Saturday, 31 March 2007

A normal Saturday

Well the day off was nice for me, but it was a usual Friday night round here. When we got back last night the police riot van is out again and I'm earwigging in the local Co-op waiting with my two pints of milk about the bloke reported with a knife. Mick says he wasn't peeling his apple with it.

Then at 6am this morning some git tried to break into the house, so Mr Pod says, who comes in as Burglar Bill is trying the front door we all share to our flats here.

I'm not sure by Mr Pod's account whether Burglar Bill had already smashed up the lobby by then, but it was certainly smashed up when I got down at 8 for the newspaper. The large mirror's all over the floor in sharp jagged pieces and my lily vase is smashed. Burglar Bill's stood on the children's basket where they keep their cloth bags for the Co-op and he's broken that too. The bottles for the recycling are rolling about the floor, and the cushions from the seat are soaked in something which might be a wine spillage from a near-empty. Or it might not be. The door handle's been pulled off and rubbish is scattered over the front garden. Mr Pod says Burglar Bill was rat-arsed, and probably won't remember anything. So I won't expect a tenner through the letter box then, by way of apology and the price of a new vase.

This is one of the penalties for living in Smalltown. We get a beautiful big house, a secret garden, the full Victorian grand scale of high ceilings, delicate fireplaces and wide wooden floorboards, and for it we pay with Burglar Bill, the riot van, and a monthly visit to the police station.

Now Grit's depressed, and about to hit the police website again to report another small incident of vandalism in just another day in Smalltown.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Grit's day off

It's another day off for Grit today. We're with Jol and Am, locked in the downstairs toilet probably, until it's time to prise Shark, Tiger and Squirrel away from Am. Even before we arrive I have to promise that we'll go again.

In the evening we're onto a disco party in the Methodist Church hall where the ladies can get tipsy on Ribena and make an exhibition of themselves on the dance floor before falling over and bursting into tears.

Fortunately I am equipped for that part of the day and have a handbag-sized bottle of wine in the car. I will smuggle it in for the disco bit and drink it from the cup on my thermos flask so that everyone thinks I am having green tea. Knowing how dreadfully wrong things sometimes go for me, I bet I get spotted and grassed up and the police will arrive along with the Methodists whose hall it is, then it won't be a day off at all, it will be a night in the police cells and the children in care.

Of course the day could go swimmingly well, and nothing goes wrong at all. In which case, it will be a lovely day. And thank you for having us, Jol and Am!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

The au pair

We have a good idea. Now that we've moved all the bedrooms round in a complicated manner so that we are living across two separate flats on two different floors of our old Victorian house, we have a large room spare. For about a month it's been a playroom for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Their aeroplanes and castle are there, along with their dressing up clothes, and an old mattress for trampolining. But it would make a splendid room for an au pair during August. I can imagine it: there'd be space for a bed and study table and the en suite bathroom would help create a private space away from us all when we all become too much and au pair becomes home sick.

This isn't exactly a new idea. For the last few months Dig's been cruising about au pair websites and has even subscribed to a few. So now we have up our family profile and au pairs who may be interested send us links to their CVs. The theory is, we eye them up, make a judgement, interview and employ.

It sounds simple, huh?

The first judgement we made some time ago was that a good proportion of potential au pairs may be spammers in disguise, throwing out links to their CVs regardless of a family's profile. For example, in our profile we've written that an au pair would have to cope around triplets; please bring French, Spanish or Italian into the house; we'd prefer vegetarian, non-religious, and we don't want smokers. Because of visa requirements and our need to interview before appointment, we state we can take someone only from within Europe, and preferably within reach of an Easy jet flight. If it all goes horribly wrong they can be back home to mum within the day.

In the first batch of responses we get a half dozen links from au pairs in Mexico, three from the Philippines, a deluge from Eastern Europe, a scattering from Thailand and a ladyboy from Korea with a phobia about babies. When we get the ladyboy link I reckon someone's having a laugh. When I click through, I start to revise my opinion on that.

The second judgement we make is that a large proportion of potential au pairs do not see themselves as others do. We click through to Marlene in France who claims she's a non-smoker. There's her photograph, with a cigarette dangling from her fingertips. We click through to Angelina in Italy who claims she's a vegetarian in Section A and by Section B lists in her recent interests a meat cookery course.

Our third judgement, sadly, is that many of those who say they're interested in working with our family are simply unemployable by us. There's Beth, presently in the UK, who says she likes the sound of triplets and is an Evangelical Christian who believes it is her mission to bring all to Christ. I'm sorry? Are we likely to employ you, Beth?

Of course if we're going for unsuitable candidates we might choose Sylvia who says she's a practising nudist but for us not to worry because it doesn't get in the way of her doing the vacuuming. Or Elsie, who believes in discipline. Then there's 30-year Evie from Latvia who provides a photograph of herself wearing a Santa hat and writes 'I am in the police'. Alexia seems promising but says she'll only come over if we let her boyfriend stay. Or Clara, who wants a full salary with two zeroes at the end of each week, plus use of the family car at weekends and four days off a week to go to the gym. We could choose Stephan, of course, who says he wants to work in a family where there are no children. Or perhaps Augusta would get on well here. She says she's a perfectionist and a mess in the house gives her panic attacks.

But we've perservered. And today we're in negotiations with Sasha, who might come to see us for a day when her university exams are over. Sasha is a German native speaker who works 'in a centre where blind people help educate a dog'. So we need help with German, and she needs help with English. She may come over in April. If she does, I'll let you know. And you never know. She could be normal.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Never put soil down the toilet

Everyone's got their windows open today, enjoying the sunshine and fresh Spring wind. I've chatted to Anny, the neighbour, and Shark, Tiger and Squirrel have been playing in the garden under the trees. In the few five and ten minutes they have popped into the house to gulp down a fruit smoothie, complain about a sister, fetch a plastic bowl or have a wee, we have learned the words soil, boil, coil, foil and oil.

Shark says that the word oil is also in the word toilet. 'You are absolutely right!' I applaud. Clearly, my daughter is a genius, and may publish her first novel by age ten.

Later, when I haven't seen Tiger, Shark or Squirrel for some time, I do my rounds, just to check that Tiger isn't lying flat out dead under the blackberry brambles while Shark says 'We told her to come and get you mummy', or that Squirrel's not locked herself in the little play house at the bottom on the garden and is screaming her head off in there because she's just turned round and found the cat that someone lost last October. But nothing's wrong. Everyone's fine, making Roman cities in the mud, and populating the Circus Maximum with toy unicorns. I wave to Anny, and think what a lovely day it is; just how home education should be.

Then I come back up to the house and go into the bathroom. Now, how do I describe the scene that meets my eyes? There is no delicate way. Inside the toilet bowl there is no ceramic visible. The sides are etched in black, with what looks like unmoving rivers of black slime making no progress into the bowl. The long black chains of slime cannot make any progress because inside the bowl there is what looks like lumps of grey and brown, with tiny black seeds mounted atop. Thinking this has come out of someone's bottom, my first response is to bellow 'Oh my God!' at the top of my voice. It's as the words, 'Get a doctor!' are forming in my synapses that it dawns on me that this is not any ordinary bottom-made soil, but garden soil, complete with mud, rotted leaves and ivy seeds.

There's only one response now called for. Burst through the door into the garden in a fury, tea-towel waving, index finger out, shouting to a startled Tiger, Shark and Squirrel, 'Do not put soil in the toilet! And under no circumstances are you to experiment with toilet, soil, oil or foil!'

This is why, once a year at Christmas, we get ourselves on our best behaviour, get out the bottle of port, and invite the neighbours round. I want them to see we can be normal.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Birthday party

We've been to Hele's birthday party. This was not fun. Hele is aged fourteen and is an anorexic. She weighs 50 per cent under her body weight and had just come out of the hospital having had her organs drip fed with nutrients because she can't chew.

The first thing I noticed about Hele was not her body weight, because she was all wrapped up in layers of clothing, probably freezing to death despite the warm spring day. It was her gaze. There wasn't any of it in any focused way. She looked spaced out as if she'd been taking drugs, and so she looked off into nowhere, expressing nothing, having no feeling and no focus. Then because of her strange sliding eyes I noticed her face. The jaw bone was visible and sharp, as was her nose and the bones that emerged around her eye sockets and temples. Her thin wispy fair hair fell in straight lines about her. It looked as though some of it had fallen away. She sat, slumped in a chair and, like someone watching something horrible, I couldn't take my eyes away from her. I studied the vertebra in her neck bones and my eyes traced down to the bones making up her fingers. My eyes sought a curve in the line of her jeans. It looked as though there was nothing but a cut away shape and a shadow inside.

Perhaps I should have been respectful and not stared; I have no business in Hele's life and she may have resented the intrusion, had she noticed me gazing at her across the room. But as I watched her skeletal movements, the only emotion I felt for her was anger. I was angry that in her relentlessly selfish way she had brought this terrible happening to herself and to her family.

