Night Chorus.

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2am.  Am wide awake despite very much not wanting to be. Have tried for three hours to sleep but husband, in state of blissful unconsciousness, has blocked nose and producing spectacular sounds. Strongly suspect that if snoring was an Olympic event, husband would walk away with gold.

2.10am. Hear commotion downstairs and leave bed to investigate. Attempts to keep eyes half closed to retain illusion of sleepy state fail as ground floor is ablaze with lights. Find Older Cherub in kitchen with headphones on and watching Game of Thrones on his I-Pad. Remind Cherub that season 4 of Game of Thrones is not an A level subject and that he needs to be up in five hours for school. Cherub, who has just completed a workout, complains of not having enough to eat. Do not feel that cereal, sports recovery drink, toast, chicken sandwich meant for school packed lunch and remainder of lasagne laid out in from of him, give sufficient grounds for this and decline request to make French toast.

2.20am. The dog, sitting in hopeful anticipation of food scraps, is suddenly all attention and starts barking loudly. Fear this might wake entire neighbourhood so open front door to assess what has brought about this state of excitement. Spot large, mangy fox frozen on lawn by sensor lights. Something unpleasant falls from its mouth and it slopes away in jaunty fashion. Dispatch dog with loud cries of encouragement to see vile animal off and watch dog discharge like a rocket in the opposite direction to the fox.

2.30am. Return to kitchen and Cherub performing elaborate stretching exercises. Cherub lists several things urgently needed for the morning which include printing off homework and washing school trousers as there’s spilt yoghurt on them. Cherub does not wait for response but announces he must get on with things as if he has been kept from important business.

Despite much whistling, dog is not forthcoming, so give up waiting in drafty hall and instruct Cherub to let her in when she reappears. Turn off lights and climb upstairs to bed which is now cold. Am determined to sleep but fear goal compromised by having consumed large quantities of dark chocolate after supper as am neither a coffee or tea drinker, so susceptible to caffeine. Curl up against husband as need for warmth has temporarily superseded need for peace. After five minutes become an inferno of heat and instantly discard husband and duvet.

2.50am. Husband’s snoring has settled into a low frequency, fluttering sound. Make ferocious attempt to take advantage of tranquil stage before Darth Vador decibels return but efforts fail. Lie very still and try to empty mind. Hear dog whining outside and contemplate leaving foolish animal to get on with it. Instead return downstairs and let her in. Cherub’s light is still on. Extract promise that he will be up in time for lift to station no matter what, but leave with heavy scepticism as Cherub’s commitment to lie-ins are legendary.

3.10am. Start to drift off but grow distracted by faint scratching noise. Am instantly alert and sit bolt upright. After some moments, identify sound coming from the ceiling just above my head. Try not to picture large rodent gnawing through electric cables but become fixated on sound and wait in state of extreme agitation. Consider earplugs but fear none exist in house and looking for them would mean turning on lights and ferrying through cupboards. Instead, stand on bed and bang loudly several times on the ceiling with slipper in the hope of frightening mice into submission. Cast uneasy glance over at husband who shifts onto his side, but sleeps on with steadfast resolve.

3.16am. Older Cherub appears in bedroom and asks indignantly what all the noise is about as he is trying to sleep. Request to borrow Apple charger is given short thrift and Older Cherub dispatched to bed with threats of losing I-Pad for life.

5.45am. Summoned from fitful dreams by several electronic devices belonging to husband leaping into life. About to drift off again when husband’s alarm startles us both. Alarm unceremoniously turned off. Wait in anticipation for husband to exit bed in order to resume sleeping but no such action transpires. Attempts to remind husband that alarm has gone off at the time of his choosing fail to have desired affect. Feel both resentful and envious of husband’s ability to sleep on with such dedication and listen begrudgingly to crows making a racket in garden until it is time to get up.

7am. Time to get up. Husband leaps out of bed with undignified enthusiasm and pulls back blind.

“Sleep well?” he asks, turning to look at me with a smile.

“Is that a serious question?” I ask.

Forget the bride. What about the grub?

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We are on our way to a wedding. The weather is dreadful, a combination of snow, ice and sleet, so we leave early, foregoing breakfast.  By the time we arrive the snow has been replaced with a biting wind: it’s not a good day to be changing into your finery in an exposed village car park. Needs, however, must.

The church is packed but we manage to squash into a vacant pew near the back. It’s Arctic. Almost as cold as it is outside. Two of my nieces squeeze in next to us, shivering in their pretty but thin dresses. A late arrival tiptoes to a spare seat but he’s about as inconspicuous as Dame Edna Everage. He’s got a warped sense of humour or he’s colour blind. Either way, it takes a big personality to wear a brick-red suit covered in large white clouds.

