Tag Archives: writer mum

What do you see when you look at me?

You see a bad mother.

Church, if you want to do it, can be a bit of a conundrum with small people. McMini being a bit older now and more susceptible to boredom, it is not so easy to persuade him to come to the Sunday service. Furthermore, when he does, it’s probably no longer appropriate for a young gentleman his age to sit there with a huge stack of Beanos and a flask of tea, however quietly it is done. That’s why I jumped at the chance when the powers that be decided to introduce a more informal service during the week. Small church. It is called.

McMini is one of four to six small parishoners; the two youngest are girls, one of about eighteen months, one of three, then there is another little lad of five and McMini at nine. He enjoys the stories, the drawing and occasionally, when the vicar is around, and brave enough, to have a ‘mini mass’ he gets to serve. As he has expressed an interest in being the thurifer, we now have incense at this and take our lives in our hands as McMini enthusiastically wields a steaming hot thurible in our faces.

However, formal this sounds it isn’t. Last mini mass the adults tried to contain their laughter as the small parishoners wandered around, apparently oblivious to what was going on. One withdrew to the table to draw, McMini was sitting next to the radiator upon which he’d perched a cup of tea (next to the bread and wine) and was calmly drinking sips in between the responses. The two girls had a bit of a contretemps and we had ‘pencils at dawn’ until a smart adult realised they both wanted a pink and purple one and found a second pink and purple pencil so they could have one each. A few seconds later and the small plaintive voice of the three year old said, ‘down there’ and pointed to the grating. Her crayons had disappeared. Doubtless they are somewhere beneath the hot pipes but none of us dim-eyed adults could see them and so far, they have not been found.

Meanwhile, McMini had miscounted the amount of wafers – or sherbet free flying saucers as we blasphemously call them at home. This meant that, communion done, there were extras left. Quick as a flash, McMini chimes in.

‘Oooh look! There are some left over! Can I have another one?’
‘I’m not sure that’s quite-‘ I begin weakly, poker face in place, toes to curling silently.
‘Actually, as we have to eat them all up now, it’s quite acceptable for you to have another if I ask you to help me so, McMini, would you help me by eating another one?’ says our vicar as, completely unfazed, he proffers the platen towards my son.
‘Thank you, and the wine was delicious today,’ says McMini hopefully but luckily there’s no extra wine to finish.

I remember the day when McMini, after his first communion, stuck out his tongue and wiped it on his sleeve with a loud, ‘Yuck!’ to try and remove the taste of the wine from his mouth. Yes, well, at least he’s got used to it. Maybe I should thank myself for small mercies … possibly.

Usually, small church, is less eventful, indeed it’s rather like a normal Sunday school, a bible story, a discussion and some prayers, during which we all light a candle each and put it on the um … candle holder thingummy.

Two weeks ago, we were talking about thinking before we act. When prayer time arrives, my darling child comes up with the following gem.

‘Please guide Mummy to listen more and think before she acts so that she will be a good mother.’ He then places his candle in the holder with a very serious expression, to the sound of stifled sniggering from the grown ups.

‘Am I a bad mother?’ I ask afterwards, thinking that this might stem from my harrying him to clean his teeth that morning before school.
‘I’m afraid so, Mummy.’
‘Was it the teeth cleaning incident this morning?’
‘No Mummy it’s because you swear all the time and some of the language you use in front of me is very inappropriate, which is a pity, because you could be a very good mother otherwise.’

Damned with faint praise. What the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away so to speak, or at least, the other way round in this case, and also furnishing me with a very interesting insight into how his teacher talks when she is telling him off. I remember how much trouble I got into at school when I was a few years younger than him, for saying, ‘bloody hell is a very bad word, isn’t it?’ to my best friend and then, how mortified my mother was upon discovering that, when asked where I’d got such filthy language from, I’d told my teacher, ‘Daddy.’ And yes McMini has also done this to me with a similar situation centring around his use of the word, bollocks.

This last week, the theme was giving thanks for people who make the world a better place through their actions; folks who let their light shine in the world is roughly how the story put it. As we sat discussing this and deciding who we will pray for as folks who shine the light of kindly goodness in our lives, the small people all say ‘Mummy and Daddy.’ Except for McMini. I should be so lucky. Unfortunately, the fact that he got a laugh last week from chastising me hasn’t escaped his attention.

‘What about your Mummy McMini?’ says someone. ‘Aren’t you going to thank God for her?’
‘Regretfully, no,’ he says.
‘No?’ I say with mock affront. ‘Is that because ‘of the-‘
‘Swearing?’ He fixes me with a very serious look while the other adults snort with laughter behind their hands. ‘Yes.’
‘Have I not been better this week?’
‘No Mummy. Well, you have. You haven’t been doing it in front of me as much but it’s really not appropriate behaviour,’ there’s that word again, ‘in the presence of a nine year old.’
‘I don’t do it in your presence do I?’ I ask him omitting the ‘much’ that would make that statement a lot more honest.
‘True, Mummy, but you do it a lot in the other room when you think I can’t hear you.’
‘Then don’t listen,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head sadly. ‘You have a very loud voice Mummy. It’s difficult not to and you see, it will influence me.’

The lady who makes the tea and serves the biscuits, and who is trying so hard not to laugh she may, possibly, be in danger of rupturing herself moves away out of earshot.

When we eventually make it to prayer time, the other kids all thank the Lord for their mummies and daddies. Finally it is McMini’s turn. He says thank you for the ambulance staff, police and fire brigade who make the world a better place by protecting us and looking after us, and then says thank you for everyone and anyone working in the church. There’s a bit of a pause. He gives me a look and I start to giggle.

‘What about Mummy?’ asks one of the grown ups.
McMini heaves a sigh and then he finally adds, grudgingly,
‘Oh alright then, and thank you God for Mummy, too, because although she is a Bad Mother she is funny.’

The worst thing is, I know he’s doing it to take the piss out of me, no the worst thing is that I know it and I’m proud of him. But if he’s that sophisticated about taking the mickey out of me now, heaven help me when he’s older. I probably shouldn’t have played this in the car so much when he was tiny. I really don’t have a fucking clue about this parenting lark but it is fun.

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(Brandy)Butter balls; a bit of Christmas wittering.

It occurred to me that I should be doing a Christmas round up soon or at least a what’s on next year. However, I have spectacularly failed to get my shit together in time for it this week – ooooo there’s a surprise – so instead I’m going to give you a recipe … eventually.

As you know, I am the original Grinch, only slightly more bad tempered; think of me as the Voldemort of Christmas cheer – or possibly the Lord Vernon.

BUT there are bits of the whole sorry mess that even I enjoy. I do a number of Christmas parties including two corporate wife events which are a gas. Last night was at a Cambridge college which is, basically, supper at Hogwarts so what’s not to like?

Dinner at Hogwarts. A typical Cambridge dining hall (last year’s) … very like my school’s dining hall but without the mashed potato on the ceiling, although I think they’ve taken that off the ceiling at my school now, too. Young people are much better behaved these days.

