Boredom versus Bedlam: 2013 365 Challenge #128

My little darlings

My little darlings

Hubbie got back from his contract job this evening, shattered because he hadn’t had enough work to fill his day. Now I’ve been there, and there’s nothing more demoralising or exhausting than sitting at a desk trying to look busy, when you haven’t been in a company long enough to usefully fill your time. But still I can’t help but feel a teeny bit jealous. I know you always want what you can’t have, but I think I’d take boredom over bedlam. Well, maybe.

In comparison, today I’ve taken grumpy kids to the hairdresser and entertained one with the iPad while encouraging the other to sit still. I’ve visited play and stay and played cards and refereed between one child who wanted to stay and another who wanted to go. I’ve ferried kids to the park and divided my time between being ‘listening friend’ and ‘swing pusher, fight fixer, roundabout spinner and slide watcher.’ I’ve visited the dentist and tried to persuade two children to remove hands from mouth in exchange for a Nemo sticker. (One success, one fail). I’ve consoled a friend facing redundancy and another whose father went into a home on Sunday, both things that put my child-induced depression into perspective.

I’ve helped two kids make pizza pockets for tea and endured endless “That’s not how nursery do it” and “it’s too floppy” followed by distraught hysterics and a refusal to eat. I’ve stacked and unstacked the dishwasher, wiped up tomato sauce and fielded an hour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang questions while also providing assistance with spelling apps on the iPad. I’ve swept sand and refilled watering cans fifty times and built castles to be stamped on.

Kids Creating bedlam

Kids Creating bedlam

I’ve made tea for the play date visitor and blocked my ears to additional shouting and tears (and dealt with an hour of feeling like a terrible housewife because I choose to write novels rather than tidy and clean. You know, that loaded silence that tells you everything you need to know.)

I’ve kissed bruises, wiped faces and bums, smiled at soaked children and chided unofficial use of the hose. I’ve bought milk, walked and fed the dog, prepared dinner, sung bedtime songs and read stories, remembered to respond to a party invite and pick up a form from school. I’ve even done an online supermarket shop as we’ve run out of pretty much everything.

And even though I’m beat and ready for bed, and really want to lose myself in the book I’m reading, I’m about to sit for two hours and write about Claire. I’m not complaining – today was a good day, all in all. I’d take today over eight hours of sitting at a computer eeking out the meagre amount of work that has been provided. But even though I know it sucks and I hated it and would never go back, it’s hard not to be jealous at the idea of 8 hours of stationary, solitary, unencumbered boredom.

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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:

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Machines beeped and whirred in the darkness. Claire lay on the narrow bed and stared at the lights, unable to sleep or even close her eyes. The regular sound of Ruth’s breathing filled the tiny room. It felt comforting. As long as she’s breathing, she’s still alive.

It didn’t matter what the doctors said: that Ruth was responding well to treatment, and would no doubt continue to respond well once they had established the extent to which the cancer had spread. That was her big sister, lying there on the bed. In a week she had aged a decade, her hair all gone, her skin almost translucent. What I wouldn’t give to hear her whinging about money or telling me off for letting Sky flirt with Jeff. Anything.

She hadn’t spoken to her sister since her arrival. Her mother had given her a brief and unexpected hug in the car park, where they had agreed to meet so that Sky’s sleeping form could be transferred to her Nana’s car. Claire remembered the emptiness in her mother’s eyes that belied the upbeat words she managed to form with trembling lips. Unable to say all she felt, Claire had nodded in agreement at the request to spend the night, and had kissed Sky farewell. Since then she had lain on the uncomfortable mattress and watched the rise and fall of Ruth’s heartbeat on the monitor.

Something moved in the dark and Claire was immediately on alert, adrenalin coursing through her arteries readying her for action. Ruth sighed gently and shifted position on the bed. The graph on the screen fluctuated then settled back into its steady rhythm, like the beating heart of a giant oak. Claire looked at the arms lying above the white sheet, with IV lines running out of each hand. More like a sickly sapling than a towering oak.

Claire awoke with a start, unaware that she had nodded off. Darkness wrapped around her, but sounds from the corridor suggested it was nearer daytime than night. Her mouth was dry and her back ached from sleeping on the pull-down bed. Blinking open heavy eyelids, crusted with salt, Claire pulled out her phone and stared at the luminous numbers until they made sense.

6am. The nurses must be starting their rounds. As if the thought was a summoning spell, the door swung open and a woman peered round into the room.

“Is she still asleep?” The brusque normality of the nurse’s voice made Claire shiver.

