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?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

After suffering comes relief

Last Friday, my step mum died of motor neurone disease. Actually she died from respiratory failure, caused by her ever-weakening lungs shutting down. She was, in fact, lucky in death; after a morning of struggling to breathe, her GP gave her a sedative, and she died in her sleep.

That very morning, she had said to my Dad that she didn't want to go on any more.

Her daily life and been hard. She couldn't move. She couldn't talk, or swallow. She couldn't lift her head. She'd lost control of her saliva production, so dribbled constantly. She'd become incontinent.

But her brain was still functioning perfectly normally. And there lies the cruelty of the disease; she could see exactly what was happening to her.

My Dad, who had become her carer, is grieving. He is heartbroken. He has seen the woman he loved being ravaged by a disease, eaten away. And now he's in the strange place where most of him is consumed with sadness, but a small part of him feels relief - and guilt for feeling this way.

She was a quiet and dignified lady. With no children of her own, she and I formed a close bond. She was a brilliant grandparent to my two kids.

We will all miss her.

The timing of her death coincides with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. ALS is what the Brits call Motor Neurone Disease. It's wonderful that the Ice Bucket Challenge has taken off, and I understand that it's raised £250,000 for the MND Assocation, and around £34m for the ALS equivalent in the States. That is an INCREDIBLE amount of money for relatively small charities.

Who knows? The Ice Bucket Challenge may lead to a cure to this horrendous disease. A washing up bowl, some ice cubes, a tap. And a cure to thousands of peoples' suffering.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

24 hours

In the past 24 hours, I've gone from loved one to singleton. I've called the police. I've been to the dump to get rid of mouldy confidential files and a rat's skeleton.

What a difference a day makes.

You may remember that my ex's wife has some issues with me (this is an understatement). Their break-up two years ago was messy; he told me his marriage was over, and we started seeing each other; unfortunately he hadn't let his wife in on the deal, so when she found my texts on his phone, she chucked him out.

All very understandable.

He told her at the time that he was going to 'find himself' and try to make it as an artist, on his own. What he actually did was take a quick trip to Paris, take some photos, then came back and carried on with life as usual. Seeing me.

This did not go down too well with his wife who still - for some unexplainable reason - still loves him. She refuses to admit that he has done wrong, preferring to believe that I cast a witchery spell over him, Morgana-stylee, and lured him into my arms with my mermaid's lyrical singing. And fishy smell.

Her hatred of me is immense, and she goes through spates of texting me poisonous nuggets; some of which are filled to the brim with astonishingly crude swear words, some refer to me as 'it', some make no sense whatsoever, some are threatening and - once - an apology. Her last crop of texts winged their way to me last week, whilst I was camping with the kids.

I feel a whole range of emotions for this woman. Guilt, obviously, for the part that I have played in the break up of their relationship. Pity too, for a woman so in love with a man that she can't see he has treated her like shit for years (I am not the first affair). I feel like shaking her, trying to open her eyes to what he has done to her.

But she won't see it.

The empathy I feel for her has stopped me from responding to any of her texts, because I feel, in a way, I deserve them. It is a whipping, a punishment. But recently she overstepped the mark by threatening me, and after that one, I texted her telling her that, if she did it again, I would approach my solicitor or the police.

She did it again. So I had the conundrum of what to do when a naughty child oversteps the mark again and again - do you follow up on your threats? Of course. You have to.

My solicitor recommended I approach the police and so, with some trepidation, I completed the '101' form online. Within half an hour, I had a response asking me to book an appointment with an officer, or come into the station. The nice lady said it sounded like harassment, or 'malicious communication'. Within another hour, I had a text saying the same thing.

Blimey, I thought. They were certainly taking this seriously.

And then the phone went, and it was the boyf. And in a nutshell, he said he wanted a break from me until Christmas, because he's realised that he needs to 'find himself' like he said he was going to, a couple of years ago.

I thought: Fuck You. I said: I'm not waiting for you.

I didn't sleep very well. I rolled around and thought of all the effort I've put into boyf, into managing his depression, into keeping our long distance relationship alive, into punishing myself with his wife's texts. And increasingly I thought: You Utter Shit.

At 8am this morning, my local beat PC called. He was concerned, he said, and would like to come and see me. I explained that I had just been chucked, and that I thought this would mean the texts would stop.

Oh dear, he said, you've not had a great 24 hours, have you?

He made me laugh. And cry. I just about stopped myself from asking if he was single (that bit was hard).

And my day was topped off by work. I'd been tasked to clean out the 'corridor of doom' (such is the importance of my job) and I found such delights as a rat skeleton, many hairy spiders, pigeon poo by the gallon and several extremely long worms. As well as kilos of mouldy financial material.

And now I'm sitting here, knowing logically that splitting from the boyf is right, good and proper, but feeling that my heart is breaking.

It is a bit shit.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Top five tips for holidaying as a single parent

We've just come back from a week's camping in Wales. Well, I say camping - we stayed in a yurt and it was as luxurious as camping can get. A proper bed for me, a stove and a grill, a log burner and a compost loo, too.

I took the boys there last year - my first outing as a single parent - and the welcome couldn't have been warmer. Not only from the campsite owners, but from the other camper families who took pity on me the minute they saw my ashen face.