The music strikes up and the groom, cutting a dashing figure in his army Blues, turns towards the bridesmaids who appear in black dresses and orange shoes, followed by the pretty bride, more conventional in white. We launch straight into a hymn, or rather praise choruses that are new territory for me, so I stand mute and let my attention wander. There are a lot of eye-catching outfits, many unsuitable for the cold weather and one or two, I’ve got to say, that should have been left at home. We’re supposed to be in bright colours and wearing vintage but I have failed on both counts, opting for the forbidden black and several warm layers. Everyone at the front sings with enthusiasm, but the rest of the church is mostly silent. Top tip to future brides and grooms; if you want a rousing congregation, choose hymns that everyone knows.

After what feels like ten minutes, I glance at the service sheet to see what to expect next but it turns out we still have a lot of singing to get through. Someone near the front raises an arm. I crane my neck to see what the excitement is about, but I’m too far back to get a proper look. A second arm goes up. Then the bride adds her own, slowly waving it from side to side. What is going on? The professional singers have their eyes shut, hands in a ‘don’t shoot’ position but far from looking worried, they are in a state of musical rapture. It dawns on me that I am witnessing the church equivalent of a rave. I sneak a peek around me at other members of the congregation who too are swaying.  “Oh, God,” I think, appalled. I catch my son’s eye and have a sudden, irrepressible desire to giggle. This I must not do.

A woman with bright orange hair gets up to take the first reading. She has an Australian twang but I’m too distracted by the hair to follow what she’s saying. Another Aussie, who’s flown over especially for the occasion, brings a light touch to the Address. Then we’re back to the singing again while the register is signed and many more chorusses and waving of arms.

The newly weds exit to the Star Wars theme tune and loud clapping. Everyone else stays in the church for tea. As most of us haven’t eaten a thing all day, there’s bedlam around the laden cake table. I’m momentarily thrilled to discover there’s gluten-free cake but my enthusiasm dissipates after one bite. An elderly lady doesn’t appear to like her cake either as she drops it into someone’s open handbag.

At the reception we stare across the threshold of a cavernous tithe barn and scan the empty room. Embarrassingly, we are the first to arrive but there is nowhere else to ‘hang out’ and we were in need of a warmer location. A waitress appears with a tray of hot Pimms which we pounce on, though there’s no sign of any food. There’s a selfie corner – a nice touch – which my younger son makes a beeline for, taking charge of the Polaroid camera and pegging our images to a large board. Giant Jenga and Connect add to the entertainment by which time the barn has started to fill. I only know family members so am startled by a strange lady wearing thick glasses who bares down on me. I suspect she’s had a head start with the Pimms because she’s not all that steady on her feet.

“How are the girls?” she asks a little sternly. This throws me. As far as I know I have only ever produced boys and say as much. She takes great offense at this and wanders away.

Our table is in front of the main door which means that there’s a constant draft as people come in and out. Aside from a couple of speeches there’s just a lot of milling round. We’re all basically waiting for the food to arrive. My father-in-law, who is facing a long journey home, starts to worry his lift will appear before he’s had anything to eat. I ask a passing member of staff, trying to ignore my rumbling stomach, what time they expect to serve up.

‘A bit later than planned,” she says brightly and gives me an approximate time.

My heart sinks. Another hour to go.

In the loo a blond Australian (they’re everywhere) also has food on her mind.

“I’ve been to three weddings in the last year,” she complains over the noise of the hand dryer, “and they’ve all been the same. The last one kept us waiting five hours. I fell out with the groom over it.”

Now is probably not a good time to mention my inside information about the delayed meal.

By the time we do eat my older son is so hungry he’s become dull-eyed and listless. He demolishes a mounded plate of roast potatoes and then sets about eating most of mine. Beyond the point of hunger, I pick half-heartedly at watery vegetables.

As we leave, we call the friends we’re spending the night with to tell them that we’re on our way. They have cooked us supper and got in a movie to watch.

‘The fire’s lit,’ my friend tells me; she knows all too well my intolerance to cold. I feel my appetite return.

‘What are we having?’ I ask.

‘Toad in the hole followed by Tart Tartin.’

‘We’ll be there in ten minutes,’ I say, suddenly famished again. ‘For God’s sake don’t start without us.’

Slip Up

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I am in a canoe on a French river up to my waist in water. Despite the glum, rumbling sky, the air is mild otherwise I’d be tempted to swim to shore; being wet is one thing but being wet and cold puts me in a very dark place. My husband follows, hampered by a large waterproof container strapped between his knees. The container looks like a giant protein pot avid body builders use but we need it as it’s keeping our shoes and valuables dry. It is incredibly peaceful. I can’t believe we have the river to ourselves. The only sound comes from our paddles pulling through the rippling water. That, and the occasional shriek from our two teenage boys as they try to capsize each other.

