Dear Dave

Wednesday 30 July 2008

The good life

Dear Dave,

The love of Lewis' life is moving away.

It's a shame for the poor lad. This is the third time it's happened.

He's only six.

Every summer, someone he cares for leaves the area. The first year of nursery, it was his best friend (also called Lewis). Our Lewis cried at the thought of it for weeks. The second year of nursery, the girl he was going to marry returned home to the States. This year, it's her replacement.

And this is after we had to live through the trauma of a love triangle last autumn. The girl spent rather a while deciding between Lewis and one of his other friends. We were left cruelly dangling for days. Now, like so many other people we've known, she's off to live in the country.

Her parents say they'll be back to visit but, from past experience, it won't happen much, if ever. People move to the country and disappear. They make new friends and, thanks to all the time they spend commuting back into town to work, they don't have energy or opportunity to keep up with old acquaintances. I can understand that. Or maybe the locals eat them. Who knows?

I grew up on the outskirts of Nowhere. (The middle of Nowhere is actually quite crowded these days - there's even a Tesco and a small cinema that shows films which are six months out of date. We lived a fifteen minute bus journey from there. Annoyingly, however, there weren't any buses...) We moved a little bit closer to Somewhere when I was twelve but it was still necessary to have an Ordnance Survey grid reference taped to the phone so the fire brigade had a chance of finding us in a hurry. The exact number of ducks in the local pond was a regular topic of conversation.

The day I cycled to the nearest Post Office and discovered that it didn't sell envelopes, I knew it was time to plan my escape.

I've lived in the city so long now, I don't think I could cope without being able to get to the shops on foot. Although I may not get much chance to go to the cinema, I'm very happy to know it's there within walking distance, in all its twelve screen glory. Yeah, there are cars everywhere and teenagers gather on street corners at dusk, but there are parks and swimming pools, chip shops and soft plays. Oh, and ironically, we don't need a car ourselves. I suspect that half the cars around are being driven by people commuting in from the country.

Still, as I get older, the call to return to a rural life grows stronger. Every so often we think it would be nice to move to a small town. From there it's perhaps not much of a jump to a quaint little village. Before we know it, we could be considering property investments in Orkney.

I can see the attraction - the fresh air, the scenery, the sense of community. Not to mention the increased chance of survival during a zombie-infested apocalypse, thanks to the isolation and the readily available supply of fresh food and shotguns. Then again, I actually prefer my air without pollen and the scent of cows. There's also quite a nice view out our back windows already. More than that, being part of a rural community takes just as much work as being part of one in a town and you tend to need a car.

This time of year in particular brings back memories of my childhood home, though - sun-dappled foliage, the open sky, delicious warmth, the pungent aroma of assorted flora, the quack of fourteen ducks in the distance... Ah, maybe it wasn't so bad... Then I remember being stuck there, not seeing friends for weeks at a time, until I was old enough to drive myself along the single track lanes overgrown on either side with sun-dappled foliage so thick it was impossible to see what was round the next bend. (Hint: It's always a big tractor coming the other way.) I remember the cloying heat, the isolation and the glare off my computer screen despite having drawn the curtains.

Admittedly, things have changed a little round my parents' way. Oddly, there's a McDonald's really close. Also, there are buses now. If you get up very, very early, you can take a bus (via every forgotten hamlet on Earth) to reach town just in time for the morning rush hour...

I suppose it wouldn't be too bad if we had a car. There'd be fresh air and open spaces and...

No. I can't do it to the children.

They may turn their noses up at all the opportunities for entertainment and Saturday jobs available in the city and choose to lurk on street corners instead, but at least there will be corners on which to lurk. ('Two streets? Joining together? When I was a lad, we counted ourselves lucky if we had a grass verge covered in horse dung. If a combine harvester came past, we had to jump into a ditch just to get out of the way...') More importantly, they'll be able to go round to visit friends without needing a lift.

If they have any friends left who haven't moved to the country, of course...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 25 July 2008

No, Lara, left. Left!

Dear Dave,

Computer games have changed rather a lot in the twenty-five years since I started playing them. Back in the day, guiding a green spludge (that was allegedly a frog) up the screen, avoiding 'trucks' (long blue spludges) and leaping onto logs (long brown spludges), was the cutting edge of interactive entertainment. Now I can control incredibly detailed heroes through vast three-dimensional cities, exploring, stopping time and setting zombies on fire. (Ooh! Look at the reflections of the flames in the puddle!)

That's quite a change.

I've changed, too. I noticed hair growing out of my ears the other day. (This isn't such a welcome development.)

One thing which hasn't changed, however, is the strangled cry of frustrated rage I hear every so often. It usually comes from a young boy around about the time that whatever they're playing produces a definite GAME OVER noise. This tends to be something like a sinking scale on a trumpet: Wah, waah, waaaaah, waaaaaaah! It's not quite as iconic as the shrill scream of Lara falling off a high cliff but you can't miss it. The child concerned has been banished back to the last save point. They're not too happy about it.

