Dear Dave

Friday 29 May 2009

Bright future

Dear Dave,

I saw my nephew Ned for the first time in a while yesterday. He normally turns up regularly after school but he's been taking his Standard Grade exams the last couple weeks and I think he might actually have been staying home doing revision. After much discussion with his mum and dad, he acquired some last minute motivation to knuckle down. Provided he achieves results which aren't entirely disastrous in his 'proper' subjects, he's going to be allowed to drop them next year and concentrate on art and design, which are where his real talents lie.

Bearing this in mind, I was surprised to find him at my door rather than away somewhere practicing simultaneous equations.

"Done," he said in answer to my unspoken question and slouched in. He dumped his bag on the floor and pulled off his shoes without unlacing them.

"All your exams?"


Before I could reply, Fraser bounded down the stairs to the bottom step. "Did you bring me a birthday present?" he said excitedly to Ned.


"Why not? It's my birthday tomorrow."


I intervened. "Did you get Ned a birthday present on his last birthday?"

"No," said Fraser, taken aback by this barmy suggestion. "That's your job. I thought you got him one."

"I did... and he still didn't give me a present on my birthday. Quite why you're expecting one, I don't know."

Fraser clung onto the banister and leaned over, bringing his face close to mine. He spoke in a low, drawn-out voice, like an audio tape that had been stretched. "Because it's MYYYY BIIIIRTH-day TOOOO-mor-ROOOOOOW."

I got a good view down his throat. "Is it? Drat. I should have bought you a present."

"Ha, ha. Very funny, Daddy," he said and then hurried back upstairs before his wiimote got cold.

I shook my head and waited until he was out of earshot. "I can't believe he's going to be nine."

"I thought he was nine already," said Ned, shrugging, and he started to slouch away in the direction of the cupboard I use as an office.

"Don't you understand what that means?" I said, unwilling to let him shut himself away with my Xbox before I'd got a little more of a response from him. "I'm halfway to getting him out of the house! It seems like only a few weeks ago I was sitting in an operating theatre, holding a startled bundle in my arms. After nine months of waiting, he was finally out and we both stared at each other, wondering what to do next. Now he's playing Pokémon cards and being carefully to refer to me as 'Dad' rather than 'Daddy' when talking to his friends. Another nine years and I can wave a tearful goodbye as he heads off to university, then shove his stuff in the loft and put a pool table in his room."

"A pool table!?"

"Er, yeah, but don't tell him that. Or your Aunt Sarah for that matter..."

Ned's eyes lit up. "You going to have a mini-fridge in there too, with beer and stuff?"

"Of course. Come and look at the plans. I've got them hidden where no one will find them."

I took him through to the kitchen and opened the cupboard under the sink where I keep all my cleaning supplies. A big sheet of graph paper with a scale drawing of Fraser's room on it was stuck to the back of the door. Card cut-outs of pieces of furniture were pinned in position. "It's a bit of a squeeze but if the telly goes on the side wall at one end, the gaming chair with built in surround-sound can go next to the bookshelves when the table's not in use. That should be about perfect distance for a forty inch screen."

"You'd have to get up to get to the fridge."

"That is a point." I swiftly moved some of the cut-outs and pinned them back into place. "How's that?"

"Dunno. S'not much room round the arcade cabinet."

I chewed my lip. "Yeah, that seems to happen whatever I do. It may have to wait until Lewis leaves home. Then it can go in his room next to the jacuzzi."


I gave the problem one more wistful ponder, shook my head and closed the cupboard with a sigh.

It's not a plan I think about often. It's perhaps rather too far in the future still. I've got a great deal of parenting to do before it's even worth measuring windows to decide which one's going to have to come out to get the pool table in. There's plenty to look forward to in the meantime, nonetheless. Getting my youngest off to school will signal the end of another phase of my housedad years. It won't bring space for gadgets, and it's already brought me angst and insecurity, but there will be many fresh opportunities. Just imagine - six hours a day without being pestered, argued with, complained at or forced to wear pink, plastic jewellery. Who knows what I could achieve?

I decided not to share any of this with Ned. I figured he'd just look blank and grunt.

"How did the exams go?" I asked.

"All right."

"Good enough?"

"Think so," he said, half a smile fighting its way through his usual teenage frown.

I grinned back. "Excellent."

There was a pause.

Then he shrugged and sloped off to play Tomb Raider...

All the best to you and the family,

Yours in a changing world,


Monday 25 May 2009

Play hard, work hard

Dear Dave,

There are many issues facing a stay-at-home dad. Some are practical, such as when to get sleep, where to take the kids when it's raining and how to avoid standing in puddles of pee. Others are more psychological, from maintaining a healthy level of self-worth in a society obsessed with status and the acquisition of material goods, to learning to phase out children's television before suffering excessive mental trauma. It always surprises me, however, that even with all my preparation and experience, I still face fresh challenges on a regular basis.

