Thursday, 31 December 2009

How time passes

Hey, cute little kids! This is your year! Remember all the fallings out and slamming doors and growing ups? Remember all the whispers behind your fingers held against daddy's ear, feeling his prickly beard rub against your hand? Remember holding his hand tight when the big dog came by? Remember mama shouting Pasta! Or laughing so loud she thought her sides would split?

Remember the night we found astronomers in the field, history in the mud, geology in the shopping centre? Remember how we watched dolphins in the bay, the play in the park, the butterflies in the flowers?

Remember the first time you entered the carving workshop filled with smells of timber and woodsmoke; the long walk to catch a glimpse of baying deer lumbering through the woods; how you combed each sand grain on the beach in search of ancient turtle shell?

I remember our first night camped in a field; the fire, sparkle and crackle of Hallowe'en; your excitement of snow, falling silently over the day and the night.

I want your new year, your every year, to be filled with discovery, sudden joy, strange happenings, new knowledges, and all delight.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

So. No Mother's Help in the New Year, then.

I knew the chances were slim. Who wants to help out with triplets? The very word triplets conjures up a nightmare in your head, doesn't it? Straight out of a movie, screaming babies, Brad Pitt beefcake grinning childishly, holding a baby in each hand, one perched on his head. We're supposed to love the package; mother the lot.

Worse thing is, that's what it's been like - one on the head - with triplets. Without Brad Pitt. Who would be inept, so I'm not hiring him as a Mother's Help. Even if he asked.

I'm bearing a grudge, you can tell. That word. Triplets. It's been like a magnet held the wrong way round. Every element that might curve towards it just bounces straight away again. The one friend I thought would be my next mother said 'I want to help, I really do. I want to be your help'. Until I said, 'Would you like to help?' And then the silence was so enormous you could fill a stadium.

Because I need help, I really do, even though you have many more children than me, and can cope, juggling babies and laundry and teenagers and pre-teens and one on the way, doing a full time job and being strumpet of the boudoir come 11pm.

But there are some days help could come to me like a gift, like cherry pie, like an angel. Something special, help from those extra pair of hands.

So because I need help, I found out a contact and I contacted that name, advertising their helpfulness, their Mother's Help angelic role, straight from 1953, all clean aprons and warm cake and salvation with a broom, and I wrote Responding to your ad offering your services as Mother's Help! Yes please! I'm a mother! I need help! I have three kids!

And after the first exchanges comes the question again, How old? Because strangely, I don't say.

Now it's all over, because when I answer they're all aged 9 suddenly that silence falls, like curtains closing, windows shutting, doors bolting. I know that penny's dropped. They're all aged 9, so uhuh that makes them...

To the outside world, not three individual children, each with their special gifts, unique talents, their own personalities. Just, triplets.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Because you might think bad things about Yemen

It is hard to reconcile such beauty with such turbulence. This house, where we stayed for too brief a time, has been a garrison for soldiers, was owned by a general who had served in Russia, became a disputed property. Soldiers took the house back twice in the last three years; the latest attempt to seize the house was eighteenth months before our arrival. It was a stable time to visit.

Because you are going to hear bad things about this remarkable country, with its earth, mud and brick houses; its basalt mountains like square building blocks thrown down by a careless hand; its sticky sweet bread, served first in your meal; the shining glass of the windows that blink and flicker like coloured candlelights in the night; because you will hear a lot, and see little, then here are some photographs. They cannot do it justice.

The old city in Sanaa is a Unesco world heritage site. You might not hear that so much in the forthcoming days.

Monday, 28 December 2009

My desk is tidy; my state is calm

Fortunately, did not see Triplets of Retribution for most of day. All taken off by The Hat to see Treasure Island at the Stables. I recovered in their absence by therapeutic desk tidying.

I hear there was much drama, with wailing, blood letting, mayhem, and murder.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger were able to shrug their shoulders like this thing is normal. And some days, it is.

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Nothing happened today. Nothing AT ALL. Nothing to do with ME.

For the triplets - and I use that word knowingly, because today Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are truly one being - it has been a day of inflamed passions, emotional over-reaction, and the type of outrage that ends in nuclear war.

Pressing the red button marked EXPLODE takes place one nanosecond after an insult is detected on the insult scanning device, stored somewhere under common sense and reason behind the back of a triplet brain.

Insults like, 'I want pasta for tea'.

This insult, delivered by Tiger in the kitchen and picked up by the scanning device stored in the Shark brain in the front room, is clearly a personal affront to all non-pasta eaters.

