Dear Dave

Friday 29 August 2008

SuperDad Returns!

Dear Dave,

If your kids were superheroes, which superheroes would they be?

Fraser has taken to pretending to be Awkward Boy. He argues with everything he hears and then does the opposite of what he's told. Essentially, I haven't noticed the difference apart from that he shouts, "I am Awkward Boy!" at some point while I'm telling him off.

If Lewis and Marie get in on the act, they'll be Thud Child and Pink Girl respectively. Lewis simply can't move without making the house shake and Marie grabs hold of anything fuchsia and clings to it with an unbreakable grip.

I'm not quite sure what kind of crime the three of them could fight but we're sorted if ever there's an invasion of brittle, pink aliens. Fraser will get in their way and slow them down, Lewis will walk over to take a look and shatter them in the process and then Marie will gather up the pieces (and, knowing her, insist on gluing them to a large bit of paper).

As for me? Here are some more of the not-so-super powers of SuperDad:
The new adventures of Super Dad!
Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 27 August 2008

A fairy wedding tale

Dear Dave,

"So? Enjoying yourself?" I said.

Tiny eyes looked back at me quizzically from the shadowy depths of the pram. The face around them creased into a frown. Then, without warning, an enormous, sicky burp erupted from the baby.

"Oh, cheers," I said and reached for some toilet roll to mop up. Luke seemed pleased with himself but also slightly annoyed that he had vomit dribbling down his neck. He giggled as I rubbed him down and changed his bib.

"Don't worry," I said, "I'll have you clean in no time."

The effect wasn't as soothing as I'd hoped because I was having to nearly shout over the booming of Come on Eileen from the other end of the function room. Luke ignored me anyway. He was concentrating on the multicoloured lights that were swirling on the ceiling above my head. Nonetheless, I kept talking, as much for my own sake as his.

"Mummy and Daddy finally got married," I said. "That's good, isn't it? And, as weddings go, I think it all went rather smoothly. Apart from the mud and toilet rolls and fairies, obviously, but no great disasters. Your mummy looked lovely, your daddy turned up and I got through my speech without collapsing from nerves. I only even offended one of your grans. I..."

Just as I got the second bib on, Luke was sick again. I reached for some more loo paper. Fortunately, I had a large supply. As you'll recall, Rob's Aunt Maria knitted a vast quantity of toilet roll cosies as wedding favours. On the day, she made a great show of presenting every guest with one personally, along with a selection of hugs and kisses. Everyone had duly accepted theirs with polite words and wide-eyed fear. (They were sparkly and came complete with hideous plastic replicas of Rob and Kate attached to the top.)

Besides all the usual jobs of best man, I was tasked with collecting any favours that got discarded, in the hope of avoiding Maria becoming offended. She's a little eccentric. (Translation: She's crazier than a toddler who's had a double espresso with six sugars and then been let loose in a soft-play.) I mean, her hobby is pretending to be Spanish. Who knows what she might do if she got offended?

Still, no one seemed to realise the risk they were taking - they'd stashed toilet rolls everywhere. Most had been left on tables after the meal but I found several hiding in pot plants, another few tucked behind curtains and an entire stack of them out front next to the smokers. Two had been lobbed into a chandelier where I couldn't reach them. I did my best to gather them all and hide them more convincingly but it took a while...

I finished cleaning Luke again. He was propped up but firmly strapped in. He's about six months now and not quite mobile yet. Any day, he's going to be crawling around. They'll put him down one place and find him in another... with something he shouldn't have and a trail of slime behind him. Their lives will change.

I turned my attention back to the food. Rob and Kate had left me in charge of Luke while they mingled with the guests. The ceilidh band were having a break and some disco music had been put on. I'd taken my chance to station us next to the remains of the buffet.

I took the topmost offering from a small mountain of vol-au-vents. It was stuck. I yanked it hard, discovering it had been skewered on top of a little plastic bride and groom. I could just make out some sparkly wool beneath.

"Ah! Ed!"

I jammed the vol-au-vent back down again as Aunt Maria appeared.

"Do you wish to dance?" she asked, striking a pose in her black, lacy number and clacking her castanets.

"Er..." I said. Aunt Maria is a certain age. It's an age where certain women get an urge to mother me but it's certainly not an age where low-cut lace is appropriate. "Er... I'm taking care of Luke," I croaked, trying to mellow my look of wide-eyed fear.

Maria was oblivious - she's only met me a few times and it's possible that she may simply believe I have abnormally large eyes and always appear mildly apprehensive. "Such a shame," she said, sweeping a fan around 'alluringly'. "Maybe later?"

"Erm... Maybe."

"Good! I will return." She swept away, making a bee-line straight for one of the ushers who was loitering at the bar. It was his turn to feel the fear.

I bypassed the vol-au-vents and grabbed an egg sandwich. Luke reached for it and started to cry when it didn't magically fly towards him. "Not for you," I said. "You've got..." I rummaged around in the basket under the pram and pulled out a jar of baby food. "Oh, good. Puréed carrot. The kilt hire people are going to love me."

