Friday, 31 December 2010

Five Festive Fridays - Witnesses

It is our Final Friday - week Five of Five Festive Fridays.

With Christmas Day past and New Year looming, it stops feeling quite so festive, but this week we are looking at the witnesses to Christ's birth: the shepherds and the wise men.

Shepherds (incongruously watching sheep in the fields, in the bleak mid-winter ... some bits of the story really don't add up with our assigned date of 25 December for the birthday) were lowly, poor people in the society of their time.

The wise men had travelled from afar, come by the signs in the stars, wealthy and respectable enough to be given audience with King Herod. What a peculiar mix of people to witness the birth of God's son.

The shepherds went home rejoicing.

The kings went home by a different route, avoiding Herod. Mary, Joseph & Jesus escaped to Egypt, before Herod unleashed his infanticide on Bethlehem.

I was thinking the other day of how awful events can taint so many lives. Take for example the recent story of Jo Yeates, missing for eight days before her body was found on Christmas Day. My sympathies go out to her family and boyfriend, worrying for days and only brought closure on what should be the most joyful day of the year. But I also thought about the couple walking their dog who found the body. Likewise, their day of peace and joy was shattered.

At the moment I am in the middle of the most escapist book (hoping for enough peace from the children to finish it this afternoon). There has been a lot of (fictional) death: shootings, explosions and wild escapes. I can tell there will be more blood and grief before the book ends! Anyone who might vaguely be a witness to the crime is on a hit list, as are their family, the police, the courts, judge and jury.

No-one can tell when they will be a witness to a major event. Sometimes we witness important events, such as car crashes or arguments. But every day we witness minor events, events that have no meaning at all to anyone but ourselves. We notice the grey hair in amongst the brown. We see our children sit, crawl, walk. We note the time that they beat us at a game without any assistance, and when we have tried really hard to beat them. We know when we are beaten, when the homework is more difficult than any that we remember. We watch our parents become more frail, need a stick more often, require glasses all the time.

We witness the passage of time in ourselves and in others. Now that Christmas is over, we witness the passage of Jesus life as he goes to his inevitable death on the cross. And after all, given that some supermarkets are already putting Easter Eggs on their shelves, shouldn't we begin to think about that sacrifice now?

  Truth of our life,
  Mary's child,
You tell us God is good;
  Prove it is true,
  Mary's child,
Got to your cross of wood.

From 'Born in the night' by Geoffrey Ainger

Friday, 24 December 2010

Five Festive Fridays - Mary

Here is my fourth Festive Friday, taking a look at a contemporary issue in line with a traditional advent or Christmas theme.

Today is the turn of Mary. She endured a long journey to Bethlehem whilst nine months pregnant, suffered the ignominy of not being able to get a room in an inn and ended up giving birth in a dirty, smelly stable.

It was a far cry from the process that resulted in my two children. Despite my father's desire to have them born in Yorkshire, both arrived in London just a short journey from home. There was little problem about space in the hospital; in fact, the lack of space in the ward for my daughter gave us an 'upgrade' in that we stayed in a room of our own. The hospitals were clean and efficient both times. My eldest was induced, with all the technology whirring around me that our modern maternity units can provide. My daughter came of her own accord, with comparative speed.

Of course, not all women are as lucky as me. As I have got to know single mothers I am in awe of their ability to keep going. I find it difficult enough myself at times, and I have a fantastic husband with whom to share the duties (and the pleasures). Particularly in those early days, when up feeding repeatedly during the night, having someone as support was invaluable. As I said, I have total respect for those who bring children up on their own.

07 - No Vacancy, Belize City, Belize
This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: Bed Bugs and Beyond

This Christmas I have spent much time thinking about Mary and Joseph and their long journey to Bethlehem, only to find there was no room for them. Could the same happen again? No room at the Inn? I fear it could. So many people are sleeping out on the streets of our towns and cities even in this freezing weather. Asylum seekers still arrive into the UK every day, looking for somewhere to stay - and often turned away. I used to do some voluntary work for a homeless charity in London and was frequently humbled by the way my co-workers could support and care for the clients. And in Newcastle I was taught about the procedure for dealing with immigrants: how they are given a number, not a name, and how they can fall through the system to have nothing unless charities step in. The journey may be long and arduous but there is no guarantee of comfort at the end.

So as we welcome Jesus this Christmas into our hygienic houses and warm homes, let us not forget that he actually came to a poor family with nowhere to stay, to a smelly stable surrounded by cows and sheep, to a young girl who probably was scared silly. Mary, who had motherhood unexpectedly thrust upon her (as well as Shepherds and Wise Men), was like every mother I have ever known and 'treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.' [Luke 2.19]

Have a very Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Today my eldest baby is ten years old. Happy Birthday, my wonderful child. I can hardly believe it is truly ten years since those long hours at the hospital, the time has passed so quickly. I have enjoyed every second. Well, if you excuse the chicken pox, malaria, sicknesses, tantrums, pooey nappies and whining. Almost every second.

In honour of the momentous occasion, here are ten things in celebration of his life.

  1. At birth, the first thing he did was bite the paediatrician's finger (not his father!)
  2. He loves his teddy. And his little sister, but probably in that order.
  3. He could read before he went to school, and has never struggled academically since.
  4. Every time we have moved house he has been very brave and managed to make friends easily.
  5. He is immensely patient with his sister. And his mother, come to think of it.
  6. He doesn't give up ... particularly if it involves a game or activity on the Wii or DS ...
  7. His hair is beginning to make him look like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout (but he loves it).
  8. This year he was assessed as 'gifted and talented' at sport! (Seriously questioning his parenthood now!)
  9. He is very funny, and is learning to tolerate his parents' teasing of him.
  10. He resents having his birthday on one of the shortest days of the year. (I anticipate him emigrating to the southern hemisphere as soon as he gets the chance!)

Overall, he is a most beautiful, loving child and I am delighted to know him, and even more proud to say that he is My Son.

Happy 10th Birthday. Next present when you hit three digits?!

Mum x

Friday, 17 December 2010

Five Festive Fridays - Angels

Welcome to week 3 of Five Festive Fridays, taking a look at a contemporary issue in relation to the traditional Advent/Christmas Themes.

This week it is the turn of the Angels.

I have grown up with a slight resentment of Angels. I had blonde hair and blue eyes: I was always (yes, always) an Angel in the Nativity. Even aged eleven or twelve, I had to dress in a big white sheet with tinsel on my head. Never - not ever, not even once - was I Mary. I wasn't a shepherd or even a sheep. I was an Angel.

I'd love to say it was a reflection of my angelic personality, but I'm afraid a few would disagree with that.

Yet they are an important part of the Christmas story. Gabriel appeared to Zachariah (who I mentioned last week) and to Mary, and then a whole throng of angels sang to the shepherds. Clearly they were arresting: a sight to behold (although I can categorically state that there is no mention of tinsel in the bible).

Angels are God's messengers, the Royal Mail of biblical times. Today's messengers don't seem to have the same accuracy or style. If the postman arrived at the front door, glowing like the Ready Brek ads from head to foot and singing ... well, to be honest, I'd slam the door shut and call the police. Or the medics. But you can't deny the flair and panache of such delivery.

