Behind the flowers

Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in the UK and I didn’t see my mum (aka Gran) or even send her a card or a bunch of flowers. She’s in a care home, with dementia, and doesn’t always (ever?) know who I am, so I suppose that’s an easy reason why. But the truth is, I don’t go and see her every day, or even always every week, and though I often feel bad about this, it doesn’t make me any more attentive. There are cool miles beneath the tip of this iceberg.

I wasn’t ever a particularly attentive daughter, even in adulthood. She moved to live near us in 2002, at our suggestion. Retired, recently re-kneed, we with her three young grandchildren, it made sense. For the previous few years, we’d spent a lot of time traipsing up and down the M42, squashing weekend visits into the hectic juggle of time that is the lot of working parents of toddlers. She loved the kids and they loved her, but our times together were over-long, intense, claustrophobic, squashed, and – from my perspective – a bit dutiful and increasingly burdensome. I don’t know if she felt the same way because we never were able to talk about such intimate truths. When she moved round the corner, she became a more regular but less stifling part of our lives. She could see the kids without us, we could have her round for Sunday dinner, or pop in for half an hour. We were here for Christmasses, birthday meals out, company in the evenings, odd jobs, help with the video and computer.  It wasn’t all one way. She not only helped with the childcare, she contributed to our children’s growing up experiences with fantastical, hand sewn dressing up outfits (the Hungry Caterpillar, an amazingly fluffy layered purple tulle tutu, a mermaid’s – or, more accurately, merboy’s – slinky, scaly blue life-size tail, and more); days out, to the Tramway Museum and Heage Windmill (both local attractions I’ve still not visited myself); swimming towels and cubs’ and brownies’ uniforms badged (I am utterly useless at sewing, you might gather, just threading a needle makes me unbelievably cross); regimentally, boiled eggs and soldiers for tea; the sweety tin, gold and heart-shaped, rattling its delightful and thrilling call to treat time; stories written and told and acted out. But I still got snappy when she annoyed me (and vice versa), and I always kept my emotional distance and she hers. I worked hard to fight against her forging a needy place in my life, as I had done for as long as I can remember. I understand why our relationship was like this – it’s messy and complicated and sad and (maybe) for another blog –  but for now, for this,  it doesn’t matter, suffice to say it’s just the way it was.

And then, over  the last eight years, our mother/daughter roles have gradually reversed. It probably comes to every generation, but for us it’s been speeded up by her illness. Slowly, silently, we (Mr N and I) began parenting her. Organising her finances, managing her home, shooing away sharkish salesmen, taking her to appointments, advising her, sorting out her problems, arranging her social life. It crept on. Helping with her shopping, doing her shopping, doing her washing, cleaning her house, weeding her garden, finding lost things. Then, acknowledging her condition, getting her support, finding carers, selling her car, trying to implement strategies to keep her at home, where she wanted to be. I had a direct line to the local police station as her delusions took hold and she began to regularly call 999, made sure neighbours were in the loop, applied for Power of Attorney, spent too many hours in Derby City hospital getting her discharged after she’d called the ambulance for yet another imagined medical emergency. I didn’t always do it caringly or empathetically. When faced with a story about “youths” breaking in and throwing her shoes into a tree, leaving behind piles of clothes and moving her belongings around, my reaction was twofold; I laughed, and I tried to rationalise with her: “How come, then, that your TV and purse weren’t stolen, and there’s no sign of a break-in!!” I’d rant. It wasn’t helpful or very kind, it made her more confused and angry, but I was only able to adapt slowly. Sloughing off that chilly baggage didn’t come easily for me. It’s just the way it was.

But, I did thaw, eventually, and now I feel something like fondness when I visit her. As I said, I don’t go as often as I feel I should, but my guilt is about wanting to support her carers not about being inattentive to her – I know her emotional, physical, social and medical needs are being met and it doesn’t matter that they’re not being met by me. When I’m there, I’m a bit part. I sometimes take a crossword in and pretend to do it with her – she completed the Daily Torygraph cryptic crossword every day of her life until a few years ago (when she stopped it was one of the sure signs amongst the many less tangible ones of her decline) – and, if she’s in the mood, she’ll give me words which I affect to write down; I show her photos on my phone of the kids and, if we’re lucky, she’ll feign recognition, but more usually she’ll either ignore or not see them because she sends them shooting off the screen as she handles the phone. Last time, she needed the loo, and I stepped back while her carers led her off, discreetly changed her clothes, and brought her back. I chat as much to the other residents as I do to her, nonsense conversations which entertain me as well as them. I took her out for coffee once, with F my middle son, but she’d forgotten how to bend to get in and out of a car, and was frightened, disorientated and out of her comfort zone – she didn’t enjoy it, we didn’t feel better for it, and it didn’t help the staff who had to get her ready and reassure her when she got back. I took tulips in, for everyone’s pleasure, but with the people who look after her in mind, so we put them in a vase in their living room.

Last week, an old friend of hers, L, who now lives in the States, called me and we talked for ages. We’d been neighbours for about five years from when I was six, but L wasn’t just a good friend to Gran, she knew her well, was a confidante when she didn’t have many, and they stayed in regular touch. She told me things about her, nice things, that I didn’t know. We talked openly about tricky stuff that, then, I was too young to understand let alone express, and we marvelled at Gran’s inner strength and determination and, also, her energy for life. We reminisced fondly, admiringly.  This, then, is the best that I can do for her now.

So, flowers from me are for her carers who look after her because I can’t. For Gran, on Mother’s Day and every day hereafter, there’s just the remembering of who she once was. No faking it’s otherwise, it’s simply the way it is.

 

 

 

 

When two became three..

