Shop ’til you drop

“There’s a hole in your bum,” my husband says loudly as we traipse around a National Trust garden in the rain.

I realise this is not the beginning of a biology lesson when he pokes the tip of his umbrella at my jeans.

“You need to go shopping.”

I shudder. I never go shopping. I order things online, wait for the package, try it all on, hate it all, and send it all back. I spend my life taping up plastic bags and filling out returns forms, ticking the “Not what I expected” box.

I’m not surprised my jeans have disintegrated. I have been crawling around pretending to be a horse for weeks, and they are so baggy the knees stick out when I stand up.

“Take the kids in half term,” suggests my husband, as we eat our squashed packed lunch on a damp bench. “It’ll be fun,” he adds gingerly.

“I’m not sure it will be fun,” I say as I watch Milk and Mayhem terrorising some ducks, “but there will be fewer queues, and I will spend less money than going to Legoland.”

I wait for half term and drive the boys into town. It’s a short journey but I still have to chuck rice cakes behind me to stop them complaining of starvation. In the clothes shop Milk and Mayhem discover if they hide in the middle of a rail of coats they can surprise each other (and innocent shoppers) by sticking their heads out and screaming. I persuade them to run around a table of neatly stacked jeans instead, while I grab at different styles and sizes. Everyone is relieved when we head to the fitting room.

The children watch me as I undress. “Mine,” says Mayhem pointing at my chest.

“Not anymore,” I grimace as I pull on a T-shirt. I get the first pair of jeans over my knees but have to do a wiggling motion to get them up my thighs, so I take them off and drop them in the ‘no’ pile.

“Have you finished now?” Milk asks, his finger up his nose.

“No.” I am red faced and sweating as I pick up the next pair.

These jeans do fit, if I tuck in a bit of fat.

Milk rolls his eyes. “This isn’t fun Mummy.”

I agree with him but Mayhem seems to be enjoying himself. He has climbed onto the bench and is shouting “Yellow! Yellow!” at the mirror, while rubbing snot across the glass.

“Nearly done,” I say taking off the jeans and putting them in the ‘yes will fit when I’ve been a horse for a few days’ pile.

I hear a grunt and notice Mayhem is disappearing backwards under the door. I grab his wrists at the last second.

“No Mummy,” he screams. “Walk! Walk!”

“Stay with Mummy,” I plead, lying on the floor to see if there is anyone more responsible than me on the other side.

“Can we go now?,” says Milk pushing the door.

“No!” I yelp, but I am holding Mayhem so tightly I am caught on all fours in my underwear as the door swings open.

“Shut the door!” I screech and push Mayhem’s head down so he won’t be decapitated when I drag him back into the cubicle.

I make it home to find my husband is back from work early.

“So, did you have fun?” he asks swinging the boys over his shoulders.

“Mummy did,” says Milk reaching for his sword.

I slump into the sofa and close my eyes. “Exactly what I expected.”


What’s SUP?

“I think we should buy a paddle board,” my husband announces one day over lunch.

He used to dream about us all snowboarding through the back country or downhill mountain biking in the Alps, but those activities involve an enormous amount of faffing with chains and bindings, and face-planting at speed, which is just about acceptable without kids, but probably illegal with them.

He has chosen stand up paddle boarding (SUP) based on an experience we had in Greece, before we had Milk and Mayhem. We wobbled and laughed and splashed about in the water. Then we lay on the beach to dry off, sipping cold beers and admiring our tan marks.

We are lucky to live near a reservoir, which has a SUP club, and a pile of stones covering a muddy slope, which they call the beach. My husband says we can wear wet suits and “really get into it.”

I need to stop this from becoming a reality. “We can’t fit a paddle board on the car.”

“Car,” says Mayhem. “Car. Car. Car.”

He is learning to talk, so we have to be patient and smile a lot.

“Yes we can,” my husband says reaching for the gravy.

“What’s a paddle board?” Asks Milk.

“No we can’t. They are massive!” I picture a paddle board blowing off the roof and into an electricity pylon.

“It will be fine.” Says my husband. He says everything will be fine all the time, even if he hasn’t the slightest idea if something will be fine or not.

I am flummoxed. “They are bigger than a canoe!”

“Canoe?” says Mayhem. “Canoe, Canoe, Canoe?”

“What’s a paddle board?” Asks Milk.

I keep my eyes on my husband as I explain paddle boarding to our four-year-old. “It’s good for your tummy,” I add.

Milk’s eyes widen. “Like a pirate?”

No, not really I think. Not really at all. I have no idea why he would think paddle boarding has anything to do with pirates, but I say: “Yes darling. Like a pirate.”

“Pirate!” shouts Mayhem throwing potato on the floor.

My husband smiles. “They’re inflatable.”

