Dear Dave

Friday 30 January 2009

Wanting it now

Dear Dave,

Where the heck is Barking?

My Xbox is stuck in a sorting office in Barking. I keep refreshing the parcel tracking web page every few minutes but it's still there. Wherever there is...

For crying out loud, it only took a week for the thing to get to Germany and be fixed. It's taken nearly as long just to get back again...


Still in Barking...

And this is after spending a night in Frankfurt for no obvious reason. Gah! Don't these people realise that there's an empty space in my 'safe place' that's missing an Xbox? The little corner of the house I go to in order to hide and get peace and quiet is incomplete. I want it returned to normal. I feel like a secret agent without an escape route. If everything goes according to plan, I'll be fine, but there's a constant gnawing sensation at the back of my mind that in the event of an emergency, there will be no way out. Even a minor setback this week could leave me unable to cope. I want my Xbox. And I want it NOW! (Before I get captured by a bald guy with a cat and suspended over a pit of ravenous toddlers.)


Drat. Still in Barking...

This would actually be easier to deal with if I had no idea where my console was. If it weren't for email alerts and internet updates, I wouldn't even be expecting the thing before the end of next week. Its early arrival in a couple of days would have been a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, modern technology has revealed that only a minor touch of efficiency and a small dab of luck would have had it here yesterday. Despite the whole process taking less than a fortnight, I'm disappointed already.

And, to think, I was complimented on my patience the other day. Not my current levels of patience, obviously, but my ability to remain calm when the kids were small despite having had very little sleep. I suppose back then I always knew I'd get to collapse on the sofa with a beer at the end of the day and I was under no delusion that that moment would come early. There was every chance it would arrive late, in fact. I simply pressed on.

Now the kids have set schedules tied to school and clubs, I feel more impatient than I used to. If I tell them to do something, they have to get on with it or we're going to be late. Constantly goading them gets quickly wearying. Since they have definite bedtimes, it's easier to count the minutes until there's peace and more frustrating if lights-out is delayed.

Sadly, it's actually the kids' lack of patience that most often tries my own. If they ask me for something and I'm busy and I tell them 'later', they simply won't leave me alone. They keep pestering me. It's really hard to finish a task when you're constantly being asked if you're finished. Sigh...

We ordered some books online at the weekend and they haven't arrived yet. The children are demanding I go on the computer and tell the postman to hurry up. They want to know where the books are, why they haven't arrived yet and when they're going to show up. Unfortunately, that parcel isn't being tracked, so there's nothing to do but wait. They're not too happy about this. I've had to drown out the whining with stories of the olden days a couple of times:

Back when we were kids, mail order took weeks. When they said, 'Allow 28 days for delivery', they really meant it. Three days for the order to reach them, two days for caterpillars to eat their way into the envelope, another two days for someone to take the cheque to the bank, a week for the cheque to clear, another week for anyone to notice, several hours for a troll to find the ordered item in the warehouse, two days for the item to travel along a conveyor belt of snails to the packaging department, another day to find a box the right size and then three more days in the post.

Sometimes I didn't even get what I ordered. If the thing was out of stock, I got something 'similar'. Being able to purchase an item over the internet and have it arrive within 48 hours still feels like magic.

Not that my children see it like that. They want the books NOW!

Ironically, a firm timetable or a progress bar would help them be patient. Knowing their books were stuck in Barking and wouldn't turn up until the day after tomorrow would allow them to put the thought to one side. It's like if I tell them that I'll be with them in a bit - they keep asking until I actually go. If I tell them I'll be with them in eleven and a half minutes, there's a good chance they'll go away and I'll have ten minutes or so before they return to stare at me expectantly.

Meanwhile, here I am, clicking every couple of minutes to check where my package has got to, hoping it might get here tomorrow after all but wishing I didn't have a clue so I could just forget about it. Click... Ooh, it's at Tamworth now.

I don't know where Tamworth is either.

If they're going to do this, they should do it properly. The next step is full GPS tracking. I want to be able to follow my package on Google Maps. I want to know if it's stuck at roadworks near Newcastle or going round a roundabout in Watford. I should be able to tell if the driver has stopped for a cigarette in Jedburgh. I need infrared satellite imagery of him sitting in a Little Chef in Doncaster and I need to be able to text chat with everyone else stalking the same delivery. That way, when he has a refill, we can all moan together that he'll need to stop for yet another comfort break just past Durham...

At least it would give me something to do while I'm waiting (other than tell the kids to get a move on, that is).

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 28 January 2009

The missing moo

Dear Dave,

Rob came round the other evening. I was somewhat preoccupied, so Sarah let him into the house and sent him through to me.

"Are you really dusting behind that radiator?" he asked as he entered the kitchen.

"No," I muttered and then cursed as I cut my finger.

"Oh..." he said, finding a beer and taking a seat. "It looks like you're dusting behind that radiator."

This was true. I was crouched in the corner of the room, shoving a duster (which resembled bright blue candy-floss on a stick) down behind a radiator. Beside me was a narrow table piled high with craft materials. It was at right-angles to the radiator and overlapped it slightly.

"I was tidying up and knocked a glitter-glue pen off the table and down the back," I said, tracing the item's disastrous trajectory in the air with my bleeding finger. "It's got jammed in a gap between the skirting board and the wall and there's some other stuff down here stopping me getting to it from below. I'm trying to knock something loose with the duster."

"Need help?"

"I'm not sure there's space." I was surrounded by bags, boxes and a couple of spare dining chairs which had been stacked up to keep them out of the way. I'd had to move them all to get to the radiator.

"Too bad..." He helped himself to some crisps while I gave up on the duster and scrabbled around underneath the radiator with my hands.

"How are things?" I asked.

"Great. Everyone's nervous at work again, Luke still wakes up for a cry three times most nights and half the flat is packed into boxes ready for next week. Couldn't be better."

"Ach, well, another year and things will have settled down. Luke will have a proper bedtime and you'll have the new house mostly sorted. Chances are, you'll only have a couple of the boxes left to unpack by then. Got to look at the long-term. Maybe you should get cracking on a second child so you don't have it too easy at Christmas."

