Dear Dave

Friday 28 November 2008

Blinking their lives away

Dear Dave,

As I was saying in my last letter, life is marching on. I blink and Fraser is another inch taller. I've lost an entire month since... well, since about a month ago actually. Where are the days disappearing to? I can't believe it's time to rebook the kids' clubs for the next session again.

Except I had that thought at the beginning of October. Now I've finally got round to sharing it with you, it's time to rebook them AGAIN. Drama, swimming and gymnastics are all badgering me to sign my children up for another twelve lessons after Christmas. Each child does a couple of activities a week and every class costs around four pounds a time. I don't really want to think about what it all adds up to over the year but I suspect it's somewhere in the region of a very large telly.

I suppose I have to look at it as an investment in my childrens' development. They're learning new skills, meeting new people and coping with new situations. They're getting exercise and gaining knowledge. Marie even enjoys her classes.

That said, the boys would prefer the big telly.

Ho hum. Maybe one day they'll be grateful. Maybe one day they'll fall into a large body of water and be glad they've learnt to do something other than sink like a fridge. Unfortunately, they're not convinced by this argument at the moment. After all, they say, why would they be out and about near a large body of water if they had an enormous telly at home that they could be watching instead?

It wouldn't be so bad but, besides the cost of the courses themselves, there's the incidental expenditure - bus fares for us all, chocolate for them and an occasional cup of coffee for me. This quickly adds up. I try to take snacks with us when I can but the kids don't always let me. Getting to put coins in a vending machine, press the buttons and then watch Daddy hammer on the glass in frustration because the Maltesers have got stuck again is one of the highlights of the trip.

Thankfully, however, they don't like fizzy juice so they're not so fussed about drink dispensers. I can save one pound fifty by handing round cartons of own-brand blackcurrant I bought in a 3 for 2 deal at the supermarket.

If I remember them that is...

I should really make a list. Every Friday lunchtime, I find myself packing a huge pile of towels and swimming costumes, goggles and leisure cards into a backpack and every week I zip it closed and immediately think, "I'm sure I've forgotten something..."

Usually it's the hairbrushes. Sometimes it's the drinks. Once it was the goggles. (The last one was a real disaster. Lewis only put his head in the water a single time during the whole lesson and kept complaining his eyes were sore. In essence, I spent four pounds for him to bob about in the corner of the pool for half an hour, looking glum and shivering. Not ideal.)

If I had a list, I could just go through it and make sure I had everything I needed. It would make life easier. I don't, though, for a number of reasons:

  • I wouldn't look at it. I'd be halfway through putting stuff in the backpack before I remembered I had the list and by then it wouldn't seem worthwhile going to find it. This thought process in itself would probably be enough distraction to make me forget something.
  • It's a bit late now. It's four years since I first took Fraser for swimming lessons and I've done OK without a list so far. Writing one now would be acknowledging defeat. I'd be admitting that all the broken sleep and Teletubbies I've endured since then has finally turned my brain to sludge. What next? I might get to the middle of a sentence and.
  • If I started leaving handy, fool-proof lists lying around of what to do and when to do it, someone could steal my job. I'm not really expecting this to happen but I used to work in IT. Old habits die hard.
I guess I do have lists of things to pack for when we go away on holiday but I haven't updated them since shortly after Marie was born and I don't really look at them anymore. I merely have a quick skim over them before clipping the rucksacks shut. This isn't so much to remind me of things I've forgotten but to make me smile at all the things I no longer have to strap to my back and cart to the other side of the country:

Bottles, baby sleeping-bags, bibs, nappies, cloths, slam-stoppers for doors, toilet seat(!), bath thermometer, rubber spoons, breast-pump, two of the carseats, microwaveable steriliser...

You name it and we don't need it anymore or we could live without it for a few days. Somehow we still seem to end up with about ten items of luggage but these days they mostly contain clothes, washbags and a surprisingly large number of electrical chargers.

Yes, what we've lost in baby equipment, we seem to have gained in gadgets. Two phones, four handheld games systems, two cameras and a laptop. Then there are the kids' torches, random toys and the rechargeable batteries to go with them (plus charger and a screwdriver to open stubborn battery compartments).

Life moves on. How long before Marie insists on packing earrings, crop tops and a boyfriend? Time is scurrying past. Maybe I really should begin thinking about all the things I'm going to do next year when she starts school.

Now that I'm going to need to make a list for...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 26 November 2008

Learning to cook (again)

Dear Dave,

Yeah, you should probably eat something for lunch other than coffee, Krispie cake and whatever you happen to find down the back of Daisy's high chair while you're cleaning it. I'm not one to talk, though. If I have a cheese toastie and the limp remains at the bottom of a bag of salad, I consider that a balanced meal. I'm kind of hoping that eating the cores of the apples I chop up for the boys' packed lunches counts as one of my 5-a-day helpings of fruit and veg...

I go out of my way to make sure the kids have a healthy diet but by the time it comes to me, I'm usually out of motivation and energy. Also, chocolate bars taste good.

I can cook. That isn't a problem. I taught myself when I was a student and I've come a long way since I first arrived at my grotty accommodation armed only with a packet of cheese sauce, a cauliflower and a copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course. Quite why I thought cauliflower was a good place to start, I have no idea, but that night I learnt an important culinary lesson:

Almost everything tastes good when coated in warm cheese.

Dubious fish, soggy chips, wilting salad, dodgy burgers, stale bread, burnt Krispie cakes, anything (even over-cooked cauliflower) can be made edible with liberal coatings of melted cheddar.

This lesson helped me survive the initial few weeks as I experimented with recipes and techniques and generally got the hang of things. Since I took it in turns to cook evening meals with my flatmates and I didn't have to cook all the time, I could afford to go to town when it was my night. I made everything from lasagne to stilton soup to some strange vegetarian concoction involving lentils and a vast supply of aubergines. As the year wore on, I even learnt to cut corners. Three different kinds of meat in lasagne isn't essential, for instance. Neither is sieving the white sauce. Any recipe which asks you to sieve beetroot isn't worth starting.