I stop eating. “What? Paddle boards? No they’re not, they’re hard like windsurf boards.”

“That was ages ago – they’re inflatable.” He is most definitely smirking.

“Pirates wouldn’t do that mummy,” says Milk.

“Mummy” says Mayhem. “Mummy, mummy, mummy.”

I stroke Mayhem’s hair to silence his excessive and pointless use of my name, and turn to my husband.

“You’ve just read something about them being inflatable, and you’re pretending you already knew that, and making me look stupid.”

“I’m not making you look stupid, I’m just telling you paddle boards are inflatable.”

“Pirates wouldn’t do that mummy,” says Milk.

I close my eyes in the hope everyone will disappear, but when I open them Mayhem is pushing a piece of beef into his ear and Milk is waiting for me to tell him that he is right, and that pirates probably wouldn’t do core exercises.

My husband is enjoying his lunch, pretending this conversation is normal.

I say very quietly, “You didn’t add the word ‘now’.”

“What?” he looks confused.

“You should have said paddle boards are inflatable ‘now’, instead of making out I am behind on the paddle boarding news.”

He pushes a carrot around his plate trying to cover it in gravy. “You are insane,” he says.

“Insane. Insane. Insane!” shouts Mayhem.



The Great Escape

We are going away for a night without the kids. This has not happened for more than two years and I am not sure if I can behave normally. We’re off to a wedding and I am torn between partying with my husband and lots of people I don’t know, or drinking three pints of water and sleeping for 14 hours in a large clean bed, without anyone kicking or peeing on me.

I’m not worried about leaving the children, but I do feel a bit sorry for the grandparents. We sneak out of the door as they are being persuaded to crawl on the floor pretending to be horses, while Milk and Mayhem play knights. I shut the door to Milk screaming and waving a wooden sword, and Mayhem shouting “charge!” and running into the wall.

I have packed a 35 litre bag for one night. My husband walks out of the house with his suit over his shoulder and his wash bag under one arm. When we reach the hotel we buy a drink in the bar and stare at other people, trying to guess if they are going to the same wedding.

“Do you think I can get away with wearing my gold trainers instead of heels?” I ask.

My husband looks at me. “I don’t think you should be wearing your gold trainers outside your imagination.”

“I just think I’ll be so much more comfortable, that’s all.”

“Well I’m pretty comfortable sitting in my underpants, but I’m not doing that at a wedding.”

The wedding involves lots of waiting for people to do things. Waiting for the bride to float down the aisle, waiting for the readings about love, friendship and hope to be over, waiting for the rings and the kisses and the cake to be cut. Waiting for the photographer to organise 100 drunk people to all look the same way and smile with their eyes open at exactly the same time. It occurs to me as I wait in a line to shake hands with lots of people I don’t know, that I have waited two years to have fun with my husband, and here we are, still waiting.

“I think we should get this party started,” I say grabbing his arm and steering him through the maze of tables and chairs to our place. Our table is behind a large pillar but if we shuffle our chairs to the side we can see the top table through an extravagant floral display. We must have been the people who said yes, when they thought we would say no. It’s a lot of fun being on the odds and sods table, and I am not drinking water. I’m enjoying eating without someone regurgitating food into my hand or throwing cutlery at me.

I miss the speeches because I’m queuing for the loo, and talking to a girl who uses a plastic funnel so she can stand up and wee outside, instead of crouching in a bush with nettles tickling her bum. She offers me the funnel, hidden in her bag, like a drug dealer showing her wares. I’m not sure what to do, so I tell her I’m going to be sick and run away.

My husband is waiting for me on a haystack with a jug of Pimms and a bottle of Champagne. We do not drink responsibly. We do not drink water. We sleep for three hours on top of the clean white bed.

In the morning we stare at our cooked breakfast. I use the napkin to dab my forehead.

We decide we won’t go away ever again. It would surely be better for everyone if we just pretended to be horses for a bit and then sat in our underpants on the sofa.

Little Helpers

“No one can know about this,” my husband whispers one day as he finds a pair of Milk’s pooey pants stuck to the landing radiator.

“We need a cleaner,” I say retrieving what looks like porridge, but frankly could be anything, from between the sofa cushions.

My husband shakes his head. “No, we don’t, we just need a rota.”

The rota is drawn up and stuck on the fridge. It is extremely detailed and is soon lost under pieces of paper covered in strange elongated sausages with big mouths, which Milk insists is a true representation of our family.

We end up living in a perpetual state of shame and embarrassment and panic cleaning. This involves running around with a pack of baby wipes, while tipping bleach down the toilet just before people arrive. Panic cleaning is directly linked to which rooms guests are going to step into. I need more people to stay the night so that upstairs gets a look in.