“Yes,” she responded, her voice a whisper. “Do I need to wake her?”

“No, we’re doing the medication rounds but if she’s asleep she doesn’t need pain relief. Call if she wants anything when she wakes.” The nurse nodded towards the button behind Ruth’s bed, then pulled her head back behind the door like a timid turtle and the room once more fell silent.

Claire willed her eyelids to close but they remained fixed wide, and she felt as if her eyes might disappear into her head completely. I wonder what time the restaurant opens. If I can’t sleep I may as well get a coffee.

With the stealth of a ninja, Claire crept from the bed and tip-toed past Ruth. Her hand was on the door when it moved swiftly inwards, trapping her between the wall and the bed.

“Ow!” Her exclamation resonated in the small space and was followed by a deep voice full of apology. The familiar sound rippled across Claire’s skin and two thoughts clambered through her brain: Great, that’s all I need, followed by, Thank god.

Claire pushed the visitor back out the room with the door, freeing herself from her trapped position, then went out into the corridor, closing Ruth’s room behind her. Inhaling deeply she looked up at the newcomer and forced her cheeks to raise a slight smile.

“Hello, Robert, long flight? I was just going for coffee if you’d care to join me.”

***

Blue tummies, yellow bath: 2013 365 Challenge #54

Bath Paints: made with cornflour and food colouring

Bath Paints: made with cornflour and food colouring

Out of sheer desperation I came up with the idea of Bath Art today.

Aaron was refusing to exit the Peppa Pig rocket they have at our local supermarket (after being a complete star all during a weekly food shop and lunch at a busy supermarket: Who knew it was still half term in our local town?)

As I toyed with the idea of breaking my own rule and putting another £1 into the Peppa Pig toy (it is cool – the rocket spins and there are buttons to press which illuminate different planets on a map of the solar system) I began going through a list of other more appealing activities to tempt him home.

The conversation went something like this:

“Playdough?”

“No!”

“Painting?”

“No!”

“Football?”

“No!”

“Space-hoppering?”

“No!”

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?”

“No!”

Bath Art: An experiment (next time maybe I'll just use paint!)

Bath Art: An experiment (next time maybe I’ll just use paint!)

That was the point at which I knew I could ask “Chocolate Cake?” and he’d say “No!” because he’s going through that phase. One of the ones your brain erases, like childbirth, because otherwise you’d never do it twice.

Actually, when Amber went through her ‘Why? / No!’ phase (as I like to call it) Aaron was already six months old so it was too late to send him back. Now I have a why/no toddler and a sulky teenager four-year-old.

Joy.

So my beleaguered brain remembered something I’d read on a parenting blog somewhere about making paints and taking them in the bath. Genius. At the time I thought the woman was mad but I was all out of other ideas on four hours’ sleep.

I made the paints out of cornflour and food colouring. Don’t know why I didn’t just use poster paint except I’m not a big fan and I had no idea if it would stain the grout/bath/children. As it turns out, food colouring stains grout/bath/children too, although not permanently thankfully. A second bath of bubbles eventually washed off the blue tummies and mostly erased the yellow scum tidal mark. Got rid of all the hot water too but that was a small price to pay on a day when it was bitter outside and Mummy and Daddy had zero energy.

Bath Art 2: Aaron's End (please ignore filthy grout!)

Bath Art 2: Aaron’s Masterpiece

At least I managed to write half an installment while walking the dog this evening (before my fingers became too cold to tap-tap) so hopefully it won’t be too painful to write the rest when the kids are in bed. I will have to search for a possible continuity error though as I’ve been writing recently about Ruth as Claire’s ‘little’ sister but I think Claire’s the youngest.

NB I was right, Claire is meant to be the youngest, so have changed one word in an old post from ‘little’ to ‘poor’. The challenges of writing and publishing on a daily basis!

I’m sneaking five minutes now to write this bit while the kids watch Mike the Knight with Daddy. I can’t stand Mike the Knight. If he was my child I’d be horrified, although I guess he always comes good in the end.

Oh, it’s finished. Time to go…. Ah. Both kids want Mummy to put them to bed. It’s going to be one of those nights. TTFN.

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“Still sulking Claire? Aren’t you a bit old to be acting like a silly schoolgirl?”

Claire looked up at Josh and tried to make sense of the sounds coming out of his mouth. Sulking, school girl, Sky, Ruth, sister. The words marched through her consciousness without leaving a mark. She felt rather than saw Josh lean over and peer into her face.

