Saturday, 31 May 2014

Three go mad in Devon*

(*and a bit of Dorset)

I've just returned from four days away with my boys. Four days. Not a significant amount of time. But I feel so tired, in a headachey way, that if you got any closer to me, I could quite happily vomit on your shoes.

When somebody asks, I shall say we all had a fabulous time. That the weather was not as bad as predicted; that we swam every day; that we slept really well. That the hotel was super, it was wonderful to see my family; that we would go back at the drop of a hat.

In reality, we did have quite a good time. My lovely Dad had invited us to join him, his partner, and my uncle in a wonderful Fawlty Towers style hotel down in South Devon. The average age of the clientèle there was around 85, so we stuck out like a sore thumb - but it also meant that the outside pool wasn't being used (despite it being heated). We spent an awful lot of time splashing around in it. In the rain.

Occasionally, an old person would come along and smile and make a good natured 'BRRRR!' face, and we would wave and smile back with our blue lips. Teeth chattering.


We also did a lot of this. Reading. This is Tween, by the way. One of the awkward things about having an anonymous blog is that I can't show you my family. His socks will have to do.

So I'm sure you're getting the idea by now. It rained a lot. And sadly, it wasn't that lovely heavy downpour followed by sparkling sunshine kind of rain. More like leaden skies and sour-faced holiday makers.

This sums up our feelings on our second day.


But rain we can cope with. You just put a coat on, and you're away! It's pretty warm at this time of year, and after a good, wet walk up a hill, you can reward yourselves with a cup of tea, a piece of cake, and a hot shower.

That's my favourite bit of a British holiday. The reward you allow yourself for getting through a shit day.

Anyway, it wasn't the weather that dampened our spirits (ho ho). It was sleeping in the same room.

We had a double bed and a single. I bagged the single, as I am old. So that left Teen and Tween to share a double which, in olden times, would have been fine. Now that, sadly, they are adult-shaped, it wasn't.

They fought. They fidgeted. They moaned. They went to sleep late, and woke up early. Tween talked in his sleep and took all the covers. Teen got a permanent headache.

The room was hot.

Yes, night times were hard work. And all parents know the rule of a crap night's sleep: One crap night = slight mardiness the next day. Two crap nights = potential meltdown plus headaches. Three crap nights = complete inability to use logic, aching bones and a potent wish to lie in your own bed for up to a week.

So by day two, we were snappier than a box of crackers. In an attempt to cheer the boys up, I said that they could each have a day when they chose what they wanted to do.

Tween chose a cliff walk. I was amazed when he said the work 'walk', thinking I must have misheard. But he had overhead someone talking about the number of cliff falls at this time of year and was hoping to witness one, I think. I did try to explain that, if you see one, and are on the cliff at the time, then you are likely to be an active participant in it - but this didn't seem to put him off.

So a walk it was and BY GUM! It turned out to be lovely. We strolled along the coast to Ladram Bay, the most enormous holiday village you have ever seen. That sort of thing is not really my bag (although the kids were slathering at it) but Ladram Bay itself is fabulous.
It's full of these red pillars of Otter Sandstone (more info if you like geology here). And the rockpools are glorious.

Here's the view from the top:
There's a great football pitch up here (bit worried about the goalie falling into the sea, mind you). On a clear day, the view must be spectacular; even on a grisly day, it was pretty gorgeous.

The next day, Teen picked a day out with steam trains. I knew he would do it, and still, when he said it, my heart dropped.

Teen is obsessed with trains. I thought he would grow out of it at, say, five years old - but no. He loves everything about them. How they're put together, how they work, the noise they make, the smell, the motion. He loves talking about the different gauges. The different lines. The different locos.

Believe me, you think you'd love a nice trip on a steam train until you realise you've got to spend it in the company of my thirteen year old.

Actually, we did sit with a rather charming gentleman who spoke like Terry Pratchett, and told us all about the pros and cons of UK steam trains. In a former life he had designed track layouts, and he'd come down from Bristol just to ride up and down the line a few times before lunch.

