19 May 2009

Was it only the house I fell in love with?

Late morning, Thursday 18th January 2007

The house is set back somewhat from the road, not huge, but still imposing, a delicate Japanese maple tree framing it from the side and a white arch over the front door. Detached, it’s encircled by mature gardens and gives onto woodland at the back. It looks reassuring and solid, old but not decrepit. I know from my mother that it hasn’t been touched for years, but I can see its potential already - all those period features contrasting with a modern interior and I’d have my dream! There’s a wall dividing it from the road which curves round up the hill, and an old wrought-iron gate. What I love at first sight is the path leading directly from the gate to that arch in old mossy ivory stone at the front door: sheltered by a curved iron trellis which must be full of blooms come spring like the leafy arches of nursery rhymes! The branches curving around its structure might be a buddleia, the long weeping purple blooms my mother calls butterfly flowers. Now, in winter, the trellis looks curiously like a bare dressmaker’s crinoline. No season for butterflies! - but still charming and somehow regal. This place, done up, could look really elegant: I can already picture a shiny black door, the ivory limestone restored, the front garden a perfect, tidy balance of colour and texture, but with a delightful old-fashioned feel. I can visualise a new gate and the house numbers engraved on a marble plaque set into the wall... There are also rose bushes in two rows, one row on each side, with perspective towards the entrance. I’m enchanted!

We really can’t afford this house, but something about the way my mother insisted I go and see it piqued my curiosity. It’s not on the market officially, and owned by an old Colonel, wife deceased, adult son and family in Norfolk near my parents. The old gentleman apparently lives in retirement accommodation nearby, having refused to move out of the area and the property’s been vacant for the last couple of years and the time has come to sell up.

I rattle the gate, the old catch slips upwards and it swings open crushing a few strands of evergreen against the wall behind. I half crunch, half slide down the path which pitted and broken had caught and pooled overnight rain and turned the ground slippery with mud. Blown dry twigs provide the crunch. There’s no sign of anyone except a pair of Nike trainers in the old porch next to the hoop cast-iron boot scraper. I take off my glove and press the little round ceramic bell, cold in the damp mist. I’m not even sure if it works, so I stand, waiting, feeling chilled. No answer. As I stand there, the wind gusts, full of damp, and I think of that fairytale where you come upon a house in the woods. I ring the bell again. Bored and shivering, I reach into my handbag and find my Chanel lipstick in its glossy metal tube and a small enamelled mirror, and slick some on. A vain comfort mechanism I’ve gotten used to: gloss the outside and smile inside!

Just as I put the lipstick to my lips the old wooden door suddenly swings open, sending me jumping back. The lipstick snaps in half and flies to the floor, swiping the side of the white trainers with a deep slick of excruciatingly expensive crimson plum! I’m left holding the blingy case in one hand and the compact mirror in the other, half-open like an apology. The dark-haired and handsome young man behind the open door suppresses a grin. I flush deeply, and feel my cheeks burning. A feeling which I suddenly remember in a flash from years ago runs through my chest and trickles down to my knees: I’m embarrassed, hoping fiercely it won’t show, the cold air disguising my flushed cheeks. I bite my lip, open my mouth to speak, wonder what to say, and come up with nothing so shut the compact instead and slip it into my handbag. Then I look down at the neutered lipstick, and so does he. He grins again, a warm, broad grin with even white teeth - a boyish charm.

‘Hi, glad to meet you, you must be Helen Romeo? I’m Nico. I’m sorry, did I startle you?’
I shake my head, mute, but can’t help smiling despite my embarrassment. I’ve got one arm tucked around my waist and the other hand up, almost hiding my mouth, a “you caught me, what to do?” sort of body language! He touches my shoulder gently, a brief and unconscious reassurance and I notice there are a few grey hairs where his hair sweeps back, something I’ve always found sexy in men. Nico studies my silence a moment. ‘Well’, he says, ‘you certainly don’t need to make yourself any more beautiful!’ The way he says it, he means it, blurted out, straight from the heart. I blush at his impudence and practically hide my face with my hand: self-protection pose with a hint of cheekiness, classic flirting. Oh dear!

‘It’s Ok, sorry, I’m only joking! I mean, not about... well, let’s start again! I presume you’re Helen Romeo. I’m Nicola Tchaikovsky, the painter! My friends call me Nick.’
I raise my eyes and the corner of my lips slightly, a quizzical expression, and he continues: ‘Yes, you’re right, just like the composer! Mr. O’Leary, the owner, asked me to please come and open up for you, and show you round. I’m doing some decorating for him here and I’ve got a key. Nicola’s my full name– in my country it’s a boy’s name, meaning Nicholas, not a girl’s! So, today I’ll be Estate Agent – if you don’t mind me showing you around!’ Again that slightly crooked warm grin, and again, a surge. Oh God.

‘Um, yes of course...Nick? ...Please don’t call me Madam, Helen’s fine! ...um, sorry, can I call you Nico, it’s... I prefer it I think!’ I’m feeling all wobbly. I mean, his name’s perfect just as it is, I wanted to say!

‘Of course you can! And do you mind if I call you Helen? ...and may I throw that away for you?’ asks Nico, interrupting my thoughts, pointing at the sad empty lipstick tube I’m still clutching aimlessly.

‘Or do you want me to try and fix it for you?’ He points with his boot to the fatty red stick by the step, wrapped in a dry autumn leaf. ‘It looks like organic lipstick to me!’
I can’t help myself, and laugh out loud, a welcome release of tension. ‘Sorry!’ I tell Nico, putting on my most charming smile but careful now not to be flirty, ‘It was a shock! I didn’t think anyone was in! My lips were chapped in the cold, so I thought...’ Oh, God completely the wrong angle, why am I talking about lips here?

Nico waves my words away, knowing how to reassure when necessary. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll show you round. This is the hall...’

I’m a married woman with two young children trying to compose myself by pretending this gorgeous man is in fact an estate agent: but tt doesn’t work as I’m just thinking how much more handsome he’d look in a suit! Stop it, Helen! – I mentally rein myself in and force myself to focus on the property.

The house is spacious, on 2levels with a large undeveloped loft space on the third. Four incredibly roomy double bedrooms, big enough to add en-suites and still have plenty of space. All have sash windows looking out on the gardens. There’s a smaller room off the landing where the wide stairs change flights, facing the road, perfect for a dressing room. Opposite sits a bathroom, with old-fashioned deep bath and garden aspect, as the estate agents would put it. Downstairs on both sides of the generous hall with its arches and elegant cornicing, are two reception rooms, one opposite the other, lovely high ceilings. Past the left-hand reception room, the elegant staircase climbs up, housing a downstairs loo beneath it, and beyond to the left’s what could be a study perhaps - window out to the road at the side and the woods beyond.

At the back of the hall, facing the entrance, are two doors, one of which we pass through into the old-fashioned kitchen. It’s got more than plenty of space, currently accessorized only with an Aga and a long oak table seating, I calculate at first glance ten, four, four and two at either end. The door accesses the garden. The room adjacent was probably the old parlour, also with a door to the garden and more or less identical in size. As I glance in I can imagine a laundry room and large pantry with that much-desired spiral wine cellar going down, keeping the kitchen (extended and open-plan of course) free of fridges and food storage: more space for cooking and entertaining and for the kids to run around! For now, in its current state it’s all well-maintained, if terribly dated. But the potential is tremendous!

Nico’s being the real-estate dude, all expansive gestures. I can tell he’s awed by the size of a place like this, but at the same time he possibly spends his life painting all sorts of fancy properties. I’m ‘OK’-ing and being business-like and trying to avoid those eyes like melted chocolate, all the while trying to snatch little glimpses to add to my first impressions – not of the house, but of the man... Longish dark slightly wavy hair gives him a bohemian look which the big, smiling eyes and high cheekbones do nothing to dispel. He’s wearing painter’s overalls over an old sweatshirt and jeans, most of the buttons gone down the middle so his casual clothes, and the firm, muscular body under them, are (to my embarrassment) discernable underneath. He tells me he’s from the Ukraine, a place in the mountains. As we walk round the house, and I try to concentrate on the property, I’m following this man’s story and we’re chatting easily. In a very short space of time I’ve learnt that he’s got a Masters degree in Economics, and his father was a Doctor. His father died, his mother started to struggle financially, and he decided that for her, and his younger sister’s schooling, he’d leave his close-knit family and work in Europe. He hasn’t been home in three years. He gets a lot of racism: ‘But I don’t let it affect me, because they do not understand’.