I gulped down the sandwich, hunted for a spoon and attempted to feed Luke without turning either of us bright orange. I couldn't be bothered to warm the jar up but he didn't seem to mind. He ate some, dribbled some and used the rest to turn us both bright orange. I didn't care. It was better than doing The Time Warp with Aunt Maria.

The day really had gone pretty well. The way I'd seen it, we'd had three possible sources of disaster - Maria, her toilet roll covers and the hotel owner's obsession with fairies. In the end, these had been minor details. The main issue had been the weather. It had bucketed down for days beforehand and the gravel path to the church had turned into a muddy quagmire. Walking along it without becoming filthy was something of a problem, particularly for those guests in high heels.

When Aunt Maria arrived with her flowing skirts, she had insisted on being carried up the path by myself and the ushers, in order to avoid getting mucky.

She had enjoyed it slightly too much.

We consoled ourselves by counting it as practice for when the bride turned up in her wedding dress. Kate was such a mass of hoops and puffs, sequins and sashes, ribbons and rigging, however, that we honestly didn't know what to grab hold of. She had to hoist everything up and try to pick her way round the puddles. Of course, with all the material mushroomed around her, she couldn't actually see her feet, so we had to shout instructions.

"Left a bit. Forward three steps. Right a bit. A bit more... Too far..."

She was already ten minutes late when she arrived. By the time we'd played Herd the Meringue, the organist was starting to get twitchy about his next appointment.

Happily, she didn't step into anything so deep that we had to dive in and rescue her and the service itself went serenely. I remembered the rings, Rob and Kate remembered each others' names, they kissed, people clapped and/or cried, Luke didn't scream the place down and everyone looked happy. As an added bonus, while photos were being taken in the porch, someone hurried down the hill to the local supermarket and borrowed a trolley. Rob got to wheel Kate to the limo, accompanied by thunderous applause. (Only Aunt Maria seemed a trifle disappointed...)

It was raining again by the time we got to the reception, which meant the rest of the photos had to be taken inside. This delighted the manageress, who was dressed in a glittering fairy outfit with gossamer wings. She led us through the creepy mansion of a hotel, waving her wand enthusiastically as she went. They had a special room set aside for such purposes (and children's parties).

The walls were entirely covered in paintings of fairytale woodland. We did our best to arrange people to block out the worst of it but Oberon still made it into more photos than I did. A few of the relatives weren't too impressed but I think the couple themselves found it quite funny. On one occasion, I caught Rob moving his mother-in-law so it looked like she had antlers coming out the top of her head. I averted such incidents as best I could but I may have missed some. I'm fairly sure there's going to be at least one shot where Kate's dad is being cuddled by a naked nymph...

I don't remember the meal because I was worrying about my speech. All that sticks in my mind is that the staff serving the food were wearing wings and tights - even the teenage boys. They didn't really look like they were being paid enough for that. The speech went OK in the end, though. People laughed; Rob was suitably embarrassed; it was short. Job done.

I finally got to have a drink.

Then I set about collecting toilet rolls and stowing them under the buffet table. Eventually people grasped the idea and started handing them to me directly. I got to sit down. Rob caught me relaxing, however, and gave me childcare duties. In some ways it was a shame after all the effort I'd gone through ensuring my own kids weren't invited, but, then again, it provided a good excuse to hide quietly up a corner with the nibbles. I wasn't complaining.

I finished shoveling carrot and looked to see how Maria's chosen usher was faring. Not too well, as it turned out, but at least there weren't many collisions as she flung him around the relatively empty dance floor. At one end, a gaggle of young women were bouncing about energetically, doing an impressive routine. I blinked twice and then concentrated very hard on looking elsewhere, lest I go blind (either from my own thoughts or Rob's mum whacking me over the head if she happened to catch me staring). Beyond the boppers, a ten-year-old boy in a bow-tie was exacting some filial revenge by break-dancing in a conspicuous fashion while his dad looked on in embarrassment. Not far from him, an elderly gentleman in a formal black suit was doing his best to get his groove on. The guy had slightly odd facial hair and a dour expression, and I couldn't help imagining him with a very plain hat and a pitchfork. I had an urge to take a photo and title it Amish man does disco. My mind had raced on from there, past Amish man does Break-dancing, to Amish man does Vegas before I could stop it.

Luckily, at that point, Luke's bottom exploded.

I considered going to find Rob but he was chatting with some distant cousins and I decided, as an extra wedding gift, I'd deal with the nappy myself. I was in a good mood. To say thank you for helping out, Rob and Kate had given me a big box of Mars Mission LEGO.

And, you know, it wasn't like I was short on toilet paper to clean up with. As I lifted Luke out of the pram, I discovered another couple of rolls craftily tucked away under his blanket...

When I returned a few minutes later with a sweeter smelling baby, Rob was sneaking a second-helping from the buffet. He jammed a vol-au-vent down guiltily as I approached, before realising it was me.

"Not sure I've actually had a chance to say congratulations yet," I said, putting Luke in the pram.

