Counselling for Dummies

I am not sure if I will get summarily divorced if I say anything about the marriage counselling sessions we just had, but I would like to, and Mark doesn’t read anything I write, so just don’t tell him, ok? No sneaky little whatsapp messages or little texts on his phone to dob me in, because I always check his phone so I will know, and you will be a bit dead to me. Anyway, I don’t really know why it feels weirdly shameful to go to counselling – after all, you send your 25 year old Landrover in for a service with a mechanic at least once every year, and he fiddles with it and fixes up the rusted parts and gets it all nice and safe again, so really, what’s the difference?

So. We had six sessions with a volunteer counsellor at Marriage Care, which, importantly, costs whatever you can afford to pay. It was down the road in Notting Hill Gate, next to a bank and through some rickety wooden Doors Of Shame (as Mark liked to call them). We turned up the first time and went into a shabby but nice-smelling room with chairs and a tiny pencil print on the wall which I studied quite a lot and a big box of tissues. We told the lady right off that while we love each other and actually, crucially, still like each other, we had a big problem because we can’t agree on where to live. In fact, we told her, we couldn’t even mention the words ‘New Zealand’ without one of us getting constricted airwaves, red hivey skin and usually a nasty fight that might well send one of us running out into the night or into a silence that could last for days and days, one that left a kind of residual distance that makes it hard to trust each other. We said it was becoming hard to find the kindness, tolerance, patience, humour and companionship between us. Without those things, she said, you don’t really have a marriage that works anymore.

So we went into it all a bit, and she told us after the first session that one of us was holding all the nostalgia and the other was in a vacuum, and that our stubborn, desperate opposing stances were really a fight for our own mental health. She said we did have a good marriage, but a very serious problem, and so by looking into why the both of us held our positions so tightly she might be able to loosen them a bit so we could talk properly and fairly about it. Over the next five weeks she poked into our childhoods and looked at death, faith and the different kinds of love that you experience over a lifetime. She challenged us about the compromises we might each be able to make and forced Mark to weigh up the longing for extended family over the one that is right here, now.

There were some deeply awkward moments when she looked at why and how we were together in the first place and our age gap – I said I thought it had never really been a problem, but she said that actually, lady, it is now. She said that our roles have been of parent and adolescent and that if we couldn’t change that dynamic, the marriage wasn’t going to stand a chance. It was exposing and brutal, and she helped us see things in very different ways. She told us how to talk to each other better, and to recognise the patterns we keep slipping into, and she gave me ideas of how to start becoming an autonomous equal. She also kind of told me to grow up.

As for the New Zealand problem? Well, I would have liked her to sit us down and tell us what to do, but she didn’t. She said we had to consider everything, and think about who had what to lose, and how much of a sacrifice we could both stand. I like a clean ending, so I said we could go and I would give up my fight, but only if Mark would stop trying to drag me by the hair and instead start having a sensible conversation with me like I was an intelligent 40 year old woman with opinions that need to be considered fairly rather than someone who is a complete idiot with grandiose delusions of herself. Or, you know, I would happily decamp to Dollis Hill, but he wasn’t having any of that.

So it helped, it really did. I think the counsellor was brave and brilliant and even Mark said she was good, even though when she asked him scary questions he just got louder and laughed at the end of every sentence even though it wasn’t funny and he stuck his hands over his mouth as though he really just wanted to die. Awkward? Yes, but maybe you need that, you know? Poking under the bonnet, ripping out the spark plugs and changing the oil?

IN OTHER FAMILY NEWS

I went to Noah’s first parent teacher interview, and it was dire. That kid has somehow hoodwinked the school into thinking he is sickly, because he runs off to the sick bay as often as he can, citing ‘nausea’ and ‘stomach aches’. This means he misses schoolwork, and sometimes, for a few weeks there, he convinced them to send him home so he could show me his pained look for about seven minutes before declaring that a round of Minecraft would do his headache the world of good. This propensity to feign illness I was aware of and I told the school not to be swayed by his convincing and dramatic monologues of symptomless aches and pains, but I wasn’t aware that additionally he simply hasn’t been doing any work. So, I was getting more and more hatchet-faced as the interviews went on, with the same message (Lovely boy, bright, but won’t focus, is very slow, likes to spin his ruler around for the entire lesson, etc etc) until I was finally taken into the black-suited Head of Behaviour’s office with Noah, sat down, and was told the tale of that mornings’ Shoe Incident.

The Head addressed Noah and told him not to bother trying to explain to me what had happened, because when asked earlier that day to explain to the Senior Leadership Team he had apparently just lied. The Head said he wouldn’t want Noah lying again to his mother, so instead, he said, let’s just watch the CCTV footage, shall we?

