Such a satisfying day. The girls are off school for the second week of the Easter hols, Babyfather is away at a conference, so my good friend (who for the purposes of this blog I shall call 100% Mum) and I came up with a plan to visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. OK, 100% Mum came up with the plan. She’s the kind of mum who always has in her handbag everything you could possibly ever need when outdoors with children, short of a defibrillator – her kids come home from school every day to find a fresh craft activity laid out on the kitchen table for them – now, inevitably, she is doing teacher training.

We got a boat to Greenwich from Embankment station, and although it made the whole journey take roughly two hours, it was worth it. The river boat called itself a clipper, which was nicely appropriate, since the Cutty Sark is apparently a clipper too (not that our river-going motor boat could have done heroic voyages carrying tea from China or looked half as tasteful sporting a semi-clad figurehead at the bow.) The promised cloud cover never showed up and it was a genuinely spring-like day. It took a full three quarters of the journey for the Redster and her friend to find looking at the banks of the Thames boring out on the back deck, and the Cutester and her friend were fully entertained indoors inserting wooden tea stirrers into breadsticks and calling them ice lollies.

I’m never sure, on these kind of trips, whether the children are learning the sorts of things the curators hoped and intended them to learn, but I know when they’re enjoying themselves. I come away with a satisfying amount of historical facts in my short-term memory (from where it diffuses a warm glow for about 36 hours, before quietly evaporating forever) and of course I feel happy that the children are enjoying themselves, in a place of historical significance to boot, about which they might even one day remember something. In any case, it’s satisfying. I asked the Redster what she most liked about the ship and she said it was playing hide and seek on the top deck, where an able seaman’s bunk and the ship’s toilet proved to be the best hiding places, in case you need to know. I know without asking the Cutester that her favourite part of the day was at Liverpool Street Station, sliding down a slope between two sets of stairs where she should not have been at all, so there was no point enquiring.

My favourite part, in case you’re interested, was a bit of footage shot on board the ship in the 1920s of real sailors really sailing the thing. You see huge waves crashing across the deck; men doing silly things like sitting on those vertical things that stick out from masts (‘booms’ perhaps?) fiddling with ropes overhead, whilst hanging on with their bum cheeks alone; a massive whale spouting alongside; lots of people in sou’westers doing urgent things to ropes while getting battered by a storm; etc etc and it made me feel all misty-eyed about Britain’s nautical past. (That was probably exactly what the curators were aiming for. I was putty in their hands.) I didn’t need the film to be projected onto a big display of Merino wool sacks or to be sitting on a bench which moves in order to simulate sea-sickness while I watched it, but ten out of ten for effort nonetheless.

We went for Docklands Light Railway rather than boat to get us home. Not only were we back in time for the Cutester’s gymnastics lesson (it runs even in school holidays because that’s what happens when the head of a gymnastics school is called ‘Olga’), but we had time for an indulgent pizza TV dinner watching ‘Total Wipeout’ on iPlayer before the girls went to bed. Who knew that watching people falling into water could be so consistently funny and gripping for a whole hour? See, that’s Britain’s nautical past again. It’s in our blood.

The Redster: NINE

The Cutester: Five and three quarters

The Redster fell in love with all things Potter sometime last year.

I’d discouraged her from watching any of the films while I put off the decision of whether or not I wanted her to get into Harry Potter. The whole cropping up of witches in kids’ literature was giving me a dilemma – if we’re teaching her to follow Jesus and read the Bible, which explicitly forbids witchcraft, why read about witches for entertainment? I feel very comfortable not celebrating Halloween because however light-heartedly it’s done, it’s still a festival of death, fear and pumpkins, although the pumpkins, I must say, are quite tasty. (One Halloween I thought I’d make a positive statement by carving a godly pumpkin to put in a window. But the cross shape looked somehow more Gothic and horror-show than any other pumpkin on the street and attracted hoards of trick-or-treaters.)

