Wednesday, 30 April 2008

We all go to the zoo

Took Shark, Tiger and Squirrel to Linton Zoo, in Cambridgeshire. We track down a snow leopard, black panther, hornbill, lemurs, owls, spiders and two zebras, which is not bad going in the pouring rain and mud. While we are there, Mil, mum to Izzy, rests against the fence and says laughingly to the girls, What did you do at school today? And then she supplies the answer, We fed pink blossom to a baby tapir! and for a moment, the tears stop and I laugh.

I could of course recall the misery of the ridiculously long journey to get there, the constant rain lashing against the windscreen on the potholed country roads without signposts, the inexplicable trust I place in the SatNav woman on the single track lane, the relief and panic I feel when we get there, seconds past the workshop we're booked into, the frustration of the inevitable fight between Tiger and Shark, inches above the watching red legged tortoise, the pain of Squirrel weeping, the sudden panic when the lion runs towards Tiger and in my mind pops the absurd thought Is the fence tall enough? as my heart jumps and I leap in front of her, then the freezing hail, the irritation of another low-level education talk ('Have you ever heard the word extinction?') and the constant arguments all the way home before a fight breaks out on the lawn just before bedtime and it looks like the Wars of the Roses all over again.

But I won't think of that. Because today at school we fed pink blossoms to the baby tapir.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Angry, angry Grit

Art with Hitler. I can't take anymore. I say to Shark, Tiger and Squirrel in the car on the way home, through ground-down teeth, 'Do you want to go to any more of those lessons or not?' Fortunately their mouths are full of fruit bars because I'm not waiting for an answer anyhow. 'Good' I say 'because I'm not driving you there and back for that crap'.

I am so angry I could kick cats. Line them up. I'll kick the fluffy ones first.

And for once, it's not my kids that have pissed me off. It's not Squirrel beating me about the rear with a home-made willow fish, or Tiger shouting by the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum that she hates me, or even because Shark has laid down in the gutter screaming out her lungs again. No. This time it's Hitler. And I am seeing red.

We get to the art class, and the other kids are already sat around looking as miserable as miserable kids can get, and what are they doing? They are sticking pumpkin seeds onto a picture with glue. We have driven 30 miles to stick seeds on a piece of paper.

Excuse me while I just pop into the yard to scream.

Right, back now, that feels better. I can breathe again.

If your kids go to school, I guess you don't really know in detail exactly what they do all day long, and that must be relieving in a way, because when a lesson is aimed wrong, too low, too high, poorly prepared, inadequately resourced, then you may not know about it, and if it's a one off, not much harm done. But if it's every day or every week, you may get the feeling that something's not right when your little Tahara-Tinkertop trudges home complaining again about Miss Smith who always hands out the worksheet everyone did last week. And the week before.

Well, we don't have to put up with that. As a home educator, I get critical, and demanding of the educational resources we work so hard to find. And I often get to see lessons the kids take. And in the first week of art when Tiger looks dismayed that she's asked to do some colouring in, I sigh, because things might get better. In the second week, Shark, Tiger and Squirrel cut out masks, and I sigh and tut because Shark, Tiger and Squirrel were doing this sort of thing about the age of three.

And now today. Stick these seeds on paper in a pattern. We drive this far for this art lesson and when we get there all I see is Hitler's lack of imagination, the absence of any energy or enthusiasm in her class, her unengaged presentation, the paucity of her ideas, the neglect of the capabilities of the children, the toddler art she thinks she can get away with, the damage she is doing to my home-grown artists, Tiger's downcast face and I want to do some serious cat-kicking, screaming in frustration, effing and blinding, because it all comes down to lazy teaching lazy art. And to avoid that crap is why we bloody well home educate in the first place.

When all the pissed off anger comes pouring out of me in the car like this, no one says much. Then Squirrel says 'Art is a bit boring', and Tiger adds with a giggle, 'She could do a lot better' and Shark says 'This is what I think of art' and blows an enormous raspberry.

Decision made.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Bathroom etiquette

I am a proud mummy.

Shark, Tiger and Squirrel have reached a new, important stage in their intellectual development as Proper Growing Up Little Madams.

When they were aged five, or six, one of them, usually Squirrel, would be dispatched on a mission to find me, wherever I was in the house. Mummy! she would whisper urgently, with eyes wide and expression grave. Do not come into the bathroom!

This injunction is, obviously, a fundamental mistake, as any supervising mother will know. Of course I uttered Oh my god, then left my appearance a decent time, possibly three minutes, before striding into the bathroom as if I had forgotten the request, or come to claim Oh that was a long time ago, and anyway, come out quickly because there is jammy toast on the table!

Then Squirrel, Shark and Tiger would all scarper out of the bathroom and I would find out what they have been up to, do a bit of complaining, issue rules about wood, soil, plastic snakes, toilets and Sindy dolls, and clean up.

Now, I am proud to say, my little girls are becoming much more sophisticated about their bathroom usage.

Today I pass the closed bathroom door. I hear running water pouring into the bath and a great deal of earnest talk: three little voices, twittering, with lots of giggles inbetween. He is going for a swim now. Put his head under the tap. He likes the shower, doesn't he? He would like this on his head. Get it ready! Swing him round! He likes flying!

I pause outside the bathroom door to eavesdrop long enough, then shout What are you doing in the bathroom? There is a moment's frozen silence, apart from the sound of water splashing into the bathtub. Then Tiger shouts, Nothing.

And I hear the sound of something heavy, slowly being pushed against the door.


And after some time had elapsed, and some tempting jammy toast laid out on the kitchen table, this is what I found hanging up over the bath.

You would not have guessed washed unicorns hanging over a bathtub filled with snakes, lizards, and pots of paint, would you?

Sunday, 27 April 2008

What a lovely walk

Tra la la! What a lovely Spring morning!

And with determined smiles we can ignore the drizzle, grey clouds and freezing wind from Siberia. Because hearing the whispered promise of yesterday's sun, today we set off in high hopes, mittens and scarves, to walk out with a local wildlife group. They're taking the annual stroll through an ancient woodland to rubberneck the bluebells.

What could be more home-educational, I ask myself, than to touch and sniff but Not pick I said Don't Pick the lovely Spring flowers sprinkled like hundreds and thousands down the banks of rain-soaked ditches? We could lock the children in a room and stare squint-eyed at fuzzy black and white photographs of bluebells I suppose, then chant anther filament stamen stigma until our lips go numb, but only if we are doing school, and today we're not doing that. We are doing active, purposeful pursuit of all things botanical in the wood. How cool an education is that?

It is magical, this wood, even in the nipping wind, and I half expect to be stumbling over chanting Druids round the back of the car park. Then we turn the corner and wow! A tingling of bluebell tops, so many I catch my breath and rub my eyes. We pause, silent in awe, to absorb this delicate spread of dappled blue, a thin dancing gauze spread by enchantment on the woodland floor. Unless, of course, you are a Tiger, because Tigers in bad moods do not want an education. They want to stare at the feet of strangers and growl. Fortunately, the strangers are as entranced as we by this exquisite sight and either don't hear or can ignore the bad tempered Tiger prowling around their toes. When the group starts to move off again, slowly, oohing and aaahing in the birds and trees and whole woody wonder of it all, Tiger takes to stalking her closest sister, grumbling and muttering dark threats.

I tell myself that even if Tiger complains that she wants to be home, making a clay horse, that it is a valuable educational aid, this walking group, because as we pass unhurried through the wood, apart from a little Tiger pushing and shoving, each of the walkers brings us quiet ancient knowledges. A wrinkly old woman eye-spies purple orchids. A young man indicates deer and badger tracks. The group leader explains how to spot a green woodpecker hole by the delicate decorative coving. We all go Yeuk! and Must be bachelor bats! at a bat hole pointed out to us, with black bat poo seeping down the trunk. Then a pale woman who looks like a wood nymph explains the difference of dog's mercury and ground elder. And as we touch the petals of the wood anemones to see if they are really stars fallen to earth, Tiger asks how long is this walk because she is bored and her feet hurt.

