Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Anglo Saxons had it sorted

One day I shall stay here. With the Anglo Saxons at West Stow. This is such a brilliant place to visit, you all should go. They'll show you how to live.

I bet with them, life is straightforward. The kids can learn how to dye wool, weave cloth, put up a house, kill a chicken, and cook dinner. It would be an efficient and suitable education for the seventh century.

But maybe we're already living not that different. I tell myself we're in the twenty-first century vein of that tradition, apart from the chicken slaughter.

The reality is, for our primary aged kids, home education has daily been a very practical, community-based, outdoors experience. We haven't really done worksheets and sat around smiling over text books like you see made up for you in the Sunday supplements about home-school.

With us, and with hundreds of other kids around Britain, our kids learn by doing. They direct the day, make things, emerge covered in mud and grass, and experience their stories, histories, and sciences first hand. Personally, I hope by that route they'll lead creative, adventuresome lives and have creative, adventuresome minds.

But it's surprising how many people think we're doing this wrong. Deeply wrong. They still have this idea that to be suitable and efficient, learning must be conducted remotely, in a classroom. All kids should be wrapped up in a uniform everyday, and their learning must be conscious. If it is painful, that tells you it's doing you good.

Well folks, we might have sympathies for the Anglo Saxons, but you're living the legacy from the Victorian factory mentality.

The Victorians rounded up kids and locked them in classrooms by the hundreds. Maybe it was suitable for 1870, but it's not suitable for now. You've been told it is only because politicians have grasped the opportunity for control. Tell me it ain't so, when we can see uniforms for kids aged 4, homework disciplines from age 5, exams from age 7, institutional pressures on parents, and demands on teachers to get kids to perform to a grade in order to protect the school income. It all makes for a closed-in system which throws out kids who hopefully will, in their employable lives, shut up, sit down, and do as they're told.

Well, this isn't Grit's anti-school stuff. It's Grit's anti how schools have been grown over the last few years stuff.

If you have a creative, open-minded school, well done. There are many more still under the thumb of Victoriana. Where everyone knows it's unthinkable at age 5 to dump the timetables, scrap the uniform, kick out the primary exams, remove the homework, tear up the tick box forms, get the parents in, and take the kids to the woods twice a week with a storyteller.

Well, this is stuff home educators already know. Really, I'm saying it so I don't have to say what life can be like when one member of your extended family network believes in the virtues of the Victorian model of child-rearing. They are not impressed by your Anglo Saxon approach to getting your hands dirty.

They strongly believe in the clean and seen-not heard approach. The one that presumes children are unsightly, messy, and must be regulated and contained. The one that expects them to behave like mini-adults. The one that understands how adults must control them. Adults must wear starched collars, dispense swift justice, not reason but direct, and never, ever, share the interests, curiosities, or passions of children. These, by their association, are childish, and must be avoided.

Then life can be made difficult when one member of the household departs in a royal Victorian huff to sleep elsewhere, because they simply cannot put up with your life, staring them in the face. In case you were in any doubt as to the cause of the huff, they deposit a hand-written note to explain how childish you are and how unforgivably messy are your disrespectful, rude and unsightly children.

I think that is all I can say, except show you how vegetable oil is maintained in particularly fastidious households by Victoria. Wrapped round with kitchen roll, then stored in a leak-proof bag. Understand, my Anglo Saxon warrior girls, that if you do not do this, one horrible drop might spill, and spoil the whole cupboard.

Friday, 29 April 2011


This is the big day, isn't it? I guess if you have to wonder about that, you are not of The National Mood.

I am certainly not. And I am so strong armed about it that no-one else near me is allowed to be of The National Mood either.

But I have a sense of resignation. Faced with the street party, the shindig on the village green and the bunting, I accept I am in a minority. I quietly resolve, when the day is over, I will return home. Until then, I will escape somewhere out of it. Somewhere unassailable. Landguard Fort would be good.

I pile the children into the car and lecture them on the arguments for a republic. As a bonus feature on the A416 approaching Lowestoft, I outline in painful and prolonged detail how all kings and queens after Charles II are mostly boring. I caution my nodding audience that he is only interesting because he was the first of a new breed and therefore had to make up a role for superfluous monarch.

Unfortunately, as I park the car in the pay and display, I then pathetically recall how I suffer from that memory thing. Yes indeed, I made a lamentable error on the Bury St Edmunds roundabout. As everyone knows, Landguard Fort is not at Lowestoft.

To save face, I told the children they moved it.

But Lowestoft-by-accident is brilliant, isn't it? It looks like, once upon a time, it was the genteel, elderly face of Edwardian seaside worship, but now it is mostly genteel and elderly. I loved it for that. I loved the way the way it stayed out of step, all along the promenade. Pragmatic in the twenty-first century, the council puts the wheelie bins next to the statue of Triton; then you can enjoy the pier which looks like somewhere to put the leftover containers; or hire the beach huts which look obsessively well cared for, considering they are basically sheds. I even enjoyed my expectation of the sand dunes and how the excitement stayed until we reached them. Judging by the tyre tracks I suspect they are mowed.

But I loved the way the people behaved too. The other Cromwellians huddled inside their windbreaks clutching their thermos flasks, the kids played a hopeless game of cricket sunk in the sand, and the ice cream seller wordlessly passed me a dishcloth to wipe down my sleeve after I stuck my elbow into Shark's ice cream. Then the tourist staff ignored me, the man policing the loos let me and Squirrel wee for free after I whined about the ten pence, and the terrible chips were served with a brutal honesty by the traditional chip seller and his selection of tattoos.

So I loved it all. The ordinary Englishness, the cliffside landscape, a sea the colour of flint, and the way it is so very different from its close, on-the-coast sisters, Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe.

If only they would give Landguard Fort back, the place would be perfect.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

I knew we would find our way here

The jury has been out for some time regarding the question, Who would make a better mother for Tiger? Me or a horse?

I think the matter is finally settled. The horse won it. Even the mechanical one. Horse scores more points than me. The mechanical one comes with a gentleman jockey who can tell you stuff, like where to put your bottom when it's travelling at 90mph. That is not knowledge I have yet mastered. In fact, I haven't mastered any horse knowledge. Worse (possibly criminal in Tiger's eyes), I haven't shown any interest in mastering any horse knowledge. Not about front, back, upside down, inside out, nor oat feed. Indeed, my philosophy has been so far, 'Avoid all horse. Drive Tiger to stables. Find bank card'.

But now I realise it would have been cheaper, and more efficient all round, had I bought a horse to rear my sensitive child.

A horse would have done a much better job than me. Whereas I make unreasonable, pointless demands - hair! bedroom floors! clothes! for goodness sake give us a smile! - a horse would make none of these demands. It would fight none of these battles. It would simply stand around, whinny, and bash its hooves on the stable floor before staring in stern expectation at Tiger. She would have intuitively known those eyes said things like You can look after me! I need constant care, feeding, hoof-picking and poop-scooping, for which, in return, I will let you canter about a field with me while I try hard not to throw you off in a show of indifference and disdain.