We keep to the right of the river, steering clear of rocks that appear above the water’s surface. When we reach our first rapid, we drop, one by one, into the churning slope. Half way down and without warning, our canoes suddenly swivel round so that we travel backwards down the final descent. There is no point in trying to fight it – though of course I do. The pull of the current is too strong and you just have to go with it.

For a while we meander and I think wistfully of the hot sun a break in mid France had promised. Isn’t it meant to be reliably warm this time of year? Then I remind myself that this Summer holiday is about doing things with the boys. That was my wish. To have adventures with them. Not to lounge by a pool.

There is an almighty clatter of thunder and quite suddenly the rain that has threatened all morning descends. I remember the young Frenchman at the rental hut warning of possible thunderstorms and the penny drops – stupide Anglais – why we are alone on the river. In the event of a storm our instructions were to make for the bank and ditch our paddles. But while I don’t relish the thought of being fried (or drowned) on a river, we see no flashes of lighting and so soldier on.

At a blockade of rocks, we have to get out of our canoes and pull them over the other side. I knew in advance to expect this but it never occurred to me that it would give us any kind of trouble. It turns out that holding a paddle (long and awkward) in one hand, yanking up a canoe (heavy) with the other while negotiating a mound of wet rocks is to be our undoing.

Several things happen at once. My eldest son loses hold of his paddle which is immediately swept away. In trying to stop it, his brother tumbles onto his backside. Someone’s canoe slides free. I see it roll leisurely into the river and make a grab for it, but I too slip on the rocks. Arms windmilling backwards, I go down hard. There is a jolt to the side of my head and left wrist and for a moment the pain is all I can think about. Aided by my eldest son, I get gingerly to my feet, worried less about what injuries I may have sustained, but that my glasses, which flew off in the fall, might be broken.

“Your hand, Mum,” my older son says, bringing my attention to a nasty gash on the palm of my left hand. Blood is pouring from it. I watch it drip and blossom on the rocks curiously detached, though I’m aware that my other son has now set off on a rescue mission. Last to climb free from his canoe is my husband. I can tell he’s not feeling well. He opens up the barrel container and finding nothing suitable, offers me a rather grubby sock as a make-shift bandage.

“Best I can do,” he says ruefully. My hand starts to throb. I hear him discussing what our next move is with my son and while they’re talking, another paddle slips free and lands, sharp end, onto my big toe. This is turning into a farce, I think, gritting my teeth as new pain kicks in. I glance out at the river, stretching out in both directions and wonder how I’m going to be able to paddle without the use of one hand; we’ve still a long way to go. Its clear, however, that we can’t stay as we are.

The rain continues to fall. We stand under its fury, bedraggled rats, and hatch a plan. In the end my older son, who is the fittest amongst us, elects to bring back the missing canoe. I go with him leaving my husband to wait for his return.

My younger son has managed to rescue the stray canoe and paddle. But neither boy can work out how to paddle with one hand while towing a canoe with the other. I hold onto a rock and watch them problem solve. Using a T.shirt, they secure the rescued canoe to the back of my older son’s canoe, but it keeps coming free and the boys drift further and further downstream. For a while I follow them, using the crook of my left arm to anchor my paddle, but it becomes patently clear they have travelled too far to make it back to where my husband is waiting. This is hopeless, I think, as the rain continues to rage and the current pulls them further downstream. We need a plan B.

I find a suitable place to leave my canoe and, with difficulty, use my good hand to haul myself up the steep bank. The white sock is now pink and sodden and probably not doing much good, but I keep it pressed to the wound. Barefoot, I start running in the direction from which we have come. I don’t want to be long in case the boys return: my abandoned canoe would confuse them. Perhaps it is being back on dry land but I picture myself as the Bionic Woman moving at an impossible speed with that strange juddering, synthesized sound from the 70s T.V. show playing out in my head. In reality the ground is springy and rough and I am forced into an ungainly side to side skipping to avoid the myriad cow pats and the thistles that catch my feet. I call out my husband’s name, fairly sure I’m on track, but the terrain keeps forcing me wide of where I want to go.

At last I hear my husband respond to my calls. A somewhat forlorn figure emerges from the trees and together we return to my canoe, me leaping on ahead to alert the boys, him following at a more sedate pace, troubled by his soaked shoes and whatever sick bug he’s carrying.

