“Promise me you won’t let them take me back into hospital,” you said. You had already been twice, two stays of one week each.
“I promise you,” I said.
The next morning, when I drove you to the doctors, I mounted the pavement to get as close as I could to the entrance because I didn’t think you could make the walk.
In the waiting room, people looked away.
“You’ve got to get straight to the hospital,” the Doctor said, shocked.
“No,” you said and you looked at me with those eyes.


I still feel wretched about it, three years down the line. Not as wretched as you, obviously, but fairly wretched.
We seemed to dance into the entire thing, unaware.
“I’m thinking of getting the snip,” you announced.
“Great!” I didn’t think twice. We have four children between us. I had heard it often enough: “If he didn’t want children, then he should have got a vasectomy.”
We didn’t want any more children, so he was getting a vasectomy.
You can’t say we weren’t logical people.

You had an appointment to request the procedure and then a stupid counseling one and I say stupid, because in retrospect it was. It was intent on evaluating our children, our marriage and the possibilities of reversals and not actually addressing the issue: what happens when a vasectomy is ballsed up.

“About 1 in 1,000 men experience pain afterward.”  The myths and realities of vasectomy. NY TIMES.COM.

I was breastfeeding the baby the morning you skipped off, gave me a kiss, making your faux-scared face. I remember thinking: Is it worth it? I’ll be menopausal in maybe seven, eight years, but I saw your snip as an act of love, for me, for our relationship. Besides who doesn’t like condom-free sex?

So you went. The Doctor said, “I only do this as like to keep my hand in the surgery side of things…” This sent tremors down your spine, but your pants were already off.
The Doctor cut a capillary and there was a lot of blood.
“There will be more swelling than normal,” the Doctor said.
“Meh,” you shrugged, telling me. “It should be fine.”
This was the beginning of our adventures in bollocks care.

“Following a vasectomy, complications are rare.” NHS choices website.
After two or three days, you were aching, worse than aching. You carried on working, walking to the station like a cowboy on ice. I insisted you saw another Doctor and you picked up your first round of antibiotics. So far, so normal, apparently – yes, an infection. Yes, very, very common.

Despite the drugs, you were still in pain. We tell ourselves, “It will get worse before it gets better.” It gets a lot worse and shows no sign of getting better. Days pass and you can’t sit down, you can’t stand up, you can’t even talk: everything is eclipsed by the world in your trousers.

At A and E, they put you on a drip and argue among themselves. One doctor estimates, “maybe three in ten vasectomies have ‘complications’. The surgeons are keen to get in there. “Resist,” the non -surgeons tell you. “Don’t let them cut you open again. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack ummm.”
“I won’t,” you say. “I just want to go home.”

Eventually, I am allowed to take you home. The speed bumps are killers.

“Ignore any scare stories that seem to be a favourite joke topic for some men.”

Two or three days pass and the pain gets worse again. This time, you’re even more reluctant to go back: you don’t want to be cut open by the scissor-happy surgeons, sniggered at by the nurses. You don’t want to lie there, depressed in air-tight wards with nothing to contemplate but lunch and jokey Finbar Saunders cards.

One night though, the pain is even worse. I offer to call the ambulance, half expecting you not to agree. But the pain is eviscerating and you do. The ambulance man makes sympathetic faces and offers you gas and air. For a crazy moment, I think Jesus, he couldn’t be, could he? You are crawling the walls. I know women who say about men dismissively, “they don’t know how it feels to give birth…” I saw then, that you did have an inkling.

Off you went, my darling, and I stayed home with the children. They were picking up the new language they hear me using on the phone or at the school gate: “What’s wrong with Daddy’s tentacles?” they ask. “What are swollen gonads?”

That second week in hospital is horrendous. You’re on morphine. You can’t sleep. Your neighbours groan all day long. I tout around for babysitters. When I manage to get in to see you, one nurse takes me aside, “Was the vasectomy your idea?”
“No,” I say.
“Thank God for that,” she says.
I think you would have forgiven me, but I don’t think I would have ever forgiven myself.

You come home. You’re ok for a few days and then…the agony begins again.
Once again, we try rationalising it away. Maybe its your pants. The weather. The way you are sitting. But its really bad. You decide to give up on state – you believe that the private system, a private consultant will cure you. We get an appointment for Monday morning. It is Thursday night. It is also Bonfire night and you are determined you aren’t going to go to the hospital with all the drunks and burns.

You develop a fever. You had been reading ‘Suite Francaise’: a World War Two book and you were delirious. Later you told me, you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. You thought nazis were coming. “Are the babies safe? Look after them,” you kept saying.
I called NHS direct. I told them you refused to come to hospital. I said you were cold but the house was boiling.
“What’s his temperature?”
I had lost the themometer.
“Pretty high?”
“Do not let him wear more layers.”
I go upstairs. Under the blankets, you are wearing a fleece, a jumper and a t.shirt. You are freezing: your teeth are chattering.
“Take that jumper off,” I say.
You won’t.
I called my sister. “Take him in tomorrow.”
“He won’t go.” I say.
“He will when it’s really bad,” she says.
“He’ll be dead when it’s really bad.”

