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).

5 April 2009

Guilty freedom

Sunday 7th January 2007

As a family, we did nevertheless spend Saturday in enthusiastic and animated activities with the kids. Any observer would have put us down I’m sure as poster people for A Very Happy Family. But all the while, Martin and I hardly exchanged a word. All our communication centred on the children or necessary logistics. And the very minute the kids were in bed, Martin announced flatly that he was off to the driving range and would eat up the leftovers with a fried egg on his return. He shuffled his clubs together, slung them over his shoulder, and the door slammed, me sitting at the kitchen counter with a cup of tea, ‘Soothing’ this time. And so the day ended almost in the same way as it had begun. And the following day, Sunday, today, was really just like a Monday, because Martin disappeared off to work. Then, this evening, on his return from the office Martin ordered me to pack his Zegna suit bag and his Samsonite wheelie-case for the early Monday morning ‘red eye’ flight to Dublin (a new limited edition version, with riveted aluminium ‘industrial flooring’ effect casing, which he’d bought himself at Christmas – very statement and very Italian stallion: dreams of impressing, perhaps, female execs at the airport - those with glasses, sexy secretary suits and carefully coiffed hair, all begging to end up dismantled and crumpled? That's how marital paranoia begins, methinks...)

I don't get myself involved in the details of my husband's job, but apparently it's all about some Irish venture capitalists buying up a block of landmark properties in London, needing Martin and his P.R.associates to do whatever it is they do to bring together the deal makers in style and blow their trumpets loudly, while everyone gets hammered on champagne. More interesting, no doubt, than conversations with one's wife, the mother of your kids. More interesting maybe even then sex, but I really wouldn't know nowadays, sadly. The need for such an early wake-up excluded any further attempt at physical intimacy, and we were still barely communicating beyond the basics when we hit the sack on Sunday night. The children were, as always, disappointed at the thought of Daddy being so far away but buoyed at the promise of presents on his return. Myself, I don't really get the presents anymore I used to get when we were dating or engaged, so I'm just relieved at the prospect of being alone: freedom of a sort - until Friday evening!

4 April 2009

To love and to cherish, 'till...

