Authors: Gil McNeil
for Dad, Joe and Max, Mum, Julia and Ruth
Monday morning. All my good intentions of making organic porridge and enjoying a serene breakfast go right out the window when I wake up and discover it’s ten twenty. I leap out of bed screaming, and bang my foot on the wardrobe. Limp into the kitchen to find it’s four am. Charlie must have been playing with my alarm clock. Again. I stagger back to bed, and reset the clock to avoid having a heart attack next time I look at it.
When I wake up again it’s seven fifteen, but it still feels like I need eight hours more sleep and my foot is throbbing. A very ugly half-hour follows where Charlie darkly mutters from underneath his duvet that his human rights are being violated and he must be allowed to sleep. I finally get him downstairs, still in his pyjamas, and offer half an hour of cartoons if he eats his breakfast. He agrees, settles down on the sofa and then promptly refuses to eat.
‘Darling, stop being silly, you know you have to eat breakfast, and cereal is good for you. It’s a school day and you need a proper breakfast.’
‘A proper breakfast has bacon in it, or sausage. Why do we never have sausages for breakfast? James has sausages.’
‘I’m sure some mornings James just has cereal.’
‘No he doesn’t. He always has sausages. He has them in his lunchbox too. Why can’t I have sausages in my lunch-box? I hate turkey sandwiches. I think it’s cruel to turkeys.’
‘Well, sausages aren’t exactly kind to animals, you know.’
‘Yes they are. They make them out of old animals who have come to the end of their natural lifes, but turkeys are young and could have babies and everything. But they get chopped up before they get a chance.’
‘Look, just get on with it, or I’m going to get really cross.’
‘Being horrible isn’t nice you know, Mummy.’
‘No, and neither is being very annoying in the mornings. Now hurry up, or we’ll be late. You need to eat your cereal. Now.’
‘I don’t need to eat it, I don’t want to eat it, it looks like sick.’
Thankfully a diversion is caused by the new postman, Dave, creeping up the drive looking tentative because last week Charlie ran out to greet him wearing only a pair of pants and a Superman cloak. Dave tried to join in the fun, and asked him if he could fly. Whereupon Charlie shot up the tree in the front garden and began his countdown to blast-off, leaving poor Dave to hurl his post on the ground and run around the bottom of the tree with his arms outstretched, looking desperate. It took me ten minutes to get Charlie out of the tree, by which time he was half frozen. I don’t know why the postmen round here insist on operating on a first-name basis, but they do. All part of friendly village life, I suppose. Charlie leaps up and down at the window like a manic clockwork toy until Dave is safely back in his van and reversing at speed. He then eats his cereal having forgotten our earlier battle, and only manages to spill about half a gallon of milk on to the living-room carpet.
We are now on the verge of being really late so I forgo the
pleasure of watching him take fifteen minutes to put on a pair of socks and dress him myself.
‘I can do it myself, you know.’
‘Yes I know, but we’re in a rush, darling, and I like helping you.’
‘Yes, but don’t tuck my vest in so tight; boys don’t have their vests tucked in you know.’
‘Of course they do, or they would get cold tummies.’
‘No, they don’t. James never has his vest tucked in.’
I decide, not for the first time, that I hate James, who is constantly quoted as an expert witness in all domestic disputes. Finally we are heading for the car, with bookbag, lunchbox and swimming kit. While I am trying to lock the back door and not drop his lunchbox, Charlie disappears to see the rabbits, Buzz and Woody, in their hutch in the back garden.
‘Hello, how are you this morning?’ This is greeted with silence, and the sound of lots of scuffling.
‘Mummy, the rabbits are doing sex. If they’re both boys, does that mean they’re gay?’
I can’t cope with this line of conversation so early in the morning.
‘Of course not, they’re just playing.’
Then I panic about sexual stereotypes and add, ‘And anyway, it would be fine if they were gay,’ whilst firmly grasping the hood of his anorak and pulling him up the path.
Charlie looks horrified.
‘No it would not. I want them to have babies; it would be lovely to have baby rabbits. We could start a farm and anyway I don’t want gay rabbits, I want proper ones. Get off my hood, you’re strangling me!’
I launch into my very realistic impression of the mad
Withnail and I,
repeating ‘Get in the car, get in the car’ in a high-pitched nasal scream.
Our milkman, Ted, picks the perfect moment, as ever, to arrive, block the drive with his float and start wittering on about being late again with a sarcastic grin on his face. I manage to overcome a strong desire to punch him in the mouth, as, apart from the legal implications, getting milk delivered when you live in the country is no joke. His round covers about three hundred miles and he sometimes doesn’t arrive until teatime. I shove Charlie into the car, and smile with what I know is a mad fixed grin. Ted sensibly beats a hasty retreat to his float. We then follow him up the lane at three miles an hour, stopping while he delivers to two houses before we get to a part wide enough to pass him. I then accelerate rather more than I meant to, and Charlie is pressed back into his seat by a G force similar to that usually only experienced by fighter pilots. Half thrilled and half terrified, Charlie begins a lecture on road safety.
