Friday, 15 May 2015

Historical, hysterical

I have been ill again this week and the burly Welshman has been an absolute saint, doing the school run before work in the mornings, staying over at Axis Towers at night to look after everyone, and generally being completely brilliant. The Axis enjoy walking to school with him, as he'll tolerate a level of nonsense that I firmly refuse to. Yesterday morning, however, the Welshman nipped back before going to work, looking slightly perturbed.

I asked him what was wrong; he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. Finally, he said, 'I think you need to have a word with Kong about Charity Day.' Charity Day is next Friday at school and the children have been invited to dress up as a famous figure from history. The Axis are all agog at this, their love of bloody warriors from the past writ large thanks to Horrible Histories. I'd already talked Kong out of going as Caligula, so was hoping for the best.

It was not to be. Apparently, on the walk to school, the Axis were discussing who they wanted to be for Charity Day. The Kong sidled up to the burly Welshman and said 'Er...I can't go as Hitler, can I? That would be wrong, wouldn't it?' The Welshman, slightly startled, assured Kong vehemently that yes, it would be wrong, and that many people might be offended by that, as Hitler was a very evil man...Kong nodded, pondersomely, then rejoindered: 'Do you think anyone will go as Hitler?'

As I reached for the phone directory to look up 'child psychologists (specialising in miniature dictators)' it occurred to me that actually, Kong's sense of right and wrong was beginning to implant itself (not before time, IMO) and that this was just part of it. I talked to him and his brother later and was satisfied that they are not plotting to take over the world. Instead, they will be going to their Church of England school in this truly Tory area dressed as Charles Darwin and Che Guevara. Win-win, boys.

Of course, this is only possible because we already own the clothes needed to make convincing costumes. As it's a prosperous area, a tiny minority will be coming in in the most ridiculous, wear-once-and-destroy outfits that cost more than my yearly clothing budget.

The inconsistency of my income makes spending a total nightmare. I've written before about my gratitude at living in a country that supports us when the chips are down. What's less edifying, however, is the hoops you have to jump through to get it, and the severe lack of competence displayed, the kind that would get you the sack working in any payroll department.

This is how it works when you're poor: your income comes from several different streams and you have to fight to justify your receipt of each them, continually. In my case, that's work/bursary, child benefit, child tax credit, and housing benefit. Altogether, these make up just about enough to live on. We don't take holidays abroad, rarely buy clothes, and shop in Aldi. We're frugal, I cook almost everything from scratch. If, like me, you've been foolish enough to take out loans in the past to help with your postgraduate education, then you have to negotiate with the bank when, suddenly, someone leaves your life and you are unable to pay as previously agreed. If you happen to work somewhere where you do the same hours every month, the company is stable, and you know how much you will be paid, brilliant. If, however, you work somewhere brilliant, but reliant on funding by capricious commissioners, the amount you get paid and the time you get paid every month will be different.

It's impossible to use a calculator to get an accurate picture of what will be paid to you and when. How can you budget for bills and food responsibly like you're supposed to - like you want to? If you phone up and ask for a breakdown of how payments are calculated, you are refused. Instead, my local authority sends out random automated letters every two weeks or so that make little sense. I'm no slouch, I used to handle big budgets at work and understand systems well. But it is a nonsense to me.

At least tax credits and housing benefits are now linked. Hooray, I thought, they can talk to each other and save some time! Not so. Instead, when you complete your renewal form in July, HMRC (for it is they) inform housing benefit that you have done so. Housing benefit then freeze your payments until they've processed your tax credit renewal. Last year it took them 10 weeks to do this. 10 weeks with no rent money, followed a couple of months later by another seven when I left my job to retrain.

It's surprising how much time you spend on the phone to people, knowing full well nothing is going to get sorted unless you jump up and down about it for a good six weeks. NHS Bursaries have consistently messed up my profile since September. For some reason they keep thinking the Axis have gone up in smoke and therefore they don't incur childcare costs of several hundred pounds a month.

With all these services, the same thing happens. You ring, and talk to someone, they promise to sort it out. They don't. You ring again, someone else says they don't understand why it hasn't been sorted, and promises to sort it out. They don't. You feel desperate and, if you're me, weaselly and guilty for depending on the state in the first place. You take out a debt to cover the missed payment. The interest on that, and all the others, accrues wildly. You stop sleeping at night.

