Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Arseface dollies meet the Kouklitas

Dear Andrew Yang,

I must write and tell you that today, you made the lives of my three daughters, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, complete.

They are off their faces with joy.

Or, more specifically, a sort of superior we-told-you-so satisfaction. Some people might even say that Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are now treating me, their mama, with a certain amount of condescension. In fact, since we came away from viewing your exquisite exhibition of rag dolls at Joyce, my daughters have done little but glance at me sideways to throw me their expressions of patronising superiority. Mixed with nose-wrinkling contempt.

As a result, I am now left feeling more deflated than a punctured whoopee cushion.

I'm afraid I'm laying this at your door. You have taught them that mama was completely and utterly wrong. Yet more. That the three rag doll sisters, Vanessa, Diana and the other one (whose name I can't remember but who remains in England face down in a fabric box), are not what mama says: the Arseface dollies. No. They are creatures of captivating elegance.

Now, that last glance I just received from Squirrel possibly suggested that my daughters await only my public, formal retraction. To the effect that Vanessa, Diana, and the other one, are not home-made rag dolls resembling monster wreck creatures from the swamp but are, in fact, goddess spirits drawn from the skies. The first, unblemished daughters of Prometheus. Divinely created; possibly visiting us in their worldly form.

I have lost the power to argue otherwise. For the first time in their lives, my daughters know for sure that someone else looked into the soul of the rag dolly and saw past the sightless eyes, sewn on nose, and static lips. They know what someone else knows - instinctively, surely, passionately, madly, deeply, truly - that rag dolls are not mere fabric and stuffing. They are living creatures, who are us, who are life, love, and everything.

But something more important and profound took place too, today, when Shark, Squirrel and Tiger gazed upon your collection of hand stitched dolls (which I do confess are all incredibly beautiful). My children knew that someone else understood them. Someone, other than mama, knew their inner motives, heart-felt passions and daily pursuits.

I have lost my role. You are now their new prophet. They may seek to follow you. Everywhere.

This is going to cost me dearly. Just think, Andrew, what you have done, and what you have inspired. Now Shark, Squirrel and Tiger know their destinies. They can prove it, simply by pointing to you and what you have done. There will not be a single day or night that passes when it is not dolly this and dolly that. I will be handing down deep into my pockets to satisfy the thirst for buttons, bows, gold brocade, furry trimmings and more cotton thread.

I do not know whether I can thank you for that.

But I must look on life's bright side. So there is something for which I can thank you. You have taught my children that the most rewarding path to walk in life is your own. Possibly bonkers, probably obsessive, guided by inner conviction, and I'm betting on stubborn resistance to all those who try to pull you from your course.

Perhaps I can thank you for that. But think of me in my declining years. While you have made their lives complete, you have made mine impossible. The mama proved wrong. The mama who lost her powers. The mama who will be bankrupt by expensive fabric from the offcut bins.

The mama who now has to swallow her pride, publicly accept her humiliation and say that the Arseface dollies are sisters in souls, if not in looks, with the angelic creations who are the Kouklitas.

Yours etc., Grit.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Sitting on the roof, playing with the stars

In keeping with her new found hippie status in Hong Kong, Grit has been dumpster diving.

This is exhilarating, isn't it? In one of the swankiest cities in the world, coming up for air behind the bins.

There, in the trash, I found a treasure trove. Jewels, magic spells, fantastic creatures, golden gardens, and stars.

A school dumped the contents of its craft cupboard in preparation for deliveries. The new academic year is starting. Acres of children are readied in their uniforms. Ipso facto, my little grits are now sitting on the roof, busy unrolling rejected coils of string, spirals of paper, loops of wire. Anticipating decoration, they have at the ready fold out fans, pots of paint, tubes of glue, assortment of oil pastels, and a set of diy lantern kits.

Of course in the middle of their excitement about the infinite possibilities of creation, it set me thinking. Not only that you parents pay for this mostly unused stuff the educational system merrily boxed up and dumped. And not only that Hong Kong desperately needs a scrapstore and recycling system.

It set me thinking about who these craft kits were destined for, and how the school casually dumped them. I don't blame them. I know. I've been there. I've been in the department where on September 1, Mr Edgely threw the GCSE coursework in the skip. When Marcie Baxter of previous class 5G, returned for A level, passed by the non-collected skip, she went off-the-scale-bananas. So did her parents. Word spread. The departmental memo came round. Next time: Dump discretely. Mid-way through August.

I know why the school dumped perfectly good, unopened, craft sets - the ones to make a paper fish, desk tidy, wooden dolly, Christmas stocking. They're the single kits left over after the class sets were handed out. What use is one craft kit in a class of thirty? Unless you're one child who would find it an absolute delight, that is.

But it blows the gaffe on schools in general. Catering for the creativities and sensitivities of individual children is not what they do, not what they can do, whatever they say. They cater for a mass amount of kids, moving through the system, all at once, doing the same thing. A process geared to fit simply and neatly to the curriculum delivery and assessment administration.

Doing the same thing - and then being assessed on how you did the same thing compared to everyone else - is one element of school that I find most objectionable, so I may now uncover my soap box.

The craft kits we raided are complete. In every way. Every bit to make a wooden train is there. Wood blocks are cut to fit, sanded, ready for glue. The size and shape is pre-determined. The pack includes instructions. Even in Mandarin, it's pretty clear what you must do. There is an order. Instructions are to be followed. It takes a pre-set amount of time. A classroom hour, with introduction and conclusion. Changing direction, making a flower grow from your train, balancing the wheels on the engine, taking a break to make a story about a train gone to the moon, it ain't going to happen. Anyway, you'd ruin your mark if you made a different train. How disappointed everyone would be!

When I started home educating my kids, I met a woman who'd just sent her kids to school. She looked at what we'd made that week - glue and sand and bits of twisted wire - and her face fell in hurt. She said, 'I went to pick up Elly from school, and they'd done art. In the window, there were thirty owls, made of clay. And all the thirty owls were exactly the same. I couldn't tell Elly's owl from all the rest. I could've cried.'

I hear that conversation, when Shark's concertina book unpleats, with cardboard, string, and foil. Or when Squirrel twirls her princess made of leaves, twigs, a seed head for a crown. Tiger makes a horse, wobbling improbably, between chicken wire and pipe cleaner. The one-off oddball madness of each thing; each child's individuality, our indifference to measurement on all creativity, is a delight to me.

I won't say my children won't ever need the discipline of structure, that they won't ever ask for that, or that it does not provide a language or a pattern, but for now, I want my child's early adventures into art to be sparkling, unquantified, ridiculous, bonkers. I want Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to take our newly raided craft kits, sit on the roof, wind the string around the lantern, dance the dollies, and send their trains wind sailing to Japan. Then I want to hear the stories that went with them. Horses who have wings, dollies who can fly, and lanterns that sparkle like stars. Those things I found behind the bins.

And dumpster diving? I heartily recommend it.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

I make a promise to a polar bear

Before I go any further, I need to apologise to the environment. No, I need to throw myself prostrate on the floor, beg forgiveness, self flagellate, stick pins in my right hand and turn off the air con.

I am experiencing major guilt crisis over this. An extramarital affair probably pales into insignificance. Because what I am doing is trashing the prospects of a tiny polar bear cub. Right now, it is staring at me mournfully, the last limp fish of the ocean flopping at its feet, polar bear tears dripping from its big brown eyes, with the melting ice cap disintegrating all around, and it is pleading Why Grit? Why?

So far, since we arrived here, we have carelessly thrashed every air con unit in the house to within an inch of its life. All thanks to our pathetic maladjustment and the hot and steaming temperatures climbing daily through the Celsius 30s all around us.