I watched myself, perhaps, in ten, perhaps six year's time, watching Shark, or Tiger, or Squirrel from across the dining table. I know what their excuses would be. 'I've eaten already, you didn't see.' 'I had a banana earlier and I'm not hungry now.' 'I don't need any food, I don't feel like it now, I'll eat later.' 'I don't fancy this, I'll make some soup for myself at tea.' 'I'm going out now, I'll eat while I'm out.' It would all be lies, of course, and I would know it and they would believe them. They really would eat soup at tea: hot water and a stock cube. They really would eat later: a bite of banana, spat out after seconds with the skin left on the worktop for evidence and the rest in the bin.

I was angry at Hele and angry at myself and gripped with fear for Shark and Tiger and Squirrel. So when the birthday cake came round and Hele melted away to the toilet, afraid to see the plates shared out and people eating, I made sure that Shark, Tiger and Squirrel ate every morsel, and licked the crumbs from the plate too.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Not going

Well, we're not going to the art workshop then. Although I've pleaded with the organiser, I've clearly cut no ice. There are no spaces, probably. That's probably just an excuse. The real reason is that, like dragons, there be triplets here. Triplets take up too much room and too many places. Triplets are odd. They are an eyesore. We are all strange. Nobody wants us. We are unloved. I'm going downhill fast and the only destiny I can see is to drink heavily and die in loneliness.

And I'm not going to forget how it started. When the children were born, or rather wrenched from Grit's old body which was then pushed on a trolley into the Recovery Room where it promptly succumbed to shock and didn't recover for six weeks, one of the nurses cheerily sang out 'That's it now! You won't be going anywhere with these three!'

At that point I made a resolution. I would go anywhere with these three. I got so many bees in my bonnet about it that even the bees had bonnets with bees. I was a campaigner for triplet rights. 'No child shall be denied access to anywhere' I would start off, then with a dramatic pause and a deep inbreath, 'Because she has a sister!'

The first battle was the library. Now who's in charge there? The children's section is on the first floor and the lift to all those lovely children's books is a service lift, secreted away in a dark corner. It doesn't like buggies. Buggies are too big. There is a big commanding notice to leave the buggies downstairs. This is because of the buggy wars that start when irritated mothers and screaming toddlers are elbowing each other to have a go at the lift which will cram in your big buggy but only maybe if you strap Joshua in and tilt everything to the left by 40 degrees. I think the staff probably mopped their brows with relief when it was discovered by accident that the service lift could accommodate one standard wheelchair, but no fingers on the wheels. A shopping bag dangling from the back or the side and you were out and up the stairs, matey. But a triplet buggy? No way.

So I determined as part of my campaign that we had a right to baby storytime at the library and we were bloody well going. First stop, the lift door, and a minor public demonstration. Second stop, the desk and a loud demand for help which was met, as expected, with the old lemon sucker drawing in her lips before telling me tartly that she couldn't possibly leave her rubber date-stamp and I'd have to find someone else. On that occasion I did find someone prepared to carry Shark, a bit uncomfortably at arm's length, but it got us to the first floor. Then I found I had to make a big fuss about floor cushions. Apparently the library staff keep them locked in a cupboard because the children play with the zips and that's probably a heath and safety hazard so Mrs-Make-A-Stink just leave your ruddy babies rolling about on the concrete floor. Preferably near the stairs.

But campaign on cushions aside, I felt the point about the lift was made. Nearly. After the first week, I carried two babies in car seats and one in a sling and used the stairs, loudly, on principle. On the way up I shouted to the desk staff below about how I couldn't fit in the lift. I got in everyone's way on the stairs thanks to the wide berth with a car seat in each hand, so that was a bonus.

For the next couple of years the feeling that we were a nuisance didn't really stop. The staff at the local Tesco staring at me pushing both a trolley and triplet buggy when they could have so easily helped; the bloke in the car park who pipped his horn angrily because it was taking me an age to vacate the parking space; the scowling woman who pushed us out the way, tutting loudly, on our first outing; the constant battle with doors and steps; the National Trust custodian sending us out; the shopkeeper who shouted 'Can't you leave it outside?'; the museum staff who said 'You're not bringing that in here'.

But those days are mostly behind us. Either we're no longer a nuisance, or we still are, and I don't care. Occasionally I'm reminded of our messy, sprawling status as we occupy too much space, too many places, with not enough toilets and lifts that are too small. And so it is with the art workshop. Three places in one go. That's an awful lot of places to give away to a messy family who would probably make a nuisance of themselves and look an eyesore anyway, what with the home-cut hair and the state of the mother.

There's another art workshop in a month's time. I might email the organiser and ask for three spaces; I'll start off, 'No child shall be denied access to anywhere because she has a sister!'

I might get an email back. And if she tells me to shove off I'll go into full campaign mode and get the buggy out.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Koalas do not ride on cars

I have a confession to make. When we were driving through Koala Land in Australia (we are still grateful, Aunty Dee, for posting the driving licences), we saw a lot of koalas up in the trees. I joked to Shark, Squirrel and Tiger that koalas were so lazy they sometimes dropped out of the trees onto passing cars below and, in this way, hitched a free ride. When the car passed under a low-lying eucalyptus branch, the lazy koala grabbed the branch and lifted themselves off the car. So the koala we're seeing down the road is probably the same koala we saw up the road, and this is why they're called drop bears.

Dig pulled into a layby and I got out the passenger side and, before opening the children's door, very quickly drew some smudged circles in the dusty car rooftop with my finger. As the children climbed out I shouted 'Look! Five lazy Koalas have hitched a ride on the car!' Now at this point I expected Squirrel to laugh, Shark to give me a kick, and for Tiger to shout 'Mummy rubbish!' which is what they do when they suspect me of spinning a yarn. But they didn't. They believed me. And they believed me so completely and with such delight that I couldn't then say 'Actually I'm lying my back teeth out.'

So we have come home with this belief, that five koalas hitched a ride on the car. And whenever, like today, that some poor unfortunate engages them in conversation about what did they see when they were in Australia, out comes the story that five koalas hitched a ride on our car. And I can't say over their little excited voices, 'That's rubbish! Of course I made it up!' So I say nothing. The listener looks confused, looks at them, looks at me inanely grinning, and wonders if we're all mad.

Enough is enough. I'm confessing. I made it up. Shark, Tiger and Squirrel, one day when you read this, you'll discover your mother is a fraud, a fake, a liar and a fantasist.

Anyway, I meant to say three koalas. Five could never fit on a car roof.

Saturday, 24 March 2007


Back at work today. First on my desk ready for typesetting is a book edited by Dr Pee.

Dr Pee is a slimy git and I have thought a lot about the best way to take revenge. I have cruised around, late at night, on revenge sites, trying to create a perfect strategy. I considered a dead fish through the post, but this would be hard on the fish. I'd have to interact with it as well, so Dig would ask, 'Why do you smell of haddock?' and then I'd have to fess up that I was posting it to Dr Pee. Dig would go bonkers and that would be that. And then what do I do with the haddock? Put in the bin? Trisha, the neighbour's cat, would think it'd died and gone to heaven come bin day. More thinking needed. And a tin of sardines didn't seem to have quite the same impact.

Then I thought Dr Pee might be a bit of a puritan, and probably properly married, so I thought about a packet of fishnet tights with a lewd message stapled to the top, delivered to his home address. But that would be revenge on his wife, and I don't want to take revenge on her. She already has to live with the slimy git and I reckon that's torture enough for anyone.

Of course any revenge strategy has to be remote. Everything's done by email or post or phone, so I never see Dr Pee. Only once. Within five minutes he could see I wasn't necessary to his peer review process and he ignored me. This is a trait I've noticed in academics. They mostly fall into two categories. Not all, of course. I believe there are some genuine, inspiring thinkers and doers who work hard at exploring their discipline and at communicating with colleagues and students. They probably never get past lecturer grade. Because to rise up the academic hierarchy, I think you have to be one of two sorts. Dr Pee is the former.

Dr Pee is an empire-builder. These people gather round them a set of sycophantic cronies and build up a complex interwoven area of study which, if they're lucky, develops into a sort of sub-discipline in its own right.

For example, Top dog 1 creates a niche area of research, and invents a few new terms along the way. Crony Dog starts to build his career about this new area, probably doing supportive research or a few menial back-office jobs to ingratiate themselves, and in this way they'll lead up to a co-publication. Crony Dog 2 sees a few advantages in this, as do Crony Dogs 3 and 4. Suddenly there's a movement, or a group, and they start to weild a bit of pressure on publishers, who, sniffing something new in the academic world, start to give in to a few demands. Top Dog is gaining a wider reputation, and more and more Crony Dogs are building their careers out of it all. Everyone jealously guards their patch. Stray onto it and it's the 'Is he one of us?' test. If you're prepared to do service, grovel appropriately, and look after Top Dog, you're in.

The second type of academic sometimes grows out of this group, or you can find them independently operating. They are vicious. They augment their own arguments by undermining the arguments of their opponents, sometimes using personal attack, snide insult and outright abuse to get there. For them, life's a battle, and they probably consider themselves to be gladiators and think the rest of us should be polishing their armour or fetching more lions. If challenged, they'll puff out and start off with huffy stuff like 'In all my 25 years of academic publishing, I have never been asked to...' what they claim they have never been asked to do is probably check their own artwork or obey the requirements for publication.

