Friday, 31 August 2007

The trials

It's Elizabeth's Hurley's first day with us, so I decide to torture her immediately on account of looking like Elizabeth Hurley and coming from Nice. Coming from Nice allows Elizabeth Hurley to drop location names like 'Cannes', 'Monaco' and 'Italian Alps' while Grit can manage 'Tesco' 'the police station' and 'Toddington where we have a big scream'.

The first trial is for Elizabeth Hurley to go off with Tiger to the local park and come back alive. I reason that if Tiger's up to her daily standard, they'll be back in ten minutes. Tiger will be gnashing her teeth and growling while Elizabeth Hurley will be in tears and packing the three enormous bags she's somehow managed to squeeze onto an Easy Jet flight and which are presently occupying the entire floor area of her bedroom.

Unfortunately, they're back after 45 minutes. Elizabeth Hurley looks a bit unsure about what she's in for, so I send her down the Co-op with Shark. Shark is busting to go out with Elizabeth Hurley. She has a shopping list and has decided that chocolate cake would be a good welcome. We settle on apples and a loaf of bread instead. But of course I'm not really interested in the apples and we have plenty of bread. I'm interested to see if Elizabeth Hurley will survive the ordeal I've set up for her. After all, Shark's last trip to the shops with an au pair ended up with Shark coming home alone and the au pair fleeing the house two days later.

Rather amazingly, Elizabeth Hurley and Shark make it back in fair time with the shopping mission complete. Shark's dancing about with delight wittering about lime tart and Elizabeth Hurley declares the trip tres bien with a big broad grin.

Right. It's time to throw Squirrel and Tesco at her. I have a ban on shopping at Tesco accompanied by any child since the time Shark went crazy at the checkout and followed me screaming all the way home, pausing only to take running jumps at me and punch me in the kidneys. Then there was the time that Squirrel refused to move, Tiger went beserk with a trolley, and the unpleasant hour when Shark and Tiger had a stand-off next to 200 stacked up jars of pasta sauce. As most parents know, and the ones who don't deserve to find out, shopping in supermarkets with children is like taking a journey through hell pursued by Satan with a red hot poker.

Well knock me down with a feather but Squirrel and Elizabeth Hurley arrive home with Squirrel all smiles and Elizabeth Hurley looking tired but not defeated.

So that's the first day. And in the pursuit of a speedy conclusion this time to whether the au pair will go or stay, I am continuing to locate her weak points. Spiders are usually a good one so I have made sure the window in her bedroom is appropriately open into the garden to catch the evening air.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Kite day

Thursday can find me on my hands and knees, conducting what appears to be a finger tip search in a field. Great. I wouldn't mind but I get pelted in the head by a home-made kite while I'm doing it.

This is the Fly Your Kite day which rounds off the summer events schedule from the parks department. It's both a success and a disaster. It's a success because Tiger's good at flying kites, so she can't claim to be rubbish at everything before breaking out into a frustrated storm of self-hatred. In fact, Tiger's extraordinarily good, and while Shark and Squirrel are crashing about, unable to get up their kites more than ten millimetres off the ground, Tiger's going round giving everyone lessons in how to do it.

Tiger is very responsive to the kite. This is what I can see. She watches the movements of the kite as the wind blows and buffets it about and she moves her hands in time, like she's dancing her fingers with the wind. Shark, on the other hand, doesn't bother looking at the kite at all. She runs at a clap down the hill with the kite bouncing along the ground behind her then turns round and wails at it when it catches up with her. It's been looking like a dead thing on a string for the race down the hill and now it's got to be dragged all the way up to start again. I almost feel sorry for it.

Squirrel, meanwhile, is giving up quick at this game and has gone off to make a mini kite at the toddler craft desk with two straws and a square of tissue paper. She's amusing herself with that and intermitently coming out with her home-made kite to have another go. I reckon she's wondering if her kite's seen the error of its ways yet and whether it's prepared to leap into the air yet on her command. Nope. Tiger comes along anyhow and gets the thing up into the air with one hand. She's already holding her own kite safe in a wind stream some fifty meters above her head.

The disaster of the day is, of course, all of Grit's own making. I've lost my glasses. Stuffing them down my front I thought would be a good idea while I tried to throw Squirrel's kite in the air and watch it drift forlornly back to ground. I was so inept at it my specs probably couldn't bear to watch anymore and decided death by trampling was the better option.

And this, I surmise, after the first fifteen minutes of searching, is probably what will happen. The grass is long and a vigorous cut some weeks back has left large clumps of brown straw piled up over the field. If my glasses have fallen into the longer grass or under the brown clumpy lumps, then it's only when I stand on them and hear the snap and crack of the lenses that I'll find them.

I have to say though that I will probably be spared this moment. Someone else will get to savour that, because there are upwards of fifty people on the field and no-one, except me, is actually looking at the grass or where their feet are going. Everyone's looking at home-made kites bufooning about on the air or careering about at head height.

The first kite to hit me in the head does so when I'm not looking up so can't take avoiding action. The second kite that hits me in the face is especially irritating because I am just that moment standing up and pontificating to Squirrel about how she should look around her and not help look for my glasses, because if she doesn't keep her eyes about her she may well get hit in the face with a home-made kite. With perfect timing, a home-made kite hits me in the face.

After this I conclude it's probably best if I start recruiting everyone on the field to look for my specs instead of standing on them and being hit by kites, so I start looking mournful and wailing 'help!' in what I hope will be a damsel in distress sort of voice. On my looking team I get one kid who's fallen out with his brother and a grandad who tells me he's blind in one eye.

Well, after another 30 minutes, I do find them. Scratched but unbroken, and I find them not by standing on them. So whatever happens now I will be mighty pleased. Because I have to drive over to the airport tonight in the dark and pick up Amanda from Nice who's arriving to be Grit and Dig's third au pair of the year. Without these specs I only have sunglasses and wearing those late at night is going to mark me out as someone highly suspicious or peculiar to both security staff and Amanada from Nice.

So we can all heave a big sigh of relief. Until we actually see Amanda from Nice that is. Perhaps Amanda from Nice should be wearing the sunglasses. Suffice to say, Grit's saying bonjour at ten o'clock at night covered in grass stains and scratched glasses accompanied by three screaming kids while mentally I'm giving Amanda from Nice a new name thanks to her extraordinary resemblance. Elizabeth Hurley.


Wednesday, 29 August 2007


It's an airport run for Shark, Squirrel, Tiger and Grit today so we can drop Dig down for the 3pm flight. Cleverly, Grit has off-set this boring car journey with a trip to a nearby playground. Even better, I've arranged to meet Am and Jol who are passing through the vicinity. OK then, I admit the playground is not that exciting and is under the Easyjet flight path but hey ho it's the best thing I can find right now. In the past it's proved to be a life saver with Dig's comings and goings and I can always say the children like it. Or they did.

At the last minute before departure we get a lot of 'I don't want to go'. It's too late to summon a taxi and we don't have another plan. At this point, bribery rarely works. So it means another Kaboom! Then Dig goes Kaboom! too as his lift to the airport seems to be vapourising and, if he misses the flight, the consultancy fee that'll cover next month's mortgage goes along with it. It takes some pretty sharp thinking from mummy Grit concerning the knicker problem to get anyone in the car at all.

Then we drop Dig off. Grit's on her own again with an exploding Tiger, a dodgy Shark, a fed up Squirrel and an arriving au pair called Amanda from Nice. At this point it's hard to raise a cheery smile in the direction of Dig's rear end disappearing into the airport departure lounge.

Next up, we get to the park. Tiger arrives already scowling and not playing, Shark is excitable and irritable at the same time and Squirrel is desperate to get her hands on Am as light relief from the horror of having two twin sisters. That's probably when the trouble starts for Am, who not surprisingly gets pretty fed up quite quickly of being pulled in three different directions simultaneously. She starts off bravely enough with a few demands to 'get yourself sorted out' delivered in no-nonsense style to a sulky Shark, then, when resources fails her, has to have a big squeal like the rest of us. My sympathies (and apologies) go to Am (and to Jol) for having to put up with us at all.

But the day's not yet done when Tiger, not fully in rage, takes two fists and wollops Shark while Shark is swinging on a tyre and is pretty much a sitting target. And I do not leap up and respond. Just watch, knowing intervention now will send Tiger sky-high. As I think about my inactivity I know that my ordinary way of admonishment is going to fail with Tiger. Enraged, she's not responsive to consequences and not motivated by rewards. Enraged, she's single-minded, focused, deaf to anything, everything, everyone.