However,  unlike Hogwarts these places are properly cold. I went resplendent in a thick velvet jacket and trousers, a big warm shawl and thermal underwear. The meal was pretty good, especially the turkey and trimmings and, bonus, the waiter dropped a sausage on the table between me and the lady opposite and then served her another one ‘for hygiene reasons’ which meant me and the lady were able to cut it in half and enjoy a soupcon extra. Snortle.

On the way home we did the interesting road closed manoeuvre again – and we’ll be doing it tonight, too – but we went the right way this time so no single track roads, just country lanes.

This morning, through the hangover fug, it did occur to me that at all these events there is one aspect that lets them down; the brandy butter, or at least lack thereof.

Have you noticed how restaurants tend to serve brandy cream with the Christmas pud? Last week’s was good but many’s the time when it’s had an unfortunate tendency to taste like a mixture of methylated spirits and petroleum jelly – usually at school where they were afraid to serve brandy to the under-aged and were using ‘brandy flavour’ instead. Another favourite is a kind of custard. That sounds good on paper, but because it lacks the usual yellow dye it is white and a bit viscous and I’m afraid it comes up looking very like sperm. This is slightly unnerving when someone’s slathered it all over your food. You wonder what they’ve been doing out there in the kitchen. That said, it always tastes a lot better and since custard is always nice, no matter how jizz-like the colour, I’m game for as much as they’ll give me, which is never enough and … well … it’s not brandy butter is it?

When I was a kid growing up, my mum regularly made several hundred mince pies each year for church, the house (when we lived in the school) and any number of other events. She also made the pud, the cake, the stuffing for the turkey, grew the sprouts and the spuds and everything else from scratch. But then Mum is a kind of cordon-bleu-hunter-gatherer-Beth-Chatto*. The pud would be served in flames and the mince pies would be heated in the oven, all were served with brandy butter, and because it was so good, nobody was allowed it unless they had some pud or mince pies – or ‘little bleeders’ as we call them because when asked if he liked them at his first Christmas with us, McOther voiced all our thoughts by saying,

‘No, I hate the little bleeders.’

But I digress. Back to the brandy butter. OMG, as I believe young people say, that brandy butter was a slice of heaven. We’d have one mince pie and a dessert spoonful of brandy butter to go with, ie a lump of comparable size to the pie. Then you held the butter back when you ate the mince pie and would go in for seconds of pudding but this time, you’d done your duty and had some Christmas fayre so you were allowed to choose something you liked: a meringue. That there people is combo made in heaven – even if, most likely, it’s one that will swiftly see you in heaven, in a more literal sense, by blocking your arteries and giving you a heart attack.

These days, when I talk about brandy butter, hardly anyone seems to know what it is. That’s a crying shame and is a situation I wish to redress. However, Mum’s recipe for brandy butter is a bit generalist it goes like this:

‘Well darling, what I do is take some unsalted butter and some icing sugar, beat them in the mixer and add brandy to taste.’

You can try that if you like, it’s pretty much what I do, but I have managed to convert this, sort of, to a normal weights and measures type of thing.  I’ve stuck to weights and measures because everyone can weigh things out, but ‘cup’ size varies all over the world and doesn’t exist in the UK, so if I do cups no-one will have a fucking clue how much to put in. Mwahahahargh; not least of all, me!

I don’t have a picture of brandy butter so here’s a little fellow about to give you a warm hug. Yes, last night’s college was a target rich environment.

* famous gardener

Brandy Butter

75g/3oz butter left out first so it’s reasonably soft.
175g/6oz icing sugar
1 table spoon of Brandy – to start with, anyway but keep the bottle handy.
1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed orange juice – preferably from an actual orange.
A smattering of orange zest from the same orange.

The trick with this one is you have to taste it. A lot. Here’s the method.

1. Put the butter in a mixing bowl and sieve the icing sugar over the top.
2. Beat it – either by hand or with a mixer is fine. I use a Kenwood Chef mixer which I bought at a jumble sale (rummage sale) about 25 years ago for £5 and I use the beater attachment rather than the whisk.
3. Eventually it will go quite smooth, like butter icing (butter frosting?). This is where you add your brandy – slowly so it doesn’t curdle.
4. Have a taste. Add more brandy if you need to but remember putting liquids in this is tricky so keep it to small amounts at a time. Add some orange zest.
5. Have another taste. Add the orange juice and a bit more orange zest if you want to. I like it with orange because it makes it a bit less sweet but avoid over doing it. You just want a background hint, it’s not orange butter, after all. That said, Mum’s never tasted over sweet and she didn’t use orange but I suspect it had absolutely gargantuan amounts of brandy in it.
6. Once you’ve got it how you like it, put it in a dish and keep it in the fridge. If you put enough brandy in, I’m telling you, this stuff will keep for a sod of a long time. Like a year at least.

The basic gist is two parts sugar to one butter so it’s reasonably easy to scale up, or down, but the more you make, the easier it is to mix.

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When dyslexic people try to fill in forms … #dementia

This week, a cry for sympathy rather than help, hopefully, in a way that is amusing or useful to you.

Last night, McOther and I were invited to a Christmas party. We went. He from London, me from here. I met him there. I was late because our babysitter couldn’t get here before 7.00pm – although I had only just hopped out of the shower when she arrived. This year, the babysitter had not had a car accident, McOther was not in the middle of some stupid deal and it all went off without a hitch. Until we drove home at which point we found a sign announcing that the road would be closed at the next junction. So we ended up having an interesting adventure driving around the Suffolk countryside on muddy single track roads, in the middle of the night, at temperatures of about four below so the mud was mostly ice.

This is the story of my life right now.

Nothing is quite going to plan.

It’s not that things are going badly, or over complicated even, just that they are consistently arse-about-face. The simple things complicated and the complicated things … nope they’re still complicated. It’s not all hand of God like that one though. A lot of the cock ups are my fault.

Obviously with Christmas looming I’d expect things to be going slightly wrong, but this year, even November, which is usually a nice quiet month, got complicated. It all started about ten days in, as I was cresting a very creditable 25k in the first ten days of NanoWriMo. My brother phoned in a panic because the accountant who does Mum’s tax return had been onto him telling him that he must do this that and the other, and suggesting we remove all Mum and Dad’s remaining estate from stocks and shares and into a high interest account. It sounded barking to me but what do I know? Luckily after a few phone calls to check the situation, and a consultation with McOther who understands banking and shizz in a way I don’t, it was all sorted out but it took several days.

At the same time, my brother raised a second thing; that we need to have a properly legal power of attorney over Mum and Dad’s health – yes my lovely peps a Do Not Resuscitate form is not enough, why, I do not know but it seems they have to express this intention formally, using a living will or a special government form. The form is massive and it has to be witnessed, counter witnessed, another independent person has to sign to say Mum and Dad are not being coerced and they all have to do this in front of one another. The form has to be signed in a certain order, or it’s void and when it’s done it costs £110 to file each form, which you don’t get back if you fuck it up and you have to pay again to resubmit, although they will let you resubmit it a second time for half the fee.