The playground gossip is about delayed deliveries. Like my friends, I have had problems with a couple of deliveries from Amazon. Despite the website stating that my goods are 'with the local deliverer' and despite living in a part of the country that has largely escaped the awful weather, it appears they are unable to convey my parcels on time. My order was supposed to arrive last week.

Perhaps I've been lucky, but for me this is the first time that they haven't delivered within the timescale they've stated. Should I be panicking? Should I rush out and re-buy the presents? Given the forecast for more snow, ice and general winter disruption this weekend, should I just give up now?

Yet I have received an email where they ask me to 'kindly wait' and ask for 'my continued patience', and imply that it will definitely be with me by 20 December. Christmas is going to be a little bare if it doesn't! What I like about the biblical story is that the angel said, "Do not be afraid." Amazon are trying to tell me the same thing, but are couching it in soft language - and allowing themselves some get-out clauses, some extra space for error.

Despite the angels' appearance (sudden, brilliant, Godly) they were bringing good news - peace, joy, hope, babies.

There are so many good things in life that we are afraid of. Babies is a prime example: despite the joy of finding myself pregnant, I did wonder what on earth I'd let myself in for. I still wonder that, ten years on! A new house; a new job; a new relationship: all can be exceedingly good things, yet fill us with fear and trepidation. It is that endless 'what if...' question. What if I'm not good enough? What if he's on the rebound? What if there is dry rot throughout? What if nobody likes me?

Yet the angel said, "Do not be afraid."

If it is good news ... and I sincerely hope that it is good news for you this Christmas ... then enjoy it. Sing and celebrate with the angels.

Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above:
'Glory to God
In the highest'.
From 'O Come, All Ye Faithful'; 18th Century hymn

Friday, 10 December 2010

Five Festive Fridays - Water

Here is the second in my series of Festive Fridays, when I take a contemporary twist on a major Advent or Christmas theme in the church.

Today is the turn of John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, who was born to Zachariah and Elizabeth. Of course, being sane and human, Zach didn't believe the angel who told him that his barren wife would conceive. He suffered 9 months of being struck dumb for that disbelief, and I've always felt rather sorry for him in the circumstances.

Still, John's job was to make way for Jesus. And he is known as 'the Baptist' for being the one who baptised Jesus in the River Jordan when adult. So today I thought I'd look at the value of water.

There haven't been many periods in my life when I have not had access to water. Here in the UK we have an excellent water system so that we have fresh, drinkable water piped to virtually every house in the land. Really we don't appreciate just how valuable that is.

In Zambia we also had constant water supply. Most of Zambia's electricity is powered by hydroelectric dams - the most famous being Kariba Dam, but there is also one at the Victoria Falls and several in the North and West of the country. Despite a seasonality that has no rain at all April - October, then a rainy season November - March, there is enough water in the River Zambezi to power the country most of the time.

There is also enough water, pumped from miles away to the capital city Lusaka. Being wary foreigners, we filtered all our water, but it was still of good quality. I recognised that I had to stop worrying when I saw my children drink the bathwater - as any toddler will - and survive.

We only ever had one serious problem with water. My understanding was that they were servicing one of the pumps, which meant that the water pressure in our area of Lusaka dropped for a couple of months. Over the course of a couple of weeks one August it dropped so that we only had water flowing from the taps at about 6am, then maybe a little late at night. Having our own private borehole would have solved this problem, but we didn't.

But humans are resourceful, particularly when it comes to survival. It meant an earlier start, filling as many large bottles with water as we could. It meant doing all the washing up at once. It meant going to the toilet in succession, and then flushing (well, pouring a bucket of water down) after the last visit. It meant not watering the garden. It meant bucket baths and cold washes. It meant thinking about our water usage: how much and when.

It was a salutary lesson.

Many in our world walk for miles each day to get water. What they collect is often not clean - certainly not as clean as we in the wealthy West would deem acceptable to drink. And they survive on the few litres that they are able to carry for all their food, drink, cooking, cleaning and washing needs. Organisations such as Water Aid do marvellous work to get water pumps into rural villages, clean sanitation and toilet facilities. Have a look at this page to see what they are doing in Zambia, in particular.

Of course, water can also be destructive. This year, we should think in particular of Haiti: following on from the devastating earthquake it is now suffering from a cholera epidemic, a water-borne disease that can quickly kill. They remain under threat throughout the 'hurricane season', when the makeshift tents and houses could be blown or washed away. Water: that life-giving source, also the bearer of disease and destruction.

Water is necessary for life. This Christmas, let's take a little time to be grateful for a commodity that we often take for granted, but which many people struggle to obtain on a daily basis.

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time. 
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life. 

Where nothing ever grows 
No rain or rivers flow 

Do they know it's Christmas time at all? 

Monday, 6 December 2010

The benefits of insomnia

Last night I woke at 3am, for no apparent reason.
It follows one solid night's sleep, and a previous four nights with similar rude and irrationally early awakenings.

It isn't very dark in our bedroom: the streetlamp casts a glow which reflects off the snow giving a general feeling of light. That doesn't help with getting back to sleep.

But now I've discovered the benefit to being awake. The Ashes Test Match. Clearly this won't work the-night-after-next, when the Adelaide match is finished, but it is an excellent way to use up time (and yes, some would say, to fall asleep again...)

My scheme now is to creep out of bed (don't want to disturb husband who actually has to save children's lives at work in the morning!) and to check the score on the BBC website. Then I turn down the sound on the computer and switch on the TMS commentary. I then gradually increase the volume again until it is just audible ... and then a bit more to be able to be heard from the bed (about 4m away, with door open). Then I can snuggle back into bed and hear England (a) pile on the runs or (b) take crucial wickets.

I'm not sure this really helps come 6.30am when the alarm goes off, but for those awful moments in the middle of the night when sleep eludes me I get great joy from the TMS commentators ... particularly when the Australians are struggling to think of anything positive to say about their own team!

And in the morning I can bounce into my son's bedroom, full of beans, calling on him to wake up, get up, time for breakfast, got to go to school (all said in one breath with Mary Poppins -like enthusiasm) and then cheer him up with the end of play score. Oddly enough he never seems quite so happy about hearing it at that point.

Still, at least at the moment the news tends to be good for us England supporters. What on earth will we do when Australia get their mojo back? I might have to resort to sleeping again!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Five Festive Fridays: Prophets

I thought I'd write my own little Christmas series, covering Five Festive Fridays (really because four or six wouldn't alliterate), giving a contemporary twist to major Advent or Christmas themes in the church.

First up is Prophets. Or perhaps 'are Prophets', given there were many of them. Already my Festive Friday is confused by English grammar.

Anyway, what are prophets and who are our prophets today?

My dictionary tells me they are someone who interprets or passes on the will of a deity; somebody who foretells the future; somebody who advocates a cause or idea; or somebody considered to be an inspired leader or teacher. [Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation.]

The common (secular) definition is that of telling the future, like soothsayers of old. When the prediction is right, the prophet is hailed and exalted; when it is wrong, they are slammed.

Much like weathermen. They try to foretell the future and are largely ignored if they get it right, but incidents like Michael Fish's famous dismissal of an impending hurricane are banded about as examples of their uselessness. And even if they get it right, knowing that there is more snow, more ice, more freezing temperatures (with Siberian wind-chill factor thrown in) doesn't win weather-forecasters friends.