"Don't," he said, shivering. "Kate's already talking about it and it's giving me a nervous tick. I want to get this move over and done before I start thinking about people carriers."

"Fair enough," I mumbled, my head lost amongst my knees as I attempted to get my hand a little further into the dusty darkness behind the radiator. I was almost there... "Just don't talk to me about potential down-sizing at LBO. I get enough of that from Sarah."


"Good... Oh, hang on, something's coming free." I gave a final tug on a lump of plastic and it jerked out from beneath the radiator. The sudden release made me begin to topple over and I put my hand out to steady myself against the table holding Marie's stash of art supplies. It rocked wildly, a bowl bounced off my head and then small, sparkly beads rained down everywhere. "Flip."

Rob grinned and gulped some beer. "Going well?"

"Not really." Beads continued to skitter across the laminate floor to every last nook and cranny of the kitchen as I examined my find. It was a bright green water pistol that I'd never seen before in my life. It must have been behind the radiator a long time. Putting it aside, I had a feel around for other treasure. With the water pistol gone, there was more room to manoeuvre. I pulled out the wheel from a toy car, a small, fluffy fish and an object made of white plastic that was about the size and shape of a box of matches. I knew instantly what it was.

"It's the missing moo!"

"You what?"

"The missing moo!" I squeezed the box and it made a series of electronic noises which roughly approximated the noise of a cow (or maybe a slightly ill sheep). "I've been wondering where this went to for about five years. It's from a squishy cube with pictures of farmyard animals on. I took the moo out to wash the cube, left it on a shelf and never saw it again." I waved the box around gleefully and set it off once more. "I searched high and low for this. We used to have the playpen here. Fraser must have got the moo off the shelf and given it to Lewis in the cage and then he posted down behind the radiator. It would have fallen straight through if it weren't for the water pistol. It all makes sense."

Rob didn't like the manic gleam in my eye. "You know when you say that being a housedad hasn't driven you crazy...?"

I cut him off. "But this finally proves I'm not mad. I didn't eat it or throw it away or put it at the back of a cupboard in a fondue set. It went missing through a simple mixture of children and circumstance."

"Kind of like the last eight years of your life?"

"Not exactly." I rooted around for the glitter-glue. "If I find my lost youth down the back here, I'm going to be very surprised." I finally managed to prise the pen free and return it to the rest of the set. It was the pink one. Marie would have been distraught if it had gone missing.

I sat down in the sea of beads and took a deep breath to recover from my exertion. Then I squeezed the moo again for old time's sake.

"Right," said Rob, shaking his head sadly. "Put that back in its toy and let's go fire up the Wii."

"We gave the cube to a charity shop ages ago," I replied. Nonetheless, I was still smiling broadly.

Rob was confused. "But...?"

"It doesn't matter. I've cut my finger, I need to hoover and the room's turned upside down but I've kept my daughter happy, gained a water pistol and solved a mystery at the same time." I let off some more moos. "Even if I'm years late, that's still a result."

Rob didn't know what to say. There was a pause punctuated by bovine noises. A bead fell out of my hair and bounded away with a plink.... plink... plink.. plink. plink.plinkplinkplinkinkinknkk. Rob looked at me and then at his beer. "Is this really what being a parent does to you?"

I pulled myself upright. "Oh, yes. You're stuffed." Then I threw the electronic cow at him. "Whoever's holding it when the mooing stops has to collect up the beads."

Rob caught the moo instinctively but it was a moment before his brain grasped what I'd said. "Hey! No fair!"

"Course it's fair," I cried and made a break for the door.

Rob squeezed the moo, resetting it to the beginning, and chucked it at me.

"Hey! That's cheating!" I said, catching it and sending it straight back.

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it is."

"You just did it yourself!" said Rob, so busy pointing that he almost forgot to throw the moo to me.

"Only 'cos you did it," I replied, doing it again and hurling it at him. My aim wasn't so good, though.

"Watch my beer!"

"It's my beer actually."

"I'm drinking it. Catch!"

"Ow! I bought it..."

This went on for a couple of minutes, the moo continuing to fly backwards and forwards. At that point, Fraser came downstairs and complained that he couldn't get to sleep because we were being too loud.

Seeing as he was awake, I got him to help pick up the beads...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Rob and I had to play on the Wii because my 360 has died again. It started crashing every so often last week in exactly the same way as before but without flashing up the three red lights which translate as, 'This console is seriously unwell but Microsoft will fix it for free if it's under three years old because they know they messed up big time.'

Since it's going to be the third anniversary of my initial purchase tomorrow, I was somewhat nervous. I kept playing it and every hour or so it would seize up, with the screen going green and jaggy. Still no red lights. Then the seizures became every few minutes. The machine didn't always switch on.

Still no red lights.

When it went belly up previously, Microsoft replaced it rather than repairing it. I seriously started to suspect that instead of fixing the design flaw in the newer version, they'd merely removed the red lights.

The warranty date drew closer.

Then, finally, I switched it on, the screen remained blank and those beautiful ruby LEDs lit up and flashed their message of doom. I was on the phone to Microsoft within minutes, arranging a pick up.

I'm probably the only Xbox 360 owner ever delighted to see the Red Ring of Death.

Friday 23 January 2009

The scary blue yonder

Dear Dave,

The days are getting longer, the weather is unlikely to get much worse before it gets better and it's only a few weeks until the first flowers start coming out. Cheer up. In another couple of months you can start taking the kids to the swing-park on a regular basis again, rather than having to fight your way to the softplay through the icy rain. For now, enjoy the excuse to stay Inside. Crank up the heating, plonk Daisy in front of some Teletubbies and have a little doze on the sofa. You deserve it.

The rant in your last letter about being stuck indoors actually reminded me of something I read recently. I was helping a friend who is applying for UK residency revise for her Britishness Exam. This involved flicking through a book of multiple choice questions and asking any that caught my eye. I tended to home in on ones which were obscure or scary: How many members of the Scottish Parliament are there? When is St George's Day? Do women get the vote? Is it necessary to pass a test before driving a car?

