The bottle-thrower in my head

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The other day I was hayfevered up to the max, and found myself in a quandary.

Oh gosh, Thursday, I texted Tim in the morning. If we go out the pollen will kill me, and if we stay in the boys will.

I mean, what is a girl to do?

When I just had Henry, we’d spend some days indoors, and most of the rest between a few familiar places. Now neither of those things are an option. Henry’s old enough to get bored if we go to the same places too often, and bored toddler + demented crawler is the stuff of fearful legend. Especially if we don’t leave the house at all. Great Scott. You know in How to Train Your Dragon, where Hiccup is leafing through the village Dragon Book, and the Night Fury page is ominously empty? That’s what a description of an indoor day would look like in my journal. Just fingernail scratches, and screams.

So – and let’s continue with the movie theme for a minute if we may – you know that scene in films where some unhinged character screeches ‘get out, GET OOOOOOUT!’ And then throws their cigarette/jewellery box/whiskey bottle at the offending guest? That’s what my head does around 10am every day. Breakfast, lovely. Bath, great. Clothes, uh-oh, here comes the whiskey bottle yes here it comes GET OUT GET OUT GET OOOOOOOUT.

I scramble for supplies and we get the heck outta Dodge before another jewellery box crashes around our ears.

Henry calls our morning trips ‘adbentures’. There is nothing that makes you feel more like the Winner of Everything than helping two tiny energetic people have a nice time in an unfamiliar place, and¬†I really kind of love it. But there are two problems, going adbenturing.¬†One, you’re much more likely [read: certain] to get the pushchair stuck or run out of hands when there’s only one of you.¬†And two, I am absolutely awful at predicting the weather.

Here’s the week that was, and the weather-inappropriate things we wore.

Monday: playdate to Mapledurham lock and Purley Park. I dressed the boys in summer clothes, and we froze. Also, cattle grids and pushchairs are unmixy items.

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Tuesday: museum date in Reading Town Hall. Remembering the previous day, we all wore long sleeves. And boiled.

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Wednesday: investigation into the Roman walls at Silchester. I tried to be cautious, and we wore shorts with long sleeves. And boiled, and the path was VERY unsuitable for pushchairs, so I half-carried it for two miles. TEDDY IS NOT LIGHT, FYI.

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Thursday: Caversham park by the river. Ho ho, I thought, looking at the overcast sky. You don’t fool me. Short sleeves and shorts today. And we froze.

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Friday: Rhymetime and library, and it looked like rain. Long sleeves. You know what happened. *wipes sweat from everywhere, shakily stuffs chocolate in mouth*

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Still. New house this summer (we hope we hope) and nursery for Henry after that.¬†I slow down when we’re on the verge of something new, wondering how much I really want it. While we’re here waiting, on the verge, I can’t think of a better thing to do than¬†adbenture, on and on till we get to September and something entirely different.

Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walk\drive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.

 

‘I do like your belly, but not right now’: some things I said during Father’s Day photos

‘If you sit still and smile for daddy’s photographs, you can have some of daddy’s chocolate.

Do you need a shark for photographs? Ok, alright, hold your shark.

No, not in front of your face. I need to see your face, not your shark.’

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‘Teddy, can you sit back? Teddy. Teddy. Sit back, darling. Sit back sit back sit back. No, Henry, don’t you sit forward now. Both of you need to sit back.’

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‘Teds, not the curtains, please. Hen, it’s not funny. You want to sit over on that side? Oh, ok. No, don’t you play with the curtains either. Daddy doesn’t want to see you playing with curtains. I can’t take a photo of you playing with curtains.’

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‘LOOK AT MEEEEEE!’ *dances like an idiot. Henry, unresponsive, slowly puts shark on head*

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Teddy. Sit up. Come on, bear. Don’t sit on your brother, please.’

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‘Put your belly away! Yes, I do like your belly, but not right now. It’s a lovely belly. Put. It. Away. Thank you.’

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‘Teddeeeeee. Stop hitting your brother, please. TEDS. WATCH SOPHIE AND STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER.’

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Winner winner chicken dinner. Sort of. Both boys are looking, and only one boy is slightly out of focus. Pee Ess, guys, this is why we’ve never had family portraits done.