So I'm sitting here, grumbling to myself about academics and wondering how to exact revenge on Dr Pee, and not on Dr Pee's wife. Poor cow. Any revenge strategies gratefully received.

Friday, 23 March 2007

A new decision

Right. Fourteen helpings of strawberry ice cream later. I have reached a new decision. I'm going back to the gym.

This has been prompted by two events. The first is the awareness over the last 24 hours that I have eaten rather a lot of ice cream. And it has to go somewhere. I already have an enormous backside that follows me about. I get through the door first, and two minutes later it's following. I'm going to get the stairmaster onto it next week. That'll fix it. Then there's the wobbly legs. The bike's heading their way. And one of those big plastic balls they keep at the gym. That'll help with the waist which disappeared in 2000 and which was replaced by a few spare tyres sitting squashed together. It's not pretty. But it is all going to change.

The gym is a wonderful place and I love it. Getting there is difficult, because I have trouble leaving the children. I know the moment that I leave the house then Shark, Tiger and Squirrel will be running wild, neglected, unfed, turn feral, fall out, fight, drink poison, need a hospital, stab each other by accident or fall out of a window. All of these disasters would be prevented if only I had been close by. But if the only available adult apart from me is in China, or slumped in front of the computer with only a click finger on a mouse to tell me that they are still living, then I feel I cannot leave the house to go to the gym. So I don't go.

But when I can go, it is bliss. People who do not go to a gym think it is all about being body conscious, pumping up muscles, taking steriods and showing off your shorts. This is not true.

For a start, if I feel like having no exercise whatever then I lie on the exercise mats and watch the Jeremy Kyle show on trash TV. I can do some pretend cycling while I listen to 1980s music, then I can loaf around in the sauna or by the swimming pool. I get to wear an old tee shirt and battered leggings which are the height of slob fashion. The gym provides me with towels, shampoos, creams and scents and nobody takes the slightest bit of notice of me.

This is the best bit of all. Nobody bothers me. Nobody comes to check up on me or asks me what I'm up to. Nobody is shouting 'Mummy Mummy Mummy' or telling me that she's been hit by her sister with the puffin. In fact, I don't feel obliged to do anything, or speak to anyone. The only thing I reckon is not acceptable is to sit on the exercise bike set at level one in front of the Jeremy Kyle show eating a packet of crisps. But I bet if I tried it, no-one would say anything.

And on the days when a bit of gentle exercise is called for, like after fourteen helpings of strawberry ice cream, then there's the pretend bikes, the pretend rowing thing, the machine which has funny paddles for feet and feels like you might be skiing or underwater walking, the stairs which go up and up and up, the machines which have touch-screen TVs and radio access, and the big plastic balls that you can roll about on.

Well, why next week? Why not tomorrow? Well, my return to the gym will be helped by the second big event. Next week Nanjo is coming to stay. And when Nanjo comes to stay, everything becomes possible. Getting out to the gym will be stress free because Nanjo will be looking after Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Dig will be slumped in front of the computer as usual, and Nanjo will be ensuring that no-one is starved, turning feral, stabbed, shot or falling out of a window. And if this wasn't enough, she'll be doing educational activities and the children will be learning things. Bliss. So next week I'll be pretending to cycle, watching Jeremy Kyle, I won't be worried, and the backside might even shrink a bit.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Grit is on holiday

I'm taking a day off.

Actually I'm feeling a bit sick right now.

I have eaten rather a lot of ice cream, and it is time to lie down.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Ice cream

I have been into town with Tiger and she forced me to buy an ice-cream maker. She dragged me to John Lewis and marched me up the escalater. I did not even get the luxury of standing there, sagging over the handrail while I get carried upwards and can rest my ancient feet. No. I get told to get up the stairs jolly quickly or there'll be trouble.

And if that wasn't bad enough she whizzed off to the cookware department on the second floor and found the ice cream makers and refused to move. In fact she stood there and shouted loudly to the coffee demonstrating woman that she needed some help with the ice cream makers and be flipping quick about it because she has another appointment in half an hour and this time she's not going home without one.

After about five minutes of Tiger shouting and the coffee demonstrating woman looking a bit uneasy, a nice young man arrived and Grit, sorry, Tiger, demanded that he told her all about them, and what you do, and how you can make delicious chocolate ice cream, and you can use soya products too, you don't have to use any of that cow-killing stuff if you don't want. Then Tiger started drooling a bit and grabbed one in an unseemly haste, dribbling, 'It's mine and I'm going to have it. Get your hands off it.'

Within ten minutes she'd forced me to pay for it and then marched me back down the escalators to get it home. I did not even get a chance to hover about by the faux fur throws and gloat about the fact that I got a John Lewis one on ebay for a tenner, and absolutely gorgeous it is too, if only Shark would stop rolling about in it pretending to be eaten by a grizzly bear.

Now we're at home, and I'm going to give Tiger a big telling off about behaving so rudely in John Lewis, and especially about pushing in front of the old lady at the queue to pay so she could shave five minutes off the time she could get back home and unwrap her new lovely present to herself.

But first, I'm going to make ice cream.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007


I'm meeting a lot of teachers at the moment, one way or another. And it's making me feel very grumpy.

I'll say two things up front. One is that I have taught, and one day will post up the stories I have about the children I met. The children were delightful, horrific, profound, naive, all on the same day and usually at the same time. The second is that I'll never return to teaching in schools. Of the teachers I meet I cannot understand why they teach in schools at all. Are they mad? loyal? desperate? caring?

If I met some of these teachers as ordinary people, I would probably think they're interesting and inspiring human beings. But the moment I know the people I'm meeting are teachers, something goes wrong in my circuitry. My hackles go up, along with my top lip, while my voice goes down and gets slower, and I growl.

The first teacher I met today was Mrs PO. She's a special needs teacher. I guessed it instantly, before anything was said. She'd grown into those rounded shoulders, the sort of shoulders that say, 'I'm not threatening; look at me. I just want you to sit near me. See me as your friend.' She said nothing (another special needs trait), evaded most eye-contact (probably in case it was going to be interpreted as confrontational) and smiled. A lot. She immediately reminded me of the special needs teacher that Jay had. Jay, aka The Dinosaur, was a kid at school who got that name for her resemblance in face and actions to, well, a dinosaur. My lasting memory of Jay is when she shouted 'I'm a dinosaur!' and threw her chair at the wall in the middle of my lesson on black civil rights. Off she went to the special needs department. Miss Pee, with the rounded shoulders and the battery-powered smile, always managed to calm her down.

Next I meet the stern Mrs Teech. Mrs 'I'm taking no nonsense from you, young lady.' She never smiled at all, but said a lot and looked intense. She also never really made eye contact. She had a way of looking at me without engaging with me. Probably because after 15 minutes I'd given her such a hard time and pissed her off so much she couldn't bear to be in the same room as me but couldn't send me out in the corridor either.

Then there was the head. I've noticed there is a breed of primary head teachers, grey-haired women, size 16 to 18, double chinned, Marks and Spencer clothing, who look like they should be something in Betterware but lost their way. I think these head teachers are made in a factory, quietly, somewhere in the country, then rolled out in container vans to schools up and down the country.

Actually, every primary head teacher I meet reminds me of Mrs A, who threw me out of her primary school two days after I'd joined. And I wasn't aged five either. I was aged twenty-eight, and I was doing an observation in her school before joining a PGCE course. Naturally, one bears grudges.

So that's three teachers I've met, and all in one day. And I think that's enough.

Now I'm going off to shout at the children, demand that Tiger puts her books away neatly, ask to see Shark's writing practice from today, and quiz Squirrel on her two times table, because she is still rubbish at it. If she doesn't get it right tomorrow, I'm keeping her in at playtime.

Monday, 19 March 2007

The Magic Kitten

I've had to read The Magic Kitten. I had to read it to the very end, even though by Chapter 6 the children were puzzled and wondering where the nasty lions had gone, and even though by Chapter 3 I couldn't stop putting on ever-more ridiculous reading voices. No, we had to finish it. I insisted.

Our verdict? It is rubbish. Penguin, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You've produced the reading equivalent of a bag of E-numbers.

Now I'm going to have a bit of a rant, so if you don't care for rants, please don't read on. But I've got to say these things. I've been set going by this utter drivel.

First E-number, inducing confusion, is the plot. It starts with the Prologue. Here we're introduced to a battle of good and evil between Prince Flame (good) and Uncle Ebony (evil).

'Oh good', all us innocent readers think. Apart from Uncle Ebony's appalling name, presumably given to try and side-step accusations of stereotyping or to disguide a lack of imagination (it fails to do either), we might, in the coming book, witness this battle of good and evil. We might be stunned by an intense tustle of wills; fatigued by a combat between magic forces we can barely sense; perhaps even see a few furry cat claw scratches between Flame and Ebony as they battle to the bloody death.

Well, do we? No. By Chapter 4, we all realise the author has tricked us and betrayed us. There's a bit of jumping about on country lanes in the dark (dramatic tension), seeing a van (spooky, obviously), turning into a cat (surreal), and taking a picture of some criminals poaching deer (the UK's top criminal minds are now shaking in their boots). What a disappointment.

