On children’s writing

Mini can now write the ‘M’ for Mini. She scrawls M’s across pages and trails them around the house. She calls them dragons teeth. They look like mountain ranges. They are strong and in control like her. Me and husband make impressed faces at each other. This is great but it’s also unfortunate, because Arnie, who is 16 months older, can’t write yet. Well, his ‘A’s’ are like, Um, I dunno what they are like. They are not like A’s that’s for sure.  At 12, Ray has no problems with his writing and never did.  It’s all, “how long does it have to be?” with him.  His French teacher marks him down for poor presentation and he is outraged. “You should see his writing!”

Arnie is left-handed too. Grandad didn’t realise, and the other day, even after he had realised, he still tried to get him to use his right hand. I told him, “Dad, we don’t do it like that anymore.” But neither of Arnie’s hands works well yet. It’s odd to have a left-hander in the family. It’s like a little cuckoo in our nest. We don’t understand the genetics. I remember how he came out of me, one arm aloft, like superman. Perhaps that’s what did it after all.

When I watch him trying, I think how frustrating writing is. I too am struggling – makes no difference which hand I use – everything I write comes out wrong. What I imagine is so very different from the final result.

I am writing a children’s story for the Mumsnet Walker Bedtime stories competition. I think of all the children’s books I have dismissed over the years and think, hmm, this is much harder than it looks. The first time I started to read my story to Mini she slid off the sofa and said “Boring, I want to watch telly.” She wouldn’t come back and I thought holding her down to read it would probably go against the spirit of the thing. The problem is, it’s about a little boy called Arnie. Who wouldn’t be annoyed if the eponymous hero was your brother? Sibling rivalry will have clouded her judgement. Next time, I decide to tell her the same story but with her name instead. She sits through it, correcting the name-change when I forget, and sneaking envious glances at her toys.

I think, I hope the judges are more discerning than you, Mini, which yes, also spectacularly misses the point. Husband says kindly, it’s because there aren’t any pictures. Hmm.

Sweet Arnie listens all the way through, of course he does. He is definitely awake too: I watch his greeny, brown eyes blinking at the screen. He says, “That was nice, mummy.” The boy can’t write to save his life but he has empathy in spades.

Grandad is flying the nest

My niece was bewildered by the plastic key sets she received from elderly relatives for her 21st Birthday.

“What is all this?” she asked.

“They’re symbolic keys. It means you’re old enough to have a key to your own place.”

“Oh? 21? I’ve had a key for years.”

Her expression said I would have preferred money.

My expression agreed, you’re not wrong there.

At the weekend, Arnie, Ray and Mimi go off with reluctant husband to their swimming and Dad and I set off to the estate agent to get the key to his new flat. He’s old enough to have a key to his own place. As we get in the car, my heart is light. The oldest child is leaving home. Sure, there will be washing, cooking and back for the holidays, but I am not too anxious. My hope is that Dad makes lots of new friends and remembers to take all his drugs. Perhaps he’ll find a nice girlfriend?

It’s the lovely estate agent Katy again. She greets us as faamily, tells us how wonderful the flat is and produces piles of paperwork that Dad must sign a billion times. He declares loudly that there is too much and I whisper back, “it’s normal.” Even louder he says that the deposit seems very high, much higher than he thought, and I hiss, “It’s what we agreed,” and Katy shrugs. “Oh, that’s standard.”

I remember that while I have rented perhaps ten different properties since I was nineteen this is Dad’s first time. He left his parents home in his early twenties and went straight into his own property. It only cost the price of a button or something. Times have changed.

I watch him scrawl his name on the endless forms next to the crosses. I can do Dad’s signature. When we were kids, he thought it was funny to get us to sign his cheques. I spent many a happy hour improving my forgery.

“Ok, now the money,” smiles Katy but not before she’s offered to move in with Dad.

“I’ve got my cheque book,” says Dad.

“We don’t take cheques,” says Katy as though Arnie has offered her one of his pre-chewed bogies.  I think her being my step-mother is looking unlikely. Then she says brightly, “how about a card?”

“I don’t have a card.”

My Dad is a dinosaur. I can hear husband’s gentle and encouraging voice in my head and he is saying: you idiot.

The first bank I drive to is shut. The next one is shut. It’s Saturday. Most banks are shut. I do what I should have done twenty minutes ago and google it. There is one open about thirty minutes away. Dad says, “Why does everything go wrong?” and I think ah, so this is where I get my quick-to-dishearten spirit from.

I pull up on the double yellow next to the side door of the only bank open on a Saturday. Dad struggles out the car into the road. I text husband who, while a hands-on father, is only hands-on with all three children for a limited period. “Sorry darling. Had to go to bank.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I realise Dad has not crossed the road to the bank. Instead, he is wandering in the other direction towards the high street, where the streets are paved with chewing gum and you are some kind of wuss if your dog is not a massive illegal breed.

“Dad,” I holler. I can’t leave the car because I’ll get a ticket. The traffic wardens are on commission round here. “This way.” I gesture wildly. I parked right outside the bank. Why has he not gone into the bank? Is it merely a symbolic bank?