Forty minutes gone of a two hour walk with a whining, argumentative and troublesome Tiger, Mummy Grit is getting a bit fed up too and forbids Tiger to stand, walk, skip, or walk in that funny kicking way anywhere in the vicinity of a Shark. A restraining order is only the start. After another ten minutes I begin to assess the range of bribes, threats and intimidation techniques I might be able to use without the little old lady observing or ear-wigging. If she overhears me threatening to slap Tiger's bum, I am sure the old woman will tut and despise my weak parenting. On the other hand, she may well suggest that Tiger needs a good swift clip around the ear in which case I will feel free to oblige. At this point, Tiger can possibly detect the wind of change in Mummy Grit's demeanor because she accepts the offer to hold a hand through the next muddy patch and beyond.

Look! Can you see the beautiful bluebells? Mummy Grit says to the miniature extra for an M. Night Shalayman film trudging along beside her.

But now it is Grit's turn to become cantankerous and mean spirited, because Tiger starts to hang on my arm, complaining all the while that her feet hurt and asking the same whining question When will this walk ever end? over and over again until I wonder if I could push her in the nettles and make it look like an accident. Since I have already tried to give a reasonable answer to this question and it has not been accepted, I then start to answer Four thousand years, When you are one hundred years old, Never, We are in limbo and walking the earth as spirits destined to walk for all eternity. Until the group leader listens in and I feel chastened and shut up.

Ten minutes to go before the wildlife walking group reemerge at the car park, exhausted and mostly happy nearly two hours later, Grit has had enough and leans down and whispers to her irritating dwarf that if she continues in this vein to the very, very last, just remember that mama has the power to frisk you for breadcrumbs and leave you here, right now, in the forest. Forever. To which the dwarf replies, 'Well that's OK. I have a biscuit'.

And if that were not enough of a note to end on, when we return to the car carrying a Tiger like an ironing board, look what Dig has left hanging from the car door for the last two hours in this security-conscious age.

Saturday, 26 April 2008


9.30am Tennis lesson. Thankfully, this passes without major incident. Last week's wires are still intact.

11. 30am Drive to the lake which is used round here for throwing yourself in. Seriously. Windsurfing, kayaking, water skiing, kneeboarding (whatever that is), tipping upside down in canoes, that sort of thing. I have brought Shark here for research purposes.

I slow the day up considerably when we arrive because I become sulky and resent the 50p charge for car parking. I drive off in a huff and park in a field some distance away and make Shark walk back. This she does not like and lets me know about it, so much in fact that I think it may be worth the 50p so I do not have to listen to the horror stories of hummocky lumpy grass. It was just as well I saved the 50p, I tell Shark one hour later, because booking the sailing course for you is quite expensive and I need to save every 50p I can. Shark is delighted that she is on her way to the open ocean at last, even by means of the local lake, and promises not to mention the grass once on the trek back to the car. I get, instead, a big squeeze of my hand.

1.30 pm Demand that everyone enjoy themselves in the garden, eat lunch outside, even though it is dry bread rolls from the Co-op. Tell Tiger I haven't forgotten about sorting out some time for you at the stables. That is next. Now bloody well shut up complaining that Shark gets everything and you get nothing and take off your coat and enjoy it because look! We have reached 20C which means the weather is English Spring and lovely for the time of year, and alright I agree we are all doomed with global warming. Get out the plastic snakes and play with those.

1.40pm Squirrel runs off to amuse herself in the garden, mostly by digging up the fir tree and finding worms to put on the sacrificial altar for the blue tit we'd all like to believe is nesting under the bedroom window.

1.43pm Leave Shark and Tiger bickering and come inside to typeset Chapters Five to Ten.

3.00pm Hearing only occasional screaming, so things must be going well down in the mud patch.

6.30pm Dig sets fire to the barbecue. This may be its final rite of passage on its way to Valhalla, where it will probably provide burned goat meat to the fallen and slaughtered. Dig bought this remarkable bit of equipment from the Co-op several years ago for £4.50. We use it dutifully and need only a small amount of sun to encourage us. Sadly the legs are starting to buckle under the weight of Linda McCartney's doings. Now the whole thing has taken to wobbling dangerously every time the sweetcorn lands on it, so we keep a bucket of water close by, just in case.

6.49pm Everyone complains the sausages are burned. Dig tells everyone to be quiet or else he'll get another packet out.

7.30pm Time to set another chapter while Dig is in charge of the evening's entertainment.

And here is a photograph of Shark, having enjoyed herself in the garden all afternoon, chewing thoughtfully on a burned sausage and contemplating a life at sea.

Friday, 25 April 2008

A spot of DIY

Dig observes the deteriorating domestic situation and, with a beady eye on the likely cost of divorce, mends this:

Mending the door into the yard by applying two large hinges has been on the list since Saturday 2nd June when it fell off and hit me on the head.

And the first thing that some passing teenager does on passing the newly restored door is to try and kick it in.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Two jobs, both badly

I am going through one of those life phases where I am doing everything Wrong or Badly. I am overwhelmed, out of control, and powerless.

Detecting these failures, the crockery is conspiring against me. Ikea plates are throwing themselves on the floor and wine glasses are hurtling to the crock sink, driven, I am sure, by a mean desire to smash themselves to smithereens simply to tell me how hopeless a household manager I am and to make my domestic life as miserable as possible. Give it a day and the knives and forks will be whispering to each other and turning on me. Worse, someone has stolen the door handle to the garden door so I cannot escape to the Wendy house. Add to that the roof in the office kitchen which has sprung a leak, the toaster, the gate, and the kitchen floor, and you have an all round view of personal failure and domestic misery. I am now, in fact, so overwhelmed by household disrepair that I try not to be mindful of the poor bloke who took himself off to the local woods to hang forlornly from an oak tree because the oven wouldn't work.

I know why this is, of course - this feeling of being out of control while everything about me disintegrates. This is because I am working. I am six metres away from the kitchen table, sitting in the office, typesetting Twenty Not Very Interesting Chapters About A Sentence. (OK, it isn't called that, but it may as well be.) Print run 400, in your university library soon. Some desperate graduate sweating over a thesis might request a copy in 2012. We can always hope.

Because while I am focused on this, I'm doing nothing else. I'm not being a mummy, nor a home educator. I'm not hovering about the kitchen for example, picking unicorns up from the floor and complaining. I'm not monitoring usage of toilet rolls, or watching for fingers in the sugar bowl, and I'm not screening access to a range of household objects nor selecting fun books for a reading session. And the inevitable happens. Left alone, without a minder, Shark, Tiger and Squirrel are destroying what's left of my home.

When I re-enter the kitchen from my working life in the office (two hours negotiated time at a cost of £60*), I can barely open the door. On the table are spirits, apparently. They are composed of toilet rolls, plastic tape, pipe cleaners and various 'found' objects. These found objects - I'll list them now should I wonder where, in future, they have gone - include the centre of the tape dispenser (without which the tape cannot be dispensed), half a pack of sanitary towels, a toothbrush, one rubber glove and the only key to the bicycle padlock, bought last summer by Dig for my mental health when dealing with the au pair who had already lost the keys to the entire house.

Selecting and combining this assortment with the contents of the craft bucket has kept Tiger, Shark and Squirrel busy since breakfast. They have produced a river spirit, a wood spirit, a water spirit and a rock spirit. The floor is covered in a layer of clippings, offcuts, and reject spirit-making material.

I look at their happy little spirits, indistinguishable from junk that I would sweep into the bin at a moment's notice - at least before the centre of the tape dispenser caught my eye - and know that it is not only the mess and the unhappy knowledge that I cannot be in two places at once, it is knowing that I have the educational responsibility of three small children. I should have been here, a home educator, helping, not there, in the office, staring at Chapter Three. While I have sat there, the children have been alone, amusing themselves with everything but the bleach. And only because we haven't got any. I should have been reading poems about tree spirits while their little fingers were busy with glue and silver foil; I should have been telling stories about Old Man Willow who follows us mumbling, or planning our walk to the willow fields. And now I am in pain and guilt and misery all over again, knowing that while I am clearing up in the kitchen, I am sure I am doing this home education thing all wrong again, and while I am working in the office, I am giving it my half attention at best, partly because it is worthless, unsatisfying work, and partly because I am itching to be away from it.