You send me to the chemist for “anything that will stop it hurting.” I tell the pharmacist what’s happening. “You need to go back to the hospital,” she says. I buy some sudacreme. The children call it super cream. I pull back the covers to apply it. One of your testicles has swollen to about six times its size. The skin had to stretch so much to accommodate it, so that it was now cannon-ball black. I did not murmur. I did not flicker. I was an actress playing a nurse.
“It’s awfully…big,” I whispered.
I rushed downstairs to doctor google: I find gangrene and septacema.
I thought you were going to die in the night.

You won’t go to the hospital but you agree to the doctors, and I break my promise, of course I do. You want to go back home first and I am annoyed. I think you are going to resist or you just want to faff around but you say, “Just give me some time…”

So I drive home and an hour later, take you back to the hospital and you say, “Don’t bring in the children.” I leave you walking off to your new home, a stooped bandy legged figure. In three weeks you’ve aged thirty years. My broken hero and I have never loved you so much or been so frightened for you.

It was an abscess. The first nurse yelped, “Oh My God!” when she saw it. So the surgeons did get their moment in the sun – although they made you wait another day first, (a car accident jumped your queue).

We don’t just want you home anymore. We want to rewind back to the moment you skipped off to the Doctor who wanted “to keep his hand in.” We want to do it all over again. We want to not do it.

Over the next six weeks, you lie on the sofa and nurses whirl in and out daily to “pack the wound.” Oh, the indignity. I used to say, “there isn’t a health care worker in the area who hasn’t seen my bits.”
Now you can say, “snap.”

Over the next six months or so, your poor tired testicle gives up the ghost and painfully, dies. And you join that exceptional man in history: Hitler, although yours is not, so far as we know, in the Albert Hall. Your immune system is low, you catch everything going, your back is covered with spots and you contract MRSA. You’re out of balance now, jeans are out the question, you have a lop-sided gait and subsequently develop bad knees.

A friend’s husband goes for his vasectomy and he goes, gulp, to the same doctor.  And the same doctor tells them it only goes wrong if people take a bath or ride a horse, or do something ridiculous straight after.
I am furious.  You did absolutely nothing wrong.

In that terrible time of hospital visits and pain, I heard of men whose vasectomies had led to long term nightmares, of chronic pain, lost sex drives and other issues. But men are uncomfortable talking about it – it is embarrassing – and I feel uncomfortable even writing this, because we all want men to be more involved in contraception, right? And talking about vasectomy problems doesn’t fit in with the important message that men should take more care of their sexual health.

But it still needs airing.

We are part of a minority, we know that. But no one knows the numbers of people who are affected by post-vasectomy complications. Other friends go ahead and get snipped and it does all go well. We were just terribly unlucky. Half of me, thinks thank god for that, but the other half thinks, not fair, not fair, not fair.

Have party, have invitations, might have nervous breakdown

People like me shouldn’t throw parties. I’m far too fraught to be a host. But sadly if you want to make sure your kids will visit you in your twilight years then you need to throw a party for them every now and again.

Fortunately, Ray is miserable, like his father and me, (two negatives did not make a positive in his case) and he is satisfied with me taking him and his mates to the footy or the cinema. And up until now, Arnie and Mini had been content with family teas and shop-bought cake. Then, they started to go to different parties –  and they saw what was out there – and boom, Arnie was desperate for a “proper” party for his fifth birthday. Shiiittt.

Surprising, husband who has the social skills of a hedgehog agreed. “Yeah,” he said. “As long as the fuckers don’t come to our home and wreck it.”

So I got organised. I outsourced it, naturellement. I found a Venue, entertainer, and food. It worked out about £10 a head. That is important. Each child had better be good value. I decided on the magic number 12, which take away my own three kids, was nine guests.

“Who do you want to invite?” Arnie is in reception and since he didn’t go to the local play school, I hardly know a soul at the school.

Arnie didn’t know. He had no idea who his mates were. Not a scooby. I tried to remember everyone I had ever heard of. But the kids Arnie talks about most are those who have been under “the Black Cloud.” I only wanted kids from under “The Sunshine” at the party. (£10 a head, remember?!)

“How about Johny?”

“Yeah,” he said doubtfully.


“I don’t like Stan.”



I sent out the invitations giving them three weeks to reply. Standard, so I thought. I made Arnie sign the card thus giving him much needed writing practice – boy, I was getting good at this parenting thing.

The next day, Arnie came home looking glum.

“Jennifer,” he said with doe-eyes. “Amelia. Arthur. Jack.”

“You want to invite them too?”


“Well, you can’t. We’ve reached the limit.”

And that’s where it got complicated.

So I sent out nine invites. Did I hear back? Did I shit. Two, let us call them, two Sunshine parents, texted the next day. Yes, blah, blah, would be delighted to come.

The rest. Silence. Radio Silence.

Now, I suppose you are thinking, that’s no surprise, no one likes you, and you could be right, but these people didn’t even know me. Surely, you have to know me to not like me?

They might not like Arnie, and you could be right, but he’s quite a nice kid. If it were Mini, yeah, I’d understand, but Arnie’s pretty inoffensive, he has never, ever been under the black cloud and he did get seventeen Christmas cards which was more than the rest of the family put together.

