Friday, 30 December 2011

In which I extol Christmas traditions

It has been an exceedingly busy year, in the wider world as well as in our own little family group. There have been some very happy times, but there have also been utterly dreadful moments. The Christmas traditions have this year provided me with an anchor in a stormy world and have been productive of great mirth. It is  worth mentioning how much of our ideas of traditional Christmas we owe to Mr Dickens. Christmas at Dingley Dell with the goblin stories, the goodness of the Peerybingles and the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge are responsible for much of the 'season of goodwill'.

One of the high points of the festive season this year has been my first attendance as a proud parent at a nativity play. The Infant Phenomenon’s class did tableaux of the nativity story during the school carol concert. As she had covered herself in glory at her first assembly (reciting a poem by herself as well as correctly pronouncing the word ‘palaeontologist’) I did not expect her to have a starring role. I did not really want her to either, I am a firm believer in sharing the limelight and giving everyone a chance. In the event, she was one of the sheep. She looked absolutely adorable. And of course, she didn’t know where she was supposed to be and ended up trying three different spots before she got it right. To quote from Mr Handel’s Messiah, like sheep, she had gone astray. I couldn’t see whether they’d dressed one of the others as a sheepdog, but I think it would have been useful.

It is a curious thing how people can be such perfectionists about so many trivial things and make themselves quite unpleasant over others' mistakes, yet, confronted with 30 small children, they would be quite disappointed if everybody had got everything perfectly right. There is something about ‘Away in a Manger’ sung out of time and out of tune which tugs the heartstrings like nothing else. Since then I have been teaching her 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. With actions...

It is pleasant, and feels in keeping with seasonal good will, after having given a comprehensive list (see previous entry) of the Inexhaustible’s less endearing habits, to follow it up with a striking example of his best. Of  course being the Inexhaustible, it was done in front of a select audience of attendees at a carol service in which I had the pleasure of participating the weekend before Christmas.

Some of you may recall my vocal tendencies from an earlier chapter and I am pleased to announce that this year, although far from perfect, my singing was at least not as disastrously flat as on that occasion. I was still slightly concerned about the carol service; not from a musical point of view, we were actually singing rather well, the choice of repertoire was excellent (no Rutter, Ms D!) and had enough singers in each part for good balance. All of which astonished the person in charge. What I was truly concerned about was the potential for disaster should the Inexhaustible decide to embrace his more vigorous tendency to sound and movement during the service. On the other hand, it seemed unnecessary, even unkind, to exclude him.

My dear parents accompanied Mr B and the offspring, so fortunately there was sufficient control should he succumb to the urge for self-expression. In the event, he was only moderately vocal, mentioning to everyone quite frequently ‘Mamma up dere! Mamma sing!’ and similar running commentary observations. He did not howl or run around, much to my relief. This alone was enough to make me feel that the outing was a success. But the crowning glory was at the end.

We had just got to the end of the last carol and the Inexhaustible, with impeccable timing, burst into a rousing cheer and started clapping. Everyone else joined in, which was extremely pleasant and the singers all laughed. I have in my time as a choral singer been as heartily applauded on more exalted concert platforms, but the wild enthusiasm of my own little boy for Mamma’s singing and his perfect timing, will, I suspect never be trumped.

A merry Christmas to you all and as Tiny Tim says, ‘God bless us, every one!’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

In which I mislay my temper

There is no evading it – on Saturday evening I was a naughty, shouty Mamma. This is clearly a Bad Thing, since one of the principal justifications of my return to the workplace was that I was becoming altogether too shouty when confined to the solely domestic sphere.

It was also in spite of the fact that Mr B took the little darlings to spend a few hours with their Grandmamma so that I could attempt (largely unavailingly) to reduce the home to some kind of order. A full five months of employment allied to the fact that I have had no time off since early September has ensured that we are running perilously low on supplies of tidiness, energy and meals in the freezer.

The mention of the freezer brings me back to my loss of temper. In common I would say with almost every family in the country, our kitchen affords the usual range of large labour-saving devices, such as electric oven, washing machine, dishwasher. The actual problem with these extremely useful implements is that the short-sighted or childless designers of these goods, for some reason which it is utterly beyond me to fathom, always make them with the controls at toddler height.