He doesn’t hear. I shout. I shout again. People are looking at me. Finally, I leave the car and run towards him, clenching madly, and shout from there. He stops in the middle of the road. He cups his hand to his ear. “Wha-at?” A line of cars rev furiously behind him. The hooting commences. I imagine the massive illegal dogs in the back of the cars frothing.

“Wrong way!”

He comes back and tells me he doesn’t see so good. “Why don’t you wear your glasses then?”

“Oh yeah,” he says. So he sets off, once again, to the bank that I had parked next to.

When he comes out, he is as smug as if he has produced a rabbit from a hat. He has just found out something amazing: The bank gives you money! It’s not just buttons.

“I’ve got £500,” he shouts.

“Eh,” I can hardly speak for my frothing. “You need £700.”

“Big S owes me £200,” he says.

I groan. I don’t trust Big S. And the reason I don’t is because Dad has told me repeatedly that this he is untrustworthy.

For fucks sake.

We haven’t got Big S’s number, naturally, so we have to ring up Big S’s friend first. When we eventually get through, Big S tells Dad he’s got flu but if we go and meet him, (twenty minutes in the other direction) he’ll have the money. Its all him doing us a favour.

“What are we going to do?” says Dad, a man in despair. “It’s all going wrong. I’m going to lose this flat, aren’t I?”

Husband texts me. “When you coming home?” I want to text back: ‘stop being Asda-dad’, but I write: ‘Nearly done.’

We are NOT going to lose the flat. I drive to the meeting point. I tell myself this is normal and this is standard.  Sneezing, Big S hands over the money and I feel it would be churlish to check the notes in front of him. Not with all the flu germs on. Not with his dog looking at me like that. Husband will kill me if I get killed.

Finally, we go back to the estate agency to see what Katy does next. The money is handed over. Big fluey S has done us proud. We shake hands. We get the key. The key to the door. The nest is emptying. Out in the big wide world, we are 21 again.

Our song

Over half-term, husband, kids and I visit the in-laws. I like going there. They are, what my Grandma would say, “Very English people.” Nothing fazes them. Their home feels steady, safe and paid for. They keep chickens too so we get to take fresh eggs home.  This is great because Arnie has decided he will eat egg if it is scrambled with a touch of pepper thus, in one swoop, we have doubled his food repertoire by 100%.

The in-laws ask us if we are doing anything for our upcoming second anniversary and husband and I laugh guiltily because we have both forgotten it. How could I have forgotten it? This time two years ago I was as miserable as sin, fraught with anxiety and arguing with husband-to-be twice daily.

One of the many bones of contention before the wedding, apart from the obvious ones such as: why aren’t you changing your name? How much is this going to cost? and what’s wrong with goulash? – was the issue of ‘our song.’  Husband-to-be and I had met in that most romantic of places – cyber space – so we didn’t do what people normally do, which is, I assume, meet at a party and have a smooch at the end of “Careless Whispers” thereby rendering Careless Whispers ‘their tune’ forever and ever. So we didn’t have an ‘our song’ and in darker moments I wondered if the absence of one meant we weren’t meant to be together.  Although it seemed very artificial only two weeks before the wedding, I decided to find us one. I knew it didn’t have the importance of Obama’s choice of song for his campaign – oh ok, I thought it had equal importance actually.

The trouble was our favourite songs weren’t appropriate. Husband likes ‘Suspicious minds’ and the ‘Mr Brightside’. – (I detect a theme here). I like the songs of the heartbroken: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, or ‘Tainted Love’, although I have a hankering for songs like ‘Joleen’, ‘Valerie’ or ‘Mary’. Not so good when your name is Bill. Or Sandra.

It was as bad and as fraught as choosing the baby names. I would make lists and husband-to-be would knock them off only instead of “too posh,” “not posh enough,” it was “too naff,” “not naff enough.”

We had lots of contenders but nothing stuck. For a time, we were both happy to compromise with ‘Nobody does it better,’ but it seems a bit in your face about shagging. Anyway, as I said to husband at the time AS A JOKE. “What if it’s not true?”

Two days later, when he started talking to me again, he had the suggestion of ‘Only you.’

Looking from a window above

its like a story of love

Can you hear me?

I was keen but not sure about the lyrics. What window? What story?

Not long after that, I re-discovered the best song EVER: Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’.

All I ever wanted

all I ever needed

is here in my arms

I was delighted: I ran into the dining room where husband was once again struggling with the red curry versus goulash. Christ, who has goulash at a wedding?

“Is this not the best love song of all time? The music, the lyrics, the everything about it is great. And it’s about US!”

Husband-to-be looked shifty. “Um…I…yeah, it’s a great song but…you know that girl I used to…”

Ok, not that.

In the end, the wedding went well. We got through it much in the same way we get through our marriage: It is different to how we imagined but hopefully it’s ‘good different’. The red curry was lovely. I felt and still do feel massively fortunate to have such a good man as my life-partner. (Women in my family tend to have a low life expectancy so that’s not too onerous.) And, I got an ‘our song’ too.

Anyway, as we drive home from the in-laws, chuckling at having nearly forgotten the anniversary, our song comes on the radio and it is one of those beautiful moments of synchronicity, a crazy coincidence which suggests there is order in the chaotic universe after all. It is like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Our whole relationship is flashing before my eyes: those first tentative emails, those first terrible dates, the first time we slept together without shagging, the first time I had my haircut and he didn’t notice, having the children, going on holidays, laughing, meeting each others’ eyes across an empty room. Yes, all that. And I realised that the actual song didn’t matter – it’s like a photo and even if the photo is fuzzy and unflattering – it still is a trigger for a thousand memories.