The problem was I couldn’t be certain why they had not replied and indeed if they had not replied.

a. Did they even get the invites? They were merely stuffed into the book bag. Still, the teacher is quite on-it and the cards weren’t in bag. Surely, she did not bin them?

b. Did I write my own phone number incorrectly? Hmm unlikely.

c. Did they fail to copy my phone number into their phones? Possibly.

d. Are they just bastards at keeping in touch? Very likely. (Particularly Black Cloud Max’s mother.)

Fortunately, Private investigators managed to track down two mothers and I kettled them at the school gate, direct, bish, bash, bosh. “Are you coming or not?” Both were quite sheepish. “Oh, I thought I had replied.”

“Did you really?” I said, shining the torch in their eyes.

“Yes,” they said nervously. “Anyway, the answer is yes, please…blah blah would love to come.”

So we had four yes’s, but still that was only four out of the nine. I had paid £120 for this! So I gathered the c-list, friends of mine whose kids were approximately 5. Well, they ranged from 12 to 2, but that’s ok and I asked them to come. But that meant I still was in danger of going over the sacred twelve. Quelle horreur.

I blockaded one further parent at the school gate the Friday before, “Oh no, sorry,” she said, “Didn’t we let you know?” “No you didn’t.” “oh.”And on the morning of the party, two people sent texts. Nope, their kids weren’t coming. Worse, they proceeded to give me gumpfy excuses – involving grandparents and spa dates and the like. At this late date I didn’t bloody care. “Thank you,” I didn’t reply, “Had you let me known earlier I could have invited someone else.” (Which in fact I had done, but still…it’s the principle of the thing, dammit)

The party went well, Arnie and his friends, had a ball, and there were no major hiccups. Still, at pick up time, I was under my own black cloud of resentment still seething at the three late respondents and the two who had simply disappeared into the ether. Feckers.

As I complained to my sister, she asked me if I had let some mutual friends know whether I was coming to their engagement party or not.

“What? Oh well, I’ve been really busy organising this hoo-haa for Arnie.”

“You slack arse,” she said, cheerfully.


So these have been my new years resolutions.

a. Always reply to invitations promptly

b. Never, ever, throw a party again.

The worst thing that ever happened at Soft Play

I’m a veteran of soft play. First conscripted in 2003 when Ray was three, I’ve been serving time ever since.  The noise is terrible. The food is invariably crap. That’s if the staff bother to serve you. Mostly, they just take your money and forget your order. Occasionally, a new Soft Play will open with high hopes and big dreams but they always end up the same: a fight on the inflatables, a poo in the ball park, verruccas back home.  Your kids are whining all the time and hating it until ten minutes before the end when they have a massive volte face, decide they love, love, love it and it takes forty minutes to get them out and get on their shoes. And don’t even mention a soft play birthday party, when twenty parents you’ve never met before, dump their kids, and you have to bounce over to every six year old firing plastic missiles out of a tube, “Alfie, are you having chicken or burger? Oh, you’re not Alfie, ok. Who are you?”

A few years ago, when Ray was about six and Arnie was just a scrunched up woodland creature in a car seat, I took them and Grandad to our local soft play experience that is ‘Kiddy’s Kingdom’. Unlike Farmer Franks and Monkey World, this place aspires to be nothing else than what it is: trad soft play. Expensive and crap. Grandad carried Arnie in and parked him under the table and we sent Ray off under orders to have fun. Ray wasn’t too keen that day. I’m not surprised. His co-soft players looked like little terrorists in training. They all had shaved heads and earrings. No one, but no one, was wearing socks. And that was just in the baby area.

I got Grandad a milk shake and the foam gave him a jovial pink moustache. I got some crisps and settled down with a newspaper. Soft Play is not so bad, I decided, when you’ve got someone to share it with, especially someone who gets up every few minutes to check the children still have their limbs intact.

“Where’s Ray?” Grandad kept asking anxiously, peering into the Soft Play gloom.

“Meh, don’t worry,” I said, meaning if you’re that bothered, go and look.  He did go and look, which was great of him, he had a bit of a bounce, then came back. “It’s alright,” he said, “Ray knows how to have a good time.”

Just then, his phone went. He answered and I could hear a woman’s voice. He walked off over to the yellow counter where the teenagers were busily ignoring customers from behind the deep fat fryer. I think, eh, what’s he doing?

He comes back. All cool I ask across the tarpaulin table, “Who was that then?”

“Oh,” he says, a little flustered. “Yvonne.”

“Who’s she.”

“A friend,” he says.

“She’s got a funny voice…” I say, fishing.

“She’s got no teeth,” he says cheerfully.

“Oh!” I am surprised. She didn’t sound old on the phone. “How old is she?”

“Mid thirties.” Bout my age?

“Oh. And she’s your friend?”

He smirked. “Kind of,”


“Oh Ruth,” he said. “Don’t be such a prude. She’s very open minded” he added – Open-minded being something I couldn’t possibly be accused of. 

“She’d have to be!” I hissed. “Eurghhh.”

I don’t know what was more horrifying. The fact that his ‘friend’ was the same age as me, the fact that she had no teeth, the fact that she was, in quotes, open-minded – or the fact that he was telling me this, now, in Soft Play. I didn’t throw up – not that it would have made much difference to the general ambiance – but I wanted to. I was as unsteady as if I were dashing across the inflatables with a kid with a nose bleed under one arm and everyone’s shoes under another.