And there's worse. We have committed crimes much worse. Because my intuition about how to negotiate an overheated house is at deep variance to the technology that exists here to cool me down.

I open the windows, forget that I did that, then switch on the air con, meanwhile everyone leaves the room. Two hours later I come back in and think Hmmm, the air con is not very effective, is it? Better turn it up. Ignorant all the while that no-one had the thought to shut the bloody windows, and the fact that I didn't check is all everyone's fault too. There is only so much of this heavy guilt trip I am making alone.

But if only that were it. When we have wasted all the day's energy produced by Lamma power station, disintegrated the upper atmosphere, stood in front of the open fridge door having a fifteen minute debate about the pros and cons of grape juice versus peach drink, then we go down to the shops and buy the imported tin of baked beans. Produced in Middlesex, shipped all the way over to Asia, scorned by the kids.

Enough is enough. I have imposed a ten-minute rule on the air con, found the sad cat charity shop, eye-spied the local bins, located the recycling aluminium point, and renewed my vows to the land of hippie living with the acquisition of a slab of local hand pressed bean curd and an extra large sack of noodles from the noodle shop.

It's not enough, and we're all doomed. Baby polar bear, forgive me. Now I need to keep the fridge for the beer, but be assured that from this point on, you can come and live in it, anytime you want.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Best of both worlds

One of the things I like very much about travelling around the world in places new to me is not knowing what's going on.

The first time I visited China I travelled with Dig down from Beijing to Hong Kong. It was not all as strange and alien as I imagined. It was clear that some parts of that long route south were on the official Lonely Planet run.

We would visit some restaurant, and know immediately. It may not be the only restaurant for 500 miles where the staff spoke any English, and it may have served the worst noodles in all of China, but it was in The Book. It was invariably Western themed and invariably full, to bursting.

We would be squeezed to a table in a crammed and dim lit room by worn out waiters who had to place dishes on tables staggering under the weight of Lonely Planet travel guides. Then they navigated their way back to the kitchen through spaces that an ant would find impassible. Meanwhile, some young American kid with a bellowing voice, arriving too late to be accommodated, would be haranguing the staff about how everyone in the restaurant was just free loading on the beer. By which I suppose he meant he couldn't get any table at all, thanks to his basic mistake of bringing a Baedeker.

If we came off that run, which we did, thanks to Dig and his young exploring ways, we ended up in places I could not make head nor tail of at all. In one restaurant I remember eating a lot of peanuts. Just that. Peanuts. Peanuts in red sauce. Peanuts in black sauce. Peanuts in no sauce. By the end of that meal I probably had consumed 40,000 calories in peanuts. I was glad to do so, because typically in these restaurants we got nothing to eat, and went back to the hotel starving. In one place in Canton, a young woman just stared at us suspiciously and handed us what looked like a song sheet. I suspect it was a brothel masquerading as a karaoke bar. She looked relieved when we drank some water, pushed money at her, and left.

Those experiences always filled me with a sort of pleasure. Not pleasure at discomfort, hunger and pain, but just the pleasure of knowing that the world worked in ways I didn't always understand. Mostly, that was alright. When I was too tired, too starving, too disconnected, I could say it was because the world outside me was foreign, and it was all their fault. When I was well fed on peanuts and the sheets were clean, travelling life was an amazing insight into a wonderful culture.

So when I knew that Lamma Island was a haven for expats, part of me was disappointed and part of me was pleased. The juvenile exploring part of me still likes to imagine I could go off over there. The older, fatter, near half-century part of me needs a proper dinner for those elderly aching bones. Anyway, now I have responsibilities bigger than me. Now I have kids.

And I have found this out about kids. They do not think it is a mark of a fun evening to crawl along a maze of rabbit holes in total darkness avoiding open drains and murderers, all in the search of a restaurant you think you saw on the bus through here two days ago. Kids want things they can recognise. A pizza and a bed. In early onset teenage, they may want those things together, but for now we can get away with a five minute walk separating the two. But mother, make the five minutes fun with a torch and an interesting snail along the way, or the deal's off and the screaming starts.

Lamma Island is a good compromise. The Chinese community is strong and thriving. The traders talk in a language I can't understand. Some speak no English at all, but just stick up two fingers and pass me the bananas. The streets are crowded, the gutters in the backstreet clogged with solid fat, the drains stink on a hot day, and I can still stand in front of the dried stuff in packs stall and feel that sense of wonderment. I want to buy that unknown, dried white stuff, take it home, sniff it, dip it in water, make tinctures of it, experiment and make a total idiot of myself because I am cooking toilet block, and then I want to say Hey Kids, do you want to come to the Waterfront Bar? I hear the pizza there is great.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Another step along the way

Tiger, encouraged by her sisters, bravely stepped out today. Into the hot and humid air, down the damp and crooked steps, over the dense jungly path where the dragonflies feed, and into the narrow village mainstreet. There, amongst the chattering traders, noisy shoppers and wobbling cyclists, she weaved her way. At the junction of the butcher and the bar, she side-stepped the tired and patient dogs, turned left, and reached the Sparkle Shop; the stopping point for tourists and beach seekers drifting their way through banyan tree bay.

Once inside, she and her sisters lost track of time, caressing every pretty thing, losing themselves in Chinese bead, woven threads, and bright pink glitter. Then they walked directly home, chattering all the way. They each showed off to daddy their sparkly handbag, flowery hair band, and leaf-green fish, dangling from a thread. He nodded his approval at each delight and stroked his beard, because he is wise.

I did as I promised, and walked behind my children, following at a distance. Far enough away for Tiger to be without me. Close enough to hear her call. I shadowed them all the way, there and back. In the hot and humid day, I sat outside in the busy market street for an hour and a quarter; the time it took them to spend their pocket money. Cyclists tingtinged their bells at me; shoppers bumped their bags at me, and Chinese ladies who know better than me just looked at me, sitting there, waiting.

And when I reached home behind her, I cooled myself by the fan, drank a glass of water, and thought if I could sing sweetly from the rooftop, I would do that too.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Hallelujah for the public library

Foremost and finally, first and last, beginning and end, alpha to omega, we joined the public library. Glory Hallelujah. North Lamma Island branch. Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday. Closed for lunch.

When we handed over those application forms, we were duly stamped, computer organised, and given back five library cards to sign (six books each, two week loan, fines as advertised).

In my insanity, I broke down and cried. All those books. All 75 of them, lined up on the English language shelf at Lamma Island next to the ferry, and each and every single one, precious. I had no idea that Yogacise and Think Your Way to Beauty could have the impact they had. I hugged them to my bosom and let the tears flow from glittery eyes. I may do rousing speeches, trumpets, heavenly chorus. People, let our great wisdom of the world begin. Step 1: Close your eyes and say, 'I am beautiful'.

I don't know why North Lamma public library - any public library - has that effect. We have the internet at home. But it does. It exerts a magic power. It can bring reason into a life of madness. Even though it's just a local island library, functionally constructed in charmless citizen concrete. Resembling an electricity sub station on the outside and offering similar space on the inside. But inside! Set against all our recent struggles, it is a globe full of delight for body and mind!

Step 2: Breathe deep. For the lifelines flowing out the books I open. Worlds, ideas, places, possibilities, the familiar and the new: thoughts I never had before. I am lifted away from the walls of home, freed from electronic wire, unwrapped from daughters and husbands and heres and nows.

Then the sensual pleasure! I hear the ruffle of their soft papers, smell the dust from their fibres, see their inks and satins. I feel their touch me, handle me, turn my pages, better than sex. Step 3: Stroke your finger down, between your brow.

