Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Parrot on the shoulder moments

The children are back in the jug agane, whizz boo, I can resume my usual regime of quiet desperation and chicken surveillance.

I was prompted, in conversation with M today about veal escalopes (thank god we are both free from the bonds of ghastly vegan-slash-juice detox and can return to our normal staple of conversation: what animals we are going to eat and when and how), to reflect on the contrast between their holidays and mine. Since my parents were separated, school holidays would always, or almost always, involve a trip to stay with my father. The longer ones would involve several weeks in Yorkshire succumbing to trench foot and studying the decomposition of small mammals, or even some more exotic foray aboard, but shorter holidays normally meant a trip to visit him in London, where I would basically sit around his Imperial College office while he worked.

I wouldn't be totally idle: he would always devise some task for me, sorting papers or tidying in return for pocket money. As I got older the tasks became progressively more complex - one summer I remember having to interview someone in Tanzania for a job monitoring fishing on Lake Tanganika in French on a very haphazard satellite connection - but the key element remained that I had to be around his office, because he simply couldn't get away and, I don't know, take me to the zoo or whatever.

They're actually very jolly memories. My father's office was treasure trove of fossils and bones and photographs of friendly whales and he was surrounded by young, jolly, patient biologists. For a few wonderful years, he even worked with someone who would bring her parrot, Casper, into the office every day. Casper would sit on a sort of jerrybuilt perch outside my father's office, clicking, shredding monkey nuts and squawking if he didn't like the look of you:  he could, occasionally, on high days and holidays of which there were many, be persuaded to sit on your shoulder. At lunchtimes, my father's tremendously posh secretary would escort me over to Knightsbridge to buy me a Pizza Hut pizza for lunch (a great novelty, this, in the early 1980s), then we would perambulate briefly around Harrods, so that she could check out the new arrivals at Country Casuals. On one glorious occasion, she even took me to get my ears pierced in the sixth floor 'salon', an event of such ineffable sophistication I dined out on it back in York for months. Sometimes other kind, obliging (or conceivably put-upon) souls would take me to the Imperial College shop for biscuits, or to the Polish Club on Exhibition Road (it's gone posh now, it emphatically wasn't then), or the V and A caff. When I got older, I could roam the ludicrously expensive shops of Knightsbridge all by myself or eat a sandwich in the Brompton Oratory garden.

A couple of times a week, when my father decided to escape, he would walk me (and anyone else he could inveigle into coming; I don't think I was a sparkling conversationalist at ten) briskly to the Piccolo Venezia trattoria next to the Ismaili Centre, a haven of red carpets and giant pepper grinders. This was my very greatest treat : the most proper of lunches with a proper tablecloth and wine for my father and a Coca Cola for me. There would be Saltimbocca alla Romana, with crispy rosemary sauté potatoes, for both of us (or just for me, and my father would have the liver), served with four token green beans, followed by the portentous rumble of the dessert trolley. I can still taste the wet boozy sponge and coffee and heavy cream of the tiramisu, the tart-sweet gently furred raspberries my father always encouraged me to have as well. Sometimes there would be orange slices in caramel, topped with those neat, thin, curls of peel: my mother made them too, but hers were cut thicker, the oranges were chewy and pithy and tasted of actual orange. At the Piccolo Venezia they were soft and medicinal and strange, like the Turkish Delight in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I remember being intermittently quite bored, and increasingly awkward as I shaded into the teenage years, but it never seemed odd that I was spending my holidays in the corner of his office: I quite liked the faintly superior sense of purpose I got from setting off early in the morning and whooshing past the meandering, rucksacked groups outside the museums. My mother took me to work too when she couldn't find any alternative. With hindsight, both my parents were apparently quite unapologetic about me whiling away my holidays with a box of stolen biros and some index cards (remember index cards?), but also about imposing me on their colleagues. I can't imagine ever being able to do this in any environment I've ever worked in, possibly because I was never important enough to brazen it out, but also, I suppose, because I worked in huge organisations and you're hardly going to sneak your kid into your shared office past 500 other people. They both worked in small, friendly, self-contained units within university departments where, apparently, you could get away with this kind of thing.

Since the 1970s and 1980s were hardly more enlightened, child-centred times, there was presumably less scope for palming me off on some kind of organised childcare, but also, I think, they both had a conviction that what they were doing was sufficiently important that it shouldn't be interrupted by, well, me. Objectively, that was right: my mother was researching and influencing policy on provision of services for families with handicapped children, and on the role and burdens of child carers. My father was saving whales. And it's not as if these times were any kind of hardship for me: they felt special, grown-up.

