A Strange sort of Peace: 2013 365 Challenge #99

Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It has finally arrived. After nearly six months, hubbie went to work today. Suit, tie, the works. He looked very handsome.

It isn’t raining, I have the house to myself. The only sad bit was dropping two sobbing children at nursery and then sobbing myself in the car. I wish I knew the answer to the childcare problem. Hubbie thinks they’ll be better if we put them in three days a week again. I’m not so sure. Besides, Amber starts school in September so it’s just going to make that harder. I think I need to take them out and put them in a preschool – more days, fewer hours. Get us used to the routine shift that school will bring and have them out the house for shorter periods of time.

I’ll miss my long days (and cover during the school vacations as all preschools close when the schools close) but maybe it’s time to grow up and accept I can’t have everything (sometimes it feels anything) my way.

Happiness is a Clean Fridge

Happiness is a Clean Fridge

Then of course the dilemma is finding a preschool. Amber’s best friend goes to one but I don’t like it: not enough outside space. Not suitable for Aaron. So do I split them up? Send Amber somewhere she doesn’t know anyone, after four years with friends? Stick with nursery for a few more months? Take them out entirely? Put up with the tears and tantrums, knowing they don’t really hate it? Sometimes I feel like I’ve been worrying about childcare as long as I’ve had children. It wakes me at night.

The problem is choice. I have way too much choice. Nothing dictates what days, times, locations I need my childcare to fit. I prefer Mondays and Thursdays but that isn’t rigid (although we dropped Mondays for a while and I hated it, even with having to pay for bank holidays!). My main requirements are friendly staff the children warm to, good clean facilities and space for Aaron to run. Despite the large range of nurseries and preschools around us I haven’t yet found that winning combination.

Anyway, I’m trying not to think about it any more. There isn’t an answer and it just makes my soul ache. Aside from that – and the gurgling tummy of the dog lying next to me on the sofa – I’ve had a peaceful day. I’m a person who likes space and solitude and I haven’t had much of that for far too long. Even though my routine has been the same as when hubbie is here I seem to have written twice as many words today. And I’ve cleaned the fridge. Time to walk and feed the dog before her gurgling tummy drives away my new-found peace.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


The children chased each other along the wall outside Kings, giggling and hopping on and off the grass. Claire, Fiona and Josh followed behind, sharing idle observations on all they’d seen inside King’s College, much as strangers might discuss the weather on a stranded bus. Lily kicked her legs and waved her hands from her position in a sling on Josh’s chest. The air felt too thick to breathe and the spring sunshine failed to penetrate Claire’s skin.

“So, who is hungry?” she called ahead to the children. They turned as one and hopped up and down.

“Me, me, me!”

“Come on then. I’m taking you for the tastiest Greek burger ever.” She lengthened her stride until there was space between her and the hand-holding couple. Sky stretched out her arms and jumped off the low wall into Claire’s embrace, snuggling deep into her hair. The gesture surprised Claire and she returned the hug with closed eyes.

“I love you, Auntie Claire. I’m having the best day. Thank you.” Sky flashed a toothy smile before squirming down again to play with Lucas and Sophie. Tears pricked at Claire’s eyes and she swallowed. Well, Ruth, I was never sure before, but you definitely did something right.

They lined up to cross the road. Claire glanced back but Fiona and Josh were in earnest conversation.

“Right kids, hold hands.” She looked left and right up King’s Parade, making sure there were no cars. Standing, waiting for a taxi to thunder past, she caught movement out the corner of her eye.

“Look at that dog!” Lucas yelled, dashing out in front of the oncoming car. Claire reacted instinctively, thrusting Sky and Sophie behind her and reaching out to grasp the hood of Lucas’s coat. She reached him and pulled, just as the black saloon whooshed past, raising a swirl of litter. With trembling limbs Claire swapped her hold on the hood for a clutch of a little sweaty hand.

Urgent arms took the child from her and he disappeared into a hug of hair and tears. “Lucas, what were you thinking? You know not to rush across the road like that.” Fear made the voice stern and Lucas dissolved into sobs.

“Sorry Mummy. There was a dog wearing a coat.”

Fiona stroked the boy’s hair and murmured soothing words, while Claire clutched Sky’s hand and waited for her pulse to cease its rapid beat. Josh stood jiggling Lily and shushing Sophie who had started to cry when her brother did: big wracking, gulping tears and wails of, “Don’t be mean to my brother.” Claire wondered if she had ever defended a sibling with such passion.

Eventually the tears ceased and life once more penetrated the tight group. Fiona looked up from hugging Lucas and met Claire’s eyes. Her face held a new softness and Claire realised just how beautiful the woman was. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

Claire nodded, unsure what to say.

They left the narrow alleyway after their burgers, marvelling at the taste and wiping sauce from their mouths. It was early afternoon, so Claire suggested a wander along the high street, maybe followed by a coffee in the bookshop, where they could also pick up some paperbacks to ease the long journey home. She could see Sky’s eyes drooping. Another hour and hopefully she’ll sleep again in the car. It’s going to take a couple of hours to get to the hostel. Unwilling to admit it, Claire felt, nonetheless, a need to linger. To stretch out these last moments with Josh and his family, knowing they would be flying half way round the world in a few days.

