Dear Dave

Friday 27 February 2009

Every generation

Dear Dave,

I'm pretty lucky with my kids. They're generally well behaved and they don't get into much real trouble. They don't usually break things on purpose, they don't bite, they don't swear, they don't piddle in the fridge, they don't redecorate with spam, and they don't badmouth me to their friends on Facebook (yet). That's good going.

So why do I keep having to shout at them?

I suppose it's not so much what they're doing, it's what they're NOT doing which is the problem. Again and again, they seem to be determined to get into bother for the most trivial misdemeanours simply because they refuse to do what they're told.

If I politely ask Fraser to put his clean socks away, there's every chance he'll completely fail to acknowledge I've spoken on the first couple of attempts, irritating me before we've entirely started. It's not that he can't hear me, it's more that the sound of my voice alone isn't enough to make him pay attention. There has to be more incentive.

When my tone turns threatening and he finally stirs enough to realise I'm talking to him about socks, he's still not likely to do what needs to be done. He's liable to give me a selection of the following replies:

"Put what in where? What's that you said? The box in the floor?"

"I put some away last week."

"Mummy said I could do it when I liked."

"In a minute."

"I don't have any clean socks."

"Guess what book I got from the school library today."

Any of these can lead to a long discussion about such things as the laundry schedule, what exactly Mummy said or the improbability of me being able to correctly surmise his current reading choice given a shortlist that might as well be every kid's book ever published.

I normally start becoming somewhat shirty at this point. He'd possibly get away with it, though, if he just got straight on with putting his socks in the drawer. He knows this. Sadly, he frequently chooses to make a joke to 'relieve the tension' first. Invariably, this involves pretending to not do what he's told.

It rarely goes well.

Lewis, meanwhile, questions everything.

Me: Mummy's taking Marie to the cinema. You could go too.
Lewis: Why?
Me: The film's about a mouse having adventures. You'll like it.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Because you like that kind of thing.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Er... There'll be sweets.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Because there's always sweets at the cinema. Look, I've got stuff to do. If you stay here, you'll have to entertain yourself.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Whatever...

Ten minutes later, immediately after the others have left:

Lewis: I can't think of anything to do.
Me: Arghhhhhh...
Lewis: Why are you making that noise, Daddy?

Marie fends off orders by complaining that she's 'too tired'. Since she's only four, this is maybe fair enough when the task in question is walking to the centre of town or requires negotiating several flights of stairs. It's not so convincing when she's been told to go to the toilet or to get ready for bed.

This morning I told her to go and put her clothes on.

She pouted at the thought. "I'm too tired from all my sleeping. My pillow took all my energy."

"Yes, sleeping is hard work. Are you too tired to play as well?"

"I'm too tired to do anything."

I decided to test her. "How about bouncing? Would you like me to get the trampoline out so you can bounce and bounce and bounce until you're sick?"

She miraculously perked up. "Yes!" she said, jumping up and down and doing a dance. "I want to bounce."

"Then get dressed!"

Immediately, her shoulders slumped and she collapsed to the floor. "I'm too tired," she said mournfully...

Yep, my kids don't get up to much that's particularly bad, but they're wearing me down with the same minor disobedience every day. I've tried taking a deep breath and counting to ten. It doesn't work - it merely gives one of the others an opportunity to take a turn.

I have a few other options. I could let them run wild and do what they like until they get low on food and cash, and then laugh at them when they come begging for more. That might be mildly cathartic but would ultimately be too messy to make it worth it. (I hate cleaning the fridge.)

Another possibility would be to retaliate. I could ignore anything Fraser says until he's repeated himself six times and has steam coming out of his ears in frustration. A taste of his own medicine might do him some good.

Although, now I think of it, his brother has been trying that approach for years...

Retaliation probably wouldn't work on Lewis, either:

Me: Why?
Lewis: Why what?
Me: Why not?
Lewis: Why not what?
Me: I don't know. Why?
Lewis: What?
Me: Why?
Lewis: Why?
Me: Why?
Lewis: Why?
Me: Why?

And so on, for ten minutes, until:

Lewis: Why?
Me: Why?
Lewis: Why?
Me: Arghhhhhh...
Lewis: Why are you making that noise, Daddy?
Me: Sob...

Again, this doesn't seem worth the effort. It's much more tempting, however, to tell Marie that I'm too tired whenever she makes demands.

Actually, I do that quite a lot already. It doesn't seem to have changed her behaviour but at least I get a quick rest.

Hmm... Neither giving up nor getting my own back are going to work. I suppose what I should really do is phone my parents, explain my predicament and then listen to them laugh. After everything I did to annoy them when I was small, I won't get much sympathy but that, in itself, will maybe give me a little perspective...

Then I can go back to doing what I always do - trying my best and muddling through.

It's gone OK so far...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Not everything the kids tell me over and over again is a bad thing. Marie has been constantly saying recently, "You're really still a young man, Daddy. Did you know that?"

This was quite nice to hear...

...until I discovered it's all inspired by Finding Nemo. What she means is that I'm still young compared with Crush, the giant turtle.

He's one hundred and fifty.

I'm less than thrilled.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Computer Guy

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking how my new job at Malton House School is going.