My son has a tendency to add 'of doom' (much in the style of Private Frazer from Dad's Army) to any noun that passes his lips. 
'It's the DS of dooooom!'
'Are watching Strictly ... of doooooom?'
'Ah, but these are carrots of doooooooom...'

'Prophets of doom' is a phrase that is often banded about. I wonder if we pay most attention to the doom-mongers, rather than those that promise hope and joy and peace. I, for one, am much more inclined to go with those who say, 'It's only Day 1: see what it is like when England bat...' than with those who are already celebrating our Ashes victory!

Then again, yesterday England lost out on its bid to host the World Cup in 2018. And lost badly, by all accounts. Much has been hyped up in our media about it during the last few days, with great and growing confidence of winning. The Panorama programme on Monday, alleging bribery and corruption within FIFA, was feared to affect our vote; the violence at the Birmingham/Aston Villa match on Wednesday was possibly a more serious setback. Yet still our Press said that the bid was good, the presentation was excellent, if we could get past the first round we had a good chance.

Of course, we didn't get past the first round. And with it went the dreams of many, many people.

Were the press wise to build up our hopes? Or to waste our time on a triviality? After all, there are hundreds dying from AIDS each day, and World Aids Day this week was nowhere near so prominently marked. Are the Press (TV and print versions) our modern day prophets?

Or maybe it is the Bookmakers. After all, their clever calculations and statistics are able to put a price on the probability of something happening. Although I gather they lost out badly on the November announcement of the Royal Engagement (William & Kate). They are in the business to make money - and usually do! - so are they better prophets of what is to come and when?

In truth, none of us have crystal balls, which is why it is so amazing that there were prophets in the Old Testament who foresaw the birth of Christ. They also predicted his death. But the reason for celebrating Christmas, for having a Festive Friday - or any other Festive day - is to wonder at the birth of that baby boy.

For to us a child is born, 
   to us a son is given, 
   and the government will be on his shoulders. 
And he will be called 
   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
Isaiah 9.6

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A last goodbye

Here is the prayer I read at Gran's funeral last Friday. More cheery blogposts will follow, I promise!

Ok, God,
it’s time for a chat.
I know, I know – when it comes to prayers I don’t do much listening
and you are sitting back, waiting for the imminent discourse.
Well, today it’s like this.
Gran’s dead.
Ok – I know you know that too.
That’s part of being omniscient or omnipotent or one of those other long, theological words people use instead of plain English.
Anyway, we are here to remember her,
to thank you for her life,
and – to a certain extent – to say goodbye to her.
That’s the bit that’s really tough,
‘cos she was one of those people that you’d really like to live for ever.
She worked hard at that: 97 wonderful years.
And we are so thankful.
Thankful for being a part of her life.
Thankful for her faith, her serenity, her wisdom.
Thankful for her love of family and friends.
Thankful for her generosity and laughter.
Thankful for her elegance, thankful for her ability to make clothes.
Thankful for my wedding dress.
And even thankful that, in the midst of her dementia, she still had brilliant moments of clarity,
when her faith shone through and we could see the loving, mischievous lady underneath.
So we thank you, God, for giving her to us.
And we are sorry for the times we’ve messed up.
For times we could have spent with her and didn’t.
For times we upset her, or argued with her, or lost her famous bramble mousse recipe.
Yep … there is much to be sorry for.
But you are a forgiving God, and on that we depend.
Take care of her – please.
I know you promise us eternal life in heaven with you
and I rejoice that she is there
- with Mum and Grandpa –
a trio of people who spent time listening to you,
now worshipping you to eternity,
no pain, no crying, no sadness.
So look after her
and look after us
‘cos I’m looking forward to meeting up again. One day.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Family Heirlooms and Household Management

There are few good things about the death of a loved one, but finding things in their possession that you never thought or knew they had is (or can be!) one. So far I have discovered a book of Schumann's children's pieces for the piano that Gran won as a Music Prize, aged 10, and a small tennis trophy that she won in the year of her marriage. Part of the fascination is wondering why some items are kept and others go by the wayside.

It turns out my grandmother had a copy of Mrs Beeton's Family Cookery. It cannot have been an original (that would have been called 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management', and would not have mentioned the War!) but is dated Nov 1928 when my gran was only fifteen. I wonder what a fifteen-year-old today would have to say to being given this tome?

Being a somewhat reluctant housewife at present, I decided to have a look at what Mrs B thinks I should be doing. It doesn't start well.

Housekeeping has been aptly described as the 'oldest industry.' It is certainly the most important, the very linch-pin of life's daily round.

I fear I am a failure by the end of the second sentence of the book. I bit further down that page I get a bit closer to the sentiment...

Whether the establishment be large or small, the functions of the housewife resemble those of the general of an army or the manager of a great business concern.

I know I only have two children, but nevertheless I do feel I am commanding an army ... though my regiment may not be the most disciplined or strict. I can also see how I am the manager of a great business concern: managing the finances, dealing with disputes (have you met my children?), negotiating, purchasing, meeting deadlines. Keeping everything functioning on an even keel around here would challenge the wealthiest FTSE 100 CEO.

The next sentence is ...

It is hers to inspire, to mould, direct; vigilance or slackness on her part will alike inevitably be reflected back.

... and I think I must have a poor reflection. I'm not sure I shall ever inspire anyone with my housekeeping!

And one of my favourite bits:

A woman's home should be first and foremost in her life, but if she allow household cares entirely to occupy her thoughts, she will become narrow in her interests and sympathies, a condition not conducive to domestic happiness. In many households, especially those where the exacting needs of a young family constantly clamour for attention, very little leisure can be secured for rest and recreation, but it is generally possible by proper methods of work, punctuality, and early rising to secure some, and this should be jealously preserved.

So - yes - my hour in front of Grand Designs is sacrosanct and - yes - my children will have to be more punctual in their habits for getting ready for school and - yes - I will get up early.... well, maybe not the last one, but two out of three aint bad! Long live domestic happiness!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


cherry tree blossom pink pictures, backgrounds and images
On Monday morning my grandmother passed away.

It is hard to know what to say. She was 97 years old, with a heart stronger than mine I suspect. Over the last few years dementia took an increasing hold, frustrating her and those around her. Her death was a release, but remains a profound loss.

For she was a joy to know. The picture of her as a baby, hung on the wall in her room, portends a handful of trouble: not difficulty, but mischief. Even then there is a glint in her eyes, as if she's saying, "I know: I look like any other baby, but I'm not. I'm me, and I'm going to let you know it."

Of course, I only drift into her hourglass at about twenty to the hour. But she was always special. She cooked the most amazing meals. She made many of our clothes, including the joys of my childhood dressing-up box with its bridal headdresses and flowing cloaks. She taught me how to sew and how to use a sewing machine. She had housemartins in the eaves that we would make lardy birdcakes for.

She was the contact point with my cousins - distant in location, but the most idolised relations we had. The summers were spent in the garden, playing silly games and chewing the grass. And when my grandparents moved into a granny-flat with my uncle and aunt living above, there was a new lease of life. Aged 71 she retrieved the tennis racket she was given for her 21st birthday and played against anyone willing to try. Given that she'd had a hip replaced about 15 years before it was quite remarkable to watch.