Then Ray came over crying. A big kid had pushed him over Jelly Mountain. Grandad was furious. “Where is this big kid?” but Ray said “It’s ok, Grandad.” He wanted some of my crisps.  “No,” I said furiously. I was fed up with everyone else having a bloody good time. “We’re going home. Where are your socks?”

So we left Kiddies Kingdom and I never, ever managed to go back.

Lovely little Bear

Little C,  still with his milk spots, puckered lips and just a hint of ventouse comes to visit.

One month old, he is my husband’s son’s son.

Are we used to being grandparents yet? Not really. We had been anticipating a pregnancy for two or three years, but still. When I tell people, their expressions remind me that it is unusual.

“You’re 42? Wow. You were a young father,” they say to husband.

“It wasn’t exactly planned,” husband says, encapsulating twenty difficult years of fatherhood first time around.

“Wow, it must be weird to be a Grandad.”

“Not as weird as it is to sleep with one,” I say.

It is weird. I went from geriatric mother to nana in two and a half years.

Husband -or Grandpa as he now is – is a natural with babies. He is employed to wind Little C. I watch him, rubbing little C’s back, the baby’s chin is cupped in husband’s big hands. I feel emotional. Our baby days are over. A jealousy that I’ve never felt before, sneaks up at me, at this baby that is not ours, but his.

Husband wants me to hold him. I’m not sure why. Maybe he is concerned that his son and his girlfriend will have noticed my reticence. This isn’t our first meeting, little C and I.  I have cooed at him in the hospital and I have taken one hundred photos of him at his home. And he has visited us once before, on boxing day, when I dashed for water to heat up his bottle and I have admired his outfits and collected some old outfits of Arnie’s, but I haven’t held him yet.

It is our fourth date – physical contact is long overdue.

I’m no baby whisperer. I prefer babies when they are less fragile, like when they are eleven or something. I don’t know what to do with them when they cry other than to offer them the breast.  And they always cry with me, I think they know I am scared of them.

When she was pregnant, step-son’s girlfriend asked what I would like to be called, and I said, “well, there are two other women in front of me, let them go first.” It looked like politeness but I think really, it was something else. Not an age thing but an unease. I was never really a living breathing ‘step-mother’. Husband and I met when step-son was fifteen. He didn’t live with us and he didn’t need an extra mother. But now, I’m a step-grandma. And I am just emerging from the nappy and milky way of life with my own children, that I don’t think I have the capacity to do all that for someone else’s baby.

I sit carefully on the sofa and arrange myself first – like you do when you are preparing young children for their first hold – and then carefully, reverentially, husband passes me Little C. His Grandson. His blood. I mustn’t drop him. I feel this more strongly even than I did with my own babies. Little C stares at me and I stare back into his dark blue eyes and wonder what he sees.

He is lovely, little C, little fat mittens, waving and scratching out the past and giving us hope for the future.

A Broken Nail and A First Marriage

The consultant examines Ray’s fingernail.

“I’m going to have to take it off,” he says. “I’m unhappy doing it, because it looks like a good nail, a young nail, but it’s split right down the middle here, and if I don’t get it out the infection will get worse.”

“Do it,” I say as Ray gulps and shuts his eyes.


This is what happened. Two days ago, Ray got home from school. “My finger hurts.”

“Did you have lunch?”

“Ow, it really hurts.”

“What happened?” I asked grudgingly.

“Don’t remember,” he said. “Maybe I banged it on the locker.”
I gave the finger a cursory look, and handed him some ibuprofen.

By eight that evening, the kid was in agony. I was still inclined to “let it sort itself out”, a medical philosophy that has failed me on a number of times – but husband, being the more proactive one, said “you had better get to A and E.”

And so commenced the night of the short nails.

As usual, A and E was packed with people who appeared radiant and in rude health.  There was this one guy who kept looking at us and it turned out he was the dad of Ray’s school friend. It’s rude to ask “what are you doing here?” but I did so anyway, and he too appeared to be suffering a problem that was neither accident nor emergency, but hey.

After about two hours, I called Ray’s dad. I was thinking, he has a right to know. If this was happening on a night Ray was with him, then I’d want to know. I was also thinking, I’m bored. I wonder, if he comes, will I be able to go home?

If he was not entirely delighted at my nine o’clock call, then he did not bother to conceal it. Not at all.

“At the hospital? For a finger nail?”

“My thoughts entirely,” I smirked. “But it looks quite painful.” I added. By now, Ray was writhing around, squirming in his seat, and asking for milkshake.

“Well, it might be broken,” I exaggerated to up the ante. “We need an x-ray!”

At half past ten, Ray’s Dad came along with a flask of tea and some rice-cakes. The tea was great but the rice-cakes were disappointing. Ray got x-rayed, his finger was not broken, however, it was a ball of diabolical green puss. A Doctor drained it, that is, she stuck a pin in it, and loads of stuff oozed out, and we made an appointment for the consultant the following day.

“Thanks for coming,” I said to Ray’s dad.

“No worries,” he said and disappeared into the night.


First, they freeze Ray’s finger, then when its swollen up, they get out the instruments of torture. I become like a performing chimp in front of a Doctor, any Doctor.  I can’t help myself. “Ooh, do you think you’ll be able to play the piano now?”

The nail is leveraged off. Its as violent as it sounds and there is blood everywhere.

“Will it grow back?”