“When I come home…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who comes back home to you

And if I go…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who going over you”

“Darling, it’s our song!” I say, beaming.

“Is it?” says husband. Fortunately, when he sees my face, he does a quick save. “Oh yeah, course it is.  Nice one.”

Schindler’s Lift

Homecove court is a massive tower block over-looking the Thames Estuary. I have convinced Dad we should see a flat there: “Just a look won’t kill us.”

Dad doesn’t like the look of it. It’s on a hill and, stupid me, I drop him by the fire doors not the actual entrance so he has to stagger up. It’s only 50 metres but in Dad steps that’s 5 miles. By the time, my sister joins us, Dad is in a bad mood.

Dad doesn’t like the sound of Sheltered housing. I think when he hears ‘sheltered housing’, he hears death. “It’s different to a care home,” I try to convince him. “It just means there will be lots of people like you in there.”

My sister chimes in. “Which means you won’t get some yob living next door playing music late at night.”

“I like yobs,” he says defiantly.

And Dad doesn’t like the smell of it. In the perfectly fine foyer, he screws up his noise. “Smells like cooking,” he says, as if, eurghh. On the noticeboard, there are signs about Tai Chi classes and coffee mornings, bingo and salt beef bagels.

The estate agent Katy, comes, shakes our hands in the much practised way of salespeople. I feel her clocking me, my sister and my dad, deciding who is the brains.

The flat is 717 and Dad perks up.  He decides he likes number 717 – the superstitious sod. (He is not the brains.)

And the flat is fine: it really is. In the bedroom there is room for a double though Dad prefers a single, and there are built-in wardrobes.  The phrase ‘built-in wardrobes’ sends a frisson down my spine and it has the same effect on Dad too. That is posh. The lounge is bright and white with a small balcony and if you crane your neck to the left, there is the sea. Today, it’s hard to see where the sea ends and the sky begins.

The bathroom is fresh, with a low bath – great for those with crap knees – and emergency cords a plenty – ditto. What more do you need?

“Is everyone here retired?” I ask.

“No, but you have to be over 55.”

My sister says, “Goody, I can come here soon then.” She’s only half joking. Incredibly, my sister will be fifty next year, although to me, she’ll always be the fifteen year old Kate Bush lookalike pushing me out her room so she can snog her boyfriends to the sweet strains of Motorhead.

It is perfect! Dad says, “its like a luxury holiday home!” I laugh but I can see why. It reminds my of where we stayed on my first holiday abroad. The Hotel Bouganville player in Tenerife. Here, there is also a communal lounge where I imagine the over-55’s ordering orange juice starters, steak dinner and a knickerbocker glory.

The lift is just outside his door, (again, perfect!) and its operated by a company called ‘Schindlers.’

“It’s Schindler’s lift,” my sister says and we grin at each other.  Everything is a sign and the sign says Yes!

“There a communal laundry,” says Katy and my dad replies contentedly, “it just gets better and better!” If I meet my sister’s eye I will laugh so I gaze determinedly at the ‘what to do in case of fire’ information. “There are three wardens so if you have any problems let them know. The flat is soundproof too.”

“Don’t need that,” says rebel Dad.

“Oh you might!”  Katy, who is now so my best friend that I want to write her name in hearts all over the property list, says.  “Some people here have their TVs on really, really loud.”

I feel like a winner. I got the right answer. Me! I found this place. It’s convenient. It’s easy. There’s parking. And at £600 a month with no service charges its a bloody bargain. Dad’s hideous flat will have to be let out first, as quickly as possible but that’s ok. We tell Katy we want it and I arrange to go to her office and pick up forms.

I call husband and tell him. He says, “I’ll start dismantling his bed then, shall I?” and I laugh. “In a hurry, eh?”

But the best thing, as we walk out grey sea to the right, town centre to the left, is that I had thought coming here would be the beginning of the end, but I do believe now its the beginning of a new beginning. Dads eyes are sparkling too. He is one of the 1200. We have dodged the inevitable: things are looking up.

Getting lost in the woods

Sometimes when Mini and I are snuggled up watching day time TV, she says, “pretend to be Aunty Becky,” (Aunty Becky is her favourite teacher at pre-school) and what she is really saying is, be nicer, be more fun.

“Do you mind?” asks husband.

“No it’s ok,” I say. For I also love Aunty Becky and if I was half as gutsy as Mini, I would tell everyone to pretend to be Aunty Becky too.

I don’t tell husband that yesterday after Arnie punched Mini – justifiably for they were playing Mini-Punch and a yellow one had just gone by – I caught her up in a cuddle and she had mumbled into my hair: “I want my play school.”

I also don’t mention that when we made him those bat-man pictures for Halloween, she originally had insisted that hers were for Aunty Becky and I had to do a lot of work, involving smarties and milk shake, to persuade her otherwise.

