Monday, 31 March 2008

This is the town where I live

The kids have pen pals! Yee-haw! People who actually have written! Yes! That's right! Like they have an expectation that the Grit and Dig family combo at the Pile are civilized people who know how to hold a crayon the right way round! Get to it Squirrel! Let's go!

Grit is full of enthusiasm because now we have to write a letter back. Squirrel looks doubtful, like any crayon-pal might want to inspect under her bed, and trawl through her treasures.

'No', I reassure her, 'They do not want to know what is in your treasure box under the bed. Even though I know that is where you put Shark's bed knobs, thank you very much. The whole world does not want to know that you pilfered the knobs, or that's where you're hiding them. In fact', I add menacingly, 'if you keep nicking Shark's bed knobs, I will tell everyone where you keep them stashed. OK?'

Squirrel thinks about this and looks as if a deal might be on the table. I reckon with a brain like hers she's either going to become a lawyer or join the criminal underworld as a stasher of stolen goods. It's 50/50 right now.

Squirrel says that she will write a letter so long as it is on her terms. 'OK' I add, confident that I can swing the contents so that she does not blab about Dig wandering about without his trousers, or Grit managing to knock herself senseless by throwing the tea-tin lid at her head yesterday. We don't want the world knowing the sort of chaos that goes on round here.

Anyway, Squirrel commands the camera and marches off down the back lane. She says she wants to photograph the skips at the back of the Co-op because you pass those on the short cut home after mummy buys beer, and people might like to know that.

'I think they do not' I say decisively. 'They want to know the English spring daffodils are out. Look, photograph the lovely daffodils'. Squirrel compromises and takes a picture of a house which is not ours. The people inside are looking at us through the curtains. Now we're for it. I give Squirrel a shove to get her moving before she photographs their dog shit as well.

'Look here!' I shout encouragingly, 'Can you see the delightful 19th century Victorian features around the square! How truly amazing to think that these delightful features are over one hundred years old!' I sound like Loyd Grossman on a Through the Keyhole special. In fact I think I might claim that when Squirrel starts photographing front doors. I take the camera off her before she gets us both banged up for intent to burgle.

But there are successes, even though I lose the battle over the porch hood. I eliminate the photograph of the bank where Squirrel keeps her savings (£12.56), and I get her to photograph the Church and not the drunk. She won't take a picture of the library, nor of the place where she takes her ballet class; these I think will make us look erudite and accomplished, but she's having none of it, so we compromise on a disused bath house.

And by this evening we have one letter, barely legible, plus photographs of the town square, a historic building or two, our front door, and a satisfied Squirrel who says she thinks her handwriting is getting better, and it doesn't matter that the g's are all the wrong way round.

I agree, and give Squirrel a hug. I am considering this day one of achievement. Only two more to go, and we get to try a trip to the post office.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

In an emergency...

We visit St Albans Museum to study Victorian crime and punishment.

The day visit goes very well.

In fact it is notable only for the fact that Shark has a sneezing fit on the M1 coming home.

Actually, while Shark is sneezing her face off, snot is flying everywhere at 70mph. Long strings of the stuff out of an exploding nose, and not stopping.

Some of it even makes the front windscreen. Everyone is shouting UGH UGH UGH at the tops of their voices and not doing anything practical, like finding the tissues which mummy Grit recalls are in the boot under the woggles, but she is driving at 70mph, covered in snot and cannot get them. Quick! she shouts, Find something!

Tiger finds a plastic bag. Squirrel finds two felt tips, one presumably for each nostril, and a pair of socks. With one hand mummy Grit fumbles in the glove compartment and finds a pack of sanitary towels. Since it is the nearest thing to a tissue, the exploding snot-Shark uses one of those.

So if today you saw a vehicle travelling dangerously at 70mph with reduced windscreen visibility, carrying a small child with a sanitary towel strapped to her face, that was us.

Consider it better than the plastic bag.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The land of the free

Fed up with fighting triplets and a sulky Dig, Grit goes to the gym.

I love the gym. I am in love with the gym. Before children, I was a gym tart. I would be there four times a week, two-hour blocks, cardios and weights, maintaining toned thighs suitable for mini skirts. Now I can barely heave my lumpen carcass on the paddle thingy. Worse, I think I may stuff bags of potatoes down the legs of my jeans in place of thighs.

And of course the three times a week has turned into three times a year. Yet still I pay. Because, and this is where bank managers and independent financial advisers can get stuffed, each one of those rare visits to the gym is worth the cost, ten times over.

As I sit there, staring at daytime TV, peddling a bike that doesn't move, I wonder what drives this need to return, periodically, to old haunts. I may be addicted to the memory of a life; a life where I might leap up and announce, I'm going to the gym. Back in a couple of hours! And not, Can I have your attention? I have a year planner and erasable marker. What are you doing in March?

Now, after negotiations the size of a UN peace treaty, I might grab a couple of hours here. Alone. Dig will look after the kids. I won't suggest he does anything active, of course. More, Can you please not allow Tiger to kill herself by accident. Neglect I expect, so I'll feed and water everyone before I go, and console myself with the knowledge that they can rip open the cereal packet.

And I sit there, peddling not very fast but miles away from Shark, Squirrel, Tiger, and Dig.

And everyone ignores me. This is wonderful.

I don't have to talk to anyone. I don't have to negotiate, argue, explain in words of one syllable three times over, feel the need to teach mathematics or refer to Henry VIII.

In fact, I've been here 32 minutes and no-one is competing for my attention. Even better, no-one gives a damn whether I'm here or not. No-one is threatening that if they do not get a response, and now, they will hit someone, throw things or beat me. No-one calls me names, or pushes me. I can peddle off, not going anywhere, and it doesn't matter. No one treats me like I'm in the way. Like I'm an irritating obstacle to their great life plan. No-one at all makes me feel feeble, pointless, and a yattering nuisance who goes on and on about boring pointless topics like what should we eat for dinner because the children didn't have vegetables yesterday.

Yippee. Is this what freedom feels like? I can walk up a hill on a conveyor belt that never ends. I no longer feel guilty. It used to be that if I am enjoying myself, something bad will happen. The oven will explode. Squirrel will be knocked out. Tiger will fall downstairs. A sense of risk is actually quite thrilling. I walk to nowhere a bit faster. Dig might actually have to do something domestic if the oven exploded.

What of the many positive advantages? I climb some never ending stairs. I don't have to keep bending down following small people discarding dinosaurs, clothing, books, crayons and wiggly eyes that glue themselves to the floor. I can climb stairs without my hands full of stuff they just brought down from their bedrooms and threw all over the kitchen floor.

And I can go rowing! Without water! And when I make that decision I can just get going. I don't need to book a water sports course three months in advance suitable for children, feed everyone potatoes and worry about whether we will survive the car journey there and back because we are late and I need to stop for petrol and emergency shop for dinner on the way home, pop by the post office to pay for the ballet lessons and then send the email about the art workshop.

None of that. I am in the land of liberation. I am free. No-one needs me. I can row till my tummy hurts.

And when I return home I find the children didn't even know that I'd gone.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Big fight


This is the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

This is the Shark*
Who threw the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

This is the Dig
Who calmed the Shark
Who threw the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

This is the Tiger with the dented head
Who screamed at Dig
Who calmed the Shark
Who threw the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

This is Squirrel all forlorn
Who thumped the Tiger with the dented head
Who screamed at Dig
Who calmed the Shark
Who threw the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

This is the Grit all tattered and torn
Who wept at the Squirrel all forlorn
Who thumped the Tiger with the dented head
Who screamed at Dig
Who calmed the Shark
Who threw the cat
That sat in the house where Grit lives.

And this is the family liaison officer who will probably call to find out what all the screaming is about.

* Strangely, no-one except the cat agreed to pose for photographs

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Out to the theatre

Mummy Grit and Daddy Dig are big grown ups today. We must carry out a special and important grown up duty.

We have to watch Shark, Squirrel and Tiger perform at their end-of-term 'sharing event'. This is held at the Shed drama group.

I might need to explain a couple of things.
  • Although Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are home educated, which means they can run about the house all day and squeal in the name of learning, they do take a lot of lessons which happen in term time, like French, Gym, Trampoline and Drama. Hence we all get dragged into what schools are doing, even though we don't care what schools do. (Actually I do care, because when the schools are on holiday the Grit and Dig family stays at home and sulks, because now we have to Queue Everywhere.) Anyway, it is end-of-term, apparently, and we are all in joy or grief about that.
  • Second, there's the Shed. This is an outreach of Chickenshed drama. And absolutely totally right on it is too. Unusually, for a Grit, I don't have a word against it. All kids, all ages, all dis/abilities work co-operatively on drama, because all children can act. Even, I'm glad to say, Squirrel, Shark and Tiger, who act up fine afterwards, because the first thing they do each week after the co-operative workshop ends, is to fight each other in the carpark.
Well tonight it is the Shed end-of-term sharing event, and all good mummies and daddies must go along.