Nothing delights the Inexhaustible more than to play a game which I am starting to call ‘Washing Machine Bingo’. The implement has an alluring array of buttons which light up when lightly pressed for the selection of 'optional extras', also a programme-selection dial which you can turn to your heart’s content and which changes the numerical display at each turn. His favourite game is to select a laundry programme using the dial and then to press all the optional extras buttons until he manages to light them all and gets a ‘full house’. The challenge to this is that not every cycle permits one to select all the optional extras. When he manages to achieve a full house, he awards himself a resounding cheer and a round of applause. I admit it is at times entertaining to watch, but there are distinct drawbacks.

I can endure it when a) there is nothing in there, or b) the door is open and the machine will therefore not start. This is with the proviso that in the case of both a) and b), I have nothing else to do and can waste as much as a quarter of an hour watching the Inexhaustible play with the gadget.

I can NOT endure this when a) there is laundry in there or b) when there is laundry in there in the midst of being laundered. Especially if he manages to switch some of our more delicate apparel onto a boil wash. It palls entirely as a form of entertainment when I have anything to do. I must also confess to a degree of weariness at finding various small kitchen implements such as whisks, toys, or completely random articles such as my slippers, deposited in said washing machine, and discovering them only after an exhaustive search of all the sensible places in which a non-toddler would leave them.

With the dishwasher, I will grudgingly admit that it is not entirely the Inexhaustible’s fault. A modicum of fault lies with the machine which is extremely slow and far from efficient. This means that any interruption of its progress can delay everything for hours, if you don’t notice what has happened. The Inexhaustible delights in the dishwasher, particularly in switching it off mid-cycle when Mamma and Papa are busy and won’t notice. The upshot of this particular activity is that when one deluded parent says ‘the dishwasher must be finished by now, I’ll go and unload it’, said parent finds the machine full of dirty crockery, with cold, dirty water undrained at the bottom and no option but to start the whole, aggravatingly slow, process all over again. Once the maddening piece of machinery is in full flow, the Infant Phenomenon will without fail demand a piece of crockery or cutlery which is in the machine in a parlous state of filth.

The seriousness of interrupting either of these household gods in their appointed tasks really boils down to the enormous quantity of laundry and crockery that one family can use in a short space of time and the relentless frequency with which both these machines are called on to do their duty.

As for the oven and grill, with their built-in clock and timer… If I had a pound for the number of times the Inexhaustible has switched the oven on, set the grill to high, set the beeper to silent, changed the time on the clock, reset the timer and interrupted automatic cooking times, I would be an exceedingly wealthy woman. It is wearisome, to say the least.

My one consolation is that he is not yet strong enough to open the door of the freezer and spoil all the food within. It is probably merely a matter of time. However he is strong enough to drag a kitchen chair over to the counter, climb up on it and cause havoc at the stove, or on the work surface with whatever happens to be there. I probably ought to add that after one terrifying moment during which he wielded a carving knife, that no longer includes the knife block.

After a veritable gamut of these activities the other evening, Mamma lost her temper quite thoroughly. I am sure someone will ask me why, as the Inexhaustible is my second child, am I so put about by his activities? Surely I have accustomed myself to the wiles of this particular stage of infancy? The answer to this is that my children are bewilderingly different – of which more anon – and the Infant Phenomenon, like Miss Mary Bennet in Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would 'infinitely prefer a book’.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

In which I muse upon the little things

I do not think that either Mr Dickens or Mr Trollope would understand, much less approve, such a phrase as 'corporate culture'. And yet, it is a material fact of working life, which both gentlemen describe in their novels.  For example, the Circumlocution Office (though perhaps that might best be described as an hereditary weakness) or its polar opposite (from Mr Trollope's Three Clerks) the Weights & Measures. The Brothers Cheeryble from Mr Dickens again, or Mr Trollope's Internal Navigation, show how the prevailing tone of the leaders of any enterprise can affect all the persons employed therein. 

I pause for a moment - the Inexhaustible Baby (or more properly speaking, the Inexhaustible Toddler) is stirring. He sleeps again. Phew.

I once attended an entire training session upon the subject of 'corporate culture'. It is a substance surprisingly difficult to define, yet surprisingly easy to understand. I did not admire the language of the definition: 'the way we do things here'; but it grasps an essential truth. Sometimes it is not what we do, but the manner in which we do it which really counts. 

For example, in my new place of work they have a small, but nonetheless significant habit, of holding doors open for one another. It is hard to describe the real importance of this small gesture, which costs the giver so little, yet leaves such a a pleasant impression on the recipient of this minor courtesy.