I remember that cry from my own youth. It's the natural reaction when a green spludge dodges its way through a horde of long blue spludges only to drown in the middle of a river because there aren't anywhere near enough long brown spludges. (Surely if it really was a frog, it could swim? Oh, the injustice...)

I suppose there are two main types of frustration associated with computer games. The first is where you simply don't know what to. This is best exemplified by those old text adventures:

>You enter a dank cave. It is dark and smells bad. You see a goblin.
>I don't understand.
>You can't do that.
>You can't use that.
>You don't have the knife.
>You can't chop an axe!
>It doesn't fit.
>You blunt your scissors.
>I don't understand.
>There is no understand.
>Hah, hah! That's impossible.
>Are you sure?
>That's interesting.
>The goblin doesn't want to help you.
>Please specify a direction.
>You can't go that way.
>As if. The goblin looks at you and licks its lips...

Fortunately, the days of this kind of annoyance are mostly in the past. A quick google can reveal that THROW AXE AT GOBLIN is the solution. Simple, eh?

The other main type of computer game frustration is where you know exactly what to do but can't manage the thumb gymnastics.

OK. I need to jump across the gap, grab the ledge, swing over there, dodge the spinning blades, turn, shoot the target, turn back, jump the other gap and roll through the doorway before it closes and crushes me. Easy...

First Go: Jump, grab, swing, mince, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Second Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, shoot, jump the wrong way, splat, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Third Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, turn, mince, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Fourth Go: Jump, splat, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Twenty-ninth Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, shoot, jump, roll a milli-second too late, CRUSH, re-load checkpoint, fling controller through screen, call fire brigade, explain to wife, evacuate building... ... ...


(STOP PRESS: I've just played the new Alone in the Dark. There is a third way for a game to elicit teeth grinding from a player. It involves having to use a clunky control system and struggle with insane camera angles in near-total gloom... while being chased by zombies. Double grrr...)

So where's the attraction in computer games?

Well, the truth is that these moments of frustration are actually pretty infrequent. Most games are no longer punishing tests of reaction time and manual dexterity. Advances in design and technology have brought the opportunity for exploration, discovery, creativity and immersion. There's still a sense of achievement from overcoming obstacles and puzzles but it's no longer merely about being able to press buttons quickly enough.

In general, games are relaxing and cathartic. Occasionally, however, the balance between challenge and entertainment gets messed up, resulting in those familiar cries of irritation. I suspect this will always be the case and, even though these moments are annoying, I wouldn't want them to disappear entirely - finally beating the big robot that just won't die is rather exhilarating. It's like putting the last pair on top of a house of cards, winning a game of pool and getting a sofa up a flight of stairs without injury, all rolled into one.

I might have to sympathise with half an hour of annoyed grunts from one of the boys every so often but the ordeal nearly always ends in shouts of delight, the thunder of feet rushing to find me and a little dance of delight as the child in question tells me about the monster he's vanquished.

Is it teaching them anything? Let's see:

Patience. Yeah, right.
Concentration. Maybe.
Coordination. Nope.
Maths and reading. Oh, yes.
How to work the system. Definitely.

That's not bad.

It's probably worth it just for the little dance, though...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I had an email about something called Dancing Cherubs in London. It's supposed to be like a night club for families, with dancing and extra activities. I've no idea if it's any good (and we have ceilidhs for that up here, anyway) but if you're in the area...

Wednesday 23 July 2008

We all think we're in charge

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you've managed to get out of the house more. Sounds like you've got a routine nailed down just in time for term to end and the holidays to start. By September, when Sam goes back to nursery, Daisy's eating, sleeping and nappy-filling patterns will have completely altered and you'll have to work the timetable out again from scratch.

(What? Would you really prefer it if I wasn't brutally honest in my letters?)

At least you'll all be in the habit of little trips and excursions now, so there's less chance of you being stuck at home for the whole summer. Sorry that Sam only ever wants to go to the soft play or feed the ducks and it's driving you spare but... you might want to make the most of it.

You see, at the moment, it's still possible for you to fairly easily organise a day out without a small child going into a sulk. By next summer, Daisy will be almost two and have an opinion of her own. You will be stuffed. She'll insist on going to the swing park while Sam will demand a visit to McDonald's. Keeping them both happy will involve a huge quantity of threats, bribes and negotiation.

You'll probably settle for keeping them both not entirely miserable.

The simplest way to do this is to not give them any say in the matter. Merely declare that you're all going out and tell them to put their shoes on. If my own kids are anything to go by, they'll grumble all the way down the street, have a great time once they reach your chosen destination and then complain they don't want to leave when the place closes.

Feel free to laugh at them.

I sometimes think I should consult the kids more on decisions but it seldom goes well. I always end up over-ruling someone's opinion anyway. I might as well dictate their lives as I see fit and cut down on arguing.

I do feel guilty about it, though. I think it has something to do with the science fiction I read as a teenager. It convinced me of all kinds of things. I thought medical breakthroughs would allow people to live to be really old. I thought true artificial intelligence was inevitable and close. I thought an astrophysics degree would be a good career move. I thought jumpsuits were the fashion of the future. I thought that one day monkeys would take over the world.