I don't really know what I'm saying with this - uh, it was different back then? But also, I suppose, that it's ok for your children to fit around you sometimes rather than the other way. I'm not particularly susceptible to guilt about how my children spend their holidays: I mean, I'm here most of the time aren't I? Quality be damned. But it is hard not to succumb to the sense that you should be constantly laying on a smorgasbord of age-appropriate and improving activities, when in fact, some of the best and most enlightening times of your childhood can be neither of those things. I felt a lot closer to my father - who could be a rather distant, intimidating figure on the end of the phone from York - after those strange, chaotic weeks. I liked how we'd hop on and off the 52 bus, or drop into Patisserie Valerie to buy croissants on grey summer London mornings with that particular smell of warm city dirt and diesel. I loved our skiving saltimbocca lunches and I liked discovering him in that other, adult context, at home in the big, glamorous city and at home in his work. I liked to see him being impressive, concentrating, or laughing, pink cheeked and tipsy with Casper on his shoulder. You discover your parents in another light in those moments: I remember too, opening the front door at home to my mother, joyfully staggering drunk having just been awarded her PhD. It's instructive, important, sometimes slightly shocking, to see their life beyond you.

Both my father and mother were better than I am at remembering to be themselves rather than simply being parents: their love for me was never for a second in doubt, but their aspirations were greater and broader. That's what comes from having a vocation, having ambition, believing what you do is important, I suppose. Those things have proved bewilderingly elusive for me, which is not at all what I expected based on what I absorbed in those childhood holidays. Maybe it'll change, eventually and maybe it doesn't actually matter (the wonderful Prog Rock didn't have a passionate professional vocation: he looked after us and learned 17 languages and cooked curries and read Le Monde Diplomatique and Heinrich Böll smoking a roll up in the garden and he's the most magnificent person I know). But every parent should have the odd parrot on the shoulder moment.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Tout est super génial*

Despite my fine words about treasuring the slow, mouldy, under-occupied holidays, I am currently hiding from my children in bed. F has decided, stubbornly, to be as bored and obstreperous as he can. L has a friend round and they are marauding like pre-teen hyenas. The jigsaw is stalled, perhaps terminally so. The children have eaten all the foods, so in desperation I made "Mexican spaghetti" for lunch, which was, I think we are all agreed, a new low. This is the only thing we've agreed on all day.

Ambient aural landscape:

- babyfoot (violent banging, like an enthusiastic unskilled demolition crew at work, punctuated with pre-teen shrieking).

- noodling plinky plonky jazz from arsehole neighbour.

- CBBC song about, I think, jam (telly).

- "En Apésanteur", dire French pop song (radio someone has left on and no one can be arsed to turn off).

- Incessant clacking of F's newest purchase, one of those awful Newton's Cradle executive toys.

- Oh, someone has just found the toy accordion. That's nice.

You can see why the bag of earplugs next to my bed is my most prized possession.


I just took a moment to remember my absolute worst Easter, to cheer myself up (not that I really need it,  I have finished half of my outstanding work and soon it will legitimately be time for a gin). It was 2004, a few months after mum died, and we went to Tetanus Towers, just me, CFO, my sister and the boys. We had to take seventeen cubic metres of plastic crap and baby paraphernalia, because F was about 6 weeks old and L was just shy of two: that dreadful time when there is always some absolutely vital thing you must not forget, without which all is lost, and which you forget.

It pissed with rain the whole time, often accompanied by glacial winds, which insinuated themselves into the gaps in the ancient windows. We spent all our time in the kitchen in borrowed fleeces, barring one trip to the Spar to buy nappies, because the Aga gave off some faint semblance of warmth, but the kitchen was a toddler deathtrap of uneven flagstones, fire, loaded mousetraps and other pointy and terrifying things. F was wholly nocturnal so I got approximately 12 minutes of sleep the whole weekend and my baseline mood for the weekend was delirium. L rampaged around breaking stuff and being a danger to himself, no one was really old enough for an Easter egg hunt, though we did make a disastrous, muddy, cold attempt. The only good thing I can remember is that we didn't fight because we were all too unhappy and exhausted to bother. I practically wept with gratitude when we got back to London. It's quite strange to think how much they love going there now and clamour for it, how little thought I need to give to packing and how totally I can disregard their safety on arrival. Yet again, I think how very much I like having big children (even when they have hounded me to my bedroom). Also, my father has made huge improvements to the insulation and heating, for which, much gratitude.