It is a fine example of real politeness. Historically, one was led to believe, the holding open of doors was yet another example of the strong defending the weak. A lady, after all, or any person suffering a physical impairment, could not be expected to open a door. Heavens forfend! That was the province of the Strong! In our generation, however, we have seen a great improvement in the status of the opened door; it has come to indicate simply a general chivalry. It is now emblematic of a wish to pass through this world considerately, giving space and time to those who need a little more of those commodities. As a fond mamma of two small persons, who frequently rely upon the perambulator, I can assure you I am in no danger of under-estimating the value of that inexpensive yet invaluable gesture.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

In which I snatch victory from the jaws of defeat

I have now been a salaried worker (note my pretensions to more than mere wages) for some four months. I will admit it has been rather a shock to the system to return to a five-day working week. And not only to my own system. The Infant Phenomenon and the Inexhaustible Baby have required much time and attention in order to reach a stage of simply accepting it. I cannot say that either of them is even yet enthusiastic about Mamma's return to the workforce. I have, wisely I believe, attempted to ignore the heightened debate following the release of a recent cinematographic entertainment on the subject, entitled 'I don't know how she does it'.

I skate over (and save for another occasion) the highs and lows, the enjoyment of my new occupation and the occasional pangs of guilt. My topic today is simply the relentless nature of working motherhood. I occasionally wonder what I used to do with all the free time which is now taken up with the time-consuming details of everyday life in a family of four.

Eyebrows are being raised - there may be ladies reading who cannot decide whether to pity my naïvety, disdain my stupidity or deplore my choices. I am not concerned with any of these. 

In actual fact, though I should not tempt fate by saying it, I am simply astonished that as yet I have managed to keep my head above water. I do not expect it to last. When first I returned to employment, the Infant Phenomenon was still at nursery and certainly life was extremely busy, but it was manageable. Since she started school in September, however, our weekly routine resembles nothing so much as a particularly complicated cotillion or quadrille. Even small matters become complex: I have to deposit each child in a different place, each with the correct belongings - everything from nappies to ballet kit. I must ensure that their evening meal is not the same as whatever they had for lunch - much harder to achieve now that they have different lunches. And there is an almost endless requirement for things for the Infant Phenomenon's school career. Culminating today in a dinosaur outfit.

Unsurprisingly, one sometimes forgets something. This week however, I did so to the brink of disaster. The Infant Phenomenon had been invited to an after-school birthday tea party. I was not sure this was a terribly good idea since she is so fatigued at the end of the day, and her friend's house is at the top of a long hill; but I didn't like her to miss it, so I accepted the invitation and procured a suitable gift for her friend. I then promptly forgot all about it. 

Yesterday morning, sitting stationary in the traffic at the summit of Reigate Hill, I received a message from the party-giver's Mamma. Was the Phenomenon all set for that afternoon? You can imagine my horror. The Phenomenon finishes school at 3.15, the party started a bare quarter of an hour later and involved a long walk and no possibility of an omnibus. The Phenomenon is a slow walker at the best of times and she has no sense of urgency. The gift, all unwrapped, was in a bag in the kitchen at home. The party theme was fairy tales and the Phenomenon was in her school uniform. It was fast approaching the hour at which I am due at my desk and I was 40 miles from home. There was little I could actually do. I did not realise until afterwards that the peculiar whirring noise I could hear was my brain revolving ways and means. 

To my eternal astonishment, and thanks to a great willingness to help in Miss J, the young lady who collects the Phenomenon from school, the situation was retrieved. Miss J called in at the house before collecting the Phenomenon. I described to her in some detail where the gift was (it was in a bag with several other gifts, which Mr B had put on top of the refrigerator as some scant protection from the Marauding Inexhaustible). I told her where to find paper for wrapping. I told her to take one of the cards from the same bag. I instructed her to avail herself of the emergency domestic funds and book a cab. But my pièce de résistance was the costume. The direst necessity proved most truly the mother of invention. I actually managed to compose a fairy tale costume 'remotely'. Red tights from her drawer and her new poncho from the coat rack in the hall, turned inside out to show the red lining. Hey presto, the Infant Phenomenon went to the party as Little Red Riding Hood and Mamma was not guilty of the awful social crime of accepting an invitation and then not showing up. Or (equally heinous in the Phenomenon's eyes) of sending the Phenomenon to a fancy dress party in her school uniform. 

