What he didn’t know, didn’t hurt him.

The silence was deafening.  Not in my head, where I was screaming, but all across the building site you could suddenly have heard a pin drop.  Again.

‘Right.’ I said, with frightening control.  ‘So what exactly was the point of the last four days?’

‘Well I did wonder ….’ he said.  Bravely, I thought.

I breathed in and out twice – in through the nose, out through the mouth, as you’re taught for labour.  It didn’t work now, either.  ‘Back in a minute.’  I muttered, and left at speed pausing only to scoop up No3, who was chuffed to bits with the turn of events: off we went down the lane to count the rats in the copse we call Rabbit’s House.

That night, I hatched a cunning plan.  I gave each colour a number and labelled each box of tiles – on every face, just in case.  (I was learning.)  Then I made and copied a master list of the tile serial number, name, colour (pointless, but just in case) and the number I had given it.  Then I drew a grid of 100 squares and numbered each one according to the tile I had decided should go there.  Genius.  And it worked!  It took a very long time to do but slowly slowly with great care, much checking and a very accurate eye, The Chef applied 352 whole tiles and innumerable slips to bits of the kitchen wall.  Where, as I write, most of them are currently obscured by drying washing, or dirty washing-up.  Heigh-ho.

It was around now that Eeyore suddenly decided he had An Opinion.  The attentive Reader will have noticed how very hard I tried throughout this whole moving malarkey to make the dear chap think he was being involved, while actually keeping him far from any sort of decision making role: of course he was allowed to offer a view – of course!  But when push came to shove, when a commitment had to be made to a definite plan …. well, obviously I was the better placed to make it.  After all, his pretty little head was very full of numbers, and interest rates, and trade deficits and grown up things like that.  Bless.

So when he first said that we could have any colours at all on the walls but absolutely no grey anywhere (my favourite), I smiled obligingly and continued to go about my business.  After all I had managed to manoeuvre him away from red carpets or swirly patterns (he is Northern, after all) and I remained confident that if I employed my usual method – smile, distract, carry on – all would be well.  How wrong I was.

The tester patches on our walls proliferated.  For a man hitherto almost totally uninterested in matters domestic, he suddenly became two things I had always assumed he would never be: involved, and informed.  Imagine my horror.  I tried offerings I knew he’d hate, in the hopes that I would win a war of attrition and he would lose patience.  Violent oranges and purples were suggested; ochres and vermillion, fluorescent greens, black and ultimately a funny sort of metallic yuck.  He saw through the lot and had the temerity to call my bluff by picking a screaming yellow that made our eyes burn to behold.  As the painters became more insistent, and rooms actually started to look as though they might just one day be real, habitable spaces if only they had a couple of final coats, I became desperate.

His nemesis, and my salvation, arrived in the form of a two week business trip to South Africa.  In the days before the instant, amazing technology we all now use as a matter of course, I took to reading him the names of the colours I was considering – and for the first time ever, I thanked the gods for the idiot names Fallow & Bell use.   From a distance of 8,400 miles he followed as I once again led him by the nose and he sanctioned the use of about four shades of elegant, soothing grey.  Parma Blue, Great White, Parchment, Wevet … he never knew what hit him.  And to this day he thinks they’re blue, white, cream and slightly iffy pale green, and loves the lot.

Except the drawing room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not a word of a lie. Gospel truth.

Back at home I got a large piece of plywood and put it on the floor of what I still fondly believed would one day be an elegant drawing room.  Bare boards and wet plaster challenged my optimism but in my mind’s eye there was a certain faded grandeur to it …. It took me four days of meticulously moving and placing 100 tiles to achieve a patch of the dashingly casual random pattern I wanted repeated on the walls until the area was covered.  Anyone fool enough to come to the house during that time was roped in to check that no adjacent tiles were the same colour and to offer an opinion – and if anyone minded that their views were scorned on the spot, they were too wise to mention it.  Only Eeyore knew me well enough to steer clear completely.

Finally, I was happy that the Krypton Factor was over, and that I was victorious.  Unca Pete was called and he came in with The Chef (his son) in tow, to carry the board into the kitchen prior to taking the whole lot off one by one, and sticking them on the walls.  The Chef was between jobs, and as a man of some years’ tiling experience, had agreed to undertake the not inconsiderable task.  All went well, for about three minutes.

‘Ah.’  said Unca Pete.

