Dear Dave

Monday 27 April 2009

Grumpy old housedad

Dear Dave,

It's not easy being the youth of today. Stay inside and you get bad press as a couch potato addicted to computer games and low quality television. Go outside and hang around with friends and everyone thinks you're in a gang and about to mug an old lady. Unless you can find somewhere to play football all day or you occupy yourself doing an underpaid menial job, the result is nothing but grief from whinging adults.

I have some sympathy. During the holidays there aren't many places where kids can afford to go with their friends. They loiter around swing-parks and shopping centres because there's nowhere else for them to be. Maybe it's true that in the old days bus shelters weren't full of bored teenagers when it rained but the poor kids aren't allowed to work down a mine or play on building sites anymore. They have to be somewhere and it's nice they're getting fresh air. It would be good if people got off their backs a little.

Then again, some of them could really do with being sent down a mine...:

I was at the swing-park with my three children the other day when I asked a kid (who was perhaps twelve) to stop cycling in the play area. I was reasonably polite but I did have to raise my voice to make sure he heard me. He immediately started yelling back that he was there first, I didn't have any right to tell him what to do, it was a free country and he'd have the police on me.

I tried to explain that it's not a totally free country - if you run over a two-year-old, you get locked up.

The kid merely declared that he'd been riding bikes for years and never hit anyone yet. Then he mumbled a correction about only ever having hit one person and adamantly argued that the little kids would get out of his way.

I tried explaining some more but he wasn't having any of it and I gave up. He was too old to have parents around to petition and I had no power over him. I concentrated on keeping my children out of his path. Unfortunately, the lad and his mates followed me about, wanting to know why I was hassling them. They accused Fraser of having ridden his bike in the play area on some previous and entirely fictional occasion. They pointed to a three-year-old being helped along on a bike with stabilisers by his mum and demanded I go tell him to stop too. I mostly shrugged them off but I had to shout at them properly when one of them took the ball Fraser was playing catch with and another kicked the swing Marie was on and made her cry.

There were maybe seven kids, most of them were eight to ten years old, it was broad daylight, other people were about and the place was overlooked by hundreds of windows. It wasn't a scary experience. I was just confused at how determined they were to be idiots. The oldest two went off to find another bike so they could show how hard they were by racing each other round the play area. One of them made fun of me for wearing glasses as he went. Since he was wearing some truly ugly thick-rimmed spectacles himself, I began to appreciate the level of thoughtless stupidity I was dealing with.

The oddest thing, however, was that all of the kids kept threatening to call the police and have me arrested and they actually seemed to believe that this would scare me. In fact the most tenacious pair only lost interest when I burst out in genuine laughter at the suggestion I'd be 'quaking in my pants' at the thought of the cops showing up. I had to explain to them in some detail that I'd be very happy if the police arrived and that it certainly wouldn't be me who got into trouble. It was wacky.

Gratifyingly, those two returned five minutes later to apologise for their behaviour. I'm not sure what led them to this change of heart because there still didn't seem to be any related adults about but it's possible that they went and made their case to some teenagers in the main body of the park and were told not to be such twits. No matter the reasons, they did seem sorry and I apologised for unwittingly saying whatever it was that made them so irate. Hopefully we can co-exist in future without the need for a SWAT team.

The incident does make me worry about the issues I'm going to face when my kids are older, though. One way or the other, I'm only going to have to deal with more of these stroppy pre-teens. Some of them may live in my house. I need to understand them better.

I suppose calling the police is the ultimate threat adults use on them (and possibly each other). Using it on me was a reflection of that. The genius in the glasses was also probably throwing back taunts someone had aimed at him without applying any thought.

But why did a simple and reasonably polite request turn into such a confrontation? I don't know. Perhaps they were defending the one spot they'd found to hang out where they believed they were free from being bothered by old fogeys...

Or maybe they needed a good clip round the ear. The youth of today... Bah, humbug...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 22 April 2009

Fighting the momentum

Dear Dave,

Lewis is not a fan of change.

