Nobody tells you anything when you're a kid. Well, I suppose that's not entirely true. They tell you things like, 'Blow your nose!' and then they tell you stuff like, 'No! Blow!' and 'Use a hanky, for crying out loud!' and 'Oh, that's disgusting!' The problem is, they're so busy telling you how to act in a civilised fashion and not drip everywhere, that they forget to tell you other essential information.
Not long before I was due to start school, my teenage sister was scandalised to discover that I didn't know my own surname. She ran to report me to my parents. I was bemused. Somehow I was in trouble for not remembering something I hadn't been told. How was I meant to guess I had another name? It's not like I especially thought I needed one.
To this day, my mum occasionally relays to me news of distant relatives that I've been blissfully unaware of up until that point. I nod and smile down the phone. Whenever I've tried for clarification in the past, their relationship to me has usually been explained in terms of their relationship to different, slightly-less-distant, relations that I've been equally blissfully unaware of. Someone should have drawn me a diagram long ago and filled me in on a little family history. As I'm the youngest in my generation by nearly a decade, I'm oblivious to even comparatively recent events. I think people forget I haven't been around as long as the rest of them.
Then again, maybe I have been told some of this stuff. I try to tell my kids about their heritage but they don't always listen. I think the boys have grasped that my brother's a farmer and my dad was a farmer but they maybe don't appreciate that it's farmers all the way back.
I feel they should know that. It might be important. That's a lot of farmers.
Still, if I do manage to get the idea across, I'll almost certainly have forgotten to pass on some other vital snippet of family lore. ('Did I not mention to never go out during the full moon once you hit puberty? Oh well, you'd better get cleaned up - cousin Amelia is coming to stay... You know, Great Aunt Delphine's niece... Oh, never mind, just be polite and hide that sheep somewhere...')
I was made aware of this situation while talking to my nephew Ned the other day.
He's practically living here now. He turns up after school every day and sits in the study and plays my Xbox while listening to music that sounds like two wrestlers beating each other to death with electric guitars while yelling. (He plugs his MP3 player into the console so the cacophonic massacre comes out through the surround speakers for us all to enjoy.)
I've taken to persuading him up to the lounge to join the rest of us and give the neighbours' eardrums a break. Recently, he's been playing Mario Kart with Fraser and LEGO with Lewis. He complains but I think he secretly enjoys it. LEGO Indiana Jones is frequently dismembered by the ingenious selection of traps he's assembled.
That said, Ned wasn't too thrilled when Marie tried to get him to wear a pink tiara and nail polish. He's good at humouring her but that was really a step too far for ANY fourteen-year-old boy. They simply wouldn't have gone with his hoodie.
Yesterday, I left them all to it while I cooked tea in the kitchen but then I got a telephone call. It was Chris, Ned's dad. (You'll remember that, being my wife's brother-in-law, he's the relative I don't have a word for. He also finds my role as a housedad a constant source of amusement.) He didn't sound pleased.
"Is Ned there? He's not answering his mobile."
"Yeah. I'll go get him," I said, heading upstairs with the cordless phone as I spoke.
"Don't trouble yourself - I'll deal with him later. I just wanted to know where he was. He's supposed to be with his maths tutor but it's too late for him to get there now. Tell him the money's coming out of his allowance. If he's not prepared to go, then I'm not prepared to pay. Is he doing his homework?"
I entered the lounge and a little LEGO head sporting stubble and a fedora sailed past my ear. "He's taking a break from studying right now," I said.
"He'd better have it finished before I get home tonight," said Chris.
"I'll see to it."
"Good," said Chris and then seemed to remember I'm a relative and that some pleasantries might be in order. "How are your family?"
"We're fine," I replied. "Chaos as usual. Fraser's birthday party at the bowling went well, though, and it's been nice to get to the swing park in the sunshine. Yourself?"
"Good, good," he chuckled. "Everything's fine. You should all come round for a meal again sometime soon."
"That would be good."