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Superpowers, for dads

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The boys in my house wore matching ties today, all three of them. Halfway through the morning rush Henry got upset that his tie wouldn’t lie flat like Timothy’s. From the bathroom I watched Tim take him on his lap and convince him how fine his tie was, how smart, and most importantly, how incredibly flat: it falls down just like a waterfall, Henry. It’s perfect.

Later Henry was practising lunges while I put on my make up, and stopped to admire his tie. He was beaming all over his face, glowing with it. ‘This tie is so smart, Mummy. It like a waterfall’.

I have noticed that this is what happens between Daddy and these boys. He gives them a better way to see things, and they believe him. I’ve watched him convince Teddy that playing a made-up game is more fun than being hungry and cross. He can¬†make our old playground exciting, over and over again, while I faint with boredom on the bench. He’s made Henry terribly severe about road safety without saying anything at all, just by showing him how it’s done. Woe betide you if you cross without pressing the button for the green man. That’s not how Daddy does it. ¬†

If it’s sappy metaphors you’re after, try this: if I order their universe around them, then it’s Timothy who lights up their sky. Timothy, too, who straps on their wings and pushes them off the cliff. He tells them they can fly, and then they do.

It is something special to watch the person you married love the babies you made. One day I’ll look at my grown-up boys, and realise he’s helped them see a better way to be a man.¬†And they will believe him, I hope, because damn. He knows what he’s talking about.

I never want to not feel this. Happy Father’s Day, my love.

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The desert, and other stories

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You are in Arizona. There is something odd about Arizona. A huge, open valley ringed with mountains you never reach. Burning heat. It feels like the ends of your hair are crisping up, like every tiny part of your skin sits under a magnifying glass held by a curious, ant-killing giant.

The intense flatness of the vivid blue sky: no clouds, no sense of perspective. Beautiful, and pitiless.

The Aztec-style decorations on bridges and highways: spirals and lizards etched out in chalk.

The cacti loitering by the freeway and in people’s gardens, playing it cool, like it’s not¬†the weirdest thing ever. You text home. ‘THERE ARE CACTI ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, ALL CASUAL. Like we’re in the Wild West or something?’ ‘Um, you ARE in the Wild West’, they text back. Good point. Where else would it be but here?

The knowledge that every plant has been put there on purpose, because almost nothing grows spontaneously except those enormous lordly cacti. Then seeing how the city planners got carried away with the plant thing and started disguising non-plant items as plants, like mobile phone masts dressed up as palm trees. It feels like a sixties Bond film. Are there Russians dressed up as palm trees too? It’s brilliant.

Citrus fruit trees, with their trunks painted white to stop them shrivelling. The flash of acid yellow lemons between the leaves looking as foreign as anything you’ve ever seen.

The dust in the back of your throat. The point at which your winter-ready English feet get tired of sandals, so you take them off, and last about half a second before you have to leap for some shade, soles singeing.

Hunting for scorpions at night on the wall. Watching them glow blue under torchlight. Spending some time afterwards imagining scorpions leaving the wall for a jaunt into your bed. Sleeping with the duvet tucked in.

The m.e.x.i.c.a.n f.o.o.o.o.o.d. (Pause for sobbing.)

The family whose conversation you slide back into like you’ve seen them every day for the seven years they’ve been gone. A wedding full of lovely details. A ceremony you cry through, a reception where you eat burritos until your dress is straining, and then dance hard and hilariously, sweating into your hair, through the orangey evening and into the night.

Walking out into a city anchored onto desert, and never being able to forget the desert just a few feet underneath, hustling around the edges, whipping into your hair and mouth on the back of a hot wind.

The wind always hot. Even at night. When there’s any wind at all.

There is something odd about Arizona. You belong back with the tangled weedy hedgerows and narrow roads, the drizzle and the dry humour. As soon as you land you feel the rightness of it. But you miss the desert.

You are in Arizona, and then you are not, and you don’t think you will ever get it out of your head.

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2014 06 James and Hannah's wedding

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What’s the magic (sibling) number?

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I’m back! And I’m catching up as quickly as possible, which is to say, not very quickly at all, despite my many multicoloured to-do lists.

In some ways it’s been a rough landing. Toddler-plus-newborn felt pretty damn hair-raising, but toddler-plus-determined-climbing-biter is black belt martial arts. ‘I’d forgotten how much of my day is fending off chaos with karate-chopping¬†hands’, I meant to text to Tim, but didn’t, because I didn’t get a minute to sit down. (I said it to him while wrestling pyjamas onto Teddy during the three minutes he was home, instead.)