I think Tiger's going to be a journey for us. And just for now, I hope the other parents who are there do not see those fists come down. I hope they're all looking up at the Easy Jet flight path.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Two households

It's lunch and we're the second lot of visitors today who land in San's house. We're offered forbidden hoola hoops and great hunks of bread with salad. En and Zee, San's two children, nick too many hoola hoops, twitter about things like robots and pizza, and then Zee jumps up to run around in her knickers, mostly in the house but sometimes up into the street and round the cul-de-sac before turning back. San smiles and laughs and chides, all made of pretend-shocks, but filled with generosities and fattened out with happy good humour. And when the talk around the house is not of happy things, San meets it all with good sense and positive encouragement.

All the house is like San. There's an enormous word on the wall, made up all of photos: FUN. And that feels the rule, without it ever being spoken, at San's house. Here, it feels like the ground rules have been decided, all made up, safe, and we all know who we are, where we are going, and that we are all loved by someone. We just need to remember to show good sense, because whatever happens it will all turn out for good in the end, and we'll all be at ease.

A visit to San always helps and usually sends me back home with a glow.

We're back at the Pile by teatime. Here we are sloppy and disarranged and without clear lines or rules about any of us. So I promise to myself that I'll do better. Which is just as well.

Dig reminds me that he's off out the country tomorrow, so he's in a trouble about the airport unless we give him a lift, and the electricity bill has still not been paid and, by the way, Amanda, the girl from France who's coming to live here as an au pair but until when we don't know, is arriving on Thursday. So better pick her up. Oops, the flight arrives in the evening and the kids will be tired out and bickering. Dig says there's probably nothing he can do about that, just suffer it and anyway it's not a long drive.

By supper time today, Dig's taken Shark and Squirrel off to the last walk of the summer with the parks department. They're off to try the bat detector.

And I'm at home with Tiger, who's gone Kaboom! at departure time. The trigger? Shark had the bat detector, and Tiger wanted it. Shark and Squirrel and Dig are gone to safety and I've stayed guard while a whirlwind hit us and Tiger tore up her room, screamed and raged that she hated us all and wished she didn't exist.

After an hour she's calmed down and, sobbing, got into the bath, saying how horrible she is, and that she thinks she must be the worst person in the world. At this point, I know the rage is subsided, and the worst is over, so I can tell her that I think there are probably a few other candidates who've had sharper tempers on them than she'll ever manage, but I'm still yearning for a comforting order to settle on the house.

Which is why, at bedtime today, I've ditched the unicorn story for Tiger and I'm to be found reading the only thing I can put my hands on right now. The Unesco 1997 draft document Declaration of Human Responsibilities.

Monday, 27 August 2007

No end. And no beginning either.

It's time for a list.

1. Please do not interrupt me Dig the moment my fingers touch the keys on this keyboard.

2. Oh. Well I can't talk right now since I am trying to organise my thoughts. And since life is a bit spun round, and I have no clear head for anything, I need to sort out what's in my head so I can actually make the list I was going to make.

3. Right. Now I can't actually remember anything that was supposed to be on the list for today. Or tomorrow for that matter. I'm sure I had some things that I'm doing, or what I've done, and perhaps what I'm going to do.

4. It sounds to me like I need a list.

5. Grit has had a pause after listing item 4 and gone down the Co-op to buy a bottle of beer.

6. I must get up properly and not wear the same tee-shirt three days running then go to the Co-op to buy a bottle of beer at 10 o'clock at night. I look like a down and out.

7. Actually I am a bit down and out. If I had a list I would have some sorted out purposeful thoughts to organise.

8. I'm just going to drink this beer and then I'm going to think about making a list.

9. Please do not interrupt me Dig the moment my fingers touch the keys on this keyboard.

10. Oh. Well I can't talk right now since I am trying to organise my thoughts. And since life is a bit spun round, and I have no clear head for anything, I need to sort out what's in my head so I can actually make the list I was going to make.

Ad infinitum. Except for the Co-op bit, which shuts.

Lucky I got several bottles then.

Sunday, 26 August 2007


After yesterday's battle, Shark and Tiger have fled to various parts of the kingdom in self-imposed exile. Squirrel is munching her way through several bowls of breakfast cereal. And mummy Grit gets started on mending a garden chair she put in the garage c. 1992 saying, 'One day I'll mend that chair when I get around to it'.

Dig, meanwhile, busies himself making a bat detector. This involves laying out small items of electrical thingys over all the tables and chairs in the schoolroom. Plus a fair bit of the floor. And on the steps of a stepladder propped here several months ago when Dig promised to put up a light. I'm not sure why the light's still on the floor in a box, but perhaps one day he'll get around to that too.

Anyway, with electrical components spread out over the entire room, and Dig saying Don't touch that and Don't touch that either, there's not much for the warring ladies to do, so they start to take over various parts of the garden as defensive positions.

Tiger opts for the tree. She can clamber up here to the second or third branch, despite repeated cautions about falling out one day when she's eaten too much pizza. Shark takes herself off to the swings, which is pretty difficult, given the fact that they're now encased in wisteria. Squirrel stays indoors, guarding the kitchen. Dig sits in the middle of the schoolroom with a soldering iron, surrounded by electrical thingys. And I go downstairs, where I've got a small workbench furnished with a sewing machine and a couple of hammers. The sewing machine and hammers are usually interchangeable as far as I'm concerned and both do pretty well with the garden chair.

And this, more or less, is how the day proceeds. Every so often Dig gets in a child to learn about making bat detectors and every so often someone comes along to see how the chair is getting along. Shark drops in on Tiger's tree to see how the unicorn hammock is developing, and Tiger goes down to look at Shark's new house in the wisteria. Everyone pops in on Squirrel to ask if they can get to the fruit bowl and bread basket.

It seems to work well, because with everyone engaged quietly in something else, everyone can stay out of everyone else's way.

And this means that in the evening we can have that barbeque.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Battle of the sweetcorn

It's hot. It's a garden day. And it's a barbeque day. Dig goes off to the local Co-op with Tiger to wait in the queue with his standard issue of two packets of vege sausages. They'll probably start to defrost by the time he reaches the till. At home, Grit's cooking potatoes for a potato salad. Shark and Squirrel are playing in the garden.

This is the quiet before the storm.

When Dig gets back everyone buzzes into the kitchen, and out from the bag pops four yellow sweetcorn. And then the trouble starts. Shark wants to help herself to one sweetcorn, to smear it in butter and wrap it in foil, ready for the barbeque. And this is OK with me, and with Dig and with Squirrel. But not with Tiger. She wants to hand out the sweetcorn. This is her sweetcorn. She has stood in a queue to get it. And she's not letting go of it.

And now the shouting starts. And the grabbing. And the tug of war with Shark and Tiger each holding onto one end of the sweetcorn. Within a few minutes the sweetcorn looks mangled and inedible, but no-one's letting go. Everyone's shouting something or another, when down comes Tiger's fist, hard, on Shark's shoulder. Shark springs back and Tiger runs off. What she plans to do with her trophy, no-one knows.

There's no barbeque tonight. There is, however, mummy Grit on Amazon, ordering a copy of The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Name day Part two

Thanks to a nearly-rage-free Tiger day yesterday, everyone's hoping today will yield the same, watching what we say, moving carefully, making sure there's no disturbance that could send us all off bouncing in the wrong direction. Still, there's a bit of tension in the air as Tiger crashes downstairs wearing her party frock, shouting it's her name day so don't make her angry, or else.

This is our second attempt at making a fuss of Tiger. We had conceived the name day as a way to celebrate each child individually and independently, but this name day's building up to a form of self-defence. We can say to Tiger, when she asserts 'You don't love me!' a response that takes the form of 'Look! Here's proof! You had a day all to yourself! A Tiger day! Now add it to the cuddles and claps!'

Well, we all start off quiet speaking and pussy-footing about the house in case someone does or says anything to set her off. Recently, our incendiary devices have been 'Good morning' and 'Would you like some smoothie juice?' Perhaps it's because we're all ultra-cautious, or perhaps it's because Tiger's in the temper to ignore the slights of being offered milk on her Weetabix, the morning mood gradually relaxes, although there's still a bit of tension over the timings for the day, which are quite fine.