I also thought participatory democracy was a great idea.

This is where the people vote directly on issues rather than freely electing monkeys clever and knowledgeable representatives to debate and decide for them. Everything becomes a referendum. The people get exactly what they want.

Now I see that that might not be such a cunning plan.

Shockingly, when we had a local referendum on introducing London-style congestion charges to fund better public transport, the vast majority of people (i.e. those with cars) opposed them. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas. They need monkeys to do it for them.

The population in general doesn't have time to consider countless complex issues carefully. Participatory democracy on a national level is a non-starter. I do still sometimes imagine it might be an enlightened way to run a household, however.

It's not. I've tried it - it's rubbish. Rather than avoiding argument, it simply creates it.

We spent last week on holiday in St Andrews. One day, when it was nice weather, Sarah and I decided it would be an excellent afternoon to go to the beach. Rather than force our will upon the kids, I presented them with a choice. We could go to the beach or we could play tennis. It was a uncomplicated decision between two courses of action. With three children voting, the result couldn't possibly be inconclusive. It should have been a simple opportunity to make the kids feel included in planning our trip.

"Tennis!" said Fraser, quick as a flash.

"Beach! Beach! Beach!" shouted Marie, squirming on her seat and reaching both her hands high into the air.

Lewis was much slower to react. He screwed up his face in concentration, held his chin and thought. Then, very ponderously, he said, "Not tennis..."

It was hardly the electoral mandate I was looking for. One child was bound to be upset and another was clearly opting for the lesser of two evils. Fraser began vociferously talking Lewis round. Lewis was swayed. Marie started shouting. There were tears. Someone banged a shoe on the table. Wrestling appeared on the cards...

I had to step in and make the decision. We were going to the beach. Essentially, we'd had plenty of talking, a token vote and then everything had gone along as I'd intended to begin with. Democracy is dead in our household.

Fortunately, I'm a wise and benevolent ruler, unswayed by threats and bribes and bananas. I have the the kids' best interests at heart and would never think of forcing them to do stuff for my own benefit or amusement. Although, for practical purposes, I may make them all wear jumpsuits while strutting around gobbling like turkeys.

That is, if Sarah says it's OK...

You may not be master of your own destiny, Dave, but enjoy the ducks without politics while you can.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS To give you a taste of my real priorities, I should mention the dream I had the other night. The zombie invasion had finally happened, civilisation had fallen apart and it was every family for themselves. I ventured out into the mayhem in order to 'liberate' some supplies.

Where do you think I went?

The supermarket to stock up on canned goods? The hardware store to procure a couple of nail guns and a chainsaw? The corner shop to grab some loo roll and a stack of batteries?


I went to the local primary school and lifted a complete set of Magic Key books so I could easily teach Marie to read.

Then I woke up. I was truly scared.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Scary Karen's lair

Dear Dave,

I was procrastinating.

"OK," I said, checking through the backpack on the kitchen table one more time. "Change of clothes for Marie, packet of wipes, packet of biscuits, box of plasters, raincoats, beaker of water, pen, notebook, sick bag, tissues..." Was I forgetting something?

My teenage nephew Ned helpfully gave some suggestions. "...Sword that glows when goblins are about, mithril armour and bottle of starlight?"

"Yeah, yeah, very funny," I said, trying not to lose my concentration.

"'S'like you think you're heading into Mordor or something."

"I knew what you meant. We had The Lord of the Rings in my day, too. Even if the film was a cartoon, went all trippy when a fight broke out and ended halfway through the story."

"You what?"

"Never mind," I muttered. "Let's just say it was a disappointment. At least I was able to read the book."

"I can read," Ned said indignantly.

"So you claim."

"Whatever," he said, not rising to it. "It's a lot of stuff."

"This is the stuff I normally take with me when I go round someone's house with Marie," I said, zipping up the backpack and moving it to the side. "This..." I reached under the table and brought out a hold-all. " what I take when I'm expecting trouble. Let's see - rubber gloves, change of clothes for myself, cleaning fluid, cuddly toy, extra pack of biscuits, wellies, soft cushion, emergency contact numbers, thermal blanket, cotton-wool, Kendal Mint Cake, compass..."

"You're only going round her house," said Ned.

"This is Scary Karen we're talking about. It's best to be prepared."

"Yeah, but..."

"You haven't met her," I interrupted. "You don't know what she's like."

"Yeah, but..."

I needed to make him understand. "You know that video on YouTube of the crazy woman dressed as Wonder Woman hunting down anti-social teenagers with a pair of carving forks?"

His eyes widened. "You're having me on. That's not really her."

"No, it's not," I said. "Karen's not that old or restrained. That's her mum."

"Wuh?" He looked nervous. "Does her mum live round here?"

"Luckily for you, no."

"Uh-huh." He handed me a small bundle from the table. "Don't forget your bandages."

"Cheers." I packed them in the hold-all. "Right. I think that's everything. Are you sure you can handle this?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"Fraser and Lewis are playing computer games. They'll almost certainly still be playing the same games when I get back. They may not even notice I'm gone. If there's a problem, I'll only be a couple of streets away. I can be back in five minutes."

