Friday, 29 April 2011

Five Days

Back from the caravan, back to reality. I was looking forward to getting home, cabin fever had started to set in. The closer we got to the house, the greyer the skies became and a small pang of sadness stirred. Being near the sea and experiencing bright, warm weather for five days was invigorating. Home, open door after a struggle with the pile of mail. "Look mum! Pizza letter, chippies letter, mmm!" All the mail bar one letter was junk;  take-away leaflets and charity clothing bags.The smell was pretty grim, a festering wee left in the upstairs toilet, and a damp, mildew dishcloth which had been basking in the sun all folded up on the draining board. Tiredness stung my eyes, I averaged 3 hours solid sleep per night, maybe another 2 of broken sleep. Long walks, picnics, eldest son's constant itinery/timetable requests, middle son's incessant chatter, and youngest son's worrying lack of health and safety concern to  contend with, it starts to wear you down.
The break wasn't meant to be a 'holiday' as such, more a change of scene. The pleasant weather afforded us a trip to Barry Island (or Barry's Island as we like to call it). I don't have a problem with Barry Island, I like it and have nothing but fond memories of the place. Sure, a bulldozer, several hundred million pounds, a ban on bikinis for the morbidly obese, and on anyone unless it's over 25 degrees would improve it, but it 'does the job'. Ice-cream, sand, chips, fair rides, and a coastal walk in the sun-the quintessential beach trip. Another day, we happened upon Nash Point Lighthouse after taking a wrong turn. We'd promised the boys ducks to feed, but got lambs and a lighthouse instead. The elderly and rather too helpful couple who ran the small cafe and took £1.50 for the car park suggested we walk over to the lighthouse, and go "all the way to the top".   This seemed to appease middle son, who was still feeling short-changed about the lack of ducks. It was quite a trek for small, tired legs. When we got near to the gate I saw a large sign which read 'Lighthouse Open' promising. When we reached the gate, I noted it also read 'Wed, Sat and Sun pm' (it was Thursday). Amusingly, a smaller sign read; 'also open Monday, Tuesday and Friday'. How we laughed (maybe 2 of us laughed).
We trekked back to the car to get the picnic, I stopped to tell the cafe couple that the lighthouse was closed, they replied "we know", what a pair they were. The next dubious bit of advice they offered was to climb down the steep, rocky embankment to enjoy our picnic at a spot which is "at least 10 degrees warmer". I asked if the pushchair would make it, they said yes (more bad advice). The picnic was successful, it was a scenic spot and the planes leaving Rhoose Airport at regular intervals and flying low overhead were a good distraction for the boys.
My mum arrived at the caravan last night, and was keen to watch the wedding this morning. I was astounded at her knowledge regarding this wedding and the history of the royal family (never usually mentions the royals). Mum relished the chance to have a pop at princess Di and Elton John, some of her opinions and commentary would have been great on youtube. "The Queen only likes men,I can't think of a single woman she likes". "Boris Johnson was a beautiful baby, look at him now". "What's happened to David Beckham's face, I think it's mask, he's going to pull it off half way through the wedding. "Oh, look at that poor old boiler, wobbling,  you can tell she's not used to wearing heels-they took the camera off her sharpish". "Beatrice and Eugenie are funny looking things aren't they? Eyes like cartoon characters' when they pop out"...
Just as Kate was about to emerge from the Rolls Royce, all serene and magnificent, middle son decided to expel five days worth of high-carbohydrate foods, filling his entire trouser leg and somehow smearing most of his midriff. Straight to the shower with him.
 Full of shit, that's my family. It is good to be home.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A woman's work...

I should be packing. We are going to spend our first week at my parent's recently purchased caravan.  Packing for five, and for potentially hot/wet/chilly (peppers?) weather is tiresome. I am disorganised, yet try so hard to become a fastidious individual. I long to be like those people who compile lists, then satisfyingly tick off each line. How I dream of achieving a military-standard model of structured systems and routines. Instead, hours are wasted completing laps of vicious circles. Occasionally, I'll introduce some order, and almost believe I've cracked the secret code to domestic Dewey Decimalistic bliss.
Maybe the world needs people like me, who are never on top of things, but always keeping various plates spinning. Perhaps that's why visitors to my home usually seem very comfortable (despite me secretly wilting inside with shame). My late grandmother (paternal) who I only met once when I was very young, was apparently a lot like me (only worse). With her fingers in several proverbial pies at any given time, the chaos around her was suffocating.  On the other side, my mother's mum, who died before I was born, was house-proud to the extreme. Mum tells me she remembers watching her mother fall asleep into her dinner, toddler style, because she's been cleaning solidly since 5 a.m.
So, perhaps I carry a mix of their personalities, and fail to achieve the high standards on my maternal grandmother's side, or the dizzying levels of oppressive chaotic claustrophobia of my paternal grandmother?
This leads me to conclude that 'happy medium' is not great, as that is what I would be in comparison. It also leads me to conclude that there is no 'perfect' approach to chores.
I shall finish my drink, and battle through at a steady pace. Inevitably, I'll get there.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Spring/Summer 2011