Then the first challenge: to get Tiger down to the kiddie park to have fun with Am, all on her own, which is what she's asked for. Then the plan is that I come back to prepare tea, Dig takes Squirrel and Shark who join Tiger and Am for the last hour, then everyone comes back here for a clap-clap tea party. At this point we'll be joined by San with her two kids En and Zee, who are possibly the most relaxed, easy-going kids we've ever met anywhere in the entire world. When everyone's gone home, then we can give Tiger lots of cuddles and bedtime stories and she'll go to bed happy. That's the theory.

I've already done a dash to Tesco to stock up on fruit for tea, which is what Tiger wants, when I suggest to her that it might be time to meet Am down at the park.
'I don't want to go!' wails Tiger.
'Why not?' I ask, sensing disaster.
'I want a sister to be there!' howls Tiger, running off to the schoolroom.
'But isn't this what you wanted?' I ask. I'm a bit gobsmacked now. So is Shark who is stood motionless at the kitchen table, listening, scissors frozen in a half-cut on a home-made paper doily.
'I don't want to go!' howls Tiger. 'It will all go wrong!'

It takes me about thirty minutes coaxing, telling Tiger about the day we've planned, stroking her hair and reassuring her that if things start to go wrong here's Jol, Am's kind mummy, to make her laugh, and a calm daddy Dig to hold her hand. And, I add hopefully, mummy Grit will not run off if there is a Kaboom! but will be there for a cuddle.

Reluctantly Tiger agrees to go, expecting disaster. Looking at me sadly, I suspect that she's as surprised as the rest of us when the Tiger rages start.

With effort and care, we get Tiger down to the kiddie theme park, where she runs off to play happily enough alongside Am. Our plans work well enough, thanks to all; Am and Jol make Tiger laugh; I swap locations with Dig; Squirrel joins at 4pm; Shark stays at home to make Happy Name Day fruit salad and cakes. By the time everyone's arrived back home, En and Zee appear and everyone eats tea.

Afterwards, it all seems so effortless and simple with everyone munching vege sausages and fruit salad and Shark's little cakes, then playing at the park. But the day has had precision timing and organisation rarely known in the Grit and Dig household, and we're all worn out, watching what we say, trying hard not to say this, or to rephrase that, or to intervene and guard. Not too early, not too late. Just at this point, not then, not now. All day, all of us have been trying to make a triumph for Tiger.

And Tiger goes to sleep, saying she's had a happy day, and we heave a big sigh of relief.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Science day fun

Science day with the parks department. This is fab.

For a start, we're all together, en famille, and Tiger is not grounded at home, being looked after by Dig. This is because Dig is a nice daddy and wants Tiger to have someone to talk to the moment she feels she might like to smash up the house, strangle a puffin, or just go beserk because she has seen the colour green. So Dig has a campaign to spend every minute of the day with Tiger. Where Tiger goes, Dig goes too.

Dig says this is a change of Tiger management strategy. He needs to know if we have a deeply disturbed child on our hands or one who just might be fed up right now of having sisters. At the moment I have no opinion on this since recently I have been running off, at high speed, the moment Tiger's warning signals start. Dig thinks this might be an OK thing to do for Shark and Squirrel, but not for me. In my defence I say I cannot cope now with a Tiger in a rage. I have temporarily exhausted my strategies. And I'm feeling a bit emotionally battered by Tiger rages, which have been going on more or less since June. Conjure up a dead cow being hit with a mallet.

Well, we have a different Tiger management strategy today, which means that for the science day, at least, we are all altogether, en famille, and we'll manage. I know Dig will be around, and Dig knows I'll be around or scarper at the first sign of trouble. And so on that basis we proceed. Even though Tiger is being grumpy right from the off, and is not sure whether she wants to come.

Today the Mad Science people are coming to do a show with the Parks department. They do rocket launching, slime making, acid cleaning and some things we miss because we are late. But we are in time for the show with dry ice where all the kids sit down and get wowed by magic-science for 45 minutes.

Fortunately, Tiger doesn't need much management for this. She sits glumly at the back, apart from Shark and Squirrel, looking like she is trying not to be interested.

On the other hand, Shark is desperate to get involved. She is particularly desperate to be a volunteer with the dry ice. But every time she puts up her hand with a Me! Me! Me! look on her face, Squirrel, who's sitting next to her, elbows Shark in the ribs and bashes her hand down. After about five times of this, Shark has a big shout. Fortunately her STOP IT! is largely ignored by the audience who are far too engaged with the show. Squirrel explains afterwards that she was only doing it to stop Shark making an idiot of herself, and, she adds, it might have been a dangerous experiment and Shark might have been blown up. I wonder if this might betray Squirrel's deep fears about insecurity and loss of her triplet sisters and mentally file it away for later reference.

After the show, the children are invited to make inventions using junk from the local scrapstore. I note everyone else makes wise inventions like new designs for lunchboxes, or trailers to hook up to the car to carry tents in, or clever devices to hold up your toothbrush.

Shark invents a unicorn launcher. But not before Squirrel invents a machine that will first trap your unicorn by creeping up behind it and hitting it on the head to render it unconscious. Tiger is temporarily enthused, and invents a flying machine to catch the trapped and stunned unicorn as it is propelled from the launcher and carry it further up to the skies. Tiger explains that when the unicorn is hundreds of meters up, the doors open so it can fall out. What happens when it hits the ground? I ask. Tiger looks thoughtful. It helps it to fly, she says. I think the fact that she did not say 'It kills it outright' might be hopeful. Anyway, it all might need further psychoanalysis, and I resolve to tell Dig.

Shark's unicorn launcher is quickly followed by a wish box. You put it at the end of your bed, put your wishes into it, and they'll come true. I can't bring myself to remind her that last time she had a wish and only told Toy Fish, that it most certainly did not come true. I could say, though, that the technique of loudly wishing for a pinky-purple hippopotamus, day in and day out fifteen times a day, was much more successful in bringing about a speedy and satisfactory conclusion.

Squirrel goes on to invent a box that you blow into with a straw. It has something to do with unicorns, but I cannot figure out what. I'm not sure if it is to pump air into the battered and bruised unicorn, or suck the last remaining life out of it after it's been hurtled to ground from Tiger's flying machine.

Tiger doesn't want to invent anything else now, she says. She wants to go and play with the rocket launcher. I'm sure that needs psychoanalysis. Either that or it's because the rocket launching station is at the other end of the field. About as far away from her sisters as she can get.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The News

Perhaps it's because it is August. I'll keep it short.

I am fed up to the back teeth with...

1. Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears and Coleen Mcloughlin falling out of my newspaper every morning while I'm trying to have a decent cup of coffee without spilling it.

2. Newsreaders, footballers and celebrity chefs whose 'family secrets' are splattered everywhere, even through the pages of The Independent. And the story is thus: They are born into miserable circumstances / family misfortune / destitution / have a murderer / thief / bankrupt in the family history (hey, who hasn't?) yet despite these inauspicious circumstances have risen through their own efforts, talents and passions to become the newsreader / footballer / celebrity chef that we love today.

3. The Freud family.

4. Journalists interviewing each other.

5. What any member of the Royal Family is doing, or not doing. Well I might just knock together a press release and send it to the palace. And tell them what the Grit family is doing. And not doing.

There. That's as short as a Grit-in-a-Huff can manage.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Art in the Park

One sooper-dooper event from the Parks dept. Squirrel and Shark go off art trailing in the wood. It's like orienteering with art. Can we find the first post? Yes, thanks to the parks department sticking up a twenty foot blue flag that reads 'Event Here'.

At the first post we make collage landscape art with tissue paper and cut out pencil drawings. Then it's off down the woodland path to find weaving, using sticks as frames and lots of grass and flowers as warp and weft. Then we're off down the trail again to find the spot where we lie down on the ground and look up, to wonder at the sky and the tree-tops, which we draw with charcoal and chalk. Finally, off we go to model clay trees with lots of seed heads and grasses stuck in for added effect.

Squirrel and Shark think it is all tip top.

And Tiger's at home having some therapy. Dig is spending one to one time with Tiger to do Big Talk.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Name day Part One

Well we didn't have a name day today for Tiger.

We abandoned it soon after we embarked on it due to a) chronic disorganisation and b) Tiger having a squeal lasting from 4pm to after 6pm, covering the planned name day tea party thrown by mummy Grit in her honour.

Name days, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion, is a crap idea.

I'm sure you know it. The idea is that every day of the year has a name attached to it, so when your name rolls round you get to celebrate along with everyone else called that. Now we don't have this tradition in Britain, probably thanks to Henry VIII, so we nicked it from just about any other European country that seems to have it.