The consultant shrugs. “50-50?”

Ray is in shock. After the ‘amputation’, I text his dad and he replies. “Poor thing. Give him lots of love from me and S.”

Once upon a time, Ray’s Dad and I were split down the middle, and in pain.  The marriage had to end and new, hopefully strong, relationships have grown in its place.   As we walk to the hospital car-park, I put my arm around my beautiful, if nail-less son and feel lucky for our ‘broken family’.

I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you

Most weekends, I schlep children around between softplay establishments and football matches. I contact their friends’ parents to accept their invites and take them to where they need to go.  Husband says, “They have a better social life than us,” and so it is with Dad.

Twice a week, HomeCove court hold coffee mornings that Dad must be reminded to attend. These have not been an unqualified success: the last turned out to be a fashion demonstration and Dad left in a huff: “I didn’t want them to think I was a pervert”. The week before was better: a music quiz which his group won. “Only sweets,” he said.  “What did you expect?” Then there is the once a month party. He went last Saturday: “I only danced once,” he said. “I chatted to a deformed lady but she’s very nice.” He’s got a way with words, my Dad.

Yesterday, there was mince pies and carols. I also called to arrange for his lunch at another day care centre on Friday. I have given myself the prestigious title I always wanted at university: Entertainments Officer. There are no hip bands to show around the union, but ‘Pauly B’ will apparently be playing on the keyboards on throughout the afternoon and Dad says he’s so good he can’t understand what he’s doing there.

I take Dad shopping to Aldi and he tells me what else has been going on in his new home:

Last week, he fell out of his bed. He looked for his mobile phone in the darkness – couldn’t find it. The emergency cords were nowhere to be seen. He crawled to his front door, hammered on it, made a hell of a noise. A neighbour he’d never met before, came.  The kind neighbour, for this was two am after all, tried to pick him up, but fell down himself. It’s like some nightmare vision of a dystopian future, isn’t it? Or as Mini would say, there were two old men on the floor “Rolled over”.

Someone, Dad isn’t sure who, called an ambulance. The ambulance people were really nice and set them both upright again.

“Oh dear,” I say, “but why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Dad says. He pauses at the chilled counter looking for profiteroles. “Why don’t you wear your glasses, Dad?” I ask. “Oh yes,” he says like I’ve invented cheesecake, “Do you think that would help?”

Then he says, a couple of days ago, he got up, he felt a bit chilly and decided to, how do we say, warm his cold morning arse against the storage heater. Bad move. The result was a burnt bottom.

“You should have told me!”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you,” Dad repeats the party-line. And it is this, more than his dilly dallying over the trifles that I find irritating. I wonder what he thinks happens when I am worried.  Is my worry something no person should face? The thing is, I’ve heard it before, or rather not heard it before. Dad had his first heart attack just before I had Ray. No one told me.  We didn’t want to worry you. It makes you feel bad when you find out you have been gaily getting on with things when all is not well.  It makes you feel stupid. We go back to Dad’s flat, I unpack the desserts and the rest of the shopping, then go home.

I am still annoyed. As prestigious entertainment officer, surely I have a right to know?

My sister is in charge of health and cleaning.  Every week, she packs his tablets into the big tablet dispenser so he can take them easily three times a day. She takes her hoover to his flat, hoovers, then takes it back. She washes up. And she listens to Dad. He tells her everything.Why won’t he tell me?

This evening, I am still annoyed. I lie on the sofa, eating mince pies, I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you, I think, hmm. How very patronizing. But then, my sister texts to say she is just applying cream to Dad’s blistered bum and I have a sudden and powerful revelation: there are some advantages.

My daughter, the shepherd

The playschool that Mini goes to is pretty progressive, so it isn’t surprising that in early December, they cheerfully greet me at home time with: “We’re letting the children pick their own parts in the nativity this year.”

Cool – I think. More chance of getting a good role.

Mini rushes over to me: “Mum, mum, guess what I’m gonna be?”

I’ve already got the smile poised on my lips. “You tell me, darling!” A queue of equally keen mothers is building up behind me.

“I’m gonna be a shepherd,” she squeaks and to show how excited she is, she does a rolypoly in the centre of the hall.

For f*** s***, I think. “Really, you actually chose that?” I say.

Her little blond mate, Ruby, runs over, “I’m Mary,” and out the corner of my eye, I see Ruby’s mum trying to do proud and humble at the same time.

“Oh yeah?” I scowl. “What about you, Alfie?” I say to Mini’s mate.  “What did you chose?”

“I’m baby Jesus,” he says grinning.

“O-kay. And you, Levi?”

“I’m batman.”

I am underwhelmed. This is not my first nativity: I’ve been to so many, I feel as though I’ve been going to them for two thousand years. I have been to more nativities than most people have had hot dinners, and yet, and yet, not once have I or any of my children had an A-list role.

“Its not about you though, is it?” says husband, the voice of reason, (befitting the one who was type-cast as the Inn Keeper – “No, you can’t bloody come in/park there/buy that”, etc etc.)

“We should be proud that she’s an independent thinker,” he continues. “You know Mini. She does what she wants, always has, always will.”

“Oh,” I say, “so are you coming to watch then?

“Not sure,” he says, “things are really busy at work.”

He would have come if she were Mary!

