Dear Dave

Friday 28 September 2007

It's a girl!

Dear Dave,

Congratulations on the birth of Daisy Elizabeth Jane! About time too, I must say. Sounds like it was all a bit of a rush in the end, though. When I told you to head out to the shops and buy all your Christmas presents while you still had the chance, I meant for you to do it before the contractions had started.

I guess Sam won't forget his first visit to Santa's grotto.

Ho well, it's over now and I'm glad to hear you're home already, safe from overly warm maternity wards and traumatised elves. You should expect a succession of little, pink, knitted cardigans to start dropping onto your doormat any day. If you're really lucky, they'll be in padded envelopes that won't fit through the letterbox, forcing you to go answer the door when the postie buzzes at seven in the morning. Fortunately, most of this knitwear will be lovely; unfortunately, some will appear to have been measured for a pot-bellied orangutan by a colour-blind lunatic. The latter will be the ones that Sam will want Daisy to wear. Enjoy.

Oh, yeah, how's Sam coping with having a sibling? Is he proud to be a big brother or is he eyeing his new nemesis warily? With any luck, it's all fine, but I wouldn't worry if he views Daisy as his arch-enemy - Fraser and Lewis hardly got off to the best start:

Fraser was about twenty-two months when Lewis was born but couldn't say a word. Being our eldest, we didn't really know what to expect from him in terms of his ability to understand us. Since he couldn't speak, we didn't think he was able to take much in. As a result, we didn't greatly discuss the impending arrival with him. His little brother came as a bit of a shock.

Everything was going along happily as normal and then he found himself unexpectedly being carted off to a friend's house for the day, abandoned and mysteriously collected by gran. The day after that, he woke up and came through to mummy and daddys' room and there was something lying in the funny swinging basket at the end of the bed. Fraser looked at the 'something' apprehensively. The funny swinging basket had been there for weeks and had remained empty. Suddenly it contained a squishy pink thing. What could it be? Fraser slapped it in an experimental kind of way. The pink thing moved. Fraser jumped out of his skin. They both started to cry. And a life-long relationship was begun...

With hindsight, I think we could have been a little more upfront with Fraser. It turned out he could understand a heck of a lot. He wasn't talking for a number of reasons:
  1. He was late in developing the physical ability.
  2. It was too much like effort.
  3. Pointing at things and grunting was working very well for him.
Some mild speech therapy and a large amount of competition sorted him out.

Marie's integration into the family went more smoothly. Fraser still hadn't quite got over the fact that he didn't have my undivided attention, so one more rival didn't make much difference. Lewis, meanwhile, was two and a half, had a pretty good idea what was going on and was already fairly used to being neglected left to his own devices for significant stretches of time.

As a result, the boys happily ignored Marie for about a year until the point she could stand up and get in the way of the telly. Before that, they tripped over her, dropped things on her and only really took notice of her when they thought she was about to try and eat their stuff. Fraser would frequently complain about the smell but I eventually convinced him it wasn't usually Marie's fault - Lewis either had a minor milk intolerance as a small child or he just really, really liked farting.

Anyway, hopefully Sam will cope OK. My boys now consider themselves equals and stick up for each other when they're out and about (even if they're always arguing at home). Lewis and Marie are partners in crime. They all seem to have at least some sense of being on the same team. It's nice to think they're looking after each other. When they've finally worked me to death and scavenged the last of the loot from my withered corpse, they'll know to stick together to survive. (Of course, if they decide, sooner than that, that I'm on the other team and join forces against me, I may be in trouble. I'm pretty sure they're big enough already for two of them to grab my arms and the other to make off with my wallet before I have a chance to break free).

If Sam and Daisy do find themselves as arch-enemies for a while, however, I'm sure they'll get over it eventually. Just think, in another fifteen years, they'll be setting each other up on dates with their classmates.

Now that's something to start worrying about...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 26 September 2007

Death to Santa

Dear Dave,

Merry Christmas!

I know it's a little early but I thought I'd better get in there quick before you go to the shopping centre, stumble into a brightly decorated fir tree which wasn't there last week and Santa sets his elves on you. Also, since Squiggly still hasn't shown up, you might want to rush out and buy all your gifts now while you have the chance. The first three months of having two children will disappear in the blink of an eye and a mountain of laundry. Or, in other words, if Squiggly is born today, you'll wake up tomorrow to find it's the day after Boxing Day.

Sam will be annoyed you forgot to get him anything.

What are your plans for this Christmas, by the way? Now Sam's three, he'll have much more of a clue what's going on. You'll be able to get him properly wound up with anticipation and excitement. You'll also have to decide what you're doing about the fat, cheery bloke in the red suit.

The one advantage of Marie not having got a place at nursery yet is that, at least this year, we won't be the deviant parents who 'don't do Santa'. Oddly, not wanting to lie to our children about flying reindeer and chimney-based parcel delivery systems, tends to mark us out as dangerously eccentric. Santa is apparently part of the 'magic' of Christmas and, as it happens, a very useful mind control device. ('Be good, children... or Santa won't bring you any presents. Remember, he's watching you all the time. His elves are everywhere... Yes, even there...')

Quite what the parents from different cultural and religious heritages make of it all, I've no idea. Though I presume they get away much more easily with not joining in. It's a strange quirk of the multi-cultural society. Everyone's worried about contradicting Muslims and Hindus but I'm pretty sure they'd be quite up for some spirited religious debate on the nature of God. We could totally disagree and no one would take offense. After all, only by discussion, can any of us get closer to the truth.