But then, what about witches in kids’ stories? And what about Harry Potter? The fact is, I read every single Potter avidly when they were first published, and Babyfather and I saw all of the films once they were released on DVD, so to ban it from the house seemed hypocritical. And, moreover, the whole point about magic in Potter – like Winnie the Witch or The Worst Witch – is that it’s just a device to create fantastical worlds where anything can happen, which is what you want in order to lose yourself in a book, and if you have magic in a book, it might as well be done by a witch or a wizard. It is a time-honoured literary device, and, certainly as far as Potter is concerned, has nothing to do with the real life practice of witchcraft or the occult – as far as I know. Or maybe real occult practitioners do actually blast their opponents off their feet with wands made from unicorn horns?

So, the Redster was unexpectedly lent the first book in the series by a friend at school, and I had to think fast. I decided to approve. Events unfolded quickly – culminating in me, this weekend, answering the door to a local vicar while dressed from head to toe as a witch (Prof McGonnagall to be precise) including a very black, very twisty, very pointy hat. I can explain…

The borrowing of the first book had led to the next five, and to the forming of a very earnest fan club with a group of the Redster’s friends at school (anyone who loved Potter could join) of which the committee met one Saturday and collaborated on the first chapter of a sequel: Albus Potter and the Last Horcrux (not to be published anytime soon I’m afraid – the committee hasn’t met for months). The next thing was obviously going to be a Potter party, and that’s what took place today, the week the Redster turned nine.

I don’t know why this happens, but the children’s parties take over my mind completely in the fortnight or so running up to them, and it’s possible that I enjoy them more than the kids. But seriously, if the opportunity presented itself to you to play Quidditch in your own back garden, and then to vicariously enjoy all your favourite childhood party games (renamed along Potter lines, such as Winking Avada Kedavra) wouldn’t you jump at the chance? And possibly dress up yourself? And when a friend’s husband is game enough to actually play the part of Dumbledore, in the beard and everything (everything short of an inflatable Phoenix or, heck, even a parrot, which I completely failed to source), wouldn’t you be beside yourself with glee? Or is it just me?

It was the vicar’s daughter who said emphatically, ‘That is the best party I have ever been to,’ – and she hasn’t even read the books. The other rather more well-informed party guests picked me up on my Quidditch scoring but still seemed to have a good time. The Redster got on OK too – she was sorted into Gryffindor, which won the most chocolate, er, house points – and is now the satisfied owner of Harry Potter merchandising galore, from a Gringotts piggy bank to a Wii game. The younger siblings, intended to be quietly parked in front of a film upstairs, quickly ditched that idea and went feral instead in a compact but loud and fast-moving pack, finishing by all arriving in the kitchen wearing knickers on their heads.

So I think it went OK.

P.s. My joy is complete! The Quidditch player who won the snitch (in real life, a table tennis ball spray painted gold, badly) asked to take it home with him. His father reported this morning that the last thing he did before turning out the light was to pick it up off the bedside table and give it a kiss.

Redster: Nearly nine

Cutester: Five and a half

Olympic Parade

We didn’t make it to the victory parade. There was a last minute missive passed by word of mouth from the head teacher in the morning to say we were allowed to take the kids out of school to see it, but we mums looked at each other, Mondays planned out in our heads, and decided we had closure on the Ympics* already. Then the victory parade came to us, in the form of red, white and blue smoke billowing up from the horizon as we made our way to swimming after school, followed by the Red Arrows suddenly appearing overhead, still in formation, and zooming past to the north. That was nice. Like the opening ceremony; we didn’t see it live, as we were camping, but that morning at 8.12 people began to appear at the entrance of their tents, banging spoons on saucepans or tringing bicycle bells. It was goose bumping; a wordless church-bell-like ringing in of something bigger than us all.