She was the reason we all spoke well in public. She had been trained as an elocution teacher, and woe betide any of us standing up in a school play and not being heard. Every consonant placed, no dipping in volume, head up, shoulders back: she's always (in my mind) sat in the back row ensuring I keep the speech on track.

And then Grandpa died, and we worried about how she would carry on. But fifteen years later she has seen three of her grandchildren married, and six great-grandchildren arrive and has outlived all the others of her own generation. Aged 84 she made my wedding dress. Aged 92 she had games and jigsaws out for my children to play with when we visited.

When I last saw her, just over a week before she died, she was frail and sleepy. I don't think she knew who I was, but she was adamant that she knew both her children (my mother and uncle). And she spoke of her faith, faith that I know I have inherited via my mother. She was in some level of communication with her God, repeating Amen in a comforted fashion. And, in a moment of clarity, she said, "If everyone loved God as much as He loves us, the world would be a happy place."

As I kissed her goodbye she thanked me and said, "You will remember me, won't you?"

Yes, Gran. I will.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Eco-friendly durability

A couple of years ago I had a good sort through all our bedding. It was a moment of super-organisation for me, putting all the ones we use rarely (i.e. for visitors!) into bags and sticking labels on so I know what is in the bag. Astonishing organisation for me - and, it turns out, essential if you want to find a spare sheet in a hurry when one of the kids has vomited repeatedly all night. Knowing that a sheet is single or double, fitted or flat, or even (actually) a duvet cover is remarkably useful.

With the various moves since then there was an entire box that had not been touched and at the weekend we finally got round to sifting through the unpacked box of bags. Now, what I didn't mention above was that I didn't go for fancy bags, or special storage, for all these spare sheets. No: I reached for the bag of carriers and (it turns out) Tesco and Sainsbury's.

Our supermarkets are always telling us to re-use their bags, sometimes offering money back if you do. There is also eco-pressure to make the bags biodegradable, so they don't clog up landfill sites for ever and a day. So here is my non-scientific study of the durability of their bags.

Firstly: Sainsbury's

Secondly: Tesco

So, if you want strength and durability, go to Sainsbury's. If you wish them to degrade and fall apart, try Tescos.

Or, better still, buy a jute bag and keep reusing it. Even when degrading it must be more environmentally friendly than the flakes of Tesco bag I keep picking up off the floor.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The world is the size of a pea

Crikey - it has been two weeks since I wrote here. That's the problem with wandering. Over half-term we wandered across the sea: this time, to Northern Ireland to see family. Grannie & Gramps looked after the children for a couple of nights, so my husband and I were able to get away and talk about things - and not just the house/builders/disasters at home!

It is a long time since I have stayed in a B&B: a very British institution, focussing a lot on homely accommodation and a huge breakfast. The first morning we sat down with the only other guests, a couple our parents' age. They were talking about visiting their daughter; about how many times per year they come over to Ireland; about how difficult it is to fly from Norwich now there's no direct flight to Belfast; about the rain (of course: there is a lot of it!) ... then as soon as my husband mentioned his parents in Belfast she said, "Oh - you're the Withenays!"

It was a slightly spooky moment. It turns out they know my in-laws from church in Norwich.

As I said at the time, the world has shrunk to the size of a pea. We can't even get away to somewhere we've never been before without being known.

The Mountains of Mourne are truly stunningly beautiful. Even in the rain. Given the moans and groans I gave throughout my teenage years, I think my parents would be astounded that I chose to go for a walk despite the weather. Most of the walk was through drizzle. It only really began to rain when we reached the dam at the end of the valley and the end of the walk.

Well, the end of the way out. We had a (much quicker!) 3 mile hike back to the teashop and car into which we dripped. I had water squelching around in my hiking boots and was quietly praying for the survival of my mobile phone in my trouser pocket. The tea was essential to warm us through again, but we left pools of water everywhere. Back at the B&B we left our clothes in front of the Rayburn and they were only just dry when we left the following morning.

Ireland isn't the Emerald Isle without reason: year-round rain means year-round green.


I've changed my design background (in case you hadn't noticed!). Do you like it? Is it too brown? I liked the map image - it seemed to go well with my Wandering theme ... although I do now seem to be far more settled. It may all change again as I seek to find the design that suits me and the blog best. All comments and advice are welcome!

Photo of Silent Valley, copyright Awesome Stories

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Tea at our house

Why is 5.30-6pm the busiest time in our house?

It starts with, "Mum, I'm hungry!"

No - I lie - it is never so polite. It's more like:

"Mu-um ... I'm staarrrving!" (with added whine and moan factor).

Although my favourite bit is when this is followed by my daughter saying, "My tummy's rumberling."

So, clearly, at this point I have to put my vague thoughts about what we are going to eat into practice. Yesterday I was running a little late, due to the electricians messing around with the power all afternoon, so went for quick-and-easy oven chips, veg and the leftover roast beef.

No sooner had I put the chips in the oven when there was a knock on the front door. To my surprise it was a friend from my writing group, wanting to know if I'd recommend my builders. She didn't know it was my house but had been watching its progress over the last few months. (She and half the village, I am picking up. Someone told me they thought it was being made into an old people's home. How disappointing my screaming children will seem!) Clearly she also hasn't read this blog post, or she'd never have asked. Anyway, she came in and we chatted and I learnt about her house with marble floors and meeting Saddam Hussain and other things that really stop you thinking about cooking dinner.

Until, of course, you hear the whine from the children again. "Mummy - my tummy's rumberling."

Hopefully not too rudely I encouraged my friend out of the front door and rushed back to put the food onto plates. Cold beef first ... then the phone rings. It is my husband checking when he's supposed to be home so I can go to a meeting. Seven o'clock. Yes, stop work now and get a move on!

I return to the table to dish up the vegetables - only for the mobile to ring. My friend is dropping something off before going to the aforementioned meeting - is that ok? Yes, yes... any time is fine. (Obviously apart from right now. There are tummies rumberling.)

With some manic screaming from me, the children drag themselves away from the television (even rumbly tums are less important than Pokemon) and we settle to eat the now somewhat cool food.

Then all I have to deal with is both children talking at the same time, to and across each other and me: a constant barrage of noise. There's no such thing as a quiet tea at our house.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Toilet number 5

Here is our family bathroom.

OK - so that was a few months ago. Things have progressed since then. Here it is now...

You will note that the toilet is - how can I put this? - incomplete. Here is the story.

Toilet #1
We bought a toilet in the sale. Turns out that, due the structure of the wall behind the toilet the design of the toilet was wrong: it needed to have a side turn, rather than straight back. Thankfully, company happy to take it back and change it for...

Toilet #2
The replacement toilet ticked all the boxes per the catalogue, but in reality the pipe at the back still went the wrong way. No decent alternatives sold by that company and so bought a new toilet elsewhere. We are most grateful that they were still happy to refund us for the toilet(s) bought.

Toilet #3
Fitted perfectly ... but a crack in the pan. Replaced by...

Toilet #4
Which is what you see above. No cracks, pipes heading the right way ... but holes for fixing the toilet seat have been manufactured incorrectly, so that it cannot be fitted. The company's specialist came to have a look at it last week (full of bluster that it can't possibly be wrong) and broke the fixing.