I imagine this is fairly normal in a seven-year-old but he takes it to new extremes. For instance, he threw a strop recently because Sarah bought him a new pair of school trousers. Never mind that his old ones were too small and had a hole the size of Andorra in the knee, the new ones simply weren't the same. He managed to convince himself they wouldn't be comfy before even trying them on. Quite how long he was expecting the original pair would last is anybody's guess but he was obviously hoping they'd expand in a similar fashion to The Incredible Hulk's boxer shorts and do him all the way to secondary school and beyond.

Last week our local Tesco had a complete renovation and Lewis was not impressed. He's in denial about the whole affair.

"What are we doing here?" he asked as we entered the supermarket.

"I told you," I replied. "We have to go to Tesco on the way home."

He looked confused. "But why have we come here?"

"This is Tesco."

He looked even more confused. "No, it's not."

"Yes, it is. They've turned the aisles sideways, moved the tills and put in a coffee machine."

"But Tesco isn't like this," he said, starting to become distressed.

"It is now."

"Tell them to put it back."

"What? Including the ride-on duck that was always out of order and the strange smell in the salad section?"

"Yes," he said grumpily.

"Erm, I'm not really sure they're going to be up for that..." I muttered and set off hastily to find where on Earth the washing-up liquid had been moved to.

I knew there was no point arguing any further. Lewis is now so sensitive to innovation, he cried the last time he got his hair cut. Only an inch was removed but apparently he loved it very much - even the fuzz on the back of his neck he can't see without two mirrors and a surprising amount of contortion.

I know for a fact, though, that it's not new situations he dislikes, it's the actual change. He's a slave to momentum. He kicks up a fuss about leaving the house to visit his friends but then hides behind the sofa and refuses to come home once he's there.

At first glance, his behaviour doesn't seem to make much sense but I guess I can understand where he's coming from. I suppose I can be the same sometimes. It's very easy to get into a little routine and run with it, especially when trying to deal with a young family. In order to cope with several years of poor sleep, tiredness and children's TV, I've developed certain ways of doing things. Now the children are older, there may be easier ways of doing things but contemplating change is effort in itself:

I tried swapping the order the kids took their baths the other night because it seemed to make sense in terms of bedtimes, supervision, hair-drying requirements and how long each of the children likes to spend bathing. The outcome was successful but calculating all the alterations to my mental bath-time schedule on the fly was hard work. Next time I may just not bother...

And yet Fraser does like a long bath and Marie would probably prefer not to go to bed with wet hair. In these situations, it's maybe worth remembering Lewis' trousers and examining which of my comfy, familiar methods have become rather stretched and full of holes. If I don't, who knows what might happen? Pressing on with some change now will be better than leaving it too late - I don't want to wake up naked in a public place one day, surrounded by carnage and feeling a little green...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 17 April 2009

Forward to the past

Dear Dave,

It was brought to my attention recently that it's ten years since The Matrix was released.

My first reaction was that it can't possibly have been that long. It simply can't. Thinking about it more carefully, however, I remembered going to see the movie at the cinema with Sarah and then sitting outside a café in the sunshine with a beer, discussing why the machines had been foolish enough to use humans as batteries rather than cows. The peculiar thing about this memory is that at the time, the most extraordinary part of these events was the sunshine. Going to the cinema with my wife without having to rush home afterwards didn't seem in any way unusual. That hasn't been the case since Fraser was born.

Given that he's nearly nine, I was suddenly glad that it's only been ten years.

Actually, I'm more scared by how long it's been since Back to the Future came out. In 1985 Marty McFly took a trip back in time thirty years to the other world that was 1955. Now 1985 is almost twenty-five years ago. It was kind of weird watching the film with my kids at the weekend - if anything, the parts referring to the 'present' made less sense to them than the bits set in the 'past'. Watching the sequel set in the 'future' will just be bizarre. (In Edinburgh in 2015 we're not going to have flying cars and hoverboards, we're going to have a brand new tram system. You know, like in 1885.)

Still, they're going to have to sit through the whole trilogy whether they like it or not. We're trying to get them to watch some of the classics from our youth so they don't keep looking at us like idiots when we make jokes about flux capacitors and being slimed.

OK, maybe that's too much to ask for... but at least they'll know what we're talking about while they look at us like idiots.

So far we've had more problems with this scheme than we were expecting. The kids enjoyed watching Ghostbusters, for instance, but it had more swearing than we remembered (as did Back to the Future!). Since they liked that, we talked up Gremlins, only to discover it's a 15. There must be a whole load of gore I've forgotten about. It's going to be eleven years before Marie really appreciates why I refuse to feed her after midnight.

