My husband sighs to himself as we crawl along the M40 behind a caravan perched on the back of a lorry.
It’s as if he is the only one confined to a small stuffy box on an upright seat with “stories for four-year-olds” playing on a loop.
Actually we have all been in this situation for three hours, on the way to Birmingham for half term.
My husband holds the “I’m driving” card, so I become a snack and drink dispenser, head of diplomatic relations and a fountain of knowledge on all things to do with cars, distances and alarmingly, how an armchair can fall off a Land Rover roof at speed without breaking into pieces.
“Can I have an ice-cream?” Midnight asks for the 14th time.
“I don’t have one,” I try to keep my voice light, when really I want to lean forward and scream into the glove box.
Maybe Midnight thinks our Transporter is an ice-cream van. Maybe he likes to ask the impossible of his mother ALL DAY LONG. Maybe he’s just a four-year-old who wants an ice-cream.
“Can two cars have the same number plate?” asks Mayhem, passing me the crusts from his service station sandwich.
“No. That’s why they have a number plate, so they are different.” I say confidently.
“But they are already different colours and different sizes…” Milk points out.
“… and different types of cars…” adds Mayhem. “Like a Lamborghini or a Mini.”
“And trucks aren’t cars,” says Midnight with gusto.
Milk nods. “So if you had a yellow Mini and a red truck with the same number plate, you won’t exactly get them muddled up will you?”
“Or a digger and a butt crack” squeals Midnight.
All of this is true. “Anyone want a Jaffa cake?” I say.
My husband is unable to distribute snacks, but he is able to eat them.
“We’re nearly in Mordor,” he says to the children with his mouth full. “You’ll see orcs and everything up here”.
“And grandma and grandpa,” pipes up Midnight.
Tolkein lived across the park from where I grew up and I feel unusually sensitive about orcs and Mordor. “You haven’t actually read Lord of the Rings have you?”
“Don’t need to read it, I’ve seen the film,” the love of my life replies, holding out his sticky hand for a drink.
We approach my parents’ neighbourhood and Midnight is glued to the window. “Look at that stinky dirty tower!” he shouts with glee as we pass a block of flats.
“We really need to get them out more,” I say. “They think everyone lives in cottages with a white picket fences.”
Midnight shrieks. “Look at that man! He is shouting at that wall. Why is he shouting at a wall mummy?”
“I don’t know, maybe no one is listening to him…” I say.
“I’m being naughty in the kitchen mummy!” Midnight shouts.
He is torturing me. He knows I can’t come. I have been on hold to HMRC for 25 minutes but if I step out of the dining room I will lose reception and get cut off. I can hear ice cubes skidding across the kitchen floor as I wait to see if I have any gaps in my National Insurance contributions.
I find myself wondering if a hole in my pension is worth the cost of a packet of half thawed chicken Kievs.
When my call has finished the kitchen is quiet except for my husband who is washing up. This is not an unusual event but I do consider how he has managed to miss the food raiding activity.
There are little puddles on the floor where the ice cubes have perished, and a trail of peas leading out of the kitchen and upstairs. I open the freezer gingerly and an ice cream tub falls onto my foot.
My husband jumps. “You gave me a fright.”
I hop about a bit and put the ice cream back and shove a bag of peas closed. Nothing else seems to be missing. I open the fridge.
I am met with a trail of devastation. Midnight has taken several bites out of three apples and then balanced them precariously on top of a few regurgitated mushrooms.
The eggs are out of reach but he has managed to eat half a box of grapes leaving the skeleton of their buds quivering in the plastic container. There is humus smeared across one shelf and some cherry tomatoes have been released from their bag and have collected in a huddle in a puddle of milk.
I notice a chunk of cheese with teeth marks.
“He’s been at the cheese too,” I say exasperated.
My husband looks a little sheepish.
“You’ve been at the cheese.”
“No no…” He seems keen to scrub the roasting tin.
“This is why he doesn’t eat his dinner.”
“And why our food bills are so high,” says my husband grumpily.
“I don’t think we can blame a four year old for the Tories…”
“But he must be the only one in the country who is wasting food.”
“He never goes for the tofu.” I observe.
“No one goes for the tofu,” says my husband.
I look at the tofu sitting there neatly in its square packet, all healthy and smug. Your time will come, I think quietly.
Milk appears at the door. “Mayhem is crying about dinosaurs and Midnight is spitting food over my lego police station.” He sounds as if he has given up on ever saying a normal sentence again.
I stomp upstairs picking up detritus on the way.
I find Mayhem sobbing under his covers. “I was reading about dinosaurs and I got a paper cut and it’s the worst day EVER.”
I find it hard to see what is wrong with his thumb but I know I am on thin ice. If I don’t pay enough attention to the invisible injury, Mayhem will say I don’t care about him at all and that I love the other two more than him. He’s the middle one. He carries this baton fiercely.
Midnight catches wind of the situation. “Mayhem’s a baby,” he squeals gleefully.
And that’s when I notice Midnight is eating a red pepper as if it’s an apple, and the little white seeds are spilling into the lego box.
I wonder if anyone has invented a machine to remove pepper seeds from a box of Lego. Surely this isn’t just happening to us? Surely it is happening in millions of houses across the country at exactly this moment. Google suggests otherwise.
That night as I slide into bed my husband shrieks and kicks the covers off as if he is trying to escape.
“There’s something in the bed!”
