What Do You Want to Know about Twins?

Everyone’s interested in twins, especially now that Beyoncé and Amal Clooney are each expecting a double bundle of joy.

Twins fascinate me too. Here’s a clue.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

Sensibly, parents-to-be who read my book Twins and Multiple Births, or who join TAMBA, want to find out what’s in store for them. But other people only seem to care about secret languages, ESP, and other freaky twins stuff. Like this.

“Fun fact 1”: twins reared apart may have habits in common, like nail-biting or drinking the same brand of beer.

“Fun fact 2”: some twins have sexual relationships with the same person.

But are the similarities in behaviour and thinking really that extraordinary? It could just be chance.

Take twins who independently come back from the shops with the same coat, for instance. If a coat is widely available in a store like Marks & Spencer, nobody, twin or not, would have to go far to find someone else wearing exactly the same thing. Add in the fact that identical twins are the same age, and usually similar in colouring and general appearance, and bingo! No wonder they find the same garment suits them.

twins in school uniform

Sometimes twins are so close that, even as adults, they finish each other’s sentences, must work in the same office, and are incapable of truly independent living.

I always encourage new parents to raise their twins as individuals. That’s best route to healthy development in so many areas, including speech, behaviour, and social skills.

singleton-photo-august-1989

My wishes for parents of twins (and those like grandparents or others who help care for them) include these tips.  

1 Learn to relate to each as an individual from early on. That means being able to tell them apart easily, and using their names instead of lazy shorthand like ‘Twinny’ or ‘Pinky and Perky’.

2 Cherish each child for what she is. You won’t necessarily raise two Nobel prize-winners.

3 Avoid comparisons. One of them is not ‘the good one’ just because he sleeps through the night first.

4 Recognize that fair treatment doesn’t mean equal treatment. You’d be surprised how many people think twins must have identical birthday cards or presents, even though it ruins half the fun.

5 Make time to enjoy your children. Sure, there are twice the number of chores, and work beckons too. But, before you know it, they’ve grown up.

How do you make time when you have twins or more? I may cover this in a forthcoming blog post. If I can fit it in, that is.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Twins-Multiple-Births-Essential-Parenting-ebook/dp/B004WOE6VY

If you’re expecting twins or more, you really should join TAMBA. It’s the only UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of families with multiples.. Click here to find out more.

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The Dangers of Learning to Walk

Bringing up a child is the most natural thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as forty-year old Laure was finding.

FreeImages.com/Ana Grenz

Jack was toddling now, with a confidence far in excess of his ability to balance. To stop himself falling, he’d grab at whatever came to hand. It could be a tablecloth or a lamp. Today he got brave and weaved his way unaided across the middle of the living room, screeching with pride once he reached the little table on the other side of the room. He lifted one foot after the other off the floor, then took both hands off the table. He squealed with glee a few more times and promptly fell, mouth open, onto the edge of the table.

Laure rushed to gather him in her arms. The bleeding was torrential. Had he torn an artery in his mouth? Or knocked out one of his new teeth? She struggled to take a look but he screamed and wriggled and kicked and cried. Each scream pumped out scarlet blood mixed with saliva.

“Poor baby, poor baby,” she incanted as she grabbed paper towels from the kitchen. She could see a jagged wound right through his lip to the inside of his mouth. No wonder he was howling.

She felt her breathing change. Harsher at first, then faster. And her heart was beating all over the place, especially in her chest and her temples. Her hands trembled despite herself.

“There, there,” she intoned, barely audible above his screams. He had spat out the paper towel. She could smell his blood, his baby smell, her own helplessness.

Who was there to call? The health visitor was elusive after 10 a.m., and the GP was never available.  

She tried some ice. Jack didn’t like it, but the bleeding was easing off.

FreeImages.com/Cleber Bordin

Calmer now, Jack dribbled a little blood-stained saliva onto his beloved blankie.

As he was happily playing with his toys, Laure left it. She also left the bloodied paper towels on the kitchen counter as exhibits for Dan when he got in.

He breezed in from work, his kiss reeking of garlic.

She gave him a blow by blow account.