Don't say Shark liked pasta today and will like pasta tomorrow, for today she is allied with the Outraged Union of Non-pasta Eaters who have suffered this abuse LONG ENOUGH.

Tiger must be stopped. She is attempting a coup. She is trying to control all tea-times. She is seeking to remove any other sister's better right to eat tea at tea-time, especially any sister who doesn't want to eat pasta. And this merely proves Tiger's long sustained, vindictive campaign; to judge herself better than anyone else; to deny the righteousness of non-pasta eaters; to declare all non-pasta eaters upon the earth as rats and garbage; to punish all non-pasta eaters to an eternity of tea-times with pasta shaped like tubes. Tiger is the PASTA HITLER.

Now Tiger has revealed her plan all along! She is malice aforethought. She has been doing this kind of thing FOREVER and certainly before she was born.

The punishment for that is to be chased round the house by Shark threatening to pull your face off.

Dear reader, just replay that scene of insult, wounded pride, outrage, injustice, and vengeance, in all triplet dimensions. Shark-Tiger; Tiger-Shark; Squirrel-Tiger, Tiger-Squirrel; Squirrel-Shark...

It takes quite some hours, doesn't it? Which might explain why - after four hours with her life reduced to acts of retribution over wrong doings connected with pasta, dress buttons, that book left on the sofa last Thursday, who had the computer longest - mummy Grit ignites, hurls across the kitchen table a packet of frozen bread rolls garnished with a blasphemy, and stomps out of the house wearing the same hat everyone else seems to be wearing today: the hat of inflamed righteous indignation.

So, Triplets. Three parts of the same outraged being. Three parts of the same mind alive to all the injustices of dress buttons and pasta tubes.

If today is a food to be served up at teatime on Judgment Day, then these brief daylight hours deserve to be a bowl of cold porridge that Doreen, the right-handed dinner lady of wasted time, discovers under the kitchen sink of pointlessness.

The same bowl will have lodged there fifteen years, catching the grease drips from the defective u-bend of misery. It will have caught the drips from the upturned bottle of harboured grudges, be coated with the bitter crystals from the bar of insult, be bubbling with the hidden gas of resentful anger. It should now be served up, garnished with Lux soap flakes and a mouse corpse.

This is my vengeance. You get pasta.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Can we run Boxing Day again?

One of those unexpected days at The Pile when the gritlets quietly amuse themselves with girly swot activities, like colouring in a book about the history of the horse, adding the final touch to an Edwardian morning dress, and amusing oneself with a wooden puzzle set of tangram blocks.

I wish we had days like this more often. Next time we have one, I'm calling it In Memory of Boxing Day.

Friday, 25 December 2009

The perfect Christmas dinner

In 2002, when the opportunity came to release ourselves from Christmas past, I grabbed it in both arms, clung on tight, and made a vow to the firmament that we were never going to do Christmas ever again.

Christmas dinner was already a reminder of death, solitude, and stolen furniture.

It could only be followed by a New Year Eve celebrated with a glass of pickling vinegar.

On that latter point: I do not bear grudges, but not one of those four responsible family members assembling that New Year Eve all those years ago in the fallen-down pile in windswept Northumberland, actually thought to buy a bottle of wine. Leather thongs and pink flippers for the all out gay night down the local town, Yes; Celebration New Year plonk, No.

So the very first year we could, Dig and I decided to do Christmas on our terms.

For me, that meant do as we damn well pleased on the actual day, get away with what evil I could all around it, and feed Guinness to the triplets to knock them out before midnight.

It was not quite a united decision. Dig said even though we were now to stay at home for Christmas, we should cook a special meal to mark the moment. I said 'What? We just agreed we would do as we liked, and doing as I liked meant I'm not cooking.'

I refused to cook. Dig refused to cook. I refused to pay for someone else to cook. Dig refused to pay for someone else to cook.

We stared it out.

And so was born the baked potato compromise.

It is a perfect solution. It bears no awkward memories, no obligation, and no cooking, except to kick the oven door shut with my right foot.

Further benefits include relative-proofing, in complete confidence that no-one will desire to come and share such a feast; it can be timed for readiness any time you like; and it is no problem with the vegetarians and meat eaters alike, thanks to a delicious assortment of tinned and packaged topping.

For Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, the relief in the first few years was palpable.

Here was a mama who was forcefeeding them spinach and celery and smuggling past their gullets all manner of brassica on a daily suffering basis. Then nirvana comes once a year in the shape of a tin of tomatoes slapped down in front of a jacket potato and the instruction to get on with it.