If, however, I were to loudly say, 'But Santa doesn't exist,' as the kids were coming out, I'd get stoned by all the agnostics. (Well, glared at, anyway).

It's a shame that the real Christmas story has become so devoid of awe and wonder that the whole Santa thing has had to be built up to add 'magic' to the day. It's not even like the kids are that fussed - a stack of presents is a stack of presents and they're full of anticipation no matter how it's due to appear.

We'd rather not bother with all the Santa subterfuge, thank you very much, but it's an uphill struggle some of the time. When Lewis was three and a half, nursery went into Santa in such a big way, he simply would not believe that the whole thing was just pretend. We tried being subtle about it so he wouldn't go blurting out the truth to all his friends and make us plenty of enemies but, in the end, we had to tell him point-blank over and over and he still wasn't having any of it:

I was woken at quarter past two on Christmas morning by the sound of crying. Although we don't go in for the whole charade, we do still leave out stockings for the kids. Lewis had got up and opened his. Except he'd totally failed to see the stocking at the end of his own bed and had taken the one from beside the cot on the other side of the room. He was sitting on the stairs, bawling his eyes out. As I approached, he held up a pair of pink baby slippers and wailed, 'Santa brought me the wrong presents!' He was heart-broken until I pointed out that it just might be possible he'd opened Marie's stocking by mistake. Somehow, the thought had never crossed his mind. (Perhaps the fact that it was quarter past two in the morning had something to do with it...) I calmed him down and watched him open his actual stocking and then we both went back to bed. It was the start of a very long day.

(This was, in fact, only the second worst Christmas stocking disaster I've ever had. When I was nineteen, home for the holidays and fairly certain I shouldn't expect sleigh-bells, Santa tried to kill me. He lay a stocking directly across the threshold of my bedroom door. I went to the toilet in the middle of the night, tripped over the flipping thing and nearly went head-first down the stairs. I was not impressed. I was even less impressed when, on further investigation, I discovered the stocking contained a tangerine, a bag of nuts and a car cleaning kit. I didn't even have a car. Though, now I think about it, my parents had a car that I borrowed a lot. Hmmm...)

Yeah, it's impossible to avoid Santa entirely but Sarah and I want the kids to trust us. Lying through our teeth about rotund pensioners sneaking into the house in the dead of night to put satsumas in their socks doesn't really seem to be the way to go about that. Call us eccentric, but there you go.

Just something to think about. Then again, your eyes probably glazed over at the first mention of Christmas. I know it's months to go yet but spare a thought for all the shop assistants who'll be subjected to a looped CD of festive hits from now until New Year. Be gentle with them.

Oh, and another sign Christmas is fast approaching? The auditions for nativity plays are already in full swing. I'm pushing for our church to put on something slightly different this year but I'm told it doesn't have enough cute angels in it. (We have the costumes, you see). Ho, well.

Now go tell Squiggly to hurry up.

Yours in a winter wonderland,


PS Microsoft returned my Xbox 360 the other day. Well, actually, they sent me a brand new one - which was a bonus. Unfortunately, I've had to dismantle my safe place again because the tradesmen reckoned it was possible they might turn up to fix the water damage this week.

I now have two 360s but nowhere to play them. Irritating.

Friday 21 September 2007

The List

Dear Dave,

Any news yet? I take it Squiggly has decided to stay put for a while longer. How overdue does she/he have to be before the midwives break out the dynamite? I seem to remember that Fraser was nine days late and, the more time dragged on, the less likely it seemed that he would ever be born. It was crazy but life went into limbo as we waited impatiently for him to do the only sensible thing and come out quietly with his legs up. He wasn't having any of it, however. When he finally deigned to appear, he was facing the wrong way and had to be dragged out by the head. (A pattern of life we seem to repeat in some form on an almost daily basis).

Marie was even more awkward. She was determined to stick her toes out first just to test the temperature. Nothing would persuade her otherwise and she had to be yanked out through the emergency exit. Stubborn drama queen? My little girl? Never...

Lewis, at least, turned up on time and without much palaver. If anything, he was a little too laid-back and easy-going. He might have been born even more smoothly if he'd bothered to fight his way out of his protective bubble. But no. He wanted to be born in his own private water-bed. He likes his comfort, that one.

Anyway, good luck and best wishes to Liz. Remember to make the midwives do whatever she wants and try your best to get her whatever she asks for (unless it's sharp and pointy and she wants you to stand close by).

Things are sort of going OK here. Sarah had her redundancy 'hearing' at LBO yesterday - the one where she had to explain to the two managers who fired her why they were wrong. This was, obviously, never going to go well but we were pinning our hopes on the third member of the Inquisition who was supposed to be an impartial manager from another department. No one told Sarah who it was going to be until the day, however. She phoned me straight away when she found out. It was Gerald, my old boss from when I worked in the IT department. This was not good news.

"What do you know about him?" Sarah asked.

I grimaced, glad that she couldn't see my face. "Dinosaurs find him old-fashioned and he can't really see the point of women."


"Yeah, I'm sure they'd have pensioned him off years ago if he hadn't rigged up half the code so that only he knows how it works. Not that even he really knows, half the time."

"I need you to be more encouraging here," she said.

"Sorry..." I didn't know what else to say.

There was a silence punctuated by swamp sounds. "What's that squelching noise in the background?" asked Sarah.

"Marie." I glanced over from my seat at the kitchen table to where the girl was stomping around in slime, her trouser legs rolled up as high as they would go. "I've got her doing foot painting."

