My middle daughter is one of those people who really wants something, until she gets it. She wanted to go trampolining, so badly, until she did. Within seconds of the one-hour slot I’d queued and paid for, she appeared, panting and demanding an ice-lolly. I told her she could have one when she finished the session. I had it waiting for her. On the way over to me, she saw a Slush Puppy machine and wanted one of them instead.
It’s hard to teach kids the value of money. I remember, as a twenty-something, having less than a pound for lunch each day after paying rent and bills. I could have made sandwiches, but I lived with my brother who would have stolen and eaten them.
Luckily, I worked at a company with subsidised café. I could get a jacket potato and soup for 75 pence. I ate a lot of jacket potato. On payday I treated myself to a box of Birdseye potato waffles. Now I’m older, I can’t cane the carbs like I used to, but potato will always have a special place in my heart. I know we are supposed to shun all beige food and eat everything raw and green, but if I finally snap and murder the husband, my dearth row meal would include smash.
To be fair to my daughter, her enthusiastic greed is trumped by her emotional intelligence and kindness. I hid behind a pillar and watched her. She was in a queue, and each time she got to the front, she let the person behind her go. I asked her later why she did it and she shrugged and said, ‘they really liked it on there.’ I can teach her to be more frugal, but I can never teach her how to be thoughtful. She just is.
Last weekend I Marie Kondo’d my house. For those who don’t know, Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant who goes into people’s homes, makes them throw away half their stuff, then teaches them how to fold what’s left neatly. First off, she knees on the floor and thanks the house. Her philosophy is to ‘touch everything in your house. If it does not bring you joy, thank it and give it away.’
Last weekend we decided to unplug the children from their devices and spend the weekend in the New Forest, without wifi. ‘We’re going on a lovely adventure. We’re going to yomp over the moors , practise orienteering and stroke wild ponies’ I told them as I packed a family jigsaw and word search books. ‘Nature not Netflix!’
Three hours, five arguements, seven toilet stops and a couple of U-turns later (Me: ‘I meant that left’, The husband: ‘the left that is actually right?’, Me: ‘yes. Shut up’) , we arrived at Beaulieu hotel. Nestled in the heart of the New Forest, lamplights gleaming in softly in the pink and navy sky, it looked idyllic.
The Labrador almost got us kicked out within seconds of checking in, when he cocked his leg against the reception desk. Luckily, the lady serving us was distracted by the miniature dachshund and I pulled him away just in time. Anyone who has a dog knows the terror of them going to the toilet in the wrong place. The theme of my weekend was set. Me, stood in the rain with the dogs, unable to relax in case they ‘whoopsied’ in the hotel, swigging Beechams for the cold I didn’t know I’d packed.
At 11am on Saturday morning, having eaten everything from the buffet and been in the small and chilly pool, we ran out of things to do. I was keen to have a nap.
Impossible in a room with three children arguing over a bouncy ball, the husband watching sport on the TV and two dogs looking like they might squat or start doing the ‘three spins prior to poo’ dance any second.
Of course we ended up arguing. By 11.22 I’d packed everything up, slung it in the boot and the five of us sat snivelling in a moist car that smelled of dog farts and the garlic and tomato sauce the eldest made at school and we’d forgotten about.
In a last ditch bid to rescue the weekend, the husband took us to Beaulieu motor museum to see the car used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Amazing what a vintage car and an overpriced cheese sandwich can do (okay, and a hissed threat to ‘act like these boring old cars are the best things you’ve ever seen or else. The best faker gets fudge from the gift shop.’
For two hours we were that family. The one you look at and think ‘look at that family, getting it right’ … and then an announcement came over the tannoy saying ‘can the owners of two dogs, one white labrador and a miniature dachshund, please collect them from reception’ (where they’d escaped and were barking furiously at people queuing up to pay).
Having been kicked out, we went for a long walk before dinner, which lasted three minutes. That’s how long it took for the Labrador to knock the eldest over in a cowpat, the youngest to jump in a bog and lose both her (new and expensive) trainers and the middle one to bounce her ball into a gorse bush.
I was quite a hit in parent’s rural village. Being under the age of eighty, and not having a beard, made me quite a sensation. I felt like Jessica Rabbit when I walked into the local bar and all the men stopped talking to stare without shame and make crude French jokes that I understand well enough to gag over.
One man, named Napoleon, (after the homemade hat he wore, day in and day out) took a particular shine to me. When my dad introduced us (like I was a debutante), Napoleon asked if I was married, and dad, who covets Napoleons’ trailer, stayed quiet. Smile nicely’ he told me, while Napoleon wrote down his phone number, ‘I might be able to do an exchange’.
Later, me clad in a 1970’s ski-knit belonging to dad’s 80-year-old friend, we went up the mountains, where French toddlers whizzed down black runs and trendy snowboarders smoked Gitanes in orange googles.
When I was a kid, skiing was for the rich, and we weren’t, and I have no desire to learn now because I know it’ll involve making an utter fool of myself. Instead, to celebrate her turning 70 I pushed my mother down the kid’s slope on a round sledge we found in the garage that was impossible to control. She came spinning down the middle, taking out kids left, right and centre, while their parents shouted ‘Zut Alors’. It looked so much fun I had a go myself, and then we stood watching people falling off the ski-lift. Later at home, we played ‘swearing scrabble’ and I ate baguette after baguette.