The second E-number is the character of the hero, Prince Flame. In the dramatic start, Cirrus, the advisor to Prince Flame tells him, 'Go far away. Grow strong and wise. Return then, to claim the Lion Throne and rid the land from this terrible evil'.

Well, does Prince Flame fulfil this command and go to gain this strength and wisdom through his experiences in the plot? No. First up, he turns into a fluffy kitten and goes to live on a farm. Second, he does the washing up (because he is a magic cat, of course). Third, he cures the wonky leg of a horse. Fourth, he turns his keeper, Lisa, invisible. Fifth, he nicks a chocolate cake from the local shop. Sixth, he seems to turn Lisa into a cat. Seventh, he can make her finger glow. Then he pushes off back home to his kingdom (location unspecified).

Now how do any of these fulfil that promise in the Prologue? Did we follow his emotional and physical growth into a Lion leader, and see his qualities of wisdom and strength being tested? No. Actually these experiences are there merely to help get his keeper out of a spot of bother with the deer poaching.

The third E-number, inducing drowsiness and dulling of the brain, is the routine, predictable, stereotypical characterisation. We've already met Uncle Black. Sorry, Uncle Ebony. That was a warning. But when we got the Romany grandmother, Violet Wood, (Romany, note, not any common-all-garden gypsy), guess what? She lives in a proper Romany wagon, all decorated with 'fancy carving', 'red and yellow wheels' and 'shiny pots and pans' inside (seen one of those on the country lanes recently?). Granny wears a shawl and she wears hooped gold earings. Well I never would have guessed.

The fourth E-number, inducing hysteria, and a possible side-effect of fitting with laughter, is the policeman, Mike Sanders. He's an E-number all on his own. Now I've lived in a rural area. We visit family who live in a hamlet. And nowhere, not ever, have I ever seen a jolly policeman walk along a country road. Well he does in this book. He walks. Through the countryside. Now which planet does this author live on? Does she share any reality with any of us? Here comes Mike Sanders again. He's popped down to the stream now. Look, he has a twinkle in his eye when he's ticking off the local scallywag.

Fifth E-number. Language. Inducing mind-breaking tedium. If we get another twinkling eye we'll all go mad. How many times can any author use such expressions as 'with a twinkle in her eye' or 'her eyes sparkled'? My goodness, I wish my eyes could twinkle and sparkle. We all sat round practising. After five minutes we all looked like we had eye infections.

I could go on. Penguin, put up a good justification why this drivel should waste paper. Will it be economic? Or will it be that you believe this is in some way improving the reading ability of my children? How much of this stuff do parents have to put up with? I'm almost inclined to start a campaign, Adult Readers Shout Out Against Literary Crap for Children.

But the last word goes to Squirrel. 'It wasn't too good. It had a nice name and it had a nice subject but the writing was rubbish.' That's for the agent who took on Magic Kitten. Squirrel's aged seven. May she be your critic for years to come.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day, apparently.

I have two cards, each decorated with scrunched up tissue paper to resemble flowers. Both are cut out in the shape of the word MUM. This makes them look like the design of a floral tribute for the deceased. Quite frankly, they are horrible, and remind me of nothing but funeral flowers and the day we cremated our mother. This card design is the brainchild of Art Teech, and has done nothing to improve my judgment of her.

Intrigingly, we can only find two cards, although three were painfully made. As usual, Squirrel has lost hers, or put it somewhere, and can't remember where. She's always defensive about this, and says that squirrels do not forget where they put their acorns; the magpies take them. I don't put too much effort into looking for it, and she doesn't think it's worth the effort either.

Then Dig telephones. He's away, lecturing on commas. He says that first class on BA is better than business class, because they have the good years on the wines, and follows it up with what a tough life it can be when there's no one to greet you at the hotel. Anyway, he doesn't wish me happy Mother's Day, and by then I've forgotten, or put the crematorium out of my mind.

The day's slipping by, unregarded, when Oo rings up and sings 'Happy Mother's Day' in a big, bright, cheery voice. Oo is brilliant, and has style, and does not do things by halves. And she is the only person I know who has more bizarre disasters befall her than me.

Oo tells me she's sitting in a cafe, having left home for the morning. She's ripped up her Mother's Day flowers. She says she felt it was her privilege, having bought them for herself the day before.

Now I can't really explain Oo, because I feel she should do that herself, if she ever had a mind. But I would love to read Oo's blog. It would be a different order of magnitude from Grit's, I can tell you. Where our car breaks down, Oo's car blows up. While we deal with an irritating can opener, Oo's tennant is smashing up her house. While we sulk about the local school, Oo gets a place at one of the UK's leading institutions, marches in, and complains. The woman definitely has style. And as she describes her latest disaster, and we laugh, it's a tonic, and I start to feel less funerial.

So I start to cheer up a lot after Oo's call, and make Mother's Day fruit salad with mango. I put on Cuban dance music and get the children to dance around the kitchen with grapes on their heads. In the evening we do special things, like setting the table with the best place mats and lighting the candles. When the fruit salad comes out, the children think Mother's Day must be very special indeed. And they're right, it is now.

Thank you Oo for redeeming the day! (And please blog!)

Saturday, 17 March 2007


I've ripped the effing clock up. I've come into the office, ripped it into bits, scattered it all over the floor and jumped up and down on it, pulling my hair out and gnashing my teeth. I would set fire to the pieces now but I'd burn down the house. Perhaps its worth it.

Sod this home education lark. We're all going back to school. I'm taking a crap job again as a crap teacher in a crap school with a crap head and I'm frog marching the kids down to the local crap sink. They'll be dressed in black and white and hate every minute of it but HA! at least they'll know what an effing minute is.

I'm feeling a bit better now. I'll explain.

Squirrel, Shark and Tiger are learning how to tell the time. Now, I accept that as a family we have a general problem with lateness. So the children are starting off with a congenital disadvantage here. Neither me or Dig can be on time, early, or in any understanding of the word, 'punctual'. It's just our predisposition. Words like 'deadline' mean 'start point for negotiation'. Expressions like 'on the dot' mean, 'we'll be fifteen minutes late'. Anyone who deals with us would be advised to lie about the start point for events. If your show starts at midday, tell us it starts at 11am. I won't mind. You are doing us a favour.

I'm not taking all the blame, mind. It's the clocks.

All the clocks in the house tell different times. I've counted them up now. We have fifteen clocks. Three are in a drawer. One of those is still ticking. Yesterday, Shark said 'There's a strange sound coming from the drawer.' So we all stand round, listening, wondering if it is a bomb. The idea that it might be a clock in a drawer doesn't occur to any of us. It crosses my mind that it might be an unexploded warhead Squirrel has found in a field, brought home undetected and shoved in one of her nests. But no. It's a clock that Tiger made last year. Then I remembered. I put all the home-made clocks in the drawer because I couldn't stand the ticking. It was like living behind Big Ben. I've disarmed the warhead now by taking out the battery.

Six of our clocks are attached to the walls. One I took the battery out ages ago because it was a very loud tick and anyway, the minute hand was always getting stuck and just jumped up and down when it got to number 8. The other clock, facing it, is five minutes slow. Which I take into account when I look at the one in the kitchen, which is three minutes fast.

The rest of the clocks are scattered around on various electronic items. The oven clock is the best. Since the oven door fell off, I wonder if there's been consequential damage, probably from the enormous amount of heat which rises up everytime we try and bake potatoes. Anyway, it does its own thing. Last week it was trying to tell me it was 27:80.

So perhaps, what with the genes and the realia resources, I am at a disadvantage in trying to teach the time to Squirrel, Shark and Tiger. But I've tried. And not just today, either.

I've pointed out all the different times on all the different clocks. We've looked at pictures in books. We've moved plastic hands round plastic faces. We've made our own clocks, as the evidence shows, in the drawer. I've drawn lots of clocks over paper plates. I've drawn a half-metre-high clock on the big blackboard. We've watched clocks on platforms, in airports, and at the dentist. We've done tell-the-time jigsaws with Thomas the Tank Engine, tell-the-time jigsaws with Pooh and Tigger, tell-the-time with Peter Rabbit, tell the time with effing sodding Bunny and all his effing Pixie friends.

So it's not surprising I'm becoming a tad frustrated on this one.

Take today. After an hour and a half of watching the minute hand on the clock tick round, pointing it out, writing down its movements, looking at our paper plate teaching clock I made this morning, explaining the big hand, the little hand, the minutes, the hours, the seconds of the terrible toiling progress of those dreadful hands, tick-tocking their way round the Alice in Wonderland clock face, I'm foolish enough to wonder if any of it has gone in, perhaps just this once.

'What time is it?' I ask Shark. The big hand is pointing to the 2 and the little hand is pointing to a fraction past 5. 'Two minutes past five' Shark says. So I get up very quietly, come into the office, and rip up my paper plate teaching clock. And I look over to the office clock. It's stopped. Now, where are the matches?

Friday, 16 March 2007


No grit in Grit's day today, thanks to a lovely afternoon with Jol, eating and talking and drinking coffee.

So no grit there.

A grit-free day, then.

