Back to School, and Not a Moment Too Soon

The summer holidays begin full of promise, as ever. Karen has loads of ideas. It’s only when she begins to take her four kids on outings that she remembers everywhere is (a) crowded (b) expensive (c) leads to whining from at least three of them. Nothing ever changes.

Karen is a newly single mum from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. She has one daughter and three sons.

At nearly 11, Charlotte is the eldest so she whines loudest and longest. Damon is 9 and his speciality this summer is sulking.

They go to Wales for a few days to a friend’s cottage, the cheapest family holiday Karen can think of. It’s a long drive in the ancient Toyota, with plenty of time for daydreaming. What might it be like to go off to the Gower for a mini-break with a nice man?  

Wales beach at dusk

Her reverie is broken by the youngest who wants to be sick, so they stop by the side of the road. Edward aims most of it into the plastic bag she holds out for him, but inevitably a few blobs fall onto Charlotte’s new pink T-shirt.

“Eeuw!” shrieks Charlotte, even though there are several spare pink sequinned T-shirts in the boot.  At the moment everything she owns, whether it’s clothing, a pencil case, or her duvet cover, has to be pink and have sequins.

Karen is concerned for the next mile or two in case there’s more vomiting but she needn’t worry. In less than five minutes, Edward pipes up “I want salt and vinegar crisps!”

When they get there, they find acres of soft white sand, perfect for jogging off excess fat, building sandcastles, and losing young children. There’s a moment or two on every holiday when Edward can’t be found. For a four-year old, he can go a long way in just seconds. Ashley, being a year older, is infinitely wiser and spends his time searching the sands for buried treasure. He’s sure there are shipwrecks around here, and he’s determined to find gold coins for his mum.  “Cos we need more money, don’t we?”   

shipwreck

Treasure hasn’t been found in Rhossili Bay since about 1834, but that doesn’t stop people looking. Karen is pleased to see her children so happy, even if Charlotte is channelling Lolita in her pink sparkly swimsuit. Only Damon, sitting hunched in the depths of his hoodie, hasn’t got into the beach thing yet.

They stay in Wales four days in all, during which Edward behaves and doesn’t try to run off again. Karen feels a mite guilty for threatening that big red dragons would get him, but at least he’s stopped having nightmares about them.

They return to London with a carful of sand, a carrier bag loaded with shells, and couple of pieces of driftwood. Now the children are playing nicely in the garden. Correction: the younger boys are playing while Charlotte is on the phone to her new best friend Belinda, and Damon sulks under a tree.

Karen is about to ask Damon what’s wrong when she sees he isn’t sulking. He’s reading! An actual book! With pages and words and everything! This has never happened before, so it’s quite a turn-up for the books. Literally.

book

Now Ashley is crying because Edward has peed into his toy wheelbarrow. When Karen tells Edward off, he says he thought it was a toilet.

“Rubbish” says Karen, even though it does look a bit like a loo.

It’s now the last week of the holidays and it can’t be put off any longer.  Buying school uniform and such is a hassle. They have to contend with umpteen other families looking for shoes that fit, while shop assistants try to fob people off with insoles. Karen steels herself for Charlotte’s inevitable hissy fit when she realises she can’t have pink heels with rhinestones.

But maybe some things do change, thinks Karen, because this year Charlotte falls in love with shoes that come straight from the pages of an orthopaedic footwear catalogue. Apparently they’re just like the ones her best friend Belinda has.

Back in the car with the shopping (and the sand, shells, and driftwood), Ashley says “You know what, Mummy? When it’s school-time I want it to be the holidays, but when it’s holidays I want it to be school-time.”

She smiles and knows exactly what he means. 

sea shell

Advertisements

How to Get the Best Restaurant Table

My earliest memories of eating out en famille go back to holidays in Europe. Sitting down to eat had to be just so. There were usually five of us: Granny, Grandpa, my mother, my aunt and me. The child I was at the time thought those meals endless. It wasn’t so much the number of courses or the leisurely service, but the time it took to settle at table.

“Let’s sit by the open window” one of the grown-ups would say. “It’s such a lovely view.”

Geneva

As soon as we were installed, Granny admitted she wasn’t so sure. “I can feel a draught.”

So we’d let the maitre d’ show us to a table at the back. Once we’d sat down, Auntie might say “It’s a little warm here, isn’t it?”

“And maybe a bit too close to the toilets” Mum would add, wrinkling her nose.

We’d smile apologetically and they’d find us somewhere else, not too near the front or the back. Unlike Goldilocks, however, it took us more than three goes. Once installed, Grandpa would find something else wrong. Wasn’t this table a bit small for five? Or else it was too noisy here, what with his hearing aid and everything.

Up we’d get again. While we pondered our next move, the staff would think fondly of retirement.

The scenario repeated itself in every restaurant. I’m not sure why it was this way, as we were a decisive bunch the rest of the time. And once we’d fixed on a table, we’d stick with it, come hell or high water. Literally. lake Geneva

At a lakeside restaurant when I was about 10, my family insisted on having an extra chair brought to the table we’d picked at the water’s edge. Of course, the waiter didn’t place it quite where my mother had in mind, so she scraped it back and forth over the paving.

“That’s enough, Jackie” hissed Granny after several minutes of this.

This only made my mum more determined to position her chair exactly how she wanted. “There!” she finally said triumphantly as she sat herself down, tipping backwards into the lake.

The mishap caused minor modifications in our table behaviour for a little while, but old habits die hard. Fast forward a few decades, and Mum, Aunty and I were again abroad, this time with my three sons and two cousins, already hungry. Mum thought we should look at a posh restaurant she remembered from days gone by. It seemed a tad stuffy for a family meal, but what clinched it was Mum’s observation: “Not enough tables.”