"Is that wise?" said Sarah, somewhat agitated by this news.

"Almost certainly not, but she's really getting into it. I think we're going to need some more pink paint."

"I like pink!" shouted Marie, gleefully, and jumped up and down.

I wiped a fleck of paint from my glasses. Then I had an idea. "Yeah, er, what would happen if, for some reason, Gerald couldn't make it?"

"I don't know. It might say in the formal notification they sent me..." There was a rustle of paper as she searched around. "Yes, it has a get-out clause. 'If the named arbiter cannot attend the consultation meeting, then his or her deputy will attend as replacement. In this eventuality, all duties relating to the meeting will henceforth transfer to the replacement.' Which, I presume, means it's up to the deputy to make decisions and do the paperwork. Do you think Gerald will want to delegate?"

"Nope, he wouldn't dream of passing up the chance to look official and exert some power. Who's his deputy, though?"

"I'll check the org chart..." There was another pause. "Looks like someone called Morag Chandler."

This was much more promising. "She'd be good. She's fair, doesn't tolerate nonsense and bites the heads off fools. She'll be more than up for a fight with Steve and Scott. You want her."

"And how am I supposed to arrange that?" asked Sarah.

"Leave it to me," I said.

This didn't come across in the manly and reassuring way I'd hoped. "What? What are you going to do?" Sarah sounded anxious.

"Woh, calm down," I said. "I just think I can get Rob to keep Gerald out of the way for a few hours, that's all. I'm not going to turn up and send the kids in with water balloons and dung bombs."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, not unless they actually fire you, anyway. Keep on with your preparation for the meeting and I'll see what I can do. Speak to you later. Love you."

"Love you, too. Just don't do anything silly, OK?"

"OK. Bye."

I hung up and then immediately phoned Rob, my friend who still works in the IT department at LBO.

"I need you to do me a favour," I said, once we'd exchanged pleasantries.

"Sure. What is it?"

"I need you to distract Gerald for the rest of the day. I need you to use the List."

"You what?" he spluttered but then lowered his voice. "Why?"

I explained about the hearing whilst trying to keep Marie on the paper and away from the clean laundry.

"I don't know," muttered Rob, when I was done. "There's not much still on there. It's been eight years and I've had a few close scrapes since you left. What if something happens and I..."

"Come on. You must be able to do something. I gave you the List in the first place."

"It's not like you wrote it," he said.

"Well, I added to it. Have you added anything to it? Look, I really need your help. What do I have to do here? You want me to lose to you at Mario Kart or something?"

"Not really. I tell you what, you could be best man at my wedding. How about that?"

I sighed. "I'd rather just sit next to the buffet and get mildly drunk while enjoying not having the kids around, if that's all right?" A terrible thought crossed my mind. "You're not inviting the kids, are you?"

"I might do, at this rate," he said, sounding peeved. "Aren't you supposed to say, 'Congratulations'?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry. Congratulations! Now, about the List..."

"Only if you agree to wear a kilt and stand at the front holding the rings."

"I have to wear a kilt!? Have you seen my knees?"

"Hang on a minute while I pencil your children onto the guest list."

"OK, OK, I'll do it," I said, caving in. "I can't believe you're holding me to ransom over this. I am so giving you crystal sherry glasses as a gift."

"That's OK. You're getting novelty cuff links as a thank you present."

"Cheers... Now, the List!?"

The List takes the form of a battered and yellowed notebook and has had a mythical status within the technical division of LBO since back in a time when making an automatic calculation involved turning a crank handle. It has been passed secretly down through generations of prospectless techies, hidden from management and any that show aspirations to be promoted to the dark side. Sometimes it has disappeared from view for years, only to be rediscovered in moments of greatest need. It has come to the rescue of many a hapless engineer and some say, that if the List is ever used up, then it will be the beginning of the end - hot desking will become mandatory and internet access will be denied, new development will cease and all that will be left is bug-fixing...

Once upon a time, the List was in the care of my mentor. He gave it to me when he left the company. I, in turn, gave it to Rob when I left. It records all the subtle technical faults in the system that senior management is entirely unaware of but that would strike fear into their hearts if they were ever informed. By suddenly 'discovering' one of the problems on the List, an engineer can distract attention from a different disaster that's much more their fault. Of course, there is a price to be paid - all the problems are difficult, dull or time-consuming to fix. The List is never to be used lightly. It saved me on one occasion, however. When a race over my cubicle assault course led to myself, several co-workers and a vending machine falling out a window, the List ensured we got away with only our minor injuries and several weeks of database migration. It was a close thing.

More famously, LBO was years ahead of the game on Y2K because my old mentor needed to divert his superiors while he hunted around for the portion of fish and chips he'd lost in the internal workings of the primary mainframe. That incident has become legend.

I started suggesting entries from the List that Rob could use. "How about the Conduit Issue?"

This is one of the items on the List that is situation dependent. The password and access security on the LBO network is very tight. The data, however, travels totally unencrypted between buildings using cabling that runs only a few feet underground. This fact would obviously be a cause for concern whenever it was pointed out, but is liable to create much more panic amongst senior management if they look out the window and see a couple of shifty looking workmen poking around under a manhole cover. Rob keeps Virgin Media on speed-dial just in case of such a fortuitous circumstance being required.

"No time," replied Rob. "I'll never get a maintenance guy out here before this afternoon."

"You're right." I wracked my brains. "How about the NeverDay Accounts?"