H just turned 21. Yes, Mr N and I have a 21 year child (who’s no longer a child). It snowed the day she was born and Mr N missed it because she was a week early and he was in Freiburg. My friend K drove me to hospital, calm on the outside but a bit wobbly in, like me, until my friend H’s mum turned out to be the midwife on duty and then I didn’t care that he wasn’t there, because she was all I needed when the super scary force that is the primaeval urge to push took over. We named her first teddy bear Shirley in her honour, a present as big as her from Grandma and Grandad, who still shares her bed. At 12 hours old, Mr N made it, wild haired, blurry eyed and in awe of a tiny scrap with a twisted foot which untwisted itself after another day. “She’s very intelligent”, said Gran.  She was less than 24 hours old when we took her home in just a vest and some booties and wrapped in a towel because we’d forgotten to bring in an outfit. We lay her on the sofa and wondered what to do next. Neither of us had ever even held a baby before. At 48 hours old, she slept all day long. We didn’t know what to expect from a newborn, but this wasn’t it so we called out the midwife mid-afternoon in a panic. Glazed in brand new parenthood as we were, I still was able to hear her amused tone behind the soothing words that she was absolutely fine. We’d been on the brink of waking her up at least five times that day, but I doubt it took us many more days to learn to NEVER wake a sleeping baby. At two weeks old, I was due to take her into work to show her off, but had to postpone the trip because I couldn’t manage to get out of the house. She slept, she woke up, I fed her, she cried, she burped, she filled her nappy, I changed it, she fell asleep again, and on it went. I couldn’t work out how to fit in an outing, and as for all the paraphernalia that seemingly had to accompany us, well, it was all too much. What on earth was I fannying around at? By the time R, our third, was born, all preciousness had dissipated – we went out on day two with a spare nappy and a packet of wipes and he spent his baby years just fitting in. When she was ten weeks old, we went camping, just the three of us, to Bakewell, only an hour away in case we had to up sticks and head home in the middle of the night (why would we?!). Gran had knitted her a white woolly sleeping bag with a big hood and she snuggled between us in baby heaven. We (one of us, I forget which) lay her on the rear shelf of the car and then opened the boot so she rolled inwards and onto the back seat, still sleeping, and we couldn’t find her for a while. It was sometimes easy to forget we had her. At three months, we put her in her own bedroom, a tiny creature in a big white cage of a cot. I imagined she was a small furry animal who could see in the dark. When she was four months old, I took her to Canada with Gran (my mum) to see Great-Gran (my gran) who thought she was a boy but was mesmerised all the same. I sobbed the whole flight home, while she slept soundly, because I knew we’d never see her again. When she was five months old, I went back to work full-time and it broke my heart. They wouldn’t have me part-time so it was all or nothing. No-one told me to wean her off breast milk beforehand, so she refused to drink from a bottle and survived on baby rice and bananas and her poo turned abruptly from sweetly smelling piccalilli mush to stinky human shit while my boobs leaked in weepy empathy as I clock-watched the days away and raced home every night.  At eight months we went camping again to Loch Lomond and she gazed in wonder at the flicking fire and moonlit lake and the shadows on our faces. When she was one I left my job and we moved house. I was conflicted, aching to leave her lovely child minder and her little cocooned world of baby relationships that I’d fantasised she’d keep up with all her life, and it was raining and we knew nobody, but I was full of joy to have her to myself. She sucked her finger not a dummy and took it all in her wobbly stride. Her first proper word was ‘shoes’, which she pronounced precisely and over and over while jabbing her finger at every pair she could see. By 14 months she fully understood the power, and we the weariness, of repetition: “cuggle mummy” was her mantra as she trotted right behind me round the house, “again, again” was her chant as Mr N flung her up in the air or splashed her in the pool or swung her round and round. And we can both still quote  from the books we read and reread and rereread together at bedtime (the priceless, tatty books that are safe in a box in the loft). We laughed (what else could we do?) at her marvellous, outrageous rage and watched in astonishment as she flopped in a mini faint as the mighty breath she took in floored her before the roar of fury could let fly. We came to dread the significant silence before the storm. At 17 months we camped again, on a blustery beach on Islay and by a river in Glencoe, where she wore (every day in my memory) a natty red and white striped shorty romper suit (that F also wears, later on in my mind’s slideshow) and made piles of stones everywhere we went. When she was 18 months, she scribbled on the coffee table. “What is that?” I demanded in mock horror. “A cat”, she replied. At 20 months, her brother F was born. I felt somehow that we’d betrayed her – how could we love another baby as much as her (we did, and a third)? how could we ruin our cosy three-ness? – but she loved him from the start and forgot he was ever not there. So then we were four, and then we were five and now she’s just six years younger than I was when I had her.

Number 27

Mr N has gone back to Australia for ten weeks. It might seem a long time, but it’s his last stint away on this project and he’s already excited about all the things we can do when he’s home for good. We’re playing a Whatsapp game, taking turns to build a list and so far we’re up to number 26. Some of these things are quite mundane, like ‘go to see Gran’ (he hasn’t seen her since before he moved to Houston, now over three years ago); some are things he/we used to do, like brewing beer, orienteering, and walking up hills; some are plans we’ve long harboured, like cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats or getting the Eurostar to Paris; you get the idea, I’m sure. Lots involve other people, friends and family. They’re not all local or even UK based, but there’s definitely a home theme.  When you’re away, it does focus your mind on what you can’t have.

I’m sure this applies to most people. I love Britain, and more specifically England, not because I believe it’s the best place in the world but because I understand it, I slot in and it’s mine. When you go somewhere new, you see it with alien eyes, without this rooted context. While living in Houston, I wrote a couple of these blogs on the subject of the weird things about America that Americans don’t see (bloody massive flags everywhere, for one thing). I could’ve written about 15 more blogs on this subject alone. For me, perhaps the weirdest things about the US were: a) the irony of the Communist-feeling aura around the overt patriotism (school kids chanting daily allegiance to the flag, grown adults singing the Star-Spangled Banner with genuinely proud fists on hearts at any opportunity) and the rigidly conventional, collective teen dating rituals around Homecoming balls, football games and horror movies in a country in which being an actual commie is an anathema, and the term ‘socialist’ is an insult; and b) the depth to which religion permeates society: not just that “I’m blessed” is the usual and undeniably earnest reply to the question “how are you?” even from the homeless that I used to serve breakfast and lunch to who so clearly weren’t favoured or fortunate, nor just in the simple fact that I didn’t meet a single American who didn’t believe in god, but also in the sorrowful reaction of those to whom I ever did admit my atheism; there are plenty of religious people in the UK, but they’re never surprised to meet someone who isn’t. I don’t pretend to understand this, but I can see that these are ingrained cultural behaviours and beliefs which provide comfort and grounding and connection to something very deep.

So, there, in Texas, I missed, particularly, the feeling of home which, now here, in England, is succour to the soul, but it’s not easy to pinpoint. The weather’s often shit, but I share the obsession with it and like the sense of ‘what the hell, no-one’s to blame’ that its uncertainty brings, both to what you’re going to do with your day and, in a bigger sense, to one’s outlook on life; we Brits are good at shrugging our shoulders and accepting that it’s raining so we’re going to get wet. That doesn’t sound so great, I know, but when we do get a perfect day (and we do!), we don’t half make the most of it: there’s nowt like camping in Derbyshire (no.10 on our list) by a river when the sun shines till ten at night. It’s not quite the same as taking pleasure from banging your head against the wall just to enjoy not having pain when you stop, but you get the gist.