It would have been a joyous upbringing. Tiger would already have turned into a quiet and happy equine slave, willingly running about with buckets of water and more dinner, rather than the unhappy bundle of neurosis I reluctantly drag between continents.

So here you have it. The mechanical horse. At Newmarket horse racing museum. With gentleman jockey to show everyone how.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

But do not expect me to teach 45728

One of the sorry consequences of co-parent Daddy Dig flying away to Hong Kong is that he has left me in sole charge of the maths and science agenda of this happy home ed household.

Well you can sleep easy in your beds. At least until 3am, what with the primary science. The world is safe in my hands. So long as junior science keeps its part of the bargain and does not get too technical or use too many long words, then yes, conceptually and attitude-wise, I'm fine. And I promise not to blow up this planet with overenthusiastic use of lemon juice, an assortment of vinegars and a pot of Co-op bicarbonate.

You see, with science, I feel reasonably safe. I can have a go. I can listen to a question about rock crystal and the eyeball and not run off, pass out, or cry. With stuff I don't know, I can speculate, theorise, make stuff up, and wait to be challenged. I am that willing. Hey, I have even tried to construct a vacuum cleaner with a paper bag and a hairdryer.

But maths.

Please wake up promptly at 3.01am when I get to the maths. Someone needs to stop me going there, because the maths world is not safe to be left alone with me. Not at all. 925474849. See? Numbers are out of my control. Rudimentary calculations escape me and run about causing mayhem. Simple lines, angles, shape stuff and bits of rulers... everything becomes incoherent. School maths? Mrs Davy? I blame you both.

Now of course I do not want to pass on my problem to the children. No. In their hearing I maintain that MATHS IS FUN.

But they can sniff it out. Tiger can intuitively sense my total incomprehension, my aphasia, my utter and complete confusion when I see 5474849. She will instinctively know that her normally-trusted parent cannot answer a simple question about a circle and she will short circuit. There will be disaster, confusion and general panic.

But left alone in charge of this, I will need to think fast. I will claim to be a good educator. No, stuff that. I am the best sort of educator.

I will answer, Tiger? You are in control of the maths. Thanks to life with me you have already sussed the cost of petrol, the weight of cake, 25% off the price of a TK Maxx handbag, and how many rolls of modroc you need to build a horse.

For everything else, including 34353636, you can rummage in the pile of books I bought from the charity shop. You can do BBC Bitesize. There are websites. Lots of them. And TV programmes. You can ask the people in the home ed group. I can find you workshops, lectures, and a tutor. I will hunt down Marcus du Sautoy again if you like because he is fun and not like school or Mrs Davy. And here is a protractor. I bought it from the newsagent.

So there, this is the best form of education. One that someone else is interested in, leads for themselves, becomes enthused about, and can take complete control of at 3.01am, when I wake up screaming.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Bye Bye Daddy

Today daddy goes back to work in Hong Kong.

Which means there's only mummy left to entertain us now.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

I don't know if it's glorious spring sunshine, the drama of landing like a newcomer in my own land, or maybe the way my eyelids have swollen up and I can't see properly, but I have this beautiful focus on England right now, and to me this country looks fantastic. You have the world's most fantastic hedgerow blossoms! You have gentle curves of rivers through fields! And birdsong! Do you hear that? It's just AMAZING.

So I'm afraid this blog might become no more than a sequence of blurred pictures of rural England for a few weeks while I come over all Enid Blyton and rush around shouting AMAZING.

But that can't be all, can it? You've got something else here, and it's the English.

Aren't they FANTASTIC? They do stuff like this. Today at Wrest Park we drive over a field and park our cars in a proper line, attending carefully to a man in a yellow jacket who points exactly where we should park.

Everyone follows him, they do, even though all the opportunity of the field exists. People could go berserk! They could park anywhere! But they don't. No one wants to cause a fuss by parking a teensy bit out of line. Everyone follows each other, smiles, says thank you, then goes round the back of the car to fumble with picnic blankets and thermos flasks. I totally love it.

Then these people are so polite! Even the ones who have got more tattoos than skin and a few who have studs in their faces like they have met with a horrible industrial accident and had to have their cheeks nailed up. They stand in queues and shuffle politely to one side to let you past. It is BRILLIANT.

Then what could be better than this.

We all sit down to watch a dragon be knocked over by a man on a horse, and we can BOOO and HURRAH by which time I have become faintly hysterical with the wonderfulness of it all.

But there is more. There is warm beer and medieval music and people who dress up and make terrible jokes and we all laugh.

So no mocking of England or the English, none at all. It just puts a big smile on my face to be surrounded by this countryside and these people and their fantastic silliness and brilliant dressing up and the way they all shake out their picnic blankets, climb back in their cars and neatly follow each other in a line across the field to go home.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

To do

Spend the day wandering around, off my face on anti-allergy meds, the type that say Do not drive, Do not drink machinery, Do not operate on anyone while incoherent.

I am keeping to all that advice except the drinking. One glass has minimal effect on me. But the operating is right out. I studiously looked the other way when Dig was smacked in the face by a holly tree. I told him, I am not operating today. Don't hope I'll nurse your forehead. You will have to wear the pin-pricks. Anyway, the puncture marks and blood looks convincingly tribal, like you have been in a street brawl. I bet if you wear them round here, you get some appreciative glances from the ladies.

But it is true that these anti-face-inflationary tablets are leaving me a little forgetful. Just at a crucial point when I need to remember stuff. A list comes in handy at times like this.

1. I must remember that I am going through a cleansing process. A key part of the cleansing process is Freecycle. We have four vacuum cleaners, two of which do not work. I am sure someone round here would like a non-working vacuum cleaner. I must be sure to look at all the messages that pour in from all the takers.

2. I must remember that I am not taking anything to the tip because I just had the car valeted. And I must very firmly repeat the rule No Eating In The Car. (An occasional ice cream licked neatly by the driver does not actually break that rule.)

3. I must remember to cut the brambles back because they are grown all over the paths. And the gardener is coming. Thanks to the brambles he will forget where any path goes and simply chainsaw his way about until he bumps into a wall. I must help him navigate his way so he does not accidentally remove my choisya forever, like he did with the wisteria. (I never completely forget he is not a proper gardener, he is just a bloke with a chainsaw, but he's the only one I can get.) And I will not be too cruel on the brambles. We have waged a long war. Maybe we will pip the Thirty Years war soon enough. I have a sort of grudging respect for them.

