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,