To complicate things Mum and Dad’s DNR was signed three or four years ago and the legal stuff must be organised while Mum and Dad are still capable of stating their intentions about this or we would have to make them wards of court or something horrifically complicated. Mum is fine but I wasn’t sure about Dad. I knew I’d have to get the forms filled in and ready to discuss by Wednesday so I could go through them with him when I visited.

Having taken this all in, it occurred to me that I had pissed several days of Nano to the four winds but I had written the middle week of Nano off anyway, because Mum’s birthday is on 18th November and she isn’t really able to organise things like a cake, day out etc for herself so some of that, notably the cake for 15 people, would fall to me. We were all going to have lunch with her at the pub on the Saturday. Likelihood of both attorneys, both deputy attorneys, Mum and Dad in a compos state and enough hangers on about to witness the thing being in the same room in the same place again within another year, low. And, as I said, the middle week of November was already shot writing-wise so I decided I may as well lob the form filling into the mix. Along with the cake.

Finding the forms online was reasonably straightforward and I printed them out and set about filling in the obvious bits. After cock ups galore, I ran out and when I came to print some more I discovered that the latest Windows update had some issue with older printers so I couldn’t print them. So I rang and got them to send me two copies. Thanks Microsoft, I have a computer that won’t save anything to the remote hard drive I bought for it after the last upgrade and which can’t print anything in less than half an hour after this one. Way to go. Yes if I had world enough and time, I am sure I could browse our help fora, as you very reasonably point out, because I’ve nothing better to do with my available time than spend a couple of weeks of it fixing my computer so the drive is useable and its 64bit operating system is, once again, able to talk to a 34 bit printer. I could. But unfortunately, you total and utter bastards, I have a life.

After the helpful intervention from Microsoft I sent the forms to my parents’ email address and on the next Wednesday, I visited Mum and Dad, printed out several copies and set about filling them in. I must state, at this point, that while the forms, themselves, are a nightmare, the government helpline to assist you is staffed by wonderful people who answered my numerous questions about the bleedin’ obvious with politeness and endless patience.

Filled in forms 1 and 2 on the left, instructions and stuffed up pages on the right. Pen, for size reference.

Naturally, since it’s a government form, and you have to have about ten people in the room at once to sign it, two of whom have dementia, plus three children ranging in age from seven to nine who are a bit bored. Distractions are everywhere and opportunities to fuck it up are legion. Add in that the person ‘organising’ it all, the ‘sensible one’ in my family is pathologically unable to fill in any form without fucking it up at least three times and you have a recipe for disaster. I had seven copies of each page. I used every. single. one.

Indeed I had to print an extra one to redo when I discovered that if I so much as scratched out a letter Mum and Dad, the two attorneys and the two deputy attorneys all had to initial them.

Mwahhahahahargh! Another MTM cake wreck.

Meanwhile, a family tragedy overtook two of the carers on the morning, which meant the cake for fifteen which I had made and McMini had helped me ice was somewhat redundant. It also meant that I was going to have to arrange lifts to the legion of appointments with the nurse, hospital, dentist etc that Mum had over the following two weeks while they were on compassionate leave. Obviously, dear Mum did just enough to make it really complicated, organising lifts, then forgetting, or asking me to and forgetting and then organising them so we found two doughty folks had stepped up to help. But we got it sorted. Just! And it could have been so much worse, because the other two carers stepped into the breech and were wonderful while the other ladies were on compassionate leave. We still had a good day on the birthday, Mum called it her ‘best birthday ever’ even if a cake for fifteen was a little more than was required … and I got the forms signed …

… Except I didn’t.

Oh no.

Dick brain here managed to miss the page where the attorneys have to sign and so I had buy two hard backed envelopes so I could send those to my brother to sign – with the second envelope stamped and self addressed inside (he lives further from a post office than I do). I left them to ‘rest’ for a week while he was doing that, on the pretence this would make me more efficient when I checked them but really, just to see if I could jemmy in the last few days of Nano.

This week, there was a panic about Christmas, who would make the cake? Not me!  Yippeee! Who would order the turkey, Mum hadn’t, I did, just in time. Phew.

And then yesterday, back to the forms. One round of final checks as I was getting them ready to post and I realised one of the other pages my brother signed had managed to slip through without a witness signature.

Head desk.

Another joy of having a form of dyslexia, you only seem to see these things one at a time, so you check and find a mistake, rectify it, check, find another and so on. I just hope I cease to find mistakes eventually, except, when I cease to find them, it won’t necessarily mean that there are none.

Anyhooo … The lady who had signed as a witness isn’t one I routinely see on a Wednesday. Would I have to arrange a special meet? I rang the government helpline and was told no it could be someone different. So now, on Wednesday, the lovely carer on duty is going to sign as witness.

At the same time, I was working on the other form my brother mentioned, the thing where Dad gets a community charge reduction. Turns out I’d filled that in and sent it to the Doctor to certify at some stage AND COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN! Help me God! How? I found out when he popped round to see us on Wednesday with it and while it was a lovely surprise to discover I’d been so efficient it was a bit of a shock to have completely erased such a land mark event from my memory.

Form for Dad was signed, I’d done one for Mum on the off chance but Mum has no diagnosis for her memory gaps and isn’t really mentally prepared for the news, if we are to get her one, so I can’t get a reduction for her but I can get one for Dad. So yesterday, having discovered I’d bollocksed the Lasting Power of Attorney for Health forms I turned to the Community Charge Disregard for Dad, called a ‘disregard’ because they disregard that person when totting up the bill, except they only disregard 25% of him but I’m not complaining because it’s a sod of a lot better than refusing to disregard him at all, sorry where was I? Oh yeh.

There are two parts to the form, a bit the doctor filled in and another bit which I fill in. Needless to say, I ballsed it up. Manfully I print one. After twenty minutes of printing enough of it has come out for me to discover it’s auto set for landscape.

The form is portrait.

Swearing colourfully, I cancel the print job and after waiting ten minutes for the printer and computer to sort that out with one another, I check the ‘portrait’ box and set it to print again. I leave it and sort the washing into darks and lights, change the sheets on the beds and come back to find it’s printed a quarter of a page. I go and make a spag bol for half an hour and discover it’s now half done. Then it occurs to me I have no address to send it to so I ring the council to ask, they ask me for my account reference, I say I don’t know it and ask for the address which the lady thinks is on the form but she’s kind enough to give it to me anyway. As I write it down, I hear the sound of the printer spitting out the completed sheet. I look at the form. It is set out as a table with shaded headers for each bit. At the top, above the table is a tiny bit of type which I only notice now that the woman has asked me for it. ‘Account Ref’ it says.

Fucking shit.

Do I have the account reference number? Do I bollocks?

But wait! I can look at the bank statement, it will be on there won’t it? I spend five minutes getting into the account with the special secret code that you get by putting a different password into to your phone and have to type in before it expires and it’s numbers and you have discalculia so you have to do it twice and it forgets all the other answers you’ve typed on the page because you got the one wrong so you have to type them all back in and then the new passcode has expired so you have to go back to your phone and do the other password again and so on.