My current dilemma is to do with hobbies:

Try as I might, I can't keep the kid's TV out of my brain entirely and I've noticed many stories about pushy fathers teaching their hobbies to their offspring, desperate for their children to be like them. You know the kind of thing: lumberjack dad wants short-sighted, geeky son to turn off his computer and take up bear wrestling, or professor dad wants girlie daughter to cast aside her dreams of pop stardom and give entomology a proper chance... It usually plays out with the child gaining the self-confidence to argue back and persuade their parents to let them be themselves.

Real life is seldom as extreme. For instance, my dad would probably have liked me to enjoy sailing - he enjoys sailing himself and having an extra crew member is always useful. Unfortunately, I have mild agoraphobia which is brought on by a light wind and lots of open sky and that is exacerbated by engine noise. A hobby involving flapping sails, the Norfolk broads and an outboard motor was never really going to be my thing. I put up with our infrequent Sunday afternoon excursions but I didn't volunteer for them.

I have fonder memories of making Airfix models with my dad. The smell of solvents still takes me back to happy times attempting to glue little bits of plastic together to produce a vaguely recognisable representation of a ship or airplane. In retrospect it must have been torture for him as I waved a sharp knife around and then clumsily attached pieces squint.

We frequently stuck our own fingers together.

Even when I was eight, I couldn't help noticing that HMS Victory was a trifle shonky and Titanic looked somewhat post-iceberg (particularly after it fell off its display on top of the TV a couple of times). Nonetheless, I'm glad we had those evenings together. Dads sharing the occasional evening or Sunday afternoon inflicting their favourite pastime on their children is part of growing up.

Well, at least it is when the dad is out at work the rest of the week. My boys have a different experience. Just like me, they love board games involving little plastic orcs and also any sort of computer game. They're always wanting to share my hobbies.


Don't get me wrong - it's great digging out a board game I haven't played for twenty years and playing it with them. The problem is that I'm not merely around at weekends and for the hour before bed-time. I'm here all the time. They can pester me constantly and demand to play games over and over again.

Worse still, they have a tendency to beat me. I can hold my own when playing them one-on-one in a game of pure strategy, such as Chess, but in a three-player game which involves both strategy and luck they've quickly learnt that the best tactic is to gang up on me first before fighting it out with each other. I lose a lot. Although that's better than when I play them at computer games - with those, the boys have had so much practice, they can defeat me before I've entirely worked out which buttons to press. This leaves them extra time to remorselessly mock me...

Getting soundly thrashed ten times in a row at New Super Mario Brothers, despite my best efforts and spraining my thumbs, isn't fun. Having to set up an army of plastic goblins for the third epic battle of the afternoon (while also entertaining Marie) starts to wear thin. It's all a little too much like work.

I suppose, on the bright side, it's better than having to repeatedly play Scrabble or Mouse Trap with them but sometimes I'd love to slip away to get some peace. What would I do, though? My favourite pastimes are becoming subverted. I normally take a break by playing a game. What do I do to take a break from playing games?

I need to find a new hobby that I know the boys will hate, just to get some space. Let's see. What's going to put them off the most?
  • Being outdoors.
  • Plenty of physical work.
  • A lack of gadgets.
  • Wind and rain.
  • Having to go a long way to get there.
  • Loud engine noises.
  • A high probability of getting wet.
  • Lots of...
Hey... Hang on a minute...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 20 May 2009

What next?

Dear Dave,

This is only the fifth week of term since the kids went back after Easter but it's the third time they've had a holiday Monday. As an added bonus, they've also got Tuesday and Wednesday off this week as well. Since they never have school on a Friday afternoon normally, it hardly seems worth getting their uniforms dirty for the number of hours of lessons that remain. They might as well have the whole week off and be done with it.

Suddenly the question of what I'm going to do with myself once Marie is in full-time education feels less pressing. Yeah, there'll be plenty of weeks I'll have twenty-five hours or so to fill but there'll also be plenty where finding a spare twenty-five minutes will be tricky. I should perhaps worry less than I have been about what the future holds - I'll still have ample childcare duties to occupy me for a while yet.

Nonetheless my life is changing. Maybe now is the time to focus on the positives of the situation. My kids getting older may make my role in life uncertain but there will also be opportunities. If nothing else, I'll get to have a little sit down. Then I can start to plan my next career move.

Obviously, I could hire myself out as some kind of Super Manny but it's only faith, hope and love which have got me through some of the more tiring and stickier moments with my own children. I'm not sure money would be enough to endure other people's kids. I really need to think how I can apply my current skill-set to different jobs. Here are the options I've thought of so far:

International Negotiator: Looking after small children can be a constant battle to keep everyone happy despite them all having contradictory desires which are also frequently physically impossible and/or messy. It's like trying to spin plates which are piled with custard. With nearly a decade of experience behind me, however, I now feel ready to organise worldwide nuclear disarmament. (I'm not quite sure how Gordon Brown and Vladimir Putin are going to react to being sent to their rooms without computer games, though.)

Fireman: A few trips to the gym to get fit and this should be a doddle. I regularly get practice running up and down stairs searching for the source of some yelling while smoke wafts from the kitchen.

Primary teacher: Ha, ha, just kidding - anything but that...