“Have I really upset you? Is it because we soaked you at the lake today? You looked cute: like a little kitten who’d toppled into a bath.”

Claire looked at the phone cradled in her lap and tried to absorb what Josh was saying.

He sat next to her on the sofa and his voice washed around her like a warm wave. He talked into her silence but the words barely registered. Something about it being lonely on the road and that maybe running away was the wrong thing to have done.

 Run away. I’d like to do that. I’m sure Ruth would too.

“You can’t run away from cancer,” she said, her voice alien and weak.

“What?” Josh’s response was curt. The harsh tone surprised Claire, momentarily dragging her out of her bewilderment.

“What?” She echoed him without understanding.

“You said you can’t run away from cancer, what did you mean by that?”

She turned to face him and fell into the blackness of his eyes. Shaking off feelings she couldn’t process, Claire said quietly “My sister has a brain tumour. They’re operating in the morning. She needs me to look after her six-year-old daughter for a week or two at Easter while she has chemo. Is there anything else you need to know?”

Josh moved to the edge of the sofa, his face white. “Did she say whether it was primary or secondary? What part of the brain is it in?” His voice was clipped and business like. “Where is she being treated?”

“Addenbrookes,” Claire responded, finally hearing a question she could answer. “How do you know to ask all those things?” Claire had sat mute as her sister broke the news, her brain empty and cavernous.

“Oncology is – was – my specialism.” Josh spoke the words as if they pained him.

“What’s Onc-whatever you said?”

“Treatment of cancer.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“I was.”

Claire looked at Josh. He’s not much older than me. What gives? Part of Claire wanted to pursue the thought, but curiosity about Josh’s past was soon swamped by her present worries. She wished she could recall everything Ruth said on the phone so she could ask Josh what it all meant. As hard as she tried to remember her sister’s words only two sentences were chiseled into her memory. I need you to take Sky and It’s malignant, they’re going to operate tomorrow.

Josh and Claire sat together on the sofa, close but not touching. Around them the hostel bustled with chatter. Beth’s laugh echoed from behind them, where a raucous game of Trivial Pursuit was underway. Each lost in their own thoughts, the two almost-strangers sat in silence.

***

Valentines Day Cards and 2013 365 Challenge #31

Valentine Day Card Production

Valentine Day Card Production

I can’t believe it is the last day of January and I have survived my first month of the 2013 challenge. I still have doubts about my ability to sustain it for a whole year but on 3rd January I’d have taken a month and been glad.

I have been making Valentines Day cards again today. It’s quite ironic considering my husband and I get the same card out of the cupboard every year with brownie points going to the person who remembers where the box is from the year before.

Actually, I’m about to go out to dinner – my bi-annual catch up with the girls I used to work with, who still work for a living. The rest of today’s post will be written in the morning. I just wanted to schedule something (even without the Claire’s bit) just in case I don’t manage to write any more tomorrow. Not because I’ll be hungover – I’m driving – but because I’m full of cold and going out to dinner might just finish me off!

P.S. I very much enjoyed my dinner with my old work colleagues, although I did feel like an Alien recently landed and trying to masquerade as a human being. From the moment I arrived the girls (all in their 30s and 40s) began discussing their latest fashion purchases, the films they had seen, books they had read, TV shows they follow and I didn’t understand a single world. They might have been talking Japanese. Usually there is some common ground when they talk about work or the kids but last night it was mostly films and books. I do read and I do watch movies but the books I read tend to be research (so Young Adult novels or contemporary woman’s fiction, not much literary stuff these days) and the TV I watch is all chosen by my husband. It tends to comprise Auction Hunters and Got To Dance with a bit of SG-1 or NCIS or Psych thrown in.

And we love it.

The characters are as familiar as friends, especially the judges on Got To Dance. It’s comfortable and fun, like going down the pub and listening to mates chat. I don’t have the emotional strength to watch harrowing movies or read heavy-going books. I’d rather do Disney Princesses and endless re-runs of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And don’t get me started on the cooking! They discussed meals and menus I had no clue about. We have Cottage Pie and Spag Bol and curry (from a jar). So I sat silently, enjoyed the conversation, chipped in where I could, and longed to get home to my husband, kids and blogs. Sad. When I did get home hubbie had had a shocker of a night with the kids so I felt a bit guilty. They’re not used to Mummy going out and they missed me. All in all probably good that it’ll be six months before we meet again!

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“Av-a-go-yer-mug, Claire!”