And if that is not enough, there is equality to be had, down at your local public library. No preferential treatment, no joining fee, no renewable monthly service contract, no advertising subscription removal clause, no pre-book ticket application process submitted with exact monies to the reference section.

A public library doesn't care who we are, rich or poor, man or woman, peasant or posh. We turn up, join, spend the time we want, weep over the Yogacise book, tell the daughter not to yell because we might rely on the goodwill of the librarian later when we have pissed him off big time, then stand in line. Like everyone else. Our books are stamped, handed back to us. The fines are all the same, so come back before the 8th with the Cat Stories to Touch Your Heart.

Then we set out with our treasure on the journey home, buying grape juice and bananas along the way, filled with the possibility of a beautiful body, a rich and peaceful mind, and the amazing thought that one day our lives might be touched by a cat called Ebony.

That is our achievement for today. Joining the public library. It's nothing in itself, and yet it's everything. It's our way out of the house with a troubled child. It's our community, our neighbours, our access to China, our way in, our way through. Here, there are books to loan for us all, for Grits, Sharks, Squirrels and Tigers. We are all better placed to start tomorrow.

You can tell I have not yet lived in China long enough to report back to you on controlled knowledge, circulating stories of news management and restricted access. I am still flushed with the possibility of Cat Stories, or Yogacise, even though I practise that without the Yoga, or the cise. Squirrel is delighted by her fairy trash, and Shark with Reef Fishes of Hong Kong. And Tiger, temporarily lifted to normality by Rowling and the rest.

So I want to say to you people in the UK, please look after my public libraries while I am not there. I value the freedom they give me. And I will want to come back to them. An open public library is the essential jigsaw piece of a sane mind.

Just look here. I should know.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

How out of touch can we be?

While I remain lucid, I'll jot down the reasons why I'm here. Later, I can look back and laugh. I will need laughter then, when the Tiger daughter with her sad unsettled ways has completely scrambled my brain or bashed it to banana mush.

1. Money. Bugger. It barely featured in our discussions. In fact, on the household balance of things, we might even make a loss. How incompetent is that?

2. Marriage. A chance to start again. I think there is a husband here somewhere. In the office. Now I catch a glimpse of him, I find he is quite grumpy. He stares mournfully back at me with a kind of sufferance.

3. Family fantasy. How foolish we were! Parent addled, drunk on Skype, we talked how our children would scamper away on tropical paths, returning to us happy, glowing with excitements, telling us tales of striped lizards and scarlet flowering plants. No comment.

4. Health. A man can only travel round the globe so many times before he drops off the end of it, exhausted. I imagined that by staying put, slowing pace, one might enjoy decent health. His flight out of here is in two weeks.

5. Experience. What is the point of facing opportunities, and not taking them? What is the point of saying, better stay on the safe side? Better to live than not.

6. Education. Aha! Here you are, my elusive god! I imagined how I could hunt you down under frog bellies, up the stem of tropical plants, in the rocks of mountains. You would accompany my delighted home educated children on all our outings, in our everyday. Now, where are you hiding?

I am not sure which one of these I realised today, but I walked with the children to the beach and back. Tiger tentatively dipped her toes in the water, collected shells and laid them out, solemnly, one by one, on a beachside table. Shark swam and paddled, and Squirrel built a walled city made of sand, called it Fairy Castle, then decorated it with bright yellow flowers.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Hungry ghost

Here we are, locked on Lamma Island Hong Kong with the Hungry Ghost Festival. That's something I should be able to talk about, surely? That's a real-life on-the-ground bit of learning I want to share.

Because one moment me and Squirrel are staggering home to the House on the Hill in the heavy evening heat, having bought a tasty promise of nostalgia with a lump of overpriced cheddar (which, clutched in my dripping paw at 30 degree Celsius, quickly resembles a sweaty poultice for a particularly nasty boil), and the next, we're tripping over people setting fire to sticks in the ground and shovelling apples and peanuts at the tropical undergrowth.

Now, because Grit is a savvy international woman with one foot in the West and one foot in the East (meta text: she just coincidentally looked at a picture book in Dimmock's on Chinese festivals), she immediately glances up to the sky and clocks the full moon.

Aha! she says to her little companion Squirrel, with that sort of teachery voice that makes it sound like she knows what this is all about. That proves it! Whatever strange ritual is going on here, it's something to do with the moon. And because I read the pictures in Dimmock's I can confidently/tentatively say, I think we're looking at the Chinese time of year when spirits from one world pass through to the other.

Squirrel, this is Ghost Festival, and your Hallowe'en. Depending where we live at any time of year, I could turn into a werewolf, grab a bucket for trick and treating, jump astride my broomstick, or have Mother Ghost leap up at me again waving trout.

This is good education, eh Squirrel? Cultural observation. How we people are all different and the same. Take notes, my home educated child, hungry for learning. Quit yelling. Those spirits can hear you, and now the veil is thin. Those scrawny starved hands might scrabble out the ground to reach you and grab you down to Hell. Say what? you're not going to sleep? What? Never again?

Better ease their burden, Squirrel. Give the lost wanderers something to eat. Pacify them, and make them safe in their souls. No, give me that cheese back. It just cost me a fortune. Observe. In the undergrowth. The feast is already prepared! Three delicious apples, a bag of peanuts, a mound of lychee, and a juicy soybean curd, only lacking a wok.

Me and Squirrel stare. And momentarily, because I am a fat ignorant big nosed foreign devil from an alien civilization, who only popped out for a lump of supper cheese, I'm in half a mind to pinch one of the apples and scoff it, they look so ripe and tempting. But I guess that action might place me on the wrong side of the uncrossable line again, and this time upset the dead as well as the living.

We reach safely home, not grabbed by spirits, but clutching threads of life force that I call an education. Everyone is hungry, because the shopping pioneers are late, what with the spirit watching. Shark comes out to greet us, demanding dinner. Dig says his tummy's rumbling and he hopes I bought the cheese. And Tiger. Where is she?

The forlorn and saddened Tiger has shut herself up in her bedroom with the air con, cold and yearning for what she cannot have. Home. But Tiger, you can come out now. I have brought an offering for your empty tummy. Let me lay it by your plate.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Taking the family pulse

Grit: Yearns to throw herself at life, given that life is a tropical island with butterflies. Roused by bird song, she wakes in the morning, and draws back the bedroom curtain. Beyond the clouds there are dragon mountains wrapped in jungle greens. Then she remembers how Tiger daughter hates her, and said so 253 times yesterday. The poetry of dragons falls away. Lumps of brown rock emerge, covered in pointless wastes of green. Grit pulls pillow over face. Sobs. Unstable. Might be mad. Lashings of lip gloss.

Dig: Indestructible. Utterly and completely focused. Has goal: family will live on a tropical island and have a nice time. Sticks to vision at all costs, despite all reason, despite all punishment. Dedicated, even when vision is bonkers. Determined that everything is improving and the children are settling in. Declares after the latest Tiger temper tantrum that this is sure evidence that Tiger daughter is at last calming down. Force of will and two brains may yet dictate that this is so. Or may be more unhinged than Grit with that level of stubborn denial. Should have been a prophet. And fingers crossed about the indestructible.

Shark: Cool, calculating. Thinks like a computer. Sees beach. Goes to beach. Not coming away from beach. Has a better answer than you for everything, especially when it comes to leaving beach. Out to win at all costs. Blood may be shed. International competitor class for mucking about at beach, also for sibling rivalry, dolphin knowledge. Takes after Dig. Difference is that Shark's vision is made mostly of fish.

