Reflections, alcohol … and washing.

Have you ever noticed how intensely irritating it is when people with far less to do than you keep telling you how very busy they are?  As though you aren’t, and are somehow therefore a lesser being.  As Christmas loomed that year I feared for my sanity as warm friends in cities all around the world kept calling, seemingly with the sole purpose of reminding me how little time there was left before my ‘Country Living’ meets ‘Homes and Gardens’ Christmas had to be complete.

To make matters worse, I found everything took four times longer than it should have done.

Take, for example, the night that I decided a large gin was the only answer – and then remembered that to reach the vital ice (ironic, that) I had to don the wellies, extra coat and fleece, find a torch, unlock the front door and walk down the side of the house through the mud, negotiate my way across the yard around the many piles of building materials, the skip and the rubble-laden trailer (tip: towbars hurt much more in the dark and cold), heave open the garage door, climb over the mower and get to the freezer.  And then get back again.  I think that’s when I became a Baileys drinker, and when it discovered it’s new resting place just behind my head as I sat in the relative warmth of the sitting room/playroom (which used to be the dining room, and still sported its quaint orange checked wallpaper ceiling) squinting at the telly through the narrow slit in my balaclava.  Brilliant bits of kit, balaclavas.

Moving the washing around was another source of endless entertainment.  That Christmas Eve it involved negotiating three precipitous uncarpeted stairs in the dark (of course: no lights in that bit of the house), climbing through the scaffolding that was holding up much of the back of the first floor, unloading the machine and bringing the wet washing downstairs through two stairgates to our friend’s spare (spare?!) tumble dryer in the front hall.  (With no hot radiators, snow outside and our dryer – like BOTH the hoovers – too full of dust to be capable of anything at all, we had yet again become dependent on the largesse of our new friends who had supplied tea, sympathy, warmth and eventually even their precious white goods over the last few months until they must have been ruing the day we crash landed into their lives.)  All the while, of course, I was trying to avoid the razor sharp carpet gripper which gripped nicely, given half the chance, to my bare feet – shoes were naturally out of the question, as clacking on bare boards and stone was bound to wake the Little Darlings.  Carpets, meanwhile, were a thing of both the past and the future.

And yet.  That birthday night in London?  After the lovely carol service we had sat, Eeyore, No1 and I, and talked at length over dinner about what we had done.  It was extraordinary how detached from the city I already felt: my home for 39 years was even now familiar but completely unappealing.  Grey, dirty, full of people, above all loud – as a family Eeyore and I felt we had most definitely moved on, and pretty much with never a backward glance.  But we were keen to hear No1’s point of view: he’s no fool, and naturally cautious, and he had been unsure about leaving the security and safety of the only home he had ever known.  Now, it transpired, he, perhaps more than all of us, was sure we had done the right thing.  He loved the space, the colours, the freedom, his bike, the dog (we hadn’t got one, and he looked sort of sideways at us and rushed on a bit as he mentioned it) – and the scale of his new life.

Eeyore and I looked at each other and grinned.  Perhaps it was the distance we were from them but suddenly, if only for an evening, the downsides didn’t seem so bad.

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Happy birthday to Me!

So to recap.

A large, and largely hysterical mother standing in a snowy yard at 3am on her 40th birthday, holding a cerulean baby and shrieking at two bemused paramedics.  So far so good.  To their credit, they didn’t turn round and leave: rather, they took one look at No3, and one (rather meaningful, I felt) look at each other, scooped him out of my arms and disappeared into the back of their ambulance.  I ran to get No2.

Dear No2 was deeply reluctant to wake and get into a dressing gown.  Before very long we were joined upstairs by a puffing paramedic, alarmingly keen to get on the road.  In front of a rather burly and increasingly agitated health professional I felt I couldn’t really resort to yelling at her that she was a selfish pig and she would do as she was told, NOW.  Only when Mike (the bearded, panting medic) turned and ran back down stairs in response to a siren blip from the yard did I simply pull her from her bed and force her into the ambulance, dressing gown and slippers in hand.  Unbelievably she continued to complain all the way into town; she’s a true force of nature, my daughter, and my vicious, scorching stares entirely failed to scare her into behaving.  And they have been known to split stone.