Then there was the dilemma over which order to show the Star Wars films...

Fraser got to go watch E.T. at a special outdoor showing at the Film Festival last year. It rained. Both boys have seen the Indiana Jones films but Lewis was maybe a little young. Never mind The Matrix being a decade old - by the time any of my kids are old enough to watch The Terminator, Skynet will already control the world.

Ho well, we recorded Groundhog Day off the telly at the weekend. That will have to do instead...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS We may not have flying cars but advances in technology mean that John Lewis have done away with the old ticket dispenser they used to have in the kid's shoe department. Rather than take a number, I now get to enter the age and gender of all my children on a touchscreen and receive an Estimated Service Time in return.

Normally I get given an E.S.T. that's half an hour or so in the future and yet if I sit down with the children and look in the mood to buy shoes, I'm served within five minutes.

The machine excelled itself the other day. Entering Marie's details at 5:28, I was given this:

Ticket giving an estimated time of service of 6:28.

The shop closes at 6:30.

Personally, I'd rather have the hoverboards...

Monday 13 April 2009

A sort of Easter story

Dear Dave,

Long ago and far away, a housedad named Ed took his three children on an outing. It was a holiday, the weather was nice and there was a story-teller in town - it seemed like the perfect excuse to get out of the house before everyone killed each other. They had a packed lunch with them and sat on a travel rug on a grassy hillside waiting for the show to begin. For the sake of argument, let's call the children Fraser, Lewis and Marie.

And, to be quite honest, there was a fair amount of argument to be had.

"I want a cheese sandwich," said Marie.

"You don't like bread," said Ed.

The little girl was not put off by this. "The boys have cheese sandwiches."

"Yes, but I didn't make you one because you don't like bread. I brought you crackers."

"I don't want crackers."

"Then what are you going to eat?" asked Ed as calmly as he could manage, showing her what was in the bag of food. "Grapes, apple, a banana?"


"We're on a hill," sighed Ed. "I didn't bring any pasta with me. Or a stove, for that matter. You'll have to eat something else."

Marie thought about this for a moment. "Can I have a cheese sandwich?"

"But you don't like bread," said Ed, beginning to lose it.

"Yes, I do."

"Two days ago you told me you hate bread and it's yucky."

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you... Oh, never mind, have my sandwich."

"Yeuch!" said Marie, taking one look at the sandwich Ed was offering her and then burying her head in her hands. "It's got salad in!"

"I can take the salad out."

One eye peeked from between Marie's fingers. "No. It's touched the cheese. I don't want it."

"Well..." began Ed but Fraser interrupted.

"Where are the crisps?" he said, hunting through the bag of food.

"I didn't bring crisps," said Ed.

"Aw... Why not?"

"Because I already had the fruit, sandwiches, water, juice, wipes, raincoats and goodness knows what else to carry, not to mention the large, cuddly dolphin Marie insisted we bring. Besides, we'll be home in a couple of hours. You can have crisps then."

Fraser looked ready to argue some more but Lewis dived in first. "I've finished my food. Can I have dessert?"

"You've already had dessert," said Ed.

Lewis seemed genuinely confused. "No, I haven't."

"You all had your desserts on the way because you complained you were hungry, despite only just having had breakfast."

"But those were snacks."

Ed shook his head. "They were the chocolate bars I packed for dessert."

"They were snacks - we had them at snack time. We normally have a snack at school. Why didn't you pack dessert?"

"I did," said Ed, taking a deep breath. "I didn't pack snacks."

"But we had snacks..."

Flinging up his hands to ward off what was liable to be an extended display of twisted logic, Ed admitted defeat. "OK, OK, stop! You can have a mint. That's all I've got."

Lewis nodded eagerly and Ed fished around in his back pocket for the battered packet. Scraping the fluff off, he handed Lewis a mint.

As the kids turned to squabbling amongst themselves over the colour of grass, Ed ate his own sandwiches and looked round the hillside. Several mums had brought their kids along and were feeding them spaghetti in vegetable sauce from Tupperware containers. The mums themselves were eating carrot sticks. One or two smiled; the rest ignored him.

