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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cringe

I wake my son up at 7am. Its a school day. He groans a little. He moans a little bit more. He flops back the covers and shows me his face which is the palest white and tinged with pink. Its a very subtle change to his normal colouring but there is a change all the same. I lean in closer and feel his forehead. He suddenly seems younger than his 13 yrs.

'What's the matter?'

'It's hard to swallow. My throat hurts. I feel a bit achy'

I tell him to go back to sleep and quietly closing the door I leave him in peace.

I phone the school. There is a history trip the next day, one that he has been looking forward to and has commented on endlessly during the past couple of weeks. I speak to matron, at school, who says there is 'something going around'. He gets crossed off the list. I know he will be disappointed.

I pop out to the shops to get some milk. I also pick up a pack of 4 pains au chocolat. Something nice for him to eat when he wakes up - if he is hungry. He would usually have toast or porridge but porridge seems too heavy for someone unwell and toast too throat-scratchy.

A couple of hours later I go up again and he is awake but subdued. I feel his head - he is a little warm - and tell him he will have to miss the trip tomorrow. He doesn't say anything.

'Are you hungry darling?'

'What for?'

'Pains au chocolat?'

'I think I could manage...a couple'

I pop them in the oven and turn it on. Within minutes the house is filled with the sweet smell of chocolate and pastry. I manage to remember to take them out before they burn. I have developed a knack for burning toast and this happens most mornings. Its almost expected of me. I always manage to start another task before the toast is ready, then I forget, and then its too late. No-one even comments when the smoke alarm lets off its familiar shriek and I then hurl myself up the stairs madly flapping with a tea-towel to shift the charcoaly drift.

My son stays in bed for most of the day. He becomes a voice that calls out periodically for water or food or a little conversation. I spend my time running up and down. Sometimes the dog gets into the spirit of things and follows me, cantering back and forth. Or else she hangs around the upper landing and monitors my progress by watching through the banisters. It's a pleasant enough day, and by evening my son is clearly much better.

'Can I have those last two pains au chocolat?'

'No, they're for breakfast'

'I'll have toast for breakfast...so can I have the pains au chocolat now?'

'No, have some toast instead...'

Things start to get tetchy. It always happens when we have been cooped up together all day. He announces that he wants to go on the school trip. I explain that he can't, he has already been crossed off and anyway the school won't want him infecting everyone so he should stay at home another day and return when he is 100%. He says the infectious period has already passed. The argument begins to get heated. No matter which way I try to approach this I seem to be falling short of a valid answer. He does seem better. We decide to get up early, get to the school well before the coach is due and see if he can go.

First thing in the morning and he is fine, sitting up in bed within seconds of waking and eager to get going.

I go downstairs to make breakfast. The pains au chocolat have gone. I start to make toast. My son arrives in the kitchen, dressed for school but his manner is edgy. Outside it is as black as the dead of night.

'Mum, just drop me at school and go, don't hang around chatting to anyone. I'll sort it out'

'I can't darling, I have to get you signed in, we'll have to find a teacher just to check that they actually still want you on the trip. Then I'll go'

I seem to cause my son immense embarrassment. Its either the way I dress or my voice or how I interact with others. I do it all wrong. He says I also manage to smile inanely at his friends or to stare moronically. And apparently I 'creep them out'. He runs his hands through his hair and looks at the ceiling.

'Oh god! just try not to talk to anyone then...and don't call me darling'

The smoke alarm goes off. I scrape the burnt bits off the toast and patch-work together what is left with butter and marmite. I confidently assure him I will be as quick and monosyllabic as possible, I won't communicate with any of his friends, I'll keep my eyes down, I won't call him darling and I'll get off the premises as soon as physically possible. I easily remember how my own mother would some times drive us to school wearing a coat thrown over her nightie. It seems funny now but my sister and I were mortified at the time. And anyway, I'm nothing like as bad as that.

We are at the school by 6.45am and the grounds are shadowy and shrouded in silence. Teenage boys and girls are wandering around in secretive twos and threes, they loom, like the un-dead, in and out of the darkness and go to and from various doors. There is no coach to be seen and certainly no teachers. In fact I can't see any adults at all.

We wait outside one of the main school buildings. I didn't have time to wash and dry my hair earlier and as it was sticking up on one side I stuck on a small black felt hat, pulling it down over my face, but now I discover that it is pulled down so low that in order to see anyone I have to keep throwing my head back and screwing up my eyes as each person passes by just to check to see if they are an adult or a child.