I am relieved to see our eldest son waiting by my canoe, though he appears to have lost his brother. With only two vessels between us, I shuffle onto one canoe with my son while my husband takes mine. I am sure our joint weight will capsize the canoe, but while it rocks precariously, we remain afloat. Further downstream we catch up with my younger son. He’s easy to spot because his canoe is the colour of an American school bus and screams at us through the murky foliage. Like a circus acrobat he is all limbs; one arm raised to a tree branch, the other arm holding onto the wayward canoe, his outstretched feet anchoring two paddles. The look in his eyes says, “What the hell took you so long?”

For the first time in what feels like hours, we are reunited with our canoes. Ordeal over, the mood lightens. Even the weather improves. No longer raining, the boys go back to fooling around. My older son reclines back with his eyes shut like an optimistic sun worshipper and lets his hands trail in the water. When his canoe hits a rock and upends him we all laugh, amused by how many attempts it takes him to get back in.

The young Frenchman from the rental is good natured about having had to wait so long. I give him a vague account of what has happened but don’t go into detail or mention injuries. It seems a bit pointless given that we’d had to sign a liability waiver before starting out. We pose for pictures, help load up the canoes and lifejackets, then climb into the little bus that will take us back to our car.

I don’t yet know it but my cut hand is infected. Tomorrow morning I will wake up to a fever and in twenty four hours the infection will have spread, angry and hot, half way up my arm. I will need stitches and a fortnight of antibiotics and be unable to take part in any further activity for the remainder of the holiday. I will lament this, notably when we visit an adventure park three days later and all I can do is marvel as my boys bungee jump, master a series of obstacle courses high in the trees with my husband and zip wire over a lake. I am itching to join in. Maybe not the bungee jumping. The thought of plunging head first from a hundred foot up fills me with cold horror. In this, at least, my poor infected hand has saved me.

‘Would you do it for a million quid?’ my younger son asks, testing my resolve.

‘Not a chance.’ I am categoric.

‘How about two million?’

I open my mouth to answer and then I close it again because – for a nano second – I actually think about it. Then common sense prevails. Adventure is what I’d wanted on this holiday and one turned out to be enough. As the saying goes, you want to be very careful what you wish for.

Freddie

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It is always dangerous leaving a resourceful thirteen year old to their own devices, especially when the fun fair is in town. I drop my younger son off at our local cricket club to watch the first team play but when I return, two hours later, it is evident that the lure of the fun fair has won out over the match. He is clutching a small container with a goldfish inside and looking shifty.

“Before you say anything,’ he begins quickly, ‘My friend won it. Only his mum wouldn’t let him take it home so he offered it to me.’

‘That was nice of him,’ I say, giving my son a suspicious look. He has been after a gold fish for years.

‘So can we bring him home?”

No is my gut instinct. We’ve had a lamentable track record with Guinea pigs, none of them lasting more than a few weeks and we already have two dogs (well, the little one belongs to my mother but we have her to stay so often she might as well be ours). We don’t need any more pets. But then my son looks at me with those big, brown, beguiling eyes of his and my resolve weakens.

‘What are you going to call him?’ I find myself asking.

He thinks for a moment. ‘Freddie.’

I glance dubiously at the container Freddie’s in. It’s the size of a chocolate Maltesers box.

‘Is he going to be all right in that?’

‘He’ll be fine, Mum. Look, I bought some food.’ My son shows me a tiny cylindrical cardboard pot with what looks like fine sawdust inside. ‘Only cost a pound. The man said it will last a year.’ Mmmm.

Freddie’s new home is on my son’s bedside table. For two days I am traumatized by this little fish banging against the sides of his minuscule container. It’s like me trying to do lengths in the kitchen sink. He’s no sooner turned round than he’s hitting the opposite side ready to turn again.

On day three I can’t take the Maltesers box any more and drive to a nearby pet shop. I discover it does a roaring trade in all things relating to cats, dogs and birds but almost nothing on marine life. After some searching the shop assistant finds, half hidden on a top shelf, a five litre plastic tank. No gismos, just a plastic box which I buy even though the cost of it would get me enough Freddies to fill the London Aquarium.

Transported to his new home, Freddie now looks like he’s attempting the Atlantic crossing and I no longer pass him weighed down with guilt. But for a little fish he produces a lot of waste so the water gets murky very quickly and has to be cleaned every other day. And there’s another issue. Big it may be but the tank does look pretty boring. There’s nothing for Freddie to do or interact with.

Egged on by my son, I go in search of a proper aquatics centre to stock up on accessories. I’m not sure what to expect but as I enter the place I am transformed. Huge tanks lit with a dreamy blue light fill the walls displaying a circus of fish. Wow, I think, delighted by the spectacle. The last time I got this excited about fish, I was snorkeling in Sharm el Sheik. It’s like being at a fashion show, each creature showing off dazzling colours and exotic shapes. My son would love this, I think, wishing he were with me. Trying not to get distracted, I show the assistant a picture of Freddie and explain how we got him. Then comes the sobering news. Freddie is a fresh water fish and will grow to several times his size. Left in his current home (and without filtration), the water will run out of oxygen and he will die.