Squirrel: Romanticist. Happy-go-lucky. Curious. Chattery. Inscrutable. Sometimes suspect she is having deep and complex thoughts about outer space and magnification of stars. Sometimes comes out with profound complex thoughts about stuff like moths. Sometimes goes to live on Planet Squirrel, where everything is real, sparkly, and pink. Example: thinks she lives on a tropical island with family and is having a nice time.

Tiger: Hypersensitive. Self critical. Creative. Brilliant, like a diamond. Locked self in bedroom on tropical island, refusing to come out. Has been tempted out for visits. To shops (horrible). To beach (terrible). To library (what is the point). To dinner (not hungry). To window to see view (I want to go home). Otherwise, horse obsessed. May be George Stubbs reincarnated in a pink frock and scowl.

There. That sounds normal, doesn't it? I think we're all doing fine.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

This is grit

How are you getting along in Hong Kong, Grit?

Wait while I apply the lip gloss. Then I can say,

Fine, thanks!

Well of course I'm not about to say I'm having a miserable time. Grits don't do that. Grits don't give in. We keep to the long view. We gritty types get up again when life comes at us waving an assault rifle, a purple ribbon and a banshee howl. We carry on, because we have no other options.

OK, there are options. They involve gashed limbs, pills, and cliffs. But I am mature. I have now worked out that these are less preferable than head down, keep going. Do that, and my gritty body might yet grow an indestructible backbone and a stronger heart, so trials are for the good.

So today I am doing fine. Thank you for asking. We are settling in nicely.

And the swelling is better. It has responded well to two bags of ice. And the mosquito bites are healing. The huge, red lava lumps that scatter my arms and legs. They are not measles, even if they look like it, so everyone calm down. There is no need to panic. Yes, I know the scratching thing in public is not very attractive, so I am trying to stop that too.

I have showered, also. This is good, at least for the time I am in the shower. The humidity in these tropic parts is so great and overwhelming that half the time I am not sure whether I am in the shower fully clothed, or out the shower, naked. Either way the result is the same. Let's just say that in every waking hour without an air-con unit strapped to my head, I am doing a lot of glowing.

Unfortunately, thanks to the heavy amount of glowing, I have had to give up the make up. The Dior rejuvenation face magic was sliding down my face and dripping off my chin. The mascara had a particularly theatrical look. I stopped wearing it after several Chinese ladies met me on the path to the beach and stopped in their tracks. I could be wrong, but from the expression on their faces I had the distinct idea I may be approaching some sort of uncrossable line.

Anyway, regarding the make up, my mother said that putting on a face makes you feel better. She carefully imposed those vibrant red lips on all her sorrows. I think they helped her. Maybe it helps me too. So I haven't given up the lip gloss.

I saw my mother put those red lips on, then go out into the world. Safe under armour, her mouth would never tell the words, when someone in the street stopped her and asked, How are you doing, Dot? And she would say, Me? I'm doing fine.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The ribbon

Home education, wherever you are, is a strange business. So much of it relies on your ability as an adult to shift your mindset, experience the world through the eyes of a child, and hold your tongue.

There are some moments I can't do it. I clash with my children. Then I shout. And slam doors. Like a child.

Just at that moment, I was busy. I wanted something else. I was adult thinking. Big thoughts. Complex thoughts. Mountains, clouds. Failure, success. And along comes the ribbon.

Then I deeply resent my children. I resent the way they stop me thinking my thoughts, and make me think theirs. I resent the way they force into my consciousness and turn their world view into my world view.

They do it in many ways. Sometimes with a simple Mummy? Other times, with a scream that shatters all my concentration. Today, look here. Let me draw your attention only to this. To this, right here. Can you see it yet? It is the empty space where the ribbon should be.

You might think, That's easy. I could help find that ribbon. Then I could go back to having my grown up thoughts. Yesterday, I'm sure I picked it up from the floor where it lay, discarded, behind the chair. I picked it up, gripped the strong satin between my fingers, and said to myself, that's a lovely piece of ribbon. I shall put that in the box, where the needlecraft things go. I'm sure the children will want that beautiful purple ribbon for something.

Try saying it. Then now, listen here. Did you steal my ribbon?

No, I didn't say that. How I resent the way my children take the words I say, twist them round, fashion them into words I never said. Then they add their own special poison to the blade - betrayal, disloyalty, how could you treat me this way - then stab back at me, aiming for the heart.

So I got out of bed this morning, and thought, Today I'll do great things, I'll go places, see wonderful sights, think through ideas I never had before. I'm sure I would do that.

But it hasn't turned out like that. My day becomes filled with Where is the ribbon? I left it here. You must have taken it. Why did you steal my ribbon? Why would you do that? You always do that. You always steal the things I want. You know I wanted that ribbon, more than anything in the world.

Now the ribbon has become everything, and every other thought I had is gone. It is the pale purple satin loop that binds the universe. Without it, the universe all falls to pieces in loss, destruction, chaos. We are all at each other's throats. The ribbon is confrontation, aggression, vengeance. I try to divert us all away. Maybe string would do it. Or embroidery thread. Please don't talk about the ribbon. I dread the ribbon.

Now I feel miserable. Tomorrow I might wake up and I'll fret only about the ribbon. I'll worry about how we can acquire that ribbon. The perfect matching shade of purple. It must be this thick, no shorter than this. It must wrap around my finger and hold the universe together, just so, with this tension, all held together.

I have to wrestle back that thinking. I have to let my grown up thinking go, about mountains and clouds and failure and success. And fill it with purple ribbon, failure and success. I must shift mindset: fill the empty space where the ribbon should be with cooperation, negotiation. I have to help the ribbon flow away, and in its place put resourcefulness. I have to turn a child mind round to options, which are opportunities and possibilities. Perhaps with those I can teach consideration, thoughtfulness, and patience.

Yes, I'll do that. Even if I don't spend all day staring at the mountains and the sky, thinking my big person thoughts of failure or success. Even if I spend all day looking for a ribbon, thinking small person thoughts of purple ribbon, failure and success. Anyway, the things you can achieve with a ribbon are vast, and probably bigger than the mountains, and more various than the clouds.

Maybe the ribbon is our home education for today. Maybe there's not much difference between big and little people thinking in the world, but maybe in the things we choose to think about. Failure and success? Or how much self-determination we could have with a mountain or a ribbon.

I shall try and teach these things and call it education. How we are all building our resources up again, from the ground upwards, and not from the mountain down.

Or maybe I should just stop thinking. Be practical and go out and spend the day shopping, buying as much purple ribbon as I can. That would address the problem we have: how we are very many people brought together in one house, with not much ribbon between us.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Saved by the doll

Today the dollies waggled down the catwalk. Those scruffy, worn out rag dolls, home-made years ago on a tired toddler afternoon while the rain poured down.

While I have sank, they have endured. I could learn from their embroidery smiles, their sewn-on pink noses, their glued open felt eyes, if I wasn't driven half mad by the love they attract.

And what love! If only that was mine! You have beautiful hair. You look fantastic in this dress.

I could spit. And such devotion and attention is brought to mend all their tiny wounds in their stretchy fabric skin; one by one, thread and glue and wire. Recovering, they have soft beds to recline on, covers, pillows and cuddles. Jealous, I call them the Arseface dollies, and whisper cruel words at their sewn up mouths after bedtime.

They travel everywhere with us, those dollies, squashed into sacks and bags, cases and boxes. Out they burst at every destination; thrown into Northumberland rockpools, tossed towards Suffolk clouds, rolled down Dorset hills. Dirtier, scruffier, bent in more places, every time. Loved just as before.