Percentages:

30% disinclined to get out of bed
15% outstanding legal work dread
10% experiencing unhelpful, narrow-eyed stubbornness.
10% trialling some very crap make up (of which 5% M&S gel liner disappointment and 5% creepy No theatre foundation)
5% Miller Harris Vetiver Bourbon
5% hideous fingerclaws
5% Obsessive repeat purchase of St Honoré eclair plotting
20% Looking at pictures of Herdwick lambs.


(*this is the French version of 'Everything Is Awesome'. At some point this week we finally went to see the Lego Movie, but I cannot give you much of my considered opinion on it, since I rapidly fell asleep. As, indeed, did the man next to me, but his snoring was way louder)

You? Memorably awful Easter? Percentages? Recommendations for low rent chocolate products I should try and acquire on sale after the event?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Jigtherapy

Down: 

Filthy, filthy mood, impotently and utterly fecked off. Not child related at all. Work related.

Just had to go through the bin to see if Roomba had swallowed any jigsaw pieces (it hadn't) because the bottom edge totally refuses to yield to us.

Before 10am I had unblocked lavatory, cleaned out rat's cage and taken rat back to vet.

L has been complaining about my restrictive repertoire of meals, though his main request appears to be 'more grilled meat'.

Spilled my therapeutic gin all over the floor and was too past it to get another one.

Impossible to find a plain white piggy bank with a cork for a snout.

Getting quite behind on work, predictably.

Couldn't find a quiet spot to cry in for love nor money whilst walking dog tonight, constantly interrupted by joggers, dog walkers, dogs, etc.


Up:

Half an hour battling with the evil jigsaw tonight has left me strangely becalmed. I was in actual (if repeatedly interrupted, as described above) tears of rage earlier this evening. Now I just wonder what's going on with the bottom edge with all the different sized leaves. I don't know who I am any more. We are about 3% done. F will have finished university before we finish it.

Only got lost twice on museum trip. Museum was strange but entertaining and highly Belgian. I especially like this sign, which admittedly was nothing to do with the museum:



Vet not too worried about rat.

L touchingly careful and lovely with rat, including extensive hoovering to protect him against dust.

Prog Rock sent me a box of four, very comprehensively packaged, home made hot cross buns. He's a prince among men. I had one this afternoon in a particularly low and grumpy moment and they tasted like home.

I simply can't resent or regret a minute of this lazy, luxurious empty time. I like being around for these mouldy, pointless weeks. I love their company. I like sitting on the sofa and watching CBBC and going to the cinema at 11 in the morning and baking crap cakes and doing the worst jigsaw in the world. I sometimes wonder if I take so much pleasure in it because my professional life is so fucked up, but really, does it matter? They're lovely. Maybe I can have one of those late flowering careers I hear about, actually, I pretty much have to because it's not as if I have a pension. ANYWAY. I'm enjoying my week, even though it is intermittently tiring, boring and expensive and sometimes all three at once.

Percentages:

45% post-rage exhaustion
15% hot cross bun
15% fucking freezing, where did the nice weather go? I am back in opaques and multiple jumpers.
10% edge pieces
10% oppressed by livestock
4% wishing for a golden eagle
1% aware of contradiction between last 2 percentages, but not caring.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Vacances scolaires

Down:

I will be bankrupt by the end of the week attempting to amuse/clothe/feed my children during their Easter holidays. Today was already ruinous. We went to the toyshop so they could each buy a thing to amuse themselves over the next week so I could, you know, work. Unmolested. For the odd twenty minute stretch. L chose 2 DIY "fun" kits both of which require extensive adult involvement. One is a "space age garden" for which I have to boil up my own agar agar or something equally sordid. The other is a "make your own sweets" kit which, it transpires contains no sweet making ingredients at all, just a crap plastic rolling pin and some optimistic recipes. I suppose I should be grateful he spared us a rerun of the dreaded triops. F got a 1000 piece jigsaw of, I dunno, an Austrian lake or something. It looks exactly like the kind of jigsaw your great grandparents did in the 1970s and why on earth this is what he wanted eludes me entirely. Unfortunately, enormous jigsaws are the weak spot in my otherwise entirely balanced and reasonable personality, ahem, and I have been unable to leave the fucking thing alone all day. It is SO HARD: basically it is 50% water, 45% leaves and 5% "what the fuck is that fuzzy blob". I have been trying to match leaves for about 5 hours and F had to actually physically prise me away from it this evening. There is no guarantee I won't go back to it now he's in bed.