Journalist: I don't actually have any housedad-related skills relevant to this career but as long as I managed to somehow make every other story about the credit crunch or MPs' expenses, I'd be onto a winner.

Doctor: It turns out that most things can be rubbed better. Most other things will go away by themselves after a few days... except head lice - if you see them, it means weeks of shampooing and combing. My professional advice is that you save time in advance by shaving your entire family bald immediately. (I have.)

Gardener: This job requires patience, involves lots of dirt and is liable to lead to a bad back. On the plus side, plants don't squabble or give smart answers and they generally stay where you put them. This is a step up from my current employment.

Global Financier: Hey, how hard can it be...?

Student: Ah, yes, getting to stay up all night and then lie around on the sofa all day in an exhausted daze while watching the Teletubbies and being broke. Sound familiar?

Cleaner: From regurgitated spinach to sun-baked plasticine, I've had to deal with it all during my time as a housedad. There's no mess I can't remove, disguise or hide under a pot plant. (Although I'm not saying it hasn't taken its toll on my sanity. When I first typed that sentence, it came out as, 'From regurgitated spinach to sun-baked plasticine, I've had to deal with it all during my time as a pot plant. There's no mess I can't remove, disguise or hide under a housedad.')

Hmmm... Maybe I need to think about this a little more. Any other ideas?

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 15 May 2009

Letting go

Dear Dave,

Hurrah! The good weather is finally here. I can get the boys out of the house without the need to wrestle them into raincoats while they hug the TV and cry at the thought of being parted from it for half an hour. Nope, on occasion, I can now catch them unawares, grab them off the sofa and drop them straight out the window to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine as they bang on the back door demanding to be let back in.

Since Marie loves being outside, her life has changed less dramatically. She pretty much insisted we go to the swing park every day after nursery even during the winter. Our hands went numb and our hats turned soggy. We played in the snow and in the wind and in the rain. We ran home screaming during a hail storm. The main difference the warm weather has brought is that now she has friends to play with on the roundabout.

If only she could agree with them which way to push...

I was sitting on a bench the other day, keeping an eye on her, when Mike sat down beside me. I hadn't seen him enter the swing park but the other parents clearly had. At the sight of his dog-collar, they'd all somehow managed to drift to the other side of the park, well out of range of any searching questions or fatherly wisdom.

I quickly gauged the possibility of joining them but I didn't fancy my chances. Besides, he knows where I live. There was nowhere to hide.

"I was passing and saw you here," he said gruffly. "Thought I'd pop over for a chat." He handed me a cardboard cup.

I peeked under the lid. "And you just happened to have a spare cup of black coffee?"

"Are you complaining?" he asked, sipping at his own cappuccino. He waved a paper bag at me. "Doughnut?"


He shook the bag enticingly. "They have sprinkles."

"I guess if you insist..."

We sat and ate doughnuts for a while. The other parents (and several small children) looked on enviously.

"So...?" said Mike after a bit.

"I wish you'd stop asking me that."

"You keep avoiding giving me an answer."

I sighed in exasperation. "I haven't worked out who I want to be when I grow up yet, if that's what you want to know."


"I'm still working on it." I paused, hoping Mike would give up. He didn't speak, however, and I felt a strange need to fill the silence. His ability to make me talk by not saying much and then looking at me expectantly is infuriating. Unable to help myself, I began to ramble. "One of the checkout assistants at Tesco has started to recognise me because he's impressed I always seem to have made the effort to get my kids out of the house and bring them grocery shopping. I had to point out that I'm a housedad and so I don't have much choice in the matter - they're liable to glue themselves to the fridge or something if I leave them home alone. It felt wrong, though. Technically I'm still a housedad but that doesn't mean anything like it did a couple of years ago. Back when the kids were small, looking after them made me odd and unusual. I had a 7 to 11 job that took all my time and defined me. Everywhere I went, I was The Housedad - a superhero who could look after three children under the age of five while ensuring the washing-up got done and maintaining at least some semblance of a smile. Despite being a man."

Mike nodded but didn't say much beyond an understanding grunt. He looked at me expectantly.

I rubbed my forehead and ploughed on. "It's not like that anymore. Taking care of them involves much more negotiating than grappling these days. I don't have to change nappies or sterilise bottles or carry screaming toddlers around town. I even get a decent amount of sleep. Half the time, I can keep them under control with a shout from another room. Once Marie starts school and I get nearly thirty hours a week without children to entertain, I won't be that different from all the other dads standing around the playground at home time."

"Does that bother you?"

"I was thinking a chance to rest would be great but I'm beginning to dread being asked, 'What are you going to do with yourself?'. I just don't know. I don't even know whether I should find anything to do with myself straight off."

"What about your job doing IT support at that school?" Mike asked, offering me another doughnut.

"I mainly took it to help out my nephew, Ned," I said, rooting around in the bag for something with plenty of jam and icing. "I'll have to decide whether it's worth keeping going after the summer. I certainly wouldn't want to increase my hours - I do need some rest and there's a stack of chores that have been piling up for the past nine years."