I let them stay, and endure them, because I can make them a sacrifice to my god of education. I show a page on how your breathing works. Squirrel quietly steals her rag doll away, opens her up, and performs surgery. Vanessa now has a wine cork for a brain, a red bead for a heart, and two glitter pom poms for lungs. I discover her in intensive care and talk arterial veins and pleural cavities. Squirrel, horrified, grabs her dolly and flees. But I hear on the doctor net that soon she is to acquire a balloon for a bladder. Oh the fun to be had, squeezing out pee! Covertly, I shall work on kidneys, and make up a song about excretion. And wombs. The arseface dollies should know what it is to have a womb cut about and pieces of it thrown away.

Of course I have threatened to throw the dollies out. Time and time again. You don't need them anymore. You're aged ten. Isn't that enough?

And still the dollies stay. They laugh at me and swing by their plaited string hair. They curl up their boneless arms. They twirl on their pointed painted toes, where the stuffing falls out, and the stitches break open. Silently, I think one day I'll shove you in a plastic bag, and hide you behind the sink, where you can't be found. Then I'll wrestle back the love that should be mine. And when you, teenage daughter, abuse me in my old age, I shall recover your doll, waggle it at your boyfriend, and watch your face.

But I take it all back. There's a place in my mouth I keep especially to chew on words I speak, words I eat up again, and don't spit out, no matter how unpleasant the taste.

The rag dolls save the day. Tiger leaves aside her unhappiness. She sits with Squirrel for hours, cutting up fabric, snip, snip, snip; stitching it together, sew, sew, sew; making little dresses for the little dollies; all their new clothes, ever so many, so much enjoyment, so much satisfaction; torn up fabric off the shoulders, pinned at the waist, tied with a knot at the back. They take to the catwalk, fabric unattached, fraying, dropping off, pieces all held together by Tiger's little hand, with a joyful laugh and a happy face. Twirl around your thick string hair, point your unstitched toes, and take a bow, rag doll.

Because they are the best rag dolls I ever did see.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Keeping it normal

Going to school? Fanny smiles at the children and shuffles the electricity bills around on her desk.

We have brought Tiger this far. A ten minute walk from home. Through the heat, humidity, over the slipper floor, it feels like she jumped ten miles. But we made it here, into the ice-cold, air con office of the property agency.

Shark and Squirrel trotted along from home, down the steps, along the jungly track, onto the Lamma footpaths, all quite happily, pausing to finger poke creepy crawlies and make frogs jump. Shark is liking this island. She's close to the sea, can investigate shoreline, feels capable and independent already, shrugs off our help, and skips alone to meet new friends. Squirrel is Squirrel. She's busy finding her own glitter strewn path, absorbed with the diamonds that grow on the trees, the ones that we strange mortals call raindrops.

Then Tiger. She's eaten, bowls and bowls of pasta bribe, and slept in her bed, two long stretches of twelve hour sleep. After the first long stretch, she didn't return to her line of reasoning that she's sleeping on the sofa until she goes home. I crept into her bedroom and unpacked her case. She didn't say anything, but watched me, mistrustful.

Now Fanny asks - as if everything is normal here in her normal air con office on a normal business day - if the children are going to school. That, presumably, would be normal. Normal for most ex-pat families taking up residence for working purposes. Normal for families coming to Hong Kong. Normal for children to learn in school.

The effect is not unlike the one you might achieve if you were to stand up in the stalls at the opera, Act Two, and yell with all your lung capacity: Bollocks! The audience would gasp and the soprano clutch her bosom and stagger to an actual death experience.

At the question of school, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger stare, open mouthed, not knowing what to say. Not for one moment did they consider the possibility of school when we raised the idea of a long stay in Hong Kong. People who eat fish lips and cow noses, yes, but this!

A fleeting look of terror passes over Tiger's face. So this is why we brought her! It is all a plan! We lied! This is not a family visit to drop off the electricity meter readings at the property agent after all! This is the office of the child catcher!

I'm shouting Don't panic! Don't panic! like Corporal Jones from Dad's Army. Watching the faces of Team Grit, it clearly doesn't work. All is lost. I am inept. It feels like the sniper fire is real. Then I feel panic-struck myself, and sorry for Fanny too, because she's confused by the gasps and reels.

It's so innocuous, her question, isn't it? It's so innocent and casual; a non controversial, non consequential thing to say, like Are you well? Are you settling in? But now. At this balanced moment. Tiger's first outing. After I nearly convinced her. Life will continue as normal - life without school will continue as normal. You'll see. Normal. Just several thousand miles from home, surrounded by butterflies. That's all. And dogs. Normal. Then Fanny unknowingly lobbed a hand grenade into a chest freezer.

Dig leaps in with Home school! Home school! to deflect the bullets, reassure Tiger, and assert some manly status over five startled women, looking blankly at each other without comprehension.

At the words home school, Fanny raises her eyebrows and lets out a long ooooohhh! She regards the children carefully. In China, all children must attend school. It is the law. We need permission, special exemption. I watch her thinking. Perhaps the private school is full. Perhaps we are passing through. Perhaps we are returning home sooner than we think.

Then she turns back to her papers, shuffles the bills, copies out the meter readings, and says good bye. We leave, turned back into the heat, closing the door behind us to keep her air con office cool. Shark and Squirrel recover from the thought, and skip off to our next settling-in job at the library. Tiger, with her troubled face, drops behind.

I wonder how I can make our home ed normal, and whether Fanny's now thinking, These foreigners who come to live on this island? They sure are strange.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

One step at a time

It's not as if this island is a place where no-one wants to come, I plead to Tiger.

Probably for the umpteenth time, but at least this time I'm not on my knees with my head in my hands. Things are improving. I'm even throwing my hand out, towards the beautiful green jungle view through the window. And I'm working hard to jolly along my voice too, so that it rises and falls like a song. Hands up! La la la!

I admit. It's cruelly reminiscent of the daily school forgery as I dashed to the finish line of the Lord's Prayer.

There really are many advantages to life on Lamma, aka Hippie Island. Yes. Truly. There are. For a start, it's a sort of counter culture island. Life here combats some of the gross excesses you can find on Hong Kong Island, where you need never step away from the smooth, cool slipstream of aircon Dior.

Here, on Lamma, there are no roads. There are concrete footpaths in various states of disrepair. Holes are covered over with wooden boards or metal panels. A helpful sign shows you a character who looks like a Mr Bump, falling over on his behind. Underneath reads the caution: Slipper floor.

And it's a place I may fit in. I am a beat up old hippie, let's face it, so I'm right at home here among the expat types who shade under trees and fringe the beach. The Tao seekers, hedonists, and lotus eaters. I may yet dangle those healing crystals on chains round my neck and nod wisely to that ad sign: the one that advertises holistic cat food.

These protestations cut no ice with Tiger. These are mummy reasons to be here, and what use are they to a ten-year old in despair? I don't belong! she cries, stabbing at her bed. She's seen the Chinese writing everywhere, and she doesn't understand it. She can't read it. The English words make no sense either. Her world is deeply unsorted, all jumbled up.

There is worse. On this island there are dogs. Dogs are allowed. What can I say to that? Yes, Tiger, I know. I shall round up all the dogs, lock them in a container ship and exile them to Antarctica. Then I need never look at your terrified face ever again.

But even if I sorted the dogs, there is the heat, the humidity, the absence of glue and glitter, the place where horse tail should be, there is nothing.

Tiger, I will sort all of that too.

I would if I could. Right now, in these desperate hours, if I could protect you from everything you find painful, then I would. I would reorder the world, just for you. Then you would find these transitions easy, gentle, and slow. You could get used to change. Run behind the butterfly. Learn Chinese. Pat a dog. That is my want. In the meantime, while I reordered Planet Earth, we'd just have to accept that an awful lot of people might be inconvenienced. There are seven million of them right now going about their business in Hong Kong. They might feel a bit put out.