‘What do you mean ‘Ah’?’ I enquired, with a deep sense of foreboding.

‘It’s just that … I’m not sure we can get the board through the door without tipping it.’ said Unca Pete, bravely.

There was a pause.  Obviously, I should have thought of this.

‘Tipping it, how much?’ I asked with restraint.

‘Too much.’ he said, succinctly.

I breathed in and out, slowly.

‘Right.’  I said.  ‘French windows.’  We could take them out, along the side of the house and back in through the hole in the wall where the door into the kitchen should have been for the last two weeks.

‘Nailed shut.  New cement round the frame.’ said the man who had just moved a few feet further away from me, in case.

I breathed in and out, slowly.

‘Right.’  I said.  ‘Plan B?’

There was a pause.

‘We nail a batten to the bottom of the board, and they rest on that as we tip it.’ Unca Pete saved the day.

‘Fantastic.  Absolutely brilliant.  Thank God for that – see?!  There’s always an answer.  On you go!’ I was sunny and jolly and back to being the favourite (current) client.

Except that it didn’t work.  The tiles were so heavy that the board flexed alarmingly when picked up, and the whole thing was so big that it had to be tipped at a very acute angle even to approach the doorway.  At which point the tiles at the top started to move, pushing those below them out and risking bringing the whole lot crashing off.  Quite apart from the cost of replacing the stupid things, I couldn’t bear the idea of another trip to the back of beyond and another four days of trying to be arty.

‘Right.’  I said, much more calmly than I felt.  ‘Plan C.’

We stood and thought.  Then I stood and thought, while Unca Pete went and put the kettle on.

‘I’ve got it!’ I said, to the empty room.  ‘A photo!’  So while Unca Pete and The Chef had a brew, I dug through boxes and piles and rooms of clobber and displaced essentials until I found my digital camera.  Triumphantly, I marched into the drawing room and in the fading light took a couple of pictures of the board on the floor – true, they had to be a bit small to get the whole lot in, but if you concentrated you could work it out and it was with a great sense of having overcome the odds that I went triumphantly to find Unca Pete and The Chef.

‘Great!’ said Unca Pete.

‘Except ….’ said The Chef hesitantly, looking sideways at his dad who buried his face in his mug.

‘Except what?’ I enquired.

‘Except … I’m colour blind.’ said The Chef.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In which I draw a line.

More decisions had to made, and foremost among them was the issue of the tiles to go around the heirloom Aga, and behind both the electric hob (I’m not as stupid as I look: evolution has done many wonderful things, including presenting us with alternatives to stone age methods of cooking) and the huge double sink and drainers.

Many years previously, on a trip around the north circular to Ikea designed to provide us with CD storage boxes, I had found a lovely mirror with a blue and green mosaic surround.  (And two rugs, 200 tea lights, a 4′ long green snake, several uselessly small wicker baskets and some Swedish meatballs, among other things.  Sadly, no CD storage boxes.)  Like the sky and the sea, blue and green next to each other have always been a personal favourite, and one morning inspiration struck: blue and green tiles it would be.  In my current state of deluded grandeur the nearby ‘Topps Tiles’ was obviously out of the question and ‘Fired Earth’, in a rather lovely converted water mill about an hour from the house, was clearly my next port of call.  In due course a very nice lady there made some fresh coffee, subtly sat me near the Aga gadgets (yet another retailing opportunity I hadn’t anticipated), and showed me hundreds of tiles of varying hue, shape, size and finish.

Over the years I had mocked the under-employed friends who would spend weeks crossing London looking for exactly the right shade of white for their skirting boards.  ‘Get a life!’ I had seethed.  ‘Get a dog – get a JOB even!’ and now, I freely admit, I had joined their number.  My indecision knew no bounds.  The scale of the alternatives available was baffling.  If someone had said ‘Red or yellow, take your pick.’ it would have been easy.  (Neither.)  But just as ‘Mole, String, Mouse’s Back, Taupe or Cord’ as paint colours had caused my eyes to swivel in panic, now ‘Aqua, Navy, Sea, Moss, Lichen, Turquoise, Sky and Lincoln’ had me hyperventilating in record time.  And the knowledge that after this we still had all the bathrooms and downstairs loos to do, didn’t help.