"I can cope," he said through a mouthful of chicken goujon. "It's all anyone has said to me for hours."

"Congratulations, anyway."

"Thanks," he said, rolling his eyes. "Just don't ask me where we're going on honeymoon - I can't handle explaining that again."

"No problem," I said, "but I really did mean the congratulations. Seriously. You two look good together. As long as you remember to put some effort in, I'm fully expecting to be back here for another party in twenty-five years."

"Me, too," said Rob, grinning.

"Excellent. But, when the time arrives, you can look after your own grandchildren. Here's your baby back. Sarah's wanting to dance and I'm wanting to investigate the bar."

"Fair enough," said Rob but didn't take Luke. "Just give me a sec. I'll palm him off on the in-laws and buy you a drink as soon as I've used the facilities." He was still grinning and seemed impressively unphased by the mention of grandkids and silver anniversaries.

He's come a long way.

"You'd better," I called after him as he headed off.

A couple of minutes later, he returned, looking sheepish. It appeared I had one last duty to perform.

Wordlessly, I handed him a roll of toilet paper.

Then, keeping a wary ear out for castanets, I played Peek-a-boo with Luke and did my best to finish off the sandwiches...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 22 August 2008

Being awake enough to dream

Dear Dave,

Is Daisy still not sleeping? It's been months now and she's nearly one - haven't you tried Dr Krondheimer's Draconian Baby-Wrangling Routine? If only you organised your entire life to the second and made every day the same, she'd know it was time to nod off at exactly 9:03 every evening. Alternatively, if that doesn't work, there's always Professor Bundley's Baby Knows Best Approach, where you let Daisy find her natural rhythm. If she wants to eat, then you feed her, even if you're taking a shower. If she wants to doze, then you let her, even if she's face down in baked beans. Before you know it, she'll settle into a nice, comfortable routine of her own...


If I knew the secret of making children sleep, I'd be very rich and I'd probably look five years younger. I could make a few suggestions but, since every child is different, no technique is foolproof. With hindsight, I know how I could have handled Fraser and Marie differently and saved on a few months of sleepless nights. That would still have meant YEARS of poor sleep, though...

Good luck getting through the next little while - I know what it's like. Have you tried...? Actually, no, I'm not even going to bother. You probably have. Hang in there. Try any advice you're given if you think it will work for you but don't worry if it doesn't. And definitely don't feel guilty. Any parent who claims to have got through the early years with plenty of sleep isn't super; they're just very lucky.

It's also possible that sleep deprivation has fried their memory or made them slightly mad.

I've already forgotten the details of what the lack of sleep was like. I have various fuzzy memories of sitting up late at night with one child or another but they're beginning to merge together. What it was like attempting to function through the day while barely conscious is lost to me. All I recall is that it was simply a case of keeping on going.

That said, I did have a flash-back the other night, thanks to a very disturbing dream. I got to bed late and I was keen to get to sleep quickly to ensure I managed six hours kip before I had to be up to deal with the kids. Being stressed about not getting to sleep is never very conducive to getting to sleep, however.

I tossed and turned for half an hour. Then, as I drifted off, I entered a place between waking and sleeping which was half thought and half dream. Unfortunately, although I didn't particularly follow the dream (because I only had half of it), the main gist was that it was absolutely imperative that I stay awake. This put the dozing part of my brain directly at war with the part that was still semi-conscious. I was desperate to be both asleep and awake at the same time. It was unpleasant. Escape only came when the dream conscripted my bladder and I woke up to go to the toilet.

I'm not hoping for that dream again in a hurry but, as I went back to bed, I was still strangely thankful for having had it. One of the oddest effects of the baby-induced lack of sleep I suffered was that, as far as I was aware, I stopped dreaming. Having my sleep broken up meant it never seemed to get into a proper cycle. My body didn't have time for complete rest so it opted for deep sleep to get my physical strength back, sacrificing the kind of light sleep which brings relaxation and that processes information. I must have come quite close to going crazy.

Occasionally my brain wasn't able to cope any more and attempted to catch up all in one go. I'd spend the entire night in a restless world of aliens, secret agents and leprechauns called Phil. When I stumbled out of bed the next morning, my limbs were leaden and I couldn't speak. Like a decaffeinated zombie, I could only manage a low moan of 'Cofffffeeeeeeee...' My mind would feel miraculously lighter, though.

Dreaming also stopped in a broader sense. Life was a matter of getting through each day. The weekend was about as far as the future ever stretched. I knew where I was going (bedtime) and what was required of me (staying awake), but that was the extent of existence.

These days, I'm mostly recovered. We're all getting proper sleep and I'm getting time to myself. I'm looking forward to Marie settling back into nursery in the morning and I can even see far enough ahead to think about what will happen this time next year when she starts school. I still can't grasp the idea well enough to make any proper plans but, you know, I can dream a little...

For now, I'm merely glad the kids have finally returned to school. Hurrah! But that extra day really took it out of me. Look what Marie insisted on doing as a fun activity to while away our unforeseen time together:

A large sheet of paper covered in painted footprints.