Saying goodbye was hard, as was trying to cram my handbag into my suitcase after being told ‘one piece of carry on luggage means one piece of carry on luggage’ by an Easy Jet Umpa Loompa.
Obviously, when I opened my suitcase, my tiny training bras and giant knickers all pinged out. Obviously, as I was going to see my parents, I’d packed my comfiest/ugliest underwear. Had I known I was going to show Gatwick my gussets I’d have dug out my best.
After trying and failing to zip up my case, I was forced to try and flirt my frizzy and frazzled way out the situation. ‘Ooh, you look nice and strong’ I cooed to a man near me, ‘would you like to come and sit on my suitcase’. ‘No, he wouldn’t’ his girlfriend said, before he could reply. She then stood watching me as I bounced up down on my ‘International Traveller’ swearing/sobbing.
All I wanted was a cup of tea, but I’d forgotten to retrieve my wallet, and I daren’t risk opening the suitcase of shame again, so I spent the flight watching the person next to me drink a cup of Clipper, just how I like it and eat a croque monsieur.
The husband refused to admit he struggled without me. I might have felt unwanted were it not for the constant stream of texts from my youngest daughter, claiming her heart was broken without me and that I was the sea and the stars and the sun. How I missed waking up to her face, her bluer than robin’s eggs-eggs blinking at me sleepily.
Being away from my children is an odd mix of arm-room and stomach-ache. When I finally got home, late and filled with longing, they were standing in arrivals, clad in jim-jams, smiles lighting up their faces like glow-worms. I wanted to leave them all over again, just to get another grin. Just to feel as magical and important as I did in that second, when they threw their arms round me and sniffed and snuffled my skin.
Do you ever feel like running away, selling up and out and leaving everything behind? I can’t decide if it would be an adventure or a failure.
It can’t happen either way. The older we get, the more tied down we become. Marriage, kids, schools, jobs, mortgages, friends. Blessings, but sometimes trappings.
I have this vision of me in a new place with a new name being a new person, but I don’t think it works like that. You take yourself with you wherever you go. Isn’t it irritating, don’t you sometimes want a day off from yourself?
All we can do is continue to self-improve, like DIY for the soul. I hate DIY. I start it and realise I’m a corner cutting, fair-weathered cowboy. I have this list of things I want to reinvent about myself, like Bruce Springsteen ‘I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face’ and that’s just the beginning. I want a Scottish accent and a taste for fine wine and seafood. I want to not grimace if I find a wet slice of tomato has found its way into my sandwich. I want to hate bread. I want to love greens as much as my tortoise does, rip Cavlo Nero and spring greens apart on my hands and knees.
I want to be able to speak French. I want to rewind time and become a teacher and be really good at it. I want to have never said I liked cleaning when I moved in with the husband. I want to be able to cook amazing meals from the crust of an old parmesan and tinned tuna. I want to write poetry that makes grown men cry and be able to do reverse park with one hand on the steering wheel, first time.
All these things are possible, anything is possible, the problem is me. I lay awake for so many hours at night thinking about my self-improvement that I’m too tired to do anything the next day.
Meanwhile the dog isn’t trained to drop the ball and the kids are shaky on times tables and the pantry is a hiding place for ‘things I cannot be bothered to find a proper home for’.
School got cancelled on Tuesday as the boiler burst. On a whim, my friend and I decided to take seven children into Brighton to the museum and Pavilion, where I tried so hard to give them a day of culture. We took them into the Egyptian room and taught them about scarab beetles. We looked at paintings and decided why we liked them. We looked at fashions through the ages. We looked at furniture and tea-pots.
We had a slightly awkward moment in the ‘sex change’ room, where a man donated everything from his pre-operation notes, to his breasts. They sat, floating and nipple-less in two glass Kilner jars, alongside his hospital gown and his anti-clotting socks (slightly worn).
My party squealed and claimed they were ‘disgusting’. I tried to explain, to seven children high on hot chocolate and an impromptu day off school, that there was nothing disgusting about the yellowing flaps of flesh. At all.
Hideously aware I was probably alongside many LBGTQ people, keen to lynch me if I said anything non-PC, I claimed they were ‘art’ and chivvied us along to learn about Minnie Turner, Brighton’s own Suffragette.
She ran a rest house for her fellow WSPU to recuperate in after a stay in prison and had herself had a stay in Holloway for breaking a Home Office window. I found this fascinating. My daughters claimed to need a wee.
Five hours and an overpriced cup of tea and slice of cake in the Pavilion later, we gave up and decided to go home.
As we stepped out of the museum shop, pencils and rubbers in hand, a man crawled past us. I can’t tell you why he was on his hands and knees, scouring the pavement for bits of metal, nor can I tell you why he was doing it with his trousers down round his knees and his crown jewels and buttocks hanging out.
Some of the children squealed. Some wanted to stand and stare. All of them wanted an explanation I couldn’t give them. My friend said, ‘He’s fallen on hard times’ and my youngest said ‘yes but why is he doing it with his willy out?’ I had nothing to offer her.
When we got home after an exhilarating bus drive, the husband was waiting. ‘Well girls’, he said ‘how did you get on?’. Forget the Nile and Millie and the Paintings and the Music room at the Pavilion, what did my children tell him about their day out? ‘Daddy, Daddy! we saw a man’s willy!’
In other news, it’s my mum’s 70th birthday this week. I’m going to France to see her. My brothers are not going, so I’m currently the favourite child.