4. I must remember to wear long sleeves after I have cut back the brambles. Last time I forgot and went out with my bare arms revealing the battlescars. One woman asked me in a concerned voice, 'Have you been playing with a cat?' The only cat I could possibly have been playing with to acquire strips like that would be a panther. But that's the type of polite thing the English say. Really she wanted to say 'Good God! What happened to you?'

5. The Mads Awards. Sally says I have been nominated for some parenting blog PR thing. I suspect she did it herself, out of pity. I am too late for it already. Anyway, I don't do anything that is required in the great world of promoting one's own blog, or pursuing any course of action likely to lead to success in anything. I am hopeless at it all. Last year I wrote two articles and forgot to invoice for either of them. I think I will strike number 5 from my list and try again.

5. But it has reminded me about parenting. I must remember to do that, while freecycling vacuum cleaners and pruning (brambles are very good to protect your garden from burglars). Looking at my children will also be some sort of educational monitoring, should anyone ask me, so two birds with one stone. Yay me. I haven't really looked at the children since we got back, because they have been very quiet. Two of them have been on a lake ten miles away, which might explain it, but generally there has been no need for intervention. Reading, probably.

6. In a sudden and brief spirit of cooperation between me and my lovely reader, you can tell me in the comments anything you had to remember two Sundays ago, then I can forget them as well.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

We all have our secret desires

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger have been asking for months for this experience. So today I let them have it. Aerial Extreme, Willen Lake. (Satisfying.)

Of course I am motivated not by the education or socialisation on offer, but by self-interest.

While the offspring are twenty foot up, and cannot do or say anything to stop me, I run off to the big city. Sue the make up lady peers at my face and nods, consolingly, then sells me some mascara.

Completely bewitched and in thrall to the solutions for premature aging offered confidently by a woman with neat hair, a label, and a tub of white stuff that looks like PVA, I make an appointment to be completely done over and lose ten years.

(Shut up. Let me keep my fantasies intact. I know them for what they are. I have worked hard to get them, they are mine, and I don't want anyone robbing them from me now.)

Friday, 22 April 2011

Considering the options

Dig says it is Easter. I say, The Hat is in Kuwait. So it's your turn to lay the trail of chocolate eggs. She normally hides them behind the plant pots at 7am as she's passing en route to another party, so that's what you do. He says, Is that it?

Well, yes. This is Easter round here. I have done the educational tour of religions, honest, but I'm not surprised I've found my level of chocolate eggs made of brown fat deposited in the garden by a mystery rabbit.

I don't know about anyone else, but for my children chocolate rabbit poop is far easier to consume than stories of death and resurrection.

I am sympathetic. As a child bursting with life and energy, I struggled with the idea of dying too. My understanding was, being dead meant everyone would leave you alone so you could have a long lie down in peace and quiet. If I heard my mother right, that seemed to be something you could frequently wish for.

Then the dog died. I saw him at the roadside, and everyone got into a panic and the neighbour took me away and explained to me that he wasn't lying down for a rest, he was really truly gone-forever, not-getting-up-again, lying-flat-out, dead-dead. It sort of gave me the idea to hold, but then we got another dog, so I could see there were ways and means round this dead problem.

But then we got to the resurrection, and the same person would get up again? The same Jack Russell terrier would pop up from the roadside? That was weird. It just didn't fit.

And for some people, frankly, I didn't want it to happen, ever. Like Grandma. Grandma frightened me whatever her stage of life or death. And I certainly hoped she wasn't going to get up again after she died. The very thought scared me witless; that she might suddenly spring up after she was buried.

She had a wonderful piano though, and each week before the visit I would think about the fantastic sounds I could make when I bashed those gleaming white bars. They responded to me! That was so exciting! But then she frustrated my musical aspirations by banning me from touching the piano. I tried playing it on the quiet (not possible). She retaliated by locking the lid. I tried to prise it open and was told off all over again.

Our grand-relationship probably deteriorated from those times of my continued piano-inspired disobedience. She would get cross at me and send me into the kitchen or give me sour milk to drink.

When I complained, I was told that Grandma had life hard, not like me, and now she was old I was not allowed under any circumstance to make a noise. That included the object of desire, the piano, which stayed firmly locked. It made me resent Grandma all the more, given the many circumstances I could think of where a loud noise was perfectly legitimate, and how hard my life had become, now it was piano-deprived.

After a few months Grandma took to lying down next to the window in the front room under a thick eiderdown telling my mother what to do. I was put under orders to kiss her on the cheek before leaving. She never seemed to relish that moment either.

I came to resent every one of those visits. Without the piano, there was nothing to do, and nowhere to play. My mother consoled me, but then routinely betrayed me by saying the piano wasn't working, or the milk was only a little warm. Then she patted the eiderdown fondly, fussed, and softly called her Edna.

After a few months, Grandma's bed was moved next to the wall. She told me off less and less, then mostly ignored me. But she was always there in the bed when we arrived, and she was always there when we left. The piano always stayed solidly, firmly, locked. Without anything else to do, I probably asked excruciating questions about how she went to the toilet and complained loudly when my mother wouldn't tell me.

The day Grandma died I brightly ran to tell the neighbour my news. I added my fervent wish that Grandma wouldn't do what was threatened, and that was get up again, adopt any see-through shape, come back with any wings, watch me from any hiding place behind a cloud, or indeed do anything anywhere. The neighbour looked at me. I wondered for a long time why she didn't answer. But the way that she looked stopped me from adding how I really wanted the piano unlocked now because Grandma wouldn't tell me off.

I never did learn how to play the piano. I no longer blame Grandma. Yet I have sympathies with my children. I know that in growing up, life is confusing enough. We're having a hard time navigating most days, these days. Generally, we do not seek a deity as a solution, so we only have ourselves.

So yes, I could try leading the kids through problematic stories of people who die, then rise up to walk. I could try. With my fingers crossed behind my back hoping that Shark doesn't chip in with difficult questions about zombies.

Or I could look at the world, and see all life's urgencies around me. The sun is shining hot, the sky's bursting bright blue, and the blackbird is performing his songs of love, anger, frustration and desire. What a perfect invitation. One where watching the kids scramble about the garden and fall into a fight about who hunted the most chocolate eggs seems the very right Easter thing to do.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Allergy joy

One week in England, and I do not feel normal. This is disappointing, because I wanted to feel normal in England very much. You have sunshine! And fantastic bird song! But, after a few days arriving here feeling fantastically energetic, as a woman of thirty and counting backwards, I am now waking slow as a slug, barely can remember what happened yesterday, and looking like a beat up old vagrant maybe two hundred and sixty years on the streets and counting forward. It is very inhibiting and, since I feel like not going out but lying down nursing a headache, not a little depressing.

What is effecting this rapid catapult into miserable malaise I do not know. It is leaving its mark, whatever it is. Never mind about the internal workings, on the outside I look terrible. Red itching panda eyes, neck rash and a headache so big I am sure it is visible, like a growth protruding from my brow.