So we head towards Toilet #5 ...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A room with a view

At long last, we clear enough room to put the dining table with four legs on the ground. We still can't access the chairs all around it, but there is a row of three crammed between the table and the wall, more like a bench than a seating arrangement. The room is madness: filled with boxes and furniture that has not yet been taken to the right room. As the builders are still in and out of the house I have designated the utility as a space for them to leave boots and equipment and spare parts, so all the washing is hung on the other side of the table. Anywhere else and it would be filthy in seconds: here I feel I have some level of control.

There is a rare moment of wakefulness in the morning and my daughter lays the table for breakfast. She places three bowls in a row, and insists that Mummy sits next to her. My son sits on the other side, a cosy threesome in the chill morning air (we can't yet shut the window properly).

"Isn't this lovely," I say, "all three of us together."

My daughter giggles. She's delighted, cuddling up to me. There is more reluctance from my son.

"Yeah," he grunts, "and looking at Dad's underpants."

Must, must, must find alternative space for drying clothes...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Practical completion

We achieved Practical Completion last Monday ... only 3 weeks after moving in ...

During those three weeks I have had builders, of one description or another, in the house every day of the week (except Sunday: ah, the day of rest...) Practical Completion is a technical - possibly legal - term for the end of the first phase of our contract with the builders. Now the building is complete and habitable, all the jobs done and simply a minor snagging list left to do.

Logically (of course) since reaching it I have continued to have builders in every day of the week...

Outside, diggers and dumper trucks were hired to level the front garden and bring some sort of normality to the side path. In the process they have ruined the back garden, but it is hard to get too cross about it as it was always muddy and squelchy. It would be better if I didn't need wellies to hang out the washing but I guess you can't have everything!

Inside the plumbers have been busy. Or, more often, the handyman has been busy fixing the plumber's problems. The boiler/solar panel suppliers managed to flood the airing cupboard with glycol, which leaked into the toilet below. Despite everything, the relevant pipe has leaked in two places ever since: I think it got fixed a couple of days ago, but I must check! Two leaks were found under the sink in the utility, a leak behind the downstairs toilet, a leak in our en suite basin and (best of all) a leak behind our en suite toilet. That leaked down into the family room below ... another brown smudge on the pristine white walls. It was fixed late on a Thursday with 24 hours for the seal to dry. Of course, no builders are prepared to work after 4pm on a Friday so an entire weekend without the en suite (and without the kids bathroom, as that drained into the same place) followed.  Oh ... and then they didn't actually send anyone to fix it back properly until the following Wednesday: nearly a week on.

Don't think I'd recommend the plumbers.

Joiners were around for the first couple of weeks, dodging the decorator who didn't want sawdust flying around near his newly glossed doors and floors. We are still waiting on the door handles (that we could have ordered and got within 2-3 weeks but the builders said they would get ... now we are 5 weeks and counting!) The electrician finally got around to putting light bulbs in the fixings last week. He still refuses to put up the lights we bought for our en suite as he claims they are not suitable for Zone 1. That is very irritating: he does have the final say, but all the regulations are ambiguous, and as we have to have our electrics signed off it means another £150 or more to replace lights we've already bought. Grrrr...

Don't think I'd recommend the electricians either.

Yesterday the guttering was finally completed. The entire render on one wall had to be re-done, it was so poor, which delayed fixing the gutters on top. I believe we are still waiting on a dry day or two for the other two rendered walls to be repainted. Looking at the weather today, I imagine we are in for a long wait! All the rendering and re-rendering has ruined the outside paintwork, so I am going to have some upset decorators back on a subsequent dry day to redo all their hard work.

Wouldn't recommend the renderers.

To be fair, I'm not sure which, if any, of the workers we've had on site that I would recommend. They are all lovely people, but each and every item has foolish errors in it. Door handles in the wrong place, threshold strips that are cock-eyed and 10cm from the door itself. Paint all over the light switches. Gaping holes in the plasterwork between sockets. Mucky fingerprints left in wet paintwork. Erroneous nails sticking out all over the place.

I seem to have had disasters with everything. The broadband didn't work when reconnected and after a couple of hour-long phone-calls it had to be switched off and on again at their end, and miraculously things began to communicate properly. The Aga lid has a chip in the enamel. The heat recovery system is now using small grills not large ones, and there is anxiety about the false ceiling, and the hugely expensive box that makes it work was left outside in the rain by the builders. The freezer wouldn't freeze: after a week of being on it had reached about -3 degrees. (This is after I had spent a day cleaning it. It had spent the previous 6 months in the builders' container. Unfortunately, in their wisdom, they had left a half-empty pint of milk inside it back in March. It reeked! On the positive side, it shows the seals on the freezer are in good condition; on the negative ... oh, the smell, the brown dripping gunge and the general feeling of queasiness whenever the door was opened. Bleuch.)

We have reached Practical Completion, and we are practically complete. The list of 131 items that need fixing is alive and active ... but we are getting there.

(And it is gorgeous. Really. Deep down, somewhere beyond the dust and dirt.)

Monday, 27 September 2010

And then chaos reigned

On the morning of the move I prayed that there would be no rain. God answered this prayer, providing an unexpectedly warm, sunny day - except for one hour of magnificent thunderstorm whilst we were at a school meeting about our daughter's progress (Doesn't everyone squeeze in important educational meetings on the same day they move house? Really? It's another post altogether, I'm afraid.)

Yet God must have been laughing. "OK, I'll keep the rain off the move, but the payback is (a) no running water in the house by morning and (b) rain, rain, rain all night."

The running water meant we couldn't flush the loo. Again, this might have been all right if it weren't that our en suite bathroom has no door between it and our bedroom. A gentle aroma wafted through ... It also meant the children were unable to wash before the morning, so the next day started with a dash to school to use their toilets and washbasins to rinse off the previous evening's dirt.

The storms through the night would also have been fun if the builders had completed the guttering and downpipes. I was woken about 3am to the sound of dripping water and couldn't sleep for hours until it stopped. I now have an understanding of the terrors of water torture: I would have sworn to anything in order to make it cease.

Exhausted, I started the working day with a meeting about parts for the heat recovery system. In its wisdom our suppliers had decided (between our ordering and installation) not to issue certain switches any more, resulting in a bunch of useless electrical wires hanging out around the house and a cross client. Whilst the representative was explaining the alternative options to me and the architect, my architect got a phone call. The building company had decided to sack my site manager.

The day was a bit of a whirl after that. The site manager had gone off sick the day before, but came back to collect his things and say goodbye. I'd always had a good relationship with him, although I cannot deny that I was cross that the house was not completed on time. Was that his fault? I don't know. Some blame must also lie with his supervisors, who should have been monitoring and pushing in a more timely fashion. Was that a sackable offence? Perhaps. But during the day all sorts of other stories come out of the woodwork. I still don't know the truth. All I know is that I was left in the lurch.

What doesn't magically appear is a completed house. Around 3pm I asked the joiners who was in charge on site. They looked at each other and around themselves, then looked at me. "You," seemed to be the reply. No managers from the building company showed their faces all day. My architect was excellent and stayed until lunchtime, but after that I was on my own, trying to encourage the joiners, electricians, plumbers, decorators and external diggers to complete everything in some sort of logical fashion.