Except trapping my finger in the car door after parking it in a panic at Waitrose where they charge you £2 to park the car unless you buy some strawberry smoothie and a bucket of fruit.

And discovering the dishwasher's contents after getting back from our day out. The dishwasher is energy-saving, so doesn't use any water. Or, possibly, any energy. Clearly the new way of using this remarkable appliance is to rinse all the dishes before they go in, and wash all the dishes when they come out.

And, of course, if there was any grit in my day, it would probably be the road closure on the B-road across the hills to Middletown, which made us half an hour late for the home educators 'Making Pills and Shampoo' workshop.

I'd just like to say this lateness was not thanks to us being incapable of rolling out of bed before 8.30. We did roll out of bed at 7.30, actually.

I know no-one will believe me.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

A rewarding day

It's Thursday. I look on Thursday as some sort of reward for living through Wednesday.

The first Thursday reward wasn't much of one. It was a notice of an impending county court judgment. This is for a contract that ended in 2002, and was ended by the company involved, and is a demand for money we don't actually owe, which we have paperwork to prove, but instead of accepting that, company X nicked a few hundred quid from our bank account, which resulted in our bank designating this as an unauthorised payment and taking it back again on our behalf, at which point company X dumped a debt collection agency on us and, despite them promising in 2006 that the matter is now closed, have pushed the paperwork onto their solicitors who are taking us to court.

Well, good luck to them. If it continues I'll name the lot of the scoundrels and rogues in a name and shame exercise. Before that happy moment, which may involve a drive down south with a banner in the back of the car, I may consider starting my own campaign which involves sending the same letters to the same people every day for a month just to help nail home a small point about harrassment.

The second reward wasn't up to much either. I look in the paper and see all this stuff about the National Curriculum for the 0-5 year olds. I have to howl with laughter and smash something up with frustration all at the same time.

Apparently, sticking your fingers in your pasta at the age of two can be taken as a sign of literacy. Actually, it's not the total ludicrous nonsense of it which raises my hackles, it's the agenda behind it. Stuff like this suggests that every action by the likes of Squirrel, Shark and Tiger, is available for public assessment. It also suggests to baby Squirrels, Sharks and Tigers, that each of their actions is not part of growing up, but part of a national system of achievements and failures, all of which is going to be watched and assessed by someone else with a tick-box sheet. My, that sounds empowering.

Well childhood takes a long time. And thank goodness that I started that process being able to hang spaghetti on my ears, show off my scribbly pictures, boast about the scab on my knee where I fell out of Big Bro's trolley, delight in what I'd found in the garden soil, hide my failings, mistakes and shames and threaten PigFace Bins that if she did that again to me I'd smack her in the mouth. Say what you like about the 1960s, but after a day like that I could fall asleep without the neighbour filling in a set of ticky boxes about me. And as an adult, I'd like to continue the same, if the National Curriculum for 40-50 year olds is going to allow it, of course.

After I have to put the soap box away for fear of crashing right through it, we're onto the third reward of Thursday.

Well this isn't much of a reward either. Dig pushes off to the airport to catch a flight to Middle earth. He's gone for much of a week, and I'm single-mothering again, with only the solicitors of the debt collection agency for company.

Not surprisingly, I've had enough now of Thursday, and of the kid who just put up two fingers at me while I parked outside the Co-op, of the tut I got at the Post Office when I asked for stamps, of the unfixable internet radio which stops working within five minutes of Dig leaving the house, and of the git who threw a Pepsi can into our hedge where the birds are nesting.

So for the rest of Thursday, I'm rewarding myself with a raid on the fridge for the banana pie we made yesterday, and the remains of the wine bottle upstairs by the bed.

Of course I could always look forward to Friday.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Going downhill

I'm still glum, and am getting into a depression. And now I look at the weekly diary and see that it is Wednesday and we go swimming.

This isn't going to help.

I'll refer you to the post for 11 January 2007.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Try glamour

I need to feel better. All the magazines tell me that my life problems can be solved by looking different. So I might try buying one of those magazines and, by evening, if I follow their rules, I might look different, and feel better.

First I reckon I'll need to put in some effort in the make up department. I'd need to wear some. There are lots of lovely shops in Bigtown that wink at me and tell me how beautiful I could be, if only I would try.

But I'll remember why I don't. The last time I hit the make up bag my eyes swelled up and I looked like a frog. Perhaps I apply it wrong and those black lines shouldn't actually go in the eyes. I can't help it. I rub my eyes a lot. Or perhaps the make up is fifteen years old and past its sell by date. The blusher worked better, but I'm wary. 47-year old women generally don't blush. There's not much you can show us that we haven't seen before. The lipstick works, sort of, but it tends to wear off quickly. I think I might be eating it, along with the cakes.

Then there are the clothes. I keep promising myself, when I have spare cash, to go off to the bright shiny shops in the centre with all the personal shopping advisors and get hold of one to sort me out. That'll be a test of her stamina. Today I'm wearing a baggy old jumper on top, and a baggy old jumper underneath. I'm also wearing a tee-shirt with a hole in the armpit. And my trousers don't meet round the middle. The button fell off and I haven't had the time to sew it back on.

Anyway, being able to look nice is tied up with that weight thing. One resolution I made last birthday was to lose some weight. Apart from the baggy jumpers, all my clothes have shrunk now and I've got an unecessary layer of fat which travels round me like a wobbly road. It even has pot holes in it.

I haven't actually got round to all that exercise yet, but I'm still hoping. I blame the building works near the gym. I'm sure that stops me from getting to the gym properly. Last year they closed the roads while up went a big hotel and lots more restaurants. I suppose I could have parked further down the hill at the train station and walked, but there are some mornings when it is cold, and it is sometimes very difficult getting out of bed.

And as a last resort I could always blame the children. It's easy to get fat when pregnant. And being pregnant with three is three times the excuse. I know that's wearing thin, because we're talking seven years ago now. But I argue that it doesn't really get any better. They make cakes and biscuits now. Last year they made 54 chelsea buns. I thought about standing at the local post office and giving away these delicious soft fruity buns with their perfect sugary crusts to the poor and needy, but then reckoned there was probably a bye-law against giving away chelsea buns, so of course had to eat the lot.

On balance I think today might be a bad day to look different. And I think I'll give the magazines a miss.

Monday, 12 March 2007

An old book

Dig's sorting out his library. I've got a freecycle box with some books inside and I need some more. While he's about it, he tells me a story, about an old scholar and a book, and I'm telling it you now.

An old scholar had a magic book in his library. 'What did it look like?' I asked. 'Not important' answers Dig. I reckon the cover probably wasn't much to look at, a bit battered and grey and worn, with the edges curling up, because magic books generally have to be like that. But anyway, I'll assume it was special, in its own way, because each time the old scholar read the book, the words would crackle and sparkle and come into life, and send off beautiful colours in all directions.

'Is this the Borges story where the words move round?' I ask Dig. 'No it isn't' says Dig. Anyway, the old scholar looked at the colourful words in book for many years, and probably got a great deal of pleasure from it. I don't know that of course. I'd like to think so anyway. Then one day when the old scholar opened the book, some pages fell out and drifted to the floor. Well, the old scholar looked at the pages and looked at the book and then suddenly lost interest in the book and all the colourful sparkling words inside. Perhaps the words began to fade right there and then.

'Why didn't the old scholar like the book anymore?' I ask. 'Lots of reasons and shut up interrupting' says Dig. Perhaps the old scholar thought the book was spoiled now, or not complete, or perhaps the Borges story really did come in and steal some pages away. Whatever happened, the old scholar put the book down and didn't pick it up for many years. I reckon he probably forgot about it since it was in a library and there were lots of other books and they probably had more interesting ideas to share than a manky old book with fading colours and some pages missing.

'That's not the end' says Dig. Because one day, after many years, the old scholar opened the book again. Perhaps it was by accident. The colours started to glow and change just like before. I like this idea. I think that if I was a book and no-one ever looked at me and then all of a sudden hey presto! someone starts reading again, then I'd feel chuffed. I wonder what the old scholar thought. 'What happened next?' I ask Dig.

Dig says he's not sure now. He thinks that the old scholar probably just lost interest in the words, and closed the book and put it away again. I reckon the old scholar was worse than that. I think he must have carelessly thrown the book on a pile in the corner. Or he might have used it to prop up a table. 'That's not a very nice thing to happen to a book, especially a magic one where the words can change colours', I say.

I think that's probably the end of the magic book. I reckon the colours in the book will never change again. Perhaps it'll end up in the freecycle box, not wanted by anyone, just going round everyone's house until it ends up on a skip or a bonfire.

'That's life', says Dig, handing me a book for the freecycle box.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Airport run

I'm feeling gloomy. We're all doomed. Global warming is kicking in because although it's an early March morning it feels like summer in the car. We're locked in there, picking Dig up from the airport, and on the long, hard drive, we sit in the traffic queues on the motorway, crawling slowly past the car in flames on the hard shoulder.

I don't know why Dig can't do the videoconference thing that everyone else seems to be doing. For some reason he has to jet around, visiting places all over the world, lecturing everyone on commas. This is probably unforgivable, given the state of the planet. It probably would be forgivable, if we were with him. But we can't go. It's too expensive, or too posh, or both. Which makes us very ecologically sound, I think, as I sit in my car, unable to wind down the windows for some fresh air, thanks to the petrol fumes pouring out from other people's cars.