‘Don’t worry’, I hear myself say, ‘money doesn’t help you if you’re basically ignorant!’ I’m thinking of one of the mums at school, not an Oxbridge type at all herself to put it mildly, who said her cleaner is “probably an uneducated peasant!” Well, she should meet Nico then! I feel a deep connection with this embarrassingly attractive young man, which leaves me, like the cliché, dazed and confused. I almost don’t know what to say when the time comes to go, hesitating for a moment under the porch, knowing I might never see him again. But I’m a married mum of two, never forget: so why should I?
We shake hands formally and I turn away, reluctantly, then a last little wave at the end of the path as I shut the gate behind me. And force myself not to look back one more time. Instead, the sight of him standing there at the door, smiling, burns into my consciousness and leaves an image - and almost immediately I just can’t wait to see him again...

What fate doles out

Thursday 18th January 2007

Today we all seem to be over our lurgies, or rather the antibiotics are kicking in. In my case, I’m sure my unfeasibly early bed last night helped a treat: sleep is at so much of a premium in our household, that it automatically cures all ills! I’d gone out like a light, never heard Martin on his return, and never saw him this morning before he left early. I did see that the sandwich toaster was full of crumbs and felt smears of butter on the kitchen counter, so I figured that he’d worked out how to fix himself something to eat. He’d even put his plate away in the dishwasher, which is a good sign. I’d been on the verge of feeling guilty about not fulfilling my wifely duties and leaving my husband to his own devices, but last night the feeling grotty had been greater than the feeling guilty, so I thought what the hell! Martin could do with learning to be a bit less pandered to.

I drive to Natalia’s, hedge fund wife extraordinaire, having dropped the kids at school and nursery. Arriving at her super-residence ‘Junipers’, my mobile beeps and I fish it out of my handbag (new, authentic Miu Miu, white leather with studs, eBay: my latest gift to myself, a girl’s gotta have treats and if they’re not forthcoming from elsewhere, you buy them for yourself!) It’s Natalia, texting: “Going 2 B late. On way bk frm check- up. Make yourself @ home. 15 mins away. Nat”

I ring the bell, pass through the gate, and Paloma the housekeeper opens the front door to tell me that Natalia’s just called to say that she’ll be delayed by about ten minutes. Natalia’s world is so full of appointments and staff that she has to be super efficient. At home she has Paloma (who’s live-in and deals with ensuring the household runs smoothly, cakes and tea are made for guests, and the laundry is done), a Nanny who works on-demand shifts and is a qualified teacher, a cook (for the non-cakey side of things), a window cleaner for the huge expanses of glass, a regular cleaner, a team of gardeners, a tree surgeon (the orchard and the woods to the back of the house) and a pool person (whatever they’re called) to make sure the indoor and outdoor pools, plunge pool, sauna and solarium are clean, filtered and in working order. I’m certain there must also be a person looking after security of some description. Gregory, Natalia's hedge fund star hubby, surely employs an accountant and a tax advisor and a lawyer at the very minimum himself, making me wonder if being wealthy might not be a great deal more complicated and exhausting than most people’s fantasy: my household is infinitely simpler!

But motherhood has the power to transcend all boundaries, in the same way that young children have no notion of other children’s differences. As my mother loves to say, if you’ve got children or pets you’ll always make friends! Natalia and I: two mothers meeting for a nice chat - in this context we could be part of any century, any continent, any race.

But it just happens that we’re in the here and now, and all very attractive too: I’m sitting in one of Natalia’s living rooms, this one two flights upstairs and extending out through the Surbiten’s signature glass onto a generous wrap-around balcony. Sliding panel doors, of the type that disappear into the walls, are shut on one side of the room, behind which a corridor leads off to bedrooms. Opposite, they’re open, blending the room seamlessly with another ample living area: large rectangular thin-framed mirror taking up most of the far wall, lots of plush couches with big textured cushions, a couple of industrial-sized beanbags on the floor. The glass doors onto the balcony are specially treated to cut out reflections - I know that the mirror at a touch transforms into a giant plasma TV screen because Kallum, with great excitement, told me about the “magic mirror”! Set back into the very corner of the room is a small glass elevator which goes down into the kitchen on the first floor, to bring up drinks and snacks without having to use the flights of stairs.

I’m perched on an amazing steel blue ergonomic sofa with matching curved footstool, leafing distractedly through a copy of “Vogue” and a coffee table book about Heston Blumenthal, the chef whose ‘molecular cuisine’ is probably to your average bacon butty what this sofa is to DFS the discount store. On the wall in front of me - above the decorative fireplace crammed with split logs with cut ends perfectly arranged in section - is what looks like a Banksy original, spray-painted on canvas: the graffiti artist turned art-world darling. It shows a masked protestor throwing, instead of a petrol bomb, a beautiful bunch of multi-coloured flowers: I can see exactly why Natalia would choose it.

I’m just trying out the black and white flecked pony-skin Le Corbusier lounge chair for comfort (very), when Natalia appears at the door in wide white flared wool trousers, a black ruched cashmere top with ribbon detailing and a sexy wide grey patent belt clinching her slim waist and elongating her long legs. Those legs are capped with matching grey patent pumps with a charming little black and white bow detail. Natalia is always the first to sense a fashion trend, whether because she gets new season designer previews and front seats at London Fashion Week, I’ve never asked! But I do bet that type of belt will surface in the Spring/Summer ’08 collections - very 70’s Glam!

‘Helen, sorry I’m late, darling’. As always, Natalia’s as charming as she looks.
‘No, it’s only been a few minutes, Natalia, don’t worry! Paloma asked me if I wanted a cup of tea but I’ve been fine so I said I’d wait. I’ve been drooling over Vogue! You said you’d been to a check-up..?’

Natalia flops into the welcoming padding of an iconic ‘Egg’ chair in a bright red, and sighs. ‘Helen, I can’t talk to Greg about it!’

‘About what, Natalia?’

‘About...’ she tails off and looks up at the ceiling, running her hand through her hair. She thinks for a short minute and stretches her shoulders to relieve the tension. ‘Helen, you know we’ve been trying for a while for a second child. But we can’t seem to get pregnant!’ (funny how people say ‘we’, as if it were a joint experience, but then I guess it is, just never struck me as such especially in the face of my husband's nonchalance.)

... ‘Well, it’s been more than 8 months now, and I’ve started to get worried! Greg thinks of course that it’s OK - for him, if you try hard enough, you’ll achieve anything! But I’m almost 40, and you never know! So, I’ve been going to a specialist and done some tests but they keep on saying that everything’s fine.’
‘Well, that’s great, Natalia, isn’t it? Isn’t that good news – you don’t have to worry?’

‘But I am, Helen. I can’t help it! I’m beginning to think it’ll never happen…’
I try to reassure her, despite my lack of experience, having had the opposite: two unexpected pregnancies.

‘Helen.’ My friend looks me in the eye, a slightly mischievous grin on her face. ‘When I say we’ve been trying for a child, well, we’ve been trying every night! If that hasn’t worked by now, I don’t know what will!’

I raise my eyebrows. ‘Natalia, do you really mean, I mean, are you really saying that…’

‘Yes?’ says Natalia, quizzical, ‘There aren’t many other ways to get pregnant, you know!’ Wow! I think, wondering about my situation with Martin. I am hugely resisting the urge to go into detail and find out how such a thing is possible when you’re married with a child and busy all day! It simply sounds like climbing Everest to me, a lot of hard work and best left to someone else! Perhaps that’s what money does for you? Maybe because other people are doing all the chores, you get a great sex life? In that case, bring on the money, baby!

‘Well’, I say, ‘then I guess you’re right to get things checked out, the earlier the better! Why not tell Greg, don’t you think he’ll understand?’

Natalia looks down again, hesitating, and I suddenly get the feeling I’m missing some crucial undercurrent. ‘Sorry, Natalia', I say, 'I shouldn’t really advise you, but I wish I could help!’

‘It’s all right, Helen. I need some friendly advice! I know I’m not making much sense, so I’ll explain’. She sighs, this time biting her lip. ‘Greg and I met at Oxford, fell in love and were just finishing our last term when I got pregnant, we were going to get engaged anyway so it wasn’t a problem. Greg got his first trading job in the City and was already working crazy hours. Anyway, to cut a long story short, our baby died only a few days after birth, of undiagnosed sleep apnoea, a cot-death-related condition. Greg threw himself into his work and I threw myself into arranging our wedding. It was 10 years before I got pregnant with Mark, at which point Greg’s career was forging ahead.’
‘You’ve got to understand, Helen, that Greg’s had a charmed life. Everything he’s touched has turned to gold! He’s got where he is, from the new recruit on the trading desk, in 15 years. He doesn’t believe in failure! He’s an expert skier, used to sky dive before the kids, thinks he’s invincible! Only the loss of our daughter…’ She gulps, and I gulp too, finding it hard to stay dry-eyed.