Of course I have called on Dr Internet. He says he can explain this. It cannot be my ongoing allergic response to my own house, cumulatively worsening as the days pass, and that it's time to sort out the mouldy cellar and buy a hypoallergenic pillow.

No. It cannot be that. Dr Internet says it is a terrible incurable disease which will leave the gritlets motherless within six months. He also adds that inexplicable skin marks, memory loss and feebleness are signs that I may have been abducted by aliens. Even now they may be sucking my life out of my body for their ongoing humanoid experiments.

So it all looks a bit hopeless. In fighting spirit, I am swallowing the cetirizine, trying to ride it out, opening the windows in the mould-filled cellar, and pretending that I am not feeling self conscious about the hunchbacked shoulders, red lumpen face, and general air of defeat while I stand in the inevitable queue at the Co-op with my solitary bottle of beer. Soon I shall conduct my own experiment and observe what happens when I go live on a Suffolk floor for a few days with a dead flat cat and three kids.

If the malaise, facial trauma and red itching panda eyes do not subside at that point, it will be proof, one way or the other, of something.

Maybe Dr Internet will be right after all. I am going to die in a horrible way very soon, but not before I am properly taken over by the aliens from the Planet Vesticular.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

You should see my kitchen floor

I take the car to a valet service and park it to the side. This is obviously out of the ordinary. The man in charge of the cleaners - all tall men and very muscly - comes over to me, frowning, and dismissively nods his head towards the queue for the car wash. He orders, 'over there'.

He thinks I'm here for a normal 30-minute makeover. The one where I drive it through the foamy brushes, they give it a once-over with the shake and vac, then I pay fifteen pounds.

I say, nervously, 'Can you have a look first?' I open the back door. He says nothing, but stares. Then he calls over two of the other muscle men. They stare too. One of them, looking like an action hero in his combat trousers, turns to me and shakes my hand. Then he says, in a quiet accent that sounds Eastern European, 'I've never seen anything like it in all my life'.

I feel both dismayed and a little pleased. Dismayed that I have been driving what looks like a battlefield from the Bosnian War. Pleased that I am a woman able to impress a man who bears a passing resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Triplet mama

Of course I had to listen to this.

I agree. Mothers of multiples. We smug, fierce, warrior women, weathering this blood, toil, tears and sweat. We fight a battle everyday and deserve a medal for surviving, no mistake. Make mine Godiva, or 70% cocoa. No Cadbury's brown lard, if you're asking.

Yes, Dawn with the lovely voice. She reminded me. Practical problems like holding, feeding, changing, dressing, walking, shopping, vehicles, pavements, roads. The library, with its lift to the children's section on the first floor. It can't take a triple buggy and no-one will help on the stairs. Passers-by stare, but no-one weighs in to say, Shall I take one up? Instead, there are arguments to be made, access to fight for, people to stare down, more battles to fight. Somewhere, you sleep.

Then, did I forget, or did anyone mention the loneliness? The friggin empty loneliness. He climbs into your house with his big ugly boots and kicks you in the head. Triplet mama, now you are flip-flopped into the world where you don't fit and no-one wants you. Get used to it, stranger. Alone with your own home-made crowd.

Some women hate you, literally. They could walk up to you and spit in your face. They fight against time with its armies of days and months. Their goal is one single, perfect baby. But you, you. Thoughtlessly, you marched in, proclaiming an undeserving three. One woman, two miscarriages in, growled her congratulation with a unsmiling mouth and steady eye. What could the triplet mama say to make the injustice right?

Then there are women for whom your presence is a judgement. There are new mothers, overwhelmed and lost, struggling to live with one tiny child, cradled sleeping in their arms. Then here, right into their empty gaze, strides the triplet queen. She's juggling more babies than you can hold, or even safely see. She's changing, feeding, ordering the universe with all her undeterred, unbreakable, unshakable purpose. Eyes are averted. The floor is fascinating. Truly, even the wall is more welcoming than the sight of you.

There are others yet, for whom you are the freak. You are the novelty show, the bearded lady, the sideshow spectacle. They look at you quietly, shake their heads and murmur Poor cow. Some will stand in front of you to block your quiet progress. They'll say, not Good Morning, but Are they natural? Pause for a moment and it lets them all come. Did you give birth normally? Were you big? Are they normal? What can I say by a stroke of my beard.

But there are women who need to know. Tell us how bad you feel now. How you drowned; know the moment you went under; all your confessions. Guilt is a terrible thing to bear, isn't it? And we all know you failed, triplet mama. You can't feed three babies with two breasts unless you have bad magic means, like triple breasts and the end of the world up your sleeve.

Maybe your story gives comfort. It was never as bad as that for them! Phew!

But who can help you? Who can you really talk to, but other triplet mothers who know the same as you?

So yes, brought it all back, the non-normality of it all, the freak show candidacy, the isolation and exclusion and the solitude of the experience, always surrounded by people. With waves of the hand in your direction, with ringing words this won't apply to you while everyone laughs, nervously, because whatever life is, it applies to them. They can take comfort from that. There is safety in numbers. They can share.

You can't, triplet mama. Your experience is not like theirs. Where can you go, swimming out of your depth, far away from shore, with no turning back.

Monday, 18 April 2011


Of course I never cancelled my gym membership when we left England. I am not stupid. One of the first places I need to inhabit on my return to normality is the gym.

I love the gym. I adore it. I am going to stay there forever. It is a perfect place where I can live in 1988. Duran Duran is still going round on the sound system, Michael Jackson's not dead, we are still grateful to The Young Ones, and I have a sense of liberation and irresponsibility towards my own backside, having ditched the pointless boyfriend, avoided marriage and never got pregnant. Tonight I might go out or stay in, as the fancy takes me! And what is wrong with a fantasy like that?

You people who eschew the gym and scorn all who go there, you simply must have grown beyond 1988 to fill your lives with purpose, be successful in your business careers and feel rewarded in your personal relationships. It is likely you anticipate your satisfied and balanced days will be completed by gymnastic sex. You may have it all, and not need the gym. I have a house that looks like shit, triplets, no career, bosoms gone south and no sex life, so the gym circa 1988 is a perfect place to stay for a few hours while I reinvent all that has gone.

There is that other thing I can do, which is not an anachronism at all. It is a pure benefit of now being aged 50, invisible, and able to skulk behind the Stair Master. I can slyly glance at semi-naked men working out. Strongly recommended for all ladies in my disposition, especially if Bruce Willis in his vest was an object of great delight first time round.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Planning the summer wardrobe

We have been wearing the same clothes everyday since we fell off the plane last Thursday.