I think back to the goldfish I had as a child and don’t recall any of them growing particularly big or having a fancy home. Mine would have been your standard fairground bowl, like the one depicted in The Cat in The Hat. But then if I’m honest, I don’t think any of my fish lasted very long. I could just bite the bullet and buy a filtered tank but it turns out I’d also need lighting, a heater, shingle for the floor, thermometer, accessories, plant cover to prevent stress, not to mention the chemicals needed to keep the water healthy. All this for one little goldfish. I can’t help feeling that Freddie who’s only trick is to swim in circles, is beginning to look like a poor investment.

In the end I return home empty handed and convey the news to my son. He takes it better than I’d feared. Thirteen year old boys are stoic like that. Neither of us know how long it will be before the end comes but one morning I wake to find Freddie’s tank very cloudy and Freddie looking subdued. Usually he darts about eagerly looking for food. Now he hovers like an inert submarine. The time has come.

Conscious that Freddie might only have a bit of oxygen left, I wake my son who launches into action. Together we fill a freezer bag with fresh water and scoop Freddie into it. Then, my son sets off at speed towards the pond at the end of our road. Freddie doesn’t know it yet but his tank’s about to get a whole lot bigger.

I know he’s only a fish but as I watch my son disappear, I feel a pang of guilt. After all what fate am I sending him to? Will he manage to adapt to pond life? The man in the shop told me that pond fish (for that is certainly where he came from) can grow up to ten inches, but first there’s the shock of the temperature change to cope with and the threat of larger predators waiting to pounce.

A few days later I drive past the pond. My son is with me chatting away about something he’s seen on T.V. He seems, thankfully, to have escaped the whole fish episode without any emotional scarring. All the same, I keep him distracted as I notice out of the corner of my eye, a newly installed heron taking centre stage on the pond. Uh oh, I think. Let’s just hope Freddie’s keeping a very low profile.

The Saga of the Packed Lunch

Lunch TupperwareMonday: Mozzarella and chicken on brown bread. Home made flapjack, fruit bar, orange slices, greek yoghurt with honey, plum jam sandwich, banana packed into Tupperware container.

Home. 7.30pm

“Where’s your lunchbox?’

‘In my sports bag.’

‘Can you get it so I can wash it up.”

No response.

‘Ideally before I go to bed.’

‘Yup, okay.’

Later, about to go to bed. ‘Any joy with that lunch box?’

‘Think I might have left it at school.’

‘Oh.’

‘Don’t stress. I know where it is.’

‘Not stressing, just relying on you to bring it back tomorrow.’

‘Sure.’

Tuesday: Ham and watercress on brown bread, apple slices, flapjack, peach and apricot yoghurt, 2 blueberry muffins, banana, liquorish bar tucked into spare Tupperware container.

Home. 9.30pm.

‘Any joy in finding your lunch box?’

‘Sorry. Didn’t get a chance to go to lost property. Really busy day.’

‘Can I have the one from today then?’

‘It’s in my bag. I’ll get it later.’

‘We tried that one before. Now is later.’

‘Okay. Okay.’ Breaks from I.Phone. Looks up. Focuses. ‘Mum, I’m a bit busy right now. I’ll bring it through in a bit.’

‘You don’t have it, do you?

‘I may have left it in my classroom.’

‘With the other one?’

‘Possibly.’

Frowning.

‘Don’t worry, Mum. Honestly, I’ll sort it.’

Wednesday: Pasta with chicken, sweetcorn and butter beans. Apple slices, 2 fruit bars, buttered malt loaf, fruit salad, strawberry yoghurt stuffed into plastic carrier bag and tied at neck so contents don’t fall out.

Son’s bedroom. 9.15pm

‘I’ve come for your lunch stuff.’ Room resembles a jumble sale mid flow, the floor hidden by mountain of clothes. Son, texting invisible friends with spectacular speed, appears unaware that someone else is in the room rummaging through bags.

‘What? Oh, Mum can you leave my stuff.’

Ignore instruction and dig out foreign objects.

‘Whose are these?’ Hold up two blue containers and a packet of antibiotics.

Noncommittal shrug. ‘Must have picked my friend’s bag up by mistake. What’s inside the containers?’

Two slices of gleaming chocolate cake. ‘These looks homemade.’

‘Shame to let it go to waste then.’

Leave off-spring in state of chocolate bliss but with list of missing items gathering momentum. Text friend’s mother about the antibiotics and eaten cake.