‘I understand, Natalia, I really do, god, I mean I can’t even imagine’.... I tail off.
‘And remember for men that it’s often a big macho thing, Helen. I’ve been checked out but I can’t just ask him to go and get his little guys counted! I mean, there’s one child, he’ll think, so just relax and stop panicking! But I can’t, Helen! Now they want me to go for a laparoscopy, where they check your tubes - it’s a bit invasive but I need to get it done to put my mind at rest. I don’t want to tell Greg though and make it into an issue! Problem is, you’re supposed to feel quite fluey the next day. What do you think?’

At this point Paloma the housekeeper appears with a tray and delicate bone china cups of Earl Grey, each with a small crescent of lemon: she remembers what I like! What an asset, that woman, I think, as she glides away unobtrusively.

‘I don’t know. I really don’t. I think you ought to tell him, Natalia. Don’t you need his support? I mean, he’ll find out one way or another sooner or later, won’t he?’
‘No, Helen, you know, I don’t want to rock the boat for nothing, and hopefully they’ll say that everything’s OK. After all, we had Mark, didn’t we?’ her pretty face is almost beseeching me to reassure her: there’s something intensely vulnerable about this person who has almost everything. Everything, that is, except the one thing she wants most! I feel like hugging her. I remind myself never to take my children for granted.

‘OK, Natalia, then don’t tell him. How about you try to get it done on a Friday perhaps, and you can always say it’s a regular smear-test? And a group of us at school have been talking about doing a Champneys Spa day some weekend and we could book it for the Saturday, and if you join us, it’ll give you a chance to relax and keep your feet up, that way you won’t be around Greg feeling woozy, and he’ll never know! And we’ll have some quality girly time to cheer you up! It’s about time my Mum came and did some babysitting!’
Natalia’s quiet, thinking, gently twisting a starched linen napkin. ‘OK,’ she says: ‘I’ll book it! Thanks, Helen, you’ve been a real help!’
‘No problem, Natalia. Anytime!’

She smiles, gratefully. And I wonder, quietly, about how fate doles things out – me, greedily wanting what Natalia has, and her, genuinely, wanting what I have.

Domestic havoc

Wednesday 17th January 2007

Today is Callum’s second day off school with an ear infection most possibly caused by me sticking down a toothpick to remove a glob of ear wax (cue maternal guilt in unbearable waves). The pharmacist looked at me aghast as I appeared for the second time in 3 days waving my little green slip! I’m exhausted, especially when confronted with the resilience of kids – a temperature of 39 one minute, jumping up screeching ‘Spiderman’ the next. Today’s convalescence tasks, including making Daddy a card and cutting out and colouring in, have blossomed into an orgy of craft manufacture: sheets of paper lying sticky and over-decorated on every available radiator to dry; abstract designs scribbled onto other sheets which were then cut up into tiny pieces perfect for scattering around the entire room (I’ve been unable to get a logical explanation for this, but I’m not still allowed to sweep them up on pain of tantrum.) Not to mention the glue and glitter everywhere (including inside that infected ear) from little fingers. The place is a wreck of sticky and crunchy shiny runs of silver and gold, and the floor’s piled with heaps of partially-used wipes pulled out to supposedly wipe up the mess: Angel’s very female contribution.

On top of all this, since Callum is off his food and Angel takes the cue from him, mealtimes are a dead loss: the kids push their portions around their plates like some sort of tea-party game, eventually becoming bored of the whole thing and flopping at the table like two rag dolls. Meanwhile, my throat feels like it’s been sanded with that vicious-looking dark blue metal file my father keeps hanging in his garden shed - but being rundown and unwell is nothing in comparison with the guilt at my children being inadequately fed: Annabel Karmel and Tana Ramsey stare down from my shelf in disapproval. Peanut butter sandwiches, scrambled egg, grapes, dried cranberries and expensive squeezy yogurts in fruit shapes hardly count as a varied diet for growing little people... or do they? Luckily they’re too young to notice... although Callum begged for mandarins today (we’ve run out), cue another surge of maternal guilt (it’s becoming an epidemic!) and sinking feeling of failure.

The day’s really dragging on and the children’s behaviour escalating. I nag, recriminate and my croaky voice steadily rises in frustration. Suddenly close to tears I walk out on the scene with the lame excuse of going to blow my nose, lock myself in the next room and call… my mother? No: probably not there but at choir practise, bridge club, drinking home-made wine with friends, or some church restoration committee meeting instead. Let’s see: call Natalia, hedge fund mum extraordinaire and pillar of calm! I dial Natalia’s number and Paloma her housekeeper answers, fetches Natalia for me. She’s rational and calm and manages to do the trick by inviting me round for a coffee tomorrow morning before my house viewing. An instant pick-me-up. Hooray!

I forgive the kids the rest of their dinner and pop them in front of ‘Tractor Tom’ –nice, sanitised and carefully vetted DVDs, while I sort out the washing. As I bend down, probably in the wrong ergonomic position, piling damp heavy towels, children’s vests with poppers at the crotch, and sodden candy-striped shirts between the washing machine and the drier, I vow to be more patient in future - after all, it’s not the children’s fault I’m not well and feeling shitty with myself! They really don’t deserve it: Callum, the most handsome little boy in the world with his infinite good nature and elder brother sensibleness; Angel, my pretty, curly daughter, wholesome smell of soft perfect skin, tickly freshness of baby-shampooed hair, cheeky dimpled smile and those shrieks of pure giggly girly joy - to me, they’re worth more than anything else in the world, and at the end of the day, all the aggravation and mess and tiredness are worth it - I hope!

I rub my aching back, clear my fuzzy throat, and decide that when the children go to bed, I’ll get an early night too. I leave hubby Martin a message: “Hey, it’s me. I’m not feeling too great, so I’m going to bed early. Please grab something to eat out, if you can. I'm not cooking tonight!”


p.m. Monday 15th January 2007

What sort of a woman stands over a bowl of half a kilo of Tiger Prawns, deveining them, shelling them and washing them in salt when she has acute tonsillitis, a body aching all over, and knees shot through with pins and needles? The kids are already tucked up, and I should be too! “Rub coarse salt all over as if soap” (the prawns, not the knees!) “rinse and repeat” – apparently this will prevent them going hard during cooking and also allow them to taste better, says good old Jamie Oliver. If they’ve had their heads removed, where all the fat and flavour is, they’ll need it. Also, give the tail a light twisting motion to remove all the available meat from the end of the shell. This I do for my husband, or maybe more for the huge tiger prawns which were defrosted overnight and which otherwise will spoil. I’m trying my best to prolong our marital truce, remembering Bollywood supermum Pinki’s words of wisdom (I’ve hidden the parking ticket I got yesterday: it would be akin to a powder keg!). I was so happy about the prospect of schlepping around house viewings - the chance at last to move onwards and upwards in life! - that I’d even decided on an impromptu candle-lit dinner with hubby for sanctioning the move! – but, admittedly this was all yesterday before I woke up infected. Nevertheless, I solider on and stand over the prawns, counting them down as my fingers work on autopilot with the crispy little shells, and my legs shake. And all the while, just as my husband might possibly dream of sex as he slogs on late at the office, I visualise the new kitchen in my dream residence, full of fancy appliances: that flat screen extractor which disappears into the worktop with the touch of a button; steam oven; convection hobs; refrigerated drawers for fiddly things like all those jars; even those LED tap fittings which turn the water pretty colours like Natalia’s, hedge fund wife extraordinaire! As for the design, it’d have to be Poggenpohl kitchen: top of the range, designer German, the Ferrari of kitchens! And, why not? a cook to go with it! - to de-vein prawns for me when I am ill! …(Why I don’t just get real and call for a pizza I don’t know).

An expensive sore throat

a.m. Monday 15th January 2007

So there I was the other day outside school, bragging to another Mum, “Ooh, I haven’t had anything this winter, not even a runny nose or a tickly throat!”. I then gave her a whole spiel about Echinacea, the herb which strengthens your immune system, which I’m not sure she appreciated: but really, I am so starved of adult contact during the day that it’s any excuse to get a discussion going. This morning early all that self-possession crumbled as I woke with my throat coated in a blanket of thick slimy cactus plant - on closer inspection I was confronted with tonsils looking exactly like two toadstools... Damn, damn, damn, all I needed with estate agents to contact and generally a whole plan of action over the next few days.

