Dear Dave

Friday 29 January 2010

At the school gate

Dear Dave,

Have a good one. You're long overdue a night out. It can't have been easy the last year or two, dealing with Daisy's poor sleep. Thank goodness she's finally settled down and Sam's over the bout of stroppiness he was having before Christmas. Life should get easier every day from here. Another few months and nappies will be behind you; another year and Daisy will be at nursery. After that, it's only a hop, skip and jump to Sam doing chores and Daisy being at school. At some point they might even be able to say 'please' and 'thank you' without being prompted. Hey, mine can all catch their own vomit in a bowl these days, which is a major step forward, I'm sure you'll agree.

Yep, you've done much of the heavy lifting of childcare already. The amount of man-handling you'll have to do will steadily decrease as the weeks go by and you'll be able to sit down and conserve your strength for threats, bribery and shouting. This will be tiring in its own way but nothing compared to the broken sleep and physical exertion of the early days. Get out and celebrate! It's great you've managed to stay in contact with some of your old mates and that they're understanding of your situation. With luck, you might even think of something to talk to them about other than children. Have a good one.

Personally, I'm short on practice of leaving the house at night. Working up the energy to go see Avatar is almost beyond me. As a kid, I dreamed of living within walking distance of a cinema but now I actually do, I can't summon up the motivation to go. It's cold and wet out there. I'd rather curl up in front of the TV.

The downside is that I've ended up sharing a social life with my children, gleaning adult conversation from talking to the parents of their friends. This situation started during the years of eating biscuits at toddler group, continued via countless chats outside the nursery door and now persists through the half hour I spend loitering in the playground each day.

These convenient friendships are fragile, however. I've mentioned before how easy it is to lose acquaintances made at parent and toddler - I'd speak to people every week for months and then they'd simply disappear. At school, it's even stranger than that. Now Fraser's older, his class comes out of school on the other side of the building. I still have to lurk where I've always lurked, waiting for Lewis and Marie, but most of the parents of Fraser's classmates have moved round to the other door. People I spoke to every day for four years, I suddenly hardly see.

Then there are those parents whose children were very friendly with Fraser in Primary 1 but have since drifted off into other social groups (usually because they're icky girls). I've been to these peoples' houses, drunk their coffee and had long chats taking an interest in their lives. Now we just smile unconvincingly at each other in passing as we hurry round to opposite ends of the school. Another few months and their kids will walk home by themselves. The parents will become nothing more than familiar-looking faces at open days and school shows. It's weird.

Of course, Marie starting school has introduced me to a whole new load of people and the parents of Lewis' friends are still hanging around. For the time being, I have plenty of people to talk to in the playground while trying to stave off hypothermia on a snowy Wednesday afternoon. Some I regard as proper friends.

I just wonder what happens when they move round the corner to the other door...

As it is, there are occasionally days when schedules and illnesses combine to leave me standing about without my normal clique. If enough kids are off sick, being collected by their gran or heading to After School Club, then I have to hunt around for company. Of the remaining parents, some don't speak English very well and some of the mums are wary of being spoken to by a strange man. Others I've simply never clicked with, unable to strike up a conversation which goes beyond the weather. Oh, and then there are the dads who have the day off and aren't thrilled to be spending it standing around a playground in subzero temperatures. Talking to them seldom goes well. They tend to view me as a lunatic when they find out I do it every day.

Last time I was stuck for someone to speak to, I was surprisingly glad to spot Trevor hunched by the school gate, looking uncomfortably out of place as he gazed at his own boots. We don't have much in common and having a chat with him can be hard going but we've helped each other through a couple of difficult situations in the past so there's enough mutual respect to bridge any awkward silences.

"Hi, there. How are you?" I said, adjusting my scarf against the chill wind.

Trevor stood there in a khaki t-shirt, seemingly oblivious to the cold. "Can't complain."

There was an awkward silence.

We had at least a couple of minutes until the bell went for the Primary 1s to come out and probably another five for them to actually appear. I tried again. "Is Karen working?"


I was about to launch into an extensive further series of Yes/No questions, beginning with 'Is she at the shops?' and ending with 'Is she taking another rollerblading class now her instructor's out of traction?'. Then I remembered that I am not my children. "What's she up to then?" I asked.