Then I got married, got a job, began a family, became a housedad and lost several years somewhere. More corners were cut. It began with buying jars of sauce rather than making my own. Then it moved on to bags of frozen vegetables. In the end, I discovered ready-made frozen lasagne was cheaper than making my own and tasted almost as good. It also took a heck of a lot less time to prepare and didn't create anywhere near as much washing up.

It's been a while since I made anything from scratch other than birthday cakes and omelettes.

The other day I realised, however, that once again, life is moving on. I went to put the remote for the DVD recorder away on top of the TV unit with the other controls and suddenly wondered why I was bothering. The kids are now old enough that I can leave all the remotes on the table by the sofa without fear of them mucking about and accidentally over-writing the entire contents of the TiVo with forty hours of celebrities bickering at each other in a jungle. This has probably been the case for a year. It just never occurred to me before.

Similarly, I can keep eggs easily accessible in the special rack for them in the fridge door for the first time since Fraser was eighteen months and he decided to see if they bounce. (Hint: They don't.) I can also think about being a little more adventurous with food.

At the moment, the kids live on raw fruit and vegetables, various bread products, cheese, sausages, fish fingers, pasta, pizza and crackers. They've done so since they were small because Fraser hates sauces of every kind. Preparing anything complicated for him is a waste of time and ingredients. I don't have much incentive to persuade him otherwise either, since the kids need fed before Sarah gets home - I have to make one meal for them and one for us anyway, so I might as well make them simple stuff I know they'll all eat.

Lewis and Marie can often be convinced to eat normal, 'adult' meals, though, so some proper cooking at the weekend seems almost worthwhile. More than that, the children are now old enough to entertain themselves while I'm busy in the kitchen. There's no reason for me to feel I'm neglecting them by slaving over a hot stove to provide them with a tasty, nutritious masterpiece.

I can't quite be bothered yet but maybe sometime soon.

Another sign that life is moving on is that it's much more feasible for us to invite guests round for food. Getting the kids to bed is no longer a two hour operation which swallows the evening. Fraser can even get himself to bed without any physical intervention whatsoever. (Constant verbal goading is still mandatory but it's a step forward all the same.) Having friends over for dinner is possible once more without constantly having the conversation interrupted by crying babies, stroppy toddlers and pressing childcare issues.

In theory, anyway. Finding the energy is another matter...

Nonetheless, Sarah's sister Catriona and her husband Chris came over to visit with their teenagers Lisa and Ned the other Saturday. It was a while since we'd seen any of them other than Ned and it was definitely our turn to host. I met them at the door. The 2 Cs were dressed just far enough to the smart side of smart-casual to make me look shabby and Lisa had really pushed the boat out with a sequined blouse and plenty of make-up. Ned shuffled in, wearing his hoodie.

"We picked this up in Peru," said Chris, handing over a bottle wrapped in tissue paper. "The owner of the bodega recommended it himself. It's got rather an interesting taste; not like the normal stuff from Waitrose. It was made using traditional methods..."

"Child labour," grunted Ned, kicking off his shoes.

"For the last time," replied Chris, exasperated, "getting the children of the village to stomp the grapes during a festival is not child labour."

"Sounds like it."

"Listen, young man..."

Catriona interrupted them. "Ned, please don't wind your father up before we've even got our coats off."

I took the wine politely and resisted the urge to point out to Chris that the only thing I really cared about was what colour it was. I'd made that mistake on a previous occasion while he'd been telling me about his latest car.

"Do you have a whisk?" asked Lisa.


She waved a heavy shopping bag at me. "You wanted us to bring dessert. I'm going to make pavlova. I need a whisk."

"Pavlova? That's rather ambitious..." I'd been expecting them to pop into the supermarket on the way and buy a trifle or something.

"Don't worry. She makes it all the time," said Catriona. "She does most of the cooking in our house. I'm always having to travel to fundraisers, Chris gets home late and Ned can't work a tin-opener, so Lisa's had plenty of practice. Haven't you, dear?"

Lisa blushed and Ned sloped off to my study to play Tomb Raider. Chris and Catriona went upstairs to find the others in the lounge. I hunted around and found a whisk. Lisa eyed it up suspiciously, tested its weight, wiggled the loops a little and then frowned. "Do you have a different whisk?"

As it happened, we did. The kitchen cupboards are full of obscure utensils and unlikely implements which I haven't touched in years. I hunted around amongst the fondue sets, baking dishes and cake tins and eventually produced a heavy-duty egg murdering device which was to Lisa's satisfaction. She set to work and I put together the ingredients I'd prepared for the lasagne I'd been making.

It shouldn't have taken me long but I'm out of practice. Somehow, Lisa finished first and made far less mess. She carefully put the pavlova on the bottom shelf of the oven and then asked, "Is there anything else I can do to help?"

"You could lay the table," I said, wiping white sauce off the toaster. I pointed to the drawers. "Cutlery is in there."

"What about napkins?"

"We don't use napkins."

Lisa looked at me like I was slightly strange. "Where do you keep the place mats, then?"

"Er... We don't use place mats either. We used to but Fraser kept trying to eat them when he was a toddler. Doesn't seem to be any point going back now. The table has survived fine and it would just mean more stuff to clean."


I didn't reply. I merely put the lasagne in to cook and left the room, chuckling to myself.

I went to check on the others. The boys had found Ned and dragged him off to play Nintendo. Marie was showing Catriona her collection of pink jewellery. Sarah was trying to appear interested as Chris told her about Peruvian wine. I sneaked away again.

I swear I was only gone ten minutes. Lisa had searched through the cupboards and found all manner of stuff I'd forgotten about - coasters, crystal wine glasses, some paper serviettes left over from a party, the good place mats (i.e. the ones without bite marks) and a flowery tablecloth. She'd set everything out immaculately. The serviettes had been folded into swans. I was amazed... and a tiny bit scared. I began to grasp why Ned has given up trying to compete.

The meal itself was chaos. Our kitchen is a reasonable size but getting nine people round a table which is only designed for six is pretty cosy. Fraser told Knock, Knock jokes he'd heard at school, Marie sang songs about the alphabet she'd learnt at nursery and Lewis felt left out and made up a story about a chicken that went through a door to cross the road and then exploded into a pile of 'M's.