To have the perfect pre-school is an honour and a privelege.   It’s only now seeing how happy Mini is to go off to pre-school that I can see how lacklustre Ray and Arnie were about their own childcare settings. I see how this pre-school works so hard to fit each of its children. As another child joins, it bends and changes to incorporate them:  toys are presented differently, there are new games, new dressing up clothes, new snacks.  The character, personality and needs of every single child is responded to and taken seriously.

“Hows your dad?” Aunty Karen asks in the mornings.  They know that Grandad has made Mini room-less. They know that although I am usually unfailingly punctual on the children’s behalf, I will be approximately seven minutes late every day now because I can’t get my head around Dad being there.

“Bit better,” I say. “He won’t go back to his flat but we’re starting to look for somewhere else now.”

“Found anywhere for your Dad yet?” Aunty Karen asks the next morning. They really, really listen.

My only complaint about pre-school is that after each session, Mini is laden with loads of papers or old cereal boxes with just a daub of paint.

“What are these then?” I ask.

“Don’t put them in the red bin!” she yells at me and I make my face says, as if I would.

Mini has been taken on a bus trip, on a train trip and one day a week the pre-school all go off to the woods. Husband and I don’t get the point at first.  “Bet its full of nasty dogs,” he says. He is especially underwhelmed with the feather headdress she brings home the first week. I hear him muttering “bird disease, pestilence” as he disinfects his hands.

It isn’t until I went along to the woods a few times that I understood what it was about. I watch as the children chose their forest name. It took Mini a while to get what they were doing, but now she is proud ‘Mini bird butterfly truck, fast’ which seems like a  window into her mind.

The children go through the rules which they make themselves:

Don’t stand in dog poo. Don’t pick up the dog poo. Don’t eat the dog poo.

Don’t give food to the squirrels. They don’t say thank you

Stay within the boundaries. (This might have been Aunty Becky’s rule, actually.)

Don’t go near the abandoned trolley. (Ditto)

Climb trees. Balance on the logs carefully.

And pre-school don’t call off the trips when the weather is bad. I sit by my phone, looking at the sky, “surely, not today, surely not…” but the cancellation never comes. “It’s good for them,” Aunty Karen says wisely. Aunty Karen even packs a spade for when the children ‘need to dig a hole’.

For me, every tree looks the same: I think tree blindness has been an unrecognised condition for too long and its about time they featured it on the medical section on ‘This Morning”. A suburban child of the 1970’s, I am so far out of my comfort zone in the woods I might as well be in the Himalayas. (I have always been impressed by middle class people who can name more than a duck when besides a pond.) I really can’t do the leaves thing: I don’t know the difference between a fir and a holly, a beech for me is always a beach, and an oak is a dining table. But Mini knows.  Three year old Mini stalks around the woods like the park ranger. The world is her conker, she is at home in the forest. I love that she is showing me new things. We are two-way traffic!

This week, I go early to meet them, but I can’t find them of course, I can’t. I roam too far from the path and can’t get back again. I sit down on some kind of tree and one of those squirrels, that doesn’t say thank you, zips into the bushes. A kind dog walker passes and asks if I’m alright. A bit later, another dog walker  says, “you look lost.” I decide that lady dog owners really are the best people in the world, (next to lovely pre-school aunties that is).

“I am a little lost,” I tell her, “but it’s ok.”

The joys of supecesharzee

Arnie and I go past the card shops, the second hand shops, and the empty shops of the high street. No one will give a second glance at a kid out of school at two in the afternoon in this part of town. Hand in hand, we go, past the Cash Converters, the pawn brokers, the off license, and the bookies: Odds are fifteen-one that Arnie will need a wee soon as we arrive.

Speech therapy is in a building which also houses the local sexual health clinic. In another life, I have come in here and removed my drawers. I find speech therapy only slightly more humiliating.

It upsets me that Arnie has this struggle with something that comes so easily to me. I don’t like having to take him out of school for this appointment – what message does that send? – and I hate it that it is a group session. Apparently, Arnie is too good for one-to-one but since I can hardly understand him this is scant consolation.  Being in a group makes me feel that we are under scrutiny. Fortunately, this is not a middle class part of London: I went to monkey music with Ray in Clapham once and the lesson was conducted with the seriousness of the Middle East peace negotiations. The two mums and one Grandmother here smile at us in the waiting room and tell the boys (it appears speech problems are more prevalent among boys) to wait nicely.

When I was fighting to get Arnie these sessions, I had this idea in my head that speech therapy would be the panacea, the golden bullet, and he would walk away pronouncing “The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the Plain” perfectly. Now, I know that these classes are just another step on a wong and linding load.

Our poor darling. Arnie’s L’s and W’s are troubled and his Ks sound like Ts and his Ds sound like Fs. Which makes him yelling “kitty duck” in the playground particularly excruciating.

It is our third group session. Arnie and I take our cushions and sit expectantly in the circle. At least I do. Arnie twirls around and picks at the floor. I get the picture of his words from his folder. We are supposed to have practiced our words every day. What can I say? It’s been a busy week.

“What’s this?”

“to.”

“DOGGGG,” I say.

The speech therapist comes over. “Try not to over-emphasise the ‘G’.” she says to me sharply.

Next one.

“Horthy,” he says.

“Umm, adults say horse,” I explain.

“Horthy,” insists Arnie, quite reasonably.