In truth, catching sight of the spirit land leads me straight to one of those regular soul searching moments I probably share with many other home educators. Why am I doing this, and leading myself to failures? Why don't I shovel them off to the school down the road, get some free childcare everyday, put the house of chaos to order, mend the oven, the toaster and the gate, redecorate, work in ease, wear smart clothes, get the kids to bed early, reclaim my marriage and life, do a day's work properly, rebuild a career, and earn enough money to buy new shoes?

I can't answer all those questions right now. Because now I need to sweep the floor, wrap the shattered glass in newspaper, pick up the unicorns, consider things could be a lot worse, load the dishwasher, photograph the rock spirit, avoid looking at the front room, flush the toilets, not think about the oak tree, and go and kiss Shark, Squirrel and Tiger night night, say it is OK about the 30 metres of kitchen foil, then go back to work and listen to the plop plop plop of the rain in a bucket while I juggle jobs badly and typeset Chapter Four.

* See entry 22nd April

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Naked men or Bali?

I spend the afternoon wishing I was swimming. This has to be a pretty bad afternoon, even by my standards. In fact, it is so bad that by 5pm I am reminding myself about the actual benefits of sitting in someone else's bathwater. That would be, I reason, far better than waiting five hours for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to come out of the pool so we can all go home.

Waiting, in this instance, means the horrible realisation five minutes after arriving at the pool viewing area, that I have forgotten to bring a book. There is nothing to do. I tell myself, in wilful self-delusion, that Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are unlikely to spend more than an hour in the pool, so I could amuse myself by making idle conversation with a stranger about whether they sell crisps here, and then pacing up and down.

After twenty minutes doing that, I then spend the next four hours in the dense and humid atmosphere of the 'Beachside cafe'. After two hours, and with no sign of Shark, Squirrel or Tiger, who presumably have taken themselves off to the bit of the pool called 'beach oasis' or something similar, I give in and go up to the coffee bar and inquire about the coffee. Is it freshly ground? I ask. Nikki, who stands behind the till with half-closed eyes and a vacant expression on her face that looks like her brain was removed for disposal last Wednesday, barely flickers a glance to register my question before shifting her chewing gum over to the other cheek, swallowing, and replying dreamily, Nah. Instant.

By 4pm, my face looks like Nikki's and, like her, I make my own amusement. I imagine that in the middle distance, probably some way between the water slide and the plastic palm tree, there may be a concealed entrance to a mythical male changing room where naked men travel backwards in time to refresh themselves Roman style in a plunge pool. From the little I have read of physics, time holes emerging from the fabric of the universe should be a possible occurrence and may indeed be happening in a swimming pool near you. But only if you keep watching. The space behind the plastic palm seems as good a place as any for this to occur and anyway, the fantasy keeps me quiet, stops me accosting complete strangers for chatting purposes, and knocks 30 minutes off the waiting time. Until a wet woggle hits me at the side of the face and Squirrel emerges. Are you coming out? I ask eagerly, jumping up. No she shouts, and then, look after my woggle. That's the only sign of Squirrel for another 45 minutes, so I go back to staring at the plastic palm, and wishing.

Of course I should have been wiser. Before setting out to take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger for their PE lesson (let's call it that, and not 'Fooling About at the Leisure Pool'), I should have checked exactly what is so special about this place, and why everyone from around here jumps in cars to travel to it. I see immediately on entry. Compared to the local sluice we frequent, where on a good day you may avoid the poo, but on a bad day will be enveloped by floating snot, this is a palace.

For a start, the woman on Swimming Pool Reception wears a smart polyester blouse, doesn't have nicotine stained fingers or bleached hair and doesn't, as she glances up to clock us coming, stop mid-flow in a stream of effing-and-blinding to take a sharp breath inwards, and then start off again. This place is definitely upmarket. Not only does it have Doreen in a polyester blouse and the Beachside Cafe, it also has a water slide, plastic palm trees, fake rain, a pool with Jacuzzis and rivers built in, and a wave machine. This last item has to be one of the most intriguing things to have entered Grit's meagre world since she saw the panther on Monday and conjured up a naked Roman athlete at 3.30.

Oh girl of the shires, I can imagine you say, do you not know of wave machines? We have them everywhere in our upmarket cities, possibly even in Sainsbury's. But it is the first time I have ever seen one, and despite myself, I find I'm agreeing with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger on the way home, Yes, the waves are amazing! They've kept Shark, Squirrel and Tiger in delirious excitement and in the pool for nigh on five hours. The staff set the machine going every 30 minutes. Then you can grab a surfboard and pretend you're off the coast of Bali.

Next time, given the choice of a five-hour wait alongside Nikki in the Beachside Cafe, with the sadly dwindling hope of finding naked men fresh from the plunge pool, I may just choose to go swimming with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, and be in Bali.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

It is not a bribe. It is a reward.

In guilt, have started work again. This is not something I want to do. I have to, so I can buy clay. And paintbrushes, glue, felt squares, and wiggly eyes.

It's not like I get any time off, the sort of time you might get if you have to climb into a car or take a bus or hop on the bike or take the train to go to work everyday in an air-conditioned office. No. I work at home. This has several disadvantages. One of the worst is that my desk is two doors and six metres away from the kitchen table. So the kids get to wander into the office, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; lost souls haunting the gates of damnation, pleading for orange juice, toilet paper, chalk pastels, paintbrushes, a vase to put in the flowers that just got picked. What? We haven't got any flowers, except the ruddy pansies I just planted.

After a morning of constant interruption, I'm about to snap. I started the sighing and snorting and drooping shoulders some time ago, and even though my mouth is still saying Yes? What do you want? the voice is hard and with a glittering steel edge that says If you don't get out of this office right now I shall cut off the horns from all your unicorns. Slowly.

And like all resourceful, resilient children, this means Adopt a New Technique. They creep in, rather than bounce in clutching three dead pansy heads and a big smile. They open the office door so slow and quiet I can hear the hinges breathe. Then slowly, one by one, they stand behind my chair, silently, eyes glued to the screen, mirroring mine. But they're not looking for a misplaced comma. They're waiting for a hesitant finger click of the mouse; a small sign that says, in the war, I've broken. This is the moment for someone to whisper Mummy? The toilet paper's run out.

By midday, there's only one thing to be done. Bribery. There are rules to this, and they are best followed without unnecessary ears. I wait till Dig's nowhere about and then Pssst. Tiger! Come here.

The first and most important rule is to find out what Tiger wants, more than anything in the world. Once I've got her on side I can bribe the other two with a bar of chocolate. I say Not a horse. Try something else. And she does. Second down the list is this.

OK I whisper. Here's the deal. I want two hours a day uninterrupted time in the office. If I get that, after five days you get the arena. When it arrives, tell daddy we've had it ages. Tiger nods. And keep your sisters out the office.

Deal done. So long as she doesn't grass me up, and the other two like Dairy Milk, it should be fine.

Monday, 21 April 2008

But mummy! They are so cute!

Paradise Wildlife Park. We're all going to come back for ever, squeals Squirrel. Because look who lives here! Baby meercats! Red pandas! Snow leopards!

I have nothing to add to the bursting delight that this visit brings about in Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Apart from No. You cannot have a snow leopard. No. you cannot have a lion. No. You cannot have a wallaby. Eventually they grind me down to something that sounds like, I will think about a tortoise. My mouth is saying that but my brain is saying Not bloody likely.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Hard labour

I am the late Grit. Getting round to this at last. Thank you Mean Mom, for providing this puzzle.

1. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning.

(Here they are. I am very obedient, obviously.)

2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.

(Am I a player? Do I get a prize? I want a prize. I hope the questions aren't difficult. Like what is 567.3 x 3453 and do it in your head. Or how many grains of salt are there in the average salt pot? I bet my brother could answer that one. Can I call him?)

3. At the end of the post, the player tags 5 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, which should inform them that they've been tagged and that the details are on the player's blog.

(Blimey. I need to do some browsing and clicking and wandering about for that. I will post that at a later date. Honest.)

Here goes.

What were you doing 10 years ago?