'Look at you!' he hisses 'you're such a weirdo!!'

A large coach then begins to crawl majestically up the school drive and from all areas more children begin to emerge. But its still pitch black and it seems a little odd that there aren't any teachers around. We stand together but apart. The gap hurts.

And then at last, out of the darkness, I see a man approaching. He is coming from the kitchens and is carrying a deep tray filled with apples, bottles of water and packed lunches. I am so relieved to see another adult that I throw back my head, squint under the brow of my hat and give the man a big smile. From 2 feet away I can feel every nerve-ending in my sons body dehydrate, shrivel and permanently dry out.

The man turns out to be the history teacher. He is just the man we want. He seems pleased that my son has made the effort to come in and says that yes, of course, he can still go on the trip.

I notice that my sons fists are clenched into tight balls but I don't think I've done too much wrong.

I turn to say goodbye reminding myself to keep it short and to the point. I'm now thankful I can hand him over safely and that I haven't caused him too much torture. I lean back, peer out from under the rim of my hat, squint, smile and limit myself to two words.

'Bye darling!'

He gives me a look with a total lack of expression and shakes his head negatively from side to side in a very slight slow manner. He starts to walk away with his teacher.

I smile inanely...then, realising my gaff, I stare moronically after him.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Blue Winter

I get ready to go out into the garden. Its cold but there isn't any snow or rain or particularly strong wind. I've got no excuses not to go out there and anyway, I really should.

The sky is grey and the greyness manages to seep out and into everything. I know that sometimes we have to stand still and wait but its just all so bleak at this time of year. Even the colour of the air feels neglected and sad.

The dog stands stands next to me in the inappropriately named sun-room. She watches as I pull on woollen socks, wellingtons, a thick old anorak, gloves and hat. She is unimpressed. She stands firm with resolute and solid determination written into her body language. You won't catch her going out there. And even when she has to its for the quickest possible time span. Perhaps she'll also indulge in a little vigorous barking at the energetic fools who continually taunt her while playing tennis on a Sunday morning, but other than that she too sees only bleakness and no pressing need to venture out. But I have to.

Once I am bundled up I pull back the glass doors and head up the couple of steps to our small plain oblong garden. My son has been hastily pulling on his boots and has followed me out, hands pushed into his tracksuit bottoms, head down, thick fringe of dark hair hiding his eyes.

I survey the garden. It is a typical rather cramped almost uniformly boring outdoor space, one third filled with the now requisite giant trampoline, a tiny pond in the corner and edged with beds which are infrequently dotted with a few still green-leaved shrubs but mostly crackle-branched naked looking and stripped bare bushes. I do try, but really, I'm not much of a gardener. The hydrangeas, virtually the only flowering plant were never cut back in the Autumn and now, drained of colour and life, look like they have been sculpted out of cardboard, the flower heads have turned into great clumps of cobwebby lace, the colour of sand, and as crisp as over-done meringues. I'll regret that I left them like that when Spring finally arrives. But it all looks so miserable now, and I like seeing them there, a giant dried flower-arrangement, and if I cut them away the frost might get into them and then I'll have nothing.

And all about, dotted through-out the grass in varying amounts is the work of the dog and the downside of owning a dog - clearing up the dog shit. A lot has accumulated in the short couple of weeks since I last came out here. I set to work with my collection of various sized plastic bags. My son is leaping around like a fawn, pointed out dog-poo, chattering to himself in between, the air tunneling out of his mouth and nostrils in great gusty clouds like a steam train as he charges around clearly enjoying being outdoors, filling the lethargy with his prancing and energetic two-step.

I squint and move closer to my target, struggling to see the difference between dog shit and leaf-fall, spending half my time collecting up handfuls of cleverly disguised leaves and the odd unfortunate slug. My eyesight seems worse than ever, if I wear my reading glasses I have to get really close to the subject matter to make a precise judgment. And I'd rather not, but the leaves, they are everywhere. The garden is covered, it has become a sea of soggy organic debris and it's a relatively new phenomenon.

This started last year when a clutch of similar looking small saplings started to appear along the flowerbeds and around the pond, they filled up space, grew quickly and sheltered the pond from the occasional Heron attack. They seemed like a good idea at the time but now that everywhere is so leaf-strewn the idea seems short-sighted. But I don't suppose I'll do anything about it yet.