Well, acute tonsillitis never stopped any at-home mum from still having to drag the children out of bed, sleepy forms huddled inside sleeping bags in the foetal position, already partially awakened by their new classical ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusic’ alarm. From waking up to getting up, then, is another milestone and takes more than a little gentle chiding. After that, the flurry of clumsy limbs stuck in the wrong positions in little sleeves and trousers and tights, so that getting dressed becomes a marathon...Next, brushing teeth: swallowing too much toothpaste and a big spit full of blue gloop right onto clean school uniform, quick wash of sleepy faces. Down the stairs to ‘cheerios’ in melamine bowls (one with, one without milk), assorted pee-pees, and finally the children are ready to leave! All the while my head’s pounding, throat crackling and limbs aching. Cue my son as soon we’re strapped into the car, ignition on, and ready to go (late): ‘I WANT MY APPLE JUICE!’ - this being the same apple juice he asked me emphatically to put back in the fridge. Tantrum ensues while sitting in the (Bugger!) traffic jam. I try to ignore it, illegally juggling my mobile phone and steering wheel: “You are out of calling credit please arrange a top-up!” Now, I’m juggling mobile, steering wheel, credit cards and purse. ‘Mummy I don’t like you anymore, I want to throw you in the bin’, says Callum, vehemently. I say nothing. If I don’t get through to the Doctor’s surgery within 15 minutes of the phone lines opening, I won’t get an appointment today and I can almost feel my tonsils filling with pus. All I need now is a passing law enforcement officer of some type to notice my lame attempt at hiding my mobile phone in the hood of my coat! Luckily the traffic is slow-moving, and two minutes before the major roundabout, I get my doctor’s slot. Hurrah!
Callum, meanwhile, has forgotten all about the apple juice and taken to singing the ‘Batman’ theme tune at the top of his (blatantly non-infected) lungs.

I’m finally at the surgery, children having been dropped off at their respective schools, and I’ve been waiting a long time, too long…so long that it’s almost time for Angel’s pick-up again! I lose patience and head for the receptionist. Heads turns in unison: “what does she want, is she trying to jump the queue?” Technically I’m not, as my appointment was literally 45 minutes ago. To judge by the ‘tut tut’-ing and sighing going on, I’m not the only one delayed. But that’s not going to make me sit here meekly while my daughter bursts into tears because her Mummy’s the only mummy not there on time! I tell the receptionist that my case is an open and shut one, literally, as I’ll just need to open my mouth for a diagnosis and shut it again! ‘You see’, I tell her up close, breathing over the reception counter: ‘my tonsils are totally covered in pus!’ From the look on her face it was the right angle to take, the scrolling display beeps my name – and I’m in. Two minutes with a very dishy young doctor sporting a candy-striped shirt and fancy cufflinks and I’m out of the surgery again, waving my prescription. ‘Thanks!’ I tell the receptionist gaily as I swan past. But, talking of two minutes, I arrive back at my car with precisely that to spare, at least by my watch, only to find that the local parking attendant has his watch set differently and has trumped me to it, leaving me with a very expensive sore throat! I suddenly feel an awful lot worse. Now I’m going to have to tell my husband Martin I got a parking ticket. You’d think, being South African by birth, he’d be oh so laid back – but he’s got that Italian blood, and a quick temper to boot.

A mixed weekend

Sunday 14th January 2007

Sunday, and the exotic outings have been and gone. I’d go out to the local boutiques for a spot of window shopping, but I’d have to go alone and lonely is definitely unglamorous. All my friends, mums too bar Fox (who’s in Bristol, and no good to me there) are busy with their families, and so off the radar. Or at least that’s what I tell myself: they may well be similarly sitting at home, dying to have an hour out in a café with a friend, a well-deserved girly break - but imagining, just like me, that everyone else is happily ensconced doing wonderful family activities.
As I wait for the kids to stop arguing over their 11 o’clock carrot and raisin cereal bars, I quickly turn to the last page of the FT “How to Spend It” weekend magazine supplement - my favourite, sadly not for the reason that I seek that sort of advice. The column is entitled ‘Perfect Weekend’, which says it all: I’m temporarily transported into the lifestyle of a famous designer. True to type, his weekends (in Paris, London, New York or Tokyo) whether with or without family, children and friends, usually consist of a lot of outings to fascinating places, dining well in the best restaurants, entertaining interesting guests at home in effortless style and viewing the latest movies (private home cinema?). All in all, a most relaxing break from being super-productive, thoroughly career-satisfied, and embraced by the world as a genius! My typical Sunday, in comparison, would read like this:
“Woke up, rounded up and dressed the kids, cleaned their teeth, cleaned mine, hurriedly made the family breakfast (all starving), cleared up after breakfast, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher, cleared up the bedrooms, loaded and put on the washing machine. All in my pyjamas, managed finally to have a shower at 11.30 am. Then made lunch, cleared up again, swept the floor, entertained the children
(trying to control the felt-tip pens being waved around: weapons of mass scribbles). A cup of tea while hubby sleeps off lunch (and a hard week at work) in front of the sports updates on Sky. A quick outing to the park in the afternoon (dealing with squabbling siblings) before preparing the kids’ dinner, then our dinner, then clearing up again and so the day ends with a spot of television, probably a Sky repeat of ‘Have I got News for You!” Have I not got news for me, I tend to think, wryly.

From where I am sitting I can see the thin layer of dust sitting underneath the dining table, just waiting to be swept up. Surely a crisp and invigorating winter day like this deserves more.

Kal was supposed to go to a midday birthday party today but seeing as we were all feeling too lazy to get up early, by the time I’d sorted out the house and clothed and fed two children and put on the washing it was past half past ten, with me still in my pyjamas (what did I tell you?!).

‘If you’ve going to take the little man to his party you’d better make it quick, eh, or the day will be over before it’s begun!’ intones my other half while calmly tucking into his third breakfast of the day (my stomach meanwhile feels achingly empty as I haven’t had a moment to eat yet). Somehow I enjoy weekday mornings more than Sundays, as at least I feel I’m out and about early with a purpose in life. Sundays seem to represent the worst in domestic inactivity. I glance at the gaudy party invitation. A zoo and adventure playground: perfect party venue for Mums who don’t want their houses trashed by 30-odd children (allowing for siblings) and 25-odd parents, or whose staff doesn’t work on weekends to clear up after them. Probably a mixture of the two, meaning possibly an hour’s drive through the weekend London traffic. And I’m not even dressed yet. And I need to eat!

‘You’d have to leave right now to get there on time!’, states my husband matter-of-factly, glancing at my baggy pyjamas covered in toast crumbs and then burying his head in the F.T. I am about to open my mouth to suggest that he take Callum instead, but the answer is pretty-much pre-guessable so I shut it again and hide the invite under a pile of newspapers. Luckily, I hadn’t prepped Callum by mentioning the party, at least not today, although the present is sitting neatly wrapped on the top of the fridge where I’d perched it away from Angel’s curious little fists. I’m already squirming with guilt at allowing my son to miss out on jungle climbs and a load of raucous fun with his friends, and myself to miss out on the rare treat of sticky cupcakes (as well as a good gossip). I just hope that Callum’s friends don’t talk about the party at school on Monday so that he realises his naughty Mummy somehow forgot to include him in the fun.

Banishing all thoughts of maternal guilt, I urge the kids to have an afternoon rake-around in their large garden sandpit on legs instead: perfect, Callum loves construction and Angel loves destruction...but they discover to their horror that since I’d forgotten to put the cover back and it’s been raining in the interim, there’s now a large pool of water in it with various brightly-coloured plastic implements and sand moulds floating around like flotsam and jetsam. This upsets Angel considerably as she quite rightly says that it’s a sandpit and not a pond - red face, tears and stamping feet result. I feel like screaming, but as every Mum knows there are good and bad days. Yesterday (Saturday) was good. And today (Sunday) not so good. A mixed weekend!

22 April 2009

Lunch out

Saturday 13th January 2007

Today is Saturday again. Morning after. As I write, the famine's at an end: Martin bounced out of bed and even pinched my bottom! It was quite endearing - for a moment he looked 23 again. All this makes me feel like recapturing the magic feeling of anticipation and freedom the word ‘weekend’ used to represent, centuries ago in Cape Town when we were madly in love and used to follow a night of heady passion with a relaxed brunch out somewhere chic and full of beautiful people, looking good and feeling great, before a jaunty afternoon stroll on the beach. Then home to more sex! Soooo NOT London and our current lifestyle, it jars. But, ‘autre pays, autre meurs’, they say in French meaning what you do in Cape Town you can’t do in London, and vice-versa. Anyway, standing in front of my wardrobe, I decide to glam it up a bit, hoping vaguely to coerce Martin into taking us out for lunch: a real possibility after last night and the good mood he’s in today. I can hear him laughing with Angel in the next room. Ultimately, I might end up all dressed-up with nowhere to go but, for once, I can’t face yet another pair of jeans. As for the meal, I’ve decided on a pricey but authentic new dim-sum restaurant I’ve been reading about, only a short drive away. Ignoring the fact that my children, fussy eaters, will probably go hungry.