We have to do a group exercise and today its a jigsaw. The children practice their words and then get to do a bit of the puzzle. Arnie ponders as he always does and I think, as I always do, just how much time is wasted with these games?  “Pick a piece,” I say testily. A quarter of the lesson has already gone and he is wavering between the donkey and the farmer. “The corners, Arnie, you should always start at the corners,” I advise and then hearing myself, I think, Jay-sus, I almost wish this was the sexual health clinic. “Can you find a straight edge?”

The speech therapist comes over and says, “This is a really good way to get the children to do their words at home…” and it is as though she suspects she has a doubting Thomas in the midst.

I nod and agree, as though I spend all day playing snakes and ladders with the children. I wonder if she has children herself. Surely, playing with them is the first thing to go when you’re a parent? Do I look like a big fan of Kerplunk? I think I’ll come into my own when the kids are adults.

Arnie gets to chose a toy. He chooses Mr potato head and in the box there are three of them and one is Mr Sweetcorn head. He shoves it in my face. When I say “stop it, Arnie,” but in a pleasant voice because we are in a group, he throws himself round on his cushion.

“Concentrate on your words,” I hiss although in my head, I am composing emails that go like this.

To whom it may concern, (although you don’t seem very concerned) I flagged up Arnie’s problems with his speech 18 months ago. (I love the phrase flagged up) I am most unhappy, nay, disgruntled, with the group therapy sessions

Before I came to this group, I had the idea that everyone else’s child couldn’t speak because of their poor parenting and that my son would be the best behaved boy in the group. Wrong on both counts.

“Arnie, Arnie, concentrate. Try this.”

There is a picture of a ‘goatee’.  ‘Beardy’, Arnie insists and secretely I agree. For every word he pronounces correctly, Mr Potato or Mr Sweetcorn gains a new facial feature.

“Tractor,” says Arnie to the ‘Digger’.

“Don’t know,”  to the ‘Tag’.

“Come on, try,” I say brandishing an ear. Or at least look like you’re trying.

“Sicky?” he says with the weariness of someone three times his age. I think he means ‘ticket.’ I give him the hat and he sticks it in Mr Sweetcorn head’s mouth.

A therapist comes over, “Does he have difficulties with concentration?”

“Not usually,” I say.

“O-kay,” she says cautiously. “We’ll think up some new strategies.”

“If you could…flag some up for me, that would be excellent.”

At the end, as time runs out on the parking meter, there are stickers, new words and instructions. Arnie swings on my arm and asks for a wee.

That evening, I tell Arnie and Mini to go down and say good night to Fa Fa. This is Arnie’s name for Grandad and it seems right somehow. Mini refuses. She still has the hump with Fa fa for taking over her room. Arnie is annoyed at her, and he goes downstairs brightly; keener than ever to do the right thing.  I lean over the bannister and hear him ask his grandad for ‘a Tiss and for a tuddle’ and I think:  I’m sorry darling. I really will try better next time. 

Youngest child syndrome

Dad is at home and he’s having a turn. He’s frightened and it frightens me. If I take him to hospital he’ll never get out but if I leave him here, he might get worse. I give him his pills and some water and then go downstairs. I have a tea that slops against the sides of the cup because I am shaking.

I call my sister and she says call the Doctors and ask to be referred for a blood test. I do, glad of the instruction. I am the youngest child and right now, I am a typical youngest child. If I could give the responsibility of Dad to anyone else in the world except me, then I would.

There are no blood tests available until Monday. That’s ok though because by midday Dad is up and eating again. I am annoyed because he doesn’t seem to warrant the earlier panic and that I’ve had to stay home because of him. I’m annoyed that Monday will be another day of running errands and I’m annoyed that I had to ask my sister what to do. What’s the matter with me?  I should have been born first then I would have known what to do.

That evening, husband comes home and while I am complaining he says, “why don’t you take him to the blood clinic at the hospital? I went once, and it was fantastic.” My husband is also the oldest child. He likes to make a decision.

I look at the blood information sheet. I see it’s open until 7.40.  Its 7.20 now. We live ten minutes drive away. On a good day.

“You can do it,” husband urges. I don’t think so but he is sure and he and my sister are always sure about everything. I dash into the living room and tell Dad to get up. I am thinking, I’ll have a free day on Monday if I do this now. Surprisingly, Dad is up for it. The old adventurous spirit kicks in. Then, I tell Ray that I want him to come with. Ray, who has had his bath and is only now deciding to make a dent into his homework, is furious. I hear husband shouting at him as I gather my keys and coat:”If you don’t do this for your mum, we won’t drive you around at the weekend.”

Ray storms off to get changed. I wait in the car, drumming the steering wheel. Eventually, Dad joins me and finally Ray with a face of thunder, slumps in the tiny space in the back between the two car-seats.

I drive like Cagney and Lacey.  I pull out in front of a van. I go through an amber light: Arnie my lovely little rule-keeper, would have  a fit, if he knew. He can’t bear a rule-transgression and I wonder where he gets this from. Not me, not my side, he is all his fathers. He can’t bear to be late either. And I am not going to let us be late tonight.  My foot is hard on the accelerator. I usually drive like the only child of aged parents. Now, I drive like a child of 8, a feckless middle one. I am on the speed limit and have to take a corner too fast. I mount a kerb.  In that brief moment of flight, I think this will settle it one way or another.