In the early '80s, LBO introduced a thirty year savings plan. Not many people took it up and it quickly died a death. No one would remember it at all if it weren't for the five customers who signed up on the 29th February 1984. Due to an error in the code, their interest calculations have been somewhat inflated and they now own the company. On the plus side, there's another error which means, since 2014 isn't a leap year, the policies will never mature and the customers will never be paid. If the accountants ever find out, however, there'll be pandemonium enough to cover over almost any other catastrophe. (And, yeah, it could be fixed really easily but, unfortunately, that module of code got re-used and now forms part of almost every system in LBO. Testing nothing else got broken by the fix would take forever).

"NeverDay is overkill," said Rob. "I'm not taking the flak for uncovering that."

I could see his point. "OK, then, the Name Jumbler?"

When a customer's name is entered into the system it is stored surname first, followed by first names. Each of the elements is separated by a space. John Edward Smith becomes Smith John Edward. This makes it easy to list customers alphabetically by surname. When the system retrieves a name, it looks for spaces and re-arranges the name back to the right order. Letters would be sent to John E Smith. This works great almost all the time. However, the designer had obviously never met anyone with a hyphen-less double-barreled surname. John Edward Smith Jones gets stored as Smith Jones John Edward but comes back as Jones John Edward Smith. Every time. That's got to be annoying for all LBO's punctuation-phobic customers.

"That's maybe underkill," said Rob. "Gerald's not going to care. How many customers with hyphen-less double-barreled surnames do you think we have?"

"It's not the number; it's the importance," I said, becoming impatient. Sarah's meeting was fast approaching. Marie was also running out of paper. "There are a few high-profile special cases. See if Her Royal Highness, Princess Enid, Duchess of Anglesey, is still a policy holder."

"What? Hang on a minute. Have you got a policy number?"

"It's on the List."

"I'll need to get it out from behind the air-vent cover. I'll put you on hold..."

"Wait! No..." It was too late. I was subjected to fifteen minutes of Brahms and irritating reminders that my call was important.

Eventually, Rob came back on. "Right, got it."

"What were you doing?" I hissed.

"It was still in the air-vent in my old cubicle. I had to go buy doughnuts to lure people out of the room before I could get to it. I told them it was Rupert's birthday."

"Who's Rupert?" I asked.

"I dunno. I'm making this up as I go along."

"And no one queried?"

"Who queries free doughnuts?" said Rob.

"True. You might want to add that to the List as another potential security risk."

"Yeah, hadn't thought of it like that," he said. "Where's this policy number then? Oh, got it. Just hang on while I call it up... Right... OK, they put 'HRH' in as her title so that's fine but, oh, they tried making 'Duchess of Anglesey' her surname which means the system thinks her first name is 'of' and they left 'Princess' in there, which makes her initials... Oh, flip..."

"Yep, she gets letters addressed to 'HRH of APE Duchess'."

"Gerald will go ballistic," said Rob. "I still don't see how it's going to keep him out the way, though. He'll get someone else to sort it."

"No, he won't. Check out the name storage and retrieval modules - his name is all over them. He'll lock himself in his office and spend the rest of the week hacking up a solution."

"But there is no solution," argued Rob, forgetting to whisper. "All the data's compromised. Even if he changed the code, someone would have to go through about five million customer records to check which ones are knackered. Not that it'll be possible to tell with some of them without contacting the customer. It can't be fixed."

"His pride will make him try. Go tell him."

Rob subsided. "All right, all right. But your speech better be good."

"I'll start writing it now. Well, as soon as I've got the pink footprints off the telly. Things got a little out of hand while you had me on hold."

"Good luck with that."

"You, too."

I hung up and set myself to scrubbing a small child and various appliances. There was nothing else I could do.

Sarah phoned me a few hours later. The List had worked its magic. Gerald had been unexpectedly detained by a technical crisis and Morag had been unceremoniously ordered to the hearing. Apparently, she was fuming before she even arrived and was looking for a fight. Sarah's manager, Steve, was pretty quiet through the whole thing. (His wife, Deborah, still needs my help, so she's been advocating for Sarah ever since the redundancies were announced). Steve's manager, Scott, however, was as smug and annoying as ever and Morag told him where to go.

She even drew diagrams.

It's going to be another couple of weeks before final decisions are made but I think there's a good chance things should work out well.

I'd better start on that speech.

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 17 September 2007

I'm sure my underwear is around here somewhere

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you've finally started getting stuff out the loft. Hey, no rush - it's not like the baby's due today or anything...

Have you remembered everything? I was trying to think of what you'll need but the whole experience of dealing with a newborn is beginning to blur. Let's see: pram, carseat, biohazard suit, cottonwool, baby bath, crib (good luck putting that back together again, by the way), more cottonwool, baby clothes, steriliser, industrial-sized tin of coffee, yet more cottonwool, playpen, little blankets, even more cottonwool than that, mittens, buckets, large vat of disinfectant... The list goes on. There's probably a stack of stuff I've forgotten. (Did I mention cottonwool?) I have the full list here, somewhere, but I think I'm too scared of flashbacks to take a proper look.

I saw a small baby at parent and toddler the other day being wrapped up for going outside and it took me back. It was sunny but the kid was being kitted out with a padded coat, mittens and the cutest little pink hat ever. I'd forgotten about the little hats. It was so sweet.

