No Boundaries

I’d left my worldly possessions with my new landlady. It was a pretty big move; I was also changing jobs and cities. I’d finished my contract on the Friday, and schlepped my belongings the 170 miles to my new home the same day. There wasn’t time to unpack, only to unload the car before collapsing into bed. The next morning, an early flight for a quick holiday inbetween jobs.

When I returned home, my new landlady greeted me. She looked particularly pleased with herself: “I saw you hadn’t had time to sort through your things, so I thought I’d make you feel at home!”

She’d been through my boxes—through every single thing I owned—and taken it upon herself to unpack my belongings.

Every single thing I owned.

It’s one thing when someone takes it upon themselves to unbox your CDs and books and pop them on a shelf for you.

It’s another thing entirely when someone you’ve only met once previously has gone through your knickers, your bras and even your tampons, and arranged them for you.

She was so thrilled, with what she saw as a really kind act, that I couldn’t bear to tell her I was actually pretty upset by the whole thing.

I wound up moving out a week later, but that was for completely different reasons. I’ll tell you why another time.

All Along the Watchtower

*ding dong*

I opened the door to find two nice ladies smiling at me.

Lady 1: “Hello! Isn’t it a lovely day?”

Me: “Sure is! Have you come to sell me some religion?”

Lady 2: “Well, we were in your neighbourhood and yes, we’re spreading the good news.”

Me: “Sounds lovely, but I’m fine for religion, thank you.”

Lady 1: “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses and we want to share our joy.”

Me: “How wonderful for you! I’m Jewish and I’m also full of joy.”

Lady 1: “Would you like one of our leaflets?”

Me: “Sure, I’d be more than happy to learn about your religion, if you’re prepared to learn about Judaism.”

Lady 2: “Errrm, not really.”

Me: “Well, if you want me to keep an open mind about your religion then you need to the same with everyone else’s. Have a wonderful day!”

Tents Nervous Headache

When the kids were smaller, we’d go to Camp Bestival every year. One night, I was startled awake by shouting. It was 4am. It transpired that a group of revellers had returned to their respective tents, and were shouting their conversations between them.

I laid awake for a while, listening to them yell about who fancied whom, what a bitch so-and-so was, and I wondered what to do next. I figured that we were at a festival, everyone was there to have fun, I should ignore it and try and sleep. But, having said that, it was 4am, they were so loud it was impossible to ignore them and go back to sleep, and it was disturbing my kids.

I struggled out of my sleeping bag, into my wellies and over to one of the tents. I blinked hello at the young man and woman sat there, somewhere in their early 20s, and tried to find my best “cool mum” phrasing.

“Hey, I know you guys are having a lot of fun. But it’s pretty late now and you’re waking me and my kids up. We’re only in the tent behind you. Perhaps could you keep it down, and in return, I’ll stop the kids making too much noise in the morning when you’re sleeping it off?”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!”, replied the woman politely.
“Yes, sorry about that”, her friend joined in.

I thanked them, staggered back to my tent and into sleep.

We had a busy day on the site the next day, enjoying bands and relaxing in the sunshine. In the evening, we returned to our tent to find that someone had let it down.

Surely they hadn’t…? But that would be so petty… perhaps it was just a co-incidence? I managed to put the tent back up, and we went to sleep.

At 4am, I awoken again by the revellers returning to the field. That time, I got to hear them shouting about how they’d “taught the fat bitch a lesson by letting down her tent”. The young woman who’d apologised earlier was busy doing impressions of me: “Yeah, she was all ‘WHY ARE YOU HAVING FUN? WE’RE AT A FESTIVAL, YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MISERABLE!'”

I listened to them cackling and shrieking about me for a while, wondering what to do. I did contemplate going back and talking to them again, but decided I’d probably be better off sticking my headphones in and listening to anything else.