The kids and I ended up going for fish and chips for tea. It was a lovely, warm evening so we sat outside the shop to eat them. I dreaded going back to the chaos inside our home. At least the water problem was solved: the electrician put the pump back on. But all I could foresee was me organising the rest of the build, and I wasn't sure I'd paid all that money to a supposedly reputable building company for that to be my job.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The move - Part 2

Tuesday dawned.

I'd heard the weather report. Storms. Rain sweeping up from the south-west. The North-West was going to be wet all day. I prayed that it would be dry for my move: I didn't want mud inside my beautiful new house.

It was the standard morning routine: husband left for work at the crack of dawn; I battled to get the children up and dressed, fed and out of the house before 8.15. My friend (very tolerant of an early start) had offered to take them to school, so I could meet with the architect at the house at 8.30. In the melee of getting the kids ready I missed a call from my site manager on my mobile. I listened to it as we walked down the road.

He said that the floor was still wet: the varnish was tacky. We couldn't move in.

My home is in boxes. My children are sorted. My removal men are due. My friends are organised into helping. But my house - hallway, living room, landing and spare bedroom - are all inaccessible.

The rooms aren't the problem. The problem is the hallway and landing. Getting to site the architect and I make an assessment. Upstairs was done first, so is drier. Putting down some rolls of cardboard there it is okay. However, the plank of wood from porch to first stair, set at a jaunty angle, is no comfortable route for removal men to carry heavy beds, boxes and furniture.

The architect and I have a quiet word. If we put all the downstairs furniture into the family room (it has a French window we can bring everything through) first, perhaps the varnish will have dried. If I can delay the removal men by a couple of hours, better still. The kitchen is filthy. In a typical male fashion, the site manager has arranged for a top-to-toe clean on the Wednesday - the following day! There are piles of dust covering the kitchen. "It's clean underneath," says the site manager, helpfully whipping off some of the card that covers my precious kitchen surfaces.

The kitchen, shortly before we moved in.

Finally I glimpse what it should look like. (But he was wrong about the cleanliness.)

The site manager is deputed to find a cleaner to come and clean the kitchen, whilst I go home to finish packing. I have two friends there already, so we grab brush, mop and cleaning materials and head back to tackle the kitchen. Who needs to pack when there is little to move in to?

Cutting a long day short, I have wonderful friends and rubbish builders. The removal men finally finished putting up our bed about 8pm, as the light faded completely. The builders hadn't put light-bulbs in the sockets, so it was getting most gloomy. The only lights that worked were the ceiling spots (well, most were in the ceiling: a few hung down from wires and many were at odd angles).

As I went to get the children I delighted that we were actually in ... but knew that this was just the beginning of a long haul to get the house finished. Everywhere I looked there were errors or tweaks or simple disasters to be resolved. The electrician had left us with a few circuits working. We had no door handles and, in many cases, no locks on the doors. We were tiptoeing over cardboard runways, hoping not to damage the floor underneath. Half the house still needed to be painted and glossed. And I haven't even started on the chaos that is outside: mounds of earth and rubble, no portaloo for the workers, mud squelching a path around the building.

Still, we're in. And that's good. Right?

Yes. But discovering before we went to bed that we had no water was not so good.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The move: part 1

There's a gap in the building works - I have electricity and am (at long last) updating my blog.

Not that I've been without electricity entirely this last two weeks, though at times it has felt that way. To reassure anyone who worried when the man on the Today programme yesterday spoke about the risk of solar flares, and how one big one could destroy the world's electronic system entirely (apparently we'll have about 20 minutes warning - barely enough time to back-up!), it is possible to survive without most of what we consider 'normal'.

It's just not necessarily pleasant.

My last blog post was a gripe about deadlines. Or their ability to be missed. Our builders are still missing them, into their eighth week of overrun. Since I last wrote we have actually moved in (given the rental contract was up there was little choice!) but our belongings remain, for the most part, in boxes. Today I just had decorators; yesterday joiners and electricians; but someone to fix the mess following the plumbing leak would be useful (I'd like to use the toilet!)

All this industry for a house that was, supposedly, perfect and ready for us to move into two weeks ago. Having moved a few bits and pieces in that previous Friday we were optimistic. We popped in over the weekend a couple of times, being assured that the stained and varnished floor would be dry before we move in. I only got a little irate about finding a man kneeling on the floor with an electric saw, slicing lengths of wood, scattering sawdust everywhere, just next to my sofa. My request for a dustsheet to cover it had fallen on deaf ears.

It is never fun, moving house. I should know: we calculated that in 13 years of marriage we have moved 11 times. Too often, I say. But this is our 'forever house' - I hope - so the weekend of packing boxes, trying to keep out only the most important things, labelling everything: yes, it will all be worth it, I kept telling myself. I organised an army of girls to help me with the move, given that the builders' delay meant my husband was back at work and unable to contribute during the day. They were great, helping to finish packing at one end and unpack at the other.

At least, that was the plan. Then Tuesday happened.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The value of deadlines

My children have successfully completed their 'Space Hop' Summer Reading Challenge at the Library. They've each read at least 6 books within the two months the challenge lasted. My own reading challenge has been less successful: only completing three library books, although I am halfway through another two at the moment.

The bigger deadline (the completion of our house refurbishment) has also come and gone. Contractually due to complete 30 July, revised to 20 August (bearable), re-revised to 31 August (unsatisfactory), changed on 30 August to be 1 September... until yesterday we were due to move in. That deadline has also come and gone. The final revised and largely immovable deadline for moving is this Tuesday (our rental agreement expires!) If you looked at the house today you would wonder how on earth that would be feasible. All in all it is making for a depressing weekend.

The depression is compounded by the workers downing tools on Friday lunchtime as (allegedly) they hadn't been paid. That crisis appears to have been dealt with by the building company, since they were all back on site this morning, but it made for a very uncomfortable afternoon and doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. The boss assures us it will be ready on Tuesday, but I fear all the workers are worn out. This means they are not working at optimum speed and the final push to complete is being done without any fuel in their tanks.

The deadline to be in before term began has passed. The house is packed and we are living surrounded by boxes. Now I am just hopeful that we will be in before we have friends for dinner on Saturday! 

The failure of this deadline has a knock-on effect. I had set a personal deadline of September to being resending my book to agents and publishers. The chaos at home means I simply can't get my head around it. I had also planned to revamp the blog: I shall be lucky if I have internet access after Tuesday, so another delay there. We have so many activities and visits planned for September and October that we will be lucky to draw breath - yet we need a secure home base to work from!

So, we plod on, step by step, day by day. When all is resolved, we will be living in a stunning house and all these trials and tribulations will be something to laugh about over dinner. Perhaps with friends on Saturday ... definitely by Christmas (do I speak too soon?)!

In the meantime, I might get back to my books: at least they take me away from my worries in this world and transport me to someplace else!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Book 3: Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite authors. His gentle rambling through the thoughts of his characters never ceases to entertain me. I was first introduced to him when I moved to Zambia, being presented with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It was love at first read: the book captured so much of the essence of Africa, with its sunsets and scenery, its lazy days and lazy people, its hard work to procure a living, its poverty and its wealth. From then on I was addicted.