I get in. Is the ref number there?

No.

Arse.

Second job for Wednesday, find the knobwanking reference number.

Here’s hoping that when I check these bastard forms next time, they will all be in order.

At the end of it all, Mum, my brother and my sister in-law sat me down and told me I must pay myself for the stuff I do for Mum and Dad. So now I’m earning one day’s ‘consultancy’ a week from them, which is what I’d be doing if I was efficient.

On top of that upside, what of Nano? Well, I did 35,000 words in less than half of November. OK so that isn’t a ‘win’ but in the number of days in which I was actually doing writing, that is a gargantuan result. And, it shows that:

  1. The Joe Nassis method of planning a bit, even if you don’t normally plan, on line seminar I went to and took copious notes about does actually work for me.
  2. That if I can make time to write, any time at all, and structure it properly, I’m fucking productive!
  3. There will be a novel out next year.

Woot.

Finally, a note on powers of attorney or planning generally. My parents sorted out enduring power of attorney forms in 2004 so that if anything happened we could take care of their finances smoothly. At that time health was usually implied, certainly in the way the homes and hospitals my grandparents ended up in consulted my parents over their wishes in regard to treatment. As I said last week, I remember talking to my Mum after the home where my Grandmother was had asked her whether they should aim to cure my grandmother of pneumonia or make her comfortable. These days she would need to be officially and legally entitled to make that decision for my Grandmother and likewise, I need to be, to make decisions like that for her and Dad. Best laid plans of mice and Mum and Dad etc. You can plan but even when you do, you have to accept that laws change, the landscape alters and things move on.

Also, if you’re doing these forms for finances it is worth consulting the bank. Despite having power of attorney over my Dad’s affairs, I am not allowed a bank card for him, so it’s worse than useless when it comes to the day to day matter of trying to buy things or get cash out for my parents, etc, etc. Luckily, they have a joint account and it is a key reason why we haven’t activated Mum’s; because she needs cash, and she’s two to three hours away by car, so the ability for her, or her carers, to get to a cashpoint themselves, or pay for things by card in a shop is very important. I am certified by the bank to do telephone and internet banking now, which helps a lot. So I keep an eye on her bank account, pay the wages and liaise with their stock broker when they need more cash. It works very well, and I consult Mum each week about what she’s paying and to whom, but it’s definitely a compromise and I’m not 100% sure if our method is exactly by the book.

After all this, the other day, McMini with his somewhat gappy smile, grinned at me and then, pointing to the large empty space where his new front tooth will grow said, ‘Look Mummy! My gums are bald.’

And so it continues …

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Coming to terms with #dementia

For some time now, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog, or a website, specifically dedicated to my experience of dementia; with my dad, mainly, but also, these days, with my mum since she, too, is getting very forgetful.

However, it seems far more sensible to do it all on here. The subject matter on here is so random anyway that I doubt many of you will take exception to the more detailed post about my dementia-related experiences every now and again. If you look at the menu, there’s now a dementia section and all the posts which mention Dad’s Alzheimer’s are tagged Dementia and should appear there. Obviously, in true M T McGuire form, it would be pointless talking about my situation if I didn’t occasionally share a list of things that have either worked to keep me sane or that I’ve fucked up royally so that you don’t have to. This isn’t exactly that list but below are some of my less than ordered thoughts on the subject.

Here are the golden highlights of coping with dementia, in yourself or in others.

Be not proud! And be absolutely up front with people.

Yes, you read that correctly. All will become clear.

The first sign that something was amiss with my dad was when my parents refused to come and stay. Our spare room was on the top floor and the loo was in the middle. Dad always needed a wee in the night and he began to wake up in a very disorientated state.  Mum didn’t always wake up too and she was afraid he’d fall down our stairs. So for three years, from about 2004, they refused point blank to come and see us. Mum never told me what was wrong, she just made up excuses. She’s bollocks at making up excuses so I assumed I’d upset her but she said I hadn’t. I got very down. I didn’t know what to do.

Luckily, I have a brother so I rang him and asked him what the fuck my parents were up to. He didn’t know either but said he’d ask them. When he broached the topic with Mum she told him at once. So it was he who explained about the stairs, about Dad going weird in the night and Mum’s concerns. The last eighteen months we were in that house Mum and Dad started coming to see us again. We were in a small market town with a perfectly decent hotel and a lot of equally decent guest houses. We put them up in one, within walking distance of our house. The moral of this story then, be honest, because when trouble crops up, there’s usually a work around.

Mum could have saved herself and us heartache if she’d just admitted that Dad had a tendency to get dizzy when he got up in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t have even had to mention the dooh-lally part. Likewise, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d read the signs and worked out that something was wrong earlier or just asked my brother sooner. But hey ho, it all worked out in the end.

Act early.

These things are like the flight path of a landing aeroplane. You sink, level out, sink, level out and so on to the bottom of the chasm. If you can manage to think ahead a bit, to what the next level of deterioration might be, you can save yourself a lot of grief. It’s hard to look at the next stage of the illness when you,are losing your mind or when a loved one is losing theirs. Naturally you don’t want to think about it, but trust me, for the sake of everyone concerned it helps. For a long time, Mum and Dad seemed to be in denial. Mum kept a very close eye on Dad and I watched her sinking. Imagine if you are eighty and you are looking after someone who is, essentially, a giant two year old. As a mum with a two year old of my own, I knew how hard I found it to keep my eye on him all the time. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to cope when you are elderly.

Talk about it.

Mum and Dad are actually very good at this, they have talked to me, extensively, about being mortal, I know what kinds of funerals they want, what kinds of hymns, what kind of goodbye. I suspect they’ve willed money for a piss up wake. They also talked to me about what might happen if they went nuts well in advance of any dementia appearing. In Mum’s case we have talked about how she felt when she was in a similar position to that which I’m in now, looking after my granny. My grandmother had lots of small strokes, micro bleeds at the back of her head and as Mum puts it, ‘she just faded away’. For her last year my granny was lying on a bed in a home. In those days there were no living wills or powers of attorney for healthcare. Even so, when my granny got pneumonia, they asked my Mum what kind of treatment she would want, Mum said to make her comfortable. They did, she got better without the life prolonging drugs and died peacefully a few months later.

In her last year, as well as being bed-bound, my granny couldn’t speak and made no signs of recognising Mum’s presence. Mum used to go and see her and sit there crying quietly for forty minutes. The staff in that home were wonderful, and were wonderful to Mum, too. They assured her that my granny was different, more peaceful, even calmer, after a visit. They took the time to see that Mum was OK too. Mum and I still talk about this, and I really wish I’d been able to have the same kinds of conversations with Dad about his dad, who also ended up in a home. It’s hard to talk about these things, but if you can open up to someone you trust it will help and it will also give your carers a feel for what your wishes will be, and how you will want to be treated, when you are no longer able to tell them.