‘If a hedgehog had been crossing the road it would have stood no chance, hedgehogs can’t run, you know. You should be more careful.’
‘Hedgehogs don’t come out in the daytime, darling. Calm down.’
‘An ill hedgehog might be awake; it might have had a nightmare and be going for a walk, you just don’t know.’
‘I do know, and we didn’t run over a hedgehog. Look, we’re nearly at school now, so everything’s fine.’
It’s crucial that we don’t begin an argument just as we reach the school gates, or getting him out of the car will be a major challenge.
‘I promise I’ll drive nice and slowly on the way home, and if I find any hedgehogs recovering from nightmares I’ll take them home and give them a drink.’
Charlie is not sure, but leans towards being mollified by this until he remembers bloody
and their dire warnings about never giving milk to hedgehogs or they blow up. He begins a long list of instructions on what I should do with various kinds of wildlife which I might find wandering along the lanes of Kent in need of help. He’s just reached pandas and how vital it is to find a fresh supply of bamboo shoots, when he spots that James is just arriving. The wildlife-in-peril lecture is promptly abandoned and they trot off into school together quite happily.
The school building is over two hundred years old, and two of the teachers, including Charlie’s Miss Pike, have been there for so long that they taught some of the parents of the current pupils. It’s not exactly cutting edge but there’s a lovely relaxed atmosphere which counts for a lot when you’re six. I do sometimes worry that Charlie is not receiving the broadest of educations: the school’s idea of being multi-ethnic is asking the children to bring in leeks for St David’s Day. But one of the main reasons I moved out of London was so that Charlie could go to a little village school like I did, instead of the huge local primary that he was destined for. I went on the Parents’ Tour and got lost twice. And the strains of living in London were starting to take their toll. The nightly parking battle was getting too much for me, and I was starting to fantasise about leaving work early so I could park in my road rather than six streets away.
After countless weekends of driving round the villages of Kent seeing a succession of dreary bungalows and chucking sweets at Charlie to try to keep him quiet, we ended up in Marhurst, just outside Whitstable. It’s a small house, one of four, down a tiny lane just off the village green, with an apple tree in the front garden. It only grows miniature crab
apples, but I didn’t know that at the time. The village has a shop and a pub, and is only about half an hour away from Mum and Dad. We’ve got three bedrooms and a huge playroom for Charlie, for well under half what it would have cost in London. We can now go for walks in the woods rather than trudging through parks dodging joggers and mad cyclists. It’s not exactly
Cider with Rosie,
but it’s as close as you can get to it and still be able to drive to London. I stand watching the children file into their classrooms, hopping and skipping about, and realise, not for the first time, that I truly cannot imagine anything worse than being a teacher of Mixed Infants. Just as I’m getting back into the car I spot James’s mother, Kate, who looks as shattered as I am, and we agree to meet later for coffee.
Get home to face a huge pile of ironing, which I ignore, washing-up ditto. I manage to avoid the temptation of collapsing in front of daytime telly by going upstairs to the spare bedroom which I use as my office, and starting on my accounts. I begin fiddling about with spreadsheets, and manage to press some secret command which turns one spreadsheet into four separate ones all in a new jumbled-up order. I cannot get the bloody thing back to normal, so give up in disgust and go downstairs to eat biscuits. Realise I’m now late for coffee, and race off, repeating my earlier stunt by accelerating with great force and nearly flattening the cat from next door.
I arrive at Kate’s cottage to find her in wellington boots in the kitchen bailing out the washing machine which has sloshed gallons of water all over the floor. I help her mop up, and she pours two gin and tonics. I’m secretly rather shocked by this, but completely understand when she points out that the washing machine collapsing is the least of her worries. James is sticking to his sausage-only diet, which
means she has to buy hugely expensive organic sausages to avoid him having an intake of God knows what in cheap commercial ones. Her daughter Phoebe has gone vegetarian and wants to pierce her tongue, but as she’s only eight Kate is refusing. And her ex-husband Phil has stopped paying maintenance because his girlfriend has just had a baby, and she’s used all his credit cards to buy designer baby gear so the bank has frozen his account.
Luckily Kate’s parents are fabulously wealthy and keep chucking huge sums of money at her. They hated Phil. But, as Kate points out, this only means that her mother keeps reminding her of what a major mistake she made. She’s recently taken to holding dinner parties where all her ghastly County friends bring their unmarried sons to introduce to Kate. The last one was so dull she fell asleep during dinner, and her mother was so furious that she woke her up by dripping hot candle wax on her hand whilst pretending to collect up the coffee cups.
‘So, how was lunch with your mother yesterday?’
‘Absolutely bloody, if you must know. God, she’s really getting worse. She spent half an hour banging on at Phoebe about the dangers of being a vegetarian. She told her she’d get rickets and have bandy legs if she didn’t eat beef. But when I told James not to flick carrots at the dogs, she told me to leave him alone and stop being such a terrible bully. And then to cap it all my Aunt Marjorie turned up for tea.’