We had tickets to see some women’s hockey at the Olympics, and for the Paralympics we went with the Very Best Red Headed Friend and her parents to see dressage at Greenwich Park. The hockey was good – the whole experience of being in the Olympic Park – the teams we chose to support winning – the Cutester’s wandering attention being rescued by Mexican waves. Nanny was a real live Gamesmaker, a proper Ympic volunteer with a uniform and everything, but she didn’t have tickets to our match. She nobly decided to join us on our 5am start, in order to come with us then shop at Westfield next door. Being Nanny, as soon as she got to the shopping centre she got into conversation with a complete stranger who turned out to have a surplus hockey ticket. We had no idea til she sailed past us in one of those mobility buses…
Nanny speeds past

The Paralympics have been a triumph and I’ve loved everything about them; I now find myself looking around me in the supermarket for people with missing limbs so I can admire their athletic physique. Being in Greenwich Park was stunning, where you have the Thames as the backdrop to the dressage arena, but I’m sorry to say it was wasted on the Redster. She’d been promised dancing horses, and when dressage (for this category, at least) turned out to be horses either walking or trotting in meaningless directions, and not an amputee in sight, she perhaps understandably felt somewhat ripped off. (‘What’s wrong with him, then?’ went the commentary from the children behind us as each rider appeared, while their parents offered fumbling explanations.) Especially when the VBRHF has a Mandeville, and the Cutester has a GOLD Wenlock, and she has neither, and the Ympic shop closed before we even got out of our seats afterwards. She finished up having a toddler style meltdown, resulting in a massive headache, and it took four trains to get home – by then 9.30pm – and it was the first day of the new school year the next morning.

And the Boy Redster, one of her best friends at school, got to see athletics finals in the stadium with medal ceremonies and everything. Still, I feel that jealousy would not be in keeping with the Ympic spirit.

*I don’t know if this is a word or not.My phone suggested it when I mis-typed Olympics and it seems like a good collective noun.

Redster: Eight and a half

Cutester: Five

On Tuesday morning I was lying in bed steeling myself for the 6.15 start (Tuesday being the one day of the week that I catch a train to go and work in a real office, in a sort of parallel universe) when the Redster appeared at my side. She seemed agitated.

‘I can’t sleep,’ she fretted. ‘I can’t get into bed with everyone crowded round it.’

‘Who’s crowded round it?’ I said.

‘And they won’t stop talking and they’ve stolen everything in the room.’

‘Who have?’

‘Except for the clock and the bed’ – pause – ‘and the Cutester.’

‘WHO HAVE?’

‘The little people,’ she said.

Bearing in mind that I have only just led a public discussion on mental illness, that there is mental illness in the family and I have worked with people diagnosed as schizophrenic who do sometimes say things like this, you will appreciate that I was now wide awake.

‘Little people?’

‘Like Borrowers, but about twice the size and much more annoying.’

She then flopped down on the bed next to me and said with total seriousness, ‘I WISH we hadn’t won the lottery.’ [Er, we haven’t.]

‘Are you sure they’ve taken everything?’ I said. ‘Why don’t you go and look and see if everything is gone or not?’

‘I’m sure they have because they told me they were taking everything because of all the money we won in the lottery,’ she said.

I racked my brains to remember if early onset of schizophrenia can be as young as eight.She was definitely awake, and in fact claimed to have been awake since 3.15am, when she came and woke me up and said, ‘It’s 3.15 Mummy so you need to get up and go to work,’ which even then struck me as a little odd.

‘I’ll just go to the toilet,’ she said and was back in three seconds, saying ‘I can’t go.’ 

(I didn’t ask why, and I’m glad I didn’t, because later she told me that the little people were all crowding round talking at once and conspiring to push her off the toilet if she sat on it.)

Realising that I was not going to get back to sleep, possibly ever again, and nor was I going to work that day, I took her downstairs and took her temperature. It was high. I was immensely relieved.

Round about lunchtime she said, ‘I can think again now!’ It turned out that all day on Monday she couldn’t think straight or write things down properly, and when I picked her up she was in floods of tears, but said it was because she’d just hurt her ankle. She clearly didn’t understand why she was upset. She also couldn’t remember some of the things she’d said that morning. She couldn’t remember saying we’d won the lottery, but she smiled sheepishly when I told her because she’d just read a book in which a family wins the lottery. However she did remember the Borrowers talking and keeping her awake. 

‘I think they were just my thoughts,’ she said eventually. ‘But they were really, really loud.’ 

Can having a temperature mess with your head that much?! I suppose she was actually delirious. It was a vicious virus – the Cutester got it next and has been feverish and throwing up for the last 48 hours. But that was kind of easier to handle.

