Christmas Biscuits: 2013 365 Challenge #357

Christmas biscuits

Christmas biscuits

The next few days are surely about survival. How do you keep under fives from exploding with excitement in the run up to Christmas? Thank goodness term only ended on Friday, leaving a handful of days to get through endless repetitions of  “is it Christmas yet?” and “can we hang our stockings?”

Luckily Daddy took the little darlings shopping for Mummy’s Christmas Gift this morning (socks, socks and more socks, hurrah!) so I was able to finish my Father Christmas duties, clean the house, walk the dog and try to write some more adventures for Claire.

I lost an hour of precious time trying to find a building on Rightmove that fitted my mental image of what Timothy’s activity centre should look like. I love shopping for £3 million properties on the Cornish coast. In the end I had to use a blend of three different places. Fun though.

Unfortunately a shopping centre on the Sunday before Christmas is not the place to wear out small children (I suspect they could barely even move) so the kids were bouncing off the walls by 2 o’clock.

What they're meant to look like

What they’re meant to look like

Despite my hacking cough and permanent need to sleep I just about managed to dredge up enough energy to get the kids baking Christmas biscuits. It was a shame my cupboards were mostly bare and I only managed to scrape together enough ingredients for a handful of tiny morsels.

I’d really like to have a go at making the little stained glass biscuits I keep seeing around (and that happen to be in my cookery book) but I had no plain flour, boiled sweets or brown sugar. Slight problem.

But we did manage to locate eggs, icing sugar and vanilla essence, and voila! They’ll look better on the tree than they do hanging from the hands of Wenlock, but they weren’t bad for a first effort. Of course if I ask my children to mix colours, I inevitably end up with black, so they’re more suited to Hallowe’en than Christmas. The thing I like about these biscuits, though, is that you decorate them before you bake them, by adding food colouring to egg yolk. No need to wait for them to cook and cool down before icing them. Lord knows how you get intricate patterns like in the picture, though. Ours were mostly solid blocks of green! Still, it filled an hour.

Thankfully they’re finally in bed. Any tips for keeping the mania under control for the next forty-eight hours will be gratefully received! 🙂

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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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Claire stared at the green and white livery of the coffee shop sign and let the familiarity enfold her like a blanket. She sipped at her tepid latte and tried not to think. Her eyes ached, and her skin was tight from salt and lack of sleep.

Against her will, images of the night in Cobh, and the long the flight home, played on loop, until she felt she might go crazy. The tension had been unbearable. There hadn’t been space for words. Her pain at Conor’s deceit – not his marriage so much as his method of telling her – clashed against his sense of betrayal at her considering another job.

She had no more understood his shock than he had her sense of humiliation. Despite repeated efforts to talk it through, they had been unable to find common ground. It was as if, somewhere between Claire stalking from the Baptism and Conor coming to find her in the hotel bar, they had become strangers.

They’d said farewell at the airport without touching and Claire wondered if that was the end. All the while her heart asked the unanswerable question: was it really so important to strike out on her own, to start a new life in Cornwall, rather than putting down roots working for Conor?

She could probably forgive his stupidity, letting his little sister fill her in on his history. But would he ever accept a long distance romance, especially after his wife moved across the Atlantic with his unborn child?

For a moment the need to comfort his decade-old hurt overwhelmed her and she reached for her phone. Then his stubborn anger at her conversation with Maggie played loud in her ears and she stopped.

Damn him! I told him I wasn’t going back. He accepted it. Did he think he could change my mind? What, that love conquers all? I’ve known him three months; we’ve been dating for three weeks. Yes he’s charming, but…

She stopped as her errant brain added adjectives. Charming, gorgeous, generous, kind.

Stop it,” she muttered out loud and blushed as the woman at the next table gave her an odd look.

Why can’t life be simple for once?

She drained the last of her cold coffee with a grimace and pulled out her phone. Her heart was in her mouth as she waited for the call to connect.

“Maggie, it’s Claire. Next time you speak to your friend Timothy, tell him I’m in.”

*

Guilt swirled around inside Claire like whiskey in her stomach. Even driving across Cornwall to the activity centre to meet Maggie’s friend Timothy felt like a betrayal. No matter how many times she reminded herself that she had no obligation to Conor past the end of the three-month contract, she knew how hard he had fought to get the role for her. And how essential it had been to know she had a job to return to, after leaving the darkness of her New Zealand journey behind.

And is this how I repay his efforts? Running away at the first opportunity; abandoning him to the censure of his peers. Regardless of our relationship, if such a thing still exists, I owe him more than this.

She knew the words were true, but another, quieter, voice said, Working for others got you nowhere. You need to do something for yourself.

Still, she felt beyond selfish, and wasn’t surprised that Conor hadn’t tried to get in touch since their arrival back from Ireland two days before.

As she followed the directions of the SatNav, every junction caused her to hesitate. She could turn round, go someplace different. Stay in a hostel, work on the report. It wasn’t too late to choose Conor. Every cross roads felt like a waypoint in her life. Before long she felt exhausted.

***

Why School is Important (In my opinion): 2013 365 Challenge #352

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

Yesterday I went to my son’s nursery so he could get a gift from Father Christmas, and then in the afternoon we went to my daughter’s school to attend story time.

Both visits were an opportunity for me to spend a length of time in the place where my children go when they’re not with me. It was quite an eye-opener. Even taking into consideration that the events meant it wasn’t ‘business as usual’ there were still elements of both that concerned me.

At the nursery I saw how hard it was for the staff to rein in the exuberance of the excited boys, who were throwing toys and being boisterous. Without being about to shout (which is probably a good thing) or give time outs and so on, it seemed hard to find the balance between play and potential danger. Even with four adults in the room it felt like a place of stress and unhappiness rather than fun.

My daughter in silly mode

My daughter in silly mode

I also saw that it was a difficult environment for boys with energy: the bouncy children I watched were pulled up long before I would have stepped in at home. With other people’s children I guess you can’t be too careful. But there doesn’t seem to be much space for them to let off steam safely without being reprimanded.

It was similar at school, during story time. Most of the children sat nicely on their bottoms, but one or two of the boys were quite disruptive. I’ve noticed them in the mornings, too, and I guess every class has them (I suspect my son might be one of them, in a couple of years!)

At home I would have sent my son to the trampoline to burn off energy, but a school doesn’t have that opportunity. I also noticed my daughter wriggling and not paying attention at times, and I wanted to say something (but didn’t!) because I want her to be one of the good children that listens to the teacher.

Son doing good listening at fencing

Son doing good listening at fencing

Wherever I am, when I’m with the children, I expect a certain level of behaviour and I will step in, even if they’re in a class (if I’m close enough to do so without being disruptive). So I’ll tell my son to listen at gymnastics, or I’ll reiterate instructions at fencing. Because they’re my children and I want them to be good.

But as I thought about it all last night, while streaming with cold, in that befuddled place your brain goes to when it’s ill, I realised that it’s important that my children go to school and nursery. Not just because they can get away from shouty Mummy (yesterday wasn’t my best day!) and spend time with different adults, and learn and have friends and all that. It’s also good that they spend time with people who have greater perspective.

Because compared to the boisterous boys, my daughter is an angel, and I know I’m too hard on her. I’m hard on her because my parents were on me. I’m hard on her because I have no perspective (and quite often not enough sleep). I’m hard, but I’m not consistent and sometimes I’m not fair. Poor child. I want to be the perfect parent, but I most certainly try too hard and I most certainly fail much of the time.

I wrote a while about about the importance of learning to fail. Of learning that it doesn’t have to be 100% all the time and that 65% is enough. But it’s hard, as a parent, to give a child that room to be themselves. At school, at nursery, where there are lots of other children contending for attention, all with different strengths and weaknesses, it’s a space where a child can learn to succeed and learn to fail and get the same reaction from the nearest adult.

A Vist From Father Christmas

A Vist From Father Christmas

I read a great cartoon on Facebook today (I was going to buy it to use on the blog, but it was £8.40, so visit my Facebook page to see the cartoon!) of a mother saying to her daughter:

“Honey, when you grow up I want you to be assertive, independent and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient.”

It made me laugh and cringe, because it’s too true. I want my kids to be confident, but I shatter their confidence a hundred times a day, just because I’m stressed, tired or grumpy.

School is a place where they might not have attention all the time, they won’t always be hugged when they’re sad (but then, they won’t get shouted at either); they might be bored, sad, lonely, hurt, naughty, wriggly or annoying. But they can be all those things without anyone trying to make them perfect. They can breathe. They can learn who they are away from their controlling parent (moi?) and find space to just be. Hurrah.