We had an unexpectedly glorious week then, and our repeat visit was just as enjoyable. I'm learning as I go, though; the first trip held some unexpected challenges (extremely cold nights, essentials left behind, the issues of all us of living in a confined space) which I'm almost getting to grips with now.

Here are my Top Five Tips for holidaying as a single parent.

1. Pick somewhere low-stress. For me, this means staying in the UK. I cannot be faffed with going to the airport with the kids at 3am, then stressing at the other end about buses or hire cars or making myself understood. I am a worrier, and I know my limits - but if you're laid back, and can enjoy the journey as part of the holiday (lucky bastard), then by all means, travel far afield with the kids. If you go abroad, consider going 'All Inclusive' so there's no cooking or washing up needed.

2. You'll be madly packing for your children, like you always do. But don't forget that this holiday is for you, too. Pack items that YOU will find useful, even luxurious. My tip for this year: a camping chair to take to the beach. Previously I'd have been happy to sit on the wet sand and watch the kids in the sea, but this chair - plus the addition of a five pound wind break - made going to the beach an absolute pleasure.

And while we're on the subject, don't just make packed lunches that the kids like; treat yourself, too. A really nice soft drink for you, or a proper coffee from the beach shack. If you like to read a paper, then buy yourself a blummin paper. Get the kids involved with the Codeword puzzle towards the back.  And then, when it's been read, get the children to scrumple it up, and burn it on the camp fire.

3. Go somewhere where you'll meet other families. You might love the thought of being in total isolation with your children (quick question - are you mad?) but I would advise picking a place where your kids will find friends to play with. It's a balance though, isn't it, because my worst nightmare would be to end up in a crowded hotel and surrounded by screaming children. *shudder* 

Choose well, Yoda, because you are going to be stuck there for a week or more.

4. Do things with your kids, but if you need some separation from them, don't be afraid of seeking out things that they would enjoy doing (whilst you have a snooze). Last week, I booked the boys onto a bushcraft course for a morning. They did a similar thing last year and, to be honest, they were a bit moany about going. But I knew that, if they didn't go, the probability that I would melt down through lack of sleep and space was high. So I twisted their arms a little and actually, that time apart did us all the world of good. (And they enjoyed it too.)

Conversely, book activities that you can do together. I booked Coasteering last week. If you haven't heard of it before - it is not really a suitable activity for a 43 year old woman. It is three days on and I still can't really move.

It's all about exploring the coastline - by climbing up craggy bits and jumping in, bobbing about in caves, clambering over barnacled columns and eating seaweed that tastes like Pizza Express doughballs (TRUE STORY). I absolutely loved the thought of it, but hadn't really realised how physical it was - the jumping in was fine but you had to climb out and back up again and that, ladies and gentlemen, is hard work for someone with a bigger than average bottom.

Anyway, the point is, we did it together, cheered each other when we'd done something brave and helped each other when we were struggling. I even saw my teenager (13) being chatted up by a group of 17 year old girls. Which was an odd feeling - pride and horror and joy and sadness all in one roly poly lump.

5. If you're holidaying in the UK, plan for wet weather. And the cold. Seems obvious, but the first year we went I had been led astray by a particularly good batch of weather beforehand, only to be pelted with a full day's rain when we arrived. This year, we packed lots of board games - but they were board games that we all liked to play. Our particular favourites are Dominion and Ticket To Ride - but we also like Settlers and Carcassonne, too. I'm afraid I won't let them take Monopoly or Risk (suppresses screams). I'm talking boys here: take balls. All sorts of balls - tennis, foot, soft, bouncy - whatever you can lay your hands on. Plus bats, rackets, stumps, frisbees.

And hoodies. As many hoodies as you can shake a stick at. Or something.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: don't put unnecessary strain on yourself. If you are cooking, take lots of packet rice, pasta and sausages. This is not haute cuisine week. They will survive if they don't get their quota of organic artichokes for a few days. Get the kids to share in the chores, and if they're old enough, show them how to make you a proper cup of coffee in the morning (I'm not joking). Keep your sanity through any means.

If you can do this, you and your children will have a fabulous time, wherever you are.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A mother of no one

And as I sit in my church on Remembrance Day, listening to the roll call of the dead, the same surname is read out. Twice. Brothers. And suddenly I have become their mother, on the doorstep, with my hand out, accepting the telegram from a boy on a red bike.

I am shaking.

Other mothers in the street have opened their doors, solemnly. Children have stopped playing. I cannot stop crying. Part of me has been ripped away.

And as a solemn trumpeter plays the first two notes of The Last Post, there I am again, 100 years ago, opening the same door, to the same messenger, and a very similar telegram.

I am walking to the kitchen and notice how the dust shimmers in the sunlight. The clock appears to have stopped.

I cannot believe that a God I trusted has taken away my beautiful boys. That a King I serve has sent them to their deaths. That my youngest, barely a man, was hit by friendly fire, killed by his own men. And that my eldest, so tall and proud, lay now in pieces on barbed wire somewhere in Belgium.

I am not allowed to shriek and wail, because other women in this town have suffered too, and they have born their pain with dignity and silence. But I want to die. I want to be with my little boys. I want to touch them again in what I think is heaven, feel their sweet cheeks on mine just once more.

I am still a mother. But a mother of no one.

God save the King.