The one that really got my attention, however, was about childcare. Without the book to hand, I can't remember the exact wording but it went something along these lines:

'Children in the UK do not play outside as much as they used to in the past. What reason is often given for this?

A - Increased danger from strangers.
B - They'd rather stay home and watch TV or play videogames.
C - Many parts of the country are infested with hordes of radioactive zombies.
D - Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup final.'

Since glowing undead are restricted to small pockets of East Anglia and 'D' was clearly a trap for people who are too English (we've enough of them already and we don't need more), this only left 'A' and 'B' as likely options. It couldn't be 'A', though. Despite some dreadful cases receiving vast publicity, there's no evidence that attacks on children from strangers are increasing.

With a feeling of resignation, I checked the answer. It was, indeed, 'B'.

When I got to a computer, I looked up the study guide online. The reasons it gives for children staying home more are: TV and increased parental fear of attacks by strangers.

But is this really the case? For a start, TV and computer games are a symptom as much as a cause. If kids are at home anyway, they need something to do. And, let's face it, at the moment they're going to be at home a lot:

I helped out on a nursery trip yesterday. We took a bus to the general vicinity of Edinburgh Castle and then hiked up the Royal Mile to have our picture taken in front of the gate as part of Scottish Week. It was a chance for fresh air, exercise and a little culture - all the things kids allegedly can't be doing with these days. Sure enough, half of them were crying or pleading to go home after only ten minutes. This had more to do with the weather than a desire to plug themselves into a PlayStation, however. It was cold. The kind of cold where small children judder up and down uncontrollably while making noises like a moped. The snot wasn't quite freezing on their faces but it was close.

I haven't seen the photos yet. If there's one where we're all smiling, I'll be astonished...

Add to the miserable weather the fact that it's dark an hour after the boys emerge from school this time of year, and there's not much chance of us doing a great deal of outdoor playing. I'm glad they have their computer games to keep them occupied or they'd be constantly squabbling and amusing themselves by working out how to build Weapons of Mass Destruction from LEGO.

Of course, there's no saying my boys won't spend plenty of July Inside with the curtains drawn, waving wiimotes around. Even when the weather is nice, Outside can be pretty dull without friends around (unless you like hunting grasshoppers or talking to trees). This isn't the fault of computer games, as such. I used to spend my summer holidays reading books and playing board games against myself rather than venture into the garden. When a friend came round, that still didn't make enough people to play Tig, so we stayed Inside and played Monopoly.

I suppose once upon a time, in the good old days, there were always packs of children roaming the streets, so kids could head out the door and know there would almost certainly be someone to interact with. This critical mass of youngsters with the power to pull in others is now much less common. The problem becomes self-perpetuating - there's no one Outside to play with, so kids have no incentive to go Outside to be there for others to play with.

It's up to parents to shove them Outside to enjoy themselves, whether it's lonely and raining or not. So why isn't this happening? Well, I suspect that in the good old days, when people had twenty-seven children and only two rooms, they were only too desperate to chuck the kids out the door and clear some space to put the laundry on to boil. With a modern ratio of children to bedrooms that is much closer to parity, there's more stress to be had worrying what the kids are up to Outside than from tripping over them if they're lurking around Inside.

Never mind the potential danger from strangers, I'm much more afraid of cars, four-year-olds with sharpened sticks and climbing frames. Small children can find any number of ways to get themselves into difficulties, no matter how safe the environment seems.

Marie saw some other children playing in the small, enclosed park out the back door at the weekend and asked to join them. I was busy making lunch, so I got her coat on her and sent her out to fend for herself. I had some trepidation after last time, however. At the end of the summer, I let her run free in the park with a couple of older children but, within five minutes, one of the others came hurrying to get me. Marie needed help. She'd slid herself headfirst along a bench and halfway through the armrest at the end before getting stuck, leaving herself dangling over backwards in a painful fashion.

She'd been barely out of my sight, I had the door wide open and I was listening for trouble. I was still caught out.

Things went better this time but I was nervous, nonetheless. When the kids are Inside, I can hear what they're doing and I know instantly if there's a problem. Sometimes they can be left to their own devices for an hour at a time. If they're Outside, life isn't so simple. Once they're beyond the end of the garden, who knows what's going on?

The official guideline is that children under thirteen shouldn't be left unsupervised at home. If children are left in the care of an under-sixteen, then their parents are still legally responsible. And that's in the house. What about the world beyond that's full of cars, pointy sticks and malicious park benches? Surely the same principle applies?

Essentially, this means that if one of my kids wants to go Outside, I have to go with them. If I go, the others have to come too. A quick breath of fresh air becomes a family expedition and is much less likely to happen.

It's not the fault of computer games that kids don't play Outside so much. It's more to do with parents' justified fear of cars, public seating and just about everything else. Most of us are too afraid to admit it, though. It's easier blaming Nintendo.

Ho well, maybe that's too complicated for the Britishness Test to deal with. Perhaps the questions should stick to common knowledge that is less open to debate and will help people blend in. Might I suggest asking who won X Factor and which buttons to press in Wii Bowling?

Happy dozing.

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 19 January 2009

A land that's fair and bright

Dear Dave,

Have you ever considered that the world might be a better place if we put small children in charge?

Er, OK, maybe 'better' isn't exactly the right description. Obviously, if pre-schoolers ruled, then we'd rapidly find ourselves in a Big Rock Candy Mountain scenario with fewer cigarette trees but far more Liquorice Allsorts. Grown-ups would be forced to do ceaseless menial tasks, stopping only to feign delight as some passing four-year-old shouted, 'Look at me!' and then attempted a complicated trick, such as jumping into a muddy puddled, waving a stick or standing on one leg and then... falling... over... slowly...

This might not change our lives much but other people would probably get upset. The adults would stage a revolution after only a few hours and it would all end in tears, tantrums and early bedtimes. Nonetheless, the cleaning up would take weeks and the unwary would still be blundering into left-over sticky patches years later.

On many levels, putting children in charge would be a disaster. Still, it might be worth it, if a conversation I overheard recently is anything to go by:

"You're not my friend anymore," said one of Marie's nursery companions, Jasmine.