Ed was glad that at least it wasn't raining.

Then the story-teller arrived at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by security, and there was a sudden rush to get down there for the show. By the time Ed had convinced his children to get off the travel rug so he could pack it up, they were last. A crush of adults had already formed round the story-teller and none of the children present could get close. The mums were complaining loudly to two of the security men.

"Get back! No shoving!" said one of the bouncers.

"We just want the little ones to be able to hear," said a mum. "They won't be any trouble."

Ed found this last statement somewhat unlikely given that her toddlers were both gnawing on his legs. Nonetheless, it was possible the mum was in denial rather than blatantly lying.

The bouncer waved her away. "You can't come through."

"Don't be ridiculous. Let the children get to the front."

"They'll get in the way and make too much noise," said the bouncer, standing firm. "This is for grown ups."

At that, Ed felt the need to chip in. "That's not what it said on the advertising."

"Quite right." The story-teller parted the crowd with a stern look and a wave of his hand. As he walked forward, he almost glowed with life and power. "The kingdom of God belongs to people like them. Let them through." Then he motioned the bouncers aside, smiled and beckoned the children forward. Half of them didn't notice and needed a parental shove to get moving because they were too busy hitting each other over the head with sticks.

Fraser brought up the rear and one of the bouncers moved to block his path. Ed raised an eyebrow.

"He's a bit on the large side," said the bouncer.

"Look," said Ed. "It's been a long day and it's only lunch-time. Start quibbling and I'm going to try passing you through the eye of a needle, and see how far you get, OK?"

The bouncer stepped aside.

The children seated themselves at the front and Ed went a short distance up the hill so he could see what was going on. Once the hubbub had died down, the story-teller began. "Anyone who doesn't accept the kingdom of God like a little child won't get in..."

The story-teller stopped as Marie raised her hand.


"Does it have cheese sandwiches?" she asked excitedly.

The story-teller winked. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it does."

"Yeh!" she said and settled down happily, ready to listen to everything the story-teller had to say...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 8 April 2009

Serf's up

Dear Dave,

The other week, I caught two of my children arguing about me when they thought I wasn't listening.

"Daddy's my slave," said Marie without a hint of doubt in her voice.

I wasn't too pleased about this but Fraser went momentarily up in my opinion when he laughed and dismissed the notion out of hand. "No, he's not."

"Yes, he is," insisted Marie.

"No," said Fraser. "He's my slave."

On cross-examination, he claimed to be joking. Despite this, I can't help thinking that deep down there was rather more truth there than he was letting on.

I know my place.

Let's face it, your kids may well believe the same about you and there may be no dissuading them from this misconception for a couple of decades. Bearing this in mind, it's important to minimise the drudgery. When faced with a very specific demand from a child (or anyone else for that matter), it's always worth checking whether it's specific for a reason or simply because that was the first thing they thought of. Will they truly only be satisfied by dew gathered from the fronds of the parent-eating tangle grass of the distant and mythical island of Kara-kara-bango? Or will any old glass of water do really?

Yesterday, as Marie was getting ready for bed, she came out of her room with a fistful of hankies, gave them to me and said, "These need washed."

"Right," I said uncertainly, wondering where they'd come from and how desperately they required fumigation.

Sensing my thoughts, Marie said, "They were under my pillow. I wiped my nose on them last night."

"What? All of them?"


I sighed. "OK, I'll put them to be washed and get you another one."

"I'll get one of my own," she replied, skipping back into her room.

"Fine," I said and headed downstairs to the bucket where disgusting laundry goes. Unfortunately, in my rush to find somewhere other than my hand for the dirty nose-rags, I was foolish enough not to check she'd actually found a clean one.

Predictably, at some ungodly hour this morning, I was woken by a small child in pink pyjamas sniffling into my room and proclaiming, "I need a hanky!"

I tried my best to get her to search the drawer with my personal supply but the hankies were buried under my socks and she gave up before finding any. I had to stumble out from under the covers and locate one myself. I collapsed back into bed and checked my alarm clock, somehow groaning at both how early it was and how little time I had left before I had to get up. As I did so, I knocked a box of tissues from my bedside table.

