Saturday, 10 November 2012

Love songs 4: The missing measure

Every night, the last thing the Impster does before she goes to sleep is to try and find a measure: 'I love you more than my Lego Friends set.' 'I love you more than my new hairband.' 'I love you a trillion million.'

She has now developed a love index, where her best friend Isabella is usually 120, daddy and mummy drift around the 100 mark, and the boo exists in a very elastic range of 0-100 dependent on his daily behaviour.

When she was smaller, I used to read her Guess How Much I Love You. In that story Little Nutbrown Hare tries to explain to Big Nutbrown Hare just how much he loves him - it's as far as he can stretch, as high as he can jump, and finally all the way to the moon. And Big Nutbrown Hare's stretch is always greater, his jump is always higher, and finally, as he tucks Little Nutbrown Hare into his bed of leaves he whispers, 'I love you all the way to the moon and back.' Childish or not, we never seem to grow out of the need to somehow measure our love so that we can express it.

These last three days I've been in Jersey, and I'm missing the things the children say that make me laugh, and I wonder if they've had time to miss me too? I'm even missing my two-year-old morning alarm - one of the things in truth, that I was looking forward to escaping.

Often, at the end of a day when I've been at work the boo will turn to me and say, 'I missed you so much today mummy.'

Perhaps he's just experimenting with a line he's heard me say, and he knows it makes me melt. Or perhaps he's beginning to measure the pain of separation - knowing that time, whether or not we can use a clock to 'tell' it, can endlessly stretch or instantly compress, depending on the day.

What better measure is there of how much we love someone than by the amount we miss them? I'm not sure if absence makes the heart grow fonder but I'm pretty sure it makes us start to count. Sinaid O'Connor knew something about love when she sang, 'It's been seven hours and fifteen days, Since you took your love away.'

Maybe the unfortunate truth is that we're never so inclined to count the minutes and hours as when it pains us most to do so. Want to guess how much I love you? I measure it out not just in significant dates and memories, but also one lost moment at a time.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Love songs 3: Perfect pairs

I'll admit it, I'd been inspired by Jessica Ennis. Proof that long legs are not always better than short ones. And despite my desire for a perfect pair I was prepared to settle for perfectly functioning, after this injury and that. This morning it felt as if I might finally have got them back - not a perfect pair by Olympic standards, but good enough to do the distance.

So I was out on my test run, when I suddenly found myself swerving to avoid a pair of swans sitting together on the path. I turned back to look at them after I'd passed, hoping their bills would touch and they would form a heart shape with their necks (because that sort of metaphor pleases me). They didn't oblige, but all the same they looked the perfect pair: utterly intransigent, together, peaceful, while the world and its runners revolved around them.

The sight of them caused me to wonder how nature is deliberately designed to the power of two. The powerful grace of the swan, the gentle romance of the turtle dove, the patient, enduring penguin - all steadfast pairs. And yet, apparently, so are the wolf and the vulture. Not exactly cuddly by reputation, but as it turns out, reliable in the field of lasting relationships.

After lunch, K and I were caught in the act of having a cheeky snog in the kitchen by the Impster. 'You two are a good combo,' she said.

'Thanks,' we said, taken off guard by her surprising 5-year-old mode of expression. And then she nestled in between us and that was that. Another reminder that these days it's not about quality time, but seconds grabbed; not about grand displays, but tiny signs - the two empty wine glasses from the night before always waiting to be washed up; his two lips that speak our domestic shorthand.

This evening we watched our two children playing in the bath together, larking and laughing together with outrageous confidence. We shared a joke and all at once he kissed me again.

And into my head sprang Ira Gershwin's words: 'who could ask for anything more? Who could ask for anything more?'

Monday, 30 July 2012

Love songs: 2. Old love

So there I stood in aisle 22 of Sainsbury’s (pondering over the honey as if I were Pooh Bear) when I overhead a woman saying: ‘Oh he’s terrible for nodding off. I’ve left him home now dozing in the chair. Pinned a note on him saying where I was going. He’ll find it when he wakes up.’

‘Just as well he’s still working I s’pose,’ says her friend.

‘Oh yes, I couldn’t do with him being home all the time,’ she replied.