Marie was distraught. "Why not?"

Jasmine screwed up her face and stamped her foot. "Because you didn't say sorry."

"Well, I am sorry," said Marie with deep sincerity. "I'm very sorry."

"OK, you're my friend again," said Jasmine, matter-of-factly.

"Good," said Marie and they hugged. Then, as they walked off together, hand-in-hand, she added, "So what did I say sorry for?"

The dispute (whatever it was) was resolved quickly, the details didn't matter much and it was as if it had never happened. There wasn't even any mess involved. You have to admit that this makes a refreshing change from how things normally go on The Six O'clock News.

I definitely think there's a case for more under-fives in government...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 16 January 2009

Seeing yourself in small

Dear Dave,

Thanks for filling me in on how Sam's doing at school. I'm glad he's enjoying it and making friends. I wouldn't worry too much at this stage that he takes a while to get round to things and that he has to be encouraged to be more verbose in his responses - there's every chance he'll come into his own soon. Hopefully it won't always take him a day and a half to think of something to report about his weekend, especially if all he can eventually manage is, 'I watched TV.' (That can't reflect well on your parenting style...) Although, since I only received your Christmas card this morning and it was signed 'Dave, Liz, etc.', I should probably point out that sometimes we get the kids we deserve.

For myself, I can't really complain too much that my boys don't want to leave the house, are allergic to new experiences and love to talk about computer games at length. Given my own inclinations, I shouldn't have expected much else. Whether it's nature or nurture, they've got it from me.

I was thinking about this the other day while watching The Little Mermaid 2 - Return to the Sea. (Bear with me here...) Thanks to Marie, I've seen the original a gazillion times and it drifts over me as I daydream about cute girl/fish hybrids. (Although TLM herself looks a little young these days - it's usually safer if I let my mind wander to other Disney films. Beauty and the Beast, for instance... Or a possible sequel to The Incredibles... Mmmm, that I'd want to see...)

Er, anyway...

In The Little Mermaid 2 roles get reversed. Ariel goes from being an adventurous teenage mermaid who wants to explore the shore, despite being forbidden by her protective dad, to being a protective mum who forbids her own adventurous teenager from exploring the sea. You can almost hear grandparents everywhere chortling at the poetic justice.

Of course, it all leads to near disaster but at least Ariel finally notices the irony and admits she really should have predicted her daughter's actions. This makes a pretty deep point for a Disney movie:

By looking at ourselves, we can understand our children better.

A scarier point can be made, though, by turning things around: By looking at our children, we can understand ourselves better. Even as this idea came to me, I looked at what my kids were doing and wondered what it revealed. Nothing good, I suspect. You see, although they were only watching a film, there was a lot to be learned from the manner in which they were doing it:

We'd had a secondhand three-seater sofa delivered that day to replace our old bed-settee because, since we don't need the bed anymore, we thought it would be nice to have something a little firmer to actually sit on. (We're getting old.) The people were supposed to deliver the sofa and take the settee to sell.

Except it turned out that the settee didn't have a fire-safety label on the mattress. I'm sure it had one originally but it must have fallen off back in the mists of time. The upshot was that they refused to take the settee away. As Lewis was rather attached to it, I suppose this was ultimately for the best but it did leave us with a three-seater sofa, a two-seater sofa, an armchair and a three-seater settee in our not awfully large lounge. As things stood, drawing the curtains would have involved airborne gymnastics.

I spent half an hour shuffling furniture and children to make everything kind of fit. It was like one of those tile-sliding puzzles but much heavier and more argumentative.

(Oh, and when I say Lewis was attached to the settee, I'm not joking - the moment they turned up to remove it, he latched onto it like a limpet and burst into tears. Luckily, however, he grabbed hold of a cushion rather than the frame, so I was able to pry him off.)

After tea, Marie wanted to watch Little Mermaid 2 in the lounge.

"Lewis is playing the Wii in there," I said. "You can watch the film in Fraser's room."

We went upstairs, I put the film into the flickery portable TV/video combi and she sat down in front of it. Then she insisted I stayed to cuddle her during the scary bits. I sat down next to her.

A minute later, Lewis came through and started to watch.

"I thought you were playing the Wii," I said.

"Nah, I was building a tower with sofa cushions. It's very tall."

"I bet," I sighed. "Are you wanting to watch the film too? If you're not playing the Wii, we can put the film on in the lounge."

"But it's Fraser's turn to play the Wii."

"He's watching CBBC in the kitchen," I said, shaking my head and entertaining the possibility we have too many TVs (and that wasn't taking into account the video projector I'd brought home ready to set up and 'run some tests on'.)

"He'll want to play the Wii when he's finished," said Lewis, mesmerised by mermaids, and sat down next to me.


Five minutes after that, Fraser came to find us. "Why aren't you playing the Wii, Lewis?" he grumbled. "I was giving you extra time."

"It's your turn," Lewis replied, eyes remaining glued to the TV.

"You could have still played."

"No, I couldn't."

Fraser started to say something else but got distracted by animated fish. He stood there for a bit, then sat down next to Lewis.

Time passed.



So, to recap, despite having three sofas between the four of us in the lounge and the potential to create our own cinema, we were all sitting on the floor in Fraser's room, watching a 14-inch telly showing a picture from a VHS player with dodgy tracking.

I considered suggesting we go through to the other room but I knew my kids would only moan and complain. They're resistant to change and can't be bothered to move if they don't have to.

I wondered what this said about me...

Then I decided that thinking about it was too much effort and it would be far easier simply to lie back and think of Mrs Incredible.

So I did.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I thought Marie was immune to the computer games, preferring to jump about and do craftwork (sometimes at the same time). She's got into the educational games on her Leapster recently, though, and keeps squeaking excitedly about the new levels she's unlocked. Worse, she's not content with merely talking about her achievements - every so often she demands to make a greetings card about them to give to Mummy when she gets home.

Adding glitter to the witter is taking things to a whole new level that I'm not sure even I deserve.