It occurred to me I might have been able to fob her off with one of those and I cursed my own stupidity. As I fell back to sleep, though, I realised that that wouldn't have worked. She would probably have complained a tissue wasn't sufficiently soft or stretchy or some other such thing. Even if she had accepted it, she would doubtless have been back for another one before long.

She'd asked for a hanky, and getting her a hanky was the only thing guaranteed to bring peace. I'd made the right move...

Since it's the holidays, I ignored my alarm and snuck some extra sleep. The kids got up and played relatively peacefully amongst themselves until I was woken my the pink-pyjama'd one once more.

"My Leapster's out of batteries," she said. "I was playing a game and it stopped working. It needs new batteries."

I could still have done with a few more minutes but there was no way she could manage to replace the batteries on her own. Getting her brothers to try was likely to be more effort than doing it myself. I dragged myself out of bed again, staggered down to the kitchen and groggily swapped the batteries in her handheld computer game. (It's quiet and educational - I can think of far worse things for her to be playing with while I'm still asleep. Magnets, paint and the neighbour's cat, for instance.) I switched the Leapster back on and it sprang into technicolour life. I tried to hand it to Marie.

She waved it away. "I've had enough Leapstering for now."

"Then why did you wake me up specially to change the batteries?"

"They needed changed."

I found it hard to argue with that kind of logic while only half awake. I suspected, however, I could have fobbed her off by telling her I'd change the batteries after breakfast. This was one occasion I hadn't made the right move. Of course, at the mention of food, she would probably have complained she was hungry and demanded I got up to make her toast anyway. Nonetheless, it would have been worth checking for the sake of those extra few minutes in bed...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 3 April 2009

The cellar

Dear Dave,

My twinges of illness the other week never amounted to very much. I ended up being so busy preparing for Lewis' party that I didn't have time for the plague. This week, though, I feel like my limbs and eyelids have lead weights attached and I'm just stumbling along in the direction of the school holidays. Last year at this time, with Easter being early, we were already away on our infamous trip to Bruges. This year's spring term seems dragged out in comparison. We could all do with a break to recuperate. Everything is an effort and I'm so tired I can barely rub two words together in a straight line.

This is strange because I've recently had more sleep and less to do than at most other points in the last nine years. I think my body has realised there's under six months until Marie starts full-time education and it has already begun to shut down higher brain functions in preparation for being able to lie on the sofa groaning for six hours a day. (I don't have huge expectations for what I'm initially going to achieve with my extra freedom...)

This lethargy is reminiscent of the way nothing much gets done in school during the final days of term because everyone's exhausted and can't see the use in starting anything anyway. Far better to wait and begin fresh after the holiday. In the meantime, the teachers get to tidy the cupboards while the kids watch The Lion King on DVD.

I'm not at the stage of playing Marie looped Disney yet but that point may not be far off. Getting all my children through their pre-school years has been a lengthy process - who knows how long the wind down will be?

Malton House (my nephew Ned's school where I do IT support) finishes on Friday and there's not much work being done. The boys have been sitting around playing their PSPs most of the week and the cupboards are looking pristine. I've taken the chance to pull members of the computer club out of class so they can learn important employment-related skills such as problem solving, customer interaction and task management. Essentially, I've been ordering them about, getting them to do my job for me. We're making great progress. I reckon almost three-quarters of the computers at the school are now vaguely doing what they're supposed to. Result!

I was there yesterday, patrolling the corridors in search of malfunctioning technology, when howls of annoyance erupted from a nearby classroom. I peeked through the glass in the door and saw a load of teenage boys waving handheld consoles around above their heads in a frustrated fashion.

I sighed and drew my walkie-talkie out of its holster in preparation for what was to come.

Almost at once, the voice of the school secretary crackled out. "Computer Guy, this is Dispatch. We have a 5-27. The headmaster's internet connection is down. I repeat, internet connection down! Respond immediately."

"Dispatch, this is Computer Guy. I am en route. Estimated response time is three minutes. Priority one."

I started jogging along to the photocopying room. Technically, running in the corridors is against school rules but there was no telling what the headmaster might get up to without the distraction of the web. The previous time he'd lost access to live chat about embalming badgers, he'd organised a lengthy staff meeting to stress the importance of keeping the pupils supervised at all times. With the teachers out of the picture, it was left to me and the secretary to keep things under control. The boys ran riot. The only way to regain control was to set the dinner ladies loose on them. In the ensuing chaos, there were several breakages and a number of minor injuries. One of the greenhouses went missing. (It was subsequently discovered on the rugby pitch with the head of biology's car parked inside. We had to delay the search, though, while we waited for someone to own up for summoning a rather irate mountain rescue team.)