This is, of course, about making the most of it. And I don’t mean just the weather. I did indeed pine for home at times, but mainly I didn’t and another year or two in the States would’ve been fabulous. Now I often dream of being there, with the friends I made, enjoying the lifestyle, the bigness, the easy charm of the people, and more. Mr N, while undoubtedly missing us, appreciates the idyll that is Perth in full Summer. And I’d jump at the chance to do it again (who wouldn’t?).

But, and it’s a big but, the UK belongs to me and us, and America doesn’t. It’s a part of us that is more than just fond memories and fun and adventure; it’s roots and it’s culture and it’s temperament and it’s nurture, and it’s memories that are not all fond. So here, I’m no fan of Farage and his ilk, but I get why some people are. Not only can I vote, but I comprehend the issues I’m voting on. I might not actually be so sure who I want to vote for, yet, but I know why I’m not so sure. I can engage with the debate, have an opinion that’s valid, agree or disagree, understand more than just the headlines, and maybe even make a tiny little bit of difference.  It’s my place to do so and it’s the only place I can do it. That feeling then, I suppose, is about ownership and belonging, and it sort of doesn’t matter whether I actually prefer it here or not. Maybe it takes more than two years away, or maybe, for me, it would never change, I don’t know.

I guess, though, that’s our number 27 sorted: walk down the road together in May to Green Lane polling station to vote in the General Election.

Here’s to the blinking mundane!

IMG_3223Hello! Happy New Year and all that.  My washing machine is on the blink. Literally, it’s blinking. I suspect that we will have to buy a new one very soon, but so far I’ve seen it as a challenge and one that I’ve met every time – this has been going on since the Summer with increasing difficulty, and takes some patience (not really my forte), absolutely no slamming the load in and pressing the button and running out of the door in any sort of hurry. And particularly not so this morning [20 minutes and counting trying to switch it on, now taking a break]. Luckily I’m already up and over and down the other side of the massive post-holiday washing mountain: H, oldest, has gone back to university weighed down with her whole wardrobe washed; F, in the middle, is also back at university fully laden with his laundered stuff; all the once sweaty ski wear is once again fresh; even those of us currently left at home – me, Mr N and youngest R – have a full set of clean clothes.  We’re just onto the peripherals now, towels, tea towels, stray pants and socks. All, quite honestly, thanks to my superhuman levels of equanimity in the face of the blinking machine.

We’ve just been skiing, hence the particularly onerous pile of laundry. We drove to the French Alps and back, via Nantes and la famille DW for Christmas. It was everything that a family holiday should be – expensive, sociable, stressful, knackering, bad-tempered, squashed, expensive, entertaining, argumentative, funny, unhealthy (a lot of coughing), divisive, inclusive, weepy, laughy, expensive, and a little bit scary. Oh, and did I mention that it was expensive?

Our drive east across France should’ve taken eight hours which is quite long enough. But it took us 15, through a combination of unfortunate factors.

1) We were journeying on an official “black” day on the French road calendar along with every other French, and seemingly British, family, all of us heading the same way;

2) French Easy Jet employees were on strike, thereby forcing even more people onto the roads to the mountains than had been foreseen;

3) The main motorway, the A40, was closed between three junctions, our side, because of an accident, causing standstill traffic both on it and off it on the diversion;

4) There was a heavy snow dump, on the mountain roads, just as we hit the mountain roads;

5) We had ignored many many many people’s advice to practise putting on snow chains in the calm and comfort of our own driveway.  This last element introduced the fear factor to the list of familial vacational emotions.

12 and a half hours in to our journey, and less than 20 miles from our destination, as we crawled up into the Alps, passing lines of cars at the side of the road all chaining-up, we at first considered ourselves superior – a whole, concordant conversation was had about us not being sheep and panicking just because some people were putting on their snow chains when clearly the conditions weren’t that bad and the road was wet and the snow wasn’t sticking. We drove on, higher. Next we were amused at how many of said sheep appeared to be struggling in the dark to read the instructions. We drove on, higher. Then we collectively comforted ourselves by all agreeing that we’d driven, chainless, in much worse back home. And we drove on, higher. Then we went a bit quiet as all eyes flicked between the road and heavy snow outside and the miles to go on the sat nav inside: just seven miles left. And we drove on, higher. Then we skidded. Oh shit. So we pulled over, finally giving in, opened the boot to retrieve the snow chains, and out fell a bag full of wine, beer and calvados, smashing to the ground. I busied myself removing the glass out of the tracks of future travellers while first Mr N, then F, then all of us, flustered and flitted around, trying to put the chains on the two front tyres. Until that very moment, that dark, snowy, -3º, at the side of a mountain road moment, we had not looked at the instructions which, it turned out, were contained, cutely, in three small diagrams on the front of the box with some even smaller captions, in French. The chains, for the first time out of the box, were a tangle of, well, chains. We didn’t even have gloves to hand. Mr N, raging, absolutely forbad me to ask for help. I did anyway, but no-one else in that layby right then knew what the bloody hell they were doing either. There was a black edge of hysteria in the air.  A snow plough forged by. FOLLOW IT came the cry! We threw everything and ourselves back into the car and skidded off up. We clocked another two miles and came to a small town which seemed a safer place to stop. At least if we got stranded we could knock on a few doors (Mr N’s pride permitting, of course). Long story short, we managed (F and me, in the final instance, I would like to point out) to get one chain on and decided that would have to do. It did. We navigated the final five miles safely and in relative composure, beating hearts slowing and food and wine and warmth looming once again as possibilities. We went straight to a restaurant, ordered steak and chips, and sat, all five of us, slack-jawed, shocked and silent, and slugged back the first of many vins chauds.

Anyway, we skiied with two-thirds of the S family (who’d had their own private  nightmare getting there from Sheffield which, the day they left had more snow than the Alps). E, the last third, who is scared when skiing and has never gone fast enough to fall over, made sure we had fabulous fizz and fondue on New Year’s Eve and we clinked midnight in (albeit on Middle Eastern time, being completely exhausted and having to be up and on the piste too bright and early for our lesson the next morning) and wished S a happy 50th.

So now we’re home and back to normal-ish. (Not quite Mr N though who has two more weeks off before a final last ten week stint away Down Under. He has jobs to do while I’m at work which are only slowly being ticked off in between the trumpet playing, long baths and reading in bed but I don’t really begrudge him this r&r – I mean, how can I after my two years with the tables turned? But as usual I’m digressing.) Though we did all learn to ski (and really quite competently too despite a couple of frozen-in-fear-on-an-icy-steep-slope tableaux from me and H), I’m not entirely sure we’ve completely recovered from that journey and there’s still the washing machine to tackle.