Claire tried to respond to the voice, her breath coming in sharp pants. The feeling was immense, overwhelming her. Her whole body quivered in anticipation. Just a bit more effort she thought between breaths.

“Wow! Ripper!” Josh’s voice was exuberant. Claire tried to share his joy but she felt depleted, her body soft and malleable, not to be trusted.

She pulled her bike alongside Josh’s and looked out over the view. She had to admit it was worth the exertion, although her breath still came in ragged gasps and a stitch tore at the left-hand side of her ribcage.

“You are unfit lady, look at you. When did you last do some true blue exercise?”

Claire bristled at the teasing tone. “I’ll have you know I go to the gym three times a week for spinning classes.”

“Pah, spinning. Stupid. Wasted sweat. Might as well go to a tart instead of taking time to seduce a beautiful lady.” His gaze rested marginally too long on Claire, bringing more redness to her already flushed cheeks. “I mean proper outdoors stuff, with real air in your lungs and a view worth the effort.”

“And real rain dripping down your neck, real blisters on your feet and a real two-hour bike ride back home?” Claire’s elated tone belied her negative words. She had to admit she felt amazing. She’d heard people talk about the feeling but had always thought that was just their way of conning you to join them in their misery, in the same way she liked to meet up with people on a Sunday morning over a Bloody Mary to share the agony of a hangover.

“Come on, when was the last time you were outdoors for more than the time it takes to walk to the car?”

“I walked the Pennine Way two days ago, thank you very much.”

Josh turned to face her, eyebrows raised. “Really, well I beg your pardon.” He mimicked her middle-England accent and Claire had to smile. “Alright, I was dragged out by some arse trying to score points with my boss.”

The eyebrows rose higher, almost vanishing in Josh’s sandy unkempt hair. His expression invited confidence so, while her breath slowly returned to normal and the pain in her side faded, Claire filled him in on the last few weeks of her life, omitting anything to do with Michael.

“He sounds like a proper dingbat that boss of yours. Why don’t you quit? It’s just a job and a shonky one at that. Get on a plane, go see the world before you get tied down with a husband and ankle-biters.”

Claire shuddered and bent quickly to massage her aching calf muscles. Josh’s eyes caught the movement and he chuckled. “Don’t fancy the whole wife-and-mother bit? I don’t blame you. Won’t catch me shackled for life. As long as the surf’s up somewhere and I can hitch a ride I’ll be there.”

It was Claire’s turn to be intrigued. “Does it ever get lonely?”

“Nah, why would it? There’s always blokes to chat to and chicks to keep you warm.” He winked.

“What do you do for money?” Claire realised it was a personal question and quickly added, “you don’t have to answer that. Sorry that was rude of me.”

“No worries, it’s fair enough. I work when I have to. Bar work mostly or fruit picking. Enough to get by. I only kip in hostels in the winter; mostly I pitch my tent somewhere for free. Or…” He stopped but something in his face gave the rest of the answer so Claire finished for him.

“Or find some warm sheila to give you a bed?” She flushed, thinking about their near-kiss the night before. Josh hadn’t tried anything since but then they’d been on this crazy bike ride since first light. When Claire had admitted, on the trip back to the hostel in the dark, that she’d not been on a bike since she was a teenager Josh had dared her to accompany him. Taking in the weak sun as it broke through the rain clouds to glint off the water, Claire was glad she had.

“At least the snow’s all gone.” Claire looked around, amazed at how quickly the snow had washed away in the overnight rain. “What’s your plan now?”

“Don’t have one.” Josh turned the bike ready to return to the hostel. “Don’t do plans.”

Claire tried to imagine a life without plans. It didn’t seem possible. Like trying to drive a road in the pitch black. Surely you have to see at least some of the way ahead?

“Well I do have a plan I’m afraid and I need to get going. The sooner I get round all two-hundred sodding hostels the sooner I can get my life back.”

“Is that all it is? Hard yakka? It’ll be a drag-arse year for you if that’s your view.”

“What other view is there? This is my job; it doesn’t have to be fun.”

“But it could be.” Josh pulled up alongside Claire and they mounted their bikes, freewheeling down the hill they had just climbed. Josh took his hands off the brakes and let the bike pick up speed.

His words floated over his shoulder as he sped off. “Just because you have to do something doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Let go and live a little!”

Claire watched his disappearing form and wondered if she could take her hands off the brakes too. What if she fell and hurt or humiliated herself? What if Josh laughed?

So what?

The traitorous part of her brain that often took over materialised with a sly smile. It prised her hands off the brakes one finger at a time. Until Claire, too, was flying.