I packed raspberry flavoured soya desserts and organic raisin boxes in my favourite Orla Kiehly shoulder bag, together with the bibs, change of clothes for Angel and the spare pull-up nappies. Mini crayolas, folded pages ripped from colouring books, jolly phonics cards and pocket Beatrix Potter and Sportacus books which kept them occupied when they’d finished pulling apart the steamed tiger prawn shitake and water chestnut parcels, and spitting out the miniature egg custard tarts (which I thought, wrongly, might be child-friendly). I did enjoy the lunch myself, though…even if I did break my New Year’s diet…

A bigger house

p.m. Friday 12th January 2007

Buoyed by my chat with Pinki today, I spent the rest of the day trying consciously to remember what I used to love in my husband. Whom at least I managed to choose myself, marry without interference, and vow for better or for worse, taking my own responsibility for the outcome. When he got home late from the airport and hungry he found a roast leg of lamb studded with coriander seeds and rosemary in a red wine jus (secretly an old bottle of wine I found tucked in the corner by the stove). Roast potatoes and parsnips and green beans lightly sautéed with a hint of garlic and flaked almonds.

Although it was too late to spend hours over dinner we did manage to have a semi-civilised meal, and very different from the usual affair where I eat with the kids and he eats whatever time he gets back (late). We even talked for once:
‘Helen’, said Martin, stabbing at a slice of meat and picking off a rosemary stalk, flicking it to the side of the Wedgwood gold rim plates I’d got out specially, ‘I think it’s time to look for another house. I know I’ve been busy, but when I AM here I just see you running around all the time clearing up all the clutter’ (with his South African accent, it sounds like ‘clitter’!).

Too right, I think, not at all liking the mental picture this conjures up. Having perfected a system of manic tidying to get the place under control in 20 minutes flat, I often worry I’ve got some sort of compulsive disorder. But a tidy room is a sham in any case, and never lasts more than a few minutes: ready to collapse like a house of cards the minute a little person enters its portals.

Martin continues: ‘And the bubs are getting older, one day they’ll need their own rooms. And this place isn’t right for entertaining! So, I’ve decided it’s time to trade up!’
He pours himself more wine. Swills it round the glass, sniffs the aroma and takes a sip, smacking his lips. Duly satisfied with both the wine and this new development in our life together, Martin’s all puffed up. He’s got his wife’s attention again, the steering wheel in hand: Martin relishes being the provider. I know the way he thinks: women may have control over the nuts and bolts of domestic life, but who brings in the cash to keep the whole business up and running in the first place? “Best to concentrate on the big picture and leave the details to others!” is Martin’s mantra - in the office and at home.

Just as well too - I've increasingly realised just how little my husband (or most men, for that matter) are cut out to do simple tasks. In the chaotic domestic environment, husbands are very welcome to help as long as they follow our instructions and don't make extra work for us by bollocking things up. Martin gets round this conundrum by not offering to help in the first place. When challenged, he cites the cliché of the well-meaning Dad who puts the nappy on the wrong way, gets criticised for it and decides not to bother next time. In our defence as Mums, we’ve had to learn the hard way how to multi-task and be efficient and some, like me, can’t then drop the habit. You round up your kids like a field-marshal and before long you’re barking orders at Hubby too. Sometimes I actually feel sorry for Martin and wonder how much I'm to blame for our domestic woes.

As for Martin's sudden about-turn on buying a new house, I sneakily wonder how much of my husband’s decision is based on family needs and how much based on his thinking that with the circles he moves and grooves in, his semi-detached household just doesn’t cut it - despite the fact that we refurbished the entire place top to bottom when we bought it with extortionate ‘Farrow & Ball’ paint and the best of German designer kitchen and bathroom fittings. But I don’t actually care less what his reasoning is. Unusually, Martin and I are fully in agreement. I really, desperately need more space.

‘Come on baby, let’s have an early bed!’ Dinner finished, the caveman’s in full swing and nuzzling up behind me at the kitchen sink (of all clichéd places). Luckily the wine, a red with ‘Pommard 1er Cru’ on the label and a seductively spicy taste has taken its toll. Martin enjoys his tipple, another discipline for him to master, something else to be in the know about.

For once, I’m just enjoying floating above the kitchen sink instead of wading through it! I figure that my husband deserves a bit of lovin’. I relax, and we disappear off upstairs.

11 April 2009

I arrange to take you as my spouse...

Friday 12th January 2007,later that afternoon

We’re sitting in hedge-fund wife and fellow mum Natalia’s white cavernous kitchen, the last dregs of unseasonal winter sunlight pushing through the windows. The kids are running around the playroom on the floor above, little thudded footsteps, squeals, laughter. They’re OK, Paloma the trusty Filippino housekeeper's keeping an eye. When we left them to it, the boys had dressed up as Spiderman and were racing round saving the Universe, and the girls, predictably, were sitting bent over dot-to-dots and Disney colouring books.
‘Does anyone want coffee?’ asks Natalia, beside the Gaggia. It’s a heavy, ornamental old-fashioned coffee machine with a big bronze eagle on top, the like of which I’ve never seen anywhere but Milan in those grand old places with mahogany, mirrors, marble countertops and waiters in uniform. Quite a conversation piece! Oh, the joy of being able to afford anything that takes your whim!
‘No thanks’, says Pinki, rich Bollywood mum, brushing down her baggy silk shirt and absent-mindedly rubbing her stomach. ‘I haven’t fancied it recently.’
‘Pinki, are you going to tell Helen?’ asks Natalia cheekily, putting her hand on Pinki’s shoulder and leaning into her conspiratorially. Natalia knows Pinki better than I do, being neighbours on 'millionaire's row'. She turns on her heels towards a cooler cabinet with glass doors and shelves, between the mammoth double brushed steel American fridge-freezer and the temperature-controlled wine cabinet. She pulls open the door and lifts a beautifully-decorated cake from the shelf. I can see a couple of other mouthwatering creations there too, as well as bowls of fruits. Either Paloma, or Natalia’s cook, or both, must have been busy.
‘Well, yes, OK’ says Pinki. ‘I mean, it’s time to break the news. I had my twelve week scan just after the new year!’
‘Pinki, you’re expecting! That’s wonderful! Oh my god! Five kids, wow! I've got my hands full with two!’
‘Well, my eldest will be at boarding school and I'll have help at home, naturally. My husband says, why not when the house is so big?! We Indians love a big family!'

Pinki still lilts with a very Indian inflection despite her years in England. The house she’s talking about is the mansion with the Roman columns just down the road I’d seen on my first foray into this neck of the woods. I’d guess that it’s got multiple bedrooms, games room, wine-cellar, pool, screening room etc. That type of thing. The houses around here usually do. Atul, Pinki’s husband, is some hotshot tech company director, or something. ‘Atul works very hard’, she told me once, by way of explanation for the fact that we obviously won’t meet her husband. ‘He travels all the time. And plays golf with his clients at the weekend!'
‘Sounds like a pretty typical husband to me!' I'd replied. 'Men and sport! Martin would like nothing better than lounging on the sofa all weekend with a bottle of Bud and sport on the box!’ I'd laughed, even if secretly I think it’s all a bit of a tragedy.