Then again, I was a good ten feet from the little slug and reasonably safe from any stray bodily fluids. At that range, there wasn't even an odour. Just the thought of going back to nappies and middle-of-the-night feeds and regularly wearing banana porridge makes me feel... tired. In some ways, another child or two would be nice, but I just don't have the mental or physical energy for it. I'm looking forward to the point where I can sit reading a book while the kids run around outside entertaining themselves. (Well, I can dream. At the very least, it will be nice to interact with Fraser without having to constantly deal with/fight off a toddler). Relatively soon, Marie will start nursery and I'll have a couple of hours a day to myself. Some semblance of freedom approaches. I'll be able to...

Oh, hang on... Maybe you're not really the one I should be telling this too.

Yes, erm, stuff. I was talking about stuff. Our house is still a tip at the moment because of the repair work that's going on. We've had to empty out a couple of rooms and stash the contents in other parts of the house. Actually, 'stash' is a little optimistic. All the cupboards were already full beforehand. The beds are jacked up so we can fit more stuff underneath. Even the loft is full. We would have piled all the refugee stuff in the middle of the lounge carpet but what would we have done with the the big pile of stuff which normally lives in the middle of the lounge carpet?

We're having to pick our way through teetering stacks of printers and books and towels just to find clean clothes. I've given the kids each a hat with a flag on the top so I don't lose them amidst the clutter. It's kind of like living in the version of the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts where everybody hides junk. You just never know what you'll find if you go poking around. What will it be? The other shoe you're looking for? Fresh underwear? One end of a cable which could be attached to almost anything? Lord Lucan? Or Scabbers the rat?

It's always worth keeping something blunt and heavy handy just in case.

This chaos is a bit of a shame because I had been hoping we'd reached the high-tide mark of stuff a few months ago. Marie is at the stage where we don't need much of the specialised baby equipment any more and she has even out-grown plenty of toys. We've finally been able to off-load boxes and boxes of baby gear. Before, whenever one child was done with something, we had to put it in storage for the next one. More often than not, we just left the thing out - the minimal time before we needed it again meant it wasn't worth searching for a space in the loft. Meanwhile, as Fraser got older, we had to buy more stuff. Pokemon got mixed in with shape-sorters; a beanbag got plopped beside the bouncy chair. Cupboards overflowed, the carpet disappeared and I had to build a bigger shed. We began to sink beneath a sea of toddler artwork and strange constructions made from cereal cartons and yogurt pots.

I remember, when Fraser was on the way, being offered all kinds of useful second-hand items by various total strangers. At first, I tended to find their generosity heart-warming. Then I'd become disturbed by their manic insistence that I take some bulky item of well-worn and smelly baby paraphernalia. By the time they'd dragged me into their home and started piling my arms with junk, I was usually pretty scared. Fortunately, it was always fairly easy to sneak away as they ran round the house opening drawers and tipping the contents into black bin-liners for me.

Now I'm one of those people.

We packaged up lots of baby stuff recently, hired a van and drove it to relatives. With hindsight, maybe we should have asked if they wanted it before popping round while they were on holiday and dumping it all in their front room. But, hey, at least we watered their plants - they can't complain too much. We were just desperate to clear some space in our house.

The initial results were disappointing. There was still no room in our cupboards - it was merely possible to open them without being deluged in bibs and mitts and babygros. We had to do a second trip. Sarah's cousin was apparently very surprised when he got back from Tenerife, opened his garage door and nearly drowned in babywear.

We had slightly more space after that, though. We even revealed patches of floor that I'd forgotten we had.

When Fraser was small, I used to pack away his toys neatly at night, sorting them into the correct boxes and tubs. When Lewis was young, I got the boys to help me tidy the stuff into a corner and I checked that favourite toys still had all their pieces. When Marie was tiny, I bought a spade and just shoveled the stuff into the corner. Once she was a little older and never went to sleep, I even gave up on that. I simply cleared narrow paths between the door, the sofa and the telly and left the rest to geology. Over time, erosion and sedimentation from a steady flow of children caused interesting toy formations to take shape. The Teletubbies fossilised.

It was nice to finally clear some of the stuff out and have a little room to breathe again. Maybe soon, things will be that way again. The decorators are supposed to be coming this week and, once they're finished, we can set the house to rights. We could even take the opportunity to sift some of our belongings and fill a few bags for the charity shop. More likely, we'll just bung everything back where it came from as quickly as possible and leave the sifting until next decade but it's worth a thought. You never know, we might have the time, energy and inclination all at once...

That's still something to look forward to, however - we can't do much until the house is fixed. In the meantime, I'm reduced to smuggling small piles of toddler artwork out of the house in my trousers while whistling the theme tune to The Great Escape. If I can dispose of enough without the kids catching me and throwing a tantrum, I should have tunnelled my way to the biscuit tin in another couple of days.

It better not be empty.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Good luck. Hope it all goes relatively smoothly. Don't forget to pack your sandwiches.

Friday 14 September 2007

Naming children

Dear Dave,

You'd better hurry up and think of some names. You don't want Squiggly to become the permanent way of referring to your second child. That would be quite embarrassing for everyone concerned. Maybe not as embarrassing as some of the alternatives but not really a name you want to be shouting loudly in the swing park, nonetheless.

I have discovered a list of all the first names given to children in Scotland last year. Granted, some of them are Gaelic (mostly the ones with far too many consonants) and some are ethnic (mostly the ones with far too many vowels), but there are still plenty of 'interesting' choices in there. What are some parents thinking?