Our theory goes that with three kids all born within one minute of each other, they would pretty soon get fed up of competing with each other over everything. Worst of all, they get to do it on their birthday too, so they are never the special girl and it's never really their birthday. And for a girl who never has a birthday of her own, life will go downhill quicker than a Gloucester cheese on cheese-rolling day. And whose fault will it all be? Ours. Tiger's already whining that no-one asked her permission before she was born. Soon enough she'll be dressing in black and crawling under the duvet refusing to come out for three years.

So we thought we would try and delay being blamed for the conception by celebrating each girl individually. 'Aha!' we could say. 'This day is totally yours! No-one else in the family gets a look in! Have the day all to yourself! Today we are celebrating ...Tiger!'

Except that Tiger spent most of the day shouting and weeping and complaining about being born at all.

We're trying again on Friday.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

The 2007 Games

Well the summer rain is not stopping the Grit family, so off we go to the 1883 Sports Day. That's how far ahead with the times we are here in middle England.

Actually, only half the Grit family goes to this spot of living history because Tiger's at home, with Dig, grounded. Tiger's explosions of anger are terrorizing us all right now. No-one knows when they'll come or what prompts them. But when they come they cause us all to scatter and go into hiding. When we come out, Tiger's exhausted and the puffin's been strangled.

So half the family is at Stowe landscape gardens, back in time in 1883, feeling lousy, which is just as well, because the Sports Day is lousy too, which is almost comforting, in a strange sympathetic way.

First I don't get past the staff desk without a £1.00 contribution each for Shark and Tiger, which gets me the information that Wheelbarrow racing's off, because the ground's too slippy, and Three legged racing's off too, because there aren't enough participants. There certainly aren't. We're the only ones. The last family just finished throwing hoops about and has wandered off to find a lake to look at, or a landscaped valley to run about in.

All the games are 2007 versions of games held in 1883 or thereabouts, with lots missed out. There isn't a pipe smoking competition in the 2007 versions. Nor is there a competition to see who can eat most cakes in the shortest possible time. Bobbing apples has turned into magnetic fishing for laminated pictures of apples, probably for health and safety reasons, so we have a go at that first.

Of course we have to ignore the rules, because if we followed the rules the game would be over in a trice and there'd be only one winner. In Grit's 2007 world, if you play, you win. You might think that's impossible with Hop and Pop, where you have to get the counters round the circuit and back home first. But no. You can win at being second. And then you win at coming last. Look! we tell Tiger, before she picks up the Hop and Pop and throws it across the room. You won! No-one else came last!

Anyway, off we go, fishing laminated apples from a paddle pool. The lady staff responsible for fleecing me of £2 comes over to see how we are doing. Pointing out that we are not following the rules doesn't help and sets me off about how my tennis ball was confiscated here in 2003 when it was not just a tennis ball it was a key part of triplet toddler management technique. How do you get triplet toddlers to walk in the same direction at the same time? I quiz her. Clearly, she doesn't know. You roll a tennis ball along the path in front of them and they all run after it. That way we can make the car before nightfall. And don't let anyone catch the ball because then it would turn into Rugby and a trip down the A&E, and we don't want that.

Well, back to the games. We discover we are no good at getting hoops over poles stuck in the ground with numbers on unless you are Squirrel and cheat.

Third game, the jingles. Basically you blindfold everyone, sit them on a mat and then proceed to beat them about the head with a bell tied to a piece of string dangling from a pole. Someone, probably fed up of receiving sharp blows across the temple with the jingling bell, grabs the bell and gives it a sharp tug, so the bell holder slips on the wet grass, falls over and cries.

Next, there's knocking over a tennis ball with a length of nylon rope. For added difficulty, the tennis ball is perched on an unturned plastic cup. This game is the 2007 version of getting a ball out of a hole in the ground with a coachwhip. Those 1883 coach drivers were probably pretty good, because even going to within kicking distance of the tennis ball we still can't do it. Eventually the wind obliges and sends the upturned cup and ball flying off. Which is just as well because Shark is close to tears and has got her foot tangled up in the rope.

Is there anything else asks the excited Grit family? No, replies the lady staff. Oh we all say. No versions of pipe smoking? No eating cakes? No.

At this point Shark and Squirrel look at each other and set up their own amusement by robbing the other games of equipment to build their own obstacle course. This would be a sorrow to anyone if they wanted to use the equipment at the other games, but no-one does. Perhaps it's the £1 that puts them off. Or perhaps it's the fact that the drizzle is setting in. Or perhaps it's the sight of Shark and Squirrel starting to have a squealing match over who gets to put the stick in their obstacle course as 'the thing you must carry'.

Grit waits patiently for about an hour while this all goes on with just a bit of grumbling about how in 2003 I was not playing games with the tennis ball when it was confiscated. It was management. And when Shark and Squirrel have finished with all their obstacle courses and are worn out, run about, and all pink in the cheeks, we go home to Tiger.

And I'm sure it was not much more fun in 1883.

Saturday, 18 August 2007


The junior Grits are thinking ahead. This is prompted, bizarrely enough, by the summer walk with the parks department, in the drizzly rain and grey, cloudy skies of August.

We get plenty of time to run about and look at the sky and talk to Mothman. In fact, we even get to dictate part of the route, because we're the only ones who turn up. I reckon that everyone else today is only looking at the drizzle.

As we walk, Tiger's not looking too far ahead. About as far as the computer screen to which she is glued, at home, drawing Georgia O'Keeffe style pictures of pink flowers in a red field. They are quite brilliant, and I feel I could put my hand in amongst their shiny petals and shuffle them about, loving the way she has spilled the pink over the pencil lines of the flower. But I'm not saying anything, because I'm still cross with her, the way she's been banned from every other room in the house now thanks to throwing puffins and bouncy balls and making everybody else miserable with snarling and shouting.

So while Tiger's at home, grounded, better occupied in pink flowers, I'm walking with Squirrel and Shark, and Mothman, who patiently waits while we mess about the hedgerows, peering at holes in trees, smiling at snails and bridges, cows and horses, grass and a pin cushion that Mothman says belongs to a robin.

The walk has clearly been an inspiration for Squirrel. When we get home, Squirrel whispers to me that she has a secret, but don't tell anybody, because they might laugh. She wants to work for the parks department. She must have enjoyed herself so much with them over this summer that she's dropped the idea of being a ballerina or an actress. I ask Shark what she wants to do when she's older. She's still torn between being a chef and a marine biologist, and can't decide, but today reckons she can do the marine biology during the day and the cooking at night. Talk of cooking gets her off looking through the recipe books in search of coconut macaroons. Then I ask Tiger what she wants to do, if she can calm down long enough to get there. An artist, answers Tiger. Or an illustrator.

Anyway, the walk in the blowy August wind has obviously fired Squirrel up. After telling me her ambition, she jumps off and immediately sets about designing lampshades.

After a couple of hours, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are all furiously designing table lamps and hanging pendants. By the end of the day they've put together a lighting catalogue and are getting us to choose favourites. My favourite is the cake light. The light shade looks like a cake and there are little fairy lights that come out the top, like a candle explosion. I can't decide between that and the carrot light, which would look whimsical in the kitchen. It's a feathery green shade; the carrot seems to be missing.

I imagine sending the lighting catalogue to Ikea and seeing if we can get a letter back. And then I find Tiger's pictures. She's putting a book together about a humming bird who goes back to the dinosaur age. I think I might nick the plot line and pictures and try and sell it to Penguin. And as for Shark's coconut macaroons, I wonder about being cheeky and sticking one in a presentation box addressed to The Ivy.

Now then, Parks dept., Penguin, Ikea and The Ivy. Don't say you weren't warned.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Back to normal

There's a noticeable lifting of spirits at the Pile, so we're all back to normal.

Back to normal means:

Tiger and Shark hiss-fitting with claws over possession of the beaded fork.

Grit goes shopping at Tesco, gets to the checkout, and has no means of payment. The bill is £43.86. I have 10p in my pocket along with a confiscated Playmobil policeman. All the shopping gets taken off me and put behind a special desk until I go home and find a purse.

I find all the overdue library books stuffed behind the soft toy box.

Squirrel spills apple juice all over the floor and uses all the tea towels to mop it up with, despite being told where the apple juice mopping-up cloths can be found.

Mummy Grit opens a document on the computer to typeset and is then called away. In my absence Tiger comes and leans on the keyboard. The author will write back 'Actually, I did not write 'Trubetzkoy proposed, in 1938, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx a ddddddddddddddd vxdx bnmnbnnm counter-model.'