"You won't find it difficult filling your time. Just take the chance to stop and think first. It won't be long before your kids are teenagers - you'll need to be certain who you are before you can help them become themselves."

I snorted. "Never mind that, it's going to be hard enough learning to walk down the street without a toddler beside me."

"Perhaps. I'm looking forward to getting used to it again."

My mind boggled. "Wha-?"

"Woh, calm down," Mike chuckled. "Grandchildren. Naomi's expecting. I'm going to be a grandad."

"Oh!" I said, recovering from my brief confusion. "Congratulations! I'll have to give you a refresher course on changing nappies."

"I thought you'd already forgotten how to do that."

"True. I'm sure I can make something up, though..."

It was at that point I noticed the screaming.

It had probably been going on for half a minute but it had only just started to get frantic. The pitch and tone were kind of familiar. I looked round, trying to work out where Marie had got to.

She was dangling almost upside down, stuck halfway as she climbed into a toddler swing. It was one of those ones with something more akin to a bucket than a seat. She'd got one foot through a leg hole but couldn't quite pull herself up on the chains enough to get her other foot over the lip of the bucket and into position. This was causing her to lean further and further backwards and if she let go she was going to land on her head. Realisation of this had obviously dawned on her. She wasn't very happy about it.

I raced over but, as I approached, she made one final desperate flail and clambered in, sliding down to sit securely in the bucket, her legs hanging out the bottom. She sat there crying. "My back is sore," she sobbed. "The swing scratched it."

"You're fine now," I said, lifting the hem of her top worriedly to perform an examination. To my relief, she only had a minor graze that wasn't bleeding. "Well done for climbing in by yourself."

"My back's still sore. It's not even started getting better yet!"

"Do you want me to push you?"

"Yes..." she said forlornly.

"She's fine," I said to a couple of mums who were lurking close by and then I began to swing her backwards and forwards. The mums muttered something to each other in Polish, shook their heads and then went to chase after their own children.

Marie only cheered up when I wiped her tears and gave her my last piece of doughnut. After a couple of minutes on the swing, she demanded help to get out and then ran off to the helter-skelter. I wandered back to Mike.

"I don't know..." I said. "I keep thinking that when the boys were her age, I couldn't follow them around the swing park the whole time because I had a younger child to look after. I mean, when Fraser was four and a half, I had two younger kids to deal with. Marie really should be able to fend for herself a little more. Yet whenever I let her loose, it always seems to end in some sort of disaster."

"Kids can't learn to walk unless their parents learn to let them fall over."

"I know that," I said, rolling my eyes. "Truth is, it probably always ended in disaster for the boys as well but I felt less guilty about it because I was preventing a disaster somewhere else rather than sitting around chatting."

"Uh-huh. Get over it. Do you want the last doughnut?"

I glanced behind me to check on Marie. She was happily scaling the climbing frame and was in no immediate danger. Nonetheless, I suspected that she'd find some way to get into trouble the moment I sat down.

"Let her handle it," said Mike, seeing my indecision. "Leave her be and take some time for yourself." He jiggled the bag. "Come on. It's for her own good."

I peered into the bag. The remaining doughnut was covered in chocolate. "Hmmm..." I said, sitting down and taking a bite. "I suppose if you put it like that..."

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 11 May 2009

Living with baby Barbie

Dear Dave,

I'm afraid, just like the smell of children, the prevalence of pink floweriness in your home is only going to increase as time goes on. Daisy's demands for sparkly fuchsia clothing will evolve into a desire for princess outfits, fairy costumes, cuddly flamingos, cerise duvets, neon nail polish and all manner of fashion dolls, kittens and plastic ponies. Certainly that's been my experience with Marie anyway.

Go and visit the girl's aisle at Toys'R'Us. (You know, the one that's so pink it actually glows.) That's your house in three years time.

Is that really the problem, though? Sounds like you're pretty fed up at the moment and ranting about the pink is simply something to focus your frustration on. Hopefully Daisy will be over the worst of her teething soon and you'll both be able to sleep properly at night. The way things are at the moment, with her napping during the morning, the situation isn't ideal. You're missing out on the adult contact going to parent and toddler provides and then having to spend long afternoons entertaining a bored and bouncing one-year-old at a point in the day when you would probably much rather have a lie down.

I recall those periods of my life well. It was tough.

The important thing to remember is to... er... I... That's to say... erm...

Nope. I've forgotten.

Now I think of it, maybe I can't actually recall that much after all. The year when Marie was one is rather a hazy blur. A tough, hazy blur, definitely, but a blur nonetheless. I have vague memories of having to feed her nothing but Cheerios and Hula Hoops because she wouldn't eat anything else. I can faintly recollect long hours awake on the sofa with her during the night and then dozing off while playing Mario Kart with Fraser during the day. Mostly I remember having to shut her in a playpen every time I went to the toilet to stop her climbing up the sideboard and attempting to fly.

I suspect there may have been tantrums. From both of us.