I ask Pinki if she'd always dreamt of a big family, while Natalia sets a large crystal designery platter on the black and gold flecked granite countertop of the kitchen island. On it, a coffee-coloured cake groaning under smooth curls of dark and white chocolate and al dente' roasted half hazelnuts: a diet-busting bomb laced with Amaretto liqueur. A silver cake knife and a small pile of Wedgwood’s best sit beside it ready.
Pinki's already tucking into a large slice of carrot cake (complete with marzipan decor) with a slim silver fork. She looks up, and delicately wipes a sticky crumb off her lower lip with a heavy linen napkin.
‘My marriage was arranged by my parents, and you know it's all to do with planning a family anyway’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘Look, we expect it from childhood. First you get married and then you have children. I was happy to trust my Mother's choice.
‘When I reached twenty-two my parents started looking, we settled on the son of a local industrialist but there were astrology problems – horoscopes have to match, you see! – and his family pulled out. My parents were embarrassed and looked at overseas proposals. We got Atul’s photo from a family friend’s cousin in London. Atul was here for a joint venture – that was 15 years ago. He came back to India for the engagement 5 months later, we married and I moved to London.’
‘Do you mean, Pinki’, I ask in wonderment, ‘that you never actually saw your husband until you got engaged?’
‘No,’ said Pinki, ‘but I saw a photo and we wrote to each other?’
I tell Natalia I’d take an Earl Grey. Slice of lemon, please. Absolutely no milk, thanks. No sugar, either, thanks.
‘Pinki’, I ask cautiously, ‘what if you hadn’t got on with your husband, then what? After all, it’s a huge risk to take, marrying someone you don’t know very well at all!’
‘Helen, it’s a huge risk marrying someone whether you know them or not! You just have to know what's expected of you and do your bit - we call it duty. Our duty's to keep it all harmonious, we don't believe in divorce.'
Put it like that and she’s right. I’m dying to ask Pinki about sex, but she’s pregnant for the fourth time, so that more or less answers my question. I tuck into my slice of cake feeling more than a little guilty about the calories, and silently contemplate (and compare) my own marriage.


Friday 12th January 2007, early afternoon

We were already late having lunch and have now got to hurry if we’re going to make it to the children’s play date on time. I manoeuvre between mounds of scattered building bricks to fetch Angel’s diluted apple juice, almost slipping on a stray sheet of scribbled paper, and curse under my breath. The kids are already installed at the large wooden dining table in the kitchen extension, rustic enough to weather pens, paints, glue, the kid’s spat-out food and assorted sticky stuff. This zone of the house multi-tasks as downstairs playroom, kitchen and general living area all in one - with resulting chaos. Angel’s meant to be eating but she’s reaching out like an octopus to everything she can grab and play with except her spoon. She’s singing, too, which doesn’t mix with lunch, and spits a gooey lump into her lap before I can grab a wipe to deal with it. I’m trying to be cross but her ringlets fall around her soft little face and she grins lovingly, grabbing me as I come past with those tiny fingers covered in saliva and crumbs, planting an air kiss on my hand. That’s parenting! My children smell the sweetest, have the most imploring, liquid eyes, the softest most kissable skin and make me laugh every day: but the dinner table is a battlefield, our greatest source of conflict (I’ve been known to retreat into the next room in tears). You feed them organic this, additive-free that, wholemeal this, free-range organic and pesticide-free that, and spend a fortune at Waitrose and knowing my luck they’ll turn 13 and crave McDonalds. I get up to fetch another cup of juice and trip over a ‘Thomas the tank engine’ bath toy, just saving my balance in time. Next I manage to over-fill the cup and spill juice all over the kitchen counter, from where it seeps down into the drawers and dribbles back behind the toaster. I’m trying to dab at my splattered shirt when Kal, who’s finished all his fish fingers but left his vegetables untouched, whines that Angel’s throwing her grapes all over the floor. I pick them up like a robot, trying to stay calm.
‘Please kids, be good, today is really not a great day so far’, I mutter, half to myself and half to the children.
‘Why not, Mummy, aren’t you happy?’ asks Callum. This almost brings me to tears.
After the children have eaten I quickly unload the washing from the dryer to take it upstairs before we go, turn round and realise that my expensive linen pillowcase from "The White Company" has fallen off the pile I’m carrying through the kitchen and I’ve stepped right onto it, treading in a stray streak of tomato ketchup! I close my eyes, say a little prayer for sanity, and decide it’s time to get out of the door. It’s not that part of me got lost when I had kids, but that part of me got paused, like the Bob the Builder DVD when the children’s half-hour is up. Getting out of the house and indulging in some (silly) womanly chat will help me paint over the cracks.

10 April 2009

A bit of perspective...

Friday 12th January 2007

Friday today and, God, so looking forward to the two-thirty cake session at new friend, fellow mum, and hedge-fun wife extraordinaire Natalia’s luxus family home. But my close girlfriend Min (socialite and gallery owner's wife, and my confidante) is on the phone with bad news - shaking me out of trivial gossip mode and into the raw nitty gritty of REAL life. Min hails from Singapore and is one of the few women I didn’t meet through school but through an article I once wrote about expatriate existence in London. Min is exotic - half Chinese and half German, with a physique like a weeping willow and large caramelised almond-shaped eyes. Part-time gynaecologist and a sculptress to boot, and fortunate enough (evocative of the old mandarins) to have never had to lift her ‘Shanghai-tang’-clad wrists to clean, wash-up, clear-up or iron (lucky woman). Heiress to her paternal grandfather’s cloth and tea fortune and father's shipping dynasty, and her mother the daughter of a German furniture manufacturer. Fabulous dinner parties are Min’s speciality, many a deal being struck no doubt at her immaculately presented soirees: she's married to a leading dealer of oriental art with a recently-opened hip gallery in Shoreditch showcasing ‘New China’ stuff. Regulars on the London party circuit, Regency mansion (gorgeous herringbone floor inlaid with rosewood/rare oriental antiques interspersed with iconic modern pieces) bla-di-bla-di-bla. But I know that Min lost her mother to breast cancer at fourteen. She knows only too well that wealth doesn't bring happiness. She’s sweet, deep, philosophical - a good listener, a ready ear for all my grievances (usually, hubby Martin-related).
But,today, I‘m listening, almost incredulous: ‘Are you, I mean, are they sure? What is it, did you find a lump?’
‘No,’ replies Min. ‘Indentation, which could be just as bad: it’s a bit of a shock, Helen, I can’t help worrying!’
‘When did all this happen, Min?’
‘A few days ago in the shower. I’m lucky I know about these things, I got an appointment the next morning. I'm waiting to hear now.’ Min’s voice quavers a little.

I feel helpless. With her family history to consider, I'm suddenly frightened. My stomach's dark and hollow, out of breath. Someone says "FUCK!" inside my head.
'I haven’t, um, told Alan' continues my friend. 'He’s got a big exhibition soon and a consignment from China and meetings with the curator, it’s not really the right time....’
When is the right time to tell your life partner you might have cancer? That’s why I stay with Martin, because this type of thing puts my domestic tiffs in perspective.

9 April 2009

Serious bling

Thursday 11th January 2007

Arriving to collect Kal today, I was treated to the sight of a phenomenal car parked right in the ‘reserved’ space outside school. Excited boys, on their exit through the gates, were squirming to get a look. Their mothers, trying not to give the vehicle more than a sideways glance, bundled and encouraged them into their own car seats. I noticed the small round plate on the front grille, between two enormous radiators – ‘Bugatti’. Parked opposite, I sat and stared as its door, moulded in a single piece right to the headlights, swung open, like some exotic insect wing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were made of platinum. From behind this dramatic curve, a very thin leg (above green lizard-skin 4-inch cowboy boots and below a fur coat) emerged to stake its place. The very-over-the-top rest of a very, very rich-looking woman, followed. Bling shone on her oversized Christian Dior shades (I could see the letters made out in diamonds from feet away) and ropes of long pearls on gold chains literally swung around her neck. Her hair, unfeasibly bottle blond, curled around a young (but overly-made-up) face. She motioned to her driver, who had dismounted and was holding the door for her, and barked something like an order, in something like Russian. He was all got up in a uniform which made him look like the doorman from Claridges’. God, who the hell is this?!
Next, Mrs. Docherty, the Head-mistress, emerged. I could see her turn and leave instructions with some unknown person behind her as she bustled through the side gate. She met Mrs. Bling almost head on, and stepped back, coughing apologetically. I pretended to fiddle with my mobile phone, having quietly winded down the window to hear better despite the chill.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs. er, er....’ Mrs. Docherty trailed off.
‘Ivanka Vinogradova’ (haughty and heavily accented) ‘I’m here to register my son, Igor, to start on Monday. I call earlier.’
‘Of course, er, Madam, we’ve been expecting you!’ (the surname’s probably too much of a mouthful) ‘Please come this way, and would you mind if possible asking your driver to move further up the road?’ Mrs. Docherty smiled apologetically.
‘Yes, I do!’ shot back the reply, as simple as that. ‘This is Very’ (dragging the ‘V’ like she was going to spit on the street, which wouldn't have surprised me) ‘expensive car, just delivered from factory. I leave it on this space please, this space is safe! If I pay fine, I pay!’ and she motioned to her driver to stay put with a flick of a wrist wrapped in what might have been half a kilo of gold charm bracelet. You’d think she’d just parked in the middle of the Bronx. Mrs. Docherty started to explain that this road is, in any case, private but at the look she received, blanched instead, shut her mouth, opened it again like a guppy, beckoned for the Russian to follow her, and nervously buzzed off. I found out later that this ‘Bugatti Veyron’ is the world’s fastest road car: built at a Chateau in Alsace, France, they cost a mere eight hundred thousand pounds or so (each)! That’s more than the new school gymnasium hall. Hmmm....precisely....enough to impress the admissions powers-that-be to skip the interminable waiting lists and allocate a place in an oversubscribed class, mid-term, at two days’ notice...