I manoeuvred my trolley in the direction of the biscuits (is it just me or do you find that the more choice there is, the longer it takes you to choose, until the packet you finally end up with seems altogether less tempting than it did when you began?). And I started to worry that in thirty year’s time my marriage might be held together by a pack of post-it notes and a biro. Or worse still, I'd be living with the looming fear of his retirement and of being under each other’s feet. Since being apart so much of the time seems to have brought us so close, who's to say being together might not pull us apart?

The prospect of old love doesn’t have as much going for it as young love. When two taut, prospective bodies have become saggy and rheumatic, and the forces of entropy have set in, and every bad habit has grated and amplified, and nearly everything of worth that two people could possibly discuss has been said – then what joy, what larks, what pleasure to be found?

I suppose it is natural that whenever I think of ageing couples I think of my dear old grandparents. At their diamond wedding anniversary I read a piece from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernière, who talks about young love as the passion that burns away, and old love as that which is left. When the temporary madness has subsided, he says:

‘You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.’

It still seems to me as good a definition of love as anyone has ever written, and you can hear the whole of that wonderful passage here:

My grandmother had such a hot temper and quick frustration that living with her must have been like inhabiting an emotional cyclone. And yet - and yet - if my grandfather was ever tempted to leave, there was something that made him stay. They may have fought, but they also laughed, and this mutual mischief was enough to make a marriage work.

She remains endlessly quotable, her caustic wit is still the source of an aphorism for every occasion. Perhaps it’s a small, insignificant kind of thing, but I think it punches above its weight in the field of relationships, a shared sense of humour.

We can be connected by families, or social groupings, or shared tasks, or shared experiences. We can be connected by blood, by loss, by mutual need. But to find the same things funny is an elemental connection, as strong as passion, only with a longer shelf life. How very important it is to be able to cheer each other up. I can still hear them singing: ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey...’

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Love songs: 1. Young love

I spent last week in quarantine with an infectious, but unreasonably lively, Boo. At times like this only mummy will do - mainly because no one else will take on the childcare. By the end of the week I'm not sure who needed out more. We cuddled and shouted our way through it, the days punctuated by far too many DVDs and the odd reward sticker (later replaced by more effective smarties) for timely use of the potty.

But the chickenpox was the least of his worries. His sickness was pure lovesickness - for the Impster's friend, Isabella.

Six months ago, the only way I could get him to cooperate was to use the prospect of seeing (or threat of not seeing) Is-Bella. 'If you don't get in your car seat right now,' I would reason firmly, 'then we won't go to see Isabella this afternoon.' And within moments he was clipped in peaceably.

At his birthday party there must have been nearly thirty children, but when they had left it was clear that there had needed to be but one. I shall never forget the sight of him holding his balloon and with a puzzled little frown repeating: 'Where Is-Bella gone? Where Is-Bella?'

Since the dawn of time (by his clock at least) he has loved and tormented her. She is two years his senior and quite the most beautiful child we know. Both are quite set on marrying the other, and will tell you so in a heartbeat, with a coy, knowing smile.

Naturally he is rough and tumble in his affection, but Is-Bella is wise beyond her years and understands the nature of his attention. 'It's because he loves me,' she will say after the Boo has energetically launched himself upon her. And on one occasion she was even heard to say: 'I like him on top of me.' To be honest she's got used to it, so we don't worry quite so much about his molestations these days.

Anyway, last week we have a proper stand-off, a full blown tantrum. 'I do NOT have the chicken pops!' he bellows, inflamed with spots and anger. 'I CAN see Is-Bella.'

Momentarily I have a vision of his 15-year-old self standing before me, acne-ridden and brimming with unrequited passion and anger.

But the Boo's two-year-old outrage is relieved in a series of stomps and shouts of 'It's not fair!' And then he sulkily puts in a more measured request: 'Want to dress up as Rapunzel.'

This desire to dress up in Disney princess costume and role play the way through the afternoon is their shared interest. It's what has brought the Boo and Is-bella together. To begin with it was very cute and he looked good in pink. Now the cross-dressing habit has become a bit of an obsession and frankly he can out-Disneyfy even the Impster - though in a slightly less graceful, more rugby-tackling kind of way.