Queues for Greggs snake around the block. Translucent maxi-dresses offer a glimpse of the damage queuing regularly for a fix from Greggs does. Evil-eyed screwed up faces show signs of heroin and alcohol abuse, juxtaposed with pre-pubescent, malnourished and tattooed  bare chests. Plastic jewel-encrusted sunglasses restrain a mane of recently dyed red hair. Sweaty children whine due to dehydration and heat exhaustion. Elderly ladies dig out the crochet t-shirt, team it with a floral skirt and orthopaedic shoes. Smelly toilets and bins cause insects to gather and socialise. Smokers smile smugly, no longer having to huddle, 'drag' quickly and shiver, ashamed, under their umbrella. Over-priced buckets and spades sell-out, the sand at the park littered with £2.99 tags and plastic mesh bags. Cans of cider and lager are purchased not just for their alcohol content, but for their apparent thirst-quenching effect as well. The market stall selling cannabis-related paraphernalia attracts large crowds of scrawny, excitable young boys. Denzil Danter's funfair teems with female teenagers on look out for their latest 'catch'  (tip-the one who takes control of the dodgems).  Teen boys swear loudly, with pride and spit with astonishing accuracy. How splendid, an Eater heatwave in Pontypridd.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Bitter-sweet Memories Of Friendship

Around 8 years ago, when I first purchased my house,  I hosted the occasional  party. I just had one son back then, and he spent most weekends with his dad.The first party I held simply worked. I don't have many friends (who does?) the word 'friend' is used too freely for my liking. Maybe I sacrificed the chance to establish deep and lasting friendships at High School by opting to have a 'boy'friend .
This party was a sort of house-warming-cum-birthday celebration on a warm July evening. The ambience was just right, and there were very few guests who already knew each other, this seemed to be a good thing.  I was in high spirits, it was the start of a happier period after a stressful few years. My twelve guests behaved impeccably, despite drinking far too much. Everyone mingled comfortably, nothing valuable got broken and (very importantly) nobody tried to take over the music.
My mum's elderly neighbour attended for a few hours, she is extremely funny without ever trying to be. One evening, she came over to my parent's house to dye my hair. A hyper-active friend of mine was scrubbing the carpet out of sheer boredom while she waited for me, and my brother was watching TV. Once the dye was applied, we all sat to watch a documentary about the Barrymore/Lubbock scandal. During an ad break, Rita lifted her vintage 1950's glasses and leant in to my brother exclaiming; "now, you imagine that. A fist. Up your backside. Dirty bastards!" she then carried on watching the documentary with interest.
One guest was a friend of a friend,it was he first time I'd met him. He reminded me of a  Barbie doll. My mum and Rita were all over him like a cheap suit. "Look at his clean shoes!" "What beautiful white teeth". Bleached blonde hair, deep tan, he stood at least 6ft 2" and was an instant hit with everyone, choosing to discuss shopping and cocktails.  Another guest impressed me with the effort she put in to attending. After finishing a ten hour shift at the nursing home, she went home, put her three children to bed, got a taxi to my house stopping to purchase flowers, a vase and wine before arriving with a plate of home-made cakes. I was so glad to see her looking happy, and it seemed her life was settled. Of all the people I know, she would be the most difficult to seem believable in a book or film. With no sense of her mortality, life for her has so far been a catalogue of drama. 
Looking back, that visit from her was probably the last time she was ever within a chance of living her life without pain. Now, her ex-mum in law has custody of the children, she had another baby with a waster and though I haven't seen her in years, text messages from her suggest her life is in tatters. Despite her talent, charisma and intelligence, she actively chooses to live her life in the danger zone. It's impossible to feel sympathy for her when I hear of the latest disaster she's involved in, but there's room for plenty of pity.
When I first met her, she was 19 and had just had her first baby, so I didn't get to talk to her properly.  A few months later, when I was heavily pregnant,we spent the day alone together. It could have been extremely awkward, she knew nothing about me, was from a different area and a few years younger. The day was spent drinking tea, doing crosswords, and conversing in the most natural, comfortable way imaginable. Over the following two years I spent a lot of time in her company.  We were two very bored young ladies with partners who did little to stimulate our fertile imaginations. The phrase 'The Devil finds work for idle hands" comes to mind when I think back on the times we spent together. A typical day would consist of  us taking the children out in the morning, then going back to her house for lunch. I would beg her to play the piano, it would take ages for her to agree, but was always worth the effort. At the risk of sounding like I was full of virtue, it was usually she who'd feel an overwhelming desire to do something mischievous.
One afternoon, we were moaning about being skint (nothing has changed). After rooting though every jar, drawer, pocket and bag we collected around £3. The best way to spend it, we decided, was on some scratch cards. We won a tidy sum, £85 which was promptly spent on wine, gourmet food and treats for the children.
That seemed so naughty and irresponsible, the food and wine was all consumed that evening, we created a five-course masterpiece. By midnight we were all embroiled in a huge argument, largely because she couldn't handle 'fun' coming to an end.
There was nothing terrible about what we did, yet every day I spent with her seemed to finish with me feeling guilty. Was it because I wasn't fully embracing her 'live for the moment' philosophy? Maybe it wasn't guilt, just fear  because I knew she was at the very beginning of a downward spiral. Once, she said it was her dream to have a smart house, lovely clothes and a fridge full of Marks and Spencer's food.  Hardly a difficult dream to achieve, but for her, it was like trying to rescue a wet fly.
That night, at the party, she was on her way to achieving the elusive dream. Last time I heard from her she was a million miles from it. The fact I think about her so often means the friendship must have gone a little deeper than I realised. It's a friendship confined to mere memory now, almost lost.
Sadly, so many friendships end up being a brief slideshow of 'moments'  don't they?

