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Sunday, 23 December 2012

So here it is, Merry Christmas

There’s nothing like a peruse of other people’s Christmas traditions on Facebook or Mumsnet to make our household look like a terrestrial version of ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ Never mind the making of fancy little star-shaped biscuits and jolly felt decorations for the tree, it’s as much as I can do to summon up the enthusiasm to bung up the Christmas poodle ornament with one leg missing and the starry tinsel that’s just purple wire now all its stars have leapt off over the years and rejoined the universe. If it weren’t for the children, I’d probably ditch the tree all together and pile up the boxes of wine into a triangle shape.
Other people have joyous traditions such as inviting people over to sing carols round the fire, which would be the quickest way to find ourselves alone at New Year. The husband sounds like the exhaust on a removals truck and I’ve long taken up miming at the children’s carol concerts. Then there’s all that putting down food for the reindeers and sherry wotnot for Father C, which just makes me think rats. And the dog would scarf up the Harveys Bristol Cream creating her own brand of Christmas doom in the form of a vet on a million-pound callout over the festive season.
And don’t get me started on Christmas cards. All that hanging around, blowing over every time the sitting room door is opened, guilting me into thinking about the people I didn’t send one to. I know it’s the thought that counts but am I alone in finding it weird that people send cards all the way from Australia, actually go to the effort of taking the damn thing to the post office to get it weighed in the middle of November then write, ‘Love Pat’? No news. No family nugget. Come on, guys, let’s tap into our loquacious gene here and make those airmiles worth it.
And then, deep happiness, there’s the present minefield. The children start making constant white noise about their present lists back in October, which I let blend in with the sound of the dishwasher until about 21 December, then pay out one third of the Christmas budget on presents and two-thirds on next day delivery. The husband gets stressed about what he’s going to buy me as I don’t need or want anything. To me, this seems a fine characteristic in a wife, but the embarrassment of being the only husband in the room who has bought nothing for his beloved seems to turn this fabulous quality of mine into a fault. So although a recent survey made mockery of sensible presents such as saucepans, socks and slippers, I think I would be delighted with just about everything in the top ten worst presents list with the possible exception of diet books, clothes in the wrong size and granny knickers, though better the big bloomers than some cheese-gratery thong that makes you scared to sneeze.
Last year the husband bought me a welly boot mud scraper, the year before a fridge, both of which filled my heart with much more joy than unwrapping a trinkety little box containing something sparkly. The pressure of having to like something expensive makes me back away, a bit like the dog when I try to wash the mud off her with the hosepipe.
But yet…when the extended family gather round on Christmas Day, my Dad raises a toast and says, ‘May these be our worst days’, the kids go into raptures over the nail clippers and plastic earrings from the crackers, the dog appears with a perfect (snaffled) triangle of Brie in her mouth, the husband is just such a damn good egg, barely raising an eyebrow that the family and friends this year come with an extra three dogs between them…well, I have to consider myself blessed, Christmas humbug and all.