Nonetheless, with the help of the heroically patient lady I eventually chose seven colours of smallish, square, shiny tile and got two of each packaged up to take home to show to Eeyore.  (A quick aside: I have always found it best in these situations at least to seem to consult – a fait accompli tends to cause conflict: the impression given of a shared decision made often softens the blow when the bill appears.  Unless you manage to get to it, pay it and ‘file’/shred it first of course, in which case you’re laughing.)   All was going well, until the hitherto lovely lady said, with barely a slip of her lovely polished (and practiced) accent, that we were looking at the thick end of £5,000 for the lot.

You can’t kid a kidder.  Even I have my limits.  I didn’t wait to tell Eeyore and have him hit the roof: I did it for him.  ‘Ludicrous’ and ‘immoral’ were two words I squeaked when I could.  I think ‘revolting’ might have been another.  Whatever – by the end of the phone call it was entirely clear to her and half the county that I would be going elsewhere for my tiles, and two days later I was heading up the A1 with my samples on the front seat, heading for a town I had never been to before, on the recommendation of an acquaintance with frankly dubious taste, looking for a warehouse deep in the Fens where, I was promised, every tile in the world was represented.

Sure enough, there they were.  Absolutely identical in every way, but price.  I got the whole lot (5,318 sq in) for a grand total of £750 – and they threw in pots of grout and cement, and while I was at it I got a load of samples for the bathrooms and loos thus, as far as I could see, taking the return trip petrol costs off the overall bill.

What a fabulously economical wife I was proving to be.

Always hide in plain sight.

For some reason, the cost of the samples we had ordered rang no alarm bells.  Eeyore – normally my early warning system in matters financial – was oblivious, and I hadn’t quite heard the lady and wouldn’t have been able to multiply the amount by the number of rolls even if I had.  Inevitably however, once we had lived with the four samples stuck on the wall for a bit and fallen completely in love with one of them, and indeed had ordered 36 rolls of it, it transpired that this was no ordinary wallpaper.  Oh no.  This was handblocked, special width, clever wallpaper that was worth its weight in gold for its wonderment value alone.

A better woman than I would have ‘fessed up, gritted her teeth and gone to B&Q. But  poor Eeyore never knew what hit him: unblinking I told him precisely how much our walldressing was going to cost him, and used a tone that expressed relief at such a reasonable total.  Led entirely by the nose and duped by my wide-eyed innocence, he coughed up.  He’s a good lad – but he never learns.  Many years before, I had I got him to spend £250 on a miniscule length of curtain pole I had ordered accidentally …. but I digress …

Unpublishable numbers of pounds passed from hand to hand and eventually a brown van from a very well known courier company arrived at breakneck speed in the yard.  With loud thuds, six extremely battered boxes landed in the back hall, chucked in by a very grumpy man in a baseball cap.  Given that they represented several months worth of mortgage repayments I felt entirely justified in yelling ‘Oi!’ and, my blood up, proceeded to make sure he’d always throw our deliveries at us by making him wait while I checked the contents.  Sure enough, the briefest of glances in the top of a random few boxes showed that more than half the rolls were dented.  There was nothing for it: I made the chap take the whole lot back.

Three more weeks of bare plaster and scaffolding all up the front stairs and then a new batch arrived in a brown van driven just as fast as the first by a man in a nasty baseball cap.  Imagine how my heart sank.  But out hopped the lovely Nick, who proceeded to deliver six unbattered boxes with great care.  Chatting amiably, No3 on my hip, I fished out a roll to show everyone how wonderfully clever I had been and what superb taste I could now demonstrate – and let out a howl of anguish.  Right pattern; wrong colour.  A rather nasty shade of curry sick, as I recall.  Loud silence from all around me as they sought reasons to disperse without comment.

Three more weeks of trying to use only the back stairs and inhaling plaster dust, and another new and undamaged batch arrived driven by Nick (still, unfortunately, with the nasty baseball cap.  Standard issue, it seems.).  I do not exaggerate when I say that the entire household held it’s breath as I pulled open the first box .. and then sighed with relief as I beamed at the baby.

‘Perfect!’ I said.  No3 grinned, and waved a banana at the world in general.

So Les scaled the giddy heights and began the process of applying the stuff to the walls.  Unfortunately part of this involved unwittingly trapping me in the study behind a mesh of planks and ladders so intricate that I had no chance of extricating myself during his three hour, unannounced lunch break.  Imagine my joy when I was released and emerged to inspect the first full drop of paper skillfully applied by a craftsman of many years’ experience …. who, it transpired, had stuck the thing on upside down.  17′ of tear- inducingly expensive glory, totally and utterly round the wrong way.