My son continues to leap up and down the length of the garden, pointing out patches that I have missed, scooting over the ugly concrete path and up on to the trampoline. He somersaults into the centre, adeptly kicking off his boots with a quick jerk of his ankles. The trampoline is also covered with leaves and they bounce and twitch with him as he hurls himself up and down with leisurely effort.

He doesn't need a jacket and is wearing only a thin half-buttoned cotton shirt. The confident ease with which he throws his body about always makes me feel uncomfortable and on edge. I try to focus on collecting dog-poo and not to look at the way he is bouncing around with such flippancy. He will always tell me he is bouncing in a certain hair-raising fashion 'on purpose', as if that makes it alright. If I don't look away I will start to make too many comments about 'minding the edge' and 'make sure you stay in the middle' and 'careful!! you nearly came off then...'

'Careful!! you nearly came off then...'

'Mum...you are so stressy...and anyway, I was doing it on purpose'

He rolls off the trampoline, pulls his wellingtons back on and clomps over to the pond with a couple of sticks. This small pond was his birthday present a few years ago. Not only are there fish to view flitting here and there under the water mint and forget-me-knot, but also the thrill of discovering the many frogs (including the permanently frenzied and manic 'Sir Frogsalot') that now come and go through out the year leaving clumps of wobbling spawn and darting tadpoles.

And when the weather is good he will spend a large chunk of time just observing the occupants and is filled with sadness when any of the fish die. We've had quite a few deaths but one, a big fat orange goldfish, has survived since possibly the first batch were introduced and grows heavier and more monstrous by the week. You catch glimpses of his flashy scaly coat as he darts around in the depths or occasionally sucks down an unlucky water-boatman from the pond-surface. He is the king of the pond, flamboyant master of the waves and ruler of the murky depths. He has a reputation of being a bit of a thug. Even the frenetic dervish Sir Frogsalot seems a bit wary of him. And he goes by the name of 'Captain Fishlips'.

'Erm, Mum...you'd better come and see this'

'What?'

'It's Captain Fishlips'

'What?'

'...I think he's dead'

I drop my now heavily laden bag and hurry over to the pond. My son is standing over the edge, his fringe flopping densely over his eyes, he points with his stick to a large orange leaf that is floating on the surface. In fact the whole pond is covered with leaves. But this is the only orange one.

I peer more closely at it and it does seem to be strangely swollen and moving with more weight than the others. Its a sort of...dead weight...but I'm unwilling to view this as Captain Fishlips. Not yet. I still want to inhabit the part of my brain that will find him swimming about, unchallenged, in the inky Stygian murk. And its still possible, I query internally, that this orange leaf has come from a small tree, growing unnoticed by us, in a previously hidden part of the garden. A tiny tree brim-full with bright shiny orange leaves....

'For god sake Mum! It isn't a leaf. You have to face the truth. Captain Fishlips is dead. Now, where are we going to bury him?'

It is true. Captain Fishlips is now just a bloated orange corpse floating on top of the pond. I seem to be the only one saddened by this. I use one of my plastic bags to pull him out by the tail and drop him onto the edge of a flower bed. We both bend over to get a closer look. His eye is glazed and jellied, his whole body no-longer the brightly effervescent and energetic ruler of the watery depths but stagnated in aspic and undeniably reeking of death.

My son is already dragging out a spade and looking around for a suitable spot to start digging.

'What about here?' He gestures to just underneath the meringue-like Hydrangeas. I picture the spade as a flashing blade cutting through the roots and killing the plant quicker than the frost would.

I direct him to an emptier spot.

He begins to dig a hole, recalling previous fish deaths and where they are buried.

I go back to collecting dog shit and wondering what to do about the leaves and how we'll have to somehow drain the pond and clear them all out, buy new fish. When the weather is a little better though.

The dog is still staring at me from behind the glass-doors in the sun room. She turns, finally, and heads back into the main part of the house.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The F word

I pick my son up from school and we immediately get into a verbal confrontation over my refusal to buy him 18 certificate horror films off Amazon.

He retorts in anger. He calls me the f word. I am left feeling wounded and confused.

Yes, my thirteen year old son says that I am a...fascist.

Little Creature

Waking up thirsty in the middle of night, I start to think about a long cold glass of sparkling water. There is a bottle chilling in the drawer at the bottom of my fridge. All I have to do is rouse myself a little, throw back the covers and tip-toe quietly downstairs.