Recently I heard someone who works full time and earns what would be a prince's ransom in my world complaining about people on benefits. 'I'm a mug,' they said. 'I spend all this time working and paying tax, for people on benefits to sit around doing nothing.' It's a gripe many of us will have heard before. No, they're not doing nothing. Most people I know are working and claiming benefits because the work doesn't pay well enough. With the rise of zero hour contracts, that's only getting worse. And a life dependent on the state is not pleasant. There is no financial security. There is the constant fear and anxiety that suddenly, there will be no money in your account and the rent will be due and the children will be hungry. There is the knowledge that there is nothing you can do about it because jobs that are flexible and pay well are anathema when your children are at primary school.

Before the children, I worked full time, I worked hard. I paid taxes. In fact, apart from two lots of maternity leave, I've always worked and paid tax, and been happy to do it. The longest I've been unemployed in my life is three weeks, and that's a total. I've never been unfortunate enough to have to claim Jobseeker's Allowance, or Income Support, or any of the illness-related benefits, but I've heard friends tell how demoralising the process is. I've worked in social care and welfare for nearly 15 years, dealing with some of the most troubled families in the city at times. In all that time, I can only think of one person I met who I would have said should have been working instead of claiming benefits. I heard she's been done for fraud, now, anyway, so the system caught up with her, and sharpish.

Look, we get it. The state supports us, so we should be grateful. We are grateful, truly. But you don't get to demoralise us, play havoc with our lives with no explanation, and treat us like something you stepped on. We might be down now, but we will get back up, and sooner if you don't destroy us while we're down here. The effort of hiding all this from the Axis is immense, but letting children worry is wrong, and I want my little Darwin and Guevara to have a childhood free from worry and full of laughing, playing, discovery and joy. I want them to grow up to be happy, fulfilled and sucessful.

How else are they gonna pay for my fancy retirement home?!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Election Section

'You can't kill Bowser. He always comes back. Like Nick Cotton. Or David Cameron.'

Sunday morning at Axis Towers. Following the success of last night's Sausage Sizzle at church (no, really), the burly Welshman and the Axis are firmly tucked into a Nintendo marathon, with a little bit of political indoctrination thrown in to boot. The Axis have displayed a great deal of interest in this election, and a fair bit of confusion about the voting habits of some of those closest to them. Axis Towers is in a true blue constituency, whereas their father resides in a traditionally lefty spot in the inner city. Mindful of our position here, and the fact that we have kind, wonderful neighbours and friends who may well vote on the right, I've not been particularly vocal about my red leanings, something I now somewhat regret.

The past five years have been characterised by a fair bit of financial and political vulnerability for me. When I became a single parent in 2010, I was initially terrified and convinced I was going to end up on the streets. I then became amazed at the safety net that was there for me in the form of the welfare state. I was, and remain, incredibly thankful that we live in a country where, when the chips are down and you cannot support yourself, for whatever reason, the state steps in. But over the past five years, the scope of this has changed remarkably.

It is clear that the system is now designed to put people off wherever possible. Renewal letters now come worded densely with threats, warnings and suspicion. Information is hard to come by and incorrect assumptions make huge delays in payment. Last year, we went 10 weeks with no housing benefit at one point. I'm still paying off the interest on the debt I accrued in order to keep the rent being paid on time - despite the fact I have the most fantastic, understanding landlords ever, I refuse to abuse their good nature and paying the rent on time, in full, is incredibly important to me, as it is to many in my position. What can be more important than keeping a roof over your children's heads?

Last summer, I began to have problems breathing. At first I thought it was a cold, then a chest infection, but as the weeks turned into months, I realised something was afoot. Eventually I was diagnosed with an organising pneumonia, caused by a reaction to an antibiotic I should never have been prescribed, as you don't prescribe it to people with chest history. I'd been given it by an emergency GP on a Saturday, who was rushed and stressed and didn't know me. Over the months, as I became iller, I realised we were in a precarious position. I couldn't keep working, my health wasn't up to the frequent trips to London and the travel around the southwest. Having been considering a move back to university to retrain, I decided now was probably the right time to spend a few months sitting in a lecture hall and resigned, without telling my boss I was ill. He was surprised and upset, understandably. I was afraid, very afraid. A CT scan and some breathing tests revealed I had a quarter of the lung capacity I should have. The picture showed my lungs were full of a substance that looked like candy floss. I could only take shallow breaths by now. It took me 20 minutes to climb the stairs to put the Axis to bed.

By this point, I was fortunate enough to have the burly Welshman to pick up the slack with childcare, as well as my amazing supportive friends and neighbours. I have been having treatment and am getting better. I feel like I've dodged a bullet - for now.