I was speechless.  It doesn’t happen often, and a small crowd gathered.  Les thought I was choked with excitement and gratitude.  Nobody else did.  Eventually I managed to point out that on the whole grapes hang down, and that even if they didn’t in his world, they most certainly had to in mine.

Versailles comes to Lincolnshire

Imagine my excitement: once again, I was living the dream.  Baby and children safely looked after (ie somewhere else), I felt certain that anyone who saw me in Bridget’s black 4×4 would be bound to mistake me for a WAG being chauffeured around London in search of Expensive Things for my dream home.  Just so long as I didn’t get out and reveal the inevitable Cotton Traders slip-on shoes, Lands End jeans, the Latvian granny rolling gait, the spots and the bad hair, I would be fine.  And so we trailed from one end of the Fulham Road to the other, down the Kings Road, round Chelsea Wharf and all points between, miraculously managing to move the car from meter to meter, collecting swatches and brochures and ideas and – in my case at least – having a blast.  As the day wore on however and my bones became ever more sore, it dawned on me that we hadn’t actually achieved anything: lots to look at and think about, sure, but in terms of decisions made and orders placed: zilch.  Time was pressing and my real life of school runs and fishfingers  was beginning to loom large, as I realised that we didn’t have long to make it back to King’s Cross.

And then I saw it.  The Sofa.  Huge and inviting and (ominously) in the very front of the window of an hysterically expensive shop in Walton Street.  As I yelled, and the car screeched to a halt, I leapt out and lurched in while Bridget guttered the motor and followed me, seemingly oblivious to the hoots and bad temper all around.  I wasn’t, and tried to look like a Bob Geldof, I-don’t-care-what-I-look-like-and-don’t-need-to-either sort of Chelsea fixture.  With hindsight I think it’s unlikely I carried it off, but at the time my excitement and eagerness finally to buy something was such, that it didn’t matter much.

I stood in the hallowed building and gazed at a spectacular leviathan of soft furnishing.  At least a mile long; good and high; beautifully finished in a fine, supple leather – this last could also have applied to the slim, black clad girls freshly out of Heathfield who homed in on us and hovered elegantly as they smelt a sale.  Intimidatingly beautiful, they were kind enough not to laugh in my face as I tried to look as though I belonged in their world.

‘Wow Bridget!’ I enthused.  ‘What do you think?’

‘Mmmm’ said Bridget, tellingly.

I sought to ease her troubled mind.

‘Just imagine: in the drawing room, back to the big window, facing the fire ….’

‘Yesssss …. ‘ she drew the word out and up , leaving me in no doubt.

‘…. or the sitting room, half way down, making it into two distinct areas …’  – a cunning one this: throughout, both Bridget and He Who Knows had sought to teach me about giving rooms Zones, and Multiple Uses.

‘Yessss …’ she was at it again.

‘Or in our bedroom, at the foot of the bed, facing the window … ‘ I wasn’t going to give in.

‘Yessss ….’

I lost my nerve.

‘Bet it’s comfy!’ I almost begged, as I dropped into it.

Big mistake.  Something in my hip pinched and I gasped, grabbing my side.  I squeezed my eyes tight shut as white light shot across my vision – and finally opened them, to a Damascene revelation.

‘The walls!’ I puffed.

‘What?!’ Bridget and the Heathfield lovelies, all now worried and bending over me, were equally confused.

‘The wallpaper!  It’s fab!’

Bridget straightened and looked about her.  I could see the relief in her eyes.  ‘Ah!’ she said, in a completely different voice.  ‘I see what you mean.  Yes …..’ thoughtfully this time, with no clanging undertones of despair.

Suffice it to say that we left having ordered four large squares of the stuff in different colourways.  Unspoken, it was understood that the sofa was staying put (Bridget’s victory) but the hall walls looked to have a real future as things of great beauty (mine), and honour was mutually satisfied.  By the time I limped down the platform and collapsed onto the train, my heart was set on what I had already told Eeyore was the ONLY paper for us, and I had in my mind a clear picture of the front hall, stairwell and landing resplendent in the full, finished glory normally only to be seen in the palatial residences of Europe’s crowned heads.

 

It’s not what you know ….