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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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Claire rested her head against the back of the wooden garden seat and gazed at the sky. From here it was easy to imagine the rest of the world had dropped away, leaving only a tiny walled garden and the endless azure heavens. She knew she should call Conor, but the silence replenished the emptiness in her soul. After the weekend with Kim and Helena – despite the happy conclusion – she felt drained and tearful.

Why am I not happy? I have a gorgeous man who seems to care for me, my friend is on the road to recovery and reunion with her husband, and I’m close to finishing my report with time to spare. What is wrong with me?

It felt ungrateful to the universe to be unhappy on such a gorgeous evening. She had spent the last few days wandering around North Devon, furthering her findings, talking to hotel owners and shop keeper and chatting to tourists. The weather continued to smile on her endeavours and she’d even managed a cheeky surf late one evening as the sky turned pink.

Now she sat unencumbered and alone, with a cup of tea wrapped in her hands, while an invisible artist painted golden stripes along the horizon.

She rested the mug on the bench next to her and turned so she could kneel and face the sea behind her. The shadow of Lundy Island beckoned in the distance – her destination for the morning – and the rainbow of sunset colours deepened to peach and rose.

The buzz of her phone broke the stillness, and she sighed. I could always ignore it. He’ll call back, he always does.

She smiled at the always. They’d only been together for just over a week. Aren’t I meant to still be giddy and excited in week two? Answering the phone with trembling hands, ready to talk sweet nothings for hours? Is this what dating in your late twenties is like? No magic.

Flashes of the afternoon she had spent with Conor, after Kim and her sister left, filled her head. The magic hadn’t been lacking.

Then what? That old cliché it’s not you, it’s me? Or it’s not the right time? Is there ever a right time to fall in … She stopped short. I am not falling in love. I barely know the guy. Lust, maybe.

The phone continued to ring and eventually she picked it up, not recognising the number.

“Hello, is Susan there, please?”

Claire frowned for a moment, confused. Then her brain caught up. “Sorry, no, you have the wrong number.”

Her peace shattered by the call, and the sneaky relief that it hadn’t been Conor, Claire was about to drop the phone onto the bench when she noticed a new email had arrived. Clicking on the message, she realised it was from Maggie.

I didn’t even know she had my address.

Puzzled, Claire opened the message, wondering what Maggie wanted. Although she had only met her a few times, Maggie felt like a friend; a steady force in a shifting world.

Hi Claire

I hope you don’t mind me emailing you – I found your address through your blog. I noticed that you’ve been travelling round the south west recently, and I wondered if you were still there? We are bringing the Guides on an adventure holiday next week and it would be lovely to see you.

We’re booked into the Exford hostel in Somerset. I know it’s a bit away from where you’ve been recently, but if it was on your route it would be super to be able to catch up. We will be there all week and we have booked the whole hostel but as I am organising it, I believe I can find you a bed.

Do let me know if you are free. I have been following your journey with interest and would love to hear the parts that don’t make it onto your blog.

Kind regards

Maggie

Claire’s face stretched wide in a smile of genuine pleasure as she finished reading. Without hesitation she tapped out a response in the affirmative, before she could worry what Conor would think.

I’m sure that widening the remit of my report to include Somerset isn’t too far off brief. Besides, an association like the Guides is perfect research, and who better to interview than Maggie.

Glad to have something to look forward to, Claire pocketed her phone and headed back into the hostel to eat.

***

Plodding On: 2013 365 Challenge #349

Kids' Discos - not for the faint of heart

Kids’ Discos – not for the faint of heart

This festive season feels like an endurance trial, ticking off waypoints as we pass them. Today we struck off two that have been in the calendar for weeks and it felt great.

Even when there is nothing that needs to be done (aside from buying and wrapping gifts in this case), stuff on the calendar always takes up mental space. So, hair cuts for everyone (except Mummy, who has off-set the £30 saved by not getting her hair cut against excessive Christmas spending at least twice!) and then two birthday parties in the afternoon. Job done.

It was actually the perfect time to go to a party disco for five year olds (Hubbie got the shorter straw and went to the three-year-old’s village hall romp!) I got to catch up with mummy friends, watch my daughter dance, and sit quietly in the dark by myself (which is pretty much what I used to do at school discos when I was younger!) I adopted a young girl whose parents had dropped her off, who was standing alone, and was rewarded by seeing her join in a bit later on. And I only had a little stress about organising my own daughter’s do for after Christmas. (We’re doubling up with a school friend whose mummy is far more chilled than me, so could be an interesting experience for both of us. if she’s reading this, I’d like to apologise now for being a stressball worrywart!)

My glamorous dancing witch

My glamorous dancing witch

The afternoon was the hardest. Hubbie and I were both suffering from our 3am insomnia (if only the cricket was more worth listening to, I wouldn’t mind my newly discovered inability to sleep) and the children had to put up with a certain amount of grump.

I managed to make everyone dinner, do all the ironing and facilitate a play doh session, but crawled into bed at 8pm, unable to even stay awake for Strictly Come Dancing. I woke up at midnight, remembering I hadn’t written my post or even outlined my Claire installment. (And it seems I’m coming down with a cold which might explain a lot!) The knock-on of a spaced out Friday continues!

I have just read a very funny post on Elf on the Shelf for under achievers which made me chuckle, and also made me wonder why we opt for any extra stress at this manic time of year. My physio friend is happy though – she says the insomnia isn’t confined to hubbie and I, and she’s getting lots of extra work with people needing massages to relax. It’s an ill wind, and all that.

There’s certainly a strong, bitter, wind whistling round our house tonight. Brrr. I say, roll on Spring!

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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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An arm snaked across the bed and pulled Claire into a warm embrace. She snuggled into Conor, finding the spot to lay her head on his chest that already felt like the most natural place in the world. They lay entwined in the dimly lit room, not speaking.

Slowly Claire opened her eyes, half expecting to see Conor’s apartment. The chill steel of the hostel furniture greeted her gaze and she was instantly awake. Events from the previous evening crashed into her like a runaway car.

As if sensing the tension in her body, Conor stroked her hair. “Are you okay?”

Claire gave a short laugh. “Depends. Was last night as awful as I remember?”

She felt Conor’s throaty laugh resonate through his body, and it sent sensations trickling across her skin. “I’ve had less hostile meals out. Restaurant was nice though; adequate food, amazing view, and–” he kissed her on the top of her head, “one rather gorgeous woman who agreed to come home with me. That counts as a result in my book.”

“I’m sorry about Kim, I don’t know what’s got into her.”

“You mean she doesn’t treat all of your…” he hesitated, searching for a word, “male friends to a sarcastic, caustic grilling? Don’t worry, I can handle it. I’ve had worse.”

Claire’s thoughts skittered between memories of Kim’s vicious attempts at humour at dinner, and Conor’s hesitation over the word boyfriend. Why did such definitions get harder as you got older? You happily called a boy you never spoke to your boyfriend at school, but somewhere along the line it became loaded with significance.

After a few moments’ silence, Conor shifted so he could look at her face. “What’s wrong? Are you really upset? Kim’s just jealous, that’s all. Not of us, of her sister. Didn’t you say she ended up in hospital because she lost her baby? Having a glamorous sister turn up with a bump is going to hurt. She’ll be fine once she’s caught up.”

“She can’t.”

“What?”

“If by catch up you mean get pregnant again, she can’t. Doctors told her she couldn’t have any more children.”

“Oh.”

Conor fell silent and they lay wrapped in their own thoughts, with the thrum of their hearts beating loudly in their ears. Eventually they heard the unmistakeable sounds of life in the room next door, where Kim and Helena had spent the night.

Claire sighed. “Time to get up and think of a way to survive the day.”

“I say we go to the beach. The girls can gripe together, and you can show me how you surf.”

“You’re on!”

*

“Wow, loving the outfit.”

Conor’s lascivious grin made Claire blush. She looked down at the short wetsuit and shrugged. “It doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination.”

Conor came over and ran his hands down it, making her shiver. “I know.” His eyes gleamed in appreciation.

“Down, boy!” Claire glanced over towards Kim. She thought of all the times Kim and Jeff had made her feel jealous, with their overt displays of affection. Even so, she felt self-conscious receiving Conor’s flattery in front of her and her sister.