So it was an utter delight to pick up Corduroy Mansions from the library. Its origin is a daily story printed in The Daily Telegraph, all 100 episodes being collated together for the book. Having already read the 44 Scotland Street series that he produced for The Scotsman I knew the type of tale to expect. The stories centre around the inhabitants of Corduroy Mansions, described as 'crumpled': a slightly run down block of flats in Pimlico (but, after all, it is Pimlico, so not that run down).

There are uncomfortable similarities to the 44 Scotland Street stories - there is a man with a dog, there is a mysterious, lost painting, it ends with a bizarre poem - but nevertheless the characters are fresh and realistic. Undoubtedly my favourite (despite his meagre appearances) is Oedipus Snark 'possibly the first ever nasty Liberal Democrat MP' whose evil permeates the book through his employee, his girlfriend and his mother. Yet my biggest laugh-out-loud moment was with Terence Moongrove and his attempt to recharge his car battery, and subsequent choice of replacement vehicle.

It is an art to write a story every day of about 1000 words which not only follows on from the previous day but also can be read independently. It makes Corduroy Mansions an easy book to pick up and put down but also, as a writer, a fascinating exercise in introducing characters and storylines. Sometimes it is clunky but usually it flows remarkably easily.

I realise that AMS has produced a second series of stories for the newspaper, some of which I read online at the time, but I look forward to catching up on the whole family of characters when published together in a book. It is light, easy reading, and if you enjoy AMS's philosophical wandering through life you cannot be disappointed with this series.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Book 2: Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse

If you stick with me for all my summer book reviews you will discover they are all light reads. I saw PG Wodehouse on the shelf and gave a little sigh of relief. Wodehouse always has an excellent use of the English language and a farcical mix of over-the-top characters.

"Something Fresh" doesn't fail with either. It is the first of the Blandings novels, introducing the slightly demented Lord Emsworth, his wayward son Hon Freddie Threepwood, the Efficient Baxter (the secretary) and the butler, Beach. Of course, Wodehouse is better known for Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves, but I thought it would be worth giving other characters a go.

There is a delightful mix-up over the loss (or was it theft?) of a valuable scarab. Realising there is money being rewarded for its recovery various people chase off to Blandings Castle to try to retrieve it. This cannot be done with open honesty but by the most devious means possible, so that no-one knows who they are or what they are really up to. The description of the severely sleep-deprived Baxter believing he is hallucinating in the pub (when we, the reader, really know what he sees and hears to be true) is superb.

Truly Wodehouse is a master of the pompous upper-class character and inevitable farce in stately homes. Clearly it is from a bygone era, and it is hard to imagine what a modern equivalent might be, but on finishing the book I fell asleep drafting my own play for a West End stage: a bedroom farce with unknown guests and unwanted interruptions. Thankfully for the rest of the world, I slept before it became a reality. Even more thankfully, Wodehouse manages it to perfection and is freely available from the library.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Summer reading by Withenay Wanders

Richard and Judy have their list; the TV book club theirs.

I have a random collection taken from the library whilst my children work on their 'Space Hop' Summer Challenge. They are not chosen for their literary merit but usually for being a light read. Or for being at eye-level and with an attractive cover, of course.

So, first off the shelf is The Tea House on Mulberry Street by Sharon Owens.

I liked the sound of this: I like tea shops, as a general rule, and therefore am immediately attracted to the idea of sitting in one, drinking cups of tea and watching the world go by. Furthermore, when I took it off the shelf I read the review form the Irish Independent: "Maeve Binchy meets Joanna Trollope ... gives you a warm glow like a nice cup of tea." Exactly what I needed for a bit of summer reading.

The story is set in Ireland and revolves - unsurprisingly - around a tea shop and the love lives of its owners and regulars. There is a fairly standard mix of unfaithful husbands, affairs with sexy men, long lost loves, never-to-be loves and the aching for a baby marital strife. Everyone wants change but no-one is sure how to get it.

The tempting descriptions of cheesecake and desserts have me salivating from the start. The characters are well-written, introduced slowly from the beginning of the book, with sufficient back-story to give credence. However, I confess I was disappointed with the end. It was delightfully predictable and the author did manage to tie up all the loose ends, though rather handed to me (the reader) on a plate in the final chapter. It would have been nice to have something a little more enigmatic. For example, the story of Clare (loved and lost) probably could have been a book in itself, if the author had wished. Instead it all neatly tied up (oh look! he's just around the corner and currently single ...) and we quickly passed on to another character.

There are certainly interesting ideas in the story and a delightful mix of people to indulge myself with. There are several other books by the same author at the library and I wouldn't dismiss them if I wanted something light to read, but to my mind it was not in the same class as Maeve Binchy.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Good day, bad day

Okay, so I need your votes at the end please. (If I was really clever there would be an appropriate widget or response button, but technophobe that I am, I rely solely on the 'comments' box.)

Is this a good day or a bad day?

Alarm didn't go off.
Husband woke naturally and in comfortable time to catch train.

Daughter bounced into the room, fully dressed, at 7.15.
Son has to be woken at 8.30.

In the three hours of my daughter's dance lesson, my son and I managed a trip to the tile shop to pick up the mosaics and to IKEA (a 40 minute drive each way) for furniture.
The mosaics hadn't come in. 'Friday,' she says. Builder (and tiler) not impressed.
The bedroom furniture was in, and kitchen worksurface so large that son had to hold it in place in the car for the entire journey home (or risk decapitation!) It helps being female and on your own - better still, with a child in tow: there is always some man available to lift the heavy boxes and pack the car properly for you.

The urgent shower tray delivery, that the builder wants yesterday, isn't in. Or, at least, they haven't rung. Further investigation reveals it is in but the man in charge was off yesterday. I collect it before collecting my daughter from dance: I am late for her.

The road is blocked off. Turns out it is for a delivery to my house.

My daughter's friend accidentally breaks something I brought back from Zambia.
Daughter, son and their two friends play very happily together all afternoon: no tears, no grief, no arguments ... and only a modicum of TV/computer/DS time.

Bathstore claim they've delivered all our sanitary ware two weeks ago 'and the computer can't be wrong'.
Bathstore ring back later to say they've located the error...

Man comes to fix washing machine. He runs a rinse cycle and can find nothing wrong.
After he's gone I run a cottons wash and water again leaks onto the tea-towel on the floor.

Lovely lady from electricity company rings and apologises for refunding us money in April then demanding £500 from us in June. She agrees to either of my proposed repayment plans: my choice!

Bake choc chip muffins and chocolate courgette cake.
Forget to cook dinner.

Husband gets home early. Or, at least, in time to see the children before bed.
He has to work on a presentation for tomorrow.

Whilst writing this I run the bath in plenty of time for my daughter (the combi boiler and bath size combine to require a good 5-10 minutes to get a half-decent layer of water) ... only to discover that I forgot to close the plug.

Only one G&T.

So tell me: good day, or bad day?!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Summer holiday fun

Am I a peculiar mother, given I dread the summer holidays?

I am blessed by only having a shade over 5 weeks in which to entertain my children, but still the thought of it stretching out in front of me fills me with dread.

Five weeks! What to do? What to do?