Is it possible that my son could be a lesbian? I can answer only with Blurish wisdom that: 'girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they're girls who do girls like they're boys, always should be someone you really love...'

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Walking the walk

'Well I doubt any of the others will be able to say they have done a walk such as this today,' he says with satisfaction.

'Daren, we have walked 20 miles of Cornish coast path in a hurricane. No one will have...'

I am prevented from finishing by a gust of wind so violent it takes my breath away.

'Plant your poles,' he shouts as I shoot sideways, literally swept off my feet, and with all my might I do.

'You remember to tell them,' he shouts, 'that poles are not for nonces.' Then, in more reasonable tones, continues, 'Mind you, I can understand why they might think that. I also used to be of the view that they were only for old men. Whereas, what I say now is,' he pauses to leap a puddle, 'that it's just like taking your own personal handrail with you.'

With each gust we find ourselves laughing, caught out by these improbable circling winds, swooshing in from the north east one second and from the south west the next.

Eventually at 5.09pm we make it into Porthtowan and fall onto the seats in the bus shelter - somewhat blistered, certainly windswept. The buses to St Ives are not frequent and the 5.23 is the last of the day. At 5.25 we make the discovery that, being a Cornish bus, this one does not stop at the bus stop. In small print above the timetable it notes that if you actually want to catch the 571, then you need to turn left and walk 5 minutes up the road.

What is this place where the buses stop in private places and the 5.23 is pretty much considered the night bus? Clearly somewhere with a local pub in need of custom. We retire there in search of beer and a landline phone to call for rescue.

And conveniences. I had offered to avert my eyes but Daren was quick to note the perils of pissing in a changeable wind.

Two pints and a bag of pork scratchings later, K arrives to collect us.

'We have encountered unnatural phenomenon today,' Daren tells him impressively. 'Nothing less than an upward falling waterfall.'

Truly, it is not often you witness such a thing, and when I am in possession of the video footage (captured on his camera not mine) I shall plant it here in proof.

He's now walked 460 miles of the south west coast path. There's officially 630 miles in total. 'I estimate I'll have done 660 miles by the time I finish,' he announces.

'Why the extra 30 miles?

'Getting lost mainly. And extra distance to reach the pubs.'

Or the buses it would seem...

Monday, 9 April 2012


I stood at the bottom of the steps leading up St Catherine's Hill. I'd just run up and walked down and now I was contemplating running up again. There are 330 steps and they get steeper the higher you go. Of course I wasn't fit enough to run them again. Then I remembered I wasn't fit enough the first time. It isn't your legs and your lungs that get you up there - it's your mind.

So tonight I ran. I ran to feel my heart beat, to feel my blood race, to breathe. I ran too far, too fast. Fast enough, perhaps, to even lose my mind. For that moment in time I was my own limiting factor. It felt like pure, unstoppable escapism.

Tomorrow I will ache, tomorrow my persistent cough will worsen. Tomorrow I will remember the previous damage - the black knee, the bruised foot - and will regret it. Tomorrow I will be slow and I will think.

In all likelihood I will consider what happiness looks like to an average runner, an average lover, an average mother, an average employee, and how it might best be achieved.

On Saturday night a friend, who has recently had her first baby, told me it won't make sense for her to return to work. I used to work with her, so I know her talent and have watched her painstakingly build her career over the years. We talked it over, trying (and failing) to make sense of this surprising turn of events.

Perhaps this is why today I have been beset by that familiar feeling that what matters is not the taking part but the sense of winning. And that you have to be a loser before you can be a winner. Sometimes it seems as if we spend our lives wilfully knocking things down in order to build ourselves back up.

I got to the top of the steps. I took in the view. And I turned and walked down again.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 4. True stories

And so my mind wanders to wondering what life’s greatest tactful omissions might be...

I wonder how many sitting rooms are housing an elephant while their inhabitants silently watch TV.

I wonder in how many boardrooms tomorrow the recession will be blamed for everyone’s failings.

I wonder how many forbidden ‘I love you’s’ are not being said tonight.

I wonder about the stories we tell ourselves in the dark, so that we might sleep soundly.