Near the start, Ned tried some of the wine his mum offered him and his dad jokingly had a go at him for enjoying the output of an underage workforce. The lad didn't say anything after that. Chris and Catriona pretended not to notice and filled us in on all the wonderful things they'd been up to. Somewhere during dessert, Lisa was forced to tell us about her latest successes in the school orchestra and how well she thought the admissions test for Cambridge had gone.

Everyone was polite about the lasagne but it was the pavlova they had second helpings of. Then the kids vanished. All the boys disappeared to play computer games some more and Marie insisted Lisa help her get ready for bed. There was space and peace again. I made some coffee.

"How was Peru?" I asked over my shoulder as I filled the kettle.

"It was so encouraging watching the charity's work in action," said Catriona. "It will really help me focus appeals in the future."

"How did Chris get to go?"

"He joined me for a holiday at the end of the trip. Don't worry - it's all above board. He paid his own way."

"I didn't mean that, I, er... Was the weather good?"

"Very pleasant," said Chris. "Not so sure about the food."

Catriona nodded. "The scenery was spectacular."

"Yes," said Chris. "We brought the photos."

"Oh, good..." I couldn't think what else to say. Time was, that bringing photos meant handing round a couple of packets of prints, half of which were duplicates or out of focus. Everyone could dutifully shuffle through them in a couple of minutes each and those who were really interested could go huddle up a corner with the photographer and discuss the geographical features of the Andes to their heart's content. These days, bringing photos means a dozen memory cards crammed full of the bewildered faces of everyone encountered on the trip, the meals eaten, a million scenic views and at least two blurry videos - one of street theatre and another of an amusing squirrel. Everyone gets to watch a slideshow on the telly for an hour.

Sarah slyly made some excuse about checking on the children and slipped away. I couldn't blame her - she'd probably heard all the details of Peru while I was making dinner. The topic unexpectedly changed, though.

"Thanks for dealing with the trouble Ned had at school while we were away," said Catriona. "It was very good of you to speak with the headmaster about his behaviour. It must have been a trial fitting it in amongst all the school runs."

Chris laughed. "He was probably glad of the chance to get out and about. I know I'd go mad sitting around the house all day."

"Just ignore him, Ed," said Catriona.

"Uh-huh," I muttered, counting under my breath. I concentrated on making the coffee. "Do you take milk?"

Chris shook his head and took his mug from me. "Ned won't be any trouble again. I've had a few words with him. One more slip up and he'll been on his way to Lochinver Academy. They'll teach him what's what."

"I'm not sure a military-style boarding school in the Highlands is really the best idea. As I said on the phone, the fight wasn't entirely his fault. Besides, I thought the deal was that he could stay at Malton House if his science grades improved. They've picked up quite a lot."

"Because you're doing his homework for him."

"I'm tutoring him. I'm helping him understand and clarifying concepts. I'm not telling him what to write..." I thought back to the previous week and some difficulties with the combined gas law. "Er, much. Look, I know Malton House isn't that great but..."

Chris interrupted me. "It's a fantastic place - good academic results and large playing fields. They've turned out several rugby internationals and I work with a couple of old boys."

"The headmaster has a real vision for developing children," chipped in Catriona.

"It's not as good as Lisa's school, I'll admit," said Chris, "but it's not like Ned would have got in there even if he was a girl. Still, it is a good school. Whether it's the best school for Ned right now is another question. I don't think they're giving him what he needs."

I couldn't help agreeing with that. "Have you tried asking him what he needs?"

"He's a teenager. He doesn't know he's born, let alone what's good for him."

"Maybe..." I said but I thought loudly that it might be worth at least investigating before packing him off to boot camp. Telling other people how to raise their children is a tetchy subject, however. I wasn't up for a fight - certainly not without consulting with Ned first. I let the matter drop for the time being and brought out a box of After Eights.

Chris changed the subject again. "So, I hear you got to register Marie for school. What are you going to do with yourself once she starts? Have you learnt to knit yet?"

Catriona elbowed him in the ribs. "As I said, Ed, ignore him."

"What?" said Chris, smirking.

I gave them my usual spiel about having a lie down for a few weeks and then catching up on nine years worth of chores and Oprah. Sarah returned to claim her fruit tea and minty chocolates and let us know that the boys were in their pyjamas and Marie was in bed. We drank our hot drinks, chatted about this and that and then it was time to go upstairs to watch the squirrel. I grabbed another bottle of wine on the way. It was very cheap but, to be honest, by that point I didn't even care what colour it was.

Next time we'll have Rob and Kate round, play Wii Sports and order in a curry. It will be so much more relaxing.

Can't really see Rob making pavlova, though, which is a shame. That was tasty...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Remember to eat some vegetables this week.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Attack of the snot

Dear Dave,

Never tempt Fate. The poor girl has no self control. Give her a couple of vodka martinis and it can lead to all kinds of trouble...

I believe I mentioned last week that I hadn't had to use the buggy in months. I also commented to someone else that my family had been mysteriously well since the summer.

I suspect Marie may have inhaled some germs at that very moment.

Three days later and she now has a stinking cold. The kind where she lies around mournfully in a sleeping bag, demanding her nose be blown every three minutes. I spent the entire morning watching Bob the Builder with her sitting on my lap and a box of tissues by my side. When we went outside, she barely had energy to climb into the buggy, let alone scoot anywhere.

This afternoon I couldn't get warm. I put my thickest jumper on and that made no difference. I turned the heating up and that didn't help. I started wearing my coat, hat and scarf. I still felt cold... in the lounge... with the heating on... I finally had to resort to stuffing a hot water bottle down my shirt. I suspect that I may not be feeling that well by tomorrow morning.

To make matters worse, it turns out I'm old:

I've just done Fraser's homework with him. The textbook reads: 'Skin is elastic. If you pinch the skin on the back of your hand and let it go it springs back into place. An old person's skin does not spring back into place but forms wrinkles.'

Sure enough, his skin twanged back into shape instantly. Mine stayed in a sharply defined ridge long enough for me to forget why I was staring at it and wander off in search of some Werther's Originals.

I'm thirty-five and I'm falling apart.

I think I'll go and have a lie down.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 19 November 2008

Women love a man who can clean

Dear Dave,

Liz may have a point. Let's face it, somebody is going to have to clean the fridge sometime.