This term, the children have worked with the story of Pocahontas. They have made drama up around that. It includes singing and sign language and dancing and being fire. It also involves a bunch of leaves and grasses, and buying beads. It does not include, so Squirrel impatiently tells me, shopping at Tesco, driving a car, or horse racing. I suspect these were all Squirrel's suggestions about the drama development which strangely were not developed by the leaders.

Anyway, the drama begins with the Native American Indians. They look like they are having a nice time shopping at the market for beads and dancing. Then the white settlers come along and look like they are pretending to be crocodiles. Someone gets shot and everyone stops shopping and starts fighting.

Mummy Grit reasons at this point, during the melee, that there must be a struggle for land rights. There are about 20 kids in the drama troupe tonight, so this bit looks realistic because we can't all quite fit in the room, what with the mummies and daddies taking up half the space, so tempers do fray at this point and there are a few howls and a bit of real pushing.

Then along comes Pocahontas to restore order and discipline. Unfortunately this is Tiger. She, along with Shark and Squirrel, are all Pocahontas, because this is about sharing, and because, I suspect, they all have very long hair. The boys did not get to share this role.

To be Pocahontas, Tiger has to stand up amongst the fighting crowd and look brave and commanding. When she does this, Daddy Dig starts to whimper with a funny noise in his throat which Mummy Grit takes to be suppressed tears of paternal pride. Tiger adopts her trembling lip martyrdom posture like she has been told You must now give the last piece of chocolate cake to Aunty Dee. This is crossed with fear and confusion that it really is her bit and people are looking.

Fortunately, the settlers and Indians stop fighting and get into groups so they can exchange children and do more dancing. Then it's Shark's turn to be Pocahontas. Before she went in, Shark told us, Don't look at me. She certainly doesn't look at us smiling and waving, but turns away and half-smiles, before thinking better of it and looking stern that she might have been distracted. Now she does what a proper Pocahontas has to do when they are putting a hat on someone's head and looking like they are doing a spot of floor cleaning.

And by now, two Pocanontases down, Mummy Grit was nearly weeping silent tears of pride and joy. It was probably all I could do to stop myself leaping up, shouting Can you see my wonderful daughter! while realising that every other mummy and daddy is probably feeling just the same thing too.

After some more drama where it looks like everyone lies down to sleep, or is possibly dying in agony, Squirrel has to be a Pocahontas with a line to say. Squirrel delivers this line very loudly and at the right time when her daddy chief was about to be executed by the settlers and her line was STOP. She looks cross too, and I'm sure Daddy Dig is very proud, and hoped that she might do the same brave, self-sacrificing deed for him if settlers invade our house and try to take over his computer.

And then it was over. The settlers were all shot and quite a few of the brave native American Indians too and everyone is a clump of bulrushes and sings a song and Mummy Grit wanted to cry a little bit too because she was so proud and has a big heart bursting with joy and it was all so awful.

When it was done and Shark, Squirrel and Tiger ran to us shouting Mummy! Daddy! Did you see me? I was Pocahontas! then it was nearly tear time again. I probably had to pretend I had dust in my eyes kicked up by the Indians. But it was OK, my dearest Pocahontases times three, watching your flowing hair curling and flying about your happy, proud, excited faces, because after leaving the room you all had a big shove and push again and went back to fighting as normal and had to be told off as usual.

Phew. Otherwise I might have needed a hanky.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Travels with an under tray

We are back to the garage about the tray under the car.

This is becoming a plot worthy of a Trollope novel. In fact if Trollope was alive today, he may well have written up the car tray saga as She knew she was a pissed off Grit or Travels with a broken car under tray.

Let's start at the beginning. The comprehension problem.

What is a tray? Tray? I thought that's what waiters carried around. I remember a particularly fine tray-carrying demonstration in a Parisian restaurant. Pre-children, obviously, when the world knew only the manly Dig and the girlish Grit.

I can picture the place now, all gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers sparkling in a cathedral-sized restaurant; warm with bodies and scented food and bubbling with voices, diners sat close in fine-eating camaraderie, and the waiters twirled around holding aloft huge silver trays with sparkling glasses of blushing pink Kir and gleaming white plates, steaming with Parisian food. In balletic carousel, those trays above our heads circled and dipped and rose, dipped and rose again through the gentle progress of our meal.

Anyway, that was then and this is now. And my education in trays under cars is still rudimentary. Thanks to a Google search, I have discovered it's something replaced on racing cars and Scalextric models. And last time I was here, the garage receptionist who looked like the perfume assistant for Elizabeth Arden explained the nature of a cracked car under tray to me in words of one syllable. I probably received the news that it was all our fault and therefore nothing to do with the manufacturer with one disbelieving upper lip curled and one eyebrow raised.

But I'm back. With the car and its broken tray, for the garage to fix.

Miss Perfume's not here today. It's Delta. Delta looks about 20 and may have just came off the set at Trisha. She's all forearms, broken teeth and home-made tattoos. She's chatty and says they can 'ave a look and come back in an hour because they boys will have sorted it. That seems simple enough and keeps me happy.

An hour later I'm there to receive the news.

Right! announces Delta. She slams the clipboard on the desk and sniffs a bloke sniff but doesn't drag her forearm under her nostrils. There's nothing we can do about it! she exclaims. With that tone of voice she might have been saying That's me up the duff then, thanks to Baz who's married to me half-sister Shazza! And then she smiles.
Oh.
It's bent, drawls Delta, like under trays happen everyday to everyone.
Bent? How's it got bent? Last time you said it was cracked.
Did we? she asks.
You told me it was cracked, I insist. I'm seconds away from jabbing a forefinger at her. I probably stab the clipboard instead. When we brought it in for the new car check, you said the tray had cracked.
Oh, answers Delta. Well there's nothing we can do about it anyway. You want to take it to our crash repair shop. How d'ja do that anyway, crack yer tray?

Right now I'm feeling a little pissed off. If they knew about the tray in January, and they knew they couldn't repair it here, why the **** did they let me book in the car to have the tray mended?
I throw stones at it, I say, and look her in the eye. You see, two minutes with Delta and I've got forearms as well. I've probably got a ciggy hanging out the corner of my mouth, no tights and a hairnet on.

Grit's attempt at pissed off humour gets nowhere near Delta. She looks at me puzzled with her eyes squinted. You don't wanna do that, she says.
I'm joking.
Oh. Perhaps you ran over an animal.
What? What type of animal breaks a tray? Are we talking leopard? Are we talking a particularly vicious night-time creature wreaking revenge on cars in once-green fields? Perhaps it prowls at night, creeping under everyone's car, cracking each tray with its bare paws and the strength of ten men. Check your car in the morning.
I'd have known if I drove over an animal, I reply. Wouldn't I know? Surely I would. What size animal cracks a metal tray? A hedgehog? What about an antelope, with horns. There'd be a bump wouldn't there, and blood? And circumstantial evidence, like dead antelope all over the front of the car.

Have you, you know, she nods and her voice drops to a whisper, like we're taking dirty secrets, gone over a speed bump?
Now it's my turn to look puzzled. I'm constantly driving over them I say, shrugging my shoulders.
Ah ha! Delta sits back and pulls a face which says that's the problem sorted then. You might have gone over one a bit too fast! she adds.
Yes, I think. All stay at home mothers with three kids hanging from them have nothing better to do than sit in diesel powered cars, racing each other, probably right now, up and down village cul de sacs, doing wheelies and hand-brake turns, shouting Respect! to Mavis in Rochester Avenue, who always clocks up 60mph in a 30-zone before tucking the kids into bed and reading Dolphin Diaries.

I'm not likely to speed, I argue, lying. I've got three kids in the car. And it is a new car, so I'm going to be driving slower, surely. I sound like I'm reasoning it out. I probably am. I'll speed on the motorway because everyone else does, but I don't speed in Smalltown, where the speed bumps are, because there's always a police car creeping round, and it would just be like asking coppers to nick me right there and then.

Well I dunno then, shrugs Delta. A stone could do it. Sign 'ere. It says we didn't do the work.

And that puts me right back at square one. When I gather up the emotional resources I'll take the broken under tray off to the crash centre and claim a panther did it.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Top quality chat

Grit has another tip-top quality chat day with Jol.

In fact Grit and Jol are now so faultlessly streamlined - a bit like a professional bobsleigh team - that we could pair up and chat for England in a chit-chat competition. We can negotiate twenty different subjects simultaneously, navigate difficult bits with grace and chat at 150 words per minute with ne'er a second lost in transition from talker to talker. We even make space for inbreaths, irritating children, raucous laughter, thigh slapping and tea sipping. How professional is that?

I think it is very important, all this chit chat. I have come to the conclusion that in many places and moments people are lonely, and in that respect the home educating experience can bring as much loneliness as any place else - say in a room full of people, on a beach, in a car park, or where you might live, surrounded by trees. And even though you might love people, beaches, cars and trees very much, sometimes it is relieving to be able to do nothing more than chat and chat and chat about nothing and everything all at the same time, and be both listener and speaker and hearer and talker.

