone who died in tragic circumstances, loved by so many - and the curtain that surrounds her coffin is stained by God knows what.

The deal is this, I guess. If you choose to go down the cremation route, you are funnelled to whichever crematorium your funeral directors work with. The local one. It makes perfect sense - except that, with other big events (weddings, for example), you can choose where you get married. The world is your oyster. And think about schools - you have carte blanche (almost) to choose which school your child goes to.

So why are crematoriums not reviewed somewhere? Why can't we choose where we're burnt? After all, most of us will end up in a crematorium sooner or later. I can see it now - " - plan your perfect goodbye".

Who's in?