The other day, Marie also demanded that I stand by the front door with the card in hand. I complied until I discovered she wanted me to stay there, waiting to present it to Mummy as soon as she arrived. Since Sarah wasn't due in for another couple of hours, I wasn't hugely impressed and suggested that leaving the card on the kitchen table would be a better plan.

"No, Daddy. I'll stand behind you and tell you when you're standing wrong."

Two hours of being criticised about my posture by a four-year-old definitely wasn't on. I handed her the card and told her to give it to Mummy herself. She whined about it, then took up watch, waiting eagerly for the return of her favourite parent.

I went and made myself a coffee.

Two minutes later Marie came through to the kitchen and put the card down. "Maybe your idea to leave it on the table was a good idea," she said. "I'm going to go play on my Leapster."

I just nodded and smiled...

PPS I take it you don't recommend the card printing service you used:

Christma s card.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Joining the Dark Side

Dear Dave,

Mr Fitzroy appeared to have entirely forgotten our previous encounter.

This was good.

I sat in his study at Malton House, my teenage nephew Ned's rather odd private school, and tried not to feel uncomfortable. It was a struggle, however - the chair was too hard, the room was too hot, I was wearing a suit, and a large number of stuffed animals were staring at me from high shelves. I couldn't help noticing that the baby crocodile on top of one of the bookcases still had sandwich crumbs glued to its teeth. Someone appeared to have tried to disguise the problem by posing the creature with its claws wrapped round one end of a bright pink toothbrush and with the other end near its mouth. The overall effect was to make it look like a novelty toy. I had a strange desire to put sunglasses on it and, as I squirmed on my seat waiting for the headmaster to speak, I sincerely hoped the little reptile wouldn't detect my movement and start waggling about singing Don't Worry, Be Happy. I ran my finger round my collar nervously.

"So..." said Mr Fitzroy eventually, drawing my attention back to him.

I jumped at the sight of his single enormous eye and spilt my tea.

* * *

It was all Ned's fault (in some passing, tangential fashion). As you'll recall, I'm tutoring him with his science and maths in an effort to improve his grades and avoid his parents sending him to an even odder educational establishment where early morning cross-country running is a compulsory part of the curriculum and that is situated just down the road from Brigadoon.

A couple of days before my trip to Malton House, Ned had done his practice maths exam and I'd been quite interested to hear how it had gone:

"Hi!" I said, letting him in for his usual mooch at our house after school.

"Ngh," he grunted in reply and made as if to go and play my Xbox.

I blocked his path. "How'd it go?" I was eager to know if all our hard work had paid off.

He shrugged and tried to get past. I stopped him. "You're going to have to try a little harder than that. How'd it go?"

"I dunno. All the computers crashed. We're going to have to do it again next week."

I was so surprised, I let him by. "What computers?"

* * *

"Do you require a cloth?" asked Mr Fitzroy.

"No, no," I said, wiping myself down with a hanky. It was black tea on a dark suit, so I was OK.

"Very well." He put down his tools and pulled at the enormous magnifying glass in front of him, swivelling it on its stand and moving it out of the way. When I'd first entered the room and spotted him working on something tiny with a fine-tipped brush, I'd imagined he was painting miniature soldiers. I could have related to that. But no, he was polishing a collection of beetles.

"So..." he said again and carefully took their case back over to hang on the wall. "You think you may be able to help us with our information technology arrangements?"

"Yes, my nephew tells me you don't have any IT support staff."

"Mr Harris, the computing teacher, is in charge of procurement, installation and maintenance."

"As well as teaching? He has to keep all the computers running in his lunch hour?"

"Not all of them," chuckled the headmaster. "The lab technician keeps an eye on the machines in the science block."

I wasn't convinced this improved matters much. "How many computers does Malton House have exactly?"

"Exactly?" The headmaster sat down again, poured me some more tea and turned his attention to stirring his own cup. "That would require some investigation. As with pupil numbers and lawnmowers, it's hard to keep track of such things. Nonetheless, we pride ourselves in embracing the modern age. I imagine we have several hundred personal computing devices around the school."

"You've got two people looking after hundreds of computers?"

The headmaster nodded, seemingly pleased that I'd noticed the high level of resources he'd devoted to the issue. "Then there's the Megatron 5000 in the cellar, of course."

"Of... course..."

"Yes, that's Mr McIntyre's pet project. Couldn't run the boilers without it..."

* * *

"You didn't mention anything about computers," I said as I followed Ned through to the glorified cupboard I use as a place to work and hide.

"We had to do the exam on laptops," he said, switching on the Xbox and settling down in the only chair.

I loitered by the door. "That doesn't sound like a good idea."

"Would have been OK if we'd got to type the answers."

"You had to do the exam on a computer but you weren't allowed to type?"

Ned stared at the screen intently as the game loaded up and he started to shoot things. "Uh-huh."

"Was it multiple choice?"


"Right. I don't understand. You're going to have to explain this in sentences of more than one grunt."

Ned let out a long sigh as if I'd asked him to do something as onerous as tidy his room or help with the washing up. Nonetheless, after a brief pause while he blasted some particularly resilient aliens, he did enlighten me further. "Head of maths signed up for some new course that's being tested out. We all had to do the exam on laptops. The questions were on the screen with a picture of a keyboard underneath and we had to click on that to write the answers."

"That must have been fun for putting in formulae and fractions."

Ned shook his head. "Not really."

"What about working?" I said. I couldn't believe anyone had come up with a system quite so daft. "Did you have to put in all the working like that as well?"

"They didn't want working. We had to do it in our heads until someone asked for some paper halfway through."

I banged my head off the wall. "That's crazy."

"At least the batteries in the laptop I had didn't run out."

"I'm not sure I want to hear the rest of this..."

"Then five minutes from the end, the computers started beeping to let us know that time was running out."

"Oh for goodness sake." I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. "How many of you were there in the room?"

"'Bout a hundred. And all the computers started the beeping at different times. It was loud, what with the people fighting over the four power sockets as well. Then time was up, we all pressed the button to send our answers and the server crashed. Everything got wiped."