And it is just as well I don't see Jol everyday, because if I did, this blog probably wouldn't need to exist.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Divorce? Never.

Dig is taking advantage of this Easter holiday to scrutinise his diary. I have to listen to 'Sweden is on, Spain is on, Canada is maybe, Portugal is off, South Africa is off, India is maybe...'

This goes on all day, relentlessly. Chuck a lead brick in a reservoir and watch Grit's spirits sink. She imagines Dig chatting till 3am in a low-lit Scandinavian hotel bar and then places herself, entering the front room at midnight on another lonely no-help day. In her mind is running 'Heathrow is on, cardiac arrest is on, sex is off, the chippy is on, someone to complain to is off, caravan holiday in Skegness is maybe...'

Then Dig says, 'And what about a summer au pair?'

Grit thinks she might pick up her leaden spirit dead on the ground and throw it fatally in his direction.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Grit never learns

Following yesterday's bruising experience in the front room, Pollyanna Meinhof (aka Grit) thinks she has now learned something about unsupervised children. She thinks the best way to deal with this issue is to recite rules. So she has said to Shark, using her sternest voice and pointiest finger, 'If you are going to paint you must do three things. One, put newspaper over the table. Two, wear an apron. Three, clean up your brushes and paint pots. Repeat back to me what you are going to do.'

Shark obliges, faultlessly. With a pure girl scout face like that she could be swearing on the Queen's head. Ha! Thinks mummy Grit, returning to work and typesetting a very long text on Nahuatl commas. Now I'm getting these children trained!

And indeed, forty minutes later, Grit pops back and inspects the table and it is very clean. Shark has spilled not a drop of black paint anywhere. On the table there is a painted picture of a water spirit. A bit heavy on the black, I think, but never mind. The newspaper has been scrunched up into the paper recycling bin and the apron is hanging up, nearly folded. I see Shark has cleaned up her brushes and put them away too. And I am smug.

Until I see the bathroom.


Yes, that's a bathtub filled with black paint.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Pollyanna does her bit

I have cleaned the schoolroom. This is a pointless and futile activity.

While I am head down, scrubbing tables as if I am in a Pollyanna look-alike competition, robust and cheerful in my own single-minded war against household dirt, dried-on paint stains and the half a pint of glue Squirrel used yesterday to glue Furryhorn's mane back on, I do not stop to consider for one second that all this activity is useless.

But of course it is. Because while I'm embarked on smartening up the schoolroom, the chief architects of disaster are trashing the front room.

That, of course, is all my doing too. Because in a misguided attempt to displace three little bodies from the schoolroom, I have equipped Shark, Squirrel and Tiger with a board game. At that moment when I pressed the Connect game into Tiger's little hands, saying Go and play with this, I must have fondly imagined the little darlings would sit happily, if not with hands clasped in family bonding, then at least engaged playfully in a cooperative spirit of joining up coloured lines, taking turns with, the box assures me, '140 stout cards'.

How misguided can I get? Did I think then, in the midst of my determined scrubbing, in would run Shark, Tiger and Squirrel, dressed perhaps in blue gingham and white socks and they would joyously cry 'Mama! Dearest Mama! Come and see!' Their eager little hands would fasten into my care-worn reddened palms and they would lead me into the front room and I would be glad. My spirits would lift at the simple joy their child game would evoke in me; I may even slide my hand across my brow and wipe my moistened cheek and offer thanks for the family that I am so deeply moved to call my own.

Or not. Because when I eventually come round from the haze of Cif and become suspicious, and go into the front room to find out exactly why it has been so quiet for the last three hours, I cannot at first see any of the familiar items there - things like sofa, table, rug - it all seems to have been swept away in some tidal swell of toy box contents. The Connect game with which I equipped Shark, Tiger and Squirrel so many hours ago, is scattered across the entire floor. Shark proudly points and says it is the services of course, because they have been town planning. Squirrel claps her hands in delight and says this line (probably of 40 stout cards) is the town's main gas pipe and this, over here, is the water. There is the electric cable and this line is to link up the computers because this is Furryhorn town and there are guards at the gates. Tiger adds with excitement that the large white chalk lines scrawled over my original Victorian wooden flooring - lovingly restored by my own hands some fifteen years ago - is the sewage.

On top of the cables, pipes and sewage channels teeter the buildings. The buildings, some at least half a meter high in construction, are composed of the entire contents of the wood box. For the acquisition some years ago of this supra-large box of wood blocks - large, small, painted, bleached, rough, sanded - I could now kick myself.

And any large city has to have residents, don't you think? That's what makes a community vibrant and alive. Twelve unicorns of mixed sizes have taken up residence in Furryhorn floor city. They are occupying the buildings and squatting, hooves akimbo, in the roads. They have had their manes combed and dressed and are possibly on their way out to the fashionable quarter of the town to have a bistro meal, or catch up with some gossip and chit chat on the lives of the wattys. The wattys, before you ask, are the humans, who do not inhabit this world but who come to invade it and occasionally shout.

Well this watty looks at three delighted offspring and the front room now become a building site of play on a scale Abu Dhabi would envy, and whimpers in her Pollyanna voice, the thing she is most glad about: 'You have worked together very well! No fights! Well done! That is very good. I am most impressed with your town planning'. (She is a home educator, let's not forget, even one with sore and bitten-through knuckles.)

The town stays right through till bedtime, blocking the front room completely, until the town planners go to bed, exhausted and happy. Then it is sad that Pollyanna dons a bandanna and strides about the urban centre looking like a member of the Baader Meinhof group. She reduces Furryhorn's seat of power to rubble, pulls up the gas pipes, dismantles the town centre and blasts apart the sewage pipes with a damp floor cloth.

But there is still something to be glad about, even though it is now midnight and Pollyanna is dog tired from her work of destruction and needs a lie down. Because now we have a cleaned up schoolroom and a tidy front room and, in a true coup, Furryhorn and her followers are exiled to the hall, where they are hopefully awaiting hoof torture.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Masterchef chez Grit

We have been cooking. Dig shakes his head and whispers 'Why Grit, Why?'

I say it is hope. Despair I can manage, just. If I concentrate on the hope, then one day in the future I will arrive home from my pensioner's trip to the library, and because of today's cooking, happening now, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger will have cooked me dinner. And it will taste delicious. This is what I tell Dig, and he looks glum and sighs, and says that he will secure an escape route dinner for us after the children have gone to bed, even though it will be ten o'clock at night and I am probably put off food for life.

Handing the family supper menu over to three 8-year olds is not just Masterchef-inspired, although that is part of it. This cooking thing has been going on a long time chez Grit. And one day, I will be proud of it. If I keep going for long enough. When the children were aged just two years they had a hand in making their birthday cakes, three round ones, with Smarties on top. They helped beat, pour, mix, scrape and splatter. Then Shark put the bowl direct onto her head and spun it round, all the better to lick the sides. At that time we laughed and took photos. Last year I said if she did that again I will ground her for a week.

But since that time, my miniature chefs have gone from strength to strength. They have made bread, cakes, biscuits, more cakes, jammy tarts, cakes again, flans, meringues, cakes, sweeties, did I say cakes? trifles, ices, cakes, biscuits and cakes. But now, ten inches more round the waistline, I say 'No more cakes!' I have thrown down the gauntlet. I say from now on I cook cakes! And you lot cook three-course meals which do not include cake.

In December we did this. Tiger excelled herself and went to the top of the Masterchef ladder with a Gary Rhodes menu which included leeks in pastry and pears steeped in honey. Shark got down the Roald Dahl cook book and made witch green soup, worms in soil, and wallpaper pudding. Squirrel excluded herself with a menu plan of butterfly cake, followed by fairy fudge and peppermint cream. Grit's rescue dinner was pasta in tomato sauce.

Well today supper is in their hands. Again. And worse, thanks to Emily, they have turned their backs on the cookery book shelves and decided to go it alone. Here is today's menu:

Fruit soup
Rice pies
Mud fruit biscuits

To get this done on the same day, Grit organises and plans. First, accompany each miniature chef to the shops to buy ingredients. Second, feed everyone a nutritious lunch because goodness knows what we'll get later. Finally, Grit crosses her fingers, bites her lip and makes some silent resolutions. I am not to shout at any time. I am to be kitchen assistant and put things in the oven and do as I am told. I am not to direct, comment or criticise, even though I see Squirrel hammering her biscuit dough with her fists like she's training it to go sixteen rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson.

First, Shark, with her fruit soup. Dig says it looks very nice and he's not fond of fruit in soup. But this is a simple dish. It consists of stewed apple, pureed melon and grapes. You dollop the melon in a bowl, drop in the stewed apple and bomb the bowl with grapes. Simplicity itself. This may come in handy when I am an OAP because for this I need no teeth:



Second, Tiger with her Rice pies. Dig has to go shopping with Tiger for her filo pastry because I have disgraced myself in Tesco with Shark, buying her melon. There are self-service checkouts and they never go right for me. I wave for help, press the screen which reads 'I need assistance' and wave again, helplessly. Then I call, and call. Louder. Until shouting seems the only option left.