Tentatively, I say We will get to know the friendly dogs. I don't add, And we'll avoid the ones you think will push you over and rip your face off. Because right now that's all of them.

I'm discovering that relocating children - dropping them from one culture to another - is about more than rubbing ointment into insect bites and pointing out the butterflies. We have to set about building our communities, creating our joys, knowing what makes us happy. If we know ourselves, we can yet be content, and satisfied.

I sound like a hippie already. And is happiness something I can teach a child? Isn't it simply something intuitive she can know, and discover, for herself?

Not now, not with me. I have already betrayed her, my little girl. I brought her here. The love affair is over. She hates me. She doesn't want my cuddles. She calls Mummy! She snarls at me. She fights me. She needs me.

Tiger stares mournfully at her bed. Her face crumples, and she coils herself up, like a shell.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


Why am I here? I keep asking myself that question, thinking now would be a good time to reverse a lifetime of clean lung and take up smoking. I'm assured it is relatively quick, convenient, comes with state approval and I could shovel fistfuls of cigarettes into my mouth while leaning on balconies at 3am. I bet smokers do that and I bet it gives them some form of relief.

It's not the house. The house is perfect. I lose myself in some private world with the view from the roof, over the trees, to the bay, the distant hills, the clouds.

It is the sleeplessness. The sleeplessness, and the anxiety. Because Tiger is furious that we have brought her here, to this house on a hill, surrounded by trees, night town sounds and wet jungle smells. She is so furious that each time her head drops to her pillow in exhaustion, the electric bolt of rage shoots through her body, charges her upwards and emerges in a terrifying burst of screaming rage.

So I'm dumping the travel books too. The ones about travelling with children. The totally pointless waste of print and page which explain in agonising detail about what to do with an insect bite, then reassure you that your child won't mind you liberally spraying the repellent available for purchase at all the local pharmacies because they'll be rapt with awe at butterflies the size of your hand.

Crap. Nowhere in those books does it tell you what to do with a small child suddenly at war with the pain of powerlessness, of feeling her whole life just got snatched away and lies in pieces, thrown away several thousand miles behind her.

You might be smitten by the butterflies mother, but your child just sees the fear and the danger and the terror of it all. All the everything. The loss of home. The horrible sudden arrival into otherness. The strange, the unfamiliar, the loud, the scary, the unpredictable, the unknowable. The terrible, terrible butterflies.

Tiger, I'm here to make it work. I'm going to make this work, even if in the short term, for us all, and that's for you included. If I could do it by telling you I love you, then I would do that, but I know expressions of love aren't enough. I'll work with you and alongside you because I am not helpless, and you are not alone.

Meanwhile, I'm off into town to equip myself with a bulk consignment of Marlboro.

Monday, 16 August 2010

On board

I don't know about you, but I always step on board an aircraft with trepidation. The way I look at it, this could be the last few hours of my life, so I am right to be cautious.

Early on, there is that brief practice session for how you need to behave in the event of an emergency - but this early moment is called getting to your seat in economy class. Elbowing your fellow passengers in the face, assaulting them with your hand baggage, blocking all their ingenious attempts to pass you - simply by the strategic placement of an enormous backside - these are all methods I might need later in getting to the emergency doors first, so I try them out now while there is still time.

Then there is the fear. You might be forced to sit next to someone who can only sit comfortably if they sit in half your seat too, or someone who makes chuffing sounds, or someone who snores, or glances at you then turns away in disgust. Or maybe someone who scratches themselves before examining the undersides of their fingernails and, while you watch in horror, glances at you and pauses, with their fingers hovering about their lips. All these are true of family members too, so I choose wisely in the seat allocations.

And if I choose the lesser of the optional evils and sit next to the mini human who needs two seats and is capable of making buffalo sounds while swinging off doorhandles, then I must find a hundred things to do, just in case I need to be motherly, and distract them while we take off. Or maybe while we taxi back to the terminal because one of the passengers has sustained a head injury already and needs to be offloaded to have their head examined.

With an hour to kill while their bags are offloaded from the plane, and ours hopefully returned, I can peruse the seating space I have, which I note in passing is probably less than the space I will get for a coffin, and I begin a tour of the delights to sustain us for a twelve hour journey.

Admittedly these are vastly improved from the time even I have travelled, but they are yet still meagre at two buttons, a non-turnoffable overhead lightbulb, and a flip-down tray. Nevertheless I go about declaring these the solutions to all our lifetime problems, probably as if they were to deliver us the second coming.

I cry to my fellow passenger who is already deeply engrossed in button pumping, This button will make the film happen! My fellow passenger glances at me in disgust and scornfully says she already has the entertainment system worked out thank you very much and it would assist her greatly if I moved over a bit and turned off my overhead light.

After contemplating the buttons, the space my left leg requires and how that is mathematically impossible unless I bend it at right angles two inches above the calf, I can look forward to the inflight meal.

Now this has much improved, hasn't it? I have learned not to choose vegan, because that is the option where they remove everything edible from the plastic tray, including the bread roll, packet of peanuts and salad dressing, then pass you an apple. Dinner comes early, delivered by a crew member who looks like he holds down a part-time job as a nightclub bouncer. The gash on his forehead is probably last night's clientele, or maybe the offloaded passenger who never got further than Heathrow.

So we travel. I sit there half dozing, twitching, bending my left leg round corners, watching scenes of Shutter Island backwards, drifting in and out of consciousness, passing time with paranoid schizophrenics, cabin bouncers, migrating apples, and buffaloes who snuffle and grunt, and all the time anticipating death or safe arrival in a house on an island, up a hill with a town below, and a jungle behind.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

More important than time

Shark, please come with us. I want to walk on the beach at Lamma with you, and together we'll explore everything under the sands.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Preparation for personalising the suitcases

Four pots of paint, three paintbrushes, two hours of silence. Three suitcases rattling round on the airport conveyor belt will look like works of art.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Free bra

The best thing about having the kids taken off me for a day by The Hat* is that I rummage through a cupboard, find the voucher for 25 quid John Lewis bunged me last year (and I thought I'd thrown away), then I drive carelessly into town, try on boring bras and come home having paid the balance in pennies. Cheers, John Lewis!

* Her parting words, as she loads my kids into her bashed up Vauxhall, are a narrative of how she rammed the car into a tree. She says she wasn't even sitting in it.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

House, packing

We've packed. Mostly. We said no to the wooden horse. Yes to the pony trash books. They balance out the Shakespeare for kids. The platypus has gone in, as has Arseface with her chic Asia wardrobe, plus a sewing box to stitch her head back together.

This is odd. It's worrying. It feels final. We're taking so much ordinary everyday junk. Like we're not coming back, not for a long, long time.

Usually we have a rule. One cabin bag each. That's it. No check in bags. We've travelled to Australia like that twice over for a month each time. Three sets of clothes, books, the toy you can't live without, spare shoes, knickers, toothbrush. That's it. Anything else, go without or buy en route. We shrug off the suspicious glance when we get to check-in. What we haven't got we can't lose.

This time, there's too much to take, too much to carry, too much to lose.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Because I say so

Tiger refused to get out of bed this morning. She gripped the duvet up around her head and her face froze up with a great snarl. 'I'm not going! I'm not going!'

Discussion, concession, admission. I can do those things. Rip up the tickets? Say we won't go? That is not what I will do.

We have negotiated, as far as we can. All the way of her ten-year life, we have negotiated. Except for the trauma times, when I stooped low, met her eye to eye, bared my teeth too, then threatened I'd release all Pandora's horrors and terrors, worse than any human woman can muster.