In theory, people only need one table at a time, but by now you’ve got the idea. So we wandered down the road, passing several more restaurants on the way. There was something wrong with each one: only fish on the menu, too dark, or else so sun-drenched we’d all get cancer. By now we were crabby from hunger, which is how we ended up at a fast-food place, eating chicken and chips with our fingers off a greasy table located about 10 inches away from the bins.

bins

Left to my own devices, I would never behave like this. Only last week I went to a café by the river with one of my sons. We sat down right away. Well, almost, because the table he’d first picked was by the water, where the air was thick with midges.

We studied the menu. It was a huge piece of card but there wasn’t actually much on it except for over-priced hamburgers and Caesar salad. We looked at each other over the top.

“Sod it” I said, pushing back my chair. “Shall we go somewhere else?” 

restaurant tables

Is Beatles Music a Health Hazard?

Exactly 45 years ago, photographer Iain Macmillan stood on a ladder and shot the iconic image for Abbey Road. Tourists from all over the world continue to come to London’s most famous crossing. They gawp, revere, take selfies and generally mess about, taking no heed of cars, vans or the 189 bus. This was the scene yesterday.

Abbey Road

Now Westminster Council is considering the use of a lollipop lady to keep people safe. I hope they recruit a lady or gentleman who looks the part in period 60s gear.

On that August day in 1969, did the Fab Four realise the poor example they might be setting for future generations of fans? I think not. If they had, they’d never have larked about as they did. And Paul would have surely kept his sandals on. It’s madness to walk around London in bare feet.

Pretty much everyone (not just Charles Manson) has their own interpretation of Beatles lyrics. While most people focus on the drug references, the songs may contain other menaces to health.

Beatles vinyls Sleeping in the bath is something I’d never recommend, yet that’s exactly what happens in Norwegian Wood. Luckily John doesn’t drown. But what does he do when he wakes up? He burns the house down. OK, so he was a Beatle scorned, but arson does seem a tad over the top.

There’s another fire hazard in A Day in the Life.  The track opens with John’s graphic reminder of what happens if you run a red light. But in a later verse Paul dices with death when he nods off on the bus with a lit cigarette in hand.

I feel like shouting the B-side of Can’t Buy Me Love (in case you don’t remember, it’s You Can’t Do That).

Paul survives his bus journey. He still hasn’t kicked the tobacco habit two years later, though, because there he is holding a ciggie on that album cover. But the USA did some unauthorised airbrushing and removed the offending item from posters.

Other risky lifestyle choices advocated by Lennon-McCartney:

The Beatles will always be my favourite band, but as a doctor I’m concerned about an already over-stretched health service having to extract coins from noses, bandage injured feet and give whatever medical help is needed to those mugs who take their oeuvres too literally.

Beatles mugsOn Revolver we’re even told that you can call Doctor Robert day or night, he’ll be there any time.

In your dreams, John and Paul. Not in today’s NHS.

The thing that worries me most, though, is on the White Album. Yes, hotel rooms cost money, but doing it in the road is the ultimate in unsafe sex. Nobody’s watching you! So you’re even more likely to get killed by some motorist who wasn’t expecting to see people bonking on the asphalt.

I’m really hoping Westminster Council will be wise enough to install appropriate signage. 

An Evening at the Proms

Geoff mops his brow as he steps through the doorway and into the shade. Glancing down at his ticket, he remembers the invariable rule of the Royal Albert Hall: whichever door you enter, it’s diametrically opposite where you need to be.

Albert Hall

He heads from door 4 to 12, stopping off at the café for a Coke Zero.

All human life is there already: young people with rucksacks, alte kakker in Birkenstocks, middle-aged women with sunhats. Only one person seems to have dressed up for the occasion, and she’s got purple hair, a pierced nose and a tuxedo ripped in multiple places. When did people stop wearing smart clothes to concerts?

Sitting next to Geoff, a middle-aged woman nurses a large glass of rosé. Every two seconds she looks up at the entrance.

Her date finally turns up. Rosé woman comes to life, falling over herself to greet him. When the man sits down, she babbles constantly and paws his wrist.

Geoff gets to his seat in the Choir (West). The lights dim and tonight’s fare begins with a Brahms piano concerto. So far, so soporific thinks Geoff, despite the energetic pianist.

inside the Royal Albert Hall

Part two is Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. It may not be a Mass, but it has everything else, Geoff reckons: choir and solo voices in some unidentifiable language, plus brass, wind, strings, drums galore and that massive organ which is almost in his right ear. Geoff studies the cellists. A fellow student once told him cellists were the raunchiest of the lot, as they were used to stroking a mighty instrument between parted thighs. He can well believe it.

According to the notes in Geoff’s lap, Janáček was keen on pan-Slavism, and his mighty work celebrates nationhood and peace.organ

That’s not something that Geoff can figure out from the music. There are noisy outbreaks from various instruments. Now the horns. Then the snare drums. Strings come in, and an exquisite harp.

Janáček, it’s also said, placed his nationalistic beliefs above the welfare of his own daughter. Geoff would have had words with him. Nothing on earth matters to him more than his son.

The conductor chops the air with his hands, then dangles his fingers like jelly fish. The orchestra hangs on every move of his digits. Then the organ erupts into a fantasia.

Nationhood and peace, muses Geoff. Chance would be a fine thing. The world could use a damn good conductor.

 

*For those not in the UK, the BBC Proms (or more exactly the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts) are an annual summer season of concerts in London, most of them held in the Royal Albert Hall.