As is the way of these things, No3 quickly rallied once safely in A&E.  He went from a fetching shade of blue to a much more reassuring WASP pink in mere minutes – coincidentally about as quickly as my pulse and blood pressure returned to normal.  Indeed we were home by 10am, No2 finally silent and adorable again after I had managed to snarl at her in private.  The lovely taxi driver who brought us back didn’t even blink when I realised I had left my handbag in the hospital, and burst into tears in the back of his car.  He rang to check it was in fact there, took us home, refused to let The Guys pay him, went back into town to get it, brought it back and wouldn’t let me pay him for the second trip.  As ever the kindness of strangers took me by surprise.

I decided I needed an hours’ sleep before setting off to get No1 and celebrating my birthday.  Handing everyone over to a suspiciously bleary eyed Sylvia, I went to empty the washing machine before my kip.  I climbed into the back of the sitting room to where it was currently lurking, to find that The Guys had put scaffolding up across the front of it, full though it was of wet washing.

At the time, it felt like very nearly the final straw.  I admit that my shoulders went down, my head drooped, and I just stood there, looking at it.  Everything was such a flipping struggle: children, building works, the dirt, Christmas looming – even hanging the washing seemed an insurmountable problem.

An arm went round my shoulders.  ‘Ooops’ said Unca Pete.  ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort it.’  And they did.  I went upstairs and shut the door and nobody disturbed me and the phone didn’t ring and nobody started drilling or sawing or banging and they even – for the first time in months – turned the radio off.  I came back down an hour later to find that the washing had been liberated, and that Sylvia had hung it up, and fed the children, and that The Guys had got me a cake and a card – and then suddenly it all WAS too much and I started to cry.

Poor things – nobody knew quite what to do next.  So obviously we all ate the cake and felt much better.

The rural idyll is shattered …

Back in the real world I quite often found the best part of the day was when I drove Eeyore to the station at 6.45am.  Assuming we got out without waking a child or two (never a given: being largely deaf he has the perfect excuse to claim that he has no idea of how much noise he makes) we would set off with our hearts in our mouths in case someone heard us.  Poor Sylvia got used to turning over and going back to sleep for another half an hour: the cars were parked under her windows.  But for the mother of any small child, the idea of starting the day proper at a time with a six in it is too frightening for words.

That winter gradually turned into a wonderful snowy one.  In London we had failed to notice the passing of the seasons and in the warmth of the city the only weather that impinged on the hell of rush hour was rain.  The subtleties of the year were wasted on us but now, although still inevitably dashing for the train, we had space to notice the first frosts that brought a peculiar quiet light to the empty countryside.  In the summer the roads were buried between high hedges and invisible from the house.  In the autumn they were gradually laid bare, and the winter left them shining with frost before burying them again in snow – it seemed that whichever the season, we were not going to be subjected to ugly grey tarmac ribbons as in London.  ‘Shepherds Bush’ might sound wistfully bucolic but fat foxes do not the country make: on just one run here in the wilds we spotted a heron, a herd of deer, hares, a moorhen and a red kite – all in the first two miles.  David Attenborough, eat your heart out.

With luck, having dropped my beloved at the station I would be able to creep back into the still sleeping house and crawl under the covers again for a sneaky ten minutes before the second start to the day.  I defy any mother not – at least sometimes – to hear the stirring of her offspring without experiencing a certain sinking feeling at the prospect of starting the whole daily merry-go-round again.  Pathetic though it may sound, the quiet snatched trips to the station in the morning could be very therapeutic.