Thing is, it is kind of about me. Firstly, like me, Mini would have made a lovely Mary.  She’s got a real why-is-this-happening-to-me look about her. And the other thing is, there’s something a bit fortune cookie about the nativity selection process.  See, I have a theory that the what you play in the Christmas play is a big indicator on how you are going to turn out in the end. It’s like there is nature, nurture and nativity. And no one knows for some which one dominates the most.

All Marys grow up to be head girl, attend a Russel Group university and become directors of companies in the FTSE 500.

Josephs do similarly well except for a couple of ‘messy’ years (trust issues) in their thirties.

Narrators: Law or Media.

Angels: well, they have masses of potential – super talented – in art, politics, writing or music yet in their teens waste their energy on boys or alcohol and end up working for the council or as unwitting stay at home mothers. (Hard to believe, isn’t it, but I was fifth angel from the back. They had run out of halos for the evening performance too).

Angel Gabriels, or as they are usually known, the tallest kids in the year, always emigrate. I don’t know why but they do.

The Kings. They do all right. Lot of small business owners among them. Opticians. Estate Agents. Ray was a king, of course he was, all the mixed race kids are kings. Arnie was a king too last year, one of seven. That surprised me. I thought I had another inn-keeper on my hands. I’ve still got the cape and the crown for this years. Happy Days.

But Shepherds?  Nah. Shepherds come to nothing. Everything is a struggle with shepherds from getting the tea-towel to stay fixed to their head to getting a mortgage.

It’s a shame, there were no consultant obstetricians in Bethlehem. I would have liked Mini to be one of those.

At bedtime, I tuck Mimi in, and say, “so you’re a shepherd, are you Mini?”


And I recognise this feeling. It’s the same I had when Ray, my little Lionel Messi, told me that he hadn’t been picked for the football ‘A’ team, nor the ‘B’ team, nor even the ‘C’ team but he could be ‘C’ reserve, if he liked. And it’s the same feeling, I had when at the Christmas bazaar just the other day, Arnie decided the only jar of sweets he could possibly buy was the very one we had donated the afternoon before. It is disappointment and it is stupid and redundant because Mini isn’t, Arnie wasn’t and even Ray isn’t, now that that he has decided to become a professional Mine-craft player.

And I know what I need for Christmas is a bit more compassion, a bit more empathy. I snuggle up to my girl.

“Why did you chose to be a shepherd, Min?”

“So I look after the sheep,” she says delightedly. Her cheeks are flushed with excitement, my gorgeous animal-loving non-starry daughter. She has the same bright eyed expression she had when I gave her the Power Ranger advent calender and I think, darling, you be whoever you want to be.

Then I go downstairs, open Arnie’s book-bag and see a letter. It is the first Nativity at big school and Arnie must wear a plain, neutral top and grey trousers. This year, my son is ….

A camel.

The secret to a happy marriage

When people ask me: “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?” – oh ok, actually no one ever has. No one ever would, it’s a ludicrous idea, but let’s suspend disbelief for one moment and pretend they did. I would reply, “It’s no secret why I have a happy marriage (and by happy marriage I mean we are not divorced) it’s because of Stefka, the cleaner.”

The main reason we have a Stefka is that my husband is an uptight arse. He is off the scale of uptight arse-ness. For example, he thinks letters (bills) need to be opened straight away whereas I think they have to be left alone, to fester on various surfaces for a while. Only once they have become a familiar sight, do I feel able to attack them. I eat a lot of biscuits too and I think it’s my right to eat them anywhere. In bed, in the children’s beds, and most importantly over the computer keyboard. He thinks this is “messy” and he always knows I have been at the biscuits, even when I deny it, by the crumbs around my face. (I hate wiping my face because then my make-up will come off.) You can imagine how he felt having Dad to stay. My Dad makes Catweazel appear well-groomed. My Dad’s idea of washing up a cup is to add another tea-bag.

So husband and I are basically very incompatible. The first secret of a happy marriage is to marry someone compatible, so this is very bad news.

The second secret though, is that there are then several options. Give up now – (my usual preference), grind the other person down, (husband’s usual preference) or throw money at the problem (husband’s second preference)

Three years ago, we went the way of husband’s second preference.

Unlike most compromises, Stefka is fab. Once every two weeks, she does all the jobs in the house that I don’t like: short of opening the bills and wiping my face. Oh and she won’t fellate husband. Not for £8 an hour she won’t. But she will iron, dust, wipe and hoover. Husband is happy we don’t live in a, as he puts it, “a shit-hole”, and I am happy because, “what’s not to like?”

On the other hand, I don’t want people to think I’m completely lazy so I don’t actually tell anyone about the cleaner. To get round this, I say, “Oh Steff is over this morning,” and my friends are too well-mannered to ask, “Who’s that?” And if anyone comes over on a Wednesday afternoon after ‘Steff’ had visited, (and that is the only time I ask people around), and if they say, “Cor, it looks tidy here,” I say, “Oh really,” and wave my hand about a bit. “do you think so?”

Is that bad?

I think it is.

As for the fact that having a cleaner is a middle-class identifier. Bring it on. Just as many people feel like a slim woman trapped in a large body, I have always felt like a middle-class girl trapped in a working class world. When I was working at Romford market as a kid, I would dream I was at Mallory Towers:  Am I going to object to a cleaner on class-grounds? Hell, no.  I have already had to give up pilates so we can have her.  I’m the kind of person who walks round Waitrose going: “yes, I’ve arrived,” even if I can only afford a tin of soup.