I can see the advantages of giving a child a name that is fairly rare. Having two children with the same name in a class at school is pretty confusing. Lewis was even best friends with another Lewis for a while which led to lots of awkward 'my Lewis'/'your Lewis' conversations with the other Lewis' mum. That's worth avoiding.

You don't want to have something so unusual that people just go, 'Pardon?' when you say the kid's name, though. Aardvark, Zephyr and Asphyxia are simply not great choices. Fun as it might be inventing a new name, chances are that it will not be nearly as much fun to live with. If you want something a little different, go for a name that's slightly out of fashion or from another culture instead. Check the lists, however. You might think a name's not that common but it might just be that everyone with that name is under the age of three and none of them happen to go to the same parent and toddler groups as you. I've never met an Alfie but there were over 3000 born in the UK in 2006. Maybe they're all in London. Or maybe there will be five in Sam's nursery class. Watch out - they're coming to get you.

Don't make a common name unique by changing the spelling. Avoid Kaytee, Sera, Bobb and Androo. Just imagine the problems Squiggly will have giving her details over the phone in later life. ('Yes, Rachel - with a 'y', two 'l's and a silent 'q'.')

Make sure you're happy with the shortened form of any name you choose as well. For instance, if you call the kid Alexander, you'd better be OK with Alex, Xander, Sandy, Alec, Al, Lex and goodness knows what else. Upon reaching puberty, the kid will almost certainly adopt whichever version you like least and then go and mooch around on street corners while wearing a black hoodie. Other grubby teenagers will approach you looking for Big X. Be polite.

Also watch out for unfortunate initials that spell rude or embarrassing words. Give Squiggly a middle name starting with 'J' just to be on the safe side.

Avoid embarrassing middle names that you think no one will ever find out about. You might have sentimental reasons for it, but Squiggly won't thank you when his worst enemy discovers that his middle name is Petunia, Babylon5 or Bowser.

Oh, and if you're thinking of having any more children, don't use up all your best names at once. We gave Lewis and Fraser two middle names each and ran out. If Marie had been a boy, I don't know what we'd have called her. Chewbacca, maybe. Or Bubbles. We were really stuck.

Good luck with choosing. I remember Fraser's name didn't seem real for a couple of weeks after he was born. It felt like an incredible responsibility deciding someone's name. Perhaps it was our first understanding of the power we would have in shaping him as a person and in controlling his life. We could have called him Bermuda Archibald Teacake and I don't think anyone would have been able to stop us. (Apparently, in the UK, the registrar can only complain if a name is offensive. Offensive to whom, is somewhat unclear, but feel free to experiment).

Luckily, we resisted everything outlandish and Fraser suits him well enough now.


It was almost as much stress as choosing his first hairstyle.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 12 September 2007

There's no going back now

Dear Dave,

Things are looking up. Sarah's been given a rundown of the reasons she's been picked for the redundancy list at LBO and they're decidedly unconvincing. As far as we can make out amidst all the business babble, there are three main strikes against her:

  • She hasn't done the training course for the customer data analysis tools. This is true but, then again, she helped specify the system in the first place and has been using it daily for nearly seven years. The only reason she didn't go on the course was because it was a fortnight before she went on maternity leave with Fraser and her manager at the time couldn't see the point.

  • Aiding and abetting the competition. This one's just nonsense. Sarah led a project designed to reduce customer turn-over. She spent months analysing the data, identifying the customers most likely to leave LBO and formulating ways to get them to stay. It was fantastic. The only problem was, she had to go on maternity leave with Lewis before the mailshot was finalised. Someone who had been on the training course pressed the wrong button and sent the letters to exactly the wrong people - hundreds of thousands of loyal customers received offers of sweet deals and all the customers who were already thinking of leaving got nothing.

    They left.

    This was, of course, disastrous, but definitely not Sarah's fault.

  • The annelid debacle. On returning from maternity leave with Marie, Sarah was put in charge of implementing a marketing campaign that was already in the final stages of development. She had had nothing to do with the planning, however, and was dubious about the whole scheme. It was an attempt to persuade financial advisers that, although the products of other companies might look attractive initially, they had various legal complications and long-term costs. The campaign involved sending each of these financial advisers an unsolicited can of worms.

    And, of course, like fools, they opened them.

    Believe me, the complaints department received some irate calls that day. Still, not really Sarah's fault. Crucially, when she pointed out the madness of the scheme, she was threatened with dismissal if she didn't implement it. You can't sack someone for doing something they would have got sacked for not doing. (Well, not unless you use the kind of logic that can take you from the statement, 'All chocolate digestives are brown,' to the conclusion, 'All brown things are chocolate digestives.' And the people who do use that kind of logic don't last long - they have a tendency to choke to death on their own shoes at biscuit time).
So there we have it: one reason is illegal, one is spurious and the other is as insane as eating your own boots. Persuading management to see things that way is the tricky part. It might make them look bad. Still, they don't really have a leg to stand on.

Obviously, all the uncertainty has made life somewhat subdued round here but we're coping. We've had plenty of commiserations from friends and family, so we don't feel alone, but there's been some fairly dreadful advice as well, ranging from platitudes along the lines of 'It will all work out for the best' to idiotic suggestions that we use the opportunity to go traveling the world.

Hello! Three small children, people! We're entitled to be a little apprehensive of the future and to be reluctant to go backpacking in Borneo. (Everything else aside, I can't imagined the buggy would cope well with the rainforest terrain. And where would we plug in the Game Boys to recharge them? Not going to happen).

Oddly, however, nearly everyone Sarah has discussed her imminent redundancy with has, at some point, laughed and said, 'You could always send Ed back to work.'