So I was dying. Just dying. And we all had to endure the crystal-clear footage of Noah doing some clumsy mock-ninja fighting with another messy little chap at the top of the glass-interiored-very-seriously-architectured expensive school with Noah responding to a slow cartoon kick with his own balletic spin, which sent his untied shoe over the glass bannister and down four flights of stairs into the central atrium, narrowly missing the 70 year old SENCO teacher.

This kind of incident, the Head explained, was forbidden, even though it was clear that Noah hadn’t intended to hurt anyone or to cause an accident. Had he had his uniform on correctly, had he refrained from moronic Karate-Kidding, it wouldn’t have happened. So Noah was excluded for a day, and we took him home and went over his missed work and write a very solemn letter to the Senior Leadership Team which took seven drafts to get right, and he was allowed back a day later with promises that no longer would Noah be King Of Dangerously Flung Shoes And Under The Radar Shit Work Ethics And Fake Illnesses.

It has been tough. Here is me drinking my lunch on a Friday with Vicky while we both ran away for a day. Whatever gets you through, right?

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Break Fast

Oh October, you little fast-moving, autumnal minx! I haven’t written here for the whole month, mostly because I’ve been writing for other things, which of course is good because

  1. I will get paid
  2. It keeps me away from sample sales*
  3. It looks to the objective person that I sort-of kind-of have a freelance-y job.

*It doesn’t entirely keep me away from sample sales, though, because I did manage to go to the Mary Katrantzou one, the Mulberry one, the Bella Freud one and tomorrow I will go to the Erdem one, so let’s just scrap point 2, eh?

And in between all that literary output, I’ve been fasting. Yes, I’ve cut breakfast out so that there’s a 16-hour period from after dinner until lunch the next day where my temple of a body will starve and my insides will eat themselves up and I will do the scrambling, sweaty school run alternating between feeling a bit vomity and then becoming all sharply-minded, like the dying probably do just before some celestial lifts them into the tunnel of everlasting light. My stomach makes loud embarrassing noises of protest and shock and I think I probably stink.  You know that thing when people miss breakfast and they talk to you in a breathy way and you nearly pass out from the gut-rotting stinkiness? That person is now me. I am doing a lot of extra brushing to combat this, concentrating on the lesser-considered areas like the tongue, and drinking water and masses of tea, and talking in a low way so that no one gets a wash of the inside air conditioning, but still. It’s a little worrying.

And why am I fasting, I hear you ask? Well, it’s mostly because even though I get up at 5:40am twice a week (and once on the weekend) to run around half of Hyde Park, and I do a bit of yoga, and I walk for two hours every day to school and back, and even though I recognise carbs for the devil that they are and only eat them if the bread is crusty and expensive enough, and though my portion sizes are now no longer the same amount as a youthful farm worker who has been up since dawn herding sheep would have,  I can’t fit about a third of my clothes. It’s an upper arms/spilling stomach/girthy thighs kind of thing. Where once I thought my tight jeans once made me look a bit Kardashian – curvy and, yes, jutting out at weird angles but in a way that seemed to work, now they take five wearying minutes to get the button done up and then they leave me with red slashes across my midriff for hours and hours. And in those jeans I have to kind of ‘perch’ on a seat, rather than actually ‘sit’. So I figure that fasting will fix everything, although I do wonder about the milk in coffee and what about minty gum to fix the Undigested Food Breath? And eating my fingernails – will all this make the effort null and void?

I was mulling all this over on Saturday when I was at the Soho Hotel for a press screening of Paddington 2 (see how I just casually chucked that in there? Thanks, The London Mother) while I ate all the biscuits in sight and drank all the tea and coffee and then moved on to the marmalade sandwiches in the shape of a 2 (see below) even though I don’t like marmalade:

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And then Mark and I found the chocolate croissants and we laid into them. It *was* breakfast, but my fasting thing is only for the weekdays, because that seems to be perfectly scientific and fair. So I was hoovering the children’s food up, and then a whole posse of tidy, groomed women who write style blogs about being a mother AND being stylish AND about buying red jumpers AND about coming along to these things with their two kids AND with their husbands who dress well with elegant beards AND with hair that kind of sits, all blondly, all tonged, with lovely skin and lipstick that didn’t make their noses look even redder around the nostrils, well, they came in and they weren’t at all tubby and they were about ten years younger than me (I know, because I got all stalkery later). And so one of them had two kids and they were being annoying, as mine were, actually being annoying together, and she didn’t seem to notice, and nor did her silver foxy husband. I was very glad that someone else had obnoxious sons who were also sprawling over the Kit Kemp-sourced ‘eclectic’ sofas and smashing the brownie into the ‘edgy’ rugs. But I did also notice that she was wearing a nonchalant t-shirt that her arms and torso didn’t fill up – the t-shirt hung on her and I thought I WANT THAT. I was moaning about this to my running buddy Sarah and she said (and I massively paraphrase to the point of total inaccuracy here:)