Mrs B had moved to the area at the same time as us, and we had been put in touch by a mutual friend who had left London for the nice safe Home Counties and consequently felt sorry for us.  (‘Where’s that?!’ had been her response when told we were off to  muddy Lincolnshire.)  In the spirit of sharing, and perhaps in an attempt to salve her conscience as she sat within an hour of Sloane Square, she put us in touch with each other and when we spoke on the phone for the first time I immediately recognised in poor Mrs B a kindred spirit. I’m afraid that from them on she didn’t stand a chance.  Add to this the fact that our husbands had known each other 100 years previously in the frozen north, and the facts that they had bought a house far bigger than ours and used the same builders and that they were now living in a finished and fantastic dream home, and my way forward was perfectly clear.  With pen eagerly poised to take down a phone number, and a feeling that what I was about to do was very grown up and sophisticated indeed, I rang to ask her the name of her Interior Designer.

‘Me.’ she said.  No trace of smugness, just fact.

Hell.

So then I asked New Best Friend’s sister-in-law (stick with me) who, I already knew, made the best curtains in the world, and she gave me the name and number of Barking Bridget – networking is alive and well at all levels and, in my experience, invaluable.

Barking Bridget was a godsend, and my legs.  She was also a steering hand, and a comforting grounder.  She arrived in a sea of samples and gradually worked out the kind of thing we liked, and then reappeared a week later with a narrowed down range from which I began to pick possibles.  Paint colours, sample boards, tins and swatches – gradually we moved from patches painted on the walls and fabric masking taped to the window frames, and put together a package for each room, laid out neatly on the floor of what would one day be the study.  Eeyore would descend at the weekend and look over the lot, often in silence, sometimes with a favourable comment, usually with a grunt.  Used to his economy with words (an understatement and a half, that) I carried on, choosing to interpret his lack of actual, voiced opposition as approval.  Each time I began to panic at the scale of the task in hand, Bridget would calm me and help me remember that this wasn’t Versailles but a jumped-up farmhouse on the edge of the fens.  As we met more people and ventured further in our new social life I felt better: I saw that while this might be a big house to me, it really wasn’t compared to a great many others around us.  And if everyone else could do it, so could I.

We made huge progress in quite a short time – and then, with a crunch, we hit the buffers.  We needed more to choose from, and more ideas, and the only way forward, said Bridget, was via London.  By this time my right hip in particular had declared itself as almost unwalkable-on and was making driving extremely painful, so by arrangement one morning I took a taxi to the station, and the train to the Big Smoke.

 

Snow joke.

Were it not for you, dear Reader, I would choose to gloss over much of the ten days we spent away.

You will get a flavour of the trip when I tell you that I didn’t ski at all.  At all.  No2 wouldn’t go to ski school – and I mean wouldn’t – so I spent the mornings sitting in a café at the bottom of the nursery slope watching her make snowmen.  Eeyore had one-to-one lessons and hated each one more than the last; No1 took to it like a duck to water.  Which was a real problem, as afternoons had to be spent in the swimming pool, because No2 would have it no other way.  Eeyore is a non-swimmer (don’t even go there), so I had to be with her, which in turn meant that he had to be on the slopes with No1, who effortlessly out-skiied him (not difficult) at every badly executed turn.  The British Loo Position became second nature to Eeyore, and we found it hard to straighten him up at the end of the day.  Even more so as his feet – never his best bit – deteriorated to the point where he had difficulty standing, let alone walking or, God help us, skiing.  He was baffled and in pain and I was just plain cross: with him for behaving like a peeved child and whinging (as I saw it), with No2 for stopping me skiing, and with No1 for having a ball and not noticing that although his sister was having a whale of a time doing as she pleased, her parents most assuredly were not.  A nicer person than me would have been delighted that my little babies, around whom of course my entire universe turns, were happy and flourishing.  Well, I wasn’t.  The highpoint of my day was the very end when I stood on the balcony with a large G&T in my hand and rang home to hear about Jabba – who, I quickly discovered, wasn’t missing any of us at all.  Ungrateful little sod: soon, mindful of my mantra of never discriminating between my nearest and dearest, I was cross with him too.

Back in Blighty, it was apparently time to begin thinking about the decoration of our palace.  Hard to contemplate when all around was still plaster and wires sticking out of the walls and pipes that didn’t seem to go anywhere – or was it that they didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere? – and planks over gaps, but He Who Knows told me I had to get a move on.  ‘Hurrah!’ I thought ‘The best bit!  Colours, fabrics .. whoopee!’