He had a fine beard and was actually rather handsome.

Sadly, I can't show you any photos of the trains because they all have a geeky Teen in them, grinning from ear to ear. But next to Buckfastleigh station there's a butterfly farm, which is always good value. And here's a pic of hanging cocoons and a hatching butterfly.


So. The final day was my day and I chose a trip to Lyme Regis. Having read The French Lieutenant's Woman aeons ago, and having a slight obsession for women in cloaks, I've always wanted to walk down the cobb and pretend to chuck myself into the sea. And it IS really romantic.  
The cobb - a harbour wall, I suppose - sweeps its way into the sea and finishes with a tumble of stones right at the end. When you're on the top, there's refreshingly no guard rail to stop you falling in, and rather alarmingly the floor drops away slightly so you're always tantalisingly off balance.

It's great, and a wonderful two finger salute to the Health and Safety brigade.

I was really enjoying myself, but the boys were reaching 8 on the moaning scale. I had a choice between pushing them off the cob (tempting) or paying for them to go into the tiny aquarium at the end. The nice man in the kiosk asked if I wanted to pay extra so that they could feed the grey mullet. Yes yes, I said - please, just take them away from me for ten minutes, or I will not be held responsible for my actions.

And, as it turned out, this little aquarium was a gem. The boys (11 and 13 remember, not tiny tots) came out with smiles as big as the cobb itself. "We loved it!" they cried, simultaneously. "We got kissed by the grey mullet!"

Feeding time at the aquarium was, it seems, a hit all round. A hit with the boys because it gave them an experience with kissing fish that they will never forget, and with me, because it brought everyone into a much happier mood. Marvellous.

Lyme is a cracking place. Even in the mizzle, families were building sandcastles and paddling on the town beach. The beach huts are gloriously bright and there are lots of happy faces, old and young. It's a cracking place to take photos and, I imagine when the sun's out, you'd be hard pressed to find a more gorgeous British seaside town.

The trip home was long. We were stuck behind hay lorries and tractors. Everyone was trying to get home, and getting cross about it.

Since that last paragraph, we've all been to bed early and slept in this morning. Now that we're replenished, we agree that it was a great holiday, despite the rain. Although it's hard to take your kids away as a single parent (and expensive too), it's definitely worth it. Memories like these will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

So if you think you can get away without killing each other, just do it.*

*Not sponsored by Nike.

(All photos taken by me. If you'd like to use them, please do, and I'd be really grateful if you could acknowledge me as photographer and link back to this blog. Thanks!)

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

I am not a wanker

Warning (although a bit late, I grant you) - SWEARS.

Every week, I try to get out for at least an hour's cycle. It's hilly where I live, so it's a bit of a challenge for an oldie like me to pedal up those hills. I get severe thigh wobble.

I was struggling up one of those aforesaid hills a couple of hours ago - no traffic behind me - when I heard two hoots of a horn. I looked up to see a guy, passing me on the other side of the road, making the universal Farage wanker sign. At me.

I don't think I was doing anything wankery. Admittedly, I was in my Granniest Gear, going slowly - slower than a slug, a sloth, a ... um... stick - but as he was belting it a bit, he wouldn't have known that. Could it have been what I was wearing? A pink top and yes, lycra trousers. Possibly. Some people who wear lycra ARE wankers.

But then some people are just wankers, aren't they?

So I don't think it was my clothing. And I don't think it was my bike or my bike helmet, either. Both are pretty old and crusty, not out of the ordinary. A bit battered. Sort of 'blend in', shabby chic. (Or just a bit shit.)

I'm at a loss. But I'm not that bothered. Because, on reflection, I suspect that the real wanker in this cameo was him. My evidence is this:

1. I was doing nothing wrong (apart from having wobbly thighs), yet he made the wanker sign. Conclusion: he must be a bit of a wanker.
2. He was speeding. Now I do, at times, speed. But on this occasion, my speed rating was almost negative. That is, crawling babies were overtaking me. In fact, it was he who was speeding. So I think that he's a bit more of a wanker than me.
3. He was wearing sunglasses, even though it was about to rain. I wear sunglasses sometimes, but generally only when it's sunny. His wanker rating is increasing.
4. His black BMW had tinted windows. I know someone who has tinted windows on their car, but I don't think that makes me a wanker. Now, I think, he's almost reaching the highest wanker categorisation of MEGA wanker.
5. He obviously hates cyclists. And the Wanker Rating of eleven is complete.