It's good to dream but first I'm going to have a bit of a lie down. I suggest you do the same if you get the chance.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 20 August 2008

Just when I thought it was over

Dear Dave,

Can you hear that?

Yes, that. The high-pitched whining sound. It's been giving me a headache for about a month and a half now. I've vainly checked the TV and the boiler and all the smoke detectors, but it's not them. The noise follows me around even when I leave the house. I just can't shake it. I think the time has come to admit the true source of the problem.

It's definitely the children.

Yep, after six weeks of summer holidays, communication in our household has failed. The boys' constant wittering about Mario and power stars has merged with the girl's endless musings about pink, sparkly things. All I hear is a ringing in my ears punctuated by the word 'Daddy'. They, meanwhile, have managed to phase me out so successfully that only the phrases 'chocolate', 'Oh, look! A bag of presents!' and 'I've just phoned the Child Catcher. He's on his way,' provoke a response.

We all need a little break from each other.

Today was supposed to be the day - the day that playground gates are thrown open, teachers trudge back to work and parents dance along the street. No such luck, however. Some of the support staff at school are on strike and the new term has been postponed until tomorrow.

I only found out yesterday afternoon. I was dismayed. Technically it's merely one more day on top of weeks and weeks of holiday but I felt like an Olympic marathon runner being told I actually needed to do TWO laps of the stadium right as I came up to the line. I was looking forward to a nice lie down and suddenly I've got to summon up a final burst of energy.

I shouldn't really complain. The holiday hasn't been too bad - it's been broken up by various trips and the kids have been generally well behaved. It's just that I've started getting tired. Previous holidays have been a break from the daily schedule of ferrying children back and forth to school and clubs. They've been a chance to stay in bed until a bit later and then spend the day in control of our own destinies. (That's to say, we've had the opportunity to squabble over our combined destinies until the children have seen the error of their thinking and finally agreed to whatever plan I suggested in the first place...) As we spent most of the Easter holiday in Belgium, this is the first long stretch of school holiday we've had at home since Marie started nursery. It transpires that the relaxed atmosphere isn't a substitute for my two and a half hours of peace each morning during term-time.

I'm running low on energy and sanity. The boys have been staying up later but it's taken until the last week or so for Marie to learn to entertain herself in the morning rather than burst into our room and demand attention. The boys have responded to every suggestion we leave the house with a loud 'Awwww!'. The girl has started venting her frustration with an "Urghhhhhh!" whenever I refuse her merest whim.

It's time for a little more routine and the chance to mix with more people.

I know you've got another couple of weeks to go before nursery starts again down there in England, and you have my sympathy, but you guys did stop later. Also, it's possible you've had some sunshine this summer. We've had to settle for warmer rain. This has led to us being cooped up more than I'd have liked, adding to the craziness. It's all summed up in a conversation I had with Marie the other day:

We'd popped to the shops and been caught out by yet another shower. Marie had been wearing sandals. "Are your socks wet?" I asked her when we got home.

She looked confused. "I'll need to touch them," she replied and started to bend over.

"Don't do that," I said hurriedly, trying to prevent the possibility of muddy puddle water transferring to her fingers. "Do your feet feel wet?"

"No," she said, still bending over. "Only my hands feel wet."

I sighed. "From touching your socks?"

"Yes!" she said excitedly and did a squishy little dance.

I shook my head, counted to ten under my breath and went to find a towel. I could really have done with a few minutes sitting down with a cup of coffee and a good book, though. After six weeks, we're all winding each other up too easily.

Thankfully, school should run as normal tomorrow. If not, I'm going to send them all to work down the mine. That'll teach them.

I'm not sure what it will teach them, exactly, but as long as it stops the whining, I don't mind that much...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 15 August 2008


Dear Dave,

A friend asked me recently if the kids had watched Wimbledon at all. I had to reply that they'd only got into it once they'd realised it was a bit like Mario Tennis.

Suffice to say, they're not hugely interested in sport.

This meant I was somewhat surprised to walk into the lounge the other day and discover that Fraser had deliberately switched on the Olympics and was happily watching some canoeing. He told me in great detail about the recent scores and what was going on. I nodded and smiled. I hadn't a clue what he was wittering on about.

You see, I don't know much about sport myself. My parents have never really been ardent sports fans and we didn't talk about sport a lot while I was growing up. (Or anything much else, to be honest, but that's another story...) We only watched sport now and then on the telly - Formula One, Wimbledon, the Olympics, that kind of thing.

When I started work at LBO I had to hurriedly learn to talk about football in order to blend in during lunch in the canteen. This was problematic because, while I knew very little about English football, I knew absolutely nothing about Scottish football. Fortunately, a friend took me aside and told me the secret of survival - all I had to do was mutter Rangers, Celtic, Hibs, Hearts or Ally McCoist every so often, and someone else was bound to have plenty to say in reply.

This got me a surprisingly long way and still works to this day.