If you are the carer, it’s worth making sure you have someone to talk to and if the main carer is not you it’s worth finding someone for them. There is a lovely lady who comes to see Mum who is the deacon at her church. I saw the lady talking to Mum one time when she was in hospital and couldn’t speak. I asked Mum, afterwards, if it would help to see this lady often. She said it would. She never rang the deacon herself, so I did and now she comes to visit Mum regularly. I know it helps.

People want to help you. Let them and if you can’t let them down kindly.

There are a lot of people around my mum and dad who love them almost as much as I do. They are sad to see people they love and respect struggling. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that the people who love you may be even more upset about your illness than you are. So if you or a loved one are in similar poop, and people offer to help you, let them. Mum and Dad have a big group of folks who give them lifts, pop in to visit, pick up shopping sometimes or generally help out. I think they had a hard time accepting help from these folks at the start but now they revel in it. They get continuity in that these are people they’ve known for some years, yet they also have variety in that it’s not the same old faces. Likewise for the helpers, there are enough of them to avoid fatigue setting in. Despite his dementia, my father is a very social animal, and this has helped him stay with us for far longer. Likewise, Mum and Dad have a four carer team but they also employ a cleaning lady for a couple of hours a week and a family who work in the garden. These folks all give support that goes well beyond their job descriptions. They do this because when Mum and Dad were fitter and younger they were good to these folks. I’m a great believer in karma now that I’ve seen it in action on my folks. So if people offer help, and it’s useful help, let them. Pride has no place in this.

But at the same time, set parameters for your helpers.

If anyone helping you, or your loved one, gets too clingy or too overbearing, tell them. When you are ill and losing your capacity to process everything but your emotions, you don’t have time to put up with anything that will make it worse. So if someone who wants to help is … well … not helping, you have to tell them. Or if you can’t, you have to find someone who can and ask them to do it for you.

My mum loves her garden. She sees it as a living thing, an entity which must be treated with kindness and sympathy. However, she is very arthritic and once Dad had started to get really forgetful, it was too much for her to do on her own. There was a point where the chap who was coming to do the garden kept cutting down the wrong things, pruning stuff wrong, planting vegetables in the wrong places, forgetting to water them etc and you could see that something inside Mum was curling up and dying along with her plants, but she couldn’t let him go. She couldn’t face the hassle of finding a new gardener while she was trying to look after Dad, or, indeed, the hard task of telling the current one she no longer needed his services. Her heart was so full from the pain of seeing her soul mate, my father, her husband, in such distress.

In the end, after a family holiday, my Mum became very ill with pleurisy. At this point, Dad had reached the point where he was so forgetful that he couldn’t cook or look after her the way he would have done. My brother and sister in-law went to stay and they gave the gardener notice and employed the people who do it now. My mum almost cried with relief and the ‘new’ gardeners are wonderful and love Mum and Dad dearly.

Moral, don’t wait for the crash. Take action first.

Avoid being too proud.

Mum is of the old school where she believes that if Dad is ill she should look after him herself and that nobody should know about his disability for as long as possible. But actually, when you’re in your eighties, you can’t look after someone who weighs about eighteen stones, can’t wash himself and has to be talked through the process of going to the bathroom every two hours hours, every night. You need help.

When Mum finally agreed to let someone come and sit with Dad for an hour, three afternoons a week, so she could get out into the garden, she blossomed. And the lady who came round did the ironing and all sorts of other stuff that Mum was struggling with fitting in around caring for Dad. So it helped in all sorts of other ways she hadn’t anticipated. It also meant there was no longer the danger of Dad coming out into the garden looking for Mum and falling down. The carer would bring him out, with his walker, and sit with him.

Even if your loved one seems gone, keep searching.

Dad is very different to how he was. He’s the same person, but he’s a different incarnation of that person, the raw genetic make up. He has lost his filters, his ability to moderate what he says and he has become very much more self centred. Just as a child learns to think about others, so as he regresses to a more simplified state of self, Dad has lost that skill. It’s not his fault. It’s just the way it is.

He can no longer read, his ability to read a novel was one of the first things to go but he is unable to read even short stuff now. It’s interesting that Mum writes herself notes, but even at the start, if she wrote a note for Dad and put it by the clock saying, ‘went out to garden at ten to three back in for tea at four’ he would not think to read it or look at the clock. This was so early on, when he was just my dad with no short term memory. These days he can be a little boorish, which is incredibly sad because Old Dad would be horrified if he could see himself like that. But a lot of the times, the boorishness is asking for help. ‘I can’t get a word in edgeways,’ means, ‘your sentences are too long for me to follow, can you slow down.’ The answer is to speak in short sentences, starting with a shared memory and then as the conversation gets going, you can bring it forward to the now. Lo and behold! Before you know it, back comes Dad. Reaching Dad is all about trying new things. When the landscape of his mind changes, you just experiment until you get him back again.

It’s OK to grieve for someone before they go.

Although I’d recommend keeping it to short bursts. But sometimes you need to cry. Or just drive up to the top of a hill and shout your anger into the wind – my parents live near the South Downs so that’s quite easy for me. But yes, while my dad is still himself in some ways, I still pine for the refined non-raw version. But I also hear him, I hear him in the way I talk to my son, in the anarchic conversations we share, I hear him as I tell my son to get into bed! And that if he could manage to clean his teeth sometime before I die of old age it would be wonderful. I hear my dad speaking through me as I comfort my son after a bad dream. I remember who Dad can be, over and above the raw genetic version I have now, and it’s extremely important to me that I do, that I keep sight of the man who is in there still, but who the present Dad can’t be. And I cry. But that’s OK. Sometimes you need to cry. Ration yourself, though. Indulge your grief too much and it’ll take you under but bottling it up is also unhelpful.

Sometimes your loved one’s disease will speak more loudly than they do.

My dad says some seriously inappropriate things but it’s just his illness talking. It’s hard to accept that sometimes, especially when the person says something that upsets you, but you have to let it go. If you can, it will allow the relationship between you on good days to be much more similar to the old one before the dementia came.

Make the most of the good days.

Need I say more? Enjoy them. Do stuff. Go out on a whim. My parents are the most social dementia sufferers I’ve ever met. They still go out, visit friends, have lunch with people … It says a lot for their friends, too, that they are so accepting.

Pace yourself.

Being a carer is hard. It can fill up your life, suck up your emotional energy, sap your physical energy, your strength of spirit and your creative mojo. Alzheimer’s is a long, slow death of a thousand tiny cuts. To put it in perspective, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed four years after Dad began to deteriorate. Dad’s still around. It’s been about fourteen years, the last nine or ten that we’ve really known something was wrong, but … fourteen for Mum, definitely. Not a barrel of laughs.

The truth is, no matter how much you may love the person in your life who is ill, you cannot give your all for that amount of time. You have to ration how much you give. You have to look after yourself, leave time for yourself, or you will go under and then you’ll be no use to anyone. And if you aren’t the main carer and they are neglecting their own sanity and health, you have to make them understand this as well. As it’s often said, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t run twenty four miles at the same speed as Usain Bolt.