Admittedly, the joy and expectation might be wearing thin.

But girls, you have to know, that this is mama's no cooking day. This is baked potato day. It leaves mama in perfect freedom to enjoy the other civilised Christmas traditions of sherry, white wine, red wine, port, baileys.

And no-one should expect this Christmas tradition to change.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

I bet Sarah Brown doesn't wrap presents in the nude

The eco squad will know that Sarah, the PM's wife, uses old newspaper to wrap presents for Gordon and co.

Old copies of the Torygraph might work for Sarah Brown, but using the two foot pile of old newspaper has been a ruddy disaster round here.

Overlooking the fact that I managed to secure a selection of pubic hair under the festive sellotape, I also made the horrible error of wrapping Squirrel's fairy outfit book in a double page spread on execution around the world.

I then followed that by wrapping Shark's family scrapbook in a feature on the slaughter of minky whales by Japan. Including full colour pictures of dismembered whale corpses.

On the other hand, the newspaper wrapping approach saved me £1.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Hoop and stick

There are many achievements my children strive for; many achievements they rush towards, gallop over, then bound away in their hectic stride, forgetful on their journey to somewhere else.

None of the achievements that thrill me are marked by certificates, levels, signed papers, claps and cups.

The achievements that take away my breath, catch my heart, inspire me, are reached with their sudden laughter, frantic activity, burst of life; they take us all by surprise, are impossible to follow; I twist and turn to see them, and cannot capture each moment of triumph. They are swirls of light, falling stars, sweeping vapour trails across the ice, my children, triumphant, alive, exploring all, eyes wide open, laughing, impulse, and I think, watch out world.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Just saying, if you know us, you get a felt brooch

And if you want a felt brooch hand made by Squirrel, Tiger or Shark, get in touch.

We have plenty.

With thanks to Gillian Gladrag for the prompt delivery of felt, book, and ideas.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Bah, humbug

Dear Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Forgive me. I cannot join the Christmas expectations that excite you, in shopping malls, in TV advertisements, in Tesco.

I do not know what causes my indifference to the glittered aisles of a supermarket chain. I should look at all that red and silver with child eyes. Perhaps I am secretly sickly, but each year that passes, Christmas seems to mean less and less, while the tinsel grows more and more.

In fact my great achievement in the festive department so far has been to screech the car to a halt this Monday morning, tear over to the petrol station, burst through the shop door, and complain, loudly and intemperately, to a grovellingly apologetic Tesco checkout woman in front of a hushed and watching, foot-shuffling queue.

On the plus side, I note that when I slammed the shop door back on its hinges, everyone lined up inside bore an expression so defeated they lacked only a noose for their hands. I congratulate myself in spicing up an otherwise miserable Monday morning. Also, I note with smug righteousness, that the Cliff Richard anthem is no longer blasted at 9am over the petrol forecourt, full whack through the tannoy.

Having inhibited that particular Christmas mood, I could turn my attention elsewhere. Like grown women who wear reindeer antlers in streets. Or the bicycling Santa at number 29. Or the blue flashing lights hanging down from the windows at number 45, Derek Street. I mean, how stupid is that? To install lights that scream authority blue, late at night along the streets of Smalltown? No wonder the traffic crawls along and I panic about mints.

But even if all the Tesco joy in all the world means nothing to me, and the trees, tinsel, cards, and glitter in the Dyson mean very little more, I look at you three children, and think you mean more to me than all the Christmases that can be manufactured, anywhere.

You are special, dear Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. And you are extra, extra, extra special for indulging mama, and taking her to the oh-so-wanted and longed-for cinema excursion, to sit back in comfort and great excitement, with glasses and popcorn, to watch A Christmas Carol in 3D.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

To market, to market

Dig says I will never find a set of Christmas present woodcarving tools unless I buy them online, and it is too late for that. He thinks he is triumphant. I can imagine him already, polishing his crown that says 'I was right'.

I am all out to prove him wrong. So much so, I would probably sell both my arms to do that right now.

It is lucky then, that today is the final car boot sale just before Christmas. It's a ten minute drive; sprawling, busy, filled with strange and lustrous objects like a medieval trader's market outside Samarkand. Last time I visited, I happily trawled through piles and piles of wares; junk from garages, attics, heaps and mounds of discarded remnants. Treasure, all.

Surely, I think, someone will be turning over grandfather's woodcarving tools, forgetting, or not caring, how his gnarled hands held those handles, and thinking, 'good for a fiver, the lot'.

On the busy front, I could kick myself.