Unwilling to repeat that incident, I hurried to reach the main router, my backpack of spare parts, manuals and Duck tape jingling as I went.

I knew exactly what the problem was.

Sure enough, when I reached my destination and picked my way past boxes of toner and some large pot plants, I found the router just as I'd left it, apart from one small difference:

The cable was back in.

This cable has been giving me gyp for a while. It's an unassuming black wire which sneaks stealthily out of a hole in the carpet in the corner of the room and hides behind furniture on its journey to an almost out of reach port at the back of the router. It would be easy to ignore.

Well, that's to say, it would be easy to ignore if it didn't occasionally suck the school's entire bandwidth dry and cause everything to crash. Whenever I unplug it, however, it's mysteriously reconnected by the next time I check.

Wise to this, I've rigged up a secret camera.

After disconnecting the cable and rebooting the system, I opened a drawer, pulled out the laptop that was recording images and had a look at the footage. Most of it was of an empty room; much of the rest was photocopying. A couple of minutes was of a pot plant edging in from the side to block the shot while someone I couldn't quite identify plugged the cable back in. There was a pause. Then the pot plant wobbled shiftily out of the way again.

I considered moving the camera to a different location but I figured it wouldn't do any good. My prey was apparently smarter than that. My only option was to try to determine where the cable went. Lifting the carpet slightly, I discovered the wire disappeared into a small cast-iron grating in the floor. I took my torch out of my backpack and shone it down. There was a vent below which descended into the depths.

I was going to have to investigate the cellar.

I sighed but I was resigned to my fate - I'd known for a while I'd have to go there sometime. I'd noticed a number of pupils wandering in that direction go quiet and take a sharp turn on seeing me. Equipment in the vicinity of the door had a tendency to disappear. I'd even spotted Mr McIntyre sneaking down there with heavy packages a couple of times. Something was clearly going on... but I'd thought it safer not to ask. I'd also put off checking for myself because, quite frankly, it's dark down there and there are some pretty huge spiders.

Still, it had begun to impact on my job, so I couldn't put it off any longer. Reluctantly, I headed towards the kitchens. I passed through the old ballroom of the vast Georgian building as I went. It now serves as an assembly room and it was the only part of the school showing any signs of industry. Preparations were in full swing for a production of My Fair Lady in conjunction with the girls' school down the road. Lights and props were being arranged and the final adjustments were being made to the sound system as the band practised. I waved to my niece, Lisa, who was playing the piano. She smiled back. A fourth year boy had the misfortune to be walking between us and tripped over his own feet as a pretty girl beamed in his direction. The pile of books he was carrying rained down around him. I helped him up, waved to Lisa again and hurried on.

The side corridor leading to the cellar was empty as I approached but the door was slightly ajar and a naked bulb somewhere below cast a dim light onto the stone steps.

I hesitated before proceeding. There could have been anything down there. Images of crocodiles, giant serpents, aliens and excitable barbers flashed through my head. It was probably best to let someone know where I was going.

"Dispatch," I whispered into my walkie-talkie, "I'm entering the cellar. If I don't check in within half an hour, please send back up. Over."

"Copy that, Computer Guy. Be careful down there."

"I intend to be. Computer Guy out."

I prodded the door open cautiously and crept down the steps. It wasn't as dark as I'd imagined, nor dank and full of chained skeletons. The first chamber was piled high with old-fashioned desks and some very uncomfortable looking chairs. Three tunnels led out of the room but one was going entirely the wrong way and another was pitch black and the light switch didn't do anything. I took the third option, even though I could hear hammering from that direction. It didn't sound particularly frenzied or extra-terrestrial in nature but I picked up a leg from a broken table and hefted it like a baseball bat, just in case.

An absolutely enormous arachnid winked at me from its dusty web in a corner of the ceiling.

After a couple of twists, the tunnel ended in a wooden door. The hammering emanated from within. I wasn't very sure I was below the photocopying room and I contemplated turning back. I didn't much fancy venturing into the darkness of the alternative route, however. I dithered and then opened the door...