Trevor shrugged. "Didn't tell me. Said it was my turn to collect Malcolm." His tone told me there was a whole lot more he was keeping to himself. Given the scale of conflict I witnessed between the two of them in public recently, I feared what might have occurred behind closed doors. Rolling pins and machetes were not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. (And that was assuming Trevor had chosen not to defend himself.)

"You guys doing OK?" I said nervously.

"Can't complain," he repeated.

I nodded. If I lived with Scary Karen, I'd be too frightened to complain, too. Nonetheless, Trevor has served in a number of war zones. He's never told me exactly what he did there but he's such a big block of solid muscles they may simply have used him as armour-plating. Certainly, if the bomb ever drops, it's him I'm going to duck behind for cover. This being the case, I thought he might dare to venture something slightly more informative if I pressed him. "Well, if you ever need to talk about..."

"She wants more kids."

This was significantly less pressing than I'd been expecting. "What?" I said (with a touch of deja vu).

"She wants more kids - now William's started at nursery and all."

"He has?" I couldn't quite believe it. Then I did the maths and realised that it's three years since I first met Karen and her two boys.

"Yeah. She's thinking she's going to have to stop with the... er... you know..."

"Dressing him up as Diana Ross?"

"Not that."

"Tying him to railings while she goes and gets a haircut?"

"Yeah, but, er, no. I, er..." He made some suggestive gestures near his chest.

"Oh! Breast-feeding!" I said rather too loudly, like I'd just won at Charades, and doubtless giving some nearby mums even more reason to be wary of me.

"Yeah. That."

"Oh, right."

There was more awkward silence, punctuated by the school bell.

"Isn't she a little old for...?"

Trevor winced and glanced over his shoulder. "Keep it down - someone might hear. You don't want Karen finding out. She might go for you next time." He pulled up his t-shirt and pointed to one of his iron-hard pectorals. Despite all the hair, an area of fresh scars was clearly visible. There was a pattern too them. I made out bushy eyebrows, a bulbous nose and a hideous grin. I stared, hardly noticing that every other parent in the vicinity had begun cautiously backing away from us.

"She threw a gnome at you, didn't she?"

"One of her favourites."

Karen's collection of garden gnomes is almost legendary. The live web cam feed of the dozens in her front hall now gets several thousand hits a day. You might wonder why, but watch it long enough and you'll swear the little blighters are moving. Conspiracy theorists can't get enough.

I baulked at the thought of the level of rage that would be required to bring her to harm one her darlings. "Oh, goodness."

Trevor nodded. "She thinks she still has what it takes and she won't hear otherwise. Says she misses having little ones around. Not to mention, she reckons I'm doing such a good job with Malkey and Will, she thinks I could do with some of my own... Not that I don't think of them as my own." He looked over his shoulder again. "I didn't say that. That's how she put it. 'Some of my own,' she said. They were her words."

I was focused on one word in particular. "Some?"

"There's a history of triplets in her family."

"Oh..." Our gazes met and the brief moment of wide-eyed terror we shared conveyed as much as several hours of discussion. There was no need to say anything else on that particular topic. We stood there for a while and I bobbed up and down in an effort to keep warm. The Primary 1s still didn't appear. Time dragged on.

Eventually, I couldn't help opening my mouth. "So you don't want more kids?" I said.

"I don't know that now's a good time."

"When is a good time to have your life turned upside down?"

"I 'spose," said Trevor, rubbing his chin, but he didn't seem convinced.

Finally, the school door opened and children started running out. Marie skipped over in her luminous pink coat and gave me a hug, inadvertently whacking me in a private area with her lunchbox.

"You never know," I squeaked, "the next one might be a girl."

Trevor looked at my grinning limpet with pigtails and sparkly shoes. He went pale.

Then I was dragged off to play What's the Time, Mr Wolf? and before I managed to escape, he was gone. In his place was a different set of acquaintances, already arriving for the second bell and the release of the next batch of children. I smiled unconvincingly at the ones passing by on their way round the corner, then I went to rummage about in the remains of Marie's lunch to see if she had any food leftover. I managed to bag half a tub of chopped apple. I sat quietly eating it on a bench until Lewis appeared.