Can't remember. Teaching, possibly, in a school from the pit of hell. Or sneaking off to the gym as a lady of leisure and pretending to work while Dig set about being important.

Name 5 snacks you enjoy.

Treacle flapjacks. Here's the recipe. For a big batch.

8 oz self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
8 oz porridge oats
4 oz sugar
6 oz black treacle or molasses
8oz margarine (vegan, obviously, after the dairy farm experience)

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and oats. Melt margarine, treacle and sugar. Mix this with oats. Press into baking tin and bake centre of a moderate oven for 20-25 minutes. Cut into chunks while warm. Scoff. I am experimenting with the mix. More oats, more treacle. Less sugar, less fat, that sort of thing.

Of course there are always crisps. Crisps, crisps and crisps. And fruit and nuts and rum plum bread and biscuits. Apples. Buttered apples. Toast. Jam. Jammy toast.

Name 5 jobs you have had.

Writing, teaching, copy editing, typesetting, and cleaning the toilets because nobody else round here does it. As you can see this career life started with promise and went backwards downhill from there. I blame the glass ceiling. Either that or idleness and indifference.

Name 3 bad habits you have.

What's a bad habit? Is that something I don't like doing? Or something that somebody else doesn't like me doing? I do lots of thing I don't like doing. And most things I do seem to piss Dig off. I would need to compile a list, so long as I've got a couple of days spare. Dig doesn't like me buying junk at the tip for starters, bursting in through the front door, shouting 'What a bargain this was!'

And being late. For that, children make an easy excuse. I am not as late as The Hat. She got me to post some letters for her in January 2008. They were a pile of greetings cards she'd written in May 2006.

Name 5 places where you have lived.

What is 'lived'? Stayed a week? A month? Enjoyed there or suffered there? In a rented, borrowed, inherited, couch-surfed or purchased place? I might need more information here before I answered that one.

Is that it? Do I get a prize now? Well, Mean Mom, I am not sure what you may have found out about me apart from the fact that I am a down-beat, dead-end, complaining, cantankerous, argumentative late git with a crisp fetish.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Three blogs in one

Dear me, which blog?

Should it be the triplet blog? I could chronicle the minute-by-minute argument over the identical tennis racquets. It started as we're going to tennis, spookily enough. The courts are a footfall away, so everyone could watch.

The audience of mini-tennis stars would first have witnessed a lot of arms and racquets swinging, then some tussling, pushing and shoving. They would have heard exclamations of It's mine! No it's not! It's mine! No! Mine! Mine! Mine! Then they would have seen a rather dishevelled looking man appear at the front door, minus shoes and socks, but with trousers (only just) and wearing a loose, fashionably white shirt with a tomato stain down the front. Everyone would have marvelled at how wildly and violently he could mouth threats and gesticulate; they would possibly note what a very cross expression on a very red face he could manage, even though it was 9am in the morning.

Of course at that point the audience would have heard the ear-splitting shrieks. I believe we may soon be contacted by an anti-burglary company wanting to record that sound and sell it back to us in tin boxes.

Well I am sad to say the shrieks were the turning point. From then on, it all got a bit rowdy. In fact there was a bit of howling and door slamming and the beetroot-faced man picked up one of the triplets who by then was pretending to be an ironing board while another one tried to leg it with a stolen racquet over the gate.

Thirty minutes later, had the audience cared to watch at that point rather than play tennis, they would have seen three little girls meekly leave the house, each equipped with identical tennis racquets, on which there is now fastened three different coloured pieces of wire. Just to be on the safe side for next week's lesson.

Well it could be the triplet blog. Or it could be the marriage blog.

Imagine. Here is lunchtime Grit, slumped over her soggy potato, broke, down-beat, grey-haired, fat, saggy bosomed, with the mummy-mashed brain of a woman who has barely been able to sustain a single line of thought for the last eight years, contemplating a bleak and desolate tomorrow with a man whose interest in her life today appears to be whether she has done the laundry yet. In fact she is now in such a pit hole of despair she may be contemplating suicide as the only way to escape this life of misery, failure and poverty, but no, guilt is a worse punishment than death, and she is now deserving that extra guilt every day because she knows some people have life a lot worse so she has nothing to weep about. Then, with barely a glance, Dig says:

'I think I have a found an au pair for the summer holidays. She is German. She is probably blonde, blue-eyed and petite but don't worry about that. Anyway, she is studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge from next year. She would like to develop her understanding of how cultural values are reproduced within the mechanics of British family life.'

And I say, Would she like to do the washing up?

But perhaps this blog should be suitable not for triplets nor marriage, but for a gritty type of day. Because, foolishly, Grit has promised to take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to the special Saturday kiddie RSPB meeting. This is about birds, on a farm, in the rain. Inevitably, this means a real farm. And a dairy farm at that. Bear in mind, dear reader, at her best Grit is vegan. Visiting a dairy farm is as anathema as inviting Satan to a children's tea party.

At this visit to the dairy farm, in the rain, Grit is made to march round up to her ankles in mud. She is forced to paddle in cow poo and listen to the roaring sound of cows having wees in an iron shed while the farmer talks about posh heifers. If this were not bad enough she is forced to look at the following scene, because somewhere in here there is a pee wit, probably waiting to be shot, drugged, sliced up by a passing tractor or savaged to death by hounds:

If things could not get worse than being forced to look at a field for half an hour, in the rain, Grit and all the other happier and more dutiful mummies are then invited to take their lovely children into the farmer's house to see the farmer's wife and eat cake and drink tea.

Grit does not want to go, and becomes bolshy. She does not want to be force-fed milky tea after hearing how baby cows are removed after four days and how boy cows are shot at birth or loaded onto veal crates and shipped off in the dark. In fact she has already been a bit of a nuisance by asking deliberately what happens to the boy cows when she bloody well knows and wants the farmer to drop that Ambridge knee-slapping crap and tell us all the truth. Tiger, at that point, whispers it is not the best time to say we are trying to be vegans. I take this to mean Tiger is developing an excellent sense of British social manners suitable for a German anthropology student and decide to keep my mouth shut.

At the end of the day I decided to luxuriate in bed with a lovely comforting glass of brandy and the newspaper. Which was going fine until I spilled all the brandy over the newspaper and the bottom sheet and had to get out of bed to change the ruddy thing in case Dig came up to bed and suspected me of having a wee.

And so ended a Grit sort of day. With barely anything to redeem it from start to finish.

Never mind. There is always tomorrow.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Photoblog, Friday

Once upon a time, Grit was not a mummy. She was a gardener. And every day she tended a beautiful garden. The garden was a wonderful place, stirring and breathing with colour and shape. Bold scarlet poppy, shy pink snapdragon, light blue cornflower, deep cream hollyhock: a magical place where satin-touch flowers of every shimmering shade would hurtle upwards to the sky and breathe into the air with their vanilla, rose and jasmine scents.

Now Grit is a mummy and she has a mud patch. There are skin slicing brambles, a wiry, giant's tuft of grass last hewn in 2004, and three children who dig bear traps, cover them with grass, and snigger. Then there is Glastonbury the gardener whose power saw bursts into early morning song three times a year to decapitate the privet.

But she is not complaining. Not at all. Because every day now she is working to resculpt those once exquisite hanging gardens. And she has help. Here is the help:

Here they are, helping.

And this is the help they did.

Fortunately, apart from the help, mummy Grit also has a determination with which you could cast iron spikes, a barely used credit card, and a garden centre five miles up the road. Therefore she has created this:

A few pansies in a pot they may be, but given the help, that's going some.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Photoblog, Thursday

Success! Mummy Grit puts her tripartite day into action! First she is a mummy and does the grumbling, shouting and putting on the dishwasher and laundry.

Second, she works in the office and has a big loud grumble about that. Honestly. Does an ISBN number really have to be in 24pt? I don't think so. But the idiot editor says that it does. So it is. And crap it looks too. Then there is the heading that reads Where have we come from and where to from here? This is a scholarly journal, by the way, and not a book on orienteering. And a heading like that doesn't look that good in Minion Pro Bold at 48pt.