It should probably be you.

If you leave it until Sam's old enough for you to get him to do it, that lingering smell of curdled milk you mention is only going to get a heck of a lot stronger. It will pervade everything. Your lettuce will start to taste of cheese. (Dubious, unpasteurised French cheese at that.) Not good. You're just going to have to bite the bullet and get on with it. The 'house' part of 'housedad' has to be done as well as the 'dad' part.

Oddly, mums I talk to are often more impressed that I know how to work a bottle of bleach than that I can look after three children all day. It seems that although men are generally taking more of an active role in childcare, equality is lagging further behind when it comes to household sanitation. In many relationships, even where both partners are working, the female still ends up doing all the chores.

This is, of course, bad and wrong but it's also somewhat short-sighted on the part of the men involved. If they helped out, their womenfolk would be hugely appreciative and have more energy.

It really is in your best interests to deal with that fridge.

But yeah, I know, cleaning is dull.

I don't mind it too much myself, though. I've mentioned previously that I have a high tolerance for boredom. That's one of the blessings of having grown up in rural Norfolk. I had an entire summer holiday where seven of the top ten most exciting things which happened involved ducks walking past the lounge window. At least one of the other three involved painting a ceiling.

I'm used to a fairly high level of tedium. Housework, however, is dull and involves effort, not to mention dust, noxious chemicals and toilets. If motivation runs low, it's important to remember that there are far worse jobs out there. I've had a couple of them.

My first proper experience of paid work was pickling grass.

My dad got me to help on the farm with making silage. This involved wrapping an enormous cylindrical bale in a bin liner, sucking as much air out as possible with a hoover and then sealing the end with a rubber ring. It wouldn't have been so bad but the rubber rings were only a centimetre across and had to be stretched to around 10cm in diameter by sliding them down a wooden cone. I removed the pads of both my thumbs within minutes. The whole thing was painful, dull and left me smelling like a lawn had sneaked its way into my pockets and promptly died... several weeks previously. I'll take having to occasionally clean the bath over that any day, thank you very much.

My second proper experience of paid work involved getting ridiculously sunburnt while being slowly encrusted with blackcurrants.

A little dusting now and then certainly beats a nine hour shift on the back of a currant harvester, sifting fruit from twigs and hefting heavy containers around. It was painful, dull, extremely loud and left me stained purple. As an added bonus, I got paid considerably less than the girl standing next to me because I was three years younger than her.

Yep, there are worse ways to earn my keep than with a bit of light hoovering. Washing up is even therapeutic. I can stand still, put my brain in neutral and relax while doing it.

A triple-decker dish drainer.
It helps that we have the world's best draining rack.

One important consideration is how often to clean? You don't want to leave it too long. If the children get stuck to the kitchen floor, for instance, you need to pick up the pace a smidgeon. Then again, you don't want to waste time and effort doing the cleaning too often. If the place looks unfailingly pristine, your family will begin to believe that this is its natural state. They will believe stuff never gets dirty or that the mess disappears by magic. They will imagine you open the window, burst into song and a small army of woodland creatures leap in to give the place a quick once-over while you play the PlayStation.

To avoid this confusion, I tend to go for a fortnightly blitz. Fraser gives the kitchen floor a daily hoover and I wipe the worktops regularly but most other things I leave to do in one big clean. After a couple of weeks, the house doesn't look too dirty but it's shabby enough so that once it's been polished up everyone notices that I've put some effort in. I could spread the work out a little but I like waking up the day after cleaning day to find the whole house sparkling.

Over the years, I've developed ways to reduce the amount of housework which needs done. I only buy clothes which don't need ironing or that look good creased, for example. I used to make the mistake of checking every so often how deep the dust had got on our few remaining shelves of knick-knacks. I would touch my finger to the thick layer of grey and create a crater that was as lasting as footprints on the moon. There was no choice but to take everything off the shelves and dust the lot. Now I leave well alone. Similarly, it's simply not worth moving the freezer to have a look underneath or poking around too hard behind the sofa. It will only end in breadsticks. (If I'm lucky, there will be raisins and a sock as well.)

Let me know your own tips for minimising the work involved in cleaning while still ensuring the place looks spick and span.

But first, go and clean that fridge.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 14 November 2008

It's not just me that's worn out

Dear Dave,

Nice try but I really, REALLY don't want a load of old baby clothes. Please don't send them here. Find another victim. Move along. I mean it. We're done.

Guess you're not planning any more either, if you're having a clear out. Good luck freeing up some space. Daisy's a year now, so you can palm off the steriliser to someone else and she'll have already outgrown the crib, the big pram, the baby bouncer and that crate of babygros you so kindly and 'amusingly' offered.

Honestly, don't even joke about it. If Sarah and I got cracking right now, Sprog4 would more than likely arrive on Marie's first day at school. Rather than getting to lie down for a well deserved rest, I'd be back to Nappy One. I don't have the energy for that. Merely contemplating the possibility is enough to trouble my sanity. Excuse me one moment while I pretend to be a turkey...


... gobble-gobble ...


It's probably best if I go back to thinking about stuff:

Yep, there are plenty of bits and bobs you can dispose off. If you're ruthless, you might be able to reclaim half a room. In contrast, I'm trying to work out which items I can eke out for another few months until Marie's through her current development spurt.

Take the buggy, for instance. It's been folded up for a month but I don't want to retire it completely because there may still be days where the weather is wet and cold and we have some distance to go. If Marie's tired on such an occasion, the buggy will come in handy... as long as the wheels don't fall off. Like so many things, we're not quite done with it yet but it's old and nearly spent. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will hold out.

It's the same with paint. The boys stopped wanting to paint at home around the time they turned five and so I'm loathe to buy any new bottles, knowing that Marie might not use them much. Unfortunately, we've finished up several colours recently and we're now left with black, red, light red, blue, greeny blue, bronze, gold and evil purple.

This is not a particularly useful palette and the mixing potential is limited. It's hard to believe but she wanted some brown paint the other day and the closest I got was dark purple with metallic flecks. How is that possible? I always thought you could mix pretty much any selection of colours together and get brown. It certainly worked with the plasticine I had as a kid.