My fortieth loomed.  Gone were all plans of a marquee job on the neatly manicured lawn.  It looked like the Somme out there.  Not gone of course was the post-baby weight, and there was no way I was gone to waddle through my own party.  I said I didn’t want to do anything and I got my own way.  Instead we agreed that as the day coincided with the end of term for No1, I would leave No2 and No3 at home with St Sylvia and collect him from his scarily smart school miles away, en route for London and dinner at Ken Lo’s.  (Remember: I had been away for some time now, and this seemed the height of sophistication and excitement.  Please don’t judge me.)  Then the night at the flat, and home the next day for the start of Christmas and jollity and all the rest.

At 2am on my birthday I woke to the unmistakable sounds of No3 suffocating.  Newly enamoured Sylvia was out, Eeyore in London – I had begun to see a pattern emerging: whenever anything went really horribly wrong, I was always the only adult present.  Puffers and the nebuliser had no effect and at 3am I rang 999.  Forty scary minutes later I could see the ambulance going backwards and forwards along the road at the end of the drive, presumably being driven by a blind driver with a blind co-pilot.  I stood with a very blue No3 in my arms, in the door-less doorway of what remained of the original dining room, flashing the 32 light bulbs on and off furiously in an attempt to get their attention.  Finally they got the point and came haring into the yard and up the drive, arriving with a screech that was barely audible over my frantic yelling.

 

 

We live and learn …

Back in Shepherd’s Bush we had been woken nightly by the flipping foxes as they tipped up the bins, bonked each other senseless and howled with devilment in the middle of the road at 2am, simply because they could.  The place had been thick with the things: big, shiny and muscly they were clearly in the fantastic condition that only a proper diet of left-overs and cold takeaways could provide.  But here, in the wilds where they were required to fend for themselves and live in muddy holes instead of warm toolsheds, we had yet to see even one.  By the end of the day the score was resolutely: Foxes many, Humans 0.

‘Like it or not, that Ban was a complete waste of time’ Eeyore muttered.  ‘Look.’  He had a point.  We were nothing like alone: the foot followers had been joined by upwards of twenty cars and as the day wore on it became apparent that for many, this was an integral part of their lives.  We learnt that several of the hunt were very new indeed to the whole thing – in fact some, incensed by what they saw as the Beginning of the End for country pursuits, had only learnt to ride in protest, once it became apparent that the Ban was imminent.

We headed for home when we had to put the tea on for the ravening hordes.  What they didn’t eat at the beginning they hoovered at the end and threw my meal planning (always a bit dodgy, to be fair) into disarray: the idea of finishing the bits over the next few days vanished as all the bangers and mince pies, plus a vast fruitcake my New Best Friend had kindly made and brought, began to disappear.  Along with a few more bottles of booze, and pints of thick black tea from a huge china teapot supplied by the great-niece of a man who had many years before got married in the garden of the house.  (When I say ‘huge’ – it took two of us to lift it when it was full, and was undoubtedly yet another health and safety disaster waiting to happen.  Lovely though; very old, and hand painted with hunting scenes … I digress.)  Anyway: great tales of horrible falls abounded, as did scratched faces and torn gloves, and the smell of steaming wool and drying mud hung in the air.  I went round passing out plates and food – and came across a fascinating conversation which served to remind me both how very new we were on the scene, and how competitive people can be to know the most about incomers.

Two elderly ladies in full hunting garb were discussing the family that had bought the Hall.  (Me and mine, dear Reader.)  In particular, they were commenting on the big age gap between No1 and No2.  Clearly completely unaware that she was talking in front of me about my children, and with not a blush for her immortal soul, one told the other that there had been another child between the two, who had very sadly died.  This, apparently, was a cast-iron fact.  I’m afraid I didn’t behave very well.

‘No!  Really?’ I exclaimed.

‘Absolutely’ she confirmed.  ‘Very sad.  She was only little, too.  These things of course take a while to get over.’

‘Oh, if ever!’ I agreed, as I smiled sweetly and sadly and moved on.  To my certain knowledge there was never an extra, and No2 has always been No2, and a nice person would have said so and not told the story later – but as I said, I’m afraid I didn’t behave well.