 

The Cutester: Five

Christmas rolled seamlessly into the Cutester’s birthday as usual, though at least, as usual, she was surrounded by family for the usual modest celebration. And it’s now established tradition (i.e. we did it once before) to have a proper party a whole month later, so I’ve got time to organise it. Not on my own, of course: the Redster has planned all the games already, with a theme and everything.

I’ve been storing up Cutester Sayings for a while and on the occasion of her birthday, or not too long after her birthday, I would like to share them with t’internet. This is an erudite child who has learnt how to relevantly use a literary quote to the best possible effect:

1) (Years ago, lying with us on our bed listening to noises outside on the street one morning, sucking her thumb)
High heels going past on pavement: Clip, clop, clip, clop
Cutester, taking thumb out of mouth: Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge? (replaces thumb)

2) (Her first go at Angry Birds. Together we destroy two pigs but fail to touch the third)
Cutester, pointing at third pig: And that little pig lived happily ever after.

3) (A visit at Christmas to a friend of my sister’s, who actually lives in his own, real, 16th century castle. The castle owner has left the room to get us some tea.)
Redster: Does he really own the whole castle all by himself?
Me: Yes he does.
Redster: So he’s like the king!
Cutester, whispering to me: Are we the dirty rascals?

You see? She is absolutely priceless.

I think we can safely say there is no-one like the Cutester. She can be as stubborn as anything and also as good as gold, but only on her terms, and not to please anyone but herself. I actually respect that about her – it makes her acts of affection or helpfulness all the more precious, because they are completely whole-hearted, rather than done out of obligation. I hope that quality stays with her. Happy birthday you rascally cute Cutester you.

Redster: Eight

Cutester: Five at last

As we loaded up the children’s stockings on Christmas Eve (sorry if I have shattered any illusions there), up in Ganny and Gandad’s place, we had to carefully step over a small outfit that had been laid out on the carpet for the next day, with everything from hat to boots in the right position. The Cutester does like to pay careful attention to her wardrobe. On the actual day she was bombarded with clothes and got through about four outfits, sometimes wearing them simultaneously…

The Cutester knows full well that the Santa idea is not strictly factual. But the stockings, as well as keeping both girls busy until 7am, inspired her to reciprocate. The next evening I found both my pairs of Christmas slippers under my pillow. The following night I found this:

The parcel

Inside was this:

Parcel contents

The shoes were a bit grubby, to be honest, but it’s the thought that counts.

Ganny was delighted to discover a child’s hat and a pair of nail scissors on her pillow the next night, but it turns out that I put them there myself by mistake. Maybe we should just all give each other stockings. I haven’t had one since I was 34.

The Cutester: Nearly five
The Redster: Eight and a bit

Our school does its infant school Christmas plays on a strict three-year rotation, so the Cutester performed the same show, ‘The Magic Box’, that her sister performed in her first year at school. To her disgust, however, the Cutester was not cast as a snowflake like her sister (even though she’d memorised the dance perfectly) but as a Christmas cracker. I don’t know if it was in protest, or if she was just overawed by the serried ranks of mums and dads, but on the big day she declined to sing a single word and performed all of her actions approximately ten seconds after everyone else. (She was nonetheless the cutest character on stage, bar a tiny black girl dressed as a snowman in an over-sized top hat.)

I remember shedding the odd tear as the Redster and her tiny peers came on stage back in their Reception days, wearing their star-spangled pillowcases – but here’s another example of second child, second fiddle; the repetition of the show made it feel jaded, plus I was sitting in the worst possible place to actually see her, and practically had to stand on my chair when it was time for the Christmas cracker dance.

In the foyer afterwards, I looked out for a review by the Redster – all the Juniors are invited to write one after seeing the Infants’ show dress rehearsal. It didn’t seem to be there, and I was just wondering despondently why they hadn’t seen fit to display it, when my eye fell on a fun-looking review tucked away behind the door. I read it to the end, impressed by the writer’s empathy for the younger ones – only to discover it was written by the Redster herself.