Anyway, next I take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to an activity where they will muck about and pretend to learn stuff on frogs and toads, courtesy of some local frog and toad experts. Unfortunately, this clashes with the Gym and Trampoline lessons down at the sports centre, so we miss those.

Squirrel and Tiger making frog badges. I am not sure what education is going on here, apart from how to get your pipe cleaners to glue onto cardboard. Materials Science, perhaps.

Shark, experiencing what it is like to be a frog. If we had a tape measure this would be a good maths lesson in How far can you jump before falling off?

Live toad and frog action, with someone who sounds like he knows what he's talking about.

See? I bet you thought this home education lark was just a cover so mummy Grit could lie around on the sofa watching daytime TV, drinking beer, and sending the kids off down the chip shop.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Photoblog, Wednesday

OK, let's drop the pretence of anything remotely educational because I take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to a Home Education event where they spend the day doing these activities:

Of course being trendy home educators, we can call all of those activities educational. Including eating the ice cream afterwards. And for everyone else, let's call it socialisation and PE.

But no work gets done. So I'll count that as a day of no achievement for the bank balance.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Photoblog, Tuesday

Oops. I get so involved in the garden, I forget to take the kids to French and Art lessons. Oh dear. The mummy brain took over. Never mind. I can count the day as a Science lesson about digging over the vegetable patch and planting pansies. Then there was a lengthy discussion with Tiger about how spending money on kids and gardens means I cannot buy new shoes. Economics.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Photoblog, Monday

Photoblogs are good. I need not blog, but can pretend to, while catching up the zillion things I have to do before breakfast: Laundry. Dishwasher. Complaining. Picking up unicorns. Add to that lot: Work. Typesetting the world's crappiest copy. Now I need to squeeze in several hours a day part-time for that. Not forgetting the education thing. We need to fit that in somewhere before bed time.

I've split the day into three. First is mummy duty, so I'm getting up an hour earlier. Second, I work in the office. Third, something educational with Shark, Tiger and Squirrel, and not just watching while they bury Furryhorn in her gravelly grave at the bottom of the garden. Breaking this lot down, my day basically is composed of suffering, earning money in the morning, and spending it on kids in the afternoon.

Here I am, a working mummy before lunch and a home educating teacher before tea. But teachers are not supposed to lose their tempers, and slam their bedroom doors, sulking. That's what mummies do, or at least this mummy. No. Teachers are supposed to bear up with good grace and better humour. Teachers are supposed to be organised, reflect on good practice, and plan activities ahead according to age, ability and aptitude.

On the other hand, mummies are supposed to ask about socks, fruit juice and find out where the pink coat with the furry hood has gone. They are not supposed to say 'Here! Look at these lovely books for our science project! And while we're about that, I've organised a workshop on Darwin and booked you in for a trip to Kew with the education officer! Who's got that book on science experiments for the kitchen? And where are the test tubes?'

Well, for now I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about this lifestyle. I may just give the highlights.

On Monday, after work, we went to see one of these...

Yes, it's a cheetah. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger played a game to see if they could outrun a cheetah. Being a good teacher, I could have made this moment educational, what with maths and kilometres per hour. Here it is, just about to get started. The pout was a warning sign, and I should have known better.

Five minutes after this promising educational moment, the incident ended in tears when everyone had a big screaming fight and mummy Grit huffed and puffed 'I am never bringing you to see the cheetah again'.* Then we all went home and talked about correct behaviour in front of carnivorous mammals. Which, being a now struggling teacher and a frazzled mummy, I'm counting as citizenship and family bonding.

* This is one of those empty threats, the like of which Dig uses. In his case, it is something equally vacuous, like 'You are grounded for the next month'. Tsk. Dig, when are you going to learn that you cannot expel or suspend them, or write a note home to their parents in the home/school liaison books?

Sunday, 13 April 2008


Picking up Squirrel is wonderful. She's small and cute and cuddly and I can barely resist smothering her in hugs and feeling her limbs for bone damage. Dig is with us too, and even better, I do not have to drive, so can twist round in my car seat on the journey home and listen to Squirrel's skylark chatter. In three days and two nights she's clocked up archery, team games, raft building, fencing, abseiling, rifle shooting, zip wire, and two midnight feasts in the dormitory. When I can prise open a space to speak, I say we're glad it was such a great time, and we missed you at Wroxeter, and at Stokesay, and on the viper walk and today, all day at Ironbridge. Then Tiger asks quietly, 'Did you miss us?' And Squirrel answers, carefully, 'Yes. If I had thought about you, I would have done'. There's my girl. Give it with one hand, and take it away with the other.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Holiday day

If I was expecting a dismal breakfast I didn't get one.

Today, both Squirrel and Dig are out of the house. We are used to Dig's absence, and Squirrel is always late to the breakfast table. So no forced gaiety or determined smiles over the Rice Dream and muesli. Breakfast is normal, until Shark shouts out suddenly, 'Squirrel is abseiling!' I take this to mean either Shark has made some secret triplety mind connection over the distant miles, or she has read the PGL brochure while lying in bed this morning.

Anyway, me and the twins that are left are fully booked this morning, so we have no time to discuss whether Squirrel is clinging in terror to a mountainside, wondering where to go next. We have our own routes to follow.

One of the best things about home education, when it works, is the exuberance that comes with being permanently on holiday. And so it is today. I have booked us into a talk and walk about vipers at a local SSSI. It's a spot we drive by often. Occasionally, we take the country road and follow the sandy line to a car park where there is a visitor's centre built from wood, settling at the base of a sand baked hillside, heather creeping towards the conifers. From there we take the unhurried path where we can peer into the bracken for slow worms. I have never seen one, being too cumbersome and lumpy, but today Tiger spies one, bootlace coiled round a stick of gorse.

The viper tour assembles in the morning sun for the leader's talk on viper habits, likes and dislikes. He is clearly an expert, and I am in a different country. Even in Smalltown we can live inches away from neighbours, see them depart from their houses everyday, climb into cars and disappear until late and never speak to them. But here, assembling for the viper talk, we are amongst country folk who nod and expect connections. They can look at fractions of leaves and know what is signified. They have access to the secret codes and ciphers that is the viper's daily habit. They look at the ground and know things. Things that to me, as a smalltowny, are invisible. I keep my mouth shut, and don't ask any questions. One elderly gentlemen leans on his wooden stick, hewn from an oak tree, and patiently asks about the underbelly muscles of female vipers in August. Later, I see he doesn't need the stick. He may look 82, but he jumps over those sand ridges like a goat.

Throughout the introductory talk, Shark and Tiger listen patiently and Shark manages to stick up her hand as if she is schooled before politely providing the right answer: diurnal. I am amazed. How did she know that? Where did she get that answer from in the chaotic hurly burly life of our front room resounding with kid's voices, shouts and mess? How could she have learned something in silence amongst the noise? And then, she even got so far as to put up her hand, without having someone pull it down. The twin effect continues; Shark and Tiger stand close together and there is no shoving and pushing and complaining that a sister is there first or that her elbows are always there and that is not fair because my feet were here first, look, and it is not fair and I am leaving this family.

The walk continues, happily. The sun is warm and wins the battle; the wind cannot be bothered this morning to compete. Shark sheds her coat so she can run about in the April sunshine unencumbered. After fifteen minutes, on the pale honeyed banks curling with bracken, we see three vipers, lazily coiled and flattened to absorb the sun's heat; we see them magnified through lenses, and then, cautiously advancing, close up. Tiger is delighted and, sending the vipers skittering, bounces up and down. They are the first vipers in the wild she has ever seen. Me too, I say, and give her a hug.

When the walk is over and we all trudge back to the car park, all the talk is of Squirrel and how she would have loved it. Shark says we will bring her to this very spot and show her the vipers. She glories in her new found knowledge. Tony, our guide, is adored. He says, she tells me knowingly, that mummy vipers return to the same spot to warm up for months, and defend their sun lounging space from dogs by nipping them on the nose. At this news, she is positively gleeful. I tell her that when they are born, Tony says the baby vipers push off, and mummy doesn't have to take them shopping or wash their socks.

And our holiday continues. With just the three of us to please, we do anarchic things, like eat dinner from steaming hot bowls while perched on the sofa, watching Madagascar; we run around the garden pretending to be vipers who have lost their socks; we chomp crisps and slurp ice cream, and contemplate fizzy lemonade.