I think the moral of the story, as the Duchess would say, is that juggling requires infinite skill and practice and that even the best performers will still occasionally drop a ball. I am far from being expert in the art, and will probably drop several on a tolerably regular basis. I can only hope that I manage to cobble together an equally suitable solution each time.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In which the Infant Phenomenon is almost late

The Infant Phenomenon has started school. You never saw anything so pretty as she looked in her brand new uniform (strange to think that school uniforms started life to mark out 'charity children'). Her little curly, Titian-coloured head on top of the navy blue school uniform (which was a little too large) and the beaming smile which accompanied it were a sight to make any parent proud.

As my own Mamma puts it, she has been 'ready' for school for some time now. This has manifested itself in the previously unheard but now frequently used words 'bored' and 'boring'. Also in the oft-asked question 'What are we doing next?'. This can be somewhat daunting to a fond, but busy, parent, as come the weekend, I seldom want to have any particular plans and would like to just spend some pleasant time together, following the inspiration of the moment.

The day before she started was somewhat chaotic, as we were actually returning from my cousin's wedding, which I mentioned in my previous episode. We arrived back in the house at a civilised time of day, it is true, but with all the unpacking to be done and the Phenomenon's school uniform to prepare. And of course, I couldn't find the laundry marker pen. I am afraid that I did not spend hours sewing Cash's woven name tapes onto her every sock; I am not as old fashioned as all that.

She has been tremendously excited about the whole idea of going to 'big school' and we have had many conversations. I have been careful to point out that she must listen to the teacher (a skill which she frequently discards for the far more interesting one of talking) and do as she is told.

I did have a disappointment on the actual day. I had envisaged that we would walk hand in hand, having a somehow memorable conversation (conversations with the Phenomenon are often memorable, simply because of her quaint way of expressing herself). However, the weather was inimical to conversation of any kind and we battled our way along against the wind and the rain, unable to hear each other.

I had thought on that memorable Tuesday morning - as I dare say happens to other parents on a regular basis - that I had allowed more than sufficient time. I was in this, as in so many matters, mistaken. We were just about to leave when the weather which had been inclement but not actively hostile, took a violent turn for the worse, necessitating a change to stout boots. We then had to take the Inexhaustible Baby to nursery. To be frank, after two weeks with Mamma, Papa and the Phenomenon he was reluctant to return, and I was somewhat put out of countenance at being pursued by his roars of outrage as I descended the staircase.

Consequently, in spite of my mania for punctuality, we were almost late on her very first day. For shame!

Those of you who are acquainted with her will not be surprise to hear that she settled in very well and enjoyed herself. I must confess that my pride was mingled with trepidation when at 3.15 I was greeted with the comment 'She's very bright, isn't she?'. I couldn't help wondering what unanswerable questions she had been putting to the staff, or which of my opinions she had been advancing as her own.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

In which I suffer an attack of stage fright

We are but just returned from the wedding of one of my cousins in Ireland. We all had a thoroughly splendid time most of the time. Mr B and I had a few uncomfortable moments during the day, frequently caused by the behaviour of the Inexhaustible who is now extremely hard to contain.

Luckily, I did manage to postpone his nap until the ceremony, and he slept in his buggy throughout the entire service, looking perfectly angelic and allowing his fond mamma to thoroughly enjoy her emotional self. It had meant an extremely wearing half hour keeping him going beforehand, but it was worth it (especially as that was Mr B's job), else he was perfectly capable of shouting with glee throughout, or attempting to rival the charming singer. As it was, the ceremony was undisturbed by his entirely natural, but not really suited to a formal situation, antics.

The harder moments were during dinner. From the toddler point of view, a wedding is an extremely long affair (unlike for most of the adult guests at this one, who would be happily continuing the event even now). I had therefore, cunningly as I thought, decided to withdraw the children for a snack in the bar for the first hour after the ceremony, thinking that this would make the interval easier until dinner and prevent the Infant Phenomenon from staging one of her favourite performances: the Hysteria of Hunger; not to mention preventing the Inexhaustible Baby from actually biting his fellow guests.

Up to a point this ruse succeeded. They behaved tolerably well until dinner. However at this point, it all went (if you will forgive me for stepping out of character for a moment) Pete Tong. The Infant Phenomenon (who had staged a different drama entitled 'Who is going to cut up my sausages?' during her snack) had eaten so many of the said sausages that her interest in the frankly delicious looking dinner set before her was at best tepid. This may have been aggravated by excessive consumption of bread during the adults' first two courses. However, she played fast and loose with the gravy and simply spent most of her time demanding ice cream.