I am not proud. It is thanks to no one in this family having the foresight, mental agility or practical mind to actually bring any clothes with them from Hong Kong. (Although I brought home a rubber tomato, which I could count as novelty clothing if I stick it over a left nipple.)

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger brought home nothing to wear. I mean, nothing.

In one way, I am secretly proud. They filled their bags with books, books, and more books, and it proves what a fantastic educator I am. Then again, it does prove how much they ignore me. Because don't say I didn't warn them. I said (repeatedly) the clothes you left behind in England last summer will not fit your tummies now, so bring your Hong Kong stuff from H&M and do not rely on those old Adams jeans age 9, even if they were your favourites.

Now see how the mother is always proved right? Everyone rolls out of bed this morning to cram legs and arms into clothes several sizes too small. Squirrel is the only one to whom I cannot say I told you so. She has no concern at all. If she likes it, she wears it, whether the jeans are fitted for age 9 or not and whatever my eyeballs are doing. She is happy. I tell myself she is exploring the neglected kid vibe when her jeans zip doesn't pull up, the shirt sleeves are up her armpits and the back seam is entirely ripped, and she can walk four paces ahead of me on the route we take today into H&M, England.

But it is Sunday, apparently. Which means arriving to emergency clothes shop in H&M is foolish at 3.30pm. I forget these things. Nevertheless, this is a true emergency, so I do a Hong Kong clothes shopping routine which is hand out a bundle of money, say go and choose stuff and give me the receipts so I can bring back the pelmet skirt and bra tops on Monday.

Me, I am impressed by my own foresight. I dumped all my useful clothing months ago. I put into a Help the Aged sack all the size 10 clothes. Like the soft and beautiful Max Mara top (BUGGERBUGGERBUGGER), the Jean Paul Galtier trousers (BUGGERBUGGERBUGGER) and the beautiful M&S green dress that fitted like a dream (BUGGERBUGGERBUGGER). I then shoved back into my wardrobe all old clothes size 14 and up.

Of course I had the wisdom to see I would never go to Hong Kong, fall into a depression brought about by life circumstance and a homesick child, shrink two dress sizes, then come home with only a rubber tomato as covering for a size 10 pair of bosoms.

I'm now planning my own clothes shopping down the charity shop on Monday.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

With my stranger's eye

I walk into this domestic interior and it's like walking into a stranger's house. I don't know who this person is, but they seriously piss me off. I mean, what is it with the wicker fish hanging from the ceiling, the silk book nailed to a wooden door, and the scary home-made face pinned about with beads dangling over the stairwell? What weird shit is that?

Half the stuff I'm looking at has no memory for me at all. Worse, it's all held in a house which looks unattractively battered, filthy, falling to bits, and covered deeply in dust, not just of months, but of years. It says to me someone has been seriously conning themselves regarding distressed wooden flooring and original Victorian fittings. The reality is much, much worse than they've been admitting. It has set me off crunching anti-allergy tablets like there's no tomorrow. Which a bacteriological analysis would probably conclude there won't be, unless someone gets started with 50 litres of antiseptic, a super strength vacuum cleaner and a roll of 200 bin bags.

Well, there is an advantage to having a space in my head that is being filled up by the sight of domestic clutter for which I have no memory and no emotional attachment.

It is that I can become ruthless without guilt or remorse. I am starting to hurl stuff into plastic bin bags. I need to do it quickly and short-sightedly, before memory creeps slowly back up on me, before I have chance to look at what's in my hand and start thinking about it. If I do that, I am sure to be pin-pricked with a moment in 2004 when it will be all fond and pointless and 'aaahh that was the day Squirrel fell off the kitchen table, and while I waited to see if she had concussion we all made wooden spoons decorated as dollies. Aaaah, I cannot possibly throw the dollies out now!'

Bleugh. I want to be ruthless. I want to clear the junk out. Don't let the children know, but I am already determined to lose my mother memory for longer than I really do. Secretly I know I will enjoy this vicious streak where I betray memory with a bin bag, assault small cuddly objects, and seek out the inner ugliness of countless small items that have plagued my life for the last ten years. More fool me that I allowed everything and everyone to do it while I stupidly sank under a wave of clutter and never once did I even try and wave.

Well, no more. I am tired of feeling overwhelmed by stuff. Without immediate memory of it, I can see it for what it is. It is neither homely nor comforting. It is simply an assembly of junk that needs dumping.

There will be limits, of course there will. Although at 2.30 this afternoon I temporarily forgot what they were. Cruising by the local lake on my new MOT wheels I merely popped in the watersports centre to see what they could do for three home ed, summer-term children. Within five minutes I had given away two of my daughters on a last-minute, cheap deal activity holiday starting Monday. Irritatingly, the third wouldn't go. Seriously, Squirrel, are you absolutely sure you want to stay? What? You're staying all week?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Have wheels, will travel

We dug the Grit Mobile out of storage at the end of the back garden, drove it down the local garage and it passed its MOT.

You could have knocked me over with a molecule of air.

The tender loving care I have showered upon this vehicle in the last three years (nil) has obviously paid off. As has the love I bestowed upon it last August when I abandoned it down the bottom of the garden to fend for itself. It has done mighty well and I am proud. It simply dug in for the winter and shrouded itself in a mound of soil, dead leaves, bashed up coke cans and chip wrappers.

Truly, between the certificate of SORN and the neglected rusty brakes, I was not expecting it to pass. In fact, I was totally expecting a long list of failures, and a less honest garage than Honest Ted's could have made a killing from me. They simply could have clocked the expression of sad resignation on my face when I handed over the key at 9.00am, then handed me back a long list including replacement of cam-drive cylinder core-charger motor wheel-spike cable or some other essential item, which they claimed could be accessed only by trained mechanics wielding precision-controlled pneumatic spanners.

As it was, the man at the garage merely looked a little unwell, handed me back the key to road freedom, and wiped his hands down his overalls. Then he said 'That car's a health hazard'.

The working functionality of the car is not what he meant, Dig pointed out later. Apparently he is referring to the pile of last summer's cheese sandwiches rotting in the passenger footwell, the layer of mud, leaves, sticks, clumps of dried grass, the green chocolate raisins pebbledashed to the interior, the detritus, shavings and peelings of kid craft spilling out of every plastic hollow, and the collection of yellowing moulds and mildews which cover all seats and steering wheel with a comfortably soft furriness.

But that is no matter. Look out there upon the road network of England! The Grit Mobile is declared worthy of it!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Return to Blighty

The honeymoon is over. At 5.12am precisely, for me.

For Tiger, not yet. Running into the garden in total joy to dig up the unicorn she buried last August is, for her, the culmination of nearly nine months whining, complaining, and periods of plain bonkers.

I have noted, however, that the IhateHongKongIwanttogohome routine has lessened in the last two weeks. That could either be due to her awareness of impending dates and times, or it could be that in desperation I have been fooling with her brain and slipping drops of Vitamin D3 into her tea. I have Mac's assurance that it is like a natural boost of sunshiny happiness.

