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!