‘Yes, we all know those women but groomed t-shirt-wearing and tidiness with the tonging and the correctly-toned lipstick and clean trainers just aren’t your thing. Your thing is different. It is fine and, well, you.’ And I really liked that. What a bloody relief to be me. In fact, here’s me being me in an Uber, photographed by Rebecca, an actual photographer who also takes portraits of models and people like Edward Enninful:

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Here are the children at Portobello after massive burgers and chips:

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And mid-term break, with the leaves and the nearly-teen, who miraculously doesn’t have his big headphones on so he can pretend we are all dead – instead, he’s playing with his brother and that, my friends, makes me forgive him for being a total hormonal pest:

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Pumpkin gathering and hay bale sliding at Crockford Bridge Farm:

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And a triumphant photo of the return of Magic after he got out and went missing for a night. We searched and searched and put up posters and fretted and told the world to look out for him, and we missed him and we worried and the next day, we got a call from a vet in Hendon 12 miles away to say they had him. It turns out his penchant for sneaking out the front gate when the kids are otherwise engaged (putting cobwebs up on our front door and displaying their pumpkins) got him all the way around the block, to the rubbish bins, out onto the road, and then into the van of someone who didn’t want to see him squashed.

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He was a little bit off with us when he got home. Perhaps he had tasted the freedom of the open road and preferred it to a life on the couch? Perhaps the guy in Hendon was nicer with bigger portion sizes? Anyway, he’s back and things are back to normal – no one wants to walk him and the kids still cry if I ask them to pick up his poo.

 

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HB 2 MOI

Last week I had a birthday – the big one, the big ol’ lady one, the one that features patches of coarse grey hair and frankly startling lines between the eyebrows that make you endlessly retake photographs in a fruitless effort to erase them, trying out new angles and working those forehead muscles again and again, when you should really just be enjoying yourself – kind of like this:

And now I am trying to make peace with the fact that I have left my thirties behind. I am metaphorically setting sail into the dank, murky waters of Middle Age and waving to Mark who is firmly out on that sea, having a good old time, catching fish with some red-faced bald mates and drinking beer. I’m still on the shore ATM, and the water isn’t deep yet, just kind of pooling around my dry, cracked feet and horny toenails (one of which actually came off a few weeks ago in that way that signals to you that your body is breaking down – crumbling into dust). It feels ok, certainly better than dead, though I fear imminent, whispery things like The Mysterious Peri-Menopause, becoming invisible to all men, skin tags and wiry hairs coming out of the side of your face that you don’t notice until the Important Social Event was over. Here are my top tips for getting over yourself when you turn 40:

Go On Holidays 

This is a brilliant tip, because you cannot have a bad time going on holidays. You don’t have to do your usual domestic shit and you can drink daytime cocktails and read a lot. As Faithful Readers will know, in August we were in Puglia (see above forehead-concern photos), in September I had that little Alpine Yoga situation, and this weekend, Mark took me to Portugal for my birthday present.

STOP THE PRESS

It was all kept a secret, kind of, which suited me fine, because I am usually the one researching the flights, scouring for the best villa at the cheapest price, agonising over car rental as opposed to local taxis, wondering if the photos of the pool are fake, etc etc. This time, I was told to keep the weekend free, and that we would go somewhere, and that the kids were going to be farmed out. What a bloody dream it all was – although upon a bit of quizzing, there were gaps in the schedule which meant that no one was going to be looking after the dog or picking up the kids from school, so I had to pull rank and do a bit of last minute mama-control-freakery to plug those gaps which may have involved the Social Services/RSPCA. But mostly I just tagged along and hoped for sunshine.

So on Friday morning we got to Gatwick and I averted my eyes from the boarding passes – it wasn’t until we were actually boarding the plane that someone said

something something something FARO something something” and then I knew we were off to the Algarve. It might have also been a surprise for Mark – he’d been telling everyone that we were going to the Amalfi Coast – so who knows *quite* what was going on there. Amalfi, Algarve – it’s all a bit ‘letter A’, isn’t it? Anyway, it all comes highly recommended for feeling better about becoming old.

Where to? Where could we possibly be going to? There are many places that start with ‘A’:

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This is the marina at Vilamoura. Mark is battling a Screaming Orgasm. I am not:

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So Portugal is quite full of seafood. This isn’t great for someone seafood phobic:

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Thank the Portuguese saints for these then! Pastels de nada! Properly cinnamony and about 1 euro:

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This is us after we discovered you could flee the Hilton complex;

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And little half-sized bottle of vinho verde – what a gift to give to the world, Portugal!