I have eaten 3.5 eclairs today, no, that's not an 'Up', it's disgusting and I feel a bit sick.

The dog was violently ill all weekend after a night staying with a neighbour and it has been unspeakable and there is no kitchen roll or bleach left in Belgium.

The rat is not recovering well, though he has recovered enough strength to fight like a banshee and hate me with the heat of a thousand suns when I try and administer his twice daily antibiotics. Also L is getting pre-emptively very sad about his future/fate/sad life and there seems to be very little comfort I can offer. Pet ownership, eh.

I have to find stuff to amuse the boys for another 4 days.

I just flailed around at the table and broke F's piggy bank, like a thieving, piggy bank raiding feckless bastard.

I should definitely be working, not writing this, and it's twenty to 11 already, because of holiday bedtimes.

Up:

We were compelled to go to the commune (town hall/administrative centre of torturous crapness) today for L's new ID card and it was bewilderingly speedy: in and out in about 2 minutes. This has never happened before.

The boys are lovely company and haven't even really bothered to fight today.  I may be achieving nothing, but there's a daft satisfaction in just being around them, exhausting as their boundless energy is, not to mention the fiendish games of the Evil German Trio Memory (a jolly game in which you must match impossibly difficult to identify animal body parts, invented by sadists).

I had a lovely night in Spa at the weekend and rode an extremely old yet feisty and excellent looking Norwegian Fjord horse through the woods, along tiny paths and through streams and cantered around in the sunshine and it was everything that makes me happy. Look, here I am being happy on a small and sturdy horse called Caramel:



(it's vanishingly rare that I'm gleeful enough to show my teeth like that)

Another view of Caramel's magnificent coiffure:


Percentages: 

45% eclairs, of which 20% remorse, 25% nausea
45% jigsaw jitters
9% Passive CBBC consumption
1% Tortured by phantom, untraceable smell of dog shit.
0% gainful employment.

You?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sprung

Spring in the city, though it's not really the city, not here in lazy Uccle, where everything smells of lilac and honey and the reluctant charcoal of overly-optimistic barbecues. Where there are kids playing with a football outside the ice cream shop, kicking it through dusty piles of fallen cherry blossom and cats lazing in the chicory crates outside the corner shop. Everyone knows everyone: a woman I don't even recognise stops us on the doorstep to ask if it's true we have chickens, and can she have the eggshells. I can differentiate between the unmedicated shouting of the terrifying angry, mad local old lady and the other shouting mad local lady from the top floor; everyone knows where you shop and who does your hair and what you recycle and the hairdresser notices when you've got a new coat. The strange, brilliant man round the corner with the multipurpose bench has rigged up a new invention: in his corner flat above the shop, he's rigged up a weird system of projectors and screens that project a huge image, visible from the street. That's how he watches TV now: standing on the opposite pavement, looking up at the scrolling image.

The sun came early and stayed and we're all a little giddy with it, the foxes have been taste testing the bin bags of an evening, strewing mussel shells and gnawed-clean chicken bones down the street. There's a snowstorm of dandelion clocks blowing across the garden and down the street. bouncing across the grass, floating over the back wall, collecting in the plant pots and silting up the spiders' webs in the ivy. The hens have dug themselves a dust bath and are stretching their wings out and preening. Last night one of them got over-ambitious and escaped from its enclosure: when I got back late at night, we had to search the garden to find it, crouched, confused, under the nest box. The tortoises trundle, purposefully across the garden of an afternoon, following the narrowing band of sun as it slides up the wall and away. The dog stands by the back door in an agony of indecision: asks to go out, sits uneasily for five minutes like Marcel Proust worrying about chills, asks to come in again.

Inside, I am desultorily tabbing between the Betty's website, where I am torturing myself by provoking intense Easter homesickness (Easter fondant fancy cakes, giant hot cross buns, the easter eggs with the sugar flowers mum would get us every year...) and the Brussels falcon cam, which B and I are also discussing.

E: WHERE HAS THE MOTHER GONE? I am calling social services.

B: Time to go fetch one!

E: She wouldn't miss one. And a peregrine falcon would totally keep the menagerie in line. Ideally by eating key troublemakers.

B: I want to see a peregrine v weepette fight, please. Do you think the chickens will step in and defend him?

E: I'm thinking... no. Maybe peck over his corpse?

B: Good enough. Please arrange.

The mother returns, dismembers something furry for the babies, then sits on them. 