It might help Fraser's socialisation if he has more of a clue than me and I suppose the Olympics is a good place to start. There's always something happening, plenty of viewing choice and frequent excitement from world record bids. It's also, he tells me, a little like the Mario & Sonic at the Olympics game he got for Christmas...

When he heard where the 2012 games are going to be held, he was thrilled. He wants us to head down to London to watch.

I've tentatively agreed, on the basis that it's four years away and he'll probably have changed his mind by then. It's such a long time in the future, I was even relatively positive about it. I tried not to list all the limitations of going to watch the Olympics in person:
  • The view won't be as good.
  • We'll be more limited in what we get to see.
  • It'll be more expensive.
  • We'll have to leave the house.
  • We might get rained on, etc
All these things aside, we can't possibly go and see everything, so we'll have to pick some type of sporting endeavour to concentrate on. This is going to be a tricky choice since, if he becomes really interested, he might want to take part in 2020. Pick the wrong sport and I could spend years getting up at 5am, six days a week, to ferry him to some training facility or other on the dark side of the moon.

Mindful of this possibility, I need to encourage him to choose something which can be played almost anywhere, takes place inside, doesn't require much expensive equipment and involves no sharp, pointy projectiles. In order to play to his strengths, it would be preferable if the sport also avoided much athleticism, coordination or following of instructions.

I'm thinking maybe Scrabble. (Cue video montage of rigorous training. Fraser strains to repeatedly lift a small bag of tiles as I stand over him with a whip. He shuffles 'NGZMAPO' around despondently. He gets up hours before dawn to study a dictionary. He stares intently at some letters as a stopwatch ticks. Finally, in a crowded hall, he builds onto an 'A' and triumphantly lays down the last seven letters of the game to spell 'ZAMPOGNA'. His opponent, a retired colonel, queries, unaware of the Italian bagpipes. All eyes turn to the adjudicator, he checks the replay, the letters go down in slow motion, there's a pause... and then he gives the slightest nod. The crowd goes wild. The colonel has a heart attack. Fraser holds aloft the gold medal... Eye of the Tiger fades.)

Then again, maybe I should get him to consider commentating. He's already good at talking about 'our guy', reeling off stats and being excited about it all.

Truth be told, whatever he chooses for us to go see in 2012, chances are that we'll be watching most of the action on our mobile phones, complete with close-ups, replays and trivia facts. This being the case, we should pick an event that's warm, dry and near a vending machine.

Hopefully I can get him into table tennis. A couple of bats, a ball and a small net for the kitchen table and we're in business.

Or maybe that's too much like effort. We could just play it on the Wii...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 11 August 2008

No purchase necessary

Dear Dave,

Every day, my inbox seems to be full of emails wanting me to download software 'totally legally' for a fraction of the normal retail price. In between those emails are some others wanting me to confirm my identity and 'prevent fraud' by clicking through and logging into my online bank account. As a bonus, several lovely Nigerian ladies are convinced that I might want to extend each of them a small loan in order to release their late husbands' fortunes from the clutches of government bureaucracy. Finally, half the world appears to believe that a certain part of my anatomy is either not large enough or not functioning properly and that they have the means to help.

For a small fee...

I used to sort through all the junk but it's got totally out of hand. I've had to set my anti-spam program to nuclear. From now on, I will no longer receive invitations to sign up for a 'bona fide' degree which requires 'no tests/books/classes or exams' and nor will I be required to reflect on the likely efficacy of dieting programs which promise a 'natural approach' to weight loss 'without feeling hungry'. These missives will be vapourised the second they pass through my wi-fi card.

The computer should really make some kind of sound effect, like the little suckers are thudding against the iris in Stargate SG-1. That way, I'd know my inbox is still working. Suddenly, I'm barely getting any email at all.

Perhaps I should relax the spam filter and pretend I have friends. Maybe that 'bored, Russian girl' is still looking for someone to have fun with...

Hmmm. Or maybe not.

Hopefully it will be a while before I have to explain email confidence tricks to the children, but I do find myself having to teach them to be a touch more shrewd on occasion. 'Katerina' may not be after them but they face a few scams peculiar to youth.

For instance, sometimes their contemporaries blatantly lie to them. I'm now very wary whenever Fraser wants to invite a classmate around. All too often, he's been keen to have a visit from someone he doesn't particularly like, simply because the child in question has claimed to have the same computer game as him. In order to avoid disappointment, I make sure to check the child has supplied some information about the game that Fraser hasn't given them first.

Of course, adults lie to children, too, but kids are used to that - they know there's no such thing as the tooth fairy, that we aren't nearly there and that it will hurt. They have a sure-fire way of overcoming these scams: they ignore everything adults tell them. After all, adults talk nonsense.

My children laugh at the thought that some stranger might try to lure them away with the promise of sweets. They know better than to believe such things. I find myself compelled to point out that an adult could bypass subterfuge entirely and just pick them up and steal them. They laugh some more. I pick them up, carry them off and hold them upside down over the toilet. I think they've got the message now.