Actually, to coincide with our glad return home, we are all on some form of medication right now. Dig normally hits the N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine so that he can look awake in the company of serious people, rather than channel the hobo economy-travel vibe that circumstance and his gutter-class family have forced upon him. Squirrel meanwhile has become hooked on some strawberry chewy vits, and Shark needs the inhaler which she left in Hong Kong (prompting first trip to doctor within two hours of being in house).

As the Primary Nurse for this Emergency Travelling Hospital Unit I have convenient access to all meds so am quietly knocking back the Piriton to prevent the allergic reaction to my own domestic interior.

Dust, cellar mould and monstrous creatures that are bigger than the Eiffel Tower (if you put them under a microscope) are lurking here, waiting to kill me. First they will blow my nose off. I know because they have done it before. Really, I would like to pick up the entire house and put it through a wash cycle, if only the washing machine would work. (It does not, but keeps good company with the dishwasher, boiler, oven, and toaster.)

But I see that Eli and Mr W who have been looking after the assemblage of dust and broken stuff that we are proud to call home have done a sterling job. They have removed the car battery, ripped out the bedroom carpet, disposed of the fridge, and even acquired a new key after our neighbour came and changed the front door locks. So they deserve a chip supper, incidentally the other item that Tiger has been pining for, alongside a horse and a semi-rotted unicorn.

So that is it. The news report for today. Normal domestic interior, non-working stuff, a trip to the doctor and family medication to cope with it all. Hurrah and Welcome Home, Grit.

See the actual excitement of international travel

And how I know we are home. Thanks, Tesco.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Lab report

Readings taken at 28 hrs 42 mins in preparation to 00.00 transmission Hong Kong to London. Lab analyst: Grit.

Prime study: Investigation of emotion-substrates exhibited by molecular bulks named Squirrel, Tiger, Shark, using the functional parental observation and auditory methods.

Squirrel: Type 1 Category A anger exhibited. Bloody well pissed off angry slamming doors with advanced characterisation of yelling obscenities including references to poopy brains and bottoms. Structural phenomena and potential breakdown defect induced by parental unit (Mother) touching Squirrel Stuff, especially Stuff in squirreling hole behind bedroom curtain. Instruction to all lab staff: Completely avoid or wear earplugs and gloves.

Tiger: Type 1 Category A high resolution delight structures growth exhibited. Luminescence and other general crystalline glowing detected with additional fond memory expansion. Response to stimulus includes humming at anticipation of return to familiar environmental factors, including cuddly unicorns, garden, and Louisa the horse. Instruction to all lab staff: Enjoy. Smiles do not come often.

Shark: Type 1 Category A resignation. Lack of bitter complaint observed. As is multilayered state of acquiescence and packing of cabin bag procedurally without predicted complaint. Looks more and more like Dig in a frock. Instruction to all lab staff: Recommend close observation in case something spooky is up or clever Dig-type plotting is employed in the developing strategic brain functioning strata.

Dig: Control reference point requiring two brains and absence of all displayable emotion. Is merely catching flight to UK before depositing lab assistant Grit and study units gritlets in Buckinghamshire then boarding flight to India. What is the big deal about that?

Monday, 11 April 2011

Let's do that, one more time

We're close to the day we leave Hong Kong, and head back to England. I hear you had the scorcher, the one that comes round every year to mark out the end of winter and the promise of coming summer, the one that will be disappointingly washed by rain.

But here I feel the pressure of time. The clock ticks round and round; everything must be done, all at once, and sometimes twice in one day. Like today. We stumble from one Indian restaurant in the backstreets of Wan Chai to the next Indian restaurant in the backstreets of Mong Kok. To mark the separation of the two, we visit our favourite parlor to lick our favourite ice creams, then tour the markets where last time we said, Next time, we'll buy that, and bargain him down to twenty.

Over the first round of saag paneer we join Ditta and the Pitcher to say, See you later and let's tour the rocks sometime again. Over the second round of saag paneer we join Dig and the Aristocrat; they talk about summer cruises circling Asia while the little grits contemplate dinner with a strong sense of deja vu.

It all makes for a late, late night, and a happy repeating of time with indulgence of green, perfect frozen wildberries, and junk shopping in now familiar places, with all the familiar faces.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sunday same old same old

Spend the day fretting, in varying order, on the following:

1) Shark. Gone. Disappeared for le weekend. Not a word. She is staying en famille elsewhere.

This is all due to Shark's new island friend Louise who has arranged with her le sleepover.

Really, it is all thanks to Louisa's maman, whom I immediately adore on the fact that she can sort it so my daughter disappears to have fun for 24 hours.

Slightly alarming is I'm not sure how to get Shark back thanks to Louisa's maman also disappearing. When I finally find her (phone not working, email bounces) she shows not one jot of concern and I can't help but fall in love with her a little bit more. She merely raises a perfect eyebrow and says, in an English accent tinged with French, They slept and now I think they are at the beach uhu?

I am trying to emulate Louisa's maman. I am going all insouciance while practising my languid uhu? Soon I will enthusiastically adopt all the accoutrements of foreign louche to complete the picture. Of course I will get it horribly British wrong, and turn up at our next appointment wearing a smoking jacket and dangling a novelty rhinoceros horn cigarette holder between my Yardley stained lips.

2) My thighs. They are not looking too bad if I get them in the right light and squint at the knees.

This brings both sadness and delight. Delight because the up-down Hong Kong hills regime has given me a pair of elasticated long doings, stretching twixt knee and hip, the like I haven't seen since aged 23.

Yet, sadness. In a way, I am nostalgic (cue soulful music and out of focus gaze). It has been my privilege to wear a true pair of wobbly English thighs for over a decade. Now they are melted, lost in the mountain tracks of Hong Kong, I feel sentimental for the old strawberry pink wobblers. Somehow, fattened thighs define an English girl. I am sure they could have carried that look of smoking jacket and rhinoceros horn.

3) The tree. I am obsessing over this. Circling it, both mentally, and physically, round and round the torn up trunk. I fretted this the other day.

They chopped down a tree. Now I see a notice is pinned to the end of the path, some forty metres away, reminding all law abiding citizens that destruction of woodland carries a squillion dollar fine. I stare at it glumly while Dig comments matter of factly how very Hong Kong this is. He adds how no one does anything until after the event when someone puts up a notice, saying You can't do that, and this merely shows what a non-politicised population is here. He does not know my tortured soul. Silently, I regret the lack of chains last Friday.

Thus, apart from fretful circling, nothing achieved.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Pixar and the total truth

You can't ever be let down by a cartoon, can you? You have characters smashed to the ground with a frying pan in the face, but they get up and carry on, maybe running off a cliff until they realise gravity exists. Then they crawl out the hole in the ground with lumps all over their face.