However, what happens to those who don't recover? Those who, like the people I have now started working with, rely on DLA and state benefits? Who suffer horrid, debilitating illnesses, and on top of that have the anxiety that comes with the constant reassessment and poking and prodding of their bodies and lives? Those who are given a demand for bedroom tax days after a loved one dies, those who have to deal with the incompetence of the JobCentre, famously losing paperwork and creating targets for sanctions. What happens to them? (Apologies for the anecdotal evidence. I'm ill again and will look up references for these later, if anyone particularly wishes)

I fear for them, and their carers, and their children. And for mine, who don't understand why sharing doesn't appear to be something adults have to do with good grace. The Axis, however, also don't understand all this talking of fighting. The left want to protect the vulnerable. The right say we need a strong economy to do this and there must be casualties. Must there? Surely, they say it's better to talk and work out an answer between us?

The Axis are right, of course. Is it possible, though? I hope so. The culture of mistrust and suspicion that has begun to creep in our country is pernicious and must go. Now, *that* is something I think we can all agree is worth fighting.

(Next time, no politics, more tales of epic farting from Axis Towers and the sunny Stoke Bishop area, promise) xx

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Smash 'n' Grab

A messy week at Axis Towers as, inexplicably, crockery and glassware have suffered heavy losses in the field. I gave my round Ikea glass lamp the long kiss goodnight after Kong, fiddling around with the bookcase ('Kong, stop. Kong, stop. Kong, it's going to fall off and - oh.') finally succeeded in the quest, begun by his ratbag brother seven years hence, to topple said object and see if it bounced. Unsurprisingly, it didn't. I attempted to repeat the 'does it bounce' experiment by chasing Kong up the stairs to his room at top speed; I am mildly surprised to report that, when chastised at volume and velocity, the Kong does not bounce either, but rather glides, sylph-like, ascending the staircase like a blithe spirit, free of irregularity in his step. The toad. 

The next day, following a very pleasant afternoon with DMC and the kids, a Pyrex bowl that had been returned to me minutes earlier by one of the other mums fell out of my handbag approx 30cm to the floor, and smashed. On carpet. Despite the bowl being about half an inch thick all over. Mystified, I banished the Axis to their room and cleaned it up. Didn't realise Pyrex could smash like that. 

This morning, the last of the melamine bowls Daddio and I bought together fell clean out of the cupboard and split neatly in two when I was making the Pie's breakfast. Again, I am mystified. Since when does melamine smash on impact? 'Ooooooh,' said Pie. 'I reckon that's a sign.' He nods portentously, then barges into the living room to thump his brother over the head for watching Pokemon without him. Cue carnage - sofa demolition, hurling of medium-sized objects, issuing of threats, nothing unusual. However, I am left to mull over his comment about it being 'a sign'. I have long had signs myself, and the odd prophetic dream - predicting pregnancies, the return of old friends out of the blue, not much, and not often, but there, nonetheless. I recently sensed that a friend of a friend would be present at a 30th birthday party, despite the fact that he was most definitely in Beiing. I don't know him well, so there would be no reason for me to think this at all - and no-one else knew he was coming, so there was huge surprise when he walked in - but I tell you, I knew.

Unfortunately, I thought I was being a bit mental, and so didn't tell anyone. When I did reveal that I had, in fact, had second sight of the wanderer's cameo, I was roundly disbelieved. 'Bollocks,' said the Welshman, before bursting out laughing at my protestations and proceeding to indulge in a slightly Orwellian anecdote about his mum working in a garden centre. I scowled at him and made a mental note to burn his toast and accidentally stuff rooibos in his teapot in the morning (no, that's not a euphemism, even if it does make a pretty good one). The Birthday Boy made an attempt to take me seriously, before cracking up himself and repeatedly asking me what number he was thinking of (69, obviously). 

My powers of prophesy are clearly pretty rubbish, however. They don't seem to be able to predict that Pie will lose two teeth in a week, thus necessitating a double visit from the Tooth Fairy (who, last time, left a narky note with the pound coin attached, reading 'NOAH. Be kind to your mum and your little brother. TF') and a desperate search for change behind the sofas just before bedtime. They couldn't predict that I would lose three bowls in a week, two of which definitely should not have smashed owing to their supposed supertough properties. And they couldn't predict that Kong would remove one of the sets of bolts from the right hand side of the toilet seat, chuck it in the pan, and flush it down the toilet, thus blocking the bog as well as rendering said seat extremely hazardous to the Pie the next morning, who slid off it, luge-style, midway through his morning ablutions.