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Have more than one celebration

In early summer, as I was moaning to a friend about becoming 40, she told me that there was a surefire way to overcome the anguish – in her case, it was to throw THREE PARTIES. She said that by the third, you are so bored by it all, and used to the idea, that you don’t really care any more. This, I think, is very smart. I had one party, but with the mystery weekend away, it felt like three parties. My party was on a Tuesday night, and the invite email was a bit off-hand, like:

‘If you want to, please come over for some food and drinks for my birthday. But you don’t have to come, you really don’t. It’s a Tuesday, everyone’s probably busy. I understand. Don’t worry, really.’

Now, this works as a kind of reverse psychology. Everyone thinks – yeah, ok, maybe – we will see how we go. Then, at 6pm on a Tuesday, they think, ah well, it won’t hurt to pop in, will it? And 56 people turn up to eat salted beef/ham/lamb with warm ciabatta, kale salad, aubergines with tahini, tomato and pomegranate salad, cheeses, chocolate mousse and a cake made by Honey & Co, bought by your wee mate Amanda. I wore a golden frock that was said to be the most beautiful altar curtain anyone had ever seen:

Also, my arms look very pumped in that first photo, and I would like to say that this is how they look, but it was just a marvellous (birthday presenty) trick of the light.

Collagen

Collagen would be the best present for a newly 40 year old, because it leaves your face and neck, slowly but surely, to sink down, down, down into the earth from whence we all came. It is why my face and shrivel neck is beginning to look so droopy:

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Droopy like a well-made-but-seen-better-days weather-beaten house from the late 70’s that has been in the rain and the wind and the sun a little too much, and things are bulging and sagging because no one bothers with maintenance and repair. The kind of house that has rusted stuff on the front lawn and no real garden. Come back, cheeks! Neck, please stop that crepey thing you do!

So I invested in a derma roller – one of those tiny things that look like Decorator Barbie would use to roll paint onto her DreamHouse – but with added needles. I had a conversation with one of my yoga buddies who said she goes to a lady to get it done, where the skin gets pierced a bit, bleeds a bit, then the skin repairs itself by flooding with collagen. Though it sounded a bit gross, I ordered one on Amazon because I am a little bit cheap. After intensive use, I now look like this:

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I also discovered that Otis was using it to make tiny holes in the bathroom wall, which annoyed me greatly. So my poor little pock-marked skin now has tiny flecks of paint embedded in it. But…collagen! I’ll take a bit of accidental Dulux for the soft pillowy-ness of a frightening baby!

So anyway, it’s all over and I won’t go on about being 40 any more. I’ll find something else to whinge about. But not about my lovely friends, or my most excellent husband who listened and who planned and who cooked and who tried his best to make me happy on my birthday. And that, frankly, is present enough in itself (although Portugal *was* a good call).

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Bloat

I just got back from four days in the Swiss Alps on a yoga retreat. That’s a sentence I didn’t think I would ever write because, you know, who does that kind of thing? Who leaves their family (two wounded members*, one absent, the other three kids normal, just a bit annoying) on a Thursday morning to do sun salutations on a mountain?

Me, as it turns out. And what can I tell you about my first yoga retreat? If I were to coach you into what to expect, I would say this:

Yoga Retreats Are Not Parties

They are really, definitely not parties. They aren’t Girls’ Weekends Away with too much prosecco and trips to the village bar where you might flirt with staff/locals and dance on the table and then sleep in half the day. They are more about yoga.

The Food Will Be Quite Healthy

Bacon sandwiches, steaks, mid-afternoon crisps and beer won’t be on the menu. It will be a plant-based diet, with talk of juicing, Deliciously Ella’s recipes and an actual lentil salad. There will be cheese and charcuterie, but not everyone will eat as much of that as you. You will wonder if you are especially greedy, and whether that’s the reason that even though you are roughly ten years younger than everyone else, you are also ten kilograms chunkier.

The Drinks Will Be Herbal, But Not In An Aperol Kind Of Way

You will reacquaint yourself with camomile tea and you will look at cow’s milk with narrowed eyes, trying to remember why it was on the dirty list. A pause in proceedings will not be an acceptable reason to crack open another bottle of Cote Du Rhone because it’ll be herbal tea time. You will get to like it, although not as much as sauvignon blanc.

