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.”

‘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.


I pick up Arnie from school. He has done eight days in Reception now. He can’t believe school is five days long and the weekend is only two. “It’s not great, is it?” I say, “but that’s life.”

The reception children queue up at the school gate and wait for a parent to claim them. There are four or five kids who look just like Arnie so my arm is in a semi-permanent wave until the right Arnie appears. I’m reminded of what Dad told me about being evacuated. “They lined us up in this hall and we waited for someone to pick us. I was the last to go.”

“What did you do today?” I ask Arnie after he has peed up the nearest tree outside the school. Arnie has not yet acquainted himself with school loos.

“Nothing,” Arnie says. This is disappointing. At least last week, he told me whether he had apple or pear.

We drive to pick up Grandad from my sister’s place. We are going to take him to have a blood test. Arnie is happy because there are Haribos. My car is a Haribo landfill.

“What did you do today?” I ask Grandad when he has negotiated the five metres from front door to car.

“I had a terrible night,” he says, “flailing around like a ship on high seas. I think it was the sleeping pill. Or the statins. It’s getting worse and worse.”

“Did you eat?”

“I had some toast and Ella was here but she’s gone to work and I’ve been trying to call all morning, where were you?”

“Nowhere,”  I say. Grandad looks at me like I look at Arnie. His face says really?

Grandad can’t believe the clinic. He loves a shiny new health centre. “This is fantastic!” he says running his hand along the surfaces. You would think we had touched down at Vegas.  He doesn’t know where to sit. There is too much choice!  Black or red? Arnie too is delighted. He springs into the play section, ‘the germ repository’, as my husband likes to call it and sucks at toys. The only other person in the waiting area smiles and Grandad whispers to me, “Everyone loves Arnie, don’t they?” I hope the lady doesn’t hear. She is just being polite.

The blood nurse calls Dad’s name and I say, “You don’t want us to come in, do you?” but he does, so we go through with Arnie hiding between my legs.  The blood nurse asks Arnie if he wants to help and he nods. He has to say the magic words, “ready, steady, GO!” as the needle goes in. He bellows it as if starting a race and the blood creeps up the tube. I feel woozy but Grandad is fine, he says he’s had worse. Chatting to Dad, the nurse calls his blood ‘claret’.

I try to reassure Arnie. “They did this loads to me when I was pregnant,” but he looks at Grandad’s distended stomach, and I can see he is thinking, Is Grandad pregnant now?

“He’s a heart-breaker,” the nurse says and Grandad agrees, and I hate that phrase – why would I want my boy to upset people? – but I like this blood-nurse and her magic so I ruffle Arnie’s hair uneasily. She has finished but Dad stays in the chair. He’s too busy watching an imaginary roulette ball spin around.

“All I want to know is; how I can get better for the knee op?”

“Well, what have they told you?”


I say, “Let’s wait and see the results of this first before we worry about your knee.”

The blood nurse looks at me and I look at her, then Arnie tugs me to go. He wants another sweet. Or perhaps he needs to find another tree. Grandad leads from behind. I think, Heart-breaker.

The end of the world

Arnie is worried about the end of the world. He is changing out of his Batman suit and into his Spiderman pajamas. He has just brushed his teeth. Mini is already in her bed in Arnie’s room although she is not yet asleep. They are sharing because Grandad is sleeping in Mini’s room. Ray is in his room painting models of fighting men from the year 40,000. Granddad is downstairs watching the news.

“The end of the world is not for a long time, is it?” Arnie asks. He holds my hand. I connect the question with finding Grandad prostrate on the floor yesterday. This must be it.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I say briskly.

“But when will it be?”

“Never,” I lie.

Downstairs, I tell husband. I say I thought the kids were enjoying having Grandad here. I wonder if they are worried about him too. They know he has changed. He used to play ball with them in the garden or push the swing. He would draw pictures of cats for Mini and make playdough superheroes for Arnie. He used to read “We’re going on a Bear Hunt.” Perhaps Arnie senses that it might be an end of an era. He is our emotional, intuitive boy. The one on whom our hopes of a great future rest. The one who will take us in when we are old, unlike Mini who will say, “I want my house back,” or Ray, “Sorry mum, too busy with warhammer to feed you…”

It isn’t until sometime later, that husband looks at me and says, “Oh. When Arnie was eating dinner, he spilled a bit and I said, ‘it isn’t the end of the you think it’s that?”

The lift

I make up the sofa bed for Dad. I fetch him pillows, sheets and a blanket. The room looks cosy. He is not overwhelmed with gratitude but hey.

In the morning when I go down, he is sitting on the floor about one meter from the bed. He can’t get up, he says. I feel sick. It is a terrible sight: my dear Dad is on the carpet and he can’t get up. I remember when he was young, when we both were young, he slipped a disc while loading his van and the noise that came from just beyond the back door was terrible. This is different though. A whimper not a howl.

I try and help him but he won’t budge. It’s like he’s not even trying. The sofa is so near. It’s as though a boat is capsizing one yard from the shore.

“Why did you make it so dark?” he says. “I couldn’t see a thing and I fell over.”

I think, so now I’m responsible for the sky at night.

“You should have called me,” I say.

“I did,” he says.

I send Mini up to get my husband, the muscle. She disappears up the stairs, sucking her thumb. She knows this is important. Arnie comes down and looks frighted. I tell him, “It’s fine honey. Grandad is on the floor.” Ray comes down and starts reading his Warhammer book on the sofa.

My husband does not appear. I go up trembling.

“Didn’t Mini come up?”

“Yeah I told her off, she was pulling at the door.”

“Oh,” I say. Poor Mini. “Grandad’s stuck.” My voice is croaky. “He can’t get up.” It seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” he says. I try to make my eyes say its urgent but he’s not looking at my eyes.

I can’t tell if he is playing a power game with Grandad – this is my house and I’ll come down when I like – or if he urgently needs a poo. I think its the latter.

Ten minutes pass. Grandad doesn’t want tea. Or a biscuit. He too is getting desperate.

Ray puts down his book and holds Grandad’s hands. I hover behind. Na-da. He will not budge.

“I’m a dead weight,” sighs Grandad.

Husband comes down brightly. He has an idea. He demonstrates the lifting manoevre we will employ on little Arnie. Arnie laughs and laughs. It involves the tickly elbows. He laughs bordering on hysterics.

“It will never work,” I announce. Me and Grandad look at each other. We are united, for once, in our mutual scepticism of husband. I get in position one side and my husband on the other. “He’s a dead weight,” I say.

But Grandad glides upright to his feet. He is Lazarus!  Husband is as smug as he is running late. “I can’t remember where I learned it but it was good, wasn’t it? I’d better go. Bye.” I want to say that this is the jam jar effect. One person does all the hard work to no avail only for the other person to come along and achieve it – based on the first’s efforts. But it wouldn’t be true, I have flapped but I have not done anything.

There is more news from Barcelona. My sister is staying somewhere near Las Ramblas and she is having a brilliant time.

Later that day, I see there were three missed calls on my phone from Dad at 4 am.