8 April 2009

P.S. On women and weight...

Wednesday 10th January 2007

Don’t get me wrong, one of the biggest problems with women and weight is: wardrobe. In deference to you rational and logical males out there (and Halleluja!)I do realise that the main location for putting on weight in the female domain is actually... the brain! Nevertheless, let me explain. We may actually not LOOK that different with a few pounds more, but my we certainly feel it! Skinny jeans, the most appropriate name ever, are sexy and totally unforgiving (and couture ones, totally expensive). So, on a more practical note, we don’t want to waste all that money we’d spent on favourite skinny jeans! (and the rest of the wardrobe, now I think of it...) My husband Martin complains that I have too many new clothes, but the fact is that everything IS new to him. By the time he comes back at 10pm I’ve long changed either into track-pants or into pyjamas...the old 50’s adage, dress up for your husband’s return, just wouldn’t work in our house! Last time I’d put on a naughty silk nightie, thinking it might spice up our marriage a bit, was in the new year. Martin was back at work but me and the kids still on holiday...hooray, a chance at last not to feel wiped out at nine thirty pm. So, at ten o’clock at night, I’d arranged myself artistically over the bedclothes, lights turned down a touch, waiting for the door latch to click and the hall lights to turn on. Meanwhile, I thought I’d get back into that John Grisham gathering dust on my bedside table. I was soon engrossed in the latest evidence; never heard my husband return let alone felt him join me in bed - actually, I must’ve conked out, and the book fell off the duvet and crumpled its middle pages on the floor where I discovered it in the morning when I got up, stood on it, and found Martin had already left for work - he never mentioned the sexy get-up, maybe never even registered it... He really wouldn’t know if I’ve put on half a stone or not...my curves are now a foreign land...

Let them eat cake!

Wednesday 10th January 2007

I’ve become the pushy parent horror I never thought I'd be - I'm researching schools for my little (pre-school) daughter Angel. I phone one called ‘Sacred Heart’ (Holy Grail comes to mind), the one where Bollywood mum Pinki’s elder daughters go. The lady tells me I’d better fill in the application form pronto or I won’t get a place, and please don’t forget to enclose the registration fee: 100 pounds for a chance in the lottery. What?! I thought I’d heard wrong! My daughter’s future’s now a Butlin’s trick? But, no,apparently the scolastic powers-that-be have instigated a ballot system where they pull names out of a hat (how about the kids whose parents are benefactors of the new library, I wonder, are their names sellotaped onto little yellow post-it notes to the inside of the hat in advance? or do they have a talking one a' la Harry Potter's Hogwarts hidden below the burser's desk?!) As for my son’s school, we’d paid a full term’s fees one whole year in advance to guarantee his place in Reception class: a nice lot of juicy interest, I’m sure. I was fuming. A year is quite long enough for many people to change their plans, but parents are held to ransom. True that some might just pass their invoices nonchalently to the secretary/ accountant, others may have paid en bloc in advance. But mere mortals like myself (ordinary mum, no high-net-worthiness attached) have to read the numbers in black and white and blink to confirm to the brain that there's actually a pound sign preceding these randomly large figures (and bloating almost term by term). I admit I'm sometimes tempted (at invoice time) to throw in the towel and give up the whole bloody private school system. Except… the whole thing’s a point of principle, a commitment, it's not supposed to BE about the money! All we really ever want is the best for our progeny, give them a leg up if you will, away from the media reports of knives and assaulted teachers...maybe there's an economic equation out there somewhere for school fees paid, versus stability in later life...

Just as I placed the phone back in its cradle it rang again. My budding buddy hedge-fund-wife-extraordinaire, Natalia, back from skiing with news. Star city-garch hubby Mark had twisted his ankle on the second day and remained laid up for the rest of the holiday: laid up in front of his screens and private server in their (luxury) chalet in Courchevel, that is! The same chalet that they'd been renovating for the best part of a year, drilling 200m down into the rock to install ground-source heat pumps (usually used for government buildings and hospitals, so I believe), so as to keep the entire place cosy for about 50 quid per annum (yes, 50): I love Natalia but still cannot quite twist my head around the rarified world she lives in, which I'll visit soon enough, on Friday afternoon, for a 'play-date' (hate those Americanisms) and tea. Friday's half-day at our private school, by the way, just to get your money's worth...

‘Of course I’d love to come, Natalia, are you sure?’I reply (understatement, like tea at a 5 star hotel with childcare thrown in for a couple of hours).
‘We’ll be waiting for you anytime from two thirty! I’ll get Paloma to make a cake, what do you like?’
‘Oh honestly, Natalia, please don’t make too much effort! Actually I’m trying to go easy on the calories after Christmas. I’ve put on half a stone!’
‘Rubbish, Helen, you always look fabulous!’
Natalia would say that, she’s charm personified. But against her model height and size zero, I do tend to feel like the one who ate all the pies, I can’t help it! Female competitiveness doesn’t even come into it. Faced with Natalia's Russian heritage, statuesque figure and money, I’m not even in the running!
It's decided that Paloma, faithful Philippino housekeeper slash gourmet pastry chef, will make a stunning Amaretti sponge to further fatten me up. And that Pinki, Bollywood mum, a neighbour of Natalia's on Millionaire's Row, will also attend with her twin girls, to give my daugher Angel a chance of playing rather than simply being carted by her mother from pillar to post whilst I socialise (so says my husband Martin). Natalia, rushing off to Pilates, puts down and, feeling pretty upbeat about girly tea (rather more glamorous than application forms), I decide I won’t eat those biscuits after all: the ones on a glass plate in front of me on the kitchen counter just ready to be demolished. I wasn’t fibbing about the half a stone - in fact before Natalia’s call I’d been so bored with this whole school registration business that I’d been about to comfort myself with thick continental cookies: “more chocolate than a biscuit” (YEAH BABY!) I figured the expiry date was coming up soon and I might as well finish them up, conveniently ignoring my schedule in Paul McKenna’s “I can make you thin! 90-day success journal” which I keep stashed behind the microwave out of sight of my husband although Tanya, my cleaner, had sacrilegiously assumed it had fallen down by mistake and put in back on top in full view last week. But now, thinking of Natalia, I look at the cookies with suspicion and pop them straight back in the box: the box into a Ziploc bag, and the whole thing lobbed to the back of the cupboard: I’ll offer them to Tanya when she comes later on, as well as warn her to leave 'Paul' behind the appliance: Phew!!

7 April 2009

Spic and span

p.m. Tuesday 9th January 2007

Late afternoon, slump time, and yet I’m in full-swing nag. There just doesn’t seem to be any peace in my world at the moment! I’m trying to get the children to understand that they must put away toys, or crayons (broken or not),or furry pipe-cleaners, or tiny little round game counters which end up, like sand, between and under every piece of furniture, the exaggerated fallout of play. My words fall on deaf ears like the farmer’s seeds on the barren path in that biblical story. My frustration and exasperation mount. Tomorrow is our cleaning day, and like many mums I waste precious hours tidying up before our cleaner arrives, worried that if she spends her well-paid time gathering up clutter she’ll spend less time cleaning – or, maybe I’m just anal? I wonder, guiltily, if this is some sort of obsessive compulsiveness, but can’t help myself. Solution: a playroom the size of a small football field like Natalia’s, where toys look like specks of dust on a billiard table? Hmmm: not for us, sadly, at least not for the present (despite Martin’s overblown ambitions)and I'd probably still be on my hands and knees bulldozing lego into designer pastel drawers with novelty Alessi-style knobs.