But hey, the mesmerising, the momentous and the mundane, from such things are collective memories made. So that was our 2014/2015 changeover. And here’s wishing the mesmerising, the momentous and, yes, a good dose of the blinking mundane, to everyone! X

You’ve got to laugh!

You’ve got to laugh or you’d cry!  It’s a cliché but nevertheless a mantra that I frequently live my life to and I know I’m far from alone. Funnily enough (no pun intended) I’m not a weepy person. I hardly ever cry at films or books and I’ve never cried at a schmalzy tv ad and rarely even at a sentimental Comic Relief clip that is specifically designed to make you break down and sob. I can and do feel sad about others’ misfortunes but it doesn’t usually generate any tears unless it’s one of my children who’s in misery and that’s because I’m actually feeling it as mine, and I do often wonder why people shed tears about complete strangers (I’m thinking Princess Diana here); it might actually diminish the genuine emotions of those who are truly hurting mightn’t it? And it definitely doesn’t help anything, does it? I’m of course liable to blub at my own pain (mental and physical, self-inflicted or otherwise). But always, always, like an out of control toddler, I feel the hot flush of tears welling whenever I’m really annoyed, frustrated and helpless (all these things have to happen together), however petty or trite the actual consequences are. Some might see this as coldness and cynicism and egotism but I (naturally) think I show and feel appropriate empathy and sympathy when it’s really needed, as well as a normal human level of self-centredness, rather than being mawkishly moved by bathos or pathos.  However, I mention it simply to set the scene.

We’re having a new kitchen. It’s been happening for several weeks because it’s quite a big job (we’ve lived in this house for nearly 20 years and the kitchen’s been in need of an upgrade for just about all of that time). Walls have come down, the floor up, doors knocked through, the whole room gutted, lighting stripped out, new gas pipes and boiler. You get the picture. Lots of trades have been doing their stuff, builders, electricians, gas engineers, plumbers, plasterers, tilers, carpenters, kitchen fitters, painters. But after the stunned stress of making all our choices (the layout, the material, styles and colours of the flooring, units, doors, handles, shelving, appliances, tiles, counter tops, walls, when I reached a feverish place where I no longer knew what I liked and what I didn’t), once the room was cleared out and the first smashing, dirty blow was wielded, I had nothing to organise and nothing to do but sit back, breathe in the dust, and marvel at it all happening around me. Except for the fridge. Forgive me my extravagance, but having just spent two years with one of them to hand, the only easy decision was to get an American style fridge/freezer with water and ice dispenser (for the cocktails, darlings, the cocktails), for which I did my own shopping around. Now, I’m quite good at organising and it wasn’t too difficult to make sure I got it delivered in the window after the floor had been tiled and the walls plastered but before the cabinets around it had been built, and while there was someone in the house to plumb it in for me. This happened two and a half weeks ago, all on schedule. Waited a day for all the liquids to settle down. Turned it on. It cooled down, the ice built up and the first cube was produced. Cheers! Then we noticed the leak: it was faulty! By now, all the handy people had finished their jobs, but I played on some goodwill to get one back to unplumb it ready to be exchanged. The exchange date was set for ten days ago, delivery time between 7am and 11am, organised for someone to be here while I was at work, but they sent a 7.5 tonne truck and couldn’t get up our road. Now, we do live on a road that is quite narrow at the bottom, and made narrower by parked cars, but since I’d already had one of the exact same product delivered, this should’ve been no surprise. It was though, and because we also live on top of a hill and they couldn’t be arsed to lug the thing to the door, they buggered off and it was rearranged for the next day on a smaller 3.5 tonne van. Attempt number two, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number three, two further days later, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number four, yesterday, and, hallelujah, they make it up the road with a correctly sized van. But without any trollies or dollies or straps so [large intakes of breath, eyebrows raised, hands on hips, lips pursed, and shakes of their heads] there’s absolutely no way they can get it up the steps and into the house.  (I haven’t even mentioned the twenty-one and three-quarter hours that I’ve spent hanging on hold on the phone waiting to be rescheduled once, twice, thrice, and now four times.)  At those knowing, negative head shakes, I wanted to weep.

Mature 48 year old that I am, however, I forced myself to keep some perspective. It’s just a fridge/freezer. I still have the old one plugged in keeping everything cold. Our ice cream is still frozen. This is not a tragedy or anything near it. I sent a few funny texts, and laughed with my boy.

The day before, I’d spent the afternoon with my Mum, aka Gran, at the Christmas lunch cooked and served by the lovely people who look after her at her dementia care home. I really had no conception of what to expect from this event beforehand and confess to a knot of apprehension in my belly on the way there. Gran can be prone to simply closing her eyes and disengaging when she doesn’t want to, or can’t, acknowledge the world around her. If she does choose to communicate, it can be through sharp kicks to the shins and/or shouting abuse. Sometimes, she smiles and is as interested as she could possibly be given her mental capacity. You just don’t know what you’ll get.  We sat together at a table for four, with G and K, a long-married couple, K with dementia, G without. We were served sherry, deliciously sweet and dark and festive. K was very interested in the menu and anxious for her food. As soon as the soup had been cleared away, she fretted about when the turkey and trimmings would arrive. G and I repeatedly reassured her. She repeatedly worried. Gran stared briefly at me, then closed her eyes. We pulled our crackers (I pulled mine with G, and Gran’s with myself) and wore our paper hats and read out the jokes. She didn’t open her eyes when I put her hat on or listen to the jokes. We were plied with wine. G and I told each other about ourselves and our partners’ other selves. We clinked glasses and we smiled wryly at each other and across the room at the other relatives when our eyes caught or we were distracted by some shout or improper behaviour. At some point between the soup and the main course, Gran folded her arms on the table and rested her head on them, hat askew but still on. G, K and I scraped our plates clean, cranberry sauce, bread pudding, pigs in blankets an’ all. K, sated, no longer wanted to be seated at the table. She wandered off, a carer with her, and didn’t come back. G relaxed, because he could. Gran came to, knocked back a glass of wine, wolfed down her Christmas pudding and brandy sauce, a mince pie and a mint chocolate, pronounced the coffee disgusting. and then shut her eyes again. There was music in the background, and a little bit of clapping and dancing from some of the more sprightly and in-the-mood residents. Someone came round taking snaps and I captured one of my own. I had a nice10858562_10203714608085394_6685468164001053882_n time; in fact we all did. The care and kindness shone through, warming even the bereaved, worn out, worried spouses and the shaky, achy, frail, decrepit minds and bodies of all of those living through personal tragedies every day. And how we (most of us) laughed.

Real, life-changing misfortunes or fist-clenching but trivial aggravation,  you really do have to keep laughing through or, well, you’d just cry, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t really help anyone, does it?