The plan is I will drop them off at the hospital entrance and Ray will run ahead while I park.  I drop them off. After I have desperately parked and then searched all the sticky pockets in the car for money for a ticket, I sprint back.  They are at the entrance, in the same place, I mean they have not moved. Mini playing musical statues moves more than them and she plays to win. (The youngest child is competitive!)

“We don’t know where to go,” they say, and I huff what defeatists!!  However, after a few minutes I can see why.  When I worked in marketing at a local college, I used to be in charge of signs on open day. My superiors called it ‘placement of the signage’ in a bid, I think, to make me feel like it was a terrific job. Anyway, I sympathise with the people who are in charge of signage, but whoever has done the signage for the blood clinic has done an exceptionally bad job. I have no chance of finding out where the bloody blood clinic is. It’s like trying to find your shepherd in the school nativity when you’ve arrived late and are standing at the back of the hall behind a lady wearing a hat.

Then I see something, a long note pinned on a pillar (that’s poor placement) the short version of which is: we have to go up.

“Stairs?” says Dad hopelessly. It’s 7.35. It takes Dad five minutes to find his feet, never mind raise them.

“There’s a lift,” I say and sure enough there is, discretely hidden near the sweet shop.  “Where is the blood clinic?” I ask two nurse pushing what looks like a dead man on a gurney.

“The first floor,” says one. “The mezzanine.” says the other. I glare at them. Can they not get their answers straight? Who is the big sister here? “The mezzanine,” agrees the first one reluctantly.

I don’t know what a mezzanine is. A balcony? A Greek dish. It calls to mind dancers in white socks, hummus, tzatziki?

It’s 7.36. Dad moves like a slug. A slow slug.

We are in the lift, we must be nearly there! I can’t see the button for mezzanine and then when I am ready to burst, I see the beautiful mountains of the ‘M’. Arnie is learning phonics and for him ‘M’ is a rub of the tummy a “mmmm”. It annoys me that no one in my family says ‘phonics’, they all say frenetics instead.

We are frenetic now.

I run round the corner. Once again, the blood test signs couldn’t be less obvious: its as though they don’t want us there.

But then I am there, I have stumbled across it, and there is a woman waiting, it is the woman I nearly ran over in the car park when I was reversing in an episode I had put to the back of my memory, but I can’t say sorry because then she will know for sure it’s me. Instead, I say, “its not too late, is it?” and she says, “I don’t think so.”

It’s all going to work out and husband is going to be so pleased because it was his idea and sister will be pleased too because it was all her idea originally. Husband’s pleasure might border on the smug but still, he is allowed to be sometimes. Dad arrives euphoric at the excitement, it is 7.37 and it’s like, Cinders, you shall go to the ball. We have three minutes to spare!  Ea-sy. Time for a Greek feast! Dad grins, “Well, this proves one thing, that I can get around when I have to!”  Ray stares at his shoes but even that is progress.

A nurse comes out and I am wearing my brightest smile, the right mixture of sympathy and humility. I say, “Hi, can my Dad have a blood test?!”

She says, (and I am going to kill husband) “No, we won’t do anyone without an appointment.”

On a positive note, I have heard youngest child and oldest child marriages tend to work well.

The Motions and going through them

When Ray was about three months old, I left him for the first time to go to the dentists. I was so relieved to be on my own, sans bebe, that I sat back in the dentists chair as though I was on the deck of a cruise ship and even as the dentist came at me with a drill, I was relishing my freedom too much to mind.

I have the same feeling when I leave the house to go to a Macmillan Coffee morning that my friend is holding in her husband’s estate agency.  I think, my goodness, look how far you’ve come getting all excited about a coffee morning. And by far I mean not very far at all. I used to dream of living in Paris, writing novels that would set the world alight, and if not that, then definitely sleeping with poets. Now, I am getting all whoop de doo about a coffee morning. No one could say that I didn’t stay near.

There is a superb display of cakes that I can’t eat, and my friend’s mother in law goes to get me a tea. I follow her in to the kitchen. There are china cups and plastic cups. She gives me a plastic cup. I pull a face but she doesn’t notice. I’m not keen on my friend’s mother-in-law. I wonder what makes me a plastic cup person and not a china cup one.

I see another friend and she has two children with her and every time someone looks at them, she says, “It’s ok, it’s an inset day, they’re not contagious or anything.”

She says, “so how’s your dad?” and I say, “oof, its all a bit difficult with him staying,” etc, etc, and she laughs and says “that’s why I have a bad relationship with my parents.”

I say, “I thought I had a bad relationship with Dad, but he’s still with me though.”

The local MP appears. He stands at the door posing and then shakes hands with some people. Not me. I wonder what makes me a person who does not get a politician’s hand-shake and whatever it is, I’m glad of it.  He wants to be photographed against the superb display of cakes.

“She’s from a French newspaper,” he announces, gesturing the photographer.  “So you all have to take your clothes off.”

The guests with a combined age of 780, (they do that for prison sentences, don’t they?) blink at him. This seems such an bizare thing to say, that I can only stare at him open mouthed. Later when I tell husband, unpredictably, he says “I think its quite funny actually.” And when I say no, “it makes him a moron,” he says, “it’s a reference to the Kate topless shots, surely? How very topical of him.” I never know what husband is going to say and this is another reason I like living with him. He keeps me on my toes.