And I ask myself whether fear, self-preservation, the greater good or a simple act of kindness is the reason for these tactful omissions?

Tricky lesson number four: always tell the truth, especially to yourself.

We tell ourselves we use them to spare others’ feelings, to boost their confidence, to keep the peace. But how often do we tell them for our own sakes: because we don’t want others to think badly of us, because it’s an easier life, it’s easier to please, easier to be beloved by all?

Perhaps the truth is that our tactful omissions are at the heart of what define us. For life is an editorial process; we shape it as we go, writing our stories and vaguely remembering the discarded opportunities and the unwritten, unwritable chapters.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 3. Blind eye

The Impster and I are discussing notable points in the school day.

‘Rupert was running in the corridor again so I told Mrs Roach,’ she says.*

‘What? You mean you told on him?’

‘Yes, we're not allowed to run in the corridor. Those are the rules.’

Tricky lesson number three: always tell the truth, but never dob in your mates.

Unless you're two.

'I'm afraid he’s in the accident book again today,' one of the nursery staff says when I arrive to collect the Boo.

The Boo is always in the accident book.

'Nevermind,' I say, signing the book.

'Got bitten by another child,' they whisper, preserving anonymity at all costs.

'Duncan did it,' he pipes up.*

It is impossible for a two year old to lie. The part of the brain that understands lying simply hasn’t developed. A four year old on the other hand can happily tell you a bare-faced lie. So in our house at the moment we keep replaying variations on a theme:

The Boo: Waaaaaa! She did it.

The Impster: No I didn't. He hit himself over the head, silly billy bumpkin.

Me: Of course he didn’t. Don’t lie!

Sometimes I bother with the naughty step; other times I just let him get on with it and biff her back over the head. I always know if he’s the culprit because the Impster will wail with righteous indignation, ‘I didn’t deserve that!’ It’s perfectly obvious that at all other times she does.

There is a stage in childhood development called Machiavellian intelligence, which kicks in around about the time children start school. They suddenly begin to grasp the power of a convincing lie and how to make it sound as believable as possible, but they still have a wobbly moral compass.

Thankfully the Impster is an extremely poor liar, and folds quickly under interrogation. She looks to me to pull rank, to settle quarrels and dispense justice, and is never more infuriated than when I simply choose to turn a blind eye. I wonder if this is what is meant by exemplary parenting?

* Real names have been tactfully omitted

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 2. For appearance's sake

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a young man who caused me a certain amount of aggravation on account of the fact that I did not fancy him. Then a few years back we arrived at a party and there he was. He had let himself go to the point of resembling the Michelin man.

K walked over, shook him warmly by the hand, and said, ‘Good to see you looking so prosperous.’

In that moment of winning charm it was clear that a score had been settled.

How rarely, though, it pays to comment on appearances. No one likes criticism, and we English can rarely take or give a compliment without exaggeration. In fact, if you want an honest opinion, you need to ask a child.

Yesterday my daughter went next door to play, and as soon as our neighbour opened the door the Impster said, ‘I love your necklace.’ And then she said to her, ‘You look quite pretty today.’ My neighbour said the ‘quite’ made her chuckle all day.

Only a four year old can dish out such faint praise and have it taken as a compliment. But you know it’s sincere, and it’s invaluable just for that fact.

You have to proceed with caution though, as a friend of mine learnt to her cost. She asked her four year old what she thought of her new fringe and was told, ‘I think you look a bit like a horse mummy.’ It’s hard to walk with your head held high after that.

Rewind to our pre-Christmas party. The Impster and I have shopped for the ultimate party dress, and truthfully, she looks stunning.

Seven thirty pm. Guests arrive and I hear, 'Look at me! Don't I look dazzling?'

I tell myself something must be done about this child (and her curious vocabulary), and I embark upon:

Tricky lesson number two: always tell the truth, except where modesty is required, or where haircuts are concerned.

‘Why?’ says the Impster.

‘Because it’s boastful,’ I explain.

‘What’s boastful?’