We have three hours until our friends arrive, but with Milk and Mayhem on the loose, that equates to about three minutes. Should I have done some cleaning before my children got up, perhaps at 4.30am? Creeping through the dark house with Marigolds and a damp cloth? Or, when the kids were asleep last night, stumbling around after a glass of wine, thinking “Ooh there’s a piece of thread from Milk’s school trousers on the floor”, but discovering it’s a giant house spider folded up for a surprise attack.

I suggest the only way to clean with little kids is to let them help.

“I’ll do upstairs with Milk, and you do downstairs with Mayhem,” my husband says quickly.

I suspect they will soon be lying on Milk’s bed watching Lego Ninjago.

I start with the kitchen floor. Mayhem finds a raisin. “Food” he says popping it in his mouth with a grin. He becomes obsessed with the mop. He watches as I twist out the bubbles, then screams and hides under the table, while I slop the water on the floor. After a bit he creeps out and grabs at the handle.

“My little helper,” I grimace as the mop is flicked about like an octopus having a fit. I try to extract the handle from his super human toddler grip. He is screaming and I am slipping around panting. I am also, ridiculously, trying to clean a little bit too. I do like to live up to the multi-tasking cliche, even if it involves some sort of mild child abuse.

I end up sitting in a pool of floor cleaner while Mayhem sobs into my hair. I’m wondering what will happen when the Hoover comes out, when he stops crying and starts pointing at the floor. I lean forwards, hoping it is a bit of dried banana, but it’s a spider’s leg, bent in half. The knee joint is there (do spiders have knees?) and there are hairs. I am certain the spider is somewhere nearby, watching us, kneeling on its seven knees, waiting until nightfall, when it can creep out and pretend to be a piece of thread.

I point at the leg. “Not food” I say as I get up to fetch the dustpan and brush.

“Food,” Mayhem repeats and when I return the spider leg is gone and Mayhem is playing trains on the sofa. My lovely little helper.

The Golden Thread

“Did it hurt?” I ask because it looks like no one else will.

“Nah,” Juliet says, “not really. I mean nothing you can’t deal with.”

In her late twenties, Juliet has the plumpness and energy of youth. Her squishy pale limbs are cradling her new baby, Baby One. The first of the NCT babies. The rest of us are marooned at the end of our pregnancies, swelling like balloons about to take off the wrong way.

I touch my bump and breathe in, thinking of the Golden Thread the yoga teacher talked about. I’m not sure how long the Golden Thread is, or how it got to be in my throat, but apparently you breathe in a special way and the Golden Thread spins out in front of you, and then your baby floats out with no pain, and starts breastfeeding immediately while you have a snooze.

“We like to call them waves of love rather than contractions,” says the yoga teacher. She has green eyes and a tattoo of a Griffin in the small of her back. The lion’s head is roaring. She also says she can hear her kids breathing two floors up because she has such a strong connection with them. I wondered if she had heard of baby monitors.

I find myself worrying about the Golden Thread. What if I breathe it out and it doesn’t come back? How far is it supposed to go? Sometimes when I concentrate really hard it goes out and gets caught on people and corners and shopping trolleys, and even strangles one man on a particularly low day. It’s the same with counting sheep – it’s never worked for me because they all rush out at once and go off in different directions.

Someone is saying my name so I leave the Golden Thread dangling over a sheep and focus on the scene in front of me. We all look at Baby One. He is asleep. He looks – well he looks like a baby.

Minnie helps me with the tea. We are both one week over due and desperate for some movement. She leans into me conspiratorially.

“Juliet hasn’t sat down since she got here. Have you noticed?”

“Euugh” I say sympathetically. “I must offer her a cushion.”

“It must hurt if you can’t sit down right?” Minnie passes me the milk.

“Yeah it must hurt. Surely… a little bit. But not too much otherwise women wouldn’t do it, and there wouldn’t be any second and third kids would there?”

I wonder again what labour is like. Will it be waves of love or a tsunami of  pain? I’ve been told the last bit is like doing a really big painful poo after a vindaloo, but it was a bloke who said that. No one who has actually given birth has told me anything.

My husband said being kicked in the balls is supposed to be more painful than childbirth and I am in awe of the confidence he has that I will not do a comparison after I have the baby. I guess he knows he is safe because my yoga teacher said if I don’t squeeze my vagina every time I stop at traffic lights I will wee everywhere, all the time after giving birth. So instead of giving him a good old hoof to the balls, I’m more likely to lift my leg and pee on him like a mangy dog.

Minnie nudges me. “Zara has almond milk in her tea. She brought it along especially.”

I glug some of it in. It’s a bit yellow.

“So who will be next?” I say as I hand out the tea.

Everyone says “Ooh.”

Barry White sees the vet

I am worried about the rabbits. One of them has a wart; I felt it when I picked him up. It’s my husband’s rabbit, Barry White.