They could, however, very accurately predict the shade of blue that the air turned that day as a result of my language. Kong's days of destruction are numbered. As, now, are my plates. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Evolution

New Year. I, rather stupidly, took the opportunity to do a bit of a stock take, mainly by way of looking through old photos and depressing the hell out of myself when I realised I had once been young and beautiful (ok, ok, perhaps not beautiful, but certainly favourable when compared with the back end of a bus), and now - well. A spot of self-improvement is in order,

I must say, in my defence, that I feel a bit as if I've spent the past few years crawling on my hands and knees to try and keep Axis Towers afloat. I've been really lucky in having amazing friends and neighbours, and that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be drawing closer. We've got something approaching stability now, so, in accordance with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I can move towards self-actualisation - perhaps.

To this end, I've drawn up some resolutions. I was prompted to do this by Slutdrop, who materialised like a vision from a Kate Bush song at Axis Towers towards the end of New Year's Day, having conducted herself with alarming impropriety at a party the previous night. 'Ugh,' said the slutternly one, collapsing into an armchair, clutching an ice pack to her head. 'What a nightmare. I dressed up in my best three piece suit and bowler hat, and some bitch came and asked me why I'd come dressed as a policewoman...' Slutdrop had then pretended to her questioner that she was a genuine police officer, via the unlicensed use of some dodgy handcuffs metaphor and the 'where do police officers live?' joke*.

Unfortunately, it transpired that her combatant was, in fact, a real live rozzer - well, a PCSO. Slutdrop apparently learnt this fact, shouted 'BULLSHIT' and 'POLICE BRUTALITY!' before legging it to hide in the loos and attempt to refashion her costume into Alex from A Clockwork Orange. On waking up this morning dressed as a cross between Oliver Hardy and a Droog, Slutdrop proceeded to stuff as much junk food down her neck as possible in order to assuage the hangover. Some of it remained on her jumper. I felt the only thing to do was to innocently point it out.

'Slutdrop, what's that on your jumper?' Slutdrop began dabbing furiously at the splodge with a bit of damp kitchen towel, which began to disintegrate all over her. 'Dammit. It's Fray Bentos steak pie. It was rank on the way in, and it smells like bloody dog food on the way out.' I stifle a giggle. 'What the bloody hell are you doing eating those?' Slutdrop looks gloomily at her jumper. 'I'm cheap and nasty and I shop in Poundland for food,' she says, eyes downcast. Then, she brightens up. 'But did you know - those are only a pound in Poundland, and in a regular supermarket, they cost three quid! Honest!' I think my reaction was not as impressive as it was supposed to be. And she wouldn't tell me how the hell she knows how much those things are in a regular dupermarket, anyway.

Slutdrop and I had a little disco in the living room (Neneh Cherry, Kelis, House of Pain, Nicki Minaj and the Sabres of Paradise), which got us excited enough to believe that we could go out tonight. After scouring the listings and finding that pretty much the only thing open was the local youth club, we decided we'd be better off going to Nando's and writing some New Year's resolutions.

So, here are mine. In 2014 I resolve to:

1. Be a better recycler - I'm pretty good, on the whole. However, I don't use the food bin. Yes, I know, I know - it's just that the Kong can't tell the different between the food cupboard and the food bin, and I have no wish to discover him perched on the worktop scoffing a delightful salad of potato peelings and two-day-old mince, ever again. It takes 20 sodding minutes to take all the bins from the side of my house to the dumping zone on the side of the street and I always end up using the kind of language that brings down the property prices in our neighbourhood. But, I guess I'd better add the vile leaky food bucket to the pile. Sigh.

2. Be more organised - My friend Cod is very organised. She is so well-organised that, in her organiser, she has organised a time for when she is going to do the following week's organising. I, however, am always running into school with half a Fray Bentos pie stuffed into the Axis' lunchbox**, bearing a note saying 'Eat it up or no sweets for a week'. PE kits are lucky to make it into school by half term. Most of Axis Towers is about seven deep in books most of the time. This year, goodbye to all that - I am going to be Miss Squeaky when it comes to being prepared.

3. No fear! - No, I am not going to start dressing in badly cut 90's leisure wear. I'm going to stop being scared of things. I am strong. I am resilient. I am woman, hear me roar (except when I need to check my tyre pressure, because I can't use the home gauge, and I'm scared of accidentally exploding the tyres on the forecourt. Can that happen? It can, can't it?)