I often don’t, I’m told.

 

 

Meet and drink …

One day Farmer Fortissimo reappeared and before we knew it we were holding the Meet.  Just take a moment to picture the very English, very traditional scene: the Hall; hounds; huge hunters; the Pink.  That morning I reflected that while I had had no idea what my rash promise to host the gathering had entailed, I was quietly confident that I, in my new neoprene wellies, would stage manage the whole thing perfectly – the golden autumn day, the magnificent mounts, the gleaming hounds, the creamy tight Jilly Cooper jodhpurs, the whole thing.

And then it rained.  Not London rain: dense, freezing, brown Lincolnshire rain with bits in it.  As I staggered round the field with a large plate of small sausages held aloft I had to strain to hear the polite “No thank you”s of tense riders in clean gloves, through the whine of the wind and the calling (for that, I gathered, is what you call the incessant baying)  of hounds.  As horses champed and turned and strained to be off I had cause to be thankful for the pretty red ribbons round the tails of many of them: in the half light of 11am they were often the first sight I got of their huge bottoms as they backed onto/over/into me.  Eeyore had much more luck: a foot taller, he had the advantage of height – and indeed, of having something everyone wanted.  There’s nothing like the odd glass or three of fortifying fortified wine if you’re about to face death on a huge mound of muscle thundering across uneven ground and huge hedges in the freezing gloom.

Finally, a blast on the horn and they were off, filtering slowly through the gateway onto the track and round the back of the house into the true middle of nowhere beyond.  It was only when one leviathan kicked out backwards and split the (new) 4×4” solid oak gatepost that I realised the pretty red ribbons were more than decorative: they are the equine equivalent of warning lights, designed to tell anyone with the faintest scintilla of country know-how that the beast on the other end of them is prone to lashing out.  Even Eeyore got the point when a second decided to join in – who knows why? – and caught the beast behind it a fine smack on the nose.  Much squealing and reversing into others ensued before finally they were all through, and my beloved and I were left in a morass that would not have looked out of place in 1914 France.  We looked at each other, and the clearing up that needed doing.  ‘Bugger it’ said Eeyore: we slung all the empties, the glasses, the uneaten bangers (destined to be our supper for about the next three weeks) and the mince pies in the boot of the Land Rover and slammed the door on it.  Then we put the waterproofed baby in his seat in the knackered old Renault, and set off after the hunt.

One of our better decisions really.  Rain, potholes, lurching across the countryside down neglected tracks with the heater full on and the baby spark out – bliss.  We wasted hours that day, chasing cold wet hardy souls and trying to think like Brother Renard.  In this, both we and the entire hunt singularly failed: we had already commented on the total lack of foxes locally, and we were right.  Nothing was found, much less killed: they’re not stupid, these animals, and nothing was going to shift even one of them out of a nice warm den.   Foul weather and a fright v staying put and waiting for it all to go away?  No contest.  The joke was very definitely on the humans.

‘What is this life if, full of care ….’

41/2 months into the six month (yeah, right) Phase One of our building project, and we reached ground zero.  From that point on, we were assured, the only way was Up.  To celebrate, The Guys rigged a flagpole on the top of the house and proudly hoisted the red and white English flag.  Until Eeyore (a Northumbrian of Scots descent) came home and hotly insisted it be removed.  Unfortunately the only St Andrew’s cross we could find at very short notice was nailed to the wall over No1’s bed, covering a particularly mouldy bit of wallpaper – but nothing daunted, in short order it was torn down and then there was a real flag cracking in the wind blowing in off the steppes.  The one advantage (apart from the views) of living on what passes for a hill around here is that kites and flags perform spectacularly.  Small comfort in the months when it also blows snow and rain through seemingly shut windows, but comfort nonetheless.