Do what’s right for them: it usually works out.

There was a point when I would worry that Mum and Dad were so far away. It was difficult to get them into a home because Mum was far too well to go into a home and she refused to send Dad into one alone. My brother and I discussed moving them nearer one of us but if we did that, which one of us would it be? We live on different sides of the country. So they stayed put in their own home and I worried that if something happened, and I couldn’t drop everything and be with them, I would have to let them fall. Indeed, eventually, I did.

Mum had a stroke and went into hospital in March 2016. At least by this time we had the afternoon carer and an agency helping Mum and Dad get up in the mornings. I had to ring the lovely lady who would look after my dad in the afternoons and ask her to sleep with my dad so I could drive down to Sussex and be with my Mum. I remember sitting with Mum in hospital at three am. They asked her where she was, she said she was at home, they said she was confused, I told them no, she was having trouble speaking and that what she meant was, she was with me. They finally got her onto a ward at five and at six they told me I should go because the car park was free until six am. I slept two hours that night. Mum came home at three in the afternoon. I had to try and look after both of them. It was horrific. I slept two nights with Dad while Mum slept in another room. Then my boy needed to go to school and my husband to work. I had to go home. I hired a care agency for the following week and my brother came down for the next three nights.

There was a week of special hell while we got a care team sorted. Mum refused to accept she needed live in care, but she kept falling asleep with things on the stove and burning saucepans, and she was getting very forgetful. My brother and I wanted to move them near one of us but they both refused. Now that we have their lovely care team in place I realise they are so much better off where they are, where they have friends and where they have lived for over 40 years.  Once they had twenty four hour care, keeping them in their own home was a no-brainer. Thanks to their fantastic care team, they now enjoy a social life far and above anything I could deliver if they came to live here. They are in the right place for them even if there were points when my brother and I felt like it was the wrong place for us.

Make time for yourself.

When you have children, people say you must keep something that you do just for you; continue your career, a part-time job, a hobby, whatever; something that validates your humanity as something other than your little one’s mum. Something that is not about motherhood. Something that is about YOU. It is very hard to squeeze that in when you are trying to care for elderly parents and a small person at the same time.

That is why, even though I have to fight for the time to write and struggle to find ways of putting my head anywhere close to a place where it’s possible, I can’t give up on it. Because I have to hang onto something that makes me who I am; something that defines me as someone other than Mum and Dad’s daughter, or McMini’s Mum, but ME; Mary.

You cannot self actualise though the job you do, but likewise, you are more than the visits, the form filling, the planning, the admin. Give yourself you time. Allow yourself to be human. You are a person in your own right, you are important as well. Allow time to be you.

Conclusion

Well … that was a bit of a monster, wasn’t it? But in a short snappy sentence, I guess the nub of it is this: when a loved one is long-term ill then, if you want to look after them, you have to look after you.

Chilling is important.

 

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How not to do things number 53: Parenting #badparent

It’s my mum’s birthday and today, so I’m not really here. To that end, here is a pre-prepared blog post; another gem from the school of things I’ve fucked up so you don’t have. Enjoy.

McMini has a two day gap in his school meals schedule where he dislikes the lunches offered and I have to send him in with a packed lunch. This is a bit of a pain but at the same time, he is a creature of few needs and so we have a boilerplate packed lunch which he his happy to eat repeatedly. This includes sandwiches made with a particular type of reconstituted chicken slice that he loves. A kind of chicken spam. Oh well. Each to their own.

So there we I am preparing his lunch for these two days in advance – oooh get me all organised. I lay out the bread and then I get the chicken slices from the fridge. At the sound of the fridge door opening, Harrison, the cat, miraculously appears and brrps a couple of times hoping I am going to be opening the cheese drawer. I tell him no. The chicken spam also elicits some interest from him and I tell him it is not for him. He is remarkably acquiescent – indeed, if I’d thought about it I’d have clocked that he was suspiciously acquiescent – disappearing off in the direction of the utility room.

As I lay out the chicken slices on the bread, McMini appears wanting batteries for the TV remote or some such and I foolishly turn away from the breadboard, with the sandwiches and chicken slices, to open the drawer where the batteries live. At which point McMini gasps and points.

I turn to see what he is pointing at and there is Harrison, on the counter top, fur fluffed with excitement, just starting to lick the nearest slice of chicken-luncheon-meat-spam-stuff. The shops are closed, this is all McMini will eat and there’s only one more slice in the fridge so it’s imperative I stop Harrison before he slubbers on the other slice.

‘Fuck off Harrison! You fucking bastard!’ I shout as I head aggressively towards the counter top to push him off.

He leaps off and piles out through the cat flap at speed. Good. Except. Shit. I’ve just sworn in front of my impressionable child. Jeez how will he be grow up to be anything less than a total potty mouth when he has me as a Mum.

McMini gasps, wide-eyed with shock and yet, wearing a huge smile – because there’s no better thing, for a kid, than seeing the adults fuck up. He says,

‘Mummy! You just sweared.’

Bloody bollocks! Didn’t I just? I think, as he stands there laughing at me. Hmm … what to say now? Oh I know.

‘Yes. I’m afraid I did. But, OK, listen, here’s the thing kiddo. Mummy is a fishwife but it doesn’t mean you should be. You never, EVER, heard that,’ I tell him as he begins to really guffaw. ‘Strike it all from your mental record. Those were terrible words and you should never use them.’ I add as I throw away the dodgy cat-spittle-laden chicken slice and replace it with a new one.

But McMini does not forget things like this. Especially as we both find it hilariously funny that I am such a ‘Bad Mother’ as James Brown put it, although I have an inkling he might not have been using that phrase in quite the same sense as McMini and I. These are the secrets we can’t tell McOther because he would be shocked, but McMini has has been taking the piss out of me about it all week. I suspect the main reason for this is that he gets to shout, ‘Fuck off Harrison! You fucking bastard!’ at the top of his lungs, and few things are more likely to get a laugh from McMini than doing stuff that is a bit cheeky, cheeky, especially if it’s likely to prick the bubble of the pompous and it’s stuff he’s not really meant to do. Pretty much the reason I swear.

A chip off the old block then.

Thanks son.

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When it feels right but is … wrong. #writing #indiebooks

This week: you have another opportunity to benefit from the vast store of wisdom I have earned by royally fucking things up so that you don’t have to.  

It started like this.

Wednesday; visit the parents day, and this week I arrived in extremely dire need of a wee. It is fairly usual that the pint of water and two cups of coffee I need to kick start my day turn into about five pints by the time I’ve driven fifty miles or thereabouts and I drive the next ninety in some agitation. This Wednesday was no exception.

At Mum and Dad’s the downstairs loo is just off the lobby before you go into the house proper and I usually use it before I announce my presence, otherwise the ten minutes of hellos can be a bit excruciating for my poor bladder. Into the loo I rushed, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as what felt like about a gallon of wee went into the pan. Except that each of the lavs at Mum and Dad’s has a riser for people with dodgy hips, and if you sit on the riser in the downstairs loo wrong, the wee runs down the inside of it and despite being positioned over the bowl, the gravitational wonders of surface tension bend the wee round and under the edge of the riser and it then falls over the side of the pan onto the floor. Well, it came from a skip, still in its wrapping, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But yes, you guessed it. A significant portion of my wee deluge had missed the pan entirely and puddled on the floor.