Saturday 6th January 2007

Eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, I’m already gnawing at Green and Black’s chocolate with my huge and steaming mug of organic herbal healing tea, caressing the keys of the laptop as a type of therapy. It’s still black outside, the kids are still asleep, and weariness is throbbing behind my temples. Martin left an hour ago to the gym to push weights, probably to ease his frustration. I was just grateful to see him go. I woke up to catch him, through half-sleep-encrusted eyes, pulling on expensive track-pants, the type that wick away the sweat, the bulk of his back turned to me in the grey darkness of the room, bedside light a dull glow.
Last night he returned from a business dinner with cocktails on his breath. I’d been exhausted from a particularly trying day of tantrums as Angel nurses a cold, and the added worry of having to prepare for the start of spring term. Starting to feel like I’m unsuccessfully fighting off some nasty fluey symptoms myself, a dull pulling and ache along the length of my backbone, I’d drifted off to some very welcome healing sleep. I’d vaguely heard the front door bang, the tap running in the bathroom, then felt his hands, in my semi-conscious state, drift along the contours of my side, feeling under my pyjamas. I pulled away, my body wanting only rest, my shattered mind yearning for the oblivion of sleep. “Please, Martin, I’m so tired, I need to sleep, I don’t feel well!” An annoyed grunt and he turned his shoulder theatrically, pulling the bedclothes with him. He’s drunk, I thought, and my insides curdled. At the worst of times, my husband’s childish, self-centred and arrogant. Son of Italian immigrants to South Africa, spoilt rotten by his mother, I should’ve seen it coming. At his best, he’s got charm and style, a sexy insoucience. The same easy charm that hooked me, until we had kids and I went off sex and Martin started to work late and we stopped talking, really talking. Now I’ve said it. But he’s the father of my children, and a very good father at that. It’s just a shame that I can, and do, imagine a different husband, or even - admittedly a wild hypothesis, considering the kids - not having one at all!
I take a break from writing and put the kettle on again. It may be an Alessi design (for kudos), but it’s soothingly old fashioned in that you’re actually boiling it on the hob (for comfort!). The bubbling sounds make me feel relaxed, allow me to stop and take breath, the ritual of having to wait and be patient for once in life. And the little blue bird which whistles when the water is boiled is just too cute. So, I love my tea. There’s a whole cupboard given over to this indulgence, from ‘Dr. Stuart’s Detox (a cleansing herbal infusion including dandelion root, burdock root, peppermint and spearmint to help detoxify the body...’ to ‘Clarity - Organic herbal blend to focus and uplift’, to ‘Calm – Camomile, Redbush, Lavender and Cocoa Beans’, as well as a blend to ‘Cleanse’, and my favourite: ‘Digestif – a refreshing infusion with fennel seeds and peppermint’ which stops the nervous stomach cramps! Similarly, I have a whole drawer given over to my chocolate addiction, my favourite being ‘Handmade truffles with Tarragon, Toasted Almonds and Calvados in 87% Costa Rican Chocolate’! 70% with chilli is also a great combo! And my top, top favourite: pink champagne truffles from Charbonell & Walker, chocolatier by Royal Appointment. Martin first bought them for me as a Christmas present, and when the novelty wore off for him I had to beg my Mum for a box for my birthday instead.
Just as I settle down to my moment of zen, Martin arrives with a click of the front-door latch and streams into the kitchen. I open my mouth to speak, but he walks straight past me. Straight to the washing machine in the tiny laundry room just off the right of the kitchen, opening his Nike sports-pack as he goes. One of Martin’s better habits to put his sweaty gym gear away(I'm grateful for small mercies)... I hear the Bosch’s round lid clunk, and then Martin’s back and it’s the turn of the stainless-steel fridge door to arch open, orange juice is poured, a too-loud waterfall in the reverberating silence. Then that too shuts with a bang. Like my marriage, says a little voice inside me. All thoughts of reconciliation dashed as Martin strides out, icy as the cold glass in his hand. I sit, feeling my blood drain away with the hurt but through my fingers catch a glimpse of the oversized station clock above the sink, its black hand stopped at just past midnight. Practicality in this life of motherly duty overrides feeling sorry for yourself so I get up, drag a chair over, fetch it down and change the battery. I wish I could do the same for myself.

Take a look in the mirror...

New Year 2007

Another year in the can: New Year again, time for bitter revelations and close-up inspections. 39 and a half, and I now have to tweeze out my grey hairs in secret. I’ve replaced the bulbs in the bathroom with energy saving ones with the pretence of going green: my husband Martin’s got that light on his special shaving mirror so didn’t notice. I keep thinking ‘Botox’, and really must get those thread veins on my thighs dealt with once and for all so my husband never mentions them again although I'm sometimes past caring (as long as the limbs they are on stay slim). The lines on my forehead show no signs of abating despite the blasted overpriced creams deriving from grape extracts. The stretch-marks - road-map to two pregnancies and two gorgeous children -are there for good. But I reckon I look pretty decent most of the time: dressed that is, maybe not quite so impressive naked, but being married isn't that less of an issue these days, dare I break a taboo and speak the truth?! As for our ambitions for an even leafier ‘location, location, location’ than the suburbs of ‘Greater’ London we call home, plans for global domination in real estate didn’t materialise this past year...

New Year Resolutions (or “Revolutions” as my son aptly puts it):

ONE: Deal with sly addictions. First and foremost: sneaky and totally unnecessary emotional purchases of designer clothing off eBay, most of which remain sadly unworn with flapping tags, the price of guilt, still attached. More acceptable, but still in excess, are the couture jeans (yummy mummy uniform)! It has to be said: there’s nothing quite like the school run to bring out the competitive streak in women. The current look in vogue’s the ‘I’m over 40 with loads of kids but look like I’m 20 with none.’ Which explains the expensive belts to add that spot of ‘bling’ and hopefully show off a trim waist - though they’ve been shoved to the back of the wardrobe since Christmas dinner racked up a few extra pounds. Lastly, more designer handbags than I need, although as we women know, it’s not a case of exacly 'needing' fashion. But I'm ashamed to admit that, literally, I do NOT 'need' (or indeed 'use'...) half of my wardrobe...