The Vegetables Will Cause Some Gassy Discomfort

All the lovely salads and avocado and almonds and granola will result in a distended belly and an overwhelming urge to fart long and loud at various times during the day or night, but most often while you are in your yoga class. You will learn to clench internal muscles you didn’t know you had. Try not to laugh when you hear other people’s stomachs making outrageous squeaky violent protestations because it will also happen to you. Time your trips to the loo to when everyone else is out of the apartment, or use the men’s toilets in the Spa & Wellness Centre. Turn the shower on and blow your nose loudly to cover the bowel orchestra.

If You Share A Room, Be Honest About Your Gas

It’s a great leveller.

Let me take you through pictorially.

This is the view of Anzere from Jane’s apartment – a little purpose-built 70’s village with the most excellent mid-century details. It was too much. Insanely lovely:

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This is the mountain where we did the first morning’s two hour yoga session inside the restaurant, and after, we ate a very healthy yoga breakfast. Heavy on the muesli and dried fruit, good for the detoxing, bad for the gas:

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Here is the indoor/outdoor heated bubbling pool situation. It’s also a great place to deal with your gas:

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Post-swim. Pretty much free of gas at that point:

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The cows coming down the mountain for the winter in a village festival. Dressed in head gear and cow bells. Probably gassy also:

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Raclette. We didn’t eat any of it, but I REALLY WANTED TO:

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So. What a bloody fantastic few days I had. I am much better at yoga now and it turns out that I am pretty good at iPhone games where you have to guess the film while everyone shouts at you. I am also the best at drinking the wine and a bit shit at folding yoga blankets.

I Nearly Didn’t Go Though*

A day before I left, Ned did a bit of jumping around the bedroom in a happy, deeply-entrenced-in-some-nutty-game which took him from the office chair, through the air and onto the bed. It all turned to blood-curdling screams though as Otis turned off the light at the wrong moment and Ned didn’t make it onto the bed – instead, he mashed his top teeth into the corner of a hardwood blanket box and he fractured his jaw and opened the upper gum to reveal his pearly, premature, secret little adult teeth. That is a sight you don’t ever want to see – I got a little sweaty around the gills and tried to push through the nausea when he finally agreed to let us see the damage. So he has stitches and a bit of a pale face, and has wafted about with a swollen mouth and pinprick irises for a few days.

BUT I went to Switzerland anyway, because those little teeth would still be exposed and that jaw would still be fractured whether I was here or there, right? And that’s what two parent families are for – the other one does the parenting sometimes while the main one buggers off to the Alpine village of Anzere to improve his or her downward dog. Here is the little duck face on day two:IMG_0561

The other wounded family member is Mark*, who has an unexplained swollen knee. He is hobbling around and suitably cross, and this morning he turned to me and told me that there was a large, brown, poo-like thing under Casper’s bed. It seemed that, owing to the knee situation, I was the one who was supposed to do something about it. I wondered how long the poo-like thing had lain there, and whether everyone had simply waited for me so it would become my problem. I suspect I was spot-on.

It could have made me mad, but having been so recently entrenched in nine hours worth of yoga practice, whereby one of the lessons is to push through unpleasant things until you emerge out the other end, I reached under the bed and wiped furiously with antibacterial wipes. It turned out it was a rotting, hairy peach. A relief, really.

 

 

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Too Many Photos of Puglia and A Long Story About The Circus

We are home from Puglia – the most Madonna-ishplace to be this summer, in all senses of the word. It was, obviously, really great. Food and wine and figs and aperol spritzes and marble-floored slippery towns and little scenes like this everywhere:

As well as a dazzling array of pork products. Oh, preserved meat! Oh how you make a buttery crusty roll so toothsome and salty and delicious! The gelato was cheap and everywhere, which was lucky because the rules are to have one a day every day of a holiday – two euro for proper non-wafery cones and two scoops piled into the top – all chocolate and cinnamon custard and pistachio and strawberry and fig.

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There were massive dogs everywhere, all allowed into cafes where the lattes were one euro and the croissants were cut open with scissors and slathered in warmed vats of nutella. That kind of national, cultural endorsed nutella usage makes you realise that guilt over nutella needs to be consciously discarded, along with device-usage guilt, drinking-at-lunchtime guilt, and taking-too-long-to-take-kids-to-the-a&e guilt. Life is simply too short.