Another scam aimed at children can best be summarised by the phrase 'Gotta catch 'em all'. True, this has been around far longer than Pokémon (remember those football sticker albums?) but it's probably never been milked to such a degree as by Squirtle, Bulbasaur and friends. There's everything from cuddly toys to curtains. Fraser put six pounds into a vending machine once in a desperate effort to get an inch-high plastic replica of Pikachu. He got five Kyogres and a Plusle. It was heartbreaking.

There is another con which is worse, however:

Shiny packets.

Kids will pay good money for something in a shiny packet. They may not even care what the thing is. Actually, they almost certainly won't care what the thing is, although girls are a little more discerning - they insist on the packet being pink as well as shiny.

I suspect that by the time my children have progressed beyond this phase, I will already be explaining about the email scams. Kids have a strange understanding of the value of money. I have to keep telling them that spending one pound fifty on the phone-in quiz at the end of a TV show is essentially a waste equivalent to binning a large bar of chocolate without even licking it. Life gets even more complicated when we turn a corner in the local supermarket and we're presented with a display of sweets on Buy One Get One Free. It can be hard work persuading Fraser that purchasing as many as we can carry isn't sound financial planning. 'But, Daddy!' he says, 'The more we buy, the more money we save!'

He used to be sincere but lately he's had much more of a sly grin about him. I suspect he's trying to scam me.

Then again, maybe he's right...

No, no, I must resist gadgets in shiny packets and BOGOF offers for things I don't need one of, let alone two...

Perhaps the children won't ever completely get over the attraction of surrounding themselves with sparkly bargains. (I certainly haven't.) Maybe I can only encourage them to resist. More than simply pointing out when they're being duped, I need to teach them to search out friendship and meaning, fulfilment and purpose. I need to teach them to love themselves and the people around them, not stuff. That way, the world will be a better place and my house will accumulate less junk.

It's going to be a long, difficult road.

In the meantime, at least I've learnt to turn things to my advantage. If I want them to take an interest in an educational toy, I make sure to wrap it in silver foil, leave it in the middle of the room and tell them not to touch it.

Works every time.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 6 August 2008

Making sure

Dear Dave,

"You do realise I could be at home, reclined on the armchair in my pyjamas, watching trash with explosions while drinking beer?" I said, hunched over the steering wheel of the van, trying to see if there was anything coming the other way as we went round a bend on the narrow country lane.

"Yeah, but wouldn't you rather be helping a friend in need?" said Rob from the passenger seat.

"I appear to be driving round in circles while a soon-to-be-ex-friend fails to read a map," I replied and then, at the last minute, I saw through the overgrown foliage on the verge and braked hard to avoid the enormous tractor heading straight for us. I swore under my breath and started to erratically reverse the hundred yards to the nearest passing place.

"Watch out for cows!" said Rob, chuckling to himself.

It was the fourth time he'd made comic reference to the unfortunate incident that had occurred the last time I'd driven anywhere. I was grumpy anyway. The combination wasn't going well. It was hot, the hired van's air conditioning wasn't working, we were lost and the tractor driver didn't even wave as I let him past. Worst of all, the kids were on holiday at their grandparents' house - I could have been at home enjoying some peace and quiet. "Do you know where we're going yet?" I snapped.

"It should be round here," said Rob. He was remarkably cheery for a man in the midst of last-minute wedding preparations. I suspected he was in total denial and simply enjoying the sunshine and the time off work. "It's beginning to look familiar. I think Aunt Maria's house is just over this hill."

"I believe you've said that about several hills during the last half an hour and a couple of bridges as well."

"I'm definite this time. Yeah, look in that yard - that belongs to the guy who does chainsaw carvings. Aunt Maria has a thing for him - keeps knitting him socks."

Afraid another tractor might sneak up on me on the twisty road, I only managed a brief glimpse of the wooden carvings as they went by on the other side of a dilapidated fence. Someone had been very busy. Twenty or so thick logs poked up out of the ground, surrounded by wood shavings, their top sections intricately whittled. Sure enough, every single one of them had been lovingly crafted into a three-dimensional replica of a chainsaw.

"And she lives close to this guy?" I asked, suddenly afraid of something other than tractors.

"Yep," said Rob. "That's one of the reasons I don't want to stay long."

"Uh-huh, good call."

"Yeah, cheer up," said Rob, still unnecessarily cheery himself. "We've just got to collect a few boxes, drop them off at the hotel and take the van back and we're done. We could go for a pint."

"I thought you had go help Kate with writing out the place cards."

"Damn. I was hoping she hadn't told you that."

"Nice try," I said. "As your best man, I'm under orders to get you home sober."

"OK, OK. Woh! Stop! This is it."

I pulled into the drive of a charming cottage, its garden full of flowers.

"Are you ready for this?" said Rob as we stepped out of the van.

"Er, should I be?" I asked.

Then a middle-aged woman, wearing far too much make-up and a rather too revealing dress, leapt out of the house, ran over to Rob, grabbed his head and attempted to suck his cheeks off. I stared in horror, unable to move. I was relieved when she finally let him go and it turned out to only have been some form of greeting.