4. Write more often - Average 2000 words per week. And get that bonkbuster about a load of randy social workers finished. With any luck, it'll earn some money, even if it does have the literary merit of an old bog roll.

5. Trust your instincts - If I'd started doing this, ooooh, 10 years ago or so, I might not be in the pickle I am today. Your gut has feelings. Listen to them. (I don't mean, for example, in an 'I need Imodium' sense. Although, it may be the case that you need exactly that. In which case, chemist followed by bathroom is usually a good move).

6. Not seek the opinions of trivial people  - there are some right twats about. Luckily, I don't know very many of them. But, just occasionally, they crop up. When young, many people are very externally focused, seeking the opinions of everyone around them to justify their actions. This year I will be ignoring them and their stupid thoughts, ideas and feelings, and instead listening to my wise friends (ok, and Slutdrop, too).

7. Learn more about India - it's long been a source of constant shame to me that I know very little about India, and have never been there. There, I said it. There is an argument to be made that not a lot of that is my fault, but still, it's me that's been constantly teased about it my entire life, me that's felt I don't belong here or there or anywhere, really. It occurs to me now, that I can change this - I can learn about India, I can learn the language, I can save up and I can GO THERE (although this latter will be a resolution for next year, no way will I have enough money any time in the next 24 months to make that particular dream a reality).

Finally, the standard

8. Lose four stone, marry Benedict Cumberbatch - standard.

I'm quite proud of my resolutions. I pass them to Slutdrop, explaining how I really think that treating resolutions as an opportunity, not a burden, can really broaden a person's horizons, how it can improve and develop your life. Slutdrop nods, thoughtfully. 'Go on, then,' I say. 'I showed you mine, you show me yours.'

Slutdrop hands me a tattered page from a notebook. Same as last year, plus a little less booze, it says.

I shuffle to the kitchen to fetch the brie, which apparently went off yesterday. Happy New Year, lovely people.

*999 Letsby Avenue, of course
**Not really. I've never eaten one and certainly wouldn't feed one to my kids. So there you go, ubermum brigade

Monday, 30 December 2013

Orange Rhinoceros

Christmas! Joy of joys, brand new toys, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the opportunity to create bloody boatloads of CARNAGE if you are one of the unfortunate residents of Axis Towers. The gruesome twosome had a fairly tepid kickoff to the season of goodwill to all men and evildoing to Mummy; the odd tantrum, some fairly unremarkable punchups over the Christmas tree, howls of dismay as one licked the other's mince pies and then put it back on the plate, an unfortunate incident involving next door's dog and a chicken drumstick waved, tortuously, just out of reach. By the time school broke up, Christmas had been cancelled and reinstated several times, Santa had rescinded presents on a percentage basis, and chocolate had been banned, for life, for both boys, approximately 15 times over each. 

Now that the Axis are a bit older, their interaction is far less dependent on me - apart from mopping up the blood, that is. This means they can do things together, without me or anyone else, and, as a result, seem to have almost developed their own little secret world. It's quite cute, most of the time. I mean, I don't think they're establishing any kind of cultish alternative society, but I'll keep half an eye on the Kool-Aid, just in case. 

As well as being part of fulfilling my parental duty to nose around in their business, eavesdropping on my sons occasionally affords me insights into my own, often less-than-perfect. Take, as an example, the day that I desperately needed to clean the whole house in half an hour, because we had visitors coming and I'd been at work. Clearly, a large and constructive part of the cleaning process involves yelling at the kids to pick stuff up, leading, obviously, to them flinging whatever they're currently playing with over their shoulder and poking around with the thing they should be picking up, before abandoning that too in favour of creating yet more chaos, until the whole house looks even more like it's just been burgled than it did before. I regret to admit that some choice insults left my lips in the general direction of my two little cherubs that day. Later on, once they'd fled the onslaught, I overheard them playing I-Spy. 

Pie: 'I spy, with my little STINKY eye, something beginning with M-M.' Kong: 'M-M? Is it Bumheads?' Pie: 'HEH HEH HEH! No.'

And so on, and so forth. What could it be? What devilish concatenation had the Pie concocted? Kong quickly conceded defeat and Pie revealed the answer: 'It stands for Moody Mummy!' Both boys fell about laughing. This was the same day that I discovered that, attached to a photograph of a large and particularly unappealing chimp, some child had put a Post-It note with the word 'MUM' writ large and an arrow pointing to said ape. I resisted the temptation to burst forth into room like a screaming Medusa and paused. I realised I felt slightly embarrassed; my behaviour had been unmeasured, unreasonable, and I had done the very thing I'd always said I wouldn't with my kids; terrorise them with shouting. OK, so they didn't appear particularly terrorised - but that's not the point. I'd been really going for it, yelling at them. I felt very sheepish and slowly made my way downstairs with a load of laundry for the machine, revisiting the mental list I'd compiled since the age of about 15 of things I'd never do to my own kids. 