Ned shrugged. "OK."

I wasn't hugely reassured. "The correct response is, 'That's good to know but don't worry, we'll be fine.'"

"Oh, OK," he said.

I waited a second for him to say back to me what I needed to hear but he didn't. I began to question the wisdom of leaving him in charge of the boys for a couple of hours. He was old enough and probably capable and the boys don't need much looking after but, well... Was that going to be convincing testimony if I had to explain in court why I'd come home to find two fire-engines, a SWAT team, mountain rescue and Super Nanny circled round the house?

I stuck my head into the lounge. Fraser and Lewis didn't look up from the screen.

"OK, boys, I'm going out with Marie. Ned's in charge. No fighting, no playing with matches and no falling down the stairs. If there's trouble, my mobile number is in the phone."

"What's a mobile?" asked Lewis

"I don't know how to work the phone," said Fraser. He gave the impression that the very thought of doing so filled him with distaste.

I was running late and getting flustered because I didn't want to keep Scary Karen waiting. Nonetheless, being able to use the phone is an important life skill that an eight-year-old should really know, even if the things are ten times more complicated than when I was eight. (Do you remember when 'dialling' actually involved a dial?) I taught Fraser the basics of telephone operation.

I may regret this in a few years.

I left the boys to it and went to find Marie. She was still sitting on the toilet, singing, as she had been the whole time. I got her to get off and wash her hands. While she was doing that, I made one last check that I had everything with me.

"Have you got my mobile number?" I asked Ned.

"Think so," he said.

"OK," I said and pressed a couple of buttons on my handset.

Moments later, Ned's phone rang. "Yeah?" he said, answering it.

"'Think so' isn't good enough," I snapped. The statement went in one ear and was prevented from going straight out the other as, by the power of modern telecommunications, it collided with itself coming in the other direction. "Now you've definitely got my number." I hung up, gathered my things and dragged Marie out the door. "See you later."

"Yeah, see you," he said.

We were on our way.

Normally it wouldn't take us long to travel a couple of streets but Marie was having one of those days. We got to the end of the drive and she needed the toilet. We went back. She did her thing. We left again. She wanted to go to the swing park. We argued. She tripped over and scraped her knee. I cleaned her up with the water and cotton-wool and applied a plaster. We went a hundred yards. She walked into a wheelie bin...

By the time we reached the door of Scary Karen's building, Marie looked like Mr Bump with long hair and a foul temper. I took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer. We were half an hour late.

There was a pause, the intercom crackled and the lock clacked open to let us in. We proceeded into the stairwell. Karen lives in a complex of flats built in the seventies. It's not swish but the place is sturdily built, functional and well-maintained. It will probably out-last the swathe of developments of two and three bedroom 'luxury' apartments that have sprung up around it. The walls were white and there were heavy-duty brown carpet tiles on the floor. There was a slight air of leisure centre about the decor.

Apart from the gnomes.

Spaced a few feet apart, garden gnomes stood to attention on either side of the corridor. Some had fishing rods, others were gardening, one appeared to be doing his tax return. For about a minute, it was the most garden gnomes I had ever seen.

Even Marie was stunned into silence by the sight of them.

We went up the stairs to the third floor. There were more gnomes all the way and they got closer together as we went until we reached Karen's door and found it flanked by a score of the little blighters. I wasn't surprised to see that the landing further along was devoid of miniature ceramic men with pointy beards. It was entirely gnome-free. I sighed and knocked on Karen's door.

It swung open but no one was there. From the gloom, there was a muffled shout that sounded like an invitation to enter. A strange aroma reminiscent of raspberries and bleach wafted out to greet us. I hesitated.

Then I noticed that Marie had picked up one of the gnomes and was shaking it to see if the bell on the end of its brightly coloured hat made any noise. I was quite glad it didn't. She reluctantly let me take it from her so I could put it back safely. "Time to play with Malcolm," I said, trying to coax her over the threshold. "Won't it be nice to see him? You haven't seen any of your nursery friends for a while."

"I don't like him," said Marie. "He's not my friend."

"Everyone's friends at nursery," I said, hoping to use her institutional indoctrination to my advantage.

She's too much of an independent thinker for that, however. "This isn't nursery," she said.

"True." I tried a different tack. "There'll be doughnuts."

"OK..." she said and led the way inside. "But I won't play with him," she added over her shoulder, just to make sure I knew where we stood.

I shook my head, followed her in and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Slowly, the hallway came into focus and I found a hundred pairs of eyes staring back at me. The minute was up. The record for the most garden gnomes I had ever seen had been supremely broken.

"Look!" said Marie, pointing. "Little men with beards."

"Yes. They're gnomes," I said. Either Karen collected them, made them or had severely messed up on an internet order from B&Q, putting in her credit card number rather than the desired quantity. I had visions of a pile of gnomes out the back that reached to the moon. I wondered if it was time to leave already.

The door thudded closed behind me.