Anyway, here is Tiger's:


Yes, that's right. It's rice. Specifically, it's boiled rice. And no flavouring. Nope, not a bit. Nothing else, either, except a filo basket. Dig suggests that maybe the taste would be improved next time, if there was something else on the plate apart from rice and a basket of filo pastry. Everyone agrees, even Tiger.

Relieved, we're next served Squirrel's Mud fruit biscuits. Momentarily, Dig looks excited. I think you wouldn't have that look of anticipation on your face if you'd seen how they've been made. These little beauties took four hours to make. Four hours! Three hours were spent hammering the biscuit dough until it pleaded for mercy. But Squirrel has vision: the clever thing about these is that two biscuits are cemented together with an unlikely mortar: stewed raisin and more apple.


Squirrel, Shark and Tiger are delighted with their efforts, and try hard to offer positive critical praise to each other and not squeal 'Ugh! Pewk!' Dig peers quizzically at the Mud biscuit for a while, as if he's bitten into an iron bar, and I declare the entire meal delicious. I hand round some bread and butter and say with a determined smile that everyone goes on to the next round, next month, when we once again give over the entire family supper to the new chefs on the block.

And Dig nods his head sorrowfully, and murmurs that a late night supper for two is hiding in the office fridge, next door.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Doom ahead

Mean moody middle-aged mom has asked for seven interesting things about Grits.

One might think of achievements, successes and rewards as the most noteworthy statements about a life, but if I do that, Dig will be using this post as background research for my funeral when he's looking for something positive to say, and can't think of anything.

So I might deprive him of an easy way out, and I'll provide instead seven rules for a Grit lifestyle. This is the same Grit who gave up a glamorous globe-trotting life to home educate triplets, arriving unexpectedly one year while she was planning a visit to Peru with her handsome husband.

1. Have no personal dignity. Have the last thread of that ripped out of your body and mind by a series of events too awful to recount.

2. In any circumstance, think, 'I may as well. There is nothing to lose here. And anyway, it can't get any worse than it already is'.

3. From then on, be bloody minded at all times. Reject advice. Even good advice.

4. Say very rude words very quietly.

5. Persist.

6. Persist some more. Say 'I do not care. I am not giving up'.

7. When all persistence has failed, and the predictable, doomed ending of misery is in sight - the ending that could have been avoided if only the advice had been taken at Step 3 - then go into the kitchen and kick the shit out of the expensive refuse bin once purchased for an expensive Victorian kitchen, sadly now trashed by kids. When the bin has been thoroughly smashed, chuck it into the back yard and swear at the night sky and the stars.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

See the little lambs

I went to a farm. I hate farms. It's never got any better, even though I have tried. And believe me, I have tried. For the last seven years I have endured grooming the donkey, petting the rabbit, milking the cow, feeding the goats, bottling the lambs (lambs? who are they kidding? Those monsters could take on Godzilla), and stroking the horse nose.

It has all been in the line of duty. Not motherly, of course. That's ridiculous. All this farm pursuit has been for the education of Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, and the better understanding of Where dinners come from and Why we are vegetarian and, on good days, vegan.

Of course to Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, farms mean cute and furry. They get the moral superiority of telling the rabbit whose ears they are holding that they will never chew on his sweet little leg, and they can feed the goats safe in the knowledge that the mashed innards of the one called Barbara are not going to be presented on a plate for dinner.

In 2003, the Dig family pushed the pursuit of all things cute too far. They dragged me to the Northumberland County Show. It's held at Corbridge, which is posh. Some of the people who go to the show are posh too, and go to show off posh pink pigs. Well to me pig shit looks all the same, posh or not, and I hated every second of it. Not content with making me look at posh pigs the Dig family forced me to look at fancy chickens and hairy rabbits. In front of the children I had to pretend to find it all great fun. I had to endure hours, possibly days, of horses pulling carriages. How interesting can it get? By three o'clock in the afternoon I wanted to kill myself.

The problem, I now realise, is that farm visits do not stop as the children get older. I thought they would. I thought that once we had gone to a farm to see what a chicken looked like, we could say, 'Right, that's sorted. Let's now just pretend we're the sort of people who might keep chickens'. In fact we could even say things like 'Let's keep chickens' when really everyone knows that I would much rather go to town and buy a new pair of shoes than go out into the garden in the pouring rain hoping the chickens have been eaten by a fox so I would never have to feed chickens again.

But of course the dreaded day comes round when we all have to go to the farm because it is spring and we must see the cute baby lambs and learn about the bloody chickens. I have to pretend to be interested in chicken development all over again, and smile politely when the hairy rabbit is brought out.

On the way home I crack. I tell Shark, Squirrel and Tiger that I am a townie born and bred and, not only that, but I am ideologically opposed to the farming of animals for the meat industry and if I have to look at one more chicken in my life time I may well go beserk and wring its neck, thus demonstrating exactly what farms are for.

And Shark says 'Did you get the picture of the baby lamb?'

And I say 'Yes Shark, of course, here it is'.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Having fun

Grit went off to play this afternoon, so can record no gruesome reality.

I have to find something, obviously, otherwise this blog will be hopeless. So I have complained to the BBC about a foolish article from the Devon news website. Satisfyingly, I have used words like 'irresponsible' and 'insulting'.

And I have complained about the weather, which is cold. English goose-pimple cold.

And I've had a Tuesday grumble about Hitler's art class, which is as fun as being forced to drink a glass of mud, three times a day.

Dig, meanwhile, has had an excellent full-length gripe about the Post Office. He sent a letter of complaint to a company who thought it a good idea to rip several hundred pounds out of our bank account for a service we don't want, and have previously cancelled. Dig sent the letter of complaint by recorded delivery, only the Post Office seemed to fail to record it, but then later claimed Thomas had signed for it.

There you go, all the usual grumbles. And yet Grit is still smiling. So you may be wondering why the lack of grievance?

It is because today, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger took San and mummy Grit into the woods where, with En's little sister Zee, all four girls proceeded to chase En into the undergrowth, whooping. They ran through ditches, hedges, over trees and through puddles to get a hold of him. A good runner, he has cunning tricks up his sleeve to avoid capture, like shouting 'OWL!' at the top of his voice, whereupon all the girls turn to look, and En runs off.

Eventually the ferocious woman tribe chased the outlaw En fifteen meters up to tree-top height. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger pinned him down and squealed with delight, crying 'What shall we do with him!' to which Zee replied, steadily, her eye on the target, finger pointing, shouted 'Sacrifice him!'

And not a word of complaint was uttered all afternoon. Even when Zee fell in the river.

Building the sacrificial flame

Monday, 17 March 2008

Let us read

Today I said 'We are going to do some reading'. I don't know why I said that. I've said it before. And I should have learnt, by now.

Teaching a child to read goes on all the time, of course, by shopping and cooking and working out when Coast is on the TV, but sometimes one might be foolishly compelled to do this reading thing self-consciously. With awareness and pursuit of a goal. Like sitting down on the sofa and not sounding out the word over.

Grit: Shall we read My mum is mad, Tiger?
Tiger: No.
Grit: Oh, let's. I'd love to read it with you!
Tiger: If I can draw a picture afterwards.
Grit: Of course. I will even sharpen the crayons. How cool a mum am I?
Tiger (laboriously sounding out every word while mummy Grit bites her knuckles in despair): 'On .... Monday .... I .... went ... oven ...
Shark (entering room even though she has already been banned, twice): Over. It's over. Not oven.
Tiger (Long howl): Shark said it! Shark said it! (Longer howl) She said it first and now there is no point! (Hurls book across room and flees, weeping.)
Grit: Thanks, Shark. Nice one.

Later.

Grit: Squirrel, would you like to read Fun at the Park?
Squirrel: No.
Grit: Are we going to make chocolate cake soon?
Squirrel (Pauses to consider options): Alright then.
Grit: Excellent! Off we go!
Squirrel: I ... went ... to ... the ...
Shark: park.
Squirrel: Shut your mouth! Shut your mouth! (Throws self at Shark who is hiding behind sofa. Ten minute fight ensues, resulting in Shark and Squirrel being banned from the front room.)

Later.

Grit: Shark, would you like to read Operation Badger to me?
Shark: No. Reading is boring.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Anticipation

Following Grit's outpouring of nervous exhaustion yesterday, she can only report today that we have once again brought home the little red two-seater car. Big Bro in Suffolk had taken possession of it, to maintain and weld, and do things to it that we never can, because our days are short, encumbered, and we are inept at car maintenance.

I don't know why we keep that car.

I do, of course. The little red car, the one me and the manly Dig used to make our appointment at the registry office, is a frail reminder of our life, pre-children. We hang to it, insurance for when the kids all turn up one day and announce 'I'm moving in with Toby/Annie/Clarabell...'