Joy.

The original dribbly-wee loo riser of doom (centre) among other skip scored offerings.

There I was. I’d done the right thing, sat on loo, weed into hole but somehow, despite following the instructions it had all gone somewhat awry. I spent the next five minutes wiping it up with loo roll and anti bacterial floor spray. It’s not just me, the foibles of this particular loo riser are a known problem and I soon had it all ship shape again with no harm done. The point was, sometimes, even when you do things the right way it all goes horribly wrong.

So how does this tale of substandard urinary aim have any connection with writing?

Well, it’s like this.

There’s a quote that appears on something I use – my Kobo Writing Life dashboard, I think – that goes like this:

‘If you want to read a book that has not been written yet, you must write it.’

Way back in 2008 when I finally finished my first decent novel that is, exactly what I had done. But to be honest, while this is great advice, it only works if you are in touch with the popular Zeitgeist on some level. I sell my books on the internet which, to all intents and purposes, is American. It is devilishly hard to reach non Americans but back then it was even harder (except on Amazon at that point).

Therefore, I shot myself in the foot instantly by writing a very British book set, mostly, in a fantasy world but when it came here, it came to London. Yes Dr Who is like that but it was put on by the BBC and when they first did it, they had a captive audience comprising all of Britain. I wrote British because I was bored of books and films where the main protagonists are American and the setting America. I wanted to see some shizz go down in my own country. What I failed to grasp was that there is a reason the vast majority of books are about Americans in America. It’s to connect with Americans; the biggest and most easily reachable group of readers in the market place.

Yes, I’d done kind of the right thing but … wrong.

The problem wasn’t even that I was writing a book that could well hold more appeal to British or Australasian readers. It was that I hadn’t researched my market – I thought I had but, no. That’s why I didn’t understand how hard to find they would be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would be unable to reach British readers without taking special measures. OK so that was 2008 but even now, in 2017, you have to work at finding international readers and even harder at finding readers who buy from sites other than Amazon.

Likewise, I’d read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy: the Narnia Books, The Five Children and It, The Incredible Mr Blenkinsop (I think that was its name) the Borrowers, the Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings. I’d seen films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, I’d read Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. In most of those books, the writer has invented a completely new world, or a new creature, or a new something. The point is, while they may have broad themes that are similar, good versus evil baddie, etc, each one takes place in its own fantasy world or hidden world within this one, often there are specific and new creatures created for purpose of the story. The notable exception is Terry Pratchett, who took the tropes other people used and poked gentle fun at them.

In the same way that I thought, at my parents, that rushing into the bog, sitting down on the ice cold, thigh freezing riser and letting it all out was enough, and discovered that oh it so wasn’t, I genuinely thought putting my book on sale and supporting my efforts with advertising on the big promo sites was all it would take to find readers. It wasn’t. I wrote weird books, that are funny and I had covers made expressly to say, ‘this book is like nothing you have ever read’ because when people saw my books, I wanted them to think, ‘Pratchett’. When I got reviews that said that, I quoted them. I wrote my book the old way. The E Nesbitt way. And I sold that as an asset … the wrong way.

When people talk about wanting ‘different’ I suspect that what they really mean is that they want the same old ware wolves and sparkly vampires but with … say … slightly different lighting.

That is where Sir Terry cleaned up. He kept to the standard tropes, and spun them differently. If you want to succeed financially, I think, possibly, the trick is to write something bang on genre that has a different angle; a standard, boilerplate, trope made interesting enough to you for you to be able to stand writing in it.

When it comes to making choices, I guess it’s wise to think through the ramifications, but with writing it’s hard to anticipate what they might be sometimes. If you like writing wacky but want to produce a well edited book with a professional cover, it’s worth looking at how much cash you have to throw at it and how long for. When I started this game, the estimate was that once you’d produced six books you’d reach tipping point; momentum would be easier to maintain and sales would rise.

‘Great!’  I thought, ‘I have budget for six novels.’

Now that I’m writing my sixth book, that magic tipping point number is more like twelve! Things change and move. How long can you sustain your business without making a profit? OK now double it. Hell, quadruple it to be safe.

Likewise, when you plan what you’re going to do to reach readers, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping as much of it under your control as you can. This is why so many writers ask readers to sign up to their mailing lists. I had an amazing three months back in 2014 when I optimised my book listings for UK readers and started getting a ton of downloads on Amazon and, even better, a really good read through rate – seriously it was massive, about 20% of the folks downloading the first book bought the others But then Amazon changed the algo – which they do around April or May each year, it seems. Overnight the downloads of the free book ceased. And that was that.

These days, however many author lists readers are signing up to, I still believe that if you can make your emails personal, fun and interesting enough they will stay with you. Just don’t make them too fun or your readers will sign up for the emails rather than your books or if they do, be prepared to monetise your blog posts, newsletter etc – either as non fiction books or paid content. The great thing about mailing lists is that if someone doesn’t get on with your books they can unsubscribe so you should end up with a list of folks who might, eventually, read your books! If you’re really lucky, some will part with cash for them.

Once you have some readers, it’s also worth listening to them. I always sold my books as fantasy and when asked to cite comparable writers I’d suggest Holt, Prachett, Rankin … When people started reviewing them, the bulk of them cited Douglas Adams. I now publish them in sci-fi. They don’t sell as well there as they did in the days when I could put them in fantasy and they’d be actually visible. But now that fantasy is kind of, ware wolves and shifters with a small corner for epic, my books definitely do better in sci-fi! Sci-fi seems a bit less rigid in the genre factors required, too, hence the next series, Space Dustmen, is going to be sci-fi with the odd planetary visit.

To sum up, what I am trying to say, I guess, is that now, more than ever, you need to think long and hard before you even start to write that book and you need to keep pretty nimble afterwards. So, if you’re thinking having a pop at writing or are working on your first book, maybe you should ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are you are writing for?
  2. Where you you find them?
  3. Can you find them easily and inexpensively?
  4. How often do the authors they read release new books?
  5. Can you keep up with book production rates for your genre? or to put it another way …
  6. How much time do you have? Even if you give up your job.
  7. What kind of writing career will fit with your life?
  8. How and where will you sell your books – it’s no good being wide if everyone in your genre whose books you like and who might like yours too and do mailing swaps or promos with you is in KU.
  9. How long before you need your books to start funding themselves to keep going?
  10. Are there other ways you can monetise your writing to support book production until such stage as your book business is self financing.
  11. How big is your social media following? Are you up to a kickstarter to fund book production?

The way I see it there are two broad choices about what you decide to write.

The first choice is to conform. You, write to market, so if it’s fantasy, you write about ware wolves or witches and yes you light them differently or whatever it takes and you write about six books (minimum) a year. And you thank your lucky stars you’re not in Romance where you have to write one a month!