I break the news. “Ugh yuk. Don’t show me, show the vet,” he says shrinking away.

“Why are you so squeamish? You were OK at the boys’ births.”

“Children aren’t the same as warts, darling.”

The rabbits need their vaccinations anyway, so I don’t mind going to the vet, and, although I would prefer to go with just Barry White, I see the trip as an activity. An expensive and condensed version of a petting zoo. Milk and Mayhem will find the diseased animals in the waiting room interesting, and the owners of the sick pets get to watch my children drink water out of the communal dog bowl.

There are leaflets about fleas everywhere. It makes me itchy. Mayhem spots the fish tank immediately and runs over, pressing his open mouth against the glass. The fish dart. Milk asks me if we can have a puppet.

“You mean a puppy.”

“No, I mean a puppet. Please can we have a puppet, like that one?”

He is pointing at a Beagle puppy, for sale.

“Please mamma?”

I wonder what would happen if I bought him a puppet.

The vet does an examination and gives Barry White an injection to stop him getting myxomatosis – that awful disease wild rabbits spew all over the countryside. I saw a wild one chatting to our rabbits the other day, so am suspicious this is linked to the wart.

She is a stern vet. She wants me to hold Barry White on the table as if he is my baby. But I have Milk and Mayhem trying to climb my legs to see what is happening, so she gets a nurse to clip his claws.

“Anything else I can help with?”

“Yes.” I shift my hips so the boys slip down my legs to the floor with squeals and soft thuds.

I lean in. “I think I found a wart on him. I felt it when I picked him up the other day. It was dry and lumpy.”

The vet raises her eyebrows as if this is interesting. She feels around Barry White’s fur, which smooths out beneath her gentle touch. After a while she stops.

“Is this what you felt?” she says and parts the hair to show me a wart.

“Yes! Yes! That’s it!” I feel immense relief that I have saved Barry White’s life. “I knew there was something there.” I say smiling.

The vet nods. “It’s his nipple.”


Doctor No

I’m at the doctors again. I am always in this waiting room with the leaflets about Alzheimers and posters about caring for the elderly. I see one for Meningitis. It lists all of the warning signs but a lot of the symptoms are the same as a cold or flu, except for the rash – although you don’t have to display a rash to be in the clutches of Meningitus, so altogether it’s very alarming.

I came here at least once a week when Mayhem was little. Milk thought it was the library because we read so many books. But this time I am here for myself and I am alone. Milk and Mayhem are with the grandparents, and I am using my precious child-free time to sit in a room full of sick people. When my name is called I hardly recognise it; no one really says my name anymore.

I’m not seeing my usual doctor. I couldn’t get an appointment with him, because everyone wants to see him. I’m looking at a new doctor. This one has wild grey hair, is tall and slim and has piercing blue eyes and a wonky nose.

I explain to her I had a mole removed and I’m worried it is infected. I peel off my top and she takes a quick look.

“Nope that’s fine. A little bit sore perhaps but that’s normal. Have you taken pain killers?”

“You mean paracetamol? I take them just to get through each day,” I smile.

“You really shouldn’t.”

“No, I was joking.”

She stares at me. “Anything else?”

“Yes. I have swollen fingers.”

“It is hot.”

“No. No, this happened before it got hot, when everyone was moaning about it being cold.”

She looks at my hands, and then her eyes run over my body.

“Right. It could be lack of movement, it could be diet, or it could be both of those.”

She is saying I am a lazy fat cow.

“Do you have a good diet?” She prompts, seemingly unaware that my silence is hostile.

I am honest. “Not really. It’s not terrible but I certainly don’t have my five a day.”

“What I find is that if you don’t buy bad things, or have bad things in the house, then you don’t tend to eat them.” She smiles.

Maybe she got that crook in her nose from someone hitting her in the face.

I shake my head. “I don’t sit at home and eat biscuits if that’s what you mean.”

She nodds. “If you do want to eat biscuits then making your own is a good idea as then you know what goes into them.”

“I don’t sit at home eating biscuits.” I repeat and my voice catches in my throat.

“What you needs is the Mediterranean diet. That’s great I’ll print some notes off.”

She hands me the list of things I should eat to deflate myself.

“If the swelling continues, once this hot weather has passed, I suggest you come back and see me.”

I get up.

“How old is your little one?”

“I have two.”

“Oh so you haven’t got much time for baking then?”

I shrug. The damage is done. She can’t crawl back to humanity now.

“Anything else?”

I want to say lots more, like how I feel sick and dizzy from being so tired, that I cry most nights about what would happen if I lost my family, and that I want to go vegetarian but I can’t stop eating meat. But I am laden down with notes on oily fish and moderate red wine consumption, so I leave and go and sit in the car and cry there instead.

When I next have some free time, I think I’ll go to the dentist.