"But... But..." It wasn't the worst designed computer system I'd ever heard of but, considering it hadn't actually killed anyone, it was running remarkably close. "Why? Why would anyone think that was a sensible way to do things?"

"Dunno. Mr Castleford said it was a test of our computer literacy. We've got to do it again next week."

I went back to banging my head off the wall - a little harder than before. "Let's hope they get someone who's computer literate to organise things this time."

Ned finally looked up from the game. "I thought you said you used to do stuff with computers..."

* * *

I'm not too sure how I went from phoning up with an offer of assistance in re-running Ned's exam to sitting an interview for a part-time technical support position (although I think it may have all started going wrong when I began talking about network redundancy to a man who refers to laptops as portable computing devices). One misunderstanding led to another and then there I was, sweating in a suit, talking up my suitability for a job I didn't even want.

"Does the Megatron run MVS?" I asked, bluffing. As far as I was concerned, a Megatron 5000 was a nuclear powered vacuum cleaner.

Fortunately, as far as the headmaster was concerned, it might as well have been. "I'd, well..." he began uncertainly, then recovered quickly, not wishing to look ignorant. "I'd have to look into that... but it's quite possible. Yes. Mr McIntyre regularly requests funds for the latest..." He fished for the correct term.

"Attachments?" I suggested.

"Quite. Xpods and such like."

I made a mental note to investigate whatever Mr McIntyre was really up to in the cellar but outwardly I smiled sagely. "Excellent. I have plenty of experience with MVS."

The headmaster nodded and perused my CV. As I'd hoped, he completely blanked my years of being a housedad. The concept was clearly beyond the natural order of existence as he understood it. Instead, he focused on my previous life in IT. "Yes, you seem very qualified. Very qualified indeed. But could you explain to me why we need someone to look after the computers? It's not as if it's necessary to task anyone with regular oversight of the televisions and microscopes. They simply work."

I stifled a giggle at the idea of computers simply working and tried to come up with an example of the regular attention they require that the headmaster would understand. "Erm... Who installs the anti-virus software on the school's machines?"

"Do we require such software?"

I couldn't help pulling a face. "Let me put it this way, does your computer do anything strange?" I sipped at my tea, trying to hide my expression.

The headmaster leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers against his cup in thought. "It used to make clucking noises whenever I touched a key..."

He trailed off as I choked on my tea. "That is strange," I muttered weakly, when I'd recovered.

"Ah, no, the odd thing is that it stopped doing it a few days ago without so much as a by your leave."

"It wasn't supposed to make those noises," I said, breathing deeply to retain my composure. "It probably had a virus."

"Really? Now it just makes a nasty juddering sound every so often and I can't seem to find any of the letters I wrote before last week."

I stoically drank more tea and toyed with the idea of asking if he'd made backups. In the end, I decided against it...

* * *

"Are you really going to do this?" asked Sarah earlier that morning as I stood in front of the mirror, trying to remember how to tie a tie.

"I'm not sure," I conceded. Working at Malton House wasn't exactly a dream of mine. Still, it was something to try and it was unlikely to be high stress. More than that, it was liable to make anywhere else I applied seem sane and desirable.

"You said you were going to spend some time planning your future." She handed me a different tie, one without teddy bears on it.

I shrugged. "This way I can get paid to do it while sitting around mindlessly installing software updates."

Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Anything to do with computers always takes twice as long as you expect. Is it going to be worth it?"

"Nope," I sighed, finally perfecting the knot, "but I should probably give it a shot to get back into the swing of things."

"Well, it's up to you," she said sceptically and then kissed me. "Good luck."


I went to wake the kids. They all laughed at the sight of me in a suit.

* * *

Then headmaster offered me money.

Not good money exactly but money nonetheless. Earning anything after so many years of unpaid housedadhood was very enticing. Then I estimated how many hours I could feasibly work while Marie was in nursery (not many), how much I'd have to pay in national insurance and travel expenses (more than a bit), the amount of tax credits I'd lose (a lot) and the scale of work I was liable to be landed with (vast). A few quick mental calculations delivered a reward/effort ratio that was so small it fell out of my ear and disappeared through a crack in the floor.

Nevertheless, I needed to take the job at least long enough to get Ned through his exam. It was worth angling for some extra incentives.

"Beyond my wages and normal benefits, I'll require a bus pass, a personal supply of biscuits and permission to take equipment home with me to work on it."

Mr Fitzroy took a chocolate finger from a plate on his desk. "I'm sure that could be arranged."

"Excellent. For instance, does the school have a video projector?"

"I believe we have several. I don't think they're used very often - many of the teachers find them rather complicated." He snapped the chocolate finger in two and popped one half in his mouth.

"Ideal... I mean, I could take one away and experiment on the simplest ways to hook it up and operate it. Oh, and I'll need my own computer to use, something with a Blu-ray player and high-end graphics card. You know, just to make sure I can test whatever, erm... attachments the school might need."

"Very well. I will get Mr Harris to put you in touch with our supplier." He offered the plate to me. "Chocolate finger?"

* * *

Ned was slouching around by the main door as I found my way out.

"Did you get it?" he asked, hunched over, his hands in his pockets.

"Provided my references and security check are fine. I said I'd come in on Saturday and set up things for your exam. Want to help?"


"Tough. You got me into this. You might as well suffer too."

He perked up as a thought struck him. "Do I get paid?"

"As if... but I'll bring my Xbox along. If we get done in time, we can project the picture onto the end wall of the examination hall and play Call of Duty in huge. It'll be like our own personal IMAX."

This sold the idea to him but I couldn't stick around - I had to rush to get back in time to collect Marie from nursery. We made arrangements to meet up on Saturday and then I jogged off down the school's long driveway, waving goodbye over my shoulder.

As I departed the grounds, I encountered a small band of boys coming the other way. They nearly jumped out of their skins on seeing me but then relaxed when they didn't recognise me as a member of staff. In itself, this was enough to convince me they weren't supposed to have left the school. The feeling was reinforced, however, by their guilty looks and the large, heavy object under a black tarpaulin that they were carrying between them. I couldn't tell what it was but I hazarded a guess...

"Nice lawnmower," I said and hurried on past.