I suppose the answer depends on how you want to look at it. As a low stress return to the world of work, it's been pretty good. I potter about tinkering with gadgets, I get to choose my hours, and a whole load of shifty teenagers have to call me 'sir'. On the other hand, I have to wear a tie and in the three weeks since I took on IT support duties, I've managed to get precisely two computers working properly. This is partly because I'm only managing ten hours a week but mainly because computers are infuriating and temperamental at the best of times, let alone when they've been left at the mercy of a whole load of shifty teenagers. At my current rate of achievement, stuff is going wrong faster than I can fix it, and that's on top of the huge backlog of malfunctioning technology that already exists. Employing any objective scale, things aren't proceeding well.

Happily, however, the two computers I've tuned up are the ones used by the headmaster and the school secretary, so objectivity doesn't come into it. Mr Fitzroy has done nothing but beam at me since I brought the internet and the joys of online taxidermy chatrooms to his office. Mrs Cavendish, meanwhile, is delighted that it no longer takes her machine fifteen minutes to boot up in the morning. She even makes me cups of tea. As long as I'm polite and look reasonably smart, it doesn't matter if I fix anything else, my position should remain secure.

Still, it's best to look busy...

The other day I ran a basic diagnostic test on the computers in the language lab. This consisted of turning them on and seeing what happened. Of the twenty present, seventeen started up, two did nothing and one laughed evilly before challenging me to a game of Pac-Man for my soul. A little fiddling with wires brought one of the dead machines back to life and the other responded well to being hit very hard while no one was looking. I removed the final one (which referred to itself as 'The Grim Bleeper') and swapped it with a more cooperative machine in the English department. (They're less likely to notice anything's wrong.)

While I was finishing off this task, I got an emergency call.

As I'm always wandering about, if any teacher has a technical issue that needs urgent attention, they use the internal phones to contact the school secretary, who then alerts me by walkie-talkie. This happens so rarely, she'd be as well calling me on my mobile but where would be the fun in that?

Fortunately, Mrs Cavendish is a big fan of crime drama and is getting scarily into the concept. "Computer Guy this is Dispatch. We have a 3-10 in progress in room 14. Please respond."

"10-4, Dispatch. I'm on my way."

The walkie-talkie is less secure than the phones. Anyone could be listening in - pupils, neighbours, parents, aliens or, heaven help us, education inspectors. To overcome this problem, I've devised a set of codes to deal with most eventualities:

1-01 - Computer acting strangely.
1-02 - Computer barely working.
1-03 - Computer dead.
1-04 - Computer dead. Foul play suspected.
1-05 - Computer dropped out of window. Bring dustpan and brush.
2-11 - Cup of tea available. Bring biscuits.
2-21 - Cup of tea spilt on a computer. Bring straw.
3-10 - Teacher embarrassing themselves with poor grasp of technology. Assistance required.
4-15 - School secretary bored and wanting to play with walkie-talkies.
666 - Terminator robots in the building.
999 - Headmaster about to touch something electronic.

A 3-10 is a high priority, so I hurried along to room 14 to discover Mr Blakelock and his biology class with the blinds drawn, watching a documentary about the mating habits of baboons on a large TV/DVD combi that had been wheeled to the front.

"You got it working then?" I said, speaking over the sounds of excited primates.

Mr Blakelock shook his head. "No, I can't make the disc play. None of the buttons do anything."

"Where's the remote?"

"Can't find it. It's not in the usual place."

I started poking at the telly. "OK, some joker has turned the panel lock on." I rooted around in my backpack for a universal control and some codes. "Give me a minute." After a couple of attempts, I managed to get the TV to respond and show me a menu. A little more faffing and we were in business. I tried the DVD but, confusingly, Jeremy Kyle came on, complete with participants screaming about DNA results and a small fight. "Oh, sorry, I thought I had it there." I made to press some more buttons.

"Stop! That's it," said Mr Blakelock. "That's where we got to yesterday."

"Er... Really?"

"Yes, thanks. You've been a great help."

I shrugged. "Oh, OK, I'll leave you to it then. You should be able to use the buttons on the TV now until the remote turns up..."

I was barely out the door before I had an unprecedented second emergency call of the day. It was a 999. I scurried to the headmaster's office as fast as I could.

* * *

"You have some experience with programming, I believe?" said Mr Fitzroy. He didn't look up from his screen but the stuffed animals arrayed around the room stared hard at me in his stead.

"Yee-es..." I said cautiously. Technically he was correct, but my programming skills are very rusty. I was also nervous why he was asking.

"Good. Good. Perhaps you can help me with this then?" He waved a packet of biscuits at me.

"Perhaps..." I was pretty certain I could help him with those, although I couldn't entirely see their relevance.

"Excellent." He pushed his chair back from his desk and motioned me to the computer. "Mr Everett was unable to procure Custard Creams for the refreshment table in the staff room this week and opted to buy HobNobs as an alternative. The difference in price needs to be taken into account when calculating the amount each member of staff owes to the kitty. Mrs Reynolds has also brought it to my attention that she doesn't like HobNobs and Mr Jacobs has made it known that he will be drinking tea rather than coffee until such time as the Custard Creams are reinstated. If you could make the necessary amendments to the programme to reflect these changes, that would be most helpful."

I sighed. This was why I'd negotiated my own private supply of biscuits as part of my pay deal. "OK, I'll take a look," I said.

"Mr McIntyre is normally responsible but he's not answering his phone. It's possible he may be in the cellar again."

"Ah, yes, about the cellar..." I began but then got immediately distracted by the grid of numbers and words on the screen. "This isn't a programme."


"No. It's a spreadsheet."

The headmaster's brow furrowed. "Does that present any problems?"