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Autism Awareness Month

I have worked with approximately 30 children who have an Autistic
Spectrum Disorder. Most of these children had additional learning
difficulties, it was a Special School.
I left 3 years ago to look after my young sons, but I think about the
pupils a lot. I spent six years with the same group of children. Six
boys, two girls. Most of my colleagues said they couldn't handle
working in the Autistic unit. "They're hard work" "They can be
violent" "They don't listen"...
I'd imagine you think over the period of ten years I received some
specialised training in Autism? No, none at all. I requested training
every year, there was never enough money for it.
The children I worked with had a huge impact on my life. I was
injured, assaulted, my clothes got ripped. I cried a lot with
frustration (at people's inability to accept Autism).
I laughed every day, and continue to laugh at some of the situations I
found myself in, and some of the innocent comments made by the pupils
which were hilarious.

 A trip to the shop to buy bread and milk would
always end in drama. One pupil felt it necessary to strike up
conversations with strangers using his unique descriptions of their
appearance. "So, old lady-you have the moustache?" My fondness for the
group meant I rarely thought about Autism, they were a group of
individuals, defined by their personalities, not their 'disorder'.
Once, the whole school were invited to the Wales Millenium Centre to
watch 'Sleeping Beauty on Ice'. I overheard a member of senior
management say "I don't think the Autistic Unit should go". I was
determined to go, really fed up of the discrimination.
We went, and hoped for the best. The best happened. All the pupils
from the Autistic Unit sat still, entranced for the entire show. The
rest of the pupils, bored and impatient, caused quite a scene, crying,
shouting and running around.
Every single negative thing that happened during my time at the school
was due to lack of tolerance.
If you know nothing about Autism, just learn this one thing. Autism is
nothing to be afraid of. Intolerance is the only problem. If you had
Autism, I reckon the only thing you'd ask for is acceptance. The world
is difficult to understand for many, please do NOT assume your
understanding of it is right.
One pupil said "I don't like assembly, I'm not going". I didn't like
assembly either, I went. What is it that made us SO different eh?

Friday, 15 April 2011

My Night Out with 'The Girls'