Oddly, I quite enjoyed it. With Fraser at school, Lewis at nursery and Marie unable to even wipe her own nose, I had a packed schedule. There was a strict timetable of what I had to do each day and when and where I had to do it. I never had the chance to be bored. In many ways, life was harder work when Fraser was small. His teething made a mess of my sleep patterns almost as much as Marie's did but I only had him to care for during the day. I was tired and crotchety and time really dragged.

Without the distraction of siblings, a solitary toddler is more likely to demand attention and it's much harder to find excuses to fob them off that don't make you feel guilty. It's possible to get stuck for hours helping them do the same jigsaw over and over again. Remember that just because Sam is at school, you don't have to pander to Daisy the whole time. Leave her to the mercy of the Teletubbies and go and take a proper break sometimes.

If it helps, think of it as for her own good. You don't want her getting too used to your undivided attention or the school holidays are going to come as something of a shock...

I still can't help you with the pink, however. It's tempting to blame the problem on her gender. The truth is more likely that it's simply too late. She's acclimatised. I'm sure my boys would have happily worn pink, flowery clothing at her age but they didn't often get the opportunity. These days, their classmates would laugh at them. For girls, on the other hand, it's difficult finding clothes that aren't pink and flowery. In many ways, it could be worse. Imagine what it would be like trying to get her dressed if she didn't like pink...

Also, the pink may only be the beginning. I don't really like explaining a child's temperament on the basis of such things as birth experience, feeding regime, family position or gender. I firmly believe that every child is different anyway. They arrive with their own personalities and each already has a personal plan as to how to drive you up the wall. There are no sweeping generalisations to be made about how boys behave differently from girls.

Although I could be wrong (as well as logically inconsistent) on that one:

Marie ran up to me the other day in tears and said, "I'm crying and I can't stop."

"Why not?" I asked.

"I just can't," she sobbed.

"But why are you crying in the first place?"

"I don't know!"

There wasn't much I could say at that point, so I gave her a hug.

Later she expressed a desire to go to finishing school so she can become a real princess...

(I'm doomed.)

Yours in a woman's world,


Stop press: At church yesterday, the children were asked to say what's really important to them. With a big grin, Marie stuck up her hand and shouted out, "Jewellery!"

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Fee, fie, foe, fum!

Dear Dave,

No, I don't know where the smell is coming from. Sorry. If you've cleaned the carpets, the upholstery and the children, you may be stuck with it. I suppose it's possible one of them threw up in a drawer and didn't tell you. Or maybe they taped a banana to the back of a curtain a month ago. Who knows?

I wouldn't worry about it. Invest in some scented candles, open the windows whenever you can and burn toast on a regular basis. If it's really desperate, you could always spray the house with air-freshener. This last option is, however, the olfactory equivalent of wearing a toupee - it's not going to convince anyone and they're just going to wonder what you're hiding underneath. Better to shave everything off and go bald with pride - or, in this case, get creative and make a real stink. Buy a pet, take up home-brewing, creosote your wardrobe, whatever you like!

After all, it's still a year until you potty train Daisy and it'll probably be another year after that before you feel entirely confident about keeping your socks dry on a daily basis. There's no point doing anything drastic like buying a new sofa for a while yet.

Not that that would do any good anyway...

Yep, don't think you can simply move house when Daisy turns five and leave the stench behind. Somehow, despite all my children being out of nappies, toilet trained, able to wipe their own bottoms and generally capable of keeping their dribble in their mouths, the aroma is getting worse.

Up until recently, I could maybe have blamed this stench on lingering stains of curdled milk left over from when they spilled their no-spill cups as toddlers or I could have passed it all off as the residual whiff of bodily fluids which overflowed when they were babies. Unfortunately, now the weather is getting warmer, the real problem is obvious. When I come down to the lounge on a Saturday morning, the children have usually been playing in there for quite a length of time already. The combination of kids, closed windows and a couple of hours of sunshine leaves the air somewhat... chewy. There's also something of an odour. It's a cloying mix of stale sweat and farts.


To be fair, not much of it is Marie's fault. She's going through a relatively sweet-smelling stage in between being a toddler and a school child. It's also possible that our lounge has developed the ability to spontaneously produce methane. Since no one is prepared to claim responsibility, I can think of no other reason why the place constantly smells of bottom burps.

Oh hang on, perhaps the boys just stink. Excuse me while I check...

Goes and sniffs one of them. Passes out.

Several minutes later...

Erm, yeah... They totally pong.

They also don't care:

Fraser was away at Boys' Brigade camp at the weekend and we were nervous how he might get on. He hasn't been to anything similar before and we weren't sure how he'd react to being in a strange place with new rules and lots of people he didn't know very well. On a more practical level, he gets disastrously travel sick and they were going to be doing lots of toing-and-froing in minibuses. We doped him with travel pills and crossed our fingers.

Happily, he had a great time. He also avoided hurling... the minibus anyway.

He woke up at 4 am Sunday morning and spewed. When he told me this on his return, I was rather eager to get his pyjamas and sleeping bag into the washing machine.