I’m never usually one for revenge, and I’d like to be able to tell you that I rose above it, that I was the better person, that I didn’t let it get to me. Instead, angry and sleep-deprived the next morning, I emptied the girls’ potty onto the doormats outside their tents. If you happen to be reading this, loud festival go-ers, I’m sorry. x

BLOODY PARENTING ANECDOTES #93: Games

The Smallest Daughter bounced up to me.

“Mummy, can we play I Spy?”
“Sure.”
“You go first, Mummy!”
“OK. I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with…”
“POO POO!” *chortles*
“Ha, very silly. Right, I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with…”
“POO POO!” *hee hee hee*
“Enough now. I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with…”
“POO POO!” *guffaw*
“Sweetheart, we can’t play I Spy if you’re just going to bellow ‘Poo poo’ every time I start talking”.
“OK mummy, I won’t do it again.”
“Thanks. I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with…”
“WEE WEE!” *nearly expires with laughter*

That’s my girl…

Farewell, Wuffles.

Two years ago, we drove to the shop to pick out a pet. With six of us, it’s sometimes hard to make a decision, but this was easy. Amongst the little scraps of fur sat a giant ball of fluff. With two huge beady eyes and the wuffliest whiskers that you’ve ever seen, there was no doubt about which hamster we all wanted. The sales assistant gave him a quick once over: “Yes, she’s definitely a girl*” and popped him in a carrier for us.

I drove home as carefully as I could, Si holding the little cardboard box. Every bump in the road and pothole seemed enormous, with Si murmuring “She’s* not moving, I think she’s dead” as we drove. But, we got him home safely.

Si is not a lover of instructions, and had missed the part about leaving the hamster for three days to settle in. He plunged his hand in to pick the little guy up, and was rewarded with a pair of needle-sharp incisors sunk deep into his thumb.

It was time for the solemn business of choosing his name. This was more difficult than picking out which hamster we wanted; there are six of us and many opinions. But we put forward our choices (Si proposed “Bitey”) and voted, and Wuffles he was.

Hamsters don’t look like much. It’s hard to explain exactly how a small bundle of fluff can have a personality, or be so adored. But Wuffles was. The simple happiness of watching him waddling around, the tickly joy of him pottering along your hand, the deliciously tactile floofiness of his fur, and the zealousness with which he stashed away peanuts kept us all entertained. Sometimes, in a world that can be harsh and confusing, you need a bit of trivial, uncomplicated happiness, and that’s what Wuffles gave us.

However, while we got a lot of pleasure from Wuffles, he was always—as one would expect from a hamster—entirely indifferent to us. He never gave any suggestion that he was pleased to see us. For the first year of his life, he would even raise himself up on his front legs, direct his bottom along the wire bars, and pee out of the cage onto our wall and carpet. Wuffles, basically, didn’t give a crap about anything but his sunflower treats and his wheel, and I rather respected him for that. He simply sat around, looking simultaneously magnificent and daft. “Look at our stupid hamster”, we’d coo, lovingly. “Look at him.”

We were lucky to have two great years with him. But over the weekend, he lost interest in his food. He suddenly slowed down. I couldn’t even entice him with a favourite sunflower snack. Si fed him drips of water by hand. The last two days passed in a strange sort of daze, with me popping in to check on him every hour. In an echo of his first car journey, I’d murmur to Si, “He’s not moving. But I think he’s still alive.”

His decline was so quick, we weren’t even able to take him to the vet. Last night, he was quiet and so still. And so small, now. I sat on the floor, cradling him in my left hand, listening to the click of his breathing. He didn’t move at all. I could barely get him to drink. We moved his cage into our room so he wouldn’t be alone (not that he would have cared). In the morning, he was curled up peacefully; he was gone.

A pet teaches you a lot about life, of love, of loss. Yes, Wuffles was only a hamster, and a stupid hamster at that, but he was our stupid hamster and we loved him.

Sleep well, little friend.

*A year or so after we got “her”, Wuffles was climbing the bars of the cage when I noticed, with some horror, that “she” had some lumps on “her” undercarriage. It turned out that these were merely fluffy testicles and that he was definitely not a girl.

The Art of the Compliment

I lost quite a lot of weight a few years ago.