So I would like to present to the Blogging Community that it is not, in fact, I, who am the wanker. But rather the twatty, idiotic, arsehole who passed me when I was minding my own business, struggling up a steep hill.

I thank you. And goodnight.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Dancing naked in the rain

It was Saturday night. The kids were with their Dad. Boyf and I were in bed, listening to the rain. It was quite lovely.

"Let's go outside and dance in it," I said.

He smiled.

So we got up - buck naked and stone cold sober - ran downstairs like excited teenagers, unlocked the back door, and ran up and down the back garden, whooping. Then we held hands in the middle of the lawn and danced round and round until we were literally freezing our tits (moobs) off.

And then we went indoors. Soggily. Tripping over flower pots. Avoiding slugs.

Those six minutes of damp, ridiculous, squelchy bliss sum up the good bits of my life post divorce. The freedom, excitement, anxiety (my patch of grass is overlooked by a whole row of terraced houses) - love.

Thing is, I always wanted to dance naked in the rain. Just not with my husband. If he were to dance in the rain, there would have had to have been waterproof capes, safety tape and hot towels.  A 'Wet Floor' A frame warning sign. Emergency lighting. What am I saying? Even with those things, he wouldn't have danced with me; preferring instead to spend the evening watching How I Met Your Mother on loop.

(By the way, Boyf is less Health and Safety, more White Knuckle Ride. In rides a motorbike and gesticulates wildy at every boy racer who comes anywhere near him. This gets him (and us, if I'm riding pillion) in some scrapes, which I pretend I'm fine with - but wish I was at home watching How I Met Your Mother on loop. Post divorce, I am pushing myself to be braver in life, but really, conflict is not my bag.)

Of course, if the kids had been home, there'd have been no dancing naked in the rain. Even without the naked bit, the fact that your own kids were watching and rolling their eyes and thinking, "what twats" would have put the kibosh on the whole thing.

So we were lucky, that night. No kids, no slugs, no nosy neighbours (I think). Just two ageing, pale, slightly overweight people, jiggedy jiggeding around a tiny patch of turf. Catching cold.

Happy.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Empowering yourself after divorce

I have just bought a new lawnmower. It has made me happy.

I realise that this is not a typical entree to a female blog post. Substitute 'lawnmower' for 'handbag' or 'maxi dress', and you might not have blinked.  But this lawnmower has highlighted a really good thing about living on my own.

The mower used to be my ex-husband's department. Oh - I would mow the lawn (of course!) but if anything went wrong with it, or I was pathetic enough not to be able to start it, then my husband would appear like the shop keeper in Mr Ben. "Leave it to me. Fixing things is MAN'S WORK."

After we'd separated and I moved house, I somehow brought two mowers with me; the monster petrol mower which smoked like a chimney and was hellish to start, and a very old electric mower which had blades as blunt as spoons.

I'd been nowhere near the petrol mower as I feared I might manage to ignite myself with it, so I'd been mowing the lawn with the blunt electric one. I might as well have got down on my hands and knees and chewed the grass - it would have been quicker.

I was nervous about buying a new mower. Because buying tools is MAN'S WORK.  Just like I was nervous about buying a TV, and this tiny notebook computer.  But listen ladies; I've realised something. That men actually don't know much more than us about technical stuff. How can they? Technology is changing so rapidly that they couldn't possibly keep up - unless they watch The Gadget Show on loop. (I'll admit here that lawnmower technology might not be moving quite as quickly as TV gadgetry, and that my argument stalls a bit.)