I guess I could have found someone different to talk to but, well, I'd had quite enough adult conversation for one day. I just wanted to get home to the TV...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Have a great time! (Maybe you could go see Avatar for me?)

Monday 25 January 2010

If Midas had liked pink...

Dear Dave,

Marie has some new gloves. You probably won't be surprised to learn that they're pink.

Really pink.

Even better than that, they're fluffy and sparkly. They also shed. We're not talking the odd ball of fluff and an occasional thread here. Whatever she goes near looks like it got caught in a fight between Fuchsia-Fun Barbie and a My Little Pony. I swear the things have already left more fibres on the hall carpet than they originally contained and yet they're still producing a shower of pixie down every time she takes them off.

I have to assume the fuzz is self-replicating. The only reason the gloves haven't grown into giant puffballs is because she keeps wearing them and dissipating them as a trail of gleaming motes wherever she goes. If they get put away over the summer, I'm going to be in real trouble come the autumn. I'll open the hall cupboard, hunting for the kids' winter clothes, and the accumulated build-up of fairy dust will explode from it in an eruption of rosy gossamer, covering the entire contents of the house in six inches of glittering fallout. I'll be left standing there, blinking, looking like the Pink Panther after a session in the tumble-dryer...

It's all rather worrying. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Marie does now add a little sparkle to everything she touches. Deep down, I'm a bit jealous. I kind of hope that one day the same could be said about me.

(But in a sense which involves much less hoovering and laundry, obviously...)

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 20 January 2010

Making school seem attractive

Dear Dave,

Sorry you're under the weather. I'm not feeling too great myself. It's the usual blend of sore head, indigestion, lethargy and achiness. Could be a virus, could merely be parenthood - it's hard to tell.

The last couple of years haven't been so bad for random illnesses. I thought leaving parent and toddler behind had cut down my exposure to fun and exciting diseases. This winter has been one bizarre virus after another, though. Barely a week goes by without comparing notes in the playground with other parents, matching symptoms of sick children and trying to work out who gave it to who and whether it's swine flu... again.

Getting fed up now.

To make it worse, Fraser has got to an age where he's liable to milk a minor sniffle as an opportunity to stay at home all day and play the Wii. Last Saturday, he declared himself unwell shortly after getting up and refused to get dressed or eat anything except toast for the whole weekend. He simply found himself a controller and took up residence on the sofa.

When Monday morning rolled round and he claimed to be too ill to go to school, I was dubious. He looked tired but he didn't have a temperature, a runny nose or spots. Heck, he didn't have so much as a cough. I suspected a bout of pre-pubescent Man Flu.

That said, he didn't really seem himself, although he could have been faking it. I began to regret sending him to drama class...

I wasn't sure what to do. In these situations, my mum used to say stuff like, 'In a couple of years you won't want to have time off school. You'll have too much work to do.' This was hardly motivational. Surely all the more reason to kick-back and get my strength up while I had the chance? Besides, I hated school for a number of reasons and was keen not to go - telling me it was only going to get worse wasn't hugely inspiring.

I decided against taking a similar approach with Fraser. Instead, I checked there was nothing else bothering him that he was attempting to avoid. He reckoned there wasn't but he was adamant he was incapable of making it through the school day. Reluctantly, I kept him home. I'm sure he could have coped if he'd had to but I figured he was probably at least a little ill and there was no harm letting him rest up for a day.

The only problem was, I could quite easily envisage us having the same conversation the next morning and the one after that. Given the opportunity, he might try to make a week-long holiday out of it and I wasn't having that. I'd attempted persuasion and already dismissed using guilt and duty. What to do? Then it occurred to me that all that was required was making the thought of staying home less pleasant.

I told him he had to stay in bed and rest for the morning without computer games. In the afternoon, I gave him a talk about the facts of life.

The next day, he was up like a shot and off to school without even the slightest quibble.

Coincidence? I'll let you decide.

Get well soon.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I think I'm going to go back to bed. I may have struggled on with far worse at various points over the last ten years but I didn't have much choice - there were children constantly around to feed, change and entertain. Just because I didn't take a sick day then, doesn't mean I shouldn't take one now I can.

I only hope my mum doesn't find out and phone up later for a quick chat about birds and bees...