All too soon, the books had been selected, the coffee drunk, the Pony magazine purchased for Sky, to keep her entertained should she not sleep in the car. They stood in the awkward silence of soon-to-be-parted friends, none wanting to start the farewells. The children chased each other round the square, running after pigeons and squealing. Lily slept in her sling, snuggled against her mum. Some unseen communication passed between Josh and Fiona, and the woman wandered away to keep an eye on the children.

Claire felt the timpani drum playing loudly in her ears as he approached: cleaner, more familiar, but with the same crooked smile she remembered from their first meeting at Kielder. It felt a lifetime ago, although she knew it was only a month, if that. She brushed her hair behind her ears and tried to meet his eyes.

“Hey, Claire.”

As he came nearer she inhaled the familiar scent of aftershave, although without the bass note of smoke. Clearly Fiona’s arrival had put a stop to that habit. Any words that might be spoken dried in her throat as he stopped in front of her and reached for her hands. She flicked a glance at Fiona, but the woman was discretely distant, marshalling a game of hide and seek amidst the empty market stalls. Josh turned to see what Claire was looking at, and misinterpreted her gaze.

“You’re going to be an amazing mother one day. You’ll make some man a lucky bastard. If you can’t see it you haven’t met the right one yet. Keep looking. If all else fails, come visit us down under. We’ll hook you up with some bonza fellas.”

She turned back at his words, a puzzled frown creasing her forehead. He dropped one of her hands and brushed her cheek, before pulling her into a crushing hug. She tensed, then melted into the embrace.

Memories of their time on the observatory platform shouldered their way into her mind. He never really fancied me: It was all an act. I reminded him of Fiona, that’s all. She realised the thought no longer made her sad. If I hadn’t, would we be friends? Would I have had half the experiences I’ve had these last few weeks? She felt tears trickling down her cheeks, dripping onto his shoulder. Her nose began to run and she didn’t want that to be his last memory of her. Pulling away, she forced the grief deep inside and shone him her brightest smile.

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that, one day. I’m still not convinced about the mother thing, but perhaps kids aren’t as awful as I once thought. You have a safe trip home and take care of your family, they are very precious.” She leant forwards and pecked him quickly on the lips, before turning away. Without looking back she strode across the square towards Fiona and the children. Murmuring her goodbyes, and comforting a disappointed Sky, she took her niece’s hand and left the square, staring straight ahead.


The Parent I Am and the One I Aspire to be: 2013 365 Challenge #97

Amber having her face painted this morning

Amber having her face painted this morning

I don’t have many words today.

Lack of sleep and residual illness has turned me into at least four of the seven dwarfs. I’ll let you figure out which.

Instead of waffling on as usual, I’d like instead to share two thoughtful and beautiful posts about being a parent: both written as letters to a child.

One describes the parent I’d like to be, the other the parent I am far too often. Again, I’ll let you decide which.

It won’t be hard.

An Open Letter to My Son:

Like some poor, naïve fairytale mother, I’m trying to help you navigate your way through a forest that’s by turns enchanted and haunted. The path is familiar, as if I walked it once years ago, but different, too; overgrown and seemingly impassable in some parts, and unexpectedly clear in others. And as we pick our way through the undergrowth, as we do our best not to trip on twisted roots and sharp stones, I try to remember the lessons I’ve learned from all folktales I used to know.

For example, I won’t make the mistake that Sleeping Beauty’s parents did when sending out invitations to her christening. Unlike them, I’ll be sure to invite the dark fairy godmothers as well as the good ones, because I know that they’ll come anyway, slipping in through back doors and lurking in corners where you least expect them. I’ll let them give you their murky gifts in broad daylight, so that I can look them in the eye while they do so. Then I’ll smile and thank them, recognizing that I have to let life give you the bad as well as the good.

And when I send you out into the world alone, as I know that I will someday have to, I’ll give you something more substantial than bread crumbs with which to find your way back home.

And I won’t make you go to your grandmother’s house alone until I can be sure that you can tell the difference between an old woman and a wolf in a nightgown.

I Wasn’t a Good Mom:

Dear Daughter,

Today, I wasn’t a good mom. The morning came too soon after a long and exhausting night. I rolled out of bed and put pants on an hour before you normally woke up. When I came into your room you were ready for me, your hair tousled and your smile crooked. “I up!” You said reaching your arms out to me. “I pay wif toys!”

I didn’t smile, not because I don’t love you, but because I just needed more sleep. And then the day came and you stuck stickers to the couch and I grumbled under my breath. You tried to play tag and kicked me in the chest and I yelled, “BE NICE TO MOM!” I realize now, I wasn’t yelling that at you. I was just yelling at the world. But how could you know that? You couldn’t, and I’m sorry.

And when I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and you said, “NO MAM GO PODDY!” And I said, “Shut up!” It wasn’t my finest hour of parenthood.