The hostilities seemed to have abated since breakfast. Kim looked drawn and tired, and Claire had to remind herself how hard this all was on her friend. It occurred to her that they should have invited Jeff, and she wondered why he wasn’t looking after his wife more. The awful idea that he had found someone else to comfort him germinated in her brain. It was difficult to imagine, but then he had lost a child and his wife, to a certain extent. Not that that made it right.

She gave her head a shake, trying to dislodge the uncomfortable thoughts. Turning her attention to Helena, she said, “There are toilets up there, and I’ve hired you both deckchairs.”

Helena smiled and Claire wondered what she made of it all. She had remained mostly silent and aloof since her arrival and Claire found it difficult to read her flawless, expressionless, face.

With a quick glance at Conor, whose face seemed to say, let’s skedaddle, Claire waved farewell to Kim and Helena and strode up the beach to where the surf came rolling in towards the sand.

With two quick strides, Conor caught up and walked alongside her. “They’ll be fine. Even Kim isn’t going to murder her sister in front of hundreds of witnesses.”

Claire gave him a grateful smile, but said nothing. She was still thinking about Jeff. “Do you think Kim’s husband might be having an affair?” she said suddenly. “Don’t you think it’s strange that he hasn’t been down to visit her, the whole time she’s been at her mum’s? He keeps saying he’s busy, but…”

Conor looked as if he’d rather not pass comment. Claire was about to change the subject when he said quietly, “Who knows? It’s a difficult situation. From what you’ve said, Kim has changed a lot since the miscarriage. Do you know him well enough to give him a call?”

They had reached the surf school, where they had agreed to hire boards and have Claire teach Conor the rudiments. She had told him a proper lesson might be advisable, but he’d just grinned.

“I guess.” Claire shrugged. It felt like it wasn’t her business, but she hated to see Kim so altered. Poor Conor, this wasn’t exactly the romantic weekend he might have hoped for. Determined to put in some effort, she reached over and gave him a lingering kiss.

Just as he was getting overly amorous, she pulled away. “Last one in the water’s a rotten egg.” She pecked him on the cheek and ran towards the surf school to get her board.

***

Faith and Father Christmas: 2013 365 Challenge #347

Meeting the man last Christmas

Meeting the man last Christmas

At dinner last night my friends and I discussed the challenge of maintaining the Christmas magic with our children. Do you lie? Evade, prevaricate? Are robins secretly Santa’s spies, identified by their red breasts? Or is the red flashing light of the security system Saint Nic keeping an eye on who is being naughty or nice? Do you have an elf on the shelf to watch over and guarantee belief and good behaviour?

And it got me thinking. In the end is it about magic, or is it about faith? Or even control. We talk of the magic of Christmas but it does seem it comes hand in hand with mild threats to ensure good behaviour. I read a quote on Goodreads once that compared belief in Father Christmas to belief in God:

“Be sure to lie to your kids about the benevolent, all-seeing Santa Claus. It will prepare them for an adulthood of believing in God.”
― Scott DikkersYou Are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day

I was reminded of the quote during my daughter’s Nativity this week. Towards the end, the audience stood to sing along with two carols. I love carols normally, and thought I knew them all, but was surprised by a verse in Once In Royal David’s City that I hadn’t seen before, containing these lines:

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.”
What's not to love?

What’s not to love?

 

Interestingly as I googled it for this post I found some versions of the lyrics without this verse, and some saying “should be” rather than “must be”. I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with the concept of telling my children to model their behaviour on baby Jesus, who had a helping hand in being a good child because he was the son of God and all that. And yet we tell our children to be obedient, mild, good, if they want Father Christmas to come. What mother won’t use everything at her disposal in those frantic weeks leading up to the big day?

Maybe that’s my problem with it all. I’m agnostic. My belief tends towards Nature or the Universe or some Spirit of Humanity, rather than an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being. I respect the idea of Faith in God – envy it sometimes – but don’t have it. My husband is atheist. So, between us, we don’t believe in invisible beings watching and controlling our lives.

Of course that didn’t stop me, last Christmas, saying a dozen times a day “Father Christmas is watching” although my aim was only to get them to smile. So, “Father Christmas is watching, show him your best cheesy grin.” It worked like a charm and staved off the teary tantrums of this time of year.

My daughter goes to a Church of England school and I’m okay with that. Christianity is more than a religion. It’s part of my country’s heritage. She should know the tenets of the faith so she can choose later what she believes, armed with some knowledge.

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I went to a non CofE primary school until I was eight years old, and moved to where I live now. I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer or any hymns, and my school friends were amazed. I’m glad that my daughter will learn them, if only for when she goes to weddings as an adult!

Besides, religion teaches forgiveness and love and good deeds, and who doesn’t want their child to learn all that? My role, as I see it, is to temper the school’s teachings by allowing her to question what she learns (not that I’m even remotely qualified to answer her questions!)

However, if I let her challenge the stories of the bible, should I let her question the existence of Father Christmas? Already she doesn’t really seem to believe all that much. She said of her letter from Santa, “That’s really from you, Mummy, isn’t it?” and thankfully I didn’t actually have to lie because it came from a charity. Still it’s close to lying. She’s only four but I sense it won’t be long before she asks me outright if it’s all true. When that time comes, should I destroy faith, destroy the magic, or deceive a child and potentially break her faith in the honesty of a parent?

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

My good friend solved the dilemma by taking her child, at five years old, to Lapland to meet the man himself. Pricey but maybe worth it to preserve the magic. I wonder if even that would work for my little girl (particularly as she hates the cold and snow!) even if we could afford it.

And, if belief in Father Christmas is like religion, surely meeting the man defeats the object? Isn’t the whole point to have faith without evidence? Like the ironic line from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof.”

(Incidentally, for some great discussions on faith and religion you can’t do better than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, particularly Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax’s best quote is this one:

“You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.” )

Anyway, we seem to be okay for now. She accepts the existence of baby Jesus, she accepts the concept of Father Christmas. She’s excited about getting gifts and spending time with the family, but mostly she looks forward to opening her chocolate advent calendar every day and can’t wait until the end of term. Exhausted and tearful and tired, I think she’s approaching the arrival of Christmas pretty much as I am: with relief!

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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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“Can I come and see you this weekend?”

There was an air of forced casualness in Conor’s words. Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked out her bedroom window at the view down the hill to the sea. The hostel was a million miles away from the one in Swanage: clean, bright, modern, with comfy beds and duvets, and en-suite facilities. Despite the ache in her chest that told her she missed Conor, she was happy to be there by herself. Still the weekend was a few days away, who knew how she might feel by then.

“I don’t have to come, if you’d rather be alone.” Conor’s voice sounded strained and Claire felt a shiver run across her skin.

“Yes, of course you can come this weekend. Sorry, I didn’t mean to hesitate; I was just trying to work out which hostel I’ll be in by then.” A small white lie to take away the hurt.

“Why don’t you ring around for a private room and let me know what you find?”

Now his words made her shiver in anticipation and she smiled. “You’re on.”

“Grand. So, tell me about your day.”

Claire leant against the wall and chatted about surfing, and the hostel, and her call home to catch up with her nephews. It felt strange, talking about things outside work. Conor listened attentively, asking questions and adding his opinion. Claire realised it had been a long time since she’d had a grown-up conversation with someone other than Kim. As the thought drifted through her mind, she remembered that Kim had wanted to catch up with her after the Carnival.

“Damn.” Her outburst cut through Conor’s review of a band he had seen the week before.

“What is it?”

“I just remembered that Kim wanted me to visit her this weekend, because her sister is home from Hong Kong. What with everything, I completely forgot. She’s going to kill me, I haven’t even called. That’s two lots of people I’ve let down in as many weeks.”

“Sure but it’s my fault, Claire. I kept you busy with work for the Carnival and then, well…” He trailed off.

Claire put a hand to her forehead, trying to subdue the stabbing pain in her temples. “Look, I need to call Kim. Can I get back to you about the weekend?”

“Of course. Your friends need to come first, I’ll still be here.”

Claire couldn’t quite read his words. Was he not classing himself as a friend, or making a dig that she wasn’t putting him first? She shook her head. It was too hard to fathom. Wishing him a quick farewell, she hung up the phone then scrolled through for Kim’s number.

“Hello, stranger.” Kim answered the phone on the second ring.

“Hi, Kim. I’m so sorry I haven’t called sooner. The Carnival was manic.” She hesitated, unsure what to say about Conor. Before she could decide whether to mention it or not, Kim started talking again.

“It’s alright for some. I’d give anything to get back to work. I’m still waiting for the doctor to say I’m fit.” She gave an irate snort and Claire felt her heart sink into her stomach. The happy Kim she had spoken to a week before seemed to have vanished again.