"Thanks," one of them called after me. Then his friends all slapped him round the head and told him to shut up.

I decided it was best not to look back and I ran for the bus instead.

That place is so weird. What have I got myself into now?

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 9 January 2009

The joy of being a troll

Dear Dave,

Need coffee. Back soon.



That's better...


Nope, I'm going to need a chocolate biscuit as well...





Yes, I think that's done it. I'm probably awake enough to type in a straight line now. I just need to resist the urge to go lie down under a blanket and have a nap...

After the disruption of the holidays, we're back to the normal routine of nursery, school, clubs and homework. It's been more of a wrench than normal, though. This was the first full holiday since Marie learnt to do without adult company upon waking in the morning. Up until the last week of the summer, she'd need her bottom wiped first thing and then demand breakfast ten minutes later and want dressed fifteen minutes after that and then, before long, insist on a game of Mousetrap. I'd keep sneaking back to bed but there wasn't much chance of real sleep. Essentially, once she was awake, so was I.

Suddenly, this is no longer the case. Despite sharing a bedroom with all three children while staying with my in-laws this Christmas, I was almost unaware when they got up. There was a bit of grunting and shuffling in the early morning darkness and maybe a hug from Marie and then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

For hours.

The kids policed themselves. I was confident that if any of them got into mischief or trouble, at least one of the others would come and snitch. As it turned out, the only arguments were over whose turn it was to play on the Wii and these conflicts involved such arcane calculation methods that I had to leave resolving them to the boys anyway. ('Lewis had an extra fifteen minutes when it should have been my shot because I got to choose what level we played when we were playing two-player on his shot. But he says the half an hour I had before he got up was part of my turn because he was asleep and he should get an extra turn before tea but the level I want to do in my shot takes an hour and Lewis got an extra turn the day before yesterday while I went with you to the shops. I told him that if he let me play until tea-time, he could play all morning tomorrow, but he doesn't want to do that because he might forget to get up and he said that it wasn't fair that I wanted to play a one-player game on my shot when we'd played a two-player game on his shot but he was the one who wanted to play two-player. I wanted to play the DS but...' Etc.) Marie simply ignored the boys and got on with... Erm... Actually, I've know idea what she got on with. I stayed up late, got up late and came down to find all three of the children playing happily and without complaint.

It was fantastic but a little weird.

I'm paying for it now, unfortunately. Despite having to wake early to get everyone ready in the morning, I'm still in the habit of staying up late. This arrangement isn't so good for obtaining enough sleep to function as a human being; it's more in line with the slumber requirements of a particularly grumpy troll. Hence the coffee and biscuits, in an effort to quell the urge to go lurk under a bridge and hassle passing goats.

Not that I'm really grumbling. I got more proper lie-ins over Christmas than I've had in a long while and, in some sense, even the tiredness I have now feels good. After years of sleep deprivation caused by babies and toddlers, it's kind of liberating having the chance to screw up my bio-rhythms myself for a change. Besides, with luck, the magic will hold and I'll get to catch up with a couple of extra hours under the duvet on Saturday morning.

The kids getting older may be bringing me career uncertainty but it definitely has its plus points...

Now I think of it, I noticed some other advantages over the holidays as well. Not least, Fraser has finally moved onto proper board games involving dragons and such like. This should make my life more entertaining, especially when we open up my his new Crossbows and Catapults set and get to fling little plastic projectiles across the room at each other's castles. Having children is finally paying off!

Not all their presents were so appealing, mind you, but making words from random selections of letters in Boggle is still a step up from most of the games the kids have had before. The highlight was when Sarah suggested a word made from combining the letters 'S', 'X' and 'E'.

Fraser looked embarrassed. "I thought of that but didn't say it."

"Do you know what it is?" Sarah asked.

"I think so," he said but didn't elaborate.

Sarah nodded. "It's where the dad puts the baby seed into the mum."

"Or it can mean whether someone is a boy or a girl," I added.

Fraser squirmed slightly. "Oh," he said, "I thought it meant something different."

True to the name of the game, this statement boggled my brain. Then the Queen's Speech came on and we had to be quiet. Quite what he did think sex was, I never found out. (Fun as the discussion would have been with Great Aunt Edith in the room, this was probably for the best.)

Of course, besides more sleep and decent board games, there are all the obvious improvements that having older children brings, such as an end to nappies and greatly reduced dribble, but we passed those milestones a while back and I was expecting them. What I wasn't expecting was for Marie to spend three hours playing an educational Fimbles game on the computer, the other afternoon. I didn't settle to doing anything much because I kept thinking she'd stop at any moment and want me to give her some attention. She didn't. She happily entertained herself until tea-time. If she starts doing that on a regular basis and I'm prepared for it, who knows what I could achieve?

Life is changing.

We've even recently migrated from the toddler TV of CBeebies to the children's TV of CBBC. We have entered a world of gunge tanks and documentaries about farting, all linked together by a presenter with impossibly cool hair and a grouchy cactus as a sidekick. This is more my level. I may never have to watch the Teletubbies staring at a tap-dancing bear ever again.


Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 7 January 2009

Essential skills for the modern age

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you survived the relatives at Christmas and managed to get them to look after the kids long enough for you to have a lie down somewhere quiet. Hopefully Daisy's sleep will have settled down in a few months and the new year will be a lot less grey and foggy than the last one. Your zombie existence is almost over. All being well, next Christmas, neither you nor your young daughter will doze off from exhaustion face-down in the trifle. (And, yes, it was somewhat mean of your in-laws to post the footage of that little incident on YouTube.)

For ourselves, we spent most of the holidays staying with Sarah's parents. It was great to get away and have some help with the children. We did all have to cope with a different house and different ways of doing things but this was probably good for us:

One breakfast-time, I was sitting in the lounge drinking my coffee, when Fraser came through from the kitchen.

"Can I have some more toast, please?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied.


I didn't move. He stared at me, waiting for me move. I stared back at him, waiting for him to go away. He didn't go away. We stared at each other.

Time passed.

"You can make it yourself," I said, to clarify the situation.