But something stops me, and I quickly get pulled under and into deep slumber again. Many hours or perhaps it is only a single solitary second later I am wide awake and feeling more strongly the overwhelming urge to quench my thirst. I know that I am only a short hop, skip and jump away from the bathroom where I could run off the tepid docility of the tap-water into the basin and manage to slurp enough, in the cup of my hand, to slake this demon thirst but thoughts of ice-cold bubbles smacking the back of my throat and quenching me deeply have now begun to infiltrate my central nervous system. I cannot go back to sleep now that I know that the only way to kill my thirst will be a long hard draught of fridge-residing fizzy.

I creep out of bed as softly as I can, without dressing-gown or slippers, as this sort of fast moving dead of the night operation has no time for such pleasantries. All it requires is speed and stealth. Whatever I do I must be careful not to wake the other inhabitants in the house.

This is my main fear. But there are others too.

I glide swiftly, my way lit only by weak and cloud-diluted moonlight which is of little help and gives the surroundings a romantic cloak of mysterious unfamiliarity. Bugger! I stub my toe against the skirting board in the darkness.

The pain is knife-stabbingly intense but I can't afford to draw attention to this now. All I can do, in the name of self-expression is allow my face full-rein to release the shock through its twisting musculature and a snappily chosen selection of classic Greek mask facial contortions.

I look into the stair-well and see nothing but my own fear. Softly creeping down, I stop for a moment, to listen with relief and to register the prevailing silence, the blanketing silence of an empty night that is both highly reassuring and deeply menacing. I have never been good on my own in the depths of darkness. In fact, my unrestrained nerve-endings and gluttonous imagination often run foolishly, with open arms, towards masked cat-burglars with striped jumpers carrying bags of swag and gangs of ragged bare-footed street urchins headed by a gang-leader wearing a battered top hat and answering to the name of The Artful Dodger. Or else its a more traditional mixed fright-fest potpourri of ghosts, large snakes and that girl who's head turned full circle and vomited green humours in the Exorcist.

But for this night, at least, the beckoning finger of fateful tempting, into the house, of all things fearful, has dissolved into nothing and as I reach the kitchen door I take a deep breathe, gently pull the handle down and step in.

The kitchen is quietly sleeping, with only the glare of the digital clock on the cooker to witness the proceedings. I pull open the heavily suctioned fridge door and reach down into the deep lower draw and haul up the bottle of water. And then, as I turn, I realise with unutterable terror that I am, in fact, being watched.

She is standing on the very edges of the hemline of refrigerator light and her concentrated stare, with beady eyes that glisten with heavy criminal intent, is dark like the colour of blackmail.

Quick as a flash she seizes her opportunity and races up the stairs and in through the open door of the bedroom. No such fear over stubbing her little toes in the dark, she veritably canters her triumphant little form across the room and onto the bed and immediately burrows into the covers to the seductive warmth underneath, and before I have even closed the fridge door and searched blindly for a glass, she is fast asleep, centrally, with all four tiny legs splayed out in a deliberately threatening display of mattress-ownership. It's the taunting pose of the confident canine supremacist and one which I dare not try to shift when I finally arrive back in the room bowed, cold, tired and with a sore toe. But not thirsty.

Now, having the woken the dog, I already know the deal that for some reason has fallen unspoken into the rule book. I woke her up in the middle of the night - so she gets to sleep in my bed. And now I will have to spend the rest of the night clinging to the outer edges while she snores, open-mouthed and drooling, her near-toothless oral-interior prone to leakages and luxuriates, spreading her special elderly-dog fragrances throughout the bedding where they will cling, like her hair, forever. And both she and I know the pointlessness of trying to remove her. Her fiendish tactics of frantic kitchen door scrabbling saved up and only ever activated during these night-time excursions are all part of her game plan, and she always wins this round (likewise the one when she stands just the other side of the closed kitchen door and releases a staccato stream of strangulated barks - timed to go off at regular intervals, approximately every 90 seconds - which each time jerk you cruelly awake just when you thought she had stopped). Like Don Corleone's grandmother she appears to have hidden depths on which to call on in times of need and I, now feeble and sleepy, feel unable to face her protracted weaponry and just give in.

Miriam, small, hairy and 12 years old, with a face designed to melt the stoniest of hearts, a softness to her body that endears her to children and strangers, but, when she wants her own way, a cold sinister stare and the willpower and innards of a devil.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Passive-aggressive

My son needs new shoes. He is down to wearing either his school ones or wellingtons and so on my way to collect him from school I swing by a local factory outlet to see if there are any bargains to be had.