“I’m sure it won’t be long,” she said in a soothing voice, wary of annoying Kim further. “Is Helena home yet?”

“Oh yes. The prodigal daughter returned this weekend, proudly displaying her bump.” Kim cackled and Claire thought the sound didn’t suit her. She didn’t like to hear her friend being nasty, even about her sister.

I guess it’s no different than how I feel about Robert.

“So she is pregnant then. How do you feel about that?”

“Sodding angry, to be honest. I lose my baby and get told I can’t have another one, and my sister gets up the duff with some bloke she barely knows. At least she’s decided to keep it. I don’t think I could stand it if she’d had a termination, whoever the fella is.”

The pain in Claire’s head stabbed sharper. She wanted to empathise with Kim, but what did she know of babies and wanting to become a mother? She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a girlfriend, never mind anything else. And the bitter jealousy in Kim’s voice was hard to take, however much she knew and sympathised with the cause.

“Do you still want me to come and visit?” Claire held her breath, hoping for an answer in the negative.

“Good God, yes. Come and save me from her sanctimonious preaching, please.”

Claire inhaled silently and deeply, and then had a brainwave. “Why don’t you both come down here? I’m in a charming hostel, five minutes from the beach, and the forecast for the weekend is gorgeous.” She hesitated, then plunged on. “And you can come hang out with my new man, if you like.” If Conor came to stay, she wouldn’t have to share a room with Kim and Helena.

“Claire, you old dog, you’ve been keeping secrets. Is that the real reason you’ve abandoned me. Come on, spill the beans. Who is it? Is it your boss? It is, isn’t it. You’re shagging the boss. Ha ha that’s priceless.”

Claire winced at Kim’s tone. “Yes, it’s Conor. If that’s how you feel, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to stay all in the same place. It’s not like we work in the same office or anything, so it’s not how you make it sound.”

“Oh get off your high horse, you muppet. If you like him then good on you. From what I can remember he was pretty dishy. Mind you, that might have been the drugs.” She laughed. “I’ll have a chat with Helena, but I’m sure she’ll agree. Anything to get away from Mum’s fussing.”

As Claire hung up the phone she wondered if it was too late to get a flight to the Maldives before the weekend.

***

Busy, Busy, Busy: 2013 365 Challenge #346

My Angel

My Angel

Phew I haven’t stopped yet today, and it’s only 12.30pm. I was up at 5am again (see yesterday) but as daughter needed the toilet, I was good, kind Mummy. I used the time to get the tattoos off her arms ready for today’s Nativity (they’ve been on for two weeks, and only scrubbing with vaseline removed them!)

I then sat down and finished formatting yesterday’s post, completing it nicely at 7am ready to start the breakfast run. (Only to notice, at 11am, that I forgot to schedule it properly, so it hadn’t gone live. Doh!)

Packed lunches made, washing on, children dressed and fed, school run completed, free coffee from Waitrose acquired, crackers purchased for meal out tonight and back home again by 9.20am. Then a mad dash round to wrap my Secret Santa gift, test and wrap the gifts for the kids from Grandad, so I could get them out from underfoot (dancing speakers, very cute!) and a search in the loft for something to wear this evening. That yielded a massive haul of clothes I haven’t seen since they were packed away over a year ago, when hubbie decided to redo our bedroom wardrobe. I’ve been living in jeans and fleece jumpers ever since. And low and behold there were skirts and tops galore. I felt like I’d been shopping, without the expense. Marvelous.

My view!

My view!

Then I had to be good and sit down to write tomorrow’s installment, as I have the dentist in the morning, and my son home all day. Quick piece of toast for lunch, while chopping vegetables for hubbie’s dinner (I’m such a good wife!). Then just enough time to walk the dog now before I go and collect my mum, who is coming to the matinee Nativity performance with me.

Hubbie is attending tonight’s performance with our son, while I go out and celebrate Christmas with my good ex-colleague friends. After being up since 5am I’m not sure I’m going to last all that well. Pass the coffee, please! 🙂

P.S. The Nativity was adorable. Reception children played a silent tableau while older children narrated and everyone sang. My view was limited but we had a chance at the end to take decent photos, which thankfully stopped all the adoring parents and grandparents from snapping away during the show. Genius.

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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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Claire gritted her teeth and dived into the waves. It was essential to get fully wet immediately. Wading out slowly just prolonged the agony. Flicking back her wet hair, she tugged at the board tethered to her ankle and climbed onto it, ready to paddle out into the surf.

The need to concentrate finally drove the thoughts from her cluttered mind. On the long drive down from Swanage, and during the endless night at the hostel, her head had hummed with words. Was she doing the right thing, leaving Conor so quickly? Should she call it off for good? And if she didn’t go to work for him, what was she going to do at the end of the contract, which really wasn’t that far away. There was no rainy day money in her bank account: she couldn’t afford to be out of work even for a few weeks. The leftover money from Robert, which her conscience told her she ought to return, and her temper said was hers by rights, was put aside to hopefully replace her much-missed tablet.

Icy water crashed over Claire’s head, as her brain returned to the problems it had been tousling with, instead of focussing on remaining upright on the speeding board. She brushed the foam from her face and laughed, feeling the tension leave her with the joyous sound. You couldn’t be angry or grumpy or sad in the ocean. It didn’t care. The sheer expanse of indifference put the world into perspective.

Dragging the board up the beach, Claire toyed with having one more run. Guilt pricked at her, as she remembered the report. Thoughts of her assignment led to thoughts of Conor and she flicked them away with a toss of her tangled hair. Instead she concentrated on another idea that had popped into her mind during her surf. She needed to call the boys. With everything that had happened during the Carnival, and afterwards, it had slipped her mind that she didn’t even know if they were still in the country.

She stomped up the beach, angry with herself for letting Conor fill her head when she had responsibilities. I took those boys to Mum’s house, the least I could do was make sure they were alright.

A familiar wave of sadness washed over Claire, as she towelled herself dry and pulled on some clothes. Even though she wanted to do something for herself, there were still people who relied on her, who had expectations.

Will Conor just be one more person wanting something from me?

The words left a bad taste in her mouth and her heart grew heavy. She retrieved her phone and scrolled through for the number, waiting for it to connect as she headed back to the car.

“Hello?”

“Mum? Hi, it’s Claire.”

“Well, it’s about time you called. That’s just like you, to dump your nephews here and then disappear off the face of the earth for weeks.”

Claire bit her lip. “I haven’t disappeared, I’ve been working, and it’s only been two weeks. Besides, the phone works two ways, you know. You could call me.”

There was a tiny pause, and Claire wondered if her mum would retaliate. Instead she huffed a sigh and said, “If you’ve called to talk to the boys, you’re too late. They’ve gone home, thank goodness.” She seemed to realise that wasn’t what a grandmother said of her grandsons and quickly added, “Not that I haven’t enjoyed having them, but they’ve eaten me out of house and home.”

“Oh, I’m sorry I missed them. Did Francesca come and collect them.”

“Ha! If you can call it that. She refused to leave the airport. Checked into a hotel and told us to take the boys there to her. That woman. No wonder Robert left.”

That was too much for Claire. “She might not be the easiest woman to get along with, Mum, but in case you’ve forgotten, your precious son left to get engaged to a girl half his age. He’s not really the victim in all this.”

“Well, we don’t know the full story,” her mum blustered. “Anyway, it doesn’t pay to interfere.”

Claire snorted and coughed to cover it up. There was no point getting into a row with her mother. She said goodbye and hung up the phone, vowing to Skype the boys that evening. She felt bad to think they’d left the country without her being able to say goodbye.

If that’s what dating Conor does to me, then I’m better off without him.

***

Impossible Parenting: 2013 365 Challenge #345

Oh precious sleep

Oh precious sleep

There’s no room for self-doubt in parenting and yet I’ve never come across anything that made me question myself more. Daughter came into our room at 5am, this morning, for the fifth time in a row and shone a torch in my eyes. I only got to bed at 1am after writing my post. I snapped. And then snapped at her.

Not shouted, by any means, just “what is it you want?” in a firm (harsh?) voice. Knowing I was cross, I sent her to her room with Daddy, as he’s far more sympathetic than I am, whatever the time. But she still dissolved into floods of very loud tears, as is usual form at the moment whenever I dare to even mildly chastise her. The crying is likely to go on for some time.