Occasional Thursdays are dedicated to curry night at Wetherspoon's. I meet with a group of ladies I got to know nearly ten years ago when my eldest son was two. Seven of us have maintained a friendship of sorts, though I only have the mobile number of one - Helen.
'The Girls'- this conjures up images of  young, overdressed and heavily made up ladies, grinning, with a bottles of cheap wine providing the fuel for a night of fun. Flirting, bitching, raucous laughter at some double-entendres laden with sexual innuendo. Moaning about partners is essential - "he leaves the toilet seat up!" "He doesn't change the toilet roll!" "He doesn't clean the toilet when he's pebble dashed it!" "He  leaves his stubble in the sink after a shave!" (I'm all out of toilet related gripes now).
'The Girls', not strictly girls-I'm the youngest at 34. When I reeled off the names of the females who were able to make last night's meet up, my partner thought I'd be visiting a nursing home (Val, Eileen, Meryl, Gail, Meryem and Helen). We're a mixture of mothers and grandmothers who happened to be looking after children of a similar age at the same time. We happened to attend the same toddler group every Monday and Friday for two hours. I doubt we ever would have met in any other circumstances, and such relationships usually fizzle out once lifestyles change. Helen and Meryem were so timid the first day I met them a decade ago. It took weeks to strike up a flowing conversation with Helen, and months to do the same with Meryem. Both had gentle, clear voices and never said anything outrageous or ill-informed. Gail; sucessful, classy, educated and very graceful. Val, Eileen and Meryl were the grandmothers of the group, their confidence kept the group alive and their dignity prevented any unsavoury lines of conversation taking over. We ate endless rounds of anaemic cold toast, guzzled mug after mug of tepid tea.
 Last nights' chatter was mainly led by an animated Val, who has exceptional story-telling skills. The gossip was simply jaw-dropping, the stuff of real-life magazines. A local girl has fleeced friends, family and various companies out of at least £100,000, and sent a letter threatening a bomb attack to the bank in an attempt to prevent her in-laws finding out. There were stories of scandal, divorce, affairs, domestic violence, gastric bands, family feuds... We didn't have time to touch on the toilet behaviour of our spouses. Alcohol barely featured, we all had to be up early this morning and are careful with our cash. The dress code was less Sex and The City glamour, more no-nonsense blouses, a bit of lipstick and comfy shoes. To bystanders I imagine we looked like a group of office colleagues, very sensible, boring, staid. To the young boys and girls who were out to get very drunk, some dressed to the nines (why?) I imagine we embodied everything they hope to avoid becoming. I overheard some conversations on the next table, where a group of students were celebrating a 20th birthday. "I said to her, 'are you coming?' She was like, 'yeah' but I was like, I know you're not coming. Why lie, like, say 'I'm not coming'" (this went on for ages).
Our table; seven ladies with seemingly unremarkable lives,  blended in very well with the furniture. As Val finished her story about Marilyn's divorce and impotent new partner, I quipped "the truth is far stranger than fiction".
Thursday nights, eating a lukewarm glorified ready meal in the company of six very different ladies, offers a strange sort of comfort for me. I leave feeling relaxed, refreshed, any loneliness I have felt through the week with just a toddler for company  evaporates. So much has changed for us all in ten years, yet in some ways, nothing has. My time with these women leaves me feeling something quite unfamiliar-normal.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Don't ever envy anyone...

I forgot to elaborate on the ill, fragile looking person who came to mind at the hairdressers. Sara will be 37 this year, I am very good friends with her younger sister Rhian. While Rhian has a fiancĂ©, lovely home and a 3 year old daughter, Sara lives with their elderly dad.
When I was around 17 I envied Sara, she seemingly 'had it all'. Scruffy grunge was the look 'du jour', yet Sara plumped for the WAG look (which was not commonplace in my small home town 17 years ago). Tan,  french polished nails, immaculate make-up, long chocolate brown hair styled in that 'just got out of bed' tousled look (which takes ages). Sara went to the gym regularly, did aerobics and boxercise classes, her boyfriend had a flashy car and was always buying her nice things and taking her on holiday.  He was like a caricature drawing of himself personified all gleaming teeth, big nose, rippling muscles.
Once, I stayed over Sara and Rhian's house on a work night, Sara offered me a lift to work in the morning. I got dressed and made a cuppa, then sat and waited for Sara. After 45 minutes of preening, she said "Luce, I'm not being funny but we've gotta leave in 10 minutes, you'd better get ready".
I WAS ready. Somehow she couldn't believe I wasn't going to be plastering foundation on, plucking my eyebrows and tonging my hair in preparation for a day being spat at, slapped and covered in all sorts of bodily fluid at work.
A few years later I had a baby and a house and Sara was made redundant. I started getting frequent visits from her, usually unexpected. A four pack of  fosters had become her latest accessory, her personal grooming, though more relaxed was still impressive. I never really fancied sipping cans on a Wednesday afternoon, not with a baby and house to look after. My assumption was that Sara didn't want to arrive empty-handed, and that she was at a loose-end, 'between jobs' and needed an excuse to spend time with someone.  Her relationship was struggling, his suffocating possessiveness made life hard. "Where are you?" "Put the radio on, prove you'e in the car" "What can you see from the window?" "Who are you with, put her on the phone". Awful.
Sara soon got a great new job, ditched the boyfriend and bought fancy sports car, as if to say "look what I can do on my own". The high-maintenance look was BACK.
 My jealousy returned, I was getting really fed up with my life, felt trapped, had no freedom or money. Seeing Sara all glamorous, fit, free and having all the things I couldn't was a reminder of what I'd never be.   Years went by, there were unsuccessful new relationships, problems at work, friends of Sara got married, had children, moved on while Sara just kept getting pissed.
Seeing Sara recently, I thought, there's nothing to envy now. Sara is underweight, looks haunted, stressed and ill. Caring for her elderly dad, unable to hold onto any new relationships for long, drinking too much, it's all etched on her face, her shoulders groan with the burden.
The tan has survived, along with the expertly-applied eye make-up, but her hair, clothes and nails are telling the tale of someone not looking after them self. I wonder if she notices she no longer turns heads, no longer makes other women jealous. I wonder if she ever knew she did.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Adventures in babysitting