The women were kind of squat, the nonnas uniformly dressed well and in pucci-esque prints, and the beaches were filled with women of all ages and sizes wearing bikinis with the bottoms cut into their bum cheeks, halfway between full bottom pants and a string. Like this, in fact:

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(I drew that)

So it was really great to see all these wobbling bronzed healthy women hanging out at the beach in their bikini all looking normal and non-anxious about their bits. And I also wore my bikini there and sashayed around and ate mucho pasta and kept up a steady diet of lunchtime prosecco and didn’t feel bad at all. Thank you, Italy, for your kindness towards normal women looking normal in their normal beach attire and for helping me feel that food and appetites are really ok. I got brown, hardly cooked, read four books (The Essex Serpent, Golden Hill, The Dry and PopCo) and from the monthly sprawling antique markets bought four silk quilts, murano glass, a vintage silk nightdress (made by someone with massive boobs which on me billows out and sags as it catches on my craggy lonely tiny embonpoint), and a white embroidered collared blouse which I think might make me look like Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley. Maybe. Possibly. Not really. The flea markets looked like this:

It Wasn’t All Japes Though

The first week we swelled to a group of 13, with two other families coming along – baffling the local restaurant with our overexcited late night dinners where the kids got a bit feral and broke chairs and attacked the gardens. One night though, we drove out in our three cars to a beach town an hour away to catch the circus and meet up with a family we had met on the plane over. I was in charge of one car, which was generally horrible and traumatising because of the driving on the other side of the road and my total lack of spatial awareness – it was all a bit WHOA SORRY ABOUT GETTING TOO CLOSE TO THAT ANCIENT WALL and sweating and swearing and of course low batteries while google mapping on our phones and sleepy kids trying to navigate but falling asleep and other terrifying and dangerous car-related whatnot. So this night we drive to Torre Ovo, which was like an Italian Blackpool, and we go swimming and Mark and Noah take off snorkelling. I am left holding the towels and spare clothes while everyone else finds a nicer part of the beach. I sat for a bit, waiting for Mark and Noah to come back but Mark doesn’t just snorkel for half an hour, say, but hours and hours…once he is in, you just have to wait and hang out by yourself and get a bit annoyed. It’s a years-old problem. So I finally get up and meet the others at the nicer part and then we all decide to get moving – we have to find somewhere to eat in amongst the shouty Italians and then get to the circus in time, and so Amanda and Charlotte take the kids and I wait for the snorkelers and then we see Mark coming up the beach and I say THANK GOODNESS HURRY UP ITS SO BORING WAITING FOR YOU WITH YOUR INFERNAL SNORKELLING NEEDS and he says: Where is Noah?

I say: I DONT KNOW! You had him!

He says: I sent him up out of the water half an hour ago.

And I say: YOU GO FIND HIM THEN! YOU HAVE VERY POOR HAND-OVER SKILLS! And so Mark takes off, down one side of the beach and I take off in another, and the light is fading and it feels like maybe, finally, Noah’s ability to get lost and nearly die from things might have caught up with him…and then about fifteen minutes later I see him ambling along the beach from the opposite direction, looking quite relaxed. I run to him and grab him and say that I am very glad to see him again because, you know, you could have drowned/been ambling in the wrong direction until dark and then been lost and frightened with no Italian to help you and a total inability to be streetwise about this sort of thing, etc etc and we race off to the pizzeria where everyone else is. The margarita pizzas were 3.50 euro which is nice, but everyone is going a bit mental, fighting over pizza slices and knocking over chairs and sweating, and it is time to go.

So we get to the circus a few streets away, meet up with the other family we met on the plane and sit and wait for it to start at 10pm, which feels too late to be staying up and all very ethically compromising. Eventually out come the scantily-clad ladies doing hula-hooping/pole dancing, the men in shiny white tight suits with massive chins doing juggling, then a terrible clown and some loud singing and more see-through dresses and jiggly boobs and the heat, the heat! Then after a pony trick and dancing horses, the saddest elephant in the world comes out and sprays water at the clown and it feels like a kind of funeral. An hour later it seems over but no! It’s only an interval! One in which you can climb onto the sad elephant and take a photo for a fiver. All these mahogany-coloured Italian kids and massive fat men climb on to the elephant and we watch on, saddened, and decide to leave because of the long drive home and the potential burgeoning asthma attack caused by the straw and the heat and the elephant melancholia. Out we all go into the dark, get into the cars, and we race off in different directions because of the low battery GPS situations. Twenty minutes into the drive home, I get a call from the woman I met on the plane. She is still at the circus and has Noah with her.

Which is like…OF COURSE SHE HAS BECAUSE OF COURSE THAT KID IS LOST. Apparently, he was in the queue for the elephant by himself when we left, and none of us noticed. He got his turn on the elephant, presumably looked around for us atop the poor thing, got off the elephant, wandered around for a bit, sat down, watched more of the second half of the circus, went outside, sat down by the bar and waited for us to come. The woman we met on the plane happened to go outside by the bar to breastfeed her baby and saw Noah, called us, and he went with them and watched the lions while we came back.

WHAT IF SHE WASNT THERE?