And yet, and yet. The way these two interact at the moment is a joyous thing. They communicate somewhere outside speech, in a dialect of face-patting, cheerio-stealing, laughing and crawling up and down stairs, shoulders bumping together. Every day they get more like brothers. ‘Two boyths in the bath!’ Henry crows in the mornings. ‘Two boyths doin’ crawling! Two boyths in the washing machine!’

I ran in quick for that one. No harm done.

I had a really good week away. Today I sorted out my photos from my brother’s wedding, and it was the photo at the top that made me realise why: sibling time is easy time. Your jokes are always funny, your dance moves are always appreciated; your oldest self comes back out to play and you remember why you liked her.

It was this photo too that convinced me I’m not yet done with babies. We would be lost without our boys, Sarah and I. They have spent a lifetime infuriating us, teasing us, accepting us – we’d be infinitely poorer without all that.¬†Four was a great number: we could divide into pairs if we wanted, but altogether we were like the kids putting our rings together to call up Captain Planet: varied and multi-faceted and unstoppable. No one gets you like your siblings, and the more you have, the sweeter it is.

And my own boys -¬†who knows who might be waiting to join their conspiratorial gang of two? I’m game to find out.*

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*not yet, though.

What’s your ideal number of siblings? What made you decide to stop or carry on? Has your experience with your own family made you want the same, or sent you screaming in the opposite direction? It’s different for everyone, so spill the beans below.

The secret to choosing the perfect holiday reading

Tomorrow I fly to the States for my little brother’s wedding. Leaving aside how weird it is that tiny sticky-handed brothers can grow up to become nice people and get married to other nice people¬†anyway, like what business is it of theirs getting older,¬†I have a fair few things to ponder over this morning. Not least: narrowing down the book pile that will go into my carry-on.

(No, I don’t have a Kindle. Yes, I can finally see the value in it and probably will succumb at some point, but today is not that day.)

I have a fail-safe rule when it comes to holiday books, and this applies even if you do have a schmancy e-reader and are wondering what to download. It goes:

something old

something new

something funny

something true

If you’re thinking that this holiday is the chance you’ll get to finally get through the Booker shortlist, I’m here to tell you that’s probably not going to happen. Holiday brain is real. By the time you’ve got over the dribbling relief of being away from your normal routine and in a pretty place by a pool, you can forget the Serious Novel.

Here’s my pile for the Arizona desert:

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old: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By ‘old’ I mean an old favourite – one you’ve read and reread till you can quote the opening sentence on the first dog-eared page.¬†¬†Agatha is my go-to comfort read, as you probably know. And Then There Were None is so forties it hurts, and fiendishly, blood-curdlingly clever. I know exactly whodunnit and I still can’t leave it alone.¬†

new: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

By which I mean, again, new to you. There’s nothing like discovering something magnificent in a new place. The two become forever linked in your head, and thinking about one will remind you, beautifully, of the other. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read Mansfield Park,¬†and a seventeen-hour travelling day will probably leave me enough time to get stuck in. Besides, wouldn’t a dash of Regency manners be a perfect antidote to sitting in economy like a trussed-up chicken?

funny: Terry Pratchett’s Mort*¬†

You don’t want to be hammering through some literary theory when you hit turbulence or are waiting for your third delayed flight. You want something quick and hilarious. Terry Pratchett might not be your laugh-magnet of choice – choose whoever is – ¬†but Mort is one of my oldest and most beloved of funny books.

*NOTE: ‘funny’ can here be replaced with ‘trashy’, and the effect is the same. If you go with ‘trashy’ I would recommend some good corset-and-codpiece historical fiction, or else a magazine, if you can find one that doesn’t make you want to stab your eyes out.

true: ¬†Nine Stibbe’s Love Nina

I do like a bit of holiday non-fiction. This book has been the most joyous thing I’ve discovered this year -¬†the journal of a resolutely unimpressed nanny in a houseful of literary celebrities and precocious children. I wanted to start it again the minute I finished, and this weekend I’ll finally have time. (Warning: bohemian households containing Alan Bennett swear a lot.)

Now all I have to do is work out what to do when it’s FORTY DEGREES CELCIUS AT FIVE PM. Apart from weep tears that immediately evaporate into steam. I’m excited! (I’ll also be away from here for the next week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, lovers.)