Friday 15 January 2010

Children of the Teenies

Dear Dave,

It sounds like your overwhelming memories of the Noughties are very similar to mine - nappies, banana porridge and Teletubbies. You at least recall a little more about the early years of the decade but I'm struggling. With my eldest born in May 2000 and my youngest turning five in September 2009, the whole thing is rather a blur. It's like I fell asleep with Clinton as President and woke up with Obama. Did I miss much? (I'm sorry? Pardon? Who!?) What happened to that fresh-faced Tony Blair chap, by the way? How's Britney? Are Tom and Nicole still together?

Ah... OK.

Ho well, never mind, I think I'll go console myself by cashing in on the fortune my dot-com shares must be worth by now and spending it on simple pleasures. Fancy some Pic'n'Mix from Woolworths...?

Oh, you're kidding me.

I guess maybe it's a good thing I've had a fairly blinkered existence for the last ten years. To be honest, I hadn't actually been paying much attention before that anyway - my knowledge of popular culture has been shrinking since 1992. Everyone knows all the best music was made in 1987 and it's been a downhill slide from there. The family television of today is a mere shadow of The A-Team, The Generation Game, Knight Rider, The Price is Right, Only Fools and Horses and, er... Dr Who. No one looks normal without too much make-up, shoulder pads and big hair.

I think I'm going to have to admit to being a child of the Eighties. I passed a guy in the street a few months ago and couldn't help noticing the slogan on his t-shirt. It said very simply, 'I STILL hate Thatcher'. It made me grin rather too much.

For me, the Nineties were taken up by studies and employment. The Noughties were swallowed whole by kids. It's the Eighties that really influenced my tastes and opinions. I am the frightening love-child of Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, J.R. Ewing, Belinda Carlisle, Mr T, Wham! and The Terminator.


I'm going to have to start taking a bit more notice again from now on, though. My kids will be children of the Teenies. If I want to stay in touch with their lives, I'm going to need to have some clue about music and celebrities and social networking sites. I might even have to learn how to use my mobile phone properly.

My children will have unfamiliar tastes and radical opinions which they will try and foist on me. They'll get grumpy and smelly if I dismiss them out of hand through complete ignorance of what they're talking about. Admittedly, they'll probably get smelly and at least mildly grumpy anyway, but I need to sound like I know what I'm talking about as I rubbish everything they hold dear. If I just try and run with a couple of names picked up from listening to a debate on Radio 4, it will only lead to embarrassment for everyone. I'm actually going to have to put some effort in, do some research and watch supposedly famous people attempt to dance on ice.

There will be no escaping whatever this decade brings.

I suppose it might not be too bad. You never know, maybe Kylie Minogue will finally have a come back... (I'm sorry, what's that? Not following. You can't get what dress out of your head? Oh...)

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 11 January 2010

What kind of bear are you?

Dear Dave,

I've been to plenty of seminars and discussion groups about understanding personality type. They're the kind of thing that are always used to pad out the slot before lunch on team-building courses. Many's the time I've been stuck with a whole load of Shapers as they've enthusiastically envisaged a future of cooperation while the Completer/Finisher in me has just wanted them all to agree to stop talking and head for the canteen. I've also sat by quietly as a bunch of extroverts have argued on how to bring out the best in the introverts around them. On one occasion, in order to encourage my repressed spontaneity, I even had to report the team's conclusions while bouncing on a trampoline.

The one personality trait that always seems to surface, however, is my low tolerance for discussion groups. I can't stand them.

Thankfully, I think I may have found the solution to avoiding them in future. Having presented all my children with the opportunity to visit the Build-A-Bear Workshop, I've discovered a whole new way to assess personalities in a creative and visual manner.

Lewis, being the calm and gentle type, built a laid-back frog wearing a dressing gown:

A frog in a bath robe.
*Picture removed due to a seven-year-old bursting into tears because he was adamant that his frog didn't want to be famous. :-(

Rather than having an afternoon at the shops with Sarah, Fraser decided he'd prefer to stay at home with me, spend twenty minutes building a snowman and then the rest of the time playing the Wii. Unfortunately, due to a lack of sculpting practice, combined with snow that refused to stick together, it didn't all go entirely to plan. The snowman came out looking pre-melted:

Pile of snow with eyes.