Oh how much you have to learn my child. White lying – or diplomacy as we prefer to call it – is a hard lesson to teach one who has been schooled in honesty. But for the moment, she is still able to get away with the truth, and perhaps I should make the most of it too. If I’m brave enough, she could even improve my appearance.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 1. Little white lies

Yesterday I got a text from a friend asking whether I had a copy of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I do. ‘I thought you probably would,’ he replied. ‘My brother-in-law gave me a copy for Christmas and he was so pleased to have chosen it I didn’t have the heart to tell him I already had it.’

My family does not understand these social mores. On Christmas Day the Impster rips open a present to discover a book she already has. Her face falls.

‘Well I've already got that one,’ she says. ‘We must tell Aunty Katy and she can get me something else.’

Tricky lesson number one: always tell the truth, but not necessarily at Christmas.

K and I discuss and differ.

Him: Lying is never right.

Me: Of course it's the right thing to do if it spares somebody's feelings. It’s called diplomacy and basic good manners.

Him: There’s never any need to tell a white lie. Anyway, who are you lying to? Either you're with a friend who should want to know the truth, or you’re with people who aren't your friends so it doesn't matter if you tell them the truth. In any case, people almost never ask for a direct opinion.

(Just shows he doesn’t work in publishing. I’m paid to say what I think of people’s writing every day. Perhaps that explains why I’m so preoccupied with the problem of kind rejections. Bat them away with enough force that they’ll never come back, but so softly they don’t feel the blow.)

Me: What about work colleagues?

Him: They can know the truth.

Me: And your boss?

Him: Definitely, that's what he's paying me for.

(Here’s a man who has never worried about his employment. For a heartbeat I am proud. Then somewhat nervous.)

Me: What about your mother's friends then?

Him: Avoid talking to them! You don't want to put yourself in a difficult situation, now do you?

He is direct in manner but with a tendency to skirt around tricky issues. Yes, K – like many men - has perfected the art of the tactful omission. I cottoned onto this about twelve years ago with the result that these days I’m more interested in what I’m not being told. So generally, it doesn’t work out quite as well for him as it used to.

But it does beg the question: what is the difference between telling only part of the truth and telling a white lie? If someone gives you a present you already have and you say, ‘How thoughtfully chosen,’ is this a white lie? It’s partly true, but what you really mean is that they’ve thought about it and have got it so right it’s wrong.

I believe in white lies, as much as white Christmases. As if proof of their value were needed, a friend gave the Impster a coat. It was a bit small. She is a very good friend, and the words of my beloved were still ringing in my ears. So I told her the truth and said that we loved it, but if she still had the receipt the next size would get more wear. She didn’t have the receipt and instead bought another coat. I now feel like the biggest ingrate the world has ever seen. I should have had enough heart for a little white lie, or at least to tactfully omit the truth.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Baby love

Yesterday I went to Cambridge to see my friend’s new baby. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see a friend for six months because they’ll still know who you are when you turn up at the door. But if you don’t see a child for six months then there's no chance they’ll recognise you the next time they see you. So, there's nothing for it but regular journeying.

I had a very nostalgic time cuddling the baby, but it made me a little bit sad to think how my friends have dissipated. Once upon a time not so very long ago we all lived in London and took meeting up regularly for granted. Now we are having babies and living in places like Hampshire and Kent and Durham and Cambridge and Bath and Devon and Lincoln and Bristol, and really – although I think I may have started it – I’m not sure I approve of it. I want to be able to pop in and babysit their children occasionally so they can have a night out, and for them to feel they can say ‘well this week’s been a bit sh*t’ when it has, and to drink bottle of wine together to make it seem better. This, after all, is what friends are for.

I have made some wonderful local mummy friends in the last four years, whom I honestly couldn’t survive without. But I think of my oldest and bestest friends living miles away and am acutely aware that parenthood must be changing them, and that at this particular juncture in one’s life, distance can create distance. And that’s just between mummies, never mind what happens to the friendships with your non-mummy friends.

If truth be told, I was also a little bit sad to think that the Boo is no longer really a boo but a marauding toddler who calls the shots about when it’s time for a cuddle. The Impster adores babies and asks if we can have a new one every day. But the previous night, she requested a scientific explanation of how a baby gets into its mummy’s tummy. I think this might be nature’s way of telling me to quit while I’m ahead.