Then we can do what the hell we like.



Suzuki Cappuccino with removable lid. Seats couple.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The horror, the horror


What a choice of bloggery today.

Should it be the letter from the police about the state of the car (again)? Here we are, 9.30am, and the letter arrives. At first I think it must be the summons, but no, it's the letter which reads:

'a car park attendant, local warden or police staff recently noticed you had left some belongings on view in your car ... anything on display in the car does present an opportunity for car thieves ...'

Feeling picked on, Grit goes to the car to peer in, hoping to see the gold bullion she's accidentally left lying around the back shelf, or the Gucci handbag and diamond necklace casually thrown on the front passenger seat. But no. She discovers a Squirrel coat which is so filthy it's trying to burrow out of the back window, and three folders with the contents spilling out across the floor - quite clearly three 7-year olds French lesson a La Tete, and not a couple of CDs holding the names, addresses and bank details of five million people. And then, this, in the open glove compartment:


I'm going to address myself to all professional car thieves now. Can you see the empty rice cake packet in the middle there? That's the blue bit of plastic which I am saving so I can put it into a recycling bin. I know it's quite valuable. Organic Kallo, no less. So I'll move that immediately. Or perhaps you can make out the sandwiches? They're the brown square things that we took with us last Wednesday. One day I'll get round to putting those on the bird table, so don't steal those. And then there's the banana skin, hanging out of the ensemble like, well, I daren't say. Supply your own simile.

Perhaps the viewer to this lot assumed I am carrying around the latest spot of modern art, maybe a little something by Tracey Emin. Either that or they have a bunch of letters to send out and the poor sod whose name is Grit is on their database, flagged, thanks to the frequent calls to the police station because we live in Smalltown, the recent car accident and the way I am probably video-taped while standing in the queue at the Post Office complaining about the surveillance society.

If not that blog then, how about Shark, Squirrel and Tiger disappearing into the garden to collect mud, seconds after mummy Grit, at 3.50pm, said something like 'Let's go to John Lewis in ten minutes'. And then it started to pour with rain, great bucketfuls of the stuff. Forty minutes later I am dragging in a soaked Shark covered in mud, a smelly Squirrel and an over jubilant Tiger with very pink cheeks, the sort of pink that says 'I will probably catch my death from this, and it will be all your fault'.

Perhaps I shouldn't blog about these things at all, but about the atmospheric squeal that Squirrel's growing lungs are now capable of. This squeal is so encompassing I bet you heard it this afternoon, late tea-time. Soon it will be the stuff of legend. It will be 'Where were you when Squirrel screamed?' Just a bit longer, I guarantee, and she will have this squeal fine-tuned to pitch perfection and we will be calling in the glaziers and apologising in the Sunday newspapers while dabbing at ourselves with hankies.

Of course I could simply blog about the shopping trip into John Lewis to buy swimming costumes. I fully accept I've brought this on myself. The very thought drove me to it: the shaming glances other mums will throw me, pretending not to, when they see my 8-year old Shark emerge from the changing rooms in her polka dot bikini, suitable for age 6 - and which I have twice tried to lose by hiding in the cupboard under the stairs, claiming it has been eaten by the swimming pool fairies. I have been forced to smile at her delight when yesterday she rediscovered this wardrobe malfunction and then had to express great enthusiasm for her lightbulb moment that 'now we are 8, you don't have to join us in the pool and I can wear my favourite bikini!'

Because of the late hour - John Lewis closes at 6pm - I am forced to take everybody. This is something I have learned not to do. I can coax one child in and out of the car and I can hold hands with her to make sure she walks in the same direction as me, usually under the pretence of mother's love not wanting her to get run over or knocked into the course of an oncoming bus. But three I cannot do. Even though I am very determined, and have no personal dignity any more, so will do whatever it takes, publicly, including sing and pretend to be a bat (I have done both, and more) to get everyone's attention to follow me, follow me in this direction, now, now, now, I still have only two hands. This is a serious shortcoming. It is more of a disadvantage when all three, the same age, are fighting for hands, space, jostling at pavement edges, pushing and yelling. So scarred is Dig that he now refuses even to cross the road outside the house with all three of them to get to the tennis courts opposite. Worse, he says, because their goal is within sight and a sister must not get there first. Competition, to the death, if necessary.

But today I've promised swimming costumes in preparation for next week, and this is the only opportunity I can see. And we're late, thanks to the attractions of mud.

My first problem is the sheer noisy weight of us as we enter John Lewis. I cannot say any of my children are shy, retiring types - except when you stand in front of them and ask if they are enjoying their home education: then they will stare in horror at you and turn bright red, acting as if they never saw outside the front room before today - usually they are noisy, spilling out beings, locked inside their triplet bubble and continuing their loud impenetrable chatchatchat as if invisible to the outside world.

I try to warn them. I say, look, can you see how everyone is staring? First, you all look the same; people are confused, and will watch you. Second, you are very loud, and often have screamed in public; people may know you. Third, we are taking up the entire aisle now, so please can we walk single file and keep a little quieter?

None of these work. In the swimming costume department Shark sees a sales assistant and whispers, loudly, 'Shop assistant! Smile!' All three suddenly stand bolt upright in a line and put on a display I guess they might like to think indicates 'we are innocent'. I can only wince; I may have something to do with this after all. For the last two years I have taught them to try and look normal when we, school age kids in school time, see the community police officer coming towards us on his rounds.

But of course now it is too late. We have attracted the attentions of a smiling shop assistant who continues to smile even when Tiger declares very loudly that she 'isn't wearing that' in a tone as if offered a dead toad, then Shark brings down a line of hangers and costumes with over zealous arm movements. Shark clearly takes after Grit who manages to bang her head on the projecting arm of a clothes display, moves back and bumps into Squirrel who is foolish enough to stand behind her looking in another direction. In fact the whole expedition is fast becoming a Laurel and Hardy routine without the fun.

In amongst the mayhem I cannot help but feel we now have the one-to-one attentions of the sales assistant like a local police force, sent there to guard the stock, probably because the mother has brought in these kids as a front so she can half-inch the pop socks. I try and throw her off by getting everyone in the changing rooms, which are far too small, so two disgorge out to wander unsupervised through the rails. At this point, the chipper assistant attaches herself to Tiger and is trying to contain her with an 'indulge' routine - one which I've tried myself - treating her like some teenage shopaholic, crooning 'What do you think of the pink? It's very you'. My 8-year old Tiger is lapping it up and probably expecting this sort of treatment every Saturday from now on.

At closing time we emerge, arguing, from the shopping centre. Squirrel says she is happy with last year's pink bikini and I'm praying it fits. Tiger is swinging a new pink costume with sequins, looking a bit too Mae West and for which I blame the sales assistant. And Shark has a replacement bikini, in blue. For Shark, there is no other colour.

There is only one advantage to this, and that is that I can count the swimming ordeal mostly done. Until we get to the pool.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Blogging ate my day

Weighing up the day, I have to say that I have achieved bogger all.

On the other hand, I can shout Look! I have a proper side bar! With pictures!

At this rate I shall be experimenting with video.


Well that didn't work then.

But Dig would like everyone to know that it is Pi day. Not the scoffable sort, apparently, something to do with numbers. Dig is especially pleased because by accident he talked to the children about circumferences.

Clearly, now he thinks he is zeitgeist.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

20 Grit threats

This morning I was distinctly out of sorts, what with two monkeys in the mouth and the start of a four aspirin headache, therefore I am posting something I have been saving and adding to in edit mode. (I almost sound like I know what I'm doing.) It is a list of Grit threats, heard over the last week, mostly delivered to Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. It's enough to make you feel sorry for them. Nearly.

And if you don't read them, I shall cry.

1. You're going to school. Right now. I'll drive you. No, on second thoughts, we'll walk.

2. If you do not move those toys I will put them in a black plastic sack and throw them away.

3. If you do that, you will be grounded. And this time, I mean it.

4. I am selling you for medical experiments.

5. I will foster you out. Shall we ring social services now?

6. I will call Childline for you.

7. I will get you up and out of bed very early tomorrow.

8. If you do not get out of the bath, I will lift you out.

9. Eat your meal or I will never feed you again. Ever.

10. I am leaving this family.

11. We are never ever going to do this again. Ever. Ever Ever. So don't ask.

12. I am going to live in a field. I may never come home.

13. I will sell that on ebay.

14. If you do not move it now I will take it down to the tip. Where are my car keys?

15. I am going to live with (insert name).

16. If you do that to the bread again I shall make you wear it.

17. If you scream in the car I will stop. I do not care if we are on the M6. I am stopping.

18. If I cannot find my (glasses / keys / bag / etc) I will smash up the house.

19. If this (dvd / video recorder / TV / etc) doesn't do as I say I will throw it through the window. (Expletives removed on that one.)

20. If the gas man calls again, pretend we are out.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Something interesting happened somewhere

I have spent so long wandering about blog land that I have quite forgotten what I came in for.