So here it is (click to enlarge):

Babymother: 39 and a half

I haven’t updated you on the Redster’s eighth birthday extravaganza (a film party! Easiest yet! 13 children sit in complete silence for an hour and a half, eat cake, go beserk on the trampoline and go home!) or described the progress of her incredible half term project Eiffel Tower model, or boasted about the Cutester’s nascent reading abilities (she sounded out ‘f-r-o-g’ all by herself!) but I have done this:

The View from the Tank – a non-cycling mother writes

so that will have to do for now. Sorry.

The Cutester: Four and three quarters

So… the Cutester has started school. She’s completed a whole week of mornings – though, being in the oldest third of the class, by next week she will already be doing 9.00 – 3.30. While on the one hand all sorts of freedoms beckon me, I am not looking forward to finding out what shape she’ll be in when full days get underway. She’s already completely toasted.

(At this point I have to explain that the family photographer has gone out for a drink without first posting recent shots of the Cutester on Flickr, so you’ll have to make do with mine instead.)

The first day went as well as can be expected. She breezed in easily, knowing a good proportion of the class already as siblings of the Redster’s friends or alumni from her nursery. (I did my best not to feel superior towards the new parents at pick-up time, though I did graciously condescend to advise on parking, reading books, PTA, and so on. Then I took my rightful place in the clique of established parents which stands slightly upwind of the rest of the herd.) It will probably be remembered forever, poor child, that on her first day she came out of school wearing borrowed underwear, her tights and pants being handed to me gingerly in a plastic Sainsbury’s bag with the handles tied firmly together. It seems that she was too busy to realise she needed to go, and then too embarrassed to ask. She didn’t seem too flummoxed though, as she was very taken with the knee-high grey socks she’d been lent.

New kids on the block

On Thursday and Friday mornings she didn’t want to go to school – why? It’s boring, the teachers always tell you off, you have to tidy up constantly… but as soon as it was time for the queue of very short people to file from the playground into the school, off she went, without a backward glance.

It’s a good thing that at her age, she can’t possibly conceive that there are at least twelve years of all this stretching ahead of her.

Come Friday, it seemed right to drop my normal objections to MacDonalds and treat her and some friends to a celebratory meal, followed by messing about in the sprinkler at another mum’s, followed by some probably quite damp cakes.

It is, after all, the first week of the rest of her life. And mine.

The Redster: Nearly eight
The Cutester: Four and a half

Junior

The Redster has been nervous. Year three is the start of juniors, so no more being top of the food chain in the playground or at lunchtime, and in her one experience of junior school lunch a year four girl stood up to say grace – so she’s been convinced this duty will be forced on her sometime in the first week. I think all sorts of things built up in her mind in anticipation, but on the actual day, all went well. We were so ahead of the ten-minute-earlier start that we practically witnessed the janitor opening the school gates, but not quite, and the Redster was so pleased to see her friends, and they her, that she didn’t seem fazed by her two best girlfriends having matching Hello Kitty pencil cases with three separate compartments stuffed with everything including protractors.

As usual for the beginning of a school year, the parents formed a foolish-looking huddle as the children filed in and sat down, taking turns to crane our necks round the door of the classroom and generally point and titter. Junior school looks different. There is less of the brightly-coloured nursery look you get in infants, the chairs are bigger, the tables are bigger, and that leaves no room for a patch of carpet to sit on. That’s it. No more carpet time. Something gone for ever. I feel very emotional about that carpet.

Well, goodbye carpet, but hello Eljay the Elephant. He came home from school with us yesterday, along with a diary, to record what he gets up to between hometime and 8.50am the following morning. I turned to the previous day’s entry, written by a boy who is notorious in the year for being, shall we say, high-spirited:

‘Me and Eljay watched TV. We watched Horrid Henry. Then we went upstairs we played my gutar. We played a song I made up on the gutar called the Chicken Flushed His self down the Toilet. Then we made up some more songs so there is a whole serees. They are all very rude.’

That boy has now gone way up in my estimation… it was a hard act to follow, but Eljay did not lack stimulation in our home either, especially when he got caught in the crossfire of a ripe tomato fight.