Mummy Grit has coped with triplets as normal, with great patience and calm and when she has wanted to kick things, gone upstairs and kicked the laundry basket where it is all quiet and no-one can see and she can pretend she was just visiting the loo.

Well, everything's normal.

And Sasha's inability to cope with a household of triplets has made me think just what we have managed. We have stuck together through the shock of three; through the birth and the near death of it; through the loss of three dear people, including both our mothers within the first year of life; through the ongoing financial ruin; the child-bomb that blew up our marriage; the change of our lifestyles; change of status; change of careers. And we're still here and still surviving. Our family is rich, profound, complex, disorganised, strong, generous, bizarre and chaotic. And I'm proud of it.


And that's normal.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Sasha has left

About 9.30 this morning, actually. Without a word to the children or to me, Sasha knocks on Dig's office door, says 'I'm going' and promptly exits the front door. Well that's the first bit of initiative she's shown in all the miserable days she's been here.

So Sasha, in your absence, here are the best bits.

We're at Verulamium. It's time to get in the car. I give Sasha the keys and say the car's in the car park Sasha, you can't miss it. Open the doors while we gather the kids and follow you. We get to the car, locked, and spot Sasha, head down, off at a trot, well past the car park, marching off up the road, high on the hill now, disappearing on the A-road probably, off into St Albans. Where are you going to Sasha with the car keys? Are you on drugs?

It's lunch. Sasha's been here for a week now. She sets the table for five people then sits down in mummy Grit's place. Sasha, have you noticed there are six of us? Six! Have you noticed that? Never mind Sasha, I'll pretend I'm working anyway and eat lunch in the office.

When we asked you to teach the children German we did not have in mind 'Scheisse'.

Looking at the vacuum cleaner and asking 'How does it work?'

Saying 'I have never done THAT before!' and pulling a face when you're asked to do something that's really weird. Hmmm. Now what was it that I asked you to do? Oh yes, I remember. The washing up.

Locking yourself in your room.

Abandoning Shark to walk home alone.

Telling off the children at the table for eating in the wrong way.

Mummy Grit's face when she discovers you are actually aged twenty and not seventeen.

If only I'd had chance to say goodbye.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Not working

Sasha has added not eating, not drinking, and not coming out of her room to her list of not speaking and not going to the toilet.

Dig says he hasn't seen Sasha at all today. Has she died? Or gone? I say that I saw her this morning about 10am when she came into the kitchen while I'm trying to get the kids ready for tennis. She said nothing to me, just stood like normal, not moving. I said nothing to her. Back to her room she went.

The next time I saw her was about 1pm when I asked her if she'd like some soup for lunch. She said 'I'm not hungry' despite the fact that she said that last night. Then off she went downstairs again. And that's it. I haven't seen her since.

Quite frankly Sasha, I've had enough.

Actually, we're beginning to suspect that her parents have sent her over to us, probably in despair, and to give us a taste of what it's going to be like to give house room to a teenage Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Sasha is a disaster

Sasha has excelled herself today. After moping about the house doing not much, I ask her if she could do a project on Germany with the children.

Sasha puts on a startled expression, like when she saw the vacuum cleaner. Raised eyebrows, sidesweeping eyes, head tilt to one shoulder, mouth open to speak but no words come out. That expression says, 'That's the weirdest thing! No-one's ever asked me to do anything like this before!'

Well Sasha, doing a project on Germany with the children basically means find Germany on a map, get the kids to say 'Bitte', cook the recipe from the Usborne Round the World Cook Book and do a spot of colouring in. Hey, don't expect us to do it in one day, either Sasha, try this lot for the week!

After the 'That's weird!' look, Sasha sweeps her hair forward to cover her face and mumbles a slow and hesitant 'OK', like it might all be a disaster. How right she is.

Shark, who wants to be a chef, jumps up to grab the recipe book and we all find a recipe for potato cakes and apple sauce. Sasha says she's never heard of it. I say well it's for kids, and most importantly, it's for Shark, so cook it anyway. We'll photograph it, eat it, and stick the picture in the German project book with a coloured in German flag. Quite frankly, I think, I don't want a philosophical argument about European cuisine right now, basically I want a bit of interaction between you and the children. So I say, Could you help Shark organise it and cook it. Go down to Tesco with the purse, a shopping bag and Shark, and buy some cooking apples. That mumbled 'OK' should have warned me.

Forty minutes later, Shark buzzes on the front door to be let in. Squirrel opens the door and in comes Shark, looking a bit bedraggled with drizzle and clutching a bag of eating apples.

'Where's Sasha?' I ask.
'Dunno', says Shark.
'How do you mean you don't know?' I say.
'She disappeared', says Shark, slapping the apples down on the table.
'What? Where did she go? Taken up by aliens?'
'Well did she say anything to you?'
'Hurry up.'

Clearly there's something a bit amiss here. Interrogating Shark is the only way we're going to get a lead, so I continue, and ask, 'Where did you last see her?'
'On the corner', says Shark, waving her arms. 'She went round by the cars and I didn't see her again.'
'What corner?'
'The corner out there.' Shark points vaguely at the wall.
'Did she come to the front door?'
'Well where's Sasha gone?'
'I don't know!' wails Shark. 'She was there and then she wasn't and last time I saw her was at the cars.'

We wait fifteen minutes. No Sasha. And while we're waiting, I quiz Shark some more.
'Did she say anything else to you?'
'She said she wasn't making potatoes with me'.

Now I know what a nuisance a foot-dragging Shark can be. But where cooking's concerned, there's usually no problem. Quite the opposite. We have to curb the enthusiasm otherwise it'll be 54 fruit cakes all over again. So I try a different approach and say, gently, 'Do you think you have anything to apologise to Sasha about?'
'No', says Shark. And this time she adds, 'I think Sasha should say sorry to me. She was going too fast and I couldn't keep up and it's my normal pace!'

Well Sasha, between you and Shark, I think I'll believe Shark. So later, when you declare that you abandoned my 7-year old to make her own way home because she 'started to scream' I don't believe you.

And Grit's had enough. Quite frankly I do not care if Sasha has been abducted by aliens. The meaner the better. In fact, I hope they suck out her brain and use her intestines as shoelaces.

'Well I'm bloody well cooking potato cakes and apple sauce' says Grit to Shark, slapping the apples on the table again. 'That's our tea.'

Sasha makes it back some half hour later and heads straight off to her bedroom. She tells Squirrel on the way that she went for a walk. She doesn't come up for potato cakes and apple sauce. Squirrel's stuck a home-made German flag in them so they can be properly photographed. When Shark, Squirrel and Tiger have gone to bed I drag Sasha out of her room to explain and ask her if she'd like to go home.

We're all giving it 24 hours.

Monday, 13 August 2007


Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are booked into a tennis club all this week. It's cost an arm and a leg so they're going, whatever the weather; ill, squabbling, wounded; no matter.

Things are tight at the Pile right now. No money's yet come in from the work I sit and miserably complete, but plenty's going out, paying for trips here, there and everywhere, when it's not being used for essential items like three pairs of new plimsols and a Viking braiding disk.

It has to be said that a week of tennis lessons won't make any difference whatsoever to any junior Grit's tennis skills. It's a triumph and a cause for celebration if any one of them manages to hit a ball with a racquet at all. Then after the hurrah comes the jealousies and the rages because it was a sister that managed to hit the ball and usually, that's not fair.

So Grit's feeling down in the dumps again after a fun weekend. Probably without cause or justification. Perhaps it really is the bank account that's bringing me down. Or perhaps it's the knowledge of the practical reality involved in getting Shark, Squirrel and Tiger promptly out of the house to the tennis courts at 10.30 every morning. Perhaps it's the thought of the consequence of Shark hitting the ball, and Tiger missing. Or perhaps it's the thought of another week with Sasha.

Well, I'll look on the bright side.

I'm sure I can find one somewhere.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Festival of History

Hoozzah! One of Grit's highlights of the year! The English Heritage multiperiod event where lots of reenactors up and down the country go into some fields and have a big punch up. And if I have to dump the kids like in 2004 and go on my own, I jolly well will do so.

As it is, the junior Grits are now much better at history than they were in 2004, when they were aged four and only interested in ice cream.

First up, the medieval knight skills, with Grit shouting about Edward III in the rain so that she can show off her garter knowledge. Then we find a bloke who makes ropes and off Grit goes again rattling on about ships of the Phoenecian traders and the pirates of the seventeenth century. Then it's a spot of Tudor dancing and Shark refuses to join in, even though I have started tugging at her clothing and threatening to cry if she doesn't be my partner.