Half an hour later, when my anger flush drained away and the shame seeped in, I found out her hiding place and whispered 'Can we talk?'.

This is how not to parent.

You can bet I'm looking for defence, in case you're out there now, tut tutting, wearing a wig and black cap. I have triplets m'lud. I have a space where a husband should be. I have a full heart. My reserves are awful low.

At least I can see a benefit to triplets. I can compare the impact of my wretched behaviour between the three of them. I've treated them all equally badly. Everyone has received my tipped off the edge of the world shouty scream. And look! Shark is still human. Compassionate, thoughtful, responsive to everyone. Forgiving. Last year she pencilled a note and slipped it under my pillow, knowing all sobbing heads eventually seek their beds. Did you know? I am the best mummy, in all the world, and the nicest mummy anyone could wish for. Ever. Only with all the wrong spellings joining me up. But Shark's survived so far. She's kept a steady, balanced course, through all my madnesses and my brain malfunctions.

Squirrel too. Mostly on account of having her hands in her pockets and her head in the clouds. But there is a preciousness about that condition. It keeps you from harm. The detachment makes you safe.

So when Tiger bares her teeth at me and says she's never going, she never wanted to go, I know it's not the consequence of me. It's something deeper in Tiger. Her fears, anxieties, troubles; these are beyond anything I can reach with my bad behaviours, and my good ones too. I've never been able to kiss those worries better, and I've not yet found the right way to soothe and calm them.

So what do I do now? I could pretend to negotiate. But it's a pretence. I know it. And so does she. Here we are final. This is the line. The tickets bought. The flights booked. The marriage determined upon. The house waits. Her bed is there.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Radio Grit

Right now my head is a mash.

Listening to the voices in it is like listening to a clapped out FM radio. I'm trying to tune in but I only have a wonky knob.

You PRs working for various baby food mixes and back to school product assortments should strike me off your lists. You're wasting your time. I am hardly likely to volunteer myself to be manipulated by you, and neither do I construct my blog identity around your product promotion. Arse. Hark! There are moments of lucidity! That makes the effort worthwhile. Sometimes I can hear a direct channel of uncluttered thought shine out. Unfortunately it is strangled by whistling garbage. I mustn't forget to ring up about the hedge.

Because that's typical. I say one thing to myself and another idea which has no relevance takes over. Then the guitar starts playing and the orchestra comes in. I have Teach Yourself Italian on the ipod and I can't get it off. I wonder if the missing Michel Thomas French disc 2 is in the car.

Quite frankly, it's a mess inside this gonetothemashgrittyhead. But maybe I should just say Hi Rachel! I haven't forgotten and the post office is on my to do list. Which reminds me, I should take Paul's address. I feel guilty about the Christmas card. I wonder if the kids know about not putting knitting needles into their cabin luggage.

And I hope that security guard checks the black suitcase. I want to see his face when the leopard springs out.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Some information, I do not share

I take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to the dentist.

Of course I do not tell them they are going. This is a strategy I have. It is the only strategy I have.

Forewarning them - trying to make a routine dental check-up sound like a normal thing to do - well, let's just say I tried already. I tried for their previous six-month check up.

Announcing Tra la lalala! Nothing to bother about! Just made you an appointment with the dentist! To a pair of my child ears those words are exactly the same as: I know you thought you could trust me - your mother! - but I just sold you to an international body parts smuggler who wants to extract your liver while you are alive. Oh yes, while he does it, he wants to see you roast over a fire.

That sounds exactly the same, doesn't it? Which is why I no longer announce the terrible fate that awaits. Because the child who hears that information must writhe down the walk of terror, (also known at Constable Street), towards the dreaded circle of hell (also known as the dental surgery), into the clutches of the foul-faced knife-stabbing liver-trading demon who dwells there (also known as Mrs Boscovitch, age 53) and yet they have a whole six weeks to contemplate that dreadful end.

The reality doesn't intrude one bit on their brains in this whole six weeks of anticipation. That Mrs Boscovitch is so sweet and kind and gentle, that I have asked her to be my mum. That she's not even dressed up as a demon or a witch! How kind can these dentists be? She'll make the dental chair go bumpety bump to make you laugh. And then she'll twirl that tiny mirror round so smooth and gentle you may be in danger of crunching on it, thinking it is dinner. Afterwards, she will declare your teeth tiptopticketyboo and recommend an electric tooth brush.

There is no point telling them anything. So five minutes before we depart I let them in on the reason why they must wear knickers and shoes this morning. Before the horror hits their sound box I promise them a detour past the bookshop on the way home. Then I only have to deal with four minutes fifty five seconds of banister hanging and a bit of howling on Constable Street.


Sunday, 8 August 2010

In recovery

Thanks to yesterday's marathon seven hour drive. One side of my body remains paralysed with motorway. The spasms on the other side I attribute to the 110% industrial strength coffee backing up in my arteries.

Consequently I do nothing more than alternatively slump and twitch myself around the house. Occasionally I drape my barely coherent carcass over a variety of household goods and kitchen furnitures. That process is called pretending to do stuff and look like I care.

It can account for the fact that my online chronicle of survival will today display only a collection of kid tennis shoes.

I have turfed these out a cupboard, abandoned them on a carpet, and left them there, where everyone can use them to trip over.

For one fleeting moment I fancied I might compose a blog entry about the hazards of sorting out a matching pair of tennis shoes when you have three kids with identity issues, the same shoe size, and two minutes to go before the tennis lessons start.

But then I realised the post-M42 traumatic stress had begun so I went to lie down instead.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Apart from that, the journey went quite well

I drive to Wales and pick up Squirrel from her home on a mountainside.

That sounds easier than it was. In reality I fall out of bed at 5.30am, throw coffee over my face, stagger into my trousers, pee down my own leg, throw more coffee over the floor, then exit the house backwards.

That sequence of events takes place after I have checked all my handover plans are working with Dig. He is arriving back from Hong Kong this very same morning. I insist he must be at home when Shark and Tiger wake up, because I'm not taking them with me to Wales.

So Dig, when your plane lands, spin the earth back on its axis by two hours. Then you can make time to wrestle with London Midland and arrive home for 9am. I will be on the M5. But imagine the lovely awakening your daughters will have! After not seeing you for a month the kids will think I have become suddenly hairy, gone bellywise, and grown more stubble. Mama! What a big surprise!

After more coffee and reassurance that London Midland has not exploded overnight, I set about driving to Wales. And I am a woman with a mission. You can leave me in charge of a vehicle that can kill me! Sure I can drive! I can do that! I just carry on drinking as much thick black coffee as my face can hold.

By the eighth mug I am a howler monkey on speed. I'm swinging from those tree tops quicker than you can count. Just one more slurp of the wizard black treacle should do the trick and keep me going until 2012.

So I pull off outside some house somewhere in the middle of nowhere at 8am. Stupidly, I think it is OK to park here. It's 8am on a Saturday morning and I plan to take ten minutes to pump that juicy fluid into my veins then make the ascent into Welsh. Only at 8.02 some hairy farmer bloke looms over my driver window, taps on the glass, and says he's seen me from his kitchen window, and can I move the car, because he wants to keep his garage access clear.

Move my car? By two foot? Look matey, I woke up at 5am, navigated a distant husband, arranged a military manoeuvre to salvage a Squirrel from a mountaintop, reversed Planet Earth, and drove two hours on the motorway while brain-fuelled on roast Colombia. Sure I can move my car! Just so you can see your poxy garage!

By rights there should be a hairy farmer bent double somewhere behind a hedge in Worcester with tyre tracks over his face.