I jumped. Karen had come out of the kitchen and shut it. "Do you like them?" she asked. "The gnomes..." she clarified, when I looked bewildered.

"Very... impressive," I squeaked. Marie clung to my leg.

"William's having a nap. Malcolm's in the front room with Trevor. You go on through. Want a cuppa?"

"Coffee," I said. "If that's OK?"

"Right you are," she said and disappeared back into the kitchen. She seemed to be in a good mood and to be unconcerned we were late. I breathed slightly more freely and prised myself out of Marie's grasp.

We went through to the front room. It had plenty of high shelves. A few had photos on. Most were loaded with gnomes.

Karen's three-year-old, Malcolm, was on the floor, playing with a heap of Action Man gear. Marie ignored him and went over to investigate a toy garage.

"Hello there. How you keeping?" asked Karen's burly boy-friend, Trevor, getting up from his seat.

It was a while since I'd seen him but he hadn't changed much. This maybe had something to do with the fact he's totally bald and covered in tattoos - there really aren't many options for a make-over. He was growing a beard, though. It was already fairly long but he'd trimmed it in a peculiarly pointy fashion.

Trevor is quite stout. A pictured popped into my head of him in a brightly coloured hat with a bell on the end. Suddenly scared, I went to shake his hand but only caused him to fumble the fishing rod he was holding.

"I'm fine," I said, squeaking once again. "Yourself?"

"Not so bad," he said, picking up the rod and stowing it back in a cardboard box behind the sofa. "Unpacking."

"You've moved in?"


"That's good."

"Mmmm," he said.

I realised I was going to have to make most of the conversational running but I wasn't really feeling up to it. "You and Karen getting along well then?"

"Like a house on fire."

"Excellent." I was genuinely pleased for them. "How's everything else?"

"Can't complain."

"Good... Erm..."

It was like being back home talking to Ned. We sat in silence for a bit and then Karen arrived with the drinks and the box of doughnuts she owed me. She talked for all three of us. I learnt about a conspiracy to control our thoughts using toothpaste, the minke whale's breeding habits, her varicose vein (yes, that one), the engraved carving forks she'd had made for her mum, the cleaning power of raspberries and the pictures she'd sent to Prince Charles before she'd met Trevor. I also learnt the names of all the gnomes...

Finally, she was done. She cleared up the snacks and took them through to the kitchen. The moment she was gone, Malcolm stomped over to Marie and grabbed a car from her hand.

"Oi! Give that back!" said Trevor.

Malcolm threw himself to the floor and started to scream.

Trevor stared at him, totally dumbfounded. "Er..." He was clearly deeply unsettled by the turn of events. "I'll go get Karen," he said, getting up hurriedly.

"Don't worry," I said, waving him to sit down again. "Ignore him and he'll give up soon enough." I thought back over my experiences with my own children and decided to qualify the assertion. "Probably. Sometimes it can take twenty minutes... or an hour... or, er, two..." I trailed off.

Trevor looked very tense.

"Is everything really going OK?" I asked.

"Karen's a fine woman," he said. "A very fine woman." He drifted away for a moment, lost in thoughts I didn't dare contemplate myself in case I had to beat them off with a stick. "She's good to me. We have a laugh. It's... It's not her. It's the kids. I can't handle them."

This was worrying. If Trevor was longing to be part of a couple rather than a family, life was going to get miserable for him and Karen pretty quickly. "Oh," I said, unsure what else to say. I must have backed it up with a horrified expression, though, because Trevor went on hastily.

"Don't get me wrong - I like 'em. They're fun and all. It's that I can't make them do what I say. Karen goes out and they're all over the shop, hollering and making a mess. I can't make them happy." He leant forward and whispered, looking shiftily from side to side to make sure Karen hadn't sneaked back into the room. "They even move the gnomes..."

I tried to appear suitably concerned about the possible consequences of shuffled garden ornaments but I was secretly relieved. Trevor was merely feeling under-trained and overwhelmed. That was fixable. "Don't be afraid of upsetting them," I said.

"All I seem to do is upset them." To back Trevor up, Malcolm re-doubled his screaming.

"Nope," I said. "They're kicking up a fuss to test you out. They won't be upset until you stop giving them what they want. Unfortunately, unless you stop giving them what they want, they'll keep making a fuss. That's fine for an occasional afternoon like you've had to deal with up until now but you can't live that way. It's not good for anyone."

Trevor was confused.

"Look at it like this," I said. "I've left my nephew keeping an eye on my boys. He's babysitting - it's his job to keep them quiet and amused for a couple of hours. I've left everything from Pokémon DVDs to sweets at his disposal. When I get back, they will love him and want to spend the rest of the day with him playing computer games. They won't be too pleased when I tell them I'm taking them to the park. They will complain. One or other of them may cry."

"Even though they're your kids?" asked Trevor, surprised.

"Pretty much because they're my kids. I'm their dad. Yeah, there are times when I have to keep them quiet or amused but it's my job to make sure they get plenty of fresh air and exercise, that they eat healthy food, they do what they're told, they're polite, they know right from wrong, their hair is brushed, they have a grasp of road safety, they wash their hands and they're not up past bedtime. That's bound to lead to conflict of some form approximately every other minute."