Then we're off to the Romans. I like the Romans. And the Celts. A few years ago I drove for miles in the middle of nowhere to get to the Iceni Museum and see the tailor's dummies propped up in the round houses. I would have stayed too, even with the whiff of Top Shop hanging about the place, had not Tiger got scared about the heads on poles and forced an untimely exit.

Anyway, no-one's going to stop me by the time we see the Saxons who look like the Normans who look like the Vikings, which sets Grit off again lecturing about the importance of chronology in the teaching of history. By the time we get to the seventeenth century, Shark has legged it with Dig, while Tiger and Squirrel are refusing to be with me unless I walk several paces behind them.

Well that suits me fine, I say. Because I'm sure I've just spotted Shackleton and must go over and discuss sugar lumps. But not before I've parted with a huge load of money for a Viking braiding disk I need, and popped in for a word with a commander in the Napoleonic wars to tut about the folly of the Spanish campaign.

But by then, Tiger and Shark and Squirrel are running off to find Dig. I was just about to lecture everyone too on the rise of Parliament from Simon de Montfort onwards. Never mind. They're probably hoping to tap him for a Cornish wafer.

I'll get them on the car journey home.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Moth night

It's Moth Night, so the Grit and Dig family is off to hunt wildlife in the jungly darkness. We're joining a moth and bat walk led by Guide Mothman, who works for the parks department, and even though he knows a million and one things about moths, doesn't mind saying 'I don't know that!'

Fortunately, there isn't room in the car to take Sasha, so we can leave her behind to sink further and further into a depressive state in the cellar. I'm not sure she's enjoying this stay with us and all the little junior Grits. Perhaps if she spoke, or showed any interest in the children or her surroundings, things would improve.

In fact, we are so desperate to get out the house and away from the miserable Sasha in the cellar that Grit forgets all the torches. This means that we very quickly become dangerous when being led around small paths in the forest, spending the last part of the evening falling over, squealing 'Ouch!' and being attacked by invisible brambles. And I get worried that all the other moth walkers will probably wonder why no moths seem to be coming down tonight. It is because Grit has a phobia about being bitten by mosquitoes and catching nile fever, and has bathed the entire family in 100% concentration of Deet. To the delicate nose of a moth we are probably stinking like a manure pit situated on top of a tannery. I'm keeping quiet about the Deet, and hope no-one sniffs us out.

Mothman saves the evening, anyhow. Apart from forgetting to charge the £2 for the walk, so it's free, he equips a delighted Shark and Squirrel with bat detectors. Tiger doesn't want one in case it attracts bats that might try and eat her ears.

Mothman's also wise about anyone dressed for jungle warfare in a bottle of insect repellant and has pegged out bright white sheets lit by super-strong lights powered by a generator linked by his car to attract moths without noses. Because it's a wood in darkness, he's worried that the local dodger will nick the generator, so he's chained it to a tree. If we had a torch, the Grit family could stop tripping over the wires and pegs as they try to avoid the brambles.

All in all, and despite the leg wounds, the night is declared tip top, and we learn a lot about moths and bats. Squirrel makes a list of moths without noses, which she wants to show Sasha, who I suspect has retired early in the cellar. And everyone else goes to bed happy.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Plan A

I'm taking Tiger to London. This is part of Plan A. Tiger is going bonkers on a daily basis now, and it's getting steadily worse. One minute she's a happy child drawing a picture of a Pegasus; the next she's snarling and writhing and throwing puffins and xylophones about the house.

So we thought Plan A might help. Plan A is to give more one-to-one time to each of the children. Outnumbered by triplets, that's not been easy. There's competition over everything, which doesn't help anyone, and it's been like that since Day One with the competition over Grit's body parts. Now, Tiger, Shark and Squirrel seem locked in competition for anything.

As an aside, I'd like to boast that competition at the Pile takes the form of who's first to achieve a Master's degree, or who's first to be accepted into the Royal Academy of Music. But it's not. It's who saw the colour green first, or who was out of bed first. For a while it was who was first to get into the house, which involved countless scrums on the hall floor as Tiger, Squirrel and Shark clawed, kicked, bit and punched their way over the threshhold after a visit to the Co-op to get cheese for lunch.

Anyway, after weeks of Tiger going bonkers, it's time for Plan A. Foolishly, we assumed that with help in the house, in the form of an au pair, at last we'd be able to achieve Plan A, since we seem to have had it since January.

But today we don't have an au pair. Because Sasha has gone to London to spend the day with Ermintrude. And the whole family is heaving a big sigh of relief and feeling liberated. The irony that Plan A now only seems possible because the au pair has left the house does not escape us.

And Tiger does go to London. She has mummy Grit on her own all day long, while Dig feeds carrot sandwiches to Shark and Squirrel. He says bread and carrots are the only things he can find, so it was a logical step. Anyway, he takes them for a few turns on the roller coaster at the kiddie theme park, so he's happy enough, and I guess Shark and Squirrel are too.

I wish I could say the same about Tiger. She goes bonkers in the Natural History Museum and says life would be better if I didn't exist, which makes me want to give up on Plan A altogether.

But I'm not going to. So I march off to the V&A, where I can slump in the courtyard with a lemonade and lick my wounds while Tiger goes off to paddle in the fountain-paddle pool.

Plan A wasn't much of a success today, then. But we'll stick at it a while yet.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

On duty

Off to one of the excellent and, quite frankly, wonderful parks department events.

Today we are pretending to be pirates in a field. It looks like a home ed meeting. Kids of all ages are running about flapping bits of paper on string (Jolly Roger flags); getting told off for eating the silver ball cake decorations buried in sand (pirate treasure); wailing over how to staple paper plates together when the stapler's got no staples in it (portholes on a sunken Spanish galleon); making boxes from junk and brown paper (treasure chests); pond dipping (nothing to do with pirates whatsoever); scavenger hunting (ditto); making a plank to get fresh water beyond Shark lagoon (Grit cannot work it out, so cheats); fishing (with magnets, of course); making telescopes (no lenses); and doing the treasure trail in search of gold dubloons (painted stones which the particularly dumb kid from the detective trail in the woods last week probably nicked deliberately to confound the Grit family).

I had hoped to drop Sasha off with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to do all this and get back to work for a couple of hours. But after yesterday, there's no chance of that, so I'm on supervisory duties. I'm keeping an eye on things to try and see what happens when Sasha's about and find out why the junior Grits are steadily going bonkers. Along with mummy Grit, actually.

OK then, call it spying.

The first thing I notice from my vantage point behind the sand pit is that Sasha does a lot of standing about staring into space, twiddling her hair with her fingers, looking uninterested in pirates while Shark gets on with making a porthole from two paper plates without staples.

The second thing I see while hovering behind the treasure box desk is that Sasha tells Tiger she cannot do that when making her treasure box. Tiger starts to shout and say everything is rubbish. Actually, Sasha is right, but some things are better left unsaid.

The third thing I eye-spy with my telescope without a lens is that Squirrel has a huge wee-shaped patch about her again. I go up and tell her off this time and say next time go behind a tree. Squirrel defends herself by saying she asked Sasha for help but Sasha couldn't find a tree. I say you are surrounded by trees. Then Shark doesn't help by saying everyone does it in the garden anyway.

On the way home my finely-tuned watchful pirate skills detect that Sasha shows no enthusiasm at all for being with us and may even probably rather wish she was in Heidelberg.

When everyone gets home I declare the parks department possibly the most tip-top wonderful and imaginative parks department in existence. Shark and Squirrel go off to squabble in the front room while I get out the Blackbeard book to read aloud. Tiger by now is in a fuming rage and has been ordered upstairs to smash her own room up and not my front room, thank you very much. I say I'll come up later to talk about strategies which Grit calls How We All Calm Down.

And Sasha goes off to her bedroom to hide. And probably to watch us, miserably, from a distance.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Wednesday is market day in St Albans

I know this now. Because I've tried to park the car.

It's probably about 2pm when I try to park outside Verulamium museum. The car park's full. I'm circling round like a vulture, looking for a space. I've suggested meeting Am and Jol here. Am and Jol drive past and wave. I don't see them; I'm focused on the movements of a blue Toyota.

There's only one thing to be done. Drop the kids with Sasha, together with strict instructions to play at this end of the park, while I set off driving round St Albans to find a space.