I love those fantasies, because they're so human. I don't know about you, but I already skulk between the emotional worlds which give those cartoon moments their compelling power. I lurch between predictable sequences of blind optimism and crushing realisation towards quiet resentment, driving grudge and self pitying misery without any prescience whatsoever. It's like experience teaches me nothing! I am destined to fall off the cliff after the frying pan moment time and time again!

So it's an easy leap from here to totally believe that houses can be lifted by balloons, cars can talk and toys do live. It's a great world to inhabit, where anything can happen! Except intense emotions like joy or despair, such as arise with sex or death. Cartoons can't do either of those properly, so even that is pretty much like most normal life round here on any average day of any average week.

The result of inhabiting an emotional and thematic landscape much the same as Toy Story (e.g., maturity, loss, loyalty, optimism, self-delusion, crushing reality), means of course I must visit the exhibition Pixar: 25 years of animation. It's opening in Hong Kong but travelling round to you soon.

The delight I feel on seeing the behind-the-scenes stuff which makes up real/cartoon life must be like getting high on drugs. But who needs those when you can see a beautiful 3D crafted model of Darlene from Finding Nemo? Or find out that there is indeed a job of fur grooming on a computer animated pink teddy bear? This is fantastic reality indeed, and I take to bouncing around the exhibition like an irritating six year old, pointing at stuff and squealing.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger put up with it all, and tell me that none of it is really real. They try to persuade me that dogs do not really talk when you strap an electronic translating sound box collar to their throats, and neither does an elderly person carry a lone party balloon up a garden path to a solitary house, itself about to be airlifted to a jungle where humans must struggle with their place on the line that threads together brutality and civilization.

But children, they do, they do.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Square pegs, round holes

Okay, I must navel gaze. I have fought it, but now I say to myself why not? It is a cute navel. No one else need look at it. You have buttons too besides navels and they're on your mouse to click the x.

This week, I'm decided. I do not desire the professional expat life. Even though the signs could point me there. I would be a rubbish expat. I'd never settle here; not call it home. I don't fit, even though a place to occupy is here, in Hong Kong's historic layers. Personally, this expat life, it feels like lifting one foot out of one country and not planting a foot in the other.

Not even on this idyllic outlying island. Yes, the musicians, bohemians and graphic designers all come here attracted by the no roads, laid back main street, easy pace, beach, and low rate of crime (apart from the murder).

Given that lot, I would have thought the latent gritty hippie tendencies would fit okay. And I like the dragon stories, woolly mountains and the artistry with a brush. I like the greengrocer too, and appropriately hate his plastic bags. I like the way the boat chugs me over the water, and I like how the laundry lady smiles to see me, even though she must have stared into my gusset of old cotton trousers two hundred times before. That is all so very right.

But I still don't fit. This morning, looking over the island, I watched some workmen cut down a tree. I don't know why they picked on it. It didn't look offensive, dead, or dangerous. I guess, being on a corner, it was in the way. The island is developing. Several plots are roped aside for diggers. These miniature construction vehicles need to turn corners. Maybe it was that. Maybe that's why the tree had to go. I don't know.

I thought of running down there, to the man hacking the trunk with a handsaw while he instructed his colleague in yelling Cantonese. Angrily, I would point to a fistful of tree preserving papers, as if I had more authority than he. I'd wrestle a stay of execution and get to work with letters. But of course I couldn't do that, because I don't have any say, no authority, and the papers would betray me, by being empty, or scribbled over with Tiger's drawings. And this is Hong Kong, colony of China, throne of the property king. There was nothing I could do, so I did nothing, and watched the tree drop dead.

Sometimes, tired of the sight of the fallen trees, the island bars, the greengrocer's face, those rotten cotton trousers, I eye up the attraction of that other expat life. Hong Kong Island. Especially when someone I like leans to me, raises their eyebrows and laughs, 'Shall we go shopping?'.

Hmm. I could give myself to that other version of expat life. Hong Kong Island. They offer a different experience. I could forget about the damn tree. I could join the city dwellers responsible to a goal: seek mutually supportive, wealthy people. I'd enter the hierarchy and find out whether my suspicions are true: that the Hong Kong glance at each other appreciatively to remind themselves how they're a cut above the mainland, while the global expats do the same, but think themselves a cut above Hong Kong.

It seems such a tiny step from temptation to possession. The display lights twinkle and the music is very sweet. But to lay my hands there I'd need to embed myself further into an expat life. I'd need to apply pressure on the husband for the salary, seek a modern clean apartment in a smarter area of town, and ensure my access always to the mall.

But I know I couldn't do that. Maybe I haven't been here long enough. Some fellow expats have been here for years. They circle round in the Western bars, meet up for roof parties and smoky barbecues and marry the locals. To join them properly, feel committed and responsible, able to take a social part, then perhaps I'd need to give myself up to the long term. Maybe resign myself wearily to teaching and ensure I paid the tax on time. Then I could count myself an expat proper, grumble about the Chinese way, and when someone mentions England, say with a shrug of the shoulders, 'What can you do?' because now for sure it's a lost cause.

So I need to go back to England, and take some time there. Where else can I go, with this need to have a responsibility to a place, to yell about things that matter, but the post office queue, the garage, the local shop, the bank, where everyone will understand me about the bloody tree, and what I mean, because this is the place where I can say out loud, I don't agree. I'll write letters, threaten chains, and jab my finger far too much.

But maybe, when I get there, they won't want this either. And when they won't, everyone will sigh and tut and there will be unexpressed outrages and irritations and crushing humiliations and social judgements and there will be more people to fight, then everyone will think, I wish she would just shut up.

When that happens, maybe next week, the last thing I want to think, is the first thing that will come into my mind. The thought that by degrees turns an expat an exile. Sod you. I have an escape route, and it's called Hong Kong.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Cupboard clearance

I am discovered, sat on the floor, turning out my third cupboard. Hacked about toilet rolls, red ribbon tied round scrap paper, uncompleted copies of a unicorn newspaper, half-made dinosaurs, and endless pieces of crudely cut foam - wings, tails, heads, bodies, beaks.

The children assemble the home-made birds and fly them from the roof. When the foam birds fly, they land in the trees and won't come out. The children tie lengths of string to their tails, so they can be tugged back from their hiding places. Their wings wriggle loose and their beaks drop off but the tail comes home, the dismembered body dangling.

I've been quietly shovelling the worst of the stuff into sacks. With each filled sack, I've been slipping quietly to the bins, trying not to let the door click and disturb the distant play. I want to clear away without a trace, to leave the house empty, as clean and as empty as it can be. But the children's stuff, it's everywhere. Under beds, in boxes, in drawers, in cupboards. I can't take it all home; I can't leave it. Secretly, I want not to be defined here, no records, no mementos, no treasured items loving placed to wait for our return.