“Relax,” said Dan. “He’s learning to walk.”

“He could have really hurt himself.”

Jack chose this moment to beam at Dan and say, “Car,” as he offered him a plastic vehicle.

FreeImages.com/Raoul Snyman

“Yeah, but he didn’t. It’s only a cut.”

She frowned at him. “It’s a very deep cut. Have you actually seen all this blood?”

“It’s stopped now,” Dan pointed out.

Laure’s heart was still racing.

You can read more about Laure, Dan, and their friends in Hampstead Fever, available online and in bookstores.

 

How Did Father’s Day Go?

Geoff hasn’t seen much of his son for two years. The ex-wife took Davey to live on the other side of the world, and they only got back recently.

FreeImages.com/Timo Balk

In the run-up to this Father’s Day, Geoff gets out the last card he had from Davey, a crumpled affair from two years back. Clearly made at school, it says

Dear Dad, Happy Father’s Day

Or, more exactly, Hapy Fathers Day.

The colours have long faded but he can still see it’s signed Love, Davey.

“I’ve got your room ready, Davey,” Geoff says brightly on the phone during the week.

There’s a pause on the line before Davey says, “I’m Dave now.”

“Right. Dave.”

“Let’s just make it a day visit,” says the ex-wife. “Easier all round. It’s been a while, after all.”

She’s probably right, concedes Geoff. Davey – sorry, Dave – has been away a long time with his mother and a man who isn’t his father.

So Dave is deposited at Geoff’s on Father’s Day.

Holding his son close is the same as ever. The best thing in the world, bar none. Of course, Dave has grown. He’s seven years old, wears a Cricket Australia T-shirt, and needs a haircut. But he’s surely the same inside.

“What would you like to do today?” Geoff asks Dave. He asked the very same question on the phone a few days ago, and got nothing useful.

By way of response, Dave pulls something flat out of his bag. That’s when Geoff realizes he’ll be playing second fiddle to an iPad mini.

Geoff is about to lay down the law, but the kid has only just got here. Cut him some slack, he tells himself.

Sure enough, Dave puts the iPad away for lunch.

The boy is quieter than he was, and has a wariness about him. To be expected, of course. He’s older and hasn’t seen his father for months.

FreeImages.com/Filip Geleta

After a massive pizza, Dave returns to his iPad.

“What are you doing there?” Geoff hopes he’s not being groomed or downloading porn.

Killer Diller,” replies Dave.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a game?”

Geoff glances at the screen, where aliens are running about. He curses Sonya for allowing Dave to bring the damn thing, but it could be worse.

“Right. Well, don’t play Killer Diller all day. We could go to the park. I’ve got a new football.”

“I’ve got my iPad,” Dave reminds him.

“Well,” says Geoff. “Maybe a bit later we can have a kick-about.” 

“Cool?” says Dave without looking up.

“Want some juice?” Geoff has stocked his fridge with Dave’s favourite tropical juice drink, the kind that strips tooth enamel faster than battery acid.

FreeImages.com/Ricardo Migliani

“Got any Seven-Up?”

“I don’t think so.” That’s another dental disaster, but the occasional can won’t hurt. “Do you have Seven-Up every day?”

“Nah.”

Eventually Geoff prises Dave off his game with the promise that they’ll stop for some Seven-Up on the way back from the park.

It’s sunny in the park, and Dave becomes almost animated, but that, Geoff reasons, is probably because he’s letting him get all the goals. Dave is barely trying.

FreeImages.com/Klaus Post

The day passes so slowly that Geoff can hear it creaking. Dave doesn’t want to talk or play with Lego so he goes back to Killer Diller. Is this what it is to be a dad in today’s world?

At 6 p.m. Dave’s mother comes to collect him.

“Did you give Daddy his card?” she asks.

Dave gets out a mass-produced envelope and hands it over without expression.

Geoff hugs him.

***

Geoff and his son are just two of the characters from my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever, out on June 30.

Hampstead Fever FINAL EBOOK COVER

 

An Englishman in New Jersey: Part Two

New Yorkers think of New Jersey as their outside toilet, especially if, like the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, they came from there originally.