Oh no you don't, comes the St Alban's reply. Because it's market day, see? Don't think you're parking there. Here's the car park by the cathedral. It's three cars to a space in there. And look! The police are even touring it now looking to park the riot van. Next, here's the car park by the shops with a lot of white vans in. Or would you like the car park with the sign outside: 'Closed on Wednesday. Market traders only'? Of course you can't park on the street because there's a funny looking shield on the signs. To residents that means something special. To Grit it means a wheel clamp and £120 to get the clapped out skip I drive released at 11pm this evening.

So off I go to find some more car parks. I apologise to the residents at that point for driving the wrong way up the one way street but I was temporarily confused. But let's have a look at this car park. Oh, there's the police in it again, circling round and round, probably still looking for a space. Back to the shopper one. Nope. Now here's some more shields. Then, a shopping paradise car park. Success! £2.70 for 5 hours in Level 1! I'll park there! Then leg it back to Am and Jol and the kids and Sasha who are all playing in the water park.

Now I like St Albans, but I don't know it well. As I walk out of the paradise car park and onto the street I have no idea where I am. Help! There is an enormous market happening in front of me and I cannot see my hand in front of my face for market traders and women buying size 20 purple underwear. But where are the signs? Where are the signs that read Cathedral this way? Kids and Jol that way?

Disaster. Turn Grit round a few times, shove her in a market filled with size 20 purple underwear, and she becomes disoriented and confused and loses all sense of directon and starts wandering off in the wrong direction for 25 minutes.

I ring Dig. I give him my location and tell him to call up a screen map of St Albans town centre, preferably one that shows the market on Wednesdays and talk me back as I walk because it feels like 4pm and I am about to collapse.

It must be another 30 minutes before I get to Jol, Sasha and all the kids. My plan is to get rid of Sasha PDQ and have a quality moan to Jol about car parking in St Albans on market day. I suggest Sasha try shopping in the market, since it's Wednesday.

And when I do get rid of Sasha, just how long did I get to sit down with my aching feet before Tiger decides she is going to go bonkers?

So I lead Tiger through the park, past the cathedral and down the streets, past the market traders packing up their purple underwear, back to the paradise shoppers car park and our beaten up old car, where she's calm, says her feet ache, and eats oat biscuits.

And I drive back to the car park outside Verulamium. We make it there just before 6pm. And of course I find a space. No problem.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

No fun at the park

It didn't go so well today.

Before lunch, I pack Sasha off to the kiddie theme park with a picnic. With her are Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. It's supposed to be a sort of team building exercise. I'll put everyone in a position where they have to talk, I think, if only to divvy out the sandwiches and argue over the grapes. Then I wave everyone goodbye at the gate and try to sneak off to the gym.

Kiddie theme park days are usually straightforward. When I'm in charge, the kids run off, I put up my feet and everyone comes back to graze on chewy bars and oat biscuits when they're hungry, and then run off again. I can pass a pleasant couple of hours like that with the thermos, a pack of secret biscuits and yesterday's newspaper. At the end of it all, I can call it physics and say things like 'Were there any forces on the drop down thing?' and the kids will answer 'My knees went funny' to which I respond, 'I'm sure that's a force. Better ask daddy.' And I'll feel jolly pleased with myself that I am such an enterprising mummy for introducing physics in such an imaginative way.

And then I go and ruin it all by sending them along with Sasha.

Because just as I park the car at the gym and pay 50p for the privilege of parking right outside, I get a text from Sasha: Can you pick up Tiger. She is in a rage. It is horrible. Sasha.

It's back in the car for Grit to meet a snarling Tiger and a wilting Sasha who's managing a wan smile at the gate. Shark and Squirrel look bored, kicking the ground like they've waited long enough.

I can't tell you what happened, what went wrong. Shark and Squirrel run off again, towing Sasha by the arms. I come home with Tiger who falls into another rage and shouts and screams and throws things. When she's calmed down, she says she didn't want to go that way, she wanted to go the other way.

Perhaps Sasha, a better tack was to say 'OK Tiger, I'll meet you at the corner. And don't forget, I've got the picnic'.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Off to the swamp

I have a headache. This is not one of those Oops! had a bit too much to drink last night in an attempt to escape reality type of headaches. Nor is it the type of headache that accompanies fever or vomiting or chills. It's not the type of headache that comes from having to be too nice for too long in social situations, where your cheek muscles might hurt and you wish everyone would just push off, go home or that you could creep away. No. I think this is one of those unhappiness headaches.

In Grit, unhappiness creeps out as the slow result of backward-evolutionary forces. First of all, some minor distress will occur, like being thwarted in my intentions for the day. That kick-starts it all. Then I'll be cross at myself for being so inflexible. I may even respond at this point with some grunting or puffing, which will stand in place of a reasoned argument, or a considered explanation of how I'm feeling. When I've become unhelpful and uncommunicative and probably slammed a few doors along the way, then I'll feel worse about my behaviour and will run through all of those bad, non-qualities that a grumpy Grit can display, such as pettiness, mean-mindedness and ungenerous self-pity, which will all bring on a good bit of self-loathing.

At this point I should take myself off somewhere so that I can sink into a swamp and properly feel like a protean human being who's missed their opportunity once again to become a decent person capable of showing good and decent values.

So that's what I'll do then.

And I'm taking my unhappy headache with me. It's mine and I've worked for it.

Sunday, 5 August 2007


I'm going to put up rules again. And these are not for Squirrel, Tiger and Shark. Their rules, on the kitchen door, are for getting out the house. They go something like this:

1. Brush your teeth.
2. Put on your knickers.
3. Put on your shoes.
4. Go to the toilet.
5. Wait in the hall.

The next set of rules will be for Sasha. And they might read something like this:

1. When you have finished breakfast do not creep off to your room.

2. If you are in the front room with the children, try and engage with them. You could look at them. You can even talk to them, if you try. Do not ignore them and draw pictures on the computer using their kiddy art package while Squirrel leads an expedition over the back of the sofa to Back-in-Time land, clutching three jigsaw boxes in place of suitcases, incidentally full of dinosaurs. The jigsaw pieces have been dumped on the floor, of course.

3. If mummy Grit says 'Can we get ready to go out to the farm?' she is not inviting you to go downstairs and choose a new outfit.

4. As we are driving to the farm and mummy Grit cannot remember whether it's the second or third turn right, please do not watch her struggle with one hand trying to find the lead to plug in the sat nav system and moving only when you are explicitly told 'Find the lead that plugs in the sat nav, Sasha. It is black. You are sitting on it.'

5. When you get to the farm with us and we have spent 45 minutes picking raspberries and are completely dehydrated and starving thanks to mummy Grit leaving the water and sandwiches in the car, you could offer to go and get them.

6. When mummy Grit gets everyone to sit down in the shade and not stagger about falling into the prickly bushes, thus giving her a chance to leg it back to the car for refreshments, do not kick over the punnets of raspberries we have just put down next to us.

7. Do not say, before mummy Grit goes off to the car, 'I have some water' and then clearly have none and drink all Tiger's instead.

8. Please teach us some German. Actually, this is one of the big things we asked you to do. Consider it is all our failing, for being home educators. Now please tell us the word for cauliflower. We don't want to drag it out of you. But we will if necessary.

9. Please speak and move when you are on car journeys, whether we are going backwards or forwards to the farm or not. Having a passenger who stares straight ahead and never speaks is a bit like keeping a cardboard cut-out in the car. In fact, Sasha, I might well make a big cardboard cut-out and stick it in the kitchen.

Mummy Grit's now going to put up a rule of her own.

1. No more teenage girls from rule-based backgrounds.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Sasha does a lot of standing about

Fifteen minutes after breakfast, Sasha's starting to get on my nerves.

Now I'm not very good at telling people what to do. In fact Grit is possibly the most rubbish manager in the entire world, with the exception of Dig, who doesn't like telling people what to do either. If Dig wants someone to do something he'll say nothing at all. He probably hopes they pick up his brainwaves.

Well, this is why we arranged it so that Ermintrude could do it. Canny eh? We overlapped Ermintrude and Sasha so that Ermintrude could lead Sasha around the house and tell her everything to do, while me and Dig could hide. Well Ermintrude has gone. And it's Sasha's turn to have a go at being an au pair.

But Sasha does a lot of standing about waiting to be told exactly what to do. And this is clearly a problem.

Dig's solution to the awkward after-breakfast silence is to clear off, sharpish. Thanks, Dig. So I have a go. First I use action. I do a bit of clearing up and washing up, and say things like 'Gosh! What a lot of things to do! I must remember to take the laundry out!' This has no effect at all on Sasha, who moves a few bowls around on the table. Then I say, 'I must remember to take Squirrel's socks upstairs!' and 'It won't be long before we're clearing the table of breakfast things and putting out some crayons and paper so that Tiger can draw a picture!'