By the time Dig comes home, we are planning tomorrow's trip to Shropshire to pick up Squirrel. Tiger and Shark are in happy, buzzy moods, chattering to Dig their new knowledges of snakes on sandy heaths, skipping into bed and laughing themselves to sleep.

Managing just two children is easy, I confess in the darkness. It's made our home education doable, practical, achievable. I don't like to say it's true, because now I have to bear the guilt of betrayal as well as abandonment. Dig agrees, and says it could be any one of them that could be gone for a while, and life would be easier. It is the dynamic of three, the unstable off-balanced force we deal with daily. I enjoy the temporary relief from it, but only because I know she's safe somewhere, looked after by someone whose business it is not to lose her, harm her, or send her home in bandages. And I know that her absence is only for the shortest of times. She'll be fine, and when she returns, will glory in her own-two-feet type of independence. And I can look forward to her being back here with us all, slamming the doors, threatening to leave, and causing the spade-throwing fight by launching worms at Shark. After all, I console myself, even in the midst of that, we can still learn what it means to be diurnal.

Humph, I say, who can understand humans? They want things to be different, and when they are, they want things to be back the same. Vipers? Now they are much easier to understand.

Friday, 11 April 2008

No Squirrel

This morning, the alarm clock took control. That and the weather. At 8.02 we grabbed the last of the bags from the Travelodge room and dashed between rainclouds to the car. Once inside, there didn't seem anywhere to go but drive the 22 miles to the Camp of Doom.

Squirrel, of course, thinks it is all a big holiday adventure, and I have been struggling with that. But last night, in some unconscious place or some ethereal dream, I must have made the decision that because she wants to go, then she needs to go, and she must have what she wants, so I need to take her. I have a sense of destiny and purpose as I put the keys in the ignition. And I am past worrying about being blown up by a torpedo. That, of course, would simply have been a divine act of vengeance because I am giving my baby away. Now I am faced with necessities and fearing more practical matters. Today my main concern is whether at 11am anyone might ask her whether she needs the toilet, or whether she would like apple juice or orange juice with her dinner.

We pull out of the car park in the heaving rain. At this moment, I have to do this duty, against any sense and reason. I feel like Captain Ahab the way the storm is beating a fury on the car and the window wipers are lashing at full force.

Five minutes later it's all sizzling blue sky with sharp white clouds, and there are rainbows. I know it's now or never; this will be the first of many wonderful moments as Squirrel grows up, independent, determined, knowing her own mind, and being able to say to a stranger 'No. I said orange juice'.

Ten minutes down the road and I'm feeling brighter, which is good, because by then I am hopelessly lost, so we will be late for the 8.30 drop off. Squirrel is becoming anxious, and by 8.50 I'm feeling I can't get her there fast enough the way she's hyperventilating in the back seat because she's the only one so far to have learned how to tell the time.

By 9.10 I suggest she has got it all wrong. Adults should have their own camp which would be Kids Get Lost, or KGL. This would, I tell Squirrel seriously, be better than my new Wendy House. At KGL, grown ups could hang out in a play park with a barbed wire security fence on a 50 mile perimeter. That should give us proper grown ups plenty of space to learn rifle shooting, archery, go quad biking and generally muck about having fun on zip wires, ladders and play equipment until it's time to eat chips, drink beer and fall asleep, happy in the knowledge that we get to do the same over again tomorrow. And the kids can all go home and do the laundry.

Then we see the flags of PGL waving at us over the fields. There are a lot of inbreaths in the car, except for me. I am sighing with relief at having found the place at long last, and feeling sheepish that in the last week I haven't matched, word for word, Squirrel's delight and excitement at the prospect of being away from home and us all.

By 9.45, it's all over, and I have left Squirrel with a mean looking PE type male and a huge cuddly woman called Bee. Bee says she will be looking after Squirrel, so as a precaution I've taken her photograph and will come looking for her in case Squirrel comes home with tales of orange juice and wee. I've signed the forms, grabbed and kissed a squirming Squirrel a thousand times on the forehead, stumbled to the car with a sombre Shark and Tiger, and promptly burst into tears. For fifteen minutes afterwards while I drive to Ellesmere and some baby herons, I have an inexplicable sense of loss, followed by anger and a feeling that I need to turn round and go and punch Bee in the face. Fortunately, I take control of that urge and we go and say aah and cooo at the baby herons instead.

And from there on, it is mostly guilt. Because actually we have quite a pleasant time of it. Handling two children seems like a push over. I have two hands, and life is simple. I just say 'Stop that' and it stops. How effortless can it get? We drive about the beautiful rolling hillsides of Shropshire, we find quarries turned into nature reserves, we visit Wroxeter Roman city and I stand awed under Stokesay castle roof. Then we stroll through Ludlow and I decide that a good way to cope with the guilt might be to come here and book a family holiday cottage and visit Stokesay together.

Tonight we drive home and I shall kiss Squirrel's empty bed and tell myself I am a stupid old fool and one day she'll be doing it for real and for good.

Until then I shall bloody well make sure I cherish every bit.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Setting off for PGL

It is a bright and breezy day. But it's still April, so we can look out for showers and judge the distance should we need to run. It's cold enough too, with a sharp icicle wind, for the cherry tree to be wrapping up its blossom for another week.

Mothers of school children in the county next to us will be coiling warm scarves and bright woolly coats about their youngest children and carefully depositing them beyond school gates that lock at lunchtime; until the time these small adventurers are to be picked up again by an attendant adult, they will be watched and supervised; they will be steered in this direction for that lesson, this space for that play, here for dinner, there for collecting coats and going home. Going home. To safety.

And mummy Grit, the irresponsible, no-good mummy, will be taking her smallest and most tender offshoot up into the rolling hills of Shropshire, tipping her out into a wind-blasted field and abandoning her, to be battered, bruised, assaulted and thrown off a cliff.

Those thoughts, and others, worse yet, are the thoughts that are gnawing at me as I drive the long journey to a Travelodge off the A49 north of Shrewsbury. I have already settled in my mind that Squirrel's adventure holiday is all a disaster. We may not even get there. We shall probably be incinerated in a bizarre accident north of Birmingham involving a gasoline tanker and an ice-cream van. We shall be hurtled to our deaths from the heights of a freak tornado. We will die from hypothermia after becoming grid-locked on the M1 overnight because the car has broken down. And I will deserve it all, because I am the sort of wretched mother who abandons her Squirrel to maniacs in fields and PE teachers who have no souls.

By the time we reach Shrewsbury I am barely able to breathe. I tell Shark, Squirrel and Tiger that they had better look after me because I may pass out. Squirrel suggests eating chips, and Tiger says this is a good idea because she is hungry. Shark suggests that after everyone has eaten chips they could go to bed. She says that when the lights go off I could hide in the toilet again and drink beer. I say that is probably the best thought anyone has given me all day, and so I do that.

And tomorrow I abandon Squirrel to her fate.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Life is so unfair

Dig goes away and, bang on time, my computer crashes. I stare at it, possibly in shock. I punch keys. Nothing happens. There is a black screen and that is that. I feel like someone has chopped off a limb.

I am only back online now because I have remembered there is a computer in the front room. I'm not surprised I forgot about it. This computer is bright green and has a funny screen. It belongs to the children and is covered in pictures of unicorns and dinosaurs. Worse, they seem to have done away with the keyboard and mouse and have some strange tablet thing that I cannot use.

I have my wits about me. I lie. I say their computer is broken and I must mend it. This is cunning and works for five minutes, then Shark creeps up behind me and sees me getting into my blog. Now Tiger says I must stop mending their machine in case I break it. Squirrel uses moral pressure by saying now she is learning to read with Starfall and I must not hog the computer because I am denying her the only chance she might ever have.

Damn. I have been outwitted by a computer and three 8-year olds again.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008


I feel hurt. My very interesting talk, with bonus activity of redesigning George Stephenson's Rocket from Lego, is ambushed. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger listen to me read the introductory bit about James Watt's steam engine (first patented in 1769, according to the Life and Times book) and then leap in and drown me out with the secret codes that can be used between unicorns planning an attack on the territory of the Watties.