TWO: Tone down the chocolate and the wine (even if one probably can’t survive motherhood without the chocolate: 70% dark, organic does make it sound, after all, like you’re doing yourself a favour). As far as wine goes, remember the 6pm slump’s a little early, even on weekends?! Note to myself: I know we’re not in the league of my (socialite and gallery owner's wife) friend Min’s Petrus ’47 (how did crushed grapes ever get to be worth thousands?) but remember to check out who built her corkscrew-shaped wine cellar, or hubby’ll keep banging on about it - wish I’d never mentioned it now. I wonder whether he wants it for himself or just to show off to other men. Sometimes it seems that certain members of the male species haven't really evolved past the peacock stage...but then, how can I possibly criticise when I use designer handbags to the same effect?

THREE: Don’t just hope, but translate it into action! (Note on ‘hope’: playing the lottery every week’s apparently nowadays a widespread middle-class affliction, so don’t feel too guilty). Things I hope and have to work on: reignite the romance in our marriage; have more sex; lose weight; afford that bigger house in the not too distant future; create a worthy career for myself (or just actually "find a job!" as my husband puts it, saying that whenever he calls from the office I'm at "Paul's French Bakery" having tea and cakes with the ladies - untrue, of course). But there is some truth in jest, as they say. Somehow being nearly 40 and a full-time mother (with a part-time husband)leads me to desperately hope that this doesn't represent everything I'll have achieved by dreaded middle-age. Much as I love my kids I cannot contemplate that the day I have more time to myself to do something really creative and productive, I'll be too old, wrinkly and tired to really achieve anything of note. And of course, an income of my own instead of having to make snide suggestions to my husband about topping up my account, and instead of having to hide those credit card statements...

FOUR: Remember that obsessive diary writing isn’t a substitute for a good gossip with a girlfriend, and shouldn’t preclude marriage counselling...so how about proper writing, writing, writing, for local magazines maybe? Or even a novel? Prize: that brand new Ligne Roset designer writing desk with drawers to stash all the stray A4 (so they don’t morph into paper aeroplanes), and plenty of flat space for laptop and teacup. Writing is all I can do, all I trained to do as a journalist, the sum total of anything I could achieve at home in the time available (except flower arranging and wishing we weren't so much poorer than everyone else I ever meet at the school gates, who by dint of nannies and au-pairs have all the time in the world).

So this is how the other half lives?

December 2006

I draw up in front of the mansion...or residence...or estate. What else can I call this white facade, curving sinuously into the (landscaped) trees? It's so big you're instinctively stuck between feeling it's somehow obscene, suffering from crippling envy, and holding down the excitement of a child discovering Hamley's for the first time. Surrounded by high walls with a tall wrought iron gate, a modern portcullis. The vast expanse of glass on the upper levels gleams darkly in the winter half-light. I can't help thinking 'Grand Designs' - but on a grander scale. On the right's a smaller green entrance with more shadowy buildings beyond: gym, swimming pool,multi-garages? Security cameras are dotted round the place left and right. My nerve fails and I quickly accelerate to park down the road. This isn’t my usual stomping ground, my dusty car's dwarfed by the competing line-up of shiny SUV’s, sleek Mercedes 200s. No need to fret over parking restrictions here, there’s enough space on this tree-lined estate for fifteen tanks. Hubby Martin's saliva would be oozing by now. You could get used to this very quickly I suspect (and never be the same again). Meanwhile, my son Kal's fiddling with a plastic spider-man in the back seat, twiddling the limbs back and forth, lost in his own little four year-old universe, blissfully free of real-estate voyeurism - thank God.