P.S. If anyone needs a last minute present…I know of a fantastic book on Kindle…

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Everyone Does It Better

There’s nothing like achieving something I really, really want to chop the celebrations off at the knees before they’ve begun. In the time it takes for someone to say, ‘Whe-hey you did it,’ my mind has already shifted from the ‘Crikey, I did actually do it,’ to the ‘Now they’re all going to find me out.’ There’s barely time to unknot the wire round the champagne cork before I’m fretting about getting rumbled. Take this week. I’ve probably been talking about writing a novel for half of my life, writing one on and off for quarter of it, and really cranking up the brain and motivation for a tenth of it.
So The Class Ceiling is finally out on Amazon Kindle. Fourteen versions, proofread cover-to-cover, tried out on all the various Kindle and iPad incarnations, staring at a screen until my eyeballs were bleeding. I know more about hyphens and compound adjectives in the English language than any human being needs to survive. With a big ta-da, I pushed the button and there appeared The Class Ceiling in all its pink-covered glory. The family heaved a sigh of relief, muttered ‘Well done’ and hoped that now I’d stop shouting at everyone. I could have allowed myself, let’s say, thirty seconds, to enjoy the moment. But no. I just felt as though I’d rolled out a big ugly baby in a pram that everyone would to peer into and not know what to say.
The husband is singing from the rooftops, blaring about the wife’s brilliance. The teenage son has stopped telling his teachers that his mother is ‘an unsuccessful author’ and grunted that I’ve ‘done OK’. The daughter keeps showing all her friends the book on Amazon and saying, ‘My Mum wrote that.’ But the wife herself wants to creep into the dog cage and stay there until any danger of someone reading the damn book (and having an opinion on it) has passed.
Is it a gender thing? Maybe I’m being unfair but I feel like I’ve spent quite a lot of time with blokes lolling back in their chairs, one foot over a knee, steepling their fingers and sharing their fabulousness on subjects I swear I know more about. I mean, I’m not a genius but my brain doesn’t make clanking sounds if we’re talking about language, writing or how to make good banana bread. I’ll grant that there are a few more creaks and grating noises if we’ve drifted onto quantitative easing and those Libor rate thingies. But the point is, why do some people (sorry, guys, but it is usually men) feel absolutely fine about holding forth on subjects when their knowledge would fit comfortably into an eggcup, while I think twice about speaking up even if I’ve got a degree in the subject?
Time to man up – or rather woman up. My New Year’s Resolution? Carpe Diem. Dance in the dew. Parp own trumpet, quietly and in tune, on occasion. Small sedate clap for self without immediately being bulldozed by doubt. Accept that sometimes I can do well without needing a caveat emptor as big as a house.
But if you do read The Class Ceiling, please don’t let me know if you find any typos, the dog’s getting a bit fed up with me crowding into her cage…

The Class Ceiling is available on Amazon Kindle. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Woman's Worry is Never Done

 On the news last night: Kweku Adoboli, bank trader for UBS, racked up a loss of £1.4bn, but at one point was in a risk position of £12bn. My first thought after 'How many zeros on twelve billion?' was not 'How did he get away with it?' but 'How did he cope with the worry?' I only need to wonder whether I left the loo window open downstairs to find I can't get back to sleep. Lie there for a bit. Sit up and strain ears for noises. Imagine a whole gang of emaciated Fagin-like children being fed through the window. Muse on the fact that the only copy of 'the novel' is on the computer. Realise I left it plugged in and it's sounding a bit stormy out there, so will that mean a power surge? Could that cause a fire? Are the children's windows locked and did I leave a key in them? Dog would be trapped though...
And on and on it goes until I get up, find window shut after all, computer unplugged, dog doesn't stir, husband doesn't stir. Both give little squeaks of contentment in their sleep. Then I realise it's five-thirty and I have to get up in an hour, so I'll just be dropping off when the alarm goes off, so will that be worse than not going back to sleep at all? Oh God, it's Thursday. Was that the day the raffle money tickets for the school fete needed to be in? No, that's next week. Flump back into pillow.
Did I empty the washing machine before I went to bed? Son needed rugby shorts for today. Already couldn't go swimming last week because he didn't have his kit. Bet teacher thinks I'm one of those mothers who doesn't care, not interested. Must look serious and on the ball and prepare intelligent questions before parents' evening. Hope bright red hair fades before then, otherwise they'll all be whispering, 'You've only got to look at the mother.' Maybe I should stop dying my hair completely. It seems to be falling out more than usual. Maybe that's why the drains keep getting blocked outside. Perhaps they're clogged up with a wig of red hair. Must ring the bloke from the drain company. Wonder whether they'll be able to fit us in before Christmas. Christmas? What's the date today? Less than five weeks? Must wash the curtains in the spare room before then. Damn, the washing. Rugby shorts!

Glad I only owe 35p in library fines.