Anyway, I did the research and bought a mower at a reasonable price and guess what? IT ONLY MOWS THE BLOODY LAWN!  I can't believe it - it actually cuts the grass, rather than just wrapping it around the blades and pulling it, a bit like a lazy spaghetti eater.

So I'm really rather pleased with myself. And I'm using this lawnmower moment as a metaphor for something bigger.

I wouldn't class myself as a hardened feminist, but it's important for women to not be scared of having a go. Don't know how to change a lightbulb? Ask someone! (Preferably someone who won't laugh too long and too hard.)  Printer broken? Call up the support number, and if it can't be fixed, buy a new one! Do the research first and find a good one. When you bring it home, follow the instructions and install it yourself.

You certainly can teach an old dog new tricks if the old dog wants to learn them. And it's incredible how empowering it feels when you realise that you can do all of these things. Quite easily, actually.

So what's next? I really should learn how to change an inner tube so that, when I next get a puncture, I don't have to rely on the good heart of a passing motorist to give me a lift. And the other thing I'm going to do is go abroad and drive on the wrong side of the road. The right side of the road. You know what I mean. Previously, this was MAN'S WORK and, as a consequence, I'm scared sh*tless of doing it.

Donc. Je vais au St Malo pour conduire comme un idiot.

Adieu, mes amies... à tout à l'heure.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why write?

I've been having some interesting conversations recently with my boys, teen and tween, about the merits of Literacy. They are both Maths boys, and every so often ask, "Why do we spend so long on learning how to write? I am going to be a games designer/programmer/something techie that hasn't been invented yet - so why bother?"

English teachers must get this all the time.  I bet they've got a pithy, funny, one-line answer stored up to shut up the clever dicks. Something like, "So you can write to Father Christmas asking him for lego Batman every year." BOOM! or "So that you can fill out your P45 when you're sacked from MacDonalds" PAZOW!

So far I've failed to give a pithy answer. The best I can come up with is - imagine a world with no writing. With no books. No emails. No movies (no scripts, see). No newspapers. Learning at schools would change completely. How would you sign up for anything? Our road signs would all change. You couldn't program computers. And computers run almost everything.

Teen thought about this for a while and said, "So almost everything would go if you didn't have writing."

Bazinga.

I've always loved writing. I'm not particularly good at it (fishing, obvs) but I find that it brings order to my fractured mind. This blog has that effect. My scattiness seems less so when I'm writing; I feel a bit like Dumbledore when he draws out his memories with his wand and puts them in the bird feeder - sorry, memory pool. Except that with me, it's pulling jumbled up thoughts out of my head and ordering them (ish) onto a page.

I've come to a bit of a crossroads with the blog, as I've been offered (and taken) a commercial agreement, a partnership of sorts. This is really lovely, and I'm over the moon, and of course hope that this is going to enable me to buy that Greek Island that I've lusted after for all these years.

Obviously, I'll be lucky if it buys me a Twix.

I have two scenarios. Scenario 1: My blog suddenly starts getting thousands of hits and yes! Some people even leave comments. They all click through on whatever sparkling ad is on my page (probably Everest windows, or Tampax, or something like). My commercial partner spots that things are hunky dorey, and asks me to write a few one-off articles which, of course, are received brilliantly - particularly by The Guardian (or more likely, Take a Break magazine). Whoever it is, they pay me a huge up-front fee to do...well, not much at all, because they are so impressed with me, they're just happy to have me around.

And I buy a bigger house that we can all fit in properly with windows that don't leak. And I give up my day job.

Scenario 2: I earn enough to buy me a Twix.

So - why write? Not, in fact, to earn money. But to sort out the sh*t in my head, to try to trigger that creative brain cell into some sort of action, to get feedback from other writers.

And in fact, to keep the world going round.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Madness of an Unhappy Marriage

Tween is Y6 and is being subjected to SATs (Stuffitupyour Arse Tests) next week. But after that, the class will go on a five-day residential to what looks like a glorious 4 * hotel in the middle of Devon. The hotel has a pool and wonderful grounds, and they only share two to a room (not the normal 34 squeezed into ranks of bunks, dorm-stylee).