I park my car and follow a small swarm of women in to the store. They look like a family group, a couple of grown up sisters with a cousin thrown in and a bunch of shared children. They are all skinny, and all are dressed in a uniform look of Ugg-type boots and tight jeans. The adults have punky dyed hair and hard tight smiles. Their jackets look thin and they walk with hands dug deep down into their pockets. They look cold. The children's hair is cut into similar spiky crops, there is a confidence in their look, a slight edge to their group mentality which means they feel secure. They are a tribe. But they are not my tribe.

We all go through the inner doors together. We all stare unabashedly at each other before parting company and going our separate ways.

I walk onwards and I wonder if they were summing me up the way I was them and whether I have a specific look, belong to a tribe like they do. Like them I am also wearing jeans but with an old shaggy jacket that looks as if it has come straight from a yaks back. Someone once said to me that the jacket had an 'earthy' look to it. I like this jacket but I don't like the signification of 'earthy', it makes me sound like a hippy. I don't want to look like a hippy. It's a look that worries me. But the weather is cold and the jacket is warm.

My son is just beginning to develop his own style. I couldn't tell you what it is and I don't suppose he could either but at the moment it quite naturally veers away from anything his father or I might wear. A few years ago he picked a pair of white trainers emblazoned with black skulls. It was a sort of 'goth plays tennis' look. His father, my former husband, visibly winced when he saw them. This is a man who wanted to have our son, by the age of 3, wearing a nice pair of slacks and a blazer. At 13 he was hoping this might slide comfortably into business wear, you can never go far wrong in life with a pair of highly polished shoes and a dark suit. There was never going to be room for any phrenologically-inspired intimidatory regalia. But his main concern was that they would be impossible to keep clean.

My ex-husband would make someone a very good wife. A man who likes nothing more than to spend his free time spring-cleaning his kitchen cupboards and lining up the contents of his pantry in precise militarian rows. He once suggested to me that I reference all the books on my shelves by the colour of their cover. And file them in a size-lead undulating continuum to create a more harmonious sloping wave effect. I said I'd just prefer to read them. It proved to be one of our sticking points.

He is late with his child maintenance payment again. Another size-lead undulating continuum. And another sticking point.

For my former husband, a day spent bleaching the net curtains, attacking the skirting board with an old toothbrush, and hand-washing his cashmere cardigans - Marigolds and Kath Kidstone pinny in place - is a day well spent.

He has admirable standards but it nearly drove me insane.

And the more my son wore those beastly trainers, the grubbier they became, until the white became grimy and impossible for even his father to clean.

Of course our son simply adored them and the filthier they grew the more joy he took in wearing them. They also had unexpected and rewarding side-effects from which he took deep pleasure. Towards the end of their life not only did they look appalling but they also smelt like death. On a warm day their decaying fragrance would rise into the air unbidden, fouling the formerly pleasant and sunny atmosphere with a heavy and densely overpowering pungency which caught in the throat and then took up permanent residence in the nostrils. Also, by dragging and scuffing his heels in a particular way he could create an almost uniquely shrill and intensely disturbing sound, similar to filed nails on a blackboard. I lived, breathed and heard those trainers, most days, for over a year. At least his father could leave the smell behind every week after his weekend access stays.

Eventually, of course, our son outgrew them and his father tossed them into a bin, happy to see them go. Our son was miserable for a few weeks. And then forgot about them.

I turn the corner. There, half way down an aisle, in the men's shoe section I spot a suitable pair for our son. I check through the sizes and find some that will fit, the price has been marked down not once but twice, they are a bargain. I take them over to the till and stand in the queue and then dig around in my bag for my wallet. The abundant shagginess of my jacket makes it difficult for me to reach where it is at the bottom and I have to keep grasping away at unseen depths. I feel like a big (earthy) potato.

In front of me, at the counter are the punky group of women and offspring. I imagine seeing myself through their eyes : I am in the commune barefoot and smiley and singing loudly with an enthusiastic but thin voice. I accompany myself with a touch of insubstantial tambourine.

One of the children ahead, a girl of about 7, jagged hair and jaded expression, is clutching a fairy dress on a hanger. It is a pink nylon sparkly confection of a dress. She holds it out in front of her to view it proudly. Suddenly I can see inside the cast-iron molding of her exterior. She wouldn't want to be viewed as a hippy either.

I place my sons new shoes on the counter to pay. I smile slowly to myself, a very childish but satisfying flush creeping through my mind. I have bought him a new and gleaming pair of white trainers with black skulls.