But it was just another moment in a long and arduous journey I made to see my lovely Squirrel, fresh from her PGL adventure, and listen to her chatter all the way home about how to lunge at your enemy with a pointed stick.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Life moves quick

I knew it: Those kids have been hiding those pesky unicorns around this house. Even after I said NO MORE UNICORNS IN THIS HOUSE. I know it because I found two of them in cahoots at the bottom of the laundry basket. I know who put them there. She thinks 'Ha! That's a place she never goes!' Well kid, you didn't think it through. I am your mother. That puts me one step ahead. ALWAYS.

I found it: Under your bed? A carefully moulded selection of dust balls, sticky taped together with a label that reads 'New Zealand'. ...Three headless Barbies tied together round a teapot. ...And the last will and testament of a unicorn. Yup. The unicorn leaves all his worldly goods to a bat. Cheapskate. He could've left me the magic hoof.

And then I went out and said it: 'Look sonny, you're working the tea cup carousel for toddlers. And that's not appropriate. For crying out loud, look what you're doing. You're collecting money from the mothers of babies and toddlers. What? My problem? You're the one wearing the t-shirt that says, 'ReadthiswhileIcheckoutyourtits'.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Lady, you made a difference

I am posing in my new shoes. My new shoes! On the mosaic ceiling, upside down, my lovely new shoes!

Here they are, waiting to cross the road!

Yeah! Liberated! See them run!

And a BIG THANK YOU to the lovely lady who gave them away to the charity shop in the first place. XX

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

And apologies about the landfill

It is true what people say. One of the biggest problems of home education is the way you compulsively hoard junk.

Junk. Lots of junk. Junk like the five tennis balls you cut in half and turned upside down to make craters for the Playmobil simulation of the 1969 moon landing. Junk like 56 splintered chopsticks now fashioned into Native American journey sticks and rattling on the back of the door, minus their yellow feathers. Junk like the dented tin cans with holes punctured into them, which once you were pleased to call Persian lanterns, but now the glitter and plastic jewels have dropped off, actually reveal themselves for what they are. Dented tin cans with holes bashed in them hanging from the kitchen ceiling.

If that wasn't enough, there's the stash of toilet roll tubes you're keeping under the sink and you've forgotten why. But keep them, because they might come in handy. Along with the industrial plastic sheeting snatched from the back lane, the 2,488 pieces of wood in various sizes, and the gigantic bat you made out of tissue paper, willow withy and light up LEDs.

Save it all. You never know. Tinkertop might suddenly declare she is interested in Physics. Then you will somehow have a perfect excuse to rebuild the 1969 moon landing craft, and use the tennis balls, toilet rolls and the tin cans. So long as the spacecraft is piloted by a gigantic bat with glowing eyes made from busted LEDs.

Of course there is an antidote to all of this.

You could hire a totally impartial whirlwind* for the day, like I did.

The whirlwind has no sense of your emotional attachment to things, like that egg carton. The egg carton that became a boat to carry away the newly married unicorns to the clouds where they were to eat pink meringue and write billet doux, hopefully to each other. The egg carton that kept all the happy children absorbed for three days until the divorce. The egg carton that is now stained with soil and smells a bit iffy, maybe like cat pee, but is still a heart's treasure and a memory of happy days.

But see that piece of thick orange foam? The whirlwind has no idea about your hopes. That you have saved that orange foam in the hope that one day you will create from it a giraffe. The giraffe called Gerald; the one that delighted the children so much five years ago when he declared on page two that he could not dance. Then he spent the next 12 pages cavorting around. The orange foam made perfect sense. You could shape that into a puppet Gerald. Only you never got round to it. But you just haven't given up hope.

The whirlwind knows nothing of this fond brain-touched madness. Not of the objects that hold expectations, contests, desires, fears, hopes, rewards, loves, betrayals, joys. No. She just dumps it all in the bin. Powered by this unconcerned attitude to the family treasure, she simply starts at one end of the room and sweeps through it, emerging at the end with 14 bin bags. She completes in ten minutes what you have failed to do in ten years.

That was a bit of a shock, I confess.

But now I look at my floor. I can see floor! And shelves! And wall! It is like a revelation! We actually live in a house and not in a burrow down the local tip!

Then I pause, and consider that the egg carton is not exactly the Elgin Marbles, and that I do have 250 photographs of its production from concept to completion. And now I come to recollect the incident, it ended in accusing tears, resentful words, and the confiscation of all the unicorns, faithful and bigamous.

And now I think of all the things coming my way over the next ten years. Things to fill up my life and my heart and my house. Things to cherish. Things like the decorated cardboard box that will hold the photos that one day might be scrapbooked; the pink button collection that will be destined to be made into jewellery along with the satin ribbon, but we never got round to it; and the sequined size 8 Topshop skirts that must be saved. You never know. One day we might mend that broken zip.

*The whirlwind is called Michelle. I recommend her. She is teaching me great principles of parenting. She is deeply impressive. She is also scarily fast if you set her on the clearyuppy. Keep the kids moving. If they stand still for ten seconds, check the skip.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Elmer the elephant must die

I am coming to terms with it. But I know he is no longer loved. He was shoved under a trailer in the garage in 2004, and his face has been peed on by cats. But I am lingeringly attached. In bringing him to life, I broke my sewing machine.

I know the Roman amphorae must go too. They are made from carpet rolls, wrapped round with newspaper, modelling wire, and fastened with modroc. Then painted. Roman amphorae were painted pink, orange and blue, obviously.

It was a crap idea. It doesn't stay the course. They only looked good for the first two years then the plaster started crumbling and dropping off. Next time I will use papier mache. And we will make a really big one.

Then there is all the plastic junk. Freecycle might be their destiny. Although I will weep over the double swing. I have fond memories of little girls laughing. Then Nanjo getting stuck in it, and having to be levered out.

This is a hard backward path, this clearing up behind oneself.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Usual playtime

I like the way the local home ed group meets up, term or no term. It's like family. Soon I may start weeping for the loss.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

One down, two to go

I gave my daughter away. I gave her away to a young man with a fake silver earring and a squeaky voice.

I hope I've done the right thing. There was a moment when she didn't look too sure. Then I wasn't sure either. Let's just say, if she comes home with tales of sorrow and misadventure, I'll hunt that smooth talking earringed fellow down. Then his voice will have true reason to squeak.

But that is Squirrel. Gone. Adventuring for the whole week.

Quad biking, tramping around fields blindfold, swinging from ropes and cliffs, raft building. She'll probably be OK, and forget about us within twenty minutes. She did last time. Then she'll come back home muddy and miserable: there is no zip wire in our garden. How boring can we be?

It's all thanks to the school holidays. And I'm taking my own advice. Useful. (Except for the fact that this is a no-sex zone, stairs or no stairs.) Anyway, this is my expertise. Getting rid of kids. It's a number one priority when you don't use the free childcare system at the end of the road.

Truly, it would be handy if there were no kids around right now. Then I can concentrate on being Gritus Domesticus. I can clean up the house, throw out rubbish, sweep floors, and make pipes accessible for plumbers.

But this week I have two kids instead of three. Shark will be out most days, having watery fun on a local lake. Which leaves one. Tiger. PGL did have a bogof offer going. That would've worked, but she wouldn't go. I tried. I couldn't kick her out on that mountainside. If she had agreed to my cunning plan, could've been zero. But Tiger wants her familiar garden run and home cooked pasta suppers.

I console myself. One child by day, twins in the evening. Twins are more stable than triplets. Except when they hate each other and sharpen the spears. Hey, maybe I could run my own Enemy Adventure in the garden. We could call it Camp Battle, then draw enemy lines, dig trenches, lob mortars made of mud and weed. Hmm. I bet you see that added to the list of summer camps soon.