How do I know about the hotel? Because the school organised a meeting for parents about it.  But here's the thing: I almost didn't go, because as Teen had done the same trip two years before, I thought I knew all about it.

It was only when I sat in the meeting, I realised I knew nothing. That I'd missed Teen's meeting. That I hadn't known anything about where he was going. That I hadn't really cared.

Because he went two years ago, when the unhappiness of my marriage was tightening round my neck.

At the time, I thought I was functioning pretty well. That I was holding things together, getting kids to school on time, filling in paperwork -I was on it. I knew that I was struggling internally, that things were coming to a head, and that I couldn't seem to concentrate properly on the smallest thing, but I thought that I was still a caring mother, and that my boys were coming first.

They weren't. I don't suffer from depression, but I guess this is the closest I've ever got. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that a sort of madness had taken over; a new logical order (that was never really logical). The priority for me was to find a way to make my own life liveable again. I became very selfish. And shamefully, my own children took a back seat.

I was shocked when I realised all this, in a lightbulb moment, the other day. Ashamed that I can't remember the Teen doing his SATs tests at all. Hopeful that I was sympathetic and encouraging. Teen did extraordinarily well in the tests, but now I'm wondering - was that despite me, rather than with my help?

And this train of thought led me on to my own experiences as the child of a broken marriage. My parents split up when I was 14 and, although I always felt loved by them both, the sense of direction that they had given me up to that point immediately vanished. They were taken up with trying to make a success of their own lives, and I was left to find my own way in the world.

It's taken me two years to work this out (I don't have a therapist but boy, if our cat could talk...) and I feel that I'm almost back on track to being a proper parent again. Priorities have changed; finding a man to lavish me with pretty things (and buy me a plane) will have to take a back seat - for now. I was offered more hours at work recently and, although I could really do with the money, I think it's right that I should work shorter days so I'm there for the boys at the end of the day.

I feel I've wasted that precious time with them. I won't make the same mistake again.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Mum's gone off her trolley

Let me create a delightful family tableau for you.

I am sitting on the bog. I've been constipated for a while, but I can feel that things are beginning to move in a very slow and creaky fashion. I am in full concentration. A slight sheen is appearing on my top lip. My knees are trembling.

Suddenly, my teen bursts in and shouts, "BOO!"

Concurrently, my heart stops, puppy's nose backs off back to his basket and I let out a whopping, "WHAT THE FU...BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING?"

This is a short sentence but let me assure you that the full wrath of my monstrous feeling was felt, as my teen physically baulked and then ran for his life.

Once I had calmed down and I'd actually found that this surprise had done the world of good for my bowels, I thought about the times that my own mother had flown off the handle at me when I was a child. There weren't that many - fewer than ten - but I remember them all as if they were yesterday. They are pinned inside my head and, I'm sure, are the cause of one or two of my slightly odd adult behaviours.

Here are just a few.

1. Knitting needles.

It was evening. Mum was knitting and I was practising backwards gambols in the sitting room. She asked where I'd been that afternoon. "To see Robert O'Riordan", said I. "Hasn't he got chicken pox?" she asked. I looked at her, blankly. "Yes - and he's all spotty." Smile. Silence from mum. I go into backwards gambol routine and suddenly "WHACK!" - a pair of knitting needles are thrashed across the backs of my thighs.

It bloody stung.

"YOU IDIOT!" There was much screeching. I was blank - I'd heard chicken pox wasn't that bad, and surely I was going to get it sometime, so it might as well be now? But no. I hadn't thought. My brother was about to do his 'O' levels, and he'd never had The Pox. Bugger.

And lo! The pox rained down on me, and lo! I was shut in my bedroom for 10 days, with trays of food left by my door (literally) until the pox receded and I was pronounced clean.  And more to the point, my brother remained un-poxed, and went on to study at Cambridge.

He owes me one, that boy.