Nothing happens, except that Sasha moves the cornflakes packet about a bit. I try another tactic. I stop doing the washing up, leaving a lot of it in the sink. I go to the laundry, and take that out instead, tucking Dig's wet trousers under one arm. I rather hope that Sasha will take over the washing up. Nope. Nothing's happening in that direction.

I reckon it's my very presence that's causing the problem, since that sometimes happens. So I push off to look for Squirrel's socks.

A decent time later, I'm back, laundry under one arm, a bundle of Squirrel socks in my hand, and there's Sasha, standing in the kitchen, not moving. The cornflakes are still on the table, so I stuff the socks into my mouth and pick up the packet with the free hand and put it away. With one hand free now, I'm clearing up the kitchen at speed. I think I might have a go at the washing up, just to make a point, but one-handed washing up is pretty difficult and I think this may be a point too far.

Sasha does nothing. As she watches me rush about the kitchen doing the clearing up, she must think this is how things are done round here, which they are, actually. But Sasha, I think, that's why you're here. To help. Now bloody well help before I put you back on the train to Heidleberg.

Fortunately, with Squirrel's socks in my mouth, I can't say it.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Cultural experience number one

Well, here I am happily discussing with Dig what interesting English cultural experiences the Grit family can provide for our new German Sasha and she there she goes and provides one of her own.

Locking herself in her room and jamming the door shut so that she can't get out for twelve hours was not the cultural experience under discussion, however.

The first I hear of the lock-up is when a plaintive Sasha voice calls me from the cellar bedroom at 9.15 when all the little Grits are wondering where Sasha is for breakfast. So I go down to the bedroom; through the door I hear the sad voice say that last night the door was closed about ten o'clock and then about midnight, it wouldn't open. Sasha, I say, did you lock the door? I cannot believe she needs telling to turn a key in the lock, so think this one's unlikely, but I think that with Sasha, it's probably better to ask.

There's a lot of toing and froing at this point while all the junior Grits run up and down the stairs to look at Sasha's locked door and suggest not very useful things like pushing sliced bread under the door. Why would Sasha want a white slice under the door? I ask. She might be hungry, suggests Tiger. This is probable, I reckon. I wonder whether she's desperate for the toilet, and then remember that Sasha doesn't use the toilet, so we should have a few more hours to think it out before there might be anything resembling an emergency.

Then Dig gets involved. Dig is much more useful than the junior Grits. Dig suggests Sasha climbs out of the window.

This sounds straightforward. Sasha just has to open the window, Dig lowers down a ladder and up she comes. Sasha's bedroom is the converted cellar, and so the Velux windows are a little above ground level, opening into the yard.

Now the yard is a particularly horrible place to land. The yard is crammed full of junk that we can't move out to the tip because the gate fell off last month and we can't get the stuff out unless I carry it through the house. A disused kitchen bin full of rainwater, a broken toilet pump and cracked plastic garden furniture is just for starters. You can see why it's not been done. So first Dig does some yard clearance. Then we get the ladder out.

Sasha has managed to open a window in her prison cell but it's the window furthest away from us. Dig is confounded. 'This window!' he starts to shout. 'We are here! This window!' Clearly Sasha needs quite a few explicit instructions about this type of procedure. Perhaps she's not done it before. But, I reckon, she'll probably get used to this lifestyle after a few days.

Well, we do get Sasha out, stumbling into a yard filled with broken furniture and toilet parts. So I'm calling that cultural experience number one.

Welcome to the Grit and Dig household, Sasha.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Another gate

Sasha, the German au pair who is taking over from Ermintrude, arrives tonight at 11.30pm.

Well I hope Sasha is agile. Because all day long any visitor to the house has had to climb over the front gate if they are to get into the garden and to the front door, because Dig wedged the gate shut this morning by accident. Ermintrude has found the whole incident very funny as she's clambered over the gate with Squirrel, Shark and Tiger to get out into the street, several times now, to go about the day's business to the shops and the tennis courts. But she's used to us now, and that helps.

Anyway, I needn't have worried about Sasha's introduction to the Pile being 'Would you mind climbing over the gate?' delivered in the street darkness at midnight, probably with Smalltown's police sirens wailing in the background, and Dig looking like everything's normal.

No, because Gert, the neighbour, comes to our rescue. Think not that she is aged in her 60s, has a hole in her heart, and a deaf 16-year old dog that can't bend its knees but which still sends Tiger screaming into the house. Think not, either, that Gert is the neighbour who owns Trisha the cat, who is on the receiving end of the Grit family's hisses as we hide behind bushes and may, sadly, now be in need of psychiatric cat counselling while Gert wonders why it seems to shake and run whenever it sees Shark coming.

Gert probably doesn't know the full story of what we've done to Trisha. And if she does, it probably helps. Because Gert kicks the gate in. She takes aim and gives the gate a good thump several times with her foot and Pow! it pops open. She has magnificent strength, she says, because until she discovered she had a hole in the heart in May, she used to go scuba diving.

Now see how Grit's policy of keeping on good terms with the neighbours pays off.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The detectives

Off we go to be detectives in the woods by dusk, courtesy of our splendid Parks department and their lovely programme of excellent summer activities. (I'm sure one of them might be reading now.)

This is supposed to be a bit of fun, crashing about the woods at dusk, finding out who's committed a robbery that very day, and learning about all things natural in the process. Well, actually, when the Parks lady points in that direction down the track through the woods and says Go that way to look for a clue, and we're the first party out, it all starts looking a teensy bit like we're reenacting the Blair Witch Project and becomes a bit scary.

Anyway, Grit, being very game about these things, clutches her mobile and has already checked the signal for the emergency services by the time we reach Clue Number 1. Phew! This is easy, so off we go then to Clue Number 2. This is also easy and Grit calms down and starts shouting at the junior Grits just like normal. We miss Clue Number 3, probably thanks to Grit shouting at everybody, and then we have to be rescued by one of the Parks staff because we are crashing off up the wrong path in the wrong direction.

By the time we get to Clue Number 4 the rivals have started to catch up, so it becomes a race to get to the laminated bees before they do. We can't find the laminated bees and so do the decent thing that any competitive detective family would do in a similar situation. Cheat. Dig sidles over to a particularly dumb looking kid from a rival family and gets the answer to the laminated bees clue in no time and then we're back on track.

Unfortunately the next clue is a game. This is going to be a disaster. And it is. Can you throw 9 tennis balls into 9 plastic plant pots. No. Not when Squirrel's collecting up as many balls as she can, Tiger's throwing hers into the pots and immediately taking them out again, and Shark's crashing through the entire game, knocking over the plant pots before stumbling into one which then wedges onto her foot. After a few minutes of that, we're losing ground, so I declare Hurrah! we must have done it. Now find the next clue.

The next clue requires us to put things in a pot. We can't find any pot. We deduce the rival family with the dumb kid has stolen the pot to throw us off the scent. It cannot be that we are too stupid to find it. Anyway, I am at this point distracted by Squirrel, who has obviously been desperate for a wee and now, strangely, no longer is. If anyone asks, I will claim that she fell into a puddle, front first. And of course the water from the woodland dell sprayed out into that funny arc shape all over her dress.

So off we go again, smelling slightly and not dismayed at all that by this time we have started to lose track of the clue numbering system. We find the Can you spot the animal tracks clue, then Can you make up a jigsaw (only if you take it out of Tiger's hands and do it yourself). Finally we get to the clue where we have to do magnetic fishing. This involves a lot of screaming and pushing because, and I'm sure it was an oversight, the excellent Parks department has put out only two rods. That little moment puts me in mind of the time that, at the seaside, Dig bought only two bucket and spade sets to share between three four-year olds because he wanted to save 99p.

From all of these clues we should have a collection of letters which we then have to translate into a word using a secret code. We end up with the word Tquirrel. Being rather smart at these things, we deduce that we must have got one of the letters wrong. Anyway, the dumb-looking kid from the rival family shouted out Squirrel at us some time ago, thus rendering the whole exercise pointless.

Nevertheless, all the junior Grits declare the evening jolly good fun, and Tiger even found some evidence. It was naughty squirrel who stole the hazelnuts. And look! Three hazlenut husks! They are at this moment proudly displayed on the mantlepiece, a trophy of our fine detective work.