It takes nearly two hours, inching our way through traffic jams, to reach Airport Town. I half wish we hadn't offered to pick him up. But there's relief ahead: we're still here early and there's a castle near to the airport, so we can all go castling until Dig's flight lands.

In our family, Iron Age hill forts, Roman forts and castles are brilliant. We love them all: ditched, ruined, standing, motte and bailey, moated, with priory attached, with turrets, great halls, walls or murder holes, we don't care, let us run around pretending to be Celts or Romans, or medieval ladies or knights on horseback or nasty Richard III or, even better, Edward Longshanks, defeating the Welsh and having his melted bones carried to Scotland. Brilliant. No planes, no cars, no pollution, no global warming.

When we have to leave the castle there are tears all round. We drive back into the twenty-first century, where I have to pay a pound to park the car to pick up Dig.

Dig's in tetchy mood, probably fed up with having to wait an extra hour while we put down our bows and arrows and come back down from the castle walls. As we creep back home in second gear, watched all the while by the cameras overhead, I think about our day. Apart from the global warming, I just don't feel very comfortable in twenty-first century Britain. I think that I'd probably make a good dweller of the twelfth century. I'd be a weaving woman, and Dig would be a brewer, and with our six children in one room with a pig and a bedridden granddad we'd all yearn to live in the stinky hut by the tannery, because we'd want to go up in the world.

And then I think some more as I face the exhaust pipe of the car in front. I consider that all we'd have to face eight hundred years ago, apart from the continuous warfare of the nobles and barons and kings, would be a miserable life of hardship, toil, disease, death, and a life span of 30-odd years in our hut next to the castle cess pit.

I don't know. It's just one of those Eeyore days now. No matter which way I look at things the ending's always miserable. And global warming's only the beginning.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Things I Saw

I have decided that I need to do some home educating. And it has to be today. Enough drifting along, doing as we like. We need direction, goals, achievement, focus.

I have the Nature Detective packs. So we're off to the local National Trust parkland where there's a good selection of trees to study with the 'Twigs and Buds' worksheet, and a good selection of animal holes, puddles, litter, dead leaves, and streams for the worksheet, 'Things I Saw'. I pack pencils in the pencil case, distribute clipboards, hand out cold pizza and we're off. It's just after midday and I am very focused.

The first problem is getting past the Ticket Inspector in the gift shop. Apparently Dig is a criminal. He has been underpaying the National Trust and this is probably a national crime. He pays them on a direct debit for an adult couple but with no children. Oh dear. We have three children, and as they crash around the gift shop inspecting the stuffed deer and National Trust teapots, they look a bit obvious to me, and to the National Trust Ticket Inspector who points them out. She says it will cost me £9.90 to get the children into the outside world, past the deer and the teapots. Rather foolishly I say I've never paid for them before. This is a mistake. Mrs Ticket Inspector takes a big breath, scrutinises my card again and I watch her quietly telephone Mr. Big at the National Trust Central Office. He says Dig has never paid for children when he jolly well should have paid since they are aged over five. So my card gets confiscated, I get a big telling off, the children get told to put the teapots down and I provide Dig's details so he can be charged extra.

We see quite a bit after that. We find Alder and Oak and Beech for the 'Twigs and Buds' and animals holes to tick on 'Things I Saw'. Then Squirrel says she is hungry. Despite still being able to see the car park and the gift shop I suggest they get out the cold pizza. Tiger looks in her bag and says she has lost hers so everyone has to share. This is not fun and requires some sitting down on the bench refusing to move until Tiger's cold pizza appears. I am not accommodating and tell everyone they are aged seven as we all know, even Mr Big in the National Trust Central Office, so stop behaving as if they are aged three.

After thirty minutes the children have stopped sprawling on the bench and have decided to follow the path to hollow tree. We all know hollow tree. We have been to this parkland lots of times. This is the place where I got my ball confiscated and where a National Trust warden picked a fight in 2005; whenever I see him now I'm reminded that I intended to report him. So we have fond memories. And then hollow tree comes into view and everyone runs to climb on.

Squirrel climbs up hollow tree and within seconds starts howling that she is scared to come down. She says she cannot see the ground. I say this is nonsense. She is about a metre off it. I offer to lift her down. She refuses and demands that Tiger and Shark get down first. And they do. This is extraordinarily helpful. I offer to lift her down again and she howls some more. Then I say I might leave her on hollow tree, in the middle of a field, howling, and she howls a huge, unending howl that soars above the trees and into the clouds.

At this point an audience starts to gather. It probably looks like I have sent my daughter up hollow tree and now refuse to help her down. So I threaten that if she does not stop howling I will leave. This is a disastrous mistake. Perhaps it is because Dig's away. Perhaps she is very short-sighted and really cannot see the ground. Perhaps she has a sudden attack of vertigo that she cannot explain. Because the howl turns into screams and yells and roars.

But now all I can see is the track back to the car. Tiger's reluctantly following; Squirrel's still howling on hollow tree; Shark's now screaming because I'm leaving Squirrel in the middle of a field on hollow tree; the audience is watching. This is about as bad as it can be.

I stop at the gate to the field, aware of the Saturday walkers with their well-behaved schooled children, all taking a well-deserved break in the Spring sunshine away from their classroom labours, while my home educated children who are brought up in the midst of society are now standing in a field screaming at the tops of their voices, unable to see that they are a focus of attention for what feels like miles around. Squirrel is bellowing 'I'm leaving this family!' Shark is shouting 'Mummy's leaving! Stop mummy!' and Tiger is hobbling towards me on the stony track, loudly sobbing.

I wait at the gate, all of thirty yards away from hollow tree. After another ten minutes the children join me, one by one, all scowling, sobbing and glowering, and we make our way back to the car. I watch Squirrel's 'Things I Saw' worksheet scamper off over the field with the wind.

At the car I feed everyone cherry cakes and then we drive home. And now I'm more determined than ever. When I get my new, legal, National Trust card, we're all coming back. I'm packing the cold pizza, and I'll be keeping my eye on Squirrel, just to check that she really is alright. I'm packing the 'Things I Saw' worksheets too, and I'll make sure we all take the track that avoids hollow tree.

Friday, 9 March 2007

A perfect day

Is this how other home educators live?

We get up at 8am and the children get dressed, have breakfast and brush their teeth. They get in the car to go to their art and play meeting. In the car we listen to a Music Box story which explores the Paganini Rhapsody by Rachmaninov. We arrive at the meeting on time. Here the children take part in a drama workshop. We eat lunch in the car on the way to swimming. When we get back home the children spend an hour playing with a French language site on the computer, and watch a short Help to Read programme on the TV about the sounds made by 'ou' and 'ow'. Then they complete some of the maths and art puzzles in their Nature Detectives packs while listening to Roald Dahl's story of Matilda. At bedtime I read Ponies on Parade and everyone goes to sleep.

Well they really did do all those things. And I'm not going to say anything about the fight on the stairs which involved Shark chanting 'Tomato face! Tomato face!' at Tiger, nor about our Music Box story stopping half way thanks to the batteries giving up on the CD player. I'm not going to mention that Tiger removed herself completely from the drama workshop and hid behind the garden ivy, and I'm not going to confess that I made a mistake about the start of the swimming lesson which I'd already had to rearrange from Wednesday. It started at 2.30, not 2 o' clock, so I gave myself an additional 30 minutes of pool torture. And I'm not going to shout out that the kids chose the only non-speech and non-reading screens on the French language site, and I'm not about to say that the Nature Detectives site kept crashing or that the Internet Radio wouldn't work so that I felt like taking an axe to it. And neither am I about to tell you that I set the tea towel on fire or that I spent most of Ponies on Parade scoffing at the crap plot. And I'm not saying that Squirrel had a fit of the fears at bedtime and ended up taking herself off to Dig's empty space where she'll kick and snore all night long.

No, I'm not going to mention any of those things. I'm just going to live the home education dream.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Dig's away

Dig's gone to Sunshine land. I hope it's raining. We haven't told the children where he's gone because last year we went with him. He had a conference on commas, and we had the beach to ourselves. The weather was superb; the hotel was on the beach front; the restaurants were child-friendly; and the hotel did strawberries dipped in chocolate.

This year Dig's gone back. But this year he's in a hotel at the back end of town; he's working every day and the conference on commas is much earlier in the year, so he's promised me the weather will be cold and miserable. I have my doubts about that last one, but last year's visit was cripplingly expensive, so I understand we have to find some excuses.

In the past when Dig's gone away the children have been hellish. The day he went to the Chinese embassy in London and took only Tiger stands out as probably one of the worst. Shark and Squirrel screamed, fought, bit, scratched and smashed their way through the day until they drove themselves into a stupor, fell over and went to sleep.

In fact I've been so keen to avoid the impact that Dig's departures can have on the children that I've developed two tactics. The first is to leave the house, children in tow, on stimulating visits everyday, possibly returning to a caravan in a field each night, so that they never really notice he's gone and, if they do, they're having such a great time that they don't care.