2. Spaghetti Bolognaise

This is probably the most clearly remembered incident. It's a simple tale of being allowed to take tea - a nice heap of spaghetti bolognaise - into the sitting room to eat in front of the telly. Being told to be very careful. And then tipping it, by mistake, all over the (thankfully pale orange) carpet. Watching it slip off that plate in slow-mo, knowing that I. Was. For. It.

I remember going back into the kitchen, legs shaking and voice wavering, telling mum what I had done. I remember her face. I cried. She shouted. She wailed. She scrubbed with a green kitchen cloth. The cloth disintegrated.  There was stainage. It was awful.

3. Kate Bush

Mum loved Kate Bush. She had her first album, Lionheart (vinyl of course) and played it regularly. I think she considered herself an ethereal Legs and Co type, eternally on the lookout for her Heathcliff.

One day, out of the blue, she called me and my brother into the sitting room (it's that room again - the room of doom). Her face was grey with anger. Through clenched teeth and tight lips, she hissed, "Who...has...scratched......KATE?"

My brother and I looked at each other, panicked. All I knew was, it wasn't me. We both shouted out, "It wasn't me, it wasn't me, it wasn't me!" - both thinking: well if it wasn't me, it had to be him (her). Neither of us admitted to it, and mum was apoplectic. Her anger had raged to new Wuthering Heights.  "It's not just the scratch - IT'S THE LYING!" We were sent to our rooms for what seemed like weeks (probably just til tea time).

To this day, we both still deny it.

We think it was Dad.

4. Uncle B on the phone

Mum called Uncle B, her brother, on the trim phone. My brother and I thought it would be great larks to pick up the extension in mum and dad's bedroom and make farting noises down the phone. Hearing Mum say to Uncle B, "Oh dear, it sounds like we've got a crossed line," made us dissolve into fits of hysterical giggling. Sadly, we were so busy having a fabulous time that we didn't notice that mum had hung up and was making her way, with elephant footsteps, up the stairs.  Suddenly we realised that we were doomed, and that there was no escape. I clearly remember her bursting through the door and looking like a character from a Roald Dahl illustration - one of James's wicked aunts, perhaps, in James and the Giant Peach, all thin and stringy and deranged.

My brother got pretty much all the blame for that one. I'm not really sure why, but it must have been because a) he was (is) the oldest, and b) my mum and dad thought that little girls couldn't make farting noises, as only petals came out of their mouths.

5. Eggs

Of all of my mum's rages, this is the one that I thought most unfair.

I was helping her bake a cake, aged about eight. She asked me to separate four eggs.

Now. As we all know as adults, separating a yolk from an egg white can be seriously difficult. If it's important to the success of the project (ie, you don't have spare eggs) - you do not give this job to an eight year old who has never done it before.

I made a hash of the first egg. Mum didn't notice, so I thought I'd try again. Bound to have more success, I thought. Sadly, a stubby finger in the yolk meant disaster number two. And a further two eggy messes later and suddenly, the eggs were none eggsistant.

Mum, who had been busy mixing, suddenly noticed that the eggs were mushed, and went ballistic. I can't remember exactly what was said, but let me tell you this - I am now the best bloody egg splitter this side of Bristol. You will not find a more competent separater than me.

As I mentioned before, I feel particularly aggrieved about this egg episode because I feel I didn't have adequate training to do the job in hand.  Thinking about it, this may have been a key factor in my decision to pursue a career in Personnel.

I told myself then that, when I was a parent, I wouldn't take things like egg squishing too seriously. That I would let my children make a mess, make mistakes, waste things whilst learning. And laugh it off with a simpering and slightly 1950's "Oh darling, you are funny, and haven't you done well? Let me clean that up fo r you."  Of course, I don't manage to do this, but I give it a go, and generally manage to catch myself before turning into the Hulk and strangling one or other of my kids.

So. If this was a moral tale, what would the final words be? Something like this: Try not to fly into a rage at your children. It might not be their fault (though it probably is). New eggs can be bought from the shop. Spag bol is the same colour as an orange carpet. People generally recover from chicken pox. And even another Kate Bush can be sourced - probably in the bargain bin.

Worse things happen at sea.