"Well... I guess you can embed formulae and bits of code into the fields so that the entries are dependent on each other, making it like..." I trailed off as I realised the headmaster was already staring out of the window. "Er, never mind... This appears to be where the price of the biscuits goes. I'll just alter it, change what people are having, click on re-calculate and... Oh..."

The computer suddenly started to hum loudly, as if in deep concentration, and whole columns of words and numbers flickered and changed and then flickered some more. This process went on for some time. I began to suspect that the screen I was looking at was only one small part of something much more complex.

"Does this spreadsheet do anything else besides work out what the staff need to pay for their elevenses?" I asked.

The headmaster broke away from warily eyeing a lawnmower that was standing unattended in the middle of the lawns. "Oh, it has many uses. The accounts, the procurement schedule for consumables, that sort of thing."

I scrolled around a little. There were entries for almost everything - school attendance, gross income, parking space allocation, what colour of socks to wear, when to listen to Radio 4 and which pupil to blame in the event of a fire. One box was titled 'First to be sacked when the money runs outs'. I watched as my name flickered up briefly and was then replaced by 'The entire chemistry faculty'.

I stepped away from the computer, deeply afraid to touch it any further. "I think that's sorted it," I said, trying to sound convincing. "You might want to get Mr McIntyre to check over it anyway. I've, er... just remembered I promised to help Mr Gardner with his printer." This was stretching the truth slightly, since I hadn't actually made a firm commitment to any time-frame on the promise, but I was keen to get away and forget everything I'd seen.

"I wasn't aware there were any printers in room 7."

"I thought he was in room 10."

"Ah, perhaps that's the case," said the headmaster. "Let me consult the timetable."

I was expecting him to pull out a dog-eared weekly planner from a drawer. To my horror, he scrolled to another part of the spreadsheet.

"My mistake," he said. "He is in room 10. You'd best hurry along and I..." He peered in consternation at the screen. "I suppose I shall have to inform the second year that they no longer have woodwork at this time on a Tuesday and should change immediately for hockey practice..."

* * *

It was lunch-time before I figured out that Mr Gardner's printer needed to be switched off and on again three times and then have a random sequence of buttons pressed on its control panel in order to make it function properly. Luckily, since Marie had gone to visit a friend after nursery, I didn't have to rush home. I collected my coat and took a leisurely stroll through the building on my way to the main doors. It had been a relatively successful morning but I was starting to fret how I was possibly going to get the school's countless machines working without a horde of conscripts to help me.

Just then, I passed a classroom full of pupils with laptops. Every single one of them was concentrating hard, despite no teacher being present. This, in itself, was deeply suspicious.

I stuck my head round the door. "What's going on in here?"

"Computer club, sir," muttered one of the shifty teenagers.

All at once, I began to grin...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 20 February 2009

Dr Seuss - the truth!

Dear Dave,

I don't know about you, but I find that a family holiday simply isn't complete without vomit.

It doesn't matter how far I've journeyed, the sights I've seen nor how much I've been ripped off over a cup of coffee, if I haven't had to deal with a vast eruption of sick, then I feel that a vital part of the experience has been missed. Like a dog claiming territory, my family seems determined to leave its mark wherever it goes. Whether it's Tobermory, Glasgow, St Andrews or Belgium, we can boldly say, in the manner of latter-day Caesars, 'We came. We saw. We puked our guts out. (And then we left... in a hurry.)'

We took a trip to Cambridge at the weekend. On our last trip to Cambridge, Lewis was sick after we got a lift in a car. The only other occasion we'd been previously, both Lewis AND Fraser hurled in the train on the way home. I think Lewis may actually be allergic to the place - this time he was sick during the night.

I was watching TV in the lounge of our accommodation and missed the main event. He'd woken up feeling queasy and been too dozy to shout for help. Nonetheless, he'd managed to stumble through from the bedroom to the bathroom. Unfortunately, he'd made his usual mistake in these circumstances of sitting on the toilet to be sick rather than sticking his head down it. This is normally hugely messy. Sarah got to him in time, however, and steered him to the sink.

Cue titanic chunder.

I was blissfully unaware of this until it became apparent that he'd clogged the drain. I had to be called in then because... well... because, let's face it, no one else wanted to deal with a seething basin full of putrid sick.

As I reached in and guddled about, I couldn't really blame them...

After that, it was a case of preparing for the worst. I was fairly certain he'd emptied out the entire contents of his stomach but I couldn't be sure. I searched the small suite we had in the B&B for suitable receptacles for high-velocity regurgitation. Since there was no kitchen, my options were limited - a coffee cup, the ornate waste bin and the drawer of the table beside Lewis' bed. None of these seemed ideal.

I eventually found a thick paper bag we had with us, showed it to Lewis and put it next to him. At that point, Marie started to make retching noises in her sleep. Since she was sharing a bed with Lewis, he wasn't too happy about this turn of events. I reassured him, told him to lie down and went in search of more bags.

When I returned with a plastic carrier, Marie retched some more and I ran to crouch beside her. Then Lewis coughed ominously as he dozed off again. I went round the bed to him with my bag open, ready to field any noxious torrents. As I got there, Fraser started to moan in his sleep on the other side of the room. I scurried to him. Then Marie worked on her hairball some more. I hurried back. Lewis shifted some phlegm. I moved round. Fraser groaned. I...

I gave up and made camp in the middle of the room with a torch, a book and my emergency sick bag. I sat there for an hour before they were all peaceful and then I slunk off to bed, certain I would be woken in the middle of the night by some sort of unpleasant disaster or other.