I suppose everyone does this, and a lot of people laugh about it and say, ah, well, I didn't know then what I know now...meaning, I think, that they were unrealistic about their expectations when they ruled things out or in. I don't really feel that way. Without going into exactly what is on my list, I think I had the right idea. I resolve to try harder and be more patient with the feral little stinkers. 

One of the things that is on my list, however, is to do with Christmas. I've had some truly awful Christmases, alone, depressed, ill, grieving, drunk, or Christmases that were a load of work and no bloody fun. I tend to dread Christmas, and last year, this got to such a low that I sent the Axis packing off to their dad's, planning to spend it alone, under a duvet. Luckily, a kind neighbour took pity on me and instead I had the first enjoyable Christmas of my adult life. 

So this year, I realised that the three of us, now that we're firmly established as a single-parent family unit, rather than a broken family with one piece missing, could have, and deserved to have, a proper, decent Christmas. I bought a turkey, made stuffing in advance according to kindly neighbour's recipe, bored everyone to tears with interesting facts about roasting potatoes, engaged in the annual slagging off of the John Lewis ad, and dressed the Axis up as kings (ok, mobsters) for the church crib service on Christmas Eve (which was another, highly embarrassing, occasion, but not for now). On Christmas Day, the Axis scoffed loads of sweets and chocolates, ran around screaming, belted each other a bit, piled huge amounts of roasties and bacon rolls onto their plates at lunch, and fell asleep cuddling each other and me on the sofa to a Christmas film (well, not quite. A film about Mexican wrestling the house hero, Jack Black. Close enough). 

I wrested myself free and surveyed the damage. The floor was covered in gift wrap and there were several near-lethal Lego models scattered around unevenly for maximum foot injury potential. In the kitchen, there was an open bottle of squash lying on its side, dripping viscous orange onto the floor in a disturbingly large puddle. I felt my blood pressure rise, and opened my mouth - and stopped myself. No. No more yelling. Or at least not today. 

I wandered back into the front room, switched off the telly, and put that Johnny Mathis song on the stereo, quietly, watching the Axis in their semi-slumber. A large drop of drool was forming on the Pie's lips and was about to drop into the Kong's ear. In less than five seconds, all hell was going to break loose. But for now, happy Christmas, my beloved little ratbags. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Season's Bleatings

Ubermum swills the last of her wine around her glass, gazing mournfully down at it. 'It's got so bad,' she says, 'that we're doing a the countdown.' Her friends, including me, groan at recognition of her plight. Even me, who has told the Pie that he cannot request a new games console for Christmas, because although Santa delivers the presents, he sends Mummy the bill.

Ugh, Christmas. Leaving aside the whole birth of our saviour thing, I find it a pretty joyless time of year, for various reasons. The creeping dread of the horribleness seems to start earlier every year, hence the fact that, last week, I was forced to admit that what I had thought was a bit of a prolonged bad mood was, in fact, probably full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder. I'm no stranger to mood disorders, having happily miserable for several years, but somehow, I'm never ready. It always catches me on the hop. Even when, as with SAD, it can be marked, pretty much, on the calendar, I'm never ready. It bites me on the ankles and trips me up every time.

This time, though, is going to be different. I'm going to ORGANISE my way out of the misery! Yes! I'll devise a plan and STICK to it. Cos, y'know, I'm really, really good at that (ha). This isn't quite the same as the 'curtains approach' ('pull yourself together'). As, hopefully, most of you know, there is no point in telling someone depressed to snap out of it because they are actually very lucky ('but you have two beautiful children!' yes, I know, and I still feel fucking awful, so this must be serious). No, instead, I present an action plan for beating the bete noir before he drags me off again. You might find it helpful too, or not, as the case may be.

1. Get plenty of rest. As with colds, if you're tired, you're more vulnerable. And if you're half-asleep, you're more likely not to see the intricate Lego model Punto that the Kong has left on the stairs, step on it, skid halfway down the staircase and badly bruise your coccyx. I needn't dwell on the consequences that flow from such a grossly negligent act of Kong. Suffice to say, he has taken household responsibility for checking all stairs for Mummy-proofing from now on.