"It's OK," he replied. "They're clean. I wasn't sick on myself - I was sick on the mattress and over onto the floor."

I relaxed a little. "That doesn't sound too bad."

"Uh-huh," agreed Fraser, "it didn't even get the person in the bottom bunk."

I tensed again. The rather belated addition of this little detail made me wonder what else might be missing from Fraser's account. "Are you sure you weren't sick on your clothes and sleeping bag?"

"The leaders wiped them down. They don't need washed."

"Er... I still think they should be washed and you should have a bath tonight."

This made Fraser grumpy. "I don't need a bath - I got wiped down too. I want to wear the same pyjamas tonight."

I fished around in his bag and pulled out his pyjama top. "Really? Even with this large patch of caked sick on the sleeve?"

"Oh, I didn't see that," he said but didn't actually seem that deterred from wearing it.

I noticed the offending item had been left loose in the bag with all his other clothing and his trainers. Everything was contaminated. I sighed. "I'm going to put the washing machine on and then it's bath-time, OK?"


"'Cos I say so. Get moving..."

Against this kind of attitude, there isn't much to be done. I guess when the boys are older, there might be some hope of masking the stink with deodorant but I'm reluctant to go down that road too soon. It's just personal air-freshener after all. It might make them smell of mountain streams but they'll still be sweaty and farty underneath. At least at the moment people can detect this from a distance and thus receive some warning not to get too close. Leaving them smelly is a public service...

So, really, don't stress about that faint scent of wet fish you can't track down. Even if you do eradicate it, your kids will doubtless replace it with something else before long. Embrace the stink! Make cabbage soup, juggle with rotten eggs, fart whenever you like! Your friends without children won't understand and will think you're mad but, let's face it, they think that already. Just go wild.

All the best. I'm off to purchase a sheep.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Excuse of the Week:

And the award goes to... Fraser! When asked why there was a trail of blood drops beginning on the sofa, leading across the lounge carpet and out onto the hall carpet, he replied, "I didn't realise my nose was bleeding until I got a tissue. I thought it was snot."

Friday 1 May 2009

Teenager tension

Dear Dave,

We finally made it round to Chris and Catriona's for dinner at the weekend. It's been months since they came here but trying to get everyone's schedules to match up for a reciprocal gathering has been tricky. They've been out at galas and posh functions, mingling with the rich and influential; we've been staying in, mingling with the winter viruses brought home to us by our loving, yet somewhat slimy, offspring. Nevertheless, they managed to squeeze us in last Saturday and we were all healthy enough to make it out the door. We caught the bus round to their house in the late afternoon, eager for a taste of my niece Lisa's cooking.

At least me and Sarah were keen - the boys complained about feeling travel sick before we'd left the house and Marie took a huff because we weren't going to visit Gran instead. Once we arrived, however, and my teenage nephew Ned let us in, the kids were all delighted to see him. Fraser challenged him to a computer game, Lewis demanded to watch him play a completely different computer game and Marie grabbed a couple of expensive-looking china ornaments and suggested a round of catch. I grinned at him and sloped off to help in the enormous and magnificent kitchen.

I found Catriona unpacking containers from an Indian take-away.

"Lisa's too busy revising for her exams to do any cooking, I'm afraid," she said, noticing my disappointment.

"But it's a Saturday night." I went to put some cartons in the bin, only to discover it was already entirely full of similar cartons. It appeared that Lisa had been too busy for a while.

"Goodness knows I've tried to talk to her," Catriona replied, bustling about, setting out the table. "You know what children are like." She was still smiling but there was an edge of tension in her voice. Then a thought struck her and she frowned at the dish of curry she was holding. "Will your lot eat this?"

"Not really," I said. "The kids won't touch spicy food, aren't keen on rice and generally don't like anything with sauce."

That wasn't exactly what Catriona wanted to hear but there was no point lying - the truth was going to become obvious as soon as my children entered the room and started complaining that everything looked disgusting. The chances of them eating anything much of the take-away were slim. Given a choice between what was laid out on the table and their own snot, they might find it tricky to make a decision.

I felt it best to keep this information to myself and attempted to rescue the situation instead. "They can have some poppadoms and naan bread. If you've got some fresh fruit or vegetables, I can chop that up for them as well."

Catriona was past caring. "Fine. Fine. You do that. I'll go and get Chris to find some wine."

I hurriedly set about chopping some apple and carrot and cucumber. A few minutes later, Chris wandered in, holding a bottle.

"Good to see Catriona's got you working hard in the kitchen already," he said jovially. "Might as well let an expert at it, eh? You won't know what to do with yourself once all your kids are at school. Better keep looking busy or Sarah will make you get a proper job."

"Ignore him, Ed," said Catriona, following behind.

"Uh-huh," I muttered.

"He knows I'm only joking," said Chris, slapping me on the back and fishing a corkscrew out of the drawer beside me. "I thought we might try this Merlot tonight. It's from Chile. It came highly recommended by one of my colleagues. Not too heavy and very fruity, apparently. It's not what I would normally..."

I interrupted. "Red, right?"