I was round at a friend’s house for tea. She was busy in the kitchen, when the doorbell went. It was a good friend of hers—someone I’d met before but hadn’t seen in a number of years—and he greeted me with some surprise.

Friend-of-Friend: “You’ve lost weight!”

Me: “Yes, I’ve lost weight.”

F-o-F: “You’ve lost a lot of weight!”

Me: “Yes, I’ve lost a lot of weight.”

F-o-F: “Your husband must love that!”

I was totally thrown by that last sentence; in my world, love isn’t measured or contained by body size. My shape has indeed changed over the years, and it will change again, and it’s no measure of my worth.

Then, there was the insinuation that he used to find me unattractive, but now thought my appearance was acceptable; this troubled me. Why was this guy—who I barely knew—assuming that my relationship and my body were any of his damn business?

I wish I’d picked him up on it.

In a parallel universe, I’d have launched into an eloquent speech explaining all the above. Occasionally, I enjoy imaging myself simply shouting “OH FUCK OFF” as I slam the door in his face.

For the record, I was too flustered to think of a suitable comeback and instead stammered out a factually accurate but deeply unsatisfying reply:

Me: “I’ve no idea what my husband thinks about it. We split up a few months ago.”

The ensuing silence was immense, awkward and well-deserved.

The Shed of Doom

Having a productive sort of day, I decided to assemble a shelving unit in the shed.

It was a pretty easy job, but as I triumphantly pushed the final cap into place, I shrieked. I’d managed to trap a chunk of my wrist skin in between the pole and the cap, thus painfully attaching the whole unit to my arm.

I was stuck fast, pinned in place, like a lo-budget version of 127 hours.
I had no tools to hand to take the shelving to pieces.
I couldn’t reach my phone to call for help.
I was royally stuffed.

Eventually I managed to drag the whole shelving unit, still attached to my arm, to the door of the shed where I started shouting. Thank goodness some kind soul came to my aid and freed me from the unit (and my own stupidity). He didn’t even laugh at me. What a gent.

Anyway, five years later, the shelving unit still looks ace, so it was totally worth it.

Locked In

I made myself really ill once. Obviously, accidentally. But I didn’t understand how to look after myself.

As usual, I was doing too much: my A-level mocks, running a local youth group, acting as the programme controller for a hospital radio station. That probably would have been enough on its own, but I’ve never been one to understand when enough is enough. In my infinite wisdom, I then decided to arrange a residential weekend, including a Ball on a Boat (these were quite the thing in the 90s in North London), for the national youth group. Single-handedly.

There are many things I’ve done in my life that started as terrible, terrible ideas, then became terrible, terrible experiences. This was the first of them.

If you’ve ever tried to arrange an event for more than three people, you’ll know what a hassle it can be. Arranging a night out for the other parents in your daughter’s class? Challenging. Sorting out a trip away with your buds? Tiring. Planning and managing a weekend away with 75 fellow teenagers, where you’re solely in charge of organising food, entertainment, accommodation, transport and the sodding Ball on a Boat? A living nightmare.

I barely slept in the two weeks before it. There was so much to sort, plus people phoning me up at all hours of the day and night. On top of that, I’d caught a nasty cold and really felt quite horrible.

The ball wasn’t the disaster it could have been. By some strange grace it all went reasonably smoothly. I think I even managed to have some fun at some point, but I don’t remember much about it. What I do remember—with hideous clarity—is the morning after the event finished.

I woke up, but I couldn’t get up. My body was heavy, unresponsive, seemingly unconnected to my brain. It wasn’t that I was so tired that I couldn’t get up. I simply couldn’t get up. My limbs weren’t working.

The next 18 months of my life are strange and painful to look back on. I had many good periods, where I could get to school and enjoy a normal day. And many others where my body simply shut down again. One day, I was sat at the kitchen table, looking at a glass of water. I was thirsty. I desperately wanted to drink. And I tried to lift the glass but I couldn’t even get it off the table. It was simply too heavy. I simply couldn’t do it.