Top marks for effort, though, and at least I won't have to try to eBay it in a few years' time.

Unlike Marie's creation:

A bear so hideous it clashes with itself.

Note the sparkly butterfly wings on the costume. She wanted roller skates as well but they weren't compatible with the high heels.

All in all, it's possible to learn an awful lot about my kids from what they made. I think this is a pretty conclusive proof of concept - every office worker in the land should have a self-built bear on their desk, then their colleagues would know exactly what to expect and what sort of person they were dealing with.

I must mention my findings to Useless Dad for the next management training course he runs. I could be onto something special here...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS is back today.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Understanding working parents

Dear Dave,

Happy New Year! I hope you had a good holiday. We're finally back from visiting my parents' house in deepest, darkest Norfolk - the land of turkeys, farmers and dial-up internet. Even dial-up didn't seem to be working very well this time, though. So much as checking my email became a torturous exercise in dropped calls and lengthy load times. Renting a carrier pigeon began to feel like a worthwhile option. At least it did until my cousin popped round to visit and told me his connection had been running slowly too and so he'd had BT out to check the line. The reason it wasn't working properly?

Too many people had shot it.

Presumably they'd been firing at birds which had settled down on the wire for a rest but you never know - sometimes the need to make your own fun in the more isolated areas of East Anglia can lead to pretty desperate measures. Either way, though, my avian-powered p-mail solution seemed unlikely to work. As soon as the poor pigeon stopped to get its bearings it was going to end up as the lunch of some lunatic with a shotgun. This didn't really seem worth it for the sake of a selection of spam and a load of Facebook updates about the snow. I decided to not worry about it, letting the world wide web pass me by for a few days. It was a pleasant rest.

There's only so long a man can go without receiving Photoshopped pictures of cute, fluffy animals, however, so we've fought our way home through the bad weather, taken down the Christmas decorations, re-stocked the fridge and fired up the wireless router. Hurrah!

Even better, despite the cold, the school is open and all the kids are well. I've got some peace and quiet to sort through my inbox that I wasn't necessarily counting on. I fully expected one or more of the children to wake up with a cough or sniffle this morning and thus force me to decide whether they were well enough to go. Sometimes it's obvious, as they have a high temperature and goo is streaming out of every orifice, but usually it's more debatable. A slight temperature and a minor sore throat could clear up by the middle of the morning or it could have developed into full-blown pneumonia by lunchtime. How am I supposed to tell?

Fortunately, one of the advantages of being a stay-at-home parent is that there isn't normally a problem if one of the kids has to stay home as well. I can err on the side of caution and let them doze on the sofa, dosed up on Calpol and surrounded by tissues and sick bowls. Sure, it's annoying if I've got jobs planned or I was intending to head to the shops, but I don't have to organise emergency childcare or phone my boss and grovel to be allowed to take a day off. It's all nice and easy.

Take the last day of term before Christmas as an example. Marie got up complaining that she wasn't feeling very well and then sat on the stairs moaning. There didn't appear to be much obviously wrong with her but she'd been looking forward to the final day activities and the very fact she didn't want to go meant something was up. I decided it would be best to keep her off, reasoning that it would be unfriendly exposing her classmates to a potentially nasty virus only a few days before Christmas. After all, doctors and teachers are always stressing the importance of not knowingly sending an infectious child into school. (Although, bear in mind, if you ever see a kid in the playground glowing with fever and streaming with goo, you can pretty much guarantee they have at least one parent in the teaching or medical professions.)

I dropped off the boys and got to feel smugly self-righteous when the dad of one of Marie's friends mentioned that his child was suffering in a similar way even as he shoved her through the door into school. He'd got to get to work and he was hoping it was nothing and it would be cleared up by the middle of the morning...

Truth be told, it initially seemed to be him who'd made the right call. Marie was very tired all day but not tangibly unwell. Her symptoms could be explained by a lack of sleep combined with a natural desire not to venture outside in the cold. If anything, she was more polite and better behaved than normal. She certainly whined and argued a lot less. She lay on the sofa for most of the day while I got on with packing for the trip south. I wondered whether she could have gone to school.