"Just checking," I said, hunting through the fridge for some cheese. Chris went on but I ignored him as instructed and concentrated on filling the kids' plates with stuff they'd eat. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get the plates to the table before Catriona rounded everyone up and ushered them through. Fraser and Lewis started complaining loudly about how horrible the food looked and how they didn't like rice.

Marie hid her face in her hands, threw herself to the floor and whined. "It's all yucky!"

"Be nice," I said. "Your food is over here, guys."

"Why isn't it on the table?" asked Lewis.

"Yes, how were we supposed to know it was over there?" said Fraser.

"I don't want that either," said Marie. "I want toast."

"Tough," I said, bringing their plates over. "Sit on your seats and stop being so rude or you'll all be on bread and water next week."

"Grrr," said Lewis. "Don't be silly."

"I'm being serious. We're visitors here. Stop being rude or you'll be eating bread and water for a week."

"But you don't eat water," said Marie, "you drink it."

Sarah spoke before I could reply. "Why don't you sit down and try some wine, dear? Chris was telling me all about it before we came through."

"Hmmm..." I said, taking a deep breath. "Maybe that's a good plan."

"Yes," said Catriona, "and do start helping yourself to the food. It's self-service tonight. Sorry we're all crowded round this table. I've got work spread out in the dining room and I didn't have time to clear it away."

"Don't worry about it - this is nice and cosy," said Sarah. "Where's Lisa?"

Chris gave Catriona a look. Catriona returned a quick shake of the head in warning and said, "She must be in the middle of something. I'll take her up some food in a minute."

"Tell her to take a break," I said. "I thought she had another three weeks before her exams started."

"She's got herself quite concerned she's not going to get the grades she needs for Cambridge, poor thing. She's working very hard."

"Well," said Chris, "if she hadn't put so much time into that show..."

"The show was good for her, dear. It helped take her mind off her school work. You could see just from the look on her face that she was enjoying performing."

Chris snorted. "And being surrounded by boys."

"Better she gets used to that now..." I said, half to myself.

"Better than what?" asked Chris pointedly.

"Well, er... She's very..." I tried to find a delicate way of pointing out to my niece's parents that she is, in fact, smoking hot and bound to be surrounded by drooling teenage boys the second she arrives at any university. "Er..." I wished I'd sipped at my wine rather than gulping. A thousand inappropriate conversational gambits opened up before me all at once.

Sarah came to my rescue. "I think Ed's trying to say that after so many years at an all-girl school, the chance to interact with a large number of hormonally-challenged males in the controlled environment of Malton House was probably useful preparation for Freshers Week, wherever she happens to end up in a few months time."

I remembered why she's in PR but I felt it was best to hurriedly change the subject anyway. "Yes and she played the piano very well. I thought Ned's scenery was excellent, though."

"I didn't know you saw the show, Ed," said Catriona.

"I caught some of the dress rehearsal while I was reconfiguring a bunch of laptops."

Chris and Catriona both frowned at me like I'd suddenly started speaking Dutch.

"You know, as part of my job..." This didn't seem to help their comprehension. "...doing IT support..." For some reason, they still weren't getting it. " Malton House..." Still nothing and I'd run out of sensible clarifications. I pressed on regardless. "...the wacky school full of hormonally-challenged males you send your son to."

"What?" said Chris

I turned to Ned who'd been keeping a low profile while shovelling all the food he could reach into his mouth. "Didn't you tell them I was working at your school?"

"I forgot," he said, nearly spraying me with rice.

"Did you forget to tell them you were good at art as well?"

"What?" His eyes widened in fear over where I was going with this but he couldn't really say much else without choking. We'd had a conversation about his future the previous week and I'd promised to talk to his parents on the subject. I think he'd kind of assumed I'd do it when he wasn't there, however.

"He's really good at art," I said to Chris and Catriona.

"Oh, yes, he always has been," said Catriona. "He gets it from me. Chris couldn't paint a fence, could you, dear?"

"The front gate needs painted," chuckled Chris. "Maybe Ned could make himself useful doing that."

I took another deep breath, restrained myself from slapping him and tentatively got to the point. "I was thinking more that, rather than sending him away to boarding school in the hope of improving his science grades, it might be worth letting him stay here and concentrate on art and design."

Chris dismissed the notion with further laughter. "A few hours with you and his marks have already got better. Get him away from distractions, give him some exercise and a bit of discipline, and he's bound to knuckle down."

"It's been more than a few hours - he's had months of one-on-one tuition and he's tried hard. At this stage, I don't feel that being shouted at to go on cross-country runs is suddenly going to unlock some previously undiscovered talent for maths. He doesn't have one."

"Heh!" said Ned, finally managing to swallow.

"Am I wrong?" I said, shrugging. "Do you want me to order you out for a jog and then force you to do trigonometry badly in order to prove the point?"

He thought about this for a surprisingly long time before making the sensible decision. "Nah."

"But..." Chris was beginning to realise I was being serious. "Art?"