The application of two large glasses of a liquid something red in a glass that costs £2.49 from the Co-op has also jellied part of my brain and rendered me numb down one side of the face. I'm sure it has also aided in the acquisition of a hurty shoulder. It cannot be RSI paralysing my mouse click nerve after reading 345 blogs, but commenting only on one or possibly two.

Actually I think my eyes might be bleeding as well.

Anyway, after reading so many interesting days I can barely recall my own. What I can remember of the last 24 hours is that today was Mummy School, following Squirrel's humble apology of yesterday. This means driving a total of three hours on a round trip to the Black Country Living History Museum. This was excellent fun and proper school. Homebound, there may have been a fight between Shark and Tiger on the M6, but due to foresight, I had my iPod charged up, plugged in, and on.

The other incident I should report, in case the police are later involved, is finding a gas man locked in the yard. He was scratching at the back door with his fingernails. Why didn't he knock at the door? If you got locked in a yard, wouldn't you knock? Dig says he let a gas man in on Monday. This gas man I found on Tuesday. I don't know whether it's the same one. But when I let him out, he sure did run.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Gracefully accepted

7.30 The early rising alarm rings. Dig is grumbling and sighing, just like a real teacher at 7.30 in the morning.

8.00 I discover it is not the alarm. It is Big Bro, telephoning on my mobile, which I double up for alarm purposes. Big Bro complains later that every time he rang I cut him off. I say I thought it was the snooze.

8.30 Things are going bad for Grit. Apparently Squirrel is already up, had her Cheerios and is sitting in the schoolroom, ready. Dig reports that she says daddy-school-at-home is good because she gets to clean the board and the table.

9.00 Shark bursts into the office. With a stern finger raised and a reprimanding voice, she says 'daddy! We're waiting!' Tiger opens office door and shouts in, 'Which one of the three r's are we doing today?'

10.00 Rats. I am in trouble.




10.30 Underhand tactics are required. Quietly retreat into office and plot.

11.00 Dig is getting everyone ready to go to French. I get Squirrel alone for sixty seconds in the kitchen.

Grit (nonchalantly): Oh, what's that? Is it a picture?
Squirrel: It's my picture of a bat.
Grit: It would look very nice as a card. You could give that by way of apology. Will you give me the picture?
Squirrel: Not really. It's my bat.
Grit: Oh. Let's say we can exchange that picture for, um, chocolate cake.
Squirrel: Er...
Grit: We will make a big fat one and you can put extra Smarties on top.
Squirrel: Can I eat all the red ones?
Grit: Of course.
Squirrel: OK then.
Grit: I accept your apology, thank you. You can keep the picture. DIG! She apologised!

Perfect. Now Grit can go back to idle loafing ways with moral high ground publicly intact, and scoff chocolate cake. Meanwhile, the point will be made clearly to Dig that the children are evidently enjoying his teaching style while improving in leaps and bounds so it would be shame to stop this educational approach now. It does, after all, give Grit the opportunity to work in the office and earn the cash to pay the late filing penalty on the accounts.

After some dramatic postures and the threat of a big scream Dig has agreed. But only to the end of the week.

Grit is counting this as an all-round success. At least for the moment.

Monday, 10 March 2008

A bad day for little Grits

Mummy Grit, with her fragile ego and hormones, has been sorely damaged over the last 24 hours, as any reader of this daily news blog will know.

In fact she is so damaged by yesterday's incident that Mummy Grit has issued a statement to the little grits. The statement reads:

'I am not home educating ever again. That's it. I've had enough.'

The first reaction, obviously, that this statement begs for, is for Tiger, Shark and Squirrel to come grovelling, daintily weeping their apologies, preferably on bent knees and with handkerchiefs and not wiping their noses on their tee-shirts and dresses, and that they do a genuine bit of meekness and say 'I'm sorry we won't do it again whatever it was'. An extra big grovel, of course, is required from Squirrel for her 2,000 repetitions of the 'I don't care about you!' proclamation delivered at full pelt yesterday in the High Street.

But I am sad to report that today, things have steadily fallen to an ugly state of affairs.

This morning, Dig, ambassador for gritlets, passed Grit on the stairs and Grit passed him the message that unless a Squirrel apology at least was heard by 11 o'clock then she would withdraw all educating services forthwith and a state of misery would exist between us.

Sadly, I have to report to you, readers of Grit's day, that no such apology has been forthcoming. Consequently, mummy Grit is now in a sulky hole from which it is impossible to move without significant loss of pride. Either that, or she has to do some pretty fancy footwork tomorrow to make it appear that she actually wins the moral high ground over an 8-year old and can continue home educating in the manner of going to museums and doing what she likes - and yet appears to have reprimanded Squirrel in the process. It is these things I am fighting for. Face, pride, moral authority over an 8-year old, and having a good time. I am certain that I will prevail.

And so today Dig has been forced to take over the home educating duties while a sad, sulky mummy Grit returns to work in the office next door.*

Now we can say that this is a bad, bad day for the little grits. Because the only model of school Dig knows is a 1950s boys boarding school in the north-east of England. So he does exactly that. (Bar the naked swimming obviously, because we haven't got a swimming pool.)

First, he sets the early rising alarms and shouts that breakfast will be cleared at 8.30 and lessons begin at 9.00. At 9.05, he stands by a blackboard in the schoolroom and gives everyone a moral assembly. At 9.30, he writes today's date on the blackboard and underlines it. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger dutifully write this in their new exercise books. At 9.40, Dig begins to conjugate verbs and writes those up in chalk. And down they get copied in three exercise books.

By midday I can only hope the little grits are reflecting on their form of apology to mummy. It is only a matter of time, dear reader. Only a matter of time.

Either that, or I will have to feign the broken leg again.

* The book Grit is setting uses the following example, which has cheered her up a bit:

'
I exist with one dog. I call Jim. I love dog. Each day I all take Jim go park stroll. It whole body all be black colour only. Exist nose be white'.

Which just goes to show there is, indeed, a calling for TEFL teachers.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Nightmare

It's Sunday. In my diary is written: Parks workshop. We're going to learn how to basket weave. That sounds gentle enough, I think, for me. And sounds ideal, in a scout hut, for a Sunday afternoon.

When we arrive, there's only us - me with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger - and a five year old schooled child, Angela, who's with her mum. Leading the workshop is an elderly lady called Flo, with gentle eyes and nimble fingers. She's helped lots of people, she says, as I gaze on the long lines of willow, and warmly reassures me that anyone can basket weave. Give it half an hour, she says, and you can make a fish.

As we're milling about, taking off coats, Angela rearranging chairs, I can feel Angela's mum spy triplets. I watch this moment dawn a hundred times and sometimes it's funny. The watcher's eyes rest on one small face, then their gaze slides over to the other. You can see them map the same child features; positioning eyes, mouth, nose, ears, hair, like replica coordinates in some strange doubled mirror world. Then, suspicious, the watcher's eyes slide off to the third, and then back to the first, and then round again, mouth slightly opened now, frowning, checking positions, looking to see if they're outmanoeuvred by running children. Suddenly: 'Are they triplets?' a involuntary shout, like you might burst out 'Help!' or 'Stop!'

It's my turn then. I nod and smile. I usually hear, 'I don't know how you cope', or 'that must be hard work', which I mind less because it's true. But sometimes, worst of all 'What a nightmare'. They might as well just say, 'God, that's awful, isn't it? You must be locked in a despairing land of the living dead and no escape'.

Today I get the nightmare line. So I bring out my cold, hard, withering stare. And cut dead all hope of further conversation, all hope of that silent female bonding that might come about in meeting eyes and raising eyebrows while hinting to stories of babyhood, or birth, and I say fixedly, with grim eyes, and loud too, so Shark, Squirrel and Tiger can hear me above all others, I say, 'No. My children are a joy'. It is a declaration. I could have my hand placed against my chest or raised above a book, the book that says I will not be worn down, I can stand up and say this, 'They are a joy'. Some days, I even believe in my own saintly pose.

At least today my declaration does cut dead all talk. Because usually I then get back, 'Bet you're glad they're in school'.

When we're assembled and talked through the properties of willow, red, green and yellow, and one called daphnoides that turns smoke blue, Flo asks us to choose our willows for the fish. She turns first to Angela, who cheerfully answers yellow and runs off with a fish to weave. Then Flo turns to Shark.

Now I suspect Shark could shine - perhaps in the right school, with just the right people all about, arranged just so. She'd be Big Fish in Little Pond. She'd do well, be well; the odd snap and bone crunch of an unfortunate small fry on a weekly basis would be enough to keep everything in order. But school. Oh dear. She would have to be separated from Tiger, and Squirrel.

If Shark thinks she is alone, without sisterly support, she weeps. She howls. We have learned to part her from sisters with safeguards and securities: Don't worry, they're here. You can see them. She'll be right back. They're next door. They're out with daddy and will be back at three.