We reviewed progress.  In eighteen-odd weeks we had pulled down a perfectly good bit of house and replaced it with another perfectly good bit of house, removed three internal walls, six doorways and untold acres of woodchip, poured gallons of asphalt and rerouted more piping and wiring than any of us knew we had.  The long, high, narrow kitchen on the dark side of the house that the first set of builders had inexplicably painted a particularly gastric shade of euch that only a mother would recognise had become (temporarily, we hoped) a Stygian 9′ square with a towering breeze block wall.  With all of us in there and the little heater, the oven and all four burners on, it was almost warm.  We still had newts in the cellar and the inside of the back door still showed canine (we hoped) tooth marks but He Who Knows assured me that the beginning of the end was in sight.  And I have to say, I was ready for it.

I was learning every day.  It is, for example, fascinating to know just how fast you can bath two small children when it’s so cold that you all get dragon’s breath in the bathroom.  I actually began to look forward to our nocturnal ambulance dashes sometimes: asthma’s serious (and doesn’t appreciate cold, damp and dust apparently – who knew?) but at least hospitals are warm.  In a similar vein I found that the school run mysteriously seemed to take longer on the freezing days when I made it my mission to build up a lovely fug in the little car that was rapidly becoming my second, and preferred, home.

There were however many golden moments scattered among the debris.  The trips we made to the top of the scaffolding – we all got up there at some point, and a large number of visitors too, over the weeks.  The view was spectacular, not only across the rooves of the house, but over fields to villages so far away that I couldn’t believe we were naming them correctly.  A very jolly afternoon was spent up there with an Ordnance Survey map, checking places off one by one – until the thing blew away, of course.  Rolling golden fields rippling in the endless wind; a combine so far away it was inaudible, seeming dragging a dull gold ribbon after it as it took the movement out of the acres.  Miles of waving green trees, huge clouds, skylarks and buzzards – W12 seemed like another world.

Black gold.

The kitchen floor went down.

After much thought and discussion we had decided to follow the experts’ advice and put down a thick layer of extraordinarily expensive polythene as a damp proof, and then cover it up by pouring asphalt all over it.  I wondered whether to tell people that if we were going to be spending silly money I’d quite like to have something to show for it, and that I might cry if anyone stepped even anywhere near so much disposed-of income, let alone actually on it, but for once discretion won over valour and I kept schtum.  Besides, I was almost persuaded of the logic: not only would our solidified liquid asset keep water out, but it would level off what would otherwise be a rather undulating surface: we had knocked together two rooms and a corridor and if we weren’t to spend the rest of our lives tripping over the remains of walls and doorsills, this was the best plan.  As we had already had to buy a house with high ceilings to stop Eeyore banging his head, I was keen to avoid having to move again to stop him stubbing his toes.  So one day a large white lorry appeared, manned by a series of very small, ultra lean men who were so dwarfed by the size of the cauldron on the back that I seriously doubted they were up to the job.  In complete silence they simultaneously put a brew on (inevitably) and fired up the huge vat, and in no time it began to vomit thick, black, stinky, shiny asphalt into ancient buckets so encrusted that they can only have held about a third of what they had been made to carry.  In a constant stream four of these waifs then ran with the steaming pails through the building site into the putative kitchen, where they poured them out onto the floor.  As it hit the ground it began to cool and set, and the two most expert of them, resplendent in protective kneepads and gauntlets, worked fast to smooth and wipe and push and cajole this stuff into all the cracks and nooks and crannies.  Once I removed my Health and Safety hat (which has never, it has to be said, been a particularly good fit) and understood that these guys knew exactly what they were doing – and by the looks of at least two of them, had been doing it for a good half a century – I realised that there was a certain poetry to it: the rhythm and their silence in the chaos that surrounded them was curiously soothing.  Foot by foot the green polythene didn’t melt as I had said it would, but turned black as they had said it would, and the sulphurous fumes wound their way through the rest of the house.