I could see the mental calculations going on behind his eyes. He was figuring out how much it would cost to support his very own struggling Damien Hurst for an indefinite number of decades. I pressed on quickly before he was blinded by a large string of zeroes. "I'm not suggesting he goes and locks himself in a garret to work on some unappreciated masterpiece while living on nothing but own-brand Corn Flakes and absinthe. There are plenty of career opportunities. For instance, these days computer games need more artists to make them than they do programmers. Probably quite a few more. And, believe me, he'd make a better artist than a programmer. There are lots of other possibilities as well, aren't there, Ned?"


For some reason, I'd been hoping for a bit more back up than that but it was clear Ned was more than happy to let me do the talking. I felt it might be worth giving him an opportunity to fight his own battle, however, and if I could be out of the fallout zone, so much the better. It was time to run away. "Why don't you tell your parents what's out there then?" I said, picking up a spare plate of food and some cutlery. "Is this for Lisa? I'll take it up." I paused only to glug a little more wine and then made my escape.

"Er... ... ..." I heard Ned mumble as I went out the door. "S'pose there's website stuff..."

Feeling only mildly guilty, I headed upstairs and hunted out Lisa's room. It had a flowery nameplate on the door which looked like it had been there since she was seven. I couldn't hear any noise from inside but the light was on and so I knocked. This caused a gasp, two small thuds and some frantic rustling.

"Who is it?"

"Uncle Ed."

"Oh... OK. Come in."

The room was very white and scarily tidy - tidy in a way that suggested the occupant had taken to meticulous cleaning in an effort to avoid doing something else. Lisa was sitting at her desk, a couple of chemistry books and some notes spread out before her.

"I brought you your tea," I said.


I walked over and put the meal on the desk. "What are you studying?"

"Organic reactions."

"Oh, lovely."

"Not really."

I pointed to a sign she'd stuck on the wall behind her desk. It was level with her eyes as she sat studying and it read 'CONCENTRATE!'.

"Does that work?"


The limited communication was beginning to get to me. "Have you been taking conversational tips from Ned?"

She smiled for the first time since I'd enter the room but it didn't last. "Sorry. I'm just, you know, thinking about chemistry and stuff. I should be doing English but I fell asleep yesterday evening and lost two hours so I had to rewrite my revision timetable and now I'm doing chemistry. I might be more talkative if I was doing English."

"You haven't been doing any work, though, have you?"

She reacted like the revision police had arrived and they could read her mind. "How...?"

"Woh! Relax. I heard you get your books out when I knocked, that's all."

She didn't relax much. "Oh."

"So," I said, "what've you been doing instead? Staring into space or panicking on Facebook?"

"Staring into space," she replied glumly.

"Ho well." I tried cheering her up. "You might as well come downstairs and take the evening off then. I obviously can't guarantee boundless fun but Marie would be delighted to see you and there's a good chance you'd get a glass of wine and an opportunity to make me look foolish playing Wii Tennis."

"I can't," she said, dutifully turning back to her books. "I need to do some work. I'll be OK once I get going."

"You sure?"


"Well... OK..." I reluctantly started to leave but then turned and watched her for a moment as she tried to eat while reading. Neither activity seemed to go particularly smoothly.

"I got a place at Oxford," I said.

She looked up with a mixture of interest and confusion. "I thought you went to St Andrews."

"I did. I just found the whole place much more pleasant when I went to visit, so I decided to go there instead."

"Didn't your parents freak? Mum and dad have told everyone I'm going to Cambridge. They'll go mad if I don't get in."

"Don't worry about them. My school was pretty annoyed when they heard I'd messed up their statistics by turning down an Oxbridge place but when speech day came around they spun it into an example of how they produced pupils with courage, conviction and self-confidence. I'm sure your parents will manage to make whatever you end up doing sound impressive to their friends."

"I don't want them to have to lie."

"Who said anything about lying? They think you're great and that's just naturally going to colour everything they say."

Lisa perked up. "Really?"

"Uh-huh," I sighed. "Within minutes of the first time I met them, they were showing me a video of your nursery Nativity play. You were a snowflake and only came on for thirty seconds but they were talking up your talents even then."

She blushed. "Sometimes I wish they'd stop."

"Yeah," I grinned, "you're not the only one. A little less perfection from you might give us all a break."

"Hey!" she said, a proper smile finally shining through, even as she pretended to be offended.

"What? You want me to lie now? Come on, why don't you close the books again and join the rest of us. I'm sure taking an evening off won't make much difference. Besides, you might want to come down and put some of that talent to use sticking up for your not-so-perfect brother."

"What's he done now?" she said, grabbing her plate and following me towards the door.

"Nothing. I just forced him into a situation where he might have to talk to your dad."

"That was mean."

"It was for their own good."

"That's all right then," she said as we started down the stairs. "What did you bring for dessert?"


"What kind of cake?"

"Can't remember. It came in a box. Does it matter?"

"Not much. Cake is good."


We braced ourselves and entered the kitchen. Everyone was shouting at each other, Marie was wearing the wine and the boys had carrot sticks in their ears.

Boy, did we need that cake by the end of the meal...

Yours in a woman's world,