"Excellent," said Chris.
There was a pause. (We're not very close relatives.)
"Good," he said finally. "Thanks for that. I'll leave you to your sewing."
"Uh-huh," I said. "Bye."
He rang off and I blocked Ned's exit as he attempted to sneak past me and out the door. "That was your dad," I said. "Why aren't you at your tutor's?"
Ned scowled and looked at his feet. "Don't like him."
I wasn't sure whether he meant the tutor or his dad. I decided to be equally non-committal. "Why not?"
"Dunno. Just don't."
"Why do you need a maths tutor anyway? You go to a private school. Shouldn't they be teaching you? And, you know, it's maths. You probably haven't even started calculus. How hard can it be?"
He shrugged and didn't say anything. I had to do a lot of coaxing to get the story from him:
It turns out that all his science grades are a disaster. This totally took me by surprise. I'd assumed, since he's an inarticulate teenage boy who likes computer games, that he's a science geek. (I certainly was.) But no, he struggles with basic mental arithmetic and he thinks that if he throws a ball straight up as he walks along that it will fall behind him.
His dad is apparently still toying with the notion of sending him to a scary, remote boarding school to concentrate his mind. They've come to an agreement, however - if Ned's grades improve by Christmas, he gets to stay where he is. Unfortunately, they've actually started going down.
"You need to get your act together," I said, "or you'll be scrubbing toilets somewhere in the Highlands at dawn every day before taking lengthy cross-country runs through thistles."
"I do my homework," Ned muttered.
"Occasionally - if there's a power cut or something. But you definitely need to do it today or your dad's going to go ballistic on both of us. I'll help."
"It's maths," he said, as if this were a problem.
"It's like... hard."
"Don't worry," I said, genuinely trying to be reassuring. "We'll work it out."
"Whatever." He had a certain air of scepticism about him. It was the one I have when my dad suggests he installs a wireless network despite the fact he can't manage to check his email even with detailed step-by-step instructions. I realised that Ned thought I might be more of a hindrance than a help.
"I have a first class honours degree in physics," I said.
He stared at me like I'd announced that I'd previously had a highly successful career as a pirate and then showed him my parrot.
"No, really," I added.
He was totally incredulous. "But you look after kids."
"I look after my kids. You think your Aunt Sarah doesn't have a good degree, too? We wanted one of us at home with the children and it ended up being me. They haven't always been around. One day they'll all be at secondary school and I'll get to do something else again. I might go back to being a programmer."
"You what?" He didn't remember my pre-housedad existence and no one had ever told him about it. He had an exciting thought. "Did you write computer games?"
"No. I, er, used to work for a Large Banking Organisation, producing the kind of software which stores and retrieves financial transaction data."
"Oh." He looked disappointed.
"I can tell you the right combination of buttons to press to make cash machines start playing Tetris, though."
He showed me new respect. "Cool."
We went and did some maths. I needed a little help from the textbook but it all started to come back pretty quickly. It's a long time since I've done any trigonometry. (I'm not going to figure out exactly how long.)
We were finished quickly and I was going to question him to find out what else he didn't know about me when there was a distant cry of a girl shouting, "Best Daddy in the world, I really love you! Come and wipe my bottom!"
Ned took that as his cue to slope off home. I wasn't too fussed - I imagine I'll have another chance to talk to him soon. I headed up the stairs to find Marie. She was sitting on the toilet and delighted by my appearance. "I love you, Daddy. Please would you wipe my bottom? I've done lots and lots and lots of horrible poo!"
She climbed off the toilet and bent over and I duly did as she asked.
Then she stood up, grinned, said, "I don't like you really," and trotted off to wash her hands without a backwards glance.
I wonder if she knows about all the farmers. There are probably any number of things I should have told her already but that I've forgotten to mention. For instance, clearly no one has thought to inform her yet that I wasn't created merely to be her slave. Maybe I should start with that.
Strangely, I suspect she may not listen...
Yours in a woman's world,