 

Black Friday blues

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, which we don’t celebrate here in the UK, and last Friday was Black Friday, which apparently now we do (thanks, Amazon). I spent the afternoon with the hordes in the crowded-at-the-best-of-times Intu shopping centre in Derby. I’ve never been much of a fan of a shopping mall. I think I went just three times to the Galleria, Houston’s finest, and although I couldn’t completely avoid our nearest, Memorial City Mall,  I did my best to keep away as much as possible and most certainly didn’t feel the need to revisit either on my recent trip back. The same applies to Intu, with the added annoyance that its ridiculous name brings to any outing. So what with all that baggage and Black Friday now being a thing, frankly I’d have preferred to spend several hours on the geriatric ward of Derby Royal, and I do know what that’s really like (more of which later).  But I had no choice. [Spoiler alert: rant approaching.]

You see, up until that very day, just 48 hours ago, I had been continuing to pay for a US mobile phone contract alongside a UK one, and having to use two phones (one smart and one very dumb but with a battery that lasts a whole week!). This, then, has been four and a half months of unwillingly but necessarily shelling out for a US contract while no longer living in the US.   Let me elaborate. [Friends to whom I’ve elaborately elaborated already, feel free to skip to the end.]

At the time I was sorting out our move back home from Houston we didn’t want to close our Bank of America account; we’d still have money going in and out for a few months beyond our departure, I was planning a trip back in October so it would be useful then,  but most importantly, the exchange rate was shit. So, I went into the bank – note, actually went in to a branch and spoke to a real person – to ask how to change our online security mechanism which was linked to my US phone – any transaction (like transferring money) required a code that was texted to me.  “Oh that’s simple, ma’am, we can just link it to a different phone.” So I switched it to my UK phone number there and then. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, thought I, one moving job ticked off the list. Until I realised it wasn’t, on what was our very last day in the States, when, online transacting, the code came dinging right up on my US phone screen. Some time later when I’d managed to get through to a person in customer services (I could take up considerably more screen space by expleting about quite how laborious and frustrating that particular experience was but I’ll simply say that voice recognition software and the word ‘representative’ in an English accent do not, in America, gel; I’ll leave that hanging for y’alls to picture the blueness of the air) I was told that I had been incorrectly advised and online security cannot be linked to an overseas number. What I needed, in fact, was a “Safe Pass Key” – a physical card. My customer services operator helpfully changed my address (another last minute job jobbed, pleasingly killing two birds with one stone, I wrongly assumed) and then proceeded to be unable to order my Safe Pass Key because, it turns out, you have to wait 30 days from a change of address. So, there was my first month’s US contract while not in the US accounted for.

30 days later, online I go to order the Key, only to get the brutal message: “your Safe Pass Key can not be ordered at this time, try again later”. A few failed retries and I decide it must be 30 working days I have to wait. Here we are now rolling into my second month’s US contract while not in the US.

Ten days later, same scenario, same message, so a customer services phone call can no long be avoided (but I do remember to say “represenadive” in my best Texan twang). I get the shock news that, “unfortunately, ma’am, for security reasons we do not send our Safe Pass Keys outside of the US”. The bank has already sent me a new debit card to my English address, I say. Not the same thing. They could send it to my old address, she suggests. That would be the house in Houston where I no longer live and where someone else, a complete stranger, does instead. I question the bank’s notion of security, but to no avail. “Do you know anyone who lives in the US?” she asks. “Er, yes.” “Well we can get it sent there.” So, sanctioned by the bank, we change our address to our ex-neighbour’s. And then – did you see this coming? – I have to wait another 30 days.  There I then was, grumbling my way towards a third month’s US contract while not in the US.

A month on and at last I click that ‘confirm order’ button and my Safe Pass Key is on its way to the Ks’ house. By the time it arrives, in two weeks, I’m only three weeks away from our half-term holiday in H-town, so Mrs K keeps hold of it till I’m there.  Four weeks after that, I’m back home and, hallelujah, it works. Finally, I can cancel my US contract.

Except, I can’t, quite yet. You can’t just stop and pay up pro-rata with T-Mobile. No, you have to complete the month’s cycle which in my case takes me through another three and a half weeks to 28th November. Which fell on Black Friday. Which brings me back to Intu.

As of 28th November, my smart phone is only good for smart stuff if I’m connected to wifi so I need to transfer my UK contract from dumb to smart asap, without changing my number, losing my contacts from either phone, or any apps. Cleverly, I have managed to save all my photos elsewhere jic, but any smugness I feel is dwarfed by the need to also  complete the unlocking procedure online once the new SIM card is in and the worry I have about not understanding what this actually means. Obviously, it requires a visit to the EE shop. Which is in Intu. And it’s Black Friday. Bizarrely, the EE shop has no wifi (not allowed by Intu) so once the contract’s sorted and the new SIM’s in, I have to hot foot it over to a coffee shop which does have wifi (allowed by Intu) to unlock the phone. I have remembered to bring my laptop and the right usb cable, but my feeling pleased with myself only lasts as long as it takes me to snatch a seat, snap open the laptop and reach for my reading glasses which are not there in my bag. I manage to get past the password because I know that’s the first thing that comes up, but can’t go beyond this because I’m unable to read what comes next on the screen. I have to up sticks, relinquish my comfy corner in the crowded Costa, squeeze my way to Boots, and buy a pair of readers, before battling back and starting it all again. FFS!  I’m hassled and hot and raging and I blame it ALL, even my crappy eyesight and forgotten specs, on Amazon, the Bank of America, T-Mobile, EE and fucking Intu with its nonsense name.

November has been a difficult month, not just for me but for others I’m close to and fond of. Margot died, and I along with F, our 19 year old son and boyfriend of Margot’s daughter, went to her funeral in Holland which was heart-rending, moving and cathartic all at the same time. I keep hearing the line “every silver lining has a cloud”, spoken by Margot’s husband, H, in the rawness of his grief. Then there’s, T, son of good friends, a boy we’ve known all his life, who has been poorly and, last week, needed an op. My Mum, aka Gran, who’s old, frail and demented, also ended up in hospital (though handily, visiting-wise, for a while two floors directly below T), refusing food, drink and, in fact, any attempts at comfort and communication. One of the few things she did say to me, her daughter, in her confusion was “Where’s my baby?”. Oh the cruelty of dementia! [Thankfully, T’s on the mend and Gran’s home and back to being rude, her new ‘old self’ as it were.]  In the context of all of this, my app and chat challenges seem laughably, almost insultingly, banal and overplayed.  So I was encouraged to learn, just yesterday, in a prescient piece by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, that there’s a rational explanation for this loss of perspective: thanks to an oddity of the mind, known as the “region-beta paradox”, minor setbacks can cause more long-term distress than bigger ones. To simplify: when truly bad things happen they cross a threshold, triggering mechanisms that help us to cope and recover; in contrast, when all we’re dealing with are first world problems our cognitive defences won’t kick in, so rage may bubble longer.  I like to think it also provides some comic relief from life’s true traumas, too.