And then it happened.  Rabbit in the headlights time.  I looked at the empty rooms and the big blank windows and the echoing floors, and I froze in the face of too much choice.  My fear was that we were about to spend a great deal of hard earned wonga on the next stage of a once-in-a-lifetime project and I didn’t want to waste either the sums involved, or the opportunity to get it right and set up a home that we loved even more than we already did.  More than anything, Eeyore and I wanted a family house in which we could bring up the children and see friends, but we also wanted to be able to be grown-up in it.  For a while I had been ignoring grumbling pain in my hips but as it began to turn from a whine to a yell I simply couldn’t do the slogging round shops to see what was out there – especially as the answer was that locally, there was precious little.  And magnificent though Sylvia undoubtedly was, I did have at home a four year old and a one year old I actually quite liked (never let it be said) and wanted to spend time with, although preferably not while trawling the streets.  So I did what any self-respecting female would do when faced with all the colours and fabrics and papers and paints and carpets – and I rang Mrs B.

It’s all about managing expectations.

Hard on the heels of a nod to my busy-ness and total brilliance in being able to cope (just), I have now to admit that the state of domestic horror in which we found ourselves was fast becoming a wonderful excuse actually to do nothing at all, much.    Pot Noodles don’t deserve all their bad press, and it’s surprising how quickly even small babies get used to ready meals.  Only once did Eeyore rashly suggest having a dinner party, and once we had both recovered from the scene of appalling violence that ensued, he admitted that perhaps he had been a little premature and ambitious.  I found that with very litte effort on my part, a quick coffee after the morning drop-off could be stretched to nearly lunch time – although after a few months the invitations to partake in friends’ kitchens seemed inexplicably to dry up, and Jabba and I began to take our conviviality elsewhere.  There genuinely wasn’t any point in doing more than the bare minimum of cleaning – and it’s surprising how very bare that can be.  And while even I insisted on clean school uniform, it’s amazing how seldom I personally felt the need to change my clothes: given that my go-to outfit was always jeans and boots, I really didn’t see the point in doing anything other than occasionally varying the very top layer of ubiquitous, squeaky nylon fleece.  And I got away with it – as far as I’m aware.

At No1’s scarily trendy London school my days had been fraught with fashion terrors. Utterly unable and unwilling to keep up with matching Prada outfits to handbags, I endured degrees of humiliation you can probably only imagine, until I grew up and began to derive a perverse pleasure from dressing much as I do now.  On the same basis I used to make a point of taking my grandmother-in-law’s knackered Nissan Micra on the school run, partly because I loved showing I had it, partly because it was fun putting No1’s quarter size double bass through the sun roof (seriously), and partly so I could nip into the Holland Park parking spaces under the very wheels of the blacked out Range Rovers with personalised number plates.  Until some cow backed straight into me (and very nearly over me) and consigned that valiant little machine to the great scrapheap in the sky.

And so, Christmas came and went as Christmases usually do, and despite the trials and tribulations – or perhaps because of them – it was an exceedingly jolly one.  There’s nothing like the shared experience of battling through something essentially safe and unthreatening to lift the spirits and in a funny way, take the first-world pressure off.  Silly hats and Christmas pud under the Berlin Wall was a hoot and as there was simply no way I could produce Victorian garlands, hand sugared almonds and artfully distressed individual snowflake place mats, I too was relaxed and happy.  Perhaps the imminent prospect of a break from it all helped as well: mercifully a temporary end was in sight.  I, my husband, and Nos 1&2 were off skiing.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure why the promise of this might have lifted my mood.  Realistically, it was only ever a disaster waiting to happen.  I was the only one of us who had ever been before and I remember then that my sister had sworn on her eyesight that she would never go with me again.  Something to do with me whining about the cramp in my feet …. Whatever: this time, of course, I was also at the head of a massively dysfunctional family group which included a grumpy stressed hypochondriac with funny arches, a diva who would only wear pink and didn’t until the day of our departure fully understand that cold snow would be involved, and a future member of the SAS who couldn’t see why he might possibly need any lessons.  (No3 was the lucky one: he was staying at home with the sainted Kirsty.) What could possibly go wrong?

 

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.

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.