Finally, it was done.  What had previously been flattened rubble was now a 600sq foot gleaming, steaming, black slab and the room looked huge and hellish as it gently steamed its way to cool.  Still in silence the asphalters slaked what must have been crashing thirsts with yet another brew from the back of the lorry, in miniature versions of the buckets they had been carrying back and forth, and left.

I stood waving them off, feeling embarrassed by my irrelevance in the whole process, and then went in to stop the baby making his mark.

‘Many hands make light work.’

A few months in, and No2 had become consigned to a mattress on No1’s floor.  Her own room was so very cold and dirty, thanks to the incessant rain of building dust from the attic above where all sorts of fascinating (and correspondingly expensive) plumbing was taking place, that not even I could bring myself to subject her to it.  Added to which, by the end of the day neither of us could negotiate the builder’s trestle – perhaps permanently? – blocking her doorway.

The baby quickly learnt to wiggle, crawl and eventually limbo under it of course, and did so to great effect, often.  It was a sick quirk of fate that contrived to give me a mountain goat/eel cross for a third child, after two couch potatoes.  His main aim in life was always to be at the highest point in any room, and he could wriggle and squeeze through the smallest of gaps.  Many hours did we while away trying to coax him back from various points around the building site – assuming we could find him in the first place, of course.  Nursery rhymes, action songs, books, treats, threats; we tried them all.  For a while we hoped his nickname, ‘Jabba’ might hold the key to his recovery.  Star Wars aficionados amongst you will remember that Jabba the Hutt was a huge creature of prodigious appetite: we tried tempting our Jabba with everything from prunes – messily, his favourite for some months – to my mobile phone (which he much enjoyed, with an occasional squirt of orange juice), to no avail.

On one occasion I gave up and unwisely sent No2 wriggling into her room after him, through the legs of the offending trestle, only for her to rediscover her dressing-up box and contents with squeals of ‘I remember this one!!’.  Twenty minutes later, tired of the Viking and Snow White prancing just beyond my reach, I closed the stairgate and went for a quick coffee only to find the electricity off, again.  Sometimes the only conclusion left to me is that God really does want me to drink alone.  Often, before lunch.

At least while I was down in the breeze block kitchen No2 and Jabba were able to indulge in their new, money-saving, Montessori approved hobby; the stripping of aged wall-paper.  It’s a messy job at the best of times but 30 year old woodchip applied as a means of anchoring blown plaster is in a league of it’s own.  We should of course have been talking masks, those white paper Silent Witness suits, and plastic goggles.  I however am talking a pair of small and determined children too young yet to know their rights, or to have heard of Health and Safety.  The upside is that it was all so much more cost-effective than decorators.  And it often bought me at least ten minutes before I had to admit to myself that I had noticed the suspiciously deafening silence.  And it all went to show what I had believed ever since I had first given birth: ‘Mother knows best’.  Absolutely always.

‘Your Tiny Foot is Frozen …’

Days began to fall into a pattern.  The usual family stuff, wound round about with the daily plan changes and decisions involved in any building project.  We moved rooms a lot to begin with, but only downstairs.  Once the Aga had gone, the existing kitchen was demolished and a looming, dark grey breeze block wall went up across one end of it.  With a new electric stove and oven and a three bar electric heater, this 9′ square became our temporary kitchen and the heart of the home – in fact, as the days shortened and we began to notice the absence of any form of central heating, it quickly became the most popular bit of the house.  In went a four seater Ikea table (courtesy second hand of Kensington Godmother) and a highchair, and I found that from my seat at one end I could tip back and reach the sink, stove and cupboards with ease.  The retro tiles (at a time when ‘retro’ meant ‘retrograde’, not ‘retrospective’) were finally persuaded to part company with the wall behind but fought hard and took much of it with them.  The football sized golfball lights were still there of course, and now blinding in a much smaller space, but they added to the warmth, and some years on we all still look back on the little room with great affection.  The lowering Berlin Wall cast a bit of a pall, but all in all it was warm, small, very bright and rather comforting in what was otherwise a sea of destruction and dust.