 

 

It’s not working

I’m holed up in my bedroom. It’s Tuesday. I’ve a dental check-up bang in the middle of the day so I’m working from home around it. Except I’m not working. It’s not working.

Firstly, if I could be sitting downstairs at my desk in the home office it would be a bit more conducive to sensible concentrating than lounging on my bed. But I can’t. The office is full of provisions which have been evacuated from the kitchen and set out on the camping racks, temporarily erected for the purpose. I was very prepared, planning how to make our four week sojourn without a kitchen less bleak. There’s everything we need to self-cater the month away: the two-ring camping stove all tubed up to the gas bottle in the corner, and on the racking a couple of pans, the knife and chopping blocks, cutlery and pasta, rice, noodles, tinned stuff, a few herbs and condiments, breakfast cereals, a couple of onions and peppers, some bananas and apples. The fridge is in the hall, fully stocked, next to a cupboard, newly resituated and housing a few plates, bowls, mugs and glasses. [But the microwave’s on top, in pride of place. Because, in reality, two and a half weeks in, we’ve relied on friends, Grandma and Grandad, take-outs, meals out, but, mostly, I have to admit, Billy-no-mates microwave meals. In the couple of years or so before my Mum completely lost her mind (you could say while it was being mislaid), I used to do her grocery shopping and microwave meals became a staple part of her diet, at first because she could still manage to heat them up herself and then later for her tea-time carers to serve her. Choosing a varied (though balanced would be exaggerating) selection – not too many pasta-based, plenty of vegetables, some fish and meat, a spicy one or two – was a bit of a highlight of our regular mother and daughter routine. And so it has become for R and me, mother and son browsing together in the supermarket. Last night we shook it all up a bit and went for the soup options. Crazy.  Anyway, I digress]. It’s all very make-do and cluttered down there.

Practically speaking, then, it’s not easy to be downstairs, what with all the foodstuff. And then there’s the commotion. Slamming, banging, smashing, sawing, drilling, shouting, singing, radio blaring.  One wall’s been completely demolished, one knocked through, everything’s been stripped out, electrics rewired, plumbing moved, a gas pipe installed, flooring ripped up, walls and ceiling replastered and now the refit is beginning and on it goes. In the process they’ve uncovered two long-abandoned mice nests under the boards, one still stocked with a stash of dried pellets of dog food! Ew! We’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and never heard the scuttle of a mouse and only very rarely fed any dogs (we’re not asked much anymore to dog sit, you won’t wonder why if you’ve read this), which just goes to show these have been here for yonks! It’s too much to face.

So that’s why I’m away up the stairs. We have no running water down below, so up here we’ve fixed up our little breakfast station, with kettle, toaster, stock of bread and muffins, tea and coffee, jam and marmalade and marmite and peanut butter. Just a wee fridge missing so there’s some upping and downing in the process, but still, it feels cosy in the mornings (and, to tell the truth, mid-morning, mid-afternoon and at bedtime too), our own little b&b set-up. It’s definitely another distraction in the working-from-home-not-working scenario but we’re liking it so much we think we might invest in said mini fridge, double up on the kettle and toaster combo and keep it going even when the new kitchen’s in full swing.

But it’s not just the surroundings. I’m also taking a while to adjust to the mental self-discipline that working from home requires.  I lamented the loss of my professional role when we relocated to Houston, yet now I’m defining a new one, it’s still a teensy bit of a struggle to shrug off the carelessness of a carefree life. Actually, how do you slough off a lack of something? It was an unfettered way of being, with self-imposed routines revolving around leisure more than labour and an often less-than-executive focus. So, there’s that, my inner regimen taking its time to reemerge…

Fundamentally, however, I can’t entirely blame the lack of kitchen, noisy builders, the homely little nook on the landing or my mushy brain. There’s something else too: the office crack. I missed it and that whole other circle in the Venn diagram of life, overlapping but not completely overlaid with the home and family and friendship ones. Most of what  I’m paid to do now can be done anywhere I can hook up to a screen and wifi, yet I’ve chosen to mainly do it in the office and the truth is that I probably would’ve done even with a kitchen and peace and quiet and the ability to focus in the house. It’s funny there and not really very funny at all here, and I quite like a gossip, and an exchange of ideas, and asking for help and being asked for help and, well, the company, really.

So for all these reasons, for me, this working at home malarkey? It’s not working. Hence this.

You Never Can Tell

Like every parent whose kids have grown up, I’m having to get used to less. I say ‘I’ because Mr N, in his Australian bachelor idyll, is having to get used to, well, living that bachelor lifestyle, a whole different kettle of fish. By the time he’s back from there for good, I’ll be used to this empty-ish nest, and he’ll have to adjust to it alone. That’ll be another story.  For now, it’s about me and R, our 16 year old; we’re the two currently rattling around our four-bedroomed family home. I’m sure that it’s strange for him, too, without his big brother and sister (or his dad), but this is my blog and I’m seeing it from my perspective. Which is this:

Fancy having two spare bedrooms! We could’ve done with all this space a bit earlier in our family’s life, when the bairns were but babes and there were always grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins coming to stay. Then again, I wouldn’t wish for my kids not to have shared bedrooms, oh, the joy of bunk beds and night games and giggling and naughtiness and squabbles and shared secrets for siblings only! Nor would they themselves have chosen not to squash in from time to time, top to toe, three to a bed even, when there was no more room at the inn. Anyway, it doesn’t go on much any more, this bursting at the seams, which – and whoever would have imagined it?  – makes me thankful for the crowded rowdy sleepovers with far too many teens on the floors and sofas when they do still happen (vomit excepted).

When, as it mostly is, it’s just me and him, I have to swap places at the dining table. If I didn’t take over F’s spot, which is opposite R’s, R and I would have been unsociably, and weirdly, eating side by side since the husband-and-two-children exodus at the end of September. I will, of course, have to move out from middle boy’s slot the minute he’s back home from university – if he’s in the house, F sits there, no compromise, for anyone, no change, even after two years away in Houston. But in the meantime, I don’t sit where I used to for my dinner.