Thursday: Chicken and rice salad, black grapes, apricot yoghurt, carrot, orange slices, buttered malt loaf, chunky honey sandwich, chocolate bar packed into spare Tupperware found in garage.

Driving to train station. 7.25am.

‘Do you have everything?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sure? You’re not wearing a tie.’

‘In my bag.’

‘Glasses?’

‘Yes.’

‘Money for bus home?’

‘Sorted. Honestly, Mum. Don’t fuss.’

Back home, find packed lunch on hall table. The words neck and wring spring to mind.

Friday: Sod it. Yesterday’s lunch in yesterday’s container.

Home. Late.

Hall floor, jutting out of school bag, spot what appears to be the remains of this morning’s Tupperware container.

‘What happened to this?’ Incredulous. ‘It looks like it’s been put through a crusher.’

‘Ah.’ A pause.

‘Not my fault. I got it out of my bag to eat my lunch while I was waiting for the school bus to arrive and a car reversed over it.’

‘That’s a joke, right?’

Earnest shaking of head. ‘No, it really did. Some idiot in a BMW drove right over it. I didn’t even get to finish my sandwich which was really annoying.’

For once am completely lost for words.

Close Encounters

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I am waiting in my car at a train station watching the rain and people come and go through the misted windscreen. My eldest son’s tall, pale form emerges, limping slightly and wearing shorts. It is 6 degrees.

‘Do you have any food?’ he asks me, as he climbs into the passenger seat, his bare legs wet and muddy from his run at school. Apart from sleep, hunger is his main preoccupation. ‘And something for my foot. I’ve got a massive blister.’

Like Mary Poppin’s handbag, the car is equipped for all sorts of emergencies. Thus, I magically produce not only food but a change of clothes and a large padded plaster for his foot. Sports kit flies around the car interior as he changes and demolishes three bananas, a yoghurt and a large packet of oatmeal cookies. Mindful of the time, I urge him to hurry but he can’t seem to find the socks I brought him and the ones he’s wearing are fit only for the washing machine. Everything he has staggered home with has been tipped out, transforming the car into a burglary scene. The socks finally emerge and he’s struggling to put them on when our train arrives. We make it but only just, my son adopting the moves of a sandpiper as he hops after me on one leg, clutching his shoes.

We spend the evening in London with my husband, younger son and friends to watch Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The show is thrilling, a mix of humour and poignancy and when it is over and we have said our goodbyes, we head back to the station in high spirits. Our timing is perfect as a train is already waiting on the platform so we jump on and install ourselves near the front. Half an hour later, our mood a little flattened, we still haven’t moved. A tannoy announcement tells us that there has been a casualty on the line and to expect long delays. We exit the train in search of an alternative route but discover that all the trains are in the same predicament. ‘Probably a suicide,’ my younger son says resignedly, ‘They happen a lot on the school commute.’

It’s cold and there’s nowhere to sit so we return to our original train and wait a further forty minutes before learning that the train we need is leaving from another platform. Knowing that the whole world will now be on their way to this platform, my older son sprints ahead to get seats. When we catch up with him he is already sitting on the train. The doors won’t open, however, and I find my access blocked.

‘Please step away from the carriage,’ says a guard with an edge to his voice.  We all shuffle back and watch three hefty men attempt to hook a carriage onto the body of the train.

‘This is a joke,’ a man standing next to me complains. His bald head resembles a peeled egg. ‘I could have been home ninety minutes ago.’

‘Yes, but at least you’re not dead,’ I say, reminding him of why we’re in this situation.

He has the grace to look chagrined. ‘You’re right. It’s only that I’m so friggin’ tired. I’ve got to be back here by 7am tomorrow. Hardly worth going home.’

He has a point. It’s already 12.45am and tomorrow (well, today now) is a school day. The boys are going to be shattered.

The small train, only half a dozen carriages, finally opens its doors and quickly fills. Somehow I have got separated from my husband and younger son but my older son has saved the window seat opposite him which I take. The train jolts into life and pulls away. I notice a man holding a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. He’s staring at me from a few seats away on the other side of the isle. Mid-forties, I’m guessing, with a tall, powerful frame, his good looks are spoiled by a ruddy complexion that suggests a lot of time spent in the pub. My son and I read the freebie papers. Not much to hold my attention. It’s just nice to be out of the cold and finally moving. At the next stop a wave of people join the train and it suddenly feels like rush hour. A very drunk girl falls into the seat next to my son. Her standing friend strokes her hair and tells her that she is going to be okay but the girl appears anything but okay to me. Caked in make-up she looks very drunk and can hardly keep her eyes open. I have a bad feeling about this.

With so many people pressing onto the train I’m only vaguely aware of someone addressing me.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ they say, sliding into the seat next to me, ‘there’s nowhere else to sit.’