The knowledge that conflict in itself wasn't failure cheered Trevor up and worried him in equal measure. "I still don't know what to do with them," he said.

I shrugged. "Why should you? You haven't had practice. Do your best. Things will get messy sometimes but you can't make a family without... er... breaking gnomes. Anyway, Karen thinks you can handle the children."

"Why do you say that?"

"If she didn't," I said, "she'd have been back through here as soon as the screaming started."

"Hadn't thought of it like that," said Trevor, the glimmer of hope in his eyes. To underline my point, Malcolm had got bored and gone back to playing with his Action Man.

Peace restored, I reached for the last doughnut. Technically it was Marie's but she hadn't shown any interest and I'd used up a lot of nervous energy that needed replaced. The icing and sprinkles were calling to me. As I lifted the sugary goodness towards my lips, however, I glanced up and nearly choked.

The gnomes were watching me.

Some of them had axes.

My addled brain simply wasn't up to the resulting visions. "Marie!" I called. "Do you want another doughnut?"

She ran over and took it from me. "Thanks! Can I have some more milk?"

"No problem." I took her cup through to the kitchen.

Karen was washing up. "Is Malcolm all right?"

"Oh, he just threw a wobbly when Trevor told him off for snatching. No disaster."

Karen was concerned. "And Trevor coped with that, did he?"

"Fine," I said, trying to sound convincing. "Can Marie have some more milk?"

She pointed me in the direction of the fridge. "He's been finding it difficult, the poor lamb," said Karen. "It's hard work becoming a dad just like that. Maybe I could send him round to yours for tips."

"Er, maybe," I said. Ned seems to be spending a large part of the summer at my house and Mostly Useless Dad and his kids are still regular visitors. I could barely imagine the bulk quantities of biscuits I would need to buy if Trevor and children started showing up as well. I attempted to shift responsibility elsewhere. "It's reassurance you appreciate the effort he's putting in that he needs more than anything else."

"You think so?"

"It's certainly a consideration," I said and hunted around in the fridge for some milk.

It was next to a gnome.

I began to calculate how soon I could run home without appearing rude. I reckoned I had another half an hour. I carried Marie's milk back through and played with the children. Trevor joined in. We made a tent using the thermal blanket and the kids took it in turns to sit on the soft cushion while the other one wore wellies and wrapped the cuddly toy in bandages. I ate some Kendal Mint Cake to keep my strength up.

"Can we go now?" said Marie after a while.

It was a good excuse to leave. We packed our stuff, said our good-byes and went out the door. Karen gave me a hug and a gnome riding on a snail. I'm not sure which was more scary. In my altered mental state, I may have made some rash promise to have them all round to tea sometime. I can't remember. We hurried past the ceramic sentries and out into the sunshine.

We'd survived. We practically skipped home.

When we arrived, everything was mysteriously quiet. Marie settled down to spend a quarter of an hour washing her hands and I went up to the lounge. The boys hadn't moved. Ned was sitting playing my PSP.

"Everything OK?" I asked.

There was no reply.

"I'll make lunch then," I said.

There was still no acknowledgement of my existence.

"Boiled cabbage for everyone. Is that OK?"

"Very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny, Daddy," said Lewis, without taking his eye off the screen.

"Uh? What was that?" said Fraser, pausing his game. "Uh? Uh?"

"I'm going to make lunch and then we're going to the park."

"Awww. Do we have to?" said Fraser.

"I want to stay here with Ned," said Lewis.

"I do too," said Fraser, close to tears

I shook my head. "Ned's coming as well."

"Wuh?" said Ned,

"I'm not leaving you here on your own for an hour - you'll watch an 18 video while drinking my beer and calling a premium rate number in Australia. You can come with us or go home."

There was much wailing from the three of them but I ignored it and was halfway to the kitchen before they had a chance to really get going. I knew they wouldn't be upset for long and I wasn't prepared to argue with them - they needed some fresh air and exercise. Besides, it was time for lunch.

Well, almost. First, I had to find a suitable location for my new gnome...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 11 July 2008

The girl's grasp exceeds her reach

Dear Dave,

Thanks for the sympathy about all the sickness. Glad to hear that you and your family are well. It's weird Sam has another week or so of nursery to go before stopping for the summer. It's almost a fortnight since the holidays started up here. Then again, my kids will be back at school mid-August because it will be pretty much autumn already. If Scottish schools ran until the end of July, we'd miss most of the good weather (and the opportunity for two weeks of off-peak holiday deals while the travel agents wait for you lot to finish term).

Not that the weather is actually very nice at the moment. It's grey and miserable and the rain is bucketing down.

I'm feeling cosy, though, because our house is lit up like a Christmas tree. Marie has grown tall enough to turn on the lights by herself. She's not tall enough to switch them off again but she can happily bring a warm glow to every room she enters, smile at it for a few seconds and then skip off somewhere else.