I found myself face-to-face with a life-size plywood cut-out of a horse.

While I was still blinking in confusion, my nephew Ned popped up from behind it with a hammer in his hand. "Oh, s'you," he mumbled and went back to nailing a support into place.

"Er..." I replied.

Ned finished hammering and came round to my side of the horse to add some details with a small pot of black paint.

"Don't you have some revision to do?" I said weakly, putting down my makeshift club.

Ned shrugged. "Shouldn't you be fixing some computers?"

"Yeah, very funny, I am actually working, thank you very much - I'm trying to track some cable. You, meanwhile, have only a few weeks until some exams, the failure of which will result in you being sent to a boarding school so far north it might as well be the dark side of the moon with added heather. Why have you snuck off to paint a horse?"

"S'for the show," he said.

"Oh, OK..." I couldn't shout at him for doing something he was supposed to be doing. I was confused, though. If he really was supposed to be doing it, then... "Why are you hiding in the cellar?"

Ned continued to paint. "Only place I get left alone."

"Are you being picked on again?" I said, keen to find out what was going on but becoming conscious I was asking a teenager lots of questions. If I pressed too hard, he was simply going to shrug me off.

"I wish. Everyone's my friend now."

This seemed unlikely but I waited and he didn't elaborate. I was forced to continue interrogating him. "How come?"

"Lisa's in the band this year."

I began to glimpse the problem. "Oh..." Lisa was a pretty girl dropped into a school full of boys who thought the easiest way to her phone number was through her brother. The teachers had no doubt also pointed out on several occasions what a talented musician she is. Ned doesn't like school much but at least it's the one place he's normally free from being outshone by his popular and overachieving sister.

There was another pause as I wondered what to say. In the end, I was distracted by the horse. "This is really good. Did you do it all yourself?"

He grunted in a positive sort of fashion.

"I didn't know you were good at art."

This didn't go down well. Despite having his back to me, there was something in the manner he tensed up that meant I could tell he was scowling. "Yeah, doesn't seem anyone does."

"Sorry," I said without much conviction. Given his normal reluctance to communicate, how was I supposed to know he could paint? Nonetheless, I'd obviously touched on a sore point. "Want to talk about it?"

He shrugged. "Not really."

There was silence...

...and then a bit more...

I decided to cut my losses and abandon the subject until another occasion. "Right, I'd better go find out who's stealing the broadband."

"It'll be Mr McIntyre."

"I guessed that. Where is he?"

"Left at the bottom of the stairs."

It figured. That was the tunnel with no light. "What's he doing down here?"

"Dunno," said Ned. "Can I come look?"

"I suppose so," I said and we headed off

The spider was nowhere to be seen when we reached the room of abandoned furniture. This made me nervous. I tried the light switch for the tunnel a couple more times but nothing happened. Taking out my torch, the beam felt tiny and weak as I shone it along our path, illuminating only a short stretch of flagstones before being eaten by the gloom.

"Why've you got a torch?" asked Ned.

"I spend half this job under desks fiddling with wires. I get fewer electric shocks when I can see what I'm doing... Want to go first?"


"Fair enough..." I started forward slowly, keeping an eye out for trouble. The aliens and crocodiles in my head had been replaced by pit traps and giant, rolling boulders...

"Don't move!" said Ned sharply.

I nearly leapt out of my skin. "What?"


"Where?" I said, swinging the torch around in a panic.

"On your back."

That finally got me to stop moving. "How big is it?"

"Flippin' enormous," said Ned, scooping it up in his hands and shoving it close to my face so I could take a look. "There. I think it winked at me."

"I have a phobia of spiders," I said, backing away.

"I know." He grinned and put the spider in amongst the pile of chairs.

I muttered various things under my breath. Then, once I'd regained my composure, we pressed on. The tunnel snaked along past cupboards and storerooms for some distance before ending in a door. Bright light and the hum of electronics seeped out from underneath.

"This must be it," I said, lifting the latch and letting us in.

I was expecting to find Mr McIntyre reclining with a beer in front of a huge telly. (That's what I'd be doing if I had a secret lair in a dingy cellar.)