I’m sorry I cried when you ate my lunch. The lunch I bought for both of us to feed my feelings. Because my feelings needed chicken nuggets, but apparently so did you. And I’m sorry I put you in time out when you made your plate do a little dance on the table. I’m sorry I didn’t kiss you when I put you down for nap, choosing instead to run away and lay in the guest room bed and just dwell in some silence.

These are only extracts of the posts. I encourage you to read the full version, and to follow these inspiring blogs. They get me through many hard days as a mother and a writer. I’m off now to use what words I have to give Claire some parenting challenges of her own. It’s far more fun making it happen to someone else!


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


Claire swore loudly and heard movement from the passenger seat. “Damn. Idiot.”

“What is it Auntie Claire? Why are you cross? You used a naughty word. Mummy says only uneducated people use naughty words.”

Claire gritted her teeth and tried not to utter any more swear words. She suspected Ruth was unlikely to talk to her ever again after this fortnight away with Sky but there was no need to add teaching Sky four-letter words to her list of misdemeanours.

“Auntie Claire is frustrated, that’s all poppet. Nothing to worry about. I’m just trying to find a parking space within a twenty-minute walk of the hostel.”

I knew staying in Cambridge for the Easter weekend was a mistake. I didn’t want to drive far on Good Friday and all the other hostels in this area are on the bloody coast or miles away, or both. How was I to know it was going to be five degrees outside and no one in their right mind is heading to the beach? She glared, as if the weather was solely to blame for her bad humour.

Trying to keep the rage in her head was a new challenge and it seemed to make driving harder, as if the hindrance of not being able to yell at the other incompetents in their protective boxes affected her judgement. She braked suddenly to avoid a gaggle of cyclists. Damn those egotistical morons. Pay some damn road tax and then you can swoop in front of me and cut me up with the impunity of an HGV. She swerved around a woman dawdling on an old-fashioned bike, complete with wicker baskets front and rear, pedalling as if she was on a country lane.

“Where are we Claire; is this Cambridge? I’ve never been to Cambridge. Mummy says it’s full of tourists and shops and it costs too much to park. Nana was going to bring me but then Mummy got sick and now she has to take care of Mummy. Are we nearly there? I’m hungry and I need a wee.”

The blood drained from Claire’s face. Need a wee? Now? I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get parked. What is a six-year-old’s bladder control like? Is it urgent? I may not love this car but I don’t want pee on the seats, never mind getting the booster seat washed. Claire forced the brakes on her runaway thoughts, realising that her mind had taken on the urgent, rolling interrogation style favoured by her niece. As if every piece of information in the universe needed to be questioned and answered that instant or the world would fail.

Taking a deep breath, Claire tried for calm. “Not long now, sweetie. Cross your legs. We’ll get you to a toilet as soon as we can.”

Claire found herself swept back into the one-way system and cursed the Sat Nav for not keeping up. Useless box of junk. You’re quick to give me the same instruction twenty times when it’s obvious I need to bear left. Now, when I could use a hand, you’re two streets behind. The swear words built in her mouth, demanding to be freed. Claire tried to remember what stupid words Ruth used when she was irritated.

“Fumbling fiddlesticks!”

Sky giggled and the carefree sound released some of the tension in the metal box jammed in by a hundred other metal boxes. Deciding to pursue the happy accident, Claire pummelled her brain for ways to distract Sky from her need to pee and her incessant questioning.

“Did I tell you we’re going to meet friends of mine tomorrow, for a day out at Kings College?” Hmm, okay I don’t suppose Fiona counts herself a friend, but you can give a child too much truth. “They have children, too. A bit younger than you. Hopefully we’ll have some fun.”

Sky swivelled round in the seat, tearing her eyes away from a Disney advert on the bus in the next lane. “What are their names?”

“My friend is called Josh and his wife is Fiona. Their children are…” Claire paused, searching her brain for name cards. “Um, Lily, Sophie and, bugger what’s the boy called? Er Jack? No, what was the name of that dancer on Got to Dance? Lucas, that’s it.” Claire smiled, pleased at her miraculous recall.

“Auntie Claire you said another naughty word.” Sky sniggered and then covered her mouth with her hand.

Claire turned her attention to the slow moving car in front and cursed her unruly mouth. I’m going to have to get a swear-box, otherwise I’m going to have Little Miss Prim pulling me up every five minutes. She decided the best plan was to ignore Sky’s comment and continue with her conversation. “So, anyway, Lucas is the eldest – just a bit younger than you – then Sophie and then Lily is still a baby. Will you help me show them round Cambridge? They’re from Australia and this is their first visit to England.”

“Wow, do they have a pet kangaroo? Do they speak funny, like on Home and Away? Wait until Hazel finds out at school, she’s going to be pea green with envy.” Sky turned and stared out the window, lost in a world of one-upmanship.

Glad to have finally struck on something to stop Sky’s verbal diarrhoea, Claire concentrated on squeezing the Skoda into an on-street parking space two blocks from the hostel. I just have to remember to move it before 9am or I’m in trouble.