Sticking with the mealtime theme, I could happily cater for a surprise visit from a family of eight for at least a week since the freezer’s now full of delicious home-made ready meals. I keep buying and cooking too much food, and small portions were never a thing in this house. Mulligatawny soup, anyone? Don’t like spicy food? How about bolognaise, or chicken stew, or a classy vichyssoise? Come on round!  R baked a cake, and I ate a number of large slices, yet even so had to force feed it to my book club girls four days later as it began to stale, one of them took a quarter home and there was still some left. Waste- and waist-wise, I need to learn to control this better.

On a positive note, the loo roll’s lasting an incredibly long time.

The biggest difference, though, is the noise. The lack of it. It’s often just me here and even when we’re “all” home, that still only makes two, one of whom is usually plugged in to earphones and quite busy with homework and other screen-based stuff, all mainly occurring upstairs with the door shut. Not that we don’t get on, R and me, we do. (We watched Pulp Fiction together recently, and then later twisted in the living room to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, just like John Travolta and Uma Thurman.)

But the truth is, there are definitely occasions when he only really spends time in my company because he’s kind and sensitive and he feels sorry for me.  And he’s behaving no differently than the others would if they were here, it’s just his disappearances are more noticeable when he’s the only one disappearing and I’m the only one left.  I’m not lonely, just alone more than before, which, it turns out, is quite quiet.

Some things, though, haven’t changed with him.  Like, making a quick exit when any of my friends turn up, thus avoiding all middle-aged female clucking. So, right after our little dance scene the other night, R scooted upstairs as the first of my book-clubbers arrived. And if he wasn’t a temporarily only child, maybe the drama that followed might not have taken place. “I can smell gas” was repeated as each person came in. We have a gas boiler, gas hob and gas fire. All three were off. We checked, and then we checked again. “I can smell gas”,  said another walking through the door. This wasn’t funny. I rang the emergency number, was told over the phone to switch off the lever at the meter “but only if you can see without a torch, you mustn’t turn a torch, or any appliance, or switch, on or off. We’ll have an engineer there within the hour.” This was scary. Anyway, I did as I was told, we opened a few windows, poured our wine and got talking about the book (‘Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls’ by David Sedaris, if you’re interested). The engineer knocked, told us to carry on while he checked everything, and then popped in and out of the house and all the rooms, up and down, in and out, probing and suchlike. Half an hour later, he gave me the bad news: “I’m going to have to condemn your gas supply and cut you off.”  He couldn’t find the source of the leak, but there was a trace of gas on his reading, so he had no option. Worse, because there was nothing escaping from any of the exposed and accessible pipes, it seemed probable that any leakage was from the pipework somewhere – anywhere, no way of telling exactly where – under the floor. I – we all – immediately saw ripped up floorboards and a devastatingly disruptive trail of £££££££s snaking around the ground floor in futile pursuit of a pesky pinprick. There was apology in the engineer’s demeanour as he “capped” the meter.  When he’d said goodbye and I’d closed the door on him, R loomed downstairs, completely unaware of our condemned status or anything that had led up to it. His mouth dropped open when I told him. “Do you think it could’ve been anything to do with me leaving the hob on for 15 minutes?” he murmured. Hmmm, yes, I thought, calmly(ish), everything to do with that.

So, perhaps if there’d been a sibling or two up there as well (also hiding from my pals, as they would have been), R might have mentioned he’d left the gas on, and they, in turn, might have thought to mention it to me? Or, at the very least, one of them might have ventured down to see what all the to-ing and fro-ing was about, do you think? But when there’s just one of him, locked into music, on his own in his room, safely away from the lairy scram that is me and my reading buddies, why would he emerge any time soon?

I had to pay £20 to get the gas turned back on the next day, and will be dining out on the story a few more times yet. The moral of the tale, then,  is… um, what? Don’t let your kids leave home or don’t have kids at all? It’s clearly too late for either of those options for me, so I suppose I’ve just gotta get used to where we’re at. And anyway, You just Never Can Tell what’ll happen next…

Come to Belper, reach for the sky

Two quite bizarre things happened to me last weekend, both involving  HBC, an old friend of mine and Mr N’s who lives in Bristol, and who we hadn’t seen for about four years until three weeks ago, when he and Mrs BC kindly helped us to drown our sorrows after we’d dropped F at university nearby (my, how we drowned them).  And while there, HBC mentioned that in a couple of weeks’  time, he was coming to Belper, which is where I live,  for a boys’ weekend away.

Now, unless you live in a happening city or olde worlde chocolate box village or heritage hotspot, or by the sea or lakeside or halfway up a mountain, then you don’t really expect folks to holiday in your home town, do you? Take Houston, for example. Love the place, really truly, and I could give you 100 recommendations for stuff to see and do if you’re thinking of visiting, but the likelihood is that, unless you know someone who lives there, or you or someone close to you works in the oil and gas industry, you’re not.  Which is how it should be, really, because there are, perhaps, several hundred places that are more obviously tempting on most people’s ‘where I’d like to go in America’ wishlist. So, who’d have thought it but in a peculiar, small town, East-Midlands-of-England-ish sort of way, Belper’s a bit like Houston – way down on (if indeed on at all) the average person’s list of ‘must visit’ places. But here was HBC, last weekend, staying down the road, 11 pals in tow.

IMG_2533

Pulpit and hoover

They’d booked themselves into a holiday cottage that, if we were in France, I’d be calling a gîte – large, old and grand in a faded way, a whiff of sloshed aristocracy about the place, its life history nudging through. It was once a Methodist chapel and still has the pulpit in situ, now overlooking the lower living room and home to the hoover.  Even more surprising (to me – I would hazard a guess that I’ve driven/cycled/run past this place at least 3,000 times), it sleeps 23 in eight bedrooms, has two living rooms and – get this – a sauna!

That, then, was the first bizarre thing: not only do I discover that lil’ ol’ Belps is a destination, but all these years there have been huge hordes of happy holidayers sweating out their hangovers in the sauna right under our noses.

You can imagine how keen I was to check the chapel out for myself. [Who doesn’t love a nosey round someone else’s house?  Never been to view a house for sale just because you can? No? Well, you’re missing a treat – really doesn’t matter if you like the decor or not, a bit of aspirational envy or superior-taste-confirming condescension can really cheer you up on a wet weekend, believe me. Anyway…] With Mr N away, oldest two out of the nest, and R filling the house with his friends, an evening down the pub next door to the chapel with the Bristol boys was just the ticket.  And here it was, down the pub, that bizarre thing number two occurred.