I was very confused in the morning when my alarm went off and the kids were still asleep. I checked Lewis' bedside drawer just in case. It was empty. The kids, the carpet and the mattresses were all fine. Phew!

In retrospect, though, we maybe shouldn't have let Lewis have lots of pink yogurt for breakfast and then immediately taken him on public transport.

Never mind - his shoes were remarkably easy to clean.

I'm considering writing a sequel to Green Eggs and Ham. It will be called Dubiously-hued Food and a Very Bumpy Bus Journey. It will go something like this:

I've wiped up vomit in a boat.
I've removed it from an angry goat.
I've wiped up vomit in the rain.
And in the dark. And in a train.
And in a car. And round a tree.
It is so very carrot-y!

I've scooped it into a box.
I've washed the vomit from my socks.
I've cleaned it up around the house.

I've wiped it up both here and there.
I've wiped up vomit EVERYWHERE!

We haven't decided where we're going on holiday in the summer. Maybe we'll come visit you.

Be afraid.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 18 February 2009

Overtime isn't so bad

Dear Dave,

Has everyone given you sympathy yet?

I'm not talking about Sam's arm; I mean about Liz going away for the weekend. On the rare occasions Sarah leaves me with the kids and heads off to stay with friends for a couple of nights, all-and-sundry treat me like I'm about to spend forty-eight hours in the trenches. It's wacky.

The reality is that looking after the children for a weekend doesn't involve much more childcare from me than is normally required during two ordinary weekdays. Given that there isn't a strict timetable of school and clubs to adhere to, life can be easier. Not as easy as a weekend with Sarah around to help, obviously, but there's still a break from the early morning scramble and the traipsing back and forth. We can lounge about in our pyjamas. Once the kids are in bed, I can move the armchair out into the middle of the room, sit back and enjoy full control of the remote. (Sometimes I flick it purposefully at the TV and say, "Engage!")

Being left in charge of the kids for the weekend certainly phases me less than us all going away together. That requires a day of packing, lots of heavy luggage and having to endure the boys grumbling constantly. Often it also involves rain. When the children were smaller, there was the additional problem of having to get by in a strange place with limited baby equipment and, invariably, a high chair with rubbish straps.

Family holidays can be fun but they're also hard work. People don't tend to give me sympathy for those in quite the same way, though...

Nope, enjoy getting to stay home and be master of the house for a bit. Run things your way and eat whatever you happen to find lurking at the back of the freezer. Relax.

Then, once the novelty has warn off and you could do with some adult conversation again, get the kids to make a selection of 'Welcome Home' banners and prime them to give Liz big hugs as soon as she walks in the door. Also, remember to put the armchair back before she gets home - you don't want to give the impression things were too easy. She might go gallivanting every weekend...

Ho hum, at least these days I only receive the sympathy when Sarah heads off on a trip, not every time I leave the house. Most places I go regularly, people know I'm a housedad. After nearly nine years of me turning up in the middle of the working week with a selection of children in tow, the cashiers at my local supermarket have got the idea. Friends, neighbours, people who loiter around the swing-park with kids of their own - they're all aware. Even my barber has stopped asking me if it's my day off when I go for a haircut. I no longer have to explain myself very often.

Sarah isn't so lucky. When she's out and about on her own and she mentions the children, people immediately wonder what she's done with them. I'm sure if our roles were the normal way round, I wouldn't get the same treatment - it would simply be assumed that I'd left the kids with her and that it would all be fine. Discovering three small children have been abandoned with their dad for the day makes random punters nervous, however. They do a double-take and chuckle to themselves, as if imagining the chaos that Sarah is going to return to. For some reason, explaining that I've had plenty of practice can merely freak them out more...

This reaction is especially jarring when it comes from someone who actually knows me. There are certain places, such as church, where we usually go together as a family and so it's not clear from watching us how we organise our domestic arrangements the rest of the week. After all this time, we're still uncovering people who haven't quite grasped the extent of the social deviance in our household:

Sarah was at a Bible study the other night and glanced towards the clock at about five to nine. The woman sitting next to her leaned over and said, "Do you have to get home now to rescue your poor husband?"

Sarah was taken aback. "No, I'm sure he's doing fine!" she said.

The woman didn't look entirely convinced. "Oh, well, that's good if he can do that..."

These situations are like suddenly travelling back to a point in our lives about five years ago... except now, at least, we know to keep quiet and smile sweetly rather than to go into any further details. Anything else simply isn't worth the effort.

So much for the housedad revolution...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 13 February 2009

Don't frighten the broccoli!

Dear Dave,

Don't feel bad. These things happen. No matter what you do, children are going to go head over heels once in a while. Fraser has used his nose as a pogo stick on a number of occasions.

That said, it's unfortunate Sam slipped on the ice because he was looking over his shoulder to find out why you were shouting after him to be careful. Never mind, though. I'm glad it's only a minor fracture and his arm will be out of the cast in six weeks.

Hopefully you'll be over the guilt in around six years...

Of course, if you hadn't said anything and he'd gone pavement surfing on his face, you might have felt even worse. 'Be careful' is parent-speak for 'That's not a hundred percent safe and is liable to result in tears (which I don't have the time or the energy to deal with) but it isn't that dangerous and I should really loosen up a bit. Telling you to stop would be over-protective and probably worse for your long-term development than a nasty scratch and some light bruising. Who knows - you might even learn from your mistakes! As a bonus, now I've warned you, disaster won't be my fault and I can say, "I told you so." Go have some fun, and if it winds up being sore, don't come running to me.'