Actually, New Jersey is my favourite state, but it takes a bit of getting used to. How did my thoroughly English husband manage his week-long venture into the unknown?

NJ causeway

He couldn’t get what the natives were saying. We had just passed through the toll on the turnpike where I was relieved of about three bucks. “What’s that she said?” he wanted to know.

“She asked me how I was today, and whether we were from England.”

He rested his head back and closed his eyes. It was too puzzling. A little lady who sits sweating all day in a tiny metal booth gives enough of a shit to ask you how you are and whether you’re from England? 

“Welcome to New Jersey,” I said.

By en:User:Mr._Matté [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’d packed way too much stuff.  All we needed for the week was Bermuda shorts and flip flops. And swimsuits, obviously, because between the beach and the pool, we practically lived in them.

One afternoon, two guys were splashing about in the motel pool, alternately hugging and trying to drown each other. I was worried. “He trying to kill you?” I called out.

He surfaced to reply, “Nah. He ain’t gonna hurt me. We’re brothers.”

If you’ve ever heard of Cain and Abel, that’s no consolation.

My husband remarked later, “They didn’t look much like brothers.”

“Perhaps one of them’s adopted,” I suggested.

Just when you think you’ve got the hang of the language, someone breaks into Spanish.

Yep, Spanish is an American language too. However, a sign saying PISO MOJADO is neither an instruction to empty your bladder, nor an explanation of how the floor got wet.

It’s obligatory to visit the legend that is Conte’s Pizza

inside Conte's Pizza, Witherspoon St, Princeton NJ

It has the longest bar in Princeton and ranks as one of the top 33 pizzerias in the nation.  I always have everything on my pizza. Saves a lot of hassle trying to decide.

Also I stop by the drug store on the way there. Saves a lot of hassle later.

Tums assorted berries

Jet lag gets worse with age. Even the modest time difference of five hours left us dazed, drowsy, disorientated, and puffy from fluid retention.

Luckily you can buy melatonin pills at CVS or Rite-Aid at the same time as Tums. Do they work? I have no idea. Some people swear that drinking urine is just as good. Tell you the truth, I had no idea we were that confused.

You may see flashing lights in front of your eyes.

I swear they weren’t there in Norfolk. That’s because they’re fireflies.

You need a permit like this to go onto the beach.

Barnegat Light beach badge 2015

And then you have to show it when asked.

The same goes for your driver’s license. None of this English namby-pamby seven days to produce your documents. Which makes it just like the beach badge, only you can’t get out of trouble by paying five dollars to the Highway Patrolman.

NJ is a highly dangerous place.

We took our lives into our hands and set out for a walk by the Delaware and Raritan canal, though not its whole length as I couldn’t manage 70 miles. We certainly needed the big stick my husband had brought along to protect us. There were nettles galore, even the odd dandelion. Couple of people cycled past and said Hi. A bit further on, a family of turtles sunned themselves on a log. It was bloody terrifying.

old tree by Delaware and Raritan Canal, NJ

Restaurants are family joints. Although it’s probably best not to ask on arrival, as my son once did, “Is this the restaurant owned by the Mafia?”

Here’s what we found parked outside one of them. We had to wait for our table, so we hung around watching people leave. 

Corvette Stingray

The trashy trophies on the sugar daddies’ arms. The Mercs and the Stingrays. The guy putting the hood up on his convertible before driving off, so the wind doesn’t blow his toupee off. The scene could have come straight out of The Sopranos.

Yep, all the stereotypes about NJ are true, and then some. But I would say that. You won’t hear a thing from me about the art, culture, or history because I don’t want the world discovering how good it is.  

 

An Englishman in New Jersey

It always irks me to hear Newark’s Liberty Airport described as being one of New York’s airports.  New Jersey, as any fule kno, is not New York. True, it’s only a short train ride to Penn Station. But it’s equally just a short ride to the heart of the most underrated state of them all.

Rand McNally map NJ

The chemical stench that hits you on the New Jersey Turnpike is enough to put most people off, but I know different. It’s my favourite state.