Stefka loves the children most of the time. She gets annoyed, disproportionately, when they swap clothes and toys. “It’s for GIRLS,” she says furiously to Arnie in a princess dress. “It’s not good for you.” When Mini plays with her cars, she whips them away into the toy box: “You want to hoover now, Mini?”*

And when Ray went to the woods on a school trip, she said, “It’s very good for him. How many weeks he stay there? He make his food in the wild?””Um , no Stefka, just the morning. He’s got a packed lunch.”

Every other Wednesday night, me and husband hunker down in our gloriously tidy living room and he says, “What did Stefka say today?” And I repeat some funny little Stefka-ism. And we laugh and laugh: See, Stefka isn’t just cleaning the house: she bring us together in so many ways! She’s like a fairy godmother or a dating agency or something. Husband calls her Kafka and says that one day she will turn me into a giant cockroach.

When Stefka first came to us, she would bitch about the other people she worked for.  There was the one who lived in the middle of nowhere who made her walk miles through the dark to get to her. There was the woman who wanted her immaculate house cleaned five times a week despite having no children to mess it up – yes really. There was the one who was always late back from the gym, leaving Stefka shivering at the front door.

Recently though, she seems to have ditched the rubbish families and only has “nice” ones left. She tells me about them: “Jane over-pays me. She insists I take the extra £20 every time.”  Or “Louise gives me a lift. Even though it’s a fifty mile round trip, she does it.” Or “Mrs Brown made me dinner. She is a wonderful cooker.”

“Cook,” I say, mutinously, because one time, Stefka asked me to help her with her English. “Mrs Brown is quite a good cook.”

I’ve got a bad feeling that our cleaner is going to dump us. That, or she’s going to ask for a pay-rise.  And then I panic, eat more biscuits, because there are three of us in this marriage and that’s they way we like it. Then I look for the number for Relate.

The End

*If, like me, you think the secret to a happy childhood is to let boys and girls play with any toys they like and if you are unimpressed with the way some stores are marketing their toys along gender lines, then please support this brand new campaign.

This wedding dress

My sister brings Dad over for dinner.  She is exhausted from clearing out his old flat.  She is carrying a large cardboard box that has ‘Paid: £4.99’ scribbled on the lid.

“I thought you’d like this,” she says. I open it straight away, still in the hall.

It’s Mum’s wedding dress. It’s creamy white, beautiful. I had no idea it was still around. I gently peel the tissue wrapping away. I feel like I am nursing a sick bird and I’m frightened I will break its wings. I unfold the dress and hold it up. Dad says, “Brings tears to my eyes that does.” Mini shouts, “I love you, mummy,” as she shoots past on the way to Scooby Doo on telly.

I never dreamed about dresses or weddings. I was a jeans and tank top girl with a homemade fringe. and every time a Wedding Invitation appeared on the mat I would groan. Weddings were places to be kissed by old ladies with moustaches or to eat salty food stuff I didn’t know the name of. But family parties were always like that, and I enjoyed them well enough. My ambivalence about weddings ran deeper. Even when I was only seven or eight, I couldn’t understand the big deal.  I loved my cousins and my babysitters, or whoever the bride was, but on their wedding day, they seemed to shrink in front of me. I would look at the groom and puzzle: why on earth was she marrying this one? Afterwards, the brides said it was the happiest day of their lives, but I was never convinced. I mean, if it were, would they really need to say it?

But this, this is a different wedding, a different dress.

It is long, so long, I have to hold it high over my head to get the full sense of it. Mum was much taller than me, and there is a train too. I am amazed it fitted in this box. It is made from a heavy cotton. I think it’s nothing like my wedding dress was but in some ways it is: It’s a dress that holds together two contradictory states perfectly: don’t look at me, but also, oh but if you must, you will see, I am, umm, classic and elegant?

Mum and Dad married early in 1963. So, after the Cuban Missile Crisis – The world came close to annihilation – wouldn’t that weaken your defences? and before JFK was shot. Mum was four months pregnant with my sister at the time. The families didn’t know, or at least, no one admitted they knew. The dress played an important part in the concealment. I know the facts about the day – The Cumberland Suite, chicken and potatoes – but I don’t know Mum’s feelings. I don’t know the answers to the questions: Were you in love? What kind of marriage was it? Did you have to fold yourself into something small to fit?

I take the box upstairs and put it under my bed. I wonder when I will take it out again. I find it hard to look at. It is one of the few things of Mum that we have left.

It seems hard to imagine that if it weren’t for her in that dress, that day, everything would be different.

Husband comes up and asks if I’m ok. I feel as though I am expected to say this, rather than actually feeling it, but I go: “Maybe my nieces or Mini will wear this one day.” I can’t imagine.

“Or Ray or Arnie?”

It is his little joke. Ha, I say and we go downstairs and have dinner.