2. Don't get too much rest. Aha! The eternal conundrum! How much rest is enough? Well, if you're hiding under the duvet, thinking about how you should really get up, but you just can't, and you've been there for several hours - well, probably time to put one foot in front of the other and get up. Just to see what happens. Tempting though it is to sleep all day, doing so will only make the mood worsen. Gerrup! And do some exercise!

3. Eat properly. Note to self: This does not mean 'eat everything in sight'. No. It does not. It means three meals a day, healthy balance of protein, carbs and fat, lots of veggies, and, yes, ok, chocolate for the serontonin-boosting properties (which of course are multiplied if you manage to down a 200g bar of Whole Nut in one go).

4. Bury self in good book. Not to be confused with actual immersion in the church bible, which is roughly the size of our house. Instead, I have treated myself to three new novels from off of Amazon. Unfortunately, one is about a murder, one is a misery memoir, and the third is an instructional manual in something deadly boring. Ah. (BTW, I would go down the library, but I've sort of lost something of theirs, so I'm hiding. It's only getting worse, isn't it.)

5. New Project! Let's face it, around this time of year, everyone starts thinking about a new job. Even me, and I love my job (my boss might read this, although it's unlikely). So - ahem! - the way round it is to think of Something Completely Different. A new project. Resurfacing the garden, perhaps. Rearranging the kitchen. Starting a new business and making megabucks. Or finding a new, more efficient way to iron the Axis' pants.

6. Leave the bloody house, for Chrissakes I'm great for ducking invitations, me. That's not to say I get hundreds ('Private party at the French House? Ever so sorry, I've got to watch a rerun of The Bill on UK Gold that night') but recently, my default response when invited anywhere has been a flat 'no'. This has partly been due to the continuing extreme skintness that I'm getting increasingly sick of, partly because I Just Want To Be Left Alone, Dammit. People go out and do things and have fun and I moulder under the sleeping bag feeling miserable and doing nowt about owt. Hence, this morning, when Ubermum and Bongomum were hovering at the end of the path, a good 20 minutes after the kids had gone to school. They clobbered me into coming out tonight, even though I had planned an exciting evening of washing socks and eating yogurt on the sofa while wearing a cardigan with egg on the front of it. I fretted about all the stuff that wouldn't get done and then thought, it will be ok. This is what the bad parrot does not want you to think. The bad parrot keeps telling you all kinds of other things. But they are not true. Bad parrot can be relied upon to foxtrot oscar if you muse, loudly, on whether parrot pie would be better topped with shortcrust or puff.

7. Don't be browbeaten Use the phrases 'No' and 'I don't want to' more often. As in 'No thanks, I don't want to perform some thankless task that will probably only be done wrong and have zero impact' and 'I don't want to enter into a discussion with you about education policy because your crazy right-wing views are so beserk I'll provoke a self-induced hernia if I do.' Do lots of things you like, or that result in improvements, and don't do things you don't like, or that result in frustration. Avoid people who like to browbeat like the plague, they are no good for you and can look after themselves while you are not feeling great.

8. Do all your Christmas shopping online, finally buy the ex that lump of coal he's truly deserved for many, many Christmases, don't send any Christmas cards, admit that goodwill toward all men might just be pushing it a little bit this year, and order a curry from the local Indian takeaway for Christmas Day. And a trayful of pigs in blankets from Aldi, of course. For those of us who spend Christmas without our family, the whole season can be painted black, and it can last for months. Or you can choose to pretend it's just another day. I might try it that way this year, and see if it's any good. Jingle who?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Salad Days

Last week, I made a cake. Nothing special, just a vanilla sponge, sandwiched together with jam. At the sound of the K-beater being clicked into place on the Kenwood mixer, the Axis appeared like starved, slavering dogs, dancing excitedly from foot to foot in the kitchen doorway before even the first egg had been cracked. 'What you doing, Mum? Are you making us a cake? Can we have the bowl? Can I have the spatula and my brother have the beater? MMMMM yummy yum CAKE for US!' etc. After I'd scraped the creamy mix into the tin and bunged it in the oven, I handed over the bowl and two teaspoons to the lingering Axis. The Pie grabbed the bowl and set it down on the floor, kneeling down and leaning in, carefully and meticulously scraping every tiny spot of mixture from his side of the bowl, until he had enough to constitute a whole, delicious, vanilla-y mouthful. I watched, spellbound, as, at the very last second, just as Pie was about to put his hard-earned spoonful into his mouth, the vile Kong swooped down and - BOOM! - like a hideous, cake-bothering bird of prey, scooped the precarious ball of cake mixture from his brother's spoon onto his own, and slung it straight into his greedy, thieving mouth, cackling wickedly to his brother's howls of protest.