Which reminds me, all Marie's Play-Doh is decidedly dubious. It's kind of rubbery and a murky shade of green. She hasn't shown any interest in it since May, though. She's unlikely to play with it much now unless I get fresh tubs. There's no saying that she'll play with it much even if I do get fresh tubs, however. I might be as well giving up on the stuff entirely. We can always make biscuits if she wants to use cutters.

I've already given up on the large sheets of coloured paper she used to paint on. They were expensive and she's a prolific producer of works of art which could all be entitled Pink Spludge. It didn't seem worth it in the end. Worse still, she went through a monochrome phase where I would hand her a sheet of blue paper and she'd then proceed to paint every inch green (or, indeed, blue). Now she has to make do with cheap printer paper.

Out in the shed, we've got half a bag of sand left. Hopefully that's enough to bolster the muddy residue at the bottom of the sandpit and keep it in service one last summer. If not, I'll just empty the thing out and turn it into a water tray rather than cart a sack of powdered rock home from the shops simply to entertain the girl for three-quarters of an hour on the one sunny day next August.

When it comes to toys, I have no idea what we're going to get Marie for Christmas. The house is full of a huge accumulation of preschool stimulation as it is. Most of it she may never touch again. She'd rather make things with beads, play board games or take digital photographs of her brothers' ears. With a little careful rotation, the toys we have at the moment should keep her amused until she moves on to the next stage. What do school age girls covet anyway?

Bratz and make-up probably. Oh, great...

It's not all bad news, though. There are a few items in the household inventory we're not going to run out of any time soon. Chalk is one. We have several boxes of coloured chalk lying around but the kids have barely used three sticks worth. The problem is, once they've drawn a picture on the blackboard, they want to keep it. Forever. After six months, I can usually rub it off without them noticing, ready for another, but it doesn't exactly use up the chalk quickly.

We're also drowning in wax crayons. Every time we go to a restaurant, we seem to return home with three more little boxes of them. I'm thinking we should take a handful with us next time and leave them as part of the tip.

Oh, and if you want any stickers, we might be able to do you a deal. Goodness knows where they all come from.

When I was young, stickers were special. I maybe got a sheet of twenty every other birthday. I remember using them sparingly and then cutting up the bits of edging left on the sheet to salvage whatever I could. Now stickers come in boxes of a thousand and my kids simply don't know what to do with them. More than that, there's barely a day that goes by without one of them coming home from school with a sticker proudly stuck to their jumper for 'sitting nicely' or 'playing well' or 'working hard'. None of them has yet received a sticker for 'excellent work with stickers' but I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

Some supplies are running out slightly too fast, others will still be going strong when my grandchildren are done with them. There are a few things that are somewhere in between. For example, we have loads of felt-tips but hardly any of them work. It's the same with glue-sticks. I bought a stack of them not long ago but I can't ever seem to find one that has more than a millimetre of glue left and that isn't stained pink and encrusted with glitter. It's worrying. What have the kids been sticking?

Ho well, one day soon I'll be able to have a big clear out, pass plenty of stuff on and get the house back.

Then again, I used to dream blissfully about Marie getting older and not needing constant supervision at the swing-park. I imagined taking all three children along, setting them loose and then settling down on a bench to play my PSP while they entertained themselves. Unfortunately, Marie isn't quite at that stage yet and Fraser is already old enough to be easily bored by climbing frames. Now I suspect that I'll maybe manage to sneak five minutes of Lemmings some time next July. After that, I'll need to be playing catch or football with the boys whenever Marie's having a shot on the slides. I'm actually going to have to put in more effort.

I wouldn't get used to the extra space if I were you...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Most of Marie's trousers don't reach down to her ankles any more. Sarah tells me that some of them aren't too small - they're not supposed to come down to her ankles. Which pairs are which is something of a mystery to me, so I'm thinking they'll all do until the New Year.

It's not skimping on essential clothing, it's fashion! Excellent.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Back to school

Dear Dave,

"This is Geoffrey Fitzroy, headmaster of Malton House," said a plummy, English voice. "I'm calling about your nephew, Ned."

I was caught by surprise. I'd been expecting it to be someone conducting a market research survey or a recorded voice promising me a holiday in Florida. I put down the cup of milk I'd been carrying and transferred the phone to my other hand so I could listen more carefully. "Is he OK?"

"Physically, yes - apart from something of a black eye - but I'm sorry to say I've had to suspend him from school for a couple of days. Could you possibly come in to collect him? I'd like to have a chat about his behaviour."

"Er..." I glanced across the kitchen at Marie. She was busy eating her lunch. She grinned at me and waved, a green bean protruding downwards from either side of her mouth as she pretended to be a walrus. I didn't fancy my chances of getting her through town in a hurry. "Wouldn't you be better talking to his parents?"

"I've just learned from Ned that they're currently in Peru."

"What!?" This was news to me. I immediately suspected that Ned was making it up to avoid his dad being called in. Then again, there was a possibility I'd been told about it and forgotten. (Chris and Catriona are always gallivanting about with their jobs and I've long since given up paying attention.) I decided it was safest to play stupid. "Oh... Really?"

"I'm afraid so. Yours is the emergency contact number."

I did remember agreeing to that. Admittedly it had been more than a decade previously, back when Ned was in nursery, but what could I do? "Fine," I said. "I'll be there in three-quarters of an hour."

* * *

I'd say that Malton House is an unusual place but I've yet to encounter a private school that isn't at least a tiny bit wacky. In this context, Malton House is pretty normal.

The original building is a crumbling Georgian mansion covered in ivy that's imposing but not awfully attractive. It's a stone box with a grand, pillared entrance and a shallow dome on top. It does, however, draw attention away from the profusion of portacabins and concrete science buildings which have sprung up around it over the years.

The grounds are fronted by a high wall and I headed through the main gateway with some trepidation. My memories of school are not good - I was afraid the iron gates would clang shut behind me and I'd suddenly find myself forced to endure Double German and then play rugby.