It is the man with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag. The same man who, only moments ago, was sitting across the isle. I steal a glance at my son. Has he noticed? The man starts talking to me but my responses are short and I take refuge in my now riveting newspaper. Not having any joy with me, the man tries to engage my son. When he asks what stop we are getting off at, I shoot my son a warning look, but he’s already told him. I’m in the middle of texting my firstborn my concerns when the girl with the heavy make-up starts to heave and before anyone has time to react, she is violently sick. The vomit, which is copious and energetic, hits three of the standing passengers. There are shocked gasps, some in disgust. My son looks appalled. A couple of people ask if the girl is all right and offer help but most try, unsuccessfully, to move away. Her friend, while attentive, mouths an embarrassed sorry in my direction. The smell of sick fills the carriage and overrides all other thoughts. I use my shawl like a doctor’s mask to screen the worst of the smell but its not very effective. The man with the Sainsbury’s bag suggests using my son’s newspaper to cover up the worst of the sick on the floor. It doesn’t do much for the smell but at least we don’t have to look at it.

Several passengers get off at the next stop. My neighbour has given up trying to make conversation with us. All the same my son and I take advantage of the sudden space and move to another carriage where we find my husband and younger son. There are no available seats next to them so we settle nearby, relieved to be breathing normal air. I don’t notice right away that my admirer has followed us down and is leaning against the door, facing me just a few feet away. I avoid eye contact but can feel him staring at me. This is getting a little creepy. I can’t do anything about it; there’s nowhere else to move. I text my son – too far away to talk to discretely and with his back to the man – so that he is aware of the situation.

My husband and younger son get off at the stop before us as this is where they’ve left their car, giving us a wave as they go. I cast a quick look in my stalker’s direction. He knows we’re getting off next. Are we going to have to run for it? We step off the train, bend our heads to the rain which is coming down like needles, and walk quickly to where I’m parked. We are alone, I realise with relief, the train and the man with the Sainsbury’s bag disappearing into the night.

It is nearly 2am when we are all home and I finally fall into bed. I have five hours until I need to be up again. I close my eyes and let my tired limbs grow heavy. Images pass through my mind, of dancing miners and boys in pink tutus, my son hopping on one foot to catch a train, drunken girls with panda eyes, the impassive gaze of my stalker. Close encounters, I think, and sleep.

Who Let The Dog Out?

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They say you should never work with animals or children. Today I am doing both. I have come to a dog show with the Black Dog and my mother’s pocket-sized Yorkshire Terrier. This is to be their debut on the doggy stage and I have some misgivings as, while they have buckets of cuteness, obedience is not one of their strengths.

We arrive with the handsomest dog event already underway and spot my friend leading her Schnauzer, a bold and muscular dog, in a jaunty fashion around the outdoor arena. The Schnauzer has done this before and it shows as he looks entirely at home parading in front of the judges. His moment of triumph when he wins, however, is somewhat spoiled – much to the embarrassment of my friend – when the Schnauzer, perhaps overcome by the excitement of the occasion, leaves an unedifying contribution on the grass as they collect his prize.

It’s a glorious afternoon. We squash together on large bails of hay amongst the bunting and tents and boil in the afternoon heat. The Black Dog strains at her leash, head darting back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match, trying to assimilate all the new sights and sounds. It’s almost too much for her to cope with and I worry about how much she’s salivating. By contrast the little Yorkie sits on my mother’s lap unfazed.

The prettiest bitch category turns out to be a very popular event. A large, red-faced judge holds court and approaches each dog owner with a microphone for a chat. Unfortunately, none of the spectators catches a word as the mike doesn’t appear to be connected to the speakers. When it’s our turn I discretely wipe away the drool and smile enthusiastically, hoping to aid the Black Dog’s chances.

We continue to parade round the ring, following a grotesquely large poodle. I am not a fan of poodles and this one has been manicured and clipped to the point that it resembles a moving topiary bush. The dogs’ owner wears the smug look of someone clearly here to win and I can’t say I blame him. Even to a novice like me there’s no doubting the dog’s pedigree. But here? Really? Wouldn’t it be better suited competing at Crufts? The Poodle displays the same disdainful superstar manner as its name; Lady Gaga and we keep a sedate and respectful distance.

Then, out of the blue, Lady Gaga spins round and launches herself at us, her attack aggressive and sustained as she tries to bite the Black Dog. I am almost upended as the Black Dog attempts to escape Lady Gaga’s teeth while dogs around us start up a chorus of excited barking. The Poodle’s owner is quick to get her under control and order finally prevails, but the damage is done. Lady Gaga has shown her true colours and gets her just deserts, leaving empty handed. The Black Dog, however, walks away with third place, earning herself a rosette and a congratulatory hug from my younger son.