I have spent too many of them moving house, of course. Last year we moved in the summer half-term, but the previous two summers had been spent moving house. And this year we move back into our refurbished house (woo hoo!!) So perhaps that is much of the dread. After all, young children and packing boxes and chaos is not a good mix. They get fed up, bored, frustrated and I get nothing done.

This summer I had decided to take a more chilled out approach. The first week I'd get the children into some activity or childcare, whilst the house was completed, then I'd have three weeks in which to gradually move back in. We could alternative house-moving with days out (yes, the technical term is bribery) and be all settled before our late, brief holiday and term starting again.

Then this happened. Now my three weeks has vanished. I am still overseeing a house refurb and entertaining the children. Furthermore, if the build overruns any more our holiday will be threatened and my desire to be settled before term recommences looks less and less likely.

Well, I have dealt with the first problems by finding more activities for the children to attend and, believe it or not, I am sorry and a little resentful. Being 9 and 7, my children are a good age for enjoying many activities and days out, and the need for me to be around for last minute corrections and purchases for the house limits the flexibility I would like for doing such things with them. Despite the grey cloud of five weeks looming, I do love my kids and recognise this is precious time with them, time that I will never recoup.

I have no doubt we'll manage to squeeze something in other than trips to IKEA. But I am - now - looking forward to next summer when I will be in control, not the builders or removal men!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dear Blog,

Sorry not to have called by for a while. It is quite scary how much time the house refurbishment takes up. Combine that with children that will insist on attention, clothes that pile up demanding to be washed, end of term activities and celebrations and a husband working so, so hard and - well, you get my absenteeism.

Please forgive me. I still love you.

I'm sorry I haven't had chance to tell you about the debacle over my daughter's report. Nor about the magnificent rendition of 'Bright Eyes' on the trombone by my son. Nor the BMB meet-up in Manchester last week. Nor the builders' optimism about finishing the job on time.

I haven't told you about the book's progress: how it is loved by my writing group but nearly annihilated by others. I haven't managed to write about orange albinism (inspired by the story of the black couple who gave birth to a white baby) nor wax lyrical about the beauties of St Andrews (aside from the golf). I haven't entered the writing competitions that I planned too, nor read the books that are piling up in my bedroom.

I haven't shared all the exciting things we're going to do during our summer holidays. We're moving house. We hope. (Well, now I have shared all the exciting things we're going to do during our summer holidays...)

Don't despair: I'll be back imminently with tales of family laughter and woe. Just not last week. And maybe not next week, but who knows?

With love,

Monday, 12 July 2010

Tied to the apron strings? I think not!

Last weekend my daughter went on Brownie Camp. This was her first time away with friends, rather than staying with grandparents or for a sleepover. Her mother (that is, me!) was all fretful and concerned.

She bounced into the place they were staying and squeaked and squealed with excitement over her bed, the drawer and shelf she could put things on. (She does have these things at home as well!) She was delighted to be sharing with some older girls and another girl in her year. She rushed around, finding out about the facilities and showing the girls who arrived just moments later what there was available.

I decided to leave after she ran past me at great speed shouting, "Bye mum!" with barely a glance. I know when I'm not needed!

Being mum, I did spend much of the peaceful weekend without her worrying. Was she okay? Did she talk with friends? Would she manage to keep up with the other girls? Would she be laughed at, teased, ridiculed? Did she eat what she was given? Has she cried herself to sleep or (for that matter) has she slept at all?

She almost paid attention to me when I returned to pick her up, although chatting to her roommate was more interesting than helping me pack and collect everything. Eventually I got a chance to talk with her.

"I missed you!" I said, giving her a kiss.

She smiled. "Where were you?" she asked.

"At home," I replied.

"Oh. I did wonder," she said ... and promptly fell asleep in the car.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Falling foul of the system

I have blogged before about my daughter's difficulties at school. I don't like to write much, for her own privacy, but it has a great impact on our lives and the focus of our attention. I joke that I have children two years apart chronologically but four years academically. I think the four is growing - at both ends! My son keeps on at leaps and bounds.

My daughter's progress is slower, but she has shown a marked improvement over the year and I am inordinately proud of her. She is a bright and cheerful child who loves life. Unfortunately she has trouble with concentration and comprehension, both of which spill over into many aspects of schoolwork.

Before you ask: here are some of the background details. She is being seen by speech & language and has been assessed by OT. She is getting extra sessions, principally for confidence building, from SEN and they are giving as much extra time to her in class as is reasonable (given, for some reason, they feel a need to teach all the other children as well!) We've checked her eyesight and hearing (both fine) and hopefully she'll be seen by an educational psychologist in the next three months. She remains a mystery.

In many ways I'm delighted that she is unable to be labelled, but labels do often aid in knowing how to help a child. If she was autistic, there are schemes and charities in place to help. If dyslexic, similarly. If just generally not at the level she should be... nothing. It would be nice to have a clear plan as to how to help her progress.

My husband (a paediatrician) also knows there is something wrong without being able to pinpoint it. In amongst all the assessments already done, we thought it would be a good idea if she was seen by a developmental paediatrician. He (or she!) would be able to assess whether she is progressing normally according to her age. Maybe she simply is a year or so behind and if we accept that she will progress as normal, and maybe with a bit of help catch up a bit. Or maybe she is falling further and further behind and her development is not in line with 'the standard'. Either way, this could only be assessed by a specialist.

So I got a referral from the GP.

I dutifully took my daughter to the hospital for the appointment.

I spent nearly half an hour explaining my daughter's history and my concerns.

Then, at the end, he very kindly explained to me that he wasn't a developmental paediatrician but a general paediatrician with a specialisation in diabetes. He had been given the appointment because there was a waiting list to see the community team. There is nothing obviously wrong, he said. Come back again in four months.

Of course, by then it was too late for me to do anything about it. What was I supposed to do? Throw a hissy fit? Not my style. I came home and brooded. My daughter had lost a precious morning's education for an assessment that her father could have done.

There is nothing obviously wrong. My husband can do a general assessment to conclude that! Heck - I can conclude that! What I needed was a specialist. Someone who would look closely at my daughter's handwriting and recognise that it was behind standard. Someone who would think that my daughter's struggle to know how to draw a man was perhaps a little odd when aged 7. Someone who would know that a sibling of a very bright child and daughter of highly academic parents should be comfortable at school. Someone who would play some games with her and find out what her maturity was like.

I have to play the system. It was no-one's fault: the NHS machinations don't have a little flag saying 'this child is complicated' but a deadline for appointments. I either fell foul of the 'be seen within 18 weeks' rule (I was, impressively, seen within eight weeks) or of their subtle scheme for filtering out the children who are being pushed by paranoid parents, the parents who simply think their child is brighter than he or she really is. I wish I was just paranoid. But I have a husband, educated in the field, who is also concerned. I have a headmaster with many years of experience who is baffled by her. She is not straightforward.

Now I am trying, gently, to avoid apportioning blame. As with the house delays, we have to move on from here and now, not from back then. The pressing issue is to get her the right appointment. Hopefully the lovely receptionist at the GPs will be more effective with her second letter, sent directly to the developmental paediatricians (by name).

And just think: I haven't even begun on the battle with the educational authority to get her 1:1 support in class. Oh, my war has barely started, but rest assured: the only winner will be my daughter. Somehow.
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