Babysitting was not a lucrative gig when I was younger.  Getting a house to myself for an evening, eating loads of crisps, biscuits and chocolate and squirting perfume everywhere were the perks for me. The scents 'L'air Du Temps' by Nina  Ricci and 'Anais Anais' by Cacharel will always remind me of babysitting.
I liked Julie's house, it was really clean and neat, a few things let it down though. I never got used to seeing an A2 sized portrait of Julie staring all misty eyed at me from above the fireplace. Soft-focus, feather boa, perm, coral lipstick, pearl necklace (need I go on?). The rabbit wallpaper in Callum's  room was the stuff of fly agaric mushroom nightmares too, horror film style.
Julie was a single mum, on the lookout for love, her son Callum's was 2 when I started babysitting.
Callum had the deepest ginger hair, he was pale and chubby, had little speech and ate only dry, cold foods. It took a while for me to get to know him, but over the years I became quite fond of him.  AC/DC videos were always playing when I arrived, with Callum hoofing up and down the living room clutching an inflatable red guitar.
It always took ages to get Callum  to sleep, in Julie's bed with a dummy in his mouth, one in his hand and a satin nightie in the other for comfort. I don't think he ever slept right through either, I would turn around to see him standing on a stair, staring into space, silent. Looking back, I wonder how  I wasn't too spooked to carry on.
Julie found love after around a year, and the babysitting dried up. I would see her in town looking miserable, fatter and bored. A few years later they split up. Babysitting resumed. Julie lost weight, seemed to be having fun again, and a youthful aura surrounded her.
Julie found love again, and I didn't see her or Callum again, until recently. Julie looked bored, fatter and miserable. Callum was at least 6ft, and seemed a happy 20+ year old.

I wonder what happened on those nights out, and if the thrill of the chase was better than catching the prey?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Brief Moments Of Tranquility

The hairdressers on Monday,  people watching heaven.  If only I  had Owl-like peripheral vision, I wouldn't miss a trick. A young lady looked so vulnerable with her head wrapped in foil and cotton wool. Paranoia seemed to set in as she was forced to look at her face in the mirror for an hour. A man having his thinning hair tidied up talked stocks and shares with the salon owner. For a brief moment I imagine they felt as if they were  Italian Mafia, with money hungry pretty ladies swooning over their powerful, manly presence. Cotton wool/foil lady asked for a 'latte' to go with her out of date Heat magazine, the hairdresser replied "It's Nescafe instant, but I can do it milky in the microwave if you like?". You really should have gone to Cardiff to get your hair coiffed if you fancy living like someone from one of those magazines for an hour or so every 4-6 weeks love.
My three year old son sat still and quietly, he's come a long way since the days of screaming and rolling on the floor at the mere mention of the word 'cut' (be it hair or nails). I appreciated being able to sit and get lost in my thoughts, they are precious, rare moments. Two ladies with children of various ages were waiting on the same banquette (love that word) as me. Most of them were tapping away furiously on their phones. A boy around 8 years old spotted a fridge full of cans. I knew what was coming before his mum did. If you have one, your sister will want one, they're expensive and you're about to have your hair cut. Boys get what they want, either because mum can't be bothered with the sulking and persistence, or perhaps something related to the Oedipus Complex is to blame.

"Share that can with your sister please"

"Eurggh, I don't want to drink from the same can that has HIS dribble all over it."

How lucky was I, with just one child who was behaving admirably?
Very lucky, lots of things have improved over the past three years. My thoughts led to someone I once envied who is now looking fragile, troubled, and ill. I shall describe this tale in my next post.