Winning rosettes becomes contagious as my mother’s little Yorkie bags second place in the Child’s Best Friend category. This is somewhat ironic as, with my son already committed to The Black Dog, my mother asks a complete stranger (an obliging girl of twelve) to take The Yorkie instead. Such is my mother’s delight when they return with their prize you’d think The Yorkie had just secured a double first at Oxford University.

Later, while the Southern Golden Retriever display team demonstrate how it should be done, my friends and I duck out to give the two big dogs a much needed walk. The dogs pull hard at their leads like eager toddlers entering a playground and, once released, promptly disappear. Trees crowd around us and ahead a small lake emerges. It is a romantic and tranquil spot, sunlight piercing the gloom and highlighting the lake’s green-laced surface. I’m too busy chatting to notice the warning signs until, that is, I hear a loud plop followed by the all too familiar sound of splashing.

‘Come!’ I shout, fearing the worst. ‘Here! Now!’ We whistle and call. Moments later the dogs reappear and my fears are realised. Normally obscured by soft clouds of fur, the Schnauzer is transformed, trotting stiffly on now absurdly skinny legs and wearing what appears to be a moss-green coat. The black dog, bedraggled and panting heavily, looks delighted and sprays pond water everywhere.

We cannot take the dogs back to the show in this state. Apart from their appearance they stink to high heaven so we make a beeline for the neighbouring garden centre and spot a hose. We ask a member of staff if we can use the hose to clean the dogs.

‘I’ll have to check that,’ he says in the tone of someone who has just been asked to serve vodka to an underaged child.

The second he’s out of sight my friend grabs the nozzle and, with her husband holding the wriggling Schnauzer, unceremoniously hoses him down. The Black Dog suffers the same cold fate with resigned acceptance.

Back at the show a new event is already underway. We discover that the schedule has been changed, bringing forward musical bumps by half an hour. Disaster. This is the event my son had earmarked me for (you’ll be good at the disciplined ones, Mum) and one look at his crestfallen face tells me I cannot disappoint him. I quickly slip into the arena with my very wet dog and join the group walking round to music. No one seems to notice our late arrival or the smell we bring and so when the music stops I snap at the Black Dog to sit.  Fortunately this is one trick she can do well and appearances, in this instance, don’t count. My son materialises at my side and pushes treats into my hand.

‘Everyone else is doing it,’ he whispers when I start to protest. And suddenly I notice the bulging belt bags worn by most of my competitors. Doggie treats are being dished out like sweets at a children’s party.

One by one dogs drop out until it comes down to the last three. We are guaranteed a rosette but I realise, absurdly, that I want to win and avoid eye contact with the judges. Don’t pick us, I say in my head as they cast their critical gaze on whose rear is slowest to descend. We lose out to a golden retriever but I cannot begrudge the three blond-haired girls accompanying the dog as they skip happily back to their parents with first place.

We all throw our caps into the ring for the last event; the egg and spoon race. There are so many takers that the judges have to run heats. The challenge is being able to hold the egg and spoon and dog lead in the same hand while negotiating an obstacle course. I partner up with the Yorkie and wait our turn next to a barrel-chested man covered in tattoos and studs.

‘Where’s the best place to hold this?’ he asks me nervously. His dog is almost as small as mine.

‘Further down,’ I advise. ‘The egg doesn’t wobble as much.’ Not that it does him much good as he drops it the moment he moves.

A fair bit of chaos ensues. Eggs fall like autumn leaves and suddenly no one can walk in a straight line. The Yorkie’s so light I practically carry her round the course and end up going over the hurdle myself as she’s too small to jump. In the next heat, the Schnauzer breaks free from his collar after the egg (uncooked) lands on his back and cracks open prompting mayhem. Finally caught, he trots back round the course, pausing to eat a stray sausage and still wins his relay, (though I suspect the stressed and over-heated judges had, at this stage, hit the bottle so the placings might not have been entirely accurate). The Black Dog and my son race through to win their heat incident free, then go on to clinch the final by a hair’s whisker. I feel a pang of guilt as the boy who looses out to them walks away looking inconsolable.

We’ve cleaned up, my friend comments as we leave with a collection of rosettes, doggie treats and soft toys. I laugh. Who’d have thought it with our motley lot. It’s been a good day. We all climb into the car, the dogs weighed down by their booty and fatigue and as I shut the boot, I catch sight of Lady Gaga being chauffeured away in the back of a shiny Range Rover. The owner has the look of someone who has just eaten something deeply unpleasant and accelerates away in a cloud of dust. How the mighty have fallen, I think, watching them go. And with that I put the car into gear and head for home feeling happy, proud and ever so slightly smug.