The second option is to stay at home and do just about everything they want. Putting up least resistence to all requests, no matter how bizarre they come, makes for an easier time when Dig's not here. You want to try green custard on that pasta? No problem. A trip to Theme Park plus ice cream? We can do that tomorrow after you bake the chocolate biscuits you asked for. Stay up till midnight watching Matilda? OK then, but I get to carry you to bed if you fall asleep.

Now you may say this is terrible parenting, and you're probably right. But I like to think that when Dig comes home with all his photographs and presents from far away places, and with his pockets bulging from hotel bath foam, that the kids can rush up to him and shout 'Daddy! guess what we did!' and that makes his departure and my survival all just about acceptable.

But this time I'm clearly failing on the 'let's have fun' stakes. Already today there's been a steady trickle of 'Where's daddy?' and 'When's daddy coming home?' So I can regret trying to sit it out until he returns on Sunday. And I can regret not taking a long break somewhere, and I can regret doing all the things that everyone hates, like putting broccoli in the tomato sauce, and not allowing Shark to sit up all night watching Matilda.

Only three days this time. Then Dig, come home quickly. I'll probably have to listen everyday to the whining cries, in triplicate, of 'When's daddy coming home? We never have any fun when he's not here. When's daddy coming home? I want daddy!'

And my memory's not all that bad. I can remember the restaurants and the hotel and the beach and the strawberries dipped in chocolate.

I hope it rains everyday in Sunshine land.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007


Sisly's coming round. Sisly is six and goes to school. Her mother is going to report me to Social Services. I can see it now. One minute after she's dropped Sisly at the door she'll be struck into dumbness with the sight of the kitchen floor, and the worksurface, and Squirrel, covered in raspberry jam, and me, with the torn leg on the jeans where it caught on the oven door which fell off in 2004, and she'll be straight back on the phone to the SS, reporting me for child neglect.

So today I am cleaning the house from top to bottom so Sisly's mum cannot report me for child neglect. My next worry is the home education. Sisly's mum is very happy with Sisly's school. She is very pro-school. She will report me to the LEA. So I am going to drill Squirrel with her 2 times table so that when Sisly's mum arrives Squirrel is at the table in the schoolroom reciting her two times table and not getting anything wrong. Then Sisly's mum cannot report me to the LEA for failing to educate my child properly.

Then I am going to have to work on Dig. He must get his trousers on. I know that it is one of life's pleasures, being able to work from home without wearing your trousers, but if Sisly's mum gets round here to be greeted by a squalid house, Squirrel covered in raspberry jam and not knowing her two times table, and then Dig without his trousers on, all the children will be taken in to care and I will be up in court.

By the time Sisly's mum gets here, towing a timid Sisly behind her, the house is as clean as it can ever be, Squirrel is brushed and presentable, Dig is wearing trousers, and I am red in the face and have a scrubbing brush pushed down the leg of my jeans.

Sisly's mum is very nice and doesn't at all seem to even notice the kitchen worksurface has nothing on it. I'm minded to draw her attention to it. She doesn't grill Squirrel on her 2 times table either. I'm wondering if I could introduce it into our conversation on traffic problems in Small town, but in fact Squirrel has already grabbed Sisly at the door and taken her off to her bedroom, closely followed by Tiger and Shark. I wonder if grabbing Sisly might have suggested to Sisly's mum that none of my children have any friends and are all desparate for social contact, thus making sure she calls the LEA directly when she gets home, telling them my children are hot housed all day long so I can live the glory of three PhDs in a row by age 12.

But she doesn't seem to notice this either. In fact she seems very keen to drop Sisly off, have a quick chat, and go home. This is very strange to me. If this was the home ed world, right now the whole family would troop in, grandma and all, and I'd be providing green teas, red teas, pink teas, vegan biscuits and wiggly eyes for a life-size Egyptian mummy the kids have decided to knock up on the kitchen table.

When it's time to go home, Sisly's mum politely buzzes at the door, and Sisly rushes off upstairs with Squirrel, Shark and Tiger. Then thank goodness Sisly and Sisly's mum are normal. Sisly refuses to go home and hides. Sisly's mum shouts. Shark throws a blanket over Sisly, who crawls at lightening speed between me and Sisly's mum into the back bedroom, looking like an uncontrollable baby bear. Sisly's mum shouts some more. Tiger and Shark slam the door, whooping with delight, while Squirrel pins herself against it, hanging both hands on the door knob. Cue a lot of banging on the door from both sides, a lot of shouting from the grown ups and screaming with delight from the bears.

It takes about fifteen minutes to extract Sisly and get her downstairs. Sisly's had a screaming fit and a big telling off. This is nothing, really. When we've been at Jol's house it's taken two hours to separate Tiger, Shark and Squirrel from Am and only then with promises that we can see Am again within 48 hours.

But when Sisly's gone I think I probably shouldn't have worried. And next time I probably won't bother cleaning up. In fact Sisly's mum is probably sitting at home right now, worrying whether I'll give Social Services a call.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Another party

We have to come back from Pretty Land. We have to spend the afternoon at Play Park. This, apparently, is another celebration for the children's seventh birthday last week. Strange. I thought we'd already had a couple of parties and three birthday cakes, but I'm told none of those were Proper Parties. Admitedly Tiger spent most of one party in the toilet waiting to throw up, and the first party seemed mostly to be about mother opening several bottles of wine but, as I argued, it's my celebration too, mostly of the fact that I've survived this long without dying, leaving home, or selling the lot of them for medical experiments.

We tried to get round the problem of the endless birthday celebration seven years ago. We reckoned that with triplets each child would want their own birthday instead of having to share it. So we nicked the Naming day celebrations from the French. Shark was given her own naming day in December; Tiger got August and Squirrel got May. Then each could share their annual birthday and have a separate party come Naming day time.

This seemed to work quite well for the first few years. All the family celebrations were spread out throughout the year and there was always something to look forward to.

Trouble started a couple of years ago. Everyone wanted to swap celebrations. Then because everyone had swapped I forgot whose celebration was when. I had days of grief from Squirrel for forgetting about hers and, when I finally remembered, fobbed her off with a walk in the woods and a packet of ginger nuts at the Woodland Cafe, sadly located in the car park. She's not forgiven me so far.

The other thing that no longer works is our insistence that birthdays are family events. In the past we tried to position the Naming day celebrations as events and outings with friends, and the birthday as a family event. At birthday time, we got The Hat round, sang 'Happy Birthday', then blew out the candles and that was that. This definitely no longer works.

All the kids have witnessed, and even attended, The Birthday Party Package. This seems to be fairly standard. An hour on the play equipment/ donkey/ computer-controlled dodgems, then up to the Birthday Party Room for Birthday Party Food. This involves napkins with the company logo and balloons with the company logo. The napkins go on the floor. Then there are a lot of howls, screams and tears when the balloons pop. Next, out comes the chicken nuggets and chips and bring your own cake. If the happy parents have paid the extra tenner, some bloke dressed as a penguin enters and leads the little songsters in 'Happy Birthday' before trying to exit sharpish without setting his costume on fire, knocking over the cake, tripping over balloon string or treading on the toddler clinging to his leg.

Not surprisingly, we've avoided the Party Package. But to Shark, Tiger and Squirrel it says 'I am a Proper Birthday Party and anything else, including a packet of ginger nuts at the Woodland Cafe, is not.' So Shark, Tiger and Squirrel want a Proper Party. And, quite frankly, I'm not providing one. A hundred quid for a miserable experience and a bloke dressed as a penguin sounds like torture.

Thus I've been led into a phenomenon that I now call the Rolling Birthday. Basically, this is in lieu of a Proper Birthday Party and consists of a week or two of constant demands for celebrations, parties, events, and cakes, none of which are Proper Parties. So far they've had celebrations such as take away pizza, mother going to bed early, family friends round, two birthday cakes, and a song at the art and play session. This week the celebration is at the Play Park, without the Party Birthday Package, and tomorrow Squirrel's little chum from ballet is coming round for tea. And that's it. I won't be cajoled into any more. I declare the birthday season over. And it's my reward to open a bottle of wine to celebrate the fact.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Edwardian Towers

Edwardian Towers is vast and looming in the raining darkness. When we get there we find all the lights blazing, and the house deserted. The door creaks open and inside there's total silence, except for the ticking of a clock. I half expect Vincent Price or Peter Lorre to emerge from the dining room. Roger Corman would be sitting in a swivel chair in the lounge.

We try and make a lot of noise on the wooden floor and bang the front door a few times. After about ten minutes a youthful Mrs P bounces into the vast hallway. I'm sure she looks like Ligeia, but perhaps it's just the stunning black hair.

We're shown the family room, which is probably about the floor area of our entire house. Squirrel gets a double bed all to herself; Tiger immediately goes for the bed next to the fridge, and Shark heads off to the bed near the huge window where she reasons she can watch the birds in the morning. The bed that me and Dig get looks like it should be reserved for royalty. It's possibly the largest bed I've ever seen and may be the size of a small Pacific island. I wonder if there are special sheets Ligeia has to buy or whether she gets them made specially.