Cue Mummy guilt, mixed with anger. And cue self-doubt. Is her emotional fragility my fault for being harsh? Or copied behaviour from my depression? Should it always be “dependence before independence” in parenting, as my therapist once told me: should a four year old’s nighttime visits to her parents’ bedroom always be greeted with concern and sympathy? Or should the tears be ignored as manipulation, as the preschool teacher tells me they are? Should she learn that waking people up in the night for no good reason is unacceptable behaviour? Or am I a monster?

On the way to school yesterday, both children asked me to stop being a grumpy Mummy, and my response was, “when you two stop waking me up at all hours.” So now I’m giving them guilt, too. Because don’t we teach our children that only they are responsible for their own happiness, not anyone else? So only I am responsible for my grumpiness and, as they often tell me to do, I can choose to stop being grumpy at any time. Even if I’ve averaged less than four hours’ continuous sleep a night for the last five and a half years, since a wriggly baby in Mummy’s tummy started the transformation of me into the raging, sobbing monster I am today.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

The problem with parenting is: there are no right answers, and we won’t vaguely know if we did okay for a couple of decades at least. My Mum recently said she felt sorry for me and my sister, parenting in the twenty-first century. When we were little, she said, a parent’s role was to keep the tikes alive for sixteen years. Job done.

I can’t even be consistent, because my program parent – my learnt behaviour from my work-from-home Dad – is cross, shouty and unsympathetic. Whilst my chosen responses (harder to produce when tired) tend more towards liberal, sympathetic, hippie parenting. And hubbie is all soft and cuddly pretty much all the time, so I usually act (and feel) the bad cop.

Daughter has gone quiet, but is probably awake and upset. Hubbie is still awake beside me in the dark. Son has been woken by the commotion and is calling for me. My moment of grump and indignation at getting a torchlight in my eyes at 5am has caused only widespread misery. So, next time, should I sacrifice my sleep to the greater good, as I usually try to do, hoping this, too, will pass? Or am I right to take a stand? Who knows. I only know that grumpy Mummy isn’t likely to be leaving anytime soon, and the person who is most upset about that is me.

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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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“Is it back to Cornwall, then?”

Conor drained his beer and looked over at Claire. Lunch was an informal affair, up at Durlston Country Park. By unspoken agreement they’d kept the tone friendly rather than romantic. Claire wasn’t sure if Conor was taking her lead, or protecting himself.

“I think I’ll head to north Devon, actually. I’ve stayed in most of the hostels in Cornwall, and I covered a lot of ground with the boys. There are some places along by Westward Ho! which are meant to be great for surfing.”

She flushed, as she realised she’d just told her boss her intention was to skive off rather than work.

This is why I couldn’t work for him. That, and I’d never get any work done.

Sat across the table from her, he looked ruggedly handsome, with his two-day stubble and crumpled t-shirt. It was the expression in his eyes, though, that kept turning her knees to jelly. The words he spoke might be platonic, but his gaze was X-rated.

Conor grinned at the slip. “Intending to play truant, are we? I didn’t know you could surf. You strike me more as the horsy type.”

“God, no. I hate riding. I’ve done it a few times as part of my travels but it hurts! I’m not a surfer, either, but I have been learning.”

“I quite fancy the idea of you all surfer chick in stretchy neoprene.” He widened his eyes appreciatively and she threw her napkin at him.

“Behave! Do you surf?”

“Ha, no. Not my thing.”

Claire realised she didn’t know what his thing was, aside from work and listening to live music.

“How do you let off steam? Is there a gym at your fancy apartment?”

“Hardly. I think there’s a drying room somewhere, and of course steps down to the beach. I go for a run, if I feel the need. That’s about it.”

Claire wasn’t sure she believed him. The sculptured body suggested more effort than that. He didn’t seem to be concealing anything, though, so she let it go. It was so hard to get him to talk about himself.

I hope there aren’t skeletons in his closet. That would be just my luck.

She looked out at the view, across past Peveril Point to the cliffs near Old Harry. On a day like today, away from the town, she could appreciate his love for the place.

“Are you finished? Do you fancy a wander or have you got to rush off?”

Conor’s voice broke into her reverie. His reference to her departure sounded casual and unconcerned and she felt gratitude flare in her heart.

“A quick walk would be lovely, before I swelter in my car for a few hours. No such thing as aircon in an old banger like mine. Not too long, though, I don’t want to get snarled in Sunday evening traffic.”

“Sure thing, my lady. Follow me and prepare to be amazed.”

Wondering what he was planning, Claire let Conor lead her from the restaurant and down a path that meandered away from the folly known as the castle. Beneath them she could see something concrete at the end of the path, and wondered what it was. As she got nearer she realised it was a large stone globe, surrounded by black railings.

“Ta da!” Conor said, when they reached it.

Claire tried to hide her puzzlement. “What is it?”

She saw Conor’s delight fade at her lack of enthusiasm. “It’s Victorian. It’s weathered now, so you can’t really read it, but it’s a Victorian globe. I used to come here as a child. There’s a picture, somewhere, of me and my brothers and sisters all lined up round the railing.” He kicked at the gravel. “I guess it’s not so amazing to a stranger.”

Claire walked up to him and put her arms around his waist. He was a complicated man, and she felt she barely knew him. But what she knew she liked. More than liked.

“Thank you for sharing it with me.” She reached up and kissed him. Conor’s arms tightened around her, and the railings jabbed into her as he pushed her back.

“Ow!”

Conor pulled away, and saw the black metal points. His mouth turned down and he looked ludicrously pathetic, like a small child caught in wrongdoing. “Sorry.”

She giggled at his expression and laced her hand through his. “Come on; let’s go get lost in the woods.” She tugged him back up the hill and along in the other direction, away from the castle, to where the path disappeared into some trees. Time enough to drive away later.

***

A Domestic Ramble: 2013 365 Challenge #343

New Boots. Again.

New Boots. Again.

I am currently sat watching Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (with adverts, arrgghh. We never watch adverts, that’s what Sky Plus is for.) I’ve been searching my brain all evening for a blog topic, but it’s been such a busy day, my brain is asleep.

The day started with a thirty-minute tantrum from the eldest child, because I told her off for not sharing. Is this normal? I know I can be a tough parent and she craves my approval, so I do worry that I’ve broken her. Hubbie thinks it’s fairly standard fare for a nearly-five-year-old girl. Joy.

After everyone had calmed down and eaten breakfast, we went to the local woods to walk the dog and have a wintry picnic. It’s been a gorgeous day – warm for the time of year and sunny. The woods were quiet and the dog had a brilliant time chasing sticks for an hour. Unfortunately the trip also revealed that the kids needed new wellies. The son has only had his two months and they’re full of holes. The daughter’s feet just keep growing. What is it with kids and shoes?

So I heroically took the children to the shopping centre on the third weekend before Christmas to procure new boots. Arrgghh. The son, of course, chose the most expensive ones. After trying on five pairs in three other shops I had to admit defeat. I had hopes the daughter would settle for the half price ones but was wrong. Sigh. Of course we had to battle back through the crowds to find her best winter boots which had been left behind in one of the stores. This is why I do all my shopping online and in charity shops.

We got home with just enough daylight left to put up the outside Christmas lights and for the kids to burn off some steam in the playroom while I did the ironing. Definitely a divide-and-conquer day, with hubbie taking bath time while I cooked dinner. And low and behold it’s nearly Monday again. Where does the weekend go? At least it’s only two weeks until the shortest day. Something to look forward to. 🙂

P.S. On the way in on the school run this morning, I asked them what their favourite part of the weekend was, like I normally do – you know, to remind them we actually do fun things – and my daughter said her least favourite bit was Mummy being grumpy while shopping for wellies. And I thought I’d hidden it so well!

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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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Pain throbbed behind Claire’s eyes: a steady staccato beat of agony that increased in severity when she tried to raise her head. Slowly her other senses came into focus. Without analysing them, her brain sorted through the various inputs. The sound of steady breathing, close by. The scent of aftershave and sweat. The feel of tangled sheets against naked skin. Finally the pieces of the puzzle clicked together and Claire sat upright, before collapsing back onto the bed as the room span around her.

She groaned, and heard the rhythm of the gentle snores change as the form next to her shifted. Her body froze; every nerve zinging. The fog in her brain cleared instantly, like a gale had swept through and brushed the mist away.

With a snuffling sound, the breathing returned to its gentle rhythm. Claire exhaled and lay still, staring at the ceiling, trying to decide what to do. The events of the previous night were sketchy at best. She remembered the wheelbarrow and the dress, the wig and the blown kisses. A vague image of standing over a fan in the iconic Marilyn Monroe pose flashed into her head and she winced.