'Be careful' is also a signal to other adults that the parent speaking is neither irresponsible nor ignorant of the situation. It means 'Yes, I may not have had quite enough sleep for nearly a decade but I'm still aware one of my children is up to something unwise. This, however, is their decision which I reluctantly support them in because I can't entirely be bothered to argue right at the moment. Besides, I'm trying not to stifle them. Don't worry - if events go too far or they start becoming a danger to others, I'm on the case.'

Essentially, 'Be careful' is a very short phrase that contains a vast amount of implied content. Saying it is a way of relieving some of the tension of walking the line between keeping the kids safe and allowing them the freedom to grow. I use it all the time and I frequently overhear other parents using it too. Sure, it's totally and utterly lame, but we can't just stay silent in these situations or we'd explode. Not saying 'Be careful' would be like being sympathetic when a small child complains, 'There's something in my shoe,' rather than replying, 'Yes, it's your foot.' It simply can't be done.

Still... I hate saying 'Be careful'.

It's vague, unhelpful and makes me feel like I'm not in control. I've been trying to use alternatives recently. Some of them are situation specific, like 'Don't get stolen', 'Try not to wear your food. It's really not your colour' and the ever-popular 'You can do that but if we have to go to the hospital, we won't be home in time to watch Basil Brush'.

Other warnings I use are more general and merely designed to increase the kids' awareness of their surroundings. They include, 'Watch what you're doing', 'Pay attention' and 'Ow! That's painful. Please, stop.' Sadly, these are almost as limp as 'Be careful'. I much prefer to go for more extreme options, such as 'Look out for aliens', 'Don't blame me if you find yourself in 1955' and 'It will all end in blancmange'.

The last one, in particular, always makes my children stop and blink in a confused fashion. It's maybe not the most accurate advice but it amuses me and at least they're not getting into trouble...

All the best and I hope Sam cheers up soon. In future, remind him not to play chess with wildebeest.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Perhaps pointless warnings are an unavoidable part of life now. I saw a vending machine for hot drinks today that had a sticker stuck to it which read 'Warning! Hot Drinks!'.

I mean, honestly...

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Unexpected unplugging

Dear Dave,

I spoke too soon - the snow is back. There's almost an inch this time. Another two or three days like this and Tesco could run low on supplies of bananas. I hardly dare contemplate the chaos that that will cause and, in preparation for the end of civilisation, I've nipped to the shops to stock up on canned goods, bottled water, bin-liners, candles and shotguns.

There's every chance the whole lot will have melted by tomorrow but it's best to be prepared - having grown up in the country, heavy snow is irrevocably linked in my head with power cuts. When I was a kid, the sky would turn grey, the snow would fall and the lights would go out. I don't know why.* My family was compelled to huddle around the fire and actually talk to each other until the telly came back on. It wasn't right. I had to sneak off somewhere and hide under a blanket with a torch and a book.

Having moved to the city, the scenario is unlikely to repeat itself now I have a family of my own. Which is fortunate, since we don't have a fireplace. I'd have to gather round a roaring fondue set with the kids.

When I was a teenager, I had a teacher who claimed that my class wouldn't be able to cope if the power went down. We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves without our music and TV and computer games. I was quite offended. Give me a pen and paper and I can entertain myself for hours. A power cut has to have exceptionally bad timing to throw me.

You know, like if I'm wet and naked.

Er, maybe I should explain that one... To fully set the scene, though, I'm going to have to tell you about my hall of residence at university. You see, Andrew Melville Hall is built to resemble two colliding concrete battleships.

No, really:

Andrew Melville Hall, St Andrews.

Inside, it's strangely reminiscent of a cross-channel ferry. This effect is heightened by the heating system. Originally, the building had underfloor heating but there was subsidence and one of the ships sank somewhat faster than the other, knackering the scheme. Radiators were installed, along with all the pipes to feed them. Descend to the windowless corridors of the lower decks and the place feels like a submarine.

To give you an idea of the haphazard fitting of the remedial plumbing, four pipes ran along the ceiling of the shower cupboard in the virtually subterranean section I inhabited. Two of the pipes had kinks in them above the shower-tray to move them just far enough apart to allow anyone over six feet tall to stand upright while taking a shower.

There I was, getting clean one day, my head wedged between some pipes, and a swan hit the power lines. The lights went out. Everything was suddenly pitch dark and cold in a very confined space. When I managed to feel my way out into the corridor, everything was pitch dark and cold in a slightly less confined space which had other people in it.

Not the best start to the day.

So, yes, a power cut can be inconvenient but I've never been left aimless. More recently, of course, they've become a whole new adventure:

A couple of years ago, as tea-time approached, we had a power cut while I was in the lounge with the children. It being winter in Scotland, the sun had already gone down and we were plunged into total darkness.

For added dramatic effect, I'd just uttered the words, "Marie, why are your trousers damp?"

Once the initial screams had died down, I got the kids to sit exactly where they were until I'd found flashlights that actually had batteries in them. Then we had tea by candlelight. Afterwards, I gave them a bath to pass the time, illuminated by a selection of toy light-sabres and sparkly wands. That way, although they were wet and naked, at least I knew where they all were.