Oblivious to my nerves, Marie whizzed off down the tree-lined driveway on her little pink scooter and I was forced to jog after her. A sports field stretched away to our left and a lawn to our right. Across the lawn was a very dense clump of bushes and some thickly packed firs. Through the trees, I caught the occasional glimpse of a truly hideous architectural monstrosity lurking in the shadows beyond, hiding itself from scornful looks amongst the dank foliage while squinting longingly at the light.

My heart sank. The physics block had been banished. I really wasn't going to blend in during my visit to the school. I hadn't had time for a haircut but I began to wish I'd changed out of my baggy pullover and put on a shirt and tie.

As we reached the main building, a discrete sign labelled 'Administration' directed us to a side entrance. I knocked on the door and there was a muffled, "Come in," so I opened it tentatively and went into the cramped and cluttered office beyond. It was more a cubby-hole off the side of a corridor than anything else and it had been filled with a desk and filing cabinets. An older woman eyed me suspiciously from behind her computer monitor, peering at me over the top of her half-moon glasses as if I was about to waste her time. "Can I help you?"

"Er..." I began.

Then Marie piped up with, "I'm Marie. This is my daddy. We're here to get Ned. He's been bad."

The woman didn't even smile. "Quite," she said. "The headmaster is expecting you. Go on through."

"Thanks," I said and hurried down the corridor, carrying Marie's scooter in one hand and dragging her along with the other, hoping to get away before she could divulge any information which I might regret.

Marie kept a steady stream of witter aimed at the school secretary as we went. "We came here on a bus but we're in a hurry because we have to get back to collect my brothers from their school. One of my brothers is called Lewis and he's six. My other brother is called Fraser; he's eight. They don't have to pay for their school but it's just as goo..."

And we were round the corner.

The secretary must have buzzed ahead because the headmaster appeared to meet us. He was a cordial man with slicked-back white hair and a firm handshake who welcomed me into his study as if I was an important benefactor.

The room was less cramped than the secretary's office but just as cluttered. The walls were lined with bookshelves and glass-fronted cabinets. Along with a vast collection of leather-bound books, a strange assortment of museum pieces was on display. There was everything from a flintlock pistol to mounted butterflies to a full-size totem pole which filled one corner of the room. It was like being backstage at The Antiques Roadshow. Up near the high ceiling, a selection of stuffed animals scrutinised us from the top of the cabinets. I was strangely disturbed by an guitar-playing owl and a pussy cat in a pea-green boat. They had some honey, plenty of money and very surprised expressions.

I averted Marie's gaze as best I could.

Ned was already there, sitting hunched over on a chair in front of the headmaster's desk, his hands in his pockets. He grunted a hello and I sat beside him. The upholstery on the chair was threadbare, as was the carpet, and the whole place had a faint odour of decaying fabric and furniture polish.

The headmaster poured me some tea in a china cup and then returned his attention to the work on his desk which had obviously been occupying him before I arrived. I politely drank my tea as he finished gluing teeth back into the manky remains of a baby crocodile.

Marie ran over to Ned and gave him a hug and started telling him all about her day in nursery. "I played in the water tray with Amy but she made splashes and got us wet. She didn't put her apron on, though, and so she was wetter than me and Miss Nolan told her off for making splashes and not putting her apron on. Then I had a snack. It was pizza! I didn't drink all my milk, though. I only drank nearly all my milk and..."

Ned's good with her. He nodded and smiled in the right places even when she continued on for several minutes.

After a while, I began to get restless. I put my tea down and checked my watch. We didn't have long before we needed to catch the bus back. Fortunately, the headmaster took this as some form of cue and looked up from his repairs. "So?" he said, waving some tweezers at Ned. "What do you have to say for yourself, young man?"

I grabbed Marie and handed her a plastic tub with the remains of her lunch to keep her quiet.

"Collins started it," said Ned.

"Mr Jacobs quite clearly observed you throw the first punch."

"Collins was calling me names."

The headmaster dismissed Ned's words with a chuckle and a patronising smile. "Well, a little name-calling hardly seems like a reason to hit someone in the stomach."

Ned didn't reply.

I guessed there was more to it than he was letting on. "How long has he been calling you names?" I asked.

"How long have I been at this school?" Ned said bitterly. "I can't do anything without him and his mates laughing at me."

I pressed further. "Has he ever started a fight with you?"

Ned shrugged. "A few times."

I turned to the headmaster. Having been in Ned's shoes as a teenager, I had a fairly clear idea where this was going. "Is this other kid getting suspended as well or has he been put on the rugby team?" I asked.

"Collins does have an important match this afternoon," said the headmaster, confirming my suspicions, "but I fail to see the relevance." He put down his tweezers and leant back in his leather chair. "Did you report these incidents?" he asked Ned.

Ned shook his head.

The headmaster locked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. "We cannot act on events we know nothing about. If you don't report such things, we cannot deal with them."

"Erm," I said. "He's reporting them now."

I got the full force of the patronising smile. "It's a little late in the day, don't you think? I require dates and witnesses and..."

He trailed off as we all suddenly spotted that Marie was trying to feed the crocodile a cheese sandwich. "I'm a walrus," she said with a grin full of green beans.

The headmaster simply stared at her.

We were onto a lost cause and I used the distraction to beat a retreat. "We have to go. Two days suspension, was it?"

Mr Fitzroy managed a nod as he poked at the sandwich with his tweezers. It wasn't going to come out of the crocodile's mouth without a fight.

"OK," I said. "I'll tell his parents exactly what happened. Let's go, Ned."

I bundled everyone out of the room without looking back. We weren't in that much of a rush but I was mildly worried in case the school had dogs and they were about to be set on us.

The secretary glared at us as we left.

Marie gave her two slightly-chewed green beans to cheer her up.

* * *

"Why didn't you say something?" I said as we sat down on the lower deck of the bus. "You've been round our house every other day for six months."

I was next to Marie; Ned was on the seat behind. I turned to face him as best I could but he was looking at his knees. "Were you bullied at school?" he muttered.


"Did you tell anyone?"

He had me there. "Guess not," I said. Somehow he'd managed to answer my question in full without actually telling me anything. As Marie befriended an old lady across the aisle and told her all about the crocodile, I tried a different tack. "OK, so why'd you decide to hit that boy today? I'm not too happy at having to cover for you, by the way. Why'd you tell Mr Fitzroy that your parents are in Peru?"