Slowly, as if building up to the final reveal, her brain skipped forward to the kiss outside the Black Swan. Then, speeding on fast forward, she remembered Conor’s whispered suggestion that they go back to his place. The taxi ride, more kissing, stumbling up to his top floor apartment.

The memories became blurred again at that point, whether from self-protection or alcohol she couldn’t say. Her position now, naked in Conor’s bed, told the rest of the story.

Bugger.

Don’t sleep with the boss. Wasn’t that a rule as old as time? Claire tried to feel bad about it, but found she couldn’t. Instead, despite the hammering in her brain and quivering in her limbs, she could tell a broad smile stretched her numb and tender lips. She put her fingers up to feel them.

I must look like I’ve had Botox. Please don’t let me have to face any of Conor’s colleagues today.

The thought reminded her of something else. It was the last day of the Carnival: Conor would have things to do. She probably had things to do, if she could but remember what they were. She looked over at the sleeping man beside her. His face lay in the shadows, with only a glint of light coming through the dark curtains. It looked peaceful, though. Too peaceful to wake him just yet.

Claire carefully rolled off the low bed and pulled on a t-shirt lying next to her on the floor. It smelled of him. With a smile she padded from the room to explore. It didn’t take long. The apartment was tiny: just a bedroom, kitchen diner and a bathroom the size of a small cupboard. The ceilings sloped above her head, making it feel more compact, despite the bright white walls and cupboards.

With a frown, Claire wondered why someone would choose to live in such a tiny apartment outside London. The quality of the finish suggested it wasn’t cheap lodgings. Why not have something a bit more homely, with room to breathe?

She walked over to the patio doors, up two steps, and on to a tiny balcony. As she stepped out, she gasped. The sun peeped over the horizon, it’s light reflected in the sea. Beneath her, the beach stretched out, with pristine sand glistening in the morning light. She could just make out someone walking a dog in the distance. There appeared to be a path leading down from the apartment to the beach. Over to the left she could see the barrow, where she had walked from Old Harry Rocks. It was stunning.

I thought Conor hated being out in nature, away from the steaming pile of humanity? That’s what he always says.

After a while she became aware of a breeze on her legs, and realised she was standing on the balcony in only a t-shirt. With a mortified blush, she turned and went in search of coffee.

The tiny kitchen yielded instant coffee and old milk that more closely resembled soft cheese. Claire eventually found some sugar, behind the tins of beans and packets of pasta. With a shrug she made two mugs of black coffee and heaped sugar into both. She left one by the kettle, and took the other back out to the balcony, making sure she was covered up.

The cup was almost empty by the time she heard footsteps. The scrape of the mug against the granite worktop was followed by the sense of someone coming up behind her.

“You’re up early. Thanks for the coffee.”

Conor came to stand  beside her on the balcony, without touching her. Claire looked at him, trying to analyse his mood. His hair stuck up at all angles, and he’d only stopped to pull on his trousers. His bare chest was more contoured and tanned than she would have suspected when it was hidden by a shirt and tie.

They stood in silence, sipping at the strong black liquid. Fire rippled across Claire’s skin and her head swirled with words. Eventually she chanced another glance at Conor, and the look in his eyes fanned the flames, burning a trail down her body. She became acutely aware of her lack of clothing.

“You’re still here.” He smiled as he stated the obvious.

“Yes.” She smiled tentatively back.

“That’s good.” He leaned over, as if he might kiss her, and she pulled away. His expression dropped like a chastised dog and Claire felt an urge to stroke his face and kiss away the hurt.

“I need a shower first. Please.”

Relief flooded Conor’s face and he nodded. “Of course. It’s not a very big one, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay.” Claire drained the last of her coffee and walked back into the apartment. She could feel Conor’s eyes on her as she left. When she reached the door she stopped and turned. Forcing herself to speak before her head overruled her desire, Claire gave an arch smile and called back to Conor.

“Is it big enough for two?”

He grinned and jumped down the steps into the room.

***

The Christmas Fairy: 2013 365 Challenge #341

My kitchen table is under there somewhere...

My kitchen table is under there somewhere…

I need a Christmas fairy. Not one on top of the tree, or even one who grants wishes. I don’t need a pretty dress, a pumpkin coach or a handsome prince. Some footmen might be nice, though. She can use the mice in the loft, and then they won’t eat through the Santa sacks, like they did last year, and nibble on the Christmas chocolate. (“Father Christmas,” we explained to my distraught daughter, “must have had nibblers on his sleigh.”)

What I need a fairy for is to be me, while I get on with the fun business of Christmas. For example, while I’m up from 5am tweaking photographs (one of my usual hair-brained Christmas things – photos make great gifts), the fairy could help find my kitchen table, ready for breakfast.

Or she could sit and supervise the children’s homework, because I’m all out of patience and actually had to go upstairs and scream into a pillow this morning because three hours’ sleep wasn’t enough to deal with the bickering. I also cried when I couldn’t get parked on the school run, because I had a red double-decker bus on my tail and I’m rubbish at reverse parking, but that’s not unusual.

The living room is not the relaxing zone it's meant to be

The living room is not the relaxing zone it’s meant to be

The fairy could waltz the children to school, singing silly songs, and wait patiently for ten minutes for them to go through their settling in routine. I’m managing it, but the smile is slipping.

Or I could send the fairy out when I get the call for another chore for hubbie. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, and she could have the McD breakfast instead of me, to save my waistline. That would be a real plus.

A helpful fairy might help locate my living room floor, or put food in the fridge, or make the photos look better when I pick them up from the supermarket (the 5am two-hour stint was worth nothing because they printed so dark they’re unusable. Start again!)

I wonder if I could convince friends and family to give Christmas gifts early? I don’t need slippers or perfume or jewellery, but a cooked meal would be marvelous. A school pick up superb. A quick vac of the house would be a result for everyone, because I can’t be the only one tired of standing on toys and picking stickers and dirt off my socks.

I want to be writing my blog, and inventing adventures for Claire (it’s just getting interesting!). I want to be buying and wrapping gifts, and writing Christmas cards. At a push I don’t mind walking the dog, but the housework isn’t on the agenda until January, and who knows what the house might look like by then. Does anyone know where I might find a Christmas Fairy? If so, send her my way, please. I’ll pay in chocolate. 🙂

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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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Claire looked in the mirror and pulled a face.

I look ridiculous. Why did I let Conor talk me in to this?

She tugged at the wig, which had slipped sideways, and pouted her bright red lips. She swished her skirt and struck a pose. “Happy birthday, Mr President…” she sang off key and laughed.

Fine; I’ll be Marilyn, seeing as the theme is Hollywood, but if there’s karaoke I’m out.

With a sigh Claire turned from the mirror and pulled on her cardigan. Despite the warm temperature outside there was no way she was walking across town without some protection.

As she strode down the road in her sandals, with her heels in a bag over her shoulder, Claire’s mind wandered over the events of the week. They were mostly a blur of phone calls and running across town to fetch and carry. She’d stayed awake for the fireworks on Wednesday, but had watched them from the hostel bedroom, not wanting to stand on the beach by herself.

Conor was still the elusive Pimpernel. She caught sight of him from time to time, hurrying to a meeting or helping out at an event. She’d been wrapped up in her own tasks, liaising with the shops over their storefront competition and doing a dozen other menial tasks.

Just when she was starting to think Conor was avoiding her, instead of simply being busy, he’d called out of the blue and asked if she wanted to take part in the Wheelbarrow Race on Friday night. Once he had reassured her that it was a pub crawl rather than a sports day event, she had reluctantly agreed. Then he’d mentioned the need for fancy dress.

“You’re kidding. I don’t do dressing up,” had been her response. Conor had only laughed. “You do now,” he’d replied with a wicked chuckle.

“Are you ordering me, as your employee?” She’d put on a prim tone, wondering if the banter was a wise idea, given his attitude all week. He’d paused for a fraction of a second before saying in a softer voice, “Of course not. I thought it might be fun is all.”

She’d had to agree at that point.

More fool me.

Her walk through the residential streets drew amused glances from passers-by, as she took the route into town, and she regretted not waiting until she got to the pub before putting on the wig. A group of lads wolf whistled from the other side of the road and she toyed between ignoring them and telling them to get lost. Instead she turned, bent forwards, pouted, and blew them a kiss. They looked shocked and then laughed; their appreciative chuckles drifted along behind her as she continued walking.