It's been a while since they all fitted in the one tub, though. Not sure what I'd do these days. Then again, now they're older, they're less prone to carelessly toddling off and falling down the stairs. Marie is rather fond of playing in the dark, in fact, and she sometimes manages to persuade Lewis to join her. On a few occasions recently, I've found them lurking in our internal bathroom with the lights out, attempting a hand of UNO while holding torches. I'm sure they'd both manage to get by for an hour or two without mains electricity and possibly even find the experience exciting.

I'm not so certain about Fraser. Give him a pen and paper and he's liable to hand it to me and then insist that I find some way to entertain him. He might go and hide under a blanket with a book but, bereft of computer games, he's just as likely to want me to play Scrabble.

I can keep myself busy without power; making sure the kids are occupied is much more like effort. I should probably go charge up all the portable electronics in the house to be on the safe side.

Yours in a woman's world,


*I suspect a load of plump robins over-stressed the cables by all turning up and posing for Christmas cards at the same time. I was never able to confirm this, however...

Friday 6 February 2009

Snowball etiquette

Dear Dave,

Glad you weren't hugely affected by the snow this week and were only driven slightly mad by all the people wondering how come four inches of frozen precipitation causes the UK to shut down while other places regularly carry on as normal under four feet of the stuff.

Personally, I reckon the answer is that it's less effort coping with the infrequent chaos than trying to prevent it. In many parts of the country, heavy snow is only an issue for a handful of days every five or ten years. It's simply not worth devoting vast resources to dealing with it. Besides, it's nice occasionally having an excuse to skive off, stay home and laugh at reporters who've fought their way through treacherous conditions to stand at a busy junction in a blizzard merely to tell us not to make unnecessary journeys.

Of course, some areas are more vulnerable to the weather than others. One of the perks of growing up in rural Norfolk was that snow days were relatively common. In a place so flat that grassy banks at the edge of the road constitute major topographical features, it doesn't take much wind to fill minor highways with drifts. We got two or three days off every other year. Getting to miss lessons and make snowmen instead was one of the highlights of my childhood.

In contrast, it hardly ever snows in Edinburgh. When it does, it's usually during the middle of a day when the kids are at school. By the time they come out, we're lucky if there's enough left to scrape together a snowgnome, let alone a proper snowman.

This week, though, there was actually just about sufficient quantity for a proper snowball fight even at home-time. We raced to the swing-park for some wintry combat before other children used up all the ammo.

Bizarrely, however, everyone else went home rather than making the most of the pristine, quarter-inch layer of snow that had settled on the spongy bits of surfacing around the climbing frames and roundabouts. We were nearly the only ones there.

As it turned out, this was for the best.

We've had so little snow the last few years, Fraser didn't grasp the basic rules of snowball etiquette:
  1. Don't scoop snow from next to the wall at the edge of the pavement where dogs normally do their business. This is quite an important one. Remember, if you can't see the poo, that doesn't mean it's not there. Having been raised on a dairy farm, I know this to my cost...

  2. Don't throw snowballs at adults you aren't familiar with. And while you're at it, try to avoid their toddlers, dogs, cars and elderly relatives.

  3. Don't throw snowballs in someone's face. Especially from six inches. (Although Fraser did do better than my best friend at his age, who failed to let go of the snowball entirely. That was sore.)

  4. If your snowball is bigger than your opponent's head, then it's too large. It just is.

  5. If your opponent is already crying because you've recently ignored rules 3 & 4 at the same time, don't throw another snowball at them. It may be fun but it won't endear you to your friends and siblings...
Goodness, I spent half the time we were there keeping him out of trouble. How can something as simple as a snowball fight be so difficult?

I'm sure there were some other rules as well. There were definitely some extra recommendations. For instance, I couldn't help suggesting that crouching to scoop up snowballs was a smarter plan than kneeling. No one listened. It was chaos.

I suppose things might have gone more smoothly if I'd drawn up a list of the rules in the Autumn and talked it over with my children so they were ready when the snow fell. Also, perhaps I should have gone to the expense of kitting them all out in waterproofs. We muddled through, though, and the kids enjoyed themselves (even if they were grumbling loudly about their cold, wet knees for most of the journey home).

Still, maybe I ought to put a plan in place for next year, just in case...

(Yeah, right.)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS If you thought we had it bad with snow on the roads, spare a thought for the people of Austin, Texas the other week:

Zombies Ahead road-sign.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Number 200

Dear Dave,

"Oooh!" said Scary Karen, squeezing past me on her way down the narrow stairs. "This reminds me of the time I got trapped in a lift with three bodybuilders and Sean Connery."

"Ungnh..." I grunted, caught between her ample form and the bed-settee which was wedged on the half-landing.

"Course, that took three weeks of planning."

"Ah, hngh..." I nodded, unsure whether this revelation or my actual predicament was the more likely to cause me nightmares. It was a close call. I tried to forget both and concentrated on not blacking out from lack of oxygen.

"We're going to have to back up," said Mike from behind the settee somewhere, "then tip it sideways so we can get round the banister."

"Right you are," said Trevor and started to shove up from below.

"Let me out of the way first!" shrieked Rob as the sofa pinned him to a wall.

"And me," I added. At least that's what I tried to say. It came out more like, "Ungheeee!" and trailed off into a whimper.

"Don't know your own strength, do you, my little honey-munchkin?" said Karen, finally compressing me enough to squash by and emerge next to Trevor with an audible pop. She grasped one of his bulging biceps appreciatively and tickled him under the beard.