Of course, the relief was somewhat mitigated when, far too late, I realised it was my turn.

"¡Hola!" she shrieked...

* * *

"Thanks, Aunt Maria," Rob called back to the cottage as we loaded the last of several large, but not particularly heavy, boxes into the back of the van. "Can't stop! Ed's got to get home to the kids."

"No, I don't," I said under my breath as we climbed into the oven on wheels ourselves.

"You want to stay for cheese and sherry?" replied Rob out of the corner of his mouth, smiling broadly and waving at his aunt. She was standing in the porch, blowing us exuberant kisses.

Thinking back over the events of the previous ten minutes, I decided to let the matter go. Our escape was even accompanied by a slightly unseemly touch of wheel spin.

"I never knew you were part Spanish," I said when we were on our way.

"I'm not."

"She married into the family then?"

"Nope," replied Rob, "she's my mum's sister."

I was confused. "Your mum's not Spanish."


"Er," I said. "Then why does your aunt speak with a Spanish accent, wear lots of lace and like to emphasise everything she says with the aid of castanets?"

Rob sucked his teeth. "Good question. It's mostly a hobby. She doesn't do it when she's dealing with patients. We're hoping she'll keep it low profile at the wedding."

"I can see that," I said. "But you let her make the wedding favours?"

"She insisted. They're very big on wedding favours in Spain. If the things weren't up to scratch, she'd apparently never live it down."

"Who with?" I said. "Your other Spanish relatives?"

"And chainsaw guy."

I nodded. "Now that's the wedding I'm looking forward to..."

* * *

It had been a long day. We'd been travelling all over the place, collecting this and checking on that. I was tired and hot and sticky. It was a joyous moment when we entered the grounds of the hotel and neared the completion of our final errand. I was very much looking forward to getting home, getting cleaned up and then sinking into the armchair for a couple of days.

I grinned happily to myself as we turned the last corner. Another three-quarters of an hour and...

"Hey!" yelped Rob as I slammed on the brakes. "Don't stop here. The car-park's over there."

"I..." I couldn't find the words to reply. I was too busy staring. The hotel was old, ramshackle and sprawling and came complete with turrets and gargoyles. I was surprised The Mystery Machine wasn't pulled up outside.

"You OK?" asked Rob.

"Er, yeah," I said and tried to keep quiet beyond that, doing my best to respect his choice of venue.

We unloaded a couple of boxes and headed into reception. A lovely woman wearing a floral dress with gossamer wings directed us to the furthest reaches of the east tower which seemed to have been set aside for storage. I continued to gawp every step of the way. The walls were painted with idyllic woodland scenes populated by mythical beasts. I was surrounded by unicorns and nymphs. I can only describe it as the house the Addams Family would have lived in if they were fond of pastel colours and ornaments adorned with fairies.

"Have Kate's parents seen this place?" I hissed when I was sure pixie-girl couldn't hear us, unable to contain myself any longer.

"We showed them photos," said Rob, fighting his way through some flowery curtains which had been hung across a doorway.

"Of what?"


I didn't entirely believe him. "They must have been pretty blurry."

"They were... selective. Once we'd got round to deciding a date, there weren't very many places left at such short notice."

"I'm guessing there was only here."

"There was also a bowls club in Galashiels."

"That might have been cheaper, at least," I muttered.

We found the enormous cupboard we were looking for and dumped the boxes. Not for the first time, I couldn't help noticing they were very light for their size. Rob hadn't really needed me to help carry them - I'd merely been a good excuse to escape afternoon tea with his aunt. "What's in these?" I said, making to remove the tape from the one I'd been carrying.

"You don't want to know," said Rob, attempting to stop me.

I was too quick for him. "I'm going to find out in a couple of weeks anyway." I ripped off the tape, reached into the box and fished out a wedding favour.

It was more knitted than I was expecting. It took me a moment to work out what it was.

"Toilet roll covers?" I said, raising an eyebrow. "You're handing out toilet roll covers?"

I rummaged around in the box. It was full of toilet rolls sheathed in sparkly woollen wrappers. Each one had a little plastic bride and groom sewn to the top.

"Why didn't she just leave the covers empty?" I said. "The whole lot could have fitted in one box and saved us a journey. Couldn't people add their own toilet paper?"

Rob gave a despairing shrug. "It's all sewn in. People aren't actually supposed to use the loo roll. It would be bad luck for me and Kate."

"They're supposed to sit this up a corner of their bathroom for all eternity to ward off a divorce?"

"Yep," said Rob and then noticed my other eyebrow raise. "You're going to use yours and then give it to the kids to wear as a hat, aren't you?"

"I couldn't possibly comment," I said, setting off for another box.

* * *

We delivered the van back to the rental place and walked to the end of the street, where our ways parted.

"Fancy that pint?" said Rob, lingering on the corner.

I shook my head. "Got to get back for some quality time with the Xbox," I said.

"OK, then. Suppose I'll have to go write place cards. Think of me while you're shooting zombies." He reluctantly turned to leave.