E: As a parent, I find that "enough now, I am going to sit on you" wiggle she does immensely charming. If only you could do that to human infants.

B: This is a Daily Mail story waiting to happen. I'm currently imagining that as she pokes at their heads she's saying "Get back under there. Shut up. Mommy needs a drink."

E: STOP SQUEAKING THEY CAN HEAR YOU IN GHENT.

B: NO MOVING. YES, YOU HAVE ENOUGH OXYGEN. Shut it.

That evening as we let the dog out to pee, it darts over to a dark corner by the window and growls. After nearly 2 years, look who came back:


Where has she been all this time, hedgie Lazarus? She's well past her allotted hedgehog lifespan and we don't think it can be another one, because the walls go down a good half metre underground. I can't quite believe I saw her; was it a spring hallucination?

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A morning with Prog Rock

I am running slightly late, of course, when I get a text.

"I am in the Great Court Café. You nearly here?"

I am going into the British Library. There isn't a Great Court Café in the British Library. I call him up.

"Where are you?"

"Well, you go up the main steps and into that glass covered bit..." he explains very carefully.

"British LIBRARY, I said! Not British Museum. Library!"

He laughs, delightedly. "Oh, sorry Em."

We reconvene on the corner of Tavistock Square: I see his rangy form coming towards me, sly cigarette, rucksack, big smile. We hug, and head to a café where he hands over 4 packets of Hula Hoops left over from Christmas and a giant box of Yorkshire Gold teabags.

We sit in the sun and talk about:

Hot cross buns (I have been dreaming of hot cross buns through this long, barren detox of hell)
Sourdough
French teenagers
Sick pets
Dead pets
The death penalty
My sister
Boiled eggs and soldiers
Lenin's blue plaque
What chickens eat
The social composition and political leanings of Montreuil
Our prospects of success at the ludicrously bureaucratic financial operation we have come to attempt: still, ten years later, fall out from my mother's death. At one point, in this context, he brings out his favourite Heinrich Böll phrase: es wird etwas geschehen ('something will happen', I think?). "But the etwas may not be the etwas we were hoping for."

We head to the bank. As we are about to go in, he makes me stop outside and look at the trees in Tavistock Square, which are indeed very pretty, and in full bloom. As he finishes his cigarette, he tells me about a stype of chestnut tree you apparently only find in London.

We go into the branch, where Prog Rock has recently made a very specific appointment with a specific man to do a specific operation. At the information desk, they tell us man with whom we have an appointment no longer works there. Prog Rock starts cackling. They eventually find someone else to see us.

In the stuffy customer booth, he gets unreasonably giggly at this sign:



"That's like one of those jokes, 'the Italian book of war heroes' or something."

Then he launches into a monologue about how poorly British banking reacted to the sub-prime crisis.

The woman isn't sure about one of Prog Rock's folder of papers. She disappears for a very, very long time. During her absence he tells me about:
Maria Miller
The shift in portrayal of civil service - politician relationships between Yes, Minister and The Thick of It.
Dutch pronunciation.
Money: the unauthorised biography and the story of the giant rock currency on the Pacific island of Yap. Apparently, on this  island which used giant, impossible to move rocks as currency, one of the rocks was sunk in transit from the island where it originated to the island that used it as currency. But it was still owned, transferred, in 'circulation'.
The Irish banking strike.
Our chances of success, again. "Still better than 50:50" he opines, optimistically.

He's wrong. The woman returns. The piece of paper is ok, but it turns out she needs to get us to fill in a form and she doesn't have the form, and cannot obtain it, other than by post from Head Office (can we all take a moment to contemplate that someone could utter such a sentence, in 2014). Even though we have come here specifically to sign this form. We have failed in our mission. We must return at great expense in a few weeks. The etwas was very much not the etwas we were after.

Predictably, Prog Rock finds this both unsurprising and funny."I've done a lot of this trustee business" he reassures the Natwest lady as he puts his folder of papers back in his rucksack and we prepare to leave. "And you are far from the worst."On the way out, he stops to admire the ceiling rose in the entrance to Tavistock House. Then we part, laughing at our failure, and he heads off to the bookshop to find a grammar primer for my sister.

I should be annoyed, we both should, but Prog Rock - eternally curious, eternally amused, eternally gentle - has rubbed off on me, just a little. The sun is shining. I still have a few hours do find a nice etwas to do.

(Thank you so much for all the webcams. You saved my webcam bacon. Mmmm, webcam bacon)