I LEFT MY SON AT THE CIRCUS AT MIDNIGHT AT AN ITALIAN BLACKPOOL!

So we raced back, knocking over a few street signs, and then my phone went dead so we had to find them, because they were at the *other* gelateria, weren’t they? And we got home at 2am and I drank a good sized amount of primitivo to settle my nerves.

Noah says it was our fault. Here we were, before Noah got lost twice:

So, anyway, like I say – it wasn’t all japes. But mostly it was.

 

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Weights

I was going to start this post not through my usual long-winded sentences, but via a grainy, insignificant-looking photo of some 5kg blue arm weights. And I would have done so, because the photo of the weights wouldn’t have been at all insignificant, but rather actually a modern portrait of a marriage, and therefore an excellent segue into my current state of mind – but Otis won’t give me my phone back so I can take a photo, etc, etc, so you’ll have to imagine it.

The Set Up – Weights As Modern Marriage Situation

15 years ago, our flatmate Phil gave Mark some arm weights. He was a personal trainer, and he and his wife would come back from running the whole of Hyde Park on a Sunday, and I used to think ‘U GUYS R CRAZY’ with their red faces and pulsing endorphins filling up the shared living room – and he used to give us exercise-y tips. He wrote me out a fitness programme, the kind of which you could do with tins of baked beans as weights for your flappy upper arms (even 15 years ago, they had a kind of ancient Great-Aunt-In-A-Sun-Dress kind of unformed saggy dough look to them) and there were exercises you could do using the couch and your body weight as resistance, all while watching ‘Six Feet Under’. And Mark got a programme too, and Phil gave him these biggish weights to keep – blue and round and quite difficult to store – and they have never been used by him, ever. But they have accompanied us through four flat moves, have lain under the bed while we made and birthed and fed and grew five children, they have rolled out from under couches onto small puppies, and bruised toes. They trip you up on late night visits to the toilet, on the way to answering the cries of fevered children, send you stumbling down the hallway when you sneak in late at night after drinking too many cocktails. They are hard, and they make marks into the walls when bored toddlers ram them repeatedly into them.  They hurt when they break toes. They lift toenails off sometimes, and then there is blood. And they turn up in different rooms, all the time – so you forget about them, until you get hurt or fall over, and you are reminded of the malevolent force of the mother truckin’ Blue Weights.

So I asked, in those early years, if I could drop them off to the charity shop. Mark said No. So I asked, in those early years, if we could perhaps give them to someone who would use them. Mark said No. So then I asked, a little later, if Mark would store them in his storage unit. Mark said No. I thought of places to house them, but it only ever seemed to work if it was under the bed, along with his violins and boxes of warranties for household appliances that have long ago been replaced, and dog fur balls and hair clips and shoes that I am frightened of, and dusty dummies from babies who now are big and starting to get blackheads and oily t-zones.  So they get put back under the bed, until someone rolls them out again, and then I fall over or hurt my feet on them, and now, now, there is a new system. It is this:

I put them onto Mark’s office chair. Right where he sits, every day. There are no words to be spent over this. It is a silent tussle of wills. I will return those bloody weights to his chair every single day, where he will have to pause, as he pulls his chair out from under the desk, and see the weights, and acknowledge them, and have to move them. Every MOTHER TRUCKIN’ day. The next day, they will be there, sitting on that chair, waiting for him. And that, a passive aggressive tale of history and intimacy and despair and resentment and pain and tolerance and patience and acceptance and frustration and fondness and feet, is also a portrait of a modern marriage. Think on that, Engaged Ones.

Here is a photo essay of the first two and a half weeks of the school holidays. I have been a wicked mother, and paid some young men at Fit For Sport to take two or three of the kids away for half the week. The idea was to make the holidays a bit easier for me – and as a bonus, it turns out the kids REALLY LIKE IT! Who knew? And I walk the dog and the kids there, along the canal, and on the way back, I buy 14 Portuguese custard tarts from Lisboa and eat a few every day. So it’s been painless and mostly fun, also featuring ice cream, new baby pet geckos, teeth, chocolate and Go Ape-ing. Here they all are, with a spectacular falling-into-the-Thames ending:

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Actually, This Is 40 (nearly)

I wrote this about my impending 40th birthday (*edvardmunchscreamface*) and yesterday pitched it to a digital site, and they got back to me really quickly and said it wasn’t quite right for them. Which means I am feeling all a bit unemployed and sorry for myself – clearly I am not cut out for the life of a hard-nosed freelancer who takes rejection on the chin.