The Inexhaustible meanwhile started off well. In spite of the bread gambit, he appeared to be pursuing the virtuous course by eating all his broccoli and his sister's. However, that was simply guile and he went on to give a virtuoso interpretation of the babyhood of King Henry VIII of England & Wales. Instead of eating nicely with spoon and fork, he grabbed his breast of chicken by the piece of protruding bone and proceeded to tear lumps off it with his teeth, all the while looking at me with defiance in his eye. He wanted but a flagon of mead to complete the picture.

Seated between these two and attempting to make the one eat with some semblance of decency and to make the other eat at all, you can imagine that this was hardly an ideal experience of haute cuisine.

Added to this was anxiety on my own account. I am very close to all my cousins of the F family; Mrs F is in fact my aunt - I hope I will be permitted a mild literary digression here when I say that this phrase reminds of two of Mr Dickens's comic creations of rare genius: Flora Finching and Mr F's aunt in Little Dorrit.

Anyway, to continue. My cousins, the Fs are all very dear to me, particularly Miss F and her husband Mr C (Miss F, being a strong-minded female amongst her other many good points, rather despises changing of names on marriage. She prefers Ms F, but I hope that for the sake of my rather shaky authenticity she will endure Miss). I have frequently been staying with them, as have they with us.

The younger Mr F, on announcing his engagement, approached me to ask whether I would be willing to sing for them. Of course nothing could give me greater pleasure. On the other hand, to be asked to sing for the first dance is a task of considerable moment and I must confess that I was extremely nervous. As the day got nearer, I became increasingly panic stricken and had dreams of arriving in Ireland without my frock, my shoes, my voice, my music or my memory.

To add to this, the song chosen was not that easy, and the definitive version by a bona-fide soul/blues diva was frankly daunting. I kept telling myself that I would feel more confident once I'd been able to rehearse with the band. Yet again, I found myself mistaken. It took me a full 45 minutes to achieve a passable rendition - a luxury unavailable to me on the actual night.


Thus with every nerve jangling that could possibly jangle, came the nuptial day and the necessity for donning our fine apparel. Again, trying to keep calm and think ahead, I decided that once the children were dressed, I would put on the television in our hotel room, to try to keep them quiet while I concentrated on my toilette and tried to do some vocal exercises. We pressed the button and the screen sprang into life. What was on it? A staggeringly beautiful and very, very slender pop star singing the same song at a recent famous occasion. This, I felt, was rather like the proverbial straw, to remind me on the very day of the comparisons the other guests were likely to be making while I very likely did the song a terrible injustice.

It would be unfair of me to have gone on at this length without pointing out that the bride and groom both asserted, truly I am sure, that they simply didn't care what sort of job I made of it; nonetheless, I cared. I cared very much. I wanted to sing really well. The moment came and I did my best. It is difficult not to 'give it soul' as one kindly person said I had done, when you see two people so happy together surrounded by loving family and friends.

I cannot remember the last time I was so relieved as I was when the song was done, I knew that whatever I had done, I hadn't murdered it and Mr B procured me an extremely large glass of wine.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

In which everything has changed

It has been a long silence, as I am well aware. There is a chapter heading in one of Mr Dickens's novels: 'Too full of incident to be described briefly', or similar. That is how life has been since I last addressed you.

I am no longer a lady of leisure, I have employment and this is a good thing. I am most fortunate and I am fully aware of the fact. I have lost a friend and former colleague to an aggressive form of leukaemia, which has been terrible.

We appear to be in the grip of further global financial implosion (think of poor Miss Matty in Cranford, losing most of her income and selling tea and comfits); there are scenes in London reminiscent of the Gordon Riots, as described in Barnaby Rudge; the News of the World has closed amidst the kind of scandal that Mr Dickens would have majestically denounced and Mr Trollope revelled in; and if I recount any further sweeping changes, I fear I shall turn a little giddy and faint.

The Infant Phenomenon is starting school next month, the Inexhaustible Baby is 'streaming' (I believe the modern phrase is) the Terrible Twos and I hardly know whether I am on my head or my heels.

Frankly, I am yearning for a little boredom. Or failing that, the sort of genteel routine which the ladies of Miss Austen's novels enjoyed - or didn't, at times. At the moment, I feel more like Fanny Price than Maria Bertram or Mary Crawford, in wishing for stillness and peace rather than excitement.