It will only be a few months before she grows that extra centimetre and a half to be able to reach the top of the switch but, by then, she may not see the point. (Other than to flick the bulb on and off rapidly until it explodes.) After all, she'll have got by perfectly fine for quite a while just leaving the lights on and, besides, reaching up that high is an effort and, you never know, she might be back in a minute...

I suspect there's a metaphor for most of human history there...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 9 July 2008

Temporary role-unreversal

Dear Dave,

Looks like, once again, I spoke too soon...

It turns out that while the children were recovering from the plague, I was merely succumbing to it at my leisure. Scary Karen was very keen to find out all about it when I phoned her yesterday to explain why I couldn't bring Marie round to visit. She asked so many questions, I don't think I can go through it all a second time and I'll spare you the slimy details. Suffice to say, my digestive tract spent much of the other night in a concerted effort to expel its contents by the nearest available exit. Sarah's sleep was disturbed so frequently by the sound of me retching that when she woke at half-six and all was quiet, she felt the need to get up and check on me as I dozed in the lounge. You know, just in case I was dead.

I was propped up on the sofa, groaning mildly to myself, as News 24 went round in an endless, half-hour loop before my eyes. The main story was about how much food we waste. It was accompanied by pictures of rancid salad being thrown into a bin. This wasn't hugely helpful but I'd lost the remote and any ability to move. Sarah changed the channel to breakfast TV for me and went back to bed.

Later, three children bounced into the room and started arguing with each other. I ignored them. They ignored me. I watched the weather forecast for the twenty-eighth time in seven hours.

"What's the weather going to be like?" said Sarah, entering the lounge.

"Dunno," I muttered.

"You just watched the weather forecast."

"Uh-huh," I grunted. I knew the forecast had been on. I was vaguely aware that it probably hadn't changed much during the night. If I'd only paid attention one of those twenty-eight times... "Wuh?"

She looked concerned and lowered the questioning to Neanderthal level. "How cute was the girl talking about rain?"

Even this was aiming too high. "Uh? Girl?"

She patted me gently on the head. "You really are in a state, aren't you?"

"Ug?" I said and mournfully huddled deeper under my blanket.

Luckily, Sarah had a few days off work anyway. Well, lucky for the rest of us, that is. I'm not sure she'd really planned on spending her holiday around a smelly, incapable husband and a trio of demanding and constantly complaining children.

Of course, the kids are always like that but much of it is directed at me. Worse, having a substitute domestic servant presented more opportunities for complaint.

It's not that Sarah can't manage. I'm fortunate that she can cope with looking after the children on her own. I know plenty of housemums whose partners wouldn't know where to start if left in charge without warning for twenty-four hours. On the handful of occasions in the last eight years when I've been too unwell to move, I've been secure in the knowledge that both the kids and the house will still be intact once the delirium has passed. There may be a little more mess than usual and the fridge will probably have been emptied but there's no great risk of disaster.

That's not necessarily how the kids see it, however. I resurface and they act like they've had to train up a newbie, fighting over each other to tell me all the things Sarah got wrong, couldn't find or spilt.

It's not her fault. Although looking after children isn't rocket science, any individual child tends to have a complicated list of care instructions that has been developed and honed over a lifetime. Put three children together and the combined manual of likes, dislikes, medical history, social calendar, pending treats and suspended punishments is impossible to take in all at once.

Lewis gets out of school at 3 o'clock but Fraser comes out at 3:20. Lewis gets eczema cream on his arms and legs when he gets up and before he goes to bed. Fraser does too but he applies it himself. Marie gets it in the morning but only on her wrists at night. They all have different toothpastes. Fraser won't eat cooked vegetables, Lewis will put up with them, Marie prefers cooked to raw.

None of them likes change.

Sarah can do something perfectly valid, like cut up the boys' toast, and they'll complain that that's not the way Daddy does it. Marie, meanwhile, will complain if her toast isn't cut up. There's no way that Sarah can possibly know all these things but the kids make a fuss nonetheless.

I trust her but the kids aren't so sure. They live on their nerves in case she gives them the 'incorrect' cup or cuts up their carrot the 'wrong' way. It gets a little draining for everyone after a while, I imagine.

This came to a head when, after a long day, Sarah sat the kids down for tea. She'd cooked a pizza. Unfortunately, I'd bought different frozen pizzas from normal. When she plonked it down on the table and it was square, they simply couldn't work out what incompetent thing she'd done to achieve something so unnatural...

Marie followed this up by whining about her fork 'not being colourful enough' and then wittered on about how she was 'the ring-master of the colourful forks'.

Apparently, it was all a bit much.

They survived the incident but, when I stumbled down to the lounge once the children had gone to bed, Sarah said, "Now I understand why you buy beer."

"Uh-huh," I replied and switched on the TV. It was the weather forecast. I still didn't manage to take in the details but the girl was cute.

"Are you feeling any better?"

"Think so," I said. "Thanks for looking after the kids."

"That's OK but I'll be glad when you're able to take over. Have I told you how much I appreciate you lately?"