And then, again yesterday, a man beeped at me twice when I was driving to school in the Landrover and then he pulled up and told me that my truck was ‘too big for me’ and I shouldn’t be driving it, and I yelled back and said ‘EXCUSE ME MISTER I HAVE FIVE KIDS AND A HUSBAND AND A DOG SO DON’T YOU TELL ME HOW BIG MY CAR NEEDS TO BE BECAUSE ACTUALLY IT’S THE CORRECT SIZE ESPECIALLY WHEN WE GO CAMPING’ and then he told me to shut up and I said I would call the police because he was harassing me and then he drove off and I was too mad and shaky to write his registration number down but I tried to run after him and I couldn’t keep up. Totally humiliating.

Underneath this queer little photo of three/fifths of my offspring is my rejected piece, though I changed the swear words and some of the confessionals:

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“I’m a few months away from turning mothertrucking 40. Which is fine for a lot of reasons beginning with the irrefutable fact that I am still alive and functioning – no mean feat and quite enough reason for celebration in this day and age of terrorists and breast cancers and diesel pollution and Trump. I am also safely housed, my kids are wonderfully average and perfectly well, my husband and I are still married and occasionally have enough energy for sexy time, and my knees work as they are meant to, except for cold mornings and if I’ve been sitting too long.

But it’s unnerving to finally get here, this hackneyed eve of middle-aged-ness. It looms over you as an age you might remember your parents having been, something not too far away, yet distant enough to be only the concern of other, older people. It is spoken of in misinformed half-truths concerning potential early menopause, or maybe hyper-fertility, of the onset of sprouting mysterious wiry hairs and skin tags, of cougars and fluctuating hormones and upper arms that have given up.

I know in the olden days, before 40 became the new 30, that a woman in her 40’s might well have an ageing perm or some sort of blowsy Diana cut (remember, she was only 36 when she died, and I am sure I still look younger now than she did then), maybe with a grandchild, perhaps even shifting to non-fashiony wide-legged slacks and comfortable shoes way before Phoebe Philo said it was ok. And I know that women now don’t necessarily become invisible and irrelevant as soon as 39 ebbs away; instead finding excellent looks from Zara alongside the taut-skinned teens, reinventing themselves as first-time mothers or going back to work with multi-tasking skills and a hunger to get back into paid employment with a fervour they never had in their 20’s. They go out! They are partners in law firms on massive wages! They drink negronis with their cackling best friends! Some of them direct films! They can negotiate heels relatively well and they are happier in their emerging lines and stretch marks than they’ve ever been! So it’s exciting and freeing to be at the cusp of this other stage of my life, and I am thankful for it.

But oh, how 39 makes you examine what isn’t working, and what never did. It forces you to look at all those fork-in-the-road times when you bloody well took the left when you should have taken the right – all those tiny, insignificant moments that led to bigger things that equal who you really are – the patchwork of choices and accidents that lead you to where you live, who with, what you do, what you didn’t end up doing. I see now that law school was utterly wrong for me, and at a huge expense that would have been much better spent on travel, or buying a first flat somewhere. I see that I should have pashed more people, and worried about the size of my bum much less. I should’ve learnt how to manage money. I should have chased a media job, started running earlier, worn sunscreen and left my eyebrows alone. I have never really lived in a home that I have owned, and so my kids’ childhoods have nearly passed me by without any thought to decorating their rooms nicely – they have just had to fit into whichever spare corner of the various flats we have lived in. I also forgot to go live in New York.

And what works? Well, we remembered to get a dog before the children grew up and left home and had to moan about a pet-free existence to their future therapists, and so they have had that, instead of IKEA coordinated rugs and lamps. I didn’t change my name when I got married, and I regard that early show of strength against the pressure to do so as a sort of enduring triumph. I have learned to cook well but also to outsource or frankly ignore all those rubbish bits of domestic life that I don’t like – and as such, ironing boards in my family are spoken of as urban myths. I have discovered that my love affairs with books and my female friends are the things that sustain you and feed you and help make you a whole person. I have travelled and written things and had as many children as I fancied and am at peace with my mothering body which wears its scars well. I never brush my hair but also never leave the house without a slash of bright lipstick that I believe fools the world into thinking I am groomed and therefore together. I wear leggings to yoga and don’t take them off all day because I am no longer ashamed of what the back of my thighs might reveal about my worth. I let myself have fun.

So it’s nearly here – the October birthday that feels like the ending of something and the beginning of another. I intend to drink and to eat cake and surround myself with people who also limp a bit when they get up from a chair. I’ll let you know what it all looks like from the other side.”

So, anyway. Here’s a photo of Otis who fashioned his pancake into the shape of a lady-part. I didn’t suggest it, honestly:

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I leave you with the dog, who has taken to hiding under the new curtains and peeping out a tiny bit, in the manner of a Vermeer:

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