Shark spoils my secret clearance by coming in on me looking for sewing needles or string or paper or toilet rolls to cut up and stuff in cupboards. She glowers at me and says in an even tone, 'What are you doing?'

Gripping my sack to stop it bursting open and spilling its illegal contents all over the floor, I mutter the same things: insects make homes in old stuff and there might be a typhoon and daddy will fall over and break his leg and the landlord will come round and mend the window and you can fill the cupboard up again.

Shark stares at me. She has thought, long and hard about all this. Insects are interesting and typhoons are exciting and daddy has another leg and the landlord can come round anytime he wants. England, by contrast, has all sorts of restrictions on her liberties. There is no beach, no banana trees, no village with a Cake Lady, and no waterside restaurant selling lemon ice tea. In England there are roads and cars and people like parents telling you the hours you can come and go while trying to menace you with strangers called Truancy Patrol. But here there is freedom and island paths and a new friend called Louise and the sea. There is the sea.

Frowning, Shark goes to the sack, peers inside and pulls out every paper she can see, drawn with Tiger's horse. 'You're not taking the horses to the bin' she says. She extracts Squirrel's copied out fairy poems, her maps of the island - one fistful of hundreds that she's made - then she slaps them all back in the cupboard, and stands over me with her hands on her hips, as if to say, 'Make one move in that direction and there'll be trouble.'

Tiger looks at her in disgust and says 'You can take it all to the bin for all I care'. Squirrel slips away from the tidying scene, her arms filled with treasures she's swept up from her favourite corner.

I don't say anything. I resolve silently to wait until Shark is in bed and fast asleep. Then I will drink half a bottle of wine and get out my sacks again.

She rummages around in front of me, picking out stuff, until the plastic is flat on the floor and the cupboard is full. She wags her finger at me and in her no-nonsense voice says, 'And I want the foam birds. I want the swallow, and the starling, and when you find the pigeon you can put that back in the cupboard too.'

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ice cream

Think of the advantages. That's what I keep saying to Tiger, when the hard words fall, that the summer in England is that. Summer in England. Autumn return to Hong Kong. She frowns, puts her head down and answers, There is I Scream and that is all.

I Scream. The parlor with the dreadful name and the near-perfect ice cream. I don't say, Yes. There is I Scream and that is all. So we're both silent.

Then I do what I do, every damned time that I stare, lost, into the funeral black. I say, Well, look on the bright side.

I witter on, pointlessly, the usual mumbo jumbo about all the bright sided things. Boat instead of a bus. Butterflies and dragonflies. Bats. Let's think about them. And not the cockroaches or mosquitoes or the fact this isn't home.

She doesn't answer. I know what she means, living somewhere you'd rather not. It's a constant sufferance. A constant daily struggle to stare at bright sides and find the best in everything and because I have to hold all the links in the chain together for fear of everything falling apart, I can't ever give in, drop the lot, kick doors, yell at the walls and say You are right. There is I Scream.

I say, Well, think of the advantages, and look on the bright side.

Because really, what do we want? Me and you, Tiger? We'll go live in England. I can have the responsibilities of a child and you can cuddle horses. It will always be an English summer day with those long, beautiful evenings, and we'll pick strawberries and look out over the fields.

Shark and Squirrel? Complication in my story. They love Hong Kong. Shark is one ball of resentment that she has to leave her beach. Squirrel is all turbulence and unhappiness at leaving behind her stuff, her treasured collections, and all her island freedoms. Tiger? Somehow in this fantasy they can live here with daddy. But you won't be separated from your family because time stands still and places collapse, so you'll see everyone everyday, just like normal, and we can eat ice cream from I Scream.

I can't make promises that I can't keep. I squeeze her hand and I say, let's think of the advantages.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Day at the beach

I'm told, Hong Kongers are very purposeful. They're brought up by their parents to know what they want, where they're going, what they need. Employment, security, marriage in your twenties, grand children to steer through English-medium schools.

The key? The thing that is most important to all this future happiness? Academic success.

Depressingly, I think I recognise that mantra from England. School is a long, deliberate slog with rewards that become clear only at the end; learning is hard work and bound to be intentional effort; knowledge can be anchored through testing; exam performance leads surely, and steadily, to future success; your talents will be revealed by a difficult path, so do as you are told, because your parents can see the future and they are wiser than you.

Aren't those messages implied in every item of homework, every scheme of work, every statement of progress? Worse, it all seems to be pushed, like Hong Kong, as early as nursery.

I'd like to think that in England we won't accept the pressure of Hong Kong schools. That we grow a natural resistance to people telling us what to do. Maybe we have enough curmudgeonly, grumpy people to remind us there are other goals in life that give plenty more satisfactions to a person than pieces of paper from an institution (with an invoice attached).

Well, I can talk. While we're passing out the primary stage where I know what I believe - that kids should explore, follow their curiosities, let their natural inquisitiveness and delight in learning take them where want to go - I haven't yet hit the problem of academic success in the secondary years.

Of course I'm not sure. I haven't made up my mind there because I can't. I can urge routes, pass opinion, find courses, try steering and heavy handed pointing. But Shark, Squirrel and Tiger will ultimately decide. Then I'll worry. I'll worry if Shark wants to stack up ten GCSEs and I'll worry if Tiger won't try one. I'll ask, Did we do the right thing? Does it matter? Let's go straight to A levels, then who gives a stuff about a GCSE?

But I'll put off the worry for today. I know I'll come to it in due course. Whatever happens in the future, I can look back over the primary years and think it's been a success.

Anyhow, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, they've escaped me. Today, they've run off to climb trees, clamber over rocks, play at the reaches of the sand, and splash sea water to the sky.

Catching up with them, I glimpse reddened shoulders and wind waved hair. Tiger's sun tanned face, sprinkled salt and pepper with freckles, runs up to me; her narrow eyes stare defiantly at my camera, then she runs off, defying capture. I watch Squirrel, unaware that I'm there. She's planting rocks, carefully arranging them in determined lines to challenge the sea. Shark lazily floats in the foam, staring at the waves, watching how her toes are licked by water.

I know one thing. I can't be a parent in the style of one who knows best. I don't know what these people will choose, five, ten, fifteen years ahead. I won't know what excites them, what challenges they enjoy, what aspirations they'll grow, what disappointments and triumphs they'll face. And I have no idea what quiet significant lessons they're taking now, on the beach.

Part of me doesn't want to guess. I don't want to plan their lives for them, have them live to a predetermined pattern. I want them to have surprises, make opportunities, create adventure as they go. I want for them one day, maybe years ahead, to say to me, 'Mother, you'll never guess what I'm going to do. But I knew this was what I wanted when I was watching the waves, one day at the beach.'