I guess I’m going to have to try and get in the mood.

She gathered that all of Conor’s colleagues – my colleagues, she amended – would be taking part in the pub crawl. It seemed strange to be socialising with people she hardly knew, and she wondered what they made of the woman Conor had hired against the Board’s better judgement.

Her footsteps slowed as it dawned on her what the evening would entail. Pub crawls meant getting drunk. Did she really want to leave herself vulnerable amongst strangers? The last time she’d been on a work do and under the influence she had heard things about herself she’d rather not have done. It was an experience she didn’t choose to repeat.

But it was too late now. She could see the pub up ahead; identifying it as much by the group of oddly dressed people milling outside. And by the wheelbarrows.

Bastard. He said there were no real wheelbarrows. I am going to kill him.

“Claire, you’re here!”

Conor pushed through the crowd and came to meet her. “You look amazing,” he said as he approached. “This gentleman definitely prefers blondes.” His tone was light but it brought the blood to her cheeks.

He came to a standstill too close for comfort and Claire concentrated on his outfit. He was dressed as Elvis, complete with white suit and big hair. It looked good. The words of anger died on her lips at the warmth in his expression and she dropped her gaze to stare at the pavement between them.

“Are you okay? Have you changed your mind?” Conor’s soft tone held too much understanding for her liking. Deciding the only course was to brazen it out, she threw back her shoulders and looked him in the eye.

“No, not at all. Bring it on.”

“That’s my girl.” His smile was swift and genuine. He looked like he was about to say something else, when a voice hailed him from amidst the crowd.

“Come on, Conor, stop hogging the fit bird and bring her over.”

It was Conor’s turn to look embarrassed. “Sorry, Claire,” he murmured, “Some of the lads have had a head start.”

“It’s okay, it’s nothing I can’t handle.” Claire took off her cardigan and draped it over her bag. In full costume she felt better able to enter into the spirit of things. Still, in the back of her mind she knew it was going to be a long night.

***

When Not to Chat to Strangers: 2013 365 Challenge #338

Controlled crying worked for one

Controlled crying worked for one

I had one of those discussion today that made me review my parenting decisions over the last four years and I almost came away not feeling awful. I say almost. I haven’t come that far!

Even as the conversation continued, and I realised I was trying to defend my choices against people who thought I was a soft parent, I wondered why I was bothering.

I mean, does it matter if two people I see once a week at gymnastics think I was a bad/easy/ lazy/hippie parent because I wouldn’t continue with controlled crying for my second child? Because I try and cajole (threaten/bribe) them into eating their dinner, rather than following the eat it or starve approach? Does it matter that I still get up in the night to them, and neither child showed any inkling to sleep through at 11 months, never mind 11 weeks?

Aside from the eating thing, these are decisions I made that no longer have any relevance. Yes, I tried controlled crying with my son. I took advice from anyone and everyone, including the sleep specialist from the clinic. I sat outside his room sobbing while he cried himself hoarse and then threw up. I persisted until he got to the point where he was crying hysterically before he even got into bed, and then I stopped. I tried again a few months later, and again stopped. For the first two years of his life he was either breastfed to sleep or held onto my hand (for thirty minutes to an hour). And now? He sleeps fine. He’s better than my daughter in some ways. Except when he’s ill, and then he goes back to needing constant reassurance. But we survived (just).

My sleeping son, day one

My sleeping son, during our long hospital stay

Same goes for the small age gap. I agreed with them that there probably was a negative impact on both children, that I didn’t get to give them both undivided attention and all that. But they’re great friends, which is what we hoped would happen, and I’m not the kind of parent that does undivided attention well anyway. Besides, I get to do that for the next two years, and they’re much more interesting at three and four than they were as babies (If harder work.)

Still, the forty minute conversation left me with a vague sense of disquiet that has build over the day, until I actually feel quite teary. I don’t know why. I think it’s the lack of empathy; seeing in their eyes (or thinking I see, which is maybe not the same thing) judgement and disapproval. Or knowing that if I’d had the conversation two years ago it would have broken me, as so many similar conversations did.

Not all children are the same, even siblings, and what works brilliantly for your child isn’t going to work for someone else’s. When will we get that as parents? (Because of course I still get a bit judgy about some parenting things I see!)

All grown up and sleeping now!

All grown up and sleeping now!

Whatever the cause, when added to a discussion I sparked off on Facebook about Christmas gifts for the children (from Santa or from the parents?), with one friend saying it should be about more than gifts (which I agree with, but makes me feel guilty, cos I love buying presents) it all makes me want to crawl into a corner and rock.

Yet my kids sat and ate Mediterranean egg fried rice for dinner (one of Mummy’s concoctions), and they’re setting up snakes and ladders in the lounge (which will be fine as long as my daughter wins). They will mostly go to bed on time with acceptable levels of fuss. They’ll get up ridiculously early, but they’ll get themselves dressed and play in their rooms more or less until their ‘suns’ are up. I’ll only get out of bed two or three times between 5am and 7am.

They’re good kids which means, somehow, I must be a good parent. So why do those conversations always leave me feeling full of doubt and self recrimination? About stuff that’s water so far under the bridge it’s out to sea by now. As if life isn’t hard enough? Sigh. Never mind. Each time it will get easier, I’ll defend my case better and not get emotionally involved. Or I’ll learn not to chat to strangers! 🙂

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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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The motorway stretched endlessly ahead of her, and Claire’s mind wandered over the events of the night before. Despite the temptation to grill her sister about the mysterious Mark, for once she had held her tongue. It was entirely possible that her sister was unaware of a nascent attraction and teasing her about it now might break it completely.

It had been an interesting twenty-four hours with her family. It felt like everyone had changed so much in such a short time. Well, maybe not her mum. But her dad was no longer the distant, reserved, businessman she remembered from childhood. As if retirement had freed him from a role he wore with reluctance, he’d become more approachable; more human. She had left him and Jack chatting about their favourite authors.

Claire glanced over at the passenger seat, where a proof copy of her dad’s book sat on top of her handbag. It felt odd to think her father had written it.

Then there was Ruth. No longer the needy, miserable, sister she’d been only months before, she now carried herself with a quiet confidence and a security that she said knew her place in the world and was content. Although she felt less able to relate to the new Ruth, Claire was glad she’d found a path she was happy with.

And what about me? Have I changed? What do they see, when they see me? I don’t feel any different, but I suppose a few months ago I wouldn’t have been driving to the middle of nowhere in a rusty car with anything other than horror.

The trill of the phone cut through her thoughts. Claire glanced down to see who was calling. No name came on the screen, but the number looked familiar. Thinking it might be Conor, she grabbed the handset.

“Hello?”

“Claire, hi, it’s Kim.”

“Kim! How great to hear from you. Listen, I’m driving at the moment, and this clapped out old car doesn’t have anything as posh as hands-free. Can I call you back in,” she looked out the window and saw a sign for a service station in ten miles, “say, twenty minutes? I’m due a stop.”

“Sure, no problem. I’ll go and make myself a cup of tea.”

Claire hung up the phone and tried to work out why Kim had sounded strange. And then she realised what was different. She’d sounded happy.

*

“So, what’s the gos?” Claire cradled the phone to her ear, and sipped at the hot latte in her other hand.

“Are you safe to talk now?”

“Yes, I’m at the services, coffee at the ready.”

“Good.” Kim fell silent, and Claire wondered if she’d imagined the happiness in her voice earlier. As the silence stretched out, Claire tried to think of something harmless to say.

“How are you?” She didn’t want to say more than that, but it was enough.

“You mean, am I still nuts? No, the doctor thinks I’m making good progress. I’m hoping to go back home soon. Jeff’s still busy, so they want me to stay with Mum until they’re sure I’m safe to be by myself, but I feel okay.”

“You sound great.” Claire smiled, aware of a real sense of relief to hear her friend on the road to recovery.

“Helena is coming home.” Kim blurted the words out and it took Claire a moment to process them.

“Your sister? I thought she’d put down roots in Hong Kong? She didn’t even come home for your wedding.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think it’s entirely her idea.” Kim’s voice bubbled with suppressed mirth. “I shouldn’t laugh, but it’s so out of character for Helena.” She giggled.

“What happened?” Claire tried to remember what Kim’s sister was like. She was older than Kim, and was the driven, business orientated one, full of ambition.

“We don’t know.” Kim laughed. “But it’s got to be pretty bad. I’ve got bets on her having slept with a client. Mum’s saying nothing, but I think she’s worried that she’s up the duff.”