Only on arriving do I recall that the last time I visited here, it was a warm summer day, buzzing with ice cream sellers and sticky drippy ice cream. All the people from miles around probably opened up their doors into every room, threw out the old, let the light pour in, then came to renew those rooms again with wanted treasure. I did. I bought a deep glass bowl. I like to think it crystal, and that the stallholder was a fool to let it go for a mere three pounds. The first day I brought that holy grail home, I filled it overflowing with strawberries, fresh picked from the farm. Now it is positioned to catch the drips from under the ailing boiler.

So, not busy. I blame the freezing temperatures, permafrost ground, warmer options down the shopping mall, and the fact that a load of old junk covered in snow doesn't have quite the pulling power of a load of old junk covered in summertime. At least in summer you are tempted to linger, be seduced by objects slowly turning in your fingers, fall in love with scars and knocks and dents, and see history trapped in chipped china. In winter I want only to hurry past with my hands buried in my pockets.

But then I pass a hooded figure out the back of a white van selling tools, and lo and behold, as if a star just guided me, here is a set of woodcarving tools, new, wrapped in plastic, held tight in a wooden box.

I peer over them, looking to see if they might do the trick. 'Alright love?' the hooded figure calls, suddenly springing up and cheerful, as if I might be the only customer to brave the morning. 'Those are excellent tools! First class! £15 the set!' He speaks brightly, like next he might suggest they carve anything, solve health problems, cure rheumatism. 'It doesn't have a small v or a small u' I answer. I didn't know I knew those words, but out they popped, and it suddenly sounds like I know what I'm talking about. 'Tenner, then' he grins. He thinks I know what I'm doing. I don't.

But now we are up by a set of woodcarving tools, with four days still to go to their Christmas unveiling. I can return home to Dig, made of ice, but gloating, carrying the burning fire of righteousness tucked under my arm, swaddled in a battered Asda carrier bag.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Ancient craft

I drive the kids to their woodcarving lesson with Jeremy, a woodcarver who has pale hands the colour of ash, and a wise, gentle way with children that makes him a thousand years old.

After five minutes working alongside him in the cold, cold woodshed, Shark, Tiger and Squirrel declare the temperature is fine, so there must be something wrong with me.

I tell them, You are working up a sweat, swinging mallets, pounding pine. Your cheeks deserve to be pink flushed. With no wood weapon to wield, I have nothing to do to keep me warm. I stamp up and down on the same square of concrete floor. I might stay alive yet with this technique. But if for one second I stand still then I might become as solid as a beam. Then you woodworkers would have to use your gouges and files to lever me off the concrete and crack me down to a shape that could drive you back home to fireside warmth where I could thaw out.

They ignore me. They have purposes to meet, tools to control, and wood to shape into sheep, peanut bowls, and killer whales.

I slip outside where it is slightly warmer than the still cold air of the workshop. Outside I can walk about and once more feel my toes and catch the moment the sun slips away and daylight slides into dusk. This tipping time of an iced winter day in England, I hate it, and I love it. Darkening minutes like this tell me I am here, rooted in this country. We are thinking of leaving, finding somewhere else to live for a few short months. I would miss this view if we flew away.

I am surrounded by gentle curving land, a calm river, frozen fields, woodpiles. I watch my breath freeze into lumps. Should it stay for a moment longer, I could ask Shark to take a gouge to this too, and fashion an ancient air-borne creature.

On the hill is the manor house, newly built in the seventeenth century, but formed before by William the Conqueror, parcelling up the land and dividing out England amongst new masters.

Close by, the church, worked up in stone by men in 1200 or thereabouts, since built, rebuilt, still used. If we moved, even for a short time, to be away from England and its cold toes, runny noses, damp drizzle, I would remember this afternoon. I would think Brrr, glad to be gone. And I would long for it back again.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Would you like to go to school, girls?

It was supposed to be a day that I went Christmas shopping alone. 'I'll go another day' I said hopefully to Dig's hunched body, bent over a computer in the office. I won't. I would have to wait until darkness, distract the children, then slip out of a bedroom window. I would adjust my beard after climbing down that swinging rope. Before you could count to ten I would be in that car, zipping down to the shops, child free.

Because what do home educated parents do with their children in these final shopping days? When the online delivery fails. When I have left it too late for the roundabout collection. When the clock is ticking and Borders is marching to a final destination at half-marked price? What do you do when you cannot shake them off, when the babysitting service has a deadline to meet, when the cupboards are full and anyway, have no locks?

This is the time of year when it always strikes me. School is an excellent idea.