Grudgingly, I gave up, and said 'Let's do codes instead'.

I thought my talk on steam engines was very interesting. I have a book about it from the children's library and, what's more, we have been to Stephenson's house. I distinctly remember because it was January 1st 2005 and Dig marched us all half a mile up a wagon way in the middle of nowhere and in the freezing cold to Stephenson's birthplace. It was shut.

At that time of year I was contemplating divorce or murder and then I find out the ruddy cottage isn't open at all during the coldest winter months. Of course it isn't open. Any visitor marching up the wagon way would get the toes on their feet welded together with frost and their four-year old triplets would cry.

OK, that last bit about the triplets crying actually isn't true. It was me. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger were skipping up the wagon way thinking the whole experience was tremendous fun and possibly the best thing to do on a freezing cold day ever. If they had cried, then I would have been able to twist it round to my point about being powerless about everything happening in my life and could have blamed Dig.

Anyway, the lesson on George Stephenson redesigning the steam engine is now a lesson on codes, ambush, attack and control.

And if you are joining the conspiracy of the unicorn attack against the Watties, the secret code you need to know is:


Monday, 7 April 2008

Shopping and packing

Dig has received the list of things PGL would like Squirrel to pack. And Squirrel is going on and on and on.

With her constant stream of 'Can I pack? Can I pack now? Can I? Can I?' she could blow the ears off a donkey. Either that, or Dobbin in despair would batter his head against the nearest tree trunk.

In the event of Grit doing the same, Dig has left the list on my desk. I understand this as shorthand for 'Get on with it'.

I take one look at this lot and laugh out loud. Honestly, I could travel five years on this stuff. Ten years ago I was out for six months and apart from the stuff I stood up in, took two pairs of spare knickers, one change of clothes and a toothbrush. I brought back none of that because my backpack was filled with a wooden Ganesh.

Clock this lot for three days:

2 sets swimwear
4 sweaters
4 t-shirts
2 long-sleeved t-shirts
2 pairs shorts
3 pairs tracksuit bottoms
4 pairs socks
3 pairs trainers
waterproof anorak
waterproof trousers
1 complete change of clothes for evening
small rucksack
bedding and pillow

Now some of this is downright difficult. Squirrel doesn't wear trainers because she says they make her feet look big. She is right. And we have to go from no trainers to three pairs within 72 hours.

First we make for the cheap shop round the back of the Agora marketplace, Daisy's. Now Daisy is a grumpy cow, but she does sell trainers at £5 a pair, so we buy two pairs. Then we hit the charity shops. The RSPCA is particularly kind to us; they have a bucketful of odds and sods at 10p an item. Most of Squirrel's new wardrobe comes from here.

After some deliberation I then book the bedding at a cost of £18. Squirrel has a sleeping bag but I consider this an adventure too many for a little unaccompanied Squirrel far away from home. Motherly, I want her to have a proper bed and a decent meal. I slip some flapjacks and dried apricots in her bag.

Now I've told Squirrel that if she loses her new wardrobe, or destroys it with thorns, mud and sick, then follow mummy's example. Don't bother bringing it home. Bring home something more interesting.

And all talk of PGL is now banned until Friday.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Was that a difficult few days ahead?

Dig has had enough of Squirrel shouting 'I'm leaving this family'. He is calling her bluff because he has booked her in, for three days, here. And Squirrel starts her big adventure this coming Friday.

Since the news exploded at 10.02 this morning, Squirrel has rocketed to cloud nine. She is at my elbow every fifteen minutes tugging my sleeve and begging to pack. Shark's jaw dropped at the news before she reassembled her thoughts and demanded seven days on a water sports holiday, with snorkeling. Then in less time than I can take an inbreath, Tiger staked her claim for a week at the local stables on the basis that if Squirrel can go, so can she.

Grit, reaching for an early morning brandy, would prefer a bit more bomb damage all round. And probably a few months warning, so she can steady her nerves properly. After all, this is the first time I'll ever be parted from my little Squirrel for more than a few hours at a stretch. I have never done an overnight watch without her presence, breathing deeply and snuffling sometimes, wrapped up in her pink fairy cotton duvet in the room close to mine. I can check on her at midnight and know in the darkness she is safe.

Then Dig turns to me and says, as if by the way, he is leaving on Tuesday because he has to talk to important people in the South, and he'll be back Saturday. That leaves me to take Shark, Tiger and Squirrel on a three hour drive to the adventure location, drop Squirrel off, then drive home with the other two, try not to weep so hard and better book a Travelodge for Thursday night because otherwise everyone has to get up Friday morning at 5.30am. Don't forget to sort out her bedding and here's the telephone number.

And I'm telling Squirrel I am very happy too and she will have a lovely time.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Medical help

Like Kate, Pete and Naomi, I am in rehab.

In my case, but probably not Kate's, rehab means a thunderous headache, three cups of strong black coffee, two aspirin and muttering F*** Off under my breath after the postman crashes about in the lobby, knocking over the milk.

I could be seriously ill of course, and may hit the cyber medical help. There may be no other way.

I am sure it is not that yesterday I overindulged.

I know that driven on a road to nowhere in an excess of misery and despair I may have started about lunchtime in a Pizza Hut with a quarter bottle of red wine. I had never been in a Pizza Hut before. I may never go again. Better make it a celebration and farewell, just in case.

Come tea time I recall it was a bottle of beer because I didn't have time to put the kettle on, but the bottle opener was to hand.

And then Mister W and Ellie came round for supper. This was just about the best thing to have happened since I had a lovely warm forgiving hug from Tiger, with her big-eyes-look which says 'Don't worry mummy, I will be able to read the word Mad again next week'. Anyway, both events obviously required celebration.

And Mr W and Ellie brought round wine. And this.

That's right. It's an enormous banana cheesecake thingy with extra rich caramel sauce.

Now my headache might be their fault with that, don't you think? Anyway, after they'd left I began to feel sorry for myself again, so finished off the day with a small whisky.

Reasonably speaking, my need for rehab could not be the concoction of alcohol, because just before bedtime I downed a pint of tap water. It tasted vile. Perhaps it was that.

And this morning I woke up with a headache the size of France.

I am going to click through to cyber doctor, to find out what might be the cause.

Friday, 4 April 2008

M is for Misery. M is for Mad

Reading. There is nothing good to say about this. Unless you are one of those fortunate home educators whose child leaps from the womb reading passages aloud from Dr Seuss. No doubt some do.

For the Grit family, learning to read is torture. It is so much torture I have torn out my hair and stabbed myself in the thigh with a fork. Today, both at the same time. These are pain displacement strategies, designed to transfer the focus of my whole mind towards the sharp burning sensation in my right leg, and away from my mouth blurting out: The word is MAD! It is MAD! MAD!!! MAD!!!

So you school-choosers may wonder why we do it. Why don't we package up the little darlings in black and white and post them out the door every morning at 7.54 into a cosy 4x4 to drive the fifty yards to the school gates?

Well, the reasons are complex. And we are too poor and mean to go private.

Perhaps it has something to do with the thousands of kids who fail to fulfil themselves in the school system, who turn out of the gates disaffected, illiterate, miserable, dangerous. Hey, we can achieve that at home, we don't need a school to do that for us.

Maybe then we are bolshy trendy gits who are naturally inclined to be anti authoritarian, even though we are the first to call the police at the first whiff of trouble.

Perhaps it is because I bear the battle scars of a shortened teaching career in a secondary classroom. The words Never Again are tattooed on the inside of my forehead in my own blood. Shall I write about the kid with an air rifle pellet in the eye, forever blinded by a classmate? Or the street philosophy of Luke who carried a hammer? Or the economics education provided by druggie James who was good for a fiver's worth of heroin wrap before school? If not, perhaps Sheila, pregnant twice before age 17. But perhaps not here.

I could select, as fair reason, our local school under special measures. I would probably end up stabbing myself in the thigh out of rage, despair and frustration when Squirrel, Shark and Tiger arrived home from there too.