Saturday night out at Homecove court

There are about fifty armchairs arranged in a circle, about forty women and only five or six men. Dad, Mini and I hesitate at the door. It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday night, it’s Homecove court’s monthly meet up in the communal lounge and it’s Dad’s first time which is why I’m accompanying him.  The sign in the foyer said to bring drink and nibbles. Dad’s contribution to the party is a half bottle of flat lemonade. I am relieved he hasn’t attempted nibbles. I have brought along a box of Milk Tray which reminds me of men in balaclavas. I hope the ladies will love Milk Tray. In his flat, before we came, Dad had said, “Gawd, blimey, Milk Tray? That’s too much!”

There is one small sofa in the room unoccupied and I throw Mini on it and grab the adjacent armchair for Dad.  A man behind a massive organ/keyboard/CD-deck thing is playing war-time songs really loud. He is one of Homecove court’s three managers and resident Dee-Jay. I am glad I have Mini for my entertainment. I make her take around the Milk Tray. I promise she can have one herself after. I hope people are thinking she is cute and not, what are these people doing here? They are not over 55!

“Is it someone’s birthday?” One lady asks kindly. She has a big, gummy smile.

“My Dad has just moved in.”

“Wonderful!” She tells her friends and they nod at each other and laugh.

I prod Mini to keep going. “Offer them around. To everyone. Yes, him too.”

One lady drops her chocolate. I wait for her to pick it up, and then notice her hands are shaking too much and she can’t bend. The chocolate has rolled under her chair though. I can’t get down there. I say, “Oh dear,” and when she refuses a replacement, I shove Mini to the next person.

We’ll meet again is playing. Dad says to me, “I bet you don’t know this.”

“Course I do,” I snap. He starts talking to his neighbours. Then he turns back to me. “This is Joan and Harry.”

“Hello Joan, Hello Harry,” I say.

When they turn away, he whispers, “They are not a couple though.”

“Oh, ok,” I say, “and?”

Mini loops the room once again with our chocolate ice-breakers to sounds from the 1950’s. The same people say yes. The same people say no. The same people ignore us.

One woman asks me. “Where’s your dads flat?”

“Seventh floor,” I say. Am I expected to say the number?

“At the front or at the back?” she asks, her hand on my wrist.

“The back.” She loses interest. I think it’s because Dad has no sea-views.

One of the men takes a chocolate. He says to Mini. “Look!” A quick sleight of the hand and the chocolate disappears. Mini and I are spell bound. Wow! Then he produces it from her ear. She is so young that she almost doesn’t know how odd that is.

I say, “that’s great!” and he winks. “Thank you.”

The dee-jay puts on some 60’s music: Like a bouncing ball, I’ll come bouncing back to you.

A group of four women get up and to my surprise, they start dancing. Not in my wildest dreams, did I imagine there would be dancing. Mini gets up and starts twirling around too.

The woman next to me chats. As Dad would say, “boy, she can chat!’ She is an outsider too. Her sister though, has lived here for 17 years – since she was 60.  I want to say she doesn’t look a day over 75.

Dad grins at me. “I’m going to dance.”

“Really?” I say incredulously, I mean what about me?

“Are you coming?”

The idea of dancing fills me with horror.  I am back, thirteen, at the school disco and wanting to cry.

“What about your knee?” I hiss. Don’t abandon me.

He says, “it’s only shuffling.” Sheesh.

He gets up and joins the ladies but just as he does so, a six foot tall smart Grandad comes in to the room, and there is a veritable frisson among the dancers as he takes to the floor.  Alpha Grandad has working knees and hips and he knows all the steps. I worry for Dad – he has never looked smaller – but what Dad lacks in height he makes up for in thick skin – he shuffles away happily unaware of the Adonis in his midst.  Then, Mini joins them and I am scared she is going to trip people over, although if she trips over Alpha Grandad that won’t be so bad.  She does roly polys in the centre of the floor. I feel too self-conscious to move and wonder what’s the matter with me – the only middle-ager in the room – I am both too old and too young to join in.

At the end of the song, Dad sits, a bit puffed: “Did you see? They loved dancing with me.”

“With the other fella, you mean!” I say, but he claims he didn’t notice him. Mr Dee-Jay puts on some music, from the 70s now, and a few more ladies take to the floor. Alpha Grandad busts some moves. He looks like a pudding in a plum, plum, plum.

Harry and Jean have fallen asleep in their armchairs and Harry is snoring gently. (They are not a couple though) It is 8.30 pm.

My neighbour, however is neither dancer, nor sleeper, and she is talking again. She has to shout for me to hear her and I have to shout back.  I think she says she loves whist and bingo nights. Or maybe she wishes there were more rubbish collections.  I bellow, “this is great fun, isn’t it!” I watch Mini cavort around unselfconsciously. It is a gift to be that uninhibited.  Even so, I wish I hadn’t let her dress herself today. In her brown trousers and bulky cardigan, she looks like a spherical something from the Milk Tray box.

“And everyone here is very nice?” I enquire loudly as the music moves on to the 1980’s. What an original dee-jay!

“Oh yes. See that woman,” my neighbour shouts, pointing to the loveliest lady of all, the one who pulled her friend with the shaky hands out her chair when she couldn’t lever herself up. I think she looks like my mum might have done.”When she first came here, she cried all day long and wouldn’t even leave her room. Her husband had just died and she missed her family so much. Now look at her.”

I do. Suddenly, I find the sight of this smiling woman who after so much pain is dancing her heart out to Abba, so beautiful that momentarily I am lost for words.