He laughed at the ludicrous nature of this suggestion. "How do I do that?"

Our kitchen at home is set up for a 187cm housedad. (That's six foot three in old money.) Stuff that's needed all the time, such as plates and bread, is on high shelves which I can see and reach comfortably. My stash of crisps is stored so far up that even Sarah has to stand on a chair to reach it. The low cupboards that I have to bend to look in are full of fondue sets and unlikely cooking utensils which I hardly ever use. One small problem with the arrangement is that the children have limited access to the equipment necessary to feed themselves unless they're looking to zest a lemon or make their own ice-cream. The beer, meanwhile, is at a handy grab height for me on the way to the lounge and the coffee sits permanently out on the worktop ready for every conceivable emergency.

Nonetheless, I was still somewhat shocked to discover that, despite being eight and half years old, Fraser didn't know how to work a toaster. I realised I might have to give him some training. (After all, he's going to need a wide range of gadget experience by the time he's sixteen in order for me to fulfil my plan of getting him a job at our local electronics store and shamelessly exploiting his staff discount.) I seized the opportunity to let him practice in a kitchen where everything was in reach and that wasn't my responsibility to clean.

"You get some bread out of the bag and put it in the toaster," I said. "Then you press the button down."

He looked nervous. "How far?"

"Until it clicks."

"How does it know when to pop up?" he asked, starting to panic.

"It pops up by itself." I decided not to blow his mind with any extra information about the little dial with numbers on.

"But wh...?"

I tried to sound as calm and nonchalant as I could. "Just go give it a try," I said, waving him away.

"OK," he said and scampered off to the kitchen.

I went through three minutes later. He was staring at the toaster.

"Does it normally take this long?" he asked.


"Maybe it's not working." He peered closely at the toaster which was glowing orange inside and that had the first hint of smoke emerging from the slot. Then a slice of toast popped up and made him leap backwards in surprise.

"It's working," I said.

Of course, Fraser hadn't thought to ask whether anyone else wanted mildly charred bread before operating the toaster only half full. He didn't know from experience that it's always worth completely filling a toaster because the popping sound they make has a strange Pavlovian effect - it's bound to make someone in the vicinity think, 'Hmmm... Actually, I really fancy a slice of toast,' even if they've just had a slice of toast.

"I want a slice of toast," said Marie, cramming the last bite of her previous slice in her mouth.

I sighed and put another couple of rounds of bread in the machine...

The whole episode made me wonder what other skills I should teach Fraser. I started by thinking about the useful skills I learnt while growing up but most of them are now defunct.

For instance, there was a big fuss made that my Physics GCSE course included wiring a plug as part of the curriculum. It was supposed to be an attempt to promote practical skills but the normal reaction was, 'Surely everyone knows how to wire a plug?'

As a teenager, I fiddled with the internal workings of any number of plugs. Gadgets came without plugs attached or I got given my siblings' cast-offs that still had round-pinned plugs rather than square-pinned ones. Barely a month went by without me having to ponder why it's the live wire and not the earth wire that's brown.

Then things changed. I suspect the GCSE Physics results one year must have been really bad and someone somewhere decided that plugs are too advanced a technology to leave in the care of ordinary individuals. Gadgets started coming supplied with moulded plugs.

I haven't had to wire a plug in ten years.

Another skill I learnt at an early age was answering the phone. I used to answer my parents' phone all the time. We lived in a big farmhouse, we only had a couple of phones and my parents got a lot of business calls - there were plenty of instances where I happened to be the only one close enough to hear the ringing. My children are growing up in a house which is less than half the size but has five phones and hardly anyone calls.

The only times I don't hear the phone are when I'm running their bath, I'm hoovering or I'm in the shower. On the rare occasions when someone calls at one of these moments, it takes the kids a couple of rings to notice the phone is ringing and another three to twig that I'm not answering it. At this point they start shouting that the phone's ringing.

Since they tend to stand next to the ringing phone while doing this, rather than moving somewhere closer to my location, the chances of me becoming aware that the phone is ringing are not greatly increased.

Two rings later, the answering machine cuts in. The children listen to the out-going message and then come and find me to tell me that 'the answering machine is talking to itself' in a tone that suggests they think it's gone wrong. I ask them who's calling. They shrug. I send them to listen to the message that's being left. They get downstairs again just in time to hear the person hang up.

I could maybe train them to do this job a little better...

Then again, we have an answering machine, so why bother? It's the same with things like lighting a fire, boiling milk in a pan and preparing for a nuclear attack. These skills don't seem as essential as they once were. Even programming a video recorder is on the way out.

So what is the important knowledge kids should learn these days?

Well, for starters, when we got back from Gran's, I taught Fraser how to put fresh batteries in the Wii remotes.

I slowly and painstakingly showed him how to peel back the non-slip jacket, open up the casing, remove the old batteries, insert the new batteries the right way round and then put everything back together again. This took longer and involved more explanation than you might expect. When he'd emptied the rest, I turned to Lewis and told him in great detail which drawer in the kitchen to put the tired batteries in, ready for them to be recharged. I also told him twice not to put them in the tub at the front of the drawer because that's where the charged batteries are kept.

Lewis ran off on his mission while his brother finished putting in the replacement batteries. Fraser negotiated the trials of slipping the non-slip jacket back on the last remote and beamed at me, highly pleased with himself.

"Well done," I said. "Now you can change the batteries in the Wii remotes yourself. Do you know where the fresh batteries are kept?"

"No," he said, looking blank.

He'd been precisely two feet away from me when I'd told Lewis... twice.

Lewis returned.

"Do you know where the fresh batteries are kept?" I asked him.

"Of course I do," he replied, as if this was obvious information that any fool should intuitively grasp and not something that I'd had to tell him only forty-five seconds previously.

"Great!" I said. "Next time the batteries run out before breakfast, the two of you can work together. Lewis, you can find new batteries and, Fraser, you can put them in the controller. Neither of you will need to get me out of bed. Teamwork!"

We all beamed at each other, highly pleased with ourselves.

Next week I'm going to move on to teaching them to use a tin opener without injury and without covering them, me or the toaster in custard.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,