The MP is also unpredictable but I don’t think its the same.

I decline to be in the photos. I don’t want to bulk out the picture and my hair looks terrible. I listen to the photographer though. She is, by the way, definitely not French. “Over ‘ere, please, you guys look triffic.”

After the fake smiles and flashes, the MP then comes over to where my friend and I are standing.

“Are you a natural blond?” he asks friend. “You and your children are so fair. That’s so rare,” he says and I feel like saying, What? Do you actually know this area you claim to represent? We are full of blonds, natural and otherwise, we must have the highest count of golden highlights in the Western Hemisphere!”

But the weirdest thing is, I’ve heard him say this before. Once, at a pre-school bazaar, (yes, it’s rocking round here!) I heard him have this exact conversation, word for word, with someone else. It is clearly his script. He is carrying on. “Where are your family from originally? Scandinavia?”

“Dagenham,” friend says. I can hear her thinking, shall I tell him it’s an inset day or not bring it up?

“What beautiful blond girls!” he says. “So extraordinary.”

I feel insulted on behalf of my ordinary mousy children. Only I don’t say anything 1. because I am dark and hairy and it will look like sour grapes and 2. because I quite agree with this MP on the airport issue. And in politics, as in family, it’s supposedly better the devil you know and 3. Because the MP has already gone. He’s told us to take our clothes off, he’s complimented the mothers, he’s been photographed so his work here is done.

If he has stayed I would have given him my most withering look. He is a man wanting to be seen doing the right thing but who clearly doesn’t give a shit about the right thing. He is so going through the motions, its transparent. But I suppose I recognise something in him as well: I spend much of the day doing things I don’t want to do, repeating meaningless things too. It takes it’s toll sometimes and maybe, maybe, you have to pretend a bit to get by.

I imagine the MP dreamed of being an MP for years and years, perhaps he too wanted to make a difference, and then, when he came in power, maybe he found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

I get myself a tea in a china cup this time and my friend who is hosting the coffee morning wakes up her baby and we all have a poke and say nice things.  My other friend comes over with her Swedish beautys and repeats, “Oh, it’s an inset day, they’re not contagious or anything” and we laugh. And I am glad I came because its moments like these, that remind me of who I am and who I want to be, now that I’m a grown up.

The Selfish Crocodile

“Stay away from my river! It’s MY river! If you come in my river, I’ll eat you all.”

I have a bad feeling as soon as I wake up and when the phone goes, the feeling gets worse. It’s Dad calling from my sisters. It’s my turn to have him in my river.

Dad tells me a list of things he has to do and it is a list of me driving him to appointments. It is pissing down. I drop off the children at their various schools and play schools then grudgingly pick him up. I watch him hobble to the car, the rain in his eyes.

“Who’ve I got today?” asks Dad at the doctors surgery.  This place is an old one, a converted house and its full of stairs. Please don’t make us go up the stairs.

The receptionist says, “It’s Oyagone,” and because Dad looks blank she adds helpfully, “It’s O and E, like A and E but with an O!”

“They’re sending me to A and E?” Dad asks, horrified. His hands shake.

“No, no, it’s Dr. O and E.”

I’m worried that Dad is going to say something like “He must be coloured,” but instead, in the waiting room, under the poster for the Samaritans, he says loudly, “my poo is black as night.”

“That’s normal,” I hiss, “when you’re taking iron tablets.”

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” Dad adds. “I’m on my way out, I must be.” I stare at the floor and my left eye starts to twitch.

Yesterday, we took the children down the seafront on their bikes.   Arnie reluctantly mounted his, he adjusted his helmet, checked his brakes, scrutinized his stabilizers, looked at us, got off his bike and decided he wanted to walk instead. Mini however was off, tearing down the sea-front without a backwards glance. She is how Dad used to be.

Doctor O and E is at his computer and I realise I have met him before. I feel like he is an old friend. I say, “What rain,” and he says something I don’t catch but I guess it’s something like he is lucky to be out in the rain, lucky to be alive in the rain, or perhaps its just, “take a seat please.”

Dad wants to take less medicine. “I’m not a pill taker,” he sneers as though I’ve accused him of being a banker of something but Doctor O and E is on my side and he says “that’s really not a good idea,” and I agree, ho ho ho. Silly Dad. “The medicines are meant to help you!” I add. I think of Mini and her loathing of the helmet and the stabilizers and think, hmm, Dad hasn’t changed so much after all.

Doctor O and E says he has the results of Dad’s blood test back and I am surprised and a little frightened. I hadn’t expected they would be back so quick, when everything else has been so slow.

Its good news! The good cells are at 10.9. Dad nearly has an average blood count!

“I’m nearly normal!”

“I dunno about that, Dad,” I say to impress the Doctor with my wit.

The Doctor is beaming and I think, you don’t get to give out good news very often, do you?

“It’s the best thing I’ve heard for ages,” says Dad and his shoulders sag with relief.