"'Cos they're in Peru."


He shrugged. "They'll be back on Monday. Lisa's eighteen - they left her in charge."

Understanding began to dawn. "Of you?" I said.

"Yeah." He finally became animated as the injustice of being ordered about by his sister welled up inside him. "I have to clean my room and everything. She's got me arranging the food in the fridge by sell-by date and taking a shower every day. It's like living in Stepford."

It's true that my niece, Lisa, is something of an over-achieving control freak who scares normal people with her inhuman levels of enthusiasm and politeness... but she does mean well. I didn't want to be critical of her when she wasn't even present to defend herself. Also, having spent plenty of time around Ned of late, I was on her side about the showers. I tried to stay neutral. "Come on, she can't force you to smell nice."

"Mum and dad left her the cash. I can't do anything if she won't let me. I'm skint - I spent out on Big Macs last week." He saw my confused look and explained. "She got a home delivery and it was all salad and yogurt."

"Oh," I said. "I take it that this explains where my stash of crisps and chocolate biscuits has disappeared to recently."

"Sorry," he said. "Needed food." He opened his school bag to reveal a familiar looking pile of snacks. "Couldn't leave it in my room - she'd have found it and turned it into cat treats or, you know, given it to homeless people or something."

I sighed. Technically he should have asked before taking but I was simply glad to see the stuff. I'd been fretting over where I'd put it. I was certain I'd bought it and brought it home, so its absence from the kitchen cupboards had been worrying - either the mice had got hugely brazen or I'd got distracted and made a serious unpacking error with the shopping. After the washing machine and the bathroom cabinet had proved to be full of nothing but dirty clothes and toiletries respectively, I'd spent a couple of days checking my shoes for Mars bars before putting them on.

In my relief that I wasn't going barmy, I took pity on Ned. "You could always stay at ours for two or three nights."

"Yeah, please!" he said, delighted at the prospect (and at not getting another telling off).

"You'll have to sleep on an air bed in Fraser's room," I said, attempting to quell his excitement slightly, "and you'll definitely have to shower at least once during the visit."

"No problem."

"Right then." I was rather thrown that I'd suddenly got an overnight guest I hadn't been expecting. There was a bed to make and food to buy and goodness knows what else to do. Then I looked out of the bus and noticed we were passing near Ned's house. "You can get off at the next stop and pop home to collect your stuff."

"S'OK. I've got my iPod and I can play your Xbox."

"I was thinking of clean underwear and a toothbrush," I said. "Maybe some deodorant. That kind of thing."

Ned didn't look like he could be bothered.

I pressed the STOP button and jerked my head in the direction of the door. "Seriously. Go and get them or I'll feed you yogurt."

Reluctantly, he mooched off.

I relieved him of his school bag as he went past. "I can take that," I said helpfully. "Save you carrying it everywhere." He shrugged and gave it to me.

I think he was on the pavement before he realised that this meant I had all the biscuits.

I opened a packet of chocolate fingers and gave two to Marie. "Can I be a walrus again?" she asked.

"Of course you can," I replied and inserted a couple in the corners of my own mouth.

We banged on the window as the bus pulled away, just to make sure Ned saw us grinning and waving and impersonating aquatic mammals.

For some reason, he pretended not to know us...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 7 November 2008

PlayStations and Pooh

Dear other Daves and non-Daves,

It's time to break the fourth wall of this fictionalised blog for a moment and say thank you to all of you who turn up and read DadsDinner on a regular basis. I appreciate your support, comments and feedback over the last couple of years. You're all lovely, lovely people.

And, yes, I do need a favour...

I've recently cobbled together painstakingly selected and polished the best bits of Dear Dave and compiled them into a novel called PlayStations and Pooh. The book is available to read in its entirety on, a site run by the publishers HarperCollins as a way for aspiring authors to display their work.

Check it out now and rediscover why Scary Karen is so scary, why Useless Dad is so useless and why penguins are a housedad's best friend. Pick up tips on potty training, not going mad, getting enough sleep and conducting industrial espionage with doughnuts. Laugh and cry with Ed all over again in an easily accessible format, complete with proof-reading and everything.

Go on. Head to Authonomy and chortle like it's 2007. There's nothing you really have to get done in the next few minutes, is there?

Just one thought before you go, however... At the end of each month, HarperCollins reads the top five books as voted for by registered users of the site. Registering only takes five minutes and doesn't require much more than your name, email address and a password. Once you're signed up, you can add books you like the sound of to a handy watchlist to come back to later. You will also have a bookshelf capable of holding up to five books. Putting a book on your bookshelf brings it votes.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

Excellent. (Lovely and smart!)

There's plenty of other great stuff available on Authonomy and it's all free. Go have a look around. If you could 'bookshelf' PlayStations and Pooh while you're there, I'd be grateful. Comments and criticism would also be handy.

Here's that link one more time:

PlayStations and Pooh

Thanks once again for your support - keeping this site going can have its moments:

Cartoon demonstrating the irony of spending time writing a website about how fantastic being a housedad is rather than actually getting on with being a housedad.



PS Did I mention my book? PlayStations and Pooh

Wednesday 5 November 2008

So... What do you actually want to know?

Dear Dave,

Haven't heard from you much recently. Been getting enough sleep? Watched anything worth seeing? Has Sam settled in at school or not? Is Daisy walking yet? Has she said her first word? If so, was it 'dada', 'more' or 'Laa-Laa'? Are you ready for Christmas? Is the weather pleasant? Been anywhere nice? Got used to the new routine? Have you anything planned for Bonfire Night? You healthy? Folks well? Liz OK? Kids fine?

...And breathe...

Oops, sorry, I got carried away there. Feel free not to answer any of those if you don't want to - I know my life is already full of questions:

Me: We're going to Tesco to buy food, everyone. Get your shoes on.

Fraser: What was that? Shoes? Where are we going?

Me: We're going to Tesco.

Lewis: We're going to Tesco?

Me: Yes.

Marie: Are we going to buy food?

Me: Yes.

Lewis: Should I put my shoes on?

Me: Yes.

Fraser: Do we have to go now?

Me: Yes, we need food for lunch.