But today, when Flo singles out Shark, looking only at her, inviting no sisterly prompts, allowing no sideways sisterly glances, and asks what colour willow do you like, Shark is suddenly caught off-balance. What colour do I like? What do I say? She turns scarlet and looks at the wall, then at the floor. I cringe. It looks like my heavy-duty Shark is suddenly without self-sense, and alone; something prevents her looking up, meeting eyes, or speaking. At this moment, she needs the close thought or the close proximity of a sisterly body or a sister's prompting whisper. She looks like she might be thinking, I know if I can think my sister's thoughts, if I can hear my sister breathe and say red, I know that I like blue.

Flo, feeling the awkward hesitations, prompts again. And again. Silence. Flo picks up yellow and offers that. Shark's face crumples, and the watchers shift uneasily. At the defence, I leap in and scatter apart the audience, picking up willows of different colours and offering them round. This is the way I know how to do it, and can release Shark, who turns away in a corner, quietly chastened.

Then there's Tiger. Once Shark is gone, she too, suddenly looks lost. And Flo responds to her silence by swiftly forming an outline of a fish and deftly twisting the first lines of willow to form the spine. Flo's fingers look like they are made of willow too. They bend, this way and that, knitting the willow in and out and twisting it around, making the little loops look not like Grit's bent sticks but like wooden cobweb art. And Tiger's face is growing redder and her lips tighter. 'Is it alright?' I say to Tiger, knowing it's gone wrong, hoping Flo will somehow take the point and stop her willow knitting now and pass the fish on. 'Is that alright?' I say again, louder. 'No!' shouts Tiger. 'I didn't want her to do it all and now she's done and there's no point!'

'Flo is trying to get you started' I reason, 'look, now she'll pass the fish to you'. I add the last command, clearly, hoping this is like the polite lady chat which passes back and forth at basket weaving times. Flo obliges and Tiger holds her fish, limp, like it is a diseased thing, her mouth distorted, red face thunderous, hissing. She stomps off to the furthest away table. Flo keeps a watchful eye on her departing figure and I can feel the warmth drain away and the words 'spoiled child' hanging, voiceless.

What Flo doesn't know is that this is normal Tiger. Tiger cannot be 'educated' in any schooled sense. She will spend hours struggling alone with a problem or a puzzle. Attempt to help her at your peril. There is simply no way she can receive any fact or knowledge transmitted to her. She wants to discover it for herself. If I want to show her any type of skill or trick, it has to be with utmost care: I have to show her what to do as if I am not showing at all, and barely aware that she is there. One false move in this casual demonstration, and that's it. Angry, violent Tiger, tearing things up. Snarling, hissing Tiger, breaking things apart.

And finally, at the end of the session, it's Squirrel's turn.

Squirrel is aged 8, but we can call it 13. Since the minute hand ticked the final moment of her 7 years, she has been obnoxious, violent, sneering, rebellious, and determined on the last word, come hell or high waters and she wants yellow willow.

As I try to persuade Flo to part with a massive bundle of yellow willow, trying to be helpful, Squirrel is punching me in the kidneys. I turn round and say 'Stop' which I hope sounds definite. I may as well have said, 'Please continue. Harder'. 'Stop' I say again as she lands me another blow. Then she raises her fists and thumps me in the back. I turn round, abandon all pretence of courtesy with Flo and glower. I'd like this facial gesture, against all evidence, to be the very last of the thing. I want the Force of Glower to send Squirrel kicking and grunting away, go stomping off and hit the furniture. Only she doesn't. She stands in front of me and beats me with her fists. I pick her up and carry her, rigid, ironing board, to the kitchen, where I put her down and tell her she does not come in the room again until she calms down. If you do, I warn, you are grounded for swimming. You are grounded for the museum. You are grounded for French. For gym. For trampoline. Right now, I'd add eating, drinking and sleeping if I could.

Five minutes later she's back, snarling with rage behind me. I gather up our willowed fish and set off at a crack to the car. I've had enough. Angela, who humiliates me with her polite behaviour, holding hands with mother and skipping, is behind. Shark stumbles along, snivelling and crying: her whole world upset once Squirrel starts jack-booting to the door. Tiger is still foul-faced, ignored now by Flo and me. Squirrel, meanwhile, is behind us all, shouting 'I don't care about you! I don't care about you! I don't care about you! I don't care about you!'

I glance back with Flo's good bye and see Angela's mum, watching, with Angela skipping alongside, waving her rainbowed willow fish.

And I didn't say, 'Yes. It is a nightmare, sometimes. And if you really want to know, because let's face it, you do, it was an unplanned explosion of eggs and late age. When three heads were discovered with the first thick slap of gel on my belly, Dig was in Slovakia. I was alone, in shock, and taken to a side room to stare at the wall. When three tiny beings were ripped out early, all alive and one with a wonky leg, my body stopped, closed down, job done. For a week I wasn't alive enough to think I might die. Then when the babies came home my marriage stopped and life stopped and no-one wanted to know any joy that I could manufacture out of nappies and bottles and laundry and no sleep. They wanted to hear only the horror of it all. And so, every time I heard those words 'What a nightmare' I said, through gritted teeth, 'No. They are a joy'. Because if I say it enough times it will be true.

But now look. A nightmare is so evidently true, with a jack-booting Squirrel, a snivelling Shark and a foul-tempered Tiger. Next time, I think, I'll say 'A nightmare? Yes. Some days'.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Things are looking up


These are the ladders going up to the roof in the schoolroom.

Shark: What is daddy doing?
Squirrel: Roosting.
Tiger: Roosting. He's a bat.
Squirrel: He's a bat that sits upside down at his computer and now he's going to the roof.
Tiger: He's going up to the roof to roost.
Shark: What is he doing with that hammer?
Tiger: Catching insects.

Of course, daddy Dig could not possibly be putting up the lights that he bought from Ikea last June, and which have been sitting on the floor of the schoolroom since.

The very same lights which Grit has asked of, at least once a week, 'When are you putting up these lights? If you don't put up these lights soon, I will take them down the tip.'*

*
Incidentally, that is a Grit Pointless Threat number 14.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Spot the difference

Grit is feeling a bit peed off right now, even though she discovers there is a magazine named after her, plopping on the mat at Waconda Road, and even though she knows there is indeed an entire nation which holds aloft her namesake-foodstuff for general consumption, scorn or delight, take your pick.

Anyway, it is not the free and frequent use of Grit's name which has peed Grit off a bit. It is the following comparison.

Dig's day

Receive a smart blue invitation to a posh do in London where Bigwigs go and the PM's name is swirled around by someone who knows someone who knows this can be done because we know the people who know. That sort of do.

Travel by train to London, arrive in good time. Drink champagne. Drink another glass. After all, we're not driving, are we?

Dine. Is it lemon infused? A touch of cumin. Delicious. Clap. Another glass? Chit. Chat. Clap some more. More wine sir? Enjoy the ring of glasses, touching gently.

Mention, casually, that the late train is about to depart. 'Of course Dig you must stay over. Of course there's a hotel room. No problem. I hope it's adequate. Fresh flowers? More wine?'

Sleep.

Enjoy full English breakfast in gracious surroundings. Soft music is playing. The coffee is hot and strong and good. Relax, for here you can express preferences. Is the bacon crispy? Too salty, too lean, too thick, undercooked, overcooked, served on a square plate and not a round? Order more coffee. Complain about the bacon.

Greet people with handshakes. Soft chairs. Thick carpets. Fragrant perfumes. Enjoy shared observations about insightful matters. Speak in hushed voices.

On leaving, someone murmurs 'Of course we must do lunch'. Nothing special. Did you mention a Michelin star? Good to relax. Would you like a glass of wine? After all, we're not driving, are we?

Grit's day

Late. Listen to Shark having a particularly long scream. Say, 'Right. I can't stand anymore of this'. Leave with Squirrel and Tiger to go to kiddie gym lesson. Slam door. Open it to shout in, 'You're grounded'. Sit in car and seethe. Go back in and grind teeth. Have to reach resolution and de-ground Snot Child from Hell pdq. If she doesn't come, will be guilty of child neglect and prosecuted.

Become aware of strange looks while Shark, Tiger and Squirrel are bouncing on a trampoline in next lesson. Look in mirror in girl's changing rooms smelling of drains. Discover a banana-shaped charcoal smudge over nose and left cheek. Thanks, Hitler, for doing the smudged boot pictures again. Thinks next time a good plan is to quietly ditch pictures in bin at the art class and not put them on the seats of the car where I have to pick them up to sit down. And then clearly stick my fingers up my nose.

Go shopping for bread and pasta in last ten minutes of lesson. Have large woman in Tesco run over foot with trolley. Limp. Forget pasta.

Pick everyone up. Drive home. See petrol light is flashing yellow. Pretend not to see it. At home, feed everyone a piece of bread.

Thirty minutes later, get everyone in car again to go in opposite direction to French. Mel tells me I have been overpaying. She said I always do it. Every week. Never mind. Everyone laughs.