"Not now, love," said Trevor. He was supporting most of the weight of the bed-settee. He was also, apparently, ticklish. My whole world started to wobble and shake.

"And why's that?" Karen said. "You're the one showing off your muscles." She started to snog him very loudly.

"Big sofa..." I gasped. "About... wheeze... to kill us all..."

"Couldn't you have found someone else to help?" muttered Rob under his breath, still trapped.

"You're the one who was too much of a cheapskate to hire removal people but then decided to move midweek so all your other mates had the handy excuse of being at work to avoid helping."

My words were mostly drowned out, however, by the sink-plunging noises coming from Karen and Trevor.

"Can't hear you," said Rob.

"Never mind," I said. "Almost done now."

It was true. Our various children had been farmed out to friends and relatives and we'd spent a couple of hours loading the contents of Rob's flat into a van. We'd then popped round quickly to my place merely to pick up my surplus bed-settee on the way to his new house. Since he was about to have plenty of extra space and I said he could have the sofa for free, he was more than willing to take it. Getting it downstairs to the front door from our lounge was proving trickier than I'd imagined, though.

"Where's Steve?" croaked Rob. "Has he sloped off again."

"He's not with me," grunted Mike's disembodied voice.

"Haven't seen him," I said.

Then, seemingly on cue, Useless Dad emerged from the direction of the kitchen, cheerily waving a mug around. "Cup of tea, any...?" he began and then noticed Karen and Trevor. He stopped and stared at them for a moment and then backed away hastily.

Luckily, it was enough to distract Karen from sucking Trevor's whiskers off. "Milk and four sugars for me! I'll lend a hand." She gave Trevor's backside a firm fondle and then followed Steve.

There was a muffled squeal of fright from the kitchen but I ignored it as the rest of us turned our full attention to the sofa. There was a great deal of huffing and shoving and turning and then somehow we were in the narrow hall and out the door with only minor strains and bruises. Trevor unlocked the rented van and we loaded up.

The bed-settee didn't fit.

Rob swore. "It's almost in. Maybe if we move some of the other stuff around..."

"Not worth it," said Mike. "We'd have to completely unload. We'd be as well taking what we've got to the house and then coming back."

"I suppose," said Rob, shrugging. "Let's get the sofa inside."

I shook my head. "There's no room on the ground floor. We'd need to get it up the stairs again."

No one liked the sound of that.

"We could just put some bin-liners over it or something and leave it in the driveway," said Rob.

I disagreed. "This is the centre of Edinburgh. If we leave it out here, someone will try to make off with it. I put a broken 28-inch telly out for the council to collect once. No way one person on their own could get far with it. Still disappeared within half an hour and that was in the middle of the night."

Steve and Karen brought the tea out as we discussed options. I took a sip of mine and nearly gagged. "I think I got yours, Karen."

Steve signed frantically behind her back, making it clear I was somehow in dangerous territory.

"I put four sugars in all of them," said Karen, "to boost your energy. Bit of sugar keeps you going." She winked at Trevor. "I gave you seven..."

"I..." I started to reply but Steve's flapping only increased. I noticed that his mug had an entire stick of shortbread poking out of it and realised he'd already had this argument and lost big time. "Er... How thoughtful..." I mumbled and sipped at the brew, feeling my teeth dissolve as I did so.

Eventually we decided that Rob and Karen would go in the van with Trevor, Mike would follow along behind in his car and I would remain to guard the sofa. I did suggest it might be a better use of resources if I helped with the heavy lifting and Mike or Karen stayed with the bed-settee. Mike had arranged to visit a church member who lived out in Rob's direction, though, and didn't have time for toing-and-froing. Karen, meanwhile, beat me in an arm wrestle.

I put on my coat, sat in the driveway and waved them off. Steve brought us both out a second mug of tea that was somewhat more drinkable, and kept me company. He couldn't stay long because he wanted to get to work in time to go for lunch.

I popped inside to find some biscuits. "How are things going in the consultancy business?" I asked when I returned with some chocolate digestives.

"Very well. Very well. There are plenty of firms desperate to cut costs right now."

"By hiring you at great expense to tell them to stop stocking free sanitary towels in the women's toilets?"

"Indeed," he said, entirely seriously.

I sighed and decided I really didn't want to know any more. "And what about your nanny situation?" I said, changing topic. "Fiona's bump looked the size of Switzerland this morning. Can't be long before she heads off on maternity leave. What are you going to do?"

"It's all under control. One of the other nannies we interviewed last year is only on a short-term contract and can take over when Fiona leaves in the middle of next month."

"Oh... That's good..." I tried to sound upbeat but Fiona had been chosen mainly by default on the basis that the others were unsuitable or positively certifiable.

"Yes, I called him myself. He was very enthusiastic."

I did a double-take. "The manny?" I was confused. The guy was a great choice but Steve had been utterly opposed to employing a man during the previous selection process. Nothing I, or his wife, Deborah, could say had been able to change his mind.

Steve mistook the reasons for my scepticism. "Come now, you of all people should know that men can look after children just as well as women. Ewan's extremely well qualified and the children really took to him. Of course, Deborah wasn't so sure but I managed to talk her round. He'll be a real asset to the household."

"Totally," I managed to mutter and then there was quiet as we drank our tea and I resisted the urge to slap him by texting Deborah to congratulate her on her exceptional powers of manipulation.

Time passed.

"Rather cold out here, isn't it?" said Steve after a while.

I nodded. "Uh-huh."

Then the first flakes of snow started to fall.