***

The Tricky Question of Funny – 2013 365 Challenge #9

From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - Claire is P.O.S.H. (that won't mean anything if you haven't seen the movie!)

From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Claire is P.O.S.H. (that won’t mean anything if you haven’t seen the movie!)

I’m struggling with writing Funny. I want Claire to be one of those characters you come across in the best funny novels, by the likes of Wendy Holden, who make you laugh out loud (either with them or at them).

Right now Claire feels a bit morbid. Her life is shallow and she has no real friends. This is important for her character development. But I can’t see how to inject humour without humiliating her and I don’t want her to be clumsy or stupid otherwise it will be harder for her character to develop. She’s more wrapped up in work and taking it too seriously than genuinely vapid (I love that word – it’s one of my husband’s favourite insults.)

My research is clearly going to need to develop beyond hostels, bars and motorway routes, to include How to Write Funny (suggestions always gratefully received). A quick Google search turned up this interesting article so I’m sure some proper time spent on it will help me no end.

Anyway, here is installment #9. Hopefully I’ll be able to spend a bit more time on the next one, once the children are back at nursery (they’re currently asleep on the sofa, having drifted off watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’ve turned over to Antiques Roadtrip, as I’ve seen the Chitty movie about thirty times since Father Christmas gave it to my son…)

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Claire drew a flat-pack box from the pile and pushed it into shape, splaying her fingers so the corrugated cardboard wouldn’t scratch her nail varnish. The storage people were due in the morning and so far she’d only just made a start packing up the lounge. Looking around Claire realised it wasn’t going to take long. She rarely spent time by herself and therefore had no need for DVDs or novels. The few books she owned were mostly business ones given to her by Carl. Who Moved My Cheese sat alongside The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. She had often wondered what Carl’s motivation was in leaving the books on her desk.

Was he being a good boss helping me climb the ladder to the Board, or hoping I would take the hint that I’m not Director material?

Two weeks ago she would have asserted it was the former; now she wasn’t so sure. The look of glee on Carl’s face when Mike from Accounts had lunged in for a snog was etched deep in Claire’s memory. It had been like watching a pet cat morph into a tiger.

Claire filled the box with unread books and unopened CDs – Christmas gifts from her siblings – and closed the lid. She wrote “Charity Shop” on the side in marker pen, then straightened up and went to get a glass of wine from the fridge.

The kitchen isn’t going to take long to pack up either, I barely come in here. The fridge contained a tub of humus, some wilted celery, and a bottle of champagne that Michael had left behind. Claire knew without looking that there wasn’t much else in the cupboards. She generally ate at the office or picked up takeaway noodles on the way home. Cooking for one wasn’t worth the washing up.

The champagne cork popped loudly in the empty apartment and Claire angled the frothing liquid towards a waiting flute. She felt something ping inside her chest as she opened the Veuve Clicquot: the emotional equivalent of her bra-strap snapping, freeing a tension she hadn’t noticed was there.

Damn you Michael, she thought as the cool fizzy liquid trickled down her throat. If nothing else, you had great taste in Champagne.

Claire carried her glass through to the bedroom and slid open the mirrored door of the built-in wardrobe. A complex pattern of hangers, drawers and shelves confronted her. Three perfect rows of stiletto heels took pride of place in the centre, surrounded by neatly folded cashmere sweaters and impeccably pressed shirts and skirts. Claire knew every item intimately, as if surveying a room of close friends.

She ran through the contents of the closet in her mind, trying to imagine which items might suit slumming-it in hostels. Steve had joked that she’d be better off binning the lot and buying some jeans and tops from Tesco. Claire thought she’d rather skin herself alive.

Selecting her cheapest things – her black GAP jeans, a few M&S jumpers and a pile of pressed Ralph Lauren tops and shirts – Claire began folding the remaining items before packing them into her Louis Vuitton luggage. When the wardrobe was empty Claire carefully placed the bags into boxes and labelled them “Storage”.

By the time the champagne bottle was empty, Claire’s life had been piled into half a dozen brown boxes. Her new rucksack was loaded with all the things she deemed necessary for a year on the road. She frowned at the red and grey bag as it lolled by the front door next to her one pair of flat shoes.

Don’t get comfortable. You and I are not friends. In a month my LV bags and I will be on a plane to the Maldives and you will be in a wheelie bin.

Then she collapsed onto the bed without undressing and closed her eyes.

***

Related Articles:

The Secret of Writing Funny  (writetodone.com)

Humor Writing (writingnovelsthatsell.com)