"I appreciate you, too," I said. It was the truth. "I should be well enough to go buy food tomorrow."

"Good. The fridge is empty."

"Uh-huh," I said and closed my eyes. I must have drifted off. When I woke up, the weather forecast was on. It was bedtime.

The rest did me good, though. I'm mostly fine now. It just may be another day or two before I can look salad in the face again...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS When I went out to buy food, I got rained on. For some reason, I wasn't expecting that...

Friday 4 July 2008

The 8 ages of housedad

Dear Dave,

We're still recovering from the plague. Fraser's getting by on a diet of milk and crackers; Marie's taking exception to everything; Lewis is... Hang on where is Lewis? I'd better go check.

The kids are totally failing to appreciate my nursing efforts but I'll have the last laugh eventually:
The 8 ages of housedad cartoon.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS To give you a taste of the kind of mood Marie's in, here's a snippet of overheard conversation from bedtime yesterday:

Marie (whining terribly): I can't get to sleep... sob...

Sarah: Of course you can't. The light is on and I'm standing in the room talking to you...

Wednesday 2 July 2008

There's nothing left to mix cakes in

Dear Dave,

Greetings from The House of Ill. When I said we would be spending the first week of the holidays lying around in our pyjamas I hadn't really envisaged that we'd all have sick bowls by our sides...

I knew something was up on Friday when Marie started demanding to play computer games and complaining that she didn't want to leave the house. That's not like her. She didn't eat her lunch. Then she didn't want to go to her swimming lesson, despite loving swimming.

In an ironic twist, the boys were desperate to go because it was the last one of term and a chance to play about with giant floats while being squirted with a hose. They normally hate swimming lessons. We struggled to the pool but Marie sat mournfully on my lap and refused to go into the water. The instructor looked at me like I was being a soft touch. Still, I knew something was up. When we got home, Marie didn't eat her tea. She decided she wanted to go to bed two hours early.

An hour later, she got up and demanded breakfast.

This turned into rather a long argument but she seemed a good deal perkier. She had some milk, bounced on the trampoline and went back to bed at her normal time. In retrospect, maybe the bouncing wasn't such a great plan...

I woke at half-past three in the morning to a plaintive cry of 'Daddy! There are crumbs in my bed!'. Considering the kids never eat in bed, I was pretty certain there wasn't a good explanation to be had for this turn of events. I went through to Marie's room. Sure enough, there were crumbs in her bed. Dry crumbs. I didn't want to turn on the light, for fear of waking Lewis who was in the cabin bed above her, so I led her to the bathroom for an examination. Someone appeared to have crumbled a bowl of Shreddies in her hair

She'd thrown up several hours previously, not woken, rolled around in the product and then stayed asleep long enough for it all to go hard.


I ran her a bath, plonked her in, changed her sheets and then gave her a good scrub. She went back to bed and I did some laundry. It was almost five before I was tucked up again myself. I'm out of practice with having disturbed sleep, so I was somewhat dazed by the whole experience. My main consolation was that she wasn't sick again...

Not that night, anyway...

She wasn't sick Saturday night either but she was very restless and kept waking up needing a cuddle or a drink or a beachball or whatever else sprang to mind. Sunday night she was sick again. Saturday, I felt sick. Sunday, Fraser was sick. Sarah hasn't been feeling too great. Lewis is fine... so far.

We're all keeping a sick bowl close. Except there aren't quite enough. We have three between five of us, which has turned life into a constant logic puzzle as we manoeuvre ourselves round the house in suitable combinations of people and vomit containment devices. (Marie always needs an adult present; three children together is asking for bickering; Fraser and Marie are liable to set each other off; Fraser's constant complaining is too much for any adult to bear for long; everyone needs to go to the toilet on a regular basis but to be close to a bowl at all times. It's a logistical nightmare.)

I'm tired. This is leading to me being short with the kids. Turns out they can all hold their own now, though:

I nipped out to buy some groceries at the weekend. When I got back, Marie was sitting at the kitchen table and she said, "Can you get me some water?"

"OK," I said, putting my bags down and sticking a loaf of bread in the cupboard.

She looked pleased. "Are you back from shopping now?" she asked.

"No, I'm still there," I said sarcastically. "I'm still working out what to buy." I got her a cup and started filling it with water.

"Can you get me some water?" she said again as she watched me get her some water.

"What do you think I'm doing?" I said, exasperated.

She grinned. "Still shopping."

I was defeated.

Things are looking up, however. We briefly ventured outside this morning into the sunshine. It was just about t-shirt weather.

"It's too bright," moaned Fraser.

"It's too hot," complained Lewis.

"I don't like it," whined Marie.

Fraser started walking along the road with his hands over his eyes and Lewis instantly tripped over. Marie wanted carried.

On this evidence, I think they're mostly back to normal...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Rob popped round for a quick visit, wearing a face-mask and rubber gloves. He'd heard about my child-induced forgetfulness and my issues with leaving vegetables in the microwave, so he'd run this sign off for me at work:

Green beans warning pinned to a microwave.

He even laminated it. Bless him...