Perhaps we do this home education thing because of Dig, who was shovelled off to boarding school at a life-time most children are learning to wipe their own bottoms, which is reason enough to be put off school for life. That would be good, because then all of this would be his fault.

Anyway, all that reasoning is academic here. And so is the reading. At age 8, Shark is more or less going under her own steam, and can read stories with long words, so long as the print is not too small. She is easing herself into small print with Herge and Tin Tin and can nearly sound out Iconoclast! and Bashi bazooks! so she is mostly excluded from Grit's lament here.

Squirrel, by contrast, is not reading well. She is reluctant to pick up books because they are No Fun. She cannot sit still long enough. She has an urgent need to jump up and down and be a horse.

Tiger is trailing, significantly. She stares at words with confusion, and confounds us. We thought there are two ways it could go. She will learn to read, or she won't learn to read. We reassure ourselves: the latter is impossible, because we won't let her not read. It is inevitable, we say, as if night follows day. Dig, with unjustified optimism, exclaims Look on the bright side! I answer, There isn't one.

We're working through it. Slowly. But we never assumed Tiger would be able to read some days and not others; read My Mum is Mad fluently on Tuesday and then stare at the word MAD on Friday in bafflement and impatience while her mother stabs herself in the thigh with a fork in perfect reason.

Well, we know we will get there.

But today we are exposed, thrown into the public gaze from our protective covers and left adrift at a museum workshop on Crime and Punishment. It seems all the little schoolies can read, Dostoevsky probably. I tell myself it is a self-selected group; the top-of-the-class primaries, and druggie James and uptheduff Sheila aren't here. We are. The non-reading, sulky book refusers who, when faced with a workshop script of crime and punishment, stare straight ahead while everyone waits, like they're thinking the best way to be a horse is lift the back legs first.

I have no answer to the misery and pain involved in teaching a child to read at home, except that it is all exhausting stuff for which you need nerves of steel, teeth you can grind and thighs which do not feel pain.

And of course, unlike you fortunate school choosers, home educators have no-one else to blame.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Duty done

Thank God. Tiger, Squirrel and Shark have reached the age of eight, as of February. This means I am no longer forced to get in the swimming pool.

I have suffered these watery lessons for years. Private lessons and - the horror - leisure swim, have been the only way outside the comfort zones of school swims and understanding clubs, that I could get my three noisy unschooled kids in the pool together. Home education requires self-sacrifice indeed.

But with the ticking of the clock on the midnight hour, 24 February, Tiger, Squirrel and Shark were deemed by the local council to be sensible and able enough to swim without an adult in close attendance. And hopefully too without an ambulance or another letter of apology to the swimming pool.

In anticipation of the great-8 event, last September I cancelled the swimming lessons. In December I boldly put myself forward and promised, 'I am never going swimming ever again'. Come February Grit whoops for joy and in March we fanfare the proud event by invading John Lewis to buy swim costumes. Then off we go swimming. And Grit does not get in.

Now, I can sit in the viewing area. The first time I do that, I want to jump up and down with happiness, like I knew how to play football and may have scored a goal, or learned how to fly and saved the world. I have done it. Ordeal by public chlorine. Four years worth. I should get a tattoo, get drunk, be rubber-stamped from the council, swear in a public ceremony, mark this rite of passage with howls and whoops, dance naked round the pool, anything, watching the three of them, Tiger, Squirrel and Shark, clamber into the pool and shove each other about and know that I do not need to be there.

I sit smug, watching Tiger, Squirrel and Shark splash each other, pretend to find pearls and chase dolphins. At four o'clock, the swimming club comes in, with mummies who have schooled duties, and who tell their Justines and Damiens to swim 25 metres for Level 2 or else. I sit there free and pleased with myself and consider my duty done. Unlike the swimming club mummies, I have my Home Ed Duty Swim Award.

And then Tiger comes in her pink sequined costume with goggles that need adult wisdom and a quick repair. She looks at me with big reproachful eyes and whispers 'I like it when you come in. You do good twirls. It is more fun. Please mummy, next time will you get in?'

Fun? Oh dear. Now here's a new dilemma.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Day out

Dig ignores me and says 'Go. London is exciting'.

I beg to differ. It is a place of misery and hazard. Shark will be lost on the underground. She will never be found. She will join the zomboid people who live in the tunnels. She will become the poster girl for Les Miserables. She will be abducted, attacked, crushed, snatched.

'You could hold her hand' suggests Dig.

Practicality, logic and the voice of reason. That's what Dig is good at. And he reminds me gently that this is how we planned to spend one-to-one time with each of the children. Trips to London, one at a time, with mummy. Or stay at home and fight over fractions.

I secretly worry I might like being with one child instead of three. Worse, I may have put off going to London in case I feel guilty about that.

Guilt is one of those feelings that has squatted inside me since the first rush of ohmygodbabieswhatdowedowiththem. Guilt came to stay when I realised if you pick up one triplet, you cannot pick up the other two. This means you are depriving two babies of care and are therefore a Bad Mother. You might put one baby down to pick up another one, then realise that's the same. Better leave them all alone. Now it's only a matter of time before Social Services come and rip all three out of their cots and march them down to foster homes where they will be loved properly and decently by three mothers and not one in a 15-minute rotation, weeping.

If not that, I could feel guilty about Dig. He has work to do. Like it or not, he brings home the wage and I bring up the kids. A day out in London means he can't work. Why don't I snatch the bread out of the mouths of Squirrel and Tiger?

Dig says 'For goodness sake. Go'. Dig says he can look after the other two. Just Go. In fact, he reminds me, it happened last year. And it was alright then, wasn't it?

No. It wasn't, actually. Time off is at cost. Tiger went berserk in the Natural History Museum. And then there was that time I came home and you'd set the table on fire trying to cook pasta over a candle flame. I had to deal with the guilt of abandoning my children, starving them and pay the price in clearing up the mess.

On the other hand, I'm being offered a day out in London. I could do with that. I miss the freedom of walking down a pavement. Having one child and not three fastened to me is as close to freedom as it comes. I agree, and say I will feel guilty anyway.

Well the day in London is easy. We meet up with beautiful Zia in the Natural History Museum, who is glamorous and urban. I feel like the visiting cousin from the shires, plucking straw from my boots, but Zia never mentions the hair. Zia sweeps all the guilt away, because she is generous, kind hearted, and makes me laugh, in bucketfuls. She says how wonderful it is to see us both and how Shark is growing, and tells me about Luna, who's going to be an architect, and is loving London.

For the day, I love London too. Guilt-free, with a skipping Shark beside me on the wide London pavements. Even the sunshine is golden. I put my fears behind me. Tiger and Squirrel will be OK. Dig can cope. He has only two kids, after all. What can be the cost to a guilt-free day?

When we step off the train in Smalltown at the end of the day, Dig phones. He says can we walk back from the station? He can't pick me up right now because they're busy. Uh-oh.

When we open the front door, the whole house is in chaos. There is washing up on every surface, toys all over the floor, smells of burning in the kitchen and noise from every room. I swear that there are twenty-two kids in the house and not just two. And Dig's first words as I come through the door are 'You promise not to blog this. Where's the first aid box?'

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Parent or teacher

Grit has moved out.

She has packed her books, notepads, pencils with fluffy tops, spare socks and favourite cushion, and is considering buying a storm kettle.

This is her new house.

I know it looks like the children's Wendy house. That's because it is. The Wendies do not use it and my needs are urgent.

Best of all, these miniature beings who tear around my once-owned house like war lords in a battle zone have not yet discovered my secret take-over of their distant, ungoverned lands. And while they are in ignorance, I am purchasing padlocks.

This is my plan. When the wars start raging in the Pile and the educational edifice I have tried so carefully to construct is all blown to bits, and with it my hopes, shredded and scattered, then I am slipping away here, in self-exile. I shall stay here in secret hideaway until everything is once again calm and I can return to the country and talk about fractions without getting my head blown off.

While I am in my place of refuge and sanctuary, I may well consider what sort of mother takes herself off down a Wendy house with a storm kettle and a cushion.

Probably one who is being slowly and doubly-murdered by the twinned and conflicting needs of parenthood and the overwhelming and inexplicable urge to teach fractions.