I really wasn't counting on discovering a classroom.

Far from being dingy, it was well-lit and nicely carpeted. The walls were lined with bookshelves and cabinets, there was a vending machine and an overhead projector was displaying a spreadsheet. The place was kitted out better than most of the rooms upstairs, in fact - it had everything apart from windows. There was no sign of Mr McIntyre but around thirty boys were sitting in rows, their eyes fixed on the computer screens in front of them as they moved mice around frantically.

"What's going on here?" I said loudly.

Barely anyone stirred. Only the boy nearest me looked up briefly. "Business studies, sir."

"In the cellar?" I stepped round behind him to see what he was working at. "Hang on, you're playing World of Warcraft."

"Nah," said another boy from the back of the room, "that's Age of Conan, sir. This row is World of Warcraft."

He was right. I checked the screens and the pupils were playing everything from EverQuest to Second Life.

It was turning into one of those days where I was getting used to being confused. "OK, let's try this again. What exactly is going on here?"

"Practical session," said the first boy. "We're running a company providing goods and services to players of massively multiplayer online games."

It took me a moment to work out what he was talking about. "Oh! You're playing the games and then eBaying the virtual loot for real cash."

"The marketing department doesn't like it put like that, sir, but that's the idea."

"Cool," said Ned, slouching over to an empty workstation. "Can I have a go?"

I dragged him away. "Don't even think about it. You've got a horse to paint and exams to revise for. The last thing you need is an online addiction." I pointed him in the direction of the door. "Off you go."

Ned turned and almost walked into Mr McIntyre - a short, wiry man with a bald head and a grey goatee. He always gives the impression of having had a previous career as a stage magician. I suspect it has something to do with the way he flourishes his black teaching gown and projects his voice in a melodramatic fashion.

"I see you've found my little sweatshop at last," he said, entering the room.

"I guess now I know what's been straining the school's internet connection," I sighed. "I take it you've been upstairs plugging the cable back in."

"But of course."

"I also presume you realise you're not going to get away with running a gold farming operation down here any longer."

Mr McIntyre chuckled theatrically. "Don't be so foolish - this scheme helps keep the school solvent and us all in employment. Diversification! That's the watch word in these troubled times. And what resources do we have? Copious computer equipment bought by the PTA that we don't really have a use for and a whole load of teenage boys. Putting them together is a simple act of fiscal common sense."

"Are you saying the headmaster knows about this already?"

Mr McIntyre squirmed a little and lowered his voice. "He knows there's money being made but I told him I hooked up generators to the boiler and we're selling the electricity to the National Grid."

"You convinced him you're making a profit from heating the building?"

"It seemed easier than explaining about creating pretend gold to sell for hard currency."

I considered this. "You're maybe right... But you can't keep using the pupils as slave labour and claim it's work experience! It's not... I... Er..."

Mr McIntyre pressed a key on the laptop on his desk and the overhead projector started showing a live feed from the security camera in a maths classroom. Several members of the computer club were busily upgrading Windows on a clutch of PCs there.

"Drat," I muttered. "I was hoping they'd have finished there by now and moved on to the chemistry labs... Er... What was I talking about?"

"You were saying something about not exploiting the pupils."

"Oh, yeah..." I couldn't help feeling I'd not so much lost the moral high ground as fallen off it. I started to show myself out. "Never mind. I'll go read a book on networking and figure out how to stop the system from going down all the time, shall I?"

Mr McIntyre nodded. "That would be most appreciated."

"And how about a light bulb for this corridor?" I added, peering into the gloom once more.

"The darkness helps keep prying eyes away and illumination is unnecessary - there is never anything here." He went into the tunnel and felt his way forward with his arms stretched out to either side. He was quickly lost from sight. "It's perfectly possible to navigate one's way without... Argh!" There was a crash and a thud.

I flipped out my torch and shined it in his direction. He was sprawled over a lawnmower that hadn't been there earlier.

Mr McIntyre picked himself up and brushed himself down. He was unhurt. "What is it with this school and wandering gardening equipment?" he grumbled and then strode off again.

Ned and I looked at each other.

"Can't wait for the holidays," said Ned.

"Tell me about it," I agreed and we followed the teacher back to fresh air and daylight.

The spider winked as we passed...

Yours in a woman's world,