Silence fell again, and Claire wondered if Kim was dwelling on her own lost baby.

“Be bloody typical if she is.” Kim’s voice had lost some of its humour. “Maybe I could convince her to give it to me and Jeff.”

Claire winced and took a gulp of coffee, cursing as she scalded her mouth. Her brain hummed with useless words and she pictured Kim sinking back into the dark place.

“Whatever the cause, it’s brilliant that she’s coming home under a cloud. It’ll take the heat off me as the useless one. Anyway, I wondered if you’re around? She’ll be home next week; it’d be great if we could all catch up.”

With a frown, Claire tried to read beneath Kim’s request. She hardly knew Helena. There was a four-year age gap, from what she could remember, and Helena had been a shadowy figure at school, one who refused to associate with her younger sister.

“I’m in Cornwall, or I will be soon.” She heard Kim’s intake of breath, and quickly added, “But I’m sure I could shoot up to yours one weekend. After the Carnival though. Conor would kill me if I wasn’t around for that. I can do early August.”

Kim agreed somewhat reluctantly and Claire felt a pang of guilt for bursting her happy bubble. She wondered why Kim needed moral support to face her sister, and filed it away under things to worry about.

***

Christmas Grump: 2013 365 Challenge #335

Jolly Joules, part of the Living Nativity at the Farm

Jolly Joules, part of the Living Nativity at the Farm

I love Christmas. It’s my favourite time of year. I love buying presents, wrapping them and putting them under the tree. I love decorating the tree, and Christmas lights and tinsel.

In the past I’ve made wreaths from scratch with fir-tree branches and pine cones. I’ve hand made Christmas cards and sent them to dozens of people with individual messages in each one. I agonise over gifts to get the perfect present and don’t really have anything I want for myself. Hubbie’s never been a great fan of the season, but Christmas is me to the very core.

Then I had my daughter, and the magic continued. I dressed my daughter up in a Mrs Christmas outfit, aged 10 months, and she was adorable. I made Christmas sacks and Christmas cards with hand and feet prints on them. Magical.

Father Christmas arriving by carriage

Father Christmas arriving by carriage

I had my son. And that Christmas was special too, if slightly stressful, as we hosted 13 to dinner in our barely finished kitchen. But my son was only three months old, and poorly, so I did very little on Christmas Day but make little felt stars and sit in the corner breastfeeding, surrounded by family. Gorgeous.

It all went down hill from there. The children started noticing Christmas. The pressure to get the perfect presents, to make it magical for them, too, increased. And my time diminished. I no longer had endless head-space to plan presents, or endless evenings to sew and make. My temper got shorter and my nerves tighter. Christmas started too early and went on too long.

This year has been the worst so far. It’s not even December for another few hours, and already I’ve turned into Scrooge. I’m trying, I really am. We went to see Father Christmas arrive at the farm today, as he pulled up in his white carriage drawn by shire horses, accompanied by Mrs Christmas. It should have been great. But his cushion had slipped and he didn’t say hello to my son, which made him sad.

Children's tree

Children’s tree

And the lies had to start. “Why can’t we see him and get a gift today, Mummy?” “Because it’s too early, because it’s busy, because, because…” The real reason is the Farm have two men playing Father Christmas, and we’ve always seen the other one, who I used to do Panto with when I was a teenager. He’s fab. He makes Christmas for us. But he doesn’t start until the 16th, and now my daughter’s at school that means we won’t see him until 21st December. That’s a long way off.

The lies are the hardest part of Christmas. You have to be alert to lie consistently and with conviction. I’m rubbish at it. And my children are smart. I’m trying to create the magic, but it doesn’t come with a handbook, and quite frankly I miss being able to get ready for Christmas in my own little magical bubble.

I can’t even share the pain with the hubbie, because obviously some of the gifts are for him, and surprising him is one of the few joys left. Because the other problem is, my children are a bit spoilt. Yes, I know; my fault. When my daughter got her bike, two years ago, she said, “Where’s the bell?”

She gets it from me. Because I want Christmas to be perfect, I do have a tendency to be a bit ungrateful when I get an utterly random gift that I think is a waste of money. I try to hide it, but did I mention I’m rubbish at lying? It’s a minefield.

The finished tree

The finished tree

Oh, and money, there’s the other stress this year. I dreamed I got caught shop lifting last night, and I think it was my psyche telling me that might be the last resort (joke!). It’s not that we don’t have the money, but because I haven’t earned a penny this year, I don’t feel like it’s mine to spend. I’d have to sell a lot of books to buy even one gift! Not like in the days when I earned proper cash as a contractor!

Anyway, I’m getting my grumble and gripe out now, before December arrives (even though you’ll be reading this in a few hours, when it is December!) so hopefully I can work on the magic. Try and stress less, do less, and concentrate on getting through a whole hour with the children without wanting to scream.

I did manage to let them decorate the tree earlier, and only ‘tidied’ it up a little bit, removed some of the tinsel and added the lights. (It helped that I’m reading a good book, so I kept my head down and didn’t watch!)

Please tell me it gets easier, though? The lying at least.

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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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“Leave him alone.” Claire’s voice whipped across the empty space, stopping Robert as he was about to follow after his son.

“I will not have a child of mine talk to me like that.” The urbane smile was gone, replaced by a dangerous red flush. “Two weeks with you and they’ve turned savage.” He pulled his arm free of the wide-eyed woman by his side, and once more turned to go.

“I said leave him!” Claire’s shout echoed off the white walls and glass doors. Robert turned slowly to face her, his eyes wild.

“Stay out of this, Claire. You’ve had nothing to do with the boys all their lives; don’t start playing Auntie now; it doesn’t suit you.”

“It suits me better than father suits you. When did you become such a monster, Robert? You were always a whiny child, but I don’t remember you being such a wanker.”

Jack sniggered behind her, and Claire flushed as she remembered there was still one of her nephews in the room. She looked over and gave him a rueful smile. “Jack, why don’t you go and see if your brother’s alright? I’m just going to have a chat with your dad.”

With a mischievous grin, Jack nodded and silently left the room. Claire noticed that he gave Gabriella a kind smile, and Claire wondered what the poor girl must make of her welcome. Judging from her bemused expression, Claire decided she probably didn’t speak very good English.

Just as well.

She dismissed her from her mind and turned her attention back to Robert. He stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at her, his chin jutting out pugnaciously. He looked ridiculous. Claire felt the anger drain away, taking all her vicious words with it.

“What possessed you to bring her here? As far as I can gather, the boys haven’t even met her yet, and you turn up two hours late to collect them and coolly announce you’re engaged. What planet are you on?”

“I don’t see how that’s any business of yours.”

“When you ask me to look after your children, while you’re off seducing a girl half your age, then you make it my business. Are you having a midlife crisis, is that it? A beautiful wife and two gorgeous boys not enough for you?”

“Francesca, beautiful? All this time alone living like a peasant has screwed with your brain. The woman’s a bitch. All she cares about are her vacuous friends and her spa treatments.”

Privately Claire couldn’t disagree. She didn’t know her sister-in-law that well, but from what she could remember of her at the wedding years before, she didn’t have many redeeming features.

“You married her, Robert. For better or worse. I was there.”

“Grow up, Claire. No one believes in that, ‘’Til death do us part’ crap anymore. I grew tired of her whining and her constant demands.”

“So you threw her over for a younger model, leaving your boys stuck in the middle. Very mature, Robert, very grown up.”

“I’m not going to take relationship advice from my harlot of a little sister, who can’t even keep a man for more than a few months.”

Claire reeled from his words as if they were a blow. With rapid breaths, she took three quick strides across the room and slapped his smug, arrogant, face as hard as she could. She smiled in satisfaction as his head snapped back, even as the numbness and pain shot up her arm.

“Get out, Robert. Now.” She pointed at the door, ignoring the throbbing in her wrist. “Go and leave the boys with me. You don’t deserve them.”

Robert felt his cheek with fingers, before looking up with hatred in his eyes. “Are you insane?”

“No, I’m not. I’m perfectly lucid. I will take the boys to Mum’s house and they can stay there until Francesca comes to collect them. Or they can transfer to a British school and come and stay with me in the holidays. Anything has to be better than having you hurt them any more with your towering indifference.”

She panted, as if she’d run up the cliff from the sea, but her mind felt clear. Knowing she would regret it in the morning, Claire stalked past her brother and went to find Jack and Alex.

“Boys, come and say goodbye to your father, he and Gabriella are leaving.”

***