But I count myself lucky: there was a time that merely the fact of my wanting to have a cleaner involved a depressing amount of negotiation. Martin once believed, in true male chauvinist pig tradition, that a wife is not a wife unless she does most of her own housework. He only agreed in the end when I pointed out that it was better to spend quality time with the kids than vacuum floors. And that you couldn't hear smashing glass or squealing fights over the booming of the hoover. For good measure, I threatened to tell my friends I’m the only wife whose husband is too mean to pay for a cleaner. After all, Martin can afford it. (My husband’s in the PR business, CEO, actually, of a company he co-founded five years ago, which seems to organise charity dinners for philanthropic City Financiers, Launch Balls for luxury brands, and probably a whole host of other less glamorous stuff I don’t hear about, so he earns well enough to afford all the trappings of good living. Not enough to move into the league of those he works for, and I sometimes wonder how frustrating that might be, always glamorizing the heavy-hitters but never being one of them. But that’s life, isn’t it? there’s always a hierarchy!)

Seeing as I've intermingled hierarchies and home help, here's another snippet from the private school gossip mill: the increasing tendency of some live-in nannies to 'try it on': having a TV in your room is one thing, your own car another(but apparently some employers will provide just that). And helping oneself to the drinks cabinet while on duty looking after the kids – someone chipped in with that little piece of personal experience, which was apparently forgiven (madness). Another nanny apparently did the laundry, sprayed it with rose-water and ironed it to perfection, waxed the sideboards as professionally as any French polisher, tossed up cordon bleu 5-course dinners in no time, and looked after the children, before eventually toppling the wife and kids in a messy divorce and moving in as lady of the house. True, so says a mum at school.

No risk of any such thing in our household. My cleaner is Belorussian and has a Masters degree in Economics - but Martin, far from giving her the eye, barely trusts her not to break his prized South African carvings. On her first visit he ordered her, on top of actually cleaning the whole house, to organise his shirts colour-coordinated in rows like some sort of ‘Dulux’ colour-card-sample; iron and neatly stack his underpants (I told her not to bother with the ironing bit); drop off and collect his dry-cleaning; and make sure the skirting boards are always free from dust.I tried to clarity that we’re not employing a housemaid, but he didn’t see the difference (“the help is the help, Helen, no more and no less”). Tanya has increasingly taken on a harried look since working for us, not surprisingly – and giving her cups of tea and my older handbags does nothing to help. Thing is, to work for Martin around the house, you’d really have to be Martha Stewart on speed. When Tanya broke Martin's precious daylight-mimicking bedside lamp cleaning under the bed and catching the wire in the Dyson, I asked a fellow mum for advice at lunchtime pick-up but she looked at me strangely. Her housemaid has insurance. Tanya doesn’t. So I told Martin I’d broken it myself, or he would have sacked her straight away.

A breed apart!

a.m. Tuesday 9th January 2007

Tuesday morning, start of term, and I’m already plagued by the school run which has to be planned and clock-watched like a military operation. And if you finally do manage to reach location, children suitably clothed and fed and on time, you’ve still got this whole stressful parking lark. I am aware, however that I’m at a distinct advantage. I’m not half the size of many of the vehicles here. Some of them are carefully perched on the no-parking lines straight outside the building, blinkers on, where they rapidly disembark well-ironed little boys and immaculately pony-tailed little girls. At times you might catch a lone father trundling his charges distractedly through the gates, blackberry in hand or crowned by cutting-edge contoured earphones, barely pausing to interrupt a strategic deal. But otherwise, it’s motherhood the great leveller. FX traders’ wives or just middle class mums caught in the fray, we’re all at some point late and harassed, dragging our poor kids along, urging and cajoling, balancing babies with school bags. Even some of those with nannies (and there are several who don't work and still 'own' a nanny) still feel the possibly instinctive need to deliver their own offspring to school, 'help' or no 'help' - or so it seems (my friend Natalia being one). Anyway, you’re paying through the nose for schooling so it starts early: at 8.30 we’re already blocking the tree-lined road. Private road or not, plonk too many cars on it like one of Callum and Angel’s ‘matchbox’ car racing competitions, and you get full-on congestion rush-hour style. Tapping my nails against the steering wheel (and noticing they badly need a manicure), I wait patiently for the long queue of cars to pass in the opposite direction, zigzagging between the few empty spaces. Parallel-parked cars line both sides, considerably narrowing an already narrow road (intended at birth to be a leafy lane).
Suddenly, the trickle of cars comes to a halt as a middle-aged woman in pyjamas and a cardigan rushes red-faced out of one of the neighbouring houses. She starts to screech hysterically at one designer-sunglassed mother who’d parked her tank a couple of feet across the driveway. Said house is set back, no high wall, no fences, no electronic gates, no CCTV cameras, old and shabby in contrast with its new-build neo-regency neighbouring villas. A few mothers, early enough not to rush - progeny already safely handed over, faces kissed - huddle in a gossipy group on the grassy verge, muttering commiserations. The Mum-slash-driver-at-fault, embarrassed and keen to escape, stutters an apology and retreats. With the flick of a Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag and the dull thud of German technology, her car door slams shut - with a civilised screech of breaks it three-point turns and is off . I take advantage of the hiatus to signal left, position myself, and reverse back into the space. The mad old woman, her hair sticking up, glares! But my car’s nothing as big as the 4-by-4 and the front wheels fit neatly just within the available space before it slopes down to the forbidden drive. I feel sorry for the old lady though. She’s out of her depth and within her rights.

I bundle both children out of the car, get Kal into class, kiss his chilly little cheeks goodbye, and ruffle that warm brown hair with a pulse of love in my chest. I’m lugging Angel in my arms, she doesn’t want to walk today (a tantrum bubbling below the surface, all I need on the first day of term) and anyway it’s quicker that way, for today - but she's so heavy this is definitely a one-off. Her curly head’s over my shoulder, clutched bunny flopping rhythmically against my arm with every step. I strike up a conversation with Pinki who’s walking alongside (Pinki’s not her real name, it’s been shortened from Priyanka). Her twin daughters are in Callum’s class and two elder ones at Posh Prep School. Pinki has shiny hair, huge dark kohl-rimmed eyes, and a large, very large, creamy diamond on her right hand. She is also herself as physically round and creamy as an old-fashioned Bollywood actress, buxom and fleshy beneath her expensive outfit. With many nurseries and State Schools still on half-term there’s time to chat today, more time with the road network clearer. Within a few minutes we're deep into the subject of, guess what? Schools! There’s no other topic quite like it to break the ice with a private-school mum. Our children may be together in class but they’re not playmates so I can’t opt for the buddy angle, and you can’t walk down the length of a narrow road in silence, or be forever considered a rude cow! So, I find out Pinki’s planned her children’s school career in immaculate detail: even got plans B and C going in case of unfortunate rejections. I dig for information, realising I hadn’t even thought about my second-born while others have been busy filling in application forms since birth. Pinki tells me, with authority, that to register for kindergartens in Kensington most women are planning their Caesareans accordingly. I laugh, suspect she speaks the truth, and secretly wonder how warped that kind of mentality is and why I haven't the courage to say so.

My mobile rings and I mouth goodbye, gesturing apologetically to Pinki who nods her assent and makes off to her car, impossibly groomed bob swinging. It’s my mother, calling my mobile phone, at eight forty-five in the morning, no less: typical! Always up at the crack of dawn, she used to pull the sheets off us with an infuriatingly cheerful ‘Good Morning!’, a bit like I do to my poor son on most school-days, being a sleeper like my husband and unable to wake up without harassment...the feeling of ‘like Mother like daughter’ is half uncomfortable and half reassuring (I make a mental note to buy one of those clock radios for Callum).

‘Hello, darling, how are you? Are the children alright? And how’s Martin? - is everything OK, dear?’ With this avalanche of concern, and the tone in her voice, I realise my mother's still spending her time worrying about me. She’s had wind of my problems with Martin for a while now, through simple motherly intuition combined with my lack of enthusiasm to talk about anything husband-related, and with every phone call wants to reassure herself it’s not serious. As usual, I don’t want to talk and I certainly don’t want to explain so I retreat, tell her everything’s fine and I’ll call her later, but the tone in my voice, defensive, a little too curt, speaks volumes in itself. She’ll probably put down the phone and make a beeline to discuss my marital woes with my father. Result: I’m going to have to take action and spend half-term with them, so they can bond with the kids and see how cheerful I CAN be (Martin doesn’t do half-terms!) Contemplating, I concentrate on picking out a small folded piece of paper just visible between the gear-stick and the passenger seat: Disney characters and cartoon balloons - as I thought, there’s been a rash of birthday party invitations recently, each one more kept-up-with-the-Joneses than the next. I give it a quick eye-over: ‘Cooking Party - Fancy Dress’! Luckily I’ve got six months to plan for my own hostess hell, Callum’s birthday party for twenty-odd four- to five-year old kids and twenty-odd thirty to forty year old mums. And not any old mums: private school mums. A breed apart! (Christ).