The air's damp as I press the intercom button firmly, round black smartie, passport to another world. Callum's little chilly hand's in mine, the other clumsily hooking our hastily-wrapped gift: a superhero book, curiously appropriate (his own plastic hero's been ditched into my handbag). My boy's small frame's huddled inside his coat escaping the chill, his hat flopping over his forehead. I pull it off, ruffle hair, push it back, bend down, brush a quick cold soft kiss. In return a childish sunbeam. I can't bear to imagine our precious mother-son love affair could one day mutate into a teenage (or pre-teenage) stone wall of silence, and swallow the thought and the wince inside me. ‘OK darling? Looking forward to your party?’ Before I catch an answer, a whirr and metallic click, the gate's ajar. Discreetly, no surname on the plaque below the intercom, just “Junipers”. Each mansion on this hyper-exclusive estate's hidden behind its own curve in a crescendo of imposing and unique: one a replica of the White House, another mock Moorish style. I like this name, though. Somehow down to earth, like its owners.

My new fellow Mum Natalia and her husband Gregory live here. Gregory Surbiten’s a “hedgie” - hedge fund manager. I’ve only met him once: outside school after the nativity play,last day of last term. Slim, piercingly confident manner, large serious dark eyes, slightly hooked nose, not handsome but striking. I scrutinised his face carefully when no-one was looking, as if the magic formula to turn a man younger than me into an entry in the Sunday Times Rich List might be stamped on his forehead. Thank God for kids, who see everyone as equals. Their son Mark and Callum (‘Kal’) both joined reception class in September and say they're 'best friends' (if you can call a shared obsession with spiderman friendship). Natalia's tall, long blond hair drifting down in loose curls, big blue eyes, high cheekbones. And the artificial bloom of Botox. Her elegance and lifestyle are obvious the minute you set eyes on her, but her generosity with wealth and time, working tirelessly to improve the lot of those less fortunate, is a better kept secret. In short, she's one of those perfect people you'd love to hate, if only you didn't like her so much! This is the first time I’ve visited their home: chatting at the school gates I'd only ever imagined her world. And you'd need vivid imagination, as it turns out.

The front door's wide, shiny, black and recessed: no brass 10 Downing Street-style knocker - all that security means if you’ve got this far they already know you’re coming. Surprisingly enough, it’s Natalia herself who answers the door and envelopes me in a very theatrical hug, bending down to scoop up Callum: ‘Come on Callum, love, you come with me! Helen, you follow on, Paloma will show you the way.’ She breezes off with my son, who like everyone, loves her. In the excitement, Mummy's forgotten. I'm left standing in her faint waft of perfume and a vision of designer white jeans, Swarovski-studded belt, thick weave cream jumper with asymmetrical neck, and some sort of expensive flats. Natalia looks stunning, no high heels or jewellery, wispy loose ponytail, light, natural make-up: understated elegance. My heart sinks and I immediately feel rather crap in my plain blue jeans with tweed jacket. Are they too scuffed on the knees from kneeling on the floor with Angel before I left? And what about that dark patch on my suede boots? Angel tipping up her sippy cup as I hugged goodbye at the door? ‘Oh Screw it! What to do!' No point wasting time on what can't be changed. Instead, I take a better look around me, up at the chandeliers hung with crystal butterflies radiating a serene glow into the entrance hall. At the huge silver-gilt mirror, ornate rococo frame, imposing from floor to ceiling. At the ottoman sofa bench, covered in white fur, gold-footed, long enough to seat six adjusting their Italian leather brogues. I think I've got the message that Natalia loves white, at risk of being vulgar, but unsurprisingly done with immaculate taste here.I step past the mirror quickly to avoid looking at (and depressing) myself. Raw cream marble down the whole hall - how many feet? - four large doorways off to the right, staircase at the far end with art-deco iron/mahogany banister curving up to the left. Beyond, wall-to-ceiling glass behind which presumably are the gardens to the left-hand side of the house. The ceiling's spot-lit with a myriad of jewel-like lights, a starry effect. And art. An antique slash valuable looking stone lion's head in a glass case, a modern cubist sculpture in dark metal on a marble pedestal further down. I stand and stare, and a stout lady of indeterminate age in starched white apron appears out of nowhere. I’m dangling Callum’s coat and she reaches out for it, hanging it in one smooth movement over her arm and brushing it down absent-mindedly. 'I am Paloma, Housekeeper' she announces. 'They are all in the marquee’ (heavily accented) ‘this way please’. Oh God I'm late too.