* * *

Trevor, Rob and Karen returned with the van, skidding up at the end of the drive with a screech of passengers.

I went out of the house with an umbrella to meet them. "That was quick."

"Karen gave Trevor a second cuppa at our place," replied Rob, staggering from the van. "Meant he unloaded the stuff pretty sharpish but I think it would be better if you drove until the sugar high wears off."

"Might be for the best," I said as we watched Trevor heft the settee into the van by himself then flex his muscles for our admiration.

We climbed in after the sofa and set about removing the protective bin-liners without dropping too much snow down behind the cushions. Rob chuckled. "I was expecting to find you and Steve still sitting in the driveway, frozen solid, with icicles dangling from your noses."

"Sorry to disappoint you. He 'remembered' an urgent memo he had to write the moment things turned wintry and I'm not entirely daft. I wasn't going to freeze to death protecting what is now, officially, your sofa. I went inside, turned on the heating and glanced out the window occasionally."

"Fair enough."

"Oy," called Karen. "Is that thing tied down?"

Rob shrugged. "Sort of."

"Me and Trevor can ride in the back and keep an eye on it if you want."

I'd have been nervous about driving the van under normal circumstances, and the Arctic conditions only made matters worse. The thought of Karen and Trevor alone in the back with excess energy and a bed-settee didn't exactly improve my state of mind.

"That's OK," said Rob, thankfully coming to the same conclusion. "Appreciate all the help but we can take it from here. You guys can head home."

Karen looked slightly disappointed but then I added, "Aren't your kids going to be at your mum's for another couple of hours? You could get some stuff done round the flat or..."

Before I could finish, Karen screamed as Trevor hefted her up in a fireman's lift and jogged off down the road amidst a mix of shrieks and giggles.

"Er, yes, or I suppose you could do that..." I trailed off.

Rob and I looked at each other. "Time to go?" he said hurriedly.

"Definitely," I replied.

* * *

The journey to the outskirts of town was slow and the return trip to the van hire place was even slower, traffic crawling along in the light flurries of snow that count as a blizzard round here. Rob came back with me, just to make sure if I skidded off the road and lay dying in a ditch, that I wouldn't be lonely. We didn't talk much. I concentrated on the way ahead, he fiddled incessantly with the radio.

It was a relief to finally arrive.

"Might as well see you home," said Rob, once we'd handed in the keys.

"I'm 35, it's snowing and you've got unpacking to be doing. You don't need to walk me the couple of streets to my door."

"Humour me," he said, slinging a hold-all over his shoulder and setting off into the wind and a stinging barrage of sleet.

"What's in the bag?" I called after him.

"It's a surprise."

He didn't give me any further hints and, hunched over, we struggled onwards, icy rain attempting to rip our faces off. We did nothing but grunt and grumble for several minutes before tumbling in through my front door. I dripped over the carpet and put the kettle on. "It's not some old tat you found at the bottom of a cupboard that you're trying to palm off on me is it?"


"What is it then?"

Rob looked a little embarrassed. "Living across town is going to make meeting up harder - what with both of us having kids now, and all. I was thinking we should try and organise some regular online gaming to keep in touch. We can still shoot each other and chat and drink beer but we won't have to be in the same room."

I shook my head. "Nice idea but you have a PS3 and I have an Xbox - we're on opposite sides of the gaming divide."

"Er, you know how I never got round to buying you a gift for being my best man?"

"It had crossed my mind," I said but I was suddenly too excited to sound appropriately annoyed.

He handed me the bag. "They had a real bargain in the window of the secondhand place when I went past the other day. Happy belated wedding-help thank you!"

I unzipped the bag with shaking fingers, hardly daring to hope what might be inside. It was...

I stared at the contents in disbelief.

"It's a PlayStation 3," said Rob helpfully.

"Er, yeah," I said, "but why's it orange?"

"The casing's battered. Some genius tried to touch it up with an airbrush and give it a face-lift in the process. Still works, though. Well, it would, if it had a controller and cables."

"This gets better."

Rob had obviously expected this reaction and practised on his sales pitch. "I thought if anyone was likely to have the right wires lying around, it would be you."

I took a closer looker. "Maybe... The AV cable from my PS2 might work and the power cord from a desktop."

"And you'd be wanting to buy one of the newer controllers that has rumble anyway."

"True." I checked my watch. "I've just enough time to get to GAME and back before I have to collect Marie and then go along to school for the boys..." I put the console safely on the kitchen table, flung on a second scarf and ushered Rob towards the snowstorm, the thought of hot drinks forgotten.

"Come on, admit it, you're pleased," said Rob as we headed out the door.

"Oh, all right. If it works, I'm delighted. Thanks very much. It'll be a pleasure filling you full of lead, even if it's from a distance."

"Excellent," he shouted over the wind. "How about Wednesday nights?"

"Sounds good. Now, you really need to get home and help Kate with the unpacking."

"I suppose."

We parted company at the gate, shaking hands in an almost formal goodbye. It was weird. He's only moved out near the zoo but, all at once, it felt like a huge distance. Getting together will be much more of an effort from now on. As we trudged off along the pavement in opposite directions, I was briefly sad.

Then I remembered that he'll still be working quite close - once Marie starts school full-time in September, I'll be free to meet him for lunch whenever. I took some comfort from this...

Also, I had a PS3!

Despite a small sense of loss and the imminent threat of my ears falling off from the cold, it was hard not to grin...

Yours in a woman's world,