Alternatively if you really can’t face the prospect of writing about creatures someone else has already invented or making your hero American, or 101 other must haves for the best selling book, accept that you are unlikely to earn diddly squat for a long, long time and just go for it writing the kind of stuff you love, that fulfils you as a reader and writer, stuff you want to read that hasn’t been written yet. But if you choose this route, you have to be extremely pragmatic about your chances of earning anything for many years and extremely lateral and original about what you do to earn from your books in other ways.

It’s quite good if you can avoid combining motherhood to a small child and trying to look after sick, elderly parents, at the same time as trying to have any sort of career, too.

This is where I am right now. But hey, my sixth book will be out next year and who knows, 2027 I may even have written twelve and if I market the hell out of them, well who knows, they might pay for the thirteenth book.

Mwahahahargh! I can dream.

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Excerpt from one of the W.I.P.s #amwriting #comedybooks

This week, another joyous example of the logic of children. The children in question being me and my brother. This is also another story that will be making it into my family stories book: Setting Tripwires for Granny (and other tall family tales). And yes, as per, neither my brother nor I is reflected in the best of lights. Anyway, enjoy.

No parking …

When he hit the age of eight, my parents made the difficult decision to send my brother to a nearby boarding school. According to Mum, he was beginning to strongly resent the amount of time Dad spent in the house and wasn’t enjoying living in a school. So off he went.  It sounds draconian but by the time the events in this story happened he’d been there some time and was thoroughly enjoying it.

Every Sunday, we picked him up and he came home for the day to have lunch with us. Four weekends each term he was allowed home for the night and these weekends were red letter occasions. At the end of each Sunday, my brother had to be back in school at around six pm. Meanwhile, the boys at Lancing who’d been out for the weekend, or the day, had to come back, too. Lancing operated with Saturday night out every other weekend and the boys (and the girls, there were girls in the sixth form at that point) had to return for evensong at six pm. This meant there was always a difficulty with us leaving when the tide of traffic up the drive was coming the other way.

The building we lived in fronted onto the car park for the next door house, Fields. We had a small fenced off terrace, but otherwise it was Fields House parking and then Fields House Lawn. Obviously, there were usually cars parked everywhere. There was one particularly tidy spot at the end of our terrace but if anyone parked there, the angle was such that you couldn’t get our car out of our garage. Usually Mum remembered to get the car out before the boys came back and then park it in a lay by a little further down the school drive so the family cars of the Fields House boys wouldn’t box it in.

However, on this occasion, our car was still in the garage. When Mum found out it was boxed in, we knew she would be all in a dither. She’d have to venture into the twilight zone that was Fields and find the owner. It was a job of sleuthing that always took ages and on one ghastly occasion the person was in chapel. Mum was not good company when she was all in a dither so as far as we kids were concerned, anyone who was inconsiderate enough to put her there was bad news.

One day, when my brother came home for the weekend it snowed. We were only a couple of miles from the sea so this was something of a rarity although it did tend to hang around slightly longer, on top of our hill, than it did in the valley. After a weekend of high jinx, snowman building and tobogganing it was nearly time for my brother to go back to school. With twenty minutes left, some parents turned up and buttonholed my Mum and Dad in the kitchen. My brother and I were upstairs, looking out of his bedroom window when we noticed that there was a car parked in The Spot; the one that blocked our garage. We knew two things about this car.

First, we knew that Mum had already asked the owners not to park there on other occasions, two, it was occupied. There was a woman sitting in it reading a book. We knew a third thing, too; Mum hadn’t moved our car yet, it was still in the garage.

My brother immediately had horrors about Mum failing to get the car out in good time and him being late back to school. I should point out here that, for him, being late to school involved missing a meal rather than missing evensong which was an altogether more disastrous outcome for a ten year old boy. And also there were plenty of other parking spaces, the car didn’t need to be parked there. As kids, it never occurred to us that Mum had probably seen it too, and seen the woman in there, so known she could just pop out and ask when the time came. No, all we saw was bad person parked in bad car.

We opened the window to get a better view and we looked at the car. It was something big, executive and expensive; a Merc or a Jag.

‘Let’s give it a couple of minutes,’ my brother said. ‘If it doesn’t move, I’ll tell Mum.’

It didn’t move and Mum was still busy with Dad and the parents in the kitchen.

Perhaps we could help Mum by making the car move ourselves?

We would ask but the lady was unlikely to pay any attention to our request because we were children. And anyway where’s the fun in that?

I think it was my idea to go downstairs, out of the door at the other side of the house, onto the upper quad, make a couple of snowballs and bring them back. One of the wonders of living in a school is the weirdness of the accommodation; a handful of rooms, miles of corridor and an astounding variety of exits, should the incumbent housemaster wish to escape from rampaging parents, or the kinds of talkative ones he couldn’t afford to let himself run into when he was late for lessons—housemasters pack a lot into their days so they are usually late for something.

Off we went, sneaking out quietly because we weren’t one hundred percent sure that our parents would approve of our actions, and into the upper quad where we made a couple of snowballs each. Back indoors we trundled, trying not to spill any tell-tale drips of melt water or giggle too loudly as we made our way back up the stairs to my brother’s room where we had opened the window, a fair bit but not too much. Standing well back so that we were indistinguishable to anyone looking up at the windows we lobbed the snowballs out. Our attempts to avoid being seen hampered our aim a bit as it took a fair bit of skill to get the snowball through the window on the right trajectory from a safely anonymous distance back. They landed near the car with a satisfactory splatting noise but not near enough to make an impression on the woman inside. We waited, just to see, but she didn’t react or move the car.

Back down we went through the house, out of the door, down another flight of concrete stairs into the cloisters and through the archway into the quad. We made another couple of snowballs each using the snow on the grass and retraced our steps to my brother’s room. This time one of our efforts skimmed past the wing mirror, sputtering the window with water droplets and the other landed on the roof with a hugely satisfying bonging noise. The woman inside was royally startled from her book and looked about her. We watched from well back as she tried to work out what had happened. Clearly deciding that a lump of snow must have fallen off the roof of our house and hit her vehicle in some freak episode, she settled back into her seat and carried on reading.

She didn’t move the car.

Foiled!

The snowballs weren’t doing enough. Or maybe the rate of fire wasn’t fast enough? Yes, that was it, we decided. We needed more ammo for a sustained attack.

We got the old nappy bucket the lived under the sink in the bathroom and headed down to the quad, filled it with freshly made, if somewhat claggy, snowballs and returned to my brother’s room. Standing well back from the half open window we subjected the car to what I guess you might call a fusillade of snowball fire, culminating in a particularly slushy one, thrown by my brother, which landed with a massive splat right across the windscreen. The woman looked up at the anonymous windows of our house and scratched her head. She seemed thoughtful for a moment but then she did, finally, move the car.

She never parked there again.

PS, if you like the picture you can buy it as a greetings card from here: https://www.zazzle.co.uk/frosty_the_abominable_snowman_card-137112259617806813

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