Go into local high street to buy pasta. Thinks: relax time. Pop into RSPCA shop. Once in, knock over a bookstack. This blocks shop entrance door for ten minutes and has two old lady RSPCA staff picking them all up while I apologise profusely. I pretend I have just come limping from the hospital by way of explanation. Late to pick up kids from Mel's.

Shark emerges with lips washed green, red and yellow thanks to the E-numbered sweeties she's scoffed for being good in French. Has squeal in car. Gets home and says she is not hungry. Tell Shark I will make her eat pasta if I have to force feed it up her nose because in 20 minutes she has drama and kiddie RSPB and she will go bonkers again before the night is out because of something really important, like in drama they said the word 'owl'.

Have ten minutes in which to eat pasta and leave for drama. Arrive at drama late. Drop everyone off. Go home. Computer crashes.

Pick up everyone from drama. Drive straight to kiddie RSPB. On leaving barn where kiddie RSPB meeting is held, try to do it quietly, so no one will notice. Immediately trip over railway sleeper that someone has placed outside the door. Crash to the floor shouting 'F***ing H***' at top of vocal range. Railway sleeper? A railway sleeper in a car park for f***'s sake? How the f*** did that get there? And why have I never seen the bloody thing before? The fall launches me face down in the gutter again, leaving a bruise up the left leg and a graze over the right knee.

One hour later pick everyone up from kiddie RSPB. Tiger has a big cry because she did not win the lottery and claims I told her she would win it every 15 months. Deny this and explain probabilities of lottery wins again in the car.

Bed, finally, for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger at 10.30 pm.

Fall asleep on bed with all lights and heating on. Discover this at 3am, on waking with stiff neck and sore leg.

Breakfast. Shark comes down, eats my strawberry yogurt because I am too slow to grab it at the table, and complains because there are no Cheerios. Has a big squeal.

Let's stop there. I can bear no more. I don't get paid for this. And in actual fact, I think we can safely deduce this is simply a case of jealousy.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The tax inspector

At 9.30 this morning it's All Systems Go. Besieging the office since 6am, Dig has undermined a two foot high layer of paper and made a tunnel to the kitchen table, where the tax officer will sit. In this military strike, he has also engaged in a spot of propaganda, draping a tea towel over the big box, marked in black unmovable marker pen, VAT. It's stuffed full of unopened envelopes. If this were not enough to establish some sort of central command, he's found a child's chair which he has wiped clean from strawberry jam, wedged it under the table, and turned on Ride of the Valkyries. Obviously we are out to take control.

But I'm struggling. I cannot bring myself to force up a nice and smiley smile to a tax inspector. I simply can't. I'm choking in the gullet. Apparently, she says, arriving, dressed in grey, and jollying us along, someone somewhere deemed us 'high risk' because Dig works a lot overseas. That puts us 'off the scope'. Code: tax evasion.

Oh. Is that what it is? Is that what I am engaged in then? Fumbling on with Dig in India, or China, or wherever, with triplets in hot pursuit around the house, screaming? I didn't know tax evasion looked like that. I thought tax evasion looked like a swimming pool in Monaco and a diamond called a corporate asset. I didn't know tax evasions also came with a sink full of cold washing up, this morning's strangled unicorn swinging from the banisters on a length of pink embroidery thread, and an afternoon fight over the video box of Mary Poppins.

Mrs VAT continues, airily. She says she does her best to make everyone feel happy. Happy. Should I sing 'Oh joy! The tax inspector is here! Tralala! Let's skip! Let's wear the antler horns for spring!' She starts to josh about Tesco and bottles of milk as Dig sits her down. We don't offer a drink. And I'm still not laughing. This woman has the power to trash our business, remove all our savings and take us to court.

Once sat down, the jokes are clearly a front. She's in quick enough now, asking for invoices and accounts, posing some pretty sharp questions about our practices. It's like being interviewed by Mr Welding, head of fifth year. They behave all 'I'm really on your side'; it's just their fingers are tapping on the school exclusion forms.

After an hour, Mrs VAT gets up and says she cannot understand it, why she's been called. It looks like everything's in order, she says, and we probably won't be seeing her again because she's waiting to retire. Looking back at the chair, she says she can see it's a business where we're working at home and doing the relevant paperwork, and that all the payments seem prompt, considering.

And as she collects her bag, paper, spectacles, I feel a slight alarm. Because at this point of departure, she might want to use the toilet. Now. I'm not a spiteful person. But I have a mean streak. Definitely.

Just before she arrived, I went to clean the toilet. I could not find the brush. Where has the brush gone? Who stole the brush? I check the children's rooms. They might have misguided themselves into a spot of experimental Hockney-style pool painting with Harpic. Nope. Just the normal mess. Then I check Dig's areas. Sadly, not with fetish, but forgetfulness, he'll possess remote controls, favourite pens, household items. But then I've never known him do housework. Or ever hold a toilet brush.

Defeated, I abandon the enterprise. And then, to add to any distress a much-used toilet in a house of children may bring about to an elderly tax inspector, probably with delicate sensibilities and a weak bladder, I place an old toothbrush on the lid.

And then I hide the toilet roll.

And now I think, just as I become aware that the threat of prosecution has subsided, I think, please don't say, please don't ask, 'Can I pop to your toilet?'

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

We have a table


This morning Dig says we have to look sharp because when the VAT inspector comes tomorrow she will need somewhere to work.

This evening I think that should be OK so long as she sits only at one side.


And brings her own chair.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

All in the head

Today began with a pain in the head. Again. I knew it was going to be a bad day, waking up with a vice pinning together my forehead and left eye socket. And I was right.

By 9.15 we are late. Art with Hitler. My turn to set up the tables. Again. Sitting in the car at the service station, trying to remember is it diesel? Is it unleaded? What is it? What car am I driving with an ice pick lodged in my head and Squirrel going wahwahwah because Tiger has given her a kick for invading her seating space. Again. When we get to art I find out it's not my turn anyway, so needn't have rushed. I feel like banging my head against the wall, thinking I could have buried myself under the dark dark covers instead of rushing out and off. Perhaps the banging head solution is not for today.

Six aspirins and eight hours later I'm staring out the kitchen window wondering about sparrows when Dig creeps in saying he's moving the oven in the office for the VAT inspector. He can do it if I hold the bottom. You might not recall that the oven has stood in the middle of the office kitchen since January 15th, when Dig put it there. So now, despite not yet having reached convalescent stage in the head, I have to carry an oven through two flats and deposit it in the yard where the gate fell off. The oven is possibly condemned to stay there forever, or until I have hormones and can do one hundred impossible things in one day and ring the council to come and take it away.

Really, there is only one course of action left for a day when you wake up with knitting needles in your head and someone starts knitting with them while you are wondering why sparrowhawks exist before you are forced to move ovens.

Take refuge in eating. None of that bon apetit red pepper mousse and walnut salad in virgin olive oils. No. Real comfort stuff. And as much as you can manage in forty minutes. Two chocolate bars, five sugary biscuits, one chocolate muffin, two chocolate cherry sponge bars (OK then, I ate the chocolate cherry layer and threw the sponge away), followed by last night's left-over pasta, cold, and straight from the pan. But of course I do not want to get fat. Or fatter. So I've eaten an apple. Because apples do not make you fat. Or, I hope, make headaches worse.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Return to normal

I am repacking my bags. That's how I feel right now. All today there has been a triangular struggle for power, played out in the kitchen, front room, school room. A three-way split. First it is Shark and Tiger, locked in combat, gripping four hands around one pair of scissors. For the moment the scissors are skewered in the slice between the combatants. The sharp point, thankfully, pointing down to the floor. So only the wooden boards, this time.

Next, a howling starts. That is Squirrel. I can detect it from streets away. It is a sort of whooohooohoo and rises up like the cries of the dead on Halloween. And this time, I'm not watching the duel to the death, thank God. I'm sitting in the office with my head in my hands.

There was once a time when I would have jumped up at this dead cry howling through the house and rushed off to find my daughter, broken legged, perhaps, at the foot of the stairs. Not any more, matey, I think, as my head sinks into my arms. She'll be here in a moment, standing by my desk before dramatically crumbling to the floor in a reenactment of her sisterly embrace. And here she comes, looking red, battered and bruised, with tears washed over her face and her hair strangely twisted so that it looks like the back is at the front and the front is at the back.

An hour later it's Tiger and Shark again, wrestling it out on the sofa. Damage: a book on Julius Caesar (torn cover); the remote control (confiscated) and my temper (blown).

And it goes on. All day. Tiger v. Squirrel. Squirrel v. Shark. Shark v. Squirrel. Squirrel v. Tiger.

Dig says ignore it. He calls this the returning blues. It's really, he says, philosophically, a sort of settling in, an adjustment in the balance of things after a period of change. He says that this behaviour is inevitable. The angry attacks, the sudden weeping, the unprovoked fighting. And he says that once upon a time he had only to bear this sort of behaviour from me.