I knew he would, of course. I knew this would happen. Why? Because it mirrors, almost exactly, my own experiences with my brother, nearly thirty years ago. There is so much mirroring with those two and my own brother and me; the Axis have the exact same gap between their dates of birth, to the day, that my brother and I do, and I have no problem at all imagining them, spirit-children willing themselves into the world, in their primordial bubble, planning their order of arrival: 'You go first, yeah? And I follow two years later.' 'Make it two years, four months and four days, yeah? Three minutes to midnight, both of us, yeah?' 'Yeah! Same as her and her brother, yeah?! Heh heh heh.'

My own little brother got married last weekend, and I'm delighted/relieved that I was there to see it. In a family that's not generally characterised by sound choices of partner, he has managed to redress the balance by choosing someone fantastic. Pheeee-ew. It was weird, really; gave me pause to reminisce, and I realised how similar Broski and I are to the Axis.

The last physical fight Broski and I had was when I was 21 and he was 19; although I think it might have been a couple of years after that that he threw a £2 coin at my head, for various tedious reasons (it was his fault, obviously) and I screamed various curses at him and then, more than likely, smashed something. Throughout my childhood, he was there to exchange blows and pleasantries with; when I returned at Christmas after my first term at university, I attempted to thump him over some petty misdemeanour, only to discover the little sod had spent the time I was away furiously bulking up and working out, and his responding whack sent me flying across the room. Broski and I are fairly well known for our ability to start arguments in empty rooms; the night Daddio announced he was leaving me, Broski immediately materialised in solidarity and we got hideously drunk. At some point we were both on different floors of a relatively swanky/twatty place with several bars under one roof, starting different arguments with different people, at the same time.

I still remember him clearly as a baby, and I was always pretty delighted with him. He was a cute, chubby little thing, really; fat, dimpled arms and legs sticking out of his babygro like an overstuffed dolly; enormous dark eyes like chocolate, and a big laughing mouth, generally covered with chocolate, too. (When the Pie was born I was struck by the similarity. As a result, I often mix their names up, but never my brother and the Kong. Kong is completely different.)

Things I remember: matching horrible tracksuits, mine red, his blue, in about 1986.  Him singing the theme tune to 'Bergerac', repeatedly, in the back of the car on a family holiday around the same time (for the whole two weeks). Snoopy calendars printed out on old computer paper, the stuff with the green lines on the back, in our dad's office on a dot matrix printer. Our usually stern mum letting him sleep in her arms on the sofa as a two-year-old, after he needed stitches in his face on two consecutive weeks. Spending my entire childhood as a nervous wreck because he would creep into cupboards and wait, sometimes for hours, to leap out and terrify me. Me getting the blame the first time he got drunk (it had had nothing to do with me, typically). Laughing at him for dousing the front of his thick, curly black hair with Sun-In and having to spend the rest of the summer ginger at the front. His ability to recite the whole of the The Man with the Golden Gun and Crocodile Dundee II off by heart, having spent one summer watching them both about three times a day. Me getting in a rage with our mum for letting him steal my band t-shirts (that Therapy? Shortsharpshock T is MINE and I STILL want it back). Lots and lots of incidents that I daren't bring up without him getting in a huff, even now.

It's good, really, that I had this opportunity to think about and reflect on my brother. Like my own children, we are very much the same, but different. We have similar tastes in music, food, style (or lack of), but have different views on a lot of topics. We have not a clue what each other's jobs entail, nor have we for well over 10 years. He likes football and computers, I've tried to like football and computers but am much happier with books and cheese. My family are a pretty stroppy bunch (I include myself in that, although I expect some of you will disagree(ha!)) and there have been times where I've wanted to emancipate myself from the lot of them and change my surname to Bananahammock. Broski and I once managed to nearly achieve full-on nuclear fallout purely over text messages, without a single audible conversation being held - quite a feat, all things being equal. However, although I could give many examples to illustrate the point, I can't be bothered, really, so I'll just say this, which is what I say to the Axis after they've attempted to maim each other in some ghastly enterprise or other: Get on with your brother. You've not got another.

And, sentimental as horseshoe candy though it may be, I must say that twenty-odd years since he last stole my cake mix, I wouldn't want another, anyway.