Today's five worries

  •  Plight of the honey bee. Ecological Armageddon was the wrong thing to say just before bedtime on Dara O Briain's fab Science Club programme last night.
  • Migrating of eyebrows to chin. It's just not fair or feminine.
  • How to persuade the woman at the council that I need a bigger recycling bin, despite only having two, not 25 children. Will the rats come if I don't?
  • Cab to RNA (Romantic Novelists' Association) party. Will it turn up? Will I have to chase it down our dark lane with the torch? Will I fall in horse manure if I do?
  • The biggy. Will fab agent be there? If she is, will I say something so stupid, she will look at me as though I just sneezed in her wine?

Do let me know your worry for today...would love to hear from you!

Monday, 12 November 2012

As Good As It Gets

I am not twenty-five. Astonishingly to me at least, no longer even forty-five. But of course, that doesn’t stop me thinking I am twenty-five, except when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and wonder why my grandmother has stepped in front of me. But there is nothing like being around real twenty-five-year-olds to grasp that strutting about in tartan trousers in middle age is just a practice run for the rug on the knees later on.  
Last week I was watching ‘the youth’ on holiday in Greece. Set me thinking about whether I’d really like to be in my twenties again. All that glorious freedom – I was a bit of a late starter on the career front – so I tended to weigh life up in possibilities of travel rather than job satisfaction or progression. So if we take a little snapshot of myself a couple of decades ago – au-pairing in Liguria, teaching English in Spain, grape picking in Tuscany – with now - life seeping away queuing for the car park at Morrisons’ and inspecting the dog’s poo for worms – it’s not looking like a terribly hard contest.
Even worse when you define yourself by the sunny day test. A brilliant summer morning, the type that sends definite shadows across the garden, makes you think ‘ice lolly’ even though you haven’t eaten a Fab since you were ten. Twenty years ago, circa 1990. Bounce out of bed. Oooh goody. Sunshine. Off to the beach in a Ford Fiesta crammed with friends, Silk Cut and the sound of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Wonder if the boy with the Metallica T-shirt likes you or prefers your best friend. Try to hide fat ankles. Talk twaddle about the importance of ‘principles’ over several bottles of Piat d’Or or Sol beer and loll about leaning on your best friend, wishing you were lolling on the Metallica T-shirt. Marriage, children, pah - just some nebulous threat on a distant horizon. Watch the sun go down, then come up again. Feel carefree, reckless and slightly hungover. Look fresh-faced with bedhead hair.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Sunny Saturday. Oh goody. Let’s get the barbecue cleaned. Must plant that lobelia before it shrivels up in its Homebase pots. Let’s go for a bike ride when you’ve finished cutting the lawn. Oh. Tyres flat. Why doesn’t anyone put anything back when they’ve used it? Well, I definitely didn’t have it last. Now you tell me your homework project on sustainable development is in for Monday. I thought you had six weeks? But this is the last week and you’ve only done the title page? Forget the bike ride. Sit inside on a sunny day. Worry about lack of Vitamin D. Drink moderate amount of wine, careful not to mix red and white, definitely no spirits or beer. Wake up grouchy, early and very hungover. Wrinkles cling around mouth like desperate climbers dangling from a cliff face. Hair looks sparse and stands up in a good imitation of the wild woman from Wookie.
But yet…that freedom. Was it really all it was cracked up to be? I watched those bonafide twenty-five-year-olds. A seething labyrinth of hormones, one-upmanship and strategies to be eye-catching. The fitness instructor with his dreadlocks. The surfer boys with their manes of blonde hair. The nannies with their sing-song voices. That girl, yes, that one, serving in the restaurant, swishing and a-swaying between the tables until everyone has taken notice. All those tiny waists, dark tans, long legs, short shorts. Everyone jostling for position in the gang, staking their claim, their niche in the hierarchy. Made me grateful for fallen arches and chilblains.
Of course, I envied them the traditional gifts of their age. Boobs that sit rather than hang. Youthful skin, which has a stay-put beauty all of its own. Stomachs that don’t waterfall over the bikini bottoms. I wanted to climb up onto the bar and say, ‘Stop worrying about how you look, this is your moment, you’ll never look better than this. The right person doesn’t care that you have cellulite or your front tooth is a bit wonky.’ But clearly, that would just be wild woman from Wookie come alive and my children would cry and hide from me.
I’d love to have the rhythm of youth that makes a Zumba class look cool and Latino rather than a sack of King Edwards on the move. And I fear my moment for mastering the mono-waterski in the teeny-weeny bikini has passed me by. But on the plus side, I’m not battling away trying to find my place in the world. I might not know who I am but I definitely know who I’m not. I don’t choose my friends because they’re ‘in’. I’ve weeded out the mean-spirited and the disloyal. I’ll never have to go to a night club again and pretend to enjoy myself. If I don’t get invited to a party, I no longer see it as social death, the proof that my face doesn’t fit, that my bum really is too big, that everyone was only pretending to like me - I simply assume they were economising on wine. (They really don’t need to do that. I bring my own.) Maybe I’m not free to disappear off for two months at a time – or even a weekend without some careful planning – but at least there’s someone waiting for me when I get home. Even if it’s only to ask me if there is any more porridge/loo paper/Sellotape…