I say, “there’s still the biopsy and of course the knee.” I seem unable to catch up with this new information.  But why isn’t he better then? If his bloods are so good, why is he sleeping all day? Is that nearly normal too? It’s like being told you’ve lost loads of weight but still, none of your clothes fit. Something seems a bit ‘off’. Or maybe it’s me. I’m like a foul weather daughter. How can I be so down-beat? I wonder if I’m depressed but it can’t be that because I was born like this. And my sister will whoop and cheer and respond correctly. For she is not a Selfish Crocodile, she is the little mouse doing what has to be done, fixing a toothache, changing the world.

In the car, Dad is quiet. “I can’t believe it, 10.9!”

“I’ll take you back to yours then.” I say. It sounds spiteful somehow. Like I’m punishing him for his blood improving. But I just want things to return to normalcy. I want to forget about being a daughter for a while and just be me. And if he says, one thing, just one thing, about the Doctor being ‘coloured’ then I swear I will drive him home as fast as this knackered ‘family’ car will take us.

“I don’t really want to,” he says.”There’s nothing there. It’s lonely” It must take a lot for him to admit it.  And I remember suddenly, how it was Grandad who taught Ray to ride without stabilizers. One afternoon, in the park near his house when I was cold and in a mood about something (again), it was Grandad who ran alongside him shouting, “Pedal, keep going, you’ve got it!”

“What’s his name again? That doctor?”

“O and E,” I say. I’m thinking, I O U. I’m thinking, the selfish crocodile let all the animals come to the river in the end.

‘How’s your father’?

At night, I go and switch the light off in Mini’s room where Dad is now sleeping and whisper goodnight. It’s like I’ve got four children – only one has false teeth on the bedside table. Dad left his usual plastic container for his teeth at my sister’s house so the teeth sit there, uncontained, glistening in the darkness, a vision of pink and white. Actually, they match the colour scheme of Mini’s room very well.

I go to my bedroom and say to husband, “What is it with false teeth? Why are they so…horrid? Their grin seems to follow you around the room.”

He says, “Oh Goodness,” or words to that effect. “I’ve got really bad day at work tomorrow and now I’ve got that image in my head.”

“How about a bit of how’s-your-father then to get your mind off things?” I offer, but he buries his head under his pillow.

I take it that’s a F*** off then.

My husband finds it hard to have sex with Dad in the house. No, that’s very wrong. I mean, he finds it hard to have sex with me, while Dad is staying here. It is difficult having Dad to stay full stop.  The plan is he will stay with us in the week and my sisters at the weekend until we decide what to do. We had better decide quickly. Dad has taken over the lounge but his many varied things are seeking lebensraum in the dining room and in the kitchen. His tissues occupy the coffee table. His manky shoes, my husband calls them his ‘trip hazards’, stake a claim in the bathroom, and nobody knows where his walking stick has gone.  When it comes to the TV he is a dictator the likes of which the world has never seen before. Who knew Dad was such a ‘Murder, she wrote’ fan? He would sleep through that and ‘CNN’ all day long if he could.

The one good thing though about having Grandad as a permanent fixture in the living room, is that exiled husband is going upstairs to help Ray with his homework more. Now that he’s at high school Ray has got more school work than he’s ever done in his life and he’s walking around with a fixed expression of surprise. Husband helps him with his maths and his geography and it makes me smile to see them pouring over maps. I imagine they are planning where to send Grandad.

The following day, Ray comes home proud that he got a merit point.  Husband is thrilled too, telling me that’s his second merit point in a week and he also got top marks in R.E.  Husband wants me to high-five him but I don’t.  I don’t think he is taking this seriously. My Dad is also very proud (of Ray) although he can’t resist adding that R.E is a stupid subject anyway.

Dad was expelled from school, for writing a treasonous story about the queen on the loo although I doubt that was the only reason, it probably was the prefect excuse. I haven’t told Ray this story: I don’t want Ray thinking being a dumb-arse is a good idea. I don’t quite trust Dad to sound penitent enough about it.

On Friday, Ray comes home and announces that he has been made a school councilor.

“Welcome to the gravy train,” husband says incomprehensibly.

I ask Ray what being school councilor means and he shrugs. “I have to wear a badge.”

“A badge, eh! What does it say?”

Husband laughs. “Does it say, ‘Bully me’?” I tell him shush and I tell him that again later when he says, “Look, isn’t there a way we can expel your Dad too?”

I feel really bad but like husband, I would like our living room back. I am impatient for the weekend. At nine o’clock, when Jessica has solved the latest mystery, I say to Dad, “It’s bed time.”

He says gloomily, “I won’t be able to sleep but then I’m in your way, aren’t I?”

I say, “Oh, of course not” and “It’s ok, don’t worry!”

I expect him to say actually, he will go up, but instead he asks for the remote control. It’s time for CNN. My husband disappears, scowling.

Dad isn’t tired until long past ten. I fuss him up the stairs, then hurry to the bedrooms. I whisper my goodnights, trying to avoid meeting the eyes of the pearly teeth.  Husband has been hiding out in our bed for the last hour so I say to him in my most seductive voice, “Do you want to earn another merit point tonight?”

I’m not sure if he says, ‘at the weekend’, or ‘at worlds end’, and I’m going to ask him to clarify but I have a sudden vision of those pearly gnashers on Mini’s bedside table and I too am not that interested anymore.