“I’m a person. Not a something.” I sigh.
He fumbles around and then I hear a rare chuckle as he reveals three ice packs Midnight has stashed under the duvet.
“Can we fit this bucket in?” my husband asks as we squeeze the last child into the car.
‘Only if we remove the wine and beer’, I say. ‘Or one of the kids’.
We set off a little reluctantly with all the kids, heading towards a weekend of camping with friends. It’s the sort of place where you have to say goodbye to your car and transfer your tent and all your belongings in wheelbarrows. We like it because it eradicates anyone who would not want to do that.
Two minutes from the campsite Midnight groans. ‘My tummy feels wonky, mummy.”
I turn around and he vomits across the back of my seat.
We pull over.
“I don’t like camping,” Midnight wails as we strip him and flick sick onto someone’s driveway.
Midnight sits in his pants until we get to the campsite. Our friends arrive moments later and seem remarkably relaxed about the fact there has been vomit.
‘I’m sure it’s just his driving,” says my friend, nodding towards my husband.
“You’re probably right. He’s never sick when I drive.” I reply, pleased with the logic.
We spend the next two hours wheeling all our belongings across a meadow and sit down to eat at 10 pm. We manage to drink a bottle of wine next to the fire and see the international space station – or possibly a very slow aeroplane. Or an alien spaceship.
My husband and I creep into our tent. Midnight is snoring softly next to me and I drift into a wine soaked sleep.
Later, in the darkness, there is a noise. It sounds like water gushing onto the floor. I’m afraid we are being flooded but I realise it is actually something more terrifying.
A child being sick in the dark. In a tent. With no bowl.
My husband finds the torch and we discover Milk throwing up into the hood of his sleeping bag. The rest of the sick is flowing, like a yellow river, at an alarming pace towards our piles of clean clothes.
“Shouldn’t have pitched on a slope.” My husband sighs.
The scene repeats three times and then, before we can close our eyes, Midnight announces it is morning and he and Mayhem wriggle out of their sleeping bags to find a chocolate croissant.
Milk stays curled up inside while we eat bacon sandwiches and drink coffee.
“Did you sleep well?” I ask my friends as they stretch on the damp grass.
“I have never been so cold in my life, where is the nearest hotel?” my friend grumbles shivering in his shorts and shirt.
‘He didn’t bring anything else to wear.” His wife adds with a smile.
“No coat? Or hat? Or thermals?” I say.
“It was sunny!”
We all stare at him not knowing what to say. He seems to thaw out as he huddles over his coffee so we tell him about Milk being sick.
“Maybe we can just keep him in the tent?” I suggest.
“For the whole weekend?” My friend’s wife raises an eyebrow.
“Yes. Away from everyone. Like they do in E.T.”
“He’s not an alien.” My husband shakes his head at me and sighs.
“I meant the kid. Not E.T”
“Oh well we’re not doing that. I will have to take him home.”
I see a golden opportunity. “If he goes, can you take that one too?” I point at Midnight.
Midnight has been particularly gnarly. He has already kicked Milk in the head in an effort to rouse him from his vomiting stupor, and after telling him off, I found him swinging a mallet around his head behind the tent.
“Please don’t let go of that Midnight. It’s a really important thing.”
Milk calls to me, he feels sick again. I rush back to the tent and when I return I find Midnight chuckling to himself.
“Did you let go of the mallet?”
“Yes I did mummy! It’s in there. You won’t find it!” and he laughs like a mad scientist as I poke about in the nettles.
Milk emerges from the tent like a white jelly baby and throws up in a thicket.
My husband is in agreement. Number one and number three have to go. He promises to return to help me pack up the next day.
The rest of us are a little relieved that the sickly ones have disappeared, and we go for a walk across the fields and feast at a cafe in the sunshine. The children play with chickens and gallop through the woods and are exhausted. By the time we get back to camp Mayhem is wilting.
‘Maybe he’s had too much sun. He’s been up since 5am, they’ve been playing all day…” My friend’s wife kindly suggests.
Mayhem and I spend the next 12 hours taking it in turns to throw up over as much of the bedding as we can. At one point I have to fight to get out of my sleeping bag, while retching, cheeks bulging with puke, I reach the tent door, unzip it and projectile vomit across the grass in front of me. As I hang from the zip, I notice there seems to be a party going on with a thumping base. This is unusual as it’s a no music campsite. Later I find myself throwing up to several 90s songs, which I’m sure I have thrown up to before.
Half way through the night I make it out of the tent, forget about my own sick just outside the door, slip on it and puke over the cool box. I lie there as Come on Eileen screeches through the night air. It’s a happy song I think as I clutch the plastic lid. I just need I will Survive to come on but it doesn’t and I fall asleep next to Mayhem with the last sick free blanket draped over us.
The next morning I tread wearily over to my friend’s camping spot and I know from their faces their kids have it too. I need to run away but I can’t run so I call my husband.
“Save me from this hell. We are all infected, we are killing each other.”
“I think you’re a bit tired.” He says, sounding bright and cheery after a night at home.
But he does come to the rescue, and he does take down the sick tent and load the entire car and wheelbarrow everything across the meadow twenty times, while Mayhem and I groan on the grass.
We say goodbye to our friends who will probably never go camping again or at least never tell us they are going camping again.
We climb gingerly into the car. It doesn’t start. The battery is flat. Mayhem says he feels sick.
“We should have packed that bucket” I say, and close my eyes.