Ligeia bounces in and out, fussing over us, talking about when we might take dinner and how the hens have been waiting for us all day to drop eggs for tomorrow's breakfast.

We're the only guests in the hotel. It's deeply out of season, and it's deeply embedded in the hills, at the end of a single-track stretch, twisting and turning from the main road. Everything is slightly unreal, from the soaring stone turrets and the bathroom towels which are several inches thick, to Ligeia herself. She should be lying in a coffin somewhere waiting for darkness, and there she is, bouncing up and down, beaming a huge smile. But I lock the room door, just in case.

And after a comfortable night, and breakfast, the room's cleared, the bill's paid, and Monday 1pm comes, and we all squeeze inside Re's Cottage. It's a bit of a trial, and with the estate agent there, plus her clipboard, we need a rota for turning round in the only downstairs room. Dig's still optimistic. The ventilation shaft is still there, not wheezing now, but huge and solid, waiting for opening time.

Now we can only think about the bolthole. It's less than thirty minutes drive away from Edwardian Towers and Ligeia. Unlike last night, inside the bolthole we can stack the kids and Aunty Dee up, one above the other, with ladders to connect them. Me and Dig would have our feet in the fireplace and our heads in the fridge. Are we mad for even thinking it?

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Re's Cottage

Well, we knew there would be something strange, because it was so cheap. Cottages in Pretty Land aren't cheap. And Re's Cottage is. Dig joked that it might be next to a fish farm.

He was right, of sorts. We went to look at Re's Cottage tonight, after driving four hours through the relentless rain battering the car on the motorway. Aunty Em's been travelling behind, probably driving the entire journey in first gear, on her way back home. But she's curious about the Cottage so she's detouring to see it with us. Probably sussing out her babysitting duties. And we could find plenty of opportunities for those.

When we find it, Re's Cottage is adjacent to the kitchens of a Chinese restaurant. That would be fine, because the children adore prawn crackers, I like the rice and Dig goes for Lemon Chicken. In fact at first view the kitchens are so close that I reckon we could shout the order out from the upstairs window and the chef could reach out the kitchen door to bang on our front door when it's ready. I'd hope there'd be no delivery charge.

The kitchen is not the only thing, of course. Running alongside the boundary wall to Re's Cottage there is an enormous ventilation pipe, pushing its way from a hole knocked through the wall of the Chinese restaurant, and turning upwards like a grand steel turret on its way up to the sky. Now don't imagine the ventilation pipe is anything inconsequential like a tumble drier hose or anything like it. Oh no. It is an enormous shaft that the children could go crawling through if they ever had a mind. It's huge, metal, rattling, wheezing and vibrating, and looks like part of the set of Metropolis. And somehow they've managed to squeeze this monstrosity into a tiny back lane dating from the fourteenth century. And I'd bet they didn't get planning permission.

We don't see the cottage at its best, admitedly. It's dark, the Chinese restaurant is going at full pelt to turn out those bamboo shoots and it's raining so hard that I'm feeling as if thousands of tiny hammers are trying to nail me into the stonework.

'We need to see it in daylight' says Dig, optimistically. And we set off to the Edwardian Towers in the middle of nowhere to spend the night.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

A new house

I'm not moving. I'm staying here. The house may be falling down and looking like a skip but it's my home. Dig, on the other hand, is in two minds. He's cruising about online estate agents in Pretty Land looking for houses for sale. He's seen a house and he wants to go and look at it. The estate agent says we can view it on Monday at 1pm. It's just a short three-hour journey up the motorway. And a short three-hour journey back.

I look at the details. Re's Cottage is tiny. It has one bedroom, bathroom and one room downstairs into which is squeezed a kitchen and sitting area. Dig's already done the calculations and reckons we can sleep six, so long as we roll up the downstairs bed before breakfast. 'It's a bolthole' he says. Which just about suggests the size of it.

During the day I'm in and out the house taking children off for individual shopping duties. Gold ribbon for the princess curtain; bikini for Shark; cheese for Tiger. All the while Dig is researching somewhere to stay for Sunday night. Eventually I get a telephone call. He's found somewhere to stay at the price I'd expect to pay for a small car, but they can do a family room in the East Wing and sleep six to the room. 'Let's have an adventure' says Dig, and I wonder if, right now, I can handle another one.

Friday, 2 March 2007


Friday takes a surprising turn of events. By midnight, it's clear we'll miss the last fast train home and will turn up at 4am on the milk train. Then someone has a word, who has a word, and there's a nod and a hotel room magically appears in the four star up the street.

These things happen in Dig's world. They never happen in mine. Problems are never solved by quiet words and secret wizardry and taps on shoulders or nods of heads. In my world, I get electrocuted, the ceiling falls in, the fire brigade is called, or I have to stand on street corners wrapped in plastic.

Aunty Dee will think we set this up. But we didn't; neither of us have snook out spare knickers, or toothbrushes, or fresh socks. I admit to a second pair of tights, but that's all. It doesn't matter. The hotel room is fresh and clean; the showers work and the bed is soft and warm.

By morning it's distinctly odd wearing last night's clothes. I did quite well with the silk dress and have only one dribbly tomato stain down the front. The rubber bit on the heel has disappeared on one of the shoes, the other heel feels a bit wobbly, and a button's starting to hang off the jacket. But all this is within range compared to what I normally wear, and our walk across London to catch the train home turns into a pleasant stroll through the sunshine on the South Bank, with a brief detour into the Tate where I can have a bit of a grumble about Gilbert and George.

We get home just in time to change and make lunch and regret missing the art and play session I try and make each week with the children. Aunty Dee says she got lost driving to the RSPB meeting and got there late but Shark, Tiger and Squirrel did get a chance to unroll their albatross, so everyone was happy.

And I quite enjoyed the Friday walk. The shoes just make it home before one heel collapses completely. I wrap it up in paper and put it with its partner into the bin. I don't think I'm going to use those again. Perhaps I'll have to start cruising around those charity shops looking for a replacement pair, just in case I ever get invited back into Dig's World.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Posh Do

It is the evening of the Posh Do. We are late, of course, which is good for me, because I am not looking forward to it. I have tried to get out of this, but Dig's played smarter. So Aunty Dee is now at home with Tiger, Shark and Squirrel, eating jam sandwiches, expecting to crash the car on the way to the RSPB meeting and anticipating a night in hospital.

I am complaining all the way. The trains are rubbish. My feet hurt. The venue is in a stupid place. There will be no-one there that I know. Dig ignores all of it. If I were him, I'd throw me off the train. Since we're going so slowly at that point, if he did I would suffer only a bruised knee. Which just goes to prove how rubbish the train service is.

When we get there I'm off outside. There are too many people in suits and too much noise. I'm just not used to this. My day job is cleaning up vomit, unplugging paint bottles, wiping bottoms and noses, paying for violin lessons, and being alone in the office, doing the odd page design and copy setting when everyone else goes off to the farm. I don't work rooms, network, offer employment with a nod and a sideways smile, make witty remarks with Directors of large corporations, or share concerns about the market for full stops.

By standing outside I manage to knock nearly 20 minutes off the time I have to stand in the room before dinner. A smiling man with a huge tray of glasses appears as soon as I get back inside. He reels off half a dozen strange cocktails with ingredients I've never heard of. The last option is champagne. Since that's the only name I recognise, I pick up two glasses of it. Five minutes later he heads towards me holding the bottle.

The champagne helps keep me inside, and so does meeting Belle. I've known her a long time and she's very sweet and says all the right things. I suggest I might have to behave badly this evening to have something to blog and she's suitably shocked. I like being able to shock her so easily and might go and live at her house.

Then we're called to dinner. Good news and bad news. I am at the Top Table with Dig. Some kind soul has not split us up. This is good in that I can sit next to Dig but bad because there are a lot of Big Wigs at the table who have more director titles between them than I have fingers and toes.

But I know that people like to talk about themselves. So it's easy to disappear against Director X who chats about his family all night. With Director Q I have a go at the institution he directs instead, and he gives a good defence of it, so I warm to him on the grounds that he puts up a good argument and tells me to piss off with the faux naive.

Perhaps it's the champagne but I have a go with Director T who takes no notice of me after I try to impress her with the jacket I'm wearing. It cost £1 at our Help the Aged shop and I'd like everyone to know about it. I might need their bus service one day. Now I'm on my soap box I'll tell everyone it's a moral duty to shop with the local charity and remember how much profit the high street makes. It's probably not a good tack with Director T, but it helps, because I'm left wondering if I can tell Director S that he reminds me of a pickled gherkin and get away with it.

Clearly I need time, and people to kick against, to get into this routine. But my big problem is that the Big Wigs are all too gracious, and non-combative, and diplomatic, and too quick at side-stepping trouble while it's walking about holding a couple of champagne glasses. I tell Doe when I see him at the end of the evening that I don't feel comfortable really with people who make decisions about the world; I'm used to a daily combat zone of blood and tears in the front room. Doe tells me, 'We all have to enter the shower naked.' Well, that's normally true Doe, but if you had to enter any bathroom at home here right now, you'd probably wear a chemical hazard suit. That's my world. And I bet Director T has clean white tiles, a power jet with rotating shower head and never shops at Age Concern.