We met – or, rather, experienced – the fantastical Rob Lowe of the Ship in Space enterprise (“Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e-at-ship-in-space-dot-com” as he thoughtfully introduced himself to us should we need to follow up the encounter with an email). Briefly, Ship in Space is a rival to Richard Branson’s passenger rocket, only more affordable at the snippy price of £36,000 a ticket. It will be launching within the next seven years “or your money back” from Snowdonia and will, apparently, offer a better space experience, weightlessness-wise and views-of-Earth-wise too, as Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e demonstrated, in close-up, to me and the Bristol boys by the trajectory of a lit cigarette (we were outside with the smokers). He also gave us a lot of technical safety design information, to put our minds at rest over any possible fears about comets and meteors and take-off or re-entry explosions that he thought we might be having while we considered whether to get our cheque books out and invest, there and then.  What nearly sold it was the BSGOF offer. BSGOF? That would be ‘Buy Seven, Get One Free’. Bargain!

Roll up, roll up...

Roll up, roll up…

And in case we were in need of further convincing, we were invited to “International SpaceWeek in Duffield” – a week of Ship in Space presentations, noon till night, every day this week, at the King’s Head. [Duffield is a small village two miles down the road.]

Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e simply appeared, looming up and launching his rocket pitch, right there, outside the Holly Bush, in semi-rural Derbyshire, in the dusk of a Saturday night in October, selling in all seriousness his £36,000 boarding passes amidst the pints of real ale.  Throughout his presentation, for that is what it was, I thought he was one of the Bristol boys and the Bristol boys thought he was with me, so seamlessly had he penetrated our group. Quite where he came from none of us knows. He left as suddenly as he’d arrived, with a confident flourish, his email and website signature hanging in the air, as he walked off down the lane in the dark to the next pub of potential investors, fully expecting to be hearing from one of us soon.   Anyway, I shan’t do any more of his sales work for him, you can all look yourselves at the brilliance that is the Ship in Space website (spoiler: “The whole design has been built with complete and utter safety as the primary objective by building everything as safely as possible”). But, based on the sales pitch, the website and the sign that has been outside the King’s Head all week, who wouldn’t empty their bank account, cash in their pension and spend their life’s savings on the chance to be a two-minute spaceman with this lot?

Clearly, Belper’s the place to be, just ask HBC and his Bristol boys!

Less is more

There’s been a break in my blogging lately. It’s partly down to my having landed myself a job (a paid one, that is, thank you very much) and partly down to Mr N having landed, too, home from Australia for two weeks so we’ve been busy fitting things in that can or ought only to be done as a couple. [There are lots of these things, incidentally, when you’re part of a family of five that’s not long since moved house and continent, with a country-wide web of friends and family to snatch time with, one offspring reluctantly forced back into his old school at possibly the worst point to do so in the whole of his school career (if you listen to him, anyway), another heading off to university for the first time and a third embarking on her second year away and also moving house and requiring an IKEA shopping trip. And all this on top of a new kitchen to plan, which has come with – for us two, at least – an overwhelming, sense-overloading, rabbit-in-headlights reaction to having to choose door, surface, wall and floor tile materials, styles, colours and sizes which in itself paralysed us for a full 48 hours of our precious 336 together.]

But, perhaps the main reason for the hiatus is this: I’m not a trailing spouse anymore. How, then, can I keep writing a blog which is called ‘Trials of a trailing spouse’?* R, my youngest and perhaps the most innately style conscious member of our family, is concerned on my behalf that it might become boring and irrelevant, and I think he’s got a point. When I was living in Houston, it was easy to find things to write about. In fact, they found me. But now that I’m back home, living the same life as most people, I just don’t have that skewed angle to fall back on. So, yeah, I took R to the dentist to have his chipped front tooth capped and it cost me nowt because he’s under 18 and we have the NHS, but so what? It’s only really worth commenting on in the context of a juxtaposition with the American dental experience which I’m no longer having.

And another thing:  loads of the life differences that I’m delighting in are fundamentally mundane; there has been a lot of muscle work for example – shifting furniture from room to room, heaving boxes in and out of the loft, hoofing to and from the dump (at least 19 times, honestly, and still counting), manoeuvring ladders, painting walls inside and out, cutting down trees, mowing the lawns. It’s ordinary stuff that’s out of the ordinary for me because I’ve just left a life where my house wasn’t my own to decorate or remodel or even do the gardening in. For two years I have been uncomfortably watching the fortnightly team of Mexican yard workers sweat it out cutting our grass and chopping back branches (oh, and blowing the leaves from our drive onto next door’s ready to be blown back by their men the following week in that time-honoured, job-creating way of America, land of opportunity and of the free), all part of the rental agreement, non-optional. It’s really, really nice to take ownership again, even though I bloody hate decorating and lugging the lawnmower around.

There’s more.  Many hours of my now nearly three months post-Houston period have slowly wafted by in the company of my demented mother, aka Gran, while she chooses to keep her eyes closed. Not exactly page-turning, is it? It has given me the opportunity of reacquainting myself with – and introducing our kids to – the Telegraph cryptic crossword. [I know, I know, the Tory Telegraph – me?! But pre-dementia, dyed-in-the-wool Telegraph-reading Thatcherite Gran was also a daily completer, and super fast too, of said crossword. Clutching at straws, my so far only fractionally successful plan has been to engage her again with anagrams and synonyms, whilst also giving me something to do during the vastly longer pretend-sleep absences that being in her company usually entails.]  Somewhat excitingly and slightly out of the usual order of things yesterday, however, I turned up to visit Gran just as a looping, jumbling, dodder of them – mad old ladies and one mad old man – were off to “activities” (some more consciously than others) wherein I got caught up for two hours playing word games, guessing theme tunes, exercising my upper body, singing and chanting, and as an irritating result couldn’t get “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?”** off the loop in my head for the rest of the day.  This is the stuff of life, unromantic, unchosen, repetitive, regressive and often depressing as it is, and it’s part of my little world again whether I like it or not.  Of course, it’s called responsibility, and it’s something else I’ve got to re-own. It’s not exactly fun (though it’s often funny, it truly is) but it’s real, physical, shitty life which was quite easy to ignore before. That in itself is newly enjoyable in a visceral kind of way.

It’s not that my life here is dull, or that I haven’t got opinions on England or America or anywhere else anymore, or indeed that I couldn’t go on and on writing about what I do or  feel or encounter. No, rather, it’s that my life’s back on the same slant as most of the people I know, which could well be just a bit more dull in the retelling.

So, less, then, is more, is what I’m saying here: the blog’s not necessarily over, it’s just rolling along more slowly.

* Please don’t anyone suggest I change this site, it was really quite tricksy to set up and I think I’ve got this domain name for another three years or something, so no, life’s too short for more of that malarkey.

** The theme tune to 60s/70s TV favourite “Dad’s Army”. All together now, Who do you think…