Admittedly the favourite bit doesn’t begin till some hours after landing. It also relies on my taking the right route onto the NJ Turnpike first time, not ending up in Elizabeth, NJ, where I always have to do a U-turn at the Gulf station. The petrol pump attendant – there’s no self-service gas in the state – is used to me now. “You again, eh? Have a nice day.” But after that you need to step on it. If you hang around in Elizabeth, you get offered crack.

A Christmas pudding can delay all this, as it did when I last brought one in my carry-on. Americans don’t have Christmas puddings, so I was bringing one over for a friend. On arrival, the screening contraption did not like it one bit. Two Homeland Security officers approached. “Ma’am, is this your bag?” They gave me a stern look. Actually I don’t know if they do other kinds of look.

“Yes, it is. And I know what the problem is,” I said, reaching towards the bag to extract the pudding.

“Step away from the bag!” one of them bellowed.

Sainsbury's Christmas pudding

“But it’s only a Christmas pudding.” Idiotically I added, “Here, I’ll show you.”

“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!  I’m not sayin’ it again.”  Her partner reached for his holster.

I got the message. They didn’t want me to blow up the pudding. And I didn’t want a bullet through my chest.

As carefully if it were a landmine, the two officers extracted it from my carry-on.

I finally got a chance to explain.

They were sceptical. “You mean you all eat this in England?”

I confirmed that we did, every Christmas day, though we generally got it out of the plastic first. 

They said it was mighty heavy, ma’am. Yes, I agreed. Indigestion was usual, especially when you’ve already stuffed yourself on the main course.

They let both pudding and me through, all the while shaking their heads and averring that you learn something new every day, ma’am. Ain’t that the truth?

wedding day 2013

This year I brought no pudding, but I did take my husband.  It was high summer, and the flight was full of Camp America kids, except for the seat the other side of us, where there was a walrus, snoring and taking up two arm rests.  

Welcome to the United States of America, they say at Liberty Airport. We had ample time to savour the warmth of the welcome during an hour and a half waiting in line to exhibit our passports, in a hall without air con.  

What did my very English husband find most disorientating in New Jersey?

1 The language.  As half my family is American, conversations with them were a challenge.  Americans do use many of the same words as the English. But then they do and pronounce them all wrong and use them to mean different things. ‘Chips,’ for instance, are not fries. They are crisps. And ‘being sick’ only means you’re ill.

Most puzzling of all, ‘breaking up’ has nothing to do with the end of term. This may explain why, when OH asked if they’d broken up, my 15-year old niece flushed bright red, and said Mommy didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.

2 Then there was the food.

He’d never had grits before. They tasted, he discovered, a bit like semolina.

Smuckers strawberry jam

You can use Smuckers preserve or maple syrup to make ‘em sweet.

Old Barney's Hot Sauce

Or you can smother them in Old Barney’s Hot Sauce if you like your tongue on fire.

A short stack is just two pancakes. But they make them pretty big at Mustache Bill’s Diner.

Mustache Bill's diner, Barnegat Light

Either you take them back in a box if you don’t eat them all. Or, if you do, you go back in a box.

So taken were we with Mustache Bill’s that we queued up (translation: waited in line) for up to an hour to get in. And the OH was desperate to emulate him.

seaweed to look like a moustache

3 The beaches, contrary to popular belief, are not covered in medical waste.

Though there may be sharks. Nobody’s been killed by a shark here for nearly 100 years, but they’re around, or rather one in particular is.

FreeImages.com/ChatrinORockerz

Mary Lee is a thoroughly modern shark with her own Twitter account @MaryLeeShark and over 87k followers. We think she’s pregnant. Hard to tell as she’s a tubby lady, weighing in at over 4 tons, hence, people say, a real Jersey girl. She’s been tagged by OCEARCH so we know she gets around. The East Coast is Mary Lee’s usual hunting ground, though she has been as far afield as Bermuda. Well, a gal needs a decent holiday now and again. 

Did we encounter any sharks? Did The Mob get us by the canal? And was my husband brave enough to uncork the hot sauce? Find out in my next post.

Easy tweet: NJ is underrated, as @D‘s partner discovers An Englishman in New Jersey

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

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