After numerous tests and trips to the doctor, I got what was effectively a non-diagnosis. The doctors had ruled everything else out so, by a process of elimination, they told me I had ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome*. It’s still really poorly understood today, but 25 years ago things were even worse.

I really don’t remember much from that time but the one thing that did stick is how people treated me. A number of my friends—not proper friends, I now realise—didn’t believe I was ill. I was teased for having “yuppie flu”. I was routinely pulled out of classes by my teachers—when I was well enough to attend—and accused of faking my illness. My mother would write me notes explaining my absences; I was accused of writing them myself. The school eventually threatened to keep me down a year if my grades didn’t improve. I wasn’t offered any help, only the prospect of punishment.

I still don’t know exactly how I got well*. I tried everything: diet, vitamin B injections, protein drinks, hundreds of strangely-named supplements. And something must have worked as the cycle of wellness, relapse, wellness, relapse finally ended. There was no fanfare: one day I simply stopped relapsing and stayed well. It took a long, long time to start trusting that I would actually continue to be well this time.

Did I learn anything from my illness? Well. I didn’t learn to pack less into my life, I continued to be strenuously, stupidly busy. I didn’t even learn to take better care of my body until relatively recently. But I did learn to be grateful for my health. It’s still easy to take it for granted, but everytime I feel unwell or tired now, the fear returns. Perhaps the relapse is finally here. Perhaps this has only been an extended, but ultimately temporary, period of wellness.

I am profoundly grateful that I was only unwell for 18 months. I know some people suffer for a lifetime. If you have any form of chronic illness, I wish you good health plus compassion and support from those around you. If you don’t, I wish you not only continued good health but also an appreciation of it.

And for me? I hope my body never takes me prisoner again, but I accept that it’s out of my hands.

 

*I’ve been reading more about ME recently and I’ve been questioning my (non)diagnosis of it. Apparently most teenagers who develop viral illnesses will recover spontaneously within 2 years during their teens to early 20s; this would explain my relatively swift recovery. Only a small percentage of teens who suffer from a viral illness like this will develop long term ME/CFS. So, it’s quite possible that I didn’t ever have ME in the first place. I’m deeply thankful for that; the insight into what life must be like, with full-blown ME, was more than enough for me.

The Long Way Home

I was nearly home when the woman stopped me. She was younger than me, slight, wrapped in a long beige coat, clutching a battered red suitcase.

“Can I ask you something? Where’s Tesco? Is it near?”.

I was pregnant, tired and desperate to get home. But something in her voice gave me pause. “Are you OK?”, I asked, knowing full well that she wasn’t.

She swallowed, hard. The words fell out, piecemeal, between sobs: “Tesco. I’ve got to get there. I’ve got to go now. Before he gets back.”

“It’s this way. I’ll walk with you.”. I started back the way I’d come, she dragged her suitcase beside me.

As we walked, she told me a little of her situation. She’d come to our country expecting a better life. Her boyfriend seemed kind when she met him. He wasn’t kind when he drank. She was scared of him, of what he’d done, of what he was going to do. He hit her. Repeatedly. She always wore long sleeves. He was at work, so she’d packed her case. She’d called a friend; he was coming to get her, but wouldn’t drive to her house. He didn’t want to risk running into her boyfriend. He, too, was scared of him. He said he’d pick her up from Tesco’s, that it was safer to meet there.

Along the pavements, across the busy road, we walked, in silence now. At the Tesco car park, I asked her if she needed money, if she wanted me to wait until her friend arrived. But she said I should go, that she thought she was safe.

I moved away from there many years ago. Once in a while, I drive past that big Tesco, and I hope that she was right.

“Do One Thing A Day That Scares You”

OK, over-familiar shop window, I’m in!

So, I just snogged a shark and later I’m going to fly a helicopter while blindfolded. Tomorrow, who knows? Disguising myself as a seal and climbing into the polar bear enclosure at London Zoo? Figuring out if I’ll ever be able to afford to retire? Contemplating the bleakness and futility of existence?