This vision of efficiency bustles off, I’m in hot pursuit. I'm now wanting a housekeeper too. An obscenely wide plate glass door swings open on immaculately engineered hinges: no relation to my doorway at home, months of tipping up the double buggy's back wheel to squeeze through, baby wet in the rain. Clammy air hits our faces, we step out into thickening dusk, lights click on. A patio of finely-hewn light grey stone, super-smooth, lights set into the flowerbeds glowing coolly as the surroundings lose their definition in the dusk. To the left behind a brick wall, the tall dark deep shapes of trees. Asymmetrical trellises, Chelsea Flower Show style. Beds with small shrubs in maze-like patterns, carefully-planned plant-life, minimalist vegetation,oriental style. Something in leaf at every time of year I bet. The gentle lull of singing water over Japanese stone and bamboo fountains. And water brooding round the contours of the house, a modern moat, shimmering heavy-duty engineering. The glass-walled lounge at the rear of the house, a strip of dark decking, abstract stepping stones over the water, a wide terrace, and thence into the grounds, immense lawn, marquee. Magical, lounge lights bouncing off the glass, glimmering onto the water, escaping gossamer-light curtains punched with delicate designs. Inside, glimpses of undulating sofas piled high with silk cushions, spidery framed tables, a glowing floor lamp with branches, a crystal set of lights like planets. And outside, the marquee, a Disney-eske turreted castle amid strings of candle-shaped fairy lights. The trees around it shrouded in fibre-optics, choked by necklace after necklace of tiny silver,azure, purple and emerald icicles. Everywhere, lights glimmering and glittering and winking off trees, water, glass.
‘Mrs Romeo?’ I nearly stumble, shaking myself from my reverie, a quick nod to Paloma, politely waiting a few steps ahead, I hurry along.

Father Christmas has arrived specially, ‘ho ho ho’ and children’s laughter from the depths of the tent. Kal must be in there, having a bunch of fun no doubt. There's a full-size snow-machine tucked to the side, exactly like the ones on the ski slopes. I wonder if it's the winter equivalent of Callum's sandpit. I’m glad it hasn’t been put to use considering my suede boots. Inside, the children are in full hysterics over Santa as he sprays them with little sweets, one lands at my feet. Tables are dotted with coloured compartmentalised plastic plates littered with the remnants of goodies (such waste, they leave half of it!), and two snowmen are discreetly clearing the tables. I spot my son clutching a packet of hula-hoop crisps as I stand aside from the huddle of women - many expensively-turned out (for Christ's sake, it's only a kids' party!) I'm still a near stranger to most of them, cliqued through now for years through nursery and kindergarten. I catch the strains of Christmas in Mauritius and the tribulations of finding a good live-in Nanny: not topics for me to chip into. The entertainer-slash-Santa figure picks up the ‘mike’ and announces it’s time to ride on Santa's sleigh. To the right of the marquee, in front of the children’s adventure playground, stands a brightly painted wooden sleigh decorated with bells and lit with lights like some stage prop. Two deer, in full harnass, are contentedly munching on bales of hay. Mums (ever competitive) hurl themselves to grab their kids and be first to the fun.

After the reindeer ride, acrobats, dancing and musical chairs Callum, hyped on organic party food, chattered excitedly all the way back to the car. Home through the private park and out, humming quietly down wooded roads, onto the dual carriageway with its blurred lines of lamps, off onto darkened streets - normal streets, now, with, stray plastic supermarket bags hugging corners and grubby kerbs -until finally home. Back to my husband baby-sitting our two year old daughter, Angel. Predictably after an afternoon of tantrums Martin was in a sour mood. That night I got to bed with a grumpy unshaven husband, the washing un-done, dishwasher still full. But Kallum went to bed ecstatic with the Spiderman walkie-talkies from his ‘goody bag’. I had to wrestle them away to stop him from still trying to send crackling "coded messages to Mark" from his bed, at nine o’clock at night.