Lewis: Why?

Me: Because food will be tastier to eat than hoover bags, which is all we've got in the cupboard at the moment.

Lewis: Why don't we have any food?

Me: Because we haven't been to Tesco yet.

Marie: Can I take some hoover bags with me, pleeeeaaaasssseee?

Me: No.

Fraser: Where's my other shoe?

Me: Almost certainly where you last put it.

Fraser: Where was that?

Me: How should I know?

Lewis: Can I go play a computer game while Fraser looks for his shoe?

Me: No.

Lewis: Why not?

Me: Because he won't be long.

Lewis: How do you know that if you don't know where his shoe is?

Me: I... Er... Oh, forget it, I need a coffee. Everyone go back to what you were doing. I probably have a recipe for hoover bags around here somewhere...

I get a constant stream of questions all the time, often in triplicate. There seems to be no avoiding this, so my current project is to teach the children to at least ask questions that bring them the information they want. This will hopefully cut down on the number of questions and make me slightly less irritable. As things stand, Fraser has a tendency to make his queries a little too closed. He asks things like, "Is it going to be bath-time in ten minutes?" and then is surprised when I say, "No."

But I'm always going to say, "No."

What are the chances of it being exactly ten minutes until bath-time? He should be asking, "When's bath-time going to be?" He'd get a much more useful answer.

Sadly, closed questions bring out the pedant in me. In tests at school, I seldom had problems with short answer questions. I was more likely to struggle with multiple choice and, in particular, with true/false questions. I often thought there should be three possible answers: True, False and Sort Of.

I was reminded of this the other week when we went to a family quiz night run by a local church. It was the five of us and a student on our team, sitting round a table writing down the answers to the questions as they were read out. We were doing rather well until we reached the true/false round. Then everything headed down the glassware aisle with a flailing toddler...

For instance, take the question, "True or false: In Bob the Builder, the name of Farmer Pickles' dog is Scruffy."

The answer to this is absolutely, patently FALSE. Farmer Pickles' dog is called Scruffty. Anyone who has watched dozens of episodes several times, is able to sing the theme tune and has a house full of tacky merchandise can tell you that. Unfortunately, 'Scruffy' is sort of similar to 'Scruffty'. Perhaps too similar. We had to consider how closely the older gentleman who wrote the questions was paying attention while watching TV with his grandchildren the previous week. Especially bearing in mind that in the Harry Potter round he'd asked, "What subject does Professor Snape teach?" (To a chorus of, "In which book?" from the entire room.)

With a sinking heart, I wrote down 'False' because I couldn't bring myself to do anything else. Unsurprisingly, however, the quizmaster hadn't checked his facts and we didn't get the point. If we'd simply been asked the name of Farmer Pickles' dog, we'd have been fine, but in trying to make the question easier to answer by narrowing our options, it had actually been made harder.

We were robbed.

(The guy even thought Postman Pat lives in Pontypandy. I ask you...)

Yep, I definitely prefer some leeway in the kind of answer a question is searching for. Giving me some space nearly always works out well for the questioner as well. Ask me, "What shape is the Earth?" and I'll probably answer that it's round. Ask me, "Is the Earth round?" and I'll come back at you with, "Not exactly," and then feel compelled to add, "It's an oblate spheroid."

That said, sometimes a closed question is the only way to get a straight answer. Finding the right question is the difficult part. At the point Marie loses interest in a meal, I keep asking her, "Are you finished?" She shakes her head and sits playing with the single remaining food item for another ten minutes. Then I ask, "Are you going to eat that cracker?"

She looks sad and says, "No."

"So you are finished?"

She shakes her head again.

Finally, I twig what the problem is. "Have you had enough?"

"Yes," she says in relief, gets up from the table and goes and washes her hands.

Communication is a tricky thing sometimes...

I guess asking a question is a balance between giving a person freedom to impart information and setting limits in order to keep the response relevant. Although I'm a big fan of open questions, some can be slightly too open:

Last night, I said to Lewis, "It's going to be bath-time in ten minutes."

His immediate response was, "Why?"

There were any number of ways to answer this question. Ten minutes is how long it takes to fill the bath with water, for a start. But why was I turning on the taps just then? Was it because tea was almost finished or because if I didn't begin then, it would be impossible to bathe all the children before bedtime? Of course, this was assuming that bedtime and tea-time are immutable constants. Perhaps the true question was a challenge to the underlying timetable of our daily routine. Perhaps it was an attempt to more fully understand our weekly schedule. Maybe it was a critique of the Western obsession with cleanliness and a plea to return to an era where body odour was acceptable and natural.

Why in ten minutes? Why Tuesday? Why him? Why have a bath at all?

The inevitable answer was, "Because you smell, Lewis. Because you smell."

"No, I don't," he replied.

"Yes, you do."

"Why?" he asked, putting us right back where we'd begun.

I sighed. "Just eat your tea. Your bath is in ten minutes."

At this point, Fraser butted in with, "It's nine and a half minutes now."

"No, it's not," I snapped. "It's still ten minutes because I haven't started running the bath yet. I've been too busy arguing with Lewis."

"Then why did you say it was ten minutes a minute ago?" said Lewis, getting annoyed. "It was more than ten minutes!"


"I've had enough to eat," piped up Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

Again, obviously, the answer was, "No," for the simple reason I hadn't yet managed to leave the kitchen to start running the flipping thing. More than that, if Lewis has a bath first, he can get himself dry while I'm washing Marie and then I can brush his teeth while Marie is enjoying a long soak in the tub. If Marie has a bath first, Lewis is in and out in less time than it takes me to get her dry, causing a slippery pile-up of wet children on the bathmat. Even when this is sorted out, I'm left with two children needing their teeth brushed at the same time. This is awkward.

"I want to have a bath," said Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

The short answer was, "No," the medium answer was, "No, because I might get a toothbrush up your nose," and the long answer was complicated, dull and ended with, "Yes, Lewis it's still ten minutes until bath-time..."

Getting the kids to ask sharper questions would be great. I think I may be in it for the long haul on this one, though. Nevertheless, I'll lead by example and put my initial enquiry to you another way:

How's life and what have you all been up to?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in a woman's world,