On the one hand, they're half joking. As if they're sure she won't be able to persuade me to leave the house after eight years of, as they see it, sitting around eating cake and playing the Xbox. Which is, on reflection, a little insulting.

On the other hand, they're half serious. Getting me a job solves the problem of not having any money coming in, after all.

It doesn't solve the actual problem of getting a job but I guess that's just a minor detail. I mean, there's no reason I couldn't get a job. What people don't seem to realise, though, is that I can't compete with Sarah. When I stopped work in advance of Fraser's arrival, Sarah and I were earning similar amounts. Money wasn't an issue when deciding who stayed home to be dribbled on. That was eight years ago, however. Sarah now has eight years more experience than me. She has new and up-to-the-minute skills. She has smart clothes that fit and that aren't all wrinkly from dribble.

She has much more chance of quickly getting a decent job than I do.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that we're now financially trapped in our role-reversal situation but we'd definitely take a big hit in the bank account if we tried to swap back. It's strange how people just don't seem to get that.

Sadly, I suspect they would get it if I were female. It would probably be taken for granted rather than come as a surprise.

And, now I come to think of it, that would be far worse. I'll stop whinging.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Marie's favourite song at the moment goes:

Everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody... everybody likes being a person.
Nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody... nobody likes being a pie.

It's quite sonorous but does tend to attract some odd looks on the bus...

Friday 7 September 2007

Sugar and spice

Dear Dave,

Yep, might be a girl. In only a couple of weeks you could have a daughter. The three years of on-the-job training in childcare you got from looking after Sam will be out the window as you struggle to cope with an entirely different species of offspring. All your old tricks for entertaining, feeding, pacifying and cajoling will fail to work. For instance, while Sam fell asleep on your chest as you watched repeats of Top Gear, Squiggly will insist on being rocked gently while listening to Take That's Greatest Hits. On the plus side, however, the makeshift restraining harness you fitted to the changing unit for Sam will be strangely unnecessary - Squiggly will let you change her nappy without trying to gouge out your eyes and then kick poo in your face.

Well, you can always hope...

It might not turn out exactly that way but who knows? Whatever happens, Squiggly will be a whole different bundle of joy from Sam, whether she's a girl or not.

It's just that, if she is a girl, people will ascribe almost every difference in behaviour to their gender. They will probably tell you that girls are much more demanding than boys for all manner of reasons involving being precocious and awkward. Don't be disheartened, however. Bear in mind that these are the same people who told you last time round that boys are more demanding than girls because they're always running around causing trouble and getting into everything. Just nod and smile.

The truth is, all children are different. As a baby, Marie didn't eat, didn't sleep, had screaming fits and was forever ill. She was certainly more awkward than either of the boys but, to be honest, Fraser wasn't much better. In terms of temperament, those two are most similar. Lewis was a really easy baby, however. We thought it was because he was our second child and we'd learnt our lessons from Fraser and we knew what we were doing.

But we were wrong.

We used the same tactics with Marie and none of them worked. Lewis was just a really contented baby who liked to eat and sleep, was able to amuse himself and didn't appear to notice his teeth coming in. He even tans well. (The other two burst into flame in direct sunlight). We didn't know how lucky we'd been until Marie arrived and developed a fondness for waking up at three in the morning to grumble loudly for a couple of hours. I kind of assume 2006 happened, but I don't really remember it.

Was Marie's aversion to sleep because she's a girl? I doubt it. It's not like she was sitting around all day demurely and not getting enough exercise. Fraser chewed everything, Lewis heaped anything he could find into piles but Marie was the baby who wouldn't stay still. She could climb before she could walk. When the boys finally managed to haul themselves up onto the sofa, they sprawled out and watched TV. Marie just used it as a staging post on her ascent of the sideboard.

'Boys are more active' - yeah, right...

Obviously, I don't have a very large sample to base my observations on. Maybe some traits are more likely in girls rather than boys. I don't know. The thing is, though, you can't count on them. Every child has their own personality and needs - it's a case of getting to know them and nurturing them.

Speaking of nurturing, there's the gnarly question of whether to treat girls differently from boys. Will Squiggly get dolls or Duplo for Christmas? That kind of thing.

You think you won't treat them differently but the truth is probably that you just won't notice you're treating them differently. She'll have the opportunity to take up ballet and dress-making, if she wants, but you won't stand in her way if she decides to go for rugby and car maintenance. You'll even encourage her. There'll be no treating her differently 'because she's a girl'.

But what if Sam wants to take up ballet and dress-making?

You may be man enough to let him but don't tell me you won't be uneasy. You will hope it's just a passing phase. You will take him to Six Nations matches and buy him a set of wrenches.

Nope, you will treat them differently and there are some things you won't be able to avoid. If Squiggly is a girl, then the colour pink will enter your life in a big way.

Babies look alike. Guessing the gender of a baby in a white babygro is next to impossible. They're all bald and wrinkly. Colours vary but that doesn't help much. If she isn't dressed in pink, then people will assume she's a boy. I don't know why - they just will. Admittedly, they may do this anyway but, if she's covered head-to-toe in neon candyfloss, at least you'll have an excuse to roll your eyes a bit. You could try other colours like purple or lilac but you might as well accept your fate and embrace the pink. The fluffy, day-glo pile of baby gifts you receive will look like someone's disemboweled a bus load of cuddly toys with a highlighter pen, whatever.