I put out my hand to stop him. "Are you sure about all this?" I said.

"What? The fairies and the toilet roll? No, not really. Wish we could have had sandwiches at the Millennium Centre like you suggested. Too late now, though."

I looked him in the eye. "I meant about getting married."

He did a double-take. "You're the one that's been telling me it's a good idea for, like, half a decade - that it's just accepting reality and that I won't notice the difference."

"That's not entirely what I said. I said it won't make any real difference to your everyday lives apart from that you'll be able to refer to Kate as 'the wife'."

"I do that already," he chuckled.

"I meant without the ironic smirk."

"Oh..." he said and paused. He was still puzzled. "But if that's the only change, then why talk me into it?"

"To get you to the point where I could ask if you're sure."

He blinked. "That's cold."

"Not really." He knew what I was getting at - we'd talked about the issue before. You see, he hadn't necessarily imagined it as a long-term thing when he and Kate had moved in together. Even when they'd gone on to buy a place between them, he hadn't seen it as settling down. More than that, parenthood had been a surprise. He had plenty of commitments but he hadn't really signed for them all. If he didn't fully accept them, things were bound to go badly eventually. I didn't want him to wake up in ten years time, suddenly panicked that he might be getting tied down, and go running off to Jamaica with the postman, leaving Kate with three kids and a mortgage.

"So..." I said. "Are you sure?"

He thought about it, his head bobbing from side to side a bit as he did so. Then he did a strange combination of nod and shrug. "Yeah," he said, genuinely meaning it.

"Drat," I said, sighing. "Guess I'll have to write my speech after all."

"What?" he said, wide-eyed. "You haven't written it yet?"

"Have you written yours?" I countered.

"I never said I'd written mine."

"Well I never said I'd written mine."

"Yes, you did," he said, his voice rising.

I shook my head. "No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did..."

We continued arguing as we proceeded along the street. Somehow we ended up in a pub. We discussed things over a pint or two...

Boy, did we get into trouble when I took him home.

I'm getting two toilet roll covers as a special punishment...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 1 August 2008

Tick tock

Dear Dave,

Some rites of passage go almost unnoticed.

I remember very clearly receiving my first watch. I think it was a hand-me-down from one of my sisters because it had an unconvincing home-made, plaited strap which needed tied in a knot. Obviously, this was unsuitable for a seven-year-old so I went to Norwich market with my dad and got a very patriotic red, white and blue strap with a proper clasp. I remember being quite proud of it but I don't really remember it being that much of a big deal.

In some ways, though, it was one of the most significant events of my life. I started wearing the watch throughout the day. Suddenly, I always knew what time it was. I was freed from uncertainty and the need to rely on others to get me places on time. Conversely, I was constrained by time itself. The day became divided into hours and minutes that could be cherished or squandered. I knew exactly how many seconds of a tortuous lesson remained and could watch the last moments of a sunny playtime tick away. Punctuality became my responsibility. With it came planning, organisation and responsibility itself. I had to start using time wisely.

Thinking back, getting that watch was the first step to adulthood (or the beginning of the end of childhood, depending on which way you look at it).

By my late teens, I had a digital watch and wore it every waking minute. I couldn't imagine not wearing it. Its alarm woke me in the morning; its crude numbers told me when to go to bed. In between, its hourly bleeps kept my activities tightly bound to the prescribed routine. On the rare occasions the batteries went flat, I was adrift in a sea of chaos...

It was only in my twenties, I learnt the error of my ways.

Well, a little...

I got an analogue watch. I was more sophisticated but still a slave to the machine on my wrist.

It was only when I had children that things changed. Digital watches tend to be water resistant. Analogue watches - not so much. I discovered this when giving a baby a bath. I went several days without a watch and, when I did get another one, it spent most of its life in my pocket or being chewed by a toddler.

Children don't live their lives like clockwork and, all at once, neither did I. It was liberating. For a few years, life happened when it happened. (Which was handy because it mostly seemed to happen in the middle of the night accompanied by crying, and I really didn't want to know what the time was.) We muddled along blissfully.

Now, of course, there's school and nursery and clubs and bedtime. Life is more constrained than ever. The cycle begins again.

Fraser kept asking me, "What time is it?"

I kept replying, "Time you started wearing your watch." There was no point it sitting on his bedside table while I acted as his speaking clock.

He started wearing his watch more. The second week he wore it to school, the lens fell off the front.

We got him another one. It has Scooby-Doo on it and he wears it all the time. Now he, too, can watch the hours slip by. He will learn punctuality and responsibility, organisation and planning.

That will be very useful but, somehow, I can't help feeling a little sad at the thought...

That said, my sympathy is limited. He may be more resistant to adulthood than I was:

It's been suggested that there are two certainties in life - death and taxes. I would like to add the ability of families to wind each other up. Fraser no longer constantly asks me the time - he constantly tells me the time. I now have my own speaking clock at my side that complains when we're late. Turns out that punctuality will still be my responsibility for a while yet...

Oh heck, is that the time? Got to go...

Yours in a woman's world,