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Way We Were...

When I was writing my scenes between two longstanding friends in The Divorce Domino, it occurred to me that sometimes it’s not just the spouse you lose when marriages breakdown. Even old mates, ones you’ve known for years, can fall by the wayside because your circumstances change. Which led me to thinking about the pluses and minuses of people who met you before you’d made any decisions to affect the rest of your life.
On the upside, they knew you when bleach was just something you put on your hair, which makes flapping about with the feather duster now seem a bit too little, too late. And given that they’ve seen you in full-on, out-on-the-town gear - an old nightie, your granddad’s cardigan and a pair of monkey boots – they’re not going to throw their hands up in horror because it’s lunchtime and you’re still in your pyjamas.
They can keep up with the conversation conveyor belt without the need for an ‘I am now moving on to a different topic’ sign because they know your first dog was called Minnie (dreadful breath), their photo album is witness to your teenage penchant for sequins and glitter, they helped you dye your hair pink and blue when you were pretending to like The Clash rather than The Nolans. You don’t need to explain family quirks…they know your parents. And find it hard to break the habit of calling them Mr/Mrs (+ surname) when they meet them…very Chopper bikes and Arctic Roll. Unlike my kids’ friends who call me by my first name and treat me like a waitress in TGI Friday’s.
Undeniably, it’s very relaxing to bandy about names from the past without having to pause in the narrative to explain who fits where. You can hook the name of an old boyfriend out of the ether and on cue, they’ll do a face like they’ve just gulped milk that has gone off - ‘Not the bloke who cut his toenails on the kitchen table?’ ‘The one who ran the market stall and kept coming home with bruised apricots?’ All of which makes it easier to admit to old friends you’ve made mistakes in any area of life because, let’s face it, they’ve spent evenings in the company of the worst ones.
But here’s the rub. They knew you before you airbrushed yourself. Their view of you remains rooted in the growing up years when you saw each other on a daily basis at school or college. In my book, one of the characters wants to set up her own business, yet finds it easier to tell her new friends about her ambitions. Why? Because her best friend has her pigeonholed as a lady who lunches, doesn’t like getting her hands dirty, incapable of hard graft. Old friends find it hard to separate who we were from who we are. And sometimes don’t like it when we try to change.
Going on a diet? Scepticism greets the announcement because they’ve seen the failure of Cabbage Soup, Grapefruit, Blood Type, South Beach…Want your children to go to private school/tutor/orthodontist? Prepare to be reminded of the hours you spent selling the Socialist Worker. And if you ever dare to say you don’t drink much, brace yourself for the night of the Pernod Black/Brandy and Babycham/Tequila slammer story.
I had one friend come to stay who brought a car load of food with her, right down to the olive oil. ‘But you can’t cook.’ True, I couldn’t cook – two decades ago. Survived the whole of university on cheese and pickle sandwiches and muesli. It was a wonder I didn’t get scurvy.  But I have a family. Who need to eat. But to her, I’ll always be that person ‘who doesn’t know how to cook’.
So while I love and cherish my longstanding friends, I applaud the ones who met me as my tidier, more domesticated self and who don’t laugh until wine comes out of their noses when I tell them that the highlight of my year is getting a new pantry…