We did our best with Marie but one of her first sentences was still, 'I like pink.' If she could have added 'actually' on the end, I'm sure she would have done.

Long hair is also fairly essential for little girls. Again, for reasons of recognition. Welcome to the world of hairclips and headbands and small, tangled children running away screaming as you approach with a hairbrush. ('It sore! It sore! I want mummy do it!')

What else? Well, girls get to trade on being cute. Marie managed to blag some pink Post-its off my optician the other day just by simpering. The boys would have needed to be charming as well.

Obviously, potty training is a little different with a girl (but not that much).

Longer term, I guess there will be other issues but there's no point worrying about them yet - there'll be plenty of time for that when Squiggly's a teenager. (Shudder). It's never too early to start planning how to embarrass her in front of her first boyfriend, though, or to jot down a few notes for a wedding speech...

Honestly, you'll be fine.

Yours in a woman's world,


An enormous pile of fluffy, pink clothes.
A selection of Marie's clothes. Soon all this pink could be yours, Dave. (Literally. I'm going to pack it in a box and send it to you before it contaminates the rest of the house).

Wednesday 5 September 2007

One-dimensional eating habits

Dear Dave,

Thanks for the sympathy over all the things that aren't going entirely to plan just now. I know you have enough on your own plate to worry about at the moment. (Have you decided on any names!?) Sorry to hear Sam's acting up and refusing to eat anything which isn't long and thin. This does give you plenty of scope for nutrition, however - breadsticks, Cheestrings, carrots, chocolate fingers, crayons... There's a fairly long list of readily available foodstuffs and plenty of other things aren't too hard to cut into linear snacks. Obviously, you're going to be struggling with items like baked beans and peas and cake but I'm sure there must be ways round it. Mashing them up and squishing them together might work. Maybe not all at once but, you know, depends how much time you have...

Marie had a phase where she'd only eat doughnut-shaped food. This was much more awkward to accommodate. For a while she was made of Cheerios, Hula Hoops and Party Rings.

I should maybe just have given her the doughnuts and called her Homer.

Her Simpson-esque traits became even more apparent the other evening at the point I was getting her ready for bed. She was just annoyed and acting up about everything and I asked her if she was tired.

"No," she said, fighting her pyjamas as I tried to get them on her.

I wrestled one arm into her top. "Do you want to go to bed?"

"No!" she said, taking it off again.

"Are you sure?" I said, forcing the garment back over her head. "I think you need to lie down and get some sleep."

"NO!" she screamed and started to cry. She obviously and desperately needed some sleep but wasn't having any of it.

I was exasperated, frustrated and tired. I made the mistake of being sarcastic with a two-year-old. "What do you want to do then? Stay up all night and drink beer?"

She stopped. She looked at me. She jumped up and down excitedly. "Yes!"

"Er... I didn't really..."

"I not go to bed," she yelled, her body quivering with anticipation at the prospect of a six-pack, a sofa and a marathon of late night cable TV. "I not sleep. I drink beer!"

At which point Fraser and Lewis appeared from nowhere. "How come Marie's getting beer?" said Fraser.

"We want beer, too," said Lewis.

"Yes, can we have beer?" said Fraser.

Marie started running backwards and forwards, the length of the landing. "Want beeeeeeeeeeer! Want beeeeeeeeeer!" Then the boys joined in.

Needless to say, they didn't get any. But, by the time I'd finally got the whinging chancers off to bed, I did have a peculiar craving for a can of Tennents. Funny, that...

Anyway, as you've probably realised, I'm just avoiding talking about the stress in hand.

The mouse situation, at least, seems to be a little more under control now. I haven't actually seen any sign of one for a few days so it's possible they've gone away. Of course, I thought that with the ants, and you'll remember how that turned out. There's every chance that I've just managed to kill the stupid ones and that I'm using natural selection to breed a race of super rodents who will be able to avoid traps, open tins and steal the fridge. At the point they work out how to sell my stuff on ebay, I'm moving house.

The plumbing saga continues. Apparently out pipework is quite 'unusual'. (Translation: It was designed and implemented by a gibbon). The heating is now 88% fixed. Making it 100% fixed, however, may involve demolishing the bathroom.

As for Sarah... Well, things didn't go so well on Friday. LBO are laying people off left, right and centre. Branches are closing, work is being out-sourced, the final salary pension scheme is no more, services are facing the axe and the directors' bonuses have been linked to how much money they can lop off the operating budget. Not good.

Steve's still sitting pretty, as he predicted. Rob's department is gone but he's been shifted elsewhere. Technically, in terms of leadership and responsibility, it's a promotion. In terms of his annual salary, he's even had a pay rise. He was pretty pleased about that until I pointed out that the changes they've made to his holidays and working week mean his hourly rate has gone down. He's been sulking ever since.

Sarah has been made provisionally redundant. This means she has a couple of weeks to prepare and then she has to argue her case to be kept on with a special committee set up to give the impression that there has been some consultation with staff over all of this. It's already being called The Inquisition. Handily, each person will be interrogated by their manager and their manager's manager - i.e. the people instrumental in picking them for the chop in the first place. There will be an 'independent' member of senior management there from another division as well but I don't imagine that will be much comfort in most cases. Sarah's going to have to pull something pretty impressive out of the bag to make Steve and Scott perform a U-turn. (I'm thinking a bazooka would do it).

Ach, well, it isn't the first occasion something like this has happened and almost certainly won't be the last. We're coping as best we can. At least she isn't on maternity leave this time.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Mmmmmmm... Doughnuts...