My no-nonsense mother rang.  ‘Don’t forget’ she said ‘that children properly managed, can be made to pay.’  Given that I’m one of five spanning twelve years, I should have realised that she was speaking from experience.  As the decimation of our dream home ran into the umpteenth month, I began to see the wisdom of her words.

Since we had begun tearing the place apart in pursuit of our Grand Architect’s grand architectural vision there had been no heating, and the electricity had been intermittent at best.  However, No1 and No2 had begun to come into their own, proving better and cheaper than electric blankets.  By putting them to bed at 6pm and 7pm, and resolutely retiring earlier than pretty much anyone I knew over the age of 4, I found I could get about four hours’ free warming of the marital bed before I callously – nay, selfishly – moved them to their own, where they started the whole process again, largely oblivious.  Eeyore contrived to square his conscience by reasoning that second time around at least his children were shivering on their own behalves.  I was beyond such artificial scruples and became increasingly severe about sticking to bed-times.  Just occasionally I’d feel generous though, and I’d leave them where they were.  I would climb in between them – not out of weakness, or concern for the environment, you understand: rather, I at last understood the appeal of the old ‘three-in-a-bed’ scenario.  It’s all a question of warmth.

At the time we had no complaints, but ChildLine should probably stand by retrospectively.  Militancy has always been something of a problem on my side of the family (ask Eeyore), and I’m sure my days of freedom are numbered.

‘Pugh, Pugh, Barney Mcgrew …’

In due course the tank room pretty much sorted itself out, by catching fire.

We returned one morning to find clouds of smoke bellying from the chimney in the boiler room.  Knowing for a fact that there was a 2,000 litre tank sitting just under it, containing we knew not how much heating oil (inevitably, the ancient gauge had long since given up) I rang 999 and within an astounding eight minutes the fire brigade arrived.  From the other end of the drive Nos 2 and 3 and I watched, our hands over our mouths: the children of course were hoping against hope that there would be the most almighty bang and huge excitement; I, needless to say, was not.  Once the fire was out and what remained of the jackdaw’s nest that had started it was a smouldering pile outside the garage, a very nice (and rather dashing, of course – I do like a nice uniform) fireman boss took me to one side.   Kindly but (rather excitingly) firmly he pointed out that immediately underneath a bedroom and bathroom was not a clever place for an oil tank.  Indeed, it was apparently an illegal place for an oil tank.  In return, I pointed out how old it was and told him it was about to be moved and over tea and the ubiquitous biscuits with the whole crew, outlined the bare bones of the Great Plan.  They were all as lovely as you would expect, and made all the right noises, and let No2 and No3 crawl all over the fire engine until someone selfishly called for their help and they left at speed.  (Little did we know it, but one of them – sadly, not the Chippendale boss man – was about to spend a sizeable chunk of his down time with us over the next few months: our plumber turned out to be his dad.)

And so we went on.  Every day brought a change of some sort and No1 rang every tea time from school, ostensibly to check on progress generally but only really to find out whether or not we’d got round to removing the revolting carpet in his bedroom.  He did have a point of course: white shag pile, compressed over the years and by now an unsavoury and uniform grey was never quite our thing.  We realised that the rugs covering the bigger rips weren’t enough when we temporarily lost the baby through one of the holes during an unscheduled game of pre-bath hide and seek – my God, but that child could move when he wanted to.  Despite the panic it was a good thing really, as the chunk of wood the reluctant little darling managed to bring with him when we grabbed him by the heels and pulled, brought with it some passengers – or evidence of recent inhabitants.   The scary holes turned out to be woodworm though, not Deathwatch, and of course it was a bonus that we found them before the new carpet went down – assuming it ever did.

Imagine my relief then, when during a fleeting visit the sandalwood scented, neatly laundered (by me) Eeyore assured me that close calls were all part of the experience, and reassured me that we were, perhaps despite appearances, still most definitely Living the Dream.  I was left to reflect that we were becoming very good at finding silver linings.