We had to be up early the next day to catch our train, so we set lots of alarms and tried not stay up too late. I was woken at 3am by Marie complaining she was feeling sick. I found a bowl, calmed her down and went back to bed. It took me a while to doze off again and then I was woken at 4am by Marie complaining that she had actually been sick. Luckily, she'd caught it all in the bowl so there wasn't much clearing up, but I was still rather tired when my bedside erupted in bleeping at 6:30. I wasn't entirely prepared to discover we'd had four inches of snow and getting to the station might be an issue. We got ready and I went to call a taxi, hoping for the best. Just as I reached for the phone, however, Marie threw up her breakfast.

This presented something of a dilemma. On the one hand, we were considering taking a vomiting child for an eight hour journey on packed trains through weather which could conceivably leave us stranded somewhere between Darlington and Doncaster. On the other, I'd spent an entire day packing and we had non-refundable tickets.

Taking the financial hit would have been painful enough but there were only two days until Christmas, so even if we delayed, the chances of Marie being entirely well before travelling down were slim if we wanted to make it for the big day. We wouldn't have been able to get seats on another train anyway. If we were going to go, we had to go right then. I began to regret ordering the kids' presents online and having them delivered to my folks.

It was time to make a decision.

I grabbed a handful of plastic bags and called the taxi.

It turned into a very long day. The taxi struggled to make it the solitary mile through town. Our first train was almost an hour behind schedule before it so much as made it back the mile the other way and passed our house. The carriage was overcrowded with extra passengers who'd had to abandon plans to drive or fly. I almost got left behind in Newcastle as I transferred our luggage to the guard's van in order to free up space for people to stand. We missed our connection...

And all the while, my little biological warfare unit breathed in and out, adding an exciting cocktail of germs to the warm air circulating around us and dozens of others. Every so often, she made retching noises. I hid her up a corner by the window where her pale, drawn features weren't so obvious and I tried not to picture one of those contagion maps they have in the movies, showing bright lines of infection spreading out across the country in an intricate web from the initial source as carriers split up and move on to the next leg of their journeys. I'd probably have felt less shifty if I'd left her with the neighbours and taken a backpack full of anthrax instead.

We got steadily closer to our destination, however. We changed at Peterborough, then Norwich and eventually found ourselves with only one more stop until we reached The Middle of Nowhere. We were almost there. So close...

Then Marie retched. It had a different sound quality from previously on the trip. It was deeper. More liquidy. Kind of ominous.

"I'm going to be sick," she wailed.

I grabbed one of the bags and shoved it under her chin. (Having learnt my lesson with random carrier bags, it was a see-through plastic freezer bag to minimise the chance of holes.) I was barely quick enough. A torrent of evil burst forth from my daughter and flowed into my proffered receptacle. Then she took a deep breath.


There was more.


And a little bit after that.


Then she was done. We'd caught all of it. Delighted, I tied a knot in the top of the bag, inspected it for leaks and then wondered what to do with it. Since Marie had had nothing but water for hours, I was able to marvel at how thin and clear the vomit was.

I have a very vivid memory of going to the fair when I was around Marie's age. There was a game where you had to bounce a ping pong ball on a table and attempt to get it to land in one of a number of jam jars. Success brought a prize - a goldfish swimming around in a freezer bag full of water. I had several shots at that game and then spent the rest of the evening proudly clutching my trophy. It was the only pet I ever had that was completely mine.

As I made my way along the aisle of the swaying train, clutching my bag of sick, I couldn't help musing how my lot in life had changed over thirty years. I staggered past the ticket collector, inadvertently waving my prize at her as the train juddered round a bend, and I felt slightly bereft without a gleaming goldfish to show off.

Admittedly, it would have been the world's unluckiest goldfish but, hey, it might have gone some way to disguise the bio-terrorism I'd been involved in. As it was, the poor woman looked afraid, gave me a wide berth and hurried off to phone Special Branch. We only just got off the train in time. It wasn't out of sight before a couple of helicopters full of commandos caught up with it and the whole thing disappeared in a cloud of tear gas and abseiling men with guns.

Greeting me with a hug, my mum raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

I think I'll be a little more understanding next time one of the kids' friends gets sent to school despite having a sniffle.

Yours in a woman's world,